This is something a little bit different from me (angst!) and it came about in a conversation with Orangeshipper, who has been absolutely wonderful and beta'd it for me. The gist of the conversation was that series 2 didn't do as much with the war as they could have done, and I had a thought that we could have seen Matthew right at the start of the war and how much of a shock it was to him, and so this happened. I won't say anything else though, for fear of spoiling it.
19th November 1914, Belgium
Another bang. And another. And another. Each one making him flinch as he reached for his belt, fingers trembling. Was it the blasts from outside? Was it him? He couldn't tell. He clenched his fists and squeezed his eyes shut as another explosion shook the small dug-out, closer than before. He took a deep breath and swallowed, tasting and smelling nothing but mud. It permeated everything. It was caked in his hair, smeared across his face, adding a new layer to his already heavy uniform. Thick. Damp. Suffocating.
The rain had poured for three days, leaving the trenches inches deep in water, and it was like wading through treacle, soaking through the leather of his boots, his feet permanently cold and wet. He fumbled with his belts and gun pouch, handing them to his man. He thought briefly of Molesley before shaking his head, and answering the other man's question about the last attack as he pulled off his jacket.
He was vaguely aware that he was now alone, and he sank onto the small cot. He rubbed his face with his hands, weary. He hadn't slept properly in days. Months. There was no point in lying, not even to himself. He'd not slept well since the summer, not even after all of the hours…days…months he'd spent in training – already another world away, but really just a few short weeks ago – and he felt it. Everything ached; every bone, every cell, every single fibre of his being ached with cold, and damp, and tiredness, and loss. And rejection. He felt the familiar prickle behind his eyes, the gaping chasm in his chest… Another blast. Further away. Muffled shouting from another regiment, possibly the Canadians, then…silence.
He took a deep breath, and another, and allowed himself a moment's indulgence to wallow. Today he had lost seven men. Seven. Four of them younger than himself. That made fifteen in total since he'd been there. But you couldn't mourn. There wasn't time, not out there. But in here, just for a minute… Fifteen men. All someone's son. Father. Brother. Friend... Husband. He swallowed thickly, his eyes burning with unshed tears and grit and smoke, unable to completely escape the horror of his reality even for a second.
He took another deep breath. Two weeks. Two weeks and he was right in the thick of it. In the battered fields of Ypres. Fighting to save a town. Fighting to stop the Germans advancing. Fighting for King and country. Fighting for good. He had to keep repeating it. Had to keep telling himself why. But it was only until Christmas. Only until Christmas. Five weeks away. Just five more weeks and he could go home.
Home. But it was not Manchester that filled his thoughts. Though truthfully, it had been a long time since he had thought of Manchester as his home, even if that's where he'd been after...before coming here. No, when he thought of home now, he thought of the small village in Yorkshire. The house near the church. The quaint train station. The cottages… The Abbey. He squeezed his eyes shut once more. He tried not to think of there, because thinking of there made him think of her. And he desperately tried not to think of her if he could help it, and all too often, he couldn't. It hurt far too much. It stung, stabbed and choked him, leaving him aching and breathless as the air was wrenched from his lungs, as he felt his heart shatter all over again at the memory of it. Her.
She filled his vision…pale, freckled skin and dark hair and darker eyes. So beautiful. Too beautiful for him. How could he ever have thought- No. No. He mustn't. Not here. Not now. But she was there. In his head, wanting him to give in to his feelings for a minute. Smiling warmly at him on a bench. Playfully twisting a necklace. Leaning in to kiss him…so softly, so sweetly. Kissing until they were breathless; eyes shining, cheeks flushed, lips red. Arguing in the bright sunlight. Shouting at each other, eyes red with unshed tears. Oh how he hated her. Hated how she had given him hope and then crushed it. How she had toyed with his feelings. How she had flirted with and kissed and rejected him. And yet. And yet he loved her still. Pined and ached for her. For her warm smile and eyes, for her witty conversation, for her slender fingers to lightly brush his as they went into dinner. For her. For everything about her, everything that she was. And for that, he hated himself. He tried to squash those thoughts and feelings, tried to focus his energy and attention on his current situation, but he kept going back, more frequently since he crossed the channel…it was almost strangely comforting.
Seven men had died today. They were there, and then…there was an explosion, and they were not. Seven men dead, and all he could think of was Mary. What would she be doing? Did she think about him? Probably not. But indulging in the fantasy helped, and took him away from the mud and the dead and the noise, however briefly. Seven men… Mary. Her name was like a whisper in his mind, sneaking into his thoughts, distracting him. He hated her. Missed her. Loved her.
What if he died? The thought suddenly struck him and turned his blood to ice. He could. He wasn't immortal. He wasn't naïve enough to think that. But still. It could happen. G. Smith, T. Smith, J. Wilkins, B. Green, C. Edwards, M. Stevens, H. Taylor. All gone. In one day. In one blast. Just from his regiment. The most in one day. He didn't even want to think about any other regiments. Tomorrow. Tonight even. It could happen. It could happen at any time. He might never see her again.
He might never see her again.
The thought was far too much, and created an altogether different ache in his chest. His mind wandered briefly to his mother…safe, at Downton. Her letters were so cheery, and such a comfort to him. Never mentioning…her, not directly anyway. He knew that 'the family' were well. That was all she'd say, and she didn't ask any questions. Oh, how he missed her. Inevitably though, his mind wandered back...
But what if he died? It was there now, again, and he couldn't ignore it. He straightened up; suddenly knowing what he had to do. He reached for the writing paper next to the cot, resting it on his thigh as he thought for a moment. Yes he was hurt, and angry, and she had made him so, but if he should die…he did not want to have any regrets.
He tapped his fingers. Should he? No. What if…? No. But… Yes. He closed his eyes, willing the words to come to him.
I know that it has been many months since I left, and I know that we did not part on the best of terms, but being here has changed things. I've only been here for two weeks, and please do not ask where, because I'm not allowed to say, but it feels like I've been here for much longer. It is cold, and wet, and there's mud everywhere, in everything, and the smell… It's like my face has been pressed into the earth, and it runs through my very veins, already. Sweet, rich, thick, but also acrid, sticky, heavy. You would not believe it unless you were here. Though I am glad you are not here. This is no place for any decent man, let alone a woman. Although I suspect that your grandmother could do some damage; maybe that cane of hers would prove rather useful!
I have a moustache now. All the officers have to have one. I feared I might look a little silly, but I think I look a little like my father. Did I ever tell you that he had one? You should ask Mother to show you a photograph of him, if you wanted to, if you see her.
I have another reason for writing though. The truth is that I'm scared. Here, this place, it's like nothing else on earth. I am so far removed from the life that I knew. I don't know if it will, but today has been a bad day so there's every chance that it might, but if something should happen to me, please look after Mother. I know she would try and dismiss it, but I'm all she's got, and it would put my mind at ease to know that she was being cared for.
Also know that I would like to one day call you my friend again. I do hope that I get the chance to tell you this in person. Please accept my wishes for your health and send my regards to the rest of the family. Perhaps I shall see you all at Christmas.
He re-read the letter and folded it carefully, tucking it inside his shirt pocket, close to his heart, letting his hand rest on his chest, keeping it safe until he had the chance to send it.
"Sir! You need to come quickly!" He was startled out of his reverie by one of the other officers running in. He nodded and quickly redressed, pulling on his helmet as he ran out, back into it, into reality, away from his idle fantasies and broken dreams.
A/N: The title is slightly borrowed from the poem (and there is actually a clip on youtube of Dan Stevens reading it), but it also comes from the battle I am referring to. The First Battle of Ypres, 19th October – 22nd November 1914, is also known as the First Battle of Flanders, and it just seemed fitting.
Thank you for reading! I would love to know what you think. :)