Excerpt from Wake by Anna Hope (Transworld - January 2014)
Three soldiers emerge from their barracks in Arras, northern France. A colonel, a sergeant and a private. It is somewhere close to the middle of the night and bitterly cold. The men make their way to a field ambulance parked next to the entrance gate; the colonel sits in the front with the sergeant, while the private climbs into the back. The sergeant starts up the engine, and a sleepy sentry waves them out and on to the road beyond.
The young private holds on to a strap dangling from the roof as the van lurches over the rutted road. He feels shaky, and this jolting is not helping things. This raw morning has the feel of a punishment: when he was woken, minutes ago, he was told only to get dressed and get outside. He has done nothing wrong so far as he can tell, but the Army is tricky like that. There have been many times in the six months since he arrived in France when he has transgressed, and only afterwards been told how or why.
He closes his eyes, tightening his grip as the van pitches and rolls.
He had hoped he would see things, over here. The sorts of things he missed by being too young to fight. The sorts of things his older brother wrote home about. The hero brother who died taking a German trench, and whose body was never found.
But the truth is he hasn’t seen much of anything at all. He has been stuck in the rubble of Arras, week in, week out, rebuilding houses and churches, shovelling bricks.
In the front of the van, the sergeant sits forward, concentrating hard on the road ahead. He knows it well, but prefers to drive in the day, as there are several treacherous shell holes along it. He wouldn’t want to lose a tyre, not tonight. He, too, has no idea why he is here, so early and without warning, but from the taut silence of the colonel beside him, he knows not to ask.
And so the soldiers sit, the engine rumbling beneath their feet, passing through open country now, though there is nothing to show for it, nothing visible beyond the headlights’ glare, only sometimes a startled animal, scooting back into darkness on the road ahead.
When they have been driving for half an hour or so, the colonel rasps out an order. ‘Here. Stop here.’ He hits his hand against the dash. The sergeant pulls the ambulance over on to a verge at the side of the road. The engine judders and is still. There is silence, and the men climb down.
The colonel turns on his torch, reaches into the back of the van. He brings out two shovels, handing one each to the other men, then he takes out a large hessian sack, which he carries himself.
He climbs over a low wall and the men follow him, walking slowly, their torchlight bobbing ahead.
The frosted ground means the mud is hard and easy enough to walk on, but the private is careful; the land is littered with twisted metal and with holes, sometimes deep. He knows the ground is peppered with un-exploded shells. There are often funerals at the barracks for the Chinese labourers, brought over to clear the fields of bodies and ordnance. There were five dead last week alone, all laid out in a row. They end up buried in the very cemeteries they are over here to dig.
But despite the cold and the uncertainty, he is starting to enjoy himself. It is exciting to be out here in this darkness, where ruined trees loom and danger feels close. He could almost imagine he were on a different mission. Something heroic. Something to write home about. Whatever is happening, it is better than churches and schools.
Soon the ground falls away, and the men stand before a ditch in the earth, the remains of a trench. The colonel climbs down and begins walking along it, and the others follow, single file, along its zigzag lines.
The private measures his height against the side. He is not a tall man, and the trench is not high. They pass the remains of a dugout on their right, its doorway bent at a crazed angle, one of its supports long gone. He hesitates a moment before it, shining his torch inside, but there is nothing much to see, only an old table pushed up against the wall, a rusted tin can still standing open on the top. He pulls his light back from the dank hole and hurries to keep up.
Ahead of him, the colonel turns left into a straighter, shorter trench, and at the end of that, right, into another, built in short, zigzag sections like the first.
‘Front line,’ says the sergeant under his breath.
After a few metres, the colonel’s beam picks out a rusted ladder, slung against the trench wall. He stops before it, placing his boot on the bottom rung, pressing once, twice, testing its strength.
‘Sir?’ It is the sergeant speaking.
‘What’s that?’ The colonel turns his head.
The sergeant clears his throat. ‘Do we need to go up that way, Sir?’
The private watches as the colonel swallows, as his Adam’s apple moves slowly up and down. ‘Have you got a better idea?’
The sergeant seems to have nothing to say to that.
The colonel turns, scaling the ladder in a few swift jerks.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ mutters the sergeant. Still he doesn’t move.
Standing behind him, the private is itching to climb. Even though he knows that on the other side there will only be more of the same blasted country, part of him wonders if there might be something else, something close to the thing he came out here for: that vague, brave, wonderful thing he has not dared to speak of, even to himself. But he cannot move until the sergeant does, and the sergeant is frozen to the spot.
The colonel’s boots appear at the height of their heads, and torchlight is flung into their faces. ‘What’s the hold-up? Get yourselves over here. Now.’ He speaks like a machine gun, spitting out his words.
‘Yes, Sir.’ The sergeant closes his eyes, looks almost as though he may be saying a prayer, then turns and climbs the ladder. The private follows him, blood tumbling in his ears. Once over, they stand gathering their breath, their beams sweeping wide over the scene before them: great rusting coils of wire, twenty, thirty feet wide, like the crazed skeleton of some ancient serpent, stretching away in both directions as far as the eye can see.