The fat orange sun, sinking down towards the horizon, casts long shadows behind the sheds of the railway sidings. Summer in England is drawing to a close. Yet after a wet July and August, by contrast the first days of September 1915 feel gorgeously warm and calm, suppressing any realisation of summer’s imminent end.
There is still time for the innumerable varieties of innocent mischief young boys eternally concoct during long summer breaks. So George pushes up the bottom of the chain-link fence while Arnold and Robert shuffle under. Then Arnold holds the fence from the inside while George struggles to clamber through and join them.
“Bit of help here Bob, before Georgie Porgie gets stuck,” whispers Arnold, and soon all three are trackside. Glancing around to check the coast is clear, the trio duck low, scurrying across to the stationary goods train.
“So this time we place it right next to the wheel of a truck, gluing it to the rail. That way we’ll find it afterwards, guaranteed,” George explains, as he takes a farthing from his pocket, carefully pastes a sticky glob squeezed from a paper bag onto one side and presses the coin down onto the polished metal of the rail. They’d left coins on the track before, but always after the train had sped over they’d never found the coin again, as if it had perhaps become stuck to the carriage wheels or even somehow been simply squashed out of existence.
“My brother says glue is made from blood and bones. It’s the marrow from the bones thrown into a huge vat of blood and boiled down to a paste. He says sometimes even the bones of people too!” Bob volunteers with a boy’s fascination for the macabre.
“It’s called horse glue, Bob. It’s made of horses. Did you know you can make soap out of bones too; but try telling that to your mother next time she washes your face. I told mine, she made me wash my mouth out with soap and water.” George knew so many facts that adults, more typically school teachers, frequently appeared to almost despise him for his cleverness.
“How thin will the farthing be after the train has run over it, George? Maybe the king’s head will be as big as a dinner plate!”
“Maybe. Time will tell, Bob. Time will tell.”
With the coin firmly in place the boys now puzzle over where to wait whilst the ritual squishing takes place. Only now does the thought occur to them that perhaps the trucks might lie idle in the siding all night, or even longer. So Arnold, fearful of getting into trouble again, keeps watch, while Bob and George consider the trio’s next actions.
Arnold hears a sound. “There’s a soldier walking the line. Quick, climb into the truck before he sees us.” Arnold, attuned to their surroundings, is the first to notice the danger, and the quickest to see an escape route. The boys pull themselves up and into the truck via the partly open side panel and crouch behind some wooden packing cases, sitting as silent as three mice.
The footsteps draw closer, ambling as slow and lazy as the setting sun. Another set of footsteps, brisk and purposeful, approach from the opposite direction, the footfalls finally intersecting outside the truck the boys are hiding within. A commanding voice sounds out, loud and clear. “The accessories are in these three wagons. It’s vital they depart on the early morning auxiliary ship to Calais. They are for immediate dispatch to Special Companies at the front, and they must be on that boat. Understood?”
“Sir. yes sir.” The soldier barks out in reply. Shortly afterwards the boys hear the sound of the two men walking off at a brisk soldierly pace, their footsteps gradually receding into the distance.
Bob was the first to break the silence inside the truck. “My aunt makes accessories, stuff like hats and handbags for old ladies, why do they want accessories on the Western Front?”
“Accessories doesn’t necessarily mean hats and handbags.” George replies. “My granddad was a policeman, he told me if I see someone doing something wrong I must tell a policeman or I could become an accessory to the crime. Then there’s the accessory bone in the foot, it’s called that because not every…“
“What if they are sending criminals to the front line, what if prisoners are in those crates, what if we get mistaken for crooks too? What if we get sent to the trenches?” Arnold interrupts frantically, ever fearful that trouble was just around the corner.
“Arnold, these are just packing crates, you don’t put people inside wooden crates and our soldiers are the finest fighting force in the world, not a bunch of criminals.” George explains politely, unflustered by Arnold’s interruption.
“Anyway, Arnold, we’re not crooks, how can you become an accessory to a crime you’ve never seen? In any case these crates are all marked LOOS. Maybe it’s just bog roll - there must be a million bottoms to wipe every day in the army. I bet thousands all rush to the bog at the same time when the guns start firing,” jokes Bob, ever the master of toilet humour. “Hey look, the top of this crate is not nailed down, let’s take a peek inside.”
Curious as any cat Bob lifts the lid. “Bah, it’s just metal cylinders, gas for cooking maybe. How many sausages do you think they fry each morning at the Front, before they go over the top? An army doesn’t fight on an empty stomach.”
“They don’t look much like cooking gas cylinders. I’ve seen smaller ones similar to these at the swimming pool. The ones at the pool are full of chlorine, it kills germs, protects us from disease,” George explains.
“What, even the germs on Smelly Susan? She stinks of wee, yet they still let her in the pool. Once she peed in the pool and the water turned yellow,” Bob interjects with a return to the bodily functions theme.
Arnold is still worried. “My dad says the Huns are using gas as poison, he says it was in all the papers.”
“The British fight by Queensbury rules. No, it’s for cleaning the loos, that’s all, proper sanitation is very important in war,” George states firmly, seemingly attempting to convince himself. “The coin will still be stuck to the track tomorrow; we’ll come back after school. Let’s go home.”