Bad things happen in the trenches, there is no other way to put it. I don’t want to remember them, but I don’t think it’s right to pretend as if they didn’t happen. So on a bad day I get some thread and make a stitch on my left sleeve. On a really bad day I make two.
Today is a two stitch day and it’s only halfway through. Lately I have more two stitch days than not. My left sleeve is filling up. I can feel the rough threads pressing into my arm where my clothes have soaked through. It’s raining, but when is it not?
The damp here is so tangible that I can taste it on my tongue, and woven through it all is the horrible festering scent of decay. It winds its’ way through every twist and turn, seeping into the grey dirt of the trench walls. It is the cloying scent of rot that truly makes the place repellent. If the damp is palpable and content to linger on ones tongue, then the rot is a presence that overwhelms and attempts to claw its’ way down your throat, so that it’s all you can do not to retch.
One wouldn’t think we’d be able to eat in such conditions. But we do, starving as we are. It’s why I sit with my back against a stinking grey wall off rot, legs drawn up and soaking wet as I choke down my rations. There are weevils in the biscuits. Little white bodies that wiggle about, almost waving hello. At the start we’d tap the biscuits to get the little creepy crawlies out. Now we just bite in and pretend not too feel the squirming, glad of the extra protein.
Things have been getting worse. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been getting worn down. All the dogs are long since eaten, even though they were mangy and flee bitten. Just another thing gone. We’re losing more than we’re gaining and I can’t seem to care. The rain that used to seem refreshing, washing away the blood, is now mocking. Never-ending it pours from the sky, turning everything to slick sludge so that we are forever caked in mud and every step is an effort. It makes the days grey, but that might be the War. Everyone keeps dying.
I hear the slick squelch of someone’s boots tromping though the mud and tilt the brim of my hat up to see who. It’s Arthur. He comes closer and crouches beside me on the rotting wooden planks meant to keep the mud away. He’s got a handful of rations and is wearing the same oil skin cloak as me. The cloaks would keep the rain off in small showers but did little for the downpour we were sitting in, the trenches offering little in the way of shelter.
“How you likin’ lunch? Reckon I could do with some o’ mama’s home cooking, that’s for sure.”
I have trouble looking at Arthur. He wears a smile like a bad mask; jarring and fake it reminds me of things I don’t want to remember. That’s what the stitches are for. Still, I can’t begrudge him how he copes; I make stitches, and he smiles. That doesn’t mean I look at him when I talk.
“I don’t remember what it’s like to be full and warm. Do you?” That isn’t what he wants to hear. I shouldn’t have said it. Arthur wants me to banter back so that we can share some hollow laughter and pretend things are good. But I can’t pretend anymore.
Arthur looks away, “Of course.”
I keep looking at him until he fidgets a little and admits, “Well maybe it’s more like imagination than memory – they’re about the same things anyway right. Right?” The question edges into panic as Arthur repeats it. The smile doesn’t slip, it becomes larger as I watch, stretching in a horrible parody of what amusement should be. He wants me to agree with him, to lie, and I can’t deny him that, not when it’s so clearly what he wants. I don’t have to believe it. I don’t even have to pretend to believe it. I just have to say it.
The stiff lines of his body relax again and the fevered panic that sharpened his features fades, letting his face fall back into its’ usual drawn lines. The rigid smile settling on his lips again. My fingers twitch, but I’ve already made enough stitches for today.
Arthur chatters on at me. I idly run my hand across my sleeve, fingers catching on the stitches there. All I see is grey. A horn sounds, hollow and echoing. Arthur stands. So do I. Time to fight. Maybe die. I stand amongst my fellow soldiers and can’t care that all their faces are washed out, indistinguishable from the grey. I don’t think I can live through another two stitch day. I don’t think I want to.