A Longer War 70

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CHAPTER 70
He was blushing again, but there was a grin behind the lowered head and shuffling hands.

“Yeah, can’t really hide that one, can I? We haven’t set a date, but, well, it was sort of obvious. Pete asked Laura, and I saw the way her mum was smiling, and it just made sense to follow the boy’s example. Too many wasted years…”

He faltered, just for a few seconds, but then the smile was back, twice as bright and utterly natural this time.

“Yeah, you’ve seen through my cunning plan. We just have to sort a few things out first, starting with the house. I’d like to bring them both up to see it, though. Be a wrench to give it up, so I thought I should share some of the memories with them”

Val took his hand again. “You not miss it up here, love?”

He sighed. “I have to admit I will, Val. But, well, Laura has a real career down there, Pete is just getting his off the ground, Lucy has a really nice place and, well, to be honest I’ve been---I’ve realised I’ve been hiding up here. I should have sorted all this out years ago, but I took all that and put it into work. I’ve done well, the business has done well, but that’s all I have done. Time to, what’s that yank phrase? Have some ‘me’ time”

Val grinned. “And Lucy time?”

Susie reached across to slap her mother’s arm. “Leave him be, Mam! Pete, when are you thinking? And what do you need from us?”

“Ah, girl, that will depend on how things go down there, leg and all, and to be honest I worry about how much Laura can actually take. Early days still”

“And she’s nervous, aye? That slap down of that student?”

“Yes, but look at who was around her. She’s still scared, and I think she’s still not completely well. Don’t want to push her too hard”

My girl was nodding. “Aye. I know that. Coming out is bloody hard, terrifying. I mean, I remember I would go out at two in morning, skirt and heels, find an excuse like posting a letter, just walk down street and back”

Val took her daughter’s hand this time, and Andy already had the other. The older woman’s expression was wistful.

“You still went and got a job, love”

“Aye, but as soon as folk started to notice, that bastard of a boss stuck me out in stock room, away from normal folk so they wouldn’t get upset having to deal with a freak”

She looked away, and there was just a hint of tears held back by force of will.

“Pete, you bring her up, you let us know when. We’ll say hello, then keep distance, like. Let her set the pace”

He leant across to kiss her cheek. “Thanks, love. I’ll let you know when. Anyone for another drink?”

I had to use the gents’ just then, and once more I was followed in by Andrew, once more told my fortune. I had all my usual arguments there, but he shot them down.

“And lad’s not ready as duty manager, then? Not got his papers just about done? You’ve got no excuses left, Gerald. I’m taking you down there tomorrow to make appointment. Booked time off for it, so you know I’m serious”

He caught something in my expression, and shook his head.

“No, I haven’t said owt to her. Not my place, is it? But trust me, Gerald, if she knew what you were doing she’d throw a right one. So we keep it to ourselves, let them do their checks, and if it’s all clear then we have nowt to tell, aye? So, you coming with me tomorrow?”

I had no choice, really, so I agreed, and we returned to our little family group rather more subdued than when we had left it. Susie looked straight at me, trying to work out what was going on, so I made myself grin and gave them the very old joke about beer being rented rather than bought. There was a little bit of laughter, and then she sat up straighter.

“Oh, meant to say! Gerald, BBC were after you. I almost forgot, what with all this about Laura and that. They’re doing interviews of veterans, programme about how war’s changed but hasn’t really, if you see what I mean”

I must have looked doubtful, and her enthusiasm slipped down a gear.

“I know, love, but I really think you should do it. That trip we did… sod it, when we met, aye? You told me things I’d never known, never realised. I think that’s point of programme, show folk how nasty and messy it is so they think twice before diving in”

She rummaged in her handbag for a letter.

“Came in addressed to boatyard, so I thought it were normal mail, like, and then realised it were for you as you, not as boss. Sorry”

Pete was shaking his head. “I’m with Susie on this one, mate, but I think we’ll leave the lad out of it. Still too raw a wound”

They wanted to speak to me on the Thursday. It looked like my week was getting booked up rather quickly.
Andy picked me up the next morning, and on arrival at the surgery the receptionist gave him a nod and me a glare, as the doctor gave me an appointment for the following Tuesday and a prescription for something that would clearly make it unwise for me to spend time away from a toilet after taking it. All very quickly arranged, to my eye, and I realised the boy hadn’t just been nagging me but actually pushing my doctor along. I didn’t relish the following week.

Thursday came along, and it was Val who delivered me to the studios in Leeds, where they powdered my face and did other things they said a camera needed before leading me down a maze of corridors. I found myself in a room with one glass wall and a small group of men, one of whom I knew.

“Gerald! They got hold of you then!”

“This your idea, Ernie?”

“Not really, pal. They had word with Legion, and they shoved me forward, and I said aye, I know another lad, over in York, and, well, here we are. We’ll get us dinner out of it, anyway”

The door opened, and someone I recognised from the telly came in, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans rather than his usual jacket and tie.

“Hi, thank you all for coming in. I’m Tom Edwards, but you probably know that. We have a sort of plan for today-a dry run, but recording. We’ll do a more formal one later today, but start off with some introductions, set the scene”

That left a question hanging, and of course it was Ernie who asked it. “Why record now, then?”

Edwards grinned. “I’ve been in this game a long time, and one thing I learned at the beginning was that things happen when they happen, so ALWAYS have the cameras rolling. Now, I’ll just call Hardip and Shelley in for the recording bit…”

In they came, there was some fussing and checking of all sorts of technical stuff, and then Edwards was to the point.

“Initial interview three, The Sharp End. Today we are speaking to Gerald Barker and Ernest Roberts—“

“Ernie”

“Thank you. Gerald Barker and Ernie Roberts, of the Royal Tank Regiment. Alan White—“

“Chalky”

“Thank you. Before I start again, any other name changes?”

We all had a little laugh together, the last lad shook his head, and Edwards sighed and started again.

“…Chalky White of the Royal Marines, Ian Bowman of the Royal Regiment—“

“Northumberland Fusiliers, son”

“Right… and Joe Eyres of the Royal East Riding”

He gave us all a bit of a stare, and then grinned, at which point I decided I actually liked the man.

“Here I am, trying to keep you lot in line, and then I remember that you have earned the right to step out of it. Back to the script. Gerald and Ernie served with a reconnaissance unit of the fourteenth Royal Tank Regiment, going ashore in Normandy two days after D-Day itself, and fighting their way to the Danish border and the final German surrender.

“Chalky White landed on the Falklands in 1982, fighting in the battle of Goose Green, and subsequent battles until the Argentine surrender. He also served in peacekeeping duties in Bosnia, and in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and the later Iraq war. Ian Bowman was with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, which later became the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in the emergency in Aden in 1967.

“Joe Eyres was also in the Normandy landings with the Royal East Riding Regiment, and like Gerald and Ernie stayed with his unit as far as Denmark and VE Day. Gentlemen, thank you for coming. Now, what we hope to do with these interviews is to capture your personal experiences of being at The Sharp End”

The capital letters were clear in his voice.

“By that, I don’t mean an account of battles and hardware, I mean your feelings, your emotions. I believe that there will be a lot of common ground here, and if it were possible, you would share that with, say, one of the Legionaries from up on the Wall. Chalky, can you give us an idea of what it was like to be in a firefight?

“Mr Edwards---“

“Tom!”

There was a twinkle there as he got his own back, and I decided that yes, I really did like him. Chalky led us on an account of some nasty little actions, most of which seemed to have been fought in the dark, and when he spoke of the night actions in the Gulf, he was almost wistful.

“That was the thing, you know? In the South Atlantic, it was all very old-school, all close action. I mean…”

He paused, and I knew that look. “It meant bayonets, and that’s a big thing, a hard thing to do. In the Gulf, it was mostly at a distance. What the tank gunners could see they could kill, and it meant that we followed rather than led, but on the island… No. It wasn’t good”

“And Bosnia?”

Chalky’s face twisted. “Not the same thing at all, that. Fucking—sorry. Can you edit that?”

“We won’t. We’ll bleep it out, but this programme is all about feelings. Gentlemen, please speak as freely as you want. Let today’s young people know how lucky they are. Chalky?”

“Aye. Fucking Bosnia. Not the place for us, not at all, and it was my mate, big Geordie lad, Mike. He shouldn’t have been there, you know? I mean, he were hard as nails, but sensitive with it, and what those bastards did to women, kids… He said it right, a job for coppers, not soldiers. We came back, and he just cleared off. Never saw him again, and then it were Iraq again, and that were almost a relief. I mean, it were still a horrible thing, but at least it were a bloody war and not women and kids, Sorry”

“Ian?”

The bigger man was nodding. “Aye, Chalky’s not wrong. I mean, Aden were a bit like that, but more like lads say Ulster could be: you never knew who was going to take a pot at you”

“Where were you, Ian?”

He laughed. “Oh, I were lucky, in a way. We were stationed by Crater City, and they had this big hill, and superstition was that you’d never leave Aden till you’d been to top. We spent most of our time up country, fighting the rebels, but every time we got some new lads in, we’d tell them about hill, and first thing they’d do was go running up it. One lad…

“Some kids never learn, and we said to him, don’t go anywhere on your tod, and that lad must have, and it were four days before he were found, what were left of him. They’d tied him with barbed wire and---no. Not today, aye?”

“Joe?”

“Ah, I think we need a bit of light relief, Tom. You’ve got to picture the scene, and they copied it on that Yank show, ‘How America Won Every War in History’ or some such shite”

“Band of Brothers?”

“Aye, that’s it. Germans surrendered, and we are heading off to Danish border to finish it all off. So there’s tanks and wagons and us going one way, and what seemed like millions of Jerries going other, and Sammy James, he says, ey up, let’s show buggers what we think of them, so we all drops us trousers and hang our bare arses over side of truck so they can see exactly what we DO think of them!”

Ernie was chuckling. “Joe, I think we’ve got some photos somewhere, me and Gerald here. We must have been in tank right in front of your wagon!”

Tom was giving little thumbs up signals as the conversation took off, and then he turned to me.

“What was your job, Gerald?”

“Gunner, Tom, in a Cromwell. Tank. We did reconnaissance, out front of rest”

Ernie stuck his hand up. “It were different for me, I were inside all time, no vision ports or owt, so I didn’t see much”

“But you did, Gerald?”

“Aye… too much, Tom. Tanks burn, and they go quickly”

“Were you ever knocked out?”

I realised at that question that he already knew the answer, so I just nodded. “Aye, lost a mate in that one. Middle of winter, little Belgian village”

I gave the name of the place, and Joe sat up straighter.

“I were there too. Had some fucking bastard in British kit we took away and strung up”

A memory…

Joe looked down as his own memories stirred. “Aye, we gave him a court martial, drumhead one, and then we strung him up. Not the first one, either. That one were a sniper, SS”

Ernie was staring now. “Your boss a bloke called Allsop?”

Joe was nodding. “Aye, Captain Allsop. Copped one at the Rhine crossing. That sniper, well, we’re pretty sure it were him. Four days he spent killing my mates before we got him”

He was staring at me now. “Did you have red hair?”

Ernie laughed. “Aye, Ginge, we called him”

Joe was nodding again. “Stop me if you don’t want this told, Ginge. Tom, it’s the dead of winter, and we’re on the edge of a big push by Jerry, Battle of the Bulge. These two boys are laid up waiting for the attack, and the krauts are sending SS men out in our kit, or in Yank uniforms, and they try it on with these boys and they’re sharp enough to see what’s going on. That’s where Ginge, Gerald here, that’s where he comes into story”

He looked across at Chalky. “You said it, mate, abut close combat. Big thing, aye?”

“Aye, absolutely. Different for lads with big guns. Don’t have to look into another man’s eyes when they kill them”

Joe was nodding all through that. “Aye, and that’s where Ginge here, lad who’s not been doing that, not looking in their eyes, that’s where he looks a Jerry in the face, in his eyes, and he looks after his mates just then and shoots the fucker just about point blank. Bill and Jack told me about how much blood there was, all over fresh snow, aye?”

The other men were squeezing my shoulders, patting my arm, as Joe finished.

“And that, Tom, is what it is all about. Ginge here does what we have all had to do, something none of us ever wanted to do, and he does it face to face, and he does it for his mates. I think we should take a break now”



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