He was crouched on the splintered edge of a beam of wood which was holding up our temporary residence. I didn’t venture to guess how many slivers of gas-poisoned wood were lodged in his—or indeed my—backside. It was, frankly, the least we had to worry about.
I stood to his left, looking over his shoulder but saying nothing. I made a habit of saying nothing. A tarpaulin ligature ran the length of the beam, casting a wavering shadow in the lamplight. He extracted the tawny yellow, somewhat dog-eared paper from an old tobacco tin, employing the kind of care usually reserved for the preservation of holy relics. He read as I drew aside the thick cloth to take in a glimpse of the water-sodden end to another day. The figure to the left of the entrance gave me a nod. I returned it, not recognising a face half-hidden in arching sunset.
I was tired, my eyelids heading slowly south like a smear of honey draining from a spoon. I didn’t care. I did my best thinking when I was tired. I lay down on one of the bunks, waiting for the rest of the unit to return. I drew deeply on the fetid air which, in spite of itself, kept us all alive.
“What do you think, Charlie? Three?” said Pratt, still staring at the letter in his hands.
“Maybe, Eric. I hope so.” Shelling last week had taken its toll. This evening’s stand-to might even reach single figures. I leaned up, realising that neither he nor I could hold the other’s gaze as we placed bets on the battlefield.
* * * A wild squall flies across my forehead. I must have fallen asleep on the bunk. Pulling my body up, I see Pratt standing at the makeshift tarpaulin entrance staring out into the twilit trench. Following him, ignoring uncooperative muscles and their attendant spasms, I see Jenkins at the far right-hand corner of the dugout.
His back is to us, his torso hunched over. I can’t see his hands. From his posture you might think that he had fallen asleep urinating, or else thrown himself, in a bout of trench fever brought on by an eight-hour watch, onto his bayonet. I imagine peering over his shoulder to see him impaled, rifle butt in the mud. In a glance, Pratt and I exchange some message, but it is lost in transmission, left hanging somewhere in that space between us, the space in which neither of us exists, not anymore.
In two steps I am standing behind Jenkins, but as soon as I reach for his arm he half turns into the light and I can at last make out the small patch of earth in front of him. Despite the evening temperatures he is sweating. I look down, aware that he was indeed hunched over his rifle, but it is not he—as I had feared—who is the victim.
Twisting the weapon with his right hand and holding the butt steady with his left, Jenkins is intent on taking the life of a small black rat impaled on the tip of his bayonet. With each turn the creature writhes and a tiny viscous puddle of innards pops and spills out of the tear in its back.
“Hey, Kinch,” I say. “I think you can put it out of its misery.”
“Crawling everywhere, the little bastards are everywhere,” Jenkins replies. “Biting, God knows what.” He shouts the last word. Pratt and I attempt to hush him with gestures and contorted expressions he could never possibly comprehend in this light. I reach for his arm, want to pull the rifle away from the dying rat, but Kevin ‘Kinch’ Jenkins, twenty-two years of age and less certain than ever that he will see another birthday or Christmas with his family, is not going to be directed.
“Piss off, Thornton.” Less confident now.”I’m not one of your little fucking … creatures.” He swings the rifle counter-clockwise and wrenches his shoulder as its arc hits 12 o’ clock above his head. What is left of the black, greasy rat flies from the tip of Jenkins’ bayonet and sails with a grotesque grace over the top of the trench, leaving a trail of gristle to draw out a memorial to its flight path. Gunfire does not follow.
* * * I will have my eye to the loophole when I see the remainder of the battalion group returning. They filed out the previous night to reconnoitre and to contact the nearest listening post for updates on the line. They will return as little more than creases and folds in the night, visible only by dint of their movement.
As I always do, I will remember a nameless Sergeant Major telling me: ‘when the shadows stop moving you are either dead or soon will be.’ There is a slew of shadowed creases in no-man’s-land that move no longer, and for them the war is over. The group will manoeuvre past the dugout, head for the entrance to the labyrinthine trench. Finally, inevitably, they will arrive, reduced in number. Beneath the tarpaulin and between wooden bunks and porcelain water tanks, Kinch and Pratt are trying their best to sleep. “They’re back,” I call. [ends]