December 31, 1944
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Hogan walked across the camp silently, soaking up the darkness and the almost peacefulness that hung in the air. Without pausing he glanced up at the night sky, bright with tiny lights unmatched by the searchlights that lit the ground. It was a beautiful night, he thought. All was quiet, and for once there was nothing to do. No plans to make, no plans to steal, nothing to do but relax and enjoy this night of celebration.
He almost rolled his eyes at that thought. A night of celebration indeed.
Thinking of this New Year's Eve, and comparing it to the ones he remembered from back home, nearly made him laugh out loud. The lights in the sky would have been fireworks, the watered down beer would have been champagne, and he would have been home rather than pacing the grounds of Stalag 13. Not much of a comparison.
He could hear the singing and laughter coming from the rec hall though. It would seem that some of the men still had reason to celebrate the beginning of another year. Or perhaps, he thought wistfully, they were celebrating the end to this one. It hadn't been an easy one for any of the men here.
Most of the ones celebrating were those who had only recently joined them, the ones who could count their time in captivity in months or even weeks. They drank and laughed and sang, thinking that the beginning of the New Year meant that the war would soon be over, and before they knew it they would be home again.
The men who stayed in the barracks were the ones who had no interest in being reminded that yet another year of imprisonment had passed. Seeing the others celebrate only reminded them of the last New Year's Eve, when it had been them thinking that the war would soon be over, and they would be home soon.
Hogan knew that he was most definitely in the latter grouping. He had no desire to join the party; it would only remind him that this would be the third New Year that he would bring in from this side of the barbed wire. His command crew were of a similar opinion, though he wouldn't have been surprised to see Carter at the party. The happy-go-lucky sergeant couldn't stay melancholy for long.
He stopped his pacing with a sigh, and turned back towards the barracks. It was time to be back with his men. Whatever he might be feeling right now, he had a duty to the men who followed him.
As Hogan neared Barracks 2, he paused and sniffed the air. The heavy scent of a cigarette filled his nose, but the wind was the wrong way for it to be coming from the barracks. For a moment he thought that it was coming from one of the guards in the tower, before he caught sight of a flickering light behind the delousing station. He frowned. There were no guards stationed there, it had to be one of his men.
He made his way over, trying to see who it was. When he reached the edge of the delousing station, a puff of smoke flew into his face and his eyes watered. Blinking rapidly, he wafted away the smoke and saw the man holding the cigarette.
"The delousing station?" Hogan asked.
Newkirk nearly jumped out of his skin when Hogan spoke, cigarette falling from his lips as he tried frantically to see who was speaking.
"Blimey Colonel!" he said as he put the cigarette out with his heel, "Scaring me 'alf to death like that!"
"Sorry," Hogan answered, only a little sheepishly, "But what are you doing out here by the delousing station? Most guys avoid it."
"Yeah," Newkirk answered in that sly way he did when he was avoiding the question, "I reckon they do."
Hogan wasn't fooled though, and he heard the unspoken answer in Newkirk's reply. The English Corporal had come out here to be alone, much like Hogan himself. And Hogan thought he knew why.
"How many?" he asked.
Newkirk glanced at him questioningly at first, but after a second he realized what Hogan meant and he sighed heavily.
"This is the sixth."
Hogan's eyebrows rose. He had known that Newkirk had been here the longest, but he hadn't realized exactly how long that had been. Then he frowned as he did the math in his head.
"I thought you were shot down in '40?"
"No," Newkirk shook his head, "Or at least, I don't think so."
"You don't think so?"
"I came to in a prison cell January 1st, 1940. New Year's Day. The last thing I remembered was taking off. Apparently I was shot down sometime the night before."
Well, Hogan thought, that explained why Newkirk didn't feel like celebrating. And it made him feel incredibly guilty for feeling sorry for himself. While he had never really forgotten the day he had been captured, at least he didn't have it marked on the calendar and celebrated by everyone he knew.
"You know," Newkirk said suddenly, "I've got a niece and nephew that I've never even met? The boy'll be nearing four years old by now."
"You'll be home soon Peter," Hogan said, trying to sound comforting, "The krauts can't hold out much longer."
"Not to be disrespectful sir, but I've quite literally been hearing that for years. Besides, it won't be the same."
Hogan couldn't fault Newkirk for that. It had been a stupid thing to say in the first place, something that everyone in the camp had heard a thousand times before. And Newkirk was right, things wouldn't be the same. Five years was a long time to be gone, and things changed.
He put his hand on Newkirk's shoulder.
"C'mon Peter. Let's get back to the barracks. You're not doing yourself any good out here, smoking yourself out."
"S'pose you're right sir," Newkirk said with a small grin, "As usual."
They made their way over to Barracks 2 in silence, each man wrapped up in his own thoughts. Hogan entered the door first, and stopped dead in shock. But only for the second it took him to realize that this wasn't here for his benefit. He stepped aside, and turned to see the reaction of the man behind him. Newkirk's jaw dropped, and he would have stood in the doorway for a lot longer if LeBeau hadn't drug him in by the arm.
The entire room had been transformed. Someone had found a Union Jack and slung it from the roof. A keg of beer sat on the table, surrounded by tall glasses. Hogan could tell from the label on the keg that it wasn't the swill they were serving in the rec hall. This was real English beer, and he wondered how they had gotten it before he decided he didn't want to know. Plates of French fries, or chips as he knew Newkirk would be calling them, covered the rest of the table.
The men of Barracks 2 crowded around the doorway, and beyond them Hogan could see nearly every English prisoner in camp. It was a sea of blue in the small building, briefly interrupted by spots of brown and red.
"Newkirk!" called Carter, "You finally showed up to your own party!"
Newkirk couldn't answer; his brain still seemed to be trying to process the room in front of him.
"Here Peter," Kinch said as he came forward with a plate of fries, "Have some. The one and only time LeBeau will make something that is both French, English, and pronounceable."
"I should resent that," LeBeau said with a smirk.
Hogan watched in amusement as the gang swarmed around Newkirk, each with their own bit of Englishness to add to the atmosphere. Kinch even tried to fake an English accent, which resulted in him being told once again to leave the accents to Newkirk.*
Then LeBeau went over to his footlocker, and pulled out an envelope.
"Here Pierre," he said, handing it to Newkirk.
"What is it Louis?"
LeBeau just gestured for him to open it.
Newkirk slid the envelope open and removed the contents. Hogan could see a letter, and inside that was a small photograph. The room fell silent as Newkirk read the letter. The other guys watched Newkirk anxiously, Hogan curiously. He realized then that he was the only one who didn't know what the letter contained.
As Newkirk's eyes moved down the letter, Hogan could see his grip on it tighten. When he finished, he looked at the photograph silently for a long time. LeBeau shooed the other guys away from Newkirk, trying to give him some privacy.
"Louis?" Newkirk asked, his voice tight.
"Where did you get this?" Newkirk looked up to meet LeBeau's eyes.
"We sent your sister a message through London. They sent the letter in the last supply drop, so it wouldn't have to go through the censors."
Hogan remembered that drop, LeBeau and Carter had insisted on making the pick-up themselves.
"Thanks little mate," Newkirk said quietly, "Thanks for everything."
LeBeau smiled and put a hand on Newkirk's shoulder.
"Just do not expect me to make fries everyday!"
Newkirk grinned as he tucked the letter into his jacket. The photograph followed, but not before Hogan caught sight of a little boy and girl waving at the camera.
Once Newkirk and LeBeau rejoined the rest of the men, they started in on the beer and fries for real. Hogan hung back from the rest of the group, preferring to watch as the melancholy Englishman he had found behind the delousing station transformed back into the Newkirk he knew.
Suddenly Newkirk jumped up on a chair.
"Check your watches mates!" he called out as he pulled his own out.
As everyone collectively looked at their wrists, Newkirk began the countdown.
"10, 9, 8, 7..."
Hogan joined in with the rest of the men as they finished the countdown to 1945.
"4, 3, 2, 1...Happy New Year!"
Everyone cheered, laughing and clapping each other on the back. As Hogan watched them, his own glum mood was forgotten. It was a Happy New Year, he decided, and maybe, just maybe, they really would all go home soon.
*The General Swap (I'm pretty sure!)