“We were on the same ship,” I say, grabbing his shoulder. “In the South China Sea.”
The HMS cap twists round. “Get away from me,” he says.
“You’re Curtis Lyle!” I shout, overjoyed at finding an old mate.
Lyle screams. Just now he was loitering in a shopping mall with a dozen shipmates, all in uniform, all happy. Now he’s upset.
“I only want to talk.”
Lyle backs off. His shipmates back off.
“What’s going on?” A security guard rushes up and shoppers turn to stare. Curtis Lyle looks like he’s going to throw up. I turn and run away. Past mums, dads, kids and prams. Get out of the mall, quick.
But why should I care? I’m going home! Home to the farm where I grew up. Home to where sleep comes under blankets sweet with the smell of work-worn bodies. Home to bread-and-jam and mother chopping rabbit and hedgehog for the stew.
The journey becomes an odyssey. Following sheep tracks past weird rock formations in the mist. Stumbling across fields at night. Dropping into a cinema to get out of the rain, falling asleep and waking as the Jap planes come through the barrage of flack. Screaming like Curtis Lyle when the battle cruiser heels over to avoid the converging torpedo trails. Being asked to leave the cinema.
Finally I reach Essex, the county of my birth. Where once there were fields, now there’s a hippy commune. It’s been there a long time. The hippies are old, their bandanas are faded and their lungs have been ruined by pot. But they are fine people and they don’t ask where I’ve been all these years.
One of the elders, Amos, is glad that the newcomer wants to stop over. He’s glad that the newcomer is willing to work for the commune. Inching forward on his walking stick, he tosses me a fizzing hand grenade: “Don’t you remember me?” he says.
“Can’t say that I do, Amos.”
“You used to come across the fields to play,” he says. “I used to take you back to your farm on the crossbar of my bike.”
My eyes follow his finger. There, half hidden in the mist of the estuary, at the point where the fields become salt marshes, stands an abandoned farmhouse. It’s a hell of a tug when you look at the place where you were born and see the roof fallen in.
Unable to cry, scared to pay the ruins a visit, the newcomer works. A hired man working fields once owned by his family. But willingly so, because now there’s Penny to consider. Penny’s a single mother, an Amazon who can carry a basket of fruit on her head, one child on her back and another on her hip. There’s talk about moving in together.
Nothing comes of it. On litter duty one day, I find a newspaper blowing round the commune, a facsimile of an historic issue of The Times.
HMS REPULSE SUNK runs the headline. 500 drowned.
Foolishly, I show it to Penny.
“Was you ever in the navy?” she asks.
Everybody in the commune is a pacifist. There’s a navy base a few miles further up the coast. Sailors are everywhere, drinking, fighting, some just wandering the streets like Curtis Lyle. The commune detests them all. An assembly is held in the Willow Pumpkin. It lasts three hours. Sailor boy is unmasked and ordered out.
The only place to go is home. The ruined farm. I take up residence and doss down on the mildewed remains of my grandfather’s bed.
One day, out of the window, I see two guys making their way along the shore with a metal detector. They must be searching for treasure. Gold doubloons in the mud, perhaps, or cannon from ancient sea battles.
I call out. They look in my direction, drop the metal detector and run back the way they came.
“Wait!” I shout.
They run even harder. That detector must have cost a pretty penny.
“Don’t you want your awesome piece of kit?” I say, holding it up in front of them. My God, how frightened they look. “Nothing to be scared about,” I tell them. “I only want someone to talk to.”
They’re as terrified as Curtis Lyle. But if they don’t feel like talking, that’s fine by me.
What a lonely, God-forsaken stretch of coast this is. Thunder grumbles out at sea like gunfire. Black clouds hang over the horizon like smoke from burning ships. I think I’ll pop across to Chatham for a while. You can always find a friendly crowd of blokes at Chatham, hanging around the war memorial over there.
Nick Boreham‘s short story ‘Thirdness’ is available for download from New York digital publishers eChook. Nick graduated from the Glasgow MLitt in Creative Writing in 2011.