The Quality of Mercy

I don’t know what happened the other day but a bajillion people showed up to read this. Which was THRILLING. I kept going to back to my inbox to make sure the emails were actually there.
So thank you very much to everyone who read something or liked something or, best of all, commented! I appreciated it heaps!

I’m still attempting to write this novel – slowly but surely – and this scene has been sitting around since the summer and I thought I’d dust it off and put it up. Since, apparently, now I have appearances to keep up! Oh dear…

**
There was a man standing in the trench where Stanford usually stood. He was peering out at no man’s land with a pair of binoculars, his whole long, thin body angling forward, as though he might see some crucial detail if he just leaned forward another few inches.

Stanford set himself next to the man, pushing his paws deeper into his pockets and hunching his shoulders against the cold.

“I thought all that fur would keep you lot warm.”

Stanford looked up, surprised. The man had lowered the binoculars and turned to look at Stanford. Like his body, his face was long and skinny, with a pointed chin, a long skinny nose, and a long skinny mouth that seemed to constantly be moving. His eyes were large and pretty, almost feminine, though in this light it was impossible to tell what colour they were other than dark. Above them, a thatch of red hair forced its way out from under the brim of his woolen toque. His ears stuck out a little, also pointed. He wasn’t a handsome man, but charming in an impish sort of way. His fingers, in leather gloves, were quietly drumming a tattoo on the binoculars and he shifted from foot to foot. Being stationary, Stanford would soon learn, was not something this man did well.

“It does. Just not warm enough.”

“Fair enough. Guess lions did come from Africa originally, didn’t they? Not that cold there. You ever been to Africa? Doesn’t sound like it. What’s that under your RP, a little Northern brogue?”

Stanford raised his eyebrows. “I thought I’d got rid of that.”

“Wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Accents are bit of a hobby of mine. Why are you bothering?”

“Bothering with what?”

“With the posh accent.”

Stanford shrugged. “I went to a good school. Got big ideas. I thought the accent would help.”

“Didn’t though, did it?”

“Would I be standing in a muddy pit in the middle of France if it had?”

“If it makes you feel any better, I went to a good school too.” The man tucked his binoculars away,

wrapping his woolen great coat tighter around himself. “Mind you, you’re a sergeant. That’s not something mammalians get to be very often.”

“And I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” said Stanford evenly.

The man snorted. “The hell you are. And nor should you be. This is no place for any sentient creature. Birds shouldn’t even have to fly over this kind of misery.”

“Are we sentient creatures, though? The jury’s still out.”

The man snorted again, stamping his feet against the cold. “The jury’s a bunch of wankers. If I prick you, do you not bleed?”

“Must be the first time Shylock’s been heard in this hole.”

“You did go to a good school.”

“For a mammalian,” Stanford finished the man’s unspoken thought.

The stranger smiled wryly and nodded. “For a mammalian.”

They stood in silence for a moment, listening to the occasional sound of shells exploding in the distance. Stanford noticed that the other man didn’t flinch at the sound. He was already acclimatised.

“Aren’t you going to ask me who I am?” said the stranger after a moment.

“You’re the MI6 man, aren’t you?”

He chuckled. “Yes, I’m the MI6 man. The spook!”

“I’m afraid you don’t look very spy-like to me.”

“Don’t I?” the man pouted. “Well, no, I suppose not. But that’s part of my charm. No one suspects the gangly ginger. And who are you, when you’re not a sergeant?”

“Stanford West.”

“Stanford,” the man rolled the name around in his mouth, as though trying to decide what he thought of it.

“That’s a nice name,” he said at last. “You can call me Leigh Green.”

“Like sea green?”

Leigh laughed. “I’ve been waiting for someone to say that since I chose the name!”

“I suppose you can’t use your real name, can you?”

Leigh shook his head, extricating a packet of tobacco from an inner pocket. Pulling papers from inside it, he watched Stanford as he rolled himself a thin cigarette. “Would you like to know it?” he asked finally, as he handed Stanford the packet.

Gratefully, Stanford accepted the tobacco. “Know what?”

“My real name. And don’t be so shy with the tobacco. God knows when you’ll get more. Roll yourself a proper big one.”

“Thank you. Are you allowed to tell me?”

“Probably not,” Leigh shrugged. “But I think you’ll appreciate the humour of it. Besides, who will believe you? You’re mammalian.”

Stanford nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. “Well, go on then.” They had both squatted down in the trench, facing the opposite wall. Leigh stuck his cigarette between his lips and drew a thin box of matches out of another pocket. He struck one, covering the flame with his hand, and leaned in to light Stanford’s cigarette before lighting his own. Just before it burnt his fingers, he threw the match into the mud, letting it splutter and die there. For a moment they just sat there, inhaling and blissful, hands protecting the glowing tips of their cigarettes. Leigh exhaled luxuriantly, tipping his head back and blowing the smoke straight up into the night.

“Charlotte,” he said. “My real name is Charlotte. Says so on my birth certificate.”

Stanford looked over at his companion. “Charlotte?” he repeated.

Leigh nodded. “But I always hated it. Even as a little girl I made them call me Charlie.”

“That suits you better,” Stanford agreed as he digested this. “Guess the home office got two for the price of one with you,” he said after a moment.

The man – the woman – cackled. “That’s what I said!”

“What do you prefer then, being a he or a she?”

“If you mean for existing in daily life then I prefer being a he. If you mean as a pronoun,” Charlie shrugged, “she, I guess. But it doesn’t really make a difference to me. Besides, not a lot of people know me well enough to be referring to me by pronoun. Can’t talk about you if they don’t know you, after all.”

“You had a lonely childhood, didn’t you?” Stanford asked rhetorically. He pinched out his cigarette and tucked the remaining half safely into his breast pocket for later.

“How did you guess?” Charlie’s smile was self-deprecating. “Am I that obvious?”

“Lonely children often are,” Stanford replied, also smiling. “Can’t help but show off.”

Charlie, her cigarette finished, stood up again, brushing off her trousers. “Takes one to know one, I’d say,” she said at last.

“Touché,” said Stanford, also rising.

Charlie tugged back the sleeve of her coat and checked her watch. “I should go. Meeting. Hush hush top secret blah blah blah.”

“Glad to see you take our nation’s security so seriously,” Stanford replied.

Charlie grinned crookedly as she pulled a flask from her seemingly endless supply of pockets. “I do. I just don’t take myself so seriously. Gin?” She held out the flask to him.

“No thanks. I’ll be off shooting at people in a few minutes.”

“Suit yourself,” Charlie shrugged, taking a long gulp. “Seems to me like that’s all the more reason to get drunk. Killing people sober is no fun.” There was a bitter edge to her voice that Stanford didn’t want to question.

“No,” he agreed. “But I don’t want to end up getting my own people killed on top of that. Keep the bloodshed to a minimum.”

Charlie raised an eyebrow, stowing the flask. “A responsible soldier, eh? Well, good luck with that in this pit.” She rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. “Just don’t get killed tonight, all right, West? I’ll be here for a few days and everyone else is boring.”

“Call me Stanford,” said Stanford. “Nobody calls me Stanford here. I’m starting to feel like a stranger to myself.”

Charlie craned her neck, looking up at no man’s land. Her face grew distant. “Maybe that’s a good thing. Nobody’s themselves down here, or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”

Stanford followed her gaze, but even his eyes could only make out mud and barbed wire and desolation in varying shades of black, grey, and brown. “Perhaps,” he said. “Or maybe this just is what we really are. I volunteered and I’m here and I’m doing these things and if I can’t live with this afterwards then I oughtn’t to be here.”

Charlie blew out her cheeks and shook her head. “I would take a shine to the one philosophising soldier in the trench. Good Lord.”

He chuckled. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Charlie.”

The woman said nothing, just looked out over no man’s land and readjusted her coat. “When I was at school I had to memorise the Quality of Mercy speech. Did you?” she asked after a moment.

Stanford nodded. “Of course. The Merchant of Venice was one of Mr. Prachett’s favourites.”

She nodded. When she spoke her voice was soft. “There are many kinds of mercy in the world, Stanford,” she said, “and one of them is for ourselves. Remember that when this is over and you have to live with it.”

And with that she clapped Stanford on the shoulder, waved her other hand in what was more a suggestion of a salute than anything else, and trudged back towards the officer’s quarters.

Stanford watched her go. Mercy, he thought, was a quality only the wealthy could indulge in.

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