A year before he died, my Grandfather told me a story. He was, in the way that old soldiers often are, a no-nonsense, upright man of few words. It was the morning following my twentieth birthday, and he telephoned me at nine-thirty, on the dot, requesting my presence at his house on the outskirts of Salcombe – approximately half an hour's drive. I arrived, nursing a hangover from the previous night and he offered me a cigarette. When I hesitated, he just laughed and told me that he knew I smoked, and that he would not tell my father. We sat together on his porch and smoked in silence, watching the waves crash against the Devonshire coast. Eventually he stubbed-out the butt of his Silk Cut and produced a shoe box, which he handed to me.
“I want to tell you about the war.” he said, his speech slow and slurred from a minor stroke he had suffered two years prior. Knowing how he felt on the matter (for he had not even congratulated me on my successful application to join the army, several weeks prior), I said;
“Grandpa, you don't have to-”
“I need to.” he said. “Open the box.”
I obliged. Inside was a beret, wrapped around three items. A key, a tubular bundle of tissue paper, and something heavy, in oilcloth. I put the box down and picked up the key, admiring the intricate brasswork and unusually complex blade.
“The only other person that knew this story was your Grandma, and she's gone, now. I won't be around forever, either, you know. It's important... people know...”
We were silent for a couple more minutes. It sounds selfish, but I hate when old people talk so fatalistically. That said, my curiosity was piqued by the grim, show-and-tell atmosphere. He lit another cigarette, letting the flame of his match linger just long enough that the wood about its head had begun to curl and blacken, then he shook it out.
“I joined the war too late.” He said. “All through school, my friend Nick and I just wanted to be heroes. When the time finally came, and we were gearing-up to fight the Nazis in France, our damn unit was diverted.”
“Where were you sent?” I asked. He took a deep drag on the smoke.
“Channel Islands. The only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans. Coinciding with the liberation of France, we were preparing to attack the Isle of Jersey when the Jerries surrendered. Just a few hundred of them, holed-up in their rat-warrens in the cliffs. We marched right in and rounded up all the troops.”
He paused and tapped the cigarette with a forefinger, so that glowing ashes tumbled from it and were snuffed-out by the wind like miniature, dying stars.
“The night after the surrender, Nick and I were sitting in the pub, being bought drinks by the locals, when a woman burst in from the rain, crying and shouting for help. Naturally, we asked her what was wrong, and she told us that her children had been taken hostage. A bastard by the name of 'Pater Seher'. He was some kind of priest that the Nazis had brought with them when they'd landed, or so she said. Nick asked where he'd taken the kids, and she said that he'd stolen a rowboat and was on his way to a little offshoot island called Babel Rock. She was sure that he was going to kill them.”
Nick and I ran to our superiors, but as soon as we mentioned 'Babel Rock', they wanted to call for help from the Americans, and wait until light. They took our rifles away and told us to forget the whole thing. But I would sooner have been court-marshalled than let some American G.I have the glory. This was our fight – our war – and no matter how small it was, how insignificant in the grand scheme of things, we would fight it. This was our home, you know? We stole a boat of our own and set-out into the storm. I wish I'd stopped to think about things for a second, but I was young and stupid. We both were.”
Grandpa put the cigarette down and unwrapped the oilcloth. Inside it was a large, old-fashioned looking pistol with faded wooden grips.
“Jesus, Grandpa” I said “Are you allowed to have that?”
“What they don't know, won't hurt 'em. Was true then, is true now. I won it in cards from a Yank, back in London before we set-out for the Islands. Nobody knew I had it, so they couldn't take it away.”
He set down the gun and stuck the smoke back in his mouth, exhaling blue fumes at the dying sun that was slipping beneath the horizon.
“Long story short, we land, alone, on this bleak, old rock. Right in the middle of a storm. Black as the devil's eyes and so sharp and craggy that it sliced one of my boots right open along the sole. There was one building on this island – a wooden shack overlooking the beach. It was dark. Not just because of the time of day, but like, you couldn't see more than five feet in front of you. I remember looking up at the sky, and seeing the clouds all lit-up by lightning flashes from the inside like big, stone lanterns. The clouds were coiling around above Babel Rock, and there was a hole in the very center – above the house. Not just a hole in the clouds, but in the sky itself. Like, there were no stars – just a black empty space, sucking-in the storm clouds. As we were heading up the beach, with nothing but the lightning to show us the way, I swear to God, it looked like the rain was falling up, into that hole in the sky.”
Grandpa paused, and sucked on his cigarette. The tip glowed, brightly, and illuminated his face with a faint, orange hue. Then he continued;
“I booted open the door of the house, waving the gun around like a mad man, but it was deserted. We poked-around, and eventually came across a trap-door, under a carpet. Beneath the shack were stone steps, coiling downwards, into a handful of rooms carved into the rock itself. Not, like, rooms for people, though. The dimensions were all wrong – the corridors were really tall, about nine feet high, but so narrow we had to turn sideways to get through them. Everything was covered in weird scratchings, too – in the walls and on the ceiling – Roman numerals, I think. Everything was quiet, except for the storm outside, and we were just starting to regret ever going there, heroism or no, when we rounded a corner and found the children.”
He kneaded his brow.
“That's a bloody sight I won't ever forget. They were stood in a ring, in this big, oval-shaped room. Their eyes were all rolled-back so you couldn't see the pupils, and they were each reading from a little book. Like a bible, but I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. It wasn't German or Latin or any language I know. Before I could say anything or... or do anything, I heard a voice behind me – horrible, deep, resounding. It said 'Halt!' and I turned round, and there's Pater, this fat, Jerry bastard in priest robes, and he's got a little Walther pistol to Nick's head. Told me to drop my gun and kick it over to him, and I mean, of course I did. This was Nick – he lived two doors down from me my entire life. He was my best friend. Being a hero is nothing when it costs you everything.”
Grandpa paused, and I saw his leathery cheeks glistening, wet with tears.
“Then he blew Nick's brains out. Just like that. Shot him in the side of the head. I lunged for him, trying to grab the gun, and he shot me, too. Shattered my kneecap. 's why I need this.”
He tapped the heavy stick that he'd hobbled around on as long as I knew him. Then he flicked away the end of his cigarette, and re-opened the pack with trembling fingers. It was empty. I handed him my half-smoked one, and he nodded his thanks.
“I passed out.” He said, his face now lost to the rush of night. “When I came-to, his face was inches away from mine, and I could feel his breath on my cheek. He stank of rotting meat. There was something wrong with his eyes, too... black. Black as that hole in the sky. He spoke to me then. He asked me, in broken English, if I believed in God. I could barely speak, the pain was too much, but I nodded, and he asked me if I would like to meet him. I thought, then, that he was just threatening to kill me – to send me to 'meet my maker', so I shook my head, and I think that surprised him. He stood up, and walked away from me, to the wall opposite, and that's when I saw the door for the first time.
It was massive, almost touching the ceiling, about four feet wide, and it was made of some kind of black rock. It had, carved on it, an apple tree, and there was a snake coiling down the trunk. The snake had its head turned side-on to you, and instead of an eye, there was a weird, jagged keyhole. He went to the kids, chanting throughout all this, and picked up a key – this key – off the pedestal they were gathered around.”
Grandpa gestured at the key, its brass swastika head glinting beneath the glow of his cigarette.
“Pater said that he'd spent eleven years of his life secretly visiting Babel Rock – measuring the keyhole and designing a key to fit. I asked him whether he put the door there, and he gave me an odd look and told me it had been here before men even walked the Earth. Then he unlocked the door and stepped backwards, and he said – 'Mein Gott! Ich kam fur Sie!”
...and then something started to push the door open from the other side. As it opened, just a crack, all the candles in the room went out, and we were in darkness. The only light was coming from a lantern in the next room, and it was just me, Pater and whatever was opening that door, and all the while, the kids were chanting and singing. It opened a few more inches, and a hand came through – all charred and calloused – but it wasn't a human hand. God, no... It was small, with long, hooked fingertips, and it coiled around the edge of the door, as though it were cautious of entering the room. As it did, the air began to taste of sea-water and sulphur, and I was more scared then than I've been in my entire life. I tore my eyes away, dragged myself over to my .45, and then I turned round and I shot Pater in the back. Pow!”
He mimed a pistol with his hand.
“His blood splashed across the door and wall, but it also landed on that hand. As soon as it came into contact with blood, it went crazy – the hand kinda tightened its grip on the door, and started pushing. This was solid stone, about a foot thick, and this thing was just shoving it open. I forgot my pain, then – fear was giving me strength, and I limped over the room, and slammed my shoulder against the door. I must've surprised it, because I felt it give-way, and I heaved with every ounce of strength in my body... God, I was tough as a lad...”
He sucked on the smoke, the tip flaring up bright against the night.
“I almost had it – the door was almost closed, but that hand, that blasted, monster of a hand, still there, reaching round at me, trying to grab my arm. I pulled out my boot-knife and I hacked one of its fingers off. It howled – or maybe that was just the storm above us, but the hand retreated, and I slammed the door closed. Then, to my horror, the door shuddered, and opened a crack. It was throwing its weight against it, desperate to get into our world. I pushed back, and then I noticed the key, sticking out beside my hand. I forced the door closed, one last time, then I turned that key, and threw it away from me, across the room. The second the key left the door, the banging stopped. Everything was silent. The kids all kinda... jolted awake, like sleepwalkers, and started crying. All of us covered in Nick's blood, and Pater's. That finger I hacked off flared-up. Caught fire, and in seconds, it was nothing but bone. I went to Nick, but he was long-gone, so I picked up the gun, and went to Pater, instead. He looked up at me, and he said something – words that echo round my head every night. - “Ich werde dich wieder sehen.”. I shot him again, and again, until there were no bullets left in my gun, and he was unrecognisable and still, and then the pain hit me again, and I blacked-out.”
Grandpa took a final drag on his cigarette, then he ground it into the ash tray. We sat, unmoving and unspeaking in his garden, our silhouettes picked-out white-edged by the stars like marble statues seated in eternal vigil for the men that had sailed across the sea and never returned. I gazed at him, and in the half light, he could almost be the fit, powerfully-built young man in the photographs that had adorned the walls of his house before Grandma had passed away. I had no idea what to think, or to feel – of how much of his story was true, but I was enthralled by his words.
“What happened then... Grandpa?”
As he replied, a clouds began to shift over the stars like curtains being drawn over a stage, so that his words seemed to come from some unspecified point in the darkness, and I were speaking to a ghost.
“When I came-to, I heard shouting from far above. Commands being given – boots on the stairs. English voices, I was sure. I grabbed the gun and shoved it inside my jacket – I knew that if my superiors knew about it, I'd be in even deeper shit than I already was. Then I saw Nick, lying there on the ground, and I knew that I had to get something – some proof – so that other people would know that his death hadn't been in vain. I grabbed the key and put it in my pocket, but then I figured 'it's just a key. Could be for anything'. Then I saw that finger – the one I'd hacked off the hand of 'God', or whatever the hell that thing was. It was just a charred bone, by now, but it was intact, so I grabbed that, too. As I stuck it in my pocket, men burst into the room – dressed like paratroopers, and with camo paint smeared over their faces. No symbols or insignias on their uniforms, either. Next thing I know, someone's sticking a STEN gun in my face and yelling at me to identify myself. Naturally, I did, and they talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, then they dragged me out of the room, and onto the island itself.
The storm had blown itself out. One of them sat with me. I tried talking to him, but he just straight-out blanked me. I guess they must've been special forces of some sort, on strict orders not to talk to prisoners. I think I heard gunfire from the tunnels below, but I was so far above them, I couldn't be sure. As far as I could recall, the only living things down there were the spec-ops boys, and those kids, so what they could've been shooting at, I've no idea. Eventually, a rescue boat shows up, and a medic sees-to my leg whilst some big-brass guy lectures me on the importance of subtlety. Before I was allowed on the boat, though, he straight-up told me that if I breathed a word of what I saw on Babel Rock to anyone, my friends, the townspeople, anyone – they'd shoot me. Then, when I got back to Jersey, my commanding officer sat me down in his office and told me that I would be retired due to my injuries, and that if I kept my mouth shut, I'd get a war-pension from the British Government, and I'd be comfortable for the rest of my life. I asked about Nick, and the man went all quiet, then he told me that his next-of-kin would be looked-after. I think they got the newspapers to report him dying a hero, fighting Jerry commandos or something. I never read past the first few lines of that article – I just kept seeing him in that cave, gun to his head and, eyes pleading for me to save him.”
“So you never told anyone?” I asked. He must've rounded-on me, then, because I felt spittle spray my face as he spoke.
“Who would you have me tell? Nobody would believe me, would they? They'd just think I was insulting Nick's memory – trying to steal the glory from him. I loved him like a brother – too much to take his heroic story away from him. As for my pension – I gave nearly all of it away – to veterans' charities and such. I worked the fields of this county until I was seventy-two – earned every penny I spent!”
“I'm sorry, Grandpa, I didn't mean-” I began. He laid a hand on my shoulder.
“It's okay. I shouldn't have shouted.”
He struck a match, and unwrapped the tissue paper. Inside, long and angular, there lay a skeletal, humanoid finger. Far too long to be from a man, and with bone hardened and pointed at the tip, like a claw. I gazed at in awe – in horror – before whispering;
“I'm so sorry, Grandpa. I'm really, really sorry.”
He smiled, and patted me on the shoulder. Then he blew-out the match, and I heard him gathering the three items he had showed me back into their box.
It was as I was unlocking my car that I heard him call to me, again:
He was standing in his doorway, lit from behind in an otherwise featureless darkness.
“Well done on getting the job. Be careful over there. In Afghanistan, I mean. Always rely on your judgement, no matter what they tell you.”
He closed the door. I sat in my car, in the dark, for nearly an hour, thinking about what he'd said. When I got home, my father was already in bed, and I lay, awake, gazing at the dark ceiling, and imagining it to be the voidous centre of that storm my grandfather had seen, all those years ago.
He left me the house, in his will. I retired from the army after being shot in the hip, during an ambush in Kabul, and I was looking forward to the peace that Grandad's old place on the coast would surely bring. When I was moving some of his things to the attic, I stumbled across the shoebox again.
It was all there – the gun, the key, the finger. Like the realisation of some strange dream, the memories of that night flooded back, and I sat down and cried for the first time since his funeral.
I took a ferry to Jersey recently, and then hired a local fisherman to take me to Babel Rock. Under the sun, with nothing but the laughter of seabirds in my ears and the taste of saltwater in the air, it was actually a relatively peaceful place – the eye of a storm. There was no shack, though I suppose it was probably destroyed shortly after the events of my grandfather's story. I found a heavy, iron hatch, under which was a stairwell, but that ended in a square, brick room, scrawled with graffiti and strewn with empty crisp packets.
When the sunset was at its apex – licking at the ocean with a long, orange tongue, I wrapped the three items in his beret and hurled them off the cliff, where the hungry, frothing jaws of the sea snapped them up. Then I sat with a Thermos of tea, and imagined Grandpa and Nick, sitting together on a boat destined for London, full of stories of heroism. Perhaps he believed the story best forgotten, that he wasn't a hero, but I believe differently.
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