‘Just speak clearly into this.’
‘Yes. Just speak clearly.’
‘What would you like me to say?’
‘Just tell me what you remember. Tell me about the war.’
The steady drone of the Dakota’s engines combined with the high-pitched rush of its slipstream to make conversation in the glider difficult. Members of the British 6th Airborne Division sat facing each other either side of the Horsa’s fuselage. Some of them had seen action in Normandy and some were facing action for the first time; all were deep in thought, imagining how it would be. When the towline was cut and the drone flew away, for a few moments it was almost quiet as the glider lined up for landing. Then the antiaircraft fire began.
Harry turned to Charlie; he was scared.
‘Am I going to die, Charlie?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Will you look after me, Charlie?’
‘I’ll try to, Harry.’
Benny laughed; he was the youngest member of the division, and was huddled in a ball on the other side of Charlie. His laugh was frantic, born of fear and bravado; he had yet to face action. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Benny said. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re brave or not, or good or bad, of clever or stupid. When the fighting starts you just keep going. If you’re hit or not it doesn’t matter.’
‘It matters to me,’ said Charlie.
Benny didn’t say anything else. He just stared at his feet. His arms shook.
Then the Brigadier turned to his men. ‘OK chaps, we’re going in. Link arms. Feet up.’
Their stomachs lurched as the flaps lowered and the glider dropped. When it hit the ground it scraped forward over grass and fields until the landing gear snagged on some barbed wire and the glider swung around sharply to the left and lurched to a standstill. The men could hear machine gun fire and muffled explosions outside. The village and the enemy were near.
‘Right. Let’s get going men. Last one out buys the beers.’
‘And what happened next, Charlie?’
‘I remember smoke and haze. The village and surrounding area had been heavily bombed the week leading up to our drop. Most of it was reduced to rubble. It was hard to imagine how anyone could be left alive. But Gerry was everywhere . . . we had to cross this market square to take out their heavy gun positions. Harry caught one in the leg, but he carried on fighting. What else could he do? Anyone who slowed down or stayed still was an easy target and ended up dead.’
‘Was Harry OK?’
‘He was fine. We managed to find cover and we carried on to take out the enemy guns.’
‘And Benny. What happened to Benny?’
‘Was Benny OK?’
‘Can I have a glass of water. Please?’
Taking the village had cost them dear. Now the fighting was over and bodies were left in the streets and around the market square. Medics and stretcher-bearers had arrived and were sorting the living from the dead. Charlie just sat down in the road. A medic approached him.
‘Would you like a cigarette?’
‘Oh . . . OK. Yes, thanks.’ Charlie accepted the cigarette and the light, and then he inhaled deeply.
‘Are you OK?’
Charlie didn’t reply.
‘How do you feel?’
For a long while Charlie just stared at the ground. Then he coughed and looked up at the medic. ‘I’m OK. I’m not in any pain.’
Charlie adjusted his position, leaning back against the curb and stretching out his leg. ‘All this . . . ‘ He waved his arm around in a broad sweep. ‘All this . . .’ Charlie’s voice quietly imploded. The medic sat down beside Charlie and put his arm on Charlie’s shoulder.
Charlie pointed to a mess of burnt flesh across the road. ‘See that boy over there? I look at him and I feel nothing. I know I should, but I don’t.’
‘Were you hit?’
‘No. But my pal Benny was. He caught it in his guts, and they spilled out and he screamed.’
‘Were you close?’
‘Benny was right in front of me. If he hadn’t been it would have been me lying there dead.’
‘Had you known him long?’
‘He was ripped apart, right there in front of me, and I didn’t care.’
Charlie’s eyes were wide open and his face was strained, as if he were trying to force tears out. But they didn’t come. The end of Charlie’s cigarette had reach his fingers but he didn’t notice.
‘He was only a boy.’
FWOP, FWOP, FWOP.
‘Hold on Charlie. I need to turn the tape over.’
KER-CLUNK . . . . CLINK, CLICK . . . . . TAP, TAP.
‘OK Charlie, you can carry on now.’
‘Charlie? . . . You OK Charlie?’
‘He was just a boy.’
A combat clearing station had been set up in and around an old manor house that was still more or less standing at the far edge of town and relatively safe beyond the range of enemy artillery. As transportation was still limited, and the nearest military hospital was the other side of the Rhine, the clearing station had to start treating those who needed it. All around the wounded waited; nurses moved between them, tending those they could and identifying those they could not. In the basement there were makeshift operating theatres, where surgeons worked without rest in the hot, dusty space. On the ground floor soldiers who had been treated and were now stable were left to recover. Despite being full it was a relatively quiet place. Everyone was too exhausted to moan let alone talk.
All around the house were gardens and beyond them fields and a wood. A few recent shell-holes marred the lawns. If you ignored these and looked away from the house and across the lawn and into the trees, and if you could ignore the distant sounds of explosions and gunfire, you could almost forget the war. Charlie was sitting on a bench at the back of the house. He stared into the distance and didn’t say much to anyone. A tall man on crutches approached him.
‘Hello Charlie.’ It was Harry. At first Charlie didn’t notice him. Harry sat down beside Charlie. ‘How are you?’
Charlie slowly turned his head. He continued to stare over Harry’s shoulder, still looking at nothing in particular in the far distance. ‘I can’t find my rifle,’ Charlie said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’
‘It doesn’t matter Charlie. You don’t need it now.’
Charlie didn’t react.
‘I wanted to thank you Charlie. You looked after me. You saved my life.’
‘I did?’ he said. Charlie looked directly at Harry for the first time, and his eyes focused on Harry’s face. ‘Harry?’ he said.
‘Yes, Charlie. And you saved my life.’
Charlie was confused. ‘Did I? How did I do that?’
‘Don’t you remember? I got shot in the leg trying to get across that market square.’ Harry gently tapped the brown stained bandages that covered his left thigh. ‘I tried, but I couldn’t go on. That bastard on the roof had me in his sights. There was no cover and I was sure I was finished. Then you came back. You could have left me but you came back. You threw me over your shoulder and you ran with me to reach cover at the far side of the market square.’
Charlie slowly nodded.
‘Then you and Benny and a couple of other chaps worked your way forward and you lobbed grenades at the big machine gunners and you took them out. And then you came back and picked me up again. It was then that Benny bought it. As he ran toward us. Right there in front of us. Oh God. Don’t you remember?’
Charlie had resumed his position looking straight ahead into the trees in the distance. He was very quiet. He didn’t sob. He didn’t blink. But tears ran freely down his face.
‘I’m tired. Can we stop now?’
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to carry on just a little while. This is really important.’
‘No. I’m tired. I’d like to stop now.’
‘We could take a break. Have some tea.’
‘No. I’d like to stop.’
‘OK Charlie; you’re the boss. After all, it’s your story.’