This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1620 words.
The Desert wasn’t to Albert’s taste at all. Too hot by day, and cold at night. When he joined up, he had expected to be fighting in France, like they did in the first war, but North Africa had come as a shock. And after the Italians, the Germans were good. Too good. He would sit in the lorry watching the twenty-five pounder bouncing along behind, and wonder if they were going to lose this one. The lads in his gun crew tried to keep up their spirits, but even old sergeant Clark was looking glum these days. When they stopped to brew up, he sat apart from the others, and read that last letter from Minnie.
I hope this finds you well. Mum sends her best. I went round hers for dinner on Sunday, and we made the best of what we could get in the shops. You remember Mrs Pugh’s son, Alec, well he was shot down in his bomber and they have posted him missing. Mrs Pugh was in a right state, and Mum sat with her all afternoon. Nan has knitted you some socks and a warm hat and we will send them soon. Mr Rosenberg asked me to work on Sundays, from next week. He says you wouldn’t know there was a war on, with all the men coming in for suits to be made. I hope you are getting enough to eat and keeping away from those girls in Egypt.
Your loving wife Min.
He smiled as he put the letter back with the others, then glanced at the crumpled photo of his wife. He could easily imagine her and her mum gossiping over dinner, and he remembered young Alec Pugh, proud of his RAF uniform that time he came home on leave. So she was working on Sundays now. That tailor’s shop in Whitechapel must be busier than ever. Then the sarge was shouting. “Stand to! Tanks!” Albert slipped into the routine, grabbing a shell from the limber, crouching ready to load it into the breech.
Sicily was a mess. Colin Brown had been killed, and he had been wounded in the leg. Just a small shrapnel wound, not enough to get sent to the hospital ship. They had patched him up at the dressing station, but it still hurt, and made it difficult to sleep on the ground under the lorry. They fired their gun until they were exhausted, and Albert was pleased when the ammunition ran out, so they had the afternoon free waiting for more to arrive. He spread out Minnie’s letter, the last one he had been given before they left in the ships.
Well it has been so busy at work, you would think Mr Rosenberg was giving the suits away. Mrs Pugh was so relieved to hear that Alec is a prisoner, in a camp in Germany. She said he must have been able to parachute out of his plane. Your last letter was very nice to receive, and to know that you are doing well and that you beat the Germans in Africa. That was on the newsreels, and the radio too. They said you were The Desert Rats. I told mum, my Bert’s no rat, and she laughed. Nan has been in hospital. Its her legs again, like always. Well I don’t know where you are now, dear Bert but I hope you are somewhere safe.
Your loving wife Min.
He looked at the neat writing in the thick pencil. He pictured Minnie writing it, taking time over each word so it looked nice, and not really knowing what to say. She never complained about the rationing, and she had never even mentioned the bombing when that had been bad. When he had written to ask her about it, she had reassured him that it was in other parts of London. He knew she was lying, but he loved her for doing that.
The hill was called Monte Cassino. The weather was awful, and the mud made doing anything almost impossible. They said there weren’t many Germans up there, but they were holding out like tigers. Albert couldn’t remember such relentless fighting, and had trouble staying awake after being exhausted day in, day out. The lads all looked ill. Dark circles under their eyes, no more banter or jokes. And one of the forward guns from K Battery had been hit by bombs from our own planes. Another mess. Trying to move the gun in the muddy ruts, the wheel had run over Albert’s leg, breaking his ankle badly. He ended up in the field hospital this time, with a plaster cast. He was out of the fighting, but worried about his mates. To take his mind off of things, he read Minnie’s last letter, for the umpteenth time.
Well you wouldn’t know London now. Yanks everywhere, no bombing, and a feeling that things are on the up. Some yank officer came into the shop to have a tweed suit measured up. Imagine that. What would a yank officer want with a tweed suit during a war. They say the Russians are beating the Germans, but Mrs Allison’s husband is in the far east, and she reckons things are going bad there with the Japs. Nan’s legs are bad again, and she has to wear bandages all wrapped round them. Kitty got some nylons from a yank, and gave me a pair. I’m going to save them for when you get home and we go out dancing.
Your loving wife Min.
Albert had been a little concerned that Minnie wasn’t out and about with those yanks. Rumour was that lots of girls were going off with them, and they had chocolate, fags, and nylons to offer, as well as lots of money. But not his Minnie, she wouldn’t do that. They had been together since school, and married long before the war. It would never occur to him not to trust her. Besides, her mum wouldn’t tolerate any of that malarkey.
His leg didn’t seem to want to heal. They told him he was unfit for active service, and would be sent home, to work at the barracks in the stores for now. But it took forever to get on a ship, and by the time he was sailing home, there was news of a big invasion in France. The biggest in history they said. The allies had broken out from the beaches, and were doing well, apparently. Some of the blokes were sure this was the beginning of the end of the war. They sat around playing cards, and talking about what they would do when it was all over. Albert didn’t want to lose what little money he had, so would sit on his bunk and read his letters. Minnie never put the date on a letter, but he knew the order of them, and the last one had arrived just before he boarded. She never put their address either. He had asked he about that, and she had replied “Well you know your address, silly. ”
I was so relieved to read that you had broken your leg. I know that sounds bad to say, but it could have been a lot worse. What do you think about Alec Pugh. Mrs Pugh is distraught. The Red Cross told her he died of pneumonia in the prison camp. Fancy that, surviving being shot down and then dying of illness in a camp. Poor woman. Nan’s legs are no better, and mum goes round every day to see to her. The yanks are all gone now, well most of them. Mr Rosenberg says I don’t have to work Sundays anymore too. I have to say that I hope your leg doesn’t get mended soon, so you don’t have to go back to the fighting.
Your loving wife Min.
The ship stopped at Gibraltar for a while, but they weren’t allowed ashore. By the time Albert got back to England, he hadn’t been able to get any mail. He got a chitty from the transport officer and took the train to Woolwich, reporting at the barracks as ordered. The Sergeant wangled him a three-day pass, and he was excited to be able to get home to see Minnie. It would be a nice surprise for her, if she hadn’t got his last letter by now.
Albert got off the bus in Roman Road, a short walk to his home in Grove Road. He wasn’t using the walking stick anymore, but a pronounced limp made walking difficult still. The doctors said he would always have that. When he got to number twelve, he was confused. Number ten was still there, Mr Delaney’s pace. But between there and number twenty was just rubble. His house was gone, along with the three next to it. He knocked on Mr Delaney’s, but there was no reply. So he walked across the road to Mrs Pugh’s. Doris looked older than he remembered, more like sixty, than the forty-odd she must have been. She saw the look of confusion on Albert’s face, and put both hands to her cheeks. “Oh Albert dear, they didn’t tell you”. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke. “It was in June, one of those flying bombs. They call them doodlebugs, they’re rockets or something. I don’t know. I was visiting my sister, and when I got home, the street was closed. Terrible”.
Albert could feel the thick wad of letters in the pocket inside his uniform jacket. He didn’t say anything. Doris walked forward, and squeezed his arm.
“Come in, Bert. I’ll make you a cup of tea”.