When the war is lost, what else is worth winning?
Lt. Francis Ransome is newly promoted and completely miserable. After a year and a half of fighting in Russia’s revolutionary fallout, his regiment is retreating across the bitter Siberian wilderness, the war lost. Home has never been so close and yet so far, and any breath could be their last. When they stumble upon the remains of a Czech evacuation, they offer what help they can, but out here, it’s every man for himself.
Francis is instantly drawn to Sasha Jandáček, a handsome but withdrawn young soldier. The attraction is mutual—and enthralling—but it could spell the end for them both. Despite their best efforts, hesitance grows into friendship, and friendship blossoms into something else. Together, they struggle to conceal both feelings and fear in a world that won’t accept either.
As war stalks their footsteps and relentless winter gnaws on their morale, the journey home becomes a fight for survival. Francis and Sasha face the threat of discovery, death, and one burning question: even if they make it home, what future can they possibly have together?
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
A Siberian railway in 1919.
The lieutenant’s blood was on my face still when I saw them coming.
I let the snow fall from my hand, stuck my head through the boxcar door, and called for the Captain. The few flurries that existed in October had managed to catch up with us when we’d stopped, and they had been dusting steadily ever since. Enough to cover the ground; not quite enough to freeze the engine’s water. More’s the miracle. I scuffed absently at what little snow had gathered around me and hissed for James Horrocks again.
He glanced at me from the smoky yellow dimness of the car. “What is it, Ransome?”
“Can I catch you for a minute, sir?”
He eyed me up—somewhere between July and October he’d managed to perfect an air of haughty exasperation that he liked to practise from time to time. Then he climbed heavily off his luggage pallet and picked his way through the debris and men between him and the door. We were a burden, always. Another task, another duty. I did sympathise, but now was not the time.
After he’d jumped down beside me, he pulled the slider to without latching it. It shouldn’t have been open in the first place. That was my fault.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. He barely ever addressed me as lieutenant.
I gestured at him to be quiet and pulled him to where I was standing; pointed carefully through the darkening forest. Men heaving delicately over the tracks behind us. Three of them.
“What do you think, sir?” I asked.
There was a beat. Between his breaths, I could hear the snow sputter in my ear. Then he said, “I don’t think it’s good.”
We exchanged a glance. People didn’t come out here alone if they weren’t running from or to something else.
James’s voice was low. “Has the stationmaster said anything?”
“Nothing that hasn’t come from you, sir. Should I raise the alarm?”
He pursed his lips, sucking his teeth. “Not yet. Don’t get everyone panicked. They’re anxious enough to move off as is. What else is out there?”
“Nothing I’ve seen sir,” I said. “Just them.”
In almost twenty-four hours, just them.
James shifted his weight from one foot to the other, unknowingly picking up a bit of grave dirt as he did so. “Your eyes are better than mine—” A branch shrugged some snow off its shoulders behind us. He huffed a nervous laugh, met my eye, then frowned. “Hang on. You all right?”
I opened my mouth to reply, and he made a sudden, harsh sweep with his arm. As if he’d been about to cuff me and stopped himself. “You’ve got something on your face.”
I touched my cheek. “I know.”
“Then get it off!”
He’d been about to rub it off for me. He kept forgetting we weren’t rank equals anymore.
As I took another handful of the half-frozen snow, he asked, “Can you pick out a uniform?”
I glanced back over to the empty space beyond our last flatbed. They were still there. They didn’t seem to have come any closer. “No, sir, not properly.”
A muscle in his cheek twitched. “Right.” He started forward.
I grasped at his shoulder, anxiety dissolving protocol. “Horrocks, where are you going?”
He tried to shrug me off. “I’m going to see who they are, Lieutenant.”
“James, don’t be an idiot.” I wheeled him round to face me. “Get the stationmaster—he’s the only one who’s going to know who’s been through here.”
“What’s he going to do? Shoot them for us? It’s the middle of the bloody night, Ransome, he’ll be in bed.”
“Then get the CO!”
He laughed—a startled, incredulous beat. “And leave our half the train undefended? Just to get there and back again? Christ, if this is some half-cocked Trot offensive, what’s that going to solve?”
He must have seen my face, whatever it was holding—I wasn’t sure myself. But he softened, visibly. He looked more like James and less like Horrocks. “Have him sent for and tell him what’s going on,” he said. “Send Owen. I need you here. Get ready to raise the call if we need.”
Then he put a hand on his pistol and waded out through the dark. I turned gingerly back to the carriage. Inside, I could hear the clank and clatter of the dinner things being cleared away, and I grabbed the doorframe and swung myself inside. “Rifles to hand, everyone.”
“Oh?” Gallehawk put his accordion down to the side. Thank Christ he wasn’t stupid enough to have been playing the thing. “Trouble brewing, sir?”
“Men approaching,” I said, as quietly as I could. “Captain’s gone out to check. Owen, run and fetch the major, will you?”
Owen began unfolding himself as Gallehawk got a swift elbow in the ribs from the pallet next to him.
“You hear that?” Jacobs, our big West Country farm boy asked. “You’ve attracted them with that sodding instrument. They’ve finally come to shut you up.”
Gallehawk flipped a catch on his case decisively, accordion packed. Had he been cleaning it, perhaps? He loved that thing, even though it wasn’t his. “Laurie, man. If anything, they’ve come to shoot me for bringing you along.”
I clenched my teeth. “Chaps.”
“For Christ’s sake, shut up,” Jacobs snapped at Gallehawk. “You’re irritating the lieutenant.”
Gallehawk flashed me an ally-winning smile. “Am I, sir?”
I ground my teeth again. “Get your fucking rifle.”
He glanced at me, kicked-dog startled. That summed up the dynamic within my men. There always had to be one taking it too far, and I often overcompensated with discipline in response.
“All right, sir,” he said.
Owen slipped past me on his way out the cattle car and gave me a nod before disappearing into the darkness down the train.
I didn’t know how I felt about Owen, then. Or he about me. We hadn’t yet worked it out.
I shouldn’t be liked. I shouldn’t want to be liked. Yet however detestable it made me, it was increasingly hard not to crave their approval. When we spoke, a sort of jolly masculine bravado would grow over me, like fur over an old wound to try to make me fit in, be one of the pack. A man’s man. But no one likes a teacher who panders to their students, and no one likes an officer who wants to be friends. Especially one who tries to make himself one of them.
What was the Housman quote? “Square your shoulders, lift your pack, And leave your friends and go”?
I wondered if my men could see through that way of thinking. Perhaps all was well and they didn’t. Either way it didn’t matter—after all, I might not have the same command come morning if we kept losing officers.
It had been a gut shot. What a bloody awful way to go.
When the last rifle was set, I jumped down out of the car, took out my sidearm, and rounded the side of the carriage. A hefty old Webley is well suited to rain and mud, but not the splintering cold. I didn’t know how she’d fare through another winter. We’d been kitted out exclusively with what the army had had spare from the war in France without much thought as to how it might suit us out in Russia. “Dear to friends and food for powder.” Isn’t that just what we were?
I ran almost immediately into Horrocks, who was standing just behind the rear coupling and watching our strangers’ approach. He held his hand out to steady me—I grasped it and hoped he couldn’t feel my fingers trembling. Battle nerves, back at last.
There wasn’t anything new in seeing people alongside the tracks. They’d always been there. They’d been there when the crops had started to rot, the vehicles started to rust, when the farmers were shooting all their horses. People had marched with us, against us. They had been us, for a few months, and then they hadn’t been.
The land stretched on and on, away on either side; all those unknowable fathoms deep. The ripe yellow smell of crop-rot pervaded the air. Horizons were darkened by smoke or dust or mortars whichever way you looked. And the people between came to and from.
This time there were two of them. Two men. They weren’t carrying belongings. They were carrying another man. A third, slung out between them and not moving his legs.
“I think they’re ours,” Horrocks said to me, careful not to raise his voice. “They’ve seen me, but they’ve not shouted. Don’t think they want to take a chance with the trees.”
“Do they know who we are?” I asked, taking another cautious step towards him. James was standing on the sleepers, gazing out across the dark at the men struggling towards him. Prospero watching Ferdinand come ashore.
“They will soon enough,” he said, grimly.
From where we stood, we could see around the boxcar that followed ours, and out over the flatbed truck attached to it. All the troop trains were hemmed in with baggage like that. It was supposed to protect us if a locomotive came toward us at full steam packed with dynamite, which seemed much too like something out of Boy’s Own to be a possibility. Instead, it meant we got through twice the amount of coal we should in half the amount of time.
The walkers were picking their way over the sleepers. Trying not to drag the third man’s feet.
Horrocks put a hand on my arm absently. “Stay here, Ransome.”
“James, for Christ’s sake.”
I barely ever called him “Captain.”
And now they were close enough for their footsteps to carry, slightly wet against the snow. I holstered my pistol, not wanting to be a threat. Not wanting to be an accelerant. But I wouldn’t tell my men to lower their rifles, if they asked.
The arrivals still hadn’t spoken, but James had evidently had enough of the suspense. He called across to them in his wicket-keeper voice, trying to keep it as low as possible. “This is a troop train. Please state your identity before you come any farther.”
There was a pause. My hand tightened on my pistol.
Then a sharply accented voice called back: “Corporal Jaroslav Hayek. My men, Privates Holub and Jandáček. Please, stop standing there and help us?”
The captain shot me a glance. I looked back at him helplessly. He gestured for me to follow him.
They were about twenty feet from the end of our train now. The gravel crunched as someone fell off a sleeper, and I turned around to see Jacobs and Gallehawk following behind hesitantly, their rifles at the ready.
The captain must have caught them out the corner of his eye, because he signalled to them to come forward.
“I have two armed men behind me,” he said, levelling his gaze towards the walkers. His voice sounded firmer now. “My lieutenant here will search you both and confiscate your weapons. I will check your papers.”
There was another pause, during which Horrocks seemed to read the two newcomers’ faces in the weak light. “My man will take your wounded to our car,” he said. “We won’t keep the two of you for long.”
I took my cue and drew up beside the man closest to me, putting as much steel into my voice as I could muster.
“Your gun, Corporal?”
He turned toward me, the arm of his fellow still around his shoulders. He was the man who had spoken first. Gallehawk jogged up and held the injured party’s waist, then guided him to the ground as he fell off the shoulders holding him.
Even up close, I couldn’t see the corporal’s age. He had a haggard face and a somewhat thick, unsoldierly beard.
He held my gaze the whole time as he handed over his rifle and unholstered his bayonet. I held his.
In my peripheral vision, I could see the captain disarming the second man, identity papers in one hand. Their owner didn’t seem able to do anything more than hand over his belongings and try to stay on his feet.
Jacobs stood nearby, his Enfield still uncertainly primed.
I cleared my throat and gestured to the prone figure between the two new men, whose head was lying on an uncertain Gallehawk’s knee. God knows how far they’d come. “And this man’s belongings?” I coughed again; tried to sound stronger. “I take it he’s not carrying them with him?”
“No,” came an answer. “They’re—”
“Here,” said Gallehawk, rolling a pack to Horrocks. It stopped short, but Horrocks grabbed it just before it disappeared off the tracks.
“His,” the corporal said. “Bayonet and ammunition both. His rifle we had to leave.”
I nodded and performed a quick pat down of the corporal. He was so tightly upholstered into his uniform I wouldn’t be able to find a weapon quickly. All those layers upon layers we wrapped between us and the snow.
James caught my eye and gestured. I followed him to the other side of the sleepers, glancing behind me as he murmured. “Czechoslovak. Looks like the remains of a patrol.”
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Where from?”
The captain shrugged. “Best ask them. Poor bastards are scattered about like ninepins.” He glanced at them once. “See to the injured man, Ransome, I’m going to fetch the MO.”
I opened my mouth, my anxiety over their identity in no way allayed. How in the hell is he so willing to trust that they’re telling the truth? While we both lacked grim cynicism of the Regulars, his capacity for naiveté astounded even me sometimes. How hard would it be for someone to find a dead Czech along the railway? If they threw on a corpse’s overcoat, picked up some papers, they could be anyone. I screwed my mouth shut and kept a hand on my pistol. Better not to show them we disagreed. Undermining authority and all that. James could be a decent commander, even for a brevet, when he remembered he wasn’t floating down the Cam reading Clausewitz. He deserved my trust.
As Gallehawk carried the unconscious man ahead, Jacobs and I escorted the strangers to the train, where more armed and curious figures stood lit completely by the car’s lantern. Behind them, a trickle of faces were visible, emerging from the sliding doors. Post-dinner tidying had been forgotten, evidently; this was the most exciting thing that had happened since Amos had thought he’d seen that wolf.
Attacking a fully armoured troop train would be suicide, if there were only three of them. Surely they wouldn’t. Not now, so close to the end.
Owen—the captain’s ostensible batman—was sat on his haunches beside the bloke Gallehawk had just hauled in, framed by the carriage door. He dragged the man back as we approached, making him as comfortable as possible on the open floor. Then the corporal climbed heavily aboard, using the side to lever himself, and reached out for his remaining fellow.
Jacobs and I followed, brushing sleet from our greatcoats and stamping. Our uniform really did seem to be designed to hold the water.
I looked down at the wounded man. There was no colour in his face.
Owen got to the floor with Gallehawk, and they scrambled together a makeshift pillow from the casualty’s pack and part of Evans’s old blanket. The corporal undid the man’s coat. One side of his midriff was significantly darker than the other. His officer’s mouth twisted.
“Climbed over a log this morning and stumbled,” he said, sitting on his heels. “Impaled. Could not walk by himself. Became unconscious an hour ago. We stopped the bleeding as best as we could, but it’s a matter of time.”
I nodded sagely. This wasn’t the best moment to introduce myself.
“What’s his name?” I asked instead, coming down to the wounded man’s level, hoping the corporal would follow the lead if I dropped my guard.
I was already trying to piece together where the Czechoslovaks could stay. This carriage wasn’t full—and less so than it had been this morning—but of the beds free, two were being used for storage and one of them had been Evans’s. Whatever happened, someone would be on the floor. I didn’t know if it would be us or them. Us, presumably, but after all the fuss made about proper officer carriages last year, I couldn’t be sure.
Not that the fuss had done us any good.
The corporal caught my eye. “Holub. Adam.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered, remembering my question. “Were you close?”
I wondered if I should say anything else and decided that I shouldn’t. I held my hand out instead. “Lieutenant Ransome.”
There was a snowy scuffle by the door, which announced the arrival of the captain followed by the medical officer: a small and direct man by the name of Bannatyne. The captain helped him up and then forcefully smiled at us.
“Sorry about that. I hope you understand. I’ve just talked to our major; he wants you all to report to him in the morning. Until then, make yourselves at home; you’re dead on your feet. Our MO’s here—he’ll have a look at your man.”
“He is welcome,” said the big corporal, stepping aside, “but we brought him here to die.”
The MO looked at the dark patch on the man’s midriff and the corners of his mouth turned down. He seemed to agree. “I’ll do what I can,” he said tightly. “Someone boil some water.”
There was a brief moment of chaos as Gallehawk and Owen both tried to take down the stove at the same time. This was the most excitement we’d had for days. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to be involved. The resulting clang made everyone glance around, including the second Czech, who’d installed himself sleepily by the doorframe. We’d been storing the little stove on the topmost bunk of one of the beds, firstly because it was used so often and secondly because it had to be separated from the other metallics since it rattled. It had been put away after dinner and must not have been balanced well.
The corporal smiled wanly at Bannatyne. “Thank you.” Then to James—“I have made my formal introductions to your lieutenant.”
Decorum lit up James’s well-bred face. “Ransome!” he said, as if my name were a verb. “Glad to see he’s been taking care of you. Captain Horrocks, 6th Royal Light Hertfordshires.” James reached over Bannatyne’s hunched form and took the corporal’s hand. “Sorry we had to meet in such a way.”
“Captain Horrocks.” He smiled, shaking James’s hand, and his face thawed. “Corporal Hayek. Nice to meet you. And you, Lieutenant.”
I smiled and gave him a small nod of acknowledgement. I think the corporal saw it, but then cast his eyes down at the man at his feet and the atmosphere changed.
“What do you think?” he asked the medical officer. The MO glanced back up at him and shook his head.
“I’d give him something for the pain, but if he’s not conscious, he’s not feeling and that’s the end of that. I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.”
The corporal’s eyes didn’t leave his man—Adam’s—face. “We wanted him to be buried somewhere.”
There was a brief lull, before Bannatyne said, “And you brought him all this way?” His voice was very quiet.
Hayek looked at him, then his mouth quirked at the side. “Well. Thank you, doctor. Could you see to the next one?”
The MO raised his eyebrow. “The next one?”
The other man the corporal had come with had curled himself up incredibly small and seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be fast asleep. I tried to guess his age, but he had his face buried in a scarf, which made it hard to tell.
“Oh,” said the MO, eyes catching on him. “What’s wrong with this one?”
“Shoulder came out a few days ago. We managed to get it back in. May be damaged.”
The medical officer stood abruptly. He was a short man of about forty, but managed to convey more in that gesture than one would think. His aptitude for kinetic expression surprised me every time.
“He . . . Jesus, didn’t you strap it up?”
“Of course. But after Holub impaled, we had a more pressing use for bandage.”
The MO clenched his jaw, crossed over to the other Czech, and then glanced back at the corporal. “Which one?”
The corporal blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Which shoulder? Christ, I don’t want to shake him by the bad one if it’s out of its bloody socket.”
The MO glared at him thunderously, and I decided to help with heating the water.
I offered my box of lucifers silently to Owen, who smiled at me and lit the edge of the oil-soaked rag he was holding. Coal and proper meths we could never have enough of, but I’d be smelling whale oil in my sleep for the rest of my life. It was the same provisions that had been issued to the army out in France. They’d given out oil for officers to rub down their men’s feet to prevent them rotting off. It hadn’t worked. Mutual unenthusiasm for the idea had seen that we had more oil than we could ever use.
It burnt well, though. Even if there was no point boiling bandages, something hot to drink seemed important.
Nevis, ferrety-faced and older than all of us, sat on one of the equipment boxes looking on. He was a miner in real life. God knows how he’d ended up with the Hertfordshires. Now his expression seemed . . . ‘paternal’ wasn’t the right word, but something close. Avuncular, perhaps. Gently knowing. Jacobs had got back into bed with a cigarette; Gallehawk was propped up alongside him with the accordion box by his feet. The captain had closed the door and tentatively hooked it shut, and everything was bathed in the yellow light from the few overhead lanterns, creating a strangely cosy scene. The MO had the other lad awake now. He blinked at us good-naturedly.
When it was lifted out of the scarf he was wearing, his face was so angular that it cast shadows of itself under his cheekbones. It was impossible to tell how much this was his natural appearance; how much had been brought on by the hunger. His face was strong enough to look like it had been sculpted, right up to the slight fingerprint the sculptor had left on his chin. He had very wide, grey eyes.
“Bannatyne, Medical Officer,” the MO introduced himself coarsely. “How’s the shoulder?”
I glanced over at the corporal, expecting him to interpret, but the boy answered in cut-glass English. “It’s been worse.”
If Bannatyne was surprised, he managed to rein it in. “Do you mind if I have a prod around?”
“Only if I can put my coat straight back on.”
The MO grinned wryly. “Of course. Let’s have a peek.”
The water had started to boil. Owen did his best to extinguish the flame while I rooted around for the little handle it came with. The Canadians had left us with almost the best of everything, but not a stove with a handle that didn’t regularly make illicit excursions. I’d thought about fashioning some kind of chain for it.
I found the handle under a few dry packets of Huntley & Palmers. Since I was down there, I killed two birds with one stone and got the tea leaves out as well.
The MO was finishing up as I had my nose in the tea. You don’t hear of it going off, but one can never be too careful.
“Staying for one?” I asked. “Smells all right.”
He held up his hands and shook his head.
“Thanks all the same, Ransome, but I think I’ll sit this one out. Good night, everyone.”
We all wished him good night in return, and Owen started dishing water into waiting mugs. I held mine out with the intention of donating it to the man with the dislocated shoulder, but when I looked back, he’d fallen asleep again. He must need it. I gave the tea to the corporal instead.
Even on the floor, he was about an inch taller than me. Under his beard, the twins of sunburn and wind scouring had flaked skin into his hair and down his collar. I watched as he drank about a third of the tea and carried the rest to his young fellow, still curled up by the door. He said something to him in Czech and the man twisted into wakefulness and drank. Then he curled back around himself and went to sleep again.
“That man need a bed?” Horrocks asked.
“Needs rest. We walked since daybreak. If he sleeps, I will not disturb him.”
Horrocks nodded, but asked Owen to lay a bed out anyway. The man’s belongings were stowed over by the door beside him, exactly where he’d dropped them. Owen dragged them over to the foot of one of the three-person bunks and spread his greatcoat over the top one. If that second soldier’s arm was still a state, he’d never be able to get up there. I could see a rent in his coat’s shoulder even from here. Was this from the strike that had wounded him? A remnant from when his joint had been knocked out of its socket?
The captain clasped his hands around his mug and turned to Hayek. “Where have you come from, Corporal? Today, I mean?”
The corporal blew air out through his nose. “Don’t know. Middle of this fucking forest. Still not far away enough.”
He spat onto the straw, paused. In the quiet, I reached into my pocket for my cigarette case. Then he said, “We had a car from a farm. Out of fuel, almost. Left it two days ago. Never have got through the trees.”
I tapped two cigarettes on the top of my case and offered him one. He lit up in silence and I followed.
“A car?” asked the captain, with a forced casual air. “Impressive. Where were you going?”
The corporal exhaled, hard. “Irkutsk. Medical officer was using the ambulance as a first-aid post. I collected the mendable and tried to bring them somewhere to recover.” He spat again. There was a soft but definite silence around the carriage.
Eventually, the captain broke it. “Corporal . . . was this a medical evacuation?”
The corporal tipped his head and started to unlace one of his boots. “We were going south. Back to the beginning. No room for those that couldn’t keep up. Nowhere to keep them. Fresh men never arrived. I can drive, speak passable English. It was for the best.”
“Just these two men?”
“Five. One worse than we knew; one reopened his stitches on the way. Novak knew what was coming when we lost the car and shot himself. Left me with these two.” He smiled without humour. “Holub had a fractured collarbone.”
Another, longer silence fell. It started to ring.
The corporal pushed his boot off and started to unlace the other. “Novak couldn’t walk. Neither can he, really.” He nodded to the sleeping figure by the door. “Did a knee a few years ago and the cold gets into it. No use in the field. Shame. Not many linguists left.”
“Your English is remarkable.”
“No one is going to learn Czech.”
The captain huffed a laugh and stood. “We’ll do everything we can to accommodate you, Corporal.” He stretched down his hand to shake. “There’s a few things I’ve got to get squared away with the major in the morning, but that can wait. Our company commander is overseeing the whole show from Vlady, so Major Barclay’s the acting CO for the moment. He’ll keep you right.” James was holding himself stiffly. He had a habit of stretching out his shoulder, but he didn’t like to do it in front of the men in case it seemed unprofessional. It was clear he was fighting that urge now. We all have our little tells. “Choose a bed for now, man. More than enough room. There’s nine of them and only six of us.”
I cast my eye around our half of the carriage. There’d been a scramble for the bottom bunks as soon as we’d been assigned—it was easy to get tipped out when travelling by train. The only free ones were on top.
The corporal thanked James and started to take off his coat. He laid it on the top bed perpendicular to the door, above Gallehawk and Owen. Opposite him, Jacobs was already fast asleep.
The captain whispered a gentle good night to us all. “I sleep in the top carriage,” he explained to the corporal. “Wake my batman if you need me. Good night. Welcome to the Hertfordshires.”
“Good night, Captain.” Hayek nodded good night to Owen as well. If our unorthodox method of musical beds seemed novel to him, he didn’t express as much.
I watched James go, all the way up to the top carriage. Then I extinguished two of the lamps, leaving one alight for people to get to bed, and slid in under my frigid covers.
This had been my favourite time when I was younger, between going to bed and going to sleep. When I was a child, I used to lie and relive my favourite parts of the day, replay tunes I’d heard. When I was a teenager, I used to think of all the jokes and phrases I’d heard and wanted to repeat one day. Things I wished I’d said in conversation but hadn’t. I’d try to coax the cats to stay on my bed through the night. And I’d think of Dickie covered in mud, marshalling his men and wielding a rifle above his head, although I had no idea if Dickie had actually done that. It seemed impractical, on afterthought. I used to think of the men, the men that followed him, the men pressed together and sharing air and space.
I’d tried not to think of the men for too long.
Now, I simply lay and I thought. I couldn’t say what of. Wood. The cold. The mud, the mould. The snow and the heat. God, the heat. One might read all about the Russian winter; the Russian summer was worse. I could have torn my skin off from the heat. I could have torn my skin off from the sweat, whether I’d meant to or not. Sometimes, I thought of the unfamiliar stars. How many would we pass underneath? Sometimes I thought of the woods, the size of them, the animals in them. I would only think of Russia. I could not think about anything else, even when I wanted to.
I wasn’t sure if I slept at all. I seemed to lie semiconscious in the dark, the cold stealing through me. I thought of motorbikes. Outside, gravel shifted. A sentry coughed.
What a miserable work detail. All that space around you became negative space in the dark. Stand there too long and your clothes froze to your skin.
Eventually I opened my eyes, and in the low light, the figure of the young Czech soldier and the dead man’s head in his lap were barely visible.
Then he looked up and our eyes met.
The man smiled at me sadly.
I uncurled from my blanket, not knowing what to do. He looked away from me now, stroking the hair of his comrade. I couldn’t let him sit like that alone.
“I’m sorry,” I said, redundantly. “You must have known him well.”
He glanced over at me, where I was sitting up in my bed. Like a child at midnight. I could hardly see his face in the half-light. He must have struggled to make out mine too. “Not at all.” His voice was quieter than I’d expected. He’d held a comrade as they’d died, but still had a mind to those around him. “I don’t think I knew his name until a few days ago. But he liked horses.” He paused. “He did like horses.”
“You brought him such a long way.”
“He has children.”
He sighed and calmed his hands. They were still in the dead man’s hair.
“Here,” I said, kicking myself properly free of my blanket and sleeping bag, doing my best not to disturb Jacobs. The dead man’s pack lay next to the door, where his fellow must have shifted it when he tried to make him more comfortable. To give him someone to spend his last moments with. Over it was his greatcoat, still slightly damp from the sleet. I tugged it off and brought it over, negotiating my way around the other sleeping forms.
“Here,” I said again, laying it over his face.
His comrade looked at me gratefully. “I should wake up Hayek.”
The corporal. I glanced towards the bunk at the top, at his sleeping form. “Not just yet,” I said.
I’m still not sure why.
This still time of night used to mean talking to one another back home. With porter or port, and cheese and leftovers from the kitchen. Lounging on sofas deep with that secret, after-the-party feeling. There was a magic to it, a camaraderie. Wells’s dark red ocean of shadow, thickened with the blood of the covenant, et cetera. God, I’m glad I’m not back there. This time alone was sending me into paroxysms of pseudo-poeticism that wouldn’t even be welcome in Bloomsbury.
Perhaps it was my loneliness that pushed me, or perhaps it was his.
I took the stove down from on top of the coffee box and filled it with water from the communal tank. We were entitled to our own, being so far away from the others. My mug was there, where the corporal had left it. I lit the stove quietly. “How long ago did it happen?”
“About ten minutes. I stayed with him.”
“He shouldn’t have been alone.”
We were both quiet for a moment. Then I stepped over to the pack on an empty bed and unhooked Evan’s mug from the side.
I poured a rough quantity of tea leaves into the bottom of both mugs. The water started to simmer. While I was standing, I pulled the young man’s greatcoat down from the bunk Owen had lain it on.
So, he hadn’t been able to make it up there at all. I do sometimes hate to be right.
“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” the Czech said. He wasn’t wearing a sling or any strapping. I remembered what Hayek had said about their comrade’s accident.
The layers on layers of wet wool might provide support enough for a healing shoulder. They’d made do with worse in France, to hear Toby talk. Anyway, I could always offer to dig a fresh piece of gauze out in the morning.
I passed the coat to him as he offered his good hand to me. His eyes were very wide in the dark. “Jandáček. Alexandr.”
“Ransome,” I answered, taking it. “Pleasure.”
“Your English is good.”
I smiled a faintly embarrassed smile. “Did you learn it at school?”
“Oh. Well,” I stumbled as he shrugged the coat about his shoulders. “It’s remarkable, regardless.”
“I know. The English are always so impressed with any form of Slavic polyglottery.” He let the barb hang, and then flashed me a grin.
I blushed and dipped my head, unable to tell if he was jesting or genuinely making fun of me. “Well. It’s a lot better than my Czech.”
“Do you have a first name, Ransome?”
“Francis,” I replied, half an eye on the simmering stove. “Are you ‘Alexandr’ or ‘Jandáček’?”
I swallowed to stop my heart beating in my tongue. It seemed so daring to ask, but he had introduced himself with both. Wasn’t it only polite to ask a preference?”
“Sasha,” he answered. “Are you ‘Francis’ or ‘Ransome’?”
“Whichever you’d rather,” I copped out.
The water began to bubble in earnest. We’d cleaned the tin after dinner, scrubbing all the bloody bandage residue out of the corners with a toothbrush no one had ever claimed. It suddenly struck me that there was meant to be another tin. “Is there a mess tin over there by you?”
“Oh. Yes.” He pulled the tin out from under his torn greatcoat and passed it over to me. It was half full of bread. “I apologise. My corporal filled it after you went to sleep.”
His coat hung lopsided on him, the torn shoulder gaping mouthlike.
He met my eyes and flashed a humourless smile. “Not hungry.”
“You ought to eat.”
“I’m aware.” He nodded in the direction of the stove. “This is convenient.”
“This?” I went along with his transparent attempt to change the conversation and gestured to the stove. “Yes, it is rather. The Canadians left it. Marginally better than a Tommy cooker. Gave us half their clothes as well.” The water was just starting to steam. “There’s no milk, I’m afraid, but there is sugar. Do you take sugar?”
“Do you have jam?”
“If you do, I’ll have a spoonful. If not, don’t worry.”
“It’s hardly worthy of the title,” I warned him.
“I’m not a fussy jam drinker.”
We kept the relatively communal aspects of our supplies with us, alongside the two spare mess kits and the stove. The captain had always done it, and it blocked some of the wind from coming through the slats sometimes. I retrieved the jam and held the jar up to the light, then scraped off the mould on the surface and put a dollop in the bottom of his mug. We’d been about a quarter of the way through jam tin number two—which I think originally belonged to Nevis—for about three weeks. None of us were particularly big jam users anymore.
For want of something else to do, I fished into the pocket of my greatcoat—we’d been sleeping in them for weeks. My cigarette case was in the same pocket as my lucifers, and I lit him one from the stove. Then did one for myself.
I started to talk, for some reason.
“Mitya does that as well,” I said, exhaling. “Sometimes. He’s our interpreter. Liaison officer. ‘Mitya’ is short for Dmitry, apparently. In a roundabout way. I don’t take sugar, either,” I added, in an inexpert attempt to change the flow of conversation. “I used to when I was younger. Now it just makes me thirstier.”
I took the water off the boil and poured it into both mugs, trying to keep my hand steady. “I miss milk, though. I haven’t got used to not having it yet. We had a cow back in Yekat. Ekaterinburg,” I clarified, glancing up at him. "Jacobs got her from some farm. So we had fresh milk for a while. But there’s always milk powder and sugar in the Samovar, that big vat of tea in the kitchen carriage. If you can concentrate on how much you don’t like tea sweet, you can forget it tastes of petrol.”
“I used to put rum in mine.” He smiled, tipping his head at his mug. “The Russians got me into this. Although I don’t know exactly how they make theirs.”
“Mitya mentioned it, once upon a time. Vareniki they call the stuff, isn’t it?”
“Varenye,” he said absently, the word rolling off his tongue. “Although you can eat that with vareniki too.”
“Thank you,” I said, awkwardly. “Haven’t quite picked up the lingo.”
I handed him a mug with two hands, trying to keep the worst of the heat off with my coat. We had gloves, but they were so thick and cumbersome that it was better to just go without unless your fingers were actively turning black.
“I can only attribute that knowledge to a farm we used to stay at,” he said, taking the tea from me. “Kipatok and any tea under the sun.”
“There’s a knack to it, isn’t there? Mitya told me once. You’ve got to keep it in and strain it through your teeth. I don’t know—I could never get the hang of it. Keeps the leaves out, I imagine.”
He held the mug between his two gloved palms, clasping its heat to him. As I sat down closer, bits of his face were picked out by the lantern in starker relief than they had been. He, or his corporal, had taken off his Adrian helmet. They were so hopelessly dated. Although, here was I in my cream breeches. The army had phased them out as early as they could in France because subalterns had kept getting shot and they’d reckoned the colour made them easy targets. Plus, they were a nightmare to keep clean. That meant there had been no shortage of spares to kit us out with when it all kicked off over here. Lucky us.
Like his corporal, Jandáček was strangely ageless. Any feature that might have made me think he was older than me—the stiff way he held himself, his rough, calloused skin—was counteracted by something else that made him seem so young. His dusty freckling, his big, wide eyes. But there were things I had missed about him, at first glance. The wrinkles beginning to form by his eyelids. The slight but unmistakable hint of grey beginning at his temples. He wasn’t far from my age, then. Closer to thirty than twenty.
If he noticed me watching him, he must not have read it as judgement, because he reached over to me and clinked his tin mug against mine.
“Cheers,” he whispered.
And so we sat and drank hot weak tea together, side by side in the middle of the forest with a dead man between us.
We buried him in the morning. Jacobs and David Young from the carriage ahead dug a shallow grave by the side of the tracks and laid him in it, uncovered. I think we all wanted to wrap him in his coat—or at least his blanket—but we couldn’t afford to let them go. Not with winter on its way. The ground was getting so stiff and stern that this would be one of the last times we’d be able to dig, though it probably wouldn’t be the last time we’d have occasion to. As it was, our sticks and shovels scratched like fleas on the back of an elephant.
When they were finished digging the hole, we left the two to have their funeral. It didn’t seem right to stand over a stranger’s funeral, and they hadn’t invited us. The captain had lent Hayek a Bible, although I didn’t know if he planned to use it. Likely James had been trying to feel useful. I tried not to listen as Hayek spoke a heavy, gentle stream of Czech behind the closed door.
“What’s going on there, sir?” Owen asked, rolling up his blanket. It had just turned six. “They staying with us?”
“Erm,” said James.
It was slightly too early for him to have put on his full officer bravado. I caught him in mistakes like that because I made the same ones.
I couldn’t stop feeling like I was pretending all the time, and one day my men would find out. James and I had never talked about it, but I knew he felt it too. His expression was exactly the one I felt myself wearing when I was asked questions that hadn’t come up in my abbreviated training. Could the men sense it? They probably humoured us, being as relatively out of danger as we could be. At least there were competent officers a carriage away.
“I’ll take it up with the major. I don’t suppose they’ll be too much of an issue. They can stay with us until Irkutsk, I’m sure.”
Owen gave an imperceptible nod.
“Beg your pardon, sir, but when exactly will that be?” asked Jacobs, caught partway trying to stuff his blanket into a passable roll. “Only I want to put the trees behind us, like. And I’m bored out of my skull.”
“He isn’t used to seeing bush,” said Gallehawk conversationally. “Rather get back to that lovely flat scrawny scrubland. Reminds him of the girls at home.”
“Or a hill,” said Nevis, surprising us all by speaking. I was so used to seeing him in the shadows. “I want to see a hill.”
“What?” asked Gallehawk, clearly taken back by the non sequitur.
A grin passed over Jacobs’s face so boyish it hurt. He obviously sensed some fun afoot. “You know what I’d give my right arm for?” He lay down on his bunk with his arm under his head, his blond hair catching the light. I shot him a warning glance that I usually reserved for one of my cats about to jump on a table, but he managed to neatly avoid seeing it. He often did at moments like this.
“A fried egg. A fried egg on toast. That’s all I want.”
It had become a ritual between the men about three thousand kilometres ago, just as we were leaving Omsk. Gallehawk had started it, as was typical. He’d suddenly started reminiscing about food back on the farm, and no one had been able to stop him. James and I didn’t mind. It was good for morale. Gallehawk had been instantly reinforced by Jacobs, as was also typical.
Nevis hissed and leant back. “Jesus. I haven’t had an egg for a fucking age.”
I’ve heard it said that in the army fuck merely serves as a warning that a noun is coming. Whoever was responsible for that must have known soldiers very well.
“With bacon. And tomato. Nothing tinned, like.”
“Is it the weather for eggs?” asked Owen. “Besides, you don’t have egg with tomato.” Since he was the one true Northerner among us, I secretly felt Owen was justified in his difficulty containing his regional loyalties. Not one of the Hertfordshires on this carriage was from Hertfordshire. “Fried bread. Fried bread is the only way to properly respect an egg. Which I maintain it’s too cold for.”
“And what would you have?” countered Gallehawk. “Pease bloody pudding? And the egg’s got to be scrambled.” He was fiddling with the latch of his accordion box. It was a habit of his. “Milk. Butter. Nothing better.”
“Jesus, if milk crossed my path . . . You farmers have gone mad with abundance.”
Gallehawk caught Jacobs’s eye and smirked. Jacobs was a farm boy, all big and wide and rangy. Gallehawk might have been as well. They were always together, which hadn’t helped me tell them apart when we’d first met. They didn’t look much alike; it was all in the action. Their easy stride, the comfortable, loose movements with which they sat and talked and gestured. They were so utterly at home in themselves. I found it hard to believe anyone could be so uninhibited. Confident men were a foreign language to me. I never learned to speak like them, move like them, look like them. I’d made my peace with it.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t dwell.
“Sausage would be good,” Owen said, a fag hanging out the corner of his mouth. “Real one, like.”
“Not made of sawdust, you mean?”
“They do eat that in Middlesbrough,” said Gallehawk helpfully. “Had a cousin up there once. Swear he ate better at the field kitchen.”
“And here you are, swanning about in your train carriage like a king! I haven’t forgotten you carrying on in Soton about that man trying to feed you a hedgehog.”
Jacobs guffawed, his kit more or less manhandled into his pack. Even Nevis smiled.
“Look, mate”—Gallehawk sat back on his heels in friendly indignation—“I do know what I saw. I’m not completely stupid.”
“Fuck off did that man try and make you eat a bloody hedgehog.”
“Not with the spines on, obviously! He’d peeled it first.”
“Skinned it, whatever. Not really a skin though, is it? More of an armoured coating. Anyway, they were defused and all, but I could see them. They had the little hands.”
“Their feet are a bit weird,” said Jacobs, knowingly. Gallehawk gestured towards him in overt thanks.
“You see? Besides, they eat all sorts of odd shit down there. No wonder I got the lurgy.”
“It wasn’t just you, either,” Jacobs backed him up, knowingly.
“And over here, they don’t even have the decency to tell you what’s what. It’s all just called ‘meat.’” Gallehawk pursed his lips theatrically. “I don’t trust that.”
“Look on the bright side, mate. Army rations— It’s rarely actual meat.”
“Could one of you get the stove on?” I asked.
The conversation stopped. It was like they’d just remembered I was in the carriage.
They likely thought I was reserved. Stiff. Standoffish, probably. Not a toff in the way of James and Evans and the major, but something altogether more unknowable. More untrustworthy or insidious. In a way, I was glad I had protocol to hide behind. As an officer and—nominally—a gentleman, my silence meant I didn’t have anything to say to them. It couldn’t mean I wanted to join in and couldn’t think of how to phrase myself. Or couldn’t think what to say at all. My tenuous grip on upper middle-class status gave me that, at least. It was the only bit of reprieve becoming an officer had ever given me. That, and being able to miss my father’s funeral.