‘‘The next bright idea he has, I’m sayin’ no,’’ Craig mutters, resting his face in his hands and trying not to keel over from bone-weary exhaustion. He wonders how the others are coping huddled in their muddy foxhole just twenty feet away, but can’t hear anything over the gentle patter of dripping water. Squatting miserably in a wet hole for hours, boots squelching in the sucking mud and shivering in pre-dawn drizzle just in case they spot anything is not the kind of waiting he likes.
‘‘You said that last time,’’ Lewis grumbles, rubbing at his chafed calves.
‘‘Only works if you little shits stopped agreeing with everything he says,’’ Craig glares morosely out into the grey haze. Yet another well-planned dawn watch by Captain Jeremy Craddock, the man with shit-for-brains.
‘‘He’s Captain Craddock, though,’’ Ryan points out evenly, as though that’s supposed to solve their problems. He seems to be the least bothered by their current predicament, but Craig knows from the squint of Ryan’s eyes that even he’s getting a little antsy.
Jack shrugs. ‘‘Captain’s not so bad. Got us through Basic all good.’’
Craig rolls his eyes. ‘‘Exactly. He knows more about parade routines than how to reload a damn gun. And shut it, we both know you don’t like him either.’’
Jack doesn’t rise to the bait. He sighs and nudges Craig, trying to keep warm. ‘‘Should’ve brought a book.’’
Craig grimaces in agreement and unsticks his boot from the soggy ground, trying to wriggle some feeling back into his frozen toes. His socks are completely soaked through, and he glumly contemplates the best place to leave them later. Keegan’s field pack would be a wise choice. ‘‘Trade a lifetime o’ smokes for The Jungle Book in my hands right now.’’
Jack snorts. ‘‘Try Shakespeare. Now that’s real literature.’’
‘‘Christ, don’t go all Lord Evans on me right now,’’ Craig complains. ‘‘Not while I can’t get away.’’
Ryan flicks mud at him. ‘‘You’ve never even tried – ’’
‘‘Have too. Shakespeare’s a load o’ horseshit, dunno what he’s on about half the damn time.’’
‘‘Not so loud,’’ Lewis warns, looking wary. They ignore him.
‘‘Wait ‘till we get out of here, Harper, I’ll lay ’em on for you until you change your mind. Hamlet. Macbeth. Hell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You’ll love it.’’
‘‘Keep waiting,’’ Craig advises him disdainfully. ‘‘I’ll think about it when you’re old and grey.’’
Jack scowls. ‘‘You’ll be old and grey too, you bloody pillock.’’
Craig bumps his arm. ‘‘Yeah. But at least I’ll be bugging the shit outta you. What about you, Ryan? You gonna get old ‘n creaky like the rest of us?’’
Ryan smirks and smoothes his hair back with a mud-streaked palm. ‘‘Not me. I’m staying like this forever.’’
Lewis cuffs him across the back of his head in annoyance, while Jack shoves him playfully and Craig rolls his eyes. Their bickering escalates and soon they’re trying to goose each other with their rifle barrels, scuffling and yelping like children.
Lewis, Jack and Ryan dive into the mud reflexively, arms thrown above their heads. Craig’s heart leaps into his mouth as he blinks down at them dumbly, frozen. After a full five-second pause of tense silence, they hear Keegan hooting from his foxhole. Another prank.
‘‘Reaction time like that, Sarge, you’re a sitting duck,’’ Lewis says sourly, trying and failing to wipe off the clods of mud stuck in his hair. He slumps miserably, brown gunk smeared across his face.
‘‘Fuck’s sake. Hey Keegan? You’re a prick,’’ Jack grumbles, rolling over and sighing in defeat. His whole front is brown and sticky, and he spits out a mouthful of mud in disgust.
‘‘Aw, what the Christ…’’Ryan groans, shifting in the muck. ‘‘Only pressed these last night.’’ He glares up at Craig. ‘‘Quit starin’ like that. ‘Quick as lightning’, huh? Could’ve fooled me, kid.’’
Craig lets out a shaky breath, then grins when he discovers he’s still mostly clean. ‘‘I’ll save it for the real action. Besides,’’ he winks teasingly, ‘‘this kid out-ranks you, private.’’
A minute later, when his guard is down, they tackle him into the ground and hold him facedown until he’s snorting mud up his nose and can barely breathe for laughing.
Craig jerks awake with a whimper, tearing out of a clawing blackness of whispering ghosts. Acid churning in his gut. Knife in his hand. Knife in his boot. Water dripping. The sour stench of slime. He’s in the mud again why is he in the mud –
A soft whine slices through the dark.
Wiry fur under his fingers. A solid warm weight nudging under his arm.
A cold wet nose snuffles into his hand.
In. Out. In. Out.
He looks down.
Dog is curled up alongside him, gazing up with mournful eyes. As Craig meets his gaze he perks up, yipping excitedly. Presses his cold nose into Craig’s palm. Warm-damp-rough rasps over his fingers. Like wet sandpaper.
Breathe. You have to breathe.
In for three, out for six. In for three. Out for six.
The rich aroma of freshly baked bread washes over him, sizzling on his tongue and piercing his gut like claws. He clenches his fist, nails digging into his palm.
He’s here. He’s here under a pokey little bridge on some shitty canal in East London, with a stinky mutt whining for head scratches and the delicious smell of fresh bread in the air. He’s not huddled in the spitting rain and gazing out at a miserable grey horizon, ice-cold rifle gripped in numbed fingers…
In for three. Out for six.
No danger. No threats.
The buzzing in Craig’s ears slowly fades, and he gently scratches behind Dog’s ears in apology. Dog wriggles closer, nuzzling into his touch. Tail beating against his leg.
He treks back to the open street, Rusty trotting at his side. The traditional hotbed of drunken disorderly hooliganism – oh excuse him, the White Lion pub – is still open, the rich bitter tang of coffee wafting through the open door. Only a handful of customers now, scattered across round tables and wall booths. The curly-haired redhead is wiping a table clean. He slips through the doorway with Rusty at his heels, when the bartender folds his arms with an apologetic frown.
‘Sorry, mate. We’ve just cleaned the floor. No pets inside.’
The barmaid looks up. Her eyes widen. A faint purple smudge on her cheek. ‘You!’ she grins. ‘Hey, friend!’ He almost looks around, but she’s staring right at him. Heads turn. He tries not to flinch.
The bartender is still frowning. Craig picks Rusty up from behind his legs, brandishing the mutt in front of him like a shield. Rusty wriggles and yips. The barmaid goes all melty around the eyes and awwws for a damn long time. The bartender is grumbling until she steps up, eyes twinkling. ‘It’s fine, Jamie. Poor mutt looks like he deserves the rest.’
Her lips part, eyes glazed for a split-second…then she shrugs it off with a forced dismissive laugh. ‘Just wankers being wankers. They-‘ She stops herself abruptly, as if just remembering where she works. ‘Really, it’s fine. Dealing with rough customers all the time.’ Her tone is light, but a hint of venom behind her words.
‘You shouldn’t have to,’ Craig murmurs.
There’s that fleeting grimace again. ‘Didn’t need saving.’
He shrugs. ‘Maybe I just don’t like bullies.’
Her eyes slide over him, a flicker of sympathy. ‘Christ, they really whaled on you, didn’t they?’ Craig’s ribs twinge in reply, and he blushes – God, he must look a right mess. He knows people’s eyes tend to look-and-slide right past poor battered souls, but pity’s far better than fear, so he’ll tolerate it.
To her credit, the redhead only lets her eyes linger for a moment, then she’s right back on task. ‘What can I get you, then?’
He peers at the scratchy menu. ‘Um…tea?’
‘Sure! What size?’
Beneath the layers of wool jacket, cotton shirt and assorted weaponry, his stomach growls. Those grilled sandwiches oozing bubbly cheese look very nice.
‘…Two cheese sandwiches, please.’
Her eyes crinkle, warm and gentle. ‘Coming right up.’ She bends low, cooing at Rusty. ‘Anything for you, mister? How ’bout a sausage, eh?’
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Craig smiles back. ‘Thanks.’
Why ‘friend’, though? Definition: ‘person you like’. He just did what felt right, didn’t he? Stopping some jerks from hurting an innocent girl. That’s normal, right? Anyone would’ve done it in his situation. Surely.
He settles into a table tucked away in a corner booth, near the window overlooking the street. Back to the wall, all exits in view. Pure habit.
1. Corner booth, window on left side, back to the wall, door at your twelve, bar counter at three o’clock. Weapons within easy reach: Five. Cutlery in the battered tin mug on your left. Three forks. Good for stabbing. Two knives. Solid steel. Blunt blades. Ineffective, but still good for jabbing into soft tissue-
2. Behind bar 4m away; solid oak, hard cover, twelve feet end-to-end, waist high, easy to dive over, plenty of bottles for hand-to-hand plus that corkscrew on the right corner-
The harsh scrape of ceramic. He flinches. The redhead bustles behind the bar, stacking sandwiches onto a plate.
Just a few other customers now, the nearest hunched over his drink 8m across the room. Flat cap. Wide brawny shoulders under a dirty white shirt and dark scruffy jacket. Gnarled fingers wrapped around his mug. Dockhand, probably. Looks like he know how to handle himself. Brawler, most likely-
A distant barge horn blares.
Relax. They’re strangers. Nobody’s going to hurt you here. They’re civilians. Not a threat.
No enemies. No danger. Yet.
Thump thump thump.
He relaxes. Slightly. Turns as the barmaid sets his food down, smiling. ‘That’s for you.’
‘Thanks.’ He roots in his pocket for shillings.
‘No need.’ The barmaid raises her hand. ‘It’s on us.’
He frowns. ‘No, it’s okay. I can pay -‘
‘It’s alright.’ The redhead looks over at the bartender, who nods. ‘On the house,’ she insists. ‘For earlier.’ Then she giggles as Rusty snuffles into her hand.
Mollified, he raises his mug to her. ‘Thank you for the meal, miss.’
She grins back. ‘You enjoy that, mister.’ Then moves away behind the counter.
Civvies. So weirdly naive, bless their silly hearts. All soft and smiling and trusting, giving out personal information like it can’t be used as a weapon. Another patron calls ‘Ellie!’ from the corner, and she whisks over to take their order with a bright smile. Vulnerable intel, right there. But it’s a simple order to follow; to sit in a warm room at a small table with a dog at his feet, back to the wall and a clear view of all exits, and enjoy a piping-hot mug of tea with two sugars.
The involuntary sound that leaves his mouth is not a giggle, because strong silent manly soldiers do not giggle. The tea scorches his tongue (‘don’t care will have more,’ he silently vows). His brain flips over sideways at sweet-hot-rich. After the second gulp, he feels like lasting through a two-hour burst of intense combat, six hours’ hard trekking, or ten hours sitting on a park bench watching the gulls wheel and cry over the canal.
God bless the British Army: they always had time for tea.
The grilled cheese is amazing. Bread crunching on his tongue, warm and delicious. And they made the cheese gooey. He thinks of the crumpled packet of dry hardtack biscuits stuffed into his rucksack, and winces.
Yeah. Grilled cheese is way better.
He sips slowly, savouring the brew. Fiery warmth spreads through him, easing his battered bones. Beneath the table, Rusty is busy demolishing his sausage with relish.
THUMP THUMP THUMP.
It feels…good. It feels normal. Well, as normal as any day that starts off with three chumps trying to beat the everloving shit out of you, somehow adopting a stray dog and getting battle-flashbacks. But it’s still shaping up to be the best day Sergeant Harper’s had in a very, very long time.
By the time he’s finished, it’s getting late, the pale orange glare of sunset low in the west. He eases away from the table, then tucks a handful of pennies under the crumb-flecked plate.
‘Have a nice day, mister,’ Ellie waves at him from the counter.
Thump thump thump.
© 2017 Tom Burton