Matthew’s voice was still strong, despite his years. Rodney had spoken, I had said a few words, but it was Matthew who delivered the message, in a parish church in West Sussex.
“Friends. Comrades. Maurice Flanagan was an officer in the pay corps. The war in which so many of us suffered and lost so much, yet won a prize beyond value, passed him by. It was not his choice, for fate and the War Office had delivered him to a desk rather than an armoured vehicle, had clad him in Number Twos rather than armour plate or battledress.
That may come across as a criticism, but it was not meant as such, for the value of a man’s character is not seen in the travails he is forced to endure but in how he faces up to them.
“Maurice was given a particularly unpleasant task, that of defending a brother soldier, a true hero in all senses, whose soul had almost collapsed under his own suffering. Our late friend could have taken an easy path, but he did not do so. He followed the words of the Bard, stiffened the sinews, summoned up the blood, and I do not misspeak when I say that on that occasion he did not imitate the actions of the tiger, but in truth became one. He took on his appointed enemy, and prevailed.
“That is the man we met, Gerald, Rodney, Ernest and I. It is the man who accompanied us in a pilgrimage we made to places we had been in harsher times, to visit other friends who had not been able to return home to friends and family. Maurice may not have borne arms, nor endured the fire of the enemies of this nation, of humanity itself, but when called upon he stood proud and made a difference that will always resonate.
“Thank you for coming here to celebrate the life of our friend. I do not speak of mourning, but yes, of celebration, of a man who left this world a better place than he found it. Thank you”
There were others who spoke, from his bridge club and the local Lions, but it was Matthew indeed who summed up a life that seemed to have been lived quietly but honestly.
The vicar said his piece, we sang the hymns and then followed the bearers as Maurice went to his rest. A bugle, the Legion banners; flag and uniform cap on the coffin. It was done.
There was a Masonic hall nearby, with some parking out the front and a bigger public car park just up the road, and they had been kind enough to open the doors to us. I didn’t know if Maurice had actually spent his evenings with rolled up trouser leg and funny handshake, but it didn’t matter. We had space, we had food and beer, and we had a venue whose staff knew when to leave people in peace. I ate, I had a couple of pints, and I swapped stories with the few friends that time had left to Maurice
He’d had a younger sister, widowed and childless, as the only surviving member of his family, and I found myself talking to her near the small bar.
“I didn’t know what to think, Mr Barker”
“Gerald. Yes. I mean, I knew Mo had been in the Army, of course, but all this! I had him booked for the Co-Op. What was that big thing that officer-”
“Yes, Matthew. And the other one, Rodney. What was all that about tigers?”
“Henry V, Mrs Kendall”
“Maud, Gerald. King Henry? Shakespeare?”
“Yes. What Matthew meant, well, were that we had a mate, a good man, got into spot of bother, right nasty. Ended up in Court Martial. Maurice was defence—Maurice did what you would call defence barrister job, and he did it well, and he did it with passion, and he saved our mate, and that were mate who had actually saved my life more than once, and Ernie’s too. That were what Matthew meant. Your brother was given a challenge, and he rolled up his sleeves-”
Don’t think about trouser legs, Gerald Barker!
“And he won the day”
“Oh. Still waters. My Mo was always the quiet one, books and things like that rather than rowdiness. This friend of yours? Oh. We are all getting on, Gerald. Time flies faster at our age than we ever knew in our youth, doesn’t it?”
I could do nothing else but agree, and then we had to take our leave for the trip back up to Victoria, a cab to Rodney’s town house and a long ride home the next day. I was heartily sick of funerals.
Susie was to start back the following Monday, so I made sure I had a decent supply of breadcakes, bacon and the rest. She was walking a lot more easily now, without the waddle she had been forced to adopt on release from hospital, and as long as she wasn’t lifting too much, she said she was fine. She had, in fact, described something called a prolapse, which left me quoting one of her more useful modern phrases: too much information! We parked up in the yard, an early mist dampening everything, and I unlocked the office.
Of course, the first thing she spotted was the thing Doreen had shown me, and I was astonished at her reaction. Given some of her more forthright moments, I had expected, at the least, some sort of squeal, but she just stood, smiling, arms folded, looking at the little plate before turning to me.
“Not bad for a shelf stacker, is it?”
Her smile slipped an instant later.
“Gerald, you don’t think, you know, Doreen? She won’t have nose out of joint with this? She’s been here ages!”
“No, lass. Her idea, sort of. Doreen does her work, and she’s happy with it. Lot happier since you came and straightened mess out, in truth”
“You sure? Don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes?”
“I’m sure. Now, why don’t you manage the kettle and manage me a cup of tea while I sort out breakfast stuff ready for lads?”
Off she went, and as each of our workers arrived, they stuck their head in to welcome her back. Doreen even brought a cake, which I felt was the answer to Susie’s question. Welcome back indeed.
Things were steady for a while, as we slowly built up for Christmas, and I managed to keep the doctors off my back. They wanted to run their camera thing, and I kept explaining how little time I had, what with Darren not being fully qualified and, to be honest, I got a little fed-up with it. I had worked all my life, and the business Mr Dobbs had left to me was largely my own creation, at least in how it had expanded, and it couldn’t just be turned off and left in a corner till I was back from whatever silliness they wanted to put me through.
We closed for three days over Christmas, though, and Pete and I treated our workforce to a proper meal, this time at the Oak in Copmanthorpe. It was a good one, turning a bit raucous afterwards as lads met beer, and I stayed on orange and lemonade for drive back. Pete had offered a bus, but that would have meant one of his lads having to stay sober, so we left it to the lads themselves to sort out getting home. We’d paid for the meal, after all.
“Young Pete not coming up, pal?”
The big man shook his head. “No, staying down there. Anyway, I need a word, if you’ve got a minute”
We walked out into the chill of the evening, tucking ourselves round the side of the porch to get out of a raw wind.
“I don’t know yet. Could be, could be nothing”
“In a way. Oh, he says he’s enjoying it, it’s a challenge, interesting, all that. Seems to have found his place in the world. Happy with the accommodation, as well”
He shook his head, as if dislodging a fly. “That’s the thing, Gerald. I’ve heard you say it, and others say the same. Different words, but they all mean the same thing: going to see the elephant. You, your friends, my boy; you’ve all been there. I haven’t. I mean, I have seen some seriously shitty stuff, but that goes with the job. You lot, though…”
“That’s not what’s on your mind, though, is it? What’s up with lad?”
“Pete? Nothing wrong with him. It’s, well… Look. You remember when we first met, and I was talking about your Susie, and trying to explain how it was I could see past, you know, what she was born as, take her for who she really is?”
“Aye---Oh! Has he run into lass, one you mentioned?”
He nodded, sharply, angrily. “Yes, in a way. Look, when I left, the girl wasn’t well, what with what… what with how her father had treated her. We’d not long seen him buried, and the girl…”
He stopped to draw a breath, and I realised he was close to tears. I had to do it, and I stepped past the boundaries, outside the rules, to hug him.
“She’s called Laura, Gerald. Lovely girl, bonny, full of life. Except she isn’t. She’s Pete’s lecturer, one of them, and she’s going by the name of John and… And Pete thinks John is not all there”
“What? Stupid? And a lecturer?”
“No. Just missing half of their soul. I need help, Gerald. I need advice, and I need to be open, and I just need, well, someone who has seen a different kind of elephant”
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