Monday, March 14, 2011
Down in my underground office water was cascading from an ever-widening crack in the ceiling. I kept placing Great War surplus helmets under the brown streams. Eventually I pulled out an old moth eaten trench coat, a literal coat for the trenches, and hunching over my desk, tried to conceal my papers from the circles of dripping water.
I lifted my head up to look at the ceiling. A stream of water pulsed into my eyes. When I opened them Gavin, downy and angelic in his softness, like an angel that had stepped off of Jacob’s ladder, was standing in front of me.
“Look at you, old boy, you look like you’re ready for the Ypres Salient in that get up. Now that was a show.”
I mumbled something in reply. He ignored me.
“You know, with all this Great War surplus it seems the Higher-Ups thought that bloody war would never end. I’ve heard there are warehouses of this stuff outside of town that makes what we have look like an overstuffed closet. Good God the waste. I say,” he continued, “I’m dreadfully hung over, are you?” he gripped his temples.
“It’ll be good to take a bit of a holiday. I had to pull some dreadfully long strings to secure the time off but it’ll be worth it. They’ll be some fox hunting, old boy, not something you see in Manhattan everyday, although it’s a bit out of season.”
“Where is all this water coming from, anyway? Did a pipe burst?”
“The water,” I said, pulling the trench coat’s lapels tightly around my neck.
“Oh, it’s Thames water. The river is flowing in its spring tide now, and I think technically this room is under the river. It’s a wonder everything down here isn’t water logged. Cheer up, old boy, no sense in getting glum, especially with you and Clare hitting it off. Just as I planned! I’ve secured an auto and petrol. We’ll soon be on the open road.”
Gavin left the room. More water poured down on my head. It seemed greasy, viscous, and it spilled onto some requisitions, and then piddled over to the phone in a little rivulet. I picked it up, thinking I’d dial the janitor for some buckets, but the line was dead.
I stepped out into the hall. It was drier than my office. I walked to the storage room and pushed open a door. It stunk of mud and offal, as if a parcel of some Great War redoubt had been transplanted Thames side. I kicked open a box. It contained boots. I opened another, more boots and some wool hats. Then a box of rusting bayonets. A crate with some empty cartridges. Then what looked like spades; some molding medical equipments: cotton swab wrappers with red crosses emblazoned on them, the cotton, apparently, eaten by insects; a box of gas masks that reeked of old rubber and mold.
On the floor I spied a shiny object. It was a bright metal cigarette case. Someone, some solider, had rather intricately carved the names of several battles he had participated in: Verdun, Pascidilly, the Somme, Hammel Wood. Surrounding the names was carved a snaking rose vine with spiky, glistening thorns. That he had survived all those engagements was odd indeed.
For the odds of surviving such complex, bloody engagements were astronomical. How had he done it? After each battle, how did he recover from the initial shock of combat and then, mind jarringly enough, steel himself for yet another engagement, another battle that virtually guaranteed his absolute destruction?
That was the trick, really. Every time he flung himself over the parapet and began the slow march across no man’s land behind some creeping barrage --- his death warrant was all but signed and sealed. Yet somehow, through some fortuitous celestial alignment, through the benevolent influence of the shining countenance of some unknown god, when the last shell was fired, the final machine gun silenced, this man, this indefatigable beast was left standing on a bare, brown black pock marked patch of Western Front --- alive. With each battle, with each successful cheat of death he must have wished that the inevitable would occur! Just to prove to himself that we was just flesh after all.
The brute! And I pictured, in my roving all to active mind’s eye, not some superman, but some common man from Lincoln or Cheshire or Northampton. Just a simple bloke, not much education, short of stature, perhaps weak eyes inadequately rectified by thick, circular eyeglasses, a plumber or carpenter.
There is no special mark that has sequestered him for redemption. He is either chance’s charmed plaything, or a metaphysical principle made all-too-human flesh: an incarnation of naked duality. Life or Death were his only end-points. And somehow, through a thousand million variables seen and unseen, life was always at the end of his fork. Try as he might he was never destroyed. He always lived to see another day --- whether it be gray and listless or bright and new.
I would have sold my birthright to be that achingly simple man.
I grasped the case in my hand and slipped it into my breast pocket.