It was still early. A glimmer of light poked its way through the small spaces in the room’s only window, but it would be a while before the shadows outside subsided and things looked brighter.
He looked back at his bed. Like this home of his for the last few months, it was small but comfortable enough. Certainly better than expected. The pillow lay askew at the wrong end, and the still sodden sheets hung limply over the mattress. Being up was no bad thing. No…being awake was no bad thing.
The mornings were always the same. They had been for years, even through everything that had happened – the progress, the disappointment, the hopelessness. He emptied his lungs, collapsed into a wicker chair and laid an elbow on the table. Staring at the dull patterns on the cloth, the browns, greys and yellows of his night-time terrors slowly blended with the old-fashioned curls and swirls. He hoped he’d be free of those visions, at least until night came round again.
What happened that day six years back had its hook in him, alright. The terrors, the visions…they were a relentless echo delivering a message he couldn’t understand.
* * * * *
It looked good. They’d somehow kept on top all day. The bastards had thrown everything at them since sunlight, but his comrades at the machine-gun post on the other side of the river had terrorised the enemy and pinned them down. Surely it was here, today, that the unerring torrent of bad news would dry up.
The fighting wore on and their bullets found homes in more enemy flesh. What was left of the town would stay theirs. The station, too. He was sure of it.
He caught his breath, crouched beside a wall at a crossing. To his left, a handful of his men had tucked themselves among the joists of a partially collapsed warehouse on the waterfront. On his right, three more were perched behind countertops in a long-since abandoned store. Ahead, one had ducked into a shallow crater in the road, evicting the rats for a prime view of the bridge over the Escaut.
He shifted his helmet back on his head, wiped the sweat from his face and broad mustache, and scanned the debris on the opposite bank for any hint of movement that might suggest another advance on the bridge. He needn’t have bothered. The enemy, devastated by the machine gun off to the north, had been pretty quiet for more than half an hour. It was eerily quiet and, for the first time that day, he felt the French September wind bite into his skin. He dared to think it was done.
The gun across the river crushed the silence.
In the distance his countrymen were frantic. Loading. Firing. Loading. Firing. Even from this distance he could see gold spitting from the barrel as steel flew through the air about it. The surface of the river between them became an uneven, pockmarked mess as a guttural roar flooded across to the town.
A shadow in the warehouse above him was waving and pointing beyond the bridge as his distant comrades concentrated their machine gun’s fire. Something was very wrong. The enemy were readying a gun of their own, and in moments it would be up and running, fixing itself on his comrade’s post. He groped for a solution. He and his men on this side of the river were too far off to join the fire on the enemy’s new gun. Taking to the bridge on foot would see them give up their advantage. What else? What else? Too late. For a few brief moments, the roar of guns intensified.
Then shouts across the river.
Three figures in brown – two tall, leggy runners, one short and slight – scrambled up and away from the new gun and towards his comrades’ now silent machine-gun post. They slowed, and disappeared behind a bank of sandbags.
Silence. Muffled screams. Pop. Pop. Pop. Silence.
He knew what this meant. The bridge was open. Within moments the buildings and streets around him were alive with flying metal. Lethal shards of brick and concrete both leapt up and rained down. He yelled to his men to return fire, but now they were outnumbered, outgunned. Soon there was a man on the bridge. Then two. Three. More. Suddenly there was no water between them and the enemy, who were right on top of them. As the air filled with acrid smoke, he desperately called on his men to fall back into the town. They’d take their chances man to man. They knew the streets. They could still hold.
He glanced left and right, turned and darted back. He’d find somewhere. He’d organise the men. They’d counter.
Neither of the two comrades sprinting away ahead looked back as a hot, slithering, stabbing pain stole its way through his left thigh. He hopped and, at great speed, plummeted headfirst into cobblestones, his face grinding through coarse rubble and bullet casings. He saw his friends disappear into the distance, and it went dark.
He couldn’t know how long it was before he awoke, but somehow the streets, buildings, and air itself felt different. Blue-grey smoke swirled thickly around him, flickers of yellow and green silently illuminating fragments of pavement, road signs, and buildings. A muffled hum crept insidiously through every crevice of the town, winding its way up around his body, into his eardrums, and filling his brain. Leaning on his rifle, he struggled to his feet. His left leg hung limply, the heavy, wet fabric of his trousers clinging to him around it. Nearby, something human-like slumped out of a crater in the road, outstretched fingertips grazing a rifle butt. A rat sniffed at a pool of red, paused, and disappeared into the hole.
Yards ahead, the smoke billowed and intensified, and a shadow appeared. Was it a man? Yes, it was. The figure sharpened and grew nearer, hazy greys becoming the obvious outline of a soldier. Was it one of us? No, no it wasn’t – the uniform was wrong, and his rifle was trained unflinchingly in his direction.
He had time to look at his enemy. A short man – shorter even than he was, perhaps. He had the black and red smears of war across his face, but somehow his pale skin glowed.
The rifle’s barrel rose slightly.
This was it. He knew he was done. He shifted his weight to his right and let go of his own gun, barely hearing it clatter to the ground. As he stared ahead, he could swear he saw the smoke behind the enemy soldier clear just a little and the merest glimpse of unscarred hillside come into view.
But the shot didn’t come.
The two men stared at one another. Somehow in that moment, their minds were one. He could see this man. He could feel him. For a few moments they breathed together, thought together. They were beings separated by a cause, but in that time and place they were the same.
The soldier slowly and smoothly lowered his rifle and nodded almost imperceptibly. Face, uniform and gun blurred, and then became shadow. Shadow became haze.
He was alone. He was alive. The battle was lost, destruction was close, but somehow he was alive.
* * * * *
The visions stirred again in the insipid patterns of the tablecloth. The war-stained, glowing face of the enemy soldier loomed up, out and away from the knitted swirls towards him.
What was it saying? What was its message?
As the day’s first light sifted through the window, he finally saw it. That soldier, that day, had been no ordinary soldier, and he’d chosen not to fire.
He was meant to escape. He was special. He turned and looked out the window. In the distance, the lights of a big town flickered upwards, piercing the retreating darkness. Domes, roofs, and spires glowed with a familiar energy.
“Das ist München”, he mumbled. “Das ist München”. If he wasn’t sure of it before, he was now. He felt charged, ready to throw off the gloom of the last months.
In the corridor outside, a guard shuffled across austere flagstones towards the door and peered in through the bars. Inside was a small, gaunt man at a table, wide eyes fixed on a clutch of paper in front of him, writing furiously. The guard grunted, took up his clipboard, and drew a tick next to the initials “A.H.” and the date – 16th June 1924. He shuffled away across the stones again, edging deeper into the shadows.
Russell Saunders is a writer camped out in the wilds of south London. He left the world of marketing and a 15-year career behind to pursue the dream of writing words for people other than clients, bosses, and other assorted middlemen – that and take a Grand Tour round Italy, build a patio, and look after his son.