War Summer (1960)
the years 1941-42…
That summer the heathland was burnt brown, and warm dark patches stood like tufts of singed hair on the Downs’ flanks, where fires had caught the gorse. Dark brown and even reddish clung the hide of earth and grass to the chalk, with here and there the soft white bone of the chalk baring itself. The bushes gave shade if you risked the thorns, but who, when young, seeks shade from an English summer?
So we raced over the Downs, and found rabbit turds, old ones that crumbled, and hard fresh ones. The brambles snatched at our legs as we hopped through, nettles softly gave their deadly caress, low branches swept whipping back to lacerate the flesh, making our legs and naked arms a lattice-work of tears and scars, whereon the scars scabs grew hard and were picked off when they began to irritate, leaving a pink tenderness behind. These were brave scars, and mingled with the marks from kitten- claws.
We played the games that boys played in peace and war, of derring-do and martial bravery. Bobbing and thigh-slapping, one hand held breast-high, clasping imaginary reins, we galloped and shot each other at impossible distances.
Exhausted, we threw ourselves on the ground and sought out our pop and swigged it, passing the bottle from mouth the dry and spume-flecked mouth. Then we lay back with our heads on our satchels, lifting up scabbed knees, and examining fresh wounds on the legs threading through the sun-goldened downy hairs.
Above us, as on some infinite film-screen, airplanes lazily fought southwards, towards the coast. We felt no danger, and there was none for us. White wakes fled from crashing planes, hung spread out in benedictional mourning over the places where pilots died. We threw out a venemous “Dirty Jerry”, and were touched by no tragedy. Our confidence was all prevailing, as we sat and pointed at the entertainment high above our heads, hoping that the war would go on long enough for us to join up.
When there had been a dog-fight overhead, or when the anti-aircraft guns had growled their say, we would hunt for shrapnel as war-souvenirs, jagged pieces of metal like that which tore the skull of the old man at the bottom of the garden as he stood out in the garden to watch a night-scrap in the heavens above. The seriousness of war was the affair of the grown-ups, seldom interfering directly with our summer happiness.
Written by Peter Davis, 1960, Stockholm Sweden.