GENTLE PIANO MUSIC
BUZZ OF CHATTER
Douglas Fairbanks there thinks he's in with a chance.
A bit of company on a wet Friday night.
Except old Dougie doesn't have a cast in his eye and a built-up shoe.
At least, not last time I was at the flickers.
It's always the eyes.
That's how you know.
A glance held just that little bit too long,
dragged off to one side, like the trail of a Very light in the dark.
After the do, the, um, interview...
..the officer asks me, not unkindly, I must say, "So how do you chaps,
"chaps like you and the captain, know one another?"
So I told him.
Not my words, something somebody said to me once.
"A certain liquidity of the eye."
That's how HE knew.
My eyes are bad, mind you.
Too bad for shooting Prussians at any rate,
so I was shunted onto hospital work.
"Cushy", says Sam.
"That's a charabanc holiday, Perce.
"You always wanted to see France, didn't you?"
I remember my first day in resus - the resuscitation tent.
That's where they take the dying or the nearly dying
and the shocked ones.
There's heated beds to put some life back into them, and transfusions.
Our guns were going hell for leather.
The sky was all lit up - powdery, green.
Like the air was sick.
Star shells, Verys, dumps going up.
And then the ambulances come in and we have to ferry them in,
the ones that can't walk.
And they've got these labels on them
that tell you what's wrong with them.
Like left luggage.
Have you ever carried a stretcher?
You feel like your arms are going to pop out of their sockets.
Some chaps can get very heavy.
Those that can walk into the hospital...
..are covered in mud and salt sweat.
Caked in it.
All stiff and cracked, like moving statues,
like those poor fuckers in Pompeii what got covered in lava.
I've seen photographs of them in the lending library.
And then, in the resus tent, a thing you'd never expect.
Not a moan or a groan.
They're beyond all that, I suppose, most of them.
Smoking, breathing, just about.
Mind you, I've seen what a transfusion can do
and it is a bloody miracle.
Lads with one foot in the grave and their pulses all thready,
they have the transfusion, they're up, they're joking,
they're having a smoke in a couple of hours.
I said to Captain Leslie, I said, "You wouldn't credit it, would you?
"It's like... It's like witchcraft."
"Sounds about right", he says,
"since we're in hell."
But he says it with a smile and when he does that
there's these creases in his cheeks like ripples in the sand.
"You're a credit to this unit, Percy", he says to me.
"You've all the tenderness of a woman."
And he shakes my hand.
"It's Terrence," he says and I says, "What is?"
He says, "Me.
"My name. Terence Lesley.
"Do call me Terence.
"I can't bear all this formal rot."
But he's an officer and it don't seem right, so,
"I'll stick to Captain Leslie," I say, "if it's all the same."
He just smiles again and shrugs.
And his eyelashes are long.
Long and blonde.
I can't see much of his hair cos it's under his cap,
but then one day I'm bringing in a stretcher...
..and he takes his hat off and, just like that, his hair tumbles out.
Yellow as corn.
And I must have stared because he grins at me
and pushes his hair out of his eyes and says,
"Come along, Perce, ."
But I don't move.
And just for a bit...
Well, like I say, held just a...
just a moment too long.
Douglas Fairbanks over there will give me a wink in a minute.
There you go.
HE SIGHS KNOWINGLY
I've always been a skinny bugger, me.
Thin as a whip, Mother says.
Father was the same.
Mother always had a bit more beef on her after she had Albert and me,
and there was one before us.
But he died.
He was called Percy, an' all.
Poison berries. Never think a thing like that can happen, but it does.
I can remember Mother showing me the pictures in the medicine book,
all shiny and glossy pictures like Jesus in the book at Sunday School.
And little Percy had grabbed a handful of these berries and...
..that was that.
Box, I think, the berries.
Black, like little bullets.
Like liquorice sweeties.
Maybe that's what little Percy thought they was.
Anyway, they done for him and then, a year or so after that,
along comes I and they call me Percy, too.
A bit odd, some might say, a bit morbid,
but Mother always said that she could see him in me.
And she looks so funny when she says that to me...
..and she looks so sad.
But I don't think it's just because of little Percy because there was
another time she looked at me the same way.
It was freezing, I remember that.
We was waiting for a train.
Dad had some business in Reading, I forget what it was.
We were to come with and make a day of it.
I was 15, thereabouts.
Albert was 12. I'd been dispatched in search of tea and buns.
They all sat in the waiting room, steam coming off them like wet dogs.
Anyway, I'm on my way to the refreshments
and there's a commotion, so I think, "Oh, the train must be coming in,"
so I say to the girl behind the tea stall,
pretty girl I remember with bows in her hair,
I ask her to get a shift on.
She says, "What's the hurry? The Reading train isn't in for another
"quarter of an hour." So I think, "What's all the fuss about, then?"
And then I see it ahead of me on the platform.
Policemen, at least I think they're policemen,
but then I look properly and they're not, they're from the jail.
Dark uniforms, little hats with shiny brims.
And between them,
well, a...a prisoner...
..waiting to be taken away, I suppose.
And it's not the first time I've seen as such.
I used to see them a lot, poor bastards,
shuffling along in their chains and the arrows on their clothes.
And it's rough clobber, like to make you itch, worse than this.
So, "Why are all these folk whispering and pointing?" I wonder.
So I look at the chap in the chains and he's a big chap,
sort of like a big bear of a fella.
With a big slack, pouchy face.
Fat-ish, except it's all sunk in now,
and his hair, which was most likely black as your hat
is now shot through with grey.
And he looks wretched.
As well he might. There's rain dripping off his hair
and down the creases in his big face.
And then I realise, it's not just rain, he's bloody crying.
And then he looks at me.
And there it was.
In that moment...
..a certain liquidity of the eye.
And then he looks back down at his boots...
and it's as if the whole world has come tumbling down around him.
I stand there.
And I think,
"He knows me.
"He knows me for what I am.
"He can see it in me."
And I start to shake.
And it's not from the cold, it's shame.
And fear and...
And someone starts laughing.
And there's a little girl and she's wandered close to the prisoner.
She's got a little wooden horse on a dirty bit of string.
And then her mother goes up and drags the girl away from the man
as if he were like to eat her up.
And then I hear it, a name.
Whispered behind fancy gloves
and November hands what are stiff with cold.
"It's him, isn't it?"
And suddenly Dad's beside me and he's gripping my arm and he says,
"You all right, Perce?"
And he's proper worried.
And there's a sort of ringing noise in my ear and I feel for a moment
like I might faint, but then this chap goes straight up
to the prisoner on the platform and he...
He spits in his face.
And Dad looked shocked.
And just then, the train comes puffing into the station,
And I look back to the prisoner,
but he's covered now in a great big cloud of steam.
Dad picks up the tea and the buns and he gets us into the carriage.
It smells of damp wool and musty, like church,
and there's little beads of rain on the window, the open window.
And Mum pulls down the leather strap and the sound sort of...
..snaps me out of it.
"What was all that fuss about there, Clem?"
And Dad sups at his tea and it hangs in little drops from the ends of his
Kitchener 'tashe. "You won't believe it," he says.
"Out there on the platform, waiting to be taken to prison..."
"Who?" pipes up Albert.
And he looks at us and he shakes his head in wonder.
"Oscar Wilde!" he says.
And then Mum looks at me.
I've never had the nerve.
That's the thing, I suppose.
A notion of getting in trouble or being a bother...
I could always imagine Mother's face
if she found out I'd been up to things.
And I couldn't bear it, I couldn't bear to disappoint, so
I didn't, I didn't do anything about it.
Not even a tuppeny wank with Sam or nothing.
I kept my own counsel, as they say.
Also, there was a girl who was sweet on me.
And that sort of stopped people asking, I suppose.
We courted for a long while,
but she got fed up because I never asked her to marry me.
I took on like Annie had broke my heart and then,
what with one thing or another and then the war, it sort of, somehow,
I got away with it. A lot of questions, of course.
Especially when all us Tommies were billeted together
for the first time. "You married?" "No."
"You got a girl?" "Well, I used to."
And then one day, in Amiens, there was a sort of lull.
Hot as hell it was.
Not what you think. People think of all that mud and rain,
but we was there the live long year
and sometimes it was hot and parched.
Fucking flies everywhere.
Blue and green bellies on them. Fat.
Great clouds of them because of the dead bodies.
And Captain Leslie comes up to me
and he slaps me on the shoulder and he says,
"Come along, Perce, we're going hunting."
And I say, "What?" He says, "Butterflies",
because we're camped on this sort of downland.
And there's marigolds and poppies all over, little splashes of colour.
I can still taste the dust.
Chalky in your mouth and your hair and...
..on the Dunlop tyres like white paint,
because Terrence had only gone and got us bicycles, the silly bugger.
And it was only for a few hours
but you could forget, you know, for a bit,
everything that was going on.
And we came to this sort of lake.
It was a crater hole, I suppose,
and the water was glass green and clear like a perfume bottle.
And Terence, he starts hollering and rattling the bike down to the water
and he pulls off all his clothes and in he goes.
I follows, and then we go splashing about in our birthday suits.
And he's brick red from the sunshine,
but not where his shirt's been,
so he's got this sort of red face and arms, and the rest of him is...
He's like a ghost.
And after we've swum about,
we just lie in the grass and fall asleep.
You can hear the buzz of the flies, but they are way off
and some of the ones that are closer are butterflies,
so that's all right, and I just...
..lie there and I watch Terence sleeping and...
..his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
And his hair is golden.
And the line of his jaw is just sort of...
Like a draughtsman's drawn it.
Like I'd drawn it.
And his lips are dark and full and they're like bramble.
And all I want to do is bend down and...
And he opens his eyes...
And he lifts his hand to cover them so he can see better.
And he says, "We'd best be getting back."
We all had on us the stench of death.
The bread we ate, the stagnant water,
everything we touched had a rotten smell.
But that day, everything was OK.
It was bright.
And it was pure, you see?
And nobody had seen, had they?
I've done my bit.
The officer mentioned that.
When he took me aside for a quiet word.
And of course, what had Terence and me...
What had the Captain and me...
..got up to?
But someone had seen us and...
..they thought, "Hello, what's going on here?"
And it's bad for morale and all of that, so I was to be sent elsewhere.
And, of course, I didn't get to see the Captain, did I?
Because he'd been transferred, too.
I was packed onto this carriage...
..sweat and tobacco smelling and fellas pushing up against you
and shoving for room, and the train gives a great big lurch
and then it starts off.
I just sit down on the floor and pull me cap over me eyes
and drift off.
I don't know how much time has passed, but...
I wake up and it's dark outside.
And the train's pulling into a station
and in the carriage it's just these little night lights on - bluey.
They make everyone look three-parts dead.
And the train pulls into the station
and it's going slow, like, puffing,
like some of them boys in the resus tent.
And then, I do see him.
He's out the window, on the platform.
Grey coat, hair tucked under his cap, neat.
And he's talking to someone.
And they must have made him laugh
cos there's those little lines in his cheeks again.
But he don't see me.
So I push through the carriage past the other fellas
and it's not easy now cos most have dropped off
and I trip over some poor bugger and he curses me,
but I make it to the window and I pull down the sash...
..and the air outside is warm.
And all I want to do is wave.
But, of course, what can I say?
"So long, Captain Leslie?"
"So long, Perce."
But then he does see me.
He glances over,
but he's still talking to his pal
and just then the train lurches forward.
The brakes go on and the blue lights go out
and just like that, pitch-black.
And all the other fellas in the carriage start groaning
and someone says, "Oh, here we fucking go,"
but all I can feel is my heart beating and the air.
And the darkness pressing against the window
and my hand gripping the window ledge.
And then someone takes my hand.
Someone outside on the platform.
And it's Terence.
And he takes my hand and he just...
..lifts it to his lips and he kisses it.
There's no train then, there's no troops, there's no war.
There's just his bramble lips
pressed against the tips of my fingers...
..and all the hair on my neck goes up on end.
And then the train lurches forward
and he's let go of my hand and all the blue lights go on, and...
Outside there's nothing but steam.
Steam and darkness.