.. - --- --- .- -- -. --- - .- -... .. - - .- -- . -.. ·-·-·- .. - --- --- .- -- ..- -. - .-. .- -. ... .-.. .- - .- -... .-.. . —Walt Whitman
From this distance in time an Atlantic mist shrouds everything. There are no films, no recordings, no diaries—only snatches of song through the static, old stories half-heard on a broken wartime radio: the convoys; Morse code; U-Boats calling to each other like bats...
My Grandfather, Walter, speaks in bursts, in a cracked old Scouse accent, his voice unnaturally high and emasculated by age, squeaking sometimes like an adolescent boy with his voice breaking:
“They weren't crying for God; they were screaming for their bloody mothers.” His eyes are grey and wide and wet like the sea, his voice a quiet shriek.
“The sea was all on fire around the ships, and the men were all jumping in.”
He clamps his entire face shut—almost gurning—shakes his head, turns back to the “Daily Sun”, as he calls it. We sit in the little neat kitchen that smells of bacon fat and Mr Muscle, with my Nana, Alice, wiping around him—she is a big, apron-clad fuss of tidiness and disapproval. I am nineteen, old enough and young enough to feel bored and superior. I am only really here because of my mother's insistence that I visit my grandparents occasionally. That and some sense of guilt.
“Their bloody mothers,” he repeats.
“Oh don't go on.” Her face is clamped shut too, scowling at him in his nondescript crimplene slacks; his beige cardigan with its brown leather buttons; even a tie—one of those narrow 1960s knitted ties—on a weekday, for Christ’s sake, just sitting in the kitchen doing nothing but being bloody irritating, with his thin, haunted, grey face, his thick white hair even at this age. Silly old sod. Why couldn't he just die?
She outgrew him long ago, and has been ashamed of him ever since. What she can't outgrow are her weird Anglican sensibilities of marriage as an unbreakable set of vows—for better or for worse. Better to live a lifetime of contempt and misery than break the rules, presumably.
“You seen this?” He's jabbing the paper, his eyes furious. “Bloody bananas now, the swine...” He hates Europeans, hates the ‘Common Market.’ He would have loved Brexit, but he’d have to have lived to 102-years-old to have seen all that, and that was always unlikely.
“Have you read it? 'Ave yer?”
“Oh don't go on...” The silly old sod.
And the nights of burning ships, of men screaming for their mothers, are the 19th and 20th of October, 1940. The convoy is HX 79, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. Walter is a Merchant Marine soldier at sea, on an oil tanker, operating a Bofors pom-pom gun on anti-aircraft duty. He is twenty-six; his skin is raw from the chafing of his always-wet black gunnery uniform. He doesn't know it yet, but up ahead in the Western Approaches before Ireland the Wolfpack gathers. There are even two aces present—Gunther Prien in U47, and Otto Kretschmer in U99—and over the next forty-eight hours theirs and other U-Boats will sink thirty-two ships. Walter steams into history.
Signals bounce across the radio waves in Ultra, summoning more sea monsters to the feast; but this is 1940, and the famous codebreakers from Bletchley Park are not yet adept at cracking Ultra. Alan Turing has not yet secretly saved the world or been hounded to death for being Gay. This is what the U-Boat crews call Die Glückliche Zeit—The Happy Time—when the Enigma coding is still intact, when the convoy system is still ineffective. The time when no one could yet do a damn thing about it. Walter steams through a fiery seascape at night, seeing burning men jump from burning ships into the burning sea. They do not cry for God.
And after these two nights Walter will never cry for God again.
And then it is many years later, and we are sitting in the garden outside my parents' old house above the Clwyd Valley in North Wales (where we had moved to escape Liverpool), drinking sparkling wine in the sunshine. I am house-sitting for the summer, and Alice is describing dancing to Jazz at the Rialto Club when Walter was on leave, how he looked so handsome capering in his green suit. He sounds like a leprechaun, and it's hard to imagine; he is an old man now, kneeling wheezily on the grass, somewhat improbably fashioning a box kite from newspaper and sticks (kites have long been his party piece). Beside him is a broken concertina he picked up somewhere; he can't play it for shit, but he's been annoying everyone with it for the last year.
“And I got a gorgeous green dress to match.” Alice is zoning in and out of the past like a stage psychic alternating between talking to the audience and talking to the spirit world. I imagine them in green, whirling under bright lights, twenty-something, wartime, filled with whatever stolen relief people got from alcohol and music and love, and a few quick days off from the war.
“Oh you shoulda seen us.”
“D'ya remember that time, Lal...” This has ever been his term of endearment for her, but she cuts him off. She won't remember for him, but she remembers for me, her eyes shining like a little girl.
“We met at the opening of the Mersey Tunnel. There were thousands there. Even the King and Queen an' all.” And she is truly rapt, as though her moist eyes are seeing into heaven.
“Aw, you've never seen such a day.”
She shakes herself a little, and sighs, and we watch Walter building his kite and whistling to himself toothlessly. The sun shines; there are birds singing. From here, we can see right across the valley to the brown-purple heathered flanks of the Berwyn Mountains.
“Keep talking,” I say. I want to know about everything while they are in this mood; they have almost become kids again. I am about thirty now, and no longer so superior. I have the feeling that this may be the last time ever, that this moment in the sunshine will be a kind of ending. But Alice is suddenly shy.
“Let's see if his silly kite flies then,” she says.
The Atlantic crossing is cold and brutal, with the ever-present dread of what lurks below. You imagine them singing Nazi songs down there in their iron bubbles, or holding their breaths, waiting. They invade your dreams when you climb into your wet, smelly bunk, which was vacated ten seconds earlier by your predecessor. The ship rumbles on, shuddering and moaning as ships do when you lie deep in their bellies. There is an overpowering reek of male sweat and fear. Around you in the night, other ships catch fire, then slide into the deep, plummeting towards the sea-floor far below. If you are on deck, sometimes you can see the desperate, oily faces of the men in the sea, shining up in the firelight; you hear their cries. They won't last long in that cold. At least that is a mercy; better that the weather was freezing so they would die quicker. Leaving men behind in the water was perhaps the hardest thing of all. You wanted time to speed up so they'd be dead already. You wanted to stop for them, but you couldn't or your ship would be next, and then you'd be in the water, watching them all steam by, every gaunt-faced man on deck trying to pretend you didn't exist. Perhaps—as you drowned—you'd think of home, of Whitby Street: chickens in the back yard, and the outside toilet shared with the neighbours. Freezing your arse off in winter. Or perhaps you'd remember Jazz dancing at the Rialto. (Years later—in 1981—the Rialto too will burn like a ship from your dreams on the first night of the Toxteth riots. But by then your dancing days will be long over.)
There are calmer nights on the convoys too: the sky low-hanging with more stars than anyone could imagine, and the ships gliding through luminescent green fields of plankton. You could draw up bucketfuls of glittering sea water that shone bright enough to read by. And then the sun spills out like dancing gold over the wave-tops at dawn, and you make it safely around Ireland—Rockall, Shannon, Sole, Fastnet, Lundy, Irish Sea... River Mersey. River Mersey...
You are alive: what finer sight could there be than the Liver Buildings drawing you home, the Liver Birds ushering you in on their angel-wings...
And the good old sexist joke about the Liver Birds (one looks in towards the city, the other out across the Mersey) is that the one gazing out is a wife looking to see if her man is returning from sea. The other is her sailor husband, coming home, looking to see if the pubs are open yet.
I would like to say that the kite soars out across the valleys of North Wales, mounting into the shimmering haze of the sunset like a distant dream (as Alice will remember it later). The reality is that it flies shakily on the breeze until the string snaps, and we never see it again.
Walter is unused to gardens. He was born in 1914 on a back street. His mother would drive him out of the house to make money, barefoot, from when he was ten years-old, and wouldn't allow him back in until he had made sixpence. He would scurry like a rat under trestle tables at Saint John's Market, scavenging vegetable scraps to sell. If he didn't make his sixpence he would have to sleep on the street, even in midwinter. He told old stories of Liverpool: of sectarian warfare spilt over from Ireland; of gang fights and criminality. In one of these stories a man is dragged from a pub on Lower Breck Road sometime in the 1950s, and held against the wall outside, his legs forced apart, while other men—drunk and laughing—kick him repeatedly in the groin until he is almost destroyed.
“I saw him years after—years after—and he was still on crutches like,” Walter says, shaking his head with that grimace that permanently oscillates somewhere between anxiety and outrage. (I am ten years-old when I first hear this story, and years later I still feel the male horror it implanted.)
Walter has been a survivor, a barefoot child foraging in a brutal city; a sailor somehow making it home while all around other men died in the freezing, burning water. But Alice too has been a survivor. She tells stories of the Liverpool Blitz of 1940, of hiding behind a mattress with the kids just before the front wall of their house was blown in by a landmine dropped from a Dornier (everyone had learnt the different engine sounds of German bombers by then). They all survived, though the coarse, noisy parrot—called Gracie—forgotten in the panic, was forever cured of repeating “bloody swine” (in which it had been diligently tutored by Walter).
The next morning, Alice runs along still-burning streets to fetch the bread and milk with walls collapsing around her. She survives. (Years later, we kids would play in the rubble of these 'bommies,' as we called them, wearing inherited gas-masks, little thinking of the body parts still lost below.)
Small wonder then that you would grab the chance to go out drinking and dancing in green after nights like that; small wonder that you might grab the chance to do anything, with your husband away at sea, perhaps never to return. And Alice's second daughter—named Joan—looks unlike the others. She is big-boned. black-haired, olive-skinned: a changeling.
And pale, slight Walter really isn't sure if he was on leave at the right time to explain all of that. And perhaps something dark rises in him like a sea monster.
In the garden that day, having forgotten Walter's “silly kite,” we talk of relatives, of daughters and granddaughters, of infidelities and marriage breakups.
“I think,” Alice says, “when the sex is gone, it's all gone.” She is wearing a crocheted cardigan and black trousers. I've never before heard her utter the word 'sex.' Walter doesn't say anything; he has no script, no neural pathways for such exchanges, and his wife is an uncomfortable mystery to him in these moments. His kite is lost somewhere in a clump of nettles.
A few years later, Joan, now in her fifties, accuses Walter of molesting her as a child. Alice doesn't want to know; Walter surrounds himself with an iron curtain of unhearing.
“He did it, Mum,” says Joan, whose hair is still jet black, whose skin is still olive.
“It's too late, Joan,” says Alice, her face set like a big quivering rock. “It's too late. I don't want to know now.”
Whatever outcome Joan has hoped for—perhaps agonised over—for all those years, it is not this. It is not yet the age of #MeToo, and it is mentioned no more, but the next time Joan can bear Walter's presence is at his funeral.
My last memory is of an old yellow man with frightened eyes in a respirator mask like a spaceman, with a nebulizer machine gurgling along next to the bed. He is dying of emphysema, despite having quit smoking decades earlier. He sits there looking out with eyes like a drowning man, while Alice cleans the house around him, smothering his weak voice with the vacuum, cleaning everywhere five times a day, sucking up his remnants in advance so there would be nothing left of him—sucking up the time he has left, and with it all memory, wiping it all clean.
Most of his clothes have already been washed, ironed, folded, and packed in bin-liners ready for the charity shop, so that when they wheel his body out, a minute or two after he dies, there is already little trace of him, as though some Atlantic fog-bank has rolled in, shrouding everything.
“I imagine Walter as someone who could get a tune out of anything,” says the unreliable vicar at the funeral a few days later, nodding and smiling at us all rather cheerfully and expectantly.
And we all remember that damned concertina, and wonder just who the hell he could be talking about.