A light sprinkle of snow was falling on a January afternoon when I entered the officers’ mess for the first time. Inside, a man in uniform sat alone, as close as he could get to the black iron stove. He was reading a newspaper, and there was a tumbler of Scotch on the table beside him.
At first he didn’t see me in the doorway, but then he looked up, eased himself out of his armchair, and came toward me smiling, his arm outstretched.
“You’ll be one of our new boys. Good to see you. I’m Richard Lindsay.”
We shook hands, and I introduced myself. He was a tall, elegant man, with a bronzed, aristocratic face, and his voice was pure BBC. I’d done my homework, and had read about Lindsay who, a few years earlier, had single-handedly halted a column of German Tiger tanks on a street at Nijmegen. He’d run ahead of his men, dodging a barrage of automatic fire, and wedged a grenade in the tracks of the leading tank, blowing them apart. For this and other exploits at the battle of Arnhem, he’d been awarded the Military Cross. I noted the MC’s distinctive blue on white stripe among the medal ribbons on his tunic.
“They’ve put you in my company, Delta. You’ve only got a one-man reception committee, young man, but don’t take it personally.” He smiled again.“The whole damn unit’s been on leave ever since we came home from Hong Kong last month, but they’ll all be back tonight.” Lindsay was a major in his late thirties. I was a few months short of twenty-one, and a subaltern. After years of training I was a second lieutenant joining my first infantry regiment. Subalterns, newly commissioned career officers straight from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, were jokingly known as the lowest form of Army life. Eager and smooth-cheeked, not yet tanned by the sun that was already setting on the British Empire, with our new uniforms innocent of medals, we stood out as the virgin soldiers we were among the leathery faces of the regiment’s post-World War II battle-tried veterans.
Lindsay offered me a chair by the stove, the top of which, behind a safety rail, glowed red-hot. He reached for a small brass bell on the table and rang it, and a white-jacketed steward appeared in the doorway.
“Rogers,” Lindsay said to the mess barman, “This is Mr. Edwards, and he’s just joined us.” He turned to me. “What would you like to drink?”
I wasn’t used to drinking in the afternoon, and I’d hardly ever tasted whiskeya. “A beer would be fine, sir.” I said.
The barman returned with a tankard of bitter on a tray and, I noted, another whiskey for Lindsay, who raised his glass to me.
“Welcome to the regiment, Edwards. It’s a pity you’re seeing us for the first time in this bloody awful place, but we’ll be in decent quarters in Northern Ireland in a few weeks. You’ll soon settle down there.”
It was indeed an awful place. Fresh from several years in Hong Kong, the Regiment was temporarily based in this condemned Royal Navy air station on a flat, snow-swept plain near the Lancashire town of Ormskirk, a few miles from Liverpool. Our parade ground was the camp’s abandoned airstrip, and the buildings were rusting Quonset huts. Normally, an officers’ mess resembles a London gentleman’s club, decorated with oil portraits of long-dead generals, engravings of battle scenes, and priceless antique silver. But our mess in this temporary base had the air of a long-neglected airport lounge, with boxy chairs arranged round the stove.
In the hour that followed I warmed quickly to my first company commander. He seemed shrewd, witty and warm-hearted. He spoke modestly of his war experience, talking more about his wife and children and his days at Oxford where, when the war broke out in 1939, he’d just graduated with a degree in PPE -- politics, philosophy and economics. He inquired with what seemed to be genuine interest about my family and home, my school days and years of army training. I couldn’t help noticing that, without being asked, the barman seemed to bring Lindsay a fresh drink as soon as his glass was empty. But he remained lucid, though maybe a little more voluble.
Back in the mess that evening, more officers, returning from leave, had drifted into the room. By then, Lindsay, like the others, was dressed in the off-duty rig of the day, a regimental blazer, Tattersall check shirt with the green-and red-striped regimental tie, fawn cavalry twill trousers, and suede desert boots. Among the new arrivals were five other subalterns who, like me, were still in uniform. Four were career soldiers from Sandhurst, and the fifth was a newly commissioned National Serviceman, drafted into the service for eighteen months like the rest of his generation at that time. We newcomers were introduced with playful banter to everyone who entered, and made welcome. Naturally enough, we gravitated to our own little group of newcomers for much of the evening. Chris Stapleton, who’d been a friend of mine at the academy, and who’d arrived a day or two earlier, spoke to me in a quiet aside.
“See this chap Lindsay?”
“Yes,” I said. “He’s my new company commander. I met him this afternoon. What about him?”
“Everyone’s waiting to see how he gets on with Fred Creech, the new colonel. Seems Creech was in the ranks, a non-commissioned officer of some sort near the end of the War when Lindsay was a captain. Seems they just couldn’t get on for some reason. Hated each other’s guts. Creech had been commissioned in the field, and he’s been away in a staff job for the past few years. When they were both captains in Aden or somewhere they had some kind of brawl, and they haven’t spoken to each other since.”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“A couple of platoon commanders from Delta Company took me out on a pub-crawl last night, and they told me. Apparently some of Creech’s former mates in the sergeants’ mess are laying bets on how long they’ll manage to serve together this time without some sort of dust-up.”
“Why don’t they get on?” I asked.
“Well, it’s probably a class thing. They say Creech is a good soldier, but a crude bugger. Rough as guts. Drinks a lot and uses dirty language. Gutsy as hell, of course, and got himself a Military Medal in Normandy. Dick Lindsay comes from money. Big, county family, Eton, Oxford and all that. They’re as different as chalk is from cheese.”
Just before dinner, Colonel Creech arrived in the mess, followed by his second-in-command and the adjutant, Mike Watson. Those who were seated stood up when he entered, and everyone turned toward the door. Creech filled the doorway, a burly man, tall, maybe forty, with a Rugby front row forward’s shoulders and a bent, boxer’s nose that, with his brush-cut red hair, made him look the fighter he was. Watson led him round the room introducing him. Only a few of the more senior men, including the rifle company commanders, majors, seemed to have met Creech. He paused with them first, and I couldn’t help noticing, as must everyone else, that while he chatted and joked with two of them, but said nothing at all to Lindsay.
When he reached me, Creech shook my hand warmly. “Pleased to meet you, laddie. I knew your cousin, Dennis Edwards. Served with ‘im in Europe. Fuckin’ good officer. If you’re ‘alf as good as ‘im you’ll do all right.” He gave me a playful poke in the ribs that made me step back a pace.
Dinner was informal on that Sunday night. Everyone sat where they chose except the new subalterns, who were allotted seats next to a veteran major.
After the meal, Chris Stapleton came over to me. “We’re going to look around the town. Someone’s going to organize a car. Want to come?”
Ormskirk seemed a depressing place. Its narrow streets were under an inch of gray snow, and every other building seemed to be a pub. Since officers were discouraged from frequenting bars used by the troops, we toured the marginally classier places that called themselves hotels, where a pint of bitter cost a few pennies more. We talked with the affable locals and played a game of darts and, shortly before ten the barmaid called for last orders. She pulled us a final pint for the road, and signaled the closure of the bar by throwing a wet cloth over the beer handles, and turning out some of the lights.
We gathered in the street outside. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone said.
“Tell you what, then,” Chris said. “The bar will still be open at the mess. Let’s go home and have a beer and a game of snooker.”
It was pleasantly warm back in the mess. When we trooped through the lounge to the billiards room, the colonel, Mike Watson, Dick Lindsay and two or three other senior officers were talking animatedly around the stove.
It was around eleven when I first heard a raised, angry voice through the open door. Creech’s voice. The four of us stopped playing and listened. Watson was saying to his superiors, “Enough of this. Now cut it out, both of you!”
Stapleton and I stood in the doorway. The veterans around the stove were too engrossed to notice us there. Creech rose unsteadily to his feet, grasping the black iron rail around the stove, and with his back to us, leaned down and pressed his face close to Lindsay, shouting something unintelligible that sounded belligerent.
But I did hear Lindsay’s reply. “Come outside and repeat that, you mean-minded oaf.”
The two men lumbered out of the room, leaving the others silent in their chairs. One of the majors turned to Watson, “Mike, you’d better go out and keep an eye on those two.”
Watson, a captain, followed them out into the dark. A minute or two later, dumfounded by how this day had turned out, we agreed this was the right moment to leave. We’d expected that joining our regiment would be a proud climax to the years of training. I happened to be the first to go through the door as we filed through it into the cold air outside.
As I led the way onto the icy steps outside the mess, I witnessed a violent sequence that has been etched into my memory for the past sixty-five years. Lindsay, crouched in a defensive stance in front of Creech, suddenly straightened up and, with a grunt like a tennis champion making a punishing serve, put all his weight behind a massive blow to the side of his commanding officer’s head. Momentarily, Creech lost his balance, slipped, and fell heavily on the ice. No one moved for a few seconds. Creech made a vain attempt to scramble to his feet, and I remember this big, ungainly man, suddenly sober, saying in an unexpectedly pained, aggrieved voice “You’ve broken my leg!”
Lindsay said nothing. He stood, swaying a little, his arms now at his sides, looking down at Creech while adjutant Mike Watson took charge. We should probably have left Creech where he was until an ambulance arrived but, eager to keep the incident out of sight, Watson recruited my help in hauling the colonel back into the mess, and called the battalion’s medical officer.
A while later, when an ambulance had taken Creech to the local hospital, Watson, one of the majors who was Creech’s second-in-command and I met back in the mess alone. By then Lindsay was under escort in his quarters with the regulation two officers of equal rank, and had been charged with striking a superior officer.
Watson turned to me. “You and I will have to give evidence, Edwards. We’re the only people who actually saw him do it.”
“What’ll happen to Major Lindsay?” I asked.
“He’ll be court-marshaled and cashiered,” Watson said. “It’ll be an open and shut case, no doubt about it.”
I had some sleepless nights after that evening. Under oath, I gave a truthful account of what I’d witnessed. Lindsay’s self-destructive act had taken only a few impetuous seconds, and it took me fewer than five minutes at the initial summary of evidence, and later at the court marshal in Liverpool, to tell the story that, together with Watson’s evidence, brought Lindsay’s distinguished career to an abrupt end.
Lindsay looked me in the eye as I stepped down from the witness stand, but there was no hint of malice or reproach.
* * *
Ten years later, bored with the emptiness of peacetime life in the Army, I’d left the service as a captain, and was moving up the ladder in the London office of an Australian public relations firm. I’d begun to realize that, while I was strong enough on leadership and administration, I needed to know more about managing money. As a first step, I signed up for a course in economics.
I was sitting a few rows from the front of the auditorium on the first night of the course when the lecturer entered, a professor from the University of London. He held up his hand to quieten his audience, and began by defining an economist as ‘someone who doesn’t have enough personality to become an accountant,’ which relaxed the audience and made them smile.
“Let me introduce myself, he said. “My name’s Dick Lindsay.”
The wit and warmth were still there, but he was much thinner; even gaunt, and looked more than a decade older. He took a few minutes to recognize me, and when he did he paused momentarily, smiled and raised his hand in recognition without losing the pace of his presentation.
But I found it hard to concentrate, wondering what we could possibly say to each other when we spoke later, as we inevitably would. It was a reasonable concern. I was, after all, an unwilling, unwitting catalyst in his dishonorable discharge.
I needn’t have been anxious. During a brief coffee break Lindsay came over and shook my hand warmly.
“I’d heard you left the service,” he said. “How’s life treating you?”
“Pretty good,” I said, “and you?”
“It was hard at first.” Lindsay said, “But a lot tougher for Angela and the kids. Families get the sticky end of the spoon when something like that happens.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “You know, I always hoped we’d run into each other again. Where are you going when this is over?”
I shrugged. “Nowhere special.”
“Then let’s have a drink later. I know a place not far from here.”
The rest of Lindsay’s lecture went well. He was entertaining and authoritative, and the class quickly warmed to him. This was clearly something at which he excelled, and which he enjoyed.
The wine bar, in the Strand just off Trafalgar Square, was almost deserted.
“What can I get you?” I asked.
“Just a dry ginger for me,” he said. “But you go ahead.”
When I returned from the bar with our drinks there was an awkward pause.
“There’s . . . there’s something I want to say --” I said.
But he stopped me. “I know what you’re going to say. Listen, you did what you had to do. You were under oath, and had no choice. I’d have done the same thing. Actually, I’ve got something to tell you. It’s I who want to thank you.”
“Thank me. Why?”
“Don’t you see? You’re the person who changed my life. The truth is that, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was in a nose-dive. I’d had a good war – if there is such a thing. I’d been decorated. But after the war there was nothing left for me. I was drinking too much, and Angela hated being an army wife. In a year or two my girls would have been off to a boarding school while Angela and I trailed from one dreary overseas posting to the next. Long before now I’d have been divorced, and a lonely drunk. So, thank you.”
Was there any point in laboring this?
We clinked glasses.
Dick Lindsay died a decade or two ago at his home in Staffordshire. He was 83. A month or so later I received a parcel in the mail, with a hand-written note from his wife:
“Dear Nigel: Dick died on Thursday 27th August. He always told me he wanted you to have this. I know you’ll take good care of it.
With best wishes, Angela Lindsay.”
Inside was a small dark blue leather-bound book. At first I thought it was a bible, but it was a day-by-day guide published by Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled ‘One Day At A Time.’
On the flysheet Lindsay had written a note:
“To Nigel Edwards:
I want you to have this little book. It’s something to live by, and has helped me live the rest of my life. Read it. It will dissuade you from dwelling on past errors and regrets, and help you visualize the future as no more than a series of new days, each offering fresh opportunities for self-realization and growth.
Remember this. Today is just a small, manageable segment of time during which your difficulties don’t have to overwhelm you. Knowing this will lift the heavy weight of the past from your heart and mind, and show you how to face the uncertainties of the future.