by Andrew Foote
We ended the search having had no further success just as darkness fell. Peter Baines was sent off to commandeer a Landrover to take me back to Mapledurham meanwhile the Sergeant-Major talked to me about the day's events.
"Sometimes Alexis, no news is good news. I know it's a tired old cliché but think about it. We haven't found Justin which undoubtedly is upsetting for you but neither have we found a body which probably means he's okay and still on the move so try to look upon our lack of success today in a positive light."
"I'll try and I know you're right but it's unbelievably difficult."
"I understand that but rest assured, we will leave no stone unturned. Tomorrow we will do the counter search of the common then we will, with the assistance of the police, start down the main A4 towards Reading. Everything and everybody has to be somewhere so my promise to you is this. Just as soon as we have any news, no matter how trivial, you will be informed and likewise if you hear anything, you must pass it on to us.
Here comes your ride home but before you go I just want to say I thought you did very well today. I honestly thought after a couple of hours you'd be whining about how tired your legs were and how sore your feet were getting. You proved me wrong and I can assure you, that doesn't happen that often!
Go on home Alexis and I hope we will meet again one day under happier circumstances."
The journey home was uneventful although the conversation with Pete did serve to take my mind off things.
"It's a bit noisy this vehicle Pete?"
"Yeah it is a bit but better than the kit the Americans use. They have their Jeep's which are purpose made vehicles built in massive quantities during the war, good enough but very basic. Do you know why they called them Jeep's?"
"Well to speed production, keep down the costs and make them easy to service in the field they kept them simple so Just Enough Essential Parts hence JEEP whereas our Landrovers are modified versions of production vehicles you can buy on the open market. Take this baby up the side of a mountain and she wouldn't bat an eyelid! Slightly more comfortable and definitely less noisy than a jeep!"
"Wow! Really powerful then!"
"They're a good everyday vehicle but they do have their limitations. Once we've found Justin, and find him we will, I'll have a quiet word with our mate the Sergeant-Major and see if we can't get you over to our base so we can show you what other bits of kit we use."
"Do you think he would allow it Pete?"
"I don't believe he would take much persuading, you really did impress him you know? More than that, he likes you, almost a mirror-image of his own son when he was younger."
"He told you that?"
"Yes. I told you, he's a good man. We are Ghurkhas, we know our job, and we are very highly trained. Did you hear him shout at any of the men today?"
"There y'go! There's no need for it you see. We get on with what we have to do and sure, he's the man in charge but we all have our skills and know precisely how and where we fit in so it just works."
"It is! He also encourages exchanges of ideas. No one person knows it all and so to have other takes on a situation can be really beneficial. Well you saw that for yourself didn't you?"
"Did I? I mean I did?"
"Certainly! When one of your dog's found Justin's hankie he didn't go off half-cock 'we'll do this or that' he asked for your opinion like did you have any idea as to why Justin might be doing what he's doing, where and in what direction might he be going and so on. Specialist information only you could provide, after all he wouldn't know Justin from any other fourteen year-old would he whereas you know and understand him very well. Once he's been furnished with all the available information it is then and only then that he is able to make informed decisions."
"Oh wow! I always thought that the army was just all about following orders."
"And so it is to some degree, more so in some of the regular regiments but we are an elite force. In the field of war we think and act as a single entity, almost as if we know what the other is thinking. Sure we are led from the top and we follow orders but there's little or no bullshit, there is no need for it because discipline comes naturally to us. For us, survival and victory is the only thing that matters and we cannot do that if we don't respect and have ultimate trust in each other's capabilities and that from the top down to the lowest ranks. Best put, the whole is only as strong as all of its component parts."
"I think I understand now."
"One little example for you and concerning you. Sergeant-Major Harris was definitely not keen to have you with us. He thought, as he said to you, that you would disrupt the search by complaining of being tired or whatever else. That would've meant losing a man to escort you back to camp, requisition a vehicle to run you home, well basically losing a valuable member of the team for what, four maybe five hours? The other thing that bothered him was the discipline or rather the lack of it when it came to your dogs. It wasn't directed at you personally but he was worried for the efficiency of the operation. Okay in the event he had no cause for concern but you can understand how it might've been different."
"I must thank him for allowing me to tag along."
"He was under a bit of pressure from one of our senior commanders! Dare I ask who your 'friend in high places' is Alexis?"
"I can only guess its Colonel Sir George Appleby."
"Oh gawd! Late of Gloucester Light Horse! The man's a legend! How come you know of him?"
"He's Justin's Grandfather. He's a lovely man."
"Well I'll be damned! Sergeant-Major Harris will be very interested to know that! No wonder his hands were well and truly tied!"
We pulled onto the driveway, Pete opening the tailgate letting the dogs run free.
We stood talking for a few moments but then heard a voice.
"Good to have you back Alex. Are you alright? Shaping up okay?"
"Yes Sir, I'm alright considering."
Pete whispered to me.
"Yes, that's Sir George."
Pete snapped to attention.
"Corporal Baines at your service Sir!"
"Stand easy Corporal. No need for ceremony here lad."
Sir George walked over to us and shook Pete's hand, Pete looked slightly taken aback by this!
"Come on into the house and have some coffee. We'd all like to hear what happened today."
I kennelled the dogs and joined everyone in the kitchen then between us we detailed the day's events, the discovery of Jus's hankie and the plans for expanding the search along the main A4.
"So Corporal, you've been with young Alex all day?"
"Yes Sir. It has been a privilege, it really has. Everyone was really taken with him, the dogs and most of all by his stamina."
"I never doubted that for an instant but I can well imagine Sergeant-Major Harris was not a happy bunny!"
"Not initially Sir but by the end of the day, he too was really impressed!"
"Good! I'll let you get back to camp now. I'll be having a word with your commanding officer so if you get any grief for being late, I'll make sure that's covered. Thank you for sticking with Alex. He's as precious to us as Justin."
"Thank you Sir. It's been an honour to meet you. Good bye Sir."
I walked back out with Pete who took off his beret and removed his regimental badge.
"Here y'go Alexis. You could never be a Ghurkha, you're not Nepalese but by God you've earned this today! Keep it safe, okay?"
I wandered back to the house, cap badge in hand. In the kitchen all the adults were still talking and drinking coffee.
Lady Eleanor saw me coming and offered me some which I gratefully accepted.
"Do you see what Pete, sorry, Corporal Baines gave me Sir?"
"Good Lord! D'you see this Tim? Baines gave him his cap badge and no ordinary cap badge at that! You really must have hit it off with them for him to have done that!"
"Nice gesture but what's so special about that one in particular George?"
"I'll show you."
Sir George disappeared into the library and came back with a rather large reference book.
"Let me explain a few things. As Alex has most likely discovered, Ghurkha's are an odd bunch. They neither conform nor act like any other regiment in the Army. They're a complete law unto themselves and whilst I was a stickler for protocol during my service career, I say thank God they are the way they are.
Did you like them Alex?"
"Very much so Sir! They were really friendly from the outset but when we stopped for rations it was almost as if I'd been accepted somehow."
"That's most likely because they realised you were a fighter, prepared and willing to endure the hardship of the day without so much as backward glance. That will not have gone unnoticed believe me!
Now to the cap badge. Ghurkha's are proud soldiers but their ethos is one that believes acts of extreme bravery, valour, courage in the face of impossible odds and so forth is just part and parcel of their duty, nothing more, nothing less.
You Alex, should be very pleased they like you! Do you know why?"
"No Sir, I don't."
"Well young man, I'm if you like, something of an expert when it comes to them, I was partly responsible for setting up the Ghurkha regiments which is why your friend Corporal Baines had most likely heard of me. We recruited them because, well…..to put it bluntly, they're highly trained and totally ruthless killing machines. They give not a jot about the rules of engagement, if you were their enemy and they caught up with you, no prisoner of war you, they'd slice your head off without so much as a second thought and leave you to rot in the field. Even the Japanese were afraid of them and there wasn't much that they feared."
"Oh my God! I've just spent the day with a bunch of ruthless killers!"
"Yes indeed you have and your friend Corporal Baines? It would appear he's one of the best at his trade which brings me neatly back to the cap badge.
You remember I told you that they see everything they do just as part of their duty? This is one of the reasons you will never see a Ghurkha wearing a medal much though they are thoroughly deserved and well earned. Instead they are issued with different cap badges and if you look here," pointing to an array of badges in the book, "the badge Peter Baines gave you is akin to a regular soldier being honoured with the Distinguished Service Cross like Rolly's.
I would venture to say, you have been in the company of a very fine soldier and an extremely brave man!"
"But he was a really nice guy? He seemed to be almost gentle. I really, really liked him!"
"And so did I and it's very obvious he liked you too. For him to give you this badge is a real honour Alex. Whatever he did to be awarded this was way beyond the call of duty possibly even beyond what he perceived as his duty."
"He didn't seem so brave when he realised who you were Sir? He really was in awe of you!"
"Well I held the rank of a senior officer and he's a Corporal but I'll let you into a little secret shall I? As soon as I saw his cap badge, I was in awe of him! I am not half the man he is Alex. I don't even come close!"
Day three and still no sign of Jus.
I spent some time up at the mill with Joe and together we finished doing the second coat of paint.
Under different circumstances I'd be excited but as things stood, I really couldn't have cared one way or the other.
Joe walked with me back to the house and bid our farewell's having arranged to meet the following day.
Back inside the house I was told that the search of Buckleberry Common had been completed with no further sign of Jus.
It was a Sunday. A day which the Christian Church took as their own and for the first time in my life I wished I had faith. Never the less I found myself talking out loud to nothing and no one in particular, questioning the cruelty of life, begging for help.
It was a strange sensation. I wasn't crying but tears were cascading down my face and by the time I went to bed, I felt calm and in control of my emotions. Sleep came easily, that was until I woke with a start at two-thirty in the morning. I had gone from fast asleep to wide awake in a nanno-second.
I lay there and listened. I heard nothing save the sound of the rain on the roof. I got up out of bed and grabbing a flashlight, opened the stern hatch and peered outside.
I snapped off the torch and went below and then the penny dropped.
"FUCK! HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO FUCKING STUPID!!! I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE JUS! I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE! I'M COMING!!"
I pulled on my wetsuit and dressed in a thermal vest, shirt and an oiled fisherman jumper, jeans and thermal socks and hiking boots and packing a backpack with a pair of Jus's jeans, a pair of his boots and some very sharp kitchen scissors, I donned my oilskin and let myself quietly out of the boat.
I reached the house, let the dogs lose then making our way across the front lawn so as not to make any noise on the gravel driveway, once clear of the house we ran full pace down into Caversham ducking into gateways at the first sign of any cars which fortunately were few and far between.
We raced on, I hardly broke sweat as we tore down Hemdean Road and past the first entrance to Balmore Hill, the dogs almost running in formation, not running on, not lagging behind almost as if they knew where we were headed and the importance of our mission.
We passed the second entrance, a long flight of steps up the side of the hill, a killer climb even though I was fit and so onwards up Balmore Hill Drive and into the woods.
As if by some unspoken command, three of the dogs dropped down a gear and raced off into the darkness leaving just me and Dizzy to pick our way down the track.
Darkness plays tricks with your perception of distance and had it not been for Dizzy, I swear to God I'd have missed the cut-off but he guided me down the overgrown path where I snapped on the flashlight and there, under the tree, lay the prone body of my Jus.
I didn't panic. It was as if I was on autopilot as I knelt beside him and placed the fingers of my left hand to his neck. He was ice cold and the sudden thought that he might be dead crossed my mind but again I stayed calm and closed my eyes in concentration and then I found what I desperately hoped I would find. Very slow, very weak pulse!
Now I set to work and using the scissors I cut away all his clothing not worrying about him getting cold. It really didn't matter, he was soaking wet anyway.
Once he was naked I stripped out of my clothes and with not without some difficulty, managed to get him dressed in them.
I ushered Ben and Sam to lay either side of him and as close to him as they could get then I covered all three of them with my oil skins.
I had Spatz, the dog with some serious attitude to sit at Jus's feet.
"Spatz? On guard boy! If anyone other than me comes near my boyfriend, you have my full permission to rip their throats out!"
He gave a wag of his tale and with one last look, Dizzy and I raced back through the woods and along the apex of the hill to the first entrance hoping and praying the gates would be open.
The rain which had been falling for the last thirty-six hours had made the hillside very greasy and slippery and despite my hiking boots, I tumbled down the hill plastering myself in mud but I was on pure adrenaline and hardly noticed.
This time I threw caution to the wind and we raced through the streets not caring who might see us until we reached the safety of the house.
I crashed into the front door and yelled my lungs out.
"Wake up! PLEASE WAKE UP!! I'VE FOUND HIM!!"
I must have done a pretty good job as all of a sudden lights were being switched on all over the house then my Dad opened the front door.
"Found him? Where Alexis? WHERE!"
"Family tree. Get an ambulance! He's alive, very poorly but he is alive. Dad HURRY! Best way in is off Balmore Park Drive. They might be able to get fairly close. I'm going back."
"No you're not! You stay here!"
"Dad? BOLLOCKS TO YOU! I'll see you up there!" and without waiting for a response, Dizzy and I were off again.
I could hear the ambulance a mile off and through the trees I could see the flashing blue light. Dizzy and I walked back up to the cut-off and I placed the flash lamp on the ground with the bulb alight.
This had been a Birthday present from my Mum and Dad a few years before. It had a function on it that made the bulb flash on and off, something to do with the heat from the filament making it expand so breaking the circuit until it cooled so relighting it and so repeating the process.
It also had shutters whereby you could draw different colour filters over the lens, red, blue or green and while I'd always thought it as being a bit 'twee', tonight it was worth its weight in gold! The ambulance men and my Dad found us in double-quick time.
I'd forgotten to call Spatz off and he was less than impressed when he heard hurried footsteps approaching! God! He even had me worried! His growl was deep and he definitely meant business!
"Alexis?? Call that fucking dog off will you? Nothing we can do if he eats us man!"
I gave Spatz a big hug for a job well done and the ambulance guys and my Dad appeared in the clearing.
"Are you alright son?"
"Don't worry about me, I'm all good. It's Jus. Dad he's so cold!"
One of the ambulance men turned to me.
"Son? Can you get these dogs out of the way please? They're not taking a blind bit of notice of us!"
Calling them off the man looked at me closely.
"You don't look too good either mate. Do you hurt anywhere?"
"Only inside. My heart is breaking and I'm scared for my friend. I'm okay. I'll live but will Justin be alright?"
"Hard to say. He's alive right enough but although I'm not a doctor, my guess is he's gone into a hypothermic coma and it all depends if we reached him in time. We'll get him to hospital, then the medics can make their judgements. I still want you to come and get checked over though. You look as if the world has fallen on top of you!"
"I'm fine, honestly! Anyway who's going to get the dogs back? They're not on leashes and no way will they go with my Father so…….."
Just then a policeman came down the path. He ignored me but I knew him! He was the same officer I'd run away from that night at the river and here I am, dressed in the same wetsuit! OH PLEASE? Where is the justice in that?!
He had words with the ambulance man who then pointed in my direction.
'I'm dead, either that or I'm heading to court and a period in a borstal!'
"So you're the young man who found this poor unfortunate boy are you?"
"I'd be very interested to know what on earth you were doing out here in the middle of the night in the pouring rain?"
My thoughts were totally out of my control so I went for the truthful answer even if it was a bit flippant.
"Much the same as last time we met only this time it was out of necessity rather than pleasure."
He studied me closer then laughed!
"Caversham Bridge! Did a runner! Couldn't find you! Scared me half to death thinking you'd drowned! Well I'll be damned! We meet again!"
"Are you going to arrest me?"
"Now why would I want to do that? No, no lad! I've had some strange incidents in my time but once it was clear you hadn't come to any harm, it made me laugh! I was the centre of attention for a while, y'know? I was famous for five minutes! Now let us get your friend to the hospital. I'll need a statement from you but that can wait until you're ready. You should go too. You look awful!"
"Umm…..got to get the dogs back then maybe……."
My Dad had let me do all the speaking up to that point but now he intervened.
"Officer? He's the only person they will obey so it has to be Alexis who takes them back. I must go with the ambulance so……..I know this is something of an imposition but could you follow him back to Mapledurham, let him Kennel the dogs and bring him to the hospital?"
"Of course I will. I'll radio my Sergeant and tell him what I'm doing but this time of the morning is the graveyard shift so nothing much else will be going on."
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