Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 24
Call Me John


Babbitt fumed quietly in his bed. That fucking sergeant – it was his fault, detailing him for that burial party. He should have been sergeant, anyway, not that ugly old dodderer, on his last legs. There was something not right there. Why did that bastard Beefer call him Smithy if his name was Dennison? The old fucker should have taken the burial party. It was his job. Then it would be him lying here.

That fucking Father Mack – it was his fault too, yakking away with his bible-walloping shite, keeping them in the dug-out. That twat Tolman with his stupid mate, laughing boy Lafford, egging him on, like fucking Sunday school. And Boy Scout Sherlock – he got himself out of the way into his cosy little officers’ hidey-hole, didn’t he, looking after number one? Typical. That’s officers for you. They don’t give a shit.

Fucking officers. Fucking sergeant. Fucking Germans.

Burning red mice swarmed over his foot, biting it. Except his foot wasn’t there any more.

Babbitt wished that groaning bastard in the end bed would just shut the fuck up and die. Fucking hell!

‘How are you feeling, Corporal?’

Babbitt started, as if his thoughts could be seen. Sister Trixie. Bosscow Brindle’s tame sneak. Why did she creep around like that in the middle of the night like some fucking French nun? He arranged his expression into a wan, reluctant smile.

‘Oh Sister, I didn’t hear you…always so gentle…I’m…’ Babbitt made a rueful face designed to convey valour under the lash of unspeakable suffering, an expression meant to say I can endure it, Sister, I’ve given my all for my country and I now I must lay here, a maimed hero bearing my terrible pain with fortitude.

She regarded him, no expression in the slanting black eyes. ‘Well, let me know if you need anything.’

‘Thank you Sister, but that poor chap at the end needs you more.’ Don’t worry about me, I’ll suffer in silence.

She moved off. With any luck she’d give the groaner enough morphia to finish him off, shut the bastard up once and for all. That quack Pole did it all the time. The bastard was fucked anyway. All these stomach cases were fucked. Don’t know why they bothered with them.

Babbitt sniffed. Fucking Sister Trixie. Fucking stuck-up bitch. These posh women didn’t really care about Tommies like him; they were only in it for the halo, hoping to snare themselves an officer with that precious, patient angels act. Some fucking Boy Scout officer, talking Rupert, family money. If you didn’t have money you were nothing to these women; you were invisible, just another scummy, legless Tommy with dirt under your nails, someone to practise their oh-so-holy fucking Florence Nightingale act on while they made eyes at the officers. Bitches.

Well, he’d make some money now he was out of that lot. Let the other stupid bastards get themselves blown to bits, he’d done enough. He’d get a new foot. He’d be able to get about, limping just enough to gain sympathy when he needed it.

Electrics: that was the future. A shop. No…not a shop, a factory. That was where the real money was, manufacturing. These fat bastard factory owners were making a packet out of the war. Now it was his turn. Yes. He had a tidy sum tucked away, enough to get him started, from the Crown and Anchor board and the souvenirs and, well, other things nobody had known about. Dead men didn’t need gold teeth.

Babbitt smiled, thinking of the officer’s leather pickelhaube he had levered off the skull and kept for himself. He saw it mounted on a stand, a trophy with its fierce spike and its magnificent Teutonic eagle, pride of place on an ebony sideboard in a grand house, his house, with the latest electric chandeliers and a great, sweeping staircase. The tale he would tell of the Prussian officer surrendering to him, bringing his men, emerging from the dug-out with their hands in the air while he stood sternly with a revolver…

His version of the explosion in the dug-out had quite turned the VAD girls’ heads, silly bitches, especially that easy little Florrie Swindells. Handy with her hand, she was, practised, sliding it under the bedclothes to bring the poor injured Tommy some relief in the night, cat’s eyes glinting, cleaning him up afterwards, watching out for that fucking creeping Sister Trixie…who was probably at it herself with some officer – ‘Oooh, dahling!’ Bitch.

A man of substance required a wife, Babbitt reflected. A truth universally fucking acknowledged. Not Florrie, though. Everyone knew about her. They’d laugh at him behind his back. Someone like Sister Trixie was probably beyond him no matter how much money he had, he was realistic enough to accept. It was a matter of class.

No, he needed someone in the middle, someone respectable, pretty enough to impress business associates, not some market stall slut like Florrie Swindells but neither some unreachable aristo like Sister Trixie, someone…


Sister Trixie’s urgent voice brought Ruth running down the ward. Babbitt watched her moving with lithe strength, bringing the morphia. The two nurses bent over the groaner, who seemed to be having some sort of seizure.

Good. It might finish him off.

The Lafford girl, now… Engaged to that twat Tolman, but he had it coming with his head in the clouds half the time, dreaming like some poncified poet, playing that nigger music on every piano he could lay his hands on.

She was pretty enough. Hard-working. Respectable – though Florrie had giggled some things about her and Tolman – but not too far out of reach. If she’d done it with Tolman that was all to the good; she wasn’t some precious virgin any more. Once they’d got the taste…

The groaner had gone quiet again, thank fuck, pole-axed on morphia. With any luck he wouldn’t wake up again. Ruth came back up the ward carrying a basin with the syringe.

Babbitt put a croak into his voice: ‘Sister?’

She came over to his bed. Not a bad pair under the pinny, now he looked.

‘Don’t let Miss Brindle hear you call me sister,’ she said, ‘I’m just VAD and they don’t like it, the trained nurses.’

‘You’re a sister of mercy to me,’ said Babbitt. ’I don’t care what they say. Look, I’m sorry, sister…I know there’s others worse…but I’m parched. Could I have just a cup of water? I’m sorry to be a bother but…’

‘Of course you can, Corporal,’ said Ruth, making to go.

‘Oh now, if I shouldn’t call you sister you shouldn’t call me Corporal – I’m not one any more, not really, I’m being discharged from the Army after…you know.’ Wounded hero.

He smiled as a spider might smile. ‘Call me John.’



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