The old man leaned heavily on the fence and stared over the tree tops towards the hamlet of Midmoor, hugging the hillside across the valley. His gaze shifted to the farm house at the top of the hill, where they’d tobogganed at breakneck speed every winter and then towards the pond at the bottom of the valley where they’d skinny dipped in the golden, sun kissed summers. The memories didn’t come rushing back to him; they’d never left him. His recollections of his time here, his childhood and his youth fifty years ago were fresh in his mind, perhaps, these days, rather distorted, embellished and wrapped in a cocoon of rose coloured nostalgia, but they were never far below his subconscious.
He hadn’t returned to recapture the heady days of his childhood or to revel in the freedom and innocence of a time of fun and laughter; he just wanted to see what had become of the place in the intervening decades. Apart from the pylons and the mobile phone mast rising high above the valley, little seemed to have changed. Of course, the Clydesdale and been replaced with monstrous tractors, and the scythes and reapers by harvesters guided by computers with messages sent from satellites circling the earth.
He could still see the school house and the white markings in the playground and the old oak tree proud as ever in the centre of the adjoining field, now sporting a coating of autumnal gold and browns. He recalled, with a grin, how Tommy Brownlow had fallen out of the oak tree and broken his fall by landing on top of Archie Williams; the scrumping raids on old man Wyndhams orchard; the cricket in summer and the soccer in winter and the first kiss with Nell Perkins and the inhaled puff of his first Woodbine behind the King’s Head; heady, carefree days which he captured with a startling degree of clarity wrapped in a whimsical nostalgia.
It had all ended with abruptly when his father, a giant of a man in his mid forties, dropped dead with heart failure. His mother soon remarried and he was despatched to live with his grandmother.
He glanced over his shoulder to the bus stop where he waited in the rain, his bundle of possessions under his arm. It was with a certain amount of relief when his call up papers arrived and he readily disappeared into an anonymous, faceless sea of khaki. He learned fast and mastered the intricacies of foot-drill, weapons training and ironing and managed to avoid the attention of the seemingly sadistic corporals.
He found a strange solace and comradeship within the ranks, an affinity similar to his memories of his idyllic, early upbringing. He was selected for training as a radio operator and showed an early flair for the trade. He worked hard and achieved good reports and on graduation was posted to a large radio station in Germany. He spent his embarkation leave in a soldier’s hostel near his barracks, all contact with home gone and he was now forgotten by his school friends.
On a wet and miserable afternoon, when he had grown tired of the hostel, he had travelled the few miles to Midmoor to see what he might find. He had alighted from the bus besides the old tavern, turned up the collar of his greatcoat against the rain and wandered along the row of low, stone cottages. Old Mrs Simpson had given him a curious stare as he passed but she hurried on, without a word. He waited besides the pub, hands thrust deeply into his pockets and was rather relieved when the next bus arrived to take him back to the warmth of the hostel. As the bus crawled up the hill, he wondered why he had made the effort to return and if he would ever see the place again.
And so he disappeared into the great military machine, turning his back on what remained of his family and the friends and the villagers of Midmoor; letters from his grandmother went unanswered and letters from his mother went unopened.
He spent his leisure time on the sports-field and his leave exploring the great German hinterland. Unbeknown to his comrades, he signed on for an extra three years and made the transition from conscript to regular. In military ideology, it was a rejection of civilian life and a commitment to a long service career. It was seen by many to be a desperate attempt to immerse oneself in an organisation which made all the decisions and provided the soldier’s every need. Had he been confronted, he would have conceded this was his reasoning for opting for such a career and that the military might treat him with greater consideration than his family and friends.
He attended training courses, put his all effort into the subject matter, passed with good grades and was rewarded with a stripe, his own room and the entitlement to a place in the corporal’s mess. It may not have been as salubrious as a Pall Mall gentleman’s club but his new position carried a degree of privilege and benefits that was not lost on him.
He was to spend the next thirty five years as a soldier. He fought in three campaigns and toured the world and was eventually promoted to Captain. He might have recalled some of the places he’d visited or some those he’d served with but for now, at least, he gazed at the golden hues of the valley and fancied he could hear the distant echoes of laughter of young lads at play.
He was shaken from his reverie when a voice behind him asked, ”Excuse me, are you Jack Butler?”
He turned and saw a young women, dressed in jeans and sweater. “Aye,” he answered with bewilderment, ”How did you know?”
“My father was sitting at the window and saw you get off the bus, he said, that’s Jack Butler, I’d know that frame anywhere.”
“Your father, who is your father?”
“Tom Brownlow, he ’s there, by the window,” and she pointed to the cottage. “He’s confined to a wheelchair these days and doesn’t get out much. He says you were at school together. Will you come in and have a cup of tea? He says he hasn’t seen or heard of you in forty years. He’ll be ever so pleased to see you again. Do come.”