I came across a patient the other day. He was dying. An old man who was grateful for the life he had. Standing in the darkness’s abyss which was calling him, he reminisced fondly about the life he had behind him. I am often struck by the triviality of death in someone while had reached the ripe old age of 98. Death connects each and everyone of us on this earth and yet it’s something we fear throughout our own lives. Here was a man who had fought in the Second World War, had lived through tremendous changes in the world, had brought his own children into the chaos of what we call life and made it through the other end.
There were no tears when talking frankly about his life, and he mostly talked of the woman he had spent 75 years with. She was still alive and worried, still at the matrimonial home. The only time Patrick welled up was talking about his wife, Yvette, alone, confused and scared. For 75 years, Patrick had provided her with the perfect life. ‘not to worry about anything,’ he said. But now he knew she was frightened and alone. ‘I may never see her again,’ he said reluctantly.
I am a huge war buff. I love talking to these old sweats about what it was like to face the Germans, and I wanted to take his mind off things.
He was born in 1921, county Claire, in Southern Ireland. His father was a blacksmith, his mother cleaned the local school, a school Patrick attended. His childhood was the usual post Great War struggles. The Great Depression, influenza wiped out one third of his village and prospects weren’t particularly great. Taking on an apprenticeship with his father to become a blacksmith, there must be more to the world and when war broke out in Europe again, Pat, as he now liked me to call him, headed straight to the railway station. ‘To Belfast,’ he said, punching the air. Outside of the station in Belfast, was a recruiting sergeant, ‘a row of medals which would glisten like jewels in the waning sunshine.’ The sergeant was barking orders at everyone, like there was this sense of urgency to sign up as many people as he could and before Pat knew it, he was heading to the South-West of England to learn how to fire cannons. ‘How exciting,’ he said, the memory still vivid in his mind.
After six weeks of training, Pat ventured out to the local village of Upavon. The pub, the Geese and Fox were having a dance. The local girls were not used to such an array of fine young men from the far corners of the country.
The music was fast, loud and intoxicating, the big band music which had come over from the America. In the fetid swamp of the dance floor, his eyes locked onto this ‘angel of a woman,’ ‘she just stood there staring at me, her eyes bore into me like she was reading everything inside of me, I felt giddy,’ he said with such a Broadstone smile. I was there with him, in the dusty room back room of the pub. ‘I walked over to her and asked her to dance. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t skip a beat, just walked into my arms. The music was swing, you know, that Glen Miller big band stuff. Jesus, she cooked me to the bone, the heat of her. The smell of lavender and the natural sweet scent of her skin, she was a gift from above.’
His face changed, dropping, the gaze distant. The type of gaze only soldier know so well. The thousand-yard stare, a mind taken to places locked away.
I wanted to know about the battles he fought. He tapped my hand; the skin stretched tightly over gnarled knuckles. ‘everyone wants to know what it was like.’
He settled in for the long haul about the war.
‘On the last day of training, they posted me to Alexandria in Egypt. I dint even know where Egypt was. We were told we would be there until the end of the war, there would be no leave or time off. It was three thirty. Both Yvette and I were sitting on the bench by the bus stop in Upavon, our fingers interlacing, that smell of lavender, exquisite in the blaring sun, the birds making a noise behind us in the trees. We talked about stuff, not sure what, but the rumbling of the bus told us we were to be separated. My heart went through the mangle. The urge to not go washed over me, but I had to go, you know, do my bit.’
A tear threatened Pat’s eye. He caught with a finger and rubbed. The moment from way back still tugging on the heartstrings, I couldn’t have imagined it.
‘Yvette said, at four o’clock every day, I will sit on this bench waiting for this bus, and I will wait for one hour every day until you’re home she said to me,’ Pat said.
‘I got on the bus and six days later, I was sweating my socks off in the desert outside of Alexandria, boy life was tough, the trenches in the searing heat. It was relentless. You just couldn’t drink enough water.
He wrote every day, Yvette replying with lavender scented letters to him. Suddenly, his life changed, the Germans came.
‘Hordes of them. Before I knew it, a year had passed, and I hadn’t written to Yvette. Her letters came in gluts. As and when the mail could be delivered. I was already a changed man. Seen things no man should have seen,’ Pat’s voice catching.
‘And then her letters stopped.’ Patrick’s eyes glanced down at the end of his bed. His lips were parched, I offered him a straw of water, he waved it away, he wanted to stay talking to me and I would not stop him.
‘We pushed through Africa and then I found myself in Scotland, running through the Highlands to join the marines. My CO thought this would be a great idea. I wasn’t so keen, if I’m honest. Working the stove in my father’s smelter didn’t seem such a bad idea after all.’
‘I saw action in Crete, Monty Casino, was part of the D-Day landings and marched to Berlin. We stopped in a place called Bielefeld. It became my home for some time. The war had ended and although there was this sense of relief, there was something missing in my life.’
‘They gave me the option to stay in the army. Some of my friends wanted to, and they stayed in Germany, some of them marrying German women. I wanted to get back to Ireland and my family, work that smelter again, and I vowed to never pick up a gun again. So they shipped back to Blighty. Fortunately for me, the army de-mobbed you in the same place where you did your training. After spending some days in Southampton being processed, I and a load of others were stuck on a train and sent to Salisbury, then onto Larkhill. The home of the Artillery, under the shadow of Stonehenge. It had seemed such a long time since I had been here, Yvette was someone who had come into my life and although I mourned her loss in my life, there was never a day I didn’t think of her.’’
‘I was there for about a week. We weren’t allowed out. The locals were in fear of us conquesting blood thirsty soldiers. So they barred us. They gave us ale and whiskey to drink, no ration, you see, Jon. We drank to forget. They were some of the worst hangovers I have ever had.’
Patrick’s mind was sketchy, his memories fading quicker than his body. He drifted off a couple of times, the left hand trembling all the time.
I gently tapped his hand. He came straight back out of the power snooze and locked his eyes on me.
‘What happened then?’ I asked.
‘When the army de-mob you, that’s it. Not even a bus back to Salisbury, they gave me five pounds and a travel warrant to get anywhere in the country, incidentally, it didn’t include County Clare, the warrant officer told me to find my own way there, God save the King and all that,’ he said with a smile.
‘The birds singing in the trees reminded me of Yvette, I had thought about her everyday though. She was beautiful, married with a clutch of kids by now. Back then, everything was so romantic. Love and war go hand in hand — or so the poems and books say. I guess it has to. We have to romanticise war, other nobody will do it. You know, kill someone with their bare hands. It’s all poppycock, right? The war was horrible. I did things, things I can’t bear to speak of, even now. They live in my conscious every day and they have blighted me ever since. But one thing kept the light on, just one thing kept the hope alive, Yvette. I loved her more on that day than the first time I clapped eyes on her, but I didn’t know her. We had stopped writing.’
Pat wiped the spit from his mouth.
‘I had some time to kill, I borrowed a bicycle and rode to Upavon, the birds seemed to follow me, the sun was hot and woollen clothes making me sweat, I was just past four in the afternoon, I just had to check, to make sure she had given up on me. As I rounded the corned, the top of the bus top post came into view. It was the same as I remembered it. I pedalled quicker. And the bench came into view and there she was, her legs swinging freely under the bench. Five years of my life condensed into one moment. Yvette was sitting there and had done this every day for five years. Come to the bus stop and waited for one hour for me to come home. I jumped off the bike. I could run faster, that’s what I thought. She turned her head and narrowed her eyes. I was a bag of bones. Fighting the krauts had taken everything from me, but not Yvette. I had seen action on most battlefronts. The King had even mentioned me in his dispatches thingy. She jumped up and stumbled, not quite believing herself, composing herself she took to her feet and launched herself at me, legs wrapping around me gripping the life out of me I can tell you, and her smell, sweet Jesus, that smell,’ his head lolling to one side savouring the thought.
I let the thought Pat relived wash over him again, the smile heartfelt and genuine. This was something he probably done it so many times in his life. This was a special moment which should be marked in history.
‘You see, all we have in this life, which is constant, is love, Jon. We were married that month and I stayed for the rest of my life in Upavon, with my Yvette, five tearaways she blessed me with.’
Patrick died the following day. He had his beloved Yvette sat by his bedside, their hands interlaced, like they had for a million times, and that first time on the bench waiting for the bus. The spark which lasted a lifetime. I took a moment in the locker room. I gave Patrick and Yvette some of my own tears and thanked him for sharing the love he has for Yvette.
Patrick was right, love is all we have and yet we waste our lives on inconsequential things. There are some many things to learn from Patrick.
I have the same love as Patrick had, a special love. My wife Sam would have sat on the bench for five years at four o’clock, I know.
God speed Patrick, you touched more than one heart in this life. I, for one, will never forget you.