The Last Post

Posted: July 25, 2017 in New writing
Tags: ,

The Star Shell burst into life bathing the ground below with cold light. Sid froze, pressing his face into the dank mud of no man’s land. The rest of the patrol froze with him as the Star Shell bleached the ground around them, throwing stark misshapen shadows where it touched upon blackened tree stumps and smashed equipment. ‘Christ, we’re going to cop it now!’ somebody hissed.

Sid blinked. The bright flashes left dancing ghost lights in his eyes that made it hard to see. He concentrated, trying to pick out the voices from the hubbub. It was harder these days, especially when people all talked at the same time. There was the ringing in his ears too but he had grown accustomed to that over the years. He was facing a small scrum of photographers and reporters. The dead black eyes of the cameras pointed at him like an electronic firing squad.
‘What was that?’ he said.
One of the voices spoke again, louder and more clearly this time.
‘I asked, how do you feel being one of the last men to have fought in the Great War?’

Sid heard the rhythmic tat-tat-tat of a machine gun, followed by the zwip-zwip noise the bullets made as they seared through the air above his head. The sound was moving from left to right as the German gunners swept the battlefield looking for them. He knew the big guns would start any moment.
‘Move! Bloody move! We’re sitting ducks out here,’ the Lieutenant barked as the first crump of outgoing artillery sounded. Sid dug his elbows and knees into the slimy mud and pushed his body towards a nearby shell crater. He slithered down into it dragging his rifle with him, barely even registering the two bloated corpses lying sprawled at the bottom. He crouched low, trying to make himself as small as possible, hugging the earth like he would a lover. He heard the shells sizzling through their arcs, reaching the point where they would come crashing to earth in a violent eruption of energy and hot fragments. Without warning a hobnailed boot came thudding down onto his tin helmet.
‘What the blazes…?’
The world became noise and light and heat. For a moment Sid knew nothing, the sounds of battle had faded to a muted rumble in his ears. There was something pressing down on him, a great weight holding him fast. It was oddly comforting for a moment until he realised that he couldn’t breathe. The same force that held him down also filled his nostrils and mouth. Panic rose in him as his lungs pushed at his ribs, straining to use every last morsel of air. ‘Stop struggling’ a voice in his head said. ‘Just give it a few more seconds and it will all be over. Don’t fight it.’

He felt his body being shaken. He opened his eyes and realised that there was someone pulling at his tunic.
‘Sid! Are you alright mate?’
Sid recognised the face. Even with his skin blackened for night patrol there was no mistaking the youthful features of Billy Ryan.
‘Billy?’ he was still half dazed. He realised that his mouth was full of mud and tried to spit it out.
‘Are you alright?’ the newcomer asked again. ‘Christ Sid that was a close one. I thought you’d copped it for sure. I had to dig you out.’
‘Water,’ Sid said spitting again. His ears rang like someone rubbing a wet finger round the rim of a glass. Billy handed him his canteen and pulled the stopper out for him. Sid took a swig of the metallic tasting liquid and sluiced it round his mouth. ‘Thanks,’ he said. His hands shook as he tried to replace the stopper. Billy took the canteen from him gently and stuck it back on his webbing.
‘Now what?’ he asked.
Sid cocked an ear to the sound of guns. Their furious noise had not abated. The chattering machine guns were still sending out bursts of bullets into the dark like secret Morse code messages.
‘We wait.’
‘For what?’
‘Things will die down sooner or later,’ Sid said. ‘Jerry will get bored and our lads will have either made it away or have copped it. Once that happens we’ll try to slip back to our lines nice and quiet like.’

The two men hunkered down. Sid dug into his pack and pulled out some biscuits. He gave one over to Billy.
When he was done Sid turned his attention to their silent companions. Both the bodies wore mud-stiffened kilts. He reached down, ignoring the ripe, gassy smell as the bodies moved in the shallow pool at the bottom of the crater. Their faces were blackened, lips pulled back from their teeth in a death’s head rictus. He felt under their tunics to find their identity discs, using his pocket knife to cut them free before checking their pockets. One of the men carried a small packet of letters and photos in his breast pocket bound up with a little bit of ribbon. Sid put them in his haversack, promising himself that he would try to return them to the bloke’s family if he and Billy managed to get back.

Sid cleared his throat. His bladder felt like he needed to go to the toilet. Once upon a long ago he would have been sure he could’ve held it in but these days that was not always a certainty.
‘I don’t know how to feel exactly,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel special if that’s what you mean. I can’t tell you why I made it through when so many of my mates never came back. We just sort of accepted it you see. Death wasn’t a stranger to us – he was there with us every day. You soon realised there was no rhyme or reason to who he picked. Young, old, good or bad. There were so many different ways you could go that it didn’t do to think about them – you just got on with the job. You were with your mates, see? You didn’t want to let your pals down by getting the wind up – they were depending on you and you were depending on them. It was the same when we got home again. We just went back to our lives and got on with it.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘Whether it was luck or fate I don’t know but there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t given thanks that I did. I just tried to make sure that I didn’t waste those days since the war.’

The reporters dutifully copied this down, pencils scratching on paper, or nodded sagely while holding out their softly whirring tape recorders to capture his words. He was there with half a dozen other old soldiers. A pretty young woman carrying a clipboard stepped in front of the press.
‘I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for questions right now. There are buses assembled outside to take you all to the memorial for the ceremony. We will have people there to direct you to the best spot to set up your cameras. Thank you.’

The reporters began filing out. Sid felt a nudge in his ribs.
‘It’s like being a ruddy zoo animal all this lark,’ Alf Richards had been in the artillery and had a tendency to speak quite loudly as a result. His medals had made a jingling sound as he gestured around the room at the departing press corps. Like the other old soldiers, he was dressed in his best suit with his thinning hair neatly combed for the cameras. ‘They come to stare cos they know sooner or later we’re all going the way of the Dodo.’ Alf sighed. ‘We’re relics you and me Sid, living bloody museum exhibits. The world moved on and somehow we got left behind. We’re men out of time you and me.’
‘So why do you do it?’ Sid said. ‘You could’ve always stayed home, gave it a miss.’
‘Don’t be bloody daft,’ Alf said. ‘You know as well as I do that I don’t do to for them Herberts with their cameras. I was out there for three years in the mud and the blood and the shit. I do it to remember because memories are all I have now. It’s all any of us have. And when we’re gone those memories go with us. All those books people have written about the war can’t ever really explain what it was like. They can write it down but they can’t experience it the way we did – can they?’
Sid nodded, thinking of the days he would sometimes wake up and taste the dirt in his mouth and throw off his blankets in a mad panic, his heart thudding a rapid tattoo in his chest. He would be back in the shell hole with Billy, shaking in the dark until his eyes adjusted to the dim light and he would remember that the world had moved on like Alf said.

The din of battle had slowly diminished until there was silence once more.
‘Ready?’ Sid whispered.
Billy nodded.
‘When I give the word, we crawl out of here and make our way over to the next crater. We wait a couple of minutes to make sure it’s clear and then move on to the next one until we get near enough to our own blokes.’
Sid went first, rolling himself over the lip of the shell hole. Billy joined him a moment later. They began slowly and deliberately crawling back towards their wire. The temptation to move faster was enormous but both knew that speed meant noise and to make noise was to invite a fusillade of death and destruction down upon their heads. Sid could feel a cold layer of sweat on his back as they inched along the ground. A few yards further and they reached another shell hole. Billy grinned at him as they slid inside.
‘Piece of piss,’ he said.
They took a moment to gather themselves and then started out again. Each crater took them a few yards closer to home. Billy had pulled ahead slightly as they reached the next hole. He disappeared over the lip of the crater head-first. As Sid pulled up behind him he heard a soft splash from inside the hole. He peered over and saw that Billy was chest deep in mud.
‘Help me out Sid,’ he said. ‘I can’t feel the bottom.’
‘Just you hold still Billy my lad,’ Sid told him. He slithered over the side and stretched out an arm. His fingers clasped at air unable to reach far enough to grab Billy’s hand. He realised that to get close enough he would have to enter the mud himself.
‘Hurry, Sid. I’m sinking!’ Billy tried to twist his body, his arms slapped fruitlessly against the surface of the mud with a wet sound.
Sid crouched, frozen in place. The machine guns started up again, searching for the source of the voices. Slowly he began to push his rifle towards Billy.
‘Grab hold,’ he told him.
Billy swung for the butt, muddy fingers struggling to find purchase on the smooth wooden stock.
‘Grab the sling,’ Sid said. It was taking all of his efforts to hold the rifle steady at arm’s length. Finally, Billy was able to loop an arm through the leather sling. Sid steadied himself and tried to pull the younger man toward him. He could see that Billy was starting to go deeper. The mud was starting to creep up his arms. Sid pulled as hard as he could, feeling his own grip slide on the gun as he struggled to drag Billy up.
The cough of mortar rounds being sent into the air joined the rattling commentary of the machine guns. They began to thud into the soft earth before exploding in gouts of dirt.
‘For Christ’s sake Billy you’re going to have me in there with you!’
Billy wasn’t listening. The mud was up to his chin now. He was crying.
‘Oh god, oh god, please, please no. Don’t let me drown Sid. Don’t let me go under.’
‘I’ll get help Billy, he whispered. I’ll come back for you I promise.’
He let his rifle fall from his hands. Billy clung to it as if holding it would somehow keep him afloat. Sid scrambled up the side of the crater and began crawling away.

After the press conference a mini bus had taken the men to Thiepval. Politicians and local dignitaries stood solemnly while speeches were read. Wreathes were laid, covering the floor of the memorial in a carpet of red poppies. Sid and the others straightened their backs as best they could while a lone bugler blew The Last Post. When he was finished there was only the sound of flags flapping in the wind until what most people considered a respectful period of silence had passed. When the ceremony was over the men dispersed amid the TV crews packing away their equipment. Sid remained at the memorial scanning the lists of names carved in its walls. He found the Northumberland Fusiliers. He read the names slowly, so many. He could see their faces as he read their names. Finally, he found him – Trooper William Ryan. Poor Billy, thought Sid, not even seventeen when he jacked in his job at the Butchers and joined up.
‘I’m sorry Billy,’ he said. ‘I should never have left you.’ He reached inside his pocket and took something out. It was a photo of a young lad, standing proud in the photographer’s studio in his new uniform, swagger stick tucked under his arm.

Billy’s Mam had led him though the house. He was still in his uniform, not long back from France. He’d wrestled with the decision to come and see her during the long journey home while the other lads had laughed and joked about what they were going to spend their back pay on.
‘You said you were with Billy when he died?’
‘Aye, we all joined up at the same time when the war started. I used to work at the Post Office.’
‘That’s where I know your face from,’ she said. ‘You’re Mary McKenna’s lad.’
Sid nodded.
‘We were on a trench raid looking for prisoners,’ he said. ‘The Jerries spotted us before we got to their trenches and started shelling us.’ He stopped, not sure what to say next. He’d gone to see her meaning to tell her everything. Now that he was sat in her front room sipping tea, and her still wearing her mourning black, he found the truth stuck in his throat. He realised his hands were shaking. His teacup made a tiny chinking sound as it tapped out a rhythm against his saucer. The sound stopped as he felt the warm touch of her hand on his.
‘It’s all right Pet, I know this must be hard for you.’
‘He didn’t suffer, Missus Ryan, I swear it. I got buried by a shell and Billy dug me out but then I heard another one coming in and the next thing I knew I was flat on the ground and… and Billy was gone.’ He’d broken down at that point, tears of shame burning his cheeks. She had hugged him then, as she might have once hugged her Billy, muffling his tears against her bony shoulder. They sat like that for a while, the silence only broken by the sound of the parlour clock counting out the minutes.
‘I’ll go make a fresh brew,’ she said finally.

‘I’d like you to have this,’ she’d said later as he stood in the doorway making ready to leave. She had gone over to the table and picked up a picture in a plain wooden frame. ‘Our Billy had it done just after he joined up. He was so proud to be doing his bit.’ Her voice had broken as she’d pressed it into his hands. Sid knew that he would have to take it from her even though looking at Billy’s well-scrubbed face made him feel sick inside with guilt.

‘I finally kept my promise to you, Billy,’ he said under his breath. ‘Maybe now we can both rest easy.’ He stopped to place the photo he’d been carrying all these years against the wall, ignoring how the creaking of his knee joints sent off flares from his arthritis as he did so.

That night in his bed Sid listened to the sound of the wind outside his hotel room. He was sure he could hear the tramp of marching feet. He closed his eyes trying to listen harder. When he opened them again it was daylight. He squinted in the bright light. The sun shone on his face, warming his skin until a shadow fell across him.

‘Come on Sid, you can’t sit there all day. The Kaiser’s expecting us in Berlin for tea and crumpets any day now and it would be shame to disappoint the bugger.’

Sid looked up into Billy’s smiling face. He felt a mixture of fear and confusion. Knowing that what he was seeing was not possible.

‘Billy? I wanted to go back for you but they wouldn’t let me. The snipers were picking off anyone who tried to go out.’

‘Don’t worry chum. We’ve been waiting on you Sid. Me, Smiler, Corporal Maxwell and all the other lads. We knew you’d make it back some day to see your old mates.’ Billy beamed at him. ‘Here, let me give you a hand up.’

Billy extended his hand. Sid reached out for it and hesitated. He looked down at himself, still wearing his flannel pyjamas, could see the road map of veins tracing their paths through his paper thin skin. Would it be so bad to go back, see all his old mates again? The lads who had never grown old the way he had. Good lads. After all, what was left? Elsie was long gone. After many years together they’d had to concede that they would never be able to have children. Life had become static after going into the home as he slowly lost the ability to do things for himself. The home, with its soothing pastel lounges and smiling nurses. He thought back to Alf’s comment about them being like animals in a human zoo. The home was the last stop. There was only one place left for him to go.

‘Come on Sid, there’s a cracking Estaminet in town – egg, chips and beer – I’m buying.’

Sid took his hand and fell into step beside Billy. His back felt straight for the first time in years. He was young again, in the prime of his life. The hotel room faded out of sight as the men started to sing their marching song.

Scan10003

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