No prospects. (By Bert Broomberg)
The three soldiers wearing shirts with rolled up sleeves were peeling potatoes in front of the old Belgian farmhouse several miles behind the frontline. You could still make out the soft thumps of the shells exploding at regular intervals.
“Three shells, two potatoes,” said the oldest of the soldiers. “Regular as clockwork, I have timed them.”
“You can’t keep track of time if they tied you to the clock of Ieper,” said the younger soldier as he threw a peeled potato into a large bucket of water.
The third soldier, a newly arrived recruit who had left Augsburg only a week before, chuckled at the joke.
“Why are you laughing, Claus?” The old veteran said in mock disgust at the young man’s irreverent behavior. “You don’t know anything. You haven’t seen anything yet. You’ve just left your mother’s titty.”
“It’s just funny,” the young soldier called Claus replied. “As if there’s still a clock in Ieper. We have taken care of that, I’m sure, Hans.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong,” answered the old soldier called Hans. “Tell him, Rheinhold, how the English always find a way to pester us. “
“It is true,” affirmed Rheinhold, “They call themselves gentlemen, but if they had been true gentlemen, they would have had the decency to realize that they cannot win this war. We could have been home by now, drinking a couple of beers or having some fun with the ladies, instead of chasing them out of our trenches.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Claus, “But you must admit, they are good soldiers, they don’t give up easily.”
“Neither does he,” said Hans and he pointed with his knife at the corporal with the big moustache who had just walked into the courtyard, carrying the large brown, leather bag of a messenger.
When the corporal passed the men peeling the potatoes, he had a quick look at the peels; not the potatoes themselves, but the peels lying on the ground waiting to be swept up.
“You’re not doing a great job. My mother could do a better job than that.” He picked up one of the potato peels and dangled it in front of his face. “When you have done twenty pounds, you will have squandered at least half a pound,” the corporal said stiffly. Then he dropped the peel and made a snorting noise before he walked on. He disappeared into the farmhouse.
“Who’s he?” asked Claus.
“Our glorious company messenger,” answered Rheinhold as he dropped another potato into the bucket. “Respected by all, liked by none,” he added.
“I haven’t seen him before,” remarked Clause. “I thought I would have met everyone by now.”
“Not our little corporal, he was away in hospital. I didn’t know myself that he’d been kicked out. He must have pissed them off with his sour face,” Hans explained.
“He probably messed up his sheets with his paint,” Rheinhold said.
“What do you guys mean?”
Hans started to explain about the corporal. “He got sent to hospital because his nerves were shattered after the last attack. He could hardly talk. He had a narrow brush with death, but he was extremely lucky. When the Tommies attacked he was in a bunker that got a direct hit. The thing collapsed on top of him and a few other guys. He was the only one that could crawl out of it. Sergeant Stolp saw it happen. Then he was lucky a second time. Just as he got out of the bunker the Tommies had reached our line. One of them, a really big bloke, rushed up to the bunker at the moment our lucky corporal stood up. The Tommy pointed his gun at him, but for some reason, don’t ask me why, he didn’t pull the trigger. He just waved with his gun and let our corporal escape to our own positions. He had been badly knocked about by the collapse of the bunker, but apart from him being bruised all over and bleeding from some minor cuts in his face, he was fine. The medics didn’t trust it though, so they sent him off to a dressing station. From there they sent him to a hospital. But now, he’s back. His dog will like that.”
The young man looked puzzled. “His dog?”
“Yeah, his dog, you must have seen it, the small mongrel that’s always begging for scraps of food. Our corporal sort of takes care of it. That dog is the closest friend he has got,” Hans sneered.
“What’s with the paint?” asked Claus whose curiosity was fired by the story about the inconsequential looking man’s close encounter with death.
“Tell him Hans,” Rheinhold said. “Tell him about our own live in artist.”
Hans chucked another potato into the bucket before he started to explain.
“You see, our friendly corporal used to be a painter before all this started, and when he was living in Vienna. Nothing spectacular I guess, because no-one had ever heard of him, but he showed us some postcards he was supposed to have painted.”
“Were they any good?” asked the young Claus.
“They were okay, nothing special, just the kind of things tourists would buy. Local stuff, buildings, parks, that kind of thing. I bet he could hardly make ends meet, but that’s beside the point. More important is the fact that he carries around that box of supplies, you know, tubes of paint, brushes. Whenever he gets the chance, he disappears for a couple of hours to do some painting; mainly water colors. No more parks and stuff, but bombed out buildings, ruined farmhouses, the odd landscape. They’re alright, nothing fancy, but he is obsessive about them. Once he almost went for me with a knife, because I had knocked over his little box. Man, could he swear.”
“I would like to see some of his work,” said Claus who always carried around a small notepad so that he could make pencil sketches.
“You should ask him about it,” suggested Rheinhold. “He always claims no one appreciates his artistic talents.”
“Perhaps he can teach you about art,” Hans added mockingly, “He always tries to lecture us about it. He can do with a fresh audience.”
“I like art. I do a bit of sketching myself,” Claus admitted.
“If you pay attention to him, he may even introduce you to the Viennese art circle,” Hans said jokingly. “He thinks he will be going back there to become famous after the war.”
At that moment the corporal appeared again. He briskly walked up to the three men, stopped again, looked inside the bucket and made that snorting noise of derision again before he spoke.
“If all German soldiers worked as diligently as you do, we would certainly lose the war. Fortunately, there are those who still put in some real effort, so there’s hope after all.” Then he walked away again, his leather bag slapping against the small of his back.
The three men watched silently as the corporal climbed on a bicycle and disappear around the corner of the farmhouse.
“Fuck,” said Hans. “That Austrian painter claims he’s a German soldier. He’s not even a real artist. Who the hell does he think he is?”
“Forget about him,” Rheinhold tried to soothe his friend’s anger. “His luck is to run out soon. He has been around far too long now. Any day he may walk into a bullet or a nice big shell. Mark my words; he has got no future, no prospects.”
Hans sighed before he reacted. “You’re right. Our little Adolf has got no prospects whatsoever.”
© Copyright 2016 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.