Young Henry's feet stank. The Gaffer had looked at them, said the boy's feet needed dryness. They looked over the edge of the trench; the plains of Northern France stretched on and on, grey as the grey sky.
"This bloody hole in the ground," Young Henry grumbled. "I swear I saw a rat swimming last night, his whiskers just above the water."
"You're new, boy," Old Henry said. "When they order us out, this trench will look better than your mam's front room. And weren't a rat you saw. Rats can't swim."
"Course they can. You call yourself a Butler? Working at the Castle there, I'd swear you must have seen rats aplenty, swimming in their fancy pools."
"Stay off the politics, Red Tom, Old Henry," the Gaffer commanded. "The rest of us are tired of listening to you. And wasn't a rat, Young Henry. More like a field mouse. Rats live in the city, London, in the sewers and such like."
The boy was young. He must have lied; he couldn't be old enough for the Army. No point in leaving him with nightmares about rats.
"This was a good country mouse, French, maybe, but a field mouse. Field mice, now, they are not the same things as rats at all. We had them on the allotment. And they can swim. I remember going over early, to water some sprouts just put in. I saw a field mouse swimming in the water barrel, around and around and around. Booger had been there all night, likely, just paddling."
The Gaffer looked through his kit and found a pair of dry socks. He pitched them to Young Henry.
"Let your feet air awhile, then put these on."
Young Henry sat on the bench, his feet up in front of him, looking at their blackness.
"Well, what then, Gaffer. What happened to the mouse? Did it drown?"
"No, lad. No. I might have broken his neck, but I wouldn't leave him paddling."
The Gaffer remembered the early morning, before sunrise, the grey false dawn before he left for work. He remembered the mouse, or perhaps it was a rat, looking at him with small black eyes, exhausted, expecting to be smashed most likely. Patiently paddling, staying afloat as long as he was able.
"I fished him out with my spade and put him on the grass. He looked his thanks and ran away."
"Me dad," Young Henry said, "he always leaves a log or some such in the water barrel. Birds go to drink and can't get out, frogs hatch...all the men on the allotment do that."
"But rats, or mice if you prefer, are another matter," Old Henry said. "Nasty creatures, eat the peas when you set them out."
"There's enough to share," the Gaffer said. "Enough to share. Soak your peas in paraffin before you plant them, Old Henry. The mice will leave them be."
"Heard anything about moving?" Red Tom asked. "I hear there's to be something soon. Something about a place called Wipers."
"There's no French town called Wipers."
"It's over the border in Belgium."
"And why," asked the Gaffer, "do we want some place called Wipers?"
"Because it's there, because it's there."
Orders came. As they left the trench, the Gaffer looked at the churned mud. Good ground, he thought. He remembered before the war, when the French Onion men would come round Kent. They'd have long strings of onions for sale. He thought this was onion-growing ground, but he wasn't sure.
"Nothing to grow here this year," the Gaffer thought.
Young Henry had become Henry; old Henry was lost the year before. Henry looked at his feet; the skin had cracked.
"Wonder if I could just shoot them off?" he said.
"Used to think this was onion land," the Gaffer said. "Marie in the train station, she says no, the onions come from some place called Brittany."
"That near here?"
"No, don't think so." The Gaffer had been disappointed. The French Onion men had been a kind of tie to home. Defending the French Onion Men was almost right for a good Kentish farm worker to do.
This Northern France was just across the channel from home. The Channel was so narrow in places it had been swum--swum from England to France. But the land was not at all like Kent. Northern France was flat, stretching on and on. He remembered the hills around Canterbury. Doris and he would go walking on Sundays. Later, they'd take the baby and the dog out walking up the old Roman Way, beside the allotments. There was a footpath where the Romans had built their road. He could imagine the Romans marching the same path, coming to England, leaving their ruins, then going home. He could stand on the Roman Way and look down at Canterbury, with its Cathedral and its wall and its red brick terrace houses with their grey slate roofs.
He went to school in Wincheap, just outside the city walls. The name of the neighborhood came from olden times, from the Romans. They'd had a wine market there, he'd learned in school. He'd asked the teacher if the cheap part of the name meant it was cheap wine. The teacher had laughed, and said no, cheap was an ending put on a word that meant market.
Then the Romans had gone, taking their wine with them and the fields around Canterbury now grew hops, for good English beer. The Gaffer was in charge of the hop kilns, drying the hops. In her last letter, Doris had sent him some hops, pale green buds, for luck. They were still fresh, not crumbling. He'd given Young Henry and Red Tom a hop, to put in their pockets. If you keep a hop in your wallet, he'd said, repeating the old joke, you'll never have an empty wallet.
His part of England was full of coming and going. The French came, and stayed. The English followed the path to Dover and set sail. Bonaparte wanted to come over, but the Navy put a stop to that. The Channel, the Gaffer thought, should be twice as wide.
"At least it's not raining," Henry said.
"Give it time, twenty minutes or so," Red Tom said.
The Gaffer was worried about Red Tom. He didn't say much about politics any more. They all knew each other so well, what was the point? But he'd been talking to others. Red Tom had never learned that being right made no difference at all. He was as much a lad as Henry was, but without Henry's sense. Red Tom had a place in the Grammar School, but his dad needed the pay packet so it hadn't been taken up. Red Tom had gone down the pit, like his dad.
His lad, if his lad gets a place in the Grammar School, he'd see to it the boy went. Beg, borrow or steal he would. He and Doris would manage. Doris was strong for education. If the lad got into the Grammar, it would be his mother's doing.
"We're going back to Wipers," Red Tom said. "Heard from Johnny."
"How you think them Belgiums say it?" Henry asked. "I saw it on a sign, last time. Ypres. Don't seem like a proper word."
"Belgians, French, Germans...who cares about any of them?"
"So it's Wipers again tomorrow."
The Gaffer looked around the trench. All new lads, he thought. After Henry, he didn't want to know any of them. The mining villages of Kent must be empty. Are the hops being harvested? Who was managing his kiln? Were they being dried properly? Is there a pub somewhere a man can have a pint, and sit in the sun?
Sometimes he went for days, leaving his body here, his mind at home, sitting outside the pub with a good pint of Kentish ale. He didn't think of anything, really. Just imagined the warmth of the sun on a golden day with the sound of bees swarming. No thoughts at all.
He didn't want to think about Red Tom. That was, maybe, the hardest thing that had happened. He heard the boy died bravely. He would have expected that. No coward, whatever they said. But an officer said Go and Tom said No. He'd had too much, the lad, and the officer was new, some public school boy that believed in King and Glory. So they'd lined Red Tom against a wall and shot him. Half mad or half sense? Well, someone had taken care of the officer. German or one of us, didn't matter. Whoever it was had saved a good many English lives.
Tom had seen too much, fought too long, and was no coward. And he would, if he ever got home, find the boy's family and tell them so. A good lad, Red Tom. A smart lad, but he'd never learned the way things are.
Thank God his boy was too young for this. He worried about Doris and the boy. Doris wrote all was well, but she would. She was working again, in the dairy. She'd always liked the work, and Lord Tallis took her back.
A woman in a million, his Doris, but she'd lie to keep him from worry. He couldn't fault her for that. His letters were a pack of lies as well.
One of the lads said, "We're off again, I hear, to Ypres."
"Wipers again," the Gaffer muttered.
"Third time lucky, old man," one of the boys laughed. "We won't have to go to Wipers itself this time. We'll be outside. We're going to dig in at some village called Passendale."
The Gaffer had come back. It was over.
They said he was lucky. He had come through, arms and legs and lungs all intact. Lord Tallis had his job waiting for him when he got back. When he dreamed, he got up, fixed a cup of tea and sat. He got on with it.
He came back with a medal, and Lord Tallis had him in for a drink. Lord Allis's two boys had not come back. Young Will had been a wild one, Tom had been steady. A cousin would take the land now. A damned banker, Lord Tallis had said.
He'd gone to the Cathedral, wearing his uniform and medals, when they dedicated a plaque to his Regiment's dead.
He'd gone to Young Henry's family, wearing the medals. A good visit. They talked about the boy. They remembered him together.
He'd gone to Red Tom's family as well. They'd looked at him with shuttered faces, dark as the pits they worked in, and shown him the door. A woman had followed him. Sister? Sister-in-law?
"You'll say nothing to the neighbors," she'd said. "They don't know...the shame..."
"It's their shame, not his," he had replied. "But I'll say nothing to the neighbors."
Finally, he'd come back here.
Maria was still at the Railway Station. She had no plans to marry. Who was left to marry?
He looked over the Plains of Northern France. The trenches were still there, but hidden by the waving fields, acre after acre, of red field poppies. As far as he could see, blood red poppies. He'd been angry, and he was never an angry man, at the politicians' cant.
They're saying the poppies are a tribute to Young Henry and all the rest, he thought. More of their blindness, more of their stupidity. More of their speeches. Don't they know what happens when you plow and don't plant? The wild seed is thrown up after years of waiting, takes hold and blooms. Have they any idea what it takes to reclaim land gone to seed? Men turned to wildness? The poppies show our shame.
The armies and their guns back and forth churned the land like some demon plow. Then the sudden silence, and the landscape left empty, except for the blooming poppies. Poppies bloom a day and die, and others come to take their place. But Young Henry, Red Tom, there's no replacing. For a moment, he saw grey waves of men imposed on the red waving poppies: fields of men, fields of poppies.
The Gaffer focused on a single plant, looking at the flowers waving in the air. The stem was wiry, supple, clinging to the ground. The leaves were slighter, feather-like, pale grey-green. The blossoms looked torn, four red petals surrounding black stamens fluttering in the wind. He touched a single bloom.
"But you," he whispered, "there's no replacing you, is there, little flower, little weed? Might be, life goes on, but lives are fragile, and it is all such a pity, such a sadness, such a cruel waste..."
The stiff winds of Northern Europe blew gentle; the sun shone, the torn land was hidden. In this light, on this day, he could see the beauty of the flat land, stretching on and on, the beauty of the dancing poppies, red petals flirting with the wind.
Wenonah Lyon (W.L.Lyon@kent.ac.uk) is an American living permanently in Canterbury, Kent. Recent short fiction has appeared in Quantum Muse, In Posse, Dead Mule and earlier issues of GSG.