For my Grandad, Geoff
‘You know,’ Ernie said to no one in particular, ‘this war is a load of bollocks.’
‘We know,’ Geoff and Rodney chuckled from either side of Ernie as they stumbled under the dull streetlamps.
‘I mean everyone’s a spy,’ Ernie threw his hands up, spilling his beer onto the street, ‘Geoff could be a spy.’ He turned to Geoff, ‘Mate, I know it’s your 21st, but are you a spy?’
‘Ernie, you’ve known me since I was eight. I’m not a spy,’ Geoff sighed. As he spoke, he could see his breath in front of him. It had been a long night of celebration and they hadn’t a clue where they were anymore. He felt uncomfortable to be in a town he didn’t recognise with the unknown lurking in the mist.
‘Not to mention that stupid, unnecessary espionage message port,’ Rodney said with disgust.
Ernie stopped walking and looked at him like he had said far too many words, ‘The what?’
‘The message system between us and the American spies,’ Rodney explained, but Ernie wasn’t listening. He had spotted something mounted on the wall across the street. Ernie stumbled down the cobbled street toward the machine that was painted white on a white wall.
‘Bloody hell. Geoff!’ Ernie shouted from across the street. ‘Do you want a gumball for your birthday?’ Before Geoff had the chance to decline, Ernie had already taken out a silver coin from his pocket. Geoff and Rodney caught up to Ernie as he deposited his coin into the machine and turned the dial. They waited, but nothing happened. ‘Give me back my money then, ya bastard!’ Ernie’s thick London accent echoed down the lonely, narrow street. He bent over with one hand on his knee, the other gripping the neck of a bottle. He eyed the lone, round sweet behind the glass.
‘Take the whole thing, I say,’ Rodney smirked with a devilish look in his eyes.
‘Rodney, you’re a mad man,’ Ernie broke eye contact with the gumball and straightened up. ‘How do you suppose we go about doing that?’
Rodney shrugged, ‘Kick it?’
Ernie kicked the machine. The deposited coin spat out of the machine and fell to the street. Ernie froze like he couldn’t comprehend where the money could have come from. He bent down and picked it up, smiling as he took the win.
Geoff shook the uneasy feeling through another swig of his beer and laughed, ‘How many laws does Germany have around the violation of gumball machines?’
Rodney took a step forward, threw his leg up and kicked the old gumball machine. Four drinks in and all the lessons taught at the British Army of the Rhine surrounding etiquette had been long forgotten. Ernie’s eyes resembled the moon above them, shining wide and bright at the bolt that clattered to the ground. ‘Shh!’ he spluttered, grabbing Rodney’s leg before the machine took another blow. ‘Careful, mate, it’s not Khrushchev’s face.’
Rodney and Ernie bickered about which option was morally worse: stealing the machine or destroying it. Its glass panel glimmered in the dim light cast by the streetlamp and shone in Geoff’s eyes. Above the glass panel read Ford Gum & Machine Co, an American company that Geoff was rather fond of when he had travelled the States with Ernie and Rodney. He was brought back into the scene when Rodney made a point that it was already broken before they found it, so stealing it wouldn’t be that bad.
‘Hey,’ Geoff said looking down the dead-end street that was sealed off with a low, wire fence, ‘do you know where we are?’ His friends stopped kicking the bolts out of the machine to look down the street.
‘No, but I think the Rhine’s over that way,’ Ernie gestured towards the direction they had come from, ‘so you’ll probably live to see your 22nd.’
‘A lovely way of putting it, mate,’ Rodney deadpanned. Ernie nodded as he turned back to the machine.
The last bolt came loose, and the machine detached from the wall. Ernie broke its fall with his foot. The three men cheered, and Ernie turned to Geoff grinning, ‘Happy Birthday, pal—’
The three of them snapped their heads towards the sound of multiple hurried footsteps coming from around the corner. The echo made it difficult to tell how close the intruders were, but they were coming closer and closer. The men stood frozen, bottles and gumball machine in hand. Two men came around the corner and stopped dead in their tracks when they locked eyes with Geoff and Rodney standing 30 feet away. Their attention diverted to Ernie and what he was holding.
‘Poymat’ ikh!’ one of the men yelled. Geoff was afraid that he recognised the foreign language he spoke in. The men bolted towards them as they stood, stunned.
‘Run,’ Rodney whispered.
Their beer bottles clattered to the ground. Geoff led the pack as they sprinted down the cobbled road. He jumped over the fence at the end of the street and advanced up a steep grassy hill. The sharp winter air clawed at his throat with each desperate gasping breath. The summit was still a hike away, but his boots kept on pounding the grass.
‘Fuck sake, mate. Drop it!’ he heard Rodney yell.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Rodney close behind him. Further down the hill, Ernie ran at double speed, the old gumball machine under his arm. The foreign men trailed close behind him. Rodney caught up to Geoff and yanked him up the hill. They reached the top and skidded to a halt. To their dismay, the opposing side of the hill was borderline vertical and covered in precisely placed vegetation, all the way down to a calm, flowing river.
‘Don’t fucking stop!’ Ernie screeched, one arm flailing. He flew into his friends at such a high speed that the force sent them barrelling down the other side of the hill in a tangle of limbs and a string of profanities.
As they tumbled down, the mass of branches shredded their clothes, leaving cuts and bruises all over their bodies. The machine flew out of Ernie’s grip and crashed to the ground, rolling until it stopped by the banks of the Rhine. The three men followed suit, stopping their descent a few meters away from the battered machine. They groaned, clutching their heads in pain with their chests heaving. Rodney lifted his foot out of the river, wincing at his wet sock.
The world span as Geoff sat up and squinted towards the hill. It was so steep that it blocked the moonlight from the valley. The must of rotten grapes filled his senses. He could see from the small plant that hung over him that they had catapulted through an overgrown vineyard. One, he presumed, that had been abandoned because of the war. ‘You ‘right, boys?’ Geoff croaked, looking over at the other two.
‘No,’ Rodney spat, sitting up. ‘Mate, why’d you run that way?’ he held his palm to a gash on his forehead.
‘I panicked, Rod!’ Geoff groaned at the volume of his own voice. ‘We were being chased by fucking Ruskies, so I fucking panicked.’
‘Bloody hell!’ Ernie gawked. ‘Were they Russians?’
‘Well they weren’t fucking Englishmen, were they?’ Rodney snapped.
‘Did you see if they were armed?’ Ernie asked as he looked around for the machine he was forced to part with. ‘These fucking grape stains. Can’t even tell if I’ve been shot.’
Geoff tried to mentally run through the reasons why the Soviets would have watched them plummet down the hill and decided to stop chasing them, but he came up short. He turned his head back towards the slope. 300 feet away, two silhouettes stood at the top of the hill, proceeding towards them with vigilance. From the corner of his eye Geoff saw Ernie stand up and wobble over to the gumball machine he had finally spotted.
‘Ernie, get down!’ Geoff yelled as one of the silhouettes held up what looked like a gun. Two shots were fired towards them, but the distance was too far. Ernie dived to the ground and landed on the broken glass next to the machine. ‘Stay down, we’re hidden here,’ Geoff whispered as he peeked through the foliage. The two men were a while away from their hiding spot, but they were approaching fast.
Ernie carefully reached his hand through the hole in the machine where the glass panel had been. He gripped the gumball and tugged on it to pull it out. His eyebrows furrowed when he failed to retrieve it. With his hand still gripping the ball, he shuffled his body around to get into a better position, twisting the ball in the process. It came loose and dropped into his hand. He smiled at his long-awaited success and popped it into his mouth.
‘Blimey!’ he cursed as he spat the ball into his hands. ‘It’s not even a gumball, it’s made of plastic.’
A tremendous siren wailed from the machine. Their hands flew up to block their ears as the machine’s alarm system pounded their ear drums. A red light projected into the sky from the machine and flickered uncontrollably, but it was enough to alert the Soviets to their exact hiding spot. Ernie shuffled away from the machine and the three men lay side by side as close to the Rhine as they could get without getting wet.
Geoff rolled his head to the side; the alarm was beyond disorientating, but he had an idea. He shook his friends by their shoulders and tipped his head towards the river, ‘We need to hide in there.’ The three men crawled on their elbows and swung their legs around to slip feet-first into the freezing cold river. The water came up to their hips when they were far enough in.
‘Fuck, this is why it’s called the Cold War,’ Ernie said through chattering teeth. He held the fake gumball tight in his hand, which had already started to prune.
‘Shh!’ Rodney spluttered and pushed Ernie into a squat under the water. Rodney looked at Geoff with fear in his eyes before he too disappeared under the surface.
Just before Geoff’s ears went below the water, the siren changed pitch and sounded like it was coming from all around them. He thought it was loud enough to wake up the entire town.
Underwater it was quiet. Geoff squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath like his life depended on it.
He wasn’t sure how long they stayed there, blocking out the cold and fear, before he could hear muffled voices coming from the riverbank. He braced himself for whatever was to come.
Ernie erupted from the river with a roar and pounced onto the figure that was looming over Geoff. Rodney and Geoff shot out of the river to see what was happening. Ernie pinned the person under the water, but they fought back and pinned Ernie to the riverbank.
‘Lieutenant David?’ Ernie questioned, looking up. ‘Bloody hell, I thought you were a Soviet spy,’ he said in the one breath he had been holding since he went underwater. Geoff and Rodney choked out a laugh and their eyes filled with tears of relief.
David stood over Ernie at the riverbank dressed in a grey tracksuit. Nearby another officer, Ted, had managed to stop the dreadful alarm. David helped Ernie up while Rodney and Geoff trudged out of the river. ‘Privates, did you see what happened here?’ he questioned.
‘We were out celebrating Geoff’s birthday, but then two men yelled at us in Russian and chased us,’ Rodney said, shaking from the cold and adrenaline.
‘With guns,’ Ernie added.
David nodded like that was what he had suspected, ‘Soviet spies have a hold of 479WG,’ he said into the device in his hand.
‘Lieutenant,’ Ted called out from beside the unrecognisable gumball machine, ‘the machine’s here, but the message isn’t intact.’ Ted flipped the machine upside down and revealed a keypad on the bottom which had been destroyed by Ernie and Rodney’s boots.
David turned to look at Ted, but something caught his eye. ‘Private,’ he said to Ernie, ‘what’s that in your hand?’
Ernie froze, ‘…A gumball, Sir.’
David laughed in bewilderment. He took the ball out of Ernie’s hand and lifted the device up to his mouth again, ‘Cancel that.’ Geoff, Rodney and Ernie stood together, drenched and confused. ‘You stopped the Soviets from getting the message intended for the Americans,’ David laughed, looking between them. He smiled at Geoff, ‘Belated birthday drinks are on me.’ Geoff, Rodney and Ernie exchanged glances, before they each broke out into a smile. Rodney reached over and clapped Geoff on the shoulder. He gave Geoff a sharp nod, tears still in his eyes.
The men walked back over the hill and past the wall where the gumball machine had been. Geoff turned to look at it almost in pieces in Ted’s arms. Ted caught him looking, ‘I hope this experience hasn’t ruined gum for you.’ Geoff shook his head with a laugh. He didn’t think he would ever want to see a gumball again. He looked over to his two friends as they strolled down the cobbled street. Geoff smiled. He knew this ordeal would connect them forever. They would be telling their grandchildren this story one day. He thought that maybe, in a peculiar way, the gumball would be the thing that stuck them together.