The lice were going to be the death of Henry.
They were worse than the cold, the damp, and the muck--worse than the lung-searing, chest-rattling cough he'd suffered for weeks, worse than the ever-present knowledge that any day, any moment, could be his last. They were even worse than the moans of the dying men trapped out on the wire. Those ghostly, haunting sounds filled Henry's ears, already ringing from the incessant artillery fire, until they inevitably stopped, leaving nothing but eerie silence behind them.
Henry sat in a dark corner, his back against the planks of wood shoring up a slippery mud wall, and fumbled for his cigarettes. He lit one, bending his frozen fingers around it, and ran the burning end up the seam of his trousers, from the top of his boots to his waistband. A mild thrill passed through him as a few tiny, brown bodies fell writhing into the dirt. The victory was short lived. Henry put the cigarette in his mouth and scratched his neck.
"Those bloody things still bothering you?"
Henry looked up. The glow of another cigarette burning in the dark came first then Jack appeared. He had a package in his hands, lumpy and misshapen. He took off his metal helmet and came over, sitting so close to Henry their shoulders bumped. "Stay away," Henry warned. "I'm full of them."
Jack didn't move. "Buggers don't bother me. They don't need to. There's enough posh blood around here to satisfy them."
"Hardly posh." Henry laughed. Jack could always make him laugh, even when he was ready to rip through his own skin.
"Middle-class, then. I'm sure it's a far tastier treat than my filthy, working-class muck." Jack held up the package. "Maybe this'll cheer you up."
"What is it?"
"Package from home."
Henry's spirits lifted, if only slightly. "Is it yours?"
Jack shook his head. "Charlie Winchell's."
Henry's spirits fell again. "He's dead." Five days earlier. He'd gone over the top with Sergeant Simpson and a group of men and hadn't returned. None of them had.
"He can't use it now. He would've wanted us to have it," Jack said easily.
It was a common saying in the trenches, and it was probably true. It still made Henry uneasy. He looked away when Jack took out his knife and cut the string around the package, but he glanced back when Jack pulled out a blue envelope. "We shouldn't read that." Whoever had written the letter--a mother or a wife, a sister or a sweetheart--would know by now Winchell was dead. His name would have been posted with a dozen or a hundred others, in some village hall or outside some local church, somewhere in England. Henry didn't even know where Winchell had come from.
"No." Jack put the letter aside. He reached into the package and pulled out a pair of thick, grey socks. Jack looked down at Henry's legs stretched out in front of them on the ground. "You need new socks."
"No, you're not." Jack's tone didn't brook any argument.
Henry sucked on his cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs. That set off the cough, and he removed the cigarette, choking and spluttering.
"I'll help you." Jack sat at Henry's feet. He stubbed out his own cigarette in the mud then did the same with Henry's. Henry pulled his foot away, but Jack caught him fast by the ankle and began to work on his bootlaces.
"I wouldn't bother," Henry said, when he could breathe again. "I haven't been able to get them off for days." He'd given up trying. His feet were so swollen inside the boots it hurt to walk, which, he thought wryly, was bound to make things interesting when it was finally his turn to go over the top.
Jack ignored him. He pulled out the lace completely, dropping it on the ground beside him, and bent the stiff leather away from Henry's leg. Jack was as dirty as the rest of them, hands and face caked with mud and grime, but he was handsome. No amount of filth could hide that.
In real life, Jack was a railway porter. He'd told Henry that one night, as they sat shoulder to shoulder listening to the artillery fire over no man's land. Jack entertained Henry for hours with stories about the passengers and the station master's daughter, Victoria, who'd once cornered Jack in the left luggage office and tried to kiss him.
"Needless to say, I resisted," Jack said, grinning. "I wasn't about to risk my job for a kiss. She wasn't that pretty."
Henry's stories weren't quite so fascinating. He had been a solicitor, barely begun at a practice in Sloane Square, when he took the King's shilling and joined up. He'd been excited to go to war. Everyone else was doing it, and he didn't want to miss out.
Henry couldn't believe he'd ever been so naïve.