Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "youth"

It wasn’t meant to happen but I fell in love with the german girl. It was astonishing and something I didn’t expect to occur, considering our countries had been at war for five years. They were our mortal enemies and my knowledge of Germany was based upon propaganda posters and dirty pub songs about the Fuehrer’s testicles. I only knew Germany through news reels which showed an endless sea of jackboots flood across Europe. The picture magazines taught me that Germans were tall, blonde and athletic, with a penchant for gymnastics and torch light parades. My RAF instructors reinforced the prejudice that Germans were lacking in humour or kindness. “Woe to any poor bastard shot down over Germany, they’ll skin the bugger alive, the Nazi scum.” By the time I had reached Belgium and Holland what I had already learned about Germans seemed about right. After I saw my first starving Dutch child, I knew Germans were evil and sinister.

It wasn’t until I crossed over into northern Germany and and saw the enormity of destruction the air war had inflicted on their population; I accepted that no one escaped sorrow and hardship in this war. My hostility towards the german people began to dissipate after seeing that their cities had been bombed back to the middle ages. A month into our occupation of Hamburg, I had seen enough emaciated german children living in helpless conditions to haunt me for the rest of my life. So, I dispensed with our orders to treat all Germans as hostile and suspect. It didn’t take me long to understand that Friede was both my Beatrice and my Virgil. She was the one who was to lead me through Germany’s post war inferno and to a greater understanding of Germany and its people.
Confined to camp on New Year’s Eve, we sang Auld Lang Syne at the chime of midnight and toasted the year to come. During the first days and then weeks of January, we waited in disjointed apprehension to deploy to Europe. After a while, we thought our captain had played a cruel prank on us. He promised us in December a mission in Europe and a greater role in this war, and it now seemed as fanciful as Meade’s desert premonitions. We waited and asked our sergeants, “You’ll know when you know,” was the answer.

We waited and Warsaw fell to the Russians. We waited impatiently and the death marches began for the near-lifeless prisoners of the concentration camps. We waited while the Germanic retreat of volks deutch began, from the Eastern, Hanseatic fortresses of Lithuania, Latvia, and Pomerania. Over two million Aryan refugees limped across the snow or sailed in over-laden ships across the icy Baltic. While underneath the slushy sea, Russian submarines hungrily trawled the waters in vengeful wait. The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz and we waited. For parts of Holland still under German occupation, “The Hunger Winter” was now in its fifth month and the citizens were reduced to consuming tulip bulbs and boiling shoe leather for nutrients. We waited anxious, ignorant, and callow for Europe.
I don’t know why but the winter rains stopped and spring came early in 1945. When Hitler committed suicide at the end of April, the flowers and trees were in full bloom and the summer birds returned to their nesting grounds. Not long after the great dictator’s corpse was incinerated in a bomb crater by his few remaining acolytes, the war in Europe ended. After so much death, ruin and misery; it was remarkable to me how nature resiliently budded back to life in barns, in fields and across battlegrounds, now calm and silent. The earth said to her children; it is time to abandon your swords and harness your ploughs; the ground is ripe and this is the season to tend to the living.


I was twenty-two and ready for peace. I had spent four years in the R.A.F as a wireless operator. During the war, I was lucky; I never came close to death. While the world bled from London to Leningrad; I walked away without a scratch. Make no mistake, I did my part in this war; I played my role and I never shirked the paymaster’s orders. For four years, I trained, I marched, and I saluted across the British Isles. During the final months of the conflict, I ended up in Belgium and Holland with B.A.F.U. My unit was responsible for maintaining abandoned Nazi air fields, for allied aircraft.


When Germany surrendered, to the allies in gutted Berlin, I was in Fuhlsbuttel, a northern suburb of Hamburg. Our squadron took up a comfortable residence in its undamaged aerodrome located not far from the main thoroughfare. At the time, I didn’t think much about Fuhlsbuttel, I felt it was between nothing and nowhere. It was much like every other town our unit drove through during the dying days of the war. Nothing was out of place and it was, quiet, clean and as silent as a Sunday afternoon.

While I slept in my new bed, in this drowsy neighbourhood; the twentieth century’s greatest and bloodiest conflict came to an end at midnight on May seventh. On the morning of the eighth, our R.A.F commander hastily arranged a victory party, for that afternoon. The festivities were held in a school gymnasium close to the airport.


No one considered or asked on that day of victory “what happens next.” That was tomorrow’s problem. I certainly didn’t question my destiny on that spring afternoon. Instead like the Romans, I followed the edict carpe diem: I ate too much, I smoked too much and I drank too much. And, why not I reasoned, the war was over and I had survived whereas many others had been extinguished as quickly as it takes to blow out a flame on a candle.
There was a time when the city’s skyline was low and my horizons stretched towards infinity. It wasn’t that long ago when I was a new immigrant to this country. I was fast putting down roots in this young land where billboards dotted the highway and promised ice-cold Coca Cola and happiness at the next exit. Back then, opportunity was long and endless as the freeway for recent arrivals to this nation.

When my second son was born, a little over fifty years ago, I bought a used Morris with a dodgy clutch. Even though I thought it a bit pricey, I purchased it because I needed it to ferry home my new child and my wife from the maternity hospital. In those days when wealth was measured by the health of your family and the strength of your convictions; we lived in small rented house on a cul- de- sac which edged onto a park. During the summer, those rambling woods were populated with the cries of children building forts and in winter the trees were hushed by dense clean snow.

When I brought home my second boy, he slept happily all the way through the car ride, cradled in his mum’s arms. I thought watching the road and stealing glances at them in the rear-view mirror; this is just marvellous, this is just right; the gods above have shown me mercy and benevolence. When I laid him down for the first time in his crib; I wished for him, I wished for me and hoped for all of us a calm and pleasant life. The simple hope didn’t seem out-of-place in our new land, this country of endless space, unspeakable prospects and bounty. Back then, in the not so distant past, I marvelled at my family, I trembled at my luck and grace to be a husband and a father.

Now in the present, the city is vast. The skyline is a behemoth of cold steel and glass. It erupts towards the earth’s ceiling like an arrogant gesture of one’s finger to nature and humanity. The Morris, the park and the little house on the cul-de-sac vanished long ago, along with my young family. We evolved with this country. We aged and through the march of days felt the beginnings of our decay. My wife, she was the first to let go and slip beneath the waves. I thought, her going was the deepest cut, the hardest blow I had ever faced in my life. But I said this is nature’s way; the old die off and the young take over. Life continues and so I thought, the next must be me. It was only reasonable because I am old and this is the law of life and renewal. But you, my second son, left before me. You disappeared at the moment where you could see the summit of your achievement but could not reach it. When you went, you didn’t sneak out in the night. You didn’t leave quietly, gently or with painless kindness. No, you went hard and heavy, slow and painful. There was no lesson to be learned from your end but there was so much to savour from your too brief dance on this planet.

Today is your birthday and it will always be for me a day of wonder. So, with your permission, I shall move backwards into the thicket of my time and my place. I will remember a second-hand Morris with a dodgy clutch, scrubbed and polished for your ride home, from the hospital. I will remember taking extra care on the roads which led us home. I will remember stealing glances at you in the rear-view mirror, wrapped tightly in your mother’s arms. I will remember smiling and loving the mystery and miracle which was you, my son Peter.
My sister Mary suggested we go on a day journey to Blackpool as a present for my school leaving.

The next Sunday, we took an early train from Halifax to Blackpool. It was my first train trip and I was enthralled at the prospect of an adventure. The giant steam locomotive pushed itself out of the station with blasts of grey smoke and a giant cry from its whistle. Mary and I sat on wooden benches in the third class compartment. We pulled the heavy window down and breathed in heavy, sooty air as we were propelled towards the sea. On our voyage, we passed innumerable, identical hamlets and villages. We saw the same grim and dour people enter or exit the train. Mary and I made fun of the stodgy, old people while we passed the time eating apples. For me, it was like I was leaving my homeland. In my imagination, our train could have gone to Zanzibar or Tashkent, instead of Blackpool, the mythical northern seaside town to the poor crowds from the north. It was a city filled with diversion and amusement where, throughout long summer nights, the town was set ablaze with a multitude of illuminations, and cheap romance was found between cotton candy kisses and the Ferris wheel. Always present, in the back ground was the noise from the crash of the sea waves and the thunderous roar of the death-defying roller coasters.

“Harry, Harry,” my sister called out to me, waking me from my dreams. “Don’t you worry; one day, Harry, we will grab a train and never look back, never come back. Bye-bye Mum, bye shite life… Hello world…”

Enthusiastically, I cried out, “Yes.”

When the train rushed into Blackpool station, Mary took my hand and we hurried out of the station waiting to find fun and adventure.

“Remember, Harry, no rainy day thoughts. Now, brother, it’s time to go find some fun!”

Outside, the sky was clear and blue and the temperature mild and refreshing. We were lucky because we found a cheap fish and chip shop on our way to the beach and boardwalk. We treated ourselves handsomely to two orders of battered cod and chips. Our lunch was wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Mary and I found a bench near the shop and we sat down to eat. We tore through our meal. We laughed and joked in between bites of fish drowned in malt vinegar. Feeling stuffed and sated, we crunched up our spent lunch and dumped it in a bin. We walked down to the beating heart of Blackpool, the promenade beside the sea. As we approached, we heard the noise, the electricity coming from the amusement rides. We saw the giant Ferris wheels turning on the horizon, with loud and boisterous occupants. We heard bells clanking while men barked into metal tubes, magnifying their voices.

Our first quest, we decided, was a walk on the beach as we had never in our lives seen the sea or smelled salt air. We hopped off the promenade and our feet sank into voluminous sand. Looking out towards the water, I observed tiny breakers riding up against the shore. Above us, seagulls frolicked and shrieked, spying stray bits of trash to eat. I had brought a ball with us and we played toss on the cool sand. We both thought we were on holiday, in our version of paradise. After a while, we stopped playing catch. We traipsed down the wide expanse of sea and surf, kicking the sand upwards, while walking astride each other. We were arm in arm, singing childish lullabies.

“Once upon a time, when birds shit lime and monkeys chewed tobacco…”

Mary said, “Let’s go to the Blackpool Tower.”

The tower stood 520 feet high and at its base was a giant building that housed a circus, zoo, and aquarium. We gained admittance for a couple of pence and immediately found the animal enclosure, where we laughed at the monkeys. I made silly faces back to them and imitated their gestures and their antics. The lions in their cage looked proud and indifferent to our entreaties to roar as kings of the jungle.

In a quiet moment, Mary said, “Not a bad life eh, Harry? For the lion that is… all he has got to do is look fierce and tough. Scare the shite out of people. But at tea time, he knows a man will come along and throw a nice bit of meat his way. A roast beef or a leg of lamb, we wouldn’t even see on Sunday. For that big pole cat’s supper, I’d roar and snarl and bark.”

Suddenly, she let loose a giant growl as if she were a lioness. We left the animal den and rode the elevator to the top of the tower, eating a piece of rock candy. We stared out across the sea and I told Mary, “If you stare a little further out, there is Ireland.”

“And a little further back is Leeds and bloody Manchester,” she replied. “One day, Harry, and never you mind, one day we will get out.”

We descended the tower, our cheeks whipped by the wind as we raced to the fairground.

“My treat, let’s ride the dodgems,” I called to Mary.

We jumped into our separate cars and chased each other around the ring, while sparks of electricity traced the ceiling. We drove into one and other and bumped other cars. We laughed until tears ran down our faces and our turn and our money ran low, ending the ride.

The day was quickly done. We made our way back to the station and our train, which would take us to Halifax and home. On our return journey; we were both exhausted from joy. Mary and I hugged each other.

“Promise,” I said, “that we can do this again, real soon.”

“Sure, Harry, sure we will.”

Separately and forlornly, we stared out of the window while outside, cloud and darkness descended……..
He is not a historian but he is history. Nearing 90, Harry Leslie Smith has witnessed or participated in pretty well every major historical event in the twentieth century. As a boy, he lived through the social and political upheavals generated by the conclusion of the first Great War. Growing up in the both the mining and factories towns of Northern England, he experienced the devastation wrought by the Great Depression.

When Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and started the Second World War, Smith volunteered on his 18th birthday and joined the RAF. So began Harry Leslie Smith’s involvement in the charnel house of war which concluded for him as a member of Britain’s occupational forces in defeated Nazi Germany.

Now nearing the end of his life and understanding that there are few witnesses left to these great and horrible events in one of mankind’s bloodiest and cruellest centuries, Smith has documented his early years in a series of social histories. Harry Leslie Smith latest work is aptly called Hamburg 1947: A Place for the Heart to Kip. It is the first book every written from the perspective of a British occupational soldier stationed in war ravaged Hamburg. From his billet in Hamburg, a city razed to the ground by remorseless aerial bombardment, he witnesses a people and era on the brink of annihilation. This narrative presents a street-level view of a city reduced to rubble populated with refugees, black marketers, and cynical soldiers.
At times grim and other times amusing, Smith writes a memoir relaying the social history about this time and place, providing a unique look at post-WWII Germany. Hamburg 1947 is both a love story for a city and a passionate retailing of a love affair with a young German woman.

Hamburg 1947 is an excellent introduction into the social and political history of post war Europe from a unique perspective of a common man at the forge of history. Hamburg 1947 is an excellent continuation of Harry Leslie Smith’s progress through the 20th century with the rest of his peers. Hamburg 1947 is available through Amazon.com, Indigo, Barns and Noble, booksellers worldwide and also as an e-book on Kindle and Kobo.

Hamburg 1947 is a must read this holiday season for anyone interested in lives lived on the razor’s edge of dangerous times. Harry Leslie Smith is also the author of the highly praised memoir 1923 and The Barley Hole Chronicles: From Hell to Hamburg.
Frieda and I walked back towards the river below the city centre. A wind had picked up and the air smelled of burning rubbish, while soot and ash rained down onto the pavement. The eruption originated from a truck puffing, slowing up the thoroughfare in front of us. Its roof was fitted with a boiler and a steam pipe. The vehicle dragged three carriages behind it like a primitive train.

It moved like a rheumatic centipede. A young boy raced across the top of the truck, feeding the boiler with an odd assortment of fuel ranging from chair legs to telegraph poles sawn down to size. The boy, like Vulcan’s apprentice, fed the boiler and shifted the burning timber with iron tongs to increase the inferno. The contraption wheezed ahead of us like a castrated dragon let loose on a desolate industrial waste land, belching smoke, ash, and cinder.

“What is the matter?” Friede asked. “Have you never seen German ingenuity before?”

“It’s the strangest thing I have ever encountered.”

Friede explained that when the Nazis began to run out of petrol; cars and lorries were converted to run off of coal and scrap wood. Mechanics attached primitive steam engines to Volkswagen motors. They were slow, smelled horrible, and were as dirty as mud. Friede laughed and pointed at the truck painfully meandering up the road and said, “Look, there goes Germany’s secret weapon to win the war.”

Suddenly, we were near the harbour which flowed out to the Elbe River. Apart from the homeless, few people ventured onto this roadway. Ahead of us was a scattering of refugees who carried the weight of their lives on their backs, or pushed it on baby prams with warped squeaking wheels. I saw a family dragging an enormous clock in their cart, its weights and pulleys clanking and screeching over the bumpy road.

Friede looked at the slim traffic of people and explained, “The DPs always seem to take the most ridiculous objects with them on their journey. I don’t understand it. Why would you haul around a time-piece? It can only remind you that your day is done.”

“What would you take into exile?” I asked.

Friede thought for a moment and replied, “My friends, my family, books, a phonograph, and if you are good to me, maybe even you, liebchen. What about you, Tommy, what would you take?”

I smiled and quoted Omar Kyam, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou, beside me. I’d also bundle onto my wagon as much luck as it could hold.”

“You are a brave soul if that is all you need to make you happy in banishment.”

I didn’t know where Friede was taking me and I grew concerned about this descent into the dead flesh of Hamburg. We were approaching the epicenter of the catastrophic 1943 Allied bombing mission code-named Operation Gomorrah.

“Are you sure it’s safe to be here?” I asked.

“Yes, come on; let’s get through this street quickly. Besides you have a gun in case we get into trouble.”

I had almost forgotten about my weapon; it was a required accoutrement while outside of camp. It was a Bren gun, which I believed put me in more danger from involuntary discharge than any threat from disgruntled former Nazis.

On either side of the road, windowless, lifeless, disintegrating buildings stood ready to crumble into unrecognizable cement. It was like walking through an excavated Pompeii long after Vesuvius had destroyed its citizens. The neighbourhood was bombed into non-existence because of its proximity to the harbour. Only a handful survived the firebombing; most were condemned to death by flames, suffocation, or drowning. A conflagration was created by the incendiary bombs. It produced hurricane-strength fire winds that melted people, animals, and inanimate objects, as it bellowed across the city consuming anything and everything that was combustible.

The road abruptly opened up onto a boulevard. Against the destroyed cityscape, a resolute statue of Charlemagne stood. The effigy looked bemused. Its sculptured arm pointed rigidly towards the destruction. Behind him, something else had survived, more or less unharmed through those nights of relentless bombing. It had dodged the uncountable bomb tonnage dumped onto this city from flying fortresses during the day and Lancasters bombing the city at night. It alone remained poised, and looked perhaps even nonchalant at its survival.

On closer inspection, I could see that parts of the edifice had suffered some bomb damage, especially the nave. However, in comparison to the surrounding wasteland, it appeared unmolested. The edifice stood proud and defiant against the adjacent ramshackle decay stretching in every direction.

Friede pointed and said, “That is the Michael’s Kirche. The Michael is Hamburg’s most famous church. The cathedral is over 400 years old and a testament to Hamburg’s greatness as a maritime city. It witnessed our downfall under the Nazis. But we believe that as long as The Mikel remains, Hamburg will survive and prosper and its people will rebuild their lives. It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I agreed reluctantly, “it is very beautiful.”

I had a strained relationship with churches and those in charge of delivering God’s word to the ignorant. Belief had long ago been beaten out of me by sexless nuns and alcoholic priests. I suspected that the church survived because it was a reliable geographic beacon for the RAF. It helped guide the waves of bombers onwards to their targets. The cathedral was like a trumpet to the walls of Jericho. Her survival wasn’t divine intervention, but military practicality.

“Every Christmas Eve,” Friede continued, “the Michael’s bells rang at midnight. You could hear their chimes from my mother’s home in Fuhlsbüttel, ten kilometers away.”

Friede picked up some bomb debris from the ground. Perhaps it was part of a roof or the side of a building; now it was just a shred of mortar. She played with it in her hand as if weighing the consequence of war and wickedness. After some thought, Friede dropped the small souvenir of wreckage and said, “I just can’t believe in God, at least not God from the bible.”

“How could he exist? What creator allows all this cruelty to inhabit the Earth? What type of God allows Germany to go mad and kill the Jews? What God lets Spain and Russia slaughter their innocents in civil and class warfare? Who would make a world and walk away from it as if it were a sandcastle on a beach at high tide?”

Friede wiped dirt from her hand and brushed away some hair that had fallen into her face.

“After all of this waste and destruction what can you believe in, Friede? What can anyone believe in?” I asked………

Hamburg 1947  A Place for the Heart to Kip by Harry Leslie Smith
After last night’s tea and after the washing up, I towelled my hands dry and stared at a familiar, tiny scar on my right index finger. It was a cut that bled and healed over eight decades ago. It was a silly wound from a childhood game of cat and mouse, played out on top off back streets bogs. I was being chased by some other street urchin and I jumped too quickly from one roof to the next and missed my footing. I fell to the ground and scraped deep my finger on the rough edges of an outhouse. As scars go, it is insignificant but I do remember proudly displaying the fresh scratch to my sister to show her my masculine ability to withstand physical pain. If that were my only wound from childhood, I’d have considered myself more than lucky. However, like too many children from my generation, like too many from this generation; there are bruises and bumps and hurts that don’t heal over time. Instead they rest, they sleep, and they are dormant deep in our subconscious until they attack like a bacillus intent on poisoning our self esteem, our self worth and our present relationship with the world.
So when I now return to the far away continent of childhood, a place no adult can enter except through the looking glass of memory, I go in as a detective hoping to uncover the mysteries of my existence. In those rough and tumbled days of my childhood it was a rare event for me to encounter an adult’s mercy or tenderness. It was even more extraordinary to experience direct and undisputed affection from my dad, who had been emotionally and financially destroyed by the tectonic turmoil created by The Great Depression. In fact, very early in my life, my father left his family because he could no longer feed us. He was like a man who knows the life boat will tip over if he clings to it, so instead in anonymous bravery let’s go and drowns beneath the waves. Yet before he disappeared into the dusk and fog of my recollections, I believe he left me the gift of imagination and compassion which is a mighty bequest to bestow on a young lad.
By the time I was seven, my father was almost a stranger to me. My only real contact with my dad was to watch him put on his hat and coat for his many daily solitary walks. I saw him leave glum and return home morose with few words for me. He had become an invalid, through a work injury and age. At that time we lived in a doss house located in Bradford. The squat was populated with down and outers. They like my family had no prospects for a better future as there was no work and the dole the government provided kept you on the edge of starvation. It was not a happy time and my father couldn't fathom the rapid change in our family’s circumstance but I believe he wanted to leave some imprint of himself on his only son. So on rare occasions, he’d kindly bellow out to come upstairs to our rooms, “Cum with uz lad ah av summa ta show thee.”
It was his prized possession Harmsworth History of the World in eight volumes. They were bound in leather embossed with gold leaf. The books were elegantly mounted across his writing desk. When I was allowed to leaf through the beautifully bound books, vast treasures awaited me. For a boy of seven not used to exotic worlds, the books were stunning. With me on the floor and my father near me, I opened the book and felt the silky pages between my fingers. My father warned me to be careful as these books were special, ancient books. They were not playthings. They were to learn and to improve oneself. With my father close by, the noise of boarders below, and the catcalls of my mother seeping up through the floorboards, I became lost in the “The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” I saw magnificent illustrations, exact drawings of faraway places, unheard-of kingdoms. I dreamed that I was before the mighty Pyramids of Egypt. I imagined myself walking through the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which soared seventy-five feet above the ground flush with a bounty of flowers. On another page, I was at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia conversing with ancient Greeks, or sparring with Alexander the Great. I lingered at the temple of Diana, breathing fresh, clean Ionian air. On another page, I stumbled upon the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and felt a million miles from the doss house and our cramped room. Only the smell of my father’s pipe or the harsh sound of his throat clearing to indicate that I was too rough on the book brought me crashing down to kith and kin. But there were more pages to explore and I sailed between the Colossus of Rhodes while the lighthouse of Alexandria guided me into safe Egyptian shores. On many weekends, my father offered me this rare treat, this passport to escape our present discomfort.
On one such day after our excursions through ancient lands, my father said to me, “One day, lad, one day, you might go out into the world and see some fantastic, magical places.”
It was the tenderness of a father that believed he had nothing to give his son, no legacy, no trade. My dad gave me a far-off prospect of another land, another country, another hope. At the time, I would have given up vague promise of new horizons, for a chance to linger for a moment longer with my father beside me while I as little boy rummaged through the history of the ancient world. It was not to be and those respites were not to last between my father and me; events unfolding below our rooms would banish him from our lives soon enough.
When we entered the apartment, a sullen old man greeted me. It was the cuckolded grandfather. He snarled at me in unintelligible German.
“What’s up with him,” I asked.

“Oh, he is in one of his moods today. Isn’t that right, Opa?” she asked sarcastically.
Friede turned to me and explained,

“He has been on his hobby horse all day: About how everyone is stealing from him. How he never gets enough to eat. Stealing what?"

"He hasn’t had a pfennig to his name since 1913. Before you arrived, he screamed that Mutti and I showed him no respect. We were just illegitimate guttersnipes."

"I gave the ingrate an earful. I told him he was lucky Mutti let him stay here, considering he chucked her out at twelve years old."

“That is when he got nasty. Isn’t that right, Opa? You went on about how the Nazis knew how to do things and wouldn’t allow an old man to be treated like rubbish by the daughter of a whore.”

The unshaven old man sat on a wooden stool. He wore thick, uncomfortable woolen trousers held up by bulky suspenders. He looked as thin and as fragile as a tall blade of grass in the dry season. The old man muttered, “Thunder and lightning.”

“Harry, please give him a cigarette or else we will get no peace.”

I pulled out my cigarette case and offered him a Player’s. With shaking hands, he pulled one to his mouth. For a moment, our eyes met; his were filled with watery hatred for everything around him.

“Come,” Friede said. “Let’s get out of the kitchen. I don’t know how long we’ve got until the Gellersons come back. Bring a bottle of wine with you. We’ll take it to my room,” she said playfully.

It really wasn’t a room, but an alcove that housed a woodstove and a chaise lounge. The walls were thin and covered with heavy floral wallpaper. Along the wall, Friede had pinned up small photos of her girlfriends and glamour shots of German movie stars cut from defunct magazines published during the war.

We put some pillows behind our back and propped ourselves up on the day bed. We drank warm Rhine wine out of a shared coffee cup and ate slices of bread slathered thick with butter.

“Did you hear,” Friede said excitedly, “the British have started up Radio Hamburg again. So we can finally listen to jazz and dance music banned by the Nazis.”

I laughed and sipped back my wine. I thought these moments with her were the closest to paradise I had ever got in my short and squalid life. Lying beside Friede was like a wish come true from Aladdin’s lamp.

To me, she was as mysterious as the sphinx and as sensual as nightfall in an exotic garden. I clung tightly to the hope that my desire for her was more than physical want, and that her interest in me went beyond food parcels. Perhaps that was all we could demand from each other after a long war.

Maybe the best we both could hope from each other was the shared warmth from our curled up bodies and to forget the incinerated city waiting outside.

We finished half a bottle of wine and I sang silly songs. I made extravagant compliments to her eyes, her hair, her body, and her soul. After a while, we undressed each other. We made love on the chaise lounge, which was just large enough for us to hold each other tightly, in a selfish and generous longing.

For a long time, we remained in Friede’s small lair, while outside the thin shuttered door, the old man raged against the occupation, his life, and his new lodgings. The din slowly dissipated and faded into the background like a smudge on the wallpaper.

I must have dosed off because I woke to the nakedness of her back and the curve of her spine. I traced my fingers against her skin and noticed that just below Friede’s left shoulder; she carried a horrible discoloured scar.“What are you doing back there?” she asked in a sleepy voice.

“Nothing,” I replied nervously as if I had been caught eavesdropping.

“You are staring at my war wound, aren’t you?” she asked, turning over to kiss me on my forehead.

“Come on then, give us a cigarette,” Friede demanded, hungry for nicotine. She drew her knees up underneath the blanket and blew a smoke ring from her lit cigarette.
I am quite sure that, this year, on my birthday there will be many good wishes, along with some cake. No doubt, there will be champagne because, after all, I am turning eight-nine.

“That is very old,” a relative recently said to me.

“It is an ocean of time,” I replied.

On good days, I marvel at my advanced age and on bad I lament that so many have passed before me. Being a winter baby, I have felt February’s austere light ebb, fade and grow cold upon my face for close to nine decades. Time has marked my body with many scars from this marathon, I started in 1923. I hope my finish line is far off in the thicket and I have still lots more time to ramble along the river bank of existence.

When I began this sprint, in my life’s journey, there was little to mark the day of my birth from any other day. There were no parties, balloons or fancy sweets, just a passing greeting from my mother, while my older sister tugged on my hair and counted my years of life. Afterwards, she would give me a pinch for good luck.

When I turned eighteen, a squeeze of good fortune from my sister would not have gone amiss considering Britain was at war. I was certainly going to need providence, on my side, because I was scheduled to begin my induction with the RAF, the following day.

My birthday in 1941 was a quiet affair. My friend Roy had already left to join the Cold Stream Guards while my other friend Dougie Butterworth was ill again and had taken to his bed with a quivering heart. I did not want to spend my last birthday, perhaps my last days on Earth with Eric. His fast talk about the money he was making in selective war service sickened me.

Instead, I decided to indulge myself with a visit to the public baths. They were located at the top of Boothtown Road. I arrived and paid an attendant 50p. It was a privilege to soak in a warm bath rather than a tin tub filled with tepid water in a kitchen. A female attendant led me along a narrow passageway until she found an unoccupied room. Inside the narrow, wood-lined space was a hanger for one’s clothes, and a deep, porcelain, bathtub. The attendant placed a plug into the bath. She turned the taps on until the bath was filled with warm inviting water. When finished, she closed the door behind her. I undressed and submerged myself in calm, cleansing hot water. I was empty of thoughts or cares until the water grew cold and it was time to dry myself, dress, and depart.

Afterwards, I spent some hours with my sister Mary who had come down to Halifax to bid me farewell. We did not talk much. We sipped our ale. We held each other’s hands on the table. We looked into each other’s faces, seeing if we could read our past upon them. She joked and bantered more than me because I was withdrawn and frightened about what tomorrow would bring for me. I was as scared as I was as a child when the nuns beat me because my future was as ominous as my past. I experienced the same form of loneliness when Albert our father left us. There was no one and nothing which could ease my sense of apartness from the civilian world. When it was time for my sister to leave, she got up and kissed me.

“Come back safe, Harry, just come back.”

The following morning, I awoke with a jittery feeling like it was a school morning. I dressed warmly and went to the kitchen. My mother was sitting alone, warming herself by the oven. Bill her lover had already gone to work and my half brother’s Matt and junior were at school. She made me a cup of tea and cut me a large slice of fresh bread. There was a generous lather of butter and jam on it.

“Go on, tuck in. Well, lad, this is it. Keep your head down, Harry. Don’t do anything daft because life is short, my boy, life is short.”

I hugged her with mixed emotions. I mumbled farewell and made my way to the train station.

The platform was deserted while I waited for my train to take me to Padgate for induction. It was cold, damp, and grey; sweet smoke from the McIntosh candy plant fell like drizzle across the station. I reached into my overcoat and found a near-empty packet of cigarettes.

I placed one in my mouth and furiously struck a match, quickly inhaling the harsh tobacco. In the distance, I heard the whistle of the train. I smelled the coal burning off its engine. I breathed in the coal that had been dug from the pits of Barnsley, Elsecar, and Barley Hole. I tasted it in my mouth, around my teeth, and on my tongue. It was the soot of my father, my grandfather, and all my ancestors who laboured beneath the ground.

As the train drew its way into the belly of the station, another passenger approached the platform. He was a man in his fifties, long past the time for war, and he was whistling the tune, ‘Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run…”
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Published on February 22, 2012 06:58 • 1,992 views • Tags: biography, birthday, boyhood, britain, death, family-saga, love, memoir, raf, romance, war, world-war-two, yorkshire, youth