All Material © Noel Harvey
It was Remembrance Sunday and the week after Goldbergs had filed for bankruptcy protection. We netted off what we could, but it still left us sitting on the downside of a quarter billion dollars worth of toxic credit swaps. We camouflaged it of course, but when audit came round, some sharp eyed kid out to make a name for himself spotted it sticking above the parapet. Our Japanese masters screamed seppuku, and I expected casualties, but the final reckoning was carnage.
The vice president ordered me in that Sunday for a dawn conference call with Tokyo, and twenty minutes later there was blood oozing down the walls and four names on the fixed interest desk had a red line through them. He was sorry, Denis. He really had no choice. Might want to call the team before personnel get to them.
He proffered a damp, stiff hand, which I grasped a little too long, and then a security guard was marching me from the Holy of Holies, past Jackie’s crescent desk with the picture of her Labrador and the faint scent of Dior perfume, back down the long glass corridor, into the lift, out onto the square.
Sleepless, jobless, womanless. Soon to be penniless.
People think bankers are loaded, but fixed interest isn’t like that. It’s the missionary position, the spotty girl next door of investment banking. Most of us are mortgaged up to our eyeballs, and after the Lehmans collapse, half the traders in the City would soon be on the streets looking for work.
It sounds childish now, a thirty seven year old man throwing his tie into the Thames and screaming ‘fuck you, you ungrateful bastards' in the general direction of Canary Wharf. But I suppose it was marginally less childish than all the other daft ideas I had that morning - like driving my BMW into the front of the building, or jumping from the thirty sixth floor, or leaping headlong into the grey water lapping against the wharf, in the hope of hitting an undertow.
I went back to my Docklands flat and sat around for a while. I made coffee, flicked through The Independent, dickered on the net. I thought about calling the team, but in the end I did what I always do when I’m stalling. I walked. My feet found their own way, west along the river, out along the loop of the Thames, past the tourists at the Tower, past the gulls hovering over the rubbish barges, past the old Billingsgate building - empty for decades now, but still smelling of fish.
A city familiar to me for fifteen years or more.
By the afternoon I’d come full circle, and turned up at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping. I was still baulking over calling the team to administer the coup de grace, and was badly in need of a beer. I was about to order my second pint, when an old man came in and stood next to me at the bar. He was wearing a green beret, and a double breasted suit that smelt of mothballs, and he had a row of medals pinned to his chest.
I mumbled something about my poppy being on my other jacket, but could I buy him a drink? He said you don’t need a poppy to remember, and he didn’t mind if I did, young man, and he’d have a pint of IPA. He had a rattly, but strong voice, and seemed a tad tipsy.
I held out a hand. ‘Denis Bryant.’
‘Alf Nolan. Pleased to make your acquaintance.’ His grip was cool, and surprisingly firm.
‘Impressive set of medals.’
‘These? Not so much. Campaign medals mostly. Just means you was there and came through it. There was them that paid dear for ‘em ...’ He paused for a moment. ‘No, No. We all did. But this oak leaf - that’s an M.I.D., and this one, now this one you see here, that is the Burma Star. Forgotten army they called us. Still would, I suppose, if anyone remembered, hah!
‘Generous man. Thank you. Your very good health.’ He raised the glass with a mottled hand, and his head lowered to meet it. Wisps of white hair poked from under the green beret.
‘You’ll have to forgive my ignorance... we... I mean my generation, we haven’t served. What’s M.I.D. mean?’
‘M.I.D.? Mentioned in dispatches. It’s Jake’s by rights. It was him that earned it. He was the brave one. Oh for crying out loud!’
I felt a draught at my back, and the old soldier was looking past me towards the door. His moist eyes were blazing. Why did they have to come here? This wasn’t the only pub in London. Why couldn’t they go someplace else?
I glanced over my shoulder.
‘Cameras are welcome, sorry, no videos. Thank you, this way please. Yes, keep the ticket for the moment. Thank you.’ They trailed in, a pale yellow golf jacket here, a white flat cap there, a couple of multi-pocketed gilets. Eyes peered up at the beams, other eyes were inspecting the engine room telegraph and ship’s anchor.
‘Can’t stand to be around ‘em, Japs. Nothing against Germans.’
‘I think I know how you feel. Let’s go to the upstairs bar.’
‘This is my local. Always was. Why can’t you go someplace else?’ He was speaking louder now and had fixed yellow golf jacket with a baleful stare.
I reached to touch his arm, but my hand hovered over his sleeve. ‘They won’t be here long. Let’s go upstairs. Would you tell me about Jake?’
He looked into his beer for a moment, and sighed. ‘Come on then. Tactical withdrawal. Regroup upstairs.’
We found a table by a window looking onto the Thames. Canary Wharf obliterated the skyline. He sat down with the unhurried dignity of the elderly, and placed his beret at the edge of the table. He was virtually bald.
‘Well now, first time I met Jake, he’d just arrived from South America. Ship to Bombay, then train to Poona. That’s a long journey, and he was in a filthy temper, and I can’t say as I’d blame him. He was up on his hind legs, eyes flashing, teeth bared, first bucking and then lashing out with his back legs. Couldn’t dare go near him.’
‘Jake was a horse?’
‘His mother was! Nah - Jake was a mule. Cross between a donkey and a mare. Finest beast God created, bar none. It was ... let’s see now, 1942. I’d just come out from England. Assigned to mountain transport on account of having kept a horse. Father was in the rag and bone trade. Well, I knew I had to get Jake’s respect, so I got me meals sent in, and I lived in that stable for the next forty eight hours. I didn’t do much, just cooed and talked with him, told him I wasn’t going to hurt him, stuff like that. We put Daisy in next to him - she was a gentle soul, and that helped settle him.
‘After two days he was calm enough to let me rub him down with a curry comb. He had a wiry old hide that Jake, so I used a metal comb on him, you know, one with teeth, and his skin used to go all a quiver, like he was being tickled. He was a big softy really, the colour of chestnut, with a white muzzle, but he could’ve kicked you to Timbuktu with those haunches of his. Just what you want for ferrying ammunition boxes up mountains.’
‘Why didn’t you use trucks ... or Jeeps?’ He smiled, revealing a perfect set of dentures, and gave a deep, wheezy out breath of a laugh.
‘In Burma? Weren’t hardly no roads, were there? Sometimes you couldn’t even see the trail. But there’s a trick to leading a mule, see? You’ve got to give him his head. I saw ‘em tumble down the sides of mountains, drowned in rivers and swamps, poor brutes, but I never saw one lost that’d been free to choose his own way. He’ll see a track where you or I’ll see nothing but rock and mud. Give him his head, there’s the trick.
‘We fished up in Burma, second Arakan offensive it was. We’d taken some high ground off the Japs, but it’d been carnage getting up there, and the next day they counter attacked with everything they had. Artillery, mortar, small arms. You name it. The order came to withdraw, and we planned to hold a perimeter while we got everyone out - like a collapsing paper bag they said, hah!
‘I remember bits of it. Shells and mortar bursting all over the place, people screaming and shouting, cordite burning in me nostrils. And then the quiet while they moved positions, and all you’d hear was the clink of the harnesses, and the squelch of your boots pulling out of the mud. We were in a filthy state by then. Soaked to the skin, half of us rotten with fever, hadn’t hardly eaten or slept in four days.
‘The mules weren’t no better. We crucified ‘em getting down that track. I had Jake in the lead, then dear old Daisy, then the others. Once I stumbled and almost went over the edge, and all of a sudden I felt this vice like grip on me arm, and there was Jake, me arm in his muzzle, leaning back on his haunches to get some purchase in the mud. No, I’m not kidding. Jake saved my life.
‘Not once, three times we drove them mules up that trail. We’d been weeks on the move, and the pack saddles had chafed their flanks raw by then. We’d cut up parachutes to help protect their backs, but they must’ve been in agony. Couldn’t make a sound, though. Their vocal chords got severed in Poona, see? Devoiced they called it - didn’t want their braying to reveal our position.’ He took a gulp of his beer, and added, ‘Or their suffering, I shouldn’t wonder.’
The old man had swayed forward while he’d been talking, but now he straightened up and ran the back of his hand across his eyes. ‘We got ‘em all out, you know, over three hundred men in all.’
‘Ah, Jake. The Japs were still harrying us with artillery. We thought we’d got out of range and bivouacked in some tree cover. Somehow they zeroed in on us. I heard the screech of the shell, and saw it burst a few yards from where he was foraging. Blew him clean off his feet it did. He tried to get up, he kept trying, but his forelegs wasn’t having it. Shrapnel had smashed the bone.’
His voice was quieter now, and I had to lean forward to catch his words. The smell of beery breath mingled with the faint tang of mothballs.
‘We didn’t have a vet with us, but one of the medics came over with a revolver - Webley it was - and I said he was my mule, and if anyone was going to do him it was going to be me, and he put the butt in my hand, and squeezed my shoulder and walked away.
‘Jake knew, of course. They do, you know. They always know. I pointed the barrel between his eyes, just here.’ The old man tapped himself on the forehead with an index finger. ‘He’d stopped his thrashing by now, and was lying still, snorting, but when he saw the gun, his ears went back, and his head started up, as if to say, “After all I’ve done for you, you ungrateful bastard”. And I think I must have said “Sorry, Jake”, or something like that, and I squeezed the trigger. Twice. And that was the end of him.’
The old soldier pursed his lips, and sniffed a couple of times, then exhaled sharply. For the second time, the back of his hand came up and wiped across his eyes. He sniffed once more, and without looking in my direction, mumbled ‘sorry’ again under his breath.
He had stopped speaking now, and was leaning forward with his head bowed, cradling his beer in both hands. Some words of Samuel Johnson’s came to mind, something about a man thinking meanly of himself who has never been a soldier. Neither of us moved for a time.
‘Well, must be cutting along,’ he said suddenly. ‘Missus’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.’
I looked up. The watery sunlight had faded, and the lights of Canary Wharf blazed in the distance. He rose with the same unhurried dignity, and we shook hands. ‘They’ve got their own memorial now,’ he said. ‘Park Lane. Proper it is. You might want to visit it.’
I thanked him and told him I certainly would. Then I finished my beer and went home to make my phone calls.
* * *
A few months afterwards, I spotted my former deputy in Piccadilly. It was February and raining, and though the streets were busy, the relentless news of recession had dampened any hopes of an early spring. People huddled in anoraks and under umbrellas, and queued for buses, but he strode past them, looking prosperous and confident in a silk tie and Crombie overcoat. In my casual attire, I felt oddly disadvantaged.
He told me he’d just come from a job interview with a debt recovery agency. Not quite the cachet of investment banking, he admitted, but the commission sounded promising. And anyway, he didn’t have a lot of choice. No bank would look at him now.
‘Weren’t they put off by that business?’ I asked.
He laughed. ‘Not a bit of it. In fact, I got the impression they rather liked people who didn’t play by the rules.’
‘Yes.’ I said. ‘I suppose they would, wouldn’t they?’
I wished him luck, and he strode off, promising to buy me a beer when he had more time.
I cut through Shepherd Market and headed north up Park Lane. Nobody, not even the few tourists, seemed interested in the wall, which rose up from the central reserve like a great stone crescent, partially obscured by some plane trees. A bas relief menagerie covered the wall face, and two weary bronze mules, burdened down with armaments and ammunition boxes, trudged out of the past towards it, striving for a single, narrow gap.
I stood by the lead mule, palming the silent metal of its muzzle. Several poppy wreaths littered the base of the wall, and here and there, a few small wooden crosses lay amongst them. Some words stood off the wall: ‘They had no choice’. On the other side, a bronze horse, huge and noble, trotted off into the future, accompanied by a dog.
I stepped through for a closer look.
It was a little while before it occurred to me that both figures were cast without a bridle or collar.