In letters found later, Allister wrote of the awkward awareness that off in the distance lay more scars and that when rifles were fired, they were not shot into darkness but beyond the darkness and into men of a different cause. It was a duality that Allister lived with from day to day (though it seemed the sun never rose). In civilian life, he would never have thought about killing another man. But in battle, Allister found the belief that the bullet he fired could take down the man who would tip the balance and give them the edge and win the battle and perhaps end the war. It was not the death of a man that Allister wanted, but the end of the war.
Tension seemed to connect moments of extreme pain with unexpected bursts of laughter. In the tension, Allister felt the scars narrowing, closing, as if the Earth was attempting to heal itself. And it was in these moments, between pain and joy, that Allister found time to remember. Remember that this was not all there was, that there was somewhere to go home to. And these memories were what drove Allister to write his letters, though he did not write home.
He wrote of loss and gain and the absurdity of all the different men in his regiment; men of different form and background and shape and size and goals and occupation; attempting to look the same in the same uniform. He wrote of how he mused on creating regiments based on civilian job, where all bakers would man the artillery, for instance, in their aprons and white floppy hats. He confessed that in moments of heavy fire, he often found himself chuckling at the idea of firing only at the pointed spikes of the enemy’s helmets, whilst the enemy sent machine gun fire clipping the sides of his own pan-shaped helmet and spun it in circles atop his head. A mad carnival of tipping points and spinning pans.
When finished, he would fold the letter carefully and address it to “A Friend” (in later letters he would shorten this address to just “Friend”). He would place the letter in his pocket so that when he found himself furiously charging through the middle of No Man’s Land, he would find a long-discarded helmet of the pointed variety, dimpled and dented in a pattern so original that it could only be made during battle. He would lay the letter carefully underneath this helmet. It was there, that his pen pal and rival first discovered it, surely whilst ducking from fire and, just as surely, from fire that Allister was contributing.
His pen pal read the note (probably after the fire had ceased and his regiment had retreated to their own scars) and left a reply to be found on Alliser’s company’s next charge. In it, he agreed about the silliness of carpenter, lawyer, and baker attempting to dress alike. He added that amidst heavy fire, he thought not of helmets, but mused on the idea of both sides rising above the trenches, forming kick lines, and punting mortars and bombs and grenades back and forth and into the air to explode in a display of fireworks never seen before.
Their letters would span the length of the campaign, touching on topics as simple as hobbies and as complex as who was right and who was wrong and whether it mattered much anymore. On life and death and family and friends. On boredom and confusion. Allister knew of his friend’s friends and his friend knew of Allister’s friends and when one of them would fall, they would promise the other to remember their name and character, “For someone always should.” And, though pictures were never sent and the issue was never addressed, Allister was sure that his friend also had a mustache.
Living in their scars, they both felt them closing in on them. They mused on how the Earth in front of them both was brown, how blood dries brown, how we continue to find ourselves carving through the blood of our ancestors killed long ago. How small lessons are learned from each battle, but larger ones are left to be discovered. They wrote of the ratio of questions to answers and whether this had any correlation with the ratio of war to peace.
When finished writing, they carefully folded their notes, loaded their weapons, fixed their bayonets, crossed their fingers, waited for the whistle, and charged into the darkness.