Battle of the Dauntless – A Short Story

Been a long time since I added anything to the ‘Creative Writing’ area of my blog. This is a short, 2,500-word piece that I finished recently and which I thought I would share with everyone:

Battle of the Dauntless

July, 1804
Northeast Atlantic, west of Spain

Timbers creak and waves slosh gently against a bobbing hull, like so many mothers’ hands reaching to comfort a crying baby. Sunlight, fresh and warm, beams down on white sails, furled for the time-being, and on ropes and rigging, some taut and which creak from tension, some slack and limp from lack of use. On the deck, I watch the men at work, coiling ropes, scrubbing decks and doing general maintenance. I head through one of the hatchways towards the back of the ship and knock on the door of the Great Cabin.
“Come!” a voice calls out. I open the door and step inside.
“Ah! Good morning, Mr. Colton!”
Captain Christopher Peale sits at one end of a table. Capt. Peale is a tall man, some six foot two inches in height and of solid build, with long, dark blond hair done up in the back in a rough ponytail to keep it out of the way. I smile at him in a way that exists between friends.

“Good morning, Christopher,” I said. Behind closed doors, I had decided to indulge in my social rather than professional relationship with the captain. The captain smiled and beckoned me to sit down. Next to the captain, a man in his late thirties, was another man of a similar age. Dr. James Frost. I have known Christopher Peale since we were a pair of ‘snotties’, midshipmen, both aged some twelve years old. Dr. Frost has been our ship’s surgeon these past five. We say ‘surgeon’ but he is both physician and surgeon and so much the better.

“Any news?” Christopher asked. I shook my head.
“Everything is as it should be,” I said.
“Excellent,” said Christopher. “Well Jack, James, I fancy we can help ourselves to the first drink of the day”.

Being First Lieutenant and a close friend and colleague of both the captain and surgeon always brings certain privileges with them, which I was happy to take advantage of. Our morning drink was interrupted when someone knocked on the door.

“Come!” Christopher called out.

Second Lieutenant Arthur Collins or ‘Artie’ as we called him, opened the door.

“Sail ahead, sir!” he said, “You’d best come see!”

Christopher nodded. “Very good. Thank you, Collins. Doctor, back to your quarters; Jack, close the windows and then join me on the foredeck”.

The men left the cabin and I leaned out to close the windows in the ship’s stern. Looking down, I read the large, white letters which spelt out the word ‘Dauntless’ on the stern. I closed the cabin door and headed up on deck.

“You see?” Christopher asked. He pressed a spyglass to my hands. I extended it and observed a ship several yards away. I could make out the red, white and blue French flag flapping in the wind and then I noticed a bright, white flash. The sun glinting off a spyglass lens!

“He’s spotted us!” I said. I handed the glass back to the captain.
“So he has, the dog! Lieutenant Colton, alert the officers, beat to quarters and clear for action!”
“Aye sir!” I said, nodding. “Mr. Collins! Mr. Barkley, Mr. Shears! Beat to quarters and clear for action! Quickly, now!”

Soon, all was a flurry of activity as orders were shouted hither and thither. Piercing notes from the bosun’s pipes squealed and warbled through the air and voices yelled out loud and full of conviction.
“Mr. Jones, run up the colours! Midshipman Bell, two points starboard!” the captain shouted. I rushed below. A marine, dressed in his distinctive red and white uniform stood rapidly beating a drum, setting the pace for action. Men raced towards the gun-decks.

“Cast loose!” I and the other officers shouted and the gun-crews undid the ropes restraining the cannons to the hull of the ship.
“Run out the larboard battery!” yelled the captain, “Roundshot! Carronades and chase-guns to be loaded with grapeshot and case!”

“Run out!” I yelled. My friend Arthur yelled out the same. I bent down next to the nearest gun-crew and helped them to run out their gun. The Dauntless was a 5th Rate Ship-of-the-Line with forty-four guns: Twenty 18-pounders, twenty 12-pounders, four 6-pounder chase-guns as well as eight 18-pounder carronades, not counted in the ship’s armaments.

The view of the sea from the open gunport was small, and running the cannon-muzzle out through the gunport was hard work. Even with the help of the ship rolling in the swell, it still took the entire five-man gun-crew to push out the piece on its gun-carriage or pull it out using ropes and pulleys. Then, the action started.
Nothing could possibly describe over twenty cannons firing in quick succession, one after the other, after the other, after the other! As each order of “Fire!” was given, the gun-captain pulled on the lanyard that operated the gunlock and the whole contraption would explode! White smoke, flames and a jet black iron cannonball would come hurtling out and off into the distance. The gun leaps back with a kick like a stubborn mule, making the gun-deck shake from the blast! Through the gunport I could see the shots smashing into the timbers of the other ship. We had now drawn alongside the enemy which was firing back at us. Heavy iron cannonballs smashed into the hull, showering splinters everywhere!

“Reload!” I shouted. I heard gun-captains yelling out orders which echoed in my ears, a confusion of incomprehensible sounds.

“Worm! Sponge! Cartridge, wad, shot, wad, ram! Prime! Run out! Level! FIRE!”

The gun-decks were filled with choking, blinding smoke enough to make one double over in coughing and sound enough to make one deaf to all things around him. The steady ‘thud!’ of the guns firing, the whistling and droning of shot and the inevitable shattering and splintering of wood and the screams of the maimed, wounded and the fading groans of the freshly deceased filled the air. Through the smoke and blood and splintered wood, youths of fourteen, twelve, ten and even younger, were jogging back and forth in a relay race of death. Slung over their shoulders were cylindrical kegs. These unfortunate lads were the powder-monkeys . A sudden cannon-blast hit the side of the ship! One of the boys was thrown back against a support-beam! He screamed and fell to the ground. I snatched up his empty keg and jogged through the ship.

“Mr. Collins! Mr Barkley keep them spitting! You boys, get a move on! Sharpish, now!”

I sprinted through the ship, sliding down the staircases and ladders until I reached a large, copper-lined room: The Magazine. There, the Ship’s Gunner helped me fill the powder-keg with cartridges before sending me back up to the guns. From there, I headed up on deck to witness the full fury of the action.

The deck was a mess of wood, smoke and bodies. The carronades and chase-guns were firing on the enemy ship while the captain screamed out orders. After taking in sail so that we’d fall behind the enemy, the captain had ordered all sails set and the ship turned hard a’larboard. This swung our ship left, so that it passed by the stern of the enemy ship.

“Mr Shears! Run out the starboard battery!” the captain yelled. We ducked as something whistled past our ears and wrapped itself around a mast! I reached up and untangled a length of chain-shot and held it up to the captain .
“Bloody frogs can’t shoot worth a damn!” he shouted over the roar of cannons. I laughed.
“Take that below and have one of the lads send it back to them proper-like!” he ordered. I passed the chain-shot below with orders to fire it back before helping one of the ship’s boys to carry a wounded man below.

The surgeon’s quarters were below, aft, a room below the captain’s cabin. The windows were opened and Dr. Foster and his Mate were working double-time to attend the injured, which was everything from cuts and scrapes hastily washed and bandaged, to amputations requiring the use of the tourniquet, rum, laudanum, the flesh-knife and the bone-hacksaw.

“Another one, doctor!” I called out, helping the man into the room and sitting him on a bench. The ship rocked from another cannon-blast! But it wasn’t that which was preventing the doctor from paying attention to me. The blood drenching the floor was getting intolerable. The doctor’s loblolly-boy was scooping out handfuls of sand from a sack and throwing it onto the floor to try and soak it up, but wasn’t having an amazing amount of luck. I left them to their work and headed upstairs.

“What’s happening?” I shouted to the third lieutenant.
“Raking fire!” he shouted, “Give us a hand!”
Raking fire was always Captain Peale’s favoured method of attack. Indeed it was probably every captain’s favourite method, given the opportunity. And at the moment, the opportunity was golden.
“Fire as you bear!” I shouted to the men. “With a will, lads! Come on!”
Cannons were run out on their carriages and one by one, the lanyards were pulled and the guns fired!
“Off with the rudder, now!” Arthur shouted, “Gun-captains! On the down-roll…FIRE!”

There was a sickening blast! Shot smashed into the lower hull of the enemy ship, disabling its steering.
“Reload!” I shouted, “On the up-roll boys!…Steady…On the up-roll, FIRE!”

The ship groaned! Cannon-shot smashed into the stern of the French ship, ripping it to pieces! Just then, Fourth Lieutenant Shears ran up to me.

“Captain wants you on deck! Mr. Barkley, you’re to be here and command the guns, Mr. Collins also! Mr. Colton, cap’n wants men to lead boarding-parties!”

Up on deck, we prepared to board. I selected a brace of pistols and muskets and touched my hand to my side to ensure the security of my sabre. Again, it became a muddle of orders shouted out and begging to be heard, like drowning sailors in a sea of words.
“Boarders to me!”
“Reload! Case-shot!”
“Marines! Fix bayonets!”
“Ready…level…FIRE!”
“Grappling-hooks away! Bring forth boarding-planks! Handsomely, now! Make sure they’re secured!”

We charged across from our ship to the enemy’s. It was almost impossible to see anything. The smoke from the gunfire was as thick as a winter fog in London. Some of us swung over on grappling-hooks while others ran across the boarding-planks, jumping onto the quarterdeck of the enemy ship. I fired both my pistols scoring direct hits before shrugging my musket off my shoulder. Shoot, stab, swing, club! Move on! Sword, swing, stab, left, right! I am given a stark reminder of how hard it is to actually pierce the human torso, said task requiring quite an expenditure of strength on my part with the use of my bayonet. Behind me, I hear the captain charging forward with his men. I turned around for an instant and noticed two carronades on our ship firing caseshot onto the enemy quarterdeck to try and scatter and kill them. Two loud explosions nearby told me that Captain Peale was deploying his weapon of choice: a double-barrelled blunderbuss, a monster that was originally a coach-gun but which had been modified with a spring-loaded bayonet at the front for better use in close-quarters combat . Something black whistled over my head and hit the deck! The grenade rolled along the planking and clattered and bounced down the steps into the inside of the ship. It was followed by a loud blast and screams that alerted all around that it had hit its target!

“Jack! Lieutenant Colton! Take your men below and spike the guns!” the captain shouted as he held off two men with his sword. A dozen men and myself headed below. Spiking of the guns was not immediately necessary; the devastation wreaked by twenty cannons raking the enemy’s stern had already put most of the French guns wholly out of action. The few guns that needed spiking were already spiked by the French to stop us using them. We fought our way through the interior of the ship and then back up onto the quarterdeck where we were once again exposed to the full extent of the battle, with the crews of two ships fighting in a confined space. Men were thrown overboard, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned or slashed as British forces swept through the ship. Supporting fire from our still-active cannons soon gave us the upper hand. By degrees, we managed to corner the French until Christopher managed to get the enemy captain in front of him.
“Your name, Monsieur?” Captain Peale asked.
“Capitan Jacques Petard,” said the French captain. He was significantly older, probably in his fifties, with greying hair and scars from previous battles displayed like medals on his face.
“And do you surrender both your ship and your men to me?”
“Oui, monsieur capitan, and to whom do I have the honour of surrendering my ship?”
“Christopher Peale, Royal Navy, captain of His Majesty’s Ship Dauntless”.

Captain Petard unsheathed his sabre, and held it delicately between his fingers, handing it to Captain Peale, who sheathed it in his empty scabbard.

“Strike your colours,” Captain Peale said, “You and your men will be confined below decks until such time as we have made landfall. Lieutenant Shears, assemble some men to serve as a skeleton crew aboard ship, and half the full complement of marines to maintain order. Let us gather stock of these events and then proceed to repairs”.

The remaining French sailors were then confined to the lower decks of their ship, where marines were posted to guard them. Repairs were started almost immediately, by clearing and cleaning the decks and burying the bodies of sailors from both sides at sea. Each body was sewn up in its own hammock with a cannonball around its ankles to make it sink. The recovering wounded rested in the ship’s infirmary the ship’s carpenter proceeded to sound the vessel to check for damage.
“What orders, sir?” I asked as I directed the men in the repair of the ships.
“Once we’re underway, we’ll set a course East-Northeast”.
“East-Northeast…that would have us sailing to England, sir…”
“It would indeed, Jack. We’re going home. Alert Mr. Jones, will you?”
“Aye sir”.
By the next morning, with most important elements of the ship repaired, we set a course East-Northeast and sailed for home, with our captured prize no more than three ship-lengths behind us at any point during the journey.
“All in all, a very successful action,” Christopher said to myself and the other officers as we gathered in his cabin for our first proper dinner since we set our course for home.
“Indeed sir,” said Lieutenant Collins, brushing back his own blond hair and reaching for a brandy, “A most successful action indeed”.
“And what’s the butcher’s bill?” I asked.
“Fifteen dead, twenty wounded, five of them seriously so”.
“Define serious,” Captain Peale said.
“Two amputations, one concussion, two musket-ball wounds. I’ve removed the musket-balls but those two will have to be rested for a long time before they’re well enough to resume duties again, sir”.

Christopher sighed, “War’s a damnably messy thing, gentlemen. A hellish thing. But the action is done, so let us think of home and to our ships at sea”.

One by one, we raised our glasses and clinked them together.

“To our ships at sea” .

The End

 

The Hospital – A Short Story

The Hospital

By Shahan Cheong

Manhattan, 1918.

“I’m sorry Dr. Harrison…he didn’t make it,” said the nurse.

Doctor Harrison nodded. He lit up a Camel and followed the nurse down the corridor, the grey wisps of cigarette-smoke trailing behind him.
“Where is he?” the doctor asked.
“In the mortuary…they moved him already…”
“That quick, huh…okay.”
Doctor and nurse headed down to the mortuary, taking the stairs because the lifts were too congested.
“Here he is,” she said. She pulled the man out and the doctor examined the corpse.
The corpse lying on the tray was once a man; six feet tall with brown hair, green eyes and a good physique. When age was important, he was thirty-six.
“How many does that make?” the doctor asked.
“I don’t want to know,” said the nurse.
“You don’t want to, or you just don’t?”
“Both, I suppose.”
“Hmmm…”

The body was cold. Very cold. It had been on ice, literally, for the last hour and a half. His skin was white and slightly blue-tinged. His hair was a sort of light brown now, not the dark chocolaty brown it once was. Harrison looked at the long black scar running from the man’s collarbone, down his chest to his belly-button. The scar was made of black thread, and the opening which the thread tried to hold shut had revealed to the other doctors what they all knew; that the man had been another victim of the dreaded Spanish Flu. The lungs underneath would be spongy and pus-filled. Filled with pus, with blood, with mucus. If one were to take a scalpel and slice it open, one would be overcome by the stench. This man had quite literally drowned in his own fluids.

*

“You’re not staying late AGAIN, are you?”
“Yes, I’m staying late again,” said Harrison into the phone.
“But you PROMISED! And it’s little Tony’s birthday!”
“Tell him I’ll see him later.”
“Now come on!”
“Mary I said I can’t come home! You knew I was like this when you married me. I’m a doctor, I have to go out at all kinds of hours and I have to work late!”
“But!…”

Harrison groaned. He put the earpiece back on the hook and pushed his phone away from him. This was the last thing he needed; more evidence that his marriage was going to fall apart. Of course he loved Mary, if he didn’t love her, he would never have married her, but lately things were just going downhill. The outbreak of flu had ripped his marriage apart. Spending night after night, week after week at the hospital was distancing him from his wife. He tried to show her that he loved her by doing the usual stuff; buying flowers, trying to spend evenings alone with her, trying to convince her that he wasn’t just hiding out at the hospital, but nothing worked. The last thing he needed was a divorce, with little Anthony only eight years old. Tony would tell anyone who’d listen, about how many times in the past four months that his father and mother had been fighting. It depressed everyone, and that was the last thing that a little boy had to concern himself with.

“Honey…” Mary said, “why are you doing this?”
“Relax,” Harrison said, “you were the one who was complaining I wasn’t spending any time with you…”
“But not like this, Albert!”
“Can you think of something better?”
“Well…”
“I rest my case.”

Little Tony wandered around the hospital restaurant. The kitchens were at one end, and a large pair of double-doors was at the other. In between was a jungle of tables and chairs and legs. The nurses watched as the boy wandered around, saying “hi” to the nurses and the orderlies and the other doctors. He could hear all kinds of noises; typewriters, test-tubes, sizzling and clanking from the kitchen, the squeaking of gurney-wheels from the hallway outside, the tinkling of piano-keys from the hospital restaurant as someone tried meagrely to enliven the gloomy atmosphere with music.

“Listen, this is the best I can do, okay?” Harrison hissed, “I can’t leave here and come home every night, and you know it. Now the best you can do is to try and…”
“But there are other doctors in this hospital, why can’t you work in shifts?” Mary asked.
“We do, and I got stuck on the ten-to-ten shift. I can’t help that! Besides, I’m home during the morning…”
“Barely. You wake up, you get dressed, shave, wash, have breakfast and then catch the El to work.”

Harrison sighed. This was obviously not going to work. Mary got up and took Tony by the hand.
“Come on, Tony…” she said, and led him out of the hospital.
“Is daddy okay?” he asked.
“Is anybody these days okay?” she asked, “I don’t know, Tony…I really don’t know.”

*

Dr. Harrison coughed. It’d two weeks since he’d had that disastrous conversation with Mary in the hospital restaurant, and things were only getting worse. He shivered and coughed again. The hospital was overrun by walking corpses, with nurses and doctors running after them. Soon, he would join the ranks of the living-dead, but he had no desire to leave this world coughing his lungs out. He had the flu, and he knew it. He’d had it for the last three days, and had been staying in the hospital during the night because of it. He wasn’t going to go home and endanger his family. He coughed again and his body’s gag-reflex kicked into action. Shoving away his chair, he ran to the sink and vomited violently. A sort of slimy liquid hit the white porcelain. It was off-white with specks of red. It didn’t trickle away. It sort of slithered into the hole in the middle of the sink, like a blob of misshapen jelly with grease on it’s underside. Harrison grimaced and returned to his desk. He picked up his pen and dipped it into the ink-well, finishing off what he was doing on his desk. He folded the sheet of paper and stuffed it into a drawer in his desk. The person whom it was addressed to would come along eventually and find it and read it. The last anyone heard of Dr. Harrison was a clatter, a slither of rope and a loud creaking noise…

Manhattan, 1940.

“But sir…”
“I’m sorry, Harrison, but that’s it.”
“Yes sir.”
“Listen…I know you don’t like going there, but that’s the only place I can put you right now…now go on…”
“Yes sir.”

Patrolman Tony Harrison left the precinct and headed out into the streets of Manhattan. Couples, singles and families bustled by him on the pavement, and cars growled past in the street, churning up water and splashing it up onto the sidewalk. Tony shivered and rubbed his hands together. He turned the corner, stopped, and looked around.

So this was his beat.

From six o’clock to eight o’clock pm, until such time as another beat was assigned to him, Harrison seemed doomed to walk the streets of the Upper East Side, looking for crime. At least he was in a good neighbourhood; filled with rich people and fancy shops and big-name buildings. He strolled up 5th Avenue, spinning his nightstick around in his hands. Sure, it was a richer part of town…but that only meant that there was more stuff to pinch. Tony knew from experience that pinchability did not decline just because a cop was on his beat…it just meant it happened the moment the officer had reached the end of the street and had turned the corner, by which time, a man’s shout, a woman’s scream, a gunshot or screeching tyres, would either be unheard, or heard too late for the officer to render any assistance. Tony shivered and pulled his collar up over his neck, until the stiffened edges were brushing his cheeks. His boots clunked quietly on the pavement as he kept walking. A woosh of steam from a vent in the road obscured the lights of shopfronts and streetlamps and Tony walked into it, allowing the mist to swallow him up.

Suddenly, two gunshots, a woman’s scream, the screeching of car-tyres! Wait; there’s no shouting man…Oh never mind. Tony twisted around and saw two men rush out of a shop, one of them was holding a bag. They both dived into a car and took off. A warbling, shrill “Chrrreeeeeep!” of a police-whistle floated dismally through the noisy street, drowned out by car-horns and shouting people. Another cop was running after the car. Tony pulled out his gun and fired, going for the tires. He missed, and the car ran a red light.
“Oh to hell with it!” he grumbled. Holstering his gun, he ran as fast as he could. The car skidded and crashed into a streetlamp. The two men jumped out and ran for the doors of a towering old Victorian-style building, made of a sort of light-grey stone. They kicked down the doors and rushed inside.

“Hey Tony! Come on!” the other cop shouted. Tony rushed after him, past the smashed up Ford and up the steps. On the last step, Tony tripped and fell flat on his face…

*

…He was eight years old again. The room was bright and white and airy. Ladies wearing funny white costumes and men wearing strange white suits walked back and forth, in and out. Beds on wheels were shoved from door to door and through long, never-ending corridors. A strange noise could be heard outside and the men and women in white started scurrying like ants. Tony got up and turned around. The street was filled with people walking, horses and carts, hansom cabs, Model-T Fords and curious vans which let out a curious wailing noise. Tony turned around again and blinked…

*

“What the hell is wrong with me?” he grumbled. The room was dark. Behind him, the doors had swung shut again. He got up and started walking around. He pulled out his flashlight and turned it on.
“Tony!”
Tony stopped and looked around.
“Tony! There you are, come on, I think they went this way,” said the other cop.
“Jesus Mike, where’d you get to?” Tony asked.
“I ran ahead, then I saw you weren’t behind me. They have to be here somewhere.”

Together, the two men kept walking, their shoes making soft thudding noises on the dusty old linoleum flooring. Suddenly…a clatter, a quickly stifled profanity and Tony and Mike shrank back, turning off their light.

A door to their left burst open and two men rushed out, firing blindly to their right. Tony and Mike threw themselves against the walls and then took off after them. Michael fired up the stairwell. The gunshots and the ‘ping’ of spent slugs bounced off the walls and clattered down the stairs with a soft ‘drrrrrr…plink!’
“Shit!” he groaned, “come on…they can’t get far. This place doesn’t have any working elevators.”

Together, the two brave upholders of the law made their way up the stairs. The two-man stampede that had gone before them had kicked up a whole heap of dust, which now hung in the air like cigar-smoke. Tony sneezed…

*

“Daddy?”

Everything looked so much bigger. When you’re barely five feet tall, things get like that. Tony looked around and his mouth dropped open. Those men and women in white were back again! And those strange beds on wheels lined the sides of the corridor. A body lay on each one of these moveable beds, evidenced by flapping gowns or the odd listless limb dangling over the side. The smell was strong and sort of musty. Not the dusty sort of smell…but the sort of stale, and yet fresh smell…of antiseptic sprays. Here and there, women and men dressed in…clothes…were standing over the beds, crying, holding onto handkerchiefs, hands, or the frame of a door, to stop themselves from falling over. Tony shuddered. The stench of death hung in the air like bubbles did over the bathtub. It lingered, it floated, it came and went. When it was gone, you could smell the refreshing, sweet smell of scented soap and bath-oils. When death was gone, you could smell the stench of rotting that it had left behind.
“Tony?”
“Daddy…” Tony said. He looked around. He saw another man, this one was wearing a dark suit. He was looking around.
“Tony…are you alright?”

*

“Huh?”
“You look a little queasy…are you allergic to dust or something?” Michael asked.
“No no…I’m fine…” Tony sneezed loudly.
“So where are those guys?” Tony asked.
“I dunno, they’re running everywhere, now come on, we need to stick together, this place is huge and I don’t want to get lost.”

Together, the two officers scanned the first floor. Nothing. Footprints in the dust told them where the men had gone, though. Slowly, the progressed further up.

‘Click’.

“Oh fuck!” Michael screamed. He ducked and the bullet missed him by inches! He reached around the corner of the corridor and grabbed the man by the hand. Together, criminal and cop wrestled for the gun. Tony pulled out his revolver and aimed it. He fired and missed. Michael grunted and shoved the crook against the wall. He unclipped his handcuffs from around his belt and was about to lock the man up when he jabbed his elbow into Michael’s stomach, he reeled back. The crook twisted around and raised his gun but Tony beat him to it. He emptied the remaining three bullets into the man’s chest and watched as he collapsed to the ground. The sound of the man’s automatic pistol clattering on the ground reverberated off the walls.
“You alright?” Tony asked. Michael nodded. He picked up his handcuffs and put them back on his belt.
“What a mess…” said Michael.
“Don’t worry,” said Tony, “the proper place for him is downstairs. It won’t be hard to get him there.”
“There’s only…”
“Two more floors,” Tony said. “The other guy has to be on one of them.”
“Okay…You lead the way.”
“With no ammo, are you crazy? You go first!”
“Fine…give me the light.”

Handing Michael the torch, the two men headed upstairs again. Tony rolled the cylinder of his service-revolver out, picked out the empty cartridges and tossed them into an old fire-bucket. He reloaded the gun and put it back into it’s holster.

A muffled clicking noise fell upon Tony’s ears. He put his finger to his lips and pointed to a trail of footprints. Michael nodded. Tony followed the trail. They turned right, off the corridor, and through a pair of double-doors. Tony stepped in and looked around.
He gasped and struggled. The second crim had been hiding behind the door and had wrapped an old blind-cord around Tony’s throat. Tony smashed his gun-butt into the man’s face about three of four times. His attacker howled in pain and Tony and Michael tackled the man to the ground and handcuffed him. Michael opened the bag. Five-hundred dollars in cash and a small selection of jewellery; what a haul. Michael snapped the bag shut and led the man downstairs.
“Aren’t you coming, Tony?” Michael asked.
“Later…” Tony said. Michael took the man downstairs.

Tony rubbed his neck. It was like having a sore-throat all over the outside of your neck, instead of inside it. After rolling his head around a bit to loosen up his muscles, Tony walked slowly around the room. He stopped a rectangular shaped object, covered in a white cloth. Tony felt it, and tapped it. He pulled the cloth off, and sat down.
The piano hadn’t been moved in nearly thirty years. Tony opened the lid and looked at it. Glistening ivory keys looked up at him. The untarnished name of the maker was still visible on the lid – ‘Steinway & Sons’.

Tony sighed. He needed to relax after all that running and punching and shooting. He started to play.
The music was beautiful, but the instrument making it…well that was another story. The piano sounded out-of-tune, with crisp, metallic-sounding notes, which warbled and echoed and wavered in and out of tune. Bouncing hammers made strings vibrate for longer, or shorter than they were supposed to, but to Tony, it sounded wonderful.

“I didn’t know you could play the piano,” said Michael.
“That’s because you never visit my house,” Tony said. He stopped, closed the lid and then got up. “My mother sold our piano last week, though. Old grand piano, no room in the house for it.”
“Yeah…” said Michael. “Tony, are you alright? You’ve been acting really weirdly since we came in here.”

Tony sighed.
“This place used to be a hospital,” he said. “My dad used to work here when I was a kid…and he…did away with himself here…”
“Oh,” said Michael, now wishing he hadn’t asked.
“No, it’s alright…” Tony said. “He hung himself. We don’t know why. I think it was because his marriage to my mother fell apart. They had a great marriage, loved each other a lot…but when the flu came, their relationship went. And things just spiralled downhill…My mother still thinks that my dad killed himself because she wasn’t being understanding of him. She still thinks that perhaps if she’d seen it from her husband’s point of view and backed off, then he might still be alive.”

Michael nodded. “sounds…weird.”
“Yeah…” said Tony. The two men found themselves walking around the hospital. They reached the end of the corridor and they headed upstairs. Tony walked to the end of a corridor and opened a door.

*

“Daddy!”
Tony cried. The corpse hung from the pipe running through the ceiling of the office. The policemen hurried Tony and his mother away. The officers went inside and closed the door. They had to cut the body down.

*

Tony leaned against the doorframe.
“They didn’t find anything. They didn’t find a note, he didn’t tell anyone. My mother still thinks that she drove him to suicide. I think it was because I was so young. She wanted him around for my sake…but he just couldn’t do it, and all the stress drove him nuts.”
Michael sighed. “Come on…”

Tony stepped into the office. The furniture was still there.

“They locked this place up after the flu pandemic was over. They left everything where it was. A doctor killing himself in his own office at the hospital isn’t really good publicity.” Tony said. He chuckled. “His desk is still here.”

Tony opened the drawers and continued talking.

“They cleared out all the people…all the stuff they needed, all the papers…and just left the furniture.”
“Why hasn’t this place been pulled down?” Michael asked.
“It’s protected.” Tony said, “It’s a historical building. So they just left all the furniture here.”

Tony reached into the drawers of the desk, as if he was supposed to find some sort of treasure.

“Tony?” Michael asked. Tony held a piece of yellowed notepaper in his hand. Slowly, he unfolded it. Written in a shaky hand, with an old nib-pen, was a note.

“Saturday, 15th of October, 1918.

I leave this where someone might chance to find it someday, and read it.

The toll is too much. I am both mentally and physically exhausted, after just a few months. Bodies stack up like firewood and there are not enough crematoriums to burn them all. For weeks I have tried to heal the sick, bury the dead and distance the healthy from those that are sick. This disease is incurable and I have myself succumbed to it. Coughing up pus and blood and having extreme difficulty breathing, I have decided to end my life now, quickly and in relatively less pain, than those whom I tried to save.

Dr. Albert Harrison. MD. Bach. Med. Bach. Surg.

I have, and always will love my darling wife, Mary, who wished to have me away from this place of death. Remember me always, and hope that our son will not follow in my footsteps, down the path that he has wanted to walk ever since he could get on two feet and not fall over again. Take care and remember that your father loved you. Goodbye Anthony.”

Tony shuddered.
“What’s the matter?” Michael asked.
“Nothing…let’s get out of here.”

Tony folded the message into his wallet and the two friends left. Tony was given the opportunity to patrol another beat after that, but decided not to change. He didn’t have to be afraid of the building where his dad had killed himself. He didn’t have to worry about him or his mother thinking that through their own actions, or in Tony’s case, through his very existence, they had caused Dr. Albert Harrison to kick the chair and take his own life.

*

“So that’s it?” Mary asked.
Tony nodded, “that was it, ma,” he said. Mary sighed. “Thank God for that…” she said. The old woman got up and opened a cabinet. She pulled out an empty picture-frame, framed the note, and then put it on the mantelpiece, to stand as a constant reminder that she needn’t feel guilty anymore.

 

The Front – A Short Story

The Front

By Shahan Cheong

Bertie staggered through the mud of the communication-trench, trying not to trip over the dead bodies, scraps of wood and metal and the occasional loose duckboard. It was getting dark quickly now, and Bertie didn’t fancy being caught outside in the middle of the night. He felt his way through the mazes of trenches rather than saw, since he had only the light of the rapidly setting sun to guide him, with no lamps or fires being allowed out in the trenches after dark. He reached a T-intersection in the trenches. To his left, he heard some men softly singing some sort of anti-German propaganda-song and some muffled laughter. He turned right and kept going, his boots clunking on the sodden duckboards beneath him.

“Bertie!” a voice called out, “I say Bertie! Is that you?”

The young soldier stopped and carefully looked around. He could see, in the dim light, sheets of canvas hanging over the openings into dugouts, but he wasn’t sure from behind which canvas the voice which had spoken his name, had called from.

“Hello?” he whispered. Then he saw a pair of eyes peeping out from the small space between a dugout opening and the canvas that hung over it. The eyes saw a man about five feet, seven inches tall, with a steel helmet on top and wearing the brown, khaki uniform of the British Army. The eyes saw that he was young, in his early twenties, with brown hair and a thin, long face with eyes that darted around, trying to locate the voice which had spoken to it.

“Bertie!” the voice hissed again. Bertie looked to his left and saw the canvas cover of the dugout move a bit. Bertie crept forward.
“Is that you, Rollo?” Bertie asked. Bertram Small, twenty-three, crept towards the canvas covering which hung over the dugout and pushed it aside. It was Rollo.

Rollo was Bertie’s partner, his trench-buddy, his friend. They’d been friends ever since school, and when the war started, both of them had enlisted in the army to go off to the trenches and fight. Rollo’s real name was Harold Greene. He was a bit taller than Bertie, with lighter hair and paler skin. Rollo reached out and tugged Bertie into the dugout, and then let the canvas drop back again, to block out the light of the oil-lamp standing on a folding table at the back of their dugout. Bertie groaned and crawled into bed.
“Got the time, Bertie?” Rollo asked.
“Nine thirty,” said Bertie, handing his friend his pocket-watch.
“Thanks! My watch stopped…There we are!” he said, winding up his watch and resetting the time. “Well…goodnight old chap! Big day tomorrow!”

Bertie yawned. Don’t remind me, he thought. Don’t remind me!

The next day dawned cold and frosty. Bertie and Rollo shivered in their rickety camp-beds. Bertie yawned and rolled over.

Squeak!

‘Squeak?’ Bertie thought. ‘Squeak’ what?
Then he saw the rat.

“Blast it!” he groaned. He reached out and grabbed the rodent by the tail before it could run away. He crawled out of bed and tugged back the canvas covering and threw the rat out into the muck of No Man’s Land before coming back inside. Bertie sat down on his bed, changed his socks, which he had to do at least twice a day, to fight off the dreaded ‘Trench Foot’, and put on his other pair of boots (he had two pairs of boots. If one pair was soaked and unusable, he could switch to the other pair and use those until the original had dried out again). He got up and dressed. He didn’t dress much, as he went to sleep in his uniform, but he put on his jacket, did up his watch and chain, wrapped a scarf around his neck and reached for his rifle. Rollo yawned and started dressing, too.

Washing was impossible in the trenches. While there was no shortage of water, little of it was fit to drink and even less fit for washing, so most men just woke up, dressed, ate breakfast and started shooting. Breakfast was hard-tack, porridge, sausages and bread; nothing particularly tasty, but at least filling.

“Right lads,” said the colonel, as the boys ate in the trenches, sitting on old crates or on fire-steps, “Today’s an all-out assault. We’ve had good luck so far, but today, we’re going to use that luck to actually do something! Here’s the order of attack: We’ll open with a quick artillery barrage. You men will get in position on the front line. Remember to spread out, so you don’t make such a big target, crossing No Man’s Land. Stick to small groups of two and three. The tanks go out first. When I give the signal, you chaps move out and stick behind the tanks. Those tanks are your moving shield! You don’t stick a finger out from behind them unless you have to! You shoot diagonally away from the tanks, instead of straight ahead, that way, you’re still covered. As you make your way across, airplanes will be overhead. Their job is to provide you cover from the air. Don’t run ahead of the tanks, if you do, you’ll be hit by friendly fire. Once the first wave of planes has done its work, you boys can go ahead. But move slowly and make good use of cover”.

The colonel tugged out his pocket-watch to check the time.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” he said, “up to the front, now! Pick your partner and make sure you can get over the parapet easily. I want three ranks in each trench, ready to move out!”

“Come on, Rollo,” said Bertie, and the two friends headed through the trenches along with everyone else. They lined up in front of the fire-step with their fellow soldiers and then heard more soldiers gather up behind them in another two rows.

Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!

They could hear the far-off, muffled reports of British artillery guns opening fire and every few seconds, the corresponding blast of a shell hitting the ground somewhere far away in the direction of the enemy lines. A new sound could be heard now, the sound of constant, mechanical movement; a steady, rumbling, clattering sound. Tanks started rumbling forward. Not two or three, but entire rows of them, maybe ten or a dozen at a time! Large tanks for firepower, and smaller tanks for better mobility.
The colonel blew his whistle. Bertie took a deep breath and then scrambled over the top.

What lay before him was No Man’s Land. Hundreds of square yards, square miles, even, of hell on earth. All he could see was a mess of tree-stumps, shell-craters, broken rifles, dead bodies, deceptively deep rain-puddles, blood, mud, rocks, rats and the shattered remains of other, earlier, failed attacks, from both sides. Here and there lay the wreckage of the occasional downed aircraft, its wings snapped off until the fuselage looked like little more than a coffin on wheels with a propeller attached to it. The morning sun shone weakly through the clouds; smoke from the artillery barrage obscured the sight. In the distance, Bertie could see the barbed wire of the German lines, which looked rolls of grey cotton-wool with the smoke-haze from the artillery-barrage still swirling around it.

Rollo tapped Bertie on the shoulder, “Come on, Bert!” he said, “We need to keep moving! Over here!”

The two men joined about four others and hid behind one of the tanks, firing out from behind them at an angle so that they would present less of a target to the enemy. Inside the tank, it was deafeningly loud. The tank-crew fired their belt-fed machine-guns and fired off tank-rounds at the enemy wire, trying to blast holes in the German defences. The sound of whistles being blown alerted Bertie to the fact that the Germans had decided not to sit in their trenches and wait for death to find them. They poured over the tops and went running and jumping from crater to crater across the mire of No Man’s Land.

Banding together, the men behind the tanks fired at their enemies, their rifles making sharp, loud reports which stood out in amazing contrast to the constant, chunnering and metallic rattling of the machine-guns. Crack! Crack, crack, crack! The sporadic rifle-fire split the air like snapping branches.

The tanks kept advancing, trying to pick their way through the shell-blasted ground on which they drove, twisting and turning around craters which yawned open to greet them. It was like driving through a minefield, except without the possibility of the bottom of the tank being blown out, just having the entire thing hopelessly bogged in the mud.

The collective stenches of gunpowder, smoke, exhaust-fumes and burning petrol hung in the air like invisible feathers, floating down to earth, floating down to hover annoyingly, like bees, at the same level as soldiers’ noses. Bertie hacked and coughed and tried to clear his throat and get the smell of burning out of his nostrils. He kept firing! Crack! Crack! Two more soldiers of the German army to be replaced.

Crack! Whing!

Bertie’s hand flew up to his helmet and felt around. Nothing. The bullet had ricocheted off into…only God knew where. This was getting too bloody warm, Bertie thought. Apparently Rollo thought the same, because he tugged on Bertie’s sleeve.

“Down here!” Rollo shouted through the ceaseless gunfire and the occasional deafening, ground-shaking blast from artillery cannons, from far behind the front lines, “We’ll be smaller targets!”

Bertie and Rollo jumped into a crater. Then they heard the loud, discordant ‘chreeeeep!’ of the colonel’s whistle. For half a second, they dared to look behind them, and both boys saw dozens, maybe hundreds more soldiers wearing the brown uniform of the British Army, marching and picking and stumbling their way through the muck towards them. Bringing up the rear was the C.O. He jumped carefully from shell-hole to shell-hole as if he was playing some weird game of wartime hopscotch.

‘Clunk!’

Somewhere behind the German lines, an artillery-gun fired off its round. Bertie looked up and saw the long, black, phallic shape of the artillery round speeding towards them! Bertie let out a yelp of terror and the two men stumbled, tumbled and tripped over each other in their haste to escape the rapidly descending bringer of certain doom.

WHAM!

The shell slammed into the ground and Bertie felt himself being blasted off his feet! He heard the shrill chirrup of a whistle and gruff, German voices. He heard the words:

“Schnell!” and “schiessen!” and Bertie rolled quickly into another hole, only just in time! A second later, he heard the steady, metallic clattering of a machine-gun close at hand.
“Bloody hell!” Rollo said. He tugged something out of his pocket, a grenade. He tugged out the pin and counted. One, two, three…

He lobbed the grenade through the air and covered his ears, waiting for the blast. It came almost instantly! Screams could be heard and Rollo started throwing more grenades towards the German trenches. A few more men dived into the shell-hole and started throwing their own grenades at the enemy. One or two might miss, but it was impossible for so many men, in the crowded space of a front-line trench, to escape a hail of six or more grenades coming down at once!

A high pitched whistle could be heard overhead and the group of men covered their ears. Bertie could hear the rumbling of a tank over the shriek of the falling shell, a deafening explosion…and then the reassuring, almost comforting sound of a tank’s engine, was no more. He peeped over the crater and swore!

The artillery shell had scored a direct hit on the tank and had blasted it open like the top of a sardine can! Shards of useless metal lay everywhere and smoke billowed out of the shattered machine. A door opened and a couple of surviving men staggered out, coughing violently. Bertie could smell burning petrol and within minutes, the tank was on fire!

“Blast!” Rollo said, “Bertie let’s get the hell out of here!”
“But…”
“Do you REALLY want to be around once that fire reaches the ammunition?”
“Point taken,” Bertie said, “Come on chaps!”
Harold and Bertram jumped out of the shell-hole with about four or five other men behind them. They realised their earlier grenade attack had produced the unintended bonus of knocking a machine-gun nest out of commission. Airplanes up above had bombed the barbed wire, which had also been blasted apart by tank-cannons and friendly artillery fire. With reinforcements coming in from the rear, the men picked a likely spot in the wire and pushed through.

Enemy soldiers in the front-line trenches surged out and Bertie and his friends retreated, forming ranks and firing instinctively. The men pushed forward, with other soldiers throwing grenades over their fellow Tommies heads, to give them a better chance once they were in the trenches.

“You boys, over here!” Bertie could hear the colonel shouting, “Through here, quick! Move fast, forget your rifles! Shotguns! Where are you chaps? Perkins, get into that nest and stay there, blast anything you can find to shoot at!”

Bertie and Rollo found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers. Bertie had discarded his rifle, which was useless in such an event, anyway, and had resorted to using his combat-knife instead, swinging and stabbing. He thought about how much he wished he had a sword right about now. A sword provided the sharpness necessary to finish off the Boche, but also a reassuring distance from your target to lessen the chances of counterattacks.

With a final grunt, Bertie downed his attacker and he joined his fellows who were now pouring into the trenches! Up above, allied aircraft with the RFC roundels on their wings strafed and bombed everything that moved which wasn’t dressed in a British uniform.

Fighting in the trenches was tricky at best. The soldiers were reduced to side-arms, daggers and trench-knives. More soldiers with shotguns ran along the tops of the trenches, firing down into them, spraying the enemy with lethal blasts of buckshot. Suddenly, Bertie felt something hot and painful! He gasped as he felt something warm and sticky on his uniform and stared down. Blood, warm, red, life-giving, life-taking, terrifying-to-look-at, blood, was slowly staining his shirt a darker and darker shade of brown. He felt no pain anymore now…it seemed to be gone as quickly as it had come. Everything seemed to have gone. Everything was quiet and in slow-motion. Bertie gasped and collapsed against the side of the trench and his eyes rolled into his head…

*

“You ah’right, laddie?”

Bertie opened his eyes. Where was he? The first thing he was aware of was an intense, bright, sterile whiteness. He was in heaven. Yes…Heaven was white. It would, wouldn’t it be? Up with all those fluffy clouds and all that? Yes…heaven…

“Come on laddie! Wake up!”

Bertie coughed, yawned, blinked and opened his eyes again. A middle-aged man with a moustache was standing over him. Bertie cleared his throat.

“Where am I? Who are you!?” he asked. His voice seemed weak, quavery, completely unlike his usual steady one.

“Easy lad,” said the man. Bertie now noticed that the man, whoever he was, had a strong Scottish accent.

“My name is Dr. Francis McKenna, you’re in no danger, laddie…”

Bertie’s hearing seemed to tune out for a second. He didn’t hear what the doctor was saying. He stared about the place. Everything was white and clean. White sheets, white paint, shiny steel rails, and nurses in neat blue-grey and white uniforms. At least, he thought they were nurses. He looked back at Dr. McKenna, who was wearing a black suit. He had a thick, brown moustache and he fiddled a lot with the Double Albert watch-chain on his waistcoat.

“…and you’re being invalided back to England…” Dr. McKenna said. “Now you just relax!”

“Bertie!”

Bertie turned to see a figure in a brown uniform hobbling towards him. Harold waved and grinned. Bertie noticed he was limping and was moving around on crutches.

“Rollo!” Bertie said. “What happened to you?”
“Broke my blasted leg is what happened!” said Rollo, “Damned nuisance, those shoddy Kraut ladders are. Nearly at the top and ‘crack!’ down I go, eight feet! Hurt like Billy-O, but I’ll be alright. You just need to relax!”
“I don’t know” Bertie groaned, “where am I, Rollo? What’s happening?”

“You’re on His Majesty’s Hospital Ship, the Glenart Castle, my dear,” said a female voice. The two men turned to see a large, plump, homely woman in her forties coming towards them. She had dark brown curly hair and a double-chin.
“My name’s Susan, I’m the matron here…”
“How long have we been at sea?” Bertie asked.
“Not left port yet!” said Susan, chuckling. “Still in Cherbourg! From what I hear, young Mr. Small, you were out of it for quite a bit! That bullet must’ve given you a very nasty turn…Aaah, but you’ll patch up alright. I’ll send Millie in with somethin’ to eat! You boys settle down. Mr. Greene, you really should not be moving around on that leg of yours. It’ll only get worse if you try and do it once we’re out at sea, you know!”
“Sorry, matron,” said Rollo.
“Sit down before you fall down, and I’ll go get Millie,” said the matron.

“After we got in, you got hit by a chap behind you. He was aiming for another man but he missed and got you instead. I saw you go down like a ton of bricks!…”

Bertie looked at his friend, “What happened next? Did we win?”
“Did we ever!” said Rollo, grinning, “We did! We got that whole trench-system! I got this leg falling down a ladder when I was goin’ back to tell others what’d happened. They stretchered you out of the trench and they put us both on the same train out of that hell-hole to this place! You got treated a bit on the train, me too, they did a bit more once we reached here and that was it. They gave you so much laudanum and morphine to stop the pain you were barely conscious at all. No wonder you don’t remember nothin’. But not to worry! Another few days and we’ll be back in London! And here’s Millie with some sandwiches and tea…thank God…”

The End


HMHS Glenart Castle