CASUALTIES OF WAR
By Steve Emmerson
© Steve Emmerson 2000
19th March, 1918
The cries in the night were terrible things. They echoed with an eerie hollowness, amplified by the luxuriously spacious rooms that made up Hawkswick Hall.
Corporal John Sykes lay awake, fully dressed in khaki kit, listening to the shrieks. Every night, the same torment. Every morning he woke with the same dark bags under his eyes. He wondered which was best sometimes. This nightmare world, or the one in the trenches. Both were filled with dead men. Except the dead men here still screamed.
Sometimes he even considered making a request for an early board. Get himself back to the front. Get himself over the top to find a final release from this Hell. But Sykes had a wife and a baby. He found Lily’s face in his dreams, her eyes swelling with tears as he boarded the train. And most nights he woke with his pillow soaking wet. There are many kinds of wounds, he’d learned. And the worst of them weren’t visible at all.
Lifting his watch into the moonlight, Sykes saw that it was almost 0100 hours. He should be in the land of nod now, being plundered by the Germans and murdered in his sleep. Reliving the horrors like everybody else in this god-forsaken place. But instead he was waiting for Collins so they could pursue their crazy scheme of getting into the good Doctor’s secret room in the cellar. Now the time had arrived, Sykes was beginning to have doubts. If Dr Banham wanted to vanish into a locked room every night when he thought nobody was watching, who were they to pry? Even if Collins insisted that Banham was up to no bloody good down there, and even if he had heard screams coming from the room, which Sykes doubted anyway, surely it was the man’s own personal business?
There was a light knock at the door, and it swept open to reveal Lance Corporal Collins’ shadowy face peering at him. Sykes swung his legs off the bed and waved Collins in.
‘Did you get it?’ Sykes whispered.
Collins waved a large key through the air between them, a Cheshire Cat grin slapped across his scarred face.
‘You ready?’ Collins asked.
He reminded Sykes of a kid on a night-time raid on the apple orchard. Except that most kids Sykes knew didn’t have half their heads blown off in the mud of Ypres.
‘Yea. Come on.’
They left the room together and ventured silently into the large corridor that was the first floor landing. It never failed to amaze Sykes that people could live like this. This landing alone was as long and wide as his street back home. The rooms off to each side were bigger than the entire houses most of these men would normally live in. And this was the home of a single family. There must be more servants than family in a house this size. Sykes wondered what the lord of this particular manor was doing in the War. Very doubtful he was on the front line, knee deep in shit and splashed guts, shoving shells into mortars one after another faster than you could shoot the bloody things off. That wasn’t a job for the gentry. Oh no. He was probably sat with others of his kind round a secret smoky table. Sipping bourbon. Deciding which battalion was to be sacrificed tomorrow for another two feet of advance, just for the Hun to reclaim it the day after with more slaughter and more dead Allies lost to the mud of No Man’s Land–
‘Shh-’ Collins stopped abruptly and they both listened.
‘Thought I heard somebody sneaking about.’
Sure enough, Sykes heard it as well. Shuffling in the dark downstairs. They crept to the banister and cautiously looked over. At first the hall was empty. Then they saw a solitary figure darting silently about, nipping from one shadow to another. The man wore pyjamas, standard issue, but had nothing on his feet. He crouched low by the door to the drawing room, listening to the silence inside, then glared fearfully at the surrounding emptiness. Suddenly he was scuttling like a spider, then he was gone.
‘Just Richardson,’ Sykes whispered. ‘Poor sod.’
‘Don’t think Banham’s sludge therapy’s gonna do much for ’im, d’you?’
‘Don’t think anything short of a bullet’s going to be much help to Richardson,’ Sykes agreed solemnly.
Some of these men would be better face down in the mud than returned to Blighty. Some of them were such hopeless cases they’d never see civilisation again. Dead or Mad. Hobson’s.
‘Come on,’ Sykes hissed, making a move to descend the stairs.
They advanced in complete silence until they reached the door to the basement. There they stopped, eyes flashing white in the black. The house had taken on an expectant, brittle silence. A stillness between the screams of terror. Sykes became aware of the scent of perspiration mixed with stale cigarette-smoke coming from Collins. The air was cold but Sykes felt hot and anxious. Satisfied that nobody had heard their movements, he grasped the door handle and they plunged into the impenetrable blackness of the basement. The door sliced shut, and the narrow wedge of pale light extinguished.
‘Did you bring a torch?’ Collins breathed.
‘Did I buggery.’
‘Got any matches?’
There was the sound of fumbling, followed by a sharp scratch and a puff! of light. Collins’ features looked to Sykes even more horrific with their shifting shadows, like dark things alive crawling across his pitted face. The man’s eyes were sulphurous yellow. The match reeked like spent artillery. Sykes found himself shivering, unable to shake the ghosts of the trenches.
‘Gi’s a kiss,’ Collins said.
Both men burst into a brief fit of laughter, before Collins led the way with the match.
The basement steps were narrow and built of creaking wood. They groaned under the weight of the two men, until Sykes and Collins reached the solid floor.
The air was thick with a damp, musty smell. Sykes recognised it from the yard at the back of his house, where the privy stood only four strides from the back door and the brick walls were gooey with bright green mould. As they moved with care through the dark, Collins leading the way with the match, Sykes found himself thinking again of Lily. He wondered what she was doing now. He wondered if she was thinking about him. If little Annie was being good. Most probably howling the house down, starving, cold and lice-ridden. Sykes wished he could be there with them. Wished he was lying with Lily, keeping warm in their bed rather than sneaking about like a big kid.
‘D’you wanna wait here?’ Collins asked, striking up a second match.
‘Keep an eye out for Banham. Probably due for his visit any time.’
‘Why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go have a look?’
‘After all the trouble I went to to get this?’ Collins waved the key. ‘No chance.’
‘I could order you - ’
Collins laughed, his bad breath cascading in a cloud that engulfed Sykes.
‘Don’t try to pull rank on me, Sykesy. We’re in civvies now, remember.’
‘I’m still one stripe up on you, Joey, whether we’re in Blighty or Berles.’
‘Well I got the key, so that puts me one up on you, way I sees it.’
Sykes surrendered. ‘Go on then. Hurry up. It’s bloody cold standing about down here.’
Striking another match, Collins moved off into the dark, humming as he went ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. Sykes picked up the tune, his foot tapping irresistibly, his mind flooded with images of long blistering marches through the bleak French countryside.
From his position on the corner, Sykes could see back the way they had come, though he could make out no detail. Just black shadow with ashen apparitions skulking in the corners. He could see Collins twenty yards away, hunched by the door to Banham’s room, toying with the key in the lock. Probably wouldn’t work after all this arsing about.
A loud click echoed down the corridor and Sykes saw Collins give a brief thumbs-up before vanishing into the room. The basement was now completely black. Sykes resumed his rendition of ‘Tipperary’, humming to himself while he waited.
They’d find nothing in there. Probably full of photos of naked Victorian ladies. Maybe one of those ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines. Behind the professional mask Banham was probably a seething mass of unexpressed lechery. After all, who psycho-analyses the psycho-analysers? The man’s mind was probably corrupted with years’-worth of his patients’ filth and debauchery. Probably poisoned with the unholy nightmares of –
Collins’ scream knocked Sykes out of his reverie. He lurched down the corridor towards the door.
His voice came as a desperate rasp, coarse with ragged breath.
No answer. The bastard was having him on.
Sykes discovered the door slightly ajar. He grasped the handle and pushed fearfully. There was no light inside the room. No glow from Collins’ match.
‘Joe? Stop pissing about, Joe.’
Scuff of motion. Shadow curled. Sykes saw a shape detach itself from the gloom and approach. For a second he thought it was Collins. Then he felt the cold steel muzzle on his forehead. For the merest moment he thought he saw eyeless sockets gazing at him from the dark. A skeletal face with torn flesh hanging from the jaw. He thought he smelled the stench of rotting human bodies. The reek of the trench. It filled his nostrils and made his stomach lurch. His heart blasted like a steam hammer and he wanted to wake up screaming.
Then the pistol exploded and he never woke again.