Every generation misses out on something, and for my parents it was the Second World War. For much of my childhood, though, I had the impression that my mother had been very much involved. When my sister complained about sharing a bedroom with me, my mother would describe the inside of an Anderson shelter. If we left vegetables uneaten on our plates, she would talk about life without bananas. We didn’t question her authority on such matters at the time. But later I found out that she’d been seven years old when the war began, and that neither she nor my father were greatly inconvenienced by it. Neither starved, neither was evacuated to some lonely Yorkshire village, neither lost a parent or close relative. My father remarked on this good fortune more than once, but I think my mother rather resented it. I think she envied those who’d had more direct experience of and involvement in the great formative event of her lifetime.
The thing my own generation missed out on was The Sixties. Born at the close of the previous, less storied decade, we were too young to have more than a peripheral awareness of flower power and free love. On the contrary, the culture my friends and I identified most readily with was one of death and destruction. Of war, in fact. But not the war that was going on at the time in Vietnam. Being very much a work in progress—and one that didn’t involve our boys anyway—that war was of no interest to us. No, the war that filled half the pages of the comics we read and informed the plot of every film we saw and inspired every game we played was the one which my parents had themselves been too young to participate in. The one which Britain—with a little help from its friends—had ‘won’ nearly twenty years before I was born. But that didn’t stop my friends and I from fighting in it at every opportunity.
My childhood memories came rushing back when my sister told me about my father’s stroke. She got the time difference wrong and it was one of those 4 a.m. calls that ex-pat, 40-something Brits live in fear of. I managed to get a flight out of Sydney the following day, but I’ve worked out that I was sitting in a transit lounge in Bangkok when the old man actually died.
The funeral was on one of those wet, windless mornings you get in every season in the northwest of England. In the church, people said nice things about my father, while in the front pew, I almost lost my battle with jet lag. Later, eating egg and cress sandwiches in the front room of the little semi where I’d spent the first sixteen years of my life, I chatted to relatives I barely recognised. When they asked about my adoptive country I said things about it that I knew they wanted to hear. The duck-billed platitudes, as I call them. If I could have flown home the following day I would have done so, but my father’s estate turned out to be complicated and I ended up staying almost three weeks—longer than any visit I’d previously made. When everything was settled, my sister drove me to the airport and we hugged and she told me not to leave it so long the next time. I said I wouldn’t. We both knew I didn’t mean it. I do wish I saw more of my sister, but I’ve never really experienced the homesickness that seems to affect so many of my countrymen. When Australians ask me what I miss most about England, I say France.
I didn’t look for Patton until I had been back in Sydney for two weeks. When I asked for it at my local video store, the girl behind the counter scrolled through her stock and said yes, they did have it, but it was out. I could have tried other stores—there are two more within walking distance of my apartment—but it didn’t seem a matter of urgency. After so many years what difference would a few more days make? When the girl called the following week to tell me the film had been returned, I waited another day before collecting it, half hoping, I suppose, that some other customer might beat me to it.
Patton received seven Oscar nominations and critics have described George C. Scott’s title role performance as the best of his career. He certainly fills the screen, and even if you aren’t a big war film fan, I’d have no hesitation recommending it. After all, what I was so apprehensive about seeing would be invisible to anyone else.
Like my mother, I was disappointed that the Luftwaffe never got around to bombing Knutsford, the picturesque Cheshire market town where we both grew up. As a consequence of this oversight there were no unexploded munitions in the ponds where my friends and I went fishing, and in the surrounding farmland there were no abandoned anti-aircraft gun emplacements to enhance our war games. But our optimism matched our imagination and we were always on the lookout for the relics of conflict. When exploring unfamiliar woodland, for example, we never discounted the possibility of stumbling upon a shattered, never-accounted-for Messerschmitt, skeletal pilot stiff at the controls. But apart from the columns of names on the wall of our school assembly hall, and apart from the man with half a face who came to sweep the chimney of our house, there was little evidence that the England we lived in was the country that had caused Hitler such problems.
One of my older uncles could sometimes be persuaded to talk about his experiences in a Burmese POW camp, but the tedium and privation he described couldn’t compete with the jaw-socking, hip-firing action of my comic books. And my parents, as I’ve said, weren’t qualified to speak on the subject. Young married couples of their generation had other things to think about, anyway. Such as why, if they’d never had it so good, were they so unhappy. Many were beginning to realise that it had actually just been sex they’d wanted with the person they’d married. But now they were also parents and the game was up. So the better-looking ones had affairs, and the bravest ones got divorced, and the others, once they found they had nothing much to say to each other, turned gratefully to the radio—or wireless, as it was then called.
The fat mahogany box on our sideboard was always humming and crackling by the time I came down to breakfast, and it continued humming and crackling long after my sister and I were sent to bed. I can remember a handful of serious broadcasts: Winston Churchill’s funeral, men on the moon, the investiture of Prince Charles. But in our house it was mainly lighter fare. We listened to Forces Favourites while we had our breakfasts, and our Sunday lunches were accompanied by the manic camp of Round the Horne, and Jimmy Clitheroe and the Navy Lark. That was all a bit too post-war for me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the real thing, either outside with my friends, or in the pages of The Hotspur and The Hornet. Thanks to their hammer-fisted, machine-gun-toting, grenade-hurling heroes and the imitation they inspired, by the age of seven my friends and I had seen more action than all our fathers and uncles put together. We were less partisan about it, too, since somebody had to be the enemy. “Achtung!” “Schweinhund!” “Englisher pig-dog!” We shrieked as we shot and stabbed each other on the well-kept lawns and verges of our estate.
And when I wasn’t out killing my friends I would usually be occupied with the heavy industry of war because the great solo passion of my childhood was building plastic scale models of WWII aircraft, ships and tanks. But especially tanks. At any given time I would have a dozen or more lined up along the windowsill of the bedroom I shared with my sister. Being two years older than me, she was obliged to show contempt for everything I did. When our arguments reached an impasse, she would sometimes get her way by dangling the newest addition to my collection out of the window and threatening to drop it onto the concrete patio below.
We were in the middle of just such a stand-off on an April afternoon when my mother came into the bedroom to tell us about Patton. I could tell she was excited because she didn’t seem to notice the rain slanting through the open window. I didn’t pay much attention to what my mother said then—I was so relieved to have the Chieftain I had just assembled snatched from the jaws of destruction. But she reprised the news for my father over our evening meal. That morning, it seemed, a rehearsal of the Knutsford Amateur Operatic Society’s production of Porgy and Bess had been brought to a halt by the arrival of a man from London. My mother paused for effect here, London being as exotic as New York and accessible only via the Monopoly board.
“You’ll never guess what he wanted,” she said.
“No,” murmured my father, suspending the ketchup bottle patiently over his sausages. “I expect we never will.”
“He said they’re going to make a film here—and they want extras!”
“What kind of film?” said my sister.
“A film about General Patton,” said my mother.
“He was here for a few weeks, you know,” my father said. “He made a speech here which upset the Russians.”
“Why were the Russians here?” I asked.
“They weren’t,” said my father. “But they heard about the speech.”
“Never mind that,” said my mother. “The thing is, my name’s down as one of the extras!”
“What’s an extra?” asked my sister.
“Someone who stands in the background not saying anything,” said my father.
“I could do that,” said my sister. “I could be an extra couldn’t I, Mummy?”
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “I don’t think they’d be very interested in little girls who can’t even finish their cauliflower.”
My mother brought up the subject of the film at every mealtime after that, but because it was something that was going to happen weeks rather than days ahead, I paid little attention. I had certainly forgotten about it when a few Mondays later, I arrived at school to find the playground partitioned from the street by sandbags and the windows of the assembly hall criss-crossed with anti-shatter tape. My friends and I couldn’t have been more thrilled if it had been the outbreak of an actual conflict. A lot of adults seemed excited, too—my mother especially. She talked endlessly about the clothes she would have to wear in what she referred to as "her scenes." The prospect of playing at war, so familiar to me, was something new for her.
Within days, larger props began to appear in the town centre. Antique staff cars and matte-olive army trucks and ambulances were parked in the streets around the school—a building which had been earmarked for inclusion in several shots because nothing had been done to its exterior since 1945. Previously, I would drag out my breakfast as long as possible on a school day, but now I could barely be persuaded to bolt down a single Weetabix before snatching my satchel and running out of the door.
The great thing about these ancient vehicles was that they were left unguarded, so when my friends and I climbed on them nobody told us to get off. Suddenly our games had acquired an exciting new dimension, and we played them more enthusiastically than ever. But the novelty soon wore off for the grown-ups and I found my father’s lack of interest especially disappointing. Trailing round the shops after him one Saturday, we turned a corner and found ourselves looking up at the barrel of a tank. I was able to identify it as a Sherman, a handsome machine which featured prominently in my windowsill collection. I was keen to stop and investigate, but my father soon became impatient.
“Come along, Philip. Your mum will be wondering where we are.”
This was being generous to my mother, who had stopped wondering where we were the day the Americans themselves had finally arrived on the train from Manchester. A sizable crowd had assembled on the platform to welcome them and my mother had got herself in the photograph which appeared on the front page of the local paper.
“Who’s that man next to mummy?” said my sister. “The one with sunglasses.”
“Some yank,” said my father.
That morning my mother had gone into town early to attend a cast meeting. These took place in the Conservative Club, a gloomy Edwardian red brick building which had been commandeered by the Americans for a fee large enough to suspend its normal business indefinitely. As well rooms for rehearsing and costume fittings, it had a bar where the Americans could drink American beer and eat hot dogs, or a local approximation thereof. It was also where they could make fun of the appearance and speech of their hosts in a way which might not have gone down well in one of the town’s five or six pubs. My mother, normally quick to take any kind of offence, made an exception in the case of the Americans and was soon on first-name terms with many of them, often returning home from the Club long after my father had sent Stella and me to bed. But our house was small and the walls were thin, and we were often woken by the arguments which followed. My father never raised his voice, so we could only guess at his contributions to these spats, but this was made easier by my mother’s tendency to speak in apologies.
“Well, I’m sorry—I didn’t know it was a crime to have a little fun now and then.”
“Well forgive me for thinking they’re your children too.”
On the Monday after the appearance of the Sherman, I set off for school especially early in order to conduct the detailed inspection my father had denied me. When I got there I was surprised to find a man standing looking at it, hands plunged deep into the pockets of the capacious, belted raincoat many of the Americans seemed to wear .
“Hello young fellah,” he said, as I came to a panting halt beside him.
“Hello,” I said, breaking the rule about talking to strangers.
“Know what this is?” he said.
“A Sherman,” I said. “I have three.”
“Do you now? Well I’ll be darned.”
“You’re American, aren’t you?” I said.
“How’d you know that?” he said, turning to look at me for the first time. I could tell from the way he was smiling that he didn’t expect an answer.
He told me that his name was Arthur, but that I could I call him Art, and that he was one of the film’s technical advisors. He said he came from a place called Idaho and that he’d been a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. But after being wounded in France, he’d been assigned to the staff of General Patton, which meant that when the great man had been sent to Knutsford, Art had come with him. The studio had brought him back now, he told me, to make sure that whatever they filmed here was historically accurate.
“This old lady, for example,” he said, reaching up to pat the barrel as if it were the nose of a prize shire-horse, “don’t belong here at all. We didn’t bring tanks.”
I told him more about my collection and he seemed genuinely impressed.
“They don’t need me at all,” he said. “They coulda just hired you!”
We inspected the tank together in silence for a while. Art kept his hands clasped behind his back except when he paused to touch the bubbles of rust swelling from an ancient weld, or to scuff at some ancient scratch with the sleeve of his raincoat. Even though the Sherman was an anomaly, he seemed pleased to have found it.
“Will they take it away?” I asked.
“No, they’ll probably just tow it out of sight someplace.” He winked. “Hey, since you’re such a tank expert yourself, maybe you’d like to keep an eye on it. Would you do that?”
I told him I’d be glad to, and he thanked me on behalf of the President and the people of the United States of America. Then we saluted each other and I hurried on to school.
The actual filming of the Knutsford scenes in Patton took no more than three or four days, but it rained a lot, and this strung the shoot out to more than two weeks. George C. Scott didn’t make an appearance until the fourth or fifth day, when the vicar’s wife spotted the famous profile in the back seat of a Bentley waiting at the town’s only traffic light. This was as close as anybody came to meeting the star, who declined through his agent both a ticket to the opening night of Porgy and Bess and also an invitation to a Rotary Club luncheon. My mother was disappointed, but my father said that he wouldn’t like it if he had to parade around every town he ever visited for the amusement of the local population. My mother said that as my father was only a council surveyor it was unlikely he’d ever have this problem, and that he never wanted to go anywhere anyway.
“He probably doesn’t want to be here at all,” said my father when my mother had left the room. “By all accounts the real General Patton was none too pleased to be sent here, and this Scott chap’s probably one of these actors who behaves like the characters they’re playing even when they’re not being filmed.”
“That’s silly,” said my sister.
“It is,” murmured my father, already back in his crossword.
I saw my friend Art quite often, but he didn’t always see me and I was shy of approaching him around other adults. But I kept my promise to visit the Sherman tank at least once a day in the car park behind the Conservative Club where it had been towed, as he’d predicted. The fourth or fifth time I went there, a tall young man in a baseball cap stopped me halfway down the driveway. Like all the Americans, he was tall and tanned. Smoke from the cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth kept his eyes permanently screwed up. As I stammered out the purpose of my mission, he hooked his thumbs into his belt and frowned. Then a familiar voice called my name from a doorway and I turned to see a figure ambling towards us.
“You know this kid?” said the younger man.
“Sure do,” said Art. “He’s here on official military business. He’s Maggie’s boy.”
The young man took the cigarette from his mouth and I saw the blue of his eyes for the first time. “Is that so?” he said, pushing the cap back on his head. “She’s quite a lady, your mom.” Then he grinned and swaggered off up the driveway.
“Don’t pay him no mind,” said Art. He ruffled my hair and we went off to complete our inspection together.
The last day of filming was a Friday and Mr. Peters, the headmaster, gave us all the afternoon off to go and watch a big crowd scene that was to be filmed on the cobbled square in front of the Co-op. Most of the square had been roped off to keep observers out of shot, and we could see from the positions of the cameras that all the action would be centred around a platform which had been erected on the far side of the square. This meant we could expect to see very little. Once they realised this, most of my friends began to drift away. But since this was a scene that my mother was in, I felt obliged to stay a little longer.
Men in overalls tinkered with scaffolding and scenery for a while, and eventually about thirty people in costume appeared at the side of the square and were herded across it by a man with a megaphone. The male extras wore old-fashioned hats and double-breasted suits and the women’s hair was piled high or curled in unfamiliar styles. I didn’t recognise my mother among them until the group was halfway across the square. “Mum!” I called out then, causing two or three women at the back of the group to turn around. But my mother, laughing and talking at the front, seemed not to have heard, and a few moments later I lost sight of her.
Shortly after that, wondering what fun I might be missing elsewhere, I left. I have since wondered what would have happened if I had tried harder to get her attention. If I’d shouted louder or identified myself by name. And if, having done so, I’d have then somehow persuaded her to come away with me. But I knew—we all knew—how much it meant to her, this brush with glamour. Perhaps she did hear me but chose not to respond. Either way, the filming of the scene went ahead, with my mother in it, and I never spoke to her again.
I spent what was left of that afternoon trying to find my friends, regretting that I’d allowed filial obligation to take priority over patriotic duty. They could have been in any one of five or six favourite battlefields, but by the time I had visited and found each one deserted, dusk was falling. The new shoes I was wearing had given me a large blister, a wound which afforded me some consolation, and by the time I limped heroically into the house, I’d cheered up considerably. I was sitting down at the kitchen table when I realised I’d forgotten to check on the tank.
“Go tomorrow,” said my father, putting a plate of scorched fish fingers in front of me.
“But I promised I’d do it every day,” I whined.
“Where’s Mummy?” said my sister.
“She’ll be late,” said my father. “It’s the last day, so they’re having a bit of a knees-up.”
Stella and I had been asleep for some time when the telephone rang in the hall. It was rare enough then in our house to receive a phone call during daylight hours, so at night the sound was especially ominous. My sister and I shushed each other to hear Dad’s voice, but heard nothing. I was drifting back to sleep when, a few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and I saw my father silhouetted in the doorway wearing his coat.
“I’m just nipping out, kids,” he said. “I shan’t be long.”
“Where are you going, Daddy?” asked my sister.
“To get Mummy.”
“Is she alright?” I asked.
“Yes, yes—don’t worry,” he said, pulling the door gently to.
In the movie. there's a scene that starts with a shot of a banner draped across a street bearing the words “KNUTSFORD WELCOMES GENERAL PATTON.” The camera then drifts down through the branches of a tree to a crowd of men and women in front of a dais festooned with red, white and blue bunting. A brass band pumps out a Gershwin march in the background. It’s what’s known as an establishing shot.
There are then several shorter, street-level shots, and at one point the camera follows a woman walking quickly. Her hair is piled up high and she is wearing a full-length navy blue coat. It could easily be my mother, but just as her face turns toward the camera, a tall, young man appears beside her, blocking the camera’s view. He is wearing army fatigues and sunglasses and has a cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth.
I press pause and rewind to watch the shot again. And then again, two or three more times. But it’s impossible to eliminate the motion blur to the point where I can see either the man’s or the woman’s face. This puts them in the category of ‘non-featured’ extras. The lowest of the low.
Neither my sister not I spoke for some time after my father left the room. But for me at least, sleep was now out of the question.
I heard only silence.
“Stella...Stella, are you awake?”
“I am now, stupid.”
“What shall we do?”
“Nothing. Daddy will bring her home. Go back to sleep.”
Two minutes later, I slid out of bed and started to grope for my shoes.
“What are you doing?” said my sister.
“I’m going to help Daddy,” I said, wincing as the leather made contact with my blister.
One day after the funeral, over lunch in a café near the solicitor’s office, Stella told me that when she’d visited Dad a few months before his stroke he’d asked her, out of the blue, if she was in contact with Margaret. Stella had initially assumed that he was talking about a Margaret she’d been at school with, never having heard the old man refer to our mother by that or any other name in the three decades since she disappeared from our lives. Stella said no, she’d had no contact, and was quite sure I hadn’t either. And that we knew no more about her now than what he’d told us as children, which was never more than “your mother lives in America now.”
My sister told Dad that after starting a family of her own, she’d sometimes thought about trying to initiate contact with our mother, but the fact that she’d never made any attempt to contact either of us over the years convinced her such overtures would be unwelcome. Dad had stared out of the window for a while after she’d said this. Then he told her that our mother had tried to contact us, that she'd written to us many times, in fact.
For a while, he said, the letters had come almost weekly, and then monthly, and then eventually only on our birthdays and at Christmas. He'd destroyed all those letters without reading them. And then, about a year before he and Stella had this conversation, the letters stopped altogether. Dad told Stella he wasn’t sorry he’d prevented us from reading the letters as children, but that he wished now he’d kept them for us. He said that he would never forgive her for what she’d done, but that we should probably have had the chance to make our own peace with her.
Stella went on to tell me that she’d asked everyone who came to the funeral if they knew our mother’s whereabouts, but that nobody did. The older ones, she said, seemed surprised by her enquiries and made it clear that even after all these years they still disapproved “of whatever it was that mum did.” It occurred to me that my sister had only a vague idea of why our parents had separated. I had never told her. I had never told anyone. So when I asked her if she’d ever seen the film Patton she frowned and asked me if I had been listening to what she was saying. Then she asked me if I thought there was any other way we could trace her. I told her I’d think about it.
The fear of bombs galvanised the population of entire cities to maintain blackouts for days at a time during the war. In Knutsford, by the sixties, only the square mile of common land to the north of the town centre remained unlit. The Heath, as it was known, was out of bounds to us after dark. We were told that tramps slept there and, in the absence of a real criminal class, tramps had a monopoly on most kinds of wrongdoing.
But such warnings were unnecessary. Even beneath a cloudless sky and full moon, the Heath was inky dark due to the dense gorse and brambles covering much of the square mile. This deterred all but the bravest children. I was not such a brave child, so it says something about my state of mind on this particular night that when I arrived at the railing which skirted the Heath, I barely paused before ducking beneath it and sprinting on.
My father had only a ten minute start on me, but he was a fast walker and I knew that if I didn’t take a short-cut of some kind I wouldn’t catch up with him before he reached the Club. But when I emerged, unmolested, on the outskirts of the town centre, there was nobody ahead of me. I was panting now, and by the time I got to the Conservative Club, my chest was burning. Even so, I kept running until I stood at the bottom of the short flight of steps which led up to the entrance. Interior light picked out the edges of the curtains in the ground floor windows and I could hear a piano and laughter. Not having the courage to knock on the big paneled door, I squatted on the lowest step to get my breath back, and also to attend to my blister. I sat back into the shadow of the stonework and took off the offending shoe. At the same moment, the door opened. Two men emerged and stood facing each other in the light of the doorway. The smaller of them was my father. The other I recognised as the man I’d met on the driveway the week before. He took the cigarette from between his lips to speak.
“She ain’t here, okay?”
“Are you sure?” said my father.
“I’m sure,” said the man. He took another puff on his cigarette.
“I had a telephone call, you see,” said my father. “Somebody called to tell me that she...she...”
My father muttered something I couldn’t hear, and the man shook his head impatiently.
“Look, buddy, I think your wife had one too many cocktails and somebody’s given her a ride home.”
My father didn’t answer. The American shrugged, flicked the remains of his cigarette into the darkness, and went back inside, closing the door behind him. My father turned and walked slowly down the steps. I waited until he reached the bottom before standing up.
“Philip! What on earth are you doing here?”
“I came to help.”
I put a hand in his and he noticed that I was holding a shoe in the other one.
“What’s wrong with your foot?”
“It’s just a blister,” I said. I lifted my leg to show him my bloody sock.
“Gordon Bennet!” he said, which was about as close as he ever came to swearing. “You can’t walk around like that. Up you go.” He hoisted me up onto his shoulders in a well-practised action and I locked my fingers under his chin as he set off along the pavement.
“What about Mummy?” I said.
“She’s probably at home, wondering where we are.”
The pain of my blister now seemed trivial. My mother was alright and my father had found me running around the town in the middle of the night and wasn’t even angry! There was only one way the situation could be improved.
“Daddy, could we check on the tank?”
“It’s the middle of the night, Philip.”
“It’s just round the back, and it would only take a moment. Oh please, Daddy—it will only take a second.” I pressed my cheek against his hair. “Please, Daddy. “
He stopped and let go of one of my legs to peer at his watch.
“Alright,” he sighed, “but we’ll have to make it snappy. Your mother’ll have my hide.”
We hurried back to the Club. I was still on his shoulders. As he turned into the passageway down the side of the building, the darkness forced him to slow his pace.
“I can’t see a blessed thing.”
“It’s only a little bit further,” I whispered. By now we were almost at the back of the building, screened from the noise of the party. The only sound was my father’s cautious tread. As we emerged into the rear courtyard, I heard something else, a low moaning sound from the far side of the car-park where I knew the tank was parked. I thought it was an owl. Then my father stopped abruptly, as though he’d heard it too.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I was able to distinguish the familiar angular mass of the tank. At the same moment, the moon emerged from behind the clouds and I saw the shape of a man bent over beneath the barrel. His arms were braced against the iron flank, the way I’d seen men on market days lean against the walls of pubs to throw up, and from the movement of this man’s body I thought he might be throwing up, too. Then I saw there was something bulky spread out on the body of the tank beneath him, and that this was also moving. I heard another, higher-pitched moan.
“Margaret?” said my father.
The two figures on the tank became immediately still.
“Margaret, it’s Ken,” said my father.
I heard the clinking of a buckle and a man’s whisper and I knew the man was Art.
“I’ve got Philip with me,” said my father. And then he added, in a quieter voice, “He’s hurt his foot.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the faint tinkling of a piano from inside the club.
“Don’t come home, please, Margaret,” said my father.
Then he turned and walked quickly back up the side of the building. A few moments later we were back on the street. Neither of us spoke during the time it took us to get home. My father kept me on his shoulders and when we reached the house he managed to get his key out of his pocket and open the front door without putting me down. He carried me upstairs, bending his knees halfway so as not to bang my head on the stairwell. In the bathroom, he lowered me onto the toilet seat and washed my foot with a flannel. As he rummaged in the cabinet for a band-aid, he caught my reflection in the shaving mirror and gave me a little smile. Then he found me a clean pair of pajamas in the airing cupboard and led me into the bedroom. “Try not to wake your sister,” he whispered. I got into bed. Then he went out, closing the door gently.
It was a warm night for April. For what seemed to me a very long time, I lay half in and half out of the sheets, moving my legs occasionally to find a cooler spot. I must have drifted off eventually, but I was awake again before the dawn began to pick out the edges of the curtains. I slipped out of bed and pulled one of the curtains to one side. A bank of dense, low clouds extended in every direction, making it impossible to tell where on the horizon the sun would rise. A faint breeze stroked the tops of the birch saplings my father had planted along the bottom of our lawn the previous spring.
I opened the window as quietly as I could and as far as the latch would allow. I hoisted myself up onto the windowsill and sat there watching the gathering light until I began to lose feeling in my thighs. Then I reached for the nearest tank in my collection, a Sherman as it happened. It made less noise than I thought it would when it hit the concrete below, and four more tanks lay in pieces beside it before my sister woke up. She got out of bed and joined me at the window. She asked me what I was doing, then told me to stop. I didn’t answer her and I didn’t stop until the windowsill was clear.
I needn’t have watched the whole film. I could have simply fast-forwarded to the end credits. Perhaps this was just the final two hours and fifty-two minutes of a thirty-seven-year procrastination. And I needn’t have worried. There are two military advisers named in the credits; neither is an Art of an Arthur and both of them are colonels, not sergeants.
When I took the film back to the video store. I felt relieved. Perhaps I could do more to find my mother. I could contact the studio, I suppose. Some of the people involved must still be alive and in touch with others who were there.
But I’ve done my bit and my war is finally over.
Simon Collins was born and educated in the north of England, but spent most of the following two decades in Australia, where he worked mainly as an advertising creative director. In 2006 he moved to New York, where he developed a docu-drama series for HBO, and was enrolled in a fiction class at the 92nd St Y, which published one of his first short stories in their prestigious Podium magazine. After the break-up of his marriage, he moved to Maryland to be near his children and began writing full time. As well as short fiction, poetry and (as yet unpublished) novels, he contributes a regular diary column to the UK’s Spectator magazine, and divides his time pretty equally between Washington, London and Sydney.