Page 8 - WTP VOl. IX #1
P. 8

 Ipaused in my journey at The Manchester Arms, a small public house hard against a remote and lonely railway station in rural Cambridgeshire. It was just after midday. I was offered and then bought a small steak pie and a pint of mild ale. I took these to a table of scrubbed elm (the only table in the room, but quite a large one) and began to eat and drink. I noticed that I was closely observed by a man over twice my age who sat opposite me. Apart from myself he was the only customer.
Now, some elderly persons have found a pleasant tranquillity throughout their years: not so this man.
Suddenly he spoke. ‘Let me guess what you do for a living.’ His voice was speculative.
‘You are medical.’
‘True. How could you tell?’
‘You have a certain manner. I don’t know exactly.’ He paused, studying my face. ‘And you’ve never been in a serious fight.’
‘True again.’
‘You don’t have a fighter’s nose.’ He put a thumb and forefinger to his mobile own. ‘See? You can push it from side to side. The bone has long been broken.’
‘You must have done something in the war,’ I said. ‘You are of that age.’
I knew he wished to speak of his own history. That’s why I asked him his tale with a pitched question and statement. The war apportions the time-signature of its generation.
He paused. ‘Ah. The war. You mention the war. For myself, I wouldn’t mention the war. But seeing as you’ve mentioned the war: I’ll tell you about the war. Wars are wars, they say: I don’t understand them, or why they come about. But I was in a little part of a war.’ He held up a hand. ‘Wars leave bad scars. I never wanted to be in a war: I wanted to spend my life as a family man, a farm-worker and hedge-layer in a little part of rural Cambridgeshire, but I was put in a little part of a war. By accident. In Italy. Northern Italy.’
I did not speak: I knew that he would continue. 1
‘You see, I killed higher-ranking German officers. Majors, colonels and the like. At night. By command. As instructed.’
He sat back, looking at me, his stare formidable, his face severe and image-like.
‘Yes, I’ll tell you. The partisans knew the terrain. Knew the road. Knew the house. Knew the bedroom. Knew which way the bed faced. Knew the way up the staircase. Knew the routes of escape. But they couldn’t kill: leastways, not without making a noise. But we were killers, and knew the way to kill effi- ciently. And the way to kill is with a silent approach.’ He paused. ‘The geese had been removed the day before. It doesn’t take a detective to know what’s coming, does it — but the Germans never guessed. The geese were gone. That one fact should have told them all.’ He did not smile, though his face moved as if he wished to smile. I think he could not smile.
He paused in grave recollection.
‘Ah, those were different days,’ he said. ‘I’m older, and I couldn’t do it now: but then: let me tell you. The doors were easily entered, the locks primitive: sometimes there were no locks. Oil to hinges the day before. Often left unbolted. So easy! Usually at four o’clock in the morning. The deadest hour, and all the village asleep beneath the moon.
‘Arranged silently: partisans bare-foot or in slippers: we with thick woollen socks over our boots. We indicated that the partisans must leave — lest they made a noise, you see. They tended to whisper, and whispers are louder than voices. Whispers carry fur- ther in a sleeper’s mind, somehow. Perhaps the mind is always listening for the fatal whisper, even in the deepest sleep.
‘Go into the hall, or, more likely, directly into a kitch- en. You’d hear the clicking of the dying embers in the range.
‘Ascend the stair: one floor: sometimes two. Each
Cambridgeshire Conversation
DaviD WhelDon

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