‘Private Thomas Edward Caperman, heavy smoker and drinker, well, of strong sweet tea, and the best mud skater in the Durham’s’ he ended the letter; ‘I just can’t wait to get back to Blighty and you.’
Shells continued to thud into the craters along the ridge, fifty yards or so to the right.
‘P.S’. he scribbled at the bottom, ‘See you all at Christmas, love to the kids, Tom’.
He folded the note and hurriedly pushed it into a crumpled envelope, and threw it into Cottons open sack.
‘See an end to this bloody barrage Cotton?’ he shouted, glancing at the boy in the big hat and muddy gaiters, ‘Three hours they’ve been chucking this rubbish at us.’
‘Sarge say’s we’re lucky Caper, and hopes it goes on till New Year. By the way there’s talk of gas on Forty Second.’
‘Oh thanks Cotton! Any more good news you’d like to share?’
‘Not really mate, Porter blue and three Sappers caught a packet last night. Blue’s still on the wire, poor sod.’
Caper leaned back against the steep earth wall and rolled a cigarette, while squinting up at the grey smokey sky above the trench. He’d seen those sullen dreary clouds many times above the narrow passages between the terraces at home.
It always seemed that way when he was a kid, heavy and dark, shot with ruddy flashes, and the ring of steel echoing from the shipyards, and always the aroma of fried liver and onions hanging in the air, enticing him home for tea.
‘How about you mate?’ he mumbled glancing down at Johnny Masters who was squatting on an ammunition box cradling his head watching the slimy mud being sucked through the duck board as he prodded it with his boot.
But Johnny just nodded.
Sunday’s were good he thought, Dad at home all day, sitting outside the back door in the sun shelling peas, or spitting out nails while he hammered a piece of leather onto his old boots. By twelve he was off to the pub, washed and shaved, and smelling of Brilliantine.
‘I’d watch him put on his collar and tie which he hung next to the dog’s lead on the fretwork mirror in the hall. After struggling with his back collar stud he’d gesture at me with his huge gnarled hands, reciting the verse behind the glass.’
‘The narrow minded ask, is this one of our tribe?’
Dad would brush his trilby with the banana shaped brush before thrusting it under his nose like a handsome ‘tash.
‘Just a ruddy frustrated actor’ Mum would say, ‘I’m sure he’ll never grow up.’
Then to his loyal audience of one, perched on the stairs he would read.
‘But to those of a noble disposition, the world is but one family.’
Then he’d bow like some great actor,
‘HITOPA DESSA 246 BC.’
‘Whoever he was’ he’d say, before shouting. ‘See you about two mother!’
That was the first poetry Tommy had ever learned off by heart, and he could still remember it word for word.
‘Dinner’ll be on the table at half one!’ she’d shout after him, then curse him for rolling in at three.
Caperman’s attention was suddenly drawn to the silence that had fallen like a shroud across the trenches.
‘The biguns have lost their tongues Johnny,’ he quipped, as a sudden dryness gripped his throat.
He could hear the sound of boots squelching through the slime as men positioned themselves along the parapet, forcing a grin as the Tommys struggled along the drunken boards carrying heavy ammunition boxes.
Where had this sudden fear come from, forcing him to clutch his rifle tight to his chest to hide the sound of his pounding heart? The same desperation he’d once felt standing with Eddie Newman outside the headmaster’s vast brown door at Bally Junior, waiting to take his punishment like a man. So this is what a man really feels like?
‘Right now lads!’ came the order, ‘Fix bayonets!’
‘Not today sir, ta very much’ he whispered into Masters’ ear, who forced a miserly grin.
Still acting the fool; anything to hide what he was really feeling.
‘That’s a bloody laugh,’ thought Caperman, ‘not a single man jack can stop his thoughts, or the pictures in his head of polished bayonets waiting across the mud, and those cursed machine guns, poised to spit pain and death.’
A long shrill whistle freed Thomas Caperman’s legs, switching off his soul from thought and caring and with fifty-seven men of a noble disposition, he scrambled over the top, into the family of hell.
Barry J Freeman
©Copyright Barry Freeman 2017