Wednesday 20 July 2016

The Exercise (a novella)

I'm pleased to announce that the latest anthology from Terry Grimwood's The Exaggerated Press, Darker Battlefields, was published this past weekend and launched at Edge-Lit 5 (see my report here).  Edited by Adrian Chamberlin, it's a collection of six novellas set during periods of war and features my 18.5k word story The Exercise.

Odette, by Richard Farren Barber

The Searing, by Paul Edwards

Winter Storm, by Anthony Watson

The Envious Siege, by Adrian Chamberlin

The Exercise, by Mark West

Descensus Christi Ad Inferos, by Dean M Drinkel

The book is available in print 

This all started in late January 2015 with a message on Facebook from Adrian and Frank Duffy, asking if I'd like to be involved.  Since I've never written a story set during a war and I fancied the challenge - plus Terry produces some lovely books - I agreed.  I came up with the basic premise (soldiers on exercise during World War 2 who find themselves trapped in a building) on that evening's walk and then sat down with Mum & Dad a few evenings later, spending a lovely hour or so chucking around ideas (Dad is a WW2 buff so he was able to answer every technical question I raised, whilst Mum reminded me about the reeds in east Anglia and suggested having someone fall in a stream).

Once I decided to use shell-shock as a means of 'making my monster', I researched it on the web (and discovered that, by 1943 - when my story is set - it was being called "post concussional syndrome") and found some unsettling and distressing films on YouTube.

As a couple of little in-jokes, the hero is called Ray Ward (my Grampy, who served in WW2, was called Ray - I blogged about him here) and the Major who runs the operation is Desmond Boothroyd (I was watching a lot of Bond films at the time).  I also homaged Star Wars, when Major Boothroyd paraphrases Luke by saying "Well, my boy, if there’s a bright centre to operations in this country, you’re at the point it’s furthest from and that would be about three miles east of Potter Heigham.”

I had a lot of fun writing this and set myself the goal of not having any viewpoints (apart from the first chapter) other than Ray - if he doesn't see it or hear it, the reader doesn't either.  It made things tough a couple of times, but I also think it adds to the disorientation when the bad stuff starts to happen, because you're not quite sure what it is you're seeing.  I enjoyed writing the action, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the squad, I loved my monsters and the set-piece in the infirmary - which my friend David managed to make even more vicious with some helpful comments - was great fun to work on too.

Corporal Ray Ward stood at the verge at the crossroads and watched the truck drive away, three squads still sitting in the back and looked at his own men.  His lance corporal, Joe Kelly, stepped up next to him and turned to the squad.
“Right, fall in you lot, first things first, let’s get off this fucking road.”
The men fell into line as Ray surveyed the area.  Across the road was an orchard, the trees widely spaced and heavy with fruit.  The easterly road, coming off the crossroads, cut between it and, a hundred yards down, there was a gateway.  “Down there,” said Ray, pointing, “it’ll get us out of sight.”
“You heard the corporal,” said Joe, “let’s move it.”
The squad fell into step and marched down the road, the noise of their packs and weapons scaring a flock of crows that took off from the trees.  The gate was old and bent, secured to its post with some old rope and beyond it was a concrete yard and the  remains of a stone-built barn.  Ray climbed over the gate and the others followed him into the trees.  The light was muted, the angle of the sun not enough to cut through the foliage and in the first clearing, Ray shouldered his pack to the ground and rested his rifle against it.
 “At ease, boys,” said Joe and waited until they’d taken off their packs before moving to Ray’s left side.  “Fall in.”
Ray surveyed his squad.  He’d only met them last week, at the start of training at Thetford camp and, like most of the other corporals, had thought at first it was a joke.  Fresh off the trucks, the men were given a number and told to stand in the PT yard and over the next couple of hours, as more trucks rolled in, more soldiers gathered until there were five men in each group.
For reasons that weren’t explained, the exercise would consist of five-man squads, smaller than the normal minimum of eight.  Each squad would be led by a corporal, assisted by a lance corporal.
It had been a hard week, for many reasons, but Ray felt quite confident with his men, though Joe Kelly was his secret weapon - perhaps ten years his senior, he had a lot of experience and an authority that made the men listen.  Ray liked him and they seemed to have a mutual respect.
Arthur ‘Gracie’ Fields was the designated navigator.  Tall and thin, with Groucho Marx glasses and sandy hair, he was good-humoured but quiet.  He knew his way around a map and had found the way out of a dense wood for the squad in one of the Thetford exercises - by such a margin that the other squads were sent back in to do it again. 
Alan ‘Porky’ James was balding prematurely though he appeared to be barely into his twenties and so only a few years younger than Ray.  Stocky, taciturn and as hard as nails, he was the radio operator and carried the unit on his back, the antennae waving over his head.  It took Ray a day or so to realise he was called ‘Porky’ because he came from Melton Mowbray.
The last member of the squad was Danny Price, known as ‘Half’.  Tall and handsome, he had the look of Clark Gable and made full use of the resemblence.  It was alleged, during mess break one day, that if Half was posted somewhere for more than a day, he’d find a girlfriend there.  Quick witted and sharp, he was adept at getting things for less than market value, a good skill for the squad.
“Okay boys,” Ray said, “this is the situation.  We’ve had a week of training, a week of getting to know each other and I think we’re going to work together well.  I don’t know any more about the exercise than you do, but I do know I don’t want us to get caught and sent back to Thetford for spud bashing.”
A murmur of agreement.
“What time do you have Joe?”
The lance corporal looked at his watch.  “Oh-eight-fourteen.”
Ray checked and nodded.  “Check your watches men,” he said and waited until they had done so.  “First things first, we need to find out where we are.”
“We’re east of Thetford,” said Half.
“How far?” asked Joe.
“We left barracks at oh-seven-hundred,” said Ray.
“We got here about oh-eight-hundred,” said Half, “so call it an hour.”
“But we had three drop offs before us,” said Gracie, “about five minutes each time.”
“Good point,” said Joe.  “If we assume an average of 40 miles an hour, that gives us forty miles, less the fifteen minutes for the drop-off.  I reckon about 30 miles, give or take.”
Ray looked at Gracie.  “Give us a rough idea,” he said.
Gracie pulled a large, folded map from his pocket, knelt down and spread it on the ground.  Half and Porky knelt on either side of it, holding it down and Ray walked around so he could see the details.
Gracie put his compass on the map.  “We maintained an east-northeast route for the most part, so thirty miles would put us east of Norwich, though we could be as far south as Loddon and as far north as Wroxham, depending on the angle.”  He pointed to both places on the map and people nodded their assent.
“Did you hear the co-ordinates from Sergeant Lloyd?” asked Ray.
“Yes corp,” said Gracie and checked the gridlines.  “We’re getting picked up at a place called Happisburgh.”
“Anybody heard of it before?” asked Joe but nobody had.
“What’s the distance between us, assuming we’re the southern end of where you estimated?”
“If we’re near Loddon, we’re looking at about thirty miles.”
Ray turned to Joe, who bit his lip as he worked it out in his head.  “Pick-up’s at oh-six-hundred tomorrow, so we’ve got twenty two hours to do thirty miles.”
“We need to sleep though,” said Ray, “just in case they hit us with another exercise tomorrow.”
“Okay, five hours sleep gives us seventeen hours to do thirty miles.  Piece of piss.”
“It doesn’t seem so bad,” agreed Ray.  “They’ll probably have plenty of patrols out, trying to spot us.”
“No doubt,” said Joe, “meaning it’s thirty miles across country.”
“Which is going to take longer,” said Gracie.
“Fine,” said Ray and stepped back to face the squad.  “We know what we’re doing, let’s have a piss stop and then get moving.”
As the men moved into the treeline to empty their bladders, Ray held Joe back.  “Listen, I don’t plan to use this, but just so as you know,” he said, “just in case.”  He opened his pack and pulled out a 38 Webley revolver.
“Nice,” said Joe.
“I picked it up off a dead officer at Dunkirk.  It did me proud then and I’m more than happy with  it now.”
“Fine by me,” said Joe.
They went to pee and by the time they got back, the men had pulled on their packs and rifles and were waiting.
 “Plot us a course Gracie,” said Ray.
Gracie checked his compass and at eight-thirty exactly, with Joe on point and Half bringing up the rear, the squad began to walk through the orchard, away from the road.

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