“Halt! Who goes?”
“Relax, private. It’s Major Jessop.”
“Password – Sir!”
“Seriously? You know I’m your CO, right, Private Tyson?”
“Yessir, I know – but I still need the password. Sir!”
I smiled, “’In England's green and pleasant land,’” I quoted, “And well done, Tyson. I would have skinned you alive if you hadn’t insisted. No one gets past you without the password. Not even General Byng.”
I nodded as I walked past, then turned back. “You must be going off-duty at midnight, right, soldier?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“And eager for it, I see. Well, it is New Year’s Eve,” he smiled at the enlisted man, then said with the usual irony, “with rollicking celebrations awakening and enlivening our spirits for the glorious coming Year of Our Lord, 1918, eh?”
I chuckled. “Why, I shouldn’t be surprised if some misguided individuals had some non-regulation drink stashed away for tonight. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that, would I, soldier?” I clapped him on the shoulder as I turned to go. “Just as long as it doesn’t get out of hand, right, Tyson?”
He grinned at me, “No SIR!” and saluted.
I returned salute, then walked through the frozen trench towards my quarters. They were all good lads, and had borne up well under the strain of being away from home and families through their third Christmas – those that had survived, that is.
The idea of skipping the Regimental Officer’s Mess for New Year’s was tempting, but Colonel Genet had been quite clear that he wanted me there. Something I needed to know, he had said. I smiled, tired though I was. We were lucky to have Genet in command. He looked after his men, and apparently, that included me.
I ducked into my quarters, and sank down onto a chair with a weary sigh, removing my boots, emptying dirt and pebbles from my footgear. Somehow, my left boot especially seemed to attract mud and crap, and if I hadn’t continually applied carbolic between my toes, I’m sure I would have succumbed to foot-rot by now. I bent down to reboot my feet, then stood, feeling weariness down to my bones.
Straightening up, I brushed down my uniform, combed my hair, checked my appearance in the tiny mirror, and fixed my cap properly. I put my Brodie helmet in my locker, then set out to Battalion HQ through the trenches, hunching low under the parapet as the Hun was lobbing occasional fireworks our way – no doubt their way of celebrating the New Year. I suspected they were as tired of all this as we were, but neither side’s High Command ever asked the opinion of the Poor Bloody Infantry!
I eventually got to the Colonel’s HQ, much larger than my digs because he had to hold staff meetings there. I heard the Victrola through the make-shift door, and knocked on the doorframe, getting a prompt, “Come on in, for God’s sake. Just don’t let the bloody Huns in behind you!”
I smiled at Colonel Genet’s wry sense of humour, and started to open the door when I felt a tap on the back of my head. I ducked, then turned to look but saw nothing behind me but darkness. Shrugging, I moved ahead and was surprised to be dazzled by the light of the tunnel into the room. I wondered why the Colonel would risk making his HQ such a target.
Then I was surprised again by how large the room looked! How had Genet managed to clear away enough space, even here? Then I was surprised once more to come face-to-face with what I could only assume was a senior general. I snapped to attention and saluted.
“Stand easy, Jessop. You’re not on parade here.”
I felt I should know him, that I had always known him, but I could not for the life of me remember how or why. His warm, gentle voice complemented the – indulgent? compassionate? – smile on his face. He was much the most impressive personage I had ever encountered. His mere presence filled me with awe and reverence.
“So, how has your life been, Ronald? Have you enjoyed it?”
I relaxed slightly – or as much as one could relax in the presence of a senior officer. “Well, Sir, to be honest, I’d much rather this War was over so I could go home. So we all could go home, I mean.”
He shook his head, “Sad business, isn’t it? Well, it’ll be over before too much longer, but don’t you worry about that now. Have you been using your talents well? Happy with the results?”
I looked down at the floor, somewhat abashed. I guessed that Colonel Genet was pushing me forward for promotion, perhaps to fill his shoes as the scuttlebutt was that he was in line to make General. Perhaps this was High Command’s way of checking up on his recommendation.
“No complaints, Sir. I’m sure there are things I could have done better, but after three years here, we’ve pretty well got things sorted. We’ve got a good bunch of lads in the 58th Battalion. They’re brave, know what they’re about, and it’s an honour to serve with them, Sir.”
He smiled, “Pride in your fellow men. Good lad. But let’s get a little more personal.” He put his arm around my shoulder and walked me into the room. “Do you have any regrets? Anything important that you wished you could do over?” He stopped and turned to face me.
I looked into his eyes and wondered why he would care, yet it was clear that he did. I smiled and looked down again, then decided to be candid, although it was the strangest military interview I’d ever had! I looked up again into his eyes and felt comforted.
“Well, Sir, there was a girl, Maisie Parker, back home. I’d always kind of wanted to…well, date her to start. And I got the impression she might have been interested as well.”
He waited, then prompted me, “But…?”
“Well, Sir, I’m happier facing machine guns than girls. But I wish I’d asked her out before I left, even if it was only to find out whether we might have had a future together.”
He looked at me for a moment, apparently weighing something in his mind, then turned and started to walk me further into the room. “Ronald, love is critical to life, almost its very purpose. I’m sorry you didn’t take the chance to date young Miss Parker. If you had it to do again, would you do it differently?”
I stopped, pondering the question. Last time I had seen Maisie at a party, I had wanted to ask her to dance, but couldn’t overcome the sinking feeling that she would refuse me. Yet, since then I had faced far more fearsome things – machines guns, men dying in my arms with their guts spilling out onto the mud, other men trying to bayonet me, and many other horrible things besides. And I decided that, yes, now I would face up to my fear.
I nodded to him. “Yes, Sir, I would.”
“Then I have a surprise for you, Son…” And he held out his hand, gesturing into the room.
There was a dance floor, and for the first time, I noticed couples dancing, including women. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it at first and shocked that High Command would allow women this close to the front.
Then I saw her. Maisie Parker was strolling towards me, hands held behind her, and a shy smile on her face. “Hello, Ronald.”
I was stunned, and am afraid I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. How had she…? I was just flummoxed about what was going on.
“Well? Aren’t you going to ask a girl to dance?”
I decided I’d figure it all out later. “Oh! Yes, sorry, Maisie! I’m delighted to see you! I’m just so…surprised.” I straightened up and held out my hand, “But, given the situation…May I have this dance?”
She dimpled at me and flowed into my arms.
I had never been what you would call an accomplished dancer, but tonight it seemed I could do no wrong. I inhaled her scent and sighed. I had no idea how this had been arranged, but finally having Maisie in my arms was truly a blessing to this battle-weary soldier.
“Any hope, corpsman?”
He sat back on his heel, and looked up at Colonel Genet, shaking his head. “I’m afraid not, sir. The shrapnel struck him square in the back of the head. He died instantly.”
Genet’s face fell. “He was a good officer – and a fine human being. The 58th is going to miss him.”
“Yes, sir,” the corpsman nodded and took out a pad and pencil, “What was his name, for records?”
“Major Ronald M. Jessop from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.” He shook his head sadly, “I just got a cable that his parents and most of his friends were wiped out by Spanish flu back home. Perhaps it’s better I didn’t get to tell him. At least he looks like he died happy.”
I drew back slightly from Maisie’s embrace, then turned my head and kissed her.
And was delighted when she kissed me back.
It truly was…Heaven.