What The Coachman Said

Tom swore under his breath as a shiver ran down his spine. Braving the cold, laying on a forlorn bench in the park, he adjusted his torn overcoat trying to cover as much of himself as possible. Still, the cruel wind tore at him.

He cursed the wind. The wind grew nippier, as though in response. He shut his eyes tightly to stem the flow of water flowing out of them. He wanted to curse again, but stopped himself short — he knew the wind was more stubborn than him.

It was 1945, London. Winter had just set in, but it was already biting cold. Even in the afternoon, as was the case presently, the cosiness of warmth remained inexorably elusive.

Tom shifted on the bench. He kept his eyes closed. He could hear the wind howling through the narrow alley between the imposing stone buildings in front of him. It was that part of the city which had not got destroyed in The Blitz.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Nazi Germany had led a series of aerial attacks over the United Kingdom. 16 British cities were bombed from the air over a period of 267 days (almost 37 weeks). London alone was attacked 71 times, resulting in a loss of property and lives that was unprecedented in the British history. Barring, of course, the Black Plague.

***

Everything around him in the park was conspicuously still, as though still suffering through the aftermath of a deadly bombing. But just beyond the park, there was chaos.

Even on a day like this, people were busy with their work. The pavement was so crowded with pedestrians that some of them were walking even on the road. A coachman who was miserably failing at trying to manoeuver his coach, shouted in frustration, ‘Look sharp man! Are you blind?’

Tom could clearly hear the clamour of bustling feet on the stony footpath. The patternless sounds of heavy footfalls brought to his mind an image of some dancer ineffectually trying to catch up with an ever increasing beat.

He knew the reason for their haste. These were people who had lost everything they had owned in the War. Although the War had ended weeks ago, the miseries inflicted by it had not. They still persisted, repudiating to be solved even by the most across-the- board Government policies.

And now these people were running from office to office, trying to rope in compensation, reimbursements, Government — bails, War-benefits, loans, anything; in short, every financial aid that they could lay their hands on, to save them from their present plight.

A plight not very much unlike Tom’s.

Tom had once been a lucrative businessman. A British citizen by birth, his profession caused him to settle in Germany. His was a perfect world, where everything happened as per his wishes and plans. He thought nothing could ever go wrong there. But then Adolf Hitler happened.

And with him came tribulations that the world had never seen. It was no longer safe for a British-national to stay in Germany. An unknown but inevitable fear had gripped the country, and Tom was determined to stay out of its way.

And so it was that he, his half Italian wife Valentina, and their six year old daughter Amy, moved to London. They came carrying with them as much as they could; or as much of one’s life as can be packed in seven suitcases.

Call it Tom’s misfortune or his good luck, but when he crossed the German border, he was one of the very last to do so. Four days later, all movement into and out of Germany were halted. A little over a fortnight later, Hitler had instigated the World War II.

Tom and his family reached London in 1939, seeking peace. But peace was a rare commodity in an insurgency that was hollowing the world. They found lodgings in a small room off a textile mill on the outskirts of London. He joined the Post-Office, while his wife became a part-time German teacher in the Little Angels Public School.

Amy got into the same school too. Tom worked long hours, sorting hundreds of letters each day. Although his salary was meagre, thankfully he had some savings from his time as a businessman to fall back on.

His income coupled with Valentina’s was enough for them to keep a roof over their head, keep electricity and gas and water running at home, and put three meals daily on their dining table. And given that Amy’s education was free, Tom’s life was relatively smoother when compared to a lot of people he knew. Still, he couldn’t help but think, ‘So far, so good…’

As fate would have it, the good was, in fact, supposed to come only so far.

During the fall of 1941, word got around about Valentina’s proficiency at German. She was also well versed in her native Italian. People with a good knowledge of foreign languages were very few, and the government wanted them desperately. And so by early ’42, Valentina had become a part of a highly secretive government body that “eavesdropped” over the German messages.

Valentina’s work was to translate them. Sometimes she was called upon in the middle of the night. Sometimes she would not come home for days, toiling in her office to decode some particularly cystic German message.

Although her work reduced the time she spent with her family, it was not the bad news. The bad news came roughly seven months after Valentina had taken up her new job — on September the 18th, 1942, a letter reached Tom announcing that he had been drafted in the Army. The letter asked him to give up his job at the Post-Office and report at the base-station in a week’s time. Enclosed along with the letter were few Pounds as compensation.

When Amy came home that day and saw Tom packing his clothes, she asked him why.

He told her the truth, ‘They have asked me to join the Army.’

‘Can you not deny them?’

‘I wish I could dear. I wish I could …

His training was over in three months, and he had slated to join the men on the field by the second week of January, 1943. He was posted on the Italian front. War was at its destructive peak and no amount of training could have prepared Tom for what he saw there.

Tom’s heart was wrenched by the brutality of it all. His only solace were the sporadic letters from Valentina and Amy. But his misery seemed destined to destroy him. He was soon deprived of even this little joy of his.

Working for the Post-Office, Tom had amassed a lot of knowledge about the geography of Europe. After all, that was his work: sorting letters according to their address. Therefore, considering his immense knowledge of the regional geography, he was given a “promotion”.

In March 1943, Tom became the head of a special task-force, whose only job was to pass classified information in and out of Italy. Tom and his team had to find their path through the murky forests on the Italian border. They had to find a new path each time because they were not allowed to use the same path twice, lest they be found. Obviously, Tom was on the team not for his bravery, but for his knowledge of the region.

Tom would have welcomed this (for he saw it as an opportunity to escape the bloodshed), had it not been for the fact that because of the highly sensitive and secretive nature of his work, all his communications with his family were to be severed off. There was also the fact their exact location was kept off the books, therefore, it was hard to reach him.

On that warm April night, under the dim light of his tent, he wrote his last letter to Valentina and Amy.

Little did he know that it would never reach them.

On the eleventh of April, 1944, he finished one year anniversary of his new position. Nothing much had changed in the twelve months he had served in that capacity. Sure, there were many a hardship, but the War was coming to a close, and he drew solace from the fact that he might get to head home after all.

Home… it seemed like a distant dream.

Calamity stuck four months later — 5th August, 1944.

He and his comrades were trying to hold on to their post on a certain area from the Nazi soldiers who seemed to have fallen out of the sky. It was a last ditch effort from Hitler, his last great struggle, before the life was chocked out of him. Fortunately for Tom and his company, the intruders were few, and so were vanquished quickly.

But, every enemy, however weak, has an ability to hurt you, they were taught in the training camp.

Although the Nazi infiltrators were small in number, they had done the damage. During the fight, a bomb had exploded very near to where Tom was. He was rushed to the makeshift hospital the moment the fight was over. He was immediately operated upon, and by late afternoon, he had gained consciousness.

The doctors had come in and explained the situation to him. He was told that he will have to live with the disability for the rest of his life.

‘This is as bad it can get,’ Tom thought bitterly.

He had no clue whatsoever that it was going to get far, far worse. The most terrifying news was yet to come. And it came the very next day.

August 6, 1944, is a day that Tom will never forget. It was on this day that a messenger had walked into his ward. He had enquired about Tom’s well-being and then, with a face so stoic it could have been made of stone, he had said, ‘We are sorry to inform you that your wife, Valentina Miller, and daughter, Amy Miller, died in a London bombing four months ago.’

Tom could not think of anything, and his only thought was: The world has come to an end.

The world, however, came to an end exactly one year later, when America dropped Little-Boy on Hiroshima. Three days later, when it dropped Fat-Man on Nagasaki, the World War came to an end.

***

All these images ran on the black of Tom’s closed eyes. In the past few minutes, he had virtually lived the last nine years of his life. The commotion on the pavement beside the park yanked him back to reality, back to present.

The sadness of his situation pressed on him from all sides, suffocating him. He kept his eyes closed, not wanting to face the truth. More importantly, he kept his eyes closed to hold on for a bit longer to the smiling faces of his wife and kid.

The shadow of the images vanished from his eyes, and a perpetual darkness fell on them. I cannot go on like this, he thought.

He mustered all his will power and opened his eyes, but the darkness still persisted; after all, it was perpetual. No light reached wide opened blue eyes. Grief flooded him as the words of the doctor from the camp came back to him, “Sergeant Miller, I am afraid you’ll never see in your life again.”

Somewhere beside him, on the road, a flustered coachman shouted, ‘Look sharp man! Are you blind?’

***

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