Emily sat at a table outside a small café overlooking Port Stanley. She hugged her coat closer around her gazing at the town below bathed in watery sunshine. Out in the bay cruise ships sat starkly white against the pewter sea. Inshore the harbour buzzed with activity as boats were loaded and unloaded.
She’d spent the morning in Church. The uplifting service and tranquil serenity was a world away from the bustle of the busy port. Battleground tours were advertised on the quay alongside the Museum and the Governor’s House. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She’d seen the whalebone arch, the totem pole and the bomb disposal unit. She’d even noticed the fish and chip shop. All she wanted now was a quiet sit down and a cup of tea.
‘Hello ducks. Pot of tea for one is it?’ An old lady, her face like worn leather, approached her, wiping the table as she spoke.
‘You must be a mind reader.’ Emily smiled.
‘Oh, you get to know people in this game. Visitor are you? From England?’
‘Yorkshire. I came on a cruise.’
‘Yorkshire, well I’ll be… What part?’ The old lady’s crinkled face creased even deeper into a beaming smile.
‘I’m from Ilkley. Well lass, you’re a long way from home but, bye heck I’m glad to see you. D’you mind if I sit a while with you? I see so few people from home.’
Emily smiled. She’d be glad of the company. ‘Be my guest,’ she said.
‘No, you’ll be mine.’ The old lady grinned. ‘I’ll just nip and get tea.’ She scurried into the café.
The smell of fresh baked scones accompanied her return. She set the tray of tea and scones on the table and unloaded it. Emily gazed at the rugged hills and cliffs surrounding the town. What could entice anyone to live in such a place, she wondered. ‘How long have you lived here, in the Falklands?’
‘Must be nigh on fifty years now. Aye, fifty year give or take.’
‘And you’ve never wanted to go home?’
‘Home? Well, my family’s here now so I guess this is home. Milk? Sugar?’
‘Please. So, you came here before the war then.’
‘Oh lordy yes. Came in the sixties. I lived in a small village see, mostly farmers, and this lad came. Visiting family he was.’ She sighed and paused pouring the tea. ‘So handsome he was and strong. Fair turned all the girls’ heads, but I saw him and I wanted him. Wanted him right from the first. Wanted him as bad as a starving man wants food.’ Her eyes twinkled as she spoke and she looked at Emily. ‘You know what it’s like, when you’re young and in love.’
Emily’s mind flitted back to when she first met Col, the thrill of it, the gut-wrenching anxiety, the uncertainty. Her stomach clenched at the memory. ‘Oh aye,’ she said quietly unable to stop her lips from spreading into a smile.
‘Well, I got him. We married in Ilkley then came out here. His family had a farm, sheep mostly. Bye heck, them were the days.’ The old lady gazed into the distance as if remembering a long gone dream.
Emily sipped her tea.
‘You’ve come for the tour I suppose. Husband was it?’ Concern now filled the old lady’s eyes.
‘I said you were a mind reader. Col was in the Paras.’
‘Not much else to come for. Penguins I suppose but you can see them from the boats. No, a pilgrimage to the past, that’s what most people want.’ She looked sad. Emily felt her sadness and wondered whether the constant reminders irked her. But the old lady stretched out a frail hand, the parchment skin veined with blue, and laid it on Emily’s arm.
‘We’ll always be grateful you know. It was a sad day when the Argie’s flag flew over Port Stanley. We were rounded up, imprisoned. Possible collaborators see. You never appreciate freedom until it’s gone. Now we’re free to choose our own way of life. Lot of good men died though. We never forget that.’ She lapsed into thoughtful silence.
‘Wireless Ridge. That’s where Col….’ Emily blinked back the tears stinging her eyes. ‘It was his life, the Paras. His passion.’
‘Nay lass, I’m sure you were that.’ The old lady spoke softly glancing fondly at Emily.
‘Well, he was mine – then.’ Emily frowned. She wiped her hands across her cheeks feeling their dampness.
The old lady sighed and shifted in her chair. ‘My grandson’ll take you up to the Ridge, it’s not far. Least he can do. Just give us fifteen minutes and he’ll bring the car round.’
‘No, really, there’s no need…’ Emily tried to protest, but the old lady insisted.
‘He’s nowt better to do,’ she said pulling herself up on the back of the chair. ‘He might as well make himself useful.’ She disappeared back into the café to find him.
In the battered Citreon on the way up the mountain road, Emily surveyed the desolate countryside. All round them fields of scrubland stretched to the horizon, with trees bowed down and grasses laid flat by the constant wind. It looked so rugged and intimidating she couldn’t imagine anyone living there. The lad driving couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She recalled when her own boy had been that age.
‘What do you do around here?’ she asked.
‘Me? I help out in the café when I’m not at college. It’s my mum’s place but Gran helps out. Can’t stop her, you saw what she’s like.’ he smiled at Emily.
Emily smiled back. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Robbie, but my friends call me Buster.’
‘Yeah, I’m a bit clumsy, break things.’ He looked shamefaced but Emily laughed.
He was too young to remember the war but he still seemed to know a great deal about it. He told her about the battles, the bombing of the airfield, how Port Stanley was taken and the victory at Goose Green. Listening to his voice Emily lived the experiences in her mind. Experiences Col went through that she knew nothing about.
He parked the car a little way from the Ridge.
Now they’d arrived Emily felt reluctant to get out of the car. It had been fine thinking about it, when it was an abstract idea floating in the back of her mind, but now she was actually here – a cold shiver ran down her spine, a sick feeling mangled her stomach. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the car. The arctic wind polished her face bringing it to a rosy glow. She strode up the hill and gazed out over the stony landscape, imagining it populated by men, heavy artillery and helicopters. In her head she saw figures, like shadows moving forward, spread out across the plain against a background of gunfire and explosions.
She imagined she heard her husband’s voice swirling in the wind, re-living the battle. Then, in her mind’s eye she saw him, young and strong, the way she remembered him, the way she always wanted to remember him.
‘Was it here Col?’ she whispered into the wind.
‘Aye lass, over yon,’ she imagined she heard him say in his soft Yorkshire burr. Her gaze was drawn to an outcrop of rocks half-way down the slope.
‘It were freezing and pitch black, couldn’t see owt and all we could hear were volleys of gunfire and shouts of men as they were hit. Couldn’t tell who or where. We were moving trench to trench, resistance was fiercest we’d met. That’s where I bought it. I fell into a hole already full of bodies. Ours or theirs? I couldn’t tell. I thought of you. She’ll never forgive me I thought.’
‘I thought I’d never forgive you either. But I had two young children to bring up. I stopped them playing in street, or going out with their friends. I stopped watching the news, never read a newspaper, shut us all away, in limbo, waiting for you to come back and make everything right again, but of course you never did.’
Emily paused and gazed up at the pearl grey sky.
‘I met someone. His name’s Graham. You’d like him, he’s a lot like you. He didn’t come to the Island, preferred to stay on the ship. It’s a cruise we’re on. Imagine, me on a cruise. They’ve got a casino on board.’
She shivered as a sudden sharp gust rustled the grass. ‘Do you love him?’
She stared out across the stark landscape her mind in turmoil.
‘Aye, I do.’ She whispered. ‘It’s different though. Not like you and me. It’s more like a comfort thing. Passion? Yes we have passion. Not the heady fiery passion we had, deeper somehow, more respectful. It’s like we appreciate what we’ve got. Not the frenzied fervour we took for granted. That’s all gone.’ She bowed her head for a moment, then lifted it. ‘We thought it would last forever didn’t we?’
She took a breath and turned to face the memory of him. ‘I’ll never forget you,’ she said. ‘You’re with me always. I’ve only to look at our Steven and there you are. Spitting image he is. It’s true what they say, we live on through our children. You’d be right proud of him. He’s a youth worker, works with disadvantaged kids. Mostly without fathers.’
‘Not the Army then?’
She shook her head. ‘He wanted to join up but I put my foot down. Amy’s doing well too. She married a plumber, Ray. Nice lad. They’ve got a little one, six now he is. They called him Colin.’ She paused as a smile played across her lips. ‘He’s got your eyes and your sense of humour.’
She stood surveying the uncompromising terrain, saying nothing but taking it all in as if committing it to memory. ‘I’ll have to go soon, the lad’s waiting.’ She nodded towards the car. ‘His family have a café in Port Stanley. They’re grateful for what you did, you and the lads. I pray for you all, Chalky, Watson, Wally and Joe. Steven lays a wreath at the Remembrance Services. We remember the good times together.’
She reached into her bag. ‘Oh, I’ve got something for you.’ She brought out two identity tags on a chain, walked to a pile of rocks covered in faded flowers, their leaves fluttering in the wind and laid the tags gently on the stones. ‘I’m keeping the medals for Steven but we don’t need these anymore. At first I was afraid that I might forget you, now I know I never will.’
She had a final look around. ‘I’m glad I came for a visit but I won’t be coming back. Memories are best kept where they belong, in the past.’ With tears in her eyes she turned and walked slowly away, then turning back she whispered, ‘Rest in Peace now, ‘til the next life eh?’
Then Emily walked to the waiting car without a backward glance. The fading wind ruffled her hair.
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