MEASURELESS FIELDS jckt
CAROLINE SCOTT is originally from
Captain Laurence Greene was gassed at Ypres. He takes ten years to die. With her fiancé, Joseph, lost in France, Effie Shaw spends a decade as Laurence’s cook. They share a roof, a sweet tooth and a taste for pastoral romances. Propriety, however, prescribes that their sharing end there. It is a surprise to Effie, then, when Laurence bequeaths her a railway ticket, the deeds to a tea shop and a declaration of his unspoken love. The terms of Laurence’s will require that Effie must travel to Ypres and visit her fiancé’s grave. As Laurence had always told it, Joseph met his end with a show of heroics. But, in carrying out Laurence’s last requests, and following his wartime diary, Effie is to discover something shocking. Joseph wasn’t quite as heroic as she was told – nor is his grave where it's supposed to be. The stories of three soldiers connect through Laurence’s diary. As Effie travels on, from Passchendaele to Paris, these men become linked together once again. A decade on from the Armistice, is the war really over at all? Effie is about to realise just how many echoes – and untidy ends – 1918 has left behind.
Lancashire. She has a PhD in History, a fascination with the First World War and a house full of khaki-coloured brica-brac. In addition to Those Measureless Fields, she is currently working on two non-fiction projects for Pen & Sword – a history of the Women’s Land Army during the First World War and a book about the Manchester ‘Bantam’ Battalion. Caroline lives in France and possesses more trench art than is probably tasteful.
Jacket design: Jon Wilkinson
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Chapter Twelve Northern France, 1928 As her journey turned inland the landscape became flat and Flemish. There was something foreign in the pitch of the orange roofs, the gables and shutters, in the fold of the fields, in the pale light. There was a lot of cornflower blue, soft yellow, a shimmering grey and wide skies. Effie tried to imagine them marching across this same landscape. She sat with Joe’s letters on her lap. They were tied with a ribbon and, at the top of the pile, was a copy of the same photograph that she kept by her bedside. She brought Joe’s photograph face close to her own. His image was the last thing that she saw each night. For the past ten years she had said a prayer for him before she switched off the light, her eye flitting over the shape of a soldier to whom she had once made promises. Her eyes opened onto him each morning but, she realised, she hadn’t actually looked at him for a long time. In scrutinising his face thus, in dissecting its familiar whole into unfamiliar parts, she unmade and re-made him and saw him anew. Joe had a reliable face. Steady eyes. A sensible mouth. He looked like a breadwinner, like a safe bet. He had said they should be married. That way she would have got twelve shillings per week for life. It didn’t seem the right reason. She carved her initials in the window’s condensation. Would she feel different now if the last letter was his? France sliced through her wet, bright letters and, refocusing, she saw her own misted face moving over it. Today she had dressed in black and with more care than she was accustomed to take. The woman reflected in the glass looked like a widow. She pulled the ribbon on Joe’s letters. She had kept them in chronological order. Holding the first envelope, she tried to recall the sentences contained within. His envelopes had always felt 66
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light, she remembered. He wrote on thin notepaper – the sort of paper that slips through fingers and inclines to flutter away. It was always the paper with the grey ruled lines. There had been a time when his words still managed to balance on the line. His handwriting shook apart over the course of 1917, which perhaps wasn’t so surprising given the facts it communicated. He had been gassed three times and wounded twice over the course of the year. She counted it out on her fingers and then tried to remember how she had replied. In the September they had sent him to Étaples for re-inculcating with offensive spirit. He’d told her how, at the training ground, he’d had to practise being gassed. It had surprised Effie that being gassed required rehearsal and that Joe hadn’t already had enough goes at it. There were only a couple more letters after that. She knew that he had gone back into the line after, north of Ypres, and then, in the November, was dead. At first, back then, she had cried for the right to be able to stand at his graveside. Now, as she moved towards that marker, she wasn’t sure how she would feel, what emotions his name in stone would incite. She wished that she had brought him some palmiers. She smiled at the sentimentality of an imagined gesture, at an image of herself smiling appropriately. Effie tried to re-find Joe in his words, to conjure him up as she could Laurie, to see his lips speak his sentences, but he was too distant. He wasn’t quite there in his letters. She couldn’t find his voice. She felt guilt for it.
Chapter Thirteen February, 1916 They were attached, for instruction, to the 14th Welsh. Laurence had been told that they were to learn the latest methods of making war. However, they were presently chiefly occupied with housekeeping. The trench was called Saville Row and it stank. ‘Horrocks has composed a poem that rhymes ‘excreta’ with ‘fleas-ier’, Laurence told Rushton. ‘He was giving a recitation. They all applauded.’ ‘Can you put a man on a charge for crimes against rhyme?’ ‘Alas, I suspect not – nor can I contend the verse’s documentary content.’ This trench was full of other people’s rubbish. Laurence wondered who the men had been that left so much of themselves behind. The duckboards, in stretches, had gone through. Water stagnated rattily beneath. They bailed out with biscuit tins, dyked, diverted and patched as best they could. ‘I feel like a sailor on a sinking ship,’ said Edward Shaw. The earth didn’t have the old smell of English earth, the black-sour smell of prehistory, but reeked of too new rotten things. They burned incense, liberated from a church behind the lines. It made them cough briefly and then was gone. ‘The Holy Ghost might smell sweet, but the bugger doesn’t seem inclined to linger,’ said Fitton. ‘Happen he’s not daft,’ theologised Billy Rigby. There was something epic about these old trenches – something timeless and venerable and awful. It felt like camping out in a graveyard. Morning rolled in. Laurence watched it arrive through a frame of barbed wire. Mist wreathed the in-between. He thought about ancient campaigning, about Charlemagne and Alexander, about antique battlefields that he’d read about in books. The wire 68
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ahead dripped. The trenches steamed. He stretched in the numbing cold, yawned and tried to stamp life into his legs. His fingers ached. Rushton said there would be snow within the week. Blue smoke rose from the enemy line, bleeding through the mist like watercolour. ‘The bloody bastards were bloody wild last night,’ said Sergeant Thorpe. ‘It made more noise than damage,’ replied Laurence, trying to exhibit more officerly pluck than he had felt at the time. Trench mortars, he had noted in his diary, arrived in slow crackling arcs. He had also noted that his heart beat so fast that he thought it might burst. He shrugged and offered Thorpe a cigarette. Younger Young was at his shoulder. ‘Is it true that their dug-outs have curtains and carpets – that they have electric light and wallpaper?’ He sniffed. ‘I know that the sods have sausages.’ ‘I’d kill for a sausage,’ said Edward Shaw. He was practising his one-handed shuffle. The deck of cards tilted through his fingers. The cards slipped and spilled, falling to tell their fortune on the clay-slicked duckboards. Fitton was watching a dog-fight above, making a romance of it with commentary. He twirled a matchstick at the corner of his mouth, his tongue flicking along his teeth. Volunteering a gypsy grandmother, he looked down and read the cards. ‘A tall, dark, handsome stranger is coming your way,’ he said. ‘You’ll be a bride by Christmas.’ ‘If he’ll throw in a barrel of beer, I’m his.’ ‘Too bloody right. Have you seen this?’ Horrocks was unwrapping a bottle from a parcel. ‘Ruddy nerve tonic. Provides the exceptional nerve force and vigour needed for hazardous duties in the battle zone,' he quoted. ‘I can think of other ways in which she might have gone about invigorating me. A bottle of
whisky might not have been a bad start.’ Shaw, cards retrieved, walked away. His feet left prints in the clay. Laurence wondered, briefly, if it were all to fall in, whether they would be found one day, like seashells in split limestone. Old Young was shaving. His eyes shifted in a strip of mirror. He meant to pose in gallant profile for Euphemia Shaw, and, via Laurence’s hand, to send himself home. ‘I will wed her, you know.’ He nodded at the photograph face that was wedged in the frame of his shaving glass. ‘I’ll do it proper. I’ll let her have daisies and lace.’ ‘You are engaged.’ Laurence tried to take a superior-rank tone. ‘It is the common courtesy.’ She was tinted in pretty pastels – pink cheeks and blue eyes and a sweetheart smile. Laurence felt her breath on his face, a locket’s length away, saw her lips speak a silent sentence, and blinked in mud and metal. ‘You wouldn’t say ‘No,’ would you?’ Younger Young’s eyes, grinning in ignorance, were on Laurence’s. ‘No,’ he replied.
Chapter Fourteen Northern France, 1928 Effie looked out at passing-by Pas-de-Calais and tried to picture it as a battlefield. Even in peacetime, it was not a soft landscape. Sharp verticals (belfries and windmills and lighthouses) surged upwards as if to compensate for the land’s lack of gradient. The land itself was crosshatched with hedges and roads and waterways. The sea cut into the land and Effie tried to imagine it cut with trenches. Joe’s mother had kept his room ready in the hope that he would return. She continued to light the lamp every night, until she held the safety razor that had been sent back without its owner. Then, knowing him truly gone, feeling it in the flatness of this dispossessed possession, she had ended her own life. Even back then Effie couldn’t comprehend the intensity of that emotion. Even then she couldn’t imagine choosing to stop. She couldn’t draw a line through hope. The train passed through place names that she remembered from newsprint. She had imagined all of the places much bigger. They seemed very ordinary and very small, these headline towns. Rushing past in astonishing seconds, they seemed much less significant than they somehow ought to be. She didn’t recognise the names of most of the locations in Laurie’s diary, but then, he rarely seemed to have much idea of where he was or quite why. I feel like flotsam, he had written, propelled by an unintelligible tide. But I do fear where that tide is taking us. And I am afraid of being afraid. She was all eyes for Poperinghe, which she knew from Joe’s letters. It was after that she began to see the small clusters of crosses and then the great white expanses of stone slabs. Effie thought about flotsam and tides and fright. She shut her eyes. In her girlhood, Ypres was to be found in the haberdashery 71
department: it was lace, ribbons and printed cottons. Edward had sent their mother a silk handkerchief edged with Flemish fancywork. But then, somewhere around the time of the silk handkerchief, it had changed and Ypres was suddenly synonymous with gas, mud and frightfulness. As the train pulled in, Effie struggled to stitch together her fragments of association. She surveyed the town from the station steps. Her imaginings had been many and various, but she had never pictured Ypres quite like this. It wasnâ€™t haberdashery or muddy battleground. Rather, Ypres appeared to be a building site. She saw cranes, stacked stone and a great deal of scaffolding. There were skips and immense iron girders. Laurie had told her that Ypres was all ruin at the end and they had proposed to leave it as such in eloquent memorial, as a symbol of sacrifice. She supposed they had subsequently decided otherwise. Ypres was busy being reborn. A stall at the bottom of the steps was trimmed with flags and arrayed to catch the eye of tourists. Effie stared. Shell cases had been worked into ink wells, ash trays and napkin rings. They were engraved, embossed, given appliquĂŠ work and floridly lettered with the slogan Souvenir of Ypres. There were bowls of salvaged regimental buttons (fifty-centime keepsakes for the budget-conscious vacationer) and a tray of jewellery items that appeared to have been enterprisingly recycled from all manner of polished-up military metal. Effie wondered what face a sweetheart ought to assume was she to be gifted bullet earrings or a bully-beef bracelet. She decided that she would probably run rapidly in the opposite direction. There were crucifixes formed from cartridge cases and a monumental dinner gong that seemed to have been fabricated from a particularly nasty-looking lump of ammunition. What variety of person might wish to be summoned to table by such a monstrosity? The man behind the stall had no legs and a sign that said No pension. 'Day trip to Tyne Cot, Miss?'