May 15th, 1916
London, Phillips Dance Hall
“My father always said a man should never drink cider on a night this warm.”
Slumped into a chair, George heard the voice but didn’t acknowledge it, kept his eyes on the bottle in front of him. The label was already coming loose, peeling off the amber glass like it had somewhere better to be. Anywhere but where it was stuck. George grimaced and rolled it into his hand, took a swig and prayed the woman standing over him would take a hint. Instead, before he could stop her, she eased herself into the seat alongside him.
“Alice,” she sang, extending her hand out in front of her so fast that it almost sent his drink from the table. She rushed an apology, laughed at him as he felt a smile tug the corners of his mouth. Her hair, Irish-wild, framed pale skin, the curly locks pinned into place as was the fashion. At least the officers called it a fashion, though George wasn’t so sure the women had much of a say in the matter. Well. That was one thing they had in common.
He forced a smile, wiped his hand on his trousers, and taking hers, planted a kiss on it like he’d seen once in a play. Drunk on whatever they were dishing out to the girls at the bar, she giggled and he felt his cheeks flush red. Fool. Maybe they’d find the gesture less amusing when he got to France.
“George,” he added, realising he hadn’t even offered his name.
Alice’s green-glass eyes danced; a tendril of hair stole from behind her ear and leapt free. Casually, she reached out and slipped the bottle of cider into her grasp, pressed it to her lips and drank. George decided it was rude to watch.
“Well are we going to dance?” she breathed, setting the drink back on the table.
He swallowed. On the floor in front of them, a few dozen couples stepped to an old tune, looking as though they’d only learned to walk moments before. Most of the girls worked in the post-office, the army offices, the hotel next door. They’d been rounded up and herded in there after “the men had finished dinner”. Now they took the trembling hands of boys and guided them to the dancefloor, showed them a one-two step they’d be sober enough to remember. This was their send-off, after all, one last night before they shipped off to the front. As far as most of them were concerned, tomorrow they became men. George watched a few couples push closer, whisper in each other’s’ ears, realised not all of them were happy to wait that long.
“We can’t dance,” he said, lowering his gaze back to the table.
“I can show-”
“It’s not that I don’t know how to,” he interrupted, pressing his forehead to one hand and balancing on his elbow.
Nearby, he felt Alice soften. She moved in front of him as if to cut them off, leave them in a world with only two souls. And this time, when her hand wandered, it didn’t find the half-empty bottle, but his own which lay lifeless next to it.
“It’s not a last dance,” she said crouching, smoothing her blue dress with a sweep, squeezing his palm heartbeat-quick.
He sighed, wondered was the cider turning his stomach. “I’m one of the last to leave, you know. All of my friends signed up two years ago. They went willingly to France, to the Mediterranean; they made their parents proud. My father won’t be there to wave me off tomorrow. He said now that we’re being forced to go, there’s no sacrifice to it.” His chest heaved. “My own family won’t be there to say goodbye.” His face collapsed back into his hands.
A few seconds later, Alice tapped him on the head. Before he could protest, she dragged him to his feet, held a finger to his lips and then walked him out of the room, ignored the new tune playing behind them.
Outside London was heavy, or drunk, like somebody had pressed a warm blanket to it, perhaps left it too close to a fire. The sun had disappeared behind the buildings yawning up in front them and shadows streaked down the streets. But even with the last light of day lingering, the lamps were already lit, casting pale light, illuminating nothing. Under one of them, Alice embraced him.
“I’m going to be here when you come home,” she said, her voice muffled against his uniform. “And no matter where they send you, promise me that you’ll come back here. Promise me we’ll have that dance.”
There was a long pause, a few minutes that passed between them as though they were years.
“France,” he whispered. “I’ll be sent to France.”
George didn’t know how long they stood there, or when he felt the first of his tears, or when his feet dragged underneath him and holding Alice he started to dance.
Hundreds of brown uniforms crowded the platform, some of them hugging loved ones goodbye, almost all of them smiling. Many, like George, had scarcely twenty years to their name, hardly a shadow across their face where a beard would normally take hold. Behind him, he felt the train coming alive, making panes of glass in its windows shudder. Something burned deep down inside it, eager to drive it, to carry their faces away so fast they’d all blur together.
“Thank you for being here,” George said, hauling in a breath, drawing Alice closer to him. His chest felt a little lighter with her face pushed against it, like she was bleeding weight off it, turning the place where his heart was dizzy.
“Write to me,” she said, her lips almost at his neck, her hand sliding something crumpled into his pocket. Those around them were too caught up in their own affairs to notice, or to care. Quickly again she was off him.
“Will I send you poems?” he teased, shuffling the bag on his back, suddenly aware how heavy it had grown since he’d first began packing it.
Alice smiled, rolled those field-green eyes for him and stole him from the moment long-dreaded.
“Tell me exactly how you feel,” she said. “That’s all poetry really is anyway.”
George opened his mouth to speak. Behind, there was a sharp whistle, a blast that made the few men still left on the platform jump.
“You’d best be off. Wouldn’t want to be late on your first day,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. Her dress, mourning-black, swayed in the soft London breeze.
He shook his head and grinned. “I’m sure they’ll wait. They need every man they can get.”
But Alice was right. The train lurched on the track, made an awful noise as its wheels screamed against the rails underneath. A few puffs of steam drifted down the platform.
“George, the whistle!” Alice shouted. Seconds later, the conductor blew harder again and the train struggled forward, the hands of men flailing out the windows, the engine roaring as though it’d explode.
A couple of cars had passed George by the time he had gathered himself. Turning one last time to say farewell, he saw Alice afraid.
She thinks that I’ll miss the train.
And so he ran, charged blind into the white smoke towards the thunder sound and the train snaking away from him, steam hissing sharp in his ears.
And he disappeared.
Blue = letters from Alice, a seamstress living in London
Red = letters from George, a British soldier at the Somme
Purple = voice of General Chambers
Green = voice of Jack, an Irish messenger in the trenches
These fields of blood, these fields of France,
such hero’s words that feign romance.
But no knights here of spear or lance,
no nights at all ‘ere we advance.
All day long machine guns chatter,
lick up mud, make carrion crows scatter.
And shells that scream leave us their fire,
leave us their smoke to choke barbed wire.
We’ve dug in now to hold our ground,
our target but a far-off mound,
where Kaiser’s men hear brave words call,
of English tides against their wall.
The letters now find their way home,
many marked a place named Somme,
and tell of boys who too soon fell,
whose lay to rest will hear no bell.
I fear that I’ll too read those words,
find morning comes where there’s no bird,
to fill empty air with song and pity,
for lives left behind, the half-dead city.
I see you still as you catch that train,
and wonder was it all in vain,
to pray you’d never truly leave
for war at dawn, no peace by eve.
Rain and wind turned fire and ash,
guns thunder-roar, guns lightning-flash,
shaking boots wet where mud splash’d
as nails to skin fan flame-red rash.
A leg blown off or a foot turned rot,
a peach-bruised arm, a wound seared hot,
a trench sick-wet for what men we’ve got,
a hell last seen by the men we’ve not.
Is Verdun nice this time of year?
The world’s gone black; few men know cheer.
But I hold on for your heart held dear,
for your small hand, should dark skies clear.
Oh, George, you make these tired eyes glisten,
‘gave father your voice; my sweet, he listened.
They say not long ’til boats roll waves,
bring brave men home for far-off graves.
To stand beneath the English sun,
and feel your kiss as two ‘comes one.
To lie beneath the fields of stars,
trace fingers pale across your scars.
A quiet dance on London streets,
a drink where two strangers still meet,
and dream a world of ever-spring,
of family, church and home and King.
November brings the winter chill,
the frost biting for blood not spill’d.
And now they talk of one last push,
a thousand winds for one great rush.
Who knows what strength the Germans gather,
against a storm, can guns still matter?
The land out there has long bled-dry,
the breeze above whispers a sigh.
And now the words of wealthy men,
command me stall my aching pen,
and fix knives long as morning shadow.
Goodbye, my love, ’til I next-
These fields of France, so bald of thistle,
George, stand up lad, mark the whistle!
Rifle high summit that trench,
Leave little left to feed those French.
[Watching from the English position]
Their guns applaud across the line,
a music sweet as well-kept wine.
But that’s no hymn men, that’s a dirge,
a funeral sound against our courage.
Press on chaps, they will yet yield;
we’ll leave the French an empty field,
where ghosts still speak of English pride,
on memory stones to those who’ve died.
[Rain on the Somme]
At last our charge their bullets meet,
our trudge to doom hacked at its feet,
as mowing fast they cut men down,
a valour fit for King and Crown.
Call them back, we’ve lost the day;
they’ve bullets still they’ve not yet sprayed.
Find us when there’s far less sorrow,
I want what’s left for more tomorrow.
[Report arriving from the battle]
Four from five, Sir, lost or slain,
that small gray hill, Sir, yet to gain.
And weather norm the Irish bain,
now swiftly thorns as English pain.
Bury the thousands dead in the inch we’ve crept,
hold back your tears, enough clouds wept.
Bogged down our surge in heaving muck,
I’ll keep my job if I’ve still luck.
Draw up the names of those you find,
the letters, boy, I’ll let you sign.
[A month later, at the close of the Somme]
A letter, Sir, for one who’s dead.
Well come now, boy, give what it said.
But, Sir, words tender, hearts at home.
A general, boy, I’ll have you know.
“I dreamt last night of those fields in France,
of silent screams, of prayers unans’ed
But if these words reach you, by luck-by chance,
know I dreamt too of our last dance.”