Boys of the Old Brigade

Boys of the Old Brigade

by The Somnambulist Society

“Where are the lads who stood with me when history was made
Oh Ghrá Mo Chroí, I long to see the boys of the old brigade.”

(Trad. Ireland 1920)

It is two o’clock in the morning, and Corporal Cartwright is having another nightmare. In the cramped little room above his shop in Kentish Town, he tosses and turns as his wife sleeps peacefully beside him. It is a chilly February night; his panicked breaths hang in the air in a silver mist, and he shivers beneath the icy bedsheets.

In his nightmare, he is back on the coast, near Kilmeena, on the furthest-west point of that boggy mound they call Ireland. He and the two lads of the Royal Irish Constabulary are there, wading through the mud and sea-mist brought in from Westport. The smell of heather and peat-fire smoke is ever-present, as it is all across this dismal little island.

They are hunting rebels, who they know are hiding out just beyond the mountains into Skerdagh. Any minute now, the crack of gunfire could erupt from the hills and cut them down like rabbits. Corporal Cartwright grips his Lee-Enfield a little tighter, his finger grazing the trigger guard.

Then, he hears it; a sound that makes him shake like a frightened animal. A keening cry, shrill and high that cuts through the mist and mud to find him. The lads of the Royal Irish are no longer there; vanished in the fog, perhaps. Corporal Cartwright feels a warm trickle of urine roll down his leg, and his teeth begin to rattle. He can barely hold his rifle upright, and breaks into a run, trailing the weapon behind him in the mud.

He cannot find his way out of this damned field; he trips, becoming caked in the foul-smelling mud that the natives burn in their squalid little dens. Try as he might, he cannot outrun the keening cry. Then comes the smell of wood-smoke, and the sound of burning all around him; of houses collapsing into embers and children screaming as they flee from the flames. Crimes he had thought forgotten.

His rifle is gone. He is alone, fallen to his knees with both hands held tight against his ears. To shut out the screaming. The sound of gunfire, the crack of grenades and the thunder of artillery. He is back in Ypres, up to his neck in shit and death. He feels the tightening snake of barbed wire around his ankles, and with each yank to free himself, he becomes more ensnared. The flash of bayonets and the whistle to advance; then out of the mist, he sees a woman; a woman with hair black as night, who looks at him with the eyes of a wild cat.

He feels teeth and the cold shock of shrapnel against his gut. Corporal Cartwright begins to scream, long and hard, until his voice will no longer permit it. In the cold attic room above his shop, Corporal Cartwright cannot escape his nightmares.

Early the next morning, his wife Beryl fixes him a cup of tea and a plate of eggs, which he shoves away in disgust. He sips his tea, and mulls over the day ahead, trying to push away all thoughts of last night. They do not speak of his night-terrors, he and his wife. Beryl knows better than to ask her husband about it. She takes away his plate and goes to rinse out her tea-cup in the kitchen sink. She hums tunelessly to herself, over the sound of the morning news on the wireless. Corporal Cartwright (Eric to his friends) furrows his brows at her twittering.

“Keep it down, Beryl. I can’t hear the wireless for all your warbling.”

She stops immediately, and stands at the sink, choking back tears. In truth, her husband terrifies her. The way he dictates her life as if he’s still drilling young chaps before they head off to war. She feels like a prisoner most days, trapped in this cold existence. Never knowing what her husband might do next. He has a temper, alright; she has heard of the things he did in Ireland. 

The Corporal sits and sips his brew. He sucks the last dregs from his cup and heads downstairs to open the shop. 

A butcher’s shop is a grim and bloody business at the best of times; Corporal Cartwright has gotten used to the smell of offal by now and keeps everything ship-shape and clean as a whistle. He tidies the trays, arranges the saws and knives above the slab, and checks the diary for deliveries. A lovely load of Angus beef arriving at seven, followed by two sows from Gloucester at eight and a haul of Welsh lamb at nine. The Corporal washes his hands in the basin, dons his apron, and turns the shop sign. The early morning light begins to creep across the shop windows, casting thin shadows as it touches the painted letters, “Cartwright Family butchers. Kentish Town, London.”

The pension he got from his time in Ireland helped buy the shop; his wife had been given a healthy inheritance too, which helped in procuring the necessaries. The ice-safe was the most prodigious expense, along with hiring an apprentice to help mind the shop when it got busy. They were not poor, the Cartwrights, but neither were they well off; they kept afloat as best they could, though sometimes the days and months felt leaner than expected. 

Today is no exception; Corporal Cartwright winces as he pays the ice-man and the delivery boys, feeling every penny slip through his fingers. He will need to adjust his prices or find other suppliers if they are to break even before March. He spikes the receipts of purchase on the hook beside the door and goes about the carving and cutting. And soon, his regular customers will begin arriving.

He hears the same requests in his little shop, day in day out, in all their mundanity:

Two pounds of mince, and a couple of chops.

Top-side, sirloin, and some sausages too.”

Do you have any blood-pudding today?

God, the Corporal thinks, I miss the army. The parades, the inspections, the tea that tasted of smoke; the whiskey and the whorehouses. At least back then, I was myself. Not this cowed, fumbling, useless thing. At first he thought running the shop would be a nice little earner, no fuss and bother; he had not realised just how dull it would turn out to be.

The shop bell rings; he does not turn to greet the waiting customer. He is too busy struggling with this damn rack of lamb, the muscle and sinew tight as the Gordian knot despite the sharpness of his blade. He mutters a welcome and says he’ll be with them shortly.

A voice answers him:

“Take your time oul’ fella, I see you’re busy there. Tell me, how’s she cuttin’ today?”

The note in the man’s voice, that musical roll of the syllables and the cocky sing-song way of asking a question; it makes the hair stand up on Corporal Cartwright’s neck. He stiffens and takes his hand off the rack of meat. He holds the boning knife in his free hand, the blade quivering in his grip as he looks up into the large mirror above the slab. 

That ruddy face beneath a wool cap the colour of mud; the dark eyes, the rumpled shirt collar. It’s just as he suspected. An Irishman. The man is smiling cheerfully, his hands in the pockets of his coat as he looks up into the mirror to catch Corporal Cartwright’s eye. The smell of heather and peat-fires. Mist, and mud, and silence. 

The Corporal does not turn to address him but speaks to the man’s reflection in the mirror. He doesn’t want to look at this savage any longer than he needs to.

“We don’t serve your sort in this establishment. Kindly leave the premises and be on your way.”

The man looks quizzically at him, raising an eyebrow:

“And what sort is that, oul’ fella? Have I done something to offend?”

Every word out of this man’s mouth is like shit pressed into the Corporal’s ears; he can stand it no longer. He turns, the boning knife held before him. 

“We don’t serve your sort, or anyone like you. Understand? Get your filthy hands off my shelves and out into the street, or I shall set you right and have you speaking the King’s English!”

The man raises his hands in alarm and backs slowly towards the door, as if he has been cornered by a rabid dog.

“You’re not the full shilling are you, oul’ fella? You should get yourself mended… if you know what I mean.”

He backs out through the shop door, the bell tinkling on his way out. The Irishman walks past the window, but not before he spits on the doorstep in contempt. Corporal Cartwright follows the man’s gaze until he is far down the road, then steadies himself against the counter and clutches his heart; it is hammering away like a diesel engine against his ribs.

He shuts the shop early; they have barely sold a thing. The Corporal slumps up the stairs, to drink whisky and look through the packing crate in the loft. The one full of memories.

Pictures of him during the great war, taken in a whorehouse in Flanders. Two weeks before Ypres, before his world came crashing down around him. God, he was so young; seventeen, lying about his age to the conscription officer, and off to hammer the Bosch. He hardly knew how to make his own bed, let alone carry a rifle. He learned, soon enough. The things he saw, heard and felt in those years were things he’d never forget. 

A lump of shrapnel the size of a thrupenny bit tore through his guts at Ypres, giving him a ‘Blighty one’ back home. By the time the war was over, and he was fully recovered, he felt almost cheated. He had spent no more than three months on the line and had nothing but a scar above his liver to show for it. 

However, there was soon another war to be fought; one that was closer to home, and just as bloody. The Easter Rising in Dublin had stirred up a flame that would not be extinguished overnight, and the martyrs of ’16 were all but canonised in the eyes of the converted. There would need to be actions taken by the British government, and they would be swift and brutal. And so, in 1919, came Corporal Cartwright’s path to glory as a British volunteer to the Irish Royal Constabulary force. Known to their enemies as ‘The Black and Tans’.

There are photographs of this time too, and as the Corporal feels the paper between his shaking fingers, he recalls that he felt most like himself back then. He was a hero in those days. He was a man. The battle at Kilmeena had been his Rourke’s Drift, his charge of the Light Brigade. And when they turfed the bodies of dead Republicans into the street for all to see; that had shown the rebels all right. They knew by this act that his Majesty’s armed forces were vengeful, and without mercy for the fallen. 

He looks at the photographs, rustles through the trophies, admires the spoils of war until night has fallen. Beryl called for dinner hours ago; she has probably left him a plate to warm in the oven. His legs heavy from drink, he stumbles down from the top attic and into the kitchen. But before he descends the ladder, he feels the hairs prickle on his arm; a familiar sound from outside the window makes him start. Foxes, perhaps? It is a shrill cry, and alarming. It makes him think of a time before, near Ballin Lough lake in Kilmeena. The memory of a woman, hair black as night, knelt before the water with a basket full of rags.

He shakes away the memory and muttering foul words and half-remembered army-slang, he stumbles down to the kitchen. Two lamb chops and a drizzle of gravy with onions are waiting for him in the oven. He eats it without grace, tearing meat from the bone with his bare hands until his palms are run with grease. 

He falls asleep at the table, his head resting beside the plate as he snores. His shirt is open, and his belt is hanging loose around his hips. He looks like a heaped sack of manure, tumbling over the little table with his dank mop of grey hair and his flabby arms. His sleep is flat and dark; he dreams of nothing in particular. But soon, something stirs him. Something from outside his sleep, a sound that drifts from the open kitchen window. A tune, with words he has heard long ago.

“Death to every foe and traitor, whistle out the marching tune
And hoorah me boys for freedom ’tis the rising of the moon
‘Tis the rising of the moon, ’tis the rising of the moon
And hoorah me boys for freedom ’tis the rising of the moon.”

A woman by a lake. Her basket is full of bloody shirts. Her hair dark as coal, and eyes bright as stars. Crooning, in her strange tongue, beckoning him to come with her. Corporal Cartwright wakes with a start, knocking his plate from the table as he comes to his senses.

The singing is not coming from within his own restless mind; he can hear it, out in the street. Probably some of the local London-Irish turfed out after the pubs have shut, singing songs of a time and place that never was. Corporal Cartwright goes to the window, to shout at them to keep it down out there. He looks but sees only a thick, damp fog outside. It is a dirty London smog tonight, a real peasouper if ever there was. Still, the singing wafts up to him from the street.

“At the rising of the moon, at the rising of the moon
For the pikes must be together at the rising of the moon
And come tell me Sean O’Farrell, where the gathering is to be
At the old spot by the river quite well known to you and me.”

The Corporal grimaces in disgust until the germ of an idea creeps into his mind. Soon his scowl becomes a devil’s grin. He feels his way through the dark kitchen, up toward the attic. He finds the packing crate, and the Webley revolver stowed under his old uniform. It is loaded, naturally. The Corporal will soon put the fear of God into the men in the street.

He tumbles out into the darkened street, through the shop door; the shop-bell rings out into the night. The Corporal is bleary-eyed from drink and lack of sleep, and he shivers in the midnight air. He holds the revolver in one unsteady hand, the hammer cocked and ready. He will fire a warning shot, just to startle them. Even if he can’t see them, he’ll take a grim delight in hearing them scatter and flee.

He listens hard, for the sound of voices; it has grown very quiet all of a sudden. The smog wraps around him, and he strains to see his hands in front of him. The revolver quivers in his fingers, and he calls out into the mist.

“Where are you then? Speak up! We don’t want your sort around here, this is a decent neighbourhood!”

A soft hiss, like the wind rustling through tree branches, and a sigh so mournful it makes the fog around him shiver. Corporal Cartwright cannot see more than two feet in front of him, but he knows that he is not alone in the darkened street. He feels many eyes watching him, little silver pinpricks that observe his every movement, every shallow breath. The Corporal thinks to fire into the mist, to warn off whatever lurks within; but there are houses on this side of the street. For all he knows he could fire into someone’s window. And yet, the predatory glare he feels upon him, makes him sweat in cold terror.

“Eric? Eric! What in God’s name are you doing?!!”

The Corporal spins round, the revolver levelled and ready to fire; it is Beryl, his wife, standing at the open shop door, her dressing gown held tight around her, and her eyes wide with fear and incomprehension.

“Get back inside, woman. This is my business, not yours.” He commands, still pointing the revolver in her direction. She stands there, resolute, her face pale with shock.

“People will see you, Eric. The police will be called. What are you doing out here, alone in the street with that ghastly gun?”

The Corporal looks back at the street, once thick with fog; it is now clear a night as ever, the moon shining bright on the cobblestones. He can see clear to the end of the road before it turns off into the high-street. He could have sworn there was a fog, a murky cloud that blanketed the entire stretch. There are no night-revellers dancing down the road with their rough singing; it is empty, all except for him. 

He mutters and lowers the revolver. Pushing past his wife, he makes his way back up the stairs and back into their bedroom. Beryl does not join him; she sleeps on the settee in the drawing-room, though not before packing a small suitcase which she puts beside the door. She has had all she can take from this bitter, unknowable old man. And somewhere, out in the street, a song begins to strike up once again.

The following day, the apprentice arrives to help run the shop; it is Friday, usually their busiest day. Lawrence, just finished school at fifteen, dons his apron and greets each customer with a broad, cheerful grin. He has to, so he can make up for Corporal Cartwright’s dark, moody presence in the shop today. Hungover and restless from lack of sleep, he bumps and mutters to himself as he works the slab, cutting and mincing and pummelling the grey and red flesh between his fingers. The smell of offal makes his head swim, and he wraps up each parcel as if he is garrotting a Fenian’s neck.

Lawrence knows not to pry when the Corporal is in one of his moods, but can’t help asking:

“Anything the matter today, sir? I can manage the shop, if you need a lie-down upstairs.”

His eyes red-rimmed and bloody, the Corporal stares at Lawrence until the young assistant begins to squirm. Breaking the silence, the young man turns away and says, “Very good sir, very good. You’re right, there’s not a problem at all.”

An elderly woman, and what he supposes is her adult daughter enter the shop; a pound of mince, and two lamb chops for their Sunday dinner. The Corporal catches the young woman’s eye in the mirror, and he decides that he will handle this order himself. She is a pretty thing, after all. And Beryl being such a plain, shabby creature, he is entitled to a treat now and again.

“Yes, my dear, I shall deal with your order right away.” He grins, but the woman and her mother do not respond. In fact, the old lady wrinkles up her nose and whispers to her daughter. Corporal Cartwright turns to his slab and cuts the chops as fine as he is able, before placing them with reverence into the waiting parcel of butcher’s paper. He puts the order on the set of weights, and with another rictus grin announces the amount to be paid.

“Four shillings and sixpence, ladies. And will that be all?”

The young woman is staring at him with utter revulsion, and the old lady is no better. They look him up and down, as if he is some grotesque creature, and slide the money not to him, but to Lawrence, his assistant. They take the parcel and leave without a word.

“Miserable pair of bitches, those two. Not even a thank-you. What did they have to turn their noses up? I should like to know.” 

The Corporal mutters this to no one in particular, but Lawrence hears him well enough. The assistant coughs, and as gently as he can, begins to explain:

“It may be your apron, sir. It is looking a little.. well, soiled today, if I may say so. Perhaps the sight of blood upset them?”

The Corporal looks down, following Lawrence’s outstretched finger toward his midriff. His apron is soaked in gore. Every shade of crimson, scarlet, and ochre is smeared across it as if he has been pushed head-first through a slaughterhouse. How did he not notice this before? The blood is so thick, so coated in the fabric that he must have felt its extra weight. The smell, my God; it smells like death. Like the trenches. Like Ypres.

In an instant, the Corporal dashes toward the back of the shop. He runs into the ice-safe, where he tears off his apron and flings it into the furthest corner of the room. The Corporal gags and heaves into the metal grate set into the floor, as the carcasses of pig and lamb sway gently from their hooks beside him. He cannot hold up his own weight; he collapses to the floor, his teeth chattering in the cold. He recalls a time before, in his quaking mind, a time of mists and smoke:

It is the day after Kilmeena. The men of the IRA have been routed, and have fled into the hills. The bodies of the fallen have been dumped outside the RIC barracks in Westport, as a warning. The townspeople are up in arms, but what can they do? It is their word against the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Corporal Cartwright is a younger man, though the old wound in his side still gives him trouble as he leaps down from the truck. The two other men from the RIC follow him down. Two subordinates, a Welshman and a native Irishman from Galway, they follow his command as they walk toward the lake.

They are looking for sympathisers; men and women who side with the rebels, willing to hide guns and munitions in their squalid little huts and cottages. The Corporal was there in Kilmeena; he watched as the bullets flew through the air, cutting through the RIC convoy. He is out for blood, and woe betides any who get in his way. They find the banks of the lake, Ballin Lough; a spit of water, not far from Kilmeena Hill. And by the water’s edge, they find cause for suspicion, albeit in the most unlikely of people.

A woman sat by the water, with a sack of linens by her side. She is singing gently to herself, a lilting melody tinged with sweet melancholy. Her hair is black as pitch, though from the looks of things she is old; her skin is white and wrinkled, but when she meets their gaze, her eyes are bright and curious as any woodland creature.

“Private Machen, ask her what’s she’s doing here”, Barks the Corporal. The Irishman steps over to the woman by the lake and speaks to her in his native tongue. The woman, still wringing out the clothes by her side, does not reply. The Private asks again, with more force this time. He nudges the basket beside her.

It falls to one side, its contents spilling out over the grass still wet with morning dew; they see that in amongst the grey linen, there are clothes flecked with blood. The Corporal pulls the revolver from his holster and levels it squarely at the woman’s face.

“Why isn’t she speaking, private? I thought you knew the language well enough.”

At this, the woman speaks at last; though it is not with words, but with song. Her voice is high and delicate, almost at the verge of becoming a wailing cry. The men look at each other in confusion, until finally, she finishes her lament. The Corporal steps closer now, his revolver still pointed at the woman’s head.

“Did you understand that, private?” He asks the Irishman called Machen.

“It’s no Gaelic I’ve heard ‘afore, Corporal. There must be something wrong with her.”

“Then I suppose I must make her see reason, mustn’t I?”

The Corporal points with his revolver to the pile of bloody rags, then back to the woman. He talks to her as he would a disobedient animal, barking each syllable into her expressionless face.

“Whose. Are. These? Where. Are. They. Hiding?”

She looks up at him, the old-young woman whose eyes shimmer like stars; he feels his blood begin to boil at her indifferent stare. He raises the butt of his revolver and strikes her a blow across the face. She crumples, like her washing, to the ground. She begins to moan, in that strange keening cry again. The Corporal raises her up, by her hair; she struggles, and he places the barrel of his Webley right under her chin. He hisses in her ear, his breath stinking of whiskey and cigarette smoke.

“Tell us who the rags belong to, you silly bitch, and this can all be over. I won’t hesitate, you know. You wouldn’t be the first woman I’ve killed.”

Her mouth becomes a round, hollow ‘O’. A wailing erupts from it, a siren’s call that makes the Corporal’s ears ring. He clutches at his head, feeling as if his mind is splitting in two. The sound is coming from all around, though the other men do not seem to hear it. In the confusion and the din, the Corporal’s finger slips. Or perhaps, it doesn’t. He pulls the trigger. The woman’s head erupts, a red mist that coats the sky for but a moment before the world grows silent.

The Corporal has never forgotten that day. It has been nigh on ten years, but still, it persists, like an open wound that refuses to heal over. They left her body there, by the lake; for all he knows, she may still be there, turned to rot and worm-food with her washing by her side.

The Corporal comes too at last, face down in the grate of the ice-safe. He stands up, feeling his body aching with the cold. He must have been in here for hours; then again, who knows how much time has passed since he fled from the shop counter? He must make himself a little more presentable before he minds the shop. That damned boy Lawrence has probably forgotten all about him, grinning with delight as he greets each damned-nuisance customer.

He tries the door. Funny, it will not budge. No matter; he has a key stored above the door frame for just this kind of emergency. He feels for it, nudging his fingers over the cold metal. His hands come up empty; the key is gone. A note of panic begins to rise in his voice as the Corporal hammers on the door and yells:

“Damn and blast you, Lawrence! Open this damned door! It’s stuck, and I can’t find the bastard key!”

The room seems to be growing colder; the Corporal pounds on the door until his fists are raw and bloody. The fine icy mist that usually hangs in the air has grown thicker too. It smells strange, and acrid as wood-smoke. No, peat-smoke; turf fires and turpentine. The Corporal hears a wailing, a call from out the mist as it grows around him, wrapping him in a stifling dread. From out the fog, he sees a pair of eyes, bright as silver and wide with hunger. A lament begins to sound, a song for those about to die, that lulls him softly to his reckoning. 

Dark hair, dark as the night sky. The lady by the lake is coming to take him home.

They found the body late that afternoon. The shop had been so busy, Lawrence had assumed the old man went back upstairs to wash his face and take forty-winks. By the time the fire-men tear open the door to the ice-safe, the corpse is frozen solid. The Corporal is found, lying in a foetal bundle in a far corner of the room, his mouth open in a wide, hollow ‘O’.

His wife never came to see the body; she left that very morning, a suitcase under her arm as she boarded the train to Liverpool. To be home, with her family, who had never approved of the Corporal and his black moods. Her letter that lay on the kitchen table as the Corporal’s blood froze read as follows:

“You are a man of terrible possibilities, Eric Cartwright. Being with you is like bedding down with the devil himself. Whatever you did in Ireland, I fear that it has followed you home. And though it may be a sin to wish it upon you, I hope you rot in anguish, and more besides. I am with my family now. Do not attempt to follow me.”

And in the air, the soft lament of the Bean Sidhe, the merciful sister and passenger beyond the veil, rings out among the mists. A new song begins, rising to a keening cry.

Picture of The Somnambulist Society

The Somnambulist Society

The Somnambulist Society is a writer, musician and teacher living in Hackney, London. Their short stories have recently featured in Horrified Magazine and The secret Attic vol.6, and they are currently working on a first novel, ‘The Green Man’.

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