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1916-ish

Sample

Sample

Chapter One

THESE blue woollen pants are so itchy they may as well be made from steel wool. Every step I take scrapes my skin. Bet I break out in a rash. Stupid skin. Stupid over-sensitive, magnet-for-allergies skin.
It won’t do any good to scratch. But it will feel so good. Quick check, nobody’s watching. If I can time my step right and rub it just like . . . ah!
We squeeze past another group of men standing in this clay-walled trench, looking like soldiers. They are soldiers. I mean, soldiers from World War One. Pretending to be, at any rate. We’re here for a re-enactment to celebrate the centenary of something called the Battle of the Sum and all I can think about is how much I want to scratch my thigh.
This re-enactment is all about being authentic, so my horizon blue wool trousers are made of real wool.
I know!
Just thinking about how much I itch is making everything else itch. I can’t scratch my head because I have a helmet on and all my crazy ginger hair is smooshed up inside it. That’s right, I’m ginger. Deal with it.
If I take the helmet off, I’ll never get my hair back in there. Maybe Marianne can help me scratch this itch? Maybe she’s just as itchy? We could scratch each other’s backs. Oh, that spot just between my shoulder blades that I can never reach and which is burning now.
Marianne’s walking ahead of me, marching along. The trenches are built like a hedge maze, only made of mud instead of . . . hedges I guess. We’re doing this experience together, along with her brother Luc.
Wow, a whole couple minutes without thinking about Luc. I swear I am getting better at trying to ignore him.
The rifle on my shoulder weighs a ton. If we could just stop walking for a moment I could lean it down here against the wall and stretch out my shoulder.
Marianne turns back and gives me a look that could be sympathy and says in her gorgeous French accent, ‘We will be in place soon, Ingrid. A bit of running. A bit of mud. Then tomorrow we spend the day at a spa.’
I’m looking forward to that massage and facial tomorrow as I shift the heavy rifle on my shoulder. Why is this weapon so heavy? Probably made of lead. Probably giving me lead poisoning just by holding it.
I can’t help it. I’m going to have to sneak another ogle at Luc, who is a few paces ahead of Marianne. Never thought I’d go for the ‘man in uniform’ look but in this case I’ll make an exception. He turns me into a mental case just thinking about him. And I’m supposed to treat him like a brother? Ha!
It’s my own stupid fault for reading Anna and the French Kiss before I boarded the plane.
Have I taken my Ritalin this morning?
Marianne and Luc are my sister and brother while I’m here on exchange. Would I follow my real brother, if I had one, into battle? Hell to the no! I don’t even follow Dad into the mock battles he signs up for back home, when he and his mates bring the Eureka Stockade back to life. He would love this so hard. Can’t wait to tell him all about it.
I’m no history nerd. I’m simply embracing a cultural experience walking through these genuine trenches from history. History is culture. The best way to learn about culture is to fully embrace it, right? That’s what Luc had said. Or maybe Marianne had said it. OK someone said it and I agreed to it. Luc and Marianne wanted to be here and who am I to be the handbrake?
I remember learning something about World War One at school. All about the ANZAC spirit and mateship. But that was all about a place called Gallipoli, and I don’t think that’s anywhere around here. I don’t remember learning about this battle we’re doing. Luc said it was one of the biggest and bloodiest messes of the war. They should have taught us that at school, right? Maybe they did and I was looking out the window.
Why do schools have windows if they don’t want us to look out?
What was I? Oh yeah. We’re bringing the war back all of it in sanitised detail. A few hundred cosplay geeks in a field.
Here’s something you don’t learn in a history book: the smell. The clay here is definitely not the same as the stuff I’m used to handling in the school art room. It’s mouldy. Like wet compost and sewage. The sooner I’m out of this trench the better.
We’ve reached the end of the standing soldiers, there’s a space here so we stop marching and take our positions. Finally, I can rest the rifle and scratch my thigh.
Bliss!
‘Revue!’ a man calls out from further down. He’s a big stretch of a bloke, looks like he’s been ducking under doorways from age twelve. The beacon-red cap on his head makes him the perfect target. Is it authentic? I’ll look it up when we get home. A bright red cap on such a tall man would be suicide in a real war.
Maybe people weren’t so tall in the olden days?
He’s talking too fast. Time for my default-confused face and Marianne translates for me. ‘Inspection time, he wants to make sure the guns are not loaded. It’s the only difference between this and the real thing.’
‘Keeping it real.’ I can’t help giggling. This is maximum surreal. There was one of those old-time aeroplanes parked in the field when we arrived. It looked like a death trap.
‘Shhh.’ Luc looks our way and gives us a frown to share. ‘Be serious.’
Whenever someone tells me off, I feel a bit sick. I hate being told off. Some days I feel like all I do is get told off. I don’t even need to know the language, the tone is enough.
Oh man, what is that smell? Are people smoking? Probably authentic nineteen-sixteen cancer sticks judging from the caustic stench. Just one more thing I hadn’t counted on in my exchange visit–so many people in France smoke! LOL! Exploding irony gland, two of the smokers have gas masks hanging around their necks.
I can’t help shaking my head at a stray thought. Mum gave me ‘the talk’ before I left home for France. Home for me is Melbourne, Australia. I should miss it more. I really should. Top of my parents’ fears for me coming here were horny French boys. That went double for my host family. ‘No matter how good-looking he is, you must treat Luc like a brother,’ Mum had told me. They also made me to promise not to smoke. The first of their fears has taken care of itself; Luc isn’t the slightest bit interested in me. The smokers on the other hand are impossible to avoid. What do they put in those reekful cigarettes? Tarmac?
The officer in his distinctive red cap inspects Luc’s weapon, then inserts a rubber bayonet on the tip.
‘How come you’re allowed to have a fake blade and we’re not allowed to wear jeans?’ Jeans are my new idea of freedom. Has anyone noticed me scratching about? If I move my knee this way just a little . . . ah, so much better.
Luc rolls his eyes. So help me, I can’t help noticing how they glint gold and green in the sunlight. He and Marianne have the same sort of eyes and dusty brown hair. Not usually the combination I go for. I love the Henry Cavill super dark hair and blue eyes, but there’s something about Luc that makes my brain stammer.
‘We are trying to be as authentic as possible,’ Luc says. ‘You cannot wear denim because the soldiers didn’t.’ Then Luc translates the exchange for the ‘red cap’.
Authentic with a fair whack of fudging. Marianne and I both have long hair, but we’ve twisted it under our helmets to make us look more like boys. Swear to God, I am the least convincing boy in the universe judging by how tightly these pants fit across my very girly round arse. ‘Are we getting fleas next?’
Luc and the officer glare at me. There’s that twist of guilt in my stomach. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut?
The officer barks more orders in French and for the life of me I have no idea what he says. Time to hand over the Get Out Of Jail Free card.
‘Je suis Australien.’ I never tell anyone I’m British. Not that I’m lying when I say I’m Australian. I was born in Melbourne, so I’m totally Aussie. But Dad’s from Caerphilly and Mum’s from Bristol, so I could go either way. But it’s always better to say you’re Australian when you’re in France. Smoothes things over. Which is totally dumb because the French and the Brits were on the same side in both world wars.
I know!
‘Merveilleux!’ Red-cap-man gives me a smile and launches into a speech I don’t have a hope of understanding. He thumps me on the shoulder and says in English, ‘Enjoy your history,’ before moving on to the next group of soldiers.
‘What did he say?’
Luc gives me his fresh-out-of-braces grin, which gives me more of those not-very-sisterly thoughts. ‘He said his grandfather met many Australian soldiers. They were the bravest men on earth, next to us, of course. Now get ready, we go over the top in a few minutes. Don’t be scared, I’ll take care of you.’
I must remember Luc is my brother. I must remember Luc is my brother.
Oh wow, look at those birds. They're flying in ‘V’ formation, mimicking the bombers that will fill the skies in the war after this one.
I don’t think I did take my Ritalin.
So many Australians died in that war too, the one they made all the movies about.
Every time the sun comes out behind the clouds, it burns my head. The helmet conducts so much heat. Might not do much running after all. Might have a sip of water and take it easy. Ugh! The water is tainted. As much as I want the complete nineteen-sixteen soldier experience, a case of gastro is not on my list.
‘So, how do I fire this thing?’ I turn to Luc for instruction. He might show me how to hold it, maybe wrap his arms around my shoulders to demonstrate. Maybe a reprise of that moment a few days after I arrived when he suggested we use ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ and he looked at me so sweetly I could hardly breathe.
LOL, siblings. Luke and Leia much?
No such luck. Luc smiles but stands his ground. ‘It does not matter. You will not be firing it. Go one hundred meters and fall down. Play dead. The field ambulance will come and get you.’ Just as a brother might explain to his sister.
Mum has nothing to worry about on the randy French boys front.
‘Isn’t this exciting?’ Marianne says, ‘Much better than learning from a book.’
‘Yes and no. It’s mad exciting. But my feet are killing me. These pants are so itchy. Goddammit it’s driving me nuts.’
Luc gives me an unreadable look.
Something lurches in my belly.
A booming voice yells out something in French. Everyone around me stands to attention. Troops stomp down the trenches carrying wooden ladders that reach all the way to the top of the mud and timber walls. So that’s how we’re getting out!
Shrill whistles fill the air and bounce inside my head. Luc grabs the ladder and scrambles to the top, roaring a war cry.
Everyone is yelling and hollering. It’s contagious. Marianne gives me a salute and follows her brother. Her high-pitched girlie squeal is so out of place with all the deep male voices.
My turn now. I grab the ladder and immediately get a splinter. Pulling my hand back and sucking on it, a sweet, rusty taste fills my mouth.
A taste for blood.
I’m a soldier!
With a primal scream coming all the way from my boots, I scale the ladder and leap out onto the field. The sun is shining something glorious.
The ground is lumpy, my knees and ankles beg for mercy already. Oh great, my hair has come loose and the plait is thumping against my shoulders. No time to fix it, I’ll keep running.
Jogging, really.
In fact I might walk now because I’m puffed already and my tired legs have turned to wood.
The sound of men baying for blood fills my ears. Over to one side, a whole group of them have fallen down dead in unison. They make it look so believable.
‘Death to the enemy!’ Reckless enthusiasm fills me and I break into a jog again. Not enough to catch up with Luc and Marianne who are out in front. Nope, I have to walk again because I’m getting a cramp. Might play dead in a minute just so I can get my breath back. I am so not fit.
Shlock! My foot lands on soft ground and I overbalance. Don’t you hate that feeling like you’re falling over? You’ve got a pico-second to get your balance back or you’re in for a world of pain.
Why is it raining now? The sun was out a moment ago. Huh, I guess Melbourne isn’t the only place with four seasons in one day.
Luc and Marianne turn around, confusion all over their faces. They jog back to me but they’re moving in slow-time.
‘Did you feel that?’ Luc asks.
I have no idea what he means. Chunks of mud and clay are flying everywhere.
What is that reverberating noise? It’s a what? Someone is flying that plane? How did they even get it off the ground?
Soldiers’ screams are louder. Coldness seeps through me. Rain hammers wet bullets onto my head. Dank mud and decay burns my nostrils.
‘We’re going back,’ Marianne says. ‘We can start again when the weather clears.’
Luc and Marianne step closer to me. That plane comes in low overhead and we throw ourselves to the ground in panic.
A blink later they’re gone.
The world falls away.
Sharp burning pain rips through my leg. A guttural scream leaps out my throat. I’m too scared to look at my leg in case I’ve done something stupid. It feels broken but I haven’t even moved.
Why am I falling?
Face-first into mud. The uniform is probably ruined but I don’t care. The smell is so gag-worthy, I have to breathe through my mouth.
Don’t look at your leg. Don’t look at your leg.
Stupid twit, I look at my leg and can’t breathe for the shock of it. Cherry red blood oozes over my calf. The wool pants unravel at the wound site, revealing an ugly, ripped gash across my skin. It’s so painful I wish I could pass out, but I’m so cold and shivery I’m wide-awake. And the smell. Did I mention the smell?
The dumbest thing I could do right now? Get a closer look at it. Oh man, my leg is a mess!
There’s barbed wire all over the ground around me. I didn’t notice it before. Normally I can’t help seeing everything all the time. Stupid wire. I must have gotten tangled in it or something. But the wound doesn’t match the kind of jagged injury wire would cause. The mess on my leg is broad and flat and hurts like hell.
Is it a bullet wound? We’re not supposed to be armed!
It’s all feeling far too real. Cold muddy water soaks the uniform and seeps into my skin. My next stupid move is to splash the water over the wound. I just want to get a better look at it, OK?
Seriously bad idea. It stings like a bitch.
Ratatatatatatatatat! Headsplitting gunfire peppers the air. It sounds so real. Is it from the plane overhead?
Someone is screaming.
Like a mole, I bury myself into the mud. I’m flicking mud over my hair to hide it. I’ll put up with the stink if it means I survive. Shivers stab my skin. A chill in my back, a frozen ache in my jaw. Cold head, cold arms, cold tummy. Except for the white-hot pain in my leg, I’m chilled all over. My only hope is to embrace the mud. If some nutjob out there has real ammo, I’m staying buried forever.
Rain keeps falling, plastering the pants onto my skin. Sick misery spreads out from my belly. Mud leeches into my pores.
How the hell am I going to explain this to Mum and Dad?


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©E.J. McKenna