THE SOLDIER’S SONG
It is six o’clock on a winter’s morning and the stars are still out. The still air is icy and sharp in my throat. As I march across the frosty cobbles, my breath streams out behind me like the smoke from a ship, and the only sound is my footsteps echoing around the Barrack Square.
I haven’t slept at all. I’ve still got the sour taste of cigarettes and whiskey in my mouth and my uniform reeks of turf from the little fire in the adjutant's office. It was a long night, full of things I thought I had forgotten, but now I can’t help remembering. And one thing, one man, above all. I never even knew his name, but it’s his face that haunts me now. When I poured the cold water for a shave in the adjutant’s office I saw it in the mirror, staring at me. Just a glimpse, but long enough for one accusing look – as if he knew what I was about to do.
They must have been keeping watch for me. As I approach the door of the guardroom, I can hear them moving about inside. I barge into the meagre warmth and find the five of them on their feet, half-dressed, and red-eyed with lack of sleep. I can see his face in every one of theirs and I feel ashamed to look at them; young country boys, straight out of school and still missing their mothers. And me in my brushed greatcoat, brass buttons, and polished brown boots. Captain Reilly, of the Irish Free State Army. Then Mullarkey draws himself up and offers an uneasy salute, followed by the rest. They are soldiers after all. But I can’t bring myself to return the salute. I just nod and take the minister’s order from my pocket.
He had come out to France with a replacement draft and went straight to Dalton’s platoon. There were so many replacements by then that it was hard to remember even the names of those in my own platoon. The only thing that set this one apart was when Dalton reported him missing at battalion headquarters the day after we went into the line. That was barely a week after he had arrived in France. But now Dalton was gone – hit in both legs by a machine-gun – and his missing man was back. They had picked him up six miles behind the lines with no rifle, no papers, and an old peasant’s overcoat over his uniform.
We all knew what must follow. Rumours of an execution had been whispered up and down the trenches for three days. Even a heavy German counterattack hadn’t been able to silence them. At dawn we had marched out of the line, and now we were halted in the shade of an orchard with thick, soft grass growing around the trees and the scent of apple blossom hanging in the warm air. After the trenches, we felt we had escaped to another world. It was a fine summer morning and we lay dead tired, and scattered around the grass like corpses, listening to the distant guns warming to their day’s work. Whum, whum, whum, they went, a roaring chorus.
A little apart from the others, four officers lay under a tree, smoking cigarettes and passing around a hip flask. Four of us left out of the ten who had gone into the line. And we could hardly have passed for officers; grimy, unshaven, and stinking of sulphur and sweat. There was very little talk. We knew it wasn’t finished yet.
The gathering daylight is like the end of winter. It chases the sugary frost into the corners, and shrinks the night-time expanse of the square down to four grey walls.
I’m drilling the five of them outside, with the sun rising in front of me; red and angry, sliding slowly out of a crimson scar above the rooftops. Eos Rhododoktulos, the rosy fingered dawn. Not the sharpest squad I’ve ever seen, but the as gaeilge commands don’t come to me very easily. I ought to have a sergeant to drill them, but there are rumours of discontent among the older soldiers, and the distant whiff of mutiny in the Free State’s infant army. They are growing tired of the fight, Irishman against Irishman, and there have been too many executions already. It’s ironic, then, that this one should turn out to be an Englishman, albeit a Sinn Fein Englishman; caught on the run in Glendalough, with a pistol in his pocket.
So I bark my own commands, facing them with my hands held behind my back, and five rounds of ammunition clenched in my fist. One round is blank, as required by the regulations. I read them again last night, before I cleaned and reloaded the heavy revolver on my hip. There are no blanks in the revolver. My part will be certain, without even the comfort of doubt.
In spite of myself, I snatch another glance at my wristwatch. The time on the order has already passed, but I know it’s getting close because of the sun on my face. He’s asked to see the sun one last time. Eos Rhododoktulos – her fingers dipped in blood. The same baleful red eye that watched vengeful Achilles fall on proud Hector. That’s the trouble with education, it lets you put a name to every bloody thing.
A messenger came down from brigade HQ with a note for Captain Byrne. It was the warning we had been expecting. With a face like thunder, Byrne told Nugent to see if there were five men left from Dalton’s platoon, and had the rest of us form ranks in the muddy field behind the orchard. This had last been used as an artillery paddock, and stank of horseshit, with clouds of shiny black flies buzzing around us where we stood. About a hundred of us left, standing in two ragged rows. The barrage was still going on up the line, in full flow now, rippling up and down the horizon like distant music. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the man beside me; a grimy silhouette, hollowed and grey, like the face on a silver coin. But clearly alive, twitching imperceptibly with every detonation.
After a few minutes the noise stopped suddenly. It left a deep uncomfortable silence, like someone had lifted the needle off a gramophone record. But we all knew what was going on behind the silence. Men looked at each other knowingly. We were too far off to hear it but we knew; the fearful grunts and harsh exhortations; the stinging rifle cracks; the thud of metal into flesh; the merciless sewing machine clacking of a machine gun. The screams.
This is the place; a dingy gravel yard with no windows looking into it. It’s very small and he’s in here with us - taking a final turn around the yard with his clergyman. I find my eyes following him around. He’s dressed in a neat tweed suit; shoes shined, and his tie done all the way up. Walking ramrod straight with his hands behind his back – just like a country gentleman out for his morning stroll. I don’t think I could have managed it in his position. I wouldn’t have been able for the tie.
Now he’s shaken hands with the reverend and he’s bearing down on me; blue eyes fixed on mine, probing for some sign of weakness. I force myself to meet his gaze as best I can.
“Good morning Captain Reilly.” His voice is hard, clipped; his British accent prominent even in this short phrase. But there is a civil inclination to his head, and a faintly amused look in his eyes.
“Mr Childers.” I reply, taking his outstretched hand without thinking. His grip is hard and firm. I hope he doesn’t see my hand trembling as I take it away.
“Good morning, lads.” He calls out to the squad, and then strides up to the line, his hand out. There is some awkward uncertainty, some nervous swallows, and I catch young Mullarkey looking to me for approval. I give a nod, and he takes Childers’ hand, pumping it forcefully.
“Sir!” Mullarkey bellows, staring stiffly over Childers’ shoulder. And so it continues down the line; wooden handshakes, eyes staring over the top of his head as he looks approvingly into their faces. There is a palpable sense of relief as he reaches the end of the line and walks back to me, hands safely behind his back once again.
“You’ll forgive me for asking, Captain, but do we still have an agreement?”
“Well, I can’t say I understand it, but I’m prepared to honour your request. Provided you don’t take too long about it, of course.”
“No,” he laughed, “No, of course not, Captain. I’ll not delay, you have my word.”
“Very well then. My men will ready and aim on my command, but will only fire on yours.”
“Thank you, Captain.” He smiled, “Well, in that case, I suppose we’d better get on with it.”
They brought him down the road in the back of a supply lorry. Four MPs in the back with him, and the colonel himself riding slowly behind on a big bay mare. Nobody was surprised to see him here. The colonel had been with the Dublins since the start, and never shirked. Wounded at Le Cateau in the first days of the war, he went on to lose an eye in Gallipoli, and survived a second bullet at Ginchy. While the lorry squealed to a halt behind the ranks, the colonel wheeled his horse around to face us, the animal bucking and snorting at the scent of the previous occupants. His stern face and eye-patch overwhelmed the urge we all felt to crane our necks and get a closer look at the boy. For a moment he looked like he might speak to us, but he knew where we had been, and that there was nothing to say. He nodded sadly and looked to the men in the lorry.
“Well, get on with it then.”
The wall is embarrassing. It’s covered with bullet holes; pocked and cratered from a dozen mornings before this one. They haven’t even bothered to whitewash over it. Even more disquieting is the sound of normal life on the other side. Dublin City is coming awake and I can hear the cries of a milk cart, the clop-clop of horse’s hooves, and the rhythmic thud of somebody beating a carpet.
I’ve got a blindfold in my pocket, but he doesn’t want it, which is just as well, because it wouldn’t do to let him see how badly my hands are shaking. It’s the best I can do to get the square of white cloth pinned to the breast of his jacket without stabbing him in the heart.
My mind isn’t on the job. I’m trying to imagine myself somewhere else. During the worst times in France, I used to picture myself as a young boy, playing in the garden, or sitting in the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. Now it’s more immediate; I’ve got one place I can return to. It’s a place not far off; a bedroom with green curtains drawn. A slim figure curled up in the bed with the warm curve of her arm against the cool white sheets. Brown hair fanned across the pillow.
He’s looking at me as I step backwards, that amused look on his face again. I wish I could turn around now, and keep walking away.
“Do you believe in God, Captain?”
“Not for this long time.”
“We can agree on that much, at least.” He is holding out his hand to me again, “Goodbye, Captain, and good luck.”
He struggled and writhed like an animal in a trap, but they formed a tight knot around him, moving purposefully across the grass with the prisoner in their midst. His head and shoulders bobbed urgently, as if he was drowning amongst them. The squad was forming up in front of the orchard wall. Craning his head back, he scanned the stony ranks, searching for some sign of hope. His eyes met mine for an instant, terrified and pleading at the same time. I looked away.
“Help me, lads!”, he cried, his accent very plain, very young. “They’re going to shoot me, lads. Jesus Mary and Joseph, will ye not help me? Will ye not help an Irish lad?”
“Where’s your dignity, boy?” a gruff voice asked from behind me.
“Please!” He cried again, as they let him fall to his knees in front of the wall. Two of the MPs held him in that position while a third tied on his blindfold. “Oh God help me lads, they’re going to murder me. I’m only sixteen, lads. I let on I was older.”
He choked on the last word and started crying uncontrollably. His resistance was gone. The MPs dragged him roughly upright and spun him around to face the squad. They let him fall then, leaning back against the wall. There was a spreading wet patch in the front of his trousers.
“God help us.” The man beside me whispered under his breath, blessing himself.
“Ready!” The order was spoken in a wavering voice. Nugent was as white as a sheet. Five rifle bolts were snapped shut and locked. The boy cocked his head to one side at the sound, turning it from side to side as if he was trying to see us through the blindfold. Time seemed to slow down and there was a long silence when the birds in the apple trees sang very clearly.
“Are ye still there, lads?”
“Oh…” He started to sing, chin down, his high reedy voice cracking, “Is it true what they say…”
“Fire!” The single word cracks out and a ragged volley kills it dead on his lips. I’m facing across the line of rifles, mouth clamped shut, eyes straight ahead. I can’t see him, but I know he’s there. I know what I’ll see when I turn my head.
“Shoulder arms!” I shout into the rising cloud of blue smoke. I can hear the chaplain, clacking his beads and muttering in Latin.
I turn slowly and force my eyes down to the huddled figure. He looks smaller now than he did, I think, and start to walk forward, footsteps crunching loudly in the gravel. Up close he looks shabby; I can see the frayed collar of his shirt and the pockmarked skin on the nape of his neck, with downy hair blowing in the breeze. He is lying face down with one arm stretched out, his hand moving, clawing at the gravel. The revolver is heavy in my hand, the hammer hard under my thumb. There’s a familiar face coming to the front of my mind, accusing, but I try to push it aside and cock the revolver with an effort. Brown hair fanned across the pillow.
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