Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Sixty Eighth, by Iain Saunders

The Sixty Eighth

Living on the old Slavkov battlefield usually just means dealing with the odd re-enactment, but then the English infantryman stopped by the garden one spring afternoon.

The Sixty-Eighth
My spade bit into the black soil by the root of the old tree and a bent a bit as I leaned on it and tried to pry out the unyielding sod. I’d dug too deep again and cracked a root. The tree had been there forever and was killing the light, the grass, everything in the garden. It didn’t help that it was mostly dead. So we’d cut it down to the root and now that root and I were having a battle of wills over who would move first.
The root was winning.
My blade scraped on something metallic as I yanked it out to try again and that was when I met Alfred.
It wasn’t a bad day in Velešovice, the weather was cloudy but dry, just the way I liked it for working in the garden. The soil had soaked up some rain recently and underground water always kept it moist in the slight depression this row of gardens sat in.
You could see into all of those gardens and I never got used to that.
I grew up in a terraced row house with a lawn the size of a postage stamp, but everyone had walls out back: solid brick walls, at least four feet high and most people added wood or yet more brick to the top of those to ensure maximum privacy from prying eyes – at least at ground level. Of course, once you trotted up the narrow stairs inside your house and peeked out the back windows, the entire row was visible, each carefully managed or massively overgrown plot was a fortified tile on a patchwork floor through which the dubious benefits of the back alley sliced like an essential artery.
There was none of that here. The road that ran across the back of every house was no alley. It was wide and unpaved, more a stony track than a road. You had to cross that every time you left the back of your house to get to the garden. Strange, but it was good for extra parking when guests came round and the kids loved it. That track was their mutual playground, their access point to every garden known to us all simply by the names of the children that occupied them: little Zuzka’s garden, big Zuzka’s garden; Adamek’s garden; Adelka’s garden and so on. Even the parents of these children were identified in our home by the nomenclature of their kids.
Right then, Adamek’s parents were out in their garden, three plots down, preparing a barbeque. Big Zuzka’s parents were nowhere to be seen, so the children had gathered in her garden to wreak havoc on their spring blooms and patchy grass. It was easy to keep an eye on them through successive wire fences. That was the way of it here, sociable, but utterly exposed. Only the nutter over the backway had built a wall around his garden, but everyone knew he was a sandwich short of a picnic. 
So it didn’t surprise me when the figure of a man in tatty clothes hesitantly stepped into the garden and waved. Tatty clothes were normal on a gardening weekend in the village and people stopped by whenever they chose.
“Hello?” he said, hesitantly. Again, this was normal. Every Tom, Dick and Jindřich knew I was the village’s Englishman and attempts at English conversation were scary for many of the locals.
“Hi, come on in,” I said, climbing out of the hole I’d dug and brushing my mud caked hands on my mankiest jeans.
I didn’t recognise the fellow, but smiled anyway. New people moved in here all the time. It was a good place to live.
“I’m sorry to be a bother, but I seem to have got turned around somewhere,” he said, a north-eastern English accent colouring his every word.
Newcastle? Durham? Sunderland? I wondered. My Granddad had been from that neck of the woods. He looked a mess though and I speculated in my mind as to what building project he was working on. Blue eyes took in my shaggy t-shirt, jeans and wellies quickly. “You do speak English, right?” he said.
“Of course, sorry,” I smiled. “I just don’t meet too many of our ilk outside of Brno.”
“Aye,” replied with a smile, “we’re not exactly the flavour of the month round these parts. Shouldn’t even be here really, but we do what we can.”
I laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. Meeting new people makes me nervous, that’s strange for a teacher, I know, but it does. A new person can be anything, there are no boundaries set yet, no mutual understanding of lines drawn that say ‘don’t cross here, it’s personal’ and, of course, everyone expected me to get on with my fellow Englishmen instantly. Unfortunately, I didn’t drink and hated pubs and those two were the Alpha and Omega of social life here. Years declining alcohol among the ‘Brňáci’ though had left me somewhat guarded, perhaps socially jaded, more withdrawn than I had been at home and so, unskilled in the art of making or even keeping friends. This fellow seemed nice enough though.
“So what brings you here?” I asked.
“Oh, me and the boys were scouting the disposition of the French out for the captain,” he replied with a shrug. “We got separated in Brunn and I’ve been trying to get back to Rausnitz to report.”
“Rausnitz?” I said stupidly. I really should’ve picked up on it there and then, but you just don’t think outside of normal that easily. “You were headed to Rousinov?”
“Yeah, the locals call it that,” he said, surveying the landscape around us. His eyes looked through the houses and past the gardens to the gentle hills beyond. “Sometimes wish I was posh enough to join the dragoons, less mucking about in the mud like we get. Still it’ll be good to see old Boney sent packing. Something to tell the grandkids.”
That’s when it started to dawn on me. Of course. Re-enactors were a pretty serious lot round here.
“So which regiment you with then?” I asked.
“The sixty-eighth out of Durham,” he said. “Just a few of us here.”
“Right,” I said. “And you’ll put on your uniform later?” I gave a little nod at his baggy, simple clothes.
He smiled and pulled at his collar.
“We’re incognito, remember,” he laughed. “But, should we get caught we wear our colours so we don’t get hanged as spies. Here, see,” he smiled and turned the collar out for me. Sure enough there was a small, but bright and shiny badge with a six and eight clearly visible in the design.
“Nice,” I said. “The Durham Light Infantry is my family’s regiment on me Mum’s side.”
“You’re from the regiment?” he looked genuinely surprised.
“No, no,” I quickly corrected. “I just had family who were.”
“Then that makes you one of ours,” he smiled and extended his hand. “To a fellow of the 68th.”
I was slightly taken aback, but I took his hand. His hand much larger than mine and rough to touch, but his grip was firm and warm. There are many types of handshake in this world and I’ve experienced most of them in my time, but this was as near perfect a shake as you can get. It made me proud to be a part of it.
“Well you must be pretty devoted to the craft to come all the way out here,” I said for want of something to say after such a moment. “It’s not even the best time of year for it.”
“Tell me about it,” he laughed. Then smiled at himself. “Thanks, I haven’t laughed in a while. It’s all been a bit much, the last few months. Still, whatever happens here, we took old Boney at Trafalgar, didn’t we?”
“That we did,” I smiled, always proud that the Great French Victory of Austerlitz had been preceded by the Great French Walloping at Trafalgar. A fact I often pointed out to people around here. I probably should do that a little less, they do love Napoleon round here – he brings in such a wonderful amount of tourism.
“I should get off,” he said with a sigh. “I really don’t want to go back, but duty calls. Someone’s got to keep safe the king’s interests.”
“Needs must,” I nodded, playing along with the historical ‘king’ reference as if it were perfectly normal. “I didn’t catch your name though.”
“Of course,” he smiled. “My manners aren’t much are they? Corporal Alfred Weightman,” he gave a short and half formed salute. “At your service, sir.”
“Give over,” I laughed. “You’re a Weightman? My mum was a Weightman.”
“Now there’s a turn up for the books,” he was just as surprised as I was. “We’re probably related.”
“There’s not that many Weightmans in the world, so probably, yes,” I said.
“Well, cousin,” he grinned. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Likewise,” I smiled back. “Come by sometime, when you’ve finished with old Boney.”
“I’d like that,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“I hope so,” I replied with a genuine anticipation I hadn’t felt for some time.
He left the garden and headed off towards Rousinov with another wave.
I watched him go for a few moments then realised I’d been out in the spring weather far longer than I had planned to be, packed up my stuff and went back into the house.
“Is there a re-enactment going on this weekend?” I asked my wife after my shower. She was at the computer, working on some old records again. Her genealogy obsession could occupy days at a time, but I didn’t mind, there was something wonderful about knowing who your ancestors were. Maybe I could show Alfred when he came back and work out how we were related. I was looking for a clean, ironed t-shirt. In vain, as it turned out, so I settled for a crumpled Nike.
“There’s always something going on, but usually not till November or December,” she replied. I agreed. Spring was a strange time to meet an Austerlitz re-enactor.
“Whatcha workin’ on,” I asked, conversationally.
“The Weightman line,” she said, showing me a family pedigree chart from the late eighteenth century.
“Hah, that’s funny, there was this chap outside with the same name,” I pointed at the third name down on her list and told her about meeting a fellow Englishman in the garden. She listened for a bit, but I could tell she wanted to get back to fitting another piece into that ever-growing puzzle.
 I went back out into the garden to find my two youngest children and call them home. I could hear that they had returned from big Zuzka’s patchy lawn and I needed to make sure they weren’t messing about in the hole I’d dug.
Sure enough, they were right there, standing in, around and over the hole, chattering excitedly and passing something between them.
“Alright, what’ve you found?” I said, anticipating the apparition of some particularly splendid specimen of spider, a giant worm or the carcass of a truly hideous bug. The neighbourhood kids looked on with their typical uncomprehending discomfort at my use of English, but my two youngest boys jumped out of the hole excitedly (yes, they were the ones knee deep in mud, it was, after all, their garden and therefore their right to get as dirty as possible in it).
“Six eight,” said son number three, with a smile. He held up something in his hand.
“We dug it out from inside the root you broke.” son number two added proudly. Slightly older and probably the instigator of this excavation. “Is it worth something?”
I didn’t want to think about what dangerous implements they must have raided from the shed to prize something out of the arm-thick roots of that monstrous old tree, so I took the object from my youngest child’s hand without asking for further explanation. It was heavier than it had looked on the inside of Alfred’s collar and surprisingly bright considering it had spent so long underground trapped in the root of a tree.
The light caught the British Army markings, the crown and the banners and my heart felt again the touch of a perfect handshake.
“What is it, Dad?” my youngest asked again.
“A piece of…” I coughed once to clear my throat and get the words out. “A piece of history. A very important piece, by the looks of it. Why don’t you go and tell your mum what you found?”
They ran off and I stood stock-still gazing down at the broken stump of a root that had grown around the number six eight so clearly that it looked like it had been carved into the ancient wood. I ran my thumb over the insignia, a bit of earth falling from it and back into the hole pattering on the wood  and bone down there. Thank heavens they hadn’t noticed that part.
I left the garden and went back into the house to call the relevant authorities. I locked the gate as I left, to protect it from prying eyes that would surely come around soon.
This was my home, after all. My family’s earth and sod.
A part of some foreign field that would be forever England.

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