Extract 6: The Hidden Bend: The Soldier’s journey home

The farmer, the son, the brother, he was no longer a soldier; he did not know who he was. He was all three, he was as many as four people, he was something else, formed into another person when he must serve that new aim or he was made incarnate by another person; he did not know what it was, or how he had changed, he could not as yet, as he had to discover it over again.

The drifting entity he was now had become visible on the morning he had finished being a soldier. From the time of departure from the camp, he and the others had selected to be farmers, food growers, for the country. When they were told to leave the army, their home over the past five-six years, their recent memories, the comradeship, the fighting that bound them, with their uniforms removed, they were just young men in long shirts standing on the open back shelf of the truck, glum and sullen. Meanwhile the former comrades sentinel silent in the morning light watching him, the ex-soldier depart, saying nothing, while the truck’s engines ground metal on metal and lurched with the gears to reach speed, and then the sturdy vehicle gathered the momentum to exit the camp for their last time as he stood, hand on rail, watching the men he knew well leave the farewell group in camp, to wander to their morning duties.

At the city’s main railway junction, the train and rail network was barely working but for the main lines to other towns north and east. Transporting supplies for the city was critical and the cargo included the men going to other stations and their homes to the north and east of the country. Out of the main lines the rail network is fractured and the men know they know will have to hitch rides and walk to reach their villages and homes. The train took him and the bulk of the other ex-soldiers to a railway heading that was a full day’s travel. It was not a hard or boring journey: they played cards, gambled on dice, they talked, told jokes already heard a dozen or two dozen times already but in the slow hours and tedium of looking out of the metal bars over the windows, across the vacant fields in the hot day’s sun, it was something to break the boredom; they ate from their metal boxes some bread and a dish of pork with vegetables, the army’s farewell gift for their services, and women sold them drinks from the side of the tracks when the train stopped for water and coal.

At the next junction it was late, near midnight, the station had the unsettling, nervous mix of quiet and anticipation that all stations have but was more pronounced at night, more acutely aware at night of what may happen; of people moving while the homes near the railway were in blackness, people in their beds sleeping. The station’s serenity was ruptured by the boots of the drivers and other train personnel as they climbed in and out of locomotives, and along the platforms, but they were not alone, and naturally, the soldiers were ubiquitous in strategic communications assets, patrolling the tracks and the platforms because stations were targets for the remnants of the government forces still fighting on in their desperate and hopeless struggle. The patrolling soldiers’ torches burned brightly in their hands, flicking from side to side, dissolving the shadows, alert to any sound, and the bats’ wings above could make them lift their arms ready to fire.

With the train timetable he, the ex-soldier, and the others had to wait, pass time because their next train was not for another two and a half hours; who else but a railway administrator would make trains connect with two hour gaps in between. No doubt they had their reasons, the time the drivers preferred to work or the interchange between trains coming from long distances, or some other innocuous explanation that travelers can never divine. It’s a question that made the men, the former soldiers, angry. The boredom of waiting on a platform, having by then told every joke they knew, played Pok Deng and Cắt Tê, and now wanting to sleep, produced a sharp irritation, which the men displaced by walking about, kicking their legs into mid-air to shake out the frustration. It had happened in camp, when they were forced inside for long periods; shutting people together for too long and they get a fever, they needed to break out. The young men felt it intensely. In the night on the station the jokes became taunts in a moment, with the turn of a head, just one comment, a truth uttered after years of living together and bored to the limits of their patience they expressed to reassert control over the other, plain facts and resentments held for a long time, which had been held to keep the peace. Picking at each others weaknesses turned mean. A man leapt to his feet, and faced the foe to end the accusation, to stifle the lie, to defend himself. They settled with the intercession of other men, sat back on the hard benches, lit cigarettes to quell their fury, leaned forward with elbows rested on knees, the cigarettes glowing in their hands as they spat on the ground, mumbling broken phrases across the darkness which settled the feud.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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