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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (3 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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‘Is that why you came here?' Mercer said. ‘Were you hoping for work?'

‘No. I came because the work here intrigues me. And because I have time on my hands. It is summer now, but that will soon pass, and, believe me, winter in this place is a very different proposition, a different world entirely.'

It struck Mercer as the kind of melodramatic, portentous remark only a foreigner would make, but he said nothing.

‘So how do you live?'

‘By which you mean how do I feed and clothe myself.' He plucked at his shabby sleeve as he spoke. ‘I manage. As you can see, I set my sights low. I may not yet possess the strength for the demolition work, but I pick up odd jobs here and there. At present I am
liming the walls of a pigsty, and after that there will be fruit-picking in the orchards. I manage. I make do with what I have. And I live alone, completely alone. You would be surprised how much easier life is that way. Please, don't concern yourself. If there is ever anything I need of you, I shall ask it.' He then quizzed Mercer on what was being undertaken at the site.

Afterwards, they sat together in silence for several minutes. A dazzling light now shone on the distant water.

‘My father was a glass-maker,' Jacob said eventually. ‘And his father and grandfather before him. All my uncles were involved in the trade. It was a family business. And those who were not directly involved with the furnaces and the manufacture and the finishing-work were employed in the warehouses we owned, in the offices which dealt with the accounts and sales, and in the wholesaling and retailing of what all these other men produced. My mother, her sisters …'

He stopped speaking after that, and it seemed to Mercer that he had been caught off-guard by how much he had said, and how easily these memories had returned to him. He sensed, too, that a great and unbearable weight lay behind what little he had revealed, and Mercer made his own unspoken guesses as to what this might involve.

‘We smash glass by the lorry-load,' he said eventually.

‘Everyone does,' Jacob said. ‘What else is there to do with glass, but to smash it?'

Mercer did not respond to this, uncertain how the remark was meant.

‘I should like very much to return and visit you here, Mr Mercer,' Jacob said.

‘I'd appreciate that.'

‘I shall, of course, wait until your workers have departed.'

‘There's no need.'

‘Oh? Last week, I came along the road and several of them, presumably because they mistook me for a German, took it upon themselves to throw bricks at me. I still have the bruises.'

‘I can only apologize on—'

‘There's no need. They made their point.'

‘Hardly any of them saw active service. They had no right.'

‘I agree, but they made their judgement of me, judged it right to throw their bricks, and so they threw their bricks. To them, it made perfect sense. Talk to some of the Germans – I'll introduce you, if you like – I doubt you'll find a single one of them who won't have something similar to tell you.'

Mercer knew that it was not an argument that might ever find its two sides converging to agreement, and so he acceded to the remark in silence.

He was about to rise and return to the tower when they were both distracted by the same sound of unsettled bricks on the land opposite.

Jacob was the first to stand up.

‘Wait,' Mercer told him. He, too, rose to search the site.

‘Over there,' Jacob said. He pointed to where rubble spilled onto the road.

Mercer looked and saw Mary Lynch emerge from the mounds and come out into the open.

‘She lives here,' Jacob said.

‘Do you know her?'

‘Vaguely.' He watched the girl intently as she moved across the loose bricks.

‘I spoke to her for the first time this morning,'
Mercer said. It was clear to him that something about her sudden appearance, and so close to them, had unsettled the other man.

‘Has she seen us?' Jacob moved to stand closer to him.

‘I imagine so.'

The girl stood at the centre of the road and looked at them.

Mercer started to raise his arm to her, but Jacob grabbed it and held it down.

‘Please,' he said. He released his grip.

The girl made no attempt to come any closer to them. She wore the same dress she had worn earlier, and stood with her arms by her sides.

After several moments of this, she turned at a noise behind her, and both Mercer and Jacob watched as several other children emerged from the rubble to join her. They were all much younger, indistinguishable as boys or girls at that distance, and they gathered around her, as though waiting to be told what to do by her.

‘They shouldn't be there,' Mercer said quietly.

‘They go where they please,' Jacob said.

The two men watched as Mary spoke to these others, and then as she pushed them away from her. They left her reluctantly and walked single-file towards their homes.

‘How old, do you think?' Jacob said.

‘The younger ones? Five, eight, ten.'

‘I meant the girl.' But before Mercer could answer him, he picked up his bag and started walking away.

Mercer watched him go. The man neither turned nor paused. At the first bend in the road he left it and followed his path across the open ground, his course marked by the posts of the abandoned airfield.

When he was no longer visible, Mercer turned his
attention back to Mary Lynch. He wondered what it was about her sudden appearance that had unsettled the Dutchman. He waved to her, but she made no sign in return. He called for her to wait for him, but as he left the embankment and started towards her, she, too, turned and walked away from him. He was at a loss to understand this behaviour, but guessed it was some game or other childish indulgence, and so instead of pursuing her, he crossed the road and entered again the wasteland surrounding the tower.

3

The following morning, she was waiting for him as he went outside. He ignored her, but she ran to join him. He turned to confront her.

‘You were talking to the Jew,' she said.

‘His name's Jacob, and he's a Dutchman.'

‘He's a
Jew
. Everybody knows that.'

‘Then perhaps they should learn some more about him.'

‘Like you have, you mean?'

‘No, not like I have; because I haven't – not yet.'

‘He's still a Jew,' she said, but the vehemence in her voice had faded.

‘So tell me what you understand by that.' He knew she was repeating what others had already said, and that any true prejudice was not her own.

‘That he's a Jew, a Jew-boy.'

‘And?'

‘And that he's here to steal a job – to steal a soldier's job.'

‘And which soldier would that be?'

‘I don't know. It could be any of them.'

‘Do you see him doing that?'

‘Doing what?'

‘Working. Dispossessing one of these welcomed-back heroes of his well-earned livelihood?' He regretted the facetious remark, the easy advantage he had gained over her.

She stood without speaking.

He scrolled through the chart he carried, searching for the line of the drain he hoped to examine.

‘You could give him work here,' she said.

‘I don't have the authority. Besides, he wasn't looking for work.'

‘He comes to the houses. Last time he was here he was trying to sell things made out of glass. Bowls and small plates, things for candles. My mother bought one, but the others told him to get lost. They told her it wasn't a real bowl, that it was old glass he'd made into something. They told her she'd catch things from it.'

‘And what's your father's opinion of all this?' He guessed that this was where her confused resentment originated.

‘My father's not here. He's in the Army, and won't be home until next month.'

‘Home for good?'

‘We don't know. What is there here for him now, she says. What is there for any of us any more?' She looked around her as they spoke.

The news of her father surprised Mercer. He imagined he had seen the man walking with her mother, seen them together amid the others at the houses.

‘And what about you?' he said, lowering his voice.

‘Living here, you mean?'

‘Is there work?'

‘Not really. And whatever there was, I wouldn't want it. Farm work that pays nothing and has you out in the fields in all weathers.'

‘Is there nothing in the town?'

‘I suppose.'

‘But no means of getting there and back each day?'

‘I'd live there,' she said, brightening at the prospect, and then falling silent at her better understanding of the situation. ‘Is that a map?' she said, indicating the rolled chart he carried.

He showed her the plans, explaining what he was searching for. He appreciated the effort of her feigned interest.

‘They thought they might make some money by having the workers come to stay here,' she said.

‘Who did?'

‘My mother. The other women.'

‘Not much chance of that, I'm afraid. They have a construction camp the other side of town.' An old barracks, surplus to requirements, and being allowed to collapse around the men it now briefly housed. Leaking and unheated, and with the occupants constantly being forced to move from one hut to another as the buildings became uninhabitable. They were employed on a three-month contract. Some time during October, the work would be completed, the men dispersed or sent elsewhere, and the barracks finally abandoned.

He showed her the course of the new drain he hoped to excavate.

‘There's already drains everywhere,' she said. ‘But they all flood.'

‘Hopefully, the work here will prevent that.'

‘It won't matter if there's nobody living here, will it?'

‘A minute ago you said you couldn't wait to leave.'

‘I know.'

He saw then the trap in which she was caught – the distance between her childhood and the enclosing past, and womanhood and the opening future she had yet to span.

He indicated that they might continue walking as they spoke.

‘You should have come and introduced yourself yesterday,' he said. ‘To the Jew.'

‘We've been told to stay away from him.'

‘Of course you have.'

‘We watch him sometimes when he comes across the sand or the marsh. He spends hours on the airfield. He's always looking for things, picking things up, collecting things.'

‘Is he the only Jew you know?'

‘Of course he is. Mrs Armstrong said she thought they'd all been killed. She said that if one bit of good had come out of the war, then that was it.'

It shocked him to hear her say these things. ‘She sounds very enlightened,' he said.

‘She wasn't born here. She came from Birmingham. Her husband died a long time ago. She says the Jews there cheated him out of his business and then threw her out of her home.'

‘Jacob is from Holland. Perhaps it was one of his relatives who did it.'

She laughed at this. ‘I don't believe everything she says,' she said. ‘She lies about most other things, gives herself airs and graces.'

‘I'm pleased to hear it.'

‘Ya-cob,' she said. ‘Ya-cob.'

‘Careful. Don't let the others hear you speaking a foreign language. They might turn against you, too.'

‘I daresay I never met more than twenty outsiders in my entire life before the war started,' she said. ‘Never even heard a foreign accent until the Americans arrived at the airfield.'

‘Were you born here?'

‘In the town. Lived here ever since, though.'

They continued across the workings. At one point, he stood on a slab of loose concrete and it rocked beneath him, prompting her to reach out her arm to steady him. He dropped the coiled measuring tape he was carrying into the space beneath the slab. Waiting until he was back on solid ground and the concrete had settled back into place, she slid down to retrieve this for him.

‘Be careful,' he told her.

Only her legs protruded from the hole. He heard her amplified breathing. She crawled into the space, and for a moment she was lost to him. He was about to peer into the cavity and insist that she come back out when her head reappeared, followed by her arms. She held the tape out to him and he took it. He watched anxiously as she pushed herself back out over the rim of the hole. He knelt and held her upper arms, pulling her as she kicked herself back to the surface. There was dirt and crumbled concrete on her dress, arms and legs.

‘Thank you,' he said.

‘We go in and out of places like that all the time,' she said.

He was about to warn her against this, but saw how ungrateful this would sound.

‘I ought to reward you,' he said.

‘With what?' she said immediately.

‘I don't know. I don't know what I've got that you might possibly want.'

‘I could come to the tower and have a look,' she said, and the remark made him smile.

‘I suppose you could. There must be something.'

But his reluctance had offended her and she again regarded him coldly.

‘You were the one who offered,' she said. ‘I didn't do it because there was a reward.'

He saw what the gift – however small it might prove to be – now meant to her. He imagined her presenting it to her mother; he imagined her recounting the story of how it had been earned.

‘I know,' he said. ‘Sorry.'

‘You could give me some cigarettes,' she said.

‘For your mother, presumably.'

‘Presumably.' She looked hard at the outline of the pack in his shirt pocket. He took it out. It was half-empty.

‘I couldn't give you these,' he said. ‘That wouldn't be much of a reward. Besides, she might think
you'd
smoked those already gone.'

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