Oh God. Kelly’s heading my way with that moronic morning smile on her face.
“Ready for our cup of tea are we, Edith?”
We? We? Ye gods! Is she fetching two straws with it?
What I’d give for a gin and tonic. Or a cigarette.
That girl – what does she see when she looks at me? A fat old lump of useless flesh, destined for the crematorium?
I’ve tried to tell her about my life, but she switches off and chews like a grazing cow, stares blankly while I maunder on, distorting everything through her prism of boredom. She doesn’t expect ‘old ladies’ to think.
To be fair, it must be hard for her to understand – she’s not even twenty and I’ll be ninety five next birthday, if I’m spared. But you see, the war – the Second World War – it was the best time of my life.
‘Oh yes, the Nazis and all that,’ says Kelly. ‘I did a project on the Holocaust.’
The Holocaust. You hear that word so much it numbs you. Gas ovens and Hitler, Dresden and Coventry. Six easy-to-watch instalments.
Six years of my life.
Oh, Kelly, what do you know? How can you know? In just a few brief months that war changed me forever. Under those streets where you drink your pastel-coloured drinks on Saturday night I fought for victory with all my might.
The Battle of the Atlantic they called it.
Day after dark day I stood in the twilight of the dim electric lights, pushing wooden boats around a great big map till my back ached. Each one of them was a symbol of triumph – or of tragedy. I wore my fingers to the bone typing messages in code. Every now and then I’d steal an hour or two for sleep, curled on a tiny bunk bed in a room heavy with fear and cigarette smoke.
I witnessed cruel death and cheered vibrant victory. I saw virtue punished and treachery rewarded. And when I emerged into the light of day, like some mutant mole given the dubious gift of eyesight, it was to find friends grey with anxiety, buildings crushed to gravel by the hammer of war, women huddled on street corners staring at the ruins of their lives.
Yes, Kelly dear, you may have travelled the world, but I have been to places you can never go.
I’ve been in the hearts of scared young lads, whipped by bitter Atlantic winds. I’ve swum in the last, desperate thoughts of men going down with their shattered ships, holed by spectral u-boats. I’ve shared the elation of the pilots as they sank the enemy – and Saved Our Souls. Can you imagine that? Can you?
But now my arms won’t make a cup of tea, so I need you, Kelly, you and your clichés and your careless caring. But you don’t need to pity me. After all, I’ve given you so much more than you can ever give me.
[This piece was inspired by a visit to one of Liverpool’s genuinely ‘hidden’ gems, The Battle of the Atlantic Western Approaches HQ, http://www.liverpoolwarmuseum.co.uk/history/ an underground bunker that still looks eerily as if the people running it had left just hours ago. If you’ve never been it’s truly moving (well I think so)]