By Paul M Clark
“They sign it in the morning.” Charlie slumped against the wall of frost-hardened mud. “Tomorrow night, it’ll all be over.”
“Aye.” Frank peered through the periscope. A haze of morning mist like a dull, lace curtain across a monochromatic world. Grey skies. Grey puddles in the mud between the trenches. Barbed wire that looked like an unraveled ball of string.
“Do you think they’re still there?” Frank squinted.
“I’d bet on it,” sighed Charlie, pulling out his last half-cigarette. “What a waste of time.”
“Why?” Frank stepped down, sloshing into a puddle. “We’ll be going home by next week.”
“Yes, home.” Charlie straightened the moist stub of crumpled tobacco, carefully ironing out the creases in the paper with his thumb and forefinger. He flicked his lighter three times before the charred end took the flame, illuminating the mud ingrained in every crevice of his face. “And when the girls ask, ‘how many Huns did you get?’ I can reply with a grand total of ‘none’.”
Frank laughed, beckoning for what was left of the cigarette.
“And when they ask, ‘ooooh, was it dangerous? Did you get shot at?’ I’ll say, ‘No, love, I sat in a trench all day drinking tea and freezing my gooseberries off!’ Not a thing to show for it. I’d love a little scar, just to show the ladies!”
“Blimey, not me!” laughed Frank. “I’d rather tell them all stories of how many people I’d saved. Girls like that sort of stuff. It appeals to their romantic side. Anyway, bugger that, I don’t want to be scarred for life.”
Charlie tutted and looked above the parapet. “A little scar adds a bit of character!”
“I can’t believe it’s going to end.” Stefan gazed through the iron sight of his rifle. “Just like that. All over. Our politicians have brought shame on our country!”
“I just want to go home,” replied Kurt, fixated on the other trench.
“With our tails between our legs. You want that? Defeated men?”
“I’m a farmer. I don’t care about all that.”
“All this time, not a single Tommy. If I could just get one before tomorrow, I could look my father in the eye. I’d be like Gustav.”
“Your brother is dead, Stefan,” Kurt deadpanned, one brow raised.
“Gustav was a hero.”
Both men stopped. Looked at each other. Stared outwards again. Wide-eyed. Mouths agape.
“Do you see him?” asked Kurt. “Is he an idiot?”
“No,” Stefan breathed gently. “He’s a gift.”
The Tommy’s head peered just over the parapet across no man’s land. Gazing at the German’s trench. A thin column of grey smoke spilled from his mouth until the wind carried it to nothingness. Stefan moulded his hands around his rifle, bringing it into his shoulder. He slowly filled his lungs. Eye closed onto the iron sight. Breath held. His foresight fixed and still and pointing at death. The perfect shot. He squeezed his grip and gently applied pressure to the trigger.
A loud crack ripped through the air, shattering the morning silence. Startled carrion crows ended their fleshy feast and took flight, their buffet of rotting corpses left for another time. Charlie’s head jolted to the side in a misty shower of blood. He spun from his perch. His body crunched off the back wall of the trench and fell face down.
“For you, Gustav,” Stefan said, heart thrumming.
He held his gaze. Let out some stuttering breaths. A proud smile washed over his face as he turned to see Kurt’s pale face.
Muffled shouts echoed from the other trench. “Medic! Medic!”
He looked across no man’s land again. Who was that man? Is this how my brother died or was he alone? Was it quick? Or did his body lay in a field or a trench and just rot away? Or did he freeze to death? What have I done? This man’s family will hate me for this.
Stefan’s head slumped onto his rifle. He closed his eyes and shut his world away.
Charlie woke. Face numb. Unable to speak. White pads cushioned his cheeks. Bandage wrapped around his head, giving him the look of an Egyptian mummy. His tongue stuck to his palate. The smell of sweat and disinfectant told him that he was not dead. Not in some sort of strange purgatory. He didn’t believe in all that stuff, anyway.
Someone flicked a light in his direction. Shielding his eyes, his mind took him back. The crack. The hammer fist to his face. All too quick. And the blood. So much blood. His spine rattled inside his body. His eyes stung where the tears swelled.
A man approached. White coat. Red Cross on his arm. “You’re a lucky man, Private. The round went straight through your cheek. Made a bloody mess of your face. If it wasn’t for your mate patching you up and getting you out, you’d have bled to death.”