Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Old Friends – a short story

It was during his Oxford days, he remembered with a start, that he had first seen the list of names.

Cut into the Portland stone at Rhodes House, proudly displayed for all the visitors to see, was a long line of names – a list of the Rhodes scholars who had died for their King and Country during the Great Wars of 1914 and 1939.

There were names like Page and Black and Drake listed there – men who had spent the best years of their lives as undergraduates at Oxford University, and then patriotically answered their nation’s call to fight and lay down their lives for King George and Mother England. Facing them on the opposite wall were a number of different names – like Dalwig and Muhlinghause and Von Holtzbrinck – of bright young Germans who had come up to study at Oxford as contemporaries of Page and Black and Drake. They could have in all probability studied in the same Colleges – and then returned home to join the Wehrmacht or Luftwaffe and die for the glory of Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Fatherland.

The situation hadn’t changed much during the last fifty years, Harry reflected ruefully, as he surveyed the gray gravestones in this modern war cemetery on the hillside beneath him. Here, on the hill overlooking San Carlos Water where the first British troops had stormed on to the shores of the Falkland Islands just a year ago, were buried the young heroes of the nineteen eighties. Britons and Argentinians alike, they had struggled and fought and died on these inhospitable Falkland Islands – and now lay buried as neighbours in this useless foreign soil that would be forever England.

Falklands or Malvinas, call them what you will, the islands were a long way from his own place of birth. As Captain H. S. Dillon BM, BCh (Oxford) of the Royal Army Medical Corps, duly commissioned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Harry had just arrived from Woolwich for a six month tour of duty at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Port Stanley.

But Harry Dillon had not started life as Harry Dillon.

The baby born born in 1956 to Gurbachan Singh Dhillon and his young wife in Chandigarh in Northwest India was called Harchand Singh Dhillon – and had spent his early childhood in the Punjab until his dad had decided to join the growing population of Indians migrating to England in the early sixties. One reason perhaps that had prompted Gurbachan to leave India was that Chandigarh was becoming increasingly unsafe for families like his that had a Sikh father and a Hindu mother.

Transplanted to Birmingham at the age of seven, Harry had grown up as a paradox – British at school in the morning, Punjabi at home by evening. He had cultivated a proper Brummy accent in the company of his school friends that was dropped in favour of his more naturally accented speech when he was with his family. A beardless Sikh, a black face with an English voice, he was never quite sure whether he was Harchand or Harry.

The identity problem was partially solved when he found himself up at Oxford. Far from being the upper class establishment he had been led to expect, he found the University a cosmopolitan place, and his natural cricketing talents soon found him friends, fame and an identity of his own. Six years as an Oxford medical student allowed one many hours for cricket, and Harry made full use of the opportunities afforded him.

Far more important than the medical knowledge he had acquired in the University, he realised, were the ideas and attitudes he had picked up – self-confidence and the ability to mix with a variety of different people, wisdom gained by talking and sharing the experiences of so many others. His own cricket team had included two South Africans (one white one and one black one), a Sri Lankan named Coomaraswamy (whom they dutifully dubbed “Commander Swami”), a Scot called Rizza, and even a Spanish speaking Argentinian.

He smiled as he remembered his pal from Bueonos Aires. Carlos Emilio Kingsnorth-Martinez de Garcia’s grandfather had emigrated from Liverpool to South America in 1914, but Carlos had come over to study in Oxford in 1973 just as his half-English father had done thirty years before. Just as Harchand Singh had Anglicised his name, so too did Carlos Kingsnorth – although, as Buenos Aires folk are wont to do, he still used his expressive hands and a natural Spanish American accent when speaking the Queen’s language.

For the record, Oxford University’s opening batsmen were listed simply as Harry Dillon and Charlie Kingsnorth.

Harry wondered what had become of Charlie after he returned to Argentina with his British degree. By now he must probably be a prosperous engineer working for the family business in Buenos Aires! Despite the close friendship they had shared during the years at Univ, Harry reflected guiltily, he hadn’t kept in touch with Charlie during the last five years since he’d graduated. Internship and life as an Army doctor were good excuses to explain away his lack of time and failure to exchange anything but the occasional Christmas card. With the present situation in the South Atlantic, this posting to the Falklands was probably the nearest he would ever get to Buenos Aires and Charlie’s home.

It certainly was a strange world. Here was Harchand Singh Dhillon, with no more English blood in him than the man in the moon, being a Captain, an Officer and a Gentleman in fact, of the British Army. If he had been given his posting to No. 2 Field Hospital a year ago, he too would have been sailing off to war on the SS Uganda, along with Major Charles Beatty. God forbid! He would then have been in the thick of the Falklands `liberation’ – fighting for the glory of his Queen, his country and Margaret Thatcher’s political life (at a real risk to his own life).

On the other hand there was Charlie Kingsnorth, who from a genetic point of view was more English than any Dhillon from the Punjab – yet was Argentinian by nurture and was probably hard at work in his father’s business in Buenos Aires during the conflict, supporting the war effort that was to liberate the Malvinas from the nasty English! It was almost as ironic as the Drakes and Von Holtzbrincks who used to drink together in that famous pub called The Trout in Wolvercote and The White Horse in Headington, punt together along the Cherwell and the Isis, study together at Christchurch and Balliol and the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Science Library – and then suddenly found themselves facing each across the trenches in Ypres and the Marne.

Harry stared out across the gathering dusk of San Carlos water. He shuddered to think of the carnage that must have taken place on this very site the previous June.

He cast his eyes over the tombstones, and the names thereon. Here lay a Private of the 2nd battalion, The Scots Guards; next to him a Lieutenant of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Gurkhas from Nepal, Irishmen from Ulster and even a Corporal of the Army Medical Corps, they lay side by side, sharing the cold turf with scores of their former Argentinian adversaries. All these former combatants were buried under similar looking tombstones.

Harry ruefully realised that, united and made equal by death, they all looked alike.

It was getting late, and he stood up to go back to the hospital. As he rose, his eye caught the writing on the gravestone which he had been leaning on during his reverie.

Cut into the rough granite, the inscription simply stated::

In memory of Lieutenant Carlos Emilio Kingsnorth Martinez de Garcia, Pilot of 1 Escuadron de Bombardeo, Fuerza Aerea Argentina. Shot down over San Carlos Water on 1st June 1982.



One comment on “Old Friends – a short story

  1. Roy
    May 6, 2020

    Sorry for the late reply Dr: Sanjiva. A very interesting story. Your Oxford days & working as an Army medical officer, seem to have given you the inspiration for this storyline.
    Makes us realize, that we definitely need to keep in touch with our family & friends more often, than just a Christmas card at the end of the year!

    Liked by 1 person

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