Life and Death and Albert Smethwick

You don't expect nonsense from a man called Albert Smethwick. A name like that belongs to someone who stands his round, calls a spade a spade and can tackle anything from an engine rebuild to a new roof and make a decent job of it. And that’s exactly what Albie was – the first person you'd turn to if you needed help; the last one you'd expect to come up with wild ideas about past lives and reincarnation.

There were three of us – Albie, Johnny Metcalf and me – all born within a month of each other in 1961 and brought up in the same warren of terraces ten minutes' walk from the mill where our dads worked. Before our first day at junior school we'd never met, but a shared passion for cricket, rugby league and cars topped with dreams of military glory bound us together as tightly as any front-line comrades. Within weeks we'd settled our future. We'd serve together in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, win VCs fighting the Germans, the Russians or the Boers – our knowledge of history and politics was rather shaky at the time – and get our names in the Yorkshire Post. Seven years later, when we changed out of short trousers, began to grow our hair long and moved up to Henshaw Comprehensive, nothing had changed apart from an increasing curiosity about girls.

That's how I remember Albie: not as the schoolboy rugby star, an unbendable prop forward who could batter his way through any defence on his way to the try line; not as the enthusiastic teenager who stood proud in his first army uniform; not – thank God – as the tired, disillusioned man who returned from the Falklands, but as the fresh-faced, carrot-topped, ever-grinning eleven-year-old on his first day at Big School, his life ahead of him, filled with the belief we all shared that anything was possible. Within a couple of years the carrot had turned to auburn, he'd grown a foot, put on three stones and his only rival for the attention of the girls was Johnny, whose long blond hair and sinewy frame made him the image of a glam rock star. As for me, I was too small and shy to be of interest to the girls. Instead, I worked.

While Albie and Johnny seemed to breeze through their lessons, I struggled to keep up. Many times they put off a girlfriend, missed the opportunity to tinker with Mr Metcalf's ancient MG Midget or ignored a big match on television so they could crowd into my bedroom and help with my homework. When I asked why they went to so much trouble they'd punch me on the shoulder and call me an idiot.

“You're our mate,” said Albie, “even if you are a useless tosser.”

“Totally useless,” added Johnny, “but the army expects some brains nowadays. They don't take anyone, so we've got to fool them into thinking Pete Collins is worth having, even when we know he's a complete waste of space.”

For our ambition remained unchanged. That's why the week before we took our final exams we had our hair cut (the loss of Johnny's locks was said to have ruined the exam prospects of half the girls in the class), and the week after we marched into the recruiting office in Northgate to offer our services. The KOYLI was long gone, amalgamated into another regiment, so we'd set our sights on the Royal Engineers for no better reason than Albie's uncle had served with them in the Second World War. A few weeks later, all we needed was the results of our exams and our medicals. Both arrived one morning in early August.

We'd arranged to meet at Albie's. Johnny was already there when I arrived and it was obvious they'd had nothing but good news.

“An A, four Bs, two Cs and a D!” Albie exclaimed as soon as I walked through the door. “I knew I'd messed up biology, but an A for history. Unbelievable!”

“Two As – English and maths – and six Bs!” Johnny was just as excited. “Count 'em! Six!”

“He's done very well, hasn't he,” cooed Mrs Smethwick, who was as susceptible to Johnny's charm as any of the girls. She curled a wisp of hair around her red-tipped finger and smiled at him. “Both of them have. Of course, Albert takes after his father. He's very bright but he never had the opportunities. He could have...”

“Mum, please.” Albie grimaced at me, apologetic. “We've not heard Pete's results yet.”

When Mrs Smethwick blushed she looked barely older than her son. “I'm sorry, love. Come in and sit down and tell us. There's tea in the pot. Would you like a biscuit? We've chocolate, fig rolls, shortbread, and some of those Garibaldis although Albert's the only one who eats them. I don't think...”

“Mum!”

“Sorry. Here's your tea, love.” She sat and waited, expectant as my two friends. I took a sip, but my throat was hoarse when I spoke.

“Three As, four Bs and a C.”

“Three! Wow, that's brilliant!” Johnny was delighted.

Albie was more perceptive. “So what's wrong?”

I raised the second brown envelope. “This.” I sipped more tea, terrified I was about to cry. “The medical. They say there's something wrong with my heart. They won't have me.”

*

Albie and Johnny were adamant they'd give up their army plans; I was adamant they wouldn't. We came as close to a real argument as we'd ever had until I persuaded them that their gesture was meaningless. I wanted them to go. A vicarious army career was better than none for someone with a hole in the heart, so in September they left for the Royal Engineers' regimental HQ in Chatham and I enrolled at Henshaw Tech. Now I'd discovered I could pass exams I might as well get some A levels.

Over the next three years I followed their training, barracks life and postings to Germany, Northern Ireland and Oman through regular letters filled with news, gossip and tales of their fellow sappers. When they came home on leave we roared through Henshaw's pubs and clubs, the two of them turning even more heads than they had in the past. Newly-promoted Corporal Albie was well on the way to becoming one of the square-jawed, muscular action men we'd admired in the pages of Commando comic, while blond-haired, blue-eyed Johnny had evolved from Brian Connolly to Robert Redford. They'd even forsaken rugby league for union so they could play in the regimental 1st XV. I envied them everything but grudged them nothing.

By the time they'd signed up for their second three years I'd progressed from sixth form college to Leeds University where I read archaeology and history. Albie and Johnny seemed to think this was a greater achievement than anything they'd done, including their promotions to sergeant, although that didn't excuse me from the usual mickey-taking.

“You owe it all to us,” I was reminded by Johnny during their next leave. “If we'd not put up with your stinking socks in that rubbish tip bedroom of yours you'd never have got this far.”

Two days later they were recalled to barracks. Three days after that he and Albie were on their way to a place most people had never heard of until a few weeks earlier – the Falkland Islands.

*

They didn't win the Victoria Cross but they did both get their names in the Yorkshire Post. Albie was wounded in a Mirage attack on the Engineers' base at San Carlos. Johnny was killed. He was twenty-one.

*

Albie returned to Henshaw three weeks after his release from hospital. A four-inch shrapnel scar on his right cheek was the only outward sign of what he'd been through – that and a sometimes dazed look in his eyes when he'd drift away from the conversation. Not that he had much to say, especially about the war. When I went back to university he didn't stay in touch; it was through his mother I learned that he'd quit the army and become part-owner of a motor repair shop in one of the arches near Henshaw railway station.

But life goes on. I completed my degree at Leeds and moved to Durham to work on my masters. That was where I met Karen, a dark-haired, green-eyed bundle of energy who became Mrs Collins the month after she graduated. We honeymooned at a dig in Libya and made our home back in Durham where I'd joined the university faculty. I received occasional news from Albie's mother but fourteen years had gone before I heard from him directly – an excited letter that told me he'd found Johnny.

My first reaction was huge guilt: Albie must have been more badly affected by his war experiences than anyone had realised, least of all his former best friend. Then came concern. Within hours I was on the A1, driving south to Henshaw. He greeted me as though we'd last seen each other a day ago rather than a decade, chivvied me into the office at his garage, pushed a grimy mug of tar-coloured tea into my hand, sat back behind a chaos of a desk and grinned at me.

“I found him. I found Johnny.”

“But he's dead,” I blurted out, my diplomatic good intentions swamped by concern. “You were there. You know.”

His grin never faltered. “Of course I do. It was the worst day of my life. I begged him to live, promised I'd always be there for him. Then he was gone. But now I've found him again. You'll see. His name's Carl. The lad's not had it easy – broken home, not much money. He ran wild, stole a few cars. The court people thought they could turn him round by making use of his interest in motors so they approached me about some work in the garage. I didn't want to know. Then I saw him. Christ!”

“You're not thinking straight. There must be a family connection somewhere. Henshaw's not that big a place.”

Albie laughed and shook his head. “He's from Devon. His mum moved here when he was four and she split with his dad. There's not a drop of Yorkshire blood in him from either side.”

“But you're convinced?”

“I wasn't at first. I'm not daft, whatever you're thinking.” His grin intensified to prove no hard feelings. “I convinced myself the resemblance was a fluke, not a chance to keep a death-bed promise, then the paperwork arrived from the probation office and I read his birth date. Even I can subtract nine months from that. He was conceived the same day Johnny died. There was only one explanation for everything – reincarnation.”

“Of course. First thing you'd think of.”

“I know. Mad. Totally mad. But wait till you meet him. He's in tomorrow afternoon. Then you'll see.”

I couldn't take much more after that and escaped with mumbled excuses that wouldn't have deceived a child. Albie just winked and went back to his work.

Next day I returned to Albie's garage even more nervous than the time I'd spent a week screwing up the courage to ask out Wendy Anderson and got laughed at before I'd spoken half a sentence. Fourteen was never a good age; perhaps I'd go easy on the boy.

My first view of him was the back of a skinny youth in jeans, a hoodie and over-sized trainers who faced Albie over the engine of a battle-scarred Ford Fiesta. Both were laughing. Albie saw me, raised a hand in welcome, and the boy looked round. It was Johnny.

“Pete! Meet Carl, my occasional apprentice.” Albie emerged from beneath the bonnet of the Fiesta, stood beside the boy and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Carl, this is Pete, my oldest friend. I was telling you about him.”

The boy grunted a greeting, shrugged Albie's hand from his shoulder and stared at his trainers.
I offered a hand, too stunned to speak. The boy gave it a limp shake and resumed study of his footwear.

“Right, Pete and I are off to the pub to catch up on old times. I'll leave Stan to further your knowledge.” He nodded to a balding Asian giant in filthy overalls who stepped out of the office as he spoke. “Stan, my partner.”

“All right, Pete.” He gave me a bone-crushing handshake and nodded to Albie. “Bring him back sober. I can't run this place solo and young Carl's still got a lot to learn. Haven't you, flower?”

Outside, questions tumbled over each other in my head. One meant I could put off asking the real ones for a little longer.

“Stan?”

Albie chuckled. “Salim Shukla to his mum. It's a long story but involves him getting tired of being called Paki, especially as he was born in Bradford and his parents are Indian.” He said no more until we were seated in The Drovers with two half-empty pints of Sam Smith's finest in front of us.

“Well? You can see it, can't you?”

“I don't know, Albie. Take away the freaky haircut and I can't deny he's the image of Johnny at fourteen, but reincarnation's a lot to swallow. Too much. And I'm not sure I like the look of him. I wouldn't trust him with loose cash or expensive tools.”

“Me neither. Yet.” He took a mouthful of beer. “But he needs help. I owe him.”

“You owe him nothing.”

“I told Johnny I'd always be there. That was the last thing I said to him. I'll keep that promise.”

I was ready to argue but what was the point? Albie was convinced, and right or wrong he was a happier man than he'd been for years. And with his help, who was to say that the boy wouldn't turn out right?

*

The old days had returned for Albie and me. He became a regular visitor to Durham and between times wrote letters  filled with optimism and humour. If Carl was the cause of Albie's recovery I didn't care who he was. As for the boy, according to Albie his schoolwork had improved, the sullen restlessness that used to take hold of him had disappeared and he had his heart set on becoming a full-time apprentice. I saw him now and then during visits to Henshaw and after a while we became friendly without being friends – I confess that I found the echoes of Johnny too disturbing, although I never admitted that to Albie.

So I was taken aback when I heard Carl's hesitant voice at the other end of the phone one evening, about a year after Albie's declaration that he'd found Johnny.

“Albie said... said I should call you if I needed help and he wasn't... wasn't there. I... I...”

I thought he'd hung up until I realised that the sound I could hear wasn't static. The boy was crying.

“Carl, what's wrong? What's happened? Can you put Albie on?”

The pause before he replied was long enough for me to guess the worst.

“I'm... I'm... He's dead. He's dead and it's all my fault.”

“Where are you?”

“At the police station. I didn't know who else to call.”

“But what... have you been arrested?”

“No. But it's my fault. All my fault.”

“Who's with you?”

“No-one. Mum's out somewhere with her new boyfriend. Stan's on holiday. There's no-one else. Albie always said...”

“No, you were right to call. Is anyone there I can talk to?”

“There's a... here.”

“Hello? Mr Collins? This is PC Edwards. Are you able to come to the station?”

“Yes. Yes. Is it true? Is Albie dead?”

“I'm sorry, sir. Mr Smethwick was killed this evening. The circumstances are being investigated.”

“And Carl's in trouble?”

“It's not what you think, Mr Collins.”

“Then what happened? No... that's wasting time. I'll set off now.”

*

Carl's mother had still not been found when I arrived in Henshaw after an eighty-nine-minute journey that usually takes two hours. I squashed murmurs of social services involvement and after a surreal hour of interviews and paperwork we booked into two rooms at the nearby Travel Lodge. By then I'd heard the story half-a-dozen times; Carl needed to tell it again.

“It was that mad bastard Geno,” he said, his voice still filled with disbelief. “Him and his stupid mate, Tigger, both high on glue or something. They jumped me when I came out of the garage – wanted the car keys and to know where the money was. Albie came out and told them to piss off and Geno stuck a knife in him. How stupid is that? One minute he's working in the garage, getting Mrs Carter's Fiat ready for her to go on holiday, the next he's bleeding to death outside the front door of his workshop.

“But it was my fault. If I'd never got involved with Geno in the past he'd never have thought about the garage. And I didn't know what to do. There was all this blood and I didn't know how to stop it. I could've saved his life.”

“No, Carl. They cut an artery. No-one could have saved him.”

He shook his head, impatient. “I didn't even think to get an ambulance. Someone next door had to do that while I watched those two bastards run away and Albie die on the floor. He even apologised to me. Well, I say to me – it was someone else he was talking to.”

“To Johnny?”

“Yeah. 'I was there for you, Johnny', he said. Then he died.”

“You know who Johnny was?”

“I heard the story right at the start. At first I thought he was a perv using some daft tale to pick me up but I soon realised he thought it was true. The soft git.” He brushed away fresh tears. “I went along with it for a bit to see what I could get out of him but then we became friends. Real friends. He made me see I could do anything I wanted but all I wanted was to get a place of my own and work with him in the garage. That would've been enough for me.”

“So what now?”

His laugh was bitter. “Make sure those two bastards get locked up for a hundred years each, finish school then join Stan in the garage, if he'll have me. It won't be the same without Albie but I'll do it for him.”

*

The truth that I'd now lost both of my best friends didn't hit me until the day of Albie's funeral. St Paul's was packed, for the manner of his death and his history as a war veteran drew a mob of newspaper photographers and TV cameras; Albie's scarred face had again appeared in the Yorkshire Post. The last thing he would have wanted was a military honour guard; he got one anyway, along with a crowd of passing gawkers who outnumbered the real mourners by at least three to one. After the service was over I let them drift away before I returned to the grave to throw a handful of dirt on the coffin, watched from a distance by Karen and Carl. For the first time in my life I felt middle-aged.

*

Albie's killers both got seven years. It wasn't enough. Twelve months later Carl left school and began full-time work with Stan, although a place of his own was still only a dream. After two years it was no surprise when Carl quit the garage and signed up with the Royal Engineers.

His first letters from Chatham could have been written by Albie: the same barracks pranks, the same regimental gossip, the same military moans and groans that I'm sure the soldiers in Wellington's and Marlborough's armies would recognise. What they'd make of email I've no idea. That's how I correspond with Carl now, although the arrival of an email from Afghanistan or Iraq still takes some getting used to.

But not as much as his most recent message. He was back in Chatham a week ago after his last tour in Iraq and we'd expected him in Durham a couple of days later, as usual. He never arrived. The email arrived three days later, just in time to stop us report him missing. Its subject line did nothing to make me feel better. All it said was “Albie”.

“Hi both – Last minute change of plan. You might have guessed. Sorry for the silence and the cloak and dagger. Too complicated to go in to and no time anyway. We'll be with you on Thursday. See you then, Carl.”

Today is Thursday. It was only this morning I could bring myself to open the attachment that came with the email. Since then it's been difficult to take my eyes off the computer screen and the picture it displays: a fresh-faced, carrot-topped, eleven-year-old boy who grins at the camera with not a shred of self-consciousness about the four-inch birth mark on his right cheek.

The End

March 2009

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