I’ve been writing out my feelings on Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and David Thomas and Roland Leighton and Edward Brittain again. *wrings hands*
"Skip’s in a terrible mood," said Stanley, chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette. "Reckon you should check on him, Mr Fox."
"Thank you." I ducked under the lintel and descended the narrow staircase into the deep dug-out. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but still, seeking out Alexander, it wasn’t immediately clear what caused Stanley’s concern.
Alex was a slender shadow in one corner of the room, beside his camp bed. He paused in the process of lighting a cigarette to flick a look at the door. “Fox,” he said without welcome.
"How are you?" I asked, studying his person. His hair had been shaken out of its Brilliantined neatness, and his collar was askew.
He didn’t reply, just turned his attention back to his cigarette. I saw that a stack of papers had fallen off his desk. As I was crossing the room to right them, I realised this was only the beginning of the damage. He had pulled everything off the shelves behind the desk, thrown his tin plate and mug against the wall, and smashed a clay figurine.
"What happened?" I asked, ducking down to pick up the scattered papers.
"On the desk," he replied, in the tone of a man carrying his temper like an overfull coffee mug.
I saw what sat in the middle of the denuded desk. A telegram. In an instant my heart seemed to expand, crowding my lungs against my ribcage. With shaking hands, I picked it up. I had to blink twice to focus on the text. Dear Alex, terrible news. Tom KIA near Arras on 15 July. Very few details - we were hoping you could look into it. Our hearts are broken. Mrs M.
"Oh," I said. Searching for anything to look at other than those awful words, I realised that the papers Alex had scattered were the letters Tom had sent him. With care, I refolded them and laid them on the desk. I put the telegram on top. I didn’t want it in my hands any longer.
"Tuesday," said Alex. "Tom has been dead for five days, and on Wednesday I umpired the boys’ football match, and last night I went to that Variety Show the Buffs put on."
"I’ll write to his CO and find out what happened," I said. "That is—would you like me to write?" At Alex’s wordless nod I continued, "You should apply for leave."
"Why?" He turned, his dark eyes boring into mine. "What’s the point of that?"
"You could go up to Arras and—well, perhaps make it in time for the service." My blood had slowed and thickened to sludge, which lent my words a calmness I didn’t feel.
"Pointless," said Alex. He threw the cigarette on the ground and scuffed it out. "I am not leaving France until every last fucking Boche understands what they’ve stolen from the world." He walked across the room, brushing past me. Before I could stop him, he had dug his fingers into the flimsy wood and flipped the table halfway across the room.
There go Tom’s letters again, I thought.
"Well, I’ll leave you to it, shall I?" I retreated from Alex’s precise demolition of the chair.
He didn’t reply.
"You should tidy this up when you’re finished," I said. "Don’t make Private Stanley clean up after you."
"Go fuck yourself, Fox," echoed after me as I climbed up the stairs. I expected the light somehow to have dimmed, now that Tom wasn’t here to capture the sun in his golden hair, but after the darkness of the dugout I found myself blinded.