Ploegsteert, Belgium, December 25th, 1914
The cold was seeping upwards, rising like a poisonous sap through his bones. Weeks of rain and now freezing cold. It was like God didn’t want this war.
Behind him, Lloyd was flapping his arms around to keep warm.
“So, Lenny, are we playing or what?”
They were only twenty yards away — Captain Longfield and the Saxon Officer — but none of their words could be heard. Both companies, British and German, stood, hands-in-pockets, waiting to take up the Captain’s idea and play a little football.
The two companies’ chaplains, further down the turnip field, laughed loudly, their nasal voices carrying through the morning mist.
This was Christmas Day but the fighting had stopped several days ago when rainwater washed them out of their trenches. Neither army could hide so they elected to stop fighting. Then, on Christmas Eve, the two Captains made it official by declaring a ceasefire ‘to bury the dead’.
This morning they’d set about retrieving the London Scottish whose attack had failed earlier in the month and whose bodies had been making life difficult by stinking and attracting a plague of rats. With assistance from their German counterparts, they’d spent the morning of Christmas Day prizing part-decayed cadavers from the soil and carrying them down the line for burial. And when it was done, they held a memorial service; two shambolic companies, side by side. The 1st Queen’s Westminster Rifles and the 133rd Saxon Regiment.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Woollen scarves, cotton caps, gloves, mufflers, sheepskins, oils, great-coats, and steam rising over bodies of men. A flat horizon, dull mist, and stunted trees marking the edge of fields given up for warfare.
“Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel…”
Lenny, who had always been told the German language was coarse, had stopped praying and listened — reminded of the mystical carol singing the night before, drifting over the turnip field like a father’s lullaby.
“Stille Nach, Heilige Nacht…”
Their ‘Amens’ had sounded the same.
Now it was all done and Sergeant Coghill approached, hands in pockets, cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“You play on the wing, Day?”
“If you like, sir.”
Their Territorial days. Weekly football matches, monthly manoeuvres. Coghill liked to know his wingers, taking the centre spot for himself, hoofing it wide then looking for the cross to claim the goal.
“Are we playing here?” Lloyd asked. Coghill drew heavily on his cigarette.
“This very field, Hart. Them posts is ours, that pile is theirs. Centre back?”
Lloyd shrugged, forgetting himself, but Coghill didn’t notice. Other regular players were ambling over as the two armies drifted together, kicking stones. The officers had parted and Longfield strode past, lobbing them the ball.
“Off you go then, lads, show them what we’re made of.”
Sergeant Smith kicked it off. He lurched forward and the crowd suddenly jumped into action. Lenny ran wide as he was meant to.
It wasn’t easy running on the pitted, frozen mud. and since his clothes were layered thick to keep him warm at night, he was quickly hot and panting. They ran as a group from one end of the pitch to the other, scrabbling silently over the ploughed and frozen soil. There was lot of panting and grunting, but not much in the way of shouts; all short and close up; “Go on, Knight, kick it, then.”
Lenny soon felt isolated on the imaginary wing. He started drifting into the crowd with everyone else, but Coghill was having none of it.
“Get back out left, Day.”
So Lenny did as he was told and trotted up and down, tiring himself pointlessly.
When, at last, the Sergeant managed to wrestle control of the ball for long enough to cross, one of the Saxons anticipated his plan. The big white balloon arched through the sky and a small Saxon soldier, intent on being first to take control, chased after it.
Lenny set off, lungs suddenly working hard in the frosty air, puffing clumps of steam as he ran. He struggled to keep his footing, watching the ground, checking the ball, following the German and noticing the rest of the players closing in on the goal, ready for the cross.
They arrived at the same time, Lenny and the Saxon, crunching boots and clashing elbows. Amid the straining for breath and angling for control, it occurred to Lenny that it would be like this in close combat. A momentary thought; an image of the death-grapple that waited beyond the artillery and machine guns; a flashing sequence; the awareness of the other man’s presence, his breath, his tone, the size of his torso, the way he held his elbows high to balance his body while he kept his eyes on the ground. Panting, grunting, competing. The flash of a bayonet.
And just like this, you would know, in that moment of arrival, who was the likely winner. Because you know, going for the ball, who is going to come away with it and who is going to have to try another trick. So you’d know — wouldn’t you? — who was going to live, and who was going to die. One of the Guardsmen told him the best weapon in a trench was a sharpened entrenching tool. A shovel.
Lenny thinks the ball’s his. He’s ahead, has better balance, more control, less desperation. He gets a foot to it, begins turning to give himself space for a cross. But he’s wrong. A shoulder hits his side; a weighty body pushes past and he’s lurching, then his nostrils fill with the stench of soil.
He pushes himself up and watches as the ball is kicked back towards the English line. He had the speed and the agility, maybe even the skill, but he was beaten because the other man was more aggressive.
A P Charman has had stories published in Every Day Fiction and the Battered Suitcase and has been long-listed, short-listed or highly commended in Cadenza Magazine, The Global Short Story Competition, Ballista Magazine and the Jacqui Bennet Writer’s Bureau.