A kiss before dying

Of blood and mud: the three battles of Ypres

VERDUN

Colonel Christopher Redford will always remember the precise moment he realises he is in love with Sergeant Ryan Anderson. It is during the Battle of Verdun, and the moment is so buried within the chaos of that battle that Christopher does not stop to consider it. It is a moment which encapsulates all that is wonderful about Ryan. It is a moment in which Christopher remembers the rust in his voice during the early mornings and notices the tremor of the hands which clutch the gun.

Christopher is in the frontline. He knows, as all the men do, what this means. Last night he wrote to his wife and children by the light of an oil lamp. It reads like a Dear John letter. He knows that death, beneath all pretence, is just another kind of desertion. He is leaving them and he is not nearly as sorry as he should be.

Christopher is shooting now. First a man with a moustache, then a man whose helmet has been knocked sideways. He imagines that he is inside an impenetrable bubble. The bullets cannot touch him, cannot gouge flesh from bone or brain from skull. Christopher is aware of the second line coming on, Ryan in their midst. Now he loses track of which men are falling at the ends of which guns. The horror is no less; perhaps it is worse to lose count of the men one has slain.

The artillery barrage begins from the west. This is their cue to return to the trenches and unload their own guns. The first line has been felled.

THE SOMME

Sergeant Ryan Anderson reciprocated Colonel Christopher Redford's love with a kiss during the Battle of the Somme.

They are in the third line and as the second line rises, like corpses from the ground, Christopher feels for Ryan's hand.

''Good luck,'' he says. Ryan knows that Christopher can feel the secret tremor of his hand; the trembling fingers which will pull the trigger. He is aware of the River Somme, which asserts its neutrality by refusing to suck in any direction, north or south. Like all of the Western Front it is a graveyard for the men who will die here today.

It seems best, rational even, for them to share all their secrets. Ryan has never kissed a man. He will think later that it was rougher; an unshaven, desperate kiss which tastes of terror buried deep inside.

From the east, the sun sets on an unwon battle and the metal hunk of the first tank rises; impressive, but with the metallic speed of a gargantuan toddler. The Germans do not know this. They slip over the mud, over the pockets of the River Somme as they return to the trenches.

That night, it is Ryan who speaks first. ''Can you love me?'' Christopher replies that he can and does, and wishes that he didn't. They know that only one will survive. They hope for it, even. It will not matter if the war is won or lost; it is not the war which keeps them apart. It is the world that exists outside the war that will drive a wedge between them.

If Christopher lives, he will return to the soft-cheeked family who will not want to talk of blood and mud, or the difference between murdering a man on the street and murdering a man in the trenches. If Ryan lives, he will be a social outcast. His sweetheart must be nine months pregnant now. He has stopped writing; no longer able to tolerate the tears which smudge the ink of her perfumed paper.

Colonel Christopher Redford suspects that this is not a love story. He suspects it is a tragedy.

PASSCHENDAELE

Colonel Christopher Redford and Sergeant Ryan Anderson exchange secrets in the dark. It is better, they think, to love someone in the night-time. After all, there are things that can only be said in the dark.

Ryan admits fears long swallowed under a manly gait. He is afraid of living alone, of living a lie, of the great abyss under the mud of the battlefield. In Belgium, the Battle for Passchendaele is fought on pieces of earth hungry as quicksand. The land swallows men by their thousands and spits them back out; dead or hollow, or a cold combination of the two. Christopher has begun to grow raw with hate for it all. He hates his superiors as much as his enemies. Christopher hates because he fights a battle that is not his own.

Men die. Ryan fears. Christopher hates.

Their affair is culminating; roaring to a finale neither is prepared for. The war which swore to end before Christmas 1914 is sweltering under the weight of new guns, new tanks. The Lusitania is sunk; the beast stirs. The Americans are coming.

Christopher's unpatriotic bitterness is blacked out in letters home. His wife receives papers of scrawling ink with chunks torn unceremoniously away.

Ryan has a son, though he doesn't know it. His sweetheart is a long-forgotten dream. Now Ryan's world is blood, and mud, and guns. And Christopher.

Always Christopher.

Ryan is gunned down by a German rifle in Passchendaele, November 1917. He does not fall, because Ryan refuses to fall. He lies down in the mud, hopes he doesn't sink.

Colonel Christopher Redford can remember the precise moment he realised Sergeant Ryan Anderson was dead. It is long after Passchendaele has been captured and the heavy silence of a dull victory has seeped into the soldiers souls. Christopher finds him; pale and broken, after three hours' search. The moon surrenders above them as Christopher lies down beside Ryan, takes cold stiff hand in cold stiff hand, and wonders who is dead and who is alive.

There is love that is never acknowledged; that never prevails. This love that is made of rusty voices in the morning, and secrets in the dark; of hate and fear and acceptance.

There is love that exists in the dark places, and grows in the mud.

On that night, beneath the moon, there is love.

Ashleigh Mounser is The Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year.

Download an ebook of the finalists' stories at smh.com.au/youngwriter

The story A kiss before dying first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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