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The Silver Cigarette Case
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Ken Orford

Historical Fiction

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The dense fog had begun to get brighter. Michael knew that the once the sun had burned off the fog by mid morning it would turn into a bright, warm August day. He gulped down another mouthful of the warm, sweet tea that Jack had handed him. As he looked around everyone was either talking in small groups of two or three or collecting their thoughts. He couldn’t make out any of the conversations because their voices were so low, but he knew what everyone was thinking: I’ve seen the dawn, will I see the sunset?

Michael put the warm white enamelled tin mug down beside him in the imprint of a boot that had been made in the mud long before summer had come and the mud had dried hard. He undid a couple of the large brass buttons of his khaki uniform, reached inside and took out the silver cigarette case. Having been next to his body, it felt warm in his hands. The warmth spread to every part of his body as he opened it up and looked at the contents. Unlike the photographs some of his mates carried, the three in the case were perfectly preserved. There was one of him in his uniform with his mum and dad. It had been taken two years ago in 1916, just before he’d set off for France. The second was of him with his sister; that one had been taken before the war had started. Was there really a time before this war? He wasn’t in the last photograph – there was just a head and shoulders picture of a woman with shining, dark hair, a smile as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa, and her eyes, oh God those eyes, they would melt a glacier. He turned the photograph over and looked at the back. She’d only written two words there. Michael hoped with all his heart that he’d fulfil what she’d written. His mouth dried as he looked at the cross that was her kiss and the simple request “Come Home”.

The ground shook – it had started.  The start of the hundred days offensive. The thumping of the artillery shells landing on the enemy trenches a few hundred yards away soon gave way to the roar of engines. The huge Mark V and the smaller Whippet tanks headed towards the enemy lines, following the creeping artillery barrage. Michael heard the whistle, and it was time to go. He patted his cigarette case safely inside his tunic, took a firm hold of his bayoneted rifle and followed Jack up the ladder and out of the trench and into the surreal, slow motion world of men killing other men.

They were all glad of the fog. It had mixed with the smoke and dust from the barrage and would help protect them until they were on top of the German lines. He breathed through his mouth as he moved forward, but the smell of smoke and the stink of the cordite made his throat and lungs scream. Dirt and grit were making his eyes stream – so much so he thought that maybe the Hun had used gas to defend their lines. He thought about putting on his gas mask, but dismissed the notion. He’d experienced mustard gas, and this wasn’t it! Besides, one of the two secrets he learned about staying alive was to keep moving. The other secret was to be lucky. As Michael trudged on behind the rolling barrage, despite all the noise and shouting, and even some screams he cast his mind back to those three photographs in his silver cigarette case. Somehow he knew that today his luck was going to run out.

Michael could tell they were getting closer to the enemy trenches. The shouts got louder and heavy calibre machine guns on the sides of the Mark V tanks were now firing without a pause. His unit started to run forward, the ground beneath his feet was a mess of shell holes and torn up earth. He fired as he ran, at no target in particular, it just gave him courage. Then he stumbled over a large stone that had no right to be there, but as he fell there was a pain in his chest and a simultaneous searing pain in his shoulder.  Michael passed out.

++++

“I want you to have it.”

“Aw come on dad. What do you think it’s going to do? Catch a bullet for me too? Things like that only happen once.”

Michael looked at his son. The cigarette case had a crease in it where the German bullet had been deflected from its path towards his heart so that it smashed into his shoulder. He’d never fully recovered and the movement of his arm was restricted. But Michael knew he’d been lucky. He’d survived two years of the bloodiest war in history, and returned home to the love of his life – just like she’d asked.

Edward looked at his dad and then moved his eyes to the cigarette case. He knew it still contained the photographs of his Grandma and Granddad, and of his dad and Auntie Mary, and of course his mum. He knew it because he’s been told it and no-one had been able to open the case since August 8th, 1918; the day it was dented by a bullet.

Michael looked at his son in his smart Royal Navy uniform.

“It might not catch a bullet, but it’ll be lucky for you. Your mum and I both want you to have it.”

Edward shrugged, and took a deep breath:

“Okay, if you’re sure.”

He took the case and nodded, then turned to the others in the room, his mum forced a smile and gave him a hug. Shirley just looked at him and tilted her head to one side. The shoulder length blonde curls fell across an eye. A look that a year or two later Veronica Lake would make famous. Her smile was embarrassed, and she said:

“I’ve got something for you too.”

She held out her hand; the photograph in it was of her. He knew what it would say on the back before he’d turned it over. As he held her in his arms, he glanced over her shoulder at the back of the photograph, and nodded.

“I’ll do my best to. I promise.”

The next day Ed left for Portsmouth and for the corvette, HMS Zinnia. It was brand new, one of the ships being regularly launched by the war machine to protect the convoys that Churchill hoped would keep Britain alive. They’d been on the ship less than six months when they were ordered to escort convoy OG-71. Ed and the rest of the crew were delighted – this convoy was taking a southern route that would see them in warmer climes. Ed had had his fill of the stormy north Atlantic.

“Gimme this any day compared to bloody Iceland”

Ed was looking through the binoculars, scanning the heavy swell for periscopes. His fellow watch man grunted agreement:

“Yeah, I’m actually getting a suntan again. That’s Portugal over there. Stopped off in Porto once, before the war when I was in the merchant navy. Nice place.”

There was a few seconds of silence while both men concentrated on the horizon. The sun was very low and both strained in the increasingly failing light. Ed decided he wanted  to know more about Porto.

“So what was the ..”

The klaxon blast interrupted him. The ship veered off to starboard.  The note from the engines increased. Both men grabbed their tin hats and started for the guns and depth charges respectively.

“Sonar must have a hit!” shouted Ed.

“Probably another bloody whale!”

The torpedo was well aimed. Rheinhart Zuhren, the captain of U-564 knew his stuff.  Through the periscope he saw the Corvette hit amidships. He watched as it exploded in a silent blaze of orange and red and then black.

For Ed it was anything but silent. His ears were ringing. He felt the heat of flames on his cheek as he flew through the air. The smell of burning fuel and explosives filled his nostrils – but was soon replaced by the cold Atlantic waters. Thank God this isn’t Iceland.  If it were then Ed would be dead in minutes, as it was he wouldn’t last long.

Ed was clinging to a bit of flotsam. His face hurt, his neck hurt from when he’d hit the water. The bells in his ears drowned out any sounds. He tried to shout, but he couldn’t tell if any noise came out, not that it would have mattered. On any rescue ship the noise of the engines would drown out any feeble shouts.

As he rose and fell with the swell, he looked to see if he could see a searching ship. Christ, my leg hurts! The sun was now just above the horizon. Oh God, if they don’t find me soon I’m shark fodder. The setting sun was on his left; Ed peered into the gloom to his right where he knew the convoy was. On one of the occasions when he went up in swell he saw it. The ship was about a thousand yards away. There was no way they would see him. Sorry Shirley, I’ve not been like my dad and done as you asked. He fished in his pocket for the silver case… Maybe there is a chance! Don’t worry Shirley, I’ll see you again!

+++

The summer breeze was warm as Edward cleared his throat and asked for “a bit of quiet, please!” His back garden was modest in size, but filled with friends and family. The view filled him with warmth, and he firstly thanked them all for coming.

“What do you expect when it’s free beer!” Everyone laughed at his neighbour’s joke.

“Well,” Edward ploughed on undeterred, “it’s not everyday you get to congratulate your son for getting his para’s wings.”

Steve blushed and looked at his polished shoes as everyone applauded. Ed held up his hands and the group quietened down.

“I’m not going to say much…”

”Thank God for that…” more chuckling from the group and a smile and a nod from Edward:

“But I am going to pass on something to Stephen. And without this, neither he nor I would be here.”

Steve rolled his eyes and shook his head. He knew what was coming. In fact, just about everyone there had heard the stories. The first one, about how a silver cigarette case had saved Granddad Jeffers in World War One. The bullet had bent it so much it was still jammed shut – supposedly containing the photographs of Granddad, Grandma, Great Granddad, Great Grandma and Great great Aunt Somebody-or-other.   The second story was his father’s: of how when his ship was torpedoed on convoy escort duty,  he used the cigarette case like a mirror to deflect the setting sun’s rays and attract the rescue ship. Without it his dad would have drowned.

 “… and so, it’s time it was passed on to you Stephen.”

His dad finished his speech and held out the case, and to cries of “Speech! Speech!” Steve took it, and looked at his friends and family.

“Thanks dad, but I think this case has done all the life saving it’ll ever do. It’s 1971 – Britain doesn’t do war anymore. Us Paras just cruise around the Caribbean, play in the jungle a bit, go skiing in Norway and jump out of the occasional plane for fun. Besides, I’m already lucky, because today the love of my life said ‘Yes’.”

He held out his hand and Hazel, smiling and blushing, took it. If Steve wanted to say anything else, he didn’t have the chance, the applause, well-wishing and singing took over.

By May the following year his words were ringing hollow in his ears. He’d seen a lot of the world, and in two months he should have been home getting married. But the chances of that now seemed slim. Stephen winced as he fought to breathe. The pain came not from the fact he was at altitude, they don’t come much higher than the Andes, but the several tons of rubble that was crushing his ribcage. Some Para training kicked in, and he forced himself to take stock and think. The earthquake had been sudden, and he’d dashed to a door portal. It may have saved me, who knows? But the steel lintel was lying across his body, pinning him down.

There wasn’t a part of him that didn’t hurt – it was just a matter of degree. He took stock: Head – feels wet, probably blood. Chest, some cracked ribs – no doubt about that. Legs – well the left doesn’t hurt as much as the right, that’s a break – judging by the weird angle it’s at. He tried to move his left arm – it was pinned against his chest under the lintel: shoulder hurts like hell, at least dislocated, probably broken. Right arm – bloody hell, I can move it, well move is a bit generous, probably an inch of movement at most. It was pinned to his side with the hand near his waist.

The one thing he hadn’t expected was the darkness, and the silence. Maybe it isn’t dark, maybe I’m blind. His eyes felt okay though, but he could feel his heart starting to race as the panic in his stomach started to grow. Probably not a bad thing. Natural adrenaline will help my body! He opened his mouth to shout for help. The timing couldn’t have been worse as the aftershock rumbled. Small stones and dust filled his mouth threatening to gag him. With a feeling of increasing panic, he spat them out. The moving rubble had shifted his better leg so that it too felt broken. Christ, if I get out of this I’ll be a bloody wreck. They’ll have to haul me to the church on a stretcher! He closed his eyes forcing himself to picture Hazel. She looked sensational in her white wedding dress. She smiled at him and he could almost hear her saying:

 “Thank you for coming home.”

and with that image in his aching head, he quietly passed out.

Steve had no idea how long he’d been unconscious for. When he came to, he could hear voices – not clear, and not near: muffled shouting. He tried to make a noise, but all that came out was a low murmur. That wouldn’t travel six feet! Got to let them know I’m here! He knew the drill, and he knew the rescuers would know the drill. They dig and move rubble for a while and then stop. They’d be absolutely silent and everyone would listen. That’s when I’ve got to make a noise. He pictured Hazel mouthing the words to him again, and like his father, thirty years earlier, he started to laugh. Hang on Haze, I’ll see you soon.

+++

The applause for Steve as he struggled onto his crutches to deliver his speech was deafening.

“It’s traditional on occasions like this to thank people,” Steve looked round the audience of friends, and his and Hazel’s families. His eyes fixed on the dark skinned man a few places to his left.

“And I’ll come to that in a minute. But first, I want to thank the man, without whom I wouldn’t be here. Thank you Carlos.” The room burst into rapturous applause and everyone stood up. Steve eventually hushed them and fished the silver cigarette case out of his pocket, and held it up.

“I think you all know it was he who heard the tapped out S.O.S. of this case against the steel lintel when I was buried by the Peruvian earthquake. It was he who insisted they keep digging until they got to me. I am proud to have him as my best man today!” More applause, but Steve wasn’t finished.

“I think I must have tapped a bit hard though, because the case is now broken. And not a German bullet, nor the cold Atlantic, or a mountain of Peruvian rubble could damage these.”

Steve held up three framed photographs.

“These are my Great granddad and Great Grandma, my Great great Auntie Mary and my Grandad and Grandma. Looking at these women and at my mum, I hope you’ll agree that I’ve kept up the family tradition of coming home safely to marry a beautiful woman. Though we all had a little help.” 

© Ken Orford, 2009





© CoolShortStories.com, 2010