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Authors: Robert Edric

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BOOK: Peacetime
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‘In places. Nothing serious.'

‘I'm surprised they didn't follow you in,' Mercer said, indicating the men outside.

‘They didn't see me. I came along the shore and up the side of the culvert. If you know where to go, you can walk for miles around here without being observed. Believe me, it was one of the first things I learned to do upon being afforded some degree of freedom.'

‘Come up,' Mercer told him. ‘I need to clear a few things away.'

Mathias followed him up the open staircase.

‘Jacob and I appreciated the other evening,' he said, looking around the familiar room.

‘Did he get home all right?'

Mathias fluttered his hand. ‘He overestimates his own strength sometimes.'

‘Or denies his own weakness.'

‘Whatever. He quickly exhausts himself. He imagines himself to be recovered, when, in truth, it will take much longer than he is prepared to allow.'

All of which means you probably carried him the last part of your journey home.

It was warm in the room, and sweat shone on Mathias's face. He took out a white, perfectly folded handkerchief and wiped his brow. He saw Mercer watching him.

‘My mother always used to insist that no matter where I was, whatever conditions I was living under, I should always endeavour to have a clean handkerchief
with me. She said it would keep me civilized long after all those other civilizing influences had gone or seemed too far away to matter any longer.'

‘And were they ever far away?'

Mathias laughed and shook his head. ‘What sort of soldier does the son of a rose-grower make? Captain of Procurement. Channel Coast, Division Four, three-five-two infantry division.'

‘Normandy?'

‘Pas de Calais. We were shifted afterwards, of course, to do our procuring elsewhere, but it never amounted to much in those months after the invasion. I was captured at the beginning of August, exhausted, sleeping in an orchard on the outskirts of a place called Caumont. I think we were heading for Argentan, but I can't be sure. All I can be certain of is that for the past three days we'd been travelling in the opposite direction to a lot of other men, fighting divisions. You?'

‘North Africa, Sicily, Italy,' Mercer said.

‘Not France?'

‘After Italy I was sent home. I was back here for three months, recuperating, then another six months training others. I went to France at the end of July. Bridges, pontoons, anything that meant we didn't have to keep stopping. When did you finally end up here?' He tried to remember if Mathias had already told him this, but could not.

‘I was never a particularly high-risk prisoner. It was a great joke to my interrogators that I had spent so long in the Pas de Calais, waiting for you to arrive there, and that all the time I waited I was searching out fruit and vegetables and fodder for horses.'

‘Were you serious when you said you got the job because you came from a family of professional gardeners?'

‘Never underestimate the blind efficiency of the military mind, of the connections it makes or insists upon. I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I was never anything less than perfectly suited to the task at hand. Six weeks at an officers' training school and I found myself a captain.'

‘I daresay the same work might have been a little more hazardous elsewhere.'

‘“A little more hazardous,”' Mathias repeated. ‘Yes. The Russian Front, for instance. A thousand other places. Until you arrived, the north of France was never a bad place to be. I farmed there, too. We all did. They laughed at that, also.'

‘And because they laughed, you ended up on a farm here.'

‘There is a certain undeniable logic to it all, I suppose. It would have been different if I'd been in more of a hurry to get home.'

Or if you had not met Jacob
, Mercer thought.

‘When I learned my parents had been killed and the nursery destroyed, it scarcely mattered to me where I lived.' He stopped speaking.

‘What restrictions are you still under?' Mercer said.

‘Restrictions? Not many. I still have a technical classification, of course, and as Jacob told you, I am still required to report to the various Authorities on a regular basis. People have been kind to me here. And where they have been unable to show kindness, they have shown tolerance. It was a surprising thing to me, especially so soon after the war's end, and all that was then revealed.'

‘Is that how you learned to speak English so well?'

‘I spoke it before. My mother was a great Anglophile. Her own mother was half-English, who met her husband in East Africa. I used to teach it to the others
in the camps. Some men were eager to learn; others refused to utter a single word. Some felt betrayed, and others refused to betray themselves in even this smallest of ways. It is hard to think of yourself as an undesirable or dangerous alien when you speak the same language as your accusers and understand perfectly everything they say about you.'

‘Have you seen Jacob since the other evening?' Mercer asked him.

‘Of course. I see him most days. The road back to our camp runs past where he stays. I find out what he needs – though seldom from Jacob himself – and I try and find it for him.'

‘Has he told you what happened to him?'

‘Some of it. Not everything. I don't ask.' He came to Mercer at the window, but remained far enough back from it so that he would not be seen by anyone below. ‘I know that he was in several of those camps, and that he was finally released from Belsen, if that's what you're asking me.'

‘I didn't mean to pry.'

‘I know what he tells me he has lost, but I doubt if I shall ever truly understand the weight or the depth or the darkness of that loss. I know he survived and wishes he hadn't. Please—' He held up a hand. ‘Ask
him
all this, not me.'

Mercer went back to the table and took the weights from his charts.

Outside, the generator finally spluttered into noisy life.

‘Success,' Mathias said.

‘I doubt they'll see it like that.'

‘We are no different on the airfield. There is a great deal of movement and looking busy, but there are days when very little is actually achieved. Look at me – two
hours so far to find a single seal. You think they will all be impatiently awaiting my return?'

‘We'll need to go in search of one. I don't know where they're kept. Someone will know. Stay here, if you like. I'll say it's for a pump elsewhere on the site.'

‘No need. I am used to it by now.'

They left the tower together several minutes later.

The generator was now running continuously and a pall of smoke drifted above it. A drill had been attached to this and now only a solitary man stood working at the centre of the bricks. Upon seeing Mercer and Mathias, however, a group of others rose from where they had been sitting and came towards them. Someone called for the man with the drill to turn it off. Mercer told them what he was looking for, but none of them knew where he might find the seal. All of them looked hard at Mathias as they spoke to him.

‘What's
he
doing here?' one of them said eventually.

‘What does it matter?'

‘What does it matter?' the man said with forced incredulity. ‘What do you mean, “What does it matter?” You know what he is, don't you?'

‘He's an ex-prisoner of war working at the airfield,' Mercer said.

‘Exactly.'

‘So what is it you object to?'

‘What I object to is the fact that he shouldn't be here. None of them should be. Behind bars here or behind bars at home, that's where he should be. That's what I
object
to.'

A murmur of concurrence rose around the man.

‘Do you know anything about him personally?' Mercer said. ‘His name's—' He stopped, suddenly aware that he had forgotten Mathias's surname.

‘His name's what?' the man said. He was grinning now, encouraging the more active involvement of those around him.

‘It's for him, isn't it,' another man said. ‘This seal.'

‘It's for the airfield. He's just been sent to fetch it.'

‘Then let him come and ask for it. Let
him
look for it.'

‘Why are you behaving like this?'

‘Why are we behaving like what?'

‘With such animosity.'

‘“Animosity,”' the man mimicked.

‘You know what I mean.'

‘Says who?' the second man said.

‘He's here because he was sent here,' Mercer said. ‘He had no choice in the matter.'

‘
He
tell you that, did he?'

He refused to be drawn any further into their impregnable argument, knowing that whatever he said now would only antagonize them further. He looked at each of them for a few seconds and then turned and left them.

‘That's right,' he heard one of them say to his back. ‘You get back to him.'

‘Don't want to keep him waiting, do we?' another added.

The men who had so far said little or nothing underscored these remarks with their laughter. There was no attempt to return to work at Mercer's departure.

Mathias waited for him by the tower door.

‘I did try to warn you,' he said as Mercer reached him.

‘I know.'

‘It must come as a shock to be continually reminded of how little you are to them.'

‘Perhaps that's why I insist on living in the tower
like someone in a fairy tale, keeping myself above and apart from it all.'

Mercer led the way around the side of the tower until they were out of sight of the men and overlooking the sea. In the distance, an unattended pump performed the barely adequate work of keeping down the water of a blocked drain. A sheeted mound stood beside it. This was mostly fuel, Mercer knew, but might include some spares. He indicated the pump to Mathias and they crossed the broken ground towards it.

Mercer drew back the tarpaulin. Several crates stood beside the drums of fuel. He opened these and told Mathias to search their contents for the seal. He found one immediately, attached to several dozen others.

‘Take two or three,' Mercer told him.

Mathias shook his head. ‘And deprive myself of further visits?'

Mercer himself took several of the rings and said he would keep them at the tower.

More air than water blew through the hose of the pump, and what little water was raised splashed noisily onto the beach below.

Mathias watched this for several minutes before saying, ‘All this flooded last autumn. As far as you can see. You should talk to the people here about it. It happens most years. You could save a lot of time and effort by finding out where it's likely to happen again. This' – he tapped the side of the pump with his foot – #8216;is not what you need to hold back the water if it decides to come.'

‘I'm hoping to be finished here long before the worst of the weather sets in,' Mercer said.

‘We all hope to be finished before that,' Mathias said.

‘What are they doing with the planes?' Mercer asked him.

‘Who knows. Melting them down into saucepans, perhaps? Anything that might have once been made to fly again is long gone. We get visits every few days from someone or other to see how quickly we are progressing. Everyone complains that nothing is being done quickly enough. It sometimes seems as though the whole world is being forced along at a speed it cannot bear.'

‘Perhaps it's just a need to keep up the momentum away from what went before.'

‘Away from the rose gardens?' Mathias said.

‘Away from the rose gardens.'

They left the pump and parted.

Instead of returning to the tower and the waiting men, Mercer walked to the beach. The midday tide was rising and he quickly reached the lapping water.

13

Three days later, Saturday, Mercer walked to the town with the intention of visiting Jacob and discovering where he lived. He knew only what Jacob had told him #8211; that he lived in a room above a warehouse, but he did not know where this was, and he regretted not having asked Mathias for details.

The place called itself a town, but was in reality little more than a large village – the largest for five miles in any direction in that sparsely populated part of the country.

It always surprised Mercer how quickly the sea was out of sight once he had left the workings. A hundred yards inland along the coast road and the water was already gone from view, along with the dunes and the levees of the broader channels.

He went first to the town's only garage, where he hoped to be further directed, but neither of the two men working there had heard of Jacob Haas. Mercer explained who Jacob was, but, similarly, neither of them knew of a Dutchman living in the town. One
of them remarked disparagingly that the place was full of foreigners, by which he meant strangers. In all likelihood, Mercer knew, he would encounter some of the men who worked on the site. Their depot lay on the outskirts of the place and they doubtless frequented its public houses.

One of the mechanics suggested asking at the post office, and then directed Mercer to this. The two men sat on the bonnet of the car upon which they were working and watched him go.

At the post office he asked again after Jacob. An old woman stood behind the grille. She was hard of hearing and he repeated the name several times. She considered this for a moment, appeared to make some calculation on her fingers, and then told him she had never heard of the man. Her son was the postmaster, she explained, and he was away, in Spalding, for the day. She made the place sound grand and distant, as though she herself had never been there. She left him to serve a customer, and then returned.

‘Perhaps he has his mail addressed here for collection,' Mercer suggested.

She went to a cardboard box and searched its few contents, laboriously reading each label and asking him to repeat the name.

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