What you have to accept at the outset is this: many men have died like Robert Ross, obscured by violence. Lawrence was hurled against a wall—Scott entombed in ice and wind—Mallory blasted on the face of Everest. Lost. We’re told Euripides was killed by dogs—and this is all we know. The flesh was torn and scattered—eaten. Ross was consumed by fire. These are like statements: “pay attention!” People can only be found in what they do.
“He was unique. But you have to be careful, searching his story out. I’ve been through it all, you know…the whole of this extraordinary century—and it’s not the extraordinary people who’ve prevailed upon its madness. Quite the opposite. Oh—far from it! It’s the ordinary men and women who’ve made us what we are. Monstrous, complacent and mad.”
Nothing he’d read had covered this situation. Whores, of course, had been discussed at school but no one actually ever said this is what you do. They’d made it all up. But what they’d made up was not like this. At all. They’d flown from trapezes and made love in bath tubs and ravished several women to the bed posts, but no one had ever sat in a room with lilac wallpaper and been asked if there was “nothing special you’d like.”
What had become of all the spires and the formal, comforting shapes of commerce he remembered—banks and shops and business palaces with flags? Where were the streets with houses ranged behind their lawns under the gentle awnings of the elms? What had happened here in so short a time that he could not recall his absence? What were all these fires—and where did his father and his mother sleep beneath the pall of smoke reflecting orange and red and yellow flames? Where, in this dark, was the world he’d known and where he was being taken to so fast there wasn’t even time to stop?
Oddly, too, he didn’t feel like sending love to anyone. It seemed unmanly. What he did do was enclose a photograph (official) and say to his father: “This will show you that my draft makes a brawling, husky lot of men. Not quite gunners or drivers yet—just as I can’t quite feel that I am a soldier myself.”
“I do not understand. I don’t. I won’t. I can’t. Why is this happening to us, Davenport? What does it mean—to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?” She wept—but angrily.
Ord said hoarsely that since he was going to do a boy’s work he must read the “stuff of which boys are made” and smiled. Clifford didn’t appreciate the humor. To him, the war was a deadly serious and heaven-sent choice to become a man.
But Mrs. Ross just stood at the windows of the private car and was afraid to go outdoors. Her mind was full of trolley cars and she knew that if she tried to cross the tracks, then she and everyone would be struck down. Instead, she waved from behind the glass and she watched her boy depart and her husband standing in his black fur coat—it seemed for hours—with his arm in the air and the snow falling down around him. “Come on back to the raf’, Huck, honey.” And this was what they called the wars.
The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. When it rains…the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you “waded to the front.” Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
Poole said: “You needn’t worry about the Germans here, sir. They’re a long ways off yet. At least as much as two miles or more.”
Levitt said: “Oh.” He seemed somehow demoralized by this news. Perhaps he thought you weren’t in the war unless the enemy could shoot you. In this he was much like everyone else who’d just arrived. You weren’t a real soldier unless you were in jeopardy.
From the gap, when Robert’s eyes had cleared, he cast a single look back to where the man had been. He saw that the whole field was filled with floating shapes. The only sounds were the sounds of feeding and of wings. And of rafts.
All he wanted was a dream. Escape. But nobody dreams on a battlefield. There isn’t any sleep that long. Dreams and distance are the same. If he could run away…like Longboat. Put on his canvas shoes and the old frayed shirt and tie the cardigan around his waist and take on the prairie…But he kept running into Taffler. Throwing stones. And Harris.
You live when you live. No one else can ever live your life and no one else will ever know what you know. Then was then. Unique. And how does one explain it? You had a war. Every generation has a war—except this one. But that’s beside the point. The thing is not to make excuses for the way you behaved—not to take refuge in tragedy—but to clarify who you are through your response to when you lived. If you can’t do that, then you haven’t made your contribution to the future. Think of any great man or woman. How can you separate them from the years in which they lived? You can’t. Their greatness lies in their response to that moment.
And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we became inured. Your heart froze over—yes. But to say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No. Everything was sharp. Immediate. Men and women like Robert and Barbara—Harris and Taffler…you met and you saw so clearly and cut so sharply into one another’s lives. So there wasn’t any rubbish. You lived without the rubbish of intrigue and the long drawn-out propriety of romance and you simply touched the other person with your life.
In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour—but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.
This—to Bates—was the greatest terror of war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do—where to go and when. What if they were mad—or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what if they were brave and crazy—wanting and demanding bravery from you? He looked away. He thought of being born—and trusting your parents. Maybe that was the same. Your parents could be crazy too. Or stupid. Still—he’d rather his father was with him—telling him what to do. Then he smiled. He knew that his father would take one look at the crater and tell him not to go.
Robert sagged against the ground. It was even worse than that. Lying beside the German was a modified Mauser rifle of the kind used by snipers. He could have killed them all. Surely that had been his intention. But he’d relented. Why?
The bird sang.
One long note descending: three that wavered on the brink of sadness.
That was why.
It sang and sang and sang, till Robert rose and walked away. The sound of it would haunt him until the day he died.
Robert sat on his bed in the old hotel at Bailleul and read what Rodwell had written.
To my daughter, Laurine;
Love your mother
Make your prayers against despair.
I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing ever dies.
I am your father always.
Robert I discovered was a very private man. His temper, you know, was terrible. Once when he thought he was alone and unobserved I saw him firing his gun in the woods at a young tree. It was a sight I’d rather not have seen. He destroyed it absolutely. Other times he would throw things down and break them on the ground…he had a great deal of violence inside and sometimes it emerged this way with a gesture and other times it showed in his expression when you found him sitting alone on the terrace or staring out of a window.
Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we’ve done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is—they’ll remember we were human beings.
Robert thought of a Saturday crowd at a football game where everyone would link hands on the cold, fall afternoons and the long chains of singers would weave back and forth in the stands till the whole arena would be swaying from side to side.
Robert sat on the mutilated mattress and opened his kit bag. Everything was there—including the picture of Rowena. Robert burned it in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger—but an act of charity.
He got out the Webley, meaning to shoot the animals not yet dead, but he paused for the barest moment looking at the whole scene laid out before him and his anger rose to such a pitch that he feared he was going to go over into madness. He stood where the gate had been and he thought: “If an animal had done this—we would call it mad and shoot it,” and at that precise moment Captain Leather rose to his knees and began to struggle to his feet. Robert shot him between the eyes.
Robert called out very distinctly (and there are twenty witnesses to this): “We shall not be taken.”
It was the “we” that doomed him. To Mickle, it signified that Robert had an accomplice. Maybe more than one. Mickle thought he knew how to get “them” out.