‘Well, I have to say, I’m getting pretty fucking fed up with this war lark.’
‘You may have mentioned that once or twice, Tug,’ says Jem.
‘Aye, well, that’s how it is. It’s this sitting around doing bugger all that gets me.’ He flings the six penny novel he’s been reading into the mud.
‘What, you thought we’d all be off charging across the battlefield in a glorious display of heroism? Daily hand to hand battle with the Boche?’
Tug pulls off his steel helmet, scratches hard at the scalp underneath, and then replaces it. ‘Not exactly, no,’ he says. ‘But I thought there’d be a bit more doing than this.’ He kicks at the book, ripping its pages.
‘He’s right,’ says Jack. ‘All this waiting and wasting time. It’ll send me barmier than the shelling.’ He’s writing in his diary, a tattered leather bound book he’s not really supposed to have.
‘Anything good in there today, Jack? Anything the Boche will want to know about?’ Tug asks.
‘Just war secrets and the like,’ he says. ‘Nothing important.’ He tucks it away in his pocket.
Jem stretches his arms as high as they’ll go and yawns, ‘Well, I’d rather be bored and in one piece. If I never had to get shot at or shelled by a German ever again, I’d be glad.’
They look up and see the tall figure of Bourne who has appeared in their section silently like a ghost.
‘Conchie talk, is it?’
‘No, sir,’ says Jem.
‘Damn well sounded like that to me. Well, we’ll have to do something about that. Right, you, you and you,’ he says, pointing at Jem, Tug and Jack, ‘patrol, 2300 hours. Got it?’
They watch as Bourne strides off down the trench and round the corner.
‘Thought it was supposed to be just volunteers,’ says Tug.
‘I think that was us volunteering,’ says Jem. ‘He’s beginning to get on my wick, that Bourne. Sneaking about, spying.’
‘Bugger it,’ says Tug.
‘Thought you were bored?’ Jem asks.
‘Not that bored,’ says Tug.
‘You can never please some people, can you?’ says Jack, who ducks to avoid a swipe from Tug.
It’s dark and they wait for Bourne. It’s a clear night and they can see stars.
‘It’s not good that we can see stars, is it?’ asks Tug.
‘No,’ says Jack.
‘Least there’s no moon,’ says Jem.
‘Always the optimist you, eh?’ says Tug.
‘I wouldn’t go as far as that,’ says Jem.
They stand about for a bit. It’s cold because of the clear sky but not freezing and the fear keeps them warm.
‘What are we supposed to be doing out there tonight anyway?’
‘Fuck knows,’ says Jack. ‘Just as long as we don’t run into any of the Boche.’
‘You think we might?’ Tug asks.
Jack shrugs. ‘Probably.’
They stand around a little longer and then Bourne arrives.
‘Ready?’ he asks.
‘Sir,’ they say, although who is ever ready for a patrol?
‘I’ve told the sentry we’re going out and that we should be a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘The plan is, head out to their line, cut the wire as much as possible, get an idea of their position and come back. Preparation for a possible trench raid later.’
Jem and Jack and Tug exchange glances.
‘If we find any of ours out there, check for ID and bring it back. Any contact with the Germans, we come back. Don’t want them to know what we’re up to. Got it?’
‘Right, come on then.’
They clamber over the parapet, tumble over and drop straight down onto their stomachs and lie still. It’s black and they listen. Jem can feel the blood thumping in his ears, and his heart must be loud enough for the others to hear. There’s rustling nearby and he holds his breath. It’s Tug crawling along inch by inch. Jem sees the white flash of his eyes as Tug looks round at him, and then begins to follow.
It’s painfully slow.
The German line is close, they can’t risk standing and walking. Every so often a flare goes up and they freeze in position until its light dies away.
They crawl on and Jem can now just make out the others, can see where Tug and Jack are, and thinks Bourne must be right out ahead. It’s just the scraping of their hands and knees on the earth and the thumping of blood in their ears and the soft sound of breathing.
Jem looks forwards and sees the wire on their side. They have to get through it, have to stand and make their way through it as silently as possible. Jem sees Jack signal the direction and gently raises himself up into a standing crouch. He pauses, holds his breath and listens. Nothing. Searches in the darkness for any signs of the Boche, any movement at all.
Then they step their way over the entanglement and sometimes there’s the sound of an owl and further away the distant boom of guns and Jem feels as lonely as hell out here in the dark.
On the other side, they drop back down onto their stomachs. Another flare goes up. Jem tenses and waits for gunfire. His mouth is sticky and thick and he wants to clear his throat but can’t for the noise it will make. And they inch their way along, flat on their stomachs until they see the wire.
Jem crawls up alongside Jack and together they ease the cutters through the wire, each click the loudest thing they’ve ever heard. Jem’s face is damp with sweat and when he wets his lips he can taste the salt. Something moves near them and they freeze and Jem’s stomach lurches up till it feels like it’s in his throat and then he feels a hot softness touching his hand and he makes himself look and see it’s just a rat. Just a rat. And the rat hurries along and they can hear the wet sounds of it eating something close by. A body probably. Jack nudges him and they carry on with the cutting. It seems to take forever, but finally they’ve finished and they turn around full circle on their stomachs and make their way back. And that’s when they hear the larger sounds of what must be a German patrol. With the flares going up, Jem thought there couldn’t be one, but now there’s the whispering rustle of bodies moving slowly across the ground and the heavy feeling of life near by.
They lie as still as they can and keep their faces pressed to the cool earth. Jem can smell petrol and the faint reek of gas and the thick stench of decomposing flesh. He hears the light, fast pulsing of Jack’s breathing, wants to close his eyes but he needs to keep looking even though it’s too dark to see. Should they get up and attack? They have their bayonets ready but they wait.
Far away they can hear the faint hum of voices, conversation in the German trenches. It seems far away but perhaps it isn’t.
Perhaps this is it, this is the night it will all end.
Jem’s muscles are tight like steel, hard against the earth. His head is a stone. He must become nothing now. There are no thoughts.
It takes years, but the Germans move away. Just a working-party like their own. Nothing doing.
Jack and Jem continue their painful crawl back to their own trench.
They’ve seen nothing of Bourne and Tug.
The smell hits him first, catches right at him and he gags and then his hand brushes something soft. A body. Can’t tell easily in the dark whose it is – one of theirs or a Boche. Tries to look at the uniform and can make out the thick dark of khaki. Doesn’t want to touch it in the dark, doesn’t want the memory of it on his fingers. They’ll send a burial party out soon.
They keep going. There’s a crack and a shout, a brief bark of something – pain or fright? And then more shots and the strafing of machine guns, a short burst. And they lie still and listen and push themselves as far into the ground as they can. The firing stops and there’s the rustling movement of someone running and they both leap to their feet and sprint the last few yards to the trench and luckily the sentry remembers that it’s them and doesn’t shoot. They throw themselves down and into the hole and a body falls on top of them – it’s Tug.
They lay there, a hot mass of breathing and panic and then Tug says, ‘Fucking hell, that were close. Nearly bought it that time.’
And the three sit up and look at each other in the dark and the relief swarms out of them and they grin.
‘Where’s Bourne?’ Jack asks. ‘Thought he was with you?’
Tug shakes his head. ‘Not seen him. Thought he was with you.’
‘No, haven’t seen him since we left.’
‘Odd,’ says Jem. ‘Think he’s still out there?’
‘Hope not,’ says Tug. ‘They were proper shooting at us and he’d not stand a chance. They practically stepped on me they were that close and I just had to lay there and hold me breath until I was about to burst. Then I fucking legged it back here as fast as I could. Like a bloody hare I was.’
‘We heard you. More like a great big elephant,’ says Jack and then there’s the sound of someone clearing his throat behind them and they turn as one and see Bourne standing there. Clean-looking, Jem thinks.
‘Good to see you all got back all right,’ Bourne says.
They haul themselves to their feet and look at him.
‘I think that all went well,’ he says. ‘Anything to report? I lost you out there, but managed to do a bit of a recce on my own.’
‘Found one of ours out there, sir,’ says Jem. ‘Couldn’t find the ID.’
‘All right. I’ll organise a burial party for tomorrow,’ Bourne says. ‘Off you go then.’
And he turns and strides off and they look at each other and from their expressions, they can tell they’re all thinking exactly the same thing and Tug shakes his head with the disbelief of it all.
‘Fucking bastard,’ says Jack, and that about sums it up.