This was it, he was heading off to something, and he didn’t even know how to think of it. So far it was just France. If he quantified it simply, like that, he could hold it more easily in his mind. Anything more, anything involving the training, the uniform, the other men - cigarettes clamped in their lips - if he thought of those things, he felt his mind beginning to unmesh.The ship was there looming darkly beside the quay, the steel weight of it almost tangible from where he stood. Laughter spilled out from the nearest group of men, but he couldn’t feel it, the levity out of place.
Next to him stood another man, dark haired and silent like himself. Their eyes met briefly and a shared flash of something sparked between them. Stephen looked away. The recognition of his thoughts, his own fear reflected there, was too much. ‘Never bin on a boat before.’
Stephen swallowed, then turned towards the voice - it was the same man.
‘Fust time. Aye, nowt to it I suppose. Just hope I don’t get sick.’ And he smiled a tight smile.
Stephen, not quite meeting the other’s gaze, said, ‘I grew up near the sea.’ The dark haired man nodded, as if this was explanation enough, and then held out his packet of Capstans. Hesitating slightly, Stephen leaned forwards and took one, placing it in his mouth. The other lit a match and held it quickly to both their cigarettes. Stephen noticed the hand, large and calloused with a gold band on the third finger, was shaking slightly. He nodded his thanks, and blew out a steady stream of smoke.
‘Stephen,’ he said.
‘David,’ said the other. ‘Lansdowne. Like I said, fust time for this,’ and he jerked his head towards the ship.
‘It won’t take that long, I don’t think,’ said Stephen, ‘And it’s a calm night, shouldn’t be too bad.’
David nodded, but Stephen could see the unease remained. For a moment they stood silently, concentrating on their cigarettes, each locked in private thoughts.‘Christmas they’re saying,’ said David, suddenly, grinding out his cigarette butt with his toe. Stephen shrugged; he hadn’t thought much about how long this whole thing would last.‘Dunno if I believe them, mind. I don’t reckon it’ll get sorted that quick.’
‘Hard to say,’ said Stephen and he looked away, trying not to connect too much with this man. If he didn’t talk about it, the war, he felt he could delay it somehow.
‘Me wife’s not happy about me going though,‘David said, ‘she wanted me to stop behind, wait a bit longer, like. But I wouldn’t have it.’ He grinned suddenly, properly. ‘So, here I am.’
Stephen ground out his own cigarette, but then with nothing to occupy his hands, felt himself at a loss, unprotected against this other man’s talk.He forced himself to speak,
‘Not married yet, myself.’ And felt the picture of Rosie heavy in his tunic pocket, but didn’t want her involved in this.
‘I’ve a kiddie as well.’
‘Oh? How old?’
‘A little lad, William. Only four though, so doesn’t really know what’s going on.’
Stephen needed to ask, ‘Why did you sign up?’
David shrugged, ‘Had to, I didn’t want owt to happen to him, so …’He shrugged and bit his lip. ‘I’ve a picture here somewhere, if you want to see it. Lovely lad he is, he’s got his mother’s blue eyes,’ and he fumbled in his breast pocket for the photograph. But at that same moment an order to embark shot over their heads. David paused, fingers over the pocket fastening. Then dropped his hand, ‘Next time, perhaps.’
‘Yes, I’d like to see,’ said Stephen then bent to pick up his pack, but David held out his hand. ‘Good luck, like, you know, for France.’ Stephen straightened and took the other man’s hand, gripping it firmly.
‘You, too,’ he said, and meant it. ‘I’ll look out for you on the ship. Make sure you’re not,’ he smiled, ‘too ill.’
David smiled. ‘Like you said, it won’t be long.’
Stephen picked up his bag, ‘Best get going, that’s my lot boarding now.’
‘Aye, I’ll hang on here for a bit.’
‘Thanks for the cigarette, I’ll owe you one.’
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ and Stephen saw the same fear return in the other man’s eyes, so shouldering his pack, turned quickly and headed off towards the ship.
He didn’t look back.