BY P.J. RICHARDS
A shell tore overhead. I felt the blast of air as it exploded but the edges of the crater saved me from the worst of the shrapnel as the earth, stones and metal pelted down. I covered my face with my arms. When I opened my eyes again I was no longer alone.
He stared straight at me, his slate grey cap and blue eyes the only colour in the filthy, flooded shell hole.
‘Bonjour.’ I’d always considered my accent pretty fair but he didn’t respond. Maybe the noise of the explosion had deafened him. Maybe he thought I was taking the piss. So I stood up and saluted, solemnly and precisely, and then he nodded his head in silent acknowledgment.
I settled back down in my corner, the driest spot to sit, although my feet still squelched in the rank water. I patted a space in the caked mud next to me, ‘asseye vous?’
He remained where he was. I shrugged and took my unfinished dinner from my deepest pocket, hoping that the splatters of mud from the shell hadn’t fouled it.
I scooped cold corned beef from the tin, poking my knife into all the corners. When I looked up his eyes were fixed on the movement of the blade.
‘It’s alright, just eating - haven’t got a spoon,’ I offered the lump of soggy pink meat on the knife, handle first, ‘want some?’
The soldier shook his head in obvious disgust and shifted back a pace.
‘Oh, not good enough for you? I muttered, ‘foie gras off then.’ He blinked slowly like he was shutting me out - at which I suspected he knew more English than he was letting on. I closed my lips around the rusty blade and let the salty mush fill my mouth, reminding me of better days and better meals. He watched intently as I licked the knife clean and then put it away. He looked relieved that both the meat and the knife were gone. I dropped the empty tin into the mud beside me; I would’ve thrown it further away because of the rats and flies, but I didn’t want the poor sod to think I was trying to drive him off.
I ferreted around in my inside pocket, and my fingers closed around the cool smoothness of my baccy tin, I drew it out and flipped it open with one hand. I didn’t bother with my schoolboy French this time as I leaned towards him. ‘Smoke?’
Another shell flew over and we both hunched down, it landed further away this time. Blinding flash first, then the noise. I heard frantic yelling and a long drawn out scream, like a siren. It wavered on and on until a single shot cut it off.
That’s the kind of friend you need.
A shower of dirt from the last explosion pattered onto my helmet, I pulled the rim down over my eyes till it stopped. The dust set me coughing too hard to want to light up anymore, so I slipped the tin back into my pocket and brushed grit from the shoulders and front of my greatcoat as my chest cleared. I spat a gob of brown phlegm into the water, then wished I hadn’t; out of the corner of my eye I noticed the soldier abruptly stop shaking out his own coat and cap, as if offended. Faux pas! By way of apology I peeled off my gloves, carefully wiped my right hand over my chest then extended it across our personal no-man’s-land in the middle of the crater. ‘Welcome to my grubby little fiefdom. Comment vous s’appelle?’
His answer caught me off-guard, I wasn’t really expecting a reply after the start we’d had. His voice was sharp and bright, loud in the dim shelter of the earth, two gunshot syllables.
His blue eyes held my gaze; confident and levelling. He reached towards me, but instead of a handshake I felt something placed into my outstretched palm.
I looked down - it was a bullet.
As I stared, frowning in confusion, he tapped my hand and the shiny brass cylinder rolled over. Scratched along its length in a rough rune-like script was my name.
‘What the hell!’ I grabbed it and brought it close to my face, examining the letters by the feeble grey cloud-light. ‘How? How do you know my name?’
My shock ignited into anger. ‘Is this some kind of joke you bastard?’ I looked around almost expecting to see the rest of his battalion ranged around the edges of my defile laughing, but all I saw was the soldier scrabbling up the wall of earth, dislodging clods that rolled and fell into the black pool with an oily splash.
When he reached the top he stood perched for a moment on the rim, turned to me and bowed, then launched into oblivion.
‘My god, no! Wait!’ Despite my bewildered rage I raced through the mire and hauled myself up the slope to see where he’d gone - I hated him, but I didn’t want him dead.
I could feel the thunder of the howitzers through my chest and stomach as I lay low on the broken edge of the crater, concealed - I hoped - by the charred wood of a tree smashed to splinters by the shell that had gouged out my refuge.
Frantically I scanned the battlefield but I couldn’t see him anywhere, my hands were clenched, in my fist I still held the bullet, colder than my cold hand.
What did it mean? What did he want? The chill of the metal seeped into me, I shivered and abruptly all my defences failed; I was prey to the roaring smoky bloody mess of it all, to the eye and lung-burning gas, to the endless miles of mud ploughed by machine guns and tanks, to the spirals of barbed wire hung with hollow, scarecrow bodies, to the end of hope.
Then I heard him laugh.
I spotted him right out in the middle of No Man’s Land, picking his way over the ridged ground, but I wasn’t the only one who’d seen him; sniper bullets cracked and rattled, I wanted to call out to him but couldn’t risk drawing their fire. He must have gone mad, I’d seen it happen before, you can’t pull them back - if they’ve decided to die that way you can’t hold them.
I didn’t want to watch him go down and yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away; he moved with exaggerated, strutting steps then leaped a yard, then another, before resuming his suicidal walk.
Suddenly he appeared to grab for something in the air, and as if that action had somehow brought him to his senses he turned and bounded back through the gunfire.
I shouted, urging him on. He made his way in a straight line towards me and soon, in utter astonishment, I was dragging him from the battered edge of our shell hole and back down into its protection. ‘You bloody fool!’ He pulled out of my grip, flapping me away, apparently more flustered by my touch than the guns.
There we were, face to face, out of breath, with the whine of the last shots passing overhead and my boots filling with foul freezing water, when he cocked his head to one side, fixed me with his wild eyes, and dropped something into my hand.
I didn’t have to look at it, I knew what it was.
I knew what would be cut into it.
‘Merci.’ My voice was hoarse. I could barely whisper.
Jacques laughed; a rat-tat-tat of defiant glee, louder than the Bosche guns.
And then, before I realised what he intended, before I could made a grab for him, he turned, climbed up the mud slope and disappeared over the top again.
I followed him, churning through the pool, scrambling up using the exposed tree-roots, until I was high enough to see where he’d gone. I tucked the bullets from my fist deep into my breast pocket, carefully doing up the button.
Jacques was already far out, stepping around the barbed wire, stooping and circling, ignoring the machine guns. I could see dirt spitting up all around him from the near misses.
He jumped and twisted, snatching more bullets from the air.
I found that I was smiling - I thought I’d forgotten how.
At last I was free to stand up, I didn’t have to crawl on my belly or hide in stinking ditches anymore. Death snapped all around me, metal flying thick as flies, but I stretched out of my perpetual stoop, breathed deeply and waved both arms above my head signalling my understanding. Jacques saw me and nodded before going back to his work.
Laughing ecstatically, I strode toward him across the wrecked land, with my shoulders back and head high.
He stopped still when I finally reached him, halting in mid step with his back to me. I carried on up to him at a trot, breathless with exhilaration, ready to clap him on the shoulder, but he seemed to sense my intention and span around backing off.
I held up my hands palm first, surrendering to his reticence, ‘I’m sorry,’ then offered to shake instead, ‘I... just want to say thank you for... for being a friend.’ The word didn’t seem big enough but it was all I had.
His blue eyes under dark brows, beneath the grey cap, shone for a moment, radiant with a light that didn’t come from the overcast sky or the flashes from the gun barrels and explosions. ‘Ami?’
‘Yes! That’s right!’ I took a step towards him delighted with this sudden breakthrough, I had to restrain myself from grabbing him in an embrace.
Staring at me, Jacques took both my hands and pushed them together until they formed a cup. I held them in that pose, trembling in anticipation. He spread his coat like wings, picked through it, and from every pocket and fold he produced bullets; shining, tumbling, clinking, revealing my name as they were rolled into my palms: John Gold. John Gold. John Gold. Over and over.
A sickening cry from No Man’s Land blew open our secluded world; the bullets fell through my fingers. It was piercing and high - too young - faltering into agonised sobs. A pitiful, pitiless rallying call.
Jacques D’or tilted his head, watching me.
A chill ran through me, a cold wind from the battlefield.
And I knew what kind of friend I was.
P.J. RICHARDS HAS ALWAYS BEEN INSPIRED BY FOLKLORE, HISTORY AND NATURE, AND SO HER WRITING HAS ITS ROOTS DEEP IN THE INHERITED OTHERWORLD. BRINGING THAT MAGIC INTO THE HERE-AND-NOW IS HER MISSION. WHEN NOT UP TO HER NECK BEING A DOMESTIC GODDESS IN SOMERSET, SHE WORKS ON HER ART, HER NOVEL, AND SPENDS HER SUMMERS CAMPING IN CASTLES WITH HER MEDIEVAL RE-ENACTMENT GROUP, DEMONSTRATING THE POWER OF THE LONGBOW BY SHOOTING ARROWS AT VARIOUS TARGETS INCLUDING HER HUSBAND.
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