Sunday 20 January 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Remembering Dunkirk, or at least trying to


'I manage to remember all the kids' names, and most of the grandkids', without resorting to Google'
'I manage to remember all the kids' names, and most of the grandkids', without resorting to Google'
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

The wife says she wants to go to Dunkirk.

- What's wrong with Skerries? I ask her.

- You're gas, she says.

- The film.

- The new one about the Allies landing in Normandy?

She stares at me.

- Charlie, she says.

- What?

She's still staring at me. But it's one of those concerned stares, like she's auditioning for a part in Casualty.

- Did you hear what you just said? she asks.

- I think so.

- You said Dunkirk's about the Allied invasion.

- Yeah.

- You're the history buff, Charlie, she says. - You fall asleep every night with a book about World War Two parked on your head.

It dawns on me while she's still speaking.

- Christ, I say. - Am I after mixing up Dunkirk with D-Day?

- I'm afraid so.

- Oh God.

I have to sit.

It's one of those terrifying moments. I was once in a car crash - or, nearly in a car crash, if that makes sense. The car ended up on the path, my heart was expanding, contracting, expanding, expanding, expanding. It was minutes before I knew what had happened. I'd nearly been killed - I'd very nearly died.

This is worse.

- It could happen to a bishop, says the wife.

- F**k the bishop, I say. - It happened to me.

I look at her.

- I know what happened at Dunkirk, I tell her. - Blow by blow.

I know it like the names of the kids. Please, God, I pray, don't let her ask me to name the kids!

- I know, she says.

- I know the difference between an invasion and - what's the opposite of an invasion?

- Evacuation? she says.

- Is that not what you do before a colonoscopy? I ask her.

She knows: I'm messing. We're back to normal.

But we're not. Well, I'm not. I need reassuring. I go through lists in my head, the dates of battles and surrenders. I manage to remember all the kids' names, and most of the grandkids', without resorting to Google. I look out the kitchen window and name all the dogs, and their breeds. Rocky, half-poodle, half-boxer; Usain, half-dachshund, half-greyhound; Donald, half-schnauzer, half-gobshite.

I'm feeling a bit better, a bit sturdier in myself, after a day or two.

And anyway, we go to Dunkirk. We go in on the bus.

- Over a million men died at the Somme.

- Charlie.

- What?

- You can stop now.

- Okay.

- You're grand.

- I know. Still a terrible loss of life, but.

The film is shattering. I haven't been to the pictures in ages but this is more like being on the Dunkirk beach, in the water, under the water. The things they can do with a camera these days, and the noise - I've never experienced anything like it. There's just a few moments when you can remind yourself that you're only at the pictures. That's whenever Kenneth Branagh's head is on the screen; neither of us can stand him.

He's up there now, talking shite, so I take a quick look around me.

I nudge the wife.

- There's no one snogging, I tell her.

- Jesus, Charlie, she says. - It's not a bloody romcom.

- We got off with each other during The Exorcist, I remind her. - I don't remember you objecting.

- That was different.

- How was it?

- Shut up, she hisses. - It wasn't a war film.

- We were wearing each other so much during Full Metal Jacket, we never found out who won the Vietnam War.

- Shut up!

Sir Kenneth is gone, so it's back to the chaos on the beach, in the air, and on the sea. At one point, she grabs my arm and doesn't let go.

She grabbed the wrong knee once. Years ago, during the first of the Die Hards. She meant to grab mine, she told me, after she'd apologised to the lad on the other side of her - and his mott. We watched him limping out later, when the lights went up, but I don't know if he'd brought the limp in with him.

- You've maimed the poor chap for life, I told her.

- Count your blessings it wasn't you, then, she said.

- Did you see the puss on his girlfriend, by the way?

That was the thing: going to the pictures was always a bit of gas. It didn't matter how serious it was, between the couples kissing, the noise of the sweet wrappers, and the curtain of cigarette smoke, you never forgot that it was just a film.

This thing, though - Dunkirk. It's so real, so loud, so shocking, I'm surprised I'm not actually up to my neck in seawater. It's harrowing.

Your man from Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance, is up there on the screen. I know she likes him. She has that look - I've seen it when she's gazing at Don Draper from Mad Men.

I give her a nudge.

- It's not history you're watching now, sure it isn't?

- Shut up.

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