‘Dugout’s down here, sir.’
‘Thank you, Sergeant,’ said Lt. Denny, and slithered down the narrow wooden steps into the cramped shelter. Roberts, the new subaltern, was close behind him - had been close behind him since they had entered the front line that evening. Straightening up - though not entirely, for the ceiling had not been arranged with his 6’ in mind - he found himself facing a stout lieutenant halfway into his right sock.
‘Hallo,’ the stranger greeted him. ‘Your mob just moving in?’
‘That’s right,’ Denny, unequal to the lieutenant’s humour, dropped his pack into a corner and took off his helmet with relief.
‘Jolly good.’ The lieutenant twisted the sock to his satisfaction and began on his boot. Denny relieved the pressure on his neck by crossing to sit in one of the chairs, while Roberts moved to stand beside the table, too nervous to sit in the presence of senior officers.
‘Heard it was quite quiet round here,’ said Denny, and the lieutenant made a sound that was half-laugh, half-snort.
‘Oh, for the most part. Except when it’s not.’
‘Just the usual. Minnies, grenades, you know. All of ‘em, yesterday. One of ‘em got the gun position and sliced our gunner’s ribs to ribbons. I say, that’s good,’ he said, with a high-pitched laugh. ‘Ribs to ribbons, eh?’
‘Yes, very good,’ said Denny. Roberts gulped and moved closer and, taking pity, Denny kicked out a chair for him.
‘I’m glad you lot are moving in,’ said the lieutenant, finishing with his boot. ‘Been a funny old time, what with one thing and…I say, what’s that? Not Fritz?’
‘At this time of night?’ Denny shook his head, though he could not deny the distant clatter of rifle fire. ‘Patrol?’
‘Haven’t sent any. Waiting for you lot. In fact I…’
But he never finished, for at that moment there was a louder rattle as something fell down the dugout steps. Denny turned, then leapt to his feet with a wild yell.
For skittering across the earthen floor was something far more deadly than the rat he had expected. Small, round, metallic…and no pin.
‘Denny!’ Roberts was on his feet. ‘Oh God, Denny, do something!’
Denny knew he was dead anyway, so he flung himself onto the grenade, thinking it might deaden the blast and save Roberts, and he closed his eyes, waiting for his guts to be spread across the muddy walls. He lay there until it began to dawn on him that it should probably have gone off by now…
And then he heard the laughter.
‘April Fool!’ came a yell from outside and three faces, red-nosed and merry, peered down at them.
‘It’s fucking May!’ Denny yelled back, but they had gone, and the lieutenant was hefting his pack and chortling his way up the steps.
‘Have fun!’ were his parting words, and Denny swore at his retreating back.
‘Fucking bastards! You wait till…oh, sod it. Come on, Roberts, let’s…’
He heaved himself to his feet and looked about for the subaltern, and found him stretched out on the floor in a dead faint. And then Denny saw the funny side, and he sat down in the rickety chair, sank his head into his hands, and began to laugh.