An extract from ‘The Cartographer of No Man’s Land’

Chapter One

February 1st, 1917 Western Front, France

Angus MacGrath unbuttoned his greatcoat and leaned back against the one tree left on the bank of a river he did not know. Not far downstream, a private, standing waist-deep in the river, squeezed a bar of soap between his hands. It shot upward, and four or five other soldiers lunged for it, splashing and falling over themselves. Their uniforms, boots and rifles lay in a heap by a jagged row of blackened tree stumps. Under a weak early morning sun, bands of mist rose from the cold river, occasionally engulfing the soldiers so that they took on a dream-like quality of white arms and torsos appearing and disappearing.

Above the river on a low stone bridge sat the engine of the troop train where, a day into their journey, it had lurched to a stop, unable or unwilling to carry on. Sunk between endless flat fields, the tracks ran east-northeast toward the Front. Angus flipped open his old pocket compass for confirmation, for comfort, really, and slipped it back in his pocket. He figured they’d be on the march soon, the engine still on the bridge.

While repairs were attempted, the ranks milled about the train, grousing over the delay, but grateful for it all the same. And for the sudden break in the weather. Housed in drafty huts in a camp thick with mud near Le Havre, most of them hadn’t bathed since they’d crossed the Channel and arrived on French soil five days earlier. Those in the river were taking up a challenge. ‘Bap-tism and bless me!’ one shouted, wading in. ‘Sweet Jesus, it’s freezing!’ cried another, plunging in after him. In the train, the owl-faced ranking officer drank steadily from his flask.

Like Angus, the boys in the river and those cheering them on from the bridge were fresh recruits from battalions broken up after training in England to be bled into existing battalions.

Most would join the 61st. But Angus had been singled out and reassigned to replace a dead lieutenant in the 17th Royal Nova Scotia Highlanders – a decision no more random than any he’d encountered since joining up. If there was one thing Angus had learned it was that there was no predicting how things would turn out. Of all the predictions he might have made, himself as an officer in the infan-try was not among them.

In the state of suspension between the world as he’d known it and the absolute unknown, Angus considered the interplay of light and mist, the hazy edges, blank spaces and mute eddies at the river’s edge. Above him, the sky turned a gauzy grey, and a fine rain fell. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

Rain. It had been a constant in the collected bits and pieces of the past few months. It had slicked the deck of the ship that carried him to England and slanted in rushes off the tents in the camp where he’d held a rifle for the first time, adjusted to the heft and length and balance of it, and where, surprisingly, he’d found he was a good shot. And where, not surprisingly, he’d found a heady release in charging straw-filled burlap bags, bayonet plunging into their sodden bellies.

Rain and rage. Rain and regret. He’d been sent over with assurances in a letter from Major Gault to a Colonel Chisholm that he’d be a cartographer. In London. Behind the lines. But Gault was unknown to Chisholm, and there being no shortage of cartographers, Angus had been dis-patched to the infantry, where shortages were never-ending. ‘The infantry?’ A chasm of disbelief had opened up.

‘You heard me,’ Chisholm’s adjutant had snapped. ‘You can bloody well draw terrain maps on the field. In the meantime, the infantry can use your other skills – the ones you’ll get soon enough.’

© P.S. Duffy 2014