Thursday 16 March 2017

Coming home - by Sue Purkiss

Well, I have to admit it - this month I've been caught on the hop. My day for posting is next week, when I'm going to be away; and various projects are at that stage where they've needed my attention, and I've no spare time before we go, so - what to do?

I thought about writing a review of a wonderful book I've just read - 'The Heroes' Welcome', by Louisa Young, a former History Girl; but then I discovered there already is a very excellent one by Mary Hoffman - here.

So I'm going to post a little section from a story I've written. It's based on the experiences of my father as a prisoner of war for five years in Poland. I tried to find a bit that was set in March, to make it a bit more relevant, but unbelievably, I found that I described several Christmases but no early springs. Wouldn't you just know it? So this is a bit from close to the end, where Harry, my hero, has come home. He finds that there's a street party in his honour - but, like many returning soldiers, including those in 'The Heroes' Welcome', he's not exactly in the party mood. 


This was Fallingbostel, the camp from which my father was liberated after being marched across Europe from Poland. He said an American tank drove straight through the gates. But I don't think he was one of these prisoners - they look pretty well-fed, so probably hadn't been in captivity for long.

From An Ordinary War

After that it was all very quick. Those who had been prisoners longest were taken first: driven to an Allied camp, showered, de-loused, issued with sparkling new uniforms, then taken to an airfield where they were loaded into Dakotas, thirty at a time, and flown back to England.

            That was it. It was over.

Some weeks later, after a spell in hospital to sort out some of the damage that near-starvation, not to mention Fleischer’s boots, had done to his insides, Harry was issued with a ticket to Nottingham. He crossed the city to reach the bus station and was mildly surprised to find that there were still buses running; he’d thought he might have to walk the eight miles to Ilkeston. He felt a little bewildered as he gazed from the window of the bus: how was it that so little had changed here? He’d expected bomb damage – London had been almost flattened – but here there was none. He got off at Nottingham Road and walked up Cavendish Road, past the school, past rows of houses. Then he halted, confused. There was some sort of party going on outside his house – tables, bunting, banners. He didn’t want to interrupt anything. He looked round uncertainly. A man was leaning against a gate, smoking.

            “What’s going on here?” said Harry, jerking his thumb towards the festivities.

            “Oh, it’s all in aid of some bloke who’s coming home from the war,” said the man. “Been a prisoner for five years. Bit of a hero, so they say.”

            “Really?” said Harry faintly.

            Then he saw a small woman coming out of his house. Her grey hair was pinned up in a bun, and her dark eyes, so like his own, met his. He began to walk towards her. Then he started to run.

            After five long years, he was home.


That night, as he bent down to kiss his mother goodnight, she reached out, put her hands on his shoulders, and gazed at him searchingly.

            “Harry,” she said. “What was it really like? Was it very bad?”

            He thought for a moment. Where to start? What to tell her? But he already knew it wasn’t possible. He couldn’t put it into words, didn’t even want to.

And so he began the long lie. “No,” he said, with a little smile that tried, unsuccessfully, to draw attention away from the bleakness in his eyes. “It wasn’t too bad at all, not really.”

As he turned away to climb the stairs, he sneezed, and he realised he had the beginnings of a sore throat. And it struck him that in all those long five years, he hadn’t caught a single cold. Not one.


Joan Lennon said...

So moving, and so delicately handled. I remember hearing about this story from you right at its beginning and it's wonderful to meet a bit of it now, all grown up. Thanks!

Janie Hampton said...

OO, that made my cry. Beautifully told. Thanks. Julie Summers non-fiction book 'Stranger in the House' captures the difficulties for the mothers , sisters and daughters when their sons came home - and couldn't talk about it.

Marian said...

Made me cry. Lovely.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much, all! I thought I posted a comment yesterday, but it doesn't seem to have appeared - have been in a place with no internet for the past few days, so presumably that's why. I'm so glad I made you cry!

Leslie Wilson said...

That is very moving.