He saw a flicker of movement a hundred yards up the deserted city road. It was hard to see, the moon being the only source of light, but Tom was pretty sure it was a German soldier. Moving forward swiftly, he swore under his breath as he slipped in a small hole in the ground, undoubtedly caused by last week’s bombing. The sound of his voice carried painfully far in the dead of the silent night. Tom winced, expecting wailing of the alarm bell to be his death call. He was lucky, as the only sound greeting him was the eerie calls of owls, crying to each other across the city.
It was a bitter black night in Picardie. The northern-French town had been left battered, bruised and in tears after the impact of the German advance. They called it the ‘Great War’ at home, Tom thought to himself as he advanced further into the open, hoping to find somewhere to rest for the night. They even said ‘it will be over by Christmas’. Christmas had gone, and so had the Christmas after that. It was now 1917.
His thoughts were promptly interrupted by another stumble on the loose gravel. He slipped, and this time fell onto the ground with a painfully loud thump. Tom’s fears were met, as a shrill cry of a soldier shouting an alert echoed through the desolate town. He had no choice now. Abandoning his backpack, he got up and ran down the road. Thankfully, the French architecture decorated the town with many alleyways which Tom used to his advantage, swerving through the streets, trying to lose his pursuers.
Was this the end? ‘No,’ thought Tom. He wouldn’t back down. He remembered his army general telling him, ‘Now Tom, you know that when you get separated from your battalion, look for the North Star and you will know which way to go’. ‘Fat lot of good that is,’ thought Tom, as he looked up into the dull intense clouds separating him from the luminosity of that one star which could have saved him. His breath turned to sluggish deep gasps as his muscles struggled to shift his body around the network of French alleyways. He collapsed and crawled into a doorway. ‘If they find me here, so be it. I cannot run any further.’
His head was spinning, and his feet were numb from the cold. ‘I was never the sprinter. My mum always said that I should run now and again, just to make sure I could outrun the Germans. I thought she was joking, and I think she thought so too’. Tom started to panic. He could still hear the soldiers shouting orders to one another, obviously planning how they would torture him when they found him. He would not let that happen.
A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye made him stop, dead as a stone, praying that it was not a soldier or that it would move on. It didn’t. The owls had dropped silent to watch this encounter. Tom stopped breathing, paranoid that the object in the darkness would hear his breath. The object moved forward and the clear outline of a soldier lay silhouetted against the glow of the moonlight. Petrified, Tom worried about his heartbeat, booming like a drum in his chest. Surely the soldier would hear him. Tom was shivering uncontrollably and closed his eyes. ‘They are coming for me, he is just making sure I’m here before he calls for backup. I can feel him in my mind, scratching, screaming, just waiting to torture me,’ Tom thought as he lay cowering in a ball.
The silhouette came closer. ‘no’, Tom thought, ‘They will not take me! I would rather die than be taken prisoner.’ He reached inside his jacket for his knife. He remembered when his grandfather had given it to him. He said, ‘Look after this knife my boy, it might save your life someday.’ A tear came to Tom’s eye as he remembered his real life, a million miles away. He could not take it any longer. With the end of the lethal blade pointing straight at his own heart, he thrust it in to his body. His face was screwed up with pain as he thought to himself, ‘I died a noble death, I never surrendered to the enemy.’ The spark of fire in his eye slowly faded.
The silhouette advanced a few paces and he gasped as he saw the body of Tom. ‘Hey Andy, there is a dead body here!’ shouted the British soldier. ‘My God, it’s one of our own. Hey Andy, get down here!’ A second British soldier with a ghostly white face appeared. The newcomer said, ‘Well, it looks like there’s been a struggle. He must have been fighting several Germans at once for a Hun to kill a British soldier in a knife fight. ‘Aye’, replied the first, ‘Looks like he died a noble death.’