Authors: Mark Morris
I came awake.
There was no preamble, no drifting up from the depths of slumber. One moment I was in the desert, the next I was lying on my hard wooden bed, covered by a prickly blanket and encased in a cocoon of snores and restless creaks.
But something had changed. I could sense it as surely as a deer can sense a nearby predator. Since moving into the hut with the other men I’d taken to sleeping with the heart in my hand, with my hand under my pillow and my head resting on top of it. That way, if someone tried to take the heart from me I would know.
It wasn’t this that had woken me, though. There was a dim night light by the door as a guide for those who woke in the dark and needed to stumble outside for a piss, and there was enough of an amber glow leaking from this to assure me there was no shadowy form looming over my bed.
So why were my nerves tingling like wires stretched between the outstretched arms of electricity pylons? Why was an internal alarm blaring in my head, warning me of danger? Was it something to do with the dream? Something I’d forgotten or overlooked?
I sensed stealthy movement in my peripheral vision, a worm-like creeping in the corner of my eye, that seemed to be coming from the narrow gap between the head of my bed and the wall behind. Thinking of the shape-shifter employed by my nemesis the Dark Man, I twisted on to my stomach, my head jerking up.
And that was when I saw it.
Perhaps stimulated by my dream, it had become active, extending long, black, fibrous tendrils that had curled from under my pillow and were now climbing the wall behind my bed in sinuous, overlapping loops and spirals. The effect was that of a huge clinging vine growing at a remarkable speed, or of a multi-legged ink-black sea creature slithering out from its hiding place and tentatively exploring its surroundings.
The heart itself, the core from which the tendrils extended, was active too. I could feel it writhing in my palm, slick and hot like a newborn freshly expelled from its mother’s womb. I had the notion that its ‘flesh’ was becoming one with mine, that we were one flesh, one mind.
And yet conversely the sensation was also a sensuous, almost sexual one. The tingling in my nerve endings became a swell of euphoria; my eyelids fluttered; I groaned.
Then, amid the snores and the sighs and the restless shifting around me I heard another sound, a purposeful and prolonged creak, as though someone had sat up in bed. And it was followed by a shocked gasp, almost a cry, sharp but brief, and just as quickly stifled.
Instantly I drew in my defences – that was what it felt like – and in a split second the heart was once again a cold, hard lump of obsidian in my hand. All evidence that it had ever been anything else was gone. With my hand still under the pillow, I half-turned my body, propped myself up on my elbow and surveyed the room.
No one was sitting up. No one was staring at me. As far as I could see everyone was asleep.
My gaze alighted on John Pyke’s bed, four beds to the left (my right) of Howard ‘Bone Saw’ Dankforth’s. I stared at his humped form without blinking. He was still – maybe
still? Was his the stillness of someone
to be asleep, eyes squeezed tightly shut, shoulders hunched, muscles tense?
I slipped out of bed as quietly as I could, padded down the central aisle until I was standing at the foot of his bed.
‘Pyke,’ I whispered. ‘Pyke, I know you’re awake. There’s no use pretending.’
He didn’t respond. Didn’t move. His body remained motionless.
Had he seen? And what would it mean if he had?
I stood there for another minute or so, staring at the dark mound of his body.
Then I went back to bed.
‘Come on,’ Frank coaxed. ‘Come on, old son. That’s it. You know you want it.’
Stan Little, rain dripping off the brim of his steel helmet, chuckled, and was immediately shushed by the rest of us. He put a hand over his mouth, looking both contrite and amused. Squatting in the trench, plastered in clinging mud, which oozed up over the ankles of his boots, he reminded me of the Speak No Evil monkey.
The rat crept closer, its fur so slick with mud and rain it looked metallic. It was wary, but hungry too, and the gobbet of bread on the point of Frank’s bayonet was proving impossible to resist. Out in No Man’s Land, amid the mud and the corpses, the barbed wire and the shattered remnants of ordnance, it would be able to see nothing of us, hunched below ground level in our water-filled trench. Neither would it be able to smell us; the stink of death on the battlefield would mask our scent. But if we made too much noise it would hear us, whereupon it would be gone in a flash.
Like all the rats here – and there were so many of them they often scampered across our bodies at night – this particular specimen was a big bastard, but mangy and diseased-looking. Frank remained motionless as it moved to within a few feet of his bayonet, the tip of which was poking at an angle above the sandbags stacked on the lip of the trench. I glanced at the men. Stan had removed his hand from his face, leaving brown streaks, and was now grinning, his eyes almost feverish with excitement. The others, shivering in the cold, their uniforms soaked through and plastered with mud, their faces drawn with the effects of dysentery and exhaustion, were staring avidly at the lump of white bread, as if they wouldn’t mind snaffling it themselves.
After prevaricating for a moment the rat suddenly darted forward. As it clamped its teeth around the bread, Frank almost casually pulled the trigger. As ever his timing was perfect. As the rat turned away with its prize, the bullet from Frank’s gun transformed it from a living creature into a red explosion of unrecognisable meat. We watched it, or rather the bits of it, scatter across No Man’s Land. Geoffrey Ableman, a new recruit, barely eighteen, was so entranced by the spectacle that he forgot himself for a moment and raised his head above the lip of the trench to watch its progress.
Instantly there was the crack of a rifle from the German trenches and a bullet whined over our trench and smacked into the mud somewhere behind us. It might have drilled through Ableman’s skull if Reg Coxon hadn’t grabbed him and yanked him back down a split second before the bullet’s arrival.
‘That were yer one and only chance, lad,’ Reg told him in his broad Barnsley accent. He stabbed a finger at the sky. ‘Him up theer’ll not grant thee another one.’
As a grinning Frank descended the wooden ladder propped against the inside wall of the trench, the men surged forward to clap him on the back. His skill at ‘rat bagging’, one of the few things that kept us amused during the grinding hell of trench life, had earned him the nickname ‘Dead Eye’. The only member of our squad who didn’t come forward to congratulate Frank was John Pyke. As ever he sat a little removed from the rest of us, beneath the sheet of rusty corrugated iron that was laid over the top of the trench and served as our only shelter. Eyeing us balefully, Pyke was hunched like a gorilla over the brazier we used to keep warm and to boil water for tea. When I glanced his way he dipped his head, as if he was afraid I might hypnotise him.
It was early December 1915, and we’d been on the front line for five weeks. From when I’d first signed up to becoming a battle-ready soldier had taken around fifteen months. On 5th November we’d set sail for France, the men joking that although we’d miss Bonfire Night at home we’d be seeing plenty of fireworks once we crossed the channel. From Boulogne the eight hundred plus men and thirty or so officers who made up our battalion had boarded yet another rickety train, which had transported us to a railhead south-east of Abbeville in the valley of the River Somme. Although we’d camped there for the night with the intention of getting some rest before the next stage of our journey, it had been so cold that none of us had been able to sleep. Instead we’d walked around for hours, fully clothed and wrapped in our blankets, in an effort to keep warm. Another long train journey the next day, followed by a ten-mile trudge, during which each of us had been loaded down with equipment (rifle and ammo, blanket, ground sheet, eating utensils and other kit), had brought us to the village of Bellancourt. By the time we arrived in what turned out to be a filthy little place, the streets strewn with refuse, we were so exhausted and hungry that we’d been fit for nothing more than collapsing into our billets. Mine was a draughty barn, full of dirty straw, on the edge of the village, but I made myself a makeshift bed and fell into an immediate deep sleep. I woke several hours later to find my body covered in flea bites and the place swarming with rats, some of which had nibbled at my boots and clothes.
We spent the next few days marching from one village to another through thick mud and driving snow. It was so hard going, and the equipment we carried so heavy, that we were almost looking forward to reaching the front line just so we could have a break from putting one foot in front of the other. Although we’d only been a few days out of England, we were already having to endure appalling conditions. We spent most of our time hungry, wet, filthy and exhausted. We’d been wearing the same set of clothes since arriving in France, which was mainly because we didn’t have a fresh set and wouldn’t be issued with one until we reached our destination. In truth, though, even if we
had fresh clothes I doubt any of us would have bothered changing into them. For one thing, it was too bloody cold to get undressed (the sheep pens and barns, in which we were billeted, did nothing to protect us from the sub zero temperatures), and for another it would have meant having to carry our wet, mud-plastered, and therefore heavy, clothes in our knapsacks.
There were times, I admit, when I wondered if it was all worth it, times when I (probably selfishly) told myself this wasn’t
War, and when I asked myself whether I
had to go through all this. These moments usually came at the end of a long, long day, when I was more exhausted than I’d ever been, but couldn’t sleep because of the cold and the continual grinding apprehension in my belly. If it hadn’t been for my sense of duty, combined with the fear of what might happen if I
jack it in, I might well have given in to temptation and called it a day. And even then I might have given up if it wasn’t for the other blokes.
Because despite the hardships, and despite signs that the War was getting ever closer – or rather, that
were getting closer to
– the men managed to remain pretty cheerful, which both moved me and gave me a boost when I needed one. Granted, there were one or two moaners, and one or two who were clearly scared and trying not to show it (I admit to being one of them, but then
knew what we were in for), but I’d been lucky enough to have Frank, Stan Little, Joe Lancing and Doug Meadows as my constant companions. The five of us had formed a tight-knit group, within which Frank and Doug, in particular, could always be relied on to keep our spirits up. On our second day’s march out of Bellancourt, the peace of the French countryside (which was admittedly pretty dismal, given the horrible weather and the churned-up roads) had been suddenly shattered by a dull but persistent barrage of heavy guns in the distance. With perfect comic timing, Frank had wafted a hand behind the seat of his pants and exclaimed, ‘Would you pardon me, chaps? I think that bully beef stew has come back to haunt me.’
It probably doesn’t seem as funny written down, but we were in such a state of heightened emotion – almost delirious with exhaustion and jittery with the pent-up fear of what was to come – that we all collapsed with laughter, as did the men around us, the effect expanding outwards like a Mexican wave. Soon those who hadn’t heard the quip were laughing too, even if it was simply at the sight of the five of us, clinging to each other in an effort to stay upright, with tears rolling down our faces. Eventually the officers in charge managed to pull us back into line, but even they were grinning. There may not have been much to laugh about in our immediate futures, but I’ll say this for the British Tommy: whatever the circumstances (and often, there was carnage and terror so overwhelming that in hindsight I’m astonished the survivors managed to remain even part-way functional) his spirit and sense of humour couldn’t be dampened for long.
As I said, it had been just over a month since we’d arrived in France, during which time we’d mostly been living in mud, sleeping in mud, even eating mud, because with no cutlery among our kit apart from our jack-knifes, we had to use our muddy fingers to hold our rations. In the five weeks we’d been in the trenches we’d already lost little Doug Meadows to a sniper’s bullet, and both Joe Lancing and Barty Trent to a shell, which had landed right next to them and exploded while they were on guard duty.
Losing our friends, and more particularly witnessing their deaths, was gut-wrenching, and something that even now I don’t particularly want to dwell on. Yet already – though it sounds awful to say it – we were starting to get used to the idea of life as an expendable commodity. Because there was something hideously unreal, even other-worldly about the trenches, I (and I know a lot of the other guys felt the same) found myself retreating into a kind of invisible bubble, viewing what was happening around me almost as if it was a hideously vivid dream.
Part of this was no doubt due to the fact we were all in a state of perpetual trauma. The daily shell bombardments, often augmented by rifle grenades and trench mortars, could sometimes last for three hours, and even putting aside the sustained terror of knowing that a direct hit could end your life (or worse, leave you hideously mutilated and in unimaginable agony – and my fear of this happening was no different to anybody else’s; I had no idea whether my glimpses into my own future made me immune or not), it’s no exaggeration to say that the sheer
of the bombardments was almost enough to literally drive you mad. Unless you’ve directly experienced it, it’s impossible to put into words how
, that hellish din is. It makes you feel not only as if your thoughts are being shaken loose from your head, but as if your very soul is in danger of being ripped from your body. There were times, under bombardment, when I felt sure the noise alone would be enough to make my teeth splinter, my ear drums burst, my skull split in two.