My Dearest Emma,
I am sorry I have not written to you sooner, but we have had a sticky time here, and your last letter, about Jack arrived late.
The soldier’s pencil paused, as another hacking cough convulsed him, sending spasms of pain searing through his wiry body. He struggled to suppress the noise, and stifled an involuntary, anguished cry that threatened to escape his lips. The soldier rested his bare head, with its grimy blonde hair cut short, against another lip, that of the shell crater he was huddled in. His head lay against the soil, soil which usually lurked, dark, solid and safe under the surface, and which had been wrenched violently into the exposure of daylight by the anonymous metal shell burrowing and then blasting its share of TNT. He was drowning in memories of Emma which poured in, overwhelming and perfectly formed.
The soldier had met Emma before France, when he was not a soldier, but a butcher’s assistant. She often came in on Saturdays, to buy meat for the Sunday lunch her mother would cook. The butcher’s assistant served her, picking out the best cut of beef, and shyly handing back her few coins of change. Their romance had been brief, and necessarily carried out through subtle smiles, looks and gestures. Soon the butcher’s assistant was a husband; attentive and protective of his Emma. He continued in the butchers, and grew immune to the sight of raw meat, opened up by metal, torn by man’s desire to feed on so many poor, dumb animals.
In truth, my mind, despite the strain we are under here in France, has been on little Jack. I can not bear to think that I may not see his beautiful smile again.
Jack had been born in the spring of 1914, when the storm clouds of war were conspiring on the horizon, but had not yet revealed their hand. The husband was now a father, and a doting one at that. He loved the innocence that played across the boy’s face, and the simple needs he had. When war started the father had joined up, driven by his deep sense of duty, and also a desire to protect his family from the vast, unknowable malevolence of the world beyond their small provincial life. The father became a soldier.
Emma’s letter had arrived like a bombshell, and the soldier had been floored by the news that Jack, his boy, had been struck with whooping cough and was close to death. Amongst the dying and chaos here in France Jack had been his anchor, and for a while after the letter he felt like a ship tossed about on a stormy sea, torn asunder from its safe mooring. He had been home on leave twice since joining up, and both times an ominous feeling that he may not make it home to hold Jack in his weather beaten, rough hands again had haunted him. Now, with cruel irony, Death was doing his grim work, but not stalking after the soldier here in France, but rather quietly knocking on the door at home, asking for Jack.
Another cough stared to build in his throat, gathering its strength before pouncing on the unsuspecting soldier. He had been caught in a gas attack a few months previously, too slow in getting his mask on and the stubborn remnants of the mustard gas lingered, his morning stand to accompanied by a chorus of coughs, spluttering as his lungs gasped in the dawn air. The attack had granted him two weeks in a field hospital, a temporary reprieve from the trenches, but a lifetime of damaged lungs was the payback. The soldier would also gladly take on the coughs little Jack was enduring, that was shaking his tiny frame at home, if it meant the boy would live.
I am sure the papers will report that we went over the top this morning and the fire we received was something dreadful. The bombardment from our guns had been going a week, but the Germans seem to have hidden themselves away, waiting for us.
“We go in 5 minutes lads. Not long to wait now” Captain Adams had preached, walking along the trench, reassuring his company. The soldier had choked down his shot of rum, given out as Dutch courage to those about to brave the maelstrom of metal and fire. It burned his throat and immediately he felt it do its work, sending a lightness through him and sharpening his senses. He coughed up some phlegm, discoloured by the rum.
“When we go over, don’t stop for anything. Keep going until you reach their trenches. The wire should be cut” he advised young Peterson, nervous next to him. The soldier thought he was too young to be here, his cheeks stubble free and his high voice child like. The soldier had automatically taken him under his wing, when he had arrived fresh from England just two weeks previously.