Ever since Tom could remember, his brother Eddie had been forcing him to live in the past. As a boy, Tom had thought it was his brother’s life purpose to him annoy him with time long since gone. It was Eddie who had him building bomb shelters in the garden, hunting for German spies in their home village, singing the Dam Busters theme and spreading his arms like an aeroplane as they walked home from school. Nobody else’s older brother did this, not in a world where there was Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Pete Townshend. The twenty months between them stretched and stretched until they felt like twenty years.
Tom was beginning to catch up. With Eddie’s age fixed at fifty-seven years and three months, he had made up three weeks’ ground already, striding through time where his brother had stopped still. Things were, on the face of it, changing. Yet here he was, driving fifty miles to his brother’s home on a Sunday morning because Eddie had stipulated that he, and no-one else, see to his brother’s effects. He finished parking, and reached for the portable radio on the back seat, switching it on immediately.
“Lady Madonna, baby at your breast, wonders how you manage to feed the rest…”
The music blared in the morning stillness, a right and proper accompaniment to Tom’s visit: if there was one thing Eddie hated, it was The Beatles. Tom let the radio play by his feet while he found the correct keys amongst the batch the estate agent had given him. This one for the Chubb lock, that one for the Yale lock. The other twenty-five? No idea mate, no idea.
The door opened and Tom was greeted by a deep red poster, framed but torn at its edges within its frame. It exhorted him to KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.
Tom raised the radio towards the sign. The music grew louder, closer to his ears. He was feeling irritable, ready to tear down every one of the posters he knew were on the walls inside. Dig for Victory. We Can Do It! Let Us Go Forward Together. Authentic posters, not reproductions. Eddie would never have had that. It was going to be like excavating the gift shop at the Imperial War Museum. “See how they run,” Tom sang under his breath, casting garlic about the vampire’s lair.
“The note your brother wanted you to have is on the dining room table,” the solicitor had told him over the phone, and there it was. A few handwritten sentences told Tom what to do. He read it twice, couldn’t believe the contents, and then realised he had been expecting something just like it. Beside the note lay Eddie’s scrapbook of Remembrance Sunday parade photos and another, slimmer volume, a hardback notebook. The title My Father’s War was neatly underlined in a window on the front page. By Eddie Dean, it said beneath that, as though anyone else could have written it.
Tom flicked through the book but it was the note his eyes kept returning to, reading again what his brother wanted him to do.
It was mad, the whole thing. Entirely bonkers. Tom told Eddie so and Eddie agreed, smiling his smile and nodding away, enjoying his suggestion all the more because of it. The insanity was all part of the fun. Tom might see that if he came along. Maybe he’d even catch the bug. Of course, they both knew he wouldn’t, if only because that would remove the pleasure of having this conversation again, the next time Eddie asked Tom to attend a re-enactment.
They were in the pub at the end of the long street that constituted Eddie’s whole village, and every part of his life not lived on a re-enacted battlefield or selling second homes in the country. The walk down from his house had taken them past the old church and the war memorial Eddie was always careful to point out, to sit and eat their Sunday lunch. Eddie waited until Katy was at the bar, ordering their food, to ask whether Tom would come to his next event.
“You never come to the Remembrance Sunday parade,” Eddie said, still grinning. “You can indulge me with this one. Bring Victor – he can re-enact the Normandy landings from the ditch that runs along the side of the arena if he likes. There’s loads of room for little Allied soldiers.”
“No Germans?” Tom asked.
“No, no Germans,” Eddie said. “Not the kids anyway. But we’ll need someone to shoot at, if you do feel like getting involved.” He winked. “I know it’s not Katy’s thing,” he said, “but Victor’s more than old enough to enjoy it now. You always do too, when you come along.”
Tom looked down at Victor, knowing exactly what expression would be on his son’s face. “Fancy it, Vic?”
Victor nodded, excited but restraining himself for company, trying to impress the grownups by acting like one of them.
He’s getting more convincing at this, Tom thought. Sometimes it’s not an act any more. “Sounds like a date,” he said.
“Good. We can get a curry afterwards, maybe even a few beers. Don’t tell your mother that bit, Victor,” Eddie dropped another wink.
“I just hope the weather holds,” Tom said.
“The weather will hold. And if it doesn’t, so what? Who’s scared of a little bit of mud?”
“Not me,” Victor said, grinning broadly.
“Exactly,” Eddie said. “Vic’s a real soldier, just like his granddad. You gave him the right name, Tommy.”
Tom put an arm round Victor, and held himself back from telling his brother not to call him Tommy. He wasn’t some Hun-fighting Tommy, he was a rock-and-roller, a child of another time. If only you were calling me after a pinball wizard, he thought, just once. “I still think you’re all nuts,” he said. “Bunch of grown men playing soldiers.”
Eddie ignored him. “Yeah, Dad would have been proud,” he said, looking down at Victor. “You can give me a ride, Tom,” he said when he looked up. “It’s on your way. And bring some decent music, for Christ’s sakes, none of that crap you usually listen to.”
The Nazi base was in a castle of some sort, for reasons Tom didn’t quite understand. Creepy-looking portraits of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels hung on every wall. Tom wondered if he had seen a movie like this once and realised he probably had, probably more than one. The thought made him feel antique.
The camera view swung suddenly to the left and three Germans appeared in centre screen, SS men in uniform, standing idly talking. One of them saw Victor’s character approaching and Victor shifted his controller in a nimble, unhurried movement that baffled his father. The machine gun that poked into the screen fired rapidly, and the three Nazis lay dead in pools of pixellated blood.
The camera jerked up and down. Victor was running now that the gunfire had raised the alarm. Shouting German voices drew closer. The juddering screen make Tom feel queasy, and he left his son to it.
He found Katy sitting in their bedroom, reading Eddie’s note. She was clearly enjoying herself. “So, are you going to do it?” she asked when she saw him.
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Really, it’s ridiculous.”
She lowered the page. “You’re going to do it.”
“I haven’t made up my mind.”
“Yes, you have. Made it up as soon as you read it.” She lifted the note to her eyes again. “Incredible,” she said. “He didn’t tell anyone?”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“So he didn’t tell anyone. Strange man, your brother.”
She paused and looked at him more seriously. “Victor and I will come too, when you do this,” she said. “Not for the thing, but after. It’s nice there, he always liked it. I did too. It’d be good to have a last memory of the village that isn’t Eddie’s funeral. We’ll go for lunch. That nice pub we went to last time.”
“Sure,” Tom said. “That sounds good.”
The steps to the cricket pavilion provided the best view of Eddie, overseeing the construction of the imitation barbed wire fences. It must cost a huge amount, Tom thought, all that plastic or whatever it was. Actual barbed wire must be cheaper, surely. He grinned. Cheaper to fight a war than to re-enact one.
“What do you think, Vic?” he asked, although he did not need to. The field before them was a boy’s dream. The Allied positions to the left consisted of a few guys standing around in uniform drinking decidedly non-period cans of lager, but to the right, where Eddie was running the show – in his British uniform, ready to switch sides when the shooting started – elaborate Axis defensive structures were being constructed, ready to be overwhelmed.
“Amazing,” Victor said.
It’s a bunch of fifty year-old men playing soldiers, Tom thought. Amazing is one way of describing it.
There was entertainment for him, of course, although this part wasn’t it. It wasn’t the battle either, which began, sluggish and timid at first, then more excitable when cheering started to emerge from the dozens-strong crowd. It wasn’t even the first German soldier to be slain, a heaving, heavy-bellied man who appeared to die of natural causes rather than an imaginary bullet, clutching at his chest as he collapsed before them. Tom’s entertainment was the angle, Eddie’s angle, the one he squeezed in to every re-enactment, whether someone who understood it was watching or not. Waiting for it, Tom felt sorry he did not come to watch more often.
“There’s so much smoke,” Victor said. “Hard to see.”
“That’s war, son,” Tom said, and ruffled the boy’s hair. Victor’s response, made with his eyes only, let his father know he wouldn’t get away with either the remark or the action again. Tom laughed. “Come on Eddie,” he said, turning back to the action. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“I can’t see him,” Victor said, more irritated than upset.
“Don’t worry, we won’t be able to miss him for long. You know how come?”
“Because you couldn’t miss your grandfather,” Tom said. “He was always at the front of everything, showing off. And your Uncle Eddie fights like your grandfather.”
Victor nodded. Strange to think what the boy’s grandfather might mean to him; maybe nothing, just a few pictures and old stories. The source of his name. The old man had died when his grandson was five, and the boy had no memory of him. Maybe Victor thought of him as a movie character, or someone from a computer game. A dream, not a man.
Eddie did not make them wait. He drove into the action in what, to Tom’s untrained eye, looked like a tank with the turret removed, so that a brave and foolhardy figure could stand up in the gap and survey the enemy position. Eddie did just that. Awed by his daring and cowed by covering fire, the Germans retreated, giving Eddie the chance to – highly exaggeratedly – assess where they were strongest. He ducked back inside the tank and it quickly retreated behind the Allied lines, where its occupants disembarked to join the assault. Before long, Eddie was stepping over the German dead, escorting the prisoners away from the battlefield.
A horn blared over the speaker system. Friend and foe dropped their rifles and surrendering arms, the dead awoke, and everyone shook hands. The audience applauded.
“Pretty cool, hey?” Tom said.
Victor gave a slow smile, and Tom thought he saw more in it than a child’s enthusiasm; there was a hint, if only slight, of adult appreciation. Growing up fast, he thought, saddened and proud.
After animated discussions with some of the other actors, Eddie joined them.
“Good fun?” Tom asked.
“Better than fun,” Eddie said. “One of the best yet, I think. Did you see it, Tom? The angle?”
“I saw it.”
“Good, huh? A great angle, that one.”
“Hard to get it in.”
“Oh yes. One of the Axis guys told me it was unrealistic. I told him he’d never met my old man.”
Victor looked confused. “Eddie was acting out one of your granddad’s old war stories,” Tom said, “one of the ones he used to tell all the time. Happened somewhere in Italy.”
“Rimini,” Eddie said.
The speakers in the pavilion crackled. A voice thanked everyone for coming, and most of all the actors for giving their time, artistry and energy. Tom and Eddie locked eyes in amusement. There was a thump as the announcer laid down his microphone and was replaced by a familiar guitar riff, Mick Jagger belting out:
“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans…”
“Ugh,” Eddie said. “Come on Vic, we could use some distraction from this racket, couldn’t we? How d’you fancy going for a ride in a tank?”
The notebook was filled with Eddie’s compulsively neat hand, ordered and mostly restrained in style and tone, like an official record. His enthusiasm was contained not in those aspects but in the fact the text existed. There were so many soldiers, so many stories. Nobody, other than Tom, would read this one.
Private Victor Dean joined the Army in 1938, a year before hostilities with Germany began. He had a love of motorbikes, and joined the forces as a despatch rider. War was undeclared but on the horizon, and Dean wanted to choose his position, rather than be conscripted. This is one version of the story. Another, arguably consistent with the first, is that his previous job as a barman was disagreeing with his health. His doctor, examining the persistently troublesome chest of this young man, advised him to get an outdoors job away from the pub patrons’ smoke. On the way back from the surgery Dean’s eye was caught by an Army recruitment poster. War is, or at least was then, an outdoors profession.
It was all there: Tom read what he had heard repeatedly from his grandfather when he was alive and from Eddie after he was gone. The motorcycle accident in Bournemouth; the women in Cape Town; the drunken locals in Cairo. Eddie documented it all fastidiously, dwelling on no subject for too short a time or too long. Even the introduction of their mother to the narrative, a secretary in Victor’s NCO’s hometown who offered to write to any soldier with nobody to write to, was given no special heraldry. Nor was the episode where their father scouted German positions at huge, foolish risk to himself, in a tank whose turret had been removed, putting together a mental map of where the enemy was, one that allowed the enemy to successfully be overrun, the story Eddie loved best and retold most often. Here, all events were equal.
Tom flipped through the pages to the end. Victor came home from the war and married Patty, his correspondent of four years by the time they first met, and already his fiancé. Their wedding, in September 1945, concluded the text. The hero doesn’t die at the end, Tom thought, not for Eddie.
He put the notebook down. The radio still blared at his feet. The Rolling Stones, Brown Sugar. It was probably the fifth time Tom had heard it that week. The posters of Churchill and the land girls turned benevolent eyes towards him, and he wondered how long he would need to take them all down.
Eddie had sounded disappointed on the phone, but not surprised. Tom had made a lot of similar calls before, but they had never become easy. He had not committed to this event, of course, and since he and Victor had been to the last re-enactment, Eddie can’t have expected that they would come. Still, crying off felt bad, despite all the things he had to do.
There were errands. There was a swimming competition to take Victor to and from, and commiserating to do when he finished fourth in his strongest race. There was a match on TV in the afternoon, and Tom managed to catch the second half. The only time he thought of Eddie was when the rain started to fall heavily outside his window, and he felt relief that he was not outside, watching the Battle of the Bulge be re-enacted from beneath a leaky golf umbrella.
The story, they told him at the hospital, was this: one of the actors – a method actor, presumably – was taking time in between battles to teach a little boy from the crowd how to swear. The boy learned in a few short minutes how to tell someone to go fuck himself, a skill he put into action when his father told him it was time to go home. Eddie spent five minutes or more screaming at the actor. He collapsed soon after, as he was walking towards the battlefield, ready to tell everyone what had gone well and what they should do better next time. By the time the St. John’s Ambulance had driven across the mud to attend him, he was already dead.
“It’s here,” Tom said, showing Katy the page. “Dad was in Italy when it happened: they were staying at a farmhouse and one of the soldiers thought it would be funny to teach the kids English swearwords. Dad overheard him doing it. Gave the poor sod the balling out of his life.”
“Wow,” Katy said, reading what was written. “Your Dad meant that.”
“You bet he did. But what an opportunity. Eddie could never have got a better angle than that again. If he had to sign off with something, that’ll definitely do.”
Katy watched him closely, clearly amused. Tom did not ask why. “Are you ready?” she said.
Tom looked at his watch. “Sure,” he said. “It’s about time.” He closed the book.
“Great. We’ll see you about midday, I guess. After the service.”
Tom nodded. “Have fun with your mother, Victor,” he called across the room.
It was hard to get his son’s attention. The boy was utterly enraptured by Eddie’s home. He could barely keep his eyes off the posters: Roosevelt and Churchill on the walls where he had Rooney and Ronaldo, where his father once had Lennon and McCartney. Tom had told him he could take any of them that he wanted but Victor had shaken his head no, and Tom could tell it was not lack of desire but a sense that it would be wrong, almost sacrilegious, to do so.
Tom understood. The museum atmosphere of his brother’s house was accentuated by Eddie’s world being packed up in boxes, ready for storage or display according to a curator’s whim. Tom had found it easy enough to find a reputable collector to handle the sale of whatever of Eddie’s possessions were saleable, another man who was at home in this defunct world that Tom had always found so alien.
“You look very smart,” Katy said, and kissed him on the cheek. Tom knelt to hug Victor and then his family left him alone in his brother’s space. The front door clicked shut behind them. Tom brushed down his father’s medals on the breast pocket of his jacket, and took a moment to read over Eddie’s note again, which he was keeping in the inside pocket to prove to himself that he was not going entirely mad.
You’ll be the only member of the parade, so it’s all the more important to keep your back straight and walk tall: remembrance demands it.
“Silly sod,” Tom muttered, and folded the note up. According to the vicar at the village church, the one the war memorial stood outside, the last veteran of the war who lived locally had died more than five years ago, and there was nobody in the village with connections to more recent conflicts. Since then the Remembrance Sunday parade had been made up of Eddie alone, dressed in his best and with his father’s medals strapped to his breast pocket, laying his wreath of poppies outside the church before Sunday service. As Tom closed the front door behind him he whistled a little of Lady Madonna under his breath, just loudly enough to annoy any watching ghosts.
He checked his watch. Quarter to eleven. Tom stepped out into the deserted Sunday morning street, held his wreath out before him, and began the parade.
Robert Long lives in London, England. He has had work published by the Muscle & Blood Literary Journal,Bards & Sages Quarterly and the Terminal Earth anthology amongst others, and has recently finished work on a novel. More information about his writing can be found at http://adsoofmelk.blogspot.com
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