Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 10


April 1919, Battersea, London .
They’d sat there, the four of them, huddled together like children while the early morning light grew out of the grey, waterlogged mist. It had felt like breathing water, and it had been like trying to see through falling rain.
Cam . Exhausted. Wheezing, his fine face nearly skeletal. His overly long dark hair had been plastered to his collar and water streamed steadily down it onto the muddied wreckage of his great coat.
Deverel. Oh God, Deverel. His features greyed with mud, his physical beauty unrecognisable. He was filthy, drenched, shaking with cold, and only his eyes were truly identifiable in his face. Blood shot and senseless. He was sprawled like a broken puppet and no amount of talking or shaking had stirred him.
Edward shut his teeth on the memory, picked up the shot glass of brandy and took the last inch down in one burning swallow. Then he set the glass on the sideboard beside the half full decanter and sat down to watch it. ONE glass a night. He had sworn that and adhered to it, even when it took all of his control throughout the early hours of the morning. Want would not be his master.
Outside on the gloomy road, the distant rumble of heavy engines signalled another late night convoy turning into the army barracks. Men. Equipment. Artillery. Yet more of the flotsam being brought home to be tidied away. The clearing up of the unholy mess still covering most of the Western Front, not to mention the debris of a huge, civilian army being demobbed all over England, was a process likely to take years. The career soldiers, like himself – men who before the war had chosen the army- had seen the action and they would spend the rest of their careers picking up the pieces of it.
There was still the half decanter of brandy sitting on the sideboard.
Edward got up and went to the window, folding his arms and watching the heavy trucks rumble past.
At twenty, a young and newly enlisted Lieutenant, his company had been engaged several times during their tour of duty on the North Western frontier in India . He had seen action, commanded men under fire. But that had borne no resemblance at all to the Western Front. The ceaselessness of it. The unending, massed, overwhelming destruction of it. The filthiness of it. Men and landscapes butchered until he was left- at the bottom of that trench, with Cam and Deverel, in the early hours of that morning, and with no idea whatever of what to do. What orders to give. How to make sense of their situation by the given rules. Because it was meaningless. Broken beyond repair. Soiled beyond any hope of redemption.
The facts stood.
HE was true army. Cam and Deverel, like the majority of his officers in the battalion, had joined up very young out of a sense of duty. Likewise many of the men they commanded, and the rest had been drafted.
HE had been in command of the battalion- what was left of it- as they lay in the relative safety of the old trench lines.
And he had sat there in the mud in the same blank despair as the younger and the less experienced officers, with no idea of what to do now.
He SHOULD have roused Deverel. Slapped him. Shouted. Dragged him back as he had done on other times when the younger man broke the bounds of military norm. Deverel was his responsibility. But Edward knew he had just sat there, numbed and despairing, shattered by the destruction in Dev’s face.
And on Cam’s other side had been Alick Cowan, who had looked at him with open disgust and gently drawn Deverel into his arms, spoken to him, continually wiped the mud from his face with his large, calloused hand and waited as if he expected that Deverel was still intact.
Edward turned away from the window and gave the decanter a flat stare.
He imagined he and Cowan were much the same age. Cowan clearly had nothing more than the rudiments of literacy, he would have worked from mid childhood- from his accent most likely in the coal pits or the fishing fleets on the North York coasts. He had no training, no education, no experience, and yet he…..
He had the gall to act.
Had known where to look for Dev. Had had the luck to join several men from their battalion who had seen Deverel, Tilbury and Barker go down under the wall of mud, and from somewhere, find a couple of sappers in the line who willingly came back to dig when they knew who it was for. Deverel had the gift of inspiring loyalty and emotion from the battalion without any effort on his part. It was a gift Edward lacked and he knew it. He inspired respect:  he did not inspire affection or courage or humour.
Deverel was one of the rare few who embodied what Edward knew he’d only aspire to all his life. The physical beauty and athleticism, without effort, without study. The charm. The physical courage. The temper and the strength of character that made others follow where ever he led. Dev was gifted with all those things, he was what, at eighteen, Edward would have given his heart to be. And he was heartbreakingly young, heartbreakingly GOOD at what he did, and from the first day of meeting him at battalion HQ Edward had the mixed joy of a truly excellent officer and a beautiful boy who was a challenging but loved protégé. With an officer like him your own confidence and competence was lifted; his skills lifted the whole battalion. And a boy like him, so committed to his duty and so MUCH of what England had to offer- he had to go home alive. Intact. Untainted. No matter what else, no matter what happened to Edward himself - and Edward Hayes knew he was a cause beyond saving- he would send Deverel home unmarked. And that would prove that what went on out here, in these mud holes filled with death and horror, was not insanity. That this was necessary British duty, well done, that could be remembered with pride.
The decanter shone in the remains of the firelight.
It was not a cold night, but after years of being wet, of being cold, Edward could not bear the room to feel chilled or damp. He kept his eyes on the glass, grimly accepting his craving and taking some fierce satisfaction in the denial of it. He would not drink. He would not smoke. There would be no weakening. He denied himself in the same way he denied himself sleep to hold at bay the dreams that woke him screaming, or sometimes worse.
The light had grown stronger the morning after the retreat, taking away the unreal hours between the fierce action and organisation of the action in the dark, and the relentless appearance of a new day. Sounds had begun to emerge from the fog with the brighter light. Voices a long way off. Their position had been located by HQ and supplies and what few reinforcements could be mustered were being brought out to them.
He, Cam , Deverel and Alick Cowan had heard them, pressed together as they were.
Edward had somehow managed to get to his feet, holding onto the trench wall for support. And looking in growing abhorrence at Cowan, whose arms were still wrapped around Deverel without care for who saw or what was thought.Cam saw his expression and bent his head, resting it on his arms. Cowan returned his gaze without his muddied face responding. Then he stooped and Edward heard in outrage the tone of his voice, the gentleness with which he spoke into Deverel’s ear.
“Come on honey. We have to get moving.”
Unacceptable. TOTALLY unacceptable. With revulsion, Edward stepped away from him. And yet Deverel stirred in his arms. When Cowan helped him, he came unsteadily to his feet and stood for a minute, running both his hands through his filthy hair. And then his eyes cleared, he turned to Edward and looked around him at the men sprawled asleep on the firesteps.
“We’d better get some boards down and sort out an HQ.”

And he had gone on. That day had been filled with the hurried re organisation of their section, the running of messengers, the setting up and wiring in, and somehow they had done it. At three am the following morning, leaving Cam on duty, Edward had found Deverel dead asleep in the dugout they’d cleared and appropriated for HQ. He’d slept six hours without stirring, thrown down the tea and hot food that the mess cooks had prepared from the fresh supplies, and that had been the last they ever mentioned of that horrific night.
It had been as though none of them remembered.
~ * ~
Continue on to Part 11 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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