Sappers by PJ Stephenson

Your lamp-lit shadows passed each other five minutes before the explosion. As always, with a flash of white teeth, Rhys said to you, “See ya soon, Owen, boyo.”  Those were probably his last words.

Your first reflex was to cower like a hare in a scrape as warm wind showered you with black, funereal confetti. Your second reflex was to run back. But, where the tunnel should have continued, you met only a dense, lifeless mass of dirt.

It took three days to reach the bodies.

Death had always been close at hand. Your mother died giving birth to you; your Pa was killed four years later by a sniper’s bullet in the Transvaal. You grew up with Gran, a hard woman who struggled to shake off consumption and grief and never left The Valleys all her long, difficult life. You remember her small, bent frame perpetually wracked by coughing fits. She’d sit for hours by the fireside, staring at the flames, wrapped in an old rabbit-skin stole and an invisible shawl of sickness and fatigue. She was bitter and frustrated but invincible and formidable, and she always managed to find the strength to discipline you in your father’s name – often with your grandfather’s belt. Maybe she felt she had to maintain the domestic order her husband established before he died in a collapsing pit.

You loved her and hated her in equal measure.

Rhys was not a relative but he was all the family you needed – and the closest of all. You were born within four weeks of each other in identical terraced houses in the same street. You shared surnames and classrooms. You played football together every lunchtime and truanted together once a week. You roamed the streets and the country lanes like a pair of stray dogs, yelping and scrapping, urinating against walls. You’d smoke used cigarette butts, climb trees and go scrumping for apples. You left school the same day and went to work at the same colliery. Every evening for years you went home with your faces covered in the same black coal dust.

When war broke out, it was only logical that you would join up together. They wanted miners to dig under the German lines so you became sappers in a tunnelling company of the Royal Engineers. You were soon sent to France.

It was scary at first, even for hardened miners. There were regular cave-ins at the narrow, claustrophobic ends of the shafts. But you soon got used to it. And deep in the dark, damp earth of the Somme it was safer and quieter than the trenches above, where Boche shells churned mud and muck and men into one great mire of stench.

Some tentacles of your winding underground labyrinth extended out to dead ends, where you heaped rubberized bags of ammonal explosive. Lighting the fuse, you created a huge, belching subterranean beast that hungrily swallowed men and horses, machines and guns. Sometimes you heard enemy sappers through the walls as your excavations converged and you raced to blow their tunnel before they blew yours. One time they even broke in and sent soldiers through to shoot at you.

It was a dangerous, crazy, exhausting existence.

You worked even harder after Rhys was killed. You dug like a mad mole, knowing every shovel movement, every bayonet stab, hacked you ever closer to your brother’s enemy.

You were above ground – smoking a cigarette and sipping lukewarm, petrol-flavoured tea – when one of the sappers stuck his head out of the shaft. “Hey, Owen, we’ve found one!” You scurried quickly through the well-trodden warren, pushing past the hordes of regular soldiers operating bellows and lugging sandbags to the surface. For the last few hundred yards you had to run hunched over like chimpanzees.

At the far end a man was crouched with his ear to the chalky wall, watched by an expectant huddle of your comrades. In the glare of a dozen headlamps he raised a dirty thumb and you quickly and quietly planted the ammonal.

But not quickly or quietly enough.

You had barely started work when your world went white with noise then black with mud.

You’re lying down. Earth envelops you, tomb-like, pressing hard on your chest and suffocating your face. Your right leg is twisted and hurts like hell. You manage to get one hand free to wipe soil from your mouth and nose but it doesn’t help. You can’t see anything and the air is thick, heavy, low on oxygen. All you can hear is the ringing in your ears. Your head throbs.

If the German dynamite collapsed as much of our mine as the last time, the lads won’t be able to reach you quickly enough.

You scream – a long guttural roar that is both a cry for help and a venting of anger and despair. It makes you cough so much you almost pass out.

You stifle the urge to sob.

Is this how Rhys spent his last hours: crushed below tons of French soil, breathing shallowly the rancid, expiring air? You want to think it isn’t; but you know it is.

You must be brave. For him. In memory of him. In solidarity with him…

Into the nothingness you speak your last words. “See ya soon, Rhys, boyo.”

You are numb all over. It’s hard to breathe.

You feel dizzy, as if you’re on a boat, bobbing on waves. You want to sleep.

You drift in and out of consciousness.

A face stares down at you. It is Rhys. You want to say hello but your throat is too dry.

You have a terrible cramp in your leg. The knot in the muscle moves outside your body, squeezing you physically.

Light. The face again. It isn’t Rhys – it’s one of the other sappers. He opens and closes his mouth but you can’t hear anything over the ringing in your ears.

Darkness once more.

Then a flicker of light.

You are floating. Hands are on your shoulders and legs.

More light. You cough.

You feel the cold, damp floor of the tunnel on your back, then you’re helped into a sitting position. A cup of water is pressed to your lips. You sip, cough, sip again. The cool liquid slips down your throat.

Men bundle you onto a strip of tarpaulin. Ghostly patterns of light flicker on the ceiling as you bounce through the shaft. You feel the breath of the panting stretcher-bearer on your face. Then suddenly you’re outside in the cool night air.

Stars twinkle in an ebony sky; they twirl and spin as you zig-zag through the trenches on your back. You inhale deeply and smell cordite, faeces, and decomposing flesh. You start to feel a tingling in your right leg. It quickly turns to pain – sharp, intense pain. Your body is slowly coming back to life.

Sensations wash over you. You revel in the beauty of the Milky Way, savour the odours, embrace the pain.

You can see. You can breathe. You can feel.

But you are leaving Rhys behind. A knot forms in your stomach. Two German mines tore you apart, ripping the umbilical cord that held you together for more than two decades. And you are alone for the first time in your life.

How would he feel? He’d be happy for you, you know he would. You can picture him now, with a smile creasing his dust-covered face, saying, “See ya, Owen, boyo.”

Through dry, cracked lips you mutter, “See ya, Rhys, boyo.”

“Are you alright, sir?” says the medical orderly. “Were you trying to say something?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.”

The stretcher-bearers’ boots squelch in the mud and tears wash the dirt from your face.

PJ Stephenson is a British writer living near Geneva, Switzerland with his wife and Parson Russell Terrier.  He has had several short stories published, more recent work appearing in Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum Magazine, Dream Catcher, Flash Fiction Magazine,, SickLitMagazinedotcom and the summer 2015 anthology Murder in the Sun (Select).

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