Warmington-On-Sea burns. The butchers shop, the undertakers, the church – its smashed spire still just visible above the smoke. The bank. Oh God, the bank. Mr. Mainwaring will be furious on Monday morning. He likes a neat bank, does Mr. Mainwaring. Except Mr. Mainwaring isn’t ever going to be furious again, is he?
Keep running, boy. Scared boy. Coward boy. Stupid boy.
They were supposed to have come from the sea. Or the air. That’s why they’d spent so long guarding the pier. It stuck out half a mile, perfect for spotting Jerry. Except Jerry had come from behind. Typical Jerry trick, Mr. Mainwaring had said, your Nazi will never play fair. Trick? Play fair? This wasn’t a game anymore – why was the fat idiot still insisting it was a game? No, don’t call him that. It’s not nice. Don’t speak ill of the dead, that’s what Uncle Arthur would say.
Wipe the sick from your mouth, boy; stiff upper lip, whistle while you work. Mum’s going to kill you when she sees the state of your scarf. Run to you mother, boy, tell her what happened. She’ll want to know about Uncle Arthur. She won’t blame you, she’ll keep you safe.
Walker had died first.
‘The fucking thing’s jammed’
The boy’s shocked. Joe never swears, least not round him, round the platoon. He swears now, stabbing at the Bren gun’s breech with his penknife, cigarette still clamped below the pencil moustache.
‘Get to Mainwaring. No, wait, get to Wilson. Tell him we’re fucked’
‘No, Joe, I want to stay’
Joe chucks the Bren, picks up his rifle, starts banging away. Black shapes, moving along the tree line. The boy sees one drop.
‘Piss off, kid – I’m busy’
He runs, runs while the shooting continues behind him. The crack of Joe’s rifle. The ground shakes, the roar of engines. Like the tractor display at the County Fair before the war. When he’d been a boy. A younger boy. Tanks. Panzers. Rolling off his bedroom wall, out of the newspapers and nightmares and over the fields towards him. Joe’s rifle stops.
Real soldiers. The Germans were real soldiers. Why did we think we could fight them? We shouldn’t have been here. We’re civilians, bank clerks, shopkeepers, retired tailors – who did we think we were kidding?
He stops running. Voices up ahead. He hides, crawls behind a low wall. The stench of piss and sick burns his throat. His trousers are dripping. He must have wet himself.
Nazis, real Nazis. Two of them, a motorcycle and side car. One pulls at a couple of logs, strung out across the road as a barricade. That had been Jones and Fraser’s station. The old Scotsman had moaned about the waste of good wood.
He was right, wasn’t he, boy? You were all doomed.
Fraser’s body is on the verge. Death suits his face, somehow. The flames from a burning cottage dance in his staring eyes. Bloody hell, that’s Godfrey’s place. Well, he wasn’t going to be able to get home for a piss now anyway. Even in his fear, the boy thinks of Godfrey’s sisters. Dolly and Cissy, interchangeable, with all their luggage on the station platform, refusing to believe that the German invasion would interfere with something as important as the railway timetable. Poor bloody cows, they might as well have waited for a ghost train.
One of the Germans shouts. His prisoner babbles incoherently. Jones.
‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic’
The German slaps him. Like in the movies. The boy stands, shouts.
The German turns, his gun snaps up. The boy waits an age. But he doesn’t die. Not yet. The German’s gun barrel flicks upwards.
Hände hoche. You know that much German, boy.
The platoon is all gone. He’s the only one left.
He raises his hands. Steps over the wall, walks slowly towards his captor. The fight is gone from him. He’s crying. Crying in front of the enemy, of adults. He doesn’t care. He just wants to crawl into a hole. Be a child again. Live. Whatever it takes. Whatever he needs to do. Whatever they want to know, just tell them, Pike.