McKinney got the football for Christmas. It arrived on the 24th, last post till after New Year. John got chocolate and a card. He ate half the bar in one go, then gave the rest away, brick by brick. He kept the card under his tin hat.
They sang hymns that morning, Christmas Day. They heard the other side singing too. Couldn’t understand the words, but understood them to be hymns nonetheless. They had the same mournful quality. They lacked the righteous upper register of women and children in their Sunday best. Men alone, it was a dirge. But they were all Christian men out there, weren’t they? British and German alike. Not alone. They both sang Christian hymns. And anyway, the war was over. That’s what everyone was saying.
McKinney punted the ball out over the trench and waited. Then he stuck his head up, then he waved. Now the game was on.
The mud of No Man’s Land sucked at John’s boots. Light snowfall added to the treachery. The stink of gunpowder was still in the wind. The air went from hymnal white to match-day blue. “Hackin bastarts!” McKinney cried when he ended up in the mud, losing the ball to a small, whippet-fast Kraut who put it straight past Smithy – defending a gap in the barbed wire – and down into the trench. Loser gets it. Smithy climbed down the ladder to fetch the ball, someone screamed at McKinney to get off his arse. There was a lot of laughter too.
John took the ball up the right wing. “Cross! Cross!” Albert screamed from left of the German goal. John crossed. It cleared through the defenders, then bounced away into the empty, slushy snow field beyond.
“What the fuck was that?” Sergeant Miller shouted.
Albert wasn’t there at all. Albert had been cut in two by machine gun fire weeks ago. John had seen it, had flung himself down face-first in the mud behind Albert, or some piece of him, and waited, shaking, while the buzz of the bullets whizzed away in another direction. He crawled forward to check on Albert, to look. Bullets had eaten his guts. He smelled of shit. He was still breathing, short and sharp. His helmet was gone, his hair mad. He moved his mouth to speak, then died instead. He and John were friends before the war. Joined up together.
Someone clapped him hard on the shoulder. “What the fuck? Get up there!” It was the sergeant.
“Sorry, Sarge,” John said.
He ran the ball up the right wing again. “Cross! Cross!” He kept his eyes down, he didn’t cross. He cut in left, dashing past one then two defenders. Just the keeper now, alone. He was a big man, crouched low between the gap in the entanglements, waving his hands, ready to pounce. John took the shot; the keeper went the wrong way. GOAL! John punched the air, ran back towards his team, his trench, the front line, screaming and laughing. Albert whooped and ran beside him.
They played until it got too dark; they didn’t keep score.
That night they sang again, and heard the other team singing too across the stretch of brown snow. They didn’t care who had won. They were going home. That’s what everyone was saying. They were going home. War is over.
John woke to the sound of a shell exploding on Boxing Day. There was confusion. Men scurried around the passages dug into the ground, up to their ankles in muck. Who was shelling? “The Germans are shelling?”; “We’re shelling?” Somebody was. The explosions kicked dirt over their heads, at the mouth of the trench. Whistles blew. Ladders went up. Men jumped up with their guns unloaded, their helmets loose, boots untied.
Someone clapped John on the back of the head. It was Sarge. “What the fuck? Get up there!” He blew on his whistle. “Go! Go! Go!”
John climbed up. Albert was above him. They sprinted out, through the gap cut in the barbed wire. Albert burst in a hail of bullets. John was face down in the mud. He crawled. His fingers were turning pink in the snow, which was turning red. A football bounced limply past, punctured. “War is over!” John cried. “We’re going home!”
“Cross! Cross!” Machine gun fire strafed the men. “Get down!”
John was up and running, his boots sucking into the mud. He charged up the right wing, cut in left and through the goal in a sliding tackle that carried him over and down the seven-foot drop into the enemy trench, landing on top of a man. He pulled the trigger of his rifle and the man’s head exploded. They lined up in the narrow corridor of the trench and he pumped the trigger until it was dry. Then he took his bayonette to the next man. The blade tangled in his insides and was hard to retrieve but by then his team had joined him in the trench. They cleared it out. Many were killed during the assault, both sides. They didn’t keep score.
They climbed from the trench when it was over. There was subdued screaming on the night air, but no more booming canons or rattling guns. No singing. “Well done, lad,” Sarge said. He was having a kick about with the burst ball, passing it between himself, Albert and McKinney, a few others. One of them was the little, speedy German striker, the one whose head had exploded at the end of John’s gun.
John took his helmet off and sat in the snow. He read over his Christmas card again. His mother wrote she was hopeful he’d be home soon. “They’re saying the war is over!” He wished he still had some chocolate left.
“Pass us the ball,” John said.
Sarge shook his head and passed to Albert instead. “Sorry son, but you’ve got work to do. They’re digging up ahead. Go and give them a hand. We’ll play again another time.”