Since it’s Armistice Day, I suppose I ought to do something a little more, well, serious, or atmospheric, than usual. I searched for a title from the idiomatic.com generator, which is a brilliant and surreal mash up of idioms, and found this, to give you around 850 words.
The Second Mouse Costs Lives
Trench 79 was a dismal place to be at the best of times.
“Oi, Carter,” said Tommy. “Whassat yor readin’?”
“Hey, wot the Dickens?” Tommy laughed, and went along the line, saying the same thing over and over. The men closest, who’d heard Carter’s reply, smiled, although they didn’t know what Dickens was, although it might be a comic, if Carter was reading it. The men further along just ignored him, as usual.
“What’s up then, Tommy?”
“Oh, jus’ somethin’ Carter said, Sarj.”
“Carter said Wot the Dickens? Not like him. He just swears, normally.”
“It was somethin’ ‘e woz readin’, Sarj.”
It was a five minute wonder, at best, the Dickens incident, but when Carter started reading bits to them in the quiet times, between the shelling, the men steadily moved closer, huddling for warmth, companionship and to hear better.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” They usually made him start with that at every reading, even though it only led the first chapter in the book. It became a macabre game to play.
“What’s the best of times today, then?”
“Morning or afternoon?”
“”cos the shelling won’t start till dark.”
With nothing else to talk about except mud, foot rot, and rats, little diversions were welcome. Especially since nobody wanted to think about the world they’d left behind. Most didn’t believe anymore that there was anything other than mud, foot rot and rats, except shelling, lice and fear.
The day that a mouse appeared in the Sergeant’s corner created a wave of interest. Where had it come from, what did it eat, was it dirtier or cleaner than rats? And even, was it tasty? By general agreement, the last question was not put to the test. Grains or seeds found on the ground were carefully saved to feed to it, since it took happily to Tommy’s pocket and came out at times when the men were just lounging around, too wrecked from the horrors of the night to do anything other than clean their rifles.
“What’s ‘is name, Tommy?”
“‘cos she’s little an’ friendly.”
“How d’you know it’s girl?”
Tommy showed him, and he blushed. The questioner was a London boy, and he’d not had contact with too many animals, except rats and pigeons, and he’d never looked closely at either. He’d been hoping that when he got home, one special girl might be proud enough of him to marry him, but he never thought much about going home anymore.
“Are you going to take it with you when we go over the top,Tommy?”
Tommy didn’t answer. Bertha tended to leave him when the shelling was on, in their direction, at any rate, and also when he was leaning up against the parapet, shooting blindly into the midnight fog. One morning she’d crept back to him, scampering up his bootleg and into his sleeve. She was nestled in his armpit right now, and he was hoping she’d eat some of the lice for him. But he’d seen the hole she’d come out of, and wondered where it led.
Bertha’s mother had lived in a hole in the meadow before the trenches had come. Bertha had been born in a strange between world, the trenches above and the tunnels below. None of the soldiers above knew about the tunnels, although the tunnellers knew all about the trenches, and had to make sure they were both deep enough to avoid them, but shallow enough to eavesdrop on the trenches of the other side. Bertha had visited both sets of people, finding the tunnellers quieter, but the trenchers more easily able to feed her. She had narrowly escaped death on numerous occasions, whether from trampling, digging, roof collapse, flood or poison gas. She had not been in the part of the field that received the poison gas attack.
The strange mouse she encountered in the tunnel had. He was a sorry sight, hair mostly burnt away, lesions on his eyes and ears, and his whiskers permanently damaged, so he had trouble finding his way around, until he met Bertha.
In order to explain his injuries to her, he took her across to his old haunts, burrowing through the heavy clay for a couple of days until they reached the devastated area. She took one look and returned to the relative safety of Tommy’s armpit.
The strange mouse returned more slowly, coughing once more, and his eyes smarting. He never made it across the tunnellers’ domain.
The gas seeped through the burrowed passage, filling up the tunnel and trapping the men in a pocket of air at the far end. They did valuable work for the war, but they never returned. As the tunnel filled, it found the outlet from Bertha’s passage, and started its inexorable way along the connection from the tunnel to trench.
It was slow, but it was poison.
For Tommy, Carter and the rest, it was definitely the worst of times. The second mouse cost their lives. What a stupid way to go.
But then, maybe better than ‘going over the top.’
© J M Pett 2016