International Writers Magazine: 30th January 1965
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.
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 girls mini-skirted behind bounce
across the café to disappear behind the counter, where she leaned
on the bar and pouted slightly over a magazine.
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, hasnt it?"
The others murmured agreement.
"Perishing, old boy. Absolutely perishing."
"How long is it since we all saw each other? Ginger, do you know?"
"Cant say, skipper. Suez wasnt it?"
"No. Bertie and I were posted in Aden then. Werent 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, Smyths 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.
"Youre not lighting that foul pipe in here, are you, Bertie?"
Ginger asked. "Here, skipper, give him a cigarette, would you."
"At least hes 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. "Im
not sorry to be indoors. Shame its 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. Hed have
appreciated that," the senior man said.
"He was a Victorian. Cavalryman. Fought at Omdurman. Hed
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."
"No idea. Never saw him again."
"I met him once as well, you know," the eldest of the group
"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."
"Wheres the Commodore today?" Ginger asked. "Wasnt
he supposed to be here as well?"
The senior man looked at his hands.
"Its a long way from Perthshire and hes not been a
"Pity. In the old days wed have thought nothing of borrowing
an Avro to go and fetch him. But what about Smyth?"
"Ah. I thought Id keep this strictly officers only today.
Didnt 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
"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.
"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
"Well I never," the leader mused. "So the rumours may
"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
Algy looked up.
"Wasnt 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."
"Couldnt be. Winston was in Downing Street then. Youre
thinking of Wavell, surely."
"Maybe. Cant recall now. Itll 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 wouldnt 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.
"Shes 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
hadnt 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, wheres
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 isnt licensed, you know," she said sourly
with the teapot in her hands. "You shouldnt be drinking in
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. Well not see his like again."
"Winston," they echoed, sipping again.
"Nurse Green. Well 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
"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 Algys pace.
"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. "Its
bound to be a bloody sight warmer there."
© Quentin Bates (with a no to Captain W.E. Johns)
Quentin is a journalist and studying for his MA in Creative Writing
at the University of Portsmouth
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