COMRADES

Brothers in arms

Lest we forget?

Short Stories by George Donald

Comrades

He had been visiting Jean daily since her death. Well, almost daily depending on the weather and with the problems that his glaucoma caused him. Now he walked with the white painted stick the doctor had insisted he use, at least until such time he obtained a hospital admission to have his eyesight repaired.

The gates of the cemetery were open, as he knew they would be, even this early in the morning. His daughter would have been proud of him, wearing his hand knitted scarf under his coat against the slight chill. Maybe I should consider a bunnet, he thought, his brow furrowed and his stiff back straightened slightly, recalling his old army training that determined twenty-four per cent of body heat is lost through the head. And at my age, he quietly chuckled; I can't afford to be losing anything. He shuffled along the cinder path past the neat row of headstones that depicted the war graves and onwards to where his Jean rested. The traffic on the nearby Corkerhill Road rumbled past, the heavy sound of diesel engines denoting the labouring buses. He might not be able to see, he smiled, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing, even after a lifetime working as a riveter in the now redundant Govan shipyard's. Slightly breathless from his walk, he arrived at the neatly tended grave. As every morning he bowed his head in acknowledgment, seeing with almost sightless eyes the words engraved on the black marble and in his heart: Jean MacDonald, aged seventy-eight years. Beloved wife of Thomas and mother to Ian, Alex and Sarah.

It was by happy chance that the wooden bench was situated just a few short yards from her grave. Wearily, one hand feeling behind him for the seat, he settled himself down and sighed. Again he recalled the argument about the headstone. Alex had insisted the grandkids names be added, for hadn't they loved their granny too? In the end he had patiently explained there were too many names for the simple headstone, five in all. And what of Sarah's then unborn daughter, he'd argued? Didn't she also rate a mention? He hadn't convinced his youngest son, but his decision was final. The names, he had told him didn't need to be added for them to remember their granny nor for them to know their granny loved them. Besides, he'd gently reminded his son, nobody really goes away as long as there is someone to remember him or her by. Alex hadn't been persuaded and the disagreement had caused a bit of an atmosphere between him and his father, but time had healed the rift, as Tommy had known it would.

A robin chirruped from nearby and unconsciously he cocked his head to listen, the sound of the bird pleasing him on this frosty morning. His legs were tired after his short walk. Not that the nursing home was far, just a fifteen minute stroll from Paisley Road West for a sighted person, but since his failing eyesight he had grown more cautious, more wary of the uneven pavements and obstacles on the street that conspired to prevent his progress, and the traffic on the roads these days? My God, Jean, he shook his head towards where she lay, you wouldn't believe the number of motors and lorries that go whizzing past me on my way here. But practise makes perfect and he smiled softly, priding himself that what had once been a tentative and hesitant forty-minute adventure was now reduced to just under twenty-five minutes. He liked this time of the morning, reaching into his coat pocket for his cigarettes and lighter. The fresh air and solitude of the cemetery was ideal for reflecting on the past and discussing family issues with Jean. He chortled as he thought of her. He had learned since her death, he once joked to the children, that a discussion was a two-way thing. But still, he missed her counsel and the steady influence she exerted when he was sometimes hot-headed, particularly that time when Sarah announced she was pregnant to that big Catholic sod - and them not even married!
But once again Jean had been proven correct. The guy turned out to be a good husband and a terrific father and now, he admitted a little sheepishly, he loved him as he did his own sons.

"So dear," he spoke softly, "any words of wisdom for your old husband today? You'll know thats me eighty-seven next week and you're not here to bake me a cake. Surprised at you," he shook his head and smiled towards the grave, the black headstone a shapeless lump to his tired eyes.

"Anybody sitting here?" intruded the voice in his thoughts.
Tommy startled, whipping his head round at the sound. He could just make out the figure, a man by his voice, standing a few feet away to his left.
"Eh, no, I'm on my own," he replied, immediately regretting the admission for he knew that not even the elderly were safe these days from the muggers. If the guy was intending robbing him, then Tommy had nobody near to help him.
The man sat heavily down beside him.
"I'm gasping for a fag. Any chance of a draw?"
Tommy took a deep breath. Was this a prelude to being attacked and robbed? His right hand gripped the stick that little bit tighter. Eighty-seven or not, he wouldn't be the easy target his age indicated.
"Here," he handed over the pack, "help yourself."
The cigarettes were taken from his hand and he heard rather than saw the rustling of the cardboard pack as the man flipped opened the top and took out a fag. To his surprise, the pack was pushed back against his hand.
"Thanks," said the man, "though to be honest I had to take the tip off. I don't think I could ever get used to these new fangled things."
He took a deep breath as the man's hand rested on his and he felt his hand being drawn up. The dark shape that he knew must be the man's head bent down and he heard the man taking a deep breath as he lit his own cigarette from Tommy's.
"It's only the second light so we should be safe," said the man good-humouredly. "Tommy isn't it?"
"Aye, right enough," the old man slowly agreed. But Tommy was surprised. How the devil did he know my name? And the reference to the second light; where did that come from? The third light, he had learned in the Regiment, was always the one the enemy sniper took a pot shot at. "Are you local then?" he asked, curious to know where the man was from.
"Govan originally. Used to work in the shipyard's, but that was a very long time ago."
"Come on now, young fella," said Tommy, gently mocking him, "you don't sound old enough to have worked in the yards. What are you, twenty-four, twenty-five or thereabouts?"
There was a slow pause before he answered. "Aye, you're nearly right, Tommy. I was twenty-four…. Once upon a time."
"I don't understand. Once upon a time? You mean you're a wee bit older?"
The man patted his arm. "Do you fancy a wee walk?"
He smiled in anticipation, his instinct telling him the man did not present any kind of threat after all. "As long as you promise not to race me round the tracks here. My days of running are long gone," he joked, reaching a hand out and allowing the man to gently help him stand.
"No forced marches today Tommy, just a wee quiet stroll. Two old pals enjoying the morning air and thinking of old times."

Lord, but this is a strange one, he thought. Forced march? That was another army reference, and two old pals? He began to shuffle along the path, aware the man was walking slowly beside him. Yet his voice, young though it was, seemed somehow oddly familiar. Curse old age and curse this memory. "So are you not working these days, eh…...you didn't tell me what you name is?"
"Andy," the man replied, "my name's Andy and no, I'm not working anymore."
"Aye, things are bad at the moment," agreed Tommy with sympathy, concentrating on keeping his feet, his stick waving in front of him for any obstacles.
"Here, Tommy, take my arm as we walk," said Andy, placing Tommy's hand on top of his arm. His fingers felt a rough, coarse material, something vaguely familiar, something he had felt before. If only he could remember. Since the onset of the glaucoma, his hearing had improved in compensation for his failing sight and he listened as Andy's feet crunched on the cinder path.
"That must be a right solid pair of boots you're wearing there, laddie," he grinned at the heavy-footed man.

They strolled in silence for a few minutes then Andy felt Tommy slow down.
"There's a bench just here, Tommy. Why don't you and I take a breather, eh?"
Andy helped the old man sit down and then sat beside him. "Time for another fag," he told Tommy, then produced a pack from his breast pocket. "Here, you'll enjoy this, a real lungful of tobacco this will give you," he smiled, placing the cigarette in Tommy's outstretched hand.
Tommy felt for the tip, surprised to find there wasn't one. Delicately, he sniffed at the cigarette, the aroma vaguely familiar and evoking a long-forgotten memory. "This is a Senior Service!" he burst out in surprise.
"Aye," laughed a delighted Andy, "bet it's a long time since you've had one of they coffin nails between your lips, Tommy." He struck a match and guided Tommy's hand to the light, watching as he lit the fag and drew a deep lungful of smoke, the unexpected strength causing the old man to cough and splutter. Andy laughed again as he gently patted Tommy on the back. Together, they sat in comfortable silence, each lost in their thoughts.

His heart racing, he finally asked the question that had been bothering him, fearing that he already knew the answer. "Do I know you, Andy?"
He heard the younger man take a deep breath and then slowly exhale. "You used to Tommy. A long time ago. First in the yard at Govan, where we worked, then we both received our call up papers the same day. Ended up in the same outfit, the same platoon even. D'ye remember me now?"
A sudden chill swept through Tommy and his throat tightened. Andy McNamara, his best pal that Tommy's father banned from visiting the house, simply because he was a Roman Catholic. The first man who introduced Tommy to what religious tolerance was all about.
"But…...but...…but, you're …dead," he gasped, his watery eyes widening in shocked surprise.
"Aye Tommy, can't deny that one old friend. Hasn't stopped me coming and seeing you, though," was the chuckled response.
"But, …how can this be? I saw you killed! In '44, just after we landed at Normandy…."
"I know, I know," said Andy, his voice soft as he tried to reassure the old man.
Tommy half twisted in the seat and with shaking fingers, touched again the arm of the man who sat beside him. The memories came flooding back. His shaking fingers traced a path up the arm to Andy's shoulder, feeling the epaulette and down the front to the breast pocket, its flap held down by a Bakelite button. There was no doubt. It was an army battledress jacket and the material was serge. His probing fingers found raised stitching on the arm, just beneath the shoulder where the wings of the Parachute Regiment were sewn. He shrank back, unsure of what was happening, but strangely felt no fear.
"I never got the chance to thank you, Tommy," said Andy. "When that mortar shell fell and we got blown out of the bomb crater, you could easily have run, you know. You didn't have to stay and drag me to safety."
With a sudden clarity, Tommy remembered, recalling his fear and panic. The deafening noise and white hot flash as the shell landed. Andy screaming, his intestines severed and bulging from the massive wound in his stomach, his left arm blown cleanly off his shoulder. The blood was everywhere and yet Tommy suffered nothing worse than a cut to his forehead. His terrified first instinct had been to escape, get far away from the horror that was his best friend. He actually reached upwards to the parapet of the crater, intending climbing out and running. But something stopped him, Andy's desperate whimpering plea for help, he remembered. "I…...I nearly run, Andy," he said, his voice faltering as his eyes misted over with tears from a long forgotten shame. "I was so scared, so frightened…. I pee'd myself," he continued in a low voice, the tears now coursing down his cheeks. He didn't expect the hand that slapped him on the back, the snigger that turned into a hearty laugh.
"But you didn't run, you daft old Proddy bugger. You stayed and dragged me across that ploughed field, even though every Jerry in the world was trying to shoot your bloody head off."
There was a pause as Andy recalled the incident, running through it in his mind as he had done a thousand times before.
"I remember you hauling and screaming at me, trying to get me to the ditch, where our blokes were holed up. You didn't know I was dying then, just kept pulling at me and cursing me upside down. You kept calling me a bleeding Catholic bugger! Honestly, Tommy," he laughed uproariously. "Bleeding Catholic bugger! You don't know how true that was. Particularly as I bled to death long before you got me to safety." His laughter quietened to a low chuckle. "You've no idea how any times I've told that story, since I died."
Tommy began to laugh with him as Andy's infectious humour erupted again. Slowly, they both again settled down into comfortable silence.
"So, Andy, I know it's you. But why are you here?"
"You've not guessed then?"
"Is it…...my time?"
He heard rather than saw the gentle smile on his old friends face.
"They wanted someone to lead you home. Jean your wife was about to step down, said that it was her job. But I asked if I could come in her place and promised her I would let you know she's waiting. I had a special reason you see, Tommy. I never got the opportunity to thank you, for what you did, risking your life I mean; for being my friend. Even though you are an obstinate Proddy sod," he grinned at the almost sightless, pale faced, old man.
Tommy's breathing was gradually becoming shallower and the bright daylight, oddly, was turning dark.

Much later, as the young constable stood with the paramedics beside the body and noted details in her book, she decided that the two young soldier's seen laughing as they strolled through the cemetery were probably army cadets from the nearby hall. Anyway, she reasoned, the doctor was satisfied the old guy had died of a massive heart attack and as there were no suspicious circumstances, it seemed pointless that she include the details in her report.