There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go. When they reached the level crossing, after a five kilometre walk along a narrow road, he saw the path he was looking for meandering off to the right, then dipping and rising towards a copse that covered a low hill to the north-west. They stopped so that he could consult the map. But it wasn’t where he thought it should be. It wasn’t in his pocket, or tucked into his belt. Had he dropped it, or put it down at the last stop? He let his greatcoat fall on the ground and was reaching inside his jacket when he realized. The map was in his left hand and must have been there for over an hour. He glanced across at the other two but they were facing away from him, standing apart, smoking silently. It was still in his hand, and he had prised it from the dead hand of a captain in the West Kents lying in a ditch outside – outside where? The rear area maps were rare. He also took the captain’s revolver. He wasn’t trying to impersonate an officer. He had simply lost his rifle and intended to survive.
The path he was interested in started down the side of a bombed house, fairly new, perhaps a railwayman’s cottage rebuilt after the last time. There were animal tracks in the mud surrounding a puddle in a tyre rut. Probably goats. Scattered around were shreds of striped cloth with blackened edges, remains of curtains or clothing, and a smashed-in window frame draped across a bush, and everywhere, the smell of damp soot. This was their path, their short cut. He folded the map away, and as he straightened from picking up the coat and was slinging it around his shoulders, he saw it. The others, sensing his movement, turned round, and followed his gaze. It was a leg in a tree. A mature plane tree, only just in leaf. The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee. From where they stood there was no sign of blood or torn flesh. It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s. The way it was angled in the fork, it seemed to be on display, for their benefit or enlightenment: this is a leg.
The two corporals made a dismissive sound of disgust and picked up their stuff. They refused to be drawn in. In the past few days they had seen enough.
Nettle, the lorry driver, took out another cigarette and said, ‘So, which way, Guv’nor?’
They called him that to settle the difficult matter of rank. He set off down the path in a hurry, almost at a half run. He wanted to get ahead, out of sight, so that he could throw up, or crap, he didn’t know which. Behind a barn, by a pile of broken slates, his body chose the first option for him. He was so thirsty, he couldn’t afford to lose the fluid. He drank from his canteen, and walked around the barn. He made use of this moment alone to look at his wound. It was on his right side, just below his ribcage, about the size of a half-crown. It wasn’t looking so bad after he washed away the dried blood yesterday. Though the skin around it was red, there wasn’t much swelling. But there was something in there. He could feel it move when he walked. A piece of shrapnel perhaps.
By the time the corporals caught up, he had tucked his shirt back in and was pretending to study the map. In their company the map was his only privacy.
‘What’s the hurry?’
‘He’s seen some crumpet.’
‘It’s the map. He’s having his fucking doubts again.’
‘No doubts, gentlemen. This is our path.’
He took out a cigarette and Corporal Mace lit it for him. Then, to conceal the trembling in his hands, Robbie walked on, and they followed him, as they had followed him for two days now. Or was it three? He was lower in rank, but they followed and did everything he suggested, and to preserve their dignity, they teased him. When they tramped the roads or cut across the fields and he was silent for too long, Mace would say, ‘Guv’nor, are you thinking about crumpet again?’ And Nettle would chant, ‘He fucking is, he fucking is.’ They were townies who disliked the countryside and were lost in it. The compass points meant nothing to them. That part of basic training had passed them by. They had decided that to reach the coast, they needed him. It was difficult for them. He acted like an officer, but he didn’t even have a single stripe. On the first night, when they were sheltering a while in the bike shed of a burnt-out school, Corporal Nettle said, ‘What’s a private soldier like you doing talking like a toff?’
He didn’t owe them explanations. He intended to survive and he didn’t care whether they tagged along or not. Both men had hung on to their rifles. That was something at least, and Mace was a big man, strong across the shoulders, and with hands that could have spanned two octaves of the pub piano he said he played. Nor did Robbie mind about the taunts. All he wanted now as they followed the path away from the road was to forget about the leg. Their path joined a track which ran between two stone walls and dropped down into a valley that had not been visible from the road. At the bottom was a brown stream which they crossed on stepping stones set deep in a carpet of what looked like miniature water parsley. Their route swung to the west as they rose out of the valley, still between the ancient walls. Ahead of them the sky was beginning to clear a little and glowed like a promise. Everywhere else was grey. As they approached the top through a copse of chestnut trees, the lowering sun dropped below the cloud cover and caught the scene, dazzling the three soldiers as they rose into it. How fine it might have been, to end a day’s ramble in the French countryside, walking into the setting sun. Always a hopeful act.
As they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of grey and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun, like something oriental on a dinner plate.
They were making a long traverse across a deeper slope that edged further to the north and delivered them at last to another valley, another little stream. This one had a more confident flow and they crossed it by a stone bridge thick with cow dung. The corporals, who were not as tired as he was, had a lark, pretending to be revolted. One of them threw a dried lump of dung at his back. Robbie did not turn round. The scraps of cloth, he was beginning to think, might have been a child’s pyjamas. A boy’s. The dive-bombers sometimes came over not long after dawn. He was trying to push it away, but it would not let him go. A French boy asleep in his bed. Robbie needed to put more distance between himself and that bombed cottage. It was not only the German army and air force pursuing him now. If there had been a moon he would have been happy walking all night. The corporals wouldn’t like it. Perhaps it was time to shake them off.
Downstream of the bridge was a line of poplars whose tops fluttered brilliantly in the last of the light. They turned in the other direction and soon the track was a path again and was leaving the stream. They wound and squeezed their way through bushes with fat shiny leaves. There were also stunted oaks, barely in leaf. The vegetation underfoot smelled sweet and damp, and he thought there must be something wrong with the place to make it so different from anything they had seen.
Ahead of them was the hum of machinery. It grew louder, angrier, and suggested the high velocity spin of flywheels or electric turbines turning at impossible speed. They were entering a great hall of sound and power.
‘Bees!’ he called out. He had to turn and say it again before they heard him. The air was already darker. He knew the lore well enough. If one stuck in your hair and stung you, it sent out a chemical message as it died and all who received it were compelled to come and sting and die at the same place. General conscription! After all the danger, this was a kind of insult. They lifted their greatcoats over their heads and ran on through the swarm. Still among the bees, they reached a stinking ditch of slurry which they crossed by a wobbling plank. They came up behind a barn where it was suddenly peaceful. Beyond it was a farmyard. As soon as they were in it, dogs were barking and an old woman was running towards them flapping her hands at them, as though they were hens she could shoo away. The corporals depended on Robbie’s French. He went forward and waited for her to reach him. There were stories of civilians selling bottles of water for ten francs, but he had never seen it. The French he had met were generous, or otherwise lost to their own miseries. The woman was frail and energetic. She had a gnarled, man-in-the-moon face and a wild look. Her voice was sharp.
‘C’est impossible, M’sieu. Vous ne pouvez pas rester ici.’
‘We’ll be staying in the barn. We need water, wine, bread, cheese and anything else you can spare.’
He said to her softly, ‘We’ve been fighting for France.’
‘You can’t stay here.’
‘We’ll be gone at dawn. The Germans are still . . .’
‘It’s not the Germans, M’sieu. It’s my sons. They are animals. And they’ll be back soon.’
Robbie pushed past the woman and went to the pump which was in the corner of the yard, near the kitchen. Nettle and Mace followed him. While he drank, a girl of about ten and an infant brother holding her hand watched him from the doorway. When he finished and had filled his canteen he smiled at them and they fled. The corporals were under the pump together, drinking simultaneously. The woman was suddenly behind him, clutching at his elbow. Before she could start again he said, ‘Please bring us what I asked for or we’ll come in and get it for ourselves.’
‘My sons are brutes. They’ll kill me.’
He would have preferred to say, So be it, but instead he walked away and called over his shoulder, ‘I’ll talk to them.’
‘And then, M’sieu, they will kill you. They will tear you to shreds.’
Corporal Mace was a cook in the same RASC unit as Corporal Nettle. Before he joined he was a warehouseman at Heal’s in the Tottenham Court Road. He said he knew a thing or two about comfort and in the barn he set about arranging their quarters. Robbie would have thrown himself down on the straw. Mace found a heap of sacks and with Nettle’s help stuffed them to make up three mattresses. He made headboards out of hay bales which he lifted down with a single hand. He set up a door on brick piles for a table. He took out half a candle from his pocket. ‘Might as well be comfy,’ he kept saying under his breath. It was the first time they had moved much beyond sexual innuendo. The three men lay on their beds, smoking and waiting. Now they were no longer thirsty their thoughts were on the food they were about to get and they heard each other’s stomachs rumbling and squirting in the gloom, and it made them laugh. Robbie told them about his conversation with the old woman and what she had said about her sons.
‘Fifth columnists, they would be,’ Nettle said. He only looked small alongside his friend, but he had a small man’s sharp features. He had a friendly, rodent look, heightened by his way of resting the teeth of his upper jaw on his lower lip.
‘Or French Nazis. German sympathizers. Like we got Mosley,’ Mace said.
They were silent for a while, then Mace added, ‘Or like they all are in the country, bonkers from marrying too close.’
‘Whatever it is,’ Robbie said, ‘I think you should check your weapons now and have them handy.’
They did as they were told. Mace lit the candle, and they went through the routines. Robbie checked his pistol and put it within reach. When the corporals were finished, they propped the Lee-Enfields against a wooden crate and lay down on their beds again. Presently the girl came with a basket. She set it down by the barn door and ran away. Nettle fetched the basket and they spread out what they had on their table. A round loaf of brown bread, a small piece of soft cheese, an onion and a bottle of wine. The bread was hard to cut and tasted of mould. The cheese was good, but it was gone in seconds. They passed the bottle around and soon that was gone too. So they chewed on the musty bread and ate the onion.
Nettle said, ‘I wouldn’t give this to my fucking dog.’
‘I’ll go across,’ Robbie said, ‘and get something better.’
‘We’ll come too.’
But for a while they lay back on their beds in silence. No one felt like confronting the old lady just yet.
Then, at the sound of footsteps they turned and saw two men standing in the entrance. They each held something in their hands, a club perhaps, or a shotgun. In the fading light it was not possible to tell. Nor could they see the faces of the French brothers.
The voice was soft. ‘Bonsoir, Messieurs.’
As Robbie got up from his straw bed he took the revolver. The corporals reached for their rifles. ‘Go easy,’ he whispered.
‘We have something for you.’
‘What sort of thing?’
‘What’s he saying?’ one of the corporals said.
‘He says they’ve got something for us.’
The men came a couple of steps closer and raised what was in their hands. Shotguns surely. Robbie released his safety catch. He heard Mace and Nettle do the same. ‘Easy,’ he murmured.
‘Put away your guns, Messieurs.’
‘Put away yours.’
‘Wait a little moment.’
The figure who spoke was reaching into his pocket. He brought out a torch and shone it not at the soldiers, but at his brother, at what was in his hand. A French loaf. And at what was in the other hand, a canvas bag. Then he showed them the two baguettes he himself was holding.
‘And we have olives, cheese, pâté, tomatoes and ham. And naturally, wine. Vive l’Angleterre.’
‘Er, vive la France.’
They sat at Mace’s table which the Frenchmen, Henri and Jean-Marie Bonnet, politely admired, along with the mattresses. They were short, stocky men in their fifties. Henri wore glasses, which Nettle said looked odd on a farmer. Robbie did not translate. As well as wine, they brought glass tumblers. The five men raised them in toasts to the French and British armies, and to the crushing of Germany. The brothers watched the soldiers eat. Through Robbie, Mace said that he had never tasted, never even heard of, goose liver pâté, and from now on, he would eat nothing else. The Frenchmen smiled, but their manner was constrained and they seemed in no mood to get drunk. They said they had driven all the way to a hamlet near Arras in their flatbed farm truck to look for a young cousin and her children. A great battle had been fought for the town but they had no idea who was taking it, who was defending it or who had the upper hand. They drove on the back roads to avoid the chaos of refugees. They saw farmhouses burning, and then they came across a dozen or so dead English soldiers in the road. They had to get out and drag the men aside to avoid running over them. But a couple of the bodies were almost cut in half. It must have been a big machine gun attack, perhaps from the air, perhaps an ambush. Back in the lorry, Henri was sick in the cab, and Jean-Marie, who was at the wheel, got into a panic and drove into a ditch. They walked to a village, borrowed two horses from a farmer and pulled the Renault free. That took two hours. On the road again, they saw burnt-out tanks and armoured cars, German as well as British and French. But they saw no soldiers. The battle had moved on. By the time they reached the hamlet, it was late afternoon. The place had been completely destroyed and was deserted. Their cousin’s house was smashed up, with bullet holes all over the walls, but it still had its roof. They went in every room and were relieved to find no one there. She must have taken the children and joined the thousands of people on the roads. Afraid of driving back at night, they parked in a wood and tried to sleep in the cab. All night long they heard the artillery pounding Arras. It seemed impossible that anyone, or anything, could survive there. They drove back by another route, a much greater distance, to avoid passing the dead soldiers. Now, Henri explained, he and his brother were very tired. When they shut their eyes, they saw those mutilated bodies.
Jean-Marie refilled the glasses. The account, with Robbie’s running translation, had taken almost an hour. All the food was eaten. He thought about telling them of his own single, haunting detail. But he didn’t want to add to the horror, and nor did he want to give life to the image while it remained at a distance, held there by wine and companionship. Instead, he told them how he was separated from his unit at the beginning of the retreat, during a Stuka attack. He didn’t mention his injury. The Frenchmen might have shown concern, and he didn’t want the corporals to know about it. Instead he explained how they were walking cross-country to Dunkirk to avoid the air raids along the main roads.
‘We’ll be back.’ He said this, but he didn’t believe it.
The wine was taking hold of Corporal Nettle. He began a rambling eulogy of what he called ‘Frog crumpet’ – how plentiful, how available, how delicious. It was all fantasy. The brothers looked at Robbie.
‘He says French women are the most beautiful in the world.’
They nodded solemnly and raised their glasses.
They were all silent for a while. Their evening was almost at an end. They listened to the night sounds they had grown used to – the rumble of artillery, stray shots in the distance, a booming far-off explosion – probably sappers blowing a bridge in the retreat.
‘Ask them about their mum,’ Corporal Mace suggested. ‘Let’s get that one cleared up.’
‘We were three brothers,’ Henri explained. ‘The eldest, Paul, her firstborn, died near Verdun in 1915. A direct hit from a shell. There was nothing to bury apart from his helmet. Us two, we were lucky. We came through without a scratch. Since then, she always hated soldiers. But now she’s eighty-three and losing her mind, it’s an obsession with her. French, English, Belgian, German. She makes no distinction. You’re all the same to her. We worry that when the Germans come, she’ll go at them with a pitchfork and they’ll shoot her.’
Wearily, the brothers got to their feet. The soldiers did the same.
Jean-Marie said, ‘We would offer you hospitality at our kitchen table. But to do that, we would have to lock her in her room.’
‘But this has been a magnificent feast,’ Robbie said.
Nettle was whispering in Mace’s ear and he was nodding. Nettle took from his bag two cartons of cigarettes. Of course, it was the right thing to do. The Frenchmen made a polite show of refusing, but Nettle came round the table and shoved the gifts into their arms. He wanted Robbie to translate.
‘You should have seen it, when the order came through to destroy the stores. Twenty thousand cigarettes. We took whatever we wanted.’
A whole army fleeing to the coast, armed with cigarettes to keep the hunger away.
The Frenchmen gave courteous thanks, complimented Robbie on his French, then bent over the table to pack the empty bottles and glasses into the canvas bag. There was no pretending that they would meet again.
‘We’ll be gone at first light,’ Robbie said. ‘So we’ll say goodbye.’
They shook hands.
Henri Bonnet said, ‘All that fighting we did twenty-five years ago. All those dead. Now the Germans are back in France. In two days they’ll be here, taking everything we have. Who would have believed it?’
Robbie felt, for the first time, the full ignominy of the retreat. He was ashamed. He said, with even less conviction than before, ‘We’ll be back to throw them out, I promise you.’
The brothers nodded, and with final smiles of farewell, left the dim circle of the candle’s glow and crossed the darkness towards the open barn door, the glasses chinking against the bottles as they went.