by Tony Noland
Blue skies and sunlight meant pain and death. When the mud between the trenches dried enough to walk on, they would be ordered up and out. They always went across on the second sunny day. If they waited until the third, the ground would be firm enough for one of Jerry's armoured autos to drive forward to meet them. The best days were days like today - moderately cool, with just enough drizzle to keep the mud wet and just enough breeze to make gas cannisters too chancey.
Dennis MacDonald lifted his helmet off of a femur that was sticking out of the wall of the forward trench. He stepped onto the stack of ammunition boxes and joined Thomas Glover at the number five machine gun nest.
"Mornin', Tom," he said. "Beautiful day."
Glover looked up at the gray sky and nodded. "True enough, Denny, true enough. Be sunny tomorrow, though." He blinked the rain out of his eyes, then lowered his gaze again to the mists over the mud.
"Don't be glum, chum. War'll be over any day now. Just need a bit of luck is all." MacDonald smiled at his mess mate.
"Damn you and your bit of luck," Glover replied evenly. He looked at what MacDonald was carrying and said, "I'm all topped up in the jacket. You makin' tea?"
"Aye. Leaves at the ready and plenty for all." MacDonald carefully set both of his large, empty canteens on the crate next to him. He leaned forward and closed the feed valves on the cooling jacket around the barrel. "It's decent China black. No lemon nor biscuits, I'm afraid."
"Just tea for me, thanks. Last night's stew was not a good 'un."
MacDonald nodded. It was all well and good for the lying old tars and swabbies to tell stories of rat puddings cooked onboard ships in the old navy. For last night's mess, James Witherfield had tried to make a stew from the filthy little buggars. It had made them all sick at both ends for hours afterwards. Long into the night, as they all were groaning and shitting, they discussed the matter. Were ship rats cleaner than trench rats, or were good British rats cleaner than these whorish French rats? They'd not come to a conclusion.
"Going to give warning?" Glover asked.
"Seems the civil thing to do." MacDonald cleared his throat and called out in a paradeground voice, "Hoy! Jerry! I say, Jerry there!"
After a moment, a thin voice could just be heard shouting back from the other side. "Ja? Was willst du, Engländer?"
MacDonald bellowed back, "I'm making tea! Just making tea! You savvy, Jerry? Tea!"
The mist was quiet. Then, "Verdammt ist, eine teekanne, arschloch!"
Glover chuckled softly. "Fuckin' Jerrys. Maybe he'd like we should pop round to the bakers for a tray of tarts, too?"
"Oh, it never hurts to be polite, Tom. A run of 200 rounds should be the thing. Do remember to aim low, eh? Manners is the foundation of society, after all." MacDonald smiled again as he put his fingers in his ears.
"Good manners above all," Glover replied. He closed the flaps on his earmuffs and gripped the handles of the machine gun to angle it slightly downward.
An explosive roar ripped from the gun. A long belt flew in the right hand side. The tinkling of empty shells and shell clips into the canvas receiving bag joined the thudding of lead into the mud fifty yards ahead. For more than a minute it went on. The sudden silence when Glover took his finger off the trigger was jarring.
MacDonald held his large canteen up to the exit hose on the water jacket. He opened the exit valve and let a stream of scalding water flow into the first canteen, then repeated the procedure with the second. When MacDonald finished, Glover was ready with the large can of reserve cooling water. He put the end of the exit hose into the can, then squeezed the rubber hand pump a few times to force the water up into the jacket. The barrel made angry little popping sounds as the cool water refilled the jacket and circulated around it. From across the field, a brief string of curses was rained upon them; neither man could hear them.
MacDonald took out a large mug from his coat pocket and filled it with hot tea from the first canteen. He passed it to Glover, who took it with a nodded thanks before he returned his eyes to the field.
Under the stink of cordite, mud and latrine, MacDonald thought he could just smell the tea. He climbed back down into the trench. It was going to be a nice day.