I’m not one for Halloween: a tradition where the youth of society visit their neighbors with threats, coercion and menace. It’s like having the Mafia living next door to you, only they’re normal human beings who work as car mechanics and fill the supermarket shelves. Only now they’re in masks with skulls painted on them and they’re about to damage your property.
I prefer the Dutch tradition, and yes, there are things they get right! St Martin’s day is the 11th of November when your neighbours’ children parade around the village with lanterns, singing carols to us all. Which would you prefer? Being coerced into giving them treats, or thanking them with treats because they sung you a lovely carol?
This is my tale, written originally for the Creative Writers. It’s my way of getting back at the people who think it’s nice to have your neighbours’ children acting like the terrorists their government funds.
Warning: this is not for the faint hearted. I published something of this sort, albeit a factual piece, but did so on my private blog because of the content.
Note: if the following does not chill you to the bone, read it again because you missed the point.
Giving Him A Hand.
I love my wife, she’s an ordinary girl, but then, I’m an ordinary bloke. A barrelmaker in Blighty, a cooper. It’s an easy enough job when you’ve done your time, seven years of being kicked around by a half insane boss means be killed or become a cooper. You don’t know what they do to a cooper when he’s finished his apprenticeship? I’ll bet you don’t because it’s not nice. They get this barrel out, it’s specially made for the job, and they fill it with everything. You know, dead rats, a dead cat and lots of fluid and the rest of it. I’ll leave that to your imagination but you can imagine the smell.
Then you have to get in. The time served cooper apprentice gets in the barrel with all that… well, I can’t use the word in polite society. But in you get, up to your tummy in smelly stuff. Then they puts the lid on and you’re kicked down hill.
I’ve seen it done plenty a time. But being in there, it’s terrifying. It felt like a year that I was being turned and tumbled along with the rats and the rest. Spinning, dizzy and horribly dark. Then it stopped and I was upside down in the slop and too dizzy to move, leave alone think. They dragged me out and threw me in the Thames to rinse me off. That’s me as a cooper now, and they stood me as many pints as I could down.
And there’s enough money to marry my Madge. I didn’t listen to my father who said the woman should wear the ring. I wanted her to know my heart was hers, and wore one just like she did. Only, well, I didn’t always wear it because of my work. I put it on a silver necklace around my neck and I had it so long there’s a little channel worn in it from where the chain rubbed.
You’ll always know a cooper if you meet one, it’s the way they walk. I signed up for King and Country, brave and proud to serve for the things any sensible, honest Brit should believe in. Kitchener and all, only he got sunk in the North Sea or something like that. The first thing they did was put us all through training.
Only being skilled, I was a prize, you see. Then they took me to one side and the Rupert said to me that I should go to Aldershot because I was skilled and should be an engineer. I complained, saying that I was better off with my pals. They don’t listen to the likes of me, toffee nosed whatsits. I won’t use the word in public, there’s enough of that in the mess hall. Oh, you mean Rupert? That’s our word for a Subaltern, the lowliest class of officer, and they’re usually the most stuck up. They come from Eton, which is across the river from Windsor where I live.
Well, they dragged me off to Aldershot and made me learn tunneling and that kind of thing. How could they know I had a terror of being interred? It might have been the barrel, but I think there’s more to it than that, because I had nightmares when I was growing up. Knocking on the inside of a coffin and nobody being able to hear you? It’s all black and then you wakes up. But they don’t listen to the likes of us, orders is orders and I has to stand to attention and crawl down a hole that’s barely bigger than a coffin is wide.
Once you’re in the mine, it’s okay, there’s a big space all hollowed out. You’re twenty feet underground and I should have been terrified only when there’s some light and there’s your mates and all, it’s different. I mean, you can stand up, walk around, well, if you’ve got the energy left after all that digging and shoring up with pit props and goodness knows what else.
Only my necklace broke. I felt it go as I was taking a swing at a prop that was too tight, it’d been cut too long by a quarter of an inch. Easy enough to do, but it took me and a twenty pound sledge hammer to get it moving. Then there’s this tickling in my tummy and I knows my ring’s down there. It’s not the chats, I hopes they’re drowned in my sweat, not that there’s any less of ’em when I looks. But I has to stop, I can’t lose my ring, can I?
The sarge is bawling at me to get the job done and I’m so knackered, all I can do is bawl back at him. I told him to fuck off and I’d be back at it in a moment. So I unbuttons my tunic and shirt and catches my ring and puts the chain in my trouser pocket. I don’t know what happened to it coz I never saw it again. My ring’s on my finger though. It might get knocked about and scratched and all, but it’ll always stay there. And I gets back to swinging the hammer only for the bloody shells to start falling.
My muscles are aching like crazy and I’m leaning on the staff of my hammer; but the prop’s up there and it’s good and vertical like it should be if it’s going to take the weight of all the earth above our heads. There’s another almighty crash and even the tilly lamp starts swinging, the black shadows dancing wildly across the walls of our cave. It were loud enough that my ears are ringing.
These are our own shells that are falling on our heads, by the way. We’re under the German lines and they’re not supposed to shell the areas where we’re working but you know the high-ups, they can never put one and one together to make two. They always make eleven, you know, one and one side by side? They’re so toffee nosed they think they’re the best. Not that they care about the likes of us, there are always more where we come from.
Well, anyway, it’s stopped now and there’s no damage done. I’m dripping with sweat, though and I really would love a bath or a shower or just to have the chance to wash in anything save the muddy ponds in the shell craters behind our lines. My hair’s like a scrubbing brush.
It’s been eight hours down here, and I’m bursting. I don’t like going down here, there’s only a little pit in the corner that we dug and it’s not very private. Not that anything’s private around here, even topside it’s not private but if you waits for darkness to fall it’s a little better. I don’t like showing my bare bum to my mates, especially when you’re, well, you know.
Well, tomorrow we’ll start dragging the explosives down. We’ve got little wooden crates on wheels that just squeeze in the tunnel and we pull ’em with ropes. From both ends, you know. In and out, like. It’ll take us the best part of a week to fill this place up and it’ll make a good ol’ bang when it does. I saw it on a film when they blew on at the Somme last year, it were a bang. Mud all over the place but I didn’t see any Jerries go up with it. That’s the problem with bangs, if you get it in the wrong place it looks big enough but it don’t do nuffing.
What does do for me is the barrelling: getting out. You can imagine what would happen if a shell hit our communication tunnel, we’d be buried and there’d be no getting out. Who’d dig us out if we were under the no-man’s land? We’d be done for good and proper. So here we is, crawling along like caterpillars along a leaf and it’s all quiet. I mean, you don’t get much noise down here, there’s the odd crash of a shell exploding, but what really gets you is your own fears. Not that the Ruperts care about that, they just kick you in your bum for the fun of it. It don’t make us feel any better, but that’s what sent Stuart over the edge. He just ran around in the trench screaming and then he jumped up.
And that was it.
He dropped on the ground as if someone had cut his strings. Then he twitched his neck awkwardly and made a mew like a kitten and that was it. We all just stared at him, the blood flowing out of the inside of his helmet and his eyes all fixed and glazed and dead. One moment he was Stuart the next he was mad and the next he was dead. It didn’t take thirty seconds. It’s the suddenness that gets you. It’s the lottery that the bullet has your name on it, as they like to say. It ain’t anything more than chance, though, there’s no skill in a war like this. Barrel making it ain’t.
Most of the time they just never come back. Three of the platoon that’s stationed in our trench went out on a wire party a few nights back and they never came back. They might be in a shell crater and half starved, or drowned at the bottom of it. They might be in bits, scattered here, there and everywhere by a shell going off.
Or just shot by a sniper and lain there these last few days for the crows to peck at. But we shoots at them too. There were one bloke – Terry I think ‘is name was – no, Tom – wot got ‘eself caught on the wire and the Jerries took potshots at his head. An hour later there weren’t anything left of it. All gone. The rest of ‘im were still standing, mind you, slumped erect on the wire. Arms, legs, all limp and dragging the wire down with it. That were a few weeks ago now, and you’d not know it was him unless you’d seen it earlier. There’s all manner of rags hanging from the wire. Some were human, some just old sacks; the human ones is plumper, like. There was even a German flag what’d blown off from somewhere and got snagged.
It’s not as if I believes in ghosts, I’ve never seen one, and there’s plenty around here to test me.
Well we’re back topside and it’s dark enough for the dinner to be served. Bully beef and cold tea. Not that we ever have much appetite, even with all the work we does. It’s the smell. No, I’ve not mentioned it coz it’s everywhere. It’s a kind of months old toilet smell that sears the top of your nose and makes you feel dizzy, but you gets so used to it making your eyes water that they don’t any more.
And if there’s been any killing, there’s that smell too. Honey sweet, only the kind of honey sweetness that turns your stomach, like when Tom started to melt in streams of green stuff that oozed through his uniform and down his trouser legs. The smell, though, it’s like walking through an invisible soup. Someone told me that he reckoned what he could cut it with a knife, that if it were any thicker the bullets wouldn’t work any more.
They say you can hear the gunfire from London; you can smell the front from twenty miles.
Oh, that were Stuart. At least he got a decent burial, though. They sent Bert, Tom’s brother, and a few others to gather him up and give him a decent one too. What they could, like, it being a moonless overcast night and all. Bert came back and he was as white as a sheet. He’d got his brother in a sack, they’d taken hold of his arm to pull him away and it just fell away from his body and then the top bit fell in the mud at his feet.
But you sees it every day, it’s our normal. You know a bloke one day, you don’t make good friends wiv’ ‘im coz like he might be gone in the next half hour. Like Stuart was.
Then suddenly a shell crater opens around you and I can just see someone’s boot poking out of the side of it. Still attached to a leg, though. A muddy brown object is crouched on the ground in the foetal position, screaming for all he’s worth. Then he kicks his legs, stands up and still screaming, throws his helmet in the air. He’s run off down the trench, pulling off his jacket and still screaming. I can see his helmet fall in no-man’s land without making a sound. The snipers must be at dinner because they usually have a go at anything in the air.
I turn back to the hole, we’ll have to rebuild the trench, shore up the side again with planks where it’s been broken and back fill it with decent, dry earth. That’s the engineer in me, it’s part of the job.
I rush off to see Graves, our captain. It’s strange, he’s not like the slovenly subalterns who, for all their polished boots are somehow scruffy. Graves is as neat as a pin, clean shaven even at evening time and his clothes are immaculate. Either he gives his fag a hard time or he puts a lot into himself. Whatever, if there’s one man to inspire confidence it’s him. What’s more, he’s got two cousins in the German flying corps. But that’s the case for most of our officers, the university types at least. It makes you wonder why we’re fighting them if there’s so many that have uncles and aunts and cousins and whatnot fifteen yards away from us.
I goes into the dugout that officers have and his seat at the table’s vacant. Wilkins is though, but I don’t like him anywhere near as much. He’s sitting at their little table and drinking something alcoholic that looks like brandy and as usual isn’t taking any notice of an underling like me. Then Sid Porter and Tony Allen bustle in beside me and start shouting at him. That makes him shift himself out of his stupor, and we all leave to estimate the damage and see what we can do.
Rain’s just set in again, making the duckboards at the bottom of the trench all slippery. They’re all stumbling, but not me, I don’t know why. The rain’s dampened the stench, too; it’s now just a thick, mouldy smell that speaks of the years people have been here. Died here. It’s not strong enough to stop the rain from falling. Yet.
Back at the crater, the sky’s wider now and as grey as I’ve ever seen it. It’s pattering onto the sides of the crater and mud’s running down the side of it. I’m trying to help here, but nobody’s taking any notice of me. Not that they have to, but it would be courteous, wouldn’t it? Friendly.
They’re messing around with spades, only the mud at the bottom is sloppy so I go looking for a bucket that might help. Not that I can find one, so I return to find half a dozen of them trying to get the watery mud out with their bare hands. Wilkins is standing over them in his cape, the others are soaked through to the skin. You can see it by the way their hair’s all lank and wet and their garments are all heavy from being sodden. You get used to being rained on, when I was first here it rained steadily for a month and I got used to being clothed and chilled to the bone. Your oilcloth cape can only do so much when the only place to sit down is six inches deep in muddy water.
The tea comes along and they’re all holding out their mugs. It’s meanness itself that they don’t give me any, but that’s the army for you. I don’t know what I did wrong, but not giving me anything to eat is as wrong as any wrongdoing a private soldier can do. They’re all sitting down now with the rain falling into their tea mugs and making the bully beef tins slippery in their hands. Ian’s just cut his hand across from the ragged edge of the lid he’s just turned out and as he holds his hand out, his blood dripping into the mud beneath him. Wilkins disappears into the officers’ dugout and reappears a moment later with a bandage. He tears the waxed paper wrapping away and wraps the hand. There’s a big red blotch forming against the white of the bandage now, but if it’s caught this quickly they’ll stop it’ll heal.
Ian drinks the last of his tea and when the stretcher party arrives to take the remains back behind the lines, I wonder who they were. They’ll know at roll call this evening. What counts now is to get the place sorted out.
Without Ian, we’re even more short handed. Never mind, we’re here to get this place sorted out.
“Give me a hand,” shouts Terry, who is knee deep in the slosh at the bottom of the crater. Behind him, Sid Porter finds something grey with mud flecks on it and hands it to Terry.
Terry looks at the dismembered hand that still has a length of the arm attached.
“You wanted a hand,” says Sid Porter, “you’ve got one.”
The old jokes are the best, and they both laugh. I mean, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, right?
“Look ‘ere,” says Terry, “this one’s got a ring on its finger. Shouldn’t we send this back so that they can identify the remains?”
Wilkins turns to look, takes the floppy grey hand in his palm and peers at the ring. “That’s Adrian Bennett’s,” he says. “He was a cooper, you know, men what makes barrels. Down the tunnel he was.”
I wondered where I’d seen that ring before…
That was the story. This is the reality. It was a foggy morning and I was driving at my usual 50mph across the eternity that is the plain of the Pas de Calais. Then, as the fog cleared a little, loomed a monstrous grey tower, on which it declared itself to be a memorial to the Canadian troops who fell at Vimy Ridge. A sadness entered my heart only it was more than just sadness, it was grey, mournful and as empty as any feeling I have ever had before or since.
And then I looked to my right, and there, as if they were part of the mournful fog itself were the ghosts. Actually, they did look like the traditional bed-sheet drifting with the breeze. When anybody asks me if I have seen a ghost, I can honestly say that I have seen thousands. I don’t know if they’re still there, it was thirty years ago. Ghosts, like memories, fade when forgotten. Forgotten because the truth is too bitter to stomach.