Old Burt across the street is backing a whole damned boat into his driveway. He’s got one arm out the window and is wearing a sailor’s cap as if he plans to set sail in a sea of suburban minivans.
What an idiot.
I’m leaning in for a better view when the reporter calls. The young lady wants to know about my experience seventy-five years before, on VE Day. I just want to drink my sherry and watch the show.
Mr. Garvin, what was it like that day, she says, when you knew it would all be over? She sounds young, like she’s never done this before. I’ve lost my patience already, but I don’t get many calls anymore.
I was hungry, I say. The boat out front is in danger of tipping onto the hydrangeas.
Yes, but how did you celebrate?
I’m not sure you understand. I was starving and my mother told me not to return home without any money. I can already tell I am impressing her with my dramatic tales of deliverance.
Huh. Interesting, but I’m looking for something a little more… Papers flip in my ear as she regroups and Old Burt across the street hops out of his truck to see what kind of damage he is about to do to his rhododendrons. I’ll have to look at that blasted boat the entire summer now.
What are you looking for, dear?
I have qualified for expert status, I suppose, by way of my nearness to death by old age. There aren’t many others available for comment any more so she has to settle for me and my disappointing half-truths, and I have to settle for a conversation with a youngster trying to get her name in the neighbourhood paper. I rub my eye. My aim is poor; I have acquired a rattle in my hand-bones. The last few years my body has started to shudder and break down like an old gas lawnmower.
Hadn’t you been pleased that the bombing would stop?
I was thirteen, dear, in the East Midlands. My biggest risk was starvation and my mother beating me to death for not bringing home rent money. I wasn’t exactly pleased about anything.
But you knew there was a war? I’m not sure which is worse: this girl’s stupid questions or those calls that came thrice per day asking if I needed my ducts cleaned. (“ducks,” I shouted every time, annoyed but pleased to have a perk of old age, “Do you do geese, too? I could do with a good goose cleaning.”)
Of course I knew there was a war. I was poor, not stupid, I say, shaking my head at Old Burt across the street as he switches between reverse and drive every two inches. I see he’s named the damn boat. I can’t make out the letters; I’m hoping for something like Breaking Wind or Leaky Vessel, but I doubt Old Burt would name his pride and joy after me.
I didn’t mean to offend you, Mr. Garvin, I’m just wondering what it was like for you when after so many years of war, peace was finally in reach?
She intakes a sharp breath and holds it, as if a lack of oxygen can will an interesting story out of an old todger like me.
I’m telling you, I was hungry. What else do you want to know?
I had been hungry; I was telling the truth. I was one of eight kids, two of which only God knew who their father was. I was the strongest, if recovering from a year-long bout of typhoid fever actually makes you strong. I was tenacious, anyway. My eldest brother had been on a Lancaster somewhere, being a blasted hero, but he could have been at the bottom of the Channel for all I knew at the time. My elder sisters were north, somewhere, being their own version of poor, but with stronger accents. We didn’t exactly write loving letters to each other the way those bloody novels would have you believe. People want to think everyone in history had a bit of paper and a stub of pencil to write out their innermost thoughts.
How old were you when war broke out?
I was about seven.
Huh, she tuts, poor thing. Did you see your father off to war?
No, he had already seen enough war in his lifetime. I certainly saw him off, though, on a regular basis. I think he had set up shop in Nottingham with an old friend of my aunt’s. He’d lob himself between the two women like the best men of Wimbledon. Dad’s head was full of the first war and my mom didn’t have a lot of tolerance for feelings.
Imagine coping with two world wars. Incredible. Can you tell me a bit about your father’s experience?
That’s my father’s business.
My dad was rarely sober in my memory of him, but he had soberly squeezed my shoulder once, before he left on one occasion. He nodded firmly and almost made eye contact. I felt like a man that day; it was the first time I didn’t cry when he left. Sometimes I wonder if there are more of his offspring in the world that I don’t know about.
Do you have siblings? Surely one of them is alive and more interesting than me.
I do. Eight back then, but it’s down to me now.
I’m sorry for your losses. What was it like to be in a big family?
It was crowded at times. But we were all pretty self-sufficient.
I had rolled a dead man out of his own bed once, after he had long stiffened. He was our landlord and we were sleeping in his attic, six to a bed with strangers. He had been wearing a lovely pair of pajamas when I found him. He hadn’t come down for his tea, and we were impatient to have his damp leftovers. Instead of figuring out how to dispose of a body, my mom had chosen the extra bed and indefinite forgiveness of rent. I think mom had felt a bit bad for me, so she let me have that night in there on my own, save the stiff on the floor. I was eleven.
Kids went to work pretty young back then, right? I shift the phone to my other ear and turn up my hearing aid.
Yes. Everyone had to contribute.
They didn’t like me at the mines; I was scrawny and they didn’t give me a lamp; those were for the real men. I kept getting bloodied and in the way, so they forcefully recommended I make my way to the workhouse. I went, stupidly hoping work meant I would earn some money. I was more afraid of my mom realizing I wasn’t going to get paid that week. Funny, had I gone home I would have found that she had earned a little money of her own entertaining some of the RAF fellows on leave. We would have eaten for a few days and I would have gotten off easy if I could manage to follow a coal delivery truck long enough to cobble together a handful of stray stones to keep the fire going for an evening or so. She entertained sometimes, until the skin under her eyes went purple and I’d find her vomiting out behind the wash house, with one of my sisters curled up in the grass nearby. The girls were little then; they just wanted to be near her. My mom didn’t drink; that was my dad’s job, when he was around, which he wasn’t. I didn’t have any new brothers or sisters by the time the war ended so I know my mom was a woman who could take care of business.
Your parents must have been relieved at the end of the war. Did your family suffer any loss?
Not one of us died, I say to the young voice on the phone.
A miracle, she says. You were so lucky.
I was lucky. At the workhouse they made me strip down naked, all bones and flapping parts and red cheeks, while the men, the worst of the worst, watched my delousing, laughing. They were the scruffy ones who were too rubbish or too broken to enlist; the ones without anyone to buy their way to a desk job. I laughed right back, like a lunatic, swinging my bits around until most of them had the decency to look away and mind their own damned business. Eventually they put me with the women so someone could mother me out of my insolence, and word eventually got back to my mom that I was in a bad way. A bad way, they had said, like I was expecting a bastard child instead of being covered in lice and the sweaty palms of despicable men.
Mom had turned up to take me home and so had my dad. What a conundrum.
I had stood there, sticks for bones, in front of a desk, with an estranged parent on either side of me, wringing their hands. Neither one of them pleaded their case on who would get me. They were both highly unqualified; one drunk and one whore, both broken by a thousand forgotten misdeeds. I’m nearly dead and I can’t fathom what it took for them to survive. The warden, with his watery eyes and greasy hair, had looked at me, his grubby paws on the desk like he was Winston bloody Churchill, and had said “Who’ll you go with, then?”
My dad had looked steady and penitent for once, my mom had been crying, and either way, I was going to break one of them some more. I took my mom’s hand, willing her to stop weeping. She bought me a cream bun on the way home, which I couldn’t eat as the menu at the workhouse wasn’t exactly gentle on the digestive system. I deserved the slap I got, given that she had probably gotten buggered by a stranger to get that damned bun. The only other time I saw my dad, years after the war, he turned, threw his arm around my older, then war-decorated brother, and walked in the other direction. Sometimes I pretend he didn’t see me. My heart is managed by a pace-maker these days; it turns out those fancy computers can’t take away heartache, even if it is implanted straight into your chest.
Its refreshing to hear that such an awful war didn’t touch you in the same way it did so many people around the world.
Yes. I’m still here. Old Burt is out front with his chest puffed out, hands on hips, belly full of North American wealth, congratulating himself on a job well done. I stretch my swollen knees out in front of me and sip my sherry. That damned boat cost as much as my house did; the neighbourhood had been a new subdivision back then and I had nearly killed myself paying for it.
Do you know anyone else who I could speak to about VE Day?
I close my eyes. I used to speak to an old guy over at the Longo’s, back when I could get there, and back when he wasn’t dead.
No dear. They’re all long gone by now.
That’s a shame, Mr. Garvin. But thank you for your time.
Okay dear. I hold the phone in my lap for a minute after I hang up. The battery is going on the damned thing. It has a couple more months left in it at best, and that will be that.
Stephanie Wyeld made her writing debut in grade eight when the teacher read her story about the Titanic aloud to the class with the lights off for effect. She has a B.Sc.(Kin), an M.Eng, and a penchant for volunteering. She has recently given up the prestige of counting money for the PTA and is now on the executive of the Canadian Author’s Association – Toronto branch, and the Writer-in-Residence at Heliconian Club. Her first novel is currently out on submission . While she waits she bites her nails and writes her next book. Her words can be found in SavvyMom, The Woolfer, Sammiches & Psych Meds and BluntMoms. She is on Twitter, @steph_the_twit and on Facebook.