Here and there
I fear this work and this war will never end. The endless parade of sheets and blankets seem to arrive from all corners – marching down the road from Invergordon, motoring up the road from Inverness and sailing across the water from Fort George.
It seems all laundry from the battalions lands up on the Ootsey’s doorstep. The steam and heat and then rinsing of cold laundry on the mill wheel is not something I relish. I miss the company of the herring girls, the quick flash of their blades and tongues.
This now is the only bit of laundry work I like – the drying. We lay the sheets out all along the green of the beach, from the mill house to the lighthouse. There is time to talk now but if John Robb catches us we’ll be for it.
I think the outspread sheets look like angels lying on the green. Heaven’s creatures sent down to spend time with us mortals.
‘Have you heard from Jean at all?’ Avril’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
‘Aye, got a letter from her three days ago. They’re all in Nottingham now – Rebecca, Jeannie, Freda, Margaret and the rest. She says the work is hard but she’ll get quicker at it. Do you remember when you first learned to gut fish Avril? I suppose war work is a bit like that though I wouldn’t fancy handling all those chemicals.’
‘I’m glad we didn’t have to go down, glad we could stay here though cleaning sheets isn’t the most exciting’, Avril sighs.
I know Avril would have gone to Nottingham to help with the Boots war work with the others if it wasn’t for her Ma. They’d lost Avril’s brother Thomas on the battlefields of France and her Ma didn’t want to let Avril out of her sight.
‘Well Avril there is some compensation about staying home, like that Private Black, eh?’
Avril blushes and shushes me. We’d gone to the Highland Cycle Battalion’s dance at the drill hall last week and Avril had met Thom Black there. He had made a point of cycling past the laundry doors every day since even though we weren’t officially on his patrol route.
‘Anyway, what about you June, you could have had your pick of the men there, even the Americans’, Avril laughs and I join in. I know that I could have some fun with these strangers, lighten this strange wartime living but I need to think of George.
He too is on the battlefields, somewhere in France - we aren’t allowed to know where. George and I had made warm promises of love and faithfulness before he’d left. We’d be married after the war or so we told each other but he now seemed like a smudge on my memory, growing smaller and more distant by the day.
I hoped he was managing to find some fun in that hellish world, I wouldn’t be jealous of an accommodating French girl, or of a few nights of him drinking himself senseless in a strange French town.
This war has made me fidgety. Maybe I should have gone to Nottingham with Rebecca and the rest. Maybe George and I shouldn’t have made those promises. The sheets flutter in the breeze as the tide turns. Even angels grow restless.
The wind cannot compete with the roar of the guns. This place is a Hell of fire and ear-splitting noise. I trust these men with my life – this brave company of the 4th Seaforths, so far from home but so near to each other. We dress, sleep and fight together, as close to each other as the lice that live next to our skin.
We are at Ypres, a place I had not even dared to contemplate in my worst nightmares. The chlorine gas claimed thousands and we were forced into retreat but today we are to make a push for territory. We line up and check our guns and bayonets, John and Robert give me grim smiles – it may be the last time the three of us are together.
I think of my June, my angel. I offer up a silent prayer that we will be together again.
I brace myself for the guns, for the fire the Germans are throwing at us. Lieutenant Findlay blows his whistle and we are off, up, up, over the top.
I hear a cry next to me - John is killed straight off, the gun claims him before he can even get over the top completely. I gasp and sob but move on, firing almost blindly. We run on, men falling like skittles as the guns meet flesh. Up, up and on, no time for anything but our breath and the guns.
I clutch my shoulder. I have been hit almost without realising. Just a graze I think.
I hear Findlay calling for us to go back. We will not succeed in beating the devil today. Those of us that aren’t dead or dying pick our way back to the trench. Some are shot as they retreat. My shoulder aches a white heat, making me feel faint but somehow I manage back.
We can hear the moans of the dying as we slump exhausted in the trench. Robert hasn’t made it back and he joins the chorus of the dying.
‘George, John, please help me, George. Mum, Mum, please God, Mum, George.’ We listen to Robert’s cries for over an hour. Somehow his thin voice has gained strength in the throes of death, fighting its way over the noise of war. We can hear him out there in no-man’s land crying for his Mum back in Avoch, and for me, only yards away. Robert may as well have stayed in Avoch for all the help I can give him.
I try to block out Robert, I am in too much pain to think. Findlay insists on having my shoulder bandaged. When the wound is exposed, it looks worse than a graze
Someone wraps my great coat round me. I close my eyes and see the shapes of John and Robert. I think we will be together after all. I slip between this world and the next, between Ypres and Avoch.
‘June!’ - a last cry for the living then all falls quiet. I am with the angels now.