Saturday 24 January 2015

The Holy Drone Cometh

In a few hours from now, as I write this, Nobel Peace Prizident and Emperor of Exceptionalistan Barack Obama is landing in India on an official visit.

This is not the first time that NPP&EE Obama has bestowed on us the honour of his presence, incidentally*. The last time was in November 2010, when, apart from glorifying Delhi with his presence, he did Mumbai (Bombay) the honour of spending some time there. On that occasion – I swear I’m not making this up – the stately coconut trees lining Marine Drive, where Obama was to visit a college, were stripped of their fruit in case one fell on his holy head. And then in said college visit he had a “discussion” with college students who asked him “hard” questions.

[*I mean that only semi-sarcastically. American media in the late nineties used to talk about how Bill Clinton shouldn't "reward" India with a presidential visit. Some reward.]

Actually, those college students were carefully selected according to two criteria – their parents’ political loyalty, and their own lack of self-assertiveness and opinion. In other words, anyone who was remotely likely to ask the Holy American Emperor any potentially embarrassing questions (like, for example, “How many kids did you drone today?”) was rigidly excluded.

That was, of course, under an Indian government so slavishly pro-US that it had made the one before that – the Hindunazi regime of Atal Behari Vajpayee, which had ruled from 1998 to 2004 – look positively nationalistic in comparison. That was the regime whose rubber-stamp, unelected, “prime minister” had hugged George W Bush and assured him that the people of India – who had no say in the matter – “loved” him. But this time the equations are a little different, since the current Indian government, though utterly vile in most ways, seems less enamoured of the Empire than either of its predecessors.  

In fact, I doubt very much that there will be much achieved during the visit, if by “achievement” we mean “dragging India into the Empire’s orbit”. What the Nobel Peace Prizident couldn’t achieve in 2010, I doubt he’ll manage now, when India is committed much more strongly to the BRICS and the Shanghai economic grouping. But there will be a lot of nauseating talk of how the “world’s two largest democracies” (a laugh if there ever was one, either of these two countries calling itself a democracy) share ties and are committed to a future together.

The one section that was, and still largely is, helplessly in love with the Empire is the Great Indian Muddle Class, the same people who rushed to visit McDonalds’ restaurants and Starbucks coffee franchises when they opened. The love affair this lot had with the United States has nothing to do with principles – the Great Indian Muddle Class has no principles – but everything to do with its belief that the US is the kind of society you’ll find in Archie Comics. Disillusionment has begun to set in, but is coming slow.

I don’t know if any Indian left-wing groups are going to demonstrate against the visit by this war criminal, whom Noam Chomsky called much worse than his ignoble predecessor. I don’t know if any media but the left-wing Hindu group are going to mention his  arming and funding of cannibal headhunters in Syria, his acting as al Qaeda’s air force in Libya, his open backing to Nazis in Ukraine, and his hypocritical persecution of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and other whistleblowers. There’s a tradition in India that one doesn’t speak ill of a guest, even if said guest is a mass murderer who drone-bombs schools and weddings.

But I’m no believer in tradition, and I don’t think of Barack Hussein Obama as a guest. So here’s my comment on his visit:

You’re welcome.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Woman Much Missed

"Woman much missedhow you call to me, call to me" ~ Thomas Hardy, The Voice 

Title: Woman Much Missed
Material: Acrylic on Plaster of Paris
This is a new technique for me. I poured a sheet of dental plaster, carved it while it was still softish, and then painted it with acrylic. The obverse side, having hardened on a sheet of laminated paper, is glass-smooth and I'll use that too for another painting.
This is a photo of the painting. Because of the uneven surface it did not scan well.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015 

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Slaughterhouse Fifteen

It happened one night that I slept, and, sleeping, dreamt.

In this dream I stood in the middle of an immense plain, covered with shattered ruins, on which only the burnt skeletons of trees grew, their branches extended like fingers to the air.

Though it was neither day nor night, the sky was black with smoke, in which sparks of light spiralled and danced, and half-burnt cinders fell like rain.

And I was not alone in the middle of this plain, for around me were those who lived here; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of them, who stood around me watching, but neither spoke nor moved.

Some were those who had been blown apart by high explosive at Guernica and Shanghai, Hargeisa and Grozny; shattered, lacking arms and heads, feet and faces, their entrails spilling from their eviscerated bodies.

There were black Ethiopians in white shammas, their noses and mouths frothing with blood, skins bubbling away from Mussolini’s poison gas, all in patient lines, waiting.

There were the children of the fields of Vietnam and the streets of Gaza, charred with napalm and white phosphorus, their bodies naked and roasted, staring from their eyeless faces.

There were other children from Vietnam and Cambodia, bent and twisted from the Agent Orange sprayed on their lands in a war the perpetrators would love to forget, because they lost it.

There were children from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen, their tiny bodies broken by rockets fired at an image on a video screen from half a world away.

There were the Iraqis, soldiers and civilians, blown to fragments in the name of being Shocked and Awed into surrender in a war based on a deliberate and cynical lie.

There were old and young women, school kids and commuters, ripped by shrapnel from bombs dropped by new Nazis winging their way to a new war in Ukraine.

There were the piles of ash in the shapes of men and women, incinerated by firestorms in Dresden and Hamburg, Berlin and Tokyo.

And there were those who were merely lines of shadows, blazed out of existence in the instant of a nuclear flash at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all these shadows stood there, too, in that field of ruins and smoke.

And I saw that they were all looking at me; for, unlike them, I was alive and I was whole.

Then one of them stepped forward, a man or something burnt, shaped like a man; he stepped out of his burned truck, and on his faceless face there was a smile.

“We greet you,” he said, “for long have we awaited your coming. Our numbers grow by the day, and we awaited you, but still you came not.” And the multitude nodded, those who had heads still to nod, in agreement. And those who had voices murmured assent.

“You awaited my coming?” I asked, astonished. “Why did you await my coming?”

“To tell us what is your purpose,” he said, then. “To tell us why you brought us here, why you made us as we are. To tell us what it is that you wish to do.”

“I?”  And then I saw that not only was I alive and whole, but I was dressed in flying overalls, and on my head I had a flying helmet fitted with all the equipment science could provide. And I remembered flying over them, over all their cities, in my Zeppelin and my Lancaster, my B 29 and my Heinkel 111, my F 16 and my B 52, looking through the bombsight as the load fell; I remembered staring into video screens, pressing down on triggers; I remembered standing back as another V1 took off from rails and vanished over the horizon.

“Tell us,” the dead people said, the people I had killed, the people around me. “Tell us what your purpose is, and make us whole.”

Hobbling on their legs without feet, holding up their arms without hands, speaking from their faces without mouths, they came to me to be told why, and to be healed.

To be healed, or to have their revenge.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Notes to reader

1. The story title is a take on Kurt Vonnegut Jr's classic novel on the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five. The "fifteen", of course, refers to the date.

2. The photo illustration is of an incinerated Iraqi soldier on the Highway of Death, 1991. Photo by Kenneth Jarecke.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Bridge Across The Sea

I saw her from a long way away, squatting on the beach near the water, doing something. It was a long and rocky beach, covered with white and grey stones, curving between the ocean and the white cliffs behind, with no buildings or lighthouse to break the view.

When I came closer I saw that she was quite a young girl, seven or eight perhaps. She wore a sleeveless white dress with pink and blue flower patterns, and her hair hung loose around her shoulders, black with brown highlights where the sun touched it. She didn’t look up as I came closer, because she was busy.

She was busy picking up the stones and tossing them into the ocean, one by one.

I stood watching her for a while, and she never paused, never looked up. She’d pick up a stone, feel it with her fingers, weight it, roll it around, and throw it in the water – at the exact same spot each time. Then she would pick up another. There was already a little pile of stones, visible under the water’s surface.

“What are you doing?” I asked her finally. It seemed an odd idea for a child’s game.

She looked up at me then. Her eyes were wide and serious, not like a child’s eyes. 

“I’m making a bridge,” she said. “I’m making a bridge across the sea.”

“A bridge? Where to?”

“To the island,” she said, as though it went without saying. She picked up another stone from between her bare feet, considered it, rolled it around in her hand and tossed it into the water. I watched it settle among the others. She reached out and picked up another stone.

“What island?” I asked at last.

“The island of dreams,” she said, slowly and clearly, as though speaking to an idiot. “The one across the sea, that comes when the moon is dark.”

I did not feel like laughing. Her manner left nothing to laugh at. Instead I peered across the water. The sea stretched, heaving, to the distant blue horizon. “There’s no island there,” I said.

“It only comes when the moon is dark,” she said. “I just told you. And then, when it’s dawn, it goes away again.”

“You’re building a bridge to it?” I didn’t want to ask who had told her about the island. It didn’t seem to be a question she’d welcome. “Why not just take a boat, then?”

“Boats can’t reach the island of dreams,” the girl said, throwing yet another stone into the water. She wasn’t just tossing them in at random, I realised. She selected where to throw each stone, according to its shape and size. “If they could, everyone would go there. You have to really want to get to it, you see.”

“And if you really want to get to it, you’ve got to build a bridge?” I asked.

She nodded. “Of course. How else would you get to it?”

I watched her throw in some more stones into the water. “What is it like on the island of dreams?” I asked.

“It’s all shadows and starlight and crystal,” she said. “Beautiful music plays on it, without stopping, music you’ve never heard before, and all your dreams come true. Once you get there, you never, ever, come away – and why would you want to?”

“So,” I said, “is it going to take a long time to make the bridge long enough to reach this island?”

“Maybe,” she said indifferently. “But it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to keep at it till I get there.”

I watched a while longer, but she said nothing more, just kept pitching her stones. And it was beginning to get late in the morning, and I was due to leave this place. I had no further time to waste watching a kid play her games. So I said “Bye,” which she didn’t acknowledge, and walked on. When I looked back from the end of the beach, she was still pitching the stones.


Many years passed before I came that way again. And it was the same time of morning that I walked the same stony beach, and it seemed that nothing had changed. Only, someone seemed to be wading in water a little off the beach. This wouldn’t have been strange, of course, but the person was only shin-deep in the water, and it should have been very much deeper there.

Without too much surprise I walked down the beach until I was standing behind her. It was a young woman, her denim shorts soaked with sea water and her shirt sleeves rolled up. I watched her throw stone after stone from a heap that rose out of the sea behind her into the water, until there were none left. And then she turned round and waded back up towards the beach for another load.

For a moment her eyes met mine, and I saw that same grave look as I’d seen in them so many years ago. Then she knelt and began gathering another armful of stones.

“Hello,” I said. “So you’re still at it.”

She didn’t ask who I was, or show any surprise at my question. “Yes,” she said. “I told you I’ll keep building it until I reach the island.”

There was no point asking if she actually believed in it. I watched her gather her stones. Her hands and feet were covered in abrasions from the rock, and left drops of blood behind which she ignored.

“Do you build the bridge all the time?” I asked.

She looked up at me. “As much as possible, I do. Of course it gets more difficult the deeper I get, but that only means I have to work harder.”

“Could I help?” I offered. “I have an hour or so to spare, and I’m not weak.”

She threw me a wild, almost terrified glance. “Not a chance! I have to do this all by myself, or the island won’t come.”

I looked at her and out at the sea, where the waves rolled. And I wondered how long she would keep at it.

Then, as she waded back out with her stones, I walked away.


Decades passed before I came that way again, and this time I went straight to the beach. And totally without surprise I saw her, quite far away now, still shin-deep among the surging waves. I waited where I was, at the same spot where I’d seen her for the first time so many years ago, until she came back.

She was middle-aged now, her hair run through with grey and lines around her eyes, but when she looked at me her gaze was filled with that same seriousness as before, and wavered not at all.

“So, it’s you,” she said. “Back again.”

“I had to see,” I told her. “You understand.”

“Of course. Tell me, did you ask anyone about me, in the towns? Do they call me a madwoman? Or do they even talk of me at all?”

“I did not ask anyone about you.” It was true. I looked past her at the line of wave-washed stones receding into the distance. “How much further do you think you have to go?”

She shrugged and bent to gather up stones, which she put in a huge rucksack. “I don’t know. It may be enough next darkmoon, it may take another thirty years. But it’s going to happen someday.”

“You still believe it’s going to happen.” It was a statement, not a question.

She looked at me. “Of course it’s going to happen. If I didn’t know it, why should I have spent my life doing this?”

For the first and only time, I asked the question. “How do you know it’s going to happen?”

She paused as she tightened the straps on the bag. “Because I’ve seen it,” she said. “In the dark night of the moon, I have seen the island, glittering with crystal and starlight, and I have heard the music, which nowhere else can be heard.”

“I’ll be back,” I said.

She swung the bag on to her shoulders. Her muscles, after all the years of work, must have been like tempered steel. She looked at me, unsmiling.

“I know.”


But it was many, many years later that I came again, and this time I only came because I had a strong feeling that if I waited any longer it would be too late. I came to the beach on an afternoon, and found it like before, lying rock-strewn between the stolid cliffs and the restless sea.

Far, far away, so far that it looked for all the world as though it were standing on water, a tiny figure toiled, moving with the slow, careful movements of the very old. I stood watching, thinking of wading out to it and at the same time knowing I would not be welcome to do that. The bridge was for its maker alone.

I wondered what kind of dedication would make a woman give up her entire life to such a project, but it surely must be near its end. I did not think the tiny, bent figure in the distance could keep going much longer.

Then she turned, and across the tossing waves she looked at me. And I looked back at her, and we stood watching each other for a while.

Then the sun, a red ball of fire, drenched the horizon with light and sank beneath the waves, and the darkness came rolling in.


I had already left the beach far behind when I remembered that this was the night of the new moon – what had she called it? Darkmoon. And since I was sure it was the last time I would be sharing this beach with her, I turned round and began walking back – just to talk to her, one last time, when she came ashore.

In the dim starlight I saw her still out there, barely visible, a dot in the darkness. I watched her as I walked towards the head of her bridge, where she had once, as a child in a flower-printed dress, first talked to me. And I saw her still pitching stones, though she surely couldn’t have taken so many with her that she still had any left to pitch.

Then I knew that she was throwing the stones from the older part of the bridge into the ocean before her, and I knew that she, too knew that this was the end, that she wasn’t coming back.

I had just reached the head of the bridge when I heard the music – not the music they played in the towns of men, but a different music, music wild and savage and indescribable. And I saw – or I thought I saw – something in the far distance, something that glittered with starlight and merged with shadow. Then a bank of low cloud washed across the sea, and when it was gone, there was nothing to be seen. No glitter and shadow, and no woman standing on the water.

And the waves of the ocean rolled on, as they had rolled since the world began, so many aeons ago.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015


The Most Beautiful Words

These are the most beautiful words ever written
Words worth living and dying for.
Words by far more filled with meaning
Than a philosopher’s lecture. a demagogue’s rant –

These are the words that make the universe
Worth living in
And make death feel worthwhile
If one can only hear them as one lets go

What words?
Three simple words
Worth doing anything for
If only to hear them
Just once again.


I love you.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015 

Monday 19 January 2015

Earth Mother At Rest

Last time I'd mentioned that I could do a river, or flowers, or a nude. So this time I'm giving you a river, flowers, and a nude.

Hope everyone's happy.

Please excuse any anatomical imperfections. I worked, obviously, without a model and it's been a long time since I was last with an unclothed lady.

Title: Earth Mother At Rest
Material: Watercolour and Acrylic on Paper
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015 

Ten Things I've Done (But You Probably Haven't)

Since everyone is allegedly unique – something I don’t believe, one little bit, but let’s go with it for the moment – let’s take a trip through ten things that make me “unique”, that is, that I’ve done...but you probably haven’t.

Please note that I’m not accusing myself of not being unique even if you’ve done six or seven of these things. You may well have. But I’ll bet you that it’s very, very, very unlikely that you, too, have done them all.

And if you have, given the nature of some of these “achievements”, I’m sorry for you.

1. Killed a rat by sitting on it (accidentally).

This happened many, many years ago, when I was a kid. It was a school holiday, and I was planning to go to the library, when I saw a largish rat in my room. I chased it around for a while (since orders were strict to murder all such members of the Rodentia), but it vanished. After looking for it everywhere, I gave up and went to the library. It was a hot day, and by the time I came home I was sweating and tired. I dropped the books on the table and sat down on the bed. All of a sudden I felt something squirm under me. Lifted the bedcover, and you know what? It was the rat, which had hidden in my bed, and which I’d well and truly squashed.

Rat squash. Is that a drink you’d like? Instead of orange squash, on a nice hot day?

2. Fallen into a river, twice in two minutes.

This happened in December 1988 (I remember the date because it was just about the time of the earthquake that hit Spitak and Leninakan). Our college – the biology classes – had been taken for a field tour to Manas wildlife sanctuary on the India-Bhutan border. It wasn’t a particularly successful trip, since fifty or sixty people trekking through the jungle tend to scare off all animals on a higher organisational level than crickets, but we did come across the skeleton of a wild buffalo. The teachers decided to take the skeleton back for the college museum. I got hold of a rib, which was a pretty big piece of bone, reaching almost up to my shoulder when placed on end.

We were working our way back to the camp site, and had to wade across a wide, shallow, fast flowing river. The bed of the river was all round stones, the water came to a little above the knee, and everyone began wading across one by one at one of the shallowest points. I had sneakers on, which I decided not to take off since I didn’t fancy getting the bottoms of my feet rubbed raw by those stones. Unfortunately, the soles of the sneakers were also pretty smooth. So as I reached the halfway point, I slipped on a round stone, the world turned in a complete circle and I was sitting up to my shoulders in the river, holding on to the bottom to keep from being washed away in the flow. I managed to get up, and then I found I’d dropped the rib. It was still there, lying under the water about a metre away, and I bent to reach it...and fell in again. People were yelling at me not to get up, and then two of those who’d gone across earlier came back and helped me get across. The strange thing is that I was the first one to fall in...and after me, at least five or six went under as well.

As for the rib, I suppose it’s still under that river...somewhere.

3. Got a tick stuck to my neck for three days before I knew it was there.

Same biology field trip. We students were put up in a series of sheds with no furniture and concrete floors, on which we spread sleeping bags. Bathing facilities consisted of one hand pump – and this was December. So basically “bathing” meant wiping yourself down with a wet towel as quickly as you could manage it. Now while hiking through the forest on the first day, I got a spot of soreness at the right side of my neck under the collar. I didn’t really think too much of it amidst all the other discomfort. When I got home, three days later, and had a proper bath, I found something hard sticking to that point. I tugged at it and felt legs squirming against my fingers. A moment later I’d pulled the damned thing off and it was a hard tick, about the size of the erasers they used to have on pencil tops. It was still twitching. I flushed it down the loo.

The joke was on me, really, because when I pulled it off the head of the arachnid remained embedded in my skin, and it caused a local infection that took weeks to disappear.

4. Got bitten by a chameleon.

You can totally do this too.

Step One: Find a large green chameleon on the street.
Step Two: Pick it up with the intention of putting it somewhere safe on vegetation. Be sure not to hold it close to the head, or else it won’t be able to turn round enough to bite.
Step Three: Watch as it takes your thumb between its powerful jaws and gives the digit a working over.
Step Four: Hold on to your dignity until you put the animal on its tree, and then suck your thumb like a rabid vampire.

Raised a bruise, but didn’t cut the skin, fortunately enough.

5. Faced down a mob.

I have actually never told anyone about this before so far as I can remember, mostly because they’d imagine I was heroic. I was not heroic, just stupid. Here’s how it happened:

Circa 1992, when I was studying in Lucknow, I used to have several Kenyan friends who lived off campus. (One of them was a certain Felix Feisal Mboya, whose mother was called Zeituni Onyango. What’s so special about that? Oh, nothing, except she was the aunt of someone whom nobody had heard of then, one Barack Obama. But this story isn’t about him.) I used to go visit them on Saturday evening, stay overnight, and go back to the college on Sunday afternoon.

One grey Sunday, two of them – Tom Ogutu and Saleem Abdallah, if I remember right – and I had gone out on the ancient Yezdi motorcycle one of them owned. Three on a bike, yes, and not a helmet between us, either, but that was common back then. I don’t recall where we were going, exactly, but all of a sudden we turned down a street and found ourselves amongst a mob of men armed with rods and machetes, who surrounded us and ordered us to stop. They then began asking the two Kenyans – in Hindi, which they hardly understood, of course – what they were up to and where they were going, and punctuating the questions with threatening shakes of their rods and so on.

All this got very much on my nerves, because I’d already witnessed at first hand the pernicious anti-African racism of North Indians, who would openly call black people “monkeys” to their faces. And I blew my top and gave them a tongue lashing, telling them exactly what I thought of them and their behaviour towards “guests” in our country. They looked a bit startled. I think this was the first time anyone had given them a dressing down. But I was obviously very young and very harmless, and they let us go without another word.

It was obviously an insanely dangerous thing to do, in retrospect, but, you know what, when you act on the impulse of the moment, sometimes you win.

6. Passed off a hickey as an insect bite.

Short story (again this was in Lucknow):

I spent the night with a girl. She gave me a large hickey on my throat, just under the larynx. I didn’t notice it. Went to the clinic with the hickey visible where my shirt was open on the top. Clinical partner – another young lady – saw it and said, “Hey, what’s that on your neck?” I looked in the mirror and there was this huge lip-shaped bruise. “It must be an insect bite,” I said. The first thing I could think of, you understand. “Must have been a very large insect,” she told me.  I nodded. There was nothing for me to say.

7. Saw a UFO.

Actually, I have seen a UFO thrice. I should explain that when I use the term UFO, I mean Unidentified Flying Object, no more, no less. I do not mean that these things were spaceships from Andromeda. Hell, if they were spaceships from Andromeda, they’d bloody well be spaceships from Andromeda, not Unidentified Flying Objects, right?

In any case, in the interests of scientific accuracy, I must admit that none of them stayed unidentified for too long.

The first was a bright red meteor, the very first and still by and far the most spectacular meteor I have ever seen.

The second was a hot air balloon flying at night. These unmanned balloons – like Chinese lanterns – used to be not too uncommon. I haven’t seen one in decades, though, and again, that was the very first.

The third was a bright point of light that seemed to alternate between hovering in the air and looping the loop. I really couldn’t understand what this thing was until I fetched a pair of binoculars. It turned out to be a kite made out of some kind of metallic material, probably aluminium foil.

Next time maybe it will be a nuclear missile flying overhead or something.

8. Broken someone’s jaw (accidentally).

No! As far as violence goes, I’m with Bruce Springsteen: “I ain’t no fighter and that’s easy to see”. It happened this way:

I was working in a dental clinic attached to a hospital (which shall remain nameless) when I got this specimen turning up: an old man with almost no teeth. I say almost, because he had a wisdom tooth in his left lower jaw which was impacted, that is, embedded in the bone, and badly infected too. The rest of his jaw was completely toothless, and the bone badly shrunken.

While extracting the tooth, which I had to do with rather primitive instrumentation compared to what I have in my clinic these days, and with no assistant to help me, that thin, brittle bone of his jaw broke clean in two. My first intimation of it was when I saw a sharp “step” appear between the back of his jaw, which had the impacted tooth, and the toothless front part. The white jagged bone showed clearly in the cut.

Well, what did I do? The rest of his jaw was intact, so I removed the tooth, set the fracture back in place, stitched the gum closed, gave him antibiotics and painkillers, and checked him daily for the next weeks. He had a huge swelling for a few days but that subsided quite rapidly, and over the next few months the bone healed completely – all without any kind of metallic fixation or other special treatment.

So not only did I break someone’s jaw for him, I healed it too.

9. Eaten steamed caterpillars (accidentally).

OK, this is something you might want to skip, in case you ruin your appetite for chop suey for a lifetime.

This happened back in circa 1989 when a couple of friends and I went to a certain eatery in this town which I’ll call New Oriental Restaurant. It was one of those places where the light is kept so dim that your pupils dilate to the maximum, giving your date the illusion that you’re sexually attracted to them. The side effect, of course, is that you can barely see to eat.

I ordered chop suey, and ate about two thirds of my portion when for some reason I don’t recall at this time we got some bright light – I think one of the others wanted another look at the menu. And then I saw my chop suey was liberally besprinkled with tiny black caterpillars, maybe a centimetre or so long. By that time I must have consumed (going by the number still on the plate) at least twenty or thirty.

I’m not actually against eating insects – far from it. But, you know, before being crammed full of entomological protein, I’d appreciate being told about it.

Bon appétit.

10. Attempted (and, obviously, survived) suicide three times in five days.

This is not something I will talk about in detail here. I’ve written about it elsewhere, and it’s not a part of my life I have any great desire to revisit. Suffice it to say that I survived attempted suicide by poison, hanging, and drug overdose, and the last of it put me in a coma for three days.

And there are other things, like being racially profiled, sexually humiliated, interviewed on TV, etc , which have happened to a lot of you, I’ll bet, and I don’t think anything’s either unique about them or worth my describing here.

But, hey, I found ten things to list, and I didn’t even have to stretch to make up the numbers!


I looked for 'unique person' and this is what I got. [Source]

A word about depression

One of the stupidest, most condescending things anybody can say to someone with severe depression is "everything's going to be all right." It's even stupider than "get over it!" because at least that second one shows you don't have any faux-sympathy for the person in question.

Let me tell you something: saying "everything will be all right" means exactly nothing. It means nothing because everything is not going to be all right just because you say so, and both of you know it. It means nothing because you're just proving that you've never been in that situation and have no idea what it's like to be in that situation.

When someone's critically depressed, they don't want to hear false reassurances. They want to know that you're there for them, and by just letting them talk, putting an arm round their shoulder, letting them sob their hearts out on your neck you'll do more for them than any amount of pop psychology.

When one's really badly depressed, it's hard enough to keep oneself alive from day to day that one doesn't need "advice" and "comfort" from people who haven't the least idea what one's going through.

If you can't help a depressed person, don't make it worse. Leave them alone, that's the least you can do.

Sunday 18 January 2015

A Rotten Bloody War

This is the third part of a series which began with Retribution and continued with Nadezhda.


In a few hours the thunder would break over the city, and it crouched, like an animal awaiting the hunters, knowing the blow was about to fall.

Alyosha tried not to keep looking towards the west, towards the enemy city. Whenever he did, the tension gripped his throat and twisted his stomach. For the third time he began another walk around the tank, checking the tracks and wheels with a hooded torch.

“Stop that, fishling,” Akhmetov said. He was leaning on the hull, puffing nervously on a cigarette. His was only one of hundreds of red dots sprinkling the darkness of the little wood among the dark bulks of parked tanks. “You’re winding me up.”

“Remember that time we shed a track? I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Looking at it twenty times won’t make a difference. Nor is draining the main batteries checking over and over that they aren’t drained a great idea. I haven’t seen you stop moving in hours.” His voice took on a mocking litany. “Oil pump, gearbox, fuel, electrics, engine, transmission. Transmission, engine, electrics, fuel, gearbox, oil pump. You’re obsessed, fishling.”   

Alyosha shrugged. “It never hurts to make sure,” he said. “I mean, by this time tomorrow we won’t be able to find time for maintenance.”

“By this time tomorrow we’ll be lucky not to be dead.” Ahmetov took a final drag on the cigarette, threw it down and stamped on it. “That lot over there won’t be just waiting for us to roll over them, you know.”

Alyosha looked at him. “You really think they’ll fight hard? The war’s almost over.”

Akhmetov waved at the forest around them, his hand almost invisible except in the reflected glow of cigarettes and Alyosha’s hooded torch. “Everyone’s tense,” he said. “We all know that lot over there will fight, and fight hard. They’ve put kids on the front line, you know? Fourteen, fifteen year old boys, even girls.” He spat. “You know what kids are like? You tell them to do something, they’ll do it, even if they get killed. Because they want to please you.”

Alyosha leaned on the hull beside Akhmetov and switched off the torch. “Nurik,” he asked, “what are you planning to do when the war’s over?”

“In the unlikely event of us surviving, you mean?” Akhmetov’s expression was unreadable in the darkness. “Go back home and get back to college, I suppose.” He laughed harshly. “I was studying to be an agronomist when the war started, can you believe that? I thought I’d spend my life growing things.”

“You can still go back to growing things.”

“Oh sure, after all I’ve seen these last couple of years.” Akhmetov’s voice was heavy with irony. “You know who I see in my dreams these days? Old Chinggis Khan himself, and he keeps pushing a sword in my hands. Each time, I refuse to take it, so he gets more insistent and angrier.” He laughed without mirth. “Someday, I’ll take it, if only to stop him scowling at me. And then what? What can I do with a sword that I’m not already doing, loading shells for Sasha to shoot at other human beings?”

“Chinggis, huh?” Alyosha scratched his chin, which was rough with stubble. “That’s...I don’t know what to say.”

Akhmetov didn’t even pause to listen to him. “Back in training, I was with another former agronomist student – from Ukraine. When the Nazis attacked, he’d been ordered to drive a tractor over the living grain he’d just planted and nurtured; to destroy it all rather than leave it for the enemy. He couldn’t stop thinking about that, and that’s what he wanted revenge for. Strange, isn’t it? He wanted to make the Nazis pay, not for the destroyed cities and the dead people, but for making him drive a tractor over the grain.”

A flare rose in the west, a red point of light soaring through the darkness, briefly visible through a gap in the foliage. They watched it until it vanished.

“If I’d seen it out over the steppe, back home,” Akhmetov said softly, “I’d have said that was a meteor, a pretty meteor. Now, if I see a meteor I assume it’s a flare, and I wonder if it’s a signal for an attack.”

“They know we’re here, don’t they?”

“Of course they do, fishling, and they’re watching us just like we’re watching them, don’t worry.”

As though to emphasise what he’d just said, there was a series of explosions, close enough that Alyosha felt the vibrations through his boots. “Ours or theirs?” he asked.

“It’s all the same if it hits you.”

“You’ve never been in a real battle, have you, fishling?” Sasha dropped down from the turret and handed Akhmetov a flask. “Ever since you’ve joined the crew, all we’ve had is skirmishes, not battles.”

“He’s our lucky mascot,” Akhmetov said. “Our lucky fish.” He swallowed some of the vodka. “My grandfather was all religious,” he observed, passing the flask to Alyosha. “He’d have been horrified to think of me drinking. And I was his favourite too!”

Alyosha swirled around a little of the fiery spirit in his mouth, feeling it numb his tongue and the inside of his cheeks. He’d disliked vodka, but was getting increasingly used to the taste. Maybe once the war was over he’d have to learn to hate it again.

“The Starshina said we’d better get what rest we can while we can,” Sasha said. “Give me that flask if you’re not going to drink any more of it.”

Alyosha put his hands in his pockets and slouched, listening with half an ear to Sasha and Akhmetov talk as they passed the vodka back and forth. From the next tank, there was a noise of hammering as the crew tried to fix some defect. He smelt burned oil and diesel smoke.

Another flare rose in the distance, followed by a wavering line of tracer that stitched the sky with white dots. Alyosha watched it and wondered who’d fired it, and what they were thinking, and whether they were frightened of what was going to happen tomorrow.

He was frightened. Now, he thought, he could admit it to himself. At least if he kept it to himself nobody would laugh at him, though he had an idea that Sasha and Akhmetov wouldn’t laugh at him anyway. Over time, they’d finally begun to accept him as one of them, though he’d probably never take the place of Misha, the driver who’d been killed by the sniper. They’d been through too much with Misha for Alyosha ever to replace him.

But then, he thought, if Akhmetov was right about what would happen tomorrow, there might not be any need to worry about that anyway.

“Hey, fishling?” Sasha asked, poking him. “I asked you a question.”

“Huh?” Alyosha turned with a start.

“Don’t tell me you’re drunk already.” Sasha took a swallow from the flask and belched. “Do you have a girl to go home to or something?”

It was strange that they had never asked this before, and another sign that he was becoming accepted. “Not really. I mean...” His cheeks burned and he was grateful of the darkness. “I’ve never really talked to any girls, to be honest.”

“He’s right out of mama’s arms,” Akhmetov chuckled.

Sasha laughed. “Well, if we get out of this alive, you’ll be a war hero. No problem with girls, they’ll come flocking to you.”

“From all the other millions of soldiers to pick from, you mean?” Alyosha said. “Not likely.”

“There comes the Kombat,” Akhmetov said, as a hooded torch moved towards them down the line of tanks. They straightened to attention and Sasha put the flask away. The Kombat, a big man with a small moustache, nodded at them and moved on. “What would you do if you were an officer, Sasha?”

“Sit in a nice big office pushing pins into maps, that’s what I’d do.” Sasha snorted. “You wouldn’t find me tramping around in the dark preparing for an attack, you can be sure.”

“You should’ve been a German. They’d have given you the Knight’s Cross and put you on Hitler’s General Staff.”

“I once knew a German, you know,” Sasha said unexpectedly.

“What, before the war?”

“Yeah. I was training to be a machinist and he was attached to the factory as an advisor. He wasn’t a bad bloke, for a German. I wonder where he is now.”

“Maybe over there,” Akhmetov said. Nobody replied to that. There was no reply possible.

Fyodor materialised from somewhere. “Two hours to go,” he said. “All set for the glorious victory ride?”

They all laughed. “Fishling will see us safe,” Akhmetov said. “As long as fishling’s in the driver’s seat no harm can come to us.”

“And if I don’t?” Alyosha asked.

“Then it won’t make a difference, my boy.” Fyodor slapped him on the shoulder. “It won’t make a difference to anyone at all.”


The world was shivering with fear.

That was the best way Alyosha could think of it. The air trembled from the shockwave of the shells hurtling by overhead, and the ground shuddered like an earthquake as they smashed into the enemy city. Even through the padded lining of his leather helmet, the sound was so intense that he could barely hear the engine of the tank as he revved it. He was intensely grateful he wasn’t one of the artillerymen, and even more that he wasn’t on the receiving end.

“There’s going to be a lot of eardrums ruptured tonight,” Tereshchenko had said, just before the barrage had started. “It’s going to look and sound very impressive, but don’t be fooled – the Nazis will still be there when we go over, and they’re still going to fight.”

“They are?” Alyosha had asked. “But there can’t be many of them left after the artillery are through, surely?”

Tereshchenko had laughed sourly. “Remember Stalingrad? If the lot in there know what they’re doing, it’s going to be our turn to face the music.” He’d turned to the others. “As I said, we’ll be following the infantry in. Don’t go mistaking our soldiers for theirs.”

“What about civilians?” Sasha had asked. “Are they still there or have they been evacuated?”

Tereshchenko had shrugged and scratched his chin. “I don’t know. If they’re there, they’ll have to take their chances like anyone else.”

“The civilians won’t like the barrage,” Akhmetov had said. “The old men, the women, the children...”

“The Kombat said, watch out for the old men and the children,” Tereshchenko had replied. “The Nazis have armed them to fight us. Hitler Jugend and Volkssturm.”

“Old men and children?” Alyosha had asked. “What can they do?”

Tereshchenko had gazed at him bleakly. “Given enough motivation, Safonov,” he’d replied, “they can do anything.”

They’d been standing by the side of the tank then, going through the last minute briefing. Now the senior sergeant leaned out of the commander’s hatch and motioned them inside. The noise was too intense to hear him shout.

Alyosha rubbed his face with his hands, grasped the edges of the front hatch and climbed inside. The tank had become like home over the last few months, but each time he entered it, he had to get used all over again to the cramped interior, the smell of oil and gunsmoke, and the heat and vibration of the engine. And if they faced hard fighting in the city, he might not be able to leave it again for at least the coming day.

For the moment, though, Alyosha didn’t see how anyone could survive the barrage that was throwing the ground up and down like a stormy sea. The flashes of the explosions seen through the trees had merged into a continuous flickering light, red and orange and white, and shredded twigs from the trees overhead fell on the tanks like pieces of amputated limbs.

The lead tanks began to move off. Alyosha saw the sparks from their exhausts, and the clouds of diesel smoke caught his headlights. Stamping on the clutch, he leaned forward and pushed the gearshift into third.

The blow had fallen on the beast, and the hunt was on.


By the clock on the dashboard, it should be well past dawn, but it was impossible to tell.

Through the twin vision blocks on the closed forward hatch, Alyosha could only see a slice of the sky, which was black with the smoke from the burning buildings. The flames threw a lurid glow on the street, slick with water from broken pipes. His tank had been in the second line of advance, and so far hadn’t seen any fighting, but, as Tereshchenko kept reminding them over the intercom, that was bound to change.

“Roadblock ahead,” Tereshchenko said. Alyosha couldn’t see it from his seat, but he could hear the shooting. A T 34 ahead stopped, its turret swivelling, and fired off a shell. Another slowed, took up position, and fired too.

“Turn left, side street,” Tereshchenko ordered over the intercom. “Driver, turning to the left, twenty metres.” Alyosha pulled in the left tiller, turning the tank. They were now broadside on to the roadblock, and he had a sudden vision of a shell smashing into the side armour. Gritting his teeth to dispel the mental image, he eased the throttle forward.

There was a car lying on its side, partially blocking the turning, and its dark grey roof showed briefly in Alyosha’s vision block before the tank struck it. The T 34’s left side rose slightly as it rolled over the wreck. Alyosha eased the throttle forward and the tank was past the turn, the car spread across the  junction, a flattened ruin.

“Hope nobody was inside that,” Alyosha muttered.

“If they were,” Fyodor replied, “they were either dead or too badly hurt to get out. And they’re certainly dead now.”

Brown-clad figures raced up the pavements ahead, staying close to the buildings. Occasionally, one of them would stop to squeeze off a submachine gun burst, though it was impossible to tell what they were firing at. One of them turned at the tank’s approach and made hand signals up at the turret.

“Slow down,” Tereshchenko ordered. “Something’s up ahead.”

The ‘something’ proved to be a destroyed T 34, burning brightly, its turret knocked askew. From a tall building on the other side of an intersection, a storm of bullets rained down on the wrecked tank, several bouncing off Alyosha’s tank’s glacis and turret sides. “Close up to the other tank,” Tereshchenko said. “Close up and stop.”

The heat from the burning tank, and the smell of burning fuel and rubber, filtered past the closed hatch and stung Alyosha’s eyes and nose. He tried not to think of what had happened to the other crew. The red and yellow flames filled the vision blocks, licking out like hungry tongues.

“Stop,” Tereshchenko said.

There was a hollow boom and the tank shuddered as Sasha fired off a shell. Before the empty case had even finished clattering on the ammunition boxes on the turret floor, Akhmetov had already lifted another shell into the breech and rammed it home. The gun boomed again.

By the time Sasha stopped firing, the fighting compartment was full of gun smoke, the turret floor was littered with spent shell casings, and the inside of the tank felt like an oven. But the firing from the building opposite had slackened off.

“There goes the infantry,” Sasha said with satisfaction. Alyosha heard the sound of grenades going off in quick succession, like popcorn. The firing stopped completely.

“Building’s cleared,” Tereshchenko reported. “I’ll radio the Kombat and –“

With a shriek that seemed to split the sky, a salvo of shells landed on the street. The explosions were so loud that Alyosha thought he’d gone deaf. Debris came raining down, chunks of masonry bouncing off the tank’s armour.

“That’s our artillery!” Sasha yelled.

“What the hell are they doing?” Fyodor shouted. “They’ll be hitting us in a moment!”

“I’m trying to radio the Kombat,” Tereshchenko yelled. “Driver, reverse, fast as you can.” The shells were still falling. The entire street was a mass of flashes and smoke.

Suddenly the shelling stopped, as though someone had turned off a tap. It was so sudden that nobody could believe it for a moment. “Driver, stop,” Tereshchenko said at last. “Damn. After all we’ve been through, being hit by our own artillery would have been a pretty poor way to go.” 

“Well, that’s that.” Akhmetov was on his knees on the turret floor, dropping the empties into the ammunition boxes and loading fresh ready rounds into the turret racks. “I wish we could open up the hatches and get some fresh air, but you can’t have everything.”

“Yeah,” Fyodor said, “we could’ve been like the poor bastards in the other tank. Any idea whose tank that was?”

“No,” Sasha said, “and I don’t want to know. What happened with the artillery? Did someone call in a strike on the building we were shooting at?”

“Some screw up, for certain. Artillery bastards are sodding drunk all the time anyway.”

Alyosha didn’t say anything. The lining of his helmet was soaked with sweat and it was trickling down his face. His shoulders and the base of his neck ached with tension.

Slowly, the smoke lifted and the dust clouds began to settle. The street was almost unrecognisable, the pretty stone buildings masses of broken masonry, the pavements covered with jagged shards of glass. Alyosha stared around at the devastation through the vision blocks and then blinked, unbelieving. A group of boys was bicycling through the ruins, as calmly as they were on a holiday.
Alyosha almost waited too long. He stared at the boys, cycling down the street, as though going for a picnic, and it was only when one of them turned suddenly, looking at the tank, that he noticed the club-ended cylinders slung on either side of the handlebars, and the uniforms they were wearing.

Tereshchenko had noticed them too, at almost the same moment, but Alyosha’s hands and feet were already blurring on the levers and starter button as his shout came down the intercom. Before the first boy had finished spilling from his bike and unslung the Panzerfausts beside the handlebars, he had already slewed the tank round in a turn to face him.

Time seemed to drop into slow motion. Through the vision block Alyosha saw the boy, crouched behind the bicycle, his Panzerfaust clutched below his armpit as he brought the weapon to bear. Beside him, Fyodor seemed to be moving underwater, his machine gun tracking back and forth with excruciating slowness, hosing the street with long bursts of machine gun fire. And his own hand, as though hanging in the air, as it dragged the gearshift back into reverse, the T 34 backing into rubble as there came a puff of smoke behind the boy and the warhead hurtled over the street and slammed into the tank with a huge blinding flash.

Alyosha sat behind the steering tillers, blinded with smoke and deafened, his head ringing. Vaguely, he was aware of someone shouting, as though far away, and machine gun fire. He could not react, couldn’t move. Then someone was shaking him and yelling in his face.

“Fishling?” It was Fyodor, his cheeks and forehead streaked with soot. “Fishling, are you hurt? Are you all right?”

Alyosha shook his head to clear it. His mouth moved, forming words. “I...don’t know. No pain.”

“He’s stunned.” A slit-eyed face peered over Fyodor’s shoulder; Akhmetov. “It hit the glacis right in front of him.”

“Here,” Sasha’s voice, in Alyosha’s left ear. “Lay him down on the turret floor.” He folded the driver’s seat back down and helped ease Alyosha back until he was lying on the rubber mat over the ammunition boxes. “Give fishling some vodka.”

“Those boys...” Alyosha whispered, after the alcohol had made its way down his throat. “What happened to the tank?”

Fyodor looked at him and then across at his machine gun and back. “Don’t worry about them. They’re taken care of. The tank’s damaged, but we aren’t dead yet.”

“Are you injured, Safonov?” Tereshchenko peered down past the gun breech in the turret. “Are you bleeding anywhere?”

“I’m all right,” Alyosha said, and struggled to sit up. “What happened to the tank, Starshina?”

“The left track’s damaged, and the steering mechanism’s done for, apparently. You’d be better able to tell.” Tereshchenko kicked moodily at the back of Sasha’s seat. “We’re stuck here until we can get a recovery vehicle to come up, that’s for sure.”

“Starshina,” Sasha warned, “someone’s coming. It’s a man.”

“Who?” Very cautiously, Tereshchenko poked his head up over the rim of the commander’s cupola. “What on earth does he want?”

Alyosha had just sat up, and he looked through one of the vision ports on the side of the turret. He saw a man in his sixties, maybe, podgy, in an overcoat, grey hair hanging from below the brim of a black Homburg hat. He had his arms raised over his head and was looking up at the turret anxiously.

“Hilfe, hilfe, bitte,” Alyosha heard the man saying, his voice faint through the turret and the ringing in his ears. “Russische Soldat, hilfe bitte.”

Tereshchenko was the only one of them who could speak more than a few words of German. “Was ist los?” he called, still keeping his head low.

The elderly man replied something else, too fast for Alyosha to catch. Tereshchenko replied, and looked down into the tank.

“He says the shelling hurt his daughter, she’s trapped under the debris, his wife is trying to free her but they can’t do it without help. If the fire in those buildings spreads, she’ll be burned.”

“A chto?” Akhmetov asked. “So what?”

“So he wants our help rescuing her, of course,” Tereshchenko said. “He’s got a point, seeing that it’s our shelling that did this.”

“What do we care about his daughter, after all the Nazis did to us?” Sasha slapped the breech of the gun angrily. “Let her burn, I say.”

 “Don’t be a silly nit,” Tereshchenko snapped back. “If it was my daughter...” He paused, and everyone remembered.

“All right,” Sasha gave in. “I’ll go.”

“No, I need you to see to the gun if the Nazis come back. I’ll stay here too, and load and see to the radio. The three of you go – if you’re feeling well enough, Safonov?”

“Da, Starshina. I’m all right. Not that I could do much good in here anyway, without being able to drive.”

“Good. Take tools, you’ll need them. And a submachine gun, of course.”

“You be sure to cover us, Starshina,” Fyodor said.

Tereshchenko put his hand on the turret traverse, turning it so the main gun pointed at the German man. “Don’t worry, I’ll cover you.”


The old man’s house was in a narrow street just behind the tank, a street Alyosha hadn’t noticed earlier from his driver’s position. They hurried after him, heads low, Akhmetov carrying the submachine gun, listening to the explosions and the sound of gunfire elsewhere in the city. Smoke rose over the skyline, here and there, merging together so it seemed to Alyosha as though a tree of fire was slowly growing up towards the sky, which at the same time was filled with wan sunshine.
The house was half demolished, the front half a pile of rubble sloping into the street, and loose wires dangling overhead. But there was enough space to squeeze past inside, into a tiny back garden, from where they found themselves directly in the kitchen.

A grey haired woman in a print dress was on her knees by the far wall, which had fallen in, scrabbling frantically with her hands. She looked up as they entered.

“Meine Frau,” the German man said unnecessarily. The woman sat back on her heels and watched the three tankers with wary eyes.

Akhmetov motioned the man to put down his hands, which all this time he’d been holding over his head. The man’s fleshy face was drawn tight around his eyes, and his complexion was waxy.

“Tochter?” Fyodor managed. “Wo ist Tochter?”

The man and woman both pointed and broke into a gabble of German. Alyosha walked over to the tumbled debris. A piece of it seemed to be of different colour and texture to the rest. Then he realised that he was looking at a hand and arm, covered with dust. Even as he looked, the fingers twitched.

“Fyodor, Nurik,” he called. “She’s alive.”

They dug. At first Akhmetov kept the submachine gun trained on the old couple, but it was soon obvious they weren’t a threat. Also, Fyodor’s and Alyosha’s efforts weren’t enough. Slinging the gun over his shoulder, he, too, began to clear away the rubble.

They got the woman out finally. She was perhaps thirty and might have been pretty, but the mask of dust and clotted blood on her face and in her hair had made her almost unrecognisable. One shin hung loose, a jagged edge of white bone showing through it. She moaned.

“Helga,” her father said. “Du bist in Sicherheit, Helga.”

The woman moaned again. Her hand clutched at Alyosha’s sleeve.

“It isn’t as bad as it looks,” Fyodor, the crew’s first aid man, said. “I’ll get the kit from the tank.”

“Moment, bitteschön.” The old man rolled out a strip of matting on the kitchen table and signalled them to lay the woman on it. Her mother was already cleaning her face with a moist piece of cloth. Her eyes flickered, opening. She stared at one of them and then the other.

“You’re all right,” Alyosha said in Russian. “You’re safe.”

The woman, Helga, flinched as Akhmetov reached out to move her into a more comfortable position, shaking her head. He raised his hands and stepped back.

“Have it your own way,” he said. The woman’s mother kept silently cleaning the dirt away while her father watched from the corner.

“We’ll have to set that leg,” Fyodor said, returning with the first aid kit. “Fishling, hold her foot. Nurik, press on the thigh.” He bent over the shin. The woman screamed suddenly and fell silent.

“She’s just fainted,” Fyodor said. He snapped a leg off a chair and splinted the broken shin, tying it in place with strips of tablecloth. “She’ll be all –“

With a tremendous roar, a flight of Shturmoviks flew over at rooftop level, their shadows falling across the room through the dusty kitchen windows, and unloaded their rockets somewhere in the vicinity. Everyone crouched instinctively as the explosions shook the air. Broken glass tinkled from the frames.

“Where was –“ Alyosha began, and stopped, staring.

A boy stood at the kitchen door. He was dressed in a khaki and black uniform with a peaked cap and a swastika band on his arm. His eyes were wide and his mouth open, as though screaming. In one hand he held a pistol, its barrel pointed in Fyodor’s general direction.

Everyone froze. Nurik’s submachine gun, still slung over his back, might as well have been as far away as the moon.

“Was geht hier?” the boy shouted. He couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, his cheeks flushed red with youth and anger and excitement. His pistol hand trembled.

“Junge –“ the old man began.

The boy screamed something at him, his pistol swinging round. Alyosha made out one word, Verräter. Traitor.

“Hört mir zu, Knabe,” the old man said, raising his hands. “Alles ist...”

But the boy was in no mood to listen. His finger tightened on the trigger as he raised the gun to shoot. Akhmetov, seeing his chance, began to unsling his submachine gun.

“Nein.” The word came from the kitchen table, the voice firm and clear. “Nein.”

They all looked. The woman, Helga, had raised her head and was staring across at the boy. “Nein,” she said again.

The boy’s mouth moved, his face turning white. He whispered one word, a word Alyosha half-heard. The gun began to tremble.

“Nein,” Helga said a third time, shaking her head. And that was enough. Turning, the boy ran. His gun, dropped as he fled, thumped on the floor. It did not go off.

Except for the sounds of explosions in the distance, there was silence. Alyosha picked up the pistol.

“Let’s get them out of here,” Fyodor said. “That kid could come back, or more like him.”

Faintly, and then louder, they heard the sound of tank treads rolling.


It was only much later, when the repair crew had done their job and the tank had finally been put back into running order, that Alyosha found the time to talk to Fyodor.

“That kid,” he said, as they had a hurried dinner in the shelter of a pile of rubble. “I was sure he was going to shoot the old man, and us too. A nasty bit of work.”

Fyodor shrugged, spooning up some soup. “Yes, they brainwash them well in the Hitler Jugend. But, of course, once the woman said No, that was the end of the matter.”

Alyosha frowned. “Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. When she said no, he said something and fled. What was all that about?”

“There are some things even the Hitler Youth can’t eradicate.” Fyodor finished the last of the soup and glanced at Alyosha.

“The kid said one word,” he continued. “And that word was...Mother.”

Alyosha opened his mouth to say something, and thought the better of it.

“Yes, you’re right,” Fyodor said. “It’s a rotten bloody war.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015