Saturday in the Trenches with George
Spain. March 1937. Near the Zaragoza Front.
Two men were sat on opposite sides of a broad shallow trench, a lazy trough dug weeks earlier by men with little concern for warfare or personal safety. It had been an order, and orders were meant to be obeyed. Vaguely. To some extent. When one had a free moment.
“Nuevo?” asked the older man. He was tall and spindly, like a reed tirelessly leaning into some unseen wind. His hair was dark and jagged, his moustache small and untidy.
“Sorry?” Winston muttered.
“Oh, good,” the other man suddenly beamed. “My Castilian is dreadful. Always good to meet a fellow Englishman, particularly in such a remote, squalid corner of the world. Cigarette?” he offered.
“Don’t smoke?” came the hacking reply. “You must be new! Granted, I’ve only been here for a few months. But you settle in pretty quickly once you’ve seen the conditions.”
“Oh, this lot are hopeless. Sure, you get the khakis and a rifle. To make you feel official. Grand. Ready for parade. Part of the great resistencia. But I can’t see how they’ll win. Granted, the other side hardly have any food, and haven’t been trained to shoot so far as I can tell. The whole thing could end in boredom. Or complete chaos.”
Winston leaned in. “Have you, you know? Killed anyone?”
The other man leaned away like a reflex. He looked off toward the hills. “It’s a terrible thing. War. Necessary, I think. I mean, I suppose I do. I didn’t… I didn’t see, you see. I threw a bomb. There were howls. Maybe it’s better when you see. Poor devil.” He twisted his cigarette slowly in his hand, then threw it away. His now free hand reached across the trench.
“Your accent’s a puzzle. Where are you from?”
Winston wrinkled his nose. “Wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Well,” Eric smiled, “I’m from Henley. By way of India. But mostly Henley. If you can believe that a man might trade his lower-upper-middle class shackles for a hopeless rifle and the company of the mysterious Winston from no place.”
Winston laughed. “I can believe most things.”
There was a momentary silence in the conversation, which was almost instantly punctuated by harsh whispers from the west.
Eric slowly grabbed his rifle, while motioning with his other hand for Winston to hunker down. Winston turned onto his belly and dragged his own rifle across the dry earth toward him. Eric crossed over.
Dos. Tal vez tres.
Eric’s whisper was like a stiletto through the night air. “Any bullets in that thing?” Winston self-consciously looked at his rifle, looked at Eric, and shrugged. Eric tilted his head. There were occasional sounds of movement from perhaps thirty yards off. Winston imagined it was thirty yards. It suddenly seemed important to know. He had never heard a distance before.
Eric pointed gingerly but intently. “Two hundred yards. Two of them.”
“They sound young,” Winston offered. He was desperate to be useful. “If we get out of this, I’ll tell you where I’m from. Not that...” He was scared. He was actually scared almost constantly, but in a deep, existential way. This was a fever, scratching under his skin.
Eric looked over and smiled warmly. He clapped his hand on Winston’s shoulder. “Know how to ward off bears? Make them think you’re bigger than you are.” He glanced down at Winston’s rifle. “Hope that bloody thing works. Follow my lead.”
With that, Eric started shouting out “The Internationale”, half-sung, half-frenzied cry:
Debout, les damnés de la terre!
Debout, les forçats de la faim!
La raison tonne en son cratère!
C'est l'éruption de la fin!
He leapt to his feet, and with every syllable, a rifle round echoed across the hills, the bolt felt back down, then threw another round into place, then another shot.
Winston was filled with a deafening numbness in his head. He, too, stood and shot into the darkness. His skin filled with a surge of excitement that his rifle actually worked. And he found his mouth open, his lungs filled with the thrill of adrenaline and life’s fragility.
Is this the real life?!
Is this just fantasy?!
Caught in a land! Slide!
No escape from reality!
Two shadowy figures sped away through the night. Winston thought he might have hit one, but he may as well have shot the moon for all he cared. The Nationalists were running in the opposite direction, and every shot seemed a necessary encouragement to them.
When it was all over, and the last echo of gunfire had crashed off the last hillside, Eric grabbed Winston by the arm. They grinned stupid boyish grins. “We’d best be off,” Eric pulled. “Sometimes they run and sleep. Sometimes they fetch their amigos.” Each man grabbed a small rucksack and scampered off over the back lip of the trench.
“There’s a lookout, further along the salient. We’ll meet up with some chaps I know there.”
They made their way in darting fits and starts through the desolate countryside. It was a moonscape of greys and beiges, masked in the murky evening sky. There was the bright crack of gunfire ahead of them, intercut by occasional explosions. Eric topped a bluff and looked ahead, his eyes narrowing.
“Damn. I think we’re overrun. Damn.” He turned to Winston. “We’ll find a spot. Not to worry.”
Winston followed him through the thickening darkness, stumbling more now as his nerves returned. After what seemed an eternity, they suddenly came upon an escarpment. Eric pointed to the bottom. “It’s a bit slippy on the way down, but there’s a little nook I’ve used before.”
On a summer day, dressed in the right clothes, it might have been fun. The ground gave way like shale, and the two spent much of the descent on their backsides and elbows, clawing, flailing in vain to do anything to change their speed or direction of descent. Finally, the angle softened and Eric was able to take to his feet. He led the two of them across a short clearing, up another small hill, and into a rounded shelter.
Within a few minutes, they were sat again as before, eased into the lazy vigil of nighttime soldiering. Eric went to offer Winston a cigarette, then remembered. “So. No place. Where is that exactly?”
Winston bit his lip. He’d been in this situation before, and had always managed to duck out of it. It was exhausting. He’d just been shot at. Well, he hadn’t actually, but it felt like he had been. Every stride was accompanied by the imaginary whir of bullets flying past his ear. And this Eric had saved him. Up to this point. They might be dead by morning, anyway.
“Don’t know it. Up north?”
“Midlands.” Winston shook his head. “You do make a mystery of the most awfully boring things, my boy.” Eric drooped his head. “I suppose it must be a tiny convocation of huts on the westernmost tip of Zanzibar.”
“Doesn’t exist.” Eric’s dark eyes gazed up, half-exhausted, half-interested. “Not yet.” A smile crept slowly across his face.
“You’re going to build it! Interesting idea. Terrible name.”
Winston shook his head. “It will exist. In about twenty years. Thirty maybe. I’m honestly not sure.”
Eric nodded grandly. “I see. Making you……?”
“From the future.” Winston had wanted to say it in an Oscar-winning way. Like a grand pronouncement from a herald introducing royalty. It had squeaked out like a dirty little family secret. “From the future.” He relived the moment over and over until the silence was broken.
“Hit your head coming down that embankment?” Eric reached into his jacket and pulled out a leather-bound notebook. A small nub of a pencil was shoved into the binding. He opened to a free page.
“Was. Visited. By. Spaceman. Near. Zaragoza. 14th. Of March. Name. Winston.” He looked up playfully. “Well? Go on.”
Winston shook his head. This is why he had never done this before. It was doomed to failure. Even in the wilds of Spain, in the midst of war, it sounded ridiculous. Possibly adolescent. Winston suddenly wished his voice had more gravitas. Less thin, wispish tenor.
“You’re from Milton Keynes. When were you born?”
“Ha! Lovely. Who is the prime minister in your future?”
“Her name is Dixon. Julia Dixon.”
“A woman!” Eric suddenly looked away. “A woman. I like that. Nice touch. Well done, spaceman. Labour, no doubt?”
“She’s a Tory.” Winston paused. “Actually, all three female prime ministers have been Tories. That’s odd.”
“And what happens. Here. Spain. 1937.”
“I’m honestly not sure. We didn’t really do the Spanish Civil War in class.”
With that, Eric burst out laughing. “Christ. Of course. This will be studied.” Another laugh. “Or not! So, how do you do it? How does one jaunt about through time?”
“I don’t know.” Winston was increasingly looking for some foxhole of shame into which he could crawl. “There are holes. Like tears. In the air. And I fall through them.”
Eric stared at the faintly glowing end of his cigarette. “Our dear friend, Herbert George Wells, would be most upset, I think. He’s always writing about machines. Sad to think one simply falls through time. You two must meet. So, how do you choose where to go?”
“I don’t. It just happens. Always at really intense moments. Then I’m falling.”
“Dear boy,” Eric confided, turning and leaning in. “It sounds more like hallucinations than time travel.”
“I mean, have you considered it?”
Winston stood up, suddenly oblivious of the situation. “Of course I’ve considered it. I’ve thought about all of it. Every angle.”
“To sleep, my boy. Perchance to dream.”
“I’m not crazy. I’m not hallucinating. I’m travelling. Somehow.” He turned, a bit accusingly. “You’re the first one I’ve told. So stupid.”
“It’s funny,” Eric continued, ignoring Winston’s outburst. “I might be a hallucination. Perhaps we’re both hallucinations. Perhaps we’re just being watched by someone, somewhere, for their entertainment.”
“You sound like you’re from the future. It’s called reality television. The X Factor. Big Brother. They were all the rage for years.”
A single gunshot burst through the darkness. It sailed straight through Winston’s chest. Blood flicked through the air in a slow-motion arc, like a whip. Red inky traces drifted up Eric’s shirt and onto his cheek.
In Spain, a young man was lying face down at the feet of his new friend. Eric stooped over, instinctively grabbing his rucksack and rifle. He took a moment to touch his friend’s face. “Dear boy”. Then he was off into the night, headed east toward the illusion of safety.
Somewhere else entirely, Winston was falling.