Thursday 4 January 2024

Eyes Opened Wide by Robin Wrigley, pink Champagne

 The offer of a lift in this noisy Bedford QL service truck was a stark reminder that a third class ride was better than a first class walk. John pulled the canvas sides apart from time to time in order to enjoy the view of the English countryside in full, glorious summer. It enthralled him and was a relief from the noise of the whining Bedford engine, the rattling of the superstructure and the flapping of the canvas as they wound their way down the A30.

            It didn’t seem possible this was the first time he had seen his own country in nearly three years and that seven days ago he was looking at Miriam coyly waving to him from Haifa docks as they set sail from Palestine. A tear in his eye started to form.

            Three sun-baked years out of his youth, thrust amongst two completely different sets of people who had one common enemy, the likes of him and his comrades. He had enlisted in the Royal Engineers and was posted  to Palestine in a clear-up operation after the defeat of the German army and he had found himself wedged between Arabs and Jews and unsure who he could trust.

            Now, he was shortly to be demobbed and slotted back into the life that had been his before they clad him in khaki and shipped him across the Mediterranean Sea. As he sat bouncing on the rough bench seat in the back of the wagon, his mind spun through a kaleidoscope of scenes and thoughts that at times caused a light sweat to break over his forehead. It all became too much to take in. He was happy before he was shipped away yet even happier before they shipped him back. Now he was home again.

            They dropped him at the railway station as he requested. He wasn’t intending to catch a train anywhere as he was already in his hometown. He jumped to the ground clutching the knotted rope placed there for that purpose to lessen the impact, then tugged his kitbag after him. Hoisting it on his shoulder he walked around to the passenger side and thanked the corporal for the lift and watched the truck drive away, back down the hill.

            He stood for a moment and took in the scene. Nothing had changed in his absence, as he stood soaking it in as though refocusing his eyes after a lens change. Directly across the road was ‘The Station Café’ so he decided a cup of tea was in order before he made the walk to the family home. They were not expecting him simply because he had not informed them of his return.

            The place was empty apart from an old fellow reading a newspaper at the corner table. They made eye contact with one another but neither of them spoke. John placed his kitbag against a chair snatched his beret off and went to the counter where a rather tall skinny girl stood.

            ‘Can I get you something luv?’ she asked indifferently.

            ‘Just a tea please,’ he replied.

The smell of fried food in the air made his stomach rumble. He wished he could order more than a cup of tea but having given the lion’s share of his demob pay to Miriam he didn’t have much choice. It was all he could think of to give her at their last meeting. He returned to his table frankly unsure if this was the correct procedure but not wishing to extend the conversation further by asking. He sat down at his selected table and dropped his beret onto one of the chairs. In all honesty he really didn’t have the faintest idea of how you bought stuff in these places. He’d never been in a café before other than a NAAFI canteen. There, with the bright eyes of Miriam behind the counter he never needed any help.

            Seeing the old man in the corner with his newspaper caused his thoughts to drift to the lack of such basic everyday items as newspapers where he had spent the last three years. Not that it mattered as he was never much of a reader anyway. The odd local weeks-old newspapers, sent from home to individuals did get passed around the barracks. It was understandable that the recipients were delighted to receive them and wanted to share but reading parish news from towns he’d never visited offered little interest to him. He had even resorted to reading the odd comic to relieve the boredom when on the relief parts of guard duty. In fact, when his mind wandered, he often compared himself to one of the heroes in the Superman comic and that his uniform was a disguise for the real him.

            He looked out of the window and watched a young woman pushing a pram with some difficulty up the hill on the opposite side of the road. Another mixture of scenes rushed through his mind before he caught the smell of fried food under his nose as the skinny girl placed a cup of steaming tea on the table in front of him causing him to flinch slightly. No word passed between them.

            This was how his home territory and how its natives behaved, silently as if avoiding social intercourse at all costs. As though extra words would lead to more. How utterly different Palestine and the army had been. People said what was on their mind. Asked questions. Hello mister, where you from? What your name? Always searching for an answer, encouraging, even instigating conversation for conversation’s sake. Open disappointment if you fail to engage.

            Now, he had but the time to finish this cup of tea, walk across the meadows and decide whether Superman would revert to Clark Kent and Lois Lane was just a memory. A kiss under an orange tree in Jaffa. Along with his tan, will it fade?

About the author

Robin short stories have appeared in CafeLit both on line and in print on a regular basis. He has also entered various writing competitions but has yet to get past being short listed. 

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