Bless 'Em All
Splashing and crashing, the troop races into the sea at Haifa. Matt swivels and screams; his limbs flailing in the water. Strong hands grab him and hoist him upwards. He breaks the surface, water spraying, sun exploding in his eyes. They throw him high. Matt's ecstatic. He's been at war for six years, and today is his 25th birthday.
'Cheese!', shouts Tommy, Rolleiflex in hand. Pink-brown arms wrap round Matt. He feels their heat, strength and softness.
Matt dries himself while looking across the bay to the black hull of the Exodus and its captive cargo of four thousand Jewish refugees, including the young lad with whom he has become friendly. He furrows his brow and wonders how he's going to tell him tonight.
'Come on, Matt, or we'll be late.' George Formby, the popular entertainer, is in town touring the troops. Matt is always singing his songs; he couldn't have a better birthday present.
Tibor sits on the deck of the Exodus. He's nine and tries not to move as he knows he must conserve energy. The ship has been docked for days and they are not allowed off. It's hot, and everybody is hungry. Tibor tries not to think of food, although the smell of the fresh bread from their bakery in Budapest is never far away. He manages to stop himself thinking about it. Fleetingly, he sees the faces of his father, mother, and brother and he stops himself again, concentrating very hard, pressing his legs together.
Tibor wonders if the singing soldier will come tonight. The tunes make Tibor happy. The soldier cocks his head on one side and makes strange movements with his hand in the middle of his chest, like a spider running on the spot. He imagines sitting on his shoulders; he likes thinking about this as he can feel the soldier's big ears and hair against his thighs. Tibor shifts position to escape the sun.
Formby comes on to an uproar. Everyone is on their feet; whistling and cheering. He looks magnificent in his pin-stripe suit; slim-waisted, and broad-shouldered with lapels opening to frame his crescent smile. He acknowledges them all, holding out his signature ukulele in his left hand. His goofy teeth make him one of them, and they want to go where he goes. He takes them home.
Postcards, piers and promenades; they stride beside him along the seafront. His rendition of 'My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock' makes their young bodies hot with its cocky innuendo.
And then, deftly, he switches the mood, his lips covering his awkward teeth. He is spot-lit in the velvet darkness and the room settles. His gaze is somewhere over their heads as he sings softly,
'There's no other girl I would wait for, but this one I'll break any date for...'
Matt wants to swallow but he's afraid his gulp will give him away in the pin-drop silence. All of them are far away, leaning on their imaginary lamp-posts waiting for their own little lady to pass by. No-one notices the song is over. They recover, and the applause is immense; it drowns the sniffling and throat clearing. Matt turns to Tommy and Bert, seeing their eyes wet and sparkling.
'What great pals!', he thinks, and claps so hard his hands ache.
After the encore, he hears George call for silence. It's clear he's been told they embark tomorrow for Japan, 'Bless you all!', he shouts, before singing the song.
Matt takes up his sentry duty on the quay at dusk. The Exodus is silhouetted above him. He still can't believe he has reached twenty-five when so many of his comrades haven't, and wonders if he'll ever have a wife and child, perhaps like the boy on the ship. He looks up, and sings out:
'Is there anybody near us?
Well, can anybody hear us?
For I've got s-ome-thing...im-por-tant to say'
The boy does hears, and comes to the rail. 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' has never been rendered better. Matt is inspired by Formby's inflections, inclinations and mischievous laughter. The boy is delighted and claps his hands. Matt bows deeply and blows a kiss before he walks off on his route. He braces himself for what's still to come.
On his last tour of the quay, he stops and taps the ship's rope rhythmically with his foot. Tibor is where he left him, but now lying down half asleep. He stirs with the vibrations, rubbing his eyes as he stands up.
Matt signals with his hands and arms in huge and pointed gestures:
'Tomorrow. Me. Go. Far away. Not come back.'
He repeats it a few times as Tibor cocks his head to one side. Suddenly, Tibor sinks to the deck and hugs his knees, his lips pursed. He reaches out one hand to the rope. After a long moment, Matt finds his voice and putting his own hand on the rope, sings softly to him,
'Some day, you'll go your way, it may not be an easy fight
But don't give in, make up your mind to win,
Good night little fellow, good night.'
Matt waits. And waits. When he's sure the boy's asleep, he lets go of the rope and slips away. Tibor watches him until he is out of sight.
All song lyrics in italics above are acknowledged to have been authored by the late George Formby or his associates. The following are links to the some of the songs:
With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock
Leaning on a Lampost
When I'm Cleaning Windows
Goodnight Little Fellow, Goodnight
Bless 'Em All