• Flux Magazine

"Winston’s Minefield" by Tyler Baker

 (Western Front, 1918)


At the intersection of the front trench and the communications trench, there was a human hand sticking out from the wall.  The hand belonged to Winston.  We greeted him when we passed. 


“Morning Winston, cold today?”


 I think it’s morbid. Heartless. If I ever go back to read this diary I guess it might upset me. But there was so little to do in the trenches, so few ways to occupy the mind during the quiet hours, and not a damn thing to look at except the big white country house with the windmill to the Northeast. Everything else looked like the surface of the moon.


There was no way to shore Winston back into the wall since the dirt had hardened and nobody was willing to break him off at the forearm. We liked Winston. When he was alive he’d had no skills whatsoever, (they’ll send anyone nowadays) but that’s what we liked about him most. Took him two weeks just to dig five meters of trench. When you sent him for coffee he brought back tea. He could not be instructed, no matter how basic the command. His helmet didn’t fit and when he turned his neck it stayed put like his head was a ball bearing. He was so skinny that the belt around his waist seemed to wrap around him several times. Somebody said once the reason he was such an idiot was cos blood couldn’t get up to his brain cos of the way that belt was cinched up so tight. There was laughter at his expense. So much laughter at his expense. And cash exchanged too. The monotony of trench life made gamblers out of all of us and there was nothing so good to bet on as Winston. But that’s not to say we didn’t like him. We did. We liked him very much, even if he never knew it. 


When Lieutenant Kehoe died they transferred a new lieutenant from 4th company and the new Lieutenant didn’t believe anyone so stupid as we’d described Winston to be could possibly exist. So, one night, the new Lieutenant ordered Winston to mine an area just ahead of our deepest sap, French’s sap, it was called after the Private who dug it. What a command to give to poor Winston. He was as good as dead. We pleaded with the Lieutenant to give the command to anyone else (I volunteered) but the Lieutenant was adamant. Winston would do it or die trying. So, when the moon was gone and the night was darkest, Winston set out with a bag of mines and an electric torch and we bade him a teary farewell. We waited hours to hear the explosion but it didn’t come. Winston returned, mineless and with a smile on his lips.    


We were stunned. It was a miracle. We thought there had never been a greater cause for drinking in our entire lives so we made Winston our guest of honor and our group of eight drank like fish.


“You didn’t ----- it up this time, Winston, you son of a gun!” said one man. Another told him that his success was worthy of a medal. 


“You could get the silver star for this,” he said and Winston looked inward and smiled. He was very drunk, but the smile was not from being drunk. He was proud of himself and happy not to be the butt of some joke for a change. In the morning, when the Lieutenant came to check Winston’s work, he found that there was no work to check. The area in front of French’s sap had not been mined. 


“Where are the mines, idiot?” cried the Lieutenant. 


Winston flushed. “Under the ground, sir.”


“Which ground, for god’s sake?”


“What do you mean, which ground? It’s all the same ground.”


“It’s not! Where are the mines, Winston?”


Winston’s ball bearing head turned under his helmet when he looked to the big white house in the Northeast, “Let me see…”


“Repeat back to me the order I gave you.” said the Lieutenant with widening eyes. He seemed to be growing taller and Winston, shorter. 


“Yes sir, mine French’s house, you said.”


“French’s house? French’s sap, Winston. French’s sap!” 


“Oh. Well, I mined the Frenchman’s yard, over there!” Winston pointed to the big white country house. His flushed face turned red when he looked at us. 


The Lieutenant tried to speak but only made a sucking sound and took off in the direction of the house. The entire officer’s staff was billeted in the cellar there. When the Lieutenant was halfway, there was an explosion in the yard of the country house that shot up a fountain of dirt that went higher than the roof. The Germans responded to our racket with a quick barrage. Poor Winston, in his great distress at having mined the officer’s barracks, never ran for cover. He stood and stared at the big house until a German trench mortar got him. Buried him. 


Later on, we heard that Winston’s minefield had killed the company Captain, blown him to smithereens when he’d gone out for fresh air and a smoke. Before he even knew Winston was dead, the Lieutenant fired out accusations and promised that a court-martial would fall on Winston’s head. Poor Winston. We’d sure gotten him good and drunk the night before and I don’t think he was ever happier. Now why couldn’t he have been blown up right then? Why’d the Huns have to wait till after? He must have felt lonely in the end, knowing the night of celebration was unearned-- that he would not get the Silver Star and that he hadn’t changed after all. 


We never did demine the yard of the country house out of concern over blowing ourselves up. We could have cleared the mines easily using high explosives but that might have blown up the house along with it and we didn’t want the family returning to a leveled house. Especially since it had already survived so miraculously. So we left a very clearly drawn map of warning and posted it to the front door. We could see the new dirt where Winston had buried most of the mines and fenced around that area with wire.


The owners returned on the day of the armistice. The middle-aged husband and wife rode up to their home on bicycles and I watched the husband untack the note from his door. When he finished reading he turned his gaze on us and tossed his hands out, his face pinched with anger and confusion. The wife cursed at us and after a moment they went inside together. 


Soon we were ordered to abandon our lines, so we slapped Winston one last farewell on the hand. We thought of burying him correctly but we felt too sentimental about his dead grey hand to do it. 


I wonder, what will become of Winston’s mines? What death and dismemberment might they bring in the future? And who should be blamed?


****************************************************************************** 


(Transcript of a recovered phone call, March 2020, edited for the sake of brevity and relevance)

Yes, hi Mrs. Brodeur, you and your family are the new residents at 17 Picardy, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, correct? Yes...yes...uh huh...very pretty, yes. And rustic, yes. The windmill is older than my grandmother...I’ll bet they love it. It’s almost like a treehouse...Yes. And several acres, yes. Listen--I wanted to talk about all those overgrown acres...Uh huh, so I was told...No, the previous owners didn’t bother keeping it up, did they? Listen, that’s exactly why I’m calling. We’ve unboxed some things from the estate this morning and there was this-- well this old map from the Great War with your house on it...no the first world war...Yeah, 100 years ago. Anyway, so we found this little map and, uhm, we learned that…. no I haven’t seen that film...Oh absolutely. There’s no doubt. Vincent Cassel is a marvelous actor...Yes...Unparalleled...uh huh...uh huh...marvelous screen presence...I’ve never noticed...Wonderful skin, yes...I’ll have to try that sometime. That’s lavender oil?... Just your feet? Okay...Yes...Yes...Okay…


******************************************************************************


(The next eight minutes of the transcript has been edited out because it was not relevant).


******************************************************************************


Anyway, the old map. Listen, Mrs. Brodeur, where exactly are your children?... Christ, oh christ...No nothing’s wrong...Listen, Ma’am, there’s--Yes...I’m sure they love your cooking...Really?...Uh-huh...Very delicious...Wow...Interesting...At 375 degrees, uncovered?... Right...Yes, on the bottom rack...Very tasty. Anyway, I...No, no...Well, yes. Sort of. I believe there may be a minefield in your yard...A minefield...Yes, explosive mines...Hello?...Hello?...Are you there, Mrs. Brodeur?”



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