HORLA FICTION (December 2018)

 

Lest We Forget

by Paul Murgatroyd

A MOURNFUL Christ on a lofty cross gazed down at row after row of gravestones that stretched on and on, the pale gravestones of thousands and thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the sombre slaughter of the Great War.

A tall and upright old man and a much shorter old lady advanced along one row of gravestones, holding up black umbrellas to ward off the rain that fell steadily from the bruised sky. Her heels left small holes in the sodden grass, which instantly filled with muddy water. A moaning gust of wind suddenly stabbed her between the shoulders, making her hunch them and pull her crimson scarf tight at her throat. He didn’t notice the icy blast, as he was intent on the names of the dead and the melancholy epitaphs, shaking his grey head sadly at the youth of so many of those who had met their end on the battlefields of Belgium.

‘Blummineck, who’s this old trout? And the cheerful chappie with her? Clear off, you flippin’ old fossils, go and eat coke!’

The man stroked his neat little moustache thoughtfully, turned slowly to the woman and said: ‘Look at this inscription, Diana: A HUMAN SACRIFICE ON THE ALTAR OF DUTY. That’s really rather noble, isn’t it?’

No it’s not, you daft ‘aporth. It’s trite, tired and blinkin’ bombastic.’

‘Yes, you’re quite right,’ said the woman, ‘it is noble. And look at this one: HE PLAYED UP AND PLAYED THE GAME.’

‘Aye, he played the game all right, and LOST, the poor blighter. The bloody profiteers and politicians were the ones who won that game.’

Then the woman said: ‘Are you absolutely sure the grave is round here, Alastair? No sign of it yet.’ She patted her dyed blonde hair and looked at him with bright, lively eyes.

‘Ooh, I say – ALASTAIR! I flippin’ well hope it’s not round here. Go on, sling yer ‘ook. Move along now, like all the rest.’

As he slowly walked on, peering, Alastair murmured: ‘Hmm? Well, that’s what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said. So one is pretty sure actually.’

‘Oh, IS one, ACTUALLY? Beat it, you snooty old sod with your college tie, give us a bit of peace.’

Alastair pointed to a grave and said: ‘Ah, there it is – Bert Morton Sidley, Private, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. 2nd August 1917, aged 20.’

‘Blimey! So who the hell are you? One of the family, I presume. So, one of the blummin’ family finally got here, after they all ignored me for nearly half a century. About ruddy time. Ta very much. That’s dead touchin’, that is…Still, better late than never, I suppose.’

‘That’s my grandfather. I can hardly believe it.’

‘Bloody hell, nor can I. YOU are me grandson? An old buffer like you? You look old enough to be me grandFATHER, ha ha. Still, I suppose that’s right. I’m 20, and you must be what – 74, 75?’

Alastair said: ‘And his really is a noble epitaph: THIS WAS A MAN –‘

‘Well, you wouldn’t think I was a woman, with a name like Bert, now would you? Ha ha ha.’

‘HE SLEEPS WITH ENGLAND’S HEROES IN THE LOVING ARMS OF GOD.’

‘Bollocks! He isn’t asleep, he’s DEAD, done in, conked out, gone west. And God wants nothing to do with him, doesn’t give a fart about him. If there actually IS a God. I’ve never seen him, he doesn’t live round here, never did anything for me, or me pals. No, I’m not in his arms, I’m stuck in this dreary graveyard in bloody Belgium, putting up with this filthy Belgian weather, ha ha.’

 Diana leaned forward to read it for herself and said: ‘I think that’s a fine epitaph, really moving.’

 ‘Oh, do you? Well, there’s no accountin’ for taste, is there, or the lack thereof. I think it’s a fuckin’ fatuous epitaph, and I’m stuck with it for all time. Mind you, there are worse, I suppose. Ruddy comical, some of them. Like JESUS TOOK HIM FOR A SUNBEAM (for Christ’s sake!). And IT IS MOST GRAND TO DIE (but grander still to survive, intact). And I WOULD NOT HAVE MISSED IT FOR ANYTHING (but I just wish the bloody bullet had missed me). And my favourite: RELIEF COMPLETE (which sounds like a really good shit after being constipated for a week). You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? Smile, boys, that’s the style.’

Diana said: ‘Well, you can rest easy now that you’ve found him…Why did it take so long by the way, if you don’t mind my asking? Was he terribly difficult to track down, but you stuck at it with dogged perseverance?’

‘Good question, madam. Where have you been all my death, you old codger?’

Alastair reddened slightly and said: ‘Aahm, well actually I never thought about him for years. Father had a few stories about him, and I wish now that I’d asked him more about his father before he died.’

‘So, I had a son, did I? A son!’

‘But well, you know, I was busy teaching geography to the sixth, and then being head of upper school, and then headmaster, with all the onerous duties that that entails.’

‘So, an educated man. He sounds it, with that posh accent. That’s a bit better than a factory worker, isn’t it?’

‘And I used to spend most of the weekend at the golf club and pottering around in the garden and so on. But then a year or so ago an aged friend of my mother’s sent me an item from the local rag. They’d put up a memorial plaque in his school to pupils who’d died in the wars, then the school was knocked down so a developer could build luxury accommodation on the site, and a passer-by spotted the plaque dumped in a heap of rubbish there and rescued it.

‘They had a big photo of it in the paper with the names listed. At the top it said PRO PATRIA (that means: on behalf of the fatherland), then underneath were the names of the dead, including Bert Morton Sidley, and at the bottom it said: THEY WILL BE KEPT IN REMEMBRANCE FOR ALL TIME.’

‘Or until some bloody capitalist decides he needs to make yet more money…And a memorial’s no kind of compensation anyway, and it doesn’t make you any less dead, with your whole future life taken away from you…But it makes the people who put it up feel a bit better, I suppose.’

Alastair sighed and added: ‘My wife passed on shortly after I got that clipping, and I found it hard…Aahm, I soon saw that I couldn’t spend all of my time golfing and gardening, I needed something else to occupy me, so I thought I’d find out about the family’s old soldier, as a little retirement project.’

 ‘Oh marvellous! I’m a bleedin’ hobby now, am I? On a par with soddin’ stamp-collectin’.’

‘Sorry to hear about your wife, Alastair,’ said Diana, patting him on the arm. ‘It must be hard for you. A man really needs a woman doesn’t he?  In so many ways. It is lonely without a spouse, I know.’

‘Aye aye! She’s fast, a bit of a flirt.’

‘Aahm, yes. Anyway I knew his name and regiment, so I got on to something called Find My Past and traced him. That unusual middle name (I don’t know where he got that from) really helped me with that. But there was a bit of confusion in the military records, which had him down at one point as Bert Sidney instead of Sidley and at another point as a lance corporal.’

Typical! People talk about “military efficiency”, but anyone who’s actually been in the army smirks when he hears that phrase. Ha ha ha.’

‘Anyway I persevered and sorted it all out in the end, and ascertained his rank, date of death, grave reference and cemetery. So here I am at last, to wind it all up…Why are you here by the way? Do you have a relative here as well?’

Diana replied: ‘Oh no, nothing like that. I’m on holiday touring France and Belgium with some friends, also widows, but I simply couldn’t face a third consecutive day shopping with them. I got vaguely interested in the war last year when the TV made such a fuss about the hundredth anniversary of 1914 with all those programmes, so when I saw in the hotel there was a battlefield tour I thought I’d take it to fill in the day. I’m glad I did now, meeting you on it.’ As she said this, she looked into his eyes and smiled.

‘Yes, I’m glad too,’ said Alastair. ‘I mean, apart from finding his grave it was interesting to see the old barbed wire still used by farmers for their fences and the shell-holes used as ponds for their cattle. And to think they’re still ploughing up bullets and shells today – absolutely astounding!’

‘You wouldn’t think it was at all astoundin’ if you’d actually been here and seen all the shit the Boche lobbed at us and we slung back at them, for years on end. What IS absolutely astoundin’ is that anyone survived it all…It’s also FAIRLY astoundin’ that you can’t see she means she’s glad she did the tour ‘cause she met you, juggins. She’s on the make.

‘It pains me to see a grandson of mine so naïve, not pickin’ up on yet another obvious hint. Dear oh dear, you’re never goin’ to achieve amorous congress this way, are you? You won’t be joinin’ giblets any time soon if you carry on like this, you simp.’

Diana kept up the show of interest and inquired: ‘So when did your grandfather join up?’

‘Father said he volunteered in 1914, right at the very start.’

‘Bollocks. I held out till 1916.’

‘Father said he went to protect plucky Belgium. The Germans had invaded it and behaved like savages there, absolute barbarians. Apparently they cut off children’s hands and crucified kittens on church doors.’

‘Hmm. They were also accused of rapin’ nuns and bayonetin’ babies (not at the same time presumably). Much of it propaganda, I’m sure.’

‘Apparently there was a great surge of patriotic feeling then (I did a bit of research on the Internet), and the papers were full of stories of German atrocities –‘

‘The bloody papers! Full of crass jingoism to stir people up and get them to enlist – twaddle about 24 Belgian soldiers holding 2,000 German troops at bay; and a Cossack killin’ 11 Germans single-handed and receivin’ 16 wounds doin’ that, but bein’ now close to recovery; and that headline: THE SURE WAY OF TAKING AN UHLAN PRISONER – OFFER HIM BREAD (STARVING GERMANS ARE PLEASED TO BE CAPTURED).’  

Alastair continued: ‘- so people were keen to do their bit, and they were convinced of the superiority of allied forces and absolutely certain of an easy victory –‘

‘Aye, so much so that our betters suddenly feared that men might not join up ‘cause they thought victory was already certain without them – hence that preposterous headline on August 19th 1914: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE ENEMY’S STRENGTH – WE HAVEN’T WON YET…In 1914!’     

‘- and people from all walks of life were volunteering, even –‘

‘Even intellectuals, who should have known better. But lots of them were taken in and went off to defend Western Civilization from the Rule of Blood and Iron. They got a bit of a shock when they got to the trenches and discovered the grim reality of their righteous war. I heard of one rather precious poet who came back on leave and was asked what it was like at the front and said: “Oh, my dear, the NOISE! And the PEOPLE!” Ha ha.’

‘- and those who didn’t rush off straight away came under pressure, and sooner or later most of them gave in and –‘

‘Yes, we did come under pressure, pressure that was very hard to resist. There were posters everywhere, manipulatin’ you, like that insidious one with the little girl with her father askin’ the question: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” Answer: Got my fuckin’ legs blown off. We were subjected to patriotic music hall songs too, and white feathers, and lots of us just caved in in the face of all that.’

‘But my grandfather didn’t need any of that to make him join up.’

‘Quite right. He needed fuckin’ CONSCRIPTION to make him join up. He was no sheep, he wasn’t going to let people control him and bully him. It took compulsory military service to force him into that conflict. That insane conflict between rival imperial powers who WANTED war, including STUPID English politicians who were desperate for Germany not to become a world power and scared of England somehow losin’ status if we didn’t join in the madness…So I got caught up in this great war machine, helpless, dragged in and churned out as a soldier, another victim for the slaughter.’

‘Fascinating,’ said Diana. ‘You must be very proud of him, a real patriot in the family.’

‘Oh I am. He was a brave man –‘

‘Well yes, Alastair, but not in the way you think. I had no intention of murderin’ me fellow man for the bloody rulin’ classes. I didn’t declare meself a conscientious objector. Conchies got vilified in the press as sissies and traitors, and humiliated at tribunals set up to see if you were genuine or just a coward. They asked you questions to see if you were really a pacifist, like: “What would you do if you found a German raping your grandmother?” I heard one bloke’s answer was: “I’d wait until he’d finished, and then I’d bury the dear old lady again.” Ha ha ha.

‘And there was also public paradin’ and shamin’, and gettin’ broken at Birkenhead Barracks, and sentences of hard labour and penal servitude for ten years. The bastards weren’t goin’ to get me like that. So I waited till I got to the Front and then volunteered as a stretcher-bearer. It was very hard work and bloody dangerous, but at least I wasn’t bein’ made to kill people who’d done nothin’ to me, were just in the same boat as me. I did somethin’ useful instead – SAVED quite a few lives rather than taking them. I WISH you could hear this.’

 ‘- and I’m sure he went through a lot there –‘

‘Dead bloody right I did! Like battlin’ through thigh-deep suckin’ slime to pick up those wounded in yet another completely FUTILE attack. That was well bad – clamberin’ over bloated corpses and putrefied bits of bodies to get to the survivors, under fire. I can still hear them moanin’ and cursin’ and scrikin’, and I can still smell it – that horrible sweet smell of decayin’ corpses…Why did you have to remind me of all that? Bloody hell…’

‘What did he look like?’ asked Diana. ‘Did he look like you, was he a handsome man?’

‘Ah, no idea, I’m afraid. If there was a photograph of him, it hasn’t survived.’

‘How did he die? Do you know? Or is it too painful for you? Sorry if it is.’

‘Aahm, no, it’s fine. My grandmother got a letter from his officer saying he died a soldier’s death, in action, fighting gallantly in defence of England. It was Passchendaele. She wrote back to him asking for details, but the lieutenant himself was killed before the letter reached him…I picture my grandfather taking out a Jerry machine-gun nest or clearing out an enemy trench single-handed and then –‘

‘That’s nice of you, Alastair. But actually it was a BIT less heroic than that. My mate was standin’ next to me in the trench and lit up, and I said: “Put that bloody fag out, George, or you’ll attract a sniper.” He took a last drag and did attract a sniper. But the ruddy sniper shot ME, not him. In the head. That stung a bit. At least the lice left me and didn’t mither me any more…It’s not funny really, but you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you (smile, smile, smile). To control all the rage and bitterness and grief and despair.

‘It’s like in the trenches, when you had to keep your sense of humour, to make it all just about bearable, or you went mad…Anyway my death was quick. Not like that poor old corporal I found lyin’ there with his stomach on the ground next to him in a pool of blood, beggin’ me to kill him (but I couldn’t do it)…And Chalky White, who fell into a shell-hole full of water and a couple of corpses and took an afternoon to drown, before our eyes – the more he struggled, the more he sank, and we couldn’t get to him for the liquid mud all around him which sucked us in too; no, we just had to watch him die slowly, inch by inch.’

‘Diana opined: ‘I suppose it was pretty awful in the trenches generally for poor fellows like him.’

‘Yes, it was fairly awful for the chaps, and –‘

FAIRLY awful? Blimey, you know nothin’, do you? Let me see now. There was the utter exhaustion, the complete degradation, mud, filth, lice, rats as big as cats, screamin’ shell-shock, infections, pain, livin’ in a trench up to your knees in water, bein’ under heavy shell-fire (you can’t even begin to imagine what that was like), so many dead it seemed sometimes as if the whole world had died – to mention just a few of the many delights. I try to not remember stuff, but so many images are seared on me brain, always with me…That poor sod with his legs blown off, white thigh bones showin’, asked us to get the photo of his wife out of his pocket, but couldn’t hold it in his shakin’ hands, so I put it on his chest and he died lookin’ down at her…And that severed arm blown up into the tree that got dislodged and fell down and hit me…And that Scottie lad who had his head blown off, and the trunk stumbled on, several more steps before collapsing…And (Jesus!) Nobby Clark, who got gassed (mustard gas), burnt and blistered all over his body, eyes blinded, pain so bad he had to be strapped to the bed, frothin’ and gurglin’.   Christ, it took him over four weeks to die, in fuckin’ agony…Poor bloody sod…And there was worse than that…’

‘Father told me a bit about what he knew of his time there, from what had been in his letters. But father never met him, of course. He always wished he had known him.’

And I really wish I’d known your dad. I never saw my baby, never, and didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. Sal wrote me she was pregnant, that was all, and I wrote back and told her we’d get married as soon as I got back on leave. But that never happened, of course. Christ, I was so excited about the baby, longin’ to see it, picturin’ meself ticklin’ it and makin’ it laugh…I wanted a boy and all, always wanted a son, to take to the club for a pint and a game of billiards and show him our little library there, and take him to the match. We’d have had a grand time together, really grand…’

‘I really should have asked father more about him before he died. But my grandmother remarried – she actually got herself pregnant by a chap so he’d have to marry her. You don’t think of your apple-cheeked granny doing that kind of thing, do you?’

‘No, I suppose you don’t,’ said Diana with a wry smile.

‘Why not, why the hell not? Good on her! My Sal was only 18 when I died, and was going to have a kid to bring up, so a husband was just what she needed. In my last letter to her I told her if anything happened to me, just forget me and get married to a good man; if anything survived of me, I wouldn’t mind, I’d be happy for her, I wouldn’t want her grievin’ over me for the rest of her life, a poverty-stricken widow. And I DON’T mind. I just miss her, my lovely Sal. She was so gentle, and a lovely kisser. I wish I could kiss her just once more, and tell her I love her again. I do still love her. The last time I saw her we ran out of things to say at the station, just stood there clingin’ to each other. Christ, I wish now…’

‘- and she had five more children by her husband. So he was the father figure in the family, and nobody said anything about Bert, he just sort of faded away, a bit of an embarrassment really. Father got a few facts out of my grandmother, but I suppose it must have been upsetting for her to go into much detail about him, and undiplomatic. The man she married didn’t see any action in the war – he was at an army supply depot in England working as a loader and a packer – and he was a bit touchy about that. So I don’t know all that much about Bert, I’m afraid.’

‘No you don’t. The little that you THINK you know is largely inaccurate, and there’s so much you just DON’T know about me. I wish you could hear me, Alastair, so I could tell you things, and you could really get to know me… I loved playing football, I was quite good at it, a right winger, used to run like the wind. And I was a socialist, and I started doin’ the union’s books, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night having worked out in me sleep where that missin’ ha’penny was. I had to leave school early – me mum needed the money from me wages – but I educated meself, well after a fashion. I loved books…and I wrote poetry meself.

‘Not Rupert Brooke tosh about our rich dead pourin’ out the red sweet wine of youth – aye, and the bitter grey brawn of brains. No, I wrote gritty, earthy stuff about what the war was really like – the mindless, mechanical slaughter. Me best poem began: While England’s godless bishops bless battle-ships,/ poor Christ has died, hangs crucified here on the wire. There were a few others, probably not much good – metre and punctuation were a bit dicky, I’m sure, so I never showed them to nobody. It was just experiences and feelings I had to get down to cope…I kept on composing for a bit after I died. But then I stopped, ‘cause nobody would ever hear me verse. The Latin poet Ovid in exile far from Rome said writin’ poetry when you don’t have any readers is like dancin’ in the dark. And he was dead right…So many poems never heard, never composed…If you could only -’

 ‘Alastair,’ said Diana, ‘I don’t want to be a pain in the neck, but I’m getting a bit cold. And damp. Could we get back to the minivan? Would you mind awfully? I can see the rest of the group are in it already, out of the rain, and the driver will be wanting to head back to Brussels soon in any case.’

 ‘Yes, of course, Diana. Let me just take a quick snap of his gravestone, and then we’ll be off.’

 ‘Here, let me help you,’ she said. ‘Don’t want you getting wet and catching a chill, now do we?’ She took his umbrella and held it over him so he could take the photograph unhampered. He took a picture of the gravestone, checked that it had come out properly on the little screen, returned the camera to its case and said: ‘Thank you. Most kind of you. Right, I’ve got it, name and details nice and clear. So let’s go. That’s my little project completed. Have to think up another one now.’

 ‘Don’t bloody go, Alastair. You’ve only been here five minutes. And I know you won’t come back now you’ve got your photograph and completed your little project on me. I’ll never see you again. And nobody else will ever visit this grave. Be as if I never existed.’

 Diana gave the umbrella back to Alastair, and brushed his hand as she did.

 ‘Stay a bit longer, Alastair, talk a bit more about the family. There’s lots more I want to know about them.’

As they began to walk off, Alastair suddenly paused and said to Diana: ‘Hey, do you see the name on that gravestone? I didn’t take it in before when I was searching for Sidley. It’s Dyson, Corporal Terry Dyson. Wonder if he’s related to our Terry Dyson.’

‘Who?’ asked Diana.

‘The footballer Terry Dyson. Played for Tottenham Hotspur, father’s team. He scored the second goal in the 1961 Cup Final. Leicester put up a heroic defence, but we won in the end. I was there, at Wembley, father took me. That was history in the making, that was – Spurs did the double. A super day, I’ll never forget it.’

‘Christ almighty, a Spurs supporter, a ruddy SPURS supporter!…But don’t worry, Alastair, I forgive you.’

‘That’s very interesting,’ said Diana, concealing her total lack of interest well. ‘I suppose he could be related to your footballer, a grandfather or something…Erm, shall we go?’

‘NO, don’t go. Come back, just for a minute or two. Tell me more about your grandma – my Sal. Was she happy with her husband? Did she have a good life, a happy life? When did she die? Was it a peaceful death in her sleep? Christ, I wish you could tell me.’

‘You’re based in Brussels too, I presume,’ said Diana, as they began to move off again. ‘I’ll be in Brussels for a few more days yet. Which hotel are you staying at?’

‘A nice place called the Amor.’

‘There’s a promising name,’ she said with an arch smile. When this elicited no response, she gave a little sigh, and then went on: ‘I opted for the Abberdeen, couldn’t resist it. The name reminded me of that priceless Scottish epitaph: Here lie the bones of Elizabeth Charlotte,/ born a virgin, died a harlot;/ she was aye a virgin at seventeen,/ a remarkable thing for Aberdeen.’

When Alastair laughed loudly at the epitaph, she added: ‘I wish I’d known her. She sounds really rather interesting, in the latter part of her life at least. I admire a woman who’s not hidebound, not prim and proper.’

Alastair looked at her thoughtfully, but said nothing.

What about your dad – my son? What did he do? Was he a good dad? He took you to the Cup Final, that was good of him, but what about the rest? And what did he look like?’

Diana continued: ‘The only trouble with the Abberdeen is that it has no restaurant. Does your place boast a restaurant?’

‘Oh yes, quite a good one actually. I had an excellent lasagne there last night.’

‘Oh lucky you! I simply adore Italian food. Do they do penne arrabiata by any chance?’

‘Er yes, I think they do…Aahm, I say, would you like to try it, with me? Would you like to have dinner there tonight, with me?’

‘Why thank you, Alastair, that would be lovely,’ said Diana with a triumphant little smile.

‘I could tell you about my garden. I’m thinking of doing something exciting with rose bushes, if you’d be interested to hear about –‘

‘Lord yes. Always been fascinated by roses, absolutely lovely…’

‘Come back, Alastair. Have you got any children, or does my line die out with you? Ah shit! Christ…Enjoy your meal, Alastair. I hope it works out for you with Diana. She really fancies you, and it’d be nice for you to have a woman in your life again, not be all on your own, broodin’…Shit. Tara, Alastair, tara, mate.’

PAUL MURGATROYD had a long career as a university lecturer in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, language and mythology in particular) and was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. He is the author of Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006).

Towards the end of his career he started writing novels and short stories at weekends, and since retirement has had more time to devote to his fiction. (His poetry has appeared in various periodicals.)

He says, ‘I have always been very interested in the First World War, and recently I worked on a project concerning soldiers from the Newcastle (North East England) area who were killed in that conflict, which is where I got  the idea for this story.’