So many returned service men and women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, often unable to cope with society because of it. This short story is not only a tribute to every Victoria Cross winner, but to all returned service men and women. In particular my fellow PTSD sufferers…
I walked into the autopsy room at the beginning of the day to find a body awaiting my undivided attention which had been found in the woods on the hill beyond the village where I grew up. I was equally shocked and saddened to discover that the corpse on the slab was my childhood friend Dhobi.
Back then most of the kids in our village were merciless towards him, throwing stones and shouting obscenities. None of them knew the simple gentle man hidden beneath the grime the way I did. I was the only kid who didn’t pick on him. To me there was something very special about this loner who had shunned society for the woods. Never once did I wonder why he lived the way he did, nor did he ever offer an explanation. Dhobi was a man of few words.
He taught me how to live off the land, showing me how to make snares, what plants and fungi were edible and those that were not, and what were best for simple medicinal uses. The extent of his knowledge was endless.
Nicknamed Dhobi (a British military slang term for clothes washing borrowed from the Hindi language) for as long as he could remember for the simple reason he hated to wash; to keep out the ravages of the seasons, he wore all the clothes he possessed beneath his tattered ex army greatcoat.
No one knew where he came from. Or cared much come to that. I often asked him, but he merely ignored me. Most adults in our village wanted him arrested; irrationally assuming the worst about him. Fearing that he was some kind of perverted weirdo. If only they had got to know him as well as I had back then…
If my parents had ever found out about my friendship with this solitary man they would have been completely horrified! I used to walk up the hill to the woods from my home every couple of days with my pockets and school satchel stuffed with food stolen from my mother’s larder for him.
Dhobi’s natural gentleness was apparent to anyone if only they would have spent time in his wonderful company. Mice lived in his pockets. Hedgehogs curled up in the folds of his old army greatcoat around his legs as the sun disappeared beneath the western horizon until it was time for them to emerge to hunt for food.
He never ever trapped an animal to eat from his own patch, just in case he may eat a friend of his by mistake. Each spring a Cock Robin appeared in Dhobi’s camp and spent its time in the evenings on his shoulder meticulously pecking mites from his hair and beard. Obviously the respect this gentle man had for all wildlife was passed down through each generation of all the woodland creatures. On one occasion I watched totally spellbound as a Sparrow Hawk brought him a gift of wildfowl.
Dhobi’s greatest friend in his woodland world was a battle scarred one eyed fox that lived with him, keeping him company and sharing the warmth of his constant campfire. At night the old fox slept at Dhobi’s feet beneath the rough lean-to that was his bedroom, lounge and kitchen. Sparrows nested in the bracken that covered it, knowing their young were completely safe under Dhobi’s gentle care.
As I began carefully removing his clothing I found among the few personal possessions he had about him, a faded newspaper cutting from the nineteen fifties showing a photograph of him in uniform with a few lines beneath it explaining the photo and giving his real name. In particular, my eye was drawn to his row of medals.
The first in the line was the Victoria Cross, according to the newspaper cutting, won for an act of total selflessness in the heat of battle when he rescued his comrades one by one while under constant machinegun fire on a now long forgotten hill in the Korean peninsula.
Whatever happened to him to make him retreat from the world of humanity to the natural world? Thinking about it, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was more than likely was the cause. Maybe Dhobi and his mates fought for a hill too far. No human would ever know nor care except me.
After conducting a thorough autopsy, determining that he had simply expired due to natural circumstances brought on by his lifestyle, I had him cremated then took his ashes back to his campsite in the woods, where I silently scattered them witnessed by the many creatures he loved.
Rest in peace Corporal Phillip “Dhobi” Anderson VC, friend to all who lived alongside him in the woods.