The Longest and Shorter Hour of your life
6:00am: Sun wakes me up at dawn. It’s strong and searing but welcome. I pull myself out of the muddy hole that I’ve carved out into the side of the trench. I find that Sam has fallen asleep on my foot and I have to shake it out before I can put my weight on it. The putty’s have slipped down on my left foot and I have to take them of completely, strip them of mud and dead lice, and rebandage them for inspection at 6:15am.
6:00 am: First day of school. My mum examines me, patting down my skinny legs that are drowning in hand me down socks. The youngest of 5, everything is hand me down, even the football boots, especially the football boots, a family heirloom which score me six goals before Daniel, the next door neighbour, star centre half and now First Lieutenant, who is built as mum says ‘like a brick shithouse’ throws them over the school fence into the swanney because he can and it’s funny. What else is there to do after school other than wait for your mum to make tea and then to try and steal your dads food from the upturned plate as he falls asleep drunk in front of the fire and your mum tries to unlace his boots without waking him up.
6:15am Lance-Corporal Rodgers comes up and down the line checking our uniform and bayonets ‘All so we can look smart for the Krauts’, says Arthur laughing under his breathe. Rodgers shoots him a look but keeps moving, he doesn’t want to be here doing this either.
6:15am: It’s my first day down the mines. Can’t work until then, have to stay in school till I’m 12. Mum was pleased I know, wanted to keep my lungs safe for another few years, my fingers free from being split open by mining carts but I also see how she struggles eking out the last drops of milk between six and wearing her eyes to dust in front of the embers at night stitching lace from the big house. She hangs the delicates over the fire when she’s done, sometimes I pick them up and rub them between my fingers, imagine the sort of girls that will own something like this. She knows of course, my grubby fingerprints have to be washed off the silk before Evelyen, the runt of the family, carries the baskets up the long hill up to the big house. She always volunteers, not be helpful as mum thinks but so she can see the man she’s sweet on, the valet in polished buttons and a navy suit that’s won her over but I know he’s just a boy from another village, just wears a posher suit. Not like my suit for the mines, but I’m proud of it, dad’s hand me down trousers, scuffed and repatched at the knees several times over. I’ve a bag slung over my shoulder with a flask of a tea, a bruised apple and a small jam sandwich wrapped up in brown paper. A 12 hour shift and no chance of air but it makes me feel like a man for the first time.
6:30am: Last cup of rusty tea, the metal from the oil tin can we use as a kettle has seeped into the burning hot liquid. It goes down easily, still reminds me of sitting around mum’s table after Sunday dinner, Jack sitting on my lap, would he be 16 months now? He didn’t know me the first time I went home on leave, Ada took him off me when he cried, said he was tired but I knew. She said it was the uniform, he wasn’t used to seeing me like that, all togged up. It felt odd that I felt more like myself when I put it back on to go back to the front. The next time I went home I never took it off, didn’t want to get a white feather pressed into my hand like Peter did. He had the courage to say something back but I wouldn’t, funny that, the courage to go to the front but not to talk down some nosy woman accusing me of being a coward.
6:30am: The whistle blows, I look over at dad whose standing on the sideline with the other miners. He breaks away from them and I brace myself for the telling off. Two tackles missed, and their Inside half not much smaller than me, manages to get round me three times, misses the goal twice but then puts in a good shot, top corner, the third time as I pick myself up again from the floor, trying not to meet anyone’s eye as we walk back for kick off. My dad puts his arm around me and I flinch at first and then nestle into his shoulder, conscience of my sweaty canvas shirt, another hand made down. He tells me I was brilliant, just that I need to be stronger on the ball, the pit will sort that out he says knowingly.
6:45: Fix bayonets. The shelling has stopped and then a pause before an almighty bang. Soil shoots up into the air, I can just about make out broken uniforms spinning through the air, their fall softened by the barbed wire below. ‘The Mine’s gone off early’ is whispered down the line ‘they’ll know we’re coming now’. The Krauts had been through seven days of bombing, ‘to break the wire said high command and beat the jerry’s to dust’. We’ve been told to walk over, the new ones, the pal battalions, they listen to this advice earnestly, heads nodding keenly under oversized helmets, chin straps catching on their soft necks. We veterans know better, we’ve seen this talk before. Blow barbed wire up to break it? Who told the Generals that? Why have they given us wire cutters then? We just pretend in front of the new recruits, their shitting themselves anyway, no point scaring them even more but we veterans know the truth and we nod to each other as we watch the fresh ones, hands shaking too much to click their bayonets back into place.
6:45am: I’m walking home from the Rose and Crown, weekly wages spent on an all night lock in. Mum’s standing at the door. ‘Just like your father’ she spits out and I sprawl out on the floor in front of the fire and pull grandma’s knitted blankets over my face, soaking in the long gone scent of her.
7am: I’ve just handed over my valuables, a few coins and my grandad’s old watch. They’ve all been put into an old tea tin, the Lance- Corporal who stays behind to defend the trench, lucky bastard, will keep them and divide them up between whoever survives, probably keeping a few bob for himself first for his troubles. I keep my picture of Nina tucked into my top pocket, she’s coming with me. I turn to Corporal Jennings next to me, he’s 40 years old fought in the Boer war, won a medal, only sold it before this war to buy coal for the fire. Some things matter more he says. He regrets it now, says this war is different, no real fighting just cowering down in shell holes and praying for your life. How long have we got left I ask and he says ‘doesn’t matter’ he pauses ‘these are the longest and shortest hours of your life.’
7:00 am: I’m first in line at the bakers, it should be open by now. I know she’ll be there. She told me at the dance, she gets in at 6 am every day to light the fires and start mixing the dough for the day. Eileen, her boss, is a good woman. Husband in a wheelchair, fought in the Boer War like Jennings, only he was injured, and can’t have children Nina says. Nina is very blunt like that but I like it. You know where you stand with her not like the other girls. She basically insisted on me coming to see her this morning, she gave me a look last night after we danced at the pub. It was the annual spring fair, starts out with a fete in the day, jam sponges and tea dances in the afternoon before the best part of the day. Drinking and spinning the girls around the room at the Rose and Crown. Nina wasn’t the first girl I had danced with but she was the first girl to ask me. She can move well, small red slippers darting around on the sticky pub floor, perfectly in time to the piano, old tunes being banged out by the landlord Donald who has never not owned this pub. It gets to the last song and he bangs the lid down to a groan from the crowd. I walk over, get out my last coin, and throw it into the pint glass on top of the piano. Donald knows its not worth much but he pretends it’s a small fortune to save my pride and pulls open the lid again and plays another turn. Just long enough for me to get Nina back on the dancefloor and long enough to convince her to let me walk her home and give her a kiss on the corner before we get to her house and before her dad, the miner whose in charge of the lifts, can come and catch me.
7:am: The whistle blows and we’re off, one of the privates stays behind with a revolver, orders to shoot anyone who refuses to go over. Its deadly quiet except for the next trench where a Corporal has kicked a ball over the top into no mans lands, challenges the men to go and get it. He is shot through the head by a sniper as he finishes his sentence. I scramble up the ladder, are the German’s dead? I doubt it, they’re like rats, nothing destroys the bastards. My hairdresser before the war was half German, his mum was from Hamburg, dad was a scouser, had the weirdest accent as he chatted away. Sometimes he’d absentmindedly refer to things in German as though he was born there, as though the English words got in the way of who he really was. Most of them in Leeds have been rounded and sent to the internment camps. Bad luck for them really, they’d already had to up sticks from Liverpool after the Lusitania was sunk and their shop was raided in the riots. The mum, you could tell she used to be lively, never really came onto the shop floor. I saw her once on the steps, smoking with her hair in curlers, tapping ash into a cold cup of tea, she looked like she’d rather be anywhere else.
7:00 am: Nancy is up early, packing her bags ready to get the train to Manchester. Dad has her by the arm pulling her back though the door but she’s strong enough to fight him. It’s the big march today, she had a banner tucked under her arm in purple and green belching out the words ‘Votes for Women’. Dad doesn’t want her to ruin her chances at getting a job in the big house as a serving girl.
‘You don’t understand Nancy’ he says. ‘They won’t take you now, now your spoiled.’ Nancy laughs ‘I’ll be spoiled by his Lordship up there if I go up to the big house you won’t want me back when he’s had me.’ Dad is almost in tears, he doesn’t want to treat her roughly like this but he knows what people will say. Its been all over the papers, bombing the politicians mailboxes, throwing lead slates at Churchill, slashing pictures and worst of all the force feeding. Nancy has the pictures on her walls, broken teeth and bruised faces all in the name of giving women the right to speak through those ripped mouths. She’s a nurse now, faces bombs and bullets everyday but dad was happy for her to go there, said it would keep her out of trouble.
7:15am: I’m squatting in a shell hole, my right foot slipping into the mud, left foot dug deep into the back of a dead soldier. Only the uniform marks him out as one of ours, the flesh is soft, he’s been here a while, and as my foot sinks into him and finds his ribs for balance the smell creeps through the iron stench of the battlefield and clings to the back of my throat. I can still see the lines of soldiers walking steadfastly towards me. Their young, new boys, pals battalions who signed up after they were egged on by the man at the machine next to them or their striking partner or even just their best friend. No one has told high command yet that the Germans have survived, we don’t know why, just that the machine gun fire carries on just as before, 11 bullets a second, not enough time to walk across no mans land and get close enough for our well oiled bayonets.
7:15am We get up early this morning, though most of us haven’t slept. Big pit collapse in the village, 5 men dead, including my dad. Still down there he is beneath heavy wooden timbers that the owner of the mine, who lives in the big house and who messes around with the serving girls and then sends them away when they get in trouble, can’t ‘afford’ to fix them. We can’t even afford the funeral, thank god for the Miners Union, thanks god even more after the funeral when we try and keep the family going on his pension. He’s lucky, most people don’t get anything, and they won’t until Lloyd George keeps his promises to us.
7:30am: How long will I have to wait here in this shell hole? The bodies stack up in front of me until I lose site of my own trench, how far would it be? The six yard box? The 18 yard box? Could I make it with a bullet through my left calve? It starting to hurt now. I’ve been here before, cowering in a shell hole with an injury. I know how it goes, it doesn’t hurt until the battle is nearly over and the painfully slow stretcher bearers, the conchies, make their way over the battlefield, picking their way through those who they think can’t be saved and the ones who grab at their ankles. Then it hurts, so badly that last time I put my dog tag between my teeth and bit down so hard I could feel my teeth crumbling into the back of my throat. Still I survived last time and I will survive again, if I can just concentrate on the time, count every second and pretend I do not see the men in front of me. One, two.. another spray of machine gun fire, one boy goes down his check torn away, three, four, five…a German soldier in the shell hole face down in the mud makes a low moan and tries to use his non existent arm to roll over….. six, seven…. A shell goes of behind me and a pile of soil is thrown down on top of me, and a dog tag, and a boot with a foot sticking find their way out of the mess and slam down onto the ground next to me . Rodgers will want me to take those boots back to the trench I say out loud…eight, nine….a boy, one of ours rolls into the shell hole, he is not injured but he is crying’ take me home’ he says, pleading and grabbing at my feet. Ten, eleven..
7:30pm: twelve, thirteen, fourteen.. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Jack. ‘Its alright dad’ he says softly. He helps me to my feet from under the table and laughs loudly, affectionately. He is wearing a suit, so am I. There’s no brown, chaffing uniform, no regimental dog tags, no bleeding leg that almost had to be amputated because of the soil, pressed into the flesh. ‘He’s just trying to avoid dancing with the mother of the groom.’ He says again loudly so that everyone hears. Relatives look away and carry on their conversations, the band plays louder, but the drummer less emphatically and Nina comes over and runs her fingers over the back of my hand and presses on the wedding ring. ‘I don’t want to dance, lets get some fresh air’ she says kindly and she leads me outside into the bright, fresh sunshine, its searing buts it welcome and I let it wash away the time.