“I don’t know what to do about her, Sass old chap”
Siegfried nodded in silence as Prior confided in him about ‘a skirt’ he’d picked up at a local pub. As far as he could understand, or wanted to – her name was Sarah and she was an ammunitionette. After Prior had mentioned she worked for Uncle Sam – he tuned out.
Rivers had suggested Sassoon help out with chores across the hospital and he agreed to tend the grounds – in a selfish moment of hope he’d escape from everyone else’s problems. After barely five minutes of solitude he found himself being assisted by an uncharacteristically chatty Prior who had been confined to the hospital for a fortnight.
“You see, I’m coming to the end of my first week locked in this mad house and I came to you because you’re the only one who isn’t sick, you know?” Prior continued.
This snapped Siegfried out of his silence, trying to suppress a chuckle at the notion that he was sought out over Rivers. “I’d have thought the quack would have been the more natural choice, seeing as he’s the one with the cure.”
“He’s curing me to ship me off back to the front line. Sarah’s not going to be at the front line. Just a troop of men, I don’t need to be able to court them. He doesn’t care about my catch; I’ve already tried. There’s nothing wrong with you Sass. We all know it. Rivers won’t tell anyone because he’s trying to protect you. We know you’re here to avoid being court-martialed; so there’s no curing you. It’s all right fella, no one minds. You were only trying to say what every weary soldier here is thinking… None of us want the war to go on. It does more harm than good really. It’s just no one else dares say it because we’ll look like cowards now that we’ve been here, like we’re too scared to go back to the front…”
Sassoon nodded in a forlorn recognition and carried on raking the leaves in silence, letting this new piece of information from an unexpected source seep into his bitter thoughts of war. No one minds? I mind. This poor child is under the illusion that I want to stay here. These men look upon me with pity; I sit and eat my dinner every night amongst rows upon rows of men who think they’re protecting me by pretending to believe I’m insane. Everyone’s bloody pretending! The people at the War Office are pretending this war is still necessary. Soldiers at the front line kid themselves that all will be okay and they’ll see their loved ones again, then if by some miracle they do see them again; it will never be the same. Everyone’s pretending we’re all fine. Like the war is strengthening us as men, like our women and children are going to respect us and when it’s over they’ll love us all the same,despite all our murderous actions.
“Sass… Sass. I think you can take a break now old fella”
Looking down, Siegfried noticed that he’d been violently raking the same spot and not only was it leafless, the grass had also been pulled out by the vicious metal prongs and miniature trenches were noticeable in the mud. His knuckles were white from gripping the tool, reminding him of the hours spent in his own trenches, hands red raw from the cold and knuckles white – holding on to his rifle as if it was some form of saving grace. Prior eased the rake out of his hands, propping it with his own against a nearby tree before leading the stunned Siegfried to the crest of a nearby hill.
The pair sat in silence, Sassoon with his knees drawn to his chest and his fingers knotted together, hugging his legs in closer, protecting him from the piercing lies and unnecessary necessities that shattered the world around him. Neither needed to talk, but both looked out upon the view. Neither man will ever experience such a moment of peace again, for both are constantly plagued by the echoes of snipers and rifles in their ears and the wretched shrieks of their brothers once hit. Although both look upon the hills and houses lined below, neither man sees the same picture, nor do they see the innocence the scene beholds.
Prior sees a world he can never fully grasp. He sees a place full of normal people he can never be included in. He sees Sarah, so beautiful yet hardly innocent. Her personality blurs and smudges around the edges in his mind. The war has given this woman a mask of yellow to hide behind. She reminds him of a perfect canary. Sarah seemed an innocent creature, gaining power and position from the grimness of war – just like a bird in the mines- only to fade back into the shadows and become irrelevant again once the grim task has been completed and become redundant. But this bird has got strong wings. She wants to be caught but is scared to become stained with the bitter coal tarnish of the war. The gritty texture of his hands is scaring the bird off. When he washes his hands of the war he hopes the bird will rest in his palm.
Siegfried sees rows upon rows of houses, each filled with its own little troop of soldiers, working to sustain an ordinary life. So far north they have almost escaped untouched by the hot poker branding this country as a nation of war. Their bubble visibly pierced only by the hospital of war mental patients. Many of whom walk among them on a Sunday morning. It’s then that you see the true casualties of war. The old ladies and young brides stare at you as you cross the street, crying into their handkerchiefs at the thought that we have found an escape route and are tucked safely away, whilst their husbands and sons are still away fighting. Siegfried’s eyes glance upon the ammunitions factory and his jaw clenches as he remembers that there are people down there who are thankful for the war, like Prior’s Sarah who gains a good wage shipping weapons and ammo off to France. Their ignorance seems second only to the people directing the head of this battle.
Both men lower their heads for those final few moments before the cold sets in and begins to gnaw at their bones. They rise slowly and silently. They walk back to the tree where they left their rakes, locked the garden shed and went back to have dinner at the hospital. Each of them about to continue their stay, pretending that moment was never shared.