THE SHRIEK OF the troop train woke Eddie as they pulled abruptly to a stop.
‘Where are we?’ he said, wiping his mouth and feeling for his rifle, as though it were another limb. His yammering heart calmed as he found it, the grain of the Enfield smooth under his fingers. They had their rifles to hand at all times now, went to sleep with them, as they might have with their teddies as small boys, though the rifles made poorer bedfellows.
‘We’re near Wipers,’ the tow-haired lad opposite him said. He had a trace of crumb about his lips. Earlier, Eddie had seen him filling his gob with biscuits from a tin with kittens on the lid, sent over by his mother or sweetheart. Fellows had once shared such gifts from home, Eddie reflected.
He rubbed his bloodshot eyes, irises as blue as their moods, and ran a hand through his sandy hair. It was crusted with trench dirt and debris. It was a shame he’d traded his comb for postage stamps: Eddie, just like his twin brother, Archie, had the type of curls that got the girls. Well, that’s what their mother always said. Of course, he had promised he’d write to Ivy, his fiancée. He’d been away for almost two years now. He’d scribbled a few cards and the odd letter from time to time, but hadn’t written anything since Christmas. It was time he sent her another letter.
He squinted through the train window.
‘Where, mate?’ he said again, unable to place the name the boy had said.
The map he had held in his mind of northern France, of the creeping fault line that was the front, had begun to crumble, fall away, with each tour. The battlefields all looked the same to him now, just escarpments of grey mud and hollows filled with the particular effluent of war, a topography that shifted as the bodies they had buried rose.
‘It’s pronounced Ee-pruh, you galah,’ Sergeant Bryce said as he moved along their carriage aisle.
Sarge rapped the biscuit eater on the head as he passed.
‘We’re in Flanders now. Get up and move out, Privates.’
‘Ee-pruh,’ the tow-head boy repeated, like he was saying a prayer.
As though it mattered where they were.
Outside it was raining again. Eddie pulled his greatcoat tight around him. He longed for the sun, if only to air out his uniform and kill the resident lice. The men were all covered in bites. He thought of Delilah Station, the wide sunburnt parcel of land, his father’s cattle property just west of Townsville; he thought about the lagoon with the waterfowl picking the nits off the flanks of heifers.
They disembarked, and he looked around at their digs for the night. There was no platform or station office to speak of anymore, just a faded sign and a pair of severed iron rails where the tracks had been blown out, the timber sleepers pulled up for firewood. The end of the line, Eddie thought.
A few hardy locals on bicycles clustered around the troops, coats turned up against the weather, hopeful of selling their wares. Some had newspapers, others cigarettes. Eddie remembered the task that Ivy had charged him with: to bring her back a blue hair ribbon. He had thought it a childish request, but then she’d been just seventeen at the time. Now he saw how canny she had been. He couldn’t get away from it; he’d had to look for that blasted ribbon everywhere he went, like a tourist chasing a holiday souvenir. Eddie sighed. He was well and truly tied to Ivy now. And she tied him to the idea of home.
He appraised the throng, but none of the Flemish locals seemed to be selling anything of that kind. The only ribbon he had encountered this trip had been on the French girl he’d had for a night, during his furlough in Paris. That had been a black velvet ribbon the girl had tied around her thigh, which he’d fetched off with his teeth. If Eddie knew anything for certain, he knew this was not the right thing to bring home to his fiancée.
A young woman in a green dress, her fingers fine like a piano player’s, was selling postcards, and Eddie bought one of a pastoral scene, featuring clovered hills, blue skies and a cottage that looked like something from a fairytale. The whole effect was of something Ivy’s little sister Mabel might paint. Underneath the picture was the name of the place: Passchendaele, the name on the platform sign. Eddie looked up at the scarred landscape before him, trying to locate the house he could see on the postcard. It was hard to reconcile the two versions of this place in his mind.
As he was stuffing the postcard in his coat pocket, he caught sight of the girl’s hair.
‘May I?’ he said, pointing at her ribbon. ‘May I buy that from you?’
It was a very fine ribbon, in cornflower blue, like the sky in the postcard, set off by her flaxen hair.
The girl looked confused, but he jangled some coins in his palm and eventually they understood each other. She removed the ribbon and accepted payment before cycling away.
‘Camp’s this way,’ Sergeant Bryce instructed, gesturing towards what remained of the town. Ares, the god of war, had certainly danced and stamped his wrath on Ypres, Eddie thought.
They fell in, followed their commanding officer in silence like tired beasts. Eddie was glad for it. After Fromelles, he’d found it difficult to hear conversations and struggled to keep up or make out the speakers’ meaning. He could still hear the onslaught of artillery fire as they’d lain in the ditch at Pheasant Wood, the way the bursts had rattled the very teeth in his head. It was as though his brain was now full of thick mud and his hearing had to operate on a different frequency.
As they marched to the camp, Eddie saw they were walking parallel to the Allied front line, a gash in the disturbed earth. In the distance, wire and sandbags demarcated the enemy front line.
As they approached the outskirts of the larger town, they took in the sight of stone walls, pocked and bitten by shellfire. The once grand-looking great hall had been reduced to a gaping maw; only part of the clock tower remained.
But the most curious sight was a line of men tied to wooden posts, as though lazily crucified; they were mounted in a row along the town wall. Dressed in AIF uniforms, each hung his head, refused to make eye contact with the new reinforcements. Eddie was reminded of Christ on the cross
and the two thieves, though there were at least a dozen of these men tied up and staked in the ground.
He felt his stomach knot. They’d heard on the march that the battle of Menin Road had gone well, the dry weather favouring their side – unlike tonight, with its thick, cold rain. Were these trussed up men the outliers from this battle, AIF who hadn’t fallen in as they should have?
The tow-haired boy from the train paused and turned to Eddie, his grey eyes fearful now. ‘Who are they?’ He was whispering but his words carried, even over the rain and the squelch of their boots in the mud.
At the boy’s words, one of the fellows tied to a stake raised his head. His eyes found Eddie’s, bored into him, as though trying to see inside of him, take his measure somehow.
Eddie hustled the biscuit-eater out of earshot. ‘Deserters,’ he whispered. ‘Remember? Field Punishment Number 1.’
‘No?’ said the lad, falling in to walk alongside Eddie.
‘It’s in the training manual.’
‘Haven’t read it,’ said the boy.
THAT EVENING, APPROACHING the mess tent, Eddie saw a crowd had gathered around a makeshift stage. They cheered and stamped their feet as the next act was announced. Eddie took his plate from Cook and forked up the bacon and peas, a welcome change from the stringy tinned beef they’d had on the march. He swallowed the last bite and went to see the show.
Peering through a gap in the throng he could have sworn he saw a rat riding a miniature bicycle. He rubbed his eyes but when he looked again the rat on the bike was still there. He nudged in closer, saw a man crouched beside the stage speaking to the rat as it performed and giving it signals, which the rat apparently followed somehow. All the fellows were watching; they were cheering the rat on. But it was the trainer Eddie was taken with; the way he manipulated the creature to do his bidding.
The man at Eddie’s right jerked his thumb at the scene.
‘That’s something, isn’t it? You don’t see that in Grafton.’
‘I’ll say,’ Eddie said, still mesmerised by the master puppeteer. In the long twilights of these northern European summers, they’d raced donkeys, held concerts and played cards until night stole in past 10 pm. But they’d never enjoyed anything like this.
‘His name’s Straub,’ the fellow said, his own gaze never leaving the rodent.
Eddie raised his eyebrows.
‘I don’t know how they let him in either with a name like that. Reckons he’s from Dalby.’ The solider snorted. ‘And that there,’ he went on, pointing to the performing rat, ‘is Cyril.’
Straub stood up on a packing crate. He wore a cape made from a bit of grubby cloth, like a poor man’s ringmaster.
‘And now, for the grand finale,’ he announced.
Straub indicated that the rat should stop cycling. He gave it a piece of bacon when it complied.
‘Cyril here will perform a dance number.’
From a deep pocket in his coat, Straub produced a tiny piano and began to play the opening notes of ‘The Blue Danube’. Cyril drew up on his hind legs and began to wobble a passable waltz.
‘This takes the biscuit,’ Eddie’s neighbour commented.
‘But wait gents, something is missing,’ Straub cried, stopping mid-note. He indicated that the rat should cease too. Cyril stopped dancing and returned to all fours. He covered his face with one paw. Straub looked around to make sure the crowd was giving him their full attention.
‘Fellows, Cyril needs a dance partner.’
The crowd whooped and jeered.
‘Who shall we choose?’
The blokes all laughed. A few jostled and pushed a mate forward but no one took up the offer. Straub the showman made a performance of looking about the mess tent for a likely partner. He finally pointed to one young chap, sitting alone at the far end of the mess. The boy had thick red hair that sat up straight all over his head and a long nose that was buried in a book. Every eye in the room swivelled towards him. There was something familiar about him, Eddie thought, as he took in the lad’s pale skin, his bulging Adam’s apple.
Then it came to him. The young man had lost weight and was almost unrecognisable in his khakis but it was unmistakeably Ivy’s brother, Cecil Blow. It was the first time Eddie had come across a lad from home and it was something to suddenly see a familiar face, someone he’d had grown up with, had mucked about with under the same searing skies. Someone who understood what it was to long not for adventure, but for endless clear days of nothingness, a horizon empty of men, with only gentle cattle in your sightline.
A memory slid into Eddie’s head: the day they had gone exploring to the sea cave. He and Archie had been there, as well as their mate Cec Blow. At the cave they’d stumbled on the Boer War deserter who hid out there, a man who was living as wild as an animal. They’d all heard the local talk that this bloke wasn’t right in the head. And that was why they’d tried to spook him: encircle him and drive him out of the cave and into the light; expose him by jeering and calling him names. It had been his idea, if he recalled right.
Eddie shivered to think of it now – now that he’d seen some sort of war himself.
And Cec? Cec had fainted that day, flat out with fear at their confrontation with the wild man.
Now, two burly looking AIF were assisting Cec to his feet as they escorted him to the stage. He squeaked in protest, but this was ignored.
‘Welcome friend,’ Straub said theatrically. ‘Say hello to your dance partner, Cyril.’
The rat bowed, obediently. Cec looked bemused, pushed his glasses up his nose.
‘But you can’t dance in that, sir,’ Straub said in mock horror, looking Cec up and down. ‘You must look the part!’
The showman produced a dress, a lace number you might see in certain establishments in Paris. Cec blanched visibly. The two soldier-heavies removed Cec’s jacket and shirt and pulled the frock over his head. The dress showed off his long white neck.
‘Now take your partner, Cyril.’
And the rat rose to his hind legs again, as Straub returned to his tune on the piano. The mess went silent as Cec picked up the rat, held it level on his palm. It twirled slowly in time to the music. It was a dance of unexpected grace, performed in the most unlikely of places. When the notes wound down the men applauded. The rat took a bow. No one laughed this time.
‘Righto, you lot.’ It was Sergeant Bryce, who’d come into the mess tent unnoticed. ‘It’s time to say nightie-night to Cyril.’
The men protested, but began to peel off, make their way back to their sleeping quarters.
‘Get some rest, you buggers. Tomorrow morning, we’re going up the line. Polygon Wood. Rollcall at 0500 hours.’
The last of the soldiers drifted from mess tent, grumbling. Eddie went to Cec.
‘Well, well, Cec, dinner and a show,’ he said.
‘Eddie?’ The kid stared open mouthed at him.
‘Fancy meeting you here,’ Eddie said. ‘This your first tour?’
Cec nodded as Eddie helped him out of the dress and back into his uniform. Together they tramped back to the barn where they were camping for the night. It was almost dark and the autumn air was sharp on Eddie’s face. They walked quickly to keep warm.
‘Didn’t think you’d make it over, mate,’ Eddie said. The last he’d heard was Cec had been recruited, but by that notorious other home side, the conscientious objectors – the ones who marched in rallies and were staunchly anti-war. He was curious as to what had made Ivy’s brother decide to enlist with the AIF after all. Perhaps his family had talked him round. It couldn’t have been easy on Ivy and her parents, having a conchie for a brother and a son.
Cec didn’t reply straight away.
‘Heard you got mixed up with those Wobblies at home,’ Eddie said. ‘Those objector types. Writing papers to parliament. Pasting up notices.’
Cec grimaced. ‘Yes,’ he nodded.
‘Bunch of shirkers, if you ask me,’ Eddie said.
‘That’s the common view, yes,’ Cec murmured. ‘But not the half of it.’
‘You picked a funny time to have principles, mate.’
‘Yes,’ Cec said again. ‘Yes, I did.’ The younger man stopped, turned to face Eddie. ‘But tell me, what do you believe in? Why are you here?’
Eddie frowned: the question had floored him. ‘Bit cheeky,’ he said. ‘Coming from a conchie.’
He wanted to tell Cec that after almost two years in Europe he had no clue why he was here, or what he believed in anymore. But that wasn’t the truth.
‘I believe in this,’ he said finally, patting his Enfield.
He changed the subject. ‘So why did you enlist?’
Cec hesitated. ‘They came to see mother,’ he said.
Cec hung his head, nodded. Then the penny dropped for Eddie.
‘That white feather lot?
‘Bunch of school girls,’ Eddie said dismissively.
‘They may well be. But their message was clear.’
Eddie sensed Cec’s discomfort but his curiosity got the better of him.
‘Did they leave you a feather?’
Cec sighed. ‘They left a whole chicken.’
‘A white chook? On your mother’s doorstep?
Eddie roared with laughter. ‘Nothing says you’re a coward, like a trussed up chook,’ he chortled. ‘Oh Cec, this is the second time you’ve made my night.’
Cec smiled in spite of himself.
‘How’s Ivy?’ Eddie said suddenly.
‘She’s done it now,’ Cec said.
‘Signed up to be a nurse. Mother is furious.’
Eddie chuckled, but he felt a pang too. Ivy had wanted to study medicine at the Grammar School in Brisbane, but she hadn’t been accepted to take the entrance examinations on account of being female. Nursing must have been her compromise.
‘I’ve been intending to write,’ Eddie said.
It sounded feeble, even to him. Cec only nodded.
They had reached their sleeping quarters. Inside the barn, a few dozen men were laid out on stretchers to sleep.
‘This doesn’t bode well,’ Cec said, pulling up at the sight like a spooked horse.
‘We’re a bit short on four poster beds at the front,’ Eddie said.
They found a couple of unoccupied stretchers and turned in.
But sleep eluded Eddie. As he lay there, the unexpectedly rich dinner sat heavy in his stomach. He scratched at the lice in his strides absent-mindedly. He turned on his back and glimpsed a slice of Belgian sky through a crack in the roof shingles. Heavy-looking clouds obscured his view of the stars.
Seeing Cec had brought his brother Archie to mind again; in that moment, Eddie saw his twin holding a trident, dressed in a crown and wearing a robe the colour of the sea. He remembered how they had been made gods by their teacher, Miss Patterson, when acting out The Iliad.
There were twelve boys in the class who attended the little tin school by the creek. ‘Which is lucky,’ Miss Patterson had said, ‘because there were twelve gods on Olympus. So you will each have a part.’
They were to perform the poem on the stage at the Pastoral and Agricultural Society Show, between the beef cattle and jam exhibits. When Miss Patterson assigned the roles, they learnt that Archie was to be Poseidon, the protector of the waters. Eddie had felt a curl of jealousy twist in his gut: Archie’s part sounded noble and important.
To Eddie Miss Patterson gave the part of Ares.
‘Who’s that, Miss?’
‘Why, Ares is the god of war, Edwin.’ She had smiled as she said this.
Eddie thrilled as he imagined a swift-footed warrior in a helmet carrying a spear.
‘But Ares is a turncoat,’ Archie had piped up. ‘He’s a coward.’
Eddie hadn’t been able to stop himself, had rushed over and given Archie a flogging.
‘I am not a coward,’ he’d shouted as he pummelled his fists into his brother.
‘Boys,’ Miss Patterson had admonished, doing her best to separate them.
‘Now apologise to your brother, Edwin.’
But he’d refused.
‘It says in the poem,’ Archie had muttered. ‘It says so in The Iliad. He changes sides in the war.’
‘Never mind that,’ Miss Patterson had said, organising them in a choral formation. ‘Now repeat after me boys: Sing, goddess, the deadly wrath of Achilles…’
Sometimes it seemed as though they had been pitted against one another since that day, brother against brother. And Eddie had been cast as the dishonourable one.
Eddie wondered what Archie was up to now. Probably prancing around on his Waler, Lord Knickerbocker, in Sinai, leading a unit of mounted infantry. Turned out Archie had become a desert hero, not a sea one – but a hero all the same.
They’d both intended to join the Light Horse in fact, but only Archie had been accepted. Eddie recalled the day they’d been put through their horsemanship trials by the recruiters. They’d been instructed to ride bareback and demonstrate they could shoot while mounted. Desperate to be accepted, Eddie had thrown himself into the tests, working his horse into a lather, while Archie had taken his time, kept a cool head. The recruiters told Eddie it was because of his horse that day, but Eddie knew different: they hadn’t liked his rash style. And now his brother had become Lieutenant Archie De Courcy of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, while he was just another Private, an infantryman creeping on his belly in the mud along the Western Front.
Eddie was almost asleep when a sound like artillery fire made him leap in his bed. As his hands closed around his rifle he felt a drop of water on his face. It was rain, hammering staccato-like on the roof.
The other men groaned as they were awakened by the downpour from the Flanders sky. Eddie sat up and felt about for his kit bag in the dark. He rummaged until his hand closed around the postcard of the fields and the picture-book house he had bought, as well as the notepaper and pencil he’d stashed there.
He got up, crept through rows of sleeping men, made his way outside and ran through the sheets of rain to the mess tent, where Cook and his kitchen hand were still washing the dishes from their tea by lamplight. Eddie pulled up at a table and set out his writing things. He stared at the postcard again: the picture of the house and the fields and the clean white space on the back. It looked so pretty he didn’t want to muck it up with a mistake. He would practise on the notepaper first, he decided.
He did not know what to write. He wasn’t good at this, at putting his thoughts down. He ought to be writing to his mother instead, he thought. She had cried as she readied herself for their send-off ball, tears streaking through the pale powder on her face. ‘Who will look after the horses when you’re gone?’ she’d asked later as they’d danced together on the creaky wooden stage.
Ivy had been at the soldiers’ send-off dance too, of course. They were just newly engaged; in the heady rush following the announcement the Empire was going to war and the scrabble to enlist, Eddie had proposed to the girl whom the twins had known since childhood, their good mate Cec’s sister. His head reeled now, thinking of all that had happened in those few weeks to alter the course of their lives. Had he been too impulsive, behaved too much like Ares again, that god of rushing in?
He could still see Ivy there on the stage of the Theatre Royal in Townsville, tizzied up for the ball, as they waited to have their portrait taken. A travelling photographer had set up a special booth to take photographs of the troops and their families that night, complete with props and a backdrop of painted stars. Ivy had sat there on the big paper moon, her face wan as the bumbling man in the top hat had taken their likeness. She did not look at Eddie, and it seemed now as though her eyes had been searching out someone else in the crowd. He remembered the way her shoulder had stiffened as Eddie had placed his hand there for the photograph and how suddenly the electric lights festooning the theatre had hissed, spat and gone out, leaving the whole place in darkness. The society ladies had gasped and clucked in the dark. Eddie had told Ivy to stay put: that he’d soon be back for her. He’d gone to inspect the generator and, together with some other farm lads, had fixed the bung engine. When he’d returned to Ivy though, electric lights blazing once more, he found his brother Archie standing beside his fiancée on the paper moon. The silly photographer was busy arranging them in a tender pose. He would never forget the looks on both their faces, how they’d laughed softly, heads together, as though at some shared joke. He was about to say: ‘Wait, you have the wrong fellow,’ but the photographer’s flash went off, too late. It was then that they’d clocked sight of him, in the dissipating smoke. Archie didn’t say a word, just took off and left the engaged couple without so much as a goodbye. Eddie had turned to Ivy, still sitting on the paper moon. He had been intending to ask her for a dance. But something about the way she watched Archie make his way through the crowd and out the front door made him refrain. Even now, Eddie couldn’t shake the feeling that something had happened between his fiancée and his twin brother that night: there had been some moment or understanding they’d shared in the dark.
Now as he wrote to her, he saw Ivy, waving, unsmiling, at the port in Townsville as their troopship departed the next day, saw her turning away towards the shore. And the biscuits she had made him for the journey: how bloody awful they had been. I hope you can sew better than you cook, Ivy, he thought now, if you’re going to be stitching people up.
He licked his pencil stub and put it to the paper. He’d let his hand write what it wanted to say.
Today we arrived in Belgium. What a spread there was for our dinner and the entertainment put on after did not disappoint either. The rain is a bit of a dampener but it is nothing we are not used to.
He pictured the weather turning the ground to swamp, remembering the way the mud sucked at your legs, the way it threatened to swallow you whole.
But our worries are small as there is a circus in town. There is a ringmaster in a fine cape and a whole spectacle of performing animals. I expect you would like the tigers best.
Eddie felt a prick of conscience about the lie, but he told himself it wasn’t a big lie. It didn’t matter what he wrote, or that he could barely see the words on the page by Cook’s sparse ration of light. What mattered was that he was writing to her.
This part of Belgium is very pretty, as you can see from the picture, he added.
He thought of the dugout they would soon occupy, could not shake the feeling that the high wall of dirt around them at Fromelles had felt like an earthen coffin.
And who do you think I’ve stumbled on at camp here? You would not believe it, of all people – your own little brother, Cec. I am heartened to see he came to his senses and turned up to lend a hand. I will show him the ropes, don’t you worry, and make sure he keeps well.
He felt this promise settle across his shoulders, like a timber yoke. Who was he to think like this? Like a god? He could promise Ivy no such thing.
And what else do you think I’ve found, Ivy? Your blue ribbon, of course, which I’ll keep safe in my pocket until I return.
Perhaps this, this one thing, he could do.
He folded the letter once, and then again and again until it was a tiny parcel of smudged words. He buried it in a deep pocket of his greatcoat.
IT WAS EARLY when he woke, the weak pre-dawn light filtering through the cracks in the barn roof.
Eddie hoisted himself off his makeshift bed, threw on his clothes and blew on his hands to warm them. His breath came out like he was chuffing Three Castles cigarettes.
Cec was still asleep, his greatcoat pulled up over his head. Eddie could hear him snoring through the woollen fabric, and he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
‘Get up, mate, it’s your christening day,’ he whispered.
Today was it: the day they were going up the line. This evening, Cec would return a proper solider. If he returned. But the lump under the coat did not stir.
‘What mate? Feeling poorly?’
‘No,’ said Cec, through the thick wool.
‘No malingering,’ Eddie told him, but kindly. Eddie knew how to get around a frightened beast. It was one of things he was good at on the station, perhaps even better than Archie. He removed the coat from Cec’s head gently. A couple of the fellows who had been in the mess audience last night passed by Cec’s stretcher.
‘Look here, it’s our Paris dancer,’ said one.
‘Where’s Cyril?’ said the other, humming a romantic tune.
‘He’s gone to the pictures, don’t you know,’ Eddie said. ‘Now leave off, you lot.’
And they guffawed and tottered off, waltzing arm in arm across the muddy barnyard to rollcall.
Cecil shivered. Eddie flung his kit on the bed.
‘Listen mate, it’ll be like bloody Hades at the party,’ he said, doing up his own tunic. He had trouble with a couple of the buttons. His hands got like that on battle days.
‘Party?’ Cecil repeated.
‘I mean the battle.’
‘Oh,’ said Cecil. He sagged again and made to lie back down on his stretcher.
‘It’s sort of like a party, I suppose,’ Eddie mused. ‘All lights and tinkling music. And you’ve got to dance like the devil to survive it, so you’ll be right.’
Cecil moaned, but Eddie stood the kid up on his feet and began dressing him in his kit like he was the mother and Cec his little son. He hummed the theme to ‘Sugar Moon’. It was what he did with wild-eyed calves in the crush at home.
‘Let me give you some advice,’ he said as he did up the lad’s bootlaces. ‘When they say “advance”, stick to the middle. No need to be a glory hound up front. And if you hang at the back, you might get a bullet up your date. Deliberate-like,’ he emphasised, taking Cec by the shoulders.
‘Deliberately?’ Cec repeated.
‘Old Sarge is not above shooting AIF if they linger,’ Eddie explained.
‘Right you are,’ said Cec, his eyes widening.
‘And if he’s coming for you, old Fritz, clobber him once and clobber him good.’
Eddie took up his Enfield with its bayonet, newly greased and cleaned; he demonstrated what his friend should do.
‘You hear me, Cec?’
‘Yes,’ whispered Cecil. ‘I think I do.’
‘Righto,’ said Eddie, straightening Cec’s tunic. ‘I think we’re ready to report for duty.’
Eddie gently steered Cec towards the exit and, once outside, pushed him in the direction of the assembly ground. They made their way to rollcall in the filthy cold dark, silent save for the drum of the rain on their helmets. Eddie thought he heard the sound of a distressed cow in the house yard, but hummed the theme to ‘Sugar Moon’ again to drown the sound out. They were halfway to their destination before he realised he was holding Cecil’s hand, leading him like a child or a dumb animal to the yard.
Yet he could not let go.
They joined their company just as rollcall began. It took an age to get through them all and men were swaying on their feet by the end of it. A few fainted, dropped and were caught by the mud.
Eddie suddenly felt sick, sick of it all. He saw the after-ground of their last offensive, the bodies turning up days later, the earth too swollen with the dead to hold them. He vomited, quick, in the mire at his feet. No one even glanced his way. But Cecil squeezed his hand.
Eddie wiped his mouth, stood up straighter.
It was towards the end of the rollcall when Eddie noticed two fellows on the fringes of their company begin to drift away from the group. One had jug ears and a smug look; the other wore a hat pulled low on his face, a scar just visible on his chin. He felt that he had seen them before, though he couldn’t have said where.
Without thinking, he took a step after them. Eddie’s feet were speaking for him. He felt Cec turn, look hard at the side of his face, his mouth a question. Just at that moment, Eddie didn’t care. He wondered what would happen if he fell out too, if he walked away with them. And he knew he longed to follow them, catch up with them in the dark, and go with them to wherever they were going, to hide out, silent in a hole like the rabbits he tracked at home.
But then there was Cecil Blow, holding fast onto his hand.
‘RIGHTO, DE COURCY, it’s time to hop over,’ the Sarge said in his earhole. Even when he was whispering he was bawling you out. Eddie’s head swam.
It was evening, about 1700 hours, he guessed. All day they had been lying in the ditch that demarcated the Allied front line. He could hear rather than see Cec breathing beside him, a high thin whistle in and out his nostrils. There’d been nothing to eat or drink all day. They were forbidden to light a smoke lest it attract the enemy.
‘I’d kill for a cig,’ he’d heard one officer say and it seemed they’d have to. A couple of the men had started to get twitchy. Their eyes darted around their shallow hideout, their fingers trembling on their weapons. Earlier, Eddie had overheard a couple of blokes whispering that they’d assembled at this spot before, that there had been two prior offensives attempted here.
‘Third time lucky, eh?’ said one, a grim line to his mouth. And they both laughed, though there was no mirth in it.
The one that had spoken nodded in Cec’s direction. ‘Look at that debutant,’ he murmured.
Eddie turned to look at Cec. The kid’s face was flaming. The other man though, when he turned to regard Cec, did not smirk as Eddie had expected. He smiled sympathetically. More than half his teeth were missing. Cec smiled back, in gratitude.
There was still that, then, Eddie thought. Men being kind to each other.
‘Are you deaf, private?’ hissed the Sarge, bending to thump Eddie between the shoulder blades. ‘This is the moment, my lads. We’re going over.’
Sarge straightened up and addressed the greater company. He held aloft the whistle he carried on a filthy string around his neck.
‘All rise, troops!’
At the officer’s command the company rose. All but Cecil, who was still in the mud.
‘Ready? Sarge bawled, his face going red. And the lot of them braced like cattle about to cross a river.
‘Remember: advance on my signal!’
Sarge placed the whistle between his teeth. Eddie felt their formation’s collective intake of breath, as though these fellows were all part of a single entity, a many-headed beast.
The silence was ripped open by the drubbing of the shells; the battle had started. They were to advance behind the barrage and take their ground that way. The artillery was so loud that Eddie thought his head might fly off. But underneath the din could be heard the shrill scream of Sarge’s whistle, instructing them: ‘Advance! Advance! Advance!’
And the company, though hungry and disorientated, did. All except Cec and Eddie.
It was Sarge hissing in their faces, yanking them by their shirtsleeves. Eddie lip-read the words he didn’t catch. He’d become good at that.
‘Yes, sir?’ replied Cec, scrambling to his feet.
‘What are you waiting for, a written invitation?’
‘My helmet, sir.’
‘What in the blazes? Advance, before I shoot you myself. You too, De Courcy.’
‘But I don’t have my helmet, sir.’
‘I don’t care if you don’t have your trousers on. Get fucking going, Blow. Advance! Advance! Advance!’
And he pushed him in the direction of no-man’s-land. Cec fell in the mud, dropping his rifle, but scrabbled to his feet and walked dazedly in the direction of the company. Eddie seized him by the elbow.
‘Remember what I told you about the middle,’ he mouthed to Ivy’s brother. And he jogged them towards the others, the bitter chemicals of the shellfire already filling his nose.
DAMP CLOD PRESSED in all around Eddie, like an earthen straightjacket. He could taste loam in his mouth, feel grit on his tongue and between his teeth. Dirt filled his nostrils and he breathed in the sod, though he needed air desperately.
He clawed at the earth, punched and kicked up. There was a stabbing sensation in his thigh. He reached down, felt a tangle of barbed wire around his leg. He tried to shake it off, shredding his hands as he did, but it wouldn’t move. It seemed to be buried deep within the earth. He was tethered like a dumb beast. He breathed in more dirt and felt panic coursing through him. He knew that blood would be spurting from his wound; that he had no more than minutes to get out. He held his breath and felt for where the wire penetrated his leg. Biting the inside of his cheek he counted to two and reefed it out. The scream in his throat was pressed back by dirt.
There was no time to feel pain. This mud was the enemy. He dug and clawed and strove for the surface as best he could. Above him he could make out unsteady boot steps, the clink and slam of machines guns being loaded and the bleats of injured men. Then there was a hellish shriek and the sigh of shellfire. Artillery bombardment, he remembered, instinctively trying to duck. He reached up and pushed a hand through the topsoil, clawing at the above-ground world. He hauled himself up through the earth though it was slow agony, until he lay on the surface and gasped in air.
Looking up, he saw the sky was patterned with slipstreams of light, as though the enemy were scoring them a new heaven. He felt the earth heave beneath him, the ripple of aftershocks as another shell connected with the dirt.
This sky, though wondrous, hurt his eyes. He moved his head to one side and saw a detached arm beside him. He went to scream but no sound came out. Instead, he heaved up dirt and globules of bile from his guts. Coughing, he patted his body, checking for missing limbs. He seemed intact. But there was something else, something wrong with him. He could sense it.
He tried to recall what had happened. They had advanced, Cec and he, like Sarge had ordered. Then what? Where was the Blow kid? He had an image of himself running, although it was not towards the home infantry but away, away. He shook his head. That couldn’t be right. His mind felt stuffed with dirt, a muddy soup of thoughts. He was aware of a shrieking sound, a hellish ringing in his ears.
Another shell exploded and he was picked up bodily and thrown through the air. He thought his eyes would fall out, that his organs would be pulverised by the force of the blast. He curled into a ball on the ground, desperate to hold himself together. When the smoke finally cleared he struggled up to his elbows and took in his surroundings.
Eddie saw he was in the centre of no-man’s-land. Where earlier it had been sodden field, it was now a series of craters, some filled with water, others flames. Young men in uniform, both the khaki of the Allies and the grey kit of the Huns, were strewn all over. They lay unmoving, at odd angles as though flung out of heaven by a wrathful god. Eddie tugged at his tight shirt collar, spat out more dirt. He patted himself down for his rifle, his strange bedfellow, but it was gone. He had to get up, had to find it again.
He could smell the after-leavings of the shell smoke, picric acid and nitrate and another smell, like charred meat. With horror he realised it was the smell of burning flesh.
He tried to get up, to run, but his legs wouldn’t allow it. He looked down at the pierced one, saw it was seeping. He collapsed back down onto the scorched field. The hot dirt seared his cheek.
He wondered again how he had gotten here, how it had come to this. He’d been lying in their dugout, not having anything to drink all day, so thirsty his mouth felt like a dry riverbed. His hand had shook on his Enfield as they’d waited, watched as though from a distance as he trained it on his feet, first his left boot and then the right. He recalled Sarge bawling at them to hop over, to advance, and Cec had fussed about not having his helmet.
They’d barely taken ten steps before a huge explosion. He’d caught a glimpse of the shell, he realised, the brilliance of it as it landed because they had been behind the others. It had seemed to enter him, that sound, pierce the centre of him, sending his cells splintering in all directions. It had knocked him through the ground, buried him alive, though he had risen finally. But where was Cec, where was his mate? He began to creep on his belly through the mud, looking for him. He had told Ivy he would.
‘Cec,’ he bawled. ‘Cecil Blow! Come out you bastard! You conchie!’
He was answered by a whinny, and as he looked up, he saw a golden palomino, a real beauty, galloping by. The horse looked odd to Eddie though, wrong somehow. It made a high-pitched sound as it ran, less of a whinny, more of a scream. As it passed, he realised the creature was on fire, trying to flee from itself in terror. The horse, magnificent and alight, blazed through the smoke-dark landscape.
He directed his gaze to the field and the battle, to the idea of getting himself out of no-man’s-land. Which was when he saw the rifle, just beyond his fingertips. He retrieved it, feeling the comfort of the polished wood under his mud-caked hands. It wasn’t his – he knew each bump and nick of its shape – but it would do. He crawled forward on his stomach, still calling out for Cec.
Oddly, he could hear music now, the tinkle of musical notes. And as he turned his head, he saw a piano, of all things. But where was the player? Then he saw the instrument too was commandeered by fire. The blaze was licking at the piano pedals, and the fire played a wild, soulful tune, like none he had heard before.
And under the music, he heard the sound of ragged breathing. Eddie froze on his belly as he saw a boy crawling towards him, his face covered in grime, his eyeballs yellowed as the piano’s keys. As the lad moved towards Eddie, he rasped like a bellows, each intake of breath an apparent agony.
Cec, Eddie thought with relief. Then he took in the boy’s terrible grey tunic and britches.
The German grew nearer, taking an agonising time. Events slowed down; Eddie felt as though everything was happening at the pace of lunch-hour trade in Flinders Street at home in Townsville.
When the Hun finally reached him, he saw the boy could be no more than sixteen. He had a thread of blood trickling from his ears. Raising one unsteady arm, the German grabbed for the dagger slung in his belt loop and lunged at Eddie from his position on all fours.
Rage rose in Eddie then, suffused him like the rose perfume his mother had puffed in clouds around herself when he and Archie were children. This boy, barely out of school shorts, was going to clobber him. Who was he, this lad, to take this so far beyond decency? It came to him then, the answer to Cec’s earlier question. This was why he was here; this was what he believed in. He fumbled for the rifle that was not his.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ Eddie hissed.
The boy did not reply, only lunged at him again. And when the boy raised his dagger a third time, Eddie’s ire gave him the strength to roll like a grub away from the strike. Turning back to see what his attacker planned next, he saw the German boy had put down his weapon and was staring at Eddie, a strange look on his face. Wordlessly, the kid pointed to Eddie’s head.
Eddie lifted his hand and felt the top of his skull. It was warm and soft there, where it should have been hard.
Eddie dropped his eyes from the lad’s gaze. There was a smear of matter on his hands that he wiped on his shirtfront. He felt cold and goose pimples raised on his skin, though the whole place was on fire. He thought suddenly that his mother would be disappointed. He thought he should have followed his own advice, stayed in the middle with the others.
Now someone was singing to him. At first he thought it was his mother, come to bring him home, until he realised it was the boy, crooning a lullaby in German.
Eddie lay down to rest. He listened to the soothing words of the song, let them send him towards sleep. He let his body relax, allowing himself to be cradled by the ground and for his shuddering nerves to steady, come finally to a halt. He exhaled. He had done well. He had advanced like Sarge had instructed, confronted the enemy, like they had trained him to. He, Ares, this little god of war, would rest a while. He let his eyelids close.
And as he lay in the bubbling mud, he heard the strangled crescendo of the piano as it was engulfed by flames. He saw the rat, Cyril, riding his bike for the troops’ entertainment and the faces of the blokes as they laughed and cheered. And all the while the Hun boy sang to him.
AND SUDDENLY THERE she was, his Ivy. A woman in a long white dress, her auburn hair parted and fixed under a cheery white cap. She walked to where Eddie lay, no longer on the ground in the burning field but raised high on a cool metal trolley, as high as a church dais, in a light, bright room.
She approached holding a silver tray. Was she asking him to tea? He fancied a drink, parched from his tour of that bastard no-man’s-land. But when she neared he saw that on the tray were not teacups and dainties, but gleaming metal instruments. He groaned and tried to swing his feet to the floor, but they were leaden and would not be persuaded. He saw a white cloth tied around one of his thighs, a white cloth for surrender. She put the tray down on a nearby table and its clang echoed through him, made him tremble.
The woman turned to him and smiled. She had a wide, smooth forehead and freckles on her nose. It was not Ivy, but someone else. He liked her though, liked her smile. Now she was leaning over a curious-looking apparatus, a portable tank connected to a bladder and metal hose; she seemed to dance around its pedals with her feet. As she rigged up the thing she made comforting noises, then bent towards him and took his hand. He thought she might kiss him then, but she didn’t. Instead she attached a rubber mask to the device and held this to his face.
Eddie froze, wanted to tell her he wouldn’t be able to breathe, but then he caught a whiff of the juice coming from the tank into the mask. He felt his body relax. A man appeared in the room, his large head floating above Eddie’s face like a cloud. This man too was wearing white, though he had a red nose.
‘The patient is ready, doctor,’ the young woman said.
Eddie wanted to say he wasn’t ready at all but the woman pumped the foot pedal and the delicious gas flowed up through his nose and into his seared lungs, soothing them. He saw the man nod and select one of the gleaming medical implements, felt the weight of the man’s large hands on his head. The woman who was not Ivy appeared in his line of vision again, placed her warm hand on his brow.
Eddie felt her fingers slip into the tangle of his head. The nurse told him to breathe and he did, distracted by other men who were suddenly appearing in the room. Cec was there and he was intact, praise be. Archie was there and, funnily enough, the German lad too, the one who had sung to him while no-man’s-land burned around them.
Eddie saw missing men and dead men as this man and woman worked on him. He saw his solider brothers, or their soul-shapes, floating in the pristine air. They were the full versions of themselves, beautifully formed, without holes or lost limbs. But he knew they were all tethered, like balloons on strings, to their bodies in the field.
Loyalty, he thought. To what, though? Their young bodies? Something had made them stay.
It was disbelief, he decided, that tethered them there. Disbelief that such a thing had happened to them, young men in the middle of their lives. What would set them free and let them float away? Perhaps they knew. But should he join them?
When Eddie came around from the surgery he was nodding.
BACK ON THE ward, Eddie woke laughing. He laughed as the nurses changed his head dressings and his bedpan. He laughed as they administered sips of water and shushed him.
A few beds away a sister was reading to a lieutenant with a missing hand. She was reading from a copy of Old Mother West Wind, which Miss Patterson had read to Eddie at school. And so Eddie laughed again, delighted at the familiar lines.
The soup was a real joke too, with its floaters of meat and carrot tops. ‘Horse,’ he said pointing to his bowl as he leant towards his nearest neighbour. That bloke hadn’t stirred in over six hours.
Eddie laughed and he recognised the sound. It was the sound of the mad Boer War soldier’s laugh as it rattled around the cave that day when they were kids. He and the other lads had been intent on scaring the old fellow for sport, but the soldier had frightened them instead; his roar as they’d approached with their little voices had been terrible, ricocheting off the stone walls. The unearthly noise had sent the lot of them racing for the beach and the daylight. And Cec Blow had fainted, knocked out by his fright.
Eddie had several flesh-and-blood visitors on the ward as well, though he had expected no one. Some lean fellows badly in need of a wash stopped by his bed the day after his surgery, told him they were stretcher-bearers for the Fifth Division. They had been the ones to find him, to save him from the inferno of the piano. He hated them for that. He watched them leave the field hospital, hats in hand, and he laughed again.
The surgeon made his rounds, stood at the foot of Eddie’s bed. ‘Edwin De Courcy?’ he said, reading from a folder.
Eddie laughed. His name sounded odd read out loud.
‘You’ve a piece of your skull missing. Likely damage to the brain.’
Eddie laughed harder.
‘We found shrapnel. Couldn’t get it all. Well, not without doing more damage.’
The doctor made an ambiguous wafting gesture around his own head. Eddie laughed some more, delighted.
The surgeon regarded him, pushing his glasses up on his pitted nose.
‘Son?’ he asked. A nurse led the surgeon away.
It wasn’t until they pulled the sheet up over his neighbour, bundled him onto a stretcher and took away his body that Eddie stopped laughing. He watched as a new private was eased by two nurses into the bed beside him. This fellow looked like he’d been in pub brawl as opposed to a stoush at the front. He had been pummelled like a boxing bag, with bruises all over. He winced as he lay back against the pillow. As Eddie stared at the newcomer, he knew that he’d seen him before. The jug ears, the smug expression. He had been one of the pair who had skived off, stolen away from their dawn rollcall at Ypres.
‘Hey,’ said the deserter. ‘I know you.’
‘Yes,’ said Eddie, not laughing.
‘You’re with the Fifth,’ said the fellow. ‘Saw you at Ypres.’
‘Didn’t see you, though,’ said Eddie. ‘All bloody night.’ He didn’t know that he’d come out so righteous.
The newcomer held his gaze. ‘Thought I recognised you,’ he said softly.
Eddie didn’t say anything. He remembered his own drifting feet at the pre-dawn rollcall and how he’d badly wanted to follow this man. He recalled it had been Cec who’d held fast to his hand, anchored him to their greater fate.
‘There’s another company, you know,’ the fellow murmured.
Eddie rolled over in his bed, turned to face the other way. But the fellow was insistent.
‘Stationed not too far from here. A secret infantry.’
Eddie reached for the pencil and the writing paper the nurse had given him. He’d keep himself safe by writing to Ivy, to drown out the voice of the fellow beside him. He would post this with the other note he’d stashed in his greatcoat, send the letters home together.
Dear Ivy, he began.
Do you think you could check on Mother at Delilah Station for me? I don’t know how you will find her, or whether she’s had news from Archie. I expect it must be quiet there now with the old gang all racing around the globe and that you must all miss us dear old boys. We shall have to organise one of our beach picnics when we all return. Gracie the mare must be about due. She likes to foal by the corner paddock.
He felt there was something else he should tell Ivy, something important, but he couldn’t remember what that might be, anymore.
‘I’ve a feeling they might take you, that army,’ the fellow whispered, the words crystalline in Eddie’s ears.
EDDIE PICKED HIS way along the treacherous dirt road, keeping to the forest side and the cover of the trees. The countryside was eerily silent. He had passed not one cow or horse or bird, let alone a human soul on his way here. Eddie wondered if he were the only person left in the world.
It had been easy enough on his discharge from the field hospital to wander in the direction of his former camp at Ypres. It would appear to anyone who was watching that he was on his way to rejoin what was left of his company. He had heard on the ward that they had instructions to march further east.
The word also during the weeks Eddie had been recovering was that the Passchendaele campaign was being dropped. The lieutenant opposite Eddie had said they’d gained less than five miles of ground during the three-month offensive.
Private Keyes, Eddie’s neighbour, had drawn him a crude map to the secret camp on the back of his medical clearance certificate.
Eddie told himself that he wasn’t following the map, he was only walking to clear his head. When he felt better he would return to his unit and stand among the whole of the Fifth Division, take his place at the next offensive beside them. That he would return to them and if he was charged with being AWOL for this day of unsanctioned leave-taking – well, so be it. He planned to return eventually; of course he did.
By the looks of the muted light filtering through the quavering trees, he guessed it was about two in the afternoon. Soon the colour would leach out of the day and it would grow cooler still. Winter had almost arrived. He was weak from walking and he desperately needed water. He had set off without provisions, wearing only the clean uniform they had issued in the hospital. At least he was free from lice.
He ducked into the trees, their branches skinny and knotted like old bones. Perhaps he’d find a pool. A drink would set his head straight; after that he’d be right to return to his unit.
Inside the forest, he marvelled that this patch of vegetation had escaped the imprint of the fighting. Bluebells covered the ground. Not a single flower had been harmed and the trees were unmolested. Just ahead looked to be a glade. He was sure he would find water there.
A single bird chittered above him and Eddie looked up in wonder. The sunlight filtering through the canopy blinded him momentarily, but when his eyes adjusted he saw a beech tree curiously adorned in what looked like scraps of cloth. The bird had flown away.
Eddie moved closer to inspect the sight.
It was fabric, a shred of green the exact colour of the AIF uniform. Stepping back he saw all the trees here were covered in scraps of uniform as well as clumps of hair. At first he thought it was the work of the birds, but when Eddie saw the bits of flesh and viscera threaded about the leaves and branches, he knew.
Eddie cried out then and turned and ran towards the glade. There was a large pond in its heart. He ran to the pool’s edge, slipped his hands in to make a cup, but what he saw stopped him from tasting it.
Not six feet away lay a solider in AIF uniform, facedown in the bottom of the pool.
Eddie turned wildly to look for an enemy sniper behind him, but no grey uniforms lurked in the trees. Instead he saw a dozen AIF bodies strewn on the thick carpet of grass around him. He could see blisters on their hands and faces, their mouths fixed open as they took their final breaths. Gas attack, Eddie thought, suddenly frightened to breathe. This place had not been spared after all. And there had been shell blasts too: the pool, he saw now, was actually a crater filled with rancid water.
He rose and skittered around the water’s edge, heading further into the forest. He walked blindly, deeper into the trees, trying not to step on the small animals that he now saw littered the forest floor, gassed birds and rabbits and even a baby pig.
He must have walked another hour before he heard voices: men calling to each other in the accents of home, low and clear, amplified by the silence of the forest. He heard the snapping of timber and the crack of footsteps on the wood-strewn floor.
Eddie froze and peered through the thin trees. There was another cleared patch, beyond which a makeshift camp stood. He unfolded the map Keyes had drawn him, tracing the landmarks and the unfamiliar names of forests and townships he had passed with a grubby finger. He knew he’d found the deserters’ camp.
Exhaling, he looked around. In the low afternoon light, strange figures drifted through the skinny trees. They had the basic outline of men but with bizarre animal accoutrements. One fellow in profile appeared to have a long snout and curiously buggy eyes, though Eddie saw when he turned in his direction the fellow was wearing a gas mask. This soldier led a ragged-looking horse that also wore a curious nosebag, as if he had sprouted the beginnings of a trunk. Another of their tribe did not appear to be a man at all, but some kind of beast, swathed as he was in animal hides. There were perhaps twenty men forming this ramshackle company. He could not have hallucinated this vision, even in his worst delirium.
The deserters’ camp, on first inspection, looked more poorly equipped than the troops’. Their only shelter was made of tent remnants, strung and looped haphazardly between the beech trees. In the dusky light he could make out Benzene tins strewn on the forest floor, put to work catching water and holding rations of cigarettes and bottles of French and German wine – what he imagined to be black-market things. The men were grey with filth and they wore the remnants of uniform, some the tailored tunics of the Brits, some the looser working coats of his fellow Australians. There were stripes on the shoulders of some of the boys.
So, it’s the officers too, he thought. He was not the only one who’d had enough.
Eddie thought of his brother then, Lieutenant Archie De Courcy, who’d played the protector of the seas, the hero, when they’d been boys. He counted the ways he and his twin were different. Somewhere in this list must be the reason he had not risen like Archie. He took a breath and began to take account: Eddie had twenty-five freckles smattered on his sunburnt nose but Archie had twenty-six; Eddie liked the white meat at Sunday lunch while Archie liked the dark; Eddie had a horse called Grace while Archie’s was called Lord Knickerbocker; Eddie had been kicked by a cow as a boy, but Archie had been tossed by a bull; when Eddie ran he threw his left leg, Archie did not; Eddie picked his nose, while Archie did no such thing; Eddie had a piece of his brain missing, while Archie did not; Archie did not flinch, start or hesitate and at night he slept the sleep of the righteous, but Eddie twitched, hearing everything that ever groaned and crept; Archie was half an inch taller than Eddie… And that’s it, he thought. In that incremental measure, lay the vast difference between them. For in that half an inch extra of Archie must be stored the things that Eddie didn’t have. Things like bravery. Things like honour.
And finally? Archie loves Ivy Blow and Eddie does not. Eddie looked up at the Belgian trees and admitted this. He had known his brother loved Ivy and always had. He had known his brother hoped and intended to marry her. He’d seen it confirmed in Ivy’s face the night she sat on the paper moon at the send-off ball and then as she watched Archie fling himself around the world, away from her. That was why he’d proposed: that was why he’d asked her first. It had been what Archie had wanted, most of all, and Eddie had made it his own.
As Eddie took in the scene before him, he knew Archie would never seek out a place like this. He was no turncoat, no coward. And perhaps that thought should have made him circle back, turn away from this misfits’ camp and leave this blasted forest. But Eddie was tired, so tired of it all. Not only of his twin being cast as the greater god, the hero, though that had been hard to bear. But he was tired of being himself, always falling short, being just that bit shy of the better man. He would cut the tether to the others, the ones he had seen as he endured his operation: his well-meaning friends and family who knew him only as Ares. Eddie De Courcy, here and now, would set himself free.
And so, on that grey afternoon, Eddie De Courcy whistled the coded greeting, exactly as Keyes had taught him: a long, low note of defeat. He held his breath as men emerged from the cover of the forest, all with faces as grey as the trees. Silent, they glowered as they approached, took in the size of him. These men had a hungry look about them. They stank of smoke and animal fat and something else besides, a scent he couldn’t quite place. It was the sharpness he’d smelled on horses when charging a pack of the enemy. Fear. Or, perhaps, freedom.
In the weakening light he noticed one joker wore a Fritz hat. And it was this fellow who raised his rifle as the sun dropped on this particular no-man’s-land. Eddie swallowed and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. But he smiled: these men were like the dogs in the alley back at home. Among this pack, too, some bared teeth, while some cowered.
The silence in the forest was broken open by the rasp of match being lit. And Eddie wanted to tell them that he’d answered their rollcall, was ready for their front line, come what may. The soldier who had lit the match stepped forward as he put the flame to a cigarette. A fellow might be thumped over the head in the dugouts and told to put their cig out. Even that tiny pinprick of light in the dark was a red flag to the enemy. And those lights across no-man’s-land had looked very pretty, Eddie thought, the night that he was buried alive in the earth. But a bloke couldn’t say things like that out loud, could he? Not when the fields would soon enough again be filled with fighting, acrid smoke and bits of cobbers skewered on barbed wire.
As the smoker drew hard on his cigarette, Eddie saw that it was the fellow who had been with Private Keyes, the one with the hat over his eyes and the thin scar south of his lips. He seemed to be the one in charge; he wore no shirt, only his strides, but his chest was marked in ash, as though painted up for some secret ritual.
All the fellows were eyeballing him, and Eddie raised his arms higher in surrender, to this new army, one outside all the lines. He did not know if they were his kind at all. But he knew he couldn’t stay there in the trenches with the dead men. They were all dead. They just didn’t know it yet.
Eddie cleared his throat, stepped towards this new Sarge, the man with the ash markings. He had the sense he was stepping over some invisible line. He stuck his fingers in his coat pocket and felt the mail stashed there, including the unfinished letter to Ivy that he’d started in the field hospital. He hadn’t been able to write the last line, but it came to him then.
I am sorry, Ivy, he wrote in his head. I cannot bring you that blue ribbon you wished for.
Because he couldn’t go back, could never return home to the cattle and the bawling heifers and his mother crying at her dressing table and his brother’s true sweetheart, Ivy, and his mate Cec. He could never return to stand under that wide dome of sky, that searing north Queensland light.
‘I’d like to join you,’ he told the painted man, the Sarge.
‘We’re not recruiting,’ the Sarge replied.
This was another world, Eddie thought. There was another language and way of being. Would he be able to speak, fit in?
‘You have to take me,’ he said at last.
‘And why is that, Private?’
The man dressed in the skins sneered at him. There was another currency here too. They traded in fear in this shadowy corner of the world. There would be no more writing letters home.
Eddie shoved his hand in his khaki pocket, his hand closing around the blue ribbon stashed there. It was crusted now with mud and blood and all the other unnameable things you could find in these Flanders fields. Its beauty, its fineness, gone.
‘Because I can’t go back,’ Eddie said simply. It was true. If he left now, they’d shoot him for finding them. If he made it back, he’d be court-martialled, charged with desertion, branded forever.
The Sarge didn’t say yes or no. Instead he drew lazily on his cigarette. ‘What’s your name, Private?’
Eddie paused slightly before replying. ‘Archie,’ he said. ‘My name is Archie De Courcy.’