A Cold Shoulder

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.”
― Shannon L. Alder

The mortars whistled down. It was 3am, still dark but for the random glow of explosions and flares, shining their dull orange beacons through the thick, stifling smoke. The barrage lasted only minutes, which seemed like hours. Then there was the familiar silence, broken only by the screams, as members of my platoon crawled through the wet mud, limbs parted, blood pulsing, draining their lives in the most grotesque conceivable manner.
Joe Sheridan was shaking uncontrollably. He was the only one with me in the small, muddy hollow. Even in this hellhole he managed to show some decency by pretending not to notice that I had crapped myself, the stench only adding to the horror.
“I can’t take any more”, he screamed at me. “Just shoot me Ray. Please. Just put me out of my misery. I don’t want to go in agony, like the others. Make it clean. Do it, Ray.”
I looked at him, not knowing what to say. He was losing his mind, and any sense of reasoning. I knew, because I was near the same point. To die quickly seemed like a good way out of this horror.
“We are going to die anyway, Ray”, Joe tried to convince me.
Then he put the muzzle of his rifle under his own chin. “Sorry, Ray. I shouldn’t have asked. It wasn’t right. Goodbye Ray.”
“Noooooo”, I roared. As I yelled, his face changed. I immediately knew what he was thinking. In a flash I realised that he was thinking about me, being left here all alone with the headless corpse of my closest friend. Of course, he couldn’t do that to his best friend. I began to relax, and squeezed my eyes against the tears that were now forcing their way out. As I opened them, I saw the watery blur of Joe, now pointing his rifle directly at me. In an instant I knew he would kill me. His reasoning was to put me out of my misery so that he could do the same for himself. I knew that this was the end. The end of all sanity. The end of me.
The following few minutes were to haunt me for the rest of my life. As the loud crack of a Lee Enfield rang above the silence of the early dawn, my life was about to change forever.
******
They looked so proud. I had picked my family out in the crowd long before it was my turn to step forward. It was a long ceremony, especially for me, being the last to be awarded my medal. There was only one Victoria Cross recipient, and I stood firmly to attention as Brigadier Richard Blaithewaite gave a small speech, describing my heroic act, before I would move forward to have my medal presented by Bertie himself. I was lost in my own fame and sense of importance.
I was the hero of our small town. Was it really only three months since I was in Germany? My wounds were now barely visible, especially as my beret covered the main one. A slight limp from where the shrapnel had cut into my kneecap was hardly discernible, even though the pain was still severe. In any case, what are a few scratches and bruises to a war hero who is being awarded The Victoria Cross?
Back in our local pub the following day, I didn’t need to put my hand into my pocket. Nor would I ever need to again, it seemed.
“Come on Ray. Tell us again. Tell us about how Ray Bothwell took on Gerry single handed and showed them what the British Bulldog can do.”
Two local lads hoisted me up onto the bar and I looked down at thirty or forty eager faces, waiting to hear all about my exploits. I had told the story many times, each one sucking out more tension and of course, building me up as the greatest war hero of our time.
But today I could see my mother and Aunt Phil sitting at the back of the snug. They had heard it so many times. I decided that now was not the time to go into the full length version.
“Well, it was early in the morning, the first glimmer of dawn. We had just had another barrage of mortars arrive into our position. Our numbers were dwindling by each one. I knew that something had to be done, and quick. I was trying to figure out how to reach the Gerry machine gun post when Joe, that was my mate, took a bullet straight through the heart.”
At this point I let my lip quiver slightly and looked down. The room became quiet. I wanted to create the greatest effect, and it worked every time. I continued.
“I knew that time was running out. Joe was dead. I jumped up out of the hollow we were in, dodging bullets flying everywhere, thinking not with Ray Bothwell you don’t. I’m going to save my comrades if it’s the last thing I do.”
Another cheer ran out.
“I zigzagged between trees and mounds of earth, until I was within 50 yards of their position. Now it was open ground. I took out two grenades and threw them in quick succession. In all of the noise and smoke, I was able to reach the gunner. I put a bullet into him and slashed my bayonet across the face of another. While he was screaming I fired at the third, but my rifle jammed. He was trying to raise his rifle, when I lunged forward and got him full in the chest with my bayonet. He must have fired at me because something hit me in the knee and I went down. As he dropped from my bayonet thrust, he swung his rifle round like a club as he groped for survival. It hit me on the side of my head. The next thing I knew was waking up in the hospital.”
There were cries of appreciation from the crowd, roars of “Bravo”, “Our own hero”, even “Ray Bothwell for PM”. These came above the murmur of people chatting, comparing notes and making sure that they hadn’t missed something important. By the time a few more beers had gone down, there were stories being passed around of a dozen German soldiers being slayed by the indefatigable Ray. I was loving every minute of it. After a lifetime of being a nobody, I was finally someone to be respected, held in awe. I was one of the few holders of the Victoria Cross.
Still standing on the pub bar, soaking up all of the adoration and signing beermats for the locals, I looked up to see my mother and Aunt Phil. They had their heads down in deep discussion. Mum didn’t look happy. She looked worried and almost nervous. She looked up and our eyes met for a fleeting second. She then looked away quickly. They had obviously been talking about me. I realised that something was not quite right, but surely they couldn’t know, could they? I dismissed the thought as quickly as it came.
******
The following weeks turned into months and finally VE day arrived. After Germany had surrendered and it was announced that the war in Europe was over, contrary to my expectations, my fame grew enormously. By the end of 1945, as soldiers began returning in large numbers back to their homeland, I was constantly being asked to appear at working men’s clubs, veteran gatherings, hospitals and clinics, where I could motivate the wounded.
One bright Monday morning in the autumn of 1946 my mother handed me a letter with an official looking postmark. I opened it carefully. It was an invitation to speak at a major reunion event, being held by the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, the home of the Chelsea Pensioners. There would be two other VC holders present and I was required to prepare a 30 minute talk, covering the action that resulted in my award. All of my expenses would, of course, be reimbursed, as well as a remuneration of 80 pounds, to cover my time. The event was planned for October 23rd. I looked up at the calendar on my bedroom wall. It was on a Wednesday, two weeks from now.
I had only ever been to London once before, to collect my VC from Buckingham Palace. It had all happened so quickly and, due to injuries at that time, I wasn’t able to enjoy the trip as much as I had hoped. This time would be different. My leg had fully recovered and the scar on my scalp had virtually disappeared. I had time to plan a full day in the capital, before heading off to the Royal hospital for the evening event. I was being put up in the Draycott Hotel in Kensington for two nights. As the time grew near I became increasingly excited. My mother seemed dismayed at my invitation.
“What’s wrong Mum? Are you not pleased for me? Does a war hero not deserve to be well appreciated?”
“Just tell it how it was, Ray. Nothing more, nothing less”, she replied in a low sombre tone.
I threw my jacket over my shoulders and stormed out for the pub. “I’m going down to the Nag’s Head. At least there are people who appreciate me down there, always ready to buy me a drink.”
It was as if Mum had known what happened in Germany on that fateful night, but how could she. Apart from a few dead Germans there was only Joe and me, and I was the only person left alive.
******
The evening of the 23rd finally arrived. I had travelled down on the train the day before. On the 22nd I met up with the other two VC recipients, who were staying in the same hotel. It was a strained meeting. Captain Harald Andrews was extremely respectful of my VC, but we were hardly from the same mould. Me, a miner’s son, leaving school at fourteen and him, a banker’s son with private schooling. The other, Philip Gardner, who asked us to call him ‘Pip’ was also a Captain from the Tank Regiment and just returned to the UK after a long stretch as a prisoner of war in Libya. He had far more in common with Captain Andrews, ‘common’ being the operative word to best describe me. Out of courtesy they invited me to join them tomorrow for a sight-seeing tour round London, but I declined, by lying that I was meeting old friends for the day.
We agreed to meet back up in the hotel reception and travel together in a cab to the Chelsea Hospital.
The reception was awesome. We were seated on a huge stage, to the cheers of over a thousand war veterans. I thought the noise would never stop. Our host tried numerous times to quieten the crowd, to no avail. They banged the floor with their heels, whooped and whistled. It was a full fifteen minutes before, finally, we could hear the voice of our host above the diminishing murmur of the audience. The three of us were grinning like Cheshire cats. We were momentarily of equal status, three heroes of war, and all nervousness of speaking before such a crowd forgotten.
The two captains went before me. They were both very articulate and clearly well educated. My nerves slowly began to return. How would I sound after them? This was very different to speaking in my local pub. I began –
“I think you will now see that I am far better at fighting Germans than speaking on a stage”
The roar was unbelievable. I had begun well, and could feel my confidence growing.
“Well, it was early in the morning, the first glimmer of dawn. We had just had another barrage of mortars arrive into our position. Our numbers were dwindling by each one. I knew that something had to be done, and quick. I was trying to figure out how to reach the Gerry machine gun post when Joe, that was my mate, took a bullet straight through the heart.”
I looked at the floor, gulped and quivered my lip, just like always. The room became predictably quiet.
“You’re a bloody liar”, came an angry voice out of the crowd. “You shot your best mate and left him for dead. You bloody liar.”
I couldn’t initially see where the voice was coming from, but I then noticed the faces of the audience looking towards someone, with shouts of “shut it”, “be quiet you fool”.
I peered into the face of the culprit. He was a poor sight, one sleeve empty and a short stubbly beard, which only half covered the horrendous burn on the side of his face.
“He’s just a stinking liar”, came the voice again, this time quieter and more distraught, through sobs of sorrow.
Then I saw his eyes.
“Joe. Is it you?” I had subconsciously stepped down from the stage and was walking towards the pathetic figure. Instantly I knew that it was all over. No more bravery. No more hero. No more lies.
I took Joe by the arm and lifted him to his feet. The room became silent. Two old comrades had been to hell and back, each assuming that the other was dead. Now, in this room full of the nation’s heroes, I knew there was only one thing I could do.
I helped Joe up onto the stage and asked him to sit in my chair. I faced the audience, took a deep breath and began again.
“This is Joe Sheridan”, I announced. I told the story of how terrified we had been, how the screams of our comrades night after night had sent us almost to the point of madness. I told of Joe’s fear of being maimed and left dying in the mud. I told of the way he aimed his rifle at me, to kill me, before he would then kill himself. I was choking on the words, but they flowed. There was nothing left to do but say it how it was. Mum had known, as only a Mum can.
I continued.
“I closed my eyes and fired my rifle at point blank range at Joe, before he could end my misery. I was so afraid and yet I was prepared to kill my closest friend rather than see him left alone in that chaos.”
Joe and I stared at each other for long seconds, finally understanding that neither of us had wanted to leave the other alone.
“I staggered from our hole, not seeing whether Joe was dead or alive. I had shot him and could not bear it. I stumbled through the bushes, not knowing where I was or what I was doing. I had killed my best friend. I was insane and my heart was breaking. I found myself in a derelict building and decided to end it. I took two grenades from my pouch, released the pins and waited for oblivion. The last thing I remember was three German soldiers appearing in the doorway. I closed my eyes and let the grenades go. That was the last thing I knew until I woke up three days later in a field hospital. I’m so sorry Joe.”
The room was deadly silent. I slowly unpinned my Victoria Cross, an award that I had never deserved, and laid it down on the table.
“Let me take you home Joe”, I pleaded.
He took my hand, came to his feet and we shuffled together down the centre aisle, through the rows of expectant veterans. I felt the shame of it all, the deceit, the cowardice, but most of all the disappointment of those thousands of war veterans, who needed heroes to worship. They were desperate for glorious stories of bravery and honour, to help them forget the horror, the stench, the death that they had survived. I had let them all down and would carry that guilt with me forever.
******
Nowadays, Joe and I often sit and talk together. We reminisce of the good times. We remember our schooldays together, the fights and the girls. There were never any more fights or girls after we came home from London. Only Joe and I could ever understand what really happened on that day. We have never discussed it since, everything else but not that day.
Joe had been captured, his arm hanging only by sinew and flesh. He was taken to the German field hospital, the arm was amputated and he spent the rest of the war as a POW. The burns on his face came from the close range of my rifle. As I had fired in blind madness I had given him the one thing he had dreaded the most, to be left dying and screaming in agony.
The last forty years have been spent trying to repair the damage that I did, in the knowledge that the only brave thing I ever did in my life was to do what my dear old mother had told me to. Tell the truth. Say it how it was.
The End