Lieutenant Jameson, looking up at the leaden sky, was thinking of home. The grounds of Norton Hall would be still. Frost had gripped the greenery. Groundsmen are capturing the dead leaves. Spirals of smoke from the leaf fire are ascending into the still air. ‘Lark ascending’ by Vaughan Williams, playing in his head, released him. It was always his favourite. How he wished he was there now.
He remembered, as a small boy, many things. His gentle sisters gently gather him up, and, with the help of strong armed field labourers, placed him atop the hay wagon. Powerful dray horses would pull him to the Hall. Cook would admonish his sisters, being foolhardy, for placing the young master in so precarious a loft.
Giggling to the kitchen: lunch prepared.
The image of the kitchen crumbles from his mind.
Drawing him back to reality, he hears, “Sir, Sir, is it time yet Sir?”
"As you were, Sergeant, we have ten minutes”.
Sighs of relief along the line: someone was sobbing.
Lieutenant Jameson looks to his right, then to his left. His gaze rests on a Private standing next to him.
Snow drifts gently down.
"What's your name, Private".
"Ferguson, Yes, Sir”.
“What did you do before?”
" I'm from the garden, Sir. But right now I'm here. I'll be here for ten minutes and then I will be there" while pointing out to no man's land: "See the poppies, Sir. Poppies thrive in disturbed soil, Sir, Did you know that?"
“No, I didn't know that; and how do you know?"
"Before I was here Sir, I was a gardener's boy. I learned lots of things. My Father, Sir, he's the gardener for the big house. My Father, Sir, he said I was a natural and that I must have had soil under my fingernails when I was born".
The Lieutenant turns his head, “Keep them on their toes Sergeant. Take their minds off it . See to it”.
The sergeant barks it out, “No smoking, that man. Check your packs. Bullet pouches.”
The sergeant and Ferguson see an officer approaching.
The colonel calls down the line, “ Don’t forget, men, I want lots of medals won today. The regiment expects no less.”
The sergeant hears Ferguson swearing under his breath,
The sergeant roars, “And stop swearing in front of the colonel, you ignorant bastards”.
The sergeant snaps a smart salute, “ Sir, all ready, sir. This attack will see Fritz running”.
“That’s the idea, sergeant,” replied the colonel.
The Colonel walks down the line. Privates stand at attention and salute: we, who are about to die…..
Lieutenant Jameson turns to Ferguson, “ You’re not impressed with the chain of command, Ferguson?”.
“Not really, sir, all mouth and medals. All balls and brick dust”.
“Ferguson, I do believe you are insubordinate and disrespectful “. And, turning to the sergeant, “ Can you think of anything else, sergeant?”
“Conduct unbecoming, sir?”
“ I agree”.
“Take Ferguson’s name”.
“Ferguson, what’s your name?”
“Ferguson, you are on a fizzer. Denied rum ration: two days”.
“Can you delay the fizzer for two days, sir," replied Ferguson, “ if I die, we wont need it?”
“Very well” said Lieutenant Jameson.
Looking at his watch Lt. Jameson decides: “Five minutes, sergeant, stand em to. Fix bayonets. We could do with a futile gesture at this stage of proceedings.”
Shouting along the line, “ Fix bayonets. Do it by numbers there. Stand to. Wait for it”.
The whistle blows.
The soldiers yell.
Into no-mans land. They dread.
Lt. Jameson is the first over. He remembers his hamper from home. Still lying unopened in his dugout: And for the expeditionary force; box No. 11, for six to eight officers. Tinned meat, potted meat, cheddar cheese, butter, tea, sugar loaf, soap, and the prized Fortnum and Mason jam. A bill is inside: £2. 2. 0.
Ferguson got paid: 1 shilling and sixpence a day. Less 1 shilling and sixpence a day if he got shot.
Ferguson gets home made jam. Made from strawberries from his dad’s garden and his mother had to beg and borrow the sugar.
Lt. Jameson, just ahead of Ferguson, leads the attack, waving his pistol, shouts encouragement, "On, lads, keep going".
The spandau sprays into his chest. The breath his mother gave him is expelled by someone who does not even know him. They have never met. Nothing personal. It’s war, that’s all. Lay down now, and die. That’s all my Kaiser asks of you. It’s not your fault that you are here , in front of my gun. It’s not my fault that I am taking your life, It’s orders. In another life, you and me would drink, and talk of women. And times that we had in our youth. First kiss, first fuck. But, we are not there, in that youth. We are here, in this youth. In this youth you kill me or I kill you.
Ferguson finds Lieutenant Jameson on the ground. In his agonies, the officer has clenched the earth with both hands.
Ferguson noticed there was soil under the officers fingernails.
Lieutenant Jameson was dead.
Ferguson searched the Lieutenant’s pockets for personal items : letters, photographs. Ferguson thought he should write to the Lieutenants family, to let them know what happened.
Flares were turning night into day.
In the Lieutenant’s pockets, he found: a cigarette case, a letter from home, and a photograph. The picture was of the Lieutenant, he was standing next to an estate worker. It was harvest time. He saw, in the picture: hay wagons; field labourers; his Father.
At once, Ferguson realised that everyone was the same.
Reading the Lieutenant’s letter, oblivious of the violence around him: he read of sisters wishing him well and, after victory, to come home, safe. His letter, from his Mother said, more or less, the same.
Ferguson stood and, hearing screams, and seeing men spurt blood, then fall: squirming in the soft earth, which was their Mother now. He burst into uncontrollable laughter.
Throwing down his rifle, he turned and walked back to his line.
Climbing the wire, he took a bullet in his knee.
Falling into the trench, he thought, “Iv’e bought a cushy. Not going to die. I’m going home.”