Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 9


I want to go home
I want to go home
I don’t want to be in the army no more
Where the shells and the whizzbangs they whistle and roar
Take me over the sea where the alleyman can’t get at me
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I just want to go home.

“This is shock.” The doctor said calmly, opening his bag. “Deep shock. More like you’d get from a physical injury than emotional shock. It appears quite severe.”
”Yeah well he’s been fighting it off for about eight months.” Alick said under his breath. The man sat on the side of the bed and took Dev’s wrist between his fingers.
“He isn’t more than semi conscious now. You said he was coherent and talking?”
“Yes. He were sick like I told you and there were blood in it but he was alert enough. Once I got him to bed I hoped he’d sleep it off.”
“This isn’t sleep. Shock can theoretically lead to coma if it goes far enough.” The doctor sat back and looked at Deverel critically. “I’ll have a word with his Lordship, I take it he’s awake.”
”Winton woke him.” Alick said shortly.
“I’ll speak to him now. The best thing we can do for this young man is admit him to Cirencester hospital.”
Alick felt his blood turn cold. “He won’t go.”
”Really he’s reached the point where he’s no longer fit to make a decision.” The doctor said matter of factly. “Sit with him, give him a little more of the brandy in hot water if he’ll take it, and keep him quiet. I shan’t be long.”
Alick sat on the edge of the bed as the door shut, perilously close to despair. He was racking his brains, getting steadily more desperate, when the door clicked and he jerked his head around. Winton. With another bottle of brandy and a wrapped bottle of hot water.
“I was with his Lordship when the doctor came down.” He said softly, but in shorter tones than Alick had ever heard from him. He set both brandy and bottle down within Alick’s reach and went to build up the dying fire.
“Lord Standen is, if I may say so, more infuriated than I have ever known him to be. He feels most strongly that any wounds or injuries his son may have sustained in the defence of his country he is entitled to recover from in the peace and comfort of his own home.”
“He’s NOT mad.” Alick said shortly. “He’s not even unsafe.”
“I’ve never myself thought so.” Winton said quietly. “You need not worry Mr Cowan, his lordship will not allow Lord Deverel to be taken anywhere against his will. He asked me to see you had everything you needed. I’ll be sleeping myself downstairs tonight and I shall answer the bell if you should require anything.”
Alick looked up at the older man in open relief and saw a reassuringly calm nod in return. Winton, like Mrs Grey, loved Dev. And he at least realised he did not understand what he was seeing.
“I’ll see to it you have a meal brought up to you.” Winton went on softly. “You’ll be wanting to sit with him tonight.”
Undressed, small in the bed, his dark hair very black against his white face, Dev continued to wheeze, quietly and persistently, his eyes still half closed.

He came awake at the first choke, without even realising he’d fallen asleep. Dev had swallowed enough of the brandy and water that he’d gradually slipped from that stupor like state into sleep somewhere around two am . The clock now stood at three twenty five over the fireplace and Deverel was coughing, his eyes wide, his hands at his mouth. Alick took his wrists, moving to sit closer by him, voice quiet.
“Allright son. Allright Dev, you’re safe. I’ve got you.”
The coughing didn’t stop. Within a minute it began to mix with retching and that awful, tearing struggle for breath. Whether this had begun as a dream or whether he was still asleep Alick couldn’t tell, there was only his eyes, wild and terrified, and that appalling sound of choking. Alick spoke to him softly, holding his wrists since his hands were still tearing at his mouth as though someone was suffocating him. Two minutes. Three minutes.
He was still choking and his lips were starting to blue. Nothing was impeding his breathing at all, Alick knew there was nothing there, and yet he was visibly suffocating. Swearing under his breath, trying to control his own hands which were starting to shake, Alick splashed brandy into a glass and pulled Dev’s head against him.
“Come on lad. Try some of this. You’re allright Dev, you’re awake and it’s over with. Come on now.”

The brandy made him retch immediately and it flooded straight back when Alick tipped it against his teeth.
Five minutes.
Alick looked at the bell, not far off ringing it and demanding the doctor- someone- be sent for once more. He stroked Dev’s hair back off his forehead, reduced now to saying his name over and over, quietly, calmly, as though it could reach him wherever he was and bring him back.
No, he was fooling himself.
He knew exactly where Dev was, and he remembered too feeling exactly this terrible burn of impotence. Fury.
“Dev.” He went on saying again, quietly. “Dev. Come on honey.”
The choking didn’t pause. Alick shut his eyes for a second, drawing his own breath. Then acted on pure impulse and prised Dev’s hands away from his mouth, pulled his jaw down and although he knew there was nothing there, ran his fingers across the back of Dev’s throat as he’d done six months before. Then bent his head and blew gently into Dev’s mouth. Dev gasped painfully in response, and that one deep breath seemed to clear his head. He stopped struggling and his lips began to lose the blue tinge. Alick held his head and his gaze as he came to. Soundlessly his mouth opened and framed a word and for a moment Alick thought he might cry. But this was Dev. Instead he shut his lips tightly and shook.
“Allright.” Alick said softly. “Allright. You’re allright.”
Dev shuddered. He was going into shock: Alick could see it. One minute mind and body in France , the next in a different country, out of uniform, somewhere he already felt he didn’t belong. His body re created what his mind remembered. The sweat that took the place of mud and water. The cold that had nearly killed him. The suffocation. But his eyes were open. And lucid. And looking at him.
“Tilbury and Barker.” Alick said to him.
It was quiet, dark and bloody cold. Deverel put one hand on the top of the deep crater and half slid, half fell down the side into the mud where about fifteen of his men were huddled. He leant into the crater, too tired to risk sitting.
“There’s a canteen here if you want it sir.” One of the men offered. It was too dark to recognise the face. The rum burned. Warmed. Dev swallowed again and handed the canteen back.
“I can’t find Giles.”
“He was with us when we came over the ruins. Probably behind us.” Corporal Harmond spoke, lifting his head from the clump of his men. All helmeted, faceless shapes in the dark.
“It’s Lindley and his lot behind us.” Dev said briefly. “I’ve just come from them. B Company are there too, they’ve covered most of the ground we’ve been over and there’s no sign of him.”
”Giles and the SM were together when we came forward sir.”
”The SM’s dead. I sent Giles and his lot on an hour ago.” Deverel leaned his head back against the pit wall and swore. “The entire Battalion’s out here playing hide and bloody seek- who else was with Giles?”
“About half his platoon and Sergeant Woods that I saw.”
”Oh God.”
”If you –“
A heavy explosion burst behind them without warning. Everyone flung themselves face down into the mud, shielding their faces. The boom echoed in the dark long after the actual vibrations and mud rain had stopped. Dev lifted his head and Corporal Harmond carried on where he’d left off.
“- want me to go forward and have a look sir?”
“No. Just have to hope Giles keeps his head.”

Harmond grunted. Deverel lifted his head to listen. Again, utter silence. There was too much smoke about to see more than four feet ahead. Silence at any time was ominous- after the last few hours solid bombardment it was terrifying. Deverel came to a decision and pulled Harmond closer.
“I’m going forward. Stay here, I’ll come back when I know what’s ahead.”
Harmond didn’t argue but he signalled to two of his men who followed Deverel out of the shellhole. Tilbury and Barker edged after him into the misty darkness- Deverel knew the faces well enough to know they were runners. Used to dodging fire and moving carefully. Smoke cloaked any sound of men hidden in the shellholes around them, whether their own men or enemy. The landscape was pitted and flooded. Craters with six or seven feet of water in them made every step a gamble, they were as likely to drown as to run into a Hun platoon.  After they’d crawled a couple of hundred yards without finding anyone or anything, Deverel signalled a halt.
“Right.” He said softly to Tilbury. “We’ll go back and bring Harmond’s lot on.”
“Shall I move on sir?” Barker offered. “I don’t think we can be far from the old line now, not according to the map.”
“Be careful. Keep west, Lindley and his lot are that way-“
He broke off. Ahead of them came one single crack from a rifle and a scream that could have been in any language. Almost instantly a heavier gun started somewhere on their left, and a few seconds later came the scream of a shell at very close quarters. There was no time for caution. Dev grabbed Barker’s arm and they scrambled up and sprinted until the ground fell away and threw them down a steep bank into the crater of a shellhole. Recent, thank God, and dry inside. There was an explosion very close by. They ducked, covering their heads against the rain of mud that followed. Tilbury rolled over the lip of the shellhole and fell against them, swearing.
“CHRIST.” Barker muttered devoutly. Another shell scream started. They ducked again as the explosion came, closer this time.
“They were just waiting for a sound.” Tilbury muttered. “Bastards. It was over on the left sir. Might have been Mr Giles’s lot that caught their attention.”
“Or it might not.” Dev said shortly. They didn’t even know who was doing the shelling. The third explosion shook the ground they lay on and a wall of mud flew up. Dev coughed as the spray settled.
“Come on. Quick.”
They flung themselves up the wet bank, clawing for handholds just as the shell scream reached its loudest. Dev was hurled backwards over the edge of the crater and slammed down so hard he blacked out for a few seconds. Somehow, by reflex, he covered his face and rolled over as the debris fell. Mud. Solid, half frozen and hard enough to break bones, and above that came earth, streaming down like sand. Only it fell in a wall. It was like being caught under a tidal wave. Dev saw it rise over him and then it covered him like a blanket.

Somehow he didn’t lose consciousness.
The earth blocked all sound. He could feel the vibrations of the explosions. For some time he was too stunned to think. His face was jammed into the crook of his arm, his mouth in his sleeve, and he couldn’t move a muscle under the weight. Earth covered him. It covered his eyes, over his head, he was buried by a fall three foot deep.
He was breathing earth.
A few minutes later he was breathing water vapour through his filthy sleeve.
His brain re awoke to utter, consuming panic. He wondered if he would faint when he ran out of air, or if he would be left to the struggling of empty lungs. How long would it take? He retched between breaths but there had been no time for eating in hours, there was nothing to bring up. All that could move was his mind and that burst its banks.
Come on, come and get me. How long does it take to die? How long? Come and GET me, get it over with. How long does it take? HOW does it take?
He thought the air was running out and his lungs froze in response. Water trickled down the back of his throat while he tried to cough. Tears streamed from his eyes. The mud worked up in agony under his eyelids. Suffocation blended with visions. Voices. Terrible dreams while the ground shook and trembled, and he was six years old, screaming in a night nursery full of dreams of judgement, the doom-filled book of Revelations. And choking.
Blind, deaf, choking.

Cam stumbled what seemed to be miles, blurred with shock. Hard to find emotion, or reality beyond the need to move. He kept tripping over men. Some of them dropped with exhaustion, some dead asleep, some dead.
Corpses were scattered in the trenches, across the landscape, left and forgotten when the line moved on. Some recognisable, some decaying green and misshapen, some skeletal. The water logging grew worse along the line, threatening the lives of the sleeping men who were too exhausted to know or care about drowning. Cam forced himself to stop and kicked the nearest man repeatedly until he opened his eyes and wearily dragged himself onto the fire step out of reach of the water. He instantly fell asleep again. The next man was Giles. Not so much white faced as green. He had the same drunken cast of shock in his eyes. Cam grabbed his arm and pulled at him, shook him until he got to his feet and pushed him towards the nearest man. He moved like a sleepwalker, kicking at and dragging inert bodies away from the waterline. Cam left him and moved on.
In the next bay a hand clutched at him, heavy, yanking him back. Cam tore at it but the hand wouldn’t be shaken off. Only hauled more insistently until he turned and saw it was Cowan. Cowan, plastered in mud, his dark hair soaked and his rangy frame staggering. Stiff. His hand bit Cam ’s arm, clenching until Cam pulled incoherently at him, afraid of having it broken.
“Deverel.” Cowan said, hoarse with shouting for hours and a throat that burned. He swallowed painfully. “Not up there. Been searching.”
”Not up the other side.” Cam freed his arm and unconsciously cradled it to his chest. “Where’s Edward? Hayes. Where’s Hayes?”
Cowan shook his head, pushed Cam aside and went on, staggering in the mud. Cam blundered after him, struggling to keep his feet. A horse screamed somewhere to the left. The gunners, trying to drag the massive guns back over that ridiculous landscape. Madness to walk a horse through that hell of mud and craters. One of Beech’s men sat clutching at Corporal Harmond and sobbing. Harmond was streaming blood from his nose which flowed unnoticed. His eyes were unfocused, he just went on like a puppet, tightening a filthy field bandage around the private’s ankle. The foot was bootless and at an in human angle. Two or three others from the platoon sat around them, nearly waist deep in the water, faces expressionless. Harmond’s face, ghastly with blood over his mouth and chin, lifted briefly to look at Cam as he passed, then turned back to his fumbling hands.
The night was nearly over, there could not be much darkness left. Cam waded on and found another huddle of men. Crabtree, Davies. Georges, the Captain of A Company, lifted his head into the light and looked at them.
“Hayes.” Cam said, grabbing him. Georges pushed his hand away. More blood, not his own, stained the front and one arm of his jacket. The knot of men broke up into recognised faces. Lindley searched and found Edward Hayes’ blue eyes at the back, his hair and moustache nearly white in the vague light. He got unsteadily to his feet and Cam felt a sick wave of relief. He was whole, real, his hands caught Cam and they clutched at each other.
“Hurt?” Cam demanded, rasping the word.
“No.” Edward felt down his arms, shook him. “You?”
“Where’s Dev?”
Edward shook his head, voice ragged. “I don’t know.”
Cam saw him glance upward. Cowan. Taller than either of them, with a face streaming mud and rain. Behind him were the first signs of dawn. Light would come within minutes.
“Got to go now.” Cowan said grimly.
“No time.” Edward followed his glance, caught his shoulder. “He could be anywhere. He could be dead.”

”Can’t just leave him.” Cowan said flatly. Cam hesitated then went after him. Edward splashed a few steps behind him.
“ Cam you can’t just leave the company, you’re the second in command.”
“I don’t care.” Cam said blankly. “I don’t care.”
”You’ll be shot for him.” Edward’s voice cracked. His eyes were showing the whites like a panicked horse. Fogged with shock. “He’s only a kid and you’ll be shot for him.”
Cam leaned against the filthy earth of the trench wall, too exhausted for either despair or hysteria.
”For Christ’s sake Edward, HQ won’t know where the fuck we are. All hell’s gone on, WE don’t know where we are, the whole damn line’s shifted, what does anything matter now?”
Edward stared at him for some time, then shook him off.
“You’re mad.”
Tin helmeted heads were raised and looked at them. Greatcoated, muddied shapes with large eyes. White faces. Cam looked at them, at the mud, the blank, drugged faces, the unfamiliar landscape that lay all around this single water logged trench, and above it the one familiar sight – the early light of dawn- and leaned back against the muddied wall, shutting his eyes. Cowan shoved himself up onto the parapet and disappeared from sight.

One of the spades hit him. He had a bruise afterwards across his shoulder and hip that lasted for weeks. The pain meant nothing. A few minutes later the weight on his head suddenly lifted, another spade slid across his back and the rain was soaking his jacket, he felt the chill of open air.
“It’s the Captain.” Someone reported from miles away. A knee jabbed into his spine, a firm hand grasped his wrist. He was hauled up, lifted free. He gasped instinctively, gulping in fresh air, earth and panic. A rough hand scraped over his face.

”He’s alive.” Someone said curtly. Water was poured over his face. Dev strained for air. Rough fingers brushed mud and water away.
“Here’s another one!” came a shout on the left. “Bring that light over here!”
“Yer’ll have to make do. Christ it’s all in his eyes.”
“Haven’t you got no rum?”
“You’ll choke him you stupid bugger.”
His eyelids were pried apart and water poured again. He struggled incoherently and the unseen voice addressed him, rough and kind.
“Yer allright sir, yer with yer own.”
Air. Air.
“This one’s dead.” The voice shouted from the left.

”No he ain’t.” someone else contradicted. “Get out the way and let someone in there as knows his arse from his elbow.”
“I tell you he’s dead.”
That voice was familiar. Sharper. Dev felt hands take him, then a blunt, powerful finger opened his teeth and hooked mug out of his mouth, scooped it in handfuls. Dev retched on it, struggling insanely even as the finger cleared his throat, then a mouth covered his and blew clean air into his lungs. He gasped in response, coughed hard and the last of the mud exploded out of his throat. And then he was breathing again, great ragged gasps of relief and fear.
The hands cupped his head for a moment, then there was the scrabbling of someone sliding down the bank.
“I can see light now, we’ve got to move.”
“Find Tilbury.” The voice above him said sharply. “Dev. DEV. Can you hear me? We’ve got to get out of here.”
Dev choked, retched again. His eyes were still plastered, he could see nothing.
He was shaken, lifted, supported. The voice was soft and against his ear.
“Come on honey. You’ve got to get yourself together, it’s nearly dawn.”
“Here’s Tilbury.”
“Move it.” Cowan’s voice ordered. Dev clutched him. Heaved up like a sack of coal, he finally passed out.

He came to with his head on someone’s knee, held between strong hands while his eyes were bathed. He jerked back and this time when he tried, his eyes opened. He got a hand up and rubbed until vision swam back. Tilbury was choking in the arms of a sapper.
Dev struggled to sit up, wrenched all over. The light was getting stronger, morning was rapidly approaching. He coughed, swallowed mud and someone held a canteen to his mouth, bruising his lips with their unsteady hand. They were in what had once been a trench. It was corroded, semi collapsed, derelict, scattered with exhausted and sleeping men. Sentries stood awake and frozen like statues. The majority were sprawled. There were no dugouts here. No sense. No civility. Not even the fragile illusion of domesticity their own line had afforded them; that tiny bit of normality that enabled them to cope with everything else. Here there was just mud.
Dev looked up at the man holding the canteen. Edward Hayes. Edward, who unsteadily squeezed his arm, face vacant. Cam ’s white face was above him. And Cowan. Alick. Alick held him and smoothed his filthy hair back out of his eyes. They were all four of them shaking all over.
“What are we going to do?” Cam said quietly. Edward sat stiffly down in the mud and slumped back against the wall.
”What can we do?”
“He was buried nearly an hour as far as anyone can tell.” Alick said very quietly, still rhythmically stroking Dev’s filthy hair. “Do you know how much muck we dug out of his throat?”
“There isn’t a dressing station for miles. God alone knows where we are.” Edward said tonelessly. “There’s nowhere we can take him.”
”What are we going to do?” Cam said hopelessly. “What the hell are we going to do?”
Edward shut his eyes. His face was grey with exhaustion.
“Set up here. Try to hold the line.”
”There IS no line to hold. WHAT line?”
“What else can we do?”
Deverel coughed and struggled faintly in Alick’s arms. Cam helped him sit, held his shoulders, too tired to feel any sense of relief.
“Dev? Are you allright?”
Bloody stupid question. He was soaked to the skin, shivering violently with shock and cold, and his face was rigid. Expressionless. Edward turned his face away. Cam touched Dev’s cheek, tried to brush away the mud to see his eyes, but there was nothing there. No sense, no recognition. Helplessness stung his throat.
Alick gave him a look of chilled disgust and with a tenderness shocking in such a big man, put his arms around Dev’s soaked body and held on, talking quietly until Dev collapsed back against him. Alick leaned back into the mud and rocked him. Cradled him. Tilbury sobbed. Cam sat against Alick’s shoulder and watched Deverel’s eyes open and fix blankly on the sky, no sense or understanding anywhere in them.
Barker lay a few feet away, head arched back, decently dead.
~ * ~
Continue on to Part 10 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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