Saturday Night Soldier (London)
I was surprised to find myself in such a large crowd — several hundred of us on Islington Green. I thought interest in this had gone out of fashion.
The bugler rose through the scales to his final note which hung in the air and thinned to a silence which everyone kept, apart from children who tugged at the sleeves of motionless parents; one youngster cried out. No matter. This was a dignified polished-brass silence.
It was a patch of red that first caught my eye – on the beret of a war veteran. Even at 30 yards I could tell it was the signature badge of my grandfather’s regiment: the motif of a black cat – Dick Whittington’s – against a scarlet background.
Did he know Grandad?
That question was followed instantly by an ominous thought. And what scared me was not the darkness of this later notion, but its immediacy. Right there. As if it had a right to exist. I strangled the thought. Killed it. Then buried it.
But it never quite disappeared. It slipped away to my innards where it lingered. As the stillness of hundreds continued, I reflected upon my journey prompted by a red badge like the one I’d just spotted...
“Can you get the rest of the stuff down from the loft?” Dad asked. “I can’t, I’ve got this cut finger.”
I knew the cut as a pretext. He didn’t want to go up the ladder to the loft. He didn’t want to admit to his advancing frailty. I didn’t want to go up to the loft either. It’s the smell that gets me, the smell of old things. Not the noble leathery smell you get in museums, but the musty odour of stuff not quite damp enough to go mouldy—you never let stuff go mouldy, oh no Dad, you might have to chuck it then—the mixed working‑class whiff of wood, rusty metal and old clothes, stuff which should have been thrown out ages ago. I put the ladder against the lip of the loft hatch…
Dad would say: “There’s been a Flisher in this house since 1862.”
But I was the first one who bought the place, Dad. My long line of predecessors must have paid for the house in rent several times over. Mug’s game. So when the landlord put it up for sale, I bought it. As a stockbroker I had the means. And with Mum and Dad’s security of tenure, I could out-bid anybody. But Dad couldn’t take me being the owner, even though it made perfect sense.
“You can live here rent-free,” I said.
“Nah. Don’t want to live round here anymore. It’s all full of yuppies now.”
(Yuppies like me, Dad?)
So Dad took Mum and followed the trail blazed by Grandad…to Edgware, where Grandad was moved in the 50s for his health—Dad used to say, “It wasn’t the mustard gas in the trenches that did your Grandad’s lungs. It was London smog.”
Dad followed suit, leaving the house where he’d been all his life—until I bought it. London’s sulphurous smog couldn’t shift Dad, but Thatcherite economics did.
I had the whole place rewired, and a downstairs wall knocked through to make an open-plan kitchen/lounge. The only place as yet untouched was this loft, the bastion of resistance to modernity. In two years I reckoned I could afford to convert it to an extra bedroom. If I sold the house then, I’d make a killing.
As I lifted the hatch cover, that smell hit me again. Right up my nose. The place reeked of it, as if passing generations of Flishers had all left traces of themselves. Somehow it (whatever ‘it’ was) had seeped into fabric of the surrounds, left its stain in the wood like successive layers of creosote.
“You can’t take all this stuff to Edgware, Dad,” I shouted down the hatch, “You haven’t got the storage space.”
Dad was standing at the foot of the ladder: “Well, just get the Christmas decorations down.”
(The decorations you’ve been using for the past 10 years, Dad?)
“But what are we going to do with all this other stuff?” I asked. “You can’t afford to pay for storage.”
“Can’t we leave it, until we decide what to do with it?”
“We can decide now,” I said, thrusting my head down the hatch, “You’ve got bags of old clothes here that you’re never going to use. Why don’t I take them down to Oxfam?”
The wrinkles on Dad’s forehead gathered.
“At least then,” I said, “it will do somebody some good.”
“Yeah. Somebody some good.” He turned and ambled away.
I knew it would take a cup of tea and a biscuit before I could make conversation with him again.
I dumped a stray box against the wall. It gave out a muffled chime of metal on metal. I opened the box to find medals with coloured ribbons, and a green beret. Couldn’t be Dad’s. During the war he was in the Navy. Grandad’s? Who cares; it’s all got to go.
“How much for all this?” I asked, dumping the box on the counter at the antique shop.
“Not much call for war memorabilia.” Then his eyebrows lifted. “The Black Cats,” he said, holding up the beret with its badge.
“The 1st London division,” he said.
“I’ve got a book about the 1st London. The official divisional history.”
“My dad might like that,” I said, thinking about Christmas. “I’ll do you a straight swap: this stuff for the book.”
He shook his head. “The book’s an antique. But I’ll offset the price a little, for all this.”
He let me have the book for 30 quid. Reckon he didn’t offset the price at all. Who cares? Might have given him the box for free anyway.
The book sat on my desk at home. I didn’t have many memories of Grandad. Most of what I knew about him came via Grandma. Random fragments interjected without any relevance to the conversation:
“Of course, your Grandad was a tool maker at Simmond’s workshop up Holloway Road.”
“I’ve got your cup of tea, Grandma.”
“Of course, he’d done his apprenticeship. Then the Ministry asked him to be transferred.”
“Just how you like it, Grandma.”
“I say ‘asked’, of course you did what you were told in them days.”
“Milky with two sugars.”
“Started working down Gwynnes munitions factory in Chiswick.”
“Want a biscuit? Have two.”
Must have been that damned book… just left, there on my desk. Because Grandma kept coming back:
“Used to take the number 73 bus down to Gwynnes, he did. Of course, it went all the way down to Richmond in them days.”
Sporadic interventions during the day:
“The offshore company is a secure tax haven, but with a benchmark at only 9%, it’s low risk, low yield.”
“He’d get off at Hammersmith and walk the rest of the way.”
I tried to shut her out with work:
“Transparency? What’s that. This is an offshore investment.”
“He joined the Territorials. You didn’t have to serve overseas then, unless you wanted to. ‘Saturday night soldiers’ they called ’em.”
I got home and wrapped that bloody book up. Wrapped it up tight. As I strapped sellotape around it, I imagined I was taping up Grandma’s mouth.
I continued to work:
“…only if the Chief Executive raises capital via subordinated members accounts…”
But Grandma wouldn’t be silenced:
“Of course, when he went to Gwynnes that’s when he realised how stupid the war was.”
Just like when she was alive, she kept butting in:
“Never mind reducing overheads, you need access to outside capital.”
“The mechanism inside a shell needs the skill of a watchmaker, he said.”
“If you haven’t got Market Share, you haven’t got Market Share…”
“They’re taking our best workers and putting them on the front line, he said.”
“…no matter how many fixed assets you’ve seized.”
“Half the shells just sat in the mud, and didn’t do anything, he said.”
I got edgy: “Dollars or Deutschmarks, it doesn’t matter, just get it!”
And Grandma kept coming.
“He didn’t want to go. Of course, the men got beaten up if they thought they were cowards. And nobody’d talk to the wives.”
I got aggressive: “No, I’m not waiving any fees. Commission’s 15%, that’s final!”
“Of course, it was a white feather that did it in the end. Through the letterbox. He thought he’d be in disgrace for the rest of his life, so he went.”
I slammed the phone down. “Shut up Grandma!”
Colleagues paused and looked askance. Is Flisher losing his grip?
“Just some old bag who won’t listen,” I said, to fend off the disdainful smirks.
What is this? I demanded. Guilt? What’s that! Back to work. But Grandma’s voice continued to carry, all the way from her grave in Edgware.
“Of course, he was never the same after the war. Disappeared down the pub.”
I had an idea. Anything to shut up Grandma.
Rang Directory Enquiries, got an address. And a week later I was at the Public Records Office, in Kew, with two references for Grandad: WO329 and WO95.
With the help of a librarian I searched out the references, got a set of microfiches, and was guided me to a viewer screen The names on the microfiche were arranged alphabetically. I ploughed through the ‘F’s. And found Grandad. I sat in front of the screen, for what seemed like ages. Just staring at his name. My eyes eventually meandered across the record, alighting upon individual words and phrases:
‘theatre of war’.
There was a column, ‘Rank’, and underneath, written: ‘Sgt.’
Sergeant. Grandad got promoted. A sense of pride was added to whatever it was I was feeling.
And what are you feeling? I don’t know.
It felt like a pain, but it didn’t quite hurt. A dense thing in my chest.
I left Kew with a bundle of photocopies, and my mind set on attending Islington Green on Memorial Sunday. I’d gone with Dad once or twice as a kid, never as a teenager. Now I was going for the first time as a man.
So there I was, watching the Union flag being lowered to half‑mast, and dignitaries laying wreathes. The priest gave a final blessing, and folks began to drift away. I went to the old boy whom I’d seen before, the Black Cat, feeling an unusual affection that seemed to have no other basis than the badge on his beret.
“I just wanted to say thank you, for what all you guys did.” His countenance changed but I couldn’t quite read it.
“You know, you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say that.”
“You’re kidding.” I felt slightly embarrassed that this honour happened upon me. I’d just wanted to say my peace and go. I felt I had to reciprocate in some way, and stuck out a hand to shake his. As he took hold of it, that’s when it happened. It was as if another unseen hand touched mine. My grandfather’s? Something reached across the years and reconnected. It stirred up… something, and involuntary tears welled up. I forced my eyes shut to suppress them, but they wouldn’t be contained.
“You alright?” asked the old boy.
“I’m fine. Don’t know why I’m upset.”
It occurred to me again that he might have known Grandad. But then the ugly thought that I’d previously killed burgeoned again, as fresh as a spring nettle: Maybe he knows something about Grandad you’d rather not hear. Grandad never talked about the war; maybe there was something to hide. I was going to ‘hold my peace’, but what was I afraid of? The truth? We’d just been honouring courage and sacrifice. It didn’t seem fitting to concede to cowardice.
“I was wondering whether you’d…met my grandfather, Harold Flisher.”
A spark of recognition came to his eyes. “Foxy Flisher? He was a canny boy.”
“You knew him?”
“The whole company knew Foxy. Used to suck up to the major. First thing he did was put rum in Major’s tea. Major took a shine to him after that; made him his batman.”
“Major’s lackey. That’s how Foxy made it through the war.” The old boy spoke without malice. I even detected a sneaking regard. “Smart boy old Foxy.” A grin broadened on his face. “He used to nick the major’s cigarettes and hand them out to the lads.” The old boy laughed. “Coming down The King’s Head?”
“Afraid I can’t. But have a drink for me.”
The old boy tottered in the direction of the pub.
I skulked home in shame at the thought of Grandad grovelling to some officer, safe in a cushy job while others went over the top. I threw the book I’d got for Dad’s present in the bin. “Now I know what that smell is in the loft: Grandad’s cowardice.”
I downed some whiskey, neat. But it did little to purge the sense of disgrace.
“No heroes in my family, God no.”
But as I sat nursing the whiskey bottle, I couldn’t escape the knowledge that Grandad’s craven crawling was a smart move. And without it I might never have been born. Sort that one out. And why was the old boy at the memorial so forgiving? As if he admired ‘old Foxy’.
I must be missing something. I dug out the book from the bin and tore off the wrapping. I opened it, and looked up the date when Grandad arrived at the front. I read what happened at the Battle of the Somme:
‘… the 1st Division performed a diversionary attack. Unpleasant though it may appear, their role was to draw enemy fire, and cause as many enemy guns to shoot at them as could be induced.’
The Black Cats lost 4½ thousand on the first day. No ground was taken.
‘Unpleasant’?... I laughed with derision. What stiff-upper-lipped mindset could produce such a grotesque euphemism? Now I began to understand why Grandad used all his guile to suck up to the major, and why the old boy at the memorial didn’t resent him for it. Grandad used the same strategy I use on the stock-market. He calculated the risks, assessed his options, and made his best gamble. Only he wasn’t boosting his income or expanding his share portfolio, he was staying alive as best he could amid the senseless carnage.
I’m not sure that was cowardice, Grandad. Even if it was, I won’t hold anything against you.
I bought them all back, Grandad’s medals and stuff. The guy marked up the price 600%. Said he had overheads. Market forces I suppose. So he ‘made a killing’. Funny phrase.
Dad loved his Christmas present.
I decided not to go for the loft conversion.
I’ll keep it just as it is.