Just twenty, wasn’t he? Told me his twenty-first was in Pune.
And in his diary for Tuesday, May 8, 1945, he wrote:
Heard peace has been declared in Europe.
Celebrations in evening. Bonfire and beer.
Had some fun. Day off.
On Tuesday, July 2, 1945, he saw a five foot cobra near the cookhouse. It was killed with rifles and revolver. Full of snakes, he found the forest. If you cut one open there’d be another snake inside. A snake might swallow an even bigger snake. I know he thought about that, lighting up. Something like that would make anybody think.
What was the worst one, then?
He thought a while.
Kraits, he said. The kraits were bad.
We’d been talking about the war in the jungle. He’d described how the other side hung microphones in the trees and taunted our side. He spoke about cobras and scorpions and the little tribal women who sold eggs and charged a packet of ten cigarettes for one egg. They were headhunters.
But my question was what any son would ask his father.
Did you ever kill anyone? I asked him.
He looked at me and smiled.
Yes, he said.
He smiled again. And moved away.
Just twenty, wasn’t he?
Now, I don’t believe his answer. I don’t think he killed anybody. It doesn’t fit with the man I knew. The man who kept a mouthful of water unswallowed when the others were cursing thirst. Were dying of it.
But bullet or bayonet? Maybe he’d thrown a grenade? Caught it and tossed it back like a cricket ball. They did that in films. He left university for that, knowing he had stories to write.
Yet maybe he had. Killed someone. A soldier on their side. Because he never boasted. Never wore his medals and instead allowed his children to lose them in the garden. Okay, he never liked the other side, hated their emperor, despised their jobs. But he was mysterious, this man. Perhaps he had pulled the trigger on a lucky shot. Or bayonet practice had saved his life. That man, emaciated in his demob suit, still to meet my mother. Yes, dead skinny, bored with signal exchange, waiting for the parcel of cigs and regarding the cobra by the cookhouse door. A cobra might be tall as a man when it stood up. The snake within the snake.
And a snake could move quicker than his arm, two foot six that arm unblued and unblemished from Mumbai to Mawchi, commando in the Welch in the forgotten Fourteenth, no hate, no love across knuckles or his clerk’s fingers, that radio man whose autobiography in morse I never learned.
And later, he built walls around the house he had sketched in his mind, a house with all those raised beds. Hawks and floats his story then, but no chronicle or needleworker’s lexicon upon him.
So maybe that was the clue. For what made the corporal tick…