Steady gunfire surrounded him. Ben pushed on through the mounting mud unnerved, his hands wrapped tightly around the solid weight of his weapon. As he drew level with his comrades, he noted their tired stance, the varying expressions of trepidation on their weary faces. He was like them, an uncertain advocate, a body of fear. As the troop moved forward through the darkness, their hasty attack was met by a shower of bullets that cut through the air, battering their army until only a handful of men remained standing. Within minutes they were retreating and the anguished cries of their fallen comrades reverberated around the battlefield as the spattering of a machine gun echoed far off in the distance.
‘We’ll get them next time!’ whispered a familiar voice behind him.
Ben kept his head down, his eyes fixed on his feet.
‘Ben?’ As Jamie’s hand reached out, a nearby body writhing and wriggling on the ground groaned in pain and the pair recognised the tormented face of their corporal as he lay wounded and bleeding in the mud.
‘We did it wrong,’ mumbled Ben as they heaved the soldier onto their shoulders.
‘What did we do wrong?’ Jamie’s face was flushed, but his eyes seemed to twinkle in the darkness.
‘We shouldn’t have attacked. Our strategy wasn’t sound. We lost too many men.’
Blood trickled across Jamie’s left cheek. He shrugged.
As they descended into the trenches, the stench of sweat and decay overwhelmed them. Ben bit his lip, focusing his attentions on the corporal still hanging limply around their necks, but irritation was clawing at his muscles, at his mouth. ‘Those are real people out there, you know, Jamie. Not toy figurines. This isn’t a game, here people actually die.’ As if to demonstrate, the corporal coughed and spluttered and let out a final rasping breath. Ben swallowed, his free hand covering his face. ‘I didn’t even want to come here!’
‘Then why did you?’ Jamie’s voice was cold; the twinkle in his eye changing to an angry glint.
‘Because you were coming.’
They lowered the corporal’s body to the floor. ‘You didn’t need to follow me. You could’ve stayed at home. You wouldn’t have been called up for another two years.’
‘I couldn’t let you come alone.’
‘Why not?’ Jamie started to pace the length of the trench, teeth grinding. ‘It’s because you think I can’t survive without you, isn’t it?’
‘I didn’t say that-’
‘You think you’re better than me just because you won all those stupid games when we were kids. You think-’ his voice quivered as he glanced at the lifeless body of the corporal, ‘you think I can’t handle it.’
‘I didn’t say that!’
‘You didn’t have to.’
Jamie glared at Ben, his flushed face deepening to a furious crimson, and Ben cowered in the wake of the subsequent silence, his mind reaching for a memory of the boy he once knew.
‘I know this is real life,’ whispered Jamie. ‘I know that people die.’ His hands moved to the rifle around his neck. ‘I’m not frightened.’
‘I never said you -’ but Ben’s words were cut short as a torrent of gunfire ricocheted off the trench walls and the unexpected blast of a hand grenade ripped the pair apart. ‘Jamie? Jamie!’
Amidst the dust and rubble, as their opponent’s persistent attack sent clumps of earth and rag-doll bodies hurtling through the thick air, Ben searched frantically for Jamie. It was only when enemy gunfire was briefly silenced, when their army were able to take a breath, that Ben noticed a solitary figure mounting the trench walls.
Ben watched in horror as Jamie hopped over the top and out of sight. He grabbed a discarded rifle and as he followed his friend’s path, Ben wondered if they’d ever get back to those summer days in the playing field, if harmless battles fought amongst long-stemmed grass were truly a thing of the past. And as he calmly faced the enemy and his inevitable death was heralded by the swift BANG, BANG of a rifle, the irony that his body was now peppering the muddy battlefield like a fallen toy soldier was not lost on Ben, and he thought, as a final, rasping breath escaped from his trembling lips, that perhaps those childhood games weren’t so different from the real thing after all.