‘Nnngh … Christ save me, I’m done for.’
‘For shit’s sake, Sam. Quit whingeing.’
Private Sam Evans slumps against the broken brick wall, sweating and groaning like the melodramatic little shit he is. Trust his luck to be the only one seriously injured after that vicious hand-to-hand scuffle with German Stoßtruppen. ‘Jesus, Mary ’n’ Joseph,’ he moans, clutching his shoulder. ‘I’m gunna die.’
A chorus of annoyed groans from the rest of B Company, scattered around the half-crumbled house. Luke Riley rolls his eyes. ‘It’s only dislocated, Sam. Don’t be such a bloody wimp.’
‘Fuck you, Riley,’ Sam snarls back. ‘It’s fallin’ off, I can’t feel me fingers. Lord save me … Auuugghhhh. Send me ’ome, Sarge, I’m done with this war.’
Sergeant Jack Murray grins and squats beside him, trying (and utterly failing) to look sympathetic. ‘Sorry, Sam, you ain’t gettin’ out of it so easy,’ he says cheerily. ‘C’mere, let’s put it back. Quit bawlin’, ya big baby.’
Lewis chuckles somewhere behind them, and doesn’t even bother to offer any help. He’s busy going through the grey-coated bodies with Tom, trying to find decent trophies to loot. Sam whimpers and shakes his head, shrinking away from Jack’s outstretched hands and raising his good arm in defence. ‘No no, don’t touch it! You’ll make it worse!’
Ed sniggers from the loft overhead. ‘Get it together, Sammy – me liddle sister’s got bigger bollocks than you!’
His mates chuckle as Jack slaps Sam’s hand away, frowning mournfully at him. ‘It ain’t gunna fix itself,’ he soothes. ‘Trust me, Sam, I’ve done this a thousand times.’ Well … maybe twice. He doesn’t really know how painful it is, but it can’t be that bad, right? It ain’t even bleeding, for Christ’s sake. ‘It’ll slide right back into place. You won’t feel a thing – promise.’
Luke snorts so loud it’s a wonder no German shells come crashing down upon them. ‘Yeah, listen to ’im, Sarge knows what he’s talkin’ about.
Jack grips Sam’s shoulder tight. ‘On three, sonny.’ Sam puffs and clenches his jaw. Braces himself.
Sam meets his eyes and nods.
Sam shrieks so loud that Sergeant Murray nearly dislocates it again from shock. He cringes as Sam’s cry echoes back at them from all corners of the desolate Belgian village. If there are any Hun sharpshooters lurking among the ruins, they’re fucked for sure, but thankfully there’s no answering battle cry or bullets whistling in. Jack lets him sag onto the damp straw floor, writhing around and swearing buckets. The sergeant’s face is the epitome of cherubic innocence. ‘What? I fixed it, didn’t I?’
‘Fuck you!’ Sam wriggles over to snap furiously at his ankles. ‘Ya sneaky bastard – nngghh. Wanker!’
‘Laaanguage,’ Ed sing-songs above.
‘Fuck off, shit’ead!’
The others tease him and leave him wheezing and cursing on the floor as Jack hurries to the doorway where Rifleman Harry Carter stands guard. ‘Luke, give Sam some of your holy water, won’t you?’
Luke looks up from the small wooden horse he’s carving. ‘Holy water, sir?’
Jack rolls his eyes. ‘The brandy you keep hidden in your second canteen. The one you think I don’t know about.’
Luke blushes and hurries over to Sam. ‘Yessir!’
Jack looks over to the lads huddled in the corner bickering over a game of Rummy, and suddenly his chest aches with a fierce surge of pride. They’ve come such a long way since he first roared at them in Basic Training, crawling through mud and bayoneting straw dummies. Now they’re his boys, all of them fearless and indomitable in a firefight, a dozen battlefields christened with their blood: Willis, the giant of a man still wearing that damn bowler hat instead of the standard-issue tinpot helmet, brow furrowed as he scribbles a letter for his Tyneside sweetheart; Jones lounging in the straw halfway through his third smoke of the hour, eyes twinkling at some hidden joke as he cradles his Woodbines in fingerless mitts; Carter, gaunt-cheeked and grimacing, sucks a toothpick and notches fresh kills into his rifle butt with his bayonet; Bryce spoons down Maconochie stew as if it’s the finest peach ambrosia instead of beef gristle, mushy carrots and under-boiled turnip, with stubbled cheeks and that hideous hand-knitted scarf from his mother back in Newcastle. This isn’t Basic, after all; on the front lines nobody gives a damn what you wear as long as you follow orders.
It’s a welcome change, really – all of them sitting together and being civil, a tranquil respite from the long miserable nights huddled in flooded trenches in the endless drizzle, ice shivering through your bones and freezing mud seeping into your socks as the shells shriek down and the earth swallows screams. Or stacking sodden sandbags knee-deep in grimy mud to the endless dull boom of distant howitzers, cherished home letters clutched tight to their hearts like lifelines amid the creeping stench of mustard gas and the churning fear that gnaws the belly.
He’ll miss this, when the war’s over. They’re blood brothers, Northmen in grimy khaki, one of a kind – despite all their petty squabbles over dice and cards, and the casual insults they sling his way.
A rat scuttles out of the gloom; it pauses amid the filthy floor and glares around, as if it’s their landlord and they’re illegal squatters who all owe it rent.
‘Hey, who’s hungry?’ Owen smirks, laying down a winning hand. The others boo and flick their cards at him.
Luke hauls Sam back onto his feet, patting his back in commiseration. ‘I know, I know – it sucks,’ he mutters, letting Sam swig from his canteen. ‘Sergeant Murray couldn’t keep a promise if you smeared it in glue and shoved it up his arse.’
‘Careful, Luke – that’s insubordination,’ Jones sniggers.
‘I was drunk,’ Jack grumbles in mock-horror. ‘I was so drunk when I offered you layabouts the King’s Shilling.’
‘Nah – don’t beat yerself up over it, Sarge,’ Lewis chuckles, still rummaging through a corpse’s pockets on the floor. ‘We were all piss-drunk when we took it, too.’
© 2020 | Tom Burton