Title: After the Push
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. They belong to the BBC and to Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. I don't mean to infringe on their copyright in any way, only to pay tribute to a brilliant show that caught hold of my imagination and won't let go.
Any spelling errors, anachronisms, and historical inaccuracies in this story are mine. ~~~
I have been a cheat all my life, and I like to think of myself as an expert at the art. But I still can't adequately explain how I managed to cheat death in the Second Battle of the Somme in November, 1917. I'm pretty sure it wasn't luck. We Blackadders are never lucky.
For the past three years the thought of this battle had been a shadow over my mind and a lead weight in my belly. I'd spent every waking hour dreading it, and most of my sleeping hours having nightmares about it. I'd used all my family's famous ingenuity trying to escape it--- but only in ways that wouldn't destroy my military career. My one attempt at desertion was a half-hearted one; when you've spent your entire adult life in the army, you don't turn your back on it easily. That's why, on that wet, chilly morning, when all my cunning plans were exhausted, there was nothing left to do but go over the top and die like an Englishman. In the end, it was all I had.
So over the top we went---myself, Baldrick, Darling , George, my squadron, and 30,000 others, into a wall of German gunfire. George ran shouting something that sounded suspiciously like "Tally-ho!" Darling ran twitching, whimpering, and probably shitting himself. And Baldrick---where the hell was Baldrick?
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him down on his knees, groping frantically in the muck. The lucky bastard had dropped his eyeglasses! Before I could react to this in any way---before I could even break stride---something sickeningly painful shattered my right kneecap and drove me to the ground. As I fell, I felt half a dozen bullets drilling a dotted line up my belly and chest, leaving me gasping out my life in the mud of Flanders.
Far ahead I saw George go down in a hail of gunfire. I think he died instantly. Darling wasn't as lucky. He got hit by a mortar shell, and lay writhing on the ground screaming. Me, I had no breath to scream. I felt as if a python was coiled around my ribs, tightening with every gasp for air. Worst of all was the tickle in my chest, the urge to cough that I knew would compound the damage. If the fakirs of India put as much willpower into levitation as I did into not coughing, the Raj would have the finest air force in the world.
Then Baldrick , crawling on his hands and knees, grabbed my shoulder and said, "Captain, have you seen my glasses?"
My concentration fled. I coughed. Red-hot needles shot through my chest, and my mouth filled with blood.
"BLACKADDER!" shrieked my revolting little batman. He threw me over on my back, and sheer agony made the world momentarily fade into a red blur. When everything returned, I gasped out:
"Baldrick...I...I'm finished. Go...back..."
"No!" he sobbed. "You owe me ten shillings!"
He hooked his arms around my waist and tried to drag me back toward the trench. Having the visual and mental acuity of a petunia, he forgot in which direction the trenches were located, and dragged me toward the enemy instead. I hardly noticed. Every movement caused the bones of my shattered knee to grind together, sent lightning flashing through my broken ribs, increased the ghastly congestion in my lungs. Every cough ripped though my chest like a saw. In all the universe there was nothing but agony and bitter cold. Surely that shadow passing overhead was the Angel of Death. But no, it wasn't. It was a Sopwith Camel.
The plane roared down on the German trenches, spitting bullets. The machine gun directly across from us fell silent, and the other gunners concentrated their fire on the airborne attacker. With an unnecessary barrel-roll that was as good as a thumbed nose, the Sopwith spun around for another pass. Its third pass was not an assault on the enemy, but a noisy, mud-spattering landing right in front of Baldrick and me. Out of the cockpit jumped the burly, barrel-chested form of Lord Flasheart, the Ego that Walked Like a Man.
Earlier that year, Flash had invaded my trench, demanding to be worshipped. I had greeted him with the enthusiasm that a man who has just dressed for a formal dinner party has for the huge, slobbery dog that leaps into his lap after a jolly day of rolling in the cowpats. His friendly overtures had included punching me in the nose, threatening to shoot me, and "rescuing" me from the easy, comfortable German captivity that would have prevented the messy death I was currently engaged in. When, during our escape, Flasheart had threatened my life one more time, I had snapped and told him to fuck off. We had exchanged blows, and then Flash had abruptly decided that this made me his best friend in the world. We'd gotten rat-arsed on a bottle of fine scotch he kept in his kite, and he had almost won me over by head-butting Darling---but then had immediately lapsed back into Arrogant Git mode. Seeing him approach now, I thought, Oh bloody hell, it's you. I'm dying. Go away.
"Have no fear, Flasheart's here!" he shouted. "Woof! Break out your booze, boys, the-Oh, my God!"
To my vast astonishment, his ruddy face went fishbelly-white and he sank to his knees in the mud. Was that really an expensive silk aviator's scarf he was using the wipe the blood from my lips?
"Slackbladder, it's me---Flasheart." He said, in a voice completely different from his usual bellow. "Hang on. You're going to be all right."
I dragged in enough air to croak out, "It's...Blackadder...you..git..."
He stroked the hair on my brow. "Shhhh, don't talk. We'll get you---Shit!"
Renewed machine gun fire was riddling the plane behind us. Flash heaved me roughly into his arms, and the world was swallowed up in anguish. I came around to the loud wump! of the plane's fuel tank exploding behind us. Flash ran back to our lines and leaped into the trench, landing hard in knee-deep water. The next thing I was aware of was the splash of Baldrick landing face-first in the slop, and coming up sniveling.
"Oh God, this is awful, just awful," he sobbed. "I hate this a lot."
"Private," said Flash.
"I want my mummy..."
"PRIVATE!" shouted Flash.
Baldrick snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir!"
"Where is your first aid station?"
Rusty gears turned almost visibly in Baldrick's head. "That way," he said, pointing in a random direction.
Flasheart ran down the trench, kicking up sprays of filthy water. Every step he took rubbed the bones in my ruined knee together, and sent in me into a fit of coughing that covered my chin and chest with blood. . The pain that could not possibly get any worse doubled and tripled, until all I could think was, Please, please, please, just let me die.
To make it worse, Baldrick got us lost. Flasheart found himself in a cul-de-sac of mud and sandbags.
"Where in the name of arse is this aid station?" he said.
"I don't know, sir," wailed Baldrick. "I can't see without my glasses! I think I've got a map in here somewhere." He started rummaging around in his packs, only to be knocked on his bum by a well-aimed kick from Flasheart.
"God's bollocks!" said Flash. "If a gnat had your brain it would fly backwards!"
God, it was hard to breathe. I felt as if I were drowning. I couldn't stop shaking, and fuzzy black things were gathering in my peripheral vision. But I pointed a trembling hand and gasped:
"Two..trenches..down...three... left...number twenty-three."
I must have passed out then, because the next thing I knew there were groans and cries and bustle all around me, and Flash was shouting:
"Medic! We need a medic here! This man's got a sucking chest wound. Medic, I said! Have you sods been sniffing your ether bottles?"
An orderly unbuttoned my tunic and gave a long whistle. "All right," he said. "Forty units of morphine. Sit him over there, sir."
"Forty units....!" Flasheart's eyes went wide. "You're not going to just let him die, are you?"
"Sorry, sir, the only thing we can do is make him comfortable."
Flash lay me down on a duckboard and seized the orderly by his shirtfront.
"That is NOT acceptable, Corporal," he snarled. "You will get a surgeon for the captain right now, or I will personally see to it that you donate your internal organs to the war effort."
"But we can't help this man, sir," said the orderly. "He's in deep shock and has more holes in him than a golf course. We're completely swamped with casualties and we need to concentrate on the men we can help."
Flash knocked the unfortunate bugger sprawling. "When I want your opinion," he howled, "I'll read your entrails!"
"My lord," said a voice that, despite its softness and respect, would have stopped a charging rhino in its tracks, "Your friend will have no chance at all if you don't stand back and let us do our jobs. Peterson, Landis, bring a clean stretcher to lay this man on. Let's have a look at him."
A handsome, weary, middle-aged face swam into view. He took my pulse, probed my chest wounds, and pressed gently on my abdomen. Now, I was so cold, so exhausted, and in so much pain that I was more than willing to pack it in. But my body had a mind of its own, and insisted on taking a breath. And another. And another.
The surgeon nodded. "You're a fighter," he said. "I'll give you the best fighting chance I can. All right, Peterson, start cutting his clothes off. Landis, you're my anesthesiologist. What have we got?"
"Just a few bottles of chloroform," said Landis..
"It'll have to do. Lord Flasheart, if you and the private would wait out in the supply trench, please?"
I caught a glimpse of Flash, ghastly pale, biting down hard on one knuckle. He was a study in helpless anxiety. His tunic was soaked with blood---my blood, I realized distantly.
A chloroform-soaked cloth came down over my nose and mouth.
"Now, Captain," said the surgeon, "Breathe as deeply as you can. I know it hurts. Breathe..."
And darkness fell.
I was drinking at a pub. It was full of men in uniform, mostly from my own outfit, but there were Jerries there too. Our former enemies showed us no more animosity than they had during that absurd and miraculous Christmas truce in 1914. But despite the peace and the excellent beer, there was no genuine cheer in the place. Men stared moodily into their drinks, or talked together in low, somber voices.
George sat down beside me, pint in hand. "Is it over already, sir? The Push, I mean. I thought it would last longer."
"I'm sure it's still going on somewhere," I said. "But it's not our problem anymore. We're out of it."
Silence while George tried to assimilate this. A thought was clearly rattling around in his head, like a BB in an empty coffee can.
"You were magnificent, Cap!" he gushed. "You were cool as a cigar! Just wait till I tell Uncle Rupert at the boat race next April! You'll have so many medals they could drop you over the side of a troop ship and use you as an anchor!"
Then the penny finally dropped. George got wide-eyed, and said, in a trembling voice, "Wait a minute. I'm...I'm not going to the boat race next April, am I?"
"Not unless they hold séances there," I said.
"Yes. Well. Erm. This can't be right. There must be some mistake."
"There was. The biggest mistake since Eve bought some cheap produce from a limbless reptile. . But I'm afraid that doesn't change our situation at all."
"Last rounds, gentlemen," called the bartender.
"Well, this is a right bugger," said George pettishly.
"Quite," I said. George had been the bane of my existence for three weary years, but somehow the thought that his family would soon be receiving That Letter was depressing beyond measure.
Now men were starting to file out the door. I stood up, and found Darling standing before me, twitching like --- well, like some kind of twitchy thing.
"You too, eh?" he said, not meeting my eyes.
"Looks like it," I said.
"Well, it all seems kind of silly now, doesn't it? Our, our...quarrel, I mean."
"I suppose so."
"No hard feelings?" He held out his hand.
I swung my fist and knocked the little prick to the floor. He got up snarling, ready to reciprocate---but the bartender slammed a glass loudly on the bar and gave us a stern look. Besides, the pub was nearly empty now, and it was clearly time to leave. Darling gave me a look that said we would finish this later as he headed out.
"Captain?" called George from the doorway. "Are you coming, sir?"
I started to follow, but suddenly an enormous black snake was rearing up between the door and me. It was bigger than an anaconda, with eyes like glowing embers and scales that glittered like sequins of obsidian. It hissed in fury, gaping its long red mouth to display venom-dripping fangs. It wouldn't let me leave.
I was waiting on the quay to board a troop ship. I was waiting to catch a train. I was heading back to my barracks for a night's sleep. Always, that huge black snake--- that huge black adder--- would rise hissing before whatever threshold I was trying to cross, and drive me back. Around the edges of these scenes, another world began to intrude. Blurred faces would swim into view, most of them wearing nurse's caps. Voices would speak unintelligibly from infinitely far away. I had the vague, annoying sensation that something was being pushed up my nose, and that other things were being inserted in places that I preferred not to think about. Once, I was sure I felt somebody kiss my forehead. Somebody with a mustache.
The last scene was vague and dreamlike. I was in a featureless gray corridor with a door at the end marked THIS WAY OUT. The black adder coiled in front of the door seemed the only thing that was real. It rose up hissing, but this time I looked it straight in the eye.
"All right," I said. "I can take a hint. Let's go back."
It ducked its head as though nodding, and slithered docilely beside me as I turned and walked back the way I'd come.
Women's voices. Smell of carbolic. Bedclothes against my bare skin.. Grey morning light. I hurt. I felt as if a mad shopkeeper had removed most of my internal organs, salted them down, used them in a festive window display over the holidays, then put them back in wrong-way up and fastened me up with carpet tacks. A warm, breathing weight lay against my side. It smelled nice, that weight, in a masculine way, so I knew it couldn't be Baldrick.
"Who's there?" I whispered. God, what an effort it was to speak! My limbs seemed to weigh a ton each, and moving them to any great extent was as impossible as lifting a battleship in my bare hands.
My bedmate groaned in agony. "Keep it down, for fuck's sake!"
"Flasheart...?" I said feebly.
A very disheveled Flash lifted his head and squinted at me with bloodshot eyes. His breath reeked of alcohol, and he was obviously in much more pain than I was. But when he met my puzzled gaze, he broke into a grin that lit up the room like flash powder.
"You're awake," he said wonderingly. "Welcome back. Hey, Balders!" He thumped on the bed frame. "Slackie's awake!"
"Blackie," I said. "As in...Blackadder."
Baldrick crawled out from under the bed, clouting his head on the frame in the process. "Good morning, Captain B.," he said, "Lord Flash ordered me to watch over you. You really had us worried."
By now my bed was surrounded by nurses and orderlies. The matron, a plump, gray-haired little woman, smiled broadly.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, sir," she said. "We're going to start calling you Captain Miracle. Every day for the past three weeks we've been expecting you to be dead by morning. You've been fighting a vicious case of blood poisoning . No feeding tube today, Sarah. Get the Captain a bowl of beef broth instead."
She propped a strong arm under my back, and held a glass of water to my lips. Nothing had ever tasted so good.
"War still on?" I said.
"Not for you, it isn't," said Flash. "You've got a blighty!"
A blighty---a wound that would get me sent home! After three years of living with sick dread in my belly every day and nightmares every night, I was dizzy with relief. Finally, nobody would be shooting at me any more! I grinned like a pillock.
"That's right," said the matron. "They removed your entire left lung---in a fist aid station, no less!"
I stopped grinning abruptly.
"They also stitched up your gut in three places, and took a bullet out of your knee, " she continued. "You still have the leg, but I doubt it'll ever bear weight again. You'll need a leg brace to walk."
I gathered my strength to ask, "How does a man live...with only one lung?"
"We were hoping you could tell us, sir. Nobody's ever survived a full pneumonectomy before, especially under field conditions."
This was markedly less cheering. At the very least, it meant that my military career was over. How much would I recover? What would I do with the rest of my life?
"Captain B.," said Baldrick, "Would you help me write a letter to my family, please? I'm dead, you see."
"No you're not," said Flasheart. "You just smell that way. You've always smelled that way."
"But the casserole report said I was dead."
"Casualty report," corrected Flash. "And I told you that was just a clerical mistake."
"But I'm bloating up, sir," said Baldrick, lifting his shirt to show a modest potbelly. "See?"
"That's because the nurses have been feeding you scraps. Now piss off and let the ladies give Slackie his breakfast."
But Baldrick lingered, teary-eyed, "George is gone, sir."
"Yeah," said Flash. "George bought it. Shame. He was a nice kid."
I felt the strangest sense of dislocation then. I almost shook my head and said no, George wasn't dead, I'd just had a drink with him. The fever dreams I'd had seemed suddenly real. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a glittering black adder flicked its tongue.
I felt even stranger when I found that I was too weak to lift my hands to my face, and had to be spoon-fed like a toddler. The nurses gave me a sponge bath and dressed me in hospital pajamas, and I could only make the most feeble attempts at helping them. The fact that the entire crowded ward could see this weird second infancy was mortifying. I wondered if I actually had died in the Big Push, and this was some bizarre form of reincarnation.
Flash, who had left to get a bromide for his hangover, returned with a shaving kit, towels, and a basin of water to remove the beard I'd grown in the past three weeks. I couldn't help but notice that hands lingered on my face just slightly longer than was strictly necessary.
"Do you ever fight in this war?" I asked.
"I've got a weekend's leave," he said. "I can stay and keep you company until tomorrow. There, that's done it---smooth as a whore's backside. I've got to set you up with my sister, Flora. Let her see what a real man's like. Woof woof!"
I had to laugh at that. "Right now, I feel as ...attractive as a trench latrine."
"Nonsense, you're a heartbreaker. Once Flora looks into those big velvety eyes of yours, she'll forget all about that git she...er, I mean she'll just melt. You've got a whole new life ahead of you, Slackie."
"Look," I sighed. "Just call me Edmund."
Again he gave that dazzling smile. "Edmund," he said. "Edmund. You can call me Griff. Lord Griffin John Thomas Flasheart, at your service. Still think I'm a prat?"
The effort of talking---indeed of staying awake for half an hour---had exhausted me. "Dunno," I mumbled. "S'like a novel by H.G. Wells. You're...turning into a human being right before my eyes."
"You like Wells, eh? I prefer Burroughs myself. Naked Martian princesses, woof!"
I wanted to pursue this conversation, to tell him my fondness for the sort of fiction wherein the hero battles an alien monster, a robot, or a disembodied brain (it makes your villain that much more menacing when you can't imagine him sitting on the jakes with a newspaper) but my last ounce of strength was gone. Sleep beckoned. I gave one drowsy glance at the bedside table, where Baldrick was assembling a collection of objects that included a potty, three boiled eggs, some faucet washers, a plumbing snake and an alarm clock. I spared him a raised eyebrow and an interrogative grunt.
"It's a cunning plan, sir," he said. "You see---"
"Oh, cork it, Balders," said Griff. "Your captain needs to rest."
I felt him tuck the blankets close around me, and drifted off to sleep knowing he was right. A new life had begun for me, and I knew that Lord Griffin Flasheart would figure in it prominently.
And I found that I liked that. I liked it a lot.