“Hole sweet hole,” shouted Danny, grinning through the mud and muck, an eternal optimist.
I wanted to shoot him.
It was one of those cold, rainy days that haunted us. The rain would pour down intermittently, just enough to catch us off guard. One good thing about the trenches was that it kept the worst of the wind off us, but it still drove the rain across. It was days like this that command told us to stay the most alert.
“This is German territory. They know this land better than us and are more used to her crazy weather.”
Easy for them to say. They weren’t shivering here in the muck and mud like us. They were in their command tent on higher ground behind the small redoubt, the canvases fluttering in the strong wind, but still protecting from the elements.
“Keep your eyes up and over, Danny!” I shouted at him, trying to keep warm. Soon it would be my turn to keep my head poked up, occasionally jumping up to higher ground, changing position so as not to be a target.
New to the horrible life of the trenches, Danny remained rather enthused about nearly everything.
“How many more days till we go home?” my mate next to me grumbled.
“As soon as we kill all those fuckers over there,” I replied.
The wind flung more rain down on us and I hurled curses at the weather. I watched Danny disappear over the edge, keeping low as trained to do. Once he finished his surveillance, it would be my turn.
I couldn’t take it anymore and succumbed to the craving that had been haunting me all day.
“I’m going to the bunker for a bit before my shift,” I said to my mate Jack beside me.
“I’ll keep this one in line until you’re back!” he shouted, motioning to Danny.
I silently wished him luck and made my way through the ankle-deep mud to the tiny bunker that separated two parts of the trench. It was kind of makeshift rest room that could fit about four of us comfortably. It was normally used to store packages and letters from home and was a place where you could write messages to home. Although there wasn’t really much worth writing about here, I found it cathartic. Besides, if I sent a message, I received a message, and it was Jenny’s messages that made this whole mess even the littlest bit worthwhile.
I unwrapped again the letter Jenny had written me. The smart woman used the thickest most waterproof paper she could find to keep her letters fresh when others would turn to tattered wads.
My dearest Owen,
Sometimes at night I close my eyes and try to imagine you beside me again. I hope that you do the same. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder, although I would prefer to be less fond of you and have you here than miss you so achingly when you are gone.
The weather here is just how you like it – clear, blue, Australian skies with a sun so hot you can almost smell your skin burning. I often sit outside and bathe in it while Oliver splashes in his little pool.
Oliver has grown into his legs and he quite tires me out with how he rushes around. He has his father’s energy and his little chubby legs are always moving at lightning speed. I have attached a picture he drew of you. I do not know if it will survive the journey to you, but he drew you with spiky green hair and an abnormally large nose.
I guess he does not remember your face as well as I do.
As always, I miss you.
Please come home soon.
With all my love,
Oliver’s picture had indeed made the journey and it looked just as Jenny had said. When I had passed it around the trenches it had elicited guffaws of laughter from all the men. In the trenches, the men often passed around their mementos. Even a thin slip of pink ribbon or a small packet of chewing gum, anything that was a piece of home, was a treasure down here. Someone’s wife had sent us a sturdy pack of playing cards and we all could have kissed the woman.
I pulled out the paper that was carefully stored in the bunker and sat down with a ragged stump of a pencil to begin a reply to her. Writing to her helped to calm my thoughts sometimes.
My dearest Jenny,
I received Oliver’s picture of me. I have to admit, I did not mind the green hair. Reminded me of grass. It is better than hair caked with brown, sticky mud.
I am glad that our little man keeps you busy. He will have all the ladies rushing after him one day, not just his mother.
Ah, I wish I could sit under that blazing sun with you. I miss your embrace and the smell of apples and cinnamon that hangs around you.
Do you remember that time on the beach when we sat eating apple pie and ice cream as the sun set? I thought you were the most beautiful woman in all the world, your hair turned golden by the setting sun.
I still think you are the most beautiful woman in the world.
I miss you both so much. I send my hugs and kisses.
I hope to be home before Christmas.
All my love,
I took a deep, steadying breath as I pushed down the dizzying wave of homesickness.
I carefully wrapped the letter in an oilskin package and tucked it away to be sent with the next post. Then, I went back into the cold, rainy hell that awaited me outside.
Danny was still happily up top keeping watch and I considered making him stay up there a bit longer. But I knew that would be unfair of me. We all pulled equal duty down here.
I climbed up, keeping low in case someone was scoping the place out, although visibility would be bad in this weather.
“Time’s up Danny. Head back down,” I said as I saw him lying there hidden against a pile of wood.
He looked back at me, black hair from under his helmet plastered to his face.
“I can stay a bit longer if you want the company?” he asked, not seeming as phased by the conditions as I was.
Time would cure that.
“I suppose,” I said after considering for a moment.
Company was always nice, so long as you spoke softly.
“Any sign of anything?” I asked.
“Nah. Doubt the Germans will do much in this weather. I wouldn’t be moving very far if it was me,” he said cheerfully.
He irritated me but I still couldn’t help but like him.
“If it were me, I wouldn’t even be here,” I grumbled.
He turned to look at me.
“You aren’t proud to serve?” he asked.
From anyone else the question may have sounded like an accusation.
“Of course I am. I want to keep my country safe, and my wife and child. If this is the way to do it, so be it,” I said, then ducked my head as a squall hit us. “I just wish it didn’t suck this much.”
“I’m an outdoorsy person. Always have been, rain, hail or shine. You don’t get to be a soccer champion by bowing to the weather,” he said.
I looked sideways at him.
“You good at soccer?”
“One of the best. I was all lined up to go pro, would’ve made my way to the big time but duty called so I suppose I’ll have to wait till this war is over. I’m sure the soccer association would love to have a war hero in their club!” he said.
“Soccer is a decent sport. Football is better though,” I said to him. “Football is the Australian pastime.”
“True, but I’m not quite as large and heavy as some of those guys. I’m more built for speed and fancy footwork. Soccer is good for that sort of thing,” he replied.
“Is that what you plan to do in the future? Professional sports?” I asked, inwardly cursing as the rain began trickling down the inside of my shirt.
“I think so. Either that or IT. I had plenty of offers for Uni. My mum wanted me to do IT, my dad sports. Was quite a sore point between them for a while until I reminded them that the decision was mine to make not theirs,” he laughed.
“They sound like good parents though,” I said.
“They are,” he smiled, and I could see the flash of homesickness in his eyes.
After a few moments of silence he spoke again.
“Alright, I’m gonna head down now. I’ll catch you later for that slop they call supper,” he said, poking out his tongue in disgust.
“I’ll see you then,” I agreed, managing a small smile in return.
Danny rose up just enough to begin inching back down when I heard a very faint metallic sound amongst the sounds of the weather and I saw Danny suddenly jerk back slightly.
I turned to look at him and saw a questioning look cross his face. He looked down at his jacket and I saw the ominous stain beginning to spread across his chest.
My eyes widened.
“SOUND THE ALARM!” I shouted, my voice trained to carry through any noise. I pulled at Danny and began dragging him and myself down into the protection of the trench.
I could hear a flurry of activity behind me as my shout was heard and my senses were on high alert as I tried to move us away from whoever had fired that bullet.
I eventually made it without any further shots and Danny and I rolled down into the trench. There were still shouts all around me but all I could see was Danny, his eyes wide and his face pale, too pale. I could see his lips trying to form words as he struggled to breath. I held his head up from the mud and laid it on my lap, stroking his filthy hair.
For a split second, I imagined my son lying there on my lap, older, fully grown and dying in my arms. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out that image.
I kept stroking Danny’s hair as he slowly lost his last battle and his breathing stopped.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to him, tears starting to fall down my face.
He’d only just turned 19.