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Fiction: The Story of Canada

The Clap

The Clap

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

There he is now.

Private Israel Dove of the Newfoundland Regiment. Cross-legged on the floor of Holloway’s Studio in downtown St. John’s. The rest of his unit behind him in chairs or standing at the back, having their picture drawn off before heading overseas. Ill-fitting woollen uniforms, balaclavas perched jauntily left or right on their heads. Israel reaches up to the soldier in the chair to his right, the two holding hands, to say how they are friends.

His mother laughed at him when he asked permission to join the regiment. “You’re just turned 15,” she said. He threatened to run off and sign up on his own and she flicked at him with the cup towel she was holding. “You’d have to lie about your age,” she said. “You was raised better than that.”

It kept him awake at night, wondering how to get into uniform without calling his upbringing into question. He caught a ride on a schooner to Lewisporte and the train from there into St. John’s. Knowing all the while his mother was right – he didn’t have it in him to take a false oath. Wrote the number 18 on a scrap of paper and slipped it into his shoe before he presented himself.

“You wants to be a soldier, is it?” an officer asked him.

“I spose so, yes.”

“You don’t look half old enough to shave.”

“I’m over 18, sir,” he said.

“Is that a fact.”

“On me mother’s life, sir. I am over 18.”

The officer handed him a form. “You have letters enough to sign this?”

While he was learning to slope arms and shoulder arms and present arms, his mother wrote to the regiment demanding her underage son be sent home. He was called into an office where he was handed her letter. The cramped, careful cursive detailing his name and date of birth. The formal signature, Mrs. Harriet Dove, Crow Head, NFLD.

“She’s mistaken,” Israel told the officer.

“About what?”

“She must be thinking of my younger brother.”

“Your mother is confusing her own children?”

Israel nodded. He felt sick to his stomach but plowed ahead. “She haven’t been the same since Father died, sir.”

The officer considered Israel a moment. It was impossible to say by his expression which way he would come down. “Do you know,” he said, “if Mrs. Dove has joined the Women’s Patriotic Association?”

Israel shrugged helplessly. “What is it they does?”

“Help with the war effort. Fundraise. They knit wool socks for the boys overseas.”

“She can knit all right,” he said.

“I’ll suggest it to her, will I?”

“If you wants, sir,” Israel said. “It wouldn’t do no harm.”

He wished he was dead, for a little while.

There is only one man in Israel’s unit over the age of 20. Ernest Hamlyn from Arnold’s Cove. It’s Ernest’s hand he is holding in the photograph. Ernest stands just north of five-foot-six and dwarfs most of his comrades. In their baggy uniforms and stocking caps they look like a battalion of garden gnomes.

They will ship out for Europe in two days. Not a one of them has been off the island before. Israel is about to get drunk for the first time in a Water Street pub and Ernest will have to drag him back to their tent barracks above Quidi Vidi Lake, stopping every 100 yards or so to let the youngster puke. Israel will wake to a hangover so fierce that, for the second time in his short life, he will sincerely wish himself dead.

There he is now. Standing outside the canteen at Pond Farm Camp, whiling away the last hour before lights out. The regiment has been on Salisbury Plain almost two months, training in the endless autumn rain. Sloping arms. Shouldering arms. Presenting arms. Everything they own is caked in mud. Grumbling has become their main leisure activity. Israel writes regularly to his mother to complain about the weather and the drills and the boredom but he has yet to receive a single line in return.

“It’s a month or more to get a letter across the pond,” Ernest tells him. “She probably haven’t got a one of yours yet. She’s probably sitting home wondering why you haven’t wrote.”

“There’s people here after getting letters. Thousands of em.”

Ernest says, “Stop being such a Jesus sook, Israel.”

The Newfoundlanders are all churchgoers, devoutly polite, but most of them are swearing now. As if this proves they are ready for the trenches. Israel tried it on for size himself but couldn’t make peace with it. He took up smoking as well and found the habit more to his taste, although he’s yet to admit as much in his letters.

He lights a hand-rolled and shakes out his match. Looks up to see a Canadian soldier coming toward them across the parade ground. They sailed to England with a convoy carrying a Canadian division but they’ve had nothing to do with them since disembarking at Plymouth. The Newfoundlanders are often mistaken for Canadians while on leave in London, a confusion they resent and for some reason blame on the Canadians.

The soldier is waving a pair of wool socks as he comes up to them. “Dove?” he says. “Anyone in the regiment name of Dove?”

“I am,” Israel admits.

“You wouldn’t know a Mrs. Harriet Dove, would you?”

The man has one light blue eye and one dark brown. It makes Israel feel queer to hear his mother’s name in the mouth of this stranger. He drops his cigarette, stubs it out with his boot. “I knows her,” he says.

The Canadian rummages a hand into one of the socks. “The St. John Ambulance handed out care packages to us this afternoon. I got these beauties and I found …” – he produces a slip of paper with a little flourish, as if he’s performing a magic trick – “… this pushed up into the toe.”

Israel unfolds the paper, reads the formal signature in her careful, cramped hand: Mrs. Harriet Dove, Crow Head, NFLD.

“You know her, do you?”

Israel nods. “She’s my mother.”

“Well hell’s flames,” Ernest Hamlyn says.

Israel stares blankly at the paper a long time.

“Lots of women do the same,” the Canadian says. “Makes it seem more personal to include their names, doesn’t it?”

Ernest says, “She wouldn’t credit it to think they’d come this close to her own youngster, I’ll wager.”

“You never know your luck in a big outfit. Thought it couldn’t hurt to ask around the Newfoundlanders in camp.” The Canadian hands the socks to Israel. “You should have them.”

“I got nothing to give you for these. All me kit is ruined with the mud.”

“Your mother knit them. They belong to you more than me.”

“All right,” Israel says.

“Well then,” the Canadian says. He claps his hands, just the once, to say his work here is done. “I’ll be off.”

“Hell’s flames,” Ernest says again.

There he is now. In his bed at a convalescent hospital outside London. Six months he’s been here, sent back from Alexandria with dysentery and malaria, before he so much as fired a shot at Gallipoli.

After Salisbury Plain, they’d spent half a year playing at war in the Scottish Highlands – at Fort George in Inverness where a military band welcomed them with a misplaced rendition of The Maple Leaf Forever, then at Edinburgh Palace where Israel turned 16.

They were stationed at Stobs Camp in Hawick most of the summer of 1915 before sailing, finally, for a front-line deployment in Turkey. But Israel took sick aboard the Megantic and was too ill to disembark when they arrived in Alexandria. Ernest Hamlyn holding his hand in sick bay, saying his goodbyes. Israel so miserable he didn’t know the man.

His first weeks back in England were a blur of fever and delirium, the weight dropping off his slender boy’s frame. Months then getting his legs back, recovering his wind. Even now he looks skeletal without a shirt on. But he’s well enough he has the run of the hospital grounds. Travels up to London on weekend passes.

Only vague reports of the Gallipoli campaign and the regiment’s losses have reached the ward. And for months there was no official word about Israel’s fate. The war seemed to have forgotten him here. He is the only Newfoundlander at the hospital, the odd one out, with a bizarre accent and a child’s old-fashioned, almost courtly manners. He’s become a kind of mascot to the staff, a nurses’ favourite. They’ve coddled him with smuggled shortbread cookies, with gossip about the latest disaster in France, about the injured soldiers on other wards. Men without legs, or not right in the head, or their lungs ruined by gas. A face without a nose or lower jaw. A row of boys who have lost their, you know, they say, suddenly shy, their private bits. A new arrival with one blue eye and one brown, have you ever seen the like?

“Where’s he from?” Israel asked.

“He’s Canadian. Ross, his name is. Do you know him?”

Israel found the man in his bed, his ruined hand swaddled in bandages, his right leg in a cast. Ross nodded up at him, trying to place the face.

Israel raised his own hand. “Is it bad?” he asked.

“Two fingers,” he said. “I’ll be on a ship back to Canada by the end of March. Is your mother still knitting?”

Israel has carried his mother’s socks in his kit all this time but has never put them on his feet. He wrote to her about the Canadian before they left Salisbury, about the slip of paper with her name and address, and she sent a letter with a clipping from the Twillingate Sun which ran a piece on the providential episode. “It is the strangest story imaginable, yet absolutely true!” Israel and his mother have been exchanging letters ever since. He feels a debt of gratitude to this stranger he can’t properly explain.

“She’s hard at it,” Israel said. “She’ve done more to win the war than I’ve managed.”

“You’re better out of that business altogether,” Ross said.

Israel made a daily visit to Ross’s bedside, and pushed him around the halls in a wheelchair, and walked the grounds with him once Ross was able. Answering his endless questions about the exotic world of Crow Head. Ross talking about his life in Winnipeg, his five sisters, the bitter winters, the childhood sword fight with Robbie Gould that ended with a stick to his eye, the right pupil permanently dilated.

They thought nothing of the unlikely coincidence of finding each other here, after the unlikely coincidence of meeting on Salisbury Plain. Superstition and magical thinking was part of being a soldier. Especially for Ross, who had been trained by his experience in the trenches to believe a person’s fate was shaped by dreams and signs and patron saints and lucky coins. It seemed intended they would cross paths again.

Early on, Israel asked about his time in France, but Ross spoke of it only in the most general way. “Terrible,” he said. “A bloody mess.” He said, “We’re the lucky few, Israel. We’ll make it out of this more or less intact.”

Ross talked about Israel going home so seriously and so frequently that Israel assumed it was a foregone conclusion. He said as much in his letters and his mother had written to tell him she was hoping to have him home for his 17th birthday. She was going to lay a new piece of canvas in his room for the occasion, she said.

Israel turns his head to see Ross push through the ward door in his uniform, his boots clacking on the hardwood. He stops at the foot of the bed where Israel is lying in his hospital-issue pyjamas. It’s been a week since Israel’s order papers arrived to tell him the Newfoundland Regiment is being redeployed to the Western Front, that he will join his unit in Louvencourt at the beginning of April. He’d brought the sealed envelope to Ross, assuming he was being discharged. It was a shock to be told his war isn’t over.

“You were meant to be shipped home,” Ross said, “the same as me.”

“You was the only one ever said I was going home.”

“All a person has to do is look to see you aren’t fit.”

“I spose it’s what I signed up for.” He was trying to comfort Ross with a brave face, which only made things worse.

“Look around you,” Ross shouted, waving at the maimed soldiers on the ward. “These are the lucky ones.”

Israel nodded helplessly. There were stars swimming at the edge of his vision. He thought he might faint. “What can you do,” he said.

Ross stands at the foot of Israel’s bed now, a hurt sort of smile on his face. He taps an envelope against the bed frame. “I pulled some strings,” he says. “Weekend passes. We’ll go up to London, have a time of it.”

They’ve hardly spoken in the past week, everything between them too raw to touch.

“I’m all right where I’m to,” Israel says. “You go on.”

“Last chance before I ship out for home,” Ross insists. He starts digging through Israel’s kit, tossing clothes onto the bed. Undershirt, underwear. The never-worn pair of woollen socks. “Let’s go. I want to catch the 9:40.”

Israel picks up the socks knit by his mother. Why not, he thinks. It seems providential to wear them now, walking through London with Ross. Before they part company for good.

There’s Israel now. Coming to himself in the narrow hallway of a tenement house somewhere in London. Slumped in the near-dark outside a closed door, with an unsettling sense that he is waiting in line. He is drunk and disoriented, at sea, already regretful. Glasses of stout they started with, before they’d had a bite of dinner, and later rum and then port or something like it, something sweetish and sickening, a mistake.

The entire day feels like a mistake. They went straight to a pub when they arrived at Charing Cross and Ross ordered them a round.

“Don’t you want something to eat?” Israel asked.

Ross raised his stout. “This is practically bread,” he said.

Israel can’t recall the exact sequence of events that followed. They walked the Mall as far as St. Paul’s, stopping at every pub they passed for another drink. At some point Ross leaned across the table, beckoning Israel closer with his disfigured hand. He said, “Are you a virgin, Israel?”

They were well into the rum by then. It was nearly dark.

“Are you?” Israel shot back.

Ross struggled to open the front pocket of his tunic, pulling out a square of paper with a drunken flourish, laying it on the table.

“What’s this?”

“Call it a parting gift,” Ross said.

There was a woman’s name written there, alongside an address. Israel leaned back in his seat. “I wants no part of that,” he said.

“Listen,” Ross said. He nudged the paper a few inches closer to Israel. “This woman charges twice what anyone else asks. But she guarantees a medical discharge when she’s through.”

“A discharge for what?”

“Medically unfit for duty.”

Israel didn’t understand what Ross was saying. He thought of the row of unfortunate soldiers at the hospital, the hushed voices of the nurses telling him they had lost their private bits. “Unfit how?” he asked.

“The clap,” Ross shouted drunkenly. “A one-way ticket home.”

“I could just shoot meself in the foot, couldn’t I?”

“That’s more likely to land you in front of a firing squad. This is a guaranteed out.”

Israel leaned back from the table again, shaking his head. There were “houses of ill repute” at every stop on the regiment’s way through Britain. Most of the Newfoundlanders indulged the urge to visit at some point but Ernest Hamlyn managed to keep Israel clear, for which he was secretly grateful. Israel had never kissed or touched a girl. He had never seen a naked breast.

“For Chrissakes, Israel,” Ross said.

“I wants no part of it.”

They ignored each other a while then, looking aimlessly around the crowded room, at their drinks. Surprised to find they could dislike each other so intensely. Ross nodded down at the table. “So France it is,” he said.

“I expect so.”

Ross lifted his glass. “To France,” he said.

They drank in silence a long time then. Israel sorry he’d come up to London at all. “I think I’ll catch a train back in the morning,” he said finally.

Ross nodded, but didn’t look up from the table. He said, “Did I ever tell you what happened to Robbie Gould?”

“No,” Israel said. “Who’s Robbie Gould?”

Ross pointed at his face. “The one who mucked up my eye. When we were kids.”

“You didn’t tell me,” Israel said. “Not so’s I’d remember.”

“You’d remember,” Ross said. He raised his good hand to the bar for another round. “We signed up together, me and Robbie. He was killed by a sniper last August.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Israel said.

“We buried him just behind the line. A rush job, you know. Hardly enough dirt to cover him.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Israel said again.

Ross shook his head. “There’s more.”

A German shell struck the gravesite weeks later, the putrefied corpse spraying over the soldiers huddled in their trench, over their uniforms, their hands and faces. When the barrage ended they collected the bits of the man still recognizably human to rebury them, the stench so horrible they had to wear gas masks to manage the task.

“I could not get clear of that stink,” Ross said. “It was on us. Couldn’t eat for days afterward, it was that bad. The CO finally gave in and issued us new uniforms.” He shook his head, then stared at Israel with those eerily mismatched eyes. “I can still smell it,” he said.

The door across the tenement hallway opens and a sliver of oily light shafts into the darkness where Israel is sitting. How did he get here? Ross, of course. Ross ordering another round and then another. Ross chipping away at Israel’s childish sense of propriety with one horrific war story after the last. Ross half-carrying Israel up those stairs, propping him in a chair while he stepped inside the room to make arrangements. And Ross is crouching beside him now, taking him by the arm. “It’s all set,” he says.

Israel tries to right himself in the chair. “Can’t I have a smoke first?”

“It’s not a bloody firing squad,” Ross says. “Be a man about it.”

There he is now. Cross-legged in the cold shade of a trench on a summer morning. July 1, 1916. Cloudless blue sky and a windless calm but for the constant battering of shellfire, a solid wall of noise that makes all his bones shake. Two hours the Newfoundlanders have been waiting for the whistle to send them over the top. The ground is quivering beneath them like the flesh of a living creature suffering through a malarial fever. The forward trenches choked with dead and injured soldiers who attempted the earlier advances.

Ernest Hamlyn crouches beside him in the trench, his shoulders hunched, his head down. Half the people in Israel’s unit were strangers to him when he met up with them in France. Even Ernest is not the person he remembers, though Israel can’t say the difference. The man hadn’t seemed happy to see him exactly. “Never thought I’d clap eyes on you again,” Ernest had said. “Christ, you looks almost old enough to fire a gun.”

They’ve spent three months preparing for this moment, trenching and stringing communication lines, hauling guns and munitions. Relieved from active duty to Louvencourt every other week, lying on the grass in their undershirts, playing endless games of auction and crib. Tens of thousands of soldiers like them on the muddy roads, moving from their billets to the trenches or back. Walking past the shadow army of women who have camped in bombed-out buildings, in makeshift shacks, in tent villages behind the front lines. Calling out to the soldiers as they pass.

“You ever thought you might stop by?” Ernest asked him one afternoon, nodding towards the women. Israel had just turned 17. “I wouldn’t think any the less of you,” he said. “If you decided.”

Israel shook his head. “I’m all right,” he said.

He’d almost said something about the night in London then. The woman sitting in a chair by the single bed when he entered the room. Near the same age as the nurses on his ward, or so he guessed after the fact. She stood and came toward him so quickly he raised his hands to his shoulders, stepping back. She held him by the belt, deftly unbuckling as she slipped her fingers into his trousers. She paused and glanced up at him but he wouldn’t meet her eye.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“There’s not many soldiers in your condition would be ready for action,” she said. “If you minds me.” She backed away onto the bed, hitching her skirt around her waist. Israel watched her a moment before crawling up after her.

She stopped him with a foot to the chest. “Your boots,” she said.

“How do me boots come into it?”

“No boots on the bed,” she insisted.

He sat heavily, leaning forward to work at the laces. He pried them off and stopped dead then, sitting with his arms on his knees, staring at the floor. At the socks his mother knit in their kitchen in Crow Head.

The woman on the bed nudged him with her foot. “Don’t you go getting sick in here,” she said.

He lifted his face to the ceiling, trying to get a breath.

She held onto him a while then as Israel bawled into her neck, his shoulders heaving. She patted his cheek before working herself free of his drunken deadweight. Went to the door, leaned out into the hall. “We’re done in here,” he heard her say.

When Ross left for Canada the following week, he thought Israel was free and clear. “Just make sure you mention to the doctors you enjoyed some time in London,” he’d said. “They’ll look after the rest.”

Every spare moment since, Israel has had a mind to write, to tell Ross he’s in France. But he doesn’t think he could explain why things turned out as they did. He hardly knows himself. And he’s missed his chance now.

There’s a panicked movement along the line, a rush for the ladders. A hand under his arm hauling him to his feet. “Be a man about it,” Ernest Hamlyn shouts into his ear.

There he is now.

Israel Dove. Aged 17 years and two months. Only child of Mrs. Harriet Dove of Crow Head, NFLD. Picking his way through barbwire toward the machine guns firing from the German lines. Walking past the body of Ernest Hamlyn when the man falls dead in front of him. Israel’s eyes are squinted nearly shut, his chin tucked into his forward shoulder to push through the noise he is drowning in. He won’t even hear the clap of the shell that kills him before he takes his next step.

There he is now, gone.

Author’s Note: Over the past two years I’ve worked on documentaries, magazine pieces and museum exhibits about the Great War. I thought the First World War would be the last thing I’d want to write about for The Globe and Mail’s Canada 150 project. But I was wrong. There’s a true story at the heart of most everything in The Clap. The mother’s socks finding her son through a Canadian soldier. Newfoundlanders being mistaken for Canadian soldiers in England. The prostitute who guaranteed soldiers a medical discharge. And, of course, the virtual annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916.

Michael Crummey is the author of five collections of poetry, one book of short stories and four novels, including Sweetland and Galore. His work has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Literary Award, and he was the inaugural recipient of the Writers’ Trust Fellowship. He lives in St. John’s.

CREDITS: Illustrations and animation by ISSEY ROQUET; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by MATT FRENCH