While I have always been able to hear the whistles of our locomotives approaching Swansea from my hospital bed, they often had no meaning for me. During my first year here, I was generally in pain, often drugged, and never clear enough in the head to even think about trying to manage anything, much less a railway.
Except for Vignis, my life at the hospital would have been cut off, not only from the outside world, but from my own past life. It wasn't quite that I couldn't remember past events, but it was as if Mac, Sidonie, and the Great Eastern Railway were the figments of some other person's imagination. Vignis did get down to see me as often as she could, and even Sigiloff and MacRitchie visited. But I sometimes hardly knew even Vignis. One of my few memories of the year 1941 was of her saying to me,
"You'll come back eventually, James, I know it. In the meantime, I'll come when I can, even if it's just to hold your hand while you're drowsing. We'll just go along that way while the war lasts."
Of course, Vignis was desperately busy, as were the others. Swansea was at the extreme end of our longest line, and she had to miss practically a night's sleep to get here and back, often visiting me in the small hours. In my condition, it made no difference when she came, and she was a great favorite with the nurses. She always brought them something to eat, and they made tea for her. She would drink it with one hand while she perched on my bed and stroked my head with the other. When I was well enough, she would hold my head in the best position for me to drink juice through a straw. And so Vignis came and went in a blur, not the commanding and brilliant person she had become under the necessity of war, but a source of warmth and comfort to one who hardly knew that there was a war on.
As for that other aspect of my past, what was left of me was fully exposed, private parts and all, as often as may be, by any nurse with a bedpan or a bottle. They were particularly anxious to keep fluids flowing, both into me and out of me, and one hearty nurse would often flick off my sheet, grasp me none too gently, and maneuver her bottle into position with the words,
"Let's see what we can get out of the old whatsit today, Mr. Witt."
When I was able, I would smile and do what I could to give satisfaction. I felt no small pleasure when I was able to cause her to say, "Oh goody."
To return to my story, Mac's death made no practical difference. Atwater continued to send us men and equipment, and John Henry took control of all our long-distance operations. The result was that Vignis and I could concentrate on the London Circle. It was in these circumstances that Hall the Wise turned up.
The extraordinary thing about Hall was that he had virtually become a different person. He wore an English suit, looking much more natural in it than either MacRitchie or Sigiloff, and he spoke entirely without obscenity. Most remarkable of all was the change in Hall's voice. Instead of beginning every utterance with a gas explosion, he spoke in a quiet modest voice with just a trace of a lisp. When she got a chance, Vignis said to me,
"I think he may have learned to speak the other way to cover up the lisp."
"I never noticed the lisp in Iceland."
"Well, it worked. But he apparently realizes that it's better to lisp in England than to sound like Attila the Hun."
"He's certainly right there. I doubt that they would have let his Icelandic self into the hotel."
Later, at dinner, we discovered that, while Hall might have cleaned up his appearance and his speech, he had some peculiar political opinions. He thought, alone of anyone I knew, that there was hardly any danger of war. He said,
"All Hitler wanted to do was to get the various groups of Germans in neighboring countries back into the main tent. He's done it with the Austrian Germans and the Sudeten Germans, and now he'll do it with the Germans of Danzig."
"What about the Germans in the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine?"
"Well, they're really at least half French. And he's publicly undertaken not to try to shift that boundary."
Since Hitler routinely undertook not to invade anyone and everyone, sometimes hours before sending the troops in, neither Vignis nor I could fathom why Hall believed such a promise. But then Hall added,
"Hitler's got a great sense of humor. People sometimes take him seriously when he's joking."
Hall had, in fact, an example of Hitler's humor. Back in April, when we were still in Iceland, Roosevelt had asked Hitler to promise not to attack the other European nations. Somewhat dramatically, he had listed them by name, the list running to thirty one countries. Hall had picked up on his radio Hitler's reply in a speech to the Reichstag.
"He began by saying how nice it was that Herr Roosevelt, as the leader of such a rich country, had the leisure to solve the problems of the rest of the world. Then he got down to the list, which included Ireland. He said it was strange that the Irish leader, De Valera, seemed not at all concerned about a German invasion, but complained about the agression of England."
Vignis said weakly,
"I guess Roosevelt shouldn't have put Ireland on the list."
"There was laughter that I could hear over the radio, and Hitler then went on to discuss other countries. He guaranteed them all against German invasion, and then said that he'd go even further in calming Herr Roosevelt's fears. He solemnly swore not to invade Canada or Mexico. Then by the time he undertook not to invade the United States itself, the whole house was rocking with laughter."
Vignis, refusing to give up, replied,
"That's sarcasm, and humor of a kind, but don't you find it rather sinister?"
Hall didn't, and, laughing almost hard enough to revert to his Icelandic self, he asked,
"Did you hear what Hitler replied to Anthony Eden when Eden asked him about the Nazi paramilitary groups like the SA and the SS?"
We hadn't, and Hall replied,
"He said to Eden, 'But you have your own SA in England, the Salvation Army.'"
We laughed a bit at that, but without great enthusiasm. After that, Hall became more reasonable, admitting,
"Of course, war can always break out through mistake, even if no one really intends it."
Busy as we were, there was nothing to do with visitors but take them on the freights with us at night. Some of the English engine drivers had now been replaced with Americans from the GER, and, when we got to Acton Wells Junction, there was an unfortunate breakdown in communication.
The lead engineer, wanting to close up the train, eased off on his throttle while signalling for more power from the rear. A couple of our GER engineers, not realizing the fragility of English freight cars, responded with too much power, causing several cars to derail right on the bridge. Hall, Vignis, and I were all riding in a nearby engine, and we piled out as soon as the train stopped. The de-railment had taken place right on the bridge over the Great Western main line, and it seemed to me later that either Vignis or I had remarked that it could hardly have occurred at a worse place.
Although the schedule got messed up that night, we eventually got the cars back on the rails. The next morning, Hall departed for the continent, somewhat to the relief of both Vignis and myself.
Hardly had Hall left when we got a letter from Atwater. He addressed it to both of us. He had proceeded with the funeral according to Vignis' instructions, saying that he realized our work in England had been too important to be abandoned. The church had been completely full, with more than a thousand people standing outside and going afterwards to the little graveyard near the yards.
Atwater had himself been at the game when Mac hit the ball strongly over the center fielder's head, and had simply dropped as he approached third base. It was all very quick, and, as far as he, Atwater, could tell, Mac felt no pain. We already knew from John Henry that Mac had taken to playing games with the men, perhaps to help drum up support for his enterprise, and Atwater opined that he had gone at it too hard after too many years of lesser physical activity.
Atwater then proceeded to the matter of Sidonie, without any evident embarrassment. He had broken the news to her, and her reaction had been extreme. She hadn't even waited for the funeral, and had left for Cincinnati almost immediately. As nearly as he could make out, there was a lady there, a Mrs. Hawkins, whom she trusted more than anyone else. She hadn't said anything about coming back or going anywhere beyond Cincinnati. In fact, he thought it unlikely that he would ever hear from her again.
When we had finished the letter, Vignis said,
"I think we'll hear from her before long."
"I wonder if Mac left her any money."
"I just got a letter from Mac's lawyer. He said I was the principal heir, but didn't say who the others were. But he probably wouldn't say anything about Sidonie."
Putting Sidonie from my mind, I remarked to Vignis,
"Mac must have been just about the age I was when I played football with Lumpy and his group."
"Yes. It's a wonder you weren't killed then. I miss the rowing in Iceland, and we should take up some form of regular exercise."
"John Henry has already found a park where the men are playing baseball. We could join them."
"Let's go off on our own and do something."
In those last days before war, Vignis and I invented and engaged in a peculiar game which we called "soccer golf." It started when, walking through Hyde Park, as we often did, we saw a group of children playing with a soccer ball. They weren't playing soccer but running along with the ball, kicking it between pairs of trees, benches, and other obstacles. They finally approached us, and, with great enthusiasm and cheering from the others, one boy kicked the ball between Vignis and myself. Since the children had two balls, we immediately bought one from them. They were so delighted with the five pounds we paid them that they then taught us to kick the ball properly.
The fact that the ball curved one way or the other when we kicked it reminded me of golf with its hooks and slices. We then laid out nine golf holes in the park with pairs of trees functioning as the "greens". Beginning from the first tee, right by the Serpentine, we kicked the ball alternately, running between shots. The first hole was a par three, but my shot at the green missed, and it took us two more shots to get between the trees for a resulting double bogey. The next hole was a long par five, on which we got a bogey, and we eventually got a par on the sixth.
It was an exciting game. Not only were there the usual uphill, downhill, and sidehill lies, but, since the ball was often still rolling when one kicked it, the approach had to be timed and executed nicely. There was then suspense as we waited to see whether a curving shot would bounce and roll the right way. It was, in fact, very like watching one's drive to see if it would curve into the woods or the lake.
We both became so involved in the game that we would go directly from the trains to Hyde Park as the sun was rising. The air was good and invigorating at that time in the morning. As we raced along the dewy grass, not caring that our feet were getting wet, we woke more than one gentleman sleeping on a park bench with our exultant cries. When we finished, flushed and euphoric from our activity, we would walk, arm in arm, to a little place near Marble Arch for breakfast. There were worse ways of preparing for war.