Sassoon sat down heavily and carelessly glanced round the vehicle’s interior. It was a long wagon with a canvas roof, and benches around the sides for soldiers to sit uncomfortably on and contemplate the journey. Kit bags were stuffed underneath seats, rifles held between knees. All Sassoon could see was khaki.
As the vehicle ambled slowly through the thick squelching mud that dragged at the balding tires, Sassoon felt it was himself being dragged across the unforgiving earth. Dragged back to the fighting, the gunshot, the constant injury. All that death. There was every possibility that he might find himself repeating the last nine months in not too long, he thought. That might not be too bad, was his first reaction, but on second consideration, he wretched.
Or maybe it was just nerves.
It felt like he was going back in time. A peculiar sense of Déjà vu had been dogging him these last few days, like he’d been here before. And it was true; he had. But he’d been different then. He’d grown older and wiser in the last year especially. At least, he liked to think he had.
He looked out at the road winding on forever behind him and acknowledged the rain, dismally. He wondered how long the men around him had been travelling before he’d joined them. It was as if time was already beginning to not matter.
“Not yer first time, then?”
Sassoon looked round in his dreary state of mind to see who had spoken: the man, nay- boy, opposite, who had an Irish accent and was smoking with his top button undone, leaned backwards slightly so that the smoke curled upwards from his lips, as he looked down his nose at Sassoon. He had a youthful, zealous confidence about him; and tortured eyes.
“No,” replied Sassoon, meeting his hard gaze. It was as much a challenge as it was a confession. Damn nerves might just be creeping up a tad. But he thought he’d better say something. Shame his voice cracked as he spoke, and he quickly cleared his throat.
“Thought not,” the boy said. That was it.
Perhaps that was all he could muster, for now, thought Sassoon. He resumed his scrutiny of the opposite wall. With the exception of this one, no one around him really looked like they would know what they were talking about; all young-ish looking, relatively healthy men who had no idea what they were in for. One man had closed his eyes in vain attempt at dozing off. Opposite to him, another seemed to have his head and shoulders angled as though he were looking directly at him, though his face was draped in shadow. Sassoon couldn’t look at them.
“The question is,” the boy then continued, to which Sassoon felt himself groan inwardly, “if yer managed to escape this nightmare of a war once, why on earth are yer comin’ back?”
Good question, he thought. It wasn’t one he felt like answering. “You might have considered that I might be merely returning to France after taking a week’s leave?” he snapped, speaking quickly, with frustration. He heard himself as if from a long way away. Better buck up a little, Siegfried, he thought, though he couldn’t bring himself to, these kids are your comrades.
“I might have,” another voice piped up. Now what? Sassoon groaned inwardly, “If if I hadn’t spent a good part of the last year in Scotland. In hospital. A few doors down from you.”
Utter silence. Except for the rain. Sassoon didn’t know whether to be horrified or refreshed. He was certainly surprised. Everyone else riding in this vehicle had been discreetly listening, certainly. Now, they became discreetly captivated.
Curiosity stroked him. He reluctantly prised his eyes away from the wall to peer into the shadow. The figure he’d noticed looking at him earlier was apparently who had spoken. His voice was hoarse and slightly nasal, as if he had a cold, but he recognised it. The dozing man was also no longer dozing, he noticed. Of course.
“You mates?” Totally unfazed, the smoking boy smirked. Sassoon missed it. “Sassoon?” The voice in the dark was sadly hopeful. “Siegfried Sassoon? Am I right?” A beat of silence. Sassoon wondered vaguely why everything was taking so long to register. Was he dreaming?
With seemingly perfect timing, the vehicle turned a corner onto a road with lined by streetlights, and strobes of golden illumination began to sweep across the men as they trundled along. Sassoon glimpsed the boy’s right hand, gripping his rifle so tightly the blood had drained from it. The other was resting on his lap atop of a pair of battered leather gloves. His fingers were calloused and, if he wasn’t mistaken, ink-stained, much like his own. When the boy had spoken, his speech had seemed either slightly hesitant, or slightly rushed. Perhaps he too was burdened with the task of hiding a stammer. Then he looked at the boy’s uniform- a slightly different shade of khaki to his own, perhaps, though it was difficult to tell in the inconstant yellow light. He blinked. I don’t believe it.
“Owen?” Should’ve said ’Wilfred’.
“Yes! I knew it was you! Didn’t you recognise me?” The boy in the shadows was elated, and rose momentarily as if to approach, the way one might at a pub having bumped into a friend. Then he seemed to remember where he was. Still, each time the light passed his face the joy in his eyes seemed to grow more concentrated.
”I- I- … no.” Sassoon felt like he was just waking up. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. He couldn’t think of anything.
“Ha!” A burst of laughter. “Surprised to see me?” Sassoon was speechless.
Just as a loud, and deliberate, cough interrupted them, expelling a noxious cloud of Woodbines’ finest fumes, the man who had been trying to sleep pointedly nudged Owen with his foot. Was everyone wanting an introduction to the poet?
“Oh, yes- sorry—“ Owen suddenly remembered the man opposite him. Sassoon’s brow furrowed. “This is Callan.” Callan did a sort of upwards head nod by way of greeting and never quite met his eye. Sassoon waved, awkwardly. “Callan: my friend, Siegfried.” Owen made the introduction confidently. He was growing up by the minute. Sassoon however seemed to be shrinking; he wasn’t sure how to react at being called Siegfried. No one called him that except his mother. Or maybe Rivers, but that was beside the point.
This hadn’t been part of the plan.
Still, he couldn’t exactly get off now and wait for the next bus to Mons. He was just– surprised. Months ago, he and Owen had said goodbye thinking: This is it. That goodbye would’ve been a lot easier if either one had had any confidence that they would see the other again. The memory of it had rather watered down the Palestinian sun.
“An’ ‘am Finn,” the smoking boy interrupted his melancholy, not content with waiting for an introduction, “nice to be havin yer.” Sassoon really wished he’d button his collar. But, he tried to smile and surprised himself further when he found he didn’t have to command the muscles in his face to do so. What was the plan again?
Much later, whilst being led on foot through a deserted ghost town, Callan spoke to Sassoon for the first time. “We haven’t met before, but I’ve heard of you.” Sassoon looked at Callan out of the corner of his eye. “Really?” Oh dear; a fan?
“Yes, Rivers- Dr Rivers, spoke of you sometimes.” That was unexpected. Sassoon was intrigued. “Did he, now. How do you know Rivers?”
“I was in hospital in London under a Dr Yealland when we first met.” His tone grew icy, but still retained an unwavering reverence. Sassoon thought that perhaps there were things about this story that he wouldn’t find out from Callan. “Rivers was observing Yealland’s methods of treatment. I was the patient. A few days after I was discharged, Dr Rivers and I met again by chance. He always seemed rather preoccupied. Wish I could’ve got to know him better; interesting ideas, he has.” Callan spoke as if he was measuring out each word before allowing himself to say it, the result being that he was very slow at finishing each sentence. Though there was no spasmodic stopping, starting and speeding up the way he would if he were trying to hide a stammer.
“Rivers has become a good friend to me this past year,” said Sassoon. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be open with Callan, but he supposed if they ended up spending a lot of time together in a trench somewhere, he probably would anyway. “Though, in that time, we talked a lot more about my ideas than his.”
Callan seemed to consider something for a beat. “I have to admit I was sometimes unsure as to which ideas were his and which were of others…” A breath. “I read about you too,” Callan continued. Please, no. “Newspapers. Last year.”
Callan cleared his throat. “‘…The war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to prolong it’ …Do you recognise that?” He looked up sideways at Sassoon.
Sassoon stared at his boots. “Yes. I recognise that.”
“I have to say…” Callan stopped for another breath, then finally looked Sassoon straight in the eyes as he exhaled: “I completely agree with you.”
Sasson met his eye, then walked straight into the back of Owen.
“–ry…” They both decided not to look at each other. Bringing himself back to Callan, Sassoon suddenly thought to himself that it was strange how he could call himself a poet, yet could be at a loss for words so frequently in one afternoon. “Thank you,” he said finally, and the man walked ahead, with a small smile.
It was darker now and the fog was thick. Callan was ahead, Sassoon and Owen just behind him, closely followed by Finn and then the rest of their convoy. A short silence ensued as they all walked slowly. Callan seemed not exactly content, but rather settled now that they’d spoken. Sassoon sensed both Owen and Finn however, had things to say to him, but weren’t sure how to approach their subject.
“Well…” Pathetic. Then they said it: “So why are you back?” more or less in unison.
Although he expected this assault, for it definitely felt like an assault, Sassoon didn’t know how to react. Mouth open, he turned to Owen: “You don’t know?” He swallowed, and turned to Finn: “You don’t need to know!”
“I need to know if I should be bombin’ the Boche, or the fella swillin’ whisky back there, who’s tellin’ me to bomb the Boche!” argued Finn. He was still smoking. He still hadn’t buttoned his collar.
“I…well…” Sassoon’s mind had begun to race. Now, what did he do? He looked at Owen. “How long has it been since we last saw each other?”
“Not really the best time to be nostalgic…” Finn attempted, trailing off towards the end.
“Then when is?” The old anger he’d felt when he first brought this archaic argument to attention was bubbling up again. “If I’m going to be here, stuck in this graveyard, I’ll indulge myself in all the nostalgia I like!”
“Siegfried, calm down–”
“Not being funny, mate, but you know you didn’t have to be stuck in this graveyard.”
“Don’t give me that!”
Siegfried, really, save it–”
“Just who do you think you are? I don’t know you. You might think you know me, from papers, or whatnot, but you have no idea. I know we’ve all questioned ourselves: why on earth are we doing this? But nobody does anything about it! Nobody even talks about it! It just goes on and on, senseless slaughter on the command of faceless authority, apparently saving some last slither of bruised up English pride.”
“Is that why you came back?” Owen suddenly pressed him, abandoning his attempts at calming him down. He was quiet now, though. Scared: “Do you want to make a martyr of yourself?” Finally, rising: “To die for king and country?”
“No!” Sassoon roared. He’d seen red. The earth seemed to rumble. Do you not know me? he thought. “No, I do not want to die for king and country!” he spat, truthfully, “Is no one listening?”
Callan was looking back at him, eyes dark. Finn looked as if he wanted to say something, but seemed reluctant to remove the cigarette from his lips.
Sassoon and Owen ignored them both.
“But you do plan on dying, don’t you?” confirmed Owen. His gentle voice made his words resound like a judge’s gavel pounding on the bench. “You can’t fight for a cause that you hate, so you’re going to die for it instead.”
Sassoon was silenced. Owen was right.