Chapter 1

Bakers and Thieves

Muzzle flash white and burnt. Twisting, falling in filth, gaping a silent scream to stop. Then darkness. Smothering. Total. Pinned like a butterfly in a tray. Phut, phut, the dying respirator, dizzying wisps of memory condensing in its glass discs, familiar faces looming, dissipating, as if glimpsed in a cloud of gas. And voices, whispering in the Scots of those lost on the field at Loos in the battalion’s first days. ‘You’ve come tae us frae oot the battle,’ they say. ‘Frae hell tae emptiness, tae this purgatory.’

Then he hears himself pray, ‘Sweet Jesus, let me back.’ But Jesus doesn’t answer, only the dead. ‘Why? Why should you be saved?’ they whisper. ‘Why not us?’

‘Captain! Captain Innes!’ Mertens was shaking him, his face tense with concern. ‘You were calling out. You must be quiet.’ He raised a piano finger to his lips. ‘Are you sick?’

‘A dream.’ Innes touched his chest, feeling for the brass crucifix. His shirt was wringing wet.

‘Bad dream, no? From before?’

‘Yes, Joos, from before.’

Mertens squeezed his shoulder. ‘The war will be over soon. You hear? British guns. It’s the big attack. One of our men at the station heard a German Oberst say so.’

Ratchet after ratchet, the gears of the machine were turning again. British gun-crews, grimy, stripped and grunting …

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