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Bertie and the General
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You will hear some history and a good yarn in this story, which is largely set on the Greek Island of Crete. The island which is now a popular holiday destination was the scene of a World War II Battle in 1941. Bertie hears the story from an old general. Then he manages to connect up the past with the present.
Prince Bertie can sometimes be rather spoilt and rude. I am sorry to say it, but it’s true. But deep down, he has a very good heart, as this touching story shows.
And we will let you into a secret – the plot about finding an old war comrade is based on a true story.
Read by Natasha. Duration 23 minutes. Story by Bertie.
Hello this is Natasha and I’m dropping by with a rather special story that I picked up from the pond where Prince Bertie the frog lives. Just recently, as I was sitting dangling my feet in the cool water, I overheard Tim the Tadpole ask Bertie if he had ever been in the army when he was a human prince.
“Oh no,” said Bertie. “I never went in for all that spit and polish, marching up and down, shouldering arms sort of stuff. In any case, I was always rather a peace-loving prince.”
Tim hung his little pin-sized head looking rather disappointed. “Oh” he said. “You see, I was hoping that you could tell me some exciting stories about fighting in battles and stuff.”
Bertie thought hard and mused:
“My stories aren’t really about fighting. But come to think of it. I did once make friends with an old army general. Shall I tell you about him?”
“Oh yes please,” begged Tim.
And all the pond life, whether they be scaly, feathery, or just plain slimy, gathered around to hear the story of how Bertie met the General. And if you like history, then I think there’s a good chance that you will enjoy it too.
It all began one evening, when Bertie was in his room at the top of the north tower in the palace, practising his electric guitar. He had a small amplifier, but he turned it up to full volume so that it jumped up and down across the room as he thrashed out chords and played string bending solos.
[play up solo guitar music] .
Perhaps Bertie wasn’t the world’s finest musician, but in his imagination he was on stage before an entire stadium packed with adoring fans. It was only when he paused for breath that he heard a loud drumming on his door.
“I expect that’s Beatrice,” he thought. “she’s loving my music.”
But as it turned out, his visitor was a rather grumpy old gentleman. He wasn’t very tall, and he was slightly built – almost like a boy – but he had a straight back and piercing blue eyes. He wore a brass-buttoned blazer, trousers with perfect creases, and shiny black shoes. He said:
“Will you kindly turn that racket down? I’m at the other end of the palace and I can’t hear myself think.”
“Er sorry,” said Bertie. And he decided to unplug his guitar and sit down to write a letter to Beatrice Although he saw the princess every day, he liked to send her stories and poems.
It was only when the gentleman had gone, that Bertie thought “Funny, I’ve never seen that old geezer before. I wonder who he is and what he’s doing in the palace?”
He didn’t give the matter any more thought until the following weekend. Bertie and Princess Beatrice were roller-blading in the park. Beatrice skated like a ballet dancer, doing pretty pirouettes and weaving elegantly between paper cups placed in a row on the ground. Bertie’s style was more like a hockey player , swishing from side to side as he gathered breakneck speed and scattered walkers and their dogs out of his way. Local kids hung out with them and they exchanged moves and tricks. I don’t think any of them realised that Bertie and Beatrice were prince and princess.
Bertie was doing the return loop on one of his high speed runs when a figure stepped out waving a stick at him. Bertie had to swerve to miss the man, and he turned round to give him a piece of his mind.
“Hey you nearly caused an accident,” he called out. And then he noticed that it was the same old man who had asked him to turn down his guitar. “You again!” he exclaimed. “Are you haunting me or what?”
And the old man replied.
“Mind your lip young fellow. It’s you that nearly caused an accident with your speeding along the public footpath.”
Now sometimes Bertie can be a bit hot-tempered. This was one of those occasions. His fury took control of his tongue and he said some things that he really shouldn’t have said like:
“You silly old fool. You should get out of the way of those who are younger and better, or you shouldn’t complain when you get squashed. “
The old gentleman wasn’t standing for language like this. His eye was twitching with uncontrollable emotion:
“Do you know who I am? I”m General Mike “Killer” Rogers – there you didn’t know that did you? See that ribbon. That’s a medal, boy. The King’s father pinned that on my chest in 1945 for actions beyond the call of duty in the face of the enemy. I’m not scared of a young punk like you.”
“P-punk?” stuttered Bertie. “I’ll have you know the King is my father. I’m Prince Bertie. And you might have been a solider once, but now you’re just a historical relic. You should be in a museum. That’s where you belong.”
“Well if the King’s your father, then I’m going to see him right away and tell him that his son needs to learn some manners!”
And the general marched briskly off in the direction of the palace. The other kids crowded round and said things like “cool man,” and “are you really Prince Bertie?” Only Beatrice hung back and didn’t look at all pleased. She was still wearing a frown as they sat down to unlace their roller blade boots.
“What’s up with you?” asked Bertie in a tetchy voice, and the Princess replied:
“You were really rude to that old man. I was quite embarrassed. You might be a prince, Bertie, but you should still show respect to elders, especially a brave old soldier. “
And Bertie felt quite ashamed, because he realised that Beatrice was right. He had been rude because he had lost his temper.
Back at the palace, Bertie made some enquires and found at that the old man was not only a general, but a national hero, and had been decorated not just once, but many times for bravery. He was 90 years old, and after his wife had died, the King gave him a room in the palace. It was called a ‘grace and favour’ apartment, and only those who had performed great service to their country could receive one of them.
Bertie, with some trepidation in his heart, went to knock on the general’s door. He found himself looking straight into the old man’s piercing blue gaze. It was rather scary, but Bertie worked up the courage to say:
“Sir, I’ve come to apologise. I’m sorry that I was rude, and I promise to try harder to control my temper in future.’
The general looked him up and down, like he was inspecting him on parade. Eventually he said: .
“Boy. A gracious apology deserves and gracious acceptance. Let’s be friends. Come in and sit down. Cup of tea? The kettle’s just brewing up.”
What Bertie really wanted to do, was to get away as fast as possible. He thought he would go and tell Beatrice that he had apologised and then all would be OK again with the princess. They could spend the evening swapping mp3s. But then, he felt he had to do as the old man asked, or risk being rude again. So he stepped inside..
The walls of the general’s apartment were covered with military prints of soldiers with twirly whiskers and warlike faces, wearing red jackets and tall bearskin hats. Some were standing on parade, others riding prancing horses.
“That’s my regiment, the King’s Own 7th Hussars,” said the general proudly. “We saw off Napoleon – not me personally of course – even I’m not that old. But it’s history that holds a regiment together and gives it pride. Remember that young man. Respect the past and the future will be kind to you.
“ History is my favourite subject,” said Bertie. “I expect you’ve made a bit of it yourself. Would you mind telling me how you won that medal that you mentioned?’
The general waved his hand, and blushed almost like a girl.
“Oh that was nothing really. Just a small spot of bother with a machine gun nest. “
Bertie judged that the General did not really want to talk about that incident, ‘You must have been jolly brave all the same… ‘ he said. ‘ And who might this be? ” He had picked up an old photograph in a silver frame. It showed a ferocious looking warrior dressed in somewhat Eastern clothes, with baggy trousers, a black tasselled headscarf, and a wide silk belt with various exotic and antique weapons tucked into it. He held a rifle fixed with a long bayonet. A strap of bullets was slung diagonally over his chest.
“Him? Why – that’s Aleko Kostakis- the best friend I ever had,” said the general. Bertie was amazed that the general had known a man like that, because the photograph looked at least a hundred years old, and he asked him to tell the tale. This was a yarn that the old man was more than happy to spin. Bertie could see that once he had got the old man reminiscing, he wasn’t going to stop any time soon. He settled into his armchair and dunked his biscuit into his tea. The old general began:
“It was World War Two, 1941; the battle for Crete, an island in the Mediterranean sea, south of Greece. It was , indeed, the biggest shambles I ever took part in. Our top generals got their wires completely crossed, and in a right old tangle. Thousands of German soldiers landed by parachute. For a day we fought them off. Cretan villagers piled in, attacking the enemy with pitch folks and ancient Turkish muskets. But then it was us who were on the run. Chaos was the order of the day. The Allies were scrambling onto boats while being strafed from the air. Mortar shells were landing all over the place. My orders were to remain behind with my men and hold off the enemy as long as we could. Someone had to do it, to give the others a chance to get away, and my company drew the short straw. When the last boat was gone, I headed for the mountains.
“ I staggered on up a rocky ravine, heading for the snow-capped peaks. The way up was steep and the sun was blistering hot. I thought I might very well die of thirst , and finally I was rewarded by the sweet gurgling of a mountain stream. I sat down and scooped up the cool water in my hands. Just as I was rejoicing in this gift of life, I heard a man’s voice behind me. Unfortunately, he was speaking in German. I turned round, and found myself looking into the barrel of a rifle. I slowly lifted my hands above my head. The German solider called for his friends, but as he was shouting, a bullet whistled between us and smacked into the ground. Luckily for me, the Jerry’s first instinct was to dive for cover behind a tree. I ran across the stream and hid myself among some boulders. The unseen sniper kept the enemy pinned down, until darkness fell, and they slipped away. It was only then that I met the man who had saved me.
“You’ve seen his picture. He looked even more exotic by the light of the moon – like something out of a poem by Lord Byron. The Turks had ruled Crete for a long while, and they had left their Eastern influence on the what passed for the local fashion. I held out my hand to shake his, and he embraced me like a long lost friend and gave me a bristly kiss on either cheek. He led me back to his village. Although it was dark, he sprang his way across the slopes like a mountain goat. I spent all the next day sleeping on the floor of his family house. Aleko’s mother boiled goat’s meat in my honour. It was probably the worst tasting food that I have ever eaten in my life – but I was truly grateful for it. It was too dangerous to remain in the village, and after dark , Aleko led me – now dressed in Cretan clothes like his own – to a cave. This hideout was my home for the next six months. Each day, Aleko brought me food and wine, gave me some words of Greek, and taught me to dance in the Cretan style. He played a shepherd’s lyre and sang ballads celebrating Crete’s greatest robbers and brigands. I think some of them had hidden out in that very same cave. He called me by the Greek name Mikhalis.
“War is an ugly thing. It’s mostly about hatred and killing, but it’s also the time when you make the closest friends of your life. A soldier truly loves his comrades-in-arms, Bertie. That’s what danger does. It brings you together.”
The old general paused to wipe a tear from his blue eye before he finished his story.
“Later that year ,the Allies started to infiltrate agents back onto the island. Eventually they got me off on a boat back to Cairo.”
Bertie is a bit of a connoisseur of stories, but he had never before heard an account from an old solider who had actually taken part in a war . It was like meeting somebody out of the pages of a history book.
“And what became of Aleko?” he asked. The old man sighed.
“He sent me this picture after the war, but I’m afraid the years went by, and we lost contact. Now I’m an old man left alone with my regrets, and one of them is that I did not make more of an effort to keep in touch. I expect he’s dead now, like the best of them.”
That night when Bertie was lying in bed, he wondered what it would feel like to be a young man sent into war, chaos, and danger. He thought how precious friends were, and how important it was to keep track of them as the years went by. He played back the general’s words in his head: “he’s probably dead now”. As he did so, he remembered something that he had once read – that although the people of Crete drink, smoke, and drive more recklessly than anyone else in Europe – they also live the longest. The secret of their longevity is a mystery. Some say it’s the clean mountain air. Some say it’s the water. Still others say it’s because they eat a fish oil called omega three. But whatever the reason, it occurred to Bertie that Aleko might well live to be 100.
At the start of the long vacation, Bertie packed his rucksack and flew on a plane packed with holiday makers to Crete. He took a taxi up to Aleko’s village into the mountains. Greek music blared out on the car radio as they sped round the hairpin bends, and Bertie gazed across at the steep rocky valleys, the soaring blue skies, and the mountain goats who walked almost vertically up the cliffs to nibble at scraggy shrubbery. They passed through several half-deserted villages, each one with a war memorial, until at last, high up above a ravine, they reached Aleko’s village. It was a scorchingly hot afternoon, and nobody was on the street apart from a sleepy-looking dog. The village had one shop that sold a few essentials, like Cola and sticks of chewing gum. The shop keeper spoke only Greek, but he did recognise the words ‘Aleko Costakis’.
“Rethymnon, Rethymnon,” he said. That was the name of the town where Bertie was staying. He called the taxi driver to take down an address.
Later that evening, Bertie walked up a dark staircase, and rang a rusty old door bell. A middle aged man answered. Bertie felt embarrassed.
‘Er, Aleko Costakis’, he said.
“You want to see my father?” replied the man.
“Yes, I have news of his old friend, Mike Rogers. “
“You mean Mikhalis? His old war friend? My father has spoken about him many times. Come in.”
Bertie came into the dark, cramped flat, and found an old man sitting by the chair. He didn’t look anything like as fierce as his picture, taken seventy years earlier. He had silver hair and a matching moustache. His face wore a kind smile. His great grandson was playing on the floor at his feet.
“Papa,” said the man who had opened the door. His name was Manousos. He spoke to his father in Greek. Bertie heard the word “Mikhalis” and the old man got to his feet with surprising agility. Bertie found himself engulfed in hugs and kisses, as if he himself was the long-lost friend. Manousos started to send out texts on his mobile phone. Sons and and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, were soon round at the little flat – and of course they brought the great grandchildren too. There was lots of chopping, stirring and cooking going on in the kitchen, and pretty soon a feast appeared on the table. Aleko brought out his shepherd’s lyre and started to play it. The family stamped their feet and clapped their hands. Neighbours came to join in. Bertie sang along as best as he could to the same songs that Aleko had taught Mikhalis during the war.
All this celebration just for the messenger from a long-lost friend! Bertie wondered if they could put on any more warmth and hospitality if Mikhalis himself was there. A month later, Bertie found out that they could. He escorted Mikhalis – now General Mike Rogers – to Crete to be reunited with the friend he had not seen since 1941.
The old comrades recognised each other instantly. The passing years had stolen their hair and dug lines into their faces. but they were the same soldiers who now hugged one another. The smiles on their old faces were the purest expressions of delight that Bertie had ever seen.
Manousos drove them up into the mountains to rediscover their old haunts. The old comrades stooped to enter the dark cave where they had hidden out when they were both young, full of vigour, and surrounded by danger. It wasn’t the most luxurious pad on earth, but it was a home full of memories.
As they came out, they stood together in the mouth of the cave for photographs, with arms over each other’s shoulders, reunited after all those years.