It’s a quiet, cool morning in Leytonstone, and the early morning rain has given way to sunshine and blue skies. I’m walking from my kids’ school where I’d just dropped them off. I’m on my way to St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery because I want to visit Mary. When I arrive to the sprawling, statue-laden site, I quickly realize I don’t really know where Mary is. Thankfully, I consult my phone and find directions complete with photographed landmarks. I’ve recreated them below:
Wiesbaden in July and the park across my hotel — the one near the Hauptbahnoff — is filled with topless sunbathers drowsing. Languid, unabashed, content.
I’m walking to the city center to meet a friend, a former student, for dinner and a beer. I pass by another park, this one with a pond, geese and swans, and enormous oak trees that appear ancient, wizened even.
People know how to enjoy their open spaces here. An old couple sat on a bench. They’re dressed for church, only it’s a Tuesday. They’re a movie poster of sentimenatlity, of melancholy. A little boy runs into a gaggle of geese, dispersing them into a noisy mass of honking complaints. Only they converge again and this time the boy produces a chunk of crusty bread and has to be rescued by his mother as the geese attempt to overrun him.
I meet my friend at a place in the stadtmitte called Scotch ‘n Soda. It’s popular with expats and the military folks stationed at the nearby Kasernes. We grab a table outside, and quickly order local beers.
It’s been years since I’d seen him. He’s one of those rare continually affable people you only read about. That, combined with his all American boy handsomeness, made him quite popular with his fellow students.
He tells me that he’s married now and living a little further north of Wiesbaden. He and his wife are having a baby. She has German family. When he speaks of her he smiles involuntarilly, his eyes light up — even more so when he mentions the baby.
I know that feeling, I think. Knew that feeling.
We order food. Me, stroganoff, him a burger or something. He’s looking for work, and I offer up some ineffectual suggestions.
We’re interrupted by the table next to us — a boisterous gang of Americans are drinking their dinner from great liter-sized mugs. They’re from Alabama. They’re here to work on Blackhawk helicopters for the U.S. Army. One of them, a tall, thick redhead, laughs and I instantly forget how alone in life I feel in that moment.
Just to know that there are people like that in the world, where their presentness, their laugh could chase shadows away.
My friend catches my attention. He wants to talk more about his job prospects, his wife, and his baby to come and I listen as best I can. He’s the kind of guy that deserves good things in his life.
I glance at the redhead and give her names in my head. I hear her laugh, her Alabama drawl and I wonder if one of the burly guys at her table is her boyfriend or husband.
My friend and I finish dinner and drink scotches after. The redhead is gone and the table next to us is silent until and older couple — maybe even the couple from the bench — sit there and quietly discuss their orders in German. I wonder if I, too, was the kind of guy that deserves good things lin life.
Patrick says he just got out of prison after a 31-month stint for kidnapping. He orders a fruity cider from Viv, while his girlfriend, Ramona, asks for a “cocktail.”
Viv needs more information, so Ramona asks for a concoction of milky liqueurs that, as I hear, included Baileys, Kahlua, and maybe Coke.
Patrick’s full of nervous energy. He wants to talk, but he also wants to drink. I think, mostly, he wants to be alone with Ramona, which is why he’s at the hotel in the first place. Ramona seems smitten with him. She’s happy he’s out. They can’t keep their hands off of each other. I think Ramona dressed up for the occasion. Did her hair and makeup, like this meant a lot to her. Patrick says he didn’t kidnap anyone.
This is all a mistake. He says he’s a “traveller.” Ramona the same. I’m not quite sure what that is. I’m a traveller, I think. Where are they traveling from? To? “Nah mate, we’re Travellers.” Capital “T.” They’re part of a community of itinerant peoples with a rich culture that seldom inhabit permanent dwellings. You don’t call them “gypsies,” or variations thereof, and you most certainly don’t use the pejorative term popularized in Snatch.
You can tell that Patrick might be as hard “as coffin nails.” I’m a big dude, but Patrick is fearless. I’m a bit anxious around him. As soon as I’ve met him, though, he and Ramona are out, to their room, enjoying the kind of reunion only those were separated from an almost three year prison sentence can enjoy.
I currently have the pleasure of driving a meandering country route to work. The roads are often so narrow that I have to pull over to allow cars (and often tractors) to continue on from the opposite direction. My drive takes me past stone farmhouses, ancient forests, and a vista of gently rolling farmland that’s punctuated with the steeples of village churches.
The looming pale structure was largely hidden from the road, and I only spotted it today after reading an old Sawtry resident’s account of visiting “Whitehall” in 1949 near Archer’s Wood. Just before reaching the Wood, I peered around for a manor house that could be the one in the story. Sure enough, there was an “imposing building,” with “tall brick chimneys” as described by “V. Woodbridge.”
Whitehall was, in fact, Whitehall Convalescent Hospital, which took care of wounded soldiers who had slogged it out in the trenches of France in World War I, or The Great War, as it’s known. Although the hospital could only treat about 25 soldiers at a given time, it was reported to have taken care of upwards of 650 wounded servicemen in the span of three years.
Private J. McWilliams, a soldier from the 14th Canadians, recounted the action that landed him in Whitehall in a letter home dated March 16, 1918:
“…Got my wound in a bombing raid at Avion trench, near Lens. One of the German trench bombs fell within a few yards of me and I got several pieces in the legs and thigh. Fritz came over about four o’clock in the morning, just before daylight, after a preliminary bombardment by trench mortars and got quite close to our trench before we spotted him. His first bomb landed right square among the machine gun crew, wounding several of us. But we were able to spot where he was and get the gun in action before he could get into our trench…”
Many of the nurses came from nearby Sawtry village area and volunteered their time because the hospital reportedly did not receive much, if any in government funding. During the years it operated as a hospital, the staff and patients would perform in village halls to raise funds. According to Alan Bottell, a historian who has been researching Whitehall, these performing patients were called “Blue Boys” because of their distinctive uniforms, which apparently prevented the poor wounded blokes from getting into pubs.
“…There were times when soldiers also couldn’t go into pubs. In fact, the landlord at the George in Huntingdon was fined for letting soldiers drink. She was lucky not to lose her licence.”
Interestingly, The George was the same inn I stayed at in my April visit to the area, and while pleasant enough, may have relinquished a bit of its charm since 1918 as it is now part of a U.K.-wide chain of inns.
Whitehall is a good distance from Huntingdon and Peterborough, the two closest towns of note, and Whitehall is on a remote road in a very rural area. Even though the traffic from the bustling A-1 motorway is a short distance away, you can’t help but feel the solitude of the area. I can only imagine what it was like a hundred years ago.
“This is a fine part of England I am in, and I will be rather sorry to leave it,” wrote Pvt. McWilliams. “It is about 9 miles away from any town, so is rather quiet. The nearest town is a place called Huntington. Peterborough is the nearest large town, and is famous for its cathedral, which is one of the oldest in England… Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catherine of Aragon, were buried there. She was beheaded at Forthingay, which is not far from here.”
I see the man everyday. He’s sitting at one of the blue tables in the hotel bar hunched over an iPad. I’ve been here over a week. So has he — an old English gent dressed smartly in brown slacks, a sweater vest, and polished shoes.
He doesn’t make a sound and rarely acknowledges my presence. He’s there and alone and fixated on the screen. I thought he was a friend of the front desk lady, maybe her husband. Only he’s not.
Viv tells me he’s been disowned by his family, and can’t go home. She tells me this while we share Chicken Korma and Chips on the hotel bar. “He’s found himself a Chinese bride,” she says. “He’s staying here until he flies off to collect her.”
Viv says Old English is about 67, and his bride to be is 23. She says the girl is a model. Or, as she points out, the girl claims to be a model. We talk about that. We talk about the age difference, the family, and Old English. The more I think about it the more sad it makes me. She wants to say more. She wants to talk more about the age difference, but gives it a light touch. She’s more concerned with the fact that they would have nothing in common.
So am I. But how much time does he have left on this island? How much time do any of us? How much in common do they really need to not feel lonely… for maybe a little bit longer. Old English is on a quest. He’s forsaken everything he’s known to accomplish it. For just a little bit longer. To feel a man again. To feel alive and in love.