Consolation

the one thing that should have told me, straightaway, that something was going on, the one thing I can’t forgive myself for not noticing

Consolation
Sunday best on today. Harris Tweed jacket and regimental tie. No major projects today. A day of rest my Mam always called it. My usual walk up to the churchyard. Fresh flowers for my Wynne. A nice bit of sunshine. A touch too warm for the tweed, but I’ll not let it show. It’s all T-shirts these days. Not even tucked in. You just can’t carry yourself properly like that.
We always went for a walk on a Sunday. The park usually. Wynne liked to feed the ducks. Or so she said. She’d never admit it, but really, she loved to see the kiddies playing and running about, and all the young families with their prams. I’d sit on a bench with my paper and have a smoke. Watch her. Wait until she thought I wasn’t taking any notice of her and watch her. She’d chatter away to those ducks as if they were long lost friends. But that’s how she was to everyone. Warm. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The sunlight reflecting off the water, dazzling her eyes, dappling her face, catching her soft hair. She’d realise I was watching and give me a smile. But I’d have to look away, pretend to read my paper. There was too much sadness in that smile; too much loss.
That’s got me thinking. About Shorty. I don’t know, these days it doesn’t take much to set me off. Remembering. Italy. The War.
He was much older than me. A regular soldier. Corporal Cyril Hawkins. Six foot seven and as solid as a wall. He had to duck to get through every door. He only let his friends call him Shorty. Friend. The word really meant something back then. And more than that, he took me under his wing. There he was, been half way around the world, and there was me, hardly ever been out of Wales. Imagine.
And when there was any fighting he watched over me. I know he did. There were a few times he saved my bacon. But if I tried to thank him, he’d just laugh it off. Even so, when I did get that bit of shrapnel in my arm I reckon he felt guilty. That’s why he came to visit me at the field hospital whenever he could, which can’t have been easy to manage. But then, that’s where he saw her, where we both saw her for the first time. My nurse. My little angel. My Wynne.
It’s amazing how, when you’re young, you feel so alert and alive; like you could do anything, be anyone. And yet you don’t notice what’s going on right in front of your nose. Or maybe age doesn’t come into it; when something’s too hard to face, we turn a blind eye. And the thing that keeps running through my mind, the one thing that should have told me, straightaway, that something was going on, the one thing I can’t forgive myself for not noticing – Shorty never once made a funny remark about my Wynne. He never even had a little joke with her. And this was a man who would have a laugh with anyone and everyone. But not with my Wynne. With her, he was civil, courteous, respectful even. And all those visits. We weren’t exactly in the front-line, but even so, it was unusual. How could I not put two and two together? She did. I know that for certain now. I expect I was the only one who didn’t.
And then I was back to my unit; pronounced fit for duty. My arm still gave me some trouble, but I’d been lucky. The shrapnel hadn’t gone too deep and it all came out cleanly. I was young and strong. I healed quickly. And there was something to ease the pain. A certain pretty nurse had agreed we could keep in touch. That was enough to put me on top of the world. I knew lots of the lads wrote to their sweethearts and I’d seen how pleased they were to get a reply, despite the teasing. I’d only ever written to my Mam, which had caused a few ‘mummy’s boy’ remarks. Well they would have to eat their words. This was going to be something different. I felt different. I’d been wounded, survived to tell the tale and I’d got my own sweetheart. I felt like a man. As good as anyone.
I put everything into that first letter; my family, my hometown, my life, my heart and soul went into every line. I told her how her smile had brightened every day and how the memory of her kept me warm at night. And I told her, though it almost made me burst to write it down, I told her that I loved her. It was everything a love letter should be. And that made her reply so hard to bear.
Don’t get too attached, it said. Keeping in touch was one thing but this was another. She wrote that patients often get strong feelings for their nurses but it was frowned upon. If anyone found out she’d be in trouble. She was sorry if she’d led me on and she admitted that she was fond of me, but nothing more. And she wished me well.
I felt like I’d just done ten rounds with the regiment’s champion heavyweight. I couldn’t believe that I’d been so naïve. One minute a man, the next, a poor ignorant boy from the valleys. But worse was to come. To add insult to injury, the Sergeant Major comes along to tell me I’d better get some kip as I’m on guard duty that night. And then he lets on to me that I’d better get my kit in order first because, we’ve got new orders. First thing in the morning we were to pack up. By the following night we’d be on a train headed two hundred miles south. It looked like we were going nearer the action. But all I could think of was the growing distance from my Wynne. I’d never see her again. At least, I thought, everyone would be so busy that I could keep my humiliation to myself.
A long night on guard duty. The strong smell of the eucalyptus grove; no getting away from it. And no getting away from thinking about Wynne and wondering where I went so wrong. There was only an hour left to go when I heard it.
Some sounds are so distinctive. Like loading a rifle. It couldn’t be anything else. Quietly, slowly lethal. Where was it coming from? My stomach felt full of ice. Then I saw. It was Shorty. He was stooping a bit but there was no mistaking him. He looked around a couple of times, then he was off. Bloody hell. I couldn’t have shouted to him, the whole place would’ve been in uproar. I started after him. He went over by the eucalyptus grove. Up close it was overpowering. “Shorty,” I hissed, “what the bloody hell are you doing? Shorty.” There was no answer, but I’d surprised him. I heard him knock against a branch. I ran towards the sound. “Shorty. It’s me. Come here you daft sod.” I had to stop to listen again. “Come on Shorty. Come back or we’ll both be for it.”
“ Then go back.” Right next to me.
“Bloody hell man. You scared the living daylights out of me. Come out of there – quick.” He stepped out of the shadows and he looked calm and quiet – except for his eyes. Even in the pale light I could see the savage darkness in his eyes.
“Go back to the camp,” he said, as if he was talking about the weather. “Go back to the camp and say you never saw me.”
I noticed his rifle wasn’t slung over his shoulder. It was in his hands; ready.
“Look Shorty, I’m not going back without you so stop playing silly buggers and get a move on.”
“I’m glad it was you,” he said, and his voice was flat. “You’ll understand. You’ll know that I have to go to her.” And somehow I know who he’s talking about. There was only one woman in my mind, how could it be anyone else? But I wouldn’t believe it; I couldn’t. I had to ask him, “Her? Who? Who have you got to see?”
He seemed puzzled. “You know who,” he said, “Couldn’t you tell? It’s Wynne. We’ve been … well, you know, and I can’t just leave her – not like this.”
And then he was gone. I could hear him sprinting through the trees, but I couldn’t work out where the sound was coming from. It felt like there was nothing I could do. I just stood there; shouted after him, “What? What is it you’ve been doing?” And that’s all. That’s all I did for a man who’d been the best friend I’d ever had. I stood and shouted like an angry child. And to think that those were the last words I spoke to him.
I never did find out exactly what they’d done together; written letters, held hands, kissed. It wouldn’t have been right to ask her, especially after what happened to Shorty.
He should’ve known about the minefield. The Italians had put them down in a hurry as they’d retreated and they were all over the place. It was common knowledge. The road had been cleared and you had to stick to it. Perhaps he thought he’d be spotted on the road. Or more likely he wasn’t thinking at all.
I’ve never stopped wondering how I could have made it different. I don’t suppose that I ever will. Was it really too dark? Was I just too young and inexperienced? Was I exhausted from long stint on duty? I was brought up to speak the truth and face the consequences. No matter what. I never made excuses. Not till then. But once you start, it gets harder and harder to stop. At least I plucked up the courage to write to Wynne; gave her my side of the story. I didn’t expect to hear from her, it was just something I had to do. So when I recognised the handwriting on the envelope, I hesitated to open it. I was in a bad way and I didn’t know if I could cope with another brush off. But it was a tender letter. She’d obviously got to know Shorty very well. It was something that we had in common.
We developed quite a regular little correspondence. She would relate tales that Shorty had told her and I would think that such and such wasn’t quite right because I’d been there at the time. So I’d write back. I think it did us both good.
We didn’t even mention meeting up though; not until after the War. And even then it took us two years to work our way up to it. Our letters weren’t about Shorty any more, they were about us. I still thought about him, we both did, but we avoided the subject. After all, the world was a different place. It was time to draw a line under the past and to get on with our lives. New jobs, new digs, new friends, and we told each other all about them. We shared so much with each other, perhaps it was inevitable, in the circumstances, that we’d end up together.
But those circumstances, they weren’t inevitable were they? We both knew that. And you know, through fifty years of marriage, to her great credit, my Wynne never once questioned me about that night in Italy. She never openly doubted my word. She tried her hardest to forget, we both did. But for fifty years, fifty loyal years I failed, everyday, to be anything other than the next best thing; a consolation.

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