FIRST TIMER'S LUCK
by Vanessa Gebbie
Here, on the bank, (keep your head low) they have mined. Anti-personnel. Anti-tank. Not long ago. Here... and here.... you can see the signs. A clod of grass jerked and thrown, some divot to catch an unthinking player.
Last week, (and this was before the orders came for the bridge) we were surveying the low field half a mile back, that lay furrowed still in the evening light, below the riverbank. There was a farmhouse, red tiled, ochre walls, peeling, a weathervane rusted and swinging. A high whine on the breeze.
Harry was the First Timer that day. There's always a First Timer. Its for good luck. Goes back to something before Monte Cassino.
That day, we needed to clear a road, fast, to get the Bailey stuff through quick. They'd blown the main road bridge two miles to the south. On this occasion, my Number Two, Frank Davies, had a sudden bout of the runs. Poor sod. Into his boots before he could say sorry for the stink. And this young lad, can't even remember his name now... (you switch in and out of names) volunteered to carry the gear for the surveyors. James. That was it. Usual warnings, usual briefings.
Like small boxes, now, anti-personnel mines. Well, some of them.
Then, they were dug into the verges, which had grown up and over the old tarmac, cracking it. Easy to dig in these things. After about an hour and a half, we stopped for a break. James stood by the roadside, looking at the bloody view as though this was a holiday. He stood, shading his eyes, weight on one foot, pointing out the layers of colour fading into the distance the farmhouses, the tall dark trees, shifting from one foot to the other, on a patch we'd already cleared. What was it? I don't know. He moved. His foot sank a half inch, maybe a bit more, into the soil, with a gob of tarmac lifting over his boot.
I said, very quietly, -Dont move, there's a lad.- He went to turn with a smile, and I put my hand out flat, shook my head. There, under his boot, was a flat circle in the mud, maybe ten inches across. We'd missed one. How? I'll never know. Maybe the lad was already standing close with the gear, and the men worked round him.
He stood like Jesus, with this smile on his face. A gentle, unbearable smile. Stretched out his hand. It's OK, he said. I'll be fine.
He was standing standing on the thing. Weight shifted. His weight on the mine. To release the pressure was the trigger. What must have gone through that smile? No legs, guts spilt, would it hurt? And he smiled, and just stepped off.
And nothing happened.
The luck of the First Timer.
In the field, there are furrows, and nearer the farm, someone has been digging pits, maybe for dumping a rotten crop, to dig it back in. I'm no farmer, I don't know.
Harry was the First Timer that day.
Nineteen. -From Bethnal Green-, he was telling me, as we walked up and down the furrows, spotting the prongs of metal from S mines like we were spotting sparrows, marking them for the men.
We needed to clear right up to the farm buildings. They were already selected as storage for the bridge pieces. -Bethnal Green-, he was saying, his glasses glinting, his fringe cropped short, the pale stripe round the back of his neck where the barber had exposed un- tanned skin.
-Bethnal green is nice. The cinema is good. We go on Fridays, a big gang of us. Do you like films?-
I was about to say no, I didn't have time for those things, when he slipped. He'd walked just to the side, round a rusty old piece of machinery, and slipped. This pit, one the farmer had dug, had steep sides, almost as though it was a shell hole in soft earth. Harry had slid down, was sliding down, the soil damp, only five foot or so down but enough, and where his foot was going, a ten inch circle, flat. He fell, the slide stopped, and there was Harry, one foot on the circle, like fate was coming back for another bite.
-Sorry-, he said, and smiled, looking down at his boot, then up at me, the sun flashing on his glasses.
-Don't move, son,- I said. He looked up at me, holding his hands over the edge of the pit. He could bloody well pull himself out with my help.
I took three steps back. AWAY from him.
He was like Jesus, with this smile on his face. A gentle, unbearable smile. Stretched out his hand. -It's OK, he said. -I'll be fine.-
I took another step back.
-Did you say you liked films?- he said. -There's a very good cinema in Bethnal Green.-
I smiled, and said -Oh yes, films are great, we often go on a Friday.-
The author is a journalist and lives in the UK with her family. She has had short stories accepted for publication here, in Buzzwords, Smokelong Quarterly, Flash Me, and Cadenza magazines. She studies with the author Alex Keegan. Contact Vanessa.