Andrew Cowan

Worthless Men

1. the fortunate ones

After one long winter dredging the waterways for Meek’s Steam Navigation Company, and a second short summer hauling ice for Cyril Greenland to the wet fish merchants, dairymen and butchers who were everywhere then, in 1914, Walter Barley fancied himself a man, robust enough to withstand the rigours of the fighting in Belgium and France – whatever those rigours might turn out to be – and took himself along to St Saviour’s Barracks one afternoon in the early weeks of the war, where the burly, bewhiskered sergeant on duty that day took a different view of him, having seen so many other men clamouring to be part of it – more men than the army had kit for, or barracks to bed them in, or weapons to arm them with; more men than would surely be needed to bring the Kaiser to his knees.

‘You need to grow a bit, sonny.’

‘I’m eighteen,’ Walter lied.

‘Nineteen is the minimum.  Come back when you’re nineteen.’

‘The war’ll be finished by then.’

The sergeant took a folded handkerchief from his pocket and tipped back his cap, dabbed the sweat from his brow, and with one appraising eye on the next man in line, he said, ‘Don’t you believe it, my friend.’

‘What about later?’ grinned Walter.  ‘I could come back tomorrow.  I’ll be nineteen by then.’

But this sergeant at least was having none of that, and whacked him hard on the arm.  ‘No, fuck off now,’ he said, and gestured in the direction of the exit, ‘get yourself home to your mum.’

And after a moment’s hesitation, his eyes smarting from the blow, Walter did as he was told; he turned and marched away and passed on the far side of the hall a few of the fortunate ones, all in civilian attire, their hats and jackets removed, their right hands raised as they repeated the oath that was being read to them by a uniformed officer so many inches taller than they were and so much straighter in bearing.  None met his gaze – none noticed him – and as Walter emerged from the dark of the barracks to the sunshine of St Saviour’s wide thoroughfare he met a queue of cheerful men still waiting to be taken inside – some of his neighbours from Mortuary Year among them – and burned to be asked how he had fared, to account for himself, but these men were in such high spirits – on the cusp of something auspicious – that Walter slipped by them unseen, sorely disappointed, and a little ashamed, though not yet resigned to missing out on the show.

St Saviour’s wasn’t the only recruiting station.


2. nothing about the army was straight

Many a time as a child Walter had climbed the hill with his pals to the cavalry barracks on the outskirts of town so they could gawp through the gates at the Hussars in their brilliant blue tunics as they performed such intricate drills on their gleaming high horses, and always, he recalled, there would be a guard at the gates – not necessarily armed or even correctly attired – including from time to time a tubby old boy in shirt sleeves and braces who would give them the lend of a couple of smokes and stand and pleasantly natter as the horses turned through their figures of eight: a recruiting sergeant, no doubt.  Walter realised that now, for nothing about the army was straight, and as he made his way there in early September, determined to enlist at the second attempt, he imagined returning to Riverside Road amid a scene of celebration such as accompanied the men who crossed the market most mornings on their way to Crag’s Meadow for their hour of physical jerks, marching almost in step in their hombergs and caps, bowlers, suits and bowties, their coats slung over their shoulders, and a solitary drill sergeant setting the pace alongside them while crowds of well-wishers gathered to applaud and offer them cigarettes and chocolates, including a little old chap by the name of Charlie Champion, who often dressed himself in the style of a soldier, with regimental whiskers and a fading blue uniform that might once have come from the circus, his chest decorated with more medals than there have been campaigns in the last fifty years – which is how long he usually claimed, saluting, to have served his Queen and King and Country – and besides Charlie, all puffed up and saluting, any number of women as well – sweethearts and sisters and mothers – since it seemed that every female in England (excepting Walter’s own mother) was fully in support of the war.

Certainly they were more enthusiastic for the cause than the men he had the misfortune to join that day in the hall at the cavalry barracks, most of them servants from one of the numerous estates on the coast, who had been delivered by train that morning at the expense of their employer, a peer of the realm, who considered it his patriotic duty to sacrifice his butler and footmen and numerous gardeners and estate workers to the needs of the nation (though not his horses, he was firm about that).  This at least was the story the servants gave Walter when he joined them in a queue so much less animated than the one at St Saviour’s, and while every one of those men was passed fit for service, despite their reluctance, Walter alone was refused, and could hardly affect to be disappointed since he would not have wanted to spend another minute in such miserable company, whether in Flanders or France or six feet under the ground.


3. as if he were a woman

Refused a second time, Walter resolved to wait until he was older since he had shown himself willing, no scrimshanker or coward, and while he wasn’t alone in wanting to go because his pals were all going, and because Kitchener and the King had invited him to, and because so many young women were sporting regimental favours in their hats and lapels, and because certain young women were pressing white feathers on the men who remained, and because the Germans were slaughtering blameless women and children in Belgium – and because it might soon be all over – he would have been happy to ignore the new canvas banner that appeared on the railings outside St Saviour’s Street Barracks the following spring – STILL OPEN AND RECRUITING! – and the new poster that went up everywhere a month or so later – WOMEN OF BRITAIN SAY “GO!” – but that a company of Scotchmen came to be billetted among them, two hundred Celts in grey kilts who spent a fortnight living out of the Corn Hall and got around on army-issue bicycles, tringing their bells as they passed down Riverside Road, their white thighs flashing by and the children all gawping, their mothers nudging each other and cackling.

They were a popular sight, an uplifting spectacle, though of course they could be raucous, gathering in the rowdies around about to fight among themselves and get drunk and sing such stirring and sorrowful songs, and it was in one of those dives that something must have been said to his father Eddie Barley – something friendly – since he came home one evening all smiles and slung a heavy arm around Walter’s shoulder and drew him into the sour sweet fug of his breath.  ‘Come along with me, son,’ he said, and stroked Walter’s belly as if he were a woman, and softly belched and said, ‘let’s us two go and do our duty like these Scotchmen, eh?  You and me, come on, what d’you say?’

Walter said nothing – he hardly dared breathe – and Eddie flared; his eyes briefly blazed as he pushed Walter away.

‘Oh fuck you then.  I’ll go and fight the fucking Krauts on my own.’

And though Walter called after him as he stumbled from the house into the darkness of that midsummer’s evening – ‘It’ll be shut, Dad, we can go in the morning!’ – Eddie wasn’t listening and wouldn’t come back, not that evening at least, perhaps not at all.

Neither Walter nor his siblings nor their mother had any idea where Eddie slept when he went missing, as he periodically would, and neither were they ever much surprised by the sorry state of him when eventually he returned – sometimes weeks later, bearded and hungry and in need of a wash – but when the following morning Walter climbed the half dozen steps to the hall at St Saviour’s, wearing his new bowler to make himself seem taller, and determined again to enlist, he hardly expected to find his father already installed at the head of the queue, still less to find him shaven and wearing a collar and tie.

The clamour of the previous August and September was by then gone, but still the hall was thick with the noise and rank smell of dozens of men, and once his eyes had adjusted to the gloomy interior after the brightness outside Walter confirmed that no one else in that hall was smarter, more crisply turned out than Eddie Barley, and as he waited to present himself once again at the recruiting sergeant’s desk – puffed up with an odd sort of pride in his father, feeling two inches taller at least – he began in his imagination to anticipate the adventure that was in store for them, some rifles and ammo and a ship out to France, a few Hun to knock over and a month or so of fine French sunshine and fillies and wine, and even sooner than that – his mind now aswirl with red, white and blue bunting – Walter imagined the sergeant’s hearty hand on his shoulder, and the weight of the King’s shilling in his pocket, and the moment of bursting through the door to his mother’s kitchen and flinging his coin on the table and announcing, ‘I’ve enlisted! I signed up with Kitchener’s army!’

He pictured all of this as he stood in that line – and pictured as well the pharmacist’s daughter’s delight if she were to see him in khaki – but what he failed to anticipate was the obligation on every new recruit to submit to a medical inspection, so when he arrived before the sergeant and saw a group of men disrobing behind a single, inadequate screen – his own father among them – and realised that he too would be required to strip naked under the gaze of that room full of men, many of them also unclothed, and none as young as he was – with tattoos on their biceps and forearms, and body hair, and darker fatter penises, such as his father was now displaying – his courage deserted him and he mumbled an apology, confessed to being under age, and turned and hurried from the hall.

Which was the first and only occasion on which Walter Barley disobeyed a command, the sergeant calling after him to come back at once, to come back and be a man.