Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 13
What Were Here For

                  

Sergeant Aloysius Andrew Nathaniel Dennison, to stay with the name on his paybook, was the old Regular sergeant who had re-enlisted the day Tolly and Harry joined up. It wasn’t his real name, but there were few people around in this Kitchener’s Army to remember ‘Sudden Death’ Smith, the Salford Smasher, undefeated All-India light-heavyweight champion. Those who did kept it quiet.

He had seen Tolly take the oath – nineteen my arse – had watched him battle his stubborn way through training and had seen him returning white-faced to the train with the water bottles. You couldn’t blame the lad. The wounded in this war were coming out proper mangled. Worse than South Africa. The Boers’ old Mausers could make a mess of a man, but there was a lot of shrapnel flying about over here. A regular ripper was shrapnel. And wounds went septic fast from this French farm soil. Full of manure, it was. Good for growing beets in but nasty, gangrenous stuff for fighting in.

All credit to young Tolman, he hadn’t gone to pieces. But he was a thinker, you could tell. A lot of this Kitchener mob were thinkers. Not good for them.

Dennison was the name of the sergeant’s sister’s husband. He had never joined up and wouldn’t be joining up this time, not with his feet, so there wouldn’t be any embarrassing coincidences, no questions about leaving the barracks in Devizes that time and not coming back. That was long before this German business, but you never knew with the Army. Re-enlisting under Ally’s name was probably the safest thing. It wasn’t as if they’d shoot him but military prison…no thanks, not again.

Sgt. Dennison was conscious of being an old man of thirty-six among all these youngsters. He was starting to wonder if he would see Blighty or Tessa again. A bad war, this, and shaping up like a long one, a proper slog. He recalled his old colour sergeant’s words: ‘Long wars always start as short wars.’

The boxing had flattened his nose to a concave, almost feminine retrousseness and put thug’s brows over the tea-brown eyes. He moved as if he meant it. The one-time workhouse boy was still under there somewhere.

You would definitely want him on your side.

Sgt. Dennison slung his pack into a sagging old cart in the middle of the barn as Number Four Platoon, A-Coy, filed in around him, blowing and sweating. ‘That’s for me,’ he said.

Tolly and Harry and the others peered about, letting their eyes adjust to the gloom. Spills of sunlight pooled on the floor from holes in the roof and walls. The barn smelt of France, mice and ancient harvests.

Babbitt slung his pack under the cart and parroted: ‘That’s for me. Donovans One and Two, orderlies. Lafford and Tolman, rations. Latham, Pickford, Tanner, Scott, blankets.’

There was a scattering to likely-looking corners as the men not detailed for duty went for the best spots, unrolling groundsheets and wrestling out of their equipment with grunts of relief. They had marched six miles from the railhead under a hot sun and more than 100lb each.

‘That’s right,’ said Harry, dropping his pack on the straw-littered floor, ‘go on, snaffle the best spots while we do all the work.’

‘And while you snaffle all the best scran,’ called Ben Perry, a wall-eyed ostler from Marple, a good ten miles from Millbridge, which practically qualified him as a foreigner.

‘Oh aye, we’ll be helping ourselves to the Maconochies Super Deluxe and bringing you the Dozy Squit Special. Fucker. Come on, Tolly.’

‘See if you can find any old tarps or something for this roof,’ said Sgt. Dennison, eyeing the sunlit holes above their heads. If they let in light they would let in rain.

Tolly and Harry left the barn and crossed the farmyard. Its centrepiece was a muckheap of majestic dimension and evil odour, a chest-high hill of manure, rotting vegetation and the contents of chamber pots, well ripened over the summer and alive with bluebottles and other varieties of dung-loving life. Clegg’s half-hearted English effort back in Millbridge did not compare. This was a muckheap to inspire respect, to bring tears to eyes and fingers to noses.

‘I’ll ask my dad to send us some penny packets of seeds,’ said Harry as they regarded it from a decent distance. ‘Imagine the rhubarb we can have out of that.’

‘We’ll be in Berlin by then,’ said Tolly.

The once-white farm buildings lay on three sides of the yard. Chunks and flakes had been knocked out of them by the ebb and flow of hostilities the year before, giving them a gnawed appearance. The occupants were still around somewhere. The main farmhouse backed on to a road while its outbuildings – storage sheds, stables, pigsties, chicken houses and low barns – formed wings embracing the space between.

Chunky Woodward had taken the farmhouse, a gaggle of pink-cheeked, newly-commissioned former OTC cadets surrounding him like goslings around an obstreperous old gander. Tommies were fussing around the outbuildings, settling in, fetching steaming dixies of tea and bales of grey blankets.

The soldiers paused to look upwards as a Royal Flying Corps kite passed overhead with a frail-sounding splutter, heading west towards safety, bringing news of movements in Bocheland for the red-tabs at Staff.

Tolly concentrated his hearing but could hear no guns from the east, none of the boiling mutter he had heard before. A quiet day at the Front, then.

They located the battalion transport over the road in a set-apart barn, its relieved horses grazing in a field splashed with cornflowers and poppies. A reptilian quarter bloke issued them with two lumpy sacks containing tins of bully beef, cheese, tins of salmon marked ‘A Gift from British Columbia’, condensed milk and some sort of duff.

The cooks were setting up their wheeled ranges but had so far only managed to produce tea, three great bubbling urns of it. Tolly and Harry filled a dixie with the bitter black brew and carried it away between them through an orchard of pear trees and an overgrown garden engorged with blackcurrant, raspberries and gooseberries.

‘They say there’s a stunt in the wind,’ said Harry. ‘One of the gunners told me they’d been ordered to stand by for shells coming up.’

‘I thought there weren’t any shells.’

‘Well, they’ve found some from somewhere. I reckon we’ll be having a pop before summer’s out.’

A thunderstormy August was slipping away – it seemed strange that the war was already a year old when they had thought it would be over before they could get to it – and all the men knew that battles were summertime affairs. There was time for one or two yet. Like the others Tolly was anxious to go up to the line, to get this over with.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘That’s what we’re here for.’

 

 

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