The International Writers Magazine: 30th January 1965

Old Fighting Men
Quentin Bates

hree of four old men, the legs of seldom-worn suits showing beneath herringbone overcoats, sat upright and alert around chipped formica and an equally chipped teapot. The fourth hunched forward in his chair, looking down at the table in front of him with eyes watering after the bitter wind they had escaped from.

A waitress clattered cups in front of them and bounced gum from one side to the other of her open mouth.
"Shall I be mother?" the straight-backed senior man asked with a thin smile as the waitress trotted away, nodding to himself as all four of them watched the girl’s mini-skirted behind bounce across the café to disappear behind the counter, where she leaned on the bar and pouted slightly over a magazine.

The tea was poured carefully and the senior man of the group sat back, removed his bowler hat and used a handkerchief to polish first his head, and then the hat.

"It has been quite a day, hasn’t it?"
The others murmured agreement.
"Perishing, old boy. Absolutely perishing."
"How long is it since we all saw each other? Ginger, do you know?" he asked.
"Can’t say, skipper. Suez wasn’t it?"
"No. Bertie and I were posted in Aden then. Weren’t we?"
In the corner Bertie retrieved a monocle that had narrowly missed dropping into his tea, polished it on his lapel and inserted into his eye. Droplets of tea clung to his handlebar moustache, grey at the extremities, nicotine-yellow in the middle.
"No," he said with decision. "It was that business in Singapore. You remember, Smyth’s last trip with us before he set up with the widow Evans to grow tomatoes."
"Of course. That must be the one. I remember now. Pass the sugar, would you Algy?"
Opposite Bertie, the fourth member of the group finally looked up.
"I met him once, you know."
"Whom did you meet, old boy?"
"Winston, of course."
"Ah, yes. The man himself," Bertie murmured, patting his pockets.
"You’re not lighting that foul pipe in here, are you, Bertie?" Ginger asked. "Here, skipper, give him a cigarette, would you."

"At least he’s had a decent send-off," Bertie mused, lighting the proffered cigarette with a silver lighter.
"What," he said with a hand cupped to his ear.
"A good send-off," Bertie repeated.
Who has?" Algy demanded.
"And a damned cold day for it," the senior man said. "I’m not sorry to be indoors. Shame it’s early for the club and a glass of something to keep the cold out properly."
"Ah, I can help you there," Ginger said, unbuttoniing his overcoat to reveal a row of medals pinned to the front of his dark suit. He reached deep inside and extracted a slim silver flask.
"Good man," Bertie breathed appreciatively. "Always a man to be relied on in a tight corner."
The flask passed around, with a generous tot poured into each cup. The girl at the counter paused, nose in the air as a whiff of hot whisky momentarily wafted past.
"The Navy did well. The gun carriage was right. He’d have appreciated that," the senior man said.
"He was a Victorian. Cavalryman. Fought at Omdurman. He’d have been pleased with the horses," Bertie said.
"Indeed," the senior man said.
"I did meet him," Algy sat up with a jerk and repeated.
"Ah. So you said. Where did you meet him?"
"It was after that bloody mess at Gallipoli, when he resigned and went back to the army. He came marching down the supply trench one morning with crowns on his cuffs and demanded to see our CO."
"What for?"
"No idea. Never saw him again."

"I met him once as well, you know," the eldest of the group said.
"Manston in ’40, I think it was. Flying visit to rally the troops. Raymond showed him round the station in ten minutes flat, a few words with some of the fitters, and he was on his way to Dover to rally someone else."
"Where’s the Commodore today?" Ginger asked. "Wasn’t he supposed to be here as well?"
The senior man looked at his hands.
"It’s a long way from Perthshire and he’s not been a well man."
"Pity. In the old days we’d have thought nothing of borrowing an Avro to go and fetch him. But what about Smyth?"
"Ah. I thought I’d keep this strictly officers only today. Didn’t want the widow Evans handing out sandwiches and bustling about with flasks of coffee every five minutes."
"And that rascal Wilkinson? What the devil happened to him?"
"No idea," the senior man admitted. "Never saw him again after that affair in Rome. Disappeared, just as he was due to be posted home. The Commodore hinted there was some kind of fishy business afoot there."

"Well, I can enlighten you a little there, old boy," Bertie announced with relish.
The raised eyebrow was instruction enough to continue.
"You know my godson went into the law after demob? Solicitor near Hastings now with quite a decent little practice. Well, I popped in to see him last year and it seems Wilks had been to see him, perfect coincidence. Seems his people had passed away and our erstwhile friend was in something of an indecent hurry to liquidate the estate."
He sipped from his cup.
"Go on."
"Well, the boy had no reason to be suspicious, you know. All perfectly above board. Anyway, the short and the long of it is that Wilks took the proceeds of the sale in cash away in a brown suitcase, leaving no forwarding address."
"Well I never," the leader mused. "So the rumours may be true."
"Spill the beans, skipper," Ginger demanded.
"Rumour had it that Wilks skipped from Rome in a Mosquito with the squadron pay chest and wound up in Tangier with a bar to keep him busy."
Algy looked up.
"Wasn’t he there with that business in the desert?"
"Wilkinson?" Ginger asked.
"No, you idiot. Winston."
"What was that, old boy?"
"Tobruk, I think. Or Malta."
"Couldn’t be. Winston was in Downing Street then. You’re thinking of Wavell, surely."
"Maybe. Can’t recall now. It’ll come to me, I expect," Algy said, lowering his eyes back to the checkerboard tablecloth.

Wind whistled around their ankles as the door opened and a group of young men in baggy green parkas came in, swinging their hips and sniggering. The senior man looked steadily at them. As if sensing that this was a particular day when baiting retired warhorses wouldn’t be acceptable, their voices dropped as they shuffled, slack-shouldered, to the counter.
"Yeah?" The waitress drawled, still bouncing the same wad of gum from side to side.
The four ordered coffees and retired to the dimmer recesses of the café, dropping coins into the jukebox on the way.
"Miss?" Bertie called politely. "Would you mind, please?" he asked, gesturing towards the pot.
The girl picked up the pot and carried it off, with four pairs of eyes watching her behind.
"Just like that girl, you know, the nurse," Algy said suddenly and a little too loudly.
"I beg your pardon. Who is?" Ginger enquired.
"She’s got an arse like that nurse at Malta. You remember, the nurse. With the red hair and the arse."
"Ah, yes. Nurse Green," Bertie chuckled. "Terrified of loud bangs and grabbed the nearest airman every time something went off pop outside."
"The warts even used to set off the odd thunderflash when there hadn’t been a raid for a day or two," Ginger said. "Never seemed to work, though," he added sadly.
"Never worked for you, you mean," Algy snorted. "Worked every bloody time for me and that scoundrel Wilkinson. Now, where’s that flask of yours?"

Ginger reached inside his jacket and extracted is flask, shaking both the flask and his head in sorrow at how quickly the level in it had dropped. Algy upended the flask into his teacup as the waitress returned.
"This place isn’t licensed, you know," she said sourly with the teapot in her hands. "You shouldn’t be drinking in here."
Algy tipped the contents of his cup down his throat in a single swift movement. The other three looked on indulgently and Bertie poured, while the senior man also delved into an inside pocket to bring out an identical monogrammed flask, from which he poured a tot into each cup. This time an aroma of brandy floated aloft to where the four boys at the back wrinkled their noses.
In deference to their leader, the three old men refrained from lifting their cups until he had finished pouring. Slowly he lifted his cup and held it before him.
"To absent friends."
"To absent friends," the others echoed and they all sipped.
"Winston. We’ll not see his like again."
"Winston," they echoed, sipping again.
"Nurse Green. We’ll not see her like again, either," he said with a thin smile.
"Nurse Green," they repeated, Ginger sadly, Algy and Bertie with the same thin smiles, before putting down their cups.
"What did become of Nurse Green, skipper?" Ginger asked.
"Bad business. Torpedoed on the convoy home in ’43, somewhere near Ceuta."
"Shame," Algy rumbled. "Fine girl. Banged like a…"
"How much is that, miss?" The leader asked the waitress as she appeared at the end of the table.
"Two and four."
"Allow me, gentlemen," Bertie said smoothly, dealing coins from his hand like a conjuror and straightening his back with a frown as he stood up.

Outside the café the four of them buttoned and belted their coats, making their way stiffly along the road at Algy’s pace.
"Bloody cold."
"Poor old Winston."
"What a man."
"A damn sight warmer where that scoundrel Wilkinson wound up."
"Maybe we should…?" the senior man said quietly.
"Indeed we should, Biggles," Algy said brusquely. "It’s bound to be a bloody sight warmer there."

© Quentin Bates (with a no to Captain W.E. Johns)
December 2006

Quentin is a journalist and studying for his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth
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