- Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’
It was evening when C Company made its halt in the ruined village. The sun was nothing more than a dull red glow beneath the trailing crenellations of cumulus cloud on the horizon, and the men’s shadows splayed long and distorted up the cratered street behind them. I set one party to put up tents, a second to establish a perimeter – not that I thought attack was even a remote possibility, but routine is a comfort in weariness – and a third to scavenge for supplies. An old pub in the centre had survived intact but for a few holes in the roof, and this became our designated headquarters.
Once the stoves were alight and the men, too tired to talk much, were seated in groups on the village green with their tin mugs and enamelled bowls, I called over a sergeant.
“Anything from recon?”
“Not much, sir. Few farm buildings out to the East, too ruined to be of any real use – just stones, mostly. Crops are all dead, no sign of any animals. There’s one thing, though, sir – apparently there’s a big old house just over yonder rise, down in a sort of valley by itself. The boys didn’t get too close, but they reckon it’s in good shape, just some broken windows. Big place, apparently, like one of them National Trust houses. Might be defensible. Shall I tell ‘em to sweep it, sir?”
I looked at the sky, the pinks and purples of dusk already giving way on the eastern horizon to deep indigo.
“Not now. Let them have some tuck and a rest, there’ll be plenty of time for a full sweep tomorrow. Let’s you and I just nip over and have a quick look, if it’s close enough.”
“Right y’are, sir. ‘Bout half a mile, the boys said, sir.”
They were perfectly correct; one only had to walk a little way out of the village and up a muddy track towards the setting sun to crest the rise and look down into the vale beyond. A single lane of Tarmac, unmarked grey cracked and split in places by vivid yellow weeds, began somewhere to our left and ran diagonally across and away like the secant of a rough circle until it was lost in deep woods to the north-east. For much of its course it was bounded on its far side by a crumbling red-brick wall. Halfway along this wall was a gap wider than any other, and marked out by tall stone gateposts, although the gates were long gone. Beyond this all was weeds except for a round area a little way before the main building, where stood an irregular whitish shape I could just about identify as a fountain, though already I had no need to do so. Hooper could have seen little else but the house; yet I, whose eyes were older and weaker by a good decade, saw clear as day the paths and walks and pools that lay beneath that vast tangled desolation, saw the neat flowerbeds and the trim lawns, saw row on row of blossoming gold and blue and purple still shimmer in the evening breeze.
The house itself was a minor masterpiece of English Baroque, squat and ornate and enduring, two symmetrical wings projecting either side of a great central mass crowned with a dome. It had disdained the ravages of time as beneath its notice. I suspected it always would.
At my right elbow Hooper whistled appreciatively.
“Blimey! T’ain’t 'arf big, is it, sir? Why, I reckon as we could billet a platoon in there. Build that wall back up, guns at a few of the windows, you could hold off an army for a month with enough vittles.”
I could almost feel him scanning the structure with the cold eye of the career soldier: assessing lines of fire, bottlenecks, killzones. Needing to cut off any further such analysis, I asked distantly, “Any idea what they called the place?”
“Yessir, found it on one of the old maps while we was walking up. Funny name for a house, really. Says it was called Strider’s Edge.”
I had thought the words held no more power over me; but as he spoke them I felt the sky and the forest tilt, heard voices call across the lawn, and smelt her perfume so clear and sweet it tore at my heart.
“Do you want me to see what I can find out, sir? Couple of the lads are from round these parts, they might know the name.”
“There’s no need, Hooper. I’ve been here before.”
“Oh well then, you know all about it, sir. We’d best be getting back.”
I turned to follow him back down the slope to the shattered village, the sharp tang of smoke drifting on the chilly breeze as night spilled in from the East. Strider’s Edge. Yes, I had been there before.