One Morning In August

For the first time in four years, Alfie woke of his own accord. Some of the others were already up, moving around...some still slept. Alfie peered through the gap where the shutter didn't quite meet the window sill. "Everybody's gone!"

A small crowd gathered.

"What do you mean...gone?"

"You're pulling my leg!"

"What the bleedin' hell's happened?"

Cautiously, they opened the door. The area was deserted and silent. To all intents and purposes, the place had been abandoned. Bewildered men appeared from the other huts, looking at each other incredulously before instinctively huddling in the center of the compound. They were unsure what to do next and wondered if they should do anything at all. The hush was eerie.

They squinted at the guard houses situated at the four corners of the yard overlooking the barbed wire fence. They were empty. No stern, expressionless faces stared down from the superior rifles signalled warnings as fingers hovered threateningly over triggers.!

"Take a gander over there, cobber," said one of the few surviving Australians. "The bloody gate's been left unlocked!"

Rumors spread like wildfire.

"It's a trick."

"They want us to make a run for it..."

"...So they can pick us off like sitting ducks."

"They can't do that," said a former tail-gunner, the only airman in the group. "It's our right and duty to attempt an escape!"

Alfie chuckled skeptically. "Like it was our right to get those Red Cross parcels they never gave us. Tell you what, fly-boy, you go first and we'll be right behind you!" The airman took a step, then hesitated.

"Thought so," said Alfie. "Don't know about the rest of you, but I wouldn't have a clue where to go even if it was safe on the other side of that fence."

"So what are we going to do?" someone asked. "Just stay here?"

Nobody answered.

The men gravitated toward mates with whom they'd shared hopes and fears...bed and board, such as it was...and even a few laughs or maybe tears. They felt lost and glanced furtively beyond the wire. How many nights, after lights-out, had they told each other they'd jump at the chance of freedom? Well, there it was now for the taking. What had happened to all their big talk?

Alfie was the first to hear the roar of plane engines which sent everyone scurrying for cover. Huge oil drums suspended from parachutes fell from the sky, spinning uncontrollably. One crashed through the roof of a hut, crushing the life out of men who had weathered grenades, machine gun fire, snipers and four years of harsh treatment. Alfie was not among them.

The men rushed to see what was inside the barrels. They grabbed at the boots, regardless of size, and ripped off the worn strips of sacking covering their feet. Whether the boots fit or not, they kept them on...hanging two or three extra pairs around their necks for good measure.

They dug deep to ferret out the cans of beef stew and tinned fruit, filling their arms with as much as they could carry. They didn't question the bounty. For the moment, the mere fact it had dropped like manna from heaven was sufficient.

"There's no bleedin' tin opener," announced Alfie, but the men refused to be deterred. Sitting cross-legged in the dirt, they hammered with sharp pebbles until the metal punctured, sucking hungrily at the meaty gravy and sweet juice. A few immediately became sick, their stomachs rebelling after years of small daily portions consisting of little more than rice and a mouthful of murky cabbage water.

The arrival of a fleet of tarpaulin-covered trucks created suspicion and a wave of alarm. One red-headed man known, for obvious reasons, as "Ginger" hurled his cling peaches across the compound. "What's this?" he asked accusingly. "The condemned bloke's last meal?"

Along with the rest, Alfie struggled to his feet and stood proud as he could in his newly-acquired spit-polished boots, determined to put on a brave show.

"It's over, fellas," called a cheerful voice. "Hirohito's thrown in the towel...not that he could do much else after we blew Hiroshima and Nagasaki outta the water...and the good ole Ruskies have kicked the hell outta Manchuria. We're taking you home, boys!"

Alfie stared. "Stone the crows," he muttered. "Yanks!"

The liberators grinned at the boots and guarded hordes of food. "Jeez," they said. "Pitch 'em! We'll get you ones that fit and soon, you'll have all the steak and potatoes you can eat!" The men backed away and shook their heads, refusing to relinquish what was far too precious.

"Leave 'em be," instructed a seasoned Sergeant, noticing the panicked eyes. "It'll take time."

"Oy, Alfie," hollered Ginger from the front of the loaded truck which plowed through the fence, flattening it like a pancake. "Nag's Head, King's Road, next Saturday night. Alright mate? I'll treat you to a pint!" Both he and Alfie were Londoners.

Alfie let the tarpaulin drop. He didn't need a final look at something he'd probably never forget anyway. He took the cigarette offered by a young American squaddie. "Keep the pack," said the corporal, dropping it into Alfie's lap, along with a lighter emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

"Gone deaf or something, Alfie?" yelled Ginger.

"No," Alfie bellowed. "I ain't deaf...just mullin' the invite over." He gave the thumbs-up. "Be there with bells on, as long as you're buying!"

It felt weird to make a decision again...but maybe that's what freedom was really all about. The liberty to choose whether or not to do something.

Alfie leaned back as the smoke burned into his lungs. It tasted good. He imagined a nice pint would taste even better.

It had been a long time.

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