Sinead was cursing sheep. A furry roll of senseless meatness. Once one started off in the wrong direction aimless instinct drew the others after. X spend half his time bringing them back, fencing them in but the problem was, of course, that fencing was no longer as enclosing as it used to be.
Nothing was. Fences fell, trodded apart by the blaze of dissappearing track. Birds tattered their wings wildly, scalded by the omnious crack of a withered branch or the shadow of a carelessly slung rifle. Fields collapsed into each other under the weight of fleeing hooves, mudthickened soles.
Steam hissed through her hair. Grabbing a cloth, she pulled the pot off the heat. Flicking the air to release its fumes she grabbed another rag and clasped the bubbling stew towards the door. No point clogging up the kitchen: it’ll soon cool down outisde, she threatened silently, while wondering how long it would take Sonnyjo to get back from the sheep.
“Here let me take that.”
Sinead didn’t let him. Smothering surprise in a mist of steam she fumbled to the door, pot like a pregnant belly, arriving first.
“Don’t be silly!” she snapped as he offered again. “Burn the hands off of you.”
Humbled, he stood back and held the door open for her instead.
Spitting in annoyance the stew hovered to sit steaming on an old slab of crinkled stone. Unevenly, it balanced as she laid it down. Firey liquid creept dangerously over the lip at one side. She adjusted it carefully until the surge subsided and the wheezing pop of liquid bubbling seethed through the air.
Her hands twisted beneath the stained dishclothes. She stared into the darkening stew: for a hunk of scarce meat? or simply in search of a way to break the spell?
Junior finally sat down to one side of the blackened caulderon, balancing himself awkwardly on the rickety heap of fire wood.
Sinead remained standing. Staring. The blistering guggle of hot food, the crunch of unsettled logs, the faint screecch of moving machinery, the creak of an open gate, the chuckle of a content hen, the rustle of lost sheep; around their stony stove the silence began to speak for itself and replace the need for words with the loyalty of familial necessity. Rancor was choked, melted in the throat beneath a bitter honey of tenderness and shame.
SInead dissappeared for a minute. Then returned with a spoon to stir the food. As her arm swished slowly around the bowl she too sank back to sit on whatever lay nearby.
Dreamily, her eyes nodded in mumbled agreement. “Not much left to put in it. See what it tasts like on hungry plates.”
“Afraid I can’t stay though.”
From the depts. of their dinner Sinead was only faintly amused to realize that all surprise, anger and frustration, had gone. She nodded once more, in accpetance. Of course he couldn’t stay.
“Have to be off ...”
Of course he would be off. Gone again. Into the distance from which they would forever loom; from which they would endlessly struggle to span.
“Be gone for some time. Maybe a long time.”
A distance which still hurt as two ends of elastic stretched awkwardly away at the extremes, remaining painfully joined, inseperatable somewhere in the centre, their shared origin, their binding tauntness. Eventually the strain can snap such a connection: then again it may not. Sinead simply knew that blood can never be severed. Here he was, after everything that had happened. And here she wanted him to be: to share the heaving food which reflected the looks they no longer dared exchange.
Finally, she dared a glance, noting sadly the wrinkled brow, fading glow of unidentifiable emotion beneath sleep huddled eyelids. He was staring back. Sinead wondered what he saw. They’d all grown old, grown up finally, as the river swelled all around.
“They say there’ll be even more rain.”
“A long time?” she questioned: touch of remorse glancing off casual inquisitiveness.
“Probably.” His fingers began figgiting with the cap between his knees. “Probably,” he repeated as Sinead waited for him to conclude.
“But might be married when I’m back next time” he finally surged, risking a doubtfull grimace as he scanned her eyes.
She rewarded him with a genuine flicker of surprise. There was still room for surges amid the imploring grid of controlled motions they had all learned to buckle under.
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“Well, it’s a bit difficult at the moment.” His cap continued its involuntary exile between his agile fingers. “You see, she’s in a Southern concentration camp ... the last I heard. The last I could hear of her. She’s from Wimer.”
How a name can obliterate a thousand explanations. Through the haze of misformation and propaganda everyone knew what had happened in Wimer. A town wiped out. Sinead realized that to accept half the rumors was to believe in hell itself. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t be an idiot!” They were back on their coal sacks, just for a second.
“Reasonably sure. She was seen in the ‘detention camp’ as they call it, over a month ago now. She’s strong. She’ll be fine.”
Be fine. Feverently, Sinead hoped the faceless woman would be. She could take no more pain. She longed for a flicker of joy through the endless winter drizzle. “She will,” she promised him. “Of course she will!” and she bent to stir the dinner into a ticker paste. I was quickly becoming too cold but she didn’t feel like returning it to the kitchen yet.
“Bring her here when you can, or when it’s all over, won’t you?”
Junior was putting his hat back on, reluctantly. “Of course.” He stood. “Of course. I’ve told her all about us, you, the family. She’s being dying to come.”
All about us. Yes. Of course. They were still family. What everybody grew up with could never be left behind; forever looming above chasms to form delicate rope bridges across the widest gulfs.
Sinead let her hand stroke a bristled cheek briskly as she leaned over the cooling pot. A wrinkled grin creased whiskered lips.
“You’ll be fine. Sonnyjo ’ll take care of you. A good man he is. A good man no matter.”
“I’ll make sure they don’t take him. He’s needed here.”
“Thanks.” Sinead flustered with her gratitude. Thanks, after all this? Thanks, she knew was due; thanks she wished she hadn’t to pay, the enforced gratitude of the endepted all the coarser on familiar tongues. “And Dovric?” she flustered automatically, eyes indicating the growing shadow in the kitchen door.
“She’ll have a better life when it’s all over. She and maybe my kids and other kids to come. Get to university even once we sort out all this facist racism.”
Sinead didn’t reply. It was too late. It wasn’t necessary. The repetitious division of politics would remain concealed beneath the invisible binding of what cannot forcefully be parted. “You’ll be all right too!” she urged. And only realized as he turned and left through the rusting back gate that she’d forgotten to ask his future wife’s name. “And so will she.” Sinead promised, a consoling whisper flittering aimlessly on the whispey breeze: he was too far down the path to be ever caught up with.
“Who?” Dovric asked.
“Nobody. Take that back inside. I’ve let it get cold.” Her voice mufffled. “Tsk. Tsk!” she scolded in a fluster. “You don’t need a cloth. It’s cold enough already. Just grab it and see it’s warmed. Do you no harm a bit of heat.”
Dovric obeyed silently, her eyes wandering furiously, tying knots, loosening enigmas as her uncle rambled off and her mother on, senselessly. Tumbling with the cooling pot, her mind hobbled, over another breech, into the swarming melee of adult passions. She’d have liked to have a brother, or sister. There was something odd about being the only one. But then, she remembered, her father too was alone.
“I don’t want to be a nurse anymore.”
“No, not now. I mean when I’m older. Want to study something else.”
“Not surprised love. You’ve seen enough here to turn any mind.”
“It’s not that I mind.”
“Ssssh. I know what you mean. Of course you don’t. But doesn’t mean to say any of us like it. And you’re right. You’ve done enough nursing, and far too soon. Try something else. We’ll have plenty of time to think about it once this is all over.”
“A teacher maybe,” suggested Dovric.
Her mother agreed vehemedly. “Yes. Yes indeed. That’s what will be needed around here. More than anything. A good dose of schooling. Here take these across the yard and get them soaking.”
Dovric heaved the pile of soiled wool into a ripped cane basket and trod off to fullfill another in the growing list of her expected duties. Just sometimes, she would have liked to still be a child, cry illogically and expect unlimited assurances.
How she’s grown, thought her mother from behind. It had become difficult to retain tattered feelings in perspective. How old we’ve all become, she frequently gazed; and poor Dovric forced in the last eighteen months into assuming adulthood over night. Then she tried to temper her anger with a distancing logic: at that age the change always comes fast, one minute a child the next a woman; one month doting parents to the next feebly grey grandparents. An unavoidable slicing of duties she reasoned, always spontaneously shocking. Yes, they’d aged. But they would have anyway: all that remained was the cancerous question of how it would have been if events hadn’t seemed so necessarily wearing, if they had been allowed the luxury of acccepting years as natural rather than imposed, a compresed block in the cramped space of months.
Sinead no longer enountered her face in the mirror, scarcely had the time to look. But she knew what she’d find. It was reflected all around in the countless stares of gutted lives. Even Sonnyjo had changed. Always been quite but now he was moody: his dreams had gone and Sinead could no longer guess what had replace them apart from the external obsessiveness with lost sheep.
He couldn’t be blamed. Nothing was anybody’s faul any longer. At least they’d acomplished that.
It was a nightmare keeping track of the sheep. They were fewer and fewer of them as the months prolonged which made keeping them flocked together all the more spurious; the lack of boundaries gave each one more space to roam, get separated and there is nothing more foolish than a stJunioring sheep. More work all around for Sonnyjo. Sheep seeking attention while, closer to home, he’d had to take on some of his cousin’s land and since his departure, his neighbor’s also. It would be a shame to waste the harvest they’d argued initially. Sonnyjo shyly agreed. YoungJed’s land was too good to be thrown aside, with so many mouths to feed. Later, he was forced to till the same silted fields as his own meagre land could no longer cope with the influx.
Regardless, Sinead glimpsed in the sheep an excuse for idleness. With so much to do their value in real terms was limited: the scant meat a handfull of ravaged fleece could provide was not worth the time it took to keep them vaguely assembled. Better off sowing more potatoes than searching for lambs that, if they hadn’t been stolen already, soon would by by the scavenging of equally confused if better armed troops. Sonnyjo would agree humbly over the crowded fire side then ignore the huddled advice. She’d allow him the oversight knowing he needed the break they provided, those pointless walks in search of a frozen bleat. They gave him something to aim for, something he understood. Sinead wished the rest of them could find comfort as easily.
“Yes, a teacher’s always a good job,” she reassured Dovric. “And when all this is over there’ll be plenty of need too. And you’ll be at a fine age to finish school and go to university. No point going too young never appreciate it. Too easy.”
Dovric had forgotten about school, had overlooked the fact that she’d have to return to her studies if she wanted to teach. After a brief consideration it began to appeal. Having frequently hated the power of her books to lock her inside as her father wandered, the spell of such luxury began to attract her. Preparation always draws those who’ve been forced to abandon while frustrating those obliged to take advantage or those handed it on a plate. Having been forced into adulthood she now had a vague desire to return and learn the mistakes of growing into it. Besides, who’d ever thought of going to university from their side of the river? Maybe, despite it all, things were changing and they would have a future.
She felt prepared. Old almost. If only her mother had known? when they came to convert their backyard into a makeshift hospital, all neatly pressed into strangely peacefull blue uniforms. Dovric had enjoyed the thrill emensely. And the experience. The girls from the town were jealous. The boys in blue teased her. She teased herself with unspoken urges, blushing glows of excitement despite the harsh significance of this foreign construction.
Bossing them around the land, showing up their ignorance, imbedded in the organized melee she’d touched more bodies in a couple of weeks than in all her sixteen years. Flashing grazing of limbs, tangled knees invariably lead to a little more; the tantalising flesh of lips, the whistled twisting of damp tongues before dusk bites off a conclusion, releases a breath of timely escape.
She still remembered the Outsider though. All the more after the boys in blue had gone. They build the hospital, left quickly diminishing crates of medecine, faded overnight as some one decided the whole effort, the complete zone, was too unstable to risk tearing a brand new uniform. Or that’s what Dovric heard the elders presuming. No audible reasons were given. The TV claimed they were nothing but interfeering outsiders anyway, but then again, no one listened to the TV anymore, even when the transmitters weren’t blocked.
Dovric didn’t care. She’d enjoyed the break all the more because their flight removed all guilt, all danger of being persued. They would never be back. No one would ever remember, or care. They’d fled as the shadow loomed over the South side and Dovric was rather pleased with their absence. A little pleasure, a font of experience, to round out the corners of her growing desires. She kept the original Outsider as a symbol to aim for while practicing meanwhile on local fodder, gaining the knowledgewhich would make her worthy, she argued in her most inner moments of secrecy. The kid on the third bed, second row, fifth on the right, was cute. He flashed encouraging smiles whenever she passed. She returned them trying not to imagine his missing legs.
There weren’t many such opportunities. The majority of their wards were older folk in from the hills or increasingly frequent, brought up from the shelling in the town. The young boys, the men, had all been taken, one side or another, depending on where they had been at the time, and only returned when in no state to struggle on. They simply “went” while the women, children and older men remained to soak up their bloody remains.
When the boys in blue left everyone had laughed at their cowardice.
“Uniforms too neat to get dirty.”
“Look at those hands! Not built for hardship those.”
“Wait ’till they see a winter up here and they’ll be scurring back to home.”
“Fresh white faces, they won’t last long.”
That’s what attracted Dovric: the crispy childness of their looks, the brittle innocence of their bones, the fact that she knew they’d be off carrying her secrets beyond the mountains of her confines.
She wasn’t alone in welcoming their arrival, celebrating their dessertion. Their initial supplies lighted many a heart. Their imperious designs frightened many more.
Their initial supplies lightened every hearrt, the imperious designs frightened more.
“It’s all very well but how are we going to keep a hospital going once they leave?” people pointed out to Sinead as if she’d willed the operation on herself. She just shrugged; like everybody else. And shrugged again months later when they’d been left with a hospital attracting a glowing influx due to sheer existence, regardless of the fact they could no longer cope. Occasionally, in a lull, a convey sneaked through but never with enough, never more than was already used up. They’d constructed to the mercy of future destruction, the glory of long gone T.V. camaras.
“If they weren’t going to stay, should have done it somewhere they would.”
“Ah. At least we wouldn’t be stuck here with a supposed hospital in a creaky old barn.”
“Only thing still shining is the bright new paint they covered the outside walls with.”
Sonnyjo nodded. He could have kept his sheep in there. They would have been safe from stJunioring, wandering mauraders. Now they were helplessly out the fields while the sheds were filled with bodies of flaked hope, limbs which should have been. Both animal and human had become aimless, encouraged to seek shelter on the green fields of dillusion rather than the security of secluded isolation.
It was only after the boys in blue had gone that the hospital really took off, over running all original plans of expansion. And both events were naturally connected.
In the outside world noone wanted creased uiniforms. The photos had already been taken. Sonnyjo’s farm had already sped across nationless TV channels. Memories are scant. Once seen, never forgotten, never sought after again; once generated, no strategic need to maintain. The people in Dovric had few regrets as the blue boys left and only bitterness as they realized why.
“They knew it all along the bastards!”
“A fine mess they’ve left us.”
“Indeed. Bloody new hospital bringing people from all over and not a thing to give them but a couple of scared doctors.”
“Well fair play I say, for their staying.”
“You’re right there. Fools born in every country.”
“Born indeed. If it weren’t for the fools we’d all be better off.”
Sinead no longer bothered to censor the old mens meandering with a caustic comment of ironic sense.
“And fair play to Sonnyjo and the family for putting up with us all.”
“Sure what choice did they have?”
“What choice indeed! And he himself still at home.”
“Might have been different if that girl of his had been a boy.”
Twisted arguments, diffused truths in minds that delt with a deformed world from the restricted logic of a vanished life. Bitterness, confusion, harshness and forgiveness grew hand in hand as the snow obliterated months and its melting waters joined with rain to curse the river beyond its banks for the first time in years, a natural span where artificial ones had been blown apart. The impending flood hardly mattered. There were scarcely enough hands left to manage the land. And no one crossed the rriver any more. The old stone bridge had long since been no man’s land: only the boys in blue had crossed it recently, and that to return to the stoves they’d emerged from one fine day last summer.
Over a year earlier two lone tanks, barrells between their tracks, had rustled through he tattered trail of exiling shadows along the ribboned trail south. Behind them half a town crumbled. The boys in blue tore down the road unhindered. Once they’d passed the tarmac lay open for the original two tanks to return with the confidence of force; until the landscape down south lay huddled with the corpses of armoured tongues spitting fire and vengeance across the river in rivets of unpredictable rage. Even the mountains and forests, historically safe bastions, had been singed in the onslaught off longrange modernity, until territory once glowing under victory began to grumble under siege.
Supplies on all sides were slowly throttled to an illegal dribble. The once victorious north bank of the town diluted to a darting hint of grim resistence before the crippling might of hunger and spouting projectiles. The majority fled outwards to the safer farms of distant cousins, obliging neighbors, down into their stuffy coal cellars to avoid the shelling, such scattered shelter more comforting than the clinging guilt of adjoining houses. The immediate countryside, slightly outside of range, even for the rumored forces gathering strength in the once impregnable mountains behind, offered hope as it had always provided alimientation. Sonnyjo’s farm drew more than anywhere else as it had been only recently endowed with a white flag crossed in red and a couple of cattle sheds breached together under hospital guaze. The locals scarcely complained, glad of any reasonably prrotected retreat. The white flag drew more than the inferm. Sonnyjo’s land sprawled into out buildings he’d scarcely known existed, hastily constructed. Somewhow, somewhere along the line, the slit dividing victors and losers diminished to a thread. The two remaining Outsider doctors, however, struggled in the melting confusion. Radios cackled endless complaints re their conditions, their abandonment, but rarely brought relief within the mesh of heaving entrails everything had suddenly turned static, a dead battery waiting for the charge, unable to spark a last grasp of retreat. No where to go even if it stirred: surrounded now. Even the mountians behind had been betJuniored. Somewhere else, pining, Junior must have been questioning what he’d heard months ago on the back of an imperial armoured carrier: the rolling guns of longterrm strategy.
“No. Not a nurse,” Dovric promised herself. Steam sweated her face despite the bitter air a meter away. Soaked towels rang their stains dry as she hauled them to the line. Hoping it would’nt rain any more that day she slung sullenly to hang in the sulking breeze. Would he come back? Probably not. Another thick thump as a sheet slapped the line tight in soggy anger. No one else had. A passing through place. Strange how years of stillness had been briefly converted into a throng of new faces leaving the permanent residents a sense of restless unease. She’d never imagined so many adventures, scarcely had had the capacity; and was no longer sure excitement was what every young girl longed for. Probably not, she reminded herself. But when it was all over she could always go find him. Or maybe just stay here and look after the sheep.
The latter no longer held a strangling fear: over the months its isolating concept had gained, in Dovric’s mind, a stable contemplation.
Tsk! Tsk! she taunted. No time for dreams. What would her mother say? Almost evening meal hour. A smile. A wink. A quick hint of bliss. That boy on the second row. Improved a lot. And, at least, with no legs they’d never take him back.
Hopsitals are for caring for the sick which invariably mean that those working there loose their fear of the dead. The most shattered body brings promise as it arrives at their do orstep: its recuperation signifies hope, its fatality nothing: you’d done all you could.
The rains progressed, rising the Dovric beyond its limits, flooding streets but providing scant threat to a population already seeping from the town, rats drowned in terror. Some claimed it would hit the church steeple again. No one worried: the priest had long since fled to administer up the mountains, a pityful version of Frier Tuck. Sinead and her family, along with many others, blossomed desperately under the temendous urge to keep afloat.
As once the bleating of a distant lamb indicated direction and distance, the screech of a flashing shell, a scorning sniper, grew to replace the sound, replemish the senses:
“Big one that, tanks back in action.”
“Only trying to frighten.”
“Aye. Nothing left to aim for.”
“Have to be careful. Those snipers will go for anything.”
“You’re right. Hear that crack? An other gas cilinder.”
“Yeah too soft. Got lucky he did. We’ll have another one up here soon.”
They did. Their neatly constructed hospital spread until it swallowed the house itself. Under the stained red flag of “truce” the farm expanded tto grasp injured, their families, an ineshaustible stream of companingly aid, frightened spirits. No words crossed. No gestures asked for. A frying pan just off the fire everyone was huddled on board until the yard swarmed with the hiss of a maddened presssure cooker on the boil. Sonnyjo went for lost sheep and sometimes Sinead forgave him: too many helping hands she occasionally thought. We could all do with a bit of peace and quiet. Wouldn’t mind escaping to the hills myself, although even the land brought its fears as armies approached from previously unimaginable tangents.
She’d known as him silent, saw him as moody, held him as he cried. She’d never seen him white with despair until BB turned up on their doorstep.
More direct than any shell. They’d received no warning. His cousin’s body hung from the yawning remains of the front gate. It was quickly removed by the forgiving. Hastily buried by the fearsome. Some tried to hide the attatched note but Sonnyjo forced them to read it. Surprised by his determination, perhaps in fear of his collaboration, they allowed him the souvenier.
“Traitor” was all it said.
“Well, if the rumors are correct.”
“Only rumors. That’s all they are.”
“Butt if they’re true and he was selling or buying across the lines. Fuck it we’re all damned.”
“Yeah fuck it! We’ve all got to live and we’ll have less to live on if we sell our own to the bastards on the other side.”
“Huumph. Lines. Like to know who’s drawing them. Move every day if you ask me.”
“Always fire if there’s smoke.”
“Yeah, but I reckon they’ve only put out the smoke. Lots of those boys I’d no longer trust. People like Junior. Gone now. And what are they up to having stirred this up. Feathering their own pockets I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Carefull now. Son’s up there and all.”
“Aye. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”
“And poor B caught in the middle.”
“Only one left with all those women and children to keep. Seemed only right if he sold the odd.”
Silence in fears of reprising eyes.
“I mean …” and nobody knew what anybody meant.
“No. Know what you mean,” whispered cautious reassurance.
“Tip of the iceberg I say,” surged an angrier tone. “Only did it for the family while those who tore him apart could be making a bloody forture for all we know.”
“For all we know,” echoed the congreagation.
“Shout on and on about sacrifices for the future but look at some of the uniforms they wear.”
“Look at where they’re shouting from!”
“We should tell them enough is enough. All agree with what happened before.” A shuffle of rusty shoes: “But no point killing our own, is there now?”
“And what if it was true?” asked the innocent form the dampening shadow of their darkening shelter.
“Of course it was true!” rasped an older voice, invisible against the coalsoiled walls, his wife and grandchildren. “That’s not the point. From what I’ve heard it’s that local commander, another Outsider from further down the river, who is really making money out of all this.”
Overhead a loan shell rattled to crash innocently against an abandoned forge. It hisssed by spinelessly.
Smothering in the coal bunker they waited for the explosion.
Keep them underground, in a constant state of alarm, rang the advice. Don’t waste amunition. Wait ’till support comes and there’s enough to go around.
They waited for the explosion.
“Yeah. Clever bastards. Never know when.”
And then it did explode, ripping steel to shreeded flint, a forge to the atoms of its very being.
The last cryptic comment cloaked in the coaldust of their nightly shrine. Who? You never knew who but you had to believe in someone.
“Always rotten apples,” was the summarising reply, several minutes later.
“Shut up and let the kids sleep!” a woman warned.
The rains thundered on and the river rose in proportion, to divide banks further, threatening to wipe out their distinctions in the same floating vengeance.
Unlike their parents Marlene and YoungJed’s two sone Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were far more prepared, less surprised, by the onslaught from the mountains.
Seeking only the best for them and long accustomed to ignoring traditional divisions, Marlene had willingly allowed them mix with whom they pleased. They were also bright and Marlene even toyed with the idea of sending them further south to a good school and maybe, if the farm went well, one of them to university. A generation later Marlene appeared to be fullfilling her fathers ambitionos in reaching across boundaries to grasp at the flutter of further advancement. They have as much right as anyone she argued, equally encouraged by the opportunities at rubbing noses in it; let them call her what they liked, she wasn’t going to sacrifice her son’s future just to salve her own conscience or the righteous demands of those from her own culture. YoungJed happily agreed. They werren’t alone. There were always mixed families struggling the tightrope. Stealing the best of both worlds, grumbled some, ostracised from everything sulked the families inolved, from a position of more delicate clarity.
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were all too aware of their position, the shaded eyes of their mother’s defiant instructions from birth. School made it clearer. Their solution to the unaccaptability of their heritage was to excell together at every challenge. Unconsciously refusing the isolated stocism of their father they fought to be accepted, sharply aware that excellence would always be egarly acclaimed by someone. In the classroom their top marks banished masters more disparaging remarks to the extent they were heralded as future flag bearers for the school when they travelled to greater heights in the outside world, further south. On the playing fields they forced themselves upon the towinies form the start and their thundering shoulders quickly marked enough scores to keep them in place: no easy removal to the culchies. The theoretical outcasts Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob fought for recognition, to banish the sins of their fathers.
With growing political unease their ties were further strained, more desperately reinforced. They were among the first to join the defense league, a handfull of young men and boys who “would refuse to be over run by those northern hooligans.” So, as events heated gently to a boil while grandparents finally deserted and their parents stubbornly stayed out of loyalty to the land and dead ancestors, their sons secretly oiled ancient shotguns and went shooting rabbits on a Sunday morning. “We don’t need any more!” Marlene protested as they handed two dead ones on the kitchen table. “I don’t know what you think we are. One now and again is fine but every Sunday.”
The boys continued their practice, but stopped bringing the rewards home. Jimmy trained the raggled bunched as they wandered around on marchs shouted at by Seanie. They’d all do anything for Jimmy. Older, handsome, with a girlfriend and a good future in his father’s factory, he was the empthany of what they were eager to stand for. Fluid tongue and bright eyes wound spells as he patiently explained their role, their loyalties.
Despite what the league thought to be meticuloous preparations the Northern onslaught took the boys by surprise, shaking both their stomachs and heads into a coccktail of panicky confusion.
The slaughter of rabbits before lunch on a Sunday gave few hints of the required response to the mayhem rattling across their front door. After ritually uncovering and greasing their weapons they spent the first day clutching the farm, ready to defend, shaking in the anxiety of uncertainity while their parents huddled inside cursing their reluctance to having send the boys to safety earlier.
“Sssh” was all Marlene said as YoungJed attempted remorse. “Sssh. As soon as we can. We’ll get them out of here.”
“And you’ll go with them” he promised.
She gripped his hand in response, a loving cringe which refused desertion.
Their parents thought the childrens faces were flushed with fright and hushed them inside like flies.
“Stay back!” YoungJed warned. “We’re keeping out of this. Won’t come here. Not our business.”
His sons swore at such shortsightness, debating in whispers their duties: stay and defend or cross over and join the others in a stronger position? Later on they eased their way back outside and risked a glance down the emptying road, over the town. Hiding will get us nowhere they reassured each other, pointedly avoiding the blame they unleashed on their father. “First place they’ll come!” said Scottyboy, the oldest, after a while. He quickly retracted spotting Little Jim Bob’s questioning fear. “Or maybe not. Maybe father’s right.” Little Jim Bob calmed. “But we better be ready,” his brother added in mutual encouragement.
“Yeah.” Little Jim Bob repeated. “Be ready.” He thought about it further. “Won’t come here.” The words issued faintly, lacking the reassurance of his father’s brusk retort.
Where were the others? What were they doing? Should they join up? The original plan of meeting behind the church loomed ridiculous as mortars spun skyward across the river. Could they even get to the other bank? From the smothering breath of damp hay the childishness of their intentions spurred heated frustration.
Prowling their own land, scouting for intrusion, the first day pased into the glow of the night fires. Supper mumbled they slipped back outside “to check the animals.”
“Now’s our chance!” Scottyboy spurted suddenly.
“Come on. We’ll get over in the old flat boat, beat up behind and find Jimmy. Nothing’ll happen here tonight and we’ll be back beffore dwan if we’re not wanted.”
“Do you think, I mean should we stay?” Little Jim Bob sought a shield for his anxiety, the potential distancing of parental security. “What about the parents? Should we leave them?”
Fighting his own indecision Scottyboy grew determined. “No. Come on! They’ll be ok for the night. We got to find out what’s happening. Best way to protect us all and we’ll be back before they know we’re gone.”
Gazing through his older brother’s shawod Little Jim Bob nodded unseen. “Suppose.” He wiped his nose with a dirty hankerchief. The faint smell of his mother’s washing powder stroked saddening memories. “Maybe Jimmy’s not there. Then what?”
His younger brother’s stubborness always threatened to strangle Scottyboy’s rasher confidence. The eldest was born to lead, the younger to temper overgrown confidence. “Well we don’t know do we, and won’t.” Across the yard, through the blurring windows they could hear their parents muttering in the upstairs bedroom. “We’ll wait until they’re asleep.” tempted Scottyboy.
“No one is sleeping tonight,” Little Jim Bob told him sullenly.
Half an hour later they had progressed no further.
“If we don’t go now it’ll be too late.” Little Jim Bob finally contended.
“Are you right so?”
The door slided awake shakily between nervous fingers. The gravel of the yard tingled beneath trading feet. Each step seemed to awaken a thousand echoes. Constantly pausing to watch for a suspicious movement from upstairs it too ages to reach the silent ploddiness of damp soil.
“Right! Come on. Run now and we’ll be back before they notice.” A sense of duty drew them out of the safety net and up onto the trapeze they were still too young to understand. Having made a move their hesitance was suddenly twisted into a desire to get it over with and return as soon as possible to the security of home.
Thee night clung like wet dough as they struggled blindly past the coal cellar, down to the river and the old fishing boat, pJunioring it wouldn’t leak.
Soaked, salty perspiration layering into icy mist they scrrambled upwards, heroic cravings diminishing rapidly as home wallowed in the fog and the town ahead reflected grimly, a mass of eerie shadows fingering the night sky, helplessly pleading from the bowels of smoldering flames. The oars splashed endlessly. They ducked their heads at each crash half expecting the snap of a bullet in reply. But there were larger fish to catch that night.
Panting they waded across up the slippery bank to recover earth. fingers clasped their shotguns tighter. “They’re ok are they?” Scottyboy asked.
“The guns. Not wet are they?”
“Don’t think so. Not inside anyway.”
“We’ll try Jimmys first.”
They were whispering together, unaware of who was planning what, what was happening where and all too aware that none of their preparations had envisioned the reality, that they had never really believed that all the stories of horror would come true: how brave defiance is, how clear cut sides are when glazed with the aura of myth.
“Come on then.”
The outskirts were quite. Dark. Electricity was off. The lights smashed. Everyone hiding. Or already gone. Shouts escaped outwards from where they sensed the centre to be. Broken glass shattered the night blending in with the faint unresting cackle of creeping flames. Smoke tingled the boy’s nostrils. It wasn’t the faint sootiness of winter fires, a more arid taste, accidic with the ashes of objects they’d never smelled burning before.
Fortunately, they could avoid the centre on thir approach to Jimmy’s house. Less happily, once they’d found it, they didn’t know how to proceed.
“That’s his window.”
“Do you think he’s there.” Little Jim Bob’s foot struck a can. It rattled down the cobbled side street.
Scottyboy dragged him back against the wall. “Fool!”
Footsteps clattered along the main street nearby. They snuggled ffurther down the alley into the grime. Across the narrow lane, scarcely out of reach, Jimmy’s house hung above them unacknowledging.
Little Jim Bob’s younger impatience finally got the beter of their indecision; besides, his legs had become cramped and he had to move. “Should we knock or throw a stone or something?”
“Do you think so? Maybe it’s not worthwhile and we should turn back.”
Considering the temptation all his younger brother could say was: “After all this?”
Scottyboy knew he was right, that pride would allow no retreat and yet after all that they were freezing and increasingly frightened. A machine cracked all too close; a voice hailed; more glass earthword bound.
“Maybe they’ve gone.” Little Jim Bob mused. The cramp in his legs was creeping unbearably towards his tigh.
They remembered the fleeing column and considered the possibility.
“Maybe.” Scottyboy agreed.
“But what do you think?” insisted his brother, anxious for an executive decision.
“Come on!” Scottyboy fumbled on the ground for his shotgun. Little Jim Bob tugged his sleeve in guidance. “Come on!” his brother whispered again. “We’ll go back.”
Teeth clenched they hoped the boat was waiting. They were both pJunioring. A foot scuffled too loudly as they nearered the street. They halted, wheezing as they tried no to breath. A sharp click bit the air, quickly disguised by a fresh outbreak of gunfire from closer to the centre. Moving away from it they arounded a corner and prepared to sprint the last fifty meters to the boat. Scottyboy, going first, choked as something pointed stuck in his gut. Little Jim Bob was too close to back away. Thumbling into his brother’s broad back they both fell noisily.
They winched, gathering into a single ball.
“Could have shot you! What the fuck are you doing creeping around like that. And where have you been?”
Seanie liked to consider himself Jimmy’s right hand man, making up in bullying confidence the vision he lacked when aiming straight at a scuttling rabbit. Younger than Jimmy but still older than the two brothers he always commanded respect. “What the fuck!” he repeated. The brothers were trembling too fast to notice Seanie’s own shake.
All three of them were huddled on the ground, edging themselves back around the corner to the safety implied by the gloom of Jimmy’s back alley.
“What the fuck! Could have shot you if I hadn’t been saving the ammunition for emergencies.”
“Sssssh!” urged Little Jim Bob.
“Jimmy’s been looking of you.” Seanie insisted once they’d regained the deepest shadow. “Well pissed off he was. Half the bloody rabbit squad as he called you ran off just like that,” spasms of caution stopped him clicking his fingers in demonstration. He pushed the glasses back up his nose instead. They made little difference. He continued to squint, the world as hazey in darkness as broad daylight. “Suppose you had no way over the river.” Silence. He continued begrudgingly. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah.” Scottyboy had regained some composure. Their boat had slipped its mooring. Now way back now. Too late to run. “Yeah. Ccome as soon as we could.”
“Just as fucking well. They’ve gone wild. Fucking bastards. Shooting everything in sight.” Eeven Seanie was silenced by what he’d seen. “It’s fucking ...”
The others were left chattering with their imagination, the crawling rows of escapees: maybe it wasn’t just cowardice which had forced their dessertion. How simple things had been in the planning stages.
“Jimmy’s down in the old boiler shed behind the school.” They couldn’t see the perspiration lining Seanie’s face as he spoke; their own bodies were providing sufficient discomfort. “Safe there for the moment. Sent me out to round up anyone I could.”
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were more conerned with their future destination thatn Seanie’s excuses for not being there himself.
“They haven’t hit it yet,” their guide continued, “and come morning it’ll be perfect for some quick sniping. Then retreat back somewherre else. Can’t stop them now.” He was talking to himself. “But have to show them we won’t give up that easily. That we’ll be back. O.k? I’m off then.”
“What?” Brotherly harmony in the lonly question.
“I have to see if there’s anyone else around.”
“And who’s in the boiler house then?” squirmed Little Jim Bob.
“Well, at the moment just Jimmy. The others are elsewhere.” Seanie was anxious to be off.
Seanie guilttily sensed suspicion where there lay only incredibility. Coming heard his breath wheezed to catch their faces full blast. “Listen, I’ve been running around all day.”
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob weren’t listening. Jimmy alone? And all the others. Were they really else where?
“So go on. What are you waiting for?” Seanie was rebuilding his ’power. “I’ve things to be doing. You go on out there and find Jimmy or run away like the rest. I’ll send more later and by morning it’ll be all ready.”
“By morning,” the brothers were thinking. By morning their parents would be alone. And they’d taken the only two guns. Not to mention the boat.
Seanie had slipped away without further instructions, without further persuasion; they could do what they wanted at this stage, just like everyone else. Too young to recognize that the brothers wilted under his final “Go on!” A brusk attempt at an order, falling far short of encouragement.
They held back another minute as Seanie’s footsteps rattled away indiscreetly.
“Jimmy’s alone in there.” Little Jim Bob prompted.
“Yeah. We should go. Although maybe he’s even left by now if no one else had turned up.”
“Where are they all?”
“Don’t know. But we can’t leave him alone, can we?”
Little Jim Bob was equally doubtful, equally brave in his intentions. “No, I suppose not.”
“And Jimmy will send more along. Be along himself later.”
“Do you think so?”
Scottyboy didn’t answer.
“Come on!” the older brother compromised once more, failing to recognize that it was blind comprimise which many of the more radical leaders blamed for creatingg the whole drastic outporing of frustration. “We’ll just go and see. If he’s gone that’s it. Straight back to the boat. Maybe he’s just waiting to see who turns up and then make a plan. He may even decide we’d be better off back home defending the farm.”
Little Jim Bob was accustomed to his brother’s reasoning and over the years had proved endlessly willing to follow; the second son always moves fastest as he struggles to keep up with the faltering strides of the elder, often outdoing him in the determination of the process. “O.k.” he agreed.
Two additional shadows thus haunted the Southern streets. Ducking corners, cringing with the noise they made, crouched in hiding, they didn’t realize how lucky the’d been in reaching the old boilder house safely.
The back door wasn’t locked. Slipping inside they snapped it shut behind. Further darkness. Stillness.
“I don’t know Scottyboy. Bet he’s gone already.” whispered Little Jim Bob.
“Mmmm.” Scottyboy was too exhausted to move any further. Needed a rest before the journey back. He stalled.
“Wouldn’t have left the door open just like that.” Little Jim Bob insisted before shutting up as he realized the room glittering before them unseen: anybody could be in there. Watching. Sighting down the barrel to his gaping throat. He pushed his brother down by his side hand clasping hte skinny elbow, refusing to release the familiar woolen cloth.
“Thank God!” rasped a voice.
The brothers clung closer. A match struck across the room. Flickered faintly. They caught the outline of Jimmy’s elongated nose. The bulb lared brightly before the crisp wood stung his fingers and he cursed. This time they recognized the voice.
“Thank God.” it repeated from the returning gloom. “The brothers. Ha. And they had to come all the way over the river!” Jimmy was chukling lowly like a starved hen. “Well. Well. At least someone came, at last. Know how long I’ve been holed up here?” The darkness was still to daunting to be broken. Jimmy was used to it. “And good old Seanie supposed to be out there rounding you all up. Scampered off like the rest of them.”
“We met him.” Scottyboy attempted a defense. “We’ve just met him. Told us you were here.” Little Jim Bob nodded silently. “The others will be along too. And then we can get started.”
“And which direction was Seanie moving when you met him, eh?” A further chuckle scratching the stiffling air. The boilers had long been unstoked but their choking stiffnes remained clogged between shuttered windows. “Come on over here,” encouraged Jimmy, voice suddenly warming. “We’re safe here for the moment. Not goint to bother with this. Prefer some well stocked store or a bejewelled room.”
Jimmy’s constant chuckle grated on the skin like sandpaper. It wasn’t the calm sterness they’d been expecting. He’d never once laughed as they’d hidden among the hills producing rabbits from the most unlikely of angles. They weren’t to know how many people had changed in the past few hours. They moved closer in search of comfort.
Jimmy seemed to sense the need beyond his own cynical exhaustion. “Don’t worry,” he urged, “the bigger boys are placed else where. We’re not completely alone.”
That was reassuring. Not along. And Jimmy had always referred to “the bigger boys” with authority. No one was quite sure who they were although old Tom Jones had once accompanied them after the rabbits, grunting scant praise as a couple were bagged. In the rank silence of the boiler house any reference to bigboys lent a hopeful note. Beginning to feel part of a team again, an organized effort, proud of their stamina as their teeth stopped chattering, Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob relaxed slightly against the rough stone wall.
“Hold on!” Jimmy stopped them. “Push something against that door first.”
“But the others when they come...”
“They can break it down for all I care.” snapped Jimmy. “There won’t be any fucking others,” he added in unnecessary clarification as the brothers realized that big boys or not they were going to face the remainder of the night alone.
Minutes clicked into hours, into days in the emptiness of their prison. An occasional fotstep still rang but even the streets were slowly regaining a deserving rest as the night dragged defiantly onwards. Little Jim Bob stopped looking at his watch when the crawling hand appeared to start moving backwards.
“Calm down.” urged Jimmy sensing the incessant squinting at invisible wrist. “Relax. While we can. The morning will be even longer.” he threatened, “even if it flies by before out eyes.”
“Ssssh!” stung Scottyboy fright slashing respect.
Jimmy finally stopped chuckling.
Jimmy hadn’t lied. There were big boys, older guns spattered along high windows, gently sloping roofs; although there had been many more the day before. Seanie had lied: he found no one else, or at lease no one including himself returned to break the door down and join them. “Better off,” snorted Jimmy. “No room for wimps at this stage.” Neither brother said a thing. Beneath his hoarse croaking and ccynical humor Jimmy had suddenly lost the sheen of comforting leadership. The boiler house pumped sweat, the darkness blindness, the hours wells of doubts: Would they be of any value here anyway? Would they have been better off staying at home? Were they not shaking like the wimps they knew themselves to be?