Maggie meets Pat

She glances up to see a stranger standing patiently at the bar, waiting to be served. There’s something different about him, Maggie thinks; not a local man, for sure. Dressed in thick working trousers and a thick sweater, a plain cap tucked under his arm; definitely not military, the hair’s too long. But he stands plumb line straight, the same way Paddy does; more confidently, if anything. She works out the change, hands it over; turns towards him, “Well, what would you like?”
The blue eyes twinkle while they regard her, “Oh, all sorts of things; but a pint of your best beer will do for now.” The voice shocks her. She realises why after she turns away; he has the same accent as Paddy, the way that the ‘h’ in things is almost (but not quite) silent. She finds herself blushing, almost dropping the glass while she fumbles with the pump.
She takes a moment to compose herself; looks back at him, “Are you Irish?”
“I was, I was, once upon a time; but tell me, is this tiny little place Eastgate?”
“It was, once upon a time.” She smiles up at him. “They took the road signs down in 1940 and never put them back up. You’re not a German spy, are you?” She means it as a joke; to her horror, the whole bar falls silent and turns, staring at the newcomer. He grins, much to her relief.
“I wasn’t, not the last time I looked in the mirror. Why, do you think I look like one?” She shakes her head, blushing furiously; she can’t help glancing at his fair hair, his blue eyes, blushing again. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a short, chubby red-faced man struggle to his feet, detach himself from the table in the corner, waddling towards them. She groans, inwardly.
“Where’s tha uniform? Get tha self in th’army or get thee gone.”
She flinches at the tone, the slurred voice, “Now, Billy…”
“We don’t need to wear uniforms in the merchant navy; we just do our job.” The stranger’s voice is suddenly crystal clear, calm and resolute.
Billy scratches his head, muttering to himself. He starts to turn away and then turns back, “Bloody shirkers; get tha self a uniform.” The stranger doesn’t even blink.
“Tell you what; we could all do that, us seamen. You know something? We’d all get far better pay plus a spot of paid leave. The problem is, though, me and my mates are bringing in all the sugar to make your beer, the flour for your bread, the corned beef, the tinned milk, not to mention all the guns and ammunition to fight the war with, and all the fuel for your cars and tanks and planes. So you might just find yourself in a little spot of bother, without us.” He takes a sip of his drink while he watches Billy’s face. “Another thing, before you tell me all about these brave lads in uniform, I’ll tell you something about life in the convoys. In a tanker ship, now, one torpedo can blow the whole ship sky high. Even when it doesn’t, you’ll be jumping into a layer of burning fuel. Then there’s the ammunition ships; you surely do not want to be anywhere nearby when one of those gets hit. So if you’re really lucky, and you’re not carrying anything like that, you’ve nothing much to worry about. Just how to get up onto the deck in pitch darkness while the water comes in, how to get off the boat in three minutes flat, and then how to survive in ice-cold water; oh, and how to swim, or maybe row, a thousand miles.” He takes another sip. “And when you get home, say after three or four weeks in a lifeboat, you know what? They’ll dock your pay from the exact moment your ship went down. You bloody shirkers, they’ll say; sitting in a lifeboat all that time.”
He turns back towards Maggie and winks. “You were telling me about the village…”

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