Mrs Clark quietly watches over her husband from the end of the sofa. They’ve been together since the war, but whilst his face is reddened and blasted by age, hers is paler, more ghostly. The papery flatness of their eyes and their arthritically wooden gestures put me in mind of Punch and Judy, retired from the hectic violence of the seaside booth to a nice, quiet bungalow with a wet room.
‘Thirty year I was in the whasname. Lied about me age, of course. Straight in the ranks, worked my way up. Company Sergeant Major in the end. Fought the whole match. I remember we were at er... we were making our way er... across this river. At the whasname. Only lost one. But what we didn’t know was the er... the whasname had been up there on the ridge for months, digging in, getting themselves ready, you know. So there we were, over the river thinking ‘this is all right, this,’ when the call comes to carry on up and take the ridge. Well. We knew the er... the whasname were there .. the er....’
‘The eighth panzer division,’ says his wife.
‘Thas’ it. Yep. Well they had their tanks and we some heavy whatnots and we knew it’d be a bit lively but we were young, you see? We didn’t think much of it in them days. So anyway, up we went. I started blasting away. But you see, the thing about the er.. the er...’
‘Bren gun,’ says Mrs Clark.
‘The thing about the old Bren gun was it shoots in a dead straight line. So they just drew a line straight back and caught me right in the old er.. you know.. the whasname.’
‘In your right hip,’ says Mrs Clark.
‘We lost one hundred and sixteen men that day, but I made it back, somehow. Three months up to me neck in plaster of Paris, arms and legs out here, upside down, the lot. The nurse would come over and she’d say to me “I’m sorry it’s so awful for you, Bill” but I’d say to her “Nah, mate. This is a bleedin’ holiday camp.” Because it was.’
Mrs Clark stands up and offers us tea.
‘Anyway,’ says Mr Clark, ‘I stayed on after the war. We used to get sent all over, anywhere there was a dust up. We did that old Sewage Canal down in the old er... over in the old er... the whasname. Egg Wipes. You name it, we got sent in to sort it out.’
He draws his face up into a ghoulish smile and swivels at the hip.
‘Mary. Show ‘em the shrapnel they took out of me last year. Go on.’
She hobbles over to a drawer and brings back a surgical sample bag. Inside are two sections of some kind of modern, articulated titanium joint, the undersides roughened with calcium deposits.
I look at Mr Clark.
‘And that’s what your German’ll stick in you given half the chance,’ he says, jabbing the air between us with a finger.
Mrs Clark puts her hand on my arm and speaks in a whisper.
‘He gets confused,’ she says.