The Signal

by Fiona Fox

The Signal.

The last of the daylight surrenders to the thick dusk that smothers the land

The signal's just been given. That's it now, 'over the top'. It's not my first time, but it always feels like it. It's a strange feeling waiting for the signal. We have talked about it many nights; how every time we hope it's the last. But each time I clamber my way up the crumbling side of the trench I blink a silent prayer. Arthur went over the top for the last time four weeks ago. I got a letter from him yesterday. He said that it was weird being home, but that his new baby was keeping him busy. George went over for the last time on Tuesday. We buried him today.

The troop are slumped like deflated balloons

The signal's just been given. Somehow we muster energy. It begins in our feet, moves up our legs, straightening, forcing the torso up off the ground. Life pulses through the body and without questioning our actions, we're scrambling up the side of the steep trench. The cold soil beneath my fingers brings me out of the trance. The freshness of the air slaps my face as I emerge out of the stale trench. That's when the questions start. My father had been unlucky enough to survive the first war. He said that once you were out of the trench the questions never stopped. I think I now know what he meant.

The ground is thick with crimson mud

The signal was given a long time ago now. My ears are ringing from the sudden silence. The gunfire stopped. I don't know when. I don't know how long the quiet has laid over me. There's a slow steam rising, picked out by the moonlight, as if the ground is sighing a relief. I wonder now in the peace, if God will forgive me for the blood of five men on my bayonet.

I watch the murky clouds slide across the stars and feel the earth growing cold underneath my back. As I drift in and out of sleep, lulled by the groans of the men around me (are mine in that chorus too?) the questions begin to burn through my mind, just like the bullets of machine guns tear through the flesh of the enemy. I fall asleep considering my actions today. Kill or be killed. I dream of the men whose lives I let drip out of them.

The sun rises on a new morning, running its warming rays across the world

Bags are packed. We have a quick breakfast. It's not yet 4 am; eating this early makes me queasy. Few of the troop speak. Those that do are cracking jokes and playing around. Not many of us are laughing though. I have time to change my socks before we start our march heading towards a new trench, leaving punctured balloons behind us and taking our questions with us.

The road we take was once used by farmers when they walked their herds from field to field. It's a fairly narrow track, just enough for us to walk two abreast. The path isn't used that often anymore, you can tell by how much the grass has overgrown it. In the breeze, the green blades look like fingers clawing at the track, reclaiming the land. On either side of the track are trees, but the dense forest isn't a worry, we know the enemy isn't in this area. The trees here are our allies, sheltering us from the eyes of the enemy, and from the already burning sun.

Spirits are lifting and the war, for now, is forgotten. As we walk along the path, Bergen's on our backs like rucksacks, and the sun so high and the sky coloured with the noise of birds, I feel like a young boy on an adventure with friends. It's too hot to wear our helmets, so they swing at our sides, jam jars for frog spawn. I think how nice it would be to stop at the lake ahead, indicated on the map, but the rat packs would soon shatter that fantasy; not quite the jam sarnies we used to take on picnics as kids. Someone up at the front starts singing and we all join in; schoolboys on a Saturday expedition. I stepped on the land mine just as we reached the chorus.

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