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SHEENA WILKINSON

 

 

Sheena WilkinsonBelfast-born Sheena Wilkinson’s book Friends in the Fourth, based on her doctoral research into the ‘crossover’ genre of the girls’ school story, was published by Bettany Press in 2007. Her real love, however, is fiction. Her first short story, ‘Amputees’, won the Brian Moore Award in 2006, and was followed by ‘Dissociation’, which won second prize in the same contest in 2009.  ‘Holding On’ was a runner-up in the Sean Ó Faoláin Contest 2009, and ‘Local Pride’ won first prize in the Writers’ Bureau Short Story Award 2009.  Sheena has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing and is seeking publication for her first novel. She teaches English at Methodist College, Belfast.

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Holding On

 

He was always a cocky sod, even at school. Especially at school. Not so cocky now, up to his waist in a shell hole, his arm lying fifty yards away, already sinking into the mud. At least I assume it’s his. One can never be certain.

I am, incredibly, unhurt. This duckboard seems sturdy enough, but I cannot say I hold out much hope for Callan lasting until the stretcher party gets here. The usual unspeakable chaos lies all around, but Callan and I have ended up further forward than the rest of the platoon. In front of us there is nothing but mud, wire and the usual debris; and in front of that the German front line. Behind us the cries and moans of the dying.

       ‘Fox!’ I had presumed Callan unconscious but his voice is surprisingly strong. ‘Need to get out of here!’ He tries to haul himself up, groans and sinks deeper, mud glugging at his torso. ‘Christ.’

       Instinct makes me grab for him, though it threatens my own position on the duckboard. But how does one get purchase on a one-armed man? Seizing him under the armpit seems to be the best I can manage. Callan is heavier than me by some two stone—I remember well the feeling of that superior size and strength pitted against me.

       ‘Shall I go for help?’ I suggest, as if we were in a Boy’s Own story, with a friendly policeman or helpful schoolmaster just around the corner.

       ‘Help?’ His face contorts, hideous. ‘Don’t leave me, Fox, there’s a good chap.’     

‘But Callan, you could drown.’ 

Armstrong, the blunt Geordie sergeant who has seen it all before, always warns new arrivals, ‘You’ll either make it through all right or you’ll die in the mud.  Nowt in between, mind: you won’t get a Blighty one in this bloody hellhole.’

       ‘If you go I’ll drown for sure.’ His voice is slurring. ‘You’ll – make sure – I don’t.’

For the first time since before that long-ago cricket match, he sounds as if he has confidence in me. Nothing for it then, but to hold on. 

       This bloody hellhole.  Armstrong’s words remind me of the Inferno.  Was it the fifth circle where the wrathful were doomed to attack each other for eternity in the bubbling slime of the Styx? 

But perhaps it will not be for so very long. I fancy that through the inhuman wails I discern the more purposeful shouts and rattlings of stretcher parties.

The first time I met Callan, six years ago, halfway through the Michaelmas term of 1911,  he was dashing in from some rugby match, spattered in mud, still passing the ball back and forth with some chap I don’t remember – Moore, perhaps, or Reilly – and laughing.  That confident, upper-class bray, though in fact it was a very minor public school in a Belfast suburb and Callan, I later discovered, from Kildare.

‘I say, new chap’s here!’ he’d yelled to the team, and I’d stiffened, suddenly hot and damp under my starchy new Eton collar.

Callan, the absurdly-shaped ball now cradled under one muddy arm, had stopped in front of me, shaken damp, fairish hair out of his eyes – very frank, appraising eyes – and extended the other hand to clasp mine in a powerful handshake.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘McAllister said you were arriving today. Fox, isn’t it?’

‘Er—yes.’  I wondered if I should ever become accustomed to being called ‘Fox’ rather than ‘Harry’.

‘Good show. I’m captain of your dorm. Play rugger? We could do with some new blood in School House. Just been thrashed by the day boys again. Millar’s fearfully sick about it.’ He spoke as if this were a matter of importance.

‘I’m not allowed to play this season. I’ve had rheumatic fever.’ 

Callan’s face assumed an unbecoming expression of deep disgust. ‘How putrid,’ he said and turned away, leaving me in silent mortification.

They say that public school prepares you for the privations of army life better than anything, except perhaps prison. That first bedtime at school – and how appalled I had been by the long room lined with iron bedsteads, the half-panelled walls a utilitarian dark green – I had shrunk from undressing in front of the other boys. Callan, yanking his Medallion XV shirt over his head without unfastening the buttons, had no such qualms, but, I later found out, he had, like most of these boys, been at boarding school from the age of seven. Perhaps, too, he was aware of his physique which was, I grudgingly admitted, splendid, chest and shoulders broad for fifteen. He wandered up the room in only his drawers, flicking a wet flannel at Reilly (or Moore) on the way past.

He sat, without invitation, on my bed. ‘Settling in all right?’

‘I think so.’

‘Only McAllister told me to keep an eye on you.’

The blue eyes slid across the pictures I had arranged on the bedside chest—a studio portrait of Mother and Father taken just before they sailed, and a snap of my tutor Williams and me playing cricket in the garden.

‘Play cricket?’ He sounded, for the first time, interested rather than merely polite.

‘A little.’ I tried to sound modest but Williams had always praised my game and the prospect of playing properly was one of the things which had made the idea of school less abhorrent.

‘I’m captain of the Colts Eleven – at least Millar – that’s the school games captain – said I was safe to be,’ he said with that nonchalant cockiness I found so maddening. ‘That your brother?’

‘Tutor. I’ve been educated at home.’

Home. The house by the quiet, slow river. Shut up now with only Mrs O’Rourke to ‘keep a wee eye’ as she said, while Mother and Father tried Switzerland for Mother’s chest.

Callan grimaced. ‘How boring.’

I looked round the noisy room, breathed in the frowst of too many boys and not enough windows. ‘I didn’t mind.’

‘Well. Perhaps you’ll be useful come the cricket season.’ And, since the cricket season was seven months off, he turned away.

Callan’s indifference would have been supportable; his contempt less so. I should have avoided him more easily had our school been in reality the British public school to which it had pretensions. But there were only forty boarders and the rest of the boys were drawn from the city—doctors’ and ministers’ sons, even a few clerks’ sons on full scholarships. We boarders were thrown together and Callan and I were the same age, though, in the school hierarchy, he was always a little above me— captain of this and that.

And now, in this oozing Belgian wasteland, a real captain, whilst I, clutching fast to the increasing dead weight of his body, am merely a second lieutenant in my first summer out. Callan, looking perhaps to prolong the muddy crash and camaraderie of the rugby pitch, took a commission straight out of school, as so many did in 1914.  And, always a lucky beggar, he has had, until now, what is termed ‘a good war’. Perhaps he will prove Armstrong wrong yet. The streets of Belfast are full of ex-servicemen with one arm, though perhaps these have been amputees, their gangrenous limbs sacrificed to their lives. Can one have one’s arm blown off and expect to live? Armstrong would know. I wonder if Armstrong has made it or if he too lies dying or dead in the mire. Callan might know but I can hardly ask him.

My arms and shoulders scream with the strain of holding on; damp searches out my limbs through my clothes. It would only take a sudden movement from Callan – but I fear he is beyond sudden movement – to pull me into the hell-broth with him. 

After everything, I do not want to die here, like this, with Callan.

He has rarely referred to our schooldays; is perhaps embarrassed or guilty when he reflects on those cruelties and humiliations.  I wonder if he even remembers the day he found me crying in the shrubbery, just after the letter arrived to say that Switzerland would effect no magical cure on Mother; that in fact it could do little more than prolong her life by perhaps weeks. By that February day I knew enough of my schoolfellows to realise that Callan was the last person I should want to confide in. For surely any other boy – even Millar, as bluff and hearty as they come – might have managed something kinder than, ‘Bad luck, old son. But don’t go blubbing about it in public. One doesn’t, you know.’ And he had given me that scornful look I was getting to know, clapped me on the shoulder and run off to practise bowling against a wall or something equally idiotic.

He won’t play cricket again, even if he lives. His face is greenish under mud-soaked hair, his eyes half-closed. It occurs to me that he might even be dead already but when I wriggle cautiously on the duckboard his eyelids flicker and he looks straight at me.

‘Fox?’ He sounds surprised.

       ‘Yes.’ My voice is hearty; I sound for a moment like Callan himself. ‘Stretcher party’s on its way. Just hold on.’

       ‘No – you – hold on…’ he says with an attempt at a grin. His lips are cracked and bloodless.

       ‘I won’t let you go,’ I promise, though the torture of holding on, this screaming insistent ache across my shoulders, is the worst pain I have felt since joining up last year. Such an irony—to be unhurt and yet in agony. Then Callan’s face contorts again and I know that I am not in agony, that everything is relative.

       Everything is relative. Playing cricket with Williams and Father, with Mother, when she was well enough, watching from a Bath chair, I had thought I cut quite a dash. Certainly I was confident enough, when the start of the season saw Callan panic that he could field only a scratch team for the opening match against our arch-rivals, Royal College, to put myself forward.

       Callan had scrutinised me with those hard blue eyes. ‘Sure you’re up to it?’ he demanded. ‘I mean, I haven’t had time to try you out, with this damned weather, and the match is tomorrow.  Millar’s relying on me to put up a decent show.’

       ‘I won’t let you down.’

       For here was my chance.  I had not yet shone in this new world.  Masters respected my facility for Latin verbs and Euclid, but that is not how to attract other boys.  What a surprise they would get when I saved the day; when the match was won owing largely to my skill, judgement and bravery!

       I had not known how different schoolboy cricket would be from messing around at home. The whole afternoon was a nightmare of ineptitude and inadequacy; lungs bursting with never enough air; blood pumping but never enough; legs never strong enough; eye never quick enough;  Callan’s increasing ferocity, ‘Run, you ninny!’ And then the final humiliation—the match nearly over, we needed two to win— only two! It was a gentle hit to short extra cover and I could have – should have – got it.  For a blissful moment I even thought I had, until the thwack! of the hard leather ball on the grass told me that I had dropped it.

       ‘Butterfingers!’ is what Williams or Father would have said, amused and tolerant. ‘Oh, bad luck, Harry darling,’ Mother might have called, had she glanced up from her London Illustrated News to see me fluff a catch. 

       When I dared look at Callan he was shaking hands with the Royal captain, smiling a rueful, sporting smile, and I thought, for a while, that things might be all right. Until the visitors left in a charabanc and he could let loose his fury.

       ‘You said you could play! You cost us the match! I might as well have put in the scullery-maid! This is cricket, Fox, not pat-ball. What’s the matternot used to a hard ball? Christ, you’re feeble.’

       To be feeble, to play cricket like a girl, to have let the team downall this was a great deal more reprehensible than to be stupid, or even cruel. It was after that match that the fellows started to call me Harriet. And now Harriet’s strength – Christ, you’re feeble! – is the only thing keeping Callan from drowning, though I wonder increasingly if there is any point, for he will certainly die, may in fact be dead already.

       ‘Let go,’ implore my shoulder muscles.  ‘You’re wasting your own strength for no reason. You could be more usefully deployed elsewhere.  Where’s the rest of your platoon? You should be with them, leading themnot stuck here holding on to a doomed man. Why lose two officers instead of one?’

       But another voice – or something more primeval – insists, ‘Hold on. Hold on.’

       And despite the pain, despite my body stretched cold and numbing on the duckboards, I cannot release my hold on Callan’s dead weight.

       How he would throw that weight around! I was never again selected for any team, but attendance at games was compulsory, so every afternoon saw me doomed to die a hundred humiliating deaths on the playing fields. And Callan used every trick to punish me for the cricket fiasco. Every tackle was dirty Callan’s bulk had so often pounded my face into the mud. That playing field had seemed to me then the muddiest hole in creation.

       There was no recourse to justice. McAllister was an unimaginative boor of the every-man-for-himself school. Unaccountably he held Callan in the highest regard, so that by our final year his appointment as head of house was inevitable. ‘I’m not going to offer you a prefectship,’ McAllister told me. ‘You have enough to do with your Cambridge scholarship, and besides, I am persuadedwell, it’s not everyone can lead.’  He was persuaded! Everyone knew that the head of house more or less told the housemaster whom he wanted for his prefects.   

In due course I went up to Cambridge on an open exhibition, while Callan joined the Royal Irish Rifles.

       But we have ended up in the same muddy field. And unless I am mistaken, this is where it ends, for Callan. More sensible, really, to let go.

       Heavy footsteps on the duckboard; a shadow passes over Callan’s body.  Armstrong kneels, frowns and touches Callan’s cheek, bending over me to do so.

       ‘Not a goner, is he?’

       ‘Almost, I’m afraid. He’s lost a lot of blood. I’ve had the devil of a job holding on to him.’

       ‘Want me to take oversir?’ As always his ‘sir’ is an afterthought.

       The prospect of relinquishing the burden to the superior strength of the tough little sergeant – for Armstrong is as broad as he is tall – is tempting, but something dogged in me determines now to hold on.

       Armstrong pushes the hair back from Callan’s forehead with a surprisingly gentle hand. ‘Stretcher party just coming, sir,’ he says steadily. ‘You’ll be out of here in a jiffy. Shouldn’t wonder if you haven’t got yourself a Blighty one there.’

       ‘Armstrong, there’s no point. He can’t hear.’

       He turns on me, chin jutting. ‘Course he can bloody hear! He doesn’t hear with his arm, does he?’ And to Callan in a gentler voice, ‘We took the trench, sir, like you said. We’ve lost a few, sir. But not too many. Nice trench they had too. Reckon we can make ourselves right comfy there. Though you’ll be off to a nice warm hospital, you jammy sod.’

       It’s all nonsense. If he were the one holding on like this he wouldn’t have the breath or the energy.

       ‘Water, sir? Go on, then. Sorry it’s not rum, sir.’ Armstrong holds his water bottle to Callan’s cracked lips, which, to my surprise, open, and some of the water seems to go down before the rest slops out over the muddy stubble on his chin.

       ‘Just you hold on, sir,’ says Armstrong, clasping Callan’s remaining arm.

But Callan’s eyes close again and it occurs to me that I slept in the same room as this man for four years without ever seeing his eyes shut.

       ‘Best bloody officer I ever had,’ says Armstrong, his voice fierce.

       ‘We were at school together.’

       ‘Aye, well, you’ll not need me to tell you, then.’ He wipes a hand across his face.

The rain begins to fall, too softly to wash the mud from Callan’s face or to turn the brown bloodstains on his tunic back to red.

       Armstrong re-corks his water bottle. ‘Best thing about him is, he knows about men. I mean some men, well, they’re shirkers, man, you know that as well as I do.  Bloody funks. But there’s some – like young Jacky Bell – and they just cannot stand it. He were only sixteen, were Jacky. Been down the pit three year, thought he could hack it out here with the big boys. Well, he sharp learnt his lesson, poor little bastard. First bombardment, I thought he was going to do for us all with his hystericscause it’s catching, isn’t it? Some of the lads were for shooting him but Callan, he said he’d shoot them. Took young Bell under his wing a bit, bucked him up and got him through. And he turned out a proper useful soldier, did Bell.’ He smiles with satisfaction, hand still gripping Callan’s arm.

       ‘He was always a leader at school,’ I say, non-committal. Let the man have his illusionslike so many of his class he is sentimental under the toughness. And it’s not as if his opinion matters.

       ‘Aye,’ says Armstrong. ‘Knows about men, does Captain Callan. Knows all about them.’

       Then he settles down to wait with us for the stretcher party.

 

©2009 Sheena Wilkinson

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Author Links

More about Friends in the Fourth at Bettany Press

Wilkinson's prize-winning story 'Local Pride' at the Writers Bureau

Article on the Brian Moore short story competition (Wilkinson- 2nd prize)

 

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