Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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September 1917

by Jonny Edward




“An Englishman, you say?”

“Yes, sir. A civilian. He weren’t no tommy or tunneller, that’s for sure.” Private Alfie Winterbottom stood at ease before the huge, battered desk while the brigadier harrumphed and hmm’d behind it.

“And you came across this man in a shell crater?” the brigadier asked.

Alfie waited while the thud and rumble of a German salvo rattled the brigadier’s cup on its saucer and shook the dust from the rafters of the derelict church. The brigadier snatched up a month-old copy of Le Gafouilleur and placed it over his tea.

“Yes, in a shell crater, sir,” Alfie replied, eventually.”He was just stood there, up to his knees in mud, with Boche bullets whizzing past his ears. Lance-Corporal Biggs near dropped his rifle when he saw him.”

“Extraordinary.” The brigadier heaved himself out of his chair, took hold of a silver-handled walking cane and limped over to a steamer trunk. With his back to Alfie, he knelt painfully and rifled through its contents, muttering under his breath.

“Eyes front, private,” he said without turning. Alfie’s head whipped round, face front.

“Sorry, sir. It’s just... are you injured?”

“Transvaal, ’99,” the brigadier replied. “Boer bayonet to the thigh. Before your time, Private Winterbottom.” He slammed the lid shut with a crack like a pistol shot and Alfie’s knees almost buckled beneath him.

“How’s the spirit, son?” the brigadier asked as he hobbled back to his seat. “How’s the mettle? You’re not ‘shocked are you?”

Alfie thought of the shell-shocked men he’d seen in the Verdun infirmary while the French nurses treated his feet. The ward was like a vision of hell -- a scene from Old Bedlam -- rows and rows of blank-eyed men who would cry and gibber and soil themselves if you got too near. Clap your hands, and half of them poor buggers would be under their beds before you could blink.

No, that’s not me. Not yet. “I’m fine, sir,” Alfie lied. “Keen to give it to old Fritz, sir.”

“Good man, good man,“ the brigadier replied, unfurling a map onto his desk. He weighed down its edges with a bronze bust of Lord Kitchener and a framed, yellowed photograph of a lady in crinoline and bustle. “Now, where exactly did you see this chap?” he said.

Alfie pored over the map. The towns and villages were picked out in black ink and labelled with a careful, curling script. Roads, paths and track-ways snaked here and there as thin ribbons of indigo, and a steady hand had shaded the French forests a vibrant green. But it was the Entente trench complex that dominated the map. Marked in blood red, as vivid as a scar on the face of God, the Western Front ran for mile after murderous mile. And behind that terrible line: a filigree of support trenches, reserve lines, communication channels and last-stand redoubts reached almost to the city of Verdun. Alfie placed a finger on the blasted wastes of no-man’s land, a mile or so from the wooded valleys of Fleury-devant.

“It was about here, sir. Middle of nowhere,” he said.

The brigadier sighed and leaned back in his chair. “There?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s only a hundred yards from our line, man! A civilian leaving our trenches would surely have been seen, and he would never have made it that far from the German lines. What you say is impossible.”

“I know, sir.”

“And what of this Lance-Corporal Biggs you mention. What’s his account of all this?”

Alfie paused. ”Didn’t make it, sir.”

“You are absolutely certain that this man was there, in that crater?” the brigadier asked.

At that, a finger of fear brushed Alfie’s spine. Perhaps the strange man hadn’t been real. Perhaps he was finally losing his mind, like those poor sods in Verdun infirmary. He closed his eyes and replayed the events of that terrible day: Seven-thirty, and Sargent Wilkes blows his whistle. Up we go, up and over. Twenty thousand men along a two-mile front, walking slow and steady, like we’re strolling to church on a Sunday morning. We make twenty paces, thirty, then the German guns find us. I look down the line and see the enfilade pass through the ranks. Great swathes of men fall, one after the other, as the machine-guns rake us. Barley, I think. We’re like a field of barley in the wind.

Lance-Corporal Biggs is at my side and he shouts to break formation. For the love of God, break formation and take cover. We fall, almost blindly, into the shell crater, and there he is: the Englishman. He’s dressed like a doctor in a long white coat, but he’s too young to be a doctor. His clothes are strange. Tight-fitting. He’s babbling at me and the Lance-Corporal, raving things I don’t understand, and I take hold of him and drag him down, beneath the line of fire...

“Yes, he was real, sir,” Alfie replied.

The brigadier sighed again, reached into a drawer and pulled out a notebook. He dipped a fountain pen into a silver inkwell and looked up at Alfie. “And what exactly did this man have to say?” he asked.

“Well, he seemed... confused, sir. He kept saying, ‘Where am I?’ and at first, me and Biggsy thought he was a Kraut. I almost shot him there and then. But he was obviously a civvie, and sounded posh -- educated like.” Alfie rubbed his chin with the flat of his palm as he tried to recall the Englishman’s words. “He was shouting about a place called Serne. He said he was from Serne, and there’d been an accident. Something about a particular accelerator.”

“What accelerator?”

“No, sir. That’s what he was saying -- it wasn’t any accelerator in particular, just a particular accelerator.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Sir, I don’t know!” My God, he would be court-marshaled for this. The brigadier would think him playing insane.

“And you let this man go?”

“I... yes, sir. He was an English civvie. I didn’t think to detain him, and then he just hared off, back towards our front line.” And we were in a slaughterhouse, you old fool.

The brigadier watched him for some time. “Was there anything else, private?” he asked, eventually.

Alfie hesitated. He had planned to keep this thing for himself -- a souvenir, like. Perhaps, a keepsake for Annie. But, now he had to make the brigadier believe him. “Yes, sir. He dropped this.” Alfie dug into his breast pocket and handed the thing to the brigadier: a heavy rectangle of silver and glass. It was as long as a cigar case, but thin, like the prayer-books they were given at Sunday sermon.

The brigadier looked at his own reflection in the black, mirrored glass, and turned it over to rub the engraving of Eve’s apple with the ball of his thumb. He dropped it into his desk drawer. “That’ll be all, Private Winterbottom,” he said.

Alfie saluted, about-turned smartly, and marched out of the ruined church, glad to be away, and glad he hadn’t told the brigadier what the Englishman yelled as he scrambled up the muddy wall of the crater and into the smoke of the battlefield. First world war, indeed. As if there could ever be a second.

THE END


2017 Jonny Edward

Bio: Mr. Jonny Edward is a geologist in the daytime, daydreamer in the evenings. Based in North Norfolk, UK.

E-mail: Jonny Edward

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