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The Art of Reading Letters

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He never remembered the chill water of the Channel.  He had a vague memory of bailing out, his chute opening above him a moment too late.  Obviously, his fall was not quite broken; then again, the squadron had been near the coast.  The fight had been observed; and a rescue ship notified of his position.  That it had been an enemy rescue ship was … the fortunes of war.

He woke in hospital, and was there for months.  It was well into the new year before he was finally sent with a guard to Dulag Luft.  There he was interrogated.  Afterwards, comparing with others, he realized that—as interrogations went—his was barely perfunctory.  He was not subjected to the over- (or under-) heated radiator that the Germans considered an acceptable softening-up tactic; nor was he left for hours begging for someone to take him to the bog.  Instead, a polite and knowledgeable officer provided him with a cup of tea and conversation.  He was canny enough to guess this to be subtle encouragement to unwitting disclosure, and gave only his name, rank, and serial number.  It didn’t matter.  In truth, the Germans were well aware that there was no way he could know anything of current tactical value.

With a dozen other airmen he was transferred by train to another camp, Stalag Luft, and interrogated again, this time by his own side.  Again, he could provide little news of the war; but he was eagerly recognized by a chap from his old school and two men he’d trained with; and that cleared him as genuine, after which he fitted slowly into P.o.W. life.

Evidence of war was all around them; yet they were strangely out of it.  Even those who plotted to escape were, perversely out of the war—the very urgency with which they threw themselves into plans betrayed that fact.  Stalag Luft was its own world, its own society.  They resented it; yet they adapted, each in his own way (and resented that).  Letters were sporadic but, brief and censored though they were, tied them blessedly and bewilderingly to the reality of home.

Letters were gold, in a world of drab and dirt and despair.

The Red Cross had informed his parents of his survival.  They wrote, glad he was alive.  He replied.  Indeed, while in the camp, he wrote his family more often than he ever had while flying, though it always seemed hard to find anything to say to them.  So little of the life he now led would make sense to them.

He presumed that the Old Man might also have been told.  (Certainly someone at Air Command was notified.  At any rate, his salary continued to be paid, for what that was worth.)  He wrote to a couple of chaps from his squadron:  one wrote back eventually.  The other, he supposed, either chose not to or never got the letter or was dead.  A couple of letters also came from chaps he’d known at school, probably having seen his name on some official list.

There was nothing from Bridstow.  He was not surprised.  Who, after all, would have told his friends?  His real friends, that is.  His family knew nothing of them.  (God, he hoped not!)  However open he might have been, even on the base, he never said or did anything around his family to embarrass them.  He felt a similar constraint when it came to putting pen to paper and contacting his friends now:  most of them were in the Forces, after all; and even Sandy and Alec had a nosy landlady.  Yet he wanted to know how they were all doing:  they were his friends, after all, and knew more of his real life than anyone in his family ever would.

Most of all, he wanted to know about Ralph.  What had happened after the party?  That boy from his past—the one in the diary—who had turned up so suddenly … had Bunny met him?  Was Ralph still with Bunny … or the Spuddy boy … or neither… or what?

The compulsion to reach out became unbearable.  He wrote to Ralph.

Who never replied.

Eventually it became clear that there would never be a return letter. Perhaps I was too open, he thought.  I embarrassed him.  Which would be an answer in itself.  (Yet he knew he had chosen his words with excruciating care, fully aware that everything he wrote would be passed through censors’ hands multiple times, starting with the Dolmetscher at the camp, whose English was impeccable.)

When, sometime later, he did receive a letter a letter from Bridstow, it was from Alec.  Occasionally thereafter his mail included brief notes from Sandy, Toto, or Theo.  It was Alec, though, who wrote at greatest length; and so it was from Alec that he had occasional news of Ralph.  Who was apparently with Spuddy, which answered his most urgent question, if not in the way he hoped.

As the war progressed, the camp was closed and the prisoners transferred.  Letters found them at the new Stalag Luft, which was numbered 3.  (If the one they had left was 1, then he presumed somewhere there had to be a 2.)  By then, Ralph had long since finished his retraining and been posted.  Alec did not, of course, provide any information as to where, unless it lay beneath a blotch of black.  By that time, Alec’s own address was also routinely censored, from which one might deduce that he had finished his training to the satisfaction of the Army.  Presumably, he too had been posted.  Where was another matter.  News, whether official or through the illicit radios hidden in the camp, made it clear that it was not only the Empire on which the sun never set.  The War was now world-wide; and Alec could be anywhere.  Nevertheless, the British army postal service and International Red Cross contrived between them to maintain a system of delivery across enemy lines.  Letters continued to flow in both directions, albeit most irregularly.

Abroad or not, Alec was always a man to make friends and keep them.  So, at far remove and belatedly, he continued to pass on news.

Thus, through a single paragraph in a later letter, came the information that Ralph was single again.  (Not that Alec put it that way.)  This could be deduced from the fact that Spuddy had just graduated from Oxford and gone up to London for … some job the censor had seen fit to hide.  Hope could therefore be raised.  After all, some day, some year, the war would be over and they’d all be home.  All the thousands and tens of thousands of P.o.W.s from so many countries, and all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen currently serving His Majesty would all be demobbed and sent home.  Well, those of them who survived.  And, if Ralph also survived, then perhaps….

After a few weeks of wrestling with temptation, he sent Ralph another letter.  Again, there was no answer.  Then again, Ralph probably was at sea and never got it.

For months, letters arrived at the whim of the Fatherland, but held no mention of Ralph (unless under the black of the censor).  Meanwhile, life went on, as did the war.  So he played footer, took a course in Italian architecture, borrowed a couple of Penguins from the library, and played a different sort of “penguin” for the chaps digging the latest tunnel.  As for After-the-War—well, they all had phantasies.  His were perhaps different in detail from those of most of the others; but only different in detail, and only most of the others.  How many whiled away sleepless hours at night with stories of the future:  how they might meet, what they would say, what they would do…?

(Especially what they would do.)

As he dressed for his part in the latest camp production; as he flirted with the prisoners who hung around afterwards to catch his eye … he thought of the number of fish in the sea, which vastly outnumbered the sailors.  Today outweighed tomorrow, for today was here and tomorrow never comes. He should put Ralph out of his mind.

Or not.

After all, there’s always hope of a letter.