a short story by Graham Pockett © copyright 1994
All characters in this story are fictitious; and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
In a state of panic, Henry dived headlong through the open window. He was hard on the sergeant's heels as the chattering machine gun peppered the wall behind them.
The civilian war correspondent fell awkwardly, envying the soldier's training as he lay panting. A swirling cloud of plaster and brick dust encompassed him. He stifled a cough as he breathed the thick mixture. Men had died for less than a cough.
As the dust settled, he cautiously lifted his head and looked around. Sergeant Forestt was just rising, his submachine gun already surveying their surroundings. Like a fox hunting cautious, wily. He had the pinched lean features of a fox too.
The room was a mess of broken brick and plaster, a testimony to six months of war. Billets of cheap furniture lay crushed under the debris. The room hid in an old whitewashed house, structurally still sound even after months of mortar and light artillery bombardment.
The sergeant's gun suddenly stopped its circumnavigation as the soldier froze. Then Henry saw the sergeant slightly relax, though the gun was still held at the ready. Propped in the corner furtherest from the window, an old man was watching the intruders. His countenance belied the ill fitting peasant garb, fire erupting from his eyes as their every movement held his total attention.
Above those piercing eyes, a shock of long grey hair crowned massive eyebrows. His lean face hovered over a gangling body. A spider, trapped in his own web.
"Who are you, old timer?" the sergeant demanded, military authority tempering his Cockney accent. "On yer own?"
The old man glared at the soldier, but the machine gun silenced any opposition. After an arrogant pause he cleared his throat.
"No. The wife and three other women. One's due to have a kid."
"Where are they?" the soldier demanded, looking around the dingy room. "How long ya been 'ere?"
"We've been here a while. The others are hiding down in the wine cellar. If one wasn't in the middle of having a kid I would've been down there too. Don't know how many times the house's been searched, and we haven't been discovered well, not until you arrived anyway. When we going to get liberated?" The question was edged in sarcasm.
"Not long now " the sergeant started, but was interrupted by the wailing of a baby to his left. Instinctively he swung the gun towards the new threat, and was confronted by the bloodstained figure of an elderly woman. She was standing in the doorway holding a newborn baby.
"It's alright, Emma." The old man broke the hypnotic effect of the squalling child. "I don't think you'll get shot. They're Pommie soldiers unless I'm much mistaken. How's our new mum?"
"She's alright." Emma replied, a hint of annoyance flitting across her face. Another, thought Henry, who doesn't like our intrusion.
"Good. Well," the old man began, facing the still rigid form of the soldier, "you going to shoot us, or put down that pea-shooter? Don't want anyone getting hurt. There's enough killing and maiming out there without a trigger-happy cowboy bringing the war to us."
"You go with 'im," Alex Forestt looked at Henry. "An' check out 'is story. I'll stay 'ere, just in case. Call out if you need any 'elp, though reckon y' won't have much trouble with 'em."
Henry took the camera from his knapsack, journalist first as always. Alex once joked he'd still be taking photographs after he was dead. Maybe the sergeant was right at that.
Henry followed the elderly couple. They picked their way through the broken doorway, into the bowels of the house. Down a crumbling passageway and into a laundry. In the centre of the laundry floor was an open trapdoor, entry to an ancient wine cellar. A dusty scatter-rug lay beside the subterranean door, mute evidence of its method of concealment.
Emma climbed down through the opening, with the old man right behind. Henry hung back a little, this war had made him cautious.
The flickering light from an antiquated lantern illuminated the centre of the cellar, leaving corners in the depth of blackest shadow.
A young thickset woman lay on the table, blood covering her abdomen and legs. Two older women had been fussing around, cleaning up the afterbirth and haemorrhage. At Henry's appearance they froze, fear etched their square ethnic faces.
"It's OK," Emma said to the younger women, smiling. Henry got the impression that the message of assurance was conveyed by the smile and not the words. The old man still thundered under shaggy eyebrows.
"My name's Henry Inze," he said, his upper class accent blunted by association with the Cockney sergeant. "I'm a war correspondent a civilian war correspondent. This uniform is just to stop me getting shot by our boys. 'Course, it does mean I get shot at by the enemy, but I suppose you can't have everything."
A smile crinkled the corner of his eyes and he could see everyone relaxing, even the old man. Henry looked across at him, waiting for a response. It was a long time coming.
"My name's Silas Jennings," the old man finally offered. "And this is my wife Emma. We, er just sort of collected these three."
"How come you're here, Mr Jennings? A war zone isn't exactly the place for elderly foreigners."
"Silas, just call me Silas. We were up in the mountains having a holiday when Emma came down with pneumonia. That was just before the war started. By the time she was better, we were well behind the lines. Stayed out of sight and no-one bothered us until you two turned up. Appreciate though if you'd just take your boy soldier and scamper off. You've brought enough attention to our hideout."
"That decision's not mine, unfortunately. I'm just tagging along trying to keep my nose clean. Alex was assigned to protect me, but lately he seems to have orders of his own. Now we're also trapped behind enemy lines. Shouldn't be too long though Can I get some photographs?" His request was met with silence.
He didn't let the lack of assent stop him from commencing work. He moved around, carefully wielding the camera. With help from the flicker of the lantern, he used the dusty beams of light from the open trapdoor to illuminate his subjects. Under these atrocious conditions, Henry was able to capture austere black and white images pictures that would later captivate the world by their stark portrayal of civilian life in a war zone.
After 20 minutes, a shout could be faintly heard echoing through the building. Henry remembered they'd left Alex upstairs alone in the front room, and realised the Cockney sergeant would be panicking.
"Coming!" he called back, then turned to Silas. "Better you come back with me, old boy, just in case Alex has a fit. He's got a fairly short fuse."
The war correspondent and the old man clambered up the wooden ladder back to the front room, back to the fray.
"Thought I'd lost ya." Sergeant Forestt had spun around on their entry, automatically levelling his gun. "Everything OK?"
"Yes," Henry responded. "There's the old woman, and three local women, down in the wine cellar. One of the locals has just had a kid. All pretty harmless, if you ask me. Actually, the locals look a bit daft. Could just be peasants but " His voice faded.
"You're right," Silas interrupted. "They were in a local sanatorium. If the youngest hadn't been set to have the baby we'd probably have left them. Wouldn't have been too good for them. No way. If they'd been found by soldiers they'd have been raped." He glared at the sergeant. "Probably already have been, if the truth's told. Not very pleasant for a young woman to be in a war zone, specially if she's not the full quid."
"This is Silas Jennings, Alex. He and his wife got caught up in the mountains when the war started. Just tourists."
"Where y' from, Mr Jennings?" the soldier asked. "I can't place that accent. Not from Australia are you sir?"
"No, New Zealanders."
"Should have figured it. Colonials." A weak smile cracked his face and his voice lost its harsh edge. Aware of the gun lined up on the old man, he let it sag.
Before he could respond further, a hail of bullets erupted through the open window, shattering the plaster on the wall. All three dropped and the sergeant crawled to the window. When the barrage ceased, he raised a cautious eye over the sill.
"Reckon he's over there," he mumbled to himself, and raised his weapon.
Henry and Silas remained crouched in the passageway, near the doorway but out of the line of fire. They watched as Alex lined up his weapon and started shooting. The rat-tat-tat of the sergeant's gun echoed noisily in the rubble-strewn room, causing the two civilians to wince.
For 20 minutes Sergeant Forestt exchanged bursts of fire with the unseen assailant until a cloak of uneasy peace was thrown over them. The stink of cordite filled the room as the temporary cessation of hostilities brought an eerie silence.
"Old man," Forestt whispered. "You want me to give you covering fire? You might be able to slip out with the wife. Find somewhere safer. How 'bout it? Wanna give it a try?"
"I can't run away from my responsibilities," Silas whispered back. "I've taken those local girls under my care and I can't abandon them certainly not now that there's a baby to care for. Can't say I'll be able to help them much, but sure as hell I'll do my best."
"You're crazy! I'm offerin' you your freedom. An escape."
"I appreciate your offer, but why swap one prison for another. I'd just prefer to make this one safer. The freedom you're offering is just an illusion. Best just forget freedom and concentrate on safety."
The soldier turned away, disgust on his face. He mumbled "Bloody smartarse intellectuals!" but Silas gave no indication of having heard the insult.
Further conversation was interrupted by another burst of enemy fire, which was quickly returned by the sergeant. For the next hour, gunfire was spasmodically exchanged between the assailants. After a short time, a pattern of shooting had been established.
In the lulls, Henry sought to draw the old man out, intrigued by his words.
"You said we weren't free," he commented. "Why not? I know we're tied up here at present but I got the impression you were talking about 'always', not just now."
"Yes, I was. None of us is ever really free," the old man responded.
"Go on. Might not be too free at present, caught in this house and all, but the sergeant's at least offered you an out."
"You miss the point, Henry. There is no freedom, anywhere. Heard a poem once, goes something like this:
"I agree old boy," Henry responded. "Until you lose your freedom, you don't realise how much it's worth."
"You miss the point. It's only the illusion of freedom that's valueless because freedom itself doesn't exist!"
"That's stupid!" The correspondent had to shout as gunfire resumed. "You trying to tell me that I'm not free? 'Course I am. Some of the poor sods who normally live around here aren't too free, but you can't say that I'm not."
"Don't know about that," Silas shouted back, but then the gunfire stopped and was able to drop his voice back to normal. "Can you travel to the stars? Can you walk on the moon? You can't even go down the street outside in safety!"
"Of course I can't go to the stars or walk on the moon. That doesn't mean I'm not free. I'm not a slave or anything. There aren't any walls around me."
"You've built your own walls, but that's not the point. Because you don't see the limitation of not being able to visit the stars, you don't appreciate that it is a boundary. Everything we do has limitations placed on it. We must obey laws. However much we might not like those laws, they control our lives. Even if we went and lived on a deserted island just us, no police, no government we would still have physical laws, limitations, imposed upon us by the very nature of the universe. How can we be free if we can't do anything our heart desires?"
"You're crazy! We're physical beings, and must comply with the physical laws placed on us. You just said as much yourself. Maybe if I were a spirit I may be able to visit the stars not that I'd probably want to but as a physical being I'm as free as I can be, as I want to be."
"Then we agree. You have created in your mind the illusion of freedom." He paused for a moment to emphasise the point, then continued. "I think of it like a piece of string with a knot in the middle. To the right of that knot we consider ourselves free, to the left we're not. But that knot could be anywhere on the string either end, or somewhere in the middle. Do you think the people who live here," Silas waved his hands around, indicating their surroundings, "don't think of themselves as free? 'Course they do. Their knot is just further to the left than ours not that I'm talking about the left and right of politics, just the left and right of a piece of string. The 'freedom' string." Silas chuckled quietly to himself.
Henry sat quietly midst the rubbish in the old house, examining what Silas had said. His concept of freedom had taken a beating a few years before when he'd been thrown into a Columbian jail. Totalitarian governments invariably don't like journalists specially if they espouse theories about 'freedom of the press'.
Six months in that rat-infested sewer was an experience Henry would have cheerfully forgone, even though it had supplied a fertile source of material.
He applied the comments Silas had made to his own loss of freedom.
He'd had to think hard to remember those early days in jail before he'd adjusted, before he could accept the situation in which he'd found himself. The claustrophobic effect of prison had nearly crushed him. After a few months of that open-ended sentence, Henry had adjusted sufficiently to the situation. He viewed the punishment cells under his prison as a place to avoid as a place to lose his 'freedom'.
From when he'd first come into the prison system, the knot on his 'freedom string' had gradually been moved to the left as he adjusted to the situation. Maybe there was something in what the old man said
But he was here, sitting on a pile of broken bricks in a house under fire. There was no guarantee of tomorrow, no guarantee of today. Free or not, he could be dead at any time. Finally he replied.
"So how does that keep us alive? Words and concepts are fine, but we live in a real world where we have to contend with real problems."
A sudden burst of fire, unexpected because it didn't conform to the established pattern, shattered their peace. Henry braced himself for the sergeant's return fire, but nothing happened. Anxiously he looked at the soldier, but Alex just sat there, gazing out through the splintered window frame.
"Alex," Henry whispered, a sudden chill running down his spine. He raised his voice: "Alex "
In slow motion, the dead body of the sergeant slumped to the debris strewn floor, his face shattered.
"Poor blighter!" Silas exclaimed. "Another damn death in this pointless war." A chilled shroud of silence enveloped them. Then he added: "But I suppose it does help us."
"How can you sit there and say that it helps us?" He was shocked at the old man's response. Alex might not have been his 'friend' in any accepted sense of the word, but he had been a comrade.
"Use your loaf, Henry. I didn't want to see him dead, but with Alex not returning fire the sniper will leave us alone. He'll think Alex was on his own. I, for one, am quite happy to be a little mouse and go hide in the cellar. Someone had stocked it up before we got there and there's still plenty of food and water. Enough for you too."
Silas turned to go but Henry was reluctant to leave the body of the sergeant. His Cockney manner might have been irritating, but it seemed inhuman to just leave him there. Unwittingly he raised the camera and started taking photographs of the corpse. At least his death might serve some purpose.
"Suppose at least he's free now," Henry muttered as he continued immortalising the sergeant on film.
"Depends," Silas replied. "I believe that unless his soul is freed he's just as much a prisoner in death as he was in life. True freedom's found in God. If he's Christian then it's with the Holy Spirit and his soul's now free to soar. As we speak he might be standing on the sun, or visiting the moon, or anywhere else he can imagine."
"No," the correspondent finally replied. "I know exactly where he is. There's a little village in Cornwall where he and his wife used to go for holidays. I think her family came from somewhere near there. Anyway, she died a few years ago and is buried there. I bet he's with her now."
Silas turned to the sergeant's body, head lowered in prayer.
"God speed," he said. "Be free."
The poem, Freedom, mentioned in this story was written by me. You can find it on my Poetry page.
The poem, Freedom, mentioned in this story was written by me. You can find it on my Poetry page.
Psalm 118:5 NIV
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