A Gift for Christmas, 1917
By Malcolm Havard
Ignore the cold. Ignore the sleet that is soaking the sleeve of my coat. Ignore the icy water dripping off my helmet into my eyes. Ignore the hunger that is a constant dull pain in my belly. Ignore everything.
Everything – but controlling my breathing.
And the target that’s in my sights of course. I can’t ignore him.
His head is huge in my scope. He looks cold, too, but then the similarities end. He’s almost plump, certainly well fed. He’s eating. Is that ham? And now a pork pie? I am sure I saw some kind of plum pudding too, I know I did. My mouth is watering; it’s upsetting my aim.
Concentrate. Get my breathing back under control.
But why have they got so much when we have so little? Do they not have shortages, too? Are they starving in Manchester and Glasgow as they are in Munich and Hamburg? As we are at the front? Is what we are told not true?
Concentrate. Breathe. Slowly. Easily.
Steady the barrel, which is shaking because I am shaking.
Now look at the flask he’s been passed. I can tell by the look on his face that it’s brandy or whisky, something fiery that burns and warms. Maybe that’s why he’s not minding to keep his head down. The well-fed, the comfortable, the imbibed, will always be careless.
Time to do my job. The boss is watching.
It’s time to spoil his Christmas.
Caress the trigger, never pull it. Steady pressure as I breathe in, reaching the firing point almost by stealth, before my rifle even knows, before the aim is spoiled. I am too good for that. I never miss.
The kick and report come together. The target vanishes but I know my aim was true.
Merry Christmas, Tommy. That is my present to you.
Three hundred yards away, Private Jennings lies prostrate, half on the duckboards, half in the muddy water. Around him, his companions, their dinner forgotten, pick themselves up from the mud.
The Corporal swears. ‘Bloody Huns, everyone okay?’
There are nods and a few yeses.
‘You alright, Jennings?’
Jennings nods. With trembling hand he picks up the flask he had been drinking from. On one side is a small, round hole, on the other a ragged gash where the bullet had exited.
The Corporal takes the flask from Jennings hand and laughs.
‘It’s your lucky day. Looks like your Fritz was a bloody awful shot, lad,’ he says, and hands the flask back.
Jennings, a marksman himself, says nothing but, for the rest of his life, he will wonder if that was really true.
Copyright © Malcolm Havard 2014