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A Letter from Abroad

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Dear Sandy,

          The trains may not run on time; but His Majesty’s Postal Service is prompt as ever.  Your letter arrived yesterday.  It will be different, obviously, if you wind up overseas—but, as things are going, there’s no saying when that will be.  I dare say I’ll be serving somewhere myself by then.  For now, though, I’m still at the same address, so you needn’t worry about the post office forwarding your letters.
           Yes, of course, I’m sharing with someone else now.  I do have to cover the rent.  His name’s Adderley.  You don’t know him; he’s just out of med. school.  A decent sort of chap, always ready to bore my ear off talking about his fiancée, who’s working in a factory (but I shall spare the censor the nuisance of having to black out just where it is).  As you can imagine, it all means that I rather welcome long hours at the hospital, the more so since Harrison’s letting me do more in the theatre these days than just close for him.
           Should I tell you that Ralph turned up on the doorstep last week?  Well, better from me than someone else.  His ship came into port—I could say “unexpectedly”, but one never does know schedules nowadays.  Quite a change from pre-war times, when he worked the cross-Atlantic route and his comings and goings were clockwork.  I should tell you straight off that he writes me sometimes.  Now, there’s delay:  he posts when he can, wherever he is (which is anywhere); and things arrive when ships come in … if they do.  The dates are at least weeks old; and there’s no saying, of course, what correspondence may have been lost altogether to the U-boats.  If I had the stamp collection I kept at school, I’d be filling the album with some exotic specimens indeed!
           Anyway, Ralph arrived literally on the doorstep.  I found him there, waiting for me to get off shift and come home.  He’d received a letter at the station and badly needed someone to talk to.  Fortunately Adderley wasn’t in.  We were able to talk without having to explain—which would have been possible up to a point and utterly impossible beyond that, and all about people he never met (and never will).  Ralph needed to talk properly; and thank God the place was free, or we’d have had to go out and walk around in the black-out to get some privacy.
           Ralph had got a letter from Bim.

           I’ve left a space there and started a new page to give you time to catch your breath.  At least, I assume your reaction will be the same as mine (and Ralph’s), i.e. utter incredulity.  I mean, Bim’s dead.  We all were told he was dead.  Well, you were there, so you remember.  He never was one to funk in the closet:  blatant at the base as at a party, as far as I can tell, and got away with it because he was a damned good pilot, and they need damned good pilots.  So we had his Squadron Leader, red in the face but impeccable in his sense of duty, coming round to tell Bim’s friends that he wasn’t coming back, had not baled out, etc. etc. etc.  Only not so many etceteras as should be, apparently.  (You recall how fast he stammered it out and vanished.)
           So what we didn’t hear were the details:  how they’d chased the Luftwaffe back over the channel, and Bim was shot down near the French coast.  Yes, the plane went in; but, in truth, they were all so short on fuel that they couldn’t exactly hang around.  No one actually saw a chute; so assumptions were made.
           Reading between the lines of the letter that Ralph got, it’s clear that Bim was badly injured.  I’ve no idea how long he spent in a German hospital.  Eventually, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.  No doubt the Red Cross notified his family long ago; and I dare say they told any of his friends they knew about—which would not include anyone whom we know, naturally.
           Precisely why Bim decided to write to Ralph is something … well, I think we both can guess.  It put the old chap in a bit of a quandary:  should he write back?  I mean, on the one hand, he always respected Bim as “one of the few”, as Churchill put it.  On the other hand, there’s a type that puts Ralph’s back up at the first sound of their voice.  (I’m afraid you got on his bad side that way.)  Of course, Bim was never accustomed to getting a negative reaction from anyone—being a pilot, for one thing; and being quite a presentable figure in the sort of way that appeals to people.  In fact, given Bunny, who has the same sort of presence, one would think Bim would be just the sort whom Ralph would get on with.  On the other hand, Bim was always a “straight shooter”, as the Americans say (all irony intended), which no one can say of Bunny, who always shows his worst after you get to know him.
           Anyway, Ralph wanted to talk.  Not so much to ask advice as to run through it with someone who knows all sides of it, if only so that he could get it clear in his own mind.  You can see both sides as well as I can.  That Bim is a P.o.W. is, of course, a major point in favour of Ralph’s writing back:  any contact must be precious.  On the other hand, the war won’t go on forever; and some day our chaps will get home safe and sound.  Whatever Ralph is doing then (assuming any of us survives that long), I think we can both be certain what he won’t be doing, at least as far as Bim is concerned.
           I’ve no idea what’s going to happen now.  Except that he has two weeks leave, and caught the train the same afternoon.  And if that relieves your mind, so be it.
           If you want to write Bim yourself (and I gather letters can get into Germany quite freely through the Red Cross, though censored), I suggest you write Ralph for the direction.  You know where he’ll be.
          Meanwhile, life here is getting rather less fraught.  As a port, Bridstow’s a target and always will be, at least until we reverse the tables on the Germans and take the war over the Channel.  However, the Luftwaffe is not as active as it was, which in turn means that we get shorter nights and fewer casualties.  Still, fewer isn’t the same as none.  We had a nasty go just a couple of days ago.  (Whether the censor will let any of that through, I don’t know.  If you see black, you’ll know the answer!)  From one perspective, of course, it’s all good practice for the future.  My future, anyway.  From what you said in your letter, it sounds as though you’ve gone into general practice, Army style.  I wish you best with the sprains and flu.