He worked the screwdriver down into the frost over the three tiny holes and it crackled with a peculiar sound. It was so odd that he pulled his hand away involuntarily and, even when he didn’t touch it, it still crackled.
“Run like hell,” he bawled. “The fuse.”
He fled toward the hedge and couldn’t see a gate or stile, only the sailor, scuttling like a terrified rabbit. The sailor took the hedge in his stride, like a cartoon character through a wall and Mould went after him. Whether he went through the hedge horizontally or vertically, over the top of it or under it, he never knew, but he was blasted to the ground and half the county of Warwickshire seemed to thunder down on top of him.
He saw nothing, only felt it. The sky rained mud, in lumps and clods, in smoke and mist. It came down like a cloudburst. He expected to be buried alive.
After a while he sat up and rubbed the muck out of his eyes and there was the sailor groping to his feet , shaking his head.
They looked at each other and each saw an animated heap of mud.
“It’s gone off, sir.”
“It certainly has.”
Softly Tread the Brave—a great title !—is the big book on the subject of those idiotically heroic chaps who spent the war disarming bombs in England. It has one vivid and powerfully truthful line—An explosion is an emotional experience. Anyone who has been near one will agree. The men involved are Australians, the only blokes silly enough to do this sort of thing, and it was written by Ivan Southall. It has many imitators, but what fascinates me about it is that there is a second shorter version, called Seventeen Seconds, designed for young readers.
It caught me neatly on the cheek bone below the left eye and jolted me back a pace. But I was momentarily blinded and when my eyes cleared, Myopic was gone. He had bolted for his life. My three friends stood, mouths hanging open, rooted to the spot.
“He can’t do that!” Stretch declared indignantly. “It’s against every rule in the history of warfare.”
“Hitting a bloke on the shake. Unbelievable,” Letch agreed.
Ivan the Hallinan, one of the fastest runners in the school, regathered his wits and ran after him, but he never caught him. I sat on the bench, holding my face, utterly dismayed.
“Some bastard’s been teachin’ him how to box,” Stretch declared, as if that too was somehow against some cosmic rule.
“It ain’t the one that taught him to fight that’s the bastard,” I said sadly. “It’s the one that taught him to cheat.”