The winter evening settles down, gently, gently. I hear the silence. I do not hear the children's voices in the orchard. I cannot hear the boys in their new kit, the clip of wood on leather. There is no laughter. December is coming.
I am old. Not the old who would paddle with his trousers rolled, the old with the wrong memories: of crimes, the knowledge of dispensed death. I think of the lost voices, of burning, burning, burning, burning.
Once, then, on cheerful summer afternoons, I would bike to the village to meet my girl, Mary. We loved each other chastely, I just nineteen, Mary not quite eighteen. We pretended life was this, that this was life: a soft, sunlit bicycle ride down the lanes, a gentle kiss, anticipation, the sun in our faces and on our backs. The heat was pleasant, and we were innocent.
Until the nights, nights when Mary would listen for the rumble-roar of the Lancs and Halifaxes, the rattle of the leaded, blacked-out windows in her cottage, and then the long, long, restless, sleepless hours, until the roar and rumble was answered by a distant droning, and then a relieved, breathless landing.
We were 19, and we "pranged." We said, "Jolly good show," gave Jerry "one in the eye," and talked of other teenagers, our friends who "bought it." We did not know then what we did—forgive us, father—nor did we admit it to ourselves. The fires beneath us were amazing, a great big show, and we were so happy to survive, we barely thought of what we were doing.
And now, it seems, thinking, remembering, is all I can do. Now, in cups or lying in half-darknesses, I travel those old roads. I have gone at dusk through narrow streets. I have walked among the dead cities. I have trod in ash. I have smelt burning fat.
I did not know then. I could not. It was left to the scribes to dig into the ash and find my fingerprints. Taylor, Grayling, and the others: masterful, retrospective murderers who made Dresden and Cologne ring with guilt and Harris become "Butcher." It was all so long ago, and most of us not more than 20, but then, might we not dismiss such arguments from a soft old man who once wore light grey and patrolled inside the wire?
Mary left me one night. There was no op on. A few of us, couples and that loose coupling of friends and girlfriends that evolves when people are young, high-spirited, and full of futures, were in The Royal Oak, two miles from the camp. I do not remember who (I think it was a Canadian chap, Sweetman or Rolfe), but someone, Sweetman or Rolfe, raised a glass and made a horrible joke about the firestorms, about small pieces of meat.
And Mary, seeing me, meeting my eyes, slowly stood. She stood there in the ringing bar, among chatter, the clink of glasses, the coughs of living people, the human grunts and smells, the chuckles, the subterfuges and smoke, and suddenly, like a cannon shell ripping through a fuselage, all her love left her. Her eyes emptied and became dark.
And so, it is October and December. Something in me has long since turned to sand. I once was married. I fathered, watched grand-children playing in this English garden. But now I am mostly alone. I spend the evenings, an hour or two, slowly drinking. I should not—my faculties and motor control are not those of a young man—but if one dribbles, all one needs to do is wipe one's hand across one's mouth and laugh. It is just age, and soon it will all be irrelevant.
I remember the nights and the sound of nights. The lumber of bombers, the laughter in a smoke-filled public bar, that joke, the silence, and then, in a lead-windowed cottage, the creak, creak, creak of a rope beneath an old oak beam.
I could not do what Mary did. I had a war to fight. Now I wait. I would row into the current and towards the falls if I had that kind of courage, Mary's, but I would like to go gently, to read it all again, and again, to learn again. The names, the cities: just lights on the ground, a jolly good show and all that.