By Kevin Sleight
Kevin says: A Barry boy, now resident just outside Bognor Regis. Retired. Three score years and ten. Married. Two kids. Three grandkids. Goldfish and a recently-acquired pesky Maltese puppy. One-time civil servant. Mathematician. Avid, eclectic reader – Stephen King to Stephen Hawking.
Dear Mum, Dad and little Billy.
You won’t ever read this letter because it’s all in my head. And besides, by this time tomorrow I’ll probably be dead. Because tomorrow will be a great day. Tomorrow, we do what we came here to do.
I hope you’ll understand how hard this is for me. I wish I could put what’s in my head right now down on paper, but I can’t. I’ve never had much of a way with me when it comes to words, especially when others will end up reading them. Simple truth is they always seem to get lost between the thoughts in my head and the pencil in my hand. So this is the best I can do. Say a few things. Maybe tell you a story or two. Then again, maybe not. There’d be no fairies in my stories and no happy ending. Just ending.
Better this way. Easier.
I’m going to miss you all, more than I can say.
I should be crying now. Crying for the love for you I’ll leave behind. Some of the others here have girlfriends or wives as well as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. I expect there’s a special place in their hearts reserved just for them. Maybe having nobody would be the best thing. I don’t know. I only know I want to cry, but I mustn’t. There’s no room here for crying. Not for me. Not for any of us.
And killing too, of course.
Plenty for those and to spare.
Today’s been quiet. I think they call it the calm before the storm.
I won’t tell you what I call it. There’s words you don’t want to hear. Nasty words. Words to turn your stomach. Those words that keep you going, sort of. Maybe help you cope with this insanity. Maybe not.
It’s dark now, but I’m not asleep. You’re lucky if you get an hour or so of sleep at night. The only time life stops here is when it stops for good. A trench to dig or re-dig. Barbed wire to lay or re-lay. Patrolling the line. Guarding against a sneak attack. Taking care of your weapon.
Pretty much what the other side are doing.
I haven’t killed anyone yet, but that’s about to change, later on, hours from now. Come sunrise.
Enough said. I don’t want to think about it any more.
I’m looking up in the night sky at the stars shining bright, imagining you doing the same and that comforts me.
Mum, I’d love it if you’d bake a cake and cut me a piece. No need to worry about rations as this is an imaginary cake. The best cake in the world. Cream on the top. Extra large slice.
Dad, I know it’s hard for you down the mine every day, especially with the War. Doing your bit is all that matters.
And Billy, oh dear Billy! Be good for mum and dad. Do your sums and no chasing the chickens . . .
“Wakey, wakey. Breakfast will be served in ten minutes. Eggs and Bacon. Marmalade on toast. Fresh orange juice and a nice cup of coffee.”
My dearest Michael
I pray this letter finds you well. We’re all so proud of you. We know you will do your duty for your country and our hearts go out to you. I ask the good Lord to take care of you every day.
I am fine and Billy is doing well at school. He misses you though and cries a lot at night. We tell him you’ll be home soon. Your father’s not so good. It’s the coal dust. Makes him cough all the time. Not that you need reminding, with all you must have to think about, but it suddenly seems to have got worse. I want him to take himself to see someone, but he says it’d just be a waste of time. Perhaps you can make him see sense when you come home.
Time to peel the potatoes for dinner.
I’ll write again soon. Please write back if you can.
Dear Mum, Dad and little Billy.
I’m still here. Change of plan. The assault has been postponed for 24 hours. Rain stopped play. I don’t know what’s worse. Fighting the enemy or fighting the weather. It clouded over just before day break and all we could do was sit and wait for it to dry up. Not that it’s ever really dry. Your feet get stuck in the mud and the rain seeps into your boots. And you have to watch out for the rats. They’re everywhere. I’m shutting my mind down for a minute or two. The next bit is censored. I’m not going to think about those vermin right now. If this was a real letter I’d just stop writing, or write about something else.
So let me tell you about Doug and Harry and Pete and Phil and …
They’re not my friends and they’re not my mates either. They’re much, much more than that. They’re the boys. The boys next to me in this particular section of this particular trench. We’d all die for each other if we had to. Truth is, we’re all going to die sooner or later. Meanwhile we all share stuff with each other. Play cards. Tell jokes. Boast about girls. (Even me. Her name is Rose. She’s beautiful. I made her up.) Write letters. Real ones. With paper and pencil. Those who can. Those who want to.
And we tell each other we’ll get together for a pint, soon as this war is over. But we all know it isn’t going to happen.
For now all we have is each other and maybe a dream or two.
So you see, Mum and Dad and Billy, why I’m keeping all this in my head.
It’s night again. The rain has stopped. Come daylight it really will be our turn to attack. Rifle in hand. Bayonet fixed. Gas mask ready if needed. I’m looking up at the stars, the same ones I saw last night, still hanging there, still shining bright. Just like they always have done, long before I was born. Just like they will tomorrow night after I’ve gone. And will forever more . . .
“Wakey, wakey. Breakfast will be served in ten minutes. Kippers and a knob of butter. Strawberry jam on toast. Fresh orange juice and a nice cup of tea.”
Dear Mr and Mrs Jones
It is with real sorrow that I write this letter, for it brings you I am afraid very bad news about your son Private Michael Jones. He demonstrated his bravery on the battlefield that took him away from us, a bravery of which you can both be very proud. He was a well-liked and respected soldier who did what was expected of him in the honourable service of his country. All those who have fallen in this world war are following the path of self-sacrifice and of duty which our Lord himself once trod in the name of freedom. May God comfort you both and console you in your sorrow. –– Chaplain Leonard. 8th Battalion. East Lancashire Regiment.
Born with innocence and hope.
Lived with love and kindness.
Died with strength and valour.