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New and collected storie.., p.70
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       New and Collected Stories, p.70

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Water gushed from the taps only one point off freezing. They had expected it to be hot, so sounded as if a pack of ravening lions had got loose. The captain, transfixed by their mutinous swearing, hoped the sergeant-major would be along to get them moving into the water no matter how cold it was. Hard to understand their rage when they endured so much agony of life and limb on duty in the trenches. One man slipped on the slatted planks, and cursed the army.

  ‘This is the last straw!’ he shouted.

  No one laughed, even when he was advised: ‘Well, eat it then.’

  Nevill, the icy chute spraying at him, let out a cry that stopped everyone’s riotous catcalls: ‘Fucking hell, it’s too hot! It’s scalding me to death. Turn it off! I’m broiled alive. Put some cold in, for Christ’s sake!’

  They began laughing at the tall thin chap fooling around with knees and knackers jumping up and down, a look of mock terror in the fiery stillness of his eyes and the falling line of his lips.

  Once fastened into the separate world of his own outlandish shouts, Nevill went on calling loud and clear: ‘My back’s on fire! I’m broiling in hell! Turn that effing water off, or put some cold in, please! This steam’s blinding my eyes. Turn it off!’

  Others joined in and shouted the magic phrases like a chorus line at the music hall. They no longer hung back, but took to the water without further complaint.

  Nevill stopped, and gripped the soap to wash. The muddy grime swilled off, and his face turned red as if steam had really worked the colour-change, not shame. Then he laughed again with the others while they blundered around fighting for the soap.

  They collected warm and fumigated underwear. After breakfast came pay parade and later, with francs in their pockets and a few hours’ kip behind their eyes, they were away to the estaminet for omelette, chips and wine, where they went on singing Nevill’s catch-line: ‘Turn that effing water off, or put some cold in please!’

  What made him shout those words he didn’t know, but the captain marked him for his sergeant’s stripe, seeing a priceless NCO who could control his men by firmness – and displays of wit, however crude. Apart from which, there was no better off-hand shot in the battalion, though as a sergeant his sniping days were over.

  After a hard week’s training for ‘the battalion in attack’ they went back to the line with buckles, boots and buttons shining. The noise of guns took up every square inch of air around the face, kept a trembling under the feet for days. They said the gunfire brought rain. Cordite gathered full-bellied clouds that emptied on trenches to make all lives a misery. At the best of times a trench was muddy. The common enemy was rain, and the guns that shook soil down.

  The few shells from the other side blew the earth walls in, no matter how well-revetted. When Nevill was buried he thought the hangman had come and gone already. He smelled quick-lime. In his tomb, yet knowing where he was, made him wonder if the man had been alive when he had buried him in Robins Wood. But he hadn’t gone back till next day and he’d been dead by then right enough.

  Nevill was earthed-in with bullet pouches, water bottle and rifle. In other words – as Private Clifford said, who found him more alive than two others whose names he couldn’t remember as soon as they were dead – he was buried with full military honours, and you couldn’t want more than that, now could you, sarge?

  The pattacake soil-smell was everywhere, and the only thing that saved Nevill was his tin hat which, being strapped firmly on, had enough all-round rim to trap sufficient air for him to breathe till he was pulled free.

  Every fibre of skin bone and gristle vibrated to the pounding. Could anything live under it? He drew himself into his private world and remembered how Amy had answered that she had nothing to forgive him for. She was never to realize he’d known about her love affair, though no doubt she wondered still where the chap had hopped it to. Maybe to the Western Front, like the rest of us. And if he hadn’t sent a letter, what was funny in that? Nevill felt almost sorry she’d been ditched by two instead of one, though perhaps it wasn’t all that rare when so many men had gone away at once.

  Yet he needn’t have worried about her wellbeing, for she sent him a parcel of tinned jam and biscuits and salmon, and a note saying she was working at Chilwell Depot till as close as she could get to her confinement which, he surmised, couldn’t by any stretch of counted minutes be his kid. By earning her own money she could do as she liked, and in any case he had bigger things on his plate than to care what she got up to. ‘I expect my missis is having a little bit on the side while I’m away,’ he heard Private Jackson say. ‘Suppose I would if I was her, damn her eyes!’

  Being in a webbing harness of cross-straps and belt, with all appurtenances hanging therefrom, made him feel he no longer belonged to himself, since a devil’s hook in any part of his garb would swing him from here to eternity without a by-your-leave. He had a date with some kind of hangman and that was a fact. The unavoidable settled his gloom, and was only lifted when his duties as platoon sergeant made him forget.

  Under the hangings of equipment he was almost skeletal. The other sergeants – when he shared Amy’s food parcel – chaffed that a bullet wouldn’t find him. But he ate like a wolf, and no flesh grew. He worried, they said. He worked too hard. He was never still. You needn’t let a third stripe kill you. The men didn’t like him, yet under his eternal fussing felt that he would never let them down.

  Drumfire crumbled the walls between compartments of the minutes. A shake entered his limbs that he had seen in others, and which he thought would never afflict him. As a sniper he had gone over after the first rush of infantry, but now there would be no distinction. He’d be in the open without his hideaway. It wasn’t the first time, but they’d been trench raids, and not the big attack. He held his hand down, and counted till the trembling stopped.

  The guns were finishing off every living thing, and all they had to do was walk across on the day and take over what was left. ‘Only, don’t scratch your lily-white ankles on the rusty barbed wire, lads. And don’t fall into an ’orrible shell-hole. And if you see a hot shell sizzling towards you, just push it to one side with your little finger and tell it to piss off’ – he’d heard Robinson diverting his mates the other day. Nobody else thought it would be a walkover, though he supposed a few of the brass hats hoped against hope.

  He walked along the trench, lifting his boots through the foot-depth of mud.

  ‘Had yer rum?’

  They read his lips in the noise. ‘Yes, sergeant.’

  ‘Had yer rum, then?’

  ‘I’m tiddly already, sarge!’

  ‘Answer properly when yer’re spoken to.’

  There was no doubt about the next one: ‘Had yer rum?’

  ‘Yes, sergeant.’

  ‘Wake up then, or you’ll be on a charge.’

  ‘Bollocks.’

  He swung back. ‘If yo’ don’t have less chelp, Clifford, I’ll put yer bollocks where yer fucking ’ead should be.’

  The man laughed. ‘Sorry, sergeant.’

  Live and let live. He moved on. ‘Had yer rum?’

  ‘It makes me sleepy, sergeant.’

  ‘You’ll wake up in a bit, never bloody fear. Had yer rum?’ – and on till he had made sure of everyone.

  He stood by a ladder and drank his own, except for a drop in the bottom which he threw into the mud for luck. They called it the velvet claw because it warmed yet ripped your guts. Some couldn’t take it, but those who could always drank any that went buckshee.

  He saw that the stars had turned pale. The guns made a noise that two years ago would have torn him apart had it been sprung on him. He pressed his feet together so that his knees wouldn’t dance. There’d never been such a week of it. Every minute was hard to drag out. Darkness was full of soil and flashes. The counting melted on his tongue. For a moment he closed his eyes against the roaring light, then snapped them open.

  One dread stamped on another. Explosions from guns and Stokes mortars dul
led the feel of a greased rope at the neck. His cheeks shook from the blast of a near-miss. With bayonet fixed and day fully light the only way out was over the bags and at the Gerries. The shuddering of his insides threatened to send him into a standing sleep, so he moved up and down the trench to cut himself free of it – and to check every man’s equipment. Nothing bore thinking about any more. Under the feet and through the mud a tremor which rocked his temples was connected to a roar in the sky travelling from the south. Another explosion came, and more until the final whistles began. They were letting off the mines before Zero.

  Faces to either side were dull and shocked. One or two smiled stupidly. A youth muttered his prayers (or maybe they were curses) and Nevill knew that if he stopped he wouldn’t be able to stand up. They were trapped, no matter what they had done. The straight and cobblestoned gas-lit streets of Radford replaced everything with carbide-light clarity. It was a last comforting feel of home, and when it vanished the trap was so final that it seemed impossible ever to get out, though he never lost hope.

  Some leaned, or tried to fold themselves, wanting soil for safety. One man was eating it, but blood and flesh and scraps of khaki were up the side of the trench, and his arm was gone. Nevill shouted at them to stand up. He was thrown to one side as pebbles and slabs of chalk spattered his helmet, but he still called hoarsely at them to stand up to it. Screams came from the next bay, and another call for stretcher bearers. Lieutenant Ball examined his luminous watch, and Nevill wondered how much longer they’d be.

  Over the parapet he saw flashes in the smoke and mist, an uneven row of bursts where trenches should have been. His watch said seven twenty-five. Amy’s letters showed more tenderness than either had felt when they were together. There was more than there would ever be for him should he get back, because it wasn’t his baby she was carrying. He won his struggle against her memory by counting each blank minute, knowing there weren’t many left before they ascended the swaying ladders.

  It was a hard pat on the shoulder that made him turn:

  ‘Yes, sir?’

  A company runner stood by. The pale-faced lieutenant of nineteen looked forlorn under his helmet, but regained sufficient competence to tell him: ‘You’re to go back to Battalion Headquarters, Sergeant Nevill.’

  ‘Now, sir?’

  Lieutenant Ball smiled, as if to indicate that such a lunatic signal had nothing to do with him. ‘Seems so. You’re to go out of the line.’

  Nevill gripped his rifle, a vision of himself raising it to the ‘on guard’ position and bayoneting his officer. The horror of it broke his habit of obedience.

  ‘What for, sir?’

  The barrage would lift any second. Lieutenant Ball looked at his watch again, and didn’t turn from it till the guns stopped. ‘How do I know?’

  The hangman would be there, for sure. ‘Let me go over, sir. I’ve waited a long while to have a proper go at them. I can see what they want at Brigade as soon as I come back this afternoon.’

  Nevill had fathered the platoon, so it would be vile not to let him take part in the big attack. Silence was filled by the noise of the birds. They were always busy, even when the guns were at it. He stuffed the message into his pocket and said:

  ‘See that you do.’

  ‘Thank you, sir.’

  Whistles cut along the crowded slit in the earth, and Nevill shouted them into the open.

  Full daylight met them as soon as they were up the ladders. Many clawed their way by planks or soil to gain freedom from the stink, shadows and uncertainty of the trench. Men on either side were falling under loads they could hardly support. Highstepping through their own wire, they went on under the mist as if that too weighed more than they could carry.

  Shells of shrapnel balls exploded above their heads. They stopped silently, or rolled against the soil as if thrown by an invisible hand. Or they were hidden in a wreath of smoke and never seen again. The wire was like a wall. The guns had cut only one gap so they were like a football crowd trying to get off the field through a narrow gate on which machine guns were trained.

  He sang to himself, wanting to get on. The men walked slowly because they couldn’t go back. The biggest paper bags in the world were bursting above their heads. Minutes were unimportant. Every second was a king. He had to see his men through the wire. Lieutenant Ball disappeared as if he’d never existed. When they lagged, Nevill cursed from behind. He wanted to run but didn’t know whether front or back would be any good so got ahead to coax them through bullets and shrapnel:

  ‘Come on, move. Keep your dressing there. Keep your dressing. Keep moving, lads.’

  They couldn’t hear, but read his lips if they saw them, and came on, as if they too had been counting the minutes, and were terrified of some hangman or other. He wanted them to know that safety lay in doing as they were told and in getting forward. A few of his platoon were in advance of the company. He didn’t know where the others had gone. While still in the German wire more shellbursts caught them. He was anxiously looking for a way through. You couldn’t hear the birds any more. Machine guns never stop.

  He knelt and fired towards the parapet, loading and reloading till he felt a bang at his helmet, and was pulled as if he were a piece of rope in a tug-o’-war. If it went on he would snap. In the darkness someone screamed in one ear when he was drawn icily apart, and he wondered why there was no light, thinking maybe they were going to bury him in Robins Wood, except that he was in France near a stink-hole called Fonky-bleeding-Villas.

  He didn’t know who was trying to yank him clear, but there was a smell of steel that burned so fiercely it turned blue. He rolled over and over. He opened his eyes, and took off his waterbottle to drink. The shrapnel had stunned him but he was unhurt except for a graze on the scalp.

  The man by his side said: ‘Not too much, sergeant. We’ll need it for later.’

  The stream in Robins Wood ran through his mouth. He counted the minutes to stop himself drinking to the bottom. ‘Who are yer, anyway?’

  ‘I’m Jack Clifford, sergeant. You know me!’

  ‘I was bleddy stunned.’ He looked around. ‘Where’s your rifle?’

  ‘I lost it, sergeant. I don’t know.’

  ‘Oh, did yer? You’ll be bleddy for-it, then.’

  He began to cry.

  ‘Where are yer from?’

  ‘Salisbury Street, sergeant.’

  ‘Got any Mills bombs?’

  They were too far off to be any use, but he had.

  Pulling off his burden of equipment, and without his helmet, Nevill edged to the rim of the crater. A leg with a boot on it hung over the other lip. He beckoned Clifford to follow, but indicated not too quickly. After a full minute, raising his head, and positioning himself, he fired a whole clip at men on the German parapet. Clifford got higher and threw a grenade, shouting: ‘Split this between yer!’

  Machine gun bullets swept across. Clifford screamed and rolled back.

  Something had struck Nevill’s shoulder, and his arm felt as if gripped by an agonizing cramp, but with shaking hand he bound both field dressings across Clifford’s white and splintered ribs: ‘That’ll see yer right till we get back. The fuckers are picking us off like rabbits. We don’t stand a chance, so we’d better stay where we are.’

  ‘The red caps’ll ’ave me. I’ve lost me rifle,’ Clifford said.

  Nevill wanted to tell him that it didn’t look as if anybody would have him any more, though you couldn’t say as much to a young lad. ‘Them boggers wain’t come for you,’ he comforted him. ‘It’s me they’re after. They sent a signal for me.’

  ‘They don’t come over the top,’ Clifford said, ‘do they?’ He tried to spit, then seemed to think that if he did he’d die. ‘Not them, they don’t. If the Gerries didn’t shoot ’em, we would, wouldn’t we, sergeant?’

  ‘Happen we might. Just keep still, and don’t worry.’

  Blood was pumping like a spring in autumn, but he knew no tourniquet would hold it.
Let me tell you summat,’ Nevill said, thinking to take his mind off it.

  Clifford tried to laugh. ‘What, me owd cock?’

  ‘In September, I murdered somebody. Lay still, I said, and don’t talk.’

  His white face grimaced in agony. ‘You’re having me on?’

  ‘Before I enlisted, I mean.’

  ‘Got to save our strength. The Gerries’ll get us.’

  Nevill fought to stop himself fainting. ‘No time. I’ll tell you about it if you’ll listen.’ He looked around as if someone else might hear, then pulled Clifford towards him with a desperate grip, shouting into his ear when shells exploded close, and telling his story so that Clifford, behind eyes that stared wildly one minute and were closed the next, couldn’t doubt his confession.

  A greater truth was choking him, but he forgot to be afraid of machine guns and searching shrapnel while Nevill spoke his deadly tale in which he embroidered the homely Nottingham names to divert Clifford from the agony that would not let him live. He brought in the sound of Woodhouse and Radford, Robins Wood and Wollaton, Lenton and the Cherry Orchard and all the streets he could think of, as many times as possible to divert him and make his account so real that even a dying man would see its truth – though hoping by a miracle the talismanic words would save his life.

  ‘It’s on’y one you killed, sarge,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t much matter.’

  After dark Nevill dragged him a few feet at a time. ‘Find somebody else,’ Clifford said. ‘I’m finished. I’ll never be old.’

  Nevill had to get someone back to safety. ‘Don’t talk so bleddy daft.’

  He carried him a yard or two, thinking that as long as he hung on to him he need never consider the hangman again. He sweated grit and spat blood and pissed sulphur – as the saying went – and knew he was always close to conking out.

  ‘Why are we in a tunnel, sergeant?’ Clifford’s eyes filled with soil and tears. ‘Yer off yer sodding nut. Yer pulling your guts out for nowt.’

  Occasional rifle shots sounded, but the machine guns and artillery had ceased. ‘They’ll hang me,’ he said. ‘Shut up.’

 
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