The next morning is June 1, first day of summer. With the proprietorial air he’s assumed since the success of his opening game, Ben Travers carefully lays his sweaty shirt on the bare ground as though spreading a fresh tablecloth. Word of his poker school had carried and as he shuffles the pack, fresh gamblers amble to the action. The Welsh rifleman crawls across and sits opposite.
‘And what is it we’re playing for, Aussie?’
‘A fag, Taffy, only a fag. A limit of three.’
They are five nicotine addicts in the same boat, so none can afford to get knocked out early.
Smell is the most evocative of the senses and, half a century later, the aroma of crushed herbs, breathed on an Australian summer’s day, always remind me of Benny Travers’ poker game. As they play, I while away the hours dreaming of a bundle of letters from Madge and the licentious leave awaiting us in Alexandria. I loll on my back in the early sun, watch larks spiral to heaven and listen to their songs. Conserving my energy, I marvel how Benny has the strength to shuffle a pack of cards.
Cicadas sing and bees weave among the wallflowers clinging to cracks in the stone wall.
‘I’ll see you.’
No rifles crack and a bloody funny thing, the enemy’s mortar – so persistent yesterday – is silent.
‘A straight flush!’
‘You’ve beat four aces! You tinny little bugger!’
The sergeant sounding off again. But it could be interesting so, taking infinite care not to disturb myself unduly, I prop on an elbow. A fag’s fuming between Benny’s fingers, tobacco’s heaped in front of him and, raising his eyebrow nearest the spoils, he winks a green eye at me. In that tick of my watch, his mouth gapes, his eyes goggle and his face drains pale as a fish’s belly.
‘Holy . . . Moley!’ he whispers.
The cards in his hand flutter to the dust.
‘Charlie. What’s he up to?’
Nodding behind me, he springs up. I crane my neck around. Perched on the rock wall, not 20 yards up the slope, a soldier’s signalling us to ascend. A Schmeisser’s slung over his shoulder and he’s in jackboots.
‘Aus! Aus! Schnell.’
‘Jesus. He can’t be!’
By Christ, laddies, he was.