The Captain placed a tin mug on the table in front of Lieutenant Malory and sat across from him.
“Sorry, Malory, saving the fine china in case the Queen ever pops in.”
Malory flashed a tired smile as he brought the mug up so that it touched his moustache. He breathed in the black tea and was overwhelmed by the familiar mélange of spices that he never took the time to learn the names of. “Reminders of home,” he said.
“It’s the little things, isn’t it? For instance, I find myself missing the crunch of a garden cucumber.” The Captain spooned a heap of sugar and stirred it into his mug. The pinging of the metal had an atonal quality that reminded Malory of his sister as a child at the piano, whining about having to take lessons, refusing—it seemed to him—to improve at all as a student.
“Thanks, but don’t waste it on me,” Malory said. “I don’t drink tea for its flavour.”
“Care to elaborate?” the Captain said. A bombardment murmured faintly in the distance, like the white noise of a thousand heartbeats.
“I like the idea of tea. I enjoy the process of boiling the water and steeping the bag. I like everything about it up until that first sip. Somehow it never tastes as good as it smells. It’s like when I was a boy, I remember the anticipation of the thing was always better than the thing itself: Christmas, vacations, birthdays, it didn’t matter.”
The captain croaked deeply, approvingly; it reminded Malory of the satisfied hum his father made while rolling a cigarette, regarding it with interest.
“How are your men holding up?” the Captain said.
“Bowler had to shoot a mad horse the other day. It upset those who saw it. Besides that, they’re restless. I think they’re tired of minding this patch of earth. They want a fight. At least they think they do.”
“You know how it goes, Malory. They’ll get their fight, and if luck favours our side, they’ll be minding—as you put it—a different patch of earth before the end of the week. It’s all the bloody same.”
Malory lifted his mug in salute to the Captain and sipped his tea. It was bitter. More so than he’d expected.
“Which brings me to the point of why I called you in here,” the Captain said. “I respect you, Malory. Always have. We’re alike you and I. Somebody in an office somewhere has asked us to die for our country and we’ll do it, no questions asked.” The Captain lit a cigarette for Malory and one for himself. “We’ve received new orders to push through to the river at 0500. I know you were expecting to rotate out, but there’s been a development and, well, this is how it is.”
“I understand,” Malory said. He fought down the bile in his throat.
“I knew you would.”
“I’m sure the men will be thrilled to use their guns for more than clobbering rats.” Malory picked up the mug of tepid, brown liquid—determined to finish it as a matter of propriety—when a shell hit nearby and shook loose a good deal of debris from the roof of the bunker. Malory placed his contaminated mug on the table and brushed the dust from his hair.
“Damn,” the Captain said. “My sugar.”
“Thank you for the tea, Captain.” Malory saluted and set out for his platoon. He wondered how quickly the men’s thirst for battle would dry up once they’d tasted it.