Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 17
Strange Music

                 

Dawn came wrapped in wet grey wool. Stand-to. As the light grew Ted Tanner ordered Tolly behind an iron plate with a narrow observation slit cut into it. Tolly squinted through, feeling as if he was peering through the Devil’s letterbox.

The slow light revealed a derelict, dirty field sprouting weeds and tall grasses, barbed wire and…were those bodies? Just left there?

Pools of sludgy water lay in shell holes, the soil around them churned and thrown about. The wire was rusted to autumnal shades of red and brown, resembling an alien vegetation attempting some perverted parody of the thickets and brambles of nature, sprawling and proliferating over the ground to left and right as far as Tolly could see.

A low ridge topped with shadowy woodlands rose on the eastern horizon, the sun just climbing over it and glowing through the mist like a baleful eye but bringing no heat to the chill air.

There were bodies. Among the cobwebbed thickets of wire were bundles of rags containing little heaps of bones. Some of the bundles were khaki, some field grey; all were streaked in dirt. Here and there Tolly could see an exposed head or knee, white bones projecting through blackened, withered flesh.

The carcasses lay half-hidden among nettles and long grass among other litter. There were scattered tatters of uniform, rifles with fixed bayonets and the spilled contents of pockets and packs – rusty razors, steel pocket mirrors, bullets, gas masks, food, scraps of paper, torn bibles and books, tobacco pouches and pipes and crumpled packets of cigarettes. Most of the nearer German corpses seemed to have been looted, the whites of their pockets turned inside out and their tunics open, the buttons ripped off. Their animal hide haversacks still had hair on them.

Immediately in front of the trench was a slovenly clutter of rubbish made up of rusty tins, rags, bags, broken glass, jars of various shapes and sizes, empty magazine clips, cartridges, sodden newspapers, cigarette ends and other assorted trash. A brown rat as fat as a guinea pig was nosing about in it.

A line of broken tree stumps, splayed like fans, filed between the British trenches and the Hun line two hundred yards away. On the German side sandbags of all colours, shapes and sizes were heaped randomly in front of the trenches, quite unlike the uniformly dun-coloured British bags. It was as if the Germans had pillaged houses for pillow slips, cushion covers and curtains to be cut up and made into sacks, not caring which material they came in, filled them with earth and thrown them any old way in front of their trenches. It did not seem very Germanic as Tolly understood Germanic, but he reflected that it made observation points extremely hard to spot in the jumble. He could not see any.

He drew his head back from the loophole, which suddenly seemed horribly obvious to any watcher from the other side. He had heard of crack snipers shooting sentries through loopholes.

Of the enemy he could see no sign except two or three spirals of blue smoke. They carried the unmistakeable morning scent of coffee and Tolly felt his mouth watering. Here it was again – that clashing sense of dislocation; breakfast coffee and barbed wire, corpses and cooking…jarring paradoxes that jolted Tolly’s realities and made him wonder. It was all somehow terribly wrong, this still and misty dawn unveiling – he couldn’t work out what, exactly – the sheer scruffiness of a perfectly ordinary, innocent field that had become some sort of dumping ground for old bones and squalor. It needed a damn good tidying.

He could hear a low, harmonic buzzing. It took a moment before he was able to identify it as the sound of flies, waking up and starting work on the carrion in the grass.

He glanced around the fire bay. Knocker was back on look-out at the far end, head-down now, looking through another observation slit, with Sid and their mate on the fire step, leaning sideways against the front wall of the trench but not attempting to look over the parapet. Harry was peering through a box periscope a few feet away while Ted Tanner remained in the sole of the trench, gazing up at a mirror – an ornate confection in a gilt frame swarming with cherubs, obviously acquired from some French bedroom – that had been angled to give a view of the German lines. Even after one night the North Cheshires were almost as filthy as the trench’s incumbents.

The birds were starting up, competing with an early-rising aeroplane droning somewhere to the north.

Tolly looked back out through his loophole, half-expecting hordes of grey figures to rise like wraiths from their crazy-quilt defences and bear down on them. He became conscious that at that precise moment, millions of men on either side of this snaking, corpse-strewn rubbish dump were standing in trenches from the North Sea to the Alps, facing each other, peering ahead and fearing the dawn, a symbol of hope no more.

He was anxious, but it was more the absurdity of the situation that occupied his imagination. What on earth had brought them all here and deposited them in these stinking ditches? What would they make of it back home? Imagine trying to describe this to the beery old boys in the Black Horse. It wasn’t feasible. Tolly shook his head and focused on what he was doing.

Orange flashes blinked among clumps of trees along the ridge opposite, quickly occulted by puffs of white and grey smoke. A time-delayed percussion of door-slam sounds ran along the rise like a departing train in a station. A salvo of shells keened overhead, high above the trench, crashing to earth somewhere behind them. Tolly thought he could hear a faint, distant screaming of horses.

‘Right on time,’ muttered Knocker. ‘And guten fucking morgen to you too, Fritz.’

Their own 18-pounders answered, explosions thumping among the trees concealing the German guns, sending torn branches and whole trees cartwheeling crazily about in showers of tumbling earth. A dancing staccato of blasts in one spot showed where a projectile had found a shell pit.

But it was all happening far away from their trench and in seeming slow motion. The duel had a desultory, ritual air. It soon ended. Each side loosed half a dozen rapid-fire salvoes and fell silent.

As the dawn matured into full daylight the order to stand down came along the line. The unseen grey hordes would not be attacking this morning.

The Tommies cleaned their rifles, the West Berkshires alternating with the North Cheshires so not all the weapons would be stripped down at the same time. Ted Tanner remained on sentry duty, sitting on the fire step cleaning his own rifle, keeping an eye on that fancy tart’s mirror. They would take turns watching, two hours on and four hours off.

Tolly and Harry fumbled in the bags of rations they had been issued at the crossroads the night before. There was tea, sugar, a tin of condensed milk, a loaf of rapidly-hardening French bread for each of them, bacon and a jar of the ubiquitous ‘pozzy’, or Tickler’s-make jam. Harry sang:

 

Tickler’s Jam, Tickler’s Jam

How I love old Tickler’s Jam,

Plum and apple in a one-pound pot,

Sent from Blighty in a ten-ton lot.

 

Knocker and Sid, foraging in their own bags of rations brought up the night before by their chums in the reserve trenches, glanced across with interest.

‘You got fresh bread in that scran bag?’ asked Knocker.

‘Fresh-ish,’ said Harry, with a baker’s disapproval. ‘It’ll do if your teeth are all right. No butter.’

‘Fucking hell – not bacon too?’

‘Nothing but the best for the Ninth North Cheshires mate, the cream of K2.’

‘Fresh bread and bacon! Dib us some out and I’ll show you a neat little trick for the trenches.’

‘Oh aye? Let’s see your trick first.’

Knocker scrabbled at the back of one of the funk holes, lifting aside a groundsheet to reveal an almost-buried German ammunition box. He lugged it out and opened it. ‘You can have the box after we’ve gone,’ he said. It contained a supply of the hated Army biscuits, several small jars of Vaseline and a fire-blackened old mess tin with holes punched through the sides and the bottom, like a miniature brazier.

Breaking two or three biscuits into the mess tin, grunting with the effort of snapping the recalcitrant slabs, Knocker scooped the contents of a Vaseline jar out with two dirty fingers and smeared it over the broken biscuits. ‘I get my mum to send me the Vaseline,’ he said, tossing the empty jar over the parapet to join the rest of the rubbish. ‘I tell her it’s for my feet but rum’s better.’

He produced a box of matches from his pocket, lit one and held the flame against the concoction. After a moment a smokeless blue flame began to lick across its surface as the petroleum jelly ignited. He balanced the mess tin across two lengths of broken-off picket on the fire step and sat back as the flames took hold.

‘Knocker White’s famous patent tommy cooker, Tutts Clump Model A,’ he announced. ‘Bet you didn’t know Army biscuits could burn, did you? It’s all in the preparation. I’d say that was worth a bacon sarnie for an old soldier!’

The North Cheshires grinned, even Ted Tanner, who wasn’t normally given to variances in his ever-placid expression. Harry tore at the bread while Tolly sawed off thick slices of bacon with his bayonet and set them frying in his mess tin lid. A kitchen-sizzling sound filled the fire bay. The smell of cooking bacon penetrated even the biotic trench stink. Harry dipped hunks of bread in the hot dripping in lieu of butter.

It was a feast, outdoing anything Tolly had ever tasted, and even the faint taste of petrol in the tea, made in their tin mugs with water from a two-gallon can stowed in a corner, did nothing to detract from it.

Knocker tasted the tea in an affected impersonation of a sommelier, pronouncing: ‘BP, 1915, Persian Gulf. North slope. That bit in the corner where the cats go to piss. Fritz prefers his coffee, of course. That’s why they’ll lose the war…and here’s another reason. Good morning sergeant, better late than never, and so say all of us. Atten-shun!’

He spoke as two men came around the traverse – a vast sergeant carrying a large earthenware jar stencilled ‘SRD’ accompanied by a wan lieutenant. The West Berkshires came to a sort of attention in the presence of the officer, adopting little more than a slight, resigned straightening of posture, while the North Cheshires were more self-consciously military about it.

‘Stand easy,’ the lieutenant said, flicking cold eyes over the Millbridgers.

The West Berkshires held out their mugs like workhouse orphans while the sergeant poured a dark, viscous liquid from the jar into them. They swirled their mugs around to mix the Navy rum in with the tea and tossed the drinks back with manifest relish.

The lieutenant and the sergeant went to move down the trench, ignoring the North Cheshires, but Knocker said: ‘What about these lads, sarge?’

The sergeant jerked a horse-sized head towards the officer as if to say: ‘Ask him.’

‘Sir?’

‘You know as well as I do White, it’s up to their divisional commander.’

‘Yes sir but they only came up last night; the order just probably hasn’t come through yet, sir. They took their turn on the fire step good as gold, sir.’

The lieutenant raised a questioning eyebrow at the sergeant, who hefted the jar to check its weight. A rich, full-sounding gurgle came from it. He shrugged assent.

‘Very well sergeant,’ the officer said. ‘See to these men.’ The North Cheshires held out their mugs, still half-full of the petrol-tasting tea.

Tolly had never tasted rum before. He took a cautious sip. Dark fire filled his mouth, intoxicating fumes filled his head. He swallowed. The fire chased down his throat like a laughing dragon on a quest to bring comfort and joy, spreading hot, searching tendrils throughout his torso and his limbs right to his stiff fingers and chilled feet. The bruised aching in his foot vanished.

Astonished, he glugged back the rest. It was a revelation. He felt a warm, benevolent ease steal through him, bringing a strange sense of rightness. His doubts and discomforts disappeared. Things weren’t so bad after all.

Bloody hell, this was good stuff.

‘What does SRD stand for?’ asked Harry.

‘Special Rations Department,’ said Ted Tanner.

‘Seldom Reaches Destination,’ said Knocker.

‘Special Ragtime Delight,’ ad-libbed Tolly, pleased with himself. Ted Tanner shot him a quick, hard look. Tolly saw it but didn’t care. Bloody hell, this was good stuff. Shame it was only the one.

‘Thanks for that, Knocker,’ said Harry.

‘That’s all right, chum,’ said the West Berkshire. ‘I knew there’d be plenty to go round. There aren’t as many of us as there were before.’

 

Sgt. Dennison came by with Babbitt to inspect their rifles. The corporal started to pick Harry up on some detail but Sgt. Dennison waved him to silence. He asked Tolly how his foot was, and Tolly was able to tell him truthfully: he felt no pain.

‘Kip down where you can,’ Sgt. Dennison said. ‘One on and two off, you know the drill.’ The pair went off, the sergeant muttering a quiet admonition to the sulking Babbitt.

Harry took the watch while Tolly made a rough pillow of his pack, covered himself with his blanket and stretched out on the fire step, the two funk holes being occupied by dozing West Berkshires.

He’d had no sleep the night before – none of them had – and a humming, rum-fumed lassitude stole over him. The Front was quiet apart from the odd sniper’s rifle crack. He was safe as long as he stayed out of sight down here.

His teeth felt coated, his mouth cheesy, and he made a mental note to ask his mum to send him some tooth powder. Socks too; his boots had been soaked through in the slurry of the communication trenches the night before and his feet felt swollen-damp. His eyes were gritty and red-feeling.

But it was comfortable enough, and Tolly found himself straying into the edges of muzzy dreams, too tired to think, too tired to do anything. A tune was playing in his head, a looping and persistent refrain with a hooky, honky-tonk feel. The fingers on his right hand twitched out the notes on an imaginary piano as he slid off some edge into a humming purple sleep, all mixed up with the honky-tonk tune and skylark song and the buzzing of the flies, a fitful drumming thumping up from thuds in the ground.

Strange music.

 

 

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