This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. To commemorate the occasion, we are serialising William’s short story, The Bridge, which is set against the backdrop of the infamous battle, which took place between 17th and 26th September 1944.
Today, we continue with part 2 of the story. Click here for Part 1. Further instalments and Arnhem themed posts will follow over the next week.
ADVISORY: This story contains adult themes and occasional strong language.
THE BRIDGE: PART 2
The doctor cycled quickly up the path, raised himself on the pedal and, swinging his leg over the frame, dismounted on the run letting the bicycle fall onto the path. He bounded up the front steps and into the house.
‘Marie! Marie Doorn, where are you? They’re here! They’ve come! They’ve come at last!’
His wife came out of the kitchen wiping her floured hands on her apron. She looked at her husband, incredulous at his excitement. She had never seen him so animated, never heard him shout like this.
‘Jan, what on Earth’s the matter with you? Who’s come at last?’
‘The Allies. They’ve landed, thousands of them.’
‘What do you mean landed? Landed where? On what?’
‘Landed, parachutists, thousands of parachutists. I was over at old Mrs Mies’s place at Apeldoorn, she’s had another fall by the way, anyway, we heard the noise of aircraft, very loud, and we went out to see what was happening and there they were, flight after flight of big transporters dropping thousands of paras. The sky was black with them. I came back as fast as I could.’
He followed his wife into the kitchen and sat down at the large oak trestle table. He watched her back as she busied herself at the stove. She had gone very quiet. He shook his head in frustration.
‘My God, don’t you see what this means, Marie? It’s over. Those bastards are finished. They will have to go back to Germany with their tails between their legs.’
‘Oh yes? Go back will they? Without a fight, will they? Jan, we’re talking about the German Army, they never give up without a fight. And what about all those Panzers that have recently arrived at Elst?’
‘Well, the Allies know about them. The underground has reported their presence already. That’s why they’ve dropped all those paras so near at Apeldoorn.’
‘Well, I hope you’re right. You’ve always been an optimist, Jan.’
He pulled a large Hunter from his pocket and looked at the time. ‘Where’s Druschke?’
‘She went out with young Pieter down to the river, I think. I told them to be back before curfew.’
‘I had better go and look for them. Things could get a bit hectic around here soon.’
After he had gone, she sat down at the table and looked out of the window at the pretty garden. The leaves were just beginning to turn, which reminded her that the fruit would have to be picked soon. Two Panzer divisions at Elst and thousands of English paratroops at Apeldoorn only twenty kilometres apart. God save us, not the stuff from which idyllic autumn evenings are made, she thought. Why was Jan so stupid? Did he really believe the Bosche would just pack up and leave? She must put that pie in the oven or they wouldn’t be eating tonight. She smiled to herself. ‘The condemned men ate a hearty meal.’
The girl regarded herself in the mirror. She pouted. ‘Must get something done about this hair, get it cut and set. I’m sixteen now, too old for these stupid plaits. All I need is a bonnet and some clogs and I’ll be everybody’s idea of the typical Dutch maid. The girl on the Edam poster. God, I hate that stuff, like rubber and that awful red wax. Do you remember how we used to roll it into balls and throw it at each other? Mummy would go mad because it made greasy marks on the walls and ceiling.’
When she didn’t get a reply, she looked at the boy in the mirror. Good old Per, she thought, head stuck in a book again.
The jeep screeched to a stop outside the cafe across the street and the girl ran to the window to see what all the noise was about.
‘Per, come here quickly. Look at this soldier.’
The boy was already behind her. ‘He’s a para, Drush. Those are English paratroops.’
The soldier had alighted from the jeep and was leaning on the canopy of the vehicle, talking to another soldier inside.
‘What are they doing, Per?’
‘I don’t know.’
They looked down, their young faces alive with excitement. The other soldier climbed from the jeep and began to cross the road toward the house. The one who remained straightened up, removed his red beret and began to scratch the back of his head with both hands, elbows held out wide. He looked toward the house and, noticing the two young people at the window, he tilted his head slightly, then raising his hand, he gave them a little wave.
‘Oh God, Per, look. Isn’t he gorgeous?’
The boy shrugged but before he could respond they heard the doorbell. They both ran from the room and down the stairs to the front door.
They opened it to a large, thickset man with a stern face under his red beret. He wore a green and brown camouflaged smock over his British khaki uniform and a large pistol hung from his belt. His whole attitude was intimidating and this reflected in the frightened faces of the two young people.
‘Good afternoon, Miss. Oh Christ…do you speak English?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Of course you do. All the bloody Dutch do, don’t they? And German and Serbo-Croat too, I shouldn’t wonder. You have to, I suppose. After all, who speaks bloody Dutch? Look, are your parents or any other adults around? Who owns this house? Is the owner here?’ Almost without pause he turned on his heel and shouted across the road. ‘Sergeant, over here, and bring those maps.’
‘Well, girl, I asked you a question. Who lives here? You boy, go and find the owner of this house and bring him to me.’
‘Where are they, Drush?’
‘They must be in the garden otherwise they would have heard all this noise.’
The second soldier had walked up and stood just behind the first. The girl looked at him and he could see she was very afraid. His face softened with just the trace of a smile and he gave her a little wink.
‘The maps, Colonel.’
‘What? Oh, thank you, Sergeant. I’m going back to meet the rest of the men and get them deployed. I’ve sent for the owner of this house. When he comes, stay with him and don’t let him move until I get back.’
He turned and looked at the girl. She was still staring at the sergeant, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, transfixed. He shook his head, smiling. ‘Careful, Sergeant, I think you have an admirer.’
The Colonel ran back down the path and, climbing into the jeep, drove off at high speed. The sergeant looked at the girl.
‘Don’t mind him, love…Miss?’
She just stared at him, unmoving.
‘Miss? Hullo? Anybody there?’ He leant forward slightly and waved his hand in her face. ‘Miss?’
She blinked and appeared to gather herself. ‘Yes?’
‘Ah, you’re back. Wonderful. Look, is the owner coming, love?’
‘Yes. Per has gone to fetch them.’
‘Yes. My parents. This is our house. Per has gone for them.’
‘And who’s Per, your brother? The boy I saw at the window?’
‘He’s not my brother, he’s just a friend.’
‘Boyfriend, is he?’
‘No he isn’t. He’s a neighbour. Ah, here are Mummy and Papa. Papa, the Sergeant wants to talk to you.’
‘Ah, Sergeant, welcome to our house. Come in, come in. I am Dr Doorn and this is my wife, Marie. You’ve met my daughter, Druschke. We call her Drush for short. And this is Per, Pieter Van Der Aar, a neighbour.’
The boy was still animated with the excitement of it all. ‘Is that a Jeep, Sergeant?’
‘Well, the English version of a Jeep, yes.’
‘Why is the steering wheel on the wrong side?’
‘It’s because they drive on the wrong side of the road in England, Per.’
‘No, Doctor, it’s because we drive on the left side of the road.’
The doctor laughed. ‘My apologies, Sergeant, I knew it was the opposite of right. Now, what can we do to help?’
‘Thank you, Sir. My C.O. has asked if you will kindly wait, he’ll be back directly. He wants to set up his HQ here.’
‘What, in my house?’
‘Yes Sir. It’s ideal for us, you see, being so close to the bridge.’
‘That’s why we’re here. To secure the bridge for the army.’
‘Army? What army?’
‘The British Second Army. They’re coming up from Nijmegen and we’ve got to hold the bridge.’
A huge smile spread across the doctor’s face. ‘You see, Marie? I told you so! You wouldn’t believe me. These brave boys are going to stop the Panzers getting away back to Germany. They are going to trap them here and the army are going to destroy the bastards. Right, Sergeant?’
The sergeant looked intently at the doctor.
‘What do you mean, stop the Panzers getting away? Getting away from where?’
‘From here, of course. Good God, surely you knew there were two Panzer divisions resting and refitting at Elst. The underground told your people weeks ago.’
‘Elst? Where’s Elst?’
The doctor crossed to the door and pointed. ‘Over there, about eight kilometres.’
‘You mean there are two Panzer divisions between us and Nijmegen?’
The doctor looked into the sergeant’s face. He could see the fear begin to reflect in his eyes. He nodded slowly.
‘Jesus H. Christ. I’ve got to tell the C.O. You lot, don’t move.’
He ran from the house.
Check back on Friday for the next part, or read the whole story now by downloading the ebook: