The International Writers Magazine: The First Great War
The old gentleman didn’t just sit on the well worn, distressed leather club chair, he was part of it. His body blended into the nothingness of the chair. The chair itself was a ghostly brown bulk, an integral part of a spacious, penumbral room, lit by a single lugubrious light exhaustively peering through the yellowing cloth of a dingy lampshade, stained by years of futile efforts of trying to prevent the relentless glow from the filament of the single light bulb, from thrusting through the bell-shaped lampshade.
Painting by Willy Stower
Both, the chair and the old gentleman, shared space in the half-darkness of the room with an upright piano, atop which sat an impatient metronome, marking three-quarter time for no apparent reason. It’s ticking was muffled by the thickness of the air in the room, and by an embroidered doily on which it sat, that prevented its sound-waves from penetrating the wood of the silent piano.
The old gentleman was Navy Lieutenant Horace H. Hicks, who had served during World War One from 1914 to 1916, on board the H.M.S. Hampshire, with his brother Thomas “Tommy” Hicks. Lieutenant Horace Hicks was one of a handful of survivors of a Naval battle in the North Sea, which had concluded with the capture of an entire fleet of German U-boats. I was assigned by my newspaper’s editor to interview Lt. Hicks, in lieu of a trip to cover a dull press conference with the members of the Naval Command, for an article to commemorate the anniversary of the Armistice.
I arrived in the late afternoon to the Victorian style, former five-star hotel, which had been converted into a home for invalid veterans. I was escorted by a rigid, though friendly woman from the staff, to the Lieutenant’s quarters. I found Lieutenant Horace Hicks sitting in semi-darkness, with his arms blending into the arms of the chair in which his body rested. He looked like a statue. A monument to one of those glorious gods from Olympus, after the time for gods had ended. He had no hair on his head or face that I could perceive. The wrinkles on his bulldog face were an array of crisscrossing lines that rivaled the distressed leather of the chair he sat on. His breathing was heavy and difficult. He made audible grunts in intervals of three, which seemed to follow the rhythm of the metronome sitting atop the piano.
Before I could introduce myself and divulge the purpose of my visit, Lt. Hicks began talking as if he had been expecting me all along. His speech came without effort or hesitation, with a voice that commanded attention. It took me by surprise. His mouth, a thin slit amid the wrinkled flesh of his face, disappeared into the mess of wrinkles when it was not moving. I sensed that Lt. Hicks regarded me as one of many intruders in a constant procession which he was obliged to tolerate. It was obvious that he wanted to be done with the interview as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
I’m Horace. I survived.
The Lieutenant announced without lifting his head to look at me. His sincerity startled me. I was not prepared to dive into the interview without a proper introduction. Of course, I quickly realized that his time was short, he had none to waste on proper introductions or protocol. He was wise to this, and he obviously knew the drill as he proceeded with his soliloquy:
I am Horace. I survived. I was protected by the heavy wool of my uniform. So unfair. My hands were badly burned, as was my face, and the back of my head. I lost all my hair, it went up in flames just like Tommy did.....It was the thirty-first day of December of some nineteenth hundred year. Dates become a blur when tales are told of deeds of heroes and of war. It was, nevertheless, the last day of the last breath of the dying year. That I know. That is how it will remain. For as far as I can remember, there were no other dates, before or after, as meaningful, as crucial or as pivotal in our young lives. Not before, not after.
It was a bright moonlight night. We sailed under the auspices of the Grand Fleet. The grandest gathering of marine power the eye had yet seen. We were packed in a single ship. Our friendly vessel, the mighty Hampshire, its prow, its bowels, became our home away from home; our church, our world, our universe. Six-hundred-and-twenty. That many! Six-and-twenty eager souls ready to defend its honor, our honor; the honor our own, of our land, from a belligerent enemy--our enemy--that threatened to rape, to pillage, to dominate, to conquer, to enslave; to dissolve our patriotic fervor from our hearts and from our minds.
But I’m straying too far ahead of my intended narrative. You must forgive me. It happens when the mind is dulled by time and is no longer sharp or vivacious. You don’t notice it immediately. Not really. When the mind goes, you’re in trouble. When the memory sweeper arrives, he glides like a shapeless shade, formless, undetected, crepuscular and dim. His sweeping stroke becomes a mutation, a subtle progression, rather than an obliteration. It sweeps the mind clean, leaving few objects in its wake; objects that exist, but are not connected to memories. Time gets lose and leaves you helpless: you forget.
Lieutenant Hicks, I said, trying to take control of the interview. He quickly interrupted:
Horace is fine. Yes. Call me Horace. My name is Horace. I forget sometimes. It happens. It happens when the mind is dulled by time and it’s no longer sharp or vivacious. Horace is fine, though. Yes. Call me Horace. When the mind goes, you don’t know it immediately, not really. Yes. Well. When the sweeper arrives, he glides like a shade, without shape, without form. Formless and undetected, crepuscular, dim, distinct; a mutation, a progression rather than an obliteration. It sweeps the mind clean...... Darn it! I’m sorry. It comes and it goes! More goes than comes lately, but so is life. So is life.
The Lieutenant remained still while he spoke. No hand gestures. No eye contact. He kept his head bowed low, lifting it slightly to let the words flow.
It feels to me like I have lived three lives: the first, before the thirty-first day of that December. The second, the length of time I fought in the war. The third, my current life. I don’t figure the first is of any interest to anyone. The fact that I was born, grew up, and became the person who went to war, seems inconsequential. On the same vein is the third life, my current life, which began right after what I call the life between. Purgatory, if you will. The life between is when I became the man I am now, or have been ever since. Ever since I was engendered and forever changed by the deep and scarring deeds of war and their consequences.
Lieutenant Horace, I said again, trying to get his attention, to no avail.
Horace! That’s my name. Horace! Mother said to me. Bring my Tommy back! I beg you! She implored. She begged me; not once, not twice, more than thrice. But I’m getting ahead of myself, again. Never mind, never you mind. Let me tell you about my brother, my younger brother Tommy. He was only a couple of years younger than me, but in my eyes, in my soul, he’d always be young Tommy, the wiser of us both. I’d always thought so, even when father made him lie about his age to enlist with me. That’s right, he lied, but he was innocent in his heart. That was Tommy. Not Thomas! mind you, but Tommy. Why the diminutive? I do not really know. I do know that our father, who was very fond of the drink, had chosen the name Tommy during one of those nights when he had overdone it with the drink. Our father was very fond of the drink; as much as our mother was repulsed by it, and him, when it was in him; because it came out from him as blows; and she, our mother, she always was the mute recipient of IT. Of him. Of his blows, when he had too much of IT. So, Tommy it was that night, and Tommy he became. Not Thomas!
The old Lieutenant’s head lifted momentarily. His eyelids, void of lashes, opened lazily, revealing pale blue eyes that look deeply at me. I froze. He spoke again:
It was the last day of the last breath of the dying year. A few months earlier, on a neither bleak, nor particularly outstanding July, we had set out to meet our fleet. We’d made our way about town while still not fully uniformed. In those days, as I recall, we were not fully uniformed until we’d had our heads sheared off, like sheep. “We” I say, because it was my brother and me. Don’t know if I should be using his name though. After all, I’d like to protect the innocent, and yes, Tommy was an innocent. He was!
Wait. It stopped!
The old Lieutenant lifted his head again, and made a slight motion in the direction of the piano. His movements appeared to be restricted by the tightness of his scarred skin.
I hope you don’t mind, but I have to get it going again. It helps me. It helps my mind remember. The tick, tock, tick, tock of it helps me regain my thoughts. Please wind it up for me. It’s ticking is comforting, too. It helps me remember. It reminds me of those former times of my first life, when my hands had fingers, and I could realize melodies. Nimble fingers pressing keys that followed notes which made melodious sounds. Music. Music I cannot no longer touch. The back-and-forth, the tick the tock of the metronome does comfort me. Its motion, It’s tick-tock at three-quarter-time, even without sound emanating from the piano, it helps me play memories back. There is nothing sadder than a silent piano in the room, don’t you think?
The Lieutenant’s eyes stared at me, silently demanding that I push the rigid arm of the metronome. I got up and pushed the flimsy arm. It’s tick-tock filled the room again. Lieutenant Hicks resumed his tale:
I was telling you about my father, right?
He was fond of the drink. He’d send me out to the pub to pick up bottles of stout and bring them back to him. He’d stay home when the rain poured down his head and shoulders, he was a laborer, the brick and mortar kind; rain didn’t go well with him, with his profession. He, our father, would bring his drinking friends to mother’s house and gathered ‘round the fire. I do remember that vivid memory: I’d swing the basket with the bottles clinking together, unaware, unable to fathom the effects and consequences of my dutiful errand. Father greeted me at the door and pressed a coin inside my empty hand, then made me sit on a crate near the fire. From that vantage point I watched their shadows all around me. Gigantic, dark wavy shadows, climbing the walls and ceiling; monster-like apparitions, dancing around me, mute. Incongruous with the loud argumentative shouts coming from the voices of shadow’s owners.
I watched as father placed the brown bottles of stout, one by one, embedded in the ashes of the fireplace. I saw the fire come to life. The fire. Always the accommodating fire: happy, maliciously willing to caress the brown glass of the bottles with its flickering fingers of flame. Its flaming tentacles fondled tenderly the amber glass, laboriously altering its shape with its flashy fire, like a conjurer preparing to perform a trick by mesmerizing his audience with the lull of his nimble, flammable digits. Then, POP! the corks would fly. Pop! A frightening and lugubrious sound. POP! like the fatal pistol-shot fired in Sarajevo that July, which marked the overture to the colossal drama to follow.
Excuse me, Lieutenant Horace, I interrupted, but he cut me off abruptly:
Horace! That’s my name. Horace! Mother said to me. Bring my Tommy back! Tommy was not supposed to join with me. He was too young. Mother said he was much too young to join. But father, he would not hear of it. He would not hear of it at all. There was a certain stigma, that’s the word he used, I remember clearly: stigma. Father believed that those who were “man enough” joined, and those who stayed behind were cowards. Tommy is not a coward. Father said. He told everyone he knew, and he told mother so. No, he didn’t just tell her so, he beat it into her. She never changed her mind. She never changed her mind about Tommy not joining the fight, even after one of those nights when father had had too much of it in him, and it came out the way it always did: viciously, angrily, without remorse, as blows.
Tommy joined up with me. We lied about his age. He signed the paper himself, just below the “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Tommy is not a coward. Father said to the recruiter. The recruiter was more than eager to welcome young Tommy, or any other able bodied man for that matter, to become a soldier sailor, just like me. Mother cried. So what! Woman! Father shouted. These are MY sons and they’re not cowards! He shouted at her, followed by a cold, hard swipe of his open hand that landed full of heat on mother’s sullen face.
Ah, yes! Tommy. Not Thomas! It’s worth mentioning, though, to set the record straight, that we were not alone in our endeavor. There was six-hundred-and-twenty of us. I remember, now. I remember the days and nights we spent on leave, they were short, and at times very, very short. Too short. Two hours, at most. Not enough to cruise the town and too short to take a snooze. However, the infrequent longer leaves were grand! We felt courageous with our time. We got off the ship and cruised the town, until the single shot in Sarajevo change it all.
Lieutenant Hicks paused, replaying something in his mind. Suddenly he came back to life:
POP! the corks would fly! Yes, I remember that. I remember the engulfing flames caressing the bottles of stout, making love to the glass, taking over their bodies like a lover, like a mother and her babe in arms: tenderly, with the rhythm of a lull-a-bye, and just as mesmerizing. Then POP! like that fatal pistol-shot fired in Sarajevo that changed everything. Everything. Like the liquor changed father, never for the good, never for the noble, never for the better, never for the glory. Ever! Everything changed after that fateful day in July. Nobody went on leave after that night. The men were called into the bowels of our ship. The drills were constant. The mood was rigid, pale, like the faces on each of the six-hundred-and-twenty men.
I remember now! It was the thirty-first day of December of some nineteenth hundred year. We sailed forth that docile moonlit night and reached the northern sea. No single sound was heard which did not carry with it, in its sonorous vibrations, our harmony, a melodious to-and-fro of friendship that rivaled the ebb-and-flow of the waves below us. Camaraderie was palpable. We were a single minded crew, a multitude of one. We pledged our lives to thwart the threat and tame our enemy. To vanquish their diabolical plans of conquest. We pushed forward to the northern sea to cure this malady with honorable war.
The sailing rhythm of our ship changed swiftly as we reached the North sea. It was marked by swaying, swelling, undulating waves. Wailing wafts of wind wrecking havoc with the water. The swollen water weighed, with its unending motion, and without regard, the capacity of each sailor’s sea-legs, their strength of mind, our commander’s worth and valor. The frightening frothy waves crashed against the iron ship; pushing, pulling, brutally shaking the vessel with their fearsome force; aided by a gale, pale and menacing in its relentless reproach and cold retribution. Every minute turned to ages by the freezing rage of rain and hurricane winds. The mighty war ship, a minute tin-tub, in peril among the mountains of water, dwarfed by the vastness and frigid fury of the North sea.
Yes! I remember that night. The sea became a churning tempest. Inside the bowels of the Hampshire, men became less human; cogs, extensions of the moving metal parts that was our battle ship. We moved akimbo, to-and-fro, up-and-down, like busy bees bravely obeying the urgent call of an inner sense of duty. A hive of six-hundred-and-twenty vassals, deep inside the bowels of a fighting vessel; fighters, condemned to never see the whites of our enemies eyes.
Lieutenant Horace! I interrupted without decorum. But It was too late to take control of the interview. I realized that his mind meandered within its own confines without a real compass to guide it. I wanted to bring him back out of its labyrinth, so that we could follow a more logical pattern. Horace, I said, again. The lieutenant ignored me. He resumed his soliloquy as if I were not in the room with him:
Horace! Mother said when she spoke to me that day, the day when father took me and Tommy to the station, to make him lie about his age. To sign my name and Tommy’s for the war. Horace! Mother said to me. Bring my Tommy back! I beg you! She implored. She begged me, not once, not twice, more than thrice, with her face swollen, less from shedding tears, than from the strike of father’s cold and calculating hand. I beg of you Horace, she said amid her sobbing. Please bring my Tommy back! I trust you Horace! You will bring me back my Tommy! She placed the oppressing weight of all her hope and all her sorrows on my shoulders: so heavy, so unfair, so impossible to bear. I still can hear the muffled, desperate sounds of her unflinching, begging voice, as father clinched her body and wrapped his rigid hand around her mouth: FHORHAFH! I heard the choking, haunting noise of mother’s muffled voice still calling my name. I hear it in my nightmares!
I remember that night. The night when the sea became a churning tempest. It was nightmarish. A torpedo from a U-boat struck the broadside of the Hampshire, crashing into it with thunderous strength and deafening noise. Every rivet of the Hampshire shook. The explosion shook our bodies like a sledge hammer crashing with full force into an anvil. All hell broke lose: there were many, many, many scorched bodies. Hands, beards, eyebrows, eyes, appendages, gone! Fingernails, fingers, peeling off like gloves. Bodies burnt and torn in half. Tormented souls engulfed in flames like moths in a candle; pushing pulling, brutally shaking, wailing. Stunned. Swollen eyes, swollen skin, swollen faces badly scorched. The great cry was Water! Water! Water! Blackened bodies everywhere and feet of water swishing, splashing about. Water did not help, only Morphia did. It eased the pain; not a solution, and not an absolution for the dead.
Horace! Mother said to me. Bring my Tommy back! I beg you! She implored. She begged me. Tommy went up in flames in front of my eyes. I will never forget the engulfing flames caressing his body, like a lover, like a mother with her babe in arms: tenderly, with the rhythm of a lull-a-bye, and just as mesmerizing. Tommy fell to his knees amid the flames, wreathing with pain; the pain, his pain drove me insane. In my arms, Tommy convulsing, followed by an abundant, relentlessness rapid, vapid, shallow, hollow breathing; then, finally, without time for grieving: collapse, stillness. I saw my
mother’s face in Tommy’s. I saw my mother’s sullen, wounded face; marked by bleeding slashes, the size and width of father’s belt, in Tommy’s face, and in all the swollen faces of the fallen men.
I am Horace! I survived! I was protected by the heavy wool of my uniform. So unfair. Only my hands were badly burned, as was my face, and the back of my head. I lost all my hair, it went up in flames just like Tommy did, just like Tommy did! My name is Horace! I am Horace! I could not bring him back! I could not bring him back!
Lieutenant Hicks! Lieutenant Hicks! I called with panic. He was sobbing uncontrollably. Before I could do anything for him, a flood of blinding light burst in the room. Abruptly, the rigid, and now not so friendly woman who had let me in the room, rushed in. Quickly, she shut the door behind her. She sprinted to the old Lieutenant’s chair, lifted the blanket covering his legs, and tucked it over his fingerless hands and arms. She turned to me, and with a cold, hard voice commanded:
© Oswaldo Jimenez March 2014
One bite. That’s all she thought she needed to satisfy her hunger. One bite of the funnel cake. No more than that. There was no need for more. A single bit of food would have satiated her starving stomach.
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