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The Happy Gang

a short story

by Neil Williamson

Hello there, Doctor, I see you have found me at last. Here in my refuge. I'm able to walk further every day, but I suppose I should have known there is no outrunning you and your forms. Isn't this a beautiful corner of the village? So peaceful? No?

No, I can see you have more insistent priorities this afternoon than the simple pleasures of an apple orchard.

You want me to tell it again, don't you? You want me to change my story, give you something you can put in a report. You want me to say it didn't happen. To be honest there are times when I'm not even sure myself any more. That's what you want to hear, isn't it? That's your ticket to send me back. My return to sanity, my admission that I'm scared to go back.

Well, I am. I'm terrified.

That's how I know he's dead. The Captain.

But what does any of this matter. Crazy or sane, it's immaterial, isn't it? If I can walk and carry a gun your report will be signed and stamped, and I'll be sent back regardless.

Very well, Doctor. I'll tell it again, but it'll cost you a couple of your wonderful pills. You know I'm convinced they are a weaker dose. I can feel the shakes beginning and it has barely been two hours since my breakfast dose. Let me know if I miss out any of your favourite parts.

You know how I came to be in France, of course. I had been in the thick of it since the spring of 1916, serving at the front line as an MO with the 3rd Lancs. Then my father got wind of what was about to happen that summer, and he pulled strings, first getting me transferred to a field hospital behind the lines, then removing me further from danger with my attachment to the Surgeon General at GHQ. He would have had me back home completely if he could, but even Lord Hawthorne couldn't manage that. Still I suppose he did his best to keep me out of it, and having seen what I have seen it is no cowardice for me to say that I am thankful. 1916 was close to being the single most frightening time of my life. Close, but not quite.

By March of this year, it was obvious that the campaign along the Somme was going badly. Christmas had come and gone, and both sides had dug in for the long haul. GHQ decided a morale boosting tour of the trenches was in order. The party was to be fronted by General Atkinson. They could hardly have chosen a less sympathetic man for the job. I was co-opted as an adjutant but my main function was to report back to the Surgeon General's office on the status of our medical facilities.

On the morning of the seventeenth of March 1917 we drove down from Amiens. Our first stop was the casualty clearing station at Albert. A school house turned into a miniature hell. The officers presented their usual bluff encouragement, but I could tell that one or two of our small party were shaken by what they saw. Every bed was full, and the spaces between the beds were occupied by pallets on the floor. Every one of those was full as well. There were bodies everywhere. Men awaiting surgery to save, or more likely remove, recently blasted limbs, plug body cavity wounds, patch broken heads, before being loaded onto the hospital train to Amiens or Paris. For some, surgery had not come quickly enough, their wounds bulbous with stinking, gangrenous blisters.

I had to hand it to those boys. They did a fine job of keeping a respectful silence. Only muted whimpers bore evidence of their suffering, and there was not a glimmer of disrespect for their superiors. The men who had led them to this. If the trench newspapers were to be believed, there was an attitude of derision spreading through our lines faster than lice, but there was no evidence of it here. Instead there were salutes and hand shakes, brave smiles, the occasional cheerful joke. Good lads all of them.

As we left the hospital we passed a young corporal sitting in the shade of the building, his knees up to his chest, arms folded around them. When he showed no sign of acknowledging our party there was a moment of awkwardness during which the officers bristled uncertainly, caught between the omission of the customary show of respect and the fact that there was obviously something amiss with the man.

"What's this fellow's trouble?" growled General Atkinson, eyeing suspiciously the soldier, who had started to rock gently to and fro.

"Shell shock, sir," advised the medic assigned to us for the visit, "It's unlikely he's even aware of your presence."

"Shell shock," Atkinson repeated as if trying the phrase out for the first time. It was still a new term then -- it came with the new style of warfare, the big guns -- although I've heard it used often since. You are fond of it yourself, Doctor.

Atkinson's face pursed sourly, as if the words tasted to him of cowardice. One good look into the soldier's eyes could have told him it was no such thing -- they were focussed elsewhere entirely. A place from where there was little likelihood of return.

It is not a place I have seen, Doctor. Your theories are wrong. I don't know how, but somehow my nerves remain intact. As I've told you, what happened to me was far more cruel.

Our tour took us from Albert to the trenches themselves. At every port of call we were struck by the men's marvellous determination to prevail no matter what. You could almost have taken these soldiers for regulars, instead of the barely trained bunch of conscripts that they were: bankers, butchers and brewers, men my father's age standing alongside youths yet to have their first shave, clusters of school friends, entire sports societies transplanted from their Oxbridge clubs. All of them ice-numbed, glass-eyed and a world away from their former lives; the military rigidity and that thin veneer of darkly cheerful stoicism, all that kept them waking sane every morning. The officers contented themselves with that veneer but I knew better. I had been, albeit briefly before my fortunate reposting, where these men were now.

Our tour was not limited solely to the British troops. On occasion we were greeted warmly by the Canadians, and civilly by the embittered Anzacs. It became a routine, almost like a game: the General's bluff parried back by the troop's own with tight obedience and gritty humour. Then, at the umpteenth dug-out of the morning, a pit-propped hole in the ground housing a handful of men lined up stiff-at-attention for inspection, a boy stumbled down the stairs nursing a bloody hand. Looking back, I have recognised this as one of those moments when the tide of events meets the current of your life at the exact point of maximum interference, and the turbulence throws you off course entirely. If we had left five minutes earlier, I would have been back in the car with the rest of them when the shelling started.

As it was, this white-faced boy's arrival was to blow my life apart as violently as any shell. He stood dripping blood onto the lowest wooden step, caught between his distress and the awareness that he had interrupted a senior officer. The General and the rest of us stared back at him.

"One of your men, Sergeant?" Atkinson asked.

"Private Willis, Sir. Currently on sentry duty," the little Geordie sergeant replied sourly.

"Better get a replacement up there, then. We can't drop our vigilance for a moment, now can we?" Atkinson said this without taking his eyes off the lad. The boy looked as if he might faint.

"Yes, Sir," the sergeant said, and with jilt of his head spurred one of the others into motion up the stairs. Willis had to come fully into the dug-out to let him pass.

"That's a clumsy wound you have there, boy." The way Atkinson said clumsy was as if to say that he found difficulty in imagining that anyone could be so ham fisted. "How'd you come by it?" he asked.

"A piece of shell casing, Sir," Willis whimpered. "It was hidden in the mud."

The General mused for a moment. Then he said, "Still," and there was a sharpness in that word like the unsheathing of his regimental sword. It sliced the air between them with military unequivocation. "Still," he repeated himself, "a trip to the field hospital's probably in order, don't you think? A short rest up there and you'll be as right as rain. I expect, eh?"

Willis nodded uncertainly, puzzled by the officer's tone but exhibiting too obvious relief at his words. The sergeant reacted quickly. "Lambert," he addressed another of his men, "Make sure Willis gets to the field hospital ... "

"No need, Sergeant," Atkinson cut in. "Hawthorne here has all the necessary skills." I swear that was the first time during that entire trip he had as much as acknowledged my presence -- and now it was to make me complicit in his tormenting of this young soldier.

Nevertheless, I deferred to his rank with a muted, "Sir," and looked at the wound.

Having had his fun, Atkinson decided that the tour was at an end. "Finish up quickly and join us back at the car," he said to me.

Suturing the boy's hand took longer than I'd first anticipated. The wound was not only deep but he had torn the webbing between the second and third fingers. To his credit, he made not a sound the whole time, except to say, "I never did it on purpose, Sir."

"Of course you didn't," I reassured, quietly noncommittal, although I couldn't blame him if he had. By the looks of him he was pretty well scared enough to do something that drastic. As I finished off the stitches I wondered privately how long it would be before he turned up at the field hospital with a bullet in the foot.

What do I remember of those moments immediately after leaving that dug-out? I remember pausing for a second, trying to recall which direction to go in. I remember a stickling of fine rain on my brow, a sudden and out of place, fresh meadowy smell, and a far away sound -- a sound that did not become louder as such, but rather became increasingly present in my world. Then the detonation of the world, a chaos of sound, and a heavy rain of stinking wet earth that thudded down on top of my suddenly prone body. My first thought was of Willis and his comrades and, shamefully, how fortunate I had been to escape their fate of interment in the caved-in dug-out. Perhaps, however, there might be some hope if I could locate the spot where the entrance had been and dig quickly, but even as I regained my footing, a second shell exploded and sent me scurrying in the opposite direction, all thoughts of Willis and his comrades blasted away.

I zig-zagged haphazardly along the supply trenches between the lines as the earth flew into the sky and choking smoke billowed around me. I searched desperately for shelter, but nothing made sense to my eyes. Then I was almost tumbling down a set of dug-out stairs before I was aware that the entrance was there.

I stumbled down the stairs, confused and sickened, but what stopped me was the warm murmur of conversation -- the intimate sounds of fireside company. So normal and welcoming a thing here amid the mud and smoke with the artillery pounding iron fists into the earth.

I descended cautiously, intrigued, and saw half a dozen soldiers in various poses of relaxation, apparently untroubled by the hellish re-landscaping undertaken by the bosche shells only a few feet above them. Three of them clustered, laughing, around a letter. The central figure of the trio seemed somewhat embarrassed by what was written there, but apparently did not mind too much. A lover's letter, perhaps? On the bunk above them another stretched out lazily, reading a tatty book. Two more sat around a small table, playing cards. Barring the uniforms the scene could have been from a holiday chalet on a rainy afternoon in Skegness.

Outside a shell hit close by. The lamps swung wildly, little falls of dirt pattering from the ceiling. My heart clenched.

"Wooh! Getting a bit stormy," the men chorused, laughing again. The shock wave kicked me down the remaining steps.

"Oh, hello!" One of the card players, a gangly young man with a flopping blonde fringe rose from his game. He peered in my direction, and then reached up to stop the swinging lamp. "That's better," he grinned, "we can see you now. Name's Marten," he said, extending a hand. His handshake was firm and friendly. "Well, come in, please," he said. "Would you like some tea? There's a pot on. Should be just about ready. Right, Gordon?"

His gaming opponent pulled a battered timepiece from a tunic pocket. "To a tee," he said with a nod of satisfaction. Gordon was an older, tougher looking man. There was a rough burr to his voice that made me look instinctively at his insignia.

"Cameronians?" I asked.

"Spot on," Marten answered. His own accent was similar to my own, a teased-out product of the public school system, but there was possibly a hint of a Scottish lilt there now I was listening for it.

I was offered a bunk to sit on, which I did gratefully, and a hot enamel mug was pressed into my hands. I had not realised until that moment that I was trembling.

"So, what brings you round this neck of the woods in weather like this?" Marten said.

They listened politely while I introduced myself and told them what had happened to me that day. Afterwards, Marten introduced the lads, referring to them collectively as The Happy Gang -- although he did not bother to explain the nickname. My trembling subsided as I began to enjoy the comfort of the dug-out's camaraderie. I found myself liking Marten's quick wit and infectious humour. However, when I mentioned General Atkinson's name there was a chorus of hoots and boos. While I knew the command was becoming increasingly unpopular with the rank and file, I was shocked by such open derision.

"Atkinson's not a favourite around here I take it?" I ventured.

Marten chuckled. "The man's a baboon. An ape, I tell you, and with no more military sense. His only strategy is to hold the line, keeping us sitting here, waiting to be blown to little bits. Men's lives are cheaper to him than artillery shells. He goes through them fast enough." There should have been rancour in Marten's tone as he said this, but he spoke as if he were discussing a disappointing cricket result. The other men murmured their agreement.

It was then, as I looked round them, that I realised there was no higher ranking officer in the dug-out than my own of Captain. "Who's your CO?" I asked.

"Captain Braithwaite," Marten replied blythely.

"Where is he?"

"He's out picking flowers," Marten said, barely suppressing a smirk.

"Are you trying to tell me that your CO is a casualty?" I found the euphemism, not to mention his attitude, suddenly more than a little distasteful. If this Braithwaite had bought it, the humour of his men was callous in the extreme.

"No, Sir." Marten made reference to my rank for the first time. He had the good sense too to moderate his tone somewhat. "Captain Braithwaite is out picking flowers. He thought they would brighten up the dug-out a bit."

"In the middle of that?" Incredulity raised my voice, but it was then that I realised that the shelling was over.

Nevertheless, Marten let the opportunity to smart-alec me pass. "Cap's a very brave man," he said. "He'd do anything for us. Every man here owes him his sanity, if not his life." Again a chorus of enthusiastic assent from the other soldiers. The sense of fun was gone though. And I could not escape the feeling that I was missing something. While I could not believe anyone would go outside for such a frivolous purpose during an artillery attack, the man was clearly not present in the dug-out.

"Well, it's been nice Corporal Hawthorne," Marten, "but it might be a good idea to take advantage of this break in the weather and see if you can get back to your General. Sutherland, here, will point you in the right direction." A stocky chap with a child's chubby cheeks jumped to his feet energetically and retrieved his helmet from the bedpost before waggling his eyebrows at me. The welcoming atmosphere felt somewhat tainted following the bizarre exchange concerning their Captain, but I still didn't want to leave -- especially having heard so little about this extraordinary Braithwaite. And yet, I knew Marten was right. If there was a time to head back, now was it.

While Sutherland bounded up the steps ahead of me I turned to the assembled men, "I'd like to come back and meet your Captain Braithwaite some day," I said.

"I know he'd be delighted to make your acquaintance, Sir." Marten nodded agreeably. "Well, safe journey ... "

An explosion right at the dug-out entrance sent Sutherland tumbling down the steps to land at my feet in a spray of debris. A second round of artillery exchange was under way. Sutherland, breathing hard, blinked in shock for a moment -- I could see his brain processing what had happened.

At the same time as he said, "Stormy again. Probably need an umbrella," I heard a subdued, but distinctly terrified, moan. Added to my unexpected plunge back into the trench hell I thought I had left forever the previous year, that sound was enough to unnerve me to the edge of panic. By some instilled reflex I had drawn my service revolver.

"What was that?" As I said it, I stepped towards Marten.

The nerveless bastard looked straight back at me without blinking. "What was what?" he said.

My gaze flitted around the room. The rest of the men watched with interest, some with evident amusement. It wasn't right. "I heard someone," I said.

"Sutherland?" Marten shrugged his eyebrows laconically.

"Not Sutherland," I snapped. "Tell me again, where is your Captain?"

"I told you, Sir. He's out ... "

"I don't believe you."

He stared back impassively, as if he didn't know what all the fuss was about.

"Marten," I said, maddened that he continued to deny the sound I had clearly heard, and desperate to make some sense of the situation. "I have reason to believe that something has happened to your CO. Understand that I will use this gun if you do not tell me the truth." I hardly knew what I was saying. It was a ridiculous threat. I have never shot anyone face to face, and I was pretty sure I did not possess the unwarranted ruthlessness to carry out my threat now. And it looked like Marten knew it. "Aren't you afraid?" I punctuated my words by rolling back the hammer of the gun.

The supercilious smile that came as he said, "Not a bit, Sir," almost tipped me into unreason. I would have done almost anything at that moment to wipe it off his face. I felt my finger begin to squeeze the trigger. Saw that he observed that twitch.

Another muffled sound. This time more of a scream than a moan. It came from the shadowy rear of the room. I strode over there, and discovered a curtained off alcove behind one of the empty bunks. I yanked aside the grimy cloth and found a man lying in a rough hollowed-out bed-shelf padded with blankets. He might even have been fairly comfortable were it not for his bound limbs and the roll of old bandages stuffed into his mouth. I had no doubt that this was the mysterious Braithwaite, but I could not for the life of me fathom what their purpose was in keeping him like this. Then I looked again. Something about the face, the soft jaw line, the straight sandy hair. Braithwaite. I had been at school with a Braithwaite. A cheerful chap with whom I'd passed many muddy, happy hours in the second fifteen. Unbelievable that this could be the same person, but I could not doubt the similarities.

When I reached out, his eyes flew open, bulging wildly. I imagine I saw a flicker there that he recognised me too. Certainly, nothing else can explain what was to follow. As my fingers touched his shoulder, he trapped them between his wrist-bound hands. I struggled to free myself, but he held on with grim determination. When I looked back to the men for aid, I discovered the muzzle of Gordon's rifle six inches from my chest.

"I'm afraid we can't let the Captain go, Hawthorne," Marten said. "It's like I told you, my man. He's very, very good too us. So good that we have to keep him safe from any possible harm. We need him. It'd be our ruin, if he ever left us."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but the captive was clearly terrified, possibly to the point of mental breakdown. "Your Captain needs help," I managed, pain blooming in my hand as the man's grip tightened.

"Not possible," Marten shook his head. "No doctors for Braithwaite, I'm afraid. And that goes for you too. I'm sorry but you can't be making any reports about this. It's been difficult enough keeping him secret this long. Sorry, old man." Then he executed a what-can-I-do shrug.

Gordon levelled his gun at me and I knew then with absolute certainty that they were going to kill me. Perhaps in as little as a few seconds. My limbs were heavy, filled with the same icy water that beaded my brow, collected around my collar. I was aware only of the gun and of counting my hopeless breaths. And of Braithwaite's grip around my fingers, a hot, hot clench that tightened until I thought my knuckles would pop and dislocate, my slender finger bones splinter.

There was screaming, but it wasn't mine.

Braithwaite let go.

And I was no longer afraid. Of anything.

"I think it's time Corporal Hawthorne went for a stroll, Gordon," Marten said.

Everything after that was dreamlike, I remember it all vividly but none of it seems in any way real. I nodded meekly, accepting my fate and not minding. Allowed myself to be ushered to the stairs, even as the Captain began to wail again. As if he knew what was coming.

"Bye, then," I said, and began to climb the stairs, Gordon and his gun at my back.

Outside, on the firing step, peering into no-man's land, I noticed with surprise that night had fallen. A clear, black sky, prickled with uncountable stars, stretched across the blasted field. Bright wands of search light beams angling up from both sides made it feel like fairyland. That was what I thought of as I clambered out of the trench -- that it was a place as ethereal as the music of Debussy. It utterly delighted me. I looked back once, saw Gordon watching from the shadows. He sketched a cheerful wave, and I smiled. It was a pleasant evening, and as I began to walk, I felt good. More than that. Happy. As if all my cares had been lifted from my shoulders. Even if I stumbled over the broken ground, had to pick my way between the blackened and shattered stumps of trees, all that remained of a once charming little wood. Even if I knew I was being watched with incredulity by snipers. Even if I was waiting for the bullets to come as soon as the Germans got over the surprise of this idiot Englander ambling along like a weekend promenader. Waiting for the bullets. Happy, I began to whistle as I walked.

The bullets came singing harmonics to my tune.

It's been two months since they shipped me back. I've healed well -- you can hardly see the limp thanks to this Kentish weather and the country lanes that make my daily walks a pleasure. To all intents and purposes, I appear fit to return.

There. I've told it.

No, no quite all of it.

Because it's not really my health you're interested in, is it, Doctor? Not even my noted curious calm and good cheer while all around me here were jelly-headed wrecks. In fact, I even doubt that you are a real doctor -- something about the way you mutter 'shell shock' as if it covers a multitude of mental malaises, the way our conversations loop around repeatedly to the nightmare I had three nights ago, the way you were unknown at this hospital until two days ago. The way you keep asking me, how I know. How I know details of the latest disastrous push along the Somme when the Commons haven't even been told yet. How I know, to the minute, when it happened.

What can I tell you? For two months I have lived without fear. Can you imagine that? No nightly terrors as memories of the trenches populated my dreams. In fact no dreams at all. No daily anxieties about being sent back, either. Going back would have been no more than a nuisance -- after all I love it here. I possessed not one ounce of fear of death or danger. But not just that. All those minor trepidations that hamper one's life were gone too -- fear of infirmity, fear of old age, fear of living a life unloved, fear of failure. All gone. I was confident, relaxed and generally happy with the world. If it was insanity it was a most benign form. I didn't even care what people would think of me for extenuating Braithwaite's plight by keeping quiet about it. I try to tell myself that anyone who witnessed the daily horrors of the Somme might have done the same.

Three nights ago I dreamt for the first time in two months. I dreamt of the trenches. We were crouched on the firing step, awaiting the signal. Then up and over the top, and immediately figures around me were spinning and crumpling amid a rattling hail of Maxim fire. One of them was Braithwaite. I woke screaming and sweating, and knotting my sheets in a heart-gripping panic.

I felt fear.

That's how I know what I dreamt was real.

And yes, now I'm scared of going back; and I'm equally scared you won't believe this ridiculous story and report me as a spy. It has all returned after my cruel emotional lacuna, and it feels a dozen times worse than I remember. But at the same time, I know I've got it easy.

Think about this. Marten and his boys had a problem. It was all very well managing to keep the state of affairs under wraps in the long stretches of inactivity, but when the order came for that push, what were they to do with Braithwaite? If they left him behind they risked discovery, and faced court-martial, and much worse--losing him. If, miraculously, any of them survived. Really, they had no choice than to untie him, stick a tin hat on his head and a gun in his hand, and take him with them.

Good old Captain Braithwaite -- a man who so cared about the young soldiers in his charge that he'd have done anything to help unburden them of their anxieties.

Imagine him as the whistles shrilled along the line, stumbling along behind his brave boys who strode ahead, shielding him as well as they could, unfazed by the notion of walking towards their deaths. Imagine the crushing weight on his soul of not only his own personal terror, the excess burden of six others.

I can't stop thinking about it, Doctor. Believe me, the foggy fields of shell shock would be welcome. Even death, a blessing.

But this war is neither generous nor even-handed with its blessings.

I wish I could tell you something that would have you certify me as unsuitable for service, keep me here until the war is over, but there have been enough lies. I thought of myself as a good man, but I have been colder and more callous than I would have believed capable of my nature. And all at the expense of a man who, even in his own terror, recognised me as one who once called him a friend.

Perhaps it is right, after all, for me to return to the front. If you have any compassion, Doctor, perhaps you would tell them that this is my wish. It is surely fitting for a man to chose to die in a place where he found happiness.


© Neil Williamson 2002, 2005.
This story was first published in Interzone (November 2002).

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