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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (24 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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Mercer told them he thought this was unlikely.

‘No one tells us anything,' the man called Roland
said to him. ‘Perhaps they think we might sabotage the work.'

The men around him laughed, but the laughter was short-lived, and Mercer sensed something of the despondency which now lay over them following the news of their applications.

‘I heard about the repatriation notices,' he said to Mathias at the first opportunity, and knew immediately from Mathias's response to this that his own request to remain had been denied. ‘What will happen?' he said.

Mathias shrugged. ‘I imagine there is a right of appeal.'

‘There is,' Mercer said.

‘And that this appeal process will be fairly, meticulously and rigidly observed.'

‘It's worth a try,' Mercer told him, but with little conviction. ‘You have nothing to lose.'

‘Your Authorities are not renowned for changing a decision once it is made,' Mathias said.

‘The contractor in charge at the airfield will appeal on your behalf. He needs you here.'

‘We know all about that. Thirty days. The end of September. Roland here has his wife and family waiting for him – though God knows where – and he has been told that at least a further six months will pass before
he
is eligible for reconsideration. He is a fieldcook. He cooks stew.'

Mercer remembered the distant footballer from a month earlier.

‘I must have done some terrible things,' Roland said, and held up his arm in a rigid salute, a gesture which shocked Mathias as much as it did Mercer. The man's disappointment and anger had made him reckless.

‘He was a field-cook,' Mathias repeated, and knocked
the man's arm down. He looked quickly around them. ‘He is also, it often occurs to me, his own worst enemy.' No one else beyond the group of prisoners had witnessed the gesture.

Roland signalled his sullen apology to both Mathias and Mercer. ‘Perhaps the men in charge here tasted my food,' he said, and those around him laughed again.

Mercer was careful to avoid all mention of Jacob in front of these others. He knew that Mathias was as concerned for Jacob as for himself regarding his enforced repatriation.

‘Perhaps, once you've returned home, you'll be able to come back here later.'

Mathias smiled at the suggestion.

Before Mercer could say any more, several men appeared around the side of the tower and came towards them. Mercer recognized them as one of his own crews. These men, a dozen of them, talked among themselves – now clearly enjoying their own unexpected idleness – and then fell silent as they approached where Mercer and the Germans sat together. They stopped a short distance away. One of them carried a length of wood, and seeing the Germans he held it ahead of himself as though it were a rifle. He looked ridiculous and several of the Germans commented on the gesture.

Roland made his hand into a gun, pointed it and said, ‘Bang, bang.' There was more laughter.

Mercer rose and stepped forward to ensure that he was seen by these newcomers.

‘What do you want?' he called to the men.

‘Want? Nothing. It's a free country.'

‘“A free country”,' Roland repeated. He blew on his fingers and then slowly opened them.

‘Join us,' Mercer said.

‘Join
them
?' one of the men said.

Mathias came forward to stand beside Mercer.

‘They've been sent away from the airfield while the bombs are removed,' Mercer said to the men.

‘We know why they're here.'

‘Pity the bombs were left there at all,' another of the men said. ‘They should have been used and then—' He stopped speaking as several of the other Germans, those who understood what was being said, rose to their feet.

‘Go on,' Mathias said.

But the men on the road appeared to lose conviction. They were outnumbered by the Germans by at least two to one. Someone whispered something, and the man who had made the remark about the bombs told Mercer that he was wanted at the lorries.

‘That's why we're here,' he said. ‘Looking for you. Everybody's telling us what to do, and some of us aren't happy about it. First they want the lorries past the houses, now they want us to park up two hundred yards down the road. We said we'd find you and see what you said.'

Sensing that this was his only way of defusing the situation, Mercer said that he, and he alone, told his own workers what to do.

‘That's what we said,' the man said. He, too, seemed relieved that the confrontation had passed its peak.

‘Tell them to sit down,' Mercer whispered to Mathias, who translated and relayed this. He was the first to lower himself back to the ground, and the others followed his lead, until only Roland remained standing. Mathias shouted at him and, having made his point, Roland turned and walked away.

Mercer left Mathias and went to the men on the road. Turning to the Germans, he shouted, ‘You can
stay there; don't come any further on to the site.'

Some began to protest at the remark, but again Mathias spoke to them and explained what Mercer was doing.

Leading his crew away from the tower, Mercer regretted that he had been unable to arrange to meet Mathias later in the day.

Coming out beyond the houses, he saw Lynch, his wife and Mary still standing and watching the airfield. They had been joined by several other local men and women. The children of the place were gathered in a separate group a short distance away.

Mary saw him and he waved to her. She kept her arms by her sides, but quickly flicked open her hand in response. Neither Lynch nor her mother saw him as he passed behind them with the others.

Out on the airfield, the first of the bombs were dragged on trolleys across what remained of the runway. A round of applause rose amid the rubble and the dunes. The children stopped their playing to watch. What they all secretly wanted, these distant watchers, it occurred to Mercer, was for one of the bombs to fall and to explode, and he knew how, for the rest of the day, their unspoken disappointment would be tempered by their endless speculation on the subject.

He followed the men to the lorries, some of which had already been moved, and the rest of which stood with their engines running in readiness, throwing up sand and dust behind them, the drivers wearing goggles and some with handkerchiefs tied across their mouths. The first man he saw with his face covered in this manner reminded Mercer of his brother, and he tapped the pocket holding his wallet, in which there was a photograph of the man with his own weather-beaten face similarly covered. He was unrecognizable
in the picture, but it had been the last one taken of him before he was killed, and for that reason alone Mercer had chosen to carry it with him everywhere he went.

29

Mathias came to him at the end of the afternoon.

As Mercer had been warned, the removal of the bombs had lasted all day, and no work had been done on the site. He had ignored the advice of the Disposal men and had sent his own workers back to town early. The passage of the lorries along the sea road had caused no delays at the airfield, and it remained his opinion that the bombs were unarmed and harmless and that work away from the perimeter might have proceeded as usual.

‘Won't you be missed?' he asked Mathias as the two of them sat together in the tower.

‘Not today. Not with all this going on. They still count us occasionally, but less and less often. We come and go. And today they can have little idea where any of us are. After your departure, they called for volunteers to return to the airfield.'

‘What for?'

‘The men taking away the bombs called for others to sit beside them in their restraining cradles on the
backs of their lorries. Only as far as the town. They still considered the road too uneven and needed someone to ensure the bombs stayed in place. They assured us they were all without fuses and perfectly safe.'

‘Still …'

‘Precisely. So you can imagine how much more appropriate, how much more fitting it must have seemed to some of them to have one of us holding onto the things. I'm being unfair, of course. Their own men sat alongside us. We were just there to help, extra ballast.'

‘So no one was blown up?'

‘Happily, no. Some of us made several journeys. Once in the town the roads were considered sufficiently improved for the bombs to be rocked and jolted to their final destination unattended.'

‘So your men are scattered between here and there.'

‘My men? Oh, yes. Some of us here, some of us there, some of us in between. I made sure that I was able to return.'

It was four days since Mercer's visit to see Jacob and hear the story of Anna's friend. He asked Mathias if he had seen him more recently.

‘Yesterday,' Mathias said.

‘And?'

‘And he remains unwell while protesting ever louder otherwise.'

‘Does he know about your failed application to stay?'

‘Of course. And, like you, he possesses an unwarranted and unfounded faith in the appeal process.'

‘He told me about his sister, Anna,' Mercer said, still uncertain of how many of those same tales Jacob had already told Mathias.

‘I imagined he had.'

‘He blames himself for her death.'

‘He blames himself for not having ensured her survival. I imagine he believes there is a great difference.'

It seemed to Mercer that Mathias spoke of the girl as though he had long since known and understood everything that had happened to her, and of the ties that still bound her to her brother.

At Mercer's suggestion, they left the tower and walked on the beach. Though August was drawing to a close, it had been a warmer day than usual, and the tower was airless. On the beach, at least, a slight breeze blew in off the water, and both men faced into it as they walked.

‘Perhaps if you had someone to sponsor you in your application to remain, then whoever decides these things might look again at your application,' Mercer said. The idea had occurred to him earlier, but despite his initial enthusiasm for the proposal, he quickly realized that he himself was unlikely to be considered as such a sponsor, and that Mathias's employer would be a far better proposition.

‘My employer, for instance?' Mathias said, as though reading these thoughts. He shook his head. ‘He has been asked too many times. He has written on behalf of others, but to no avail.'

‘Perhaps if
I
tried,' Mercer said.

‘It is kind of you to offer, and I understand why you might want to do so, but I would rather you did not involve yourself. Besides which, I can do nothing until my preliminary appeal is decided one way or another.'

‘And the others? Roland, for instance?'

‘Some of them have become desperate men. Roland, idiot that he sometimes pretends to be, has not seen
his wife or family for almost four years. His son was killed at Stalingrad. His elderly mother lived with his wife for a short while but the two women argued and his mother left.'

‘Does he fear for his marriage?'

‘He fears for everything.'

They walked away from the houses until they were beyond all sight of them.

‘Will he – will any of them – do anything stupid, do you think?'

‘If you are asking me if any of them will try to return home before their appointed time, or if any of them will run away and hide here, then my honest answer is that I cannot say.'

‘But you believe it possible?'

‘As I said, desperate men.'

It was clear to Mercer that he was being diverted from Mathias's own thoughts on the subject, and it was beyond him to ask any more directly.

‘Perhaps immediately after the war's end,' Mathias said. ‘Perhaps then, when there was nothing but confusion, and all those men had not returned to their desks and factories, perhaps then it might have been possible to disappear or to invent oneself anew, but not now.'

‘Did they give you a reason why some of you were successful in your applications and others not?'

‘Nothing very specific. “Suitable”, “Unsuitable”, not much else.'

‘Suppose you were to marry an English girl,' Mercer said, the idea only then occurring to him.

Mathias laughed. ‘Where is she? And besides …'

‘Besides, what?'

‘Do you honestly believe me capable of doing that to someone? Marrying them for that reason?'

‘It would make sense. There need be no true deception involved. You could pay.'

Mathias stopped walking and pulled out the linings of both his pockets. ‘She would have to come very cheaply,' he said. ‘Who did you have in mind?'

‘No one,' Mercer admitted.

‘Perhaps someone here,' Mathias said.

They walked in silence for several minutes.

‘Thank you for this morning,' Mathias said eventually.

‘It wouldn't have come to anything.'

‘Perhaps. But whatever happened, it would not have helped matters. In addition to Roland, there are five or six other hotheads who would have happily risen to the bait.'

‘I don't really understand why they continue to regard you with such hostility after all this time. The people in the town don't feel the same.'

‘Upon meeting him,' Mathias said, ‘one of the first things Jacob told me was that while I was here I should do nothing to attract undue attention to myself.'

‘I imagine it's how he himself must have learned to live.'

‘Him and his sister, yes.'

‘Has he told you what happened?'

‘Not really. Just that the two of them were together and that she died and he survived. What else can there be to know? I don't imagine he believes there is anything to be gained by endlessly telling the story to whoever might listen. Nothing will change.'

‘I don't imagine there are all that many people who want to hear it.'

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