+ inload: Watch +

+ Watch +

+ A short story +


A hand, muckily-bandaged, landed heavily on his shoulder. He looked up.
"Long way from the lines, aren't you?" Without waiting for a reply, the older man continued. "Talk you into first watch?" He nodded. "Hm. A kiep's game. You'll end up with the last, too, since it's harvest now."

They both paused and looked up.

The weather was unchanged, and the light was no different than it had been when the boy had arrived many months hence. He had slipped and scuffed the chalk strokes he had made on the post to mark the passing of the watches. None of the other lads seemed much bothered by timings.


He nodded. "Yes, sierzant. Last relief." I think, he added to himself.


The air was still. A haze hung in the air, though it was not particularly hot. One of the others in the garrison had waved his hand vaguely as he talked about the explanation the officers had given for this before they had gone away. He couldn't remember exactly, and no-one had listened closely.

The sergeant remained crouched on the edge of the dugout as the pause lengthened. One hand absently resting on the watchman's shoulder, the other slackly holding the strap of his sling rifle, the older soldier blinked slowly. He lifted his hand to scratch at his jaw, dark with the beginnings of a beard. The ground rose up gently both in front and behind them, leaving them in a broad, dusty valley. The ground was dry, dusty and broken, pocked with old shellholes, half-filled with dust and scrubby grass.

The dugout was essentially just another crater. It was less than a foot deep, though it had a small parapet of unsecured flinty stones on one side. There had been some reeds at the bottom, and then a duckboard, though that had rotted and broken away some time ago. The pooling rainwater that resulted from the occasional light shower had bonded with whatever had been used to seal the wood, and as a result, the dugout never quite drained dry. He had thought of suggesting they move the dugout to a nearby crater – there was one not three yards away that was larger, and deeper, and with steeper sides – but he had seen the whippings the Commissars had doled out at basic training. Initiative was not encouraged in the garrison.


When he had come to relieve the previous watchman, the younger soldier had shaken him awake. Bleary-eyed and irritable, the other man had stood up, clambered out of the pit, and muttered something to him in a language he didn't understand. He began walking away down the valley, answering the young soldier's half-question with a grunt and a vague gesture towards the hills.

The younger soldier had stepped down into the dugout, and laid out his equipment. He carefully placed his knapsack and blanket down to one side of the puddle at the bottom, then fussily lifted them out again when he thought they would slip. He moved them to the other side, and – as had become his custom – he wedged his packet of lho-sticks in the crack in the old wooden post where a sign had once been nailed.

He sat down, neck canted stiffly to keep it below the dusty rockline, and watched the figure receding into the haze. The other soldier had an incongruous dustcoat, the watchman realised jealously. He picked at the thin yellow-brown windcheater he wore over his vest. He had to keep his feet braced against the side of the crater to keep his legs out of the grey-brown puddle.

Occasionally, he would overhear distant gunshots, or feel the dull thump of shellfire far away. When this happened, he would painstakingly etch a cross on his map in the area from which he thought the sound had originated. Writing did not come easily to him. After it had been quiet for a long while, he reached up and drew out a lho-stick from the waxpaper packet, holding it upright so the stale rebacco didn't fall out of the papery tube.

He lit the stick, absently sheltering the glow with his cupped hand as he had been taught. It was quiet. The sky was a bleached yellow-white, despite the brooding blue mass of Profundis overhead. After a while the lho-stick was finished. He rolled the end across the flinty stones, watching the embers turn grey, then flicked it away. It hit the soil a yard or two away and bounced slightly. He looked at it, face blank.


The older man took his hand away and stood up, staring off into the middle distance. The watchman scratched the back of his neck and turned to look in the direction the sergeant was looking. There was nothing there but the hills and the haze.



"No-one told me where the enemy are."

A hint of a smile crept in at the corner of his mouth.

"It's not that kind of war, son."

The younger man took a breath, as though preparing to speak, but paused.

"That's good." he said, eventually.


There was another pause.

"Do you have any ammunition, sierzant?" the younger man queried.

"Of course."

"Should I have some? I mean -"

A sharp crack, nearby this time, interrupted him. Both men tumbled into the foxhole.

"Blast! Did you see-"

"Was that a rifle?"

"Get your notebook! Get your notebook!"

The two lay in a tangle of webbing and ochre fatigues. The butt of the sergeant's rifle was jammed against the side of his knee. His own rifle had slipped from his grasp and lay in the inch of so of foetid water at the bottom of the foxhole. He awkwardly fumbled his map pocket open, drew out the little leather notebook and handed it over.

"Did you get eyes on it?"

"No sierzant. I think it came from over there." He pointed over the flint parapet. The sergeant's face screwed up.

"Forget it. Those hills are ours. The patrols have got turned back again."

The younger man blinked. He had been watching those hills warily.

"The enemy - ?"

"No, nothing like that. It's just..." the sergeant trailed off as the watchman mournfully inspected the muddy end of his rifle's barrel.

Looking up, he followed the sergeant's gaze. In the sky, the blue planet hung over them like a cataract-ridden eye. He had been told – though he could not recall when, or by whom – that the light and dark patterns were made by clouds. He had accepted this blankly. He wondered if the thin yellow clouds in the sky here looked blue from the top, like those on brooding Profundis.

It must be windy there, he thought, watching the patterns shift.

"Throne. Again."

"What's that?"

"What's that, sierzant." the older man said, irritably.

The sergeant didn't expand on his curse, nor respond to his quiet apology. They sat awkwardly hunched for a few minutes more. Eventually, the sergeant poked his head up over the side.

"Hm." he said. He lifted himself out of the foxhole and sat on the edge. He pointed at the packet of lho-sticks wedged in the dry old post.

"Those your szlugs?"

"Yes, sierzant." the younger man said. Sitting up, he pulled the packet free, tapped it on his leg and offered it to the other. "Would you -?"

Wordlessly, the sergeant took the pack. He watched as the sergeant peeled the waxpaper back and drew out three of the four remaining sticks. He placed one in his mouth and tucked the other two into a breast pocket.

"Long walk back." he said, by way of explanation. He handed the watchman back the packet. "Light?" The younger man pulled out a match from the book, lit it, and proffered it to the sergeant. As the other man knelt and leaned in, he tucked the matchbook back in his pocket and buttoned it protectively. If the sergeant took any notice, he gave no sign.

'We'd have to requisition it."

"I'm sorry?"

"The ammunition. We'd have to recquisition it. Pain in the arse. Have a look around, that's what we usually do."

He looked around. The thin soil revealed no hidden caches of laspacks or bullets.

The older man stood up, placed his hand in the small of his back and stretched. He gave a small grunt of pleasure and breathed out a slow plume of smoke. The colour matched the haze of Profundis exactly.

"Well," he said "Best be off. Carry on." He began to walk away, and the watchman stood up in the foxhole.

"Wait! Sierzant! Don't you need my map notes?" The other man kept walking, soon disappearing into the haze.

He sat back down. He opened up the packet of lho-sticks to inspect the lone remaining stick. He blinked. It was full.

He looked up at the blue planet again. It had not moved. He could not remember it ever moving.


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