As I made my way back onto the workshop floor after receiving the news about my discharge, such was my happiness that I just couldn’t stop myself from bursting into a diabolical rendition of ‘Freedom’ in my very best Richie Havens growl. My thoughts were already turning to what I needed to sort out before I left Germany and ultimately the army for good. So many things were whirling around in my mind that it was difficult to take it all in.
For a start there was my girlfriend, a lovely young German girl named Chloë Müller who I’d been seeing for the past six months or so. Our relationship hadn’t progressed much beyond being a happy go lucky affair which was by mutual consent although I had become very fond of her. Not wanting to jeopardise the relationship we had, I was forever reigning it in as best I could for fear of putting her off. I’d made her aware from day one that I intended to leave the army before long and that I would more than likely return to England. This news hadn’t appeared to bother her too much. It was an enormously fun filled, physical affair which was great while it lasted as far as I was concerned. I was just thankful to have something to look forward to after a hard day’s graft in the workshop. Neither of us harboured thoughts of settling down permanently although it occasionally crossed my mind, I certainly could have done a lot worse.
Only twenty years old, Chloë was still studying hard at college and had high ambitions to attend university, aiming for a career as a veterinary surgeon once qualified. We were from entirely different backgrounds with vastly different upbringings. Our attitudes and hopes for our respective futures were poles apart as in Chloë having a definite career path in place but me not knowing what the hell might be around the next corner. I had spent many, many happy weekends at the plush and comfortable Müller household which had made my posting to Bielefeld so much more bearable than if I had been forced to spend all of my time in the barracks. I assumed that Chloë was equally fond of me but she had barely made any attempt to learn English since we’d met. That, coupled with my pathetic endeavours to get to grips with the German language meant that we hardly communicated verbally at all. For me that had been part of the fun as we each struggled to make ourselves understood, sometimes resulting in hilarious conversations.
I was certainly going to miss our physical relationship just as much as the laughs and good times we had shared but emotionally Chloë appeared to have become a bit of an ice maiden showing very few signs at all of melting. There seemed to be an invisible barrier thrown up whenever things threatened to get too cosy. A barrier behind which she hid her deeper feelings and one I never seemed able to break down entirely. After a while I had stopped trying, preferring to let things take their course without wanting to complicate matters.
So, my priority was to give Chloë the news of my imminent discharge at the first opportunity and thereafter let her know as soon as I had a definite date for my departure to England. I sincerely hoped that we would remain friends, maybe I would even make the occasional visit back to Bielefeld or wherever she ended up in the future but as far as our romance was concerned, sadly I assumed that the end was nigh.
I climbed back down into my pit and half heartedly resumed work on the Land Rover gearbox, still murdering Richie Havens as I worked.
“Why you so happy Peter?” Peter the Kraut called across to me from his pit, shutting me up mid-verse.
Deciding that the present moment was as good a time as any to tell him my news, without hesitation I replied, “They’re letting me go at last mate! I’m heading for Civvy Street. Not long from now I’ll be sat with a pint of Double Diamond in the Peartree Pub with my mates back in England.”
With those words still hanging in the air it dawned on me what a depressing prospect I was describing so I continued, “Fish and chips, watching Luton Town thrash Watford on a Saturday afternoon, Morcambe and Wise on the telly, my mum’s cooking, can’t bloody wait.”
The vision in my mind failed to improve in the slightest. From the quizzical way that Peter was studying my face as I spoke I could tell that he hadn’t understood very well.
“They have told me that I can soon leave the army Peter. I will be going home to England soon,” I spoke more slowly and it became obvious that the gist of what I was saying had finally sunk in so I prepared myself for a final onslaught regarding the offer of a move to America. Unexpectedly it didn’t occur. Instead there was only a wistful silence before Peter replied, “Sehr gut.”
By the end of that working day the magnitude of the news I’d been given had hit home. Now that my pending release from the army had become a reality, nagging doubts began to niggle in the deepest recesses of my mind. With cheerful bravado I arranged to meet with Peter the Kraut for a drink at a local bar to celebrate my forthcoming departure. Of course I should have known better because having had time to prepare, he chose that time to take his best shot at persuading me to become his business partner. Liberally plied with stein after stein of the finest strong German lager, I heaved a sigh when inevitably the now familiar sheaf of papers was produced from inside Peter’s jacket once again. I braced myself as he spread it out on the table between us, taking his time like a general planning an advance on a battlefield. He took a deep breath and let rip.
“What is it Peter, that puts you off coming with me?” was his opening salvo, spoken with feeling as he was still relatively sober compared to me. He had obviously planned his strategy well, rehearsed what he was about to say and had kept a clear head.
I took an equally deep breath and replied.
“Well, look at the state of the place for a start mate.”
I exhaled noisily, picking out some of the photographs, mixing them up untidily to spoil his neat display and prodding them with my finger.
“It would cost a fortune to fix it all up properly and make it pay. Besides, after I fork out the two hundred and fifty quid for my discharge from the army, I won’t have a huge amount of money left in the bank. I don’t want to waste what I’ve got left on some godforsaken pipe dream.”
This wasn’t entirely true as I’d managed to save up quite a bit in actual fact. During my tour in Northern Ireland there had been barely any opportunity to spend more than just a few pounds, mainly on personal hygiene products and chocolate. This, along with the bonus paid for active service had kick started my savings pot nicely. Upon my return, over the following months I’d been able to add to it considerably despite my exploits in Holland and the aftermath. But I didn’t consider that to be any of Peter’s business.
I continued on with my monologue, spouting out all of the reasons I could think of for not wanting to risk going into business with Peter. A lot of what I said fell on stony ground what with his English being as poor as it was, so over the next hour or so I took my time and explained emphatically but in as simple terms as possible what my reservations were.
Peter the Kraut listened intently as I went on, frowning, huffing and puffing. I constantly had to repeat myself but when finally I ran out of steam and fell silent he said, “Ach but Peter mein freund, there is money too. Viel geld!”
With a rather smug look on his face he produced a second thick wad of documents from the other inside pocket of his jacket. The scuffed and battered envelope was stuffed with statements from a business bank account and showed what appeared to me to be a substantial amount of money that had gradually been building up over time, although everything had been translated into German for Peter’s benefit so I was uncertain what it all meant. I couldn’t even make out whether the figures were in Deutsche marks or American dollars.
There were numerous complicated graphs showing peaks and troughs of when and how the profits had occurred. Even I could see that the income was very seasonal but the size of the figures periodically was quite remarkable. This came as a bit of a surprise to me as all along I had been surmising that Peter had inherited a bit of a white elephant. Even through my lager fuelled haze I began to suspect now that this wasn’t necessarily the case. The situation deserved further consideration and it was then that an idea popped into my head.
“Peter, can I take these papers away with me and get some advice from someone who knows more about these things than I do. I’ll return everything very soon once I’ve reached a decision I promise, and believe me mate this will be my final decision.”
“Gut! Endlich!” Peter was beaming, acting as if it was mission accomplished.
Chloë had an older sister Veronica, better known as ‘Ronnie’ who was engaged to be married to one of the other guys from the LAD, Dave Pacey. I shared a room with Dave who was a lance corporal and he had become one of my closest friends. After my arrival in Bielefeld we’d hit it off from day one as we both played the guitar and had a similar taste in music. We practiced and performed together a lot in our spare time until we’d thrashed out enough songs to enable us to assemble a reasonably entertaining acoustic set. From that point on we began playing regularly in the NAAFI with occasional gigs in local bars, purely for fun and the odd free beer.
Dave had been instrumental in Chloë and I getting together in the first place a few months after my arrival in Bielefeld. He’d asked me if I’d fancied going out for a meal with him and Ronnie one night. They were planning a drive into the countryside in Dave’s car to one of Ronnie’s favourite places, an Italian restaurant that apparently did the best pizza in the area and thought that I might fancy it.
It seems so strange now, but I’d never been to an Italian restaurant before and didn’t actually know what a pizza was. I hummed and hawed for a moment. My social life had been quite underwhelming since arriving in Bielefeld. I’d been out with a few girls but they had all been English lasses either from one of the nearby WRAC encampments or occasionally I’d managed to chat up the daughter of one of the older squaddies living in married quarters and whom I’d met at some function or another.
So my dates had consisted mostly of one night stands. Maybe an evening at the cinema or perhaps an intense drinking session in the NAAFI. If my luck was in I would have the dubious pleasure of a bit of rumpy pumpy somewhere dark and deserted but mine was certainly not the most romantic love life and I’d not met anyone I’d wanted to see more than once or twice. I was well and truly single and had very little inclination or indeed opportunity to improve my lot as far as I could see.
Dave’s fiancé Ronnie was a stunningly attractive girl of my age and on the occasions we’d met I’d found her to be wonderful company. She spoke fluent English, had a terrific sense of humour which in my experience was a rarity in German girls and best thing of all, for some reason she seemed to quite like me too. I was incredibly jealous of Dave’s good fortune in meeting her and let him know it at every opportunity.
“Well, I’d like to come but I don’t fancy playing gooseberry to you two all night.” I explained.
“Well, you won’t have to.” said Dave. “We’ll get Ronnie’s sister Chloë to come and make up a foursome. You’ll get on like a house on fire you two, I’m sure.”
The speed of Dave’s response indicated to me that it had been a set up all along. I was aware that Ronnie had a younger sister but I had never met her. To my knowledge she’d been going out with a German soldier long term.
“What about the Bundeswehr?” I remarked. “I don’t want to risk starting another war mate.”
“What? Oh her boyfriend the Heinie? No, that’s all over. She found out he was two timing her a few weeks ago and gave him the elbow. The trouble is, she’s been moping about with a face like a jellyfish in a string bag ever since.”
‘Heinie’ was a word we’d begun using when referring to German soldiers, not in their presence though. There were surprisingly few of them in the area, but those I’d come into contact with had all been unpleasant, bigoted cretins. It was a slang word derived from Heinrich but a term the Americans used for ‘arse’. Dave always had a way with words.
He went on, “She’s doing everybody’s head in. We thought you might be able to snap her out of it. Ronnie reckons you’d be a good match up, what with your sense of humour. Just don’t let her hear you sing and I reckon you’ll be OK.”
He was referring yet again to my lack of vocal talent compared to what he perceived as his own excellent singing voice. Dave was the lead singer in our duo but in actual fact we were both rubbish. The standard of our performances plummeted to the greatest depths whenever I attempted to harmonise with him. Somebody once referred to us as the poor man’s Everly Brothers because Dave smoked very Everly and I drank very Everly. However we made up for our lack of vocal finesse with guitar volume and harmonica solos. For added excitement Dave had rigged up a base drum pedal to a battered old solid leather suit case bought from a junk shop and shoved a microphone inside. This had became our percussion section whenever we burst into one of our more lively songs. To be honest, Dave was no Ginger Baker, not even a Ringo Star but the drumming was probably the most accomplished part of our performances. We always enjoyed ourselves and it appeared that once enough beer had flowed, so did the majority of our audience.
“OK, I’d love to come.” I said, and that was it.
Chloë turned out to be just as attractive as her older sister, if a little morose at first. Having recently been let down so badly by somebody she trusted, she was understandably reticent but all the same we hit it off reasonably well from the word go and I didn’t push myself on her too persistently. Instead I kept things relaxed and easy going. So despite our difficulties with verbal communication, our relationship blossomed and I continued to go out with her for the remainder of my time in Bielefeld.
What had occurred to me that evening in the bar with Peter the Kraut was that Chloë and Ronnie’s father, Max Müller had been a very successful business man. A bit of an entrepreneur with a finger in many pies, he’d made himself quite a tidy fortune and been able to ease himself into semi-retirement, setting himself up nicely at a relatively young age. If I could get Herr Müller to take a look at the figures and paperwork that Peter had been sent, with his knowledge and experience I thought it likely that he would be able to tell me if things were worth pursuing or not. Max could speak passable English. Taking advantage of Ronnie’s fluency and Dave’s pretty good German I was hopeful that I’d soon be able to get to the bottom of all this once and for all. Good solid advice from people I knew and trusted was exactly what I needed, being well aware that I’d made far too many cock-ups in my short time upon this earth. Jumping in with both feet was my normal approach to even the most life changing decisions. That’s how I had ended up in the REME in the first place. At the same time I didn’t want to pass over what I was beginning to think might turn out to be a worthwhile alternative to returning to England and possibly falling into a mundane existence. I decided to at least give the proposition adequate due diligence.
Peter’s face lit up as I explained my plan to him for the third time and he handed over all the paperwork willingly.
“Eine weitere sache. One more thing,” said Peter.
He leaned to his side, reached back and produced another, smaller brown envelope from his back pocket.
“From my erm.... anwältin. Law man?”
He pushed it across the table towards me and sat back in his chair with a smug grin on his face. What with envelopes and wads of paper seemingly appearing from every item of Peter’s clothing, it was beginning to feel as though I was caught up in a surreal German version of a David Nixon performance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
I picked up the envelope and opened it carefully, half expecting to discover a playing card with my signature scribbled across it. Inside was yet another sheaf of documents but in English this time, apparently drawn up by a solicitor. There were two copies of two pages and a quick scan revealed it to be some sort of legal contract with a place at the bottom of each page for both Peter and I to sign. There was far too much detail and small print for me to take in then and there, but it appeared that I was being offered a healthy looking salary plus a percentage share of the business initially, with an incremental annual increase based on profits. Extremely generous I thought.
I realised I was slowly being sucked in. It always happened. However in this instance I didn’t have a great deal of time to get my head around everything before it would be time for me to be off back to England so I vowed to myself that I’d seek advice and carry out an in depth appraisal of the offer the very next day.
Meanwhile, it was Friday night and there was a lot more beer to be drunk.