Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 18
Vain Shadow

                  

Tolly had only seen Father Mackenzie from a distance before coming into the line, the chaplain a beneficent goblin conducting the compulsory Sunday church parade in any handy field, the familiar words of psalm, gospel and prayer coming curiously in his affable, rasping North Country voice.

He had come to know him better in Tutts Clump. The fact that the chaplain came into the line at all earned him respect among the Tommies. Most of the bible-wallopers stayed safely and sanctimoniously in the shelter of Brigade or Divisional HQ, but Father Mack was a familiar sight scuttling around the traverse with his pointy ears sticking out comically from under his floppy gor’blimey hat, looking more like an itinerant pantomime dwarf than a Minister of the Church, interested as much in the condition of the men’s feet as in the condition of their souls, studying his gangrel flock with eyes like blunt pencils. He had kept his threadbare pepper-and-salt beard and to hell with the chats. As often as not he would bring rum or brandy, just a nip and not a word to the sergeant major.

Some said he was a former Regular officer who had resigned his commission after the South African war to take holy orders, rejoining in 1914. He was a proper soldier priest, not above grabbing one end of a stretcher. Anglican, of course. Tolly had to smile, comparing him with the elegant Holy Joe of All Saints. Imagine that precious old choirboy-botherer in this mucky bone yard.

The chaplain squatted in the dim dug-out smoking something dark, pungent and French, inhaling with a hissing, spitty noise. Tolly and Harry, the wall-eyed Ben Perry, Babbitt, Donovan Two and Fred Scott with his chewed-up nose were all smoking too in a futile effort to lose the gagging taste of putrefied Tommy from the back of their throats following the burial party, their faces pallid smears in the candlelight.

The dozen or so corpses they had put in a disused, one-time sap a few hundred yards behind the lines had more or less held together, though it had been touch and go with a couple of them, especially the West Berkshires who had been dead for a few weeks. A foul job, disinterring the bodies from their shallow graves just behind the front trench, disturbing the rats, and carrying them back as Jack-o’-Lanterns flickered in the marshy hollows like ghosts. Poor Sherlock, recently appointed battalion burial officer, had gone green.

They had got it over with, anyway: they had dropped the bodies in the sap, put in the quicklime and covered the corpses with earth. They had stood heads-bowed through the prayers, which the padre had rasped out as if he meant them, and fired a volley over the grave while a squat harvest moon rose over Bocheland. A clear night for once. A full moon meant possible night shelling and the North Cheshires had been anxious to get under cover.

Father Mack had shocked Tolly as they picked their back through blasted trees, remarking: ‘Well, that’ll make a nice celery bed for someone après la guerre.’

One of the bodies had been that of the fastidious Ernie Marshall, a tea boy at Garcell’s, a rectangular youth with a slight stammer and an idiot sister. Harry knew his mum, a great meat pie purchaser, from the shop. A sniper had shot Ernie through the ear while he had been using somewhere more salubrious than the trench latrine for his toilette.

So hold your nose or die with your pants down: here endeth the lesson.

The candle flame, feeble in the smoky dug-out, shivered in its sconce of carved cheese as concussions reverberated through the earth. A big strafe going on up Loos way. Fritz was catching it hot. Rumour had been flashing up and down of a show in the making, shells being stockpiled and divisions brought up. The North Cheshires wondered if they would be in it. A big show would be an opportunity to have a proper go at Fritz – better than this wearisome trench routine – but it would probably be one for the Regulars, what was left of them.

Back to billets tomorrow night anyway after eleven days and nights in the line and thank God for that. Sleep. Proper hot food. Sleep. A wash and shave. Sleep.

‘I’m not so sure about knowing the number of my days, padre,’ said Harry.

Father Mack grinned, his teeth showing woody in his bearded face; Army tea, Navy rum and French tobacco doing little for the whiteness of smiles in Tutts Clump. ‘“Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live,”’ he quoted from the psalm he had read over the mass grave. ‘Why? What would you do differently?’

‘Well, transfer to the ASC for a start,’ Harry answered. ‘I’m a qualified baker, you know, I could be baking fancies for the red-tabs’ table in some nice cushy billet. If man walketh in a vain shadow I think I’d rather walk in that one.’

‘So what’s stopping you?’ No challenge, just the question.

‘My sister told me to look out for him,’ indicating Tolly.

‘That’s funny,’ said Tolly, ‘she told me to look out for you.’

‘God help us.’

‘Amen,’ said Father Mack, rolling his eyes.

After their four sleep-deprived but relatively uneventful days and nights in the front line Number Four Platoon had rotated first back into the second-line support trench, then into the tertiary reserve trench, and become bloody fucking night shift ditch-diggers, as they vociferously complained, excavating new trenches – a project of Chunky’s – with picks and shovels, often in the rain, under the direction of highly-paid and much-envied Engineers. This on top of morning and evening stand-to, carrying supplies to the front line lot – the front line being the cushiest number in the trenches, they agreed, with nothing to do but keep your head down and try to stay awake – and general humping and fetching and the everlasting repair and improvement of existing trenches.

The only bright spot was the rum. Tolly looked forward to dawn stand-to for that reason alone. Amazing how it put heart into you.

Bloody fucking ditch-digging had turned up a minor sensation when the toiling Ben Perry unearthed a crumbling old Brown Bess musket. The section had gathered round in the drizzle to stare at it.

‘Probably dropped by one of Wellington’s lot,’ said the militarily knowledgeable Sgt. Dennison. As a young soldier he had met an ancient master thatcher in a Ludgershall pub who claimed to have been at Waterloo. The tale had been just about chronologically feasible – the old boy must have been ninety if he was a day – but the sergeant had felt it had been as much to do with extracting pints from gullible listeners as anything else.

Wellington?’ said Tolly. ‘But that was a hundred years ago. You mean we’re still fighting over the same ground?’

‘Except now we’re on the Frenchies’ side against the Prussians. But it goes back further than that. Agincourt’s only down in Artois. And James the Second, when he was Duke of York, marched through Arras and Cambrai with the French in the 1650s.’

‘Who was the poxed-up old bastard fighting then, Attila the Hun?’ asked Harry, with the English nonconformist’s inbred disdain of any Stuart king.

‘The Spanish.’

‘Should have let them fucking keep it.’

Finding the Brown Bess had been the high spot amid the drudgery. Cutting through the bodies had been the worst. They came across them singly or in rotting groups, buried and exposed and reburied by shells, some a year old and little more than rat-gnawed skeletons. Many were French.

In one or two places Number Four Platoon had found themselves facing layers of corpses stacked in old shell holes. There must have been some to-ing and fro-ing around here in ’14, they reckoned, Battle of the Marne time, trying to assess from the proportion of Fritz-to-French how it had gone.

They had acquired a number of the coveted pickelhaube spiked German helmets for souvenirs and for sale to the base-wallahs. Fetched good money, they did – Babbitt had been doing a roaring trade, greedy bastard – and looked well on a Blighty sideboard.

You couldn’t do much with the dead horses except chop through them.

Fred Scott, during one of his manic episodes, had left a candle stub burning inside a gas-greened German skull, its light glowing nightmarishly through the empty eye sockets and grinning teeth, until Sgt. Dennison had told him not to be such a bloody fool. How would he like it if Fritz was playing games with the lads’ bones on the other side?

Tolly could see the sergeant’s point but…well, bodies were just things, weren’t they? After the first few, that was. They were everywhere. They were just something you had to deal with, like they had had to deal with that burial party tonight. It was just a job. Poor Sherlock had taken it hard, but then he was a bally officer. He didn’t know what a shovel felt like when you stuck it into a long-dead stiff in the wet dark and that smell came up.

Anything like a decent sleep had become a memory. All pretence at military smartness had fallen away. Looking at each other, the North Cheshires realised they had turned into the same exhausted, unwashed ragamuffins they had seen coming out of the line, scratching at their lice. Harry hated having dirty hands.

Back to billets tomorrow night anyway, and thank God for that. No more bully. Get rid of these damned chats. Sleep. It struck Tolly that he had not seen a single German in all the time he had been in the trenches. Well, not a live one.

Tolly felt that life in the trenches was much like slum life as he imagined it to be among the near-feral families living in the warren of mean streets back of the Waggon, ten and twelve to a room, jammed together in quasi-tribal squalor, sharing their miasmic living space with rats and lice and fleas. Both groups had their own rituals, their own slang and their own standards. The food was probably equivalent.

He was surprised, when he thought about it, at how quickly he had become accustomed to the life. He thought constantly about home and Ruth, especially Ruth, devouring her letters – she was finding the VAD work tough but enjoyed it – and staring at her picture as if it could come to life and speak to him, bringing the polished wood of her voice to soften the trenches’ constant fucking swearing, the chilling wasp-whine of snipers’ bullets and the occasional scream of a wounded man, but wondered how he would re-adjust when the time came to go home. The trenches had come as a bit of a shock at first, but now it was just…as it was. Anything else seemed remote, distant, almost abnormal.

 ‘God didn’t help those poor f– …those poor lads we buried just now, did he, padre?’ he asked Father Mack.

‘If you’re going to say poor fuckers, say poor fuckers. How do you know?’

‘Know what?’

‘Know God didn’t help them.’

‘Well,’ said Tolly, ‘they’re dead, aren’t they?’

‘Meaning they’re in Heaven and you’re still here.’

‘If there is a Heaven.’

‘There is,’ put in Harry, ‘in the ASC.’

‘There you have it,’ said Father Mack, laughing with the others. ‘Heaven is a state of mind.’

‘Meaning Hell is a state of mind too?’ asked Tolly.

‘“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”. Milton. But Hell – to be trapped in your own sin, endlessly condemned to repeat it, for all eternity…what a prospect. It’s Hell enough for anyone to be trapped in their own sin for a single day. But we have a choice.’

‘What choice? What choice do we have here?’

‘You’re here as a result of a choice,’ said Father Mack. ‘We’re all volunteers. Ever read Dante’s Inferno? Hell is populated by volunteers. God doesn’t punish us; we punish ourselves.

‘Don’t forget, you chose to come here – you, me, all of us. We can’t unmake that choice. All we can do now is choose to make the best of it and look out for each other, which is always the best choice we can make in any case. Just try to do the next right thing. It’s all we can do, day by day. Fortunately it’s all God asks.’

‘If you believe in God.’

‘I don’t believe in God,’ said Father Mack, a trenchant serenity in the graphite eyes. ‘I know.’

‘Like the Germans know? With Gott Mit Uns on their belt buckles?’ asked Fred Scott. The Tommies had been scandalised by the slogan. Everyone knew God was on the Allies’ side. It stood to reason.

‘God doesn’t work through armies and emperors,’ said Father Mack. ‘That’s the bull governments feed us. God works through men’s hearts.’

‘I don’t see much sign of that here,’ said Tolly.

‘You can if you look.’

‘Look where?’

‘In your own heart. Look at this fellowship of men here, working together and helping each other. What’s that but God at work?’

‘I expect some Hun padre is saying the same thing on the other side of the bags.’

‘He’d be right, too.’

Tolly was discomfited and confused. He envied Father Mack his faith and his sureness – his envied anyone’s sureness – but it only increased his own sense of uncertainty.

He had always understood that God, whatever ‘God’ meant exactly, was supposed to be just. But he had seen no evidence of any divine justice in France. Donovan One – or Donovan None now, as Tolly had heard some of the lads crack, though not in his brother’s hearing – Ernie Marshall, those lads at the station: where was the justice in that?

He persisted: ‘But God must be blind or cruel or insane to permit…all this.’

‘God isn’t some sort of holy administrator running the show like a great cosmic Kitchener. He doesn’t permit or forbid. God lives in a place inside men. He’s inside you now, knocking to be let out. What we see around us is the evil done by men who don’t let the God in them come out. It’s called free will.’

Tolly sighed. Like everything around him, everything he had experienced since stepping off the boat in Boulogne, this was too deep, too much.

To hell with it.

‘You coming back with us tomorrow, padre?’ he asked, changing the subject.

‘Oh yes. Always a little bit of Paradise Found in billets.’

‘It’s just a state of mind,’ said Harry. ‘I was thinking of staying here, myself.’

A distant gun gave that door-slam sound.

In the fraction of a second it took for the noise to grow from just another random shell into something howling through the cool night air straight towards them, the group froze into an ageless Vermeer tableau: Smokers Listening. Breathing ceased.

Every man became vividly conscious of his position and his posture in relation to the others. The dug-out became a gleam of widening eyes making contact with each other.

They fastened on to the sound of the approaching shell as it swelled into a deranged and unstoppable shrilling, growing louder. Closer. They knew it was coming for them. It announced itself with a deadly, triumphant inevitability.

Tolly felt an infinite cold space fall open inside him. His heart and lungs plunged into it, taking blood and heat and feeling. His hands and feet turned to ice. His bowels clenched. He was astonished to experience a sudden, insane surge of sexual desire. He had heard shells coming close before but not this close – not –

O Sweet Christ it was –

O –

Tolly distinctly saw – or thought he saw – Ben Perry disintegrate in the flash, the lad’s component parts, none bigger than a leg of lamb, flying apart and being hurled towards the back of the dug-out in a straight-lined spray of bright unearthly light. There was a sharp spatter of wet thudding sounds, like a sudden heavy shower, and Tolly felt something hot splash across his face.

This all occurred, or seemed to occur, in the instant before the impact of the explosion, though part of Tolly’s mind knew that was impossible: it must have happened in a different sequence from the one he thought he had just seen. Or perhaps he only imagined it.

The blast of the high explosive barged past the gas curtain and in through the dug-out entrance, a stone wall travelling at the speed of sound. A palpable barrage of heated air kicked Tolly massively in the chest. He was propelled sideways and backwards in ringing blackness, the diamond-cut image of Ben Perry’s abrupt dismemberment flaming in harsh, pulsing silver across his retinas. He had a vague sensation of being cannoned into someone and peppered with flying, red-hot stones. A classroom smell of chalk filled the air. Forked white lightning split Tolly’s sensorium into two clanking halves.

He could hear someone screaming on the edge of wherever he was before a jostling flock of migrating albino starlings swept into his brain from Andalucia, interrupting him as he recited for good old Trog, pleased he could  remember: ‘True valour doth her own renown command...’

A rasping North Country voice somewhere was yelling: ‘Stretcher bearers! Stretcher bearers!’ but that was a long, long way away.

 

 

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