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Carpe Diem

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Dr Frederick Honeychurch arrived in Ypres at the start of June 1917, riding in the back of a Royal Engineers truck with two orderlies fresh out from Blighty, a half dozen gnarled mining engineers and a chap from Information who spent the entire trip either fussing over his crate of message balloons or griping about his CO.

Freddy, who had been out here for long enough to take advantage of some quiet time, spent the journey trying to nap. The road, however, was rough, and he kept being jounced out of his pleasant doze. It was a warm day, and the soft breeze and gentle touch of the sun repeatedly tricked the doctor into thinking himself back in his childhood home in the Weald.

This pleasant illusion heightened his shock when he finally awoke to see the ruins of Ypres ahead of them. While the pleasant day and the relative quiet from the front line meant that the town did not look quite as hellish as he had feared, Freddy still thought it a terrible shame. What remained suggested that it had been a rather jolly town before the war, and his practical soul was rather appalled at the sheer wastefulness.

Their arrival caused a startling amount of confusion, most of which seemed to be centred on the complaining Information clerk, whose balloons, as far as Freddy could tell, were of the wrong type or weight for their destination and were so causing great consternation in his officer. Freddy did his bit to get things sorted by sending his orderlies off to the clearing station, so as to clear some of the crowd. He himself would be expected to report to the General, so he waited patiently for the officer to finish with the clerk so he could ask for directions.

At last the clerk was dispatched and the officer turned to him. Freddy started forward, hand held out. Then he stopped as he recognised the man.

"Honeychurch," Cecil Vyse said, flushing slightly.

"The one and same," Freddy said, wondering why this sort of situation was always more awkward in a setting like this, where it really shouldn't matter. "Long time no see."

"Er, yes," Cecil said, shaking his hand a moment too late. "You're our new MO, then?"

"That's right," Freddy said, relieved that they weren't going to stumble into more dangerous social waters.

Then Cecil squared his shoulders and said, very properly, "I hope your mother and sister are well."

"Very," Freddy said, fighting the urge to scuff his foot.

But Cecil seemed to have been seized by some perverse imp of good breeding, for he continued, "And your sister, is she still fixed in Hampstead?"

"Highgate, for the moment," Freddy supplied. He then felt complied to add, as if as a consolation, "Emerson's a conshie, of course, which can't be helped."

Cecil's expression suggested that it could very well be helped, so Freddy hurriedly asked, "Look, I don't suppose you know where I can find the General? Need to pay my respects."

Cecil recovered, and soon Freddy was on his way again.

#

He dined with the general and his staff that evening, where he encountered Cecil once more. This time they made slightly less awkward conversation, and Freddy was amused to see a couple of the staff officers change their tone towards him once they realised that he was an old acquaintance of Vyse's.

As they walked back to their billets through the ruined streets, he said, "I thought you were a government man, Vyse."

Cecil shrugged. "My department needed a man out at the Front to supervise the distribution of information. We all do our duty. I've been out here about a month now."

"Yes," Freddy said slowly. He thought of three years just behind the lines, of Loos and Neuve Chapelle and the Somme, and hoped Cecil wasn't going to ask some foolish, new recruit questions of him.

But Cecil was possessed of a greater delicacy, and the conversation passed on to the usual small talk of the British abroad, for weather and lodgings and food are as much the concern of the soldier as the idle tourist.

#

Three nights later, Freddy was awake and waiting in the small hours of the night. To the east, he could see the lights in the sky over the German trenches. He'd watched the British and Australian troops move out just before midnight, and had been warned to have his men ready. He hadn't been told exactly what to expect, but there was a sense of suppressed excitement around Ypres that made his stomach clench in worry.

Just before three, Cecil appeared in his hospital, ducking down the steps to the converted cellar with a nervous cough.

"Hullo," Freddy said, surprised. "Problem?"

"Just to warn you gentlemen that you should lie flat for the next half hour or so. Things are about to start."

"Appreciate the warning," Freddy said, and went to see to his men and nurses. Everything was in readiness, beds and tables clear, instruments gleaming under the lamplight, bandages stacked close to hand.

When he was done, he returned to Cecil who was lingering by the entrance.

"Vyse?" he asked quietly.

Cecil shook himself, muttering, "Sorry." He followed Freddy to the corner of the cellar, lying down rather awkwardly.

"What's happening?" Freddy asked quietly.

"We're taking Messines Ridge," Cecil said in a rather casual tone. "I've been told it will get rather-"

White light blazed down the steps, followed a heartbeat later by a roar of sound that plastered Freddy to the ground, stealing his breath and turning everything to silence.

When his hearing came back, the guns were already booming in the distance. He shook his head, trying to find his balance.

"'Tis man's to fight, but Heaven's to give success," Cecil said, too loudly.

Freddy shot him a startled glance, and then started to laugh, for no reason he could quite pinpoint. Once he realised that all his orderlies were staring at him, he choked the laughter down and demanded, "What the hell was that?"

"Mines under Messines Ridge," Cecil said, still shouting. "Six hundred tons of ammonal!"

"Good God," Freddy said, the small boy in him awed by the thought of such a prodigious explosion and the medical side of him appalled by its likely impact on frail flesh.

Then he roused himself to action. The German casualties were not, thank God, his to tend, but he would be needed for his own side soon.

At some point before the injured started arriving, Cecil slipped away, but by then Freddy had forgotten about him.

#

He saw Cecil a few more times in the weeks after Messines Ridge. The allied forces were waiting in Ypres, though Freddy wasn't sure why - war, he had learned, was an inefficient process. Cecil and his little group of engineers were busy sending out reams of propaganda sheets, their balloons floating silently over the enemy lines.

"It's the way we'll win this war, Honeychurch," Cecil said at dinner one evening. "The German soldier is generally a reasonable creature, and one prone to pessimism. Give him the facts of the matter and he will see no purpose in continuing. I tell you, once we take Passchendaele Ridge, their spirit will be broken beyond repair, and that will be that."

Freddy, who had joined up when the war was supposed to be over by Christmas, shrugged, and someone down the table said, "Any chance of you chaps fixing the French morale, eh, Vyse?"

That started off a familiar litany of complaints, which soon segued into a debate over the reliability of the Russians. Cecil, no longer at the centre of the conversation, shrugged and turned back to Freddy.

"What do you think, Honeychurch?"

"Er," Freddy said, startled. People usually ignored him at these things. "I just think it's time this bloody war was over."

Cecil gave him a puzzled frown, as if there was a joke in there he didn't understand. Freddy gave him a vague, noncommittal smile and applied himself to dessert.

As they left the mess, it was starting to rain.

"That'll put a few fires out," someone said, laughing a little.

"Let us hope that our gunners don't catch cold," Cecil said lightly. "It will not do to have them sniffling over their batteries."

#

The bombardment began soon afterwards, ten days of roaring skies and shaking ground. The air was full of smoke, and everyone slept uneasily. From behind the line, Freddy could only imagine the way the ground beyond Ypres must be torn and flattened by the shells. In his dreams, it was Surrey that was torn apart by shells, the modern mansions of Summer Street that stood broken and empty.

Then, as the infantry moved out, the rains intensified. The wounded and dying who flooded into his station came caked in mud, which spread across the sorting area as he divided the incoming rush by severity. The mud gathered on the floor in bloody flakes, and streaked the arms of the nurses and orderlies.

He was dimly aware that the assault was moving in fits and starts. The flow of casualties did not stop. Every time he stumbled out of sleep, the station was overflowing. Every man he saw was grey and even when the flow of casualties slowed, he was overwhelmed with the sick and shivering and weak-stomached. He heard little snippets about the conditions at the front, the flooding and the cold and the lack of food and other supplies.

He wasn't really aware of more until he heard that the General had ordered a halt to the advance until the land dried out. He was dealing with a multiple wound when that news came, trying to extract all the vicious fragments of shell from the man's head and chest before he bled out on the table.

He stumbled out into the rain hours later, only then realising that it was going to stop, at least for a few days. He lifted his face into the downpour, closing his eyes for a second.

He must have fallen asleep where he stood, because the next thing he knew was Cecil Vyse's hand under his elbow, and his voice, more strained than Freddy had ever heard, saying, "Good God, man, you're soaked."

He let Cecil lead him inside, leaning on him. It wasn't until they were sitting down, slumped against a dirty wall, than Freddy looked at the other man. The rain had plastered his hair flat to his face, and he looked as pale as bone.

"Did you need a doctor?" Freddy asked hurriedly, trying to rise. "I should-"

"No," Cecil said, reaching out blindly. "No, I'm fine. Wanted to see if you'd heard."

"I heard," Freddy said, settling back down. Cecil was warm beside him, and he leant on him without thinking. The warmest thing he felt in the last few weeks was fresh blood washing over his hands, and it felt good to lean into living, breathing, unbroken heat.

"You had some idea of this, didn't you?" Cecil said, his voice low. "Some idea of what it would be like?"

"I suppose," Freddy said, sighing. He didn't want to talk about this, not when he could just sit here, warm and quiet.

"I had such ideas," Cecil said, twisting his fingers in his trousers. "This whole great concept of glorious war. I thought it was ennobling. God, I'm such a fool."

Freddy patted him awkwardly on the knee.

"And the mud, God, Honeychurch, the mud."

"I know," Freddy said soothingly. "I know."

"No," Cecil said bleakly. "You don't. Not unless you've been out there. The whole plain is turned to mud. I watched men drown in it and every shell tears it up again, and the bodies come up-" He took a shuddering breath and dropped his head forward onto his clenched fists.

Freddy didn't know what to say. Strangers had broken down in front of him many times, and he had developed a half-brisk, half-reassuring array of comments to buck them up. An acquaintance or almost-friend was a different matter. He had had his own such moment three years ago, and Floyd had marched him off and got him blindingly drunk.

But Floyd had died in the Somme, and he really didn't think Cecil was a drinking man, so Freddy just squeezed his shoulder until he looked up.

"Get some food and some sleep," he said encouragingly. "It helps."

Cecil fixed him with a puzzled regard. "Is that what you do?"

"Pretty much," Freddy said uncomfortably. "You can't think about it, you know. Just keep jogging on."

"I see," Cecil said, and let Freddy march him back to the mess.

#

For a few days, they could breathe easily. Cecil regained his irony. Freddy focussed on training the new stretcher bearers he had been sent to replace those lost over the summer, and planning the location of advanced dressing stations to support the next push. The new general wanted more focussed attacks, which Freddy hoped might reduce casualties.

In the second half of September, the attacks began again, and he was caught up in the endless cycle of surgery and sleep. The rain also came again, like a curse.

Cecil appeared more often this time, appearing at the end of Freddy's shifts with food and water. They didn't talk much, but Freddy came to appreciate the company.

"Not much use for me right now," Cecil said one of these times. "There are a few too many things in the sky for my words to soar appropriately. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have anything else much for me to do. I am a gentleman of leisure."

"Think you can change a dressing?" Freddy asked before he thought better of it.

#

Cecil, however, was surprisingly useful as an extra orderly, although reserved around the men. His hands were steady, though, and he worked without complaint. At the end of the first day, Freddy took a moment to lay a hand on his arm and murmur, "Holding up?"

"Yes," he said, frowning faintly. Then he asked, "Honeychurch, why don't they scream?"

Freddy thought of all the reasons he could give, the muddle of shock and pride and exhaustion that locked the injured into dim silence. At last he said, "They're beyond that."

"One finds nobility in the strangest places," Cecil said gloomily.

Freddy pressed his arm and went away. He was too hard-pressed to help Cecil through another crisis of conscience.

#

Then, for the first time, the German army used a new type of gas, which Freddy in later years learnt was mustard gas. Within hours, his station was full of men blinded, blistered and vomiting bubbling blood.

He tried every treatment he had, but nothing seemed to ease the symptoms. After the third time a man choked to death on his own blood, he sent Cecil out to find out what the hell this stuff was.

Not long afterwards, three of his orderlies began to develop blistered hands. The station stank of blood and pus and a faint underlying hum of garlic or mustard.

Cecil came bursting back in ten minutes later, lugging a can of petrol. "It's a liquid," he said shortly. "Burns through everything. Wear gloves. Petrol's a solvent."

Freddy nodded thanks and then turned to roar, "Strip them and clean them! Careful swabbing!"

It helped, though not much, and even with the petrol swabs and gloves, his own hands were showing blisters by the end of the night. They were overwhelmed by then, and sending casualties away to other stations.

At last, his hands became too clumsy, and he was forced to stagger away to sit on his own cot behind its blanket in the corner.

He was trying to put dressings on his own palms when Cecil found him. Freddy barely managed a protest when the bandages were taken away, but Cecil muttered, "Quiet."

Freddy sat meekly and let his hands be wrapped. As he worked Cecil talked quietly, but he was too tired to listen.

When he did start to focus again, Cecil was saying, "New medics come up from Pop. Any gas casualties that can be moved are being taken down there."

"What was it?" Freddy asked, swaying a little. The guns were still roaring, but the noise of them was fading in and out like surf, pulsing in time with his heartbeat.

"Something new," Cecil said, grasping his shoulders to steady him.

Freddy sagged against his shoulder. "Couldn't do anything. Too many dead."

"You saved some," Cecil said, holding him. "Freddy-"

But the world was spinning around him too much to respond, and Cecil seemed to realise it, for after a moment he gave a pained laugh and muttered, "You Honeychurches."

"Very respectable, my mother says," Freddy managed as Cecil swung his legs up onto the cot and tucked a blanket around him.

"You mother is an admirable woman," Cecil said. "Go to sleep." He stood up. In the half-light, he looked very solemn, elevated beyond the moment.

"Where are you going?" Freddy asked, puzzled.

Cecil hesitated, before saying, "Some of us still have two good hands, and I believe they are in rather desperate need of stretcher bearers out there."

Freddy tried to sit up, but was pressed firmly back to his pillows. "Stay and rest," Cecil said, and pressed his lips to Freddy's forehead.

Freddy, startled beyond words, stared at him as he straightened, the colour high in his cheeks.

After two steps, Cecil paused and said, without turning, "I will come back."

And then he was gone.

#

Some years later, Freddy Honeychurch found himself writing a letter to his sister.

I think it is unfair of you to say nothing good comes of war, he wrote, gazing out of the window of his little country surgery. There were cows in the neighbouring field, chewing the cud contentedly, and the hills rolled out, green and lush and unscarred. There are certain men who show their best under fire. I am thinking of a mutual acquaintance of ours, who I knew at Passchendaele. He had been sent there in a purely official capacity, but chose to offer his services to help tend and move the wounded. He himself became a casualty on a battlefield I hope you will never be able to imagine. He...

But there he stopped. There were things one could not say to even the dearest of sisters. With a sigh, he screwed the letter up, and dropped it into the basket under his desk. He drew over another sheet of paper, to start again, but found himself instead staring at the puckered skin on his palms.

Then he stood up, suddenly resolute. It was Friday, and his week's work was done. A few minutes walk would take him to the station, and it had been far too long since he last went up to town.

Ypres was being rebuilt, there was grass on Messines ridge again, and his own scars had almost faded. The war was over, though never forgotten, and he no longer dreamed that his own hills were reamed by shells. It was time to seize the day, or at least to seize something.

And if the day he planned to seize happened to be sitting in an office in Whitehall, Freddy thought in cheerfully muddled metaphor, so much the better.

And whistling cheerfully, Dr Honeychurch hurried out to catch his train.