This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. To commemorate the occasion, we are serialising William’s short story, The Bridge, which is set against the backdrop of the infamous battle, which took place between 17th and 26th September 1944.
ADVISORY: This story contains adult themes and occasional strong language.
THE BRIDGE: PART 3
She lay awake, the anxiety heavy in her chest. It was very quiet in spite of all the British paras who had been deployed around the bridge and throughout the village. She could not shake this feeling of apprehension, she knew something terrible was about to befall them all. The Germans could not allow the British to deny them access to the bridge and they would come to destroy them. The sergeant had confided to Jan the fact that the presence of the Panzers had been unknown to them and that it would not be possible for the lightly armed paratroops to hold out for more than a couple of days against an armoured attack. She eased herself up and leaned back against the headboard. Her husband woke with a start.
‘What is it Marie? Can’t you sleep?’
‘I’m afraid, Jan, terribly afraid. The Germans are going to tear into those wretched boys soon and I believe there is going to be the most awful bloodshed. Those are not Italians down there, they’re British paratroops and listening to them talking I don’t think they understand that they might be beaten. They have been conditioned to believe in their own invincibility and the possibility does not occur to them. The only one who seems to appreciate the danger they are in is the sergeant. I think that colonel is a medal-chasing idiot.’
‘Oh come on, Marie, that’s a bit hard. He is a British officer and according to the sergeant a professional soldier, not just a wartime conscript.’
‘Which proves my point exactly. Jan, can’t you see they’re all the same? Whether they are British, German, French, they have been at each other’s throats for centuries and it’s small countries like ours who get dragged into their madness.’
‘But they’ve come to liberate us, Marie.’
‘Yes, Jan, I know. They will wreck our house, raze our village and kill most of our neighbours, and then we shall be free.’
‘You might be right. I know you have no love for any of them, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. Get some sleep. We might not get much chance soon.’
The explosion blew the windows in. Had the heavy curtains not been drawn, the girl would have been lacerated by flying glass. She bolted upright and began to scream uncontrollably. The doctor rushed into the room and gathered her in his arms, trying to calm her terror.
‘Alright, darling, shush now. Papa is here. Come now, stop crying. We must all go down to the cellar. It was foolish to go to our beds as if everything was normal. Come, sweetheart, come.’
There was pandemonium outside and he knew he must get them all to where they would be safe from stray fire and small ordnance. He tried to raise his daughter but she had begun to whimper softly. His wife entered the room. He could see she was making every effort to compose herself but she was obviously terrified. She crossed to the window and drew back what was left of the curtains. A cry came up from the pit of her stomach.
‘Oh God. Oh sweet Jesus. Jan, they’re on fire. These men are on fire, oh God, oh God…’
She repeated the words over and over, not crying now, but almost to herself. She had clutched the lapels of her dressing gown together and held them tightly under her chin as if to offer protection, and as she moaned she moved up and down on her toes, rising and falling in rhythm with the words. The doctor released his daughter and crossed the room to his wife.
‘Marie, for God’s sake come away from the window, you’ll be killed.’
He looked at the horror below. The Germans had attempted to cross the bridge and the paras had hit them when they had little room for manoeuvre. The leading vehicle, a light armoured car, had been hit by some sort of anti-tank weapon, its cargo of ammunition had exploded and it was on fire. Following was an assortment of armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles. The bridge was blocked and the column backed up into the darkness beyond. The leading personnel carrier had also been hit and was ablaze, its human cargo already dead or burning to death as he watched. The paratroops, concealed behind the parapets and newels of the bridge, were raking the column with machine gun and rifle fire. It was a massacre. His attention was drawn by some activity immediately below, just outside the house. Two paratroopers were lying in the road operating what appeared to be a length of guttering with a bipod at the front and a shoulder stock and trigger guard at the back. One pulled the stock close into his shoulder whilst the other loaded a kind of small bomb into it. He then gave his comrade a pat on the head. There was a loud report from the weapon and immediately a second personnel carrier exploded in flames. He felt his wife suffer a small spasm and, looking at her, he saw that she had vomit running down her chin and over her hands and clothes. Her eyes were staring, glazed over, expressionless, and he knew that if he didn’t get her away and sedated quickly she might suffer catatonic withdrawal. Moving her back, he sat her down on his daughter’s bed. She was also in severe shock and was rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped in a self embrace, like an insecure child. He picked up the corner of the sheet and wiped the dribble from her mouth.
‘Drush, listen to me, darling. I want you to take your mother to the cellar quickly. I have to go to see if I can help the injured. I have no one else I can rely on. Please, Drush, come on now.’
He knew that if he could get her to do something she might avoid the more serious consequences of shock. She turned to face him then smiled.
‘All right, Papa. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.’
She moved over to her mother and embraced her. But he knew that she also was very close to the edge.
The sergeant and the girl were together in the pantry arranging medical supplies. The jars of bottled fruit and other assorted comestibles had been piled in the corner of the small room and the shelves were now full of bandages, dressings, ointments and all the other pathetic paraphernalia of the field hospital. He wondered how long this would last against the rising tide of casualties which the battle was inflicting. The ferocity of the conflict was increasing by the hour.
‘Another MO bought it today. If we lose many more medics your dad will be overwhelmed. We still have plenty of morphine though, which is something.’
‘Are you a medic, Sergeant?’
‘No Miss, I’m what’s called the Orderly Room Sergeant.’
‘What’s the Orderly Room?’
‘It’s the administrative office of a military unit. It’s where the colonel runs the battalion. Like your front room right now, Miss. It’s the room where a lot of people who have no idea what they are doing make a bloody mess. That’s why it’s called the Orderly Room, as opposed to the Mess which is a bright, shiny, well-ordered sort of canteen, usually run by people who know exactly what they are doing.’
They both began to laugh. He looked at her and saw her differently now. It was the first time he had seen her smile and he was touched as it lighted her lovely young face, framed now by her unbraided flaxen hair.
‘What’s your name, Sergeant? You’ve been here nearly a week now and all we’ve called you is Sergeant. You must have a name.’
Still smiling at her, he shook his head slightly.
‘Tommy Atkins, Miss. It’s Tommy Atkins. But you may call me Tommy.’
‘Tommy. That’s what the Germans call the British soldiers, isn’t it, Tommy?’
‘Among other things, Miss.’
‘Tommy Atkins. That’s a nice name.’
‘And very famous, Miss. I’ve got a song written about me, a ballad.’
She looked at him smiling at her and she was overcome with an emotion she had never felt before. She wanted very much to touch him and for him to hold her. She was afraid, yet she wished the excitement of this strange new experience would last forever. ‘You are teasing me, Tommy. Don’t tease me, please.’
He looked at her, at her tender yet expectant expression. He wanted to take her to him, mellow in the warmth of her. But he knew it could not be.
‘Oh Drush, don’t do this to me, love. Not here. Not in this terrible time.’
Her young heart opened to him as a spring flower is touched by the sun. She stretched out both her hands and touched his roughened cheeks. He drew her to him and they kissed, clumsily at first, teeth striking, but then more warmly. Not passionately, but innocently with lips closed.
‘Tommy, I love you. I love you so much. Please tell me you love me too, Tommy, please.’
He pushed her gently back, holding her by the shoulders at arm’s length. She saw that his eyes had welled with tears. As he spoke his voice broke with despair.
‘Yes, Drush, yes, but what’s the point? What’s the bloody point? Look at me, love, I’m a British paratrooper, I’ve been sent here by a bunch of old men to fight in yet another bullshit battle where I’m expected to take on tanks with a poxy sten gun. Yes, I love you, Drush. God in heaven, why wouldn’t I love you? I’m twenty years old, my comrades are being killed and mutilated in droves, I’m tired and I’m scared shitless. Of course I love you, you are my only joy, my only hope, my only peace in this maelstrom. You are the only thing keeping me from going stark raving mad. But it isn’t right.’
As the tears seamed his grimy face, they drew together again. She began to sob against his chest and he stroked her hair gently. He was calmer now and his voice became more tender.
‘Don’t you understand, Drush? I love you so much, but I’m probably going to die, so it isn’t right, it just isn’t right.’
Check back on Sunday for the next part, or read the whole story now by downloading the ebook: