The small object waving in the breeze ahead of him drew the eyes of old Herbie like a magnet, as he shuffled along the pavement dragging his walking stick. He had to pull the stick along because it was too heavy to lift even its tip off the ground. The cane was his pride and joy, shiny and bright, made of old oak. He used to spend hours polishing it. It was now the colour of deep amber – where you could see the wood that is. But the polishing was in the past, his collection soon put an end to the waxing. His dearly loved grandchildren had grown into the habit of bringing him home little badges, little shield souvenirs, from all their holidays and sight-seeing trips. He had spent many a pleasant hour pinning and re-pinning them to its stout shaft.
He was reminiscing again, a sign of old-age; he grimaced and groaned quietly, the bloody thing was getting very hefty, the weight tending to aggravate the arthritis in his shoulder. He halted a moment and rubbed the ache, the simple action sometimes relieved the pain, more often than not it didn’t. God, he suddenly remembered, Davy, his oldest grandson was going on a school visit to Buckingham Palace next week. In the brochure his teacher had handed out, there had been a large shield badge. If Davy brought that home, Herbie would be housebound for the rest of his life. He chuckled. His grandchildren would never allow that to happen, they’d stick him in a wheelchair and race him down the street, hooting and hollering.
Herbie was a veteran merchant seaman, retired now for more years than he cared to remember. He peered through his thick bifocals around an old lady who, despite the warm weather, was wearing a long, muddy-green coat reaching to her ankles. Just ahead of her was a city gent, tall and skinny, strutting along his whole manner displaying arrogance. He was important and wanted everyone else to acknowledge it.
It was a lovely summer’s morning in the picturesque market town on the Welsh side of the English border. The seagulls swooping overhead in the cloudless blue sky were making a hell of a racket, enjoying life and unintentionally forcing the people below to dodge their droppings. At least Herbie hoped it was unintentional. Many a curse and an “ugh!” was heard from dive-bombed, shirt-sleeved shopkeepers plying their wares alfresco, their goods deliberately displayed on the pavement to obstruct passing pedestrians.
The city gent was the first to reach the strange article sticking up between the paving slabs. He was swinging a rolled umbrella in one hand, a needless uniform accessory of the typical London stockbroker. He marched briskly in a straight line, harassed pedestrians having to jump quickly from his path. With his bowler hat sitting on his head perfectly balanced and wearing a dark-blue pin-striped suit, his whole ensemble was the very picture of a successful, second-rate businessman. No self-respecting eminent entrepreneur would step outside his home in this weather wearing clothes that were made to hold the heat. He didn’t half look a twerp, thought Herbie. A briefcase gripped in his other hand, the man stooped over outside the narrow doorway of the small sweet shop to examine the object. For a moment, the gent stood unmoving, his umbrella tip fixed firmly to the surface of the uneven pavement. Then, all of a sudden, he lifted his head and strode off, peering around furtively, hunching his shoulders. He hitched his briefcase a little closer to his body as if protecting it from an unidentified enemy. He did not swing his umbrella again as he disappeared down the road.
Edie, the old lady in the old coat, had been to collect her retirement pension from the post office, a journey she had made every week now for fifteen years. She always enjoyed this excursion from her home in Bwllfa Road as she didn’t get out much these days; her legs were not what they used to be. But these last few months she had become a little confused. The government had replaced her pension book with a small bit of plastic. It was terribly difficult to pick up sometimes—her fingers never seemed to work when she wanted them to. Stupid thing she thought, very easy to lose—and very expensive. Edie had needed to purchase a bigger purse to hold the card, a bigger handbag to hold the new purse, then a bigger shopping bag to hold her new handbag. She’d have to buy a shopping trolley before long to hold the flaming shopping bag, she mused.
Tottering along carrying her bag, staring at the pavement to avoid the raised edges of the slabs, her eyes came to rest on the object in front of the sweet shop. The little store was always her first call after collecting her money. Mrs Rowley, the confectioner, always had a quarter pound of liquorice allsorts ready for her, ensuring a predominance of the pink ones, all in a little white paper bag. Edie used to buy Burley’s Fudge until that embarrassing day in the Red Lion Hotel a couple of years earlier. The sticky sweet had stuck her bottom set of dentures to her top set and both sets had fallen from her mouth into the pint of cider on the table in front of her. She wouldn’t have cared, but for the fact that the cider belonged to the man sitting, dumbfounded, across the table from her. Dearie me, there had been a kerfuffle and no mistake, she smiled. But the accident did have a happy consequence. The man never came to sit anywhere near her again. She had far more room to be comfortable now, and no-one near enough to mind when she farted.
Edie stared at the thing firmly standing in the gap between two flagstones. It was a flag, its pole about eighteen inches high displaying a bright red square flapping merrily in the warm breeze. Startled for a moment, she suddenly blushed, recalling when she used to wave a similar flag. In her youth, she had been an avid joiner of peace marches. Not because she held any particularly strong beliefs about nuclear disarmament, no, she just loved the sight of men in uniform…and occasionally out of uniform! There were always columns of very attractive policemen marching alongside the activists. Quite often there were more men in blue suits than there were protesters. She had pined for excitement in those days finding her life boring, and meeting long-haired, bearded intellectuals somehow brightened her day. Although she could not quite follow their highbrow arguments, in fact she didn’t know what they were talking about half the time, but they did have an abundance of grass. They easily succumbed to a dominant woman’s wishes—and she liked being dominant on occasion. Chuckling, Edie stepped around the flag and walked into the shop, tripping up on the doorstep as she passed through. She did that every week as well.
Herbie reached the flag a couple of seconds later. Bending over at the waist with great difficulty, his lumbago acting up a bit despite the warm weather, he raised his bifocals to the top of his head and stared at the pennant. It immediately brought back memories of his early wartime days serving on the Atlantic convoys. He had been sunk three times, serving with the same skipper each time. He’d often thought Captain Albert Sawyer had had a suicide complex. The man always sailed under the red flag—it warned others to keep away as the ship was transporting munitions. The problem was, U-boats also took note of the warning and were forever making beelines for Cap’n Albie…that is, if submarines could make beelines. Herbie smiled at that thought.
Three times that Sawyer had made him swim, the first time he’d nearly drowned. Well he’d joined the merchant fleet without knowing how to swim—by Christ he’d learned quick!
Herbie shook his head at the recollections, unfortunately dislodging his forgotten spectacles at the same time, and they dropped to the ground. He groaned as he bent lower to retrieve them, thankful they had not broken. Unfortunately, also being hard of hearing, he had not heard the two women following close behind him.
Norma, a young mother of a two year-old toddler, was trundling along with that same toddler screaming to get out of his buggy. She was conversing rather loudly, because of the kid’s noise, with her best friend Shauna, pushing another buggy. Shauna’s was a newer one carrying her one year-old daughter, chocolate all over her round face and short podgy fingers stuck in her mouth. Norma, in her early twenties, was dressed in jeans and a very revealing halter-top. Not showing much above the neckline, it did exhibit, at the lower hem, her very large spare-tyre bulging over her extremely tight waistband.
Unluckily, Herbie was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Talking, and dressed in similar attire, although Shauna’s top was a little longer than Norma’s blue striped one, they were merrily discussing their forthcoming evening out. Shauna, a more statuesque version of Norma in that she was a size thirty to Norma’s size twenty-six and two inches taller than her, had just been to the beauty therapist’s down the road for a manicure. Forty quid it had cost her! And the stool! It had been like sitting on a razor blade she complained. Shauna was a biter, not only biting her boyfriend…she also loved biting her nails…down to the quick. She had gone for posh, very long, black false nails this time. Next week she was going to have the orange ones. But this night was special. She was going to teach her boyfriend that enough was enough. He could not come home paralytic, and incapable, every night he went out, which was most nights of the week. No! Tonight was her turn to get drunk, and Norma was going to help her.
Totally immersed in their plans, Norma drove her buggy into the back of Herbie’s thighs as he began to straighten up, spectacles in hand. Herbie went down again, jack-knifing to avoid being impaled on the flag. His glasses, forgotten again, left his hand and fell to the ground.
Norma, her lower body brought up short against the handlebars, was unable to halt the forward motion of her upper body. This was stopped by the bending of the buggy’s right-hand handle, a handle that had suffered a similar fate the previous week when she had thrown the buggy at her boyfriend. Boy, hadn’t she given him stick until he’d repaired it! The blow as the handle disappeared into her spare-tyre, took her breath, silencing her, alas for Herbie and those witnessing the incident, not for very long.
Shauna taken as much by surprise as her friend, dropped her smuggled filter tip cigarette she had been enjoying between racking coughs. Following it with her eyes, she instinctively made a grab for the fag and upended over Herbie’s legs. Herbie screamed in pain. Fearing that his legs had been crushed he futilely endeavoured to push the woman off him to relieve the pressure on his knees. Regrettably, being desperate, he was not very circumspect in the placement of his hands. Shauna screamed pervert as she felt his hands pummelling her ample bosom.
Norma came to her aid and accompanied her friend in shouting obscenities which made even an old sailor like Herbie blush. Shauna, her attention taken up with shouting at the old man, and with keeping her newly bought fingernails safe, struggled to raise herself from the ground. In so doing, she accidentally nudged into motion her daughter’s buggy. This rolled over the kerb and into the road, coming to a stop in the middle of the near lane, directly in front of oncoming traffic.
A great tragedy was only averted by the quick reactions of the newly qualified driver of the rather old fiesta heading straight for the baby. Betty Smith, a lady in her fifties, small and bespectacled, who had been known to be reticent on occasions, was driving her very first car. She had bought it brand new some years before, intending to drive it after her first driving test. The car had deteriorated in her garage, meanwhile, until she became the proud owner of a full driving licence at her sixty-seventh attempt. It was a feat celebrated by past and present driving examiners, and Betty’s husband who had nearly been bankrupted. Betty was of the old school, those who believed that the payment for driving lessons came out of the husband’s allowance—certainly not out of the housekeeping or her own pocket money. She couldn’t understand though, why her first, second, and third driving instructors had cried when she drove past the nursing home where they resided. It was her first journey without displaying learner plates. She also could not understand the extraordinary influence Mr Jenkins wielded with her local council. He had been her third instructor, a small mean man who was forever shouting at her. It was despicable the way he had managed to get a place at the home; after all, he had not been anywhere near retirement age when he gave up teaching her. It’s not what you know in this world, she thought.
Nevertheless, Betty demonstrated remarkably fast reactions on this occasion. She turned her steering wheel and directed the fiesta into the side of the oncoming, new, soft-top Ferrari. She missed the buggy by inches, and it remained in the road as steady as any old bollard.
Mr Ethelred Tobias Rees, handlebar moustaches quivering, wearing the familiar red and yellow striped tie of the Marylebone Cricket Club, was driving the Ferrari against his wife’s express wishes. He was on his way to the Post Office to insure the car for the first time and to pay its road tax, conveniently forgetting that it was against the law to drive it without said insurance and without displaying a current tax disc. He was a middle-aged man in the midst of the menopause…his wife’s menopause. He reacted as any other experienced driver of thirty-odd years. He turned purple and got out of the car screaming imprecations at Betty. The trouble was that before he delivered his tirade, he turned the leather-sheathed wheel of the Ferrari and ended up across the middle of the road, the bonnet dead in line with young, shaven-headed Bobby on his bike, a council omnibus following on right behind him.
Bobby, fourteen years of age and skiving off school for the day to do a bit of light shoplifting, was busily calculating in his head the number of cigarettes he had lifted. He did not notice the collision in front of him. An unbelievable fact really, not that he had not noticed the Ferrari; no, most boys would have been drawn to it like flies to the proverbial. What his maths teacher would never believe was that Bobby was actually using mental arithmetic in all its forms. Bobby inevitably connected with the front of the Ferrari and, in trying to survive as he flew over the handlebars, actually walked up the bonnet and somehow dropped into the driving seat of the classic car. Bobby fell in love for the first time in his young life.
However, Mr Ethelred Tobias Rees took great exception. He wailed at the sight of the fiesta’s right-hand headlight poking through his Ferrari’s rear wing. He wailed at the bicycle lodged in his front bumper. He wailed at the scratches and indentations left by the boy’s feet on the bonnet—and he wailed at the young lad sitting in the driver’s seat. He promptly went cold when an uncontrollable tremor wracked his body as he suddenly realised that, at this moment in time, his classic Ferrari was not insured for accidental damage.
The council omnibus driver next in line to join the collision was not at all happy at being disturbed. Lloyd was a young married jack-the-lad, in his early twenties, with long, blond hair and an enormous ego. He was fantasizing whilst making conversation with, and being pleasantly distracted by, a buxom young brunette in her late teens, standing illegally on the platform alongside him. Sharing a highly charged few minutes in his usual day of unending boredom, he was hoping his luck was in. It was Friday, a man’s night out…preferably accompanying loose women. Glancing at the road ahead and, in turn, taking long admiring looks at the girl beside him, he noticed out of the corner of his eye, the cyclist taking a stroll over the top of the car. Lloyd immediately slammed on the brakes and swerved the bus into scaffolding erected outside the house next door to the ironmongers. The brunette, understandably, fell onto his lap. Lloyd, feeling honour bound to protect the girl, grasped her tightly to his chest as scaffolding poles rained down on the bus.
Raining down with the poles was painter Richard Dykes. Dickie, a very thin man had been applying paint to the frames of the upper windows of his home. He had chosen a colour that could only be described as lurid yellow. He called it soft daffodil, a self-mixed shade bought in the shop next door. The proprietor had asked him to tell no-one where he had acquired it. Dickie Dykes, an unlucky but avid DIY enthusiast, found himself sitting on the top of the number twenty-seven on its way to Chepstow Castle. Clearly surprised, he held the nearly full can of daffodil in one hand and the paintbrush in the other. Unfortunately his spectacles started to slide down his nose; he started to slide down the roof of the bus. Instinctively he made a grab for his glasses, fortunately with the hand holding the brush, but with the unforeseen consequence of smacking himself on the nose, painting his hair and forehead a ghastly yellow. Luckily, he saved his glasses, although his eyes watered alarmingly.
His trek down the roof he halted by the simple expedient of slamming his other hand, still holding the can of paint, onto the surface beside him. This resulted in him tipping the can. The paint went everywhere. It splashed over Dickie, the roof of the bus and the windscreen of the articulated lorry parked nearby. Dickie was fortunate though, some paint remained in the bottom of the can. He would be able to match the colour later.
Dai “Muscles” Parry, the articulated lorry driver, newly employed that morning to deliver fresh, uncooked meat from the local abattoir and meat packaging company, was busy off-loading a small sample to one of his mates driving a small white van parked at the rear of the lorry. “Muscles” rushed around his refrigerated trailer to investigate the commotion. Perceiving the state of his daffodil coloured windscreen, he looked up at the skeletal painter precariously clinging to the roof of the bus. The ex-boxer roared, venting his rage, his face purpled. Dickie scrambled up the roof away from him. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you looked at it, more paint slopped from the can and dripped into the irate lorry driver’s upturned mouth.
“Muscles” abruptly ceased his bellowing as the lurid yellow paint reached his tonsils. He involuntarily closed his mouth and swallowed. The paint did not remain in his stomach for long, though, he was lucky. He vomited copiously over the nice clean uniform of a passing police constable racing to the scene of the crash.
The copper did his nut.
The white van driver did a runner.
Police Constable 1331 Harding was very new, very young, and just out of Police College and eager to make an impression. He halted mid-run as the vileness hit his brand new tunic, the stench assailing his nostrils. He stared at the perpetrator stooping over in distress before him. Showing no mercy, the aggrieved policeman, harangued the driver. The ex-boxer, suffering, and with his eyes shut tight, only heard a man screaming abuse. He did the only thing possible. He lashed out at the voice, connecting with PC Harding’s nose. The ex-pugilist did not notice the colour of the suit below the blood until too late.
Young Bobby, looking down on his Harley-Davidson type bicycle from his rather plush seat in the Ferrari, was rather peeved when he saw his haul of purloined fags spread all over the road. Seeing the “old bill” placing handcuffs on the lorry driver just up the road, he ignored the Ferrari driver’s chastising. Well, he’d heard it all before, and he rushed to gather in his booty.
PC Harding was over the moon—his first day on the beat, his first arrest, and what a whopper. The charges included assaulting a police officer, theft of fresh uncooked meat, abusive language, causing an affray and infringing the public highway by spewing all over the pavement. He thought maybe he could get him on the illegal use of paint as well – it had dripped off his lorry to smear all over the pavement. He’d have to check whether it counted as graffiti.
Betty was sitting in her fiesta not quite understanding the intricacy of insurance claims. She was not alone in this, of course. She was calculating the pound signs of her very first claim and she wondered if she could make a claim against the baby in the buggy.
Espying Betty sitting contentedly counting on her fingers, Norma decided to make an issue of her frightening her friend’s baby. Berating Betty quite volubly, Norma succeeded in bringing the fiesta driver out of her trance – not happily though. Betty stared at the verbose woman and hit her in the mouth. Norma shut up as two of her three false teeth landed in the buggy alongside the baby.
Shauna rose to her feet whilst nursing her coccyx, bollocked the old sailor for bending down in front of them. She told him in no uncertain terms that he should have given warning.
Herbie rose to his full five feet two inches; he’d shrunk since the war, and remembering his wartime training, balanced his cane upright and safely against the wall of the sweet shop. He turned and grabbed Shauna around the throat. Although he was knocking on a bit now, his arthritic hands still had a strong grip. Shauna’s face turned red. She grasped at his hands in desperation. She also joined her friend in keeping quiet. Norma was scrabbling around looking for her teeth.
Betty smacked Mr Ethelred Tobias Rees, the Ferrari driver, also in the mouth, for staring down her cleavage. At least she thought he was. The poor man, mesmerized, did not know where his eyes rested. He was wondering if he could fake a heart attack to avoid speaking to the policeman walking towards him.
Coming out of the sweet shop, his hand in his mother’s, a small boy retrieved his flag from where he had stuck it, for safekeeping, in the pavement. Walking along proudly waving his banner, he looked up at his mother, puzzled. ‘Why are all those people being naughty? Can I bring my windmill tomorrow?’ And as the tall, very attractive lady glanced around she caught Herbie’s eye. Herbie staggered and turned white, his hands falling to his side, he grabbed his cane and hobbled off.
Later that afternoon Herbie sat in his old brown armchair, at the side of the kitchen fire, nursing his hands. They were aching something terrible after strangling that fat woman…well, nearly strangling her. He was ashamed at losing his self-control. He could still feel her flabby flesh beneath his fingers, her nails scratching the back of his hands in her frantic attempts to break his hold. It was not his age, his memories of despair, and her foetid breath that had stopped him. No…it had been the lady and the young lad walking out of the shop.
The stupid bloody woman he’d been throttling hadn’t watched where she was going! How was it his fault? He had only bent over to retrieve his fallen spectacles and she had walked into him. And her friend, the fat so and so, had fallen on him nearly breaking his legs! And the language…bloody hell, it had been unbelievable! He shook his head disgusted at their manner and their mouths. They had even made him blush, him, a sailor of fifty years! His hands trembled as he rose and made his way to the small kitchen table and sat in the chair nearest the fire. There had been no tremor in his mitts earlier when they had gone instinctively for her throat…to shut her up. And he’d succeeded in quieting her, forgetting that he’d vowed years before, never to grab anyone like that again. But at his age, instinct was what he lived by, instinct…and his memories.
He was touching seventy, although he looked and felt much younger, despite the arthritis ravaging his body, old-age never came on its own, he mused. He was kept young by all the walking his daughter and grandchildren made him do. Davy, his oldest, was a lovely lad! Herbie loved him to bits, but fourteen year old Davy and his younger twin sisters were going to kill him one day with their habit of buying little metal shields to pin on his walking stick. Three from every trip! Herbie rubbed his shoulder, more out of habit than actual hurt, and smiled. He wouldn’t have his kids any other way.
God, he hoped his daughter, Jenny, never found out he’d been involved in a scuffle – she’d crucify him. She was a worrier, that one. God, if she knew what he’d done in his past, she’d be appalled and never let him out of her sight. The shame he’d see in her eyes though would devastate him. He stretched his old hands towards the coal fire, coughing a little; the anthracite in the grate was a bit damp, smoking a bit more than usual. That was another thing Jenny nagged him about, she wanted to install gas. Herbie didn’t trust gas. He’d seen the damage gas could do in the last war. He wasn’t having that around him, if he could help it, for all the government said that it was different gas. Gas was gas, it still killed!
He rubbed his hands together, the heat soothing his aching joints. He spread his fingers and stared at them, examining every swollen knuckle. They didn’t used to be like this, he recalled. Once upon a time, many years ago, he could place his hands around a woman’s neck long enough to feel the life leave her body. He’d done it often enough, during the war.
Strange—nine times out of ten it had been women. But there again, he’d never had to go to bed with men to extract information. No, he usually attacked men from behind, in the prescribed manner.
In those days, he had been young, handsome and a fair catch for the fair sex. “Master Mata Hari” his mates had laughingly named him. And he was good, both at gaining the necessary information and in bringing a smile to the lady’s face. Although the smile often turned to a snarl later, he reflected—if they lived.
Nevertheless, his clandestine work was a lot safer than what he had done earlier in the war. Then he had been a very young merchant seaman, sailing in munitions ships on the Atlantic convoys. Captain Sawyer, his skipper on three voyages, was unlucky – three trips – three sinkings.
After the third experience he’d felt safer enlisting in the Royal Navy. He’d avoided the fleet auxiliary supply boats, though; he didn’t want anything more to do with sitting on the tops of bombs to have his food. He had been a signaller and had spent most of his time on regular deployment in destroyers, hoisting bunting up lines, making the ship look pretty. However, his messdeck had been above the magazine for the number one gun turret…very noisy on occasions.
But then, runs ashore, enjoying leisure hours, had been his undoing. Calcutta, of all places, was where the powers that be discovered he could speak fluent French. He had been haranguing a tart, in that language. She had stolen his wallet and he was chasing her through a lowlife market, when he upended over the feet of a European.
Herbie could move fast then, but the major in Special Forces could move even faster. Herbie rose to a crouch, a knife in his hand, ready to plunge it into what he thought was a pimp’s stomach. And before he knew it, he met the floor again. The “pimp” had disabled him in the blink of an eyelid. And before the evening was out, with the aid of a lot of vodka, and two highly delectable ladies, Herbie and Derek became bosom pals. The following morning he had been seconded to the Special Boat Squadron and was on his way back to Blighty, suffering the worst hangover in his short career of imbibing.
Herbie settled back in his chair one elbow on the table and stared into the fire, not actually seeing these flames, he remembered others. He sighed and rubbed his hands reflexively as he recalled his first face-to-face kill—Marseilles 1942.
His mission, along with others, had been to sabotage a warehouse complex behind the docks. Unfortunately, it was sited next door to a clothing factory owned by a quisling. But the proprietor, a rather portly Frenchman, had a mistress, a lady not known to his very rich, very suspicious, wife. The mistress had felt neglected until Herbie came along.
Within a frenetic week, he had the necessary knowledge of the layout of the target and the schedule of the guards. Full of confidence, he had arranged for the demolition to be completed after a night of unbridled passion. Regrettably, with other things on his mind, he had not performed spectacularly well and she had become rather upset. Throwing his clothes and his baggage at him, she had accidentally broken the clasps on his satchel and the detonators for the explosives, already in place next door, fell free.
Although he had been very well trained in all methods of unarmed combat, killing her by strangulation had been instinctual and easy—anything to shut her up quick. Later, when the warehouse complex was fully ablaze, and he in hiding on a nearby boat floating out to sea, reaction had set in. He vomited and guilt took deep root. His mates told him on his return that the remorse was common after the first execution. They were correct. The killing did get easier.
He wasn’t sure if murder becoming easier was a feeling he desired, because murder it was even though he was at war and she the enemy.
Shaking off familiar despair, Herbie rose from his chair and made his way to the cold water tap to fill his kettle. His hands, nearly back to normal, got busy with the teapot and his favourite mug, another present, this one from Longleat House. He was damned if he was going to put a teabag in the mug as Jenny nagged him to, “it’s safer, she said”, instead he persevered with the pot. She couldn’t seem to understand that if he gave in to old-age he’d be dead within the year. Besides he was a damned sight fitter than she knew, hence his antics this morning. He groaned recalling the face of the lady walking out of the sweet shop. He retrieved the tin of digestives from the larder and placed the biscuits on the table. He stared out of the little kitchen window into his back garden, feeling the remorse returning. When the kettle whistled, he put the little perforated bag into the old brown teapot that he and his wife had bought in Cardiff the year before she died. God, he thought, he’d been a widower now for nearly ten years. Grief did not get easier as time went on, as people kept telling him, no, he just did not think of her so often. But when he did, when his eyes glistened with a far-away look, Davy knew what to do. He took his grandfather for a walk down to the river and talked of the salmon the old man used to catch during the war, using dynamite illegally.
Davy worshipped his grandfather. The two sides of Herbie’s nature, one minute chuckling, the next almost crying, never fazed him. Davy respected the old man’s wishes and teachings. Never be cheeky to your parents, always stand on buses for a lady to sit, and respect your elders. The first was very hard to keep; his parents imposed some ridiculous conditions, after all, he didn’t need to hang his clothes up immediately every time, and his bedroom floor was fairly tidy … he didn’t have to step over much. The second always elicited a funny look from the lady as she sat in his seat; very occasionally, he received thanks. And the third, well, Davy thought some of his elders were far more ignorant than he was. But he was inordinately proud of Herbie; after all, his grandfather had medals from the war, and never tolerated “messing about” from anyone.
Herbie sat at the small Formica topped kitchen table and poured himself a mug of the very weak tea; a spot of milk added first. Taking a sip of the scalding brew, he replaced the mug on the table and, resting his hands against it, he stared into space.
The second killing had been very different. For a start, it had not been instinctual. It had been premeditated and he had used a garrotte. And it had been in Spain, not France.
The woman, much the same age as Herbie, had been a Nazi informant since before the war. She had been responsible for the deaths of countless numbers of civilians. The Germans had paid her well. She was now a rich woman, having salted away her questionable gains, in a bank in Barcelona. The French Resistance had discovered her and, when she had run, had traced her movements. At the time of her meeting with Herbie in December 1942, and her subsequent demise, she had been on the verge of fleeing to Morocco with her daughter.
Herbie had not felt any remorse over her execution at the time. The sentence, planned in London, and carried out by Herbie on a train entering the chief city of Catalonia, was justified in his eyes. But he had still vomited. He could kill people from afar, and had done so many times. But killing face-to-face he abhorred, especially women. The woman’s daughter, fast asleep at the time in the bunk of the sleeping carriage, he had left untouched, although she had woken and witnessed him leaving the train carriage. She should have been executed for seeing him, but he had been unable to carry out that particular deed, deeming it despicable—the girl had been a lot younger than his granddaughters were now. He’d had news of the little girl in the fifties; apparently she was living in Britain with relatives. Then again in the seventies he’d heard that she was married with children. And yesterday, of all the places in which to appear, that elegant lady coming out of the sweet shop was the very image of her. Could she be the granddaughter of the woman he’d executed in Spain?
He sighed and chose a biscuit from the tin, another gift, this one bearing a picture of the Houses of Parliament, now somewhat scratched and discoloured. Looking back at the war always made him morose. He’d met some horrible people in the war – people who loved killing, others who loved inflicting terrible suffering, and yet more who had made millions keeping the war going.
Derek was one of those who had enjoyed the war. He’d come from an upper-crust family whose ancestors had fought in all the major wars over the last couple of centuries. His family had also vast experience of the intricacies of investing assets gained openly, or covertly, during armed conflicts. But Derek also knew how to spend as well, and by the end of the war had been forced to enlist in an army somewhere in darkest Africa because he was broke. Herbie heard of him years later. Reading the evening paper, Herbie had come across a photograph of Derek smiling with his arm around the shoulders of a pretty, young socialite. The article had warranted a small piece on page three, “Millionaire Mercenary Killed by Lover”. Derek had not known when to leave matters be. But that was another story.
Herbie stirred the coals in the fire. Holding the poker up before his eyes, he remembered the last woman he had killed. God, she had been beautiful. And lethal! It had happened in Soho, just after the cessation of hostilities. She had been a true vixen, fighting tooth and nail for her cubs. Unfortunately her cubs had been the young of the fair race—two Aryan children transplanted from Nazi Germany just before the end of the war, to live in Britain and one day revive the myth of Hitler. But, fair play; she and Herbie had enjoyed each other first. He had always felt more compassion for her; she had really loved those kids. He occasionally wondered what had happened to them.
A car drew up outside his front door and Herbie heard his Jenny, Davy’s mother, shouting at his grandson to leave the door on its hinges just after he’d slammed it shut. Davy never closed doors; he left them to swing with considerable force. Herbie smiled, distracted, his thoughts returned to the present. He never liked reminiscing about his Special Forces days. Did he like thinking of the unlucky Captain Sawyer? He wasn’t sure, although there had been many good times between the sinkings.
Strangely enough, Albert Sawyer had been responsible for Herbie meeting his wife, Mary. “Albie” Sawyer had been the driver of the old Austin that had collided with Mary’s bicycle. Mary had suffered no injury, but unlucky Albie had ended up in hospital in the next bed to Herbie who had just undergone an appendectomy. Mary had come to visit the old sailor and Herbie had fallen hook, line and sinker for her. And here was one of her offspring rushing in, nearly shutting the door in his mother’s face. And Herbie knew he was in trouble—knew his daughter was gunning for him.
‘Gramps, you’ve been fighting,’ Davy said, grinning all over his face. ‘What happened, tell me?’
And Herbie, looking very sheepish as his daughter came through the door herding the noisy twins in front of her, recalled vividly every moment of the morning’s fracas. And he wondered if any of the others involved in it had shameful secrets.