The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘Bonkers! It’s Helping the Hun! Just think, if somebody collected money in London for starving German kids – they’d put him in a loony bin. They’d rather send them shit!’
‘The trouble with you, Alf’, said the prisoner next to him, ‘is that you’ve one eye, not just on the outside of your ‘ead but on the inside as well. You only see things one way. I’ve got kids myself. You can’t eat chocolate in front of a starving kid. We didn’t go to war to fight children.’
The argument grew heated, which was more than could be said of the hut. It was April and the hills in England would be lush green and spangled with primroses. Here on the wrong side of Germany the winter was slow to relax its grip. The black, pot-bellied stove around which we argued warmed only the bunks nearby; at the far end of the hut your shirt still crackled with frost when you dressed. I almost looked forward to going to work. It was always warm in the mine.
I was the new boy in the hut. Some ‘old hands’ had been here over a year. Some men in the camp had been taken prisoner in 1914, just a few weeks as soldiers and years as prisoners. I had been a soldier for three years and as yet only five weeks as a prisoner.
After all my time at the Front you would think nothing could shock me. Yet the mine did. The coalface was as filthy and loathsome as any trench and almost as dangerous. It was warmer in the winter but that meant cockroaches as well as rats. The roaches were invisible to the old hands but I saw them, rustling throngs of them skittering away from the light of my lamp.
And then there were the human cockroaches flocking around us on the way to the mine. To reach it we had to march through the village – more a shamble than a march. And the human raoches came out in droves, skipping along beside the column under our feet. They were kids, thin, hollow-eyed kids with stick limbs and whining voices – ‘Choko, Tommy, choko bitte’, over and over. And the prisoners gave them treats saved from their Red Cross parcels, chocolate and also sardines and other goodies. The guards ignored it, ambling along trailing their rifles.
‘Why don’t they stop them?’ I asked the man beside me.
‘They used to. Used to chase the little buggers and they’d thump you too to stop you tossing chocolate at them. Then one of the kids got his face bashed in with a rifle so their Mums came out to mob the guards. It’s the Mums who send the kids out to scavenge. So the guards let it be. They all get Red Cross stuff in bribes.’
Another man joined the argument. ‘It’s jolly decent of the Jerries to let us have these parcels when their own people are starving. The least we can do is to share it with the kids. When they grow up the war will be history; they’re never going to fight us.’
I had to join in. ‘Alf’s right. You others have forgotten what real war is like. Why do you think our sailors risk their lives to stop food getting to Germany? You’ve gone soft. We won’t win the war being soft. Things are going bad in France. We lost 40 miles the day I was captured, forty miles that it took us three months to capture. If they want food for their kids they should tell the Kaiser to end the war and I’ll eat my chocolate myself, like the people who sent it intended.’
It had gone! All the tumult and pain of Creation had disappeared like the drawing down of a blind, without a sound or a spark, vanished into darkness and silence. But I was still me. I could not see or hear or feel my body, but I could think, so I must still be me.
This had happened before. A Jerry shell had exploded on the parapet and brought the trench down on me. When my senses come back I must struggle out and shout for help.
No, no, that’s not it. I’m not at the Front. The last I remembered I was on my side hacking with my pick, undercutting the coal seam. There must have been an explosion or the pit props had collapsed. We were lousy miners, causing more damage than we were worth, without even trying.
There was a welcome stab of pain. My body was waking up, telling me I was still lying on my side with one shoulder and arm free of whatever was pressing on me. My free hand began to explore. Cautiously it examined my face, brushing away dirt and grit. The face seemed to be all there, even my helmet, though the lamp was missing.
I felt a fluttering on my bare shoulder – we worked naked to the waist. Cockroaches! I tried to brush them away and touched a warm, furry shape. Rats! Come to eat me alive. I tried to scream but all that came was a cough and a mouthful of dust.
‘Fear you not, Tommy’, came a tiny, distant voice. ‘Here, drink this.’
Something pressed against my lips and water dribbled against my teeth.
I coughed again and managed to speak.
‘I look for you, Tommy. They send me because I pass through small spaces.’
It was a boy’s voice. Why was he underground?
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. Where’s your lamp?’
‘You see it not in the fog – the dust. I go bring help. Keep the water.’
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘But I am. I run messages for the miners.’
‘Wait, I’ve got something for you. Down the front of my trousers. My tiffin box.’