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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (25 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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‘No. Everyone now is looking ahead, not to the past.'

But some men, Mercer knew – men like Jacob, and like Lynch – were as tethered to that past as they were bound within their own bodies.

‘I learned from my failed application that I am still, officially, a serving soldier,' Mathias said. ‘I daresay I will have as many hoops to leap through over there as I have here.'

‘Do you think your own Government is insisting on your return?'

Mathias shrugged, but it was clear to Mercer that he, too, had considered this.

They reached a point where the road approached the beach, and where its foundations of rubble, eroded by the sea, lay exposed to them. They sat in the shelter of this, knowing it was where they would part. A large ship crossed the horizon, its smoke trailing unbroken for several miles behind it.

‘My cousin served on submarines,' Mathias said. ‘My mother's sister's child. He was killed on his fourth voyage. “Voyage” – it sounds so heroic.'

‘I can't think of anything worse,' Mercer said.

‘He was our first family casualty. His brother died on the Rhine. My father's sister's son was blinded. He, too, was a sailor. He sailed once to the Caribbean. No one believed him when he told us where he had been. We joked about him securing our supply of bananas. He was bombed off Brest. That's where he was blinded.'

‘Did he survive the war?'

‘He took his own life towards the end. The Russians came two or three days later. He had a sister. She ran away two days after he died. No one has seen her to this day.'

‘How awful,' Mercer said.

‘“Awful”, yes. What I'm trying to say, I imagine, is that the war there, in Germany and Poland and Russia, was a different thing entirely from what it was here, or even in France before the Second Front.'

‘I can imagine,' Mercer said.

‘I believe you can, but that is what it will be – imagining. I daresay people might consider this imagining to be an understanding of sorts, however imperfect, but it isn't.'

‘No,' Mercer said.

‘True loss lives only within us, and is made not the least more bearable by being shared with one or a thousand others, or by being imagined by those others.'

‘Perhaps not. But perhaps people still feel the need to make the effort to understand, to imagine.'

‘Why? Because they consider it to be part of the so-called “healing process” we hear so much about. It is indulgence, nothing more.'

‘So are we all so completely alone with the losses we bear?' Mercer was not accustomed to such weighty conversation, and he anticipated Mathias might laugh at what he had said.

But Mathias did not laugh, nor even smile; instead, he turned to Mercer and said, ‘Of course we are. Every single one of us. Even you.'

Me?
Mercer thought, unprepared for the remark, and unwilling now to prolong this painful dissection by saying it aloud.

Mathias, too, realized that too much had been said, and that they had deceived only themselves in diverting from their course.

The sun fell lower in the sky behind them, and when they finally rose from where they sat, it cast their elongated shadows across the sand.

‘I saw the girl's father,' Mathias said as they prepared to part.

‘He was watching the airfield.'

‘He, too, came to see us after you'd gone. His wife
and the girl came with him. There were others. He told the woman and girl to take a good look at us.'

‘Neither of them shares his views,' Mercer said.

‘And neither of them said anything to contradict or silence him. They both did as he said. He picked up a stone and threw it at Roland. He missed, but only because that was his intention. There were still a dozen of us. He expected the woman and the girl to do the same. He shouted at them. One of the other men told him to forget it. I told everyone to remain sitting on the ground. He reminded me a lot in his appearance of the dirty, exhausted American soldier who took me and all those others prisoner. I thought all day that he was going to grow weary of looking after us and shoot us all. We'd heard stories.'

‘What happened?'

‘Today? He let himself be persuaded by the man talking him out of it. He turned on his wife instead, said she'd betrayed him and that he should have known better than to depend on her. I think all the others were just as uncomfortable with what he'd done. I thought Roland might rise and throw a stone back at him.'

‘Did you warn him against it?'

‘I said nothing. Perhaps I wanted him to do it; I know some of the others did.'

‘Did he – Lynch – know who you were?'

‘Me, personally? I doubt it. Besides, who am I?'

‘Mary will have told him about you.'

‘The stone was definitely aimed closer to Roland,' Mathias said.

They parted after that, and Mercer walked slowly back along the beach, leaving it before he reached the houses to avoid the few people still gathered there.

It was almost dark by the time he arrived at the tower, and he sat for an hour at his desk without lighting his lamps.

30

He saw nothing of either Lynch or Mary for the next three days.

He did, however, encounter Elizabeth Lynch, once, alone on the beach, but upon his approach she had been reluctant to talk to him. She looked hurriedly around her as he greeted her, as though she believed they were being watched.

‘Is he out there somewhere?' he said.

She seemed genuinely surprised by the remark.

‘Lynch.'

‘Him and her are in town,' she said.

‘I heard from Mathias what happened,' he said.

‘Who's Mathias?'

‘Mathias Weisz. One of the Germans. He told me about Lynch throwing the stone.'

‘Oh, that. He didn't mean anything by it.'

‘Just his way?'

‘That's right,' she said. ‘He never threw it to hit anyone.'

‘Then why throw it in the first place?'

‘Bit of fun.'

‘Throwing a stone at a man who he knew was in no position to retaliate or even defend himself.'

‘Nothing to stop them from doing either,' she said, and once again it dismayed Mercer to realize how immediate and instinctual her defence of her husband was. He regretted that he had made no real effort to contact her after the meal she had prepared for him. Since her husband's return, she had withdrawn almost completely from the society of the place, venturing out only in his company, or with her children. He remembered her sudden appearance as he had approached her home with Daniels, the way she had waited and then withdrawn upon recognizing him. He knew better than to mention Daniels's name to her now.

‘Neither you nor Mary threw stones,' he said eventually.

‘We might have done.'

‘Mathias said that you were reluctant, that Lynch was angry at something.'

‘What would he know? A German. Was he the man who nearly got hit?'

‘No.'

‘Well, then.' She turned to leave him, and he saw only then the bruise on her cheek. She raised a hand to the mark, knowing he had seen it.

Neither of them spoke.

‘Mathias was grateful,' he said after a minute of this awkward silence. ‘He thinks your reluctance to throw anything prevented the others from joining in.'

‘Then he's wrong. And you can tell him that from me. Mary might not have done anything, but I would.'

‘Why?'

‘What do you mean “Why?” They're still Germans,
aren't they? If it wasn't for them and the war, Lynch wouldn't have been called up and gone away and got himself into all that bother. And he wouldn't have turned out like this.' It was clearly what Lynch himself had told her. Perhaps when he had struck and bruised her. A line of reasoning in which none of them could ever believe, but which remained unchallenged in its simplicity.

She sensed that she had said too much and fell silent again.

Of the three of them, Mercer realized – father, mother and child – she had deluded herself the most about the man's return and about their future together. He wondered if it would not have been fairer of Trinity House to tell everyone living there of their eventual plans for the place. At least then some cold reality, some rigour, might have informed these hopeless expectations.

Now that he had seen the bruise, she made no further effort to conceal it from him.

‘He said he'd asked you for work,' she said.

‘Not within my power. You know that. He knows it.'

‘He said you'd told him something or other just to get rid of him.'

‘I told him the truth.'

‘He would have said the same whatever you'd told him.' It was her first concession, and he felt encouraged by it.

‘I wouldn't lie to him,' he told her.

‘You will eventually,' she said. ‘Everybody does. Tell him what he wants to hear, I mean.'

‘Not knowing how important his return is to you and Mary,' he said.

‘Everything he tells her to do, she does,' she said. ‘She won't deny him a single thing.'

‘I know. I saw her with him the other day, selling the tobacco.'

‘He made her pick those clothes from my wardrobe. Told me I had no cause to complain because I hadn't worn them for years. Told me I'd let myself go.'

‘He can't know how difficult it's been for you, living here alone with your children to care for.'

‘No one's suffered compared to him,' she said.

‘That's according to him, I take it.'

‘What else,' she said. Her growing confidence – knowing that whatever she said would not be repeated to her husband – had made her momentarily brave.

They walked away from the gently breaking waves.

‘How's Jacob?' she said unexpectedly.

‘Not well. Have you seen him recently?'

‘I know Bail. Everybody does. He used to come out to work on the boats before the war.'

They stopped walking. She picked up a piece of cloth, shook the sand from it, examined it and then threw it back down. ‘Habit of living by the sea,' she said. She looked out over the water. ‘There was a ship sunk during the war,' she said, pointing to the horizon. ‘A coaster, nothing much. We had seven bodies wash up here. All within a few yards of each other. Happened one night, November time. We used to hear the planes often enough, with the airfield so near, but that one small coaster was the closest the war came to us.'

‘I suppose the tides and the channels would gather the bodies together.'

‘Some of them were laid so close and with their arms over each other, just as though they were holding each other up, trying to help one another out. Boys they were. One or two older men, but mostly boys. Someone from the Ministry came, and then a lorry full
of coffins arrived a day later. They told us all to stay away, but we went out and pulled them all clear of the water-line. Instinct, see. She must have been carrying coal, because it all came washing up over the next few weeks. We had a field day. There were four of them never found. Must have gone down with her, I suppose.'

‘How was she sunk?'

‘We never knew. Most likely to have been a stray mine, they said. Either dropped from a plane or one of our own floated loose.' She paused. ‘Does Jacob talk to you much about that place he was in?'

‘Not really.' He hid his surprise at this sudden change in direction.

‘I saw that newsreel,' she said. ‘People got up and walked out, said there should have been some warning. Woman sitting next to me just sat with her hands over her eyes asking me to tell her when it was finished. It was a terrible thing to see. Was it the same place?'

‘Possibly, or another like it.'

‘That poor man,' she said. ‘We none of us know the half of it.'

‘Most – all – of his family were killed,' Mercer said.

‘And that's why he came here, is it? Some of the things they said had happened, you wouldn't think one man was capable of doing them to another. There can't be much left in him.'

‘Sorry?'

‘In him. Faith, trust in his – what is it – fellow man, that sort of thing.'

He remembered Bail using the same words. ‘I was thinking much the same,' he said, and was about to say more when she suddenly turned away from him.

‘Behind you,' she whispered.

He turned, expecting to see Lynch, but saw only another woman coming along the beach at some distance from them.

As she approached, Mercer recognized her as one of the younger women with whom he had spent time during those earlier, warmer evenings, one who had always responded to the calls and encouragement of the men. She was perhaps nineteen or twenty, only four or five years older than Mary, and he saw in her a great deal of what Mary might become were she to remain there.

She stopped only a few feet from them.

‘You two look cosy,' she said.

‘We were just talking,' Mercer said.

‘Did I say otherwise? All I said was you looked cosy.' She turned to Elizabeth Lynch. ‘Your loving husband not around, I take it.'

‘In town,' Elizabeth Lynch said, her face still half-turned from the woman.

‘That's handy.'

‘I ought to go,' Elizabeth Lynch said to Mercer.

‘Don't worry – I won't say anything,' the woman said.

‘Because there's nothing to say,' Mercer said, his voice rising.

‘Right. No. Just the two of you miles from anywhere having a nice cosy chat.'

Unable to tolerate this intrusion any longer, and angry that he and Elizabeth Lynch had been interrupted like this when he might have learned so much more from her, Mercer said, ‘I'll go. It was nice meeting you. Give your husband and Mary my regards.'

Elizabeth Lynch said nothing, knowing that all this was said solely for the benefit of the watching woman.

‘What about me?' the woman said. ‘Wasn't it
nice
meeting me? Don't
I
get your regards?'

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