Authors: Bernard Beckett
‘How long will I be gone Dad?’
‘Get to your group. They’re waiting.’
‘Bye then Dad.’
‘Go, ’fore I belt you.’
‘I said bye.’
Colin wanted to hold him, but he knew Dad would never allow it. Same as he knew what would come next, Dad’s own way of stopping the tears. But he didn’t flinch.
‘Go.’ The blow caught him hard behind his ear, and stung with the cold and the sadness. There were better ways to say goodbye.
* * *
They were allowed to stay up on deck until the ship was out at sea and England had smudged into the grey horizon. Although they stayed close together, none of them spoke or acted as if they knew one another. There were fifteen of them, nine boys and six girls, and two adult supervisors, Miss David and Miss Stuart, who herded them back down to their meeting room just as the cloud thickened to rain. That was where they tried to explain. Mostly it was Miss David who did the talking, even though she looked the younger of the two. They were both teachers, working their passage back ‘home’, which for them meant New Zealand, a place Colin had never heard of.
it explained the funny way the women had of talking, splitting their words in two and forcing the top half up through the nose. Miss David had kind eyes though, and said the things people say when they don’t want to upset you. She told them the journey would take five weeks, and how she and Miss Stuart were there to make sure they had everything they needed. She told them how they would have new families waiting for them, who were looking forward very much to seeing them all, and she told them how beautiful they would find their new home, and how happy they would be there.
One of the girls began to cry and the others passed it on, like a cold. Colin saw the eyes of one of the boys glaze over too, and another had to interrupt through clasped fingers, to find out where to go to be sick. Miss David just pointed, and
continued with her talking, and when the boy returned, looking pale and weak, she didn’t ask how he was. So it was just like Colin had thought, he was on his own now. He wouldn’t cry, or ask for help. He would go numb, until the world around him took shape again; and when he was certain it would take his weight, maybe then he would move forward.
They were put three to a cabin. The two boys Colin was roomed with were named Jack and Darren. Colin said as little as he could in response to their questions and soon they stopped bothering him. They were both older than him, Darren by one year, Jack two, but it didn’t seem that way to Colin when they got to talking. They put Colin on the top bunk and took the two bottom ones, and although Colin tried not to listen, it was hard to keep the words out.
‘I was talking to a girl, Susan, at the dinner table. She says she has an uncle in New Zealand, who has sent her postcards.’
‘Did she have one to show you?’
‘No, but she said it’s very beautiful. You go to the beach every day there, she said.’
‘What about when it rains?’
‘I don’t think it does, not much anyway.’
‘Is she staying with her uncle?’
‘I didn’t ask.’
‘Do you think your new family will be rich?’
‘I think they must be, to be taking us on like this.’
‘Imagine a huge house, with servants. That would do me.’
‘That’s why we’re going, Miss Stuart told me. We’re going to start a better life.’
Colin wanted to tell them not to think things like that, he wanted to say how no one was ever nice, just because somebody
said they would be. He wanted to explain how often it was the exact opposite, and the people you were warned about turned out to be the best people of all. But mostly he wanted to be apart, not involved in their thinking, so he didn’t say a thing. Their talking must have got inside his head though, because his dreams, when they came, were of being back up north again, where he was sent during the war, where he met his good friend Gino.
At first Colin was conscious of where the dream was taking him, but he didn’t resist because it was a better place to be, better than the ship, better even than London. And then it wasn’t like any dream he’d had before. There was none of the dislocation, the shifts in place and time, the wrong people
and going, or changing without comment. Every detail seemed correct and solid, so it wasn’t like dreaming at all. It was as if, just by choosing it to be so, Colin had closed his eyes and stepped back in time.
* * *
He was at the side of the road, waiting for the school bus to come around the corner, ready to wave out to the driver and watch it grind down through the gears to a dusty halt. The air was still and cool, the first touch of autumn. He watched his breath take shape in front of his face. Exactly as it had been in real life, the first day he met Gino.
There were seven of them altogether, Italian prisoners of war, and Colin’s host, Mr Strike, was responsible for administering their captivity. It was a job he took very seriously. In the
, when Colin’s chores were completed, and he had told the necessary lies about his homework, Mr Strike talked of
little else. What jobs he had lined up for them, whose farm they would be digging on, which of them was lazy, or needed to be watched carefully, because they were sure to be planning an escape. Mr Strike also took great care to explain to Colin the rules governing interaction with the locals, which he had on two typewritten pages sent up from London, and
knew by heart.
There was to be no interaction of any type between the
and the locals, unless expressly sanctioned by the
The prisoners were denied access to any form of currency, and any transaction they entered into would be a direct
of their conditions of imprisonment.
The prisoners were to receive no gifts, including any food or drink beyond the normal rations.
Any problem of any type, relating to the prisoners, was to be reported in full to the appointed authority without hesitation.
There were other rules, but these were the only ones Colin remembered well enough when it came to the dreaming.
While Colin had never met any of the prisoners before, he had seen them from a distance often enough, opening blisters and drains out in the fields, drains which rumour had it would be filled again as soon as the war was over. And every time Colin saw them he wondered how it was that this place, which was so safe, which he was so lucky to have been sent to until the war was over, was the same place enemy soldiers could be
so unlucky to be sent to, as punishment for being captured. To Colin that made no sense.
And from that Colin’s interest in the prisoners grew, so when he walked on to the bus that morning and saw four of them sitting there, right at the front, he couldn’t help but stare. And one of them stared right back, with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, far happier with his lot than the driver, or Colin’s new teacher, or Mr Strike, or the man who delivered the milk, or indeed any of the adults in the town, who hadn’t been made prisoners of war, and weren’t being punished.
Gino winked. Colin, who had never been able to close one eye without the help of the other, put his hand to his cap instead. The hand that would have been better used to steady himself as the bus lurched forward. Colin fell in the aisle, right at Gino’s feet, and Gino laughed. So did one of the other prisoners, and of course the school children joined in. The driver glared in the rear vision mirror, doing his bit for the war effort, and in Colin’s dream all this happened again, in exact replay, and just like then, he knew he had to find a way of talking to Gino.
So school would have to wait that day. Colin knew where to find the prisoners, the four of them had been sent up to repair a stone wall on Mr Higgins’ property. The shortest route was through the orchard behind the church, and because he knew it was rude to visit empty handed, Colin stopped and picked a jersey full of apples on the way.
That particular day the job of prisoner-watching had gone to Mr Hampton, a retired policeman and good friend of Mr Higgins’. He had brought out a chair and a book and postioned himself on a small rise a good forty yards from the nearest prisoner. Staying out of sight was as simple for Colin as
dropping to his hands and knees on the other side of the wall and crawling slowly forward.
The first prisoner he reached didn’t seem so surprised to see him. Colin offered him one of the apples, which he took with a smile and nothing else; and having no more to offer, Colin crawled on. The second was the same, and the third. It was only Gino, still as cheerful as he had been on the bus, who bothered to take it further.
‘Ah, the boy from the bus. You fall down eh?’ His accent, strange to Colin’s ears, was as fascinating as the curls of his dark hair and the play of his smile. Colin desperately wanted to say something, so that the whole adventure might not end with a crawl back along the fenceline and a jersey still half full of apples.
‘What did you do?’ he asked the prisoner, whispering it even though Gino hadn’t bothered.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well you’re a prisoner aren’t you? What were you doing when they caught you?’
‘Oh I see.’ Gino laughed again, so loudly Colin was sure Mr Hampton must hear it and come running over.
‘No, don’t worry about him. He already thinks I’m crazy. What did I do?’ He placed the stone he was holding on the wall and let his hands do most of the telling. ‘Well, it’s the war you see. You don’t have to do so much. I was in a house, in a village, with a gun. And then a soldier, an English soldier, he comes around a corner and he has his gun. I don’t expect him, and I think he don’t expect me. So I wait for him to shoot, and he waits for me to shoot, and I think we both think it is better we don’t shoot at all. So I put my gun down, and my hands up,
because it is more difficult if he surrenders, because I am not doing what my commander thinks I am doing, and explaining would be difficult, and I can see there are more English
. And anyway, this is more interesting than dying. They bring me here and I am happy now. I am Gino. What is your name?’
‘Hello Colin, pleased to meet you.’
‘Pleased to meet you too.’
‘Thank you for the apple.’
‘Would you like another one?’
‘No, but maybe you could do something for me.’
‘If I give you my shirt, and my hat you could come over to this side of the wall. And I could go over to that side and crawl away.’
‘You want to escape?’
‘Only for one hour.’
‘What will you do?’ Mr Strike had explained to Colin in some detail the evil the prisoners might be capable of, if any of them ever got loose, but Colin had difficulty picturing Gino as that sort of prisoner.
‘Whatever I find to do,’ Gino smiled. ‘Do we have a deal?’
‘I suppose we do,’ Colin answered, because he couldn’t
‘All right then. We will have to do this quickly. Take off your shirt now, so you are ready. I will walk over to that pile and bring back some more stones. When I get back I will jump over the wall and you do the same. I will pass you my shirt and my hat and you put them on. Okay?’
It went just as Gino said it would, although Colin was sure he and Gwynn could have worked a better plan. The hat was too big and fell down over his eyes and the shirt was so large that even with the sleeves rolled up it was falling off him. It wasn’t until Gino had crawled away, naked to the waist with an apple in each trouser pocket, that Colin realised he had no idea how to go about mending a stone wall. He tried watching the others, but as far as he could see they didn’t have much idea either. So he did what they did; picked up stones from the pile in the centre and half-heartedly wedged them into any cracks he could find.
In the next hour and a half Mr Hampton hardly looked up, just the occasional glance to count there were still four of them, going through the motions of work. The other three noticed though, and engaged in elaborate sign language conversations along the wall, from which Colin understood they didn’t think Gino would be coming back. Colin wasn’t so worried. He
in Gino. Gino didn’t let him down.
‘Thank you Colin. You have a beautiful village.’
‘It’s not really my village.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Well I’m sort of a prisoner here too.’
‘Oh well, this is a good place for that I think. Here, jump back over and get changed again.’
So Colin hurdled the fence, but his timing was bad and there was a shout from up on the rise.
‘Hey there. Hey you, come back!’ Colin was terrified but Gino didn’t miss a beat. He stood calmly, still without his shirt, waved and smiled.
‘Sorry Mister Hampton. I am just, how you say, taking my relief?’ And for added realism Gino undid his trousers and pissed a steady stream against the wall.
The dream stopped there, although real life lasted another eight months. In that time Colin came to know Gino well, and the other prisoners too. He visited them in the evenings, sneaking food into the locked barn where they slept; not so locked that the one small window couldn’t be forced, and Colin was a good climber. They taught him how to play cards, and some words in Italian, and they made him feel special, so that he began to hope the war would never end, and he wouldn’t have to move away. In real life.