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On Small Victories

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The candle flame flickered lazily in the growing darkness of the dugout. War was mostly waiting. With a lullaby of bullets, tender as a singing voice of a devoted mother, one easily succumbed to his own drowsiness inside; surely it was slightly morbid to compare the two, yet there was little that was not morbid one way or another when thought of whilst waiting for a war to flutter her wings, sweeping a couple hundred men off their feet while she did.

War was a mother and they were her children, Osborne could see that much. At his age, he could afford the luxury of looking upon the men of the trenches and judging them as they were, mere boys dressed in khaki with helmets sitting askew on their heads as if they’d been pushing each other around on the school grounds, with their clothes so muddy he could barely recognise them as uniforms when he let his eyes, tired and worn, half close. And he did so all too often, reminiscing upon another time, gnawing at his own heart in the process, viewing them, the men who fought with him as much as those against, as a little less than men and only a little more than boys.

Among them all however one stood out most wonderfully, young Captain Stanhope. If there was a first-born to this war it would have been him. He had been amongst the youngsters first carried overseas. He’d barely finished school when the war broke out, hungry and hard and absolutely unwilling to wait for the men to grow into her, oh no, they’d all dance as she commanded, as she whistled a high-pitched tune which was always followed by a bang and rubble that made it harder to breathe, if one was so lucky as to require going on breathing.

– Such was the mother to the many of them and in her embrace against her breast has rested the aforementioned Captain Stanhope, as he has been resting there for a long time. A true first-born to make anyone proud, a man of honour, dedication and strength, one held dear by her–the war–as much as by the men, as much as by Osborne among them. Though he himself could list the many more reasons to value the other beyond the virtues so often brought up, yet so desperately shallow; sometimes he went over them in his mind during moments like this one, seated across the table from him, observing him but keeping quiet.

One did not after all come to Stanhope with words of that kind, and Osborne was not the type to come spilling his thoughts without being asked first, though there were times when they burnt his tongue and made it harder to simply swallow down the tea Mason presented them with. It must have been that, or the onion bits in it. Speaking of which, today’s ration of onion had been quite extraordinary.

“Mason––“ he thought to ask but was instead met with Stanhope’s eyes over the table.

“He’s not here. I sent him off, he’d been coughing like the devil.”

“Oh, well, that would explain–” He fell silent, realising that the other had already turned his gaze back to the magazine he held onto slightly too tight, as if there was a wind present that could sweep it right off the tabletop. He was preoccupied, that much was clear, the pencil in his hand moved over the paper in learnt patterns more than anything though the slight wrinkle between his eyebrows suggested focus that must have been directed elsewhere. Osborne hesitated for a moment but then became assured that the other’s peace of mind mattered to him more than the precious silence. Stuffing his pipe, he tried to speak as casually as possible: “Still thinking about Warren, old chap?”

Stanhope seemed to pause at this, though only for a second before he returned to his geometrical designs on top of the print. Osborne knew better than to pressure him, and so he focused instead for the moment on his pipe; and just as the first few puffs of smoke arose and travelled to the dugout ceiling, the other spoke: “He was a cowardly prig, that one. But he’ll still be missed. It’ll be a while before they get someone new over, and a while longer before the men get used to that one. All that for– pneumonia, was it?”

A bitter laugh followed, regarded by Osborne with lenience to his eye.

“He did seem very sick.”

“It’s wintertime, for God’s sake. We are all sick in one way or another, doesn’t mean we are all running back home, the Boche aren’t. Cowardice, if you ask me. And you saw old Hibbert’s eyes when he’d heard the news. That one’s ready to jump on the next train, as soon as he comes up with a good excuse.”

Another puff of smoke reached for the sky, though it was never given the chance. Osborne studied Stanhope’s face for a good moment before the other got tired of the silence.

“It’s just the four of us again. For how long, I wonder?”

“Trotter is a nice chap. Hibbert–well, he needs some guidance but he may yet surprise us all.”

“What about you, Uncle? How long will you stay with us?”

He’d almost choked on his pipe then, so unexpected was the question. “How do you mean?”

“As I said it. Uncle, you are an old man, here of your own free will. How long before you change your mind? How long before you decide, oh, I’d rather be back home.”

Here was the child of war speaking; here was his uncertainty laid bare, coloured by a want of constancy so typical of these times, and snapping out of sheer anxiety at the one man he’d admitted months ago he felt he could actually trust. Here was he grasping onto a mug of whiskey perhaps only so that he’d have something to hold onto momentarily, his movement marked by the unrest in him that he tried so desperately to contain within. An eternal struggle of Michelangelo’s David, whom Osborne had seen once in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, on one of the few trips to mainland Europe he had the chance to make before this last one. Looking upon Stanhope now, he couldn’t not think of the statue, so tall and youthful and yet his shoulders burdened with worries beyond his age, the focus of his gaze, the way he was present and at the same time absent from his surroundings, he’d felt Stanhope slipping that same way and perhaps that was why he caught himself reaching forth and grasping gently onto the other’s wrist, bringing it down to the table before the other could bring the mug to his lips.

“What kind of a man would that make me to leave you behind?” His mild gaze momentarily wandered over the other’s face, before he’d found perhaps he said too much, looking down but not yet letting go. He cleared his throat. “What I mean is, I am here of my own free will, of my conviction, what would that make of my conviction if I decided that suddenly that wasn’t enough?”

Stanhope withdrew his hand, though made no move to drink just yet, and that was enough for Osborne for the moment. He seemed too absorbed in his own thoughts. “I wouldn’t blame you, you know.”

“How gracious of you, old boy!” Osborne laughed dryly for he sensed something funny in the air, and this was his way to retaliate; Stanhope did look up and attempted to mirror his smile, though it was clear that he was still much too anxious to really mean it. There was something serious about his expression, something that seemed to weigh on him heavily, despite his lips kept shut tight. The crisp air seemed to freeze them together for as long as the mind struggled. When he spoke it was almost guiltily, as if admitting to an old vice of his, as if voicing a sort of primal fear that should have been long gone.

“So you won’t go?”

“No, not for a good while, no.”

Stanhope drew a sigh of relief then, though he tried to stop himself, shuddering in the shoulders, from the cold or from the weight absurdly lifted. He nodded, and in the slight movement there was gratitude.

“I’d go to hell without you here, you know that.”

“I know.”

“It’s this head of mine...”

“I know.”

Stanhope dared smile then, though ever so absently, and reached thoughtfully for his mug, finishing his whiskey, leaning his face momentarily on the back of his hand, while his elbow rested on top of the table. He was visibly tired beyond the means of the body and moments like these he allowed slip through his guard only because he knew that with Uncle around, he could afford that much. Though he closed his eyes momentarily, he could feel the other’s gaze on him, could feel the quiet sympathy, though never shown too loudly, for Osborne knew well just a tinge of it too much could set Stanhope off.

“See, you can’t begin to understand–“ he started, after he’d taken his moment and breathed, his voice unusually loud for the lack of conviction with which he had finished, or not finished, his sentence. The words were met with deafening silence of the dugout, though the organ of war went on somewhere far–or it felt so– from their momentary shelter. Osborne’s curiosity was stirred by him, though he himself did not understand exactly what the other was trying to say. He’d raised his eyebrow in that tentative yet expressive gesture that marked a well-respected, well-settled man.

“Can’t begin to understand what?”

He had seen many boys and men alike before struggle with the words that existed somewhere within them but found it difficult to make way to the tongue. Either the mind was not yet settled on the form it should give them, or they were not sure if the feeling in itself was justified; it was not often however that he saw Stanhope struggle the same way. Captain Dennis Stanhope, he’d grown up in this war and perhaps it was her that gave him a certain sense of directness. It was not that he could not keep quiet but when he had something to say, he usually said it, for this directness that ruled his words also ruled his mind and his thoughts were mirrors of his words rather than the other way around.

“–How much I appreciate you.” The words were hurried almost as if he worried he would not say them otherwise. Resolutely, he put his hands on the table as he got up. “How much I appreciate that you are the man I stand beside.” Something in his voice shivered and he seemed to be getting quite uncomfortable where he stood. Yet somehow, he was urged to speak on. “I said, I’d be in hell without you and I meant it.” His lips quivered a little and his gaze had long before left the other and now wandered instead over the table. “I suppose, you should know that. Supposing you stay.”

He cleared his throat then, suggesting pointedly that the moment was over, and reached for his mug, to clear off the table, yet hesitated, waiting for something or other, as if he daren’t leave without a permission. Perhaps it was the sheer respect he held for the older man, perhaps the overall vulnerability of his own he’d been faced with the entire evening; Osborne knew however that something was expected of him as he watched him standing there, nervous as a schoolboy. Raised by the war was he, all edges and cracks that made one all the more appreciative of whatever was left tender and boyish in him.

“I understand.” – Could he really?

He’d left his pipe to cool and in the meantime arose to his feet, hesitating yet becoming so aware that the two of them were alone. He’d wondered, oh so often would he wonder about the man before him, yet only now something clicked. They understood each other, didn’t they? Ever since the beginning, they’d known, seeing each other eye to eye, meeting each other where others have refused to go. They were each different but through a shared experience grew respectful of one another, and beyond that. Didn’t they?

Osborne’s eyes came alight when he, concerned, turned them towards the entrance and then, finding nothing, to the man before him. He’d hesitated, but no longer. He reached his hand out, stable and assuring as was his presence ever overall, found Stanhope’s and squeezed it gently. It was the other then that moved in for a kiss. His lips were warm and tasted of the whipping his words gave to the men who took their duty lightly, of remnants of whiskey that the other seemed all too conscious of but more prominent than all, a stray taste of apple and plum jam from dinner. He had to smile to himself, finding something so intimate so utmost in a man so guarded.

It lasted only a few moments, only a couple beats of heart, they dared no longer though when they pulled apart the gaze of one was reflected in the eyes of the other. They met each other with a smile, and only a little later Osborne had remembered to let go of the other’s hand, slightly embarrassed. Stanhope spoke of it no further, knowing best how to deal with the situation at hand. He always did.

“I go on duty at two, after you.”

“Let me help you to bed...”

Good old Osborne, he did not hesitate a second. Perhaps there was some anxiety to his offer, but Stanhope didn’t care to notice, while instead he opted focus on his eyes as they were most tender–which he’d noticed a great many times before if only in passing–but somehow it came through that much clearer just now, perhaps in this light, perhaps in this winter that made all things warm become the warmer. He too felt somehow warmer inside.

“I think I can walk just fine, old chap, thanks.” He pushed the other back with a gentle palm to his chest–met with one last fleeting touch of his hand–, gathering his mug he mimicked a toast and smiled. It was a silly sort of smile, really, but at last all signs of bitterness had disappeared from it. From him, too. Just for that small while, just for as long as he could keep the other in his mind and nothing else. Of course, that was just naive but... when Osborne came to awaken him from his restless sleep that night, their hands found one another like the two of them found another and merely joined for a few moments, so natural it was, so simple.

Such victories as the one they won that day have later won the war.