Excerpt from Chapter One
The guard at Exeter warned him he would have to change at Dulverton to pick up the westbound train to Bamfylde Bridge Halt, the nearest railhead to the school, but did not add that the wait between trains was an hour. It was one of those trivial circumstances that played a part in the healing process of the years ahead, for the interval on that deserted platform, set down in a rural wilderness, and buttressed by heavily timbered hills where spring lay in ambush, gave Powlett-Jones an opportunity to focus his thoughts in a way he had been unable to do for months, since the moment he had emerged from the dugout and paused, rubbing sleep from his eyes, to glance left and right down the trench. From that moment, down long vistas of tortured, fearful and horribly confused dreams, his thoughts, if they could be recognised as thoughts, had been random pieces of a child's jigsaw, no two dovetailing, no half-handful forming a coherent pattern. Yet now, for a reason he could not divine, they coalesced and he was aware, on this account alone, of a hint of reprieve.
The shell, a coal-box, must have pitched directly on the parados of the nearest traverse, filling the air with screaming metal and raising a huge, spouting column of liquid mud. He had no real awareness of being flung backwards down the slippery steps, only a blessed certainty that this was it. Finish. Kaput. The end of three years of half-life, beginning that grey, October dawn in 1914, when his draft had moved up through a maze of shallow ditches to a waterlogged sector held by the hard-pressed Warwickshires they were relieving. Even then, after no more than two days in France, his sense of geography had been obliterated by desolation, by acres and acres of debris scattered by the sway of two battle-locked armies across the reeking mudflats of Picardy. There were no landmarks and not as many guidelines as later, when trench warfare became more sophisticated. The confusion, however, enlarged its grip on his mind as months and years went by, a sense of timelessness punctuated by moments of terror and unspeakable disgust, by long stretches of yammering boredom relieved by two brief respites, one in base hospital, recovering from a wound, the other when he was withdrawn for his commissioning course. Superiors, equals and underlings came and went. Thousands of khaki blurs, only a very few remaining long enough to make a lasting impression on him. Here and there he had made a friend, the kind of friend one read about in the classics, true, loyal, infinitely relished. But the mutter of the guns, the sour mists that seemed to hang over the battlefield in summer and winter, had swallowed them up as the wheels of war trundled him along, a chance survivor of a series of appalling shipwrecks.
Occasionally, just occasionally, he would be aware of conventional time. The coming of a new season. A birthday or anniversary, when his memory might be jogged by a letter from home, full of mining-village trivia. But then the fog would close in again and home and the past seemed separated from him by thousands of miles and millions of years, a brief, abstract glimpse of links with a civilisation as dead as Nineveh's.
And at the very end of it all that ultimate mortar shell, landing square on the parados and pitchforking him over the threshold of hell where, for the most part, he was unaware of his identity as a man or even a thing but floated free on a current of repetitive routines shifts on a stretcher or in a jolting vehicle; daily dressings, carried out by faceless men and women; odd, unrelated sounds like bells and the beat of train wheels; the rumble of voices talking a language he never understood; the occasional, sustained yell that might have signified anger, pain or even animal high spirits.
The intervals of clarity and cohesion lengthened as time went on, but they were never long enough for him to get a firm grip on his senses. He learned, over the months, that he had been dug out alive, the only survivor of the blast, after being buried for several hours. Also that he had survived, God alone knew how, the long, jolting journey down the communication trenches to the dressing station, to advance base and finally to Le Havre and the hospital ferry. For a long time, however, he was unaware of being back in England, shunted from one hospital to another until he finally came to rest at Osborne, reckoned a convalescent among a thousand or more other shattered men as confused as himself.
Then, but very slowly, he became fully aware of himself again. Second Lieutenant David Powlett-Jones, "A" Company, Third Battalion, South Wales Borderers; sometime Davy Powlett-Jones, son of Ewart and Glynnis, of No. 17 Aberglaslyn Terrace, Pontnewydd, Monmouthshire, a boy who had dreamed of scholarship and celebrity, of bringing a gleam of triumph into the eyes of a short, stocky miner who had worked all his life in a hole in the mountain and died there with two of his sons in the Pontnewydd-Powis explosion of August, 1913.
He was aware of his identity and, to some extent, of his past and present, but the future was something else. He could never attach his mind to it for more than a few seconds. The war surely would go on for ever and ever, until every human soul in the world was engulfed in it. He could never picture himself leading any different kind of life but that of trudging to and from the line, in and out of the mutter of small-arms fire and the sombre orchestra of the shells. Hospital life, as he lived it now, was no more than an interval.
Then Rugeley-Scott, the neurologist, infiltrated into his dream world. First as a white-smocked and insubstantial figure, no different from scores of predecessors who had paused, hummed and prodded during the last few months, but ultimately as a force where he could find not comfort exactly but at least relevance. For Rugeley-Scott had certain theories and persisted in putting them forward.
One was his theory of upland air and David's own Celtic roots responded to this, feeding a little vitality into the husk of his flesh and bone. For Rugeley- Scott said that a man could enjoy a sense of proportion in upland air that was denied the Lowlander, upland air being keen and stimulating and capable of clearing the fog in the brain and reanimating petrified thought-processes. It had a trick, he said, of making a man at one with his environment. Rugeley-Scott, of course, was a Highlander, whose boyhood had been spent in Sutherland and whose medical studies had taken him no further south than Perthshire. He believed passionately in upland air in the way a primitive savage believes in the witch doctor's bones and amulets.