A Deniable Death
The bell began to toll, and Doug Bentley was one of the first to stiffen, straighten his back, and wipe the smile from his face. The sound always killed the quiet chuckles and murmured stories. The former lance corporal in the army’s Pay Corps had come to do a job, as had the friends around him. It was the forty-eighth time he had been to the town’s High Street in the previous eighteen months, and he had missed only a very few of the occasions when the tenor bell, cast in 1633, had been rung with the slow, sad beat that recognised the approach of death and its cortege.
The town, its bell, the church of St Bartholomew and All Saints, and the High Street had become part of Doug Bentley’s life in that year and a half and, truth to tell, he wondered sometimes how he had found any purpose in his life, since retirement, before the opportunity had arisen to make the regular journey there. He knew all about the town: the coaching inns and the fine fossils that appeared in the mud springs, the unusual architecture of the town hall, built on columns more than four centuries before and donated to the community by an earl of Clarendon… He knew all of these historic points because the town was now central to his existence, and Beryl seemed not only to tolerate what he did but supported it. He needed her support each time they came on the number 12 bus from Swindon – no charge because they were senior citizens. This day, as on every day he came to the town, he had checked the varnish on the staff for his standard and satisfied himself there were no blemishes; he had renewed the blanco on the large gloves he wore until they were virgin-snow white; he had buffed his black shoes, shaved carefully, and put polish on the leather support for the bottom end of the staff. Beryl had pressed his grey slacks, ironed a shirt and inspected his tie; she had brushed dandruff flecks from his shoulders, picked fluff from his beret, and made certain that the bow of black ribbon that would top the staff was not crumpled. When the bus dropped them off, she would leave him to the company of his new veteran comrades, and he would not see her again until the ceremony was finished. The bell tolled and, as always at that moment, he felt his stomach tighten.
Doug Bentley lived in a village to the east of Swindon. Beside the infant and junior school a squat brick building was home to a small community of the Royal British Legion. It could support the part-time services of a bar steward, and they had a committee that had met there, eighteen months before, and agreed that Doug Bentley, volunteer, should go to Wootton Bassett, on the far side of Swindon, to represent the branch at the next repatriation of a serviceman killed in action. The former Pay Corps lance corporal, a member of the armed forces for two years of National Service in which he had never been posted overseas and – of course – had never heard a shot fired in anger, had preened with pride at the award of this honour. That he had never been in action, or ‘up the sharp end’, in no way diminished, in his eyes, his right to be regarded as a veteran; he had done his time, done what was asked of him. He had the respect of his colleagues in the Legion and they’d chosen him. The same pride captivated him on this summer’s day as it had on the forty-seven previous times he had made the journey there with Beryl.
He was in a line with around a dozen others. They represented the Royal British Legion branches of towns and villages as far away as Hungerford, Marlborough, Bath and Frome, and RAF Associations, Canal Zoners, one- time paratroops and… They formed their line just on the road, off the kerb, and crowds had gathered to press behind them. Doug Bentley thought there were more photographers and cameramen than usual. He would not have admitted it to a stranger, but he always watched the TV news on those evenings after he had returned home to see himself, and was always pleased when he went down later to the Legion if members remarked that they had seen him. They made a neat line, old men re-creating parade-ground disciplines. He could be a tough old goat, had earned his living as a long-distance haulage driver, but would admit – only to Beryl – that when the tenor bell tolled and the line was formed, his gut churned, and sometimes there was a smear of wet in his eyes.
He had read of the one who was coming home. Aged eighteen years and four months, just accepted into a Guards regiment and killed by an explosion three days earlier in bloody Helmand Province, five weeks after arriving in Afghanistan. The family, friends and supporters were dribbling out of the Cross Keys public house and were crossing the road, weaving between the last traffic that the police would allow up and down the High Street before closing it. It was a good word that was used, repatriation, and he liked the thought of it for a fallen squaddie. The town, Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, with a population of about ten thousand and nothing special to say for itself, represented – as the quiet fell from a sunlit blue sky – the mourning of a nation for a soldier who had given his young life that a greater number might walk in freedom and in peace… Well, that was what the tabloids printed.
No more traffic now. The relatives, friends and supporters were in place, and some of the kids among them wore T-shirts with a picture of what seemed to be almost a child soldier with a smiling face and a battlefield helmet that was a size too large. They all had flowers and some had already started to weep. Every eye, and Doug Bentley’s, gazed left down the street, towards the raised town hall and the top of the hill, beyond the church and its bell tower, where the road came from the RAF base into which the coffin had been flown. He saw women in floral dresses, kids in jeans and sneakers, men standing straight and clutching shopping bags, the staff of shops, banks and coffee houses, and people with dogs that sat still and quiet at their sides. Early on, Doug had realised this was no place for generals, admirals, air marshals or senior politicians. The tabloids called it ‘the tribute of Middle England’.
Three police motorcyclists led the convoy, coming at a crawl, heads appearing first, then the fluorescent yellow of the shoulders and last the blue lights on their machines. The bell had stopped and the engines made a mere murmur, but the sobbing of one woman was clear. The motorcycles went on past Doug Bentley and the others, then a marked police car, but the hearse halted to the far side of the town hall and the funeral director climbed out of the front passenger seat. The local man who did the drill calls for Doug and the standard-bearer party gave the command and the dozen were raised, the tips dropped into the leather case that took their weight. He felt the sun full on him and a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek.
The funeral director wore a top hat and a morning suit; he had a fine walking staff with a silver-topped handle. As he moved forward a woman opposite Doug Bentley seemed to contract in a convulsion of tears and a man beside her, who had pink knees below the hem of his shorts, rubbed her neck gently. As the funeral director reached them, top hat now carried, the command came – softly spoken – and the standards dipped. All those years before, as a lance corporal in the Pay Corps, he had loathed drill sergeants, had been clumsy and useless at the co-ordination required, but he could do this now. The hearse eased to a halt and Doug Bentley dropped his head, as if in prayer, but he could see, beyond the glass, the closely pinned Union flag over the new clean wood of the coffin. He often wondered what they looked like, inside the shrouds and below the lids: at peace and unmarked, or mangled beyond recognition… It was those bloody bombs that did for them: what the TV said were IEDs – improvised explosive devices. Eight out of every ten who were brought through the town on their way to the hospital in Oxford, where the post-mortems were done, had been killed by the tribesmen’s bombs. Doug Bentley didn’t know about war, and his military service as a conscript had been about ledgers, officers’ expenses and other ranks’ salaries, but men in the branch in his village, who had been in the paras or the marines, spoke of the bombs and what they did to a body. Just eighteen years old the guardsman had been, and the picture on the T-shirts showed a face that was immature, arms and legs that had most likely been skeleton thin, all ripped apart by a bomb.
He saw the mother of the boy soldier, and the middle-aged man with her stood back a half-pace. He saw the father, with a woman in black behind him… It always struck him how few of the dead soldiers had parents who still lived together – he and Beryl had been together for forty-six years, had reared two kids and… Flowers, single roses, little posies of the season’s last daffodils and pretty sprays of chrysanthemums were being laid on the bonnet of the hearse, against the windscreen and on the roof. The grief was naked and raw. It hurt Doug Bentley to watch. Some of the family had laid their open hands on the glass sides as if in that way they might touch the body in the coffin.
How long were they there? A little more than half a minute.