John Tannerman and the German
Sat, 11 Feb 2017
John Tannerman had been separated from his platoon while he’d been laid up in hospital with the squirting arse disease that was ‘trending in the trenches’ at that time.
He was sent to join his platoon at a supply station a few miles behind the lines, but when he arrived his platoon weren’t there, in fact the entire station had been completely abandoned. He was the only one there.
The truck on which he’d hitched a lift had already left, and there were no other vehicles he could borrow, and he had no idea where he was. All he could do was wait for another company to turn up, so that he could be given new orders.
If he was going to be stuck there he needed supplies. Luckily, it was a supply station and it had clearly been abandoned in a hurry. There was enough food there to feed a battalion for a month, along with bedding, clothes, water, rifles, ammo, everything a soldier could need. There were even tins of meat, the kind that if you hold your nose and check quickly taste exactly like real liver and kidney.
It was only during the search for provisions that he found the prisoner, chained to the walls in one of the outbuildings. The poor man was wretched, he clearly hadn’t eaten or drunk for many days and was reduced to skin and bone.
He unchained the man and gave him water and a small portion of food – he knew that after a long time without food it would take the prisoner time to adjust. Life in the trenches teaches you all you need to know about starvation.
It was several days before the prisoner was strong enough to speak. His English was limited, but Tannerman learnt that his name was Aurik and that he was from Dusseldorf and that he had a wife and two children waiting for him.
They spent all of their time together, as the company of a prisoner was preferable to the company of nobody, even if their conversation was limited. On the third day Tannerman found a jigsaw, a 2,000 piece jigsaw of an idyllic thatched cottage in the summer, with chickens running in the yard outside. At last the two men had something to do.
At first, Tannerman had left Aurik unchained, as he was too weak to be of any harm, but as his strength grew back he began chaining him at night. He was still the enemy after all, and there was everything her, guns, ammo, food, for Aurik to become a dangerous rogue fighter, no matter how unlikely it seemed.
The jigsaw took up all their time. They progressed slowly, as at least half the picture consisted of thatch, and one small wooden chunk of straw looks very much like another. They talked as they jigsawed, Aurik learning new words, albeit only word for ‘cottage’, ‘chicken’, ‘thatch’ and ‘idyllic’, none of which were words that were likely to be of use for him as a prisoner of war.
Finally, the picture neared completion. However, there was one piece missing, the small circle of sun at the top left corner, the one giving light, energy and shadow to everything else in the picture.
The missing sun became the main topic of conversation between the two men, a metaphor for everything wrong with wartime, a realm where tinned fake kidney was the culinary highlight.
One day, after a hearty meal of tinned meat and tinned other things, Tannerman fell asleep, even though it was still daytime. There was, after all, little else to do while he awaited orders that never came.
He woke with a start, unsure how long he had slept. Aurik had gone from his usual chair. Had he escaped? Had he been wrong to trust the German all this time.
He searched the supply station for the missing man, pistol in his hand ready to shoot in case the German had taken the opportunity to arm himself.
He found him in a supply room, stooped over a crat of riffles. Not wanting to give the German a chance to arm himself he fired.
Even as he fired he saw what the German was reaching for behind the crate. The small, wooden jigsaw piece, the missing sun.
Tannerman cried as he’d not cried since he was a child. Tears of pure joy, relief, as his bullet missed. He put his pistol away and begged forgiveness, hugging Aurik like a long lost friend.