Lest We Forget

by c m

1917.

July 20th.

My eighteenth birthday.

My call-up papers are lying in front of me.

I am officially old enough to be killed.

I am to report to Aldershot for training.

Some of my friends are already there. I've watched them over the past year, smiling bravely, as they step onto the train taking them to their new home.

But I can't smile.

I'm not brave enough to pretend.

I'm scared.

Very, very scared.

I do my best not to show it.

My father's a teacher. A reserved occupation. He claps me on the shoulder.

'We're proud of you, my boy. We know you'll do your bit. You're a fine boy.'

If only he knew. If only he could see inside me.

I think my mother knows, though. Mothers do. She just smiles at me, then wraps her arms round me and kisses me. Her eyes meet mine. She can see the truth.

'Stay safe, Guy. We'll be praying for you.'

I nod and try to smile back.

I have a week before I have to report to Aldershot.


My best friend, Rupert, has also had his papers. We are only a two days apart in age. He's decided to join the RFC. He wanted me to apply too. I did, but it was too late. They said that they were up to their full allocation for the next six months.

Rupert and I have been friends for ever. He lives about five minutes away by bicycle. We've been to the same schools, played cricket for the same teams and gone on holiday with each other's families.

We also have another secret.

We both share the same unnatural desires. That's what the Rector calls them anyway. We've both tried so hard to resist them. We know the terrible consequences that will follow if we give in to them and are caught.

It would kill my mother.

But they are there all the same.

The closest we've got to expressing our feelings was last summer. It had been a glorious day and we'd both gone cycling together. We ended up beside a lake where we'd stripped off our shirts, and then lain down in the sun beside one another. We talked of this and that, as boys do, and then I felt Rupe's fingers brush, almost accidentally, against mine. I could feel his eyes on me, but I couldn't meet them. But I did run one finger gently over the back of his hand in response. I heard him sigh. Then we finally turned and looked at each other. His face was slightly flushed and I could see the desire in his eyes.

'We mustn't, Rupes…it's too dangerous. For both of us.'

'I know, Guy; but you would like to, wouldn't you?'

I couldn't even bring myself to say the words. But I nodded.

The silence between us seemed to hang there for ever. Then, eventually;

'Shall we swim?'

''Yes…cooling off is just the thing, I think.'

We both stripped. Our bodies were well known to each other from the changing rooms at school. But we had never seen each other aroused before.

I wanted to touch him so badly.

He smiled at me, then raced into the water, throwing himself headlong into a dive in a welter of spray. I followed, just seconds behind. The water was icy cold and we both swam like devils to get some warmth back into our bodies. When we both emerged from the water some ten minutes later, the cold had done its work. Where we had been rampant we were now shrivelled. We dried ourselves roughly and then got dressed. The moment had passed.


But now? Now that we both might be dead in a matter of weeks? Would it really be so wrong?

For those with normal sexual urges it was all so much easier. We'd heard the stories, of course. Of boys of seventeen and eighteen who were determined not to die a virgin. The French towns were full of bordellos – or so we'd heard – where a fresh-faced boy could lose his cherry to an experienced French girl for no more than a few francs.

Much use that was to us.

What would cost us a prison sentence at home if caught would, in the Army, see us shot by a firing squad. Part of me said it would be worth it. Better a clean death at the hands of your comrades than the agony of a long, slow death from gas or wounds that could not be healed.

But I don't want to die at all.

I wonder what Rupes is thinking. I pull myself back to reality.

'Just going to see Rupert. I'll be back for dinner.'

'Very well, dear. Give his parents our regards.'

'Will do.'

I go to the garage and pull my well-used, slightly rusty bike from where it lives under a tarpaulin. The saddle, though worn with use, is still comfortable enough, and I pedal slowly round to Rupert's house.

I'm greeted by his familiar smile. He flicks a lock of errant blonde hair out of his eyes; it's a gesture I've come to love.

'My papers arrived this morning,' I say, trying not to let the tremor in my voice show.

'Mine too. Have you tried re-applying to the RFC? There might be a last-minute vacancy.''

'Not really. You know what they said. And anyway, you know me….not very mechanically minded.'

'Don't worry about that. There's mechanics for all that sort of stuff. All you'd have to do is fly the machine.'

I still look dubious.

'Please, Guy? You know it would make the world of difference if we could at least be in training together.'

And that's true. His blue eyes are pleading with me. And maybe if he were there with me I wouldn't feel so scared.

'I'll try again, Rupes. But I don't suppose they'll take me.' My voice is flat and emotionless. Rupert notices.

'What's up Guy? You don't seem like you.'

I look at him.

'I'm scared Rupes. I know we're not meant to be…but I am. And how come you're not?'

'I don't know. I suppose I just like the thought of flying and…and I know this sounds stupid….but I just have a sense that I'm going to be OK. I'm sure you'll be fine too.'

He comes and puts an arm gently round one of my shoulders. And that's it. I'm gone. I know men aren't supposed to cry, but I can't help it.

'Hey, hey, hey Guy. It's alright. Come on, come with me. Can't have my parents seeing you like this.'

He leads me up the wide staircase to the landing, and then down the corridor to his room. He sits me down on his bed.

'Come on, old man, this isn't like you. Chin up and all that.'

'Stop sounding like the Headmaster used to. I know you mean well. I just….why am I being such a coward?'

'Coward? You're not being a coward. Not wanting to die isn't cowardice, it's normal. And I know that if you do end up on the front, when the moment comes you'll be the first to lead the way. You always have been, Guy.'

'Not every time.'

'Really?'

I nod. The picture of him running his fingers over my hand fills my head.

'Do you remember last summer? By the lake? It was you who took the initiative then. I wish to God we'd done what we both wanted to do that day.'

I've spoken without thinking. From the depths of my heart. It just came out. Rupert is looking at me, wide-eyed.

'Sorry Rupes. I didn't mean to say that. Please forget it.'

He slowly shakes his head.

'No…no, Guy. I can't...I won't…I don't want to forget it. Do you mean that?'

'In a few weeks' time one of us – both of us – could be dead. I would rather go regretting what I've done than regretting what I haven't.'

I can see him still taking it in.

'God forgive me, Rupes but I love you. I have for ages. I know it's wrong and that I'm probably going to hell for it but I can't help how I feel and now…now…it all seems so pointless to pretend I feel any differently.'

'Oh my word, Guy. And I thought I was the one who had the hidden, helpless feelings. Do you…that is…oh my lord.'

I feel his hand slowly come up to my face. He strokes my cheek. It feels wonderful. I lower my head onto his shoulder. He holds me to him. My face is buried against his neck, inhaling his scent. He kisses the top of my head. I can feel his heart racing.

'What are we going to do, Guy? I mean, I've never…that is…have you…?'

I shake my head.

'I've never felt like this about anyone but you, Rupes. I guess whatever it is that happens next is something we'll just have to discover together. If you want to, that is.'

'Of course I want to.'

'But when? Where?'

'We can't do anything now, Guy. My folks are downstairs. But tomorrow maybe? I have the place to myself all morning. Could you…would you?'

'That would be wonderful, Rupes. But maybe…could we just….'

I lift my head off his shoulder. Our faces are only inches apart. Slowly, oh so slowly, I press my lips against his. They are soft and yielding. Then he's returning the pressure and we kiss. Once, twice, three times. We ease a few inches apart and then throw our arms around one another. We fall back on his bed, his breath is ragged and I can't stop my hands reaching for his groin.

'No, Guy…no. Not like this. Not here, not now. Please?'

I toss my head like a dog emerging from a river. My breathing returns to normal. I pull myself back to reality as if from a dream.

'I…I'm sorry, Rupes…I just….'

'I know. I want it too. But let's keep it for tomorrow?'

I nod, slowly. I know he's right.

'Come on, we better go down and say hello to my parents; I expect they're wondering what on earth we're doing up here.'


When I go round the next day, we neither of us seem to be able to find the words. He just takes me by the hand and leads me to his room. We both strip – backs to each other and standing in separate corners of the room, as if unwilling to admit that we're about to do what we're about to do. We turn to face one another. Our bodies are telling each other what our mouths won't. We lie on the bed facing each other. Rupert leans in and kisses me.

The exploration of our bodies that follows is at first shy and tentative. Then more confident, and finally, driven by forces neither of us understand or can control, and driven purely by instinct, we pleasure each other in every way possible.

Afterwards, spent, almost in awe of what we've done, we just lie there.

And I am wracked by guilt.

Rupert seems – intuitively – to understand.

'You don't regret that do you, Guy, what we just did?'

I'm silent. My body is still tingling with delight, but my mind is full of all the words I've heard about how what we have just done is wrong, wicked and sinful.

It's as though Rupes can hear the words inside my head.

'What we've just done can't be wrong, Guy. Nothing that feels that good can be wrong. The way we feel about each other can't be wrong. We love each other. Love is good and wonderful.'

'Even the love between two boys?'

'Even the love between two boys. I can't help the way I feel – and neither can you. You weren't acting or pretending. It's the way we are. The way we're made. The way God made us.'

The way God made us.

The thought comforts me.

Rupert rolls onto his side and puts an arm across my chest.

'Just suppose, for one awful moment, that this was the last time we were together. It would be a wonderful memory, wouldn't it? But it won't be the last time. We are going to make it through and afterwards…well, who knows…but we'll find a way.'

'You make it seem like anything's possible, Rupes. But….'

'But what, Guy?'

'People like us. It's not normal. It just isn't. And even if it was, how could we ever have more than this…the occasional secret, dirty little get-together.'

I regret my words the moment they are out of my mouth.

'Dirty? Do you really think what we've done is dirty?'

'No…of course not, Rupes…I'm sorry. I just meant…we'd always have to be in the shadows, never showing our true feelings, never revealing our desires. Living a lie.'

'I can't speak for you, Guy, but for me it would be worth it. Worth every minute - every second. Just to be with you from time to time.'

He kisses me.

'You are too good a person, Rupes. I don't deserve you.'

I feel tears springing to my eyes.

'And I'm so afraid that you are going to be taken away from me. Don't you dare die, Rupert Collins. I may find it difficult to live with myself as a homosexual, but without you I couldn't go on.'

There. I'd said it. Homosexual. The first time I'd admitted it to myself.

Rupert smiles at me.

'I'm not going to die – and neither are you. Now…much as I don't want to, I suppose that we better get dressed.'

He puts his hand one last time between my legs and gives me a squeeze.


By the following day all I know is that I want to do what we did again, and when Rupert comes round to see me we go straight to bed. And afterwards, the feelings of guilt are just a faint echo inside me. I also realise that I'm no longer quite so frightened.

The downside is that the fear of dying has been replaced with the fear that I will never see Rupert again once this week is over.

'Just try and get a transfer to the RFC,' he tells me.


When the day to leave finally comes, we say our goodbyes in the privacy of my room. Anything more than a manly hand-shake on the platform would caused raised eyebrows. But we do a lot more than shake hands behind the closed door of my bedroom before it it is finally time to go.

We walk to the station, Rupert, my parents and I. I know that I will miss my mother, and she can't hide her tears as I climb into the carriage. But it's knowing how much I will miss Rupert that is responsible for the dark ball in the pit of my stomach.

My father just shakes my hand and wishes me luck. It is a conventional gesture.

Rupert shakes my hand. It is life itself that vibrates between us.


I apply again for a transfer to the RFC, but they have no vacancies. It feels as though the fates are conspiring to keep me and Rupert apart. A dark little voice inside me whispers that it is for my own moral good. I no longer care about my moral good. All I care about is Rupert.

To my relief – and some surprise - I survive the basic training. It even turns out that I'm a good shot. As a Public schoolboy I am, of course, considered to be officer material and I pass out from training as a subaltern in an infantry regiment.

Like all recruits, I then pass through the huge military camp at Etaples in Northern France. There I see my first wounded soldiers, and the crosses marking the last resting place of the dead. It brings all my fears back to me.


After six months I am almost a veteran. I've survived gas attacks and enemy shelling. I've even survived my first assault. I am one of the lucky ones. I don't even have a scratch. We occasionally get letters. Mostly from home, but occasionally – very occasionally – I get one from Rupert. Those are the magical days when I can curl up at night and read his words. Those are the nights that keep me going.

The need to be very careful what we write to each other is magnified because the letters have to pass through the censor – but we have become adept at reading and writing between the lines.

He has completed his basic training, and although he should have completed more solo hours than he has, the demand for pilots means that he will shortly be joining a front-line squadron. His infectious enthusiasm and joy for flying comes through his words. As does his love for me.


A squadron of SE5s flew over our part of the line today. I wondered whether one of the frail looking aircraft contained Rupert. I waved anyway. Just in case.


More post today. And – joy of joys – one with Rupert's neat handwriting on the envelope. I can hardly wait to tear it open. And then my joy turns to ashes.

My dearest Guy

If you receive this, then it is because I have become one of the fallen. I have asked that this be sent to you in the event of my death.

No-one could ever have had a better friend than you. All the best times of my life were with you – and the few days before we both joined up will forever live in my memory.

Do not despair, my friend; I am certain that I have gone to a better place. And while I hope not to see you here for many years, know that, when your time eventually comes, I will be waiting here for you to welcome you home - and we will have the rest of eternity to do all the things we loved to do again.

Stay safe, Guy. You are here with me in my heart already.

Yours forever,

Rupert

I pass the rest of the day in a daze. Everything I have been trying so carefully to live for has been taken from me. In bed that night I weep uncontrollably.

And over the next few weeks I volunteer for everything. The more dangerous the better. I take part in a night raid on enemy lines when we bring back a German soldier for interrogation. I venture into No Man's Land to bring back wounded comrades once, twice, three times. My brigade Colonel tells me that has he recommended me for the Military Cross.

And I seem to bear a charmed life. It as if an unseen hand is protecting me. I am entirely unscathed. I seem to be invulnerable. One time, as our lines are shelled, a round lands right beside me, but fails to go off.

Word gets round. The men in my troop treat me like their lucky mascot. I see fearful boys begin to find confidence beside me. Perhaps my life has some meaning after all.


The orders have come through. Tomorrow we attack. From four in the morning there will be a three-hour barrage of shells and then we go over the top. For some reason the bowel-melting fear that going over the top usually produces is not there.

The barrage is like something from hell. It is hard to believe that anything could have survived it. Then, suddenly, the shells stop. The silence is almost eerie. My section stands up onto the firing step. I take the whistle from my pocket. From further down the trench I hear a raucous blast. I put my lips to the mouthpiece and blow, and then we are scrambling up and over.

Despite the barrage, the chatter of machine gun fire is everywhere. I see the men to my left fall like wheat being scythed as the enemy guns traverse along the line of advancing men. And then it feels as though I have been punched in the chest. There is no pain as I fall and all I can see is Rupert with his arms stretched out towards me. I try to lift up my arms to meet his, but they seem to be too heavy. I smile and see him smiling back. I can't hear the machine guns anymore. And there's something wet against my face. And it's got very dark. And there's a metallic tang in my mouth. But none of this matters.

Because Rupert is waiting for me.

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