We children used to watch Mr. Mason from our bedroom window. Our house overlooked his garden, and it was there that the old man could be found come sun or shower, dawn or dusk. Mr. Mason’s garden was as fine an example of composted soil as could be seen anywhere in England, I’ll be bound. So it should have been. The soil was worked relentlessly with pitchfork and spade, a churned mass of aerated, loamy mulch. Once he had worked his way from one wooden fence to the other, Mr. Mason would simply take a sip from the canteen in his trouser pocket and begin working his way back again. Penelope, my sister, said he was mad.
The walk has raised our man’s heart-rate and cleared his chest. He is breathing through his mouth upon reaching the crest of the hill. His counterpart’s presence was expected, but nevertheless our fellow’s shoulders droop upon seeing him. He feels duty-bound to approach. Eye contact is made and each trudges towards the other. The encounter will follow a familiar format.
Our man rubs his hands and stamps in the frost-hardened mud. His opposite looks to the tree-lined horizon.
‘A fine day for it, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Cold and dry all day, I hear.’
Neither seems to know what to do with their hands. One pair is eventually placed into trouser pockets whilst the other is clasped in the small of a back.
‘A couple of degrees warmer wouldn’t go amiss, though,’ says our man, forcing a weak smile. ‘This weather would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, don’t you think?’
‘I’m sorry. My English-‘
‘Sorry. Cold. Damned cold is what I meant to say.’
Both men look back from where they have just walked as if expecting the landscape to speak.
‘Doesn’t seem to stop the birds though, does it?’ He tries again.
‘All night they keep me awake. The ground…they find food when it is churned like this…’
‘Yes, well,’ he cuts in quickly. ‘I daresay the weather won’t turn any time soon.’
A nod. Our man looks at his wristwatch.
‘Nothing a good coat and a brisk walk won’t solve. You take the usual route, this morning?’
‘You know, I’m sure I heard pheasants in that copse over there. I’ve half a mind to take the dogs in and see if I can’t…’
‘Do you think we wait long enough?’
‘I think so, don’t you?’
His counterpart nods.
‘The usual line?’
One more nod, and they leave in separate directions. The mud is not yet thawed enough for his boots to sink in. He’s grateful. The material is ubiquitous. It climbs up trousers and grinds down behind fingernails. The smell of it is everywhere. He finds it repellent.
Dropping into the trench, our man is immediately flanked by subordinates.
‘Any progress, sir?’
‘Was he receptive to your demands?’
‘Are we going home, sir?’
The General enters company HQ and sits behind his desk.
‘Dictate the following and have it telegraphed,’ he barks. ‘Enemy command refuse to countenance cessation of hostilities stop. Further negotiations useless stop. Preparing to initiate main offensive stop.’
He rises and faces his officers.
‘Tell the men I have exhausted every avenue for peace. Tell them to ready themselves.’
***Thanks for reading, folks. The picture is courtesy of my four year-old daughter who said that she would like to draw a picture for one of her daddy’s stories. The two protagonists holding hands was her own twist once I had told her what the story was about. Not a bad way to look at life, if you ask me…’