© Catherine Leyshon
Corporal Earnest Goodheart is crouched in a ditch on the edge of an orchard between Dunkirk and De Panne. It's 28th May 1940, just a day into the evacuations. The muddy water fills his boots and soaks his uniform. His service revolver is in his trembling, filthy hand. He's ready to use it on himself.
He has fled the carnage at Plage de Bray Dunes. An hour previously, he had stumbled away through the dunes, and now his eyes are filled with things he cannot unsee, his mouth with the taste of acrid smoke and his nostrils with the smell of blood and his own rancid fear-sweat. His frenetic panic is like a flock of birds trying to break out of his chest with the frantic beating of their wings.
Earnest no longer cares that he's also running away from his only hope of salvation: evacuation by sea with the British Expeditionary Force. His only thought is to purge the roaring, screaming racket of war from his head.
The sound of footsteps and hooves on the lane makes him crouch deeper in the chilly water and peer through the tall grasses and reeds. His sense of his own cowardice weighs on him like an anvil. He doesn't want anyone to witness his last desperate act.
Through the reeds, Earnest is startled to see an Indian man. He's wearing a British Army field cap and khaki battle dress. A No3 Lee Enfield rifle is slung over his shoulder. He's holding the bridle of a mule. Man and mule are looking at Earnest, down in the weeds, the water, and mud, with a steady, enquiring gaze.
Earnest has only seen one Indian before – a lascar sailor who stayed in his Auntie Gladys' boarding house in the East End. He was just a kid, and the sight of the lascar's stern brown face and bushy moustache frightened the living daylights out of him. But here in the ditch, with Luftwaffe Junkers and Heinkels roaring overhead towards Dunkirk, Earnest is already so filled with fear that there's no room for more.
"Can I help you, sir?" The Indian's careful English is gently accented.
Earnest stands up shakily.
"You don't have to call me sir. We're both corporals."
"I know, sir."
The Indian and the mule stand quietly. Earnest can see them noting the ditch and the gun and his wildly tousled hair. He shoves his revolver back in its holster. Some kind of explanation seems to be in order. He gestures back down the road.
"I got separated from the other chaps in my battalion," he lies.
"Separated, sir?" It is a gentle question filled with doubt but absent of judgement.
"Yes, that's right."
Earnest's voice wobbles. Those chaps are, at this moment, being blown to smithereens on Plage de Bray. The roar of the planes and the dense thud of exploding ordnance crush into his skull. He shakes his head and bashes his ear with his open palm.
The Indian holds out a grubby hand.
Earnest hesitates, then reaches out. The Indian's skin is rough. There's dirt under his fingernails and blood on his knuckles, but it's a good, strong hand. The warmth of this stranger's hand reminds Earnest that he's a real human being, entitled to hope. Only someone else's humanness can bring him back to his own. He holds on for a moment longer than necessary when he's out of the ditch.
"I am Aarit Dhawan, Royal Indian Army Service Corps."
"Earnest Goodheart, 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment."
"Come, sir, you need to sit. You look very ill."
Earnest follows Aarit as he walks his mule into the orchard. The Englishman sits down with his back against a tree and tries to rub the grime off his face with his equally filthy sleeve. His brown hair is filled with sand. His breathing is hard and shallow, as if he'd just surfaced from deep water with only moments to spare. A thought circles through his mind like a spinning top.I came so close to… so close to…
The apple blossoms fall around the two men and the mule like snow, the sound of battle a distant accompaniment to the song of the hedgerow birds and the sweet rustle of the leaves in the breeze. In the distance, the blue sky is smudged with smoke. It drifts lazily, free of the carnage below.
Aarit folds himself down to sit cross-legged opposite Earnest.
The dishevelled Englishman nods at the mule.
"How did you come by him?"
"I am a muleteer. We were billeted at Cassell, running supplies to the front line."
"He's very quiet, isn't he?"
"The military vet removes the voice boxes of the mules so that they cannot bray."
Aarit is so matter of fact. The mule tosses his head to clear the flies from his eyes.
Earnest feels himself near to tears. "Poor blighter. Stitched up by his own bloody side."
The mule puts down his head and crops the grass.
"What's his name?" Earnest chokes.
"Bandyopadhyay." Aarit gives a wide, beautiful smile. "But you can call him Bob."
Finally, Earnest bursts into tears, the dam breaking all of a sudden.
Aarit regards the crying man with calm, kind, brown eyes.
"Gather yourself, sir. Let us have faith."
"In what?" sobs Earnest. "There can't be a god, not in all this."
"Faith and hope come from many places. Are you married?"
Earnest nods and feels under his shirt for the locket his wife Marjorie gave him on the day he enlisted. He shows Aarit her photo nestled within. He knows it doesn't do justice to her blond curls and blue eyes. She's a real East End girl, full of vim.
"She is your faith," Aarit says. "You must believe in her."
The fear that he might never see Marjorie again threatens to overwhelm Earnest. He closes the locket, tucks it away, and lays his hand over the bump it makes under his shirt. Beneath it all, his heart still, improbably, beats.
The two men sit quietly a while longer. The knobbly tree trunk at Earnest's back forces him to think of something other than the racket inside his head. The lush green grass and the breeze full of summer's promise are a comfort. It helps to recall that there's some other reality beyond the horror unfolding a couple of miles away.
The relics of Earnest's shattered sense of duty are reassembling.
"We ought to get to the beach," he says.
But he's not really ready. He wants to lie down in the grass and sleep and let leaves and soil cover him until all that remains is Marjorie's locket and the metal buttons and belt buckle of his uniform. Then he thinks of his unit, back at the beach.
Aarit nods, gazing up at the sky through the branches of the apple tree under which they sat.
"First, I'm going to say the Om Namah Shivaya."
"It's a Hindu mantra – a prayer if you like – full of grace and truth."
"A prayer?" Earnest feels about as distant from any divine power as it's possible to be. He thinks of the meagre comforts of his joyless Anglican upbringing and the cold stone statue in the drafty church to which he offered his last desperate supplication before conscription.
"The Om Namah Shivaya will calm our minds and bring us knowledge," Aarit explains. Earnest is far from being able to argue against Aarit's suggestion. He sits and waits, glad that the moment of return to the horrors of the beach has been deferred.
The Indian takes out a string of prayer beads. They look to be made out of some kind of smooth, brown bean with a bright red tassel. He holds them with the familiarity of daily use and begins.
The rise and fall of the Om Namah Shivaya is beautiful, transcendental. A deep tranquillity starts to grow in Earnest. The distant boom of the bombardment fades, and the sweet breeze carries away the acrid smoke and dries the sweat on his skin and the tears on his face. His heartbeat slows, the roiling in his guts subsides. He unclenches his hands. He is at peace.
When Aarit finishes, the two men sit in silence while Bob crops the grass under the apple trees. Aarit hands Earnest his water canteen, and Earnest shares some dry biscuits.
"It's time to go," Earnest says with fresh resolve. "They're taking people off at Plage de Bray Dunes."
Bob comes over and nuzzles Aarit's ear.
"What about Bob?" he asks. "They won't take him on a boat. What am I to do? I don't want him to be frightened by the bombs, abandoned on the beach." He reaches up and strokes the mule's face.
"Leave him here in the orchard," Earnest says. "There's grass and a trough. Some French peasant or another will take him when they find him. Spoils of war."
Earnest can see the heartbreak in the man's eyes.
"It's for the best," he adds.
They stand, and Aarit catches Bob's bridle. He rests forehead-to-forehead with the mule, eyes closed, stroking Bob's ears.
He whispers a few words in Hindi, then adds, "Live well, my sacred friend."
They leave the orchard and set off down the road back to Plage de Bray Dunes. Behind them, in the spring sunshine on the edge of the slaughter, Bob grazes contentedly.
By evening, Aarit and Earnest are standing up to their chests in the freezing sea in a line of a hundred men. The ship is near: all they have to do is get on it.
From the west, a Stuka streaks out of the setting sun and roars over the beach, its guns blazing. The men in the water surge like panicked cattle. There's nowhere to hide from the red-hot bullets smacking into the waves.
Earnest looks back at Aarit. Terror is written on the Indian's face.
"Hold on to my webbing," Earnest shouts. "We're going to be alright." They're both shaking, trying to force themselves through the relentless swell to the ship's ladder. Earnest feels as though he's in a dream where you want to run, but, chest deep in the sea, you can't.
They're an arm's length from the boat. The Stuka is banking over the sea for another pass. The boat bobs and lurches in the waves. Bullets zing into the water with a hot, deadly sizzle.
The sand beneath Earnest's feet drops away, and he goes under, swallowing a mouthful of briney water. He feels Aarit grab his arms and haul him to the surface. He pushes Earnest up so that the Englishman can grab hold of the ship's rope ladder with freezing fingers.
Grasping hands reach over the side, haul Earnest on deck by his jacket and bundle him towards the hatch leading below deck. With his hand on the railing of the ladder, he looks back. Aarit will be next over the side.
He was just behind Earnest in the line.
Aarit will be next.
Instead, an infantryman from further back in the line appears over the side and is shoved towards the hatch. Earnest has no choice but to stumble down the steps and find a place to sit on the hard metal floor.
The tommy next to him pulls out a wet packet of cigarettes. "Got a light, mate?"
Earnest nods and feels in his pocket for his lighter.
His hand closes instead around an unfamiliar object, smooth and comforting. He pulls his hand out of his pocket and looks down at the string of strange little beans and a red tassel.
Aarit's prayer beads.