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Man Alone


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I met Johnson on the quay at one of those fishing villages in Brittany which everybody paints, and got into conversation with him, first of all, because we both spoke English, and afterwards, because we found that we both came from the same country, which was not England. We talked a little there, watching the blue nets of the fishing boats hanging in the sun to dry, and the red dungarees of sailors and the brown-red canvas of sails and feeling over it all the strong smell of fish. Afterwards we went up together and had a meal in the Café de Bordeaux. The café was very crowded with a party that had come in from somewhere in a bus. They took up the whole of the café except one or two tables at the side so that it was difficult to get service or to hear what anyone said, but we were not in a hurry and sat there eating prawns and drinking cheap red wine, and after a while we got to talking of war.

This Johnson, if I might describe him, had just come out of Spain. This was a year or two ago now, it belonged to a different time. He was on leave and was going back again when his leave was over. He was a medium-sized man, very brown, almost black from the sun, with a round, ordinary-looking face and a large mouth and strong teeth stained yellow with tobacco. He had fair hair and no hat, and eyes that were either grey or green. Now I was interested in this war and, indeed, in any war, and I tried to get him to talk about it, but he wouldn't talk much. He said:

‘There's a hell of a lot too much talk about war.’

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I waited a while. The noise in the café got worse if anything. They took away our prawns and brought veal and another bottle of wine.

‘You can see war any time you want to,’ Johnson said. ‘There's a lot of war about in the world today. A few years ago now, it was different. Then it was an old man's story. It was the sort of thing you'd sit around the fire and tell stories about.’

‘You were in the Great War,’ I said. ‘Tell me about that.’

‘I've been in all the wars,’ Johnson said, ‘but I couldn't tell you anything about it.’

‘You won't talk about it?’

‘I couldn't tell you anything even if I did. It wasn't anything. You wouldn't understand it unless you saw it. If you did see it, you wouldn't understand it.’

It was very hot and stifling in the café, though as we sat there it began to grow quieter, and the smell of fish and cooking-oil was mixed with tobacco smoke.

‘I couldn't tell you about the war,’ Johnson said. ‘It wasn't a lot different from anything else. I could tell you worse things about the peace.’

‘What was the peace?’

‘That was the bit in between.’

‘Worse things?’

‘Truer things.’

And so I said to him, not wanting to move and quite ready to listen: ‘Tell me about the peace then.’