The Prisoner's Friend by Peter Drake

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This Play is the copyright of the Author and may not be performed, copied or sold without the Author's prior consent

The Prisoner's Friend

A one-act play for a single Male actor - runs about 60 minutes

A study, sparsely furnished. Some books, a desk and chair, pictures.

Farringdon enters and removes his coat. He sits down and takes out a
letter from the desk. He reads for a moment then starts to write a
letter in reply.

Farringdon is in his eighties.

Throughout the piece, Farringdon pauses to write his letter.

FARRINGDON:
One thing was clear right from the outset Percival hated your
Grandfather. And if I read the signs correctly, the feeling was
entirely mutual. Not that you could tell much by looking. Had a poker
face did Stones. Back then, the men didn't talk back to an officer,
not if they had any sense. But you could usually tell what they were
thinking a couple of minutes after you met them. You can nearly always
tell, in my experience.

Percival. Poor overeducated fool. Never recovered from his
disappointment that Flanders wasn't Marathon or that he Miltiades,
or any other of his precious Heroes. No glorious death for him
just a bullet through the throat and a lonely death in the King's
Crater.

Forgive me for taking so long to reply to your letter. It shook me, I
can tell you, reading that name, after all this time, and I needed
some time to collect my thoughts. Returning from the parade today I
felt I could put it off no longer.

My condolences on the death of your grandmother. I only met her once,
in 1917, but I remember her very clearly. It must have come as a shock
to you, reading her letters, discovering what you did about your
grandfather, but it doesn't surprise me that she kept it secret for
so long. Perhaps, with her passing, the time has come for me to
complete the story.

As to your final question; a pardon is one thing, forgiveness -
well, that is something quite different.

What everyone forgets, or perhaps I should say, never really knew, is
how much people wanted the war. They were simply spoiling for a scrap.
I had gone up to Cambridge in '14, and just about all of my friends
at University were desperate to get to France. The libraries and
lecture halls were soon half empty. Books and essays seemed so utterly
trivial compared to the drama being played out in Europe. Mind you, it
wasn't just the undergrads that wanted action. I had a pal from
school, Tom. He'd a fiancée at the outbreak, Maisie.

(Pauses for a moment, as if remembering)

I'd meet them at a pub in town, not a mile from here. The place
would be full, absolutely packed with young fellers in uniform,
singing their songs, full of high spirits. Tom and Maisie couldn't
wait, either of them, couldn't wait. Tom always said the army gave
him direction; up until then he'd always been unsure about how he
wanted to spend his life. Not academic, you see. No drive. Once he'd
got into uniform, that all changed, oh yes. Their plan was for her to
become a Red Cross nurse or a VAC, which ever was easier, and get
across to France as soon as he got his commission. They'd rag me
mercilessly, said I was wasting my time in my study, with my books.
They stopped short of calling me a conshie but you sensed that
they'd no time for those brave enough to swim against the tide. The
pressure to join up was relentless. You know the drill white
feathers, women denouncing young men in the street.

"Why aren't you in uniform? You're a coward a stinking
coward!"

Everywhere you went it seemed Kitchener was pointing at you,
accusing. I gave in, like all the rest.

A few days after enlisting I received notice that I was to travel to
Salisbury for my training. I'd been to a good school, you see, and
was thought of as officer material. We spent several weeks learning
how to shoot, to use bayonets, and so on, as well as how to lead the
men. There were games, too. Endless games. Rugby, soccer, and a local
speciality the instructors called "Muddleball". A free - for - all
essentially; no rules that I could ever make out, just opportunities
for those of a violent disposition to get in a few kicks. It was all
done for a purpose of course they wanted to see who could hack it
when things went against them. Find out who the brave boys were. It
was never the ones you thought to listen to them. That was certainly
true in battle.

I have to say, I rather enjoyed the training. Up to that point I'd
been a bit of a bookworm, too busy swatting to get my knees muddy.
Never had much time for the rough and tumble of school games. Somehow
knowing that it all had a purpose made me want to take a part. They
tried to get you used to the idea that life would be rough at the
front cold, wet, little chance of drying out during the winter.
They got that bit right, fair enough, but they missed the worst part
of it. By God, the stink would raise the dead. Stagnant water and
putrid mud and God knows what else, knee deep. Stench of rotting dead
mixed with cordite. You thanked God for a fresh wind to take it over
to Jerry's side. A couple of days of bombardment and the whole lot
would be churned up like some ghastly cake mixture

I arrived in Dover early on in '15. Bloody shambles right from the
start. Too rough to set sail, so we kicked around the port for a
couple of days. No one thought to pass a message back so the place
got more and more full with each trainload arriving. Place was choc
a bloc with men and officers trying to wangle a place on the first
boat out. Almost came to blows some of them. Simply spoiling for a
scrap

As a boy I would accompany my father on his house visits to his
parishioners near our home. He had a situpandbeg bicycle onto
which he had fitted a makeshift seat attached above the rear wheel. He
would pedal tirelessly for what seemed like hours, even though he was
far from young. I was an only child, born soon after my mother's
fortieth birthday. "A wonderful gift, all the more precious for its
lateness", she would say, "He hadn't forgotten us!" although
it was many years before I fully understood who "He" was. My
father was a sturdy fellow, although not particularly tall, who liked
to ride quickly. He would time himself along certain familiar
stretches of road, always trying to improve his record. "Come on,
James, keep going! We're nearly there!" he would shout over his
shoulder, as if I could have any influence over our speed or
direction. I rarely enjoyed the ride. I was concerned only for my
immediate safety. "If I can hold on for just a few more seconds,
everything will be alright", I would say to myself.

Stones was one of the first people I met from the battalion. It was
he who introduced me to the men. Memory fails, you understand, and I
can't recall them all. But one of them sticks in my mind
Meredith. He must have been seventeen stone if he was an ounce, and
not a shade over five feet two. A monster an absolute monster of a
man. Could scarcely understand a word he said, not that he spoke much.
Didn't hold with a lot of talk did Meredith.

If Meredith was frightening to us he must have been utterly
terrifying to the Boche. His piece de resistance was a club he used to
carry into combat. He reckoned he could do more damage with his
homemade weapon than anything the Quartermaster could provide, and he
was right. Give him a couple of feet of clearance and he would nearly
have a fellow's head off. A few years ago I was reading a comic book
called Asterix to a young nephew of mine, and there he was! Obelix
Meredith to the life!

He survived the war, did old Meredith, and in the long weeks of
tedium that passed before they sent us home we talked at length about
what we would do when the dust had settled. He fancied running a pub
with his brother in Wallsend, their hometown. He'd have been a good
publican, pulling pints, keeping things shipshape. One thing's
for sure -

(laughs fondly)

There'd've been no nonsense at chucking out time.

Who else, besides Meredith? A couple of very queer fish identical
twins, Robbie and Jamie. Never said a word to anyone but each other.
Pale, nervous fellows. Not much good as soldiers, to be honest. The
men tolerated them, by and large, since they kept themselves to
themselves. One or two would try to bully them a bit, trying to get a
laugh. I recall Stones putting a stop to it one night, when some
ragging had got a bit out of hand.

We were part of a battalion, of course, but we were at the same time
part of our own little crowd. You got to know your own mob, pretty
well, living so close. The men amazed me. They had so little most of
them, being from poor homes. Not two beans to rub together. They would
be sent parcels from home perhaps from a girlfriend, or more
likely a mother; an ounce of tobacco, some cigs, perhaps a few sweets
or a cake, some pozzie all of it divided up so everyone got a
share. They all did it no exceptions. They were remarkable. The
19th Durham's were no different to any other fighting unit, except
in the matter of their size. They were what were known as a "bantam
regiment" made up of men too short or light to be considered for
service in any of the regular army regiments. At the start of the war,
the recruiting officers had been contemptuous of the men that
eventually made up the 19th. But later on once the casualties started
to mount up, they changed their tune. Your grandfather and his pals
did have an advantage over the rest mind you they were miners,
mainly from the North East - Durham, Northumberland. They were used to
working underground. They were given the job of tunnelling under No
Man's Land to plant explosives under the trenches opposite.
Terrifying thought isn't it? 60 feet underground, pitch black, flat
on your belly, scraping away for hours on end. Made my skin crawl I
can tell you; it still does. Didn't bother them too much, or if it
did they never used to show it. They'd dig right out to get under
Jerry's trenches, pack the end of the tunnel with explosives, then
scarper back to light the fuses. He'd be doing the same to us, you
see, so there'd be many a game to be had listening out for the
knocking and scraping.

It shook me to the core, I can tell you, the first time I saw the
effect of a couple of hundredweight of cordite detonated from deep
underground. An eclipse of the sun for a second, then a roar that you
could hear in Picadilly, leaving a hole almost as deep as wide.
That's how the King's Crater came to be. Caused us no end of
bother did that day's work.

And the poor devils who didn't survive the desperate scramble back
to safety before they were buried alive..?

(mumbles to himself, still horrified after all this time)

....Et lux aeterna luceat eis

Let eternal light shine upon them

My father had little time for the pomp and grandeur of Cambridge. He
concerned himself more with the remoter corners of the fens the
quiet hamlet, the isolated cottage. I would sit, under strict
instructions to remain silent, as he comforted those in distress. He
spoke little, but smiled often, never breaking the thin thread that
ran between him and his parishioner. Years later, in the mud and fury
of Flanders, I found it natural do the same thing as he had done.
Curiously, the men rarely talked of fear. What disturbed them more was
the loneliness, the sense of isolation. Oh, the bitterness of that
irony, coming from a man living cheek by jowl with a thousand others
for months on end. Flanders made me understand my father's calling,
having faced the pain of the unanswerable question, "Where was God
in the trenches?"

The men weren't allowed to write much in their letters home no
details of whereabouts or casualties in case the information fell into
the wrong hands. Bunkum of course Jerry wouldn't have made head
or tail of what was written. That was one of the worst parts of the
business reading the men's letters home to censor them if need
be. An invasion that's what it was. Mind you we had a few laughs
at the attempts they made to beat the system. One of them wrote to Mr
Y.P. Rees - wanted to tell his Da he was at Ypres, do you see?

Ah, the letters from home. Like manna from heaven. They'd be read
through again and again, then carefully folded up and kept in the
driest part of the tunic. Sometimes they'd be passed around the
dugout to be read by men who hadn't had a delivery that day. Even
the racier bits were made public. I wonder if the lusty girls at home
ever realised how much their passionate love letters had been enjoyed
by the other men in the division. Not all the news was good mind you.
Perhaps a sweetheart who'd had second thoughts, or news of a brother
who didn't make it back from a scrap. The men were rarely openly
tender, but they understood each other, of course. If a fellow had
read something he'd rather not have read, he'd take himself off to
a quieter spot to think his thoughts. His mates would cover for him,
if they could.

Much worse were the letters of condolence that I had to send to
bereaved families. Can anyone nowadays understand how difficult it was
to write those letters? I think not. For me, they were almost the most
difficult duty I had to perform as a unit commander. Our brief was
simple to inform the next of kin of a deceased man that he had
been killed. How do you do that without causing pain? You can't of
course, although some believed that you could ease matters by building
up the reputation of the dead man. Make him a kind of hero, that sort
of thing. This was one of Percival's ways; even for the most
difficult, disagreeable man and there were plenty of those,
believe me. They would all die the way they wanted to die, or rather,
the way Percival wanted them to die. Bravely, heroically. I remember
Elliott, blown off the duckboard during an attack - headfirst into the
mud. He was a sour faced, unpopular weakling. His pack dragged him
under. He had no chance. What was I to do? Elliott drowned in an open
sewer; not a very heroic death. I lied of course. You wouldn't
believe the number of machine gun posts my unit captured over the
years. Was that so wrong, do you think? To lie about the fate of a son
or husband. I mean the end is just the same. Would the Reverend and
Mrs Elliott curse me for depriving them of the truth or praise me for
sparing them a deeper pain? All these years have passed and I don't
know the answer.

[end of extract]

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