At this time of Remembrance, let me share a short story:
The legs standing beside Arthur were clad in blue, uniform slacks above a feminine pair of ankles. They disrupted his thoughts the way the dawn chorus interrupts a nightmare.
“Wha’ are you doing down there, Art’ar?” She spoke in a sing-song, Oriental accent, surprise lifting her voice. Arthur twisted in his corner, trapped in a foetal crouch between sensible shoes and an unyielding wall. The legs folded gracefully onto their knees, and a face peered into his. Flat, Chinese features, almond eyes wide and questioning. Arthur felt his fists unclench where his knuckles had pushed into his temples, but the pounding of a pneumatic drill outside the window made him flinch and squirm again. She reached forward and rested her fingertips on the back of his hand in a cool, butterfly touch of calm.
“I will shu’ the window.”
The noise outside plummeted from close combat gunfire to an un-silenced motorbike.
“They are mending the road. Shall I take you to the dayroom? It is much quieter.” She pushed his wheelchair in front of him. Arthur began to feel foolish. Thank God it was this girl that found him, not that muscle-bound bastard Grice.
“Come on, Art’ar,” she squatted in front of him again, legs demurely together, reaching under his arms, “let me help you.”
The body inside the white, starched tunic seemed delicate, but the upwards pressure was strong. The movement pushed a plastic name badge towards his face; Mei Li, Care Assistant, it reminded him, in white letters cut into clinical blue. Arthur wondered how he could recover his dignity. The hint of a breast behind the badge called to him like a forgotten melody, and he scrambled to find his feet.
“It will be lunchtime, soon. Steak and kidney pie today. Good?” She tucked his feet onto the footrests. Arthur liked this girl. She showed respect, and at least she spoke English. He wondered if he’d faced any of her ancestors in Korea. They’d been plucky fighters, the Chinese. Stopping a charge with a bolt action Lee Enfield was like trying to stop a swarm of ants with a pin. Had Mei Li ever been taught about how seven hundred faced seven thousand on the Imjin?
“There. A nice place by the window.” Sunlight streamed into the dayroom. Blossom the colour of Mei Li’s lipstick cascaded over the lawn, and Arthur struggled to remember the name of the shrub. No matter. They all had names like social diseases, anyway.
“I’ve got a nasty dose of wisteria down my left side.” He chuckled until he saw the looks around him. He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud. In the sudden silence he heard Mei Li telling the dayroom nurse about how she’d found him.
“I’m not deaf,” he shouted over his shoulder, hearing the betrayal in his voice, then slumped back in his chair when he saw she was talking to Grice. Arthur’s next words were muttered at the garden. “And I’m not mad, neither.”
He’d just had a bad turn. Strange how things came back to you, every ball-tightening moment, even after nearly seventy years. Nowadays he forgot most stuff in as many seconds.
Arthur jolted out of a doze, arms flailing, as the lunchtime gong rumbled its summons to the deaf. His hand connected with a cup and saucer, sending thick, institutional china rolling over the carpet at the end of a splashed parabola of tea.
Every attack started with gongs. Gongs and bugles, to break your nerve, so that it was a relief when they broke cover and came at you, yelling and screaming in their quilted jackets.
“For fuck’s sake, Arthur.” Grice knelt with a roll of paper towel, mopping the tea. “If you’re gonna drop things, I’ll give you a plastic beaker.” Arthur pulled a face at Grice’s back. Grice was all mouth. Dangerous. Especially when he braced himself over you with one hand on each arm of the wheelchair, pushing his face intimidatingly close.
“How’dya like that, granddad? Shall I give oo an ickle baby mug? Wiv a nice ickle spout to drink froo?”
“Don’t talk to me like that.” Arthur’s bombast sounded querulous, but the memory of youth was strong in his mind. “You’re supposed to be a ‘Care Assistant’, but we get bugger all care and not much assistance.”
Arthur was proud of that. He’d been practising those words in his head, but hadn’t been brave enough to say them. Around him several residents cackled with delight, and for a moment Arthur felt a hero. A drip of cold tea fell onto his forearm as Grice gripped the paper towel more tightly.
“I think you’d better cool off a bit before I take you into lunch. If I’m feeling kind I might remember you. But there again, I might not.”
Stupid bloody gesture. He’d done something even sillier that day in Korea, and got away with it. He’d heard a Bren gunner hosing his fire across the field, wasting ammunition, so he’d walked up behind him, in full view of the enemy, and kicked him in the arse.
“Short bursts, you wanker,” he’d shouted, then dropped into cover as bullets smacked the air past his head. The man was pale and sweating like stale cheese, his fear almost disintegrating into panic.
“Move over, I’ll show you. Magazine.” The reassuring weight of the butt nestled into his shoulder, the wood hard against his cheek. Oh, that glorious smell of hot, oiled metal and cordite. “Target, aim off, squeeze.” Tattap. “Target, aim off, squeeze.” Tattap. Tattap. Tattattap. The gun chattered to him like a lover. He counted twelve bursts out of a thirty round magazine, and eight of them knocked over a Chinaman. “Now you do it.” Smart Arse Sergeant. God, if only they knew. He’d grabbed that Bren to stave off his own funk. Now he just remembered how the bodies lay, humped in the killing ground.
Lunch was finished. Grice hadn’t come back for him. Outside a blackbird started singing; liquid gold in the shrubbery. A bird had sung that day, too, warbling peace over a hillside of huddled dead and bleating wounded. He’d shut his eyes then, as now, to savour the sound, to isolate it. If you concentrated, you could ignore the metallic scrape of magazines being reloaded, and the dry sound of boots on rock as their dead were lifted to the rear. It had flown away when the gongs started again. Sensible bird.
Visiting time. Relatives were spending an awkward hour with the inconveniently old. In the corner a middle-aged woman was holding the hand of, of… Names. He couldn’t remember them any more, not unless they were in your face like the badge on Mei Li’s tit.
“Wake up Arthur, Pete’s here.” Grice spoke in the gentle, caring tones he put on for visitors. “He’s been a bit strange today,” he added to the grey-haired man fetching an armchair. “Didn’t want his lunch.”
The vaguely-familiar man stretched to squeeze Arthur’s hand, smiling, but his greeting froze on his lips as Arthur spoke.
He’d never forget that name. Peter Brooks. Brooksie. Best mates. Pete died after the third wave. Arthur had found him thrashing on the ground, mumbling like a spastic with half his face shot away and his brains trickling into his hair. Arthur took one look at that wrecked head and slammed in the morphine, over and over again, then held his hand and forced himself to look into Pete’s remaining eye until the light went out.
“Pete’s dead,” he repeated, less confidently now because the man was staring at him as if he’d been struck.
“Dad, it’s Peter. Your son, Peter.”
Arthur felt his face dissolve.
“Don’t cry, Dad. It’s all right.” A hand gripped his arm, squeezing reassurance.
“I killed him.” The pressure to unburden rose like a balloon of gas in his gut.
“With morphine.” Shouting now.
“Calm down, Dad. You’ll make yourself ill.”
“Getting a bit upset, are we?” Grice appeared beside them, releasing the brakes on Arthur’s wheelchair. “You’re disturbing everyone, Arthur. I think you should go back to your room for a nice, quiet rest. Gimme five to settle him, Pete, then come through.” The words were spoken over Arthur’s head as the grey-haired, sad-eyed Peter rotated out of sight.
“Bloody hell, it stinks in here.” Grice strode to Arthur’s window and opened it, just as the pneumatic drill opened up in a sustained judder of noise, shaking photo frames into motion along a shelf. Even Grice changed his mind and shut the window before turning back into the room.
“What’s that, Granddad? Short bursts? Whadya mean, short bursts? Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’ve pissed yourself. That wasn’t a short burst, was it, you senile git? You’ve fucking sprayed it everywhere.”
Mei Li cleaned him up. Arthur gripped her hands as she helped him into clean trousers.
“Art’ar, there is nothing to forgive.”
Arthur shut his eyes. He didn’t have the words to explain.