There was more than a touch of spring in the air as I walked up Moreton High Street to the White Hart for an early evening pint. Orange, purple and white crocuses were dotted like confetti under the trees by the cobbles, and the daffodils on the grass verges were showing off their newly minted gold to an admiring world.
As I took my usual corner seat with my pint of Hooky, I nodded to an old man sitting up very straight at a nearby table. By his dress and appearance I took him to be an American, and when we exchanged pleasantries his speech confirmed it.
“Are you on holiday?” I asked.
“On vacation, sure. Staying right here in the White Hart.”
He took a sip of his beer, and wrinkled his nose slightly. Not cold enough, I imagined.
“Yessir, we’re back to the States tomorrow.” He laughed. “Unless the Almighty deems differently, of course! Eighty-four’s no age to take anything for granted.”
“Any particular reason why you’ve come to Moreton?”
He took his time replying. “It’s just a place in the Heart of England, I guess. But it’s kinda got a place in my heart too.”
I was intrigued, and looked at him inquiringly. He was ready to talk, as old men often are. He looked at me directly with his bright blue eyes.
“Ever hear of the US Sixth Armored Division, son? The Super Sixth?”
“Yes – they were stationed here during the war, weren’t they?”
“Sure were. In Blockley village. Came over from Kentucky in January Forty four. Getting us trained up for the D Day landings, they said.”
He chuckled. “Though in the end they didn’t use us. Crazy. Probably why ah’m still alive and talking to yo-all today!”
I was intrigued. Nearly all the witnesses to the town’s wartime past were dead now, and firsthand accounts were precious.
“The boys at the RAF airport - RAF Moreton?” I asked. “The bomber squadrons. Did you know them? Is it true Bomber Harris himself came here to plan the destruction of Dresden?”
He thought back over sixty years.
“I don’t know too much about all that. We didn’t really mix with those guys. But yeah, we used to see a few of them in the Wellington pub, down the road here. It’s gone now, I noticed. Apartments, or something.”
He leaned across the table towards my corner and dropped his voice. “They didn’t like us much, I guess. We were after their girls, you see!”
He smiled secretly to himself. His first course had arrived now, but he carried on talking.
“I was only twenny-two, and never bin outta Kentucky till then. And gee, did I have a good time in this town. With one particular lad -i-eee, as it happens.”
“What was her name?” I asked curiously. “Molly,” he said, spooning up his soup. “She was the prettiest lil redhead you ever did see.”
The bar had filled up now, and I had to move closer to his table to hear him. “What happened?”
“Well, she and I got kinda close, if you take my meaning. But the Division got moved on down south that July, ready for the big push. I wrote to her once and she wrote back a coupla times, but after that things got real busy and that was that. I never saw her again.”
He was silent for a moment. “Other towns, other girls….”
I asked him if I could buy him a drink, but he refused. I got up and went over to the bar.
“Usual, Ginger?” asked the barman. I nodded.
The hotel had obviously decided that as spring was here, they didn’t need to light the logs in the great fireplace, but I wished they had. I was shivering a little. You see, Molly was my grandmother’s name. My father had never known his mother. I knew she had died, but the matter was never discussed in my family. All references to Molly were barred, though my mother had whispered once that she’d been ‘a bad lot.’ It was much later that I learnt Molly had hanged herself a month after my father was born. Her body was found in the barn at Hollybush Farm, with a note pinned to her frock saying she couldn’t go on, the shame was too much to bear… She had asked her sister to look after the baby for her.
When I returned with my pint, the old man had been served with his main course.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You came back to see if you could find her? But now she’s just a little white haired old lady in a nursing home, who can’t remember her own name, let alone yours? Am I right?”
I held my breath, but he just shook his head.
“She was the nicest person I ever met,” he said quietly. “Honest, decent, funny too – my Gawd, how we used to laugh together. And she had legs like Betty Grable’s. Never met anybody like her, before or since.”
He went back to his meal.
“No, I haven’t found her,” he said between mouthfuls, waving his fork in the air for emphasis. “Been here a week now. I’ve asked around everywhere, the records office, the church, the Town Hall. Nothing. It’s like she vanished off the face of the earth. But you know something? She’s still got a place in my heart.”
He stared at his plaice and chips as if he hadn’t seen them before. Then he suddenly let out a t cackle of laughter that made the men at the bar pause their conversation and look round.
“And now I’m having… a plaice in the Hart! Hah! Howdya like that? Kinda neat, huh?”
I finished my beer and said good night. I walked slowly home, the old man’s harsh laughter ringing in my ears. It was very dark, too dark to see the daffodils now. But they must have been still there somewhere.
I retired to the Cotswolds ten years ago after selling the retail business in North Wales which I had built up over forty long years. Fortunately for my sanity most of my time was spent creating advertising copy and promotions, which dramatically increased the business and taught me the power of words. Being a member of the Chippy Writers’ Group encouraged me to attempt a lifelong ambition to write a novel. Recently published, In the Shadow of Hitler is a romance set in the ruins of bombed-out Hamburg in 1946.... more