A hundred years today an armistice signed between the Allies and Germany put an end to the Great War. We know it now as World War I but at the time, no one imagined there could ever be a second world war so they called it the Great War assuming such turmoil could never take place again. It's a fascinating war on a number of levels and one with a history that should be better taught at least in America (a country that was so removed from it geographically that we sat out most of it. Interesting, considering how many in this nation of immigrants had families that hailed from the countries involved).
When trying to dream up an origin for the main vampire in To Touch the Sun, I was inspired by F.W. Murnau, the director of "Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror" who found his own inspiration in the vampire tales told to him by locals while serving on the Eastern Front of WW I. I decided that my protagonist, Narain Khan, would find his vampiric transformation after an attack by feral vampires on the field of "No Man's Land". Of course, like so many others, the war itself had already begun transforming him long before that.
The following is an excerpt from To Touch the Sun: Book 1 in The Chicago Vampire Series in which Narain tells his friend Dom how he came to be involved in the the Great War where he would meet his nemesis, Reg Jameson, who would plague him long after both should have been dead and buried.
Dom studied him for a moment, noting the strain on his face from memories washing over him. “Rain, you never really talk much about the war.”
Narain sighed, staring at the end table, his eyes acquiring a lost look. “What’s to say? The good guys won. It was a long time ago.”
Dom said gently, “I’m thinking not all that long for you. At least not lately, with all these reminders cropping up.” He chuckled softly, admitting, “You know, when Sophie told me how…when you became…you know…”
“Vampiric?” Narain said grinning with a playful menace.
Dom grinned. “Yeah. Well, I did a little reading about World War I. Watched some documentaries. You know,” he hesitated, “that was some nasty shit, Rain. I mean, war is hell, but that one…it was like no one was prepared for it.”
Narain stared at him, stunned by the accuracy of the statement. “No, no one was. Really. It was supposed to be over by Christmas, 1914. It lasted four years, involved half the world, and brought into fresh perspective just what complete bastards humans could be to each other.”
“So, tell me about Blythe, then.” For a moment, he wasn’t sure if Narain would speak. Or if he would, Dom wasn’t sure if he would simply wave a hand and brush the topic off as he so often did with topics he preferred not to pursue.
But he didn’t. Looking up at him with an almost resigned look, Narain sighed, allowing the memories to flow unheeded.
The Great War. It would come to be known as World War I. During it, however, it was called “the war to end all wars” by people who never conceived the extent of mankind’s cruelty. For four years it sucked country after country into the horrific quagmire. Over 17 million people died. Men, women, children, death didn’t discriminate. Whether it was from the terrible new weapons like landmines or mustard gas, or simply starvation, casualties mounted and soldiers returned to their homes maimed physically or mentally. A select few left the war altered in a way unimaginable.
Narain had no idea that Europe was so cold. He’d heard stories, of course. The Viceroy Hotel in Bengal where he had worked as assistant chef had many European visitors staying there and some of the friendlier ones would strike up conversations with the staff. They would tell stories of their various countries, inevitably comparing weather patterns for they were just as struck by India’s warmth as he would be by Europe’s cold.
He had left India in September 1916, with a battalion of other soldiers, to fight for an empire that looked upon them more as inconveniences than citizens. Each had his reasons for going and all had tearful relatives seeing them off at the dock, after their few weeks of basic training were finished. Narain never realized just how difficult saying goodbye would be until he was holding his weeping mother in his arms, assuring her he’d be fine. Her comments on how handsome he looked in his uniform deteriorated into a list of dos and don’ts that were sobbed out.
Zaheer, who could find rainbows on the cloudiest of days, hid his misgivings in the demand that their first meal upon Narain’s return be of French origin. The two brothers chatted warmly, Narain promising to bring back a special recipe and lightly warning his younger sibling to be good for their parents. A warning that he knew was unnecessary considering the boy’s gentle disposition.
During this, Aziz had stood several feet away, taking it all in, his face unreadable. Coaxed over by his mother, he stood in front of Narain, his head downcast. To Narain’s surprise the young boy eventually wrapped his arms around his big brother’s waist and squeezed tightly, never making a sound. Before Narain could respond, however, Aziz released him and ran back to his original position, refusing to gaze any further upon the scene. Narain couldn’t help but notice, however, that the boy quickly wiped a tear from his cheek and he sent out a silent prayer that he would have the chance to build a better bond with his brother.
The hardest goodbye was with Ujaali.
Wiping tears from her eyes, all she said was, “But I don’t want you to go,” the flute-like voice now thick with fear.
Narain crouched down and brushed back her hair. “I’ll be back.”
Stubbornly she said, “No you won’t. You’ll leave us forever.”
“I will return, I promise. And I’ll bring you something from one of those far away countries. Would you like that?”
“Don’t go,” she insisted, falling into his arms.
He lifted her, hugging her tightly and humming.
“You’re young now,” he told her. “One day you’ll understand. I will write you and you can write me. It will be like a game. And when I’m ready to come home, you can plan a big party for me. We’ll play all the games you like to play.”
She nodded, her cheeks tear-stained, then kissed him on the cheek and held her arms out for her mother. Once in her mother’s embrace, she turned her head into the woman’s neck and sobbed.
His sister’s grief weighed on Narain, heavier than anything he’d ever experienced and he made a silent vow to return to her no matter what.
His father was next and Narain’s eyes grew misty again when they embraced. “Your sister has spoken for all of us,” his father said, his words hoarse. “Be good. Stay safe. And when your dreams are fulfilled come back to us.”
“I will, Baba, I will.”
His legs were leaden as he walked up the gang plank to board the ship that would take him so far from home. The voyage would take weeks and having never sailed before, the first week was spent wracked by nausea—much like the rest of the soldiers. The ship’s crew had fun with the sea sickness of their charges and once his queasiness had subsided, he recognized it as a form of camaraderie. He would discover later that such camaraderie would be in short supply once the Indian soldiers reached the trenches. They came from all over India, fighting for all sorts of reasons. Some out of patriotism to the crown, some to feed their families. Some like Narain, seeking adventure or opportunity.
By the time he was comfortable on deck, the ship was very far out to sea. They were surrounded by nothing but water and sky and it left him feeling reflective and rather small in this alien environment. The only firm footing was to be found on a ship that swayed at the mercy of the ocean’s temperament. When the ocean grew irritable, it tortured them with incessant rocking and the ever present threat that one properly placed wave could sink them. The rain pelted, the sun baked, and the only deliverance from either was below deck where one rolled and swayed and tried to forget the fact that there was still so far to go before touching dry land.
There was beauty in this solitude, though.
Cloudless nights revealed jewels in the sky as stars shone their maps above them. During the day, every so often, a glance overboard would reveal pods of dolphins racing alongside the ship. The soldiers and crew would run to the sides and shout greetings to the creatures as they leapt out of the water, almost as if in response. Once, the ship came upon whales in the distance, and the size of their flukes as they slapped the water left even the ship’s crew speechless.
The ship finally docked at Liverpool, where the soldiers joined up with another company, before they were ferried to France. Narain handed one of the sailors a packet of letters he had written to his family while on board ship, asking that the sailor see that they make it back to India. The sailor agreed.
“Seems like the least I can do, mate,” the sailor said, glancing at the packet. “It’s a brave thing you chaps are doing. Besides, you can’t half cook. Were it not for your kitchen skills, I might have gone barmy on this run.”
Narain smiled. The food on board had been one of the depressing aspects of the trip. Supplies were chosen not for luxury but for duration. He had offered his services to the captain partly for the sake of his fellow soldiers and partly for his own sanity. He hadn’t touched a pot in weeks and it was getting to him. So, he did what he could with what he had and the soldiers and crew were happy for the effort.
“I do believe you have a future in this,” the captain had said appreciatively after calling him to his quarters one evening after dinner. After the captain’s inquiries, Narain explained his culinary hopes and desires. The captain nodded smiling.“Well, India’s loss will be Europe’s gain. Perhaps once this damned war is over, I might be of some assistance. Keep me in mind, old chap, should you find yourself in need.”
Arriving in France, the company marched through the French countryside to the Western Front, where the Allies were bogged down in the trenches, in a campaign that seemed to have reached a permanent stalemate. Narain had to admit that, so far, he had been treated quite well by the British. A few on the ship’s crew had a bit of condescension tainting their manner, but nothing unbearable. And there was no overt prejudice from the French, who came to the dock to watch the disembarking of the newest soldiers to join the fray to save this country.
I wonder if they’d be so considerate to us, if a war was not on,” Vivek asked as they joined the formation of soldiers preparing to march. Narain and Vivek Bandalar had struck up a friendship on board, growing quite close during the voyage. Vivek was from Nagpur and had enlisted to escape an engagement to a woman he could barely tolerate and who had little regard for him.
“And what will you do when the war is over and you must return?” Narain had asked him.
“Perhaps they will grow tired of waiting and marry her to someone else. Besides, who said I have to return? I can be an ex-patriot in Paris. And maybe once you are a chef, we can open a restaurant and allow Paris to taste what real food is like. Anyway, there’s always the chance that the decision will be made for me and I will head off into my next life.” He chuckled. “Knowing my luck, she will kill herself just to chase after me.”
On board ship, they could joke about war, but marching through the French countryside toward the front, the realities came into sharp focus as they passed caravans of Allied dead and wounded on their way home. Those still breathing looked haunted, with hollow eyes and ashen skin. As they passed these convoys, everything seemed to go in slow motion for Narain. The horrible sights these men had witnessed were etched upon their sunken faces. They were alive and going home, but they were dead to that joy. Worn out. Used up.
Eventually, Narain simply averted his eyes and concentrated on the road, praying that the war didn’t leave him as hopeless and as dead inside as these men now looked.
Vivek helped keep his spirits up with an irreverent energy that Narain had no choice but to laugh at. He was glad that if he had to be in this cold land, he had a battalion of other Indians marching with him to ease some of the home sickness he was experiencing.
The march to the Western Front took weeks. They marched down country roads, past cottages and farms, where children tending sheep would march along with them for short distances, cheering them on as they had cheered on so many other battalions that passed by.
Occasionally, they marched through villages where people of the town hailed them, shouting in heavily accented English words of encouragement and the names of loved ones to look up once they were on the front.
“Say ‘hello’ to my father.”
“My brother’s over there. Please send him my love.”
In one village, an old woman surged forward and pressed a letter into Narain’s hand. “Please, this is for my son,” she said, hurrying alongside the line. “I beg you, see that he gets it. God go with you all.”
Wide eyed, all Narain could do was nod and continue the march as the woman fell back. He had learned a little French while at the Viceroy and was able to figure out what the woman was asking, but as he stared at the envelope, thoughts of his own family whirled around his mind. He knew it was unlikely but he could not help but hope that he could somehow fulfill this mother’s wish.
In another town, a group of pretty young ladies stood behind a fence, shouting in French and waving at the men who seemed to perk up at the attention. “Namaste girls, namaste,” Vivek said, smiling wide and waving back. “We’re off to teach the Kaiser a lesson.” Then to Narain, he added, “And perhaps on the way back we can teach the lovely ladies a lesson.”
Narain blushed knowing his friend was all talk but surprised nonetheless.
With a chuckle, he told Vivek, “You take care or they may not let you back into India.”
The air of desperation became deeper, the further they marched into France. The French were fighting for their country and the years had worn them down. The closer the battalion got to the front, the more dour the atmosphere became. Miles from the front, they could hear the constant thump as the warring factions lobbed mortars at each other and even Vivek’s ever present grin hardened. Even from afar, they could spot the beating that the forest was taking. Trees that didn’t stand like burnt twigs, leafless and blackened by fire, were simply charred stumps blown into splinters. The ground between the two factions, what they’d learn to call “No Man’s Land,” was chewed up by mortar shells, which left great mounds of dirt and debris and deep muddy craters in their wake.
And there were bodies in the field; Narain could see them. He would learn that they were the bodies of German soldiers, who had been mown down, when they tried to charge into the Allied trenches for a raid. The bodies stayed out there, rotting, for no one dared to go out and retrieve them.
Then there were the trenches: The intricate system that snaked on deeply, far across the Western Front; furrowed wounds that became cities unto themselves. It took months to dig them out and shore them up, before fighting had even been considered. In the trench, British soldiers milled about, slogging through the ever present, ankle-deep water and trying to avoid the occasional strand of barbed wire that had fallen from its place along the lip of the trench, where it protected the trench’s inhabitants from night-time attacks by Germans raiders.
“Life with my intended is looking better and better,” Vivek commented with a hollow tone.
Men moved along the trenches like ants, some darting in and out of little chambers dug into the wall of dirt, where supplies and munitions were stored. Much further back in the trenches, there were even chambers where horses were kept. Other men sat on planks in little indentations, playing cards or checking equipment. Checking equipment, Narain would later learn, was often done more for busy work than concern for safety. Boredom, in fact, was the most tenacious foe for the trench soldier.
As the Indian soldiers climbed down into the trench, the Germans released another barrage of mortar, one hitting nearby, spitting up the dirt which flew at the soldiers. Narain felt something whip into his cheek and swiping at it, he noted the dark blood staining his fingertips.
“Not to worry, mate,” one of the British soldiers told him as they settled again. He inspected Narain’s face with a practical eye, and then smiled, patting his other cheek. “None too deep. You’ve just been baptised, that’s all.” He handed Narain a handkerchief saying, “Keep it. I have another.”
Blinking, Narain smiled faintly and thanked him before following after the others.
The Indian soldiers were spread along the trench for a mile. There were several officers, each in charge of a particular section of the trench and Narain, Vivek, and eight others were set somewhere in the middle. Narain was grateful that Vivek was in his unit. It would make the days go faster. He hoped. Narain and Vivek were directed to their section by a soldier who couldn’t have been more than twenty. As they slogged their way through the muck another mortar hit nearby, causing all to duck. One of the men answered with some pointless gunfire before everything was quiet again.
Private Fred Blythe, their guide, affected a smile on his young open face, his pale-blue eyes friendly and honest. “Just remember to keep your head low, chaps. Usually, you’ll hear a whistle when a shell’s on the way, but you can’t be too sure.”
Narain and Vivek looked at each other, shrugged, then continued to follow him to where two officers were intently playing cards. The pile of cash on the plank between them revealed the reason for the high degree of concentration.
“Come now, Jameson,” said one, smoking a pipe and holding his cards in the relaxed manner of a man confident in his hand. “I think I’ve got you again.”
The other, Captain Reginald Jameson, had a tightly wound energy as he debated how much he was willing to put in to see the other man’s hand. His brown hair was cut short back and sides, and his bearing had a carefully cultivated military air about it. “Luck turns, Danforth, just remember that.”
Blythe halted in front of them, saluting and stamping his foot in military fashion, unwittingly splashing some of the muck on the legs of the men. Lieutenant Danforth remained sitting, but Jameson threw his cards down and burst to his feet. “What is wrong with you, Blythe?”
Slightly oblivious, Blythe held his salute until Jameson returned it with a frustrated gesture. “Private Blythe reporting with new recruits.”
“Oh good,” Danforth said, playing with his cards, “fresh meat.”
Jameson took a look at the Indian soldiers and rolled his eyes, hands on hips. “Oh you must be joking.” Glaring at the new recruits he pointed at Blythe, “It’s not bad enough they’re sending over lower class yabbos like this, who wouldn’t know a military manoeuvre from a move in a tiddly winks tournament.” He sneered at the soldiers. “What do they think I can do with East Indian apes?”
Narain felt his face burn at the insult, but he knew enough to remain silent. Jameson was a superior officer and rank had its privilege, as abused as that might be.
“Steady on, Reg,” Danforth said with a grimace. “There’s no call for that. They are here to help us, after all. With no real benefit to their country.”
“They’ll be hearing a lot worse if the bosch take over everything, which might just happen considering what we have to work with.”
“Reg, one question before you attend to the new recruits,” Danforth said, looking up at him. “Are you in, or out?”
With a quick movement, Jameson slammed money into the pot leading Danforth to reveal a truly spectacular hand of poker. Irritated, Jameson picked up then tossed his cards on the table, snapping, “It’s yours” before turning to military duty. Very well, Blythe, show them the ropes.”
Blythe saluted and as he was turning to leave, Jameson stuck a foot out, sending him into the muck at Narain’s feet.
“Well, that will boost morale,” Danforth said in a blasé tone putting his money in his wallet.
“That’s for muddying up my trousers,” Jameson told him. “Perhaps, you’ll show more care next time.”
Try as he might, Narain could not keep the disgust from his eyes. Jameson focused on it immediately, intimidating Blythe to remain in the muck while he went nose to nose with Narain.
“Do you have something you wish to say, Private?”
Narain never blinked, never looked away. Rather, he bore his olive-brown eyes into Jameson’s blue and answered, “No, sir.”
Picking up on the challenge, Jameson said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that.”
“No, sir, I don’t, sir,” Narain bellowed.
Backing away, Jameson smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Looking down at the private in the muck, he asked, “Blythe, is there a reason you’re still down there?”
“No, sir,” Blythe said, starting to get up.
His eyes never leaving Jameson, Narain crouched down and took hold of Blythe’s arm helping him to his feet. That was it. The war had begun and while he was never one to instigate trouble, Narain could not restrain himself from firing this first shot. Jameson’s face darkened as he said, “Get them out of here.”
As Blythe motioned for the soldiers to follow him, Vivek nudged Narain, impressed, whispering, “I didn’t know you were tough.”
Narain kept his head low as he replied, “I’m not. I just hate bullies.”
As the months went by, Narain could not help but remember the conversation he had with his father when the man found the enlistment papers. As his service wore on, he realized just how right his father had been. The insanity of this fool’s war was matched only by its cruelty. In his letters home, he made sure to omit details of the horror. He spoke of the scenery, the excitement of learning another language (the few words he picked up in French and German), the rare times the soldiers were relieved and were able to go into the nearby town for a few days, where they were able to bathe and perhaps eat something other than the rations offered in the trenches. Here, he befriended an old woman who allowed him the use of her kitchen, showing him some recipes popular in the countryside. As the other soldiers gravitated to the makeshift canteen where beer and wine were available while rations held out, he visited the old woman to soak up more of her Gallic culinary expertise and share with her a little of his knowledge.
He wrote of the friendships he was forming with the soldiers he practically lived on top of. That was one of the benefits of the war. Bonds forged in war would never be broken. When one was homesick, he might look to the news sent to another soldier to help him through it. Narain knew who was engaged, who was divorcing, whose wife was expecting and whose parents were having a row with the next door neighbors over escaped dogs, or apples falling in yards or whatever news was fit to print. And they knew of his family and his home. When he showed Ujaali’s picture to Private Blythe, the man smiled fondly.
“Oh, she’s a darlin’ isn’t she? I bet she misses her big brother.”
Narain nodded glumly. “I fear she may.”
“Not to worry. You’ll be home in no time. They’ve got to come to their senses soon.”
Narain wrote his family much about Blythe, and Vivek and the many others he had befriended. But he couldn’t tell them everything. How could he describe the Germans dropping chlorine gas into the trenches, sending everyone running for their gas masks? Those unfortunate enough not to reach the masks in time were left contracting like insects, their exposed skin turning horrid shades of green, then blue. Water seeped into everything. Most times, the trenches had at least an inch of it on the ground, sometimes so much that it had to be bailed out. During heavy rains, one wondered if they would be flooded out completely. During winter it became a horrid slush, threatening the soldiers with frostbite. Dysentery was a frequent visitor, as were lice and vermin and the horrible trench foot.
Narain had studied the art of cooking since he was a little boy and had watched his mother make naan with an infectious exuberance. He got a job at a family friend’s restaurant, then as line cook in the Viceroy hotel where he was complimented on his palette-pleasing experiments with styles until he was made assistant chef. Now, he was in a trench, calf deep in water, in a cold country that might not have any restaurants for him to train in, still standing after the war was finally over.
The shell shock was the worst. Many of those men who couldn’t switch their focus, found themselves fixating on the sometimes incessant barrage of the mortar guns that the factions fired at each other. A section down the line was destroyed by a mortar that managed to hit its mark, sending body parts flying as wildly as the dirt and debris. Generally, though, it was an exercise in futility for both sides. Still, after a particularly nasty barrage, the thumping that shook the ground often invaded their sleep and left them haunted during the day. Narain was certain that Blythe was succumbing to shell shock, for the poor man seemed to be growing increasingly jittery, with or without bombs, as the months wore on. Of course, Jameson’s cruelty didn’t help.
That was another thing Narain couldn’t write home about. Jameson took great relish in targeting Blythe, especially when Narain was around to watch. Blythe had driven a lorry in London before the war, and possessed not a drop of military blood in his lineage. Despite this, he tried his best to measure up to the likes of Jameson, whose own family had long military careers and who was himself hoping to go much further than Captain in his own career. Narain first truly noticed this sadism one afternoon when Jameson ordered Blythe to fix the barbed wire along twenty yards of the trench. Blythe, the good soldier, saluted, but Narain could see his face blanch at the prospect of carrying out the duty. He was particularly disturbed by the top of the trench, which perhaps a soldier should not be since one day, he might be called upon to go over the top. Narain could see no reason why Blythe had to be the one to perform the duty, however, so he offered to do to it for Blythe, who smiled gratefully. “Are you sure? I don’t mind, really.”
Narain could see that he did, and smiled, nodding. “It would probably be good for me to do.”
Leaning in confidentially, Blythe said, “Well, actually, I’m glad you’re willing. Something about up top. Gives me the willies. Don’t know what it is.”
“Not to worry.”
Narain performed the duty and all was fine, until Jameson found out. He roared for Blythe and swiped at him when the soldier came to him.“Did I or did I not, tell you to attend to that barbed wire?” he demanded.
Narain stepped up, saying, “Sir, was the work not satisfactory?”
“No it wasn’t, Private, because I asked Blythe here to do it, not you.
“But I asked to do it sir.”
“That’s a damned lie and you know it.” Blythe said nothing, simply stood at attention, but with the posture of a whipped dog as Jameson continued, “You’re covering for Blythe, because Blythe is too lazy or yellow to carry out the order given to him.”
“That’s not true,” Narain said, ready to step forward, but held back by
Vivek who told him in Hindi to restrain himself.
“That’s right, jabber on little monkey, and keep your friend in check.” He turned again to Blythe and walked around him as best he could in the tight trench. “What you are going to do Blythe, is carry out my order. And if that means tearing it down and starting from scratch, then so be it.”
“Would that not be a waste of time, sir?” Narain sneered, holding his fury.
Jameson squinted his eyes at Narain, walking toward him. “Those who are familiar with the military,” he began, leaning into Narain’s face, “would know that an attitude such as yours can get you in a lot of hot water. So, I suggest you follow your friend’s lead and keep quiet.”
Narain did so, knowing that anything else he said would be pointless. Blythe glanced at him with a reassuring smile that only made him feel guiltier. It was wasteful, this attitude of Jameson’s, and it proved that he wasn’t above such pettiness to feel powerful, the consequences be damned.
After that, the captain showed his sadism in little slights aimed at Blythe and some of the other Indian soldiers. He never went directly after Narain, though, perhaps realizing it would affect him more to see the misery of others. Jameson showed the extremes to which he was willing to take his feud, the night Blythe was left on guard duty and woke the trench up with gunfire and screaming. The moon was nearly full, but even with that light, the trench and beyond it was dark. One could peer into this dark and see all manner of shapes and shadows, never knowing which were real and which a trick of the eyes. It was not unusual for vermin or even the occasional wolf to investigate the top of the trench. Blythe’s commotion had sent everyone out to see what was happening and they found him waving his gun around the top of the trench, his face white and eyes wide. Some of the soldiers looked on, irritated, some shook their head sadly.
“Blythe, you fool!” Jameson bellowed, stepping forward. As he did so, he made sure to shove Narain aside. “What are you up to?”
Standing next to Narain, Vivek commented quietly, “Here he goes again. I wouldn’t want to be in Blythe’s shoes.”
“They were everywhere, sir,” Blythe said, not bothering to salute, still in a crouched and ready stance.
“Who were everywhere, old boy, Germans?” Danforth said, still as casual as ever.
Blythe seemed surprised by the question. “I don’t...I don’t know.”
Narain could tell by the way he shivered and the quiver in his voice, that this was more than simply seeing a shadow. More than likely, Blythe’s shell shock was getting the better of him. Yet, something frightened him terribly, whether or not it was in his mind. Carefully, he walked toward him, ignoring Jameson’s irritated glares. To his credit, the captain remained quiet.
“What is it exactly you saw?” Narain said, slowly taking the gun from Blythe’s hands.
Relaxing only slightly, the man said, “I don’t know.”
“Were you sleeping, man?” Jameson demanded.
Narain glared at him, but Blythe said, “No, I swear. I swear. I was keeping an eye peeled. Looking around. It’s dark up there. I heard something, like dirt shifting or something and I looked up...”
“And saw...” Narain coaxed.
“Figures.” He closed his eyes, trying to envision them. “They were big. Grey, almost sheer white. Ghostly.” Jameson sighed, but Blythe continued, “When I turned at the first noise, there was one on the trench staring down at me. Then I looked around and there they were, about seven or so, leaning on the trench looking down. The barbed wire didn’t even bother them.”
“Tell me, Blythe,” Narain said, “Did you see them as well as you see Bolton or McConnel now?”
“Yeah, more than, like.”
Narain frowned. Unless Blythe’s eyesight was superior to his, in the darkened trench lit by a half moon, it was unlikely he saw these figures very clearly. If he saw them at all.
“This is ridiculous!” Jameson spat. “You were asleep and woke up from a dream.”
“A nightmare, more like,” someone commented from the back.
“I didn’t. I wasn’t.”
“Could you have been drinking, old fellow?” Danforth suggested.
“Is that so? Were you drinking?” Jameson demanded stepping toward him.
“No. None of us has had anything, since we copped that flask last month. I saw figures up on the trench. They were horrible. And believe me, they were looking to come down here and do us no end of harm.”
Clenching and unclenching his fists, Jameson insisted, “You were sleeping on duty, very likely drunk, and you put us all in danger.” He was growing calm, and that was never a good sign. “Such actions must be punished. Therefore, since you are so well rested, you won’t need any rations tomorrow. You can give your rations for the next two days to Private Khan here.”
Narain whipped his head around to face him. “What?”
“Private Khan must be particularly hungry from all the exertion he expends in defending you. So he may have your rations.”
As it were, the rations were small, supplies being tight at the moment. The men were already feeling the pinch. And Blythe was not in the best of health to begin with. Narain wanted to lunge at Jameson and hold his face in the mud until he blacked out. A vicious response he would never have had, even against his worst enemies, before sailing to this shattered country. But, the warning look Vivek gave him kept him still. Instead, he simply said, “No. I don’t want them.”
“What!” Jameson snapped, yet smiled, almost as if that was the statement he was hoping for.
Beginning to shiver himself, Narain said, “I don’t know what he saw, but I believe he saw something. It could have been wolves or wild dogs. Or it could have been a pack of Germans who managed to sneak across “no man’s land” and who were ready to pounce, were it not for this man’s firing. But, whether what he saw was real or his imagination, I will not be a party to this.”
Narain was going to leave the scene when Jameson ordered, “Stand at attention, Private.” When he was ignored, Jameson reached out to grab his shoulder and Narain whirled around, staring at him. Taken aback, Jameson pointed and walked around him excitedly saying, “You’re all witnesses. He was going to strike a superior officer.”
Vivek stepped forward, but Narain looked at him and shook his head. The soldiers were grudgingly silent. Rolling his eyes, Danforth resigned himself, sitting on a nearby plank to wait out the inevitable.
“An army,” Jameson began, his eyes riveted to Narain, “a proper army, functions on one thing: Discipline. The moment crass insubordination is tolerated, it all crumbles apart. There was a time, Private Khan, when a soldier could be shot for turning on his superior. But we must take into consideration the fact that the British war effort needs everybody they can get—the only reason your rabble was allowed to join. But insubordination cannot be tolerated.”
Walking over to Danforth, he held out his hand and sighing, Danforth handed him what he expected. In the dark, it was difficult to see and for a moment, Narain worried that the crazed captain might intend to shoot him anyway. Nodding to two soldiers loyal to him, Jameson stalked closer as the soldiers grabbed Narain forcing him against the wall of the trench.
“Are you mad?” Vivek gasped, but backed off when Jameson stared at him. It was an evil stare, revealing that at that moment pain was his only purpose.
The other soldiers looking on grumbled in confusion, but were silent when Narain said, “Quiet.”
This did not sit at all well with Jameson, who loosened his hold on the belt he held and allowed it to extend down so that the buckle was on the giving end. Without a warning, he lashed out, the belt and buckle slamming into Narain’s shoulder blade, biting through his uniform shirt. He cried out, the pain slicing into him and he braced for the next blow. Jameson whipped again and again, Narain’s fingers digging into the moist dirt of the trench wall as he tried to make as little noise as possible. His knees buckled but the soldiers flanking him held him firmly in place.
“I assure you, I don’t enjoy this,” Jameson said insincerely, “but an example must be made.” He lashed out again, the belt slamming across the left side of Narain’s back. “There are choices we must all make. Private Khan could have chosen to allow me to punish Private Blythe, as was fitting, but he chose instead to speak out of turn. Choices have consequences. These are the consequences.”
He let loose with a volley of several more whips that cut or left welts all over Narain’s bruised back. Gritting his teeth, Narain’s muscles contracted with each hit. After the tenth, he was allowed to fall into the muck, moaning softly.
“Now, were we in the Navy,” Jameson lectured, rolling up the belt, “That would have been a proper whip and at least thirty more lashes.”
“Bully for the navy,” Danforth said, a note of tired disgust in his voice, as he methodically lit his pipe.
Narain turned his head and looked at Blythe, cringing at the look of guilt that had spread across the young private's face. For Narain, that was a pain almost as sharp as the fire on his back and he was certain that was exactly what Jameson had planned. Reginald Jameson was an opportunist, who saw a chance to take two people down, and he did so, quite efficiently.
“As for the aforementioned rations,” he said, nodding at the two soldiers who had held Narain,“Privates Caldwell and Scott can have both Blythe and Khan’s for the next three days. And anyone caught offering their rations to Privates Blythe or Khan will feel the buckle of this belt, as well.” He glared at Danforth who rose slowly, and then the two started toward their quarters. Turning, he glowered at the soldiers. “I’ll brook no further dissent, be assured of that.”
Once the two had left, Vivek hurried over to where Narain was stubbornly trying to pick himself up out of the mud. Every movement brought fresh pain to deep cuts and bruises and part of him wanted to just be still in the mud until the pain went away.
Taking hold of his arm carefully, Vivek and a British solider helped him to his feet. Assessing the injuries on Narain’s bloodied back, Vivek hissed,“What sort of animal is this captain?” Then he chided, “Narain, why do you always take that man’s bait?” before raising a hand. “I know, I know. You hate bullies.”
It was the answer he always gave Vivek after a run in with Jameson. By this time it had become a test of wills between the two and Narain had resigned himself to the possibility that for the duration of the war, Jameson would do everything he could to break him and Narain would do everything he could to keep from breaking.
The climax came weeks later when it was not Narain, but Blythe who finally broke. Narain, perhaps, could have predicted it, but he hoped against hope that Blythe would be able to hold on. The damned stalemate between the sides was lasting forever and there were times when he wondered if the war would ever end; or if rather, it would go on and on, the gaining of ground, the losing of ground, the shelling back and forth, the earth shaking under each bombardment.
It was on a Thursday afternoon that they received the call they’d all been dreading, that at last let loose the insanity of the situation. Jameson called his unit to assembly and they found him looking a little more ashen, and not quite as cocky as he normally looked. His tone was still arrogant and disdainful.
“As you all know there has been a rumor that we are scheduled for a push. Well, the rumor is true. It will be a raid on the German trenches. We are scheduled to go over the top in a matter of moments.”
Jaws dropped as the men of the unit gasped collectively. Over the top. Into that bitter acreage that so many had tried and failed to cross. It had been stalemate for years between the two sides, because neither side could figure out a way to send their troops through that hellish territory, without them being mowed down by enemy fire. The push had been a possibility from the first day in the trenches, but it seemed almost sacrilegious to hear it spoken of so bluntly, on a day when the sun was actually shining down on them and the air was unsullied by the sound of German shells.
Still stunned, Vivek nonetheless shrugged saying,“Well, I will be safe from my intended. At least until her death.”
“So,” Jameson announced after the shock had settled, “you’ll need to check your weapons and supplies. Make sure your rifle is in good working order. There will be three blows of the whistle.” He gave a soft toot on his. “The first will be a warning to make ready. The second will be a call to assume formation. And the third will be the final order.” After a pause, he said, “And remember, we are fighting for a glorious cause. If all goes well we’ll be…” the usual saying was that they’d be dining on sausages in the Kaiser’s palace by Christmas. But Jameson’s tone illustrated that even he was unable to call up that much unrealistic jingoism. Instead a bit quieter, he finished, “Well, with luck we’ll be home.” He looked around. “Or at least far away from here. Dismissed.”
The first whistle warning was heard and Jameson tooted his loudly, sending it on to the next unit who would do the same along the trench.
A chill went through Narain. A part of him felt relief, for he knew one way or another he would be free from that place. It was how he would arrive back on the soil of India that worried him. He looked down at the picture of Ujaali he had taken from his wallet. How will they tell her that her brother is not coming home, he thought.
“Narain,” Vivek patted his back. “Let’s go. There’s not much time.”
Nodding, Narain followed him and they readied their gear. When the unit had congregated again, many of the soldiers joked about “old times” while they waited for the second whistle. Danforth looked a bit green, which seemed strange for a man whose temperament was cool even in the worst times. As they exited their quarters, he followed silently behind Jameson, who seemed to review his soldiers with a calculating eye as if already deciding who was likely to make it back.
As if knowing a British charge was imminent, the Germans started their cannons again, to which the Allies readily replied with their own salvoes.
“Captain Jameson, sir,” one of the soldiers called out down the trench. “I think there’s something wrong with Blythe.”
Narain’s eyes widened as he saw a malevolent grin cross Jameson’s face. A last bit of torture, before the captain left his kingdom. He hurried after, despite Vivek’s warning, and saw Blythe huddled in an indentation of the trench that he had seemingly dug by himself, if his scraped and filthy hands were any indication. He held his arms over his head, murmuring into the dirt and Narain was sure that the shell shock had finally taken hold.
Jameson saw only a soldier goldbricking. “Blythe, what the deuce are you doing?” he barked, kicking at the man’s leg. “Where’s your gun? We’re going over to visit Jerry in a few moments.” He looked over at Danforth chuckling, but there was no reaction from the other man, not even his usual half-hearted approach. He just watched the scene, almost detached.
“I can’t, sir, I can’t. I want to go home.” Blythe murmured, pitifully.
“Nonsense! This is not a request. This is an order.”
“I can’t face them. The ghostly things are out there, everywhere.”
“They’re called Germans, Blythe and it’s our job to rid this fair country of them.”
Narain recognized the false bravado in Jameson’s voice and it was probably the captain’s own fear that was leading him to taunt Blythe, who had obviously, finally, suffered a breakdown.
“Leave him be, Reg,” Narain said. He had long since stopped giving Jameson the respect of calling him by his rank. At first, it was just in references during conversation with the other soldiers. Eventually it was to his face. And oddly, Jameson did not deny him the privilege. “Can’t you see he’s ill?”
“He’s faking, Khan,” Jameson insisted. “He doesn’t want to go.” He kicked Blythe again.“Well guess what, Sonny Jim, none of us do. But that’s our fate now, isn’t it? So, get on your feet, get your gun and queue up for that whistle.”
“No, I don’t want to go over the top,” Blythe whispered and looked helplessly over at Narain. “I’m useless. They’re out there waiting for all of us.”
Narain stepped closer. The trench, already tense, was electrified at that point. Deciding play time was over, Jameson scowled and pulled out his service revolver.
“Blythe, this is not a summer holiday,” he snarled, his arm ram rod straight as he pointed the gun at the tormented man. “Get on your feet right now.”
“Reg, what the devil are you thinking?”
“I am authorized by the British Army to shoot any man for cowardice,” he looked around. “Any man who refuses to go over that trench wall. Blythe, you have until the count of five.”
“Lieutenant Danforth, stop him,” Narain pleaded and some of the other soldiers audibly bristled at the captain’s action.
Danforth said nothing.
Head lowered, Danforth merely walked over to a wooden plank and sat down wearily, staring at his rifle.
Narain looked around helplessly. Jameson would do this, he had no doubt. But while the seriousness in Jameson’s voice brought Blythe out of his mania somewhat, he couldn’t find his legs to stand. Instead, the lorry driver from London looked up at the British gun being aimed at his head.
Narain lunged at Jameson pushing the gun out of range of its target. Stunned, Jameson recovered quickly and brought the butt of the gun down toward Narain’s skull. Narain was able to deflect it enough so that it only landed a glancing blow and together the combatants fell into the dirt. Concentrating on keeping the gun barrel away from himself Narain was unable to untangle himself from his opponent and soon he found himself pinned underneath as Jameson held the gun to his head. He stared up into the cold, blue eyes, noting the enjoyment that danced within them. Where once the soldiers would have kept quiet during one of these stand-offs, their cannon fodder status now left them uninhibited and they shouted and jeered until the gun was pressed against Narain’s temple. Then, silence flowed through the trench.
Showing his teeth, Jameson hissed, “I have enough bullets for both you and Blythe and perhaps a few for your monkey friends, eh what?”
Before he could cock the gun, however, a rifle butt smashed against his back and he fell off Narain, dazed. Blythe stood above them, face still deathly pale and tortured, but cognizant. He kicked Jameson further away and reached out to help Narain up. Relieved, Vivek joined them.
“One good thing about certain death,” Vivek told Blythe, “you can taste a bit of revenge and you won’t be around to answer for it.”
Narain smiled weakly studying Blythe. “Are you with us, Fred?”
Blythe blinked at him. “I think that’s the first time anyone has used my Christian name in this whole bloody war. I’d forgotten what it sounded like. My name’s not Private Blythe.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “It’s plain old Fred Blythe.”
At that moment, the second warning whistle sounded and to their horror, a rifle shot exploded. Ears ringing, they looked toward the sound of the shot and grimaced as they saw Danforth’s lifeless body sprawled on the plank, the back of his head blown open, the barrel of the gun still lodged in his mouth.
“I don’t want to go,” Blythe said as the others lined up near the ladder.
Jameson moaned, waking up and Narain spared him only a moment’s notice. Instead he looked at Vivek, whose eyes were misty, his face solemn for the first time in their friendship. “Jameson’s right,” Vivek said, wiping his eyes and straightening up. “We’ll be having sauerkraut by tomorrow tea time.”
Hugging him tightly, Narain released him and turned his eyes to Blythe. “You are Fred Blythe, who may very likely be shot for cowardice if he stays behind.” He glanced up then back at Blythe.“You may have a better chance up there.”
Vivek patted Blythe’s shoulder. “And if not, at least you’ll be in good company.” He looked toward Jameson who was getting to his feet. “Better than the vermin in here.”
Still visibly shaken, Blythe nodded, picked up his rifle, and walked with Narain and Vivek toward a ladder. As if out of respect for a new leader, soldiers by the ladder stepped back to allow Narain to be the first up. Not to be the first to fall but to be the one to lead them.
And then, the third whistle blew.