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A Shout From The Attic: Sleep Is A Reconciling

...The wagon screamed off into the discouraging pre-dawn emptiness and I was left alone in the deafening silence of nowhere. I stood behind the wall listening to sweet birdsong as the dawn rose sluggishly through the misty trees and bushes surrounding my post. As daylight poured its leaden light into my small corner, I could see that I was perhaps thirty feet from a lodge at the entrance of a large estate.

I faced the narrow ribbon of road, across which the enemy was to attempt to breach my bastion, and I stared into the greyness....

Ronnie Bray recalls one of his most uncomfortable nights.

To read earlier episodes from Ronnie's fascinating autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

That sleep is the shadow of God’s mercy stirred by his power of creation is evident when the worn out body wakes refreshed and renewed ready for subsequent challenges.

It was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever spent. I stood all day and all night until mid-morning the next day behind a hedge somewhere in the wilds of Flintshire on a combined United States and United Kingdom military exercise.

The plan of the operation was simple enough. A long string of British troops stretched out along an agreed line formed the defence. The American troops, make-believe paratroopers, were dropped by lorries a few miles away with the task of penetrating the line of defence and meeting at an agreed rendezvous.

As a key part of the nation’s defensive force, I was posted at a location determined by a sleepy sergeant who commanded a camouflage green four ton Austin lorry. He told me to clamber out of the back and ordered me to: “Stay there, stay awake, stay alert, and catch all the ‘Yanks” I could, and “Remember, lad, you’re British.” I don’t know why he threw that last in, but it was early even for soldiers.

That was around six o’clock one Saturday morning in the run-up to winter 1952. I was dressed in thick battledress under an Army greatcoat that was a cross between a horse blanket and high quality carpet underlay. In my hands I held a short Lee-Enfield .303 rifle and I knew in the last flush of my seventeenth year that I presented a formidable obstacle to any foe. As usual, we were not issued with bullets. Our hope was that an enemy would not know that or, if they knew that they would overlook it. It was a forlorn one but it was our only hope.

The wagon screamed off into the discouraging pre-dawn emptiness and I was left alone in the deafening silence of nowhere. I stood behind the wall listening to sweet birdsong as the dawn rose sluggishly through the misty trees and bushes surrounding my post. As daylight poured its leaden light into my small corner, I could see that I was perhaps thirty feet from a lodge at the entrance of a large estate.

I faced the narrow ribbon of road, across which the enemy was to attempt to breach my bastion, and I stared into the greyness. My face grew wet with the swirling soup that occasionally thinned to allow my gaze to penetrate the gloom that lay like a pall across the road and I peered at the soldered bushes that obscured the fields through which the hostile hordes would soon be pouring in their thousands, or so I convinced myself.

There is something about being in the military and young that blends to vivify and occupy the imagination with deeds of faultless heroism against fearful odds. The pursuit of heroicism attacks the adolescent in search of an identity. “Let them come,” I fantasised, elevated instantly to a formidable super-hero in a scenario formulated in my rambling imagination, “Captain Britain would win the day!”

The cool cheerless sun that eventually broke through the vanishing mist served only to drive the cold deeper into my bones., and I longed for the warm comfort of a Sammy scarf I anticipated, not the coming of the Americans, but the approach of the breakfast lorry. Breakfast I ate by proxy several times before my wristwatch told that time had passed beyond breakfast and that it would soon be the hour for lunch.

For some reason that remains unexplained, lunch proved as fugitive as breakfast. Thus passed the day to teatime when surely the lorry would come and feed my gnawing hunger. It did not, and in spite of my hunger for blood – or anything – neither did the Americans. Late afternoon stretched itself slowly out into a long evening. Dusk fell early, as is its wont, and returned me to the identical enveloping gloom in whose grasp I had commenced my watch.

As the high hours of the night gathered, I heard a door in the lodge open behind me. This was the first indication that any one else in the entire world other than me was alive. The dark figure moved towards me with a glass in his hand. “Here,” a soft border-Welsh voice ordered gently, “drink this.”

I looked at the glass in the light from the open door. It appeared to be blackcurrant juice. Even a thirsty teetotaller has to be careful what he accepts. Not wishing to question the gift, but assured by my cursory though expert examination that it was safe, I quaffed it in a single draught. The fruity taste was most welcome as my innards volubly testified. The glass returned to the laconic bearer, he disappeared back into he shaft of light that narrowed before vanishing as the door closed silently, leaving alone again in the Stygian night.

After a few moments, the merciful libation showed its true colours and I was giggling in the dark. For some reason, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Giggling in the Dark flashed into my mind and increased my giggle quotient. I almost forgot how hungry I was as the awesome futility of my position struck home by way of my funny bone.

Here I was a stranger in a strange land keeping my redoubt without company, relief, rations, or even the chance to sit down, and maintained by a single slug of jungle juice borne by a merciful phantom. The vision of several years in that place, and what I might become from the experience made me laugh out loud at the comic tragedy playing out in the spinning theatre of my squiffy mind.

By moving a few feet from the designated spot, I could lean against a tree. The tree repaid me by depositing rich green pigment from its north side on to the south side of my greatcoat.

In this manner, I took some of the weight from my complaining feet that seemed to have developed lives of their own inside my soggy boots. Then, I discovered that if I turned quickly, my body would move independently of all my clothing, which gave me further cause for mirth among the shrubbery.

Whether any invading GIs were warned off by the sounds of insane chortling rising from a clump of evergreens, I have no way of knowing, but none came that I was aware of. The night drew on and the booze wore off, leaving me colder than it had found me. Strong drink is a liar in many ways.

The air became crisper as a finger of frost probed the woodland, drew its fantastic tracery on the roadway, and penetrated my sodden garments. I was damp, chilled, forgotten, peeved, fed up, thirsty, hungry, miserable, sorry for myself, and overwhelmingly tired. I stood close to the edge of my green shroud and peered into the silver grey light of a dawn that had been too long in coming.

Far away, a cow lowed long and painfully. Obviously, it was having about as much fun as I was. I stole a furtive glance at the door of the lodge and saw an enchanting vision of the silhouette of my covert patron emerging with a Yorkshire-size teacake full of bacon and eggs. The wish was effete, the door stayed closed tighter than a drum, and I stayed hungry. The apparition was an illusion and I had been a suckered by hope.

Just about the time I was warming to the idea of being eaten by wolves to put me out of my misery, the familiar sound of a Bedford TK’s whining transmission broke the silence of the morning, and the flat nose of the troop carrier pushed aside what swirls of mist lingered before lurching to a halt besides me.

An altogether too cheerful face with a smile that made the Cheshire cat look miserable by comparison thrust itself through the driver’s window and announced in a tone altogether too gleeful to be an apology, “Sorry mate! We forgot you. Hop in!”

I didn’t have a hop left in me, but managed to scale the prohibitively high tail board through force of habit and slumped gracelessly onto the floor, trying to ignore the cheap and nasty odour of the Will’s Wild Woodbine cigarettes that some of the dishevelled troops were burning to help them cough.

We arrived at our barracks and were ordered to go to the cookhouse for lunch. I had another priority, went straight to my bed, and lay down to die without removing my boots. I remained there until morning, clutching my rifle. The Americans might still come!

I had slept a sleep of such profundity that few can know. My comrades tried to wake me that afternoon and again that evening so that I might disrobe, shower, and get into bed. I was elsewhere. I can remember the strength of my tiredness as I lay down, and the full sweetness of the refreshment I felt when I arose after sleeping solidly for sixteen hours.

As I lay upon my bed, finally able to let go of consciousness and all the bitter memories of the last thirty-six hours I could feel the arms of sleep waiting to embrace me and draw me down to herself. In the moment of willing submission, and not before, I knew what it was like to be admitted in to heaven. It is an act of such love and mercy that envelops the soul and removes its pain whilst warming it with the comfort of acceptance and an overwhelming sensation that now, everything is all right.

If going down into the sleep of death is half as sweet, and the joy on waking half as pleasant, then death is the final grace of God to us in mortality, and the merest foretaste of the refreshment that awaits us on the other side of that goodnight. Then, and only then, shall we feel the fullness of the blessing of reconciliation that awaits those who rest in the Lord.

Weep you no more, sad fountain.
What need you flow so fast?
Mark how the snowy mountains
Heavens sun doth gently waste
Whilst she lies sleeping.

Sleep is a reconciling
A rest that Peace begets.
Doth not the sun rise smiling
When fair at eve he sets?

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