A man of fastidious habit, Siegfried Potter-Gore wakes at 5.30 a.m. precisely. The date is Thurdsay, 1st of February 1945, and, as Honourable Member for Old Sarum and Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Munitions, he has prepared for what he expects to be a busy day by allowing himself a dose of exactly five and three-quarter hours.
It is still dark in the bedroom and Potter-Gore has slept alone. However, he knows that when he reaches out to press the switch of his bedside lamp, the first thing he will see is the large portrait of Cordelia, his deceased wife, hanging above the fireplace. Beautiful, haughty, forever forty-five – the portrait captures her in evening gown and pearls, her dark hair gathered above her ears, her pale face wearing that look he used to dread. He turns on the light and black eyes dart towards him as she sits forward in her chair, aggressive, as though about to launch herself out of the painting. But this is no more than he has come to expect and on this occasion he returns the stare for a full thirty seconds. He then greets her in the same manner he allowed her when she was alive, muttering ‘Slut’ as he switches his gaze to the alarm clock.
The clock reads five-thirty-one and forty-two seconds, leaving just over eight minutes till breakfast. Under the cover of his quilt Potter-Gore rubs his belly, and finding that the cord of his pyjama trousers is loose, his hand slips beneath it. he masturbates with vigour, and while doing so visualises the cantilevered breasts of Mrs Borthwick, his typist, protruding firmly over the keys of her Remington. Her fingers batter on the machine and abruptly his vision shifts to the paper stuttering from the roller. On it there are blocks of text and numbers arranged in a list. They start with the smallest first: 2, 13, 14, 45 . . .
But this isn’t what he wants to see. He squeezes his eyelids tight, attempting to re-conjure the bosom, but Mrs Borthwick’s fingers suddenly move faster, louder, and the numbers get larger: 773, 1,181.6, 1,477.7 – all figures exact until the last one – 100,000 – which appears underlined with the word ‘APPROX’ hammered after it. The bell on the roller rings and there is a sharp rasp as Mrs Borthwick pulls the paper free.
Exasperated, Potter-Gore throws back the quilt and sheets. He gets up, running his hands through grey curls, and takes his dressing gown from a hook on the door. At the washstand he splashes his face, shaves, and pats himself dry. Concluding his ablutions, he plucks his teeth from a glass and slips them neatly between his gums.
It is now five-forty and there is a single knock on the door. ‘Come,’ he says and the door is opened by Colville, a bald manservant carrying a sliver tray. On the tray is a tall glass.
‘God morning, sir,’ intones Colville, bowing from the neck. ‘Your breakfast.’
As prescribed by Potter-Gore’s associate, Brophy – Honourable Member for Newtown Ballymagherafelt, Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Ulsterman of noted loquacity – the single glass contains one very large Brandy Alexander. According to Brophy’s recipe, the concoction contains more brandy than milk, and – in respect of the War – the exotic ingredients of crème de cacao and nutmeg have been dispensed with altogether. In fact, the glass is distinctly amber, but as every gentleman knows, the drinking of neat alcohol before noon is a vulgar practice. In any case, the dash of milk helps to ease the liquor down at an early hour.
Potter-Gore ignores his manservant and takes the glass as he glides across the room. Holding the drink in one hand, he reaches into his monolithic wardrobe with the other. His habit is to leave the choice of necktie until the morning and today soberness is required, so he drains the glass and selects a thin strip of black and white chequers. He returns to Colville, the brandy burning in his belly.
‘Get a haircut.’
The manservant does not reply but bows again, deeply, from the waist. Potter-Gore gives him the glass and moves to a free-standing mirror, watching in its reflection as Colville backs out of the door. As soon as it is closed, he strips, and without stopping to inspect his naked body – site of earlier disappointment – he pulls his undershorts over hairless thighs and begins to mull on the agenda of the day.
Six-thirty sharp – due at the War Rooms, Whitehall, for an audience with the PM. Or at least that was how he had described it to a circle of cronies at the club the night before. ‘Sounds damned important,’ one of them grunted, but he merely nodded with excessive gravity and tapped the side of his nose. ‘Of course, gents, but you know the drill – hush, hush.’ Naturally, it wouldn’t do to reveal the details, but timely reminders of his position keep his credit good at cards. The fact is he will not be the focus of the meeting; he is merely required to show face for his department, to sit quietly and pass the briefcase containing Mrs Borthwick’s figures to a civil servant who, in turn, will pass it to the PM.
Potter-Gore buttons his shirt and sighs. If he is lucky he might get a grunt from the PM, but no doubt the old bugger will be lost in the vile fumes of a cigar and his secretary will simply offer a curt nod before sending him away. He adjusts his cufflinks and looks at the case. It sits – locked – by the side of his bed.
Ministry of Munitions: Most Secret Memorandum, No. 3041 (01/01/45).
For eyes only: WSC (PM) & Commander Harris, Bomber Command. Summary, re: Bomber Command mission, 13–14/02/45. Target: Dresden, Eastern Germany. Available ordnance by this date for RAF Bomber Command: 1,477,7 tons high explosive bombs; 1, 181.6 tons incendiary. Equal to full payload: 773 Avro Lancaster aircraft. Detailed notes attached (see pages 10–14 for USAAF support).
Given present pop. (100,000 APPROX.) and square mileage of city centre area (details enclosed), certainly enough to achieve excellent success.
S. P-G, MoM
It didn’t look much on paper, but this brief memo involved Potter-Gore in considerable hardship. Amongst other things, touring the production lines of Northern bomb factories and their rows of smirking, yellow-faced tarts. He had only been in the job eight months and, frankly, it was not to be borne. The only consolation was that he might bask a little in the reflected glory of these big missions, and – true – there was a curious satisfaction in reducing the biggest raids of the war to just a few neat lines.
Potter-Gore’s hand smoothes down the front of his suit and he gives a brief tug at the ends of his bowtie. Checking his side view in the mirror, he watches the electric light bounce from his shoes and then goes to collect the last item of his attire, a carefully brushed Homburg which waits on the tallboy by the window. Also on the tallboy sit a polished mahogany box and matching boxed calendar. Potter-Gore picks up the calendar and twists the dial on its side to change the date. Of course, he knows perfectly well what the date is, but when a large red ‘1’ slides into view he raises an eyebrow and says ‘oh, yes’loudly, even though he is completely alone. He sets the calendar down and his hand drifts over to the mahogany box, fingertips smoothing on the grain. He snaps open the metal catch and carefully raises the lid. Inside lie a revolver and a single cartridge.
The Webley Mk VI, officer issue from March 1915. Potter-Gore received his at Sandhurst during the final December of the War – that is, the last one – and as Second Lieutenant with 1st Battalion, The Buffs (East Somerset Regiment), it had more or less remained pristine within the holster of his Sam Browne throughout ten months in France. He had of course waved it about on a few occasions – whenever he was required to herd his men beyond the wire – but the weapon has only ever been fired once. Just once.
He picks the revolver gently out of the box and weighs it in his hand. Dependably solid, it’s in near-perfect condition, the only damage being a slight scratch near the tip of the barrel. But like his shoes, the dun-coloured metal positively gleams in the light. Potter-Gore tightens his grip around the handle and assumes the firing position, ramrod straight with arm outstretched. He aims the gun at the clock. The time is five-fifty-two.
Night patrol near Belleau Wood, 1st of February 1918. Accompanied by Lance-Corporal Lang – a Cameronian recently seconded from a neighbouring division – Potter-Gore had been ordered to give the new boy a tour. Lang was a stolid creature, a lowly member of the Scotch gentry and suitably agricultural in bearing. But although enormously tall and broad, there was something cowed about this man, about the way his face twitched uncontrollably when they were introduced by the Captain. This was a mere half hour before the patrol was due to begin and while Potter-Gore shook his hand and chuckled ingratiatingly about the fun they would be having, all the time he was assessing Lang’s bovine frame and facial tic, calculating how far they would get before his trembling silhouette gave them away to German snipers. Ten yards, possibly; fifteen for certain. As it turned out, they managed forty before the fucking oaf lost his footing and lumbered on a mine.
Up in the air they went – noiseless, winded, the stars spinning – and when Potter-Gore came round he found himself lying on top of Lang in a shallow ditch. He could feel the Scotchman’s body underneath his own, very warm, damp, the ragged movement of his diaphragm lifting him up and down as though he was drifting on a wave. At first he couldn’t hear, but his ears popped abruptly, in time to catch the full force of Lang’s scream, which emerged not continuously but in panicked staccato bursts. Over on the enemy side, a sniper answered each scream with a crack from his rifle. Nearby, bullets spat into the mud.
‘Lang. Shut up,’ he whispered, but Lang merely bellowed in reply. They were face to face and Potter-Gore could feel the man’s spittle on his lips, smell the hot stench rushing up from his stomach. He shifted his head from side to side, but found there was nowhere to move. A flare from the sniper trailed through the sky and in the orange glow Potter-Gore saw there was no cover to escape to. The ditch was grave-width and for several yards on every side the ground levelled flatly away. Shots zipped overhead or landed left or right. the flare didn’t reveal their position but with every scream Lang was doing his level best.
In subsequent musings Potter-Gore always remembers the danger of that moment. But he never fails to congratulate himself on escaping the predicament. Lang, suffering from some unknown, ghastly wound, had screamed like the proverbial stuck pig. But it was Potter-Gore’s higher breeding, the patrician coolness – hard-learned from the floggings of his schooldays – which kept his mind clear and saw him through. Lying on Lang’s wrecked body, he felt no pain, but he wriggled his toes and fingers to make sure he could move. Then he unclipped his holster and drew out the Webley. Without raising his arm above the ditch and without getting mud down the barrel, it was somewhat awkward positioning the revolver correctly, but with patience under fire he manoeuvred it into place above his comrade’s left ear. He waited a second or two for Lang to scream once more and when there came a last, good blast from his lungs, on the answering report from the German’s rifle, he pulled the trigger and blew out his brains.
Lang was silenced, but Potter-Gore was so close to the detonation that as soon as he fired sparks seared up the right side of his face. He howled while his eye burned, and it took all of his self-control not to leap up in agony. Instantly, bullets swept over the mud and he pressed his face down onto Lang’s. His colleague’s final breath was rattling in its throat, a curious noise like the groan of a dog, and on the stinging area around his eye Potter-Gore felt something warm and wet. He rubbed on it for relief until, in the dim light of another flare, he raised his face a half-inch from Lang’s. Dead eyes stared out, empty orbs reflecting the starburst orange of the flare. Lang’s mouth was open and somehow the cataclysm of the bullet had forced his tongue out as far as it could go. It was on this that Potter-Gore had soothed his eye.
Eventually the sniping ceased, but Potter-Gore waited hours before crawling back over the parapet of his trench. Dawn was approaching and his battalion was loading up, preparing for the ‘morning hate’ – thirty minutes spent firing round after round at the German lines. He staggered through the crush to the entry of his dug-out and sat down, panting. The sergeant gave him a mug of rum. ‘Just in time, sir,’ he said and Potter-Gore grinned. The sun was coming up on a blue sky and in the first rays he saw that the front of his uniform as entirely covered in Lang’s coagulated blood. From the button at his throat, down past his crotch, the green of its material had become a rich, stiff mahogany. Around him, men clattered up on the firestep and further down the Captain bawled at them to fire. The guns roared tremendously, and he sat back, drinking slowly from the mug.
Fingering the scratch at the end of the barrel, Potter-Gore is certain it was caused by the splinter of Lang’s skull. He unclasps the chamber of the revolver and picks the cartridge out of the box. It slides easily into one of the six empty cylinders and he spins the chamber with his palm, repeating the action as he moves to the painting of his wife. Imperiously, she looks upon him, be he turns away, snapping the spinning chamber back into place.
For some time after the incident, Potter-Gore supposed that his embrace with Lang was the closest he had come to another human being. But this was a romantic notion, dismissed on remembering his wet nurse and the fact of his mother’s womb. Nevertheless, the notion clung on, reappearing at odd, indolent moments. Finally, on the night of his wedding, he assumed it would be expelled altogether. But when he clambered onto his wife’s rigid body and felt her breath on his face, he thought of the ditch, his revolver, and of Lang’s corpse solidifying beneath him as the hours wore on.
Potter-Gore removes his teeth and drops them into the pocket of his suit. He closes his eyes and puts the revolver in his mouth. The barrel is cold, heavy on his tongue; its metallic tang mingles with the aftertaste of brandy. His finger rubs on the trigger and he imagines his death. The splinter of his skull; his body released. A ruby spray for Cordelia’s dress. The gun sight jars the roof of his mouth, and the hammer creaks as he cocks it with his thumb. His spine buzzes as he pulls the trigger. There is a dead click as the chamber revolves.
A moment passes and Potter-Gore relaxes his jaw and takes the Webley from his mouth. He unloads the cartridge and shrugs as he wipes the barrel with a handkerchief. Outside an engine rumbles, and moving to look through a gap in the curtains, he sees that Colville, now in driver’s uniform, has brought the car to the front of the house. It is still dark, but in the light shining from the vestibule, the servant stands by the passenger door, the grey of his peaked cap darkening in the drizzle.
With one minute to departure Potter-Gore returns the cartridge and revolver to their box, and places the Homburg squarely on his head. He gives a final glance in the mirror, checking his bowtie and smoothing his suit once more. His hand runs over his pocket, and discovering a lump, he reaches in. It’s his teeth. He slots them back into place and grins, tapping the dentures together as he adjusts his hat to an angle over his brow.
He bends for the briefcase. Mrs Borthwick’s figures feel light in his grip and his feet spring from the carpet as he strides for the door.
The time is 6 a.m.
Copyright © David Pettigrew, 2014.
Originally published in A Fictional Guide to Scotland, OpenInk.
Please do not reproduce this story elsewhere or print out without David’s permission.