Remembering the Fields

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Before the war, Eddie and I loved our trips to the fields. Every weekend, and every day in the holidays we would go there. In the outskirts of Ashford, Kent, our house backed onto them. It was very quiet, and we often had acres to ourselves. It was only a vast space of dry, uncut grass, but that didn’t stop us from going. Eddie and I used to play tag, race against each other, and play on the rope swing across the ditch. Eddie would climb onto the rope and shout:
‘I’m in the sky, Hawwy!’
before panicking. Eddie always lost his balance and fell into the ditch, often distracted by a bird chirping in the tree, a dog barking, or a horse rider passing. He would look with amazement as I made it from one side to the other.
Remember that Eddie was two years older than me. It did not feel like this, as Eddie was simple: he could not speak very well, read or write, or think like I did. He often drifted off into a fantasy world of his own. The loss of father to scarlet fever meant that I was seen as the older brother, responsible for Eddie’s upbringing. Whenever Eddie was in trouble or in need, he would come to me. How I thought about people depended largely on how they interacted with Eddie. We lived our lives together and shared everything. We were inseparable.
When Eddie had enough, we would use the coppers that mother gave us for lunch, and spend them on iced buns and lemon sherbets at Briggs. When we returned home, she asked us:
‘What did you buy for lunch today, boys?’
I always confidently replied:
‘Just an egg sandwich. Eddie had a ham roll.’
Confidence was the key: keeping a straight face, eye contact, and not laughing. Eddie would giggle whilst I spoke, lick the icing around his mouth, and jostle the sherbet wrappers in his pocket. Mother would smell our breaths and know the truth. She would pretend not to know.
As we grew older Eddie became more of a burden. Mother had taken him out of school because he was bullied and found the lessons too long. He even bit someone in the schoolyard. Mother always said,
‘He does not understand the fine line between fun and trouble.’
Mother reduced her hours as a teacher and had tried to educate Eddie herself, but even this didn’t work. Eventually, Eddie did not attend school and had to stay at home, until a decade later, the war changed everything.
*
The deafening sound of a band emanates from the town centre. A flourish of trumpets, big bass drums pounding an echoing thump, to the tune of ‘God Save The King’. A couple of dozen soldiers march down the high street, arms swinging in perfect time, looking big, bright and bold in their khaki uniforms. They advance past the towering church spire with the Union Jack fluttering behind. Women throw red roses on their boots. The sergeant leading the group, exclaims in a thunderous voice:
‘It’s a hard slog out there in France!’
‘We need boys with strong hearts and tough minds who are willing to fight for our King!’
‘We must defeat the Germans!’
He starts singling people out from the crowd and asks them whether they have the heart to fight for their country. Rasping and commanding, he yells:
‘Step up and be a hero or forever be seen a coward!’
‘Our country needs YOU!’
His eyes rake over us. Young men offer themselves one by one. It’s that simple: step forward, the recruiting officer jots down your name, and you join the line of new recruits. I see my old school friend George step forward with such pride. Frederick, the old school bully, also puts himself forward. He is showing off just like he had always done. He mimes the words ‘coward’ and ‘chicken’ to me as I watch as an onlooker. I feel the strain of his eyeballs fixed on me, accusing me – ever so patronising – but I know that I would disappoint mother if I were to step forward. Mother had told me at the outbreak of war that she did not want me to sign up, as I was meant to look after Eddie. If I put myself forward, Eddie would have to join me.
Eddie is swaying on the balls of his feet restlessly – his mouth slightly ajar – trying to blow bubbles with his saliva. Gazing at the Briggs shop – which is clearly closed – he asks:
‘Can I get one of those iced buns, Hawwy? The one with the cherry on top?’
‘Not now, Eddie!’
I gently slap his wrists, my way of telling him to keep quiet. The sergeant continues his stirring call to arms. He stands confidently, his hands behind his back, pacing from left to right in front of the crowd. He must be in his late fifties, perhaps early sixties, with a huge hooked nose, sharp brown eyes and an acutely shaped grey moustache. Behind him at a trestle table sits a recruiting officer with thinning grey hair, a broad belly, and a rather stern look about him. He has a register on a wooden clipboard, and without any expression takes the names and ages of individuals who sign up.
*
The subject of war has been avoided at the dinner table until tonight. I am in awe of the soldiers: their buttons glistening, boots shining, the sun glinting on their bayonets. I want to become one of them. Father would look down on me with pride: looking brave, bright and bold in my khaki uniform.
I tell mother that Eddie has to come with me. We have no choice but are obliged to give ourselves over, for the people, for our country. We are desperate to win the war against the Germans. Mother eventually concedes, but I’m overwhelmed by her remarks as we leave the dinner table:
‘Eddie won’t survive out there unless you stay with him. Please look after him Harry, or else he won’t last five minutes!’
*
The following morning the recruiting officer asks me the following:
‘Name?’
‘Harry Roberts’
‘Date of birth?’
‘23rd April, 1896’
‘And him?’
The plump man points at Eddie. I grip onto Eddie, like holding onto a teddy that I am told to let go of. I cannot conceive of being apart from Eddie. He has to come with me. But without even speaking, I let go of Eddie. The recruiting officer bellows at Eddie:
‘Step forward, please. Name?’
‘Eddie,’ he tentatively replies.
‘Your full name please, young man?’
‘Edward. But, but, I like to be called Eddie’
‘Yes, but what is your surname?’
I intervene, rather embarrassed, and inform the officer that he is my brother. I tell him Eddie’s date of birth. The officer seems surprised that Eddie is older than me. Accepting Eddie, they are clearly desperate for recruits.
*
At Salisbury Plain I recognise a few familiar faces– from my old school, Church, rugby club, a few family friends, and a handful of people from our town. I see John with his shrivelled, cauliflower ears, and William, who had a nervous twitch in his right eye that I could not stop looking at when I sat next to him in science classes. I see Arthur, heavy-looking, the prop in my rugby team. His face looks much fuller and redder, and his brown hair is darker and greasier. I spot Thomas, thatcher and ale drinker from our neighbouring town Kennington. I see Joe, who had been expelled from my school.
Training is not easy. Sergeant Smith always shouts the phrase:
‘Salisbury Plain: where you’ll be put to shame or become insane!’
Sergeant Smith indifferently chucks a load of uniform at us without making eye contact.
‘No whining if it’s too big or too small!’
The Brodie helmet is a shiny steel, finished with a matte khaki paint. Along with this is a stiffened peak tin hat with a leather strap, shoulder straps attached to the upper tunic sleeves, and brown ammunition boots with hobnail soles. They are uncomfortably stiff, and weigh a ton of bricks. The uniform is also far too big: it looks like we picked up a couple of items from the lost property cupboard at school. We swap with our fellow soldiers until we look less comical and more respectable. Eddie looks particularly daft. Everyone is tittering at him as he struggles to tie his bootlaces. I hear one of them snigger:
‘He’s off his chump!’
Eddie’s over-sized uniform reminds me of the times he would hide his hands inside the centre of a jumper mother had knitted for him. He would yell:
‘Look Hawwy, I’ve lost my arms!’
and laugh and laugh. He would flounder about with his heavy stomping tread, flap his sleeves around and make strange noises until he could no longer entertain himself.
*
The dreaded Reveille always comes sooner than expected. I sometimes have to pour water on Eddie, or pull his hair to wake him. A minute late and he would spend an hour polishing his boots, or be placed on sentry duty.
We are actors in uniform, shown how to make-believe we are playing our parts: how to wear our khaki uniform, tie our shoulder straps, darn our socks, wrap the brown button puttees around our ankles and calves, polish our badges, buttons and boots. Twelve hours a day we curse through the miry terrains like fools: struggling up hills with our heavy rucksacks, crawling through barbed wire, or charging forward, shrieking at straw-filled dummies as we charge with our bayonets.
I tell Eddie to copy everything I do; mimic every move I make. In return I save him a piece of chocolate from my rations. He wolfs it down and begs:
‘Another choccy, Hawwy?’
Mother would always wait for the ‘p’ word and reward him with another chocolate. There are no more chocolates here – only one block per day. When our performance is not up to Sergeant Smith’s standards, he eats our rations of chocolate, or gives them away.
*
We are handed our SMLE Mk III guns and P’07 bayonets. Sergeant Smith, with eyes of steel that bore into us, barks:
‘Don’t treat these as toys!’
Eddie picks up his rifle in astonishment. He has forgotten how to work it. He gazes at it, carelessly slides the bolt, and pulls the trigger. The bullet flies into the sandbag opposite, which bursts open. Sergeant Smith glares at Eddie with a cold hate in his eyes, and bellows at him:
‘Fire without command again and I’ll cut your chow!’
Eddie gazes at the sand pouring out.
‘Do you hear me? Drop the gun and salute your Sergeant now!’
Eddie blows raspberries at him. Sergeant Smith scowls at Eddie: he seizes his gun, grabs his waist, and punches him on the left cheek. Eddie falls back onto the rear of the trench, starts to cry, and shouts:
‘Hawwy!’
Sergeant Smith stares, spits and shrieks:
‘Dare do that again and I’ll have you for the firing squad, worthless ragger!’
I am crouched opposite Eddie, and recoil in disbelief. Eddie always loved playing with toy guns at home. How could he call him worthless? Eddie is not worthless. He is ‘special’, as Mother called him.
I have to stay with Eddie, and take care of him. I tell him not to shoot his gun, unless he is instructed to. He asks:
‘What’s a firing squad, Hawwy?’
I tell Eddie to behave himself and steer clear of Sergeant Smith.
*
The roar and thunder of machine-gun fire in France pounds us all day, all night. I go to sleep afraid. I awake petrified. The cold soaks through my sodden clothes and into my aching bones. We linger in the trenches at stand-to, dead still. Anything to evade the enemy. Everyone except Eddie, who is on the opposite side of the trench playing with a rat:
‘This is nothing like the fields, Hawwy!’
Instead a blasted wasteland: no vestige of fields or trees or grass, scarcely a hill in sight, merely a land of wide-open plains, mud, and craters. I see unnatural humps scattered over there beyond the barbed wire. Sergeant Smith bares his teeth at Eddie. He furrows his brow in disapproval, and snaps:
‘Young ruffians like you don’t belong in the army!’
A roaring comes from across the reserve trenches.
‘Gas, gas!’
‘Gas masks on! Quick!’
A ripple of fear is sent across the trench. Eddie claps his hands over his ears. My head is swimming, my heart is heavy. I am no longer overwhelmed by fear – merely numbed by it. The gas gradually drifts across the trench, consuming everything in sight. I am smothered inside of this large, killer-cloud of pale smoke. We get our gas masks on – a greasy grey-felt bag is stuck to my face. I dig my swollen feet into my stiff boots – it feels like pins digging into my soles. Colonel Thompson last week joked that if the pain was so severe, I should have them amputated. I grab my rifle, fix my P’07 Bayonet. I stagger through the cloud of sooty smoke – unable to keep upright – my eyes straining in the smoke-filled air. Coughing and spluttering, I cannot see a thing. The death rattle of machine guns crackle and stutter in the distance – it blasts our eardrums – sending a tremor through my body that gets my heart racing. The earth quivers and trembles about me. I fumble with my gas mark – consumed by exhaustion – disbursed with such fatigue that I am no longer controlling myself. Someone else is dictating my actions. God controls my fate. Perhaps I have no fate. Fate and destiny are out of my hands.
*
Poor Private Cook – William before he became a private – last week I witnessed him shot in the torso. I can no longer think about his nervous twitch in science class in the same way. May he rest in peace with the Angels and God. Dearest Private Dickson – from our village, a belated shrapnel-shot has left him in pieces. When will our parish know? It will only get worse. Today is our turn. We are going over the top to counter-attack the Germans, in what Colonel Thompson describes as a raid. Sergeant Smith bellows at us:
‘Topees on. Rifles ready. Prepare for the offence shortly!’
Eddie stands next to me, shaking, staring into the mud. I whisper to him:
‘Follow me, and you’ll be fine.’
Looking like he is about to burst into tears, Eddie replies:
‘I don’t want to go, Hawwy. I want to go home, to see Mother.’
‘Eddie, you have to come with me – we have no choice. I’ll give you an extra piece of chocolate this time?’
Eddie still refuses. If he fails to come, he will be court-martialled and shot as a coward. Cowardice and insubordination are forbidden – Sergeant Smith swears by this. I cannot bear for Eddie to be killed by the firing squad. He would be shot at by a dozen soldiers, while he stands there like a bewildered child. He would stand helplessly among other ‘cowards’ – blindfolded – without a chance to say goodbye.
I’m trapped. What if my fellow soldiers see me do it? They’d grass me up, I’d be straight for the firing squad, myself. What if Sergeant Smith sees me do it? He’d have me for the firing squad, or even kill us both himself. I have to do it where no one sees.
*
I take Eddie through to the reserve trench, passing resting soldiers.
‘Come on Eddie, let’s go get something from the stores! Maybe a bar of chocolate?’
Groups of the walking wounded hobble past us; their uniforms caked in blood. One soldier lies there asleep with his eyes open, totally oblivious to the rat chomping on his feet. Another is puffing on a cigarette between pale parched lips. He looks up at me from his sunken yellow eyes and murmurs:
‘Want a ciggy, lad?’
Next to him a younger soldier is desperately writing a letter, shedding tears as he writes to his sweetheart. Another group are playing a game of cards and drinking. We continue along the reserve trench.
‘Where are we going, Hawwy? Are we going home? Are we going to see Mother?’
My hand is now firmly locked into his.
‘We never got to see the planes like you promised, Hawwy!’
We reach the part of the trench where it breaks off into two. The huge array of sandbags obscure us. No one can see. Surprised to discover my voice, I perch down and tell Eddie:
‘Lie here, Eddie. Silent and still. Let me tell you a story.’
I stand upright and glance through the periscope, to ensure that no enemy is inbound. The smoke still emanates; all I can see is merely a blur. I return to Eddie, remove his helmet, and run my fingers through his greasy dark hair.
‘Close your eyes, Eddie. Remember the times we played on the rope swing?’
‘Yes! Then, then you would be high in the air!’
‘Keep your eyes closed, and imagine yourself there.’
‘Yes, Hawwy.’
‘Remember when we’d go to Briggs in the village; we’d buy iced buns and lemon sherbets?’
‘But you wouldn’t tell Mother, Hawwy!’
‘That’s right, we would tell mother that we bought lunch!’
‘When will we see Mother, Hawwy?
‘We will see Mother very soon. Remember how we raced against each other?’
‘And you were always the fastest!’
‘But you were really fast too, Eddie!’
He lies there with his eyes shut, with a gaping smile on his face. I gently rub my finger on the wound across his left cheek, from when Sergeant Smith had punched him. I take out my gun, slide the bolt and place it on his temple.
‘Mother will know you’ve been a hero, Eddie. You’ve done Father proud too!’
I pull the trigger. He will die happy, remembering the good times we shared. Tears pour down my face as I embrace him for the last time. We live our lives together and share everything. We are inseparable.
‘Contact. Alleymen incoming!’
‘Colonel! My brother has been shot by a stray bullet. He was killed in action, like a hero.’
No time to dwell. The enemy is inbound, and I’ll be going over the top.
There is no way I’m getting out of here.
*
I drink a swig of whiskey. Whiskey is good – it relieves the pain. It numbs the guilt that swims around my head, at least.
I tell Mother:
‘He was killed in action, like a hero’.
Confidence is the key, if only I had some: my face feels twisted, my vision blurred, it even hurts to smile.
I drink a few more gulps from the glass.
Let me think of a story. I’ll remember the fields.

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