Dear Ed:

I'm bloody sick and tired of sitting in this goddamn puddle of mud. My knickers are soaked through and are riding up my arse. If Mum could see the state my socks are in, she'd just about go into hysterics. Dad says it'll make me a man, but I'm 17 for God's sake. What do I want to be a man for?

You're lucky, Ed. You're only 13 and don't have to put up with this shit (pardon my language. The guys here have septic pits for mouths. If only we could kill the Germans by swearing at them.). It's raining now. Freezing rain. You think the weather's nasty back home? Go dig a trench in the garden and sit in it while it rains. If you can get someone to lob little bits of metal at your head, you might come close to what being here is like.

But I can't complain. Remember Richard Mulligan? Got his head blown off yesterday. Tommy Trenchan, that bastard, went and chucked his helmet into No-man's-land. Richard went after it. I saw the whole thing. One minute he was stooping to pick up his helmet, the next his head was blown clear off, like it was made of nothing. Well, his brains went everywhere. Sort of like when you squash a bug and the guts come out. Most of us were horrified, but some laughed. Bobby Mulligan, his older brother, (quiet chap, you never met him. Even if you had, you wouldn't remember), was real quiet, but you could tell he was on the verge of bawling his eyes out. None of us said anything to him, and Tommy Trenchan, that bastard, sneaked off to find a place to hide.

Anyway, they're handing out supper now, and I've got to run or I'll miss it. Give my love to Mum, but don't tell her about my socks. Or this matter with Richard Mulligan, for that matter. Tell her Dad and I are just fine.

Your brother,

Robert

Dear Ed:

Thank Mum a million times for sending me these socks. Right now, I'm wearing them beneath my old ones for twice the warmth. Give her a kiss for me.

Life is mundane. The food is horrid. The men are terrible. Tommy Trenchan, that bastard, has been skirting Bobby. Everyone avoided talking to him at first, but hell, that was month ago. You can't live in the same puddle as a man and not talk to him. Of course, Bobby don't talk much. He talks even less since Richard got his brains blown out. The worst bit is, everyone saw Tommy throw the helmet. It was a blood awful thing to do, but Richard didn't have to go skipping out after it.

Dad says it was a damn shame, that Richard was too young to be here. He was sixteen, but looked about nineteen. I'm glad you're safe at home, Ed. You can't imagine what it's like. Dad...

I might as well tell you Ed, but don't go worrying Mum. Dad's not well. He's been lying in the same spot for weeks now. Says he feels like he's got mice eating his insides. If I weren't there to watch him, rats would eat his outsides, too. Last night, I fell asleep. When I woke up, a rat had eaten straight through his shoe! I scared it off with my rifle, and luckily Dad hadn't been hurt none.

If you still say prayers (a practice which I admit I've given up.), say one for Dad. And one for Bobby. While you're at it, pray for all of us. At the very worst, it can't hurt.

Christmas is next month. I doubt Father Christmas will care to pay our Hell-hole a visit.

Don't forget to kiss Mum for me.

Your brother,

Robert

Dear Ed,

Happy Christmas. What a night it's been. If only I could find the words.

Well, last night we were all pretty damn miserable. After all, it was Christmas Eve and we are all stuck here. It was bloody freezing, and all of us were ready to bite each other's heads off. All expect Bobby, who was silent, even with Tommy Trenchan, that bastard, was running his mouth and talking shit.

"He's lucky," he said to Bobby.

"Who?"

"That dumb-arse brother of yours. He's celebrating Christmas in Heaven. I'll cigarettes and chocolate grow on trees. I'll bet he can screw any girl he likes."

Bobby didn't say anything, he just looked away. I would've jumped up and hit the bastard, but suddenly, music came from nowhere. It sounded like Silent Night. But it was in German.

The faint song became unmistakable. The Germans were singing. I looked down at Dad, who was curled in a ball against the wall.

"What do you make of that?"

"It's Christmas Eve in Germany, too."

"Silent night, Holy night...." I heard the words in English. I glanced across from me. It was Bobby Mulligan, singing out at the top of his voice, louder than any of us had ever heard him say anything. One by one, we all joined him, even Tommy Trenchan, who couldn't carry a tune to save his sorry arse.

When the song was finished, we were all silent, except Bobby Mulligan.

"I'm going over there," he said. Before anyone could stop him, he scrambled up the ladder and out of the trench.

It was not long before we heard a noise. But it was voices rather than gunfire. Bobby was talking to the Germans, though they didn't understand a word of English.

One by one, we all crawled out to meet them (except Dad, who couldn't move. I hated to leave him, Ed, but I would do anything to get out of this pit, and so would you.)

We met our enemy in the middle of No-Man's-Land. I was surprised to find that they weren't an enemy at all. They were men. Boys even. Like us. We talked with them the best we could. I met a tall fellow who spoke a few words of English.

"My name is Karl," he said.

"Ich heisse.... Robert," I answered, probably butchering the pronunciation. We shook hands.

Karl reached into his pocket and pulled out a bar of chocolate, broke it, and gave me half.

"Danke," I said, recalling one of the only German words I knew.

"You're welcome." He grinned widely. He reached into his pocket again and pulled out a battered picture of a beautiful woman and a pretty little girl.

"Rosa. Liesel." He touched them as he named them, and then wiped his eyes on the back of his hand.

I don't know what possessed me to throw my arms around him. But he didn't mind. He returned the hug and then he laughed.

"You are a good man, Robert," he said slowly. Before I could answer, Tommy Trenchan, that bastard, beaned me on the head with a football. My head spun a moment, but I sent it soaring back. And so the game began. What a wild match it was! There were no rules. There weren't even teams. We just all jumped for the ball all at once.

I got smashed in the jaw and tackled from behind. I had more injury in that night than I've had the entire time I've been here. Almost as quickly as the match began, it was over. I looked around for people I knew. Tommy was sharing a cigarette with a short fellow who seemed to laugh a lot.

Bobby was alone, picking through the bodies that were strewn about the place. I'd nearly forgotten they were there with the excitement of the match. I watched as he bent down by a crumpled body that was mostly bone.

"Happy Christmas, Richard." He picked up a helmet and put it on. I don't think he'll ever take it off again.

I turned around and Karl was standing behind me.

"Do you want to meet my father?"

"Ich verstehe nicht." He didn't understand.

"My..." I couldn't remember the German word for Father, "Come on." I motioned for him to follow me to the edge of our trench.

"Hey, Dad!"

Dad hadn't moved an inch, and he wasn't breathing. I jumped into the trench. Karl watched from the edge.

"Dad." I touched his shoulder. He fell over.

"Oh my God, Dad!" I pressed an ear to his chest. His heart wasn't beating. Good god, Ed, Dad wasn't breathing!

I was damn near hysterical, shaking him, trying to get him to wake up.

There was a soft thump next to me as Karl landed in the trench. Without a word, he felt Dad's heart.

"I am sorry...." he turned to me, tears in his eyes. He could say nothing more. Instead, he reached forward and hugged me. He whispered to me in German while I cried into his shirt. It didn't matter that I couldn't understand.

Ed, I know these are supposed to be our enemies. But remember this: it was an enemy who was there when Dad died, and it was an enemy who gently carried him out into No-Man's-land, and an enemy who stood with me when I buried him the next day. He sang in German. Silent Night again. It did not much matter what he sung. All that mattered was he was there.

I wish you could have been there to see it, Ed. After it was all over, the dead were buried... the men stood and talked and exchanged gifts. Small things. Karl gave me a tiny carved dog, and I gave him my last cigarette.

And then, at last, we had to say goodbye. I could say nothing at all as we hugged for the last time and we both cried and parted ways. How can I shoot at them now that I've sung with them and played with them and wept with them? It would be like shooting at Bobby or Dad or you. Don't think me weak, Ed, I can't help it.

Things are not as bleak as you think. Yes, Dad has died....but he no longer has to deal with rats or sickness or cold, nasty trenches. Now he can watch over you and Mum. I won't tell you not to mourn him, but he's in a far better place than here, or anywhere.

How can I be so sure of a Heaven, when I am too tired to even pray? I simply think of German and English voices, singing the same song together, and I am convinced. If a man such as Karl can exist, than so can Heaven, no matter how many Tommy Trenchans try to ruin it.

I still cannot decide whether is was the most terrible Christmas of my life or the most beautiful. Maybe both. Many things are both terrible and beautiful.....

It is raining again, but let it rain.

Your Brother,

Robert