The door is slightly ajar and the smell of frying onions drifts on the hot air as I tap twice and push it open. He’s standing over the stove, cigarette between his lips, glasses misty with steam rising from the pot. It’s nearly lunchtime but he’s still dressed in his old flannel pyjamas; he feels the cold easily now that he’s in his eighties.
‘Hello my girlie, how are you today, come in, come in, I’m making a stew, you’re welcome to stay for some, it’s an old Italian recipe, the Italians are wonderful people, not like the French …’
I hug him and sit down next to his old, deaf fox terrier on a small, worn-out sofa. He takes a pinch of herbs, stirs the pot, and carries on …
‘I walked halfway across Italy during the war when we escaped. The people welcomed us with open arms, their food was delicious, they made tasty meals out of next to nothing.
‘The worst was Cairo, though, we could only eat rations there, everything else was a health hazard. I remember one day I went into the city, I had to drive the CO to a meeting. Now I hadn’t seen your uncle David, my older brother, for more than a year, he was stationed with the bombardiers in Tobruk. Anyway, I had a few hours to look around while waiting for the CO but didn’t expect to see anything much. Cairo was hot, sticky and loud with yelling people trying to sell anything from soap to dirty pictures or their sister. I didn’t mind; it was just such a relief to be out of the sand. We spent months in trenches dug into the desert with nothing to see but sand and sun, sand and sun. We lived under the sand; there was sand in the food, everywhere … ‘ The ash from the cigarette finally collapses into the stew as he continues.
‘I was walking along when I saw another military jeep approaching, jolting over the terrible road, but what really made me take notice was the burst of colour it was carrying! Yellow, red, white, green – a beautiful explosion of brightness that hurt my eyes. It made me smile and I stopped to watch the apparition, which turned out to be a big bunch of flowers, drive past. I was standing there, gawking and smiling at this sight, when I saw whom the hairy paw holding the rainbow belonged to – and I felt every hair on my body prickle right up! It was my brother David, smiling like the cat who got the cream! I yelled, he yelled, the jeep stopped and we leaped at each other … Well, I can tell you, I managed to get a few hours off that night, and did we have a party … ‘
He stirs the ash into the stew without even noticing it and shuffles over to the small table where he keeps a bottle of no brand whiskey and a jug of ice-water. He pours us each a generous tot, hands me a glass and sits down with a satisfied sigh.
‘The flowers were meant for a lass at the hospital who David had an eye for, but he gave them to me instead! I had to keep them well hidden but they brightened up our old trench and all the lads for a good few days!
‘I never saw David again.’ He shrugs, stubs out the cigarette and reaches for another.’