Authors: Nick Stafford
“There's a raw, urgent power to Stafford's depiction of the grief and desperation of the postwar world”
“This is the story of a heroic quest, a painstaking sifting through the rubble of war by a heroine back at home unafraid to fight her own battles. Stafford's fans won't be disappointed”
“It is a powerful and absorbing first novel. Stafford brings all his characters vividly to life, from his damaged hero and heroine to the egotistical and amoral Anthony, and Philomena's determined crusade to honour the memory of her lost lover has a poignancy that will linger long in readers' minds”
Waterstone's Books Quarterly
“It is a good, light read”
“Opening with a series of vivid, sharply rendered scenes, Nick Stafford's debut novel is an unusual and powerful story”
Good Book Guide
Also by Nick Stafford
Love Me Tonight
New York â¢ London
Â© 2010 by Nick Stafford
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This particular November morning we would much prefer to remain hunkered in our captured trench than go over the top again, but orders are still orders even now at this late stage, so once more we plunge side by side across No-Man's Land in that habitual hunched running positionâwith Death's hot breath on our necks we urge ourselves and the others on, praying that it really is going to be all over in minutes at eleven a.m.
Are the enemies' watches set to exactly the same time as ours? Has that been sorted out?
Run harder this time. Run harder than ever before. Not harder, better. Crouch more expertly. Be invisible, or bullet permeableâhope, believe that you can survive. The end is close enough to see, to smell, to touch. What will peace, what will no-war be like? Not like before, that's for sure.
Jonathan yelps and lurches sideways into a shallow crater and I dive after him. The toe of his boot has been shot off but his toes are intact, pink under the dirt. He wriggles them and they lookâillogicallyâmore vulnerable than the rest of him. Hundreds of rounds
from a heavy machine gun
splicing the air above our heads and then, aimed lower, they rip spurts from the rim of our friable haven, spitting soil in our eyes. We press ourselves down and curse. There's a pause.
I can hear Jonathan's rasping breaths. We twist our necks to look at each other.
“Reloading?” I say.
“Or jammed?” he says.
The pause continues. Mouths agape to drag in maximum air we nod to each other and stumble to our feet and will our bodies on over the clinging, uneven terrainâ
! A six-pounder. Dive flat. Merge with earth. Peer up. Enemy tank, one of ours, captured British Mark IV grinding toward our left flank, desperate Krauts sheltering in its wake. That'll be our undoing. We have nothing to touch it.
owoooeeeee â¦ pang
! One of oursâa twelve-pounder shellâonly a glancing blow but tearing tank's armor, stopping it! And bonus! Metal on metal at that velocity gives birth to shrapnel; savage, spitting, indiscriminate bastard offspring; death multiplied, it scythes the enemy infantry at waist height and lower, some falling like skittles in fast-motion, and some flying up feet-first backward as if a rug has been snatched from under them. All when they land are untouched above the waist but shredded scarlet mush and shocking white bone below. Untouched above the waist but lifeless. Some with eyes open. Like obsolete mannequins dumped round the back of a shop. I blink, still surprised, after all, at the sudden transformation from living to dead, movement to stillness.
But the tank is only wounded, stunned. It appears to shudder, and like a great beast regaining consciousness it groans and lurches into motion again. The six-pounder
s and machine guns clatter. The beast must die.
Me and Jonathan run at it from the flank and poke grenades into the jagged rip in its side, whereupon there are shouts of alarm and when we are a few yards clear, terse explosions, short cries of distress; men inside the tankâI can't help imagining themâmust be sundered and smashed, or slumped and deafened, the latter uselessly pressing their hands to their ears.
Main weapon eliminated, the battle's shape immediately becomes more irregular. We combatants intermingle, khaki versus gray. Now separated from Jonathan I can see Major Chiltern caught in a pincer movement by two of them. I shout to him but my voice is swallowed up in the cacophony of war. I fire from the hip at one of Chiltern's predators but my pistol's pin clicks impotently on a dud roundâsimultaneous to this I see Major Chiltern judder, penetrated from two different angles and he falls and lies still.
I am surprised at how upset I feel: both those shooters must die.
The dud jams my pistol. I have to clear it. I checked all these bullets personally when I loaded them; what more can you do, clean your weapon, check all the ammo? One of Chiltern's attackers twists and falls. The second clutches his chest and drops onto his face. I turn and from the angle of Jonathan's body I can see it is he who has shot them and that he is now hurrying to snap a new magazine into his
pistol because for these few moments he is like I am, without a loaded gunânaked, defenseless, blinking in the light. I shout to him and gesticulate wildly because a big man has appeared out of nowhere and is almost upon Jonathan wielding a homemade club bristling with vicious spikes.
I hold my breath while Jonathan by a fraction avoids the first blow aimed at his skull, then twists, eluding the second to his neck, and sways, in control now, in the opposite direction, so that the third blow, destined for his shoulder, swishes past. Jonathan hoiks his pistol up, rams it into the German's chinâit should be a knock-out blow but the man takes it without going down and when Jonathan wields his knife the blade only nicks his opponent's cheek instead of slashing his eye or his nose or his cheek or his lips over bared teeth right open, and now Jonathan and the German close and try to kill each other face to face.
I want to go to help Jonathan but my way is barred by a child so pale and thin that he might be an apparition, who appears to be no more than twelve years old, in a uniform far too large for him, who tremblingly points a rifle, far too heavy for him, directly into my face. The fleeing Kaiser has sent his children against us.
The shouts begin to go up: “It's over!
Der Krieg ist vorbei
The child is soiling himselfâthe tell-tale wet patch spreads down the legs of his grimy uniform and I fear that he is trembling so much he might discharge his rifle by accident. Out of the corner of my eye I can glimpse white being waved and for a moment I think it is men waving their own exposed
bones and offal hoping that someone will know what to do with it. I close my eyes and shake my head to dislodge that picture and see cloth, whiteish clothâhow absurd it would be to die at a terrified child's involuntarily twitched hand just as the war is ending!
I try to smile reassuringly and to hold the child's gaze as the sounds of war subside. The boy begins to tentatively lower his rifleâit's probably too much for him to hold up any longerâand to me this seems good, the first good thing to happen, the first after-the-war good moment, but then I hear a crack from behind me and the boy collapses and is still. I half turn, just glimpseâah, there you are, coming at me like a coward, and there's another crack and I fall backward and sideways, down on my front, looking at an ant going about its business, scaling peaks in the muddy earth.
I can smell blood and metal and decay.
Mud presses into my nostrils, seeming to want to invade me, to begin burying me already.
I can feel my blood pumping warmly out of the exit hole in my chest.
I have an image from schoolâgeographyâa cross-sectional diagram of the water table, the surface of a saturated subterranean seaâbut now it is the blood tableâall the blood from all the men and women who've leaked their lives into this contested earth, and mine is adding to it, fast-rhythmically gushingâI must get up! I try to place my palms on the ground and push but only succeed in inhaling fragments of the land we've been fighting over. I automatically cough as
my vital organs stutter and hiccough, gasping for fuel. Through my ear to the ground I can sense running feet pounding the ground.
I have a vision of myself and Philomena, and Jonathan, and the fiancÃ©e that he will acquire some day; all going about together, by the sea, living it up, dressed all in white, possibly back here in France, but definitely by the seaside, and no expense spared. I try to grasp this vision, to anchor myself to it, but it is slipping, agonizingly, away from me, out of reach.
Someone picks me upâit is Jonathanâand I feel myself begin to shake, and I can feel Jonathan holding me, and I think that I can see Captain Dore to the side of Jonathan, looking on anxiously.