March 1, 1917
If I’ve timed this correctly, this should arrive sometime around your birthday. How’d I do? Parcels are on hold since MacKenzie caught the courier stealing a few weeks ago, so you’ll have to find your own drink this time.
How’s the arm? You become irritable at the slightest inconvenience. Ten bob says you’ve snarked at some poor sod because of it. I hope it wasn’t someone too important. I’d like to see you in one piece when all this is over.
A band of privates captured a wild beast in the forest during reconnaissance yesterday. Looked to be a type of deer, if I saw correctly. Couldn’t make out its full shape amidst the crowd, but its antlers looked sharp and sturdy. Gorgeous brown fur, white stripe down its back and even more white spots all over its body. Long neck, long legs. Gave me an unexpected reminder of home. We used to get all types of animals around the orchard, slinking around to get a taste of Mum’s hard-earned cherries. Had to chase them away with pots and pans, me and Tom.
Have you seen him? Please take care of him for me.
About two or three letters back, Blake began signing off like that. It started with Regards, shifted to Sincerely, and then, somewhere along the way, transformed into what it is now. Leslie thought it was an accident, something that Blake let slip because he’d been busy overseeing new recruits, delivering orders, or keeping himself upright and didn’t have time to scribble out anything until dawn was breaking. Whatever it was, Blake’s tiredness must’ve overpowered his sensibility for him to make a mistake like this—a rare occurrence, because Blake was always the more careful one between the two of them.
No, that isn’t quite right.
Leslie’s mind supplies him with memories of a dark Christmas Eve, a bright campfire burning in the distance, a whisky kiss on his lips—a taste that lingers despite the days, weeks, months that have passed.
An amendment—Blake was always the braver, the bolder one between the two of them.
Leslie hovers a thumb over the valediction on the page, then dips downwards to trace the loop of the J. Despite being caught in the morning mist, the ink doesn’t smear, stays proud and strong against the coarse paper—rather like Blake himself.
There was a time last year, now seeming like lifetimes ago when Leslie saw Blake standing amidst the chaos of no man’s land in the aftermath of a battle. Mud and wire and shells sunk into every flesh and bone on the field, but Blake had his rifle in hand, head raised proudly, eyes borne not into the ground but into the far off distance like there was still something beyond the horizon worth striving towards. The pouring rain drowned every soldier that day, threatening to bury every corpse underneath its waves, but not Blake, never Blake. No—the rain did nothing to wear down Blake’s broad stature. It only served to give Blake roots, to strengthen his footing, to grant him a chance to regrow his passion so that it may provide air to all of those who have forgotten how to breathe.
Blake never truly lived for only himself, but for everyone else—for his fellow man, for his country, for the souls of the departed, for the souls of the living—for his brother. And when Leslie called out Blake’s name, he could tell from the surprise in Blake’s eyes that Blake forgot he wasn’t alone. It was this realisation, along with the quickened beat in his heart and the newfound spring in his step, that renewed Leslie’s belief in life and all its possibilities. If Blake wouldn’t live for himself, then Leslie would live for him. He’ll live for Blake, breathe for Blake, survive for Blake.
Maybe, hopefully, it’ll be enough to save Blake, too.
It’s raining again today. Leslie looks up at the grey sky, the storm brewing in the distance, the trees swaying gently in the wind that’s gathering, and wonders if it’s because Blake is in a particularly sour mood. If anybody could command the weather, it would be Blake, with his temper and his tenacity.
Leslie digs out his last sheet of paper, makes a mental note to procure another notebook, and hopes Blake will be around to read these next words himself.
March 20, 1917
Off by a few days, but not a bad effort. Mail isn’t exactly reliable around these parts. You get full marks on account of that alone.
Arm’s fine. Nothing that I couldn’t fix with a sling and some gin. It’s the sickness that’s settling here, now. Managed to ensnare even the toughest of blokes. A pity that it’s not enough to put an end to all this. I’ll be expecting my ten bob.
At least your privates are doing something interesting. Our new recruits came in last week. They get younger and younger, don’t they? One got saddled with me. Kid’s naive, as they’re prone to be when they’re fresh out. Overheard him with the others yakking on about what they’d do if they caught one of them Huns unguarded. Most of those idiots gave the typical response—a hand to the neck, a shot to the head, a knife to the gut. Not this kid. He said he’d give him a pat on the back and a word of reassurance that he’s not dangerous. That he’s not going to kill him. Got me thinking about how much braver the kids are compared to so many of us. Bet your Tom’s the same. I’ve a feeling he’d get along with this lad.
Still keeping an eye out. I’ll do my best.
Leslie isn’t the type of man to believe in window dressing. Back when they were both stationed at the Devons, Joe would try to get him to indulge a little more—to stay in the river even after they were both clean, to soak in the sun even after their bodies were dry, to take the extra minute to dress even after training had drilled efficiency in them.
To enjoy the little pleasures in life, Joe supposes. Maybe that’s what fueled the urge inside him two months ago, to tip him over the edge and scribble out what he’d always wanted to write, random mail checks be damned.
Leslie never called him out on it, and neither did anybody else, so Joe continued on. Yours, after New Year’s passed. Yours, on St. Valentine’s Day. Yours, around Leslie’s birthday. He never expected to, one day, have his own word repeated back at him.
Leslie believes in actions. He wiped away the dirt that Joe couldn’t see instead of telling Joe where to find it on his face. He dried Joe’s hair with his own towel instead of complaining that Joe would catch a cold for leaving it too damp. He rebuttoned Joe’s jacket instead of pointing out that Joe was one slot off from his own attempt.
Because of all that Leslie hated about the superfluous, every word that Leslie offered—every hello, every thank you, every goodnight and goodbye—Joe took them to heart and carried them with him. It was the same when Leslie called out his name on the battlefield and reminded Joe who he was: Joseph Blake, brother to Tom Blake, son to Martha Blake—and now, friend, companion, and something more, to Ellis Leslie.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what picture could ever measure up to the sum of all devotion, the sincerity of all ardour, the height of all passion?
Joe wonders if Leslie even understands what he’s done. There is no window dressing, nothing superfluous, nothing extra in Leslie’s life, so everything Leslie chooses to keep in it means it’s essential to him. Joe, yes, but also everything by extension: the splashes in the river, the rays of sunshine, the lingering touches on his jacket—the look in Leslie’s eyes when he raises his head and Joe knows immediately what Leslie wants to do… and what he’s asking, what he’s saying.
All the little pleasures in life, the height of all passion, the sincerity of all ardour, the sum of all devotion—everything is packaged in that little word. It’s a miracle that the emotions don’t come spilling out at the seams, though on days like this when the river sparkles and the sun shines and nobody is there to button his jacket except for his own two hands… it’s a little more difficult to keep it all contained.
I love it when you pretend you don’t find the water cold. I love it when you lie and insist you’re not sunburnt. I love how your calluses feel on mine. Please be safe. Please stay strong. Please keep fighting. I love you. I love you. I love you.
If there’s another word that could possibly convey everything Joe wanted to say, it hasn’t been invented yet.
It’ll have to be enough, for now.