A Winters Tale

To end the year I thought it would be nice to present a ghostly tale of my own. Not something I would normally put here but it is based in wartime Portsmouth and is therefore in keeping with the archive. Enjoy.

 

The Homecoming

She died well. The odds had been high, the outcome not unexpected, but she’d died well. The sea had treated her like a whore and at the end she had died with all the dignity of a true lady. A ping on the edge of the radar alerted first Sommers the radar operator, then in turn Captain Ryder, to the presence of the enemy. Without hope the Captain had pulled her away from the convoy. Courage alone drove the decision, a courage that displayed itself in such outrageous futility. A courage of conviction to endure all for truth and duty. As David to Goliath, so she was to a ship of such immense power and majesty, desperately mismatched and heavily outgunned. Nevertheless she had approached the towering, steel plated city of death at full steam.

It was the torpedo amidships that finally killed her, breaking her back and spirit at one and the same time. Gregg could not remember leaving the ship or how he had managed to reach the upper deck when so many had not. The carnage within the narrow confines of the lower decks had been horrific. Water had boiled and churned with fierce undeniable contempt from every conceivable direction. He had no memory of jumping the aft rail, as surely he must have done, the fires burning midships allowing for no other way off. The dispirited murmuring of the oil drenched men around him served only to deepen his gloom.

Her going had been mercifully swift. Gregg watched her final departure from the cold, exposed life raft. Smooth rubber, slippery and wet from the oil and seawater covered clothing of those lucky enough to have been pulled aboard, felt cold.

The sea, a lurid expanse of green and blue capped with brief breaks of foam, swirled with the subtle blending of colours that indicated the presence of oil. Oil that was spreading in an ever thinning viscous film over the swelling ocean. Gregg listlessly watched the swirling waters. Weary to his very bones he felt his eyes closing of their own volition.

Men were being lifted bodily over the sides of the ship. Those already on the decks were coughing, retching up blood and oil. Men of pride and honour were reduced to helpless children in the face of such all encompassing helplessness. Seamen in blue shirts, bearing the white armband with the blood red cross painted upon them, moved up and down the lines of men.

Extra bodies were draughted in to carry the survivors below deck as duties and safety allowed. Gregg walked the sea washed decks, as whole and hearty as he had ever felt, but no-one seemed to notice him. It did not worry him overmuch. Having seen his own perverted version of hell within the past few short hours the last thing Gregg wanted was to share in somebody elses’.

Two seamen were wrapping a body in a tarpaulin shroud. As fast and efficient as they were, Gregg caught sight of the face of the man. That he recognised that face was beyond doubt though who it actually was escaped him completely.

After a few moments that could just as well have been years, his eyes opened with a start. Everywhere was quiet and still. Every visible surface gleamed. Walls, ceiling, all the same clean, snowy white. The deathly silence only increased the feeling of bleak whiteness, the feeling of empty nothingness. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Able Seaman Samuel Gregg was not cold. The dream like feel of the freshly laundered linen against skin was nothing less than luxurious. Smooth, shiny linoleum met the soles of his feet as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. A search of the small cupboard beside him revealed his freshly cleaned and neatly folded uniform, along with a small brown parcel containing his meagre possessions. 

 Unnerved by the quiet in the room he dressed quickly and crossed to the swing doors at the end of the room. White and faceless, shrouded in luminous white, outlines of bodies occupied much of the room. Beds lined the two sides of the room, each anonymous figure enclosed in its own private world, failed to hold his attention. He had more important things on his mind.

Following the green painted exit signs Gregg hurried away from the white room. Unnoticed, he strode down bleak corridor after bleak corridor. People passed him as he passed them, unseeing, a blur of faces, uniforms and starched white linen.

The middle aged woman in the royal blue matrons uniform at the reception desk did not notice him, pen in one hand telephone receiver in the other, as he pushed his way through the double doors that led to the outside world.

 

The wintry sky outside the hospital was grey and heavy, the cold bitter. Able Seaman Gregg drew his heavy greatcoat tighter around himself and walked through the Marlborough Gate, unchallenged by the M.P.’s in their shiny peaked caps and highly polished boots, into the City. The bombing on this, his home town, had been as bad as anything he had heard of in London.

An urgent sense of purpose guided his steps. He desperately needed to find Maggie. The need was insistent, nagging at the back of his mind like an impending headache. He had to find them, Maggie and young Sammy.

Despite the heavy bombing Cross Street remained relatively intact. A troop of Boy Scouts rattled past him, shouting and giggling, as they pushed a two wheeled wooden cart laden with newspapers and crushed cardboard boxes. Gregg searched the bright eyed, flush cheeked youngsters as they passed, not daring to hope that Sammy might be somewhere among them. The boy had joined two years ago. An elderly Scout Master passed close by, shouting for the boys to stop and wait for him. Obediently they turned and faced him, a flurry of childish laughter greeted a casual remark the man made. Gregg did not hear the words and could not recognise any of the faces; Sammy was not amongst them.

That first day, the day he had so proudly donned the wide brimmed hat, yellow neck-tie and dark wooden toggle, he had paraded in front of the full length mirror in the hallway. His excitement had been catching, it was so intense. The uniform had been a much repaired second, possibly even third, hand and was at least two sizes too big. But Sammy’s enthusiasm had helped to fill it to the seams. Gregg smiled to himself at the memory.

Turning his back on the group he walked on. The side streets to his left had been badly gutted by fire. At the corner with Prince George Street, Gregg stopped and roamed the scene with his eyes. Something was missing. It took him several moments to realise what it was. The old wooden spire of St. Johns’ Church had gone. St. Johns’ Church itself had gone. Wisps of grey smoke from the still smouldering beams rose lazily into the blue sky, dissipating as they reached the cross winds. Even the house of God was vulnerable. Bombs held no respect even for religion.

Reaching Queen Street the sense of foreboding was building. Rubble covered the streets while here and there small fires burned, feeding on the shattered roof joists and frames of broken houses.

Grim faced men moved about amongst the remains of once comfortable terraces searching out the miserable remnants of the life that, until so very recently, had filled their rooms. Splinters of fragmented glass were scattered across roads, slabs of stone and brickwork lay where they had fallen. High pitched shouts and giggles made him turn. Children in dust grimed clothing, the ubiquitous gas mask boxes swinging, played out games amidst the wreckage uncaring of the dangers posed by the unstable structures.

A black uniformed, tin helmeted figure bellowed at them from across the street causing a momentary cessation of the cheery voices. The man grunted his disgust as the players vanished like phantoms amongst the broken walls.

Gregg crossed into Southampton Road, the urgency of reaching his goal growing. With such destruction all around his hopes of finding Maggie safe were fading fast. The devastation around was truly awe-inspiring. These were streets he had known and played rough and tumble games in as a boy.

Turning into Lent Street the memory of a childhood friend who had lived above a small butchers shop on the corner with Portland Road came into his mind. Ronald Chapell. Little Ronnie. His Dad, Chapell Senior, had been Big Ron.

They had been so close Ronnie and he, brothers almost. Where Ronnie was now Gregg did not even care to speculate on. So many families had been separated, fragmented like the bombs that spread their husks of death on impact, destroying as they themselves were destroyed.

On Lion Terrace a group of blue caped, white capped nurses passed him.

So young they looked, barely out of school. Gregg waved a greeting but they either did not see or chose to ignore him.

Crossing the railway line, Gregg found healthy, green grass stretching out on either side of him, a welcome respite to the eyes after the destruction behind. The drone of heavy laden aero engines overhead brought him up short. Staining his eyes against the almost painful blue of the skies he watched a formation of heavy aircraft moving south and east.

A group of soldiers on the recreation field stopped their game to raise a ragged cheer. Their close cropped hair gave an impression that they were too young to be wearing long trousers let alone capable of fighting and dying for King and Country. Gregg walked on, unable to share their obvious pride in the sight.

Once again Gregg picked up his pace, first trotting, then running. The sense of doom growing stronger with each step nearer home. Lorries and jeeps in the autumn hues of battle field khaki thundered across the junction outside Cambridge Barracks. They travelled north up St. Georges Road, towards the dockyard. The resonant sounds of heavy traffic were countered by high pitched shouts of encouragement and laughter from gangs of boys in the yard of the Grammar School. Between the moving vehicles Gregg caught glimpses of excited faces and waving arms. Try as he might, he could not find Sammys’ face amongst them.

The High Street stretching ahead was as debris and glass scattered as the rest of the streets’ he had already seen but at least here an effort had been made to clear some of the mess.

A horse-drawn dray from Hambrook Brewery passed, filled to the brim with the debris of broken lives and shattered dreams. Gregg smiled ruefully. The brewery in Hambrook Street was almost home. Beyond the dray, smoke was rising in broad plumes to darken the cloudless sky above.

Taken by a sudden sense that time was fast running out, Gregg himself began to run. One hundred, two hundred yards, he ran. Smoke and confusion loomed ahead. Hoses snaked across the road, bending and twisting under the high pressure of the water that coursed through them. A wall tumbled and smashed, spreading fire blackened bricks over an already brick strewn road. A fireman in black, double breasted uniform and flat, pie-shaped metal helmet shouted orders to three similarly clad figures roaming through the rubble. Water spurting from brass nozzles in their thick gloved hands caused the men to stumble and slip on wet masonry and slabs of still cemented brickwork trying to maintain control.

Fear gripped him, dark images formed. By the time he got to Queens Crescent there would be nothing there. Both Maggie and Sammy would be gone. It was a feeling akin to the worst nightmare he could remember.

The bombs had been here too. Past splintered window frames and fragmented glass he ran until he came upon a group of lads kicking a football in the open street. Despite the icy air, discarded coats formed temporary goalposts at each end of a temporary pitch.

The goalkeeper at the far end glanced up, stared at Gregg for a brief moment, then ran off. Gregg tried to shout after the boy but the words caught at his throat. Maggie appeared at the green painted door of number 34 in answer to the boys shouts.

She was as beautiful as he remembered her despite the absurd floral apron and tightly bundled hair.

Their voices wafted across to him above the noise of the rowdy footballers,

“Mam! Mam! Dad’s here. I seen him. Look. Over there!”

“No Sammy. No!”

Gregg could hear the pain in her voice, the sound of it chilled him to his very bones,

“But Mam, look. Look!”

“No Pet. Daddy won’t be coming home. Not today, not any day.”

She knelt beside the boy, at eye level.

“But he’s there! Look.”

Maggie put her arm around the childs’ bony shoulders, hugging him close to her. Suddenly Gregg found that he could see every minute detail of the small scene before him, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. He saw tears in the profound blue of their eyes, every individual stitch sewn into the flower print dress Maggie herself had made, the crude home-made holly wreath hanging askew, the very brush strokes on the surface of the green door. Both mother and son stared into him, at him, through him.

Blue eyes that looked but could not see.

He called their names but the sound was as the wind in the trees.

The desire to see them sated, his spirit fled, swirling away in a sudden chill breeze that gusted across the City.

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