Soldiers by Night
by Juleigh Howard-Hobson
The line of soldiers moved in towards him... tiny soldiers at first, far away on the edge of the world. As he watched, the line became clearer and closer; the soldiers became larger and larger. Their uniforms were possibly — probably — British, but he could see no Sam Brownes, no khaki... they were all grey. Grey tunics, grey faces... advancing out of the trenches of France.
Abruptly, and for no reason, it struck him that there were no rifles to be seen. As he pondered the meaning of this, suddenly the men were there, the grey uniformed men, right there in front of him, leaning over him as their faces loomed... their faces loomed...
Hugh woke up.
Faces still loomed, but now the faces were female: night nurses, shaken from the stations where they sat, watching the darkness pass, listening to the ward, alert to the sounds from the beds, to the rattles and the coughs, the farts, the moans, the shrieks of the ward.
Now it was only they who loomed above him, waking him. Waking him fully so they could put him back to sleep.
“There, there, you’re fine. It’s a nightmare, nothing more. Go back to sleep now,” the night matron spoke, “you’ll have them all up again.”
Prick of the needle as the sedative went in.
He closed his eyes. She straightened his cover, she patted his hands, then she left him.
“Now... will you be arright then?” The words coming in the voice of a former kitchen maid. Coming out of the dark corner where she stood, wheedling and subservient, hissing out to him in a light whisper. The assistant night sister.
Hugh could imagine her up the pub before the war, wearing a squashed hat and lifting her elbow with the best of them. Now she tipped bedpans and washed sheets filled with things nicer young ladies ought not to know about. Blood, pus, urine and the rest.
Hugh feared her. The unrelenting familiarity of her. Always asking him to talk. He saw, once, that her eyes were red rimmed with crying, and that when she left the ward, she wore mourning for someone. A brother? Surely not a husband. A boyfriend of sorts, probably. Those types always had one. The fact that she cried for a dead man did nothing to improve his dread of her. He did not open his eyes.
He willed her to go away.
She sidled up to his bed and began talking in that high common voice of hers. She stroked his hair with a roughened hand. “You need to talk, that’s what’s up with you. You need to get it all out of there. Talk it out. It’s all stuck in there ... you can talk to me, our Dad always told me I was the best listener in all of...” But she was cut off; she was always cut off.
“Sister,” the night matron’s plummy voice, tinged as usual with the tiresomeness of dealing with inferiors. Or so Hugh imagined. Perhaps she was simply tired. It would tire anyone out, watching those useless creatures deal with the likes of him night after night.
“Yes, ma’am” and the voice ended as the hand dropped from his head. She left him, patting him on the arm by way of farewell, with a silence that Hugh knew wanted to say things that could never ever be said: Goodnight, I loved a soldier once... tell me, tell me, tell me how it is out there... talk to me...
She left him.
Hugh drifted back toward sleep. Without terror. He knew by now that the grey army only came to loom over him early on, and then only once a night. Once over, it was over.
It was simply a nightmare, like they told him, and it meant nothing. He would be able to sleep now.
At once, a little hiss of a voice, mean and low, spoke in the back of his head, sending prickles of fine hair standing up across his neck: If it meant nothing, then why does it exist at all?
Go away, Hugh thought at the voice, half asleep, go away. You do not exist either. It is all nothing, it is all meaningless, just dreams.
So why don’t you tell the doctor about it then? Why don’t you open your fool mouth and tell him that there is a ƒvoice in your head that is not yours?
Go away, let me sleep, I am so tired of you, I am so tired of this, I cannot tell you... Hugh began to protest.
The voice cut him off. That’s just it, isn’t it, Hugh, you cannot tell. You cannot tell. If you open your mouth you will have to tell, but you cannot tell.
Hugh was so tired. Why should I tell, what is there to tell?
You heard them out there, thrashing, drowning, crying in the mud, and you didn’t go out to get them. They were in your regiment and you let them die.
.It was impossible, there was no way to get to them all, to get to any of them. It was dark, no way to know where they were, how many feet away, how badly they were hurt and... if I found them, what could I do? We were told to stay put, we were ordered to stay, I couldn’t go after any of them if I wanted to.
But you didn’t want to.
I did. I did. I did.
The voice hissed low and harsh. You did not. You were glad not to. You were a coward. You did nothing.
I could do nothing ...
Go to sleep, you disgust me, stretcher bearer. The voice spat in his head.
And Hugh slept.
The grey line of soldiers advanced across a grey ridge, they had no insignia, they had no rifles, they had no helmets now, Hugh noted. How would they survive without their helmets on?
They marched closer, the line grew larger, the faces were almost discernible now. Some were wincing, some were blank-eyed. They were British after all, Hugh thought, although how he understood this he did not know. Then he saw the grey flaking off of them. They weren’t grey. They weren’t grey at all. They were covered with mud.
Mud covered their tunics, their insignia; mud was in their hair and in their mouths and in their eyes, and they marched slowly, boots pulling up from the sucking, sticky mud that held them in the line. They marched slowly, but they marched steadily.
This was not right. They had never come twice to him on a single night before.
Hugh could feel the hands of the night sisters. They were rousing him, but he could not rouse; they were shaking him, but he could not shake this vision. The muddy army was still there. Hugh tried to see their faces, tried to look at the mud-plastered faces. Tried to look at the open mouths, the open eyes, covered in mud... Where was he?
An arm fell upon him, an arm heavy with mud, an arm in a mud-grey tunic. It was an arm of a dead man, but still, somehow, living. Still capable of motion. The arm hugged Hugh to it, to its tunic’s breast. The hand grabbed Hugh’s face, turned his face up and at its own face — it was not any man he ever knew.
But you have to be...you have to be one of them... this is a dream, this is all from my head, thought Hugh
Is it? The voice spread like gun oil across his brain. This is no dream, this is what is, and you are going to die. You will never find them. You never did when you could, and you will not now.
I will kill you. Stated Hugh inside himself. Get out of my head. Let me sleep.
Kill me? But I’m dead. I died. Like you let them die. And now you are going to die. Shot at dawn. Like all the cowards.
No. You are nothing, you aren’t there, you are strain, you are not-
The only thing I’m not is your savior. Look, they are passing out the rifles now.
Hugh did not look, Hugh shook himself free from the man he did not know and then Hugh started running.
The night matron called for the doctors. They injected Hugh again with enough sedative to control the thrashing legs, to still the foaming mouth, the flapping lips, the lolling tongue...
The doctors and the matron were in perfect agreement, it was apparent that the patient believed he was running and screaming... uselessly thrashing upon the bed with unseeing eyes, his mouth framing screams that never found any sound. Shell shock, bad war experience, the typical stuff.
Best to try to settle him down, although this patient was far from reaching satisfactory levels of sedation. But no matter, said the head doctor, no more for him, tonight. He’d had enough to kill a weaker man than him as it was.
Hugh found himself floating up and over the grey mud soldiers, floating high above them. They turned their faces up to see him. One raised a hand, slowly, and waved. What did he wave? Why did he wave? The mud obscured his features, the mud obscured his gesture.
Was it greeting? Hugh wanted no part of this. Please wake me up, please wake me up — even the night sister, the one with the high voice who fancied herself above her station, even let her wake him up — wake me up... wake me up...
Without preamble... he was awake. Like a diver breaking back to the surface, Hugh was awake. He was awake.
He scratched his face with his hand, the mud didn’t half itch. The mud wasn’t so bad when it was still wet, or when it had dried; but when it was drying, neither one thing or the other, then it gave him no end of suffering. His uniform was thick with the stuff. He could see in the meager light afforded by the rising sun that the grey soldiers stood across from him, in their line once again. Some small points of sunlight glinted off the ends of their rifles.
He shut his eyes. He knew he was not awake.
Any last words? The thin voice threaded across his mind.
Hugh opened his mouth, struggling to speak. I had my orders, he wanted to say. The battle raged so long... so long. I carried bleeding bodies through hell... mud and death... It was too dark, the rain was too heavy. When they moaned out there, I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. I wasn’t supposed to look for them anyway, we had our orders. I don’t know who gave them, but they were orders. Do you understand me?
Hugh could no longer make the words come. The words were true... but so was everything else. He heard the rifles’ sharp report.
The assistant night sister rose from her chair beside the bed and smiled over him, yawning as she did, glad for him to be finally and properly asleep. It was dawn; it had been a long night with this one. At least he wasn’t moaning any more.
Copyright © 2006 by Juleigh Howard-Hobson