The Boy Who Hid in an Upturned Boat
by Matt Hicks
How I ended up in an upturned boat I don’t know. I recall little. Going over the top, the shell blasts, and the gunfire, the round that hit my helmet and floored me, the fall, the warm piss, the mud, the darkness. A lit match gave my location away briefly. Why was there an upturned boat on no man’s land? I didn’t care but for a second I appreciated that not all life can be sunk into the mud of war. I was suddenly aware of a supine shape beside me. I was pleased although worried they might call me coward.
There was no answer; just waves of heavy wheezing. I’d heard that sound before two days ago. The sound of a bad chest wound.
“Are you injured?” Such a stupid question. No answer. “Look, I’m not going to hurt you, mate. I want to help. We’re in this place together.
There was a short outtake of breath and then a weak reply:
“What happened? Let me light my match again and….”
“I have a trench light.”
“You’re an officer?” I asked. I was compelled to prolong the conversation as I was trying to place his accent. It was very well spoken but not like the other officers. A burst of light assaulted my eyes.
“I took it from an officer who fell. He wasn’t going to use it again.”
I took it from the lad. I calculated that I wouldn’t need to give it back. I turned it round to see that the human beside me was German. I dropped the torch, reached for my rifle. The whole length of the weapon and bayonet was longer than the inner width of the boat. About the best I could have inflicted was a sub-standard wet shave by bayonet. Should I use bare hands I thought? Lying on my side with the torch facing the enemy I must have looked as if I was about to give a lovers kiss. He said, very softly:
“I wouldn’t waste your energy. I am already dead. Maybe tomorrow we can be enemies. Perhaps today we could be friends.”
“Terry.” I said after a long defiant pause. I held out my hand. The German shook it.
“You speak excellent English which is a bloody good job as I don’t speak a word of German apart from Kaiser and Sauerkraut.”
“That won’t get you very far in Germany.” Ernst said.
“That’s ok. I won’t ever go to Germany. I have no interest in leaving my country.”
“You are in France right now.”
“Alright smart arse. Quite forgot. Mud here looks the same as in Blighty.”
We lay mostly silent. His injury was a bayonet wound. I didn’t press him to talk by talking myself. We lay still looking into darkness. The only comfort I could give him was the sound of my breathe which I tried to regulate so he could slow his down. I so wanted to hold his hand but worried he might think me a gay.
“How long do you think we’ve been here?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Does it matter? Time doesn’t exist in the trenches. Tomorrow might be yesterday for all I know. Five minutes? Eight hours?” Those were his final words before his breathing stopped. I swear I heard a feint, hoarse laugh.
I wept. I missed the sound of his breathing. I missed the simple friendship. I had nothing now but the outside sound of shells and gun fire. I held his hand now that it didn’t matter but it was too cold. We had given all the comfort we had to give.
I would have stayed under that boat if hadn’t become suddenly aware of its temporary nature. Sooner or later it would be turned back up by a Brit or a German or blown to bits by a shell. Either way I thought it best to wait for the sound of gunfire and then melt back into the battle so I could return to the trench.
My steps were weak and floundering in the mud as I began ascending the shallow bank. A mist had descended on the battlefield. The gun fire sounded the same whichever direction it came from. I stood up straight to look for my oppos. I think I must have been circling round the boat for hours completely disorientated. A figure appeared at the top of the bank. With hindsight I think he probably had lost his footing and was falling rather than charging at me. I didn’t have time to cock my weapon. It was enough to recognise he was the enemy. I lifted my rifle weakly, the butt resting on the bow of the boat. The figure slid onto my bayonet like butter. My first kill.
We knelt in the mud. His eyes fixed on mine, the last face he would see. I pushed him off my weapon. I couldn’t stand to feel the crepitus of his ribs against my bayonet. He fell sliding backwards as, almost like the gates of hell, the side of the boat swallowed him up and at the last minute I recognised the face of the only German I had ever met.
“Time doesn’t exist in the trenches. Tomorrow might be yesterday for all I know…….
“Maybe tomorrow we can be enemies….”
Time is never loyal to any man.