Escape Hatch
Written by Brenda Clough   

Fantasy fiction is pure escapism, we are told.

This story first appeared in Paradox magazine.


Escape Hatch

Earth should be solid, but the battered earth of the Somme shuddered beneath their bellies. When he glanced over his shoulder Jack could hardly recognize Paddy. Khakis, rifle, helmet, countenance — all were like his own thick-plastered with wet grey mud. They had been lost for hours now, threading their way through the barbed-wire maze of No Man’s Land. Rising from the continuous undifferentiated thunder of artillery came the howl of a shell overhead, far too close. Spread-eagle, they burrowed like insects into the dirt. The explosion jingled their brains and sent more slime fountaining up and over them. Juddering as if with ague, Jack took rapid inventory. No: arms, legs, fingers, toes all present and ready for duty, sir. He sucked mud off his teeth and spat. Through the ringing in his ears he could hear Paddy curse. Poor little sod hadn’t copped it then.

To crawl on again called for an effort of will akin to pushing a loaded wagon up hill. Christ, would the British Army have to belly like this all the way to the Rhine? The tormented ground had once again utterly altered. Where an eye-blink ago the scene had been ‘Shell holes with bloated corpses’ it could now be titled ‘Lose your cottage in a crater.’ A slaughterhouse stench of offal and unburied flesh hung in the damp air. Thick grey mud, already unplumbable, oozed at the bottom of the fresh pit, prickled with tattered strands of barbed wire. Step into that and you’d drown — Coneyham had gone that way last week, smothered in muck, an ugly way to die. Jack set a course round the marginally more stable northern edge.

In a sane world, screaming-taut tension and complete exhaustion would be mutually exclusive states. “But this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” Jack muttered. Dimly he realized his helmet was gone in that last blast, his rifle too. “Oh God, this war will never end.”

“Wozzat?” Paddy mumbled.

“Nothing.”

“Jesus — there!” Paddy’s rifle wavered, pointing.

Jack wiped mud from his eyes and focused with difficulty. Halfway up the side of the crater something moved disgustingly in the slime, mud-coloured and mud-born. Alive or dead? Friend or foe? Jack was inclined to crawl past on the other side, leaving whatever it was to its fate. But Paddy was watching. Grudgingly he bellied to the verge, keeping his head well down. His hail rang grotesquely conventional: “Halloo, anybody there?” No reply. “Just a rat, perhaps.”

“No such luck.” Paddy took a quick glance. “God damn this mud. Wounded, maybe. A Jerry, or one of ours?”

Indeed that was the question. To take a German prisoner back through the lines, wherever they were, was impossible. Even if it was a Tommy, if he was unable to walk he’d die here — it was beyond their power to drag a wounded man back through No Man’s Land. In either case it would be more merciful to send a bullet through the fellow’s brain here and now. The blessed reflection crept dully into Jack’s mind that this issue was out of his hands, because his rifle was lost. Paddy could kill him. “Come along then! What’s the password of the week, eh?” He could not recall it himself, but any word of English would do.

“... why, why, why. Weh, o weh. I’s so silly to be flowing, but I canna stay...”

Paddy scowled. “A damned Hun.” He cocked the gun.

Jack shook his head hard, as if to clear mud out of his ears. If only the guns would stop, he could hear himself think. “Wait, Paddy. That’s a Dublin lilt if I ever heard one.”

“’s not proper English,” Paddy argued. “And what would an Ulsterman like you know about it?”

Boldly Jack levered himself up and peered over the muddy verge. “Say more, lad. What’s your name?”

Only a pair of blue eyes was visible in the mire, as Irish, Jack had to admit, as Saints Patrick and Brigid. “James, that’s my name. Christ, the face on you, equine in its length, and grained and hued like pale oak. Never saw a finer, mind you ...”

Paddy swore quietly, and Jack sagged in the mire. Another accursed burden to hump along! “Caught a Blighty, have you?” he demanded hopefully. “Lie there quietly and we’ll send the medics to fetch you in.”

“Never in life. Wasn’t born yesterday, you know. Wait for the medics and I’ll grow old here. Give us a hand then.”

Jack sighed, bowing to his fate. “Right, Jimmy lad. Let’s be brisk about it, before the next barrage.” The new man appeared to be unwounded, but the large shiny dint in his helmet showed where a piece of shrapnel had caught him a good ‘un. Any blood flow was masked by mud. Concussed probably, but it was no affair of Jack’s. They levered him out of the sticky clinging mud, dragged him slithering from the crater and lay panting all three of them face down in the mire.

“ ... saved my life,” Jimmy-lad babbled. “Have to introduce yourselves, if you saved my life.”

Christ! The last thing they needed, a compatriot who blathered under stress rather than falling silent. “For God’s love, come on.”

“He’s Jack Lewis,” Paddy said. “I’m Paddy Moore. Now, if you don’t want to get on out of this, I do, eh?”

“If you want to yap, tell us how to get out of here. We’ve been lost since sunrise.”

“Got separated from your patrol, I take it.” The new fellow raised his head a cautious few inches and eyed the hummocked wasteland. “That way.”

“If you’re wrong we’re all for it,” Paddy growled.

“A man of genius makes no mistakes.”

“Christ.” Jack would give anything, his health, friends and family, his immortal soul, to get out of this. But he could only express this yearning in the single heartfelt expletive. He wormed his way forward in the indicated direction, the other two creeping behind.

The proverb was that you never heard the shell that killed you — although when one came to think of it the proof of this proposition could not be but tenuous. This meant however that the constant boom and crash of artillery was a good thing. You could hear, you could fear, and so you were still alive. They all three heard the rising cacophony of the new bombardment. This was the worst moment, when you knew you were in for it and had to decide — run, or lie low? “I canna stay,” James was babbling. “Look, there’s our firing-trench!”

With a refuge beckoning ahead, hesitation was impossible. Rising to a crouch they ran for it, James stumbling straight ahead while Jack and Paddy made the occasional zigzag. Futile, of course — the moment they broke cover the machine guns began to speak. And behind their evil chatter rose the roar of the barrage.

Jack realized he was sobbing aloud with terror, running like the clappers as barbed wire tore at clothing and flesh. The mud seemed to cling to his boots, and he stumbled over a dead horse. He could hear the bullets sing past his ears. And he actually saw the shell drop on Paddy ten paces ahead of him, a dark plummeting object that silhouetted his scuttering form as it vanished in white fire.

Suddenly he was through, as if bursting out of a soap bubble. Up, in, and out on the other side! The blessed quiet was broken only by the chirrup of a distant bird. His cheek was pillowed on cool grass, and the sun was honey-warm on his nape. Tears of relief ran down his face.

Some tremendous vital truth was here, and he must always remember it — that it got worse and worse and worse, screwed so tight flesh and blood could bear no more, and then things suddenly eased. You went on, until you were through the tight place and sailing free.

It was so much better, so much easier, to not think about how and why rescue had come! His paradise would be complete, if only it were possible to stay in this state forever. But one could not just lie there like a lump. Jack was compelled to raise his head and, having gone that far, to look about. He blinked up at the blue sky.

“You bloody stupid git! On your pins and run like hell!”

The sky still remained blue between his one blink and the next. But hard hands seized him under the arm and dragged him up. It was all mud and barbed wire again, Paradise dashed from his lips after only one sup. Jack almost wailed in misery. Hustling him along, James yapped in his ear, “Holy Mary, we’re square now! Don’t you think I’m saving your sorry arse twice!”

The Boche machine guns in their traverse spattered earth very near, but the line of sandbags was nearer yet. They dove headlong into the trench, floundering with the corpses in the knee-deep mud at the bottom.

A weary signals lieutenant watched them with dull eyes from his perch on a fire-step. “There’s a bit of duckboard over there,” was his only greeting.

James crawled up onto it. “You wouldn’t have a fag, I take it. Me mate here — Jack, is it? — could use one.”

Jack crouched in the foul mire at the bottom of the trench and wept aloud. “I had it, and it’s gone! I was there!”

“Where, lad?”

“Not here! It was —” The only description that came to mind was from literature. “Faerie. Another place, a better place. I ran and ran, further up and further in than here. And I was there, I tell you! And oh God, I shall never come there again.” Tears mixed with grime and blood fell onto his clenched hands, and he realized he was wounded somewhere.

The lieutenant tapped the field glasses hanging round his neck. “I watched you,” he said. “Every step of the way, after you passed the last wire field. You ran nowhere, my man. The shell knocked you ass over tip — probably that was it.”

“A shell ... Christ, where’s Paddy?”

Both the others looked away. At last the lieutenant said, “Still out there — what’s left of him anyway... Look, I do have a bit of brandy.”

“That’s the ticket,” James said with synthetic optimism. “A drop, and a nice sit-down on this dry bit here, and you’ll be fit as a fiddle, eh Jack? Come on, you — what’s your name — bear a hand.”

“Tollers. Right you are.”

Some crushing burden seemed to bow Jack down, nose to knees, so that he could not move or straighten up. But the other two propped him up into a more or less sitting position between them, their backs to the wall of the trench. James tied a rag tightly over the hole in his shoulder, and the lieutenant forced brandy between his teeth. It didn’t help. The sobs continued to force their way up from deep in his chest. Abashed by his shell-shock, the other two made desultory conversation over his bent head. “He’s got it all wrong anyway,” Tollers said. “You can’t get there that way.”

“What, to Faerie? Shouldn’t think so. It’s all in his head anyway, poor bastard.”

The lieutenant persisted. “Truly, it is all in his head — the realm of the imagination. And you can get there. But not by running.”

For the first time James looked at the lieutenant. “Literary type, are you? I can hear the Oxford on your tongue. Poet, like that Sassoon fellow — I’ve some inclinations that way myself. So how do we get there then? Anywhere’s better than here.”

The lieutenant hunched one shoulder uncertainly. “I don’t know. A hidden door or gate. Some other way.”

James frowned. “If he did it, we can do it.”

Jack had got hold of himself for the moment. He clutched his shoulder, which was only just beginning to throb — a good sound Blighty, the longed-for non-fatal injury that was his ticket home. They sat in a row in such silence as the shelling allowed, all three of them pursuing visions of elsewhere.

Author’s note:

This is fiction. Although C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien fought in the Great War, they never met there. James Joyce spent the war years with his wife and children in Zurich. However, Lewis’s friend Paddy Moore was a casualty.

 
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