True Love

Cheryl is giving Victor his regular trim.

“How’s your week been?”

“Same old, same old”, he lies.

The lost love of his life has just arrived at the home, but does not remember him. Dementia.

“There, Victor, nicely presentable.”

Tidied, he sits staring at the garden, untended like his love, holding her hand.  Once soft and supple, her thin skin maps a long life with another.

Rehearsing passion never declared he squeezes and mouths “I love you, Jenny”, but it escapes.

She squeezes back, staring now at him.

“Are you Eric?”

Her slight smile is worth the deceit.

“Yes dear”.

Pandora’s Box

She was walking the streets, not knowing where to go.   Leaving had been inevitable, but Pamela did not go to bed thinking “tomorrow’s the day”.  Her decision and action were sudden, as hurried as the packing of her case. 

She strode steadily along the redbrick terraces of Macklington, the security of her home on Warmsley Street fading with every echoing step.  Unsure of her immediate future, nevertheless she reached the first corner without a second thought, or even a notion to look back.  She turned it; not going but gone.

Mother would make a show of looking for her, for a week or two.  She would tell the neighbours how she is worried: “I know she’s 24 but Pammy’s, you know, different.  She’ll say “I’m only glad Father’s not here to see it.  He did worry so”.  The truth is that Mother would not manage without the lifelong anxiety of Pamela to distract her.  In time the relief that she no longer has to worry will be replaced by brittle silence, of having nothing much to say and having no-one to say it to.

The worry began when she was barely eight: an argument about a child’s ticket in the cinema.  “She’s never eight,” the manager had said, “Look at the size of her!  Fifteen if she’s a day.”  Pamela was extraordinarily tall, even then, but her humiliated parents were escorted out to the foyer and obliged to pay the extra.  From that day they paid adult prices for everything.  Avoiding embarrassment about Pamela became a way of life. 

When she started secondary school the novelty of being different was a distinct advantage for Pamela.  Other children wanted to be her friend and she was first to be picked for sports, especially netball at which she naturally excelled.  Girl friends came home for tea, Pamela was invited to birthday parties, and the other parents spoke to them in the shops.  But as she and her contemporaries arrived at the threshold of womanhood she found herself the target of name calling.  “Lanky”, “Stilts”, and “Beanpole” were the kinder epithets.  Being so different brought a loneliness  she learned to bear, but it also added grit to the oyster of her character.

By the time she really was 15 Pamela was 6’7” and her growth showed no sign of slowing.  Mother took her to the doctor but she had no disease he could treat.  All her limbs and features were correctly proportioned, and in fact she was rather pretty.  There was just a lot of her.  Had her height been causing Pamela psychological trouble, he said, he might have prescribed hormone therapy but she seemed as well adjusted as any teenager is.  When they returned home her parents sat quietly in the kitchen, nursing teacups, crestfallen.  She realised then that they were disappointed for themselves, not for her.

Then when she was 18, and nudging 7’0”, Pamela left school.  Pottlemore’s Circus came to Macklington, as they did every June, and against her parents’ reservations Pamela took a job with them, touring nearby towns.  She mucked out the animal stalls, sold tickets and hot-dogs, generally helped the performers, and watched them from the ringside.  In Pottlemore’s she found another family, one where differentness and non-conformity was celebrated, embraced and valued.  She also made money, friends, and discovered an unsuspected talent: she had a rare gift for ventriloquism.  The summer ended and the circus moved on.  For the rest of that year Pamela filled shelves in her local supermarket.  Sometimes she relieved boredom by juggling with fruit, or entertaining the customers by throwing her voice into their purchases.  Every Witsun afterwards, though, she hung up her blue tabard and waited at the corner of the recreation ground.  When the first of Pottlemore’s wagons pulled in off the by-pass she blossomed again.

In the April of the fourth year Cyril Pottlemore himself called at Warmsley Street.  He stood on the black lacquered and polished step, wearing his trademark yellow checked suit and red bowler hat.  He had a proposition.  Of course, at 21, Pamela needed no permission but Mr Pottlemore was ‘old school’ and wanted to reassure her parents that his offer was on the level or, as he put it, “all bright and tiddly-push like”.  The gist was that the previous winter he had been touring somewhere called the Cont-e-nont, looking for new acts and had found Anton Dubcek, a 2’10” midget.  Anton had been part of a clown troupe, but had lost a leg in a human cannonball accident.  With Pamela now 7’6”, and still rising, he’d had the idea of teaming them up in a unique ventriloquism act.  Pamela would be the ‘vent’ and Anton would be the dummy.

“Anton might look like a little kid, ‘specially next to you, but he’s older than you’d think and dead keen to try something new.  I thought, only if you’re agreeable like, when we’re ready to get going you could join us at Easter and work up the act with Anton.  Of course, for stage purposes only you understand, we’d need to give you another name, something more dramatic.  I thought Pandora.  What do you say?” 

She said yes, but fate struck first.  Easter was early that year and a late chill had left the training ground slippery.  Anton, unsteady on his crutches, had slipped on one of the rides and crushed his other leg.  Generous Pottlemore, had kept him on: “Pottlemore looks after his own,” he’d said “there’ll always be something for you here.”  But by the time Pamela joined them Anton was being pushed around the site in a wheelbarrow, broken in heart as well as body, facing a life of being lifted onto the stool behind the cash desk on show days, or staring bleakly out of the caravan window when they were closed.  Now, with Pamela’s arrival, Pottlemore was to change all that. 

To the old showman Anton’s disability just made him even more unique, and there was no malice or heartlessness about it.  Of course he saw opportunity for himself, but it was an also an opportunity for Anton to earn his keep, no favours asked or given, and a chance to be a performer again for as long as his health allowed.

He laid out his vision: Anton speaking from within Pandora’s star-studded box and then, without his proper false legs on, being taken out to perch, floppy limbed on her lap.  To all appearances he would be a traditional ventriloquist’s dummy and, with heavy makeup and clever lighting, nobody would be able to tell he was not a painted wooden doll. He said that with Anton’s clown’s training and comic timing, Pamela’s flowering talent as a ventriloquist, and their extraordinary size difference, they would be a sensation.  Within a fortnight Pandora was carrying Anton around the ring, him holding vented conversations with mesmerized children, or singing with the orchestra. “The Amazing Pandora and Anton” were indeed sensational and, by the time the circus arrived in Macklington again, the show was selling out every night.

Such was their success that Pamela stayed until the end of the season and the act continued to develop.  First disguising him with the help of a mask, and later a pair of papier maché mittens, Pandora began to walk among the ringside seats, actually handing Anton to patrons to hold while she threw her voice from him.  Their performance, like the magic that deceives even close up, was electrifying.  By the end of the season they, and Pottlemore, were excitedly discussing taking the act  still further.  With a full upper body wooden cast for Anton, he would be a manikin to Pandora’s puppeteer and, at the climax of the act, she would take a pair of theatrical golden shears, cut the strings and set Anton free to dance.  There was even talk of a TV appearance.

It had been a long season and rather than spend the winter on a travellers’ site, Pamela returned to Warmsley Street and took the exhausted Anton with her.  But when they arrived Pamela discovered her father was seriously ill; “Pneumo something or other” her mother said “coal dust, his lungs are gone, poor bugger”.  After tea she made up a camp bed for Anton in the parlour.  “I hope that’s all right, I mean you’re not, you know, you and him, you’re not, well, not………together like.”

Pamela did not laugh at her mother’s inability to speak the words, or the thought itself, though well she might have.  By any measure, not least of stature, it was a preposterous notion, and yet these past months of enforced closeness, of sharing triumph and pain with Anton, had produced a bond as close as that of love, if not love itself.  They needed each other to be whole.

The winter passed with Pamela and Anton planning the coming season but the pall cast by her father’s decline began to suck the life out of them too.  They managed to laugh a few times, and even to raise a smile on her mother’s tired face, but in January her father died.  After the funeral the three of them sat, listening to the sound of the mantel clock ticking, and after a week of that Pamela knew she would have to leave soon or suffocate. 

It was Anton who decided it.  Pamela woke cold in the chilled air, her pink and green candlewick bedspread sliding from her bed.  She leaned over to drag it back and saw, to her shock, that it hadn’t fallen but had been pulled: by Anton.  He was cold too.  Very.  For some reason he had dragged himself up from the parlour, the stairs finally proving too much for his damaged and overtaxed body.

That was the moment.  Pamela dressed, took her case from the top of the wardrobe and threw in her clothes.  It was Pamela that kissed Anton gently on the forehead, folded him neatly and placed him on top of her stage costume, but it was Pandora who snapped the locks and carried the case quietly downstairs before stepping out into the dawn.  So she walked, not knowing where to go.  But she knew what to do.  She knew where Pottlemore’s would be at Easter, and by then she would have found a discreet taxidermist.

A Matter of Honour

A MATTER OF HONOUR – A NOVEL BY Andrew Gold ©

Prologue – Somewhere in Italy, 2005

The rusted door bolt drawing back across its keep startled Benny into wakefulness.  For a moment nothing happened.  In the dark fetid silence he thought, “Please, God, not again”.  He  pulled the coarse blanket around his shoulders and curled up, foetus-like, every fibre of his being tensed against the coming rain of blows.  The door cracked open, and then burst inwards with the bleached heat of midday.  A shaft of light fell across his eyes, so bright it hurt and seemed to penetrate deep inside his brain.  But this time the hands did not slap or punch.  Instead he was lifted, almost gently, to his feet.  A crisp cotton sheet was draped across his sweated shoulders, cool on the bruises.  Like before he was hooded, and his hands fastened behind him with a plastic zip tie, and then he was led into the air.  Allowed a moment to steady himself, he was moved forward again.  His bare feet pricked and scuffed in the grit of the courtyard, then burned against the stone of a path.  He stubbed a toe on a step and stumbled, but the hands steadying him were almost kindly.  They moved him again, and he soon he felt the cool of a marble fllor under a loggia.  They were taking him into the house. 

Was this the end?  He almost didn’t care, but the relentless progress checked briefly, while a door was opened. Benny leaned back, still afraid, but he had no strength to resist and the  hands, less solicitous, gripped more tightly and propelled him forwards again.  Then, the pressure was abruptly released and he fell forwards onto his knees.  The hood was yanked off and the cool air instantly evaporating the sweat on his face making him shiver.  The door closed solidly behind him, and the plastic manacles were cut away.  Benny lifted his head and tried to see where he was, but the contrast between a laser-like shaft of light, coming from an opening above, and the rest of the room which was completely black, made it impossible.  The light fell like a spotlight, illuminating a polished black table.  The brilliant beam was exactly the same shape and dimension as the table which made it seem to float in the blackness.  Motes of dust twinkled through the light, magically appearing and disappearing at its hard edges, and dancing around the petals of a single stem blood-red rose which lay on the table top. 

Something else drifted across the light, agitating the dust: a puff of smoke.  A voice came from somewhere in the shadow to the right of the table.  “Sit down, Benedetto.  Please.  You look tired. You should rest. Sit down”.  It was not a suggestion, or request.  It had authority.  Benny still strained to see but he couldn’t even tell if the owner of the voice was alone.  The hands lifted him to his feet and guided him until, just on the edge of the pool of light, he could just make out a chair and so shuffled towards it.  It was a medieval Savonarola ‘x’ chair, without a back. In normal circumstances such a chair was barely more comfortable than standing but Benny perched on it, upright, and was relieved to not be forced into the stress position again.  His shoulders slumped and the hands released him.  Footsteps withdrew, and a door opened and closed.

“Good,” the voice said, “that’s better isn’t it?  Drink?”  A hand extended from the gloom, sliding a silver tray with a glass of sparkling water, bubbles slowly rising through cubes of ice.  A sprig of mint and slice of lime added incongruous contrast to the professional brutality.  Another hand appeared, more delicate, feminine offering a monogrammed handkerchief, which was passed to Benny.  So, there was at least one other person in the gloom.  Benny reached for the glass, then faltered.  Perhaps it was drugged or poisoned?  The first hand had a Boar’s Head signet ring, and the tip of the index finger was missing.  Benny knew what both meant, and he withdrew into his side of the shadow.  The ringed hand did the same.

“Are you afraid Benedetto?  Good!  That’s very good. You have that little wriggling hollow feeling in your stomach, don’t you?  Well, Benedetto Lombardi, you had better get used to it.  because this is how the rest of your life will be.  Never knowing, looking over your shoulder, wondering who is there, in the dark, trusting no-one.  It was just a glass of water, but your weakness is that you’ve made others afraid all your life without knowing how it feels.  That made you clumsy, inefficient.  You have caused trouble, pain, even death, when just a word or suggestion would have been enough.  You have no finesse, no subtlety.  And that, my boy, has brought you to this because excess attracts attention. Attention causes, shall we say, operational challenges.  I cannot allow that.”

What was left of Benny’s defiance blew away with another puff of smoke. He whined, “Please don’t kill me. What do you want me to do, tell me what you want?”

“Kill you?  Kill you?? Why would I do that?  You are more use to me alive, and scared, so I want nothing from you.  I need nothing from you.  Everything is settled now.  Taken care of.”  The voice paused while those last words hung in the silence. Taken care of.  There was another puff of smoke, then the voice resumed, this time briskly business like, unemotional.

“You are free to go.  Go back to Scotland, peddle your ten dollar bags.  If you can.  While you can.  Sooner or later, maybe sooner, some little shit Bulgar, like you with more balls than brains, will try to take over your business.  Nobody will care. Not me, not the police, not your mother.  If he were alive, not even your father.  Nobody.  No body.  You see, Benedetto, without respect, honour, duty, you have nothing.  You are nothing.  What have you got?  Niente.  Not even one friend.  So, go back to Glasgow, back to your dirty little pond with the other snails and tadpoles.”

Benny swallowed hard and stared back through the smoke, but all he could see was the slow, glowing pulse of Morisi’s cigar and he knew there was nothing more to say.

World War 2 – El Alamein, Egypt.  23 October 1942

 The 6000 men of the 51st Highland Division were waiting, crouched in trenches and dugouts.  Many were newly arrived, anxious and un-blooded replacements, others were tough survivors of the siege of Tobruk a year before. “Desert Rats”.

 The German and Italian Afrika Korps that besieged them there, then pursued them 300 miles east across North Africa, confronted them again.  But now the British were reinforced, rested, re-supplied and retrained while the Afrika Korps was stretched, with over-extended supply lines. 

They were expecting the British to counter-attack, but not when, or exactly where, the thrust would come.  In a few hours they would know, as 800 guns fired on them in the biggest artillery barrage since the First World War.  Then an enemy they had battered to the brink of defeat, the 200,000 men of the Eighth Army, would rise out of the sand like ancient warriors of Anubis, fighting for restored pride as much as victory.  The Afrika Korps commander, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, had been given orders by Adolf Hitler to not yield an inch, to fight to the last bullet, to the last man.  The Eighth Army’s commander, General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, had done the same.  With its back to the Nile, the Eighth Army was done with retreating.  Just three months earlier he had told his officers that all plans for further retreat were cancelled.  “If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead.”  Now, on the eve of battle, he had exhorted his men again, to “fight, and to kill, and finally to win.”  The stage was set.  It was to be death or glory and for many it would be death. 

                 The barrage was to start in the south of a 40 mile front, but that was a diversion.  The real attack was to be in the north, where The Highlanders were.  Many hade written letters home, the sort of letters they prayed would not need to be delivered.  Others just prayed, shuffled, fidgeted or stood in anxious silence.  All hade checked weapons and ammunition, but for something to do they checked them again. 

                 As a dusty purple of dusk cloaked the battlefield, naked flames were banned, so they could not calm their nerves with a cigarette or a brew of tea.  The regimental pipers settled themselves by silently rehearsing their repertoire.  Some fingered at the ragged battle honours sewn onto their bagpipe skins, remembering other assaults and other comrades.  When the time came they too would rise from the trenches, and walk as they always did, deliberately and steadily playing together in tune under fire.   Officers walked the lines, quietly encouraging the Black Watch, the Argylls, the Camerons, the Gordons and the Seaforths to be ready.  “Be brave lads, and do as Monty wants: no surrender”, goading their men to uphold the honour of the regiment, to keep up the pace when the attack was launched.  Captain Angus Macritchie, 2nd Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, had done the same the same but as he moved through the trenches he had a different purpose.  He had something else, and one man in particular, on his mind. 

Chapter 1 – New Orders

16.00 hours

Macritchie found his quarry, Sergeant Fred Lombard, playing cards with his squad.

            “Ah, there you are Lombard.  Fall out and follow me.” 

Lombard, startled briefly, looked up and then answered the quizzical looks of his comrades with a shrug.   He had no idea what Macritchie wanted him for.  With a sigh he showed them a winning hand before throwing the cards onto into the upturned helmet that served for a kitty pot. 

“Come on man, get on with it, we haven’t got all day!”

Answering with a clipped “Sir” Lombard stood, picked up his Lee Enfield rifle, and followed. The two made their way to the rear, squeezing between the dusty, tight, trench walls, passing more of Lombard’s querulous comrades and into the shallow dugout of the company command post.  Macritchie waved his sergeant to sit while he removed his own helmet and then joined him, perching on empty ammunition boxes.  The deadly contents had already been distributed to the men in the lines, so the cool metal sweated condensation against their hot and sand-gritted bare legs.

            “May I ask why’ve you pulled me out of the line, sir?  If it can wait I should be with the boys.  Some of them are new, a wee bitty anxious like.  I want to be with them as much as possible.”

Macritchie didn’t answer right away, instead looking at his NCO, weighing him up.  Even seated Lombard was big, the disparity between Lombard’s height and his own 6ft frame was marked.  He was not burly though, but muscular.  Lean from months of training and travelling, not hunger: a fit man.  Not a man to tangle with on a wild Saturday night in Glasgow, or anywhere else for that matter.  No, Lombard was a good man to have on your side in a fight.

“Your concern for your men does you credit Lombard, or is it just that winning hand you’re anxious to get back to?”

Lombard said nothing, but the slightest smile told Macritchie where his Sergeant’s concerns really lay. 

“No matter, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait.  I have something to say that I couldn’t say in front of the others.”

Lombard frowned, now he was worried.  He briefly wondered if they’d discovered the missing tea rations, but disciplinary action immediately before an assault was unlikely.  He decided on discretion and a non-committal silence.  Captain Macritchie had noticed the slight furrowing of Lombard’s brow and thought it might be a subtle sign of something undiscovered, after all there had been rumours.  

“Your record says you speak Italian, is that correct?”

So, it wasn’t the tea.  Lombard, relieved, relaxed and smiled again. 

“Yes sir, I do.”

Macritchie had noted the relief, and the drop of the shoulders.  Yes there was definitely something hidden there, but what?  He decided he would investigate it after all, but later.

“How well?”

“Very well, like a native, you might say Sir.  I was born in Scotland, but my family name is Lombardi.  All Italian, both sides, and all the way back.  We still speak it at home.  Why?”

“Why?  Because we need a volunteer to recce the Italian lines, someone who understands Italian, so we’re asking you.” 

Lombard stopped smiling. 

            “Sir?  I thought it was the 21st Panzers in front of us, not Italians.”

“And so they are.” 

“Then I don’t see….sir, why pick someone from the 51st instead of an Aussie?”

“Because…..” briefly Macritchie thought about putting Lombard on a charge for insubordination, but held his temper and tried to explain.

Because, Lombard, the success of “Operation Lightfoot” hangs on the whole front moving forward together.  As far as possible we want to avoid any one unit falling behind its flanking units…”

Lombard jumped in again.

“Aye Sir.  Well, you know you can count of the Gordons keeping up, We’ll not let you down.  But I still don’t see what..…?”

Macritchie, annoyed by the interruption held up a hand to stop it.

“I’d expect no less, but that’s not what I mean.  Look here.”

Macritchie placed a map board between them and pointed, tracing the battle plan with sweeps of his hand and the point of a bayonet.

“The Black Watch are on our immediate left, here, and the Kiwis further left still.  As you seem to know, on our right flank are the 9th Aussies, here and here.  The Eyeties are facing them, here, and they hold the coastal road and railway line.  Intelligence says they’re the 7th Bersaglieri.  They gave us a hard time at Mersah Matruh, and the 185th Folgore gave us a bloody beating only a month ago.  The Royal Italian Army are professionals, not conscripts, and they’re no pushover.”

“I’m sorry Sir, but I still don’t see..”

“Good God!  Look, if you’d stop interrupting me, Lombard, you would see.”

“Sorry Sir.”

“Right, that’s better.  But I’m warning you, just one more interruption, just one….  The 9th Aussies are tough but the “Rats” lost a lot of men at Tobruk and they’ve only just come up from resting and re-equipping in Syria.  Their replacements don’t know, not first-hand anyway, that these particular Eyeties are up for a fight.  If their advance gets bogged down the whole line could cartwheel, and if the Eyeties get in behind our flank they could be followed by the whole Afrika Korps.  It could be a disaster.”

Lombard was beginning to bridle at the repeated slur of “Eyetie”.  His jaw tightened and the veins on his temples began to pulse, but already on a final warning he stayed quiet.

“So, this is the situation.  The Aussies urgently need to know of any last minute changes to Eyetie defences, especially minefields and anti-tank guns, but they don’t have an Italian speaker who can recce their lines for them.  We’ve been asked if we do.    We do.  You.”

 Lombard scratched at his stubbled face and straightened up, silent for a moment.  Then spoke again.

            “OK.  I see that, sir.  But it’s hellish late to be asking for volunteers.  Isn’t there someone else? The barrage…..I mean, we’re off at 22.20 hours.  That’s only six hours from now.” 

“I know it’s tight but ours is not to reason why, Lombard.  I have my orders, and now so do you.”

As Macritchie went on Fred Lombard mentally completed Tennyson’s poem.  He hoped he wasn’t being asked, like the Light Brigade, to do or die gloriously and pointlessly.

“And there’s something else, strictly between us for now: we’re short of experienced officers.  I’ve been asked if there’s any senior NCO I can recommend for a battlefield commission.  I’m thinking of putting your name forward.  How would you feel about that?”

Lombard lowered his gaze and rubbed his chin again, this time failing to release the tension in his clenched jaw.  He rose to his feet, accidentally knocking back the empty ammunition boxes, briefly turned his back, then turned again. 

“May I speak freely, Captain?”

“Yes of course Lombard, better now or not at all, speak up.  What’s on your mind?”

Towering over his commander he fixed him with a stare, his sand reddened eyes burning with anger, Lombard erupted, his words tumbling out almost without interruption for breath.

            “I’m a regular.  I joined the 5th in the TA in ’38 because I could see what was coming, ready to fight for King and country and all that, and went up to Aberdeen with some pals to do it.  In two shakes I was off to France with the old 51st and the B.E.F.  What a shambles that was: leaving us to shore up the Frenchies while the rest of the B.E.F. got out of from Dunkirk.  Quite a few more managed to get back through Le Havre with the 153rd brigade, but I was taken prisoner, with the rest of the rear-guard, at St. Valery and marched off to Germany.  A few of us, me, Archie Neil, Andy Pow, Joe Ross, and a few more, escaped in Belgium between Doullens and Bethune, but I got separated and ended up getting out through Spain. It was six months before I got back.”

“You did well Lombard.”

“Aye, maybe I did.  Only when I get home I find that my Dad and my uncles are in the jail!  In the jail if you please!  Locked up on the Isle of Man they were, just for being of Italian descent!  Then, as if that’s not enough, they were shipped off to Canada along with a bunch of Jerry prisoners, in the same ship and barbed wire cages! They were put on the Arandora Star.”

He saw a flicker of recognition on Macritchie’s face.

“Aye, that’s right. The Arandora Star.  I see you heard tell of it.  Torpedoed.  So, instead of being alive in Glasgow, or some poxy camp on the Isle of Man, or in Canada, two of them are at the bottom of the Irish Sea!  Another uncle was fished out of the water alive, but they just dried him out and stuck him on another ship, to Australia!  Do you know where he is now, because I don’t?  They were all just enemy aliens to Churchill.  Wops.  “Collar the lot”, he said!  For God’s sake my Dad was fifty years old and born in Lanark!  But now we’re all just ‘Eyeties’.  Even to you.  So, while I‘m down in England retraining, our family business, three generations worth of hard graft in Glasgow, is in ruins.  My poor grandparents, left trying to hold everything together, were bombed to buggery in the Clydebank Blitz.  There’s only my mother now, and she’s taking in washing to survive!  To be frank it’s made me wonder whose side I’m on.  And you want me to be an officer?”

“Steady on Lombard”, Macritchie tried to calm him, but Lombard pacing back and forth roared on.

“Don’t get me wrong.  Not Jerry you understand, No problem there at all Sir, I’ll shoot the Nazi bastards all day long, just like Monty wants.  But now the army is asking me to stick my neck out precisely because I’m Italian?!  Me, an officer?  I’ll tell you straight, sir, it doesn’y sit well with me at all.  Not at all, Sir.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about it.”

Captain Macritchie, had been taken aback Lombard’s ferocity, but seeing the anger spent took his chance to reassert his authority.  He stood again, pressing close enough to Lombard to see the fine veins in his grey-brown eyes, and the sand grains in his eyebrows.  He growled quietly.

“I know I said speak freely, Lombard, but remember who you’re talking to.  I won’t tolerate any more insubordination.  Now sit down, shut up, and pull yourself together!” 

Fred Lombard realised he’d overstepped the mark and hung his head.  Mumbling an apology, he sat again.

“That’s better.  Very well, Lombard, you’ve had a tough time.  I understand.  I do.  I can even have some sympathy.  As for your uncles, mistakes happen.  We’re in a war and good people die, sometimes for stupid reasons.  But I’ll have no more talk of not knowing whose side you’re on, in private with me or anywhere else.  D’you hear, Lombard?  Not unless you want to spend the rest of the war in the stockade.  Is that understood?”

Lombard did not reply, still struggling with his emotions.  Macritchie raised his voice again.

“Is that understood Sergeant?”

Lombard breathed so deeply his shoulders shuddered.  He exhaled the dregs of his anger and nodded silently and Macritchie saw his Sergeant seemed, somehow, smaller.

“Alright, then.  We can discuss the commission when you get back.  You may have a choice about that, but you definitely don’t have a choice about this recce.  You’re volunteered, and there’s an end to it.”

Lombard, still silent but already thinking about the opportunities a commission might present, suddenly looked up and smiled.

“Very good, Sir.  You’re right and I’m sorry.  As you say, we’ll talk when I get back.  What do you want me to do.”

“That’s more like it.  If it helps, Sergeant, remember that anything you can find out, anything at all, even at this late stage could save a lot of lives.”

“I’ll try to remember that, Sir.”

Macritchie sat again and returned his attention to the map.

“Good man.  Now, to get to the Aussie HQ, over here, you’ll need to circle round behind our artillery.  Go now, and for speed you can take one of the company motorbikes.  Oh, I assume you can ride?”

“Yes Sir. I have one, well I used to have one, back in Glasgow.”

“Excellent.  The sun will be going down soon but it’s clear, and there’s a full moon later tonight so be careful.  When you get to the 9th look for a Captain Carpenter.  Show him your orders and he’ll brief you.  As it is, it won’t be properly dark when you go out but we can’t risk a radio so try to get back to him with whatever you can find out before 21.00, otherwise it will be too late to make use of any new information.  The barrage proper starts at 21.40.  At 21.30 the divisional pipers will start to play ‘Black Bear’, take that as a ten-minute warning.  At 21.35 they’ll start “Cock O’ the North”.  If you’re still out beyond the wire then you’d better dig in and stay put until the advance rolls up to you.  Either way there’ll be no time to rejoin us here, so stay with the Aussies and catch up with us later.  By the way, Corporal Macphail will be taking your place, as acting senior NCO in B Company, until you return.   Now, any questions?”

“Tam Macphail’s a good man. He’ll do well.  No Sir, no more questions.”

“Right, off you go then, Lombard.  By the way, where’s your helmet?”

I left it back with the lads, I’ll go back for it”.

No time, here, take mine, and good luck to you.”

Very well sir, and thank you.” 

As he left, under his breath, Lombard added “ buona fortuna to you too.”

Captain Macritchie followed Lombard from the dugout, but not back to the trenches.  Instead he worked his way back through scrub fringed stony dips and scrapes, to the regimental command post and his Colonel.

“Well, Macritchie, how did he take it?”

“He’s not happy, but he’s going.  In fact he was pretty angry, I had to more or less read the riot act.  He’s a lippy bastard.  Apparently things have gone badly at home, but there was something else behind it that I can’t quite put my finger on.”

“We’ll see.  He was with the original 51st at St. Valery wasn’t he?  That was rough, but he won’t have seen any action in nearly 2 years.  D’you think he’s scared?”

No, it’s not that.  He’s a professional.  There’s something else…oh I don’t know.

“And the commission?”

“I think he might need persuading a bit, Sir, but I think he’ll be up for it.  He’s experienced and capable, and I still think he’s a good candidate for a field commission.  But I’d recommend we hold it for a while.  Let’s see when he gets back.”

“If he gets back”.

Chapter 2

El Alamein, Italian lines – 7th Basiglieri command – Same time

Lieutenant Piero Bosco was standing outside a tent.  He pulled the front of his paratrooper’s jacket straight, slapped the dust from his trousers, and removed his helmet.  Shouldering his carbine he took a deep breath, pulled open the flap, and peered into the gloom inside.  An officer was bent over a map table, the glow from an oil lamp above the table shining on the top of his balding head.  Bosco coughed to attract his attention.  Colonel Luigi Batista looked round, grinned, dropped his pencil onto the map and came round the table to greet his Lieutenant with a hug, a kiss on both cheeks, and a handshake.

 Bosco, freed of the embrace, stepped one pace back, snapped to attention and saluted. 

“Tenente Piero Bosco, reporting as ordered. Sir!”

“Yes, yes Bosco, I’ve been expecting you.  Welcome to the 7th Basiglieri.”  

Batista turned back to the map table, wiped the late afternoon sweat from his pate and neck with a dust encrusted desert scarf, and indicated a folded canvas camp seat to his junior officer, still standing to attention.

“Come, my boy.  Relax. Sit.  You look tired, where have you come from? Far”

Bosco slipped his carbine from his shoulder and propped it against the tent wall, opened the chair and sat in front of the table.

“Thank you, Sir.  I’m alright.  Not far.  I was with the 185th Folgore, only a few kilometres south from here.  I would have been here sooner but I’ve been dodging British ‘planes all day.” 

“Ah, The Folgore.  Fine outfit.   You did well at Deir el Munassib last month I hear.  Is that where you got this?”  He leaned forward and flicked at a medal ribbon just visible on the lapel of Bosco’s jacket.

“Iron Cross, eh?  Our esteemed allies don’t hand them out like biscotti.  They must have been pleased with you.”

“Thank you, Sir.  Not only me.  There were ten awarded that day, but a hundred more deserved it. We fought like lions.”

“Spectacular!  The Germans sometimes treat us like we are donkeys, so the British weren’t the only ones surprised, eh?  A good action, Bosco, our King will be very proud.  I am very proud.  However, that was yesterday, this is today.  Things have changed.  Rommel just made a mistake and got a bloody nose for his trouble, so now we badly need your combat experience here in the north.  We think Deir el Munassib may have been a deception for an assault up here, but the British have been reinforcing and regrouping all along the front, so we aren’t sure.  Patrols have been probing our positions and skirmishing with our scouts for days.  In the last 12 hours all this has stopped.  We think this means that sometime soon, perhaps tonight, they will attack. I’m told you speak English.  Correct?”

“Yes Sir.  Is that why I was transferred to the infantry?”

“Yes, it is, and I’m sorry but you can’t rest for long.  I have a difficult and dangerous job for you right away so you don’t even have time to change out of your Folgore uniform and change your insiginia for Basiglieri.”

“Sir?”

“I need you to go through the wire right away, get ahead of our forward observation posts and see what the Australians are up to.  But, for God’s sake, be careful Bosco.  We need information, not heroes.  I have plenty of heroes but I can’t afford to lose any more experienced officers like you.  Be back before dawn.  If the attack is coming it will probably come then.  Good luck”

Bosco stood up, came to attention again, and saluted, but Colonel Batista had already turned once more to the map in front of him.  Barely looking up he returned Bosco’s salute with a casual wave and shouted for his Adjutant.   Bosco turned on his heel, stopping only to pick up his carbine, then pushed aside the tent flap and went out into the rapidly cooling early late afternoon air.

Chapter 3

El Alamein –  No-man’s land  – 23 OCTOBER 1942 – 19.00 hours

Fred Lombard was stuck.  Caught up in barbed wire, in a shell hole with one foot resting against the side of a landmine.  Muttering to himself in Italian as he tugged at the wire, each phrase punctuated by another pull, and another tear in his shirt or shorts.

“Holy Mother…what a fucking mess…sorry for swearing.  Well, mama…I don’t think your son is… going to get out of this… too well. What did you do to deserve me…eh?  I wish I’d been better…nicer to you and Papa.  Now he’s gone…and his brothers.  Me too probably.  I s’pose now would be a good time… to own up…I took that money from your purse…it was me.  I’m sorry, and I’m sorry I lied to you too.”

His shirt suddenly gave way again, but the release caused him to kick against the mine, and he froze.  His struggling was making the hole unstable and even deeper, so he gave up, and fell back panting.

“I bet you really knew it was me all the time didn’t you?  Of course you did.  That’s what mother’s do, know everything and still forgive.  Anyway, I know I’m a miserable sinner.  I wish I had been better to you and I’m sorry I didn’t go to mass more often like you wanted…”.

His pleading was silenced by the slight sound of sand trickling into the shell hole.  The grit fell against his face and he held his breath, hoping that it wasn’t a hunting viper attracted by the vibrations of his struggling or, worse still, his nightmare: a scorpion.  He hated scorpions.

The sand trickle became a rivulet, then stopped.  Lombard pressed himself as close as he could to the side of the pit, holding his breath and straining to listen.  The sound he heard was not of gliding scales or pincers, but of breathing.  Laboured human breathing.  Then a voice came from the darkness.  Speaking Italian.

“Don’t worry, I’ll soon get you out of here, I have wire cutters.  Here, hold my carbine.” 

Lombard watched as a Berretta 38 machine-carbine slid over the rim of the pit followed by the ‘snip, ‘snip’ sound of wire cutting.  Then a camouflage blackened face appeared, grinning teeth shining in the early moonlight.

“There you are my friend.  Give me your hand.   Tenente Piero Bosco at your service.  What are you doing this far forward?  I wasn’t expecting…..”  His voice trailed off.  Bosco found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun and pulled back his hand.

“Australian?  No! I thought you were Italian!”

            “Keep your voice down will you!  No, not Australian. I’m British. I thought you were a snake, so we’re both wrong aren’t we?   Now, come down here.  And be careful, I’ve got my foot on a bloody mine.  If it’s all the same to you I’d rather keep my legs.”

Bosco slid into the pit, head first and his face came to rest at Lombard’s shoulder badge.  He spoke in English.

            “So, Inglese!  I was told it was Australians out here.  I thought you were Italian, you were speaking such good Italian to your mother Lombardi!  Your accent is perfect.  Oh well, I am Bosco, Tenente , 1499650, 185th Folgore.  I am your prisoner.”

 Lombard laughed.     

“Don’t be daft, Lieutenant.  Apart from the fact that you outrank me I think we are pretty much in the same boat here.  Very soon we are both going to be right in the path of a barrage, and then an attack.  Our comrades will start throwing shells at each other and somebody’s tanks will drive all over us.  I would say that which of us is the prisoner of the other is pretty academic.”

Lombard put Bosco’s gun down, away from both of them, wiped his hand on the remains of his shirt and held it out to Bosco.

“Piacere Tenente.  Pleased to meet you.  I’m Fred Lombard. Sergeant. A292101.  Name, rank and number, that’s the drill isn’t it?  And Scotsese, not Inglese, if you don’t mind!”

Bosco laughed too, nodded agreement, and shook Lombard’s outstretched hand. 

“OK, not Inglese, Scotsese.   I can just see your badge, a Highlander eh?  Well, Piacere!  I’m pleased to meet you too, Sergeant.  You are right, of course.  A predicament for us both is it not?  What do you suggest we do?”

 “First of all, can you get my other leg off this wire?  Then can you deal with this.   

Lombard pointed to the hard lump in the sand under his free foot.

“I assume that is one of yours, out here, so you should know how to defuse it.  I surely hope so, otherwise we are both very dead.”

Bosco snipped the wire away and then eased down to Lombard’s foot.  Carefully scraping the sand away from the side of the mine, he quietly whistled an exclamation.

“Oooh!  You were lucky Sergeant .  You are right, it is one of ours, but if it went off it would take more than your legs: it’s a Type 9, anti-tank.  Fortunately it needs more pressure than your big British boots to set it off, so you can move your foot.  Here, help me lift it out of the hole.”

Lombard began by rubbing the blood back into his cramped leg before moving to help.    

“Thank God for that!  And thank you too, Sir.  All the same, I’d prefer if you disabled it.  A stray bullet, bit of shrapnel, one of our tanks passing nearby, anything might set it off.”

Bosco went to work, and carefully lifted the lid from the mine’s oblong wooden case.  He peered inside but found the firing pin already detached he laughed at Lombard’s un-necessary discomfort.

“What’s so funny, Sir?”

“You can relax my friend, it is safe.  Someone else has already been here!  One of your Australian sapper patrols, probably.  Anyway, think.  If we are in a shell hole, even a mortar shell, why didn’t it set off the mine?  I think it must’ve been thrown in here after it was defused. And please stop calling me ‘sir’.  I’m Piero.” 

They slumped back into the hole and sat on their haunches, facing each other in the moonlight, and shook hands again.  Fred started to laugh.

“Of course, you’re right….stupid of me, Sir..I mean Piero.  Look, if I’m going to call you Piero, you’d better call me Fred. Is that OK?”

            “Certo, certainly.  So, Fred, how is it that you speak Italian so perfectly?”

“Well, my family are originally from Tuscany.  Great grandfather Lombardi emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s, from a little village in the Garfagnana, near a town called Barga.”  It’s in the Serchio Valley, below the Apuane Alps.”

Fred could see Bosco’s eyes widening in surprise and recognition.

“Have you heard of it?”

Bosco spluttered, incredulous, and slapped Fred’s arm.

“Heard of it Fred?  Mother of God I know it well!  I was in an orphanage near there before they sent me to Military School in Naples!    That’s where I learned English.  What a strange world.  Unbelievable!”

Bosco saw Lombard shiver, rubbing at the goose bumps on his bare arms.  He knew about fear, and not to ask about it.

“Cold isn’t it, the desert at night?  You wouldn’t think such a hot place could be so cold.”

“Aye.  Well, I haven’t been out here long enough to get used to it, but being stuck in the wire for an hour with your foot on a mine doesn’t help.”

“Ha!  Well said.  Your honesty does you credit Fred.  I go cold every time I have to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane.”

Bosco slipped off his paratroopers smock, and then his jacket.  He pulled the smock back over his head and handed the jacket to Lombard.

“Here.  Take this.  I’ll have my smock – you can’t have that, it is a lucky charm for me.  I have made many, many jumps with it.  As you see, all successful!”

“No, I couldn’t..”

“Take it, take it. Don’t worry, my smock is completely wind proof.  I will be warm enough”.

Lombard took the jacket, still with the comforting heat from Bosco’s body, and slipped into it.  His teeth stopped chattering almost at once.  They sat for a moment, looking at the stars, and Lombard at the medal ribbon on the jacket, then Bosco broke the silence.

            “Well my Scottish friend, we can’t stay here all night.  What shall we do?”

Lombard’s answer was pre-empted by the distant skirl of “Black Bear” as it rose up and drifted through the darkness from the front lines towards them.

“Shit!  It must be 21.30.  We’re in trouble now.  We’ve only got minutes before the big guns start up.  If either of us tries to go back to our own lines now we’ll be caught out in the open and killed for sure.  We’d better stay put, and I suppose this hole is as good as any to hide in.  C’mon, help me dig in.”

But Bosco had already moved.  In seconds he was over the top of the hole and out under the cut wire.  He looked back down to Lombard, and his white teeth grinned again.

“I think that’s a chance we both must take, Fred.  Either here and now, or later somewhere else in this war, but if this is your attack I must go back. It’s a matter of honour to stand with my comrades.  Do whatever you must.  Stay or go, and may God protect you, but I’m going back.” 

He looked at his machine-carbine, and back at Lombard, pointing to it with a nod.  He held out his hand, once again an officer in the Royal Italian Army

“My Beretta if you please, Sergeant.”

But Lombard laughed, acknowledging the difference in their rank once more.

“Finders keepers, Tenente.  Call it a souvenir.  I can say I took it in a fight.  Here, you can have this.”

Lombard pushed his Lee Enfield rifle over the rim of the hole.

“You can do the same; say you got it off a dead Tommy. You might get another medal for killing me!  You can have these too! ”

And with that he snapped off his identification tags and threw them after the rifle.  There was no time to argue.  Bosco grabbed the rifle and the tags, and in a deep crouch scuttled away calling over his shoulder.           

“Arrividerci you crazy Scotchman! God be with you!”

Fred Lombard sank back into his hole hoping God was with them both that night.   He waited, rehearsing how he would explain all this to Captain Carpenter, if he should ever see him again.

“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t see anything.  I got hung up on their wire.  I did find a dud Italian mine, though.  One of your disposal teams must’ve disarmed it.  The only thing I can tell you is that the Italians have been reinforced by paratroops.  185th Folgore.”

“How do you know?”

“I met one.  An officer”

“Dead or alive”

“Very alive, sir”

“Did you kill him?”

“No sir.  To be honest, we both sort of got the drop on each other.  Didn’t seem right really, he was a decent sort..  Actually, it was him who got me off the wire.  Gave me this jacket and his gun.  When the pipers started we shook hands and went our separate ways.”

“Where are your ID tags?”

“Must’ve come off in when I got caught on the wire, Sir.”

He thought it didn’t sound credible, and it wasn’t.  He was abruptly shaken from his meanderings by the thunder of the barrage, and the whine of the first shots roaring over his head into the dark.  Then a shell landed 50 feet away, and the darkness became very solid.

Chapter 4

24th October El Alamein Battlefield – Swept Up.

Fred Lombard finally came round and crawled out of the half-collapsed shell hole.  Dazed, disoriented and cold, the sand that had half buried him, sticky with dew, clung to his bare legs and his uniform as he struggled to his feet.  His head hurt.  There were sounds of battle, but they seemed distant and masked by a rushing sound in his head, the result of the shell blast.  His thoughts whirled like the sand:  maybe the fighting was closer than he thought?  Which way was the fighting?  The battle might be nearer than it seemed, it might even be behind him.  He didn’t know.  Perhaps his position had been over-run and he might be behind the enemy lines.  He did not even know what time of day it was, nor even really what day it was.  He felt for his watch, but when he looked down at it the glass was broken, the case and hands bent and clogged with dust so he took it off and threw I away.  He lifted his head and peered upwards to where, somewhere above the swirling dust, the sun began to warm him.  He felt his body for wounds but there were none and he sank again to his haunches, dizzy.  He tried to clear his head but the questions kept coming.  Who was winning?  Which way should he go?  Which way is anywhere?  He rose again and began to walk.  He had no compass, so his staggering shuffle started to follow the tracks of hundreds of trucks and tanks and feet.  Ours or theirs?  But the tracks went everywhere, and nowhere in particular.  Signs loomed out of the dust “Actung Minen”, the skull and crossbones leering at him.  Broken wire snatched at his feet and he fell, more than once, over a body or a bit of a body, a dented helmet or a broken rifle.  It was the devil’s own hellish obstacle course, a ride on a fairground ghost train with real ghosts.  He had only come out for a short, night-time, reconnaissance: he’d be there and back in just a couple of hours, so he had no water or food.  By that night he was dehydrated, delirious, lost, and slumped again into unconsciousness.

The vibration of a big engine, running nearby, penetrated his limp body and began to bring him round.  He couldn’t open his eyes, they were caked shut with dried sweat and sand, but it was close enough to feel.  He began to think more like a soldier again, not a casualty.  It didn’t sound like a lorry.  Not a tank.  Lumpy, uneven, growly; the engine beat rising and falling as if anxious to move but held back.  A German half-track maybe?  He stayed still but a voice pierced the mist in his head.  English?

            “This one’s still alive.  Still in one piece I think.  Can’t see a wound.”

Hands turned him over, pulled at his clothes, wiping dust from nostrils and cracked lips with a rough cloth.  He couldn’t see the owner of the hands, his eyes still stuck shut with dried sweat. He thought “I’m really thirsty, can I have a drink of water?” but somehow it came out,

            “Acqua. Ho sete, acqua, per favore, ho sete”.

The voice with the hands spoke again.

“Well, he’s Italian!  And look at this,  Folgore patches.  What’s a paratrooper doing way out here?  He’s an officer too, by the looks of these epaulettes.  There’s a Model 38 Beretta too.   Definitely an officer.” 

The hands searched carefully for other weapons or a booby trap then, when satisfied,  roughly through his pockets. 

            “Safe.  No trip wires.  No I.D. tags.  Bugger all.”

            “Water, please. Water”.

  “So!  You speaka di  English?  He speaks English!  Alright my lucky mysterious Eytie friend, I’ll get you some water.”

In a moment the hands lifted his head and warm liquid, but cold as a mountain stream to Lombard, splashed into his mouth.  He retched, coughed, puckering his lips, a little bird begging for more from its mother.

            “Woah, not so fast!  That’s enough for now my friend or you’ll be sick.” 

The hands lay his head back and the talking and searching continued.  He heard the carbine being unloaded.  

“Gun safe, sir.  Nothing else here.  No documents.  Not even any fags. What’re you doing this far north, eh?  I thought the Folgore were down south.  Hang on, is this an Iron Cross ribbon?  It is isn’t it?  Blimey are you someone important?  He’s pretty far gone, poor sod. What’ll we do with him?”

Another voice, above the grumbling engine replied.  Gutteral.

“Well we can’t just leave him, now you’ve brought him back to life, can we?  Tietkop!  Put him in the truck.  No time to piss about, we’ve got to get back to base before daylight.  If he lives he may have some useful intelligence for the skipper.” 

The hands, joined by others, lifted him.  The engine snorted, happy to be at work again, coughed up some black smoke and then they were moving.  Fred Lombard saw none of this as he slipped into the soft embrace of unconsciousness again.

Base Tango – 1 November October 1942

“Good morning.  You look better, fit enough to answer a few questions anyway, so let’s begin, shall we Lieutenant.  It is Lieutenant is it?”

Fred Lombard eyed the man in front of him.  He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and thin, almost emaciated and a wild blond beard.  No insignia of rank, or even of army, but by his attitude and bearing an officer.  His clothes were a mixture of German, Italian and British but he was wearing a full Arab head-dress. Lombard thought to himself that this was not so much a uniform as a costume, and allowed himself an inner laugh.  It was almost as if he was a captive of some bizarre entertainment unit performing The Desert Song.

            “No.  It’s Sergeant.  Lombard, Frederick, 292101, and that’s all I’m saying.”

“So.  Lombard, Frederick, Sergeant.  Name, rank and number, very proper.  Presumably not Italian then.  British?  Where are your identity tags, then?”

            “Don’t know.  Must’ve lost them, somewhere.”

“How inconvenient for you, and not very helpful for us either.  You see my difficulty Sergeant.  You speak English, now, but with some sort of accent. When found you were delirious but speaking perfect Italian.  You had an Italian weapon.   You say you are British but won’t say what unit, even though your British shirt has a Highland Division shoulder badge, does it not?    But then you’re wearing an Italian officer’s jacket with the ribbon of the Iron Cross.  You can see how it looks?  For all I know you are a spy, left out here on purpose for us to find, to pick up, to bring back to our base.  You might be British, as you claim, but also a deserter, no?  We have no time for niceties in our part of this war Lombard, or whatever your name really is, and there are no Geneva Convention inspectors in the desert.  With no I.D. you could be just another anonymous bump in the sand out here.  Shot.  Understand?  Capisce?”

Lombard thought for a minute, and decided to go on the attack.

“If you don’t mind me pointing out Sir, it is Sir isn’t it, I have the same problem?  You haven’t told me who you are.  You imply you’re British, but your accent isn’t British is it?  I’ve heard people talking outside, and not in English either.  Dutch?  Afrikaans maybe?  There’s a lot of Germans in the south of Africa I hear. You’re driving around in a half-track with Afrika Korps markings, wearing German panzer goggles round your neck, so you could be a Jerry.  For all I know, you could be the spy, searching behind the battle lines for survivors to interrogate.  On the other hand you could be a bloody ENSA concert party in that Arab get up.”

The tall man threw his head back and laughed.

            “Well, at least you have a sense of humour.  It’s a fair point, but not one for debate and I’m the one with the gun.  Until we’re sure of who you are I’m not telling you who we are.  So, this is what we’ll do.  We’re staying here for a few days.  There’s no need for restraint because there’s nowhere to escape to.  If I have your word you’ll not try any funny business, you’ll be free to move around our camp.  Consider yourself under open arrest, but you’ll be kept under observation until we’re ready.”

“Fine, but is there any grub, Sir?”

            “Our rations are limited, but we’ll keep you fed and watered.  Meanwhile I’ll radio our HQ with your description, and service number.  It’ll take a while but we’ll get an answer.  If you are who you say you are, fine.  If not, we’ll have some more searching questions for you, and then…. well, we’ll see shan’t we?  Fair?”

Lombard nodded agreement, but as the tall man turned to leave he spoke again.

            “Fair enough, Sir.  By the way, who’s winning?”

The tall man laughed again, and without turning said,

“We are. Of course”.

Lombard muttered to himself.

“Aye, but who’s we?”

For two days and nights Fred Lombard walked, watched, ate and slept.  The camp was in a wide depression, a bowl in the sand.  A few scruffy palms stood in the centre, above a stone walled well-head.  A little further out, were the remains of bleached sandstone houses.  They were little more than rubble and sentinel parapets.  On the edge of the camp there was a soft tinkling sound where a young boy stood with a small herd of goats.  Under the trees open topped trucks, in desert yellow paint, were tidily parked in groups, all facing outwards from the centre, he supposed in case a quick getaway was required.  A few carried Africa Korps markings, but most bore no identification at all.  There were a few jeeps too, heavily armed in a way he’d never seen before with twin mounted machine guns on the front passenger’s side.  On the rim of the depression there were camouflaged observation posts.  This was obviously a semi-permanent base and his captors didn’t intend to be taken by surprise. 

An armed guard was always in sight, even when he squatted in the latrine, but apart from that he was left alone and the other men didn’t talk to him.  They seemed relaxed with his presence but always taut and alert.  Thin, scarred, tired looking with deep set, sand reddened, eyes: they all had the mark of men who had been in desert action a long time.  There were occasional alarms for aircraft flying overhead.  He could not tell if they were Allied or German, but his captors scurried to man the guns on their trucks, or parked under camouflage netting, in case it was an enemy.  But which enemy, whose enemy?

November 4th

On the third evening in camp the tall man came again, accompanied by two others.  This is it, Lombard thought, if they hadn’t verified his story there was going to be rough stuff.  But they were all now wearing British insignia and the tall man was smiling.  Lombard took and shook offered hands.

            “Well, Sergeant Frederick Lombard, late of His Majesty’s 7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, 51st Highland Division.  Edinburgh and all that.  You check out.”

            “No Sir, it’s the 5th Battalion, and Glasgow not Edinburgh.”

The officer grabbed Lombard by the shoulders and then laughed as he ‘chipped’ his chin with a closed fist.

“Ha!  Good man.  You can’t blame me for trying to catch you out one last time.  Just in case, you understand?  Well Fred, you’ve landed up with the Long Range Desert Group.  I’m Captain Piet van der Kok.  South African, as you guessed.  You can call me ‘Skip’.  This is Andy Kirkpatrick, officially Lieutenant, ex-some unpronounceable bloody place in New Zealand.  You’ll find there are quite a few ‘boks and , and one or two Rhodesians here.”

Lombard and Kirkpatrick exchanged nods.

“This mongrel is Maurice le Blanc, Corporal.  French from somewhere in Algeria.  He says. A bit of time in the Foreign Legion, we think, but he won’t admit to or talk about it.  We call them “Paddy” and “Blanco” respectively. 

Van der Kok saw doubt briefly crease Lombards forehead.

“Not the sort of regimental formality you’re used to, eh?  We don’t stand on ceremony in the LRDG, no deference to rank, except in orders, and definitely no saluting.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone knows their place, but every now again we’ll run into an Italian or Jerry desert patrol and they take a particular interest in picking off or capturing officers if they can identify them.  So, everyone here has a nickname.  Since we thought you were Italian maybe we’ll call you Nero.  And you need to explain why you were speaking Italian and wearing a Folgore unifom”

He didn’t wait for Lombard’s agreement.

“I’ll introduce you to the rest of the patrol later, but now we are sure of each other, you can tell us your story.”

They walked across to a low wall, and sat in the shade of a tree.  Fred his had through his hair and began.

“Well, before I start, where the hell am I?”

“Siwa Oasis.  About 300 miles south-southeast of Tobruk.  Similar distance south southwest of El Alamein.  We’ve come right down the edge of the Quatara Depression.”

Lombard, having only recently arrived in Egypt, had no real idea of the geography, certainly not enough to tell if the distances and directions were right, but by the time he’d finished relating how he came to be lost miles behind the action, with no I.D., how Bosco had saved him, and why he spoke Italian, van der Kok was also satisfied he was not a deserter.  As they left he told Kirkpatrick to radio Cairo for further instructions about Lombard’s future.

A week later – November 11th

The rest of the group had been busy.  Sitra Oasis being a main LRDG base, trucks came and went all the time, and occasionally a light spotter aircraft flew in.  There were two funerals, solemn but brief to the point of perfunctory.  For Lombard the enforced rest was welcome but a week of waiting for news had passed slowly.  Finally Paddy Kirkpatrick dragged Lombard out of the mess tent.

“OK Nero.  We have your orders.  You’re staying with us for the time being so Skip says to give you a quick run down on us.  Let’s go over there under the trees, bring your tea.”

The two men were joined by Blanco and the three sat in the shade, swatting flies away from their mugs, while Paddy started his briefing. 

“Our group usually consists of three, sometimes four, patrols.  You’ll have noticed the trucks, the jeeps, and we have a few captured Italian and Jerry wagons like the one we picked you up in.  Three or four men to a vehicle, all volunteers.  Up to six vehicles to a patrol, so that’s 24 men times 3 or 4 patrols around 70 to 90 of us all in, not counting the locals.  Of course we’re almost never all here at the same time, apart from anything else that would be very hard to hide from the air.”

“Do you get many air raids?”

“Nah, mostly a Jerry snooper on reconnaissance, but we have to be ready though.  We’d rather hide than fire on them, that would give the game away and we’d have to move base.  The patrols usually work independently of each other, so we only meet up like this when we come back to base for re-supply.  We don’t always do that, sometimes we’ll get an airdrop of water, ammo and spares for the trucks.  Occasionally groups go on a raid together, but that’s usually against a specific target and under orders.  If a target of opportunity presents itself while we’re out we might take it on, but only if it wouldn’t compromise our position or mission. The vehicles are all stripped down to carry extra supplies and heavy weapons: every patrol has mounted machine guns, even the jeeps.  You’ll have seen that one or two of the bigger trucks have 40mm Bofors gun, and a couple of ex-Royal Artillery types are working on fitting a 25 pounder.  That should be fun on a ‘beat up’.”

“Small arms?”

“Of course.  Not many rifles in LRDG though: we’re a small force and we need to punch well above our weight.   Our biggest weapons out here are speed of movement and our ability to hide.  With surprise we do a lot of damage, way out of proportion to our force size, but it’s no good if Jerry or the Italians know where we are.  Sometimes HQ will task us to join other other groups for a bigger operation, say a ‘beat up’ on a major airfield, but our main job is information gathering:  intelligence.  It’s mostly boring, I’m afraid, but vital”. 

            “Boring is fine by me, Paddy, I’d just as soon get home in one piece.!”

“Me too.  We might look mad, but we aren’t.  Well mostly.  Some of us, including the officers, have been near the edge.  It’s the desert.  We don’t go looking for trouble but even so we get our share.  We hide, observe, report what we see: move by night and lay-up by day watching for enemy movements, looking for their supply dumps.  We were doing that mostly along the coast road, before the big push..  In fact that’s why we were up in the north, sweeping behind the advance from Alamein, when we found you. Now we’re trying to catch up with the front, to get round behind the enemy lines again.”

“How do you get your orders, then?”

“We radio what we see to Cairo or Alexandria every night, if we can, but sometimes we’ve been so far behind Jerry lines, sometimes hundreds of miles for weeks at a time, radio comms are not possible.  If it’s important we may have to come back into range to pass on information.    Once in a while we provide transport for other special forces on operations.  Have you heard of the SAS?  You maybe haven’t heard of them, they’re quite a new outfit.  If you think we’re odd you should see them.  Mad as hatters but tough.  The “Libyan Taxi Service” they call us, cheeky bastards.  Anyway, like I said, we can be ‘out’ for weeks and we don’t usually pick up strays or prisoners so you were very, very lucky we were on our way back here and stopped for you.  OK.  That’s it.  Any questions?”

Lombard scratched again at his chin and swatted away some flies.

            “No now, Sir, not now.  Sorry, I mean not now Paddy.  It’s a lot to think about.  Maybe later, if that’s alright?”

“Of course.  After Alamein the push has got momentum, so it looks like the whole group is on the move.  We’re expecting new operational orders from HQ tonight, so we’ll know what we’re going to be doing then.  One way or another we’ll be leaving here so, if I were you, I’d get some more rest.   I’ll get Blanco to sort out some fresh kit for you, meantime.”

Lombard went back to his tent and dozed fitfully into early evening when an insistent and rising tide of noise broke through.  Orders were being shouted, things were being thrown into vehicles.  Engines were firing up.  They were the sounds of the camp being broken up in a hurry.  Lombard’s tent was already being dismantled around him when Paddy burst in, pulling the rough blanket from Lombard’s prone body.

            “C’mon Nero, chop chop, on your feet.  Get your kit.  We’re off in an hour.”

Lombard didn’t move at first, he was taking time to get used to being called Nero.

The flat of a commando knife blade rapped the bare soles of his feet,and he stirred, rolling onto an elbow, as Paddy rushed out again.  Rubbing his eyes Lombard could see a new heap at the foot of the cot.  ‘Blanco’ must’ve been in while he slept.  He swung his legs over the edge of the bed frame and moved, still seated, to the end.  It was his new kit, alright.  There was a water bottle, goggles, an Afrika Korps forage cap with neck curtain, and a khaki string scarf.  It was cold, so he was pleased to see they’d left him Bosco’s Folgore jacket.  As he began to dress, Paddy returned to check if he’d come round.  There was a Bren gun propped against the cot end and Paddy pointed to it with a commando knife before tossing it onto the kit pile.

            “Do you know how to use those?”

Without speaking Lombard picked up the knife, turning it over in his hand and feeling the balance.  Then he hoisted the long heavy weapon and rested the butt in his groin.  He checked the safety catch was on, then quickly and methodically looked it over for damage.  He removed and examined the curved magazine, opened the breech and squinted up the barrel.  The weapon was clean and the magazine full.  Before he locked it back into place he checked the breech is clear again and again that the safety was on.  Paddy was clearly pleased. 

“Good.  You seem to know what you are doing.  They’re your weapons then.  Look after them.  You’ll need a sheath for the knife and get yourself a side-arm.  I use a Browning .45 but we tend to pick our own personal weapons, so see the armourer right away.”

Lombard nodded and quickly finished dressing.  Paddy watched him, impressed by how calm and competent his new man seemed.  He didn’t know that Lombard hadn’t fired a weapon in anger since Dunkirk, two years before, but Lombard wasn’t about to tell him.  When he stopped to stretch, rub the sleep from his eyes one more time, and run his hand through his tangled hair, Paddy laughed.

“No time for a wash and brush up now I’m afraid, Nero, but you’d better get some food.”

“Right.  When you said we’re off, Paddy.  Who’s ‘we’, and where to?”

“Cairo radioed through again.  You’re no longer ‘Missing in Action’, but you’re definitely staying with us until it’s possible to get you back to your unit.  Officially you’re on temporary detachment with LRDG so ‘we’ is L Patrol, plus you.  The truth is we’ve no idea when you’ll get back to the Gordons.  We can’t be spared to take you back, or even arrange a rendezvous.  At the moment they’re miles in front of us anyway, chasing after Rommel – he’s retreating but we’re not following him.  We’re going inland and swinging right round his back.  Our orders are to get behind his line of retreat, disrupt his communications, destroy his fuel and supplies, and generally sow alarm and confusion.  In a few days we’ll be well ahead of the battle so eventually you may be waiting for your old unit to catch up to you!  By the way, the Yanks have just landed in Tunisia and are pushing east towards us, so let’s get cracking or the war will be over before we get there!” 

Chapter 2

El Alamein, Italian lines – 7th Basiglieri command – Same time

Lieutenant Piero Bosco was standing outside a tent.  He pulled the front of his paratrooper’s jacket straight, slapped the dust from his trousers, and removed his helmet.  Shouldering his carbine he took a deep breath, pulled open the flap, and peered into the gloom inside.  An officer was bent over a map table, the glow from an oil lamp above the table shining on the top of his balding head.  Bosco coughed to attract his attention.  Colonel Luigi Batista looked round, grinned, dropped his pencil onto the map and came round the table to greet his Lieutenant with a hug, a kiss on both cheeks, and a handshake.

 Bosco, freed of the embrace, stepped one pace back, snapped to attention and saluted. 

“Tenente Piero Bosco, reporting as ordered. Sir!”

“Yes, yes Bosco, I’ve been expecting you.  Welcome to the 7th Basiglieri.”  

Batista turned back to the map table, wiped the late afternoon sweat from his pate and neck with a dust encrusted desert scarf, and indicated a folded canvas camp seat to his junior officer, still standing to attention.

“Come, my boy.  Relax. Sit.  You look tired, where have you come from? Far”

Bosco slipped his carbine from his shoulder and propped it against the tent wall, opened the chair and sat in front of the table.

“Thank you, Sir.  I’m alright.  Not far.  I was with the 185th Folgore, only a few kilometres south from here.  I would have been here sooner but I’ve been dodging British ‘planes all day.” 

“Ah, The Folgore.  Fine outfit.   You did well at Deir el Munassib last month I hear.  Is that where you got this?”  He leaned forward and flicked at a medal ribbon just visible on the lapel of Bosco’s jacket.

“Iron Cross, eh?  Our esteemed allies don’t hand them out like biscotti.  They must have been pleased with you.”

“Thank you, Sir.  Not only me.  There were ten awarded that day, but a hundred more deserved it. We fought like lions.”

“Spectacular!  The Germans sometimes treat us like we are donkeys, so the British weren’t the only ones surprised, eh?  A good action, Bosco, our King will be very proud.  I am very proud.  However, that was yesterday, this is today.  Things have changed.  Rommel just made a mistake and got a bloody nose for his trouble, so now we badly need your combat experience here in the north.  We think Deir el Munassib may have been a deception for an assault up here, but the British have been reinforcing and regrouping all along the front, so we aren’t sure.  Patrols have been probing our positions and skirmishing with our scouts for days.  In the last 12 hours all this has stopped.  We think this means that sometime soon, perhaps tonight, they will attack. I’m told you speak English.  Correct?”

“Yes Sir.  Is that why I was transferred to the infantry?”

“Yes, it is, and I’m sorry but you can’t rest for long.  I have a difficult and dangerous job for you right away so you don’t even have time to change out of your Folgore uniform and change your insiginia for Basiglieri.”

“Sir?”

“I need you to go through the wire right away, get ahead of our forward observation posts and see what the Australians are up to.  But, for God’s sake, be careful Bosco.  We need information, not heroes.  I have plenty of heroes but I can’t afford to lose any more experienced officers like you.  Be back before dawn.  If the attack is coming it will probably come then.  Good luck”

Bosco stood up, came to attention again, and saluted, but Colonel Batista had already turned once more to the map in front of him.  Barely looking up he returned Bosco’s salute with a casual wave and shouted for his Adjutant.   Bosco turned on his heel, stopping only to pick up his carbine, then pushed aside the tent flap and went out into the rapidly cooling early late afternoon air.

Chapter 3

El Alamein –  No-man’s land  – 23 OCTOBER 1942 – 19.00 hours

Fred Lombard was stuck.  Caught up in barbed wire, in a shell hole with one foot resting against the side of a landmine.  Muttering to himself in Italian as he tugged at the wire, each phrase punctuated by another pull, and another tear in his shirt or shorts.

“Holy Mother…what a fucking mess…sorry for swearing.  Well, mama…I don’t think your son is… going to get out of this… too well. What did you do to deserve me…eh?  I wish I’d been better…nicer to you and Papa.  Now he’s gone…and his brothers.  Me too probably.  I s’pose now would be a good time… to own up…I took that money from your purse…it was me.  I’m sorry, and I’m sorry I lied to you too.”

His shirt suddenly gave way again, but the release caused him to kick against the mine, and he froze.  His struggling was making the hole unstable and even deeper, so he gave up, and fell back panting.

“I bet you really knew it was me all the time didn’t you?  Of course you did.  That’s what mother’s do, know everything and still forgive.  Anyway, I know I’m a miserable sinner.  I wish I had been better to you and I’m sorry I didn’t go to mass more often like you wanted…”.

His pleading was silenced by the slight sound of sand trickling into the shell hole.  The grit fell against his face and he held his breath, hoping that it wasn’t a hunting viper attracted by the vibrations of his struggling or, worse still, his nightmare: a scorpion.  He hated scorpions.

The sand trickle became a rivulet, then stopped.  Lombard pressed himself as close as he could to the side of the pit, holding his breath and straining to listen.  The sound he heard was not of gliding scales or pincers, but of breathing.  Laboured human breathing.  Then a voice came from the darkness.  Speaking Italian.

“Don’t worry, I’ll soon get you out of here, I have wire cutters.  Here, hold my carbine.” 

Lombard watched as a Berretta 38 machine-carbine slid over the rim of the pit followed by the ‘snip, ‘snip’ sound of wire cutting.  Then a camouflage blackened face appeared, grinning teeth shining in the early moonlight.

“There you are my friend.  Give me your hand.   Tenente Piero Bosco at your service.  What are you doing this far forward?  I wasn’t expecting…..”  His voice trailed off.  Bosco found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun and pulled back his hand.

“Australian?  No! I thought you were Italian!”

            “Keep your voice down will you!  No, not Australian. I’m British. I thought you were a snake, so we’re both wrong aren’t we?   Now, come down here.  And be careful, I’ve got my foot on a bloody mine.  If it’s all the same to you I’d rather keep my legs.”

Bosco slid into the pit, head first and his face came to rest at Lombard’s shoulder badge.  He spoke in English.

            “So, Inglese!  I was told it was Australians out here.  I thought you were Italian, you were speaking such good Italian to your mother Lombardi!  Your accent is perfect.  Oh well, I am Bosco, Tenente , 1499650, 185th Folgore.  I am your prisoner.”

 Lombard laughed.     

“Don’t be daft, Lieutenant.  Apart from the fact that you outrank me I think we are pretty much in the same boat here.  Very soon we are both going to be right in the path of a barrage, and then an attack.  Our comrades will start throwing shells at each other and somebody’s tanks will drive all over us.  I would say that which of us is the prisoner of the other is pretty academic.”

Lombard put Bosco’s gun down, away from both of them, wiped his hand on the remains of his shirt and held it out to Bosco.

“Piacere Tenente.  Pleased to meet you.  I’m Fred Lombard. Sergeant. A292101.  Name, rank and number, that’s the drill isn’t it?  And Scotsese, not Inglese, if you don’t mind!”

Bosco laughed too, nodded agreement, and shook Lombard’s outstretched hand. 

“OK, not Inglese, Scotsese.   I can just see your badge, a Highlander eh?  Well, Piacere!  I’m pleased to meet you too, Sergeant.  You are right, of course.  A predicament for us both is it not?  What do you suggest we do?”

 “First of all, can you get my other leg off this wire?  Then can you deal with this.   

Lombard pointed to the hard lump in the sand under his free foot.

“I assume that is one of yours, out here, so you should know how to defuse it.  I surely hope so, otherwise we are both very dead.”

Bosco snipped the wire away and then eased down to Lombard’s foot.  Carefully scraping the sand away from the side of the mine, he quietly whistled an exclamation.

“Oooh!  You were lucky Sergeant .  You are right, it is one of ours, but if it went off it would take more than your legs: it’s a Type 9, anti-tank.  Fortunately it needs more pressure than your big British boots to set it off, so you can move your foot.  Here, help me lift it out of the hole.”

Lombard began by rubbing the blood back into his cramped leg before moving to help.    

“Thank God for that!  And thank you too, Sir.  All the same, I’d prefer if you disabled it.  A stray bullet, bit of shrapnel, one of our tanks passing nearby, anything might set it off.”

Bosco went to work, and carefully lifted the lid from the mine’s oblong wooden case.  He peered inside but found the firing pin already detached he laughed at Lombard’s un-necessary discomfort.

“What’s so funny, Sir?”

“You can relax my friend, it is safe.  Someone else has already been here!  One of your Australian sapper patrols, probably.  Anyway, think.  If we are in a shell hole, even a mortar shell, why didn’t it set off the mine?  I think it must’ve been thrown in here after it was defused. And please stop calling me ‘sir’.  I’m Piero.” 

They slumped back into the hole and sat on their haunches, facing each other in the moonlight, and shook hands again.  Fred started to laugh.

“Of course, you’re right….stupid of me, Sir..I mean Piero.  Look, if I’m going to call you Piero, you’d better call me Fred. Is that OK?”

            “Certo, certainly.  So, Fred, how is it that you speak Italian so perfectly?”

“Well, my family are originally from Tuscany.  Great grandfather Lombardi emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s, from a little village in the Garfagnana, near a town called Barga.”  It’s in the Serchio Valley, below the Apuane Alps.”

Fred could see Bosco’s eyes widening in surprise and recognition.

“Have you heard of it?”

Bosco spluttered, incredulous, and slapped Fred’s arm.

“Heard of it Fred?  Mother of God I know it well!  I was in an orphanage near there before they sent me to Military School in Naples!    That’s where I learned English.  What a strange world.  Unbelievable!”

Bosco saw Lombard shiver, rubbing at the goose bumps on his bare arms.  He knew about fear, and not to ask about it.

“Cold isn’t it, the desert at night?  You wouldn’t think such a hot place could be so cold.”

“Aye.  Well, I haven’t been out here long enough to get used to it, but being stuck in the wire for an hour with your foot on a mine doesn’t help.”

“Ha!  Well said.  Your honesty does you credit Fred.  I go cold every time I have to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane.”

Bosco slipped off his paratroopers smock, and then his jacket.  He pulled the smock back over his head and handed the jacket to Lombard.

“Here.  Take this.  I’ll have my smock – you can’t have that, it is a lucky charm for me.  I have made many, many jumps with it.  As you see, all successful!”

“No, I couldn’t..”

“Take it, take it. Don’t worry, my smock is completely wind proof.  I will be warm enough”.

Lombard took the jacket, still with the comforting heat from Bosco’s body, and slipped into it.  His teeth stopped chattering almost at once.  They sat for a moment, looking at the stars, and Lombard at the medal ribbon on the jacket, then Bosco broke the silence.

            “Well my Scottish friend, we can’t stay here all night.  What shall we do?”

Lombard’s answer was pre-empted by the distant skirl of “Black Bear” as it rose up and drifted through the darkness from the front lines towards them.

“Shit!  It must be 21.30.  We’re in trouble now.  We’ve only got minutes before the big guns start up.  If either of us tries to go back to our own lines now we’ll be caught out in the open and killed for sure.  We’d better stay put, and I suppose this hole is as good as any to hide in.  C’mon, help me dig in.”

But Bosco had already moved.  In seconds he was over the top of the hole and out under the cut wire.  He looked back down to Lombard, and his white teeth grinned again.

“I think that’s a chance we both must take, Fred.  Either here and now, or later somewhere else in this war, but if this is your attack I must go back. It’s a matter of honour to stand with my comrades.  Do whatever you must.  Stay or go, and may God protect you, but I’m going back.” 

He looked at his machine-carbine, and back at Lombard, pointing to it with a nod.  He held out his hand, once again an officer in the Royal Italian Army

“My Beretta if you please, Sergeant.”

But Lombard laughed, acknowledging the difference in their rank once more.

“Finders keepers, Tenente.  Call it a souvenir.  I can say I took it in a fight.  Here, you can have this.”

Lombard pushed his Lee Enfield rifle over the rim of the hole.

“You can do the same; say you got it off a dead Tommy. You might get another medal for killing me!  You can have these too! ”

And with that he snapped off his identification tags and threw them after the rifle.  There was no time to argue.  Bosco grabbed the rifle and the tags, and in a deep crouch scuttled away calling over his shoulder.           

“Arrividerci you crazy Scotchman! God be with you!”

Fred Lombard sank back into his hole hoping God was with them both that night.   He waited, rehearsing how he would explain all this to Captain Carpenter, if he should ever see him again.

“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t see anything.  I got hung up on their wire.  I did find a dud Italian mine, though.  One of your disposal teams must’ve disarmed it.  The only thing I can tell you is that the Italians have been reinforced by paratroops.  185th Folgore.”

“How do you know?”

“I met one.  An officer”

“Dead or alive”

“Very alive, sir”

“Did you kill him?”

“No sir.  To be honest, we both sort of got the drop on each other.  Didn’t seem right really, he was a decent sort..  Actually, it was him who got me off the wire.  Gave me this jacket and his gun.  When the pipers started we shook hands and went our separate ways.”

“Where are your ID tags?”

“Must’ve come off in when I got caught on the wire, Sir.”

He thought it didn’t sound credible, and it wasn’t.  He was abruptly shaken from his meanderings by the thunder of the barrage, and the whine of the first shots roaring over his head into the dark.  Then a shell landed 50 feet away, and the darkness became very solid.

Chapter 4

24th October El Alamein Battlefield – Swept Up.

Fred Lombard finally came round and crawled out of the half-collapsed shell hole.  Dazed, disoriented and cold, the sand that had half buried him, sticky with dew, clung to his bare legs and his uniform as he struggled to his feet.  His head hurt.  There were sounds of battle, but they seemed distant and masked by a rushing sound in his head, the result of the shell blast.  His thoughts whirled like the sand:  maybe the fighting was closer than he thought?  Which way was the fighting?  The battle might be nearer than it seemed, it might even be behind him.  He didn’t know.  Perhaps his position had been over-run and he might be behind the enemy lines.  He did not even know what time of day it was, nor even really what day it was.  He felt for his watch, but when he looked down at it the glass was broken, the case and hands bent and clogged with dust so he took it off and threw I away.  He lifted his head and peered upwards to where, somewhere above the swirling dust, the sun began to warm him.  He felt his body for wounds but there were none and he sank again to his haunches, dizzy.  He tried to clear his head but the questions kept coming.  Who was winning?  Which way should he go?  Which way is anywhere?  He rose again and began to walk.  He had no compass, so his staggering shuffle started to follow the tracks of hundreds of trucks and tanks and feet.  Ours or theirs?  But the tracks went everywhere, and nowhere in particular.  Signs loomed out of the dust “Actung Minen”, the skull and crossbones leering at him.  Broken wire snatched at his feet and he fell, more than once, over a body or a bit of a body, a dented helmet or a broken rifle.  It was the devil’s own hellish obstacle course, a ride on a fairground ghost train with real ghosts.  He had only come out for a short, night-time, reconnaissance: he’d be there and back in just a couple of hours, so he had no water or food.  By that night he was dehydrated, delirious, lost, and slumped again into unconsciousness.

The vibration of a big engine, running nearby, penetrated his limp body and began to bring him round.  He couldn’t open his eyes, they were caked shut with dried sweat and sand, but it was close enough to feel.  He began to think more like a soldier again, not a casualty.  It didn’t sound like a lorry.  Not a tank.  Lumpy, uneven, growly; the engine beat rising and falling as if anxious to move but held back.  A German half-track maybe?  He stayed still but a voice pierced the mist in his head.  English?

            “This one’s still alive.  Still in one piece I think.  Can’t see a wound.”

Hands turned him over, pulled at his clothes, wiping dust from nostrils and cracked lips with a rough cloth.  He couldn’t see the owner of the hands, his eyes still stuck shut with dried sweat. He thought “I’m really thirsty, can I have a drink of water?” but somehow it came out,

            “Acqua. Ho sete, acqua, per favore, ho sete”.

The voice with the hands spoke again.

“Well, he’s Italian!  And look at this,  Folgore patches.  What’s a paratrooper doing way out here?  He’s an officer too, by the looks of these epaulettes.  There’s a Model 38 Beretta too.   Definitely an officer.” 

The hands searched carefully for other weapons or a booby trap then, when satisfied,  roughly through his pockets. 

            “Safe.  No trip wires.  No I.D. tags.  Bugger all.”

            “Water, please. Water”.

  “So!  You speaka di  English?  He speaks English!  Alright my lucky mysterious Eytie friend, I’ll get you some water.”

In a moment the hands lifted his head and warm liquid, but cold as a mountain stream to Lombard, splashed into his mouth.  He retched, coughed, puckering his lips, a little bird begging for more from its mother.

            “Woah, not so fast!  That’s enough for now my friend or you’ll be sick.” 

The hands lay his head back and the talking and searching continued.  He heard the carbine being unloaded.  

“Gun safe, sir.  Nothing else here.  No documents.  Not even any fags. What’re you doing this far north, eh?  I thought the Folgore were down south.  Hang on, is this an Iron Cross ribbon?  It is isn’t it?  Blimey are you someone important?  He’s pretty far gone, poor sod. What’ll we do with him?”

Another voice, above the grumbling engine replied.  Gutteral.

“Well we can’t just leave him, now you’ve brought him back to life, can we?  Tietkop!  Put him in the truck.  No time to piss about, we’ve got to get back to base before daylight.  If he lives he may have some useful intelligence for the skipper.” 

The hands, joined by others, lifted him.  The engine snorted, happy to be at work again, coughed up some black smoke and then they were moving.  Fred Lombard saw none of this as he slipped into the soft embrace of unconsciousness again.

Base Tango – 1 November October 1942

“Good morning.  You look better, fit enough to answer a few questions anyway, so let’s begin, shall we Lieutenant.  It is Lieutenant is it?”

Fred Lombard eyed the man in front of him.  He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and thin, almost emaciated and a wild blond beard.  No insignia of rank, or even of army, but by his attitude and bearing an officer.  His clothes were a mixture of German, Italian and British but he was wearing a full Arab head-dress. Lombard thought to himself that this was not so much a uniform as a costume, and allowed himself an inner laugh.  It was almost as if he was a captive of some bizarre entertainment unit performing The Desert Song.

            “No.  It’s Sergeant.  Lombard, Frederick, 292101, and that’s all I’m saying.”

“So.  Lombard, Frederick, Sergeant.  Name, rank and number, very proper.  Presumably not Italian then.  British?  Where are your identity tags, then?”

            “Don’t know.  Must’ve lost them, somewhere.”

“How inconvenient for you, and not very helpful for us either.  You see my difficulty Sergeant.  You speak English, now, but with some sort of accent. When found you were delirious but speaking perfect Italian.  You had an Italian weapon.   You say you are British but won’t say what unit, even though your British shirt has a Highland Division shoulder badge, does it not?    But then you’re wearing an Italian officer’s jacket with the ribbon of the Iron Cross.  You can see how it looks?  For all I know you are a spy, left out here on purpose for us to find, to pick up, to bring back to our base.  You might be British, as you claim, but also a deserter, no?  We have no time for niceties in our part of this war Lombard, or whatever your name really is, and there are no Geneva Convention inspectors in the desert.  With no I.D. you could be just another anonymous bump in the sand out here.  Shot.  Understand?  Capisce?”

Lombard thought for a minute, and decided to go on the attack.

“If you don’t mind me pointing out Sir, it is Sir isn’t it, I have the same problem?  You haven’t told me who you are.  You imply you’re British, but your accent isn’t British is it?  I’ve heard people talking outside, and not in English either.  Dutch?  Afrikaans maybe?  There’s a lot of Germans in the south of Africa I hear. You’re driving around in a half-track with Afrika Korps markings, wearing German panzer goggles round your neck, so you could be a Jerry.  For all I know, you could be the spy, searching behind the battle lines for survivors to interrogate.  On the other hand you could be a bloody ENSA concert party in that Arab get up.”

The tall man threw his head back and laughed.

            “Well, at least you have a sense of humour.  It’s a fair point, but not one for debate and I’m the one with the gun.  Until we’re sure of who you are I’m not telling you who we are.  So, this is what we’ll do.  We’re staying here for a few days.  There’s no need for restraint because there’s nowhere to escape to.  If I have your word you’ll not try any funny business, you’ll be free to move around our camp.  Consider yourself under open arrest, but you’ll be kept under observation until we’re ready.”

“Fine, but is there any grub, Sir?”

            “Our rations are limited, but we’ll keep you fed and watered.  Meanwhile I’ll radio our HQ with your description, and service number.  It’ll take a while but we’ll get an answer.  If you are who you say you are, fine.  If not, we’ll have some more searching questions for you, and then…. well, we’ll see shan’t we?  Fair?”

Lombard nodded agreement, but as the tall man turned to leave he spoke again.

            “Fair enough, Sir.  By the way, who’s winning?”

The tall man laughed again, and without turning said,

“We are. Of course”.

Lombard muttered to himself.

“Aye, but who’s we?”

For two days and nights Fred Lombard walked, watched, ate and slept.  The camp was in a wide depression, a bowl in the sand.  A few scruffy palms stood in the centre, above a stone walled well-head.  A little further out, were the remains of bleached sandstone houses.  They were little more than rubble and sentinel parapets.  On the edge of the camp there was a soft tinkling sound where a young boy stood with a small herd of goats.  Under the trees open topped trucks, in desert yellow paint, were tidily parked in groups, all facing outwards from the centre, he supposed in case a quick getaway was required.  A few carried Africa Korps markings, but most bore no identification at all.  There were a few jeeps too, heavily armed in a way he’d never seen before with twin mounted machine guns on the front passenger’s side.  On the rim of the depression there were camouflaged observation posts.  This was obviously a semi-permanent base and his captors didn’t intend to be taken by surprise. 

An armed guard was always in sight, even when he squatted in the latrine, but apart from that he was left alone and the other men didn’t talk to him.  They seemed relaxed with his presence but always taut and alert.  Thin, scarred, tired looking with deep set, sand reddened, eyes: they all had the mark of men who had been in desert action a long time.  There were occasional alarms for aircraft flying overhead.  He could not tell if they were Allied or German, but his captors scurried to man the guns on their trucks, or parked under camouflage netting, in case it was an enemy.  But which enemy, whose enemy?

November 4th

On the third evening in camp the tall man came again, accompanied by two others.  This is it, Lombard thought, if they hadn’t verified his story there was going to be rough stuff.  But they were all now wearing British insignia and the tall man was smiling.  Lombard took and shook offered hands.

            “Well, Sergeant Frederick Lombard, late of His Majesty’s 7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, 51st Highland Division.  Edinburgh and all that.  You check out.”

            “No Sir, it’s the 5th Battalion, and Glasgow not Edinburgh.”

The officer grabbed Lombard by the shoulders and then laughed as he ‘chipped’ his chin with a closed fist.

“Ha!  Good man.  You can’t blame me for trying to catch you out one last time.  Just in case, you understand?  Well Fred, you’ve landed up with the Long Range Desert Group.  I’m Captain Piet van der Kok.  South African, as you guessed.  You can call me ‘Skip’.  This is Andy Kirkpatrick, officially Lieutenant, ex-some unpronounceable bloody place in New Zealand.  You’ll find there are quite a few ‘boks and , and one or two Rhodesians here.”

Lombard and Kirkpatrick exchanged nods.

“This mongrel is Maurice le Blanc, Corporal.  French from somewhere in Algeria.  He says. A bit of time in the Foreign Legion, we think, but he won’t admit to or talk about it.  We call them “Paddy” and “Blanco” respectively. 

Van der Kok saw doubt briefly crease Lombards forehead.

“Not the sort of regimental formality you’re used to, eh?  We don’t stand on ceremony in the LRDG, no deference to rank, except in orders, and definitely no saluting.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone knows their place, but every now again we’ll run into an Italian or Jerry desert patrol and they take a particular interest in picking off or capturing officers if they can identify them.  So, everyone here has a nickname.  Since we thought you were Italian maybe we’ll call you Nero.  And you need to explain why you were speaking Italian and wearing a Folgore unifom”

He didn’t wait for Lombard’s agreement.

“I’ll introduce you to the rest of the patrol later, but now we are sure of each other, you can tell us your story.”

They walked across to a low wall, and sat in the shade of a tree.  Fred his had through his hair and began.

“Well, before I start, where the hell am I?”

“Siwa Oasis.  About 300 miles south-southeast of Tobruk.  Similar distance south southwest of El Alamein.  We’ve come right down the edge of the Quatara Depression.”

Lombard, having only recently arrived in Egypt, had no real idea of the geography, certainly not enough to tell if the distances and directions were right, but by the time he’d finished relating how he came to be lost miles behind the action, with no I.D., how Bosco had saved him, and why he spoke Italian, van der Kok was also satisfied he was not a deserter.  As they left he told Kirkpatrick to radio Cairo for further instructions about Lombard’s future.

A week later – November 11th

The rest of the group had been busy.  Sitra Oasis being a main LRDG base, trucks came and went all the time, and occasionally a light spotter aircraft flew in.  There were two funerals, solemn but brief to the point of perfunctory.  For Lombard the enforced rest was welcome but a week of waiting for news had passed slowly.  Finally Paddy Kirkpatrick dragged Lombard out of the mess tent.

“OK Nero.  We have your orders.  You’re staying with us for the time being so Skip says to give you a quick run down on us.  Let’s go over there under the trees, bring your tea.”

The two men were joined by Blanco and the three sat in the shade, swatting flies away from their mugs, while Paddy started his briefing. 

“Our group usually consists of three, sometimes four, patrols.  You’ll have noticed the trucks, the jeeps, and we have a few captured Italian and Jerry wagons like the one we picked you up in.  Three or four men to a vehicle, all volunteers.  Up to six vehicles to a patrol, so that’s 24 men times 3 or 4 patrols around 70 to 90 of us all in, not counting the locals.  Of course we’re almost never all here at the same time, apart from anything else that would be very hard to hide from the air.”

“Do you get many air raids?”

“Nah, mostly a Jerry snooper on reconnaissance, but we have to be ready though.  We’d rather hide than fire on them, that would give the game away and we’d have to move base.  The patrols usually work independently of each other, so we only meet up like this when we come back to base for re-supply.  We don’t always do that, sometimes we’ll get an airdrop of water, ammo and spares for the trucks.  Occasionally groups go on a raid together, but that’s usually against a specific target and under orders.  If a target of opportunity presents itself while we’re out we might take it on, but only if it wouldn’t compromise our position or mission. The vehicles are all stripped down to carry extra supplies and heavy weapons: every patrol has mounted machine guns, even the jeeps.  You’ll have seen that one or two of the bigger trucks have 40mm Bofors gun, and a couple of ex-Royal Artillery types are working on fitting a 25 pounder.  That should be fun on a ‘beat up’.”

“Small arms?”

“Of course.  Not many rifles in LRDG though: we’re a small force and we need to punch well above our weight.   Our biggest weapons out here are speed of movement and our ability to hide.  With surprise we do a lot of damage, way out of proportion to our force size, but it’s no good if Jerry or the Italians know where we are.  Sometimes HQ will task us to join other other groups for a bigger operation, say a ‘beat up’ on a major airfield, but our main job is information gathering:  intelligence.  It’s mostly boring, I’m afraid, but vital”. 

            “Boring is fine by me, Paddy, I’d just as soon get home in one piece.!”

“Me too.  We might look mad, but we aren’t.  Well mostly.  Some of us, including the officers, have been near the edge.  It’s the desert.  We don’t go looking for trouble but even so we get our share.  We hide, observe, report what we see: move by night and lay-up by day watching for enemy movements, looking for their supply dumps.  We were doing that mostly along the coast road, before the big push..  In fact that’s why we were up in the north, sweeping behind the advance from Alamein, when we found you. Now we’re trying to catch up with the front, to get round behind the enemy lines again.”

“How do you get your orders, then?”

“We radio what we see to Cairo or Alexandria every night, if we can, but sometimes we’ve been so far behind Jerry lines, sometimes hundreds of miles for weeks at a time, radio comms are not possible.  If it’s important we may have to come back into range to pass on information.    Once in a while we provide transport for other special forces on operations.  Have you heard of the SAS?  You maybe haven’t heard of them, they’re quite a new outfit.  If you think we’re odd you should see them.  Mad as hatters but tough.  The “Libyan Taxi Service” they call us, cheeky bastards.  Anyway, like I said, we can be ‘out’ for weeks and we don’t usually pick up strays or prisoners so you were very, very lucky we were on our way back here and stopped for you.  OK.  That’s it.  Any questions?”

Lombard scratched again at his chin and swatted away some flies.

            “No now, Sir, not now.  Sorry, I mean not now Paddy.  It’s a lot to think about.  Maybe later, if that’s alright?”

“Of course.  After Alamein the push has got momentum, so it looks like the whole group is on the move.  We’re expecting new operational orders from HQ tonight, so we’ll know what we’re going to be doing then.  One way or another we’ll be leaving here so, if I were you, I’d get some more rest.   I’ll get Blanco to sort out some fresh kit for you, meantime.”

Lombard went back to his tent and dozed fitfully into early evening when an insistent and rising tide of noise broke through.  Orders were being shouted, things were being thrown into vehicles.  Engines were firing up.  They were the sounds of the camp being broken up in a hurry.  Lombard’s tent was already being dismantled around him when Paddy burst in, pulling the rough blanket from Lombard’s prone body.

            “C’mon Nero, chop chop, on your feet.  Get your kit.  We’re off in an hour.”

Lombard didn’t move at first, he was taking time to get used to being called Nero.

The flat of a commando knife blade rapped the bare soles of his feet,and he stirred, rolling onto an elbow, as Paddy rushed out again.  Rubbing his eyes Lombard could see a new heap at the foot of the cot.  ‘Blanco’ must’ve been in while he slept.  He swung his legs over the edge of the bed frame and moved, still seated, to the end.  It was his new kit, alright.  There was a water bottle, goggles, an Afrika Korps forage cap with neck curtain, and a khaki string scarf.  It was cold, so he was pleased to see they’d left him Bosco’s Folgore jacket.  As he began to dress, Paddy returned to check if he’d come round.  There was a Bren gun propped against the cot end and Paddy pointed to it with a commando knife before tossing it onto the kit pile.

            “Do you know how to use those?”

Without speaking Lombard picked up the knife, turning it over in his hand and feeling the balance.  Then he hoisted the long heavy weapon and rested the butt in his groin.  He checked the safety catch was on, then quickly and methodically looked it over for damage.  He removed and examined the curved magazine, opened the breech and squinted up the barrel.  The weapon was clean and the magazine full.  Before he locked it back into place he checked the breech is clear again and again that the safety was on.  Paddy was clearly pleased. 

“Good.  You seem to know what you are doing.  They’re your weapons then.  Look after them.  You’ll need a sheath for the knife and get yourself a side-arm.  I use a Browning .45 but we tend to pick our own personal weapons, so see the armourer right away.”

Lombard nodded and quickly finished dressing.  Paddy watched him, impressed by how calm and competent his new man seemed.  He didn’t know that Lombard hadn’t fired a weapon in anger since Dunkirk, two years before, but Lombard wasn’t about to tell him.  When he stopped to stretch, rub the sleep from his eyes one more time, and run his hand through his tangled hair, Paddy laughed.

“No time for a wash and brush up now I’m afraid, Nero, but you’d better get some food.”

“Right.  When you said we’re off, Paddy.  Who’s ‘we’, and where to?”

“Cairo radioed through again.  You’re no longer ‘Missing in Action’, but you’re definitely staying with us until it’s possible to get you back to your unit.  Officially you’re on temporary detachment with LRDG so ‘we’ is L Patrol, plus you.  The truth is we’ve no idea when you’ll get back to the Gordons.  We can’t be spared to take you back, or even arrange a rendezvous.  At the moment they’re miles in front of us anyway, chasing after Rommel – he’s retreating but we’re not following him.  We’re going inland and swinging right round his back.  Our orders are to get behind his line of retreat, disrupt his communications, destroy his fuel and supplies, and generally sow alarm and confusion.  In a few days we’ll be well ahead of the battle so eventually you may be waiting for your old unit to catch up to you!  By the way, the Yanks have just landed in Tunisia and are pushing east towards us, so let’s get cracking or the war will be over before we get there!” 

Covid-19 – A final rethink.

On 26 November 2020 I published this piece on Covid-19 but, as so much has happened since then, an update seems very necessary.

In late November 2020 it felt like we were surfing down the face of a “second wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were one or two “good vibrations” in terms of progress with vaccine development but it was scary because, sadly, a lot of us were and are still going to experience “wipe out”. I deliberately used the surfing analogy because there had been more than a small element of wilful risk taking that had brought us to this ‘place’. As of 2nd December the latest lockdowns were replaced by a set of restrictions, dividing the home countries into ‘tiers’, in order to let the populatiuon “have a Christmas”. These tiered restrictions seemed likely to last until March 2021.

Since my piece in mid-June, much of what I then feared (even predicted) came about. The UK’s so-called “world class” track and trace system failed miserably, and for the reasons that have been obvious from day one:

It lacked the capacity to test widely

It lacked the ability to reach enough ‘contacts’

It depends on people to report symptoms and then, diligently, self-isolate

From the very earliest days of the UK’s pandemic, certainly before the initial ‘lockdown’ in mid-March 2020, it has been clear that the extent of asymptomatic disease, and transmission, was underestimated and driving community incidence. Its effects were compounded by our UK government’s flip-flopping on social distancing, and on the use of face masks and, critically. It was also compromised by the overwhelming desire to “get back to normal” and to re-open the economy (see “Shop til you drop” and “Tombstoning..” elsewhere in this thread). In the summer of 2020, when Covid-19 was relatively under control, it now appears our population was used, guinea pig-like, to experiment with what happens if you let the brakes off in various ways. We were told to we could go on holiday. In the UK people streamed from areas with higher incidence rates to areas with lower incidence. People relaxed whatever adherence to anti-Covid measures they were observing, naturally enough, and largely forgot about social distancing. Young people, especially, threw themselves into party mode. At the same time we were told to “eat out to help out” and many holiday hot-spots became “super-spreader” locations. We now know that those who did venture abroad, especially to Spain, brought us back a new strain of Covid-19. Schools re-opened and, significantly for some local ‘spikes’, so did Universities. It seems nobody thought that mass movement of young people to University halls of residence across the UK might be a problem – or did they?

In the face of regional disquiet over the UK government response, and rising infections in university cities, the devolved administrations began to apply their own (some might say improved) responses. We already had confusion about what Covid-related restrictions applied, and the inevitable anomalies were (and still are) wilfully exploited by some. It just got even more confusing. Only the Welsh authorities imposed widespread travel restrictions, while in Scotland there were regional closures.

As I saw it, a significant proportion of the UK population was (and is) not disposed to following guidance, never mind instruction. Whether this is because they are incapable of understanding, or are wilfully disregarding, the importance of their part in suppressing transmission, I don’t know. With the population suffering, what was called, Lockdown Fatigue, pent up frustration, and being somewhat encouraged to anticipate a “festive season”, one had to hope that enough common sense prevailed. I thought it was highly likely we would see a third wave of infections in the new year. but actually the third wave was already under way.

Then, in short order, we got the first deliveries of two approved vaccines and the government approved plan for a 5-day family Christmas was belatedly abandoned and cut to one day. Into January and the first of the so-called “variants” was acknowledged, but we now know that one that had emerged in Kent in September began driving the third wave well before Christmas. It was this that caused the abrupt cancellation of Christmas festivities, and the imposition of another total lockdown.

Fast forward to now, late february 2021. In the UK we have a rolling programme of vaccination, with 2 vaccines available and more waiting to come ‘on stream’. 17 million + people, in the clinically most at risk groups, have had their first dose of a planned 2-dose vaccination. The essential second dose is not now to be administered until 12 weeks after the first, which is not how the designers tested it. The programme is going so well that the government has now decided they have the ability to vaccinate all of the adult population by the end of July 2021 with the first dose.

The third wave has seen us pass the ghastly milestone of 100,000 dead (and as I write this update, passing 120,000). Although the third wave seems to have peaked I can see no reason why the death toll will not eventually pass 150,000. Nevertheless, hand in hand with this perceived ‘peaking’, and the available vaccine programme apparently going well, the government has decided we can plan for coming out of lockdown. It would appear that the ‘data’ supports a cautious relaxation of restrictions, with several weeks between each relaxation to monitor the effects on infections. The official view is that this is the last of the lockdowns, that this direction of travel is “irreversible”, but this is where I have fears for a fourth wave.

We know that humans (at least in the UK) will not do as they are told. We know that sometimes this is because the don’t understand, sometimes because they don’t care, and sometimes because they are confused by variable and nuanced government messages. We know the economic and political imperative to reopen commercial life is powerful. We know the virus will continue to mutate. I think it reasonable to assume the government has learned epidemiological lessons which, I believe, it experimented with throughout 2020. I believe the government anticipates a fourth wave but feels it has enough data to pin its hopes on vaccines that can limit the size of that wave, and that can be ‘tweaked’ to deal with serious mutations, and in the context of coming summer weather which naturally suppresses the virus.

In the end I believe the success or failure of managing Covid-19, going forward to the winter of 2021 and beyond, will depend on whether people can remember, and apply, what they have learned over the last year to mitigate their own risks (hands / face / space), for the long term. Whether Covid-19 becomes like seasonal influenza, something we live with and manage with an annual vaccine, it certainly won’t be the last we see of it and neither will it be the last pandemic we see.

Shop ’til you drop?

On 15th June 2020, the UK government re-opened “non-essential” retail business (then, in England only) to trading.

TV reports showed queues forming outside retail parks, and interviews with representatives of other parts of the economy still closed, like ‘hospitality’. There were opinions from medical science about the safety of reducing ‘social distance’ from the present 2 metres, but not any behavioural science underpinning the relaxation.

I struggle to understand why any, never mind many, people are in such desperate need for “non-essential” items to the point they would queue overnight – as happened in some places. Crowds, bordering on disorderly, were seen outside so-called flagship ‘brand’ shops. What the social distancing was like inside the stores we do not yet know.

The point of this post is not to focus on the unquestionable health risk associated with this behaviour, but on what I perceive to be the fragile, and fundamentally unsound, basis of our economy which caused the government to allow shopping to resume in spite of the risks.

The UK is a service-led economy. We don’t manufacture much to sell to anyone but ourselves, and most of what we do sell to others is services, not goods – apart from very specialist and high priced items like luxury cars and aeroplanes. We sell ideas, designs, science, ‘systems’, lifestyles. We buy goods from (mainly) developing nations because they can make ‘stuff’ and ship it to us cheaper than we can make it ourselves. In consequence our economy, the flow of money round the nation, and critically into the coffers of the tax man, depends on us spending – especially discretionary spending. Much of our retail, and of course our leisure travel, sector is dependent on this sort of activity but the Covid-19 pandemic has also starkly exposed how dependent we are on routine international air travel for underpinning supply chains with freight carried on passenger airliners.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the confluence of two developments in the economic activity of so-called first world countries: on-line commerce and “just-in-time” manufacturing. Very few major sectors of our UK economy, whether it be retail (including food retailing), car making, construction, or even heavy industry like ship building or wind turbine manufacture, hold ‘stock’. This means, as an island nation, we are extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply chains. In the past we, as individuals, went to ‘agents’ for purchases and they co-ordinated all our purchases and placed orders with suppliers. Now we are all our own agents, making individual direct purchases and “cuttting out the middle man”. This sort of activity is almost impossible to plan for, whether in materials, manufacture or logistics, and so there have been shortages. Shortages create unease, unease creates panic, panic influences our buying behaviour to such an extent that we will buy things we wouldn’t normally buy – in order to get ‘something’: a sort of displacement purchasing.

And so, back to the point of this post. Judging by the queues, and excitement, as shopping became just a little bit easier it seems that we have become so dependent on buying, and spending (even getting into debt to do so), for our emotional and psychological health that we are individually prepared to take Covid-19 risks with our physical health. It also seems our economy is so dependent on our spending, even on “non-essential items, that our government is prepared to encourage us to take risks too.

Sadly, for some, “Shop ’til you drop” may become the reality.

Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it has coloured her feelings about the Scots ever since. She knows that this is irrational, but her slight experience has created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have an animal need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

UK Covid Travel Quarantine

On 8 June 2020 the UK government initiated quarantine restrictions on incoming travellers. With a few minor, and clearly (?) defined, exceptions everyone arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

In the weeks since ‘lockdown’, during a period of unusually fine weather, 1000 illegal migrants arrived on the shores of the UK by various means – mostly small boats crossing the English Channel. In one day alone, in the week before the new restrictions, 160 arrived. How many arrived undetected is obviously not known.

In the context of quarantine restrictions intended to prevent ‘importation’ of new Covid-19 infections, one has to wonder where, and how, the illegal migrants are being quarantined – for their safety and ours – and how many of them have been tested and proved ‘positive’ for Covid-19?

Violent Protest in UK – George Floyd

Violent behaviour in demonstrations is unacceptable, but mass public protest has always been ‘hi-jacked’ by violent elements. I’m old enough to remember what happened during the height of the Vietnam War protests, and the CND movement, and the Miner’s Strike where sometimes extreme violence was perpetrated by, and against, protesters.

However, our society at large is tolerant, even encouraging, of violence legitimised by context. You just have to look at mainstream Film, TV, video ‘gaming’ to see how we glorify violence.

It is also the case that political protest has always been exploited by ‘agents provocateur’ – for example police dressed as miners during the miner’s strike – and unscrupulous media looking for a ‘good’ story. I’m not saying these incidents in London and Bristol are like that, but you have to be mindful that those small number of violent protesters may have an ‘agenda’.

Finally, I would ask those who are uncomprehending of protests triggered by an event thousands of miles away, to consider these 2 points:

1) The sort of casual and institutional violence exhibited by those police officers in Minneapolis sometimes happens here in the UK. Simeon Francis, a 35 year old black man, died in police custody in Torquay Devon on 20th May this year. Whatever the cause proves to be, you can be sure that racism is in the UK too.

2) Put the boot on the other foot. How would you feel if your society was largely of a different ethnicity from yours, where justice and law enfocement was delivered by a judiciary and police force largely of that different ethnic group, and where members of your ethnic group were routinely abused, even killed, by them without sanction? When you come to the point where, even in a pandemic, you think “Enough is enough”, would you be calm and measured? Would you maybe lose the plot, or be susceptible to the encouragement of others to do so?

Generation after generation, the words of Martin Niemoller are there to remind us that if we turn our eyes away, and stay silent in the face of such events, we are complicit. However ‘liberal’ and fair-minded we believe ourselves to be, if we do not protest we are no different from those who allowed the stain of fascism and Nazism to spread across Europe in the 20th Century.

‘Tombstoning’: Metaphor for Relaxing Lockdown?

In recent years there has been a growth in numbers of people (mostly young people) undertaking physical challenges that involve high risk. One of these is ‘Tombstoning’ – the practice of jumping from height, sometimes considerable height, into a body of water.

Over the sunny weekend of 30/31 May, in Dorset (UK), there was an incident involving ‘tombstoning’ which provides a clear metaphor for the UK government’s decision to relax the strictures of ‘lockdown’.

People were frustrated by being confined, at that time for 10 weeks, and the government had signalled that we could have a degree of freedom to go outside. It began by saying, three weeks previously, that we could travel any distance to enjoy exercise, as long as we maintained the prescribed social distancing of 2m. Predictably, people took that as a green light to go to the ‘seaside’ – in their thousands. Cars streamed to the coast, clogging roads and carparks, disgorging their occupants in confined locations where it was inevitable that ‘social distancing’ would be challenging if not impossible.

Durdle Door, in Dorset, is an iconic and beautiful location where an enclosed shallow bay features a natural arch over the water. It is, or should be, self-evident that an enclosed bay surround by cliffs will have limited access, and the limited space on the beach will be influenced by the fall and rise of the tide. Apparently not. Many hundreds of people arrived and spread themselves on the beach. Amongst them were three who decided it was a good idea to test their bravery by climbing up the cliff, over the arch of the ‘door’, and ‘tombstone’ 70 feet into the shallow water, encouraged by the onlooking crowd shouting “Jump, Jump”. They were all seriously injured and had to be airlifted from the beach to hospital, although it is questionable whether land ambulances would have been able to get anywhere near on the clogged roads. To make room for 2 helicopters to land safely, hundreds of people were compressed into a small space, destroying what remained of any potential social distancing, and were eventually evacuated from the beach up the single access path in a massive ‘crocodile’ file. In this case, amongst the unknowable number of already infected people, any one or all three of the jumpers might have Covid-19, presenting risk to their rescuers and medics, not to mention that flying helicopters into that location is not entirely risk-free either.

This event is where my case for ‘metaphor’ comes in. Over a fairly short time frame UK governments (there are 4 devolved administrations) have decided to shout “Jump, Jump” while we contemplate tombstoning off a lockdown cliff. In the face of conflicting (and in some cases absent) evidence and scientific advice, we are being told we can come out of lockdown but, explicitly, to do our own assessment of risk. The problem with this is that the assessment of risk, in relation to Covid-19, remains, as it has been all along, selfishly focussed on not catching the disease rather than not spreading it. One thing the scientists are agreed on is that we need a robust, fully functional, ‘track and trace’ system to pick up, and isolate, outbreaks of disease. We have seen the value of this in other countries where they had systems for, and experience of, population scale testing and tracking in pandemics. To be robust and fully functional it needs to have adequate capacity, both for carrying out tests and analysing the results, and critically that means speed because outbreaks must be stopped quickly or they rapidly get out of control. At present the UK does not have this and, by all accounts, the statistics on tests carried out are suspect. The evidence, or should I say experience, from other countries where they have had a better grip of Covid-19 is that it keeps coming back. Other countries experimenting with coming out of lockdown have low rates of new infection, in the low hundreds at most. Our daily rate of new infections is stubbornly high, apparently around 8000, of which perhaps 25% are actually confirmed by a test. After 10 weeks of lockdown, which has limited movement and contact, one has to ask why? What is driving community transmission? I have my own theory, which is asymptomatic spread. Asymptomatic infectees will not be picked up by track and trace, or other existing testing, because they fundamentally require self-reporting of symptoms. Those contacted by ‘track and trace’, as having been in contact with someone who is confirmed (by another test) as infected, will be asked to isolate. However, though they may also be infected they may not have, or go on to develop, symptoms. In fact they may be the person who unknowingly gave the infection to the reporting person in the first place!

The science around modality of spread, of viability of deposited virus, of viable infectivity in a person after infection, of any acquired immunity and persistence of immunity, is weak. This brings me back to my metaphor. In a country where some seem only too ready to accept the government’s encouragement to “jump”, while applying their own assessment of risk to them, I fear we are all tombstoning to potential disaster with them.