A current of news runs along the line. Electrifying us all. Five minutes. Five.
West of our position the throb of heavy guns and syncopated artillery fire percusses the dawn raid.
Arthur pinches out his woodbine, saving the tobacco in a tarnished case he nipped off a farmer’s greening corpse we found in an orchard.
‘Alright, Robby, lad?’
There’s a catch in his voice. Rusty. Disused.
In civvy street we’re market-gardeners, keen walkers, birdwatchers. Friends. Here, he’s always on the listen-out, good in a fix. Compassionate too. He insisted we bury the farmer. A lone magpie watched from a plum tree. Arthur tipped his helmet to it. ‘For luck,’ he said, even as he pocketed the case.
We shuffle closer to the ladders. Dead men walking. Ready for the whistle blow. Arthur rests a hand on my shoulder. Nudges me forwards.
‘Keep low and dodge ‘em, Robby. Keep low and dodge.’
My throat closes round the words I want to offer him. A thank you. For muttering a rosary for that farmer. For comforting the gasping gas-punched Sergeant as he rattled and died. For everything.
Instead, I do my best to smile. Wait. Listen. Pray in the antagonistic way my mother despairs of.
Arthur squeezes my shoulder, winks.
‘Steady, now. Nowt but a brisk morning walk, lad. Just a quick stroll.’ The whistle shrills, and we go over the top. Together.
Later, I find the cigarette case in my pocket, bullet dented.
And that is all.