top of page

The Roadmenders

They’d been working hard all morning. One hole after another they’d filled in, flattened, corded and covered, but still they were nowhere near finished. The muddy road was pocked with craters like a strip of bad skin, and it wound through a sodden landscape that was pitted and peppered, dappled with stagnant pools of rainwater and sprinkled with fence-posts and broken coils of wire. No shortage of holes hereabouts, Ledwidge thought. But not a single living thing. Not a tree or a bush or a bird, nothing moving but this small group toiling in the mud, mending the much-mended surface that would certainly be torn asunder again by nightfall.

Pausing for breath, he leaned on his shovel and looked up at the flabby grey belly of the clouds. Was the desolation of the land reflected in the sky? It seemed to him that it was, for the clouds were leaden and low, threatening rain. Up the road, the barrage rumbled steadily on – an ominous thunder, like a storm approaching. The threat of rain didn’t bother him as much as the fear of shelling. They’d already had a few near ones, and he knew they were wide open here. One salvo on target and there’d be another smoking hole and no one to fill it.

To take his mind off it, he let his eye wander down the road to the low hills in the south. It was like looking at a painting – a Dutch Master. This was Flemish country, after all. The sun was slanting through a hole in the clouds and infused the scene with the luminous warmth that Rembrandt and Vermeer must have sought out. And yet if it reminded him of anything at all, it reminded him of Ireland. He saw a rain shower scudding away like a billowing curtain, and he could have been looking down the Boyne valley on an autumn day. It made him smile. In his mind’s eye he pictured himself wandering along a boreen with his hands in his pockets, trying a few lines on the trees and the blackbirds. Listening to their chirping song…

The thunder of the barrage suddenly doubled in intensity and he turned to look at the plume of black smoke seeping into the sky like ink in water.

“They’re off again!” Mullins said, looking up with a grin, his teeth glowing in his grimy face. A right set of painted devils they looked, streaked and spattered with mud, eyes white and faces streaked with grimy sweat.

Ledwidge nodded and bent once more to his work. He knew he was just as filthy as the others. His hands were caked in mud, nails gritty and black-edged, and they slipped and squelched on the hickory handle as he tried to find the rhythm again, tried to fit in with the regular snick and scrape of the others. It’s a strange kind of kinship we have, he thought, for he knew these men like they were family. He knew their names and what they loved and what they hated. He knew their shapes and their sounds and their stinks, how they snored at night, how they laughed. But there was something missing. He didn’t know what had brought them here; he didn’t know what their lives had been like before all this. He didn’t know them without the war, and that meant he didn’t know them at all.

But, bitter as it was, he shared this cup with them. It was some comfort that they were together, even in this grim mire. When he finally found the beat he became one of them, digging, grunting, sweating, slopping. Feeling the burning in his arms and back, the chill of the sweat cooling on his neck. No words were spoken because none were needed - they knew the work well enough by now. Ten minutes more and they’d have this one done. Then they could stop for a smoke before picking up their tools and their timber and… 

Ledwidge stopped in mid stroke and looked around. The men on each side of him continued to work, but hesitantly, uncertain, slowing to a stop. Something had changed – the underlying beat had been suddenly stilled, as if somebody held the pendulum of a clock. He straightened and looked around at Neary, who was standing with his shovel thrust into the earth, thoughtfully rubbing his hands and looking straight at Ledwidge.

“Where’s the jaysus tay?” He demanded, as if it was his fault they’d had none. But there was a lopsided grin on his moon face and Ledwidge felt the air go out of his rebuke. None of them had earned their tea more than Neary. He’d seen a few like him at the copper mine; men who set themselves to their work with a single-minded intent, eyes focused, hands working with an automatic rhythm. They worked three yards for another man’s one, with no thought but the cut and lift of the shovel. Like a machine, he thought, but every machine needs fuel, and Neary runs on tea.

In the instant it took to look into the half-filled hole and think of the stripe on his sleeve, he knew he hadn’t the authority to make them finish. Tea or no tea they were due a rest, and so he threw down his shovel with theirs and tried to shrug some of the knots out of his back.

O’Leary took out a tin of cigarettes and passed it around. He was always generous, was O’Leary. Funny that he was the biggest thief among them – and he looked it, with his little piggy eyes and narrow face. But they took his smokes and asked no questions. No judgments here. They lit up and stood in a cloud of their own making for a few moments and then Neary and Mullins sank down on the pile of timbers and sandbags they’d carried up. The artillery was still booming and rumbling up the road, but a sense of peace settled over the five of them as they rested a while.

Ledwidge found his mind running back to Ireland again. It always did these days, whenever he had a minute to himself. What wouldn’t I give to go home? He wondered. Seven months out and there was still no sign of any leave. Probably just as well, because if he went home now he might not come back. A bad feeling had been growing on him these last few weeks, a morbid certainty that this place would finally do for him. He’d survived Turkey and Bulgaria and Arras, but the more he thought about those places the more he felt it was down to pure luck. All the boys he knew that never went home. It was bound to be his turn eventually.

The dreams were troubling too. They were more real and immediate than any he’d ever had before.  When Ellie spoke to him he heard her voice, though the words meant nothing. When she reached out to him he could feel the warmth of her hand. It pained him, when he woke up, to remember that she was dead.

It wasn’t that he was afraid of dying, but this wasn’t his war. Not any more. He remembered the last time he went home, thinking he was the hero returning. Just in time to see the Rising fail, his friends arrested, and McDonagh himself shot as a traitor. The whole place gone mad, and he stuck in the middle of it with his British uniform and the shakes from the rheumatic fever.

It hurt just thinking about it. He had almost run then, and he might yet, given half a chance. He often thought of finding some quiet spot where he could mind his own business and write poems. Let them call him a deserter or whatever they wanted, but they wouldn’t get him back here again. Not if he had to hide or change his name or dig ditches for a living. What was he doing now, only filling them in, and with the chance of being killed!

“Sure aren’t we still only navvies!” Mullins remarked, and Ledwidge smiled. He must have been reading his mind.

“You’re right there, Tom!” Neary agreed, “My granda dug the canals in Manchester. Sure he’d laugh if he could see me now!”

Ledwidge drew breath to add his own agreement, but Parlon beat him to it.

“And he’d be right to laugh!” he interjected hotly, “At least he knew what he was signing up for! I didn’t join the army to mend roads. They have coolies for doing this work and they’re the ones that should be doing it. It’s fighting we should be, not filling in fecking holes!”

There was no answer to that. The others rolled their eyes, scowling into their cigarette smoke. They all knew Parlon was talking out his arse. He’d sooner be up the road, would he? He’d sooner be up there in the smoke and the fire, not knowing if his next breath would be his last? They all knew him, and they’d all seen him in Arras, when they had to hide out in the tunnels for two days with the German shells battering the town above them. You could smell the stink of fear down there. Every time the ceiling shook or a trickle of plaster fell down the men would look up, wondering if the roof was finally coming in on top of them. But they bore it quietly. A shake of the head, a smile of relief said all that needed saying. Only Parlon kept talking, jabbering on about how he was mad to get out and fight the bastards! He’d show them what he was made of! But when they finally went out they saw what he was made of. The same stuff as the rest of them. He’d picked his way to the front and spent the night curled up in a hole, clutching his rifle to his chest and jumping at every little sound. But none of them ever held it against him. They were all afraid. They just had different ways of showing it.

Still, he’d ruined their banter now. Ledwidge shook his head and threw his cigarette hissing into the mud as an uncomfortable silence settled over the group. He flexed his hands, feeling the sting in his palms from the handle of the shovel. Back to work in a minute.

“Here comes the tay!” Neary exclaimed, rubbing his hands together, and they all cheered the bow-legged figure of Quinn, waddling up the road with his arms around the straw-filled box that held the dixie. Poor little Quinn – he was such a bantam he could barely lift the box! But there was a good heart in him all the same. It wasn’t every man would risk coming up the road in daylight just to bring a few fellas their tea.

“God bless you Joe, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” Neary greeted him.

“Sure you haven’t even tasted it yet!” Quinn warned, “It’s probably a bit cold be now!”

“Sure if it’s wet it’ll do me!” Neary answered, pulling the enamel mugs from the knapsack. Quinn took the cigarette that O’Leary silently offered and put it behind his ear before he pulled the lid off the box and let out a meagre puff of steam. He quickly ladled tea into the mugs and only then begged a light for his cigarette.

Ledwidge took the mug that was passed to him and felt the warmth through his fingers. The tea was the colour of mud and had a film of grease floating on it, but when he took a long sup and held it in his mouth he could taste the sugar on his tongue and feel the refreshment seeping into his whole body. Sometimes the simplest things are higher than poetry, he thought. If this was the one good thing in the day then he might be happy with it and hope for better tomorrow. He might…

He felt a spasm in his spine and tried to shrug it out. But it wasn’t the muscles. It was a shiver, somebody walking on his grave.

In that same instant voices came from up the road and he spun around with his heart thumping. Bloody nerves are at you now, he told himself. But it was only a stretcher party coming down, struggling through the mud like carthorses. The men on the stretchers bore the bumping silently, staring at the work party with pale, bloodless faces.

“God save us and bless us!” Mullins muttered, crossing himself. Suddenly the tea didn’t taste half as sweet.

They were nearly past when a feeling of dread seized Ledwidge. He frowned and looked around, his senses sharp, trying to see what was wrong. It was too quiet: the shelling had stopped, and in the silence he could hear the murmured talk of the stretcher-bearers. The air was as still as water, but something wasn’t right. He could feel something coming, and fear twisted in his guts.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph…” He said, and then a tearing noise ripped the sky asunder and something beat into the earth like an invisible fist. The blast threw mud in the air and blew down the leading stretcher-bearers in a cloud of smoke.

“Take cover!” He shouted into the din. But where? The stupidity of it! They’d just filled in the only hole that could shelter them! Thump, thump, thump! The ground was shaking, the sky blotted out with smoke and mud. Ledwidge felt his men beside him, penned like sheep, jostling together, terrified.

“God help us!” He heard clearly, and then another shell landed and the blast knocked him back in the mud. He felt himself sinking, the earth swallowing him up. But it was so peaceful at last. He could hear nothing, feel nothing. All he could see was the darkening sky, and when he closed his eyes he saw her face floating up to greet him. And he smiled because he knew he was going home at last.

bottom of page