THE MAN WHO WASN’T BRAVE ENOUGH TO BE A COWARD
The hardest war anybody fought inside Canada was the struggle every "R-man" faced alone: the battle between his conscience and the temper of the times. Such a man was called a zombie — he couldn't be conscripted and wouldn't volunteer. This is the story of one tough-minded zombie and why he changed his mind
A new look by a famous Canadian novelist at the war years of the 1940s
THE WOUND that got George Ballantyne, the eager warrior, out of the war, was in part responsible for getting Haig Ballantyne, the stolid pacifist, into it.
Haig was completing his basic training at Camp Salute when the radio brought the first news of Dieppe. He lived in a state of deep anxiety for two days, remembering better than he’d remembered in a very long time how kind and strong and generous a brother George had really been to him. Even through the haze of censorship it was not hard to deduce that Dieppe had been a great disaster and that, as a combat soldier of the Second Division. George had almost certainly been among the victims. It was impossible to shut out the image of his kind, strong, generous— and yes, in his own way, proud— brother George lying dead and perhaps still unburied on the far-off foreign shore or being marched off, broken, hungry and humiliated, into some even farther and more foreign abyss of barbed-wire and dungeon keeps. When George’s wife telephoned the news from the defense department that George was safely wounded back in England Haig blurted aloud: “Oh, thank God!”, a blasphemous, incongruous and wholly shameful observation considering its source; for Haig did not have a god and if he had had one he’d have wished anything but thanks for such seedy little enterprises as Dieppe and for that matter, Tours, Agincourt, Crecy, the Plains of Abraham, Gettysburg, Passchendaele and the whole goddamned — damned well and truly and eternally by any god worthy of the name — lot of them.
But Haig’s relief for George was so warm and genuine that he sat right down and wrote him a long letter. At first he tried not to put too much sentiment into it, but then, because he knew this would please George more than anything he could possibly say, he inserted a tender thought about their sister Hazel and even cooked up a couple of recollections to support it.
Toward the end of the following week, George’s old paper, the Winnipeg Chronicle, carried a three-column story on page one announcing boastfully that George had been awarded the Military Medal. The announcement was datelined London. It was hard to tell exactly what George had done at Dieppe but there was a description of his wound, a lurid account of his having taken out a German pillbox somewhere beyond the beach at Puits, and a summary of his escape by swimming undaunted and alone out into the lonely blood-streaked Channel. It sounded very much as though George had truly earned his medal. Haig had no desire to belittle his brother’s glory, but he had no desire to share in it either. And it was with a feeling of profound dismay that he read, near the end of the Chronicle’s own bragging biographical sketch of its ex-employee, that “a brother of Private Ballantyne, Private Haig Ballantyne, is a member of the Canadian Army reserve.”
As he had known it would, the
news of George's exploit caused two basic kinds of reaction in Haig’s own cranny of the army. His fellow reservists — the handful of men who, like Haig, were still resisting the army’s dogged efforts to nag, coax or frighten them into volunteering for duty overseas — were uneasy, sympathetic and just faintly reproachful. They were tactful but they withdrew a little from Haig, as though some blemish had just been discovered in his blood. But the men who had already volunteered reacted more directly.
Two of them, standing behind Haig at the next meal parade, staged a highly audible colloquy for his particular benefit and for the general benefit of the whole training platoon.
“I guess the little bastard will be ashamed to stay out now,” one said.
“Yeah, he’ll go active now for sure. Christ, if my brother went through a thing like that—”
Haig had built up a partial immunity. He’d been subjected to endless such taunts and insults but had always
been sustained by the certainty of his present fortitude and wisdom and of his ultimate vindication by history. It was a hard, mean game the politicians and the generals were playing in the hope of raising a conscript army without making conscription legal and official. But Haig kept reassuring himself that he could be as hard and mean as anybody; they might think they were getting to him, but they weren't. They had got to most of the others, one by one and by various methods, but they weren’t getting to him. If they wanted him in the trenches, let them pass a law and take every man in his lawful turn. Why should he. Haig Ballantyne, make a public display of his guts and then, most likely, yield them up on some remote and stinking battlefield merely in order that the prime minister and the other members of the government might be spared the inconvenience of standing up in the House of Commons or on the hustings and displaying theirs? If any.
But it was a hard, mean game that all of them were playing. At Camp Salute — which of course was only a nickname to express the distaste of newly ex-civilians for the simpler absurdities of the military life — there was at first no hostility between the R men and the A men, or even anything that could be called coolness. Since most R, or reserve men, went A, or active, within a week or two anyway there was, in most cases, no occasion for it.
But later the climate of their ninetyman hut came to be as carefully and expertly managed as though it were controlled by a thermostat. The visible differences between the R men and the A men began to achieve some importance, not only within the hut and within the camp but on the civvy streets outside. An active soldier wore the cap badge of the corps to which he would soon be posted: the infantry, the artillery, the engineers, ordinance or the service corps. A reserve soldier wore a noncommital maple leaf.
Co wards or idealists, the zombies caved in one by one
An active soldier had badges saying “Canada” on his shoulders and the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal on his chest. A reserve soldier had nothing on his shoulders and nothing on his chest.
And then, by degrees, less palpable differences began to make themselves apparent. The daily Part One orders began, with some regularity, to order the R men in the hut to report for special parades, while the A men carried on with their foot and rifle drill and the kitchen and hut fatigues. One rainy day there were, by an actual count that escaped no one's attention, eight A men washing dishes and handling garbage, two more working on the coal pile, two in the latrines, two on the rations truck and one on hut orderly. All twenty-seven R men meanwhile sat snugly in the lecture hut. listening to another exhortation on the evils of fascism and the splendors of democracy.
They were making everything as nice as they could for the R men, one of the recent converts to the active ranks complained, on the assumption that they would all go active just to oblige the NC'Os and officers. That was the way these camps were judged in Ottawa, almost everyone was now agreed — not on how much the graduate privates and gunners knew when they went on to their advanced training centres, but on how' many of them had volunteered to go overseas. In the meantime the brave and honest volunteers did fatigues for the Maple Leaf Wonders and the Mother's Boys. And then, w'ithout warning, the R men w'ould for a w-hile draw all the fatigues. And for a w'hile the little cotery of officers and NC’Os who took the daily parade inspections would walk past the A men without remark, glancing in silent approval only at their Canada badges and
their volunteer service ribbons. During these climatic changes the company commander would almost invariably stop before at least one R man and point his swagger stick at an exposed gaiter buckle or a protruding shoelace and say: “Mr. Johnson, this man has spoiled your whole platoon. What’s his name?” The company commander would say: “Rossosky,
sir,” or “Robertson, sir.” The company commander would stare hard, as though trying to forget some distasteful secret, and say: “Yes, 1 know that name.” Once he commented on the imperfectly shined shoes of one R man, the not quite immaculate gaiters of another and the only moderately polished cap badge of a third, and as lie returned the subaltern’s parting salute he said loudly, so that the whole platoon could hear: “Mr. Johnson, most of the men in your platoon are playing ball. But I won’t put up with this sloppiness by a few. You will confine the entire platoon to barracks for the next two days.”
Almost every day two or three of , the R men were fallen out of the squad and told to report to the company commander’s office. Sometimes they returned looking virtuous and a little sheepish, avoiding the anxious glances of the other R men. Sometimes they were sullen and defiant. It was never hard to tell whether they’d changed their minds. By midsummer there were only nine R men left in the platoon of ninety.
Even before Dieppe and the long new thoughts about his brother George, Haig had begun to wonder a trifle defensively about the total motives of his eight colleagues and with growing belligerency about his own. No two of them, he had been forced to concede, saw the issues exactly the same. Forsee, a spectacularly stupid
farm boy from Northern Manitoba, was not qualified to spell Hitler, much less to fight him. Rossosky and Robertson were cowards plain and simple; the only principle they were capable of standing on was the principle that they didn’t want to get hurt. Two other men, there was almost incontrovertible evidence to show, were not lacking in courage but they were homosexuals: they loved the army, loved it for its environment and its opportunities, which could not possibly be improved on and might be seriously impaired by their transfer to a theatre of combat.
One other man clung to an uncluttered pragmatism. “It’s all right for those other bastards,” he confided to Haig one day on the way to the canteen. “They never had it so good. Half of them were on relief. But this has cost me a lot already. I was making forty-five a week.” Still another was so mad with passion for his new wife and the new delights of marriage that the mere thought of putting an ocean between them drove him, almost literally, to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Marcel Benoit, a voluble little truckdriver from St. Boniface, was the only one of the last holdouts, who had been affected, even obliquely, by the intimations of history.
“That for de bloody h’English,” he squalled, not caring in the least who heard. “Las’ time, nineteen seventeen, dey crucify de bes’ Canadian who ever live’, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Dey lie. Dey say no conscription. Den, vite, dey got it. My h’uncle, he get kill’. For who? For de h’English an’ he hate deir guts h’all de time and so do I. Now dis Mackenzie King, he say no conscription again and what’s de sonofabitch tryin’ to do? He’s tryin’ to conscrip’ me just like Borden conscrip’ my h’uncle. If dat King and dose h’English want me to fight anudder of deir wars, dey can bring it over here. Den I’ll fight it good.”
After a final private interview with the company commander, Benoit was transferred, mysteriously but speedily, to a Quebec battalion that had been assigned to the defense of the west coast of Vancouver Island. The day he left, he gave Haig a private, triumphant wink. “Stick wit’ it,” he said. "If ’e gets you alone, wit’out witnesses, jus’ look dat Major right in de h'eye and tell him to go — himself. W’en ‘e see you really mean business,
’e’ll do what ’e did wit’ me — get rid of you. 'E don’t want you spoilin' de camp record.”
But Haig was still determined, in spite of the growing isolation, not only to have his victory, but to have it on his own lofty and uncompromising terms. Almost every day the objective became more murky and the task of holding to it more complicated. A week before their sixty days of basic training ended the two fairies went active after all. If they didn’t, the camp commandant had warned them, one of them would be posted to Halifax and the other to British Columbia; if they did he’d arrange for them both to go to Barrie in the same draft. One of the two clearly identifiable cowards, Rossosky, signed up for the service corps after the platoon lance-corporal took him out behind the drill shed and cut him quietly to ribbons in what everyone except Rossosky, who was not consulted, agreed was a fair, clean stand-up fist fight. The fortyfive-dollar-a-week pragmatist, when invited to a similar test of his patriotism, declined and enlisted in the engineers. The last word for the last two recalcitrants came down from the major himself at a special company commander’s parade for the whole platoon.
The major walked with a permanent list. He stood with a permanent list, his whole left side adroop under the weight of his old campaign ribbons. His sharp sallow face listed beneath the scraggly grey counterbalances of a mustache which he allowed to grow too long because it would not grow thick enough. His speech listed; he began his longer sentences strongly and confidently, but they trailed off and fell away in threshing shadows. Some of the individual words listed. He pronounced “ing” like “een.”
The major was smiling and his yellowing teeth listed humorlessly beneath the smile. “Well, men,” he said, “I have good news for you. At least I think it will be good news for you. You’ve been traineen hard and workeen hard and I know you’ve found companionship and a new sense of purpose and I know you've profited by the experience of the, ah, experience.”
The major paused. “And now,” he said, “you will soon be goeen away. I shouldn’t tell you when you will be goeen, but you have been such good continued overleaf
The room was silent—except for the hard crash of fists
soldiers here that I was just sayeen to Mr. Johnson 1 don’t believe there has been a finer platoon in camp than Number Nine and I have been watcheen men come and go ever since.”
One of the two fairies, lounging at the stand-easy in the rear file just behind Haig, whispered to the other fairy: “Good old Wylie! A prince among men.”
'‘You will be goeen on to your advanced traineen centres in five days from today.” The major deliberately underplayed the drama and waited for the ragged cheer to subside.
“Some of us”—the major made a stalwart adjustment to the list of his shoulders — “some of us will have to stay behind. But our thoughts go with you. 1 think all of you know a bit about my own small record and when 1 think of the humble part I have been able to play as a soldier of the British Empire 1 can’t help thinkeen of the humble part and envyeen, yes envyeen.”
“A heart as big as all outdoors,” one of the fairies whispered.
“But you don't want to hear a speech,” the major protested. “There’s just one thing I want to say. You will be goeen on to other camps where you will find that they are not as generous in giveen you leaves as we have tried to be here. And before you go, as a reward for your fine performance here, 1 want you all to have a leave with your families because you may not for a long time. I
This sfory is port of Roiph Allen's novel The High White Ground to be published in October (Doubleday, $5.95).
have put the matter up to the colonel.”
Under cover of another, much louder cheer, one of the fairies said aloud, “When they made old Wylie, they threw the mold away.”
“And not a damn bit too soon,” the other added.
“The colonel consented,” the major went on. “On one simple little condition. It's a fair condition. It applies to all the other platoons in the camp and they will be getteen special leaves too if they meet . . .”
The major’s voice positively staggered under its burden of sentiment. “We are proud of the record of this camp. Oh, I know you call it Camp Salute and I know exactly why.” He listed forward companionably and confidentially, gathering them into the embrace of his yellow listing smile. “I was a private once, you see, just as some of you will be majors some day and yes, even colonels and brigadiers.”
He waited for the nobility of his admission to sink in. “Yes, we’re proud of the record of Camp Salute. When we can send out a draft that is one hundred percent active we are proud and we know that you are proud too because in the final analysis. Today is, let's see, Wednesday. The drafts to your new traineen centres go out on Monday. So that leaves nearly two days. If good old Number Nine platoon can show a one-hundred-percent-active roster by Thursday night the whole platoon will go out on seventy-two-hour passes on Friday morning and Em confident. It
just means all pulleen together and talkeen it over among yourselves. I know that some of you, perhaps for what seem to you to be good personal reasons, haven’t been as fast as the rest to decide about goeen active, but 1 know that no man in Number Nine would want to deprive his whole platoon of the last leave they'll be getteen for a long time and I know even if he did. So talk it over among yourselves and pull together among yourselves, this is your own decision and it’s none of the business of your officers and NCOs. And after all that’s the British way, the way that means so much to all of us.”
The major smiled affably and listed to attention. “That’s all, Mr. Johnson.”
Before the subaltern gave the order for dismissal, Haig glanced down the length of the middle rank. The men closest to him were glancing speculatively in his direction and four places away, in the direction of Jerry Needham, the only other R man left, the man who was mad for the love of his wife and the love of his marriage.
“See you two guys in North Africa,” one of the fairies giggled, more in sympathy than in malice.
Everything went into suspended animation for the rest of the day. No one said anything in particular to Haig or to Jerry Needham during the remaining drill and small weapons periods or, so far as it could be ascertained, avoided saying anything in particular either. Supper was no
quieter or more noisy than usual. None of the A men spoke directly to Haig except to say “Pass the ketchup” and “Pass the bread,” but that was all they’d been saying to him anyway during the last week or two. Haig decided he would play it by ear, doing whatever he had to do as its necessity made itself apparent.
Nearly all the A men asked for and received midnight passes. Haig saw an early movie in the drill hall and then went to bed. Jerry Needham was already asleep, or pretending to be asleep, in a lower five bunks away. Three or four soldiers were doing laundry in the washroom, three or four others were lying in their bunks reading or writing letters and a handful more were playing or kibitzing a desultory game of hearts.
At midnight the hut was dark and quiet and still nearly empty. The beds were silhouetted flat and naked in the sludgy bath of starlight from the windows. There was no sound but the occasional heaving of a restless body against the creak of bedsprings and now and then a quiet cough. The room smelled empty; it was warm, but much fresher than usual. The washroom door had been closed, but a slab of yellow light fell through its crack across the middle of the floor.
Haig looked at the luminous dial of his watch. Ten past. There was a sound of scuffling feet in the gravel outside the open, screened front doorway. They wouldn’t all come in together. Two or three or half-a-dozen
continued on page 30
THE UNSUCCESSFUL COWARU
continued from page 24
A little after-dark persuasion with a flashlight some wine — and the threat of violence
at a time. The screen door squeaked open and then slammed noisily shut. “Not so much noise!" somebody complained from one of the bunks near the end of the room.
Two tearful voices were singing from one of the dark corner bunks.
// / had my way dear.
You’d never grow old—
The far end of the hut had filled now with aimless milling figures. One of them detached itself, threw open the double doors to the washroom and propped them apart by jamming two bayonet scabbards between their lower edges and the floor. The middle of the hut between the two rows of two-tiered bunks was a flood of pale light. A babel of excited whispers broke out at the far end and a bottle rang a hollow high C against the iron of a bedstead. The whispering quieted and a swaying file of shadows moved down the hut through the slab of light from the washroom door and merged in a knot in the corridor between the beds. Haig propped himself on one elbow and watched, drymouthed, tense and wary. The only form recognizable from its shape was the tall and bulky one of a soldier named Lister. Lister broke away from the clump of other shapes and led the way to Jerry Needham’s bunk. Jerry Needham was still shamming sleep beneath his blankets. Lister looked down for a few moments. Six men sat down on the bunk, three on each side. The covers stirred blackly and then were still again.
The glaring beam of a flashlight stabbed through the darkness, played on the white corner of the pillow and focused on Jerry Needham's face. Needham's face was white and slack and his eyes were two startled slashes of copper, like the eyes of a cat
caught in automobile headlights.
“Wake up, Needham!” The words broke the silence permanently.
“Shut up. I’ll handle this.” Haig could make out Lister’s heavy features now. thrust close behind the flashlight, close to the white face on the pillow. “It’s me, Jerry. AI Lister.”
“Hello, AÍ.” Jerry Needham’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the light. His voice tried to duplicate the casual warmth of the other. It failed: it was a scared voice.
“Good old Jerry.” Lister leaned forward with the torch. The six soldiers seated on the edges of the bed leaned forward and down, pinioning Jerry Needham beneath the blankets. Lister’s free hand reached down and patted the right cheek of the face on the pillow. And then, not exactly heavily but sharply, it slapped each cheek three times. There was no sound of protest.
“Like a drink, Jerry?’
“No thanks, AÍ.”
“Sure he does. Give him a drink. Where’s the jug of goof?”
Another hand thrust the neck of a bottle into the beam of the torch. It glinted purple in the light as it probed for the lips of the man imprisoned under the blankets and the wine spilled over the lips and rolled down Jerry Needham’s flabby chin in a red smear. Needham tried to rub it off by squirming one shoulder beneath the blankets but the six men who held him in the vise of their bodies leaned forward again, pinioning him closer than before. Lister curled a fringe of the top blanket in his free hand and swabbed the chin dry with delicate, over-solicitous dabs.
“All right, Jerry?”
“All right AÍ.”
“That’s not the first drink we've had together, Jerry.” Lister turned his head away from Needham but he still held the flashlight close to his face. “Me and Jerry used to kick around a lot w'hen we first come here,” he said to their assembled comrades. “Me and Jerry are pals. Ain’t we, Jerry?”
"Ain’t we Jerry?” he repeated.
“Ain't we what?” For the first time
Jerry Needham spoke with a hint of spirit.
“Pals.” Lister moved his free hand an inch or two.
“Sure,” Needham said, fully co-operative again.
“Sure what, Jerry?”
“What do you mean, AÍ?” Needham asked anxiously.
“That’s what I mean, Jerry. AÍ. Just AÍ. You remember my name. Jerry. You just said it. It’s AI. Teil them what we are, Jerry. Tell the boys right.”
“We’re pals, AI.”
Lister patted one of the cheeks and then slapped the two cheeks again, three times on each side as he had done before, but this time harder.
“Well, Jerry,” Lister said. “I guess you know what the boys have been
saying.“ He moved the flashlight closer, so close it was almost touching Needham’s nose.
“The boys have been saying you're yellow, Jerry,” Lister said. “That hurt. The boys say you’re not only yellow, but you're terribly, terribly selfish. The boys say you don't care if we get our leave tomorrow or not. The boys say you'd do us out of it.
"I don't like that kind of talk. Jerry,” Lister went on staunchly. “And the talk isn't the worst part of it, Jerry. The boys were real mad at you. Some of the things they talked about doing — well, they're just sickening. Jerry. Just sickening, that's all.”
Lister took the flashlight away for a moment. "Since we're pals and everything, Jerry, I've been doing my best to talk the boys out of it. I said a little innocent horseplay was okay between friends, but rough stuff just don't go. 1 said it was all right to do like this.”
Lister's foot scraped against the floor as he bent forward across the bed. He drew his free hand back to the level of his shoulder and slapped Needham hard across the mouth, twenty times or more. Each slap made a sick crash in the silent room.
“That's all right. Jerry.” Lister said when he was done. “That’s between pals. I told the boys you wouldn't mind that.’’
Needham tried to twist his face toward the pillow. He ran his dry tongue across the blood on his swollen, lacerated lips.
"1 told the boys you'd go active in a minute, Jerry,” Lister said. “I told the boys if we’d put it up to you man to man there wouldn't be any argument. And there wouldn’t, either. Would there, Jerry?”
Needham began to open his eyes, but the harsh light from the torch ground them shut again.
“Would there, Jerry?”
"1 don't know. AI. know.-’
I just don't
"You don't know! you're still not ready to Lister turned around, stunned and solicitous, appealing for help. "Gee. fellahs, whatever old Jerry’s got. he's got it bad.”
"Hell. AI," one of the men near the back snorted in disgust. "His only trouble is he likes what his wife's got.” “Is that so?' Lister said, as though marvelling over some miracle of science. "Well, well, now, isn't that remarkable?” He returned his attention to Needham. “Why didn’t you tell us in the first place. Jerry?” He sounded as though his feelings had been hurt but also as though, whatever offense he had suffered, he was determined to rise above it. "The fact is, Jerry, that most of us like the same thing. And that's one of the beauties about going active. You’ll get more of it, not less. You must have heard about the way it is in England. Why. Jerry, over there they put it out every night just like the milk bottles. It comes as regular as the BBC News. If that's all you’re worrying about—”
"His wife’s special,” the man at the back said. "He just got married.”
Oh. Is that right, Jerry?”
Needham kept his eyes tightly closed. He lay perfectly still, seeking
refuge in some other world, trying to seal off his senses.
“Maybe we should know more about this,” Lister said. "How we gonna help him if we don’t have more details?”
“He hides his mail under the mattress,” the man at the back reported.
“Well then.” Lister said, “we better just have a look at it. When it comes to helping my pal Jerry here 1 say we better leave no stone unturned.”
One of the other men groped beneath the mattress and handed a sheaf of papers to Lister. A photograph fell to the floor. Lister picked it up and held it to the flashlight while the others pressed around.
“Man, O man!” someone shouted. “Man O man! That Jerry!”
“Hey, lemme out of here!” Another man pretended suffocation.
“Now I wonder,” Lister speculated judicially, “what a dish like that could sec in a miserable little zombie like my old pal, Jerry Needham. Let’s see.” He put the photograph aside and held a letter up in its place. “Maybe we can find a clue here.” “Nice handwriting,” a man leaning across Lister’s shoulder announced.
“Very nice handwriting,” Lister agreed. “Young. Schoolgirly. That's the best kind there is. Jerry's got taste.”
“What’s it say?” someone demanded.
“Well it begins all right. If it ends any better I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it.”
“Read, goddamn it. Lister!”
“Okay, okay. Keep your shirt on. We got all night and there's lots more. It starts like this. It starts — ” Lister dropped his voice in a husky parody of Charles Boyer: “ ‘My wild and lovely darling lover—’ ”
In a desperate writhing convulsion Needham threw himself momentarily free of the men holding him down and clutched at the letter. Lister stepped back as Needham’s captors grabbed him and pinned him down again.
“Shall I go on, Jerry?” Lister asked levelly. “Shall I continue, wild and darling lover?”
“No. For God’s sake, no,” Needham sobbed. “Put the picture back. Put the letters back and let go of me.” “And you’ll go active, Jerry?” Lister asked, not without sympathy. “First thing in the morning?”
“First thing in the morning,” Needham said dully.
“Leave him alone,” Lister com-
manded. He led the dark clump of men down the corridor. “This won’t take long,” someone giggled.
Haig jumped off his bunk and stood in the middle of the floor, his bare feet wide apart. Lister stopped directly in front of him.
“How about you, Ballantyne?”
Haig had had a whole afternoon and a whole long evening to rehearse the scene. It was not going exactly as he’d expected it would, but some of the lines were still usable.
“You know how about me,” Haig said. “It’s the same as it is with at least thirty of you before you started caving in. The difference is I’m not caving.”
“No?” Lister temporized. “You sure?”
“Let me tell you one thing before you start,” Haig said. “I’m going to say it in front of all your ninety witnesses and I’ll say it loud enough so they can still be witnesses when I’m tried for murder.”
“Well then say it.”
“I’ll fight any one of you man to man. Even you, Lister. But if you try to do anything to me like you just did to Needham I’ll kill you. I’ll blow your brains out while you’re asleep right in this camp. And if you get away from this camp before I do, I’ll get away from it too. I’ll find out where you’ve gone and I’ll catch up with you and I’ll blow your brains out and that and nothing else will be my sacred lifetime mission.”
“He’s crazy,” someone said uneasily. “He’s gone right off. We better get the M.O.”
“No. Wait a minute.” Lister waved the others back and he and Haig were standing alone in the pool of light from the washroom door, Lister already much thicker and broader and half a head taller and now swelling with a manufactured outrage. The floor had grown unaccountably cold under Haig's bare feet, but he pressed his feet down more firmly, locking his knees against the trembling of excitement and some other feeling that refused to be dismissed.
“Your talk about killing me is just funny,” Lister orated down at him. “What I don’t like is what you said about caving in."
“You know what it means.” Haig’s voice was wavering with excitement. It had shot up half an octave since his venomous announcement of a moment before. “Six weeks ago, Lister, you were talking the same way yourself. No, by God, you w'ere talking
even worse. You were miking like £i commie. I heard you. They all heard. Half of them were cheering you, just as they’re cheering you now. Sure you’d go — in your turn. Just so they made everybody else take his turn. And if they wanted conscription of manpower, how about conscription of wealth? If they wanted to raise their goddamned army like they were running a tag day or a frat rush, let them go ahead, but they better include you out.”
“Shut up!” Lister's bellow fed and reinforced his rage. Then his voice dropped into a virtuous harangue. “Sure 1 bought all that about the principle. Until like anybody with eyes or an ounce of brains I found out how stupid and senseless it was. Principle! Everybody’s got principles, when they make him feel better about doing whatever he wants to do anyway or not doing what he doesn't want to do. Hitler's got principles. Mussolini’s got principles. Stalin’s got principles. You've got principles. Well, I’ve got bad news for you, Ballantyne. I’ve got principles too. And right now the principle I’m working on is that no lily-livered, holier-thanthou, snivelling, welching zombie is going to cheat ninety men out of a seventy-two-hour pass.”
The mention of passes set off an eager, urgent volley of reasoning from the circle of onlookers.
“My God, Haig, I just figured it out in my head. Ninety men times three days is two hundred and seventy days. Almost a whole year's leave that just you, just one man. would be costing this one platoon.”
“It's worse than that, Ballantyne. Everybody’s got so worked up about this leave that if we don't get it, everybody will go on the loose anyway.”
“That’s right, by God. And that’s twenty-eight days each in the glass house. Ninety times twenty-eight — Holy God, it's a lifetime!”
“If you w'on't think of the guys right here in your own hut, Ballantyne, at least you can think of your brother.”
“Yeah, how' about that, Ballantyne? When he hears what a hero you turned out to be that brother of yours will take his medal out and bury it.”
Haig remembered that he’d never been in a fist-light before. George had always intervened, either as the gentle and sagacious peacemaker or, once or tw'ice when Haig had been on the verge of combat with a much larger or stronger boy, as a stand-in. George never lost a light; the undefined corollary seemed to have been that Haig would never have won one. He’d never even learned how to hold his hands. Now' the most dismaying prospect of all was not that he’d be outweighed and overmatched, but that he’d be ridiculous. Not ridiculous by comparison, but innately and independently ridiculous, ridiculous per se.
“You’re all wasting your breath.” His voice still wavered a little but it carried through the hut. “Come on Lister, let’s get it over with.”
Lister threw off his battle-dress jacket. I he men in the circle closed in and pushed them together through the doorway into the big washroom. Then they parted and made a square around the w'alls.
Haig put his feet apart again. Then, prompted by some theatrical stirring toward knight-errantry, he removed the top of his pajamas, folded it, and dropped it into a tin wash basin on one of the wooden tables that ran around three sides of the room.
Lister stepped forward and inspected his firm and lean but hardly formidable chest. Lister had come in with his hands held high in the classic John L. Sullivan stance. But now he lowered them until they reached the
level of his knees. He opened the palms and came slowly across the room, swinging them from side to side. “Look, Ballantyne,” he said contemptuously, "no fists!”
Haig rushed toward him and his first punch actually grazed Lister’s cheek. As he stumbled on past, the heel of Lister’s right hand caught him deafeningly on the left ear. Lister turned and knocked him upright with the other open hand and then sent him spraw'ling to the floor with an-
other fearful backhanded slap against the mouth.
The room was silent except for the hard crash of Lister’s hands, the lurching pad of Haig's bare feet and the two men’s breathing. Lister was breathing evenly and calmly, though a little more loudly than normal; Haig was already panting and gasping. He put his head down and rushed straight ahead. This time his own wild blowmissed completely and all he felt was
continued on pape 35
Lister’s vast hard hand again. He thrust himself off the floor a second time. Lister let him get closer and then sent him spinning past a wall of pale, expressionless faces all the way through a second open doorway into the latrine area. Lister followed him and knocked him down again. Haig reached up and hauled himself half erect by using the upper part of one of the urinals. At first he could not see where Lister was. He wiped a wet splash of blood away from his eyes and half fell across the room. This time he went to his knees without being hit. He pulled himself up once more and once more looked around for Lister.
Instead, the platoon lance-jack was in the centre of the room now. He had one arm up, up good and high so his single stripe was clearly visible and clearly designated as being in use. The lance-jack looked alarmed and so, Haig noticed to his shame and infinite regret, were the faces of the other spectators.
“That’s all,” the lance-jack said hurriedly. “Jesus, Lister! You might have killed him.”
“It was his idea.” Haig still could not find Lister but his voice reflected the same alarm that showed on all the faces.
“Somebody wash him up and see if he needs stitches. If he does I’ll take him to the M.O. The rest of you get to bed.”
"What the hell, corporal?” someone broke in. “What the hell? You said you were taking an overnight pass tonight.”
“Well it’s a good thing I didn’t. Get to bed.”
“Yeah, but what the hell. What about our leaves?”
“Maybe you’ll get them anyway,” the lance-jack said consolingly. “I
guess you did your best anyway. I'll try and talk to the major about it.” Haig needed, as it turned out, seven stitches. The camp medical officer,
half full of whisky and the other half full of resentment at being called away from a snooker game in the officers’ mess, did the job quickly.
“What happened, boy? Fall out a’ bed? 1 gotta put something down on the report. Fall out a’ bed, okay?” "Yes, sir,” Haig mumbled. “Fall
out a’ bed's all right.”
You re one of the R-Men in Nine Platoon, aren t you? What happen’ to the other one tonight? He fall out a' bed too?”
“He’s decided to go active.”
“In restin’. Mos' in'restin'. There
now. you’ll be okay. Just watch that fallin out a’ bed now. Make sure it doesn’t get chronic.” The major
laughed appreciatively and hurried back to the mess to share the witticism.
Haig got to sleep, aching inside and out, just before dawn. No one gave any sign of noting his lonely return to the hut from the medical office. He lay awake trying to consolidate his sense of stoicism and triumph, seeking exultation in the knowledge that he'd stood up to them all, mocked and demeaned and crushed them as utterly as they had set out to mock and demean and crush him. But desperately though he bade them, the feelings he had so painfully earned and dearly paid for would not answer his summons. Lying in the dark and fingering his stitches and his bruises, he carried on a dozen imaginary conversations, made a score of carborundum-hard debating points, won the wonder of a hundred admirers and routed a thousand blind, inane or wilfully malevolent detractors. But they
continued on page 37
were all, he realized with growing desolation, the creatures and creations of a shadow world. In real life, the right circumstances and the right people to test and ratify his own rightness had ceased to exist. He was alone and totally alone, the last survivor of a cause that for most of those who had dropped away had never been a cause at all, but only a convenience and an excuse. Still more agonizingly, he began to ask whether, ifthere was any real way to get to the root of it, even he might be in the grip of some subtle and therefore more insidious form of self-deception. Reason had vanished into a limbo of nonsequiturs. “Say, waiter, I think there's a fly in my soup.” “Well, don’t you know there’s a war on?” . . . “Hitler’s got principles. Right now the principle I’m working on is that nobody’s going to cheat ninety men out of a seventy-two-hour pass.” With a sudden chill of panic he discovered that he, himself, the only audience left to applaud or argue, was showing signs of deafness too.
In all the world only one person had anything like perfect comprehension. That was his bountiful, bouncy, young sister-in-law, Vera Rebchuk Ballantyne. Right now, for the first time, in the middle of the long tormented night, he remembered something about Vera that he hadn’t even noticed at the time. After her father came to live with her and she moved into the apartment, Vera had designated the chesterfield in the livingdining-room as Haig’s bed and insisted he use it rather than the YMCA anytime an overnight brought him into Winnipeg. He’d visited her three times since he’d been drafted. The free lodging had been helpful but Vera herself had been indispensible. She was the most sympathetic and uncritical listener he had ever known or even dreamed of. When, as he had a great need to do, he explained to her, as he did again and again, the moral niceties — not just the niceties either, but the fundamental unassailability — of his military attitude and status, she had understood perfectly and assented both warmly and with a touch of comradely wrath. But now he remembered the little
cloud of last Sunday, remembered it only because it fitted the context of this Wednesday night; fitted it in bleak retrospect, as last year’s small and then unnoticed wound suddenly fits the corps of this year’s love.
Vera, naturally, had been still full of George and Dieppe and George's medal and her own overwhelming devotion. Haig was on a day pass and had to catch an early bus and there had only been a short time to redefine and reaffirm his own position and wait for her eager re-endorsement and her wrathful redismissal of the forces that were arrayed against him. But Vera’s father came in just then and they were talking about George all over again. Just before he left, when Vera followed him to the outer stairway, he had tried to reopen the more complicated subject but Vera still babbled on about George, urging Haig, now that he’d written his first long letter to George, to continue writing regularly. “1 know you have some kind of complex about him,” she said fondly. “And he’s got some kind of complex about you. But you do mean so much to him, Haig. He is so proud of you—so proud of you and so much a worrywart about you too. Oh Haig, George had such an awful time in that awful place, he’s so brave and generous— Haig, please! Write to him again. Write him every week." It was not unnatural for Vera to be dabbing her eyes from happiness and longing and general female weepiness and it was only now in the dark debris of his afterthoughts that the black suspicion came to him: maybe she was changing the subject deliberately; maybe she doesn’t want to discuss my army any more: maybe my hidden hole-in-thecorner of a hell has begun to look small and sordid beside George’s great big, glorious hell, with its headlines and its medals. Maybe — God, not maybe, certainly—I have no right to expect more of Vera than of Barbara. Vera’s only related to me by marriage; Barbara was going to be part of me by marriage.
Losing Barbara Ransome had not really been an undue hardship. They had never been deeply involved. Barbara said that she loved him for his
pure white mind and Haig said he loved her for her pure white body and they sometimes exchanged these sacred sentiments in public, making bright conversation on double dates. With the war almost two years old and the traffic from the campus to the services growing steadily, ;t '.vas the fashionable thing to be engaged. It was also still moderately fashionable — although this fashion was going out — for earnest young women to beseech their chosen ones to stay away from the battlefields and for pseudo-cynical young men to promise, with highly contradictory gleams in their eyes and strong alluring smells in their nostrils and ancient lusts churning in their bowels, that staying away from the battlefields would remain their firmest and if need be final end in life. The young men continued to go to the war and the young women continued to wave good-bye.
Haig soon perceived how difficult it was becoming for Barbara. Even though controls, the pools and government interference had left the Grain Exchange in ruins, Barbara’s father was still one of the biggest men in Winnipeg. He was head of the current war savings drive and Barbara’s mother, “one of the most popular matrons in River Heights,” was head of the current drive for salvaging tin, cigarette foil and paper. Right up to the time Haig came back from camp on his first leave Barbara nevertheless continued to assure him that he must on no account even consider wavering. But she was a terrible actress; she was so unnecessarily vehement that it had become perfectly clear she was wavering herself. It was a relief to them both to get it over with in a single evening.
He’d come in to Winnipeg to attend a June dance sponsored by Barbara’s sorority. Bundles for Britain. Half the men were in uniform. To his annoyance and faint discomfort, he discovered himself looking around to see how many others were without Canada badges and the red, blue and green ribbon of the Volunteer Service Medal. He saw only two. It was a well-bred gathering and there were no incidents, overt or incipient. Most of the girls he danced with were already acquainted with the field marks of the A Man and the R Man, the non-zombie and the zombie. After a swift, sidewise glance at the unadorned chest and shoulders of his uniform his dancing partners politely avoided the military aspects of the war and concentrated on the awfulness of rationing, of university food and of the public transit service to and from Fort Garry.
For Barbara it was not so easy. She chatted gaily during their dances together but once, when she rhumbaed past with another man, he heard her say distinctly: “He’s not sure when he’ll be going. He’s trying to get posted to the Little Black Devils.” He didn’t know the man she was dancing with nor, he felt fairly sure, did she. This only increased his certainty that they must be talking about him; only to a stranger could she have pretended that her fiancé was already enlisted for overseas.
Going to Child’s afterwards for bacon and eggs was as much a part
of any big college dance as the music of Frank Wright’s Orchestra or the mickey of Silver Fizz gin. Barbara hadn’t wanted to go to Child’s at all and when he persuaded her to change her mind she had insisted that they go alone. “Oh 1 just feel accidentprone,” she said rather ill-naturedly as they drove to the restaurant in her father’s Lincoln. “And I’m really not very sociable or very hungry. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.”
By now Haig didn’t have to ask and he was feeling accident-prone too and that made it all the more imperative to hurry on and meet the accident and get it over with.
It was really quite unspectacular. Three men in new ground-crew uniforms of the RCAF with their three girls at the next table. One of the RCAF men making a few of the tired, over - standardized, over - familiar, over-stale and over-stupid remarks. Haig listening carefully for bad language, the point of no return. Hearing none and searching across the table for Barbara’s eyes, trying to catch her with the amused superior smile they’d exchanged in similar situations before. Barbara studying the menu. The loudest of the airmen underlining his next observation with the word “sonofabitch.”
Haig walking over and saying with careless hauteur, an inspired mixture of Cyrano and Silver Fizz, “Look, it’s not so much what you say, which is a matter of indifference to me. It’s the way you say it, which is offensive to the lady I'm with, if not to the ones you’re with.”
The airman’s two friends pullin” him back to his chair. The head waiter pulling Haig toward the doorway. Barbara Ransome fleeing alone down Portage Avenue. Haig overtaking her. Their silent ride back to River Heights.
Barbara saying at last, while the big darkened car sat before the big darkened house, “Haig, I’ve been thinking a lot lately.”
Haig saying, “Yes, Barbara, I can see you have.”
“Haig, if you want to change your mind, it’s all right with me.”
“I can see that. But I don’t want to change my mind.”
Barbara saying, “Haig, it’s not only now we have to think of. It’s five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now.”
Haig saying, “Sure, Barbara, we must think of the child ~n 'What did you do in the war Daddy?’ ‘No, Mr. Ballantyne, I won’t buv your pretty barley futures, I won’t buy your oats or wheat. Because you refused to fight for King and Country.’ ”
“It’s hardly a matter for flippancy any more, is it? Trying !o make me feel cheap won’t help either of us.” “No. And what’s more it won’t work on either of us, will it, Barbara? Sad but true. True but sad.” He was attempting to recover the lofty mood of Child’s, but both Cyrano and the Silver Fizz had exhausted their kick.
“It won’t work on me, Haig,” she said coolly. “I see nothing cheap about trying to use my intelligence.” “A chip off the old block,” he said irrationally. “Old Pater been reasoning with you? Old Mater helping you see the light?”
“Oh the hell with it,” she said ab-
ruptly and handed him back his ring.
“That’s what I say,” he agreed, opening the door of the Lincoln and preparing to depart from River Heights on foot. “The hell with it.”
In some ways his desertion by Barbara had been a relief. Now that it was ended he thought mainly of the Carrera-marble coolness she had brought even to their brief, strained split-minutes of passion. He thought of the hearty pomposity of her father and the plump, wheezy and vaguely sweaty rich-bitchiness of her mother. All right then, sour grapes; the fact was they had been sour. But it was not the same at all with Vera. If Vera hadn’t been married to his brother George, he’d have tried with all his heart to marry her himself. In the meantime, while the world simultaneously closed in on him and turned away from him, she was its one steady source of light, the one mirror in which he could find his true reflection, his reflection unflawed, unsullied and unchallenged.
No, it couldn’t be! Vera would never make the mean little mistake of thinking that she had to choose between him and George. She could never be enticed into the flat, grey faceless, barrenland where every turning was the same and whoever sought a new one must be damned and forsaken forever.
And yet, remembering again in the new setting of this new, bitter night, it could not be denied that Vera liad denied him. Consciously or not she had changed the subject.
At last he slept for a while. Vera’s face raced across his dream, her eyes wide, a hand across her mouth holding back some cry. George was there, pointing a stern, Jehovah-like finger to some cringing, hybrid figure that looked now like Lister and now like Barbara Ransome’s opulent, faintly smelly mother. And then a dream he’d had before, because it had really happened and he'd been told about its happening.
“Yes, dear, your name was chosen long before you were born. When your father came back — it wasn’t actually until the spring of 1919 — he said if we have boys they’ll be named George for the King and then Haig for the greatest British soldier and then Arthur for Sir Arthur Currie, the greatest Canadian soldier. These days it seems old-fashioned and more British than the British but when vour father came home in 1919, it didn’t seem that way at all. And anyway, they are all good, sturdy, good-sounding names aren’t they dear?”
When he was old enough Haig, a studious boy by nature anyway, had begun reading whatever he couíd find about his famous namesake. He started these researches eagerly and continued them in a state of growing shock. The Great Disillusionment was at its height by the time he reached high school in the early 1930s. It had produced no more naked victim than the late Sir Douglas Haig, the briefly revered commander-in-chief of the British Armies in the war of 1914.
The younger Ballantyne boy learned about the prototype Haig not with any feeling so dignified as horror but rather with a sense that he had been plundered and defrauded of his birthright. It was the prototype Haig, the butcher of the Somme and Passchendaele, the ineffable forerunner of the ineffable Colonel Blimp, who had begun five years of suicide and slaughter with the forecasts that “artillery seems only likely to be effective against raw troops,” and “cavalry will have a larger sphere of action in future wars.' It was Field Marshal HaigBlimp whom a cravenly acquiescent British prime minister had accused of “an inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake;” of being one of the individuals who “would rather that ten millions perish than that they should own — even to themselves — that they were blunderers;” of “a narrow and stubborn egotism unsurpassed among the records of disaster
achieved by human complacency.” The fiercely fatuous old field marshal was somewhere in his dream too. But where and how Haig couldn't be certain, tor he was awake again, staring not into the past and its visions but into the present and its reality. The first grey light had appeared in the row of windows across the room. Without thinking why, he prised up on an elbow and looked out from his upper to Jerry Needham’s lower just down and across the corridor. Needham appeared to be sleeping. If there was any pity anywhere, Needham deserved to sleep forever.
As much sorrow and regret as he felt for Jerry Needham, it was mixed with a sense of superiority. But then to be fair, this had to be admitted Needham had been much more vulnerable than he. Suppose, well just suppose to get some fair basis of
comparison, he'd had a picture like that of, well suppose, of Vera and a letter like that from her supposing she hadn't been married first to George. Supposing this, supposing himself
helpless to fight back with his fists,
helpless even to hurl himself against some vastly stronger and cleverer set of fists, supposing all this as well,
what would he, Haig-but-not-Blimp Ballantyne have done? He couldn’t be positive what he'd have done and the swift revelation that this was so 1 tightened him tar more than everything that had gone before.
He had said again and again that they’d never wear him down. But they’d only been at it two months and look at w'hat they'd accomplished already. Look at the furious husbanding of will he'd needed, the thick shield of scar-tissue he'd had to build. The really sad and shameful thing about Needham was not that he'd quit and not that he’d lost, but that he'd quit while he was losing. Haig hadn't quit and he hadn't lost. He'd licked Camp Salute, licked its permanent establishment and its transient hostages and vassals. But there would be other camps, other establishments, other forms of logic and persuasion, other challenges to his stamina. Suppose this long two months of attrition stretched out to two years, five years, even ten? And then beyond that still no cessation and no silence. All right then, Daddy, since you brought it up: what did you do in the war? Where were you when Uncle George was getting full of bullets and Auntie Vera was crying herself to sleep and only the zombies held to and hid behind their rights?
And now he knew he’d quit sooner or later. He lacked the size to be a convincing martyr. He wasn't, after all, as he’d told George once, heroic enough to be a coward. The next best choice was being cowardly enough to be a hero. All right then.
If quit you must, quit then while you’re winning. All right, old HaigBlimp — quit young Haig-Ballantyne, leave him for dead and up with the bugles.
After breakfast he asked the platoon sergeant to parade him before the company commander. He had his Canada badges on his shoulder and his Volunteer Service Medal on his chest when he left next morning with the rest of the platoon for the bright long-weekend’s freedom. ★