“Ready?” I held the rope while Mary gripped it with her hands and legs.
“Ready!” she giggled, her lovely green eyes sparkling.
I let go and she swung out over the pond, shrieking now. She hung above the water for a split second then returned.
“Jump!” I yelled.
“No fear!” she yelled back.
And so she swung over the pond again, not getting so far this time. On her return, the distance was even less, and after a short while the swinging stopped altogether. She was still holding on to the rope, dangling from a branch of the grand old oak tree on the margin.
“Help!” she bleated, but she was enjoying herself.
“Hang on!” I laughed.
I removed my shoes and socks and rolled up my trousers. I was expecting shallow water but what I put my foot into was a few inches of water and deep mud. I lost my balance immediately and fell face-down.
Mary was observing my pathetic attempt at rescue and started cackling at the top of her lungs, which made her lose her grip. She dropped into the water with a mighty splash and squelch.
Covered in mud, we got to our feet and waded towards each other, but the mud betrayed us again and we fell into each other’s arms, rolling in the water and mud and chortling like infants.
It’s funny what you remember. Mary and I had so many other magical moments together — our first dance, our first kiss, our walks hand-in-hand, that time we took shelter from the rain in a barn and made love there — but now the moment that pops into my mind ahead of all the others is that silly afternoon at the pond, and our embrace in the water and mud.
“Aim for their heads, lads.”
The captain’s words were unnecessary really — all we could see of them were a few helmets, poking up from the trench 80 yards away across the deathly-grey mud.
Mud. It seemed like that was all there was. Mud around our feet, around our legs in places, on the sides of the trenches, stretching out between our lines and theirs. A field of mud where a few years ago a farmer would have led his horse and plough, where rich crops must have grown, where happy farm-workers would have harvested the fruits of nature and their labour. Now it was just mud — stinking, sucking, treacherous mud.
We’d gone over twice in two days; I had a fever — not serious enough to get sent back to the field hospital, but bad enough to get excused from the push. I lay on my bunk, listening to the shells, then the whistles, then the machine guns, then the screams.
It felt like a part of my feverish imaginings. On the third day, though, when I came through the fever, I asked after my mates: all the platoon were gone, scythed down by the guns, some swallowed by the mud. All but two of them that is: as soon as they clambered out of the trench, Percy was hit in the shoulder, Wilf in the leg — lucky wounds. They were out of it, at least for a few months.
But now I was fit and was expected to do my duty. And so we waited by the ladders in the mud, with shells booming into the enemy lines and the captain barking his orders. There were prayers, photos kissed, nervous jokes … then the whistles and shouts, and we were over the top.
The air was singing with bullets. We waded through the mud and it sucked at our ankles and it sucked at our legs. So many men were falling around me, as if a young boy had grown bored with his tin soldiers and was knocking them over. But still the captain blew his whistle: On! On!
I found a muddy shell-hole, full of water, and dived in; I briefly imagined Mary at the pond, looking down on me from the rope, but then stark reality erased that sweet vision. I heard the bullets hissing past and hitting flesh and bone close by, and I heard the screams; some of them were mine.
Dazed and terrified by the hellish mayhem, by this hell on earth, I slithered out of the hole and began to crawl through the slow, slick mud. I was disoriented and could have been crawling towards the enemy lines; I might have been called a hero. But it was back towards our trenches that I crawled, perhaps drawn subconsciously by the pull of my home, and Mary. Of course, the captain hadn’t ordered a retreat.
Here I am, then, in a muddy compound behind our lines. They offered me a blindfold and I accepted it. In the blackness, I want to think good, happy thoughts, so I focus on my times with Mary, and that silly afternoon at the pond. And Mary’s eyes.
Her lovely green eyes.