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Flanders, October 1914
‘Where are we, then?’ Purefoy asked Ainsworth, as they clambered off the train.
‘Not a fucking clue, son,’ said Ainsworth. Ainsworth was from Lancashire, not a big man, steady. He was older. He had a wife and kids at home, and if you pressed him, which Purefoy had, once, he’d admit that he’d joined up because it seemed the right thing to do. He didn’t say it in a tough way. He built railway carriages for a living and had been sent to the wrong regiment by clerical error. He didn’t mind. Purefoy liked him. He liked his moustache, his accent, his deep voice, and his imperturbability.
The existence of Ainsworth in some way made up for the unexpected appearance of Johnno the Thief, or Private Burgess, as he was now called. He had caught Purefoy at once with his playful, knowing eyes, and said: ‘Aye aye. What you running away from, then? Upper classes spat you out again, did they?’ His head was thrust forward, as if everything were done on purpose, by his design.
Tall trees lined the road. Grey slates clad the rooves of the town. Horses ambled by. All around them soldiers like themselves were assembling, standing about, clunking through the rain, heading east. The Paddingtons took their turn in the formation, waited, smoked, and finally hitched their packs on to the bus to set off over flat ground, past square-built farms round courtyards full of muddy ducks, houses with their long wet thatched rooves sagging down, as it were, to their knees, like the muddy hems of drooping petticoats. ‘I’m tired already,’ remarked Ainsworth, cheerfully. ‘Don’t know how we’re meant to get through a whole war.’
Several of the men laughed. The sergeant major yelled at them.
Ainsworth started humming a little tune.
Then they were there: Pop. Getting off, the boys clanged softly with kit, and stared. Most hadn’t seen the country before. A boy called Bowells pretended to faint at the lush smell of pigs. Narrow-eyed Couch made – as usual – a point of not being surprised. The others had made a game of his professed cynicism. Only a few of them knew it was because he was under age. His devotion to soldiering was exemplary.
‘Smells like Ferdinand,’ said Bowells. Ferdinand was from Wiltshire. He’d come up on the train to join up in London because – well, he hadn’t told anyone why. There were a few like that in the Paddingtons. ‘Comes of being named after a station,’ Ainsworth had said. ‘You’ll get all sorts.’
‘Oink oink,’ said Ferdinand, who was a bit fat.
Purefoy was happy. His feet felt big and tender in his boots. He liked his pack; the webbing, the gun. He liked the fresh cold air. He liked the blokes.
The fields around the little town were dug and mangled. Flatness rolled out before them: wintry and covered, as far as Purefoy could see, with the activity of men. He saw tents, big ones, many. Tracks and roads, metalled or not. Piles of boxes, piles of planks, piles of coal, piles of trunks, piles of sacks, groups of men, carts and limbers, horses, dogs, field kitchens, latrines behind flapping canvases, earth and sky. Graves.
‘It’s all quite simple,’ Captain Harper told them. ‘The Hun is over there. He’s been racing north to the sea, trying to get past us into France. King Leopold – jolly clever move, this – opened the floodgates up there, so that rather than fight to the sea, he brought twenty miles of sea to the fight, so now we see what brave little Belgium is made of . . . All along the line, each side has dug trenches up as far as the coast. So. We’ve stopped the Hun for the moment. However, he’s taken Antwerp, but we have Nieuport, so now we have retreated to Ypres, the regulars . . .’ the real army, as Riley thought of them ‘. . . have been holding them off since the Hun cavalry took the Messine Ridge . . .’
None of the names meant anything to Purefoy. Captain Harper sketched them a map.
‘So the gate-as-it-were, now it’s slammed shut, has been dug in, and we’re going to hold that line . . .’
It took very little time to be used to it all.
‘When do we fight?’ wondered Purefoy, shovel in blistered hand. The digging was heavy, claggy, but soft. He was getting to see exactly what Belgium was made of.
He received a letter.
. . . I dare say it’s rather complicated getting your letters over there, and sending letters out – not as bad as it was for Captain and Lady Scott and the Antarctic explorers, of course, being on the other side of the world plus being frozen in six months at a time; but even so I don’t know where you are or when you’ll get this – so I’ll write and hope for the best. I hope the army is everything a boy could wish – I have to say it sounds like hell to me, but I’m a girl and things seem different to us – no, to be honest I hope they’ve discovered you have terrible flat feet or something and can’t really go. Chin up, old bean – is that the sort of thing to say? Really I haven’t the least idea how to be a soldier’s correspondent. But then I really can’t imagine that you have the slightest idea how to be a soldier. I suppose they teach you – but nobody is going to teach me. So if my letters are all wrong please forgive your dear old friend – Nadine
He put it with the letters he had received at the training camp. The first one read: ‘Golly Riley that was a very sudden absquatulation. What happened? Did your dad disown you? Have you got Sir Alfred’s jewellery under your cloak? When will you come back through London? I had to go to Sir Alfred to find your mother’s address to ask for your address, and your regiment and so on. Imagine you having a regiment! Well at least there’s no hun where you are now, wherever you are . . .’ The next, a picture postcard of the Peter Pan statue, said: ‘Your Park Misses You – sorry is that too facetious? Let me know how you are and if you need anything.’ And so on, in the same vein. Chatty. Sweet.
He would have written back. He would have found a way. He fully meant to.
They fought on 11 November. The Prussian Guard, that morning, were taking Hooge, just north of the Menin Road. They’d broken through. The real army was fully occupied already. So everyone else there was – cooks, orderlies, clerks, servants, engineers, Riley – had to go in, kill them, force them back to their own line.
He fought. Hurtling towards each other, undodgeable, across a field. Clumps, scraps of turf, just a dark field under the pale sky, cold air, light rain. As he ran, breathless and terrified, his heart clenched, a big sudden clench, and from it radiated surges of . . . something, something strong, shuddering . . . It is fear, he thought. It is fear, concentric fear. Fear is strength: direct it. He shot. The man spun. He bayoneted him.
He had to pull the bayonet out again, which was strange. And that wasn’t an end: it was just a moment on a long line of moments, and time went on, and they went on. He stepped away in a mist of red, a numbness spread across him, a sense of capacity. He smelt the blood, and took on the mantle of it. He ran on, screaming, till he found himself alongside Ainsworth, and felt safer. Ainsworth’s body was warm during the night, against the rim of a shell-hole, packing an old jam tin with greasy mud and bitter shell fragments. Lid on, make a hole, position fuse. Strike your light on the striker-pad strapped to your wrist . . . light the fuse. Wait, with it fizzing in your hand – wait just long enough so that it won’t land unexploded, allowing Fritz to pick it up and throw it back, but not so long that it blows your hand off. Or your head.
It is not clear how long this wait should be.
They hurled all they had, then things were being hurled at them so they took off.
During First Ypres, as that period came to be known, every second man fighting was killed or wounded, though Purefoy didn’t know that.
The first time he was aware of coming back to himself, there was straw beneath him, men around him, barn roof above him, smell of animals – what had happened?
Someone was talking. Johnno the – Burgess.
‘Should’ve been at Mons,’ he was saying. ‘You think this was bad? Mons was bad. Ten days going in the wrong direction, then six thousand French reservists turned up from Paris in six hundred taxis – What? I thought. Taxis? From Paris? If I only talked français I’d hail me one and get a lift back there . . .’ Burgess had been transferred from the remains of another platoon, and liked to be sure that everyone knew.
Purefoy was trying to remember things: arriving in Belgium, long, looping rivers, peasants, farms, steeples, markets, the bus driver when they arrived at Poperinghe saying: ‘All right, boys, this is Pop.’ Flanders meant Drowned Lands in Flemish. Like flounder, he thought. Amsterdam was not so far. Just over there. The other side.
I killed a man.
He had thought killing a man you could look in the face would seem more honourable, but no. He would be happy not to get that red feeling again, those concentric waves from his heart. He hadn’t seen his face anyway.
I knew a German once. Knife-grinder, used to come to the house. And the anarchist. What was his name? Franz.
He stared and started, and sat up again. Just had to get the Hun to go home, then they could go home, let the politicians sort it out. They couldn’t really mean us to be doing this.
In the corner, someone was weeping and shaking, like a Spartan after battle. There was a word for it, he’d read it – what was it? The Shedding. Shedding the fear and the horror of what you have just seen and done. They had it all organised. Captain Harper was patting his shoulder and looking a bit lost.
Some others were playing cards. A Second Lieutenant was writing a letter. He lay down again. Sat up again. What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? What was he doing?
He couldn’t stand the quiet so he went outside: the moon was looking at him and the stars were rolling around. So he went back into the barn. There was snow on his hat.
Burgess was telling Ferdinand he’d met a bloke who’d seen Sir Lancelot on his white horse with his golden hair and armour, leading ghostly troops against the Hun, and the Hun had turned and fled in fear and terror. For a moment Purefoy saw the whole scene, clear in his mind, a huge canvas by Sir Alfred.
Ainsworth said, ‘I heard it was St George.’
‘It was Father Christmas,’ said Burgess.
Ferdinand lay, white, eyes staring. Purefoy gave him a cigarette and he took it wordlessly. Purefoy pressed his mind and thought about Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawaine, and Sir Alfred Pleasant, RA, FSA, of Orme Square, Bayswater Road. He thought of Sir Henry Irving who his dad had seen as Shylock at the Lyceum. He thought of Sir James Barrie, and the knights of olden times, and the knights of peaceful times, painters and writers and reciters of Shakespeare, nibs and brushes, greasepaint and burnt sienna, stage-fighting and struggling with a metaphor, have-at-thee and stains of carmine on a smock and The Childhood of the Arthurian Knights. He thought of Sir James and Sir Alfred strolling in Kensington Gardens, discussing the latest exhibition at the Grafton Gallery. He thought of the Hun in Kensington Gardens. Keep that image, he thought. The Hun bashing into London, bashing his mum, bashing Nadine’s door in. We’ve stopped them for the time being; that’s good. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here for a reason. There is a reason for all of this. That is the reason.
After a while Ainsworth came and sat by him.
His mind would not be quiet. He thought: How come men such as us, kind, humorous Ainsworth, young Ferdinand, who really cares only for food, young Bowells, who only wants to fit in – well, that’s part of it, isn’t it? – how have we slipped so easily, apparently so easily, into this bayoneting, murderous, foul-blooded maelstrom? Burgess was different: Burgess had been born fighting. Purefoy knew many Burgesses on the streets of Paddington: the violent, scurvy blood royal of the British criminal class. Understood them, avoided them, loved them, was them, dreamt of living a life where people didn’t have to be like that. That was, after all, his life’s ambition. Or had been. Not to have to be like that.
But the rest of us?
Just keep a hold. You’ve signed on for the duration. Be as good a soldier as you can and it’ll be over soon.
He lit a cigarette, and sat on his bale with his big hands dangling between his knees. He fell asleep where he sat, and his cigarette rolled away on the damp straw, and set nothing alight.
And then it was winter, and Christmas, and it did not seem to be over.
Purefoy sent a card to Nadine. He couldn’t help himself. He knew he had abandoned her, but from the letters she sent she didn’t feel abandoned. He had not known how to reply.
Their normal routine was four days in the front line and four in the reserve, which was quieter in the way of not being shot at or shelled, but no less busy. He had sat, in one or two rare moments of quiet, at a wonky wooden table in the local estaminet, drinking odd Belgian coffee and staring at a small oblong of blank army-issue writing paper, trying to remember what he thought about during the long nights on the fire-step, when he had imaginary conversations with her. But there was no time for mental clarity, to allow him to connect the blank piece of paper with the imaginary conversations and work out a relationship between them, and her, back in London. He could not tell the truth, because it was disgusting. He could not lie, because that was fatal. So he sent her a delicate envelope of silk, with green and pink embroidery, wishing her a peaceful day of joy, 1914, and a quick-scrawled letter: ‘. . . I am beginning to find the star shells beautiful, so long as they don’t land on me. Do you remember the painting Starry Starry Night? In a peculiar way they remind me of that. It seems a long way from home, but we all know we are doing what has to be done and we are glad to be able to do it. The boys are a great lot, cheerful and . . .’
One little Christmas card couldn’t hurt. It would be rude not to.
She sent a card back. ‘So glad you’re having such fun.’
Is she joking?
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