Look Both Ways
They say that nothing grows in No Man’s Land, but that’s a lie. My comrades are out there; their ghosts growing up out of the shell-shocked earth; their souls wandering eternally across the barren desert of blood, mud and wire.
A shell screeches overhead and I don’t even flinch. It’s not that I’m not afraid; it’s just something about seeing your best friend die beside you that changes a man. Rupert was the most cheerful of us all and he was taken first.
‘Look both ways’ he always said whenever we went over the top. It was the one day he ignored his own advice, when he looked back to make sure I was following him, and an explosion blew him clean away. The only thing left were his boots, rooted in the slick mud.
I reach into my jacket pocket and find the remnants of a bar of chocolate that Rupert’s mum sent me. My own mother left my father and me before I had even started school and Flora had sort of adopted me, treating me like a second son.
Attempting to blow some heat into my hands, I pull my coat tighter around me, and feel the wriggle of lice as I temporarily disturb them from their resting places. In my hand I hold Rupert’s last letter, from his mother, ‘wishing her boys a very happy Christmas.’
As I stare blankly down at the letter, a couple of wet spots appear and I think that I must have been crying. A shove to my shoulder makes me look up, and instead of seeing the air full of flying earth, white snow begins to fall. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I have seen out here, and it takes my breath away.
It takes me a while to register suddenly what is different, and then it hits me; the guns have stopped. For the first time in years, silence descends over this pockmarked landscape.
His voice was soft at first, then became more confident as it found its way across the snow.
“Hey, play football?”
I was confused at, the staccato English broken by the German accent.
It came again, more insistent, more confident.
“Hey, football. We play.”
No four words had ever felt more out of place to me in that moment, and yet I found myself drawn out of my reverie and merged with my comrades as we poked our heads out of the trenches and found ourselves greeted by faces very similar to ours.
They were no more than boys as were we, they easily could have been Rupert and me, just from a different time and place.
Both sides approached warily, the settling snow blanketing the ground, covering any traces of death and blood and giving a pure white finish.
I reached out my hand and a German shook it. He grinned at me and I found myself smiling back.
“We play, for Christmas.” He said, his head bobbing enthusiastically.
And that was how, at Christmas in No Man’s Land, boys who had been forced to become men, became boys again and played a game of football.
Merry Christmas Rupert.