The pained howl of a dog caused me to turn. The howl had been the result of a dog paw meeting a pushchair wheel. The father raised a hand of apology, his children already trying to soothe the animal by stroking it. The animal appeared none the worse and a shoulder shrugged smile from its owner reflected an acceptance, accidents happen. It was as I turned that I caught sight of it nestled amongst the clutter underneath the pasting table come car boot stall.
I pulled it out. The suitcase with its tired wrinkled brown leather top and crushed corners was just the right size to sit atop the two I already had for a display on travel I’d been asked to set up at the local library. Intentionally I began slowly returning the item, aware the seller was watching. I casually made eye contact and with a degree of mock disinterest queried.
“How much for the old case mate?”
“I’ll give you two quid.”
I contemplated pushing for two pound fifty. Nah, I thought.
“Okay three. “
Getting home I was pleased, it really matched well with the two I already had. A bit of polish to nourish the leather and all would be fine.
Inside, where I did a quick check for spiders and the like, was lined in a lighter brown coloured material than the outside and there was a long cloth pocket of the same colour and material attached to the front interior edge. Instinctively I slipped my hand beneath the elasticated top of the pocket and slid it along. I felt something in the corner. My heart fluttered as I retrieved it. It was a small bag made from a piece of coarse tarpaulin which was roughly folded across the top and sealed like an envelope.
I gently pulled the overlap and whatever was sealing it gave way easily. Lifting the flap, I explored inside. There was a fountain pen, the gold clip on the top cover had the initials F D inscribed on it, there was also some folded white papers. I carefully unfolded the papers which were clean, crisp, and dry, almost pristine, probably due to the protective tarpaulin envelope they’d been wrapped in. The left-hand side of the pages were ragged suggesting they’d been torn from a notebook or jotter. “The 21st of March 1941 was written at the top of the first page, the ink unaffected by the years was still fresh and clear. It began –
Back at camp, safe for the moment. I am not sure how long a man is expected to suffer this way of living. Sometimes I envy those who have fallen. Is there peace for them? Then I reprimand myself for such thoughts. They may have peace, I do not know, but like me they have families back home and I am sure their aim would have been like mine to survive all this and be with them again.
Today it was a long hard return march to our camp despite the initial elation of a small victory. The adrenalin had drained, and we were men again. Dirty, muddy, tired, walking dreamlike, eyes battling to be allowed to close, just men again, God had numbed our minds for protection. I would go mad I think if I tried to carry all the mental luggage. He’d sent it to rest in some back locker in our mind for another day, whilst we fought the more immediate battle of physically getting ourselves home.
We were sober drunk, our paths weaving with an overindulgence of tiredness. There was an unspoken conversation here. A silent love acted out in a physical compassionate manner, the placing of our waning strength beneath the arms of flopping men, who could go no further without our help, overburdened by the weight of war.
The road squelches as we journey. The roar from behind. We split going to our chosen side. No one rushes to clamber on board. Those who can don’t, those who can’t are gently lifted into the back of the truck.
No speech from those still remaining on the road, only an acknowledged glance to each other. This is a good thing to do despite the sacrifice. They are our brothers, love thy neighbour, we have fought with them, we have the faith they would do for us as we do for them.
As we regroup back at the camp the empty beds provide the reality of those whom we have lost. They are but memories, which is all we have left off them, this and sometimes their blood stains on our tunic as we comforted them briefly in their dying moments before we return to the business of battle.
I carry his stain across my chest where he nestled, whispering weakly to pass on his love his family as he breathed his last. I knew him, he was from my street, we played together as we grew through times of laughter and pain, youth to man, just about men before we were called.
My stomach pit churns as I write. How I yearn for the greying smoking skies of home, smoke of production, not destruction. I am so tired I do not know how much more I can take. I cry. An unseen voice utters from under the blanket beside me, is it prayers to God for himself, or for me in my sobbing or does he mumble unaware of himself, from unfettered dreams of the horrors of the day just past released by sleep.
These are my pains; my thoughts and I will carry these memories of this God forsaken time throughout the rest my journey through life.
The writing was immaculate, and I paused with an aching admiration at the resilience of this unknown man to strive for perfection in the midst of chaos. It was seventy years ago, but tonight I had been taken back to the 1940’s by this man’s poignant painful experiences that struck a deep hurt. I found myself weeping for the suffering of a man and all the others I never knew.
I carefully slipped the letter back into the tarpaulin envelope and placed it safely in the post rack by the front door for now. I picked the case up to put it with the others and noticed a faded name rank and service number stencilled on the leather base. Frank Doyle, FD, his pen. I didn’t want to know what happened to him, preferring to send a prayer of thanks that he and his generation served for me before I was here.
Lest we forget.