Stanhope curls his hand into the fabric over the boy’s shoulder, feeling the bone beneath, still clothed in more muscle and fat than he has come to consider normal, and pulls him close. Raleigh’s mouth is sweet under his, and when his eyes flash open they look like his sister’s, a blue so pale that in the right light they seem almost colourless.
Madge would not forgive him this, he thinks madly, but the very thought of her: the joy in her voice, the echo of her laugh on their walks, her smiling mouth against his, belongs in a different world.
Still, sometimes at night he tries to think of her, to hold her in his mind so that he may perhaps have, for once, a dream in lieu of a nightmare. But in his memory she is blurred like a ghost, a wisp on developing film, and no matter how long Stanhope waits the image never focuses.
Raleigh’s hand rises to his arm, burning through the layers of Stanhope’s uniform.
She would never know; certainly, Raleigh could never write to her of this, and what is one more secret to Stanhope? These days he goes through the motions: duty, work, sleep then if he is lucky. Perhaps, he thinks, his memory is not failing him, but merely trying to acclimatise.
Beneath his skin, whiskey sings.
He does not let himself wonder at what he is doing. That way madness lies; Hell cannot be explained.
Instead, he thinks, another hour, and then another, then his duty. Time is allotted carefully, here, though nothing ever happens. The men – and the boys, he knows, their faces still spotted with acne and their mouths closed around their lie – fall daily. As a child, Stanhope had seen a puppet theatre, and at times the dying remind him of them, their marionette strings suddenly cut, as though God had tired of His game.
Stanhope’s father is a pastor; he is no stranger to sin. And yet the thought of facing that soft-spoken greying man who spoke of love and absolution and who had probably never raised a hand against any man in his life, had chilled him more than the Huns’ entire army.
He had not gone home.
But he could not escape it; his past had followed him to the trenches instead: Jimmy, no longer muddy but still as wide-eyed, his sister’s name ever on his lips.
One of them whispers it, loud like a shelling in the silence of the dug-out. He thinks it is Raleigh from the way he staggers back, mouth half-open and one arm raised as if to touch.
There is something terrible about his eyes in the half-light.
The second person Stanhope had ever seen dead had had eyes like that, huge glassy eyes, staring up at the sky as though instead of blowing him apart, death had merely halted him mid-blink. They had been the colour of his own mother’s and Stanhope had ran back and poured himself a healthy measure of whiskey, and another, until he could no longer see those eyes when he shut his own. Then he had lain down and waited for sleep.
And so he waits still, for he had not been the one to act first, and so the duty of speech would have to fall to Raleigh now.
Raleigh, who had tasted the whiskey on his breath, and all his secrets with it, and who loved his sister more than Stanhope loved the memory of her, that summer when he had been on leave, with flowers in her hair.