I remember the feel of his fur, and can almost remember his smell. Standing next to him was amazing. He once stood up with me on his back. Grandma came racing over and took me off him, telling me Rex was too old now, she wasn’t cross. That’s not my only memory of him, I remember the last shovels of earth at the bottom of the garden and how upset she was not long after. The comfort she had from a group of people in their early 50’s late 40’s. The small white cross with his name on.
All the people there are gone but me, and I am 47. I just got up and walked four weeks before my 1st birthday so I can date it all to April 1972. I remember him very well. And the tall man who tutted at the women and bent down to talk to me.
I sat with Rex quietly on the stone floor by the heavy back door. Rex stood up and I stood up, and hugged him. He nuzzled me and we sat. They were talking for a while, as I grew I saw them do it countless times. I would lean back on Rex, and I remember him breathing.
Sat at the back of the kitchen drinking coffee talking smoking cigarettes without taking a breath. Grandma’s twin sister was as Grandma, the American she had married after the War was a fascinating man. I was privileged to grow up with his laconic voice and obvious charm. Privileged to meet a man who survived that beach in Normandy, he told me he wasn’t serving his country at that point. He was serving humanity because of what they fought.
He said he was really fed up; he’d been wounded, got better, met Grandma’s sister and fallen in love, then been sent to that.
He told me briefly of his various battlefield promotions and demotions, his inability to carry out moronic orders from those ‘above’ him who couldn’t see what he could see ‘….that ruined my army career.’ and a grin was followed by ‘Never listen to a man who cannot see what you can see.’
Damn he was cool as hell, he was real. He had died by the time I watched the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan at the cinema. I cried because I knew he had landed on that beach. I loved a man who went through that hell for all of us, with much more hell afterwards and plenty before.
Yet he had always deigned to converse with me as an adult, eventually laughing at me over a pint because I never used to shut up as a kid on car journeys. But who one night came to watch Platoon with me about a year after its release; small town cinema. I told him I had seen it, thought it was brilliant. ‘Let’s you and me go and see it tonight. It’s on up the road’ was his response.
That night was when I asked him the question: ‘Was that like real war?’
I can’t remember how I framed it, but you have his answers to me already. Just not his first words yet,
‘ Yes, but we did more than that without that much swearing in the entire war from all of us all over the world.’
I saw his face when he opened his mouth and was saying about landing on the beach in a full landing craft, and instinctively put my hand on his. He was one of two who made it from his landing craft off the beach and into the rest of the war. I looked in his eyes as he spoke, in his car after watching Platoon.
I expecting nothing from him but some sage advice maybe, seeing what I saw, hearing what I heard in a short space of time was amazing. Emotive and empathic as I am, I felt his pain and loss. It screamed at me as it did a hundred times louder for him. He took a breath and toughened himself, stopping the outpouring, and for a moment I saw something else in his eyes.
I let quiet tears out as he did, for all of them. In that short time he taught me even more about how hellish the world can be. He smiled at me when we saw each others tear. ‘Pint?’
I have seen my stepfather force neat weedkiller down my dogs throat, make me help him dig a hole. Then watch him roll it in there once it had died in absolute agony. Making me watch the whole time, and to help him cover it up afterwards. I was too scared to cry, and holy hell am I glad my little sister does not remember that. ‘It was a practical move ’ We were going to have to move again.
It was my dog. I remember him breathing.
My alien sighting as a kid, was in fact police helicopters chasing a very very dangerous man who was on the run with me, my sister and mum in the car. It explained the multitude of primary schools in two years.
The last time I saw the man we were running upstairs, me, mum and my sister. She was only about two.
I had a kitchen knife in my hand and so did mum. We shut and locked the bedroom door. Went into the bathroom and shut and locked that door. Then idiotically went into the bathroom cupboard. We could hear him smashing through the doors with his axe. Yes he had one and yes I saw it.
Then there was a huge noise, and loads of shouting while the police attempted to arrested him. Yes he had started battering down the bathroom door before he saw them pull up outside.
He screamed ‘Bitch I will find you and kill you and the kids.’ When the police asked us to come out I still held the knife in front of me. I was first out. I had stood in front of mum, because that man had hurt me and I wanted to hurt him. He had hurt my mum and had begun pushing my little sister around. I knew I would die. I knew how strong he was.
I have never been so happy to see a policeman and woman, and probably never will again. I saw a saw and ropes and plastic sheeting at the top of the stairs as we were hurried downstairs and away.
Yes he did intend to chop us up and bury our bodies. I know true fear, and the true face of rage, but only because I saw those after we left the bathroom that I did not want to go into.
I said we should jump out of the window, but I think mum knew we just had to buy some time.
I was too scared to cry, and holy hell am I glad my little sister does not remember that. I was 7 years old when he was caught a mile or so away. She called me about 10 years ago and told me she was thinking of looking for him, she remembered my stories of a holiday in Tunisia in October 1976. The desert ride on the camels in the early morning and the fishing boat ride across sparkling water, the face of the fisherman who he hired from the docks to take us out for a few hours. The scorpions and the endless fanta. The heat and amazing food. The call to prayer sung by a man I could see singing, echoing across the city. It was achingly beautiful.
I could not tell her the full story and won’t even tell you. I just had to tell her a thing for her to have dropped the whole subject not long after I began the sentence.
Two and a half years after that, when our new dad had appeared we moved to a larger place as he had a new job, a firefighter in Wellington. After 7 months in the job, my stepdads colleague was arrested for having been sacrificing and raping his own children, as had his wife, in the house four doors up. A normal street in Leegomery.
I went to school with the elder daughter and the boy a year younger. We went round with the kids when we first moved in. I remember coming home dragging my little sister as quickly as I could after having been excited to have new friends so soon after moving in, and so close. I remember telling my mum I wouldn’t let my little sister back round there.
Within that few months there was a thick wooden key ring cross gift from the mother that reappeared after being thrown from a car window at fifty miles an hour a good few miles away.
A very odd looking child winning every single school race despite normally not being able to walk about without tripping over. I remember a great sadness because I knew they were going through something awful those kids.
There was a toddler too, and a baby. Holy hell am I glad my younger sister doesn’t remember that.
I have seen rage and I have seen hatred and despair and death, close up and several times.
Fighting out my anger that suddenly boiled into me one day as a young teen, getting into proper fights when I knew it didn’t kill you and how quickly actual wounds heal. Hiding a life from my parents. I have been calm and smacked a guy in the head with a thick old pub glass ashtray, then kicked another in the balls and pushed him through a window. I have felt the impacts of violence on me and my fists. When I was almost 17 I asked that question of that man who had seen true horror, and I have been very different since then.
I know that if you’re young enough you don’t remember things. I have seen the face of war, and all of my experiences pale into nothing when you have looked there. I wish all of you could remember that face. I do, I remember its breath. I remember its eyes.