A True Story
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
A True Story
This is a story from my life – as true as the memory of 37 years allows: it is not particularly conclusive, nor momentous, but its events marked something of a turning point for me. It is romantic in nature; there will be poems.
In April 1982 I left the British army, having served a Short Service Commission, lasting 3 years, as a platoon commander in the Parachute Regiment. As my service drew to a close I went on a re-settlement course, then on a spell of leave; during this leave the Falklands crisis arose. When it looked like my unit, 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment (2Para), were going to be involved in the military deployment, I made some efforts to rejoin it. Rejoin? I had hardly left: I still felt intimately part of the battalion. I was directed here or there in phone calls, but the matter fell away. Nothing associated with the burgeoning campaign was certain: military deployments seemed tentative until they happened.
I went on my planned holiday to Vienna.
Going to Vienna was a bit of a whim, but the vision of old romantic Europe attracted me; a further factor was the film ‘The Third Man’, which had made an impression on me, particularly the scene on the ferris wheel. And I had come to the end of my time in the army knowing my vocation was to be an artist – I would have the opportunity to see some great art in Vienna, notably paintings by Bruegel.
I travelled there by train, and arrived in the morning. I found a café near the Westbahnhof, intending to have a coffee. “Möchten Sie etwas Kuchen damit?” asked the lady behind the counter. Cake? For breakfast? I am English, you know . . . But she pointed to the delicious-looking offerings under the glass, and I thought, why not? So, yes, here I was in Vienna, free from all, seeing what life would bring, eating cake for breakfast!
I found a hotel near the station that looked fine, and slept off my journey. I can’t recall what I did on that day, but ended up in the same café that evening: or it might have been another café, and another evening; but I fancy it was my first night. I sat alone at a table with, probably, a beer. I think I might have eaten there. I noticed a young woman alone on a table nearby; she noticed me a little. As I recall I was writing poetry; on, perhaps, a paper bag from buying post cards? Eventually, after an unsteady comment or two had passed between us, I moved to sit, with her permission, at her table.
I think the conversation started with poetry – she wrote poetry too and upon reading or declaiming some of her poetry to me, I realised how much more accomplished she was than I. But it didn’t matter. I read her the poem I had been composing, and explained my plight of leaving the army, while my unit had been sent potentially to fight.
This was my effort:
Deserter at the Barracks Gates
2 Para have gone to war
I’ve left the army
Need I say more?
The knife resting in my heart
Giving more pain than I have ever imagined
More than lost love or dashed hopes
Oh boys where are you
And all your playing up and
Imposed degradation and
Hardness and professionalism
Both arms to turn back the clock
I’m finished without you
Though I never thought I’d say it.
Jejune hyperbole, but sincere.
The young woman with whom I conversed had a sadness about her, too: she was working through a domestic or relationship difficulty, I think; in some ways she was in a state. But I think she found my artless self sufficiently distracting – I obtained the occasional smile, as we exchanged ambitions and intimacies. We talked for what seemed hours. I fell in love with her, of course. She might have found me some way beguiling, but was so constrained by her inner conflict, un-spoken, but alluded to, that she could not open that door. Eventually, late late on, she just left. She had very lightly touched my hand, and had a tear in her eye.
I went back to the café the next day, but did not see her there. And the next; probably every day I was in Vienna. But I never saw her again.
I wrote these poems at the time:
Entschuldigen Sie gnädiges Fräulein
Take a chair
I’m having just one more beer, before I’m off.
Such coincidence - the hand of fate?
Has conveyed our thoughts
At a café table
What good luck,
What an incredible find
One with beauty and like, oh like mind.
And, of course,
What cursed chance, what a wretched loss,
She’s a chain round her neck, I’ve a rock on my shoulders
And kept apart; and never seen again.
Oh plain girl, guarding beauty behind sad sad eyes,
Drinking cigarettes and thinking poetry
One small drop of fun we were allowed
Yet the memory stays, etched it seems,
Of the pitiful picture of understanding,
Sparkling verve combatting troubles inside.
And we washed out our thoughts, secrets
Together, in the open.
How safe that felt,
Beautiful, beautiful Waltraud.
It was one of those very occasional, amazing moments in life that come along un-expected and un-bidden.
As the days passed in Vienna, I used to see in English newspapers which were available the progress of the British military force making its way to the Falklands. One day I read the first reports of Para’s engaged in combat – it must have been at Goose Green, an action involving 2 Para. I may have seen a headline that the Commanding Officer had been killed. I think I read a newspaper with lists of those killed, and started to see names of my men – those I had commanded in my platoon, and worked with in my Company, my fellow officers, my friends. Whether this caused a traumatic response, I don’t know, but on one evening I got absolutely, uproariously, dangerously drunk. I had fallen in with some local people, of intellectual bent, who had taken me to a café I know not where, and I was being, I think it is fair to say, plied with Sekt. I vaguely remember standing up in the bar on several occasions shouting toasts to the guys in 2 Para.
I was under the wing of a chap who, in retrospect, probably had designs on me. At some stage in the evening a sense of self-preservation caught me, and I upped and left. I staggered across the road, he coming worried behind saying ‘But you don’t know where you are … ‘ or some such. But I fell into a taxi and blurted out the name of my hotel.
The next day I had the mother, father and extended family of all hangovers – I traipsed the city in a complete fog. I needed to eat. I ended up in a fairly expensive restaurant and had the cheapest thing on the menu, rabbit stew, and water.