It was too quiet. I didn’t like it. As if a stopper had been pulled out on the whole world, and like a beach ball it was collapsing in on itself, breathless, with gaudy colours blending into one another and fading. There were none of the gentle hums of the morning I knew from Shropshire. I mean, I knew there wouldn’t be. There is something softly enthusiastic about the English countryside waking of a morning, a uniqueness that can be played upon by the nostalgic mind until it broadens and strengthens, becoming the only notion of home. But now there wasn’t even the cacophony of birdsong and machine guns that signal waking up here. Just a dead, thick silence, like before a funeral.
We were called to line up in an almost reverent hush. Men weren’t speaking. Could they speak, or had the pall cut out their tongues and stubbed out their cigarettes on the debris? There was a man further down the line. His hands were shaking. He dropped the cigarette, half-smoked, and didn’t bother to crush it down with his heel. Instead his hands, still shaking, gripped the rifle on his shoulder, and the rifle quivered and shook until the bloke next to him hit him firmly and the man ceased.
It was ruddy cold.
Stephens, standing a foot away from me, wore a badly-knitted scarf in garish shades of blue. We’d been taking the piss out of it for weeks now in the mess, but God knows every man in that lineup would have wanted to wear it, right there and then. A little glimpse of fireside living.
From my left came a sharp cry. In unison, twelve sets of eyes focused on Jimmy Gulliver, twenty-four, serial number 072333. We were watching him but not watching him. He was an image, a raunchy picture postcard nabbed in Blackpool and pinned up idly on your mate’s wall that you teased him about and he blushed. I can remember more of the wall than Gulliver’s face. He was a Private.
But we shot him, all the same.