I chose the title for the next writing task for our group; I wanted to get away from the single word suggestion and to try and provoke something different – from me at least, if not from the others! I know one of the group has written a comical poem, but mine is not comical at all. It was not inspired by the present tragic conflict, but of some other dreadful European war; I remember a true story from the time and have used that scenario, but the actual narrative is completely fictional.
It’s rather long, but I don’t think I can split it into two parts, so here it is, all of it:
Once, on a summer day
Once, on a summer day, I picked up a gun.
I was cautiously working my way along what used to be path with flower beds on one side beautifully maintained by civic gardeners but now heaped with rubble from broken buildings.
I had met a stranger in the apartment block and he had told me that tinned fish and oranges were available in the old woman’s shop. I questioned the oranges but he half pulled a single fruit from his pocket to show me.
There were a few other people about, taking advantage of the quiet, out on similar missions to me. I saw no-one I knew, but strangers and I exchanged what little news we had. Everyone said to be careful of the Metropol Exchange, what used to be the busiest and most jammed intersection on our side of the city. I didn’t need to be told, my apartment looked down on it.
My quarter was mostly residential edged with light industry, small factories and engineering works. The main road I looked down on led to the White Bridge over the river, the thoroughfare crossing the intersection led into the city. In the past I had wandered along countless times on the way to the markets and shops. It was not a way I often ventured these days although there was a market of sorts despite the dangers. The block directly opposite mine was a mirror image of it, in fact once, many, many moons ago, I had drunkenly wandered in after a night out with friends, had walked up to ‘my’ floor as the lift was broken, then wondered why my key didn’t fit in the lock of my front door.
I was not thinking of this as I hurried along. All seemed quiet but the unexpected was a constant debilitating fear. I stopped, almost tripping over my feet as I saw the black weapon on the cracked pavement. Was it a trick, an ambush? I only wondered this afterwards, marvelling at my stupidity as I snatched it up and shoved it in my waistband, pulling down my windcheater to cover it.
I had barely taken a step when I heard a familiar sound, the crack of a weapon as the sniper fired at some innocent struggling across the crossroads, negotiating the piles of broken masonry from when the bomb or shell had hit the top of block on the opposite corner of the White Bridge road. He – or maybe she, the sniper, was why I was walking in this direction, going that extra distance in the shadow of ruined buildings to the old woman’s shop, in search of tinned fish and oranges.
I can’t remember when it was that I first saw the heap of a body lying at the crossroads. Bodies weren’t that unusual in these strange times, but to just see a heap of clothes which had once been a person, lying on the rubble at the crossroads was terribly shocking. Since then, I had watched, in fearful fascination and seen terrible things. A man who changed his walk to a run, stumbling over broken bricks and stones as he realised someone was shooting, then fell… a woman who stumbled against the man walking with her. They managed to crawl to safety but I don’t know what happened to them.
I have no idea who was shooting; they made a dangerous place more dangerous, day after day, week after week. I could see where they were shooting from, a flat on the corner of the block several floors below the one I had drunkenly mistaken for mine, but I never saw the damned murderer. They were like a kid with an air-rifle taking pot shots at random objects, except the random objects were people, struggling to survive in this devastation. They were people trying to find somewhere to buy food, to visit desperate relatives, or maybe a doctor on their way to help the sick – war doesn’t stop people being poorly. Call the police. What police in a time of war?
Every time I went out, even though I kept away from the targeted crossroads, my skin tingled in anticipation and my heart pounded.
I reached the old woman’s place, a cave in a pile of rubble and broken bricks. She had no tinned fish but by some miracle she found a can of chopped pork and a small pot of mustard. Oranges? No, but she had some unripe plums.
There was the sound of a military vehicle, the old woman retreated into her cave, gathering up the filthy cloth she laid her meagre wares upon. There was nowhere to hide and the man beside me, wearing a Panama hat of all things, and I, ran across the road and down a small alleyway and crouched behind a burned out post van.
The military vehicle turned away before it reached our road, and carefully we crept out.
“Good luck,” he said and we shook hands and set off in different directions. I didn’t cross back to my side, the pavements here were clearer, it was easier to creep along, ever alert.
I arrived outside the block opposite mine, and stood for a moment, looking up at my flat. A curtain flapped through a broken window, I should do something about that – the curtain, I mean, I couldn’t repair the window, although maybe if I found some cardboard…
I nearly jumped out of my skin at the crack of a gun and I glanced up in time to see an old man dressed in black, fall and lay still at the edge of the crossroads.
I should be used to it, I shouldn’t still have the ability to feel shocked, but tears started to my eyes.
The door of the apartment block swung open and a young woman, her auburn hair tucked up in a blue beret came out, holding the door open for me.
“Thank you,” I said. “Be careful, that damned sniper has just killed an old man.”
She didn’t look shocked, but angry and afraid.
“No-one knows who it is, there are no foreigners here,” and she walked away, away from the crossroads, hurrying as best she could, jumping over bits of broken concrete.
I went into the building and began to ascend the stairs. The block was identical to mine and I was used to the climb. I stopped on a landing, checked no-one was about and took out the gun. We had all undertaken the rudiments of military training, and as inexpert as I was I knew the gun was loaded, and was familiar enough with it to know it was loaded. I might get myself killed, but I would confront the sniper and take his weapon. I wasn’t even angry, just cold and determined.
I climbed the next flight and there was the door to his flat. What to do? Knock at the door?
He was brave enough to hide and kill innocent old people and unarmed women, would he see me standing in the passage, raise his gun and shoot me? Well, so be it if he did.
I put my hand to the door. It wasn’t locked, it wasn’t even closed. I pushed it open and went into the tiny hallway, cluttered piles of boxes. He was in the main room, I knew. The door was ajar and opened at my touch.
His gun fired and he took out another innocent. He stepped back and bent down for some ammo, then he saw me.
He was a kid, maybe fourteen, maybe fifteen, with a mass of very blond hair. I didn’t wait for him to say anything, I shot him, I shot him right there and he fell without a sound except the clatter of his weapon on the bare floorboards.
I turned away, and stowed my gun back in my waistband and pulled down my windcheater.
I left the flat and walked down the stairs. I pushed the door open and stepped out into the summer sunshine.
From habit, I avoided crossing at the crossroads, but walked back a hundred metres and carefully walked over to the other side and went into my block thinking about the tin of chopped pork, the small pot of mustard and the unripe plums.