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The Undone Years

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Eleven days after the Armistice, November 22, Sassoon learns that Owen is dead.

Too many bloody elevens, Sassoon thinks that night as he sits at his desk through the small dark hours, afraid to sleep. Eleventh day of the eleventh month! How many men died because politicians and diplomats wanted a symbolic moment? Owen was killed on the fourth, so the Armistice came a week too late for him. Seven little days shaved off a four-year war and Owen would have lived.

It all spins round and round Sassoon's mind like hell's own carousel tune, and when he tries not to think about it, it only gets worse. After everything Rivers has told him, he should know better than to try repressing anything. The shadows that lurk in corners want to take human form and speak. Sassoon can nearly hear their voices sussurating in the night breeze, complaining in the creak of foundations. It's been a long time since the dead have come to him.

"Owen?" he calls to his own incipient hallucination. Calls with what he can't help recognising as hopefulness. It reminds him of that poor bastard in Craiglockhart, the one who smelt corpse everywhere. He knew it wasn't real but gagged just the same. Well, Sassoon's the dotty one now, because he wants to believe in his imagined dead. It would be good to talk again with Owen. "Wilfred?"

There is nothing. Of course there is nothing. The shadows turn natural again. What's unfinished between Sassoon and Owen defies ghosts, which are simple, nothing but guilt's own shadows. Seeing Owen in a corner, mute, immaterial, would be too easy.

He should write a poem, a lament. He's been trying to write a poem all day, but nothing comes save false starts, mawkish or propagandistic. He's always been better at irony than grief. It was Owen who could mourn with unsentimental truth.

Owen ought to have written his own damned elegy.

What passing bells for those who die as cattle? Sassoon thinks. The bells rang for celebration on the day of the armistice. There's not even the monstrous anger of the guns anymore. Perhaps the only decent thing is silence. Perhaps there's nothing to say, or perhaps Owen took all the poetry with him when he died.

Sassoon unlocks the box where he keeps private papers and finds the bundle (smaller than he remembers) of Owen's letters to him. Owen wrote good letters, full of ideas, anecdotes, drafts of poems, even little sketches. And yet there's a constraint, an omission whose shape Sassoon can feel, a disturbance of air like a hand hovering close but not touching. Owen wanted him and would never say it.

No, that's not fair. It was Sassoon who wouldn't let it be said. Nor has he himself ever said it, not to any of the men he's wanted. They've all been normal men or innocent men, men who'd never have said yes to him anyway. He chose them, he knows now, for their untouchability. It gives the lie to what he's called his self-knowledge, the calm un-neurotic way he's learnt to think and say "I am a homosexual." Those words amounted to nothing but this: he's not ashamed to be a homosexual in theory. He's never dared to be one in the flesh.

His flesh and Owen's. He could have had that, if he'd let himself want it. He should have had it, taken Owen and given himself to Owen. Should have had the practise with the theory, the joy of bodies along with the clinical starkness of the word. There can only be should now, never I shall, never I will. Never we are. Owen's flesh is a cold corpse somewhere (will he have a grave, was there enough left of him for that?). What remains of Wilfred Owen is words on paper.

Sassoon traces Owen's writing with a fingertip, uselessly conjuring a dead hand. He wants to clutch at the paper and press it to him. He's got to do something to bring Owen a little closer. To let Owen touch him in spite of death. And nothing of Owen can touch him now but words.

Sassoon rolls up a sleeve and begins to write on the skin of his arm.

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound long tunnel

Sassoon knows these lines of Owen's so well that he scarcely needs the manuscript to copy from, although he looks at the page nevertheless, mimicking the shapes of letters, trying to write as Owen would. The drag of the nib is a tickling caress, so he presses harder, digging the words into his skin until they rise again as red welts. On the final e of "his dead smile," Sassoon forces up an oozing red line of blood.

A reasonable part of his mind that since 1917 has spoken in Rivers' voice asks what he's trying to accomplish. Whether he thinks this is how Owen would have made love to him.

"I knew we stood in Hell," Sassoon writes, and it seems a fitting place to stop. No, not quite. He adds a line below it, cramped near the fold of his elbow: "Owen is dead."

He sits in the lamplight with the ink drying on his arm, wonder if three words can make an elegy. Replace the name and it could be any man's elegy, every man's. Owen, Wilfred. Owen, William. Owens, Adam. Owens, John. Write a new name a million times, and a million again, again, again, a name for every man killed since 1914. You'd go mad before the end. He'd like to set Lloyd George to it, Haig and the Kaiser and the whole damn lot.

He'd like to make them read Owen's poems. "This is a man you killed," he'd say.

He strokes the letters that have set, now, on his skin. It'll be days before the ink washes off entirely. But he doesn't feel much closer to Owen than he did before. Words are words, and flesh is flesh, and the dead do not come back in any way that matters.

"If you were here now it would all be different," he says to Owen, who will never answer. "If you were here."