There’s a hole in my boot. I can feel the mud squelching in around my heel. It’s horrible and cold, making me limp a bit. I can feel it seeping through my sock.
How much further to the enemy trenches? Did the artillery barrage work? I hope so. I hope they’re all dead. They all must be dead.
I’m scared, really scared. Belly all knotted, hands sweaty, mouth dry. Fingers clutching this rifle so tight it hurts. I wish I knew more words. This is more than scared, it needs a bigger word. I’m so scared I can hardly breathe.
Can hardly breathe anyway. Pack’s too heavy, rifle’s too heavy. Everything’s heavy. The mud is heavy. Is everybody scared? Glance right. Ginger’s there, he looks all right. He was crying again last night but I pretended I didn’t hear him. We all pretended. Funny, he never cried when we were at school. Tough, was Ginger. He was crying to go home though. We all want to go home.
Don’t think of home, it just makes it worse. Don’t think of mother, busy in the kitchen, or father coming home from work. DON’T! Think about the sergeant. Where is he? Behind us somewhere, keeping an eye out. I’ll get a roasting if he catches me dreaming. Father always says I’m a daydreamer. DON’T! Keep moving forward.
Check the line on the left. There, look, Lofty is getting a bit ahead. Am I going too slowly? Ah, no, the sergeant barks and there’s Lofty dropping back. Always had to be first with everything, Lofty, always trying to prove himself, ever since his mother died. We were about six, I think. Yes, that’d be about it.
The mud’s right in under my foot now. They keep telling us to look after our feet. Keep them dry or you’ll get trench foot. How are we meant to keep them dry with holes in our boots? Feels like the heel’s coming loose as well. Try to ignore it. Keep moving.
Remember that time me and Ginger were little and we went out exploring beyond the wood and Ginger lost a shoe. His mother was so angry, blaming him for playing in mud. Pah, that could barely have been called mud. What would she say now if she saw us, up to our knees in it?
Don’t think of home. Don’t think of mother.
Don’t think of what will happen when we reach the enemy trenches.
The sergeant is growling again. It’s Ginger this time, wandering too far to his left. Too close to me. Too easy a target. Straighten it up, get back to your place.
Lofty took me to see his mother after she died, laid out all nice and peaceful in the front room with pennies on her eyes. We weren’t supposed to, but we snuck in when the grown-ups weren’t looking. First dead person I ever saw. Only dead person I ever saw, until this. Probably see lots soon. Don’t want to. Don’t want to see dead bodies.
I don’t want to fight. I hope the enemy are all dead. Artillery must have got them all. Throat dry, can’t swallow. Too scared. More than scared. Don’t know the word for how scared this is. Fingers hurt, holding the rifle too tight. Just keep moving, towards the guns.
Funny that, something up ahead. Don’t know how I haven’t noticed it, something bright red in the mud. A mine? No, not metal, it’s moving, a scrap of uniform? It’s fluttering, a butterfly!
No, a flower. A bright red flower. Right I front of me. Poppy I think. Lofty would know, he knows all the names. Doesn’t look like he’s noticed it though. What’s it doing here, growing all on it’s own in all this mud? A tiny speck of bright red among all this brown and grey! Never seen anything like it. Better break stride, it’d be a shame to stand on it.
Careful now… where’s it gone? I’m sure it was there… thought I’d stepped right over it. I didn’t stand on it, did I? Didn’t crush it into the mud? Can’t see behind properly for this pack….
The sergeant roars, at me this time. Eyes front!
I don’t think I can carry this rifle much further. Hope all the enemy are dead. Don’t want to fight. Don’t want to see dead bodies. Proud to fight for my country! Don’t think about home. So scared my legs are shaking. Keep in place, keep moving forward. Too scared to think. I hope I don’t get trench foot. The mud’s oozing round my toes now. I’m sure the heel is coming off. Keep moving. Keep moving.
Ian P. Harris is the father and grandfather of an ever-expanding family in the North of England. This is his first published work.