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From: R.H.I, by Tim Corballis
Part 1. R
1. ‘Everything is collapsing.’
2. In an extract copied from his diary the soldier records a moment on the field of battle. The passage must have been written some days later, as he convalesced in a field hospital after the gas attack immobilised him. He was initially informed by the nurse, in a cheerful voice, that he would return to service without problems, having had only a ‘small lungful’.
The lungful had taken him by surprise. There was a shout as they watched for dawn attacks, then he turned his head and was faced, through the mask’s glass, with the shell’s explosion not far behind their lines. It was the first shell that morning. He saw the turned heads of his comrades in their own masks, their head-bags that reduced their faces to nothing (the faces he had come to know well) and more shouts. The gas from the shell somehow caught him in the lungs, despite the mask, gripping him and stopping him in the midst of his inhale. He stepped back from the parapet in readiness for the attack but was unable to move. He doubled over instead, his frame around his lungs (another shell burst), bent forwards as if to then raise his shoulders in an attempt to draw them open—but they had become a solid object, like coal, in his chest. All around, activity—another shell. It was all he could do to put a hand out to steady his slide down to the boards, then another hand forward to counter his doubling over, his retch that threatened to fill the mask, but he quickly pulled it off, still more unable to breathe. All this he records in the passage in his diary.
Was this a new weapon, a gas that could penetrate the filters? Then, surely, the troops would come next—the enemy would push over across no-man’s-land. He was unable to move, still bent forward like a child, his knees now underneath him, his body around his chest. He could take in some air now, though how much more of the gas he was inhaling he wasn’t sure. If another shell burst as close it would deliver another concentrated dose of the gas like his last. He remembered all this without sound. He had only seen the initial gas shell, hardly heard or felt its shock. Now the running of feet around him as he remained curled into himself, looking closely at the board and the back of his hand and the layer of dirt on both. He screwed up his eyes and his hand, then his body as a whole, tightening in preparation for the attack, its success guaranteed by the new gas (but others were running, back and forth).
He remained like this. Slowly muscles relaxed, lungs allowed the tiniest movements, drawn with difficulty and with each breath the feel of something torn. Would the attack be announced simply by a strike from behind and above, or the kick of a boot, even a bullet? Or, then (and he had seen their faces, occasionally, not more than once or twice, but he had a memory of them looking back at him, perhaps once only when he could see a face, and he and the German had each other in their sights, looked impossibly across a hundred yards into each other’s eyes and both in that moment refused to fire) captured.
This thought of capture was somehow worse even than the bullet. This was the intended fear, he suddenly found himself with the time to think, now in the midst of this final attack. A fear of them, their cruelty (how the Hun thinks) and not so much the cruelty that might land a boot on the back of his head, or a bullet, but the cruelty that might, too, enter him. Later, in the thoughtfulness brought about by this single incident, he would also remember the novels he had read about the terror of invasion, even years before the chain of events that had sparked the war. The novels had painted the Germans as dangerous and virile. And Britain would (if we didn’t raise ourselves out of our passivity) be attacked, and become German.
Then, doubled over, his mind freed, as if the cage that his body formed around his lungs enclosed a small and distinct world, there was the fear that even this private world might be invaded, become German. The very first thought, the one that initially terrified him and at the same time opened the possibility for that invasion—that threatened to lower the defences, let him turn over and lie, open to the sky—was this: and would that, then, be so bad? He had, that once, looked across genuinely at the face of the enemy, and, if he hadn’t seen anything he could name, neither had he seen the Hun’s cruelty—he had in fact seen nothing but a face.
Was the surprise of his thoughts, and their ease, brought about by the fact that he was caught between his fear and his duty? Not in the ordinary way, of being too afraid to carry out that duty (carrying it out had been only too easy) but of finding that the fear required by his duty (terror of the Hun, the unknown, unknowable figure) was his own fear (yes, how much he feared that attack!). If his fear was just the fear that his country required of him, how could he tell whether he genuinely felt it, or whether it was simply commanded? The uncertainty, he thought much later, might have prised open a space for him to wonder at what remained within him. Or, rather, left an empty space where his own fear may or may not have been, much like the space he was trying to carve out for his lungs.
Then, more shouts, an arm, and he was being pulled away from the parapet. This was how it would happen, simply with hands pulling him away. But he looked to see one of his comrades, hidden in his mask, who forced another mask over his own head and pushed him down somewhere else. There was no new weapon, only a leak around the filter canister, and the attack that he could almost feel, that he could sense—the Germans climbing over the parapets and taking them all (whatever that might mean), all lying prone much as he had—had never happened. The troops had never come.
Later, or so he writes, he was told by Joan R about the idea of psychological resistance. He pictured his own situation, the few minutes of certainty that he would be captured, in this notion: what in him resisted capture? What in him wanted to stop them from entering the space he had formed with this skeleton, his frame, the space in the centre of which hung his damaged lungs? And what existed in that space for them to capture, if all it was, was space? Was the resistance, then, nothing but the skeleton he formed for those minutes around himself?
Those minutes recurred as nightmare for the first time in the hospital, a hall at the back of the small French town some way from the front lines. The lines had not moved for well over a year here, a stand-off with the enemy, and he had grown used to thinking of this town as a place that despite the occasional bombardment would never be occupied. Indeed he thought from time to time of their own stand-off as permanent, lines that would never move.
His condition worsened, despite the nurse’s reassurances. Two days later, his lungs were as bad as after the first shock of gas, each breath an almost audible tearing accompanied by a pain that made him grip at the covers on the bed. His new urgency was to talk with her, both because she seemed kind, but more because talking was, right now, next to impossible.
‘Will I die?’ As she helped him to the toilet.
‘You’d be amazed, everyone asks that.’
‘Not so amazing.’
She laughed. She said, ‘You won’t die.’
After a slight pause: ‘Oh good.’
He didn’t believe her. He envisaged himself less and less able to talk, even to wheeze out the few syllables he’d managed, until, even surrounded by perfectly breathable air, he would suffocate or drown—his final, impossible lungful would be water in the midst of air.
The next day, his condition had, in fact, improved somewhat.
She said, ‘You write so much! What are you writing?’
He shrugged. ‘Diary.’
‘Everyone’s writing a diary.’
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Just look at you—you must have filled pages since you’ve been here, pages and pages!’ When he didn’t reply, but stayed looking at her, she said, ‘Oh well.’
He turned over a page and tore the next one out. He wrote on it: Hurts to talk.
She said, ‘Yes, of course. You should be resting anyway.’
He wrote: I want to talk to you.
He wrote: Where are you from?
‘Connecticut. From a small town, you won’t have heard of it.’
He wrote: Undoubtedly!
Another laugh. Then: ‘What are you writing?’
He said, ‘Nightmare.’
‘Writing your dreams?’
‘You must dream an awful lot.’
He shook his head. He said, ‘The attack.’
‘That’s the nightmare? You mean it’s a nightmare, what happened?’
He wrote: Yes. No. Then he wrote: I dream it too.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ There was a pause. She looked down, then up, and said, ‘You must—I don’t want to sound awful, but you must have seen worse? You must have experienced worse? This really wasn’t so bad, was it?’
He shook his head and shrugged.
She said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be talking. Try to rest and I’ll come back to see you soon.’
She did come back, and the soldier passed his book across to her, indicating a passage of around a page for her to read—he had written it while she saw to other patients. The room had a strange quiet, as if the sounds—talking or the occasional cry of pain—rose up into the ceiling that was too high for the hall’s size, muffled and trapped in the rafters. There were only ten or twelve beds arranged in this hall, on top of those in another small room and outside in tents. Sunlight entered at an angle, through small windows and the door when it was left open, though soon enough one of the nurses would see it hanging, moving heavily and almost imperceptibly on its hinges in the wind, and quickly cross from the opposite end, between the beds, her footsteps suddenly breaking the silence, to close it. His nurse looked at the passage, up at him, then down again and began to read. When she was done her gaze stayed on the words for a minute, and her brow pushed down, only briefly, in a quivering expression that made her seem, he thought, suddenly young (she was, as was he).
He said, ‘Do you—?’
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but it seems to me like you’re afraid of being—’
‘Of being raped.’
He said, ‘I see.’ She had said it quietly to him, and looked at him now, half afraid. He laughed now, or rather wheezed. He said, ‘That’s quite a suggestion!’
He shook his head and smiled. It did add something to his picture, to the image he had formed of the invasion, the attack, of whose occurrence he had been momentarily only too certain. He couldn’t help another laugh, but didn’t know what to say. Although she had only just sat with him, she stood awkwardly again.
She said, ‘I should get on with things.’
But the fear, wasn’t it more complex than that? It was at once, yes, fear that someone might force themselves inside him—he could see a meaning to her words that was, of course, not quite literal—but also that this might not have been entirely unwelcome; a fear that he himself might be the agent that allowed them in, allowed something Germanic to take his thoughts. He might be a traitor to himself, simultaneously the traitor and the betrayed, and all at once allow an invasion, a change, right to his core, thus revealing to him (and the revelation wasn’t entirely unpleasant) that he was already multiple, and that at his core there was nothing, or nothing solid. Something of him, then, wanted to hold on to what was there (if it were to go, what indeed would be left of him?).
The gas attack left him with shortness of breath for the rest of his life. At times, running for a short burst, he would experience a minor repeat of the initial pain and breathlessness that must have looked like the sudden onset of anxiety: he would sweat, stop, put a hand to his face and one to his chest and drag upwards at his lungs for a short time, until he reminded himself that it would pass. It meant the end of his active service, though in the following few years he remained in non-active positions in the armed forces.
As he departed—still always somewhat short of breath now, but able to walk to the truck that was to take him to the camp, on his way home—the nurse approached him, then blushed and looked away.
He said, ‘Hello.’
‘I guess so. I’m going back to England.’
‘I know. It’s nice to hear you talk. I mean really talk.’
‘So you won’t have to read any more of what I write?’
‘I didn’t mean—’ Until she noticed his smile. Then: ‘Well, maybe.’ They looked at each other for a second.
‘You’ve got work to do.’
‘So I have.’
‘So long …’ They shook hands, and she kissed him on the cheek.