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Soldier's Heart

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5 October, 1914

Dear Thomas,

Writing this from a hut in France!  Our Sgts. were not pulling legs about taking the tents, or about packing them the day before, but we loaded ourselves onto the train along with them, and then slept our last night in England in the baggage sheds by the dock.  Not especially comfortable, but at least there was a roof! 

Very long day today, as we got up at dawn to load everything onto the ship.  (We are responsible for bringing a great deal of medical supplies and equipment, as well as our own kit.)  Then we had a bit of a rest as we sailed across (The boat had a motor, not sails, but “motored across” does not sound right), and unloaded it all again at the other end.  The baggage got to ride in wagons from the dock, but we had to march, and halfway there it started to rain. 

We were all fairly sure we were going to have to set up our tent in the rain, on the wet ground, before we’d be allowed to sleep, but they let us have the hut instead, just this once—a sort of barn about the size of our tent.  It is destined to be a ward, but is not quite ready for patients yet, lacking amenities such as a heating stove, electric lighting, glass in the windows, and furniture of any kind.  We are all agreed that it’s surprisingly sensible of the Army to let us have the use of this luxurious accommodation, instead of leaving it sit empty while we faff about in the rain putting up a tent right next to it.  (I grumble, but we are fairly cozy in here, with our candles and bedrolls.  I suppose we’ll get tired of things soon enough, but, as when we were “on maneuvers” in England, there is a sort of holiday spirit about it just now.) 

 Many of us were a little nervous to be coming here, to the country where the war is taking place, but everything in our town is very normal and peace-like—apart from the absence of men of military age.  Marching here, we saw autumn flowers in window-boxes, nannies and mothers pushing prams (before the rain started), shop owners pulling in goods off the sidewalk (after the rain started) and all the sorts of homely things you’d expect to see in a seaside town. 

Our hospital is set up in and around a casino—I won’t tell you which one, as it would only make more work for the officer who’s got to censor our letters, but I’ve been here before, when I first started working for Sir H.  I might have told you about being annoyed that he put more than I make in a year on one spin of the roulette wheel—and then had the nerve to whinge to me about losing it?  If I did, it’s that same place. 

All of the roulette wheels and similar have been cleared out of the casino now, carpets taken up, chandeliers replaced with more prosaic lighting fixtures.  There are some patients in there already, although not nearly as many as they expect to be able to accommodate once we’re fully set up.  Once the huts are finished, the less-serious cases will be in those, and the more-serious in the main building.  (They say also that we are to have a hut of our own eventually, but the ones for the patients come first.  With luck, we will be out of the tent before winter sets in completely.)

Settling down to sleep now, so I will close and put out my candle before anyone heaves a boot at me.  Light a cigarette for me.

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

“Is that a new letter from Peter, then?” Anna asked. 

Folding it, Thomas put the letter back in its envelope.  “No, just the old one.”   They were waiting for their tea, and he felt like reading it again, was all. 

“I’m sure he’s all right,” she said.

“So’m I,” he said, quickly.  It had barely been a week, since he’d gotten this letter—and it had taken four days to reach him.  “I expect they’re keeping him quite busy, and everything takes longer, coming from the Continent.  Censoring and everything.”

“Do they do that, when they’re just at a hospital?” Maud asked.

Thomas nodded.  “I expect they’re in a position to know more sensitive information than anyone, being in contact with wounded from all different units.”

Two days later, he got two letters at once from Peter, the one dated the 8th—meaning it had taken over a week to reach him—and the other a more reasonable three days old.  The first was a long, chatty one where he spoke cheerfully of the work they were doing—mostly getting the “huts” into shape, painting the walls and setting up beds and so on—more description of the town, and things like that. 

The second was much shorter, and said,

                Dear Thomas,

Just a quick note to say I am thinking of you!  I have had (3) from you, the most recent of the 14th, but it sounds like you have only had my first.  (I sent another!)  They say that our letters have been delayed for a while, as we have a shortage of junior officers to censor them: normally it’s the Lieutenants who do it, you see, and a doctor is always at least a Captain, so we haven’t got many Lt’s in the RAMC. 

Fortunately, some of the recovering officers in the wards have asked for something useful to do, and someone had the idea of getting them to censor letters—which is very useful, in my opinion, while not being at all taxing.  So for now, our post should go out fairly quickly. But please don’t worry if letters are irregular—post might slow down again if we happen not to have any officers conveniently on hand to check them, and besides that, we don’t have Sundays off here.  (For some reason, the wounded insist on eating, needing their dressings changed, etc. even on a Sunday!)

They are keeping us fairly busy, with the same sort of stuff I talked about in my last letter.  There is a general sense of urgency about getting wards ready for a rush of new patients, so of course we are speculating about a major battle being in the works—but it may simply be a case of being prepared well in advance of need. 

Light a cigarette for me,

Yours affectionately,

P.F.

By the time Thomas got this letter, the papers had confirmed Peter’s guess about a battle in the works—several of them, in fact, as the British and French tried to stop the Germans from getting to the North Sea, and vice versa.  He was unsurprised when Peter’s next few letters were brief and hastily written, speaking of many casualties and much work, and missing Thomas.  He did say that he appreciated long, newsy letters, though—it taking much less time to read one than to write one—so Thomas did his best, filling his letters with Downton gossip and tosh he read in the papers and whatever else he could think of. 

It wasn’t until well into November that he got a long letter in return.  It said:      

Dear Thomas,

Whew!  The fighting seems to have died down to a dull roar now, and with it the flood of casualties.  The experienced corpsmen tell us that it will probably be like this for the winter.  (I hope that isn’t considered sensitive information—I don’t think anyone heard it from anywhere in particular; it just stands to reason that the Army won’t be moving around quite as much, with the ground freezing and thawing all the time, and soon snow, and so forth.) 

Of course, that doesn’t mean our brave lads on the front lines will be able to pop back into the house for a cup of cocoa in the warm—they have to stay where they are, so as to keep the Germans where they are.  And that, in turn, means that we brave lads of the hospital must stay where we are.  We typically get a few wounded every day, from one place or another, as well as a steady trickle of “sick.”  (That isn’t as revolting as it sounds—“sick” may mean anything other than a wound, from a cough to a sprained ankle, and does not necessarily mean actual vomiting.)  Last evening we had a lecture on frostbite, which I suppose they anticipate we’ll be seeing a lot of.

That brings me to something important that I didn’t have time to write when we were so busy—I’m getting a lot more medical training now.  A couple of weeks after we arrived, they sorted us into new sections—the old ones having been simply based on the alphabet.  The new ones are to do with the type of work they think we’re suited for, and I’m in the group that is mostly working on the wards.  (Others do things like cooking, laundry, managing supplies, looking after the Medical Officers, and so on.)

The others in our battalion have described our section as “the clever sods.”  We include quite a few grammar-school lads, brainworkers of various types, two who were actually in university studying medicine when the war broke out, and four more who were about to start.  One of the medical students was actually two years into his studies, and was offered an officer’s commission in a non-medical unit, but turned it down when he found out he’d have had to buy his own uniforms as an officer.  He is the son of a coal miner, you see, and attended grammar school and university on scholarship.  I’m rather in awe of him, as several of us are.  (He might he be a candidate for the Peculiars, but it’s a little hard to say, as we have our minds on other things.) 

I suspect I made my way into the clever sods because they had a few places left over after choosing the really clever ones, and I have a decent accent when I make an effort, but I think I’m doing well enough.  Quite a bit of it is making the beds, dealing with bedpans, and similarly unglamorous chores, but we also change dressings, give medicines, etc., and assist the doctors with various treatments.  We new fellows mostly do the less glamorous side, and learn the more complicated things by watching the more experienced orderlies.   Every once in a while, we take a turn doing something while they watch and shout at us if we get it wrong.  And we get a lecture now and then, when the MO’s don’t have anything better to do with their evening. 

Now that we aren’t so screamingly busy, the doctors also try to teach us a bit as they go along, whenever they see something the rest of us ought to know.  For instance, when I was on the chest ward, one of the MO’s pulled us all over to have a look at a poor blighter who had a bit of shrapnel go through his lung in just the right way that air would leak out of his lung and be trapped inside the chest wall.  Once enough of it builds up, the lung can’t expand anymore, and the aforesaid poor blighter can’t breathe—unless a doctor takes a big syringe and jabs it in just the right spot to suck the excess air out.  (He really needs an operation, of course, but the trick with the syringe takes only a moment and will keep him alive long enough to operate.) 

The poor blighter’s struggles for breath, in this situation, make quite a distinctive sound, and it was precisely this that the MO wanted us all to hear—so that if we hear it again, we know to run and get a doctor right away, rather than think that it is a death rattle and nothing can be done.  (We are not to attempt this maneuver ourselves, he emphasized, as it is very tricky to get the needle in just the right place not to do more harm than good, but after he’d gone one of the sgt’s said it might be different if we were on the front lines and not in a hospital.)

I tell you this both because it is an interesting thing to have learned, and because it impressed upon me that I could be in a position to make the difference between somebody making it through, and otherwise.  I mean, everything that we do makes a difference in that sense—even changing a bed reduces the chance of infection, which kills more men than the wounds themselves do—but that I might do something that any reasonably intelligent and conscientious chap dragged in off the street wouldn’t know to do.  If you follow me.  (I am not trying to aggrandize myself, only saying that I’ve realized it’s important to do my best to learn what they’re trying to teach me.)

But it is not all bed-making and learning about new and gruesome types of wounds here!   We get an afternoon or evening out now and then, and the local people are entirely happy to help us part with our wages.  They have set up for our convenience any number of little cafes where you can get a glass of wine and something like an omelet or a bowl of soup for not much money at all.  There are, of course, cafes and restaurants that existed before the war, but any number of new ones have sprung up, many in the homes of women who have found that they have a lot of time on their hands, with their menfolk off at war, and perhaps a need for a bit of extra money, if their men’s soldier’s pay is not quite what they got in their civilian occupations.  (It is said that some of these establishments offer hospitality warmer than wine and soup, but I, of course, have not ventured into that kind.) 

My chums and I particularly frequent the home of a Madame F., who is a widow with three grown sons at the fighting.  (I stress again that this is an establishment of the most respectable type; I run with a very respectable set here in France.) My chums include Jer, whom you met with his wife and son; Billy D., who is Methodist; Frank R., who is the miner’s son and medical student I spoke of earlier; and Issac S., whose father is a priest of the Hebrew faith—they call it a “canter,” which I thought was something to do with horses, but there you go.  There are a few others, but we five are the core group, and Madame F. has decided to consider us her foster sons for the duration—in hopes that her own sons are being similarly looked after, wherever they are.  (I can hear you scoffing all the way across the Channel, but I think it’s rather sweet.)  She is a splendid woman and a good cook, and lights candles for us every Sunday at Mass—even Issac, who had to think for a minute before deciding to accept the gesture in the spirit in which it was intended. 

It’s very important for us to have a comfortable place where we can relax off-duty, because we are still living in the bloody tent!  It’s very chilly; we sleep in our greatcoats and have nicked extra blankets from the hospital. 

You asked about Christmas, and if you meant it literally—I think that you did—what I should like best of all things is a set of the warmest winter underwear you can find—top and bottom.  What they issue us is not very warm, but we are allowed to wear anything under our uniforms as long as it doesn’t show.  (Now that I have said that, I can’t help but wonder what Syl is wearing under his!  If he has been issued one yet, I mean; last I heard, he and Theo were still in Kitchener Blues.)

I would also like a wind-proof lighter, if you can find one and the underwear is not too dear.  (Not the one I gave you!  I would rather struggle with matches, and be able to think of you having it.)  While we’re on the subject, what can I send you from France?

For ordinary parcels, and for “filling in the corners,” the most important thing (besides cigarettes) is tea.  We get some as part of our ration, but it’s usually made for us in these big metal urns called “dixies,” and by the time we get it, it’s lukewarm at best and tastes of metal.  (I also do not think the dixies are ever washed.)  The tea itself is not dreadful, if you can get it issued to you “dry,” but once it’s been made, forget it!  We have clubbed together to buy a spirit stove to make our own, but decent tea is not abundant in the shops, as the French like coffee better. 

Biscuits as before are also handy—if we don’t get a chance to sit down for our tea, it’s nice to have something we can scoff down one handed!  Go for quantity, not quality, in purchasing, as the done thing here is to put your tin the orderly room when it comes, and then you are free to eat everyone else’s until your next one comes.  (We are quite Communist in this regard: one is allowed to partake if one is a friendless orphan and never gets biscuits from anybody, but if it becomes known that someone has kept a tin to himself, he is barred from the common supply until he makes amends.  One chap tried asking his people to send two tins at once, one to share and one to eat all by his greedy self; we met in solemn conclave and decided that this was not cricket—from each according to his ability, as the man says.  The only exception is biscuits handmade by one’s sweetheart, and in that case you still have to give up half.)

So that is our life here!  All is well, except for missing you.  As always, light a cigarette for me. 

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

Receiving this letter, Thomas briefly contemplated the likely reaction if he went into the kitchen and asked Daisy or Mrs. Patmore to show him how to make biscuits.  Perhaps if the war stretched on a very long time, he decided, and went down to the village to see what he could find in the way of biscuits and underwear. 

He wrote back,

                Dear Peter,

I did mean Christmas literally!  I suppose it’s a bit early to be thinking about it, but the adverts are full of admonitions to think of “Our lads in France” early, and the Post Office has even made an official announcement to that effect.  I am putting together a parcel with tea, biscuits, cigarettes, etc., and will send it as soon as I have the corners filled in.  Your Christmas one will be the one after that, I think.

I’m sure they were right to put you in the clever sods section.  (For more reasons than one!)  I understand completely what you said about it being important to learn what you’re learning. 

In fact, he felt a pang of loss, that Peter’s experiences were growing so far from his, but he couldn’t say that.  He considered a quip about Peter being too grand for him when he got back, but since Peter had taken such care to say he wasn’t aggrandizing himself, best not to say that, either.  He settled on:

It is very important work that you’re doing, and for the record, I’m proud that you’re doing it—although I wish you didn’t have to! 

I’m glad to hear about your work, your chums, Madame F., etc.—anything that helps me to imagine your days.  I am not jealous about F.R., even if he is a candidate for the Peculiars, as long as you don’t decide you like him more than me.  I suppose he must be awfully clever, whereas I have only a certain low cunning. 

Here, everything continues mostly as before.  Quite a few of the gardeners, grooms, etc. have gone—as have some of the horses—but as for indoor staff, none of us have signed up, although William still wants to.  By now, most of us do know someone or another who is, at least, in training or waiting for orders to report.  Mrs. P. has a nephew, Miss O’B. a brother, and so on.  (There are only two with sweethearts in the Army so far—one is Madge, the one walking out with the under-gardener, and you know who the other is.) 

In fact, Thomas had found himself feeling very sympathetic to Madge, lately.  She didn’t talk much about Davy—he didn’t seem to be much of a letter-writer—but Thomas supposed she had to be feeling much as he had, when Peter had first gone off to training.  It was queer to think of, sharing something like that with a “normal” person, and a girl to boot. 

Upstairs, Mr. Matthew is at Officer School—although he manages to turn up here what seems like every other week-end; I suppose they have an easier time getting leave than regular people. 

It was also unclear why he kept turning up here, specifically, when he and Lady Mary still weren’t speaking, but there it was. Thomas considered saying something about that, but decided not to.  Everyone downstairs was consumed with the drama of it all—would they make up, before he went off to war?  Would he propose again?—and he was getting sick of it. 

Lord G. is still trying to get joined up.  His old regiment won’t take him back—apparently he’s just a hair overage—but he is constantly talking about this or that person at the War Office who has an idea or two about where he might be useful. 

He talks about it at dinner, I mean, not to me, obviously.   Lady G. gets very quiet at those times, and I wish I could tell her that I understand just how she feels—although there are two very good reasons why I can’t, one of them being that she is a Countess and I am a footman, and it would be the height of impertinence.  Even though we seem to be the only two people in the house who really see what a colossal ass he’s being—the young ladies don’t want him to go away, but they don’t think he can really die, and Carson thinks it’s beneath Lord G’s dignity, but ditto.

It was, honestly, maddening, the way they all seemed not to notice that the men signing up in droves were marching cheerfully to their own destruction.  Bates had told him that men traditionally put a brave face on things, in their letters home to women, but even so, they could all see the casualty reports in the papers—and her ladyship, who did seem to understand, was a woman.  He shook off that thought, and wrote:

Not that I would be particularly devastated if Lord G. were killed, you understand, although I certainly wouldn’t wish it on him.  I just know that he could be, if he gets his way, and that the ladies would be devastated.  I hope that one day Lady G. will finally let loose and tell him he ought to realize when he’s well off—and not only because it will be quite a show.

I don’t know why I am writing so much about Lord and Lady G., except that I have nothing much of my own to write about.  Today I polished the second-best silver! 

In other gossip, Mrs. B. is making trouble for Mr. B. and A.  Apparently she wants Mr. B. back—why, I couldn’t tell you—and is threatening to tell someone something if she doesn’t get her way.  He will not say what, and A. is wondering if he has yet another dark secret.  (I just realized what it could be, though—she could tell someone here that Mr. B. and A. are having an affair!  They are not—at least, I’m fairly sure they aren’t—but they spend enough time together that it would be a plausible accusation, and a big enough scandal to get at least one of them—probably her—sacked.  I’ll have to find an opportunity to suggest this to A. I’m not sure what we can do about it, if I’m right, but maybe she’ll be able to think of something.)

I’m not really sure what you can send me from France, apart from letters, which are the most important thing.  A tie?  Or just something from the town where you are—I suppose before the war holiday-makers bought trinkets to send to their people back home; if those shops are still open, choose something there, and when I feel like it, I’ll imagine that you are swanning your way through the casino in white tie, dropping a year’s wages on a spin of the roulette wheel. 

The letter was still a good deal shorter than the one Peter had sent—even with all the drivel about his lordship—but he couldn’t think of another thing to say.  Finally, he wrote,

It’s late, and I suppose I have to sleep sometime.  Goodnight, my dear, and I’ll light a cigarette for you. 

Yours Affectionately,

T.B.

#

Anna was working at some mending at the servants’ hall table when Thomas dropped into the seat next to her and said, “I had an idea, while I was writing to Peter last night.”

“What’s that?” she asked, cautiously.  She hoped it wasn’t about enlisting and getting sent over there to be with him—the chances they’d actually be in the same place were slim. 

“I bet that Bates’s wife is planning to tell them upstairs you’re having an affair,” he informed her. 

She put down the mending.  “Why are you writing to Peter about Mrs. Bates?” she asked, because that was a simpler question than asking how he’d gotten an idea like that.  She knew Thomas well enough now to understand that he probably didn’t mean that he thought she was having an affair with Mr. Bates, only that it might for some reason be in Mrs. Bates’s interest to say that she was.

“Because nothing ever happens here,” Thomas said, in a tone of irritation, “and he likes long letters.  But that’s got to be it—think about it.  He said he’d rather live under a bridge than with her, so it can’t be a secret that only hurts him.  And it explains why he won’t tell you what the threat is—he probably thinks it’s indecent to say anything about an affair to you.”

Anna decided not to point out that most men would consider anything about an affair to be, at the very least, a subject to approach delicately, rather than just coming out with it all of the sudden.   “It does make sense,” she agreed.  “But why would any of them believe her?  It isn’t as if she can have any proof—because we aren’t.”

“But you do find a lot of excuses to be alone together,” Thomas pointed out.

She’d think they must have been indiscreet, if even Thomas had noticed—there was a lot that went over his head, particularly when it came to women—but the possibility of an affair  was precisely the sort of thing his twisty little mind would pick up on.  “How would she know that?”

Thomas didn’t answer aloud, but looked down the table toward the spot where Miss O’Brien usually sat—although, fortunately, she wasn’t there now.  Though if she had been, Thomas would probably have dragged her outside “for a smoke” or something, because listening ears was another kind of thing he paid attention to. 

“I see,” she said.  She didn’t bother asking about motive; Miss O’Brien didn’t need one. 

“If I had to guess,” Thomas went on, “she probably reached out to her after that business with the letter, trying to see if there was anything else she could use.”

She very well might have—both Thomas and Mr. Bates had been surprised she let the matter drop, after the letter proved a damp squib.  “If it is true, do you have any ideas what to do about it?”  She was fairly sure that if he did, they wouldn’t be good ideas, but hearing what he thought might help her think of something better.

He shook his head.  “I was hoping you would.”

“Well, the first thing to do is find out from Mr. Bates, if you’re right about what she’s threatening,” Anna decided.  She didn’t think it was likely that Thomas had come up with this idea in order to maneuver her and Mr. Bates into doing something against Miss O’Brien—but she wouldn’t put it past him, if he’d thought of it. 

“I suppose,” he agreed.  “D’you want me to ask him?”

“No,” she said quickly.  If Thomas broached the subject as bluntly to Mr. Bates as he had to her, Mr. Bates would think he was accusing them of an affair.  “I’ll speak to him. Even if you’re wrong, he might open up to me about what the real secret is.  Especially if it’s not as bad as what we’ve guessed.”

“All right,” he agreed. 

She changed the subject—he’d speculate all day about what Mrs. Bates and Miss O’Brien might be up to, if she let him.  “How is Mr. Fitzroy?”

Thomas grinned.  “He’s well.  Did you know, they’ve selected him for extra medical training….”

#

Thomas was enjoying his after-dinner smoke, and wishing he’d put on his overcoat before doing it, when a sliver of light came out the back door, followed by Mr. Bates.  This wasn’t as startling an occurrence as it would have been a few months ago, but Thomas was still a bit wary—they mostly kept Anna between them, as a sort of buffer. 

“You were right,” Bates said, taking up a patch of wall next to the one Thomas was leaning against. 

“Figured,” he said. 

“And I know exactly how you thought of it, too.”

“How’s that?”

“Because it’s what you’d do, if you were still trying to get rid of me.”

Thomas shrugged.  It probably was. 

“Only an accusation like that is going to hurt Anna a lot more than it does me.  Vera knows that.  That’s why it’s so effective.  If it was just me, I’d tell her to go ahead and peddle whatever story she likes.”

He’d figured that, too.  “Did you really go around telling people you’d rather live under a bridge than with her?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Bates.  “And it’s true.”  He sighed.  “Is there anything in particular that makes you think O’Brien’s been telling her things?”

Thomas shook his head.  “Just that someone has to have been, and it’s the sort of thing she does.  They might have hit it off and hatched the scheme together—one wants you back, the other wants you gone—or maybe they took a dislike to each other, and O’Brien told her she’d been replaced, hoping it  would sting.” 

Bates snorted.  “You know what we used to say in the Army, about men like you?”

“What?”  Thomas asked, suspiciously. 

“It’s better to have you inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

Oh.  Thomas had thought he’d meant something else, by “like you.” 

Considering it from all angles, Thomas said, “Coming from you, that almost sounds like a compliment.”

“It almost is.”  Bates shook his head.  “There are times you need a real bastard.”

Thomas huffed, thinking of what he’d written to Peter about the clever sods section.  “In more ways than one.”

Luckily, Bates didn’t ask.  “What I don’t understand,” he went on, “is what Miss O’Brien gets out of it.  I know it started with you wanting my job, but she can’t care about that anymore.”

Thomas shrugged.  “Something to do,” he suggested.  He wouldn’t say it to Bates, but he was sort of glad of the distraction, too—something to think about, that wasn’t the war or them upstairs.  “And she doesn’t like that you have his lordship’s ear.  That was always her and her ladyship, you know.  She decides what they hear, about what goes on down here.”

Bates nodded slowly.  “I see.  And is there any way to make peace with her?”

“If there was, I’d have already done it.” 

#

“What if you just explain to his lordship?” Anna asked.  She and Mr. Bates were working in the boot room—one of the places they could usually talk privately, as long as they kept their voices low. 

This time, they had to keep them lower than usual, as they had left the door wide open.  They never completely closed it, as a closed door invited questions about what might be happening behind it, but often closed it halfway. 

“I can’t,” Mr. Bates said, shaking his head.  “I can’t just tell him that my wife thinks I’m having an affair with you, but I’m not.”

“You managed telling him you weren’t having one with Thomas,” she pointed out 

“That’s different.  The entire idea of something like that, with me and him, is absurd.  His lordship knows perfectly well I wouldn’t want to.”

He didn’t have to say that he might want to, with her, although he’d never do it. 

“Nor would Thomas,” she said instead.  “Apparently he’s mystified by the fact that you have, I quote, ‘two entirely separate women competing for you, and at least one of them’s got nothing wrong with her.’  I’m assuming that last bit was meant to be a compliment.”

“I can’t imagine how he’s gotten even one person to fall in love with him,” Mr. Bates answered.  “Do you suppose he says things like that to him?  ‘Well, all right, if you insist, I suppose you aren’t completely hideous and I can tolerate your company’?”

“From what I saw at Kew, that’s about the size of it,” Anna said.  “But Mr. Fitzroy seems to understand. I suppose it’s safer for them, if anyone overhears.  If it sounds like they’re just teasing each other.”

“I expect you’re right,” said Mr. Bates.  He returned to the subject at hand.  “In any case, it won’t be his lordship that she writes to—she knows I’d have a chance of explaining to him that there’s nothing in it.  She’ll tell Mr. Carson, or Mrs. Hughes, or maybe even her ladyship.  She’s worked in houses like this—not quite so grand—and she knows that, with any of them, there will be a lot of talking about it behind closed doors, before it comes out in the open and I have a chance to clear myself.  If there’s enough talk, even if they believe me when I tell them the truth, there’s a good chance they’ll decide at least one of us has to go, to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

And if it was only one of them, it would be her, she knew.  Partly because Mr. Bates and his lordship shared a bond forged in their own war, partly because it would—truly—be easier for her to find another place as a housemaid than for Mr. Bates to find one as a valet, and partly because she was a woman, an object of temptation, and it was always the woman who took the blame.  “What can we do?”

He shook his head.  “I’ll go down to London, try to reason with her.  Bribe her.  I’ll tell her, even if she does get me sacked, I’ll not be going back to her, and then offer her some money to back off.  If I can get it across to her that she won’t get what she wants, whatever she does, she might have the sense to take what she can get.”

It seemed a good plan.  “Do you have enough money to give her, that she’ll find it convincing?”  Anna knew that Mr. Bates sent most of his wages back to her, so he couldn’t have much put by. 

She had a bit put by herself, but she didn’t imagine he’d take it.

“I’ll have to get it from my mother,” he answered.  “It’s humiliating, but Vera will enjoy that, so it might help persuade her.”

#

Across the table from Thomas, Madge squinted at the knitting pattern that was spread out in front of her, sighed dramatically, and began undoing stitches.  She’d proudly announced, a day or two before, that she was knitting a jumper for Davy.  It wasn’t hard to see where she’d got the idea—Maud, a few seats down, was knitting one for her brother, as well.  Maud’s looked a lot less like a moth-eaten fishnet, though. 

Maud looked up from her knitting.  “That pattern might be a bit ambitious for a beginner,” she suggested.  “You could try a scarf.”

“I know how to knit,” Madge said, irritatedly. 

“Only you usually do dish-cloths, don’t you?  I’m just saying.”

Thomas sighed, and lit a cigarette. 

“I’m sorry, are we bothering you?” Maud asked, waspishly.  “We’re only knitting for our men at the front, so I certainly hope it isn’t any inconvenience.”  She seemed to have entirely forgotten that a moment ago, she’d been suggesting that what Madge was doing could scarcely be dignified with the name of knitting.

“D’you think you’ll be finished with it, before the war’s over?” Thomas wondered. 

“We’ll be finished sooner than you’re finished doing nothing,” Madge answered. 

“There are these things called ‘shops,’” he said loftily, “where you can buy things to put in parcels.”  He’d just sent one, with the tea and things, and on his next half-day was going to Ripon to look for Peter’s Christmas presents.  Peter didn’t need him faffing about knitting things.

“No one said there weren’t,” Maud retorted.

Thomas sloped off into the courtyard, where a man could smoke in peace.  Bitterly cold peace, but still.  You didn’t have people knitting at you.

#

“Anna,” Thomas said to her one day, as she was doing some sewing in the servants’ hall.  “Come outside with me.”

Honestly, he was lucky so many people did know about him, or they’d get entirely the wrong idea. Still, she was glad enough to put her work down for a moment, and follow him out.  The ladies had decided not to order new dresses, because of the war, which meant their old ones had to be shortened to match the new style, and have new trims and things added, to make it less dreary not to have anything new.   She was half-tempted to take up smoking herself, for the excuse to take a break now and then. 

Once they were outside, he seemed in no particular hurry to say whatever was so important and private it couldn’t be said inside, occupying himself instead with knocking a light dusting of snow off of a crate and then, to her astonishment, gesturing for her to sit down on it.  “Is everything all right?” she asked, sitting down. 

“Hm?  Oh, yeah.  He’s fine.”  Thomas lit a cigarette.  “Sends his regards.” 

She hadn’t exactly been asking about Peter, but answered, “Send him my love, back.”

“Very busy, you know, hospital things.  They’re still sleeping in the tent.  So what I was wondering was, is it really fairly easy to knit a scarf?”

It took her a moment to adjust to the change in subject.  “A plain one is about the easiest knitting you can do.  Why, did you want me to make one for Peter?”  She supposed she could—with all the others knitting things for soldiers, she might as well get in on it—although she might not have the time for it before Christmas, with all the sewing she had to do.

Thomas flicked ash in a surprised manner.  “Yeah, I suppose that’d work.”

“Why, what did you have in mind?”

“Well.”  He shifted he weight from foot to foot.  “I suppose I was sort of wondering if you could…teachmehowtoknit.” 

Oh.  Well, that was rather sweet, really.  “Of course.  Have you bought the wool yet?”

“While I was in Ripon.  I didn’t get any needles, though.”

“We’ve plenty lying around,” she told him.  “I’ll find some.  Do you want to start this evening, after dinner?”

“Could we?”

“It’s a date.  You bring the wool, I’ll bring the needles.”

He nodded.  “Right, so I was thinking you’d say you aren’t feeling well, and then ten minutes or so later I’ll go out like I’m having a smoke, and we meet up in me room.”

That’s what he was thinking, was it?  “No,” she said.  “I am not sneaking into a man’s bedroom for secret knitting lessons.  Have you lost your mind?”

“Your bedroom?” he suggested.

“That’s even worse!”

“Well I don’t imagine we can do it out here,” he said.  “It’s too bloody cold.”

“Yes, it’s too bad there isn’t some sort of room where men and women can engage in perfectly innocent activities in plain view of everyone,” she said. 

“I can’t knit in the servants’ hall,” he protested.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“Everyone else does.”

“Everyone else are girls.”  He paused.  “And Miss O’Brien.”

“Scottish shepherds knit,” she told him.  “Even the ones that aren’t girls.”

“I’m not a Scottish shepherd.”  Tossing his cigarette down into the snow, he said, “Forget it; it was a stupid idea anyway,” and stalked off.

#

After dinner the next evening, Thomas was studiously ignoring Anna, and the knitters, who she seemed to have joined, doing something mysterious with needles and khaki-colored wool.   Was she gloating?  That she could knit in public, and he couldn’t?

She was mean enough to do it; if she weren’t, he’d not have liked her.

Not that he did, at the moment. 

Bates went to put the newspaper back in the rack by the fire, passing behind Anna on his way back.  “That looks complicated,” he said, peering over her shoulder at what she was doing.

“Not really,” she said.  “Once you’ve got the knack of it, your fingers just go along and do it.  What Madge is doing, that’s tricky, because you have to count the stitches, but this is just plain knitting, one row after the other.”

“I see,” Bates said.  “So you wrap it around like that, and then—how does it not slip off the end?”

“It just doesn’t,” Anna answered.  “Here, have a go.”  She handed him the needles.

Was it supposed to be some sort of joke?  He’d asked to learn to knit, and now she was showing Bates instead, of all people.

Soon, Bates was knitting away, with frequent reminders from Anna about keeping tension and not dropping any stitches.

“Well, there’s a sight,” said O’Brien, busy at her own knitting.  “Not really something for a man to do, is it?”

“Some of the others did it in hospital, when I had my wound,” Bates said.  “I can see why—it’s sort of soothing, isn’t it?  I might take it up.”

For a long moment, there was no sound but needles clacking.  “Would anyone else like to have a go?” Anna asked, with barely a fraction of a glance at Thomas.  “Or is Mr. Bates the only one man enough?”

Oh, clever girl, Thomas thought, finally catching on—though how she’d roped Bates into it, he had no idea.  “If he can do it, I’m sure I can.”

#

A few days later, when Mrs. Hughes was sharing an evening sherry with Mr. Carson, he said peevishly, “Why, I should like to know, is the servants’ hall suddenly full of knitting men?”

“They’re making things for the war effort,” Mrs. Hughes explained.  Even the hall-boys had taken it up, once William had.  “I think it’s nice.”

#

 

25 December, 1914

Dear Thomas,

Happy Christmas!  The scarf was a lovely surprise, and I hope you thanked Anna for teaching you.  I’m sure it must be heaps better than anything William has managed to knit.  The underwear is just what I wanted, and I shall think of you every time I light a cigarette (although I did before, too!).  Do thank Mrs. P. for the fruitcake for me, and tell her it did stay moist the whole way here.

Our Christmas here was rather good.  Everyone feels sorry for the wounded soldiers and Christmas-time, and there was enough good cheer left over for us orderlies to get our share.  Lots of women’s groups back home sent loads of things—food and drink, decorations, presents—and parties of local women and children came to cheer us all up.  We orderlies were up half the night fixing up stockings for all the patients, using the things the women sent from home, and once we got done with the morning chores, we found out that the Officers’ Convalescent ward had done the same for us. 

We had our parcels from Princess Mary, as well—I suppose you’ve seen in the papers about them.  I imagine you rolling your eyes over the appeals, which are a bit mawkish, but many of the men were genuinely touched.  Even the hardened anti-sentimentalists (that is, the ones who remind me most of you!) said the tin would come in handy, for keeping things dry and safe once they go back to the Front. 

We had a bang-up dinner as well, and so it was all just about as jolly as could be managed under the circumstances.  I am writing this long letter now because I am on night duty in Men’s Sick.  (I remind you again that this is not what it sounds like!)  Most of the cases are foot conditions caused by the cold and damp, which are fairly disgusting to look at and require a lot of work during the day, but not likely to cause an emergency at night, so it is a fairly lucky ward to have night duty on. 

I’m sharing the night watch with a Nurse N.  We are not talking much, because the nurses are under orders not to fraternize with the orderlies.  We and they do very much the same work, but they are classed as honorary officers, because most of them are rather posh in terms of background.

It’s funny, though—she’s sat here in the middle of the night, in a room full of men, most of them in states of undress, and that’s all perfectly all right, but if I ask her what she did before the war, or if she’s got a brother in the fighting, that would be improper!   

Oof, just as I was writing that, she asked me for a cigarette.  How forward!  Gave her one, of course, and having one myself now.  All of the nurses are learning to smoke and swear, over here, and they’re right hard workers.  Whenever there’s a particularly hard or mucky job to be done, the Sgt’s yell at us to get on with it before the ladies do it.  (Whenever this happens, I can hear you saying, “Let them, if they’re so keen!”)

The standard for a mucky job is pretty high here, though—the ladies handle bedpans and urinals and basins of sick (as opposed to Sick) as often as anyone else.  It’s mostly the absolute worst of the dressing changes that they try to spare them from—that, and carrying in stretcher cases.  And anything to do with VD.  They’ll do it all, though, if we don’t get to it first.

Another thing that’s funny is that Christmas is making me miss you more than ever—not that missing you is funny, but we haven’t spent Christmas together since Lady W’s anyway. I suppose it’s just that everyone else is missing their people at home, and it’s contagious.  I’m glad I have someone to miss; I can’t imagine how lonely I’d feel if I didn’t.

I sometimes think of what it would be like to have you here with me.  (Don’t think I am telling you to run and sign up—there’s no reason to believe they’d send you to the same place I am, and no way we could ask for it.  They might send you someplace not nearly as nice as here, and I’d much rather have you safe and bored at home.)  It’s just something I imagine, is all.  I picture it being like the Lady W’s days, showing you the ropes. 

Sometimes I get carried away and imagine us all here, the London Peculiars.  Syl giving fashion tips to all the nurses, and Theo keeping track of who hasn’t had a parcel in a while, Reg telling those awful jokes of his, and you getting all the Daves mixed up.  It’s not bad here, really; you just miss people. 

You, most of all.  Light a cigarette for me (even though I’ve just had one).

Yours affectionately,

P.F.

Chapter Text

 

                22 February, 1915

Dear Thomas,

Just got your parcel, “Hero’s Box” and all.  Everyone here agrees the name is silly, but they’re lovely biscuits, and a good value.   (I scoffed two of the chocolate ones the moment I put the tin in the orderlies’ room—they go quickly!)

This will have to be short, as things are busy here.   We are getting ready for the “spring offensives”—all details hush-hush, but there are bound to be some.  Our lads are itching to get out of the trenches and do some real fighting—that is the official word, but it seems to actually be true.  Everyone who spent the winter huddled in a hole scratched into the ground is just about ready to get out of it, and I suppose that goes for the Hun, too. 

One of the things that’s going on is that they’re setting up new medical facilities, closer to the front lines.  (We have had these all along, but the point is, we’ll need more of them, because with active fighting going on, there will be lots of wounded all at the same time and place.)  Some of us will be going forward, to staff the new posts—they haven’t said who yet. 

I am telling you so that it won’t come as a shock if I tell you later on that I’m going up.  Please don’t worry—the next step in the “chain of evacuation” is the Casualty Clearing Station, which is simply a hospital set up at a railhead a good distance back from the fighting.  Many of them are in towns where the local civilians are still living quite normally.  The pace of the work can be a bit difficult, they say, but it’s not really more dangerous than here. 

So I am sure that I shall be fine, if I even am sent up, which is by no means certain.  They are even assigning a few nurses to work at CCS’s, so that should tell you it’s really nothing to worry about. 

I had meant to finish this letter with some everyday details, so I wouldn’t be leaving you with this surprising news, but I have to close now, if I am going to get this in today’s post.  Light a cigarette for me!

Yours affectionately,

P.F.

 

Thomas was just tucking this letter back into its envelope—after reading it for the third time—when the back door creaked open, and Madge stepped out, very casually taking out a cigarette packet. 

Thomas raised an eyebrow.  He wondered if Mrs. Hughes knew what she was up to. 

“Hullo, Thomas,” she said, lighting up as if she’d been born doing it—and then immediately falling into a fit of coughing, which rather spoiled the effect.

“Don’t, uh, don’t suck on it quite so hard,” he suggested, once she had subsided.  “It’s not a straw.  Just inhale normally.”

She tried again, a bit more successfully, though Thomas would not have sworn she’d actually inhaled at all, this time.  “You know that Davy leaves the day after tomorrow,” she said. 

“Yeah.”  Likely, he was bound for the same “spring offensives” that Peter had written about.  “Sounds like they’re expecting things to start happening again, now that winter’s nearly finished.”

“You see, the thing is.”  She fell silent for a moment, twisting her engagement ring round her finger.  “The thing is, I was hoping you could help me.”

“How’s that?” Thomas asked, not wanting to commit himself before he knew what she wanted.

“I want to do something for him, something really special, before he goes.”

Thomas made a sound of vague encouragement.  What did that have to do with him?

She took a deep breath—not from the cigarette, which she seemed to have largely forgotten about—and said, “He wants—that is, he doesn’t want to go without having felt the touch of a woman’s hand.”

Oh, Christ.   Thomas had supposed she’d been talking about making him a bloody cake, or something. That explained her taking up smoking all of the sudden—it was a good excuse to slip away for a few minutes.  “What is it you want me to do?  Stand guard?”  He supposed he could.  “It’d have to be a place I have some business being, and if you’re caught anyway, I was just having a smoke and assumed it was a couple of cats.”

“No, he…he’s already figured out how we can get some privacy.  Some of his mates are helping.”  She took another deep breath.  “It’s just that…I can’t get in a family way.  I mean, we’re going to be married, but if he were,” she dropped her voice, already low, to a whisper, “killed, and couldn’t….”

Thomas nodded quickly.  She was right not to risk it, but he still didn’t know where he came in to all this.  If it was French Letters she wanted, she’d be better off asking literally anyone else, since he had no use on Earth for the things. 

Common sense reasserted itself.  “You want me to send him away with a flea in his ear, then?”  That had to be it, or some version of it.  Let him down easy, maybe.  Or stand there and look intimidating while she did. 

But she said, “No, it’s….”  She blushed furiously.  “I was hoping you’d have some idea.  Of something that we could….do.  Instead, like.”

Christ swinging naked on a trapeze.  There had to be something he was misunderstanding, here.  She could not possibly be asking for tips on the finer points of buggery. 

But what the hell she actually wanted, he couldn’t imagine.  “Have you tried asking one of the women?” he suggested. 

“Anna just said I should keep me knickers on and me knees together.”

That was a much more sensible idea.  “She’s right.  Do that.  It’s just as good—or nearly.”

“I thought you would under—” she began, angrily, then stopped short.  “What?”  She shook her head.  “What are you talking about?”

“The same thing you were, I thought.”  Was it possible that their lot really didn’t know about…?  It would explain why there were so many out-of-wedlock babies. 

“I don’t think so,” she said. 

Thomas had imagined, a time or two, explaining this particular maneuver to a hall-boy or something, as Peter had explained it to him.  But certainly not to a bloody housemaid.  “All right, look.  While you’ve got your knickers on and your knees together, he can sort of go….”  Thomas made a vaguely illustrative gesture with both hands.

“You mean with his….”  She trailed off, apparently unable to name the object in question.

“If ‘special’ means what I think it does, his …  is going to be involved.”

“And that’ll work?  I mean, men like it?”

“So I have been given to understand,” Thomas said, archly.

“But what if he, you know, while he’s down there.”  She made a slightly less vague gesture with her hands.  “On the sly, like.”

“If you don’t trust him not to do what you’ve said you won’t, you shouldn’t do anything at all.”

She considered that for a moment.   “I was hoping not to have to actually say…but I’m sure if I do, he’ll understand.”

Thomas hoped she was right, but it was her own look-out if she wasn’t.  “For God’s sake, don’t tell anyone where you got the idea.”

“I won’t,” she promised. 

Chapter Text

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” said Maud, bravely.  “All the doctors and medics know their job—like Thomas’s friend.” 

She looked at him hopefully, and Thomas found himself saying, “They do.  They’ll take good care of him,” even though his mind was full of things Peter had told him.  That infection killed more men than the wounds themselves.  That once the gas gangrene started, there was nothing to do but amputate—and once it reached the trunk, nothing to do at all.  That sometimes, there were just too many wounded to look after them all. 

Then there was the fact that Maud’s mother had had an official telegram, saying that Henry was wounded.  They didn’t send those out for a scratch; if the man was well enough to sign his name, he sent a field postcard. 

Across the table, he and O’Brien exchanged a look, almost like the old days.  He wondered if her brother told her things most men didn’t tell their womenfolk. 

Mrs. Hughes, giving Maud a last, motherly pat on the shoulder, changed the subject.  “And how is Mr. Fitzroy faring?”

“They have him at an Advance Dressing Station, now,” Thomas said.

“Is that where they do the more complicated treatments?” another maid asked.

Thomas shook his head.  “That’s a Stationary Hospital.  ‘Advanced’ means towards the Front.”

“Oh,” said the maid.

They’d moved Peter up quickly, once he’d left the base hospital: a couple of weeks at the CCS, a couple at the Main Dressing Station, and now this.  Each one was a bit closer to the fighting, a bit more dangerous, and a lot less comfortable.  “They’re in the same part of the lines as the gun batteries—the artillery, you know—so it’s very loud.”

Not just loud, either.  Anna asked, “Do our guns shoot further than the German ones?”

“No,” said Bates.  “They don’t.”

“They don’t get shelled very often,” Thomas said quickly.  Peter had said so.  “Our guns are mostly positioned to be in range of their front lines, and the other way round.  But sometimes.”   

“Do they still have to go up to the Front and collect the wounded?” Madge asked.  “Like they did at his last place?”

Thomas nodded.  “They’ve always got to do that.” 

Bates said, “We used to have men seconded from the regiment to act as stretcher-bearers.”

“They still do that,” Thomas told him.  “But the ones from the dressing stations have to go too, if there’s more than a few wounded at one time.”

Bates shook his head and sighed.  “It was something of a light duty, in our war.  They’d put you on it if you were getting over being sick, or something.”

Not long ago, Thomas would have thought Bates was calling him a liar.  “Peter says, they put you on extra collecting parties—that’s what it’s called—if you’re in trouble.  Otherwise, there’s a rota.  But if you’re being punished, you’ve got to go every time.”

It was inhuman, he thought, punishing somebody by putting them in risk of death.  But Peter never got in trouble, so it was good for him.  He didn’t have to go as often.

 

14 April, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I’ve not been very brave today.  I told you before, about the sound of the guns, and how it makes the war seem so close—even though they’re our guns, and no danger to us here.  They creep into my dreams, and seem louder every day.

I woke up and got up for a smoke, and found our MO, Capt. R., doing the same.  He’s the nice one I told you about.  So I asked him, if there was any way I could be rotated back for a bit—just to get away from the guns, I said, it wasn’t about not wanting my share of the dangerous work.

He was very nice about it, and said he understood, but there simply wasn’t a mechanism for it—we’re already nearly as far back as the men go when they’re rotated off the Front for a rest, so the Army doesn’t see any need to rotate us out.  It was a shame, he said, because it would do all of us a lot of good to get away for a bit.  Some of the MOs, he said, think maybe the roar of the guns does something to your inner ear, makes you a bit potty, if you’re susceptible, but you’re bound to adjust eventually. 

He was trying not to make me feel like a coward for asking, but I still do. 

(Also, we had a lecture on war neuroses, a while ago.  The first-line treatment is for one’s officer to kindly but firmly tell one to buck up.  I’m fairly certain I have just received this treatment.)

Light a cigarette for me, your neurotic friend,

P.F.

Thomas struggled with how to reply to this letter.  His first impulse was to tell Peter he was an idiot for drawing attention to himself, when he was having trouble—he might have been able to wangle something, somehow, but now if he tried, they’d know what he was doing. 

But he couldn’t say that to Peter—not if he was still feeling low when he got the letter—and in any case, it was too late now.  He didn’t even really want to say it, not to Peter, who was so brave and clever and kind.

That left him with no clear idea of what to say instead, though.  Anna told him that the best thing to say was that Peter was very brave, and he was sure that the officer hadn’t thought otherwise, but they weren’t in the habit of telling each other comforting lies. 

In the end, he wrote,

                Dear Peter,

I’m not surprised you’re having trouble—it all sounds wretched.  Remember that you are very brave to have gone there in the first place, and I expect it’s true that lots of men are having a hard time, otherwise Capt. R. would not have had a lecture ready about it!  If he has any sense, he will tell his superiors what he thinks, about it being a good idea to rotate the orderlies off from time to time—who knows, something may come of it!  After all, you are at the Front.  (The back of the Front, but still.) 

I worry about you being there, of course.  At church last Sunday, we had a prayer for “our boys fighting at the Front,” and I wanted to point out to Father-what’s-his-name that there are people at the Front doing things other than fighting, and they’re having as bad a time of it as anyone else.  (I did not give in to this impulse, just talked Bates and Anna’s ears off about it.)

Everything here continues as normal.  Bates’s mother is ill, which is no surprise given she’s about nine hundred years old.  I have been good, and told him it’s no trouble doing his work while he goes down to London to see her, but so far he hasn’t gone. 

Lighting lots and lots of cigarettes for you,

T.B.

The next morning’s post brought nothing from Peter, but it did bring something: an envelope of smooth, heavy paper—expensive paper—addressed in a hand that used to send a thrill through him, whenever he saw it.  He didn’t even have to open it to know what sort of news it would be—there was only one reason the owner of that hand, and that paper, would be writing to him now.  The only question was who it was about.

Numbly, he slit the envelope, took out the letter, and read:

                Thomas,

I hope this letter finds you well.  I’m sure you must be surprised to hear from me after all this time.  I’m writing because I came across a piece of news that might interest you, and of which you may not have heard.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that Eliot Cavendish was killed in action in France the week before last.  I don’t know any further details than that; I had it from his people.  I got the impression that you and he were rather chummy at one time, so I thought that you might like to know.

Sodding hell.  Eliot, of all people….

 “Thomas!”

He glanced up to see Carson glaring at him, his expression thunderous.  “What?”

“How dare you use language like that in mixed company!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Carson,” he heard himself saying.  “I didn’t realize I was speaking aloud.  Excuse me….”

He got up and headed for the courtyard, vaguely aware of a commotion behind him.

Eliot.  He was a prick, of course, all of them were, but he’d been the first man in Thomas’s life to say that he’d loved him.  They hadn’t spoken in years.  And now he was dead. 

#

“I’ll go and speak to him,” Anna said, quickly.  It wouldn’t do at all for Mr. Carson to go after him; heaven knew what Thomas would say. 

“He must have gotten some distressing news,” Mr. Bates explained to the rest, as Anna left the room.

She wasn’t at all surprised to find Thomas in the courtyard, smoking.  She was a little surprised that he was crying, too.  “What happened?” she asked.  It couldn’t be Mr. Fitzroy—he’d not have managed to leave the room as calmly as he had if it was—but what else could upset him enough to swear at breakfast?

Thomas swiped angrily at his eyes.  “Nothing.  Just some—complete prat I used to know.” 

But he handed her the letter he’d been reading, and she was surprised to recognize the crest at the top.  And the handwriting.  Lady Mary used to get letters on this paper, in that handwriting.  Why on Earth was Thomas getting letters from the Duke of Crowborough? 

The sender was a surprise, but the contents were what she had guessed they must be—someone had died.  Someone who, somehow, Thomas and the Duke both knew. 

Belatedly, she remembered what Lisel and Mr. Fitzroy had hinted at when they’d talked in Kew Gardens that spring—about Thomas having a bit of a past, involving gentlemen who hadn’t treated him very well.  “I’m sorry,” she said, hesitantly. 

He shook his head.  “I don’t care about him.  It’s just that I get one of those about every week, these days.  ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard, but…’ and then they tell me who’s been killed this time.  Not any of my real mates yet, just….people I’ve lost touch with, like Eliot, or friends of friends.”

“But it makes you worry about Mr. Fitzroy,” Anna said, gently.  Of course it did.

But he looked up at her and said crossly, “It’s not like he’s the only friend I’ve got.  There’s a bunch of them over there now.  Joey, Syl and Theo, Reg.”

He had never mentioned any of these people before, as far as she could remember, and part of her wanted to point out that he couldn’t really expect the rest of them to know what friends he’d got if he kept it all such a big secret. 

But he was going on, “Michael’s not there yet, but he’s going, and so’s Drew—don’t really know Drew, he’s new, but he seems a nice lad, shame to think of him dead.  The other Peter’s already dead, and so is one of the Daves—I’m not sure which one—and Tim.  You know about Eddie, he was killed back in the beginning.   Haven’t heard from Joey in over a month—got worried enough I asked around, nobody else has, either.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dead, too.  And George Hargraves, Charles, and now Eliot.  God only knows how many I haven’t heard about.  The toffs, they’re dying in droves—our lot have at least got the sense to try and keep their heads down.” 

How did he know all these people?  She knew he got a lot of letters, but he always seemed so aloof, so isolated.  “It must be very worrying,” she said, tentatively.

“I should probably go,” he said, and for a moment she thought he meant back inside—which would have been wise, it was a damp, chilly morning, and he hadn’t stopped to put on a coat.  “There’s not much point in me being the only one left, is there?  Me and Philip—he’s got a heart condition, supposedly.”  He brandished the letter. 

There had been something at the end about being medically disqualified—Anna hadn’t read it closely enough to notice any details.  “You mean go to the war?”

“No, to the bloody circus,” he scoffed. 

He’d been going on for months about what an idiot William was for wanting to enlist.  “Don’t do anything hasty,” she warned him.  “You’re upset now, but I don’t think they let you back out once you’ve signed up.”

“I’m sure they don’t.”  He sighed, seeming to deflate.  “I’m not going to do anything hasty.  It’s just…it’s a lot.”

“I’m sure it is.”  The young ladies were feeling the strain of it to, with all the young men they knew going to war, and the first news of deaths starting to come in.  They got I don’t know if you’ve heard, but… letters, too. 

But at least it wasn’t all their friends going—just their beaux, their friends’ brothers, their friends’ beaux.  Thomas’s social circle—this wide-ranging, class-spanning social circle that he had scarcely said a word about before now—seemed to be made up entirely of men.  Which she supposed stood to reason.

Thomas sniffled and wiped his eyes one more time, pulling himself together.  “Carson’s probably ready to skin me alive.”

“I think Mr. Bates is talking to him,” Anna said.  “You know, a lot of his friends are being killed, too.”

“I bet they are,” Thomas said.  “And he’s not swearing at the breakfast table about it.”

“I just meant, maybe you should talk to him.”

“Hah.”  Thomas studied his hands for a moment.  “Maybe.”

#

Thomas braced himself for a lecture, when he went inside, but all Carson said was that he trusted Thomas had brought himself under control.

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” he said dully, and went to tend to the upstairs breakfast. 

When’d finished with that, and went back downstairs, Mrs. Hughes called him into her sitting room, and poured him a cup of tea.  He took it warily.

“Anna tells me you’ve been getting a lot of upsetting news lately,” she said. 

He nodded.  “I’m sorry, about the…language.  I really didn’t mean to say it out loud.”

“I understand.  But perhaps it would be better not to open your letters at the table, if they might be upsetting, and you’re feeling…fragile.”

She had a point.  “Yes, Mrs. Hughes.”

And then Carson put him on linen-pressing duty, which was easy and fairly pleasant work—and kept him out of the public eye, in the pressing room, which was probably the point.

 A day or two later, Thomas got two good-news letters, which put him in a much less bleak frame of mind.  In the morning post was a letter from Theo.  He opened this one with some trepidation—and in the boot room—because Theo had maintained his stature as their set’s one-man information bureau, despite repeated changes of headquarters, and thus sent an awful lot of letters that said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but….”

This one, however, contained the welcome news that Joey had been seen recently, on his way back from a stay at a dressing station, where he’d been with the fever that was going around.  Theo theorized that his letters might not have caught up with him there, if he wasn’t replying—apparently, that was known to happen sometimes.

Theo went on,

As for us, we’re managing all right.  We’ve had two spells up at the Front so far, and nothing too dreadful has happened.  It’s terribly muddy, and the living arrangements don’t even bear speaking about, but we and the chaps across the way have reached a sort of understanding about keeping the noise down, if you get my meaning.  Right now we are at a rest camp, which is not as restful as it sounds.  If they don’t have anything useful for you to do, they make you go out and play football, of all things.  (It’s like being back at school! –S.)  I’m sure we would all get more benefit from a nice nap, but there you have it.

Syl is attempting to persuade the powers that be to allow us to substitute amateur dramatics for the football, which as I’m sure you can imagine is a great deal more appealing.  We have no actresses, of course, but Syl has gamely offered to be our leading lady.  He thinks he has just about brought them round to the idea, but it might have to wait for our next spell of “rest”—we’ve been told to turn out for parade first thing after breakfast, in full kit, which is often all the warning we get that we’re going back up.  (Grrrrr!  This is me practicing my war face. --S.)

Here, there was a little drawing in the margin, of a face with dark, heavily slanted eyebrows.

We are well supplied with biscuits and cigarettes from Lady M.—she sends us a parcel nearly every week—but Syl would particularly like some lip rouge (The redder the better! –S) and silk stockings, for the play, if you have any idea where to get things like that.  Somehow, the Army has neglected to supply us with these essential articles(We will send you the money if you’re able to find them.  –S)

                Much love to you and Peter, from both of us!

                Theo & Syl

Thomas huffed a bit at the final request—no, he certainly did not know where to find stockings and lip rouge.  He supposed he could ask Anna, though. 

He was glad they’d lucked into a quiet sector, as Peter told him they were called, where the Boche were no more interested in being shot at than you were.  Peter didn’t spend much time in those, as there wasn’t a great deal for the RAMC lads to do there, apart from collecting Sick, but he’d said that often they’d even stop shelling when they saw the Red Cross—in return for the same courtesy when their own stretcher-bearers came up. 

The afternoon post brought a letter from Peter, which was even more welcome.  It said,

                18 April, 1915

                Dear Thomas,

Sorry my last letter was so glum!  I suppose I was mistaken about what Capt. R. thought, because he has come through splendidly.  This morning, he called me in specially and told me that he’d been asked if he could spare a man or two to fill in on one of the hospital ships in the Channel, and he immediately thought of me.  (Apparently, almost all of the orderlies that normally work on it are down with trench fever—but they’ve fumigated the whole place, so don’t worry about that.)  It just goes to show that you never know your luck.

It really is a perfect solution, because it’s away from the sound of the guns, which is all I wanted, but isn’t considered a plum assignment, so the other fellows won’t mind me getting it.  There has been some teasing on the theme of taking a holiday at the seaside, bringing back a stick of rock, etc., but a lot of them have admitted in private that they are afraid of U-boats, and say they wouldn’t swap with me if they could.  (I’m not worried—hospital ships are exempt from attack.  Dressing stations are supposed to be, too, but I figure it’s a lot easier to avoid accidentally hitting a great big ship with Red Cross markings all over it, than a section of trench that looks just like everything else.)

Besides the U-boat question, a number of them were seasick on the way over—luckily, I’m not susceptible to that—so that’s another bunch that say, “Better you than me!”  (Capt. R. did ask for another volunteer, and eventually Issac S. said he supposed he’d go, if nobody else wanted to.)  It really is frightfully important, over here, that your mates not think that you are trying to shirk your share of the unpleasantness—but if there’s something you don’t mind and the other bloke does, you can swap  it for something you mind and the other bloke doesn’t, if you follow me. 

It’s a temporary assignment—probably four to six weeks, which is about how long trench fever usually lasts—so I’ll be coming back to my mates once the other chaps are all better.  That’s important; I wouldn’t want to have to get used to a whole new group of people.  I’m sure I’ll find the guns easier to bear once I’ve had a bit of a break from them. 

We aren’t leaving just yet—Capt. R. has to arrange the details—but we’ve been asked to pack our kits and be ready to go immediately when our orders arrive, so I think it’s going to work out.  I will only be in England long enough to unload the patients on each trip, but I will wave in the direction of Yorkshire.  In the meantime, light a cigarette for me!

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

Thomas happily reported this news when Mrs. Hughes made the now-routine inquiry after Peter’s well-being, at dinner. 

“He’s quite well, in fact.  He’s going to be doing a spell of duty on a hospital ship—one of the medical officers recommended him for it specially.”

“Where’s that, then?” Maud asked.  “In the Mediterranean?”

Thomas shook his head.  “The Channel.”

“Will there be a chance for you to see him, when he’s in England?” Anna asked.

At the head of the table, Carson cleared his throat pointedly.

“No,” Thomas said.  “They only stop long enough to unload the wounded, then turn around and go back for more.  It’s just as well—if they got home leave out of it, all of his mates would be envious of him being chosen for it.”

“Why did the officer choose him, I wonder?” asked O’Brien, with just a hint of insinuation.

“Because he’s very good at his job, I expect,” answered Thomas. 

#

“Anna,” William said, in an urgent whisper.

She was on her way up to wake and dress the young ladies, but it sounded important, so she backtracked and said, “I’ve only got a minute—can we talk later?”

“I know,” he said.  “But quick, what ship did Thomas say that Mr. Fitzroy was on?”

“He didn’t,” she said, feeling cold.  “Why?”

He ducked back into Carson’s pantry and came back out with a newspaper.  The headline announced, “GERMAN ATROCITY: U-Boat Sinks Hospital Ship Albion.” Under that, “Hundreds Unaccounted For.”

“Oh, dear God,” Anna said. 

They stood in silence for a moment, until Mr. Carson bustled up and asked what they were standing around for.

Wordlessly, William showed him the newspaper.

“Good heavens,” Mr. Carson said.  “Will they stop at nothing?  Still, we had best carry on….”

“It’s not just that, Mr. Carson,” said William.  “We don’t know if—Thomas’s friend….”

“It might not be the one,” Anna said.  “He might very well know the name, and not have mentioned it.”

“But someone better break it to him gently, just in case,” William added. 

Anna had a pretty good idea who that “someone” had better be.  “I have to go upstairs and dress them,” she said.  “Can you keep him from seeing a paper, somehow, until I get back?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Carson, “but if any of the family should happen to mention it while we’re serving breakfast….”

“Mention what?” Mrs. Hughes asked, appearing in the doorway.

Wordlessly, Anna showed her the paper.

“Oh dear,” she said.  “Is that….?”

“We don’t know,” Anna said.  “We don’t know if he knows, what ship Mr. Fitzroy is on.”

“Right,” said Mrs. Hughes.   “Shall I go up and see to the girls, while you speak to him, or would you rather I told him?”

Anna did not want to tell him—would have much rather foisted it off on Mrs. Hughes—but God alone knew what Thomas would say or do, if it was Mr. Fitzroy’s ship.  She’d know not to take it personally, whatever it was.  “I think it would be best if I pulled him aside.  If it’s nothing, I’ll come right up and take over from you.”

Mrs. Hughes nodded.  “If it is bad news, it might be best if he hears it from a friend.”

After getting Mr. Carson’s permission to take the paper with her, Anna went to look for Thomas.

#

“No,” Thomas heard himself say.  “It can’t be.  There must be loads of them.  It can’t be the one.”

Peter had only gone on the hospital ship to get away from the sound of the guns.  It can’t have sunk.

“I’m sure there’s dozens of hospital ships,” Anna said, her face pale and worried beneath her cap.

“Yeah,” Thomas said, trying to make himself believe it.  “It’s awful, though.  Sinking a hospital ship.”  That was what you were supposed to say, wasn’t it?  “Have they no shame?”  His voice sounded distant to him, as if he were standing in the far corner of the boot room, looking at himself holding the newspaper.

Anna stroked his arm.  “Sit down a minute,” she suggested.

He shook his head.  “They’ll be coming down to breakfast any second.  I’d better get up there.”  That was what he’d be doing if nothing had happened, and nothing had happened.  Not to him, or to…anyone else he knew. 

 “I’m sure Mr. Carson will understand, if you’re not quite ready.”

“If I stopped working every time the Hun killed somebody, I’d never do anything,” he pointed out. 

Thomas sleepwalked through the day, trying determinedly not to think about anything.  He only came awake to pounce on the post each time it was delivered, hoping for a cheery letter from Peter saying, “I’m here on the Something-Other-Than-Albion, and it’s just the break I needed” or a frustrated one saying that his secondment had fallen through, or he was halfway to the port but kept getting stuck on railway sidings waiting for troop trains to pass.  Anything.

The evening post brought a field postcard, which made his stomach lurch, but it was only from Theo.  The phrases he’d left un-crossed-out were “I have been admitted to hospital” “wounded” “and am going on well” and “Letter follows at first opportunity.”

 On any other day, this news would have occupied all his attention, as he tried to figure out what Theo wanted to communicate with his selections from the few printed phrases.  Now, he distantly noted that “am getting on well” sounded like his wound wasn’t serious—but in that case, why send Thomas a field postcard at all?  It wasn’t as though they wrote on such a regular basis that Thomas would worry if he didn’t hear from him for a few days.

That night in his room, he started to write a letter to Peter, passing along the little news he’d gotten, and speculating about what it might mean, but he found himself weeping over it—why, he didn’t know—and crumpled the paper up and threw it away.

The next day’s papers had a list—a partial list, they emphasized—of some of the survivors rescued from the Albion.  Peter’s name wasn’t on it.

There were other harrowing details, too—that survivors had been rescued by two ships, a gunboat and a collier, but the latter had been sunk, as well, less than an hour later.  That the missing included patients, the ship’s crew, RAMC officers and men, and nursing sisters.  That it had taken less than a quarter of an hour for the ship to go down.

The story was on the front page of every paper going, and everyone was talking about it—but the conversations in the servants’ hall stopped abruptly whenever Thomas entered.

When Carson distributed the evening post, he very gravely handed Thomas a letter.  Theo’s handwriting.  He took it out into the courtyard to read.  Theo couldn’t have heard anything about Peter before Thomas had—could he?

He had not, but what he did have to say was bad enough.

                Thomas,

Syl’s dead.  I’ve been writing letters all morning, and every time I say it, it seems less real.  I keep expecting him to turn up.

We were out on a wiring party.  You know.  You go out after dark and fix the barbed wire in no-man’s-land. It’s not very dangerous, if you’re in a quiet sector.  But this time they started shooting at us.

I guess Jerry had a new officer show up, who didn’t like the sector being so quiet.  Or something.  The other bloke, you don’t know him, was killed instantly.  Syl and me never liked him much.  We were both hit, not too bad I thought.  Syl’s was in the leg, mine in the ribs.  We crawled back to the trench, and while we were waiting for the stretcher-bearers, Syl made a joke about being glad he hadn’t gotten his new stockings yet.  (He ordered some, from Paris.  The fucking parcel caught up with us in hospital today.  They gave it to me, cause they knew he was my mate.)

He was dead by the time we got to the dressing station.  I didn’t find out until the next day—they gave me something for the pain, and I was right out.  It wasn’t until I woke up and started asking after him.

Bloody hell, Thomas.  I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing out here.  (Pardon my French, Syl would say.) 

Maybe don’t tell Peter right away.  I heard he was having a rough time of it. 

Theo

The first emotion to cut through Thomas’s shock was relief.  Syl and Peter couldn’t both be dead, not at the same time.   Life was cruel, but it wasn’t that cruel. 

If Syl was dead, it had to mean that Peter wasn’t. 

He said as much, to Bates, when he came out to check on Thomas. 

(That was something people did, these past few days.  If he was out of plain view more than a few minutes, someone came looking.  Usually Anna, sometimes Bates, occasionally Mrs. Hughes or William.  Madge once.)

“Sure,” Bates said, after a long hesitation.  “I’m sure you’re right.”

For a moment, Thomas let himself believe it. 

He should have known better.

The next day started with Bates racing off to London before breakfast—his mother had taken a turn for the worse in the night, and he was needed urgently.  Thomas would have expected that to take everyone’s attention off him—and he’d have been glad if it had—but Carson called him in to his pantry and asked if Thomas “felt up” to looking after his lordship, while Bates was gone.

“Of course,” Thomas said.  “Don’t I always?”

“Well,” said Carson.  “I could do it this time.  Or William.”

“Why?” asked Thomas.  “I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself.”

His lordship was surprised, to find Thomas in the dressing room instead of Bates, but the only questions he asked were about Bates, and Bates’s mum, which was something of a relief.  He was getting tired of being asked how he was holding up, or if he’d heard anything.

“I’m not really sure, my lord” Thomas explained, getting out his lordship’s tweeds.  “All Mr. Bates said was that it was his mother, and he had to leave immediately.  But the doctor telephoned before most of us were even up—Mrs. Patmore answered it.  I’d think he’d have waited until a bit later in the morning, if it weren’t very serious.”

“I daresay you’re right.  Well, keep me posted, if he sends word.”

“Yes, my lord.”

When he looked at the morning papers, after serving and clearing the breakfast, he found that the story of the Albion, while still on the front page, was now tucked into a corner near the bottom.  The new lead story was the Allied landing at the Dardanelles, followed by hand-wringing over the Germans’ use of poison gas at Ypres. 

Thomas felt his sense of foreboding lift a bit.  The Dardanelles were nothing to him, nor Ypres—Peter wasn’t anywhere near there, and hadn’t ever been.  If the world was getting over the story—moving on to the next nine-days’ wonder—wasn’t it likely that the War Office had notified everyone that needed to be notified? 

It was a little surprising, maybe, that he hadn’t heard from Peter—he might at least have dropped Thomas a field postcard.  But maybe they didn’t realize, over there, what a commotion the British papers had made over the Albion.  Likely he’d written a letter, saying, “I hope you weren’t worried—there are dozens of hospital ships, and mine’s the Whatever-it-is,”  and it was held up somewhere waiting to be censored. 

Or maybe the letter had been on the Albion.  Did they put post on hospital ships?  Thomas couldn’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t.  That was a bit sad, thinking of a letter from Peter slowly disintegrating at the bottom of the Channel, but not so very sad, and he had no idea why his eyes were stinging. 

When the back-door bell rang, just after the servants’ tea, and Thomas answered it to find a boy from the telegraph office standing there, he told himself it had to be from Mr. Bates.  Saying that his mother had died, or had gotten better, or had flown to the moon.  Or maybe it was about Maud’s brother, or Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, or Davy Small, or God knows who.

When the telegraph office boy said, “It’s for a T. Barrow,” he very nearly said—may actually have said—“No it’s bloody well not!”

The next thing he knew, the door was shut, and Anna was standing next to him.  He handed her the telegram—still in its envelope. 

She tore it open, looked at it, and shook her head, tears shining in her eyes.

#

Robert was on the telephone with the War Office when Carson came up to the front hall, and stood beside the dressing gong.  “Yes,” Robert said, signaling to Carson that it would just be a moment.  “Yes, I understand.  But if something does come up, you’ll keep me in mind?”

The fellow on the other end assured him that he would—just like they all had.  After thanking him and saying his goodbyes, Robert hung up. 

Carson raised an eyebrow, and Robert shook his head. 

As the gong sounded, he trudged upstairs.  You wouldn’t think it would be so hard, finding a way to serve your country.  They took all the young men Matthew’s age, and even younger—the Old Etonian newsletter said that almost the entire Upper Sixth Form had gone.  There had to be some sort of a place for an experienced officer, even if he was just a tiny bit long in the tooth.

Preoccupied with these thoughts, he didn’t notice if Barrow was a little subdued.  After asking after Bates—there was no news—he said, “I expect the other servants will be interested to hear that Mr. Matthew is headed for France quite soon.  It might be as soon as next week.  God, I envy him.  Having the chance to make a real difference, while I wait around here doing nothing.”

“Well, then, you’re an idiot.”

Robert could not have been more surprised if Isis the dog had suddenly leapt up and torn at his throat.  “I beg your pardon?”

“I mean it,” said Thomas.  “What the bloody hell do you think is going to happen to Mr. Matthew over there?  Same thing that happens to everyone—he’s going to die.  You envy him?  You have no idea how bloody stupid you sound. You ought to be grateful you don’t have to go.  Even Bates has the sense to realize he’s well out of it.”

Robert stared at him.  Thomas was wide-eyed and breathing hard, Robert’s white evening waistcoat twisted in his hands.  “How dare you!”

Thomas took a step backward, the high color draining out of his face, leaving him even paler than usual.  His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, and then he said, “I’m so sorry, my lord.  I don’t—”

And then, to Robert’s utter horror, Thomas burst into tears.  It was, if anything, even more shocking than the shouting, and Robert belatedly realized that something must have happened, to provoke such an uncharacteristic outburst. 

What in heaven’s name was he supposed to do now?  He barely knew what to do when his own wife or daughters started crying in front of him, let alone a footman

The first step was probably to stop him sniveling into the sleeves of his livery coat.  Robert found a handkerchief in the pocket of his day suit, and shoved it at him.  “Sit down before you fall down.”

Thomas sat, on the edge of the dressing room bed, twisting the handkerchief in his hands. 

After briefly considering the merits of slapping him across the face, Robert said, “Pull yourself together, and tell me what happened.”

Thomas’s mouth worked soundlessly some more.  “I….”   He shook his head, fumbled in his coat pocket, and held out a telegram.

Oh. 

Robert took it, and read, Deeply regret to inform you Cpl. P. Fitzroy missing and presumed dead in wreck of HMHS Albion, May 1, 1915. 

“Dear God.  I’m so dreadfully sorry, Thomas.”  Crossing over to the sideboard, he poured a stiff whiskey and brought it back to Thomas.  “Here, this’ll brace you up a bit.”

Thomas knocked it back in a single gulp, and dried his eyes.   His voice absolutely flat, he said, “I’m very sorry, my lord, for speaking to you that way.  I hope you can forgive me.”

“I apologize as well,” Robert said.  “What I said was…insensitive, in the circumstances.”  He wasn’t entirely sure what he had said—he hadn’t really been thinking about it—but he knew he’d been annoyed that the Army didn’t want him back, a sentiment that could hardly be received with sympathy by a man who had just lost his…intimate friend.  “We’ll say no more about it.”

“Thank you, my lord.”  He sniffled, and looked at the glass in his hands as if he had no idea what it was for or why he had it.

“I’ll, ah, I’ll telephone the War Office tomorrow, and find out if…if there are any other details.”  Presumed dead, he knew, was the worst news to get, for the glimmer of hope that it gave—hope that was, in nearly every case, false.  The Army didn’t say “presumed dead” unless they had reason to.

Thomas looked up at him, blankly. 

“Why don’t you go—”  Anywhere that isn’t here.  “To your room, or somewhere.  I’ll ring for Carson, and he can—”  Not sit in my dressing room and cry.  “Finish things up here.  I’ll explain to him that you’re—”  In absolutely no state to be working.  “Not well enough to serve at dinner.”  And ask him why in God’s name he let you come up here in the first place.

“Yes, my lord,” said Thomas, his voice still expressionless.  After a moment, he got up and left the room.

Robert took a moment to collect himself before ringing for Carson.  He’d have had a bracer himself, except that Thomas had taken the glass with him.

#

The next day, everyone was treading on eggshells around Thomas.  Anna and Mrs. Hughes kept patting him, and most of the others avoided so much as looking at him.  Carson, especially.  At breakfast, when he’d been outlining the day’s tasks, all he said to Thomas was that he “had best stay downstairs for the time being.”

His lordship had told him, of course, about what Thomas had said. 

Whatever he had said.  He had hardly been thinking, obviously.  He vaguely remembered something about his lordship being an idiot, and that he ought to be grateful not to have to go and get killed, and several swearwords. 

He supposed he ought to be grateful that he hadn’t been sacked instantly.  He felt as though, at the slightest touch, he’d shatter.  If they’d tossed him out of the house last night, he might have wandered in front of an oncoming train, or tripped and fallen face-first in a puddle, and drowned there because he couldn’t remember how to stand up, or why he might want to.

It still might happen if they sacked him today. 

For most of the morning, he sat at the servants’ hall table, staring at the grain of the wood in front of him.  He was not at all surprised when, about mid-day, Mrs. Hughes took him by the arm and herded him into Carson’s pantry. 

He might have been a little surprised to see his lordship there, if he hadn’t been too numb to feel much of anything.  He stared at the blotter on Carson’s desk, vaguely aware of Carson and Mrs. Hughes hovering behind him—likely in case he started shouting again.

“I spoke to the War Office,” his lordship said.  “It isn’t good news, I’m afraid.”

How could it possibly be?

“It seems that all of the survivors have been identified.  They are still looking for remains, but because of the speed of the sinking, they expect that a great many will not be recovered.”

Of course they wouldn’t be.  He wasn’t even going to get a grave to mourn over, and hadn’t expected one.  He knew he was supposed to say something now—probably thank you, my lord—but he couldn’t manage it, could barely manage to move his head in something that might pass for a nod. 

“As you’re his next of kin, they’ll send you any personal effects that may be found, and any pay owing to his account, but these things can take several weeks, or even months.”

He managed another fraction of a nod. 

“I’m dreadfully sorry, about all this,” his lordship went on. 

Just get on with it

But before his lordship could say anything else, Mrs. Hughes took him by the arm again, this time showing him into her sitting room, where he sat in a rocking-chair and looked at the rug.

At some point, she wrapped his hands around a cup of tea, and sat across from him in a chair she’d pulled so close their knees were almost touching.  “I know you’re upset,” she said.  “But you must go on.  Mr. Fitzroy wouldn’t want to see you like this, would he?”

Thomas thought of the time, back when he’d been a junior footman at Lady Waterstone’s, and he’d been upset—well, no, he’d been crying, like he’d been crying for most of the past day, although he’d had less reason to then; it was only his mother who was dead—and Peter had let him crawl into bed with him and sleep with his head on Peter’s chest. 

No, Peter wouldn’t want to see him like this.  But he wouldn’t mind, either.  Not like that.  Wouldn’t want him to stop because it was embarrassing for all concerned.

“He’s dead,” Thomas said.  “He doesn’t get a say.”

In answer, Mrs. Hughes took his hands in hers and guided the teacup—warm, rather than hot—to his mouth.

He drank, because it was that or drown.  He supposed that was a good thing to know, that he didn’t want to drown. 

“Is there anywhere,” she asked, when he had finished drinking the tea, “that you would rather be, right now?  Anyone you might stay with for a bit?”

He shook his head.  If Peter weren’t dead—if the entire world—weren’t dead, he’d have an answer to that one.  He’d go to London, and see Peter.  He’d even take Theo, in a pinch, but Theo was nearly as far out of reach as Peter was. 

“All right, then,” she said.  “You’ll stay here, and we’ll do our best to look after you.”

Thomas wanted to say that he didn’t need looking after—no.  He didn’t want to say that.  He wanted to want to say it, maybe. 

“And I hope it doesn’t need saying, you’re not to worry about getting back to work until you feel up to it.”

Here, he looked up at her.  It felt like the first thing he’d done of his own volition since opening the door for the telegram boy.  He ought, he knew, to communicate with his expression that he knew perfectly well that, at best, he had a lot of making up to do before he could even think about begging to keep his job, and more likely they were simply waiting a decent interval to sack him.  But he had no idea what to do with his face, to express that idea.  Or even if it was possible for a face to express it. 

“None of us are heartless enough to worry you with any of that at a time like this,” she added.  “Not even Mr. Carson.”

Some small part of him, the part where his survival instincts lived—a sort of low cunning—recognized it as an opening.  They felt too sorry for him, right now, to make any decisions about his job.  If he could, somehow, slide back into the routine of the house, while he was still too pathetic to sack, the whole thing just might blow over. 

It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all he had.

Now he just had to decide if he cared enough to do it.  Drink, or drown?

#

“And how is Thomas bearing up?” Robert asked, as Bates helped him into his evening jacket.  Bates had come back that afternoon, and they had discussed his mother’s health—improving, though apparently she’d need a girl to live with her—in the earlier stages of dressing for dinner.   “He was in the dining room at luncheon, briefly.”  It was his first appearance upstairs in days.  “He looked fairly ghastly.”

“He’s…trying, my lord,” Bates said.  “Soldiering on.”

Robert huffed, wincing inwardly at the choice of word.  He wondered if Bates, too, thought he was an idiot for wanting to go back into the Army. 

But to ask would put Bates in an impossible position.  “I hope Carson isn’t pushing him to get back to work.  I’d rather he wait a little longer than—”  Cause another scene.  “Put him under too much of a strain.”

“He seems to be pushing himself,” Bates answered.  “Anna says Mrs. Hughes spoke to him, about taking the time he needs, and that Mr. Carson hasn’t really asked him to do anything, the last few days.  Having something to do may help, in some small way.”

Well, Robert wouldn’t begrudge him anything that helped—but he did wonder if he ought to be kept out of the dining room. 

He hoped that Carson would have realized that on his own, but Thomas was in the dining room again at dinner, taking plates away at one point, and at another bringing in a sauce. 

“Thomas, are you quite all right?” Sybil asked, when he offered her the sauce.

“Yes, my lady, thank you for asking,” he said, in that same dreadful monotone he’d spoken in after he’d finished shouting at Robert. 

When the ladies had gone out, and Carson brought him his port, Robert gestured for him to stay.  “I wanted to speak to you about Thomas.”  He glanced toward the servants’ door.

“I sent him downstairs, my lord,” Carson said, understanding his meaning.

“Good.  I’m glad that he’s beginning to get back to normal, but I wonder if the dining room is really the best place for him at the moment.”

Carson dipped his head.  “I confess, I did not entirely have the heart to tell him not to, but if his appearance is distressing the young ladies, obviously I must.”

“Mm.  I daresay we can handle it, but I’m not sure about the day after tomorrow, when we have Sir William Camberleigh to dine.  With him being in the War Office, there’s bound to be,” he paused to choose his words carefully.  “Talk of distressing subjects.”

“Yes, my lord.  I thought of asking if Mr. Molesley could assist us that evening.”

“Very good.  I should have realized you’d be on top of it.  Ah, I don’t suppose there’s anywhere he could go, for a day or two?”  If he simply happened to be elsewhere on the evening of the dinner party, Carson wouldn’t have to attempt an explanation of why Molesley had been brought in to fill in for him.

“I’m afraid not.  Mrs. Hughes asked him, several days ago.”

“I thought as much.  You’ll simply have to think of something to say to him, I’m afraid.  It would be cruel to put him in a position in which he might…embarrass himself.”

“I quite agree, my lord.”  He hesitated.  “And—my lord?”

“Yes?”

“Last autumn, when you said that I might come to regret it, if I prevented Thomas from seeing the man before he left.”  He hesitated.  “You were right.  I would regret it.”

Robert nodded. “I knew you would.”

#

Banished from the dining room, Thomas sat on a crate in the courtyard, smoking and reading Peter’s final letter. 

It had come a couple of days ago—the sight of his writing on the envelope had caused Thomas’s heart to lurch with a moment’s unreasonable hope that the telegram had been wrong.  It hadn’t been, of course—the letter had just been delayed.  Peter had written it days before the Albion went down. 

Thomas had read it at least a dozen times already, like poking at a wound to see if it still hurt.

                28 April, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I hope you felt me waving to you from XXXXXXX!  I was there earlier today, after completing my first voyage on His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Albion.  We’re back in France now, and I’m told we probably have a day or two before we go again. 

The job’s just what I needed—a lot of hard work, but I’m away from the guns and the filth.  (It’s been wet, and absolutely everything in our sector is coated with mud, from our clothes to our beds to our food.  I hadn’t realized how depressing it all was, until I got away from it for a bit.)  A few of the patients brought the dirt of the trenches with them onto the ship, but most had been in a base hospital for at least a few days, and so had been cleaned up.

We do little actual treatment on board—everyone is supposed to have had dressings changed, medications given, etc., before leaving the hospital—so once we’ve got the stretcher cases settled in, the bulk of the work is simply distributing tea and cigarettes, reminding the walking cases about keeping their life-belts on, and handling the occasional bout of sea-sickness.  The men who are out of the woods but going back to Blighty for a spell of recuperation—or for good—are in fairly high spirits, as you might imagine.  It makes a nice change from the dressing station, where the patients are either in a very uncertain state, or headed right back to the trenches once they’ve been patched up.

Before I left the dressing station, a magazine was making its way round our “lightly wounded” wards, with an article by some bloke who claimed to have visited an “RAMC field hospital” in France.  (The RAMC doesn’t operate anything with that name; it was either a base hospital, a dressing station, or a clearing station—if it exists at all.)  Anyway, he went on about the “bull-dog spirit of Tommy Atkins” and his “keenness to get back to the Front as quickly as possible.  Oh, how the men laughed!  You could follow the thing’s progress through the wards by the general hilarity it provoked.

(I will say, of T. Atkins, that he generally makes a manful attempt to conceal his disappointment at finding out his wound isn’t a Blighty one, and often finds some genuine consolation in reminding himself that at least he won’t be leaving his mates in the lurch.  Very rarely does he heave a bedroom utensil at the head of the unfortunate orderly who has given him the bad news.)

But the ones we get on ship have no disappointment to conceal, and it makes for a sort of holiday atmosphere.  (There are some quite serious cases, of course, going back for specialized treatment, but they are given buckets of morphine to keep them comfortable on board, and are more-or-less living baggage while we’re dealing with them.) The journey back to France is less fun, as we are occupied in cleaning up the wards for the next set of patient-passengers, but it’s not too bad. 

We’ve also got a decent billet in port—we’re put up in the spare room of an old couple who speak not a word of English, but seem pleased enough to have us here.  There’s four of us and two beds, which they seem apologetic about, but we’re all quite used to sleeping in our blankets on the floor, so having a proper bed every second night is a real treat—as is getting to sleep the whole night through! 

Light a cigarette for me.

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

It was good, Thomas told himself, that Peter had been having a decent time, right before he died.  As quickly as the papers said the ship had gone down, he’d not have had much time to dread it.  If there had to be a last letter from Peter, at least it was one where he’d been happy and optimistic.

It certainly didn’t make it all worse, somehow, that he’d died just when he thought things were going well. 

And Thomas had managed to read it without crying this time, so clearly, he was on the mend.  Which Peter would be glad to hear, if he was in a position to hear or to be glad about anything.   

Finishing his cigarette, he went inside, wondering idly if he’d manage to eat much of anything at dinner.  The smells coming from the kitchen were a tiny bit appetizing, so perhaps he would.

But before he got to the servants’ hall, Carson stopped him.  “Thomas—a word, please.”

Thomas followed him into his pantry, warily. 

“As you know, we have guests to dine the evening after tomorrow.”

Thomas wasn’t sure if he had known that, but he nodded.  Was this going to be a lecture about how it was time to pull himself together?

“Since you aren’t quite back on your feet yet, we’ve decided to have Mr. Molesley come and help out.”

They were running out of patience with him, more like. Shaking his head slightly, he said, “Why?  I mean—I’m sure I can manage, Mr. Carson.”

Carson took a deep breath.  “One of the gentlemen coming is from the War Office.  His lordship is concerned that it might be too much for you.”

Of course.  That was what his lordship’s we’ll say no more about it had meant.  That they’d shuffle him off the scene, replace him with Molesley—of all people—but not actually say why.  “I see.”

“He would also like you to know that,” Carson hesitated.  “There is no hurry for you to be back on duty in the dining room.”   He paused again, and added in a warning sort of tone, “I hope you know that it was very kind of him to think of you.”

Likely, his lordship could barely stand to look at him.  Thomas wouldn’t exactly want to look at him, either, if there was any room in his heart for humiliation over the scene he’d caused.  “Yes, Mr. Carson.”

 “Very well.”  Carson gestured for him to go, and Thomas went.

Dinner tasted like cardboard, and back in his room for the night, he wrote letters to Theo and Lisel, telling them the news.  He’d left it far longer than he should have, but he just hadn’t been able to face it. 

Neither letter was his best literary effort—he simply said that Peter had been on the Albion, and that he’d had an official telegram; to Theo, he managed to add something about being sorry about Syl—but at least it was done.  He’d closed that chapter of his life; time to start thinking about the next.

The trouble was, he’d grown used to thinking about his problems by writing about them to Peter.  It would be so much easier to decide what to do, about Peter being dead, if he could just ask Peter. 

He actually got out a piece of paper and started, thinking it might help, to pretend, but just writing the words Dear Peter gave him an ache in his throat.  He crumpled up the paper and tossed it away.

He wasn’t actually sacked yet, was one thing Peter would point out.   At least, no one had said so, and that meant there was room to maneuver.  Molesley couldn’t be his permanent replacement; he already had a job, at Mrs. Crawley’s house. 

He could, conceivably, throw himself into his work—the part of it he wasn’t forbidden to do—make some sort of apology to his lordship, and just possibly hold on to his job. 

It seemed like an awful lot of work.  But then, finding another job would be even more work.  The rest of his life stretched out in front of him, blank and hollow.  God, if he was unlucky, he could live another fifty years.  And he couldn’t imagine enjoying any of them. 

It wasn’t until the next morning, after a long and restless night, that it occurred to him that there was a simple and obvious solution, to the problem of a blank and empty life.

Chapter Text

“Yes, I can help,” said Dr. Clarkson.  “But I must warn you, it may not be as you’re expecting.  They simply aren’t taking healthy young men for Home Service, and even hospital work in France is unlikely.  Most likely, you’ll be a stretcher-bearer at the Front, and it is not an easy job, nor a safe one.  You may even be taking the place of a corpsman who was injured or even killed in the line of duty.”

A queer sort of peace settled over Thomas.  “That’s just what I want, sir,” he said, and it was the truth, though he hadn’t thought of it that way before this moment.  “You see, my brother was on the Albion.”  Dr. Clarkson was in the Army, and as far as the Army was concerned, Peter had been his brother.  That would be the truth, from now on. 

“Oh,” said Dr. Clarkson.  “Oh, I see.  I’m dreadfully sorry to hear that.  Was he a patient?”

Thomas shook his head.  “An orderly, sir.  He’d been at the Front, an Advanced Dressing Station, but he was on temporary assignment to the Albion.”

“I see,” he repeated.  “So you…well, naturally.  I hope you understand there’s not much chance of getting you into his old unit, specifically.”

“Yes, sir.  I hadn’t expected to.”

“All right.  Well, why don’t we step into the examining room.  I’ll do your physical examination, and we can get started on the paperwork.”

While he examined him, Dr. Clarkson asked him a number of questions about his education and his work experience—like a job interview, which Thomas supposed it was, although he’d never had one before where he was stripped to the waist. 

Unless you counted Philip Crowborough.

“You’re perfectly fit,” Dr. Clarkson said, while Thomas was doing his shirt back up.  “And I don’t see any difficulties with recommending you.  I’m sure you realize that there are many differences between a large house and a medical facility—but there are also some similarities, which should be of some help in finding your way.”

“I hope so, sir,” Thomas said, doing up his tie.  “My brother wrote me every week, so I like to think I have at least a bit of an idea of what to expect.” 

“More than some, I’m sure,” Dr. Clarkson said.  “It’ll be heavier work than you’re used to, but they’ll take care of that during training.”  He made a few notes on a form.  “I’ll make a few telephone calls,” he decided.  “Your next step will be to take the papers to the recruiting center in Ripon, but I may be able to do a thing or two to get you through the process more smoothly.  Come back tomorrow, after lunch, and I’ll hope to have everything ready for you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Thomas said, and took his leave. 

#

“You seem a bit more yourself,” Anna said to Thomas, as they sat down to lunch.  He’d come down to breakfast that morning dressed in his off-duty suit instead of his livery, and had said something about an errand in the village.  Perhaps the walk had done him some good—brought a bit of color into his face.

“It’s…time to start moving forward, I think,” he said. 

“I suppose so,” Anna agreed.  If it was anyone else, she might have said something about it being what Mr. Fitzroy would want, but Thomas still tended to run out of the room if anyone said Mr. Fitzroy’s name. 

During lunch, he was not exactly chatty, but he did at least look at people when they spoke, which was an improvement, and he ate with more signs of appetite than he’d shown since the sinking of the Albion, too. 

When they were getting up from the table, Anna heard Mrs. Hughes say to Mr. Carson, “Perhaps we don’t need Mr. Molesley tomorrow night, after all.”

“We do,” said Mr. Carson, firmly. 

That’s right, there were guests coming.  It certainly made sense for Mr. Carson to have asked Mr. Molesley to fill in for Thomas—but, knowing Thomas, it could very well be that which had spurred him to pull himself together a bit, out of sheer contrariness. 

She said as much to Mr. Bates, when they were in the pressing room later, and he agreed,” I expect you’re right.  Thomas would probably come back from the dead if somebody told him he couldn’t.”

“Whatever helps,” Anna said.  “Of course, he can’t be expected to simply get over it, but it can’t do him any good to wallow in grief.”

“No.  It’s strange to see him looking so gutted—I think I’d be pleased to have him insult me.”

Anna wouldn’t have said it, but she would have been a bit glad, too.  “Did he ever speak to you—before all this—about all of his friends dying?”

Mr. Bates raised an eyebrow.

“Apparently he has a great many friends that none of us know anything about.  Or had.  At least half a dozen of them have been killed, and he expects the rest to be any minute.  Even before what happened to Mr. Fitzroy, he was having trouble coping.  I suggested that you…well, that you know what it’s like.”

“It may be different for me.  Most of them are blokes I haven’t heard from since I left the Army.  I get a letter from someone I haven’t thought about in over a decade, and it says, hope you’re well, don’t know if you remember so-and-so, but I heard he was killed at such-and-such.”

“The one he showed me was pretty much like that,” Anna answered.  Except for the detail that it had been from the Duke of Crowborough, but mentioning that would be nothing more than gossip, so she restrained the impulse.  “He said it hadn’t been any of his closest friends yet, but several of them were over there, in harm’s way.  He spoke of signing up, so that he wouldn’t be the last of his friends left alive.”

Bates sighed.  “Perhaps he should.  I know,” he added, holding up a hand to forestall her protests, “it won’t suit him, but I don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to keep out of it, with all this talk of conscription.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Anna.  “That he should have to lose his…lose Mr. Fitzroy, and go himself.  Nobody else has to do both.”  And some, like her and Mr. Bates, didn’t have to do either.

#

Thomas was a little surprised when, as he came down in his off-duty suit after lunch, Carson asked where he was going.  “Ripon,” he answered. 

“Did it occur to you to ask, before planning this outing?” Carson asked.

It was almost a relief, getting a proper scolding again.  “I was under the impression you didn’t need me today, Mr. Carson.”

Carson clenched his jaw.  “Very well.”

When he got down to the village, Dr. Clarkson was discussing something with a nurse, so he waited patiently, wondering a bit if he ought to try to pitch in, somehow—to show willing.

Probably not, he decided.  Everyone seemed to have a clear idea of what they were supposed to be doing, and he’d probably only end up getting in the way.  So he just watched, paying particular attention to what the orderlies were doing: making beds, handing out medications, changing bandages. 

When he’d finished with the nurse, Dr. Clarkson gestured for Thomas to join him in his office, so he did. 

“I have everything ready for you,” Dr. Clarkson said, “or nearly so.  I’ve found out that the training group that’s forming up now is meant to supply reinforcements for various established units.”

So he would be taking the place of someone who’d been killed, or at least injured.  “I see.  That’s fine, sir.”

“Well, that being the case, I wanted to ask if you’d like me to put in a word about having you placed with the unit that supports the local regiment, once you’ve completed your training.”

Thomas wasn’t sure what difference that made, but Dr. Clarkson made it sound as though he were doing Thomas a favor, so he said, “That’d be kind of you, sir.”

“Very well.”  He wrote something on one of the forms.  “It isn’t a guarantee—they’ll assign you where you’re needed—but they do need some replacement men, and the Chief Medical Officer is a friend of mine.”  He wrote some more.  “Lieutenant Crawley may be able to keep a bit of an eye on you, as well.”

“Thank you, sir.”  That might come in handy, somehow. 

Dr. Clarkson finished writing, folded the papers, and put them in an envelope.  “There you are.  Take those to Ripon, and they’ll handle things from there.  I would recommend that you go soon—the training group is due to report the week after next.  If it fills up before you’ve signed on, it may be more difficult to get a place in the next one.”

“I planned to go today,” Thomas said.

“Good.  They keep changing the eligibility criteria, you see, even though we have as much need of strong, fit men as any other corps.” 

Thomas got the bus into Ripon, and easily found the recruiting center—there was a queue, though not the overly long kind there had been at the beginning of the war.  Still, he was left waiting around for quite a while before he finally got his turn with the recruiting sergeant, a red-faced and well-nourished older man. 

Looking over Thomas’s packet of papers, he said, “Already had your medical, good…RAMC?  You sure you wouldn’t rather have the infantry?  We’ve got a new local regiment forming up; you can sleep at home while you train.”  His tone was jocular, but Thomas sensed a bit of something nasty behind it. 

“No, thanks,” Thomas said, wondering if you were supposed to call a sergeant “sir.”  He ought to have asked Bates. 

“Artillery?  You look like you’ve got a good arm on you.”

“I’m pretty much set on the RAMC,” he said.

“Suit yourself.”  The sergeant had Thomas sign the forms and take the oath before he smiled like someone who had just reached the punch line of a particularly unpleasant practical joke, and said, “Hope you fancy carrying a stretcher at the Front.  There’s no cushy hospital jobs going for fit young men.”

“That is just what I fancy,” Thomas informed him. 

That clearly wasn’t the response the sergeant was expecting; he bit back whatever he’d been about to say next.  “You sure about that?  The Boche can’t see your little Red Cross armband well enough to know not to shoot you—nor care if they did, I hope you know.”

At least Dr. Clarkson had delivered the warning before he’d committed himself.  If anything this man was saying had been news to Thomas, it would be too late to do anything about it.   “I do know.  My brother was killed on the Albion.”

The man straightened up, muttered, “Right, then,” and briskly got through the rest of the process, without any more false affability or poorly-concealed nastiness.  After telling Thomas when and where to report—it was down near London—giving him his sign-on pay and a chit for the train, and warning him that he’d be arrested if he didn’t show up, he offered what seemed like a sincere, “Good luck, lad.”

He got back to the house just in time for tea, which he felt nearly ready for, but before he could go in for it, he ran into a group of maids in the courtyard—Maud, sitting on his smoking-crate, weeping hysterically, while Anna and Madge hovered over her. 

Bloody hell.  “Her brother?” he asked Anna, quietly enough that Maud likely wouldn’t hear over the sound of her own wailing.

Anna nodded. 

He stood for a moment, paralyzed by the need to do something, and the complete absence of any idea what it ought to be.  He didn’t suppose pouring her a stiff whiskey would be a good idea, even if he had any, and she already had a handkerchief.  “Has anybody got her a cup of tea?  No?  I’ll go.”

He ducked inside, glad for the excuse to escape.  There was no tea in the servants’ hall—just people standing around talking in low voices about “so unexpected” and “her poor mother”—so he ducked into the kitchen.  The large earthenware teapot was sitting on the table, steaming gently, while Mrs. Patmore and Daisy and everyone bustled about trying to simultaneously set out the rest of the meal and talk about how sorry they were for Maud.

He had little trouble snagging a cup, but when he started to pour, Mrs. Patmore shouted, “Oi!  What do you think you’re doing?”

If the well of sympathy hadn’t dried up before, it certainly had now.  “Gettin’ Maud a cup of tea,” he answered.  “Unless somebody else is doing it.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Patmore, and brought over the sugar bowl to put in several spoonsful. “You’re right; there’s nothing like a cup of hot, sweet tea when you’ve had bad news.”

Thomas wasn’t sure he’d go that far, but he certainly didn’t have any better ideas. 

He took the tea out to Maud, who blinked up at him wetly, but at least had the strength to take the cup in her own two hands.  

Tea safely delivered, he took a few steps back from the huddle of women and lit a cigarette.  In Maud’s place, he’d have wanted to be left alone—he knew that for a fact—but it wasn’t as though she’d be alone even if he left, and he couldn’t smoke in the servants’ hall, since O’Brien was in there. 

“I just don’t know what to do,” Maud was saying.  “How could this happen?”

A month ago, it would have been about all Thomas could do not to point out that the death of a badly wounded soldier in war-time could hardly be a massive surprise, but he knew better now.  That kind of news was a shock no matter how much warning you had—you just couldn’t make yourself believe it until you had no other choice. 

“You must go home, and be with your mother,” Anna said.  “I’m sure Mrs. Hughes will understand.” 

Oh, right.  That was an option, for some people. 

Once Maud had finished her tea, Anna helped her to her feet, saying, “Why don’t you go upstairs with Madge, wash your face, and put a few things in a bag.  I’ll speak to Mrs. Hughes.  Thomas, you can check the train schedules.”

At least there was something he could do, that didn’t require trying to think of something to say to Maud.  After finding out where her family lived, he went to Carson’s pantry, where the railway timetables were kept.

Carson wasn’t in there, so Thomas kept a wary eye on the door, ready to explain himself, as he copied down the train times.  There was one she could catch before dinner, if she fancied sitting up on the train half the night; otherwise, she could leave after breakfast.

Over tea and for the rest of the evening, conversation in the servants’ hall was dominated by the subject of Maud and her brother, with the dinner party upstairs coming in a distant second.  No one was paying much attention to Thomas, or even asked him where he’d been all afternoon. 

That was something of a relief, after the past few days, but it made it difficult to figure out how to say that he was leaving.  He didn’t want to make some big announcement, as though he expected them all to fuss over him.  The next day, it seemed even more awkward to bring it up—after all, he’d now been keeping it to himself for a day, and surely they’d wonder why.   And he found a weird sort of pleasure in watching the business of the house go on around him, knowing that soon he’d be snipped out of the picture. 

The day after that, though, he had to face up to the fact that it was time to say something.  He’d be leaving in less than a week, and there were a few things he had to sort out.

First among them was giving notice.  Once he did that, there would really be no need to tell anyone else—word would get out.  So, after Carson came back down from serving the upstairs luncheon, Thomas knocked on the door to his pantry, went in, and said, “I’m handing in my notice, Mr. Carson.  I’ve joined up, and I leave Tuesday.”

Carson raised both eyebrows.  “Are you certain that’s a good idea?”

“Yes,” he said.  “And there wouldn’t be much point having second thoughts now; I’ve already made my oath and taken the King’s shilling.”  Not that there was, actually, a shilling anymore, but there was an oath. 

“I see.  Well.”  Carson cleared his throat loudly, and Thomas braced himself for a lecture on the subject of his many personal failings and the ways in which they might lead him astray in the Army.  But instead, Carson stood up, extended his hand, and said, “Good luck.”

Thomas shook it.  “Thank you.”

By dinner time, everyone in the house knew—including those upstairs.  Thomas had been allowed to serve at dinner, and as he was going around with the meat, his lordship said, “Thomas, Carson has told me that you’ve joined up.”

“Yes, my lord,” he said.  He was glad they were doing this in the dining room in front of everyone; his lordship could not possibly allude to what he’d said and done in the dressing room last week.  “I report Tuesday.”

“Did you join the Duke of Manchester’s Own?” Lady Mary asked. 

That was Mr. Matthew’s regiment.  “No, my lady.  RAMC.”

“Oh—yes, of course.”

“I’m sure you’ll do very well,” said his lordship.  “And I hope you know that we wish you all the best.”

“Thank you, my lord.  That’s very kind.”

After dinner, when they were clearing the things away, William asked him how he’d done it.  “Do you just go to Ripon and say ‘I want to join,’ or is there more to it?”

Thomas explained how he’d gone to Dr. Clarkson.  “If you don’t have something in particular in mind, I think you can just turn up.”

“I wonder what me dad would think about me joining the RAMC?  I mean, it’s not exactly dang….”  William trailed off.  “Sorry.  I forgot.”

“They’re not taking healthy young men for hospital work,” Thomas said.  “Only for jobs at the Front.”

“Right.  I guess he wouldn’t like that any better than anything else, then.”

When he got downstairs, their own dinner wasn’t quite ready yet, so he went out into the courtyard for a smoke.  He’d just lit up when O’Brien, of all people, joined him. 

They exchanged nods of greeting, but Thomas wasn’t about to be the first one to speak.  Finally, when they were about halfway through their cigarettes, she said, “You’ve done a lot of stupid things in your life, but this one takes the cake.”

He took a slow drag on his cigarette.  “It’s nice to know you still care, Miss O’Brien.”

She scoffed.  “They aren’t going to let you run home, I hope you know, when you decide you—that you’ve made a mistake.”

“I know,” he said.

“And if you decide to give up on working, next time some fancy man of yours gets killed, they won’t tiptoe around you for a week.  They tie you to a post in no-man’s land, for the Huns to shoot at.  That’s what they do.”

Did they really do that?  “Wasn’t planning to.”

“I’m not lying to you,” she said.  “Malingering, that’s what they’ll think.  Or worse, if they decide it’s cowardice, they’ll shoot you themselves.” 

“I’m not a coward,” he said, automatically. 

“No,” she said, looking at him with what he was surprised to realize was pity.  “I don’t suppose you are.”

She dropped her cigarette and walked off.

When they sat down to dinner, Anna squeezed his arm and asked, “Thomas—are you sure about this?”

Why did everyone keep asking that?  “Yes,” he said, curtly. 

“I’m not saying it isn’t the right thing to do,” she said.  “But wouldn’t it be better to wait a month or two?  Until you’re more….”  She trailed off. 

“Anna,” Bates said, from her other side.  She turned to him, and Bates said something too quietly for Thomas to hear. 

When she turned back to Thomas, Anna had plastered on a smile, and said, “I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly.” 

“I’m sure he will,” added Mrs. Hughes. 

There was an awkward murmur of agreement, followed by an even more awkward silence, which was finally broken by Madge asking, “Will you be seeing Davy, do you think?”

Glad to talk about something other than whether or not it was a good idea for him to join up, Thomas answered at some length.  “Well, I don’t know.  Dr. Clarkson said he’d put in a word about having me posted near the local regiment, once I’m done training, but it’s a big war, and they could send me anywhere.”

“You don’t just go to the local regiment, automatically like?” asked Daisy, who was bringing more bread. 

“No—or not the training group I’m in, apparently.  We’re meant as reinforcements, for the different units that need them.”  Which was just as well, really.  Peter had gone over with his training group, but he did make friends so easily.  Had made friends easily.  Thomas would probably be glad of a fresh start once his training was over. 

“Reinforcements?” said Daisy.  “What does that mean?  Is it, like….”  She bit her lip.

Thomas hesitated, and Bates answered, “They could need men to fill in for any sort of reason—if someone got transferred, or promoted, for example.”

Daisy’s face cleared.  “Oh, I see.  Well, that’s all right, then.”

At the head of the table, Carson cleared his throat and introduced a new subject. 

When Thomas went out for his after-dinner cigarette, he wasn’t terribly surprised that Bates joined him.  Bates, he was sure, would have an opinion about what he’d decided to do. 

He was surprised when Bates took a cigarette, from the pack Thomas offered out of politeness.   He must have smoked before—in his war, maybe—because he didn’t choke on it like Madge had. 

Without preamble, Bates said, “Well, it’s done now, so there’s no point second-guessing it.”

At least someone realized that. 

He went on, “Just—keep your head down and get through it, all right?  Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I wasn’t planning to.”

Bates nodded.  “And try not to be a complete tit to the men in your unit, all right?  You want them watching your back.”

Thomas nodded. 

“You’re going to be bored, a lot of the time.  If you’re lucky.  Don’t go stirring up shit just to keep yourself entertained.”

Just before Thomas had left home, for his first job at Lady Waterstone’s, his Dad had attempted a sort of man-to-man talk.  It had mostly been about wearing clean underwear and not stealing or seducing maids.  He wasn’t sure why he was thinking of it now.  “Right,” he said.

“And write to Anna.  She’ll worry about you.”

#

“I hope you didn’t find Thomas’s news too depressing,” Cora said, as they were getting into bed.

“Why would I?”  In fact, considering that just last week, Thomas had said that he considered joining the Army tantamount to suicide, Robert found it fairly unsettling.  But Cora couldn’t know that; all he’d told anyone was that Thomas had been overwrought and Robert had sent him to rest.

“Because he’s going to the war, and you aren’t.” She looked at him with a sympathetic expression.  

Oh, that.  “It’s to be expected,” he said.  “All the young men are going.  Matthew, Thomas, most of the outdoor staff.  William and Branson will probably join up before long.”

“Let’s hope it’s all over before they have to,” she suggested.

Robert made a noncommittal noise.  The War Office was being optimistic in its public statements, but in private, they were preparing for a long, hard slog.  The spring offensives certainly hadn’t made much progress, and if anyone had new ideas for the summer ones, Robert hadn’t heard a whisper of it. 

#

The next day, Mrs. Hughes was in her sitting room, working on the household accounts, when Thomas knocked on the door.  She greeted him with the warmest smile she could manage.  Anna and the other girls had expressed doubts about his going into the Army, doubts that she shared, but there was no use voicing them now, when he couldn’t back out even if he wanted to.  Instead, she simply asked if there was anything she could do to help.

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” he said.  “I was wondering if it would be all right if I leave my trunk here.  You’re only supposed to take what you can carry, you see.  I’ll put it up in the attic, so it’s not in anyone’s way, and then…well, if I don’t come pick it up at war’s end, you can just get rid of it.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that Mrs. Hughes might not have noticed that what he was really saying was that he had no home where his belongings could be kept while he was away, nor anyone who’d care to collect them if he was killed.  Might not have noticed, that is, if her attention hadn’t already been drawn to the fact when he’d been so lost in grief, and had nowhere to go where he’d be looked after. 

“Certainly,” she said.  “But I hope you mean to write to us while you’re away, and not simply leave us to wonder how you’re faring until you turn up out of the blue when it’s all over.”

Thomas looked a little startled, but nodded.  “Of course.  If you’ll write back.” 

“I will,” she promised.  “In fact, you’ll be doing me a favor to let me.  Mrs. Patmore has her nephew, and Miss O’Brien her brother, but I’ve no one at the Front to worry over.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want you to be left out.”  He managed something that looked almost like a smile.  “You can even send me biscuits, if you really want to.”

“I’ll do that, as well,” she promised.

#

Thomas was in the pressing room, ironing his clothes before packing them away for the duration.  It was a fairly pointless thing to do—they’d only get creased sitting in the trunk—but Carson hadn’t given him any work to do, and he might as well do something.

Anna came in.  “Mrs. Hughes tells me you’re leaving your things here.”

He nodded.  “There’s a tin box, with a lock on it, I keep my letters in.”  He’d thought about burning them, but he couldn’t bear it.  He’d decided to take the last one with him, folded up and tucked behind Peter’s photograph, in the new cigarette case he’d bought.  “If I don’t come back for it, might be best just to chuck that away, unopened like.”

She nodded.  “If you don’t come back…Thomas, I hope you don’t think I’m speaking out of turn.”

He raised an eyebrow.  They’d already talked about how there was no point trying to convince him he’d made a mistake signing up.

“I know you never talk about your family.”

“That’s right; I don’t.”

“But if there’s anyone still living, I think you ought to let them know you’re going.  Even if you’ve quarreled, even if they’ve…been unkind.  In case you don’t come back.  So they know, that if they want to mend fences, now’s the time to do it.”

Thomas sighed.  “It’s not how you think.  They don’t even know about…that.”  He’d never told anyone this, apart from Peter.  Now that Peter was dead, and didn’t know it anymore, perhaps someone else should know.  “My mum’s dead, and ….”

“Oh,” said Anna.

“She was a lady’s maid, my mum.  She was traveling the Continent, with the lady she worked for.  The Grand Tour, you know.  Went everywhere.  France, Spain, Italy, Greece—she used to tell me bedtime stories about it.”

Anna nodded.

“The moment they got back, she quit her job, ran home, and married the man who’d asked her before she left.”  He hesitated.  “Four or five months later, I was born, weighing something close to eight pounds.”

“Oh,” Anna said again.

He nodded.  “So I’ve always been a bit of a bastard.  Dad wasn’t at all pleased, as you can imagine.  I think he tried not to take it out on me.”  Looking back, Thomas thought that.  Growing up, he’d just hated him.  “But he wasn’t very good at it.”  Especially after Alice and Jamie had been born; before that, he might have just not liked kids. 

“Did you…know?” she asked.

“Not until I was about school-leaving age.”  Before that, he’d only known that there was something about him that his father didn’t like.  “Mum was dying then—cancer—so she had to tell me.  So I’d understand why it wasn’t realistic to think I’d be taking over the shop from him one day.” 

It was that part of it that had hurt the most.  He loved the shop, loved the tick of the clocks, the felt trays Dad used to lay out the pieces when he took them apart, loved the way all the pieces inside fit together so neatly, like a jigsaw puzzle.  Most of all, he’d loved the way that sometimes, when they were working quietly together, Dad would forget he didn’t like him. 

Jamie didn’t care at all about the shop, or clocks, and couldn’t be trusted to take apart even the simplest one without losing half a dozen pieces under the workbench.  The idea that the shop would one day be his had felt obscene

“That was just too much to ask, you know.  Especially when he had a son who was actually his.”  He hurried away from the subject of the shop.  “She never told me who he was—my actual father.  I used to imagine him turning up, you know, like Great Expectations.  But I imagine it was actually something fairly sordid.”

No Italian Count, certainly.  Maybe the count’s valet, at best.  At best, she’d been seduced and abandoned; at worst, assaulted. 

“So she died, I got a job in London, and a few months later he remarried.  Alice, my sister—half sister—wrote to me for a while, but….”  He shrugged.  Dad and the new Mrs. Barrow started having kids, Alice and Jamie started calling her “Mum,” and nobody really needed to spell it out.  “We just fell out of touch.  So yeah, I’ve got a half-sister and a half-brother living—far as I know—but they probably barely remember I ever existed.”

Anna looked at him for a moment.  “I still think you should at least consider writing to her,” she finally said. 

Thomas shrugged.  “I don’t see the point.”  Either she wouldn’t care, or if she did, it would just upset her. 

“Well,” she said.  “You know best.”

“I don’t even know if she’s still living at home,” he added.  “Or if she’s still called Barrow.” 

Though the shop wasn’t likely to have moved, and Dad—“Dad”—would know where she was.  If he wanted to write to her, which he didn’t.

But when Thomas sat down to write letters to the people who’d want to know he’d joined up, after he’d finished ones for Theo and Reg and Joey, and a quick note to Lisel—she’d written back, with condolences, to his one about Peter—he found himself writing,

                Dear Alice,

Hope you’re well.  It’s your brother Thomas, if you don’t recognize my writing anymore.  How are you and everyone?  I’m writing because I’ve joined up, and somebody I know pointed out that you might like to hear from me before I go.  I report for training Tuesday, but I will be in England for at least a couple of months. 

Thomas lit a cigarette and read over what he had written.  It was all right, he decided.  It didn’t make it sound like he was expecting anything, which he wasn’t.  It might be a bit short, though, so he added,

I’m going into the medical corps as a stretcher bearer, which I hear is hard work, but interesting and worthwhile.  Lately I have been working as a footman, so it will be a big change. 

That was probably enough.  He was using small paper, so it took up most of the page.  He considered how to sign it.  Definitely not, “affectionately yours.”  “Your brother” would have been good, but he’d already said that. 

Finally, he just wrote his name at the bottom and stuck it in the envelope. 

#

When Thomas got up from the servants’ hall table and unceremoniously went out for a cigarette, Anna, just as unceremoniously, went with him.  It might very well be his last one—at least his last evening one—at Downton, since it was getting on for bedtime, and he was leaving in the morning. 

She’d been doing her best to keep a cheerful face on things, ever since Mr. Bates had explained to her that Thomas no longer had any choice about whether he went or not, having been sworn in.  “The worst thing we could do right now is encourage any doubts he might be having,” Mr. Bates had said. 

He’d also said that, once Thomas was with his unit, they’d all encourage each other along.  She hoped he was right, and that Thomas would let them. 

But now that it was her last chance, she allowed herself to say, “You will be careful, won’t you?  Look out for yourself?” 

“When don’t I?” he asked, lightly. 

The last couple of weeks, for one—and that was why she worried.  That he might not look out for himself, because he didn’t really want to.  But she couldn’t say that.  “I’ll write to you, all our news,” she said instead.  “And you must tell me if there’s anything you’d like me to send.”  She knew he’d sent large and frequent parcels to Peter, though exactly what had gone into them—besides the scarf he’d made at Christmas—was something of a mystery.

He nodded.  “I’ll be all right.”  He took a long pull from his cigarette.  “I just couldn’t,” he said abruptly.  “Go on as if everything was normal.  It’ll be better to….”

“Make a clean break of it,” Anna suggested, when it seemed he wasn’t going to finish the thought.

“Yeah,” he said.  “And…not to have to figure things out for myself.  I’ll just go where they tell me to go, and do what they tell me to do.  Keep me head down.”

That didn’t sound much like the Thomas she knew, but it did at least sound like he wasn’t planning to do anything reckless.  “That’s probably best,” she agreed. “And it is the right thing, really.  Joining up.” 

“They’d have got me before long, whether I wanted to go or not,” Thomas said.  “This registration scheme they’re talking about, it’s the first step toward conscription.  And you can bet ‘footman’ isn’t going to be considered an essential occupation.”

That hadn’t been precisely what she meant, but she nodded.  “I suppose we women will be taking on more of the men’s work, with everyone going.”

Thomas huffed.  “It’ll take more than a war for Carson to allow maids in the dining room,” he said.  “You might want to learn to polish silver, though.”

“I expect I’ll be able to pick it up,” she said.  “Madge has heard that some of the houses near here have got girls working in the gardens—and the stables, where they still have horses.”

Thomas gave her a skeptical look. 

“Mr. Basset won’t hear of it here,” she added, naming the head gardener.  “Though apparently one or two have applied.” 

“Can’t really see that working out, either.”

Now it was her turn to give Thomas a skeptical look.  “If a woman can carry a basketful of sopping-wet laundry, I expect she can manage a wheelbarrow and a spade.”

“Yes, but they haven’t got lavatories out in the gardens,” he pointed out.  “They just step behind a tree.”

Anna hadn’t thought of that.  “Well, I imagine they can think of something.” 

Any other man, she reflected, would have talked around the subject, saying, at most, something about ladies’ “particular needs” or “modesty.” 

She really was going to miss him.

#

Thomas had wondered, a bit, if finding himself in situations that he recognized from Peter’s letters would keep Peter painfully in his thoughts.  Fortunately, he found himself too busy and too tired to indulge in recollection much, and when something did remind him of Peter, it was with a sense that now he was coming to understand the last chapter of Peter’s life.

The only time he had a bit of a wobble was when a letter came, forwarded on from Downton, from Peter’s unit.  It wasn’t his writing, but Thomas felt a stab of irrational hope, and his hands shook as he opened it.  It read,

                Dear Thomas,

I wanted you to know how G-d damn sorry we all are about your brother.  He was one of the best of us, and we’re all gutted. 

He had a lot of friends in our outfit, and I had the honor of being one of them. Without him, I would have found the Army a much lonelier place.  I happen to be a Jew, you see, and while most of the others were willing to overlook this deficiency as long as I didn’t draw attention to it, Fitz was the first who didn’t seem to find it embarrassing if I happened to mention, for instance, a holiday or my father’s profession.  (He is a sort of clergyman in our faith.)  His easy acceptance was not only a comfort to me, but, him being such a popular fellow, led the others to accept me too. 

One of the best things about him was the way that he could make the best of even the most rotten situation.  He wouldn’t pretend there was nothing wrong—that sort of false cheer is so irritating, in the conditions we’re in—but he’d find the right thing to say to help us through it.  When we were first started out in the wards at General 11, he would often say, “We’ll never have to do that for the first time again.”  I still say it to myself. 

I was also with him on the Albion, and I can tell you that he died very bravely.  He made it to the rescue boat several times, carrying stretcher cases, but each time he went back for another.  We all knew that the ship was going down quickly, and some of the others made excuses to linger, once they’d reached safety, but not Fitz.  We had no time to talk then, you understand, but I’m sure that if we had, he would have said, as he so often did when we drew a rotten assignment, that someone had to do it, and there was no particular reason it shouldn’t be us.  (We still say that, too.)

In my faith, instead of saying “may he rest in peace,” we say, “may his memory be a blessing.”  Fitz’s memory is a blessing to me, and to all of us here, as I’m sure it is to you. 

Sincerely yours,

Issac Shapiro

His eyes stinging at his throat aching, Thomas tucked the letter behind the photograph in his cigarette-case, and shoved the lot deep into his pack.  The next time he wanted a cigarette, he walked over to the YMCA hut and bought new ones. 

 As Peter had said, the first weeks were taken up mainly in marching, calisthenics, and drill.  He’d been a bit hesitant about the latter—being ordered about like a dog seemed a bit humiliating, in principle—but when the time came, he found he didn’t mind it.  You sort of switched your mind off, becoming an anonymous piece in a machine made up of men’s bodies.  In a way, it was almost relaxing.  And the level of precision required reminded him of nothing so much as serving in the dining room, with Carson watching for the slightest misstep. 

The shouting did require a bit of getting used to, but it wasn’t all bad, having what you’d done wrong shouted out at the moment you did it—it certainly beat having Carson standing across the room trying to communicate the nature of your sin through eyebrows alone.  And with so many of you, the sergeants didn’t seem to have time to hold routine mistakes against you; unless you’d managed a really spectacular cock-up, it was forgotten almost as soon as you’d done it. 

Some things were different from what Peter had described.  They trained mostly in platoons of fifty, but were housed in sections of about a dozen, in small bell-shaped tents, that reminded Thomas of pictures he’d seen of Red Indian teepees.  There wasn’t much barracks-cleaning to do, because they slept rolled up in their groundsheets and blankets; all you had to do in the morning was roll everything up neatly. 

As Bates had advised, Thomas kept his head down and didn’t make trouble for himself.  When, early on, the section had started talking about why they’d joined up, Thomas had trotted out the story about his brother on the Albion, since it had seemed to go over well before.  The other blokes were suitably solemn and impressed about it, and once in a while Thomas explained something that they were wondering about by saying “My brother said that once you’re at the Front….”

He didn’t say it often, though.  He didn’t want to be like Maud, boring everyone with stories about his brother all the time.  Most of the conversations he had with his section-mates consisted mainly of him nodding and saying things like, “Too right” or “Bloody typical.” 

Thomas knew that he wasn’t making friends—which was fine; he didn’t want to—but he didn’t entirely realize that he hadn’t made any enemies, either, until the day came when his section got an evening pass, and he found himself swept along to the pub along with everyone else—excepting the section’s three Methodists, of course.  No one precisely invited him to join them; it was more that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that he wouldn’t go along.

Around the same time, he heard one of his tent-mates say to a bloke in another section, “Oh, that’s just Barrow—bit quiet, but ’e’s awright.” 

It wasn’t a way Thomas had ever thought of himself before, but he supposed it was an improvement on “bit of a bastard” or even “haughty ice-prince.”  And it wasn’t a difficult reputation to live up to; all he had to do was shoulder his fair share of whatever unpleasantness was going around—with silent thanks to Peter, for pointing out the importance of this quality.  You could even complain a bit, without anyone looking at you like you were a dog that had just soiled the carpet, as long as you complained while getting on with it, and there were no officers in earshot.

No proper commissioned officers, that is—the kind that wore tailored uniforms and got called “sir.”  The non-commissioned ones, the sergeants and corporals, were working-class blokes like the rest of them, and you could complain, smoke, and even swear in front of them, as long as you weren’t actually on parade or something like that. 

An even bigger surprise than his mates’ easy acceptance of him was that the NCO’s didn’t seem to have found anything about him to particularly dislike, either.  In fact, the second time they went out on maneuvers, he was picked to act as corporal, and lead his section.  This particular role was a bit less of a pretense than some of the others parts there were to play on maneuvers, as you did really have to report to the sergeant in charge about your section, relay the orders back to them, and say who was supposed to do what as you went about accomplishing whatever it was you’d been told to do. 

The first job they had, once they’d marched to the designated location, was setting up a surgery tent.  Thomas half-expected, when he started ordering the others about, that they’d double over laughing or ask him what the fuck he thought he was playing at, but instead, they all just did what he’d told them—including the bloke who’d been lance-corporal last time, and who Thomas thought might be out for his blood.  Even when he had to point out that they’d got the instrument cabinets in the wrong order, nobody gave him any back-chat about it, just swapped them around. 

When they got back from maneuvers, he wrote as much to Anna, and she wrote back,

June 17, 1915

                Dear Thomas,

I’m glad to hear that you’re doing so well.  I don’t know why you’re surprised about being lance-corporal—you’ve been first footman for years, so you have leadership experience.  Mr. Bates says you’re right that they try out different people in the position, so you shouldn’t expect to necessarily have it again next time, but they don’t give everyone a turn, so they must have had a reason to think you were suited for it.  Everyone here is very proud of you.  (William asked me to say that he feels sorry for the men in your section, but he’s only joking.) 

The enclosed letter came here for you.  I’m not sure who it’s from, but I thought we’d better send it on.  I hope it isn’t any sort of bad news. 

Love,

Anna Smith

He still wasn’t used to getting letters from people who signed their full names, as if they didn’t care at all who knew that they had written them. 

The enclosed envelope bore unfamiliar handwriting, and he opened it with a sense of unease.  It said.

                Dear Thomas,

I hope that this manages to reach you, as you will have left for training by now.  I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner; when your letter came, things were rather busy here.  Jamie and Alf, my husband, were both getting ready to leave for training as well.  They joined the Sheffield Pals, so it was both of them leaving at the same time.  (Jamie likes to be called Jim, now he’s all grown up.) 

We’re all very proud of you for joining up, as well.  Mum and the younger ones send their love, and Dad says that if you make it back on leave before you go to France, you ought to come by the shop and he’ll clean your watch for you. 

Do you suppose you will make it back?  You could come round for tea at Alf’s and my flat, if you don’t feel up to facing the whole crowd at home.  You’d be able to meet your niece, Rosie.  She’s two years old, and she’s got black hair like yours, but in curls.  We also think she’s going to grow up to be clever, like you always were. 

But if you don’t have time to visit, we will understand. 

Love,

Alice (Barrow) Wiggins

Bloody hell—what was he supposed to say to that?  He’d nearly forgotten that he’d written to his sister, back before he left. 

He stuffed the letter at the bottom of his pack, but as the ending to their training period grew near, he supposed he had better come up with some kind of an answer.  Finally, he wrote,

                Dear Alice,

                I’m quite chuffed to hear I’ve got a niece.

That was true enough, though he’d be very surprised if she actually resembled him at all.  The rest of the family had all been sandy-haired and a bit ruddy.  If her coloring was different, it must have come from her father—it certainly couldn’t have come from Thomas’s.

Ta for the invitation to tea, but I doubt I’ll make it up to Sheffield.  My training camp is near London, and rumor has it that we will be leaving in a couple of weeks.  You can tell Dad that I’ve been looking after my watch the way he showed me, and give my best to Mrs. Barrow and the little ones. 

He supposed they weren’t so little anymore; the eldest had been born a scant but technically respectable year after Mum died—his and Alice and Jamie’s actual Mum—but he wasn’t at all sure how many there were, much less what their names and ages and sexes might have been.  He hadn’t really kept track even while Alice had been writing him about them, as they were no real relations of his, anyway, and Mrs. Barrow could very well have had more since. 

I’m doing fairly well in training.  I will keep an eye out for Jamie and Alf if I run into the Sheffield Pals. 

Not that he’d recognized either of them—particularly Alf, since he’d never laid eyes on him—but it seemed like the sort of thing you were supposed to say.  He signed off,

                Thomas

#

“Well, there’s a surprise,” said Anna.  “That letter Thomas got, it was from his sister.”

“I didn’t know he had one,” Mr. Bates answered.  They were sitting in the servants’ hall after lunch. 

“They hadn’t spoken in quite some time,” she explained.  “I told him I thought he ought to write to her, tell her that he’d joined up.  It didn’t sound like he thought much of the idea, but he must have done it.”

“I hope it was a nice letter,” Mr. Bates said.

“It sounds like it was—‘a couple of lines of nonsense about being proud of me for joining up,’ he says,” she read from the letter.  That probably meant it was a perfectly ordinary, polite letter.  “And he’s an uncle.  ‘I don’t suppose I have to send a christening present, as she’s two years old,’ he says.” 

“Makes you wonder if she had his address here,” Mr. Bates noted—picking up, as she did, Thomas’s irritation at not having been told this news earlier. 

It wouldn’t surprise Anna one bit to learn that she hadn’t, and that Thomas had completely overlooked that fact. 

“I’m glad he listened to you,” Mr. Bates added.  “As everyone should.”  He sighed.  “I do worry about him.”

Anna did, too.  “It sounds like he’s doing well,” she suggested.  He could be—and probably was—putting a brave face on things, but she didn’t think he’d be capable of writing such ordinary-sounded letters if he was still overwhelmed by his grief.  Not that he’d write her about his grief, either—he’d just not write at all. 

“When he gets over there, he’s going to need to be sharp.  Do you ever wonder if he….”

Mr. Bates trailed off without saying anything revealing, but Anna suspected she knew what he was asking.  She’d thought it herself.  You didn’t have to be Dr. Freud to realize that Thomas had joined up in order to, in some way, go where Mr. Fitzroy had gone.

It was just a matter of which way he had in mind.  Experiencing what Mr. Fitzroy had experienced, or something more final.

Answering the un-asked question, Anna said, “Before he left, he said something about not being able to go on as before.  I hope he meant that he had to make a change, so that he could go on.” 

Bates nodded.  “Perhaps he did.”

#

Thomas really wasn’t sure what he was doing here, even as he pushed open the door to the tea-shop.  He probably wouldn’t even recognize Alice, nor she him. 

She’d written, in response to his second letter, asking if she could come and see him one Sunday, if he couldn’t get away.  Thomas had written back, quite truthfully, that he could put in for a Sunday pass, but you didn’t hear until Saturday afternoon whether you’d gotten one or not, so there wasn’t much point in making a long journey.

He hadn’t said that quite a few of the others in his section had had a wife, mother, or girlfriend come down only to spend the afternoon drinking tea alone while the bloke they’d come to see was kept busy doing drill or on fatigues.  Perhaps he should have, because she’d written back saying he should put in for one for the next Sunday hence.  He’d done so, figuring it would serve her right if she came all this way for nothing, but when the pass-list was read out, his name had been on it. 

The others had chaffed him a bit about having a secret girlfriend, but had gone quiet when he said it was only his sister.  It wasn’t until later that he’d realized they’d assumed, quite naturally, that his sister was also the sister of his brother who’d gone down on the Albion

Rumor had it that they might start receiving their assignments to France as soon as next week, which—if it had been as they thought—would give Alice quite a bit to be worried about.

The bell on the shop-door clanged, and a dozen women in Sunday-best frocks and hats looked up.  The place was open on Sundays largely for this very purpose—a respectable place for female relatives to visit men on passes from the training camps. 

Most of their eyes passed over him and back to their cups of tea in disappointment, but one woman, dressed in a dowdy brown suit and holding an infant on her lap, half-stood, beckoning with her free hand. 

It was Alice, and if he mentally subtracted the rather dated hat, she looked just as she had when she’d been ten years old and playing with dolls, the last time he’d seen her.

“Thomas,” she said.  “My goodness, you’ve gotten tall.”

“That usually happens,” he pointed out, sitting on one of the spindly chairs the establishment provided. 

“I suppose it does.  Rosie, darling,” she said to the child, “this is your Uncle Thomas.”

She looked at him, wide-eyed, and stuffed several fingers into her mouth.  She did, as advertised, have curly black hair. 

“Hello, you,” Thomas said. 

He was saved from having to come up with anything else to say to her by the waitress coming over and taking his order for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. 

He imagined Peter saying, well, if it’s awful, at least you’ll have gotten a piece of cake out of it.

“So,” Alice said, once the waitress had gone.  “What have you been up to?  Before all this, I mean,” she added, gesturing to his uniform.

“I was a footman,” he said.  “To the Earl of Grantham.”

“Oh,” she said.  “Is he very important, then?”

Thomas shrugged.  “I’m sure he thinks he is.  He owns a big house, anyway.”

“In London?”

That’s right, the last time he’d written to her, he’d still been in London.  “Yorkshire.  It’s near Ripon.”  She’d likely not have heard of Downton Village, or even Thirsk—neither was very near Sheffield—but she might know Ripon. 

“Oh,” she said again.  “I suppose they must keep you very busy.”

“Depends what’s going on.  If they’re giving a party, certainly.”  The waitress came back with his tea, and he took a sip.  Definitely better than Army tea, which he now understood Peter’s feelings about.  “What about you?  I mean, what line of work is Alf in, normally?”

“He’s a foreman at the button factory,” she answered.  “And I’m working there now.  We do buttons for uniform shirts, so it’s war-work, as well as freeing a man for the Front.  That’s why I could only come on a Sunday.  I work the other days.”

“Do you like it?” Thomas asked.

“It’s harder work than I thought,” she said.  “And I don’t like leaving Rosie.  But Mum and Bel look after her.”

“Bel?”  Was he supposed to know who that was?

“Belinda,” she said.  “Your half-sister.”

Your half-sister,” he said. 

She drew in her breath sharply.  “Let’s not quarrel about that.”

“There’s nothing to quarrel about.  She’s not my sister.  It’s a fact.”

Alice sighed, poking a bit of biscuit into Rosie’s mouth.  “Dad never meant you had to leave right away, when our Mum died.  Nor that you couldn’t come back and see us.”

“I know what he meant.”  It was time for Thomas to be thinking about finding his own way, he’d said, and he was right; it had been time. 

“It was hard for him too,” she said. 

“Which part?  Mum dying, or pretending he was my father for fourteen years?”

Rosie started to whimper, and for a moment Alice was entirely absorbed in dangling a rag dolly in front of her.  When the baby finally began to chew on it, she said, “Try to think of it from his side.  He was very hurt by what Mum did.  He knew it wasn’t your fault, but….”

“Of course it wasn’t.”

“But you were a reminder of it, that’s all.  He said, when I told him I was coming down here to see you, he said that he mightn’t have minded giving you his name, if she had just told him.  Let him decide, instead of being tricked into it.”

His name, maybe, but not the shop.  “That’s still nothing to do with me.”

“No,” she agreed.  “But do you really think you could do any better?  If the woman you loved agreed to marry you, and then you found out she was,” she lowered her voice, “having someone else’s child?”

He wasn’t ever going to be in a position to find out, but he couldn’t tell her why. 

But then, he thought, what if a French peasant woman turned up on his doorstep, with a baby Peter had fathered through some ill-advised experiment.  That was scarcely any more likely than the other scenario, but if it did happen, he’d love the baby because it was Peter’s.  “You know what?  I think I could, yeah.”

“Well, bully for you.  I doubt I could.”  The waitress appeared, asking if they wanted more tea.  Alice said that they did, and when she’d gone, went on, “I’m not saying that he couldn’t have put it to you better.  But he did try.”

“Bully for him,” Thomas echoed.  They were never going to see eye to eye on the subject of Dad; he wished she hadn’t brought it up.  “Look.  Does Mrs. Barrow treat you the same way she does her own kids?”

“Of course not, and I wouldn’t expect her to.”

“Imagine you don’t know why.”

 “Oh.”  She smoothed Rosie’s hair.  “But didn’t Mum explain it?”

“Yes, after fourteen years.”

She looked puzzled.  “But it wasn’t until after she died, that Dad said, about the shop and you starting to think about some other kind of job.”

Had she really thought that was it?  “I knew something was wrong long before that.”  He could be certain he had, and that he wasn’t just remembering things differently in light of what he knew now, because before Mum had told him, he’d been starting to figure out that he was queer, and he’d thought that might be it.  That Dad had sensed it somehow.  “Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”  The waitress came back with the tea; once she’d poured it and left, Alice said, “I suppose he didn’t play with you like he did us, but you were older.”

Two years older than her.  And from the time he’d been about seven, he could remember being the age she was, and that Dad hadn’t liked him then, either.  “Didn’t play with me, was always too busy when I wanted something, always came down harder on me—even if we’d all got in trouble together.  He didn’t even talk to me more than he had to.”

“You were always closer to Mum,” Alice said. 

Thomas snapped, “And why do you think that is?”  He shook his head.  “He treated you two like you were his kids, and me like I was some neighbor’s child he wished would go home.  It was a relief to finally find out why.”  Except that understanding it hadn’t been anything he’d done had meant there wasn’t anything he could do to fix it, either.  “I don’t hate him for it anymore, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”

“I didn’t know you ever had hated him,” Alice said, in a small voice.

“He does.” Thomas had told him, before he’d left.  “You can tell him I don’t anymore, if you like.”

“All right,” she said. 

“Now—is there something else we can talk about?  Tell me about the button factory,” he suggested.

“It’s not very interesting, I’m afraid.  I work in the packing department, so what I mainly do is take a dozen buttons and put them in a box….” 

She went on talking about the button factory at some length, and she was right that it wasn’t very interesting, but it beat talking about their childhood.  In return, he told her some not-very-interesting things about their routine in camp—the most interesting things being not entirely suitable. 

When they’d finished their tea and were getting ready to leave, Alice said, “Will you write me, with where to reach you in France?”

“I suppose,” Thomas said.  “If you like.”

“I would.  We shouldn’t fall out of touch again.”

Thomas wouldn’t go that far, but didn’t argue, and let Alice hug him.  After that, Rosie wanted to hug him too—he wasn’t sure why, since all she’d done was look at him warily while he argued with her mother—so he allowed that too.  “It was nice meeting you, Miss Rosie,” he said, as he put her back into Alice’s arms. 

She babbled something back at him, and then waved at him over Alice’s shoulder until they were quite out of sight.

Chapter Text

4 May, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I don’t know when I will have a chance to send this letter—or if I will manage to hang on to it until then—but it’s comforting to write to you, just the same.  I know how worried you must be—but really, I’m not so badly off, as you will see.

I imagine you’ve heard about the Albion.  One of the Jerries told us that they picked up some of the wireless traffic from our Channel ships—that’s why they came back, in fact.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was my second round-trip, and this time we were taking wounded to…well, maybe I should say.  I don’t know who is going to be censoring this.  A different port than last time.  About mid-day, the ship gave a great lurch, and everything started tilting towards one side.  Some of the crew started shouting that we’d been torpedoed.  (The Germans dispute this—I’ll explain when I get to that part.)  We all started rushing around putting life-belts on the patients and getting them up on deck: everyone was splendid, the boat-crew and even the more lightly-wounded patients helping with the stretcher-cases, but there were still a lot more of those than there were people to carry them. 

Luckily, there was a boat nearby to help us—a coal-carrier, I think—and once we’d given them the idea of how to load up the stretcher cases, they took over that part, freeing us to go back down below for more patients.  By that point, water was starting to come in on the ward-decks, so we had some fairly dreadful decisions to make—do you grab the closest case, or the one who’s conscious and begging for someone to come and help him?  We did a bit of both. 

We’d got about half of them out, and I was carrying a stretcher with a chest case on it, with one of our MO’s holding up the other end, when something somewhere in the ship gave way, and we were knocked off our feet by a great rush of water. 

I saw a couple of the others drop their stretchers and swim for it—I don’t blame them.  But the MO, Capt. Kelly, held on to ours, so I felt like I had to, too. 

The next bit was all confusion—I know that we, and the ship, were going down, but it felt like the water was rising up, instead, coming out of nowhere.  Somehow, Capt. Kelly, the stretcher case, and I ended up in an upper corner of what was no longer the ship, but the wreckage, and the water stopped coming up while we still had a bubble of air. 

Capt. Kelly was able to figure out where we were, in relation to the rest of the ship as it originally had been, and he said, if we didn’t get too disoriented, and could hold our breaths long enough, we might be able to swim our way out.  And then he looked at the chest case.  (I don’t know his name, but I suppose it will have been in the paper, along with all the others.)

The man was conscious, and he said, “I think it’s every man for himself now, chaps.”  We saluted him—Captain Kelly first, even though the bloke was only a Lieutenant—and we left, God help us. 

I don’t remember how I made it out.  I remember being in that pocket, below-decks, and I remember bobbing about on top of the sea for a bit—we had our life-belts on.  Every now and then, a corpse would bob up to the top, with its life-belt on.  It was cold, unbelievably cold at first, and then you start to feel warm, which is really your extremities going numb.  And then, I suppose, you pass out. 

When I came round, I was underwater again, in the infirmary of a U-Boat.  It was late, the night watch, and they had a corporal or something keeping an eye on me.  He knew about ten words of English, but he managed to get across that I’d been captured, and someone else with me, and then he spoon-fed me hot soup. 

Once he was done with that, he left for a bit, and came back with Captain Kelly.  The Capt. Was dressed in a German officer’s uniform, which gave me a bit of a turn, at first, thinking he might have been a spy or something, but one of the Germans had lent it to him, his own things being soaked with salt-water.  (I’m wearing a German sailor’s uniform as I write this—we’ve carefully removed their badges and insignia, and replaced them with our own.  They’re going to try and wash our things, somehow, before handing us over to the proper authorities in Germany, but supplies of fresh water are limited.)

The captain of the boat—Glucker, or something that sounds like that—speaks English, so Capt. K had a pretty good picture of what had happened, from their point of view.  They say that they did not torpedo our ship; it struck a mine, which they had laid a short while before.  (Apparently, when it comes to the Hague Rules, this is an important distinction.)  A number of civilian ships were broadcasting their outrage, in the clear, that the Hun had sunk a hospital ship, so the Capt. G. ordered the boat back around, to see if it was true.  They checked all the bodies they could find, they said, and Capt. K. and I were the only ones living, so they brought us aboard.  We are, of course, prisoners now, but they are most dreadfully sorry about the whole thing, and doing their best to make us comfortable. 

Capt. K also tells me that, according to Capt. G., the rescue ship, the collier, hit another mine later on and went down as well, so we don’t know how many of the patients we managed to get aboard survived the second sinking—or how many of the other doctors and corpsmen. 

I really am completely fine—I’m not sure that I can completely believe in the sincerity of the Germans’ regret, when after all, they continue to lay mines in the Channel even as we speak, but they certainly bear us no personal ill-will, and are anxious to ease the lesser inconveniences that have resulted from their doing what they see as their duty.  One of the sailors has given up his bunk for me—I write from there—and others have given generously from their personal stocks of cigarettes, clean socks, and other essentials.  (Capt. K, I hear, occupies the first lieutenant’s quarters, and dines with Capt. G.  I eat in the NCOs’ mess, and in addition have been shared delicacies from several men’s parcels from home.)

They cannot, of course, allow us to post letters—actually, they can’t post their own, either, as we’re underwater—or transmit news of our safety on the wireless, but they assure us that word will make it back to our families, though it must go from the German High Command to the Red Cross, then to our War Office before finally reaching you.  And Capt. K. tells me that, once we are in an official prisoner of war camp, the Red Cross will post letters for us. 

When I asked for writing paper anyway, the Lt. gave me a rather nice little pocket diary, in which I am writing this, indicating by gestures that I was to consider it a present, so I will simply keep writing until I have an opportunity of sending it.  

We’re not sure what will happen to us once we get to Germany, but for right now, things are probably worse for you than they are for me.  After all, I know that I’m fine!  I hate to think of you worrying over me, although I’m sure you will have been doing so since you heard of the sinking.  I suppose you may even have been notified already that I’m on the missing list—as I will be, until the news of our rescue/capture gets back to England. 

Chin up, and do light a cigarette for me!  (We can only smoke here when the boat surfaces to take on air.)

Your Peter

6 May, 1915

Dear Thomas,

 Spent the morning in the infirmary, helping Capt. K. examine the Germans’ rashes and coughs and so on.  (They haven’t a medical officer, just an NCO with a bit of first aid training, and the infirmary is what you or I might mistake for a store-cupboard with some bandages and ointment in it.)  It’s only little things that have got to be checked out sometime—but I’m not sure how I feel about it, as they are, strictly speaking, the enemy. 

Capt. K tells me that it’s his duty as a doctor to treat the patients who are in front of him, enemy or not—though if something happens which would, without his aid, require them to cut their patrol short, he will have a very difficult decision to make.  As for me, he says, the Germans are within their rights to put me to work at anything which doesn’t directly help the war effort.  I am unsure if this qualifies—when I worked on Sick Calls at our own aid stations, I certainly thought I was helping the war effort—but I suppose it’s best to go along.  (Capt. K. also told me to consider it an order, if that made me feel better about it.  I’m not sure whether it does, exactly.)

What does make me feel better about it is that the German sailors are no happier to be fighting this war than our own men are.  I suppose their High Command must feel differently—otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it—but the ones here are all ordinary blokes like you could have a pint with, and would much rather be doing something else.  (One helped me try to dry out the photographs from my cigarette case—not too successfully, I’m afraid—and showed me his photographs of his girlfriend and sisters.) 

I am picking up a bit of German trying to talk to them.  I can say, for instance, “Ich vermisse mein Bruder,” which is that I miss my brother.  “I can hardly stand it that my brother and my sweetheart may not know I am alive,” is beyond my skill in German, although I think I have managed to get the sentiment across. 

 8 May

Mines laid by “our” U-Boat have sunk another British ship.  A battleship, this time, so they aren’t sorry, but out of politeness are trying not to seem too pleased with themselves.  Ugh.  I think I will go to my bunk and pull the blanket over my head.

 

9 May

Still feeling very low today. 

 

12 May

Today is the birthday of one of the sailors—he’s 19.  His mother sent a cake along with him, when he shipped out, which he has been keeping in the locker under his bunk for this occasion.  We all had a piece, and the NCO issued a rum ration—or whatever it is they get; it tastes no more like rum, or anything else on Earth, than our own rum rations do.  It’s certainly alcoholic, though, and there has been a great deal of singing. 

We did just the same, back in France, when Jonesy turned 20.  (I don’t remember whether I wrote to you about that or not.  He was the “baby” of our section at the time, as Fritz—that’s really his name—is the youngest on this boat.)  No rum ration, but we “organized” a bottle of wine, and he shared out his cake from home. 

He was killed doing stretcher-duty at the Front, a month or two later.  I wonder if Fritz will make it through the war.   I wonder if I want him to.

Mostly, I wonder what we’re all doing here.  I felt much the same when I was working on the prisoners’ ward back at the 11th General—that these men are no different from us, and don’t want to kill us any more than we want to kill them—but there is a great deal more time to think about it, now that I am the prisoner. 

We’re surfacing; I’m going to go up for a cigarette.  Light one for me.

Later

No cigarette, as when we attempted to surface, a British ship spotted us an opened fire.  We submerged again immediately, and beat a hasty retreat.  From what I gather, U-Boats carry either mines or torpedoes, not both, so there was no question of engaging it directly—fortunately for us! 

The corporal told me it was a shame it all happened so quickly; if we’d been up there smoking and saw it coming, he could have looked the other way while I jumped overboard.  (At least, I think that’s what he was saying.  I now know slightly more German than he does English, but we still communicate mostly in pantomime.)

I really think, if we put a half-dozen from our War Office, and a half-dozen from theirs, on the same U-Boat, and had one of the neutral countries take the occasional shot at them, the war really would be over by Christmas.  (Last Christmas?  This Christmas?  I don’t know.) 

 

14 May

Apparently, we have been making our way back to Germany for some time now, and will be there tomorrow or the next day.  The Germans say that they will be sorry to see us go, and are loading us up with presents of cigarettes, food, socks, etc.  I think that I will miss them, too.

Capt. K tells me that, while officers and men are usually sent to separate prisoner camps, officers are often allowed to have a batman, especially if captured together.  Capt. G. tells him that conditions are better in the officers’ camps—men are often put to very hard labor, mining and farm labor and so forth—so he will do his best to keep me with him.  He also says that Capt. G. has promised to put in a good word for us, that we were cooperative prisoners, as well as noncombatants, and helped their sick while on patrol, which may give us some advantage. 

I’ve just been told that there is a farewell party in my honor being gotten up in the NCOs’ mess, with rum issue, so I will close and go join in.  Light a cigarette for me. 

22 May

Please excuse my handwriting—I am writing from a freight car, rattling across German rails, bound for what we all hope is an officers’ camp.  (Capt. K. has succeeded in keeping me with him, so far.)  We have been marched from one transit camp to another, starting at a port city which we were not allowed to know the name of, for the last week.  We miss “our” U-Boat crew already, and the presents we had from them have made us very popular with the rest of the group, as rations are poor, and issued infrequently. 

Today, for instance, we rose at dawn and breakfasted on water, which had to nourish us as we marched three or four hours to the railhead, and then for the first stage of our journey by rail.  At about tea-time, four loaves of bread were tossed into the car, which holds about forty of us.  I doubt we shall get anything else before tomorrow, at the earliest.

What we do get is scrupulously divided among us, officers and men alike.  Most of the group are officers, with three other tag-alongs like myself.  In fact, a couple of subalterns even went so far as to suggest that we four get larger portions than the officers—I think they must read too many Boys’ Own stories.  (I’d probably have agreed to it, though, if the senior man—a Regular Army Sergeant—hadn’t been so obviously insulted by the suggestion.) 

The other three men have all been assigned duties—sanitation, watch, and food distribution—but I am excused due to injury.  My boots, after their lengthy immersion in salt water, were in no shape to hold up to a week’s forced march, and gave their last on this morning’s march.  I’ve no idea what I’ll do if we have another march at the end of the rail journey, as I’m limping already. 

I’m also being driven half-crazy by itching.  I was glad to get back into a British uniform when we left the U-Boat, but it turns out our crew’s efforts to wash it were not particularly successful, and the cloth is stiff with salt.  (I would be in much worse shape, if I were not wearing German underwear and socks, let me tell you!)  There has not been a rest long enough for me to have a go at washing it again until now, on the train, and here we have no spare water—they gave us a bucketful when we got on, and two more with the bread, but that’s it, and of the latter, Capt. K. commandeered half a bucketful for the washing of wounds, including my feet. 

We’ve been shown no violence, or even serious discourtesy, although some of the officers report rougher treatment before joining our current group. There is one NCO among our current guard who is clearly enjoying his authority, but I think that is a matter of the others being officers, rather than British!  He has been fairly polite to us four enlisted men—in fact, he asked me through gestures if I had extra socks when my boots fell apart (which I did) —and also to the two noncombatant officers, Capt. K. and an R.C. chaplain, who apparently came to be captured while conducting Last Rites in a shell-hole. 

(Our chief entertainment is telling our capture-stories; Capt. K’s and mine is considered quite good, on a par with that of the chaplain.)

It’s getting dark now, so I should finish.  Light a cigarette for me, dearest.

23 May

Arrived at Officers’ Camp late last night—fortunately, only a mile’s walk from train station.  Food on the train was the same as the day before, and we arrived after dinner, but the prisoners regularly receive food parcels—both from their own people at home and from the Red Cross—and decent spreads were laid on in both the orderlies’ mess and the officers’ one.  (There are many more officers here than men—about 400 of them, and about 80 of us, so I am pretty lucky that Capt. K was able to wangle my being here.) 

At present, I am still not assigned any duties, on account of my feet, though it is assumed that both Capt. K. and I will be posted to the infirmary once we’ve settled in.  My feet are a bit worse than last time I wrote, as a result of walking here, but Capt. K. was able to locate some disinfectant and bandages, and expects they will heal up fine.  A Maj. Who recently got a nice pair of carpet slippers in a parcel has insisted that I have them, at least until either the Germans or the Red Cross comes through with a pair of boots. 

24 May

Still no duties, so I have plenty of time to write you a nice long letter! 

I don’t suppose you have any idea what a prisoners of war camp is like—I didn’t either!  They don’t lock us in cells or anything.  The camp used to be a girls’ boarding school, I believe, and is surrounded by a high stone wall.  Between morning and evening roll-calls, the prisoners are more or less at liberty to roam the buildings and grounds, except for a forbidden zone of about five feet along the inside of the wall, and a bit more around the guard-posts.  At night, we are required to remain inside the main building, but otherwise not restricted.  The Germans also leave it up to our officers to assign quarters, decide which common rooms are for officers and which for enlisted, and so forth. 

The population, by the way, includes both English and French prisoners, but those who have been here the longest have decided that we’ll divide ourselves only into officers and other ranks, and not by nationality.  “Our” R.C. Padre has been warmly welcomed by the French: there was already a C of E chaplain here, but if any of their own chaplains have been captured yet, they’re keeping them somewhere else, so they’ve had to make the uncomfortable choice between worshipping under an chaplain who is an ally, but of a different faith, or of their own faith, but German.   

Apart from medics and chaplains, the officers here do not have very much to do, and occupy themselves mainly with reading and games—cards, cricket, etc.—and committees.  There is a disciplinary committee (for matters not serious enough to draw the attention of the Germans, a parcels committee (which ensures that the parcels from Red Cross and other charitable organizations are distributed fairly, and keep track of who gets parcels from home, so that the contents of charity parcels are distributed to those who haven’t had one in a while), a recreation committee (which organizes games and entertainments—apparently there is a talent show in the offing), a sanitation committee, a complaints committee (which hears all complaints from everyone, and determines which to pass along to the Germans and to the Red Cross), and several others. 

We enlisted do laundry, tidy up after the officers, distribute their rations, cook what they get in their parcels, etc. ( I say “we,” but I have not actually done any work yet, apart from a bit of mending on Capt. K’s uniform, which has held up quite a bit better than mine!)  The gentlemen of the Parcels Committee have taken responsibility for ensuring that I am not left naked when it finally disintegrates; I appreciate their concern, but have my suspicions that if a no-nonsense NCO were put in charge of the project, it might be handled a bit more efficiently. 

Official rations are quite poor, consisting mostly of bread, potatoes, and soup made out of barley and turnips, but we’re swimming in parcels, and many of the officers get money sent to them and can buy extra food, either directly from the guards or on supervised walks into town.  (We enlisted are allowed to have money sent to us, but buy the time it’s been converted into German marks, any amount we’re likely to get doesn’t buy much at inflated war-time prices—so when you do finally read this, don’t bother sending money!)

 

29 May

Tomorrow, Sunday, is Red Cross day!  They come with the parcels, and collect our letters, after church.  With any luck, you will be reading this soon.  I’m so glad—it will take a long time for your reply to get back to me, but just knowing that you will read what I’ve written eases the pain of missing you. 

I hope that what I’ve written is reassuring to you—I’m fairly sure that you will have been picturing much worse!  The period between the U-Boat and this camp was not much fun, but now that I am here, the worst part, once again, is thinking about how worried you must be.  Really, I am quite all right—even my feet are much better now. 

I have no particular idea where I am—and probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell you if I did—but the air is fresh, I can hear no sound of guns, and there are trees and mountains visible over the wall, so all in all, this is probably a safer and more healthful spot to spend the war than anywhere I’ve been since Oxfordshire.  The only real disadvantage is that letter-writing is limited—the others tell me we’re allowed to send two per month—and that there is no chance of a home leave, of course! 

Other than that, everything is pretty much tickety-boo, honestly.  (I am not sure if they will let me send two letters at one go, so please, when you get this, drop a note to Lisel—if I am only allowed 1, I will send yours.)

Don’t, by the way, try to do anything about the uniform situation—I don’t see how you could get hold of one, and we aren’t allowed civilian clothes, apart from Red-Cross-issue underthings, as they might aid us in an escape attempt.(!)  The most important thing that I want from you is a letter.   When you are able to send a parcel, the main thing is another photograph and some cigarettes.  You can fill in the corners with whatever kind of foodstuffs you find that can survive what could be a journey of several months—but the only things I really need, and can’t get from Red Cross, etc., are the letter and the photograph.

Speaking of cigarettes, light one for me!

Much love,

Peter

30 May, 1915

Bloody sodding hell. Red Cross came, told me I cannot send letter as I am not on their list.  I’m so angry I could cry.  Going off to smoke.

Later

Still crushed with disappointment, but the others have been doing their best to cheer me up.  Not being on the blessed list, I didn’t even get a standard-issue parcel, either, but the Parcels Committee did a whip-round, and I’m fairly sure I ended up with more & better goodies than anyone else.  (Capt. K. did not get parcel either, but both officers and men chipped in for me, and only officers for him.  Plus the officers were more generous with me, for Boys’ Own Story reasons.  One of them gave me a tin of smoked oysters, and another contributed half of a cake that his sister baked with her own lily-white hands—among other things too numerous to mention.)

Really, I don’t even mind that much for my own sake, about the letter, only I know how worried you must be.  Everyone I’ve spoken to on the matter says that their first letters from home say some variation on “what a blessed relief it is to hear you’re being treated well, after What They Did in Belgium,” etc.  It absolutely kills me that you’re worrying when you don’t have to. 

You might even be worrying about whether I’m alive—the Red Cross volunteer wasn’t sure whether my not being on the list might mean that you hadn’t been notified.  She said she thought not—more likely, her local office just doesn’t have the most up-to-date list—but she took down all of my information onto a card, which she said she would post immediately to the central office in Geneva, in case they don’t already have it. 

I wonder now if Lisel has found any sort of war-work—she was thinking of looking for some, when last I heard from her.  She might do well in the Red Cross prisoners’ bureau; they need people with lots of languages.  (Our ones who came here are German ladies, so I suppose in England it is English ladies visiting the German prisoners, and it’s the Swiss who coordinate the whole thing from Geneva, so one way or the other, she ought to qualify.)

Off to the NCOs’ mess—there is a party for Parcel Day.

 

14 June, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I feel as though I ought to say sorry for not writing for over two weeks—but it isn’t as though you’ll have missed my letters any more than you do already.  There wasn’t much to say, and writing letters you won’t read wasn’t giving me as much comfort anymore, after I’d got my hopes up about finally being able to send it off.

But there is lots of news to tell now, so it’s as good a time as any to write. We have moved again—that is, Capt. K. and I—this time, to a military hospital in a major German city.  (I do know which one, this time, but I had better not say, in case I do get the chance to post this.)  They have a ward for treating prisoners, and hearing that they are short of doctors, Capt. K. volunteered us at once.  (He told me I didn’t have to go, but if I didn’t, I’d probably have been sent to a camp for enlisted sooner or later—besides, I’d just as soon get back to medical work; since we’ll be treating our own people, I feel as though it’s still helping the war effort.) 

This journey was very different from the previous—we were taken by regular passenger train, escorted by two German guards apiece, and decently fed at a station café.  (I won’t say well fed; German station cafes are no better than ours, and half the menu was struck out due to shortages, but we got the same thing our escorts got—and we’d had a sending-off party the night before, as well.) 

The hospital, like our London ones, has both military and civilian wards.  The prisoners-of-war ward is devoted to officers, but receives the occasional serious case from among enlisted prisoners.  (These are set off on one end, behind a screen.)  As at our last, the prisoners are British and French—patients, MO’s, and orderlies alike, although the staff is supplemented with some German nurses, from the Red Cross and their equivalent of the VAD. 

The ward holds sixty—which is rather a lot—all types of cases mixed together: wounded and sick, walking and stretcher, medical and surgical.  Surgeries, I’m told, are done in a common operating room, under the supervision of German doctors, all scalpels accounted for afterwards and so on.  Capt. K. makes the third MO—one of the others is French, the other British—and there are six British orderlies and two French. 

If you were RAMC, you’d say that isn’t nearly enough orderlies for sixty cases, especially if more than a few of them are serious, but we have the nurses, and civilian workers do quite a bit of what falls to our lot in a field hospital—laundry and cooking and so on.  I’m also told that from time to time a German orderly or two will be seconded to us—although in return, we are asked to help with civilian patients when our own ward isn’t full.

I say “we,” but we have been here two days, and I haven’t done much yet—today I changed beds.  Mostly I have been getting settled in.  Our orderly room is comfortable enough, though a bit small for eight—we sleep in bunks, one atop the other, and there’s really only room for two or three of us to be out of our bunks at any one time.  Rations are similar to at the camp, and supplemented as usual by parcels. 

That reminds me, the Parcels Committee back at camp never did come up with anything to do about my uniform—apart from a spare pair of puttees someone had—but as soon as I got here, one of the other British orderlies found me some trousers, and a French one “organized” a surgeon’s gown from somewhere and constructed a combination lining-and-reinforcement for my tunic—I might have tried the latter myself, had I thought of it, but I’m not sure my sewing skills are up to it.  The Frenchman is a tailor in civilian life, and made a very neat job of it.  I’m not sure it will last me through a long war, but it will certainly buy some time. 

I’m tired now, from all the bed-making, so I will sign off, and write more soon.  Light a cigarette for me.

Your loving,

Peter

18 June, 1915

Dear Thomas,

Capt. K had some very bad news for me yesterday.  Apparently, as we are in a position likely to be exposed to military secrets—because of the German officers and men in the hospital, and the German workers here on our ward—we do not have letter-writing privileges.  He swears on the Bible that he did not know this before he volunteered us to come here (which I believe) and that he only found out yesterday (which I do not—he has been cagy since our first full day here). 

I was ready to demand to be sent to a regular camp at once, but one of the patients—a serious enlisted case—talked me down.  He says that conditions in the camps for enlisted can be very bad: not just hard work, which I knew about, but inadequate food, dangerous work, lots of sickness, and violent guards.  Not all are as bad as that, but there’s a real chance of ending up somewhere I could be killed.  I reckon you’d rather I lived through the war, even if it means more worry, so I suppose I had better stay where I am. 

The French MO also promises me that the Red Cross will tell you where, in general, I am.  He was brought here immediately after his capture, and has never been able to send a letter either, but we are allowed to receive letters, just not post them, and he says that his wife’s to him indicate that she quite aware that he is in a hospital tending fellow prisoners, and has even mentioned getting a positive report from Geneva about conditions in our hospital (though they won’t tell her which one it is), so he is sure that you, mon frère, will also receive this comforting news in due course. 

As you might be able to tell, I waited until I had gotten over the worst of my feelings before writing this—if this notebook is to last me through the war, I had better choose carefully what I write in it.  Once I am a bit calmer still, I plan to attempt contact through mental telepathy.  (I won’t try it just yet, since I don’t want you to sense how upset I am, in the unlikely event that it works.)  Light a cigarette for me, please, dearest. 

Your Peter

25 June, 1915

Parcel day!  I got one Red Cross, and one from the RAMC Welfare Committee.  The latter was simply addressed to “Any RAMC Prisoner,” and was allocated to me by the Parcels Committee, but the former indicates that I am finally on the blessed list.  Since the Red Cross knows where I am, surely you do as well—or at least will very soon. 

Parcels contain all sorts of good things: tinned milk, biscuits, sweets, potted meat, jam, etc.  Many of these goods are in short supply here in Unnamed German City, and the German workers are quite well informed as to what the Red Cross sends us, so there is a brisk trade going on.  I have mostly kept what I got—I haven’t been here long enough to be tired of the usual things they send, although some of the others are—but I traded one can of milk, which one of the charwomen was very anxious to get, for a little grandchild.  That is, she wanted the milk for the grandchild; what she gave me was a sort of dry and crumbly seed-cake-thing that she had produced in her own kitchen.  She assures me that she is normally a much better baker than this would indicate, but it is so hard to get butter, sugar, eggs, etc. that none of her recipes come out right.  I suppose this is my good deed for the day, and I can now stuff myself on the contents of my parcels with a clean conscience. 

Chapter Text

                24 August, 1915

Dear Mrs. Hughes,

I write to you from my new post at the 47th Ambulance, in a location I am not allowed to tell you about.  The 47th is not a vehicle, but a Main Dressing Station, though it does also have several ambulances, both motor and horse.  We are based out of a building that used to be a school, and is still mostly standing up, and are a fairly large station; more like a small hospital, really.  We have a full operating theater, dispensary, and enough space that the patients can stay on our wards if they only need a couple of weeks to recover from whatever’s troubling them.  (Any longer than that, and they get sent further back.) 

So far, my contribution to all this has been in the form of making beds and things like that.  There are five of us new fellows—most of the other orderlies have been here for ages—so we are starting out with the simplest work.  The experienced men were all glad to have us come, as they have been shorthanded for some time, and so have been very welcoming. 

We are about XX miles behind the front line, and so are very safe here.  The sector has been quiet, so I haven’t had to go forward to collect wounded yet.  Every few days, word goes round that the Wardmaster, who is the man in charge of us orderlies, has said that we new blokes ought to be taken up to get the lie of the land while things are still quiet, but something else always comes up for us to do here instead. 

Thank you for the biscuits.  If you send more, you might look for the kind that come in a tin.  Our billet has mice. 

Thomas

When Anna looked up from the letter, Mrs. Hughes said, “He sounds as though he’s in fairly good spirits.”

There was a hint of a question in her tone, and she nodded.  “He does know that the ones he writes to you get passed around to everyone, but he didn’t say anything too different to me.  They’re near enough to the artillery that they can hear it—our artillery, I mean—but a good distance behind it.  The ‘things like that’ is mostly to do with bedpans, which I suppose he thought was a bit indelicate to tell you about.  And his billet’s in a barn, which he’s about as pleased about as you’d expect, but he isn’t taking it personally.”  She gave the letter back.  “He mentioned the tin to me as well, so I suppose we had best find one.  The village shop was out of biscuits in tins when I checked.”

“I expect we have a tin, somewhere in this house,” Mrs. Hughes pointed out.  “Perhaps Daisy would bake something to go in it.” 

“He might like that,” Anna agreed. 

#

                29 August, 1915

                Dear Thomas,

I’m glad to hear you’re someplace safe, even if you don’t like your billet.  I don’t imagine I’d like sleeping in a barn, either—especially not with mice.  The shop was all out of biscuits in tins, but Mrs. Hughes and I found this one in the storeroom, and we’ve put some of Daisy’s ginger nuts in it.  She remembered that you like them.  Perhaps they’ll cheer you and the others up a bit, about the barn.

Love,

Anna Smith

Thomas groaned on reading the note that came with his parcel.  He supposed Anna was right, that he ought to share the biscuits with the others in the billet.  The 47th did not, he had learned, adopt the Communist policy in regards to biscuits that Peter had described—perhaps because there were a few buggers who would abuse the system—but most evenings there was a sort of social hour in the barn, between getting back there after dinner and everyone setting down to sleep, where the contents of bottles and parcels were shared and everyone talked as they took care of their kit, played cards, or simply lay on their bedrolls and smoked.

Thomas avoided these gatherings as much as possible.  If he didn’t have any work to do on his kit, he came up with some excuse to walk back to the billet on his own, instead of with the crowd, and then took a longer route, stopping for a solitary cigarette or two on the way.  It wasn’t that anything particularly objectionable happened in them—although Thomas could have done without some of the discussion on the subject of women—but he had never before realized how essential to his peace of mind it was to be able to go into his bedroom at the end of the day and shut the bloody door. 

Even when he’d had to share with another footman—or with Jamie, when he’d been younger—he’d at least occasionally had the room to himself.  When you were sharing a barn with a dozen other men, that never happened.   It had been the same in the tent at training camp, of course, but it seemed worse now, perhaps because the work was more strenuous, or perhaps the strain of it was just building up on him.

Particularly the strain of not being, as Bates had put it, a complete tit.  Keeping his head down and not saying what was on his mind had worked out well for him so far, and he wanted to keep doing it, but it was hard, especially when one or another of the section was being particularly annoying. 

But while he could just about get away with keeping to himself, keeping his biscuits to himself was a different story altogether.  A man who was a bit quiet, but all right, might make a habit of having a bit of a walk and a smoke by himself of an evening; keeping away from the billet so that he could smuggle his biscuits in under cover of darkness was surely the action of a complete tit. 

With utmost reluctance, he got up and turned his steps toward the barn.  It sat on its own between two weed-choked fields, the house that had once belonged to it shelled into rubble.  The only positive thing that could be said about it was that it did not stink of manure—probably because it had been unfit for the shelter of cattle for years before the war started.  It had thick, sturdy stone walls, but the wooden roof might as well have been a sieve; many of the boards were loose enough to flap on windy days.  Honestly, he was surprised the mice chose to live there. 

The men it housed had no choice, being the newest in the unit.  Four had come over with Thomas, and the rest in earlier drafts that year. 

When he got to the barn, after picking his way to his spot, through the maze of men and their belongings, he unrolled his groundsheet and blankets—you had to stow them every morning, even though the idea of anyone conducting a barracks inspection in this place was laughable, because that way you at least had a chance of some of your things staying dry if it rained—then opened his biscuit tin, took a couple, and passed it to Lamble, who had the place next to his. 

“Oh, thanks!” Lamble said, breaking off one of his long and pointless anecdotes to do it.  “Are these homemade?”

“Sort of,” Thomas said.  They were made in somebody’s home, anyway. 

“The first biscuits my sister ever tried to bake were ginger nuts,” Lamble noted, passing the tin to the next man—Rawlins, who was one of the old-timers in their section, having come over at the end of February.  “Only she put in black pepper instead of the ginger.  Don’t ask me how….”

Lamble kept talking about his sister’s biscuits, but Thomas stopped listening.  That was one thing about having so many of them in the billet.  Some bugger was always talking—and more often than not it was Lamble—but if he said something requiring a reply, you could generally count on somebody else making it.  He checked his kit—all in good order—and was about to light another cigarette when he noticed Rawlins holding out a bottle of wine.

Lamble, instead of taking it, scooted back on his bedroll as if it might burn him.   He hadn’t been in Thomas’s section in training, but Thomas vaguely remembered he was one of the lot that, when the rest went to the pub, buggered off to the God-Botherers’ Hut for cocoa and a sing-song instead.   Leaning across Lamble to grab the bottle, he told Rawlins, “He’s Methodist.”

“Quaker, actually,” said Lamble. 

Really?  That was a little hard to imagine.  Nearly the only thing Thomas knew about Quakers was that they went to church by sitting silently in a room, which he knew for the same reason everyone did—because of the children’s game called Quaker Meeting, which he was convinced had been invented by some harassed Mum or Dad who wanted a moment’s peace.  The one who could sit in complete silence for the longest, without even laughing or smiling, was the winner.  Lamble would be terrible at that game.  But he just shrugged and said, “Sorry.  Knew it was one of those teetotal Nonconformist ones.”

Plank, another old-timer, sat up on his bedroll.   “How in the hell do you manage that?” he asked. 

Lamble started yammering about something called the Peace Testimony, and the choice of serving in a noncombatant capacity being “a matter for the conscience of the individual.” 

It was actually one of the more interesting things Thomas had ever heard him say, but by the time he started in on the Friends Ambulance Unit—which was, apparently, working with the French, because the British Army wouldn’t have them—everyone else was looking around and murmuring things like, “What’s he on about?” 

“But I wanted to serve my country,” Lamble concluded.  “And besides, there weren’t very many places in the FAU, and the elders in my Meeting are against it anyway, so I decided to do this.” 

A long and awkward silence followed this pronouncement.  Finally, Thomas decided that no one else was going to say it.  “He meant the bloody meetings, mate.  Because you never shut up.  Not why you’re not a conchie.”  Realizing belatedly that he had probably just insulted all of Lamble’s friends and relations back home, he added, “-entious objector.” 

“Oh,” said Lamble, and was silent for a long moment.  “Well, it’s actually a common misunderstanding, that Meetings for Worship are silent.  We don’t have a priest or minister, you see, so there’s no sermon, but any Member of the Meeting can speak if he’s moved to do so by the spirit of God.”

That raised another question, which Thomas found himself asking before he’d quite considered the wisdom of it.  “How in hell do the rest of them manage you, then?”

As soon as he’d said it, he could almost see Carson scowling, and hear Mrs. Hughes saying, “Thomas!”  But nobody here shouted Barrow! in a scandalized way; in fact, there was a sort of murmur of approval that Thomas didn’t quite know how to respond to.

On Lamble’s other side, Rawlins—visibly choking back laughter—said, “He’s got you there, mate.”

Lamble looked crestfallen, and Thomas felt a wholly unfamiliar impulse to apologize, even though nobody was making him do it.  Instead, he lit a cigarette. 

Rawlins, getting himself under control, said, “But I was wondering about the conchie thing, too.  I think it’s bloody brave, signing up even though nobody expects you to.”

Lamble brightened up a bit at that, and Thomas quickly said, “Too right.”  That touched off a murmur of agreement, and he figured that was apology enough. 

#

Another night, Thomas came in from smoking his after-dinner cigarette and was greeted with shouts of “There he is!” 

A bit startled, he nearly took a step back, but then someone was shoving a tin cup of wine into his hand, so he shrugged and made his way to his spot.

“I was just telling them,” explained Manning, who had been working on the Men’s Surgical ward along with Thomas that day. 

Telling them what?  Thomas was considering whether or not to ask when Manning went on.

“So this bloke had been banging on all morning about his fucking wedding ring.  ‘RAMC really does stand for Robs All My Comrades, I’m going to write to the War Office about this, ekcetera.”

Oh, that.

“And he starts up again when Barrow here goes up to get his bloody porridge-basin—Where’s my wedding ring, I know some bugger nicked it, who was it?  And Barrow goes, ‘I’m sure it was just misplaced, old bean.’” 

Manning said the last part in a plummy accent that Thomas supposed was meant to sound like him—although if he had ever in his life said the words “old bean,” he’d been taking the piss at the time. 

“And chappy’s all, ‘Misplaced, my arse,’ ekcetera.  Barrow buggers off for a while, and I figure he’s just doing the washing up and maybe having a smoke in bloody peace and quiet, but then he gets back and he goes right up to the bugger and says, ‘Would this by any chance be the ring in question, my good man?’”

Thomas had not said that, either, but he didn’t argue—he’d actually said, “Is this yours, sir?” which was worse, because the bloke was only a bloody corporal. 

“So it is his, and is he grateful?”

“No!” someone called out.

“Fuck no,” Manning agreed.  “He starts up again.  Where was it?  Who took it?  Was it you what took it?  Did ones of your mates take it?  And then this magnificent bastard right here says, ‘It was still on your hand, mate.’”  Manning fell over laughing.  “It was still on his bloody hand.”

Thomas thought that the wine must have been going around for a while now, because everyone seemed to find that as hilarious as Manning did.  “He was lucky,” Thomas said, “it hadn’t gone into the incinerator yet.” 

That, apparently, was hilarious too. 

“How did you know where it was?” Lamble asked him.

“I didn’t,” Thomas answered.  “I went to Surgical Prep and asked where it would have ended up, if a man wearing a wedding ring had his left hand amputated.  They couldn’t find it, so there was only one place left to check.”

“I don’t think I could have done it,” said Lamble.  “Searching through all the severed limbs?”  He shuddered. 

“There weren’t that many of them,” Thomas said.  He had, in fact, been picturing an enormous pile of rotting severed limbs—and wouldn’t have searched it if that’s what it had been—but there was actually just a smallish bin by the incinerator.  It was only about half full, and there had been only one left hand in it.   

He wasn’t surprised the Surgical Prep orderlies had missed it—the hand was pretty well mangled, the first two fingers missing entirely, and the ring finger a bloody stump.  Scrubbing the gore off the ring had been a job and a half. 

“Still,” said Lamble. 

By this point, the general conversation had moved on to some other subject of hilarity, so Thomas admitted, to the blokes nearby, “What surprised me was that he cared about his wedding ring when his entire hand had just been chopped off.”   What was he planning to do with his wedding ring, once he got it back? 

“That happens,” said Rawlins, the bloke on the next bedroll over, with the voice of experience.  “They’re up to the eyeballs in morphine, you know, so the wounds don’t really hurt.  But in the back of their minds they know something’s wrong, and they pick something else to get upset about.  I had this bloke once, both legs blown off, and he wouldn’t shut up about how he had to go back to his regiment and get the two shillings sixpence that his mate owed him.  You’d try to tell him, mate, you’re going back to Blighty, don’t worry about that now, and he’d say, all right, but first I’ve got to go back to the Front and get my two and six.” 

The spirit of God then moved Lamble to tell them a long and rambling story about a great-aunt of his who, in her dotage, became obsessed with a doll she had lost as a child, which went on long after the time that everyone else has started to settle down into their bedrolls.  The spirit of God moved Thomas to heave his boots at him, but he restrained the impulse.

#

From bed-making and bed pans, Thomas moved on to dishing out the men’s dinners and doing the washing-up afterwards.  He supposed it was a bit of a step up, at any rate.  Then he was rotated “off-wards” for a spell, and was assigned to be orderlies’ room orderly.   

It was the first thing he’d had to do since he joined up that he genuinely loathed—at least, apart from trying to sleep in a leaking, vermin-infested barn, where at least you had the comfort of a dozen or so other blokes who hated it as much as you did.

But being posted to the orderlies’ room was apparently supposed to be some kind of treat.  Located in the former school building—most of the wards were in Army huts—it was where the orderlies took their tea breaks and generally hung about when they didn’t have anything better to do, but if you were posted there, you were essentially the tweeny.  You had to make the tea, and empty the ash-trays, and sweep up all the ashes and cigarette ends left on the floor by blokes who were too filthy and lazy to use the ash-trays, and generally clean up after everybody.  You also had to do the same things in the NCOs’ room, which was next door, but they also felt perfectly free to ask you to do any bit of their job they didn’t feel like doing, or, if they caught you sitting down, clean their boots. 

The worst part of it, though, was that any time anything mildly interesting happened anywhere in the vicinity, some bugger would run to the orderlies’ room to tell the story—and then keep on telling it to everyone else who came in, so that if you were in there all day, you ended up where you could tell it better than the bloke it had happened to. 

After about a week of this, the sergeants all happened to be elsewhere at the same time, and Corporal Diggs—one of the Regular Army men, scrawny and ferrety-looking—announced he was popping off on an important errand.  “You’ve got everything under control here, don’t you, Barrow?”

Thomas agreed that he did.

Halfway out the door, he paused and said, “If the linen-van comes before I’m back, you’ll have to sign for it.  Oh, and finish filling out the chitty for the pick-up.”  Then he buggered off before Thomas had a chance to say anything about it. 

That was a dirty trick, and Thomas knew it.  Nearly every day, the Wardmaster tore Diggs a new arsehole over something to do with the linen delivery.  The van was supposed to bring back the exact same number of each item as they’d picked up in the morning, but when the stuff was distributed back to the wards, there was always something missing.  So the Wardmaster would tell Diggs to insist that they make up the discrepancy the next time, but the linen-van man would just pull out a clipboard, thumb through a mess of forms stuck to it, and show him where he’d signed saying he’d got what he was supposed to get. 

“Tosser,” Thomas muttered at Diggs’s departing back.  Sticking a cigarette in his mouth, he went to the heap of papers that Diggs liked to call his desk, and had a rummage through it, looking for the ones to do with today’s linen.

The forms that the ward-corporals had turned in with their sacks of dirty linen were under a teacup with a half-inch of cold tea and a fag-end floating in it, but if Diggs had even started filling out the chitty for the pick-up, Thomas was buggered if he could find it.  Finally, he found a supply of blank ones under a stack of old requisition forms, and started filling out a fresh one. 

The running of a dressing station required eighty-one different kinds of linen, from tray-cloths (officers’, for the use of) to bedsheets (hospital) to surgeon’s gowns.  For each item, Thomas had to find the relevant figure on the form from each ward, add them all up, and enter the total on the chitty.  It might not have been too difficult, except that people kept interrupting to ask if there was any tea, or to tell an amusing anecdote involving pus or an estaminet girl.

He got it done moments before the linen-van pulled up, and then had to leave the linen-van man standing there while he dug through Diggs’s rubbish heap looking for their copy of yesterday’s chitty.  When he finally found it, he had to help the linen-van man pull the sacks out of the back of the van—which apparently he could not have done while Thomas was looking for the sodding chitty—and then open them up to check that they actually contained what their labels claimed they did.

“We’re short two bolster-cases here,” he said.

“No you ain’t,” said the linen-van man. 

“Yes, we are.  We gave you fifty-seven yesterday; there are only fifty-five here.”  Thomas brandished the form. 

Scowling suspiciously, the linen-van man thumbed through his own collection of forms. 

“It’s going to say the same thing mine does,” Thomas pointed out.  Did he not understand how carbon paper worked?

After much squinting at the form, the linen-van man confirmed that it did look as though his copy said fifty-seven, as well. 

“And what do you propose we remedy this situation?”

“Wha?”

“What are we going to do about it?”

The linen-van man considered.  “There’s nowt more in the van.”

Of course not; that would make things entirely too easy.  “Suppose we write on the chitty that we’re owed two?” he suggested.  He had never noticed Diggs doing anything of the kind, but he didn’t have any better ideas. 

Eventually, the linen-van man agreed to this course of action, which they repeated when it came to towels, surgical (of which they were short six) and mattress-cases, officers’ (where only one was missing).  Thomas carefully made the emendations on both his and the linen-van man’s copies of the chitty, and required that the linen-van man initial them.  For good measure, he wrote “+2,” “+6” and “+1” in the appropriate columns of the new chitty, and made him initial those, too. 

When the linen-van man finally left, he’d have liked to sit down for a cup of tea—or even a nap—but the next bit was sorting out the linen into piles for the wards to pick up.  At least, that was the way it was supposed to be done, but half the time, Diggs couldn’t be arsed to find the forms from the previous day, and just told Thomas to put everything in stacks by type of item and then told the wards to grab what was owing to them. 

So he jammed another cigarette into his mouth and went for another rummage through Diggs’s desk.   Yesterday’s forms from the ward, instead of being filed under a cup of tea, as today’s had been, were kept under a plate containing several smears of jam. 

Clearly, he was too inexperienced to understand the intricacies of Diggs’s system. 

He was getting on with the sorting, piles of linen spread out all over the store-room, when Corporal Jessop stuck his head in.  “Barrow, is there any—”  He stopped, perhaps noticing Thomas’s thunderous expression.  “Where’s Diggs?”

“Stepped out,” said Thomas, flatly.

“Ah.”  Jessop nodded.  “I’ll just put the kettle on meself, why don’t I.”

He didn’t say it sarcastically, so Thomas answered, “If you don’t mind.”

Diggs still wasn’t back by the time the ward-orderlies started showing up to collect their clean linen, so Thomas was left to hand everything out and initial their chits—which would be straightforward enough until he got to somebody who was supposed to get something that was missing. 

The one who came down from the officers’ ward—and so was supposed to receive the officers’ mattress-cases, of which they were one short—was Lamble, the chatty Quaker.  When Thomas explained about how he’d been writing the discrepancies on the chits and initialing them.

“Is that what you’re meant to do, when something’s missing?” Lamble asked.

“I haven’t a sodding clue,” Thomas told him. 

“Only Corporal Diggs never does.”

“Well, he’s buggered off and left it to me, so I’m making it up as I go along.”

“Right,” said Lamble, quickly initialing his chit and giving it back.  “Better you than me, mate.”

Then things went smoothly until the bloke from surgery turned up, and Thomas had to explain about the towels.  He was still in the middle of it when the Wardmaster came in. He was a stocky man of about Lord Grantham’s vintage, not overly tall but with an imposing presence.  Thomas immediately stopped what he was saying and stood up straight.  You didn’t come to attention for an NCO, even the most senior one in the unit, but you were supposed to show you’d noticed somebody important was in the room—bracing up, they called it. 

“Where the fuck is Diggs?” asked the Wardmaster.

“Stepped out, Sergeant,” Thomas said smartly.

“Right here,” said Diggs, turning up seemingly out of nowhere.  “Everything all correct.”

The way he said it was just enough of a question that, when the discrepancy appeared, he could say he’d been asking Thomas to confirm it.  So Thomas, on the theory that a bollocking delayed was a bollocking doubled, said, “We’re missing two bolster-cases, six surgical towels, and an officers’ mattress-case.” 

Diggs glanced over the stacks of linen still before them.  “How do you know that?” he asked suspiciously.

“I expect he fucking counted it,” said the Wardmaster, scathingly.  “Where’s the sodding chitty?”

While Diggs started to mutter something about his desk, Thomas produced it. 

The Wardmaster snatched it out of his hand and examined it.  “What the fuck’s this?” he asked Diggs, jabbing a finger at a part of the page.

“Don’t know, Sarge,” said Diggs.  “But that bit looks like Barrow’s initials.”

There was a murmur from the crowd of orderlies waiting for their linen.  Diggs had just Dropped His Mate in the Shit, which was an offense slightly worse than nicking somebody’s last cigarette, and only a little better than murder. 

The Wardmaster turned to him and pointed to the spot on the form again—which was, of course, one of the places where Thomas had written in about one of the missing items.  “What the fuck is this?” he repeated.

“Well, Sergeant,” he said, thinking quickly.  There really wasn’t anything he could say other than the truth, was there?  “I wrote in the items that were short, and had the linen-van man initial by them, so he wouldn’t be able to say we’d had them when we hadn’t.  I wasn’t sure where to find the proper form for it, so…that’s what I did.”

“There isn’t a fucking form for it, because it isn’t supposed to fucking happen,” said the Wardmaster. 

It was hardly his fault it had, but there was no reason that should suddenly start to matter now, when he never had before in his life.  “Yes, Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster looked t the form again.  “Are you fucking telling me,” he said, “that Diggs stepped out long enough for you to get the linen delivery, count it, and convince the fucking linen-van bugger to initial your fucking chitty?”

Thomas could not answer that question without also Dropping His Mate in the Shit, so he braced up against and said, “Sergeant.”

“And how long have you been in this fucking shithole?”

“About a month, Sergeant.”  He wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything.

The Wardmaster turned to Diggs, his mouth working soundlessly.  Finally, he said, “You useless nitwit.”

It was the first utterance Thomas had ever heard from him that did not contain the word “fuck,” or one of its close relations.  He got the sense that if the Wardmaster had called Diggs a fucking useless nitwit, it would mean he was less angry than he was. 

A cavernous silenced yawned through the room.  When one of the ward-orderlies finally broke it by asking, timidly, if he could have the linen for Men’s Sick, please, Thomas hurried to give it to him. 

He really didn’t want to say it, but what choice did he have?  ”You’re short a bolster case, mate,” he said quietly. 

With a wary sidelong glance at the Wardmaster, the orderly proffered his chitty.  He’d been waiting long enough to see that Thomas had been initialing them. 

Thomas also looked warily at the Wardmaster. 

“Yes, put your fucking initials on it,” he said.  “You should probably do both fucking copies.”

“I have been, Sergeant,” said Thomas quietly. 

“Fuck,” said the Wardmaster, and departed.

Some time later, Thomas was sweeping the orderlies’ room when Diggs came in.  “He wants to see you,” he muttered, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the Wardmaster’s room. 

Thomas just bet he fucking did.  He went to put the broom away, but Diggs took it out of his hand, and as he left the room, he heard the sound of hasty sweeping. 

Thomas had never been in the Wardmaster’s room before.  It combined the roles of office and sitting room, with a large table at one end, used as a desk, and at the other a fireplace and two battered armchairs.  Rumor had it that particularly favored orderlies were occasionally invited to sit in the second of these and drink the Wardmaster’s liquor.

Right now, the Wardmaster was at the desk end of it, of course. 

Bracing up square in front of the desk, Thomas said, “Sergeant.”  If Diggs got demoted to sweeping the floor after this fiasco, God alone knew what was going to happen to him.  Digging latrines, maybe.  He couldn’t think of anything he could have done better than he had, but it was a well-established maxim of Army life that shit rolled downhill. 

“Right,” said the Wardmaster.  “What the fuck happened today?  And don’t worry about dropping that bugger in the shit—he’s already in it.”

So Thomas explained. 

“You did the fucking pick-up chitty, too?” The Wardmaster asked when he’d finished. 

“Yes, Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster leaned back in his chair.  “What’d you do before you joined the R.A.M.-fucking-C.?”

“I was a footman, Sergeant.”

“Fuck, why didn’t you say something?  We could have put you on the fucking ruperts’ ward.”

Well, no one had asked, had they?  “Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster lit a cigarette.  “You know you don’t have to say that unless you’re getting a fucking bollocking?”

Thomas had thought he was.  Since he couldn’t think of any reply other than “Sergeant,” he said nothing.

“You do this kind of shite as a fucking footman?”

What kind of shite?  “Sergeant?”

“Deliveries,” he clarified. 

Oh.  “Yes.  Well, the butler is in charge of them, but I assist him.”  That was how he’d known he was supposed to fucking count it, even though he’d never seen Diggs do it. 

“Right, then,” said the Wardmaster, nodding decisively.  “You’re fucking linen-wallah till you go back on wards.  Jessop’ll show you how.  He did it before Diggs.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”  Was that better or worse than digging latrines?  It was certainly cleaner, at any rate.

“And you’d better be a lance-corporal,” he decided.  “There’s no fucking pay in it, but it’ll keep Diggs off your arse.”

Thomas doubted very much that that would do it—was, in fact, fairly sure that Diggs would want to have his balls in a bag—but said only, “Yes, Sergeant.”

When he got back to the orderly room, Diggs was explaining to all present that he was now orderlies; room corporal, “In charge of making sure you buggers don’t treat the place like a pigpen.”

It was a job somebody probably ought to have been doing, but Thomas had his doubts that the Wardmaster had put it to Diggs in precisely that way. 

“So you don’t have to do the linen anymore?” someone asked.

“Nah.  It’s not that responsible a job.  Anyone can do it.”

Thomas didn’t argue the point, just went to find Jessop. 

#

“Do you suppose,” Wardmaster Tully asked thoughtfully, opening the door to his office and ushering Corporal Jessop inside, “that Diggs has the mother-wit to realize he’s in the fucking doghouse—or is he just off seeing his fucking whore?”

“Hard to say,” Jessop said, lighting the candles to either side of Tully’s mantelpiece.  They’d just come from the mess, and Diggs had, indeed, not shown his face—but that could be for either of the reasons Tully had mentioned. 

“I know it’s hard to say; that’s why I fucking asked,” Tully said, going into his desk drawer for a bottle of liquor.  “If he doesn’t shape up soon, I’m gonna have to do something we’ll both fucking regret.”  With a sigh, he dropped into one of the easy chairs in front of his fireplace and contemplated his boots for a moment.  “You get the posh fucker sorted out?” 

Jessop nodded.  “He’ll do.  Diggs has been foisting bits of t’job off on him all week.  I just had to show him how it all connects up—and help him figure out where Diggs keeps the forms.”

“Huh.”  Tully sat up and poured the liquor into two mostly-clean glasses, handing one to Jessop.  “See what you think of this—picked up a case of it in Par-ee.” 

Jessop tasted his cautiously—Tully had poured the stuff out like it was water, and was already halfway into his glass, but that didn’t mean much.  All Jessop really noticed about it was that it burned on the way down.  Give him a pint, any day.   “That’ll put hair on your chest.” 

“I’m still getting used to it,” Tully said, refilling his glass.  He tipped the bottle towards Jessop, but Jessop waved it off—he’d learned back in South Africa that trying to match Tully drink for drink was a fool’s game.  “What d’you make of him, then?  The lad.”

He was lad now, and not posh fucker?  Jessop put more thought into his answer than he had the one about the liquor.  “Well, he’s no’ afraid of a bit of hard graft—hasn’t bucked at anything we’ve thrown at him yet.  Not even when Diggs asked him to clean his boots.”

“Diggs should clean his own fucking boots,” Tully observed. 

“Aye.  He’s quick,” Jessop continued, returning to the subject of Barrow.  “Could be too quick for his own good, if he isn’t kept busy.”  Tully knew as well as he did that the clever ones could make a lot of trouble for themselves, if they had too much time on their hands—like a sharp working dog penned up in the front parlor, they’d find something to do.  Tully’d managed to find quite a bit of trouble himself, before he’d had the luck to come under an NCO with the sense to point him at a flock of sheep and let him run.  “Bit stand-offish, but the rest of the new lads seem to have decided he’s all right.”  Jessop wasn’t sure if young Manning had noticed yet that he’d been eclipsed as ringleader of that little group—or if Barrow had, for that matter.  “Doesn’t say much, you know, but when he does, they sit up and take notice.”

Tully nodded.  “S’what I thought.  In my considered opinion, he’s one to fucking watch.”  He filled his glass again.  “Did he ever mention what he did before the war?”

Jessop shook his head.  “No’ that I’ve heard.  But that accent of his slips from time to time—and if he’s not a Yorkshire tyke, his bloody nursemaid was.”

Before Jessop was halfway through speaking, Tully started grinning.  “You’re going to fucking love this.” 

 “What?” 

“He was a fucking footman.” 

“Blimey.”  Jessop would never have guessed that, but now that Tully said it, it explained everything.  Why he talked like he’d just come out of a public school—except when he forgot to—and stood like he’d been born on a parade ground, but took to hard work like he’d been doing it all his life—because he likely had.  “Not such a posh fucker after all, then.”

“Nope,” said Tully, popping the “p.”  “He’s one they won’t be taking away from us for officer’s training.”

That had happened a couple of times already, this war, with lads the brass hats had picked out for NCO training.  Tully had been equally furious at having them foisted on him—“They think going to a minor fucking public school is what makes an NCO?”—and at having them transferred away to supposedly-better things just when he’d started to “make some fucking progress with them.” 

It was early days yet, to be thinking of pushing Barrow up the ladder—but Tully was always thinking six or eight steps ahead; that’s why he was a Master Sergeant and Jessop had stayed a Corporal his whole career.  Tully made the plans; Jessop carried them out.  It had been that way since South Africa.  “What do we do?”

“Right now?  See how he does as linen-wallah.  I made him up to lance-corporal, by the way—I know, it’s early, but I don’t want him cleaning Diggs’s fucking boots.  Don’t give him any responsibilities in the section yet—the other new lads would buck at that, and I wouldn’t blame ‘em—and if he starts getting too big for his boots, thump him down.  Or send him to me for a thumping, if you’re too soft.”  He shrugged.  “Apart from that, you know what to do—if the linen job isn’t keeping him busy, find more for him to do.  Show him anything that comes up that you think he ought to see.”

Jessop nodded; he did know.  “We still haven’t sent the new lads forward,” he reminded Tully.  “We’ll want to see how he handles that, before we get too far along.”  Plenty of men did well enough on wards and at administrative work, but fell apart under fire. 

“Right,” said Tully.  “Been meaning to do that.  We’ll put ‘em on the list for stretcher parties next week—pick a few steady blokes to mix in with ‘em.  Then we’ll see.”

#

“I’ve had a letter from Thomas,” Mrs. Hughes announced at dinner.  “He says he’s been able to make a good impression on the man in charge where he is now, and he has you to thank for it, Mr. Carson.”

“Hmph,” said Mr. Carson. 

“He wrote me a bit about that as well,” Anna said.  He’d also mentioned Mr. Carson, but it had been something on the order of, It turns out having old Carson riding me all these years has been excellent preparation for military life.   “He’s been made a lance-corporal again, and something called ‘linen-wallah.’”

“That’s Army talk,” Mr. Bates said, “for the chap in charge of something.” 

“Well, I’m sure that’s a very responsible job in a hospital,” Mrs. Hughes said.  “Don’t you think?” she asked Mr. Carson.

“I suppose,” he said.  “I’m not sure what I can have had to do with it, though.”

“Apparently there was some sort of mix-up, and he ended up having to take responsibility for a delivery,” Mrs. Hughes explained.  “It involves checking that everything is correct—as you do with the wine deliveries, Mr. Carson—and it seems he had less difficulty with it than the man who’d been doing it before.”

This bloke called Diggs ran off and left me to do it on my own, Thomas had written to her, and I wasn’t too happy, because he’s always getting in trouble for doing it wrong.  But it turns out the problem is that half the time he’s too lazy to check the delivery when it comes, and the other half, he’s too thick to count correctly. 

“It doesn’t seem like it would be difficult,” Mr. Carson said. 

And apparently, Thomas had gone on, some people find it difficult to tell the difference between, say, a pillow-slip and a pillow-case (which is just that one’s got buttons on it).  I’d like to put them in front of Carson and see them confuse a luncheon-napkin for a dinner one, or a pudding-wine glass for a cordial-glass.  That’s not a mistake you make twice. 

“I think it’s to do with attention to detail,” Anna said.  “Being able to tell the different items apart at a glance, like.”

Carson still did not look impressed, but said, “If I have been able to be a positive influence on him, I’m glad of it.  Though I could wish it had shown up while he was still here.”

Mrs. Hughes said quickly, “I’ve been wondering, Mr. Bates, what exactly is a lance-corporal?  I suppose it’s a promotion?”

“Sort of,” Mr. Bates said.  “It’s considered an appointment, rather than a rank.  When they need to give someone a bit of extra authority, temporarily or for a specific reason, they make him a lance-corporal.”

“Thomas says it’s basically a private with knobs on,” Anna added.

Down the table, one of the hall-boys snickered, stopping abruptly when he received a quelling glance from Mr. Carson. 

“A glorified private,” Mr. Bates suggested. 

“So it’s not a real promotion, then?” William asked.

Mr. Bates made an equivocating gesture.  “It’s not a formal promotion, but at this point, a month into active service?  It’s…impressive.   If he were made a full corporal at this stage, it would be astonishing.”

“He was one in training, too,” Anna pointed out.  “Twice.”

“It means a bit more on active service,” Mr. Bates said.  He sighed.  “I wouldn’t tell him this, but my guess would be that, unless they’ve lost a lot of men recently?  They’re considering whether he’s NCO material.”  His tone was unmistakably dubious.  “Non-commissioned officer, that is.”

“An officer?” Daisy asked.  “Like Mr. Matthew?”

“No,” said Madge, scornfully, with all the authority of her few months as a soldier’s fiancée.  “Mr. Matthew’s a commissioned officer.  You’ve got to be a gentleman for that.”

More kindly, Mr. Bates explained, “NCOs come up through the ranks.  Like…well, me.  I was a sergeant.”

Anna had the distinct impression that it cost Mr. Bates something to make that comparison—he had warmed up to Thomas, but seemed to have managed it by thinking of Thomas as a little younger than he really was, and in need of guidance. 

“Oh,” said Daisy.  “That makes more sense.”

“The way it works is, the commissioned officers tell us what needs to be done, and then we tell the men how to do it,” Mr. Bates added.  “You might say his lordship and her ladyship are the officers of the house, and Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore are the NCOs.”

Mr. Carson cleared his throat.

“Mr. Carson, of course would be the Master Sergeant,” Mr. Bates added quickly.  “And as head housemaid, Anna might be equivalent to a corporal.” 

“I think I understand now,” said Daisy.  “But then wasn’t Thomas already sort of a corporal, as first footman?”

Mr. Carson sighed heavily. 

“Yes,” said Mr. Bates.  “But now he’s one in the Army—sort of.  Like how Mrs. Bird stepped in while Mrs. Patmore was away.”

“Or when Thomas stepped in as valet,” Miss O’Brien pointed out.   Anna wondered if perhaps she was softening a bit toward Thomas, but then she added, “That didn’t last long.”

Mr. Bates said, “If they are sizing him up a corporal’s stripe, one of the things they’ll be watching is how he handles going back down to Private.  And if he makes too much of his little bit of authority, while he has it.  That’ll be the tricky part, for him.”

That, Anna thought, was a detail she might try to find a way to pass along in her next letter.  Thomas did do better when things like that were spelled out for him. 

#

10 September, 1915

                Dear Theo,

                Yes, there’s rumors here about a big show in the works—but then, there always are.

A show, of course, was an offensive, or “push,” but at the moment, the censors weren’t letting either of those words through—which probably meant there was something to the rumors.  They’d had a Medical Officer and a few orderlies seconded away to other units, which made Thomas think the push wasn’t happening here—but you weren’t allowed to put something like that in a letter, in case the Germans got hold of it somehow.  He went on,

The only one I’ve really heard from is Reg—he’s in a quiet sector and is doing all right, except for having been shocked by all the licentiousness at the company baths. 

Company baths could be a fairly tricky matter for their sort.  You had to hand in your clothes to be fumigated first thing, so then you were standing around bollocks-naked, with everyone else bollocks-naked as well, waiting for your turn in a tub.  And then stand around some more afterward, waiting for the clothes to be handed back out.  There was a great deal of horseplay and lewd joking. 

Company baths were housed at the main dressing station, which meant if you worked there you had a bit more of an opportunity to make your own hygienic arrangements, but in turn you sometimes had to supervise the baths—which meant standing there fully clothed looking at a bunch of naked blokes, and sometimes shouting at the shyer ones to hurry up and take their kit off. 

Thomas did not find the spectacle a particularly erotic one, but he was always afraid someone would think he did. 

I also had a field postcard from Joey—“quite well.”  I’d sent him a few letters, so I suppose he doesn’t have time to write.

He hadn’t had a letter saying anyone had died since he got to France.  He wasn’t sure if that was because no one had, or because Theo wasn’t passing news along as much as he always had.  He’d been in a funk since Syl died, and his last letter had said that he was finally on his way back to his unit, after a long convalescence from his wound. 

Being linen-wallah isn’t bad, as long as you know how to count.  The hours are quite regular, and on days no convoy is expected, you can bugger off to your billet for a rest before dinner.  I’m there now and quite cozy.

In fact, it was raining—nearly as heavily inside the barn as out—and he was sitting with his groundsheet wrapped round his shoulders and pulled over his head to protect the paper he was writing on.  But if Theo was back at the Front when he got this, he’d envy the barn—and besides, this letter was meant to be cheering him up. 

I’ve done carrying-parties twice now, both on quiet nights.  The first time we just went to the collecting post, which is in about the third line back, and the other time up to the Regimental Aid Post.  I have an idea where everything is now, is about all I can say about that. 

The work hadn’t been particularly frightening—they were quiet nights—but it was fairly depressing, trudging through filthy holes in the ground and knowing that scores of men had to live and work in them.   It made you appreciate being far enough back to live above the surface of the Earth, even though the mud still got everywhere.

He was considering what to write next when Rawlins, one of his billet-mates, came in.  He looked around with an expression of distaste, and said, “Blimey, I think it’s drier outside.  Want to chum up?”

“All right,” Thomas said.  That meant sharing your groundsheets, so that you both sat on one, and had the other over your heads.  It was slightly more comfortable than going it on your own, where you had to decide whether it was more important to have the waterproof material under you or over you.

“You go up top,” Rawlins said.  “Mine’s been folded up, so it’s still mostly dry.  Here.”

He tossed Thomas a bundle of cord that he must have “organized” from somewhere—a useful article to have, when it came to chumming up, since if you were clever it could save you having to hold up the “roof” over your head. 

Once Thomas had unwrapped himself from his groundsheet, Rawlins took charge of tacking one end to the wall, just above head-level for a seated man, and Thomas used the cord to tie the other end to some nearby stanchions—or whatever they were; Thomas was proudly ignorant of agricultural furniture.  Rawlins spread out his groundsheet on the barn floor, and they crawled inside and made themselves s comfortable as they could.

This type of shelter was just large enough for two men to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, as long as you didn’t mind being pressed up against one another.  Every time Thomas got into one, he was aware, at the back of his mind, that he could not allow himself to think of how pleasant it would be, if he was sharing one with Peter. 

Thomas got back to his letter, and Rawlins lit his pipe and got out a book.  He didn’t seem able to keep his attention on it, though, and soon lowered it and said, “It’s going to be a real bugger if we’re still in this barn when winter comes.”

“Too right,” Thomas agreed. 

“I’ve looked round for something better, but every hole I can find has already got somebody living in it.” 

“P’raps they’ll give us tents,” Thomas said.  “For winter.”

Rawlins frowned and waggled his hand from side to side.  “This might keep the wind out better than a tent.”

Thomas elaborated, “We put the tents up inside the barn.”

“Oh,” he said.  “That’s not a bad idea.” 

“Haven’t figured out yet who I could suggest it to.”   

Rawlins returned to his book, and Thomas wrote a few lines disparaging the quality of the food they’d had lately. 

“The Wardmaster likes you,” Rawlins said suddenly.

It took Thomas a moment to realize he must be going back to the subject of who Thomas could tell his idea about the tents.  “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“He made you a lance-corporal when you were only here a month,” Rawlins pointed out.

Thomas was trying not to make a thing out of that—Anna had pointed out in her last letter that the men who’d been here longer might feel just about the way he had about Bates swooping in and getting the valet job out of nowhere.  “Just till we go back on wards.”  Which was due to happen in about a week anyway. 

“Still.”

Thomas shrugged and lit a cigarette.  When it seemed that Rawlins was done talking for the moment, he turned his attention back to the letter and wrote,

                I hope you’re managing all right. 

That didn’t seem like quite enough, but he couldn’t think of anymore more to say, so just signed,

                Affectionately,

                TB

When he’d folded the letter, stuck it in the envelope, and addressed it, Rawlins tossed down his book again.  “Bugger this,” he said.  “Let’s go for a drink.”

Thomas considered this.  The estaminets would be crowded and noisy and stinking of wet wool, but at least it wouldn’t be raining indoors.  “Yeah, all right.” 

They buttoned up their tunics, found their caps, and set off.  “Which place do you like?” Rawlins asked.  “I think I might want something to eat, too.”

“Don’t really have a favorite yet,” Thomas said.  He’d only been out a few times, each with a group that had a destination in mind.  As far as he’d seen, all of the estaminets—little pubs-slash-cafes—were similar, except that some were also whorehouses and some weren’t.   “I don’t have a lot of money,” he added.  Some of the others had extra sent to them from home, and ate more often at estaminets than they did in the mess.  Rawlins, with his vaguely middle-class accent, was probably one of those. 

“Well, Lily’s’ll do you an egg and chips and a glass of watered-down beer for under a shilling, with looking at the girls thrown in gratis,” Rawlins said.  “Or you can go to Granny’s, where the only female in the place is about nine hundred years old and has hair on her chin, but for the same price you can get a jug of wine and a big plate of whatever she feels like cooking.  I had some chicken stew there once that tasted like it had been seasoned by God himself.”

After pretending to consider it for a moment, Thomas said, “I think I fancy the one with the food.  The ones with girls don’t really let you hang about for long unless you at least keep buying drinks, do they?”

“Too right,” said Rawlins.  “This way.”

The estaminet was in the front room of a peasant cottage, with smoke-blackened timbers holding up the roof and scarred wooden tables crammed in cheek-by-jowl.  Most of these were occupied, though Thomas didn’t see anyone he recognized.  In addition to the 47th Ambulance, this area housed a munitions store, a rest camp, a transport depot, and a number of smaller military establishments, so there were always people coming and going. 

Rawlins spotted a free table, and they picked their way through a maze of tables, chairs, and outstretched legs to claim it. 

A little old man was likewise weaving his way through the room, depositing crockery pitchers on tables.  When he got round to them, Rawlins said, “Bottle of plonk, and two plates danger.”

Plats de jour, surely, Thomas thought, but didn’t say.  And plonk was vin blanc to the civilized.  Still, the man seemed to understand what they wanted, and held up his fingers to indicate what they owed. 

Once they’d paid up and the man had gone, Rawlins leaned back, lit his pipe, and asked, “Who are you always writing to, anyway?  Got a girl?”

“No,” Thomas said, lighting a cigarette.  “I write to lots of people.  Mates, people from me old job, me sister.”

“Oh.  Well, it’s nice getting letters.  Gives you something to look forward to.”

“That’s why I do it,” Thomas agreed.  It was why he always had, even back at Downton.  “You?”

“Huh?”

“Girl,” Thomas clarified. 

“Oh—nah.  Just as well, really.  It only worries them, you being over here.”

Thomas had wondered a time or two if Rawlins might be a candidate for the Peculiars, but that sounded more like there was a girl, but she didn’t fancy him back.  “Too right,” he said. 

“How come you don’t usually go out with the lads, then, if you aren’t being true to your girl at home?”

Thomas shrugged.  People did ask you personal questions like it was nothing, in the Army, he was finding.  “I’m not really used to it,” he answered.  “I was in service, back home, and you don’t come and go as you please.  You get your half-day every other week, and that’s it.”

“Blimey,” said Rawlins.  “Imagine going into the Army and having more free time than you’re used to.”

“What’d you do before the war?”

“Office boy,” said Rawlins.  “My father’s a manager at a place that makes paper, so he got me a job there.  Supposedly I’m being groomed for junior management, but I’m not as keen as they’d like me to be, so mostly I just fetch things and take notes at meetings.”

Thomas had been right about his class, then—middle class, but barely.  “Doesn’t sound too interesting,” he said.  “Won’t he let you do something else?”  He’d heard that some people’s fathers were firm on the subject of them going into the family trade.

“He might if I had a decent idea of what I’d like to do instead,” Rawlins answered.  “He was all for my joining up; hoped it would give me some direction in life.”

“Has it?” Thomas asked.

“Yeah—rearward.”  He chuckled, adding, “I don’t really mind going up, of course.” 

You had to say that, Thomas knew, so you didn’t seem a coward.  “Hasn’t been too bad the times I’ve gone,” he noted. 

“No.  There was about a month in the late spring, that wasn’t good.  When the Hun had their push up at Wipers.”

“We don’t get casualties from that far away, do we?” Thomas asked.  Surely they’d be moved rearward, toward the base hospital, not down the line to a different sector’s Main Dressing Station. 

Rawlins shook his head.  “When there’s a push, they do raids and smaller attacks all down the line, so the Kaiser can’t move all of his regiments to the big show.”  The little old man brought their wine, and Rawlins sloshed it into two cups.  “It’ll be like that with the one coming up.”

They talked about the upcoming push for a while, both agreeing that one was certain to happen soon—it had to, if they weren’t going to spend the next winter dug into more-or-less the same spots they’d spent the last one—but that it wouldn’t be happening here.  They’d have noticed the buildup, if it was, and instead men and materiel were being moved away.   Rawlins was mates with one of the men who’d been seconded to another unit, and knew that he’d gone to the 6th Ambulance, but not where it was posted. 

When they’d exhausted that subject, Rawlins asked, “Say—what was going through your head when you did that thing with the hand?”

Thomas shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It was ages ago.”  Once or twice, when he’d been assigned to work with men he didn’t know, he’d noticed someone pointing him out to someone else as “the new chap who found the hand.”  He wasn’t sure why it was considered such a memorable story; an amputation wasn’t a particularly gruesome wound.

“Well, we all thought it was bloody impressive,” Rawlins confided.  “Especially coming from a new bloke.  And then the way you played it off like it was nothing?”  He made an admiring sound.  “Some of the 1914ers thought you must have transferred in from a combat unit to be that cool-headed about it.”

1914ers were men who had joined up at the start of war, and who had been in France or Belgium by the end of 1914.  While a considerable step below the Regular Army blokes in experience and prestige, they were an equally considerable step above the “new blokes,” which—outside of the barn, at least—included anyone who had come over in 1915, no matter how early in the year.  “It was a lot less disgusting than cramming somebody’s guts back into his belly, or trying to bandage up a face with the jaw blown off,” he said.  “And we all do that.”

“Well, sure,” said Rawlins.  “But that’s usually middle of an emergency—your blood’s pumping, and you’ve got to do it right then if the poor bastard’s going to have any kind of a chance.  It’s a bit different going off to have a rummage through a pile of severed limbs in between picking up the breakfast dishes and washing them.”

Thomas was fairly sure he’d washed the dishes first, but he supposed that didn’t matter.  “It didn’t bother me.”

Rawlins looked skeptical about that, but Thomas wasn’t sure why.  In any case, they dropped the subject when the little old man came back with their food.  It was a bowl of soup and a sandwich each, and Thomas wondered if Rawlins had, perhaps, overstated the quality of the cooking here just a tad. 

It only took a bite of the sandwich to know that he hadn’t.  It was a ham and cheese sandwich, but made on fried bread, and the cheese was some rich and gooey kind.  “Blimey,” he said, once he’d swallowed.

“Try the soup,” Rawlins advised.

It looked like split pea, a kind Thomas didn’t particularly like, but it was delicious.  Like eating green velvet, if green velvet was food and didn’t mostly taste like dust.  “I want to marry this nine-hundred-year-old, hairy-chinned woman,” Thomas declared. 

“I’m pretty sure the waiter’s her husband,” Rawlins said.  “Otherwise, you’d have to get in line.” 

They ate contentedly for a while, until Rawlins paused for breath and said, “Maybe keep this place under your hat, though, right?  It’s crowded enough already.”

“Too right,” Thomas said.  “I’m surprised the officers haven’t bagsied it.”  When the officers decided they liked a place, they declared it off-limits to the other ranks.  As far as Thomas could tell, he was the only one who was in the habit of drinking with his social superiors, and so no one else objected to this in principle—although they did object in the particulars, when an estaminet they liked was taken of bounds. 

“Rumor has it they’ve got one where the old lady is just as good a cook, but has a pretty granddaughter to boot,” Rawlins said.  “But yeah, that’s another reason not to spread it around.”

Taking another bite of the heavenly sandwich, Thomas decided that if this place went on the forbidden list, he’d write to Branson for some Socialist pamphlets and stage a revolution. 

Chapter Text

24 September, 1915

                Dear Anna,

The big battle that has been in all the papers is some distance up the line from us.  However, there is some fighting in our sector, and we are busier than usual.  I will write more when things let up a bit.

Thomas

#

“Bloody hell,” Thomas said, lifting his head and swiping mud out of his eyes—not very effectively, since his hands were filthier than his face. 

“That one were a bit close,” Corporal Jessop agreed.   

It had been close enough that the shower of dirt that sprayed upward when it landed had come down on them.  “Is the bloke still alive?” Thomas asked.  It was too dark to really see, except when a shell struck near enough to light the place up for a moment. 

Jessop wormed his way over to the stretcher that they’d put down quickly—dropped—when they hit the dirt, and check its occupant’s pulse.  “Yeah.  Better get on.”

They hoisted the stretcher and trudged on, zig-zagging their way through the narrow communication trenches.  At least they were heading the right way—toward the rear.  Several times they had to back up or duck into a dug-out to get out of the way of parties going the opposite direction: reinforcements, ration-carriers, ammunition-carriers, all sorts.

And other stretcher-bearers.  The sight of them reminded Thomas that they’d only be going in the right direction until they got to the collecting post—once they’d handed over this casualty, they’d go back up for another one. 

You did get a bit of a breather, though, at the collecting post, if you were lucky, and this time they were.  After they turned their stretcher-case over to the jammy bastards who were working on the motor ambulance—which could only go as far forward as there were roads to take it—Jessop searched out a corner out of the wind and lit a cigarette.  “You holding up?” Jessop asked. 

Thomas knew that Jessop had been partnered with him to keep an eye on him—everyone who hadn’t been here for the spring pushes had been sent out with one of the corporals.  So Thomas was a little self-conscious as he nodded, lighting a cigarette of his own.  If it was like this here, he couldn’t imagine what it was like up at the big show—but he was holding up.  There wasn’t actually another choice.  “I’ll manage,” he said. 

“We’re starting to get on top of them,” Jessop said. 

He didn’t mean the Germans, of course.  None of them had any idea how the actual fighting was going.  He meant that the number of stretcher-cases waiting for them at the front line was going down, meaning that they were carrying them back more quickly than new ones were being brought in from no-man’s land.   “Good,” he said, and smoked some more. 

Both of them smoked their cigarettes down to the point where they were burning their fingers, but finally they couldn’t put it off any longer.  They grabbed an empty stretcher and started forward.

After two or three more journeys to the front line and back, the terror of being blown to smithereens had resolved into a sort of steady thrum, as much a part of the background as the thunder of the guns, and Thomas found himself more absorbed by the sheer, back-breaking labor of it.  A man was not a light burden to carry by anyone’s reckoning, and when you were lugging it through a muddy, winding ditch, in the pitch dark, your feet sliding out from under you every second step, you soon felt it in your shoulders, your back, your thighs. 

He found himself arriving at the Regimental Aid Post, already out of breath from carrying the empty stretcher.  Someone was going round handing out rum rations, to orderlies and wounded alike, and Jessop snagged two mugs, handing one to Thomas and downing his own almost in the same motion. 

Thomas hesitated over it.  Strong drink sometimes made him sleepy, which was the last thing he needed now. 

“You aren’t Methodist, are you?” Jessop asked.

Thomas shook his head, and took a sip of the rum.  It burned on the way down, even worse than the paint-stripper he used to keep in his room at Downton. 

Jessop clapped him on the shoulder.  “Take a breather, lad,” he said.  “I should have a look at the walking wounded.”

He was probably, Thomas thought, supposed to insist that he was fine and could go with Jessop to check the walking wounded—he’d been paired up with an experienced man so that he could learn from him—but he couldn’t make himself do it.  Instead, he said, “You sure?”

Jessop nodded, shoved his empty mug at Thomas, and left, so Thomas found the nearest out-of-the-way spot and fell over into it, just managing to keep his rum ration upright as he did.  He sat slumped for a moment, just breathing, then pulled himself together and lit a cigarette. 

He was sitting with his elbows on his knees, smoking and dreading the walk back to the collecting post, when someone said, “Thomas?”

His weary mind registered officer before anything else, and he was halfway to his feet before he realized it was Mr. Matthew—Lieutenant Crawley—looking down at him.  Which was even worse, really—Mrs. Hughes asked every time she wrote if he’d seen Mr. Matthew, and now here he was, and Thomas was sitting on his arse drinking.  “Sir,” he said, wondering if he really had to drop his cigarette and his rum.

“As you were,” said Lieutenant Crawley, quickly.  “It is you,” he went on, leaning against the trench wall in a deliberately casual attitude, which Thomas decided was meant to signal that he was not required to stop smoking—though he did carefully set down his mug, and couldn’t help thinking about how Carson would react if he got wind that Thomas had spoken to Mr. Matthew with a cigarette in his hand.  “Cousin Robert mentioned you were supposed to be around here somewhere.”

“Forty-seventh Ambulance, sir,” he said.  “Our corporal’s just sorting out which casualty we take back next.”  He hoped that that would convey that he had not been sitting here all night, and was, in fact, quite busy.

Lieutenant Crawley nodded.  “I’m on my way to check on my wounded men.  Walking wounded are that way, I think?” he indicated the direction Jessop had gone.

“Yes, sir.”

“Best be off, then.  Good luck.”

Thomas was just getting settled back down again when there was a commotion from the other direction.  You wouldn’t think anyone would take much notice of men shouting, what with all the shellfire and groans of pain and so on, but voices raised in anger was not really something you got much of, in a war, and everyone who was fit to do so craned their necks to see what was going on. 

Soon Dawlish, another man from the 47th, came trotting up.  “Have you seen Sarge?”

“Which—”

“Either of them,” Dawlish said. 

Thomas shook his head.  “Corporal Jessop’s gone to look at the walking wounded,” he suggested.

“He’ll have to do,” Dawlish decided, setting off that way. 

After a brief moment, Thomas decided he had better go too.  The rum had bucked him up a bit, given him a second wind, so he was no longer quite so keen to hang about within range of the guns if it meant sitting down, and if Jessop got caught up in whatever Dawlish needed an NCO for, there was no telling how long it would be before he came looking for Thomas. 

He caught up to Dawlish about the same time that Dawlish found Jessop, who was squinting at an abdominal wound.  “Corporal,” Dawlish said urgently. 

Jessop looked up at him.

“It’s Lamb,” he said.  “He’s hit.”

Bloody hell.  Lamb—Private Lamble—was one of theirs.  One of the ones from Thomas’s training group, in fact.  If Thomas remembered right, he’d had the bad luck to get paired with Diggs for the night’s work.  Jessop said, “Stretcher case?”

Dawlish hesitated.  “Don’t know, Corp.  He went up and over with one of this lot, to pick one up.”  Into no-man’s land, he meant, with one of the men from the regiment.  He went on, “There was a shrapnel shell, and I think he’s still alive, but.”  He stopped.”

“But?” asked Jessop. 

Dawlish blurted out, “But Diggs won’t go get him.” 

Thomas had seen it coming, a moment before Dawlish said it.  “That fucking tosser.”

Dawlish glanced back at Thomas.  “That’s why I wanted a sergeant.”

Jessop nodded.  “Let’s go.”

The three of them set out, with Dawlish in the lead, taking a communication trench to the first line trench—the front of the Front.  “Keep yer heads down,” Jessop reminded them, just before they entered the first line.  “Barrow, that means even if you see an officer.”

If he told them back at Downton that he, Thomas Barrow, had a reputation for punctiliousness when it came to the military courtesies, they’d never believe him.  (Of course, it helped that military courtesies grew more and more abbreviated the closer you got to the Front—otherwise he’d not have dared address Mr. Matthew or Lieutenant Crawley with a cigarette in his hand.)

In the first line, it was too loud for much talking.  In addition to the ever-present shelling and the odd burst of machine-gun fire from across no-man’s land, there was the rifle-fire from their own—the lucky bastards who weren’t tapped to go trench-raiding that night instead got to stand on the fire-step and peer over the edge, to shoot anything that moved and didn’t look like it was wearing a British uniform. 

The luckiest bastards of all got to stand behind them, and hand them ammunition. 

Thomas and the others pushed their way through, Dawlish in the lead, until they got to where Diggs was huddled in a dugout.  There were three or four wounded in there, and Diggs might have been quite legitimately tending them—but he wasn’t.

It was a big quieter in there, and Jessop said, his voice low and dangerous, “Where is he?”

Diggs extended his hand in the direction of the fire-step.

“Here,” said Dawlish, grabbing the trench periscope.  “I’ll show you.”

Thomas trailed after them, not really wanting to be alone with Diggs.  That kind of thing was contagious, they said.  Cowardice. 

While Dawlish and Jessop were looking through the periscope, another man from the 47th turned up—Jenkins, or something like that.  He must have been Dawlish’s stretcher-partner, because Jessop said something to them, pointing at the wounded in Diggs’s dugout.  They grabbed one, and started back for the communication trench. 

Jessop got back up on the fire-step and looked through the periscope again.  When he got down, he motioned for Thomas to join him in the dugout. 

“Is he still alive?” Thomas asked.  He almost hoped he wasn’t.  If he was dead, no one had to go out and get him.

“Think so,” Jessop said, with a nod.  “Moving a bit. The other two are goners, though.”  That would be the patient, and the man who’d been carrying the other end of the stretcher.  Turning toward Diggs, he drew himself up as much as the low ceiling of the dugout would allow, and said, “On your feet.”

“You can’t,” said Diggs.  “You’re a corporal, same as me.”

“I am,” said Jessop.  “And I’m going out there to get the new lad you were supposed to be looking after.”

“I won’t,” said Diggs, shaking his head.  “I won’t, and you can’t make me.”

“Diggs,” Jessop said, his voice terribly kind, “if you don’t, I’m gonna have to make a report.  You get up off your arse now, and all right—you had a bit of a funny turn.  Happens to enough of us.  But you shook it off and got on with it.  I won’t even ask why you weren’t out there with Lamb in the first place.”

“Bloke from the regiment wanted to go,” said Diggs.  “It were his mate.”

“I’m no’ asking,” Jessop repeated. 

“No,” said Diggs, shaking his head.  “I’m not going, and that’s final.”

Jessop drew in a deep breath.  “You absolutely fucking sure about that, Diggs?  Because we are in the face of the enemy here.”

Cowardice in the face of the enemy was a court-martial offense, with the punishment going all the way up to execution.  Thomas wasn’t sure whether it made a difference that Jessop wasn’t his superior, and couldn’t technically give him an order—not when it was Diggs’s plain duty to go, whether anyone told him to or not.

“I won’t,” Diggs repeated. 

Shaking his head, Jessop turned away from him…and toward Thomas.  “I really hate to ask, son,” he said.  “But….”

“Let’s just get it over with,” Thomas said.

“Good man,” Jessop said, brushing the dirt off Thomas’s Red Cross armband.  “We stay low, we grab him, we haul arse back.”

Thomas nodded, feeling sick. 

Before they went over the top, Jessop had him get up on the fire-step and look through the periscope at where Lamble was.   “You see that shell-hole next to him?” Jessop asked, into his ear.

Thomas nodded.

“You hear rifle or machine-gun fire, jump in that and stay there till it stops.”

Thomas nodded again. 

“And keep behind me.”

Jessop started up the trench ladder.  Thomas held his breath when his head went over the parapet, but there was no answering gunfire, and soon he was on his belly on the ground outside the trench, motioning for Thomas to hand the stretcher up, and then to come up after him. 

Thomas did.  Once he was up, they picked up the stretcher and began a crouched-over run to Lamble’s position.  They reached it without incident—unless you counted a shell hitting near enough to make Thomas wish he’d gone to the lavatory before they started. 

Jessop took a quick look at the other two—who were basically shredded—and then they rolled Lamble unceremoniously onto the stretcher and started back.  They were ten yards or so from the parapet when Jessop shouted, “Down!” They hit the dirt, just in time for a bullet to pass overhead, followed by two more. 

Thomas’s breathing was loud in his ears, and quite suddenly—really, with no warning at all—he found himself vomiting.  They’d been working half the night, with nothing to eat, so all he brought up was bile and rum.  It tasted even worse than it had on the way down. 

He didn’t have much time to reflect on this development, because Jessop signaled to him, then got up into an even lower crouch than before, picking up his end of the stretcher.  Thomas grabbed his, and they scuttled trench-ward, essentially throwing Lamble, and then themselves, over the parapet. 

Thomas lay on the duckboards for a moment, contemplating the fact that he’d apparently survived his first experience of direct enemy fire.  Then there was a great deal of shouting, and he found himself being hauled to his feet and back into the dugout.  He was only vaguely aware that the shouting was congratulatory in nature, and being delivered by members of the regiment, some of whom were also getting Lamble sorted out and bringing him into the dugout, too. 

Jessop was getting dressings out of his bag and leaning over Lamble.  Thomas knew he ought to be helping him, but his feet went out from under him.  He thought about a calming cigarette, but his hands were shaking too badly to unbutton the pocket he kept them in. 

Jessop glanced over at him.  “Tha’s all right, lad,” he said. 

“Corp,” he heard himself saying, “I think I’m having one of those funny turns you mentioned.”  Plenty of people had them, Jessop had said.  So it was probably all right. 

“You think?” Jessop said, with a snort.  “Tha’ picked a good time for it, I’ll say that.  Diggs!”

Diggs crept over to him, like a dog expecting a beating.  Jessop gestured towards the first-aid bag strapped to his chest, and Diggs gave it to him, sharpish. 

“Hold that,” Jessop said, pressing Diggs’s hand onto a dressing he’d applied somewhere on Lamble’s midsection.  From Diggs’s bag, he took out a glass half-pint bottle, which he uncorked, then leaned over Lamble and handed to Thomas.  “Got that?  All right.”

It wasn’t any part of their kit that Thomas recognized, and Thomas looked dumbly at it, wondering what he was meant to be doing with it, until Jessop said, “Drink that up, now.  Settle your nerves.”

Oh.  Thomas did as instructed, finding that it was whiskey, and fairly decent whiskey at that.  Diggs had drunk most of it himself, and by the time Thomas had polished off the rest—in two swigs—he did feel a bit steadier.  “What do you want me to do now, Corp?”

“Smoke a bloody cigarette,” Jessop answered, and shouted at Diggs for more dressings.

Thomas wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not, but when no real orders followed, he slowly unbuttoned the pocket where his cigarettes were.  By concentrating very carefully on what he was doing, he was able to get one out and light it, only dropping the lighter once. 

Mr. Matthew seeing him sitting and drinking didn’t seem so bad anymore—at least he wasn’t seeing him sitting, drinking, and panicking

When he’d got about halfway through his cigarette, Jessop growled, “Watch him,” at Diggs, and came over to sit against the wall with Thomas.  “All right, then?”

Thomas nodded. 

“We’ll have us a bit of a breather, then take Lamb back,” he said, lighting a cigarette of his own. 

Thomas nodded again.  “Is he….”

“Gut wound,” answered Jessop.  “It’s bad.”

“Oh.”

“We’ll take him all the way back,” Jessop went on.  “Sooner he gets into theater, the better.”

“Sorry,” Thomas said.  They’d be getting him back a bit sooner if Thomas wasn’t having a funny turn.

“Naw, tha’s all right,” Jessop said.  “Tha held it together till we got th’ job done; that’s t’main thing.  ‘t’ain’t bad at all for your first go-round.  Not bad at all.”

Thomas squinted at him.  “Are you from Yorkshire?”  He wasn’t talking quite broad enough to be taking the piss. 

“Dodworth,” Jessop answered.  “Not for a long time, though,” he added, his accent sliding back toward the nondescript one Thomas was used to hearing from him—the one most of the Regular Army blokes had.

 “Sheffield,” he said. 

“I thought I heard a bit of the old ground,” Jessop said.  “When you’re not talking like you just stepped out of a bloody public school.”

“I was in service,” Thomas explained.  “And I worked in London for a while.”

He wondered, later, if Jessop had put on the accent on purpose.  It was all right if he had, Thomas decided, because coming from an honest-to-God Yorkshireman, “not bad at all” and “got the job done” was very nearly the equivalent of a Distinguished Conduct Medal.   (“No’ a bad worker” would, of course, be a Victoria Cross.)

Jessop’s praise made the walk back to the collecting post seem shorter—as did the fact that Diggs was trailing along behind them like a whipped dog and took over one end of the stretcher whenever Jessop told him to, and the knowledge that they wouldn’t be going up again. 

At the collecting post, an ambulance had just left, so there was a bit of a wait for the next one.  Jessop was soon deep in conference with one of the sergeants about Lamble’s wound, so Thomas, feeling surplus to requirements, sloped off around the side of the hut for a smoke. 

A few moments into it, Rawlins joined him.  “What happened there?” he asked.

“Lamb got hit,” Thomas said.  “Shrapnel shell.”

“No, there,” Rawlins said, gesturing with his chin in the direction of Diggs, who was standing near the hut door at something vaguely resembling attention.

“He wouldn’t go out in no-man’s land and get him,” Thomas explained. 

“Fuck,” Rawlins swore.  “But he did eventually?”

Thomas shook his head.  “Jessop gave him every chance—told him he wouldn’t make a thing of it if he got on with it.”

“So …?”

“So now I guess he’s got to make a thing of it.”

“Fuck,” Rawlins said again.  “Lamb was one of the ones that came over with you, wasn’t he?”

Thomas nodded.  “We weren’t mates, particularly.”

“What was he doing out in no-man’s land without Diggs?”

“That,” Thomas said, “is one of the questions Jessop said they wouldn’t have to be asked if Diggs went out and got him.”

“Oh,” said Rawlins, nodding.  “But what I meant was, who did bring Lamb in?”

Thomas hesitated.  “Me and Jessop,” he said quickly.

“How’d that go?”

“Well, I managed not to piss meself, thanks.”  He decided he didn’t have to mention the vomiting, since he’d managed not to get any of it on himself. 

“That’s always good,” Rawlins noted. 

“Was a bit wobbly when we got back in,” he admitted.  “Just for a minute.”

“Well, as long as it was after,” Rawlins said. 

“That’s what Jessop said.” 

When the next ambulance came, Lamble was loaded on first, amid a chorus of solemn murmurings. 

The 47th hadn’t lost a man since Thomas had arrived—and, he’d learned from Rawlins, they hadn’t lost very many before that, either.  In fact, several of the vacancies their respective drafts had been sent to fill had, in fact, been the result of transfers, just as Bates had comfortingly suggested to Daisy before he’d left Downton. 

As a result, not even the more experienced men of the 47th were inured to the prospect of losing one of their own.  People kept asking “how?”—and every time they did, Diggs looked even more sick with shame, which Thomas supposed was fair enough.

Even the walking wounded, who presumably were more used to sudden and reasonless death, caught the general mood.  An ambulance journey back to Main Dressing was never a jolly occasion, but this one was positively funereal. 

“D’you know who his particular mates are?” Jessop asked at one point.

Thomas shook his head.  “I think he pals around with the Methodists—he did in training anyway.  But he were a Quaker.”

“Is,” said one of the others, sharply, and for a crazed second, Thomas thought he was correcting his grammar. 

“Is a Quaker,” Thomas agreed, once he’d realized what the man meant. 

When they got back to the Station, Thomas and Jessop took Lamble into surgical prep, and began cutting his uniform off him.  They’d finished, and were sluicing him down with a couple of buckets of water, when one of the MO’s came in.  He examined Lamble’s wound and said, “We’ll take him next.”

Jessop and Thomas finished cleaning him up—in the rough-and-ready way that you did, here—and the two orderlies posted to the operating theater whisked him away. 

One of the prep-room orderlies started picking up Lamble’s clothes.  “What should I--?”  He looked at the pile of bloody rags in the corner, where they were throwing all the patients’ things, and then at Jessop.  You were supposed to keep the kits separated, so that personal effects could be recovered later, but no one expected that nicety on a night like tonight.

At least, no one in the RAMC did. 

“Here,” Jessop said, reaching for an instrument tray.  “Bung ’em in there; we’ll sort it out later.”

 After that, there was no more time to think about Lamble for a while, because a wagonload of walking wounded showed up, and there was plenty of work to go ‘round: helping them out of the wagon, sorting out which ones had better have a Medical Officer look at them right away, and then, for the ones who could wait, finding them an empty spot to sit down and supplying them with tea and cigarettes. 

Once that was all finished and relative calm reigned once more, Jessop found him and said, “Come on, lad, let’s get us a cuppa before the next lot gets here.”

Thomas let himself be herded to the orderlies’ room.  When they got there, they found Diggs manning the kettle and slapping together jam sandwiches.  He came up to them with several on a plate, and held it out, hand shaking slightly.

Thomas almost felt sorry for him.  He knew what it was like to fuck up so badly there was nothing you could do to fix it, but still have to embarrass yourself trying.  But he stood there, blank-faced, waiting to see what Jessop would do.

Finally, the corporal reached out and grabbed a sandwich.  Diggs’s relief was palpable—though almost certainly misplaced, Thomas thought.  But he was as hungry as the next bloke, and took a sandwich too.

He sat down to eat it, which could have been a mistake, as he found himself far from certain he’d be able to get up again, bone-weary as he was.  But when the next ‘bus came in, and everyone—except Diggs—went out to meet it, Thomas found himself swept along by the tide. 

It was like drill, he thought.  You switched off your mind and did what everybody else was doing. 

By dawn, they’d turned the tide.  Wounded were coming in by ones and twos—and even that not very frequently—and a convoy arrived from the Casualty Clearing Station to take the first lot of them away.

With that, the day-shift men were dismissed until it was time for the convoy to come back for another load of patients, in about three hours’ time.  In the ordinary way of things, it would be nearly time for the day men to be coming on duty, but word had come from on high that the night shift—who had at least been fresh when the night’s grueling labor had started—would stay on to handle the morning chores. 

Thomas contemplated the walk to the barn—it took at least a quarter-hour to walk there when you weren’t dead on your feet, and the same back.  He’d curl up in a corner of the orderlies’ room, he decided.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first one to have had that idea.  All of the corners were occupied, and spaces along the walls.  There was even somebody under the table.  Thomas was eyeing the spot in front of the cooker—you’d be stepped on, sure, but might it be worth it?—when he had a better idea.

The linen-room was empty, except for the linen.  With a groan of satisfaction, he shrugged out of his tunic and webbing, and collapsed gracelessly onto the floor.  After taking a moment to wrench his boots off, he rolled under the folding-and-sorting table, where he’d be partly hidden and mostly out of the way if anyone wanted linen. 

He was almost asleep when he heard the door open.  “Fuck.  Wait—Barrow, is that you?”

“I will murder you,” Thomas said.

“Budge up,” said Rawlins, dropping his own gear.

Thomas budged up.  Rawlins crawled in next to him, and Thomas barely had time to register that he stank of blood and mud, and hadn’t bothered taking his boots off, when sleep snuck up behind him and clobbered him on the head. 

#

Thomas woke, not quite three hours later, to the Wardmaster’s dulcet tones:  “Every bugger up!  Come on, you fuckers—convoy’s coming.”

He groaned and shoved Rawlins, who had at some point appropriated Thomas’s left arm for use as a pillow.  Sitting up, he shook the afflicted arm to restore circulation, noting as he did so that Rawlins was also the sort of bloke who drooled on his pillow.

Well, his clothes had seen worse, the night before. 

It occurred to him, belatedly, that if he had gone back to the barn, he’d at least have been able to change into his less-filthy set of clothes.  But there was nothing for it now, and since it seemed quite a few of them had slept here, he wouldn’t be the only one still wearing yesterday’s dirt.

Still, he decided, when he picked up his tunic and was treated to a scattering of dried and flaking mud, the first order of business was to have a wash—and at some point, he was going to have to sweep up in here, and find a better place to put his webbing. 

After lacing on his boots, he nudged Rawlins with the toe of one, said, “Better get up,” and left in search of water and soap. 

The more conventional washing-places being occupied, he wound up at the pump in the service yard—the one the transport men used to water their horses.  No one else was using it at the time, but it was clear that others had, and one of them had left a cake of soap and an extremely grubby towel for the benefit of the next user. 

They hadn’t left a razor, unfortunately, but he was at least able to wash the worst of the grime off his face, hands, and arms.  After drying off with the section of towel he judged least likely to undo his recent efforts, he turned his attention to his tunic. 

He was brushing it vigorously—with what he strongly suspected was a horse-brush—when Rawlins turned up, tunic unbuttoned and boots unlaced, carrying two cups of tea.  “There you are,” he said, handing Thomas one. 

“Ta,” Thomas said, and drank half of it in one draft. 

“What are you doing?” Rawlins asked, squinting at him.

“Brushing my tunic.”  It was about as good as it was going to get, he decided, and put it on, saying, “Here, I’ll do yours while you wash.”

Rawlins shrugged out of his tunic and gave it to him.  “Wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“I used,” Thomas said grimly, “to want to be a valet.”  That dream seemed very far away, now. 

Rawlins took his turn under the pump.  “Christ that’s cold.”

“Wakes you up a bit,” Thomas suggested, still brushing.  Rawlins’s tunic was less muddy than his own, but more bloody.  While bloodstains were certainly not beyond the reach of Thomas’s valeting skills, he was at a loss to do anything about them using only a horse-brush, so once Rawlins had emerged from under the pump and put his shirt back on, he held up the tunic for him to put on.

Rawlins clearly had no idea how to go about being dressed, so it was a bit of a farce, but once it was on, Thomas said, “There, now you can say you’ve been valeted by the same hands that have valeted dukes and earls.”  Only one of each, technically, but the plural sounded grander.

“That’s something to write home about,” Rawlins said, doing up his buttons.

Thomas swigged down the rest of his tea while getting his own shirt and tunic on, and asked, “Was there any food, where you got that?”

“Bread and cheese,” Rawlins said.  “I didn’t have a free hand to carry any.”

“Convoy’s not here yet,” Thomas pointed out.

They trooped inside, and had just enough time to grab some food before the convoy was there. 

The rest of the day, Thomas was run off his feet.  It was true that the night shift men had handled the essentials on the wards that morning—but only the essentials.   After they’d loaded the convoy, he reported to Officers’ Medical—the Wardmaster had not been kidding about assigning him to the officers when he went back on wards—and found veritable mountains of things waiting to be washed in both the scullery and the sink room. 

He got the scullery, which was by far the less disagreeable of the two—the sink room being where bedpans were dealt with—but also meant that he had to keep an ear out for a shout of “Orderly!” and then hurry back into the ward proper and say “Yes, sir?”

Once he’d managed to finish the washing up—interrupted three times by requests for tea, twice for cigarettes, and once for an update on the wounded men from the officer’s platoon—it was time to do dressing changes, and after that the ward’s Medical Officer came in to do his morning rounds, during which time the ward-orderlies were meant to stand there and look alert, on the off chance that the MO had a question or instruction for them. 

Rounds took longer than usual this morning because the ward was full—in fact, there were six extra patients on stretcher-beds in the aisles—and because the new patients had been only hastily examined and treated so far.  By the time the MO dismissed them, they were just in time to run down to the orderlies’ mess and grab the last crumbs left from lunch as it was being cleared away.

And so on for the rest of the day.  Alongside the work ran an equally breathless rush of gossip—which, along with tea and cigarettes, was what the station ran on—mostly concerning Lamble and Corporal Diggs.  The two things Thomas was sure of were that Lamble had died a few hours after leaving surgery, which he knew because everyone’s sources were agreed on this point, and that Diggs had spent the middle part of the day out back with the Service Battalion, digging a grave—which Thomas knew because he had nipped out for a cigarette and seen him doing it. 

About everything else, rumors flew with abandon.  Lamble would have made it, if he’d been gotten into surgery just a bit earlier.  Lamble was already a goner from the moment the shrapnel hit him.  Diggs had ordered him out into no-man’s land.  Lamble had volunteered to go, when Diggs refused.  Diggs was in the guardroom, weeping inconsolably and begging forgiveness from God and anyone who would listen.  Diggs had buggered off to an estaminet and didn’t give a shit.  Diggs was now considered unreliable and was being sent rearward, the lucky bastard.  Diggs was due to be shot tomorrow at dawn, the poor bastard.  If Diggs wasn’t shot tomorrow at dawn, a dozen or so of Lamble’s self-appointed mates were going to beat the living shit out of them.  (Hearing this last, Thomas said, “Do these mates of his know he was a Quaker?  Only I’m not sure it’s what he would want; I’m just saying.”)

By tea-time, word had gotten round that Thomas had been there when it happened, and from then on, he couldn’t show his face outside the ward without being asked to confirm or deny this or that rumor.  Most of the time, all he said was “I don’t know; I wasn’t there for that part,” which was usually true.

Before dinner, they were told to form up in the ambulance yard, which did double duty as a parade-ground.  As they were doing so, a fellow named Morris asked, “Is it true that Jessop borrowed an officer’s sidearm and said he’d shoot Diggs himself if he didn’t go out and get Lamb?”

“I don’t kn—” Thomas began automatically, before realizing that he was there for that part.  “No, he did not do that.”

“Oh.”  Morris looked disappointed. 

“He did remind him we were in the face of the enemy, and that he’d have to make a report,” Thomas added. 

“That sounds more like Jessop,” said someone else.  “But—”

“Ten-shun!” shouted the Wardmaster, and everyone shut up and snapped to. 

The Chief Medical Officer, a Major Thwaite, strode out.  He was about fifty, a small man in glasses.  He’d never spoken to Thomas, or to anyone he knew, but all the medical officers snapped to attention when he entered a ward, and spoke of him with the same awe that the orderlies did the Wardmaster.

“Stand easy,” the Wardmaster said, and they all moved into parade rest.  Thomas was acutely conscious of his filthy and unshaven state, and was only glad he was in the middle of the group. 

After a few remarks about the previous night being a difficult one and good work under trying conditions, Thwait said, “It is my sad duty to make known to you that we have lost one of our own.  Private Christopher Lamble has died, of wounds received in the performance of his duties.” 

Even though there can’t have been anyone at the station who didn’t already know it, there was an audible gasp at the announcement, followed by murmurs. 

“Ten-shun!” the Wardmaster shouted again, and they all shut up and came to attention again. 

Thwait continued, “A brief service will be held at the graveside on Sunday, that is to say tomorrow, immediately following the regular chapel service.  Any man who does not ordinarily attend the Methodist service, but wishes to be excused from duty for this purpose, should speak to his section corporal.”

He nodded to the Wardmaster, who shouted “Dis-missed!”, and they all headed in to dinner.

While Thomas was making his way there, Rawlins caught up with him.  “What do you suppose they do, at a Quaker funeral?” he wondered.

“Don’t know,” said Thomas.  “I suppose they speak if the spirit of God moves them.”

Rawlins, who had been there that day, huffed. 

Dinner was the usual stew made of bully-beef, but there was plenty of it, along with decent local bread and butter.  Thomas ate heartily, and that—along with the chance to sit down for more than a minute at a stretch—allowed the weariness of the day to sneak up on him. 

That was a damn shame, because he had at least another hour and a half of work ahead of him, getting the patients on his ward settled in for the night—and that was if the evening’s intake of new patients was light.

Even when things were quiet at their bit of front, they got a batch of casualties around this time of day, it being safer to move them to the rear under cover of darkness.  For about a week they’d been getting more than usual, ambulance-loads growing into convoys, and keeping everyone at their posts for an extra hour, then two, then three, culminating in the nightmare of last night.

Now, Thomas felt like crying at the thought of even a couple of hours’ extra work, and if they had another night like the last one—or, somehow, even worse—he wasn’t sure how he’d live through it.  

Everyone else clearly felt the same way.  When one of the corporals called for order and announced, “Ambulances en route from the collecting post,” there was a chorus of groans and muttering. 

The groans turned into a ragged cheer when the corporal continued, “With four blessed patients on ‘em!” 

Oh thank God.  Things were getting back to normal.  The thought of getting a full night’s sleep was enough to get him back on his feet and on his way back to Officers’ Surgical. 

He was handing out medications, and about halfway down his side of the ward, when Jessop came in.  “Barrow—Wardmaster wants to see you.”

Fuck.  Not only was that going to put him behind on his work, but what the hell did the bloody Wardmaster want with him?  He couldn’t think of anything he’d done, unless it was looking disgraceful at parade—and plenty of the others had looked worse. 

“I’ll take over here,” Jessop said, kindly. 

That was one load off his mind.  “Thanks.”  He hesitated.  “Did he say why?” he asked, wondering if he ought to take a moment to try and make himself slightly more presentable. 

“That business last night,” Jessop said, with a glance at Hawkins, who was trying to look like he wasn’t eavesdropping. 

Oh, that.  Jessop had said he’d be making a report. 

He hurried along to the Wardmaster’s room, wondering whether there was some way to find out if Jessop had happened to mention that Thomas had had a tiny bit of trouble, after they brought Lamble in.  He probably hadn’t. 

He braced up in front of the Wardmaster’s desk, but only for a moment, before the Wardmaster was waving him into a chair, saying, “We’re not on fucking parade.”  Leaning back in his own chair and puffing on a pipe, he said, “I need you to take me through this shit-show with fucking Diggs last night.  What he said and did, what Corporal Jessop said and did.  Understand?”

“Yes, si—Sergeant.” 

“And don’t worry about dropping him in the fucking shit, ‘cause he’s already in it.  Right now, we’re just talking, but if he fights this thing, you’re gonna have to say it again under oath, and we don’t want any fucking discrepancies.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas repeated.  The Wardmaster made a get on with it sort of gesture, and Thomas said, “Er…where do you want me to start?  When we got to where Diggs was?”

“When you first became aware there was something fucking unusual going on,” the Wardmaster answered. 

The whole night had been unusual, as far as Thomas was concerned, but he supposed he knew what the Wardmaster meant.  “Well, Corporal Jessop and I were at the Aid Post, when Dawlish came running up looking for a sergeant.  He said that Lamb—Private Lamble—was in no-man’s land, and he’d been hit, and Diggs wouldn’t go after him.”

“All right,” said the Wardmaster, nodding.

“So we went up to the front-line trench.  Corporal Jessop, Dawlish, and me, that is.  Dawlish showed us where Diggs was, in a dugout with some wounded.  He was just sitting there, I mean.  He wasn’t looking after them or anything, as far as I could see.

“Jessop asked him where Lamble was, and he pointed out towards the parapet.  Dawlish got a periscope somewhere, and they went and looked.”

“They?”

“Dawlish and Corporal Jessop.  I went with them.”  Thomas remembered the sick feeling of not wanting to be near Diggs any longer than he had to. 

“Where was Diggs?”

“He stayed in the dugout.”

The Wardmaster made a note.  “All right.”

Thomas went on, “After Dawlish showed Corporal Jessop where Lamble was, he left to get on with carrying back wounded.  Jessop and I went back in the dugout, and Jessop said he was going out to get Lamble.  Diggs said he wouldn’t go.”

“Do you remember whether or not Diggs said anything that might indicate whether or not he knew that Lamble was still alive?”

Thomas started to shake his head, then stopped.  “Well, I asked Corporal Jessop, if he was, and Jessop said he thought so.  I don’t remember Diggs saying anything about it, but he was right there.” 

“Do you remember what words Jessop used, when he spoke to Diggs at that point?”

“Not exactly.  It was—chaotic.  It was something about going out to get the lad Diggs was supposed to be looking after.” 

“Did he tell Diggs to go with him?”

Thomas remembered Diggs saying, you’re a corporal, same as me, and understood why the Wardmaster was asking.  “Not in so many words.  Diggs reminded Jessop that they were of the same rank, and Jessop tried to, you know, chivvy him along.  Said something about how anybody could have a funny turn in a situation like that, but he had to move past it.  Diggs said again that he weren’t going.” 

“Did Jessop say anything else, to try to persuade him, that you remember?”

Thomas nodded.  “He reminded him that we were in the face of the enemy.” 

“Do you happen to remember if he used those exact words?  ‘In the face of the enemy’?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Are you absolutely fucking sure?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas repeated.  “I remembered the phrase from training, and I recognized it when he said it.”

“And how did Diggs fucking respond?”

Thomas thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  I know he didn’t go, obviously, but….” 

The Wardmaster’s eyes bored into him.

“I wasn’t exactly keen on going, either, Sergeant.  All that really registered was that he wasn’t going to change his mind.” 

“Do you remember what Corporal Jessop said to you?”

“He showed me Lamble’s position, through the trench periscope, and gave me some advice about staying low.  Pointed out a shell-hole where we could take cover if there was any trouble.”

“Anything else?”

Thomas thought.  “I think he said something encouraging.  I couldn’t say what.”

“Did he, at any point, directly order you to leave the fucking trench and assist him in retrieving Private Lamble?”

Thomas’s guts went cold.  He hadn’t, had he?  Was he supposed to have had?  Was Thomas supposed to have waited for him to have done?  “Not that I recall, Sergeant.” 

The Wardmaster stared at him again. 

“Um, like I said, I wasn’t keen…I just wanted to get it over with.”  Perhaps he ought to have said that he didn’t want to leave Lamble lying out there any longer than necessary.  But that hadn’t been on his mind at all.  “So I’m not sure what he said, or what I said, or anything.”

“All right,” said the Wardmaster.  “Just out of fucking curiosity, were you still in front of Diggs when you and Jessop talked about going out after Lamb?”

“I think so,” Thomas said.  “Part of it.  I mean, we started talking about it, and then we went out to the fire-step to look through the periscope.”

The Wardmaster shook his head.  “That fucking tosser.  All right—that’s everything I need about the night in question.”

Thomas was glad he was stopping there; that meant he wouldn’t have to decide what to say about his own “funny turn.”  Anticipating that he was about to be dismissed, he asked, “Sergeant?”

“Yeah?”

“What is going to happen to Corporal Diggs?”

“He isn’t going to be a fucking Corporal for much longer, you can bet on that,” the Wardmaster said.  He studied Thomas for a moment, then stood up. 

Thomas, of course, popped to his feet instantly. 

The Wardmaster sighed, shook his head, and bent down to open a file drawer.  Taking out a bottle, he gestured with it toward the other half of the room, and said, “Come on, lad.”

Thomas went and, at the Wardmaster’s invitation, sat gingerly on one of the armchairs in front of his fireplace.  The Wardmaster fumbled around on the low table that sat between the chairs until he found some glasses.  After pouring a stiff measure into one of them, he paused and said, “You aren’t Methodist, are you?”

“No,” Thomas said, biting of the “sergeant,” as it was fairly clear by now that he was not getting a bollocking. 

The Wardmaster poured a second drink, and handed it to Thomas.  “Armagnac,” he said.  “French, but it’s not bad.”

It was damn good Armagnac, too. 

After drinking down half of his, the Wardmaster said, “It’s shite, punishing a man for being scared of dying.  We all know it’s shite.  But the thing is, you can’t run a war if every bugger gets to decide for himself whether he’s willing to die or not.  You get that, right?  I mean, why’d you go, seein’ as you weren’t fucking keen on it?”

 Thomas pondered the wisdom of admitting that he had not considered that he had a choice.  He was fairly sure that the Wardmaster did not mean to suggest that he actually had, so there wasn’t much point in saying that.  “Somebody had to do it.  And there wasn’t anybody else there.”  If there had been, Thomas would have waited to see if somebody else would volunteer. 

“There you fucking go,” said the Wardmaster.  “It’s all right not to want to.  It’s all right to hope some other bugger gets the fucking job.  But if you’re the bugger what gets it, you have to fucking do it.  Otherwise, you’re letting down your mates.  That’s why those fuckers in the Pee-Bee-Eye go over the fucking top when they’re told.”

PBI, Thomas knew, was Poor Bloody Infantry. 

Nobody wants to.  You go, because you’re more scared of letting down your mates than you are of getting shot at.”  He poured himself another drink, lifting the bottle in Thomas’s direction.  Thomas still had half of his first one left, and shook his head.  “The thing about Diggs is that he’s too fucking used to letting down his mates.  He’s always been like that, and you can live with it in garrison.  There are plenty of fucking work-shy Corporals in the peace-time Army.  But in war?  In the face of the fucking enemy?  That shit gets good men killed.”

He knocked back his drink and continued, “I should have nipped it in the fucking bud the day we got here.  I could have done it last month, when he pulled that fucking stunt, leaving you with the linen delivery when you’d been here ten fucking minutes.  If I’d hauled him up on charges right then, we might not be in this fucking mess.”  He shook his head.  “You saved that filthy fucker’s life, you know.”

How?  “Sergeant?”

“They could shoot him, for what he did.  It doesn’t matter that Jessop had no right to order him—it was his plain duty, in the face of the fucking enemy.  And he refused to do it.  Three times at least, the fucking Judas.  But if you’d taken a look at that bloke old enough to be your fucking Dad refusing to do his fucking job, and said, ‘if he ain’t doing it, fuck if I am,’ well then he’d have been sowing fear in the ranks.  Jessop wasn’t going to make you do it—if you hadn’t stepped up, he’d have gone looking for somebody else, and before he did, every bugger in that fucking trench would have had time to think ‘If that son of a bitch gets to say no, why can’t I?’  They’d have had to shoot him, to get that thought out of every bugger else’s head.” 

“I see,” said Thomas. 

The Wardmaster poured again, and this time Thomas accepted the offer of a refill.  “This isn’t to spread around—we want him and everybody else to fucking stew in the possibilities for a couple of days—but they’ll offer him summary punishment.  Busted back to private, and a month or so of Eff-Pee-fucking-One.”

Field Punishment One was the thing O’Brien had been talking about, where they tied you to a post.  It wasn’t supposed to be done in range of enemy fire, but everyone knew of a bloke who knew of a bloke who had seen it done that way.  You did a couple of hours of that every day, and the rest of your time you spent on fatigues—the worst ones anybody could think of.  Digging graves, for example.  “That seems fair enough,” Thomas said. 

“It’s a fucking gift,” the Wardmaster said.  “It’s what I should have done a month ago.  But I thought making him switch jobs with a fucking new bloke might knock some sense into him.”  He picked up the bottle, considered it for a moment, and put the cap back on.  “That’s not to spread around, either.  Can’t have everyone knowing the fucking Wardmaster fucked up.   I shouldn’t be fucking telling you, except I know you can keep your fucking mouth shut.  If you couldn’t, every bugger in this shithole would be talking about how one of the fucking new blokes had to go out and get Lamb while Diggs was fucking wetting himself.”

“I did tell Rawlins,” Thomas admitted.  “He’s one of my billet-mates.”

“You can tell any bugger you want to; that part’s not a fucking secret.”  He picked up the bottle, opened it again, and poured another drink.  “At any rate, you’re Lance-Corporal Cleaning Up Diggs’s Fucking Mess again—congratulations.”  He raised his glass.

Thomas wasn’t sure if he was referring to his inadvertently saving Diggs’s life, or if he was literally being made lance-corporal again.  It seemed an important distinction, so he asked “Sergeant?”

“You’re taking over his fucking duties again,” the Wardmaster clarified. 

Oh.  “Is it the linen again?”  That wouldn’t be so bad—it wasn’t interesting work, but after the week he’d had, he wouldn’t mind a dull job.

But the Wardmaster shook his head.  “He’s Night-Corporal in D Block.  You’ll be fine.  Those are the easiest fucking wards, for night duty—that’s why he had them—and Jessop’s on C Block, so he’ll be right there if you need a hand.”

It wasn’t the work Thomas was worried about—although he might get around to that later.  He was stuck on the fact that it was a night shift.  He didn’t mind night shifts, except that he’d been up for all but three of the last thirty-six hours, and he didn’t have the first idea how he’d get through twelve more.  He felt sort of like crying.  “Yes, Sergeant,” he said, trying to keep his voice level.

“You’ve worked in all those wards before,” the Wardmaster reminded him.

Thomas nodded.  D Block was Officers’ Sick, Officers’ Convalescent, Mens’ Sick, and Mens’ Convalescent, all of which would be operating as normal.  The Medical and Surgical wards—the ones that dealt with wounds—were the ones that would be particularly challenging due to the recent activity at the Front. 

“Under you, you’ve got Watts, Taylor, and Palmer.  They’re all decent, steady blokes.”

They were also all more experienced than he was—the easy way you could tell was that none of them lived in the fucking barn.  Thomas considered whether there was any way to ask exactly how much they were going to resent him being leapfrogged up over their heads. 

“And the MO on call is Allenby.  He’s young enough and keen enough he won’t get too fucking out of sorts if you wake him up for an emergency that fucking isn’t.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas agreed.  It would be all right—once he got through tonight.

“Report a couple of hours early tomorrow—the day bloke’ll show you the fucking ropes.”

“Yes, Serg—I don’t have to do it tonight?”

The Wardmaster stared at him.  “I’m not a fucking sadist.  Diggs has been sitting on his fucking arse in the guardroom all day; he can do it tonight.  Christ.  No.  Finish up on your fucking ward, and report back tomorrow around tea-time.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” said Thomas, gratefully.   Even counting in that he’d inevitably be woken up when everybody else got up, he’d get at least ten hours’ sleep.  It was going to be glorious.

When he got back to the ward, Jessop had nearly finished getting the patients settled in.  As they finished the last round of bedpans, Thomas eyed him, wondering if he’d known that Thomas was being made a lance-corporal again. 

If he did, he gave no sign of it.  Once the work was done, Thomas started back for the billet—this time, taking the direct route.  He needed sleep more than he needed solitude. 

He hoped that everyone else would feel the same way, but when he got there, everyone was sitting up and talking quietly.  It was definitely more subdued than most evenings, but it didn’t look like they were planning to go to bed—or bedroll—early.  He picked his way to his spot, acknowledging nods and muttered greetings as he went. 

Rawlins, he noticed, had spread out his bedroll a little further than usual from the bloke on the other side.  Thomas did the same, so there wasn’t an obvious gap where Lamble’s place had been.  He’d lit a cigarette and was taking off his boots when Rawlins said, “How’re you holding up?”

“I’m so tired I could die,” Thomas said.  “But I just got switched to nights starting tomorrow.”

“I meant about Lamble,” Rawlins explained. 

Thomas shrugged.  “It’s a fucking shame.” 

Rawlins and the others nearby nodded and said things like, “Too right.”

They all looked expectantly at him for a moment.  Thomas wondered what they were expecting him to do.  Tell the story about bringing him in from no-man’s land, possibly—but he was too tired for it. 

“I was just talking to him,” said Caldwell, another of the ones from their training group.  “Just before, when we were picking up the rum ration.  I asked him if I could have his, since he was teetotal.”

Someone else said something about the last time they’d spoken to Lamble, and then someone else after that.

Abruptly, Thomas realized why.  They weren’t used to this.  Even though they’d all seen deaths—scores of them—those had been strangers.  Men who came into their lives as mangled pieces of meat.  They didn’t know, down at the bone, what it was like to have somebody just wink out of existence like that. 

They didn’t know that the worst thing you could do was talk about it. 

Abruptly, he shoved his feet back into his boots and went outside. 

He was sitting on one of the larger pieces of the rubble that used to be the farmhouse, smoking and carefully not thinking about anything at all, when someone approached.  Rawlins.  He sat down next to Thomas and lit his pipe. 

“What do you want?” Thomas asked. 

Rawlins clapped him on the shoulder.  “You all right?”

“Yeah,” he said.  It wasn’t like he and Lamble had been mates or anything.  He didn’t have mates here—he’d decided not to—and if he had, it wouldn’t have been Lamble.  “Look, I’m as sorry as anybody else that he’s dead.  But there’s no point—”  He gestured vaguely with his cigarette.  “Wallowing in it.  Makes it worse.  He’s not the first, and he’s sure as hell not going to be the last.”

“That’s comforting,” said Rawlins, dryly.  “I mean, that’s what they’re all thinking, right?  Am I next?  It’s not about Lamble; not really.  You were probably his best mate in the billet.”

Thomas gave him a skeptical look.

“He liked that you didn’t bleat at him,” Rawlins explained.    

Oh, right—he’d been the one they bleated at, back in training camp.  On account of his name, Thomas supposed.  “That never really started up here, did it?”

“No,” said Rawlins, giving him a funny look.  “He thought you stopped them doing it.  The other ones from your draft.”

Why would he have done that?  “It wasn’t funny,” Thomas said.  “I mean, so what if he’s got a stupid name?  Plank’s name is worse, ‘cause he’s thick as two short ones, but nobody gives him grief about it.”

Rawlins shrugged.  “They like Plank.”

God knew why.  “But I didn’t have anything to do with them stopping.”

“I don’t know,” said Rawlins.  “Maybe you never told them to knock it off—but if you weren’t doing it, it couldn’t really be the thing to do, could it?”

Thomas had no idea why whether he bleated or not would make a difference in whether anyone else did, but he just shrugged and smoked.  “Anyway, I just wish they’d shut it so I can go to sleep.”

By the time he went in—not too long after Rawlins—the others had started settling in, finally.  As he fell asleep, he was wondering if anyone had thought yet of nicking Lamble’s blanket—it wouldn’t do a lot to make the barn floor more comfortable, but it might help a bit.

#

 1 October, 1915

                Dear Cousin Robert,

I’m sorry that Mary was upset by getting a field postcard.  The truth is, we’ve been having a fairly rotten time of it here, and for a while there was simply no time to write.  We’re back in billets now—finally—but I have quite a number of letters to write to men’s families.  It seems to use many of the same “muscles,” as it were, as it does to write a proper letter to her, or to Mother for that matter.  After I’ve done a batch of them, I’ve simply nothing left. 

And I do feel that the families who are never going to see their sons or brothers or husbands again have a stronger claim on my attention, just now.  I can’t think of the right way to put that to her, so that it doesn’t sound as though I’m saying she’s selfish for worrying about me—of course she isn’t!  But I can send a field postcard to let everyone know that I’m all right—because I am all right—and the dead men can’t.  Perhaps, having written such letters yourself, you can help her to understand. 

I suppose that’s why I am writing now to you, instead of to Mary as I should—because you have seen war.  It’s much easier to write to my friends who are at some point up or down the line, doing much the same things I’m doing, than it is to write to anyone at home.  One doesn’t have to try to convey what it’s like, or to put things in a reassuring way. 

So I will write to you as I would a brother officer, and say that we are some distance from the big show—and glad of it—but for about a week we have been conducting a side-show of our own, in order to oblige the enemy to keep at his posts across the way.  It was all the harder because things had been so quiet here before.  It came as rather a shock to the neighbors when we started making noise, but once they had grasped the new order of things, they lost no time in making a racket of their own.  Things were beginning to quiet down again when we were sent back to billets, so with any luck, we will have an easier time of it when we rotate back up. 

I ran into Thomas, by the way—Private Barrow, as he is now.  He happened to be at the Aid Post, as part of a stretcher-party, at the same time I was checking on my wounded.  It was on the worst night we’ve had, so I didn’t have time to really speak to him, nor he to me, but he looked as well as could be expected.  Since you asked me to keep an eye out, I asked after him when I went to the Dressing Station the next day.  An extraordinarily foul-mouthed Master Sergeant told me that the previous night had been Barrow’s first time under heavy fire, and that he’d done rather well. 

I should say that I was at the Dressing Station to visit my men—I am quite well. 

Sincerely,

Matthew Crawley

“Have you heard from Thomas lately?” Robert asked as Bates was getting his dinner clothes ready. 

“A field postcard today, my lord,” said Bates.  “We were glad to get it, as the last we’d heard from him was that things were very busy.”

“Matthew ran into him,” Robert said, retrieving the letter from his waistcoat pocket.   “He says they’re some distance from Loos, but there was fighting in their sector.”  At least, he was fairly sure that was what Matthew had been saying.  The phrases he’d used had been almost as foreign as the notion of a subaltern openly saying that he was glad to be on the sidelines of a major battle, instead of in the thick of it.  Robert wondered if it was true, that he’d say such a thing to a brother officer.  Certainly no one would have done so in his war—even if they’d been thinking it. 

Taking the letter from the envelope, he folded it so that the paragraph about Thomas showed.  “Here.” 

Bates read it, nodding as he did so.  “Well, that’s good to hear,” he said, handing it back.  “In his letters, he sounds as though he’s doing well enough, but you never can tell.”

“I admit I didn’t think it wise, him joining up just when he did.”  Robert unbuttoned his waistcoat and let Bates take it off of him.  “I do wonder what Matthew’s standards are, for foul-mouthedness in a Master Sergeant.”  They’d had a fine example of the breed in their regiment in South Africa.

“If it’s the one Thomas calls the Wardmaster, my lord, I get the impression he could give old Sergeant Gibbs a run for his money.”

“For Thomas’s sake, let’s hope he takes after Gibbs in other ways, too,” Robert noted.  Gibbs had been a solid enough chap, and a sergeant like that could make your war. 

Chapter Text

To his surprise, Thomas settled in well enough as Night Corporal.  The wards he was in charge of weren’t heavy work, at least at night—the convalescents could get a bit demanding during the day, as they knew they would be back in the trenches soon and wanted to make the most of their holiday.  But at night they mostly slept, and could get back and forth to the toilet on their own, so there wasn’t even much bedpan work to do.   Thomas’s main responsibilities were filling out the paperwork—which was usually left in a dreadful state by the Day Corporals—and periodically walking through his wards to check that all was well and that the orderlies under him weren’t sleeping.

The first night, he did it eight times, for fear that some problem would escape his notice.

The orderlies he was in charge of didn’t give any trouble either—unless you counted Watts and Palmer, who were both Regular Army and considerably older than he, calling him “Lad” instead of “Corporal.”  (Thomas decided not to count that as trouble.)   When he expressed his surprise to Jessop, he replied, “Not everyone wants the extra responsibility, tha’ knows—especially an there’s no brass in it. No, out of us Regulars, those who had the makings of an NCO were promoted last winter, and sent to sort out the new units.  Them as are left are happy where they are.”  He paused.  “Now, if they’d given you Diggs’s billet, that would be a different story.” 

So that took care of those two.  Thomas kept a wary eye on Taylor, who was also a wartime recruit—though not quite new enough not to have to live in the barn—but he showed no particular resentment, either.  Eventually, one of Thomas’s billet-mates reported that Taylor had been overheard saying that Thomas was “A damn sight better than fucking Diggs.” 

As far as Thomas knew, Diggs had not been especially unpopular before—though his work-shy ways were well known, he was also considered a wit in the orderlies’ room—but now he was universally loathed.  When word of his punishment got out, everyone went round talking about how he’d gotten off easily, and when they put him on the post at morning and afternoon break-times, people got up parties to go and gawp at him. 

That part of it made Thomas’s skin crawl, from secondhand embarrassment, and he was more resolved than ever not to make enemies, or get himself in trouble.  (He was also extremely grateful that Carson had never been allowed to put anyone on F.P. One.  His brand of public humiliation was bad enough, but at least people couldn’t turn up on purpose to watch.)

A few days in, he picked up his post in the orderly room.  One from Anna—he really did owe her a letter—and one… “Fuck.”

Rawlins, who was hanging about for some reason, asked, “What?”

Thomas showed him the envelope.  It was one he’d sent to Joey, a little while ago, and written above the address was “Undeliverable—killed in action.”

“Fuck,” Rawlins echoed.  “Who was it?”

“Just somebody I used to know,” Thomas said, and tossed the letter into the woodstove.  

4 October, 1915

                Dear Thomas,

Thank you for sending the field postcard—we were starting to worry.  His lordship told Mr. Bates that Mr. Matthew wrote that he had seen you recently, and that it was a bad night, but you seemed to be bearing up well.  He also said that your sergeant had spoken highly of you.

Mr. Bates also talked to us about how it can be difficult for men to write home when they’re away at war—how you need to keep your mind on what you’re doing, and things like that.  Lady Mary has been upset that Mr. Matthew has not been writing as often as he did at the beginning.  The other day, she got a field postcard from him and ran away from the breakfast table.  We all thought that it must have said he was wounded, but it was only a “quite well” one.  I gather that Mr. Bates and his lordship had a talk about Helping the Women Understand. 

So I wanted you to know that I do understand, and that if you can’t write, a field postcard to let us know you’re all right is always welcome.  But if you are having a hard time, I hope there is someone you can talk to, whether it’s in a letter (to me, or anyone else) or someone there. 

We’re all well here.  Because of the war, no one is hunting or shooting, so there have been no house parties.  The ladies are talking about organizing a concert, to benefit the hospital as well as to keep everyone’s spirits up.  I suppose it seems too frivolous to have a party just for the sake of it, but as long as it’s related to the war in some way, it’s all right. 

I hope that you’re well.  We’ll be sending some biscuits and things next week, so if there is anything else you need, just say the word.

Love,

Anna Smith

That night, after he’d done his paperwork, Thomas tried to write a reply.  He got as far as,

7 October, 1915

                Dear Anna,

That was kind of Mr. Matthew to say.  I’m all right, just very busy.  I’ve been made a Lance-Corporal again, and am in charge of four wards at night.  (They are the easiest ones—mostly patients who are nearly well.) 

On the bad night Mr. Matthew spoke of

After that, he couldn’t think what to say.  He stared at the paper for a long while, wondering if he ought to just chuck it and start over—or chuck it and send a field postcard. 

It was something of a relief when a man halfway down the ward—he’d posted himself in Men’s Convalescent, that night—a man started yelling, “Orderly?  Orderly!” 

He got up and hurried over, before the man could wake everyone else. 

“Orderly?” the man said, once he got there, turning his head from side to side. 

Apart from weaving like a charmed cobra, he looked absolutely fine.  “Yes, what?”

“I can’t see a bloody thing.  I’ve gone blind!”

That was bloody strange.  Thomas checked the man’s tally-card, to make sure he remembered the case.  He’d been blown up—that is, tossed into the air by a high-explosive shell—but had come down more-or-less unharmed, except for being too sore to stand upright the next day.  He’d been admitted for a couple of days’ rest, and was due to go back to the Front tomorrow. 

Experimentally, Thomas waved his hand in front of the man’s face.  He didn’t react, except to turn his head from side to side some more.  “Hold your head still, please.”  He got out his lighter and sparked it.  “You don’t see that?” he asked, holding the flame in front of the man’s face.

“I don’t see a bloody thing,” he repeated. 

“Let me get the doctor,” Thomas decided.  This was definitely above his pay grade, or Jessop’s for that matter.  “Try to stay calm.”

In the corridor, Thomas hesitated, wondering if he ought to check with Jessop before he woke up Captain Allenby.  So far, this was the closest thing to an emergency he’d had, unless you counted the dysentery case in Officers’ Sick the night before. 

That hadn’t called for a doctor, though, just all of the orderlies on his block.

But both Jessop and the Wardmaster had said he was to wake Allenby if he thought it necessary, and he couldn’t ask Jessop to hold his hand for every little thing.  He went to the cupboard where the night duty MO slept, and knocked on the door. 

“Coming!”   Captain Allenby opened the door a moment later, fully dressed but with his jacket unbuttoned and his shirt open at the collar, and blinking owlishly.  “Ah.  Barrow.  What is it?”

“Sir,” he said, “A patient in Men’s Convalescent just woke up blind.”

“Did he,” said Captain Allenby.  “Who?”

“Private Travers, sir.”

“I see.  Lead on.”

They went back to the ward.  Naturally, by the time they arrived, several more men had woken up, and two had decided that they wanted, respectively, a drink of water and an extra blanket. 

Once the two complainers were taken care of, Thomas stuck his head into the consulting-room where Captain Allenby had taken Travers.  He was shining a small torch into the man’s eyes, and making vaguely medical noises, like, “I see,” and “Interesting.” 

He paused in this activity for a moment to look over at Thomas and nod; Thomas, unsure whether that meant he was to go or stay, posted himself by the door and waited to see if he’d be told otherwise.

After another moment, Allenby shut off the torch and pocketed it, saying briskly, “I wouldn’t worry.  This happens sometimes.”

“Can you fix it, sir?” asked Travers, his tone worried.

“Certainly.  We’ll start with some eye drops.  If that doesn’t work, we may have to operate.”

“On my eyes, sir?”

“Your brain, as a matter of fact.  But the drops almost always work.  Barrow, get him lying on the table, please.”

Thomas hurried over and helped Travers onto the examination table.  While he was doing that, Allenby got out a dropper-bottle and several cloths.  “Now, after I put the drops in, I’ll need you to close your eyes tightly and then lie still for about an hour.  After that, we’ll know if it’s worked.”  He administered the drops, and Travers screwed his eyes shut.  Allenby placed the cloths over his eyes, for good measure, then turned for the door, beckoning for Thomas to follow him. 

Once they were out in the corridor, Thomas said, “Er, should I get him a cup of tea or a cigarette or anything, sir?”  He rather thought not, but the question might prompt the officer to indulge his curiosity.

“No,” said Allenby.  “We want him to lie there thinking about how very dull it is to be blind.”

“He’s not really blind, sir, is he?”  Thomas was certainly no medical expert, but it seemed unlikely that there could be a type of blindness that might be cured with either eye drops or brain surgery—especially with no steps in between. 

Allenby shook his head, and cautioned, “It’s possible he’s not deliberately shamming.  In some cases—rare cases—a man’s brain can actually trick itself into believing that he’s blind, or mute, or paralyzed, or what have you.  Paralysis would be a bit more plausible in this case, since there was actually some small amount of bruising around the spine, but that’s neither here nor there.”  He opened the door to his cupboard and gestured Thomas inside.  “Either way, a bit of sleight-of-hand can be effective.  If he’s shamming, he can back down without embarrassment, and if it’s a case of genuine hysterical symptoms, the power of suggestion is often enough to effect a cure.”

“I see,” Thomas said.  “Will he get in trouble?”

“Not if he’s cured in an hour,” answered Allenby.  “If he isn’t, it’ll be important to figure out whether he’s really hysterical.  I should be rather surprised if he were, but I won’t accuse a man of malingering on the basis of a five-minute examination.”  He looked around the tiny room, which contained a bunk, a tiny desk, and nothing else.  “Do you see my tie?  It has to be in here somewhere.  I might as well take a walk round the wards, while I’m up.”

Thomas found it in the first place he looked, on the inside doorknob.  “Here you are, sir.”

“Ah.” 

The moment Allenby draped it around his neck and started tying it, Thomas could tell he was going to make a dog’s dinner of it.  The narrow end was going to be longer than the wide end, and the knot would be fat and lopsided.  He reached out automatically to fix it, remembering himself just in time to say, “Sir, would you like me to--?”

“Oh—yes, all right.  Was never very good at these things.”

He did, at least, know how to be dressed, and stood squarely while Thomas fixed his tie for him, taking the opportunity while he did so to straighten his collar-badges. 

“All present and correct, then?” asked Allenby.

“Yes, sir.”

“Whose batman were you?” Allenby asked, as they started toward the wards.  “Before you got bumped up, I mean.” 

Unit custom was against NCO’s acting as soldier-servants, as they were needed too much on wards.  “No one’s, sir.  I was a valet before the war.”

“Oh,” he said.  “That might have been quite a change.”

“In some ways, sir, yes.”

Thomas was unsure if Allenby meant for him to accompany him, but he started with Thomas’s wards, and hadn’t actually dismissed him, so he figured he might as well make his walk-round at the same time. Allenby spoke to him a bit from time to time, and it was sort of relaxing.  There were only so many times you could say “Too right” in a single conversation before it started sounding like you were taking the piss, but you could go on with “Yes, sir” forever. 

When Captain Allenby moved on to C Block, Thomas returned to his worktable in the middle of the room.  After noting in the log-book that he’d woken the MO to check on a patient, he turned back to his letter.  Picking up from the line, “On the bad night Mr. Matthew spoke of,” he wrote,

Someone else made a fairly serious mistake, and I suppose I looked good by comparison.

Must go now, one of the patients is calling for me. 

Thomas

It wasn’t much of a letter, but writing it somehow took up most of the time until Captain Allenby returned, and it was time to check on Travers.  He was lying right where they’d left him, and when Allenby asked him how he was faring, he said, “All right, sir.  I hope this works.”

“So do I,” said Allenby, and began ceremoniously taking the cloths off Travers’s eyes. 

When the last one was removed, Travers announced, in a tone of surprise and relief, “I can see, sir!  Oh, it’s a miracle.”

“Just modern medicine,” said Allenby, modestly. 

After that night, Thomas found that Captain Allenby took a bit of an interest in him.  He’d usually stop for a chat when we made one of his walks round the wards, and would sometimes suggest that they walk together, or point out an interesting case to him. 

One evening, Thomas even found himself—God knew why—telling Allenby about a strange dream he’d had.  He’d mentioned that he hadn’t slept well.  “Strange dreams,” he added.  “I seem to get those sleeping during the day.”

Allenby glanced—involuntarily, Thomas thought—in the direction of the sound of the guns—and asked, “That business last month?”

“No, sir.  It weren’t even about the war, just queer.”  Allenby looked at him expectantly, so he went on, “I was in some sort of…I’m not sure.  Hospital or prison or something.  Maybe it were a lunatic asylum.  Part of the cure—or punishment, or whatever it was—was that they gave us something to make us blind.  I suppose it was that lecture we had, and maybe it reminded me somehow of that bloke from last week.”  The lecture had been about the treatment of gas casualties, given by one of the medical officers who had seen some of the first ones, up at the big show.  Poison gas could cause blindness.

Allenby nodded, and said, “Sounds frightful.”

“No, sir.  Well, not really.  There was a bloke there who had some way of fixing it, so that was all right.”  Now he said it, he wondered if the “bloke” had, in fact, been Captain Allenby, in which case he should have said “a gentleman.”  But if he didn’t know, Allenby certainly couldn’t either, so he went on, “Only if we let on that we could see, they’d just do it again, so any time the guards, or doctors, or whatever they were turned up, we had to go about pretending we were still blind.”  He shook his head.  “It doesn’t sound like much, I suppose, but when I woke up from it, I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Allenby gave him a sideways look, and asked delicately, “Are you entirely sure that it wasn’t about the war?”

Thomas supposed that jokes about the blind leading the blind—the General Staff, who had no idea what it was like on the ground here, and the men on the Front, who had no idea what it was all for—were as much in circulation among the officers as they were among the men, and said only, “I’m sure it’s not my place to comment on that, sir.” 

Captain Allenby chuffed, clapped him on the shoulder, and said something about a patient they ought to check on.

That sort of familiarity didn’t seem to be usual here—the Medical Officers left the supervision and education of the men to the NCOs, and certainly didn’t socialize with them—but it all made sense when, one night, when their walk took them to Allenby’s cupboard, Allenby put one hand on the doorknob and the other on Thomas’s arm, and looked at him meaningfully.

Thomas considered for a moment.  It had been a long time, certainly.  And it could be a useful thing, having an officer in his corner.  Allenby wasn’t bad looking, either, and he was nice enough. 

If Thomas had felt like having it off with anybody, Allenby would be a good choice.  But he didn’t, really. 

He shook his head, fractionally.  Allenby let go of his arm, said, “Good night,” and disappeared into his cupboard.

What didn’t quite make sense was when, the next night, Allenby turned up as usual, and talked to him as though nothing had happened.  Thomas wondered if he’d make another pass—a more emphatic one, perhaps—but he didn’t. 

It wasn’t too much of a surprise that Allenby didn’t press him—he didn’t seem the sort, really, which was a good thing, since Thomas had no idea how you were meant to handle a bloke getting a bit insistent, when both of you knew it was technically a capital offense for you to clock him one.  But why he went on hanging about, if he didn’t want anything out of it, Thomas didn’t know.

 The other pleasant thing about night duty was that no one else in the billet happened to be on it that rotation, and so Thomas had the barn to himself nearly every day.  He still saw his billet-mates in the mess—though they were starting their day when he was finishing his, and vice-versa—and found them all much more bearable in smaller doses.  After spending his duty-shifts mostly in silence, apart from Captain Allenby’s visits, he didn’t mind the constant chattering so much, and even found himself volunteering an anecdote from time to time, on the rare occasions when something interesting happened on the night shift in D Block. 

One evening, toward the end of the rotation, one of the sergeants stepped in front of him and said, “Barrow!” 

Thomas braced up, trying frantically to think what he’d done.  It was Sergeant Hackman, who was in charge of off wards work, so it wasn’t likely to be anything to do with his job.  And there was nothing wrong with his uniform; there never was.  “Yes, Sergeant?”

“Come on and eat with us, lad.”

Oh.  By unit custom, lance-corporals messed with the ranks unless invited to the NCOs’ mess by a sergeant.  He couldn’t think of a reason why Sergeant Hackman would grant him the honor—except if Jessop had asked him to, which seemed fairly likely.  No one had said whether his appointment would end with the rotation, but it seemed likely that it would. 

It wasn’t a long walk; the NCOs’ mess was in the same building as the men’s, and not noticeably grander—unless you counted the addition of a rather stained tablecloth over the plain-board table as grandeur. 

He was relieved when Hackman deposited him at the far end from the Wardmaster, with the more junior corporals.  While all of the sergeants were Regular Army, and older, about half of the corporals were 1914 volunteers.  They normally held themselves a bit aloof from those who hadn’t gotten round to joining up until the second year of the war, but they seemed willing enough to take him on sufferance, at least this once, greeting him with friendly nods, making sure he had salt, bread and butter, and so on. 

Most of the food was rations, same as they got in the regular mess—stew and bread again tonight; nobody here seemed to know how to make a pie—but they also had local cheese and pickles, passed around with the main course.  Thomas hesitated over whether to help himself to these—he thought it likely that the NCOs clubbed together to buy them, the way the officers did all the delicacies they had in their mess—but Simmons, the bloke next to him, pressed them on him, so he took a small amount.  No one started shouting, so Thomas supposed it was all right.

For the first part of the meal, the conversation was divided, the senior men talking loudly at their end of the table, and the juniors rather more quietly at theirs.  Most of what they said seemed to be an extension of earlier conversations of which Thomas was ignorant, but they made an effort to include him by occasionally asking him how he was finding Block D, or if it was true he lived in a ratty old barn with a lot of other new chaps.

Thomas also discovered that junior corporals were, with one or two possible exceptions, middle class.  One of them actually asked him where he’d been to school , of all things.

“Sheffield,” he said.

“There’s a school there?” the fellow, Hayward, asked.

“The council school, yeah,” Thomas said, deliberately roughening his accent. 

“Then why’re you—” 

The bloke next to Hayward elbowed him in the ribs, and he shut up. 

Another one, Gladwell, changed the subject by asking, “Why is it the other new chaps call you the Magnificent Bastard?”

Thomas knew he’d been referred to that way on occasion, but he hadn’t quite realized it had reached the status of a sobriquet.  He was tempted to say that it was because he was one, but settled on, “I’m not entirely sure.”

From the far end of the table, the Wardmaster boomed, “It’s the one about the fucking hand, lad.”

Thomas had had no idea the Wardmaster was even listening, and blinked stupidly for a moment, until Simmons whispered, “He hears every fucking word we say—don’t ask me how.”  More loudly, he added, “The hand was you?”

“If you mean the one with that bloke’s wedding ring on it, yes,” Thomas admitted.  Blimey; that had been months ago.

The bloke next to Hayward turned to him and said, “That’s why.”

“Oh,” said Hayward, nodding as though that did, in fact, explain everything—although Thomas had no idea how. 

“Why the fuck did you do that?” the Wardmaster asked, his tone one of benign curiosity.

If Jessop had asked him that during one of their nights on the wards—or perhaps even if the Wardmaster had asked him in private—he might have told the truth, and said that he hadn’t known yet that wounded men routinely accused the RAMC of theft, and had been genuinely afraid that someone would get in trouble for stealing the thing.  If one of the other young corporals had asked, he might have told them that accusations of theft were a serious matter where he came from—making a point of the fact that he’d been a servant, and wasn’t ashamed of it.  But as it was, he settled on, “I wanted him to stop banging on about it, Sergeant.”

This exchange seemed to break the conversational barrier between the two ends of the table, and over pudding—baked apples with custard, another thing they didn’t get in the regular mess—the older corporals spoke freely to the younger ones. 

At one point, Jessop asked him what he thought of “Young Allenby.”

Other conversations slowed, and Thomas was acutely aware that most of the room was waiting to hear what he’d say.  He wondered how many of the others Allenby had made passes at, and if he’d ever got it wrong.   “He seems a very competent officer,” Thomas said.  “And he’s got a nice manner about him.  He’s got a way with the men—patients, I mean—of not being too formal with them, but not so friendly it’s condescending.”  He paused.  “He could stand to dress better, but I suppose he’s got other things on his mind.”

He wondered if that last bit might be going a little far—Carson wouldn’t have appreciated it, unless it was about a gentleman he disliked—but all it got him here was a chuckle. 

After dinner, Rawlins and several others from the billet were waiting near his wards, to pounce on him and ask how it had been in the NCO’s mess.  “Fine,” he said.  “There was a good pudding.”

Rawlins gave him a playful shove.  “Pudding!  What’s the Wardmaster like, when he lets his hair down?”

Thomas was fairly sure that he hadn’t—at least, not tonight.  Possibly a bit in that conversation he wasn’t supposed to talk about.  He shrugged.  “He says ‘fuck’ a lot.”

“So…like normal, then?” Plank asked.

“Yes, Plank,” Thomas said, wearily.  “That’s what I was getting at.”

A day or two later, the duty roster for the next rotation went up.  Most of the others rushed to look at it, but Thomas lingered over his breakfast.  He wondered if he’d get linen-wallah again.  That wouldn’t be bad—switching from nights to days could be rough, as you usually had to do two duty-shifts in a row, but it wouldn’t be so bad if it was another light job. 

He was mopping the last bit of egg off his plate when Rawlins came back into the mess.  “You’d better come and look, Barrow.”

“Why?” he asked, downing the last of his tea.

“Just look,” said Rawlins.

So Thomas went and looked.  On the roster, next to his name, it said “Seconded—RAP.”

RAP was the Regimental Aid Post—in the trenches.  His first thought was that they’d asked him into the NCOs’ mess for his bloody last supper.  Then common sense reasserted itself, and he checked the rest of the roster, to see if anyone else was going.  Jessop was.  Well, that had to be all right, then—they wouldn’t send him on a suicide assignment. 

“Huh,” he said to Rawlins, who appeared to be waiting on tenterhooks for his reaction.

Rawlins let out his breath.  “It’ll be a bit exciting, I suppose.”

“I hope not,” said Thomas.  “Have you ever gone?”

Rawlins shook his head.  “You’re the first out of our billet to pull that duty, I’m pretty sure.”

“It won’t be bad,” Thomas said, trying to sound surer of it than he felt.  “It’s too late in the year for a push—and anyway, we’ve just had one.”

Jessop, when Thomas caught up to him in the NCOs’ room, confirmed what he’d thought.  “It’s nowt to worry about, lad.  The brass hats are sending Young Allenby up to get a bit of experience with regimental work while it’s quiet, and Tully and I thought that weren’t a bad idea for you, either.”

Tully was the Wardmaster’s name, although nobody except the Regular Army NCOs called him that. 

“And I’m going along to keep an eye on the both of you,” added Jessop. 

“I saw that,” Thomas said.  “I’m sure we’ll be fine.  Is it just the three of us?”

Jessop shook his head.  “The complement’s five enlisted and an MO.  The others are coming from the Advanced Dressing Station.  I don’t know them, but with a new MO going up, they’ll send steady men who are used to the work.  You want a young officer to do well, his first time out, so as not to wreck his confidence, like.”

“That makes sense,” said Thomas.  “It does sound like it’ll be a good opportunity for me, then, too.”   It reminded him, queerly enough, of the matter of Lady Mary and the Turkish gentleman, and how the barriers erected to shield her from scandal had also protected him a bit, particularly from having to lie under oath at an inquest. 

In this case, though, he got the impression that Jessop and the Wardmaster had actually decided to tuck him into a spot where he’d get the benefit of Captain Allenby’s umbrella, instead of it being a fortunate happenstance. 

“Good,” said Jessop, nodding.  “Now, there’s one more thing—do you mind being Young Allenby’s batman?”

“That’s fine,” said Thomas.   “I’m a trained valet.”

“Aye, he mentioned that,” Jessop said.  “Good.  Then you can stay on as lance-corporal.  I expect you know better than to teach the men from the ADS how to suck eggs?”

Thomas wasn’t sure what difference it made whether he was a lance-corporal or not, but he nodded.  “I do.  When do we leave?”

“The day after tomorrow,” said Jessop.  “So check your kit, while there’s still time to draw anything you need from Stores.”

So Thomas went back to the billet and checked his kit.  Everything was in order except his iron rations, which the mice had been at.  He set them aside to take with him to Stores—several others in the billet having attempted this procedure before him, he knew that they would not take his word for it that the rations had been destroyed, and if he couldn’t supply evidence, they’d accuse him of having eaten them himself. 

Why anyone would want to, Thomas couldn’t begin to imagine.  In the trenches, he supposed, the issue of illicit consumption of hard biscuit and bully-beef might actually arise, but here, it generally wasn’t too difficult to obtain actual food—particularly good food, even.

With that thought in mind, he set the billet alarm clock for a bit earlier than usual, and after he’d called in at Stores, treated himself to supper at Granny’s.  He’d been back to the estaminet several times, sometimes with Rawlins, and other times on his own.  He’d never been disappointed, and this time was no exception.  The plat du jour was rabbit stewed in wine, with mushrooms, carrots, and tiny onions, and he reported for duty full and content. 

Not long after the patients were settled in for the night, Captain Allenby turned up to talk about their new assignment.  “Should be interesting, doing a spell of ‘trenches,’” he said.  That was the way the line officers referred to it—not “in the trenches,” just “trenches.”  Thomas could hear Captain Allenby’s self-consciousness as he used the expression.  “Major Thwaite assures me they’re expecting a quiet spell.”

“Yes, sir.  Corporal Jessop’s assured me the same.”

“Good,” said Allenby.  He hesitated.  “Did Jessop ask you about being my batman, while we’re there?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m happy to do it.”

“Thank you.  I asked him to speak to you about it, because I wanted you to feel free to turn it down.”  He gave Thomas a significant look before adding, “If it seemed a bit much for your first spell in trenches.”

What he was really trying to say, of course, was that he wasn’t planning to use the opportunity of Thomas dressing him, to make another pass at him.  “I expect it’ll be all right, sir,” Thomas said, because he hadn’t thought that Allenby would.  “Would you like me to go over your kit when we go off duty?”

“Would you?” asked Allenby.  “The others have been giving me all sorts of advice about what to pack, and I’ve gotten in a bit of a muddle about it.”

“Yes, sir.”  Thomas didn’t actually have a clear idea of what an officer would need in the trenches either—he’d been thinking more of checking the condition of the Captain’s things, as he had his own—but he could ask Corporal Jessop. 

Corporal Jessop did, indeed, have some good advice on the subject, and also told Thomas that he’d talk Stores into issuing extra shirts, socks, and so on for both of them.  That was a relief, because normally you were only issued two of each article—one to wear and one to wash.  It was difficult enough here at the station to avoid ending up with both sets simultaneously too filthy to wear, and he was sure it would be worse at the Aid Post.

Thomas had known that an officer’s billet would have to be a great deal nicer than his own, but was still a little surprised by how pleasant Captain Allenby’s was.  He was put up, along with several other officers from other units, in the local vicarage—or whatever Catholics called it—which was a largish stone house, entirely intact.  The priest was evidently still in residence, and his housekeeper provided both the Captain and Thomas with buns and large cups of milky coffee, which Allenby took in the priest’s sitting room, and Thomas in the kitchen.

The delay was a bit chafing—Thomas was determined to get a good day’s sleep today, as tomorrow they’d be leaving only a few hours after their shift ended—but it was still a bit of a treat to sit in a civilian kitchen, while ordinary domestic routines swirled around him.  Those routines were conducted entirely in French, of course, but still, he was able to recognize instantly what was happening when, for example, the scullery maid fed the stove and the housekeeper began berating her for wasting coal. 

Allenby had a tidy and civilized guest bedroom at the top of the house, which he was obliged to share with only one other officer, and a proper bed all to himself with sheets and everything.  Thomas briefly contemplated writing to Branson about those Socialist pamphlets, and then got to work on his kit. 

Unsurprisingly, Allenby had a good supply of shirts, socks, and underclothes, of which Thomas urged him to pack as many as he was willing to carry.  He also had quite a collection of books, framed photographs, and other impedimenta, which Thomas recommended leaving behind.  Trickier were a variety of articles of the sort that were advertised as “perfect gifts for the man in the trench”—galoshes, writing sets, hot water bottles, patent safety lamps that went out if they were tipped over, thermal flasks, and so on.  Still, they were able to come to an agreement as to which of these were really essential, and Thomas managed to avoid agreeing to carry more than two or three of them himself. 

The rest of the time before they were due to go up seemed to speed by.  First there was going back to the barn and re-packing his kit, so as to add in the few things of Captain Allenby’s that he said he’d take, before he could go to sleep.  Then there was carrying it all in to the station—they’d been granted a couple of hours between going off-shift and leaving for the Front, which Thomas had decided would be better spent napping in the linen room than going back to the barn for his kit. 

The others from the billet were, it turned out, a bit annoyed not to have gotten a chance to make a fuss over him at dinner the previous night—Thomas having gone to Granny’s instead—and made up for lost time.  When he went on duty in Block D, Rawlins and a couple of others tagged along and then hung about for what seemed like half the night. 

Thomas told them that if they didn’t have anything better to do, they could help out with the bedpan rounds—it was his turn in Men’s Sick that night, and there were a number of dysentery cases—and instead of taking the hint and making themselves scarce, they actually did

In the morning, most of the billet turned up early for breakfast, and you would have thought it was Thomas’s birthday from the pile of cigarettes, sweets, and other bits and pieces that appeared beside his plate.  Two who hadn’t thought to bring anything offered him their bacon.  (He took half from each of them.)

“You lot do know I’m not planning to die up there, don’t you?” he asked. 

“Of course you’re not,” said Manning. 

“Yeah, you’ve got to come back and tell us all about it,” added Plank. 

“Have you met him, mate?” asked Perkins.  “The only way we’ll find out what happens is if they say when they come and pin the DCM on him.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Thomas said.  “Except I’ll be sleeping somewhere even worse than the bloody barn.  They’re sending Captain Allenby because he’s never done regimental work before, and they’re expecting it to be a quiet time.”

The others looked around at each other, and Thomas grasped that this was one of those times when he inadvertently said something the rest of them found impressive for some reason.  Finally, Rawlins ventured, “How do you know that, then?”

“Corporal Jessop said.” 

They did not look any less impressed. 

“They’ve had him keeping an eye on me, on the night shift,” he explained.  “It’s not like he confides in me.”  The Wardmaster had, that once, but he wasn’t allowed to mention that, and in hindsight he had probably been rather the worse for drink. 

Finally, the others had to go on duty, and Thomas was able to retreat to the linen room for his nap.  He’d asked Rawlins to get up him in plenty of time, which Rawlins did, bringing him a cup of tea to boot. 

“I’m sure you will be all right,” he said, leaning against the sorting table as Thomas drank his tea.

Thomas nodded.  “Sure.  The post’s in the support line.”  The support line was well in range of shelling, but outside of a really heavy bombardment, the chances of any one spot being hit were slim.  And it was in the forward line where you had to worry about snipers and trench mortars and things like that. 

Thomas was not sure how often the corpsmen at the Aid Post had to go up to the forward line—it probably varied—but he was fairly confident he’d be spending the majority of his time in the support line.

“If you need anything, send a note back by the collecting post,” Rawlins suggested.  “I don’t mind popping out to the shops for you, and we can settle up when you get back.”

“Ta,” said Thomas.  He wasn’t sure what he might need—he certainly had enough cigarettes, between standard issue, the supply he’d bought, and the ones that had been pressed on him at breakfast—but he supposed something might come up.  He finished his tea, handed the cup back to Rawlins, and started putting on his gear.  It took him a moment to remember  how the webbing went—they didn’t wear it on duty in the dressing station, only for stretcher-parties and things like that—and then Rawlins gave him a hand strapping on his greatcoat, blanket, and groundsheet.  “Did you see I left Lamb’s blanket with your kit?”  They’d been asked to sort out Lamble’s personal effects to be sent back to his family, but nobody had said anything about his standard-issue kit, so they’d kept it around for spares.  “I want it back after this.”  Nobody had argued about him appropriating the blanket—whether that was because he was supposedly Lamb’s friend, or because he was the Magnificent Bastard, Thomas wasn’t sure.  He did lend it out when someone was ill or otherwise in particular need. 

“I saw, thanks.”

Thomas checked that everything was as correct as he could manage it.  “All right, then,” he said to Rawlins.

“All right.”

Thomas and Corporal Jessop met in the ambulance yard at the appointed hour—they were getting a ride as far as the collecting post—and Captain Allenby arrived a few minutes later, his pack askew.  After the exchange of salutes—rendered necessary by the fact that they were all wearing their forage caps—Thomas fixed it for him, in his role as batman.

Thomas had been to the collecting post in daylight before, but he’d only gone beyond it at night, where shellfire and long shadows made everything a sort of indistinct hell.  By daylight, the scene was less viscerally terrifying, but more uncanny, with little patches of normalcy side-by-side with all the destruction—a dead horse lying beside a post-box, for instance, which made real for Thomas the fact that this blasted crater had, not two years ago, been a village.  The rubble of houses and church could easily have been the remnants of some ancient and long-vanished civilization, but a post-box, that belonged to the modern world. 

As they got closer to the Front, their route took them through what had once been a wood.  Most of it was reduced to charred stumps and churned-up mud, but there was one small bit—a dozen trees or so, and associated undergrowth—that was untouched.  It must have been in a blind spot for the German guns, and an officer was sitting in it, reading a book. 

Any time the trench got a bit wider than it had to be for a carrying-party to pass through, there were men tucked into the spare nooks and crannies—some busy at their duties, some sleeping or carrying out various homely tasks: shaving, having a brew-up, writing a letter.  Their progress toward the Front was marked by the steadily decreasing degree to which these men acknowledged that an officer was walking past them. 

Thomas was beginning to wonder whether it was his duty, as Captain Allenby’s batman, to suggest that he switch his forage cap for his tin one—not because of any particular danger; even distant shell-strikes were sporadic, but because it would advertise to the men that he wasn’t expecting to be saluted.   It seemed that the cleanliness of his uniform was causing a bit of uncertainty on this point, and he knew from working in the men’s wards that an officer who stood too much on ceremony in the trenches was universally loathed. 

He was fairly sure that Allenby wouldn’t want to give that impression, if he knew, but Thomas hadn’t quite made up his mind how to say it when a portly sergeant tossed down his newspaper with obvious disgust, stood up slowly, and saluted in a manner Thomas could only describe as sarcastic.  Captain Allenby blushed, returned the salute, and stopped to change his cap the moment they were past the man. 

So that solved the problem, but Thomas rather wished he could have spared him the embarrassment. 

When they arrived at the Aid Post, the three men from the Advanced Dressing Station were already there, and the outgoing group was clearly itching to leave.  Captain Allenby also managed to notice this, and kept brief the ritual exchange of courtesies with the departing Medical Officer.  Once he and his men had scarpered, Thomas and the others were free to poke about and get settled in.

Thomas had been to the Aid Post before, but never in conditions amenable to getting a sense of it.  It was a dugout one, there being no sufficiently intact buildings in the area, but a fairly good one—well-timbered, with a ceiling high enough that even a tall man could stand upright, in the main room at least.  The walls and ceiling were mostly reinforced with boards, and sacking in the places where they weren’t.  In the middle of the room was a set of trestles where a stretcher-case could be laid to be worked on, and along one wall was a set of racks that would hold additional occupied stretchers, for cases waiting to be sent back.  A cluster of empty ammunition boxes served as the waiting room for walking cases, and more ammunition boxes had been fashioned into cupboards to hold medicines, dressings, instruments, and so on. 

After having a look round, Thomas dumped his gear in a corner and went to help Captain Allenby get his own kit sorted.  The Medical Officer’s quarters were in a smaller dugout to one side, connecting to the main one and separated by a wooden partition. 

“This isn’t so bad,” Allenby said, in the tone of one trying to convince himself. 

“No, sir,” Thomas agreed.  Having seen Allenby’s regular billet, he could understand why he was dubious, but it was still a substantial step up from the barn—at least, if you put aside the possibility of dying in your sleep due to shellfire.  The bunk had a spring mattress, sheets, and even a pillow, in addition to several standard-issue blankets.  There was a shelf with an oil lamp on it—Thomas had been right to say he didn’t need to bring his patent one—a small desk, and a washstand with a cracked mirror hanging above it. 

Despite having never been in an officer’s dugout before, Thomas found it strangely familiar.  Hours later, he would realize that what it reminded him of was the cubicles in the back of a queer club—like the one where he and Peter had gone, the night after their date in Kew Gardens. 

Once he’d got Allenby’s things sorted out, he picked up his own gear and looked about for Jessop, figuring he might as well find out where he was meant to stow it—and get a look at just how awful it was where he’d be sleeping. 

“In here, lad,” said Jessop, from behind a curtain fashioned out of a groundcloth.  It was another subsidiary dugout, a little smaller and lower-ceilinged than Allenby’s one, with two bunks stacked one above the other.  Corporal Jessop was in the process of arranging his blankets on the lower one, and Thomas was wondering what jammy bastard got the other when Jessop said, “Hope you don’t mind the upper berth, lad—I’m too old for that shite.”

“That’s fine,” Thomas said, to cover his surprise.  He swung his gear up onto the bunk and took a look.  They were plank beds, but with straw mattresses. 

According to one of the old-timers, they’d had straw in the barn at first—though not the luxury of ticks to put it in—but they’d had to throw it out when it got moldy. 

Their dugout didn’t have a desk—there wouldn’t have been room for it—but there was a washstand, and a shelf and some pegs for putting things on.  “And to think I was telling the others I’d soon find out what could be worse than the barn,” he said.  “I think I’d better lie, or they’ll all want to come.”

“Tha might feel differently when the night music starts,” Jessop warned him, adding, “We’re in here because we’re the first to be woken up when there’s an emergency—me to check on the casualty, you to wake the officer.”

“I figured there’d be a catch,” Thomas said.  Still, it would be the first time since joining the Army that he’d slept in anything that could even generously be described as a bed, and he was looking forward to it.  “What now?” he asked, as Jessop seemed nearly finished setting up his bunk.

“Now we have a brew-up, and after that we check how short of supplies the last lot left us,” Jessop said.  “Go and fetch the others; they’re in the next dugout over.”

The next dugout over turned out to be a combination of orderlies’ quarters and storeroom.  It was on the same general plan as their one, except with two sets of bunks, a somewhat lower ceiling, and a greater proportion of sacking to boards on the walls.  The men, who were stowing their kit and arranging their bunks, were two of about Corporal Jessop’s vintage—probably Regular Army—and one closer to Thomas’s age.  Feeling a bit self-conscious, Thomas cleared his throat and said, “Corporal’s got the kettle on, and after that we’re starting stock-taking.”

The men turned away from what they were doing, good-humoredly enough.  One of the older blokes said, “I like that, cuppa before we get to work.”

“Corporal Jessop’s all right,” Thomas agreed. 

“How’s the officer?” the younger man asked.  He was short and very muscular.

It took Thomas a moment to realize that he was asking what sort of officer he was, not how he was faring.  “He’s good on wards,” Thomas said.  “Not really what you’d call a military type.”

“That’s not bad,” said the other older man.  “It’s when they aren’t, but pretend they are, that can get rough.”

“Aye,” said the younger man.  “You reckon he knows your corporal’s been sent along as schoolmaster?”

“I reckon he does,” Thomas said. 

They trooped back over to the main dugout, where the tea was already brewing up.  Thomas would learn quickly that there was nothing quite like the Post’s spirit stove for making tea—it was meant for sterilizing instruments, and so was of a particularly efficient kind. 

Once Corporal Jessop had handed round the tea, they introduced themselves.  Farlow and Padgett, the two older men, were, as Thomas had guessed, Regular Army.   The younger one was called Rouse, and Padgett said he was “A right clever sod, too.”

Thomas told himself firmly that the phrase did not remind him of anything at all.

They were finishing up the tea and beginning to talk about the plan for the stocktaking when Captain Allenby emerged from his room.  They all stood and braced up, of course, and Allenby quite properly waggled his hand and muttered, “As you were.” 

Jessop sat back down again immediately, and the rest of them all followed suit. 

Captain Allenby handed a teacup to Jessop—he got a crockery one, while the rest of them had tin—and said, “I suppose I’ll just, er….”

Jessop said, “We’re about to start the stock-taking, sir, and we hope to have any necessary requisition forms ready for your signature when you get back from making yourself known to the other officers.” 

“Excellent,” said Captain Allenby, with undisguised relief.  “Thank you.”

Once he’d gone, the three from the ADS exchanged nods of approval. 

Partway through the stock-taking, they got their first patient:  a young bloke who’d cut his hand on some barbed wire the night before.  Looking it over, Corporal Jessop said, “Why didn’t you bring this in earlier, lad?”

“Had to finish t’job, didn’t I?”

“Course you did,” Jessop agreed.  “But after that?”

“After that was morning stand-to, and then I wanted to get a bit of kip, didn’t I?”

Jessop hmphed and said, “Hurts a bit more than it did last night, doesn’t it?”

The young soldier nodded.

“That’s on account of it’s starting to go septic,” Jessop told him.  “Barrow?”

Thomas handed him the tetanus antitoxin, which he’d been preparing while Jessop talked.

“What’s that?” asked the soldier.

“It’s to stop you getting lockjaw,” Thomas told him. 

The soldier paled, and submitted to the injection.  He protested again when Jessop began cleaning out the wound.  “Do you have to dig into it like that?”

“I do, lad,” said Jessop.

“He does if you enjoy having two hands,” Thomas added.  There was a bit of tea left in the Dixie, still somewhat warm, so he poured that into a tin cup and gave it to the bloke, saying, “Here, take your mind off it.”

Once the wound was cleaned and bandaged, Jessop sent the lad off with instructions to return tomorrow to have it checked again, “And tell your mates, they get so much as a scratch, they’re to come here and have it seen to, all right?”

“Yes, Corp,” he agreed.

It turned out that a lot of regimental work was like that—minor treatments combined with a healthy dose of what Captain Allenby called Educating the Men to Take Charge of Their Own Health.  The lesson Jessop had given to the youth with the barbed wire cut was part of a series on Not Letting Small Problems Turn Into Big Ones.  Others included Sanitation and Hygiene: Doing Your Best Under Difficult Conditions & Why You Should Bother, Assessing Risks &  Using Common Sense in the Performance of Routine Tasks, and, once the weather took a turn for the worse, Taking Care of Your Feet so They Will Take Care of You.  Thomas was able to contribute materially to the latter, as the first few trench foot cases of the winter had started to trickle in to Men’s Sick shortly before they left, and apparently his descriptions of the condition were fairly evocative. 

“That’s right, lad,” Jessop had said approvingly, when one of these cases had left.  “We don’t want them getting the idea that getting bad feet is all about having a cozy lie-in in hospital and getting massages from pretty nurses.”

More serious cases averaged about two or three a day, but tended to come in clusters of a few at a time, with quiet stretches in between.  The worst casualties came from shrapnel shells, which, if they happened to hit near an area where men had congregated, usually left a couple of men dead or mortally wounded, several more with serious injuries requiring them to be evacuated back at least as far as the Dressing Station, and a dozen or two with minor wounds to be treated at the Aid Post and observed for complications. 

The other kinds of shells—the HEs, the crumps, the Big Berthas—didn’t make much work for the Aid Post because they either killed you outright, if they hit directly, or left you no worse than a little shaken up, if they didn’t.  The standard prescription for the latter was a cup of tea with a tot of rum in it.

Shelling could happen any time, day or night, but nighttime brought casualties in from no-man’s land.  Most nights, several small groups went out on some errand or other—mending wire, observing the German positions, and so on.  The cover of darkness made these activities somewhat less dangerous than the pure suicide they’d have been in the day, but a party spotted by the Hun was lucky if all they attracted was sniper fire—just as often, it was machine-gun fire or stick bombs.  That sort of attack would usually leave the entire party incapacitated to one degree or another, which meant another party had to be sent out after them.

Sometimes, the men were in such a hurry to rescue their mates that they didn’t wait to figure out what had attracted the enemy’s attention in the first place, and wound up meeting the same fate. 

It was occasions like that that amounted for most of the times Thomas had to venture into no-man’s land.  The regiment usually brought in its own wounded, but when there were a lot of casualties, someone from the RAMC had to go out to do first aid and rough field triage.

It was a little less than a week into their spell of trenches when Thomas was called upon to make one of these rescue parties.  He found himself hesitating, just a bit, at the ladder, even though they’d waited for cloud cover before going out, and it was about a safe as it could be.

Rouse, who’d been teamed up with him for this exercise, said sympathetically, “The first one’s the worst—but once we’re back, you’ll be able to tell yourself you’ll never have to do it for the first time again.”

Thomas shook his head, said, “I’ve done it before,” and started up the ladder. 

That trip went all right, and it wasn’t long before Thomas was scrambling up out of trenches as if he’d been born doing it.  It really was necessary, at these times, for someone with a bit of medical training to go.  The men, if left to themselves, would bring in the most seriously wounded man first, when what they ought to have done was bring in the one who was most seriously wounded but still had a chance of survival.  The officers were even worse; if they were conscious at all, they’d try to insist that they be left until all the men had been taken in, no matter how bad their wounds were or how light the men’s.  But in that situation, officers and men alike would bow to the authority of anyone with RAMC on his uniform, even a lance-corporal who’d been a footman barely six months ago.

The danger for which the men reserved the greatest superstitious horror was sniper fire, which in truth resulted in far fewer casualties than the others—and scarcely any work at all for the Aid Post, as most of its victims were killed instantly.  Thomas had to admit, there was something profoundly unsettling about seeing a man going about his ordinary business and then suddenly fall over, with a perfect hole drilled into his head.  In these cases, the tea-and-rum prescription was issued to the immediate bystanders, and if the situation permitted, Captain Allenby would recommend that their officers find them something to do which would keep them too busy to dwell on it, but in which a moment’s inattention was not likely to prove fatal.  Filling sandbags, for instance, was good, but filling Mills bombs was not. 

Apart from the surprisingly nice dugout—which both Rouse and Thomas’s own observations confirmed was an unusually good one—the living conditions met Thomas’s expectations.  The food situation ranged from grim to dire.  Rations were even more monotonous than those at the station, and on a good day were brought up lukewarm at best.  On a bad day, the ration-parties were delayed by shelling, weather, or both, and the rations arrived stone cold and so late that your stomach thought your throat had been cut.  Even worse than the food was the general state of filth.  The Aid Post had been strategically situated in a spot with good drainage, but once the weather turned, the forward line turned into a pig wallow, and the men brought the mud with them when they turned up wounded or sick.  The orderlies’ primary occupation, when not actively treating patients, was trying to keep the instruments clean, and at least scraping the top layer of filth off of everything else. 

“It’s worse in the spring,” Padgett informed Thomas, cheerfully, one day when they were making a futile attempt at mopping the floor.  “Nobody’s as careful about sanitation when it’ll all just freeze anyway, so when it all starts turning warm….Phew!”

Rouse told Padgett, “You’ve nothing to talk about until you’ve been to Flanders.  The rain never seems to stop, and it’s all flat as billiard-table.  You end up in mud up to your chest.  Blokes drowned in it; I’m no’ jesting.”

“Aye, he’s right,” said Farlow.  “My sister’s boy was up that way.  He said there weren’t no words to describe it.”  He shook his head solemnly, then continued in a more jocular tone, “And one fine day, they were marching back to rest camp after a spell in trenches, some bloomin’ idiot from the General Staff rides up on ’is ’orse and makes them stand at attention for a quarter of an hour while he shouts at them about how their marchin’ order is ragged, and what’s worse, some of ‘em haven’t got their shoulder straps buttoned!”

Thomas had learned that that sort of story—one with a clear villain—was what you turned to, when you’d accidentally got a glimpse of the futility and absurdity of the whole thing.  Men fighting and dying over control of a patch of mud deep enough to drown in could never be funny, but an idiotic officer always could.

 At least, in hindsight it always could.  Thomas had his first face-to-face encounter with one of the breed—at least, one not weakened by wounds or illness—when the regiment they supported rotated out, and a new one rotated in.  Corporal Jessop was addressing the men from the regiment who’d been detailed to act as stretcher-bearers and extra hands in times of heavy casualties.  He’d moved on from explaining what was expected of them, and was telling them what to expect from Captain Allenby, only to be interrupted by the arrival of a very young lieutenant in a forage cap and a suspiciously clean uniform. 

He arrived just in time to hear Jessop saying something like, “You’ll find young Allenby a pleasant officer—”

Rouse spotted the lieutenant, shouted, “Hut!” and they all snapped to attention. 

The lieutenant took his time returning their salutes, then strode over to  Corporal Jessop, his boot-heels ringing on the duckboard floor, and said, “What did you just say?”

“Sir, I was telling the men that they’ll find our medical officer, Captain Allenby, to be a fine and capable officer.”

“Only you didn’t call him Captain Allenby, did you?”

“No, sir.  I spoke carelessly, and I apologize.”

That wasn’t good enough for the lieutenant, of course.  He proceeded to tear a strip off poor Jessop, banging on about how respect for an officer’s commission was respect for the King, and threatening to put him on report and have his stripes.

There was a lot more to it than that, but Thomas tried not to listen too closely.  He’d not have listened at all, or watched, but the lieutenant had left them all at attention, so there was nothing to be done but stand there. 

Nothing, that is, but say, “Yes, sir,” when the lieutenant concluded by cautioning him and Rouse not to learn from Jessop’s “disgraceful example.” 

 It was a bloody awful show, and once the lieutenant had left—never having said what he was there for in the first place—Thomas retreated as soon as he decently could to the storeroom/orderlies’ quarters, for a calming cigarette. 

Rouse joined him a few moments later.  “Like watching your old dad grovel in front of the pit boss, innit?” he said sympathetically.

“Don’t have a dad,” Thomas said, irrelevantly.  “Who does he think he is, anyway?” God knew Lord Grantham could be a fathead, but he wouldn’t do that.  Nor Mr. Matthew, neither. 

Rouse shrugged.  “Some public-school puppy, I reckon.  I was a corporal for a bit too, you know.  Till I lost my stripes for calling one of that lot a gobshite.”

“Why’d you do that?” Thomas asked.

“Cause he was being a gobshite.”  He lit a cigarette.  “It was to do with some bloke who had the shell-shock real bad.  Bangin’ on about how he was a coward and a disgrace to his uniform and all that.  It got my blood up, cause the bloke was a miner, and that takes guts, you know?” 

Thomas had only the vaguest acquaintance with mining—either the civilian or the Army kind—but he nodded and said, “Too right.”

“My trouble is, I spent the last couple of years before the war where I had to stand up to blokes like that, and not let ‘em get away with thinking they were any better than me.”

“Where’s that?”  Even if you were fucking them, you still had to let them think they were better than you, generally.

“University.  Scholarship lad, you know.  Studying to be a doctor, of all fucking things.  What I really ought to have done was gone back and finished—I’d be almost done now—but I thought this would be good experience.”  He scoffed.  “Which goes to show I’m not as fucking clever as I thought I was.”

“My brother knew somebody like that,” Thomas noted.  “His dad was a miner, too.”

Rouse gave him a sidelong glance.  “I’m no’ sure there’s two of us.  Where was your brother posted?”

“11th General,” Thomas said, wishing he hadn’t brought it up.  “And then some other places, and then he went down on the Albion.”

“Fuck me blind,” said Rouse.  “You’re never Fitz’s brother.”

“We had different dads,” Thomas said.  And different mums, when it came down to it.  “He always called the bloke ‘Frank,’ in his letters.  That’s you?”

“It is,” said Rouse.  “Small bloody war.  We were all fucking gutted, what happened to Fitz.”

Thomas nodded.  “The Jewish bloke wrote to me.  Sha-something.”

“Shapiro,” Rouse supplied.   “Fuck—Fitz talked about you all the time.”

“I…really can’t talk about him,” Thomas said.  He was already off-balance; the last thing he needed was to start crying or something.  God only knew what they did to you for crying in front of an officer. 

Rouse nodded.  “You don’t have to explain it to me.  I—we lost a lot of our own, up at Loos.  I transferred down here to get away from the memories.”

Thank God Rouse wasn’t going to press—Thomas felt a bit uncomfortable sitting here with him, now he knew he’d known Peter. 

When they finished their cigarettes, Rouse said, “Look, I came in here to make sure you knew someone’s got to let Captain Allenby know, before that stream of piss lands Jessop in the shit.  He’ll be able to fix it up, seeing as he outranks him.”

Thomas nodded slowly.  He could see where this was going.  “And I guess it can’t be Jessop, seeing as he’s the one that’s in the shit.”

“Right.  And seein’ as you’re his bloody batman….”

“I’m next up,” Thomas said. Of course he was.  “All right.  Any idea what I should say?”

“Well, the first thing we’ve got to do if find out is whether he actually minds Jessop calling him ‘young Allenby.’  If he doesn’t, it’ll be easy….”

It took them a couple more cigarettes apiece, but they got a strategy worked out. 

And it wasn’t long before Thomas had the opportunity of using it.  Allenby had been invited to dinner in the dugout of the newly-arrived officers, and Thomas was called upon to clean him up as best he could for the occasion.  The Captain was shaving, and Thomas was brushing his coat, when Allenby gave him the opening.  “How did it go with the new stretcher-bearers?”

“They seem a decent lot, sir,” said Thomas.  “About half of them have done it before.”  He brushed a few more strokes.  “There was one small problem, when Corporal Jessop was giving them their orientation.”

“What’s that?”

Thomas hesitated.  This was the tricky bit.  “Well, one of the new officers stopped by, and I’m afraid he happened to hear the Corporal saying something that, out of context, sounded a bit impertinent.” 

“What was he talking about?”

Thomas hesitated again.  “About you, sir.”

Allenby sighed, and looked away from the mirror, at Thomas.  “Was it ‘young Allenby,’ or something worse?”

That answered the question of whether or not he knew he was called that.  “That was it, sir.”

“I’ve been meaning to say something about that.  I never really saw any harm in it—and I know he doesn’t mean any harm—but I’ve had it brought to my attention that it’s not really setting the best example for the other men.”

“Yes, sir,” said Thomas.  Damn, this might take a bit of maneuvering after all.  “I’m glad you know he didn’t mean any harm.  He was ever so apologetic about it when the Lieutenant brought it to his attention.”

“Lieutenant Sherwood?” Captain Allenby asked.

“He didn’t give his name, sir.” 

“I was with the other three at the time, so it must have been,” said Allenby.  “They say he’s….”  He paused to choose his words.  “Recently arrived from the officers’ training school, and a bit keen on matters of protocol.”

A wet-behind-the-ears would-be martinet, then.  “I see, sir.  We’re all a bit worried he’s going to make trouble for poor Corporal Jessop.”

Allenby nodded, and turned back to the mirror.  “I’ll speak to him at dinner.  His brother officers say he’s been a bit resistant to suggestions on the subject, but if it comes down to it, I do outrank him.”

“Thank you, sir.”

A short while later, they went back out into the main room, and Allenby said, “Jessop?  A word.”

Thomas made himself busy on the other side of the room, as Corporal Jessop braced up in front of the officer and said, “Sir!” in a parade-ground voice.

“Stand easy,” Allenby said.  “Barrow’s told me all about it.  Consider yourself reprimanded, all right?  And I’ll tell the lieutenant I’ve got the matter in hand.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.  Won’t do it again, sir.”

“Good.  Uh, dismissed.”

That was how you did it. The “all right” may have been a little lacking in gravitas, but there was no need to make an unseemly display of the whole thing.

 A couple of nights later, Thomas and Rouse were summoned to the forward trench.  Two walking wounded had just come back from a patrol of six, that had come under machine-gun fire.  The others, they said, were still alive, and they’d gotten them into the shelter of a shell-hole before coming back themselves.

While Rouse started bandaging up the more seriously wounded of the two, Thomas got the other one to show him the position.  “Any idea how they saw you?”  The moon was barely a sliver, and low on the horizon. 

“If I had to guess,” the man said, “that’d be the fucking lieutenant’s shiny brass.”

Thomas sighed.  “Do I even need to ask which lieutenant?”

“You do not.”

“All right,” he said, and called “Bearers up!”

The stretcher-bearers from the regiment presented themselves, and Rouse looked up at him, raising an eyebrow in question. 

“I’ve got it,” Thomas told him.  To the bearers, he said, “I need three to go with me, and four ready to go when we get back, if I give you the OK.”

He got his seven volunteers, and sorted them out so that each party had some men who had done night work in no-man’s land before.  “Once we’re up there, we spread out a bit.  Stay low, don’t go in a straight line, and lead with your right shoulder—that makes you a smaller target, and lets them see your Red Cross armband, in case they care.  All right?”

The others agreed, and they went up. 

The patrol’s shell-hole was further away than Thomas would have liked, and there was one hair-raising moment when a flare went up, from the German side, putting the immediate area into plain daylight for a space of several seconds.  “Scatter!” Thomas shouted, when two men froze like rabbits.

Their instinctive response could have gotten them killed, but Fritz must have decided he did care to honor the Red Cross that night, because the flare wasn’t followed by either sniper or machine-gun fire.  They scuttled the rest of the way to the shell-hole without incident. 

Switching on a shielded torch, Thomas looked at each of the wounded in turn.  Two were conscious—Sherwood, who was sitting half-upright and clutching a field dressing to his chest, and a man with a leg wound.  It was a bad one, the knee barely recognizable, but he’d got a tourniquet around his thigh, so Thomas could disregard him for now. 

The others were a gut wound—probably passed out from shock—and a man who was so drenched in blood that Thomas couldn’t tell where the wound was.  As he started searching for it, the leg wound said, “In his chest.”

There it was.  There was a sodden dressing stuck over a crater just below his collarbone.  When Thomas peeled  away the dressing, the blood bubbled up sluggishly, in time with the man’s pulse.  “Here,” he said, getting out another dressing.  “Keep pressure on that.”

The leg wound did so, saying hopefully, “It’s bleedin’ slower than it was.”

That was because he was nearly out of blood to lose.  And even if they got him back to the Aid Post before he ran completely dry, there was nothing they could do. 

Thomas moved on to the gut wound.  That was a nasty one, too, but they’d done an all right job with the field dressings; he might survive long enough to die of infection in a base hospital.  He set one of the experienced stretcher-bearers to changing the field dressings and turned back to Sherwood. 

“I’m,” gasp, “fine,” he said, as Thomas carefully peeled away the dressing to have a look at his wound.  “Help,” gasp,” the others,” gasp.

Oh, for pity’s sake.  He really was a kid, wasn’t he?  Shot before he even had a chance to learn there were no points given for facing death like the hero of a boys’ adventure story.  Tossing the old dressing aside and getting out a new one, Thomas asked the leg wound, “Was he breathing easier before?”

“He was,” the man confirmed.  “’e seemed almost all right when we first got down here.  He did the bandaging on my leg.”

“Right,” said Thomas, carefully not thinking about how it was that he knew there was a type of chest wound that went like that, and that the poor sod that had it could be saved if he got into the hands of someone with the right bit of know-how quick enough.  “We take him, and him,” he said to the stretcher-bearers, indicating Sherwood and the gut wound. 

“No,” said Sherwood.  “Cart,” gasp, “wright,” gasp, “’s worse.” 

Thomas glanced at the leg wound.  “Is that Cartwright?” he asked, indicating the other chest wound.

“Yes.” Gasp.

“He’s past help, sir.”

“Billings,” gasp, “then.”

“Billings could stay here till Tuesday and still be all right.”  He’d lose the leg, if they didn’t get the tourniquet off soon, but he’d probably lose it anyway.  “You, on the other hand, are in a pretty bad way, but there just might be something the doctor can do.  Sir.”

 Turning to Billings—the leg wound—Thomas went on, “The next party should be along in less than half an hour.  But we’ll leave you some supplies, in case something changes and you have to wait a bit longer.”  One of the stretcher-bearers started getting out the rations and water bottles they’d brought along for this eventuality, and Thomas gave Billings a couple of morphine tablets, tucking a few more into his breast pocket.  “If we haven’t got you out of here by dawn, you can take some more then, and another dose in the afternoon.”  Billings would already know that if they hadn’t rescued him by morning, they wouldn’t be able to try again until nightfall.  “Keep the tourniquet on.  Have you got cigarettes?  Here.”  Thomas gave him a fistful.

Lieutenant Sherwood was still trying to argue about it as they loaded him onto the stretcher, but Thomas told the stretcher-bearers to ignore him.  “We stay low, and keep moving,” he told them.  “Even if they send up a flare,” he added, looking at the two who had frozen.  “My guess is they realize what we’re up to and have decided to leave us alone, but if they do fire at us, hit the ground and crawl to the nearest shell-hole.  We’ll reassess from there whether we can recover the wounded again.”

“You mean…leave them?” the youngest of the stretcher-bearers asked.

Dropping his voice low enough that the two patients wouldn’t hear, he said, “If the trip back doesn’t go smoothly, neither one of them has much of a chance, whatever we do.”  The gut wound barely had a chance either way, and Sherwood did only if Thomas had guessed right about what was wrong with him and if there were no delays getting him back.  “Come on.”

They heaved both stretchers up out of the shell hole.  “We’ll go first,” he said to the man who was carrying Sherwood with him, “and you two give us about thirty seconds’ lead.  No point in us getting bunched up.”  The others nodded understanding.  “Let’s go.”

They went.  After they’d been running for a minute or two, there was a burst of machine gun fire, but it wasn’t close—aimed at a combatant party somewhere else, maybe.  Still, it made the bloke at the other end of the stretcher hesitate, until Thomas yelled, “Keep going, you bastard!”

At the parapet, they handed the stretcher over to the waiting bearers and threw themselves back in, getting themselves sorted out just in time to help bring in the second stretcher.  Rouse was already looking at Sherwood, so Thomas helped the young bearer to his feet, saying, “You all right?”

He nodded, shakily. 

Thomas caught the eye of one of the man from the other end of the stretcher.  “I’ve got him,” he said. 

Nodding, Thomas turned back to Sherwood and Rouse.  “Go and get Allenby,” Rouse was saying to Padgett, who had turned up while they were gone.  “Tell ‘im it’s a collapsed lung.” 

“Collapsed lung,” Padgett repeated.  “Is that—”

“Go!” Rouse shouted. 

Padgett went. 

One of the men from the second stretcher party asked Thomas, “Are we up now?”

“Two of you are,” Thomas told him.  “When you’re ready.  It’s a leg wound, he’s got some time.  The other one….” He hesitated.  “He was still hanging in there when we left, but I doubt he’ll still be alive when you get there.  It’s up to you.”

The other four men exchanged looks, and hoisted both stretchers up out of the trench.

Thomas took a moment to look for the other three men from his party—they were all sitting together, trying to buck up the young lad, who was having a bit of a wobbly spell—and told them to come back to the Aid Post in a bit if they wanted an extra rum ration, then grabbed a helper from among the spectators and took Cartwright back to the Aid Post.   They passed Captain Allenby on the way; he had his medical bag and was hauling arse. 

Jessop was holding down the fort; he had one of the walking wounded on a stretcher in the rack, and the other was sitting up and drinking a cup of tea.  Seeing them, Jessop took over the other end of the stretcher and helped Thomas slide him into another of the racks.  “Any more coming?” he asked.

“Second stretcher-party’s just gone out,” Thomas said.  “They’ll bring in at least one.  A leg wound and…the other one’s  a chest.”

The tea-drinker looked over at them.  “Cartwright, or the Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Cartwright, I’m afraid,” Thomas said. 

The tea-drinker swore.

“Lieutenant Sherwood’s the collapsed lung?” asked Jessop. 

Thomas nodded. 

Jessop started preparing a morphine injection for the gut wound.  “Those are nasty, but there might be something Captain Allenby can do.  Have you seen one before?”

Thomas shook his head.   “No—just heard of it.  If you’ve got this covered, I’d better go back up before the other stretchers get back.”  That was true, and also gave Jessop no opportunity to ask any further questions.

When he got back to the forward trench, the men on the periscope told him that the second stretcher party had just gone into the shell hole, so he went over to see how Rouse and Captain Allenby were managing with Sherwood.

The young lieutenant was sitting up on his stretcher, his coat and shirt open, taking deep breaths.  “All right, sir?” Thomas asked, pitching the question somewhere between him and Captain Allenby, who was crouched next to the stretcher. 

It was Captain Allenby who answered, standing up as he did so.  “Yes—we got to him in the nick of time.  What are we expecting in the next lot?”

Thomas told him, “A leg, alert and stable, and a chest hemorrhage, unconscious, pulse nearly undetectable.”

Allenby nodded.  “I’ll go back to the post with this one,” he decided.  “Rouse!”

The next stretcher-party arrived moments after Allenby and Rouse had left with Sherwood.   The two pairs hadn’t thought to stagger their departure from the shell hole—and Thomas hadn’t thought to tell them to—so they arrived on top of each other.  Thomas helped hand the stretchers down, then checked on Billings, the leg wound 

He was considerably less alert than he’d been, but that was thanks to the morphine.  His pulse and breathing were still strong.  “He can go up to the Aid Post—the Corporal’ll tell you where to put him.”

Then he turned to check Cartwright.  The fresh dressing that Thomas had put on him wasn’t even soaked through, and he was stone dead.  He probably had been when they picked him up, but the two bearers were looking at Thomas expectantly.  He shook his head.  “Put him aside for the Padre.”

Feeling suddenly tired, Thomas trudged up to the Aid Post.  Captain Allenby had the gut wound—whose name Thomas still didn’t know—on the trestles; Billings had taken his place on the stretcher racks, and Sherwood was on his stretcher on the floor—because, it took Thomas only seconds to realize, he was refusing to lie down and shut up.  “Where’s Cartwright?” he demanded, a hysterical edge to his voice, the moment he saw Thomas.

“He didn’t make it, sir,” said Thomas, apologetically.  “He’d lost too much blood.”

“How would you know?” Sherwood demanded, his voice rising in pitch and volume.  “You thought I was dying, and I’m fine.  I told you to bring him back.  I told you.  If you had just listened to me, he wouldn’t be—”

Suddenly and horrifyingly, Lieutenant Sherwood started to cry. 

Oh, Christ.  This was the first time Sherwood had lost a man under his command, wasn’t it?  He’d never been on the line before, so it had to be.  Thomas stood frozen, completely at a loss for what he was supposed to do about this development.

Fortunately, two other people in the room outranked him, in addition to the weeping lieutenant.  Allenby, halfway up to his elbows in the other bloke’s abdomen, said, “Jessop, can you…?”

“I’ve got it, sir,” said Jessop, going to the young man’s side. 

“Barrow,” Allenby continued, “see if you can round up one of his brother officers.”

“Sir.”

As he left, he heard Allenby continue, “Farlow, put the kettle on.  Padgett….”

This time of night, with patrols out, the company officers could be anywhere, but the best place to start looking for one was in their dugout.  Even if there wasn’t one of them there, their servant might be, and he’d know where to try next. 

Luckily, there was one there, sitting at a small desk doing paperwork.  “Sir,” Thomas said.

The officer looked up, and it was Lieutenant Crawley.  “Barrow,” he said.  “What are you…never mind.  What is it?”

“Captain Allenby has requested your help, sir.  It’s Lieutenant Sherwood.”

“Oh,” said Lieutenant Crawley, capping his pen and reaching for his tin hat.  “What’s he done now?”

“He’s at the Aid Post, and he’s a little…overwrought, sir.  His patrol ran into some trouble.”

“Is he hurt?” Lieutenant Crawley asked, heading for the coat-rack.

There was only one officer’s greatcoat on it, so Thomas took it down and held it for Lieutenant Crawley to put on.  “He is, and one of the men has died.  He’s not taking it well.  The whole patrol was injured, so Captain Allenby has his hands full, and he’d like another officer to….”  Thomas trailed off, unsure of how exactly to describe what was required.

“To hold his hand,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “Yes, I understand.”  Buttoning his coat, he added, “We’re not exactly chums, but I’ll do my best.”

They hurried back to the Aid Post.  By the time they got there, Sherwood was weeping into Jessop’s shoulder.  Thomas averted his eyes, and helped Captain Allenby finish scattering disinfectant onto the gut wound and bandaging him up. 

“I’ll have a look at the leg, next,” Allenby said, so Thomas and Rouse put the gut wound up on the racks and brought out the leg—Billings.  He was pretty dozy, and did nothing more than lift his head and grunt when Allenby probed at his wound.  “How long has this tourniquet been on?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” said Thomas.  “He said that Lieutenant Sherwood did it, before he started having trouble breathing.”

“Did you try loosening it?” Captain Allenby asked.

“No, sir.” 

“Probably just as well.  He got it on before there was too much blood loss, but in this mess, I’d be astonished if the femoral artery’s intact.  Get some gauze ready.”

Thomas  did so, and Allenby loosened the tourniquet.  There was a sudden spurt of blood.  Thomas managed to catch most of it with the gauze, and all of the second spurt.  After that, Captain Allenby tightened the tourniquet again, saying, “Yes, we’ll be leaving that on.  Hand me the—”  Rouse handed him the iodoform powder.  “Thank you.”

Once he’d disinfected and bandaged that wound, he said, “We’ll send all five back to the dressing station.”  He glanced over at Jessop, who would normally assign the orderlies their tasks, but had his hands full with Lieutenant Sherwood—literally; he was still clinging on to Jessop and sniveling.   “Rouse, go to the signals hut and phone the collecting post, to have ambulances ready for three stretcher cases and two walkers, then phone the 47th and give them the case details.  Padgett, round up bearers—ten if you can get them; I don’t want the two lightly wounded walking if it can be helped.  Farlow, you’re on tea and cigarettes; Barrow, get started on the tally-cards.”

Tally-cards were the labels, like large luggage tags, that they attached to each patient in transit.  Thomas often wrote them out, because he had the best handwriting of any of them.   He grabbed five blank ones and started taking down the essential details of each case, as Captain Allenby gave them to him: initial diagnosis, treatments so far, and most importantly, how much morphine each case had already had, and when. 

Lieutenant Sherwood’s condition was described as “pneumothorax,” which Thomas had to ask how to spell.  By that point, the Lieutenant himself had begun to pull himself together a bit and take an interest in what was going on around him.  Thomas would have preferred it if he’d kept on having hysterics for another minute or two. 

With the medical details written down, Captain Allenby slipped out, and Thomas moved on to collecting the men’s pay-books, so he could get their full names and service numbers.  He took his time with that, and with putting the pay-books back and hanging the tags on the men’s buttons, because the next thing up was to get Lieutenant Sherwood’s details, and he’d just as soon leave that for after Captain Allenby had got back, if he had a choice in the matter. 

By the time he’d dragged the task out as much as he could, Sherwood was sitting up and trying to look like he’d never cried in his life, and giving some kind of report to Lieutenant Crawley.  Farlow managed to give him a cup of tea and a cigarette without getting his head bitten off, so Thomas approached him cautiously.  “Sir, I just need your details for your medical record.”

“S-H-E-R-W-O-O-D.” 

“Thank you, sir.”  He could have figured that part out for himself.  “And your Christian name?”

“Christopher.”

Thomas wrote it.  “Service number?”

Sherwood gave it, and his regiment and battalion. 

Thomas took it down.  “All right.  That’s all I need, sir.”  He went to put the tag on him, and Sherwood flinched dramatically. 

“You can put it on yourself if you’d rather, lad—sir,” said Jessop, taking the card from Thomas and handing it to Sherwood.  “It just goes over the button, like that.”

Thomas retreated. 

A few moments later, Captain Allenby did come back.  He met Thomas’s eye and nodded.  Thomas had no idea what he meant to convey with this signal, but nodded back.  Allenby went over to where Sherwood, Jessop, and Lieutenant Crawley were sitting and pulled up a crate to sit on.  “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Fine,” said Sherwood.  “Sir.”

“I’ve just had a look at Corporal Cartwright.   His wound was severe, and he lost too much blood, too quickly for anyone to have done anything about it.  Not Barrow, not me, and not you.”

“Yes, sir,” said Sherwood, dully.

“Now, Private Billings, on the other hand—he said you put the tourniquet on his leg?”

“Yes, sir.  I did First Aid in Scouts.”

Scouts.  Christ.  Thomas wished he wasn’t listening to this.  He didn’t want to pity Sherwood.  But the next thing that needed to be done was tidying up the treatment area, and he couldn’t decently leave it for Farlow to do on his own.  He busied himself with sorting dressings to be laundered from ones to be burnt.

“You made a very neat job of it,” said Allenby.  “Leg wounds—you may know—can bleed a great deal, if the major blood vessel is severed.  His was.  He could very well have lost a dangerous amount of blood as well, before my chaps got there, if you hadn’t known what to do.”

“It was my fault he got hurt, sir,” said Sherwood, wretchedly.  “It was my first patrol, and I got every one of my men hurt.  And I got Cartwright k—”  His voice broke.  “—illed.”

Allenby nodded.  “Yes,” he said gravely.  “You did.  I don’t know whether there’s anything you could have done differently to avoid getting them—and yourself—hurt.  But you were in command of them, so what happened is your responsibility, whether you did anything wrong or not.”

Sherwood sniffled.

“Now, you’re looking at a few months’ convalescence, but there’s every likelihood that you’ll be cleared for active service again at the end of it.  The only thing you can do now—for Cartwright; for anyone—is to think about how you can use this to become a better officer.”

“Yes, sir.”  He hesitated.  “But how….?”

 “To start with, you’re alive, and you’re probably going to be fine, because Lance-Corporal Barrow and Private Rouse knew what to do.  If Barrow had listened to you, Cartwright would still be dead, and you probably would be, too.  Do you understand the moral of this story, or do I need to act it out with puppets?”

“No, sir.  I mean—I understand.” 

“The other part—whether you did anything wrong on the patrol or not—I don’t know.  But there’ll be plenty of other line officers where you’re going.  I recommend that you ask them.”

“He’s right,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “The training school doesn’t teach us anything that’s worth knowing, about how to fight in this kind of war.  You have to learn it from men who have done it.  Brother officers, and your NCOs.”

Thomas saw out of the corner of his eye that Sherwood was nodding.  “Yes.”  He heaved in a deep breath.  “I see.”

“Are you starting to have trouble breathing again?” Captain Allenby asked. 

“A little,” said Sherwood.

Thomas tossed the handful of bandages he was holding into the bin, and stood by in case he was needed.

“Let’s have a listen,” said Allenby, taking out his stethoscope.  Jessop helped Sherwood open his coat again and lean forward.  “Take a deep breath for me.  One more.  All right.  I think that we had better do the treatment again.  Barrow?  Jessop?”

The three of them went over to the corner by the instrument cabinets. Speaking in a low voice, Allenby asked, “Have either of you ever aspirated a pneumothorax before?”

They both shook their heads.  Jessop added, “I’ve seen it done, sir.”

“Good,” he said.  “Then you’re going to do this one, and then go with him to the Dressing Station, in case it needs to be done again en route.  I don’t like how quickly it’s filled up again.”

“Sir,” said Jessop, a bit dubiously.

“It’ll be fine.  I’ve already done the tricky part, and I’ll walk you through it.”  Captain Allenby went on to explain the procedure—sucking the excess air out of the chest cavity with a large needle, just as Thomas had heard before.  “The really important part, if you do have to stop and do this in the field, is keeping the needle sterile, and cleaning the site thoroughly.  We don’t want to introduce a lot of germs into his thoracic cavity.”

“Yes, sir,” Jessop said, a little more confidently.  “I suppose it’s not too different from drawing blood, when you get down to it.”

“No, not terribly different.  The initial injection took quite a bit more force, but you’ll be going in through the existing puncture.  That should also make it easier to tell when you’ve hit the pleural space—if you encounter resistance, you’ll have gone in too far.” 

“Yes, sir.  And what’s the pleural space when it’s at home?”

“Oh—the space between the chest wall and the lung.  It’s normally quite small, but since the reason we’re doing this is that there’s a great big pocket of air in there, it’ll be considerably easier to find.”

“I see, sir.  Well, I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Captain Allenby nodded.  “I’ll give him a hair more morphine before we start—really, I’m surprised he’s still upright—but it might be best if we…allow him to form the impression that you have done one of these before.  We’ll play it like I’m describing the procedure for Barrow’s benefit.  All right?”

They agreed to this plan, but while Captain Allenby giving Sherwood his injection, Rouse returned. 

“Oh,” Allenby said.  “There you are.  Did you get through to them?”

“Yes, sir.  Wires were down, but they were nearly done with the repairs, so I waited there.”

 “Good.  Have you done an aspiration on a pneumothorax before?”

Thomas thought that, if Lieutenant Sherwood had not been under the influence of a morphine injection, the slight emphasis that Allenby placed on you might have given the game away, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“No, sir.”

“Observe this one, then.  I’ll explain the procedure as Corporal Jessop performs it.”

Thomas wasn’t sure if he was still supposed to play audience, now that Rouse was here, but he hadn’t been told to leave, so he thought he might as well watch.  Lieutenant Crawley was still hanging about as well, and Allenby didn’t tell him to leave, either. 

While Thomas and Rouse got Sherwood out of his shirt and coat, Allenby started by explaining the indications for the procedure, drawing their attention to Sherwood’s labored breathing.  “In the field, you can let it get a bit worse than this before you aspirate.  It’s much better to do this in a hospital.  But we know that this particular case progresses rapidly, so we’re going to do it while conditions are the best we’re going to get.  Jessop, if he’s about at this stage when you get to the collecting post, for instance, I should recommend doing it there, rather than risk having to stop the ambulance on the way.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jessop.

Allenby went on to explain how he’d chosen where to stick the needle, passing the stethoscope around so that they could all—except Lieutenant Crawley—hear the difference between the lung and the air pocket in the pleural space. 

“Don’t I just go in the spot you marked, sir?” Jessop asked.  Allenby had drawn a circle round the previous needle-hole, with an indelible pencil.

“Yes, that’s right.  It’s not terribly likely that any of you will need to know how to choose a site for one of these—well, Rouse, perhaps, after the war.  But you want a doctor to do the initial one, if at all possible.”  He continued, “Our needle’s sterile, so the next step is to disinfect the site.”  As Thomas did so, he went on to explain, “It may be necessary to repeat this procedure multiple times before the patient can be gotten into surgery, and the site must be cleaned, and the needle sterilized, just as carefully each time.  Now—Jessop, slide the needle in.  The hole’s already there, so there should be very little resistance.”

They all held their breaths, Lieutenant Sherwood included, as Jessop inserted the needle. 

“A bit further, I think you’ll find,” Allenby said.  “That’s it.  Pull the plunger back, slowly.”  As Jessop did so, he explained, “If you’ve gotten your diagnosis wrong, the syringe might start to fill up with blood or fluid.  In an absolutely dire emergency, you can proceed with draining it the same way, but it’s even more important to get the patient into surgery.  This one’s going as expected—you can withdraw the needle now, and express the air.”

He listened to Sherwood’s lungs again.  “We haven’t quite got it all, so we’re going to do it again,” he said.  “In the field, you might just do it once at a time, since it’ll be hard to tell how big the air pocket still is, but again, these are the best conditions we’re going to have for a while, so we’ll make a thorough job of it.  Now, what are you going to do before you reinsert the needle?”

“Clean it, and the site, sir,” Jessop said.

“Give the man a cigar.  Go on.”

The second round went just as smoothly as the first, and soon they were doing Sherwood’s clothes back up.  Allenby said, “Barrow, put on his card, needle aspiration and a quarter-grain of morphine at—”  He checked his watch.  “0330.”

After that, the next order of business was starting all five wounded on their journey to the dressing station.  Padgett had managed to find the ten requested stretcher-bearers—who had been patiently waiting in the storeroom for a while now—so Captain Allenby sent them off with Jessop and Padgett as medical escorts.

“Well,” said Captain Allenby to Lieutenant Crawley, who was picking himself up off the floor and dusting himself off, “if you haven’t to rush off to your duties, I think we can spare of a cup of tea.” 

“Thank you,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “That might be just what I need to get through till morning-stand to.”  As Thomas started fixing the tea, he went on, “What you said to him, about the patrol, was rather good.  Do you mind if I borrow it, should the occasion arise?”

“By all means,” said Allenby.  “I thought it was rather good, when I was on the receiving end of it, myself.  During my medical training.”

“Ah,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “First time you lost a patient?”

“First time I lost one I thought I had a chance of saving,” Captain Allenby said, with a nod. “The last thing I wanted to hear was that I wasn’t to blame—because I knew it wasn’t true.  Thank you, by the way, for sitting with him.  Jessop and Padgett are both good at that sort of thing, but….”

“But considering what he’s like, you wanted an officer,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “I understand.”  Thomas handed him a cup of tea, and he said, “Thanks—and how are you doing, Barrow?”

“Well enough, sir.”

“I thought you were at a dressing station.  Have you been transferred?”

“Seconded, sir, along with Captain Allenby and Corporal Jessop.  Just for a bit.”  They were due to go back to the station in less than a week.

“I’ll have to let them all know I’ve seen you, next time I write.”

“So will I, sir.”  He hadn’t written to anyone since before they’d come to the Front.  Quite a bit before.   “Have they had that benefit concert yet?”

“They’re planning it for around Christmas, and then another one in the spring, I believe.”

For a moment, Thomas wondered what he’d be doing, if he was still there, but quashed that thought.  “That seems sensible.  Having it at Christmas time, I mean.”  Everyone was more inclined to open their wallets that time of year.

“Yes—I suppose it’ll keep everyone’s spirits up,” said Lieutenant Crawley. 

Captain Allenby came over, carrying two cups of tea.  Handing one to Thomas, he said, “I hadn’t realized you two were acquainted.”

Thomas hesitated.  Unfortunately, so did Lieutenant Crawley.  God only knew why, but if someone didn’t say something soon, Captain Allenby was likely to come to an unfortunate conclusion.  “Lieutenant Crawley’s a cousin of the family I used to work for, sir,” Thomas said. 

“Er, yes,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “I’ve been trying to keep that a bit quiet.”

Why?  “Sir,” Thomas said, attempting to convey with the single word that he could not possibly be expected to come up with an appropriate cover story if he had no idea what it was about the situation that Lieutenant Crawley—or Mr. Matthew—wished to conceal.

“I just, uh, I feel it gives people a more accurate impression, if they know me as a solicitor from Manchester.”

Oh—it was the “future Earl of Grantham” bit that he was making a secret of.  Since Thomas hadn’t actually said anything about that part—nor had he, as far as he could remember, ever mentioned exactly where he used to work—Lieutenant Crawley would have been better off keeping his mouth shut. But Thomas could hardly say that, so he settled on, “Sir,” again.

“I feel I’ve missed something,” said Captain Allenby, delicately.  “But I’m sure it’s none of my business.”

“It’s not really a secret,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “A couple of years before the war, I became my cousin’s heir, is all.  But it wasn’t something I had any expectation of, before it happened, so….”  He trailed off, then took a large sip of tea, as if to forestall any further questions.

“Of course,” said Captain Allenby, still sounding a bit puzzled.  “I certainly won’t spread it around, if that’s what you want.” 

“Thank you,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  He finished the tea and handed the cup back to Thomas.  “I suppose I should be off.  We’ll need to figure out what to do with Sherwood’s platoon, until we get a replacement.”

He took his leave, and Thomas, Rouse, and Captain Allenby sat down on the waiting-area crates—Fowler had disappeared somewhere.  “I shouldn’t pry,” the Captain said, lighting a cigarette, “but I take it this cousin of Crawley’s is Lord Somebody-or-other?”

“Yes, sir.”  How did he know that

“You’ve called me ‘my lord,’ a time or two,” Allenby explained. 

Thomas was very nearly certain that he had done no such thing.  “Sir.”

“When you were more-or-less dead on your feet,” he added.  “One of those busy times we had.  I figured it must have been a habit.”

Thomas supposed he ought to be glad it hadn’t been “your grace.”  “Sir,” he said again.

To Thomas’s profound relief, Captain Allenby changed the subject.  “I’m not sure if you heard, when I was talking to Sherwood, but you did the right thing, bringing him in first.  I’m not sure he’d have lasted, until the second stretcher-party got back.”

“Yes, sir.  I did hear, but thank you.”

Rouse added, “I was wondering, did you recognize the collapsed lung, or was it just that you knew t’other bloke was a goner either way?”

“A bit of both,” Thomas said, no longer sure that he preferred this topic to the previous one.  “I’d heard of it, and that it can sound like the bloke’s breathing his last, but there’s something to be done if you get him to a doctor quick enough.  I were only guessing he might have one, but—like you said, there was nothing to do for the other chest wound, and the leg wound could stand to wait.”  

“Still,” said Captain Allenby, “it’s difficult, making that kind of decision.  Even without somebody second-guessing you afterwards.”

Thomas shrugged.  It hadn’t been difficult—there’d only been one sensible thing to do, and he’d done it.  But he could sort of see, dimly, as if through a curtain, how it could have been difficult.  If he’d thought about a telegram-boy knocking on a door, and how somebody on the other side of it, whose world was about to be torn in two. 

He closed his eyes and drew the curtain closed.  “He’s young,” he said.  “He wanted it to be like a story.”

“Hm?” asked Rouse.

“One of those stories where the arrogant young prince does the right and noble thing at the last minute, so all is forgiven and everyone is saved,” Thomas explained. 

“Oh,” said Allenby.  “Yes, I see.” 

Rouse shook his head and said disgustedly, “And they put a kid like that in charge of men’s lives.  What do you suppose is the most important thing he’s ever had charge of before—a Sunday school picnic?”

“A Scout hike, probably,” Captain Allenby corrected, his voice gentle.  “He was a Boy Scout.”

Thomas lit a cigarette.  “He did do a decent job with the tourniquet.” 

Rouse glanced over at him.  “I thought that was one of yours.  He did it?”

“Learned it in Scouts,” Thomas said. 

“Christ,” said Rouse.  “Well, he did do one right thing, then.”

“And somebody was saved,” Captain Allenby added. 

Chapter Text

20 November, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I hope you’re well—and that this letter catches up to you, wherever you are!  Lady Mary heard from Mr. Matthew that he ran into you at the Front again.  She said it sounded as though you were working there now—doing first aid for the men in the trenches, or something like that.  Since the last any of us heard, apart from field postcards, was that you were in charge of several wards at your hospital, we are all wondering what happened.  I’m sure that what you’re doing at the Front is also an important and responsible job, but I wonder if it’s dangerous.

Everything here is much the same.  William has signed up for the Derby scheme, but promised his father that he won’t go to the war until his group is called.  Some men came from the scheme to talk to Mr. Bates as well, but once he showed them his discharge papers from when he was in the Army before, they said that he didn’t need to do anything further.  He offered to assist with the canvassing, but they haven’t gotten back to him.  His lordship is doing something to do with recruiting, but I’m not sure what it is.  Lady Mary says that he is dissatisfied with it, because it mostly involves going to meetings. 

The hospital benefit concert has finally been scheduled, for the Sunday before Christmas.  Lady Mary will play the piano and Lady Edith plans to sing.  Lady Sybil would like to do a recitation, but she and her ladyship have not been able to agree on a piece yet.  Apparently everything Lady Sybil has proposed so far is a little advanced for a village audience. 

We are working on a Christmas parcel for you, and will send it soon.  Please tell me if there is anything in particular you’d like.

Love,

Anna Smith

Thomas had tried several times to write a reply—both while he was still at the Aid Post and now that he was back—but had never gotten much further than “Dear Anna.”  This time, he had managed,

                29 November, 1915

Dear Anna,

I’m fine, and I’m back at the Dressing Station.  I was only up at the Front for a few weeks.  One of the doctors here was getting some experience working at a Regimental Aid Post, and they sent me and some others up with him. 

While he was thinking about what to say next, a large drop of water splatted onto the paper.  With a growl of frustration, he pulled his waterproof groundsheet more firmly over his head.  He was on linen duty again, and, craving solitude, had come back to the billet before dinner.  It was clearly a mistake; now, the barn was not only wet, but freezing cold.  They’d been issued a small woodstove, but they weren’t given enough fuel to light it when he was the only one here—and, in any case, the scant heat it produced went straight out the roof. 

He lit a cigarette, warming his fingers over the flame of the lighter.  Well, this was bollocks.  There really wasn’t anything for it but to go back to the station.  At least he could warm up there.

He thought about throwing away the letter, but it was the farthest he’d gotten yet, so he folded it up, and put it and his pen and ink into his pockets.  Maybe the others would leave him alone if he was absorbed in writing a letter.

It wasn’t likely, but stranger things had happened.

When he got to the orderlies’ room, he founded it more than usually crowded—everyone else who had a bit of a break was already there.  He squeezed into a spot at a table with some of the others from the billet.  “All right,” said Rawlins.  “If Barrow can’t stick it, the barn is officially unfit for human life.”

“Unfit for any life,” Thomas said.  “I saw the mice packing their bags.” 

“I mean it,” Rawlins said.  “We’ve got to do something.”

“Like what?” asked Thomas.  “Start a mutiny?”

“We’ll call that Plan B,” said Rawlins. 

“What’s Plan A?” asked Plank.

“What we have to do,” Rawlins said, “is make an official complaint.  We say that we understand the billeting situation is difficult, but we’ve been very patient, and with winter coming on, the bloody barn is injurious to our health, and we’re not going to take it lying down anymore.”

Thomas scoffed.  “You do that.”  It wouldn’t accomplish anything.

“Me?” said Rawlins.  “No, no.  You’re going to do it.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the bloody lance-corporal.”

Fuck.  He was, wasn’t he?  “I’m not saying the part about not taking it lying down,” he said.  “That could be considered mutinous.”

“Fine, fine,” Rawlins conceded.  “You can just say we’re fed up.”

“And who am I saying this to?”

“Um….”  Rawlins looked around the table.  Nobody else knew, either.  “The Wardmaster?”

“No,” said Thomas.

“All right, what about that MO who likes you?” Rawlins suggested.

“What’s he going to do about it?” Thomas asked.  

“I don’t know; he’s an officer!”

Thomas sighed.  “I’ll ask Corporal Jessop.  He’ll probably have some idea.”

“There you go!” said Rawlins.  “I knew you’d know what to do.”

“I’m not promising anything,” Thomas warned them.

What he learned from Jessop, when he found him in the NCOs’ room the next day, was not encouraging.  “An official complaint?  Well, then, it’s the Billeting Sergeant you want.”

“Who’s he?”  Thomas hadn’t known they had one. 

It turned out that they didn’t have one, exactly—they shared him with the Transport Corps, and his office was in one of their buildings.  “But I wouldn’t expect to get much joy of him,” Corporal Jessop added.  “Nobody’s happy with his billet.”

“I know,” Thomas said, with a sigh.  “Ours is pretty bad, though.”

“You lot have that barn out Petticoat Lane, don’t you?” Jessop asked.   “It looks sturdier than some.”

“It’s the roof that’s the problem—it leaks like a sieve.”

“Can’t you just bunch up in the dry parts?”

“There aren’t any.  We could just about stand it in the summer, but we’re all going to get pneumonia before we go on much longer.”

“Well, that’d solve the problem—we could put you all in the Sick ward.” 

Thomas hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  “I did have one idea—if we could get our hands on a bell tent, we could put that in the barn.  Then we’d have the walls to block the wind, and the canvas to keep the rain off.”

Corporal Jessop scratched his chin.  “Let’s go and have a word with the Supply Sergeant.  He’s one of our own; we might have more luck with him.”

So they went to the Supply Sergeant.  He was shaking his head before Corporal Jessop was halfway through explaining what they wanted.  “The only tents we have are the big marquees we use for extra wards.  I can’t give you one of those, and in any case, it’s too big for what you have in mind.  I should see the Billeting Sergeant if I were you.”

“D’you have any ideas about how to put him in a helpful frame of mind?” Jessop asked.

“Not unless you’ve got a Sweet Polly Oliver in your section,” the Sergeant said.  “And she’d have to have pretty loose morals, to boot.”

“I’m fairly sure we’d have noticed by now if one of us was actually female,” Thomas said.  He considered making a joke about putting Rawlins in a dress, but rejected the notion, and very firmly did not think about how he’d ever known anyone who’d have leapt at the opportunity.  “What about an estaminet girl?”  They could pool their money.

The Sergeant shook his head.  “He knows them all.”

Jessop sighed.  “It looks like your only choice is to appeal to his sense of duty, lad.”

“When that doesn’t work,” said the Sergeant, “I might be able to do you a few extra ground-sheets.”

“Thanks,” Thomas said.  That wouldn’t be much help, but he supposed it was better than nothing.

  After signing for the linen delivery, Thomas went into the orderlies’ room, got a cup of tea, and tried to work on the letter to Anna some more.  He wrote,

It wasn’t so bad at the Front.  We got decent quarters on account of even the General Staff realize it’s a good idea if we’re a bit less filthy than everyone else when we go sticking our fingers in wounds.  They don’t want the fighting men making themselves too at home, so they aren’t really encouraged to improve their dugouts much.

Rouse had explained that to him—the idea was that trenches were purely temporary fortifications, and making them comfortable would only make the men less eager to move the line forward.   An Aid Post, on the other hand, might become a Dressing Station, or even a Casualty Clearing Station, as the Front moved further away. 

It made a sort of sense, right up until the moment you considered the fact that the lines had barely moved since this time last year. 

He wrote on,

Now I’m back at the 47th and doing linen again.  It’s quiet work in the indoors, which is welcome because the weather’s gone cold and wet, and our barn is no better.

Rawlins dropped into the seat across from him.  “Writing to your girl again?  Thought maybe you’d called it off.”

Thomas glanced up at him.  “She’s not my girl,” he reminded him. 

“Right,” said Rawlins.  “Your friend, who is a girl.  What d’you find to say, to a girl that isn’t your girl?”

“Not much,” said Thomas.  “That’s why I haven’t written to her in a while.” 

Rawlins lit a cigarette.  “So what did old Jessop say?”

“He said we need to talk to the Billeting Sergeant—he’s over in the Transport Corps.  But he doesn’t think it’ll do any good, either.”

“It’s got to,” said Rawlins.  “We have the worst billet in the entire sector.”

“I bet lots of people think that,” Thomas pointed out.

“Yeah, but someone’s got to be right.”

He had a point there.  “It really is shit.  I didn’t want to come back, from the Front.”

“What about the shelling?”

“You learn to sleep through it.”  A few times, Thomas had woken up to find his blanket covered with a layer of dirt that had sifted down from the ceiling after a particularly nearby strike.  But it was a lot easier to shake the dirt off of a blanket than it was to dry one out. 

Rawlins shrugged.  “Should I go with you, when you talk to the Billeting Sergeant, do you think?  Might help to show that we’re speaking for the whole section.”

Thomas didn’t particularly want to do it on his own—in fact, he’d considered asking Corporal Jessop to go with him, before deciding it would make him look weak.  “Couldn’t hurt.”

“When should we go?”

 “I can’t today; I’m on standby.”  The chances of a convoy coming in were virtually nil, but it would be just his luck if they got one the one time he skived off.  “Tomorrow, I suppose.”

“All right.  After lunch?  Everybody’s in a better mood after lunch; it’s a fact of human nature.”

Thomas wasn’t so sure about that, but he didn’t have any better ideas, so he agreed.

The next afternoon, they set out for the Transport Corps’s area.  Rawlins had a number of additional suggestions about what they ought to say, leaning heavily on the theme that they were fed up, and also that they were British subjects wearing His Majesty’s uniform and entitled to decent living conditions.

After he’d run his mouth off for a while, Thomas sighed and said, “Let me do the talking, all right?”

Rawlins agreed, but that didn’t last long.  As Thomas explained the problem, the Billeting Sergeant leaned on his counter with a bored expression.  “So you don’t fancy your billet,” he said when Thomas finished.

“No, Sergeant.”

“That’s a brand-new one on me.”  He called over his shoulder, “Bill, we’ve got a couple of RAMC lads here who don’t like their billet!”

“Oh, dearie me,” said Bill, a large man with corporal’s stripes.  “We can’t have that, can we?”

“Tell you what,” said the Sergeant.  “Why don’t I ring up the Ritz and book you a half a dozen rooms?  You’ll have to double up, but there is a war on.”

This was pretty much what Thomas had expected, and he was getting ready to say Ta, but that might make it difficult to get to their shifts on time, when Rawlins interrupted, “We’re serious.  Conditions in our billet are injurious to our health, and we want to make an official complaint.”

“Ooh,” said Bill.  “An official complaint!  That’s different.”

Thomas gave Rawlins a quelling look.  “Yes.  Is there a form for that?”  He didn’t think that would do any good, either, but it might shut Rawlins up.

“Of course.”  The Sergeant reached under his counter and brought out a roll of bog paper.  “There you be.  Official complaint form number two, best used with tablet number nine.”

Rawlins opened his mouth, and Thomas trod heavily on his foot.  “Could we get one of those for every man in the billet?”  It didn’t seem likely that the Sergeant would be that committed to the joke, but if he was, they’d at least have something to show for their trouble.

“Just pass it round,” said Bill, guffawing.  “You can all sign your names.”

“It’s not funny,” said Rawlins.  “We’re asking you to do—”

Thomas spoke over him before he could actually say do your bloody job.  “What my mate means is, we understand that it’s no easy job finding places to put everyone, and every billet’s got something wrong wi’ it.  We’re not complaining about the mice, or the smell, or that we’re sleeping on flagstones harder than a landlord’s heart, are we?”  Was it his imagination, or was the Billeting Sergeant looking at him with ever so slightly less contempt?   “And in the warm months, we could just about stand having it rain indoors.  But now winter’s setting in….”

He wasn’t entirely sure how he wanted to end that sentence, and Rawlins filled in the gap with, “It’s unfit for human life, is what it is.  I doubt you could put horses in there without hearing from the RSPCA.”

With that, any good will that Thomas might have managed to accumulate was washed away.  “Private,” said the Billeting Sergeant, finally serious, “There are men at the Front who’d be bloody grateful to live in that barn.  Unless you’d like to trade places with one of them, quit your whinging, and if the roof leaks, put a bucket under it.”

“Or a bedpan,” suggested Bill, who apparently hadn’t realized that the lavatory humor portion of the conversation had finished. 

“A bucket,” said Rawlins.  “Why didn’t we think of that?  Oh, right—because there’d be no room left for us, after we put down all the buckets we’d need.” 

“Sergeant,” Thomas said.  He was going to suggest that the Sergeant visit the billet one day when it was raining.  There didn’t seem to be any other way to get across that when he said it leaked like a sieve, he wasn’t exaggerating.  The water came in through the cracks where the roof-boards met, not at any place in particular. 

But before he could cram in more than that one word edgewise, Rawlins was saying, “Anyway, Barrow’s just come back from the Front, and he says the barn’s worse!”

It was instantly obvious that that had been precisely the wrong thing to say.  He gave Thomas a look of absolute disgust.  “Really, now?  How many of your section have been killed in your billet?  How often do you wake up and realize that the rock that’s been digging into your arse all night is a bit of some other sod’s skeleton?  How much blood and shit and rotting flesh is there in the mud you get?”

There didn’t seem much point trying to explain that he’d been talking about the Regimental Aid Post, specifically, not the entire Front.  “Are you finished?” he asked Rawlins.  “Thank you, Sergeant.”

Rawlins let Thomas tow him towards the door, but he fired off a parting shot before going through it: “At least at the Front, they get to rotate back!”

Once they were outside, Thomas demanded, “What did I say about letting me do the talking?”

“He wasn’t taking us seriously!”

“I noticed!”  He ducked under the eaves of the next building over and lit a cigarette.  “You don’t get a bloke like that to take you seriously by talking down to him.”

“If he’d paid any attention to what you were saying, he’d have realized it wasn’t a bloody joke.”

“And why would he pay any more attention to us than he does to every bugger else who doesn’t like his billet?” Thomas asked.  “Because you went to fucking grammar school?”  He recognized dimly that it was a low shot—Rawlins never made anything of the fact that he’d had more education than most of them.

“I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to.  You sound like a fucking ponce.  Injurious to our health,” he mimicked.  “Christ.”

“So do you,” Rawlins said.  “You sound like more of a fucking ponce than I ever could.”

“Only when I choose to,” Thomas said, and he said it like a fucking ponce.  Belatedly, he realized that what he was doing right now was a lot closer to being an absolute tit than it was to keeping his head downLooking away from Rawlins, he fished his cigarettes back out of his pocket and angled the packet in Rawlins’s direction.

After a moment, Rawlins took one.

Once he’d lit it, Thomas said, “Somebody like that, you’ve got to show him you’re a regular bloke, right?”  Rawlins made a sound of vague agreement, and Thomas continued, “He gets enough of the high-and-mighty routine from officers, and he can’t give them any back-chat.  We come in, and it’s his turn to kick downwards.  You’ve just got to stand there and take it.  Once he gets it out of his system, then maybe you have a chance to get somewhere.”

“Oh,” said Rawlins. 

“It probably wouldn’t have worked with him, anyway,” Thomas added.  “Time for plan B.”

Rawlins glanced at him.  “I wasn’t serious about the mutiny.”

“No,” Thomas agreed, setting out toward the Dressing Station.  “But he’s not going to help us out of the goodness of his heart.”

Rawlins considered.  “Bribery?”

“Already looked into that,” Thomas answered.  “We don’t have anything he wants.  So that leaves blackmail.”

Rawlins nodded slowly.  “With what?”

“That’s what we have to figure out.  His weakness is women.  Maybe he’s led a respectable local girl astray.”  There were a few of those still around, living in what was left of the village.  “Or maybe he has the pox and we tell him it’s his choice whether we turn him in, or treat him off the books.  Or….”  Thomas couldn’t think of another example.  “Anything like that.” 

“How do we find out?”

“Tell everybody to keep their ears open.  Try to talk to the Transport blokes—the ambulance drivers, the mechanics, whoever we can run into.”

“Doesn’t seem like there’s much of a chance of running into someone who knows his incriminating secret—whatever it is,” Rawlins pointed out.

“No, but we find out who his mates are, what estaminets he goes to.  Then we can keep an eye on him, watch for him to put a foot wrong.  Or get his mates drunk and pump them for information.  If we don’t turn up anything we can use, we get him drunk and point him at an estaminet girl we know has the pox.”

“I don’t know,” said Rawlins.  “Seems a bit…dodgy.”

“Of course it’s a bit dodgy; it’s fucking blackmail.  Have you got any better ideas?”

“No,” Rawlins admitted.  “Let’s think about it a bit, yeah?  Maybe there’s another way.”

“We could murder a dozen other blokes and take their billets,” Thomas suggested.

“….All right, maybe blackmail isn’t so bad.”

They reported their lack of success to the others at dinner.  To Thomas’s surprise, nearly all of the others seemed to have expected a different outcome.  They spent most of the meal slandering the Billeting Sergeant’s name, finally settling down toward the end to talk about other strategies—most of which seemed to involve Thomas working some kind of magic spell. 

“What if you talk to the Wardmaster about it?” Manning asked.  “There’s got to be something he can do.”

“The Wardmaster’s talked to me all of three times,” Thomas said patiently.  And that was only if you counted in the NCOs’ mess.  “It’s not like we’re mates.”

“That’s three more times than me,” Plank pointed out. 

It was about then that one of the corporals showed up to tell Thomas that the Wardmaster wanted to see him.

See?” said Manning.

“It’s probably about something else,” Thomas told him, but privately, he did wonder just a bit if the Wardmaster might have heard about their problem somehow, and had some ideas. 

That wasn’t too likely, he decided as he crossed the courtyard to the main building, but perhaps after the Wardmaster had said whatever it was he wanted, there’d be some kind of opening that Thomas could use to bring up the situation with the billet.  It wasn’t like he could just pop into the Wardmaster’s office for a chat whenever he wanted, but if he was already there, it might be all right.

So it was with cautious optimism that Thomas presented himself in front of the Wardmaster’s desk. 

He was not, this time, offered a seat, much less a drink.  “Do you want to fucking tell me,” the Wardmaster said,  “why I’ve got the fucking Billeting Sergeant tearing me a new asshole about you and some other fucking new bloke coming into his fucking house and getting mouthy with him?”

He sounded furious, and Thomas’s first impulse was to simply say Sergeant, with the understanding that the Wardmaster was not, in fact, interested in an explanation.  But he’d been wrong about that both of the other times he’d been in this position.  Maybe this was the opportunity he’d been looking for.  “Yes, Sergeant.  We’re in the old barn out on Petticoat Lane, and everyone’s getting a bit fed up with it, so two of us went to ask if anything could be done.”

“And were you fucking insolent to him about it?”

 It wasn’t me, it was the other bloke wasn’t something you could say, so Thomas said, “Not intentionally.”

“I don’t give a fuck about your fucking intentions.  You want to know what I give a fuck about?”

Fuck.  He really was furious this time.  For once in his life, Thomas should have gone with his first impulse.   Bloody typical.  He braced up and said, “Sergeant.”

“That’s right,” said the Wardmaster.  “You are getting a fucking bollocking—well spotted.”

Thomas did not say that it would be considerably easier to tell if the Wardmaster didn’t shout and swear regardless of whether you were getting a bollocking or not. 

“What I give a fuck about is that I can’t go to a fucking piss-up without hearing about how one of you fuck-ups fucked up.”  He slammed his hand down on the desk with enough force to make Thomas, and his tin mug full of pencils, jump.  “Don’t do this shit,” he said wearily.

“Yes, Sergeant.”  He hadn’t actually done anything—but like he’d told Rawlins, he still had to stand there and take it.  Somehow, it stung more than usual this time, though.

“You—god damn it.  You are supposed to fucking know better.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Why the fuck did you get involved, then?”

Did he actually want an answer this time?  Probably not.  “Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster stared at him for a moment.  “Fine.  Go.  Private.”

Fuck.  Thomas about-faced and left. 

When he was halfway out the door, the Wardmaster yelled after him, “And if you’re playing that game, it’s Master Sergeant, you little pissant!” 

Thomas closed the door quietly behind him, then slunk out of the station, taking a circuitous route designed to make it as unlikely as possible that he’d run into anyone who might try to talk to him. 

Outside, he kicked an innocent pebble so hard he hurt his foot.  It was stupid to be bothered, really.  It wasn’t the first bollocking he’d had for something that hadn’t been his fault, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. 

And he’d known all along the others were wrong when they said the Wardmaster liked him.  Maybe they’d believe him now.

He took the long way back to the barn, and stopped to smoke two cigarettes, but he was still steaming when he got there.  It didn’t help at all when, as soon as he got in the door, everyone started clamoring for him to tell them what the Wardmaster had said.

Thomas glared around the interior of the barn, wondering how he could sum up what had just happened.  Finally, he snarled, “Fuck off,” and stormed back outside.

He’d barely sat down on the big piece of rubble and lit a cigarette when, of-fucking-course, Rawlins showed up.  “I guess it didn’t go well,” he said timidly.

“Well fucking spotted.”

Rawlins gestured for him to move over on the rubble. 

Thomas didn’t.  “Do you understand that I come out here to get away from you?”

Rawlins laughed nervously.  “Uh….”

“Because it really defeats the fucking purpose when you follow me out here.  I’m just saying.”

“Fine,” said Rawlins.  “You know what?  Fuck you too.”

He started back for the barn, thank Christ.  “At least now nobody can think I’m responsible for you sods,” Thomas called after him.

Rawlins’s retreating form hesitated, then reversed course.  “Wait, what?”

“I’m not a fucking lance-corporal anymore.”  He didn’t know why he mentioned it.  It wasn’t like he cared.  It wasn’t even a real rank.

“Fuck,” said Rawlins.  “Why?”  He hesitated.  “You didn’t tell the Wardmaster to fuck off, did you?”

“How stupid do you think I am?  Apparently, the fucking Billeting Sergeant interrupted his evening to tell him about the two mouthy idiots he saw today, and, surprise surprise, he didn’t like it!”

“Why didn’t he yell at me, too?” Rawlins wondered.

“Maybe because I wasn’t fucking stupid enough to mention your name.”

Rawlins shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.  “All right.  Look, when we go in tomorrow, I’ll ask to see him, and I’ll tell him it was my fault.”

“Don’t do me any favors.”

“What do you want me to do, then?”

“I don’t fucking care what you do,” Thomas said. 

Rawlins did some more shifting from foot to foot.  “All right.  I’ll just go back in, then.”

“Best idea you’ve had all day.”

Thomas stayed outside until he couldn’t stand the cold anymore—not that going inside was actually much of an improvement.   By the time he got there, everyone else had gone to bed.  Since he’d come back from the Front, they’d taken to sleeping in a sort of semi-circular huddle around the stove, with everyone’s blankets and groundsheets overlapping to create a sort of cocoon. 

Rawlins and Perkins had left a space in Thomas’s usual place between them.  He briefly considered the merits of snatching back his own blankets and sleeping somewhere else.  The prospect was tempting, but it would surely wake them up—maybe wake everybody up—and then they might try to talk to him.  So he took off his boots and squeezed into his spot, and was a little bit surprised when Rawlins snugged up against his back like always.

The next morning, everyone was noticeably more subdued than usual, barely even complaining about the rain and talking in low voices with occasional wary glances in Thomas’s direction.  The bloke whose turn it was to heat up shaving water practically scuttled away after giving Thomas his. 

It reminded Thomas of nothing so much as those times growing up when Dad would go on a tear about something—it didn’t happen often, but even the other kids knew to keep out of his way at those times, if they didn’t want their heads bitten off for breathing too loud. 

It turned out that being the one everyone tiptoed around wasn’t any more fun than doing the tiptoeing.  He felt that he ought to do something—fix it, somehow—but he didn’t have any idea how.  All he could remember Dad ever doing was sometimes saying, in a tone of brittle good humor, how nice it was to have a bit of peace and quiet for a change. 

He wasn’t going to do that.

Thomas was just finishing wrapping his puttees when a familiar voice boomed, “What a fucking shithole.”

Everybody dropped what they were doing and braced up. 

“As you were,” the Wardmaster said, walking a little further into the barn and looking around with an incredulous expression.  “How long have you poor sods been living in this….”  He hesitated as if words failed him, before settling on “thing?”

It was Rawlins who answered.  “Some of us since February, Sergeant.”

“Christ.”  He looked up at the ceiling, which was currently admitting both rain and daylight, then wandered outside. 

Thomas finished getting dressed, aware that everyone was looking at him and trying to pretend they weren’t.  If anyone had actually dared to suggest that he go and find out what the Wardmaster was doing here, he’d have refused.  But nobody said it, and once he’d buttoned up his greatcoat and very carefully put on his cap, he wordlessly went outside.

The Wardmaster was smoking a cigarette and looking up at the barn roof.  With a sidelong glance at Thomas, he said, “I’m no’ a fucking architect, son, but I think that’s meant to have some fucking shingles on it.”

Thomas looked at the roof.  He’d never thought about the reason it was so deficient at the most important job of a roof, but now that the Wardmaster mentioned it, most roofs in his experience did have more to them than just boards.  “Yes, Master-Sergeant.  I think so too.”

The Wardmaster sighed.  “You don’t actually have to call me that.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas essayed.

“Right.”  He took out his cigarettes, lit a new one from the end of the old, and then angled the packet in Thomas’s direction.

They were a strange French kind that Thomas didn’t like, but having been on the other side of that gesture just yesterday, he figured he’d better take one.  “Thanks,” he said, and lit it. 

He figured that was all he was going to get—and didn’t expect more—but the Wardmaster, intently watching the roof as though it were about to do something interesting, cleared his throat and said, “Once I thought on it a bit, I realized it had to be pretty fucking bad for you to be making a fuss about it.”

Thomas nodded. 

“Did you really tell Jenkins it was worse than the fucking Front?”

On the tentative assumption that he was not, at the moment, getting a bollocking, Thomas said, “I didn’t say it to him.”  If Jenkins was the Billeting Sergeant, which he supposed he must be.  “And I was talking about our dugouts at the Regimental Aid Post.”

The Wardmaster snorted.  “Well, that’s a statement of fucking fact.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“I won’t ask which of those fucking idiots you took with you,” the Wardmaster went on, “but I will say, as a fucking lance-corporal, you’re meant to stop your mates from doing stupid fucking shit—not hold their coats while they do it.”

He had a point—clearly, where Thomas had gone wrong was taking Rawlins with him to see the Billeting Sergeant.  The Sergeant probably wouldn’t have been any more helpful, but Thomas was fairly sure he could have avoided doing anything he would have had to complain to the Wardmaster about.  “Yes, Sergeant.” 

“I’m no’ sayin’ it’s always fucking easy, mind.  You’ll get the hang of it.”

Did that mean he was still a lance-corporal?  It seemed an important thing to be sure about, and short of waiting until the next duty-roster came out, which wouldn’t be for almost two weeks, he could only think of one way to find out.  “Am I a lance-corporal, then?”

“Yeah,” said the Wardmaster, flicking ash from his cigarette.  “Your bollocking was meant to be the one I didn’t have to fill out any fucking forms about.”  He studied the roof some more.  “I said about the piss-up, yeah?”

“You did.”  So the Wardmaster had come home the worse for drink, and looking for someone to tear a strip off of?  That was familiar enough, but he couldn’t think of a time anybody’d ever owned up to it. 

“Yeah.  So, I’ll see what the fuck I can do about—” He gestured at the barn.  “This.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

“Right,” he said.  “I’ll bugger off, then, and let you lads get on with it.”

Thomas finished the French cigarette and then smoked one of his own, to take the taste of the first one out of his mouth.  It was about time for them to be heading for the station, but everybody was still in the barn.  Belatedly, he realized they were probably hiding from the Wardmaster.

And possibly him, a little.

Sighing, he went back in.  Everybody was standing clustered around the stove, fully dressed and shaven, their blankets and packs stowed under the groundsheets.  They all looked up at the sound of the door opening.  “Right, uh, Wardmaster’s gone,” Thomas said.  “He’s gonna see what he can do about…all this.”

There was a murmur of approval. 

“Better get on,” he added.  “Before they give away our breakfast.”

They all set out.  On days that they left at the same time, Rawlins usually walked beside Thomas, chattering about this and that. 

He didn’t, today.  Nor did he talk to him at breakfast, or come and bother him while he was trying to do the linen chitty. 

Not that Thomas had ever wanted him to do any of those things.  It wasn’t like they were mates or anything.

Still, he was a little relieved when, that afternoon, he was in the courtyard smoking and waiting for the linen van and someone came out of one of the ward huts, heading straight for him.  His cap was pulled low, and he had the collar of his greatcoat up, but it had to be Rawlins. 

He’d offer him a cigarette, yeah?  It had worked before, and the Wardmaster had done it. 

He already had the pack out when the bloke got there—and it was Jessop.  “All right, lad?” he said, taking out his own cigarettes and leaning up against a patch of wall not far from the one Thomas was using.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Van’s late.” 

“Typical.”  They smoked in silence for a bit.  “Wardmaster talked to you?”

He nodded.

“Good,” said Jessop. He blew out a stream of smoke and watched it for a moment.  “He were cheesed off about that right mess in t’pharmacy, tha’ knows.”

Thomas had absolutely no idea what had happened in the pharmacy, because no one had talked to him all day, but he said, “I figured.” 

“That, and he and Sergeant Jenkins have never seen things the same way,” Jessop added.  “So you can imagine how happy Jenkins was to get the chance of telling him one of his own lads had stepped in the shit.”

“I shouldn’t have taken Rawlins,” Thomas admitted.  “He was too worked up about the whole thing.”

“If it’s as bad as all that, he were right to be worked up,” Jessop said.  “But yeah, that’s not the path you want to take with somebody like Jenkins.  Bit of a bully.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Mind, if I’d known how much bad blood there was between him and Tully, I’d not have told you to go over there.” 

Thomas nodded.  “I understand.  We had to try something.”

“Mm.”  Jessop took another drag from his cigarette.  “Tully’s going to talk to a bloke he knows in the Engineering Corps.  One of our sort, you know.  Get him to do some repairs, off the books like.”

Thomas hadn’t known that was an option.  “Sounds like a good idea.” Idly, he wondered what sort Jessop meant.  Working class, maybe.  Or from Yorkshire.  He didn’t think the Wardmaster was, but the way he sounded, he could come from anywhere.  “I’m sure all the lads’ll appreciate it.”

The linen van turned into the courtyard, and Jessop clapped Thomas on the shoulder.  “Good lad.  I’ll let you get on with it.”

After the wards came to pick up their linen, and Rawlins sent somebody else, Thomas began to consider that if he wanted things to go back to normal, he might have to make a bit of an effort.  Thinking back to that morning—and the fact that, if all the Wardmaster had wanted was to see the barn, he wouldn’t have had to do it at the crack of dawn the morning after a piss up—he  fixed a cup of tea and took it to the ward where Rawlins was working.

He found him in the sink room, up to his elbows in dirty dishes.  “Er—brought you this,” he said.  “Didn’t see you at lunch.”

“I was busy,” Rawlins said.  Then, “Thanks.”  He dried off his hands and took the tea. 

Right, what had the Wardmaster done next?  “You know I only said that shite last night ‘cause I was hacked off about the other thing, right?”

“Yeah,” said Rawlins.  “Sure, I know.  I’ve just been busy, like I said.”

“Just makin’ sure.”  Thomas picked up a towel and started drying some of the dishes.  “Jessop reckons the Billeting Sergeant was looking for something to complain about, ‘cause he and the Wardmaster don’t get on.”

“Yeah?”  Rawlins looked interested.  “Well, that makes sense.  Billeting Sergeant’s an arse.”

“Yeah,” Thomas agreed.  “And it turns out he didn’t mean it about me not being lance-corporal anymore.”

“Oh—good!”  He gave Thomas a sidelong look.  “Long as you don’t mind being responsible for us.”

Thomas supposed he had that coming.  “Reckon I can live with it.”

They washed dishes for a few moments.  “Did you hear what’s been going on in pharmacy stores?”

“No,” said Thomas.  “What happened?”

“Turns out some of the chaps down there have been selling medicine on the black market.  Mostly morphine.”

“Fuck,” said Thomas.  “No wonder the Wardmaster was in a bit of a strop.”

“Oh,” Rawlins said.  “Right—guess you caught the edges of it, yeah?”

“Yeah.  I reckon it was damn decent of him to come and look in on us earlier.”

Rawlins nodded.  “Scared the piss out of me, though.”

“Too right,” said Thomas. 

Rawlins must have told the others that Thomas had finished being a short-tempered sod, because by dinner time, they were all speaking to him again.  Mostly pointless speculation about what the Wardmaster was going to do about the billet, and what was going to happen to the poor sods from Pharmacy, but it was less irritating the usual. 

And after dinner, he finally finished writing his letter to Anna.

 

Chapter Text

29 November, 1915

Dear Anna,

I’m fine, and I’m back at the Dressing Station.  I was only up at the Front for a few weeks.  One of the doctors here was getting some experience working at a Regimental Aid Post, and they sent me and some others up with him. 

It wasn’t so bad at the Front.  We got decent quarters on account of even the General Staff realize it’s a good idea if we’re a bit less filthy than everyone else when we go sticking our fingers in wounds.  They don’t want the fighting men making themselves too at home, so they aren’t really encouraged to improve their dugouts much.

Now I’m back at the 47th and doing linen again.  It’s quiet work in the indoors, which is welcome because the weather’s gone cold and wet, and our barn is no better.

2 December, 1915

Sorry, got busy and had to put this aside.  Since I wrote that last bit, the Wardmaster came out and had a look at our billet, and he’s going to see what he can do about it.  So that’s cheered us all up a bit. 

If it’s not impertinent for me to say, Mr. Matthew did rather well up at the Front, too.  (If it is impertinent for me to say, don’t tell anyone I said it!)  A patrol in No Man’s Land came a cropper, and the young officer who was leading it wasn’t taking it well—I expect it was the first time he’d seen someone killed, let alone been responsible for it.  Our medical officer had his hands full with the wounded, so he sent me to find another officer to help keep the first one calm.  (The young gentleman was wounded too, and I reckon could have made himself worse carrying on, in addition to getting in everybody’s way.)  The officer I found was Lt. Crawley, and he stayed and sat with the lad until we had everybody ready to send back to the dressing station.  He didn’t turn a hair about all the messy medical things going on—although I suppose that’ s natural enough given his father was a doctor—and I expect he had other things he could have been doing, so it was very decent of him to help, especially since the other officer was technically on his same level (but a lot less experienced!) and not somebody he was officially responsible for. 

With any luck, I’ll manage to be a more reliable correspondent as we get settled in for winter.  The blokes who were here last winter say we can expect fewer wounds and more illnesses, which is not necessarily any less work for us, but the hours are a bit more regular.  The men get a chance to report sick once a day—if they miss it they’ve got to wait for the next one, unless they’re at death’s door—so we have one busy time each day that we can plan for. 

Thomas

“I thought his lordship might like to hear that, “Anna said.  “The bit about Mr. Matthew, I mean.”

Mr. Bates nodded, handing the letter back to her.  “I expect he would.  I’ll tell him.  Bit surprising, Thomas noticing something like that.”

Anna had to agree—complimenting other people was not one of Thomas’s strong suits.  “I suppose the war’s changing him.”

“It does that,” Mr. Bates said.  “If I’d had to guess, I’d have thought he’d be one of the ones it would change for the worse, but I’m glad I was mistaken.”

Anna hesitated. “Do you suppose he’s telling the truth, about it not being so bad at the Front?”

Mr. Bates gave her a soft, sorrowful look.

“I didn’t really think so, either,” Anna agreed.

#

“Barrow.”

Thomas looked up from the linen chitty.  It was the same corporal who’d summoned him to the Wardmaster the week before.  “Yes?”

“Wardmaster wants you.”

Great.  He hoped it was about the billet—the day after the Wardmaster’s surprise inspection, they’d been given a second issue of blankets and groundsheets, plus a large piece of waterproofed cloth that they hung as a canopy over the stove.  It was a bit of an improvement, but everyone was wondering if that was all they were getting.

On the other hand, he could very well be getting another bollocking for something somebody else had done.  He couldn’t think of anything, at the moment, but what difference did that make?

When he got to the office, the Wardmaster waved him into a chair, which seemed a good sign.  “How are things at the fucking barn?”

That sounded friendly enough, but Thomas was wary.  If anything had happened that the Wardmaster would want to talk about, he didn’t know what it was—but perhaps he was supposed to.  “All right, Sergeant,” he said cautiously.  “The extra blankets and stuff are a help.”

“Good.  My mate in the Royal Engineers went out and had a look.  He says there’s no point trying to fix it—the whole fucking roof’s got to be replaced.”

“I see,” said Thomas.

“Boards are fucking rotten, or something.  He reckons some bugger nicked the slates off it to fix their own roof, and we’re lucky what’s left didn’t fall down on your fucking heads.” 

Wasn’t that a pleasant thought to go to sleep to?  “I see,” he repeated.

“He’ll do the job, but he ain’t gonna get to it any time soon.  First he’s got to get the fucking stuff together—I’ve got an idea or two about that—and then he’s got to find a day it’s not fucking raining, and he can spare a crew for an off-the-books job.”

Unable to think of anything to say other than “I see,” Thomas nodded.  He supposed they ought to be grateful there was some end in sight to their billet troubles, but he wasn’t precisely looking forward to explaining to the rest of them that they’d be putting up with it for a while longer—and that it might not be a bad idea to set a watch for imminent roof collapse. 

“So here’s what I came up with—it’s not exactly fucking ideal, but it’s all we’ve got.  The lot of you are seconded to CCS 14 for the winter.”

That didn’t sound so bad to Thomas—a CCS was a Casualty Clearing Station; they were further back from the fighting than Dressing Stations. 

“They’re taking on more convalescent cases, while the sector’s quiet, so they asked HQ for some extra men.  I’ve got some men I’ve nowhere to fucking put, so.”  He made a “that’s that” sort of gesture. 

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas said.  He hesitated.  “What’s the catch?”

“The fucking catch is twofold.  One is that their CMO is more of an officer than a doctor—he does more fucking parades and inspections a month than ours has done all year, and any time he feels like you aren’t busy enough, he has you out doing drill.  You’ll be all right, but the rest of that lot are going to need some sharpening up.  Second, at a CCS you’ve got fucking nurses to deal with.  You can expect that the Matron will not be such a kindly and pleasant individual as your old pal the Wardmaster—I don’t know her, but a woman’s got to be a fucking bitch to rise that high.  Don’t give her any shit, and you should be all right—make sure those other sods know it.  And you’ll have to watch your fucking language.”

Thomas did his best to keep a straight face as he said, “Yes, Sergeant.”

“Yeah.  There’s a fucking reason I’m working this close to the lines.  And while we’re on the subject of fucking nurses, make sure they know, there is no fucking the nurses.  It won’t be a problem with the senior nurses, but they’ve got some of those V.A.D. girls there.  All of ‘em are young, and most of ‘em are so fucking gently reared they’ve never had to say ‘no’ before.  You were a fucking footman—you know the type, yeah?”

“I do,” Thomas agreed. 

“So they’ve been told not to fucking fraternize, but they might not know what the fuck it is they’re not supposed to do.  Your lads are not to take advantage of their fucking ignorance.”

Huh.  Guardian of feminine virtue, again.  “I understand, Sergeant.”  Maybe it was a good thing after all that they’d been a little afraid of him after he’d lost his temper, if it was now his job to keep them from doing what came naturally when faced with women they weren’t paying for. 

“Good.  Here.”  He reached into a drawer and slapped something down on the desk.

It was a corporal’s stripes and papers.  “Sergeant?”

“I wasn’t planning to do this just yet, but if I’m sending a section, I need to send a fucking corporal, and I’m already down two,” he explained.

Right, the corporal from pharmacy had been demoted, and they still hadn’t gotten a replacement for Diggs.  “Yes, Sergeant.”

“The fucking plan was for you to do a rotation as my clerk, then one at the collecting post—get you some practice running a squad on your own, before you have a whole section to deal with—and then promote you in time for when we get new meat in the spring, but no fucking plan survives the first engagement with the fucking enemy, yeah?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas said, a little faintly.  Abruptly, the events of his last few rotations rearranged themselves into a new pattern.  First they’d put him in charge of the linen room.  Then they’d put him in charge of D block.  Then they’d sent him to the Front and put him in charge of stretcher-parties.

He’d known all along that they were sending Captain Allenby to get some experience at the Aid Post to further his development as an officer. 

It hadn’t occurred to him that they were sending him for essentially the same reason. 

And Corporal Jessop, as he’d been told, was sent along as schoolmaster—but not just for Captain Allenby. 

It would have been nice if someone had told him what was actually going on, but he was probably a hell of a lot more prepared than poor, pathetic Lieutenant Sherwood had been. 

“All right there, son?” asked the Wardmaster. 

“Yes, Sergeant,” said Thomas, automatically. 

“You’ll do all right,” he said.  “And those other things we had planned, we’ll do them after you get back, if you fucking need ‘em.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“You go in three days.  Drill your section a bit, get ‘em to tidy up their uniforms, and ask me or Jessop any questions you have—all right?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“You want a drink?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster laughed.  “Good lad.  All right, let’s have a fucking drink.”  He headed over to the armchairs by the fire, saying, “I don’t know if the sun’s over the yardarm yet—but we’re not in the fucking Navy, so we don’t care.”

They sat down, and the Wardmaster poured them each a healthy measure of Armagnac.  “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” Thomas echoed, taking a small sip of his drink—he still had the linen chitty to finish.

The Wardmaster knocked back half of his.  “This stuff grows on you,” he said.  “Know why I started drinking it?”

Thomas shook his head.

“Some sod at GHQ decided only officers are allowed to buy fucking whiskey in the combat zone.  God knows why, and most buggers just buy it anyway—‘s’not like the froggies give a fuck what GHQ has to say about it—but I figure, they decide they want an excuse to come after me, they’ll have to find a better one than that.”

“Oh,” said Thomas.   

“Always a good idea to drink the local hooch, anyway—‘scheaper.  And this is a damn sight better than the grog we had in South Africa.  Fermented milk and God-knows-what.  The natives say their ancestors invented the stuff after they saw elephants eat rotten fruit and get pissed off of it—and I believe it.”

Thomas thought of Bates, who had come back from South Africa with a drinking problem, and wondered if the elephant liquor had anything to do with it.  He took another sip of his drink, and when it didn’t seem that the Wardmaster had anything else to say, said, “The gentleman I used to work for fought in South Africa.  And his valet.”

“Yeah?  What regiment?”

“Grenadier Guards.”  He knew because he’d had to polish some bits and bobs that had the regimental crest on them. 

The Wardmaster whistled.  “Fuck me blind.  He must be a fucking nob with knobs on.”

“Earl of Grantham,” Thomas said. 

“Figured you were some kind of hot shit as a footman,” the Wardmaster said.  “We had you pegged for some posh bugger, to start.”

“That happens sometimes,” Thomas said. 

“I bet.”  The Wardmaster knocked back the rest of his drink.  “Better finish that and get back to fucking work, yeah?  Come see me, uh…tomorrow, the hour before dinner, and we’ll talk some more, yeah?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas said, and finished his drink.  “Thank you.”

He nodded.  “Until then, you figure out what you want to ask me, and tell your lads what’s going on.  You’re leaving first thing Friday morning, and you’re going on the march, so pack your kits and plan your piss-ups accordingly.”

Oh, fuck, he was going to have to tell them he was their corporal now.  “Yes, Sergeant.”

But first, he had to finish the linen chitty.  He’d done it enough times now that it didn’t require much conscious thought, so while he added up the columns, he thought over how much he had to do, and how little time he had to do it.  Just the rest of today, Wednesday, and Thursday—and they all had their regular work to do, so everything extra—packing up their kits, smartening up their uniforms, drill—would have to be fitted in to the mornings and evenings.

Dinner would be the first chance he had to talk to everybody at once, so he’d have to explain things then.  He could tell them to check their kits tonight, and then inspect their uniforms tomorrow before they reported for duty.  That would give them enough time to fix anything that needed it. 

He’d have liked to get started on drill tomorrow, too, but he wasn’t sure how to start.  Apart from lining up for parades—and that only a handful of times—he hadn’t so much as thought about drill since leaving England.  And he’d never really understood how “form fours” worked—it seemed like a magic trick, the way you started out in two rows and, without anybody taking more than two steps, ended up in four columns.  He’d have to find a drill manual somewhere, and make time to read it.

So he’d manage that tomorrow, somehow—if all else failed, he could ask the Wardmaster for a manual—and then drill Thursday morning.  Maybe tomorrow night, too, if there wasn’t too much work to be done on kits and uniforms.  And they could get in some more practice on the march there.

All right, so there was just about enough time for everything, if they didn’t fuck around. 

Those thoughts took him through filling out the rest of the chitty, and then it was time to go outside to smoke a cigarette and wait for the linen van. 

Rawlins turned up, as he sometimes did.  Thomas half-listened as he chattered about what was happening on his ward—nothing unusual—and wondered whether he ought to tell Rawlins his news.  Might it be best to tell everyone at once?  He didn’t want to seem like he was playing favorites.

On the other hand, if he didn’t say anything, Rawlins was going to wonder why he hadn’t.  It didn’t seem a good idea to start out as corporal with another quarrel. 

He made up his mind when Rawlins said, “Any idea what you’re doing next rotation?”

There; if anyone wanted to know why he’d told Rawlins first, he could say because he asked.  “Uh—yeah, actually.  Wardmaster called me in a bit ago.”

Rawlins looked over at him, his expression worried.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah.  We’re all being seconded to the 14th CCS for the winter.”

“Fuck me,” said Rawlins.  “You mean, all of us from the barn?”

Thomas nodded.  “Apparently it’s not going to be fixed quickly, and they need some extra men, so….” He shrugged. 

“Well,” Rawlins said slowly, “that might be all right.  We won’t have to do carrying-parties up to our arses in snow.”

“True.”  Thomas took a drag from his cigarette.  “There’s another thing.”

“What?”

Thomas took out his pay-book, where he’d put his stripes for safekeeping, until he had a chance to sew them on.  Angling it toward Rawlins, he opened the cover and showed them to him.

Fuck,” said Rawlins.  “Those are yours?”

“No, I nicked ‘em off his desk.  What do you think?”

Rawlins shook his head.  “Well, it’s about fucking time—how long have you been a lance-corporal?”

“Not that long,” said Thomas.  He wondered whether to admit that the Wardmaster had told him he was promoting him ahead of schedule.  Probably not—it wasn’t the sort of information that would inspire confidence.  “I guess he needed a corporal to send with the section.”

“You’ll be brilliant,” Rawlins said.  “We should go out and celebrate.”

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Thomas said.  “We go Friday morning.  Figured I’d tell everyone at dinner tonight.”

“All right, then we go out tomorrow night,” Rawlins said. 

“….Maybe,” said Thomas.  “We have a lot to do.”

“Like what?”

“Like pack our kits and make sure we have everything we need, and go over our uniforms—the Wardmaster says the CMO there is a real hardass.”    The linen van was pulling into the courtyard.  “Fuck.”  Thomas tossed away his cigarette.  “I’ll explain at dinner—if you see any of the others, make sure they know I need to talk to everybody, all right?”

Rawlins nodded.  “All right.  I better get back, too—congratulations!”

Thomas was back in the NCOs’ room, after the linen distribution, when Jessop came in.  “There you are, lad.  Tully just told me.”

“Did he?”  It felt a bit strange, that he’d known about this development before Jessop did. 

“It’s a little quicker than we planned, but you’ll be all right,” he said.  “It’s a shame I won’t be right on hand if you need a bit of advice, but you just write me if you need anything.”

“I will.  Thanks.  Say, do you know where I can get a drill manual?”

“Drill manual?  What do you want that for?”

“Wardmaster says the CMO at the new place likes drilling.  Figured I better brush up.”

“Oh, aye, that’s no’ a bad idea.  Let me think…there must be one lying around somewhere.”  He looked around the room as though expecting one to jump up and start dancing about.  “Purbright, have you got a drill manual?” he asked one of the sergeants.

“What for?”

“Barrow needs one.”

Purbright rummaged through a drawer.  “Well, I suppose he can look at mine, but he can’t have it.”

He held it out, and Thomas went over and got it.  “Thanks.”

“Put it back on my desk as soon as you’re done with it.”

Thomas spent what was left of the afternoon reviewing the drill manual—and, with the aid of a dozen paperclips, working out the trick behind “form fours.”    Once he could get his paperclips to do it correctly without looking at the book, he experimented with all the ways they could get it wrong, and how to fix them without starting over.   Along the way, he also discovered the positions in the section where he could put his least reliable paperclips, where the only thing they’d have to do was “face right.” 

The paperclip named Plank might have trouble with even that much, but it would have to do.

After that, he had only enough time left to review some of the most basic commands—“attention,” “stand easy,” and the like.  He figured those were the most likely to come up, but if they had to do anything really difficult, they were fucked.  Countermarching, for instance—he’d forgotten that existed, and it was an even bigger mystery than “form fours.” 

By the time he’d returned the book to Purbright’s desk and headed over to the mess, everyone else was already there.  “Well?” said Manning, when he sat down.

“What?” asked Thomas, helping himself to stew.

“Rawlins says you have some big announcement,” Perkins said.

Thomas realized that he had been sort of hoping that Rawlins would have already let the cat out of the bag.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I do.”

He must have sounded grimmer about it than he meant to, because everyone exchanged nervous looks, and Collins asked, hesitantly, “Are they sending us to the Front?”

“Fuck no.  CCS 14,” Thomas said.  “They’re sending us to CCS 14.”

“Oh,” said Collins.  “That’s all right, then.”

There were a few minutes of cross-talk about CCS 14 and why they were being sent there.  Thomas took the opportunity to eat, while everyone else was talking, and when it had died down a little, said, “Two reasons.  One, CCS 14 asked for extra men, and two, it’s going to be a while before the Wardmaster can get our barn fixed up.”

“Why do they need extra men, anyway?” Rawlins asked.

“He didn’t say.”

“And it’s all of us this time?” Manning asked.  “You’re sure it’s not just you again?”

“Yeah,” said Thomas.  “It’s all of us.”  He hesitated.  “And I’m our corporal now.”  He shoved a forkful of stew into his mouth, to give himself time to think before answering any follow-up questions, but he needn’t have bothered—everyone started talking at once, and if any of them said anything of substance, Thomas didn’t hear it. 

“Fuck.”

“About time.”

 “—not going to let us get away with anything, is he?”

 “Who else would it be?”

“Our Magnificent Bastard—”

Thomas was waiting for them all to pipe down so that he could explain the plan for the next few days, but before he could, Rawlins said, “So we have to go out and celebrate, yeah?”

There was general agreement with this plan, and discussion of which estaminet they should repair to, and whether the men on ward duty could foist their evening chores off on somebody else. 

He took advantage of the first slight pause to say, “If you want, but we have a lot to do.  The Wardmaster says that the CMO at the new place is a real military type.  We have to get our uniforms into shape, and brush up on drill.  We leave Friday morning, so there isn’t a lot of time.  Tonight, I want to work on going over our kits and uniforms, to start with.”

This pronouncement did not have quite the effect that Thomas was hoping for.  Instead of asking any intelligent questions about what they needed to do with their kits, or what they were going to do about drill, everyone started talking about where they could go tomorrow night, and the effect that this change of plans might have on the ability of the men on wards to get away early. 

“Lily’s, definitely,” said Manning.  “I’m finally getting somewhere with that girl with the black hair—it’ll break her heart if she doesn’t know where I’ve gone.”

“There’ll be girls where we’re going,” Rawlins pointed out.  “Lots of them, probably—it’s to the rear.”

“Wait,” said Perkins.  “It’s a CCS—are there nurses?”

“Yes,” said Thomas.  “And the Wardmaster had a bit to say about that, too.”

Now they were all ears. 

“First of all,” Thomas said, “he says we’ve got to clean up our fucking language.”  That got the expected laugh.  “Second, there is no fucking the fucking nurses.   They might be doing the same kind of work we are, but they’re not our sort—they’re young ladies.  It’s the officers who are their own kind.  Not us.  You call them Nurse Smith or Sister Jones, don’t talk to ‘em about anything except your duties, and pretend like their uniforms are built-in.”  He looked around the group.  “Whose mum had a china shepherdess?”

Several people admitted that their mums had such an article.  “Mine’s was a milkmaid,” said Plank.

“Same thing,” Thomas said.  “You ever try and look up her skirt?”

“You can’t,” said Plank.  “It’s all one piece.”

“Exactly,” said Thomas.  “You look at them nurses, you think china shepherdess.  Or milkmaid, as the case may be.  Between her face and her feet, there’s just a dress.  You want to look at a real live girl, go to an estaminet.”

“What if they can’t resist my manly charms?” asked Manning.

Thomas didn’t think he had much to worry about on that score, but said only, “They’ll have been warned off fraternizing with us, too.  And the other thing to keep in mind is that instead of a Wardmaster, they’ll have a Matron, and Ward Sisters instead of Ward Sergeants.   Anybody here ever work for a woman before?”

“Does Mum count?” asked Perkins.

“No,” said Thomas.  “Wardmaster says they have to be tough, to get to that level.  So don’t give them any shit.”  Thomas thought about the various tricks he’d seen hallboys try on Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes.  “Don’t try to flatter your way around them, or argue with them, or give them any back-chat.  Just say Yes, Matron, no, Matron, right away, Matron.  Or Yes, Sister, as the case may be.  Understood?”

“Yes, Matron,” said Manning.  Rawlins thumped him one across the back of his head.

“Thank you, Rawlins,” Thomas said.  “If you think taking orders from a woman is a joke, you will learn to regret it.”  He moved back to the main topic.  “Enough about the nurses.  We want to make a good impression when we get there, right?”

People nodded, and said things like, “Sure,” “Yeah,” and “I guess.”

“So we have to be as ready as we can be.  Tonight, go over your kit.  If you need to draw anything from stores, do it tomorrow.  And we’re going on the march, so if you’ve accumulated more shit than you can carry, now’s the time to figure out where you’re going to leave it.”

More nods and murmurs of agreement.

“Tomorrow, we’re getting up half an hour early for uniform inspection.  If you’re planning on going out tomorrow night, there’d best not be much you need to fix.  Thursday morning, we’re doing drill; Thursday night, polish boots and brass.  Friday morning, we go.  It’s a little tight, but as long as we don’t fuck about, we should be all right.”

Everyone looked at him for a moment.  Finally, Manning said, “Are you fucking serious, mate?”

“Corporal,” said Thomas. 

“What?”

“Are you fucking serious, Corporal,” he repeated.  “And yes, I am.  Unless you think it’s a good idea that we show up at our new posting looking like a bunch of slovenly fuckups.”

“Well,” said Rawlins, “when you put it like that….”

There were a few murmurs of agreement, but not very enthusiastic ones.  Thomas sighed.  “Don’t fuck about, and I’ll stand the first round tomorrow night, all right?” 

That information was slightly better received, but Thomas wondered if it had been a mistake.  He couldn’t imagine Carson, for instance, offering anybody a bribe to do what they were told. 

Since he’d spent most of the meal talking, Thomas was still eating his dinner when the rest of them began drifting away, either back to the wards for their evening tasks, or in search of someplace warm and dry to pass the time before returning to the barn.  Soon, it was just him and Manning—who had long finished his meal, but seemed in no hurry to go anywhere. 

“Did he say why it was you?” Manning asked suddenly.

“Who?”

“The Wardmaster.  Why he picked you for corporal.”

Oh.  “No, he didn’t say.” 

“Only some of us have been here a lot longer.  Rawlins.  Applegate.”

And Manning.  “Plank,” Thomas said. 

“It was never gonna be Plank.”

“True.”  It wasn’t, Thomas thought, all that likely to have been Manning, either.  Probably Rawlins, if it wasn’t him. 

Still, he knew this one from the other side—although he could barely, dimly remember what it had been like to want to be a valet like it was his hope of heaven—and he knew it mattered, what he said.  “He said something about doing it a bit earlier than he planned, because he’s down two corporals.”  That was true; he had said that.  “And he mentioned more new blokes coming in the spring.”  Also true.  “He might be planning more promotions then.”  The Wardmaster hadn’t said that, but it might be true.  And, more importantly, if Manning believed he was in with a chance, he wouldn’t want to make trouble. 

“Did he say who he’s looking at?”

“No.”  If he’d thought the answer might be “yes,” Thomas would have asked if the Wardmaster had given Manning any special assignments, like he had Thomas.  But he was fairly sure that if Manning had been given anything with a bit of extra responsibility to it, he’d have said something about it. 

Thomas would have, before.  Back when he still cared about things like that.

“He didn’t say anything about anyone else,” Thomas continued.  “I don’t reckon he’d think it was any of my business.  He just mentioned the new spring drafts in passing, like.”

Manning nodded.  “Right.”  He stood up.  “Guess I’ll go get started on my kit, then.”

“Good idea.  I’ll be along soon.”

Manning left, leaving behind his plate and things.  Honestly, Thomas thought, as he gathered them up, along with his own, and put them in the washing-up bin.  If he wants to know why he’s not a bloody corporal….

When he got back to the barn, Thomas found Manning and several of the others going over their kits—fortunately; he had no idea what he’d do if they weren’t.   It was, for a change, not raining, so he spread out his groundsheet and methodically laid out all of his own things on it.  He didn’t have much that wasn’t standard issue—a biscuit tin with his letters in, a small shaving mirror, his sewing kit. 

His cigarette case.

He stood up abruptly, his eyes stinging, and went outside.  Rawlins wasn’t back yet, thank God—although he might have learned his lesson about following Thomas outside when he wanted to be alone. 

The cigarette case felt like it was burning in his hand, as he walked over to the rubble of the bombed-out house, and sat on his rock.  Deliberately not thinking about what he was doing, he opened the case and took out a cigarette, and lit it with Peter’s lighter. 

It was stale, of course—he’d bought that pack back in England, six months ago.  Or six centuries, maybe.  Taking a deep drag from it, he propped the cigarette case open on his knee, held the lighter’s flame in front of it, and looked at Peter. 

“I’m a corporal now,” Thomas told him.  “Like you.  If I came here to take your place, I’ve done it.”

Peter, of course, didn’t say anything.  Because he was dead. 

A sound escaped him, like the whine of an injured dog.  In a single motion, he put out the lighter, closed the case, and stuffed both into his greatcoat pocket. 

There was a reason he kept it at the bottom of his pack. 

#

“Plank,” Thomas said with a sigh, “is there a reason your top button isn’t buttoned?”

“Yeah,” said Plank.  “It fell off, didn’t it?”

At least he knew he’d been right not to leave this until the last minute.  “Did you lose it?” he asked, holding on to his patience with both hands.

“No,” said Plank, proudly.  “It’s right….”  He began patting his pockets, finally finding it in the inside one.  “Here.”

“Is there a reason you haven’t sewn it back on?”

“Me mum does all my sewing,” Plank explained. “And she isn’t here, is she?”

Thomas briefly considered trying to explain the flaw in Plank’s logic, but gave it up as a bad job.  “Bring it to me later, and I’ll show you how to do it, all right?”

He moved on to the next one in line, which was Manning.  “Your hair wants cutting, too.”  He’d already made the same observation to Rawlins and Cadman. 

Collins was all right; so was Applegate.  “Perkins, your puttees are on backwards.”

Perkins looked down at his legs.  “What?”

“You’re meant to wrap them clockwise.”

“I’m left-handed,” Perkins explained.

“So what?”  Honestly, was he going to salute with the wrong hand, too?

“I’ve been doing them this way all along,” Perkins added. 

“Then you’ve been doing them wrong all along,” Thomas said.  “Start doing them correctly tomorrow.”

Liston also had puttee troubles.  “You’re stepping them up too much.  Each time you go around, you should overlap by half the width.”

“If I do that, I run out of puttee before I run out of leg,” Liston explained.  “I’ve got long shanks, me.”

Oh, for God’s sake.  “Then lengthen them.  Get another one, and sew some extra on.”  Liston opened his mouth, and Thomas added, “I’ll show you how.  After I help Plank with his button.”

Finally, Morris had a large and poorly-mended tear on one sleeve.  Thomas supposed he deserved some credit for making an effort, but honestly, it looked like a two-year-old had done it.  “I’ll show you how to fix that, too.  Come find me at tea-break—Plank and Liston, you too, and anyone else who’s been waiting for Mum to turn up to do your mending.” 

Stepping back, Thomas glanced at his watch.  They still had a few minutes before they had to leave.  “All right.  Let’s see if anybody remembers this—ten-SHUN!”

With a number of sidelong glances, they all shuffled more-or-less to attention. 

All except one, anyway.  “Plank.”

Plank looked up, brightly.

“Look at the bloke next to you.”

Plank did so, then looked back at Thomas.  He did not, however, change his position—which was “at ease,” not “attention.”

“Now look at the bloke on the other side.”

Plank looked again, his expression growing confused. 

“Do you notice a difference between what they’re doing, and what you’re doing?”

Slowly, Plank dropped his hands to his sides and brought his heels together. 

“Good.”  Meanwhile, of course, everyone else had fallen out of “attention” to watch the show.  “Let’s try it again, and this time, pretend like you’re taking it seriously.”

He took them through “attention,” “stand easy,” “at ease,” and back again—learning, as he did so, that while Plank was the only one badly confused about “attention,” several others had forgotten the difference between the latter two, which mainly had to do with where you put your hands. 

Clearly, they had their work cut out for them.  At least, when he announced that they’d assemble the next morning at 0500 for drill, nobody asked if he was fucking serious.

Although, as they were walking to the station, Rawlins asked, “Are you planning to ease up a bit, once we get there?”

It was fairly obvious that the answer he was looking for was “yes,” but Thomas said, “Depends on how we measure up.  When we get there.”

Rawlins nodded.  “I guess.”

“They won’t know us there,” Thomas pointed out.  “We want to make a good impression, don’t we?”

“Of course, but….”

“But what?”

“This stuff doesn’t come as easy to everybody as it does to you.”

Thomas scoffed.  “What makes you think it comes easy?”

Rawlins looked him up and down.  When that failed to enlighten Thomas, he asked, “How do you even notice that somebody’s puttees are wrapped the wrong way round?”

 “How do you not?”  Admittedly, it had taken him a moment of close examination to figure out precisely what the problem was, but he’d noticed ages ago that Perkins always had something wrong with his puttees.

That’s what I mean.” 

Thomas shrugged.  “I guess it’s something you pick up being a footman.”  Especially if the butler couldn’t stand you.  “Half the job is being looked at.  And the other half is being invisible.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well, if you don’t do it right, the butler gets sarcastic about it.  I can’t even imagine what he’d do if one of us showed up with a button missing.” 

“F.P.?” Rawlins suggested.

“Only since they outlawed flogging.”  Now that he thought about it, Plank would never have had the chance to lose the button in the first place—it was clear enough how he’d done it; he was always tugging at his collar.  Carson would have knocked him over the first time he saw him do it. 

When Thomas got to the NCOs’ room, after breakfast, he found two books sitting on his desk—a drill manual, and the RAMC training manual.  Stuck inside the drill manual was a note:

                The RAMC one’s got stretcher drill in it.

                WT

Suddenly, Thomas remembered that his cigarette case was still in his greatcoat pocket—he’d never put it back in his pack.  But why had he thought of that now?

And, more to the point, who the fuck was WT?  Nobody in the section had a surname starting with T—not that it would make sense for any of them to be leaving books on his desk.  It had to be one of the NCOs—one of the other NCOs, he corrected himself.  He mentally ran through their names.

Oh, right—Tully.  Was it W for “Wardmaster”, or did he actually have a Christian name? 

And that was why he’d thought of his cigarette case.   The only letters he got now were from people who didn’t care who knew they had written them.  He didn’t get letters signed with initials anymore, because all of the people who had written them were dead. 

Except for Theo, maybe. 

“Lad?”

Thomas spun around to see Jessop looking at him, with an expression of concern. 

“You all right?” Jessop asked.

Thomas nodded.  “Fine.  I was just—wondering if the Wardmaster’s got a Christian name.”  He showed Jessop the note.

“William,” Jessop said.  “But you didn’t hear it from me.”

Huh.  “I didn’t even think about stretcher drill,” Thomas said.  “There’s no way we’ll have time to practice that before we go.”

“It’d be a nasty trick to pull that on you the moment you get there,” Jessop said.  “Don’t bite off more than you can chew—it’ll be more the sergeant’s job to get you all back in top form, if that’s what the officer expects.  You just want to get ‘em used to hearing orders from you.”

“Didn’t think of it that way,” Thomas admitted.  In that case, they were making a bit of progress. 

“And tidied up enough you reflect well on us, of course,” Jessop added. 

During the day, Thomas got through his work with the linen quickly—it really wasn’t that difficult, if you did it systematically—and spent as much time as he could with the manuals.  The drill manual had a bit toward the beginning that explained why drill was important, and it made much the same point that Jessop had.  Drill maneuvers, it said, weren’t terribly relevant to modern warfare—and were even less relevant to modern medical work—but they taught the men habits of discipline, as well as working together as a unit.

They could certainly use that.  Technically, they had always been a section—section E of platoon 4—but they were always split upon duty, assigned in ones or twos to other sections.  They paraded together, but there had only been a handful of parades since they’d been here, most of them very informal, like the one announcing Lamble’s death.  But they weren’t really “new lads” anymore, and it wouldn’t be surprising if, at the new place, they were worked as a section. 

Returning to the book, Thomas had more trouble believing its claim that the habits of discipline and coordination would translate to conditions of actual battle.  He could think of nothing less similar to the screaming nightmare of actual combat—what little he’d seen of it—than the orderly calm of a parade-ground.  But he supposed that, for the likes of them, all that mattered was that the men in the brass hats thought it did.

It was even harder to contain his scorn when he looked up stretcher drill in the RAMC manual, and read about using six bearers to pick up a single wounded man and carry him across open, level ground.  It was only with difficulty that Thomas could remember a time he’d used as many as four—the patient had been an officer the approximate size and weight of a fully-grown bull.

As instructed, Thomas reported to the Wardmaster’s office before dinner.  The Wardmaster was already sitting in front of the fire with the bottle out, which took some of the guesswork out of figuring out what kind of conversation this was going to be. 

“So,” the Wardmaster said, pouring Thomas a drink and handing it to him.  “First day as a fucking corporal.  How’d it go?”  He topped up his own glass.

“All right,” said Thomas.  “I checked over everyone’s uniforms, and helped them with some mending.  We’ll do a bit of drill tomorrow.”

“Good, good.  You got the books?”

“Yes—thanks.  Can I take them with me?  There’s a lot I need to review.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep ‘em.”  He tossed back his drink and poured another one.  “All right—so what do you need to know about being a corporal?”

Thomas had forgotten that he was supposed to be thinking about questions to ask, but fortunately, the Wardmaster rolled on.

“One,” he said, holding up one finger, “don’t ask your lads to do anything you won’t do yourself.  You already know that one, but it’s important.  You don’t always have to take the worst job going, but if you always manage to be doing something else when there’s scut work to be done, they’ll notice.   What you did on night duty was about right—rotate the lighter jobs with the harder ones, and take your turn on both.”

Thomas hadn’t been thinking of it quite that way at the time—he’d been thinking more of not having the other three at his throat—but he supposed it was a similar sort of thing.  “All right.”

“Two—you know this one too.  Your lads fuck up, you’re the one who gets your arse reamed out.  Don’t bother saying you didn’t know or you couldn’t stop them, because now it’s your job to know, and stop them.  Take it like a man, then turn around and give it back to the one what done it.”

Now that one, he really did know—although having official sanction to pass along whatever he got to the genuinely responsible party was a bit of a novelty. 

“Take that shit-show down in the Pharmacy Section.  The corporal there was part of it—but even if he hadn’t been, he’d still be in the fucking shit.  And you’d best believe that if the CMO had found out about it from anybody other than me, I’d be in the shit, too.  So that’s number three—if the fuck-up’s bad enough, you’ve got to pass it up the chain fast enough the shit don’t stick on you.  Now, that one’s a real son of a bitch, especially when it’s your mates, because you don’t drop your mates in the shit.  And that goes double when you’re responsible for them.  It’s your job to protect them from the consequences of their own fucking stupidity—right up to the point when it isn’t.”

That was a difficult one.  “How do you tell?  When you should cover for them, or…not?”

The Wardmaster topped up his glass, and Thomas’s as well.  “You figure it out, you tell me.  Heh.  No, first of all, you’re not covering for them exactly—put a fucking pin in that; we’ll come back to it.  Take that fucking shitshow with Diggs—we talked about that, didn’t we?”

“We did,” Thomas said.  It seemed like ages ago, even though it had only been a few months. 

“I let too much of his shit slide, and it came back to bite me on the arse.  We came up together, him and me and Jessop.  Think you, and the Rawlins lad, and, I don’t know—who’s the biggest fuck-up in your section?”

Plank, obviously. “Sergeant?”

“Yeah, you don’t have to answer that.  Point of advice, if a superior officer asks you to drop one of your lads in the shit, you can ask him to make it an order if he really wants to know—but if he does, then you’ve got to say.  Where was I?”

“Diggs, Sergeant.”

“Right.  So my point is, it’s no’ easy to tell when it’s time to hang some fuck-up out to dry.  If we were doing this the way we planned, I’d say ask Jessop.  There’s probably somebody at the fucking 14th you can ask, but you’ll have to figure out who.  And you don’t want to go asking for help with every fucking thing—you know that one, too.”  He paused and lit a cigarette, thinking for a moment.  “When you want to hang one of your lads out to dry, is when he’s fucking up bad enough it’s hurting the rest of your lads.  No’ just getting them killed, I mean, but if other blokes can’t do their fucking job, that’s when you start to think about cutting your fucking losses.  You follow me?”

“I think so,” said Thomas.  “If he’s doing more harm than good, like.”

“Yeah.  Cause your job—your real fucking job—is to look out for your lads.  Sometimes you’re protecting them from the fucking enemy, sometimes you’re protecting them from the fuckers in the brass hats, and sometimes you’re protecting them from themselves.  And that’s—what was the thing I said we’d come back to?”

Thomas thought back.  “Not covering for them, exactly.”

“Right.  There’s a difference between covering shit up and keeping it in the fucking family.  You want to handle the small shit yourself, before it comes to the attention of some Rupert with no sense of fucking proportion.   Like that little pissant out at the Aid Post who got his patrol shot to ribbons.  Now, it does not do anybody one bit of fucking harm if Jessop calls Young Allenby, Young Allenby.  Or if I call the little pissant a little pissant.  But if you were saying it, I’d do something about it, ‘cause I’d rather thump you myself than see you tied to a fucking post, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Thomas nodded.  “That makes sense.”  He hesitated.  “Could Corporal Jessop have gotten F.P. for that?”  He’d thought having to stand there and listen to Sherwood berate him was bad enough….

“Depends on whether or not the review board had a sense of fucking proportion,” said the Wardmaster.  “They’d’ve had to bust him down to Private first—NCOs can’t get F.P.—and it’d be a fucking hard review board that would go that far.”

Thomas said, “One of the blokes from the ADS said he’d been a corporal for a bit, before he called a young officer a gobshite.  That seems a bit worse than what Jessop said.”

“New Army bloke?”

Thomas nodded.

“Yeah, they’re a bit quicker to bust back a lad who just made rank, than a career NCO like Jessop.  He a working-class lad?”

“His dad was a miner,” Thomas said.  “But he was training for a doctor before the war.”

“Fuck me blind,” said the Wardmaster.  “They’d have wanted to put him in his place, and no mistake.  You probably noticed, most of the new-Army corporals we’ve got around here are what passes for fucking posh among us other ranks?”

“I did, yes.”

“They get a fucking leg-up on account of they know how to talk to officers.  That’s why we were so fucking excited to find out you weren’t actually the posh git we took you for.  I don’t mind moving the posh buggers up the ranks if they deserve it, but a proper working-class lad we can push up the ladder?  That’s something to write home about.”  He shook his head.  “A fucking footman.  It’s perfect.”

So that was the answer to Manning’s question, sort of.  It was just as well he hadn’t known, when Manning had asked—though as far as Thomas was concerned, it was about time somebody got some advantage out of being working class. 

“So yeah,” the Wardmaster went on.  “If you get into any shit that really fucking matters, you pass that straight upstairs.  You’re a corporal, so right now, that usually just means to your Sergeant, or mebbe the Ward Sister.  They’ll decide if it needs to go up into officers’ country.  When it comes to the penny-ante shit, your job is to catch it before it gets to the sergeant—and if you miss it, his job is to catch it before it gets to the fucking Ruperts.”  He lit another cigarette.  “And which way does shit roll?”

“Downhill, Sergeant,” Thomas said.

“Right.  And the further up it starts, the more fucking momentum it picks up.  Sometimes you have to give your lads shit so they don’t get it from anybody else.”

That made sense—and was a far cry from being accused of bullying poor William, for saying what Carson would say if Thomas hadn’t gotten to it first.  “So—what can I actually do to them, if I need to?”

“Officially, as a corporal, you’re limited to verbal fucking reprimands.  Unofficially, you can assign ‘em to the worst jobs going, and make sure they know why.  And you can do drills and inspections whenever the fuck you want, so you can use that.  Putting them on report is the last fucking resort—and you don’t want to bang on about that all the time, or it gets to sound like ‘Just wait till Dad gets home.’”

That was about what Thomas had thought.  “All right.  I think I can manage that.”

“I know you can,” said the Wardmaster.  “We’re doing this ahead of schedule, like I said, but if I didn’t think you could do it, I’d have come up with something else.”

Oh.  That was unexpected.  Thomas took a sip of his drink to cover his momentary flat-footedness.  “Yes, Sergeant.  I’ll do my best.”

“I know that, too.”

The Wardmaster went on to talk about a few more things, mostly practicalities to do with the march to CCS 14.  Most of them had been there before at one time or another, accompanying wounded or getting supplies or things like that, but this time, Thomas would be responsible for making sure they all got there, together and on time.  The place wasn’t hard to find—you followed the biggest and most well-traveled road leading rearward from the station—but the Wardmaster gave him a map.  “Pick yer spots for halts—you can change them on the march if you need to, but it’s better, when the lads start grumbling about how isn’t it time for a break, if you can tell them how much further it is to the stopping place.  And then stick to it unless there’s a damn good reason not to.”

That made sense—Thomas had always hated it when he got to the end of a job and was looking forward to a cigarette, and Carson turned up with some new thing that had to be done right away. 

After a few more details, the Wardmaster said, “About time we were getting to the fucking mess, I should think.”

He was right, and Thomas was a bit impressed, given that the only clock in the room was behind the Wardmaster’s back, and he had been drinking steadily for at least an hour.   “Yes, Sergeant,” he said, quickly finishing his drink.

“You know you’re entitled to eat with the NCOs now, son?” the Wardmaster added.

“Yes.”  Fuck.  “Er, the lads were planning to go out tonight.  Celebrate a bit.”  God only knew what the others would think if he didn’t show up to his own celebration—but if the Wardmaster wanted him in the NCOs mess, that’s where he’d have to be.

“Right.  Tomorrow, then.  Better fuck off, before your mates start thinking I’ve eaten you.”

Thomas fucked off, and found several of the others milling around outside the mess.  “Where have you been?” asked Perkins.

“The Wardmaster wanted to talk to me.  Is this everyone?”

“Rawlins and Applegate went ahead to get us a table,” Manning said.  “He decided to let us in on that secret place you two are always going.”

He didn’t go there all that often, but Thomas didn’t argue—he was glad enough to be going to Granny’s; the place Manning liked had terrible food and worse wine. 

Arriving at the estaminet, they found that Rawlins and Applegate had for some time been vigorously defending a large table against an artillery crew, and were beginning to lose ground.  Fortunately, the reinforcements turned up just in time, and the artillerymen fell back in the face of superior numbers. 

“Can’t say I think much of the talent,” Manning said, when the elderly waiter brought their first round—which Thomas paid for as promised. 

“We come here for the food,” Rawlins explained. 

“What do they have?” Perkins asked.

Thomas, filling glasses from the wine jug, said, “Plat du jour, or egg and chips, if you’re a coward.”  Egg and chips was standard estaminet fare; Granny had started offering it a while ago. 

“What’s plotty George?” asked Plank.

“It’s French for dish of the day,” Thomas explained.  “Whatever the old lady can get.  It’s always good.”

“I don’t like foreign food,” Plank said.  “And isn’t there any beer?”

Thomas shrugged.  “I don’t know—ask the gaffer when he comes back.  But French beer is shite.”

The plat du jour was the chicken stew that Rawlins had rhapsodized about the first time they came here—Thomas had never gotten to try it before, so he was doubly glad they’d come here.  Most of the others plumped for the special as well, although a few, including Plank, went for the egg and chips. 

They did look like pretty good chips.

Beyond that, Thomas retained few impressions of the night.  He prided himself on his ability to hold his drink, but thanks to the Wardmaster, he had started the evening at least two drinks ahead of everyone else, and by the third or fourth round—about the time they decamped to the estaminet where Manning’s black-haired girl worked—it was beginning to show. 

When, on the way there, the subject of buying him a girl arose, he was unable to marshal the mental resources to come up with a plausible objection.  Fortunately, the plan foundered against the hard fact that none of them really had enough money for such an undertaking, and he ended up, instead, with an astonishingly filthy postcard.

“Is that a…carrot?” asked Perkins.

“Maybe,” said Thomas, holding it up to the light.  “Could be a parsnip.”  Parsnips were skinnier toward the bottom than carrots, but where this one was, you could only see the thick end of it. 

“She’s got nice tits, though,” Manning pointed out. 

If he said so.

 They staggered home at some hour only slightly less obscene than the postcard, and when the alarm went, Thomas was not any more eager to get up and do drill than anyone else.  It seemed monstrously unfair that, not only did he have to get up without anyone shouting at him to do it, he had to do the shouting for everyone else. 

Drill was a shitshow, of course.  His newfound understanding of “form fours” had been washed out of his brain on a tide of cheap wine, and after a lot of confused milling about—on their best attempt, half of them ended up facing the wrong way—Thomas had to get the book out and read the instructions aloud. 

Once they had finally achieved it, they had only a few minute left before reporting to the station for breakfast.  Thomas decided to use it to practice saluting—which ought to have been easy enough—but he had them standing too close together, and several people had to dodge the elbow of the man next to them. 

“Right,” he said.  “We’ll try this again tonight.  Dismissed.”

Thomas did manage to perk up a bit over breakfast, though doing the linen chitty took him a lot longer than usual—some of the columns, he had to add up two or three times before he got a number that made sense. 

It wasn’t a big surprise that Rawlins didn’t turn up when he was waiting for the van—he was likely having the same kind of day Thomas was, and ward-work wasn’t as generous in its allowance of time for each task as linen-duty was. 

It was, however, a little surprising that Captain Allenby showed up instead.  “There you are—one of the others said you were usually here at about this time.”

“Yes, sir.  Waiting for the linen delivery.” 

“I heard about the, ah….”  He gestured at Thomas’s new stripes.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And you’re going to the 14th!  I envy you.  They’re doing some exciting work there with shell shock.”

“Are they, sir?” 

Allenby nodded.  “The idea is to treat the milder cases without taking them out of the combat zone.  Gives the men the idea that an episode of shell-shock is like a fever or dysentery—it might happen to anyone, and most recover quickly and without complications.  Sending them back to England for specialist treatment only convinces them that they’re seriously ill.”

“Like the trick with the phony blind man, sir?”

“Mm, perhaps.  Though there’s quite a bit of truth to it as well—if the problem is that the man’s been under too much strain, adding the fear that he’s gone permanently mad, and is destined to be a burden to his family, will only worsen his troubles.  If he knows that he’s expected to get better, that’s one less thing for him to worry about.”

Thomas could see the point of that—hadn’t he wondered, after his “funny turn” the night Lamble had died, if he was a coward like Diggs?  Jessop’s treating it as perfectly ordinary had likely helped.  “I see, sir.”

“They’re setting up special wards for shell shock, and they’ll be taking cases from all over the 4th Army Area,” Allenby added.  “The hope is that by having a group of them in one place, they’ll see other men with similar troubles getting better, and that will help them get better, too.”

Now that, Thomas wasn’t so sure about.  Cowardice was contagious; everybody knew that.  “What if they just give each other more things to worry about?” he asked.  “Sir.”

“They may,” Captain Allenby admitted.  “Some of the medical officers have expressed that very concern. But what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked especially well, so they’re trying different approaches in different areas.”

Well, he supposed anything was better than lining the poor buggers up and shooting them.  “Yes, sir.”

“In any case, it should be interesting.  I hope you’ll tell me what you think, when you get back, if they have you working on the shell shock wards at all.”

“Yes sir—oh, there’s the linen van.”

“I’ll get out of your hair.  Congratulations again, and good luck!”

#

Things had been hectic in Rawlins’s ward that day, and by the time he got to the mess for dinner, most of the others were already there. 

They fell ominously silent when Rawlins joined them.  He dug into his stew and waited for someone to say something.  It was Manning who finally did—no surprise there.  “What’s your take on the Barrow situation?”

Mostly, Rawlins wondered if what they were seeing was what it was like inside Barrow’s head all the time—just a constant litany of everything the rest of them were doing wrong.  But that wouldn’t be what Manning was asking about.  “What do you mean?”

Before Manning could answer, Perkins said—doubtless more tactfully than Manning would have—“He’s taking this corporal thing pretty seriously.”

He was, but Rawlins wouldn’t have expected anything different.  “He wants us to make a good impression when we get to the new place,” he pointed out.  Barrow had told them all exactly that, the night before last—but it didn’t seem a good idea to remind them that what Barrow had actually said was that they didn’t want to look like “slovenly fuckups.”

Rawlins had assumed at the time that he was exaggerating, but by now, he was starting to wonder if that was exactly what Barrow thought they were. 

Manning snorted.  “He’s gone mad with power, is what he’s done.” 

He’d been right about the tact, then.  “He’s probably nervous—you know, being corporal all of the sudden,” Rawlins said.  Not that Barrow gave any signs of being nervous.  Or of feeling anything at all, really.

“Does Barrow get nervous?” Plank wondered.

“Fuck if I know,” Rawlins answered.  He knew the others had him pegged for just about Barrow’s best mate, but Rawlins sometimes wondered if Barrow thought they were.  He couldn’t help remembering poor Lamb, too dumb to realize Barrow was only just barely putting up with him.  “I know I would be.”

Manning scoffed.  “What’s to be nervous about?  We all know our jobs—whether he thinks we do or not.”

Rawlins decided not to point out that they’d all been happy enough to unanimously elect Barrow to do something about the billet situation, on the strength of his being lance-corporal.  Now that he was a full corporal, if he wanted to run drill and carp at them about their uniforms, that just might be the price they paid for not having to do things like convince the Wardmaster their billet really was unlivable. 

Taking a page from Barrow’s book, Rawlins sat back and listened as they all groused for a while about how they did know their jobs, and who cared about things like Plank’s top button, anyway? 

He sat up and took notice, though, when—as they were all just about finished eating—Manning said, “So, are we actually going to let him make us drill again, when we go off-duty tonight?”

For a long moment, no one said anything.  Rawlins was starting to wonder if he was going to have to, when Collins said, “Not sure we really have a choice, mate.  He does outrank us now.”

“What’s he going to do, if we all say no, we’re not fucking doing it?” Manning argued. 

Rawlins thought back to when they’d been talking about the billet.  What was it Barrow had said?  “I’m pretty sure that could be considered mutiny.” 

Manning scoffed again, but began to look a little doubtful. 

“Technically, yeah,” Collins agreed.  “Anyway, we’re leaving for the CCS tomorrow—really not a good time to be fighting amongst ourselves, is it?”

There were some murmurs of agreement at that, and Rawlins added, “He’ll probably ease off once we get there.  Either he’ll see that our uniforms look just as good as anybody else’s, or we’ll be too busy to bother about that stuff.”

Collins nodded.  “Let’s give it some time,” he suggested to Manning.  “If he gets worse, we’ll figure something out.” 

Everyone looked pretty relieved to have a solution that didn’t require an immediate confrontation with Barrow, and eventually, Manning nodded back.  “Yeah, all right,” he said. 

As they were filling out of the mess, Collins fell into step next to Rawlins.  “You might want to, uh, tip Barrow off, that the natives are getting restless, yeah?” he suggested, with a meaningful look in the direction of Manning’s back.

“Yeah,” Rawlins agreed.

#

The next morning at dawn, they assembled outside the barn in full kit.  Last night’s drill practice had gone a bit better than the morning one, and this time, they all managed to line up neatly on the first try.  “Squad—hut!” 

They all snapped to attention, even Plank. 

“Eyes right!”

They saluted the tree that stood between the barn and the ruined house—designated “Captain Oak” for the purpose.

“Form Fours!”

The back row took a step backwards—the first part of the “form fours” maneuver.

“Right!”  This was the magic trick—everyone, in both rows, had to turn to the right, and, simultaneously, every second man had to step to the side and then forward.  The way it went wrong was if anyone forgot which group he was in. 

This time, everybody managed to remember—more or less.  Perkins, who was standing next to Plank, had to throw an elbow to keep him where he was supposed to be.

“Slow-march.”

They set out. 

The effect was rather spoiled, of course, by the fact that all they were doing just now was going to the Dressing Station for breakfast, like they did every morning.  Still, for a moment it was fairly grand. 

The day’s march, however, was fairly dull, the only thing that passed for excitement provided by a couple of occasions—one in the morning, one in the afternoon—when Thomas spotted an approaching staff car.  As they were in the combat zone, they weren’t expected to halt and salute, but the Wardmaster had warned him that some particularly bloody-minded buggers on the General Staff weren’t above stopping a unit on the march to berate them for sloppy marching order. 

“Officer up ahead,” Thomas warned.   “Everybody look sharp.”    He turned around and marched backwards for a moment—an NCO skill he was trying to pick up as quickly as he could—to review his section.  “Manning, Perkins, button your coats.”

They buttoned them, and the staff car passed without incident.  There was no way to tell, of course, whether that was because they were doing well, or because the staff officer inside had better things to do.

About a mile out from the CCS, Thomas called one last halt.  “Check your uniforms, and if you can’t get through the next half hour without a smoke, do it now.  I do not want to see any cigarettes the rest of the march.  Plank, button your top button, and I swear to God if it isn’t fucking buttoned when we get there, I will sew it to your neck.”

Plank gulped and buttoned his top button.

“We’re moving out again in a quarter-hour, sharp.  Fall out.”

They fell out, some sitting down and getting out their cigarettes, some retiring behind a convenient bush.  Thomas sat down on the cleanest patch of ground he could find and lit up. 

“You’re going to give yourself a heart attack,” Rawlins observed, sitting beside him.  “You really think anybody’s going to be looking, the moment we get there, to see if Plank’s got his top button done up or not?”

“They might,” Thomas answered. 

“They might have a squad of estaminet girls ready to welcome us with whiskey and kisses, but I don’t think it’s likely,” Rawlins said. 

“Surprise inspection is probably a bit more likely than that,” Thomas pointed out. 

“A bit,” Rawlins agreed, but he sounded skeptical.

Thomas felt vindicated, therefore, when, upon reaching the CCS and identifying themselves at the sentry post, they were directed to a nearby square to “wait for the Sergeant.”  Thomas had them line up in two ranks—a maneuver that required reversing “form fours”—and then kept them standing “at ease” while they waited.

It was only about ten minutes until the sergeant approached—an older bloke, with a Regular Army look to him.  “Squad-hut!” he said, and they all snapped to attention, Thomas included. 

The sergeant looked them over, nodding a bit at the end of it.  “Stand easy.”  He beckoned Thomas out of line.  “You’re the lot from the 47th?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

He nodded.  “You’ll find that Colonel Ottley runs a tighter ship than you’re used to.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“You saying your old CMO runs a sloppy operation, Corporal?”

“No, Sergeant.  Our Master-Sergeant mentioned that the CMO here has different priorities than Major Thwait.”

The Sergeant gave him a nod that Thomas had no trouble recognizing as grudging approval.  It reminded him of Carson.  “Barracks inspection at 1700, followed immediately by parade and uniform inspection.  You’re in hut C-3.  Dismissed.”

Thomas had to find somebody less intimidating to ask where hut C-3 was, but once he had, it wasn’t hard to find.  It was a purpose-built Army hut of the kind they used for wards back at the 47th—weather-tight, and conveniently near the main buildings of the Station.  Things were looking up already.

Going inside, they found a barracks with actual bunks.  It was one big room, not divided up the way the wards were, and had room for a full platoon.  About half the places were occupied, so there might be another new section arriving after theirs.  The men from the other two sections were busy stowing their kit, making up their bunks, or polishing their boots and brass.  “You heard the Sergeant,” Thomas told his section.  “I’ll check at 1630 to see how we’re coming along.”

They moved toward the back half of the barracks—the first two sections had taken the places in front—and Thomas had just set his pack down on a bunk when someone popped out of a doorway he hadn’t seen and said, “Corporal?  We’re in here.”

Oh, right.  NCOs bunked separately, normally.  Good thing he hadn’t gotten any further into settling in.  “Thanks,” he said, picking up his kit again.

“Long march?” the other Corporal asked, sympathetically.

“All day,” Thomas said.  The NCOs’ room had four bunks, stacked on top of each other to make room for a couple of desks.  The other two had already chosen the upper bunks, so Thomas dropped his stuff on one of the lower ones. 

“I’m Blythe,” the first Corporal said.  “And he’s Lyton.”  He indicated, with a jerk of his head, the man who was lying on one of the bunks. 

“Barrow,” said Thomas. 

Lyton lowered the book he was reading.  “Which lot are you, then?”

“Hm?”

Blythe explained, “They said we’re getting a section from a field ambulance, and one from an ADS.”

“Oh—we’re the field ambulance.  The 47th.”

“Our sections are fresh from Blighty,” Blythe went on, as Thomas got started making up his bunk.  “Lyton’s transferred over from the 9th Stationary, and I was already here.”

“That’s good,” Thomas said.  “Give us the lay of the land, then.”

Blythe described the layout of the station, which had not been precisely what Thomas had in mind, but he supposed it was useful information in any case.  He also observed that, while Blythe made a brave effort to talk like a soldier—sprinkling in the occasional “bloody,” for instance—his vowels gave him away as what the Wardmaster would term a “posh bugger.”  Lyton didn’t talk as much, which made him harder to peg, but Thomas suspected he was the same.

At least neither of them was thick enough to ask him where he’d been to school. 

His bunk made up and his kit stowed, Thomas wiped the dust of the road off his boots and went back out into the main room to see if anyone had started a brew-up.  Nobody had, so he collected the kettle, spirit stove, and tea—the section’s communal property having been distributed among them for the journey—and started one. 

When the tea was up, and the men started coming over to fill their mugs, he noticed the men from the other two sections looking on hopefully, but ignored them.  The kettle only held enough for themselves, anyway.

Thomas sat on Rawlins’s footlocker, drinking his tea and having a smoke.  The others eyed him warily for a moment or two, but soon enough got back to what they were doing, talking around him like they always had. 

A bit later, the other section arrived.  “All right,” a familiar voice said, in a tone of one much-harassed.  “Stow your shite; you can sight-see later.  We’ve got a fucking inspection to get ready for.”

It was Rouse, his corporal’s stripes restored.  Thomas raised a hand in greeting as he came past, heading for the last section of unoccupied bunks.  “Barrow,” he said.  “How the hell have you been?”

“Not bad,” Thomas said, angling his shoulder so that Rouse could see his stripes.

“Fuck me blind!  When did that happen?”

“Tuesday afternoon.”  He stood up and pointed the way to their room.  “We’re in here.”

“Bet this is a step up from your barn,” Rouse observed, as they made their way to the NCOs’ room.

“Several,” said Thomas.  He’d told Rouse about the barn when they were at the Aid Post.  “Turns out it was structurally unsound—roof could have fallen down on top of us any time.  That’s why we’re here—they needed a place to put us until it’s fixed.”

Tossing his things onto the bunk, Rouse said, “Your section’s the lot from the barn?  Bit rough, bein’ put in charge of your mates.”

“It’s going all right so far.  What about yours?”  He can’t have been their corporal for long, since he hadn’t been one when they were at the Aid Post.

“Better than half of them, I just met this morning,” Rouse said.  “I’ve got a few from my ADS, and a few from each of the ones to either side.”

“That’s a bit rough, too,” Thomas said.  “They say the CMO here is kind of a hardarse.”

“I had formed that fucking impression, thanks.  What did that sergeant have to say about your lot?”

So Rouse’s section’s initial inspection hadn’t gone as smoothly as his.  Thomas hesitated a moment before saying, “Not much, but our Wardmaster gave me the heads-up about the CMO.  We’ve been getting ready.  You?”

“Lines ragged, greatcoats unbuttoned, brass dull, boots not shiny enough—all that shite.  How we’re meant to fix all that in less than an hour, I couldn’t fucking tell you.”

Blythe, from his bunk, observed, “You’d best pray Colonel Ottley doesn’t come down to inspect us.  If it’s just Sergeant McAllister, you might escape alive.”

“That’s Blythe,” Thomas introduced him.  “And the other one’s Lyton.  He’s Rouse.”

“Charmed,” said Lyton, not looking up from his book. 

“You chaps know each other?” Blythe asked. 

“Yeah,” said Rouse. 

Thomas would have elaborated, but Rouse didn’t seem to want to, so he followed his lead.  “I could ask my lads to give yours a hand, if you like—I think we’re pretty well squared away.”

Rouse considered for a moment.  “Nah.  They can take us as we come.”

That didn’t seem wise to Thomas, but Rouse had presumably been a corporal for something longer than three days—counting his prior experience—so Thomas didn’t argue. 

When he went back out to the main room at 1630, he found everyone mostly ready.  “All right, who knows where you’re supposed to stand for a barracks inspection?”

Thomas hoped somebody did, because he did not—they’d had tent inspections in training, but there wasn’t room for everybody to stand in there while it was being inspected.

“Uh…next to the footlocker, I think,” Rawlins said. 

That sounded about right to Thomas, but when nobody confirmed it, he asked the other two sections, “Do any of you lot know?”

One of the new lads, who had been watching them with interest, said, “It’s to the left of the footlocker, Corporal.”

“Thanks.  All right, let’s try it.”  Nobody moved for a moment.  Thomas sighed and said, “Hut!”

They all got up and stood by their footlockers.

“Left is the other one, Plank.” 

He moved. 

Thomas looked them over.  “Not bad—Rawlins, wipe off your boots.  Perkins and Collins, you too.  If you’ve been on your bunk since you made it, remember to pull it tight before the sergeant gets here.”  They were all correctly made, but some of them were rumpled.  “I’ll put the tea stuff away…whose turn is it to sweep the floor?”

They did periodically perform this task in the barn, but there wasn’t an official rota.  Eventually, Applegate said, “I’ll do it.”

“Good.  Plank, do you remember what I said about your top button?”  It was currently buttoned, but a lot could happen in half an hour.

“Yes, Corp.” 

“All right.  If there’s anything else wrong, we’ll find out about it together.  As you were.”

Thomas dithered for a moment over where to put the tea things—there was plenty of room in his footlocker, but that might seem like he was claiming it as his own.  There were a couple of extra bunks left over after theirs, so he decided to put it all in the locker to one of those.  That finished, he sat down on the locker and smoked a cigarette. 

With five minutes before the sergeant was expected, the other three corporals came out of their room.  Blythe and Lyton went to stand with their sections, and Rouse swore and raced around helped his frantically finish stowing their gear and straightening up their uniforms.  “Look sharp,” Thomas told his.  “Plank, your bunk.  Manning, get rid of that cigarette.”

Plank straightened out his bunk, and Manning chucked his cigarette into the woodstove.  At 1700 on the dot, the door banged open and Sergeant McAllister came in.  They all snapped to attention, and Thomas felt a bit ill. 

The results of the first section’s inspection were not encouraging.  Half of their bunks were incorrectly made, several of their greatcoats improperly folded—Thomas had forgotten that there was a correct way to do it—and once he’d finished shouting about all that, Sergeant McAllister opened the footlockers of the worst offenders and shouted about those. 

Rouse’s group was next—the sergeant was working his way down the right-hand side of the barracks, and would presumably then work his way up the left side—and they fared even worse.  From unpolished boots and unbuttoned tunics, to poorly-made beds and personal articles not properly stowed, no one escaped.  What was worse was that Rouse, when McAllister got to him, tried to argue the point, saying, “Up at the Advanced Dressing Stations, we’ve got other things to worry about.  Sergeant.”

That got him a full minute and a half of uninterrupted shouting, including several swearwords that Thomas had never heard spoken aloud before.  Then McAllister wheeled on Thomas and said, “What about you?  Have you got better things to worry about at the 47th Ambulance?”

Unable to think of a good answer to that question, Thomas kept his eyes front and said, “Sergeant.”

The sergeant huffed and moved on.  They got the expected tongue-lashings over the greatcoats—out of all of them, only Manning had his folded correctly—but he found nothing else to find fault with.  The final section went much the same as the first, and at the end of it, McAllister announced they’d be doing this again at 0530 tomorrow morning—“and, if fucking necessary, every morning until you buggers get it right!”

Then he marched them outside and put them through about a quarter of an hour of saluting drill.  Rouse’s group again got the worst of it, but Thomas’s section came in for their share, as well—particularly Rawlins, who had trouble remembering to keep his elbow up.  The first two sections, having just come from training, were much more practiced.  At the end of it all, McAllister arranged them by sections, with the new lads at the front, Thomas’s section third, and Rouse’s fourth. 

It was not a massive surprise when, moments after they completed this maneuver, a staff car pulled up and disgorged a Colonel and his adjutant.  This was clearly the moment McAllister had been rehearsing them for, and they managed, on his order, a crisp salute, in near-perfect unison.  Rawlins even had his elbow up. 

Colonel Ottley went on to inspect the troops, pausing to speak to each corporal in turn.  Blythe heard about the poor posture of several of his men—barely detectable to Thomas’s eye—and that several of them had been a fraction of a second behind on their salutes.  Lyton was reminded that each rank of four should be ordered by height, and that at attention, they were to keep eyes front unless directed otherwise.  He delivered these corrections in a tone of false jocularity that set Thomas’s teeth on edge; he could only imagine what Rouse was making of it. 

“Ah,” he said, when he got to Thomas.  “You’re the chaps from the 47th Ambulance?”

“Yes, sir.” 

“Not as bad as I was expecting—but you seem to be missing a man.”

“Sir?”

“Major Thwaite said he was sending a section.  Did you lose one on the way?”

Oh, this was fucking perfect.  “No, sir.  Private Lamble was killed several months ago.  Enemy action.  Haven’t had a replacement.  Sir.”

As Thomas had expected, that set Colonel Ottley back on his heels a bit.  “I see,” he said, and moved on.

Thomas wasn’t sure if seeing him taken down a peg helped Rouse hold on to his temper, but he did get through the his own little chat without calling the Colonel a gobshite, so that was all to the good. 

The Colonel concluded his inspection by telling the Sergeant, in a voice meant to carry, that he looked forward to see them all drill a week from Sunday.  As soon as he’d gotten back into the car and fucked off, McAllister told them all that their inspection the next morning was now scheduled for 0500, to be followed by drill until breakfast. 

Then the sergeant buggered off as well, and they trooped back into the barracks, in higher spirits than Thomas would have expected, given the ordeal they’d just been through.  “Barrow,” Manning said, clapping him on the shoulder, “you’ve been a bit of a wanker the last few days.  But now I remember why we love you.  ‘Enemy action.  Sir.’”  He clicked his heels and made a mock salute. 

Thomas shrugged a little. 

“Was one of your section really killed in action?” asked one of the new lads.

“Yes,” Thomas said.  “Bringing in wounded from no-man’s land.”

“Fuck,” said Lyton.

“Barrow went out and got him,” Rawlins added. 

The other corporals got their other sections to work on fixing the deficiencies Sergeant McAllister had informed them of.  “It was my fault about the coats,” Thomas told his.  “I forgot all about how they want us to fold them.”

“And now he’s back to being a wanker again,” Manning said. 

“It’s lucky he was, though,” Perkins pointed out, with a glance over his shoulder at Rouse’s lot.  “Or we’d have come off a lot worse.”

“What do you mean, luck?” Thomas objected.  “That’s why I was doing it!”

They all looked around in confusion.  “You knew that was going to happen?” Applegate asked.

“Not exactly,” Thomas answered.  “But the Wardmaster said the CMO here was like that.  I told you,” he reminded them. 

“When?” asked Collins.

“Oh,” said Rawlins.  “You know what, he did.  It was right before all that stuff about not fucking the nurses.”

There were murmurs of agreement.  “What, did you lot think I was running drills at the crack of dawn for fun?”

For a moment, nobody said anything.  “No,” Manning said unconvincingly. 

“Yeah, you did,” Plank pointed out.  “Remember, you said he’d gone mad with power.”

Christ.  “Why didn’t somebody say something?” Thomas asked.

Rawlins said, “That’s kind of what I was working up to when I asked if you were going to lighten up when we got here.  But you seemed kind of keyed up, so….”

He probably hadn’t wanted Thomas shouting at him and telling him to fuck off again. Still, it was kind of impressive that they’d gone along with Thomas’s plans as willingly as they had, if they’d thought it was all his own idea.  “I figured none of us had so much as thought about drill since we got to the 47th,” he explained.  “Since I sure as fuck hadn’t.  I had to borrow a drill manual to figure out what to do.”

They got a bit of a chuckle out of that.  “I thought you just knew all that stuff,” Perkins said. 

“I, uh, I remembered the bit about the coats,” Manning admitted.  “I should have said something.”

“Well, show us now,” Thomas suggested.  “Hang on, let me get mine.”

#

Barrow didn’t look a bit like his brother, but Rouse had noticed, when they were at the Front together, that every now and then there’d be a moment when he reminded him so much of Fitz that it hurt.  Watching him work with his men on how to fold a coat was one of those times. 

He was a bit more high-and-mighty in his manner—Fitz had somehow made it seem like whatever he was telling you, you’d have thought of it yourself in a minute or two; Rouse had no idea how he’d managed it, and it didn’t look like Barrow knew, either.  But the way he stepped back and had the Manning bloke show them how the coats were supposed to be folded, that was something Fitz would have done. 

So was the way, once he’d been shown the trick of it, Barrow did his perfectly—and utterly seriously, as though a thing like how many buttons showed when your coat was on the shelf actually mattered

And when one of the men—one of Rouse’s men, in fact; they were watching the lesson as keenly as Barrow’s ones were—said something about it being an awful lot of bother, for something that didn’t make a difference, Rouse knew exactly what he’d say.

“Once you get the hang of it, it won’t take any longer to do it properly.”

How many times had he heard Fitz say that, and about how many things? 

He was always right, was the bugger of it.  Rouse had spent just enough time in the mines, before the grammar-school scholarship that got him up above ground for good, to learn that the men like that—the ones who made doing it right look just as easy as doing it wrong—were the ones you looked to when the bad air came up, or when the props started to creak.  He hadn’t been down the pit long enough to learn how you got to be one of those men. 

That, he’d learned from Fitz: you did it by treating everything like it was important, at least until you knew for God-damned sure that it wasn’t.  

So Rouse swallowed his pride and, when they’d finished fucking around with their coats, asked Barrow, “You lot mind giving us a hand, after all?”

Fitz probably would have had something to say, that would leave Rouse smarting less from the thrashing he’d gotten on the parade-ground.  Barrow didn’t, but he didn’t rub it in, either—just nodded, once, and began putting his men where he wanted them.  “Applegate, Cadman, Rawlins—would you mind walking those three,” he pointed, “through sorting out their bunks?  Plank, let’s see if you remember what I showed you about buttons….”

By supper time, Rouse’s section wasn’t ready for their next inspection, but they at least had some idea of what they still had to do, after they ate.  As they walked over to the mess, Rouse said to Barrow, “Fitz was good at all that, too.”

“What, sewing?” Barrow asked.  Right before they’d left, he’d been helping one of Rouse’s men with a tear in his tunic.

“No—I mean, yeah, that, too.  Motivating people, is what I meant.”

“I’m not good at that,” said Barrow.  “And I thought I told you, I can’t talk about him.”

He’d said that at the Front, sure—a moment’s distraction could cost lives, there.  But they weren’t at the Front now.  “What, ever?”

Barrow shook his head.

“All right.”  Rouse wasn’t sure that was a good thing—remembering hurt, sure, but you had to let the pain out sometime, didn’t you?  “It’s just that I knew him too—not as well as you did, of course, but—”

“Would you please shut the fuck up?”

Rouse shut the fuck up. 

Their boots crunched across the frost-covered grass.  “Sorry,” Barrow said.  “I just…can’t.”

“All right,” Rouse said again.  If he didn’t want to talk about it, that was his own look-out.  But, he decided, he was going to keep an eye on Barrow, he decided.  For Fitz’s sake.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9—December, 1915

“What’d you get?” Rouse asked Thomas as they went in to breakfast, following morning drill.  They’d been working their sections separately today, so each of the corporals had been given his day’s assignment individually.

“Fatigues in the morning, sentry in the afternoon,” Thomas said.  “You?”

“What a bleedin’ coincidence—we’ve got sentry in the morning, fatigues in the afternoon.”

“Typical.”  With some slightly variations, that was what they had been doing all week.  Lyton and Blythe’s sections had been alternating their fatigues with working in the sinkroom, where bedpans and the like were washed.  Personally, Thomas thought they may have gotten the better end of the bargain—if by a slight margin—but sinkroom work, being at least tenuously connected to the wards, was considered more prestigious. 

Thomas had attempted to boost morale by reading selections from the RAMC manual on the subject of camp sanitation—digging latrines for the new wards being their principal occupation on fatigues—but nobody was much buying it. 

Today, however, they had the exceedingly mild treat of being assigned to spread gravel on the paths between the new wards—and their latrines—and the other buildings.  Thomas had figured out, through trial and error, that having more than four men digging the same hole meant you were getting in each other’s way, and that each working party had to have someone named as leader.  He had no idea whether gravel-spreading was the same, but they were issued three wheelbarrows for the gravel, so he decided they might as well start with three parties of four each, and see how that went.

Picking team leaders was harder—he’d done it so far by choosing men who seemed to know a bit more than the others about digging holes, which he’d had ample opportunity to observe on the first morning of digging, when he’d been trying to supervise everybody at once.  “Well,” he said, looking around at his section.  “Anybody have experience spreading gravel?”

No one said anything for a moment.  Finally, Widener said, “I mulched my Nan’s flower beds once.”

He supposed that might be similar.  A bit.  “Anyone else?”

Collins volunteered, “We spread all kinds of stuff on the farm.  Not gravel, but….”

“All right, then.  You take Rawlins, Applegate, and Cadman, and show us how it’s done. Widener, you’ve got Manning, Morris, and Liston.  The rest of you are with me.  We’ll start up by Hut D-5, and spread out from there.”  Several of their assigned paths started there, so they’d be able to watch Collins’s team for a bit before the rest of them started.  They’d also be working their way back towards the heap of gravel, so the work would get a bit easier as they went along. 

After they’d loaded up their wheelbarrows, Collins went to one of the already-graveled paths to check the depth of the gravel—something Thomas would not have thought of, at least not until they began the job and he started wondering whether they were putting down enough. 

When they reached the beginning of one of the paths to be graveled, it became immediately apparent why the procedure was necessary—the wheels of the wheelbarrows immediately became stuck in the mud.  “Change of plan,” Thomas announced.  “We start at this end of the path, and work our way up to D-5.”  Noticing a few confused looks, he added, “That way, we’ll be pushing the wheelbarrows over the bits we’ve already done.”  Now there were nods of comprehension.  “All right, Collins.  Show us what you’ve got.”

 “Right,” said Collins.  “So what we want to do is dump out the gravel, and send one bloke back for more while the rest of us spread it out—that way, we’re not standing around waiting for the next load.”

It would probably have taken Thomas a couple of trips between gravel heap and path to figure that one out, too. 

“We’ll pour it out in a line along the path,” Collins went on, suiting action to words.  “They’ve got it about two inches deep on the other paths, so I reckon we want it about like this….”

When Collins’s team had spread the first load of gravel, and Applegate was dispatched back to the heap for another, Thomas dispersed his and Widener’s teams to other paths. 

It quickly became clear that, of the jobs to be done, fetching the gravel was by far the hardest.  After several arguments over whose turn it was to do it, Thomas worked out a system: when a man brought the wheelbarrow up, he poured the gravel out and took his place at the front of the spreading group.  The man at the back of the group collected the wheelbarrow and went for the next load.  As long as everybody kept to his place in line, each would get three turns of spreading gravel before he found himself at the end of the line and had to go fetch it again. 

It worked well enough, although by the time they’d gotten about halfway up the path, they were far enough away from the gravel heap that it took noticeably less time to spread the gravel than it did to bring the next load, leaving the rest of them standing around for moments at a time, waiting for something to do. 

By three-quarters of the way up the path, people were starting to reach for their cigarettes during these moments of delay, and Thomas didn’t think quelling glares would be enough to suppress this behavior for long.  “We’ll have a smoke break when we get to D-5,” he decided. 

 The next few loads of gravel were brought up with surprising speed.  But when they were only two or three wheelbarrow-loads away from finishing, who should come out of Hut D-5 than Colonel fucking Ottley.  That didn’t seem too bad at first—they all braced up, he waved them off with an “as you were,”—but then he sat down on a chair, placed on the porch of the hut, and got out his pipe.

Now that put Thomas in a tight spot.  It was his turn with the wheelbarrow, so on his way to the gravel-heap, he thought quickly.  Was the unexpected appearance of a Colonel what the Wardmaster would call a fucking good reason to call off a promised break?  It was hard to say. 

On the one hand, they were certainly allowed to take breaks while on fatigues—this wasn’t a punishment detail or anything.  On the other…well, it certainly wouldn’t look good.  But the lads had been working extra-hard in anticipation of the break; it would not be at all fair to make them start a new job instead.  And it would look a lot worse if anyone noticed them faffing about trying to look busy until the Colonel had finished his pipe, and then immediately downing tools the moment he was out of sight. 

His load of gravel proved to be not quite enough to get them the whole way to the end of the path, so Thomas held out hope that the Colonel would bugger off while Perkins was getting a final one. 

He did not, unfortunately, bugger off.  They took their time spreading out the last bit, everyone eying Thomas to see which way he would jump.  “All right,” he finally said.  “Fall out.  Fifteen minutes.”  They all shuffled off onto the grass and started sitting down.  “Plank!” Thomas snapped.  “Tell me you are not about to leave that rake lying in the middle of the path.”

“No, Corp,” said Plank, obediently.  He picked up the rake and looked around as though trying to work out what to do with it.

“Put it in the wheelbarrow with the others,” Thomas said patiently, adding, “There’s a lad,” when Plank achieved this feat.  

Throughout all this, Thomas watched the Colonel out of the corner of his eye.  He displayed no visible reaction whatsoever, but Thomas still couldn’t quite get his head round the idea of sitting down and smoking a cigarette in front of him—he probably couldn’t have done it in front of Major Thwaite, not at that close a range—so he said, “I’ll check on the others.  No mucking about.”

The other two parties were beginning to converge on Hut D-5, but were each some distance down their respective paths.  It wasn’t too difficult to see why.  Two of Collins’s group had cigarettes in hand as they waited for Collins to come back with the wheelbarrow, including Cadman, whose turn it evidently was to go for the next one.  He stood next to the wheelbarrow, apparently planning to finish his smoke before he got on with it.  “You lot taking a break?” Thomas asked Collins.  Thomas would not have called a break this close to the end of the job, but if Collins had, he wouldn’t get in his way about it.

“Not, er, officially-like,” Collins said sheepishly. 

Thomas looked at him for a moment.

“Oh.  Um, Cadman, put that down and go fetch your load, on the double!  Applegate, get spreading!”

They obeyed, and Thomas said, “There you go.  All right?”

“All right,” Collins said. 

Thomas told him which path they were to do next, and then went to check on the other group.

Widener’s group, when he arrived, was engaged in vigorous debate over whose turn it was to go for the next load of gravel.  Thomas listened for a moment, but when Morris appealed to him on the subject, saying, “I did it the second-to-last time, just before Widener,” Thomas silenced him with a gesture.

“Widener, whose turn is it?” he asked.

“I think Manning’s,” Widener said hesitantly. 

Thomas shook his head.  “You’re in charge; if you say it’s Manning’s turn, it’s Manning’s turn.  Whose turn is it?”

“Manning’s,” Widener said.

“Good,” said Thomas, and while Manning was trundling off with the wheelbarrow, he explained his system, adding, “If you lose track anyway, just pick somebody—it takes more time to argue about it than it does to do it, and if somebody ends up with an extra turn, it won’t kill them.”

Widener nodded.  “How do you come up with this stuff?”

“I fuck around until I figure out what works,” Thomas answered.  “When you’re done with this one, start on the path from the mess to D-6, all right?”

“All right.”

Thomas started back to his own group, smoking a cigarette and admiring their freshly-graveled path as he went.  By the time he got there, Colonel Ottley had disappeared.  “Did he say anything?” he asked, jerking his head toward the spot where the Colonel had been. 

“No,” said Perkins.  “He sort of nodded, when he went back inside.”

He’d take it, Thomas decided.

The next day was Sunday, and their promised parade before the Colonel.  Normally, everybody got an extra hour of sleep on Sundays, but Sergeant McAllister gave them an extra hour of drill, instead.  Thomas supposed it paid off; the Colonel had few complaints, and Sergeant McAllister assigned them only one morning of drill for the following week. 

Thomas held out some hope that their managing to redeem themselves on the parade ground would translate into more interesting duties as well, but on Monday, they got the usual instructions—it was sentry duty in the morning this time, and fatigues in the afternoon. 

There was a fair bit of grumbling as Thomas gave out the sentry-post assignments. 

“Did they bring us here to be navvies?”

“Not what I joined the RAMC for.”

“It’s nice sleeping under a roof, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

“Look,” Thomas said.  “We’re the new blokes here, and we’ve not exactly impressed them so far.”

“We’ve not had a chance to,” Manning pointed out.

“Well, no,” Thomas admitted.   “But the other three sections are in the same boat.  Best be patient about it, and if nothing changes in another week or two, I’ll think up some way to ask Sergeant McAllister if there’s anything we can do to get a chance to work on wards.” 

It turned out, however, that something changed the very next day.  When they reported in at the tool shed for fatigues after breakfast, a Sergeant they didn’t know was standing outside with a half-dozen twitchy-looking men in hospital blues.  “Corporal Barrow?” the Sergeant said.

“Sergeant.”

“I’ve got some extra help for you today.” 

The twitchy blokes didn’t look like they’d be much help, but Thomas suspected that wasn’t the point.  “D-5?”  D-5 was one of the new shell shock wards, and had received its first consignment of patients on Saturday. 

“Yep.”

“Any, er, special instructions?” Thomas asked. 

The sergeant shook his head.  “Himself said they’re to pull their weight; that’s it.”

“Himself” was the Colonel, and there was no arguing with that.  “All right—fall in,” he told them, and went inside to find out what the other part of their work assignment was.

Inside, their work assignment and equipment issue tended to confirm his suspicions about the amount of help that could be expected from the shell shock cases were confirmed.  They were graveling paths again, and about the same amount as when there were only twelve in the party.  They were also issued rakes for the new men, but no extra wheelbarrows.

Thomas had to think a moment about how to handle this situation.  On their second day of doing gravel, they’d briefly tried having everyone work on the same section of path at the same time, in case that solved the problem of delays waiting for gravel.  It hadn’t; it just left more people standing around waiting for something to do.

So three parties again was the way to do it—but should he take all the twitchy blokes himself?  They’d never get anything done, but at least the others wouldn’t be stuck with them. 

On the other hand, everyone had been banging on about wanting to look after patients again, and since Thomas was fairly sure that was what this was, he might as well take them at their word.  He picked Manning and Applegate as team leaders, and put two of the twitchy blokes on each team. 

Then he pulled Manning and Applegate aside, on the pretext of getting the wheelbarrows, and explained, “They’re shell shock cases.  I heard a bit about this before we left the 47th, and I think the play is to treat them as normally as possible.  Colonel’s orders are that they’re to do their share, so…do the best you can with that.  If I find out anything more, I’ll let you know.  All right?”

“All right,” they said, and scattered back to their teams. 

The paths they were assigned today led to a half-finished hut, which further deepened Thomas’s impression that getting the job done was not precisely the point of today’s exercise.  “Names?” he asked the new blokes, as they headed to the start of their assigned path. 

“Benson,” said the shorter of the two, his head jerking to one side so that his ear nearly touched his shoulder.  “He, uh.”  Twitch.  “Doesn’t talk.”

Fantastic.  “You don’t happen to know his name?”

Twitch.  “No, Corp.” 

“All right.”  Thomas looked at the other bloke, who was tall and slim.  “We’ll call you Stretch, all right?”

Stretch nodded, unless that was a twitch, too. 

“I’m Barrow, and these are Rawlins, Widener, and Plank.  Either of you ever spread gravel before?”

Stretch shook his head, and Benson said, “No, Corp.”

“We’ve done it the last three days, so we’re bloody experts.  Just do what we do, and you’ll soon get the hang of it.”

 He did, however, put them at the front of the line, so that he’d be able to watch them for a bit before it was their turn to fetch the gravel.  Stretch, he discovered, was not a bad worker, at least for a job that didn’t require him to talk.  Benson, in addition to the head-twitch, had his right hand curled into a sort of claw, that made it fairly difficult for him to hold a rake.  Thomas didn’t think much of his chances at being able to manage the wheelbarrow, and when they had worked their way to the back of the line, said, “Why don’t you two go together, this time?”

Benson said “Yes, Corp,” and they went, each taking one handle of the wheelbarrow.

Well, that wasn’t precisely how he’d have done it, but he supposed it would work. 

Once they’d gone, and the rest of them were spreading gravel, Plank said meditatively, “You know, I don’t think those blokes are quite right.”

Everyone stared at him.

“In the head,” he added.

Rawlins nodded slowly.  “You may be on to something there, mate.” 

It took Benson and Stretch approximately twice as long as anyone else to fetch the gravel, and as the morning wore on, it became more and more tempting to call a smoke break during the extended absences.  One time, Thomas went with them to see if there was some part of the procedure that they found particularly difficult, but no, they just went slowly, Stretch putting the gravel into the wheelbarrow as carefully as if he were packing Mills bombs, and Benson having as much difficulty with the shovel as he did with the rake.  Thomas left them to it.

He was starting to think about the mid-morning break, and was eyeing a tree up ahead as a prospective stopping place, to be announced the next time somebody complained, when a Major approached.  He delivered his “as you were” almost as soon as he saw them noticing him, but then beckoned Thomas aside.  “How are you making out with them?” he asked.  He was a man of about forty, bespectacled and balding.

“Not bad, sir.”  He hesitated, then decided he might as well confirm his guess.  “Is this part of their treatment, sir?” 

Instead of answering, the Major asked, “How do you figure that?”

Thomas decided to go with the simplest of the possible answers.  “Well, we were working a bit faster without them, sir.”

“Ah.  Well, yes, it is part of their treatment.  We’ve found it most effective to keep these types of cases under military discipline—drill, fatigues, and the like.  Haven’t you got some others?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes, sir.  They’re with the other two work parties.  In fact, I was just thinking about going to look in on how they’re doing.”  He suspected that was what the Major would want to do next, and on the whole Thomas thought it best if he wasn’t sprung on Manning and Applegate unawares.

“Ah, good.  I’ll join you, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, sir.  One moment.”  He went back to the group and explained where he was going.  “Rawlins is in charge till I get back.  Break time’s when we get to that tree.”

Returning to the Major, he said, “The next group is just over here, sir.”  He led the way towards Manning’s group.  “I wonder, sir, if there’s anything more you can tell me about how this helps with the men’s treatment.”

The Major raised an eyebrow, and Thomas realized belatedly that the question could sound a bit impertinent. 

“It’s just that I thought it might be good for morale if I could explain to my lads how our bit fits into the larger picture,” he explained.  “We’re used to working on wards, and there’s been a bit of grumbling about how we’ve been on fatigues since we got here.”  That was only part of the reason he was asking, but it wasn’t as though he could say and also, I’d like to be able to impress a certain Captain who, incidentally, wants to sleep with me

“Hmm,” said the Major.  “As a matter of fact, we’re planning some lectures for the men about our approach to shell shock, but I suppose it does no harm to give you some of the highlights in advance.  Our aim is to get the patients over this bit of rough ground, and back to their duties, with as little disruption as we can.  Toward that end, we strive to keep their routine here as normal as possible—as though they were doing a spell of behind-the-lines work with their own units.”

“I see, sir.”  That was more-or-less what Captain Allenby had said, although to Thomas’s mind, Allenby was less of a tit about it.  “So we’re, ah, sort of standing in for their own mates, then?  Setting a good example?”

“Hmm, yes, in fact.  The drive to fit in, to be part of the crowd, is a natural part of the human condition.  By mixing the patients in with our own personnel, we mean to give them something to live up to.”

Thomas nodded.  “So they aren’t just trying to fit in with others who…are having a hard time, and making each other worse?  Sir.”

“Precisely.”  The Major gave him a speculative look.  “Someone mentioned one of the new corporals had been a medical student before the war…?”

Wanker.  What, did he think there could only be one of them among the “other ranks” who had a brain in his head?  “Yes, sir.  That’d be Corporal Rouse.  He’s dead clever,” Thomas said earnestly.

“Oh,” said the Major, plainly doing his best to look as though that was the answer he’d been expecting.  “Well, I shall have to keep an eye out.”

By now, they had nearly reached the place where Manning’s party was working.  Thomas slowed his steps so that they could have a moment’s observation before they were noticed.  One of Manning’s two twitchy blokes was bringing up the wheelbarrow—good.   The other had drifted away from the group and was leaning on his rake, looking a bit vacant, but as Thomas watched, Perkins got his attention and brought him back over to work with the others—also good.  His own men seemed to be keeping up the pace of the work fairly well, Cadman smoothly taking over the wheelbarrow after the first twitchy bloke had emptied it, and trotting down the path for the next load. 

“Manning!” Thomas called. 

Manning looked up, and an instant later they all snapped to—even the dozy fellow managed it.  “As you were,” said the Major. 

Thomas waved Manning over.  “Doing all right?”

Manning nodded, giving the Major a wary look.  “Not bad.”

“New blokes keeping up?”

“Uh—the one’s not bad, but Fuller—”  He indicated the dozy bloke—“gets to woolgathering.  Only tried him with the wheelbarrow once; had to go fetch him back.”  With another glance at the Major, he added, “I mean, he’s all right, if someone keeps after him.”

Thomas nodded.  “Try sending someone with him, next time it’s his turn.  See if that works.” 

“All right,” said Manning, doubtfully.

“We want ‘em pulling their weight, even if it isn’t quite the quickest way,” Thomas explained.  “If I have that right, sir?”

“Yes,” said the Major.  “As much as possible, we want them held to the same expectations as everyone else, so if each of you takes a turn, er, operating the wheelbarrow, they should as well.”

Manning still looked a bit confused, so Thomas added, “We’ll talk about it more later.”

They continued on to where Applegate’s group was working—or some of them were, anyway.  Applegate was, presumably, off with the wheelbarrow, and of their two twitchy blokes, one was sitting on the ground by the path in a sort of dejected heap, and the other, both of his arms curled up towards his chest, was standing with the others and holding a rake, but just sort of stirring the air with it.  “Are these two, by any chance, more difficult cases than the others, sir?” Thomas asked.  He hoped they were, so that Applegate wouldn’t be blamed for this sorry spectacle.

“Not exactly,” said the Major.  “They were both doing a bit better than this earlier, but some ups and downs are to be expected.  I’ll have a word with them, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, sir.”

The Major started with the bloke with the arms, taking the rake from him and then using his hands to straighten out the man’s right arm.  “That’s quite enough of this, Harper.  You know perfectly well that there is nothing wrong with your arms.” 

Thomas looked away, embarrassed.  Applegate was on his way back now, so Thomas hurried over to meet him.  “Officer in charge of the new blokes is having a look at them.  What’s going on?”

“Buggered if I know,” said Applegate.  “They were doing all right for a bit, then that one—Jones—started crying for no reason.  Then the other one started doin’ that queer thing with his arms.  He was doin’ it a bit before, but he’d sort of catch himself and stop.”

“Huh.”  Thomas wondered if seeing the first bloke fall apart had encouraged the other one to let himself go.  “What’d you do about Jones?”

“Gave ‘im a cigarette and told him to take a minute to pull himself together.  Was that wrong?”

Thomas shrugged.  “It’s about what I’d have done.  Maybe the officer’ll have some better ideas.” 

They reached the end of the graveled portion of the path, and Applegate dumped out the gravel.  Harper, now apparently cured of whatever he’d imagined was wrong with his arms, joined the others in raking it out, and the Major moved on to remonstrate with the weeping Jones.  Thomas, wanting to look busy, picked up the rake that Johnson had abandoned and helped the others with the gravel. 

Unfortunately, he couldn’t help hearing what the Major was saying to Jones.  He started out by demanding to know what had set him off, and then, when Jones was unable to produce a satisfactory explanation—he just muttered something about a mate of his who’d been killed—pointed out that the others were “carrying on with the job, while you sit here blubbing.  What do you suppose they must think?”

“Wish he’d leave the poor bastard be, is what I think,” muttered Perkins.

Or at least take him somewhere else, Thomas thought, but he couldn’t have Perkins contradicting an officer—at least not when there was a chance he might hear—so he said, “None of that.  I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”

A few moments later, Jones—still wet-eyed and sniffling—came and took the rake from Thomas, so Thomas, beckoning Applegate to join him, went over to the Major.  Before Thomas could even ask, the Major said, “You have to be firm with these chaps—too much sympathy only encourages them.”

“Yes, sir,” said Thomas. 

“Those two should be all right now, but if they give you any more trouble, remind them that you know perfectly well that they are able to do the work.”

“Yes, sir,” said Applegate. 

“Carry on, then,” the Major said, and left them. 

Thomas avoided looking at Applegate for a moment.  He knew he ought to offer to switch teams, given that Jones and Harper seemed a bit more challenging to supervise than the others—but he really, really didn’t want to.  Finally, he said, “Can you manage here?  I could take over this lot, if you’d rather.”

If it was put to him that way, Thomas knew he’d say he could manage, whether he wanted to or not.  And Applegate didn’t disappoint, barely hesitating before he squared his shoulders and said, “I’ll be all right.”

“Good.  I’ll rearrange the teams tomorrow.”  Assuming they got the twitchy blokes again tomorrow, anyway.  “Split those two up, see if that helps.” 

Thomas went back to his own group, where Benson and Stretch, at least, managed to get through the rest of the morning’s work without crying.  Still, Thomas was glad enough to part ways with them, when they returned the tools to the tool-shed and the twitchy blokes’ sergeant turned up to collect them.

In that afternoon’s post—brought to the guardhouse while they were on sentry-duty—Thomas got a couple of letters.  There being very little to do, apart from checking the passes of people coming and going, Thomas opened the first of the letters, which was from Mrs. Hughes.

               

20 December, 1915

Dear Thomas,

I hope this finds you well.  I’m sending this separately from your parcel, because the post office wasn’t entirely sure that the parcel would arrive in time, and I wanted you to know that we are thinking of you. 

Arrive in time for what?  She couldn’t mean before he left the 47th, because he hadn’t written them about the move, yet. 

We thought of you particularly yesterday because it was our concert to benefit the hospital.  A few of the patients were able to come, and some of the orderlies.  I wondered what you will be doing for Christmas.  Perhaps in the war areas it is just another day, but I hope they will arrange something special for you. 

Oh—in time for Christmas, she meant.  Thomas had been doing his best to ignore the veritable blizzard of cards and parcels coming to the barracks, as well as the group of nurses who were going around pestering people about performing at their concert, which would be held Christmas afternoon. 

Last Christmas, of course, he’d been putting together a parcel of his own, and trying not to think about—trying not to think about things that he had even more reason not to think about now.  Things that would never happen.

He forced his attention back to the letter.  Mrs. Hughes wrote several paragraphs about the concert—what each of the ladies had done, how much they’d raised for the hospital, the village butcher’s surprising talent for juggling.  She concluded,

Was your Wardmaster able to do anything about the billet?  I do hate to think of you spending the winter in a cold, drafty barn—though I suppose with a war on, it could be much worse. 

Love,

Mrs. Hughes

The other letter wasn’t a letter at all, but a card, signed by all of them at Downton, from Daisy to Mr. Carson.  Anna had clearly organized it; she’d written a note mentioning the parcel, and suggesting that the snow-covered village pictured on the front of the card looked a bit like Downton village. 

Thomas didn’t really see it—except to the extent that all English villages looked a bit alike—but at least it wasn’t one of the ones with Father Christmas dressed in khaki or happy soldiers decorating Christmas trees in the trenches.

Rawlins, who’d been out patrolling to the next sentry post, came into the guardhouse, stamping his feet and blowing on his hands.  “It’s getting cold out there—glad we did our fatigues this morning.  Who’s that from?” he asked, nodding towards Thomas’s card.

“The people I used to work with.  Yours is over there.”

Rawlins had gotten a handful of letters and a parcel; he tore into the latter immediately and, after setting aside several smaller packages in bright wrapping paper, popped open a tin of small mince pies, and handed one to Thomas. 

“Ta,” he said.  It wasn’t as good as Mrs. Patmore’s, but it wasn’t half-bad. 

That evening, walking toward the mess with Rouse, Thomas was surprised to hear that he hadn’t been issued a set of twitchy blokes, for his section’s turn on fatigues in the afternoon.  “Wish I had gotten some,” Rouse said.  “Might make this more interesting.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought about it,” Thomas agreed.  He went on to explain what the Major had told him, about keeping the men to a normal sort of camp routine, and setting an example for them to live up to. 

“Hm,” Rouse said, as they entered the NCOs’ mess and took their places.  “I wonder what else they’re doing?”

“What’d’you mean?”

“Fatigues and telling them to buck up can’t be the whole of the treatment, can it?”

Thomas shrugged.  “They are supposed to be light cases.”

Rouse seemed about to say something more, but clammed up when Blythe and Lyton came in, Lyton greeting them with, “’ullo, lads!”

“Fucking cunt,” Rouse muttered, under his breath.  Thomas just shook his head.  He knew perfectly well that when Lyton said things like that, he was trying to make some kind of a point about their being working class; what he didn’t understand was why Rouse gave a flying fuck. 

Blythe and Lyton were nearly the last to show up, and soon dishes were being passed up and down the table.  Thomas applied himself to eating, having learned that there was very little in the way of conversation here that he was actually interested in. 

Gradually, though, bits and pieces of what others were saying forced themselves onto his attention.

“—off Boulougne—”

“—most of the patients off, I think—”

“—knew they’d stoop to it—”

“—Lusitania.

“—bad as the Albion.”

It was Blythe who said the last.  “I’m sorry,” Thomas said.  “What did you say?”

Blythe glanced over at him.  “I said it didn’t seem to be as bad as the Albion.  In terms of lives lost.”

“What didn’t?  What are you talking about?”

Rouse put a hand on his arm.  “Mate.”

“Fritz sunk another hospital ship today,” Blythe explained.  “The Huntley.  Torpedoed it in the Channel.”

Suddenly, Thomas felt as if he couldn’t breathe.  Without conscious thought, he pushed his chair back, and then was rushing headlong out of the room.  He blinked, and then he was outside, staggering up the path toward their barracks; blinked again, and he was doubled over, retching. 

“Easy, mate.  Easy.  Here.”  Rouse threw his greatcoat over his shoulders, leaving his arm there along with it.  “You all right?”

Hands shaking, Thomas fumbled his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his mouth.  “Yeah.  I just, uh—I don’t feel so good.”

“Yeah.  Here, come on.”  He led Thomas over to a bench and sat him down on it.  “It’s all right,” Rouse said.  “It’s a hell of a thing, yeah?”

Thomas shook his head.  “I’m fine.  I think I just got a bit of bad beef, or something.  It’s not—I’m fine.”

Rouse didn’t answer for a moment.  “You sure?” he finally asked.

“Yeah.  I’m, uh…I’m just gonna go to bed.”  Thomas stood up.  He was done with his duties for the day; he could go to bed if he wanted to.  “Can you….?”  He gestured back toward the mess hall.  Tell them something; anything

Rouse nodded.  “Sure.  But let’s get you sorted, first.”

Thomas didn’t need anybody putting him to bed, but going along with it was easier than arguing.  Rouse walked him back to the barracks, and while Thomas was getting undressed and crawling into his bunk, mixed him up a bromide powder.  “Here,” he said, handing it to Thomas in a tin cup.  “Knock that back.”

Thomas knocked it back.  “Thanks.”  Almost immediately, his eyelids started feeling heavy.

Rouse sat down on his own bunk and sighed.  “You know this is about Fitz, right?  You’re not actually that thick.”

“Fuck off,” Thomas said, and fell asleep.

#

“You know this is about Fitz, right?” Rouse asked.  “You’re not actually that thick.”

“F’koff,” Barrow mumbled. 

Rouse ignored him.  “I know it hurts, thinking about him.  How he died.  But you can’t avoid it forever.  Facing up to it’s the only way you get past it.  Learned that when my mum died.”  Maybe Barrow would listen, if he wasn’t actually talking about Fitz.  “I tried like hell not to be at home, so I wouldn’t have to watch the rest of ‘em grieve, and so I could pretend she was still there.  That’s when I started doing real well in school, so it wasn’t all a bad thing—but it didn’t help me come to grips with it, not at all.  Something’d happen to remind me of her, and it would hurt just as much as the day she died.  You have to let it hurt before it can heal.”

Barrow didn’t say anything—not even “fuck off” again.  Rouse got up and poked him.  He was dead asleep.

Bloody hell.  Rouse had meant for the powder to loosen him up a bit, not knock him out.  But now that he thought about it, Barrow didn’t sleep for shit; a man couldn’t get up for a piss in the middle of the night without finding him sitting up smoking, and he was always up long before the rest of them, going over his already-immaculate uniform.  The poor bastard was probably exhausted.  The rest would likely do him some good—even if it wasn’t the kind of good Rouse had intended.

No point sitting here watching him sleep, though.  Rouse went back to the NCO’s mess—might as well get Barrow’s coat for him. 

The others were nearly done eating, and Rouse wasn’t too hungry himself, but he stuffed some bread and cheese into his pockets—there was no point passing up food he was entitled to, either.   While he was doing so, one of the other corporals from their barracks asked, “What’s the matter with Barrow?”

It was the one who wasn’t quite so great a prick as the other—Blythe, Rouse thought—so he said, “Stomachache.”  He wasn’t about to tell them about Fitz.  “He went to bed, so try not to make too much noise when you go in, yeah?”

“All right,” said Blythe.  “He need anything?”

“Nah.” 

Rouse went outside and loitered, smoking a cigarette from the packet he found in Barrow’s pocket and watching the door to the enlisted men’s mess until just the right moment when he could accidentally meet up with Barrow’s section when they came out.

They came out in a pack, of course—they were an insular lot, did everything together.  Rouse picked Rawlins out of the crowd, and timed his steps to intersect with him. Rawlins would not have been his first choice of confidante—he manners and accent marked him out as the sort Rouse trusted the least, born just enough above him to look down on him—but Barrow seemed to like him, so needs must. 

“Corp,” Rawlins said, with a nod. 

“Walk with me a minute,” Rouse said, slowing his steps so they’d fall behind the rest of Barrow’s section. 

Rawlins followed his lead, giving him an expectant look. 

“You’re gonna want to keep an eye on Barrow, the next couple of days,” he said.  “When I’m not around to do it.  This thing with the Huntley has him rattled.”

Rawlins looked puzzled.  “All right,” he said slowly.  “Any idea why?  I mean, there’ s not much that rattles him.”

Of course—Barrow didn’t talk about Fitz.  “You don’t know about his brother.”

“Uh—he might have mentioned he has one,” Rawlins said doubtfully.

“Had,” Rouse said.  “He went down on the Albion.”

“Oh,” Rawlins said.  “Damn.  He never said.”

“He doesn’t talk about it.  I only know because I knew him.  The brother, I mean.  Fitz.”

Rawlins looked toward the barracks, actually leaning toward it a bit, like a dog straining at a lead.  “Is he all right?”

No.  “He’s pretending he is.  I tried to get him to talk about it, but he took a powder and went to bed.” 

“That’s not like him,” Rawlins said. “He’s…I mean, nothing gets to him.  He’s unflappable.”

“I noticed that, too.”  

“At the Front?”

“Yeah.”

“He never said much about what it was like up there.”

Rawlins lit another of Barrow’s cigarettes.  “It was shit, is what it was like.  I mean, most of the time it’s like a fucking village doctor’s office, except in a hole in the ground, but then every couple of nights it all goes to shit and you’re up to your elbows in blood and have about ten seconds to decide which of the blokes in front of you might live if the Doc seems him first.”  They reached the barracks; Rouse sat down on the steps, tugging Barrow’s coat around him.  “Barrow was really fucking good at it, too.” 

Rawlins, sitting down on another step, nodded eagerly and launched into a story about Barrow sorting through a day’s worth of amputated limbs to find some bloke’s wedding ring. 

It was almost something Rouse could imagine Fitz doing.  Except that if it were Fitz, the point of the story would be his bone-deep kindness, that he’d done something as horrible as that just to help a man who was, honestly, acting like a complete tosser.  It wasn’t much fun, he could almost hear Fitz saying, but we can’t do anything about his hand, and if having his ring back makes him feel a bit better about it….

Rawlins’s point, however, seemed to be that Barrow hadn’t noticed that digging around in a pile of severed limbs was at all unusual.  Granted, after a few months in the trenches, it wouldn’t be, but….  “When did you say this happened?”

“August?”  Rawlins shrugged.  “His group had only been here a couple of weeks; that’s why we were all so impressed.  We—the rest of the section—had been here a few months longer, but we were still getting used to it all.”

A couple of weeks at a Main Dressing Station wasn’t nearly enough time to have become so thoroughly inured to horror.   A couple of weeks in France, and their group—Fitz included—were still cringing at the messier dressing changes.  It took time to learn how to switch off the human part of you, and just see the problem to be handled and not the pity of it. 

Rawlins continued, “And, I mean, he wasn’t doing it to show off—the rest of us wouldn’t have even known about it if Manning hadn’t told us.  It was the same way when he brought Lamb in from no-man’s land—did he tell you about that?”

Rouse shook his head, and Rawlins went on to explain how, on his first night under heavy fire, Barrow brought another man from their section in from no-man’s land, after a Corporal from their unit refused to do it.  “Any of us would have bragged about it, but he barely mentioned it—I had to get the story from Jessop.  Barrow said he was scared, doing it, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at him—and it was maybe an hour later, that we talked.” 

And a couple of months later, when he’d been at the Front with Rouse, he’d been scrambling up into no-man’s land like he’d been born doing it, and coming back perfectly cool and collected.  “He did a lot of that, when we were at the Front.”  More than his share, really—Farlow and Padgett, the two older blokes who’d come from Rouse’s station, were perfectly happy to leave that sort of thing to the young bucks. 

“He’s tough,” said Rawlins. 

He was, but that wasn’t the point Rouse was groping his way towards.  “You do much field triage?”

Rawlins shuddered a little.  “Not much.  Mostly the sergeants do that, if an MO isn’t available.”

“If you’re at an Aid Post, everybody does it.   We’re not supposed to, of course.  But if a patrol gets hit—shelled, machine-gunned, whatever—you can’t go out with ten or twenty stretcher bearers all at once, just in case they’re all alive.  You take maybe half a dozen, from the regiment, and one of us to run the show.  So you get there and there’s four blokes, or six, still alive.  And you have to decide who you bring home, while their mates sit there and look at you.”

“I can hardly imagine,” Rawlins said.

“No, you can’t,” Rouse agreed.  “But Barrow…doesn’t turn a hair.  He had one where the officer from the patrol—a right cunt—was banging on about how it was Barrow’s fault this other bloke ended up dead.  One he didn’t bring in, I mean.   Once it was all over, we—the MO, and the Corporal, and me—were trying to, you know, reassure him he’d made the right call.  And he was just….”  He’d seemed miles away—but not anywhere better than where he actually was.  “I don’t think he understood why we were still talking about it.” 

Rawlins shifted uncomfortably on the step, and lit a cigarette.  “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know.”  What was he saying?  “I’m saying that kind of shit is a heavy load to carry.  And the thing about a heavy load is that if you’ve got it balanced right, you can carry it for a long time.  But the only way it ever gets any lighter is if you put it down and look at it.  Pass some of the pieces off to somebody else.  Chuck out the bits you don’t need.  You know what I mean?”

Rawlins nodded slowly.  “I think so.  And the Huntley has, er, unbalanced the load.”

Rouse had almost forgotten about the Huntley, and why they’d started talking about this to begin with.  “Exactly.   They were close—they were only half-brothers, but Fitz said they were the only family each other hand.  Fitz talked about him all the time, got two or three letters a week from him.  And now he’s dead, and Barrow can’t stand to hear his name.” 

“So…what do we do?” asked Rawlins.

“Buggered if I know,” Rouse admitted. 

That was when the door creaked open, and Barrow came out.  He was wearing Rouse’s coat—much too short on him—and had his feet stuffed into unlaced boots.  “You have my cigarettes,” he said accusingly.

Rouse fished them out of his pocket—Barrow’s pocket—and handed them to him. 

Barrow lit one, and said, “Shove over,” squeezing onto Rawlins’s step.  “What are you two doing out here?”

There wasn’t much point in lying, was there?  “Talking about you,” Rouse said.

“I’m fine,” said Barrow.  “Except that somebody nicked my cigarettes.”

“You left them in the mess,” Rouse told him.  “Along with your coat.”

Barrow looked down at the coat he was wearing.  “Oh.” 

Maybe he was loosened up now—the fact that he was wearing a coat that didn’t fit wasn’t the sort of thing Barrow would miss, in his usual state.  Rouse tested the theory by saying, “I was telling Rawlins about Fitz.”

Barrow didn’t run away, or even tell him to fuck off.  “Would it do any good at all,” he said tiredly, “to remind you that I don’t want to talk about it?”

“Nope,” Rouse said. 

Barrow rested his head on Rawlins’s shoulder.  “Of course it reminded me of…everything.  But I’m fine.  It just took me by surprise, is all.”

“Things are gonna remind you of it,” Rouse said.  “You’ve got to….”  Rouse had started that sentence without knowing how he was going to finish it, but he was, after all, extremely bright, and every once in a while, things came together for him at just the right moment.  “What you’ve got to do is practice being reminded of it.”  If there was one thing he’d learned from their week of drill and inspection hell, it was that Barrow believed in practicing.  “Get used to thinking about him, and keeping your shit together.”

For a long time, Barrow didn’t say anything, and Rouse wondered if he’d fallen asleep again—and if so, whether he and Rawlins could get him inside and put him to bed without everyone in the platoon waking up and asking questions.  Finally, though, he took a drag off his cigarette and said, “Maybe.”  A moment later, he said, “It’s funny.  I don’t even remember reading the telegram.  I remember getting it—opening the door for it.  And then Anna was crying.  That was strange, ‘cause she only met him once.  And then I was screaming at his lordship like a fishwife—I still can’t believe I didn’t get sacked on the spot for that.”  He lit another cigarette.  “It was like that tonight.  Blythe said something about the Albion, and that other ship—what was it called?”

“The Huntley,” said Rawlins. 

“The Huntley,” Barrow repeated.  “And then I was outside being sick, and then Rouse was putting me to bed.” 

“That happens,” said Rouse. 

“Yeah?” Barrow said.  “I wondered if I was losing it, a bit.”

“Nah.  ‘slike how a lot of the wounded don’t remember how they got hurt,” Rouse said.  “You get it in mining accidents, too—me dad had a tunnel collapse on him once.  All he remembers is the timbers creaking, and then he was topside drinking a cuppa.  He said he figured he was knocked out and his mates dragged him out—but they said he was fine, talking and everything the whole time.” 

“Huh,” said Barrow. 

“Tell us something about him,” Rouse suggested.  “Fitz, I mean.  When he was alive.”

Barrow took a deep drag from his cigarette.  Rouse suspected he was deciding whether to tell him to fuck off or not.  Finally, he said, “Like what?”

“I don’t  know.  Something from when you were kids.” 

Barrow made a small sound of amusement at that.  “He used to do up my tie for me.  When we were working for Lady Waterstone.  We wore white ties with our livery, and I couldn’t get it right. It took me about a month to get the hang of it, and until I did, he fixed it for me every day.”

 That sounded like Fitz, all right.  “He used to help us with our uniforms,” Rouse said.  “Back in training, when we had inspections.”

“Like you do for us,” Rawlins said.

Barrow nodded, turning his cigarette lighter over in his hand.  “Everything I’ve ever done right, you can figure Peter had something to do with it.”  He shoved his lighter in his pocket and swiped angrily at his eyes.  “Fuck.”

“You’re all right,” Rouse said, mildly. 

Barrow took a deep, shuddering breath.  “Yeah.  I’m all right.  I have to be.”

That wasn’t exactly what Rouse had meant, but he couldn’t argue with it, either.  There was a war on, and Barrow did have to be all right—even if he wasn’t. 

#

“Aren’t you going to open it?” Rawlins asked, leaning on Thomas’s shoulder.  Since that embarrassing evening a few days ago, when Thomas had more or less cuddled up to him on the steps of the barracks, he seemed to have decided that Thomas liked that sort of thing. 

Thomas knew he ought to shrug him off—somebody was bound to get the wrong idea—but the truth was, he’d sort of got used to it, back when they’d had to huddle together in the barn to keep from freezing to death in their sleep.  He didn’t know what to do with himself anymore, having a bed all to himself. 

“I already know what’s in it,” he said.  It was Christmas Eve, and they were in the guardhouse again.  “Tea, cigarettes, biscuits.  Gloves if I’m lucky.”  He had said gloves, when Anna asked if there was anything he wanted. 

“Why do they send you cigarettes, anyway?  Don’t they know you can get them here?”

Thomas had been very carefully not thinking about why they sent him cigarettes, but Rouse had a point, about practicing.  “I used to send them to Peter,” he said, and did not cry.  “It was, um…sort of an inside joke we had, but I never said, so I expect they think I want them.”  He did not, in fact, care whether he got his cigarettes from the village shop in Downton, or bought them at the YMCA hut, or helped himself from the crates of them that were kept on hand for patients. 

“Oh, well,” Rawlins said.  “I suppose it’s the thought that counts.”

It was awfully decent of them to send him parcels at all; it wasn’t like he’d be getting any if they didn’t.  “I suppose.” 

Since it seemed Rawlins wasn’t going to shut up about it, Thomas opened the parcel.  He saw right away that he’d been wrong about the contents:  instead of biscuits, it contained a large Christmas cake in a tin. Rawlins was already reaching for it, but Thomas closed the tin, saying, “We’ll have it tomorrow, before we go on wards.”  They had been informed a little while ago that their part in the Yuletide festivities would be to cover the wards while the nurses gave their concert.  Thomas didn’t mind, but some of the others were a bit put out.

“Good idea,” Rawlins said.  “I have a few mince pies left, and I’m sure the others have things, too.”

Thomas hadn’t been picturing a proper spread, but he shrugged and moved on.  There were, however, cigarettes and tea.  In addition to the shilling’s worth of Fortnum’s Superior, there was a smaller packet, which Thomas opened and sniffed, finding a familiar smoky tang.

“What’s what?” Rawlins asked.

“House blend,” Thomas answered. They drank it downstairs on Christmas.

Rawlins frowned.  “Two parts standard issue and one part Fortnum’s Superior?” 

That was what they drank in the barracks—or, before that, in the barn.  Everybody took turns getting the Fortnum’s from home.  Thomas had, once or twice, jokingly called it their house blend.  “The Earl of Grantham’s house blend,” he explained.  “It used to come from the tea plantations they had, in Ceylon and so on, but now Fortnum’s just does it up for them.”  Carson had explained it once. 

“You mean,” Rawlins said slowly, “there’s actually such a thing as a house blend?  I thought that was a joke.”

“Ours is a joke,” Thomas said.  “We can have this for our Christmas tea, too.”  Setting the tea aside, he rummaged in the box and found a flat, squishy object, wrapped in brown paper.  He hoped it might be his gloves, but a note written on the paper, saying “I made these!  --Daisy,” suggested otherwise. 

He opened it.  Socks.  Well, those always came in handy—although, unlike gloves, there was nothing wrong with the ones they issued you. 

But there were more squishy objects, which Thomas had taken at first to be packing paper.  One was a scarf, made by Anna, and knit in a pattern of interlocking squares—much more complicated that another scarf that Thomas did his best not to think about.  The other was a pair of rather good leather dress gloves.   It was going be a real shame to ruin them doing outdoors work in the rain.    

Under all that was an envelope, containing a postal order for a week’s wages—the usual Christmas gift from his lordship and her ladyship.  He wasn’t sure why he was getting it, when he didn’t work there anymore, but he wasn’t complaining. 

#

 

                December 25, 1915

Dear Mrs. Hughes,

Thank you and everyone for the parcel—it did get here just in time. The gloves are just what I needed.  The ones they issue us are wool, and once they get wet, they’re worse than nothing. 

We did have a fairly good Christmas, but before I can tell you about that, I have to explain that I’ve been seconded again, this time along with my entire section, to a Casualty Clearing Station.  That’s a bit further behind the lines than a Dressing Station, at the edge of what they call the fighting zone.  The CCS’s job is to sort out which cases need to be sent on to the Base Hospitals by the channel for long-term treatment, and to treat the ones that can go back on duty within a few weeks.   They have us doing mostly donkey-work at the moment, but we are out of the barn and into a nice, snug barracks, so that’s all right.  I was also made up to corporal, because they needed one to send with the section. 

Being the new men here, they had us covering the wards while the Christmas festivities went on, but we had our own party in our barracks beforehand.  Most of the lads shared out things they’d gotten from home, and I contributed Mrs. Patmore’s Christmas cake.  Then when we were on the wards, the nurses came round singing carols—they’d done a concert, too, for the patients who were able to get out of bed, but we had to work, during that.  We also had to work during Christmas dinner—there was turkey and all the usual things—but someone thought to put some aside for us,  so once we found that out, there was a great deal less grumbling.   After all, you can’t leave the patients on their own while the entire staff is off celebrating. 

It’s rather late now, and we’re expected to be up at the usual time tomorrow, Boxing Day or not, so I will close. 

Happy Christmas,

Thomas

Finishing the letter, Thomas stuck it in the envelope and put on his coat to take it out and mail it.  It was late, but the barracks hadn’t quite settled down yet.  A number of the lads—especially the younger ones—were still busy eating sweets, and swapping things they’d gotten out of Christmas crackers and the little paper bags of sweets and trinkets that some charity or another had sent over. 

Thomas had gotten a silver-colored fountain pen; he’d tried writing his letter with it, but it leaked so badly he gave it up and went back to his old one. 

The youngsters at the front of the barracks—Blythe and Lyton’s sections—quieted down a bit at the sight of him.  They were a little in awe of what they saw as the grizzled veterans of the other two sections—and of Thomas and Rouse in particular. 

Thomas did not much mind, though he did not feel that they had entirely earned the right to copy his own section in calling him the Magnificent Bastard. 

It was a cold, clear night, with a nearly-full moon shining overhead, and the frozen ground crunching under his feet as he walked to the post-box.  A sniper’s moon, they called it now, and you didn’t want to be out in no-man’s land under one of those. 

One of the men on the ward that afternoon had talked about taking part in the Christmas Truce last year.  His regiment hadn’t actually gone out into no-man’s land to fraternize, as some units had, but they’d sung carols across it, he said, and used dud shells to send over some gingerbread and plum pudding, getting some kind of German Christmas-cake in return. 

Orders this year were that there was to be no repeat of this dangerously un-military behavior; if Fritz came out of his trench, singing carols and bearing Christmas cake, he was to be mowed down like any other day.  Thomas wondered if anyone had actually had to do it. 

Probably the German GHQ had handed down similar instructions, and no bugger had been fool enough to try any peace-on-Earth, good-will-to-men shit. 

After putting his letter in the box, Thomas lit a cigarette for the walk back.  For a change, he let himself remember, just for a moment, that it was Peter lighting it for him.  His eyes stung a bit, but it was a cold night, and he was walking into the wind. 

When he got back to the barracks, Rawlins was sitting on the steps, smoking his pipe.  It had been a long time since Thomas had seen him do that—most of the pipe smokers had switched to cigarettes; they were so much easier—but perhaps he’d gotten pipe tobacco in his Christmas parcel.

Rawlins shifted to one side of the step, making room for Thomas, and Thomas sat down next to him.  “I wonder what they’re doing at home,” he said.

For a moment, Thomas thought of the 47th—where they were probably doing much the same thing as here, except without the singing nurses.  But Rawlins would mean his family’s home, back in Blighty.  “Getting ready for bed, I should think.  If they’re not already in it.”

Rawlins huffed.  “I didn’t necessarily mean right this minute.”  He pressed his shoulder against Thomas’s.  “It’s strange, thinking that back home, everything’s just the same as it always was.”

“Except that most of the men our age are gone,” Thomas pointed out. 

“True,” said Rawlins.  “My father says they’ve had to start hiring women to work on the production line—and it’ll get worse once they start calling people up under the Derby scheme.  Paper-making isn’t a starred occupation.”

“You’d almost think it would be, with all the forms we have to fill out.”  That was one of the things they didn’t tell you about being a Corporal—you had to do everything the others did, plus fill out forms about it.  “You don’t have any brothers of Army age, do you?”  Rouse, he knew, was relieved to find coal-mining on the list of occupations essential to the war effort—his brothers and cousins wouldn’t be called up.

“No, he’s fourteen,” Rawlins said.  “Thank God.”

Four years until he was old enough to be called up, and one more until he could be sent overseas.  “You think it’ll be over by then?”

“Can’t go on forever,” Rawlins pointed out.

Thomas wasn’t so sure—after all, the lines were almost exactly where they’d been this time last year.  He shrugged.  “Maybe not.” 

“It’s hard to imagine what it’ll be like, though.  Going home.” 

Thomas shook his head.  He couldn’t imagine it either, and didn’t really want to try. 

Chapter Text

5 October, 1915

It is now a year to the day since I left England—not counting carrying patients off the Albion on its last successful voyage—and I am very reflective.  (I suppose I ought to have been on August 4, but all of us studiously avoided the subject on that day—except for the French, who had nothing to avoid, having studiously ignored their own anniversary several days earlier.)  It’s been quite a journey, from base hospital, to within shouting distance of the Front, to the hospital ship, to a U-Boat, to the prisoners’ camp, to here.  I can’t say that much of it is what I expected, when we were on the way to Kew, talking about what we’d do in the war.  (Or was it on the way back?  I know it was on the tram, with you and Lisel and Anna.)  The hospital bit, I suppose I could have predicted, but certainly not the rest of it. 

Though in a way, I am more-or-less doing what I thought—tending patients, in a civilian hospital converted to military use.  I just thought it would be in London! 

We have recently gotten some new patients—combat wounds, newly captured.  They tell us that there was a “big push” not long ago, which had the oracles at home in high anticipation of a victory by November.  It did not go well.  (You probably know more about it than I do, having access to English newspapers.  We are not even supposed to see German ones, although sometimes we do.) 

Some of the German workers are being irritatingly smug about it—I suppose I can’t blame them, except that one of them is the old charwoman whose grandchild I have been supplying with milk from my parcels.  She has betrayed me, and will have no more milk from this man’s parcels, I tell you!  (Or perhaps she will—I went on strike from giving her milk once before, when she was unpleasant on the subject of the Russian Retreat, but relented when she brought the child in to show me.)

Missing you.  I’ve lost my cigarette case—I think one of the German orderlies nicked it—but I still think of you whenever I smoke. 

11 November, 1915

Feeling glum, for no particular reason.  (Besides the obvious.)  The hospital routine is very wearying—not the work, which is fairly light at the moment, but the on-and-on-ness of it.  I suppose you know the feeling—it’s not too different from what we always disliked about being in service; the feeling that nothing you’re doing really matters.  (Here, we do manage to make sick and injured people better, sometimes, but you’re just sending them back to the same prison camp where they got sick or hurt to begin with, and another one takes their place right away, so it doesn’t feel like you’re accomplishing much—although I suppose the patients see it differently!) 

I wish I knew how much longer the war would go on.  If I could count down, each day I get through is one day closer to home, I might feel better.

Perhaps not, though—after all, each day I get through is one day closer to home, even though I don’t know how many more I’ve got ahead of me. 

Jean-Michel is getting a card game together.  I’m sure he’s trying to cheer me up—it won’t work, but I suppose I should make an effort. 

Missing you more than I can stand,

Your Peter

25 December, 1915

Happy Christmas, dearest!  You wouldn’t think it possible to have a decent Christmas in a prisoner-of-war hospital, but they’ve really made an effort.  We were allowed out of the hospital—for the first time since we got here—to go to a Midnight service.  (It was a Catholic one, and arranged for the French MO and orderlies, but most of us went.)  I can’t tell you how it cheered me to see the open sky.  There was a very-nearly-full moon—hello, moon!  I hope you happen to have looked up and seen it, tonight. 

On Christmas Day, there was an extra distribution of parcels, followed by a visit from the inmates of a German orphanage, who carried in a Christmas tree and sang to us.  You will probably have noticed right away that this was timed perfectly to oblige us to give the children sweets out of our parcels—sweets are terribly hard to get, in Germany right now—but I don’t really mind.  Most of us, I think, were quite glad to be able to contribute to a happy Christmas for those even less fortunate than ourselves.  (And the orphans probably felt the same way, about us.)  I wish we’d been given some warning, though—we could have come up with some kind of entertainment for them.  (One of the patients managed some shadow puppets; that was about it.)

For Christmas lunch, the Red Cross ladies organized some roast chicken—God knows how; most Germans are eating horsemeat and being grateful for it—and apologized for it not being turkey.  It was mainly for the patients, of course, but we each got a bit of it, and as I write this the bones are simmering over the spirit stove in our orderlies’ room—Jean-Michel has promised us a delicious soup tomorrow, made with black-market carrots and turnips, and rice from our parcels. 

In addition to parcels, I also had a few personal presents.  Capt. K. has given me his copy of the new Sherlock Holmes book—on the condition that I let him borrow it back once I’ve read it.  (He got a large parcel of books, assembled by his various relations.  This particular one is from a brother-in-law he doesn’t like very much, and so has no sentimental associations, although he is keen to read it.)  The other orderlies clubbed together to obtain for me a black-market razor, which I needed badly, and a patient, moved by my parcel-less plight, gave me an adventure novel by someone I’ve never heard of. 

(Please do not think that I am reproaching you for not sending parcels—I can think of many reasons why this may be, and none of them are that you “don’t love me no more.”  Perhaps the Red Cross has failed to adequately inform you that I am, in fact, allowed to receive them.  Perhaps you have sent them, and each one has been lost or stolen on its way here, or the Red Cross has been delivering them somewhere else.  Perhaps you’ve joined up, and are currently situated as a recipient, rather than sender, of parcels.  (Perhaps, though I try not to think it, something has happened to you.)  In any case, I am entirely sure that you would be sending parcels if you could.  In fact, shall I tell you a secret?  Sometimes when I get the “Any RAMC Prisoner” ones, I imagine that you have sent some. Perhaps not the ones I personally receive—that would be a coincidence too great for words—but I somehow feel that, if you did not know that you could send them to me, you might cast bread upon the waters in this way.)

And now I have made myself sad, so I shall hurry on to talk about my final and most surprising present, which was from my charwoman friend—she of the milk-loving grandchild.  (I did resume giving it to her, after all.)  It is a gray jumper, which she claims to have knitted personally, with me in mind.  I doubt this very much—for one thing, it has a musty aroma suggestive of long storage, and for another, it was plainly made for a man both shorter and wider than I—but I appreciate it nonetheless.  Good clothing is growing scarce in Germany—though not so scarce as food—so if she obtained it for me, she must have traded something valuable for it, and if she already had it, she could have traded it for something valuable.  (When I say “valuable,” I speak of pre-war valuables: some bit of jewelry, perhaps.  If it was a matter of something really valuable, like a pint of milk or a couple of eggs, I’m sure she’d not have given it to me.)

It is especially appreciated because my tunic has gone beyond the point of repairs and makeshift reinforcement—you no sooner touch it with a needle than a new hole appears.  A couple of weeks ago, a newly-arrived Maj.—a patient, new to both the hospital and to the POW life—reproached me severely for “allowing His Majesty’s uniform to reach such a state.”  The MO’s and several long-established patients leapt to my defense, reducing him to an apologetically quivering jelly.  (I meant to write you of the incident when it happened, because I knew how much you would enjoy it, but we were quite busy just then.)

I hope that you are having a Christmas at least as nice as mine has been, dearest.  I am now going to smoke a cigarette from my latest “any prisoner” parcel, and think of you.

1 January, 1916

Well, here’s a turn-up for the books.  In my last, I mentioned Maj. D., who was unpleasant about my uniform. 

He has died—infection—and shortly before the end, he ordered me to keep his uniform coat and boots.  I attempted to demur, but he woke the patient in the next bed to “witness his verbal last will and testament.” 

Honestly, it was kind of embarrassing—however, he was just about my size, and though I say it myself, I look very swank in an officer’s coat.  It is in very good shape, as his wound was in the leg—a few small bloodstains, is all.  The boots are the sort of knee-boots that nobody with a brain in his head wears into the trenches, and I feel a right prat in them, but the coat is definitely a bit of all right.  No tailor’s label—which in itself suggests a couple of particularly exclusive shops—and very finely made.  Officers’ uniforms are always made of much better cloth than ours, but this is really top-drawer. 

I have taken off all of the late Maj.’s badges and insignia and replaced them with my own, which I hope will satisfy the War Office that I am not impersonating an officer, in the event we are suddenly and dramatically liberated. 

(I probably should feel worse than I do, about the fact he had to die for me to have it, but I can’t tell you how much it has improved my outlook on life, to have something to wear that doesn’t belong in a rag-bag.) 

Love,

Your devastatingly handsome Peter

28 January, 1916

Very worried for you.  Papers full of the news that England has begun conscription.  (They give us newspapers now, printed in English and French by the Germans, for distribution to prisoners.  Meant to demoralize, of course, so it’s hard to know which parts are true.)  They say that this indicates that the “fighting spirit of the English has been broken,” though what that means about the fighting spirit of Germany, which has had conscription throughout, I’m sure I can’t say. 

I am surprised, though, given the number of enthusiastic volunteers at the start of the war.  The casualty figures in the propaganda papers might be less exaggerated than I hoped, if they’ve run through them all already. 

My dearest—I say this as though you’ll read it in time to do any good—do everything you can to get into a “safe” spot.  General staff, if you can manage it—they stay far behind the lines, and need people to fetch and carry for them.  Try sucking up to Lord G.  If you can’t wangle that, try for the RAMC—my experience aside, the odds are much better than in the infantry.  I don’t know how I’d stand it if, when I finally get to come back to England, you’d been killed.  Stay safe.  Please. 

I shall light a cigarette for you this time, as I am so very worried.

 

Chapter Text

In the new year, they started getting regular ward work—every other week, usually, with the alternate ones spent on fatigues and so forth with the shell shock patients.  They were most often assigned to the shell shock wards—Major Winthrop, who was in charge of the psychiatric section, apparently believed women were a bad influence on the barmy.  But there wasn’t nearly enough work on those wards to occupy them all—the men being expected to make their own beds, clean the barracks, and so on, as they recovered—so members of Thomas’s section were often peeled off in ones and twos to assist on other wards, and he had many occasions to repeat the lecture about the treatment of and attitudes toward nurses.

Fatigues with the twitchy blokes were an exercise in Sisyphean frustration, because as soon as any one of them had improved enough to be reliable, he was sent back to the Front.  It was much rarer for anyone to be sent on to the specialist hospital in England, even if he got steadily worse.  

So Thomas was a bit surprised when, one day in February, Rouse—who was on wards that week—came up to his work detail and told a bloke called Simmons to go back to the ward and pack his kit for Blighty. 

“What are they taking him for?” Thomas asked, when Simmons was out of earshot.  “He’s one of me best workers.”

Rouse stared at him.  “He thinks he’s dead, mate.”

Thomas knew that—Simmons didn’t mind talking about it.  He had, apparently, been on a patrol which was struck by a shrapnel shell.  All of the other blokes had be killed, most of them instantly, so Simmons—somehow left without a mark on him—had come to the reasonable-enough conclusion that he was also dead.  “So?”  It wasn’t like it stopped him working; plenty of others got sent back to the Front when they still claimed to be quite poor in their nerves, as long as they could stand up straight and carry out their duties. 

“He’s completely off his rocker,” Rouse said. 

“So’s half the General Staff,” Thomas pointed out.  “Anyway, he’s keen to get back to the fighting—says he might as well, since they can’t kill him again.”

“But they can, because he’s not dead.”

“I know, but neither are any of the others.  I don’t see how it makes sense to send back the ones that don’t want to go, and send home the one that does.” 

Rouse hesitated.  “Well, when you put it like that, I guess….”

Thomas shrugged, and said, “Better get back to it.”  They were digging graves that day—they didn’t need them just yet, but they were having an early thaw, and someone or another had decided they might as well get some done, before the ground froze again.  It was surprisingly sensible, he thought, especially considering the idea must have come from an officer.

The next week, he was back on wards—D-7, this time, which was for men with both shell shock and wounds.  It was a bit more interesting than the other shell-shock wards, because there was medical work to do, dressing changes and so on.  He had just finished one, and was carrying the soiled bandages to the bin when someone said, “Thomas?”

It had been so long since he’d heard his Christian name spoken aloud that his first thought was that they must have a patient with the surname “Thomas.”  But he looked anyway, and saw—“Theo?”  It was Theo, thinner than Thomas had ever seen him, his face covered in a day or two’s worth of stubble.  “Christ.  What are you doing here?”

“What do you think?” Theo asked.  “I caught a packet, and I’ve gone a bit barmy.”

Well, yes, of course.

“I wasn’t sure you were still alive,” Theo added.

“I wasn’t sure you were, either.”  He held up the basin of bandages.  “Let me get rid of these, and then I’ve got one or two others to do, and then we’ll talk, all right?”

“I’ll be here,” Theo said.

When Thomas consulted the list for dressing changes, he found that Theo was, in fact, on it—the surname hadn’t registered; it wasn’t an unusual one.  He gave the couple of patients above Theo on the list to Rawlins and Perkins, and took Theo’s case for himself. 

It was a thigh wound, and healing nicely, with just a tiny bit of inflammation.  “Doesn’t look too bad,” Thomas observed.

“No,” Theo said.  “To be honest, when I got it I was rather hoping it would be a Blighty one.  But no such luck.”

“No,” Thomas agreed, sloshing in some disinfectant.

“Ah!  Do you have to use quite so much of that stuff?  It hurts like a bugger.”

“I don’t know—do you want to keep your leg?”

“Hm,” said Theo.  “That’s a tough one.” 

Thomas was not entirely sure that he was joking.  “Best if you do,” he said.  “They say it’s not too bad having a wooden leg from the knee down, but above the knee is a lot harder.” 

“Oh, all right.”  Theo went on to catch him up on a few other members of their circle that he knew to still be alive.  Drew, apparently, had lost both hands—he’d been an artilleryman; there were all sorts of ways for that to happen—and been sent home to live with his married sister.  “I’ve no idea how he’s really doing—she writes his letters for him, so all he said was that he’d arrived and they were taking good care of him.”  Reg was in a unit fighting in one of the side-shows, down by Turkey, and had been doing all right the last time Theo had heard.  “He was in Flanders before, says it’s not nearly as bad where he is now.”

There were, of course, a lot more names that neither of them mentioned. 

“What about you?” Theo asked.  “Are you doing all right?”

“Oh, sure.  It’s pretty cushy, here.”  Thomas hesitated.  “You?”  It was, in a way, a stupid question—obviously he wasn’t all right, or he wouldn’t be here.

“Not as bad as some,” Theo answered.  “I’m having a lot of trouble sleeping.  Bad dreams.  I expect they sent me down here so I’d stop waking everyone else up.”

Thomas nodded.  “That’s common enough, here.”

“I really haven’t gotten over Syl,” Theo went on.  “That was so…I’m still carrying around his stupid fucking lip rouge.  That’s the other thing I thought, when I got shot this time.  That if they sent me to the same place as last time, I could finally give it to him.  Leave it on his grave.”

“Mm,” Thomas said, nodding.  What were you supposed to say, about something like that?

“I hung on to his stockings for a while, too, but we ended up using those to strain the mud out of drinking water.  Had to make up a story about buying them to send home to a girl.”

That reminded Thomas of something.  “If you talk to any of the other blokes here, Peter’s meant to be my brother.  Rouse—the corporal from one of the other sections—knew him.  So, you know.  Might come up.”

Theo nodded.  “I’ll remember.  Christ.  Peter.  That was awful, too.  I didn’t really…I mean, it happened about the same time as Syl, so I didn’t…you joined up right after that, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.  Seemed like the thing to do.”

“I suppose.  That was…you and him…that would have been good.  For both of you.”

“Don’t,” said Thomas.  “I can’t.”  He could think about Peter, a bit, now.  But he couldn’t think about what they could have had.

“Sorry,” said Theo. 

“It’s all right,” Thomas said.  “It’s just…I’m working, you know.”

“I understand.  Do you need to get back to it?”

He wanted to, but there wasn’t really anything he needed to be doing at the moment.  “Not just yet.”  He set the basin of soiled bandages on the floor and lit a cigarette, offering the packet to Theo.

“Ta.”  Theo took one, and Thomas lit it for him.  “What’s it like here?”

Glad for an impersonal subject to discuss, Thomas told him a bit about the ward routines, adding, “If they decide you’re still barmy after your leg’s better, they’ll have you out doing fatigues.  It’s part of the cure.”

“How jolly,” said Theo. 

“It’s not so bad.  My section runs some of the work details, when we’re not on duty in here.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine.  And if I don’t feel up to buttling again after the war, I’ll be ideally positioned to begin a new career as a ditch-digger.” 

“There’s an idea.”  Thomas hadn’t given a moment’s thought, since joining the Army, to what he’d do for work if the war ever ended.  How likely was it that they’d want him back, at the Abbey?  “I’ll be the foreman—I’m good at that now.”

“You can have it,” Theo agreed.  “I think my trouble sleeping started when they made me a sergeant.” 

“Oh—they did?”  With Theo dressed in hospital pyjamas, there was no way to tell, and he’d missed noticing it on the patient list.

Theo nodded.  “A couple of months ago.  I get these dreams, where it’s all of us from the old days…the old days of a year and a half ago…and we’re on a patrol, and…ugh.  Sometimes we’re trying to get to the Criterion, only it’s on the other side of no-man’s land, and I get there, and I’m the only one left.”  He managed a weak smile.  “Perhaps seeing you will help with that—I’ll imagine that you’re already inside.”

“You, me, and Philip Crowborough,” Thomas said. 

“You’ve seen him?” Theo asked.

“God no.  He’s staying home—heart condition, supposedly.  He wrote me, just before…you know, to tell me somebody or other had been killed, and he mentioned it.” 

“Oh,” said Theo.  “Well, that’s cozy.  Perhaps I could be his butler, and you can be his valet, when we’re the only three of our sort left alive.”

“Could we dig ditches instead?” Thomas asked.

“Let’s do,” Theo agreed. 

A bit after that, Major Winthrop came in on rounds, and Thomas really did have to get back to work. 

Over the next few days, Thomas talked to Theo when he could.  It was hard going, because Theo tended to focus on his nightmares, how wretched he felt over Syl and Peter and all the others, and half-baked plans for after the war—none of which were subjects Thomas wanted to talk about it.  Also troubling was the way he rambled from one of these topics to another and back again.  He’d always been a chatty sort of bloke, but he’d never been scatterbrained.  Now he seemed to lose track of what he’d been talking about from one moment to the next, let alone which pieces of news he’d already told Thomas. 

So when, one night, he was having a midnight cigarette on the steps, and Rouse turned up—he was on night duty, in the wards—and said, “Barrow—can you come over to the ward for a minute?”, Thomas’s first thought was that something had happened to Theo.

He stood up.  “What happened?  Is it Theo—uh, Sergeant Hill?”

“What?  Oh, that mate of yours.  No, I’m in D-5 tonight.”

 “What is it, then?”  Thomas asked, starting on the path toward the D wards.  If it wasn’t Theo, he couldn’t think what sort of emergency would call for him, and not, say, one of the medical officers.

“Since you’re up, I wondered if you could keep an eye on things for a bit,” Rouse explained. 

“While you do what?” Thomas asked.  He supposed he could, if it was important, but if Rouse just wanted to go get a drink or something, he was going back to bed. 

“Um….” Rouse said.  “Break into the x-ray department.”

What?”

“You know Kingston?”

Thomas didn’t really keep track of their names, unless he had them on his work crews.  “Remind me.”

“Older bloke, short, can’t walk?”

“Oh, him.”  The ones that thought they couldn’t walk were a real pain in the arse, because the Major wouldn’t let you bring them bedpans, so there was a lot of completely unnecessary cleaning up to do, in addition to it being embarrassing for all concerned.  “Thought he was up and about a bit now, though.” 

“He is.  But something’s off—he’s complaining of hip pain, and the thing is, it responds to morphine, and not to sugar pills.”

“You’re not supposed to give them the real stuff for hysterical pain,” Thomas pointed out. 

“I know, but there are some other strange things about the case, too.  The gait abnormalities are not what we usually see with hysteria, the pain worsens with activity, and I’d swear there’s some inflammation at the site.”

It took Thomas a moment to realize what he was getting at.  “You think there’s actually something wrong with him?”

“With his leg, yeah.”

“Then you should tell one of the MOs.”

“I tried that.  Got the brush-off, didn’t I?  So I tried giving him the morphine, and it worked.  But I can’t admit I did that until I have some kind of proof there’s actually a physical problem.”

“So….?”

“So the easiest way I can prove it is if there’s something on the x-rays that they missed.”

Thomas spotted the flaw in his logic.  “You can’t admit you broke into the x-ray department and looked at them,” he pointed out.  “What you’ve got to do is get someone to show them to you.” 

“Yeah, that might work if you tried it.  McAllister just told me to keep to my own job.”

“Then you should,” Thomas said.  If the medical officers said there was nothing wrong with the bloke, that was the end of the story, as far as he was concerned.  Rouse didn’t see it that way, though.  This wasn’t the first time he’d argued with one of the medical officers about a patient.  “You’re going to get in trouble.”

“That’s my look-out,” he said.  “C’mon, be a pal.”

Thomas groaned.  “If there’s nothing on the x-rays, will you drop it?”

“No,” said Rouse.  “Could be a soft-tissue injury.  Look, now that he’s getting himself to the latrine, it’s not going to be long before they have him out on fatigues.  If he is injured, that could make it a lot worse.”

“And why is that our problem?”

Rouse shot him a look of disgust.  “Really?  Would you give a shit if it was your mate Hill?”

“That’s a low shot, and you know it.”

“You’re being a bit of a cunt, and you know it.”  He paused.  “And if you want to talk about low shots….”

“Don’t even say it,” Thomas warned him.  Peter would do it.  Of course he would.  He sighed.  “Fine, but if you get caught, I’m saying you told me you were in the latrine with dysentery.”

“Deal,” Rouse said.  “Shouldn’t take me more than twenty minutes.  Half an hour, tops.”

“Don’t get caught.” 

Thomas sat at the desk in the middle of the ward, idly looking over Rouse’s paperwork.  He was none too thorough about it, and Thomas automatically corrected a few of the more glaring omissions.  Honestly, if Rouse wondered why the MOs hadn’t warmed up to him, he ought to try being as diligent about the things he was supposed to do as he was about the things he wasn’t.   

All the while, Thomas was on the alert for a hue and cry from the direction of the x-ray hut.  Not, he realized after a bit, that there’d likely be one.  The initial assumption, on finding an orderly in the x-ray shed, would be that someone had sent him there for something.  It wasn’t until Rouse started running his mouth that he’d get in trouble.

What Thomas really ought to have done was come up with a story for him, about why he was in there.  He wasn’t sure what it could be—if they were at the 47th, he could say Captain Allenby had asked for Kingston’s films, with a decent chance he’d back them up, especially if Thomas managed to get to him before anyone asked.  Here, though, while the MOs did talk to him a bit more than they did to Rouse—probably because he wasn’t challenging them at every turn, and even when he did think they were being fatheads, he had the sense to hide it—there wasn’t one of them he’d trust to cover for him.

On the other hand, if he was imagining they were at the 47th, he might as well imagine that the Wardmaster knew that Rouse had a bee in his bonnet about Kingston, and had sorted him out already.  Quite possibly by giving him a chance to look at the fucking x-rays legitimately.  That seemed like something he might do. 

Finally—after closer to three-quarters of an hour than half—Rouse came back.  “Did you get caught?” Thomas asked.

Rouse shook his head, and motioned for Thomas to join him in the sink room.  “Didn’t find anything,” he said, once they were in there.  “The images were bad—I think they just took them to point at and tell the poor bastard there’s nothing wrong with him.  There was only one angle on the pelvis, and you could barely see the head of the femur at all.  That’s where I think the problem is, so they’re fucking useless.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“Don’t know yet.  Any ideas?”

“I already told you what I think,” Thomas reminded him.  “It’s not our job to catch things the MOs missed.”  If there even was something. 

“This is important,” Rouse said.  “They may not care how unwell these men are mentally, when they send them back to the Front, but if he’s injured, they have to care about that.”

There was no point arguing with him, Thomas knew—Rouse was stubborn.  So he tried to think of something Rouse could do that wouldn’t get either of them in trouble.  But all he could think of were things that might have worked if they were at the 47th.  “What about the sergeants?  Can you get one of them on your side about this?”

“Chance’d be a fine thing,” said Rouse.  “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not anyone’s favorite around here.”

“Because you’re always arguing with them,” Thomas pointed out. 

“I have to, to get anyone to listen to me.”

Thomas remembered, vaguely, feeling that way.  Not arguing—that had never been his style—but maneuvering, always thinking three or four steps ahead, to try and end up where he wanted to be.  Life was so much easier, now that he didn’t want things.  “I’m out of ideas,” he said.  “And if you don’t mind, I’m going to bed.”

Rouse waved him off.  “Yeah, sure. Thanks for—”  He gestured vaguely toward the ward.  “I’ll keep thinking on it.”

Thomas wished he wouldn’t, but didn’t argue.

#

“So you knew Barrow before the war, right?” Private Rawlins asked, laying out the things for changing Theo’s bandage.  “What was he like?”

“A lot like he is now,” Theo said.  It was strange, really, how little Thomas seemed to have changed.  His manners had roughened a bit—he certainly swore more—but under that, he was still the Ice Prince, watching the rest of them from his cold and lonely splendor. 

 “Yeah?” said Rawlins, beginning to cut away Theo’s old bandages.  “I suppose that’s not surprising.  When he first came here, he seemed like he was used to it already, somehow.  We all noticed it.”

“I’ve heard the story about the hand,” Theo said dryly.  Several times, in fact.  It would be surprising, he supposed, to someone who had seen only Thomas’s smooth, polished neatness, or his studied air of not caring about anything or anyone.  But it was the same Thomas who had cheerfully beaten the living shit out of a so-called gentleman who had dared force himself on Syl, all those years ago—and then come back to Theo and Peter for patching up, bloodied and disheveled and obviously proud of himself, claiming all the while that he didn’t even like Syl, and that the act had no altruistic motivations whatsoever.

That was the first time he’d done something like that, but it wasn’t the last.  He was their Ice Prince, but he was also their battering ram, or their guard dog.  Or the old-fashioned kind of prince—the kind that slew dragons. 

“That was something,” Rawlins agreed.  “You know, they made him a lance-corporal the first time when he’d been here a month?  Nobody minded—he’s just that impressive.”

Now that part was surprising.  Thomas had always struggled with fitting in—all of their sort were square pegs in round holes, but there wasn’t a space on Earth for the shape Thomas was.  He was fairly good at squeezing himself into the spaces where he almost fit—being a servant, drinking at the far end of the Criterion bar—but he resented the hell out of it, and if you looked closely, you could always tell.  Combined with his exquisite good looks, that sense of always being a little apart gave him a mysterious allure—but to men who didn’t want to sleep with him, he usually came off as a bit of a prick.    

Here, though, it was different somehow.  The men in his section couldn’t possibly all be queers, but Thomas seemed to hold something of the same sort of magnetic fascination for them.  Rawlins wasn’t the first to come to him with questions about what their Corporal Barrow was really like. 

At first, Theo hadn’t been able to answer—he’d been too exhausted to think straight—but they’d been giving him something to help him sleep, and now he had a theory.  But it wasn’t something you could say to anyone as ordinary as Rawlins—especially not if you were already considered halfway to being mad.

But if Peter were here—if Peter were anywhere to which a letter could be sent—he’d say, Thomas has always been at war with the world.  Here, now—everyone else is, too

The war wasn’t the answer Thomas had been looking for all this time, a space where he would fit—but it was a space nobody else fit, either.  Nobody could fit, in a place where sorting through a pile of hacked-off pieces of men’s bodies in search of a wedding ring was a reasonable and even admirable thing to do, or where you were expected, if you got the chance, to walk up to a complete stranger and, without preamble, shove 17 inches of steel into his heart, gut, or eye socket, or where you could be having a cuppa and a smoke and then suddenly be wearing the blood and guts of the man next to you. 

You had to just accept that the world you were in didn’t make any sense, that horrible things happened all the time for no reason, and that there was no getting away from any of it.  That adjustment—not how much combat you’d seen, or how many men you’d killed, or how many of your mates you’d seen die—was what marked you as an experienced man, no longer an apprentice of war.  As someone who knows what it’s like

Men like them—London Peculiars, as Peter had put it—had learned a long time ago that the world didn’t make sense, that destruction could crash down from the heavens when you were only trying to have a drink or find some company, and that there was no better world you could escape into.  Some of them—Thomas, certainly, and Syl, though in very different ways—had never known the world to be any other way. 

They’d come into the war already equipped with the armor they needed.  One of Thomas’s mates—the other corporal, Theo thought—had said that Thomas took to work on the Front as though he had been born to it.  That was, quite simply, because he had

But Rawlins didn’t want to hear any of that.  What he wanted to hear was a boys’-school story, perhaps something where Thomas won the big cricket match, or bested the bully. 

Well.  He could manage the latter, if he changed a few of the details.  What could he say had happened to Syl?  He had, in fact, been sacked, in addition to everything else.  That would do as a motive.  And for a climax, Thomas had gotten Sir Gilbert to hand over the wages he was owed—although that had been an afterthought; the point was to give him enough of a beating he wouldn’t dare show his face in any of their regular haunts again.

“Have you heard the one about the time he beat up the baronet?  No?  This was when we were all working in London—quite a few years ago.  Thomas was about seventeen, I think.  Our friend Syl—Sylvester—got sacked, for no very good reason at all….” 

#

“No,” Thomas said.  “Absolutely not.”

“There’s nobody else I can ask,” Rouse said. 

“Maybe you should take a hint from that.”  Thomas was starting to wonder if Rouse’s fixation with Kingston’s imaginary leg injury was one of those times when he had to, as the Wardmaster put it, pass the shit up the chain before it stuck to him—except that Rouse wasn’t one of his section, and the Wardmaster hadn’t covered what to do if one of your fellow corporals was fucking up.

 Thomas had thought, over the last few days, that Rouse might have decided to take his advice and let the matter drop.  It turned out, however, that he’d instead been cooking up an even more insane scheme.  Namely, breaking into the x-ray department in the middle of the night again, this time bringing Kingston with him and taking some new films of the area where Rouse believed the injury was.  What he’d been doing the last few days was enlisting the aid of another corporal, who worked in the x-ray hut and had some idea of how to work the machine and develop the films. 

The part Rouse proposed for Thomas to play was simply to cover the ward again, while Rouse was off executing the really risky parts of the plan, but he still didn’t want to do it.  “What if you break the bleeding machine, mucking around with it?  I bet that thing costs a fortune—they’ll have your head.”

“It’s not that complicated,” Rouse said.  “It’s like a big camera.  I understand how it works now.”

“And have you figured out how you’re going to explain these new x-rays—assuming you actually find something on them?”

“If I find something on them, I’ll admit I took them on the sly,” Rouse answered.  “If I have proof, they have to believe me.”

That wasn’t the point.  “It’s still insubordination.  How many times have you been told to stop interfering?”  Earlier that day, when Thomas had been working on the ward, Major Winthrop had told Kingston he was to report for fatigues and drill the next day, and Kingston had argued with him, saying that “the young doctor” said he needed more x-rays to diagnose his leg injury.  Winthrop, naturally, had demanded to know which doctor that was—and it had eventually emerged that he was talking about Rouse. 

Thomas had sought Rouse out to tell him that the Major was out for his blood, but he had barely mentioned Kingston’s name before Rouse had said yes, he’d already heard, and launched into asking Thomas to help with his plan.  “Look,” Thomas said.  “I’m not sure you realize what thin fucking ice you’re on with the Major.  Did you actually tell Kingston you were a doctor?”

“No,” said Rouse.  “I said I was a medical student.  Which I am.”

“Not anymore,” said Thomas.  “You’re an orderly, same as me, and as far as Major Winthrop’s concerned, you’re impersonating an officer.  He used those words.”

“It’s not my fault he thinks a doctor and an officer are the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s your fault or not!  Christ—what do you think is going to happen here?”

“I think I’m going to find out that Kingston has a femoral head fracture,” Rouse said.  “Or possibly a pelvic fracture, but they’re less likely to have missed that.  Femoral head fracture causes an apparent shortening of the limb, which can look a lot like the muscle contractures you get with shell shock, and it would have been masked by the initial presentation of hysterical paralysis, but—”

Thomas cut him off.  “What do you think is going to happen to you?  You think they’re going to shake your hand and say, ‘thank you for making us look like idiots; we’ll take you seriously now’?”

“No,” said Rouse.  “I expect I’ll get a bollocking.  I don’t care.”

“You’ll be lucky if that’s all you get.  You want to lose your stripes again?”

Rouse shrugged.  “I can live with it.  Look, it’ll take maybe an hour.  If I get caught, you can tell them I’m in the latrine with the shits, if you want.”

“And you took Kingston with you for company?” 

“No,” said Rouse.  “You could say…there’s got to be something you can say.”

Thomas sighed.  If he didn’t help, Rouse was just going to do something even stupider—like leave the bloody ward unattended while he went off on his fool’s errand.  Or worse, rope one of the other lads into it.  “You told me you were taking him to a whorehouse.”  Sex was really the best explanation for sneaking around at that hour.  It would be even more plausible to suppose that Rouse and Kingston were having it off with each other, rather than bringing a prostitute into it—but that was a crime, too, so he couldn’t admit to knowing that. 

“That’s idiotic,” Rouse said.  “Why would I take a man with a broken leg to a whorehouse?  He’s not going to be able to get his leg over.” 

“Surely you’ve noticed that we of the other ranks are obsessed with sex.  You have a soft spot for the bloke, you thought it would cheer him up a bit.  And he hasn’t got a broken leg; he’s just barmy.”  Thomas shrugged.  “That’s what you told me, and I’m not nearly bright enough to have suspected any differently.”

Rouse sighed.  “Fine.  Whatever you want to tell them.”

“Be vague, about what you told me,” Thomas said.  “We’re obsessed with sex, but we also know you’re not supposed to mention it in front of the quality.” 

When Thomas arrived at ward D-5 in the middle of the night, Rouse already had Kingston bundled up in somebody’s greatcoat and sitting in a Bath chair.  “Thought maybe you weren’t coming,” Rouse said.

“I said I would, didn’t I?”  Against his better judgment.  “Go.  Let’s get this idiocy over with.”

Rouse wheeled Kingston out of the ward.  Thomas had to help him get the chair down the steps—something that would be very hard to fit into the whorehouse story, if it came to that, but perhaps they wouldn’t think to ask. 

As with the last time, Thomas was left waiting—and worrying—long after the time Rouse had said he’d be back.  It was almost two hours—and one nightmare, on the part of Bed 14, who woke up half the ward yelling about it—before the door to the ward opened.

Banged open, causing half the barmy blokes to jolt awake.  Kingston shuffled in, sans Bath chair, accompanied by an officer and two men—neither of whom was Rouse.  When they came by the desk, Thomas saw that the officer was Major Winthrop.  He ordered Kingston into bed, and the rest of the men back to sleep, and left, without so much as a glance at Thomas.

Fuck. 

No one, as it turned out, thought to ask what Thomas was doing in D-5 that night.  As far as he knew, Major Winthrop hadn’t even noticed that he was there.  The only one who did notice anything unusual was Lyton, who took over as Ward Corporal in the morning.  “Isn’t Rouse on nights this week?” he asked.

“Covering for him,” Thomas said, and raced off to join his own section on sentry duty. 

The others had noticed that Thomas and Rouse were missing when they got up that morning, and were full of questions about it, but seemed no one was much surprised when Thomas didn’t indulge their curiosity, saying only that he’d been covering D-5 for the last few hours of the night shift. 

It wasn’t until they went in to lunch that Thomas learned anything new, and the way he learned it was from Lyton saying, “What’d your mate do to get crucified, anyway?”

“What?” Thomas asked stupidly. 

“Rouse,” Blythe explained.  “He’s on F.P. One.  I saw them tying him up while we were coming in from fatigues.” 

God damn it.  “Insubordination, I reckon,” Thomas said, trying not to show he was rattled.  It would be easier if he’d slept, or eaten anything since last night’s dinner.  “Has anyone heard how long they gave him?”

No one had, but Lyton said, “Busted him back to the ranks, too.”

“They’d’ve had to,” Thomas said absently.  NCOs didn’t get F.P.  Fuck.  At least no one knew he’d played any part in it.  Rouse wouldn’t drop him in the shit. 

“Wonder who they’ll put up to replace him,” Lyton said.  “You have any ideas, Barrow?”

“No,” Thomas said, and ate, mechanically, ignoring the churning in his gut.  He had an afternoon of fatigues to get through; he couldn’t do it on cigarettes alone.

Their work assignment was mindless, even as fatigues went—unloading building materials at the railhead and carrying them to the place where the E wards were going to be.  It didn’t even require breaking them up into working parties—though Thomas did tap Rawlins and Manning to help him keep things organized—and all of the patients were ones they’d had before, except for Kingston. 

It seemed a mercy, right up until the first time they crossed, with Kingston shuffling along under one end of a load of lumber, past the parade ground where Rouse was doing his FP.

They had him tied between two posts, his arms stretched out—that was why they called it crucifixion, when it was done that way.  He looked fairly casual about it, almost bored, until he saw them—saw Kingston, to be precise.  Then he strained against the ropes holding him, swearing viciously.  “God damn you, motherfuckers.  You God-damned sons of bitches….”

“Keep walking,” Thomas told the others.  “He doesn’t mean us.  Just go.  Don’t look.”

Any doubts he had about whether the arrangement was pure sadism or just a really unfortunate coincidence were resolved when, on their third or fourth trip back to the railhead for more stuff to carry, they were met by Rouse’s section.  The newly-promoted Lance-Corporal Kenyon—a middle-class bloke—explained sheepishly that they’d been told that Thomas would tell them what they were doing.

God-damn motherfuckers, indeed.  “It’s easy enough,” Thomas said.  “We’re carrying this stuff up to the building site, up past D block.”  He hesitated.  “Eyes front, when you pass the parade ground, is my recommendation.  Don’t make it any worse than it is.”

“Right,” Kenyon said, nodding.  “You heard him,” he told the rest of the section.  “Let’s get on with it.”

While they were loading up, Thomas heard Plank ask Kenyon, “Weren’t you lot on nights?”

“They took us off it,” Kenyon explained.  “Because I’ve no experience leading the section.  They said.”

Passing the parade ground, Rouse’s former section tried to keep eyes front, at least, though Thomas caught them sneaking glances at Rouse.  Rouse, for his part, managed to keep his mouth shut, and so didn’t make it any worse than it had to be, either.

After they’d put down their loads at the building site, Thomas contrived to fall in beside Kenyon.  “Did they tell you how long he’s got?”

Kenyon shook his head.  “A week or two, is what we’ve heard.”  He hesitated.  “I didn’t ask to be put up in his place.  I mean—I wouldn’t do that.”

“Didn’t think you had,” Thomas said.  They were nearly to the parade ground again.  “Eyes front,” he reminded everyone, then continued, “I told him this was going to happen, if he kept on the way he was.”

“It was….something to do with Kingston, then?”

Thomas nodded. 

After two hours, Rouse was untied and taken somewhere else.  Thomas wondered what they had him doing—it was usually either fatigues or pack drill, on F.P.—but mostly, he was relieved not to have to avoid looking at him, for the rest of their work detail. 

He did, however, still have Kingston to deal with.  He got slower and slower, and carried less and less, with each trip back and forth.  Thomas hadn’t wanted to hassle him, with Rouse forced to watch, but now he started to worry that someone might notice he was going easy on him, and Thomas would end up standing next to Rouse. 

The first time he barked “Keep up!” at Kingston was a bit hard, but it got easier—and never seemed to have much effect, anyway, except to demonstrate to anyone who might have been watching that Thomas was Being Firm. 

And if Kingston was in tears by the end of the work detail, that wasn’t Thomas’s problem, was it?

They had an hour to themselves after work and before dinner, and Thomas—not particularly wanting to watch Kenyon get settled into Rouse’s bunk—went to see Theo.  He didn’t need dressings on his leg anymore, and seemed better, mentally—not his old self, but fairly focused, and not talking so much about his nightmares anymore. 

Thomas found himself telling him about Rouse.  “I don’t know why he did it.  I told him he was going to get in trouble.”

“There’s worse things in life than F.P.,” Theo pointed out. 

“Maybe,” Thomas said.  Short of execution, he wasn’t sure what.  The very idea gave him the shudders. 

“What they’re putting that poor bugger Kingston through is worse,” Theo said.  “He was on drill with us this morning.  I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with his leg or not, but it isn’t right to make him walk on it, when it hurts him that much.”

Thomas shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “The doctors know what they’re doing.” 

“I hope you’re right.”  He hesitated.  “I think they’ll be sending me back to my regiment soon.”

It was not, Thomas thought, a complete change of subject.  “Yeah?”

Theo nodded.  “Had my little chat with Major Winthrop this afternoon.”

“Little chats” were another part of the treatment regime.  Thomas had seen some of them, working on the wards.  They consisted mainly of the Major forcing the man to describe whatever terrible thing had happened to him just before his breakdown, then explaining the connection between that experience and the man’s symptoms, and that the terrible thing, while terrible, was a part of war, and wasn’t it really a bit silly to think that, for instance, your hands had stopped working, just because you’d seen someone else get his blown off?  At which point the man said Yes, Sir, it was a bit silly, and he’d stop immediately.  “What’d he say?”

“He said I’m not having nightmares anymore, so clearly all I needed was a bit of a rest and to stop dwelling on unpleasant things.” 

That didn’t sound too far off to Thomas.  “Have you stopped having nightmares?”

“I’ve stopped waking up screaming, so I’m sure that’s the same thing.”  Theo shook his head.  “I shouldn’t make fun, really.  He’s said some helpful things, in our other little chats.  I started having the nightmares when I was made sergeant, he says, because I feel responsible for my men, for their safety—which I do—and that feeling that way is part of what makes me a good NCO.  I think that’s true, as well.”

Thomas frowned.  “So?”

“So it makes me feel a bit better about it, to think that I’m having them because I’m good at my job, and not because I’m falling apart at the seams.”  He shrugged.  “And then he said I must remember that terrible things happen in war, and it isn’t my job to stop them happening.  That part wasn’t so helpful, but there you go.” 

Theo managed something that looked like his old, easy smile, but it made Thomas feel cold inside.  “I wish you didn’t have to go back,” he said—a stupid thing to say, really.  What good would that do?

“Me, too,” said Theo.  “But I do, and I’ll be all right.  All the action’s down on the French part of the line now.”

The French were getting torn to shreds, from what Thomas had heard, and the Hun had managed an advance that could be measured in miles—not a lot of miles, maybe two or three, but for the past year, an advance of yards was considered something to write home about.  Sooner or later, whether the French stopped them or not, it was bound to affect their sector somehow.  But Theo had to know that already, and there was no need to point it out.  “Sure,” Thomas said.  “I bet it’s nice and quiet.”

The next day, they were on fatigues in the morning.  Another thaw had come in, so they were put to digging graves again.  The graveyard wasn’t anywhere near the parade-ground, so that was a bit of a relief, but the work was even harder on Kingston than carrying had been.  It was the part where you stepped down on the shovel, to use your weight to push it into the ground, that gave him trouble.  He couldn’t get his foot up that high, or put his weight on it, no matter how much Thomas yelled at him about it.

So he was doing less than nothing—getting in everyone else’s way, really—when Major Winthrop turned up.  He as-you-were’d them quickly, but Thomas scrambled up out of the hole they were digging anyway, and went over to him.  “Sir?”

Major Winthrop gave him a highly skeptical look. 

“I’m not sure what to do about him, sir,” Thomas said, inclining his head toward Kingston, who was standing at the edge of the hole and fairly obviously not digging.  He was careful to keep his tone apologetic—I’m trying me best, sir, really I am, it’s just that I’m far too ignorant for this.  “He won’t pick that foot up, no matter what I say to him.  Keeping him standing up is about the best I’ve been able to do.  Sir.”

Major Winthrop nodded.  “It’s a difficult case.  And the interference with it certainly hasn’t helped.  Kingston,” he barked.

Kingston, who had already been standing at attention, stood straighter.  “Sir.”

“It doesn’t look like you’re doing your part, here.  Are you?”

“No, sir.”  He gulped.  “It’s me leg, sir.  I could just about manage the carrying yesterday, but this digging, sir—there’s just no way.”

“We’ve been over this,” the Major said, his voice dripping with patience.  “There isn’t anything wrong with your leg, is there?”

“No, sir,” said Kingston, obediently.  “It’s all in me head, sir.  But it still hurts.”

“You simply have to exercise some will power,” Winthrop said.  He held out his hand.  “Give me that.”

Cringing a little, Kingston handed him the shovel he’d been holding.  Thomas wondered, for a second, if the Major was going to hit him with it. 

Instead, he selected a patch of ground, planted the point of the shovel, placed one mirror-polished riding boot on the step, and pressed down.  Thomas wondered if the man had ever, in fact, used a shovel before in his life—he skipped the second part of the procedure, in which one actually lifted up the soil that had been loosened in the first stage—but he supposed that wasn’t really the point.  “Do you see how I did that?” Winthrop asked.  He demonstrated again.  “Now you do it.”  He held the shovel out in Kingston’s direction.

Kingston took the shovel and, shifting his weight onto his “good” leg, drove the blade as far into the earth as he could manage with his hands alone.  It was actually a bit more than Winthrop had managed using his foot, but Thomas knew perfectly well it wasn’t going to be good enough. 

“Now, now,” said Winthrop.  “Do it as I showed you.”

Kingston gave Thomas a baleful look—why him, and not Winthrop, Thomas had no idea.  Thomas shrugged minutely.  Sorry, mate—you’re on your own. 

Somehow, Kingston got his foot up onto the step of the shovel—helped, perhaps, by the fact that the blade was half-sunk into the ground already. 

“Good,” said Winthrop, encouragingly.  “Now put your back into it.”

Kingston gave Thomas another look.  “Get on with it,” Thomas told him. 

Kingston took a deep breath, as though he were about to jump over the side of a sinking ship, and put his back into it. 

There was an audible, sickening snap, like a twig breaking, but wetter somehow, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.  Kingston was on the ground, and if there hadn’t been anything wrong with his leg before, there definitely was now.  His trousers were soaked with blood, and when Winthrop—swearing—knelt beside him and pulled the fabric away, Thomas saw a glistening, jagged edge of bone.

“Rawlins,” he heard himself say.  “Plank.  Go get a stretcher.  Quick as you can.”  They went.  Thomas knelt next to Kingston, opposite Winthrop, who was staring at Kingston’s injury in shock.  “Sir.  Sir.  I’ve sent some of the men for a stretcher.  Is there anything else we need?”

“Ah,” said Winthrop.  “Ah—no.  We should get him to the surgical department as quickly as we can, I should think.”

Obviously.  “Yes, sir.”  To Kingston, he said, “It’s all right—we’re getting help.”

Kingston nodded, his teeth chattering.  Shock, of course.  Thomas moved to take off his coat and put it over him, but Major Winthrop managed it first, laying it over the injured man.  “Yes,” he said.  “We’ll, ah, soon have you patched up.  Not to worry.”

Rawlins and Plank came back with the stretcher, and an MO from surgical.  They got Kingston loaded up, and Thomas walked back to the surgical hut with them.  Winthrop did too, trailing a little distance behind. 

Your real fucking job, the Wardmaster had said, is to look out for your ladsProtect them from the fuckers in the brass hats

Kingston hadn’t been one of his lads when this all started—but he sure as hell was today.  That was why he had looked to Thomas for help, when the Major told him to do something he knew would hurt him.  Because it was his fucking job.

Christ, no wonder Theo had nightmares. 

Thomas stayed with Kingston as long as the surgical team would let him.  While they injected him with morphine, and tetanus antitoxin.  While they cut off his clothes, and bathed the wound with antiseptic.  While they said fracture of the femoral head and wasn’t displaced, until he put weight on it

When they took Kingston into theater, and kicked Thomas out, he went back to the outer room, both surprised and not surprised to see Winthrop waiting there.  “They say he’ll be all right if it doesn’t get infected,” he said.  “But there’s a high risk, when the bone breaks the skin.”

“I know,” Winthrop snapped.  He clenched his jaw, breathing through his nose. 

Thomas looked at him for a moment.  “I’m going to go tell Rouse,” he said, finally.  “Unless you want to do it.”  He did not say, sir.

“What?”

“Corporal Rouse.  He told us this was going to happen.  Somebody should tell him he was right.” 

“Private Rouse,” Winthrop corrected.  It seemed to be automatic; he winced a little, afterward.  “I suppose I….”  He changed course abruptly, his tone growing sharper.  “There is no reason that anyone would expect me to take any heed of the diagnostic opinions of an orderly.”

“Except that he was right,” Thomas said.  Then, “Medical student.”

“What?”

“He’s a medical student.  And an orderly.  Both.”

Winthrop snorted.  “A second-year medical student.  They all think they know everything.”  He shook his head.  “I suppose you think I disregarded his opinion out of some sort of class prejudice.”

“Sir,” Thomas said, because there was nothing else to say.

Winthrop looked at him for a long moment, then finally dropped his eyes.  “All right,” he said, standing up.  “Let’s go and talk to Rouse.”

Mercurial changes of mood and all, Thomas wasn’t sure which way Major Winthrop was going to jump, when they got to Rouse.  He got no new information from a brief stop they made at the x-ray hut, in which Winthrop demanded the “Kingston films.” 

The orderly on duty produced them, and Winthrop held one up to the light, and swore.  “Damn it.”

“Sir?”

Winthrop just shook his head, and took the films with him as they continued to the guardhouse.

Rouse was in a cell, unshaven and dressed in trousers and undershirt.  He looked all right, though, and got to his feet when he saw who his visitor was—though he made it plain he was in no particular hurry.

Wordlessly, Winthrop handed the x-ray film through the bars.  Rouse took it, looking a little uncertain, and held it up to the light, as Winthrop had done.  He studied it for a long moment, then handed it back.

Winthrop cleared his throat.  “It is, as you see, an incomplete, nondisplaced fracture of the femoral head.  Masked, in his initial evaluation, by hysterical paralysis and the absence of any visible signs.  In hindsight, when the reported symptoms changed, a thorough medical workup should have been ordered.”

Rouse nodded.  “Yes, sir.  That would be my assessment as well.”

“Unfortunately, under the stress of…physical activity, the fracture…became complete.  Compound, in fact.  Snapped like a twig, as I believe you put it, when…when he was made to put his full weight on it.  He’s in theater now.” 

Rouse nodded.  “Well, sounds like you really fucked the dog.”  He paused, a bit theatrically.  “Sorry, sir, I forget myself.  I meant to say the dog was fucked.”

Christ, he really couldn’t stop digging himself in deeper, could he? 

Major Winthrop sighed.  “And you wonder why it’s so difficult for those of us not raised in a gutter to take you seriously.”

“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” said Rouse.  “Sir.”

Thomas could see Winthrop looking at the gauntlet Rouse had thrown down, and deciding not to pick it up.  “I’m not going to argue with you,” he said.  “I’ll talk to Colonel Ottley about getting you out of here.  But I will not be recommending that you be restored to your rank. You’re a bad influence.”

“If you say so, sir.” 

Major Winthrop shook his head, and left.  Thomas stayed. 

“What happened?” Rouse asked.

Thomas told him, concluding, “I should have listened to you.  I was—I was afraid, is what I was.  I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done, but I didn’t try, because I didn’t want to end up tied to a post.” 

“It’s all right,” Rouse began.

“No, it’s not,” Thomas said.  “I fucked up.  Not anywhere near as badly as he did.”  He jerked his head toward the doorway from which Major Winthrop had left.  “But I fucked up.  He was one of mine, and I should have tried.”

Rouse thought for a moment.  “From what I hear,” he said, “the only thing you can do, when you’ve really fucked the fucking dog, is learn how not to do it next time.” 

Chapter Text

Rouse came back to the barracks that evening, stowing his kit at Kenyon’s old bunk.  If he minded his demotion, Thomas couldn’t tell; at the first question, he cheerfully told the story of his capture.  He’d been caught—as Thomas had guessed—after he took the new x-ray films of Kingston’s leg, but before he’d had a chance to examine them.  He’d also made no attempt to deny what he was doing or why—knowing him, Thomas wasn’t surprised.  Major Winthrop, as the MO in charge of Kingston’s case, had been rousted out of bed to deal with the situation.

“He wouldn’t even look at the fucking films,” Rouse said.  “Or let me look at ‘em.  Bloody bastard.  Spent the rest of the night in the guardhouse, and then first thing in the morning, they had me in front of a board.  It was fucking rigged—they wouldn’t look at the films either, barely let me get a word in.”

“Was it awful, being on FP?” somebody asked.

“Nah.  Easier than working.  It was only when they had poor Kingston going back and forth in front of me that I was fussed about it.  That were proper cruel.”

A few days later, Kingston was sent on a convoy back to the base hospitals—probably, Rouse heard from one of the surgeons, bound from there to Blighty, where he’d need at least one more operation if he was to walk again. 

The same night, Theo left on a convoy heading in the opposite direction.  Thomas went to the ward before dinner, taking him a spare pair of socks and a couple of packs of cigarettes.  “Here,” he said, handing them to him.

“Thanks.”  Theo was dressed in his uniform, sergeant’s stripes and all.  It looked good on him, Thomas thought, but it didn’t suit him.  Theo liked soft clothes, when he wasn’t in livery. 

He put the cigarettes in his tunic pockets, and the socks in his pack.  “Just what I needed,” he said, re-fastening the straps of his pack.  “I’m meeting up with my regiment in rest camp, they said.  So that’ll be good.  Get a few days to adjust before we go back up.”

“Good,” said Thomas. 

“What about you?”

“Do you know yet when you’re going back to your regular outfit?”

For a moment, Thomas wondered if Theo had forgotten that he wasn’t a patient here.  Then he remembered that the section had been seconded here for the winter—and now it was nearly spring.  He hadn’t really thought about the fact that they’d be going back to the 47th.  Back when they first came, it had seemed so distant as to be barely worth noticing.  “No, they haven’t said.”  He could, he realized, write to Jessop and ask.  The Wardmaster might know what the plan was.

Theo looked around.  His bed was in the middle of the ward, and all around them were other patients—some, packing for one or another of the convoys leaving tonight.  “I feel like a walk.  You busy?”

He wanted to talk without being overheard, he meant.  “I’m free till dinner.”

They went outside and wandered up towards the half-finished new wards.  “I’m glad I met your friends,” Theo said.  “Do me a favor and, uh, don’t push ‘em away, all right?”

Thomas’s first impulse was to deny that he had any idea who Theo was talking about.  He suppressed it.

“I mean it,” Theo added.  “Nobody should be alone in this place.  And they’re good chaps, both of them.”  He bumped his shoulder against Thomas’s.  “Rawlins is cute as hell, too.”

Thomas shot him a look.  “I don’t think so.”

“Not really,” Theo agreed.  “But he’d do schoolboy stuff if it was you asking.  Especially once you’re back up where there’s no girls—good excuse.”

Thomas let himself, for a moment, think about Rawlins that way.  He probably would, now that Theo mentioned it.  He always followed Thomas’s lead.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Maybe not,” Theo admitted.  “Could be fun, though.”  He went on, “Now Rouse—had you caught on to him yet?”

Thomas shook his head.  “You think?  Peter thought so, too.” 

“He told me,” Theo said.  “One night when I couldn’t sleep.”

“You didn’t tell him—”

“No,” Theo said.  “We weren’t talking about you.”  He tilted his head to one side.  “I say talking….”

“Really?” said Thomas.  “Where?”  Not in the middle of the ward, surely.

“That little room where they wash the chamber pots,” Theo said.  “Not the most romantic spot.”  He went on, “I don’t think you’re his type, and I know he’s not yours—but that could be fun, too.” 

“I’m not really looking for fun,” Thomas said. 

Theo gave him a sidelong look.  “Has there been anybody, since Peter?”

“No.”

“I don’t think he’d mind.  I mean, it isn’t…disloyal.”

“It’s not that,” Thomas said.  “I just don’t want to.”

“Don’t, then,” Theo said with a shrug.  “But you still need friends.”

Thomas thought of Rawlins, pressing up against his side when they sat on the barracks steps, smoking in the cold.  “Yeah.  All right.”

The nurses, Thomas knew, were in the habit of lining up outside the administration building to wave the convoys off, when they were headed to the Front.   A few men usually joined them, but Thomas never had. 

He felt a bit conspicuous, standing there for Theo’s convoy.  He felt even more conspicuous when Theo, standing in line to have his name checked off a list, broke away from the group.  There were a few catcalls, from men who assumed he was heading for one of the nurses. 

He hugged Thomas tightly, and said into his ear, “Be all right.  Please, please, be all right.”

Thomas, awkwardly, patted his shoulder.  “You, too.”

Once the convoy had gone, he walked back to the barracks and sat on the steps.  It was a warm evening—spring coming early—but he wrapped his greatcoat tightly around himself, holding it closed with his free hand while he smoked.

He was not entirely surprised when Rouse and Rawlins came out, Rawlins crowding onto the step with him, Rouse taking the one above.  “Your mate get off all right?” Rouse asked.

Thomas nodded.  “Yeah.” 

Rouse put his hand on Thomas’s shoulder, and Thomas didn’t push him away.

#

About a week later, their orders came to return to the 47th.  Thomas had sat down, once or twice, with the intention of writing to Corporal Jessop, but had never quite managed it. 

He hadn’t realized, until he had the departure orders in his hand, that a small part of him hadn’t been entirely sure they’d want him back.  Not for any particular reason—he knew the Wardmaster wasn’t angry about the billeting sergeant anymore—but no one else had ever asked him back after sending him away.

None of the other seemed at all surprised, when Thomas told them about their orders.  They were to leave in a little less than a week—which was more notice than you often got. 

“Wonder if they really fixed the barn,” Perkins said, looking around the barracks, “or if they just decided it’s warm enough now we can survive sleeping there.”

“I haven’t heard anything,” Thomas said.  “But the Wardmaster said they’d fix it.”  Still, even with a new roof, the barn was going to be a step down—it had taken him a month to get used to sleeping in a bed again, but now that he had, he wasn’t overly keen on going back to a bedroll on flagstones. 

“Are you going to make us do extra drill and shout at us about our uniforms again?” Plank wanted to know.

Thomas thought that was one of his stupider questions—as Thomas had explained, he’d done that for a reason—but everyone else looked a bit eager to hear the answer, too.  “No,” he said.  “Even if they’ve suddenly started doing drill and uniform inspections there, we’re ready for it.  But let’s try and make a good showing of it tomorrow, all right?”  The whole platoon was scheduled to do stretcher drill the next afternoon; Colonel Ottley usually turned up for that.  “Should be the last one we have to do for a while.”

“Thank God,” said Manning. 

To be honest, Thomas didn’t think much of stretcher drill, either.  All of the maneuvers assumed you had as much room as you needed, and that you were in no particular hurry.  Stretcher drill by squads at least had the benefit that each man on the squad could take a turn leading it, which was helpful when it came to picking team leaders for work details, but stretcher drill by platoon resembled nothing so much as an extremely dull circus act.  Like the one where the clowns carried around a ladder, if they forgot to make any humorous mistakes.

Still, they got through it, and Thomas’s section did as well as anybody else, and better than some.  Better yet, they had the rest of the afternoon off, and they walked back to the barracks from the parade ground, discussing what they were going to do with it.

“Think I’ll go for a drink,” Rouse said.  “You?”

Thomas didn’t have anything better to do.  “Yeah, all right.  Rawlins, you coming?”

Rawlins considered for a moment, then shook his head.  “The nurses are having a tennis tournament.  Wanna come?  We can go for a drink any time, but we don’t have that back at the 47th.”

Since the weather had turned warm, watching the nurses play tennis had become the most popular leisure activity for orderlies and ambulatory patients alike.  Thomas had a theoretical understanding of the appeal, but had difficulty feigning enthusiasm for it. 

Rouse, he now knew, wouldn’t be any more interested than he was, but for the look of the thing, Thomas said to him, “I could use a drink, but we can do that instead if you want.”

“Nah,” said Rouse.  “You can tell us who won,” he told Rawlins.

Rawlins shrugged.  “Suit yourselves.”

As they walked toward the village, Rouse said, “You ready to go back?”

Thomas nodded.  “You?”

“More than ready.”

“You think they’ll, uh….”  Thomas gestured at the absence of stripes on Rouse’s sleeve.  “Put you back up?”

Rouse scoffed.  “No.  I do all right, at the 83rd, but I don’t have it as good as you do at the 47th.”

“Yeah?”  He wasn’t sure what Rouse meant.  The 83rd was closer to the Front, certainly, but Rouse didn’t seem bothered by that. 

“I’m not saying you don’t deserve it,” Rouse went on.  “God knows you work hard.  But I hope you know the stars really lined up for you on that one.”

Thomas gave him a sidelong look.  It definitely wasn’t proximity to the Front that he was talking about.

“Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had my share of lucky breaks.  Just not in the war.  I’d still be down the pit, if somebody hadn’t taken an interest at the right moment.  I could see right away, when you lot turned up at the Aid Post, that Jessop and Allenby had taken an interest in you.”

Oh, that.  Captain Allenby, of course, he knew that, but… “Jessop?  Are you sure?”

“Of course.  What do you—”  He stopped, turned to face Thomas, and gave him a slow, lingering, up-and-down look. 

Thomas returned it—not with intent; Theo was right that Rouse wasn’t his type, but that wasn’t what Rouse was asking.

“Right,” said Rouse.  “Thought so.  But I meant an interest in your career.”

“Oh,” Thomas said, feeling rather stupid. 

“So, did you and Allenby…?”

“Made a pass, but I turned him down,” Thomas said.  “He’s all right, though.  Knows how to take no for an answer.”

 “I noticed that, too.”  He hunched his shoulders.  “Not really interested in being anybody’s bit of rough, thanks.”

No, he didn’t suppose Rouse would be.  “I don’t mind that sort of thing, but…I just didn’t fancy it.”  That wasn’t the truth, of course.  Not the whole truth.  “Too soon after Peter.”

Rouse looked confused for a moment, then comprehension dawned.  “He…wasn’t your brother.”

It wasn’t really a question, but Thomas answered it anyway.  “No.”  Carefully not looking at Rouse, he said, “We met working for Lady Waterstone.  Me first job.  We’ve been—we were—best mates from the beginning.  The...other part was new.”  He inhaled sharply, through his nose.  “We were going to…after the war, we were going to try to…figure out some way.”  His breath shuddered on the way out.  “Some way to have a life together.”

“Oh, Christ,” said Rouse, and it sounded more like a prayer than blasphemy.  “I’m so sorry.”

Thomas nodded, and tried to breathe evenly.  He’d never said it before.  Never laid it out like that.  What it was that he’d lost.  He shook his head.  “Sorry—what were you saying about Corporal Jessop and Captain Allenby?”

Rouse gave him a sidelong look, but nodded.  “Right.  I could see that they were, uh.”  He paused a moment, marshalling his thoughts, but—thankfully—didn’t turn the subject back to Peter.  “They were setting you up to show what you could do.  There’s two ways to do that—I’ve had both.  If they want to see you fail, they throw you into something you’re not ready for and then tell you how you should have done it.  The other way, the good way, they give you what you need to get it right, and then watch to see if you’re clever enough to use it.    Like, uh, doing the tetanus antitoxin injections—I don’t think Jessop ever said that he was teaching you how to do it, but he made sure you had plenty of chances to watch him do it before he had you try one.”

Carefully keeping his thoughts on the time at the Aid Post—not anything before that, and certainly not any imagined future—Thomas began to get a sense of what he meant.  Jessop had often told him things, or showed him things, without making a point of why Thomas might need to know them.  And then, a day or two later, he’d say, “Well, lad, do you remember how to….”

Carson had done something like it, in his early days at the Abbey.  He’d ask him to describe how to do this or that—or even worse, to demonstrate it—and then explain, in detail, usually in front of an audience, what Thomas had got wrong. 

But when Jessop did that, Thomas usually did remember.  He’d thought, perhaps, that it was just that he was older and more responsible, better at paying attention.  That probably was part of it—but what if another part, a bigger part, was that Carson hadn’t wanted Thomas to pass his little tests?

Then he thought of the workroom behind the clock shop.  How many times had he struggled with something—even something as simple as opening the back of a clock to clean it—only to have Dad—Mr. Barrow—wordlessly hand him a different tool than the one he’d been using? 

It was, he thought, not quite as good as Jessop’s way, but miles better than Carson’s. 

“I see what you mean,” he said, pulling himself back to the present.  They were entering the village now; he had to be careful.  “The Wardmaster does that, too.  Like how he told me, before we left, that we had to be ready for drill and inspections.”

Rouse nodded.  “Yeah.  Nobody warned me about that.  Even if they had, I wouldn’t have done as good a job as you did—but they didn’t.  Maybe they didn’t know, or didn’t think it was important.  Or maybe they set me up to get taken down a peg.”  He shrugged.  “Jessop, your Wardmaster—they want to see you win, and they’re in a position to see you get something like a fair shot at it.  That’s not something blokes like us always have.” 

“Don’t I know it,” said Thomas.  Story of his life, that was.

“I’m sure you do,” Rouse agreed.  “But what you have to remember is, the blokes we’re up against?  They’ve always had that.  Take Rawlins, for instance.”

“Rawlins is all right,” Thomas objected.

“He is.”  Rouse nodded.  “He knows you’re better than he is, and he doesn’t resent it.  That’s rare.  But…how old were you when you left school?”

“Fourteen.”  Obviously.  You were supposed to have your leaver’s certificate to be a corporal; Thomas had read it in one of the manuals. 

“Just out of curiosity, did anyone ever suggest you might keep going?”

Thomas scoffed.  “No.  Wasn’t near clever enough for that.”

“Yes, you are,” said Rouse.  “You’re cleverer than at least half the blokes I went to secondary school with.”

“The ones who were paying their own way, you mean,” Thomas said.  He had only a vague idea of how scholarships for secondary school worked, but he knew you had to be more than just averagely clever to get one.

“The ones whose mums and dads were paying their way,” Rouse corrected.  “I mean, I don’t know—maybe you could have gotten a scholarship if somebody’d taken an interest in you back then.  I sure couldn’t have done it on me own.  This one all right?” he asked, indicating an estaminet.

“Sure.”

They went inside and found a table—Sunday afternoon, the place was about half-full.  Rouse ordered a pint, Thomas a vin blanc.  The barmaid was a woman at least a decade older than either of them, maybe two, rouged and uncorseted. 

Once she’d brought their drinks, Rouse went on, “But my point is, the whole system’s rigged against blokes like us.  To go to secondary school, first I had to be the cleverest lad in my council school.  Then the schoolmaster had to notice that I was, and he had to decide he was willing to put in a lot of time he wasn’t getting paid for, to do something about it.  All that, just for it to even be a question whether I might be able to go.  And then me dad had to figure out a way we could get by if I was spending all my time studying, when other lads my age were starting to earn a wage.  But somebody like Rawlins…he’d’ve had to be a few bricks shy of a load before there was even a question that he wouldn’t keep on with school.”

Thomas nodded slowly, remembering how Rawlins had talked about being groomed for management at the factory where his father worked—because he didn’t have any better idea of what he’d like to do.  He hadn’t really thought about it at the time—Thomas was used to looking at people like the Crawleys, or Philip Crowborough, and compared to them, any advantages Rawlins had would barely register.  But really, what would it be like to have a life where management was where you ended up because you weren’t trying?  “I see what you mean,” he said, taking a sip of his wine.  It was thin and vinegary.  “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“No,” Rouse agreed.  “But that’s what I mean, about you being lucky at the 47th.  You ever have somebody in your corner before?”

“No,” said Thomas.  Then, “Peter.  At Lady Waterstone’s.”

Rouse nodded.  “What did you do there, anyway?  For a job?”

“We were junior footmen,” Thomas said.  Rouse probably didn’t know what that meant—how would he?  “Polished the silver, washed the crystal, answered the door, carried in guests’ luggage.  Helped wait at table.”  He glanced at Rouse.  “I know, it doesn’t sound like much.”

Rouse laughed.  “Was trying not to say that.”

“The hard part is that you’re on display, but you aren’t really supposed to be seen.  Like…wallpaper.  You only really notice it if there’s something wrong with it.  So the point is to be so perfect that nobody notices you.”

Rouse blew out a breath.  “Not sure I could handle that.” 

“Well, you have to be tall, too, so….”  Thomas lit a cigarette, and offered the pack to Rouse, who took one.  “They want matched pairs, like carriage horses.  There’s a household manual that actually says that.”

“Blimey.  Not sure I wouldn’t rather be a pit pony than a carriage horse—if those are the only two choices.”

Thomas would most definitely not.  “I suppose it’s all in what you’re used to.  I reckon that’s why I’m all right at drill—it’s the same kind of…invisibility.  If it’s going right, the individual people just disappear in plain sight.”

“Yeah, that bit of it kind of makes my skin crawl,” said Rouse.  “I’ve never wanted to disappear.”

After the Albion, that was all Thomas had wanted.  Was it still?  He wasn’t sure.

“So that was—”  He signaled the barmaid for another drink; Thomas caught her eye and nodded, too.  “I wondered, when I was on F.P.  You told them all not to look at me?”

“Yeah,” said Thomas.  Speaking of things that made one’s skin crawl….

Rouse nodded.  “I figured that had to be a kindness, in your head.  Wasn’t sure how.”

“What, did you want us to gawk at you?”

“Not gawk,” said Rouse.  “I was looking for some kind of a sign, though—yes, we see what’s happening, and it sure is fucked up.  It wasn’t until I thought about it a bit that I realized you were coming at it from the other direction, like.”

“Yeah,” Thomas said, still not really understanding what Rouse had wanted him to do.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.  Thanks,” he added, to the barmaid as she brought their second round.  Once she’d left, he continued, “It was watching Kingston that really got to me.  I know you didn’t have a choice about that.”

“Well,” said Thomas.  “I could have said I’d have no part of it, and ended up standing next to you.”  Just thinking about it made him nauseous. 

“Yeah,” said Rouse.  “That’s probably what I’d have done, had the situation been reversed.”

Thomas nodded; he’d thought so.

Rouse went on, “But I’m not saying it would’ve been wise of me.  It’s not like we’re the only two blokes qualified to run fatigues, and I don’t imagine two orderlies making a stink would impress them more than one.  At the 47th, maybe, where you’re the Wardmaster’s fair-haired boy, but not here.”

“At the 47th, somebody might have listened to you, too.  Captain Allenby, for one.”

“You have a point, there.”

Thomas hesitated.  “I don’t suppose there’s any way we can get you transferred.”  If there was, did he really want to suggest it?  The Wardmaster liked him because he was working-class and bright—he’d be inviting in a rival who could best him on both counts. 

But Rouse said, “I doubt it.  I’m not sure how all that works, but I think if it could be done, it’d take somebody working it at both ends, and I wouldn’t know where to start at the 83rd.  Don’t worry about it.  If I was stuck here, I might be grasping at straws for a way out, but I’m all right, at the 83rd.  I get to do a decent amount of real medical work when I’m at the Regimental Aid Post, and when I’m not there, they usually put me on night duty.  I can generally stay out of trouble as long as nobody’s standing over my shoulder picking at my every move.”

It was on night duty that Rouse had gotten into trouble here, but Thomas didn’t argue the point.  “All right.”

“I mean, if you hear something where it makes sense to put in a word for me, I’d appreciate it.  But don’t go sticking your neck out.”  He hesitated.  “You know, even if they like you, you only get to pull those strings so many times, right?”

“I know.”  He hadn’t, in fact, been thinking of that.  But that was how it was if they liked you because they were sleeping with you; there was no reason this would be any different. 

“Figured.” 

Deciding that it was about time to talk about something other than himself, Thomas said, “Speaking of Captain Allenby, he mentioned, before we left, that he was interested in the shell shock treatments they were working on here.  What do you suppose I ought to tell him about it?” 

As he’d expected, Rouse had definite ideas on the subject, and they talked about that through another round of drinks and a plate of egg and chips each, until it was time to head back to the station.

When they were nearly there, though, and Thomas thought about the fact that he’d probably not speak to Rouse alone again, he said, “Peter.  Liked you a lot.  He said, uh….” What had he said?  Thomas had tried not to think about his letters—not to think about him at all—for so long.  “That he admired you greatly.  Or immensely.  Something like that.”

Rouse gave him a sidelong look.  “Thanks.  I…that’s good to know.  He was something special.  We all loved him.  He was just….” 

“Good,” Thomas said.  “He was just good.  And he made other people want to be good, too.”

“Yeah,” said Rouse.  “That’s it.  That’s exactly it.”

#

A few days later, they went back to the 47th.  Rouse’s section left first thing in the morning, on the march, but they were told, that morning, that an ambulance was expected from the 47th, so they might as well wait and catch a ride back.  It was a bit of a squeeze, and some of them ended up hanging on to the outside, but they were back to the 47th not much after lunchtime.

Approaching, Thomas could see that there had been some changes.  The road went through the Transport Corps area first, and there were a lot more vehicles and horses, as well as several new huts.  “What’s that?” somebody up front asked, as they passed a particularly large one.

“Munitions store,” the driver said. 

Their own station had grown, too.  There was a new block of wards going up, and the surgical hut was twice as big as it had been.  The ambulance yard looked just the same, though, and so did the orderlies’ room, when they trooped inside. 

While a couple of the others set about seeing if a cup of tea could be had, Thomas cautiously poked his head into the NCOs’ room.  Jessop was there, doing something at his desk.  “Hey,” Thomas said.

Jessop turned.  “Lad!”  He got up.  “You’re looking fit.  How was it?”

“All right, I guess.  We spent a lot of time on fatigues.  Are we supposed to report in anywhere?”

Jessop shook his head.  “Wardmaster’ll want to see you, but you’re not on roster until tomorrow.” 

“Oh, good.  Give us a chance to get settled back in.  Are we back in our old billet?”

“Aye.  His office is in the same place it was,” he added, tilting his head in that direction.

Thomas hadn’t quite realized that he meant the Wardmaster wanted to see him right then, but he went.  Before he was halfway down the passage, he could hear the Wardmaster, shouting and swearing as usual—his door was open, and there was somebody in there with him.  He hesitated, but Jessop had said that the Wardmaster wanted to see him.

He knocked. 

“What?” the Wardmaster bellowed.  The two sergeants standing in front of his desk shuffled to one side.

“Uh, it’s Barrow, Sergeant,” he said, as the two sergeants standing in front of the desk shuffled to one side.  Reporting in.”

“Oh,” he said, beckoning.  “You’re back.  You bring back all your men?”

That had to be a joke—why wouldn’t he have?    “Yes, Sergeant.”

“How was it, son?”

“Different,” Thomas said.  “I think we did all right.  Upheld the honor of the 47th.”

“Good.”  He glanced at the two sergeants.  “I wanna hear all the fuck about it, but I’m in the middle of something, here.  Come back before dinner, all right?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

The Wardmaster nodded.  “You been out to the fucking barn yet?”

“No.”

“Well, fuck off and have a look at it,” he said, and turned his attention back to the two sergeants.

That was strange.  With a mental shrug, Thomas went back to the orderlies’ room, stopping on the way to check the posted duty roster.   “We’re all on day shift tomorrow,” he told the others.  “D Wards.  All we have to do today is get settled in back at the barn.”

“Home, sweet barn,” somebody said, as they all started picking up their packs. 

“Night off,” Manning said.  “Are we going out?”

Everybody looked at him.  He shrugged.  “I have to meet with the Wardmaster before dinner, but maybe I’ll catch up later.”  They might be expecting him in the NCOs’ mess—who knew? 

They could see the improvement in the barn even before they reached it, as soon as they turned up Petticoat Lane.  The roof was now covered in shingles, a patchwork of different colors and sizes.  Thomas thought a of the time, back at Downton, when some of the slate tiles on the east wing roof had come off, during a heavy storm.  The replacements had been a shade or two lighter in color, and Carson had tutted over the unsightliness of it all, but there was nothing to be done—the quarry the old ones had come from, the workmen said, had closed. 

Arriving at the barn, Thomas walked around it, while the others went inside.  The half-rotted shutters over the windows had been replaced, too, and the latrine had been moved, and the old pit filled in—something Thomas had realized, reading his RAMC training manual, was likely overdue to be done.  There was also at least a cord of firewood, stacked neatly against the wall, on the side opposite from the direction the wind usually came. 

Somebody really had made an effort.  The thought was oddly warming.

From inside, he heard Rawlins say, “Fuck me blind.” 

He must have picked the expression up from Rouse, and Thomas smiled a little at how it sounded in his accent. 

Rawlins stuck his head out the door, “Barrow, you’ve got to see this.”

“Coming.”  Inside, there were a dozen bunks, set up in rows, with footlockers, and a stack of bedding on each one.  He looked up, and the roof was bright new wood, under the shingles.  “Christ,” he said. 

“Bit of all right, innit?” said Collins. 

“It’s a fucking palace.”  He put his kit down on the bunk between Rawlins and Perkins.  “Is somebody gonna make the tea?”

Someone did, and they’d picked up bread, cheese, and jam rations before they left the station, so they had a slap-up tea, as they stowed their gear and made up their bunks.  At one point, a particularly bold mouse scampered out of the wall, heading for the breadcrumbs that were scattered around the stove, where some people had been toasting theirs.

“Well, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed,” Thomas said.

“I have a plan about that,” Collins said. “We get a cat.”

 “Huh,” said Rawlins, thoughtfully.

“Where are we going to get a cat?” Thomas asked.  You saw them around, slinking in and out of piles of rubble, but they fled at the sight of a human being.  “We’d need a tame one.”

But Collins said, “Nurse Bradford’s had kittens a few weeks ago.  She’s giving them away in a couple of weeks—I said we might take one.  All we have to do is get somebody to bring it back on the ambulance.”

All right, so Collins had that part of the plan figured out.  “What do we feed it, once we have it?”

“They eat mice, don’t they?” Rawlins asked.

“If it’s doing its job, after a bit there won’t be enough mice around to keep it fed,” Thomas said. 

“We can bring back meat scraps from the mess,” Collins said.  “And trade for fish heads and offal and things—we can get those for jam, no problem.  Maybe milk, too.”

Tins of Army jam were a common form of currency with the local people. The jam ration was a frankly ridiculous half-pound per day.  Most of the time, the cooks traded it for something more sensible before you even saw it, but if you got your rations issued to you, instead of eating in the mess—as they had today, because they were, theoretically, on an all-day march—you got a tin each.  They had ten left from today’s issue.  “Will that do it?” Thomas asked.  “A cat needs to be fed every day, you know.”  Dad—Mr. Barrow—had said that, when Jamie and Alice wanted a dog. 

 “Sardines,” suggested Rawlins.  “And condensed milk.  I’m sure my family’ll send us some, if I ask.  Anybody else?”

“We’re going to have a milk and sardines rota, in addition to the tea rota?” Thomas asked.   Several of them took it in turns to have their people back in England send the Fortnum’s Superior that they mixed in with the standard-issue tea.  Anna and Mrs. Hughes supplied Thomas’s share; he wasn’t sure they’d be amused, if he started asking for cat food, too.

“My gran will,” said Plank.  “She likes cats.”

Manning nodded, too, and a couple of the others. 

Collins said, “Mine would think I’d gone barking mad if I asked them to send food for a cat—but I could put in a sixpence now and then.” 

A couple of other people nodded at that, too.

“Seems like an awful lot of bother,” Thomas pointed out.  “How much are the mice going to bother us, now we’re not sleeping on the ground, and we’ve got lockers to put our stuff in?”

“Didn’t think of that,” Collins admitted.  “I guess we don’t really need a cat.”

There was a long moment of silence, until Rawlins said, “It’d be kind of nice, though.  Make the place more homelike.”

Thomas would have pointed out that they were in a war, it wasn’t supposed to be homelike—but several other people were murmuring in agreement. 

 “Could we get a dog, instead?” asked Plank.

“A dog’s a lot more trouble,” Collins told him.  “And it’s kittens Nurse Bradford has, not puppies.”

“A cat’s a lot more sensible,” Rawlins agreed.  “We should stick with that.  If we get anything.”  He looked at Thomas expectantly, and soon everyone else was, too.

Belatedly, Thomas realized that they were waiting for him to say if they could have a cat or not—though really, it seemed unlikely that the Army would view decisions about barracks pets as part of a corporal’s remit.  “I don’t really see the point, but I suppose if we’re all agreed, there’s no harm in it, either.”

And that, apparently, meant that they were getting a cat.  Everyone started talking about things like what to name it and things they’d heard about how to pick out a good mouser. 

They were still talking about it, in fact, when they headed back to the station, Thomas for his meeting with the Wardmaster, and the rest for various estaminets.  Rawlins and a few others were bound for Granny’s—“if it’s still open,” Rawlins said—and Thomas said he’d meet them there, if he was free.

This time, the Wardmaster was alone in his office, and he waved Thomas to the now-familiar chairs in front of the fireplace, and brought over the also-familiar bottle of Armagnac.  Honestly, Thomas was beginning to wonder where he got the stuff; the way he went through it, he must have a regular source of supply. 

“So,” the Wardmaster said, handing him a glass, “how’s the barn?”

“Everyone was very impressed,” Thomas said.  “They had us in a proper barracks, back at the Clearing Station, and we were all saying that was the only thing we’d miss—but I think this is even better.”

“I heard, about the barracks—didn’t want a mutiny on my hands.  That’s about all I heard, though.  About your lot, anyway.  You didn’t fancy it, back there?”

Thomas hesitated.  “It wasn’t what we’re used to, I suppose.  You were right about being ready for drill and inspections.  We had an inspection two hours after we got there, and drill every morning for a week.  And then they had us on fatigues something like two weeks out of three.”  He went on to explain about the shell shock patients.  “So some of it was work that really needed doing, to get the new buildings ready, but some of it was just make-work.”

“That can be a real fucker, when it comes to morale,” the Wardmaster said.

“Yeah.  We were usually broken up into two or three work parties, so I rotated the teams around, had different team leaders each day, to try and keep it interesting.  Might have been more efficient to keep it the same every time—but once they started putting the shell shock cases with us, I could tell efficiency wasn’t what they were looking for.  Cut down on complaints—if somebody thought they had a better idea, they’d have a chance to try it.” 

“Good,” said the Wardmaster.  “You’d’ve come in for your share of fatigues if you’d been here,” he added, stretching his boots out in front of him.  “You have a look around?”

Thomas nodded.  “I saw the new wards, and the surgical building,” he said cautiously.  The others had noticed, too, but there hadn’t been much speculation about why they needed them. 

“Yeah.  You see the fucking munitions dump?”

Thomas nodded.

“We’ve got a new medical officer, too—head of surgery—and we’re getting a new section’s worth of orderlies.  Maybe two.”  He gave Thomas a steady look.  “You know what that means?”

Thomas was fairly sure he did.  “They’re expecting us to be busier.  The spring offensive?”

The Wardmaster nodded.  “Probably a summer offensive, since Fritz started his so fucking early.  They haven’t said where, yet.  But they’re building up at this end of the line.  Third and Fourth Army areas.”  He looked weary. 

They were in the Fourth Army area.  “Makes sense,” Thomas said.  “They’ve already tried breaking through in Flanders, twice.”  That was the northern end of the Front line, held by the Belgians and by the British First and Second Armies.

“Yeah.  And it’ll take some of the pressure of the French, down at Verdun.” 

Verdun was where the Germans had begun their spring offensive, in the southern part of the Front held by the French.  The French line extended from Switzerland up to the river Somme, a dozen or so miles from where they sat.  “You figure we’re in for it, then?”

“Yeah.  I figure we’re fucking in for it.”  He took a deep breath.  “But not for a while, yet.  And it could be the Third takes the brunt of it.  The next thing, for us, is gonna be getting the new blokes up to speed.”

 “When do they come?”

“Little under a month.”  He knocked back half his drink.  “So, new sections, new corporals.  Who do you like?”

 “Hm?”

“You’ve seen how your lads did leading work details.  If you were picking corporals for the new sections, who would you tap?”

Oh.  This was a test, obviously—but, as Rouse had explained, it was one the Wardmaster wanted to see him pass.   It would be more important to explain his reasoning, than to guess who the Wardmaster was thinking of.  “Collins.  I like the way he sizes up a job, before he starts in on it.  Doesn’t just jump in with both feet.”  His approach was a little more cautious than Thomas’s was—Thomas tended to assume that, if they fucked up, they’d go back and fix it.  “He’s a farm lad.  Turns out that involves more thinking than I realized.  If you get something wrong, it might be a year before you can try again, he told me.”

The Wardmaster nodded encouragingly.

“And he was good with the shell shock blokes.  Figuring out what they could handle and what they couldn’t.  The trick—the way the Major wanted it—is to make just enough allowances that they can contribute, but not give them too much slack.  And keep up with what they can do, as they get better.  I reckon you’d need to do that with new men, too.”

“Collins,” he said.  “All right.  Anybody else?”

Thomas had to think a little more about the second name.  “Manning wants it, and people usually follow his lead.  If I put him on a team with a leader who wasn’t very good at it, he’d end up running it instead.  And, when I said about somebody thinking they had a better idea?  That was usually him.”

The Wardmaster shifted in his seat.  “How’d he take it when his idea wasn’t better?”

“He learned from it,” Thomas said, cautiously.  “But you have to not rub it in.   He’s also, uh…he was a better team leader when it was supposed to be somebody else’s turn, because then he’d have to work to get the others on side with him.  If he was supposed to be in charge, he’d just lean on that.  Most of the others had the opposite problem—they’d stand there and let Manning argue with them until I came up and reminded them they were in charge, and then when he was in charge, I’d have to do the opposite, and remind him not to get too high-handed with the others.”

“Hm,” said the Wardmaster.

“Yeah.”  Manning had resented it, and it was hard to blame him.  “I missed something, there—I tried to tell him that I was giving him the opposite advice because he was erring in the opposite direction, but I don’t think I got through.” 

“He might just need to hear it from somebody other than you,” the Wardmaster said.  “Manning’s one I had my eye on.  The others look up to him—and he didn’t lose his fucking shit when you came in and snatched his crown.  That counts for a lot.  He’s a little too cocky, but he could shape up if somebody took him in hand.” 

Thomas was acutely aware that the Wardmaster could have been describing him—or, at least, him before the Albion.  “I’m not sure I’d have handled that so well, in his shoes,” he said.  He knew for a fact he hadn’t, when it had been Bates stealing his crown.  Or William, who’d come in from nowhere and become Carson’s protégé overnight.  Or Jamie, for that matter, stealing the crown he’d never stood to inherit.  “I do wonder if he ever regrets spreading around that hand story, though.”

“Yeah.  I reckon he was picturing you as his lieutenant.  Squire. Right-hand man.  But that’s not you.  Not by a fucking long shot.”

Thomas took a gulp of his drink to cover his surprise.  Most of his life, he’d have murdered to be somebody’s right-hand man.  Carson’s protégé, the Duke of Crowborough’s favorite.  The son of Barrow and Son’s Fine Clocks.  Was that why it had never worked out?  Not because he wasn’t good enough to be second fiddle, but because he was meant to be first

“What about Rawlins?” the Wardmaster asked.

“As a corporal?”

“Yeah, as a fucking corporal.”

Thomas hesitated.  “Between you, me and the doorpost—no.  He’s bright, but he’s got no initiative.  And he wants everybody to like him.  He’d muddle along, but I don’t think he’d be very good at it—or even want it, if he really thought about it.” 

The Wardmaster nodded, and tipped more Armagnac into Thomas’s glass.  “That was a fucking test, by the way—I know you’re mates.  That’s my read on him, too—he’s a clever sod, but lazy.  If I gave him a section, you’d be running both of them.”

He wasn’t wrong.  Rawlins was his right-hand man.  “That would almost work, though,” Thomas mused.  “He picks up things I miss.  With new blokes, he’d see it a long time before I did, if they were having a hard time.  Not with the work, I mean.  That I’d notice.  With…adjusting, to all of this.”  He gestured to indicate the station, the war, all of it.  He wasn’t the sort of person you’d go to, if you were having nightmares or if the sound of guns was getting so far into your head you couldn’t think straight.  No more than a new footman or hallboy would tell Carson that he was homesick or that the first footman was picking on him.  But they had Mrs. Hughes for that.  “And I’m the last person they’d tell—especially once they heard the fucking hand story.  But they’d go to him, and he’d tell me what I needed to know.”

“We’re not fucking doing that,” the Wardmaster said.  “If we had three new sections to sort out, maybe, but it’ll be two, at most.”

Thomas nodded quickly.  “Right.”  It hadn’t been a serious suggestion.  “I was just thinking out loud.”  He was saying more than he meant to, was what he was doing.  It was hard to keep track of how much he was drinking, since his glass never got empty before the Wardmaster filled it up again.

“Two sections is too much for you, but you’re right about Rawlins.  One of the things I’m thinking about doing, is splitting up your section and mixing in the new lads.  If I decide to go that way, I’ll keep him with you.  Anybody else you want?”

Thomas thought about it, marshalling his thoughts carefully before he spoke.  “If I get Rawlins, I should take Plank, too.  He’s not what you’d call a quick thinker, but he works hard, so they balance each other out a bit.  Widener, Perkins, Applegate, and Liston are all pretty solid, so I’d take one or two of them, depending on who the other corporals are.”  If it was somebody more experienced than he was, he’d keep two.   “If the other corporal really is going to be from our section, and it isn’t Manning, he’s gonna kick.  Probably best if he stays with me, in that case.”  He’d kick against Thomas, too, but at least Thomas had some practice.  “But if it’s somebody Manning would look up to, then he should take him.” 

“That’s what I was thinking,” the Wardmaster agreed.  “What about Collins?  If we don’t put him up?”

“He’s not expecting it, the way Manning is,” Thomas said.  “As far as I know, anyway.”  Maybe he should ask Rawlins about that.  “I’d be glad to have him, but if I already have Rawlins, and we wanted to do the other bloke a favor, I could live without him.”

The Wardmaster nodded.  “What do you think of Applegate?”

Thomas shrugged.  “He’s all right.  Not the sharpest, but he tries.  People like him.”   

With a heavy sigh, the Wardmaster topped up their glasses.  “The brass like him.”

Thomas squinted at him.  The Armagnac might be starting to catch up with him—how would the officers know enough about Applegate to like him or not?

“He went to a minor fucking public school.”

Thomas set his glass down with a thud.  “They like him for corporal?” 

The Wardmaster nodded.  “Now I can tell them I had a talk with his corporal about leadership ability, and his name didn’t fucking come up.”  He shook his head.  “This is all between you, me, and the doorpost, by the way.  I want a chance to look at your lads before they know they’re being watched—and if they end up not liking my decision, you don’t need them to know you had anything to do with it.”

Thomas had not entirely realized that he was having anything to do with it.  “Of course.”  He admitted, “I thought this was a test.”

The Wardmaster shrugged.  “You’re not actually picking them—I am.  But I’ll take a look at Collins.  I didn’t have a good idea of who the fuck to suggest instead of Applegate.  If you’re right about him, that’s gonna solve a real fucking problem for me.”

“Glad I could help,” Thomas said, his head swimming slightly at the heady notion that the Wardmaster might really act on a suggestion from him.  Unless that was from the liquor. 

“If we’re lucky, they’ll drop Applegate when I give them another name.  If not…we might need to do him a bit of a dirty.”

Thomas heard the wet snap of Kingston’s leg, and saw Rouse, tied to a fucking post.  But that wasn’t what the Wardmaster meant. “How do you mean?”

“Just put him out of his fucking depth for a bit.  Make sure they see him floundering.  I don’t like setting a lad up like that, but it’s better than the fucking alternative, if it comes to it.”

Thomas didn’t know what to say, and sipped at his drink, instead.  He didn’t like the idea much, either. 

The Wardmaster knocked back his drink, shook his head, and refilled it, sloshing a little more into Thomas’s glass while he was at it.  “So they had you working with shell shock cases.  How was that?”

“It weren’t easy,” Thomas said.  “They’re meant to be light cases, but a lot of them seemed to be in a pretty bad way—losing their voices, use of their limbs.  And you aren’t supposed to be too sympathetic to them.  It really felt, sometimes, like they were just tormenting the poor sods.  They’d have them out there working while they were still pretty ill.” 

“Yeah, not sure I like the sound of that,” the Wardmaster agreed.  “We didn’t see shit like that, in South Africa.  You’d see heart troubles, sometimes, after a shock—Soldier’s Heart, they called it—but not many.  They said it was more common in Crimea.”  He shook his head.  “I’m not surprised they don’t know what to do with the poor fuckers.  You can’t just send them home; not when it’s that many.”  He gave Thomas a sidelong look.  “Heard one of the other corporals had a real fucking problem with it.”

Thomas nodded.  “Rouse.  He did.”  He’d thought about whether to bring that up or not, but hadn’t decided.  On the one hand, it didn’t reflect well on him—one way or another—but he wondered if the Wardmaster would have any better ideas, about what he could have done.  “He didn’t like any of it, but there was one case...I don’t know how much you heard.”

“I heard some clever bugger of a corporal argued with a Major about a case, got busted down and put on F.P., and then it turned out he was right.  I was pretty fucking relieved to hear it wasn’t you.”

“I was…involved, a little bit,” Thomas admitted.  “The bloke—his name was Kingston—started out with hysterical paralysis, but when that went away, he kept on insisting he his leg hurt.  Could barely move it, or put weight on it.  It was a little strange—sometimes the hysterical symptoms clear up gradually, but they don’t usually develop a new one in the middle of it.”  Rouse had pointed that out to him, when they’d talked about it afterwards.  “So Rouse examined him—he was a medical student, before the war.”

“Oh,” said the Wardmaster, nodding.  “He’s that clever bugger.  Jessop told me about him.  Miner’s son made good?”

Thomas nodded.  “Bright as hell, but he can’t quite get his head around the fact that he can’t talk to officers like he’s an equal.  After he examined him, he came up with a theory, that Kingston’s leg really was broken, just not all the way through.”  He went on to explain about the two times he’d covered Rouse’s ward, while he investigated his theory. 

“Sailing a little close to the fucking wind there, son,” the Wardmaster pointed out. 

Thomas nodded contritely.  “Sorry, Sergeant.”

“No, I’m fucking impressed—it just doesn’t seem like you.”

Thomas had momentarily forgotten that he had a reputation here as a rule-follower.  “Well, if anyone had asked, I thought I was covering for him for a bit while he met a girl; I’m as shocked as anyone about the gross insubordination he was really up to.”

The Wardmaster nodded.  “Good.  So I take it he got caught the second fucking time?”

“Yeah.  That one was a lot riskier—and I still don’t know what he thought he was going to do with the new x-rays, even if they did prove he was right.  The way it turned out, the MO refused to even look at them until after the poor bastard broke his leg the rest of the way.” 

He went on to explain about Rouse’s F.P., and Kingston’s part in it.  “Fucking sadists.  Even if they really believed they had to do that to Kingston, to cure him, they didn’t have to make Rouse watch.  And make the rest of us watch Rouse watching it.  They had his section out there, too.”

“They do that,” the Wardmaster said.  “Make a fucking spectacle.  Keeps anyone else from getting ideas.”

“Well, it worked.  The next day, they had us digging graves—Kingston, too.  I just about sat up and begged to convince that Major I wasn’t going easy on him.”  He downed the rest of his drink before telling the Wardmaster about the Major’s bit of theater with the shovel, and his small but shameful part in it.  “It wasn’t right.  I don’t see how I could have stopped it, but I could have at least said it wasn’t right.”

The Wardmaster sighed, and refilled Thomas’s glass.  “Would’ve been pissing into the wind if you had,” he said.  “And it sounds like they had e-fucking-nuff of corporals getting mouthy about this particular issue.  The smart thing to do would’ve been to get another officer to take an interest in the case, before this Major had dug his heels in too far.  A major might bend his fucking neck enough to listen to a captain who disagrees with him about a case, but not a fucking corporal.” 

Thomas nodded.  “That’s what I thought.  But getting officers on his side is not one of Rouse’s strong suits.  And I was trying to keep me head down.”

“Yeah. That’s one of those things that’s a good idea right up until it isn’t.”  He sighed.  “That’s the kind of thing that keeps you up at night, but don’t beat yourself up over it.  By the time it got that bad, I’m not sure there’s anything I could’ve done to stop it.”

Thomas nodded, and his head spun a little. 

“Apart from giving Rouse a clip ‘round the ear,” the Wardmaster added.  “Which it sounds to me like he could fucking use.”

He’d more than had one, Thomas thought—but maybe it would mean a bit more, coming from another working-class bloke.  “Yeah.”

“They’ll be looking for us in the mess soon,” the Wardmaster went on.  “Anything else you want to talk about?”

There was something.  About the new sections.  What was it?  “The others, will be wondering, uh….”

“You can tell them we’re getting a new section or two, and that there’s no official word yet about an offensive, but I see the same things they do, and I’ve drawn the same fucking conclusions.   When they see the next duty roster, they might guess I’m looking for corporals, but don’t confirm it.”

Thomas nodded, and then remembered why it wasn’t a good idea to do that just now.  That was good to know—they would ask what the Wardmaster had said—but it wasn’t what he’d been thinking of.  “They’re talking about getting a cat,” he said.  That was part of it. 

The Wardmaster gave him a funny look.  “Yeah?”

Reviewing that statement, Thomas realized it hadn’t made a lot of sense.   “I mean, they’re going to want to know, about the billet.  If we’re moving out, or getting split up.  Before we get too settled in.”

“Oh,” said the Wardmaster.  “No, we’re gonna put the new lads up in tents, through the summer.  Get the fucking cat.”  He refilled his glass one more time and, before Thomas could stop him, sloshed some more into his, too, saying, “One more, before we go.”

Thomas was beginning to think he’d had more than enough, but it wasn’t as though the Wardmaster could put it back in the bottle.  He knocked it back, and then staggered as he got up.

“Easy there, son.”  The Wardmaster steadied him with a hand on his back.  “Cat, huh?” he asked, as they headed for the mess.

“For the mice,” Thomas explained.  “Since everything else is fixed now.  And one of the nurses had kittens.”  He blinked.  “Her cat had kittens, I mean.”

“Yeah, I reckon it would’ve made the fucking papers, otherwise,” the Wardmaster said. 

Thomas—there was no other word for it—giggled.

“Right, so that last one was a fucking mistake,” the Wardmaster said. 

“Out of practice,” Thomas said, as they went outside.  It had been a long time since the fucking Criterion.

“Criterion, huh?  Posh fucker.”

Had he said that out loud?  “More ways than one.”  He giggled again.

The Wardmaster grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.  “Hey.”

“Oh, fuck,” Thomas said, a tendril of fear worming its way through the soft alcoholic haze that had crept up and covered everything.  “I said that out loud too, didn’t I?”

“You did,” the Wardmaster confirmed.  “Do I need to put you back in my office to sober up, before you say anything else out loud?”

He meant because it was a military offense to be drunk in public—not because the Wardmaster understood the significance of what Thomas had said.  The way he could tell, was that he was standing there, with his hand on Thomas’s neck, and not shoving him away in disgust. 

He took a deep breath of the cold night air, and pulled himself together.  “I’m all right.” 

“All right.”  He nodded, releasing Thomas.  “Keep your mouth shut, until you get something in your stomach to soak up all that booze.”

“Yes,” Thomas said.  “I will do that.  Sergeant.”

In the mess, he put Thomas into a seat next to Jessop, and said, “Keep an eye on him.  He’s a little tight.  And not being very careful.”

Jessop gave him a sympathetic look.  “Did you try to keep up with him?”

“Not quite,” Thomas said.  “Just, uh, one too many.” 

“That happens, with him,” Jessop said, casting a worried eye toward the Wardmaster, taking his seat at the head of the table.

#

Barrow did sober up as he got his dinner into him—fortunately.  That could be tricky, drinking on an empty stomach and then trying to rectify the lack afterwards.  By the time dinner was over, Jessop was comfortable leaving him to make his own way back to his billet—also fortunately, the lad was clever enough to realize that catching up to his mates in whatever estaminet they’d crawled into wasn’t a particularly good idea.

Tully, on the other hand….

“We’re getting the lad drunk now?” he asked, as they settled down in Tully’s office.  “Is that a good idea?”

“I wanted to loosen him up so he’d tell me if anything was bothering him,” Tully answered, gulping down some more of his French liquor.  “And it worked—a little too well.  He didn’t drop any more fucking hairpins, did he?”

Jessop shook his head.  “What did he say?  Or—do?”

“About that?  Nothing anybody else would’ve noticed.  Just that he used to drink at the Criterion.  And he’s a posh fucker in more ways than one.”  He chuckled.  “Stands to fucking reason.  I kind of wanted to bring him back here, give him a few more, and see what happened.”

That wasn’t a good idea, either, and Tully knew it.  Jessop changed the subject.  “Was anything bothering him?”

“Yeah.  You remember Rouse?”

Jessop nodded.  “Sharp lad.”

“Sharp enough to fucking cut himself.”  Tully went on to tell an entirely unsurprising story about Rouse going toe-to-toe with an officer, and paying the price.  “Barrow kept out of it, but it rattled him some.”

That was the sort of thing that rattled Barrow.  “He and Rouse are mates.”

“I fucking gathered.”  Tully poured himself another drink.  “He seems to have done all right otherwise.  No major problems with the section.  He likes Collins, for corporal.”

“You asked him?”  Jessop didn’t think he would have—Barrow had only been a corporal himself for a couple of months.

“He had them taking turns leading work details,” Tully explained.  “What do you think?  He was on your list, wasn’t he?”

The list of names Jessop had given him when Tully asked for someone else to consider alongside Manning and Applegate, he meant.   “He was,” he agreed.  He wondered if Tully really didn’t remember—if he was that drunk—or if he just wanted to hear Jessop agree with what he was already planning to do.  “Didn’t stand out above the others, but then, none of them did.”  That was why it was a list, and not a name.  “You thinking of trying him out next week?”

“Yeah.  Beats picking one out of a fucking hat, and if he’s no good, we’ll learn something about Barrow.”

He had a point.  “All right.  So Collins, Manning, and Applegate, then?”

“Unless I can talk Thwait out of Applegate.  Then I still need a third name.”

“Barrow didn’t have one?”

“No—I tried asking who he wanted to keep, if I split up the section, but he went for balancing the two sections, instead of skimming the cream off the top.”

“That’s good, though,” Jessop pointed out.

“Yeah, just not fucking helpful in the present situation.  Gave me an idea, though—what do you think of having him draw up a roster for next week?  Tell him who we picked for lance corporals, see how he divvies the rest of them?”

That wasn’t a bad idea—was a better one, in fact, than asking him to weigh in on promotions.  “All right.  And then he runs it by me?”

“Yeah.  We might have to give him a hint, about not propping up Applegate too much.”

That was another thing Jessop wouldn’t have brought the lad in on.  “You told him that, too?”

“I fucking alluded to it,” Tully admitted.

“They’re his mates,” Jessop reminded him. 

“And we’ve got a fucking push coming.  We need to know if he can be a bastard.”  Tully took a swig from his drink.  “I don’t like it any more than you do.”

He might like it even less, if the amount of drinking he was doing was any indication.  Or maybe it was just that Tully was the one who’d have to decide where they put Barrow when the shit hit.  Sometimes it was—as Tully would say—a real fucking relief to just be a corporal.  “Yeah,” Jessop said.  “All right.  What else do you have in mind for him?”

As Jessop had hoped, that distracted Tully from thinking about the push—and from reaching for the bottle again.  “We’ll keep him with the section for about a week, then switch him over to clerk.  You’re dead right that if we let him, he’ll end up running all three sections.  I mentioned how we couldn’t put Rawlins up, for that very fucking reason, and he almost had me giving it a second thought.”

“No,” Jessop said.  A sergeant ran four sections.  Jessop had done it, a time or two, but he couldn’t keep track of that many people—what they needed, what they were good for.  “He hasn’t been in the Army a year, yet.”

“I know.  He did convince me to keep Rawlins with him, though. To handle the soft stuff.”

Handling the soft stuff was what Jessop had done for Tully, in the early days.  And still did, he supposed.  “Good.  We can’t expect the next batch of new lads to take to this as easily as he did.” 

“That’s what he said, more or less,” Tully said.  “So he’ll clerk for me until the new lads get here, and then we start training them.  I wish to fucking hell we knew how much time we have.”

Until the push, he meant.   “They might give us some idea, by then,” Jessop suggested. 

“Might,” Tully agreed.  “Best not wait to get them up toward the Front.”

Jessop didn’t point out that Tully had been the one dragging his feet on that, with the last batch.  “No, best not.  Will we have Barrow and the other new corporals take them?”

Tully nodded, and reached for the bottle.

#

Thomas didn’t have to wait long to find out what the Wardmaster had meant about the next duty roster, and the section figuring out that the Wardmaster was looking for corporals.  They were on night shift on the wards—in fact, they made up most of the night-shift roster—with Collins, Manning, and Applegate named as lance-corporals. 

“Who’s going on which blocks?” he asked Jessop, when he found him in the NCOs’ room after seeing the roster.

“You tell me,” Jessop said, handing him a stack of personnel files.  “These are your extra men—if there’s anything else you want to know about them, I’m right here.”

Thomas hesitated.

“You’ve been doing this for months, lad,” Jessop reminded him.  “It’s no different.”

It was different because they were working on wards with actual patients, not digging holes in the ground.  But Thomas didn’t argue, just sat down and got to work. 

“One more thing,” Jessop added. 

Thomas looked up at him. 

“Wardmaster says not to do Applegate too many fucking favors.  You follow?”

“I do.”  Thomas nodded.  “Thanks.”

He worked on it for the rest of the day, in between his duties on wards, moving men around, trying different configurations.  It reminded him queerly of when he’d sat at his desk, a few months ago, and worked out drill maneuvers using paper clips.  This was a bit more complicated.  The way night duty worked was that each ward was covered by one or two men—depending on how many patients it had—and each block of three or four wards had a corporal or lance-corporal in charge.  Collins, Manning, and Applegate would each have a block, and Thomas himself would have the fourth. 

Several times, he thought he was almost finished, only to discover that he’d left someone out, or put someone else in two places at once.  It was just before dinner that he finally had it done, and took it to Jessop.  “Does this look all right?”  He hoped Jessop would tell him, if he was making any big mistakes.

“Aye, lad,” he said, reading it.  “Next comes the hard part.”

“What’s that?”

“When your lads take charge of their blocks, and you stay out of their way.”

“Oh,” Thomas said.  He had, in fact, put himself in B block because it was in the middle of things, so he could keep an eye on everyone else.

“Remember the first time you were night corporal on D?” Jessop asked.  “You want ‘em to know they can come to you if they have questions, but don’t look over their shoulders the whole time.” 

Thomas nodded.  “I remember.”

It really was the hard part, as he learned a few nights later, when they started their night duty.  Jessop had told him he could take a walk around the other blocks in the early part of the shift, to see that everyone was settling in, but apart from that, he was supposed to keep to his own ward unless asked.  The walk-around went well, but he kept wondering if he ought to make another one, just in case.  Out of sheer nerves, he checked the wards on his own block often enough that Rawlins, Plank, and Widener started looking exasperated when they saw him. 

His only hint of how things were going on the other blocks came when Captain Allenby wandered in, saying he’d just come from A block’s Men’s Sick, where Collins had summoned him to check on a patient’s elevated fever. 

“It wasn’t that high,” Allenby added.  “I expect he’s a bit nervous.”

“Sorry he woke you for nothing, sir,” Thomas said.

“It’s all right,” Allenby said.  “I was hoping I’d get a chance to see you.”

To talk about the shell shock treatments, he might mean. 

Or not.  He really wasn’t bad-looking, with his boyish face and his serious eyes—and Thomas wasn’t quite as numb to the prospect as he had been, last year. 

In fact, he’d found himself…responding, a bit, when Rawlins crowded up to him the way he did.  Even worse, lately his thoughts had been turning fondly to the memory of the Wardmaster grabbing his neck outside the mess.  He’d even dreamed about it once, and woken up vaguely aroused and specifically horrified.

So maybe it was time, to start thinking about it, at least.  It wasn’t as though they could do anything now, not with his entire section on the wards and liable to come looking for him any second.  But they could certainly talk

Thomas leaned back in his seat, set his shoulders at an angle to Allenby’s, and said, “Here I am.”

“I see that.”  Allenby took out two cigarettes, lit them, and handed one to Thomas.  “How was the CCS?”

“Not terribly interesting,” Thomas said.  “Rouse was there.”

“I’m sure that wasn’t why it was uninteresting,” Allenby noted.

“No,” Thomas agreed.  “We missed you, actually.”

“Oh?”  Allenby raised an eyebrow. 

He might have made that sound a bit more exciting than it really was, Thomas realized.  He dialed it back a bit and said, “We—he, really—got into a bit of a jam.  We both thought you’d’ve helped, if you’d been there.”  People like that—posh fuckers, as the Wardmaster would say—liked the idea that they could help you.  As long as you didn’t ask for too much.

“How’s that?”

So Thomas told him about Kingston, skimming lightly over the real horror of it, and leaning on the fact that they’d been out of their depth, without a kindly officer to turn to. 

Field punishment?” Allenby said, when he got to that part.  “Good lord.  That seems like a bit of an overreaction.”

“I’m not sure what Rouse said to him, but it was probably fit to peel the paint off the walls,” Thomas said.  “You know Rouse.”

“He does seem to respond better to sympathetic handling,” Allenby said.  “It sounds ghastly.  What happened to the patient?”

“They sent him back to Blighty.  Said he’d probably need at least one more operation.” 

“And if the fracture was still incomplete, he’d only need bed rest,” Allenby said, with a shake of his head.  “So I take it you didn’t think much of the treatment program—even for patients who don’t have broken legs?”

“Most of them improved,” Thomas said cautiously, aware that he was, after all, talking to an officer.  “But it seemed cruel.  And I wondered whether the improvement would last, once they were up at the Front again.  The only thing they got there that they wouldn’t get at a rest camp was the Major talking to them for five minutes at a time, every couple of days.  I don’t see how much that could help.”

Allenby nodded.  “There are some psychiatrists getting good results with talk therapy, particularly for officers.  But the dose needs to be a bit larger than that.”  He glanced at his watch, and sighed.  “I should go back and check on the patient in A again,” he said, standing up and buttoning his jacket.  “I expect he’s fine, but I, unlike some people, pay attention when my orderlies think something’s wrong.”

Thomas smiled, like he was supposed to.  “That you do, sir.”

“I hope we can talk again.”

“I’m on nights all week,” Thomas said, cautiously.  Allenby knew that; the duty roster was public.

“Of course.  I wish there was someplace we could go and really catch up.”

There was a hint of a question in his tone, and Thomas said cautiously, “I’d like that.  I’m not sure how, though.  We’re not allowed in the same estaminets.”  He wasn’t quite ready to accept an invitation back to Allenby’s billet, either. 

“No,” Allenby agreed.  “If we were in London, I could think of a place or two to take you.”

So could Thomas. “Downstairs bar at the Criterion?”

“Exactly.”

Après la guerre,” Thomas suggested.  After the war.  It was how respectable Frenchwomen responded to soldiers’ blandishments—and how French tarts opened negotiations.  “If we both live that long.”

Après la guerre,” Allenby agreed. 

The next morning at breakfast, most of the section reported quiet nights on their wards.  Apart from a few dysentery cases who had required unscheduled bed-baths and a change of sheets, Collins’s fever patient was the most excitement anyone had had. 

“Wasn’t the MO cross that you woke him up for nothing?” Applegate asked. 

“He didn’t seem like it,” Collins answered, uncertainly. 

“It’s better to wake him and find out you didn’t need to, then not wake him and find out you should have,” Thomas told them.  “And Captain Allenby’s all right.  He won’t mind.”  Even if they were giving Applegate enough rope to hang himself, that wasn’t a mistake Thomas wanted him making. 

“How do you know?” Manning asked.

“They were at the Aid Post together,” Rawlins reminded him. 

The next few days also went smoothly enough.  The day corporals had complaints about all three of the lance-corporals’ paperwork, so Thomas spent a bit of time going over it with them.  Collins’s got better right away, Manning’s once he made up his mind to make an effort, and Applegate…well, Applegate tried.  He had trouble remembering what went in which column of the ledger, even when Thomas made up an example page for him to look at.   He also had a hard time keeping track of all the things he was supposed to do each night, and usually skipped one minor chore or another.  The most serious was the time he forgot to record anything from the midnight round of pulses and temperatures—he swore up and down that he had done them, and Thomas believed him, but he had somehow managed to do the whole ward without remembering that he was supposed to write them on the patients’ charts. 

When that happened, Jessop said that he thought they’d take him off lance-corporal duty and try someone else, but after he met with the Wardmaster, the duty roster stayed unchanged.  

Thomas didn’t see the Wardmaster himself for most of the week—and when he finally did, it was at the worst possible moment.

It all started when Cadman came into his ward, at about two in the morning, whispering urgently about someone hemorrhaging in C block’s Men’s Surgical.  “What are you telling me for?” Thomas asked.  “Get Allenby!”

“I did,” he said.  “But—can you come?  Collins wants you.”

“All right.”  After getting Rawlins to keep an eye on his ward as well as his own, he grabbed his coat and went over to C. 

The lights were on in Men’s Surgical, and Allenby was barking orders—put pressure here, clamp this, tell Surgical Prep we’re coming, for God’s sake hurry

Then, suddenly, he fell silent.  It happened just about when Morris and another bloke showed up with a stretcher.  Allenby started to wave them away, then shook his head and motioned them back.  “Morgue,” he said simply.

Quite a few of the patients were sitting up and watching the show; they started whispering between the beds.

“What happened?”

“Why’d he stop?”

“Copped it.”

“Poor blighter pegged out.”

Meanwhile, Morris and the other bloke gathered up the body, and Collins stood there like a statue.  He was white as one, too, under his freckles.  “All right?” Thomas asked him. 

He nodded, jerkily.  “Yeah.  Uh.  We should strip that bed.  Before the blood soaks through more than it has.”

Thomas helped him do it.  “You’ve seen blokes die before,” he reminded him. 

“I have,” Collins agreed, bundling up the sheets.  “Never been in charge before, when it happened.”

Oh.  “It’s not your fault,” Thomas pointed out.  “They must have missed something when they operated on ‘im.  Or he was too badly hurt to begin with.”

“I know,” Collins said.  “I just…I don’t know.”

Thomas wished he’d sent Rawlins, and stayed in the wards himself.  “Just think about the next thing you have to do.  We’ll put this stuff in the burn bin.  Make up the bed again.”

“We should, ah, we should put the kettle on,” Collins said.  “The patients’ll be shaken up, too, seeing this.”

“Good idea.  Tea and cigarettes all ‘round, and once they’re settled, we’ll have some, too.”

So they did that, and as they took the tea around, they told the patients that the poor bastard had been very badly injured when he came in—much worse than the man you were speaking to—because that was what you said, whether it was true or not. 

Morris and the other bloke came back just as they were finishing up the tea round, and after quick checks on their own wards, they all convened in C block’s sink-room.  Thomas handed round the tea, and Collins asked, “You lads all right?”

They all nodded solemnly.  “Did the officer say what happened?” Cadman asked. 

Collins shook his head.  “No.”

“He might not know yet either,” Thomas said.  “But he won’t mind telling you, when he finds out.  If you want to know.” 

“Thanks,” Collins said.  He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.  “I’m fine.  These things happen.”

You couldn’t argue with that. 

A few hours later, Thomas was in his own block’s sinkroom, putting some things away, when Captain Allenby came in.  His jacket was unbuttoned, his tie hanging loose, and he looked like he had been up all night—which he probably had, but he usually didn’t look it.  “Have you ever noticed,” he said, “that it’s easier when a whole lot of them die at once?”  He leaned up against the doorframe.  “You don’t have to think about them as people.  It’s just,” he gestured.  “On to the next.” 

Oh.  That explained a lot, really.  “I can usually manage that even when it’s only one.” 

“Lucky you,” said Captain Allenby.  “How do you manage that?”

“I have a lot of practice not thinking about things.  The trick is to think about something else.  Did you find out what happened to that bloke?”

“I did,” Allenby said, and began talking about a weakness in the something-or-other artery, which had given way under the pressure created by the damage to something else. 

Thomas didn’t really try to follow it, just made occasional encouraging noises, and when Allenby finally wound down, he said, “See?  You weren’t thinking about him being a person then, were you?”

“No,” Allenby agreed.  “That’s a good trick. I’ll have to remember that one.”  He tilted his head back, exposing the long, pale line of his throat.  “What else shall we think about?”

It was a little obvious, but what the hell.  They’d had a rough night.  Thomas backed him up against the cabinet they kept the bedpans in, and kissed him. 

And he didn’t think about:  a little room above the Bird and Bell.  Kew Gardens.  A telegram boy standing at the kitchen door of Downton Abbey, framed in sunlight like a saint.  Letters that said I don’t know if you’ve heard, but….  A ship, going down.  A man, bleeding to death in front of his eyes.  The big push, and whether or not they’d need to find a place to put the dozen or two new men they were getting, or if that problem would just…take care of itself. 

He did think about:  the heat of a body under his.  The pressure of lips on his.  The scent of aftershave and hair oil.  A cock, pressing against his hip, and his own hardening in answer.  The taste of whiskey on his tongue.  Hands, stroking down his back.  A heartbeat, pounding in time with his own.

He also did not think about: the fact that they were in a public place.  The open door.  The approaching dawn. 

Not, at least, until a familiar voice said, “Son, how are you—oh fuck me.”

Thomas sprang away from Allenby as though he had caught fire—but of course, that wasn’t quick enough.  Not nearly quick enough.  His mind raced for an explanation, but there wasn’t one.  There was no way to explain this away. 

“I beg your fucking pardon, sir,” said the Wardmaster.  “I’d like to see Corporal Barrow, when you’re through with him.”

“Of course, Sergeant,” Captain Allenby said.  “We’ll just, um…that is, I….”

“Yeah,” the Wardmaster said, and withdrew, closing the door behind him. 

Thomas wiped his mouth with his hand, and buttoned his tunic back up.  They hadn’t gotten as far as opening anybody’s trousers, was about all you could say for this situation. 

Allenby looked at him, wide-eyed.  “How bad do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t know,” Thomas said.  Was this, as far as the Wardmaster was concerned, something you kept in the fucking family, or something you passed up the chain before the shit had time to stick?  “He likes me—or he did.  He might.  I don’t know.”  His legs fell out from underneath him, and he was sitting on the ground.  “Fuck.” 

Even if the Wardmaster didn’t report him, he sure as fuck wasn’t going to be his golden boy anymore. 

“I’m sorry,” Allenby said.  “I…damn it to hell.  I’m sorry.”  He looked as wretched as Thomas felt.

“I started it,” Thomas pointed out. 

“Not exactly.”

It didn’t really matter—not unless one or the other of them was going to claim the other had just suddenly started kissing him a fraction of a second before the Wardmaster opened the door.  And it was a little late for that.  “I’d better go,” Thomas said, making no move to get up.  “He’s going to….”  He didn’t even know what the Wardmaster was going to do, but it would not do any fucking good at all for him to get the idea that they were actually in here finishing up.

“Probably,” Allenby said, extended a hand to help Thomas to his feet.

He took it.  “Thanks.  I’ll, um—I’ll tell you what’s happening, if I can.”  If he wasn’t in the fucking guardhouse. 

The Wardmaster was, at least, not waiting for him out in B block.  He was probably in his office, Thomas thought distantly, and headed there, feeling like a ghost as he moved through the passageways.  He didn’t see many people—it was too early—but the ones he did, seemed like they were underwater.  Or like he was.  Like they, or he, were in a different world, parallel to the real one. 

The Wardmaster’s door was half-open.  Thomas took a deep breath, steeling himself, and knocked.

“Yes?”

His mouth was dry.  “It’s Barrow.”

“Come in.”

Thomas did.  The Wardmaster was at his desk, of course, his tunic buttoned up to the throat. 

“Shut the fucking door.”

Thomas shut the fucking door, then stood in front of the Wardmaster’s desk and braced up, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. 

“I won’t ask what the fuck you were thinking, because it’s pretty fucking obvious you weren’t.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.” 

“Do you have any fucking idea—”  He shook his head.  “I have put a lot of fucking work into you, and if the wrong fucking person had seen that, it would all be for fucking nothing.  Do you understand that?”

Startled, Thomas glanced at him.  Was he saying that the wrong person hadn’t seen that?

The Wardmaster sighed.  “Sit the fuck down, son.”

He was still “son”?  Shakily, keeping a wary eye on the Wardmaster, Thomas sat down.

His tone gentler, the Wardmaster went on, “You have got to be more careful than that.  You know that, don’t you?”

Thomas nodded.  “I do.  I just—”  He cut himself off.  There was no point making excuses for himself.  Even if the Wardmaster was—by some miracle—angry with him for a different reason than he’d thought.

“You didn’t even shut the god-damn door,” the Wardmaster reminded him. 

“It was very stupid of me,” Thomas agreed. 

“And even if you had, anybody could have walked in.  Another officer.  One of your lads.  You want them to see that?”

“No, Master Sergeant.”  He swallowed hard.  “I won’t do it again.” 

“You’d best not.”  The Wardmaster sighed again.  “And an officer?  You’ve got to be careful with that, son.  The wrong person sees you being a little too familiar, and you’re in the shit, whether he suspects there’s anything more to it or not.” 

Wait, was the Wardmaster saying—well, no, he wasn’t saying, because no one said.  But it would explain a hell of a lot.  Normal men never liked Thomas.  Especially not older ones.  He hadn’t noticed anything—but then, hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to that sort of thing. 

Not until just recently, anyway.  He remembered being sloppy drunk, on the way to the mess, and the Wardmaster’s hand on his neck.  Had that been a pass?  Even in light of this new information, it didn’t really seem like one—but that raised the question of why he hadn’t made one.  Thomas knew what he looked like. 

All of that flashed through his mind in an instant, before he turned his thought back to making some sort of coherent response to what the Wardmaster had said.  Cautiously, he essayed, “I have some practice with that kind of thing.”  He’d never forgotten, for instance, when Philip was “Philip” and when he was “your Grace.” 

“I reckon you do,” the Wardmaster said.  “But the stakes can be pretty fucking high, in the Army.  I once saw a bloke get 28 days F.P. one for calling a Rupert by his Christian name, when another Rupert was walking by.”

Thomas could not entirely repress a shudder.

“Yeah.  Figured that would put a scare into you.”  He lit two cigarettes and handed one to Thomas—erasing any lingering doubts on that score. 

It still didn’t feel like a pass, though—just a signal—and the Wardmaster continued, “The other thing about fucking Ruperts is that, no matter what you get up to, they’re still fucking Ruperts.  Especially if things go south, between you—but even if not, it’s always gonna be more important for you to keep them happy, than for them to keep you happy.”

Well, of course it was.  “I’m used to that, too.”

The Wardmaster gave him a pitying look.  “I’m not saying you can’t handle it, son.  I’m saying maybe you don’t want to.”

Oh.  He’d never quite thought of it that way before. 

“You stick to your own kind, it can be harder to find an opportunity, but you don’t risk ending up with some bugger thinking he owns you.”

That wasn’t a problem Thomas had ever had—the problem he had, was that none of them ever wanted to own him.  Not really. 

But then again, he wasn’t sure he’d have liked it if they had.  We don’t have the basis of a master-servant relationship, His Grace Philip had said, and perhaps he hadn’t just been talking about Thomas being his valet. 

“So that’s my piece on the subject,” the Wardmaster said.  “But it’s not my business what you do—unless you make it my business.” 

“I understand,” Thomas said.  He wasn’t forbidding him to see Captain Allenby—not that he actually could, except in the ways that he absolutely could—but he had damn well best not get caught again.

“Good.  Now.  What I was actually looking for you for, was to see how Collins was handling that poor bugger bleeding to death on his watch.”

Right.  Thomas put his mind back on the job.  “He was a bit shaken up, but he kept it together….”

They talked about that for a few minutes, and then the Wardmaster dismissed him back to his wards—they still had a couple of hours left before the day shift came on.   When he got back, Rawlins was at the desk in Thomas’s ward—good.  He hadn’t thought about getting someone to keep an eye on things while he was gone.

Among other things he hadn’t thought about.

“Everything all right?” he asked Rawlins.

He nodded.  “I left Plank on his own; told him to yell if he needed me.”  Thomas had put Plank and Rawlins together in the largest ward on his block, Men’s Sick.  “The Captain said you had to go and see the Wardmaster?”

“Yeah—he wanted to know how Collins was holding up.  Can you stay here another minute?  I have a question for the Captain, too.”

Rawlins said that he could, so Thomas went to the little cupboard where the MO on night call slept.  He found Allenby sitting on the edge of his bunk, his tie on straight and his jacket buttoned.  “Barrow,” he said, looking behind him.

“It’s all right,” Thomas said.  “Tore a strip out of me for being so careless about it, but that’s it.”

“Oh, thank God,” Allenby said, his shoulders slumping in relief. 

Thomas nodded.  “I’d better get back,” he said.  “But I figured you’d want to know.”

“I did.  Thanks.” 

And that, astonishingly, by the grace of God and the Wardmaster, was that.  For the next couple of nights, Captain Allenby kept his distance—Thomas felt a tinge of regret over that, but not enough to make a move—and then he was abruptly taken off nights and put on roster as the Wardmaster’s clerk.

He vaguely remembered the Wardmaster saying something about that, before they’d gone to the CCS, but he was looking sideways at the timing.  On the first day, the Wardmaster answered that question, too, saying, “In case you were fucking wondering, this was in the works already—but I can’t say I mind having you where I can keep an eye on you.”

That did almost sound like a pass, or at least the prelude to one, but nothing came of it.  Thomas wasn’t sure whether he wanted it to, or not.  He didn’t usually go for older men—nor for anyone quite as ostentatiously uncouth as the Wardmaster was—but the idea wasn’t without a certain appeal.  He had big hands; Thomas liked that.  He wasn’t entirely sure whether to imagine them holding him down, or stroking his hair.  Either way, the Wardmaster would say Fuck, son, either more roughly or more tenderly than he’d ever say it in real life. 

And either way, Thomas wouldn’t have to make any fucking decisions about it, about where or when or whether it was safe, because the Wardmaster would take care of all that. 

But he only allowed himself to think about it at night in the barn—where he was alone, because everybody else was still on night duty—and even then, not very often.  During the day, the Wardmaster was the same as he’d always been, sharp as a whip and crude as a bag of bricks, and fond of Thomas in a hands-off sort of way.  Thomas could barely keep up with how much he was learning, about how the dressing station ran, how the Army ran, how to work with officers—or work around them—and how to tell which one was called for.

The Wardmaster knew almost everything that went on at the station both because he had a network of informants—which Thomas had long suspected he must—and because he took in everything and forgot nothing.  It wasn’t unusual for a walk across the station grounds to result in a list of half a dozen things that required looking into in one way or another, all completely unrelated both to one another and to the purpose of the trip.  One day, inside of a single minute, he noticed one of the motor ambulances making a funny noise, windows on Block A Men’s Surgical not open when they should have been, and an unusual accumulation of French peasants in the kitchen yard. 

On the other hand, while the Wardmaster seemed to have in his head a constantly-updating encyclopedia of the station’s personnel, patients, equipment, and resources, he couldn’t keep track of pieces of paper to save his life.  His desk had always looked fairly neat, when Thomas saw it, but that turned out to be because he was in the habit of sweeping piles of clutter into a drawer, for his clerk to sort out later.  He wasn’t the sloppy pack-rat that Diggs had been—if something was on his desk, or in his drawer, you could be sure it was important, but sometimes it was a job to figure out how.  One of Thomas’s main duties, as his clerk, was to tag along when he met with officers, and hand him various forms and files when he started talking about them.  

He also had very little patience for writing—though he could manage a neat hand when he bothered—and handled most of his correspondence by pacing up and down his office, telling Thomas what to write down.  Another of Thomas’s duties at meetings was to take notes—not because the Wardmaster ever referred to them, or even asked Thomas to do so, but because, as the Wardmaster said, “The fucking Ruperts expect you to.” 

So Thomas spent a lot of time sitting across from Major Thwait’s adjutant—while the Wardmaster sat across from Major Thwait—both of them taking notes and supplying their superiors with files.  Occasionally—when something reminded him of Rouse, usually—he wondered how much more Lieutenant What’s-His-Name was getting paid than he was, for them to do the same job.  

That probably wasn’t thinking big enough for Rouse, though.  He’d want to know why the Wardmaster wasn’t a general.  Or Prime Minister. 

It was in that way that Thomas was there when the decision about new corporals—they were getting two new sections—was made.  Despite what the Wardmaster had said on the subject, he was not, strictly speaking, picking the new corporals.  What he was doing was making recommendations to the Chief Medical Officer.  Thomas was given to understand that the Wardmaster had a freer hand, when it came to the enlisted men, than was strictly usual, but, as he said, “You’ve got to give them their own fucking way sometimes.” 

He also said, as they walked across the grounds to the meeting, “You’re gonna want to watch this.”

He was right.  The Wardmaster started with Manning—whom the brass also liked, though not as much as they liked Applegate—from a position of cautious agreement, citing Manning’s drive and ambition, and the speed with which he’d picked up on the paperwork and other extra duties of a night-shift corporal, but also mentioning a few reservations, most importantly the allegation—which Thomas thought was probably true—that he had played favorites when it came to the men under him, assigning lighter work to the two from his own section than the outsiders, and allowing them longer and more frequent breaks. 

He then permitted Major Thwait to convince him that those missteps were typical of a young and inexperienced NCO given command over a group which included his friends, and that they could be remedied with instruction and supervision.  Thomas filled in Manning’s name on the first set of promotion paperwork, and Thwait signed it.

Then they started talking about poor Applegate.  It was fairly hard to watch, as the Wardmaster dragged up every mistake he’d made, including his struggles with paperwork—about which the Wardmaster wasn’t in much of a position to cast stones—and pointed out the potential ramifications of such errors.  He lingered darkly on the  time Applegate forgot to record pulses and temperatures, sliding over the important detail that Applegate had, in fact, taken them, and presumably would have noticed if there had been anything alarming in them—which Thomas knew the Wardmaster did understand, because they had talked about it. 

Thomas would have hated him a little, for it, but once he was done tearing Applegate down, the Wardmaster went on to talk about the good reports he’d gotten from the NCOs Applegate had worked under, on various wards—that he was a hard worker and a cheerful sort to have around, gentle with the patients, and hated to let anyone down.  “We’d not be doing him a kindness, sir, to promote him past what he’s good at.  And he’s just a lad—we could take another look at him later on, depending.”

“Well,” said Major Thwait, “if you feel that strongly about it.  I take it you have someone else to suggest?”

After that, Collins’s promotion sailed through with little difficulty.  They went back to the office, where the Wardmaster poured some drinks—it was afternoon—and said, “So, son, what’d you notice?”

Thomas took his glass and thought carefully.  “I didn’t realize you knew about all of those things Applegate got wrong.”

“I had Wilkes and Robertson reporting to me,” he explained.  Those were the two men from outside the section that Applegate had in his block.  “They didn’t much want to do it—they like the lad—but they didn’t think he’d be too fucking happy being promoted, anyway.  What else?”

“When you talked about Applegate doing fairly well as an orderly…that seemed important, but I’m not sure why.  Was it just so it would feel less….”

“Less like I was stabbing one of me own lads in the back?  Not quite—I didn’t like that much, either, though.  Or letting him make that many mistakes—I can think of about a half a dozen ways, off the top of my head, we could’ve propped him up a bit, if that had been the fucking point.”  He lit a cigarette.  “But the reason I had to say it to Himself, instead of dealing with my conscience on my own fucking time, is so that if Applegate comes to the Major’s attention again, he isn’t thinking of him as just a fuckup.  That can make a difference, if he gets in some kind of trouble, or anything.”

“I see.”  That was an area where Thomas could stand to learn from the Wardmaster’s example—he wasn’t bad at thinking through the angles once a problem had cropped up, but he had a hard time seeing them coming. 

“What about Manning—did you see what I did with him?”

Thomas had seen something, but it was almost too obvious to point out.  “Well, you brought him up first so you could let the Major win one.”  He wondered if there was something else he’d missed.

“Yeah,” said the Wardmaster, and waited.  “I’ll give you a hint—I wanted him to miss it, too.”

Thomas lit a cigarette, chewing it over.  Was there something about Manning—some disqualification—that the Wardmaster had omitted to mention?  He couldn’t think of anything.  Was there something about Collins he hadn’t mentioned?  But the Wardmaster had asked if Thomas saw what he did with Manning, and they’d never compared Manning and Collins—

Oh.  “You had him sign Manning’s before you started talking about the other two, because you didn’t want him choosing between Manning and Collins.”

“Good lad,” the Wardmaster said, topping up both their drinks.  “There wasn’t too much of a chance the Major’d pick Applegate over Collins, once he had the facts in front of him, but if he’d been looking at three men for two slots, he just might have taken it into his head that it was fair enough if he picked one, over my objections, and let me pick the other.  And that would put me in a tight fucking spot, because Collins is a damn sight better than Manning—really, nice fucking catch on that one—but Manning might hit the ceiling if Applegate got the nod and he didn’t, and it would be hard to fucking blame him.”

It would be.  “He had some questions when it was me and not him,” Thomas admitted. 

“It wouldn’t’ve been him, then, even if you’d never been born.  He’s going to need fucking watching, as he settles in.”  The Wardmaster took a drink and added, “Not by you, either.  I mean, help ‘em if they ask, like on wards, and let me or Jessop know if they’re in trouble, but I’ll tap a sergeant to keep an eye on each of them.” 

Thomas nodded, feeling obscurely jealous.  He hadn’t had a sergeant keeping an eye on him.  Sergeant Winchester didn’t count. 

“You have me and Jessop,” the Wardmaster added.

Oh, that was right—he did, didn’t he? 

 “Jessop’s been a lance-sergeant at least a dozen times; he just doesn’t like it.” 

“I wondered about that,” Thomas said.  It did seem a little strange that they had the same rank, when Jessop had probably gone into the Army before Thomas was born—or at least not long after.

“Luckily, we aren’t hemorrhaging NCOs the way the fighting units are—there hasn’t been much pressure to put him up further than he wants to go.”

#

6 April, 1916

Dear Anna,

Thank you for the parcel.  I’m sorry I haven’t written since we got back to the 47th—I have been very busy, working as the Wardmaster’s clerk.  I am not sure when the man sleeps!  I am finished with that now, but I won’t have much of a respite, because we have some new men coming and my section will be training them.  My old section, I should say—as of tomorrow, when the new men turn up, we will be broken up into three, each with four of us and eight of the new blokes. 

We are all staying in our old billet, however—as I wrote to Mrs. Hughes, it has been fixed up, and very well, too.  The new fellows will be sleeping in a tent on the station grounds, which is certainly more convenient, but we have gotten used to being out where no one bothers us while we’re off duty!  You can see a bit of our barn in the enclosed photograph—Rawlins, one of my billet-mates, got a vest-pocket camera for his birthday, and has been bothering us with it all week. 

You will also see the newest addition to our section.  His name is either Pumpkin, Tiger or Mittens, depending on who you ask.  Theoretically, he is supposed to help us with our mouse problem, which has not abated, but at present he is too busy stuffing himself on sardines and chicken, as well as posing for photographs, to do very much about it.  (He is Rawlins’s favorite subject; I expect it is a complete accident that I am in the photograph at all.) 

I wouldn’t be surprised if William got his call-up soon.  He really shouldn’t be in any hurry, in my opinion.  I don’t know exactly what the Army has planned—and I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it if I did—but it’s not exactly a secret that there’s something in the works.  Early summer is my best guess, so if he’s lucky, he might still be in training when it goes off. 

As far as parcels go, we could use some more tea.  Some of the fellows are having their people send tins of sardines for What’s-his-name, but I don’t think he needs them.  He is already heavy enough when he lands on your kidneys while you’re trying to sleep.

Thomas

Looking at the photograph, Anna had to cover her mouth with her hand to stifle a giggle.  It showed Thomas, sitting outside in a battered armchair, with one ankle propped on the opposite knee, reading a newspaper.  Perched on his shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot, was a fluffy tabby kitten—an orange tabby, presumably, given the name.  It was peering at the newspaper and extending one white-tipped paw as though pointing out something on the page. 

“What is it?” Mr. Bates asked.  They were at the servants’ hall table, before tea. 

She handed him the photograph.  “They got a kitten, for their billet,” she explained.  “Thomas is pretending he doesn’t like it.” 

“Of course he is,” Mr. Bates said. 

“He looks well, though—don’t you think?” Anna asked.  She had been worrying about him, as they’d barely heard from him since Christmas. 

“He does,” Mr. Bates agreed.  “And he really is a corporal,” he added. “You can see his stripes in the photograph.”

“Did you think he was lying about it?” Anna asked.

“I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Anna decided not to argue the point.  “I shall have to show it to Mrs. Hughes.”  She, being privy to the description of Thomas as a small, angry kitten, would certainly see the humor in it. 

Her smile faded, as she remembered where that description had come from. 

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Bates asked.

She shook her head.  “I just realized, that if Mr. Fitzroy were alive, Thomas would have sent this to him.  He’d have liked it, I think.”

Chapter Text

The new blokes, when they arrived, looked very, very young—even the handful who were, by the ordinary calendar, older than Thomas or his fellow corporals.  It was the way they looked, wide-eyed, at the ambulance being off-loaded nearby, and flinched at the sound of the guns in the distance.

“Those are our guns, by the way,” Collins told them.  “We’re far enough back not to have to worry about Fritz’s.”

“Unless something goes drastically wrong up at the Front,” Thomas said.  Several of the new men looked even more alarmed at that, so he added, “It’s not likely.  You lot are in that tent over there.”  He pointed to it.  “Stow your kit, and meet back here in fifteen for the Cook’s tour.”

The new men reported back in good time, and the corporals started calling the rosters of their new sections.  Thomas was a bit surprised to find that he had two middle-aged blokes and a lad with thick spectacles, as well as one who must’ve gone up on his toes to meet the minimum height requirement. 

He quizzed them as he took them around the station, finding out that they’d come from a training camp outside London, and had done a bit of hospital work as part of their training.  Most had worked in factories or shops before joining up; the speccy one had swept up in a cinema, and one of the middle-aged ones had been a barman.  They were knowledgeable enough about hospital equipment and routines—in theory, at least—although several of them gulped and looked ill when Thomas took them through surgical prep and the dressings room, where the afternoon’s delivery of new wounded were being seen to. 

“This is where we’ll be tomorrow,” Thomas said, taking them into A block and indicating the two wards they were assigned to.  “Men’s Medical, Officers’ Medical.”  He took them into Men’s Medical.  “Here we get mostly minor wounds—more serious wounds are usually in Surgical—so it’s not one of the more difficult ones to start out on.  The lightest cases may convalesce here and then go directly back to their units; most of the others are just here for a day or two until they get moved further back.  Sometimes they stay on a bit longer while the medical officers evaluate the case and decide where’s best to send them.” 

The speccy one raised his hand. 

“Yes,” Thomas quickly thought back to the roster.  “Drover?”

“What’s happening down there?”  He indicated a bed at the end of the row that was partitioned off with screens.  “Is the patient contagious, or….”

Thomas beckoned them back into the passageway, making sure that the door to the ward was shut behind them.  “Contagious cases are in the quarantine block.  Screens around a bed usually means a death-watch.”  He’d not have brought it up if no one had asked, but there was no point in white-washing it.  “You see those more often in Surgical, but it could be a minor wound that developed a serious infection, or sometimes they put them in the Medical wards just because that’s where there’s space for them.” 

“Oh,” said Drover, quietly.

“You won’t be handling any of those your first couple of weeks.  If other patients on the ward ask, just say that the bloke is very poorly and needs quiet.”  Striving for a hearty tone, Thomas went on, “Now, down here are the sink-room and the scullery, where you’ll be spending a lot of your time….”

Once the new men had seen all the points of interest, Thomas took them to the mess, where the rest of the section was already gathered.  “Rawlins, Widener, Plank,” he said, indicating them.  “These are the new blokes.  When we go on wards tomorrow, some of you will be in one ward with Rawlins and Widener, and the rest will be in the other with me and Plank.  You all have the same rank, but for now, you should do what they tell you.”

“Hear, hear,” said Rawlins.  “We four have been here a year—or close to it—so we know our way around pretty well.”  Then he got them talking about why they had joined the RAMC.  Thomas was unsurprised to hear that several of them—the two old men, speccy Drover, the shortarse, and another bloke who apparently had a bad chest—had been rejected from other services on grounds of physical fitness. 

“Got tired of being handed white feathers, didn’t I?” said Ericson, the chesty one.

“My older brother signed up on the fifth of August,” another said.  “After he was killed, our mum said she couldn’t stand it if I was too—she only had the two of us.  I promised her I wouldn’t join up, but once they started talking about conscription….”  He looked defiant.  “I’m not a coward, but I couldn’t do that to me own mum.  I got our vicar to recommend me for this.”

No one said anything for a long moment.  “Clever of you,” Thomas finally said.  “There’s nothing now that’s completely safe, but this is better than some.  We’ve only lost one, out of our old section.”

“Some sections haven’t lost any, in the last year,” Rawlins added quickly.

That was true, but there was also one that had lost six, to a shell-strike on stretcher duty—though two of those had lived at least long enough to be sent back to base hospitals; they might still be alive. 

“The only dangerous part is when you go forward to collect wounded,” Thomas explained.  “And even then, a lot of the time, you’re only going as far up as the support trenches—more often than not, their own mates bring them back that far.  It’s not too bad.” 

“Will we have to do that?” someone asked.

“Everybody takes a turn at it,” Thomas answered.  There was no point hiding that, either—with any luck, they’d be learning enough new things today that they’d have no opportunity to dwell on it.  “It’ll be at least a couple of weeks before you pull that duty, though, and the Wardmaster tries to pick a quiet night for you when you’re first learning.”  He went on to explain some more innocuous facts about the duty roster—how you usually rotated two or three weeks on wards with two or three weeks off, that off-wards work was usually lighter, the on-call system for receiving convoys, and things like that. 

After tea, they met up with Collins and Manning’s sections for drill—one of the things Thomas had noticed about drill, in their time at CCS 14, was that it seemed especially ridiculous if there were only a dozen of you doing it.  They were drilling by squads, with the men from the old section leading, when the Wardmaster turned up. 

“Stretcher drill,” he said, lighting a cigarette.  “Not a bad idea, I suppose.”

“Collins suggested it,” Thomas explained.   He hadn’t been sure about it himself—having just come from training, the new men would surely remember how to do it—but Collins had brought him round on the idea.  “Give them a chance to impress us a bit, before they go on wards tomorrow and find out how much they don’t know.”  It would also give Collins and Manning some practice issuing orders, and allow everyone a chance to size up their new section-mates, before they started actually working.  “And we didn’t want to leave them too much to their own devices the first day.”

The Wardmaster nodded.  “It can be a fucking shock, this place.” 

“I’m getting a decent idea of their strength, too,” Thomas added.  “I wasn’t sure about that heavyset bloke.”  He nodded toward the barman, who was a fleshy and red-faced specimen.  “But he’s strong as an ox, and holding up all right.  So’s the really short one—but the other two in that squad, I’m not sure how they’ll manage a stretcher in the trenches.”  They were within specifications, but decidedly undersized.  “They’re getting worn out with four to a stretcher.”

“Hm,” said the Wardmaster.  “East End lads?”

Thomas nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Sometimes the runty buggers pick up a bit once they’ve been getting enough to eat for a while.  Keep an eye on them.”

Thomas had seen that happen with hall-boys, but they were young enough they were still growing.  “All right.” 

“If they can’t manage, we’ll have to work around it.  We’ll be doing a lot of that before we’re through—the fucking War Office doesn’t think the RAMC needs A-Ones anymore.”  A-One was the highest rating for physical fitness.  “Any others you’re worried about?”

Thomas pointed out the asthmatic and the other older bloke, who seemed to be stiffening up a bit with the work. 

“Let’s hope they’re fucking clever,” the Wardmaster said.  “It’s not too hard to find a place for a man who’s fit and dull, or weak and clever, but weak and dull’s a tough one.  Anything else you’ve got planned for them?”

“Just getting them poked, for Captain Linwood’s blood grouping scheme,” Thomas said. 

The Wardmaster shuddered.  “Now that gives me the fucking collywobbles.  I like my blood where it is, not going round some other bugger’s veins.”  With that, he stomped off to check in with Manning and Collins.

Collywobbles or not, the new Chief of Surgery wanted everyone tested, so after drill they reported to the surgical hut, where a bored-looking sergeant said, “Tunics off, right shirt sleeves rolled up.  Quickly now.”

As they complied, someone said, “What’s this about, then?”

Another added, “We had our jabs before we crossed the Channel.”

“Blood grouping,” Thomas explained.  “For transfusions.  It’s new.”  Captain Allenby had told him about it once, when he’d still been on night duty.  Allenby was fairly keen on the project, and had wanted to help out with it, but Captain Linwood had rebuffed his offer. 

“What’s that?” asked Drover.

“If somebody loses too much blood, they can top him up with a bit from somebody else,” Thomas explained.  “The trouble is, there’s different sorts—the blood groups—and if you get the wrong one, it kills you.”  Captain Allenby had attempted to explain what was different about the different groups, but Thomas hadn’t been able to follow it.  “They’ve known how to do transfusions, and how to test for blood groups, for a while, but there isn’t time to do the testing when somebody’s bleeding to death.”

Drover said, “So they’re checking what kind we have, in case we….”

“Not quite.  They’ve just worked out that there’s one kind you can give to pretty much anybody.  So Captain Linwood is making a list of who has that kind, and if a patient needs blood, he knows who to get it from.  Plank’s done it,” he added.

“It’s not hard,” Plank said.  “They stick a needle in your arm, with a tube that goes to the other bloke’s arm, and then you just sit there for about half an hour.  Once you’re done, you get a cup of Bovril and a biscuit.” 

The sergeant, gesturing the first of the men—it was Ericson, the asthmatic—into the chair to be jabbed, added, “The Captain reckons it’s saved a few lives already.”  He swabbed Ericson’s arm with alcohol.  “The real bugger, on a busy night, is gonna sparing the men to give blood.”  He inserted the needled and drew out a tiny sample of blood.  “You’ve got to rest for a bit after, so all told, it ties up a man for about an hour—and they can only take about a pint per man, so you might need to bleed half a dozen men for one case.”  He gave Ericson a bit of bandage to hold over where he’d been jabbed, and said, “Next.”

Drover got into the chair, and Thomas added, “Captain Allenby said that what they’d like is to be able to collect the blood ahead of time—before a big battle, say—but they haven’t worked out how to stop it going bad.” 

“Cor,” said the barman, shaking his head.  “The things they come up with.”

#

“The new men seem like a good lot,” Rawlins said as he and Barrow walked back to the barn that night.

Barrow nodded.  “I suppose.  We’ll see tomorrow.”

Rawlins hesitated.  “You might’ve put the wind up them a bit, talking about Lamble, and going up to the Front.”  He wouldn’t have said it, but Barrow had asked him to help with things like that.  He’d said that he’d asked the Wardmaster specially, to keep Rawlins in his section for that reason.

Rawlins was fairly sure that Barrow had just said that to make him feel better about not being promoted to corporal—not that he wanted to be.  Barrow wasn’t the type to make up a white lie like that. 

Barrow glanced at him.  “You think?”

“Maybe.  Some of them asked about it, at dinner.”  He’d told them that Barrow hadn’t meant anything by it; it was just that he wasn’t afraid of anything. 

“Hm.  I thought it might be better if they started getting used to the idea while it was still a ways off.” 

It took Rawlins a moment to realize he meant the idea of going up to the Front, not the idea of one of them being killed.  “Maybe so,” he agreed. 

“With the push coming, they’ve got to be ready,” Barrow added. 

“Have you heard anything new?”  They all heard things, of course—but Barrow was likelier than anyone to hear things that were actually true.

“He thinks it’ll be June,” Barrow said. 

“He” was the Wardmaster, of course.  “Oh.”  Rawlins had imagined Barrow hearing something about whether the offensive was likely to take place here—not when it was.  “That gives us some time to get ready.”

Barrow nodded.  “Some.” 

They reached the barn.  Barrow went straight for his rocking chair—he’d bought it off one of the many French families who’d decided that, with a push coming, they’d rather take their chances somewhere else—and as soon as he’d sat down, Mittens began bouncing from rafter to rafter, then divebombed into Barrow’s lap, trilling. 

“What do you want?” Barrow asked him, as the kitten climbed up his tunic onto his favorite perch on Barrow’s shoulder. 

It was typical of Barrow, Rawlins thought, that even the cat adored him.  When Mittens had first come to live in the barn, the rest of them had attempted to curry favor by offering sardines and dangling bootlaces for him to bat at, but the cat had only been interested in Barrow, who ignored him.  Mittens had now warmed up to the rest of them, but Barrow was still his favorite. 

Barrow gave the cat a scratch under the chin, then lit a cigarette.  “Has anybody fed this lazy animal?” he asked the room in general.

“I brought him some chicken,” Collins said, “but he hasn’t eaten it yet.”

“You hear that?” Barrow asked Mittens.   “He’s the one with the chicken.” 

Mittens meowed and rubbed his head against Barrow’s jaw.

#

The new men settled in well enough.  During their first weeks on wards, they did the same sorts of things Thomas and his group had done back when they had been new—making beds, cleaning bedpans, serving meals, washing dishes.  Thomas made a point of looking for opportunities to show them some of the more complicated duties—having one or another of them hand him things while he was doing dressing changes, for instances—and encouraged Widener and Rawlins, in the other ward, to do the same. 

Ward duties were routine enough for him now that he could keep an eye on the new men at the same time as he was doing his own work, getting an idea of their individual capacities.  He learned, for example, that Hutchins, the barman, had a knack for distracting the patients during dressing changes or other unpleasantness, with questions about their lives and stories from his own pub-keeping days—but, if not reminded, would chat with the patients at the expense of other work.  The little Cockney lads would take on anything that was asked of them without complaint, and needed a bit of watching to make sure they didn’t over-exert themselves unnecessarily.  Babcock, the older gent with the bad back, was precise and methodical in his work, which was all right as long as it wasn’t something that needed to be done quickly.  Drover, with the spectacles, was a quick learner, but had a decided tendency toward squeamishness.

These observations paid off when they were rotated off-wards, and Thomas was handed a list of jobs, with instructions to sort his men into them.  Babcock, for instance, was the obvious choice to help Pharmacy Stores with inventory, and Hutchins would do well in the orderlies’ room—a duty Thomas had hated, when it was his turn—since he wouldn’t mind hearing or telling the same stories over and over again.  Ericson and Drover went on clerical duties, and the Cockney lads—who weren’t much good at reading and writing—to the cookhouse, where the work was tedious but not too strenuous, and the cook could be relied upon to give them extra food between meals.

Halfway through the week, they had their first turn on a carrying-party, taking supplies to the collecting post and bringing a few patients back, and a few days later, they went again, this time the whole way up to the Aid Post.  Thomas was a little surprised by how much busier the trenches were.  There were new guns being hauled into place, and a new line of support trenches dug, between the old second and third lines.  The Germans had noticed the activity, too, and were shelling a bit more than usual—not as much as they had on the worst nights Thomas had seen, like the one when Lamble had been killed, but more than would have been considered a quiet night, last summer.  

The new blokes bore up fairly well. Babcock was more phlegmatic than Thomas would have guessed, grumbling about the weight of his stretcher but not taking much notice of shell strikes, and Hutchins was flightier, frequently exclaiming things like, “That was a close ‘un!”, even when it wasn’t.  The Cockney lads—Wallace and Eakins—struggled with the weight they were expected to carry, but stayed cheerful and alert, and were good at keeping their heads down.  Drover came the closest of anyone to having real trouble, but after two or three unnecessary dives for cover, limited himself to flinching and swearing. 

Still, as Rawlins reported to Thomas, everyone was fairly relieved to go back on wards, since that meant they weren’t likely to be sent on any more carrying-parties for a bit. 

One morning, arriving on Men’s Surgical, Thomas found a familiar face—a young corporal called Booth, who he’d had on one of his work details, back at the CCS.  Thomas had also, he remembered as he looked over the bloke’s chart, getting ready to do his dressing change, been witness to one of his “little chats” with Major Winthrop.  Booth had lost his voice after a disastrous patrol, of which he had been the only survivor.  The Lieutenant leading the patrol had been killed, along with two men, early on.  Command then fell to Booth, the only NCO present, and he’d decided to proceed with their objective—Thomas forgot what it had been.  Wire-cutting, probably.  A machine-gunner had spotted them, and the rest of the patrol had been slaughtered, Booth hiding under their dead bodies until just before dawn, when he’d crawled back to the British line.

Winthrop had pointed out that it had been Booth’s orders—his voice—that had led to the deaths of the rest of the men, and that, fearing being in a position to give such an order again, his subconscious mind had settled on hysterical mutism as a solution: if he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t order more men to their deaths. 

Having this explained to him had brought back Booth’s voice—but it hadn’t done anything about the reason he’d stopped speaking in the first place.  And now, according to the chart, he’d been brought in with a rifle wound to his foot. 

Accidental, the chart said.  Well, Thomas certainly wouldn’t be the one to question it.  He cut away the old dressing, depositing it in a bowl that Hutchins was holding for him, and examined the wound. “Bet that hurts,” he said.  It was through the main part of the foot—not just a couple of toes, like some of them tried.  He’d been willing to pay his pound of flesh. 

“It didn’t hurt much at first,” Booth said.  “It’s worse now.”

It was worse because it was going septic—the whole foot was swollen, with red streaks going up the ankle.  “This is going to hurt even more, I’m afraid,” he said, gesturing for Hutchins to hold the bowl under it before sloshing in a liberal amount of antiseptic. 

Booth let out a guttural, wordless cry, followed by a curse. 

“Sorry about that,” Thomas said.  “Had to be done.”  He couldn’t guess whether the surgeon would try to debride the wound—cut away the rotting flesh—or go straight to amputation, but even if it was the latter, slowing the spread of the infection would keep Booth from losing more of the leg than he had to. 

“I’m all right,” said Booth, breathing shakily. 

As Thomas went on cleaning the wound, Hutchins told Booth a story about a dog that came in to his pub with its master every day at six o’clock and drank its own half-pint of lager out of a saucer.  Thomas had heard it at least half a dozen times before, and paid little attention, except to notice that it was doing its job in keeping Booth’s mind off his foot. 

Once he’d sopped up as much of the pus as he could, he packed the wound with lint and wrapped it loosely with a bit of gauze, explaining, “MO’s going to want a look at that when he comes round.  We’ll wrap it up proper afterward.” 

He left Hutchins talking with the lad and went on to the next patient.  It was only about an hour later that Captain Linwood came in for his rounds.  If he’d had a choice, Thomas would have rather had one of the others—he didn’t know anything to Captain Linwood’s discredit , exactly, but his snubbing Captain Allenby was enough to make Thomas a bit suspicious of him. 

His suspicions proved justified when Linwood, after studying the chart and ordering Thomas to unwrap the foot, demanded, “How did this happen, Corporal?”

Fuck.  “Bad luck, sir,” said Booth.  “I was out on a patrol, and had to take cover in a shell-hole.  As I was jumping in, my rifle got caught up in my webbing, somehow.  It went off as I was trying to free it.” 

It wasn’t a bad story—unlikely, of course, but any explanation other than the obvious was going to be unlikely.  If there really had been a patrol, and a shell-hole, it would be hard to say it hadn’t happened that way. 

“Hm,” said Linwood.  He looked Booth in the eye for a moment, then, mercifully, let it drop.  “Quite a bit of infection here—I expect your boot was none too clean.”  To Thomas, he added, “We’ll take him into theater this afternoon.  Clean it and wrap it back up.”  He wrote something on Booth’s chart moved on.

As Thomas was cleaning the wound—again—Booth asked, “Theater—does that mean he’s going to …operate?”

Thomas glanced at him.  “Hutch, hold the chart so I can see it, would you?”  Hutch did so, but the chart just indicated Booth’s place on the surgical schedule and that he was to receive nothing by mouth until then.  “He didn’t say.  Sometimes they take you into theater just to clean it more thoroughly.” 

“Do you think that’s what he’s going to do?”

Thomas glanced up the ward at Linwood, then back at Booth’s foot.  The red streaks extended a bit further up his ankle now.  “It’s hard to say.  Likely he’ll have to see how it looks when he starts working on it.” 

Later, when Thomas got Booth ready to go into theater, the red streaks extended up to his calf.  He wasn’t too surprised when Booth came back with a stump just below the knee. 

“That’s a real shame,” Hutchins said, as they settled him back into bed, still under the anesthetic.  “Young chap like that.”

Thomas nodded.  “Keep an eye out, when he comes round.  See how he’s taking it.”

“Will do.”  Hutchins hesitated.  “Anything in particular I should say?  If he takes it badly, I mean.”

“He’s going home,” Thomas said.  “Try to get him to focus on that.”

For most of the rest of the afternoon, Thomas was occupied with trying to get some gruel down the neck of a man who’d lost most of his lower jaw, but he did notice Hutchins talking to Booth, for a fairly long time. 

The next morning, as they were heading to the ward after breakfast, Hutchins fell into step beside him.  “Corp,” he said.  “Can I talk to you about something?”

Feeling uneasy, Thomas nodded.  “Sure.  Let’s, uh, over here.”  They went around to the side of the block, and Thomas lit a cigarette.  “What’s on your mind?”

“That lad Booth.”

Thomas had been afraid of that.  “What about him?”

“You said, if there was anything unusual, we should tell you about it,” Hutchins said.  “And you’d decide if the Medical Officer ought to know.”

“Right.”  He’d been speaking mainly of symptoms—orderlies spent more time with the patients than the MOs did, and might be quicker to notice any change, even if they weren’t sure what it meant—but he had a feeling it was a different kind of thing Hutchins was talking about now.

“And they said, in training, that if we had any reason think a man was…malingering, or anything like that, we’re to come forward.”

Thomas nodded.  They did say that.  Maybe, he hoped, Hutchins had just noticed there was something a little strange about Booth’s story.  Maybe that was all it was.

“When I was talking to him yesterday, after he came round from his operation…I think he was saying that he shot himself.  On purpose.”

Fuck.  “What did he say, exactly?”

“He was distraught, at first, about his leg,” Hutchins explained.  “But then he asked about his patrol—if the rest of them had made it back all right.  So I told him we don’t have any more of them here, if that’s what he was asking.  And then he said that was all right, then.  As long as they made it back, it was worth it.”  He took a deep breath.  “And then he said, ‘I’d do it again, if I had to.’”

That was certainly suggestive, but not actually a confession.  “Sometimes they’re confused, when they first come round after an operation,” Thomas said.  “He might not have known what it sounded like.”

“Yes, Corp,” said Hutchins.  “But….”

“But?”

“I asked ‘im what he meant.   I said it sounded like he was saying he shot himself on purpose.”

Fuck.  “What did he say?”

“He didn’t deny it.  He just said he meant it, about doing it again.” 

Thomas took a deep drag from his cigarette, and then another one.  “If you’re in that situation again,” he said carefully, “it would be better not to ask that question.”

“Yes, Corp.  I—right then, I was a bit angry,” he admitted.  “That he was taking up our time, the medical officers’ time, looking after him, when he did it to himself.  I wanted to turn him in, if he had done it.”

It didn’t seem like he wanted to now.  “But something’s changed?”

“He started saying how he had to do it, had to, and I got to thinking about what it’s like up there.   I mean, I ain’t looking forward to the next time we have to go.  And what would it be like to be stuck there, day in and day out?  Wondering every minute if it’s going to be your last?  Anybody could have a minute when he wasn’t thinking straight—couldn’t he?”

Thomas nodded.

“I wish I hadn’t asked.  I don’t want to get that poor lad in trouble.  But I did, and now that I know….”

“You don’t,” Thomas said.  “Know.  You suspect.  I did, too, just seeing the wound, and I’d bet Captain Linwood did as well.  You have another reason to suspect, that’s all.”

“So I don’t have to do anything?” Hutchins asked hopefully.

Could they sit on this?  Maybe, if the Captain wasn’t inclined to pursue it.  And if Booth wasn’t incline to confess any further than he already had. 

But if either of those things wasn’t the case, it could come out that both of them had known more than they told.  The serious shit, the Wardmaster had said, you pass up the chain before it sticks to you. 

“Don’t bring it up,” Thomas said.  “If the Captain asks—if he comes right out and asks whether Booth said anything more about how he came to be hurt—then you’ve got to tell him what you heard.  But if he wants to leave it lie, follow his lead.”

Hutchins nodded, looking a little uncertain.

Thomas added, “If it comes down to it, you did your duty telling me.  You heard something that didn’t sound quite right, you told your Corporal, I said that it sounded to me like Booth was just confused from the anesthetic, but you did the right thing telling me, and that I’d take it from here.  All right?”

“Yes, Corp.”  He hesitated.  “What if he says something else?”

“Don’t bring it up with him, either.  If he volunteers anything, you should tell me.”  He’d rather Hutchins didn’t, to be honest—but that was what he should do.  “If we’re lucky, he’ll go out on the morning convoy, and as long as no one asks any questions, it’ll all be out of sight, out of mind.”  Even if Thomas did eventually make a report—and he should, really—it might very well end up lost in the shuffle.

They were not lucky.  Thomas carefully did not pay any particular attention to Booth during the morning chores, but when he started on dressing changes, and worked his way around to Booth, he saw on the chart that Captain Linwood had ordered him kept for further observation.

That could mean that he was worried he hadn’t gotten all of the infection with the first operation, and would have to amputate again—but he’d taken the leg not far below the knee, and the wound looked pretty clean to Thomas.   “How does this feel?” he asked, swabbing the wound with disinfectant.

“Hurts less than it did,” Booth answered. 

“Good.”

“He told you, didn’t he?” Booth asked suddenly.  “The bloke from yesterday.” 

Thomas glanced at him.  “You should be careful what you say.  A bloke could misunderstand.”

Booth didn’t take the hint.  “I had to do it,” he said.  “You understand, don’t you?  It was just like the last time.  The sh-shell, just as we were s-s-s-setting out.” 

He’d had the stammer for a bit, back at the CCS, when he’d first gotten his voice back.  Thomas earnestly wished that he’d go mute again, before he could say anything even more incriminating. 

Instead, he went on, “It would have ended the same way, if I hadn’t done something.  I had to give them a r-r-r-reason to turn back.  Before they were all k-k-killed.  I had to.  And I’d d-d-d-do it again.”

He wasn’t going to keep his mouth shut; that much was clear.  Once Thomas had finished the dressing changes, he went looking for the Wardmaster, but he was out—in a meeting with Major Thwait, one of the sergeants said.  Thomas left a note saying he wanted to talk to him, urgently, and went back to the ward.

Shortly after he got back, Captain Linwood arrived for his morning rounds.  Thomas took the precaution of making sure that Hutchins was out of sight in the sink room, and occupied himself with a patient across the aisle and a few beds down from Booth—where he would hear if Booth began confessing again, but Linwood would have to go out of his way if he wanted to speak to Thomas.  That way, if the situation blew up in their faces, both Thomas and Hutchins could plausibly claim they had, of course, intended to report this news to the MO in charge of the case, but simply hadn’t yet found a good opportunity to do so. 

Fortunately, Booth did not say anything to Linwood except “Yes, sir,” and Linwood did not say anything to Thomas except to repeat the instructions from the chart, that he was to be kept for observation.  Thomas deliberately did not ask what they were meant to observe.  Infection, obviously.  They were observing the stump for signs of infection. 

Thomas tried looking for the Wardmaster again at lunchtime, but he still wasn’t in.  Finally, when Thomas and other orderlies were doing the patients’ tea, his clerk showed up to fetch Thomas. 

Thank God.  All day, he’d been looking over his shoulder in case Linwood came back in and started asking questions. 

The Wardmaster took the news with a heartfelt, “Fuck,” and reached into his desk drawer for a bottle.  “Who did he tell?” he asked as he poured himself a drink.

“Private Hutchins.  One of the new men.  And then he gave me some more details, while I was changing his dressing.”

“Fuck.”  He gulped it.  “Linwood already fucking suspects,” he said.  “He told Major Thwait, Thwait asked me to look into it—we can’t keep this to ourselves.”

“I was afraid of that,” Thomas said.  “How much trouble is he in?”

“He could end up in front of a fucking firing squad, son,” the Wardmaster said.  “Here.”  He dug out another glass from somewhere and poured Thomas a drink. 

Thomas knocked it back.  “Is that…likely?  I mean…Diggs could have, too.”

“Diggs was one of ours.  Major Thwait takes my recommendations when it comes to our men.  This’ll go to Booth’s CO.  There’s no telling which way he’ll jump.”

Thomas hesitated.  “He’s not well.  Booth, I mean.  We had him in the shell shock ward, back at the CCS.”  He explained what had happened on Booth’s earlier patrol.  “Even Major Winthrop could see the problem was he couldn’t stand getting men killed under his command again.  But he didn’t actually help him, so he did this.  Sacrificed himself, so the patrol could turn back.” 

“Aye,” said the Wardmaster.  “The bugger of it is, there’s two ways that can look.  One, he’s a sick man who should never have been sent back to the line.  Two, he has a history of cowardice.  The trouble with version one is, it means the Major fucked up.”

Thomas heard the wet snap of Kingston’s leg.  “It wouldn’t be the first time.”  

“I know, son,” said the Wardmaster, gently. 

“And it wasn’t cowardly.  If he really thought the new patrol was going to get killed—even if he only thought that ‘cause he’s not right in the head—what the fuck else was he supposed to do?”

“I know,” the Wardmaster repeated. 

“What are we going to do?”

“You’re not going to do anything,” the Wardmaster said.  “I’m going to talk to Thwait again—see if I can convince him to encourage Linwood to drop it.  You, avoid Linwood if you can.  If he asks any questions, don’t lie, but don’t fucking volunteer anything.”

“That’s what I told Hutchins,” Thomas noted.

“You were right.”  He dismissed Thomas back to the ward.

The rest of the afternoon passed without incident.  Captain Linwood came in for afternoon rounds, but paid no particular attention to Booth, or to Thomas.  Thomas began to hope that the Wardmaster had persuaded Thwait, and Thwait in turn had persuaded Linwood, to stop asking questions.

That hope was dashed immediately after dinner, when Thomas approached the Wardmaster to ask if there was any news.  He shook his head, but pointed toward his office.

Once he’d poured them both a drink, the Wardmaster said, “Linwood’s already sent word to the fucking battalion commander.  Thwait doesn’t like it much, but there’s nothing he could do.”

“Fuck.”  Thomas took a large swallow of his drink.  “What happens next?”

“The battalion commander sends an officer to investigate,” the Wardmaster said.  “He might want to talk to you and Hutchins.  Don’t lie.” 

He didn’t, this time, say not to volunteer anything.  “Do I bring up Booth’s shell shock?”  Even if the officer in question knew that Booth had been treated for it, he wouldn’t know that Thomas knew anything about it. 

“That’s the big fucking question,” the Wardmaster said.  “You probably should, yeah.  If they know for a fact he did it—if he fucking confesses again—the only defense he’s got is that he’s loony.” 

Thomas nodded, thinking through the next few steps.  “I suppose they’ll talk to Major Winthrop.” 

“Yeah, I reckon so.  If he takes it like a man and admits he should never have sent the poor fucker back, it’ll probably turn out all right.”

Thomas thought about Major Winthrop, the moment after that wet snap.  He’d been horrified by his mistake, Thomas would bet on it—but he hadn’t been horrified enough to admit anything, not until Thomas shamed him into it.  “He won’t, on his own.  Somebody’s got to convince him.” 

“You’re not doing that,” the Wardmaster said.  “That is a fucking order, if it needs to be.”

Stung, Thomas stiffened his spine.  “Yes, Sergeant.”

“With this fucking push coming, I need you where you are, son,” the Wardmaster added.  “And we’ve already seen what Winthrop’s like when a corporal goes toe-to-toe with him.   You are not sticking your neck out that far.  Not now.”

Thomas nodded.  He had a point—and it wasn’t like Thomas could be dramatically proved right, as Rouse had been.   Booth had already snapped. 

“If somebody needs to convince him, it needs to be a fucking officer.”

He was right about that, too.  They both thought about it for a moment.  “Captain Allenby?” Thomas suggested.  He was the only officer Thomas could reasonably ask a favor of.

The Wardmaster shook his head.  “He’s got nothing to do with the case.  I don’t doubt he’d stick his nose in, if you asked him right, but Linwood already has it in for him.  Two MOs at each other’s throats is another kind of trouble we don’t need when we’re getting ready for a push.”  He poured himself another drink and stared at it for a moment.  “There’s nobody at the CCS?”

Thomas shook his head. 

“Figured.  You’d have tapped him for the other thing, if there was.”   He sighed.  “I’ll try Major Thwait again.  He’s no fucking good at this kind of shit—politics—but I can walk him through it, if he’s willing.” 

Would he be willing?  Thomas didn’t ask—he suspected he wouldn’t like the answer.

The Wardmaster leaned over and topped up Thomas’s drink.  “Son, there may not be anything we can do here.  I don’t like it any better than you do—it wouldn’t hurt anybody to let the poor fucker go, and he’s paid a high enough price for it already.  But this is above my pay grade, and it’s sure as fuck above yours.  I need you to be sensible, understand?  Don’t do anything impulsive.”

“I understand,” Thomas said.  He also understood that the Wardmaster was having doubts about his reliability, just now, and that that wasn’t good.  “I just….”  He thought about Peter, and his letter saying I wasn’t very brave today.  His Captain at least tried to help—it had gone spectacularly wrong, yeah, and got Peter killed.  But at least he hadn’t just told him to buck up and get back to work.  Who knew what Peter might have resorted to, if he hadn’t been given a chance to get away from the sound of the guns?  “Somebody should try to help him, that’s all.”

“We are,” the Wardmaster pointed out.  “We are fucking trying.  All right?”

He nodded.  “All right.”

The next day, Thomas put himself in Officers’ Surgical, giving Men’s Surgical to Widener and Plank—putting himself out of the way of temptation to get any more involved with the Booth situation than he already was. 

It was almost a miscalculation.  He’d noted, somewhere along the line, that Booth was from the Duke of Manchester’s Own, but hadn’t thought anything of it—hadn’t even considered that there might be strings he could pull outside of the RAMC, until Lieutenant Crawley came strolling into Officers’ Surgical, to talk to some friend of his who was on the ward.

It didn’t mean he was the officer they’d sent, of course—he could simply have come to visit.  But Thomas busied himself making up an empty bed a few places down from Lieutenant Crawley’s friend.  If there was one thing being a footman was good for, it was knowing how to eavesdrop without being noticed.

They started out talking about the Big Push, and how Lieutenant Crawley’s friend—a Lieutenant Carrington—would miss out on it, seeing as he no longer had any legs.  Carrington tried to pretend that Crawley was the lucky one.  Eventually, he got around to asking, “But you didn’t come all this way just to see me, did you?”

“No, unfortunately,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “I had to come and talk to one of my men.  SIW, I’m afraid.”

Self-inflicted wound, that stood for.  Did he mean Booth had confessed?  Or just that Lieutenant Crawley believed he was guilty?

“Rotten luck,” Carrington said.  “I almost had a deserter, right before this.”  He nodded toward his stumps.  “But his mates brought him back in time.  It’s the push—it’s hard to blame them.”

“I thought his story was a little fishy,” Lieutenant Crawley admitted.  “I wasn’t going to make waves—the wound seemed bad enough to be its own punishment—but somebody here caught it.”  He shook his head.  “My major sent me to look into it.”

He sounded sympathetic enough, Thomas thought.  And he’d promised the Wardmaster he wouldn’t do anything impulsive—not that he wouldn’t do anything at all.  Feeling the Lieutenant out on the subject, just a bit, wouldn’t be sticking his neck out.  Not if he was careful. 

Thomas contrived to be standing near the door when Lieutenant Crawley was ready to leave, and “noticed” him then, bracing up and saying, “Sir.”

“Barrow,” he said.  “I thought that was you.  And a corporal now?  Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir. And you, as well.”  He nodded toward Crawley’s sleeve, which showed he’d been made up to First Lieutenant since they’d last met. 

“Oh, yes,” Lieutenant Crawley said, a bit vaguely.  “How are you keeping?”

“Not bad, sir,” he said.  “I hear we’re in for a busy time before long, though.”

“I should think so.  They haven’t told us when, yet, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Yes, sir.”  It hadn’t been, particularly.  He considered his next move—he had to prolong the conversation somehow, give himself time to maneuver around to Booth.  “It’s all very different from Downton, isn’t it?  It seems like a dream.”

“It does,” Crawley agreed.  “Funny you should mention it—I’m meant to visit there soon.  If I get away before they cancel all leave, that is.  Yorkshire in June—it’s hard to believe it still exists.”  He started buttoning his greatcoat—it was a raw day, for May, and that gave Thomas an idea.

“Would you like a cup of tea, sir, before you go?”

“I’d love one, if it’s not any trouble.”

“I think I can manage,” Thomas said. 

He maneuvered Lieutenant Crawley into the scullery, where they kept a spirit stove for making tea for the officers’ wards—no lukewarm slop out of Dixies for them—and put the kettle on. 

“Do you get much news from Downton?” Lieutenant Crawley asked.

“Anna keeps me informed, sir,” he said, spooning tea into a pot. “Lady Edith’s driving, Lady Sybil’s training as a nurse.”

Lieutenant Crawley nodded.  “Do you suppose she’s prepared for it?  The kind of things she’ll see?”

That was an opening, maybe.  “Were any of us?”

“I certainly wasn’t,” Lieutenant Crawley said, ruefully. 

“I spent the winter at a CCS,” Thomas went on.  “We had nurses there.  Young ladies.  They rose to it.  Of course, they have to prove themselves, to be posted overseas.  They only send the best and bravest.  Not like us men.  We get sent here to sink or swim.”

“Yes,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “And not everyone is a strong swimmer.”

“No, sir,” Thomas agreed, pouring water from the kettle into a teapot.  “They mostly had us working with the nervous cases, at the CCS.  They didn’t want the ladies looking after them, in case they babied them too much.  In a pitiful state, some of them were.” 

“I’m sure.  One of my men—the one I came here to see—was treated for that sort of trouble.  I wonder if it was the same place?  Chap called Booth.” 

“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, pouring the tea into a cup.  “I recognized him when I saw him here.” 

As Thomas handed him the teacup, Lieutenant Crawley met his eyes.  “Did you?”

Thomas nodded. 

Crawley sipped at the tea.  “That’s nectar.  You know, when he came back—Booth, I mean—my sergeant wasn’t convinced he was quite recovered, from the trouble with his nerves.”

Obviously, Thomas thought. Or he’d hardly have shot himself, would he?  “I’m sure it’s not my place to say about that, sir,” he said carefully.  “But I did get the impression, when I was there, that the psychiatrist—a Major Winthrop—was under a certain amount of pressure to get men back to the line quickly.  And the number of patients that he was responsible for made it impossible for him to spend a great deal of time with any particular one.” 

“I see,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “Those sound like conditions in which even the most knowledgeable officer could make a mistake.” 

“Indeed, sir.”  Thomas hesitated.   He was fairly confident that he and Lieutenant Crawley were reading from the same page of the hymn-book, but the next bit was still a bit tricky, when he didn’t know how much Booth had told Lieutenant Crawley.  If Booth hadn’t confessed, he had to avoid putting the Lieutenant in a position where he’d be forced to inquire into what he’d told Thomas.  “At the CCS, I gathered that his nervous troubles began—or became obvious, at least—after a patrol, in which everyone else was killed.”

“I think so,” Crawley agreed.  “I was assigned to the platoon afterwards—their previous lieutenant was one of those killed—but that’s what I heard.   It sounded fairly ghastly, in fact.  And I believe that the night he…acquired his wound was his first time going out on a patrol since coming back from his treatment.”

That would certainly explain why he’d picked that occasion to shoot himself.  But Thomas couldn’t comment on that, not if there was still, officially, some doubt whether he had shot himself.  “I noticed—having been involved with his care before—that he seemed preoccupied with the earlier patrol.   Talking about it a lot.”

“Yes,” Crawley said.  “He spoke of it to me, as well.  In fact, I might go so far as to say he was mixing up the two, in his mind.” 

Thomas wasn’t sure that was quite true, not from what Booth had said to him or Hutchins, but the more confused Booth was made out to be, the better, he supposed.

Lieutenant Crawley added, “For one thing, he was dreadfully relieved to see me alive.”  Tossing back the rest of his tea, he stood up.  “It may happen that I need to ask you in detail about any statements Booth made to you.”

That answered that question—if Booth had confessed, there’d be no need to look into what he’s said to anyone else.  “Yes, sir.”

“I hope not,” he added.  “The ambiguity of the circumstances surrounding his injury and his history of nervous troubles strike me as two good reasons to pursue the matter no further—but my battalion commander may see it differently.  In the meantime, you might think back to when you cared for him at the CCS, and see if you recall anything else which could be relevant.”

“I will, sir,” Thomas agreed. 

Later, as they were leaving dinner, Thomas told the Wardmaster, “I found our officer.”

He looked confused for a moment—apparently it was one of those days when he’d started his drinking early—then said, “Oh—for the Booth bugger?  Come and tell me about it.”

They reconvened, along with Jessop, in the Wardmaster’s office.  Once Thomas had explained who Lieutenant Crawley was, the Wardmaster said, “From the fucking regiment?  That’s perfect.  Linwood can’t object to that.”

Thomas nodded.  “It sounded like he’s going to urge the battalion commander to drop it—but if he doesn’t agree, he’ll pursue the shell shock angle.”

“Good,” the Wardmaster said, topping up their drinks.  “You think he’s reliable, then, this Crawley?”

“He seems a sharp lad,” Jessop said, then corrected himself, “a sharp young officer, that is.  I got a look at him while we were at the Aid Post.  Barrister, isn’t he?”

“Solicitor,” Thomas said. A barrister would have been much more nearly acceptable to Carson.  “He’s all right.”

The Wardmaster knocked back his drink.  “If we’re lucky, he’ll take care of it from here on out, and we won’t have to fuck around with it anymore.”

They weren’t lucky.  Two or three days later, Lieutenant Crawley turned up again.  This time, Thomas was in Men’s Surgical, and while he was unfortunately not near enough to Booth’s bed to hear what they said—and there was nothing he could plausibly be doing in the vicinity—he noted that it was not an easy conversation.  At one point, Booth’s voice rose enough for Thomas to hear him say, “I h-h-h-had t-t-t-t-to.”  Not long after that, Lieutenant Crawley got up from the chair at Booth’s bedside, delivered a final remonstrance, and started for the door.

Thomas managed to intercept him there, his arms full of dirty linen and said, “Sir.”

 “Corporal,” Lieutenant Crawley said, with a nod. 

He hadn’t really come up with a plan for how to pump the Lieutenant for information.  Stalling for time, Thomas glanced back at Booth.  Finally, he said, “Has anything been settled there, yet, sir?”

Crawley sighed.  “I’m afraid not.”  He hesitated.  “In fact, is there someplace out of the way we could go for a smoke?  If you have a moment, that is.”

“Of course, sir.  Let me just get rid of this.”  Once he had dumped the linen into the laundry bin, he showed Lieutenant Crawley out, taking him around to the far side of the building, where he went when he wanted a minute to himself. 

Mr. Matthew leaned up against the wall and took out a silver cigarette case, saying, “No joy from Major Winthrop, I’m afraid.”

Thomas had never seen Mr. Matthew smoking anything but an after-dinner cigar, but he supposed it wasn’t much of a surprise that he’d taken up the habit here.  “No?” he asked, reaching for his own cigarettes.

“No.   So I came back here hoping Booth would give me something else to hang a defense on.”  When Lieutenant Crawley opened the case, Thomas saw that it had Lady Mary’s picture inside.  “Instead, he essentially confessed.”  He lit the cigarette, and said around it, “So I was hoping you might have another idea.  My Major isn’t overly keen on pursuing this, but he’s got to have some kind of a reason not to.  Especially now that Booth’s not sticking to his story.”

Lighting his own cigarette, Thomas thought quickly.  Unfortunately, he came up empty—he didn’t know what could constitute a defense in this kind of situation.  “The Wardmaster might be able to think of something,” he suggested.  “Sergeant-Major Tully, that is.” 

“Hm,” Crawley said.

Thomas thought some more.  “Can I ask what happened with Major Winthrop, sir?”  Maybe there was a way they could try him again.

“Of course.  I wrote to him, explaining what had happened and asking if Booth may have still been suffering from shell shock.  He replied that he remembered the case well, and he was certain that Booth was completely sound when he left.”

That didn’t sound too bad.  “Perhaps if he examined him again, sir?” Thomas hazarded.

“He also wrote that he was sure I didn’t realize what a grievous insult it was to suggest that he could mistake a sick man for a well one, or that he’d allow external pressures to compromise his professional judgment, so he’d overlook it this time.”  Lieutenant Crawley puffed on his cigarette.  “So I’d say he’s dug his heels in pretty firmly.”

Thomas scoffed, and muttered, “Might change his tune if somebody whispered ‘Kingston’ in his ear.”

Lieutenant Crawley asked what he meant by that, of course, so Thomas explained about the man who’d had a broken leg, and Winthrop insisted he hadn’t.  “The good doctor thought he had shell shock when he didn’t, so I don’t see how he can pretend he couldn’t have made a mistake in the opposite direction.  And it definitely rattled him when he realized how badly he’d got it wrong.  First sign of real human feeling I’d seen in the blighter.”  Remembering who he was talking to, Thomas added, “Begging your pardon, sir.”

Lieutenant Crawley made a dismissing gesture.  “I can see how being reminded of it would humble him,” he said musingly, “but it’d be a difficult thing to slip into a conversation.  I don’t remember anyone by that name in our regiment, so I can’t pretend I’m asking after him.”

“No, he were a Londoner,” Thomas said. 

Crawley puffed on his cigarette some more.  “You were there with him when this chap’s leg broke the rest of the way through?”

“I was,” Thomas said. 

“Suppose you went with me, to talk to him?  The sight of you might be enough to recall the incident to his mind.”

That could work.  Thomas nodded slowly.

“We’d come up with some excuse—you were involved with his care there, and here, so…it doesn’t need to be particularly plausible.  In fact, it may even help things if he sees through it—if he knows that I know that his professional judgment isn’t as impeccable as he pretends.”

“In fact,” Thomas suggested, “if the poor bloke ends up in front of a court-martial, who’s to say the other story won’t end up being dragged out in the bargain?”

“It could,” Lieutenant Crawley agreed.   “Will you be able to get away?  If I can borrow a motor from somewhere, it won’t take long.  A couple of hours.”

“I expect I can manage,” Thomas said.  He wasn’t due for an afternoon off for a while, but he could speak to the Wardmaster, and—fuck.   “Actually, sir, it’s going to be difficult,” he said.  He could pretend he needed the time off for something else—but what?  And if he was found out…well, he wasn’t sure what the Wardmaster would do, but he was certain he wouldn’t like it.  “I had forgotten, but the Wardmaster specifically ordered me not to confront Major Winthrop about this matter.” 

“Oh,” said Lieutenant Crawley, “damn.  I’m not sure I’d dare countermand the order of a Master-Sergeant in my own regiment, let alone a different Corps.  He’s not sympathetic, then?”

“No, he is,” Thomas said.  “He just doesn’t want me risking my stripes this close to the Push.”  He thought for a moment.  “Do you need to get back soon, sir?”

“No, I have the afternoon for this—we’re in rest camp.  Why?”

“The Wardmaster might come round, if we explain you’re the one doing the actual confronting, sir,” Thomas said.  “Or he may have some other idea of how to remind the Major about Kingston.  I don’t know if he’s free, but we could go and check.  I’d just need to nip back inside and leave someone else in charge.”

Lieutenant Crawley agreed to this plan, and a few moments later, Thomas was leading him across the station.  “If the Wardmaster is in his office, it’s probably best I go in first, sir, and…explain things.”  Given the Wardmaster’s feelings about “ruperts,” Thomas didn’t think he ought to spring one on him unawares.   “And, er, just so you know, his language may not be quite what you’re used to.”

Lieutenant Crawley gave him an amused look.  “I’ve been a soldier for nearly two years now, Barrow—I’m quite accustomed to the Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.” 

Right.  Thomas still thought of him as belonging to Downton.  “Right you are, sir.  I’m not sure what I was thinking.”

“It’s all right—it’s very strange, isn’t it, seeing people here that one knows from somewhere else?”

“It is indeed, sir,” Thomas agreed.  They walked on for another moment, and Thomas thought of something else he ought to warn Lieutenant Crawley about, it being well past noon and creeping close to tea-time.  “Another thing, sir.  If he offers you a drink—the Wardmaster, I mean—I shouldn’t recommend trying to keep up with him.  No one can.” 

“Duly noted,” said Lieutenant Crawley.

For lack of any better ideas, Thomas decided to stash Lieutenant Crawley in the linen room, while he went off to beard the Wardmaster in his den.  He found the office door partway open, which was a good sign, and heard no shouting or swearing coming from behind it, which was also a good sign.  Once he’d knocked, announced himself, and been admitted, he found the Wardmaster seated at his desk going over paperwork. 

“What is it, son?”

“Lieutenant Crawley’s here, about the Booth matter,” Thomas explained.  “He’s hit a bit of a snag, and we were hoping you’d have some ideas about a way round it.”

“What kind of a fucking snag?”

“Major Winthrop isn’t being very cooperative.” 

“What a fucking surprise.”

Thomas added, “And now Booth has, in the Lieutenant’s words, essentially confessed.”

“Merciful buggering fuck.  Anything else?”

“Crawley says the major of the battalion isn’t particularly eager to pursue it, but he needs some kind of excuse not to.”

The Wardmaster sat back in his chair.  “Well, that gives us something to fucking work with.”  He started buttoning up his tunic.  “All right, bring the bugger in, if you fucking must,” he said, giving the room a quick scan that Thomas had little difficulty recognizing as making sure there was nothing obviously incriminating in view. 

Thomas went back to fetch Lieutenant Crawley, and found him in conversation with Corporal Ludlow, who was linen-wallah at the moment, and clearly a little perturbed to have found an officer lurking in his area of responsibility.  “Ah,” Thomas said, “there you are, sir.  The Wardmaster is ready to see you.”

“Very good,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “Ah, good luck with the bolster-cases,” he added to Ludlow, and escaped.  As they walked down the hall, he explained, “I’m afraid he got the impression I was here about some missing linen, and nothing I said could quite convince him otherwise.”

“We don’t get many officers in this building, sir,” Thomas said, in explanation.  Officers’ country was on the other side of the ward-huts, in what had been the headmaster’s house when this was a school.  “Here we are.”

Thomas had wondered whether the Wardmaster would actually stand up when Lieutenant Crawley entered—he was supposed to, technically, never mind that he’d been in the Army when the officer was in nappies—but the Wardmaster had solved that problem by just-so-happening to already be on his feet when they arrived. 

Fortunately, Lieutenant Crawley also grasped the delicacy of the situation.  He opened by saying, “Master-Sergeant, thank you for letting me drop in on you.  I’m sure you’re very busy,” thus signaling his understanding that he wasn’t the one in charge here.

That settled, the Wardmaster invited them to sit—Thomas was unable to avoid thinking of what Carson would say, if he knew that Thomas was sitting in the presence of the future Earl of Grantham—and Lieutenant Crawley began explaining the latest developments in the situation, concluding with, “Corporal Barrow explained the matter with Kingston, back in the winter, and we both thought that reminding him of it might have the effect we’re looking for, but we haven’t got any good ideas for how to pull it off, so to speak.”

The Wardmaster gave Thomas a look of great skepticism.

“We did think of the obvious,” Thomas said primly, “but I explained I’ve been expressly forbidden from doing that very thing.” 

“I’m glad you fucking remember,” the Wardmaster said.  “All right, let’s think about this.”

In due course, they moved over to the chairs by the fireplace, and the Wardmaster brought out the bottle of Armagnac.  Thomas watched Lieutenant Crawley suppress any show of surprise at its quality, and also thought that, at this point, Carson would be spinning in his grave if only he was dead.  He was likely having palpitations without knowing why.

“The thing is,” Lieutenant Crawley said, holding out his glass in response to the Wardmaster’s tipping the bottle in his direction, “the Kingston situation is, in fact, entirely germane.  If Booth were to offer his nervous condition as a mitigating circumstance, it’s quite likely that Major Winthrop would be called to give his medical opinion.  At that point, if I were the Prisoner’s Friend—and I very well might volunteer for it, if it comes to it—the best move I could make would be to cast doubt on the Major’s professional judgment.  But he’s already got his back up, and if I try to explain that, he’s likely to think I’m threatening him.”

Because you are, Thomas thought, but managed not to say—he was doing a better job of avoiding refills than Lieutenant Crawley was, but then, he had a great deal of practice. 

“Aye,” said the Wardmaster.  “He’s a touchy bugger, by all accounts.  I’d say work around him, if we could, but he’s the only psychiatrist in the fucking Fourth Army Area.  I checked.”

They went round and round on the subject for close to an hour, but in the end, not even the Wardmaster could think of a solution other than the obvious one.  “I suppose,” he finally said to Thomas, “you’d know how to play it without getting yourself into trouble.  And you,” he said to Lieutenant Crawley, “would do all the talking?”

“Absolutely,” Crawley said, pronouncing it carefully.  “He could just stand there with a look of silent reproach.  Like Marley’s ghost.  Don’t you think that will work?” he asked Thomas.

Thomas was fairly sure that Marley’s ghost had talked, but said only, “I believe it would, sir.”  Honesty—and the desire to cover all his angles—compelled him to add, “Of course, if the Major asked me a direct question, I’d have to speak, but not otherwise.”

“If he does ask you any fucking questions,” the Wardmaster said, “you say as little as fucking possible.  ‘Yes, sir’ if you can get away with it.  You know the drill.”

“I do,” Thomas acknowledged. 

“What’ll you say if he asks you if you think Booth was still ga-ga when he left?”

That was an easy one.  “It’s not my place to say about that, sir,” Thomas recited. 

“How are you going to bring up Kingston?”

That was a trick question.  “I’m not.”  He hesitated.  “I did wonder if I might be able to get away with asking if he’s heard anything.  Whether he’s walking again.”

The Wardmaster shook his head.  “You were right the first time, son.”

Thomas had thought as much. 

They decided on tomorrow afternoon for the operation—the Wardmaster stipulated that Thomas had to be back in time for the evening convoys, and Lieutenant Crawley wanted to do it as soon as possible, lest his regiment be returned to the Front ahead of schedule. 

Lieutenant Crawley turned up the next day in a very battered French motorcar.  Thomas was relieved to see it was driven by the Lieutenant’s batman, a man named Davis.  Thomas wasn’t sure where he’d have been expected to sit if Lieutenant Crawley was driving, but in the circumstances, it was plain he was meant to be up front with the driver. 

Although Lieutenant Crawley did end up leaning forward, thrusting his head and shoulders between the two front seats, to talk strategy as they went.  He’d rather cleverly sent a message ahead telling Major Winthrop to expect him, but left no time for a reply.  Thomas was able to name the places he’d be mostly likely to be found, thus side-stepping the necessity of asking anyone who might have been instructed to say that the Major had no time to meet with Lieutenant Crawley. 

They found him in the second place on Thomas’s list, a little room in D block where he wrote up his charts and case notes.  “Major—I’m Lieutenant Crawley,” he began.

“Yes,” Winthrop said, still writing on the chart in front of him.  “I’m sorry you came all this way, but there’s really nothing I—”  When he finally looked up from what he was doing, the effect was immediate.  Not dramatic—just a slight backward movement of his head, and a draining of color from his face—but immediate. 

One point for Marley’s Ghost, then.

The Major recovered himself and continued, “I’m not sure what I can add.”

“I understand,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “But it is looking as though, if the matter comes to a court-martial, nervous debility would be the defense.  In that event, you’d likely be called to give medical evidence.”

“I see,” said Winthrop.  His eyes flicked up to Thomas.  “If it did come to that, I would, of course, need to examine him again.” 

“Naturally,” Lieutenant Crawley agreed. 

“It’s very unfortunate, of course, if he did harm himself,” the Major continued.  “He showed no sign of that behavior here.  Just the, ah, hysterical mutism.”  He glanced at Thomas again.  “Which cleared up fairly quickly, once I was able to explain to him the psychological mechanism which caused it.”

“Yes,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “I find that very interesting.  Let me see if I understand it correctly—in essence, he blamed his voice for the loss of his patrol?  Because he spoke the orders which led to their deaths?”

“In layman’s terms, yes.  All subconsciously, of course.  It’s what we call a ‘defense mechanism’, against the overwhelming guilt that he felt over what happened to his comrades.  By losing the ability to speak, he could avoid having to give such an order again.”

“Hm,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “But then he was returned to the line, and in due course he was sent out on another patrol, where he could very well have been called upon to give such an order.  So the defense didn’t work.”

“No,” Major Winthrop agreed.  “It was never a rational process, so one wouldn’t expect it to work.  The goal of treatment in these kinds of cases is to remove the defense mechanism and then confront the mental conflict which created it.”

“I see.   And can you help me to understand what that mental conflict was, in Booth’s case?”

Thomas thought it was fairly obvious what the conflict was, but was curious to hear what Winthrop would say about it.

“Well, the conflict between his military duty, to accomplish the objective of any given operation, with the natural human impulse to preserve the safety and well-being of one’s friends and associates,” Winthrop said.  “And one’s self, of course.  I’m sure you’ve felt that conflict yourself.”

“I have,” Lieutenant Crawley admitted.  “It’s a very difficult thing, sending men into danger.”

“It must be,” Major Winthrop agreed.  Thomas wondered if he didn’t realize that, when he certified his patients fit to return to duty, he was doing exactly that.  “But most men—like yourself—are able to resolve the mental conflict and do their duty.”

Lieutenant Crawley nodded.  “So that would be the final step in the treatment?  First remove the defense mechanism, then confront the mental conflict, and finally, resolve it?”

“Correct.”

“And Corporal Booth resolved his conflict?”

Major Winthrop hesitated.  This time, he didn’t look at Thomas—he looked everywhere else, instead.  “I believed that he had.  That’s why I certified him as fit to return to active duty.”

“It seems to me that it would be a very difficult conflict to resolve,” Lieutenant Crawley pointed out.  “I’m not sure I could put my hand on the Bible and testify that I had resolved it myself.  Mostly, I try not to think about it.  I suppose that’s a defense mechanism, as well?”

“In a way,” Major Winthrop said.  “But it’s a, for lack of a better word, normal defense mechanism, while something like hysterical mutism is a pathological one.”

“Suppose that a man had put aside a pathological defense mechanism, but not entirely resolved the mental conflict that produced it,” Crawley said musingly.  “And then he was put into a situation which reminded him strongly of the situation in which his defense mechanism arose.   Might he develop another pathological defense mechanism?”

The Major hesitated.  “He might.  I wouldn’t want to speculate about whether it had or had not happened in any particular case.” 

“Of course.  I suppose if I were explaining it to a jury—I was a solicitor before the war, you see, so I think in those terms—I might suggest that it’s a bit like, say, if the man had broken his leg, and it wasn’t allowed to heal fully.  It could easily break again, even under a relatively minor stress, which would be quite safe for a healthy limb.”

Oh, well fucking done, Mr. Matthew, Thomas thought, as Major Winthrop looked up at him sharply.  Thomas kept his face blank, but gave a minute nod.  Yes, you fucker, he knows

“Do you think,” Lieutenant Crawley continued innocently, “that such a comparison would help a panel of laymen to understand?”

Major Winthrop swallowed hard.  “Yes,” he said carefully.  “I would say that the comparison is…very apt.”

Thomas rather thought he could have left it there, but Lieutenant Crawley twisted the knife a bit.  “And I could further say that the unresolved mental conflict could be quite difficult for even an expert to spot.  Just as an expert could easily overlook a partially broken leg.”  He paused significantly.  “I suppose.  Before I tried that one out in court, I’d want to look into how readily a medical professional could overlook a thing like that.” 

“Of course,” Major Winthrop said.  He spent a moment busily tidying the papers on his desk, and avoiding looking at Thomas.  Finally, he did look at him, and said, “Corporal…Barrow, is it?”

“Yes, sir,” said Thomas.

“I have to admit I’m a little curious what you’re doing here.” 

That wasn’t a direct question, so Thomas kept his fucking mouth shut, as ordered.  After a moment, Lieutenant Crawley said, “Corporal Barrow has been looking after Corporal Booth, since his injury.  I asked him to come along in case there was anything he could share with you about how Booth is doing.  Particularly since he has some experience with your methods of treatment.”

“I see.”  Winthrop tidied his papers again.  “And what is your professional opinion of the case, Corporal Barrow?”

Thomas resisted the impulse to say that his professional opinion was you really fucked the dog, sir.  “I’m sure it’s not my place to say, sir.”

“Please,” said Major Winthrop.  “I’m eager to hear your thoughts.”

Fuck.  Thomas thought very carefully before saying, “Well, sir, I don’t know very much about these things, but it seems like an unresolved mental conflict would be a lot easier to miss than a broken leg.”  Major Winthrop drew in a breath, and Thomas hurried on before he could say anything.  “And Corporal Booth could well have died from an injury like that—blood loss, infection, shock.”  Kingston could have died from any of those things, too.  “If he’d been thinking clearly, he’d have realized that.”  Just as Winthrop might have realized there was something physically wrong with Kingston, if he’d thought clearly and not allowed himself to be distracted by righteous indignation over having his judgment questioned by a mere corporal, and one with a dreadfully working-class accent to boot. 

Major Winthrop nodded slowly, managing to look both annoyed and chastened at the same time.

Satisfied that he’d made his point, Thomas moved on.  “And—with the understanding that I’m only speaking as a layman who’s seen a number of these cases—I’d say he hasn’t seemed to be thinking too clearly since he came in to the station with his wound, sir.”  For one thing, if he’d been thinking clearly, he’d have realized that the best thing he could do was stick to his story. 

“What have you observed, that gives the impression he’s not thinking clearly?”

“He’s said several times, in my hearing, that his injury—however he got it—saved the rest of his patrol from being killed, and that he’d accept it again, even knowing that he’d lose his leg.  A man who was well in his mind might sacrifice himself to save his mates, but as far as I know, his patrol wasn’t in any particular danger at the time of his injury.”

“We weren’t,” Lieutenant Crawley added.  “No more than any patrol.” 

He hadn’t been asked a question, but Thomas—with a mental apology to the Wardmaster—added, “If he did hurt himself, he thought he was doing it to save them.  I don’t call that cowardice, sir.  I won’t say it’s rational, but it isn’t cowardly.”

Major Winthrop rubbed his chin.  “That does cast a different light on the situation.  And he’s expressed this motivation consistently?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He said it to me, as well,” Lieutenant Crawley added. 

“Well,” said Winthrop, “as I said, I would have to examine him again before I could give an official medical opinion.  But it does sound as though he most likely suffered a relapse of his nervous difficulties, under the strain of going out on a patrol again.”

After that, it was pretty much over, though Major Winthrop and Lieutenant Crawley sparred a bit more about the next moves—Winthrop was keen to have Booth sent back to the CCS so that he could examine him.  Thomas thought that would be a bad idea, as Winthrop might reverse direction as soon as Marley’s Ghost was out of his sight, but he didn’t say anything, and Lieutenant Crawley countered with the suggestion that Winthrop come to the 47th—because Booth was still recovering from surgery, of course.  (In fact, patients were usually considered ready to be moved within a day or two of an amputation, but Thomas supposed Lieutenant Crawley might not know that—and even if he did, it wasn’t the point.) 

They settled on Major Winthrop writing a letter in which he explained his newly-developed position on the case, with the caution that it was tentative pending examination of the patient—should a formal diagnosis be required.  “Excellent,” said Lieutenant Crawley.  “We’ll just stroll the grounds while you write it.  Very pleasant spot you have here.”

Thomas suspected that Major Winthrop had not been thinking of writing the letter immediately, but he acquiesced, and Thomas and Lieutenant Crawley began their stroll.

Given the choice, Thomas would have left the Lieutenant to his own devices and gone in search of a cup of tea and a bit of gossip, but he supposed it wasn’t too bad of a way to pass the time.  With summer almost upon them, the trees were blooming, and the grass between the graveled paths was green and lush.  If you managed to avoid looking at the wounded, you could almost think there wasn’t a war. 

They walked past a work party, most of them in hospital blues, setting plants in a flower bed.  Lieutenant Crawley gave them a curious look, and Thomas explained, “Nervous cases, I expect, sir.  Wholesome work in the out-of-doors; supposed to be good for them.”

“Oh.”

“Most of what we did with the patients, when I was here in the winter, was leading them on work parties.  We graveled most of these paths, and painted a couple of those buildings.”  He indicated them. 

“I suppose it makes a nice change, to create something instead of destroying it for a change,” Crawley mused.  Thomas decided not to mention the grave-digging—no need to spoil his illusions.   “Good God, is that a tennis court?”

“It is, sir.”  Thomas had led them toward the side of the grounds that had the parade-ground and tennis court, rather than the cemetery. 

“How much use does that see, I wonder?” Lieutenant Crawley said.

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised, sir, how many tennis fans there are among the other ranks.  When the nurses get a tournament going, it’s standing-room-only for spectators.”

“I see,” Lieutenant Crawley said, amused.  “Well, I suppose it does no end of good for morale.”

“Indeed, sir.”

They crested a small hill, and stood looking out over the farms and village below the station grounds.  “It really is very pleasant here,” Crawley observed.  “Reminds me a bit of Yorkshire, in fact.”

“I suppose there’s something in that, sir,” Thomas agreed.  It was farming country, after all.

“As bad as all this is, at least we know home’s still there,” Crawley added.  “Imagine being one of the French Army chaps, from a village that’s already been bombed off the map.  Even when it finally ends, they won’t be able to go home.”

Thomas nodded, carefully not thinking about where he’d go, when it finally ended.  If it ever did. 

“Did you know, Cousin Robert—Lord Grantham, I mean—is still saying he’d like to be sent over here?”

Thomas wondered if Lieutenant Crawley was alluding to the words Thomas had had with his lordship on the subject, before leaving for the Army himself.  “I did not, sir,” he said.

“He has some sort of Home Service post—largely honorary, I think—so he’s in uniform, but….”  He shook his head.  “It doesn’t seem to be all bluster, either.  He’s pulling every string he’s got, trying to get ‘properly back in the Army.’  He can’t know what he’s asking for, and I feel I ought to tell him, somehow, but…there aren’t any words for it.  Not really.”

Thomas chewed the matter over for a moment before deciding that most of what he wasn’t thinking wasn’t too impertinent to say.  “I’ve thought the same, sir, when it comes to William—the other footman at Downton.  He promised his father he’d wait to be called up, but apparently he’s quite keen.  I’ve often thought I ought to warn him.  I’ve sat down to write the letter once or twice, but I can’t sort out how to begin.”  Besides, unlike Lord Grantham, William was likely to end up in France even if he did come to understand that he shouldn’t want to.  And William probably wouldn’t believe anything he had to say on the subject anyway.

A short while later, they collected the letter from Major Winthrop.  It was sealed in an envelope, and as they walked to the motor, Lieutenant Crawley said, “With any luck, this’ll be the end of it.”

“I hope so, sir,” Thomas said.  “Do you think it’s likely?”  It could still come to a court martial.

Lieutenant Crawley nodded.  “As long as he wrote what we discussed, it should be enough to make it come out right.” 

 Thomas dared to say, “Shall we stop at the 47th and steam it open, sir?”

Lieutenant Crawley chuckled.  “Tempting, but we’d better not.  I daresay we’ve pushed things far enough for one day.”

As they got into the motor, Thomas reflected that, looked at a certain way, he and Lieutenant Crawley—he and the future Earl of Grantham, in fact—had just conspired to cover up a crime.  Not a crime either of them had committed, but still.  He wondered if Bates and the present Earl had anything like that between them.

A day or two later, Lieutenant Crawley returned to the 47th to say his farewells to Booth, before he was sent back to Base, and from thence to Blighty and a medical discharge.  He explained, when Thomas invited him into the ward scullery for another cup of tea, that his Major had thought it best to spare Major Winthrop the embarrassment of admitting in a court-martial that Booth’s return to the line had been a mistake. 

“That,” Thomas said carefully, “sounds like a satisfactory result for all concerned, if it’s not impertinent of me to say.”   Typical that the Major would care more about another Major having to admit in public he’d—to borrow Rouse’s phrase—fucked the dog, than about Corporal Booth being on trial for his life, but he supposed Booth would be glad to put it all behind him, whatever the reason.

“Not least for us,” Lieutenant Crawley said.  “I do believe we did the right thing, but I’ll be glad if I don’t have to go out on a limb like that again.”

His tone was jocular, but Thomas wondered if there was a bit of a warning in it—that he’d better not count on Lieutenant Crawley for any more favors in future.  “As will I, sir.”

#

A couple of weeks later, Matthew was at Downton Abbey.  It was as surreal as he’d expected, seeing that enormous house standing more empty than not, and grown men and women with nothing more important to do than taking people’s coats or bringing them cups of tea.

William was on hand to open the door for him, and Carson to show him into the library.  “I see William’s not been called up yet,” Matthew noted. 

“Not yet, sir,” Carson said, “though I fear it could be any time now.”

The library was empty—the ladies, presumably, were still getting dressed for dinner.  “Speaking of footmen, I saw Thomas not long ago.” 

“Did you, sir?”

“At the Dressing Station,” Matthew explained, although Carson had not sounded particularly interested.  “There was a difficult situation with one of my men, and Thomas was rather helpful.”

Carson harrumphed.  “I have been given to understand that the war has improved him, sir.”

“It’s difficult to imagine this war improving anyone,” Matthew noted, reminding himself that Carson couldn’t possibly know what he was saying.  No one could know what it was like, who hadn’t been there.  “But I get the impression they quite rely on him, there.”

“I suppose, sir,” Carson said archly, “in war, one must do all sorts of things that one would rather not.”

Matthew had been the butt of a number of sly remarks from Carson during his early visits to the Abbey, and suspected that the terrible thing he was alluding to was being forced to rely on Thomas, but it seemed best to pretend he hadn’t noticed.  “It does seem quite terrible work—even worse than the hospital here, as the patients come in directly from the trenches.  But the Master-Sergeant—the man in charge of the orderlies—has great confidence in him.”  There had been a definite undercurrent, in the meeting with Master-Sergeant Tully, that he was dropping everything to discuss their problem—not to mention sharing his excellent liquor—not because an insignificant subaltern had asked him to, but because Corporal Barrow had.  “That sort of thing can make a hard job feel a bit easier.”

Was it Matthew’s imagination, or did Carson go even stiffer than usual, as that barb hit home.  “Doubtless, sir.  Will there be anything else?”

With a glance around the library—as far from the chaos and filth of the trenches as anything on Earth—Matthew said, “Thank you—I have everything I need.”

Chapter Text

Over the next weeks, there was a slow, steady ratcheting up of tension.  The roads going past the station seemed as busy as London streets, almost, with regiments marching and transport convoys taking artillery, ammunition, and supplies to the Front.  The rest camp had doubled in size again, swollen with new men—some conscripts fresh from England, some veterans brought down from Flanders for the Push.  Many of the latter were fairly pleased to be here, where there were still trees and grass and buildings that hadn’t been bombed to rubble, and making the most of the time they had.

The station received vast deliveries of supplies—vast enough that Thomas’s section was sometimes pulled off ward work to help unload and stow them.  Patients were coming in steadily: the Front was fairly quiet, waiting with breath held, just like the rear was, but the sheer number of men passing through meant plenty of injuries, from accidents, patrols, and enemy shelling—the latter, more likely than ever to hit something alive, with men so thick on the ground.  They were moving them out fairly briskly, though—anything requiring observation or convalescence sent rearward, anything minor returned to the line as soon as it started to heal cleanly, and the greatest danger of infection was past.

One day in mid-June, Captain Allenby told Thomas that all leave for officers had been suspended.  “That means it’s not long to wait now,” he said.  “Next, we’ll get orders to clear the wards—that’ll mean it’s starting in a few days.”

But the order to clear the wards didn’t come, and men and materiel continued to pour in. 

It was almost the end of June when the tension finally broke.  Major Thwait called a parade, for just after breakfast, and once they had saluted and been put at ease, said, “Gentlemen, as many of you will no doubt have guessed, we are building up for a push.”

There was a sort of gasp at that, though no one could have been surprised.  A few of the new blokes tried to start up a cheer, then subsided into embarrassed silence when no one else picked it up.

Once they were quiet again, the Major continued, “This is to be the largest and most important battle of the war—in fact, the largest in which British troops have ever fought, throughout our nation’s great history.  It will involve more troops, more guns, more ammunition than any battle that has ever been fought.  If all goes well, it will go down in history as the beginning of the Allied victory.  And we, just as much as the fighting men, have a vital part to play in the success of this great endeavor.”

Major Thwait paused.  This, Thomas thought, was where he’d expected the cheer to go.  Finally, a few people humored him, and he moved on.  “Here, then, is what we can expect.  The preliminary bombardment begins today—any moment now, in fact—and will continue until Thursday morning, when the infantry is scheduled to begin their advance.”

Thursday.  Christ.   Six days away.  Everyone started murmuring a bit, and behind Thomas, someone said, “Thank God we’re in the R-A-M-bloody-C.”

“During the bombardment, we can expect moderate casualties, from shortfalls, artillery accidents, and, of course, enemy retaliation.  Master-Sergeant Tully will explain the adjustments to the duty roster during this time.”

Thomas looked at the Wardmaster, who was standing behind Major Thwait’s shoulder.  He looked grim. 

“We will be busy, and emotions will be running high in anticipation of the attack, but I expect each of you to keep to your assigned periods of rest and to take regular meals, so that we may be well-rested and well-nourished at the commencement of the infantry advance—after which we can expect to be considerably busier.”

 There was another murmur at that.  They all knew what “busier” meant.  Up to their elbows in blood and guts.

“The attack will begin at dawn, but it is anticipated there will be little enemy resistance in the morning, as most of the enemy’s front line will have been eliminated by the bombardment.  There may be some casualties from close combat with small groups of survivors.  Additional men will be placed at the Regimental Aid Posts to receive these casualties, and bearer sections to move them rearward as necessary.”

“Those poor sods are in for a day of it,” someone nearby said. 

The Major continued, “It is likely that we will also receive wounded prisoners—perhaps even more of them than of our own men.  Let me remind you that, once they have laid down their arms and surrendered into His Majesty’s custody, they are to be treated humanely, and their injuries to be tended with as much care as we would those of our own countrymen.”

Discontented murmurings.  Thomas heard someone say, “You won’t catch me,” and murmurs of assent from the men around him.

Major Thwait must have heard it too, or something like it, because he added, “You do not have to like it, but it is our duty under international law—and, in the case of the medical officers, under the Hippocratic Oath.  We are civilized men, from a civilized country, and we will behave as such.”  He moved on.  “After the infantry has consolidated the enemy’s forward line, they will continue their advance to take the enemy’s support and reserve trenches.  These areas will not be as heavily affected by the bombardment, and so our men will begin to encounter serious resistance.  Accordingly, we can expect significant casualties beginning in the afternoon, with numbers increasing as night falls and it becomes safer to move them.”

Translation—nobody was going to be sleeping, or even sitting down, Thursday night. 

“Heavy fighting, and significant casualties, may continue for several days.  As it slows down, we can expect to see an increase in relatively light cases, as men who continued to fight in spite of their wounds become free to seek treatment.  In addition, we will be setting up Aid Posts and Advanced Dressing Stations in the newly-consolidated areas.”

Not sleeping Thursday night or any of the next few nights, then.  No wonder the Major wanted them to get their rest before it all started. 

“It will be a difficult few days,” the Major said, “but I have confidence that each and every one of you will rise to the occasion.  Now, I ask the officers to join me in the mess for further instructions, while Master-Sergeant Tully will address the men.”

The Wardmaster stepped forward.  “Hut!”

They all stood to attention and saluted the departing officers.  The Wardmaster watched them go, then dropped out of attention and said, “At ease.”  He sighed.  “You heard the Major.  This is gonna be a fucking shit-show, and no mistake.”

Behind them, there was a crash of guns, like distant thunder.  At least half the company, involuntarily, turned to look toward it—even though there was, at this distance, nothing to see. 

“That’s not gonna stop for six fucking days, so you might as well get used to it,” the Wardmaster told them.  “Like he said, we’re gonna start to see some casualties coming in almost right away.  The artillery blokes are working like one-legged men at the world’s biggest arse-kicking contest; they’re gonna make mistakes.  And Fritz ain’t gonna be happy we’re making all this noise.  But this is just the fucking overture.  Don’t stretch yourselves too fucking thin.  You new lads, especially—there’s gonna be times you get sent off to get your head down or have something to eat, when there’s still shit to be done.  We don’t want to hear ‘I’m not tired, Sarge,’ ‘I can hack it, Sarge.’  It ain’t about that.  We’re putting you to one side so we can use you later, when we need you more.  Understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” they all said.

“Starting tonight, we’re going to have two groups on night duty—first line and reserve line.  Reserve line bunks in the mess until you’re called.  If we don’t need you one night, we’ll sure as hell need you later, so if you’re lucky enough to get the chance to sleep, fucking sleep.  By the time this is all over, we’re all going to be so tired we’re seeing pink fucking elephants—you don’t need to give yourself a head fucking start.”

He went on to explain more details of the preparations.   They’d begin clearing the wards of existing patients with today’s rearward convoy, and continue tomorrow, running dawn convoys as well as dusk ones, if necessary.  New patients would be kept only until the next convoy, no matter how light, or how serious, the case—or, as the Wardmaster put it, “No bugger is stopping the night unless he’s expected to rejoin his unit—or his Maker—by morning.” 

In addition to emptying out the wards they already had, they’d be setting up additional temporary ones under marquee tents—two proper wards, with fifty beds in each, and two empty tents of the same size where walking wounded could wait out of the weather for their turn to be evacuated further back.  And for evacuating them, the Transport Corps was rounding up every decently-sized civilian vehicle they could find, from farm carts to charabancs.  These, of course, would not have medical supplies stored on board, as the proper ambulances did, to the orderlies assigned to ride on them would have to carry everything they needed with them. 

The Wardmaster concluded by saying, “Assignments for Zero Day will be posted next week, and I don’t want to hear any fucking complaints.  Unless this goes extremely well, every bugger here is going to have a turn going up Front to see the big show, before it’s finished.”

Over the next few days, the only subject on anyone’s lips was the Push:  what it would be like, whether it would succeed, and, most importantly, where each of them would be assigned on the day it all started, and which assignments were particularly lucky or unlucky. 

Thomas was a little surprised by how many of the men believed the Push would succeed, and hoped to be placed somewhere close to the action on Zero Day.  As far as he could figure out, from what little they’d been told, the General Staff did not have anything new in the way of strategy; they’d be doing the same thing that had failed at Ypres and Loos—a bombardment followed by an infantry advance—just bigger. 

Thomas’s section became even more optimistic when, on night duty, they were sent out to the collecting post to bring back wounded, there being too many to fit in the available ambulances. 

Ahead of them, in the direction of the Front, the sky was lit up red, like a sunset in the wrong direction.  You couldn’t see or hear individual explosions, just a continuous glow and roar; that was how many there were.  The collecting post was only a little behind the artillery, and as they neared it, they could feel the vibration of the guns through their feet. 

“Not many Huns living through that,” Widener said, to general agreement. 

Admittedly, it was hard to see how they could.  And the station was seeing very few casualties from enemy shells—tonight’s larger-than-usual collection of wounded was, reportedly, the fault of a single malfunctioning piece of their own artillery, which had landed two shells in the British lines before exploding and taking out most of its crew.  Word from the Front was that the enemy was barely retaliating at all—perhaps because they were unable to.

Thomas considered that, if he were a German general, he’d not risk sending his artillery crews out in this nightmare to lob a few shells at the opposing trenches—they couldn’t hope to match the British bombardment, not unless they had, by some astonishing coincidence, also been stockpiling vast amounts of ammunition in this very spot for months.  The smart thing to do would be to save their ammunition, and keep their gunners alive, until the bombardment stopped, and the British infantry came out into the open, where they could be picked off at leisure.

Then again, German generals were likely just as short of common sense as British ones, so who knew?  Perhaps they were shelling the hell out of empty trenches, the Boche already dead or racing back to Germany with their tails between their legs. 

Either way, when the Wardmaster called him in the next afternoon to ask about his section’s readiness, Thomas was able to report that they were keen and fit.  “The new men, in particular, are eager to see some action.”  He ran down the list of ones who had been cause for concern: Hutchins and Drover, the windiest of the lot, had settled down on this latest outing.  Wallace and Eakins, the two little Cockney lads, had been gaining in strength over the last two months, and Ericson and Babcock, the asthmatic and the bad back, hadn’t had any trouble last night.  “I’d still keep an eye on those four when it’s a long day of strenuous work, but they should be all right for a while.”

“Good,” the Wardmaster said.  “I’m thinking of putting your lot down at the Aid Post.”

On Zero Day, he had to mean.  What else could he be talking about? 

“Thursday morning,” the Wardmaster added.  “We won’t know what the fuck to expect, so I need someone who can use his head.”

“I see,” Thomas said.  It did make sense—he’d been at the Aid Post before, for one thing.  And he was good in No Man’s Land.  “Well, they’ll all be excited to see the start of the Push.”

“It’s not a soft fucking job,” the Wardmaster said, “but it should be a good fit for your lads.”  He explained that they’d be doing first aid and organizing the wounded for transport rearward by the bearer sections, under the direction of the regiment’s medical officer, as well as bringing in wounded from no-man’s land.  “You’ll be able to rotate carrying wounded with the lighter jobs—that should help the weak buggers keep up.” 

“Right,” Thomas said, thinking about how he’d set up the rotations so it wouldn’t be obvious that some men were spending more time on the lighter work than others. 

“You’ll have the regiment’s designated stretcher-bearers to help with that,” he said, “but the rest of ‘em are under fucking orders not to stop and aid their own wounded.  Either they make it back themselves, or they wait for us to show up.”

That was going to be a tough order for the men from the regiment to follow, Thomas knew from his time at the Front last year.  There were always plenty of volunteers to go out after wounded comrades.  They’d have to know they could rely on the stretcher-bearers to be not far behind them. 

 “You’re good at field triage,” the Wardmaster went on, “but in a thing like this, there’s one more thing you’ve got to know—bring the easy ones in first.  A casualty that’s near the parapet, or that has good cover most of the way between you and him, you get those before you go for the ones you’ve got to cross a lot of open ground to get to.  You understand why?”

Thomas nodded.  “It won’t do anybody any good if we get taken out of commission ourselves, trying to get to them.”

“Fucking spot-on.  You put it to your lads that way.  Your job is to bring in as many of the poor buggers as you can manage—and even if it all goes down the way the brass expect, there’s going to be plenty to choose from.  Now, if it’s the walk-over they think it’s gonna be, with most of the Hun already dead and the rest throwing  up their hands and saying Mercy, Kamerad the moment they see our British pluck, you do standard field triage—look for the ones that won’t last if they aren’t tended to, but have a chance if they are.  Your new blokes won’t know which they are, so it’ll be up to you to pick them out for them.  Make sure you explain the fucking logic beforehand, and tell them you don’t want any fucking arguments on the day.”

“All right,” Thomas said, thinking about which ones would argue.

“It’s gonna be hard,” the Wardmaster added.  “There’ll be blokes lying there who ought to be dead but are somehow still conscious enough to call out for help, and you’ll have to pass them by.  That’s hell on a man’s nerves.  Especially your sensitive types.  You can stop and pump ‘em full of morphine, if that helps your lads keep going.”

It took Thomas a moment to realize he meant pump the dying full of morphine, not his own men.  “All right.”   Then, just to make sure he understood what the Wardmaster meant, he asked, “How much morphine?”

“As much as it fucking takes.”

“Right,” Thomas said.  That was what he thought.  “We’ll take plenty, yeah?”

“Yeah.  Now, if the fucking bombardment fails, and the Boche are sitting there waiting to give our lads a warm fucking welcome, you’re not gonna want to fuck around in No-Man’s Land any more than you have to.  Grab whoever the fuck you can grab, and scarper back to the trench.  If it really goes to shit, you grab as many as you can grab while there’s still infantry standing between you and Fritz, and then you make yourselves real busy treating and evacuating the ones you have, so no one gets a bright idea about sending you back out to look for more.”

Thomas nodded, a little dubiously. 

“There’s no fucking shame in keeping your skin in one piece,” the Wardmaster added.  “An operation like this goes south, the brass get real fucking tempted to keep throwing bodies at it, trying to get something to show for it all.  You don’t need to get mixed up in that.  You’re ordered to go out, you go out, but use your fucking head.  If trying to move the wounded is just going to get them and you killed, get them into a fucking shell hole, or under some bit of cover, treat them as best you can, and tell ‘em we’ll be back for them at nightfall.” 

The little Cockney lads would be good at that, being small and quick, Thomas thought.  He carefully didn’t think about the fact that there were bound to be some wounded who wouldn’t last until nightfall. “I understand.”

“There’s a decent chance we’ll have more help by then,” the Wardmaster added.  “If it goes according to fucking plan, and they consolidate the enemy’s first and second lines by afternoon, they’ll be able to spare some men to go after their own wounded.  If it all goes to shit, they can pick up some of their mates while they’re in fucking retreat.  We could also get to borrow some men from the reserve units, if GHQ ends up not needing them all for the attack.”

The reserve units were the ones kept back to join the battle later, in the first-line units needed reinforcing.  “I suppose,” Thomas said, “the more casualties there are, the more likely the reserves’ll be otherwise occupied.” 

“Yeah,” said the Wardmaster.  “We’ll see how it goes.  Mid-day or so, once we have some fucking idea what we’re dealing with, I’ll send another section or two up.  If they relieve you, it’ll likely be because I want you out there again at night, so no fucking arguments about that, either.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Thomas said. 

“All right.”  The Wardmaster stood up from his desk.  “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a fucking drink.”

So they had a fucking drink.  Thomas, having gotten a great deal of practice dodging refills during his time as the Wardmaster’s clerk, managed to keep it to one, and rejoined his section in the mess.  They were on wards, but since the wards were being cleared out with every convoy, all they had to do in the afternoon was get the ward ready for the next crop of patients—make the beds, re-stock supplies, and a few other things like that—and then wait for them to show up. 

Manning and Collins were there too, with their sections, and Thomas soon figured out that they had just been meeting with their sergeants, too. 

“Did you find out where we’re going to be?” Rawlins asked, filling a cup of tea and pushing it towards Thomas.

“We’re at the collecting post,” Manning added, indicating himself and Collins.

“Humping stretchers back and forth between there and the Aid Post all day,” Collins added, with a certain amount of pride.

“Bet they have us doing that, too,” Widener said.  “Right?”

Thomas hesitated.  “We’re at the Aid Post.” 

There was a moment’s resounding silence, until Manning said, “Fuck. Jammy bastard.  You’re going to see the whole show.”

“I expect we’ll be too busy to see much,” Thomas said. 

“You’ll see some,” Collins said.  “That’s something to tell your grandkids—you were there the moment we started to win the war.”

Unless something changed drastically, Thomas wasn’t going to have any grandkids, and he suspected that even if this did turn out to be the day they broke almost two years of stalemate and put the Germans on the run, it was mostly going to look like blood and chaos.  But he didn’t argue.  “You’ll see plenty, too, when you come up to collect wounded.   And the Wardmaster said he’d likely send other sections up to the Front later.” 

He hadn’t quite said that those sections would be Collins and Manning’s—but he had said, once he was well into his second or third drink, that what he’d been telling Thomas about keeping out of the other two corporals’ way went “straight out the fucking window, when the serious shit hits.  You’ve done a fuck-load more work under fire than they have put together; if you need to take charge, take fucking charge.”

While Collins and Manning’s sections murmured amongst themselves about that, Drover asked, “What will they have us doing at the Aid Post, exactly?”

So Thomas relayed what the Wardmaster had told him, with more detail.  “Lot of first aid—putting on dressings, giving out morphine to the serious cases, rum and cigarettes to the rest.  Keeping them organized to be moved back, in order of priority.  Officially, the MO does the triage once they’re inside our lines, but if there’s more than he can keep up with, we make the first cut—which ones he needs to see first, which ones can wait, and so on.”  The third category was ones they were going to leave to die, and Thomas was going to have to come out and say that sooner or later, but he’d work up to it, he decided. 

“Which MO do we have?” asked Rawlins. 

“Bloke from the regiment,” Thomas answered.  He hadn’t asked which one, but he didn’t know them, anyway, and doubted anyone else did, either.  “We’ll have his regular team, too—four orderlies and a corporal.  And about twenty stretcher-bearers from the regiment, to help with bringing the wounded in from no-man’s land.”

There was another silence, with even Manning and Collins’s blokes turning to look at him.

“The regiment does most of that, don’t they?” Hutchins asked.  “Bringing in their own?”

“Usually,” Thomas said.  “From patrols and things like that.  But when it’s a Push, they have to keep advancing.  Once they’re done with their job, they’ll be able to come back and help if necessary, but for a while, it’ll just be the ones assigned to stretcher duty, and us.” 

“Bugger me,” said one of the Cockney lads.  Thomas wasn’t looking their direction, so he wasn’t sure which.

“Barrow’s been in no-man’s land hundreds of times,” Rawlins said.  “He’ll tell us how it’s done.”

“Not quite hundreds,” Thomas said.  He’d only been at the Front a few weeks, and he hadn’t gone out every night.  He talked a bit about how to move in no-man’s land—avoiding straight lines, ducking from one shell hole or bit of cover to the next, and avoiding barbed wire.  “And I’m used to doing it in the fucking dark,” he added.  “We’ll be able to see where we’re going.”

“They’ll be able to see us, too,” Drover pointed out. 

“Yeah,” Thomas admitted, “but keep in mind, we’ll be behind the advance—those poor bastards will be standing between us and the enemy.   I’m not saying nothing’s going to get through, but nobody’s going to be aiming at us.  With night work, you have snipers and machine-gunners looking for any hint of movement.  Zero Day, they’re going to be too busy dealing with what’s right on top of them to worry about us at the back of the pack.” 

“Anyway,” Manning pointed out, “there aren’t going to be many of them left alive by the time the infantry goes over the top, let alone you lot.” 

Everyone looked incredibly relieved at that; unfortunately, Thomas couldn’t let it stand.  “That’s the plan,” he said.  “But who’s heard the one about no plan surviving contact with the enemy?”

“I haven’t,” said Plank.

Rawlins thumped him.  “You just did.”

Thomas explained, “It could be they get their reserves into position faster than we think they can, or it could be they’re dug in deep enough to last out the bombardment.”  The Wardmaster had talked about both of those possibilities.  A mate of his, apparently, had been in on the capture of a German trench—one of the few taken at Loos—and had said that, in some places at least, their dugouts were much deeper than the British ones, and some of them—and many of their gun emplacements—were reinforced with concrete.  The Wardmaster had also heard, from yet another mate, this one in the artillery, that most of the barrage was made up of lightweight stuff, which made a lot of noise but wouldn’t penetrate even the average British dugout, let alone the sturdy ones the Germans were rumored to have.  “We won’t know what to expect until we see it, so we need to be ready for anything.” 

“Hear, hear,” said Rawlins.

That night, they were on reserve for night duty, and so they bedded down in the mess.  They’d learned, through experience, that while there was just enough space for everyone to lie down somewhere, with all the tables and benches in situ, whenever anybody got up to go to the latrine, everybody else got woken up by all the banging and swearing as they bumped into furniture and trod on people.  So step one was to pile all the furniture up at one side of the room.  After that, everyone spread out their bedrolls, and then sat up talking for a while. 

Thomas, being a corporal, had a prime spot next to a bit of wall he could lean against until he was ready to lie down.  He was smoking a meditative cigarette when Rawlins squeezed in beside him.  “Reminds me of the old days in the barn,” he commented. 

Thomas knew what he meant—they were less chatty in the barn, now that they were three separate sections with different schedules.  But he said, “I could dump a bucket of water over your head, if you want the full nostalgic experience.” 

“Tempting, but I’ll pass,” Rawlins said.  He lit a cigarette of his own.  “So—how bad does he think it’s going to be?”

The Wardmaster, he meant.  “Bad,” Thomas said.   “Even if the bombardment kills most of them, one man on a machine gun can take out a platoon or two before anyone gets close enough to throw a Mills bomb into the emplacement.”

“The one man has to be a machine-gunner, though, doesn’t he?” Rawlins asked.

“The Wardmaster says his mate says, if their machine guns are anything like ours, it doesn’t take an expert until it jams up or overheats.  It will eventually—they’re finicky—but until then, any bugger off the street can make it go.” 

“Huh,” said Rawlins, pushing closer against Thomas’s side.

“So tomorrow, we’ve got to have a talk with the new blokes about field triage,” he added.  “And about how, if a man’s too far gone to help, but conscious enough to draw attention to himself, the best thing you can do is give him enough morphine to shut him up.” 

Rawlins said, “You mean….”

“If necessary, yeah.” 

“He thinks it’s going to be that bad?”

“Could be.  The other thing we need to talk about is how, if they don’t take the German front line as fast as the brass thinks, we focus on getting the ones close to home.”  The Wardmaster had elaborated on that a bit more, once he’d started drinking, too.  If the fucking Boche are still in ‘active resistance,’ stay outside their wire unless the fucking ruperts give you no choice at all.  “We start with the cases inside our wire, then the ones the middle.  The ones inside the enemy’s wire, and any in a tricky spot, we leave until things cool down.”

Rawlins took a drag from his cigarette.  “Not sure I like that.” 

“If it’s that bad, we’ll have enough to do without looking for extra trouble,” Thomas said.  “And we have to still be standing when it cools down, if we’re going to be able to get them then.  We end up needing help ourselves, we can’t help anyone.”

“Good point.”  He shook his head.  “It’s hard to imagine.  I mean, Rouse talked a little bit about what it was like up at Loos, but….”

“Yeah.”  He hadn’t talked about it much, and that alone had said a lot.  “I don’t expect it’ll be anything we want our grandchildren knowing about.”

“No,” Rawlins agreed.  “We’ll tell ‘em about the barn, and Mittens.”

“Granny’s,” suggested Thomas.  “And how sick we all are of plum-and-apple jam.”

“And I’ll tell ‘em about my best mate from the war.”

“Yeah?” Thomas asked.  “Who’s that?”

Rawlins gave him a dirty look. 

“All right,” Thomas said.  “I guess I’ll tell my imaginary grandchildren about you.”  He was reminded of talking to Peter about the imaginary pub, and whether or not they’d let ones like Syl in. 

“You’re not having any real ones?”

“Servants don’t usually marry,” he said.  That wasn’t the real reason, of course.  “Not in great houses, I mean.  It’s like entering a celibate order.”

“You think you’ll go back to that?” Rawlins asked.

“Haven’t really thought about it.”  If the Big Push actually worked—if Thursday morning was the beginning of the Allied victory—it might not be long before he had to start thinking about it.  “I don’t know what else I’d do.”

“Seems like you could do just about anything,” Rawlins said, yawning.  “You sure took to this like a duck to water.”

There was being able to do it, and then there was being given the chance to try.  Thomas thought about his last real talk with Rouse, about the things Rawlins would never be able to understand.  He didn’t really want to try to explain.  “What about you?  Going back to the paper factory?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rawlins said.  “I suppose I’ll have to.  Won’t be easy, though.  This hasn’t exactly been fun, but it feels like we’re doing something important, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Thomas said, lighting another cigarette.  Mattered more than endlessly polishing the same silver, or carrying food and drink to people who had four perfectly sound limbs of their own.  “Do you suppose there’s much in the way of hospital work, for men?  Or is it all nurses?”

“Don’t know,” Rawlins said.  “You could stay in the RAMC.  Bet the Wardmaster would put in a word for you.”

Thomas hadn’t thought of that.  He turned the idea over in his mind.  “Wouldn’t be like this, though, in peacetime.  Bet it’s a lot more like when we were at the CCS.  Drill and inspections.”

“You’re good at those,” Rawlins pointed out. 

“I am, but if it’s like that, I might as well be a footman again. Same sort of thing, really.” 

“Hm?”  Rawlins gave him a quizzical look.

“Just…polishing things and being invisible,” Thomas said.  “Only indoors.”  And you got to be picked up by your betters in places like the Criterion, instead of Hyde Park.  “There’ll be lots of household looking for men servants, once it’s all over.”  He could name several.  Maybe he could take Syl’s place at Lady M’s.  Or Peter’s, as Sir H.’s valet.  He shuddered a little, involuntarily.

“You all right?” Rawlins asked.  Tucked up against Thomas’s side like he was, he had to have felt it. 

“Someone just walked over me grave,” Thomas said.  “Better talk about something else, yeah?  Be a shame if we queered the whole thing, talking too much about after the war.”

“I suppose it is tempting fate,” Rawlins agreed.  “All right, so what do you suppose Manning will come up with to convince himself he’s got a more important assignment than Collins, even though they’re doing the exact same fucking thing?”

So they talked a bit about that, and then slid into talking about the new men and how they’d bear up, and how superior their section was to Manning’s—he thought the same thing, in reverse, but the difference was that they were right—and so on, until it was time to shout at everyone to stop chattering and go to the fuck to sleep. 

No time at all seemed to pass before Wednesday afternoon was upon them.  Their section had been dismissed to get some sleep—they’d be reporting back at 2 AM, to collect their supplies and then begin making their way through the jam-packed trenches to the Aid Post—but it was pissing down rain, and instead of making the trek to the barn, or even to the new blokes’ tent, they lingered in the orderlies’ room, smoking, drinking tea and speculating about what the dismal weather meant for the attack plans.  The rumors were about sixty-forty in favor of it being postponed, and the bombardment had slowed to a trickle—the big guns didn’t like the wet—but no orders had come in.

“You could go and ask the Wardmaster,” Plank suggested at one point.

“We were dismissed three hours ago,” Thomas pointed out.  “Not sure I want to draw attention to the fact that we haven’t fucking left.” 

“Maybe we’d better go,” Rawlins said.  “You lot in the tent’ll hear, when there’s any news.  One of you can come tell us.” 

Everyone looked at Thomas.  Right—he was the Dad; it was his job to tell them it was past their bedtime.  “I’m not stopping anyone from leaving,” he pointed out, and lit a cigarette.  “I’m gonna smoke this first, though.”

He was just about finished with it when Sergeant Purbright turned up.  “Orders just came in,” he said.  “Whole show’s pushed back forty-eight hours.”

“Thank Christ,” said Rawlins. 

“Amen,” said one of the Cockneys. 

“Any word on what we’re supposed to do?” Thomas asked.  “We were off duty until 2 AM.”

“Yes,” said Purbright.  “The Wardmaster says that since you’re all so fucking keen that you’re still here when you’re supposed to be asleep, you can take the next ambulance that comes in.” He bestowed a smirk on them before leaving.

“Oh, fuck,” said Thomas.  Unloading an ambulance in the pouring rain was never fun—and it was likely to be hours before it came in, but if they were first up for it, they couldn’t risk going anywhere or doing anything else, in case it was early.

Sitting here wasting time had been perfectly fine when they could stop any time they wanted, but it was not quite as enjoyable now that they had no choice. 

“Honestly, it beats going up to the Front in this slop,” Rawlins pointed out. 

That was true, but if they had actually left when they were supposed to, chances were fairly good they could have celebrated the news of the postponement by going out for a drink.  Now, by the time they were set free, the estaminets would be crammed to capacity, every bugger else having had the same idea. 

Still, nobody was too down in the dumps about it, especially once it turned out that Ericson had gotten a parcel yesterday, which contained a large cake.  The new blokes had been planning a midnight feast before reporting in that night, but having been just reminded how quickly things could change, in war, Ericson was readily persuaded that now was as good a time as any to eat it. 

The next morning, the section was on the wards like any other day, tending patients who had come in during the night.  Thomas happened to be in Officers’ Medical, and one lightly-wounded Captain, throughout breakfast, kept taking out his watch and checking it.  The reason finally became plain when, as Thomas and the others were clearing away the dishes, he announced, “Seven-thirty.” 

Zero Hour for the attack.  If not for the postponement, the officers on the Front would be blowing their whistles, and the men would be going over the top.  For a long moment, no one said anything.  Thomas and the rest paused in their work, half listening—or at least Thomas was—for some change in the sound of the guns. 

Finally, one of the other officers said, “Christ, why’d you have to say that?”

They all shook it off and moved on, but somehow, the pronouncement left Thomas with a queer, unsettled feeling, like he’d fallen through to the other side of the looking-glass, and out in the real world, the great offensive had begun, unheard and unseen, but just barely felt, by those of them trapped—or sheltered—in the mirror.

The sense of eerie unreality persisted most of the way through to the new Zero Day.  Not all the time; just a flash of it, now and then.  Thursday evening, when he and Rawlins slipped out for dinner at Granny’s, Thomas dined on mirror trout, and later that night, when they were called out of their bedrolls in the mess to receive three loaded ambulances, Thomas thought, for a dizzying split second between asleep and awake, that the casualties must have fallen through the mirror from the battle outside. (Really, a shell had fallen short into a crowded assembly trench.)

Friday, thankfully, no one drew attention to 7:30 AM, and Thomas thought little about the mirror world, except when the Wardmaster called him in for a glass of mirror-Armagnac and a few words of advice, and then again when he returned to the barn to sleep in the afternoon—they weren’t making the same mistake twice—and he marveled that the mirror-cat made the same comforting weight on his ribs as the real one. 

The mirror was very much on Thomas’s mind as they collected their supplies at the station, and again as they passed the collecting post and entered the communication trench, but he didn’t feel it, not in that eerily immediate way.  The trenches were jam-packed, men trying to catch a little sleep in any spot they could, others sitting up and smoking, writing letters, or trying to sing, a hymn here, a music-hall tune there, even a group of dark-skinned men in turbans, singing in their native language. 

It was slow going in the crowded trenches, and they took a wrong turn once, into an assembly trench that hadn’t been there the last time Thomas had been this far forward.  It was about four-thirty, when they got to the Aid Post.  The night was quiet—no shortfalls in this sector, tonight—and there was only one orderly awake inside the Aid Post.  Thomas was, somehow, completely unsurprised to see that it was Rouse. 

He was a little bit surprised to see that he had his stripes back, though. 

“Hey,” Rouse said.  “Wondered if it’d be you.”  He explained that the medical officer—a Captain Rankin—would brief them at 6:30, and that until then, they could rest in the storage dugout.  “But keep it down,” he said.  “It’s possible somebody managed to get to sleep.”

Once the others had crammed themselves into the storage dugout, Thomas lit a cigarette, and, without discussion, the three of them—Thomas, Rouse, and Rawlins—sat on the steps leading into the dugout, as they had sat on the barracks steps so many times the past winter. 

It was not quite as comfortable, in the sweltering heat of the first of July, as it had been in winter, but Thomas found he didn’t mind.  He put his head on Rawlins’s shoulder, like he had that one time when he’d been half-sedated and sick with missing Peter.  His left elbow, trapped between him and Rawlins, pressed his cigarette case against his ribcage.  He wouldn’t look at it—he couldn’t afford to be that distracted—but he wanted it with him, for this.

Some three hours later, the whistles blew, and the mirror shattered.  Thomas and the others were in the communication trench—Captain Rankin had posted them to the firing trench, to begin retrieving wounded “as soon as the advance has moved beyond them,” but there wasn’t room for them to squeeze in, so they’d gotten as close as they could.  At the moment the whistle blew, men began swarming up the ladders.

It was only seconds—perhaps five, perhaps two—before the first one fell back in.  Someone shouted for a stretcher bearer, and Thomas took the nearest man—it was one of the Cockneys—and began fighting his way forward.  By the time they got to the first casualty, four or five more had fallen, and an officer was waving his sidearm and shouting, “Get your arses up those ladders, you sons-of-mothers!”

The man who had caught the first one to fall shoved him in Thomas’s direction and gave him a wide-eyed look before turning to get his arse up the ladder.

The casualty was dead; he’d been drilled right through the forehead, like an ox being slaughtered.  Thomas and the Cockney lad—it was Eakins—dragged him out of the way.  They found a dugout nearby—someone’s sleeping-place, maybe even this man’s—and put him inside.  By now, the rest of the section had made their way into the trench, and were attending to the others who had fallen back in—at least a dozen by now. 

Hutchins and Babcock approached, carrying an obviously-dead man between them.  “Is this where we’re putting them?” asked Babcock.

“Yeah,” Thomas said, and raised his voice.  “Dead in here.  Anybody got a live one?”

“Here,” said Plank, raising his hand, like they were in a classroom. 

The man’s chest was blown open, but Plank had gotten his field dressing out, and was lashing it in place in approved fashion.  “Right,” Thomas said.  Finding a larger dugout, he designated that one for triage C’s—hopeless cases—and helped Plank put the first one in there.  “A’s on the fire step,” he reminded everyone.  A’s were priority cases—the ones that had a chance, but needed immediate attention.  They didn’t have any A’s yet. 

They started getting B’s—cases that could wait for attention—almost immediately, though, as they crawled back to the trench and dropped in.  Thomas designated another sizeable dugout for them, and as he started slapping field dressings on them, told them to make their own way back to the Aid Post, when and if they felt able.  “It’s bad out there,” he said.  “Might be a while before anyone can help you.”

“Barrow!” someone yelled from outside the dugout.  “We’ve got more!”

“Put ‘em somewhere!” he yelled back.  Then, to the men inside the dugout, he said, “If you have use of both your hands, put your own field dressing on—then check if the bloke to either side needs help with his.  Understand?”

Getting a few nods of assent, he ran back outside.  A few more dead had dropped out of the sky, and a great many more walking wounded.  And one who’d dragged himself back with his arms, by the look of it, trailing his intestines behind him.  Drover, who was helping him over the parapet, stumbled backward and vomited. 

A man who should be dead, but isn’t, the Wardmaster had said.  Thomas’s hands shook, as he reached inside his haversack for a syringe and a bottle of morphine.  But they only shook a little. 

Once it was over, Babcock appeared at his side, and wordlessly handed Thomas a bayonet, dropped by one of the first casualties. 

Thomas felt a glimmer of understanding of how others felt when they heard the Hand Story.  Because yes, obviously, they couldn’t leave him hanging there, halfway in the trench—not with the second wave already coming up the communication trench, and it would take a hell of a lot more than “sons of mothers” to get them over the top if they saw that—and nobody was going out there to untangle the rest of him from the barbed wire, so there was really only one thing to do, but….

But Thomas found the place inside his head where he had lived, those first few months that he was here.  He’d never quite noticed when he left that place, but now that he needed to be there again, it was as though he never had. 

“Ta,” he said, took the bayonet, and cut the body free, so they could move it out of the way.  They had it stowed in the mortuary dugout just as the second wave came up. 

The second wave made it a little further than the first—at least, only two of them fell back into the trench before they’d finished leaving it, and it took a few moments for walking wounded to start making their way back in.  While the others dealt with them, Thomas had a look through the trench periscope.  Captain Rankin had said they’d probably make their “first foray to retrieve wounded” between the second and third waves, but he’d also said that they should wait until the first wave was inside the German wire, and “any surviving enemy are fully engaged with countering the advance.”

If they waited for that, they’d never have to go, since as far as Thomas could tell, all of the first wave was lying on the ground.  Some obviously dead, some crawling back toward the trench—a few, absurdly, crawling the opposite direction, still trying to advance. 

Thomas supposed they’d gone someplace inside their heads, too. 

“Do we have to go out yet?” someone asked.  One of the new men.  Thomas couldn’t be bothered thinking about their names. 

“Not yet,” he said.  “Maybe after the next wave.” 

In fact, it was two more waves before any appreciable number of troops survived as far as the German wire.  The wave after that, most of them made it that far. 

Thomas was pretty sure that meant the enemy was fully engaged.  He called his section together. 

“It’s time,” he said.  “We go out in pairs.  First up are me and Wallace, Rawlins and Ericson, Hutchins and Babcock.  Widener’ll assign the rest of the pairs.  First three pairs go out one right after the other; after that, one pair gets back, the next goes out.  Don’t spend any more time out there than you have to.  Before you go, take a look through the periscope, pick out somebody you can tell is alive—make sure you and your partner are both looking at the same one—and that’s inside our wire.  Well inside.  We’re not staying out there long enough to untangle anybody, this time around—if you get to your bloke and realize he’s entangled, pick somebody else.  Understand?”

They nodded. 

“Remember what we talked about—we get the easy ones first, because that’s how we bring in the most.  Let’s try and do three trips each, then we stop and take stock of what we’ve got.  All right?”

More nods. 

That was all Thomas really had to say, but he realized, belatedly, that he should have thought up an inspiring way to end this speech.  Peter would have had some idea of the right thing to say.  But what?  “This is a shit job,” he said, “but somebody’s got to do it.”  Probably not that.  “If anybody has a good reason it shouldn’t be us, I’m all fucking ears.”  Definitely not that. 

Thomas hadn’t been trying to be funny, but they laughed at that, and it made the moment seem less fraught, at least.  “Nobody?  All right, then I guess we’re it.  Let’s go.”

 They went. 

Had anyone asked Thomas, at that moment, he’d have said that—place he’d gone inside his head notwithstanding—he had just as much desire to live as the next bloke.  He’d have gone on saying that as he and Wallace scrambled back into the trench with their first casualty, and as they picked up their    second.  He’d even have said it as they scrambled back out of the trench after their third. 

But when it came—a blow to the chest like a kick from a carthorse—it came as the answer to a question he’d asked a year and two months ago.  When he’d taken the telegram out of the boy’s hand, the boy who was haloed in sunlight like a saint at the kitchen door of Downton Abbey, he had blinked, and then the door had been closed, and Anna had been standing beside him, with tears in her eyes. 

Now, he was back inside that moment, the eternity of that eye-blink.  Falling, weightless, through a void of unfathomable depth.

And when he hit the ground, of a field in the Somme River valley of northern France, his last thought, before darkness swallowed him whole, was finally.

Chapter Text

Thomas opened his eyes to a rough plank ceiling, patched here and there with bits of sacking.  His thoughts were strangely slow, like moving underwater, and for a moment he considered where he might be.  Then there was a crump, and fine soil sifted down on him from between the boards. 

The Aid Post.  He had a vague idea that it had been a long time since he’d been at the Aid Post, but it didn’t seem particularly important.  He looked at the ceiling for a while, until it occurred to him to turn his head.

There was daylight coming in from the main room.  Daylight, and men’s voices.  Some groaning in pain, some speaking low and urgently—“Get that,” “This one next,” and things of that nature. 

Casualties, then.  It was daytime, he was sleeping in the Aid Post, and there were casualties.  Those facts added up to something, but it was a long moment before he figured out that what they added up to, was that he ought to get up and help. 

It took another long moment for him to remember how to start doing that.  Step one was to sit up, he recalled. 

So he tried to do that, and a tiger ripped its claws through his shoulder.  He shouted, and slumped back down onto the thin pillow.  “Oh, fuck.” 

Someone came in.  “Barrow?  What are you—oh, bloody hell.” 

It was Rouse.  That made sense.  He was supposed to be here.  Him and Jessop and Allenby.  “Something’s wrong,” Thomas managed to say, panting through the pain. 

“I know,” said Rouse, looming over him.  How, when he was so short, and Thomas was on the top bunk, he had no idea.  “Lay still.  Captain!” he yelled over his shoulder.

Another face loomed over him.  Not Captain Allenby, but vaguely familiar.  “Again?  All right, get that dressing….”

“He’s gonna bleed out if he doesn’t stay quiet,” Rouse said. 

“Get a syringe, then,” the vaguely-familiar Captain said.

“You sure?” Rouse asked.  “He’s had a lot.”

“Do you want his autonomic nervous system suppressed, or do you want him to bleed out?”

They said some more things, but Thomas didn’t catch them.  The cat with many names licked at his elbow, then sunk in a single claw, and the darkness swallowed Thomas up again.

#

Jessop stood in the doorway to Tully’s office.  He was on the telephone, arguing with somebody about stretchers.  His tunic was off—slung over the back of his chair—and there was a glass at his elbow.  “If you don’t send the fucking things back, we won’t have any to put the next lot on.  I don’t give a fuck.  You want my lads to carry them up out of the trenches piggy-back?  Figure it out.”  He banged the receiver down and lifted his glass.

“Tully,” Jessop said, before he could drink. 

Tully waved him in.  “What now?”

“Barrow came in on the last convoy.  I thought you’d want to know.”

“Barrow?  Why did he—”   Jessop watched as Tully realized why.  “Merciful Christ,” Tully swore.  Or prayed.  It was hard to tell.  “How bad is it?” he asked, standing up and grabbing his tunic in one motion, then shrugging it on as he walked toward Jessop.

“Shoulder,” Jessop said, falling into step beside him.  “Walking case, technically, but they gave him enough morphine to stop a horse—he kept trying to get up and work.”

Typical of the lad, really, and Jessop thought Tully might be glad to hear it, but he just gave him a baleful look.  “Where is he?”

“Out in the tent, with the other walkers.”  The proper wards were jam-packed with stretcher cases; most of the walking cases weren’t even seen by a medical officer before they were loaded onto the next rearward convoy. 

“Fuck that,” said Tully. 

The lad was sitting where Jessop had left him, propped up against one of the tent poles.  Jessop had left him a pack of cigarettes and a water-bottle full of tea, but it didn’t look like he’d touched either.  Tully got down on the ground in front of him.  “Son?  How’re you feeling?”

Barrow raised his head slightly, and mumbled something that might have been “Wardmaster.” 

Tully reached toward the dressing on his shoulder, then sat back on his heels, looking around.  Jessop grabbed a bottle of disinfectant from a nearby crate and handed it to him.  “Apparently he’s been sloshing the stuff on every time he comes round enough to think of it,” Jessop said.  “His uniform’s soaked with it—but God knows how much he actually managed to get into the wound.”

Tully poured some of the disinfectant onto his hands.  “Find another dressing.”

By the time Jessop returned with one, Tully had peeled away the old dressing, exposing a ragged, bloody hole, just below the collarbone and halfway between the neck and shoulder.   Barrow’s head was drooping, his eyes half-closed.   “When?” Tully asked.

“Morning,” Jessop said.  “Zero-plus-one, or so.” About twelve hours ago.  “His mate—the Rouse lad—was at the Aid Post.  Kept an eye on him.”  That can’t have been easy, as busy as the Aid Post would have been. 

Tully grunted.  “It’s messy as fuck, but can’t have hit anything vital,” he said, pouring antiseptic into the wound.  It had to have hurt, but the lad didn’t react.  “Way you can tell is, he’s still alive.”

“Aye.”  An inch or two either way, the bullet could have hit the aorta, or the jugular.  Or nicked a lung.  “He’s right that infection is the thing to worry about.”  That and blood loss—it was slow enough for now, but a messy wound like that, you never knew when something else would spring a leak. 

Tully re-bandaged the wound, wiped his hands on a rag, and left the tent, beckoning Jessop to follow him.  Once they were out of hearing of the other walking cases, Tully said, “Find me a bed.”

Jessop hesitated.  It was their lad, he understood that, but they weren’t putting walking cases on the ward.  “We’ll be loading a convoy in a couple hours.” 

“He’s not going.”  Tully shook his head.  “They won’t do anything we can’t do here—probably just put him on a train to Boulogne without a second look.  We’ll keep him here until things slow down.”

Jessop didn’t want to argue with him.  You didn’t make exceptions, in a situation like this, with casualties coming in faster than you could count them.  You followed procedure, because that was how you saved the most lives. 

But this was their lad.  “You sure?”

“I sent him down there to get shot, Jess,” Tully said.  “I’m not sending him to bleed out halfway to fucking Boulogne, stuffed in a cattle car with sixty other butchered kids.  I’m not.”

He probably wouldn’t bleed out.  But somebody would.  In the convoy that had brought Barrow from the collecting post—a journey of not much more than half an hour—at least two men had gotten on as walking wounded and been carried off as corpses.  When you put fifty or sixty light cases into a cattle car, or a charabanc, or a hay wagon, for a rough journey with little or no medical attendance, some of them were bound to develop fatal complications—a pretty way of saying “die before anyone notices.”   It wasn’t any less likely to happen to Barrow than to any of the others.  Nor any more likely.  “All right,” Jessop said. 

“Just find me a bed.  I’m the fucking Wardmaster, and I want him on a fucking ward.”

“I’m going.”

“And get word to young Allenby.  He’ll want to have a look at him.”

#

Thomas was vaguely aware, at a few points, of the slog back to the collecting post, with Rouse propping him up like a human crutch, and half-dragging him along.  And then of sitting alongside the road in a line of wounded men, and of squeezing into some kind of open cart, and being herded toward a tent that glowed from within like a Chinese lantern, and then sitting again.  Jessop may have been there at some point, and possibly even the Wardmaster, but that part might have been a dream. 

The next time he really woke up, though, was to find himself on a ward.  Someone had tucked him into one of the beds, for some reason, and he tried to sit up, but someone said, “Easy, now,” and pushed him back down with a hand on his good shoulder.  Captain Allenby.  “If you move around too much, you’ll start it bleeding again, and I’ve just got it stopped.”

That’s right—he was wounded.  That was why he was lying down.  “How,” he said.  He’d wanted to ask how bad it was, but the rest of the words swam away from him.

“Your friends brought you in as far as the collecting post,” Captain Allenby explained, “and Sergeant Tully wanted you put on a ward.  It’s not too bad, though.  No signs of infection so far.  We’ve just got to keep an eye on the bleeding.  I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared behind the screens that were set up around the bed.

Screens.  That was important, somehow.  But Thomas couldn’t remember how, before he went under again.

#

It was about 2 AM—only 24 hours since they’d left—when Rawlins and the rest of the section stumbled back into the 47th

Well, most of them.  Barrow had come back several hours before, and Drover never would. 

They had only a few hours before they’d have to go back out again, but when they finished stuffing some food down their gullets, and the others began dragging themselves off in search of a flat place to lie down, Rawlins went looking for Corporal Jessop, instead. 

He found him in the courtyard, seeing off a rearward convoy.  Rawlins wondered if he might be too late. 

If Barrow might have been sent out on the convoy, that is.  Not the other kind of too late. 

But Jessop said, “No, he’s on C block, Officers’ Medical.” 

Rawlins gave him a puzzled look.

“It’s just where we had a place,” Jessop explained.   “The Wardmaster wanted ‘im on a ward, and Captain Allenby’s in charge of that one.  We knew he wouldn’t mind.”

Of course—Captain Allenby liked Barrow, too.  “So he’s all right, then?”

“Well enough,” Jessop said.  “Go on, then, but don’t wake him if he’s asleep.”

Even with the convoy having just left, C Block Officers’ Medical was crowded—every bed full, and stretchers placed in between them.  An orderly who was doing patient checks replied, when Rawlins said as much, “This?  We’re practically empty now, compared to how it was—we had so many of ‘em on the floor you couldn’t hardly step for them.”

“We’ll be bringing them in from No-Man’s Land for days,” Rawlins predicted.  “We’d