The night was warm, and the sky was clear. It was one of those rare occasions where everything was just right. Of course the alcohol helped. None of us were tired and emotional (ie. Drunk); we were all tired and comfortable. It had been a good day and a good evening. The food was basic, but the company was great. A couple of cans of beer just settled us all into a comfortable existence. We were sitting round a fire of glowing embers, occasionally someone would throw a half-burned stick further in and a shower of sparks would fly up into the dark, like new stars going into heaven.
Above us the dark sky was sprayed with stars, far more than we ever see in town. The big, bright stars were brighter, but beyond were smaller stars, rarely seen; and beyond it, it seemed, even smaller stars. Smaller and smaller until you had to not look to think you saw them. Mere pin pricks of light that vanished if you looked hard. Parts of the sky were just slightly milky; none of us knew if this was the Milky Way, none of us could remember seeing such vague lights before. All inexpressibly far away. That light had started towards us before our world was even made. How to get your head round that? You can’t; just take another swig of beer and just enjoy it.
Somewhere in the distance a fox was shouting. I don’t know what else to call it; that noise they make that sounds like a baby crying, or a cat being dealt the last of its nine lives. An owl had flown noiselessly past and earlier we had watched two bats in the twilight. Life was good.
We were ‘shooting the breeze’ on a warm summer night in Northern France. We’d done this for several years. We’d pick a camp site, and all travel across in our motorhomes and chill out. It was a good way of ending the summer. There was no competition, Derek had a massive, luxury motorhome; Matt had a smaller, compact one; Andy always said, every year, that he didn’t think his would last another year, but it always did. He was a mechanic and his would be a classic one day, we said, and he’d still be driving places we’d hesitate to go. We just got on, no-one was precious about their motorhome, they were just a means to an end. Well, okay, maybe there was a little competition amongst the women – the cushions and throws that they all had in their vans. I drove a CI, not a top end model, but it got us where we wanted to go, and it was okay for us.
We’d all met on a rally in Aberystwyth and just jelled. Same sense of humour helped, same attitude to life (I was broadly right wing, Derek was broadly left wing, but all politicians are a bunch of fuckers, so we just agreed on that). So now we met up every year for the August Bank Holiday. A long weekend somewhere, and this year Northern France was selected. We ran into each other at other times too; maybe a rally; sometimes literally a coincidence as two of us would fancy a weekend away to the same place at the same time. This long weekend was the only planned meet though.
Most of the women had gone to bed, all except Jo, who sat with her head on Andy’s shoulder and listened to us talking rubbish to each other. She once pointed out that we were all experts at football and never went to a game, politics and only voted sometimes, and Strictly Come Dancing, though not one of us could dance anything but a ‘Dad dance’. We all agreed, no one took offence at being call a poncy hypocrite. It was all in good heart. Derek had gone to bed too. He was on his second wife; newer, younger model. We weren’t sure about that, we’d all liked Joyce, but she seemed happy enough with her Pekinese breeding. Mandy was smaller, slighter and sexier. Derek hadn’t gone to bed to sleep, we all knew that, and made sure he knew that we knew.
I took another swig of my beer and looked around. There was that old geezer again. I’d seen him earlier. His van was old, scruffy and small. He fitted the same description actually. He walked upright, and looked healthy enough, but I saw him check the bins for glass bottles he could take back for the deposits on them. He saw me looking and said “Waste not, want not”. We weren’t wasteful, just didn’t need to care about the 20 cents or whatever it was, so we just junked them.
I waved my can at him. “Drink?” He looked lonely, and I was feeling sociable.
“Well, thank you, very much appreciated sir. Bill’s the name.” I introduced the group, we sat in silence, enjoying the night.
“Haa,” said Bill “Bit different to last time I was here”
“I was here sixty years ago, 1917. I thought it was time to come back and say sorry”
“You were here? Oh man, you’re a hero. I have so much respect for you” gushed Matt, that was him all over. He was outgoing, and had a lot of interest in war. I was still wondering about the ‘sorry’ comment. Sorry for the mess they made? Sorry for the war?
“Respect? No, I don’t deserve respect.” He paused, took a drink and sighed “Well, I could tell you. That would get it off my chest anyway” I looked at him and guessed he was coming up to eighty, late seventies at least. He looked careworn, He would have been a teenager then. I couldn’t imagine that, he looked so ancient.
“We had just made another ‘big push’. The kind that was guaranteed, every time, to enable a break-through and a march all the way to Berlin. Most of us didn’t believe it by then, but we pretended we did. Our platoon was half strength, we were unusual in still having a lieutenant and a sergeant I think.
This time, with tanks, we did make a limited breakthrough; but the Bosch were canny buggers; they had developed their concepts of defence in depth by then. They fell back on a new set of lines and we occupied the ones that our own guns had mashed to buggery – begging your pardon miss. [Jo smiled and waved. Andy’s language when he reversed into a bollard was way worse than that]
In the middle of the lines was a French village, not many people there by then, so we thought. The residents looked haggard and tired. They were underfed and hungry. What we did capture was a German stockpile. We had been told they were running short; perhaps they were, but what we found was enough food to feed a division very well. We weren’t a division, and we didn’t share. There were hams and cheese and Kraut sausage and wine and beer. The lieutenant and sergeant had a conflab and we agreed to keep it quiet but we were told in no uncertain terms that any soldier drunk on duty would be court martialled for desertion – that way they’d be shot see?
We’d lived on crap for so long! Often we only got half the rations we were due. And they were poor quality see? The British Army ain’t never been good at feeding its men. Even Wellington knew that back in Boney’s time. So we were in very heaven to have this food. I think, now I come to think about it again, that it must have been officer’s fare; I can’t believe their common private got such good tuck.
Well, this woman came to us. It seemed there was a school in the village. They hadn’t moved when the war come because there was nowhere to go. They stayed, and when the Jerries overran the village, they still stayed. And the Germans weren’t bad about it. They had given bits and bobs to the school to keep them from starving. Not a feast, mind, but better than the bread, drippng and rats that the rest of the village lived on – that’s why a lot eventually left. But where would a school go with lots of dependant little mouths to feed? Belgium wasn’t hardly able to feed itself, and getting across the lines to France was hard and even if they had, the French were a bunch of mean fuckers at the best of times.
Well, this woman asked if we would help. We said that now they were across the lines now, so we had helped. And we said other things too. Rude things to the effect that she could clear off, in no uncertain terms.