And now, a treat for whatever remaining Readers we may still have here: since this story was written with a very specific market in mind, and since today is its sell-by date in certain respects vis-a-vis finding it another home in a timely fashion, I'm just going to put this out here for my own amusement and y'all's. Enjoy?
British Sector, France, 1916
The virgin is on the fire-step, brow furrowed below her helmet. Watching the dawn mist rise. You've almost got accustomed to the constant thunder of shells. Looks a fair one today, you say to her.
None of the men packed round you take any notice of your words, too busy with their own thoughts of the day to come. Assume you're praying, you suppose. Maybe you are. Whatever she is. Who makes saints of girls in trousers, whatever they've done to save France.
Nineteen when they burnt her. You'd like to think you'll live that long.
The men never see the virgin. Wouldn't understand if they did. Brave Ulstermen and true, no use for superstition or mystery. You know what it is that they think of. You saw it in Albert, where laughing men took you by the hand beneath the gilded Queen teetering in Her Heaven and towed you along in their wake to some grubby estaminet to drink up your shilling-a-day in the way of soldiers with money in their pockets since the beginning of wars, who think themselves immortal because they're not dead just yet. The stump of a Frenchy looking after the bar is eighty if he's a minute, all his grandsons fed no doubt to the bloodbath south of here on the line. Where his granddaughters are you fear to think. Certainly for all that the women of France have stepped up to harvest fields and tend shops none of them have dared to step foot in here, into this rumbling cauldron of alien men.
Long way from Belfast, you are. More differences here than Catholic and Protestant, and yet men like anyone, even so. The Canadians don't even wear beaver pelts. Do clothes make the man. You've wondered it often enough of the officer toffs. The Welsh miners mutter amongst themselves in rounded words like Nan's telling her beads. Mother wouldn't have the Irish in her house, a tongue only fit for potato-eating peasants. She married for love. She can't forgive herself for that.
Could be any night down the pub but for the ever-present rumble of distant artillery, men's voices talking loud rubbish of each other, as men do. Caught a Blighty one right in the veg. And he'll miss the big push. As if that's the worse thing. Maybe it is. If the war will really be over by Saturday week.
Your round. Goodnatured ribbing that you keep two for yourself. Careful, there, lad, be sure to save some of your money. Got to make a man of you proper, later, ay?
The men never see the virgin.
Derisive laughter along the table at the suggestion. Not our sweet Polly Oliver. 'E's really a girl in disguise, yeah? Look at those cheeks.
Can't be, seen 'is willy.
Bet you have.
Delousing tent, like.
Brief scuffle, not unfriendly.
If you'd call that a willy.
The virgin's cup is untouched, wine a dark shimmer in the grimy bowl. Unseeing, the men rise as near-one and motion you to join. As a lamb to the slaughter they lead you into a back room of the ruinous building, sky bright in gaps in the roof.
This is where the women are.
Not hiding, you don't think. Chosen, rather, to deal on as close to their own terms as is in their power to arrange, when there's only the one way this comes out. Doing their part for their country, every bit as much as their husbands and brothers and sons. Could do more of a business down the line in Verdun, where the Frenchies pay a man proper to endure these torments and he expects in turn his due when he can get back out of his grave before-time. But it's Britain has answered France's call for the once and so Britain's pay they take here, as everyone does in the end. Even you.
The woman who you think is in command here watches you, weary-eyed over her knitting. Madam, sister, mother, you're not to know. The virgin's gaze round the tawdry scene is sharp. You half expect her to chase them away like moneychangers. But instead she looks at you, and at the women, and turns away to step outside. Your stomach feels hollow, of a sudden. When you turn back to the concierge she's looking at you curiously, slight frown as if to ask whom your eyes were following. Or, perhaps, not.
You think, for a moment, that she's seen the virgin.
The men communicate in a series of nods and words that you're certain they think are clever that you're to be seen to as befits a man on the eve of battle. You try to return her sceptical look. You do know what joon means, you think. What does it matter. Old enough to carry a gun. She nods. Marianne.
You don't know what you were expecting, behind the broken door. Scent, maybe. Not a girl who can't be any older than you. She looks back at you with eyes as dark as the virgin's and says, Anglais? Anglais, n'ayez pas peur.
You do what you have to do, or what you're supposed to do, although that thought's a bit of a dodge in the circumstance. It doesn't take very long, which is a relief to her as well, you think. There's nothing of dignity to be had in this, for either of you, but you press your last coin into her hand, hoping she'll have the wit to hide it from the other women.
You emerge to slaps on the back from the men who've already had their go or haven't any more money and push your way past towards the futile hope of respite. The virgin waits outside, fag in her fingers that she never lifts to her lips. You fall to your knees at her feet and she waits, unblinking, as you're not quite sick. Some of the men laugh and offer a hand up. Steady, lad, time enough for that.
No quiet to be found here either, men who've got out of shifting munitions lying about on what's left of the grass, and a few having a kick-around with a bully-beef tin, better use for it than eating the beef you think. Up the line, you hear, there's a regiment's had proper balls made, love to the Boche written on them for kicking right across no-man's-land and up the backsides of anyone who might still be alive to tend goal. You no longer wonder if you're the mad one here. An observation aeroplane flits through the heavens, one of yours you hope. Libellules, the virgin calls them. Dragonflies. You stumble back to the decrepit shed your section is billeted in to try to sleep amidst a cacophony of men making wind out one end or the other, or taking hold of themselves in a sinful fashion. You wonder they can concentrate on it. The puzzlement of flesh, the way of men and women, or whatever it is that the toffs do with one another at their schools that everyone whispers about and expects you to laugh. Your body is no longer your own, that's been made abundantly clear to you since you took the shilling, but you had had hopes for your soul. And lie wondering what the point of it had been, as the virgin sits at the foot of your pallet with her hands clasped in silent ceaseless prayer.
You think you must be a disappointment to her.
The bugle-call brings inevitable grumbling about the march. How else are you to get to the front, in a bloody taxi maybe. The virgin marches beside you, as she always has. Shadow. Angel. Comrade in arms, here at the last battle. The men call out snatches of songs from the music-halls where men dress like ladies: give me your answer do, wouldn't have a willie or a sam, if you were the only girl in the world. Catcalls from your section when someone up ahead tries to start a round of Tipperary.
Gloria, the virgin sings.
Not glory nor honour brought you here, though, down into the bottom of this muddy warren over-stuffed with men. What, then. Conscription's started, across the water. Never manage it at home. Every man who's loyal and some as aren't is already here. The sainted Kitchener needs you, your country or no. Private Tommy Atkins, false name the refuge of a thousand children whose mothers would never have allowed their boys to sign up. Everyone knows. Doubting or true is the question. Patrie, the virgin says, eyes dark with memory or vision. Does she visit her mates down at Verdun, in those moments when you're not looking, or are you the only one who's listening, between the mountains and the sea.
The Frenchies pray to her. Maybe she will be a saint, if there's a France when this is done.
Hard to see how there can be, from the bottom of this hole, where all you can do is imagine the churning Hell up above. It's the size of it you couldn't have dreamed. To walk singing into the guns seems about as sound a plan as charging the bowmen of Agincourt back in the day.
Perhaps the generals hear their own angels.
The morning barrage begins again in earnest. The mist is half fog and half cordite from the shelling, and another half mud besides, sodden from the rains that put off the attack for day after day after day whilst the lot of you grumbled and traded insults to take your minds from the waiting and the fear. First of July today, one of the more passionate Orangemen of the section going on about the Boyne until even his mates lose patience and tell him to shut it for the sake of everyone's nerves. The Salford Pals had had a word to say about that sort of thing back in Albert. Fookin' Irish. You here to fight for us or the Fritz? Blows and briggings before the Rising was properly denounced to everyone's satisfaction. Nothing here is ever as simple as it seems.
Time to set aside such thoughts, now, as a military excuse for breakfast begins to work its way along the trench, ever-famished men sharing round tea and biscuit and the tot of rum to make any of this seem half sane. Sacrament, at the last hour. The tea tastes of petrol and death. Between thunderclaps a gramophone in a dugout scratching out keep the home fires burning, or perhaps you're imagining that bit. The Boche, you're told, play Mozart across the no-man's-land, to taunt the enemy with their superior refinement. Could have an opera-hall with a full brass-band out there for all you can hear it, as one by one the stars fall to earth and die. What you do make out is the bellows of subalterns reminding the line of your orders, to march, straight and slowly forward, shoulder to shoulder against the rattling guns.
Do you think it can work, you ask the virgin.
Non, she says.
The men seem to believe, though, rustling round you fixing bayonets, checking straps. Praying. The ground shakes, once, again. The mines. They'll have heard that in London, never mind the Boche. Last Trump for some, before the walls of Jericho fall. You think you're muddling your scripture. The virgin nods, solemn. You see her lips move. Iesu. Mirror the dart of her hand in the sign of the cross. Mutters from the men packed round you. What popeish devil have they harboured in their midst.
Your constant echo grips the ladder, legs steady in their scarlet as she ascends. Draws, in one steady rasp, the blade at her side; holds it high to flash in the sun. The barrage stops.
The silence is the most terrible thing you've ever heard.
You put your hands to the ladder. The virgin is waiting. The war, itself, is waiting. A man's duty. A soldier's duty. Like her.
It doesn't matter if you believe them. Only that you believe.
Shrill whistles along the line. The virgin gives you her hand. Fermeté.
You begin, heart singing, to climb.