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Collateral Damage

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

He had no idea where the rest of the squad was now. Mickey Levitt had obviously bought it, he had felt the blood splatter his own face when the side of Mickey's head had exploded. At least it had been quick for him. The sergeant had shouted something but his voice had been lost in the explosion of a shell behind them. By the light of the same shell he had seen them veer off to the right, maybe towards a bunker that he hadn't spotted himself. If there was a bunker he hadn't been able to find it.

Moving blindly forward he trod on something soft and yielding. It was a human arm inside the sleeve of a uniform. It might still be connected to its owner's body, there was so little light it was difficult to tell, and in any case it made no real difference. He paused and looked furtively from side to side into the darkness, every inch of him trembling as he tried feverishly to come up with a sensible course of action.

Two enormous flashes lit up the horizon ahead of him, momentarily throwing into silhouette the shapes of running soldiers and illuminating the pitted brown earth strewn with the scattered bodies of countless others. As the image vanished the sound of the two explosions reached his ears, a crushing double thunder-clap that left him momentary isolated, his ears suddenly filled with imaginary cotton-wool, aching and sending to his brain the familiar phantom high-pitched whistle. A huge goldfish-bowl had descended from the black sky to cover him up. He could still see, in so far as anyone could in the depths of a misty and starless night, but the sounds of the battlefield had been diminished to the distant clatter of marbles falling into a biscuit tin.

As he dropped down into a crouching position some of the debris thrown-up by the massive explosions began to rain down on him. He felt them sting his back through his uniform clatter against his tin hat.

Now he had a purpose. A destination. Where those two large caliber shells had just fallen there would be a crater of some kind, and a crater meant cover. Almost as good as a trench. And even if it had been part of the German front line five seconds ago, there sure as hell weren't any living Germans near it now. The heavy guns behind him had put two shells there, they weren't going to waste a third on the same spot. It was the safest possible place to head for.

Pleased with his own logic, he straightened up and started to jog clumsily in the direction of the flashes, rifle at the ready, left hand circling the handle of the bayonet in his belt-sheath. He was headed straight towards the German defenses now.

- o 0 o -

He woke trembling and feverish to darkness and the sound of distant gunfire. Voices were shouting too, some of them female, and the explosions were punctuated by strange whizzing and whirring noises that he could not identify. The voices sounded oddly happy, celebratory even. What could this be? VE Day? Soldiers returning? It didn't make any sense.

He pulled himself up into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. Familiar objects in his bedroom began to fade into view. The wardrobe and the dressing-table with its big oval mirror. The door with his jacket hanging on the hook, and the window with the thick lined velvet curtains that his daughter had made for him to let him sleep through the early summer dawns. But the sounds were still there, the gunfire and the voices…

Getting to his feet with more than a little difficulty he walked shakily to the curtains and opened them enough to see out. It was the middle of a cold and starless night, and yet lights were on everywhere in the houses across the road and eerie flashes of coloured light were turning the whole scene to daylight, but red or green or blue daylight: like the bursting of multi-coloured artillery shells. People seemed to be out in their front gardens, laughing and drinking and - yes - kissing each other! He distinctly saw two men kissing the same girl, one after the other! Must be what they called "swingers", he thought. Wife-swappers. But imagine doing it right in the front garden, in the middle of the night, with glasses of booze in their hands. My God, what was this street coming to? Is that what he had fought the Germans for?

Well, yes, he smiled to himself, in a way it was. If young people wanted to live a different kind of life it wasn't really anything to do with him. In a way that was exactly what it was all about. As he looked for his dressing gown in the wardrobe he remembered a radio programme, narrated by Richard Dimbleby. How many years had Richard Dimbleby been dead, he wondered. It had been a sort of reverse news-cast, a long list of all the things that hadn't happened that day. "This morning," Richard had begun in his fruity, pompous old voice, "No British citizens were arrested for failure to produce their identity cards. No workers were dispatched from any British town to the factories of Essen or the mines of Northern Germany." And so it went on. No Jews had been transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. There had been no Hitler Youth rally in Regents Park. No bodies had been found on the streets of British cities with bullets in the backs of their heads A whole litany of abominations abomination had notoccurred. And why not? For one reason and one reason only, Richard had told them. Because about thirty-five years ago countless tens of thousands of the finest and most idealistic men and women of this nation and many others had laid down their lives to insure that they wouldn't. It had been a very powerful broadcast. The memory of it still stirred him to pride, straightened his back a little.

The source of the coloured lights was obviously somewhere behind his own house. He made his way downstairs to the French windows. Yes, as he had guessed, a fireworks display in the park. The mighty waving columns of shimmering multi-coloured dots, almost too bright to look at directly, snaked and cascaded from somewhere behind the distant line of low yew trees, soaring all the way to the cloud-base, lighting up the clouds with emerald, orange and blood-red incandescence. Rockets like tracer- bullets sped in great arcs to the very interior of the low clouds and exploded noisily, turning the clouds for an instant at a time into great bulbous multi-coloured mini-suns.

For a few seconds the landscape of his dream replaced the clutter of little streets in the dip between his garden and the rear of the park. A sea of corpses, craters, mud, discarded rifles, crumpled uniforms, disembodied bits and pieces of human beings, the stench of sulphur and of the exposed contents of human intestines… then it was gone. Just a fireworks display. A harmless, pretty display of fire-crackers in a public park.

He slid open the French windows and felt a cold fresh breeze on his face. He rather liked its coldness, and he could detect on it that ever so faint but oh so familiar odour of freshly detonated gunpowder. With the window open the sounds were much louder, not overpowering, but sharp and crisp, full of the drama of battles long ago.

He walked out into the garden and stood on the path, the fresh breeze ruffling his hair, the sky in front of him alive with cascading lights.

"My goodness, Mr. Dempsey," came a patronising female voice in an affected accent, "what on earth are you doing out in your slippers and robe, on this of all nights? You'll catch your death of cold outdoors in December dressed like that. Well, January actually, come to think of it. I thought I was the only person in the whole of England seeing-in the new millennium on my own. Happy New year, Mr. Dempsey. Happy new millennium!"

"Thank you, Mrs. Nugent," he returned with forced politeness. "And… happy… millennium to you too." So that's what it was all about, he thought to himself. New Year's night. A lot of poppycock. When you had seen in as many new years as he had you didn't make as big a fuss about it.

"You aren't going to leave me here on my own are you?" she coaxed, "I mean, I had lots of party invitations, but I'm just not a party person. Ever since Sid died, I've kept myself to myself. He was the outgoing one. I don't like parties. Never have done. But you’ll help me celebrate, won't you? You'll have a glass of sherry with me?"

He hesitated, trying to think of a polite way to refuse, but it was too late. She was on her feet now, opening that little interconnecting gate that his son-in-law had made, at his daughter's suggestion, so that if "anything happened" Mrs. Nugent would be able to come in and interfere.

"Come along, Mr. Dempsey. May I call you Robert?" He shrugged. "And you have to call me Doris. I won't hear of anything else."

She led him to her own French windows, which were in the same position as his but older in design, wooden framed and rickety. His daughter had replaced his a couple of years back, thought it would make the house more secure. Everybody seemed to think they had to protect him, to organize his life. A bloody impertinence. He knew how to look after himself. He had demonstrated that for once and for all, about sixty years ago in a field in Northern France.

He noticed without a great deal of interest that she had altered the interior of her house around at some stage. What was the lounge in his own was a kitchen-diner in this one. He didn't approve of people doing that. It destroyed the character of these little Victorian terrace houses. Pretensions. Delusions of grandeur. Typical of Mrs. Nugent. Of all the Mrs. Nugents.

He sat down on one of the armchairs by the coffee table. She went to find him a glass and for a few moments he looked around at the crass imitation-everything of his surroundings. Kitchen units made of some kind of plastic simulated stripped pine, with make-believe varnished wooden work-surfaces and bottles of cheap wine stored on their sides in a rack beneath the counter. Impractically big kitchen knives and cleavers with stainless steel blades and black imitation ebony handles dangling from a special wooden rack above the sink. A string of garlic, purely for decoration he was certain, slung over a vacant hook by the side of the knives. An early-morning-television studio set of a French provincial kitchen.

"It's a… very nice kitchen," he lied as she handed him the sherry.

"Thank you Robert. Good health and happiness in the new millennium. And lots more New Years to you as well."

What was that supposed to mean? That she thought he was about to keel over and die? Not for a while yet, my good woman, he thought contemptuously. "Thank you, Doris," he said mildly, "and a good long life to you too." He sipped from the glass. It was a bit sickly sweet, he thought, like Doris herself. She sat down, slightly closer than he would have wished.

"Mr. Dempsey… I mean Robert, you and I have got off on the wrong foot, haven't we?"

Damn it. She didn't want a heart-to-heart did she? It was the last thing he wanted.

"You don't have to say anything," she went on, sensing his discomfiture, "I know exactly what you feel about me, and I understand why you feel that way. You are a proud and independent man, and I admire you for that. So does your daughter. You wouldn't believe the respect she has for you, the way she talks about you. She worries about you. Maybe she doesn't need to, maybe you're as indestructible as you think you are, but you should be very happy that somebody cares about you that much. Not… not everybody has someone who cares for them like that…"

He realized that she was fighting back a tear and felt a momentary impulse to put a hand on her shoulder. Then they both pulled themselves together.

"Robert, there's no disgrace in growing older. Nobody can live the same life at eighty as they can at twenty.. or at fifty."

Fifty. That was probably her own age. It was young to be a widow. Wonder how Sid died? Not the best time to ask.

"Isn't it wonderful that you've lived to see the beginning of a whole new century? Aren't you thrilled about it? Surely it's time to let somebody else do a little bit for you? You've nothing left to prove, Robert. It's time to relax. Let other people carry a little bit of the weight. Do you know what I mean?"

"You think I should go in to some kind of funny farm for old incontinents who can't remember their own names? Well, I'm not ready for that yet. I can stand up straight, I can see straight and I can think straight. A few years back, I got lost in the car in the city traffic and she made me stop driving. How many times have you got lost driving around this city? How many times has she? What kind of accident record have you had in the last twenty years? Do you want to know how many I've had?"

"Robert, it wasn't a question of accidents or of getting lost. You weren't able to pass the eyesight test any more. That's all there was to it."

"Doris, if you want to get a few things straight then let's get a few things straight. I don't say things behind people's backs. I say them to their faces. I resent the way you watch me and report everything back to Karen. You watch when I go out and when I come in. You count how many times I take a bath in the week. You tell her what time I go to bed at night and what time I get up in the morning and how many bottles the milkman leaves at the door. You tell her if I miss a Saturday at the club, or if I have a visitor. Now is that any way for a grown man to live? A man more than old enough to be your father? Would you like to be spied on and reported on like that?"

"But don't you see that it's because she cares? She doesn't want anything to happen to you. She wants to know that you're eating properly, and getting your sleep… and looking after yourself."

"All right. Tell her thanks. I'm looking after myself. I've looked after myself for a long time. If I want any help I'll let the two of you know."

"Don't be upset, Robert. Don't be angry with your only daughter. She deserves better."

He lay back in the chair and thought for a moment. "Yes," he said at last, "You're right. But there's nothing wrong with me. I wish the two of you would get that through your heads. Being old isn't a disease. I haven't gone soft in the head. Some people do, granted, but I haven't. So can you just leave me alone to live my own life in my own way. That isn't too much to ask now, is it?"

"No, Robert, it isn't. So are we okay now? Are we friends? Do we understand each other?"

"You and Joyce mean well. I know that."

Doris smiled and filled their two glasses again. "Did you realize you just called your daughter Joyce? Joyce was your wife, wasn't she?" Robert felt a twinge of annoyance, mostly with himself, but did not answer. "I'm glad we had this talk," Her smile softened. " I was going to sit outside and watch the fireworks. I would invite you but you would catch your death of cold in that thin robe."

"It's all right. You go outside and I'll just turn my chair around. I'll be able to see perfectly well from here."

She touched his hand, smiled, and returned to her seat in the garden.

The display was building up to some kind of grand finale. The rockets were going up thick and fast, bursting into globes of falling yellow, blue and red embers in the sky, one every second or even less, and behind them a huge fan of deep violet light moved from side to side across the clouds. It was pretty damned impressive he had to admit. The local council weren't doing things by half measures. He sipped his sherry and lay back in the chair.

- o 0 o -

It was impossible to judge how far away that crater might be. Maybe as much as a mile, he reckoned, but probably less. He tried to keep his back bent and his head down as he ran, to present as low a profile as possible to the stray machine-gun fire. In the near darkness he stumbled many times over bodies and shrubs and rocks and discarded back-packs, but paid them no heed. He knew where he was going now, he would not be deflected.

Just in time, the explosion of a distant shell back-lighted a huge tangle of razor-wire directly across his path. He managed to stop just before plummeting headlong into it. "Jeez Christ!" he heard himself mutter as he ducked low behind it.

"Are you British, mate?" said a faltering Cockney voice from almost directly in front of him. The wire seemed to twitch slightly as the voice spoke. He stared down and saw the round wide-eyed face of what seemed a young boy, so drenched in blood that in this light he could distinguish nothing but the eyes and the teeth. He was wearing a British uniform but no helmet, and his body seemed to be bent double beneath the wire.

"I'm Bob Dempsey, private in the Royal Engineers," he said as though introducing himself at a polite cocktail party. "What happened to your helmet?" It was a ridiculous question but simply the first thing that had come to his mind.

"Len Farrow is the name. Sixth Infantry. Had to take my helmet off. Took a bullet. I'm not sure if it went right through. Can you see if my head's okay?" He bent right down and examined the other's head as best he could in the faint glimmer of light from whatever was burning up ahead. He could have lit a Lucifer to see better, but it would probably have signed both their death-warrants. Anyway there was no need. It was the first time that Robert had seen an exposed section of the human brain.

"I think it's quite bad," he said as cheerily as he could. "If I was you I would stay here and wait until I come back with help."

"Whatever you say, Doc. I wasn't really planning any journeys anyway."

He touched the fallen man's hand. "Hang on in there, Len. You're going to be just fine."

"Of course I am. Say, Bob, I’ve got a girlfriend up north. Name’s Joyce Bennett. 19 Sharrow Road in Hull. If you're ever up that way you might like to drop in and give her my love, would you?"

He felt himself choking up. "I'll do it Len," he promised solemnly, "if it means coming back from the dead."

He got out his wire cutters and started working on the coils. "19 Sharrow Road," he shouted back as he continued on his journey, "I'll tell her you love her a lot!" There was no reply. Len didn't seem to be moving any more.

The razor wire, he knew, would mark the outer boundary of enemy lines. He moved more cautiously now, tried to listen for the least movement. Another shell-burst lit up the landscape for a fraction of a second, like the flash-bulb of a reporter's camera. It told him that there were very few bodies in this area and the ground was relatively flat, but it also picked out an odd human sculpture a couple of hundred yards ahead of him. It looked like the back view of a man sitting on something with his hands held out slightly from his sides, palms upwards, almost as if he were checking to see if it was going to rain.

Robert slowed down even more and approached the weird seated figure as silently as he possibly could. It was difficult to make out the man's form, but the faint glimmer from the fires up ahead let him see that the man was wearing a German helmet. He was keeping his hands still, but his head rocked very gently from side to side like the bough of a tree in a soft summer breeze. Exactly like a scarecrow in a field of rippling corn. Anybody could see that he was out of it, he probably didn't even know which way he was facing, because he was staring mindlessly at his own lines, with his back to the advancing British.

But he could still be dangerous. Where was his rifle? Robert couldn't see it, which meant that he might have it between his legs. German officers and NCOs carried pistols as well. Nutter or not, this was an enemy soldier and Robert wasn't going to take any chances. He reached down for his sheathed bayonet. Not there! Impossible! It had been there a few minutes ago. Could it have slipped out while he was cutting the wire? Ridiculous, the clip was still buttoned across the sheath. He stopped moving and feverishly went over the events of the last few minutes. He was sweating now, all that he had was his rifle, and if he fired that he was going to draw attention to himself in a big way.

Behind him, somewhere along the British lines, a flash of light gave him one more still image of his surroundings, and to his vast relief the bayonet was on the ground beside him. Not questioning Providence he grasped it in his right hand.

He stepped up soundlessly behind the seated figure and sliced the bayonet across his throat with all the strength at his command. With a skilled encircling movement the man's head was all but severed from his neck, and blood gushed upwards to drench Robert's torso and arm. The whole thing had taken perhaps two seconds, and made less noise than a single footfall. Robert gently guided the limp body forwards on to the ground.

He looked down at it and noticed a strange rippling effect around the helmet. It was as though he were seeing it from a long way away, through a shimmering heat- haze. Sometimes it looked like a German helmet and sometimes it looked like a grey woollen scarf tied around a woman's head. The light was getting better, he noticed, and an occasional peculiar whizzing noise seemed to have mixed with the rattle of the distant machine-gun fire and the stomach-wrenching booms of the exploding shells. He held up his bayonet and noticed that it had an imitation ebony handle with a hole drilled through it for hanging it up on a kitchen rack.

He stopped shaking and looked up. That crater couldn't be much further away now. Time to carry on. He recovered the bayonet, shoved it into the belt of his dressing- gown, and set out at a brisk pace towards the bursting shells behind the line of yew trees.