Updated: Feb 2, 2020
It was frosty and so we carefully stepped out the shop. He was standing aside, ready to step in. Upon his head a beret with a crimson pompom which set off his old, wrinkled face. I asked this dapper old man in a tweed suit if it was French.
“Good heavens! No!” He chuckled, eyes twinkling.
I looked closer, of course not, that pompom and before I could say it…
“Black Watch, Special Forces devision!” He pulled himself as close to attention as his ancient frame could. The crutch gripping his right elbow dangled off the ground, I expected him to salute, sending that crutch waving wildly at any of the many shoppers trying to squeeze past.
“Ha!” I smiled, a little lost for words, then, “my dear Uncle Billy was in the same regiment.” “Great Uncle,” my wife corrected me.
“In Kenya, during the First World War,” I added.
“I was in Kenya, Dalgetty’s! Remember them?” He snapped with that twinkle.
“Oh yes, then you would have know our firm, WB Kerr.” He looked puzzled.
“Saccone & Speed,” I said, “bought us out, they were part of Courages UK.” “Ha. I was sent out there for four years to turn Dalgety’s round. Damn great fun!”
Did you like Kenya?” “Great parties! Loved the black man more than the white man!” “Yes, I grew up in the bush and loved one tribe in particular - you know those people who keep winning the Olympic long distant races.” “Ha!” He winked for perhaps the fifth time. “I went on to India after that.”
I proposed, “Then you might have known another great uncle, John Masters, he was re-writing British Indian Army regs to suit the Indian Army….” “John Masters….”
My wife prompted, “He wrote those novels about India…”
“Oh,” he was bored, this conversation kept turning from him - I’ve cut out the ninety percent in which he dominated with intricate detail. He said dramatically, “I’ve just sold my house. I’m off!”
“Monte Carlo! To find a rich old window.” He laughed, then added, “Actually my old chap, Devon - Buddleigh Salterton!”
“Buddleigh’s a delight,” we chimed.
“Perfect for my last four years. I’ll rent an expensive flat overlooking the sea. Might as well use it all up in style.”
We looked closer, yes, he’d not got long left. He’d fought in World War 2; in his late twenties, early thirties he’d run an international company when I was an infant - makes him late nineties, maybe even just over a hundred. Where we used to live there was an old man, almost 100, who’d tell me off for not walking enough. My wife said, “All those lovely sea walks….”
All this while we’d been part blocking the entrance to one of the popular shops in our bustling little high street. I’d already moved him aside to help a lady with a Zimmer-frame mount the steps. We were creating mayhem, shoppers negotiated their way around us, many like the old man and I, had crutches or other walking aides. We bid farewell and said we’d look out for him on the sea cliffs and walked away revived by his indomitable spirit.