The eve of All Souls’ Day, and the dead to be visited, provided with light, the all-weather candles of the graveyard, the living visitors to be catered-for with bread and beer. It all meant shopping, the carrying of things, and of all-weather people, in and out of the darkness brought down by November. The eleventh month announced the onslaught of the winter, a drain on the spirits, a greying of the skin, the miniscule tightening of arteries, the dimming of the vision, the only clear thing in sight the glimmer of the wrongs done and not righted, a time of ghosts.
“I am a respectable citizen going about my business.” R indicated his shopping bag, swept his free hand down himself, showed a spreading man in puffa jacket, hunting hat, moonboots, thick rings on his fingers. “Am I anything out of the ordinary?”
The woman he was addressing shifted her boots minutely, a few paces out of R’s orbit. She was in her thirties, had a preoccupied, somewhat hurt face, a permanent expression rather than one signifying any recent damage.
“I am doing nothing wrong at all,” R called. He paused. “The boy?” he enquired politely. “Does he belong to you?”
The woman peered into the darkness to see if the bus was on its way. She looked around for somebody to whom she could make crazy eyes, a safe connection, perhaps, and, finding nobody, cleared her throat and ventured, “What boy?”
“I have never done anything but my duty,” R observed into the face of a man coming out of the shop, laden with bags.
The man offered over his shoulder, “Well, that’s a fine thing.”
“Did you hear what that man said?” The woman heard hope in R’s voice, turned and saw his eyes flickering. “A fine thing, he said and, you know, that’s his considered opinion. Thank you, citizen.” R showed yellow teeth suddenly and alarmingly, and let the man go with his disturbing smile and his lifted hat. A semblance of peace returned to those at the bus stop as they went back to the jumble of thoughts that ruled their lives.
“You killed children,” the boy said calmly to R.
R froze the satisfied paces he was making, and hissed, “Go away.”
“In the village of S,” the boy reminded him brightly.
“I was never in S.” R’s brow twitched with his effort not to shout.
“You were there,” the boy insisted. “You picked up a four year old girl and dashed her head against a tree.”
“I never touched her,” R protested.
“Who?” The woman said, her curiosity considered worthy of some risk. “Never touched who?”
“S?” A man had approached the bus stop. His face displayed the intense grin of a fool. “We gave them something to think about in S.”
R spun round, was stuck for what to say, admitted finally, “I passed through.”
“Oh yes.” The man punched the air. “We showed the bastards what was what, in S.”
“Yes,” the boy said, “you did. You killed children there. You shot a ten year old boy in the back of the head.”
“Everything was above board in S.” R addressed the grinning man. “In line with the Geneva Convention.”
He drew the fool’s response: “No more than they deserved.”
“Shot him in the back of the head like a dog.” The boy’s tone was neutral, and the expression on his face could even be said to be impressed.
“He was hiding. Trying to escape,” R explained. “And would have done it again, so much was plain.”
“Who?” The laden man, having rearranged his shopping, turned and faced R.
“In the village of S,” the boy, after pausing politely, continued, “you killed a girl of thirteen after raping her and shooting her parents.”
“I didn’t rape her for pleasure,” R said.
The woman stepped forward to R bravely, and said, “Who? What are you talking about?”
“It was an order.” R looked around her, at the boy. “Raping her was a political act.”
“You raped a woman as a political act?” The woman was in front of R now, and he raised his hat and made the ghastly face of a man whose eyes have been filled with the most powerful of images.
The boy called, “A girl.”
R said, “It was an order.”
“An order?” The laden man put his shopping down. “That was the duty you were raving about?”
“You raped a woman because it was an order?” The woman, as if unable to believe the words she was uttering, raised a hand to her mouth and, challenged by the gesture, R looked down.
“A girl.” The boy said calmly. “My sister.”
“In that case,” the woman said, “you are a brute.”
“I was a soldier, madam,” R sniffed. “I did my duty.”
“A brute,” the laden man affirmed.
“Did his duty, so you could go about your business.” The grinning man’s eyes were enthused, but also disturbed, as he spun round and pointed at shopping bags. “Did his duty so you could do your shopping.”
“I remember it all.” The boy stepped forward and took R’s paw in his own, led him to the edge of the road. “And so do you, sir. Look.” He pulled his cap off and showed R the exit wound that had become the back of his head, broken, blackened, crusted with brown blood. “You did this to me. You found me hiding in a burnt-out building,” he began to explain, but the rest of his explanation was lost in the anguished scream R was letting out. It rumbled gently in his stomach like the craving for food, rose to a crescendo as his feet did a dreadful dance on the ice, and was then itself lost in the screeching of the bus’s tyres as they mixed R’s head into the wet road.
There was silence except for the ticking of the bus’s engine. Driver and passengers stood around the shapes made on the slush by R’s outstretched legs, though nobody wanted to look.
The grinning man had been temporarily relieved of his grin. He said, “A hero.” The laden man and the woman looked at him and smiled on the insides of their faces as he added, “Of the war in B.”
“You saw what happened?” A policeman had emerged from a car, a radio held to his ear. The grinning man nodded with the eager face of one with inside information. “You also?” The policeman turned to the woman and the laden man and said, “Well, you’ll have to come and give me your details, and a statement.”
“The boy,” the woman remembered. “There was a boy here too.”
“Where is he, then?” the policeman demanded.
“Well.” The woman took a look up and down the street. “I don’t know.”
“Well, where did he go?”
“I didn’t see him,” the woman confessed. “But he mentioned him.” She jerked a thumb towards R’s legs. “Before he… you know.”
“Is that him?” The grinning man pointed towards the shop doorway. “Is that him there?” The policeman, the laden man, the woman, all followed the direction of the pointed finger; they saw no boy, only the shop doorway in shadow, shook their heads politely.
The policeman stared frankly at the man. Another brain-addled war veteran, he decided – he was sick of them. He stuck a gloved finger up and said, “Well, come on, then. This won’t take long.”
The boy carried shadows with him, stood in them and waited patiently for the police to finish their business with the witnesses. The wind didn’t bother him, ran through his eye sockets and out the back. He made the kind of smile made by one who never feels the cold, watched the grinning man go on his way, and began to follow him through the streets of the town, among all the respectable citizens going about their dark November business.
Banner Image: DS Pugh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons