Author's note: This is a translation of my previous story L'éléphant de Carter (in case it wasn't obvious enough …). I ran it through Google Translate and after having a laugh (a big one), I decided that human translation was a lot better, and that my translation skills needed some de-rusting, anyway.
This is set a few days after Carter's arrival in Stalag 13, and it sort of ties in with the fifth snippet of my Stalag by Starlight "collection", Misfits.
Disclaimer: I own exactly three things in this: Newkirk's insomnia, LeBeau's cold, and Carter's elephant. Oh, and a few background characters (namely, Floyd, Saunders and Davies). Have fun with the rest!
"A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked."
It was night, and for the first time in at least two weeks, every single man in Barracks 2 was sound asleep.
The sounds of footfall from the guards patrolling outside were almost indistinguishable from the various snoring, grunting and snorting inside – inevitable noises with fifteen or so people sleeping in the same room – and the patter the rain made falling on the tin roof, muffled by a few stray snowflakes.
Corporal Peter Newkirk had been a prisoner for over two years now, and like his companions in adversity, had eventually got used to the constant noise. When he realised that he was, in fact, awake, he pondered why for a moment. After going over the now familiar sounds, he decided that the most sensible thing to do was to go back to sleep.
After all, a whole, uninterrupted night's sleep had become quite the luxury ever since Colonel Hogan had taken over the Stalag and expanded their little operation into a large-scale Underground base. Even if Newkirk did not regret one second of the time spent enlarging and developing the tunnels, sneaking across the wire and then coming back to camp while his instinct urged him to keep running straight on (even if it meant swimming across the Channel) and working his eyes out stitching up civilian suits for blokes lucky enough to be able to return to England while he had sworn never to escape … It was all for the greater good, and even though Newkirk tended to take this particular saying with a grain of salt, he was a man of his word. Besides, if there was such a thing as a worthy cause, it was the one they were all fighting for, including him.
Oddly, every little sound he had barely noticed a few minutes ago seemed a lot louder now, and Newkirk turned on his bunk, annoyed that he couldn't just go back to sleep and enjoy the rest of his night.
To pass the time, as a change from the traditional sheep-counting, he began to listen to the sounds around him and tried to guess where they came from. Most of them were quite easy: the hearty "rrraarrr" usually followed by "ggnnnngn" were Saunders'; Davies, scrawny though he was (and barely taller than LeBeau) was a symphony all to himself; on the right, Kinch wheezed slightly every time he exhaled; at the other end of the room, Floyd had never quite shaken off the habit of clicking his tongue while he slept; LeBeau, on the bunk opposite his, was almost silent except for a few occasional nasal rasps courtesy of a stubborn head cold …
… And the new guy was mumbling softly in the bunk below.
Newkirk looked heavenward – or rather wall-ward, since he was lying down. I got lumbered with a guy who talks in his sleep. Just my luck.
Determined to fall asleep by hook or by crook, he pulled his blanket over his ears and screwed his eyes shut. Of course, the blanket was a poor refuge from the ambient noise, and sleep still eluded Newkirk, until he caught one of the clearer mutters.
"No … No, please, not that …"
Newkirk opened his eyes and lay very still. They all had nightmares, especially in the first few days when the memories were fresh and raw. They didn't necessarily talk about it, but if someone showed any sign of wanting to, you listened. It was one of these unwritten and unspoken rules everybody – including Newkirk – took seriously.
He clung to the edge of the bunk and examined the bed under his. Just enough light filtered through the shutters from the searchlights (reflecting from the remaining patches of snow) for him to be able to make out Andrew Carter's tense face and knitted eyebrows. Bad dreams, all right, and a bad case of it too.
Suppressing a resigned sigh, Newkirk set about climbing down his bunk as soundlessly as possible, trying not to let his nightshirt twist itself around his legs in the process.
He liked Carter. This in itself was weird, as the American had only been there a few days and Newkirk was systematically suspicious of new arrivals. On top of that, the bloke – with his big feet, big ears and his unnerving habit of looking like he wandered in by accident every time he turned up somewhere – should have got on his wick from day one. Instead, Newkirk found himself chatting and bantering with him as he had done with LeBeau since day one; Carter usually reacted with seemingly unsinkable good spirits, giving the impression that the meaning of the word "sarcasm" often passed him by cheerfully, waving all the way.
Sergeant Andrew Carter was known to be an absent-minded, optimistic blunderer and a dreamer; in short, Newkirk being Newkirk should have avoided him like the plague, as Floyd did, or at least fleeced him during poker games without a qualm. And yet he couldn't help constantly going back to talk with him and tease him. Since it was the same kind of maddening little voice that had pressed him to chat with and tease LeBeau when the little Frenchman had first set foot in the Stalag, perhaps this wasn't such a bad thing.
To his great relief, nobody batted an eye when he completed his descent. No need to wake up the whole barrack.
"Carter!" he whispered, hesitantly putting a hand on the American's taut shoulder. "Don't know what you're mumbling about, but it doesn't sound too cheerful. You might want to snap out of it."
No reply – except for a plaintive-sounding "Mhmmm …", higher-pitched than usual. Newkirk tightened his hold and gave him a slight shake.
"Carter, if you don't wake up now, I'm waking up the Guv and I say it's your fault. And I bet he's really not gonna be happy. This isn't what you want, is it?"
This time the message got through. Carter's face relaxed slightly, and he half-opened his eyes, looking completely lost. More so than usual, anyway.
"Wuh—what? Where'd the elephant go?"
Newkirk closed his eyes and ran a hand across his face. Unbelievable.
"I don't know what you were dreaming about, but it didn't look much fun, so I woke you up. And now you tell me I actually crawled out of bed in the middle of winter because of a bloomin' elephant!" He realised he had spoken a bit loudly, and lowered his voice. "Of all the ruddy stupid …"
A sheepish Carter hung his head. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
"Don't worry about that. I wasn't really sleeping, anyway." Newkirk rubbed the back of his neck, stiff from the lack of sleep and tiredness from the past few days, and looked around. Then he climbed on Carter's bunk and sat in front of him with his back against a post. "Right, then. What was that about an elephant?"
In the relative darkness he could see Carter shoot him a look, clearly taken aback.
"You really want to know?"
"Look, in this place, nightmares ain't exactly unusual. Some of the fellows spent their first few nights in the Stalag screaming; they got a right sore throat in the morning, and the others got bone-tired because they couldn't get any sleep." He carefully avoided mentioning which category he had been in when he arrived. "Some of them dream they crash with their plane … Some others dream that they live through it, but everybody else is dead … I know others who've dreamed that they were stuck in a caved-in tunnel and chatted all night with a marmot … So why the hell not an elephant?"
Carter kept staring at Newkirk, who suddenly realised he had no idea how the American had landed at Stalag 5 before turning up in Stalag 13. He almost bit his lip, belatedly thinking he might have chosen his words a little more tactfully, before getting his poker face on again.
"You'll sleep better afterwards. Trust me. Whatever's keeping you awake, just come out with it and you'll see you'll sleep better for it. Me too, for that matter."
Carter's stare had not budged an inch, but he was noticeably less tense. A shadow of his usual smile made a tentative appearance.
"What's keeping you awake, then?"
The question had the unfortunate effect of instinctively driving Newkirk into a corner, and he glared at him. "What, you mean now? You are." He pulled himself together and asked in a lower voice, "So?"
Carter's eyebrows went up.
"You're sure you want to know?"
"No, I've been pulling your leg for the last five minutes. Of course I want to know! What were you muttering about?"
"Nothing. It's stupid." Carter drew his knees against his chest and went on in a faraway voice, "I was taking a walk with my brother, and it was really pretty – grass as far as you can see, really blue sky, everything. And then there's all these soldiers in black, and my brother tells me to run, so I run. And I run some more. I'm not going that far, though, because there's something I can't see that holds me back. And I run all the way home.
"Except home isn't there anymore, because the soldiers came there first. One of them has a hat and a huge moustache, and he blows a whistle, and it brings an elephant – about ten storeys high, but I really didn't see it coming. It steps on my house, and the neighbours', and it doesn't stop till there's nothing left. Everybody's dead. And the soldiers laugh, and the one with the hat and the moustache turns to me and says something …"
"What does he say?" asked Newkirk, shaken in spite of himself by the remaining fear in Carter's voice and the lingering horror in his eyes. He had expected something more serious than it sounded, but not that.
Carter shrugged. "I don't know. He was talking, but I didn't understand any of it. Then you woke me up."
Newkirk tried to find the right thing to say for a full minute. He usually had a ready tongue, but right now he was completely at a loss for words.
"Why an elephant, Carter?" murmured a voice in which the cold brought out the foreign – well, French – accent. They were all foreigners there, except for the guards.
Carter stretched his neck to look up, and Newkirk turned around. LeBeau was watching the two of them from his top bunk with interest, his dark eyes brighter than usual in the gloom. He looked wide awake, and Newkirk wondered how long he had been listening in on the conversation.
"Doing a bit of eavesdropping, LeBeau?" he asked quizzically, slightly relieved at finally finding something to say. LeBeau fished out a handkerchief from God knows where and sneezed into it as noiselessly as he could, then stared at Newkirk.
"I'm not dropping anything," he retorted in what he probably hoped was a deadpan tone. "I just can't sleep with this cold. Sorry, Carter."
"That's okay," Carter replied, visibly uncomfortable. He stared at his toes – or rather the lump where his feet must have been under the covers – and glanced uncertainly at Newkirk, then LeBeau. "That thing with the elephant – you won't go telling the others about it, right? I mean, Davies really doesn't like me and Floyd makes fun of me every chance he gets – no need to make it worse …"
Newkirk opened his mouth, then closed it, stunned. LeBeau's eyes opened wide.
"What? It's true, isn't it?"
Newkirk exchanged a look with LeBeau, who to his great relief appeared just as astonished as he felt.
"Andrew," he eventually articulated, "Davies is sometimes not exactly the most open-minded fellow, and when he puts his mind to it Floyd can be, er …"
"… A bit of a twat?" LeBeau ventured as he wrapped himself up in his blanket and carefully climbed down from his bunk.
The word surprised Newkirk, but he nodded his approval and continued, "But you'd have to be a right bastard to joke about something like that."
He whispered to avoid waking up the others, but took great care to stress every syllable and back his words with an expressive look.
Carter stared at him, curiosity and the light of optimism slowly taking up their usual place in his eyes; then his glance slid to LeBeau, who was shivering slightly despite the scarf around his neck and the blanket around his shoulders.
Newkirk rolled his eyes. Standing in one's stockinged feet on a cold floor in December wasn't very smart as it was, but with a head cold it was nothing short of idiotic –
"And just what do you think you're doing, Louis?"
– But try convincing that pig-headed Frenchman.
LeBeau shrugged. "I couldn't hear anything from up there. And if you weren't taking up so much room, I could sit there too."
"Taking up room? Of all the bloody cheek …!"
The upside of being three on a bunk was that it was considerably less cold. The sitting space was also drastically reduced, though, and Newkirk didn't dare moving around too much. The last thing he wanted was to hit his head on the wood slats above, kick Carter in front of him, or knock LeBeau out of the bed.
The Frenchman had settled himself quite comfortably on his left, and was now staring at Carter with the piercing look Newkirk knew well.
"So why an elephant, Carter?" he asked in a low voice, his eyes serious but the hint of a smile showing in a small familiar dimple.
Carter thought about it, and eventually almost-smiled back.
"No idea, actually. I've never even really seen one up close."
"You didn't miss anything," said Newkirk, who had worked a brief stint at a circus and had mixed memories of the beasts. "Believe me, the big lumps are always cross about something or other. Nasty temper, your average elephant."
"Oh yeah. Almost as bad as Floyd."
This made the three of them smile. Floyd wasn't such a bad fellow, really, but once he had made up his mind about somebody, it was next to impossible to make him change it. He considered Carter to be a brainless oddball who barely avoided tripping on his own feet while putting on his trousers in the morning. Newkirk knew that Carter was aware of it, but that he wasn't reckless enough to directly ask Floyd for confirmation, which confirmed the niggling idea he had that eccentric and clumsy Andrew Carter was a lot more savvy than he looked.
"Thing is …" Carter hesitated again, and Newkirk refrained from interrupting. "I know it's stupid, that kind of fear. I mean, it's not like the Krauts or the Japs are gonna turn up in Muncie tomorrow and kill a bunch of people, let alone with an elephant …"
Newkirk carefully avoided looking at LeBeau, in case he looked back. London, his home town, had been bombed every night for months; for months he had lived in terror of getting an official-looking letter telling him that his sister Mavis – the only family he had left – had been killed. Not to mention all the friends back home. As for Louis, the Germans had taken over his country; for over two years now they had been doing whatever they wanted with its people and its riches. He would probably never even get a letter should one of the people he wrote to disappear.
If it had been anyone but Carter, he or LeBeau would undoubtedly have said something cutting. But Newkirk, like LeBeau, was starting to know Carter, and both let him keep going.
"But … I have pals who had pals in Pearl Harbor. And Morris and Wright, back in Stalag 5, they pretty much lost their whole family when Hitler bombed London and Manchester. And … My grandparents had people coming to their house a few times, and every time it meant that your home wasn't your home anymore and you had to pack up and leave …" Carter shifted slightly on his spot, obviously ill at ease, and Newkirk wondered what the odd last part could mean. One glance in LeBeau's direction confirmed that he didn't have a clue, either. "So I don't know where the elephant comes from, but I know that if the Nazis ever get there … Well, I don't like to think about that." He shuddered. "But sometimes I do think about that. And I think I'd do anything to keep that from happening."
Carter had barely been whispering, but when he stopped the silence felt all-encompassing. Even the volume of Saunders' and Davies' snores seemed to have gone down.
Newkirk mused over his answer for a bit while LeBeau stared at Carter as though he had just discovered an entirely new and so far unsuspected aspect of him. Which was probably the case.
And then he allowed himself a small smile. "You know what, Sergeant? You're one lucky bugger."
Carter's eyes went round. "What? Why?"
"Ending up here. You'll see that between you, the colonel, LeBeau, Kinch, me and the others, we're gonna give the Krauts a run for their money."
"And if an elephant turns up," said LeBeau with one of his unique wide grins, "Kinch will alert us before it comes, the colonel will come up with a plan to get rid of it, Newkirk will pick its pockets and I'll cook it in a ragoût. I wonder which wine goes with elephant meat …"
"Don't mind LeBeau," Newkirk picked up, delighted to find himself back on familiar ground. "He'll try to feed you anything on the pretence that it's a French recipe. And he'll pass his cold on to you."
LeBeau glowered at him, and Carter's eyes sparkled. "If we get something like what we had earlier every night," he said cheerfully, "I don't mind catching a cold. It was real good – I don't think I ever had something like that before."
"Thank you, Carter," said LeBeau, grateful, before turning to Newkirk, who was waiting for a chance to say something sarcastic. And smirking. "You see? At least Andrew appreciates good cuisine. You should follow his example."
Newkirk opened his mouth for a few well-chosen words, but anything he might have chosen to say paled in comparison to what Carter added in a slightly dreamy and absolutely innocent tone.
"I think it would have been even better with a little ketchup."
LeBeau's expression was priceless. His jaw all but hit the mattress.
Newkirk gave a mostly silent laugh. Then, as the Frenchman was still shivering slightly, he shifted inconspicuously until their shoulders touched. LeBeau didn't seem to notice, busy as he was staring fixedly at Carter with a hint of despair, but gradually stopped trembling under his blanket.
The conversation went on until it was so late in the night it was early in the morning, and Newkirk, Carter and LeBeau ended up falling asleep. It was Kinch who woke them up before he got down to the radio room. His smile was half-hidden behind his moustache, but it made his eyes twinkle.
Newkirk almost justified himself by saying it was Carter's elephant's fault, but thought better of it. After all, he mused as he clambered back on his bunk to enjoy the last few minutes of night he had left, when a mate confides in you, the least you can do is to keep his secrets to yourself.
Despite their differences, and even though it probably flew in the face of all logic, he liked Carter. Except now, he couldn't care less why.
I apologise heartily to any elephant who might feel miffed by Newkirk's words and recollections. Not knowing any and having no idea what their tempers are like, I'll just say that the ones he knew were probably miserable at living in a circus and taking it out on their handlers. You have to be careful, with elephants :o]
Well, this went better than I feared – turns out I'm not too rusty for someone who hasn't done any French-to-English translation in ten years or so …
Hope you liked!
(P.S.: Thanks to Hot Fuzz, I am now utterly unable to use the expression "the greater good" with a straight face. You know why if you have seen the film.)