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Is that all she has to say?
All around him sprang the black protective gaiety of the Tommy. He didn’t realise that he, too, was becoming wrapped in it, because knowing it would have stopped it working, and it did work, for a while. Two Austrian aristos get shot, and to sort that out millions of us have to get shot – Fate is playing a brilliant trick on us, and getting away with it: what else do you do but howl with laughter? He sang along, loud and jolly: ‘Tipperary’, Marie Lloyd songs, ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’. He caroused cheerfully in the communal baths on their days behind the lines. He nicknamed their trench Platform One, and noted how similar a trench was to a grave: you could just pour more mud in and none of us would need a funeral, he’d cracked, or a shell might do it for you. He manned the fire-step gamely; he stood to and stood down and complained about the food; he drank like a fish when it was required; he stared out over no man’s land, listening to the blackbirds in the middle of the night, or the Hun singing ‘Stille Nacht’, which they did beautifully, requiring a harsh chorus of ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, to drown them out, lest sentiment rise. He did not let sentiment rise. He was, it turned out, a good soldier: strong, loyal, friendly, brutal.
He laughed with everyone at how Ferdinand’s main aim in trench life turned out to be being present whenever anyone got a tuck parcel from home, just in case, you know, and he noticed how Ainsworth always gave him a handful of the fiendish northern sweets his wife sent him, to which Ferdinand had taken a liking. ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, they keep you all aglow.’ Ferdinand was young, and cried sometimes at night. ‘You just keep sucking on Uncle Joe’s balls, lad, you’ll be all right,’ Ainsworth said, seemingly in all innocence, and gamely laughed himself silly when he realised, which cheered Ferdinand right up.
Purefoy found the boys tragic. Bowells, for example, fair and scrubbed, desperate to achieve the worn look of the seasoned soldiers, to use the argot, stain up his uniform. Bowells had wept his first five nights, because there was a dog making a noise out there in no man’s land, and he had feared for its safety. Burgess had been going to tell Bowells not to worry about the damn dog, the damn dog was eating corpses, but Ainsworth had kicked him, and made a laconic cut-throat gesture.
Am I tragic like them? Purefoy thought. And if not, why not? I’m as young as them . . . Sometimes when Ainsworth gave him his granite-faced smile with the little twist of the mouth, Purefoy felt that to Ainsworth at least he was less a soldier and more a boy. ‘Courage for the big troubles in life, lad,’ he’d say, ‘and patience for the small. Be of good cheer. God is awake.’
The dog was beautiful: massively furry, big and clever. A Bouvier des Flandres, the girl at the estaminet said. A Flemish cow dog. He wouldn’t mind a dog like that when he got home. A life with a dog. Him and a dog, going on their adventures. He had a sudden memory of Messalina, her heavy head, the beautiful gambolling movements she made when she ran.
Winter was so cold. So cold. And wrong – they weren’t meant to be still there. Flanders had become mud beneath their feet. The trenches they had dug looked to Purefoy like one great long unhealing wound, splitting the land. The railways ran towards it, feeding it with fuel and men and ammunition. The camps and hospitals and tents and tunnels alongside were parasites, and then down the middle lay no man’s land, mined and festooned with barbed wire, a long, suppurating ulcer. The wound, like a perpetual-motion machine, seemed to be taking on a life of its own, and there it was, and there was he, and that was it: a system.
He was sitting one morning early, waiting for the dixie containing breakfast to come down the line, a silvery blueshot dawn, a day that, he realised, would be as limpid as the one a year ago, God, was it a year ago, if you looked up, not out, and just saw the blue sky, and the birds flying across it as if nothing was happening, if you blocked out all the rest . . .
Purefoy kept throwing; kept throwing. He threw for weeks, for months. At some stage he was given proper grenades and a helmet, though they all learnt to piss on a handkerchief to breathe through long before gas masks came around. One night he saw Captain Harper flying across the sky like a whirling starfish before shattering into a flaming shell crater, and he put the sight in that special part of his brain he would never go to again, fed it through the greedy slot in the forever unopenable door. His thoughts jumped like fleas, like drops of water on a hotplate, uncatchable, inexplicable.
The new CO was a Captain Locke, tall and pale with a swooping body, like a heron’s, and a nose like an eagle’s beak. His long thin legs crossed round and round themselves when he sat; Purefoy could tell that out of uniform he would wear tweeds, and they would flap around his long ankles.
With him, in the summer, they were moved along the line, south towards the River Somme. Their new trench system extended out of the cellar of what had been a handsome old stone farmhouse, where beautiful wallpaper hung, sooted and flapping, from the last shards of upright wall. The cellar had been dug out for the officers, and someone had put a piano down there.
‘Anyone play at all?’ asked Locke, hopefully, sticking his head out.
Ainsworth, it turned out, had played the organ at Wigan Parish Church. He hesitantly entered the officers’ glamorous cave, and smiled a little at the sight of the piano. ‘Little rusty,’ he murmured, but when he sat down an air of authority arose from him, and when he sang, a beautiful, manly rendition of an aria from a Bach cantata, silence dropped like blossoms, churchlike. Locke closed his eyes. Riley could only suppose everyone was feeling the same lurch of loss and love and beauty and alienation from everything that they were losing hold of by the very acts of trying to protect it.
‘Ain’t that German?’ said Burgess, when Ainsworth had finished.
‘Well spotted, soldier,’ said Locke. ‘However, it is Bach, and Bach was a citizen of heaven sent down to enlighten and delight men of all nations. The Kaiser has no monopoly on the genius of his country’s sons.’
‘What’s the name of the piece?’ Purefoy asked. ‘“Ich habe genug”,’ said Ainsworth.
Locke barked with laughter. ‘Which means,’ he said cheerfully, ‘“I have had enough.” More or less. Ainsworth, thank you, that was splendid. The rest of you, lads, back to work. Er – you – stay and give me a hand with this . . .’
‘You’ was Purefoy. ‘This’ was Captain Locke’s gramophone, which needed unpacking and setting up.
‘You know what Comrade Lenin says, sir?’ said Purefoy, as they attached the horn.
‘Comrade Lenin!’ exclaimed Locke. ‘Good Lord, man, what do you know about Lenin?’
‘Not a lot, sir,’ said Purefoy, mildly.
‘Are you a Communist, Private?’
‘Would I tell you if I was, sir?’ said Purefoy. It popped out. Locke gave him a look. It struck Purefoy because it was a human look in a military world, and it was those looks, those flashes of the other reality, which kept him alive even as they made him want to weep. He desperately wanted them, but he had to avoid them. Bowells, for example. He couldn’t look Bowells in the eye any more. It was too naked and pathetic.
‘So, what does Lenin say?’ asked Locke.
Purefoy grinned. ‘Along the lines of music softens the heart and brain, sir, and disinclines a man from his purpose . . .’ Robert Waveney had quoted this to his wife one afternoon, playing her a recording of a new Russian pianist.
‘Just lay off the Chopin, Private.’
‘Don’t know any Chopin, sir,’ Purefoy lied. He’d been along to the Albert Hall often enough to rehearsals with Nadine, a world away, a world ago.
‘Well, don’t learn any, then.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Purefoy.
Captain Locke did, one afternoon, play some Chopin on his gramophone. Purefoy recognised it, all right, and as he passed, the melody clutching at him with soft little tearing claws, he caught sight of Locke, inside, listening. The look on Locke’s face was so very lonely that Purefoy called out to him: ‘Now, now, sir, we agreed no Chopin!’ Locke looked up, shocked, startled – pleased.
Purefoy scurried on, away from the captain’s look. I really don’t know my place, do I? But – Oh, yes, I was going to improve myself, wasn’t I? The thought burnt up like all the others, in the grimy, unpleasant duties of the day.
Captain Locke was a pure man, with pure and pleasurable tastes. As a boy he had liked to follow the gardener around the old greenhouses at Locke Hill, to smell the earth and help pick the grapes. Latin verse had amused him. When he played cricket he had reminded his cousin Rose of an actual cricket, with his terribly long legs and his cheerful disposition. Even playing his cello, plaintively and not very well, he had looked like a soulful insect, all elbows and knees.
He had noticed a surviving patch of gooseberry bushes on the parados, remnant of some long-gone Frenchman’s garden, and one evening crawled under them, froglike, on his back, to prune them. The new leaves were a golden, melting, greenish colour, and the sun shining through them put him in mind of a chandelier he had come to know during his honeymoon: burnt-sugar Murano glass, eighteenth century. He had seen it often, lying on his back in the big white bed at the Cipriani, while his beautiful soft creamy-rosy-marble wife Julia lay in his arms, or crawled across him, wrapped around him, delighting and enchanting him, as they came to realise that there was really nobody there – no parents, no schoolmasters, no vicars – to tell them they couldn’t or shouldn’t just take off all their clothes in that paid-for foreign room and do anything they wanted. And they did. Things neither of them had ever thought of; things that made them blush. Her beautiful, beautiful flesh, and her sweetness, her kindness to him, and the lovely way she always seemed to be on his side, even when he was being a bit of a twerp, not knowing things about what a woman wants . . . Well, how could he? Sisterless, a schoolboy, a university man . . . Apart from Rose, he hardly knew any woman at all. Rose had a phrase about English public schoolboys: physically over-developed, intellectually semi-developed, emotionally not developed at all. Good old Rose . . .
He and Julia had begun, in their Venetian privacy, to develop that emotional side. When his father had died so suddenly, Julia had been everything a man could wish for. When he was obliged to take over Locke Hill, she had glided into her role as chatelaine with the grace of a woman twice her age. She knew how to talk to servants. She took care. On their return to Locke Hill, after Mother had moved out – said she’d much rather be in the little flat in Chester Square – Julia had made Locke Hill, with its warm red bricks and polished wood and slanting sunshine, into a kind of heaven. She knew how to choose the colours to paint things; she needlepointed charming cushions, her lovely mouth instructed Millie how to plump and place them just so, and called Max the red setter in from the frosty lawn. He quite fell in love again with the crook of her fragrant elbow holding the trug, as she took the lavender from the stone-flagged terrace to the piles of smooth-ironed sheets in the big linen press. Every night he had raced home from Locke and Locke (he’d been promoted – a married man now) to try to get her pregnant.
He hadn’t, during the honeymoon, paid much attention to the chandelier, but the colour, the melting light, had stayed in his mind. Now it was a brutal little shaft of memory, pricking and stalling him, and when thus stalled and sabotaged he had to stop a moment to put the memory away.
‘Gooseberries, lovely gooseberries,’ he said, out loud, but softly. ‘Someone might be grateful, in a few months, if they survive. Not much chance of a mackerel to go with it, I suppose, but a gooseberry is always a lovely thing.’
Purefoy was touched by Locke’s apparent belief that some kind of future, the time it took for a gooseberry to ripen, was a possibility. He found Locke a decent bloke.
The new trench had been in French hands before, and quite a hotspot. Rebuilding the communication lines after a hit, the Paddingtons found corpses in the walls, scraps of uniform, the smell, a hand. When a shell hit, thundering your head and splitting your eyes, it was not only fresh limbs and organs that showered you. There was a French lad under the floor of the trench too: he appeared between the duckboards. They had been walking on him. They dug him up and buried him again, and Purefoy got sick: puking and crapping like a dog, too weak to walk. Burgess dragged him along to the MO’s dugout, which was in itself unusual, for Burgess never did anything helpful.
He murmured to Purefoy as they went, confidentially, under the arm slung over his shoulder for support: ‘We could do each other a favour, you know, Riley . . .’
Purefoy heaved, his stomach wrenching.
‘Make it worth your while,’ Burgess was saying. ‘It’d be no trouble to you . . .’ He eyed Purefoy sideways. Honest Riley. Worth a punt,forold times’ sake. Too good an opportunity, really. ‘Give us some of your puke, Riley, and I’ll make us both rich. There’s knackered men round here who’d pay good money for a couple of days in hospital.’
Purefoy turned his hanging head to look at him, and Burgess gave a little I-didn’t-invent-the-system shrug, and a straight look back. ‘You can’t say they don’t deserve a rest,’ he said meekly.
Purefoy’s stomach heaved; he puked on Burgess. Burgess laughed, his dimples pitting his cheeks. ‘Thanks, old pal,’ he said.
The MO sent Purefoy to a field hospital towards Amiens for two days’ rest and anti-laxatives. Over the next few days seven men from the Paddingtons turned up with the same condition. But, then, it was the kind of bug that got around, and most of them had been digging alongside Purefoy and the dead French boy.
When Purefoy returned, Captain Locke called him in. Purefoy thought Locke didn’t look that well either.
‘Purefoy,’ Locke said, shuffling papers. ‘Er. Yes. You’re to be promoted.’
‘Experience, courage, attitude on the field and in the trenches – hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some concern that you aren’t quite a gentleman, but – well – beggars and choosers, rather, no reflection on you. You’re a fine soldier. The men respect you.’
Purefoy, who had seen braver men and better attitudes, Ainsworth for example, said so, in the accent his mother disliked, which he couldn’t help using in the company of the class he’d learnt it from, the accent that had made it possible for him to be promoted from the ranks. ‘And I can’t afford it,’ he said.
‘You won’t have to keep a horse,’ Locke said. ‘And the regiment’s had some donations. One from – someone who knows you.’
Another silence, of a slightly different quality.
‘Sir Alfred,’ Purefoy said. He glanced at the floor. ‘I shall be sorry to have to disappoint him.’
‘Your name was on the list before Sir Alfred made his donation. It’s coincidence, Purefoy.’
‘Well, then, Fate is conspiring to benefit me, sir,’ said Purefoy, ‘but I can’t possibly accept it. I cannot have the regiment . . . um . . . for my advancement.’
‘The regiment requires your obedience, Purefoy. The regiment is promoting you, the financial circumstances allow. You have no choice.’
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