By: James Green
The Great War, which had finished in 1918, had been no joke. But surely after all these years there couldn’t still be some unfinished business...
I woke up again, as I had for several nights, frightened. I put on the light and looked at the clock by the bed. It was 4.30. My wife stirred and then turned. “Same again?” “Yes. I’ll go down and make some tea. One for you?” “No,” she said turning over, “you should see somebody. Make an appointment.” I got up and put on my dressing gown and before I had left the room her breathing had become that of someone asleep. Sitting in the kitchen I began to count the nights. There were five including tonight. Five nights in a row the same dream had me awake between 3 and 5, frightened. No, that’s not quite true. The dream was never the same but in them there was always the same man, it was always raining and everyone was laughing, which was frightening because everyone was going to die, me included. I could see him now, wearing a long cape and a battered peaked cap with a badge. The image would fade but his laughing face would stay, that laugh would be with me all day, that and the rain. I knew it was not good going back to bed. I wouldn’t sleep. Fear of going back would keep me awake. I might doze but it wasn’t worth the effort. How long would it go on, I wondered?
I had heard of recurring dreams. Some people had them for years. But if this dream lasted for very much longer I might well go mad. It seemed to seep into my whole day and poison it. And at night I was afraid of the sleep that came and brought the dream. It was doing me in. At my age, retired, you need things a bit easy, not nightmares back to back for a week. I took my tea into the front room and tried to read yesterday’s paper again. But the half-hidden face under the cap was behind my mind, laughing. He wasn’t satisfied with my dreams. He was beginning to push himself into the day, or was I already mad? Had it already started? I decided to make an appointment.
Two bloody days it took me to see the doctor. I’m healthy for my age and I don’t fuss. I hadn’t seen a doctor for seven years and he seemed to resent it. Said there wasn’t much in my notes. I felt like a school kid whose reports weren’t good. It wasn’t my fault I was fit and didn’t trouble him with coughs and colds. And it wasn’t as if he was interested. He asked me what I ate before going to bed. Prat! And that was it, he’d shot his bolt. He just wrote a prescription and told me to take two with water before going to bed. What were they? Something to make me relax. Bloody tablets. Maybe I should have taken the little axe from the shed and threatened to hit him with it. That might have given him some idea of how I felt. Still, I suppose he sees all sorts. I threw the prescription in the bin outside the door of the clinic. It would take more than pills to get rid of Billy. Oh yes, I knew his name now, Billy. I heard the others calling and laughing over the last two nights. “O.K. Billy?” “Always, as you were, Billy?” “They’re going to get you, Billy.” And he laughed back. “Don’t worry, I’ll see that you’re in front of me.” “Next time, Billy, some time soon, you’ll see.” “Arse up, head down, and back to the missus. Why don’t you try it so long as you don’t mind having your brains shot out?” I knew Billy now alright. He was a soldier, and it was always raining and always muddy because we were in the trenches in the Great War and I was Billy’s mate.
After that he was always with me each night laughing, joking, smoking, drinking tea. We were getting ready to go over the top and Billy, behind the laugh, was scared. He knew he was going to die, and I knew I was going to die with him. First, he’d be smiling, “Always together, eh? Never alone. Mates, that’s what we are, mates.” Then frightened, like a kid, “You’ll not leave me, will you?”
What choice had I got? He came each night now, clear as you like. It was as if the days were the dreams now. Even the old woman noticed. “You’re very odd,” she said, “still having those dreams? Try a whiskey before you go up.” I did, one night. I tried half a bottle and Billy laughed fit to bust. We were both drunk and I promised to go over the top with him, stick by him and never leave his side. “Wherever we go,” I had heard myself say, “we go together. Mates to the end’. And I had seen a hand, my hand, throw a cap, my cap, into the air and seen it snatched straight away across the back parapet of the trench by a German sniper. They were that good. We ‘d both stopped laughing and looked up into the empty, wet sky. Nothing lived that went over that, not even a bloody stupid cap.
And I woke up sick as a dog.
I went back to the doctor. “I’m going to die.” “Oh yes, what makes you think so?” He didn’t remember me. “I have these dreams, every night, and I’m going to die.” “You’ll have to be clearer than that, nobody dies of dreams.” He was right, dreams don’t kill you. I felt the little axe tucked in my waistband under my coat. It was no good, not even the little axe could make him understand so I just swore at him and left. He wasn’t upset, he didn’t even seem to notice. I set off towards the park. I knew there wasn’t much more time. Each night the trench got busier, hustle and bustle in the mud and the sergeant was easing up on us, always a bad sign. There had even been quite a lot of range finding from our guns. It was like the bastards at staff wanted the Germans to be absolutely sure that we were coming - “I know the bombardment will make it clear to you that our men are about to come over the top but here are a few early warnings so you can dig in and then come out after the bombardment and machine gun them all as they walk toward you.”
Little Taffy Evans, a foul-mouthed Welshman who sang hymns all the time, had shot himself in the foot and, when it was better, they would shoot him again, but not in the foot. Archie Smalls had gone mad so they’d taken him away, but they said they’d be sure he was back to go over even if they had to tie him to a ladder and hold him up for the German bullets. Nobody was getting out of it, least of all me. And the water in the trench was getting worse. The smell of it hung around me all day and my feet were going bad with the constant wet. I could feel it even when I sat in the kitchen with a cup of tea and the paper on the table. I couldn’t fight it, I might as well accept it.
I had walked about aimlessly and found I was in the park beside the bowling green. It was a sunny, warm day and I sat down on a bench. I was the only cold, damp person there. It was only raining on me and I was the only one who could feel it. I heard the distant crump of another range finder, “Coming soon, Fritz, be ready.”
“You alright, mate?” I looked up, there was someone else on the bench. He was old, much older than me. I hadn’t seen him, he must have been already there when I had sat down. “Yes, I’m alright.” “Excuse me saying but you don’t look well.” I looked at him, he must have been well over eighty but he looked smart. He was wearing a dark blue blazer, military tie, and light grey trousers. “I’m cold,” I said. “But it’s warm today.” “It’s the rain.” I said, “and the mud, the endless fucking mud.” He looked at me more closely. “It’s not rained in a week and there’s no mud. Can I help you, mate? You don’t look well, you look about done in. I seen men like you before. Believe me, you’re about to drop. You need an ambulance.” He was looking at my eyes. “There’s something the matter, mate. Tell me if you like, if it will help.” I felt the little axe in my belt under my coat. Maybe he could help, he was old, it would be quick for him, maybe if I…? They would have to do something then. I loosened my coat. “The only place I’ve ever seen anyone look as bad as you was in the trenches and even then only before going over. Honestly mate, you’re not well.” I paused. “You were in the trenches?” “Oh yes, saw it all, 16-18 me. I ain’t a doctor, but I don’t need to be to see you need help. I don’t know what brought you to the way you are but I tell you this, a little more, and you can start choosing your box. I ain’t joking.” I looked at him. “Where were you?” “How do you mean, where was I?” “What places in the war?” “Oh here and there, Arras, the Somme both times, and quiet bits. We got moved around.” “Did you know a lot of blokes?” “Too many, they came and went.” “Know anyone called Billy?” He thought and then said slowly, “a couple, why?” “Did you ever know a little foul-mouthed Welshman who sang hymns all day, Taffy Evans? And Archie Smalls, ever hear of Archie Smalls?” He sat back, he’d moved down the bench a bit, but now he moved back. “Who are you?” he asked in a sort of half-angry, half-frightened voice, “how did you know Taffy and Archie? You wouldn’t even be born hardly before Taffy bought it.” “Taffy never bought it. He shot himself in the foot and they shot him so nobody else would try the same thing.” He looked at me. He wasn’t angry anymore, just frightened. “Who are you, a relative? I had nothing to do with Taffy being shot, it was his own idea, silly bugger, we told him it wouldn’t work.” “What about Billy?” “Billy who?” Now he was really frightened, he knew Billy who. “Billy always laughing, you know Billy who.” His head bent. “Yes, I knew Billy, Billy the thief, although I think his name was Walters or Waters, something like that.” “Tell me about Billy.” He looked at me, fear was still there but there was defiance too. “What about Billy? He died. So did everyone else, mostly. Some didn’t. It was the luck of the draw.” “Tell me about Billy.” It was colder now and the rain was getting heavier. There was mud on our shoes. “Billy was a thief. If there was one thing no-one could abide in a trench it’s a thief. God knows we didn’t have much and what the wet didn’t get at the rats did. But you never stole from your mates. Billy did, that’s all. We never did nothing, just left him alone.” “Left him alone?” The old man smiled. “Oh we left him alone, alright.” “How do you mean?” “On the wire. We went over the top. Those that were lucky came back. Billy wasn’t lucky. He caught one and got hung on the wire. We thought he was dead, then, later, he began to scream. Could that bugger scream. I’ll tell you this, he may have been badly hit but it wasn’t in his bloody lungs. That bugger screamed and cried on and off for another twenty-four hours. Then they started shouting, the Germans. “Shut him up. He’s one of yours shut him up.” “No-one went to get him?” “Are you daft? We’d seen that before, lose six men and finally bring in a corpse. Someone, usually the wrong bloody one, gets a gong and the rest have to bury the bloody corpse. Billy was dead he just wouldn’t die quietly.” “So what did you do?” “What do you think we did?” “You shot him?” “Of course we bloody shot him. I’ve know men go on screaming for days. There were few enough of us back in the trenches and we’d had all we could take so we shot him. Then the Germans joined in. Then we all went mad for a bit. It was like everyone took everything out on Billy.” He paused, his head down, he was back in the trenches. Then he sat up and looked at me. “Anyway, he stopped screaming.” “And he just hung there on the wire?” “No, that’s a funny thing ‘cos about two days later we were told we could go out and collect bodies. Well, Billy, we knew it was Billy from where he was on the wire, got brought in. I’ve never seen a corpse with more holes in it and I‘ve seen a few. He was more holes than body. Well that’s it. That’s Billy Waters. His grave’s somewhere in Belgium with all the others. How come you know about Taffy, Archie and Billy?” “I just did. Somebody must have told me. Did Billy ever have a friend?” “No, never, never from the day I knew him. He used to make up a friend though, sit and talk to thin air as if there was someone there. He was daft as well as a thief. Still, he went over the top like the rest and died like the rest, so I suppose he’s entitled to be with them now in Belgium. We’re all the same dead.” He stood up, “Glad to have met you, my name is Tommy Squires, corporal in the …” and he told me the regiment. He stood for a moment. “We shouldn’t have done that to Billy you know. Not the shooting of him, we had to do that, but all the other holes. It was wrong. He was only a thief. It wasn’t as if he was on the General Staff. I would like to have said, sorry.” And then he turned and walked slowly out of the park.
All of a sudden I felt warm. The sun was shining and it wasn’t raining. I looked around, and then down, and there was no mud anywhere. The axe felt awkward under my coat and I felt a little foolish that it was there at all. I stood up and set off home. That night I slept well. If I dreamt I don’t remember the dream, and I never saw Billy Waters again.
I booked myself on one of those coach trips they organize to First World War battle sites. The missus said it was morbid and wouldn’t come. I wasn’t sorry, I wanted to be on my own. I spent most of my time looking round the military cemeteries and eventually found what I wanted, the grave of Private William Waters. I knew it was him because it was the right regiment. Killed in action October 1916. I kept him company for a while and told him Tommy Squires said, “Sorry”. The sun was shining, it was a nice day. I walked away from Billy‘s grave but, walking past the lines of headstones I stopped. I wasn’t looking for anything anymore but I stopped. It was the grave of Corporal Thomas Squires, same regiment, died of wounds, September 1917.