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They were laid out in a line, twenty or thirty of them, waiting for the hospital train. Tolly rounded the corner and stopped.
His first absurd thought was: Who left this mess here? It was as if some half-wit had tried carpeting an abattoir, thought better of it, ripped up the carpet and dumped it in bundles. And what was that smell? He had only come around to this side, the shady side, to find water. Their own train was waiting in a siding.
Tolly’s perception split into two. One half of his mind displayed what he was seeing while the other half tried to explain it. The word ‘wounded’ rang up in his head like the price of a toasted teacake on Miranda Lockwood’s till, but Tolly could not connect it with what he was seeing. It was just a word. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t seem right. There should be another word for this.
In that first instant Tolly could not think of the figures lying on the stretchers as men. They were too rag-like, too tattered, too wrong for that. What had happened, that they should look like this? They were filthy. What the hell had they been doing? Was it something to do with being in
Of course it’s to do with being in France, the functioning part of his mind snapped. You’re in France. You’re on your way to the Front and these are wounded men being evacuated away from it. Idiot.
The other part of his mind gaped, aghast, his eyes merely conduits for something he could not comprehend.
Cognition flickered in with a rapid-fire series of frozen, impressionistic images, like a Zoetrope. These ripped-up bundles of bloodied carpet grew eyes, faces. They were men.
They did not seem to be the right colour. Their skin was a sick and livid yellow-grey, not right at all. They all looked so old, at least sixty, not naturally old like Ruth’s Grandma Oldham but diseased-old, dying-old.
That one there – what was that, a cloth over his face? – Oh Christ…he had a dark-glistening nothing where his cheek and his top lip should be. Half his face was gone, just gone. Tolly could make out smashed stumps of teeth.
Another man was laid face-down, his back reduced to chewed meat oozing some pearl-coloured fluid. There was a bare-legged lad wearing some sort of nappy of bandages, streaks of ochre down his thighs. Blood had seeped through his stretcher and pooled darkly on the station platform.
There were ghoul-like figures with their heads bound in sullied bandages. There were men with bits missing – arms, fingers, ears – bits that should be there. One there with a leg gone. And another, the other leg this time. And that one – where were his hands? Losing your hands? Just your hands?
More absurdities surfaced: would the missing limbs travel by separate train? The men’s service dress was torn, messed, caked with mud and filth – they’d catch it hot for that.
A knot of gaunt walking wounded stood apart with blankets around their shoulders. Two dark-haired French women, mother and daughter by the look of them, were giving them drinks from a brown jug.
Tolly found his eyes blinking repeatedly. Surely he couldn’t really be seeing this mangled murder. This wasn’t how wounded soldiers should look. They hadn’t been shot cleanly like soldiers should be. They had been mutilated. They had been violated.
Each man stared silently at nothing with glazed, pin-pointed eyes. Why weren’t they screaming? They were all so quiet. Were they drugged? RAMC orderlies moved among the prone figures, bending, tending, handing down lit cigarettes. Thin trails of blue smoke rose into the air up and down the line, each marking a maiming.
Tolly shrank inside himself, feeling cold and frightened, his testicles trying to retract into his body. He felt ashamed of being whole. He felt ashamed of being clean.
His other senses resumed operations sequentially, feeding in their own impressions. Hearing came back, triggered by the sound of gurgling breathing, a glutinous and laboured bubbling from lungs awash with fluid. Several men laid together in a group seemed to be breathing like that, as if they had some sort of bronchitis. Their bodies were distended. Brown-streaked mucus lay dried around their mouths and nostrils. Their faces were a different colour, a vicious reddish-violet. Gas.
Tolly became aware of the counterpoint sighing of the wind in the trees surrounding the country station, birds, insect hum, the hissing of the waiting train – everyday sounds daring to intrude among all this.
His sense of smell probed the air. He caught the stink of shit. There was the offal reek of a badly-run butcher’s shop. There was an acrid chemical residue leaking from the men’s service dress. Hospital smells – lysol, iodine. Through it all he scented summer green and an exotic, resinous Frenchness he had registered since
Something in him noted dispassionately how blood dyed khaki cloth a repulsive mulberry-black colour, a colour that should not be permitted. It was not a colour, it was a soiling. The smashed men were mottled in this appalling, offensive – undignified, blast it – piebald of khaki and charnel black, like Hell’s clowns.
He felt revulsion, a stab of incongruous and unjustified anger – how could these men let this happen to them? It was madness. The sight of these soldiers like him, or once like him, was accompanied on another level by a cold, survival-instinct awareness that something terrible was happening and he was moving towards it. Danger. He should stop, go back.
Fear clutched him, followed instantly by the fear of being seen to be afraid.
Tolly’s functioning mind reminded him: water. The sergeant sent you to get water for the rest of the section. Find a tap, fill the bottles. There’s bound to be one somewhere, it’s a station. Here was something to do. He began to pick his way along the line of men. His feet felt wrong. All of him felt wrong.
‘You all right, chum?’ A middle-aged medical orderly was peering at him with bleak, gentle eyes. He caught Tolly’s hesitation. ‘You’ll get used to it. If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.’
Tolly gestured at the water bottles slung around his neck. ‘I was looking for water – for the lads, on the other side. Our transport’s on the other side.’ He was surprised he could speak.
‘Tap further down.’
The orderly turned away, responding to a casualty lying close by trying to say something. The orderly bent his head closer as the man, a rangy, handsome Tommy with prematurely thinning hair, croaked: ‘Do me a favour, chum, straighten my legs, will you? They’re all bent under me and I can’t seem to move them.’
The Tommy did not have any legs. He had two stumps clumsily tied in bandages stained almost black with blood and other fluids. The orderly put his hands where the feet should have been and mimed movement.
‘That’s done the trick, chum. Thanks.’
For a second Tolly’s vision doubled and he thought he saw four stumps joined to one body, a grotesque and gothic impossibility that brought burning bile into the back of his throat. The orderly glanced back at him with a questioning expression.
Tolly stumbled away and found the tap on the wall of the ticket office. There was a blue-painted watering can stationed below it, catching the drips. The station was bright with tended flowers, the pride of some horticulturally-inclined station master. Bees droned about, attending to business.
Tolly filled the bottles with unsteady hands. The weight of them reassured him as he made his way back to the North Cheshires’ train along the supine littering of evacuees, through the summer-shimmering air, his senses roaring at the blasphemy on the platform, in this pretty little French country railway station with its ticket office and its pear trees and its flowers. Men lying in tatters like that, disassembled like that – and on such a nice day! The incongruity of it was insane. It wasn’t right.
He could not look at the wounded men on the way back. He focused ahead, found the cattle truck containing his section, dumbly handed out the bottles and went to crouch in a corner, dizzy, trying not to cry, not to be sick. Not in front of the others.
Harry saw his death-white face, glanced concernedly at Sgt. Dennison – who all but imperceptibly shook his head – and left him alone.
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