The pained howl of a dog caused me to turn. The howl the result it appeared to be of dog paw meeting pushchair wheel. The father raised a hand of apology, his children already trying to soothe the animal by stroking it. The dog 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 stall.
I pulled it out, with its tired wrinkled brown leather top and crushed corners. It interested me. 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!
“Okay three. “
I was convinced it would match. If not, I was sure I could find some other use for it.
I already had two leather brown cases of similar style and wear. This smaller one was would complete what I needed for the display at the local travel agent’s window.
Getting home I checked inside for insects. It 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 flat bag made from a piece of coarse tarpaulin which was folded across the top and sealed like an envelope.
I gently pulled the overlap and whatever was sealing it came away easily and lifting the flap I explored. Inside there were a few pages of writing, removing them I found them dated 21st March 1941. The left hand side was ragged suggesting they’d been torn from some notebook or jotter. The writing was immaculate.
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. There is a 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 to survive all this and be with to them again.
Today it was a long hard return march despite the initial elation of 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. We would have gone mad if we’d 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 over indulgence of tiredness. There was an unspoken conversation here. A silent love acted out in physical compassionate actions, the placing of our waning strength beneath the arms of flopping men who can go no further. 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 the remaining, only an acknowledged glance to each other. This is a good thing to do despite the sacrifice. They are our brothers, love they 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 gaps provide the reality of those whom we have lost. They are but memories, that is all we have left off them,this and sometimes the blood stains on our tunics as we comforted them briefly in their dying moments before returning to the business of war.
I carry his stain, he was from my street, we played together as we grew through times of laughter, pain, youth to man, just about men before we were called.
How I long for the greying smoking skies of home, smoke of production, not destruction. I am so tired I don’t know how much more I can take. I cry. An unseen voice mutters beside me, is it prayers to God for himself, or for me in my sobbing or does he mumble unaware in dreams from some back locker.
Continuing I realised I was now reading a rough draft of what I already read in the earlier pages but with scoring out and mistakes. I paused with an aching admiration at the resilience of this unknown man to strive for perfection in the midst of chaos. I was seventy years removed from all this but tonight I had been taken back to the 1940’s by this man’s poignant painful experiences and had shared an image of war I was unlikely ever to forget.
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 I noticed a very faded name rank and service number stencilled on the leather base. Frank Doyle I had to find you a home……
Don Russell 19/03/17