ON BORROWED GROUND
The beginning ...
Imperceptibly at first, the ice rampart relaxed its hold on the land as the long winter relented. Weak and fitful, the sun took its toll with each warm season, fluting and fretting the face of the ice sheet, castellating its crest, while water trickled through its caverns and seeped from its base. The ice groaned, as if its spirit grieved within. It cringed as the sun, like a God reborn, hewed at its mass, and occasionally it advanced, with blizzards shrieking down the north wind, howling over the trackless wilderness of white.
But each year the sun returned with greater force, standing majestically in the sky, striking from on high, and the ice took on a new music as rivers flowed from it. The great mass divided as valleys drove into it. Like any army in disarray it abandoned its plunder, retreating to bite higher ground. Water struggled with the crumbled rock, sorting and shifting, taking some and abandoning some, piling it here and tearing it away again, as it moulded a new landscape.
Deep within a toppling mountain of ice, in some luminous, echoing vortex, where waters met and laboured together, Brehonys' Hill was conceived. It emerged into the sunlight, a low, graceful parabola, standing unique and apart from the long diagonal scarp of boulder clay and above the morass where a stream had lost its way. Stabs of orange lichen appeared on stone. A seed, borne a long way on the upper air, drifted down and lodged in a crevice. The cry of geese sounded in the marsh. Like a new Genesis, the summers flowered and creeping things emerged on the face of the earth. Wolves prowled the hill. A great elk lifted his spread of antler on its summit. A bear grunted and stumbled through the young forest, pushing heedlessly through the tangle of briar. A boar rooted and snuffled in the deep leaf mould.
A straggle of pines gained a foothold on the skirt of the hill but the forest encroached no further. Tough, springy grass took hold between clumps of yellow furze where linnets whirred in springtime. But the geese came and went countless times and pine trees fell and mouldered, only to raise their gnarled limbs against the sky in a new generation, before voices echoed in the forest and smoke rose from the top of Brehonys'
There was water in the bottom of the shell hole but it was a small price to pay for the security. By bracing his good leg against a tangle of wire and wood Kit could keep himself on the upper slope. It had been worth the agonising struggle to get there.
Another man lay with his back to Kit and one foot in the water. He might even be dead. The battle appeared to be tapering off. Occasional bursts of machinegun fire whistled overhead. A gigantic railway howitzer punctuated the artillery duel. Thump. Kit counted. Thump, again. Two rounds per minute. He had seen it in action on the way up; Canadians, one of them in carpet slippers. 'We've got the goods for them today boys,' he had said, rubbing his hands. Kit figured that it must be mid-afternoon. The sun was only a blur of white behind the overcast. He thought of the naggin of gin. That would warm him. His teeth chattered. His head was clear again. Someone would find them when it got dark and soon they would be going home.
The other man stirred and appeared to be trying to speak. His shoulders twitched.
Kit took a mouthful of the gin and felt it burn its way down, dulling for an instant the pain inside him. The grateful warmth branched out and he imagined it creeping out to his extremities. Things could have been much worse. 'Would you try a drop of gin?' he whispered, wondering how close they were to the enemy lines. 'Do you good.'
There was no reply.
'I'll throw it across . 'There was a definite stirring. He gathered a handful of wet clay and flipped it sideways. Movement brought fresh pain, and fear that he might slip down into the water, where the blood would be drawn from him, leaking uncontrollably into the mud.
The man shuddered.
'Here goes.' Kit lobbed the bottle above the man's helmeted head so that it would slide down in front of his face.
It thudded into the slope and the wet earth began to slip. The man rolled on his back. The skull under the mud-caked helmet lolled hideously, devoid of flesh. The black eye sockets regarded Kit with cynical amusement. He felt a scream rising inside him. The tunic burst open and a fat, grey rat emerged, disturbed from its work in the chest cavity. Its nose twitched as it sniffed the air. There were pinpoints of light in the inquisitive eyes.
Kit screamed, a long ululating vowel of pure terror. He was so utterly alone. His legs would not move. His hands clawed the clay as he thrust backwards.
The cry carried to the men on either side, in the dusk of the winter afternoon, sending a chill through those who heard it. Somewhere out there was a man confronted by some unspeakable horror. It could have been themselves. It might be next time.
Another and another rat emerged, with obscene scuttling sounds. They lumbered around the corpse, jostling each other climbing back and forth. Filled with loathing and revulsion for both man and rodents, Kit hurled handfuls of clay at them. If only he had his rifle he would be safe. The rats retreated, hopping over the rim of the hole, eyeing him malevolently. They would be back. Time was on their side. He had stopped screaming but he was gasping for breath. His throat contracted in a dry painful retch but nothing would come. He was conscious of warm wet blood on his thigh and a roaring sound in his ears and the darkness came again.
'Mach schnell,' said an urgent voice and Kit felt himself being jolted around. He could see a figure in grey in front of him and realised that he was on a stretcher. His heart sank at the realisation that he was in the hands of the enemy. 'Mach schnell,' said the voice again, and he caught a glimpse of a man, obviously an officer, gesticulating at the bearers. 'Pompous sod,' said another voice in the darkness. 'Ere China, 'ave one o' these.' He felt the cigarette being placed between his lips and a match flared for one instant. Gratefully he drew the smoke into his lungs. There was no taste like it in the world. 'You'd think the bastard was in charge, wouldn't you,' the English voice remarked. 'Mach schnell, my arse. Move these blokes along or so help me....' Words failed him for a moment. 'Where the hell am I?' asked Kit. 'Don't worry Paddy. You're on your way 'ome.'
The nurse looked down at him. 'We can only patch you up for the moment. There's some lead in there that will have to come out. 'There were dark circles under her eyes, accentuated by the lantern that hung from the tent pole. She was almost staggering with exhaustion, but her fingers moved efficiently. Finally she stood to call for the bearers, and as if as an afterthought she turned again to Kit. 'And tell me my man, did you take Bapaume?' Her manner was haughty and intimidating.
'I wouldn't know,' he replied apologetically. 'I've been out of action all day.'
'Hmm, Irish aren't you,' she sniffed. 'Well anyway, you're going back to base hospital. You'll be out of action for quite some considerable time.'
From somewhere there was the smell of rashers frying and he realised that he was hungry. 'Thank you very much ma'am,' he said.
The grey-clad prisoners took up the stretcher. They were glad to be out of it too.