Tuesday evening, once showered and changed after work I went over to the Müller house with eager anticipation. I’d pretty much convinced myself what I was going to do but just needed confirmation that Max hadn’t found any problems over the weekend. I’d avoided Peter the Kraut as much as possible since our Friday night drinking session, not wanting to hear any more from him as I was certain he’d told me all I needed to know. Any more would have no value, just sales talk and bullshit which I didn’t want to hear.
In fact it turned out that things were perceived to be better than I’d hoped. The accounts and figures that I had glimpsed and that Max had studied in detail over the weekend, went back several years and gave a good indication of how successful the business had been when run properly and with enthusiasm. It had provided a steady income but the size of it had diminished dramatically over the final period. It appeared that Peter’s ageing uncle who was a guy named Hank Kirby, had given up on the accommodation side of things and relied mostly on sales of petrol and simple food in the diner to keep the business going in his later years. The passing trade had been fine through the summer months but income had fallen away during each winter, often flat lining when the place got snowed in. Hank hadn’t bothered too much as he slipped less than gracefully into his old age and beyond. He just moved into town for a few months until it was possible to open up again in the spring. Towards the end he hadn’t bothered to open up at all.
However, some quick research by Max had shown a huge upturn in tourism over recent years in the specific area where the business was located. People who enjoyed camping, fishing, climbing and trekking were flocking out to the mountains which had recently been designated a national park. The potential to tap into this and boost the business income was enormous. Max’s conclusions were that yes, we should still sell petrol but he reckoned if we fixed up the chalets for rent like some sort of hostel and made the most of the diner, perhaps opened a store for outdoors kit and sports equipment, the place could be a goldmine in the summer months. There was already enough cash in the bank to finance at least some of these things.
On top of all this, Max had asked one of his associates to look at the contract that Peter’s people had drawn up. Between them they’d made a few alterations and added a few clauses to ensure that it would be well worth my while to commit to working my socks off for a few years and possibly get well on my way to making my fortune. Knowing how keen Peter was for me to join him I didn’t think the changes would put him off at all, I was pretty sure he would listen to the advice that Max had given me too. I couldn’t thank Max enough, I didn’t need any further encouragement. I was sold on it from that point on.
Chloë had sat through the evening quietly, looking if anything a bit disinterested. Had I been paying attention I might have spotted a hint of a tear in her eye but in my excitement I didn’t even notice.
I arranged to meet up with Peter again at one of my favourite bars in Bielefeld. It was over near the university, a simply furnished gaststätten owned by a short and dumpy little ex-professional footballer named Rudolf Steiner. A good friend of Peter’s he’d played out the majority of his career with TSV 1860 München. Although there was always a good chance of being bored to death by Rudolf about his single German national cap in 1964 when he was picked for a friendly against Scotland, there was always good food on offer at a reasonable price and you could rely on a large helping of friendly banter to go with it. Usually quite busy, there was often a bit of live music going down performed by some of the local students, even some of the soldiers stationed in the area. Dave and I had occasionally given the clientèle the dubious pleasure of our Pentangle set so I was quite well known and felt comfortable in there.
Depending on the weather I always liked to park myself out front at one of the tables on the pavement to watch the world go by. It was out there on this late summer evening, among the comings and goings of the students and with a backing track of someone murdering a selection of Fairport Convention songs that Peter and I made our way towards a vacant table carrying a couple of litre glasses of frothy beer. I had no wish to prolong Peter’s suspense and so told him of my decision as we threaded our way between the early evening drinkers.
“OK mate we’re on,” I said and before I could avoid it I was grabbed and crushed in a ferocious bear hug, doing my best not to spill my beer. After I’d extricated myself we sat down and together thrashed out the finer details of our partnership and began to make plans. Once I judged that Peter had consumed an adequate quantity of lager I negotiated an adequately healthy sum of money to take with me to England for my own expenses, preparations and to finance my journey to America just as soon as the army had released its hold on me. Peter was so happy I could have asked the earth but I didn’t want to take advantage. I just wanted to be able to hang on to as much of my own savings as possible, just in case.
The following week and a half seemed to drag on, becoming bloody torturous towards the end. I did my best to make my last few days with Chloë as pleasant as possible but the fast approaching last goodbye cast a gloomy shadow over us both and our affair spluttered and fizzled out like a damp squib. With my departure imminent the attitudes of some of the more senior personnel at the LAD took a turn for the worse. Peter the Kraut had handed in a month’s notice which was accepted politely and he ran his time down with ease, just having to fend off the occasional bit of ribbing which mostly went straight over his head. I on the other hand, was given the filthiest and most soul destroying of jobs to complete. They were the ones that nobody else would voluntarily take on. Leaving the army before the end of your contracted time appeared to be considered an act of treachery. Even though I had some very close friends in the LAD, as far as work was concerned I wouldn’t be missing that place one bit, that was for sure.
So it was with great relief that I said my final farewells and left Ripon Barracks in Bielefeld for the very last time. I was driven to the railway station to begin the long journey home in a Land Rover with my guitar in its case and my entire remaining possessions stuffed into two very large canvas kit bags. The ferry crossings had always been the most enjoyable part of the trips but this time it stirred mixed feelings. I’d travelled to and from Germany by plane on a few occasions but the last time I had crossed the channel on a boat nearly two years ago I had not long since finished my tour of Northern Ireland. The whole traumatic tale flashed into my thoughts and it took a lot of self control to push it to a safe place at the back of my mind. I assumed the memories would stay with me forever but I was hoping that in time the details of the worst of the horrors would become more bearable. Indirectly those events had led to my present situation. Now, leaning on the rail and tasting the salty spray, watching the white water rush by as the prow of the ferry smashed its way through the heavy swell, I tried to focus on much different emotions. A traumatic phase of my life was coming to an end and I vowed to myself that I’d make a success of the lifeline I’d been offered. After all, if things had turned out differently on that fateful day back in Northern Ireland I might so easily have spent the past couple of years in several rotting pieces, my blood and guts helping to fertilize a muddy field on a boggy Irish farm.
Firstly though, before I could continue my journey home to Hertfordshire I had to wallow in misery for a while at Poperinghe Barracks in Arborfield, the place where my army career had begun six years previously with basic training. There were very few fond memories of Arborfield and the sterile, spotless surroundings failed to produce any new ones while I loitered there, gagging on the pervading smell of fresh paint and floor polish. It hadn’t changed at all. The most noticeable thing about the place was the unpleasant sound of keen but disorientated young men being mercilessly yelled at and bullied as they tore about in squads, terrified of what might happen if they put a foot wrong. Looking at their wide eyed and scared expressions now I realised how I had changed, not just physically but in confidence and attitude since those days. The past six years had been the most formative of my life. I’d experienced many things and gained many skills that most ordinary people would never have the chance to do. I was grateful to the army for that, but more certain than ever that it was time for me to move on. I had been given the tools to break out on my own and had a deep running sensation that I was on the threshold of another life changing chapter of my story.
What should have taken a couple of days at the most in Arborfield, went on for about ten more as I waited for the powers that be to complete the necessary paperwork and debriefing. While there, I was put to work in an office for the first time ever in my life and I hoped it would be the last. Within hours I was climbing the walls with boredom. I have no idea how people spend the majority of their life in such a miserable and soul destroying environment but due to the petty pen pushing nature of those employed there, I could see why my personal admin was taking so long to be completed. It transpired that my papers hadn’t followed me across the channel and were lost somewhere in BAOR but there was no action being taken to resolve the situation. People seemed to be looking for problems where there were none. My time cooped up in that office certainly served to convince me that it could never be a way of life for me.
Itching to get on, I was incredibly relieved when one cold Friday my paperwork at last caught up with me. The day had finally arrived for me to be escorted off the base and allowed on my way. The feeling I experienced as I passed through the camp gates for the last time was of mixed emotions. It was like being cast adrift from the life I was used to, in fact had once really loved. Despite the reasons that had convinced me to move on, the army had been my life for more than a quarter of my existence and it now defined me. It was going to be a long time before I no longer considered myself a British soldier. I was proud of my achievements, of the fact that I hadn’t been sucked into a humdrum occupation like so many of my contemporaries. Although challenging I believed I’d given a good account of myself but it was a way of life which could never be replicated in any other environment. Now I was committed to head into the melting pot of a civilian existence alongside everyone else. There could be no going back. I thanked my lucky stars that at least I was going on an adventure of sorts. I was off to practically the other side of the world where my fate would be of my own making. Butterflies stirred in my stomach as I began to look forward to the next chapter of my story.
I travelled by bus into Reading, boarded a train to Paddington and then joined the throng of jostling commuters and tourists plunging into the hell that is the London underground system. As usual I experienced strong feelings of distaste as I fought my way through the capital. The smell, noise and congestion were all things I could only take so much of, being a country boy at heart. I’m not truly claustrophobic, I just don’t enjoy being hemmed in for too long, preferring to be able to see some sort of horizon whenever I care to look ahead. Hordes of faceless people elbowed their way past me, invading my personal space, paying no heed to each other, seemingly in a permanent state of panic as they raced to make connections. Kids cried, parents argued, drunks staggered around spitting abuse at anyone foolish enough to make eye contact. I felt filthy as if everything I touched was contaminated with germs and unidentified diseases. It was therefore with immense relief that I emerged from the tube and set off north from Kings Cross on the final leg of my journey home.
Once the train had rattled its way past the crumbling slums and filthy warehouses that cradled the northern outskirts of London, it picked up speed and surged vigorously into the brighter and altogether more pleasing green belt. I slid open my window and felt able to breathe normally again once more as we continued deep into the immaculate fields and pleasant woodlands of rural Hertfordshire. Familiar names of towns such as Potters Bar, Brookmans Park and Welham Green flashed by as the train sped through one station after another. I felt as though a heavily soiled cloak had been removed from my shoulders and so got back on my feet and made my way to the cramped toilet cubicle at the end of my carriage where I was able to wash my hands and face in ice cold water. Suitably refreshed I returned to my seat, grabbed my stuff and stood by the carriage door impatiently as the train passed over and under bridges and various landmarks that had been my domain as a child. I recognised an old gnarled and disfigured tree where I’d often sat with my brothers awaiting the next steam locomotive to thunder past in all its glory, crossing its name and number off from from the lists in our train spotter’s logbook. Another huge and familiar oak flashed by which I could remember climbing on numerous occasions to its summit in order to study a nest of rooks before they fledged. I’d hammered dozens of six inch nails into its trunk on the way up to enable my kid brother to follow and also to make my descent and future expeditions less dangerous. The nails would still be there. I wondered if the next generation of local kids had found and used them.
Minutes later my train slowed for the final time on my journey as it entered Welwyn Garden City station. I was looking forward to spending a little time with my family before travelling abroad to hook back up with Peter the Kraut, well aware that I might not see them again for a long time once I left for America. Maybe I’d never return for good.