As we idled in the mud, like mongrel outcasts of a Wilfred Owen stanza that was never read, I recounted the facts, as I understood them. We were all well versed in the history of the unit and to do this provided some comfort, a perspective I craved. I knew, for example that in a record of dubious glory spanning 128 years there had been only pain, only defeat - Victory existing merely as a mythical concept no one believed in any more, such as Heaven. I held vague recollections that for generations the ubiquitous youth (always “uncertain” in these fables) had given what they could spare in futile aggression against the ever faceless, constantly shifting enemy. And I knew that in all that time the effect had been negligible at best. There had been promises and near misses; triumphant goals within smelling distance cruelly snatched away by fate, etcetera, etcetera. But no end. Relentless struggle aplenty, oh, yes. But no final whistle for we. No one expected change – and so change stayed away. A new order new only in the sense of ultimate time.
And so it came through from The General at 14:00. We had been in a state of limbo for days, awaiting any news, good or bad, to lift us from the grey doldrums of immobility, and so it came. Captain Willard informed us with his usual stoic grace that there would be a Push, the honour of which would fall upon our unit, at approximately 15:50, and that this Push would be preceded by a well timed pre-emptive strike -codenamed: Phase 3! We were used to these euphemisms and so was captain Willard. As the words left his lips I knew that it would be me – that I didn’t even need to volunteer: this would be my final march; I’d waited for it like a calling, through action and inaction, and now here it was – my mission.
“A one-man mission into no-man’s land, against inevitable odds, to serve as an ineffable good” (cue trumpets)! No one even argued. I counted many friends along the line, some with far away looks of guilt, some with ice-long stares of indifference, some with nods of acceptance, but none who dared argue that it should be me to go.
“You will be alone”, croaked Willard, a timeless sense of non-meaning emanating from his half-dead eyes.
“I know”, I said, and smiled, feeling the rush of hope that comes from seeing that whatever else happened an end would come from this: a conclusion to the life I had lived. “That suits me fine, sir”.
He returned the smile as best he could without cracking the calluses of his barren mouth and, speaking for all, told me without words how much I was loved and pitied.
I had been heard to complain in recent times about my lack of scars. How could I have been through so much and yet appear so unmarked by it all? It seemed unfair, a visual record of a deficiency in courage, a bereavement of daring – I may as well have been lying on a beach for the past decade, I looked so untouched. The truth was that my scarring had all been internal. My outer tissue absorbed wounds and pulled them all inside: my viscera taut with repeated bandaging, my organs strangled by unseen tourniquets. So much so few words of any worth could escape me, and often, less emotion. It was the easiest choice I’d ever have to make. I would say farewell and go. The reason for reflection now pointless.
Death awaited and I would face it. That’s all.
Along the line I greeted for the last time faces of souls so familiar that saying “Goodbye” seemed a trite formality. Handshakes to crush kings met me then, and I felt a wave of immortality enter me through the gnarly fingers of each. Although this would be the last time I looked into their eyes I knew it was not the last time we would be together. And I realised this sentiment is common in war.
Willard then took me by the elbow and turned me to face the Front. As far as the horizon lay an amber mist, signifying to me the transitional border that stood between the present and the red-hot sun of our end. How obvious it seemed. Now, after such interminable patience, it should come so quickly – idea, order, action. I wanted to make a speech, to slump on the earth and write it all down, the beauty of time ending. But there was no time.
“Look at it son. Breathe it in; it’s all yours now”.
“Yes, sir”, I whispered… and stepped forward without looking back - each second erasing body, mind and memory to nothingness – one idea only reverberating, blissfully arbitrary, mercifully empty: Phase 3 – Phase 3 – Phase 3