‘We had this new Captain take over ‘cos the other one got killed. My mate said “Have you seen him? He’s an old fucker”. D’you know how old he was? Forty! Goes to show how young we all was then.’
Henry laughs, not an active thing, more like the gentle release of a deep bubble of humour. It’s a cold night, so we’ve bundled him up on the ambulance trolley under a pile of white blankets, the grave and liver-spotted bulk of his head vividly illuminated under the bright cabin lights.
Henry’s accent is so strong, his mouth so toothless and collapsed, the journey in to hospital so noisy, I have to lean in to hear him – and even then there’s a delay between Henry speaking and the sense of it percolating through.
‘I went through the lot. D-Day. I was there. It didn’t start all that good. We went aground in our landing craft. Bullets and bombs flying all over the place. So they says “Jump out quick lads. We’ll hev’ to walk the rest of the way.” Which would’a been fine ‘cept we were in about five foot o’ water. Carrying about seventy-five pound a kit. ‘Course, quite a few drowned. How I made it in I’ll never know. ‘Cept I was young then, and when yer young you can do a thing as soon as think it, eh? Anyways, a day or so later, when we was all set-up on the beach, like, they had these tractors with forks going up and down. And Billy says: “What’re they havin’ now, d’you think? A ploughin’ match? But it weren’t that. They was collecting all the drowned lads, you see? Scooping ‘em up and dumping them in a pile. A’ter that they put us on a forced march. D’you know what a forced march is? Five miles you run, five miles you walk. No change of clothes. Yer pockets and your boots full of water. Full of blood half the time. But you dried out, course. And you took yer ease where you could.’
‘I met ‘em all. The Belgians. The Poles. The Dutch were all right. The French were grateful but you couldn’t trust ‘em. The Russians were just fixed on revenge. The Americans were fine in ones and twos but when you got ‘em in a crowd they was a blasted nuisance. We used to hev’ fights with ‘em now and again. Depends where we was and what else there was to do. And the funny thing was, d’you know who we got on the best with? The Germans. You know where you are with your German. It’s all there and out in the open, if you know what I mean. Personally I don’t think Hitler was as bad as he was made out. I think he had some good ideas – and he certainly got the country going again, didn’t he? Trouble was, he was surrounded by some very strange characters. Goering, Himmler, Hess – they was all a bit weird. I don’t think Hitler was strong enough to resist what they was saying to ‘im.’
‘Anyway. Difficult days. A long time ago. I lost a lot of mates. And you know what?’
He turns his misty eyes in my direction.
‘I wouldn’t ‘a missed it for the world.’