The events that would end in the major’s death began to unfold long before Christmas Eve.
This I know only retrospectively: until the moment the major was shot, none of us could have predicted it. One thing you learn during wartime – more than at any other period, perhaps – is that while you may sense an imminent threat, or shiver with foreboding, it is only afterwards the connections that contributed to an event become clear. Hindsight shapes our understanding, not anticipation.
Before I explain the major’s death, I should make clear who he was. Who all three of us were. Because those are significant factors.
We were the survivors. Indeed that was the name we gave ourselves as a trio. This was more than a trivial epithet; it was based on simple arithmetic: before the first great battle of the war at Liege, we counted two hundred in our company. After it, the only ones left were Major Franks, Captain Jansen and I.
We did not christen ourselves survivors through hubris. We were tarnished. We had all suffered injuries, which in turn led to our stay at the convalescent home where the accident occurred. Captain Jansen had been wounded in the foot, I had lost an arm; the major had been blinded. There were invisible wounds too. The deaths of hundreds of your comrades weigh on you and I imagine at times we would have swapped places with our fallen brothers. We struggled to answer the question that crawled into our thoughts every day: why were we chosen to live, while those others – husbands and fathers, sons, friends – had to die? When we relived the battle in our heads, our hands quivered with the burden that only war can force on you: the responsibility for the collective memory of comrades who disappeared without reason.
But it was only when we reached the convalescent home that we felt free to ask these questions, to try to come to terms with our predicament, and the fate that had brought us repeatedly together.
It was Captain Jansen who first tried to make sense of things. I had not marked him as a religious fellow, but his argument had the hallmarks of spiritual devotion. It was, essentially, this: that we survived because we had ourselves saved others.
The major and I did not entertain his theory at first. I found it implausible that a God would choose heroism as the criterion to decide between life and death. If he did, I could reel off the names of a dozen men of our company whose bravery was unquestioned, yet whose sliced and bloodied bodies we had walked over in no-man’s land not a month before.
In truth, I was secretly embarrassed by the captain’s suggestion because I had performed no heroic act and I was sure the captain knew this. Major Frank, though, had once rescued a drowning child; Captain Jansen had been awarded the Croix de Guerre for saving our lives in battle. I was only a witness to their heroism.
Yet it was an undeniable coincidence that it was in this very town that Major Frank had saved a life, and a further coincidence that the three of us had been involved. It had happened on the day we had first met, the week before the war began. We had been billeted here after being called up. We did not know each other and it was pure chance, or perhaps fate, that while the main body of our company spent the day exploring the various hostelries of the town and the women who sometimes drank in them, Captain Jansen, Major Frank and I had been drawn, independently, towards the cool of the riverbank. When we saw each other we greeted each other officially, still getting used to our ranks. Our conversation was halting and I remember this added to the discomfort of the warm day; the sweat collecting in the crease of my neck and under my arms and creeping down my back like a dozen snakes.
Perhaps it was this discomfort that caused me to look towards the bridge. At that moment I saw emerging from under an arch, crashing against an abutment, what looked at first like froth. Or perhaps it was an oddly-shaped bundle of clothes, but surely too compact, too weighty to be that? But before I could say with certainty that I saw a tiny white hand and what must have been the nape of a child’s neck, Major Frank was sprinting down the pavement alongside the river, pulling off his jacket. A metal fence as high as his chest stood between the major and the river, but he grabbed the finials and swung upwards. His momentum brought his right foot to the top of the railings where it lodged between two spikes. Now he could bring his left leg up and this allowed him to hop down to the narrow space between fence and river.
The river was in spate after storms the previous week. It was flowing so fast the small body had already swept past the major. Yet insensible to this, he dived into the torrent, almost fully clothed, and disappeared for several seconds.
I feared he might be lost too, but he proved a strong swimmer, and he appeared above the water, close to the body as it swirled in an eddy. By now a throng of people had gathered on the riverbank, following this drama. They began to shout encouragement as they realised the peril of the situation.
The major lifted the head of the drowning child and dragged its limp body to the soft weeds at the riverbank, where a dozen hands helped raise it over the railings. A crowd formed around the body as it was laid on the pavement. I considered the child surely dead and had said as much to the captain, but in a minute a cheer rose from the group. ‘The child breathes!’ someone shouted. Every eye turned now to seek out the major, still pulling himself out of the water. Hands reached through the railings to slap his sodden back.
This was only two years ago. And yet the same three people, the only survivors of our company, had returned to the outskirts of the same town, obliged to convalesce. This was, I admitted to the captain, a coincidence I could not explain.
Yet I tried not to think further. The convalescent home was calm and I felt at peace. We were well fed and the newspapers, which I only read fitfully, carried news of successful breakthroughs in the war.
So it was not an unhappy household that day before Christmas. It was a crisp, cold afternoon when it was better to stay indoors. Major Frank sat in the drawing room, in his usual place in front of the fire. He liked to feel the heat of it, even if he still only vaguely make out its warm glow. I sat on his right, a book open on my lap. That way I could turn the pages with my good arm. We were talking, as we often did, about the rabbits I had seen running wild in the woods surrounding the house.
‘Imagine,’ said the major. ‘We could still roast them for Christmas dinner.’
We both stared into the fire. This wasn’t the first time we had had this harmless conversation. We had talked about it many times. Nothing came of it because neither of us were able to shoot.
But this time our conversation was overheard. Captain Jansen was leaning against the door jamb at the entrance to the drawing room. He must have been there a while; I say this because he wore a metal boot on his missing foot and you could normally hear the clunk of his approach minutes before he entered the room. The captain never mentioned his injury; the major and I knew that, like us, the captain could never return to the front; we expected his discharge papers to arrive any day. But we never mentioned this to him, because we knew an avenging flame still burned. He was desperate to return to battle.
The captain shifted his weight in the doorway and made his way awkwardly into the room. ‘Rabbits, you say? Roasted the Belgian way?’
The major turned in his direction and nodded. ‘There is no other way, captain. All that butter – think of it!’
We were silent for some moments, while the coal cracked beautifully in the grate. It was already too late in the day. The sun was going down.
‘I have a shotgun,’ said Captain Jansen.
I looked up. ‘You have?’ I said.
‘It’s in the outhouse,’ Captain Jansen said. ‘I suppose before the war it was used to kill vermin. It’s quite serviceable. And there is ammunition.’
I continued to stare at the fire. I did feel a sense of foreboding. But I could sense too that the opportunity to hunt rabbits had presented itself so suddenly, so irresistibly, to the major, that a skittish excitement was rousing him. He slipped his legs off the footstool.
‘Why not?’ he said, ‘Get the gun, Jansen.’
The captain made his way out of the room, using the backs of chairs and the sideboard to help him on his way – he never used a walking stick. I led Major Frank out to the hallway where we pulled our greatcoats off the hooks.
As we waited for the captain, the major was talking excitedly. ‘Imagine,’ he kept saying. ‘Imagine.’ The tiled floor made his voice echo through the house.
Eventually Captain Jansen arrived, carrying the shotgun, open, over the crook of his arm. He leaned back against the wall opposite us and pushed two shells into the breach.
‘If only we were shooting Germans,’ he said.
We left the house and made our way along the path that led to the woods where we knew the rabbits were. It was a slow procession. I led the way, the captain immediately behind me, his hands on my shoulders. Captain Jansen limped behind us. Our breaths discharged in clouds above our heads. In a few paces, we were in a copse and our footsteps crashed through the crust of leaves. We slowed as we approached the field on the other side of the copse. Here the rabbits would twist and jerk across the whitened, ploughed trenches that the tractors had left before winter arrived.
We waited only a moment before the captain said, ‘Stop!’ He had seen the first rabbit, then a second, their heads peeking above the ridged soil.
I halted. Behind me the captain sliced the barrel of the shotgun upwards and it clicked into place. ‘Damned vermin,’ he said.
In that one beautiful moment there was silence. It was punctured by the sharp breathing of the captain next to me, then by the low rustle of the rabbits who had heard us and sprinted away. I looked around: the captain had already stepped forward to shoot. But as he did so he placed his weight on his bad foot and stumbled to his side. The gun went off.
I do not remember hearing the shot. I only saw the major’s body jump past me and fall, face-first on the earth. His cheek rested against frosted tussocks. He lay still; wisps of smoke drifted up from his greatcoat.
I rushed forward and knelt beside him. His breath was a gentle hiss, growing softer. Captain Jansen had dropped the shotgun and was now kneeling on the other side of the major. The captain was staring at the hole his gun had made in the greatcoat as if he could not believe how it had got there. Later he said that through the hole he could see rabbits, scurrying like messengers.
‘I missed them,’ the captain said. ‘I missed them.’
The major’s funeral took place two weeks later. At first, a quiet service had been planned, but word of the major’s death spread, and memories of his act of heroism from two years before were rekindled. The town newspaper’s front page was bordered in black. Plans changed. Special preparations were laid on. The major was to receive full military honours. On the day of the funeral, a procession wound through the streets of the town where there was not a space to be found on the pavements. The thronged population removed their caps or bowed their heads in unison as the hearse passed. The major’s coffin – draped with two flags – the Belgian tricolour, and the flag of the land where he died – lay on the bed of the hearse, which was drawn by four horses plumed with ostrich feathers.
I understand it was a moving spectacle; I was not there to see it. Aware of the comment that might accompany our attendance with the funeral party, the captain and I were not part of the procession. We waited at the graveside for the arrival of our comrade for the final time. As the cortege approached, the captain looked down into the place where the major would lie forever.
‘It seems that my theory was wrong,’ he said.
‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘what they told us when they found the three of us in the crater after the battle?’
The captain shrugged.
I said, ‘Do you remember how long we were lying there?’
He shrugged again.
‘Five days,’ I said.
Five days and a half. For countless hours before this, I had lain alone on a battlefield. In the moments I was conscious I could still see my arm lying, useless, some yards away in a large puddle among six or seven half-floating bodies.
I was aware of the captain approaching and lifting me off the mud, helping me to the only shelter in that blessed field of slaughter: a deep crater, safe from shelling and sniper fire. As soon as he had carried me there he dressed my wound with iodine and gauze and bandages from his own supply. Then he disappeared again, only returning as night began to fall. This time he carried the major over his shoulders. The captain himself had not made this rescue unscathed. He was now limping heavily from a shot to the foot.
The captain lowered the major into the crater then hesitantly slid down to join us.
We three meet again, he smiled. And this time I can save a life.
It was certainly startling that our reunion took place in this godforsaken hole. But I was not convinced a celestial hand was behind it. We lay there helpless, each of us head to foot the colour of earth, looking like clay models do before they are fired in a kiln. The major and I were done for, I said. He had been blinded, I was too weak to move. We urged the captain to leave us, but he would not. He fed us what modest rations he had, made us drink the water from the bottom of the crater, and waited. His own pain must have been immense, though he never mentioned it.
When the relief party found us, the captain asked – where is our company? He was told, you three are the company.
Captain Jansen rarely spoke in the days following the major’s funeral. He appeared for meals, but would disappear upstairs soon after. He looked paler and weaker. There would have to be an inquest, and for a time there talk of a court-martial was fomented by the local paper. I didn’t doubt that the captain’s record and my own statement as a witness would see any charges dismissed, but still, I worried about the captain’s health. Lying upstairs in his room he would hear the solemn footsteps of visitors to the home, the lowered voices, the tone of the questions asked of me. Was I sure it was an accident? What had been Captain Jansen’s mood? Did the captain and the major get on?
When the visitors finally left, the house returned to a silence that was only punctuated by the regular metallic thud that betrayed the captain's movements upstairs. So I must have dozed off sitting in my usual place by the fire, because I did not hear him descend the stairs. I awoke, startled, when I heard a crash in the hallway. I ran out. Captain Jansen was there. He was swinging lightly from a coat-hook, his face puce. A greatcoat belt was tight around his neck. An overturned stool rolled back and forward on the tiled floor below him.
I quickly righted the stool, stood on it and reached under Captain Jansen’s arms to pull him upwards off the hook. It took precious seconds of fumbling; the captain was gasping, drooling on my cheek and trying to push me away. My arms could not find enough hold to lift him free.
Then suddenly his full weight was on me and we fell together to the floor, my arms still wrapped around him, embracing him like a lover. He landed on me, choking, guttering, but thinly alive.
I worked at the belt that was still tight around his neck. As I loosened it, and edged my way out from underneath him, something bright on the tiled floor, beyond the captain, caught my eye: a white envelope. I knew what it was: the captain's discharge papers. Everything made sense.
I held the captain close, my mouth beside his ear. ‘Captain Jansen,’ I said. ‘You were right. Your theory was right. And if it was right, you cannot die now.'
The captain did not say anything. But his eyes met mine and stayed on them, and I think he understood.