This time of year, autumn, I associate always with the falling leaves, rain, and mists of my beloved England – so, so different from the Texas where I now am, with its cloudless skies, warm days, and dry sagebrush terrain. And my home here in Texas – an underground basement of a demolished house in a dilapidated area of a city – is as far removed from my rural cottage in England as can be imagined. However, the older I become, the more easily I’m able to disappear into the past. This is wonderfully comforting, for, when I’m there, it’s as real to me as the depressing reality of my circumstances in Texas.
There are few circumstances more depressing than mine – being in a foreign country as an outlaw on the run from the police. The good news is, I suppose, that I and my three men, Mikey Squeaky and Freddy, are still free. But free from what? I mean, we never know which hour will be our last in freedom whenever we see a policeman. The strain of being on the run, always being watchful, never trusting anyone, seeps into the bones, into the core of one’s being.
I’ve half a mind to walk into the nearest police station and turn myself and my three men in, just to get the suspense over with. On the other hand, the thought of being strapped down on a bed and given a lethal injection, or being strapped in an electric chair and fried when the switch is pulled, isn’t pleasant.
My present circumstances haven’t prevented me thinking recently of the Great War in which I fought, since in just two days, November 11th, it will be ninety years to the day, November 11th 1918, when the guns finally fell silent. The Great War changed me for ever, for I entered it in August 1914 a boy, and emerged in November 1918 a man.
I remember August 4th 1914 as if yesterday, because it was the day we Englishmen declared war on the Hun. The previous day, August 3rd, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm had declared war on France, so how could I, as an Englishman, do anything other than join in the coming melee? I was most happy to fight the Hun since it promised to be a jolly good scrap. Besides, the war would be short, and I’d be home by Christmas after our glorious victory. I was afraid only that I wouldn’t get to do any fighting before the Hun fled.
Well, the Great War didn’t turn out quite that way. Instead of coming home unscathed and beribboned after a brief scrap and a glorious victory, I was stuck in trenches in a stalemate, amid a carnage I couldn’t even have imagined. I was intent only on surviving. I even sympathized with the German soldiers, since they were the same cogs in a leviathanian engine as was I.
That I emerged from the war not dead was a miracle, quite possibly because I got in the way of a German bullet during the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Thus I spent many months in hospital, and so was out of the way of other bullets and shells for all that time. Our casualties during that summer and autumn while fighting at the Somme were……..well……..staggering. On just the first day, July 1st 1916, we English alone lost 19,000 dead and 35,000 wounded. So I consider it jolly lucky I wasn’t killed, but only wounded, although my wound was a bad one.
As a mere old soldier, and not a poet or litterateur, I’m not able adequately to describe what it was like on that first day of the Battle of the Somme. But, some years later, I found a passage written by the poet, John Masefield, which renders perfectly the atmosphere at the moment we launched our attack at 7.30 am that morning of July 1st 1916:
“……the hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man’s Land to begin the Battle of the Somme…….. ”.
But I’ll not dwell on the whining bullets, the screeching shells, the thudding explosions, the soup-like mud, the pungent gas, the opaque mists, the relentless rain, the penetrating cold, the rotting corpses, the scurrying rats – for even after more than 90 years I still find it painful to contemplate.
No, I wish instead to talk of Juliette, who tended to me in the ward of the hospital in the French city of Rouen, to where I was taken from the battlefield after a bullet felled me. I remember the bullet’s thud, and the blood gushing from my chest. Then…………nothing.
* * *
When Juliette first came into my ward I saw her as simply another anonymous nurse. Besides, I was in such bad shape that I was consumed only with my pain. I’d had an emergency operation because the bullet had entered my right lung, and ripped through my inner organs before exiting my upper back. In the days following the operation my pain would become so excruciating that Juliette injected me with morphine, which made me deliciously drowsy and I would inwardly let go.
One day when I was drowsing thus, I heard voices speaking loudly from somewhere in the ward, then Juliette’s voice saying, “Be quiet, there’s a boy dying here”. She of course said this in French, but I remembered enough of my schoolboy French to understand what she’d said. Her words came as such a shock I immediately stopped letting go, and my pain immediately returned. I’d begun to fight again for my life.
Throughout the following weeks as I recovered, and Juliette and I got to know each other better, I began to regard her less as a nurse and more……how shall I say………as a woman. But since I judged Juliette to be several years older than the twenty-one I was then, I knew my growing passion would be unrequited.
In her nurse’s uniform Juliette looked, apart from her exquisite cheekbones, as nondescript as most nurses when in uniform. But I imagined how she might look dressed up to go to a soiree, with her hair, normally coiled under the nurse’s cap, unpinned and bouncing around her bare shoulders, and the outlines of her curves showing to full effect under a clinging gown. And I sensed that behind her eyes, and her professional demeanour, there lurked a passionate woman. But I also sensed in her a deep sadness.
As my wounds healed and I could again walk short distances, Juliette would accompany me around the hospital’s spacious grounds, even during her hours off. She seemed genuinely interested in me, and I felt flattered because I couldn’t imagine a woman being interested in what I was interested in – cricket, rugger, boxing, hunting, sword-fencing, horse-racing, and military history and tactics.
I knew nothing of what women liked to talk about, since I had associated almost solely with men – whether at home where my only sibling was a brother, or at my boys-only school at Eton, or in the army, or playing cricket, rugger, and all of that. As an Englishman I considered girls frivolous and silly creatures, and to be seen to take them seriously was to invite ridicule from my fellow Englishmen. Girls were simply beyond the pale, as foreign as visitors from outer space.
When I talked with Juliette about cricket, rugger, boxing, and all of that, she appeared interested. But I sensed she was more interested in the me who spoke the words. Juliette’s passion was literature, particularly French literature. When she talked of novels like Stendhal’s ”Le Rouge et le Noir” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” she became animated, bespeaking that these novels lay close to her heart.
No doubt wishing to expand my mind beyond cricket rugger and boxing, Juliette lent me ”Le Rouge et le Noir” and “Madame Bovary” to read. Thus I read them out of duty, but also because they might bring me closer to Juliette. Consequently we discussed at length the characters of Julien Sorel and Emma Bovary, and why they embarked on their illicit romantic liaisons. Juliette’s eyes became infused with her laughter as we read to each other the various passages in the books which depicted the pomposities and hypocrisies of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie. And her eyes became misty when we talked about the sad and tragic deaths of Julien and Emma.
Did Juliette see me as Julien Sorel, with his romantic illusions and predilection for older women like Madame de Renal? Or maybe as Leon Dupuis, the young law student with whom the older and married Emma Bovary had a passionate affair? I, for my part, saw Juliette as Madames de Renal and Bovary rolled into one.
* * *
After some weeks of convalescence I was strong enough to venture further than the hospital grounds. So Juliette and I made many outings to the city of Rouen itself, to explore its 1500 year history. Over many visits, while Juliette guided me through Rouen’s historic churches and museums, she began to talking of her own past. I learned she’d grown up in a modest but respectable bourgeois family in a suburb of Paris, and had been a bright and diligent student when at school. She dreamed of going to the Université de Paris to get a degree in the French literature which she loved. But her family had other ideas, and persuaded her to instead study nursing.
Despite studying nursing – as respectable a profession for a young woman as could be imagined – Juliette in her free time socialized, not with nurses or doctors, but with the free-thinking avant-garde artistic crowd – poets, painters, sculptors, philosophers, musicians – in the cafes of Paris’s Left-Bank. She met Phillippe, a painter, with whom she became smitten, and he with her. Subsequently they rented a flat together.
I was shocked to learn this, since, in the milieu I had grown up in, it just wasn’t done for young men and women to live together without being married. But then Juliette and Phillippe were of a milieu, a French Parisian artistic milieu, a milieu very different from mine – the milieu of bourgeois Anglo-Saxon England.
Juliette’s and Phillipe’s domestic bliss ended when the guns of August 1914 began firing. Phillippe, who, like most of the men of France, was an army reservist, was called up and sent to the front to fight the German invaders. Juliette, as a qualified nurse, was assigned to the military hospital at Rouen, to attend the wounded.
A year later, in September 1915, she learned that Philippe had died in the course of the French army’s major offensive west of Verdun against the Germans. Juliette said that when she received this shattering news, she wanted, too, to die, so to be with Philipe. But, instead, she immersed herself in her nursing duties to the exclusion of all else.
* * *
Under Juliette’s care I recovered to the point when I would be discharged from the hospital and returned to the front. Somehow this prospect didn’t cheer me, for I’d realized that being looked-after in hospital by Juliette, and seeing and talking with her every day, and going for our outings, was infinitely more pleasurable than living in a muddy trench, dodging bullets, being deafened by exploding shells, stumbling over rotting corpses, being drenched by rain, and being bitten by rats.
But, as an Englishman, I should have been chomping at the bit to return to the front, despite the bullets, shells, rain, mud, rats, and rotting corpses. Obviously my moral fibre had been weakened by my prolonged absence from the exclusive world of fighting-men, and by the proximity of Juliette.
I discerned in Juliette that my approaching return to the front was not inconsequential to her. She became yet more attentive, and her eyes often became moist. On the day before my departure she hinted that we might spend the coming night together, and she knew of a hotel………. To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement, since respectable young women of that time just didn’t make such suggestions to their gentlemen friends.
On the other hand, Juliette – the erstwhile frequenter of Left-Bank cafes, and friend to painters and artists – was a bohemian at heart, and……..well…….French.
* * *
I won’t go into the minutiae of what Juliette and I did together throughout that night. I’ll say only that it was a night which will live with me always, a night of unbridled love, a night in which Juliette and I slaked the fires of our banked-up passion.
When dawn came we could hardly let go of each other. Together we walked to the train station. My heart breaking, I got on the train, and, through its windows I gazed at Juliette’s shrinking outline as the train propelled me back to the world of bullets, shells, rain, mud, rats, and corpses……….
* * *
I was a major-general commanding a division of the British Second Army as it fought its way from the beaches of Normandy and into northern France in the spring of 1944. Rouen – Juliette’s Rouen – was among the cities my division passed through. As I was driven in my jeep through the city, I noticed sadly the heavily-damaged buildings, particularly the almost-destroyed cathedral – everything so different from when Juliette and I had explored them. I told my driver to stop the jeep, for I wished to walk around, to re-live briefly my memories of that time so long ago.
Walking down one of Rouen’s main thoroughfares I noticed a late-middle-aged woman walking along the pavement on the other side. I recognized Juliette in an instant. I made to cross the street to accost her, but had to stop because some amoured cars rumbled by, obscuring my view of Juliette. When the vehicles had passed, Juliette was gone. She may have disappeared along a side-street, who knows?
I abandoned my pursuit, leaving the past in peace.