Welcome! You are about to read the first three chapters (roughly 10%) of the novel Wingwatch and to get an introduction to its main characters: a Paratrooper awaiting his baptism of fire on D-Day, a young boy struggling with his fears in 2014 and his father going back home from the school where he teaches history. It won't take long before a watch changes the lives of the three of them.
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The paperback version is available at amazon. This edition includes over 130 pictures and additional contents.
The paperback version is available at amazon. This edition includes over 130 pictures and additional contents.
translated from Italian by Ross Nelhams
Pressision S.A. - Rue de la Paix, 19 - 2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland)
Copyright - 2013 Marco Strazzi
All rights reserved
For those who were there
And for those who always will be
This is a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Names have been changed because it would be improper to attribute to real people words and actions that have been invented, no matter how plausible they might be. However, the Ninth Battalion and its heroes really did exist. They are as authentic as the gratitude of those who visit the fallen at Ranville Cemetery and who, every year on 6 June, celebrate the veterans’ return to Normandy. And they are as authentic as the testimony and the reconstructions that you will find listed in the bibliography. Perhaps some readers will find the time to make use of these resources as they look more deeply into the subjects this novel deals with and will reach the same conclusions as I have in writing it: there are times when the truth is too big to fit in a book or a website, so big that we are tempted to let it push beyond the limits of mere history and enter the realm of fables.
1. 6 June 2014, 00:02
Two seconds to push the button. As fast as Sam-Sam Youny on the court: dribbles, shoots, scores. Too quick for anyone to have heard. I didn’t think I would get back to sleep, not tonight. I can remember the ‘Good luck!’ the goodnight kiss, putting my hand under the pillow to check the bag was there, but that’s all. It’s such a stupid alarm clock, with Winnie the Pooh’s arms showing you what the time is. It’s for kids and I’m seven years old. No actually, eight, since two minutes ago. Luckily this is the last time. From tomorrow I’ll use the new radio alarm clock, the one shaped like a basketball. They’re going to give it to me at the party, I know because I looked in Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. That way I won’t have to remember to hide this toy every time Malik and Yves come over. They’re my friends but I bet if they saw it they’d tell everyone at school: ‘Did you know Théo sleeps with Winnie the Pooh like when he was five?’
I can’t hear anything so I can get going, without making any noise because if Mum wakes up I’ll be in trouble. She’s been angry with me for two days and I can’t answer back or try to explain, if I do she just gets angrier. She’s different to us, it’s best if she doesn’t know anything, we can’t make her run pointless risks. Dad’s probably right, but in the meantime I’m stuck in the middle and he can’t come with me because it’s too late to convince Pierre. When he was explaining the mission it was like he didn’t notice anything, like the time the bus driver went past our stop even though me and Mum were holding our hands out: ‘Be careful, you have to do this and then this, don’t forget anything, be sure to get here on time.’ It was just like our teacher, except she asks whether we’ve understood what we have to do, and if someone says ‘no’, then she explains it again, while I didn’t get a chance to say anything with Pierre. I had to wait until he’d finished to say that perhaps it would be better to wait for Dad.
‘We don’t even know what time he’ll get back. And he wouldn’t be any help.’
‘You know why.’
What could I say? He’d been right until yesterday, but now Dad gets it. Thanks to the watch, he says. I don’t believe him. If you ask me, he didn’t want to admit he still had the dark inside. If only he’d understood two days sooner he could have come with me and said sorry, and that way we would have all been happy, especially me because I wouldn’t have to face the hallway on my own. But instead…
I’m scared. I was too embarrassed to tell Pierre but he knew anyway, either from my face or because I stopped talking. I’m sure he knew because he changed the subject. He asked me about the match even though he’s not interested in basketball, in fact he doesn’t know anything about it. But he paid attention while I was speaking. When I said that I wasn’t that bothered about it because I had other things on my mind, he got angry.
‘What would your mates think if they knew? Or mine, if I told them I wasn’t bothered about the mission? You need to take all of it seriously: school, basketball, promises, and commitments. Otherwise how can I trust you?’
What did that mean? That he would get someone else to help him because I’m too little? I wouldn’t be able to stand that. If I say I’m little then that’s alright, I do it sometimes to avoid getting told off, but I don’t like hearing it from other people. And what’s all this about trust? Of course he trusts me, otherwise he wouldn’t have given me his friends to get them ready for the mission. It took me ages and I didn’t even have time to finish my French homework, but they’re perfect. I’m going to take them to him now, and then we’ll see if he still has anything to say about trust. I very much doubt it. In fact he’s probably already forgotten about it because that’s what grown-ups are like. Sometimes you can’t tell what’s going through their heads and perhaps they don’t even know themselves, so they end up going on and on about things and making things up.
With him it’s trust, with Mum and Dad it’s epileptic fits. Like when we were in the shopping centre. They could have just said that they weren’t going to buy me Lost Galaxy because it was too expensive, and that would have been it. But once they started up it was never ending, like a grammar lesson: you can’t sit in front of the computer for too long, you’ll damage your eyesight, a boy your age had an epileptic fit and ended up in hospital after playing for three hours solid. And they didn’t even explain what an epileptic fit was, they just pulled their worried faces and that put an end to the discussion. How could I answer back if I didn’t know what they were talking about? As soon as we got home I turned the computer on to check whether they’d been making it all up. There were some hard words but I understood the important bits because it was well written. Convulsions: it’s when you roll about on the ground. I don’t know how much it hurts but it doesn’t look very nice. I wonder whether being scared can give you convulsions as well.
Back in the hallway again, at night. Like last summer.
Time certainly is a funny thing. Why is it that some things seem so recent when they happened months or years ago? Take the bike from the raffle, for instance. I could have sworn I won it yesterday because I can remember everything. In fact it’s more than just remembering because I can see and hear and smell and feel everything – the colour of the ticket, which was pink and I didn’t want it but Mum and Dad talked me into it, people practically shouting so that their friends on other tables could hear them, the smell of chips, the paper napkin I kept on my knee so that they wouldn’t notice the ketchup stain on my shorts, Vincent and Melissa fighting over the same ticket, the head-teacher reading the numbers out, Mum screaming, the can of fizzy orange she knocked over when she put her hand up and that luckily was nearly empty, people clapping, Grandma laughing like it was her who had won, Dad lifting me up onto the saddle, the photographer telling me to smile. To convince myself that it was two years ago I have to get on the bike and try to pedal. I can’t anymore because it’s gotten too small, or rather my legs have gotten too long. It doesn’t matter. I’ve decided that was the greatest day of my life and I’ll never forget it. As for the other thing, I’d have liked to forget that as soon as it happened, but even now I can’t. When I told Mum about it, she just answered that it would fade with time. Is she right? And what if it sticks in my brain forever, like the raffle?
It would have been better if it was dark, that way I wouldn’t have noticed anything. But at night we always leave the bathroom light on and the door a little bit open so that you can find your way if you need to go. It was hot and I was sweaty even though all the windows were open. I went to the toilet, had a wee and washed my hands, but as soon as I went back into the hallway I could feel something moving above my head. I reached into the bathroom and switched the hallway light on. I looked up and that was when I saw them: two black things going round in a circle, like the fans on the ceiling of that pizzeria where Yves’ parents took us for his birthday. But we’ve never had any fans. Suddenly it felt as though my heart skipped a beat and my legs started shaking. Bats! Like the ones I saw on that documentary on TV, when I changed the channel because they scared me. I don’t even like the pretend ones on the Carnival float – when the Ratapignata come past I look the other way. Dad tells me they’re a symbol of the city and they can’t hurt me because they’re made out of paper mache, but with their wings open like that I always think they look ready to attack.
I couldn’t move. I just stood there watching them, and it felt like I was puffing up, like when a strong wind blows and you keep your mouth open and it seems like there’s too much air inside it. Maybe the bats knew it and they were waiting for me to explode like the baddies in games so they would have smaller pieces to eat and could lick up my blood splattered all over the walls and the floor. I shouted at the top of my lungs and then ran back into the bathroom and locked myself in. Luckily last year I didn’t know about convulsions, otherwise I’m sure I would have had them then.
‘What’s the matter? Where are you?’ It was Mum, I could hear her footsteps coming towards me.
‘Bats! I hate them, make them go away!’
‘Let me in.’
‘No! If I open the door they’ll get in as well. Call the police!’
She stayed on the other side of the door and talked and talked: she said that you can’t call the police because there’s a bat, that the only bats in the house were those two in the hallway, that they had got in because we’d left the windows open, that they fly around like that because they can’t see, that it’s not true that they drink blood or that they get into your hair, in fact if anything they’re helpful because they eat the mosquitoes. But I was crying and running back and forwards in the bathroom, and when I looked in the mirror I got even more scared. I didn’t recognise myself: I was bright red, my eyes were all puffy and I had a cut on my cheek. I was afraid a bat had scratched me while I was sleeping to get at my blood, but I had done it myself with my nail, wiping my face too hard to dry the tears. Mum explained all this to me, but only later on. At that moment I knew that I was caught in a trap and that not even the window being shut would save me. The bats had the house surrounded and any minute now they were going to smash the glass. I would have no way out, especially if I was there by myself. So I turned the key in the lock and Mum burst in. She hugged me and made me sit next to her on the side of the bathtub. I stopped crying but then I started again when I heard some bangs coming from the hallway. I thought more of them were coming, as big as Batman or the ones at Carnival, evil and thirsty. ‘It’s Dad – he’s trying to push them outside with the broom.’
After a little while I heard him saying, ‘You can come out, they’ve gone.’
‘And what if they come back? I’m staying here.’ It took them half an hour to get me to come out, and only after they had promised me that I could sleep in their bed.
I slept there for a week and then I went back to my own room, but we kept the windows shut at night all summer long. They moaned about the heat but I started shouting as soon as anyone talked about leaving one open, even when Dad said that he’d stay next to it to stop the bats getting in and that he’d close it before he went to bed. In the end, when spring came, and while grumbling about how much it cost, they got two air conditioners put in, one in their room and one in mine. That way, if we keep the doors open, it cools down the hallway, bathroom and a little bit downstairs, too. But in any case I never go into the hallway. I don’t need to any more: ever since that night, I haven’t had to go for a wee until morning.
Now, though, I have to go all the way along it and down the stairs, cross the kitchen, open the door at the end and go into the garage. It’s ten times further than what I was afraid to do up until yesterday. But that’s my mission, he said, and I can’t chicken out now: ‘Remember you’re a brave soldier.’ I didn’t know how to answer. ‘Do you know what brave means?’
‘It’s when you’re not scared…’
‘Everyone’s scared, even me and my mates. But we face up to our fear because if we can look it in the eye, it doesn’t look so bad, and that makes us brave. Just the same as you, and you’ll prove it on Sunday. Got it?’ I said I did, but it wasn’t exactly true. ‘You have to be like your Dad, right?’
Dad had never spoken to me about it. In fact he seemed surprised I knew – his face even went white. He said he was tired from the journey, but once Mum explained that he does that when something bothers him. And I think he was right to be a bit shaken – it’s a good story and he was brave because he didn’t know that really there was no need to be afraid, apart from the dark inside. At the time I’d understood that more than what Pierre had said about things being less scary if you know your fears. I thought about that afterwards. I was thinking about it at school as well, yesterday morning, and in the end the teacher shouted at me for not paying attention. Perhaps it’s like the convulsions – they scare me, but I know about them. If I get convulsions from being scared I’ll know that they’ll go away again after a bit, while if I hadn’t found anything on the internet, I’d think that they went on forever, and perhaps they actually would. And then there’s the song. If I get too scared, I’ll think of that. I didn’t tell Pierre, but Dad reckons it might work.
I’d better get going, otherwise I’ll be late and there’s no telling how angry he’ll get.
I can hear something - Mum and Dad talking. And I can see through the crack under the office door that the light is on. Why are they in there this late? I’d like to listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes I do – I stand behind the door and hold my breath to hear better. Maybe they have some secrets, and I like finding out secrets. One evening, before the night the bats came, they found me listening and they got angry. They weren’t in the kitchen though, they were in their bedroom sighing and groaning. I didn’t know what was going on so I went in. They quickly pulled the sheets over themselves and said I shouldn’t just walk in like that, that…
The floorboard that’s coming unstuck! I was supposed to walk up against the wall, how did I forget that?
‘What was that?’
Mum’s voice. If she comes out and sees me what can I say? That I was going to the toilet? And then what? What will I do if she waits for me outside? Dad promised me that he’d take care of Mum if he needed to.
Maybe he’s managed to distract her – I can still hear them talking. I feel a little bit like Pierre. I walk without making a sound, in the dark, hoping no one notices me. But he and his mates are in real danger. What could possibly happen to me? Mum could make me stay at home all morning, at worst. I don’t think she’d cancel the party after all the fuss she’s gone to getting everything ready.
The garage door! That’s strange – I’ve got here without realising it. I was so worried about Mum catching me sneaking about that I forgot about the bats. Perhaps bad things only exist when you think about them, and when you stop thinking about them they disappear. Now that’s an interesting thought.
‘You’re on time.’ There he is, stepping out from behind the tool cupboard. I should be used to him by now, but the sight of him still scares me a bit. He’s so tall, taller than Dad and the other grown-ups I know. ‘Were you scared?’
‘You know I don’t like lies, don’t you?’
‘How much is a bit?’
‘Quite a lot…’
‘So? What did you do?’
It’s hard to keep up when he fires questions at you one after another. Often I can’t, so I just stay quiet and wait until I know how he wants me to answer, because otherwise I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid and he’ll get angry. Not this time though – I want to tell him about my secret weapon straight away: ‘I’ve found out there’s another way.’
‘To do what?’
‘To not be scared.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘You don’t need to look it in the eye. You just need to forget about it.’
‘Great idea, maybe us lot could use it. Is that it?’
‘Is that the only reason you’ve come? Because you’ve forgotten about being scared?’
‘No, no – it’s my mission.’
‘Good boy.’ When he smiles he looks friendly, it’s a shame he doesn’t do it more often, and that it doesn’t last a bit longer. Now he’s looking at me strangely: ‘Come into the light.’
‘I want to see something – what’s that on your cheeks?’
‘Nothing.’ He’s noticed it, even though Mum scrubbed it hard and it’s practically dark in the garage because when the light bulb on the ceiling stopped working Dad just stuck the first one he happened to find in the socket, and it’s too dim.
‘It’s us that’s going, not you,’ he laughs – how can he be so calm? ‘Have a wash tomorrow morning, otherwise you’ll look silly in front of your guests.’
I’d better change the subject, I’ve had enough of this one: ‘You know… he remembers you now.’
‘He’s never forgotten me. Could you forget someone like me?’
‘And the watch… he did it.’
‘You both did it. You did well, too. Did you bring them?’
‘They’re here in the bag.’
‘Empty it onto the floor.’
‘Perfect. Stand them up and mind you don’t touch their faces – do you remember the drawing for school?’ Of course I do, I had to draw it a second time because I’d rested my hand on it and it looked like the fingerprints you see on TV. ‘Close to each other, two by two. Not like that – they have to look at each other. That’s it… thanks. And happy birthday.’
‘I’ll leave you a slice of cake, that way if you have time…’
‘I’d like to, but I’ll be far away. You’ll have fun anyway – the house will be full of people.’
‘It’s your birthday too…’
‘My mates will wish me the best on the plane and we’ll have something to eat together. Now get going.’
‘Can I stay a bit longer? Until you leave?’
‘No. It’s late and you need to get some rest.’
‘Don’t you want to be on good form for the party?’
‘What’s the matter? You know we don’t question orders.’
‘No. I mean yes. But I wanted to ask you…’ You can see from his face that my questions are starting to get on his nerves. It’s the same face as Mum and Dad have when they say ‘we’ll talk about it later’ or ‘not now, I have to concentrate.’ I have to concentrate too, when I solve an arithmetic problem, but it doesn’t seem all that complicated. Maybe it’s harder for grown-ups. I know I should leave him alone because he won’t be staying much longer, but I won’t leave until he gives me an answer: ‘When are you coming back?’
I stared intently into the darkness, trying to make out those faint glimmers of light and convince myself that the others really were sitting just a few feet away from us. Since we had taken off I had not seen their faces, only their silhouettes. Lit cigarettes offered the only hint of their presence, strange and intermittent points of light that seemed to hang from invisible strings rather than from my mates’ hands. They all sat in silence except for Captain Kadwell, who had chosen me to strike up a conversation with. This time he was not satisfied with simply teasing me to kill time like he did in the mess hall. He wanted to get a reaction out of me, to see if I was ready. When he held out the sandwich to me I did not even shake my head, hoping he would think that I could not hear him over the roar of the engines, but he tried again, this time speaking so loudly that he was practically shouting: ‘If you’ve gone deaf then I’m sorry, Roger. It’s too late to pull a sickie.’
I could not tell him to leave me alone and nor could I tell him to go to hell. Because of his rank, apart from anything else. But I doubt whether I would have done it even if he had been a stranger I had met on civvy street. The broken nose, the light heavyweight build, that way of looking whoever he had in front of him right in the eyes … He had picked that up in the ring, he said, to beat his opponents before he even threw the first punch. ‘I can hear you, sir.’
‘Then you’ve got no excuse: refusing sandwiches from an officer is a court-martialable offence. What's the matter, don’t you like the party? But there’s so many of us.’
‘Eat up and wish me a happy birthday. That’s an order.’
‘That’s better,’ he said as I made an effort to swallow, ‘I’ve got no need for a moody guest. Or for a soldier who passes out cos he’s hungry.’
Would he be quiet for a bit, now that I had done what he asked? I wanted to think, to find a way of forgetting about that weight between my chest and my stomach, the feeling of a foreign body that I had had since the captain had made us form up on the runway. We had lined up alongside the fuselage facing the rear of the plane, the captain near the cockpit because he would be the last to get on board and the first to jump. ‘Twenty OK!’, ‘Nineteen OK!’, we repeated just as we had done during the training jumps as we checked the parachute of the man in front of us, until the captain shouted ‘All OK!’.
The first man up the step ladder started to sing and the rest joined in, even the captain. I could not be the only one not taking part so I sung as well, and as I settled onto the metal bench I tried to convince myself that we had more in common than just the months of training, the uniform and the mission. We all felt the weight of that unwelcome stowaway and we were all trying to keep it at bay with the words of an ode to beer and wenches.
But we were better off than Ted was. I had never seen him cry, not even when he had taken a bullet in the shin during the first live fire exercise. He swore like a drunkard kicked into the gutter by a pub landlord, but there were no tears and he even turned down the morphine they offered him, too furious to register the pain. That was the end of the line for him and he knew it instantly. Any other man would have let them send him home without making a fuss. But not him, he wanted to stay even if he had a limp and could not do much except for helping out in the mess hall or the armoury. When I saw him at the wheel of the truck that would take us to the runway, I was happy: my friend, the best friend I had in the platoon, was the last one I would say goodbye to when the time came to leave. I changed my mind as we shook hands in the light from the headlamps. Now he was crying alright. There were no sobs, in fact no sound at all, except for six words that he could barely bring himself to whisper: ‘I should be with you lot.’ I made a joke of it, I said he was in luck because I’d forgotten to close my locker and inside there was a few bob, he could buy a couple of pints on me. But it was no good. This was not the goodbye I would have wished for.
When the song ended they fell silent. A few of them lit up. Had they managed to banish the stowaway or was it that he was still there and they were trying to burn him up along with the tobacco in those glowing, red embers? For me the song had not done the trick. I needed something else. What about a memory test? The complete list of everything I had on me, dozens of objects to mentally tick off – that would help me kill time and forget all the other stuff. Better to find out that I had left something back at camp than to let myself be crushed by that nameless weight.
Standard issue shirt with string vest and lucky jersey underneath. Battledress trousers with a 24-hour ration pack and two Mills grenades in the large pocket over my left knee, dagger and morphine syringe in the right-hand pockets, shell dressings in the back pockets. Denison smock with silk map sewn into the lining; escape kit, vitamin pills and paper money in the inside pocket; woollen hat, beret and revolver in the outer pockets. Toggle rope wrapped around my shoulders and waist. Camouflage face veil around my neck. Sleeveless jump oversmock. Lifejacket. Sten gun and magazines stuffed inside the parachute harness. Helmet with camouflage netting. Boots. Woollen gloves and socks. All the rest was in the back pack and webbing squeezed into the bag attached to my right leg: Gammon and phosphorus grenades, spare bandolier of ammunition for the platoon’s Bren, bayonet, pullover, clean underwear, cloth cape, plimsolls, towel, an additional 24-hour ration pack, mess tin, enamel mug, water bottle, entrenching tool in two parts, wire-cutters, gas-mask, torch, holdall containing knife, fork, spoon, razor, toothbrush, shaving mirror, comb, bootlaces, an envelope with needle, thread and buttons. And then the military paybook, the identity discs round my neck and the battalion’s maroon epaulet loops, fixed to my shoulders at the last minute because one of the boys in the mess hall had pointed out that I did not have them: ‘If the Commanding Officer notices, you’ll be in trouble.
Everything where it should be, about a hundred pounds. A hundred pounds and three ounces, in fact. I forgot to mention the book, maybe because it went into the bag first, so out of place that I put it in before the real equipment. They had told us that it was important to read it carefully, although the first words seemed like a joke: ‘This book has nothing to do with military operations.’ I had never much cared for reading, except for comics and the sports pages in the papers, but I was not the only one who could not understand why they wanted to make us waste our time reading a manual on how to behave. Would a few instructions at camp not have been sufficient, just a quick half-hour to remind us not to call them frogs?
The man in civilian clothes – someone from the Ministry, they said – gave a serious speech, without smiling once. He wanted to watch as the books were handed out, as though he did not trust us or was afraid that someone would not get a copy. When I started reading, the bits about history, geography, customs and phrases to memorise were fairly interesting. But as for the advice, it seemed to have been written for imbeciles: greet people; respect everyone, in particular the women; show understanding for the suffering endured and appreciation for the contribution of the Resistance; try to express yourself in French, making every effort to understand and getting anything you do not understand written down. And the things we should not do, which sounded like Mum’s lectures when I was a kid: do not criticise the army that was defeated in 1940; do not get into arguments about religion or politics; do not accept food from civilians because they have too little to share it; do not mess things up even in an empty billet; do not drink yourself silly; do not give away, much less sell, items of equipment or rations …
‘You used to eat something before matches, didn’t you?’ Him again.
‘With your little team.’
‘Tottenham Hotspur aren't a little team, sir. We’ve won two FA cups.’
‘So you keep saying. But that was in the Dark Ages. Liverpool, on the other hand, keep on winning. 1943 champions, remember?’
‘Of the League North. And Tottenham in the south, a few weeks back.’
‘I didn’t know that. You mean that to improve all they had to do was get rid of you?’
‘I only played four times ...’
‘And then they realised they’d be better off using a bloke off the street, or sticking with ten men.’
‘No they didn’t,’ he had touched a raw nerve and, in the heat of the moment, I forgot to add ‘sir.’ ‘It’s the crowd’s fault. They started whistling the minute they heard my name in the line-up because I was only sixteen and no one knew who I was. They wanted professionals, famous players ...’
‘Sounds fair enough.’
‘If they’d been ours then yes, but they came from elsewhere. They asked their clubs’ permission, played the match for sake of the thirty shillings they made out of it and then went back where they’d come from. When one of them turned up at the last minute, they sent me to watch with the supporters even if I was ready to go onto the pitch. But it doesn’t matter: those were strange championships, in fact they still are. Teams winning 9-0 one week and then losing 6-0 the next, to the same opponents …’
‘Strange? The normal ones’ll start back up again soon, and then we’ll see how you do. If you’re as good as you say you are, I suggest you sign for Liverpool.’
I avoided answering. After all, I was in his debt. When I had asked his permission to wear the Spurs shirt under my uniform he had sighed ‘yes’, with the air of a bored older brother left at home to look after his younger sibling while their parents are out. He did not even listen to me as I explained that it would bring me luck because the cockerel on the team’s emblem also symbolises France, and that was where they were sending us. Sitting there now, I was sure that he had no interest in football. He simply wanted to take my mind off things, and at the same time he was wondering, as he had been for months, whether I would be up to the job. As far as he was concerned I was a boy, but I was seventeen and a half, and during training I was always one of the best in the platoon. The only thing that had not gone very well was the first jump. A clumsy, rough landing, but I was back on my feet instantly. Bruised but uncomplaining, I did not say a word. ‘The younger they are the more they want to be heroes,’ he had muttered after witnessing the scene, without looking at me but loud enough for me to hear.
I tried to make out his features so that I could guess what he would say next to get a reaction out of me, but his blackened face was indistinguishable from his helmet, and his eyes alone seemed to penetrate the darkness. Heroes … there was no need for heroes, he had repeated again on the truck. All we had to do was to play our part and act out what we had learnt and practised with what had become a tedious thoroughness during the last few weeks. No improvisation and above all no mistakes. The objective was identical to the mock-up they had built for us at the camp, down to the last detail. In place of the concrete there were iron, wood and fabric frames, but the machine-gun and anti-aircraft emplacements, the gun casemates, the barbed wire, the minefield and the anti-tank ditch were all exactly like those shown in the photos. Everything had been faithfully reconstructed, including the final part of the route that led to the site, and it was all to scale. The hundred yards we covered at West Woodhay would be the same hundred yards when we reached the objective, not eighty-five or a hundred and twenty. It would go just like it had during training, the captain reassured us. Why shouldn’t it? He wanted to sound sure of himself but I think he must have had some doubts. Very few of us, one in twenty at most, had actually seen action. And we were all young, me most of all. The majority of the others were between nineteen and twenty-two years old. How were we going to react when we saw our comrades fall, when we heard shots fired and the cries of the wounded?
Even he was not a veteran. He had spent four years in the army but for the first three of those he had not moved from his barracks in Liverpool, much less seen the enemy. He had earned his rank in the Territorial Army and then signed up as a volunteer because, as he explained the first time I met him, he was bored of sitting twiddling his thumbs. I had no difficulty believing him because I was there for the same reason. A few weeks later though, I thought he was joking when he swore that to be brave you need to know fear and to look it straight in the eye. In fact, he went on, it is vital that you are afraid. It seemed like a strange theory coming from a boxer but he insisted, with deadly seriousness, that it was the perfect weapon. Aggression and caution: this was the recipe that had won him plenty of fights without running pointless risks and which he swore, perhaps exaggerating as he was prone to do, would have taken him to the 1944 Olympics had Hitler not decided to try to conquer the world. It did not matter, he added, as the Krauts were done for. We would deliver the knockout blow and he could go back to the ring. And to Jane.
They had married two weeks before he left for training. He was the one that insisted. They had known one another all their lives, as neighbours, schoolmates and then as boyfriend and girlfriend. There was no point in waiting, he would say to me, as though persuading her had not been enough and now he wanted to convince me as well. The war would soon be over and he would be going home all in one piece. Limping with the weight of all those medals, at worst. He – and only he – liked that joke a lot. From what I had understood, Jane did not find it very funny. He had shown me a photo: light-coloured hair down to her shoulders (‘red,’ he had specified, ‘but fine and shiny, not like that ball of wool on the top of your head’), a forced smile on her freckled face and her gaze fixed on a point beyond the camera that gave the impression she was looking far into the future. I thought it looked like a fragile, anxious face, but I was wrong. One day I would learn that Jane was stronger than me.
How many of us would be going back home? I remembered a snatch of conversation overheard in the mess hall a few days earlier. Two medical officers were talking about preparations that would have to be made for the first casualties, as soon as possible because they were expecting a lot of wounded. When they realised I was listening to them, they got up and left. There was no need to – we had all been discussing percentages for some time. Some said nearly all of us would die, others that it would be a walk-over because the Krauts would surrender. I had plumped for fifty-fifty. That basically meant that if the captain and I had been the only ones taking part, one of us would not live to see another day. But who?
I would find out soon enough, I thought as he elbowed me in the side. He had his left hand in the large pocket of his trousers and he seemed to be trying to find something. I would have liked to say something funny, that if he had forgotten his toothbrush it was too late to go back, but I did not have the courage to, and went back to my thoughts. I was afraid, that continual weight on my stomach, but not of dying. I was afraid of going home an invalid, a burden to myself and others. And above all I was afraid the captain was right to doubt me, that I would let my mates down, that if I made a mistake then some of those boys, with whom I had passed all those exhausting months working, cracking jokes and cursing the officers that took us on marches in the middle of the night, would end up dead.
I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye and turned around. The captain was shining the electric torch onto his left wrist.
‘What is it, sir?’
‘I’m charging the watch up.’
The leaden sky was a dam on the point of breaking. Sat on his scooter with one foot resting on the tarmac, Cédric Roussel listened to the gentle patter of the first raindrops on his helmet and eyed the red traffic light twenty metres ahead of him, past the queue of cars. He mulled over cutting into the left-hand lane to overtake them, putting himself in pole position before the lights changed. It was risky: there might be a cranky policeman on the other side of the crossroads. But if he got away with it Cédric could gain a few seconds and, perhaps, manage to reach shelter before the heavens opened. As he began the manoeuvre he had no need to look through the car windows in order to feel the other drivers’ eyes on him. They must have been giving him the same hostile look that he used every time the tables were turned and some idiot on two wheels bumped into his wing mirror in an effort to squeeze through the space between his car door and a crash barrier.
Never mind – he was prepared to take a few horn blasts and a couple of swear-words, and even to run the risk of a fine and a point on his licence, if it meant not arriving home soaked to the skin like he had twenty days earlier. The next morning, following the same route back again in the bus and sneezing five times a minute, he had memorised every possible shelter he passed so that he would be prepared the next time rain threatened. Then in the evening, to be sure that he had found all of them, he had studied the route on Street View as well. Now, he had to admit that if he was going to find himself in the same situation once more, he was in luck: he was just two-hundred metres from safety. In the pallid light that seemed to herald an eclipse, Cédric completed the manoeuvre with a swerve to the right that placed both wheels on the zebra crossing, as though trying to ensure that he violated every possible traffic law. The sign above the chemist’s in front of him, on the ground floor of the building on the corner of Pessicart, Arène and Domaine du Piol, flickered to life. The pitter patter rhythm of the raindrops was speeding up.
Green! Cédric plunged into the half-curve that usually marked the limit of the city-centre traffic and the start of the way up towards his home. Not today, though – his destination was a new five-storey building, a blocky, grey affair with glass verandas and red balconies, slotted between a shorter apartment block and a small house with a pitched roof. A questionable mix of styles, but Cédric was more interested in the entry tunnel to the car park than contradictions in town planning. As he reached the centre of the road and then crossed it, he noted the already slick tarmac and reminded himself to proceed with caution. After driving up the ramp to the garage door, he reversed the scooter so that the headlight was pointed back toward the entrance. Safe and sound, under cover and almost dry – a miracle. Just a short distance away the deafening cloudburst was hammering down on the city streets; drops as heavy and shiny as marbles which, if it were not for the splashes they produced on impact, might have been mistaken for hailstones.
His first thought was all too predictable: why had he done it? Why had he left his convenient apartment in the city-centre, which no one would have forced him out of, with school a ten-minute walk away, to chase the mirage of a house of his own, exposing himself in the process to the caprice of the weather twice a day and miring himself in debt until he retired? An idle question, little more than a way of convincing himself that his reasons were still valid two years after the move. The garden was tiny, but it was all for him, Sylvie and Théo. The garage, the fresh air, those extra thirty square metres or so. And the cost – that had been reasonable, tempting even. The owners had been in a hurry to close because they were moving to Canada, and it had seemed like a chance that could not be missed. Their savings had covered half of the price, and for the rest they had taken out a mortgage that did not seem prohibitive. They had almost two full salaries coming in, with Cédric working more than full time, thanks to the secondary school reforms which had allowed him to bulk out his hours with tutoring and training programmes, and the money Sylvie made from her part-time job. If nothing changed in the next eighteen years they would be fine. If.
When you fall in love you lose your head, and they had fallen in love with that house at first sight. Commuting would just be a minor detail, they had thought, mistakenly as it turned out. The family’s budget, already under strain, would not stretch to buying a second car, so they had had to make do with a second-hand scooter. It was nearly always Cédric that had to use it because Sylvie’s working hours meant that it was easier for her to pick up Théo after school.
A roll of thunder, closer than the others, triggered the alarm on an illegally parked sedan on the other side of the road which was acting as a breakwater in the torrent that had formed between the pavement and the road surface. Cédric turned the engine off, took off his crash helmet and hung it on the handgrip. He would have to kill time for a bit, and the only items to hand were the flyers sticking out of the letterboxes to his right, next to a panel with a series of buttons and an intercom, and his mobile with headphones. He opted for the music. At times like this, the choice was always the same: Glasgow 1976 or Birmingham 2006, thirty years apart but the same energy. It would have been a tough call had Cédric not entrusted the decision long before that to the principle of alternation. Today, it was the turn of the fortieth anniversary concert. Status Quo live, a strictly personal antidote of proven efficiency against unexpected attacks of boredom or annoyance. No one else in his circle of friends found pieces such as Caroline or Down Down relaxing; indeed, it would be more accurate to say that no one could stand them. When in the car with his family, he felt obliged to choose something less aggressive – Adele, Coldplay, Dido, the perennial charm of Abba – partly because he could still remember something Sylvie asked him many years earlier, almost triggering a diplomatic incident while their relationship was still young: ‘Can you actually tell the songs apart?’ For when his friends or colleagues were in the car with him he had Alizée, Celine Dion, Superbus or Mylène Farmer – mostly home-grown pop, in an effort to discourage the jokes: Cédric the anglophile, the one whose capital city is London, or rather Liverpool. If he actually did live in Merseyside and had to get around on a scooter, the climate would have been enough to stop him from being tempted to live in a house in the country.
All of a sudden, it looked as though someone outside had turned the lights back on. Cédric gave a push with his legs to move towards the exit. The downpour had given way to a fine, dense shower of smaller drops that shone against a sky lit up by the sun, which had appeared somewhere to the west of the city. The sunshine produced a pearly-grey light that was fairly encouraging, albeit as rare for the French Riviera as the gloomy clouds of a few minutes previously. It looked more like one of those English afternoons when you don’t know whether to put on a short-sleeved polo or a waterproof. As he backed up again – it was too soon to get going – Cédric allowed himself a smile, the first since the head teacher had given the green light for his weekend plans, and touched the display to silence Francis Rossi’s Fender Telecaster. He thought he could hear something else, besides the patter of raindrops and in between the wails of the sedan – a chorus of voices rebounding off of thousands of raised arms and stretched scarves. But it was a false alarm, just his memory playing up.
Twenty-six years earlier, another life and another world. The Channel Tunnel did not yet exist, and neither did low-cost airlines. In those days there were charter flights, which cost less than the major airlines but were still expensive enough to wreck the finances of an eighteen-year-old student and put even the shabbiest of London hotels beyond his reach. But even so, he had not wanted to forgo the trip with his friends to celebrate the end of their final school exams. ‘The Four Musketeers’ – that was what their classmates had called them, in recognition of their rock-solid friendship. So they had slept in a Youth Hostel and eaten fish and chips every day, much to the disgust of Olivier, Damien and Wilfred. They were only half joking when they made the most of every setback to taunt him about the choice of destination. With the vile weather, dilapidated accommodation and depressing food, it seemed more like a punishment than a holiday, and an unmerited one at that – all of them had passed their exams. He still spoke to Damien now and again. He was the manager of the supermarket where Cédric and Sylvie went to do the shopping on Saturdays, leaving Théo in the supervised children’s area with toys, a television, tables for drawing and occasionally an amateur clown or magician. Every time they saw one another, Damien reminded him of how he had spoilt everyone’s fun with that holiday from hell.
‘Bugger England!’ he always said. ‘I’ve never been back there.’
As for Cédric, he had returned once on a short study break partly paid for by the school. But the adventure worth remembering was the one with his friends who, in spite of their grumbling, had chosen to let him go on making the decisions, in recognition of the fact that his authority was based on undeniably strong foundations: his English test results and his encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music and football, the cornerstones of British culture as far as any eighteen-year-old was concerned. His position as leader had emerged unscathed even after some of the more questionable activities he had come up with during those two weeks. The concert at the Hammersmith Apollo, for instance, which had been a brutal assault on the eardrums orchestrated by an unlikely-looking, punk-era survivor and his band mates, enveloped in the acrid-smelling cloud from hundreds of smoking joints. Or the train journey to Liverpool on the first day of the football season, a mid-August afternoon that felt like November. Cold, damp and grey, a nightmare for his friends but a dream come true for Cédric. This was the place he had craved to see ever since the day he had adorned his bedroom door with a simple, hand-drawn copy of the sign that greets players as they come down the steps from the dressing rooms: a red liver bird on a white field with the words ‘This is Anfield’. Anfield Road, home of Liverpool FC. A warning to visitors, a reminder to the home side, a myth for football fanatics.
This is Anfield. And he was there. He was about to watch a match from the concrete terraces of the Kop, the local supporters’ area where, in those days, fans still stood to see the game. Thinking back, he could not even remember who Liverpool were playing. The team must have been small fry, otherwise they would not have been able to find tickets. He savoured the wait from within the passionate heart of Anfield, contemplating the still-empty pitch and murmuring about how there is nothing quite so green as the grass in an English football ground. Wilfred was standing at his side, listening to him with the melancholy air of someone who is forced to accept the evidence before him: that his best friend has reached a point where psychiatric hospital is no longer just an option but rather a painful necessity. Shortly thereafter it had begun to rain – the same slow, steady downpour that was forming a thin veil on the bonnet of the wailing sedan at that very moment, but ten degrees colder – and the crowd had begun to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ hit that had become the Reds’ anthem during the 1960s. Cédric had known the words by heart then and he still did now. Oddly enough they were in harmony with the scene outside the entrance to the car park: When you walk through a storm / Hold your head up high / And don't be afraid of the dark / At the end of the storm / Is a golden sky / And the sweet silver song of the lark / Walk on through the wind / Walk on through the rain / Though your dreams be tossed and blown / Walk on walk on with hope in your heart / And you'll never walk alone. The opportunity to sing along with fifty thousand fans at Anfield Road had been right there for the taking, but Cédric had managed nothing more than a noiseless murmur. Stock still, covered in goose pimples, with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat, utterly overwhelmed, he wondered how on earth Wilfred and the others could laugh and make jokes about the bald, bare-chested, tattoo-covered behemoth who was singing his heart out three terraces below them. Then he had hit on the answer: they were enjoying themselves, or at least trying to, because they were at a football match. But Cédric was in church, and church was not a place for laughter. How would he be able to justify his friends’ sacrilege if the faithful around him had held him responsible? It was best not to think about it. Three years after the Heysel disaster and despite the assurances Cédric had used to convince the other musketeers to accompany him, Liverpool fans still had a fearful reputation.
The first time, he had been seven years old. Now, at eighteen, he was amazed by how easily he could summon up the image of himself sitting in the living-room, a comic book left open on the dining table after he had been interrupted by an unusual sound, his gaze glued to the television, which had been left on after the news, the voice of the commentator struggling to make himself heard above the noise of the crowd, and that slow, solemn, emotional song. Liverpool versus Saint Etienne, 1977 European Cup: Cédric, as the living sports almanac that he had become, had no difficulty in slotting the different fragments into a precise context, but the memory that most stood out was the annoyance he had felt when Mum had explained to him that they had to cheer for the greens because they were French. He remembered asking himself: aren’t the reds better, with their supporters’ song? He had closed his comic, sat on the sofa, alone because Mum had things to do and Dad was no longer around, and watched a match from start to finish for the first time. Three one to the reds – he had been right, they were better, and it must have been the song that made them invincible.
That had been the last he had thought of it until, years later, he heard his schoolmates exchanging exciting news, or simply urban legends, of Pink Floyd’s forthcoming tour in France. ‘Who are Pink Floyd?’ he had asked himself with the distress of a boy who, excluded by his peers, contemplates the abyss of his own ignorance for the first time. And yet, that name did ring a bell… of course! He had seen it on one of the boxes that Mum had brought with her when they had moved to Nice. A visit to the basement had confirmed it. There were three albums; apparently Dad must have liked them. This was his chance for a crash course that would then allow him to take part in his friends’ discussions. What strange music, he had thought as he listened to the first tracks of Meddle, until a sudden thrill replaced his bewilderment: it was the reds’ song, like at the match on TV! Just a few seconds at the end of the third song, followed by a rhythmic chanting: ‘Li-ver-pool! Li-ver-pool!’ What did it have to do with Pink Floyd? The following day, at school, he had gone up to the kids who claimed to know everything there was to know about all bands, too eager to find out the answer to be afraid of making a fool of himself, but the know-it-alls had let him down. They had had nothing useful to tell him, except what the song’s English title Fearless meant. That was logical, he had thought: if you listen to that song you cannot be afraid of anyone, and so you win all the time, like the reds did against the greens.
His next discovery, which came at the end of the TV news, had shaken him even more than the record. Liverpool were coming to Paris, to play against Real Madrid in the European Cup Final, the following month! There was no time to lose – he had to find out everything, and make sure he was ready for when the television would play the invincibles’ anthem. Why? He did not know, and nor was he interested in finding out. He had to do it, and that was that. He would look for the answer later on, when he reached the age at which he began to ask himself where his crazes had come from. And he would decide that it had been a product of the same blend of music and football, four years after the first time he had experienced it and what seemed a lifetime for a boy growing into a teenager, a coincidence which made the imminent arrival of Liverpool in France seem like some kind of prophecy.
The first thing he had done was to give up reading comics and dedicate all of his weekly pocket money to France Football, the bible of French and international football. But the match was still too far off for the magazine to run a feature on the teams. What could he do? His Mum had come up with the solution. The restaurant where she worked had English newspapers delivered to it every day as a simple and effective way of attracting British tourists. All she had to do was to ask the barman to save them instead of throwing them away at closing time, and she would bring them to Cédric. They would be almost forty-eight hours old when he read them, but what did it matter? There were four or five pages dedicated to sport every day, and at least two of them focussed on football – a veritable goldmine. That at least was the theory, but he was soon to discover that he lacked the necessary tools to reach the mother lode.
English newspapers, he had realised with horror, were written in English. How would he be able to read them? The English he had learnt in the previous months, during the two weekly hours of reluctantly endured lessons, would at most be enough to see him through the written exam. He had spent several days wondering how he could have seen it coming as the crumpled, indecipherable pages piled up on his desk, a cruel and – he had to admit – deserved punishment for his laziness. Then a headline had caught his attention, and not only because it was about a Liverpool player. He could understand it – the little he knew was enough to make out the meaning of those five words! His dejection had vanished, swept away by hope and by the discovery of a universal truth: that nothing can stop a motivated eleven year-old fighting for a good cause. Grammar book and dictionary, dictionary and grammar book: evening after evening, Cédric had figured out every last word of any articles that had ‘Liverpool’ in them, hours of frenzied work to overcome the barrier of hieroglyphics that stood between his thirst for knowledge and the fount of all wisdom.
In the space of four weeks, just in time for the final, his efforts had produced two memorable results. In ascending order of importance, he had got top marks on the penultimate English test of the year – the teacher seemed suspicious, how else could he have done so well if not by cheating? – and he had solved the mystery of what ‘hat trick’ meant. The expression had tormented him for a long time, until he had suddenly seen its connection with ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish’s feat of scoring three goals in a single match. For some reason Mum had seemed more interested in his test marks than in Dalglish, a puzzle he mulled over as he sat in front of the TV waiting for the final in Paris to begin. Still, she was a grown-up, so she must have had a good idea of what was important in life.
It had been a dull match and the outcome was uncertain but Cédric, whose ears pricked up at every hint of singing, was not worried: the Reds were invincible. They had edged the match, just as he had expected, and three years later, by which point Cédric’s obsession was beyond curing, they had become European champions once more. It had been on that occasion, during his evening inspection of the English newspapers, that Cédric had stumbled on the Holy Grail: the title and lyrics to the Kop’s soundtrack. At last, the notes had become words. Despite the threatening prospect of the maths test that awaited him the following morning, Cédric had not thought twice about staying awake to translate the text and discover the secret behind the Reds’ invincibility. Afterwards, more than feeling proud of his mastery of the language, which had allowed him to finish in just half an hour, he had felt confused. The words in front of him were surprising, and also slightly disappointing: sadness and hope instead of unconditional joy and certainty, a rainstorm where the blinding light of success ought to be shining.
Twelve months later, he had understood. As he trudged to school one morning in late May, after long hours filled with nightmares, his face wan and his mind replaying those horrific images – forty people dead, crushed between a stadium wall and the alcoholic rage of Liverpool’s hooligans – he had felt as though he was caught in a hurricane. When he arrived, his least sensitive schoolmate had greeted him with jokes – ‘Seen what your English friends have been up to?’ – which he did not have the strength to answer. Then the other Musketeers had stepped in to back him up, making it clear that they would not tolerate any further jibes. A comforting thought had struck him: that what the song said was true after all, and that as long as he had friends he would never walk alone. And if that went for his schoolmates’ teasing, why not believe that it could go for bad memories as well? While his passion for Liverpool plummeted, shattered by the Heysel disaster – it would take months for it to return, and when it did it was in a different, more mature form, he had assured the other Musketeers, whose doubts about this were vindicated during their trip to England – his relationship with the Kop’s anthem had become deep, personal and permanent. He listened often to those few seconds at the end of Fearless, and afterwards he felt better, stronger, ready to face the storm. Walk on walk on with hope in your heart / And you'll never walk alone: the message was for him, the promise of a future that would fill the void left by his most painful memory.
Three years later, standing on the concrete terraces of the Kop, Cédric listened to the live version of that promise, blinking back the tears that blurred his vision as he gazed at the tunnel entrance where the warriors in red appeared. Destiny had put them to the test, just as it had Cédric, but they were determined to get back their innocence, their victory, their happiness. His friends’ laughter had died away, drowned out by the crowd, which rippled and roared like a stormy sea. Resistance was neither advisable nor possible; the only option was to let yourself get carried away with the crowd. But their inexperience had led them to choose a spot behind a metal bar which had rapidly been turned from an arm-rest into a kind of breakwater that the wave of fans would crash into before retreating and rushing down again. To protect their ribs they had had to move apart from one another, each one making the most of spaces left here and there by the retreating tide and managing to climb a few terraces further up. But they were no longer side by side and Cédric, on catching a glimpse through a sea of red scarves of Olivier, the shyest member of the group, who had gone as white as a sheet, had felt guilty for a moment.
But then he too had let himself be swept along with the waves, which became waterfalls every time the Reds scored, human torrents that thundered down to the advertising billboards as though they were about to stream over them and overflow onto the grass. Three or four times, that had happened. Liverpool had won easily and Cédric was radiant, despite a few bruises obtained before he had learnt how to move through the surge. Going home on the train, he had made the mistake of admitting that he had not managed to sing along with the rest of the stadium because it had been too overwhelming, and his friends did not miss their chance: ‘So basically you got the best-looking girl in school into bed and then you got stage-fright.’ They would say what they wanted, it did not matter. In fact, he had laughed along with them. Nothing could dampen that full, perfect satisfaction at having just experienced the most exhilarating chapter of his first eighteen years.
END OF THE PREVIEW
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