William Gilbert stared at the blackboard and cried. ‘What did you do, sir?’ ‘Tell us about Jerry, sir.’
Always the same. Trying to distract him. The noise began to build as other fourteen year old voices rose to a peak. Old Gilbert will tell us about the war and then the class would be over.
He took the chalk and rewrote etre, underlined it and wrote je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous etes, ils sont. Then started again.
Gradually the noise dimmed as the boys realised he wasn’t listening. But he was. As he wrote each word and heard the mob behind him, he heard Jean-luc moan in the bunk next to him, shivering in his nightly sweats, a fellow inmate at Stalag VII from whom he had learnt French. Each cry echoed the men caught in the cross fire on Absolom Beach as they landed. Each hoot of laughter replayed the nerves released in an explosion of noise as they embarked on that calm terrifying crossing.
And as the class fell into an eerie quiet, he returned to the top of the sand dune where his comrades had crawled and all but two had died in the hail of gunfire. And as alone as he was on the begotten sand, surrounded by gore and death, he was more lonely here, in the security of a class room teaching the fourth form than ever he was there, sure as he was that death was a heartbeat away.
They were only boys, he told himself. They didn’t understand what they were doing, each encouraging the other to go on and defy their fears.
‘Are you writing lines, sir?’ One voice, querying, astonished, much like the German who had found him, as much a bloodied corpse as the others yet very much alive. ‘What have you done wrong, sir?’
The tears hit the toe of his highly polished boots and he sighed. He had survived. That was his mistake. A deliberate and egregious one and one he would pay for in his imaginings for the rest of his days.
He turned on his inquisitors, eyes still glistening and alive. ‘What about the time we set fire to the RSM’s bed?’
He managed a smile as the hooting and hollering took hold. Old Giblets was back and the class was relieved. After all they were boys too and they all deserved a life.
This story is in response to Sue Vincent’s latest #writephoto prompt. It is also a small tribute to a lovely man, also Wiliam Gilbert ‘Giblets’ who taught me French in 1969-70 and terrified and inspired me in equal measure.