Countdown (an exercise in Body Language)
The Somme, France, 1st July 1916
Corporal Smith watched as each of the men in turn got the news, the word of impending slaughter winding its way inexorably down the trench in a wave of panic. Men reached for rifles before putting them aside, and fishing in their pockets for trinkets and memories of home. Some curled into balls or sunk into silent prayer, and a few, just a few, just stood, resolute and unthinking, by the firing step, rifles in hand and faces vacant.
He made out Johnson and Robson among the mess of khaki and mud and dim light, and each of them gave a wordless nod, not meeting his eyes. Johnson nervously tapped a rhythm on the butt of his rifle, while Robson just went back to staring at that old faded photograph he had carried for so long. Smith knew that if he could see into Robson’s eyes, there would only be tears for youth wasted and love lost.
He checked his watch, that old watch handed from friend to friend that charted the course of this never-ending war. Marne, Ypres, and now the Somme. This watch had seen more than he had. As much an old soldier as any one of them, and now, counting down the seconds until…
The hand seemed to move slower with each tick, counting the moments that took longer and longer. He felt a presence behind him, and turned slowly, still not pocketing the old watch, fingers sliding round and round the glass face in ever-decreasing circles.
He brought his eyes up to the sergeant, who made no sound, just proffered a hand which Smith shook, and moved on down the line. Wherever he went, men stood and salute; parade-ground manner marching its way into the battlefield. Smith rolled his eyes and looked back down at the watch.
Four minutes. Time passed, but so slowly, and he turned his gaze back to the waiting men, knowing it was becoming blanker by the second. He tried to force a smile, but it didn’t go far before it developed into a tick at the corner of his mouth, a grim contortion of a smirk. A ghost of a smile, waiting to die.
Silently his batman, Anders, approached and handed him his pistol. Out of nothing more than instinct, Smith checked each loaded round, tapping each in turn and then snapping the gun back up. The snap broke through the otherwise-silent morning like a gunshot, and every eye turned to him, suddenly alert. Then, one at a time, they went back to what they had been distracted from, and after a few seconds, there might well have been no sound at all.
Anders looked up expectantly, needing to know his job was a satisfactory one. Smith nodded, almost imperceptibly, but it was enough. Anders had done all that he could. As he turned to leave, Smith placed a hand on his shoulder and the batman turned, puzzled. Without a word, Smith unclipped the watch from his uniform, folded the chain, and pressed the now-cold metal into Anders’ hand. Anders looked back at him, understanding enough to know what this meant, and said nothing, did nothing. Then, wordless, he gave one last salute and crawled back into the dugout, a rabbit hiding from an oncoming storm.
With no watch to check, Smith began counting the seconds, one by one.
One hundred and nine. One Hundred and eight.
The beat Johnson was tapping increased in pace, building to a rapid-fire staccato, a hail of impacts in the early morning air.
Sixty. Fifty nine. Fifty Eight.
Robson lifted the photograph to his clean-shaven face, kissed it once, and folded it back into his pocket. He wiped tears when he thought no one was looking.
Thirty six. Thirty five. Thirty four. Thirty three.
The sergeant, a statue of discipline and correctness, suddenly seemed to wilt, his shoulders sagging and lip beginning to tremble. His fingers clawed at his holster like a rat, trapped in a cage.
Twenty four. Twenty three. Twenty two. Twenty one. Twenty.
Smith waved his pistol forward and the army moved as one, each placing a single foot on the firing step. There was a brief jostle around the ladders, men shoving one another aside to get to the spot they thought would save them.
Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
I tend to avoid doing historical pieces, preferring to go for imagined or just generic settings (my first two exercises demonstrate this, the first could be anywhere and anywhen, and the second is a clearly defined but fictional setting). However, WW1 is something of a comfort zone for my writing, as I have done a lot of research and work on it both historically and in literature, so feel I know it well enough to do it justice as a setting. It's also well-known enough that it doesn't require extensive work on establishing a setting.
I may have gone slightly off the brief in that it's not so much a conversation as a scene, but I still think I've managed to convey a sense of character through body language, which was the point of the exercise, after all. Similarly, I've gone 150 words over the suggested limit, but I figure it's no problem in the long run.
Hope you liked the piece and that it works as per the brief and as a story on its own. I feel there's no point doing these exercises if I can't make them engaging and entertaining at the same time. As always, feel free to comment/criticise/tear it to literary shreds.