Hollingbourne, Kent, UK
Battle of Britain Class
Armistice Day afternoon, 2012. Victoria Station is busy with old soldiers returning home from their annual pilgrimage to the Cenotaph. I find a seat in good time, across from an elderly gentleman intent on his newspaper. Out of the corner of my eye I see a long green shape slide into the empty platform alongside, with a hiss of escaping steam. Its nameplate proclaims it to be the Tangmere, a Battle of Britain Class steam locomotive, sporting a poppy rosette on the front of its boiler.
I draw my neighbour's attention to this sight and we strike up a conversation. As a boy, his favourite engines were the Castle Class, he says, making me wonder just how long ago that boyhood was. Drawing in a new arrival who wears a Royal Engineers tie, he turns the conversation to military matters, and as our train rattles eastward through Kent, they travel back together through the conflicts of the previous century: the Falklands, Borneo, Korea, and finally the big one, in which he had fought with the Chindit special forces behind enemy lines in the jungles of Burma under General Slim.
Later I read that, amidst appalling hardships and against a much larger opposing force, this forgotten army eventually achieved the liberation of Burma and prevented the invasion of India, tying down enemy forces that would otherwise have been used against the Americans in the Pacific.
Returning to the present day, the old soldier deplores the ravages of age and repeats the advice he had given to a fellow veteran of 85 who had complained of feeling old: "Well, you have to keep going—I'm 92." We have reached his station, so with a smile and a nod he gathers up his paper and heads off into the November night to drive home.
the old soldier stoops
to tickle a toddler