Wearing leather jerkins, their faces blackened with burnt cork, Atkins, Gutsy and Porgy, made their way past scurrying rats to the fire bay, where Hobson and Ketch were waiting for them.
There was a faint fwoosh as an enemy flare went up. It burnt a stark white, casting deep shadows on the wall of the trench that wobbled and tilted as the flare drifted down, until at last they ate up the last of the light and filled the trench again.
‘Gazette’ Otterthwaite and ‘Pot Shot’ Jellicoe were on sentry duty. Even in the dim light it was hard to miss Pot Shot. He was a large man, a shade over six foot, tallest man in the Battalion; the only man who had to crouch when stood on the firestep less his head present a tempting target for German snipers.
Gazette was up on the firestep on sentry duty, Pot Shot was sat on the step beside him, slumped against the side of the bay snoring gently, his rifle clasped to his chest like a loved one. Gazette glanced down at them and kicked Pot Shot awake.
“All right, lads?” he yawned.
That helped ease the queasy feeling in Atkins’ stomach. Gazette was the best sharp shooter in the platoon. If anyone was going to have your back on a Black Hand job you’d want it to be him.
There was a pile of equipment on the firestep by his feet.
“Right,” said Hobson, “take these.” He handed out pistols; Webley revolvers, usually reserved for officers but more practical in situations such as this, that called for stealth. They each had their own bayonet and there were two sets of long-armed wirecutters. Atkins and Porgy got those. Hobson also gave them each a grey military issue blanket that he instructed them to wear across their backs in the manner of a cloak.
“It’ll help disguise your outline against German flares. If a flare goes up, don’t move. You’ll want to throw yourself on the ground but don’t, they’ll spot the movement and you’re a goner. If you freeze you could be tree stump, a shadow or a body on the wire,” he told them. “We’re goin’out to cut the German wire in preparation for tomorrow. So we make sure we do the job properly or it’ll be us and our mates paying the price if we don’t. We also want to take a shufti and make sure Fritz isn’t planning any nasty surprises. Don’t worry, I’ll have you all back in time for the big show.”
“Thanks, Sar’nt. You’re a real pal,” said Gutsy.
“Time for a fag, Sar’nt?” asked Hopkiss, trying to delay the inevitable.
“No. Follow me. Stick to me like glue. No one talks but me. Make sure you stay within an arm’s length of the next fellow. If you get lost make your way back here. And make sure you dozy ha’porths don’t forget the password: Hampstead.”
Atkins checked his bayonet in its sheath. He checked the chambers of the Webley revolver. They were full. The pistol had a loop fastened to the handle, which he slipped round his wrist.
There being no sally port available, Hobson put a ladder up against the revetment and was about to step on the bottom rung when another flare went up. He stopped, waited for the flare to die out, before rolling over the sandbag parapet with practised ease. His arm appeared back over the bags signalling the next man up. Porgy was already on the ladder and climbing. Gutsy stepped on below him and began his climb. It was Atkins’ turn next. As he stepped on the bottom rung, he felt a hand pat this thigh.
“Good luck, mate,” said Gazette. Aktins smiled weakly. He could feel his heart lifting him fractionally from the ladder with every beat as he lay against the rungs. He hadn’t felt a funk like this since that last night with Flora.
“Cheers. I’ll be back for breakfast.”
Above him, Gutsy froze, waiting for the light to die. Atkins looked up. All he could see was Gutsy’s big, round khaki-covered arse eclipsing everything. Blood let one rip and looked down between his legs, grinning.
“Fuck’s sakes, Gutsy!” hissed Gazette. “At least with the yellow cross we get a warning. Where’s me bloody gas helmet?”
A hiss rasped from over the parapet. “Get a move on, you two!”
Puffing, Gutsy rolled over the sandbags with as much grace as a carcass in his old butcher’s shop.
Atkins reached the top of the ladder. The nightscape before him never failed to chill him to the core. No Man’s Land. It was a contradiction in terms. You were never alone in No Man’s Land. During the day it was quiet, with generally nothing but the odd buzz of a sniper’s bullet cutting low over the ground or the crump of a Minniewerfer to disturb it. At night, though, it became a hive of activity; parties out repairing wire, laying new wire, digging saps, running reconnaissance, conducting trench raids. Both sides knew it. It was the most dangerous of times to be out and never dark for long, as flares burst in the air, momentarily illuminating bleak Futurist landscapes that left hellish after-images in the mind’s eye.
He saw Hobson and Porgy about four or five yards ahead, crawling along on their bellies. Gutsy was to his left. Atkins inched forward using his elbows and knees. The mud was cold and slimy and within a minute his entire front, from chin to toes, was soaked. He and Gutsy made their way to where Sergeant Hobson and Porgy were waiting. About twenty yards ahead, they could make out the vague unearthly shapes of their own wire entanglements. Sergeant Hobson indicated a piece of soiled, white tape in the mud that led them to the gap in their own wire.
Now they truly were in No Man’s Land.
- No Man's World Book 1: Black Hand Gang, Chapter 2 "All the Wonders of No Man's Land"