Stories come to me sometimes, from the most unusual places – like the back of my retinal screening van. This story really grabbed me and made me think, and given that it’s D-Day on Saturday, now seems a very poignant time to share it with you.
He was old and skinny – shrunken by the passage of time – but stately, with immense dignity of movement in every measured stride.
His liver-spotted hand held onto his stick, not desperately, as though afraid of a fall, but lightly and with humour, as though at any moment he might swing it up over his shoulder and break into an Astaire classic, right there on the grass.
I invited him in, and ice-blue eyes held mine across the room as we dealt with the details. They sparkled like benign glaciers, encased in mountains of pale, wrinkled velvet. His lips were blue, too – poor circulation, probably.
I saw kindness in the wrinkles around his eyes, the unkempt tussocks of hair sprouting from ears and nostrils, and eyebrows which straggled into mid-air, as though channeling the questing tendril-spirit of a spider-plant.
His teeth were stained with nicotine, but not his fingers, which suggested that he was a pipe man. More elegant, somehow, and it certainly explained the faint, warm smell of tobacco, which was emanating from him.
We talked as the appointment progressed and I felt such a wrench at being constricted by someone else’s agenda – he went off on a tangent about the Normandy landings, where he’d been present and seen his cohorts mown down in swathes, like wheat in a field under the farmer’s indiscriminate scythe. His cracked voice described the scene and I realised, with reverence, that this was a man who had LIVED.
He told me about the sea walls, which had hidden the Germans and their machine guns, as they watched those boatloads of hapless lads bobbing up and down in the sea. Lads, because although there were men amongst them, so many were young – he had only been 19 at the time – so many were destined to end their lives only a few minutes after stepping out into the vicious surf.
His pupils dilated with the drops, rather than with horror as he explained briefly, and without self-pity, what had occurred that day. I imagined what it was like to be a teenager in a group 600-strong and raring to fight with all the glory and vim of patriotism boosting your spirit. And what it was like to be a teenager an hour later, when upwards of half of that seemingly dauntless number lay dead or dying at your feet, or the feeling of catching your boots on a fresh corpse as you scrambled for shelter with bullets whistling around you.
What must it be like to have hit the wall of war’s reality with such sudden harshness?
What must it be like to have looked back over the events, not with the removed anguish of those at home, whose letterboxes suddenly became destined for bad-news telegrams, but as one who had been there in the moments when three hundred souls were released through splashy crimson bulletholes, and soared upwards into the stormy French skies.
What must it be like to look at me – a fresh-faced young nobody who clearly had no comprehension at all of the sacrifices made – and know that in this situation, I was the professional; I was in charge and without the efforts and losses of his generation, I might have been speaking German (or never have been born at all, by virtue of having no Aryan heritage whatsoever)?
What must it be like to want to return (as he did – he told me – in spite of the fact that only three from his command were still alive now) to stand on those beaches in their modern innocence, remembering the blood-stained sand and terrible noises of D-Day?
What must it be like to be 70 years past this awful day, and to still carry such clear memories in your head?
What must it be like to be an old soldier?