The Great War and the Waitaki

Waitaki writer Bruce Costello (fea­tured on page 4) has writ­ten a short story set in Otago af­ter World War I. The story, The Fourth Line, deals with the war’s af­ter­math on vet­er­ans and fam­i­lies. On writ­ing the story, Costello said: ‘‘I wrote The Fourth Lin

Waitaki Herald - - FEATURE -

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 2000 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 her 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.’’

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 De­fence 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 De­fence, 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 Waitaki 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. 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 De­fence 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 De­fence, 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.


Sol­diers at Tren­tham.

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