They finished the breakfast and rose, wiping their tins and bowls with rags and the ends of their shirts, they knew they could wash soon, and putting their bowls back in their bags and packs as orders were shouted and barked to the mass of soldiers in the same way that each man had heard a dozen times a day, they moved without delay, hoisting packs on shoulders and gathering objects that tumbled out; they fell into a march to trucks waiting on the opposite side of the kitchens. He, the soldier, one of thousands, walked briskly; the others beside him were quiet, their truck was ahead of them, a hundred meters, the cargo area was ready to receive them with the tail gate open for them to board it.
The diesel engines frothed moving off and the truck bumped over the uneven and pitted roads to the city; the men sat on the wooden slats at the cargo bay exchanging a few words or pointing at what they saw; it was the first day and their tour of the city in the night concealed most of the earlier day’s fighting. There were chunks out of buildings, the smooth rendering was pitted; power lines were down on the roads; and few people had come out on the streets, to shop or take breakfast at the stalls and small bars, the doors were locked, and the men saw children’s faces from inside houses and apartments with a lost and unsure expression; the few adults who dared to show their faces or risk going out of doors, despite the martial law, were older, they did not care at all; the army was everywhere, at checkpoints at junctions, in armored vehicles, they had the city without opposition, though the sound of the gunfire in the distance could be heard but it was small arms – an ineffective final tantrum from the old order – not artillery, and only occasional; there was no real threat of the enemy retaking the city. There were bodies in the road, abandoned, no one near them, no one dared to go near them, disease, but with only sparse medical aid and all directed to the army, these bodies would remain where they were found for another day. The truck drove on, past poor neighborhoods, past rich houses, with high brick walls and huge trees and hedges grown high for privacy, and that was now gone too; past shops, railway stations, and the eyes of the people was all the same, sad and hollowed, shell shocked and tired.
The men in the truck could not allow their tiredness to overtake them, they had a full day’s work to do. They arrived at their new billet, the one they would inhabit for many weeks: a massive metal structure that had been a main vegetable market: it was now a skeleton of its former structure: twisted metal girders, a roof that had a large hole in it where a shell had burst through, and the ground area, though still largely dry, had a quarter at the top end that was a morass of water and rotting produce. The stench of stagnant water and rotting vegetables was rich and sickly, ripe, musty and damp. The truck’s tail gate was dropped open from its pins and the men dropped to the ground in ones and twos. They looked around to get their bearings; it was a wide open flat and featureless land, having been cleared for industry, there was a low squat block a hundred meters away from the market; and further away from it was a sports field, overgrown with grass and weeds sprouting in clumps, a football pitch with one complete goal at one end and another goal that was shattered, the goal cross bar leaned to one side, as it has lost an upright. The market stallholders had had a football team which explained the field, the sports pitch was laid out close to their place of work.
The troops reviewed the scene to comprehend the job they had ahead of them. It was like a scene from a lost city almost swallowed and regained by the plants and jungle which grew at the perimeter of the market and the other buildings and was a constant menace to civilization that had cleared the land for commerce. It was a wistful scene, peaceful, melancholy, as though the remnants of people’s daily business, the coming and going that had made the market bustle with all the energy of people making a living, the prices being cried out, and then the growers and packers taking time off to play football was echoed in the vacant ruined, buildings.
The commander came to the back of the truck where the men were standing and explained the position: the market was where they would establish camp, they had to clean it and make it good for a permanent encampment later, much larger than for their needs. The block house off to the side they see were the latrines and showers and they still work he said, as being at a distance from the city the area avoided most of the fighting and had little tactical importance. The plumbing functioned but new pipes would guarantee it could serve for the men for a long period. He tapped the soldiers lightly, affably on the back, as if he was a coach, their big brother, and told them to wash. They moved off as a sprawling group of young men as if they were getting prepared to put on team shirts and play football.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.