In The Service of the Queen
by Simon Bestwick
You never hear about us.
We’re the oldest, darkest and dirtiest secret of modern warfare. No, we don’t kill. We don’t sneak behind enemy lines and cut throats, or drop bombs or guide missiles. Nothing like that.
We don’t do our work in the thick of battle or the fog of war.
We do our work on days like this. On a cold, foggy morning, years after the guns have fallen silent and the last bombs fallen. Long after the only casualties left are the ones who exist in a kind of living death in military hospitals, missing limbs and faces or minds.
The men and women who tend them and attempt to ease their suffering have a dirty job as well, but I’d trade places with them gladly. No, I’m not a hospital orderly, even though once upon a time I could have been – in another place, another life, I was a medical orderly at a Naval base, before I became a petty officer aboard an MTB on Channel patrol. Now, I’m nothing and I’m nobody. No uniform, no rank, just a man in an oversized, rumpled overcoat, hunched on the backseat of a long-wheelbase Humber Snipe. I get to travel in some comfort, at least, just as I ate last night at the Savoy Grill and breakfasted at the Hilton. Not my usual routine, but they have some glimmer of compassion towards me now and again. Or perhaps it’s just their way of feeling better about their part in the whole thing – he gets pampered and well fed, and look at the state of him. If they listened, if they cared, I’d tell them it doesn’t make up for it.
Ransome’s my handler today. He offers me a cigarette and I take one. I let him light it; my hands are clenched into fists and shoved in my overcoat pockets. Otherwise, they’d be shaking. I hold the cigarette between my lips and puff, letting the ash fall into my lap. Someone makes a disgusted noise at the sight. The slovenliness of it. I don’t see who it is, because I’m looking out of the window. It’s not Ransome; he’s one of the better ones. They’re all military men, though, or the next best thing. They have very clear and fixed ideas on how a man should behave, and I struggle to meet those standards. So dealing with them’s never easy.
It’s a working-class area; rows of terraces, a good half of them still roofless and fire-gutted, burned-out ruined shells. Some aren’t even that, just holes in the ground or humps of rubble. I hear voices and I make to wind the window up before I remember that it already is, and wouldn’t help anyway.
It goes on rotation. Sometimes my handler’s Ransome, sometimes it’s one of half-a-dozen others. Once a week I call a number to confirm my place of residency. They are random visits, spot-checks, to make sure I haven’t tried to flit and that they can always lay hands on me whenever they have the need.
Such as now.
This road’s a little bigger and wider than the rest. There are more shops. And, a little further down –
When I see the place, I draw in a breath, so sharply that I almost suck the cigarette into my mouth and burn my lips. I finally withdraw a hand from my pocket, pretending not to hear the muffled snigger when someone – probably the same one who snorted before – sees how badly my fingers shake.
I toss the cigarette out of the window and wind it up again as the Humber pulls up outside the Orpheum.
It was a nice old building, once upon a time. A music-hall, back in the days before the First War. Switched over in the ‘20s to newsreels and films. Carried on doing so for the next twenty years, till one miserable night in ‘44 when a V-1’s pulse-jet cut out directly overhead. There were two hundred and three people in there, of whom twenty-eight made it out alive. Half the dead couldn’t even be identified.
So now it’s just a shell. The walls and the ornate façade still stand, because the place was built to last. But there’s no roof – the explosion blew that clean away – and inside, the fire made a kiln of it, an oven, a crematory furnace. A miracle they could put names to even half the people who died in there that night.
Ransome pats my shoulder. “Come on,” he says, and I manage to get the door open and climb out.
He gets out too, and gives me another cigarette. “What are they doing with the place again?” I say.
“It’s coming down,” says Ransome, “along with half the street. There’ll be new houses, all along here. Be a nice place to live.”
“For some,” I say. I can picture the little houses that they’ll build, and the families who’ll fill them. Husbands and wives, kids. I wouldn’t mind a house like that myself, and all that goes with it, but I know I’ll never get one.
I try not to sound too bitter. None of this is Ransome’s fault. He does what needs doing, and so do I. We’re cogs in the machine and nothing more. But even I’ve got a life beyond being a cog. Or would like to have.
But, needs must.
“Anything I should know?” I ask.
Ransome shakes his head. “It’s just the usual.”
“I meant the building.”
“All the internal stuff’s gone,” he tells me. “Interior walls, floors, all of that. It’s just a big empty shell. Just watch your step – through the door, it drops straight down into the basement. They’ve set some planks up as a ramp.” He motions to one of the other men in the car; the window winds down and someone hands him a torch. “You might need this.”
I grind out the cigarette and look at the blackened walls. A crow caws somewhere overhead. “Whenever you’re ready,” Ransome says.
I feel like telling him where to go, but I don’t. He’s just a cog in the machine, after all, the same as me. I cross the pavement to the main entrance, where the boards they nailed over the doorway to keep the local children out have been pried away, and shine the torch into the black beyond.
I find the ramp and go down it. The air’s cold and damp, and smells of wet wood and ashes and old smoke. I can smell other things, too; I don’t dwell on those. There are dripping sounds and tiny cracks and skitters – the ruined shell of the Orpheum settling down, or whatever small creatures call it home stirring or fleeing at my approach.
The darkness fades as I move into the middle of the basement, already wishing I had another cigarette. The weak sunlight comes streaming down, and lights the middle of the tiled floor. I think of the spotlights that would have shone down on the stage performers at the other end of this space, back in another age, long before Hitler or V-1s, when everyone was afraid of Kaiser Bill or a Zeppelin raid. Ladies and gentlemen, for one night only…
I can see them, of course, already. Pale things moving in the shadows. I’d already been hearing them, without hearing. I’m never free of them, haven’t been since the 7th of November, 1943. The only thing that really changes is the volume. Most of the time they’re more of a background sound, and I almost forget they’re there.
If not quite.
Despite the smell of smoke and burning – which is now growing sharper and fresher, as the whispers rise in strength – I crave a cigarette even more badly than before. I’ll get one, of course. I’ll get a whole carton of them, plus whatever other creature comforts are required to get me through until the next time. I’m tempted, sometimes, to be more demanding, to be a little more inventive and outrageous in what I request. It wouldn’t ease my situation, particularly, but it would inconvenience my employers a little. But the fact is I’ve no idea how many others like me there are. How easily I might be replaced. It’s not a question anyone particularly relishes learning the answer to.
I can hear the voices now. The laughter and the muttering, the muted arguments, the wet sounds of furtive kissing on the back rows. Music. A newsreel. Cheers and clapping. God Save The King and some disobliging remarks about old Adolf. A whistle in the dark because the war wasn’t done, and all you could do was hope, at this late stage, that it wouldn’t come knocking tonight.
Except that it did; the droning, crackling buzz of the pulse-jet engine, detected too late for an air raid warning, coming from above. The muttered prayers, two hundred whispers overlapping and blending into one: please keep going, please keep going. But then the buzz, without any warning, stopped. And then the shrieking whistle as the bomb fell. And then –
I heard it all. The screams, and the shattering blast of the explosion. The roaring of the fire. And the other screams. And the crash of things as they fell.
I saw. The fire eating flesh, stripping skin from raw weeping meat and then turning it black. People trapped, writhing, praying for rescue, then praying for death.
I felt. And I cannot describe that. One death is enough. A hundred and seventy-five of them? No. Impossible.
I can, however, describe something of the experience of one death: my own.
7th November, 1943, and my MTB was returning to port after a night’s patrol, as we’d done so many times before. It had been a quiet one, no Germans crossing our bow. We hadn’t seen the mine till it was too late.
The explosion, loud beyond imagining, and the ship which had seemed so solid suddenly knocked wildly up and sideways, as though it weighed no more than paper. The screams. Burning oil. And the MTB rolling over, capsizing, as I scrambled up the companionway, and the water flooding in, cold like ice. Water, water everywhere, but I hadn’t wanted to drink, only to breathe, but there’d been no air, and I’d no longer been able to hold my breath. And the cold salt water had seared my lungs like fire.
There are those who claim that drowning is a peaceful death.
They tell me it was the cold that saved me. It preserved me, like a fish on ice, so that when I finally floated free of the wreck and bobbed to the surface, into the path of another boat, I wasn’t past revival. They pumped the water out of my lungs, and my heart began beating again, but the cold of the sea that night has never left my bones.
Or perhaps it’s another kind of cold, caused by another kind of absence. The absence of a soul. I have no idea where mine has gone, but assuming I ever had one, I no longer believe my mortal coil is any kind of home to it.
A hole then, a vacuum; and a vacuum has the property of sucking things in from outside. In my case, an almost limitless one; certainly more than sufficient to draw in one hundred and seventy-five other human souls, all screaming out the agony they were trapped in, at the moment of their deaths.
As each one’s drawn in, I hear them screaming, until they’re all around me, their lips against my ears, every single one of them shrieking. That isn’t a sound, so much as an all-out assault, a physical force that drives me to the ground. I scream myself, I’m sure. I weep and plead, cajole, threaten and beg, but it goes on. It’s beyond bearing, but there’s no other choice.
And, at long long last, the voices begin to dim. Far too slowly, but they do, until at last they reach a bearable level. I’m not sure how long I lie there, but by the time I become aware of my physical surroundings again, it’s raining.
I can feel the cries, inside me; they vibrate in my chest, against my ribs. But in the ruins of the Orpheum, there is silence. They can build here now, and these houses will be quiet.
I find the torch and make my way back. The driver and the man with him look my way and I hear them snigger. I also see Ransome bang on the window and say something sharply to them, and they fall silent. He reaches me in time to stop me falling, then helps me back to the car.
The voices have faded, but not gone. As the Snipe pulls away from the kerb, it’s as though I’m next to a radio set while someone continues to twirl the dial. Snatches and bursts of sound come through, sometimes shockingly loud. It’s always like that. They fade and fade, to shadows and dust, to whispers and ghosts, but they’re never wholly gone. They can come back at any moment, usually in the night when I’m in the middle of sleep, and they snap me awake.
People like me are never alone.
But at least the job is done. Until the next time. And there are so many ruins; there have been so many bombs.
But one by one, the sites will be cleared, and your houses will be quiet. And mine will be just another story that you’ll never hear. Along with how loudly the dead can scream.
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