Saturday, 23 September 2017

Some people have asked to read the story which has just won me first prize in the Scottish Association of Writers short story competition. As well as a cheque, I get a trophy!
     But what pleases me most is that I first wrote it over 40 years ago. Since then it has been re-written, expanded, edited and re-edited, entered for two competitions and finally revised on the feedback from the competition organiser.   Just shows what persistence can achieve.

You Do Not Fight Today

And what about afterwards?’ The Major's question was almost conversational.
      ‘How do you mean, sir?' I said.
      ‘I mean,’ said the Major, leaning forward, his tone sharper, ‘what happened after you went wandering off by yourself and finished up at this cosy little party in a terrorist village?’
      I answered slowly and deliberately, looking at him across the empty desk.
      ‘It was not a party, sir, and I had no reason to think the old man I met was a terrorist.’
      'No reason, Corporal? Every bloody village in that area is a hotbed of terrorists. The hills are full of them. There's probably an arms stash in every village.'
      'I didn't realise that, sir. I file all the reports and none of them have mentioned arms caches being found in that area.'
      ‘Don't be bloody impertinent, Corporal. Stand up! Stand to attention!’
      I stood up, brought my left boot smartly against my right, heels together, and stared straight ahead. I knew what was coming – it was a standard interrogation technique.
      ‘Start again! Tell me again, from the beginning.’
      For the second time I told the same story. I said our platoon had decided on a day out, a beach party in a great little cove we’d seen while out on patrol. There had been no terrorist activity for months, regulations were relaxed and we didn’t need to carry weapons.
      I said I’d got bored with snorkelling and drinking and sunbathing so I decided to go walking in the hills above the coast road. I said I realized now that it had been unwise, even in the current situation.
      I had no map on this spur-of-the-moment trek and I soon got lost as even the goat tracks dwindled and disappeared. I was relieved eventually to come across a small cultivated field. At the far side a donkey stood motionless among olive trees and an old man sat on a low stone wall. As I came into the shade he looked up and raised his hand in greeting. He showed no surprise at my khaki shorts and Army boots. No sense of hostility or alarm, either.
      ‘Kalispera,’ I said (‘Good afternoon’). It seemed more appropriate here than the more familiar ‘Yassou’ we heard in town.
      Though he was smoking a pipe, I thought it polite to offer him a cigarette. Equally polite, he put aside his pipe and took it. I watched as he flicked the wheel of an old-fashioned lighter. His hands were brown and bone-hard as the land they worked, the hands of generations past. They were like my grandfather’s hands, like my father’s hands, like mine would have been if I'd stayed on the farm.
      He had no English and I had only a few words of Greek, but we managed to exchange names and simple pleasantries. He scratched his name on a stone for me - Petros. I could read most of the Cyrillic alphabet. Only later did I think it might have been the only word he could write.
      He was seventy two years old and this was his family field. He had lived in the nearby village all his life. He had three children and eight grandchildren. Somehow I got him to understand that my family also worked on the land. When I mimed heat and sweating, he indicated he had finished work for the day and would take me home and we could have a drink together.
      That was what I told the Major.

The one street was almost deserted in the early afternoon heat. Two little boys stood open-mouthed then ran into their house. I followed Petros out of the bright sunshine and stepped down into the cool darkness of a doorway – and stopped. I stood absolutely still, my heart thumping.
      It was that unmistakeable sound, the solid clunk, the big breech-block of a Sten pulled back ready to fire.
      ‘Stavro!’ The old man’s voice was like a whiplash.
      I could see the young man now, and the sub machine gun aimed at me.
      He was protesting, shouting, gesturing toward me. The old man stood firm, spoke quietly. He turned his back on the young man and pulled out a chair. I sat down. Stavros stood for a full minute, but finally sat on the chair opposite me. His eyes never left my face; the Sten gun was still in his hands
      Petros called out and soon an old woman came through from the other room with a tray of food and coffee. The cups rattled as the tray shook in her hands. She said nothing.
There were three cups. Stavros was ready to refuse but a look from the old man stopped him. He put the gun on the table before he sat down. The muzzle was pointing at me. The old man leaned across and turned it towards a blank wall.
      We ate and drank almost in silence. My vocabulary was running out fast. ‘Efharisto’, I said more than once (‘Thank you’). Then Petros spoke to the young man who turned to me and spoke in English.
      ‘You are my enemy. You are in my country. We want you out, gone, finish. But my Uncle Petros say I cannot kill you because you are in his house and we eat and drink together. I say you will bring soldiers here to find me. He say you will not. What do you say? Will you bring soldiers here?’
      I turned to the old man and used my last word of Greek – ‘Oxi’ (‘No’) and on an impulse held out my hand. He grasped it and nodded. It was enough. We had made a bargain.
      Petros spoke to the young man again and this brought another torrent of protest. But the old man’s quiet certainty wore him down. At last he spoke, resigned to the task.
      ‘My uncle is tired. He is finish work today. He say I must take you to the road.’
His voice was strained. He cleared his throat. For a second I thought he was going to spit in my face.
      ‘For my uncle, I will take you to the road,’ he said, ‘but I see you again, I kill you!’
      That wasn’t good enough for Uncle Petros. He sensed what was being said. When Stavros spoke again, he was like a child, having to repeat word for word what the old man had said.
      ‘My uncle say this. You are a young man. Stavros is a young man. I am old. I am finish with fighting. I say you do not fight today. Another day, is for God to say.’
      Petros made the sign of the cross and waited till Stavros did the same.

The old man watched us set off, back towards the field where I first met him. As soon as we were away from the village, Stavros motioned for me to walk ahead. He still had the loaded Sten under his arm, his finger on the trigger guard.
      My senses sharpened the further we went from the village. I trusted Petros; could I trust this hothead? He was no more than ten yards behind me. My ears were alive to the sound of his footsteps, and listening for that chilling metallic clunk I’d heard in the darkness of his uncle’s house. My eyes ranged ahead, seeking out every fold in the ground, every boulder, any possible cover. I noted every stick, every stone, any weapon.
      I missed a step and stumbled. Stavros shouted, 'I watching you. Stay on this path.' Sweat was running down my spine. My shoulders ached with the tension, aware of a gun was ten yards behind me, ready to pump bullets into my back
      Apart from that one shout, he said nothing.
      My stomach muscles cramped briefly when he finally spoke again.
      I stood and waited, looking straight ahead. He came closer. He moved sideways off the path, standing where I could see him, about six feet away. The Sten's muzzle was pointing at my chest.
      ‘You take this path, you find Varosha road.’
      His face was blank. I don’t know what I expected to find in his eyes. We had no point of contact except one – our respect for the old man.

So I told the Major, for the third time, about getting lost, about meeting the old man, going to his house, accepting his hospitality. I made no mention of Stavros, the gun, the arguments in the house, or my pact with Petros. I knew it was my duty to report all that, but I didn’t. I had given my word.
      I was on the brink of promotion to sergeant. Depending on the Major’s report at the year end, that promotion might have to wait.
      If I identified the village, if I named Stavros, he would be hunted. It was very unlikely he could be found - so many similar names, so many bewildering family connections. What was certain was that 72-year-old Petros, as the only identifiable family member, would be taken in and questioned. Other members of his family would in turn be found, questioned, held – for how long? What would it be like for them? I'd rounded up suspects in the past but never been involved in the interrogation. You heard
things sometimes, things done by soldiers who had lost mates, friends who were like brothers, killed or maimed by roadside bombs or ambushes. The treatment of suspects was not always strictly by the book.

Our company surrounded the village two days later. The Major had decided to carry out a “shut down and search” operation; they were often done on the flimsiest of evidence or none at all. The young rookies got the idea they were doing something useful, instead of sitting around in a dusty camp, polishing their boots. The old sweats knew it was almost certainly pointless.
      It was like a dozen similar operations. You got whispers, rumours, possible sightings of wanted men. When you moved in, no one had seen them, nobody knew them. If they were ever there, they had melted away. They would have known more tracks out of that village than the ways we knew to come in.
      The search took an hour. There were not many places to search. Nothing was found. All the village males were rounded up and held in the little square by the church. I saw Petros among them. The Major ordered the older men separated from the rest.
      ‘Corporal! Stand here beside me. Point out the man called Petros.’
      'I don’t think I can, sir. Maybe he’s not here.'
      'You bloody idiot!' He was losing it. 'Are you sure we’re even in the right place?'
      He didn’t notice my stifled sigh of relief. This was my way out.
      All these villages look pretty much the same, sir. Remember I was totally lost at the time. I think the church I saw might have been a little smaller.'
      The Major had one last try. He got the police interpreter to call out 'Petros, step forward!'
       Three old men and four of the younger ones stepped out of their groups, followed by a little boy, who saluted, left-handed. It wasn’t quite the “I am Spartacus!” scene, but I caught a sly twitch on the lips of one or two squaddies.
      'Get those young ones back in line!' shouted the Major. 'Have a good look at these three, Corporal. Is he here?'
      I moved in closer, then turned to the Major. 'There’s no one here I can identify, sir.'
      'Another bloody wild goose chase! Sergeant Major, get the men together and let's get out of here.'

Every Petros had smiled at me as I walked up to each one in turn. “My” Petros had a smile no different from the others. Only I could see, close up, the calm acceptance in his eyes. There was no fear. He trusted me. I had kept my bargain.

(2,030 words)

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