Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 26
Pinch, Punch

                  

The trench they assembled in was a mere man-deep gash in the chalk. It was not intended to be occupied for long; it was just a jumping-off place. The Ninth hunkered down in the early morning light, burdened by their equipment, as the bombardment keened over their heads to complete its destruction of the Hun lines a thousand yards away, mortars now joining in.

Tolly watched work parties of ants bustling in the broken soil at the bottom of the trench, about their business. Involuntary memories flickered past. His dad at the piano in the parlour, singing sailor songs. Ruth on a long-ago picnic, her lips stained with blackberries, laughing and displaying that one crooked tooth. The scent of lavender and old bibles from Holy Joe bending over him at the church organ, too close.

Tolly’s hands were sweating, his mouth dry. He promised himself he would face whatever was coming with all the pluck he could summon up, ignoring the hollowness inside, for the sake of his pals and Ruth and…well, for England.

Please, don’t let me disgrace myself.

Harry pinched his upper arm, following up with a jabbing punch. Harry’s eyes glinted with mischief as he mouthed something.

‘Ow! What?’ yelled Tolly, clutching his arm. Harry shouted, but Tolly could not catch it. He bent his head and Harry bellowed in his ear: ‘Pinch-punch, first of the month!’

Of course. It was July the First. A Saturday.

Tolly counter-pinched and the two scuffled like the boys they had been together at school. Harry went to pinch-punch Fred Scott on the other side of him but the bricklayer was in one of his morose moods, reeking powerfully of rum, and batted him away with irritation. Sgt. Dennison, diagonally opposite, gave a ye-Gods shake of his head.

The shelling reached a howling, crashing crescendo.

And stopped.

The Tommies looked up, the whites of their eyes showing. The thunder of the bombardment was replaced by a new sound – a strange, ringing song of nothing.

Silence.

The earth seemed to sigh. In the stunned stillness Tolly heard a lark rise, spilling liquid melody from the suddenly empty sky.

How could it do that, in the middle of all this?

The Ninth knew its job this morning – to cross No Man’s Land, occupy Fritz’s front line trench and hold it while the second and third waves came through them to take the rearward trenches. The wire would be cut, the defenders dead. They were to walk, not run, in extended order – line abreast – four paces apart. No bunching. No stopping for the wounded.

Wait for the whistles.

Tolly found phrases from the Soldier’s Prayer repeating themselves in his mind…fight the good fight of faith…prove victorious…resolve bravely…mixed in with memories of the Market Square the day they left, Ruth in her dove-grey dress, Garcell’s band playing in the spring sunshine. Whatever Father Mack had said about God – and Tolly was still not convinced – the chaplain’s urging to ‘do the next right thing’ was a true and as plain as it came. Well, the next right thing this day was to fight. A prayer could do no harm. Support us in life, and comfort us in death. After today, if he survived, there was a life to be lived – with Ruth, with honour.

After today.

Please, don’t let me disgrace myself.

‘Fix bayonets!’

The North Cheshires levered themselves upright. A ripple of snicks went along the trench as they obeyed the order, mingled with the creaking of leather boots and the grunts of men straightening cramped limbs. Ladders thumped against chalk.

The one-time CSM Beefer Langston, now a newly-commissioned lieutenant but still the same fuzzy bruiser he had always been, stood by the ladder nearest to Tolly and Harry, one foot on the lowest rung, staring at his wristwatch, a police whistle clenched between his teeth.

‘Cry God for England, Wagstaff’s and Florrie Swindells,’ muttered Harry. ‘I wouldn’t mind lying abed this day. Well, we can only die once.’

‘It’s Fritz doing the dying,’ said Tolly.

A series of huge hammer blows shuddered the earth. Mines, detonating under the German lines. The lark paused, disconcerted, then resumed his singing. Still they waited.

At 7.30am to the second, Beefer blew his whistle. The piercing sound was echoed up and down the line by dozens, then scores, then hundreds of others in a chilling, shrilling chorus. Beefer went up the ladder, stumbling clumsily halfway up. He drew his Webley and stood on the parapet.

He turned and shouted: ‘Here we go, men! Remember the Lusitania!’

A-Coy chorused back their shared joke, the one Beefer wasn’t in on: ‘Fuck the Lusitania!’

He looked momentarily confused but then something hit him, twisting his body and pitching him back into the trench. He fell heavily on his back with his feet drumming, bloody pink foam bubbling from his mouth, shocked eyes staring.

Sgt. Dennison stepped forward, pulled the twitching body away from the ladder and went up it himself. He crouched to one side at the top and called: ‘Let’s have you, lads – there’s a Blighty up here for every last one of you!’

Harry went up first, Tolly next, throwing his rifle on top of the parapet and picking it up as he went over. He stepped forward a few places and looked up and down the line.

Tommies. Thousands of them. Khaki figures were emerging on either side as far as the eye could see, the sun glinting on their bayonets. There was Chunky, wearing a private’s uniform, heaving and puffing his unmistakable bulk over the parapet, red-faced, waving a revolver. How had the old duffer swung that? He should be in the Battalion dug-out. No sign of Sherlock.

The sun was just warm enough for Tolly to feel its first heat on his face. He and Harry exchanged glances. Tolly remembered Ruth’s words: ‘Promise me…look after Harry for me, won’t you?’

He looked ahead. Immediately in front of him was a grassy hump. Further away lay a vagueness of downs and what was left of a wood, obscured by mist and drifting yellow smoke. The rusted barbed wire lay in blasted, tangled heaps but lanes had been ripped through it in places.

The Ninth formed up and began to saunter forward, as per orders.

Tolly heard a noise like a boy rattling a bar along a railing. Another boy joined in, then another, until it seemed that a whole school of boys was running along a mile-long iron railing, rattling a hundred sticks against it.

It couldn’t be machine guns, surely? All the Germans were dead, weren’t they? Not a rat left alive, they’d said.

A hundred and twenty thousand strong, Kitchener’s ragtime army strolled through the long grass towards that playground sound.

 

 

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