Friday, June 24, 2011


Henry, ninety-one, had been watching the tennis. When Leyton Hewitt reached for a deep pass, Henry reached for the remote and fell out of the chair. We pick him off the floor an hour later and settle him back in bed. The carers on scene - two raucous women who clean him up, smear his genitals with cream and haul on a fresh pair of pyjama bottoms, all with the bonhomie of a pair of blousy witches – flop back onto the sofa and suck busily on the teats of their energy drinks.
All Henry’s obs are fine. Frank writes out the sheet. I sit by the bed, and fetch down a photo of Henry as a young man of twenty, glaring into the camera, striding across Piccadilly with a suitcase in one hand, fag in the other.
‘Where were you off to in this photo, then, Henry?’
‘That photo?’
‘I dunno mate. China, probably.’
‘How long were you in the navy?’
‘Twenty year.’
He chews for a moment, then turns his head in my direction.
‘We were up in the Arctic circle,’ he says. ‘Colder than hell. Colder than you can imagine. Everything iced-up and frozen. Equipment, men – everything. One night, I was on watch. And this fucking great shadow rolls by. German cruiser. Just like us – frozen solid. There was nothing anyone could do. You couldn’t work the guns. You couldn’t do nothing. Everything frozen solid. The only thing you could do was stand on the deck and salute. So that’s what we did. Stood to attention and saluted, as this German cruiser passes by in the night.’
He sucks his cheeks furiously for a moment.
‘Fucking hell it was cold’ he says.


Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

Hate being cold with a passion; don’t know how the Korean Veterans survived that peninsula. Had a friend who served there and his most prominent memory was also the coldness of the place.

Spence said...

Me too. I've just been reading Shackleton's account of his expedition to the south pole in 1914. The conditions they faced were terrible.
You know, when you think of the Korean war you more often think of the heat - it's interesting to hear how cold it was at times, too.

Anonymous said...

Oh bless him, I hope he is ok.

California Girl said...

what a story. short but full. Henry, like so many others of his generation, have these wonderful untold stories.

jacksofbuxton said...

Being in Buxton you get used to it being cold,but not quite that cold.

Smeared him with cream?He fell out of his chair!

Wonder if Mrs Jack would fall for that one.

Spence said...

Anon - Apart from a couple of minor bruises he was okay. Physically quite decrepit, but mentally sharp as anything. Loved his carers - had a really good rapport with them.

CG - I love hearing those war anecdotes, too. A little window on another world.

JoB - There're three settings: Cold, Buxton Cold and B** Cold.

When I said cream I didn't mean whipped. But you could give it a go - (might be a trifle messy, tho'...)

Anonymous said...

In one office where I worked for a time, the "runner" was an elderly gentleman who shuffled about fetching and carrying. No one really noticed him except when they needed something and even then it was only to give him patronising directions.

When I started in the office, I made an effort to get to know everyone, including the old chap. He'd been career Royal Navy from just before World War 2 and put in 30 years.

Like your Henry, the old chap had been on Arctic Convoys. He was a Leading Signalman aboard HMS Somali when her sister ship HMS Matabele was torpedoed by a U-boat while escorting PQ8. He said it was the worst moment of the war for him as he had a lot of friends aboard the Matabele. Many of the crew escaped the sinking ship, only to freeze in seconds in the icy waters. Only two men were rescued.

I heard quite a few hair-raising stories during the time I worked with him, but he'd always return time and time again to the horrors of the Arctic, particularly the cold. He'd talk about turning to a signalman and asking him the same question repeatedly, only to realise the youngster had frozen to death standing next to him. Of waves breaking over the bridge but hitting the watchkeepers as ice instead of water. Of constantly chipping ice before it grew so thick and heavy that the ship would capsize.

And the overwhelming majority of people in that office thought the old chap was beneath notice. Sigh.

Spence said...

Hey Anon - Thanks very much for that. It's just incredible to think of what people went through during the war. I always like to talk about these things - it helps me keep my own dumb preoccupations in some kind of perspective.

God knows how they all coped - but I suppose when you find yourself in tough situations, you just have to find a way to get through.

Thanks again for the comment, Anon. Inspiring, fascinating stuff.

Carla Humphreys said...

Arh bless him! I live to hear the war stories, from both sides, (civilian and forces) so interesting. I had only been at the care home for a few days and I said hello to one of the old boys, I asked him if he was a soldier, sailor or airman. He was a soldier, (that's now his name lol). The boss lady there told me he had dementia and prob can't remember much. I said to him in front of her, "what's your army number, soldier?" He reeled it of immediately. Boss lady was so shocked, I said to her, they never forget.