and the P.O.W. - by Bruin Fisher
The excitement was intoxicating. Danny felt the powerful single cylinder motor throbbing steadily between his knees, he felt the vibrations travel up through the handlebars and up his arms so that his shoulders shook slightly. He stabbed the gearchange pedal with his toe, hoping he was engaging low gear, and blipped the throttle twistgrip with his right hand while beginning to release the clutch lever with his left. Suddenly the big BSA motorcycle lurched forward and he lost his grip on the handlebars. The engine stalled.
Nothing daunted, Danny disengaged the clutch and fiddled with the gearchange until he felt reasonably confident he'd found neutral. Then he jumped on the kickstart and the motor sprang back to life, first try. Flushed with this success and with all the confidence of his eighteen years seven months, Danny tried again. This time he released the clutch more gently, didn't blip the throttle and was not taken by surprise when the bike moved off. The motorcycle lurched wildly until he began to feel the balance of the machine and gradually got used to the controls.
In no time at all, the young National Serviceman was careering around the parade ground at high speed, leaning perilously close to the concrete surface each time he approached the perimeter and turned to head back across the wide empty space.
If Danny had been a little older, wiser, more experienced, less excited, he would have paid close attention to his surroundings. He would have been very much aware of the huge fuel tank just beyond the edge of the concrete surface on one side of the parade ground, and the untidy group of smaller drums of fuel in front of the big tank on the concrete. He might even have noticed the dark stain on the concrete spreading from one of the drums across the path of his vehicle.
He didn't notice any of these things, or the small groups of men lounging in knee-length, military issue shorts and not much else, chatting together and smoking, or reading correspondence on flimsy airmail paper, or just watching him riding round and round the area. He was in a world of his own, flying, the wind in his face providing welcome relief from the hot Egyptian sun, the noise of the engine drowned out by the roar in his ears. He wore no helmet, no gloves, boots or protective leather clothing. Like his audience he was in khaki shorts and no shirt, but he was wearing his army boots to protect his feet from the kickstart and the other pedals.
It all happened in an instant. Emboldened by his new-found mastery of the powerful motorbike he was taking corners faster and faster, leaning further into the turns. Right in the middle of one such turn near the fuel tanks, he ran over an oily patch and the rear wheel lost its grip and began to slide out. The lightning reflexes of youth came to his rescue and he fought with the handlebars, turning into the skid, and wrenched the machine upright again. The bike was now heading directly for a group of oil drums full of fuel and he leaned the machine over again to turn away from disaster. Just too late. His front wheel grazed the bottom lip of one drum, wrenching the handlebar from his control and instantly pulling the bike up from its lean. Upright, the motorcycle scraped past another drum. Daniel yelped as his leg was mashed between the bike frame and the oil drum. He felt the bike shudder and the drum shifted as the bike bounced away and he was fighting the handlebars again to regain control. As if in slow motion he felt the bike slip away from him, the skinny tyres losing their grip. It dropped on one side, he kicked away from it and the machine slid a short distance on the concrete, throwing sparks up as the footpeg scraped the ground. Daniel slid along the ground, his shorts taking the strain as he came to a halt a few yards away from the metal contraption with its useless spinning wheels. He was hurt but not yet aware of it. He had the presence of mind to run over to the bike, right it and shut off the fuel tap. He stood by the machine, feeling the eerie silence after the noise, and breathed, shaking with shock, and then brushed the dust and grit off him and out of the grazes on his arms and legs. He would have to wash those cuts, and turned to head towards the sick bay.
Only then did he notice the scene behind him. One of the men was sitting on the concrete near the drums of fuel, writhing in pain and holding his ankles to keep his bare feet off the ground. Danny looked, uncomprehending. He'd been only vaguely aware of the men watching him ride, but he'd been sure none of them were in his path when he came off the bike. They'd all been off the edge of the concrete, sitting on the upturned boxes and crates that served as chairs. Perhaps it was the shock, but Danny's thinking was slowed. It took a while to register the empty fire bucket on its side, and the sand strewn across the area immediately in front of the fuel drums on the concrete. He failed to draw conclusions from what he saw.
Danny hurried over to the man on the concrete and held out his hand to help him up. Through the pain which creased his face, he met Danny's eye and shook his head. Danny took stock of the situation. The man's feet were causing him pain. Danny took a close look and realised – the soles of the feet were burned and beginning to blister. Danny stood by the injured man's hip and bent his knees. He snaked one arm under the man's thighs and the other around the small of his back.
“Hold around my neck!” he said as calmly as he could manage.
When there was no response Danny looked again at the man he was holding on the ground and recognised two things that he'd missed before. The body in his arms was a boy no older than himself, maybe younger. And he recognised him as one of the Germans.
“Halten sie mich, bitte, durch den Ansatz!” he tried again in overly formal schoolboy German.
Immediately he reached up with both hands and as Danny stooped towards him he locked his fingers behind his neck. Danny hunkered down until his knees were bent as far as they would go, then straightened his back, pulling the wounded man against his chest, and stood up, straining with the effort. He adjusted his grip slightly and set off across the parade ground towards the sick bay. None of the onlookers made any move to help at all. Danny wondered why.
He made it across the parade ground, puffing and blowing, and struggled up the steps to the door of the wooden building that served as sick bay. He tugged at the door handle with one finger until it opened, and swung his load in through the narrow doorway, remembering despite his exhaustion to take care not to bang the lad's wounded feet on the door frame. Once inside, he gratefully dropped his passenger onto the trolley bed in the centre of the room.
There was nobody around, so Danny filled a bowl with cold water at the sink, took a sponge and returned to the bed with it. He knelt in front of the knees of the German who was sitting with his legs dangling over the side of the trolley bed and began as gently as he could to sponge the water over his feet and ankles. As he worked he glanced up at the face of the young man. His feet must have been terribly painful, for he flinched frequently and his eyes watered, though he made no complaint. Danny worked with the greatest care.
“What's your name? I'm Danny.” he asked in German by way of conversation.
“Kessler. Wilhelm Kessler.”
“What happened, Wilhelm?”
“You don't know?”
“No, I don't. I came off the motorbike and turned around and there you were on the ground.”
“You very nearly blew us all up!”
“When your bike hit the oil drum, your footpeg punctured it. It was leaking petrol, and then when you dropped the bike it threw up a shower of sparks and set fire to a patch of oil. The fire was spreading towards the petrol so I grabbed the sand bucket and threw it over the fire and it went out.”
Danny reeled, realising how near to disaster he had brought the whole depot. But for Wilhelm's quick action, it would have taken only moments for the fire to spread to the leaked fuel, and that could have set off a chain of explosions taking in every drop of fuel stored at the depot.
“How did your feet get hurt?”
“I walked on the burning oil.”
Looking again at the angry burns on Wilhelm's feet Danny's eyes began to water. His recklessness had nearly cost the lives of twenty or thirty people including himself. He began to shake uncontrollably.
He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder as he knelt on the floor. “It was an accident. These things happen.”
“I could have killed you all! I was so stupid!”
“But you didn't. Don't blame yourself!”
“I got you hurt. Look at your poor feet!”
“They'll mend. I don't blame you.”
Danny looked up, meeting Wilhelm's eyes. He saw kindly compassion and he saw some sadness and there were signs of pain all over his face. But there was no resentment and Danny marvelled at that. The Germans he'd spoken to so far had displayed resentment in buckets full and Danny could see their point. In the weeks since he'd arrived at the remote British Army base in northern Egypt to serve his two years compulsory military service he'd had plenty of time to wonder about these men. The war had been over for more than a year and the British bureaucratic system was still grinding its slow way towards the goal of repatriating all the remaining prisoners of war. Sending them home. There were a dozen Germans still held in the barracks attached to the fuel depot and Danny was officially their interpreter. He was the only British soldier on the base who could speak German, and although it was only Higher School Certificate German and with a truly lousy accent he was the best they had. He was beginning to get used to the job and enjoying the challenge while improving his German. So far he hadn't found any of the Germans particularly keen to converse with him and he put that down to the obvious fact that they were still prisoners of war long after there was no more war. They surely must be anxious to return home to whatever family still lived and whatever property had not been destroyed.
Wilhelm was different, quite different. Danny had no idea why. For the first time he took a good look at the young German. He was tall, probably nearly six foot, but painfully thin with narrow bony shoulders and skinny arms. His chest was concave at the solar plexus and his ribs showed through his skin. His wavy-on-top short-back-and-sides haircut was white-blond, even his eyebrows and lashes so pale they became almost invisible against his tan. His eyes were the palest of blue, like sapphires above a sharply chiselled nose, dominating a narrow face above a determined chin. His chest was hairless to the navel, then a thin line of blond fluff spread a little as it extended downwards into his shorts. His thin legs below his shorts were well covered in blond fur and little tufts of hair crowned each of his toes. Danny realised he'd been admiring Wilhelm's ankles while he bathed his burned feet. He looked again up to Wilhelm's face and liked what he saw – this was a beautiful face and a beautiful, if thin, body. He shook off these thoughts, hoping he wasn't blushing too obviously.
The outer door of the little building banged open and Corporal Jenkins, the Welsh medical orderly, came in, clearly expecting an empty room.
“What are you doing in here?” he demanded with a frown.
“Private Daniel Rogers, sir, I brought this man for treatment. His feet are burned, sir.”
“Well, young man, how did you manage to do that, eh? Boiling water, was it? Making a pot of tea, eh, eh?!”
“He's German, sir, I think he speaks no English. His name's Wilhelm Kessler. One of the PoW's.”
“Well how're we going to find out what happened to him, then?”
“I already asked him, sir. He walked on a patch of burning oil barefoot.”
“Nasty. Well, let's see what we can do. Did you clean him up?”
“Yes, sir, I didn't know what else to do.”
“You did okay boyo. Now – that pot of creme on the end of the shelf there. Yes, there. The big one. Bring that over here and bring that bag of dressings too.”
Jenkins set to work coating the soles of Wilhelm's feet with the cream, ignoring his occasional whimpers, then dressed and bandaged the burns before carrying him across the room to the bed against the wall there and laying the boy flat on the bed, putting a folded blanket under his calves so that the back of his heels would not be in contact with the bed.
“He'll probably develop a fever and won't be feeling very well for a couple of days. Tell him to stay put, not to move until I tell him. And whatever he does, tell him not to stand on those feet! Now, let me have a quick look at you.”
The medic washed the grazes on Danny's back, and on his arms and legs, leaving them dry and without any dressings. After a minute or two clearing up, Jenkins picked up his medical bag and marched out, heading for the mess.
Danny did his best to relay the medic's instructions to Wilhelm who was beginning to look a little glazed, and he judged it best then to leave him, hoping he would be able to sleep. Before he went, he opened the windows both sides of the room, to encourage air movement. It was not yet the hottest part of the day and those wooden buildings could become oppressively hot. He put a glass of water by the bed and promised to return, and then left, closing the door quietly behind him.
His next task was to check the damage to the motorbike, and go and make his peace with its owner. The bike had roll bars protruding from the engine mountings and he found they had buckled but held sufficiently to prevent any part of the engine or exhaust manifold from scraping on the ground. Apart from the offending footpeg which had lost part of its rubber gaiter, the only other damage was to the rear mudguard. Fortunately the bike was equipped with a single pipe silencer on the right side of the bike and it had fallen on its left. That would have been expensive to replace. Danny offered to pay for the replacement of the roll bars and the repair of the other parts and the bike's owner, a local Egyptian who worked on the base, was satisfied.
Four hours later, the day was beginning to cool and Danny made good his promise to return to see Wilhelm, bringing a tray of food from the mess. The patient was lying in the bed with his bandaged feet hanging off the end, just staring at the ceiling. He turned as Danny entered and smiled. Danny hadn't seen him smile before and found himself once more strongly affected by the beauty of the young man.
“Hello again! How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I'm a little dizzy and of course my feet hurt. But otherwise I'm fine. Thanks.”
Danny took the glass from beside the bed and refilled it at the sink.
Wilhelm spoke shyly. “Danny, may I ask for your help? I need the toilet.”
“Of course. Here, let me carry you.” Danny lifted Wilhelm – and then put him down again.
“Hang on, I'll open the doors.” He propped open the door to the corridor, and then the door to the toilet. Inside, he arranged two cardboard boxes in front of the lavatory, with folded blankets on top. Then he went back for Wilhelm.
“Wilhelm, it might be best if you drop your trousers now, before I carry you in there. You won't want to put your feet on the floor, and I can't see how you'll be able to manage it otherwise.”
Wilhelm blushed, and smiled up into Danny's eyes. “Okay” he nodded.
He unfastened his belt, unbuttoned his fly, and, hooking his thumbs into both shorts and underpants, he pulled them down, wriggling them past his buttocks so that he could slide them down over his knees. Danny helped him ease the shorts and underpants off over his bandaged feet.
He stooped to pick up the skinny German again, forced by the circumstance to stare at his groin as he did so. Wilhelm's pubic hair was as blond as the hair on his head, a dense thatch surrounding his penis and cradling his balls in their pink bag. Danny had seen plenty of dicks in the showers at school, but he'd never seen one close up and he was fascinated. It looked soft, silky, with a long foreskin extending beyond the glans. He was shocked by his own reaction – he found himself fighting to resist the urge to reach out and stroke it. He'd never expected to find that region of another man's body so beautiful. He pulled himself together and lifted, bringing his eyes up to meet the eyes of his burden. Wilhelm was blushing still, but giggling too. Danny began to laugh.
They made it through to the toilet and Danny gently lowered Wilhelm onto the lavatory, resting his ankles on the boxes he'd positioned for the purpose. When he'd got him settled, Wilhelm was sat with his legs stuck out in front of him, spread at a narrow angle. But Wilhelm claimed he could manage like that so Danny left him to it.
Mission accomplished, Wilhelm called Danny back and he lifted him back to the bed and helped him back into his clothes. Then he fetched him a bowl of warm water, soap and a towel so he could wash his hands. Wilhelm took the opportunity to wash his face and his pits as well.
“Thank you. You're very kind.”
Wilhelm began to eat the meal, balancing the tray across his lap. Daniel watched him eat.
“What do your friends call you, Wilhelm? My name is Daniel, but I'm always known as Danny. I wonder if you get called Willi?”
“I like Willi – you can call me that if you like. I don't really have friends, not here anyway. None of the others like me.”
“Why is that? I noticed nobody came to help you.”
Wilhelm went quiet, looking away before giving an answer that Daniel thought evasive.
“It's lots of things, I think. I'm not like the others. I'm different. I'm Austrian and they're all German. I'm no good at soccer or the other games they play all the time, and I don't like the way they talk together so I don't join in their conversations much. We've all been stuck together so long now, over a year, and tempers get a bit short and some of them take it out on me. It's okay, though, I'm used to it.”
Danny took a moment to digest this. Wilhelm was Austrian, and an outcast among his peers. He felt an affinity with him over that – Daniel remembered the beatings he had been subjected to when he first arrived on the base, because like Wilhelm he was different. A grammar school boy, softly spoken and well educated, he had aroused instant dislike in the rough working class soldiers that he had joined. Daniel reflected for a moment on the desk job he'd landed just weeks after arriving, which had kept him away from others. The little office that became his kingdom held a folding bed where he slept and the one and only telephone on the base. He knew the others resented that he had access to this telephone, but it didn't matter so much since he had little to do now with the other men.
“You're Austrian? I've often wondered, how different is the German language in Austria?”
“Not different at all. We have a different accent, softer, but the language is just the same. We have some local sayings that they don't use in Germany, that's all. Your German is very good, by the way, for a Britisher.”
“Thank you. I want to get better, though. I'm glad of the practice! I'm sorry the others don't get along with you better; it's a bit like that with me – the others don't like it that I talk posh and had a good education. They say I'm stuck up but I don't mean to be.”
“I see. So we're outcasts together?!”
“Yes. Screw them all, I say!”
They shared a laugh at that.
Wilhelm continued eating. Between mouthfuls he asked: “How old are you, Danny?”
“Eighteen – and a half.”
“And how long have you been a soldier?”
“Nearly three months. I was sent here straight from basic training, and the commanding officer sent me straight back to England for Officer training. But when I got there, they said they weren't training any more officers and sent me back here. So I spent my first ten weeks as a soldier sunbathing on the deck of a ship!”
“I wonder how you people ever won the war. I've been waiting here for nearly a year for my release papers. You British need a bit of German efficiency, I think!” Wilhelm spoke with a big grin on his face, to show Danny that this was not to be taken seriously. He needn't have worried – Danny saw the humour and smiled with him.
“Of course you don't expect me to agree with you on that one, do you?! How long have you been a soldier, Willi?”
“Two years. I was sixteen.”
“You were recruited at sixteen?”
“Officially it was still eighteen but you just had to leave out your age on the form. Lots of boys were doing it. I think they knew but they needed soldiers and we weren't asked questions.”
“Why did you volunteer? Weren't you afraid?”
“Well, you have to understand what it was like in Austria, and Germany too, in 1942. There was so much patriotic fervour, and in school everything was geared to get us excited about fighting for victory for the Fatherland. We didn't really understand what it would be like – we were just kids.”
He paused, gathering his thoughts, and then continued:
“We were taught at school about the wonderful future that was ahead, the Third Reich. Our teachers thought Herr Hitler was wonderful. He had recovered Germany's dignity and reversed the financial problems. He'd got the big industries back on their feet and built the world's best system of roads. Listening to what we were told it seemed that the man had super powers. We all thought it was right that Austria should join with Germany in the war, although I don't think we had any choice really. Now it's over, though, I've heard some terrible things about what was done in Poland, and to the Jews, and if it's right what I've heard he must have been a monster. It can't really as bad as the stories say, can it, do you think? But even if some of it's true it's a terrible thing to have done.”
“In England towards the end of the war, the papers were saying Hitler was trying to wipe out all the Jews in the world. And other groups too. I think aristocrats, criminals, homosexuals, a group called the Earnest Bible Students, maybe some others too.”
“I'm almost afraid to go home. I don't want to find out that this is all true. It's too terrible. How can the Nazis have hated the Jews so much? Only a madman could be like that. Was Germany run by madmen for all those years? I don't know what to think.”
Danny looked closely at Willi and felt sorry for him. He saw a boy caught up in something he didn't fully understand, but who would felt responsible for it in a fully adult way.
“I'm Jewish. Well, sort of half-Jewish, I suppose. My Mum's family is Jewish, but Dad's family isn't. It hasn't really mattered because we're not religious at all. They had me circumcised, but that's as far as it went. These stories coming from Germany have made me feel that being Jewish is somehow important. I never felt that way before.”
Danny suddenly noticed that Willi was now looking stricken.
“You're Jewish? I'm sorry. I'm sorry, so sorry. You must hate me.”
“No, not at all. Why would I? It's not your fault any more than it's mine. It's other people's madness, and the war is over. The killing has stopped and nothing any of us can do will make up for the deaths of all those millions, but it isn't happening any more so those of us young people still alive have to build a new world. Isn't that a good goal?”
“Yes, yes it is. It makes me sick when I think I was fighting for the people who were making those things happen. I hope we can make a better world. Do you think it can be done?”
“I can't really imagine a worse world than the one that led to the war so I think the future has to be better than the past. When I get home I'm going to college and then I'm going to use what I've learned to help people communicate. So that people won't be afraid of each other or hate each other because they're different.”
“I'd like to do that too. I'm glad you have such a goal. I'm sure you'll reach it.”
Another pause in the conversation and Danny reflected that he was pleased with his progress in German. Willi was often making him repeat a word because he had pronounced it wrong, or because his accent was too English, but he didn't need much help to find the words. Occasionally they went through a pantomime as Danny tried to explain with gestures what he was trying to say until Willi picked up his meaning and told him the word, but the conversation didn't stumble that way much.
“Have you got family back home?” Danny asked.
“My father was conscripted when the war started. When I joined up we hadn't heard from him in nearly a year so I don't know if he's still alive. Now there's just Mother at home. My grandfather was helping her with the animals and that. We keep pigs and chickens and it was always my job to feed them and clean them out each day. I haven't heard from home yet. Hope everything's okay.”
“My Mum and Dad should be waiting for me when I get home but that won't be for nearly two years. I've got an older brother and a younger sister. They'll probably both be off at University when I get home.”
The medical orderly arrived to check Wilhelm's wounds and Daniel left him to it.
Over the next few days the two talked a lot. Daniel's schedule left him blocks of time with little to do and he took advantage of these times to visit Wilhelm. The blistered and damaged skin on his feet was healing little by little and eventually Corporal Jenkins announced that he should try walking. Poor Wilhelm had to walk the length of the sick bay twice each day. It was very painful and Willi and Daniel struggled together, arms over shoulders and around each others waists, stumping up and down the central aisle of the dormitory room, pausing to rest at intervals. And they talked. They told each other about their families, their home life, their hopes and their dreams. Over the months they forged a close bond, and when the papers finally came through that sent Willi home to his parents, each felt an ache in parting.
Daniel stood at the side of the road watching a cloud of red dust disappearing over the horizon. The Bedford truck that made it could no longer be seen or heard, but it contained eleven Germans and an eighteen-year-old Austrian, all on their way homeward. When he could no longer see even the dust cloud, he turned back and walked towards the base. He told himself the stinging and watering in his eyes was caused by the dust.
Over the next two months the fuel depot was dismantled and the base closed. Danny was one of the last to leave. He finished his national service in Durham.
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