It was a thick, heavy book, a big book, with a dust jacket of creamy white and gold...
The path from the library up to the road was paved with attractive but uneven slabs of stone, over which one could easily stumble. I’d done it myself more than once, and in order to look where I was going I shifted the book under my arm. It was a heavy, comforting weight by my side. I’d been looking for a copy for years and I’d hardly believed my eyes when I’d finally found one on the library shelf.
I could almost feel the pleasure with which I’d open up the book when I got home, and make notes and diagrams for tomorrow’s class. I could almost feel already the atmosphere in the classroom, the avid attention with which the students would drink in the lesson, as I drew the diagrams on the board, tracing out bones and muscles and nerves as I explained to them exactly how the machine that is a body works. I loved teaching, loved seeing the spark of interest take hold in the eyes of the children sitting before me, and now I at last had material from which I could properly teach.
The afternoon sunshine was warm and golden as honey, slanting across the buildings and through the branches of the trees. I took a deep breath. The air, washed by three days of rain, was bright and clear, and it felt great to be alive.
The good feeling lasted until I turned the corner on to the main road. The traffic, I’d vaguely noticed, seemed unusually light, and merely taken it as another of the good things of the day – I’d be able to walk home without breathing in exhaust fumes all the way and having my ears assaulted by the noise.
But there, right in front of me, was an army lorry parked by the roadside, and soldiers in their green uniforms standing around a table put on the pavement. People were lined up before the table, and the troopers were asking questions and checking their identity. A smaller line stood to one side, looking uneasy and guarded by a couple of soldiers.
A soldier motioned to me with the barrel of his gun. “Get in line!”
“Me?” I was astonished. “But I’m just going home and –”
“No talk!” he screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “Get in line, you!”
I looked at him. He was very thin and very young, probably only a couple of years older than the children in my class. The rifle in his arms looked far too big for him, and the helmet on his head was so large it seemed about to fall off. He almost looked like a child dressed up as a soldier, except that there was nothing the slightest bit funny about him.
I got in line. “What’s going on?” I murmured to the man in front of me.
“No idea, man,” he mumbled over his shoulder. “I asked, but they hit me.” He pointed to his cheek to illustrate, and I saw it was swollen. “Better not say anything.”
The line moved slowly. An officer sitting at the table was checking everyone’s ID and asking questions. He barely glanced at the man in front of me when his turn came. “Go!”
Then I was standing in front of the table. The officer looked up at me. He had a red beret and a beard, and yellow and white stripes on his epaulettes. “Who are you?”
I gave him my name. He grunted. “And what do you do?”
“I’m a teacher,” I said.
He sat back very slowly in his chair and stared up at me. “Is that so?” he asked softly. “A teacher. What do you teach, then?”
I swallowed. “Zoology.”
He slapped his hand so hard down on the table that the papers on it jumped. “Don’t give me that. What do you really teach? Communist subversion? You’re poisoning the children’s minds!”
“What?” I was too flabbergasted to protest. “What are you saying?”
“An enemy of the people,” one of the other soldiers said. He was a very large, fat man with a cloth tied round his neck. It was wet with the sweat rolling off his face. “One of the communists, sir.”
“This is ridiculous.” I held up the book. “Take a look here. You’ll see it’s a zoology textbook. I just got it from the library.”
“And you think we’ll just believe that?” the fat soldier snorted. “Carry along something as camouflage. It’s as old as the hills, that trick is.”
“But –” I began. “You can just contact my school and ask.”
“All teachers are commies,” the fat soldier said. His eyes glittered. “Now we’ve got the power, we can take care of all of you, and we will.”
“Get in line there,” the officer said, pointing. “You’ll get a chance to have your say later.”
Something struck me across the shoulder blades, a blow hard enough to send me staggering several paces. It was the thin young soldier with the helmet that was too big. “Teacher, hey?” he yelled. “Get in there and shut up.”
I got in the line with the guards. There were about fifteen or twenty of us. Nobody spoke. I found myself fingering the book, over and over, as though it was a lucky charm. As long as the book was there, under my arm, its pristine white and gold dust jacket unblemished, it was as though nothing could happen to me.
After a while there was nobody coming along the street any longer, and the soldiers packed up the furniture and loaded it on to the lorry. Then they turned to us and pointed up at the vehicle. “Get on.”
We climbed on. There were so many people in the lorry, both the soldiers and us, that we could hardly move. I was very aware of the hard edge of a rifle pressed up against my side, and each time the vehicle swayed the edge of the young soldier’s oversized helmet banged against my neck and ear.
They put us in a room that already had so many people in it that the walls were wet with condensed breath. The only light came from a tiny square opening high up near the roof, just enough to see a little by. My back, after the jolting lorry ride and the press of bodies around, was sending shafts of pain through me. A soldier leant casually against the door, staring at us. Beyond him, the concrete of the veranda was cracked and filthy with refuse.
“What did they get you for?” someone asked. In the half-darkness I couldn’t see his face.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m a teacher, that’s all.”
“Teacher,” he repeated. “That’s very bad. They hate teachers.”
I didn’t know what to answer to that. “What about you?” I asked eventually.
We were standing so close together I felt rather than saw him shrug. “I’m just from the wrong ethnic group,” he said. “They’ll let me go eventually. They will let me go, won’t they?”
“Yes, of course,” I told him. “Of course they will.”
The press of bodies around me thinned a little, as the soldiers took some people away. I worked my way towards the wall, thinking I might be able to rest my back against it. I might also, I hoped, be able to open the book and look at a few of the diagrams in what little light was leaking into the room. Somehow, the book had become very important to me, more important than anything else. It was like my anchor to reality, the only thing holding me to the world as it had been when I’d run down the library steps earlier that afternoon.
I got to the wall, I reached for my book...and I didn’t find it. It had vanished from under my arm.
The shock that went through me at that moment was so great that I might have fallen but for the wall. I looked around frantically, peering at the floor, but I could see nothing.
“Has anyone seen my book?” I called out. “My book!”
Someone whose grizzled, bearded face was lit up momentarily by a stray ray of light turned to me. “It’s over there,” he said, pointing at the corner. “I can see it. Books!”
I turned to look. It was almost totally dark, but there seemed to be a stack of oblong objects, about waist high. I pushed my way towards the stack and reached out. My hand came down on wet, slippery stone, and on something furry which wriggled and squirmed away.
Not books after all.
Soldiers came into the room and led more people away. There were many fewer people now, but I still couldn’t see any trace of the book.
The soldier at the door had a triangular face and dead eyes. He turned blankly towards me as I went up to him. “Yeah?”
“I lost my book,” I said. “Have you seen my book?”
He looked me up and down. “Is it white?” he asked. “Big and white and yellow?”
“Yes,” I told him eagerly. “Yes.”
He considered, his head tilted on one side. “No,” he said at last. “I haven’t seen it.”
The last sunlight of the day was still in the sky when they led me out, along with a few others. On the other side of the veranda was a disused basketball court, grass poking through the cracked concrete. Beyond that was a low wall, about shoulder high, with a railing at the top.
The officer with the red beret appeared. “Line up with your backs to the wall,” he shouted. Put your hands back and over your shoulders. Do it!”
I complied. Someone took hold of my wrists and pulled them backward. I felt rope bite into my wrists.
The officer was saying something as a squad of soldiers appeared and lined up opposite us. Other soldiers were standing on the veranda, watching.
“...to be shot as enemies of the people,” the officer said. I barely heard him.
I was looking at the veranda, and at one of the soldiers standing there. It was the thin boy from earlier, and he had something in his hands. He was clutching it to his chest with both arms while watching us with wide eyes.
It was a thick, heavy book, a big book, with a dust jacket of creamy white and gold...
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Note to reader: Once again, a story based on last night’s dream.