The Fourth Line by Bruce Costello

Miss Mehrtens visits the first resident of a new infirmary and homeless shelter to ask him about him about his experiences in the Great War; by Bruce Costello.

On the land between the church and the doctor's house is the former sexton's lodge, in the throes of being converted into an infirmary and shelter for the homeless. Its roof is rusty and the timbers are rotting but it has a pleasant outlook with the front facing the church and the rear looking out into open country.

A young lady wearing a red short-sleeved dress and a cream cloche hat pushes aside gorse with gloved hands as she walks along the winding path from church to lodge and gingerly up the doorsteps overgrown with grass.

She steps around piles of donated clothes and bedding littering the porch, all waiting to be sorted and washed by the women of the parish. Blankets, old dressing gowns and pyjamas, boots and shoes, piled in heaps, smelling of mould and mothballs.

Inside there's a door off the hallway. The word 'dormitory' has been chalked in small, neat letters. She enters without knocking.

The sole occupant is a man, his spindly arms stretched out on the blanket covering his body. His face is gaunt and deeply wrinkled, but his eyes are blue and clear and his voice is firm and confident.

"Welcome to my humble abode," he says, raising a hand. "I am Albert Manley, at your service, Ma'am."

The lady takes the hand and shakes it. His fingers are like sticks.

"Good morning, Sir. I'm Miss Mehrtens from the Parish Council. I've come to meet you and extend a welcome on behalf of the people of the Church."

"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Mehrtens."

"I particularly wanted to meet you," she says eagerly, "because I heard you were on the Somme. That's where my father was killed. Corporal Johnny Mehrtens. I never knew him. He was in the artillery."

"I was with the infantry, Miss. There were 15,000 Kiwis on the Somme and 2,000 of us died." He looks away. "Sorry to hear about your father. It's unlikely that our paths ever crossed."

Miss Mehrtens' face drops. "I know it's silly of me. I'm just always trying to find out more about him."

"Too many fathers died in the war," says Albert, shaking his head. "Others were destroyed by it."

An awkward silence falls between the two.

Miss Mehrtens clears her throat. "My mother thinks we're in for another war, now that Adolf Hitler's come to power in Germany."

"Another generation of boys heading overseas to be turned into mince. Boys just out of school," Albert replies, looking out the window, then turning back and giving her a weak smile. "It's awfully good of you to visit me. I don't know who I'd be talking to otherwise. I had a wife once. A daughter, too. Isobel. But she gave up on me long ago. Her stepfather became Dad eventually, I s'pose. A couple of sons, as well. George, the oldest, wanted to visit me when I was in hospital, but I wasn't having any of that - just another vulture gathering. He never wanted to be part of my life before, so why now? There're some grandkids. Not sure how many."

He seems to doze for a few minutes, then his body jerks and his eyes flick open again.

Miss Mehrtens leans forward. "What was it like in the trenches? How did you men cope with all that? Really?"

"We had our ways."

"You must've been so brave."

"Brave like sheep being trucked to the abattoir." He frowns. "The First Line of Defense is sleep, the sergeant used to say. Sleep. It's like a bunker you leap in to hide from hell. Doesn't work, though... you get nightmares."

He runs a hand across his forehead.

"You're a nice lady. And you listen to me with your ears and big sad eyes, not with your mouth." He pauses. "I tried to kill myself a couple of years back. Just as well I didn't succeed. Otherwise you'd be here talking to yourself and that'd be pretty silly. Sorry, I'm going on a bit."

He gazes at her. "It's all right to cry, Miss." He pats her hand. "Holding it in is bad for you. I know all about that.

The Second Line of Defense, the sergeant reckoned, is forgetting. When the pain's too deep to heal, you forget it. That's why we drink. And why we don't talk about the war. Talking makes us remember. Doesn't matter now for me. Nothing does. Have they told you how long I've got left? No? Of course, I drank a bit after my wife left me. Quite a bit, to be honest. Did some crime. Met a chap from my old battalion in prison. He'd learnt Russian so he could read War and Peace in the original, only to discover he liked it better in English. I came across him a few years later under the Waimak Bridge, where a few of us old diggers used to doss down. He was a lovely man."

"It's good to talk about things," says Miss Mehrtens.

"For your generation, maybe, not for mine. There's no language for mud that chaps drowned in. No words for what it feels like to charge machine guns or for barrages that go on for days, chaps being blown to bits, going out of their minds. Sticking a bayonet into another man and twisting it. Being blasted, sent flying into a crater, landing on a rotting corpse wearing a German helmet, and your hand goes right through his guts."

He raises his right hand to his nose. "I can still smell it."

He holds the hand up to Miss Mehrtens' face. "Can you?"

"Yes," she says, sniffing, and moving quickly back. "I can, I really believe I can."

"A do-gooder with a bald head came to visit yesterday. He wanted to know if I had anything to get off my chest, any regrets. And I told him life's a bit like a patchwork quilt. You might not like all the patches, but they've all gotta be there, you can't wish them away, or you're left with holes. 'They're all part of the great tapestry of life,' I said, and then I told him to bugger off."

He chuckles.

"The Third Line of Defense against the unbearable, the sergeant used to say, is madness. When reality is crazy, the mind can escape into unreality, hallucinations, delusions and so forth. Some of the chaps escaped that way. Didn't work for me. Not for long, anyway. I got stuck in this world."

A grimace distorts his face.

"I might've gone astray now and then, but I've lived, I've laughed, I've fought and killed. Not for King and Country and all that tommyrot, but for the chaps alongside me. And I regret nothing. I like you. You're human, just like me.

The Fourth and best Line of Defense, the sergeant was fond of saying, is death. Takes away all the pain. Or so they say."

"Everything comes to an end," says Miss Mehrtens, dabbing her eyes with a little embroidered handkerchief, "except sausages, which come to two ends."

Albert laughs heartily, then a spasm ripples across his face and he sinks back into the pillow.

Miss Mehrtens bends down to look at him, feels for his pulse, then closes his eyes and kisses his forehead. She stands looking at him for a time, salutes and tiptoes out, closing the door behind her.


  1. A powerful and serious story that is told with light touches.The lifting of the veil springs from the phrase 'Not for King and Country and all that tommyrot, but for the chaps alongside me' .This is often the only sense that an individual human being can retrieve from the hell of active warfare. Most soldiers are propelled into these living nightmares by the princes, politicians and generals who attempt to preserve the ill-gotten power of their class. If only we could stop this endless treadmill, and the lies that that bring young men to this pass? This narrative is a bold and skilful contribution to the cannon that challenges these abominations. Very many thanks,

  2. A well told, if not sad, recount of another angle of war. And how, no matter which angle you look at it from, there are no pretty sights to be seen, felt, remembered. War is hell.

  3. this really hits home, totally convincing, in particular the 'Lines of Defense'
    some excellent self deprecatory lines, 'sheep being trucked to the abattoir'

    Michael McCarthy

  4. The "war to end all wars", or so was the thinking of the time, was a living hell, which you've portrayed graphically and truthfully. So many young men killed and many more returning home irretrievably damaged. Your gift is in demonstrating this with a deft, sometimes light touch. Well done!

  5. Thanks for the comments, folk. Much appreciated

  6. I like these four lines the sergeant laid out. I expect they'd be useful for more things than war.