David and William shook hands and said their farewells in front of Paddington Station, then David picked up his satchel and basket and walked through the entrance. He found his platform, then his car and boarded. After settling into his seat, he opened his book and stared blankly at the pages as he thought. Not too late to back out of this. Just carry on with the commissioning training. He emphasised that so often to me. Kept telling me I could take the easy path. He closed his eyes and sighed. I can't take the easy path. There's far too much potential with this one to not follow it through.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the sound of people entering the compartment. Both young. Good military grooming and bearing. He closed his book and greeted, "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," they replied as they hefted their luggage to the overhead rack. The taller blonde-haired man looked at the seat numbers, then sat next to David and said, "Your accent sounds American."
"North American, yes. I'm Canadian. And you?"
"That's a big naval centre, isn't it?"
"Much busier now with the war."
He looked at the young man and extended his hand. "I'm David."
"Harold. I'll hazard a guess you're stopping in Oxford."
"Yes, I'm taking a course there."
"At the OTC?"
"You're observant and perceptive. Yes, I'm beginning tomorrow."
"I'll be one of your instructors. This is my fourth month there, so I've learned to recognise the look of new intakes. There's a fresh batch arriving every two weeks now. You're a Pioneer?"
"The beard? Started growing it when I was wounded. Hard to shave with my face in tatters. Decided to keep it to hide the scars."
"You'll be required to shave for the course."
"Even the Pioneers?"
"No, they're exempted by tradition."
"Good. I won't have to buy a razor, then. I've just been transferred from the Infantry to the Pioneers."
"So you were across on the Continent... Belgium?"
"We were moved to Ypres in mid-April, a short while after we had arrived in France." He stroked his beard. "That's where I received these scars."
Harold lifted his left arm from his jacket pocket. "That's where I lost this hand. November last year, the First Battle of Ypres. Were you involved in the gas?"
"The first cloud rolled over our company just to the left of my position. Wiped out nearly half of us. By the time of their next attack, we had learned to piss in our handkerchiefs." He scrunched his face. "Awful, but better than breathing unfiltered chlorine."
"Production has recently commenced on an anti-gas helmet, a flannel bag soaked in a neutralising hypo solution. I'm told the first deliveries have already been made to the Front."
"Better than storing piss in an empty Maconochie tin."
"God, that stew was disgusting. You had to eat it also?"
"That, and the rest of Tommy's rations. I ate far better scavenging in the wilderness while I was escaping over the Schwarzwald."
"You had been captured?"
"No, I managed to evade capture. I had the Germans stitch my face back together, then headed to Switzerland."
"So you had been captured, then escaped."
"No, I stripped a dead German soldier and dressed in his uniform, was taken to their dressing station, then to their field hospital. I received exemplary care."
"Gutsy move, that."
"It was my only option other than surrendering." David shrugged his shoulders. "They had overrun our position, and I was behind their lines when I regained consciousness."
"Dangerous, that. Not only the risk of discovery as a spy but also you became a target for our own side. Double jeopardy."
"I speak German rather well, and my mouth was ripped to shreds to disguise my accent and to give me an excuse to remain mostly silent." He nodded to Harold's stump. "How'd you lose it?"
"Stupidity, mostly. I cut my hand, wrapped it up and refused to be taken back to get it treated. Gangrenous infection."
"So fast with the filth in the trenches."
"The policy now is to immediately treat any scrape or cut that bleeds." He laughed. "That's one of the lectures I present." He waved his stump. "This gets the message across."
They continued their conversation all the way into Oxford. As the train slowed for the station, David pulled his orders from his breast pocket and scanned through them, then said, "I'm to report to Brasenose College."
"My quarters are in the quadrangle there. It's only three-quarters of a mile from the train. You can arrange to have your baggage delivered and we can walk."
David looked at his small basket and leather satchel. "These are all I have." He chuckled. "I left everything in Belgium and have started over."
As they walked from the station and into the town, Harold pointed to Oxford Castle when it came into view. "That was commissioned by William The Conqueror shortly after the Conquest, though most of the structure dates to the twelfth century. Sadly, a lot of it was destroyed during the Civil War. It's been used as a prison ever since, first locally and now as one of His Majesty's Prisons."
They continued along and into the High Street. "Most of the things you might need can be found in the shops along here." They stopped to look at the spire soaring above a church. "Saint Mary the Virgin, the University's church. We'll head through this passage." He nodded to the left. "This leads into Radcliffe Square and our entrance is off it."
He walked David to the security post, where they identified themselves, then continued along to the door of the Orderly Room. Harold extended his hand to shake. "I'll have to leave you here. We're not allowed to fraternise with the cadets." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "It's been a great pleasure, and I look forward to further discussions with you."
YOU ARE READING
Back In ActionHistorical Fiction
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...