“Curiously enough, though,” the Corporal leaned closer to the three boys, his grin fixed into something approximately, but not quite reaching, a leer, “there never seems to be enough time for anything, not anything at all, except perhaps – no, not perhaps, this is a definite, there is always time – for the afternoon wine, which becomes the evening wine, which becomes the after dinner brandy. You must always find time for those. The key to a happy life.”
We humoured him by calling him the Corporal, and by pretending that his rusted medals with their tattered ribbons were real. And perhaps they were, but whatever he had been in an earlier life, the Corporal was now no longer anything at all except the man we saw each weekend at the tavern near our homes. He was there every day, of course, irrespective of who was with him. More often than not he sat alone by the ice bucket at the cool end of the bar, slowly but methodically working his way through another day of drinking. He talked with the bartenders, particularly the girls, and although they were friendly, they really only approached him when he was ready to order another drink, and never to socialise. He was not overly lascivious in his manner – though there was some of that, particularly when dusk fell – but instead was, quite simply, too sad for any of the girls, all of whom were in their twenties and bright with life, to withstand being near. He represented the inevitable end point of so many of the young, fresh, handsome men who came for one drink and stayed for eight, and who, as they became older and hand a dependable salary, would begin to stop at the tavern five nights a week, and then six, and then seven.
I saw the Corporal only once when not at the tavern. It was early, earlier than any establishment that sold alcohol could legally serve drinks, and I saw him standing at attention by a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. The eternal flame flickered invisibly in the morning sun as he saluted the soldier and then the fire, and then he approached the plaque with the names of soldiers who had died or vanished all those years ago. I watched him run his fingers against the embossed names. I didn’t approach him and nor did I go to the tavern that night, or for a long time afterward. When I did, he was there, but I didn’t say anything to him.
* * *
The above piece of writing comprises part of my fragments project, some of which are available on this website. I intend to add new fragments piecemeal, not in any particular order, and as the occasion take me.