A man in the wilderness asked me
‘How many strawberries grow in the sea?’
I answered him as I thought good
‘As many as red herrings grow in the wood’
(17th Century English Nursery Rhyme)
- - -
- - -
“Do you need anything else?” Drawing her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders, Mrs Brading smiled warmly at him. John, struggling to think of anything she couldn’t have covered in her lengthy explanation of the idiosyncrasies of the plumbing, shook his head.
“Alright then, that’s good.” She smiled again, and retreated, pulling the bedroom door closed behind her: “Good night.”
And then she was gone, and John was alone.
He stood for a moment, staring at the door, unable to think quite what to do next.
He had not been alone at night in over two years. Even before that scarcely ever – boarding school and then shared rooms at Oxford had accounted for most of his last decade of existence, making the sardine-packing of the camp less of an adjustment than it might have been.
No, the loneliness of the night belonged back in his early childhood, to his little bedroom in the plantation house in Malaya, where he lay under the dome of the mosquito net and listened to the chirping noises of the night, the muggy air vibrating with insect chatter. At five years old he’d had no friends – there was no one at the remote rubber plantation his parents considered suitable – and he’d furnished himself against the darkness with imaginary heroes who sat on his bed, just outside the net, and would protect him against the great unknown.
Shaking himself a little, John methodically took off his new uniform jacket and then sat on the bed to remove his boots. New boots as well, issued on his return to Britain, stiff and tight and warm. Boots that had not marched or paced, boots that had none of the earth of Poland on them, boots without holes, without part of the laces removed for other projects.
That part of his life was over.
He smiled again, filled with satisfaction for a moment, before shivering. It was November, after all, and Mrs Brading had apologised that fuel economy prevented her lighting a fire in his room. He’d told her at once that he would scarcely notice the slight chill of English winter around a sturdy house, not after everything.
But you changed quickly, he’d learnt, even after things that you thought might make you a certain way forever.
Sighing, trying to get back to his good mood of earlier – there was nothing to worry about, why must he worry? - he leant back on the bed, his legs still dangling off the edge, and looked up at the ceiling, the distant white ceiling with the fringed lampshade. The mattress under him was soft and accommodating and he thought - with some resentment of the effort involved - that he would have to pull it onto the floor to be able to stand it. For years of nights on sawdust-filled sacks, he’d dreamed of a real bed, and now he couldn’t bear to lie on one.
Might as well get on with it, no use brooding – he could almost hear Peter’s voice saying something along those lines, chiding him gently, though Peter brooded as much as the next man. It had always helped Peter to see himself as wiser than John, as a pillar of strength, and John had never corrected him partly because it helped him, partly because really it had been true.
John had felt better about everything, when Peter was there with him.
The mattress. He needed to move the mattress.
There was a lot of bedding, when John came to pull it apart – sheets and an eiderdown and a crocheted rug thrown over the whole.
Mrs Brading kept a nice house, the kind where there was much crochet and needlepoint, and no object lacked any decoration that could be affixed to it. It was a large mock-Tudor villa, on the outskirts of a village far older and more genuine than the house itself, high-ceilinged, and with a sense of the absence of a large family for which its architect probably intended it.
There were two other lodgers, he’d been told, but he’d not met them yet. Mrs Brading had also explained that she would do breakfast as standard and lunches on consideration, and had helped him sort out his ration and points coupons, which he seemed to be missing some of the vital pieces of.
“I’m sure they’ll deal with all that tomorrow at the HQ,” he’d reassured her. “I’m to go and see them first thing you know.”
Mrs Brading had smiled and said she supposed that would be fine then.
It had not been what John had expected, to be billeted out in this way. When he and Peter had first returned to Britain – the plane from Sweden setting them down for practical reasons at an airfield in the Midlands, and in the middle of the night – they had been unceremoniously shoved into some spare beds in a large, chilly dormitory at the base. John had assumed this would be their home for a little while.
But no - they were told they would take a train south early the next morning, and had been escorted along by a Flight Lieutenant who had repeatedly told them that all he knew of their destiny was to hand them over in London.
In London, then, amidst the bustle of Euston station, they had been ‘handed over’ like so much contraband bacon to two other officers, both Captains, and it had been these two who had informed them that they were to be separated.
John had not at first quite taken this information in – the sounds and sights of the station, the familiar newspapers with their headlines in English, the chatter of English voices, the smell of coffee and chestnuts, had suddenly seemed overwhelming – but he had abruptly realised that Peter was talking loudly, and was cross.
“I say, look here,” Peter was saying to the shorter of the two officers, the one with the shaving cut still bleeding on the side of his face – perhaps, John thought, they had pulled these men from their beds at short notice – “It’s a bit thick. You might tell us where we’re going at least.”
The taller captain had smiled heartily. “Of course, of course, naturally if you’ll just let us get to that. Yes, shouldn’t dream of stranding you, although – ah ha! – you both seem to have quite the homing instinct, eh?” He grinned at them both.
“Yes, you, Flight Lieutenant Howard, are going off to Sussex with Captain Fogger, and I’m taking Captain Clinton with me to Kent. Would prefer to keep you together, of course, esprit-de-POW-corps and all that, but being from different services as it is, you understand. Red tape. Red tape.” He repeated the words like the cry of a bird.
John, having spent so long in a Stalag Luft - run by airmen, containing airmen - at times really forgot that he wasn’t one of them. Certainly he felt from their stories that he knew every corner of a Wellington Bomber, every trick and foible that could lead to disaster, and had sooner or later in the cases of those telling the stories to him, led to being downed and captured.
But the officer was, of course, correct. Peter was Air Force, John was Army and never the twain and so on, and that was that.
John had watched Peter being lead away to one platform by Captain Fogger, whilst he waited with the other chap – who gave his name as Blythe – as the latter studied the departures board. There hadn’t been more than a moment in which to say goodbye, and John had had a sense, in the seconds they were granted, that Peter was desperate for him not to say anything, not to let the officers see anything pass between them.
John quite agreed with that feeling, but if Peter perhaps felt that they had said all that needed saying between them, John did not.
“Write when you’re done and we’ll have that drink,” Peter had said quickly, heartily. “Care of my mother, you know the address.”
“Yes,” John had answered – there was nothing else he could think of that could be said. And then, “Well, good luck.”
Peter had frowned at him for a moment. He’d opened his mouth, then closed it again and turned away.
John watched him until the steam from the engines obscured his view, but Peter hadn’t turned around.
John and Captain Blythe had arrived in Kent just before noon. The Captain had proceeded to take him to lunch in a pub near the station, which John had also not expected, smiling genially all the while and asking him about his family, who, he suggested, John must have missed a great deal.
“I suppose you might say I’m used to that,” John had told him, whilst trying not to take his celery soup too quickly. He had learnt the hard way in Sweden, just as Peter had, not to let his eyes deceive his shrunken kriegie stomach, but it was a great effort to let food just sit in front of him.
“They lived in Malaya, my mother and father,” he explained, wiping his mouth. “I was born there. I was sent to school in England, though, when I was six - haven’t been back since.”
The Malay States had, over the years, become only slightly real to him, a hazy memory of another world where even sun and rain were not the same as in Britain. He had had to leave because he grew up – or at least, he’d been told a few times by his teachers, along with some other boys, that it was not good for European children to live in the Tropics past the age of five, as the air was enervating and made you idle.
The more one thought about this, the less sense it made, but John had not been able to find a book to explain it any better. The problem with learning about life from books, he had long realised, was that there were not enough books, and they rarely asked or answered all the questions one could think of.
“My mother came to visit me a few times,” he continued, “And then they both came over for several months between school and my going up to Oxford, rented a place for us. They should jolly well have stayed, of course, much safer, but no one thought the war would go the way it did. They’re in Australia, now,” he added, in answer to the Captain’s concerned look of enquiry. “Got evacuated out just in time.”
He was not usually so ready with information, but it had occurred to him that, unlike when one met a chap in the Stalag, he would probably never see this Captain again. Therefore one could speak freely, one did not need the private information to form a wall between oneself and the other, or have to worry about how the details might be turned back at one as chinks in the armour, in some personal convolution of an argument about raisins or jam. Part of the reality of his freedom was this kind of casual talking, he realised, and he revelled in it.
“I see,” the Captain said, frowning, and took another bite of his cheese and cress sandwich before setting it down with a suggestion of disgust at the edge of his plate. He had left all the crusts, and John fought back the impulse to reach over and take them and put them in his pocket.
“Can’t imagine they had an easy time getting letters through to you,” the Captain continued, solicitously. “No one to write to you and keep the spirits up, eh?”
“I had a pen pal,” John told him. “A girl from Manchester, Lizzie, she joined some scheme or other from Good Housekeeping or something like that. ‘Write to Our Brave Boys’, you know. Rather good fun actually, you see, she was studying for her School Exhibition, wanting to try for Cambridge eventually, and we traded quotes from Ovid. Come to think of it, I must tell her I’m out, she’d like that.”
“You could go and tell her in person,” said the Captain, with a smile that John didn’t entirely like. He realised abruptly what the Captain was implying and felt a wave of revulsion, though it might have been attributable to the celery soup, which had clumps of milk powder floating on the surface.
He wished now that he had not told the Captain about his family, did not like the Captain knowing any part of him.
It had been his instinct, always in his life, to be private. Arriving at the terrifyingly imposing institution that was school for the first time, he’d kept his imaginary heroes to talk to; the warriors culled from folk tales and books whose lives were exciting, and which they themselves controlled, men who were not sent about the globe like parcels on the whims of others.
He’d not been friendless at school either then or later – it was easy enough to speak up and be hearty when necessary – but ‘friend’ to him, then, had never meant much more than an acquaintance in time and space, someone you could throw a ball at or swop mathematics questions with.
He had always trusted only in himself. Until, Peter of course. But when he thought about that, it did not seem odd – to trust Peter was like trusting himself - he realised now that he thought of it that way.
After lunch, Captain Blythe had taken them into the town to catch a bus, which had deposited them in the village of Markham, and so to the house of Mrs Brading.
“Car’ll come for you tomorrow, take you up to the Hall,” Captain Blythe had explained on his way out. “Harmartin Hall, the HQ up here, requisitioned. Military and what have you. We’ll do the old intel debriefing and try and get you sorted out and free. Should get a bit of leave before they ship you off again. Mind you, nothing’s certain in love and war, eh?”
“Quite,” John said. He had started to feel very tired, strained around the eyes and in the back of his skull as he hadn’t in a while. In the last fortnight, after all, he had been in Stettin, on the boat, in Sweden, on the aeroplane, on the train and in London, so perhaps he had a right to be weary. The idea of visiting yet another place seemed unduly horrifying.
Behind the wire, there was never anywhere new to go. The same barracks hut, the same mess, the same circuit-walk, the same people, the same food. You knew, waking up in the morning, that in twelve hours you would be back exactly where you started. It had driven him mad, worked upon his soul in a way he’d scarcely understood, and yet now he felt a brief pang of something confusingly like yearning for it.
He was free, though, and it was good, the highest good – for months now, this had been his guiding belief.
He had spent the afternoon in the sitting room at Mrs Brading’s, sunk into a scarlet armchair with doilies draped all over it, reading a copy of Barchester Towers which he’d found on a shelf in his bedroom as he’d dropped off his bag.
Now, in the bedroom for the night, a supper of scrag end of mutton a warm lump in his stomach, he had the book to hand once more, but he did not feel like reading.
With the mattress arranged on the floor to his liking, John lay back on it properly and once again studied the ceiling. In Sagan he had used to look up and see Nigel’s bunk above him, of course, which was so close that at times, when in a nightmare or too hot – and the barrack huts, with their shuttered windows, had in the summer frequently been stifling – he had feverishly believed himself to be in a tomb.
In Schubin, the camp before Sagan, it had been Peter in the bunk above, but when they’d come to Sagan he’d taken one across the room from that which John had chosen. Most of the time it had actually been easier that way – he and Peter could share glances, exchange the raising of eyebrows, all the little things that made it easier to live with everyone else, because one knew one’s own feelings to be understood.
Indeed in the last two years of shared sleeping space, the constant - through three camps and ultimately escape - had been Peter Howard. Tonight would be the first in hundreds that John had spent not knowing exactly where Peter was.
Was Peter comfortable right now, wherever he’d been sent? What was he thinking of, in the lonely night? Or perhaps he wasn’t lonely, perhaps he’d been sent somewhere with a girl, or found a girl in a town. Peter had said a great deal, once they’d got to Sweden, about girls. Had taken girls out there, to the cinema and to eat, had fully occupied his evenings and scarcely seen John at all.
It would never have been in Sweden the same as it had been when they were in Stettin. John didn’t understand everything, but he knew that. No, Stettin had been a peculiar circumstance, a queer situation...
He caught himself on the accidental double entendre and could almost hear Nigel chuckling.
John wished, now, that he had been brave enough to talk more to Nigel, and about more important things. He had a feeling Nigel understood, saw quite clearly something that to John had always been elusive, confusing.
Peter’s explanation, on the one occasion that John had actually voiced his questions about what it was they did together, had been that it was a product of war, natural in war, natural for prisoners. And by that reckoning, once they had escaped to Sweden and now to Britain, it would of course disappear. This theory, six months ago, had seemed to John quite logical.
But now he found the thought of it had not disappeared, and that here, in Britain, free, he still wanted to think about Stettin, about the Hotel Schobel, about what had happened there.
John shifted on the mattress, feeling restless and uncomfortable, a vein of heat flowing deep through him.
He wanted to think about it, itched to, but he wouldn’t.
Why wouldn’t he? What did it matter? He was alone at last, private, he could do what he liked – why didn’t he want to remember it?
Getting up, grabbing his towel, he left the room in one violent burst and made his way along the narrow corridor until he found the bathroom. Someone seemed to have used up the hot water, but that didn’t matter to his purposes and he’d not yet grown to expect to have it.
Some things would change more quickly than others; it was a matter of patience.
Back in his room, he put on the pyjamas Mrs Brading was letting him borrow from the wardrobe of her absent husband, and got back into the bed he’d made on the floor, getting under the covers but sitting up for a while to continue towelling his hair.
At various points in the camps, he’d grown his hair as long as it would go, first for escape, then out of sheer boredom and contrariness. It had also been very good for keeping the ears warm, and he missed it now.
In the camp, a soldier might have long hair for any number of reasons, but certainly it wasn’t that remarkable. Out here, in the world, it would mark you as some kind of Bohemian – an artist or something, he supposed. In the camp, Nigel and indeed Peter had found his hair amusing. At times one of them would sit next to him and stroke his head as if he were some kind of cat, or a spaniel. He’d allowed it with a grudging generosity that increasingly he was only hamming up; being touched was soothing. Nigel was gentle, and John had found his half-chuckling pats calming.
Peter’s touch made him warm and relaxed as well, and yet it had been different. Even then, it had been different.
Was it part of a pattern that ended in Stettin? Did it start then?
Had Peter wanted those things more, or less, because John had grown his hair as long as a woman’s?
Stupid, sleepy thoughts. Free, and too much time to think. Free, and not enough else to worry about. John shook himself, threw the towel away and reached to turn off the bedside light on the table above him. With the black-out curtains up there was total darkness. He might have been back in the tunnel.
Some while later he startled awake, breathing heavily. He had been in the tunnel, they had both been in the tunnel and the sides had caved in, and he’d been struggling to get to Peter, desperately striking out his arms, unable to reach him.
It was the eiderdown. He’d somehow got himself fully under it, head and mouth included.
He shoved it off and onto the floor beside him, and then lay back, trying to slow his breathing, trying to convince himself his mouth was clear and not full of grit and the taste of earth. He realised, after a while, that he had been crying.
“What’s the matter, ducks?” Nigel would say to John when he woke from a nightmare, voice soft; teasing a little to show that it was no bother to him, gentle to show that he didn’t mind being woken up as John’s thrashing shifted the whole shoddy bunk.
One couldn’t speak much at night, waking the others was a horror not worth contemplating, not least for the discussions the next day, but very occasionally as well as murmuring that he was alright, John would lift his hand up and, in the covering blackness, Nigel would hold it for a few moments.
Back in Schubin, with Peter above him, John had never quite dared to try that. He did not want Peter to see him as weak, or nervous, and besides in that hut had been Loveday, who was guaranteed to notice and remark upon every single thing one did, with or without references to the Textbook of Psychology.
Peter had ignored John’s nightmares, at least as far as talking went, but he’d traded away some cigarettes to get John half a can of condensed milk as a soporific. “Worse than nothing, really,” Peter had said casually of the price, “I’d rather have my pipe,” and John had not really known how one responded; he’d never, in terms of relative expense, had such a gift in his life.
John was still amazed, sometimes, that Peter had wanted to know him. They’d met when John had been at about the lowest ebb he’d ever experienced in life; recently captured, having made a total hash even of retreat, laughed at by his captors, stuck on a plane and taken to Germany to be dumped in a transit camp with a load of RAF POWs who had only given up because they’d been shot down.
Unlike the RAF boys, who’d been given extensive classes on escape and evasion and whose prospects in the misfortunes of war divided neatly into death and capture, John had never thought of what surrender might be like. Never contemplated that it could happen to him. It was unthinkable – death before dishonour – the kind of thing that one didn’t allow to happen. Of course North Africa had been a shambles encompassing acres and miles of bad decisions, it wasn’t just him, and yet not everyone had been put in the bag, and he had, so how had he failed?
Peter’s friendliness had been welcome not least because John had been initially shunned like a child at school with the wrong accent, but also because his manner reassured that he thought none the less of John for being where he was.
John could still remember that first flush of relief, the melting of the edges of gloom, as Peter – who he’d met briefly in their shared six bed dorm – had pressed the relationship further by joining him at a canteen table and starting up the only conversation in the room that wasn’t about the foibles of the new type of altimeter on the Wellington or something very similar.
Peter was almost ten years older than him – a few months past 30 – and he wore the years well, his face radiating health, its few lines suggesting experience and wealth of knowledge of the human condition. His skin was of the kind that freckled gently, and made you want to reach out and brush the specks from his lips. His dark hair was thick, and he seemed to grow most of a beard within twelve hours of shaving. His eyes, for all their good humour, had a rather sad cast, especially when he believed himself unobserved.
Over two years of barely adequate rations, Peter had lost some of the heavy build he’d had at first, but his chest had stayed broad, his arms strong. John could picture him in every particular.
It had been Peter’s advice that had kept John from trying to escape from the transit camp, even though in John’s mire of self-disgust, of flailing horror at his situation, he’d been mad to try anything, frantic to get free. To be cooped up with all those other men whom one could not avoid, their thoughts and ridiculousness, their intrusion on oneself – it had felt to John like a great metal band being tightened round his head, like a weight upon his chest. After going three days without seeing the sky, his skin itched and his jaw was sore from grinding his teeth. He dreamed of running wild, of screaming, of charging at the door.
Perhaps without Peter’s presence, he would have ended everything in just such a frenzy. Peter was at the very least a concrete distraction, a supplier of conversation worth having, a voice stating that escape would come, and would be worth doing well.
And then there had been the fact that, of all the camp of several hundred, Peter was clearly seeking him out. In a field of horror and regret, it was not much, but from moment to moment – Peter on yet another day coming across the room to join him, saving him a chair for a concert, retelling some anecdote to make John laugh or rolling his eyes in unison at some idiot’s diatribe – these things were a slight warmth, a slight nourishment to wellbeing. A reason to be alive and really the only one that, in that place, at that time, was truly tangible.
“We’re to be sent on together, John,” Peter had told him, on their tenth day at the Dulag Luft transit camp, smiling as he spoke. “Purged to Oflag XXIB – Schubin, they say that is. In Poland, apparently. Or what was Poland,” he added, ruefully.
“Permanent camp, eh?” John had known Peter would take his meaning. It had been the mantra of their week – Wait to Escape From the Permanent Camp. That made the news the best possible.
And, having been told that he and Peter would go on together, John realised he had always assumed it would be so, despite having no good reason for his assumption except, perhaps, that to contemplate anything else might have plunged him back into the despond he’d worked so hard to escape and to conceal.
Peter made him feel better, and also he did not want Peter to see him feeling low. The double-barrelled approach, and it had worked.
“Could try something on the journey,” Peter had said, sitting down on John’s bed next to where John was lying on his stomach; he’d been reading a book he’d found in the camp library.
If Peter’s companionship had made the start of his system of coping, reading had made the rest of it. John had read as boy and man to escape the confines of school, to avoid things he did not like, to seek explanation of the wide world. If there is a place in your head you can retreat to where no one else may visit, then you are free, or free enough to live – this was the maxim he told himself well before he was a prisoner of war, and intermittently it served.
They had not managed to escape on the way to Schubin, and the train journey had been of the sort to strain even the strongest of nerves, hours of waiting and of confinement, with little food and no amenities.
And yet, even then, they had begun to adapt, to accept. Although it had seemed unwise, John had found himself starting to think, during yet another hour of slow progress, the carriage moving forwards a while only to shunt backwards again and allow munitions through, that he could tolerate captivity, if Peter were there with him.
- - -
- - -
“You the one they want at the Hall, then?”
The next day, as promised, a car had driven up to Mrs Brading’s house and its driver – a stern young woman in uniform – had rolled down her window and was regarding John with a distinctly unimpressed expression.
“Captain Clinton,” he told her and she shrugged as if to say that he’d probably have to do.
She drove them off through winding country roads, under the skeletal autumn trees and the grey-washed November sky, finally depositing him outside a building he presumed to be Hamartin Hall; the signs at the gate, as with most of the road signs along the way, had been painted over.
It was a fine red brick Georgian edifice, white gabled, extending to two large wings at either side, one fronted by what was probably, behind the sandbags, an elegant orangery.
John had never seen as much as he would have liked of the English countryside. At this point, indeed, he thought he was probably better acquainted with Poland. Or, as Peter would say, with what had been Poland.
His school holidays had tended to be spent at school, since there was no one to take him out. At Oxford he had worked diligently through his weekends, absorbed in his reading, and then, before he’d had time to accumulate any social circle which might have brought him out of himself, had come the war and North Africa. His freedom of movement, when he had had it, had been more potential than realised, and it had taken being a prisoner to make him see that.
There had been times at the prison camps when, hearing other men talk, that he would feel almost ashamed of his own lack of experience, lack of adventure. Malaya and the journey from it did not count – he had been so young and scared, and it had not been his choice.
And in the end it had been because of the prison camp, in a way, that he had undertaken the greatest adventure he might have imagined.
That made him smile, a rueful laugh at the universe, as he strode forwards across the gravel driveway and presented himself to the guard outside the main door of the Hall. This man directed him inside to a marble bench under the curve of the grand main staircase, from which he was presently plucked by a man in neat civilian dress, who introduced himself as Captain Lanyon.
“If you’ll step this way,” said the Captain, gesturing. He was a man of perhaps Peter’s age, tall, slim and with a natural gravity, impressive in a way one couldn’t quite place a finger on. He was wearing, John saw as he gestured, a leather glove on one hand. An injury would certainly explain why he wasn’t out in active service.
“Just in there,” the Captain said, and John walked into a small, airy room that was probably pleasant when properly furnished and not so cold, and took a seat on one side of the rough table that had been placed in the centre.
- - -
“You made good your escape from Stalag Luft III on the 29th of October?”
“Yes, sir.” John leant forward slightly in his chair, eager to press on through the next part.
They had begun with the usual stuff, things that John was by now more than accustomed to telling – name, number, rank, service, date of capture, date of imprisonment, date of escape – neat, distinct details to be put in reports that, thus far, no one had shown any interest in making longer than absolutely necessary.
“We travelled to Küstrin, then Stettin, on the local stopping trains,” John explained. “We wanted to get on a Swedish ship straight off, but it was hard to find one. We spent five days in Stettin, in the end, until some French workers involved with the Resistance put us onto the Danish fishing boat. It was four days at sea, then they landed us in Denmark where we stayed overnight in a flat belonging to someone in the Resistance there. The next day we were put on another boat and taken over to Sweden. We arrived on the 9th of November and got to see the British Consul two days later.”
He sat back and took a sip of the water which had been provided. There, that was done. He looked forward to going back outside and possibly, if it was permitted, exploring a little of the garden. He could see it through the interview room’s huge windows, rather mistily through the condensation coating them, a medley of yew hedges.
Captain Lanyon had been writing throughout John’s statement, a rapid scrawl of what John thought might be shorthand. Now he sat back, screwing the top carefully onto his pen. He did not hide the gloved hand, John noticed, but seemed to challenge you to look at it.
“How many of your unit were taken to Frankfurt?” Lanyon asked, in the tone of one checking they had not transcribed an error.
John had not previously mentioned this information.
“Only me, sir,” he explained, sitting up straight again. He did not like talking about his capture and he was horribly aware that it, of all things, made him flush. He had learnt, whilst escaping, that he was a good liar, never giving himself away, but it seemed that the truth would always make him sweat.
It was, he supposed, because to tell a lie exposed nothing of yourself, whereas the truth allowed others in.
He had only ever explained his capture in detail to one man, and Peter had had the good grace to listen, nod, and not try and make him feel any better about it.
He did not think Lanyon would attempt that, either.
“I was separated from my unit,” John began, trying to state the facts plainly, to digest all those hours of misery, despair and creeping failure, eroding into him like the scouring sand, into a simple paragraph.
“It was during the retreat, the company was already herded away from the rest of the platoon, and then a sandstorm got up and I was left out on my own. I was going to try and scout forwards, but I must have... I got turned around, went in quite the wrong direction. I got clean through the enemy advance without knowing it and then ran into the German supply line. I was so far behind their lines that they became convinced I was a paratrooper and handed me over as an air-force prisoner, so I got sent to a Luftwaffe camp. I don’t know what happened to the others.”
Lanyon leant in slightly towards him, and spoke slowly, watching for his reaction.
“All the rest of your unit are dead, Captain Clinton.”
John nodded in acknowledgement, biting his lip. It was only what he’d feared. They’d been good men, his men, and he’d let them down, but he’d long known that – had always felt wildly under-prepared to lead men into battle - and it all seemed so very, very long ago.
“It seems,” Lanyon continued, “that most of the men in that theatre of war, when captured, were taken to various camps in Italy, whether run by Germans or Italians.”
“Obliging of the Germans to put you on a plane all by yourself and take you to Frankfurt-am-Main and one of the German camps which, the evidence we have suggests, have some things to recommend them over the Italian ones. At least if one is a British Officer.” Lanyon pursed his lips. “Why do you suppose they did that?”
John stared at him, but Lanyon’s expression gave nothing away. He reminded John of one of his prefects at school, the one who made you want to confess to him that you were the one who’d put the cricket ball through the window, even if you hadn’t.
“I haven’t the foggiest,” he said now. “I supposed that being so far back behind the advance themselves they’d never had a prisoner before and wanted to keep me, you know, like a fish on a pub wall.”
Lanyon raised his eyebrow. “You would understand, of course, speaking German.”
“I do speak German. And French and a little Malay dialect. And Latin and Greek if that matters to you. Look, what are you trying to get at?”
“Nothing at all. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t speak German, would you? I mean for successful escape, in the manner you two managed –using trains, staying in hotels – someone has to speak German to pull that off. Lucky for Flight Lieutenant Howard he ran into you, really. Extraordinary how you were kept together so long – to go from capture to transit to permanent like that? Few do.”
John, with a sense of relief that here at least he could shed some light, aware of a feeling of compulsion for some manner of confession, leant forward, putting his hands on the table in front of him.
“Well that wasn’t all coincidence, you see.” He looked at Lanyon as he spoke. This gave something away, but nothing much, surely? To say this would not imply everything.
“You see, when we arrived at Schubin – Oflag XXIB – I asked them to keep me and Peter together in the barracks. I found the chap who was doing the arrangements and asked. He said did we mind sharing with another chap they already had who was a bit of a headcase and I, well, I knew a trade when I heard it and agreed. Peter didn’t know anything about it. It was, you see...” he was aware of twisting his hands over each other, trying to find words that would sound normal. “It doesn’t make sense, but I felt, just then, you know, that I would survive better if I was with him.”
He looked up. Lanyon was studying him with an expression he could not quite interpret.
“And did he? Help you survive?” Lanyon asked slowly, as if he suspected the words might have another meaning.
John blinked and looked away. He was flushing again, horribly aware of it. He felt as though when he’d said ‘Stettin’ earlier – he’d not yet got used to breezing past it, and the associations inevitably took place in his mind – that Lanyon had seen right through him, divined absolutely everything from that one word.
And Lanyon was an interrogator. And it – those things in his memory, that jumble of confusion one could unify under a simple word if one chose to - was a crime.
It was unthinkable, in fact, the way surrender was unthinkable. And John had in past days comforted himself with that, that no one would see it because no one would expect to. He could not believe that most people even knew it existed, that it went on.
And besides, Peter had said that it was not abnormal at all, that in fact it was a sign of how normal they both were. That their hunger for life - which lead to them to escape when others gave up – was what drove them, and that all they did together was a part and parcel of that.
“Why do people make such a religion of repression? There’s no good in it at all,” Peter had said briskly. It had been one early summer afternoon in Sagan, when going behind the theatre had become routine – John could not remember which exactly, the days had glided together in a haze of sun and sweat and the gentle uncoiling of satisfaction in the belly.
“Repression is no good at all,” Peter repeated. “We still eat here, though the food is nothing to speak of. We still breathe air, we still want to be free. And we still want this. It’s perfectly natural. Becoming a monk never helped anybody win a war.”
“Henry the Eighth studied to be a priest,” John had observed – rationality, at that moment, had been a little beyond him. He’d been resting his head back against the outside wall of the theatre, in that slight corner formed by the way timber had been stacked, out of sight of the machine gun tower, hidden from the rest of the camp by the theatre itself.
The Germans either had not noticed the blind spot, or else it was not a blind spot at all. But one didn’t like to think about that.
“That’s my John,” Peter had answered, laughing. His voice had been soft, and he’d leant across the space between them, kissing John’s temple very quickly, a brush of lips. Peter unleashed small intimacies in this way, almost like an elastic snapping, always fast, always too quick to need to find an answer to. “Ready facts for every situation, helpful or otherwise.”
“Hey,” John protested, weakly. He did not know what to say, so he launched into a defence of his knowledge, and that had occupied them as they sorted themselves out and made their way back around into the main compound area.
Was he visibly blushing? John took a deep, steadying breath. All that had been at Sagan, in ‘43, and Lanyon was asking about Schubin and ‘42, or at least John could allow himself to interpret the question that way.
“Peter was a good friend,” he said, realising as he said it that he’d reached for the past tense, as if speaking of something finished.
And yes, last night had only been the first in nearly two years that he’d not spend at Peter’s side, but already all that had gone before felt like a dream, like Wonderland – nothing but a pack of cards, and them now falling.
He did not really speak Malay, not anymore, though as a child he’d chattered happily to his nurse. Things changed and were lost. He ought to know that.
Captain Lanyon was still watching him with that unnerving piercing gaze.
“You both tried to escape from Schubin?”
“Yes.” John had canvassed it only very briefly in the earlier statement, since nothing had come of the scheme. “As I say, we were taken on to Sagan very suddenly, with only a week or so left needed to finish the Schubin tunnel, but a week too long.”
“Awkward for you,” said Lanyon.
For the first time in the interview, John felt angry. It had not been awkward - it had been one of the worst blows of his entire war, second only to capture. To have worked and worked, sweated and slaved on that tunnel, to have climbed up the escape list as others gave up, to have planned, expected... and then to be dragged away from it. He had never felt before or since so very keenly the powerlessness of the prisoner.
During the journey to Sagan, in fact, he’d gone so far as to avoid Peter, engineering to go into another of the trucks transporting them. Only Peter would have been able to see through John’s mask of control and calm, and he had been afraid that if Peter saw too much of him, just then, he would finally perceive all the fear and sadness that was in his heart, ignoble and scarcely attractive.
And yes, call it that, because to fear to be repellent was only another way to say one wished to be attractive, in that much he would be honest with himself.
He had feared too late that the trucks might be separated, and spent the journey in silent agony, being twice as jolly with his travelling companions to cover it, even starting up some singing, until finally they had all arrived as expected, and he had been able to go back to Peter’s side.
“Tell me in detail about the security at Oflag XXIB,” said Lanyon. He had his pad and pen out again, and he spoke briskly, as though John had displayed no emotions at all, as though their conversation had never meandered past the technical.
“I’ll draw it for you if you want,” John told him, determined not to appear thrown and relieved to have such a straightforward task. “I drew it often enough in the sand when we were discussing our plans. That was last year, of course, but I think I can remember.” He took the paper and pencil offered, and began to sketch rapidly.
“Now first, you see, there are the barrack blocks where we slept. Eight of those. Then the church and the cookhouse and the theatre. The Russian prisoners were in a separate block here. This,” he marked a cross, “was where the tunnel scheme we joined in with started, in the cookhouse.”
“How does it feel to you, down in the dig?” Peter had asked, laughing a little, one week when they’d been involved in the Schubin tunnel digging for some time. “It’s funny. I sometimes think it’s almost like going to a woman. I get a sort of peace down there – the peace you get from a woman.” He laughed again. “You’ll think I’m going round the bend.”
Far more so than at the transit camp, at Schubin there was always a great deal of talk about women, and generally that meant talk about sex.
John himself, with no anecdotes to tell, never broached the topic, and until that point he had never heard Peter speak of it either. Peter, he knew, was a widower, and he’d thought that might be why.
They had been sitting on John’s bunk and between them had been the thick, musky smell of earth and clay from the digging, scarcely washed away by the feeble cold showers. They tunnelled in the nude – it was the only sensible thing – and down in the earth there was a kind of warmth, John supposed, a kind of cocoon, but he never felt relaxed there, never anything that he would call peaceful.
“Does it get you like that?” Peter asked. His voice was rather low, but then there were others in the room, Loveday opposite doing his Yogi exercises, Hugo sewing up his shirt.
John had felt very conscious of himself, of the shape of his skin under his clothes, of the itch where, in some places, clay dried.
“I’d rather have a woman,” he said at last. It seemed like the right thing to say. He could not honestly attest that tunnelling made him think of being with a woman, not least because he never had, and in any case he didn’t much care for the digging.
To have been with a woman, he realised, would give him something more to share with Peter, something adult and worldly. They talked a great deal, but scarcely of personal things. John did not even know what Peter’s wife’s name had been. If John had something similar to tell, they could have discussed it, and that might have taken some of the lonely-seeming sadness out of Peter’s face when the stories of women were told at night.
For those stories, John could make himself sound as knowledgeable as anyone –he had, over time, seen a few of the books that helped educate in that area - and indeed his time in the Army left him fully aware of what one said, the words one used in response to such tales. Yes, he could carry off that lie easily, but not to Peter, not directly to Peter.
He’d waited for Peter’s answer, curious and yet also afraid - afraid that in the next few questions more truth of his inexperience might come out than he would like. But that had not happened. Loveday had intervened, as so often, with his wire-fever driven paranoia, and Peter had probably forgotten their earlier conversation entirely.
The peace you get from a woman, Peter had said. John wondered what that felt like.
What it felt like to Peter. How much missing it accounted for the sadness in his gaze, the dark inward glare John sometimes caught on his face, which John wished so much to ease and yet had no idea how to approach.
Loveday had liked to hold forth about women, about the psychology of women, about the men who dressed as women for the camp theatricals and about the audience who applauded them.
“It doesn’t do to talk about it,” Hugo had said one evening, as the argument was raised again. “Just because some fellows take a joke a little far.” He was referring to the fight that had broken out between two men over undertaking some favour for their ‘Ophelia’, which if it had been a joke had been the kind that ended in cracked ribs, but which was already, to some, ‘just high spirits, you know’. “It’s just acting, playacting.”
“It’s all highly unhealthy, every last part of it. Disguise I see thou art a wickedness!” said Loveday, who was as usual not to be swayed from his original opinion. “I’m sure,” he added, with even more volume, “that Clinton would know all about it, reading Plato as he does all the time.”
John had closed his eyes for a moment. Loveday, having not provoked everyone sufficiently, would call them out in this targeted way, desperate, it seemed, to draw blood.
“As unhealthy lifestyles go, it served the Greeks pretty well!” he said, twisting himself over and sitting upright in his bunk, wincing at himself giving into the temptation of argument. “And they invented the theatre after all, so perhaps it’s only right!”
He had been conscious of being glad that Peter wasn’t in the room. In their most recent plans for escape, John was to be disguised as an Italian girl, and travel as Peter’s daughter or wife depending on what seemed to work at the time. It was only like Mr Toad as the washerwoman, John had reasoned, and it had never given him pause.
Now he wondered if he should have protested or complained more, if Peter might have expected it of him.
“Yes?” said Lanyon.
John blinked, coming back to himself. He’d paused in the midst of drawing Schubin’s outer wire, lost in a very different ensnarling.
“Sorry, yes.” Rapidly, John finished his picture, marking what he knew of the surrounding geography as a final detail.
Lanyon looked over the map for a few moments, nodding to himself. “Well that will be most helpful, Captain Clinton, most helpful indeed.”
John was gratified but wary – the hard-eyed interrogator of earlier could not, he was sure, have been placated so easily and he was on his guard for the next question.
Lanyon looked at his watch.
“Right, half past twelve, high time you had some lunch, I dare say.” He stood up, and John automatically rose after him.
“Tell you what, in fact,” said Lanyon, in a slightly conspiratorial voice, one of pals together. “Let’s call this a day for now. I’ll type this little lot up and you can enjoy some more of your freedom. The car will take you back to the village and pick you up at the same time tomorrow.”
“Right,” said John, bewildered, and when he realised Lanyon did not intend to leave the room, let himself out.
He did not in the end enquire about wandering around the garden. He had a nasty sense that it would be seen as suspicious, and evidently he was suspected, although of what he wasn’t quite sure.
Whatever Captain Lanyon’s original brief, John felt nervously certain that he would see anything, everything - all of John’s secrets.
He could not believe at first that he felt too tense to be hungry – he would not, the week before, have been able to imagine any circumstance where he wouldn’t want any food he could lay hands on. Annoyed with himself, once deposited by the car back in Markham he made a beeline for the local pub, and was soon sitting in a high-backed pew bench, near the open fire, with a cheese sandwich and some salad.
“There’s prune roly-poly, if you fancy it,” the barmaid told him, smiling, as she collected his plate. “On leave are you?” She was dressed in a blouse that was rather tight, and this he noticed because he disliked the way it made little ridges of the skin at her sides.
“Yes,” he told her, “and yes to the pudding too, thanks!”
He was too good at lying. Too ready to be enthusiastic to overcompensate for how awful he felt underneath. It made him feel uneasy, bizarrely uncertain of himself.
Before knowing Peter, he had thought concealing emotion to be only good manners. Before Peter, he had never known anyone so well as to pass quite beyond the rule of manners, and to feel safe doing so.
The prune pudding was warm and sweet, and came with something that was neither quite cream nor custard, but pleasant nonetheless. He made the mistake, though, as he lit into it, of wondering how the food was wherever Peter might be. It was instinctual, now, to enjoy food and then to think of the necessity of feeding Peter - to want to hide some of it about his person to take back to him.
John’s stomach began to feel tight and somewhat aching.
He was thinking, although he knew he should not, of the meals they’d shared in Stettin, in the canteens with the coupon-free meals and in the cafés. Those places they had initially entered with so much caution and fear, newly escaped, overwhelmed by everything, and to which over time they had almost become accustomed.
They would visit them for their evening meal, with the place a warm fug of body odour and harsh, ersatz tobacco, the heat and light corralled under blackout shutters, but not like a camp barracks in any other way, for the smells had exhaust fumes and ladies’ scent and meat amongst them. And they had eaten at small tables, pressed in with soldiers, shifty-looking businessman, elderly couples and the young - the young lovers who ate and kissed and then kissed again, and took no notice of anyone.
“Let’s get back,” John would say, as they finished, in German. He had liked to throw in German phrases when they were in public, and he had taught Peter what that one meant.
But what had that one meant, really? Because when John said it, Peter would look up at him, eyes dark, as if he was thinking exactly what John was thinking about their return to the hotel.
“Want anything else?” asked the barmaid, breezing over.
“No, thanks awfully!” he half barked at her, startled. He’d been sitting with his hands braced on the table at either side of his plate, fighting the wash of memory. His voice was thick with feeling; he tried to clear his throat before speaking again. “I’ll just pay. Thanks.”
She frowned, briefly, and then shrugged, seemingly giving up whatever hopes she might have had of him, and took his money. In her wake, the acute embarrassment he felt eased the problem he’d begun to fear he’d have when he stood up.
- - -
- - -
What would he have been, without the war? Where would he be now, with what people? Would he ever have met anyone remotely like Peter? What would he think about women and men, left to his own devices?
As John wandered back through the village towards Mrs Brading’s house, he felt the questions milling through his mind like angry insects throwing themselves forward in flurries of panicked energy. It was in stark contrast to the bucolic peace which surrounded him.
How could a war mean so many different things to people? For some, pure tragedy, for others, some kind of opportunity, for others still perhaps not all that much – walking along now, John could see Andersen shelters here and there in the gardens, the newspaper hoarding by the village shop telling its own story, and a sign in front of the town hall designating it a First Aid post, but in the fabric there was very little evidence of the war at all.
He thought at first that the sound of the steady slap of marching feet was being supplied by his own brain – auditory hallucinations, in a mind long primed to guard for every warning whistle, every snap of a twig in a forest, came far too easily.
But there was indeed a group of men marching towards him. Young men, only their leader – an army private – in recognisable uniform, the rest in a blue overall get-up he’d not seen before.
The private saluted John as he passed, and in a daze John returned the gesture, still staring.
“Filthy Eye-ties,” murmured a voice nearby, and he turned to see a middle-aged woman with a shopping basket on her arm, also watching the marchers and shaking her head.
“They’re Italians?” he asked, unable to keep the surprise from his voice. “What are they doing here?”
“Where’ve you been my son?” she asked, raising both her eyebrows. “Prisoners from the war in North Africa they are. They put ‘em on the land, work on the farms whilst the lads are off fighting. Well who’s to say they don’t poison us, eh? That’s what I’d like to know. Prisoners!” she made a face, and John had a distinct impression that she would have liked to spit. “What’s a prisoner but a coward? My boy didn’t surrender!” She finished her statement with a swift nod, and paced away towards the bakery.
John looked again at the rapidly disappearing column. Prisoners of war. He might have known.
This evening, he supposed, they would go back to their camp, wherever it was, and... all of it. All the small vital rituals of POW life. The sharing of rations, space, odour, secrets and existence. The friendships, the bitter enmities, the attempt to make it all work in a tiny space. Did they too dress up as women and put on entertainments?
But then they wouldn’t feel the need, not in the same way. They could see women every day, right there in the fields, the Land Army girls. They would have the fresh air, honest labour and female company that men like Loveday, like Bennett, said would keep any man from inverted thoughts.
And hadn’t Peter, once they had got to Sweden and freedom, started talking about girls?
Making himself move his feet and determined to move his thoughts, John passed along the high street towards a low brick building with a sign saying Library.
He had a vague sense, as he entered, that another man had come in rather soon after him, but when he turned he could not spot anyone in particular.
- - -
“You don’t mind the wireless do you, my boy?” Mr Turlow asked, as he busied himself with switching it on.
John smiled thinly, but didn’t feel like protesting. At least the programme would be something new, not the same six records that were all the camp had, played over and over until one would gladly smash them.
The Grapes of Wrath, which he had been reading before the others entered the room, was quite a newly published book and, the librarian had promised him, very gripping. Indeed John had found the first few chapters involving and quite designed to take the mind away from oneself and one’s own troubles.
After the first chapters, however, he had been joined in the sitting room by Mrs Brading, who had evidently finished cleaning up the aftermath of a supper of corned beef rissoles, and by Mr Turlow, one of the other lodgers, an elderly gentleman who had apparently evacuated himself from London in 1939.
Mr Turlow, at the wireless, found the Forces Programme and sat down in his own chair with a grunt of satisfaction. An announcer finished speaking, and then the room was filled with the strains of big band dance music, to which Mrs Brading tapped her foot as she knitted what looked like large woolly socks, whilst Mr Turlow fell asleep with his mouth open.
John fought to keep his attention with his book and the travails of the Joad family. The room was easily the warmest in the house and he didn’t want to leave it.
But the music, the cheery strains of trumpet and tuba, the beat of the drum, the rhythm that said dance, grab someone, dance with me! had an evocative power against which he was helpless.
“Do you like it?” Peter asked him, smiling at John’s expression, and John could only laugh, speechless.
Peter had been detailed to the group who had decorated the theatre, the ‘auditorium’ of which had been cleared for the dancing for the great ‘Sagan Spring Fling’ of 1943. This had been held, in the first instance, because it was not spring, not in any tangible sense – March, but the snow still heaped in treacherous patches, rock hard with re-freezing, as the men themselves might as well have been. Any scheme getting them all together, moving, making an attempt at cheerfulness had seemed worthwhile.
The decorators had festooned the walls with what had every appearance – at least from a distance – of garlands of greenery and flowers, and although John had seen some of them in the stages of manufacture, the end effect was surprisingly attractive.
Walking through the doors for the first time that evening, he’d been almost floored by it, and had uttered some insightful comment, he feared, along the lines of “Gosh”.
But one could miss colour, as much as anything, he’d realised then; the flowers in their purples and pinks and yellows – however had they managed that? – were delicious to the eye dulled to RAF blue and all the shades of mud. The decorators had also left chairs at intervals around the walls – away from the paper – where margarine lamps floated in shallow containers of water; an extravagance with the rations, yes, but the resulting lighting effect was soft and entrancing, like the glow of the moon on the river, years and worlds ago in his childhood.
“Thought you’d like it,” Peter said, answering his own question, smiling at him, clearly pleased. There were many men surging in now, pushing them together and meaning they had to get even closer to speak, Peter’s voice low but clear next to him. “Took us bloody ages, of courses, but I kept thinking...” He trailed off and smiled again, then laughed. “Dumbstruck, are you?”
John had turned to him, “Peter’s it’s...” and had indeed lost his words. He didn’t want to say how it made him feel. It was silly to feel anything so profound over some rags and a bit of burning fat. His throat was tight, and he blinked rapidly. So young, Peter must think he was so young.
But Peter had just clapped a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezed, a quick, warm pressure for a brief moment that seemed to coalesce with the glowing light and become part of the same thing.
From the stage, the band struck up. They had been practising daily since the instruments had finally made their way through Switzerland and the German postal system, and as a result the tunes were not new to anyone, but again the event seemed to have a transformative power; the music was different, in this place, with all these people gathered, with the open invitation to get up and respond to its melody.
Some of the dangerously proof spirit (manufactured, at least allegedly, from raisins by one of the messes in Hut 6) had been procured (from Hut 6, in exchange from a great deal of everyone else’s cigarette and chocolate supplies), and probably this had helped the first couples take to the floor, but as John watched he saw it rapidly filling, men who beforehand had made noises about having to dance with each other smiling and joining hands and giving in to the irresistible swing of the music.
“Care for a twirl?” John heard, and he turned to see Nigel, wiggling his eyebrow outrageously as he held out his hand for John’s.
Of all their new mess mates at Sagan, Nigel was already easily John’s favourite. He had a manner that always suggested he was telling a joke, that it was all ridiculous, that it was crazy to maintain a good mood but that it amused him and he would anyway. He made that seem easy. And yet he never teased unpleasantly or nastily, was never cruel for all his perceptiveness. Nigel had been shot in the leg during his capture, and John knew it gave him a lot of trouble, but you never heard Nigel complaining. Unlike Pomfret, who would hold forth for hours on manly fortitude, and then not shut up about his toenail.
“If you like,” John said, taking Nigel’s hand. “I’ve no idea how to, mind, so you’re at your own risk.”
“Milady’s first ball?” Nigel asked, with astonishment that was exaggerated for effect.
John laughed. He didn’t mind telling Nigel. “Yes, actually. I had some dancing lessons as a boy – my mother’s idea, thought she’d raise a Little Lord Fauntleroy – but that was ages ago and mostly something to do with the waltz. I wasn’t a very good pupil.”
“Well, fear not my dear, for I am the master of movement.” Nigel gave him a very stern look which made John laugh again, and then held up his hands. John stepped forward awkwardly – usually the chap put his hand on the lady’s waist, she hers on his shoulder, but what did one do with two chaps?
“Left on my shoulder, mine on yours,” prompted Nigel, as if anticipating this problem. Looking round, John saw a few other couples had employed this egalitarian method; it was only a little awkward, and it did save discussion. He mirrored Nigel’s hold.
“That’s it,” Nigel encouraged. “And then you just step sideways and smile.”
John did his best and was pleased to find it worked quite well.
“Not the same here, of course,” said Nigel, as they went into another number together, “But with the right partner, you know, you don’t actually think about the dancing part of it at all.”
John, looking up, saw a distant look in Nigel’s eyes, at once happy and sad. He was gazing over John’s shoulder at somewhere, someone, unknown.
“May I cut in?” Peter asked them, just as John was wondering if Nigel wanted to talk about it and, if so, what it would be best to say.
“Ah, there you are!” Nigel was suddenly all smiles. “That took longer than I expected.” And with a grin, he disappeared into the crowd, not even asking which of them Peter had come in search of.
John hoped Peter had wanted to dance with him, though anyone could see that Nigel was a more proficient partner. In any case Peter was stuck with him, and soon John found himself in Peter’s grip, holding onto Peter’s hand and shoulder. Peter’s other hand had gone, unlike Nigel’s, to John’s waist. John supposed that Peter, who had after all been married, was too used to dancing with women to change the habit. They moved off together to the strains of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
John didn’t tell Peter that he hadn’t danced before and Peter didn’t ask, or seem to notice and at least John hadn’t trodden on his feet.
The glow from earlier was back, deeper inside him as well as all around, and when he looked at Peter’s face, the feeling grew stronger. Peter was leading, which was good as John didn’t really know how to, but soon he stopped noticing that, stopped even really noticing the grip of Peter’s hands, just felt the glow and the music.
They paused at one point for water and took their turn at the carefully measured quarter Klim tin of alcohol, which had a lengthy queue. Whilst John was resting, Peter took a turn with Nigel, and in his absence John had several more requests and finally danced a little with a tall Flight Lieutenant whose first name he didn’t know. He excused himself, though, from a second number – and the man had been holding him with an uncomfortably tight grip - and went to cut in between Peter and Robbie, aware of a vague sense that they’d be sent to bed soon, that he had to make the most of the time.
“Why can’t all the evenings be like this?” John heard himself say softly at one point. Which was a stupid remark, not least because what he really wanted, what he’d always wanted, was escape.
“That might be rather dangerous,” Peter answered, in an odd voice. And then, with a laugh that was more like a cough, sudden and not entirely pleasant. “I must have worn your feet out, all this dancing.”
“They don’t hurt,” John told him truthfully. “Do yours?”
“My feet don’t hurt,” Peter said, and again the words were strange. John studied his face, trying to understand, finding it more difficult than usual to meet his gaze; somehow it made his own feelings even more blurry.
John had never understood, not that evening, what was happening. Had gone back to the barrack hut on a cloud of mild inebriation and the same intense glow that was lovely, like Christmas Eve, like expectation, except that it was tinged at the edges with a vague dissatisfaction he couldn’t account for, a little like listening to music and missing the final movement – a sense of wanting something at once specific and intangible.
Spring had come, eventually, and then summer and the trips behind the theatre, and when he thought of that, he thought of the dancing, and vice versa, with a strange sense that the two connected, or could do, and that both were part of getting somewhere else as yet unguessed.
“Don’t you think you’ll see her again?” Mrs Brading asked, her voice a sympathetic murmur, clicking her needles.
“Pardon?” John sat up abruptly – the music was still coming from the radio, he had lost himself entirely in the melody and in staring into the fire. His face felt hot, his book had fallen into his lap.
“Whatever girl left that look on your face.” Mrs Brading smiled. “But it’ll all come right in the end, you’ll see.”
“Thank you,” said John, because it was easier than even trying to get at the truth, and lying exposed no part of yourself.
The problem with that strategy was that Mrs Brading took it as a cue to enquire further, gently but with evident curiosity, and he rapidly found himself having to fabricate a best girl. Thinking back to his lunch with Captain Blythe, he told her about Lizzie Leigh from the West Midlands, and made out that their correspondence had uncovered more mutual feeling than simple shared love of the classics. Mrs Brading listened attentively and sighed happily at intervals, so he felt he had managed it.
The music from the radio changed at length, the band stuff winding down and the announcer introducing “...our Forces’ Sweetheart, reminding us once again of the link between the men stationed all over the globe and their loved ones at home,” and then, perhaps inevitably, it was We’ll Meet Again.
“Must be hard to listen,” Mrs Brading murmured, giving him a wince of sympathy, “when you’re missing someone as you are.”
“I think I’ll go to bed now,” said John.
- - -
Why did people talk about being ‘alone with’ another person? You couldn’t be alone with someone there, it didn’t make sense. You could only be alone, alone.
John lay back on his bed, in the room which now felt even emptier, somehow, and willed his body to cool down, for the glow that had built in him throughout the day to ebb away again, for the hunger to ease.
The camp had taught him about many forms of hunger. But he had not expected this one.
He had long ago realised that what the body most desires is profoundly fickle. For much of the earliest days in their first camp, a time of rotten potatoes and little enough of them, John had truly believed that if he could only eat three half-decent meals a day he would never want for more.
During the winter, the imperative had been warmth, and nothing else mattered, even food had become only part of fuel, taste and quality irrelevant.
But when the spring of 1943 had finally come to Sagan, snow melted, Red Cross parcels bloomed in something like abundance along with the crocuses beyond the wire at wood’s edge and, warm enough and full enough, John had still been unsatisfied.
It was an old need, old as Adam, and he didn’t chastise himself for having it. He did, however, wish to keep it private, indeed it was not something he had been able to imagine letting another person witness, although he supposed one had to in marriage – but perhaps then one kept the lights off and stayed under the covers. He rather thought it would scare a woman.
At school – though not often, the need had come to him rather later in life than to some - and at Oxford he’d, when necessary, found a private corner and got the thing done quickly. It was a nasty habit, he’d been taught, but he’d found that by making it a habit – a regular but not frequent practice – he could exert some control over his body and its demands, and suffer less public embarrassment as a result.
At Sagan, though, there were precious few private spaces, and the ever-present danger of someone coming to find you. He managed two rushed episodes for himself, worrying about being looked for, and never, until it happened, thought that in that situation he might play the role of discoverer.
The moment played back for him in a reel, a glitch of repetition like a scratched record. Himself rounding the corner of the theatre, seeing Peter sitting on his haunches, seeing Peter’s hand, realising what Peter was doing, the glint of the sun on the wire, the scent of the forest, the distant chatter of the compound, the heat of his own blush, his sudden move backwards as Peter tried to rise and moved awkwardly, because his trousers were undone...
“I came about the horse,” John had said, frantic to speak. “We’ve got hold of some leather, I...”
Peter was looking at him, that look that said that John was young. In a minute, Peter might even tease, might choose that way to make this moment pass.
“Found a good spot for it,” John said abruptly, making himself meet Peter’s eye, feeling a new wave of heat with it. Peter was vulnerable, and John was with him, and they were together and as long as this moment lasted, it was both of theirs.
“It’s quiet,” Peter said, seemingly rather non-plussed at John’s forthrightness. “Usually.”
John wasn’t really aware quite what reaction he made to that, but possibly something about it was why Peter then stepped forward quickly, raising a hand as if to reassure him before drawing it back again, because that hand...
“Look, it’s not that I mind you, old chap,” Peter was saying, trying to be reasonable and businesslike and almost managing, “That is – some of them at the barracks, you see, they have a kind of club in one of the messes in Hut 7, and I didn’t think I could quite stand that, but there’s nowhere else, unless...”
“A club?” John frowned, confused. He’d heard someone talking of a ‘sewing circle’ in Hut 7, but surely that hadn’t meant this?
He thought of a room full of men, doing this. Of Peter with them. Of them seeing Peter. Something in his stomach turned over.
“A club,” Peter repeated; he sounded almost nervous. He stepped forward, and John had though wildly of when they’d danced, of how Peter had taken him into his arms and guided him. “For chaps to, um, sort things out all together. Some did that at school. Not at yours, I take it?”
John shrugged. It might well have been another thing he’d been oblivious too, another experience he’d missed, not looking and not seeing.
Peter bit his lip; he seemed to be struggling with something.
“If you...” he began, and John would never know what Peter might have asked or offered then, because his own feelings rushed through him, overwhelmed him and he heard himself saying, “Well, show me then,” as if it was just dancing. Just one more experience Peter could pass on, one more time to humour Peter with the role of teacher.
And a way of keeping this, keeping Peter, keeping this secret as theirs.
John sank to his haunches, in imitation of Peter’s earlier pose and looked up, hoping he didn’t appear as nervous as he felt.
Slowly, very slowly, Peter came down next to him.
Peter stared at him for a long moment. There was something about his eyes so intense that John half wanted to look away, half wanted, wildly, to get closer still. Then Peter coughed. “Just as you would,” he said, with a vague gesture, and his voice was strangely thick. “I mean, you do...?”
“Yes, I do,” John said, slightly offended, and showed him.
Lying on his floored mattress, John rolled over onto his stomach and sighed, resting his face in his cold fingers and feeling how warm his blush had become.
With a groan, a sense of the inevitable, he worked his hand under his belly to where the ache rested, and pushed against himself, fast and then faster, to try and relieve it.
He climaxed, using his flannel to keep the bed clean, and there was warmth for a moment, and an echo of good feeling, but the ache had only moved to sit in his chest, and there was nothing more he alone could do about it.
- - -
- - -
How much had Captain Lanyon already guessed? How much would he be able to tell, from John’s recounting, of what else had happened in Stettin?
Standing outside Mrs Brading’s house, shivering, his breath making white clouds in the morning air, John waited for the car and felt his worries knot themselves tighter and tighter in his chest.
Today would inevitably cover Sagan, the horse and then the days on the run. What John wanted to conceal had no relevance to the escape – not for the purposes of Intelligence, anyway – but was that even what Lanyon was interested in?
Or would it simply be obvious that John was concealing something, and Lanyon not rest till he’d found out? He seemed like the type to do a task thoroughly.
John lifted his gloved hands – another loan from Mrs Brading’s absent husband – and coughed. Waking this morning, the heat of the night before had seemed distant, unimaginable; from the moment of opening his eyes he’d felt atrocious, his muscles aching, his head thick and muzzy, his throat sore. Every part of him felt wrung dry, exhausted, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
It had occurred to him – a horrible thought – that Peter might be being questioned in the same manner. What version of events would Peter tell? How indeed did Peter think about it, when he looked back? Was he even now telling someone what a relief it was to be away from John, from all of it, all that had happened one parcel of the trials of war?
John did not trust his own perceptions. A week earlier, he would have said he knew Peter’s feelings pretty well, understood him instinctively if not in every detail. Now nothing seemed certain.
But what had happened at the camp had been nothing, surely? Nothing to hide, nothing to be worth mentioning. The club in Hut 7 attested to that – it was only what everyone did, except that he and Peter had done the thing in their own way, on their own terms and by themselves – alone together! – and that was simply how they’d done everything.
No, he should be able to speak of Sagan at least with a clear mind. It was only Stettin, and even then the circumstances were extenuating – the stress, the mental strain, the euphoria of escape – none of it had to mean more than those basic instincts.
“Couldn’t find you earlier,” Nigel had said to John, one evening about six weeks before the escape. His tone was not particularly accusing, almost oddly expressionless in fact. “You’re hard to track down, these days.”
John had been variously occupied, but quite a large part of the time had been with Peter, behind the theatre, taking advantage of what he was increasingly aware would be the very last of the sufficiently warm days.
John knew he would miss them, the times with Peter, come the winter, but on the other hand neither of them would be in the camp at all in the winter, they would have escaped, and then – he was vaguely confident – everything would be different.
That day, as on a few previous occasions, he’d watched Peter carefully as they went about it, changing his own stroke to be more like Peter’s, curious to try the different hold and pace, mirroring him, almost as if Peter’s touch were to be his own. And, increasingly, Peter did seem to adopt different approaches. That day, Peter had slowed down to a long, leisurely rhythm that was almost agony, but which John had been determined to match, and had kept pace with, staring at Peter’s hand, biting his lip to control himself, until suddenly he’d heard Peter give a groan that sounded like pain and Peter had been finishing, and so John had been able to.
Even the thought of it made the heat return. He would have liked to have seen what Peter’s face did, when he made that sound, and they were running out of time because, thank goodness, the tunnel really was nearing completion.
“Did you need something in particular?” he asked Nigel in reply, clearing his throat, trying to sound natural.
Nigel looked at him and then sighed. Unusually, it had been just the two of them in the mess and John had wondered later if Nigel had been waiting for such a moment.
“Listen, Clinton,” said Nigel, and that itself was odd –he was John, Johnnie, Ducky, The Child, to Nigel. “You’re young and this is one, two years of your life, years you’ll look back on and... well, a lot of men your age try things – hobbies, ideas, ways of living. My friend Freddie thought he’d be a Communist for nearly two months when he was twenty-one, until he realised it meant almost never eating caviar.” He laughed a little, rather forced, and John tried to copy him.
“Whereas for some people,” Nigel continued, with an air of determination, “they know what they want and they don’t take it lightly, and they don’t get over it easily if it doesn’t work out.”
John blinked. “I’m afraid I really don’t see what you’re getting at.”
Nigel bit his lip, and then, as far as John had seen it at the time, had changed the subject.
“Peter never talks about how he’s feeling, he can act like none of it matters better than most of us, have you noticed that? But he doesn’t mean it. He never talks about his wife, generally, but he’s still terribly cut up about her – she was a nurse, you see, and she was killed when her hospital was bombed out. He thinks sometimes that if he’d been on leave that weekend she’d have been too, and then... And he’s like that in everything, you see?”
John hadn’t needed to be told that Peter felt things. You could see it when he sat, working at a sketch or a piece of scenery or a document, his eyes intense with emotion, focussed on something far away. At times like those, John fought an urge to get closer to him, to push in next to him, distract him, to be there if Peter wanted to – anything, to touch his hair, anything that might help.
He hadn’t known that about Peter’s wife, though. He’d long had a feeling that Nigel and Peter, who went off together on occasion to sunbathe in the midst of the compound, might there talk of things - adult, masculine things - that he was not privy to, but he’d never had it confirmed before and it hurt, rather. After all, Peter was more his than Nigel’s – that thought came rapidly, and he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t had it.
“I know Peter’s worried about the escape, we all are,” John said, trying to work out if this was what Nigel wanted to hear from him. “And I know I can be a bit bolshie with my ideas for the digging, but we do take the decisions together.”
To his surprise, Nigel had given a short laugh, shaking his head. Then he had clapped John on the shoulder, friendly, and the tension that had been building seemed to ebb away.
“One day, child,” said Nigel, still smiling, “you’re going to know your own power, and then heaven help us all.”
John had never understood that. And as usual there was no one to ask.
“You look awful – been out on the town have we?” the driver asked John, giving him another studying glance and raising an eyebrow.
She had arrived nearly fifteen minutes late, and John had not appreciated the extended company of his own thoughts. He went to open the car door, but she held a hand up to stop him, and then passed out an envelope through her window.
“They don’t want you today after all,” she said briskly. “Orders in there, all written down. They’ll send me again day after tomorrow.” And then, just as rapidly, her window went up and she was driving away, the car disappearing round the bend in the road, shaking frost from the hedges as it gathered speed.
John shivered, and then, because he could think of nothing else to do and his throat felt like it was coated in sandpaper, headed back into the house and then into his bed.
As the day progressed he felt more and more unwell. Mrs Brading, solicitous, brought him aspirin and hot drinks made with some of her precious supply of honey and a lemon essence so acid as to hurt the tongue. She asked if there was anyone he wanted to call to come and see him – thinking, John supposed, of a mother or sister or even convenient female cousin – and offered to telephone on his behalf, but he explained about Malaya and Australia and she nodded sympathetically.
He had faced worse, a great deal worse, than lying in a bed – or at least a floored mattress, Mrs Brading had been restrained about asking about that – with a simple head cold and medicine to hand, but he felt about as awful as he could recently remember, going all the way back to the first, darkest days of capture to draw a comparison. It was a kind of submerging hopelessness, and it was stupid – he felt so very stupid – because here he was, free, the world his oyster, everything he’d dreamed of, planned for, so why couldn’t he enjoy it? He imagined if the chaps he’d left behind in the camp could see him now, so miserable, and what they might say.
He thought of Nigel, who could never have escaped with his leg the way it was, and what he might think of John’s pitiful state.
This last, actually, helped a little. When he did imagine Nigel, he saw the vision laughing, very gently, and stroking his hand over John’s forehead, and telling him not to be a silly goose or work himself up this way, and to eat his soup.
For a while, John distracted himself with trying to itemise every last thing he’d ever said he’d longed for when he got free, down to each book and each type of cheese.
But then he thought of Peter, Peter saying they could have girls now, and himself agreeing because he’d not known what else to say. In Sweden, putting his mattress on the floor and saying it was because it was uncomfortable – and indeed it had been – but really because he was worried what he might do in the night if he stayed right next to Peter, and whether it would be wanted, and because the maid in the place they’d stayed never knocked.
But if he’d been a little braver and had, just one more time, reached out... It could have been one more time - a last time, but they could have had one last time, one last taste of what they had discovered in Stettin.
“It’s a snare and a delusion,” said John, the first night in the Hotel Schobel.
“What is?” asked Peter.
John turned from the basin to look at him where he sat on the bed. “This basin. The hot water doesn't work,” he explained, but he’d left the response rather a long time.
John was standing naked on a towel, washing himself, and Peter was watching him.
And quite suddenly John had known, even before anything happened, that something was going to, had felt it like thunder gathering in the air, thick and rich and frightening.
It was their third day since breaking out of the ground beyond the wire, and they were finally following what had been their plan all along by registering at a hotel. Time and again they’d convinced themselves, back in Sagan, that the safest method to travel when disguised as foreign workers was to act like foreign workers all the time, and not be found in fields sleeping rough.
But it had not felt safe, when they did enter hotels, and they’d both panicked, and the first night had been spent in the open, the second in a suburban air-raid shelter. There had been little food and less water, and they’d become very cold and increasingly dirty.
On the 31st of October, though – John remembered signing that date in the register, so carefully alongside his false name – they’d finally made it to the Hotel Schobel in Stettin, to a real roof and to a lockable door and to a washbasin.
John, seeing the latter, had instantly gone to start washing, purely for the reason that he wanted to, being still caked with tunnel clay and the dye that had run out of his black combinations.
Sagan had not been a place to teach modesty in one’s toilette – the item referred to as the shower (one converted tap) had a queue miles long and was in total public view. One was never alone when naked in Sagan, but then there were different types of alone.
Standing in front of Peter, in their hotel room, John had become very aware of that.
Thanks to the cold of winter and the increasing demands of the tunnel, it had been over a month since they’d rendezvoused behind the theatre, and, as John had anticipated, he’d missed it.
Behind the theatre, they had never undressed more than was absolutely necessary. And it had never been about being seen, or at least, John had never thought of it that way, exactly.
But now Peter was watching him, and the look in his eyes was not so very different from those summer meetings, and it was a look that made John want to be looked at.
He slowed his movements, taking his time as he rubbed at his limbs with the flannel, scarcely feeling the cold of the water, still facing away from Peter for the most part but aware, so very aware, that Peter had not busied himself with their bags or fallen asleep or anything but continued to watch.
His arms, his shoulders, his legs, his feet – John scrubbed at them in turn, the water running dark as he squeezed out the flannel. He stood on one leg, then the other, balancing. Peter must be able to see the flush on his chest, and – unavoidably – the fact that he was aroused, but still Peter kept watching.
It was like a hum under his skin, like the glow of flame. John turned, having made some attempt at his back, and, facing Peter full on again, ran the flannel over his chest and stomach.
Like a flame, like a flame on the water, the kind that hypnotised, the heat was power, his own, and he had Peter rapt.
It made John want desperately to reach down and touch himself, and yet that was not what he wanted.
Peter’s eyes were very dark. He was biting his lip, and his hands at either side of him were gripping hard into the eiderdown, his knuckles white. He might have been in pain, and John found he didn’t like to see that.
“Peter,” he said, and it came out more like a plea than he’d meant, because for all the glow he was lost, even frightened, and suddenly Peter was moving, standing up, pressing John back against the hideous floral wallpaper, kissing him full on the mouth, which they had never done.
Peter’s clothes were dirty, and getting John’s skin dirty again, and with that idea or something like it he told Peter to take them off. Peter complied quickly, and John had seen Peter naked before, in the digging and elsewhere, but not like this, not like this at all.
“May I touch you?” Peter asked, which was the most stupid question John had ever heard, because Peter touched him all the time, and then he realised that Peter meant to touch him there, that place where John had only ever touched himself, where he’d never imagined letting anyone...
“Please,” John murmured, and hoped Peter would understand from that, because he didn’t have the words to ask.
Peter groaned, and kissed him, fast, hard, on the lips and then on his cheeks, his jawbone, his neck, and John staggered, overwhelmed, struggling to breathe.
“John,” Peter called him, and “John,” again, pushing him gently to lie on the bed and following him down, leaning over him. John wasn’t sure he liked being so helpless, but he had no idea what to do, how to go forward, how to get what he wanted and Peter did, Peter was kissing him, rubbing up against him, rubbing himself against John, the very idea of which made John’s eyes roll back. Peter naked against him, Peter covering him, shaking with him.
John put his arms around Peter’s back, his broad, freckled shoulders, held him close, was aware that the high whine punctuating the rhythm of their movements was himself, didn’t care – it felt too good, too amazingly unlike anything, Peter and freedom, and he was climbing and climbing till suddenly the heat broke, washed all through him and came out between them, hot and wet.
“I’m sorry,” John said, when he could. Peter was staring down at him, looking almost astonished, although John reasoned he had to have known John might do that if he kept touching him, so it was scarcely John’s fault.
Then Peter kissed him, hard, and reached between them, touching himself as John had seen him do before, but not slow now, not slow at all.
Reflexively, John moved his own hand to join him, felt for a moment the heat and firmness of Peter against his fingers, and then Peter was calling out, and falling against him, and John concluded that making a mess was allowed.
They’d washed each other, after, carefully, standing together, passing the flannel back and forth. The nakedness, and meeting Peter’s eye, felt easy now, and when John’s stomach had rumbled, they’d both laughed.
“I feel as though I haven’t eaten for years,” John said, smiling apologetically. Now he thought of it, he was feeling a little dizzy.
Peter frowned. It was the look he had when he was annoyed with himself. “You’ve hardly eaten for forty-eight hours,” he pointed out. “I had a meal just before I left. I’ve got a spot of chocolate – how about that?”
“Yes please,” John said, eagerly, and took it from Peter’s hand, still standing on the towel, still naked, sucking the chunk in his mouth for a while to make it last.
Peter was still watching him.
They’d gone out, after that, first to eat, then trying to find Swedish ships to stow away on, but after a near miss encounter with a German soldier at the Freihafen dock they’d given it up for night and gone back to the hotel. Over the course of the day the weather had sharpened, and they’d climbed mostly clothed into bed together rather than strip in the chill air.
The connection between what they had done earlier and the procedure of sleeping next to someone did not escape John’s notice, but Peter made no comment and John himself had been too tired and disheartened to care much. The primacy of warmth, the way the search for warmth made almost anything reasonable was by then too well ingrained to be questioned.
John had slept well, better than in a while, and had woken early the next day, lying in bed a little while watching the light strengthen around the edge of the curtains, listening to the voices of the early morning trades-people in the street and to the gentle sound of Peter’s breathing.
In order to get one of the French workers to talk to them and give them information about meeting a Swedish boat, John reasoned, he and Peter must appear trustworthy on sight. And he had a theory that one reason they’d failed the day before had been that having Peter lurking behind him as he spoke looked odd, like some kind of back up muscle. No, he would be better trying alone. But Peter would never agree to it. Not if he asked him.
Carefully, John had got out of bed and dressed. As he went for his coat – a conversion, like much of their escape outfits, of RAF battledress – he studied it critically. The colour was very like the German uniform ‘Feld Grau’, and perhaps that had been putting off the French as well. He slipped instead into Peter’s mackintosh, unlocked their door and headed out, having paused first to scribble a quick note.
There was something thrilling about stepping out into the street alone and entirely under his own command. And something very pleasant in the idea of coming back to Peter and being able to say I’ve done it, I’ve figured it out, I’ve got it solved.
He did indeed manage to make contact with a Frenchman and organised a meeting for later in the day. Then, with the hour still before nine, he made his way back to the hotel and went into their room to find Peter apparently just stirring.
“I think you might have told me. I’d have worried like hell if I’d known,” said Peter, disapproving and at the same time rather proving John’s point.
“You needed to rest,” John pointed out. He was starting to feel cold, he wanted to take off his coat and trousers and get under the covers once more, except that he wasn’t sure quite how Peter might take it, what Peter might think he wanted.
But then he didn’t know either, not quite, what it was he wanted.
“As if that would matter to me more than...” Peter’s protest trailed off – sitting up abruptly, he’d thrown back the covers, shifted his feet, and he winced at the cold air, reflexively drawing himself back, pulling the sheets up to his neck. “Did you have any luck, at least?” he asked, more calmly, but his face was not calm. He was watching John as if he too wasn’t certain what might happen.
“Some, I’ll tell you.” John was cold, and the bed was not, and he made himself begin to strip, turning his back to Peter, roundly ignoring any part of himself that wished to see the effect of his actions, and hastily slid back in next to him, rubbing his feet against each other and shivering as he recounted his exploits. Obligingly, Peter let him lift the sheet a little and some of the warm air which had collected round Peter’s body drifted across to him, as at the same time Peter got his share of the chill and winced again.
“What did you do, dangle your feet in the sea?” Peter demanded.
“Think I might as well have done - sorry.” John smiled; finally a little thaw was coming to the end of his limbs. Since they were going to be relaxed about it, he nudged a little closer to Peter.
Peter nudged back.
The warmth finally bathing John’s skin glowed a little stronger.
Peter put his arm over John’s side, resting it gently on his waist. They had both shifted, were lying facing each other. John felt proud of his adventure, proud of having not argued with Peter, proud of Peter for not arguing with him, even though perhaps on reflection he’d hadn’t behaved in the most helpful way. He was warm and for the first time in days even slightly optimistic, and he felt safe, secret and safe here.
The warmth went so slowly into the hunger he almost didn’t realise it, and it wasn’t hunger the way he’d felt it before, not desperate, not frantic. It was part of the warmth, it was Peter stroking his back, gently, slowly, and pulling him closer, and both of them moving in rhythm against each other, chuckling a little together as their hands tried to find space between them, because of course they’d do that too, of course, that would be the warmest thing of all.
John wanted to be kissed, so he kissed Peter first. That morning every touch in every place felt better than anything he’d known before, and Peter’s mouth against his own was making him breathless, making his hips move beyond his control, and Peter groaned against his shoulder, and John held onto him tight, wanted to hold on, because it was too bright, too much, too much...
The heat stayed with them under the covers, and John fell asleep again, his head resting on Peter’s chest, even though he wanted to stay awake and keep that moment from ending.
Eventually, in the late morning, they had to go out again. They took a trip to the coal docks, and somehow managed to have all the arguments they had avoided that morning, agitated and anxious. Peter seemed tense, and guilty about being tense, and John was feeling hungry again in the usual way, the way one knew from infancy, the simple desperate desire for food that makes all else irrelevant. The ability to argue without vitriol was one they’d always possessed – in any camp friendship of longevity, this was vital – and it didn’t disturb John overmuch, but he was deeply disappointed when his carefully arranged trip to the French prisoner work camp yielded no helpful result.
“We’ve got time, all the time we need,” Peter reassured him back at the Schobel, as they shared a little more of their escape rations, washed down with water from the wash-basin.
John sighed and didn’t answer him, just watched him tidying the rations back up into the packet in his coat, and then undressed and climbed into the bed, lying on his stomach and burying his face in the pillow, hoping Peter would understand that he didn’t want to talk, or do anything beyond trying to lose himself in his own mind, to pull back a little from the pressures closing in around them and escape into sleep, and hope he would feel more powerful the next day.
And Peter did lie quiet beside him, and John had shifted just a little closer, just enough to be able to feel all the long night that he was there.
Until they finally did find the ship, and the overwhelming unhappiness of seasickness drove away any subtler emotion, John did not sleep easy again during the escape. They had both been increasingly anxious, increasingly finding it a struggle to retain optimism, their mutual fluctuations of cautiousness and recklessness leading them to argue and second-guess each other constantly, fearing always that they had just committed fatal errors and would soon be recaptured.
And yet the warmth had not diminished. On the morning of the third day at the hotel, Peter had been shaving at the sink, and John had watched him, and finally reached for him, and Peter had come to his arms with an urgency that suggested that perhaps he too relished the fact that this one thing they could do for each other, that in this one thing they could reaffirm their solidarity.
Nothing had quite seemed real, there. And there was so much very seriously and imminently worth worrying about that what they might get up to in their room didn’t so much as make the list.
To escape, to be free, was everything. John had thought then – if he ever let himself think of it at all – that when those goals were achieved nothing would ever worry him again, and he would never want for more.
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand it,” Bennett had said – to no one’s surprise – when John had finished reciting. It had been a very brief camp fad, recitation, as it swiftly emerged that most chaps either knew too little poetry or far too much. “He says the angels killed the woman he was in love with?”
“Yes, because they were jealous,” said Robbie, who had a better ear for verse than one might have expected. “Not half so happy in heaven, that’s the line.”
Bennett snorted. “You can’t be more happy than in heaven. Stands to reason. That’s the point of heaven, after all.”
“The poet is saying,” said Pomfret, who seemed to be torn between correcting them with his superior understanding and disapproving of the sentiment, “that to be in love is better than anything in heaven.”
“Still doesn’t make sense.” Bennett was not about to be swayed. “Logic, I tell you, it’s simple logic.”
“Not happier, as such, perhaps,” said Nigel, and there was something in the way he spoke, the depth of it, which had made a shiver go over John’s skin. “But it’s a feeling angels aren’t allowed to have, can’t have, if one believes it all literally. And it’s a good one.”
John had twisted to look up at Nigel, his mouth open but the questions still unformed.
“That’s enough poetry,” said Peter, rather abruptly. “That pie will be ready now, John, shall we go and see?
- - -
- - -
“And what would you say was the worst thing that happened to you in Sagan?”
John looked across at Captain Lanyon and blinked, trying to hear what underlay the question.
They were back in the Hall, back at the rough, ugly table and the hard, cold chairs, and Lanyon was being very polite and very thorough.
“There’s been a lot in the press, recently, about outrages in prison camps,” Lanyon said, after John had waited in a silence a while, not about to commit himself. “You were never shackled or beaten, for example?”
“No! Nothing like that,” John frowned and wished his head hurt less. His cold was still lingering, leaving him aching and enervated, and he’d been feeling guilty about using up Mrs Brading’s aspirin and therefore decided to go without one that morning, a decision he now regretted.
“No, the worst things – besides the food – we brought on ourselves, rather. Tunnelling, getting ourselves smothered in the earth. Peter and I both collapsed from lack of oxygen on separate occasions - he had to go to the camp hospital for it. They ran the place pretty well, Peter said. Not enough supplies but not bad. It wasn’t...” John sighed, and closed his eyes for a moment.
Peter’s collapse was something he would never think about again in his life, if possible. The moment when Peter’s eyes had rolled back and he had lost consciousness, a dead weight in John’s arms, was one he wished to discard from all memory.
Rallying himself, he continued. “Perhaps one of the most awful things about it was that it wasn’t torture – do you understand? If you wanted to, you could settle down, live a life that wasn’t good but a life. Do things. Learn things. Be happy, in a way. I could, yes, I think I could have been happy there. That was why we had to leave. If we’d been less well treated, we’d never have had the energy or the tools for escape, that’s the thing. They could have banned that vaulting horse soon as look at it, but they didn’t. Oh, it’s all so complicated.”
Lanyon was studying him, expression unreadable. John felt so very tired. He wanted to tell Lanyon everything, everything he could think of, just finally to have him say – have someone say – ah, yes, that’s it, you’re done now, you’ve done it, rest, all is well.
But Lanyon sat back, scribbled some more in his notebook, and then abruptly stood up, going over to the windows, his hands neatly behind his back.
“You haven’t tried to contact Flight Lieutenant Howard since we separated you,” Lanyon said briskly.
“I know you haven’t, because we have been watching.” Lanyon turned around and looked at him again. “You think I’m interrogating you more than debriefing and of course you’re quite right. Easiest thing in the world to plant a German stooge in a POW camp – Captain Clinton, lately of Malaya, with no traceable family, captured in a balls-up of a retreat where there’s no paperwork, you have to admit that’s not the easiest of people to verify the identity of.”
John wondered if he was back in bed and feverish. He wondered if Lanyon was playing some kind of trick on him, suggesting one thing to make him confess another. Travelling in the aeroplane from Sweden to Britain, there had been a moment when the thing had dropped and he’d felt like his stomach had got left behind, and this felt half the same.
Striding towards him, Lanyon continued.
“Sent to a camp filled with officers brimming with knowledge of all the latest British aeroplanes and other technology, getting to know them, particularly a certain navigator who, before his active service, was involved in some rather particular research that if he’d any sense he didn’t tell you about.
“And then escaping, escaping clean away when so many others have failed, and arriving on these shores ready to be chatted up by every high-rank in the place, and redeployed no doubt, and what might you learn then? You’ve been a prisoner, you could ask questions so easily, so innocently – what’s the morale here? What’s the effect of the bombing? What’s the political mood? It’s almost too clever.”
John fought a wave of nausea. Lanyon’s eyes were bright, decisive, he was standing over John’s chair now, looming, and John couldn’t think of a single thing to say in his own defence except the protestations that would be obvious.
“I thought at first,” said Lanyon now, more calmly, “that it was part of it. You and Howard. I thought that might have been your angle. But why would you have let me see that?”
“I don’t...” John began, hearing his voice cracked and rough with the cold.
“But I rather think you really are in love with him,” said Lanyon. “And I think you know exactly what I mean by that.”
John bit his lip and took a deep breath. Very well, it had come to it; there was only one thing he could do. “It was only me,” he said quickly. “It was just me, not him, he was married, he was... everyone did, in that camp, you see, and it’s not... you can arrest me if you like, but please leave him out of it, I don’t think he wants me at all, not now, and his family means so much to him.”
For a moment Lanyon’s face remained completely impassive. He straightened up, and moved to sit back in his chair as if the barrage of accusations had never happened.
“Thank you,” he said, shuffling his papers. “You’re free to leave. And you have a week’s leave, report back to the address on this card after that.”
John’s mouth gaped. The sensation of free-fall had intensified, he was unsure of anything.
Lanyon looked up again and frowned. “Are you deaf as well as riddled with microbes? I said you’re free to leave. I don’t perceive you to be any threat to our security and that will make the primary meat of my report. I dare say someone will check up on you from time to time, but then you’re intelligent enough to expect that.”
“But I don’t... You said...”
Lanyon raised his eyebrow. “I explored several avenues of enquiry and I am satisfied as to their result with regards to the security of this nation and the ongoing conduct of war. I rather think that’s all in this case that’s my business.”
“Oh,” said John, and stood up, stumbling and grabbing the back of his chair to help himself rise. His muscles were trembling with adrenaline, his mind still reeling. So long with so many things boiling inside him that he wouldn’t see, wouldn’t name, and Lanyon had just... said it. Said it as if it were as simple a fact as John’s speaking German, and potentially as irrelevant: You are in love with him.
Lanyon paused in his writing and looked up again. He frowned for a moment, and then sighed.
“You’re twenty-one, aren’t you? Probably your first go with this sort of thing, and first ones tend to hit the hardest. It’ll feel like life and death to you for a while, but...” he stopped, considering, and John waited, watching him carefully.
Lanyon’s head again bent down, and he was looking at his notes, not John, as he spoke.
“Peter Howard’s questioning was entirely routine and finished yesterday,” Lanyon said, quite briskly. “I’m told he’s now staying in a hotel in Market Poundbury, not that I’ve any good reason to pass on that information to you.”
John watched, but Lanyon’s eyes stayed on his paperwork. “After that leave we’ve so generously given you, you will be redeployed, bloody soon I should think. You’ll be sent to another front, if you’re very lucky the Far East, where the death rate is currently so high as to be an Official Secret, and whether Peter Howard never wants to see you again or not, there’s a fairly good chance he never will after that. So it really boils down to whether you want to give it a try.”
John gripped tighter onto the back of his chair, unable to believe his ears. And then, because as far as he could see now, the entire world was mad and he might as well join in, he spoke.
“Does it happen?” he asked, and his voice was still weak and scratchy. “Does it happen, with men, I mean... Can one choose to try that, with one person only? I mean...”
Lanyon’s gaze met his. His expression at that moment was oddly like how John’s remembered Nigel’s, as if he wanted to laugh but wasn’t going to.
“You escaped from one of the most high-security prisoner of war camps the military mind has built, Captain Clinton,” Lanyon said slowly. “I rather think you could try anything. Now, if you don’t mind.”
And, almost scrambling, John took his cue to leave the room.
- - -
“Flight Lieutenant Howard? You’ve just missed him, dear.”
The woman behind the counter at the Three Gables Hotel, Market Poundbury, smiled sympathetically at John as she looked up from the register, and closed it again with a pat of satisfaction before frowning, retrieving a handkerchief from her pocket and rubbing at some mark on the faux-leather cover.
“Oh, I see, right.” John stepped back a few paces, feeling conscious that she might find his response strangely emotional. He had taken most of the previous day to convince himself to come here, and although it seemed now nothing would come of it, his heart was still pounding.
“Do you know where he went on to?” he asked, trying to sound natural.
She woman frowned intensely, as if summoning a great effort. “Well, now, he didn’t say exactly, not for certain.” She paused again. “Not for certain, no, he didn’t mention anywhere in particular. Did ask for the Bradshaw, though,” she turned to point at the book on a small shelf behind her, “the local south coast trains, I think it was. Of course, you’ve got to take a bus to the station first. Not that they run, scarcely, now. Before the war...”
John let her words wash over him. The information was of little use. On that line, Peter might have been heading for London, or to his family in Devon, or even – John thought with a bitter smile – gone in search of John himself.
“Thank-you,” he said at last, as the woman’s flow ebbed, scarcely knowing if it was at an appropriate point, and turned to leave, without any clear idea of the direction he would take once beyond the door.
It was raining outside, had been since that morning when he’d caught a train, a bus and another train from Markham, relying on his own timetables to guide him through the unfamiliar places since everywhere he went all signage had been obscured.
He drew his coat collar up around his neck and folded his arms, looking about him.
Market Poundbury had a very wide cobbled high street which split in its centre around an old building that seemed to combine weighing-station, bus shelter, local museum and clock-tower in its robust half-timbered frame. The flanking rows of terraced buildings, flats over shops, were interrupted on one side with an ugly gash of bomb damage, but from the way the few shoppers scurrying over the puddles ignored it, John supposed it to be old.
From its tower the clock struck the noon hour, and John was overtaken by a fit of coughing, the last remnants of his cold. It left him feeling yet wearier.
The voice came from behind him. For a moment John couldn’t believe he’d heard it.
“John? Is that you?”
Slowly, John turned, and there was Peter, a suitcase in his hand, dressed as John was in a heavy civilian coat, staring at him through the rain.
“John!” Peter exclaimed, and was running towards him, splashing, grinning widely, and John was almost knocked over by the force as they collided.
“John!” Peter was still holding him by the shoulders as he drew back from hugging him, and was studying his face. John blinked at the rain running across his eyes and abruptly realised he was shivering.
When the woman at the hotel had said he’d just missed Peter, she really had meant just. He wanted to run back and shout at her, because so nearly he might have missed him properly, possibly forever.
But that didn’t matter, because Peter was here, was with him.
John allowed himself to be lead to the benches of the bus-shelter within the weighing-station, a cave of dark wood with seats scored with many years of bored children’s graffiti, a small notice-board on one wall with a sign for an Evacuees Christmas Fayre, the lettering of which had run. There was no one else in the place.
“What on Earth are you doing here?” Peter was asking, still grinning. “I couldn’t get a squeak out of them about where you were so I was heading to my mother’s house – thought you might try there, probably, if you wanted to find me.”
“I was told, I...” John licked his lips, unable now to think where to begin, for all he’d planned and rehearsed, over and over, what he might say. It had always felt odd, like reading lines from a play, and nothing came now.
“What’s wrong?” Peter leant closer towards him, studying him with a look of growing anxiety, and John was very aware of his nearness, of the opening of his mouth, the glint of water on his freckled lips, the slight shadow of stubble on his cheeks. “Did they... did something happen in your questioning?”
“No, that was...” John swallowed, took a breath. He felt the strength of the grip where Peter had not let go of his arm. “I missed you,” he managed, because it was such an easy, overpowering truth.
“I missed you too,” Peter replied, slowly, earnestly, obviously a little confused but so gentle with it. “Look, don’t you think we ought to go somewhere more indoors, old chap? You’re frightfully cold. I know a place a few miles from here which serves an excellent game stew, or did in 1938 at least.”
John nodded, automatically, and rose, but then sat down again.
“No,” he said. “I don’t...” He closed his eyes for a moment, then, as quickly as he could, leant across and kissed Peter on the lips, a fast, scared brush of skin.
“John...” Peter began, after a moment, blinking at him. He was shaking his head, but he didn’t move back or away. “John, this isn’t... This is confusion, this isn’t what you want, you’re young, you’ll very soon see that...”
“I want to go back to that hotel with you,” John said, not dropping his gaze, although he knew he blushed, blushed because this was the truth, the pure truth. “I want to go to a room and get into bed and be with you, and stay with you, day after day. And you may never want to see me again now I’ve said that, but it’s better, it’s better that you know, that I know, once and for all. You see, there’s only question that really matters, so... Do you want me?” He did look away now, embarrassed, and swallowed. “And I’m not young,” he added.
It seemed to be a very long time before Peter spoke, silence except for the drumming of the rain.
“You are young, and I shouldn’t influence you, but damned if I care any more,” Peter murmured, and as John looked up he put one hand to the side of John’s face, cupping his cheek, stroking it with his thumb. The expression on his face made John desperately want to kiss him again, but even more he wanted to listen. “You’re brave and you’re honest and you make me wish to be so much better than I am. Darling, darling John.”
“So you do? Want me?”
Peter broke into a wide grin and then laughed, quite shaking with it.
“Oh John,” he said, after a while, as he wiped his tears from his eyes. “Never anything else.”
- - -
- - -
From The Guardian, London, February 17th, 1949:
‘Memoirs of great interest to the public regarding the last war are more and more rapidly emerging on the publishing scene, and this week the release of ‘The Wooden Horse’ by Peter Howard makes a fine addition to their ranks. This story of the exploits of men imprisoned at Stalag Luft III and their incredible escape inspired by the classics of Homer is a tale of heroics, grit and ‘greater love’ that has few equals. The book speaks of the adventures of ‘George’ and ‘David’ but is merely lightly fictionalized from the real life experiences of the author and his friend John Clinton. The public may be interested to hear that both men returned to active service in the Pacific following their successful return to Britain, and now live as neighbours in Bloomsbury, where Howard is the latest author to be snapped up by Harry Turner’s reinvigoration of Chapman and Hall publishers, and Clinton is completing his doctorate in Ancient Roman Literature at King’s College. The third man who escaped with them, Philip Rowe, continues a successful career in insurance.’