THE OFFICER’S SON by CATRYN POWER. Short-listed in the FISH INTERNATIONAL short story competition. PUBLISHED IN 2015.

THE OFFICER’S SON

My coat was sodden and caked in wet mud, making movement impossible, due to the extra weight, as well as all of the bloody equipment, that I was stuck with. My chest was sore from coughing. It was dark. I wasn’t sure if Jack was asleep or if he had moved down the trench. He was the first to catch this cough. He was probably exhausted from barking.  I would have to be extra alert to cover Jack, and let him rest. It was quiet for the past three hours.  The deafening explosive noise had abated. It was eerily quiet. I could hear better without that barking cough.  It had been a week of gales and torrential rain, along with constant massive barrage from the Germans. Utter carnage! Unimaginable waste of life. In my worst nightmares I could not have thought of such hell. It had taken several days to collect the wounded. One chap, John, was seriously wounded in the leg, blood flowing quickly, that he should have died. The weight of his dying fellow soldiers, lying on top of him, prevented him from bleeding to death. He was brought to the end of the line, where he would be sent home. One older man, called Tommy, asked one of us to shoot him in the leg so that he could be taken away, anywhere but here. He was demented. No one granted his wish.  When shrapnel, struck him during another bombardment, he winked at us, when he was being carried off on a stretcher. He was almost laughing. We were waiting for reinforcements for several days. There must have been sixteen of the lads from here who were hit by shrapnel. Nine had died.

It would be great to be in Mack’s snug, with my pipe lighting and a drop of Irish. The thought made me feel warm and my throat and the hand which was holding the glass, and the other holding the bowl of my pipe. Only for a second. Back to earth, or a quagmire of chilled muck! On the ground above a pack horse’s decaying carcass was still reeking six weeks later. He had got stuck in the mud. I had heard him whinnying for a short time, after lots of ‘fecking and blinding’ from someone called Tom. He must have given the beast a blow to shut him up, and that’s when the creature stumbled on the ground above, as he was pulled down by a load of trench boots, which he carried. Then another blow.

Tonight was dry, freezing cold and black. Only an odd flicker of light from distant fire, or flares.  My feet were so cold. They stood in the muddy swill of water. Would we ever get relief? What was Mam doing now? Thinking of me and Jerry, praying for news of us. She would be asking if I were wearing those socks she knitted.   Not sure if she got the letter that I sent after Christmas.  I told her that we were doing well, and that we’d have those Krauts stamped out in a few weeks. The weeks had crept by, ever so slowly, so exhausting, and now it was three months later. Ever so boring, with this week being exceptionally, endlessly quiet. Something was amiss. Some shift was in place. We could only wait to be told, if indeed we were.  I never told Mam that I hadn’t seen Jerry for months.

 I did tell her that on Christmas Day the Germans were so close to us that we waved at one another, and then one of them came out with a cigar. Crazily a few of us joined him and another half a dozen Germans, for a few minutes, with their cigars and our stale bread and jam. Hadn’t a clue what they were saying, except Jack, who spoke to them in the few words that he had. They were just like us, pleasant, eager to stay alive and get this war over with, looking for a break from all this waste, this stinking place, all of it……We will pay hell for that fraternisation, that moment of frailty; the Commander in Chief indicated when he heard of it. We were paying hell anyway.

It was Pa’s anniversary. Mam would want us there to visit the grave with her. One of her sisters would be with her, Johanna May, or Mary Ellen. They were lucky, Mam said, about her sisters; they had no boys, only girls, and six each. They were lucky, their girls could stay home, while her two boys were away, her only children. ‘Fodder for the leaders’ of the world, some of them on ego trips of power, not a thing could the poor miserable people do about it’, Mam would say.

My thoughts were shattered when I heard a splutter and a sucking noise. I dared not move, for what seemed ages. I could hear two of the lads at the far end of the trench whispering, and then quietness. The sucking noise again and a splosh, several yards away. I didn’t move for another while. Then I whispered, ‘Jack, is that you?’ No reply. It was so dark and shadowless in that end of the trench, it was pitch black. The noise was made by someone, a person, but no voice.  My feet by now were almost numb as I hadn’t even wiggled my toes for over an hour. The freezing water was still swilling in over my boots. I could only stay motionless for a short time more. Soon I wouldn’t be able to move my feet at all.

Jack O’Grady had not returned. A bluish light appeared above the top of the trench, with green highlights. A matronly woman appeared through the light. I thought it strange that she would be here by herself, and not a bit of stress on her, in fact a clean, pressed grey uniform on her, with glinting white shirt collar and cuffs, very clear and in fact dazzling, in that bright light. Some fancy torch! A nurse, but not one of ours, a German nurse. What was she up to? I whispered furiously to her to get out of sight. She kept staring at me. She nodded. She did not move. I picked up some mud and threw it at her feet. My God, she vanished so quickly I didn’t even see her move. What was she doing on this ‘No Man’s Land’? She can’t be lost, unless she was deranged from shell-shock; hardly looking after the wounded, since the injured had been transferred to the village. Not a sound. Where the hell was Jack?

That daft nurse appeared further away. She seemed to be washing some cloths in a pool of water, on the ground above. The water was red. Her head had a long gash above her right eye. It was her own blood which was coming from the wound. The injury was bad. Blood was splashed on her white and grey cape. She turned, smiling faintly. Her stiff matronly face seemed warm and kind. I beckoned her to get out of her. She stared at me. Not a movement.  Then I whispered Jack’s name. I heard a splosh, probably mud falling from the top of the trench, where that bothered woman was. When I looked she was gone again.

There was a piercing sound like a siren. It went right through my ears. I couldn’t put up with that noise for very long. I could do with a kip, not a minute snatched since early morning. I was weary. I did need some relief. This hell hole was driving me nuts. Maybe I will injure my leg to get away. I definitely must be daft even to think of that. I wish Jack was back. I had better move from my sentry. Slowly I wiggled my toes, and inched my way along, in the dark side of the trench. I was about thirty feet along, having slithered on a plank of wood, almost ending up in the muck, when there was an explosion behind me, just at my sentry point. The shattering earth blew out of the ground and all manner of objects and earth and I were thrown into a heap. I couldn’t move. My legs were wet and sticky.

That nurse appeared and bent over me, giving me water, and wiping my forehead with a cloth. She had dragged me from under a mound of broken wooden planks and earth. She remained silent. I couldn’t see her torch but it glowed that same blue colour which was visible earlier that evening. In spite of dizziness, I remembered her wound. I couldn’t see the gash on her head.  I could hear the sound of men coming in this direction. Three arrived and two of them put me on a make-shift stretcher, while the other looked around the trench, where I had been. I mumbled that they should help the woman. ‘A woman? You must have been having a great dream. Lucky you had left your sentry, lad, otherwise you should have been blown to smithereens. You are lucky! What made you move?’ as they moved along the trench. ‘The nurse’ I repeated. The pair of them shook their heads as they looked at one another.

 I woke in a make-shift tent, along with other men on stretchers which lay on a ground sheet. There must have been twenty stretchers, all waiting to be moved to the nearest village make-shift hospital. I was a casualty. Thankfully my legs were still with me but covered in bandages, hiding many wounds from the shrapnel fragments. I was in good order, I was told. Jack O’Grady lay on one of the stretchers. He had a huge gash over his right eye. He winked at me, in spite of his heavy breathing and that harsh cough. He gave me the thumbs up, ‘that was some powerful lass that pulled me out of the water, like a weight lifter, would have drowned in that filthy muck, only for her; couldn’t crawl any further up the trench, after breaking my leg.  ‘What a girl!’

I was shocked as the men who had carried me here, had persuaded me that there was no nurse in the trench where we were, before the explosion. After a few days, I was inclined to think that I had imagined her. Jack had seen her. I asked one of the two nurses if the German nurse was safe. The younger of the two, pointed out that they were the only nurses here, for miles, and that the trenches further up the line from our sentry, had been bombarded, leaving no survivors, no casualties, no nurse. The older woman, Maria, in broken English, whispered, ‘de apparition of the lady, she died from head injuries, when she tried to stop the army taking her thirteen-year old son’.  I asked ‘Was her son safe? What army?’  Maria replied ‘Thirty-forty years ago, by the Prussian army. She was the wife of a high ranking officer in the French army, whose house was looted, burned and their only son taken. The lady was inconsolable. She ran after the soldiers, attempting to stop them, but was badly injured by the butt of a gun.  She followed them’. I asked ‘What happened to her? ‘Her corpse was found on the narrow road, at the side of the meadow, where the modern trenches have been dug, just where you were found, after the explosion. Her corpse was found, soon after, by one of her servants’, Maria responded. ‘What about her son? Did she find him?’, queried one of the other casualties, who were listening.  Maria answered ‘Yes. She found him. She was cradling his body when her corpse was found. She had found him hanging from a tree, and cut him down. They both probably died together, in each other’s arms’.

@2014-2020 CATRYN POWER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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