Fly away peter, p.9
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       Fly Away Peter, p.9

           David Malouf
 
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  15

  THE MEN, HAVING stacked their rifles in neat piles and removed their packs, were taking their rest beside the road or had staggered off to where yellow flags marked the newly-dug latrines.

  It was all so orderly and followed so carefully what was laid down in the book that it was difficult to believe, till you saw the racked and weary faces of the men, or observed the pain with which they lowered themselves to the earth, that they had already marched twelve miles this morning and were at the end of their endurance; or till you saw the terrible traffic that was moving in the opposite direction – sleep-walking battle survivors, walking wounded, men hideously mutilated and bloody, in lorries, wagons, handcarts – that there was a battle raging up ahead and that these men were making towards it with all possible speed; that is, at the precise rate, three miles an hour, with ten minutes rest for every fifty moving, that was laid down for the exercise in the army manual. Ashley Crowther knew these things because he was an officer and it was his business to know. He looked and marvelled. First at the men’s power to endure, then at the army’s deep and awful wisdom in these matters: the logistics of battle and the precise breaking point of men.

  The traffic moved in a long cloud. Brakes crashed, horsechains clattered, men in the death wagons groaned or screamed as the rigid wheels bumped over ruts. Officers shouted orders. His own men simply lay scattered about in the dusty grass at the side of the road; prone, sprawled, dead beat. Very nearly dead.

  A little way back they had passed the ruins of a village and he had been surprised to see that there were still peasants about. He saw a boy of nine or ten, very pale with red hands, who milked a cow, resting his cropped head against the animal’s sunken ribs as he pulled and pulled. Ashley had looked back over his shoulder at the scene, but the boy, who was used to this traffic, as was the cow, had not looked up.

  Later, on the outskirts of another group of blasted farms, he saw a man mending a hoe. He had cut a new handle and was carefully shaping it with a knife, bent over his simple task and utterly absorbed, as if the road before him were empty and the sky overhead were also empty, not dense with smoky thunder or enlivened at odd, dangerous moments with wings. Did the man believe the coming battle was the end and that he might soon have need of the hoe?

  That had been at their last resting-place; and Ashley, while he lay and smoked, had watched the man shape and test the handle, peeling off thin slivers and rubbing his broad thumb along the grain. He was still at it, minutes later, when they moved on.

  There were so many worlds. They were all continuous with one another and went on simultaneously: that man’s world, intent on his ancient business with the hoe; his own world, committed to bringing these men up to a battle; their worlds, each one, about which he could only guess.

  They were resting now, given over as deeply and as quickly as possible to sleep. In three more minutes they would be lumbering out to take their places on the road. By morning –.

  A few miles away, behind concrete emplacements, the machine guns were already set up waiting. The deadly sewing-machines were stitching their shrouds.

  He was profoundly weary of all this. Once or twice during his years at Cambridge he had spent a hunting weekend at Gem Oliver’s place in Shropshire. They had sat in bunkers in the woods while beaters drove the small game towards them, and fired and fired, watching the creatures spring up and turn somersaults in the air or roll away twitching. It was like that out here. The men, scarcely believing they could be walking upright at last, and in daylight, in a place where they had always gone on their bellies by night, would move in ragged lines towards the guns, and in a flickered chattering dream, as the bullets whipped the air all about them or following their own trajectory, passed magically through, would, after seconds some, and minutes others, go down in waves under the whistling blades and lie randomly about, as they did now in the relative quiet of the grass.

  Ashley blew his whistle. Slowly, as in a dream, the men rose and stumbled into the road.

  He was surprised as always, as they came to attention, to find that they harboured within them, these peaceable farmers, cattlemen, clerks, plumbers, pastry-cooks, ice-men, shop-assistants, and those who had never done more than hang about billiard parlours or carry tips to race-courses, or sport flash clothes in city pushes, the soldier – hard, reliable, efficient – they could so smartly become. The transformation was remarkable.

  It wasn’t simply the uniform, though that was the mark of it; or the creation through drilling of a general man from whom all private and personal qualities had been removed. The civilian in these men survived. You saw it in the way a man wore his hat, or in the bit of cloth he chose – an old shirt-tail or singlet, a roll of flannel, a sock – to protect the bolt of his rifle. You heard it in the individual tilt of his voice through even the most conventional order or response. It was the guarantee that they would, one day, cease to be soldiers and go back to being school-teachers, mechanics, factory-hands, race-course touts.

  It had happened to him as well. He had quite unexpectedly discovered in himself, lurking there under the floral waistcoat and his grandfather’s watch-chain, the lineaments of an officer. He was calm, he kept his head; he kept an eye out for his men; they trusted him. He was also extraordinarily lucky, and being lucky had seen many men over these months, whose luck wasn’t as good as his own, go down. This new lot – who started out now as he gave the signal and the line began to move – they too would go down. They were ‘troops’ who were about to be ‘thrown in’, ‘men’ in some general’s larger plan, ‘re-enforcements’, and would soon be ‘casualties’. They were also Spud, Snow, Skeeter, Blue, Tommo. Even he had a nickname. It had emerged to surprise him with its correspondence to something deep within that he hadn’t known was there till some wit, endowed with native cheek and a rare folk wisdom, had offered it to him as a gift. He was grateful. It was like a new identity. The war had remade him as it had remade these others. Not forever, but in a way he would never entirely outgrow.

  Ashley, whose mind was of the generalizing sort, had seen quite clearly from the beginning that what was in process here was the emergence of a new set of conditions. Nothing after this would ever be the same. War was being developed as a branch of industry. Later, what had been learned on the battlefield would travel back, and industry from now on, maybe all life, would be organised like war. The coming battle would not be the end, even if it was decisive; it was another stage in the process.

  It seemed more important than ever now to hang on to the names, the nicknames, including his own, and if his luck held, to go back. And having learned at last what the terms were – and in expiation of the blood that was on his hands – to resist.

  16

  JIM LEANED, HALF-SITTING, half-lying, against the wall of the ditch, glad to feel the earth against his cheek, and also his shoulder, as he waited rifle in hand for the whistle that would take them in.

  They had come up in the dark following a white tape, and stakes, also white, that had been driven into the ground but washed out overnight by a storm. After weeks of hot dusty weather the rains had come and the earth was sodden and astream. Just an hour ago there had been a bombardment. So many men were killed in the rear line that the companies being held there had been brought up with the rest, and they were all packed now into the same narrow space, a terrible press of men, stunned, anxious, elated, solemnly waiting.

  Jim looked down the line of men who half-stood, half-sprawled against the opposite wall. It was like seeing his own group repeated in a glass, or like looking at the wall itself, since the men, their uniforms all caked in mud, seemed little more in the dim light than another wall built up out of faces with deep ruts in them and rocklike, stubbled jaws, skin greasily shining where it was drawn over the skullbones, knuckles grained with dirt, coarse-grained necks above collars grimed at the edge, the cloth of the uniforms also coarse, and like the faces all of one colour, the earth-colour that allows a man to disappear un-noticed
into the landscape, or to pass through, hunched shoulders, flexed knee and elbow, into a wall.

  But the wall was in motion, even in its stillness. The bodies were not all here. His own wasn’t. Some of them were in the past and in another country; others might already have leapt the next few minutes into the future, and were out in the firestorm, or had got beyond even that to some calm green day on the other side of it. Those who were stolidly here in the present had gone deep inside themselves and were coming to terms with the blood as it rolled round and round from skull to foot, still miraculously flowing in its old course; or with that coldness in the pit of the stomach that no rum could touch; or that shrinking in the groin as belts were tightened, that withdrawal of their own most private parts, that said: No further, the line ends here. They were communing with themselves in words out of old nursery prayers, naming the names of those they had been instructed to pray for, the loved-ones; they were coaxing themselves, cheering themselves up, using always their own names, but as they had heard it when they were so young that it still seemed new and un-repeatable; holding at bay on their breath that other form of words, the anti-breath of a backward-spelled charm, the no-name of extinction, that if allowed to take real shape there might make its way deep into the muscles or find a lurking place in the darkest cells. No, I am not going to die.

  One fellow, with calm grey eyes and a thin mouth, was smoking. Pale clouds drifted before him, greyer than his face, and his eyes were like flints in a wall. He cupped his hand and drew again on the cloud-machine. Another long drift, smoky-grey. And behind it the hand that was square and solid earth.

  I am getting too far ahead, Jim thought. That is for later. I should get back to where I am.

  None of this came to him as so many words. He perceived it or it unfolded in him. What he saw in clear fact was a line of children, sleepily and soberly intent, who waited with their knees drawn up for a journey to resume after a minor halt. He thought that because the place where they were waiting had been a station on the line from Menin to Ypres. Children might once have waited here on slow trips to the city. He closed his eyes and could have slept.

  He felt out of himself.

  It wasn’t the rum; there wasn’t enough of it for that – one mouthful, warm as blood. He had felt this way before with odd parts of his body. His feet, for example. In the intense cold of the winter they had sometimes seemed a thousand miles off, ten thousand even, and quite beyond reach. He had thought of them as having got sick of all this, as having made their way home without him, and had imagined them leaving their bare prints on sand, among gull-feathers, cuttle-shells and the three-toed scratch marks of oystercatchers beside the surf.

  This was different. It was the whole of him.

  He was perfectly awake and clear-headed, aware of the rough cloth of his uniform, the weight of his pack, the sweat and stink of himself that was partly fear; but at the same time, even as he heard the whistle and rose to scramble over the lip of the ditch, taking the full weight of pack, rifle, uniform, boots, and moved on into the medley of sound, he was out of himself and floating, seeing the scene from high up as it might look from Bert’s bi-plane, remote and silent. Perhaps he had, in some part of himself, taken on the nature of a bird; though it was with a human eye that he saw, and his body, still entirely his own, was lumbering along below, clearly perceptible as it leapt over potholes and stumbled past clods, in a breathless dream of black hail striking all about him and bodies springing backward or falling slowly from his side. There were no changes. But he moved in one place and saw things from another, and saw too, from up there, in a grand sweep, the whole landscape through which he was moving: the irregular lines of trenches that made no sense at ground level, the one he had left and the one, all staggered pill-boxes, that they were making for, where the machine guns were set that spilled out lines of fire and chop-chopped at the air. The land between, over which they were running, was all flooded ruts and holes, smashed branches, piles of shattered cement. But from high up, with all its irregularities ironed out, it might appear as a stretch of quite ordinary country, green in spots and sodden with rain, over which small creatures were incomprehensibly running and falling, a bunched and solid mass that began to break up and develop spaces like a thinning cloud.

  He saw it all, and himself a distant, slow-moving figure within it: the long view of all their lives, including his own – all those who were running, half-crouched, towards the guns, and the men who were firing them; those who had fallen and were noisily dying; the new and the old dead; his own life neither more nor less important than the rest, even in his own vision of the thing, but unique because it was his head that contained it and in his view that all these balanced lives for a moment existed: the men going about their strange business of killing and being killed, but also the rats, the woodlice under logs, a snail that might be climbing up a stalk, quite deaf to the sounds of battle, an odd bird or two, like the couple of wheatears he had seen once in a field much like this, the male with his grey back and crown, the female brownish, who had spent a whole morning darting about on the open ground while he lay with a pair of borrowed field-glasses screwed into his head and lost himself in their little lives, in their ordinary domestic arrangements, as now, stumbling forward, he was, in a different way, lost in his own.

  He continued to run. Astonished that he could hold all this in his head at the same time and how the map he carried there had so immensely expanded.

  17

  SUDDENLY, AS IT seemed, though several minutes must have passed, he found himself on the ground looking up at blue sky in which clouds moved so slowly that he blinked and then blinked again before he could be certain that they were not altogether stopped.

  He drifted with them. He watched them tease out, sending long fingers into the blue, till the fingers, growing longer and thinner, dissolved and became part of whatever it was they were pointing to.

  He blinked again. The sky had moved on.

  Great continents now gave birth to islands in some longer process of time than he had been conscious of till now, and the islands too dissolved, like a pill developing fuzzy edges in a glass of water, then diminishing, diminishing. Soon they too had gone. Centuries it must have taken. When he blinked again it was quite a different day or year, or centuries had passed, he couldn’t tell which. But he was aware now of the earth he was lying on. It was rolling.

  He tried to push himself up on to one elbow so that he could look about and see where he was. He was conscious of pain, far off over one of the horizons, but couldn’t raise himself far enough to locate it. One of the horizons was his own chest. Beyond it a wan light flapped, as if a wounded bird threw faint colours from its wings as its blood beat feebly into the earth. There was nothing he could do about it.

  Jim turned his head. Other figures were laid about on all sides of him, some of them groaning, others terribly stilled. He knew he should try to mark his position for the stretcher-bearers, and reached for his rifle which was away to the left; he tried, stretching his fingers, and in a slow access of pain he remembered fingers that had pointed and dissolved, and gazing out over the horizon of his shoulder at his own outstretched fingers, that were still inches from where the rifle lay, saw them too dissolve slowly into the earth, and closed his eyes and let them go. He felt the whole process, a coarsening of the grains out of which his flesh was composed, and their gradual loosening and falling away, as first his hand dissolved, then his arm, then his shoulder. If things went on like this there would be nothing left of him for the bearers to find.

  He thought of the emergency field-dressing in the right flap of his tunic. If he worked quickly with his left hand, pulled the tabs and located the little white bag (he had been over all this a hundred times in imagination) he might be able to stop the process of his dissolving, but he would have first to find the place where it had started, the wound; and there was, strangely, not enough pain to give him a clue to where he was hit. His head? His stomach? He thought of t
he yards of white bandage – two and a half to be precise – and as before, imagined himself wrapping it round his head. He wrapped and wrapped, the bandage seemed endless. There were thirteen thousand miles of it. It would stretch halfway round the world. To the Coast. To home. He began rolling it, slowly, carefully, in his mind, but before he had gone more than a few inches a feeling of drowsiness crept over him, a slow shadow as of the night, blurring the shape of things. It came over the edge of his body, moved into its hollows, muffled him in silence. He yielded himself up to it.

  When he blinked again he was no longer under the sky. There was canvas overhead, and big shadows were moving across it, cast up by an acetylene flare. He was at ground level, far below, and through the open tent-flap came a cooling breeze.

  It was crowded in here. But oddly silent. Other fellows, maimed and crudely bandaged, each with a white label tied to a button of his tunic, lay about on all sides, or sat up smoking, very pale and still, leaning together in groups. They had an air of eternal patience, these men; of having given themselves up utterly to a process of slow dissolution like the one he had observed in the sky and felt in his own body. Their eyes had the dumb, apologetic look he had seen in the eyes of horses who had fallen by the roadside and were waiting, without protest, to be shot. Their stillness, their docility, their denseness of flesh and rag and metal, made a sharp contrast with the shadows that moved about the walls of the tent and arched across the roof above them. They swooped and were gigantic. It was on them that the others, patiently, waited: to be touched and attended, to be raised.

 
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