Sunday afternoon and my arch enemy is about to arrive. Zoe, Liz’s daughter has picked him up and I can hear them at the front door. I’ve lit the coal fire and done a quick tidy up and Zoe is showing him through. In the hallway he asks “Is the Mad Monk in?”
“Bloody hell Zoe,” I say. “I had that door locked to keep the riff raff out!”
“Stephen,” he says using my Sunday name as he comes into the lounge. “We don’t mind slumming it with the riff-raff. Anyway, how lovely to see you!”
“Always a pleasure to see you, Harry,” I reply.
Harry is just approaching ninety years of age and all his faculties are in order although his memory is perhaps not as good as it used to be.
“Take a seat Harry,” I say. “What can I get you? A glass of water? Lemonade? A cup of tea perhaps?”
Harry turns to Zoe, a fake look of disdain on his face
“Pillock!” he murmurs.
Liz brings him a glass of French sherry..
“That’s more like it,” he says.
The women go off into the kitchen to sort the dinner and Harry and I chat about various things. Once Liz and Zoe come back though, we resume battle.
“Harry went for a brain operation the other day,” I announce, matter of factly. “It was free but they charged him £2000 search fees.”
“Dear me, I wish you’d try some new jokes Stephen,” comments Harry. “If you had a brain you’d be dangerous,”
Over seventy five years ago when war broke out Harry decided the army wasn’t for him so he went on a wireless operators course in Preston then signed up in the merchant navy as a ‘sparks’.
His first voyage took him down through the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and Iraq. One day while his ship was being refuelled he went for a walk and he heard a voice call his name. He turned to find one of his old schoolmates hailing him. Frank and Harry went to school together, both went to sea and bumped into each other in Basra, along the Shatt-Al-Arab river, a place Harry called the ‘arsehole of the world.’
Harry had no money on him but his friend Frank treated him to a meal and a few beers and they didn’t see each other until again until Harry’s fiftieth birthday, many years later.
“That doesn’t surprise me Harry,” I say. “That poor fella, having to pay for everything. No wonder he didn’t want to see you again.”
“Stephen. What you don’t realise is how hurtful insinuations like that are to a sensitive man like me.”
“I’ve not noticed your sensitive side Harry.”
“Well, you will in a minute if you don’t top my wine up, garcon!”
The wine is topped up and Liz calls for a ‘skivvy’ to help in the kitchen.
“That’s a good word for you Stephen, skivvy. Off you go and if you do a good job there might be a tip in it for you!”
Atlantic convoys during World War 2 were a lifeline for the UK. Bringing in food and supplies and munitions as we fought alone against the Nazis after the fall of France. U boats were a deadly menace to our ships and Harry told me once how he lay on his bunk shivering with fear during an attack. If a ship went down there was no one to help. Other ships couldn’t stop for survivors as they too might be torpedoed. After a while though Harry told me you just got used to the threat and got on with your job. He told me of trips to the Middle East taking tanks and equipment for the Middle Eastern campaigns. A trip from Argentina to the UK with a cargo of rice. A visit to Rio and a trip to New York.
We eat our Sunday dinner with little let up in the banter. Later when it’s time to go Harry turns to Liz and says “Lovely meal darling.” Then with a wink he says, “pity about the company though.”
So, let me wish you a super ninetieth birthday Harry, and let me give you the toast that you so often give to me,
“May your shadow never grow less.”