Fiction

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THE WINNING STORY IN MACLEAN’S FICTION CONTEST

J. N. HARRIS December 15 1950
Fiction

mail

THE WINNING STORY IN MACLEAN’S FICTION CONTEST

J. N. HARRIS December 15 1950

mail

THE WINNING STORY IN MACLEAN’S FICTION CONTEST

J. N. HARRIS

THE RUMOR that an Unteroffizier had been seen entering the commanding officer's building with three sacks of mail spread through the prison camp like a dysentery epidemic. Little Connors, as usual, was the first to bring it to the Stube, a corner in a large brick barrack where he ate and slept and tried to stave off boredom with a dozen other

prisoners of war.

“Absolutely pukka dink,” he babbled. “Archer saw it himself. Thousands and thousands of letters.”

Easton, who was trying to read in the darkness of his bunk, sat up on one elbow.

“But naturally the goons will take about three days to censor it, and then when one gets it, it will consist of tailors’ bills and unutterable drivel from people one never gave a damn about, and complaints about how difficult it is to shop with this wretched rationing.”

The rest of the Stube fell silent and the men exchanged despairing glances. The Stube was cut off from the rest of the barrack simply by the arrangement of the two-decker bunks. These were the walls, but you could peer through them and see the men moving about in the next Stube, and hear their arguments, and except for the smoke you could see clear to the far end of the barrack.

There was a stirring in the bunk above Easton’s and presently a head appeared above the side of it, followed by a long neck and a pair of huge shoulders. The head descended until it was peering into Easton’s bunk, and only the back of it, inverted, was visible to the other men in the room.

“You miserable Pommie bar steward,” it boomed, “all you do is lie in your pit and winge, winge, winge, day and bloody night. If you don’t get any mail they’ve forgotten all about you, and if you do then you winge because they manage

W SOMERSET MAUGHAM generously said go right ahead whenwe got the idea of using an undeveloped short story* situation from his "A Writer's Notebook" as the basis of another Maclean's fiction contest for Canadian writers.

When we showed the master storyteller the $1,000 prize-winning manuscript by J. N. Harris, of Toronto, he said: "Thank you for showing me the story. I ihink the author has done a very ingenious job, and the setting he has chosen, evidently from life, is very effective. I would not have given that sentimental enaing myself, but that is owing to a difference of tempera-

The setting was indeed from life for Harris spent three years in a Nazi prison camp. Born in Fort Frances, Ont., in 1915 he was educated in Toronto and went to England in 1937 to join the RAF as a bomber pilot. He was shot down on a trip to Hamburg. He moved recently from Montreal with his wife and three young daughters to work for the Canadian Bank of Commerce.

For more contest news see "In the Editors Confidence,” Page 26.

Continued on page 47

Continued from page 13

to enjoy life now and then. Why don’t you fly into a tizzy and die of apoplexy?’

“Now then, my Australian friend,” Easton replied stiffly, “I’ll thank you to mind your own damn business. Nobody was speaking to you.”

“Oh, come along now. Uncle, that’s no way to talk to your bunk-mate. I might burst into tears. All I hear from you is moaning and complaining. Whenever you get mail you’re all cross and pettish because your wife don’t spend all her time knitting woolly belly-bands to keep your little insides warm. Now you look at me.”

“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind,” Easton replied. The other men, Morley, Connors, Anderson and the rest, gathered about, grinning.

“I say, bravo Easton!” the Australian, whose name was Gregg, continued. “Your biting wit is really kicking over this morning. Now listen while I winge for a change. Here am I, a big boy of 26, been a hriegie for over two years, never got but one letter, and that was a bill from Gieves’. I’ve got no Mummy and Daddy— I’m a poor orphan I am, no aunties and uncles, no nothing. All the sheilas I ever met I always give them the wrong name for security reasons: so nobody loves me and nobody ever writes me a letter. It fair burns my guts to see you blokes guzzling up a dozen letters and me not having any. I just crawl up here into my pit and cry on mail day.” “I say, Digger,” Morley broke in hesitantly, “if you feel that way, I have a jolly nice little cousin who would write to you .

“Morley, stop it,” Gregg protested. “You’ll make me cry worse. You let

your cousin stay nice. Don’t contaminate her by introducing her to me. I been stationed at Habbaniyah and I’ve spent week ends in Bagdad and Port Said. No, Easton, you’re the bloke that can help me. How about you sell me all the mail you get next issue for one Canadian Red Cross parcel?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Easton

snapped. “Do you think I would

want anyone, much less an aboriginal oaf like yourself, reading my wife’s letters?”

“Oh, Easton.” Gregg moaned, “how can you say such cruel things? If you’re not careful I’ll stick out my tongue at you. No, now fair dinkum. I don’t want your wife’s letters. That girl has a lot to thank the Germans for, keeping you locked up here! But you

sell me the rest of them. The ones from your aunties, and so on. I’ll give you half a parcel for ’em.”

Easton favored the bystanders with a knowing grin and wink.

“Make it a whole parcel,” he said. “No, I said half a parcel and you can take it or leave it.”

And with that Gregg heaved his six feet and four inches over the side of the bunk and landed with catlike lightness on the brick floor.

“Come on, Connors,” he said, “get a can of that mint tea if it’s still warm and we’ll go shave in the washhouse. Wing Commander Ryan says it will keep your morale up. My morale is dropping fast.”

When they were gone Easton said to the rest: “1 find Australians a little hard to take. Under these crowded conditions we could do with less crude, aboriginal humor . ”

“Aw, crawl back into your pit and bind up,” Anderson told him, and the others went on aboilt their business — reading whodunits, peeling potatoes, making kitchen utensils soldered together with silver paper.

THERE the matter might have rested but for the arrival of a large consignment of Red Cross food parcels within an hour or so. They had come in on the same train as the mail, and it took three large horse-drawn wagons to convey them from the railway station to the camp. It was the first consignment of parcels in several weeks to make its way up the desolate little one-track railway into the particular part of annexed Poland chosen by the Germans as a site for the camp.

The men stood in line and waited, planning extravagant menus of bully beef and prunes, after a long stretch of' potatoes, cabbage and blood pudding. Every tin in every parcel had to be punctured, to prevent food hoarding for escape purposes, before the Germans would release it, but toward evening the men were streaming back to their barracks through the icy February drizzle, clutching the precious parcels to their chests.

In most parts of the camp the prisoners messed together, sharing the work and the food. Here and there, however, especially where there were difficult men, there was a tendency to split up into smaller groups.

Easton was considered a difficult man. He messed all on his own. He hoarded food in his locker and several times he had been seen throwing away moldy bread, or bully beef with purple fur on it, because he was both too cautious to eat up his food in a hurry and too stingy to give it away.

The rest of the men in the Stube were split into messes of three or four, which bickered internally and with each other. Gregg, who was no good at bickering, messed, like Easton, alone, simply because he didn’t want to take sides in the childish disputes that arose.

When Gregg got back with his parcel he found Easton seated on his bunk, gloating over the contents of his, and now and then picking up a can or package to feel the weight of it. Gregg paused by the tall, porcelain Nuremburg stove which was meant to heat that end of the barrack, and which served also as a cooking range, and watched his bunkmate, for a moment, in silence.

Suddenly Easton, as if feeling himself observed, started and looked up, instinctively hunching his arms over the parcel in his lap, as if afraid that somebody might steal it.

“Aha, my Antipodean friend,” he shouted, “so you, too, have drawn your parcel. Do you still feel like half of it

may get tomorrow, excepting, of course, letters from my wife?”

Gregg stared at him. Above the little black mustache the sharp little face was tense, and the eyes were bright.

“Do you mean you meant to?” Gregg

“Well, that’s the offer you made. I'm willing,” Easton replied.

“Well, okay, dive in then,” Gregg

Instantly Easton was all business.

“How shall we divide it?” he wanted to know.

“Go on, you divide it. I’ll pick which half I want.” Gregg told him.

Easton thought a moment. “No, you divide it. I'll pick.” he said.

Good-naturedly Gregg slapped the contents of the parcel onto the deal table and quickly sorted the cans into two piles, a can of bully here, a can of spiced ham there, powdered milk on this side, butter on that.

Easton examined the two piles with scrupulous care, seemed first to tavor one, then the other. The longer he looked the more undecided he grew, until at last he said: “1 say, Digger,

let’s cut cards for it.”

Gregg turned away to conceal his broad grin and solemnly fetched a dogeared deck of Danish playing cards from his wooden locker. The cards decided almost every argument in the Stube.

, “Gregg and Easton,” somebody shouted. “Do you want your turn on the cookstove or don’t you? Hurry up.”

Quickly the two men sprang into action. Cooking time was valuable and was strictly rationed. To cook, it was necessary to place food in some sort of rugged utensil, and set this just inside the door ot the big Nuremburg stove. The door was then closed, and the food would he supercooked by the white heat within minutes.

Digger Gregg was an extravagant eater. As a shearer in the Australian outback he had been accustomed to drawing a huge wad of pay at one sheep station and pausing at some crossroads pub on the way to the next, in order to spend it. His method was simple: he would hand his roll to the publican and say: “Let me know when that’s used up.”

As a prisoner he was just the same. When he had food he would eat just as much as he wanted until it was gone, then he would go cheerfully hungry till more arrived. “These squirrels that never get a square meal are miserable all the time,” he would explain. “Me, I’m only miserable half the time.”

Now, as he laid a frying pan loaded with slices of bully beef in the stove mouth, and set his can of potatoes for boiling beside it, he was amazed to find that Easton, too, was preparing for a feast.

“Don’t overdo it,” he said, “first thing you know you’ll make yourself

“Well,” Easton replied, “1 reckon that I’m half a parcel upon everybody else, and a whole parcel up on you, so it won’t hurt me to really let go tonight.”

He ate spiced ham and potatoes and kohlrabi and large ship’s biscuits thick with butter and jam, and stewed prunes whipped up in thick cream made from powdered milk and i whole chocolate bar and two clips of coffee with thick cream and lots of sugar.

\ND in the morning the mail . a rri ved.

Morley was t he mail officer Connors heard that they were handing out mail in the Admin building, and he hounded Morley into going to get it

The mob was waiting for him when

he got back, eagerly crowding around the deal table in the Stube.

“Now stand back, chaps, and give me a chance,” Morley shouted.

“Anderson, Anderson. Anderson, Archer, Archer, Atwood.” the mail officer shouted, and each man, as his name was called, crowded up, took his letters, and waited for more.

There were five for Easton. Four from his wife and one from-

“.Just a minute, let me see who it’s from, can’t you,” Easton snarled as Gregg dexterously snatched the fifth letter from him.

“Go to hell.” Gregg told him. “This is my letter.”

“Half a parcel and you only got one bloody letter,” Easton sympa-

“One’s enough for me,” Gregg said, his lanky frame disappearing into his

For a time there was deep silence, as everybody read and reread and studied letters from wives and girls and, well, just women, and mothers and fathers and friends. For a few minutes they were all back home and they didn’t want to break the spell. Now and then somebody would shout out a piece of news—“It’s a girl, and they’re both well,” or “Old Stinker’s finished his tour of duty and he’s instructing at Moret on-on-Marsh.”

At last Easton finished his four letters and swung his feet out of the

“Well,” he said, “she’s knitting me a scarf. I’ve got two already, but I guess I shouldn’t discourage her. She says life’s pretty dull. I wish she could see what it’s like here.”

“I say. Gregg,” Easton continued, twisting his head round to look at the hunk above, “when you’ve quite finished with that letter I’d like to have a look at it.”

“Do you think 1 want any beastly stranger reading my letters? No, no, Claude, anything hut that,” Gregg

“Oh, come along now. A joke’s a joke, hut I have a right to see my own letter.”

“It. so happens it ain’t your letter, dear,” the voice from above said. “I gave you half a parcel for this, and it’s

“But it’s addressed to me.”

Easton was silent for a while, then he said: “Oh well, probably from some perfectly lioring relative. I don’t really give a damn. It is from a relative,

“Well who’s it from, then?” he pursued doggedly.

“None of your damn business,” Gregg said. “Now go away and stop bothering me.”

White-faced, Easton strode out of the room. Not until evening did he mention the matter to Gregg again, hut in mid-afternoon, when the Australian was elsewhere, at work on an escape tunnel, he complained bitterly to the rest of t he Stube.

After all, lie argued, there were such things as postal regulations and to interfere with the mails was a serious offense, lie didn’t care if Morley did consider that he, Easton, had been an accessory before, during and after that offense, it was still an offenHe, and Easton meant to get that letter back or know tin1 reason why.

“You already know the reason why, Uncle," Connors said.

“Now look here, young Connors,” Easton snap|«-d, “I’m a much older man and I don't expect to have to take any cheek from a laddie your age. You just mind what you say and don't get yourself mixed up in other people’s business."

AFTER the evening meal he tackled L Gregg again.

“Digger, old man,” he said, with an approach to joviality, “now we’ve had our fun over this letter business, what about letting me have a quick look at it? Just for a minute. I’ll give it back because it’s yours, of course. Let’s have a look at it now, Digger.”

Gregg shook his head solemnly. “No,” he said, “it’s very private. Any other letter I’d be glad to, but not this one.”

“You bloody oaf, how can you consider it private if it’s addressed to me?” Easton demanded.

“Go to bed, little man, and try not to snore,” Gregg told him.

At intervals, for a day or so, the issue flared up again. Easton tried friendliness, geniality, a brisk businesslike tone, and a straight demand. Rut Gregg refused to budge.

“Why don’t you offer to give him back his half parcel?” Morley, the sentimentalist, suggested in all kind-

“Morley, I’ll thank you to keep your nose out of this,” Easton snapped. “It doesn’t concern you. Furthermore, I see no obligation on my part to return the parcel. It was part of a bargain, and the bargain was fulfilled. Now, in all etiquette, Gregg ought at least to let me know the contents of that letter. I have reason to believe that it’s from my solicitor, and concerns the disposal of some property.”

“It ain’t,” Gregg interjected laconically from his bunk.

Easton then went into a long sulk. Often he seemed on the point of speaking to Gregg, but then changed his

There was little doubt, though, that he was constantly brooding on it. He hardly spoke to anyone, and he spent hours chain smoking in his bunk.

Once Morley tried to intercede. “Digger, be a good chap and give the man his letter,” he said. “It isn’t like you to be petty, even though it is like

“Morley,” Gregg replied. “I’m not giving him that letter. Don’t mention it again. Let him forget about it. And thanks for thinking it’s not like me to be petty.”

Morley looked him squarely in the eye for nearly a minute, then went away satisfied.

“Digger wouldn’t do it without a good reason,” he confided to Connors and Anderson.

“Isn’t half a food parcel a good reason?” Connors enquired.

Morley only smiled.

After several days the tension broke. “Gregg,” Easton announced, “I have decided to give you your half parcel back. I must have that letter. What about it?”

“You bloody colonial swine,” Easton screamed, “give me back my letter or I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” Gregg enquired sweetly, smoothly. Nobody had seen him rise; he was just there, suddenly, his big, gentle hands gripping the lapels of Easton’s tunic.

“Or I’ll report the entire matter to the Senior British Officer,” Easton finished lamely.

There was a shout of laughter.

Easton, close to tears, sat down. “I’ll give you two minutes.” he said. “Then I’m going to Wing Commander Ryan’s office.”

He stared at his wrist watch, glancing up now and then to observe Gregg. The Australian was busy filling his pipe.

At last Easton got up, rather hesitantly, then strode out of the Stube without looking back.

“Why didn’t you kill him when he called you a swine?” Anderson asked.

“Because he’s a funny little guy who’s a bit more barbed-wire happy than you or me. He’s lost without his wife to get his slippers. He must be close to forty. Well, he’ll go home and he a hero and bully the office boy again. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

About half an hour later the camp adjutant entered.

“Digger, old man,” he said. “The S.B.O. wants to see you. What have you been doing to poor old Easton?” “I guess I snore too much,” Gregg replied, rising.

GREGG,” Wing Commander Ryan snapped as the Australian entered the tiny ill-furnished office in the Admin, building, “I didn’t expect to find you mixed up in such an incredibly childish business. This is the last sort of thing I want to be bothered with. I have told the parcels office to give you half a Canadian parcel at once from the reserve stock and 1 now order you to return Easton’s letter. You can give it to me and I’ll hand it on. And Gregg, I’m extremely disappointed in you.” “That’s too bad, sir. But I can’t give him the letter. I burnt it.”

“Rurnt it? Good God! What on earth for?”

“If you want to stop being the wing commander I’ll tell you, Paddy.”

For a moment the wing commander glared at him.

“Okay, Digger, shoot,” he grinned at last.

“Well, here’s why I burnt it,” Gregg said. “Read for yourself.”

And from the breast pocket of his battle-dress tunic he pulled the burnt

“Dear Mr. Easton,” Ryan read aloud. “I feel it my duty to inform you that your wife’s behavior leaves a great deal to be desired, particularly when you are away suffering in captivity for King and Country, to say the least.” The writer carried on for two pages in much the same vein. A Major Jackson of the U. S. Army Air Forces had taken Mrs. Easton to the pictures, and once to the Lido for a drink. Mrs. Easton had put it about that Major Jackson was her cousin's husband from East Orange, N.J., but a person was entitled to believe that or not, and anyway cousin or no cousin it didn’t make it necessarily all right. The letter was signed Mrs. J. Nash.

“I see what you mean,” the wing commander said when he had finished. “Nobody but a fool would worry about this sort of thing. A fool or a husband. I imagine.”

“So you see how I’m fixed.”

“Yes. And Digger, I know you’ve forgotten what I said. Now the thing to do is to sneak a letter dated well back from the mail that comes in tomorrow. I’ll arrange to get one that looks as much like this as possible out of Easton’s batch and you can give it

“And they always told me fighter pilots didn’t have brains.” Gregg said admiringly. “Well, I’m glad that’s all

“Yes,” the wing commander mused. “It was a lucky thing. “But if I hear of any Yank majors distributing chewing gum around Wimblesham. Berks.. I’m going straight over the wire. I haven’t had a letter for six weeks.” iy