As the new nurse coaxed the drip into the back of his hand, she noticed, for the first time, the two missing fingers. "I'm Liz," she announced. "I'll be looking after you today." "My wife's name - Liz. She was a nurse too." "Yes, I met her when I was starting my shift. So what have you been doing to your hand, Harry?" "Left the fingers on the beach at Anzio." "That was careless of you." You see, I was running in one direction and the fingers went flying the other way," he explained with grim humour and then, more seriously: "Not the only thing I left on that beach." "No?" She double-checked the morphine dose. "Two of my friends. George Painting and Arthur Winters. We went through North Africa together and then they didn't even get out of the water." "So what happened to you after that?" "Two years in Signals, but that was all right. I'd had enough." " It was a long time ago," she observed. "Seems like only yesterday, though. The older you get, the closer the past." "How does that feel?" she asked. "Comfortable?" "The problem with that stuff, nurse, is that it gives me dreams." "Nice dreams, I hope." "Sometimes."
Several times in his life he had been touched by the shadow of death: the 'flu epidemic of 1919; the scarlet fever which had taken his little sister, Cissy, ten years later; the beach at Anzio, and finally the TB he had brought home to incubate, and which nearly killed him in 1948. Now, incredibly, and fifty odd years later, the shadow passed over his life once more, this time, he knew, to stay. All he felt was the weariness of a long journey nearly over. Before he had been transferred to this private room with its pleasant outlook, an old man in a bed next to him had cried out: "Take me upstairs now! You can take me any time you want." It was a sentiment he could subscribe to. Harry had never been blessed with the gift of religious faith. His whole life - growing up through the depression years - the pointless stupidity of the wars -the loss of friends and family - had conspired to make him sceptical about the creator's designs. Other people might have gone the other way and found faith in adversity. He was aware of this and sometimes felt an emptiness but all in all, if he envisaged an afterlife at all, it only made sense as some kind of reunion. "Is my son coming in?" "He was here this morning, with your wife. Remember? " So he was. Strange things were happening with time and the morphine cast a fog over the real world. The nurse squeezed his free hand gently. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Don't go away. Why not have a doze? Think of something nice. Think of the best day of your life." And what would that be, he wondered. His wedding day? The birth of his first child? Getting his discharge papers? All good. Difficult to choose.
* * * * *
He pulled up the collar of the Crombie coat against the chill of the December night and waited for the bus to the city centre. In his breast pocket a brown paper envelope contained his first post-war wage packet and in his pocket was an assortment of heavy copper coins for the bus. Nottingham was stewed in a thick yellow smog which blotted out everything beyond a few yards, but it was Friday night and he was relishing the freedom of civilian life and the prospect of an evening on the town- a glass of sherry at Yates's Wine Lodge, or a pint at The Black Boy .He might try to catch a film at the Elite or The Gaumont.
Two buses crawled past but they were both full. The workers from the Boots and Players factories who clung to the platform jeered humorously when they spotted his middle-class trilby, but after four years away from home, even their hostility felt warm and accustomed. A third bus arrived sporting the legend "DEPOT ONLY" but it moved so slowly that he was able to leap onto the platform. It was empty apart from the young conductress who sat on the triple seat adjacent to the platform. "Which depot?" he asked. "Huntingdon Street. Where are you going?" "The Market Square. How much?" "Forget it," she said. "I'm cashed up now. You could get off at Parliament Street if you don't mind jumping." "I'm used to that. Jumping off boats was my speciality." "Oh yes?" she said, unwilling to be too impressed. When she took off her cap and shook loose her hair, the effect more than compensated for the drab green uniform of the Nottingham City Transport. She was fair and fine-featured, one of those Nottingham working girls renowned around the country for their good looks and sense of adventure, but she looked tired as she made a note of the numbers on her ticket machine.
On an impulse he pulled the sleeve of his coat down over his disfigured left hand. He felt a tickle in his throat - the fog had got to him - and started coughing. He couldn't stop and tears came to his eyes. "You all right?" she asked. "Just the fog, "he said when he had recovered sufficiently. "I'll be all right when I get a pint down me." She laughed. "I bet you will. Here, try some of this." Surprisingly, she pulled out a little flask and offered him a drink. He took a swig - a sweet taste - British wine it tasted like. "Cheers", he said. "But drinking on duty? You'd better not let the inspector catch you." "I keep it for passengers with coughs," she said. "Strictly medicinal." She gave him a solicitous look that made him a little uneasy. "Are you sure you're all right? That cough sounds bad." She squeezed his hand in reassurance, and the touch felt oddly familiar. "Won't be long now," she said. "What won't?" "Soon be there." "Yes." Odd.
"How do you like the job - being a clippy?" he asked after a pause. "Just filling a gap," she replied. "Next year I'm training to be a nurse." "That'd suit you. You've certainly taken good care of me!" They laughed and there was a pause while he plucked up courage. "When do you get off work?" he asked. "Just finished my shift," she replied. "Why do you ask?" "Well, there's this new David Niven film on at the Gaumont - A Matter of Life and Death. I thought you might like to come?" "I don't know. Well, why not? But I'll have to get home and change first."
The bus crawled on through the darkness at a walking pace past the lighted shop-fronts of Alfreton Road and then down Derby Road past the Catholic cathedral. As they approached the Theatre Royal, he said. "How's about I meet you at 7.30? By The Lions?" "All right," she called as he stepped down from the platform. "Meet you by The Lions." Then he remembered. "By the way," he called after the bus, "what's your name?" "Liz," she called. "I told you that already." No she hadn't, but never mind. In front of The Council House, in Market Square, crouch a pair of lions in Portland stone. You can meet by the left one or the right one, or just "by The Lions" but whatever the details, this is the one indisputable and unambiguous meeting place in the city of Nottingham. Harry passed them on his left as he made his way to The Flying Horse. Despite the "austerity" of 1946 and the fog, the city centre made a brave attempt at some kind of pre-Christmas gaiety and he was minded of his first childhood night-time trips into the city, the streets humming with shoppers and office workers making their way home, the shop-windows and arcades magically bright.
In The Flying Horse he met a couple of mates propping up the bar. "Here, look who it isn't!" was the affectionately ironic greeting. "Well, Harry, how's civvy street treating you? Still footloose and fancy free?" "So far. Got a date though." "You jammy individual. Nice looking?" "Oh, yes. Very nice. A clippy. Gave me a free ride into town." "Ayup! Only just met her and free rides already!" This kind of nonsense can go on indefinitely; it is the sincerest form of affection Nottingham knows, this relentless badinage. But despite a hard grilling, Harry didn’t feel inclined to reveal too much about his date. The girl seemed too nice to be paraded for the inspection of casual drinking pals. At seven twenty five, Harry checked his watch, and placed his glass on the bar. "Must go," he said. "Have another one. Get you a half?" "No, it really is time to go." "See you, Harry. By the way, how's the old war wound?" "What do you mean?" "The hand?" "I can still stick up two fingers to the enemy!" he said and departed with a playful gesture, feeling on good form.
Outside the fog had cleared and he could see right across the Square. He paused by the door of the pub to light a cigarette, and, for the first time in months didn't cough his lungs up when he inhaled. In fact, he felt better than he had done for weeks and strangely, when he cupped his hand to light the cigarette, he had the fleeting impression that it was with five, not three fingers. The Salvation Army band by the Christmas tree struck up with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and now it really felt like Christmas - like a real homecoming. Curiously, the warm metallic notes seemed to hang in the air and glow, while the lights themselves took on a musical quality. He looked around for Liz, but she was nowhere to be seen among the crowd of men and girls waiting for their dates. He looked at his watch again and started wonder whether he would be stood up. There was a childish giggle behind him and someone said: "Waiting for someone, Harry?" It was the familiar voice of a little girl, but for the moment, he couldn't place it. She stood under one of the arches of the portico, her face still in shadow. "Yes," he said." As it happens, I am," and he began to feel uneasily like the butt of someone's joke. "Well, she won't be coming, but there are some other people to see you." "I know your voice, don't I?" he asked, feeling a strange, almost physical sensation that was a mixture of curiosity and wonder. If the joke was on him, someone had gone to a lot of trouble. The girl stepped out of the shadows wearing the little grey coat he remembered clearly. "Now do you remember?" she asked. " Cissy! What are you doing here?" "I've been waiting. In fact, we've all been waiting," she said. "What took you so long?" He didn't know. "But you all look so well!" he exclaimed. "So do you. You look ready for anything, which is fortunate, all things considered." She pulled on the sleeve of his coat so as he should bend down to her level. "You still don't get it do you?" she whispered. "Mum always said you could be slow on the uptake. Think about it." He surveyed the crowd again. Some looked in his direction, nodded and smiled, but others, like George and Arthur, smart in dress uniform, were absorbed in their own conversation. There was Eddie Campbell, who had fallen asleep one winter night on a park bench and never woken up again; Aunt Mavis and Uncle Ted whose street had been flattened by a land-mine; and on their own, illuminated by a bright downlight in the portico, his father and his mother, just looking and smiling. Father Cantwell, who had broken his neck negotiating the step out of the confessional , was approaching, carrying a heavily bound book with a metal clasp. He felt a sudden chill of apprehension. "What's the book for, Sis?" She laughed. "Don't worry," she said, " just for signing in." Everyone laughed, including Harry, and the laughter, the lights and the music swirled together in the clear winter night. Liz wasn't there. Of course she wasn't. But the stone lions gazing out over the Square reassured him that this was, indeed, the one indisputable place for meetings past, present and to come.