Private Phillips hears the storms that others cannot hear. He hears the fall of raindrops, the wind whipping though the trees and the deep, distant boom and thump of thunder in far-off, unseen hills. His eyes cast ever skyward, he has become the regimental expert on rain. It’s an unusual position and not one he sought, but he gives the right answers, time after time, even when he knows his news is not what Captain Palmer wants to hear. His stubborn and unusual skill keeps him at the Front.
It’s raining again today, a steady, silent fall that pools on the already sodden ground, but Phillips doesn’t notice. His back is braced against the wall of the dugout, hands white-knuckle clenched on his rifle; and he’s arched like a bow, tensed and ready to fire. He’s gone to earth in this foxhole; the roof a single sheet of corrugated metal that channels rainwater down the length of his shuddering, tensing spine. His thunder is the German artillery, sending up the heavy soil in spurts and clods that rattle on his tin roof like the hail of his dreams.
If he squeezes his eyes shut tightly enough, the points of light on his eyelids become a sun-dappled wood, and the rattle of machineguns is merely rain pattering softly on the leaves. He presses his face to his knees, feeling the scratch of his wet wool uniform against his face, searching for any scent that is not cordite or mud or putrefaction. He thinks he can see a wisp of horse hair in the caked mud on his puttees; it must have snagged there when he quieted a broken artillery-horse, held the bridle while the sobbing rider despatched her with a bullet between her ears.
Before he became the Company weathercock, twisting and turning with every breeze, Phillips had another talent; a knack with animals, for communicating things that can’t be spoken, for befriending anything as quiet and wordless as he is himself. As Phillips grew, from stable-hand to groom, the Family entrusted him with their children, letting him lead out little Miss Miriam on her pony. They’d never have left her alone with a man of her own class, but nobody heeded the grooms, noticed that the quiet Phillips boy was growing into a man.
He can pinpoint the day he stepped over that threshold; can go back there at a moment’s notice.
He was riding out with Miriam, and as the sun sparked shards of copper in her dark hair, her face turned up to the light and a dreamy smile relaxed her mouth, he realised that he was lost. She’s just a child, he told himself, and one of the Family. The sun gilded her, and he put his hand out to touch that honeyed skin. She didn’t flinch, but he quickly turned away before she could see the longing in him. He was quieter than ever, after that, and when the Call-Up finally came, he went.
It didn’t seem too bad, not at first. The first six weeks were almost enjoyable, in a rough, awkward kind of way. The company of other men was familiar to him; he enjoyed their coarse camaraderie, making light of discomfort.
“Are we downhearted?” Captain Palmer would shout, and as soon as he was out of earshot, his men responded,
“Course we bleedin’ are!”
But Palmer has a look behind the eyes, a shadow that crosses his face when he speaks. Despite the fancy manners and the posh way of speaking, his laugh has nothing of humour in it. The men joke uneasily that even his irises are regulation khaki. On his very first drill, he hammers his right fist into his left palm and tells them how it’ll be.
“Unless we go on the offensive, we’ll never defeat the enemy, merely bore them into surrender.”
The men are perfectly happy with bored. Bored they know; bored is manageable. At first the men resist, in the stubborn, sullen way that only the Tommy can muster. But Captain Palmer doesn’t care; like a sharp flint in their boots, he needles them, ordering constant small actions to niggle the Boche in every way he can devise. He keeps the sniper posts constantly manned to pick away at anything that moves, so the Boche can’t repair trenches or retrieve their dead.
He encourages artillery to fire their Flying Pigs from his sector; heavy ovals that buck and squeal as they twist from the barrel. The barrage leaves his own men raw and abraded, lungs parched, mouths so cracked that everything tastes of the scorch of the guns. Phillips thinks his ears will ring forever, that if the war ever ends, he will still hear the guns. Sometimes, after days of firing, the strafing stops, who knows why, and for ten minutes they hold themselves tense in the sudden silence, hoping, no praying, that it means something. The quiet is always just long enough to think it might hold, but then with a rumble the bombardment starts up again and their shoulders slump in grim resignation.
Palmer revels in the attack, eyes glittering, jaw clenched; striding up the line to watch the big guns pounding, encouraging his men as he passes. He nods approvingly at Private Phillips, who doesn’t flinch when the immense crack of a sniper rifle splits the air above him, the whine of the return shot thumping into a wooden stanchion inches from his ear. But when the tricksy German minenwerfers go soaring to their zenith with a dreadful ear-wrenching screech, the men cower down and track their progress anxiously for the long seconds it takes the bombs to drop. Those little Minnies are unpredictable; the slightest kick or spin in their flight and it’ll be lights-out for everyone.
But worse than the Minnies, the ultimate insult, Palmer won’t even let his own men stop to bring back the dying, the dead. And so the stench increases and the rats multiply as the corpses, English and German, liquefy slowly out on the wasteland between the lines. That’s when Phillips starts to dream in earnest, his eyes turning up to the sky; when Palmer begins to take real notice of him.
The rain is incessant, the weather barely improving as spring slips unheeded into summer. Rain turns No Man’s Land into a sucking quagmire of pools and acre upon bloody acre of thick mud that is endless, bottomless. The mud slips and flows, and a landslide collapses the trench walls, crushing men instantly, submerging others in a wave of filth and shit and rotten corpses. For a few minutes, Phillips can hear the German soldiers screaming from their tumbled channels, sounding only yards away. Then there is silence. Phillips feels the earth is upheaving, tearing itself apart; each man it snatches and entombs is payback for what they have done. Now it becomes an obsession of Palmer’s to predict the weather, to gain an edge on the chaos around him. Phillips is aware of his Captain watching him intently with narrowed eyes, searching his face if looking for a flaw.
Phillips can never bring himself to curse the rain, for it is better by far than the grey days when he feels he’s already sealed in a box, the smothering lid of low cloud pressing down relentlessly. He can gauge the density of those vapours, guess how long it will be before they water-swell and the rain comes again; he can taste the tang of metal in the air that heralds a change in the weather, a break in the cloud.
Outside Phillips’s foxhole, the light is fading. Soon it will be dark, and the flares and strafing will start again. He barely bothers to register the night, for the hours have merged into one endless waiting grey. Maybe a patrol will come for him this evening. Maybe he will still be here when dawn comes up, as dreary as this dusk, and he will dismiss all that passes this night as another nightmare, less real than the images he sees when he shuts his eyes. He has gone to earth, trapped between the lines, so disorientated by the mine which shattered and blasted his fellows into bloody vapour, that he no longer knows which way is home.
Phillips touches his chest, reassures himself that his papers are still secure, those precious letters from home. There is even a letter from Miriam here, one short illicit note written in girlish haste. If Phillips can keep these memories safe, he thinks, he can keep that other world alive. If he lets go, then home will vanish like the early morning mist, and his wood beyond this world, will cease to exist. Even if every tree there is felled to fuel this war, he knows that as long as he dreams, he can keep his wood alive.
It has become hard for him to believe that somewhere in the world, life is going on as usual. They’ve left us all out here, he thinks, we’ve all been forgotten. The lines of communication are so tangled that even orders from the top brass drift like fog, like gas seeping yellow and poisonous across the field. He hopes that somewhere there is still a life to go back to; a life worth being lived. He misses getting up in the hazy early morning light, relishing the smell of cut grass in the air and the guilty beauty of church bells. He longs to have his tea in the garden once more, with Nana ladling golden honey onto his toast, holding her tiny dented silver spoon so high that the sticky drops elongate and hang there in the sunlight, as golden as amber, as sweet as the sun itself. His mouth waters in anticipation of the precious taste of it.
He’s already had his one chance to go back – his Blighty wound. A piece of shrapnel burrowed into his shoulder, stinging like a hornet, dart-sharp and filthy. For an instant he was scared, but the pain was much less than the sickness that followed. Soon he was shivering with fever, even worse than the cold, then came blissful unconsciousness, days forgotten as the trench-fever burned through his body. He floated back like sweet woodsmoke through the clearings and rides of his forest. There Miriam flits through the trees, her skirts brushing the long grass, her hair bound back with ribbons even bluer than her eyes. She is as pale and slender as a willow wand, bending with the breeze in the dappling light and shade of the wood. My wood nymph, he thinks, but there is something too real, too knowing, about Miriam, for him to pretend she is an ethereal creature.
He comes round, lying in crisp clean linen, so beautifully starched that it razors against his abraded skin. The clock on the wall ticks like a bomb, but there’s a cool hand on his brow and he can see the promise of blue skies through the window.
“You’ve been lucky,” the nurse says briskly, “as many men die of this fever in their system as do from the wound itself.”
He actually feels lucky, there in that place, so orderly and quiet, and luckier still when he is given a brief home leave.
And so he goes home, arm in a sling, the conquering hero, to find his world has not changed, not much, but that he is altered beyond recognition. The men still working at the Old House seem like infants to him now, their mouths full of propaganda, their ideas of war culled from a picture book. He’s awkward, out of step with the people back home who spout that jingoistic nonsense as if it actually means something. Even his Granfer seems unreachable, his head bowed in solemn grace at supper, apologising for the perceived meagreness of the celebratory spread, though to Phillips it looks like a feast.
“We could hear the bombardment across the channel,” Granfer quavers, “We saw the lights in the sky and thought of you, prayed to the good Lord for your safety.”
Maybe, thinks Phillips, maybe that prayer helped keep me safe. But how can you tell the Granfers of this world, let them know what they’ve sent their boys to? He hopes they never have to know. That’s what he’s fighting for, to keep this place untouched by what he sees each night when he tries to sleep. For when he shuts his eyes here, he can only see there. The food turns to clay in his mouth, stopping it up so he can’t talk.
Just before he leaves for the front again, Miriam rides past the lodge. She has abandoned her skirts for jodhpurs and a tight jacket and that parody of uniform brings a lump to his throat and his groin. She stops, looks down at him, then puts out a hand so he can help her dismount. She is uncertain, possibly embarrassed by what once passed between them, as slight as it was. He wants to wipe that strange little smile from her face, see her crumple and melt into tears, know he’s planted a seed of doubt in her mind. Before she leaves she turns and embraces him, clings to his neck for a moment and he feels that strong young body tight against his own once more. Clumsy, with one arm still bound up, he clasps her, but before he can hold onto her, she is gone.
Now, back here in the half-light of his dugout, Phillips can see points of colour dancing vividly amongst the twilight shades of grey. Poppies hang like airborne splashes of blood, barely tethered on thin whippy stalks, peppering the ravaged land with their black seed. Broken branches reach up through the soil, the tumbled rocks of an ancient wall scatter like a mouthful of shattered teeth. There are no birds here, no bees, only the low drone of bluebottles swarming in the dirty great craters and pocks, rising in clouds to fill the thin grey strip of sky. And then there is the endless contamination of the things he has done. He craves enough water to wash away the creeping violence that seeps into his mind, taints even his own deepest, sacred places.
At those moments, he retreats to the oldest part of the wood, deep in the valley, untouched and untended. Here it is shadowy and cool, whatever the weather. The ancient trunks lean in together, branches overlapping, layer upon rustling layer, sending branches soaring above him like the vaulted roof of the church on the hill. Phillips seldom went to church; his duties rarely left him free. But here in the wood, the branches twine overhead so closely that it is as if the slender oak ribbing of the church ceiling has sprouted leaves from pure joy. Here God sings through every bird. If Phillips slows down his heartbeat, lies perfectly still, he can hear the doves calling, the cathedral-murmur of a thousand trees, feel the soft earth breathing beneath him. Here at last he feels that sense of everything and nothing, the importance of what lies beyond.
His reverie ripples, a shadow crossing over him like a hawk flying low, and that sick-sweet stomach-turning stench is borne in on the wind. Twin strands of rusting wire grasp at the tattered shreds and fragments that once were men, for No Man’s Land is planted with corpses. Cap badges and shoulder pips gleam from the ground like tiny flowers; the bodies are strange fruits that green and gas-swell and burst once ripe. Inside the dugout, Phillips hunkers down, his rifle forgotten, dropped by his feet, his arms clasped tightly round his knees. He rocks a little.
The last day before his Call-Up was a heady, drowsy kind of day, blessed by the sun. He walked through the woods trying to imprint every glade, every leaf on his memory; scrambling along the riverbank, brushing through spikes of tough reed and waving grasses. The meadowsweet foamed along the verge and he buried his nose in the creamy bundles of flowers, their heady smell like sharp green marzipan. His progress disturbed the softly calling ring-doves; they erupted from the branches overhead, the rustle and crack of their wings like taffeta skirts, like the snapping of ivory fansticks.
The river ran here and there, swift and shallow over pebbles, pooling deep and mysterious in generous curves. Long green tongues of fern poked from the damp hollows beneath old trees and the greenwater scent rose from the still pools, soft and elusive, musky as incense. All around him was the scent of leaf mould and good fertile soil, of the seasons changing, turning and ploughing inevitably, inexorably on. That night, after he’d finally persuaded Granfer to bed, Phillips walked out once more, capturing lungfuls of the late evening scent as night-sounds rustled at the edge of the wood. He stole back to take one last look at the Old House, the way he’d always loved it most, quiet and stately, the windows palely gleaming with gas-light. As he passed by, he saw a shadow move. Miriam.
He can remember every word now, every look. It was easier for him to approach when her face was in shadow, a pale oval swimming in the darkness.