Mitchell set the notebook on his knee, opened it up and wrote
‘DEAR CLARE’ in bold capital letters across the
top left hand corner of the page.
He stopped, chewed his stub of a pencil for a moment then
crumpled the note into a ball and dropped it in the greasy
mud at his feet.
He started again.
Better. He had never called her darling before.
Somehow it was easier to write than say to her face.
‘Just a note to say I’m alright….’
‘Just a note…’
Too posh, he thought, like something you’d say to a
shopkeeper and anyway, why should he assume his being alive
would still be important to her.
This was hard. Maybe he would try later when there was more
It was hard to get time these days. They had been on the move
for weeks, from one miserable ruined village to another.
The Big Push against Jerry, they’d been told.
There always seemed to be some sort of push on. As if the
War in Europe was just a bit of shoving between two spoiled
He wiped his nose, feeling the skin raw against the grime
on his sleeve. What could he say that would tell her what
it was like here yet not worry her?
All at once it started to rain, the drops pattering down,
slowly at first then faster and faster until water was bouncing
from the puddles all around him.
Mitchell sighed, closed his notebook and slipped it back inside
its waterproof cover before shoving it back inside his breast
Then, grunting with stiffness he got up and started to walk,
feeling his knee grind in protest. Nothing else for it he
thought, no rest for the wicked.
At least they were heading in the right direction now. The
Channel was North- west of their position and for the past
week the distance to it had shrunk daily.
Four hundred and thirty odd miles he reckoned by the map.
If he shut his eyes he could easily imagine the grey strip
of water, the white cliffs so clearly visible on the other
It was, strangely enough, harder to remember the narrow winding
road that led to his home back in County Down, a place he
had taken to thinking of as being permanently sunny and warm.
Its whitewashed walls and slate roofs soft in the light, the
Church, the pond, the smell of drying hay, the shouts of children
playing in the distance.
He could no longer remember Clare’s face.
He had an impression of it of course, an image he could no
longer be sure was entirely correct. He thought that if by
some miracle she were to appear beside him in this sodden
corner of France he might not even know her. That she might
not be as pretty as he remembered, that his mind had started
to play tricks on him just to get him through this torture.
Perhaps he had been deceived into missing her just because
it was better for a person in his position to have someone
to miss. Maybe having someone to imagine might miss him were
he killed tomorrow might be the only thing to prevent it actually
happening. That if he mattered to no one he would rise to
the top of some secret list and die in one of the countless
horrible ways he had seen men die since this lot started.
Mitchell had seen a few things on his travels.
He had seen a man cut in two. Sliced apart by a sheet of metal
torn from the roof of a barn as they sheltered behind it during
a mortar attack in a nameless vine covered valley in Northern
He had seen men break down and cry at the sight of children
playing in the street in one of the liberated towns south
of the Rhone.
He had seen hilltops blazing with fire and listened to the
shells screaming like devils in the air above him.
But he had never, ever in all his life, seen anything quite
so beautiful as the orange light of the setting sun, picking
out each raindrop as he walked, faster now despite his knee,
back towards home.
The Insurgents had been quiet the past few days. The day
before Darren rotated back to camp for a break they had attacked
five times. Three guys from C Company had been hit; the most
serious a Corporal from Nottingham who was expected to lose
both legs above the knee.
Usually it was hard to spot the Iraqis they were so quick
but Darren had glimpsed two of them as they fired an RPG,
the figures hazy in the dust and smoke that seemed to hang
over the desert all the time.
He opened up the computer and saw that Elaine had sent him
an e- mail and more pictures of the baby. Through the mist
of tears that always came over him every time he looked at
his son he began to type a reply. A message to let her know
he was ok, peppering the usual stuff about the food and the
weather with enough lies to convince her he was safe.
He left out the RPG. And the way the barrel of his rifle had
become too hot to touch as he fired burst after burst into
the blazing expanse of sand that surrounded the filthy, rat
infested town they were fighting for.
He left out the way the scream of the American jets had split
the sky as they rained down fire on the horizon.
He told her to tell Aunt Clare he would be in touch. That
he had not forgotten what she had asked him the day he visited
her before flying out.
Old women and their notions he thought, as he pulled her battered
notebook from his pocket, set it beside the computer, and
began to write her a letter, just like she had asked him to,
using her ancient, chewed, stubby pencil.