Sailing Under False Colours

Sailing Under False Colours! by Steve Barnes

He was known to one and all as ‘Old Tom’ and he lived in a bivouac shelter hidden away in the woods. Little or nothing was known about him since he first appeared in the area and the landowner whose woods he had chosen to settle down in considered him little harm and was content in his decision to allow him to stay.

When he ventured out from the woods he was dressed, if you could describe his attire as dressed, in an old worn-out pair of denim trousers with muddy boots and gaiters. What he wore above the waist was well hidden under an old army poncho and crowned with a fur-lined, deer-stalker hat tied securely beneath his chin. Needless to say none of his apparel had seen the cleaners for many a year and most people he encountered would take avoiding action as he exuded a very strong odour which could best be described as ripe! The over-powering smell however was that of the wood smoke from the fire he kept burning with a kettle of water suspended above it from a tripod fashioned from hazel-wood sticks.

His forays into the village followed a routine pattern and his first port of call was to visit the local Post Office where he would withdraw his Pension, stuffing the cash into a begrimed canvas wallet which he quickly stashed away into some secret hiding place beneath his poncho. He rarely had to queue as anyone already on the premises usually moved aside allowing him access to the counter.

Next, he would visit the small general store where he would sit upon a freshly delivered large round of cheese proceeding to fashion himself a ‘roll up’ from his pack of Old Holborn tobacco, leaving a few trailing strands hanging out of the paper. When he lit up, the strands would quickly flare up towards his eyebrows until the rest of this cigarette caught the flame, allowing Old Tom to inhale deeply before exhaling a large cloud of smoke. Any children in the vicinity would gaze in awe and horror at this conflagration.

He would then commence purchasing his provisions which usually consisted of the same items, including bacon, cheese, sausages, etc. which he placed into a well-worn ex-army haversack before paying in cash from the old wallet.

His final destination of the day was to take up a place next to the usual roaring fire in the local hostelry where he quietly consumed his regular choice of cheese and pickle sandwiches, which were rough-hewn from a cottage loaf, washed down with several pints of Guinness. Thus fed, it wasn’t long before his head dropped to his chest as he fell into a contented deep slumber. The tolerant publican didn’t often disturb him unless he thought Old Tom’s presence was discouraging custom. Eventually, upon waking, Old Tom would gather together his belongings before heading outdoors to make his rather unsteady way back to his home in the woods.

His non-appearance in the village went unnoticed for a couple of weeks. He was known to occasionally disappear for short periods, almost as though he had gone on holiday.

The landowner eventually became concerned when he hadn’t seen the wood smoke from his fire curling through the trees for a number of weeks and set off with his dogs to see if anything had happened to the old man. Entering the clearing he could see the bivouac but thought it didn’t look quite right as he knew it was always kept in good shape. Neither was there any sign of a fire, just cold ashes. Pulling aside the tarpaulin which acted as a door, he quickly became aware of a pungent smell exuding from a heap lying on the ground towards the back of the bivouac. Moving closer he discovered Old Tom’s body in a fairly advanced stage of decay!

After the remains had been removed, the Coroner declared death from natural causes. A thorough search was made of the contents of the shack and an old metal trunk was found to contain most of Old Tom’s few possessions. Amongst them, wrapped in a rag was a set of Campaign medals and, surprisingly, a George Cross inscribed: ‘For acts of the greatest heroism’.

As no known relatives could be identified, the villagers all contributed towards the funeral, to which the majority of the population turned out. The greatest surprise was the arrival of a uniformed Guard of Honour for the cortege, formed from members of Old Tom’s Regiment, which had been identified from papers found in the trunk.

(c) Steve Barnes