The old man picked his way up the long road from Verdun. He skirted mules carrying bread, horse drawn wagons full of supplies, the endless procession of coughing munitions trucks and the equally endless procession of ambulances creeping back the other way. No one tried to stop him. He had been here before and they knew his white hair, weathered face, and bandy legged walk. Besides, they had too much of their own cares to be concerned about this man in his tweed jacket and bright rimmed glasses, who seemed hell bent on getting in harms way.
The old man had indeed been here before. It was a trek he knew well but these days the incline up onto the escarpment above Verdun caught his breath and he paused now and then to regroup and to pull out his old tin of cigarettes, light up another and then keep trudging. He had been smoking them ever since the battle started and the pungent scent somehow took him to other places, away from the horrors of what he lived through.
He made his way to the observation post at the back of Fort Souville. A new redoubt had been dug and 8 inch guns installed on the highest point, guns that remained hidden until they were ready to fire, were levered out of the ground under their armoured domes by a steam contraption, fired their shot and eased back into hiding until ready for the next round. An observation post called the fire and helped coordinate equally well hidden machine gun posts. That observation post was probably the most well protected piece of infrastructure on the front. Encased in metres and metres of cement it had shaken its occupants badly when directly hit. Their ears and eyes bled and for one unfortunate his lungs ruptured. But there it stood, impervious to everything thrown at it.
All around the mud was mixed up with broken steel and smashed trees, shattered wagons and blasted vehicles. Tens of thousands of shell fragments, all with razor edges, lay about. The old man stepped along the resupply track to the fort and up to the redoubt of heavy guns, carefully picked his way over the debris, cursed the mud on his coat and made towards a young man. He would talk with him if he could.
At the entrance to a small stone doorway which led into a tunnel that opened into the base of the post a young man sat smoking. Smoking in a smoking field with debris flung about and men moving about in silence. It was quiet, for the fog had settled in. It had rained the night before and the stony yellow shale did little to ease the stickiness and slipperiness of the mud. So he had not ventured too far from the tunnel and it’s safety. But out here the air was a little clearer and sometimes he needed to breath it. The Germans shelled the ravines to his left where they knew supplies were being drawn up but for the moment they left the fort alone. The old man seemed to know this, or simply didn’t care. He nodded to the young smoker, who motioned for him to sit, then held out his tin of cigarettes in offering. The old man looked around, drew up a broken ammunition box and fumbled in the tin before pocketing the gift. He was still smoking his own. He’d finish that first. Besides, the smokes on offer were slightly damp, marked with the muddy fingers of the young man who had rolled them that morning.
The old man felt he had no time to waste. There was no polite introduction. But he had met this young lad before.
‘You should never come back here. Never visit it. Don’t come looking for old friends.’
‘Old friends? I have none left now. I’m the only one remaining of those who enlisted together. Have you not seen the enlistment photos? I’m the only face left.’
‘I’ve seen them. But I beg you, don’t come up here. You’ll want to come and look. And not just for friends. For meaning. And for God.’
‘You think my friends might still be here?’
‘Oh they’re here alright. But you’ll never speak with them again. Not directly. You’ll return from this war and cry out for men to speak with about what you know. But everyone will say ‘We have been there too’ and you will be embarrassed to speak because you don’t want to burden them. So you will shut your mouth and carry your burden alone. But each day you carry it, that burden will gain a little weight. The weight of memories that burn brighter every day. The weight of voices lost. The weight of love abandoned. The weight of opportunities you know you passed up because you lost courage. The weight of friendships resisted because you thought none would care. Only your enlistment friends could ever listen but they are deaf now. To you. To this madness. To God. And to the devil too I would add, for even he could not invent such a place, and he stays away from something even he does not understand.’
The young man drew on his cigarette and turned his ear to the sound of guns that rumbled and crashed from the valley below. He sensed nothing coming their way so stayed where he was. The old man heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing. His ears had been perforated so long ago when he was caught barely back in the safety of the tunnel in a crashing explosion by heavy artillery that had this position well plotted by distance and bearing. He was hard pressed to hear anything, though the mice behind the skirting in his crumbling house caught his attention in the stillness of the night.
‘And stay away from drink. That’s not the answer.’
‘But I don’t drink. I took a vow.’
‘Vows leach out of your heart and, along with everything else you held true, become meaningless in this place. I walk this town and all I see are men who can do nothing except talk to the bottle. They did not drown in the mud up here so they would drown in a puddle of their own making.
‘And God will think less of me for that.’
‘God is not here. He never was. He abandoned the hearts of men who built this place and he certainly refuses to enter this monument we have built. This terrible, terrible, monument to, to… I no longer know what it’s a monument for. It’s not even a monument to death you know. I have come to understand how death is a part of life, but this boil on the arse of the devil could never be considered life.’
‘You have a melancholy view of what we do here. The heart of France is at stake.’
The old man snorted. ‘Your friends think the sacrifice worth it? We fight for what? Honour? To keep the enemy from marching in Paris? Why don’t we let them? They all go home in the end. Have done over the centuries. I can see that now. If we let them come and go all these lives would not be lost. Your friends would not be compost out there in those shell holes.’
The young man shrugged. This was not the language of 1916. It was not the language of youthful ambition or patriotism. It was nothing like he ever heard and it was not something he understood so he kept silent. The old man continued.
‘But he returns you know. Or I hope he does. God that is. He has abandoned this place for a while. But he comes back and draws his hand over this ground and makes it soft again. He hides all this under moss and leaves. This machine and those who design and operate it vanish. The steel edges become velvet and the only person I can imagine who can do that is God himself. Man wrecks and God corrects.’
The young man looked about at the grey and white desolation among which he sat. ‘Really? You think this place can be made good again? Where would anyone start?’
The old man had no answer. He hoped in the depths of his heart that God still watched this place and that he could work some magic over it. What else was there to hope for when everything was lost? His talking was done and the two sat in companionable silence, each lost, alone in the thoughts of an age and generation. The old man took out his tin of cigarettes and placed it on the crate while he searched about for his matches. It was a ritual search that had started in the war and was one he had never been able to stop. Like a bad habit, or twitch, which he could not escape. He blamed the artillery.
The young smoker flicked the last of his cigarette into the mud and scrambled from his seat. A tremor in his soul made him leap the last few metres for the entrance to the passage into the observation post. He had barely made it when the sulphuric concussion of a 150mm shell caught him and smashed him to the ground. He staggered to his feet, ears and eyes awash with blood. As he wrenched the steel door closed he looked out across the mudscape. There was no sign of his fellow smoker.
The old man turned away, stepped down the crater lip made by a 150mm shell, up the other side then followed the path that ran around the top edge of the remainder, around and around, up and down until he was down the track, and the fort was lost in the fog of water and time behind him. The desolation of the place weighed in on him. He had stayed away a whole lifetime and now he regretted ever coming here. His thoughts were clear and without distraction, for the sodden cushioning of last season’s leaves covered the ground. ‘God never came back here after all. I thought he would. It’s the only thing that gave me comfort in that post.’ And he plodded on, head down while a quiet despair washed over him.
The mud under his feet was as it always was, that whitish yellow muck that was ever slippery. He paused to negotiate a section of track churned up by cyclists and as he did so his eye was caught by one of numerous craters, tinted it seemed by red from the maple tree leaves that lay at its bottom. Red, he mused. But such an interesting shape. He shook his head, as if to clear it. He was not one for omens and a heart shaped puddle with a slight tincture of red was not for him. If he had any mind for such things it had been bled out of him a life time ago. He stilled his breathing, watching the vapour of his breath in the still air. The slight crack of a twig caught his perforated ear and he stared into the forest of pine ahead. And even as he looked he caught in full flight a young doe airborne across the track, forelegs tucked back, hind legs extended, neck stretched. ‘I’m dreaming’ he thought as his chest squeezed and his eyes welled. But the mud told him another story and, even though he was not given to omens the old man took note of the wren that flitted up the ivy covered birch beside the track, spotted as he straightened up from inspecting the cloven imprint of the deer.
He reached into his jacket for his tin of smokes but couldn’t find it. He patted the pockets of his vest and, puzzled, checked his jacket again. Deep in the bottom of the pocket, caught in a life time of lint and toffee wrappers was a single cigarette. It was damp, and tainted by the muddy hands of an observer who had taken a break from the battle such a short time ago. He lit it up, lifted his chin and strode out of the forest, down out of the fog and into a day that hinted at the possibility of blue sky. It was a long walk back to town but his heart beat a little faster. God, it would seem, even if he had tarried, might well be back.