“One Fight at a Time” Taster

Sergeant Major Ed Grover said ‘goodbye’ to West Berlin from the Cafe Adler; two smoky rooms on the ground floor of a shell scarred, four storey building, sitting at the junction of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. Outside it was raining, and inside, the smell of damp raincoats, beer and cooking, mingled with the cigarette smoke. The menu was written in chalk on a board behind the bar. The lunch of the day was carrot soup, followed by pork and potatoes. There was no dessert. It would have been something with fruit probably, but there had been no fruit deliveries for two days. The blockade emergency was over, but the Berliner’s daily ration of nine hundred and fifty calories could only be conjured out of whatever was available.

Grover wiped the condensation off the window at his shoulder and looked across at the Soviet concrete gateposts, the barrier and the double row of barbed wire that permitted access to East Berlin. During the past four and a half years, Stalin had postured, growled and threatened from two hundred metres away. But brinkmanship had produced very little beyond frustration, misery and hunger.

He was conscious of an arm waving at him from inside the large wooden hut squatting at the side of the road a couple of metres across the pavement. He wiped the window again and stuck his face against the glass. Corporal Leaman was the front man at Barrier C this morning. Grover waved back and hoisted his glass of schnapps in a toast. He hated schnapps. But it was the first drink he had taken on his arrival in Berlin and he had vowed it would be his last before he left. He took a deep breath and emptied the contents of the glass down his throat. The schnapps burned and made him choke, but he swallowed it and claimed victory.

He got up from the table, buttoned his greatcoat and stepped out into the rain.

A black Opel Kadett was parked road-side of the hut. Private Bowman stepped back from the driver’s door and waved the car towards the Soviet barrier. There was no other traffic; nobody on foot. Corporal Leaman was completing the process of fastening a hand painted sign on to the side of the hut. He hammered a nail into the top right hand corner and stood back to admire his effort. Grover stood at his side and read the words Welcome to Checkpoint Charlie.

“That’s what the people round here are calling it now,” Leaman said. “Kinda catchy, don’t you think?”

Grover turned up the collar of his coat. Leaman nodded at his art work.

“I’ll lay you 6 to 4 that some guy with stars on his shoulder rolls up and tells me to take it down. But what the hell…”

He shifted the hammer into his left hand and offered Grover his right. Grover shook it, turned and walked away, head bowed into the onslaught of rain. He found Private Kowlaski and his jeep parked on Potsdamer Platz and climbed aboard for the drive to Tempelhof Airport.

* * *

Grover’s best buddy in the 21st was Master Sergeant Henry Whelan, boss of the Motor Pool. A black Texan, six feet three inches tall and a tough, muscular, thirteen stones. Big and strong and quietly spoken; he simply never had to raise his voice to anyone. And he knew about women. In times past, wherever the infantry were, the moment there was a break in hostilities, Whelan had appeared with a girl on his arm.

“You want to do what?”

“Build a jeep.”

“What the hell for?” Whelan pointed across the Motor Pool garage. “Take that one there. Anytime.”

“I need something to do. Sitting around here is driving me crazy.”

Whelan shook his head. “I re-built that jeep, in a farmer’s garage near Nordhausen. There were shells bursting all around me. The fucking roof fell in. I worked all night because I had to. The jeep was back on the road by dawn. Now all I have to do, is sit here on my ass and check the oil once in a while.”

“Are you enjoying sitting on your ass?”

“I’m enjoying not having to worry about getting it shot off.”

Like Grover, Whelan had started June ’44 in the 21st Infantry. The two men first met on Overlord Day 2, courtesy of a German machine gun post behind a sand dune at St Laurent-sur-Mer. Whelan was doing his utmost to breathe life into a stalled half-track, while on the receiving end of a hammering from German mortars dug in at the side of the road to Port-en-Bassin. Baker Company’s 2nd Platoon managed to cross the road and hit them from the rear. Whelan and his mechanics scrambled out of the hole they were hiding in and kicked the half-track back into action.

And now he offered Grover a contra deal. “l’ll do the heavy work if you pay my Sergeant’s Mess bills for a month.”

They shook hands. Whelan had a question however.

“When we’ve built a jeep, what will you do with it?”

“Get a seventy-two hour pass and go see some people.”

“What people?”

* * *

Grover stood in Gladstone Street and surveyed the front of the shop. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

The top of the door hit a lever attached to the door frame and a bell rang out. Cheerfully. Optimistically. He closed the door and the bell rang again. The shop counters were the same, but the wood frames had been sanded down and re-stained in a lighter oak. The floor too. The shelves on the walls behind the counters had been re-built. Altogether, the place seemed to have acquired a newly minted sense of purpose.

Grover stood in the spot he had nine years earlier and waited.

Ellie Morrison stepped into the shop from the back kitchen. She paused, waited just a fraction of a second, until recognition dawned. Then she grabbed the hinged counter top, lifted it up and over and stepped into the middle of the shop floor. Grover wrapped his arms around her, breathed in, and held her tight.

Ellie held on too. Then she stepped out of the embrace and looked Grover up and down.

“My my,” she said. “My oh my.”

He breathed out again.

“You look terrific,” he said.

And she did. Now in her sixties, but with the blue eyes as brilliant as ever.

“So do you,” she said. “And considerably drier.”

Grover grinned. Ellie moved to the shop door, turned the open/closed sign around and took his arm. Grover looked at the door.

“You’ll lose business,” he said.

“The customers will come back.”

She ushered him though the gap in the counter and on into the back kitchen. This had been painted too. The furniture was the same and in the same place and a fire burned in the grate. But like the shop interior, the room looked and felt brighter

“Give me your coat,” Ellie said.

Grover took it off and passed it to her. She stared at his uniform jacket.

“Just look at you. From aircraftsman, to boss of the squad.”

“That’s it.”

“I thought about you a lot.” Ellie said. “We all did.”

“Thank you. I made it.”

“Yes you did.”

She dropped his coat onto the table, grabbed him and hugged him again.

“I got something for you,” he said, over her shoulder.

Eleanor let go of him.

“In the greatcoat pockets.”

She picked up the coat, draped it over her left arm and searched through the pockets. She found two sealed silver foil bags, one word stamped on each.

“Tea!!”

“Got it from the RAF Quartermaster. Had to promise him the earth.”

“Then we must celebrate with some. As strong as you like.”

Ellie picked up the kettle and went into the wash house to fill it. Grover listened to her clattering about and watched the kettle steaming on the fire grate.

They sat at the table, tea cups in front of them, the milk jug and tea pot between them. Grover gave her a précis of his last weeks in Germany and his return home. Ellie listened, fascinated by the story of life in conquered Europe. She asked him what it was like in post war Berlin.


Praise from readers

“Closing the Distance” has a diamond hard centre. The action is terrific, the story grips and holds on, and the ending is a grade A surprise.

— Steve Timmins