France, 1916

They’d been pulled out of the line and given leave in a small French town which, by some odd miracle, had escaped damage from the war even though it was only fifteen miles from the front. Many of the lads were in bars or dipping their whicks in brothels. Many of the men were replacements, so many of the old faces were gone now.

 The regiment had been hit hard at the Sommes, so many men had died, and for what? Better not to think on that now, too much pain, too many friends long gone. Captain Thomas Ferguson was walking down the street and watching the men and women who were intermixed as a great writhing mass of humanity. Women of ill repute promised Heaven to any who’d lay down the money. Merchants sold anything and everything, clocks, they had them, souvenirs, they had them, the Kaiser’s undershirt, had that too. He realized as he walked that he was not enjoying himself, not in the least.

 Veronica had visited once before when they’d gotten leave, after Gallipoli, they’d dined and celebrated being alive, then made love for the first time. The faces of men he’d known passed before his eyes, their names, faces, and deaths were forever burned into his memory. Gallipoli had been the regiment’s first taste of action, for far too many it had been their last. He relived that dreadful experience as he walked, flashes of horror, humanity, and indeed comedy flashing before him like a motion picture, but with sound and smells added.

 He realized he’d stopped walking and shook himself free of the past. It was then he wondered what Doc was up too. The platoon medic for his old platoon was a mystery. He was an American who’d been in England when war was declared and joined to be a medic. He’d been in France for the Christmas Truce, being one of those that had been chosen to be transferred from the Western Front. He’d been assigned to them before Gallipoli and had become known as a heavy drinker and the man who didn’t get close to many. Frank Rudd was a good man, he’d just been thru to much.

Ferguson looked up and saw two khaki legs hanging over the edge of a building. Somehow he knew it was Rudd. He made his way around the back of the building and found a ladder there. He hesitated for a moment, not sure if he should climb up and interupt the medic’s reverie or not. Finally he decided to go up, better to spend time with someone who knew how it was, plus he always had liquor upon him. He climbed the ladder and as he cleared the white stone that made up the outer walls he saw Rudd sitting, bottle of wine in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other.

He stepped on to the roof, purposely making a noise to ensure Rudd knew he was there. Rudd didn’t turn, just drank from the bottle of wine and took a drag from the cigarette. Ferguson walked up to him and sat down beside him, legs dangling over the edge too. Rudd didn’t say a word, just handed him the bottle. He drank deeply and looked out over the rooftops towards the horizon. He gasped as he noticed flashes on the horizon. When there was an occasional dull boom he thought it was thunder at first. “That’s the front.” Rudd said, as if reading his mind. “Dear God.” Ferguson said, taking the bottle and drinking again. Rudd laughed, he wasn’t very religious himself. “We’ll be going back up there in a couple of days.” He said, no emotion behind the words. He’d seen too much to have the prospect of going back effect him. He was so detached that many thought he was a heartless bastard. Ferguson understood it was his way of staying sane. “We will be up there soon enough, God help us.” Ferguson said. Rudd finally looked at him, the look in his eyes saying so much at once. Yet empty, distant. “Your insurance up to date?” He asked, his tone flat, still no emotion. Ferguson laughed despite himself. “God, you know how to cheer a man up don’t you?” He said, laughing still. Rudd smiled, the black humor he employed being special. Once, when a camera crew was at the front, he’d set up a table and had some of the men playing cards, with their gas masks on. “I try, sir, I try.” Rudd replied. They both looked out to the man made thunderstorm. Both with his own thoughts, his own dreads and dreams. The wine bottle passed between them and they said very little.