November 14th, 1925, The Officers' Club, Pall Mall
I knew. I guess we all knew, certainly I did. It was no accident. I was there that evening. I saw him come lurching through the door, thoroughly lit up, clutching at the frame to prevent himself toppling, and beaming when he recognised our little group by the fireplace. I saw him eye up the distance, and the rugs on the floor, and the pair of armchairs and the little table which he would have to circumnavigate to get to us, and his brow furrowed with concentration as he launched himself in our direction. He failed to negotiate the armchairs and careered into one of them, lost his balance as he tried to fend it off and ended up sitting heavily into it, which did not please its incumbent at all. Poor Major Tomkinson, who still frequented the club in those days although he'd been retired for years, let out a bellow and started to wave his arms about from underneath Alfie. We had to go over and extricate him because he didn't seem to know how to stand up on his own.
We got him over to our side of the room and tried to sit him down but he wouldn't bend.
He leant against Ginger and wrapped both arms around his neck, breathing alcohol fumes into his face and beaming beatifically into his eyes. Ginger pushed him off.
“Where have you been, Alfie? Who got you in this state?”
Well, he couldn't tell us all that he'd just declared his undying love to a fellow officer and been rebuffed, could he? I didn't know that at the time, of course, I only learned that later, and that he'd been drowning his sorrows in a pub, alarming the barman with his determination to down one neat gin after another until he couldn't see the glass any more.
Alfie seemed to think some response was required, and he scanned our assembled group, fixed on me and grabbed me by the shoulder. A pair of bloodshot eyes met mine and he choked back a sob, while with his free hand he formed a fist and swung it. I ducked, not knowing what to expect and misunderstanding the movement, but his swing ended on his own chest, where he held his fist over his heart in a gesture of anguish.
“Georgie, you understand, don't you?” Well, I didn't, not then, but he began sobbing and none of us knew what to do with ourselves. You can't behave like that, not in the club anyway. I tried to get him out of there but he fought me off and sat down and I thought it better not to cause a scene. It might be all right if he would only keep quiet. But then he began reciting poetry, at the top of his voice.
“Love in mind and heart and spine
Now shattered, all my life repine,
What's it worth, my heart's conquest?
Will you never do what's best?”
I put my hand over his mouth, trying to shut him up but he pulled it away and grabbed me by the back of my neck and kissed me, full on the lips. Well, that was an insult too far and I hit him. I punched him on the jaw. He must have been very far gone because he wasn't at all deterred and gave us the next verses:
“I dreamed of you, my valentine
I dreamed you made yourself be mine.
You came to me with footsteps light
We frolicked barefoot through the night.”
I must have knocked his lip against his teeth because he began spitting blood, but still kept going.
You touch my lips with yours and I
Float up, ecstatic, to the sky.
And I, deft-fingered, soft, caress
Your sacred dark lubricious depths.”
He seemed to be making it up as he went along and I for one didn't want to hear any more. I tried again to shut him up with a hand over his mouth, but he misunderstood and wrapped me in a bear-hug, and then lifted his legs off the floor. With this unexpected weight attached, I overbalanced and fell forwards, with him underneath me. He must have hit the floor with quite a force and with me on top it winded him, so that he was unable to continue his serenade. I tried talking to him.
“What has happened to you, Alfie? Tell me, I'm your friend.”
I searched in his eyes for an answer, he met mine and his whole face crumpled and he cried. He held onto me for dear life and cried his heart out. I'd told him I was his friend and I held him until his outburst petered out, but he was embarrassing me in front of the others and I was beginning to get annoyed. I looked around and saw that Bertie, Titch, Ginger and Wolf were standing back in a semi-circle and looking horrified, which was not surprising since Alfie and I were lying on the carpet in a romantic clinch and he was crying freely against my shoulder. It's going to take a long time for me to live that down.
I beckoned them all to come and help me get up, and Ginger and Wolf hesitantly came forward and pulled Alfie off me and upright, but he was like a limp rag. Between the three of us we got him out of the room and across to the foyer. Perkins, preternaturally efficient as ever, catapulted out from behind his counter and held the door for us, and then hailed a taxi while we held Alfie up on the pavement. Ginger was good enough to come with Alfie and me in the taxi, I didn't think I could handle him at his barracks on my own, and we sat, Alfie between us, on the rear seat of the taxi. Alfie slumped against me, his head on my shoulder, and began snoring.
The fellow at the guardpost hardly registered our arrival, just waved us past. Either it was common for officers to be brought home in the early hours blind drunk, or he was guilty of dereliction of duty. I didn't worry about it. We had to carry Alfie into his room, he was dead to the world and snoring loudly. We sat him on his bed, I took his shoes off for him, and his jacket, but blowed if I was going to get him undressed any further, and I had no idea how to find his batman. Ginger and I swung him into his bed and draped the covers over him and when we were reasonably sure he was comfortable we left him to sleep it off. It was the last time I saw him alive.
The next morning the club was alive with gossip and I came down to more noise than is usual, or, I think, seemly, at breakfast. The kitchen staff had excelled themselves and as well as the usual scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and whatnot there was a big bowl of kedgeree, and I rather resented that I wasn't going to have peace and quiet to enjoy it. I knew, or thought I knew, that the hubbub was over Alfie's disgraceful appearance the night before and I was now quite ready to curse the man for it. It was later in the day, when I picked up the evening paper, that I realised how far off beam I was.
At the bottom corner of the front page of the early edition of The Evening News was a short article in a box with a heavy black border. The heading read: “Tragic Accident: Death at Kensington Barracks” and the paragraph that followed explained briefly and clinically that Captain Alfred Hetherington-Smythe had met his death shortly after dawn, when the weapon he was routinely cleaning had discharged into his face.
I will never quite be easy about my part in it. Looking back, I should have stayed with him, shouldn't have left him like that. But for God's sake the man was a pansy. And we never knew.
© Bruin Fisher November 2010