An Incident during the War

 

There in the crumbling gaunt Red Cross hotel,

Its race-track grandeur spurned by Army feet,

I lingered in the lounge among the few

Sad soldiers there, and fell asleep.

I woke at ten and found myself in hell -

My time was overstayed: I would not get

Away to London, but would have to keep

To barracks: ‘No more week-end pass for you!’

I ran the whole way back, along that street

Of sleazy stucco villas to the gate;

In darkness met the guard I never knew.

He shone his flashlight on my pass: ‘You’re late,

Soldier, and I’ll have to turn this in.’

His voice was low: we might have been two friends

Together in the same mistake. ‘I’m due

To go to London, and it matters. Can

You help me?’ Even now that minute tends

From him to me, from me to him. He shone

The flashlight on my face, then clicked it off.

‘I shouldn’t do this, pal, but, okay, you’re

On time. Now get the hell in there. Be sure

To have a drink for me in London.’ Safe

Again, I said: ‘Thanks, thanks a lot.’ And softly

Walked away. I never knew his face.

I never knew his name. What he had done,

An unguarded kindness, made me feel the grace

Of being brothers. And that war he won.