1965 - Coventry Carol by A.J. Hall
“Acka-acka-acka! Acka-acka-acka!” The Me210 swooped, and the Hurricane spiralled up to meet it. With the hand not holding the Airfix model, John Frobisher caught Philip Jenkinson by the wrist, at the same time hooking his ankle with a sneak move he’d just thought of. As the two boys dropped to the ground, with common, unspoken purpose they tossed the fragile models clear of the scrimmage, into the beds of mint and flowering lavender which lined the lawn, lest they be damaged as the boys rolled over and over as they pummelled each other.
John wriggled, knocked Philip breathless with one strategically placed blow of his scabbed elbow, scrambled triumphantly atop his chest, pinned down his arms and reached for the pistol in his belt.
“Gotcha!” he said, holding the muzzle to his friend’s temple. “No surrender. Die like the Nazi scum you are, you stinking German pig!”
“John! Come indoors and see me at once!” His father; stern and commanding as the voice of God. Neither boy had realised how close the mock battle had brought them to the windows of his study, wide open on this sunny morning, second day of the long summer holidays.
Dead silence fell on the garden. Both boys wriggled awkwardly to their feet. Philip poised irresolutely, as if half wanting to flee whatever share of adult wrath might be coming his way, half-ashamed of the impulse. John made a quick, dismissive wriggle of one hand. It’s my row. I’ll deal with it. Get out while you can. His friend, pausing only to rescue the ‘planes, faded away towards the bottom of the garden and the strategically loose plank in the fence.
The study door was a little ajar; John appreciated this tiny mercy. Over the course of his short life he had already come to appreciate that the anticipation of pain almost always exceeds the misery of its infliction. A prolonged wait to learn your fate – whether outside the headmaster’s office or in the ante-room to the dentist’s surgery - seemed to him a profoundly exquisite torment that even the master torturers of the Gestapo could hardly hope to better.
His father did not look up as he entered. Strewn across the desk in front of him were half-a-dozen brightly-coloured booklets. John recognised them instantly. His father stabbed down a forefinger at them.
“Do you really have nothing better to spend your pocket money on than this American rubbish?”
John opened his mouth; then closed it again. However often he tried to impress on his father that Commando was a wholly British comic, his father persisted in his belief that the very idea of telling stories in pictures was an American notion and hence symptomatic of Everything That Is Wrong With This Country Today. Frankly, John could hardly see anything wrong with wanting to be more like a country which was, by all accounts, bigger, shinier and had lots more different kinds of ice-cream than this one.
His father made a little hrrumphing sound in the back of his throat. The vein in his temple throbbed. He combed back his thinning grey hair with his fingers,
“And that, I suppose, is where you get these idiotic notions about the War. Sit down, John and listen.”
Mulishly, John sat. His father eyed him and began.
“Look here – the Government of Germany – Hitler’s Government – were a vile bunch of thugs. Gangsters, really, not a Government at all. And they did terrible things. But that doesn’t mean that the ordinary Germans – the Luftwaffe pilots, the ordinary soldiers, the U-boat crews, the people back on the Home Front, all of them – weren’t just as much good men doing their duty in an impossible position as any of the rest of us. What happened to them – that fundamental betrayal by their own Government – they could never have expected that. It wasn’t reasonable for anyone to have expected that. All the ordinary people had to go on was what they knew. Duty. That’s the only thing anyone can have to hold onto, sometimes.”
He picked up one of the comics and brandished it in John’s face. “This – this cheap nonsense you get in these comics – all the Tommies square-jawed and heroic, and then the enemy always drawn like snivelling beasts – calling them names – Huns and Boche and Nips – just labels, labels to make them less than human,it’s wrong, John. War isn’t baddies and goodies, John; it’s two sets of good men standing up for their principles and having their duty tear them apart. Can’t you see that? Have I managed to teach you nothing?”
John suppressed a sigh. If his father had begun with the talk about duty and the clash of conflicting principles his chances of getting back to the battle with Phil that day didn’t look good. He cast around, hoping for a diversionary tactic. Next to the copies of Commando a few snapshots – old, faded snaps – were strewn around the desk-top. The topmost showed a boy – more-or-less his own age, he thought – dangling upside down and laughing, his knees wrapped around the seat of a swing. A most superior swing, hanging on ropes from he convenient branch of a tree – a walnut, John guessed with a certain level of smug satisfaction. He and Phil had been mugging up on tree shapes for their Woodcraftsman badges in Cubs, and he flattered himself he’d got pretty good at it.
“Who’s that, Dad?”
His father tracked the direction of his glance, and shuffled the snapshots together like a pack of cards, tucking them away in the top drawer of his desk. “Just some old family pictures. Your aunt Matilda found them, tidying up after the funeral, and sent them on. Anyway. I’m not having any more of this nonsense, understand? Tell that Jenkinson boy to find somewhere else to play his wargames for the rest of the week. And you’re not to see him till tomorrow, understand?”
“Oh, but Dad -“
“No buts. Get out now. That’s an order. Scram.”
John closed the study door behind him. Blank misery rose in his gullet, almost choking him. This holiday, which seemed so delicious only the day before yesterday, already marred, stopped in its tracks. Nothing could assuage his loss, ever.
A warm smell of currants and cinnamon breathed out of the kitchen. He followed his nose, and as he entered his mother pulled a tray of plump tea-cakes from the oven, brushed them over with some glossy clear liquid from a mug, tipped them onto a wire rack and said, “So, Pilot-Officer Frobisher. Confined to barracks until further orders, is it?”
Despite every heroic intention, his eyes started to prick behind their lids. He turned aside, staring out into the garden so that she couldn’t see his expression. “It just isn’t fair.”
“Don’t be so hard on your father.” Against all the rules – which, among other things, decreed that to eat new-baked bread fresh from the oven was to court death by indigestion - he found a warm, aromatic fragment of tea-cake, dripping with butter, held up to his lips. “Eat that. Look here – your Uncle’s death took your father very hard. Even if he doesn’t let it show. Last of the family. His little brother, too.”
“Uncle Gerald? His little brother. But he – but he was old –”
“Ssh! Far from it. He looked old because he’d been ill for so long. Malaria. And jaundice. He never recovered from his time in Burma. But that didn’t stop him being your father’s little brother, all the same. So be kind, John, O.K.? Scout’s honour?”
He nodded, reluctantly. His mother smiled. “Well then. As I understand you are currently unable to join the rest of your unit, Pilot-Officer Frobisher, then I proposed to commandeer your services as an escort. We’re required to carry out a targeted sortie over the Covered Market at precisely 1.45 pip emma. After which – all units rendezvous at the Odeon Cinema at 2.15 pip emma. Intelligence reports that they are showing The Dambusters and we are ordered to observe and report back. Mission plan agreed, Pilot-Officer Frobisher?”
He hurled himself ecstatically into her arms. Far along the passage he thought he heard a door scrape shut, but it seemed of no importance and he duly forgot it.