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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 3

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The Boy's Tale Part I

The shelter was filled with smoke. It was not the kind of smoke that would rise after the bombs struck nearby buildings, but thick opulent fumes from dozens of cigarettes and cigars. Some of the people inside were lying on bunks, others sat on wooden crates surrounding an improvised table. Its surface, made out of an old rusty barrel, was littered with cards, bottles and tin cups, scattered in what seemed like chaos to a casual observer.

One of the men dealt the cards. There was the thunder of the bombs in the distance. Not close, but still from time to time, they could feel the dust from the ceiling crumble onto their heads and backs. A chunk of loosened rock fell into the dealer’s cup. He gulped down the rest of his drink and spat the rock onto the floor.

“Your turn, Boy.”

Boy was what they called him, though he was by no means the youngest among them. The Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade had already existed for a few months when he decided to join in Haifa, though they had never experienced front line combat. Those boys, for that’s what most of them were, many not even in their 20s, were building fortifications, guarding prisoners and securing rail lines. They often joked how they were not soldiers but merely caretakers. In the autumn of his enlistment they were scheduled to go to Greece, but before everything was planned and organised, it had fallen into enemy hands, so they continued with their previous duties. It wasn’t until January that they were crammed on a ship and brought here as a part of the last convoy. The Brigade ended up on the western side of the Tobruk fortifications – in the middle of a long siege.

The city was...

“What are you brooding over, hmm?” asked Jurek, trying to casually steal a glance at Boy’s cards.

“Over my move. Why, you got something against that?” he replied.

Zenon, the radio operator, leaned forward, his face emerging from the cloud of smoke.

“Boy, war is a place where you need to think quick. You’re a Rat after all. When you need to hide, you hide, and when you need to shoot, you shoot. And if you need to save someone...”—he looked at him fiercely—“…you’d better not be late.

“Figures!” grunted sergeant Załuski after a moment of grave silence. “You return home to hear you mother say: ‘Son, I’m so proud and happy. You have returned home safe and victorious!’ And you will answer: ‘Beloved mother, only safe. I’ve been brooding so long over my next move that my comrades have won the war without me’.”

Boy felt a sudden comfort in the laughter that came after that exchange. They were laughing at him. What of it? He may not
 have been here long, but he had already learned that each honest laugh that you can enjoy was worth more than gold, especially if you didn’t know what was going to hit you the next second. Feeling the moment, he played swiftly, without thinking. And then once more, one round after the other.

The ecstasy soon left him, once he noticed that he had lost all of his money, cigarettes and food rations for the next two days.

It became even worse. The game was drawing to a close and he would have no chance of redeeming his losses. He sat with his head in his hands, staring at the last drops of murky moonshine at the bottom of the bottle. His comrades were slowly making their way back and he was suddenly overcome by a dreadful apathy, as though it were not just money and cigarettes that had been lost in this war.

Boy suddenly felt a powerful blow to his back which almost knocked him off the crate he was sitting on. A bomb? No, that was impossible. The raid had ended long ago. And it seemed he was still in one piece. When he lifted his head he saw the face of his sergeant above him.

“Don’t get so down, Boy” said the sergeant, handing him a cigarette. “Everyone has one lucky night sooner or later. You just can’t let it slip away.”

Załuski dropped on his bunk and instantly fell asleep.

Boy figured he should follow the lead and decided to do the same.

 

***

I’m sitting in a trench. It’s night. Close by I hear two troopers talking about girls they had met in Haifa. They are talking in a calm quiet manner, indifferent to the fact that both come from different parts of the country, one being nineteen and a student of philosophy, and the other a thirty year old miner. They find one common language in a foreign land, under foreign stars.

I leave them alone and take a walk to stretch my aching knees and back. The nights round these parts can get really cold. I stop a few metres away and lean on the walls of the trench. Under the spell of the full moon I can clearly see the field before me, each hill and rock bathed in gentle moonlight. I wonder if there is anyone on the other side looking at me at this very moment.

I move my head when a sudden reflection catches my attention just a few metres away. A sudden impulse overcomes me and I move out of the trench and start crawling, my gaze fixed on the light before me. I move closer and clutch a small metal object in my hand. I raise myself to a crouch and start to turn around.

The explosion almost bursts my ear drums. I feel earth and dust hit my back. Stones rattle against my helmet. I look back only to see a pillar of dust and smoke rising up from the exact spot I was standing in just a few seconds ago. I feel my head spinning and fall on the ground.

My God, they’re shooting at us. They’re shooting! Explosions rise up all around. They are shooting at ME!!

I’m lying with my face in the sand, my breathing shallow and short. Can’t move. Maybe they won’t see me. Maybe they will miss me. Maybe all those things falling from the dark sky will...

“Medic!!!”

I think it’s the sergeant. I need to stand and move. I can still hear them shooting. What if...?

You’re a Rat. If you need to save someone...

I stop thinking and rise to my feet. I make a run for it, to where I’m needed. I drop into a crater right next to the sergeant. In the moonlight I can see a patch of blackness spreading slowly on his shoulder. I notice I am still clutching the object in my hand and slip it into a breast pocket. I slip off my backpack. I tear the uniform, flashlight in hand, inspect the wound, dress the injury. Seems harmless, we’ll see by the morning. The sergeant lets out a series of grunts, but nothing more. I believe I can hear the cracking of his teeth.

“It’s going to be alright.” My voice is shaking. “It’s nothing seri...”

“Medic!!!”

I’m running again.

 

“What are you scribbling, Boy?”

A shadow fell over his note pad. He could see Jurek Ingielewicz standing over him with that grin of his. Once he put on that smile, with his big nose and ears he looked like some kind of fairytale woodland creature. Apart from Boy he was the only one to survive the night unharmed.

“I need to account for the events of the night, before I forget.”

“Write it down then, but only the things that are worth remembering.”

He went towards the field hospital, in his hand a bottle full of moonshine.

 

***

The camo net spread over the small courtyard secured some shade. The soldiers could hear moans and noises reaching them from the nearby field hospital, mingled with sounds from the docks or a vehicle passing by the nearby street. They rested. Those fortunate enough to have left the hospital sat or lay with their white bandages and gleaming smiles painted on their faces. Someone brought out a pack of cards.

“A game, gentlemen?”

Boy tried to rise to his feet, but after a second he fell back on the mattress. He didn’t have anything to play with anyway. It seemed the sergeant sitting next to him noticed his dilemma. He looked at Boy and handed him a pack of cigarettes.

“Here you go, doc. A token for the mortars. Enjoy the game.”

Suddenly Boy remembered his night-time discovery. A gold-plated watch. British made and pretty, though somewhat worn. Someone had engraved initials on its back: A.W. The previous owner must have lost it when the leather strap gave way to the strains of war and ripped. Seemed to be worth quite a lot, but then again it already did save Boy’s life. Maybe now it can bring some luck to someone else?

“Thank you sergeant, I think there is something I can bet in the end.” He strode over to the table to take his place.

“Look gents, seems Boy here doesn’t know when to call it quits,” replied Zenon with a wide grin.

He was an honest, decent man though his features may have suggested otherwise. Regardless of his attitude he always looked as though he was ready to give you a beating or trick you out of your last shirt. Or both at the same time.

Would you like someone responsible for saving your arse to be a quitter, then?” Boy replied laying the watch on the table. “Stop brooding and deal the cards.”

He could hear the sergeant laughing behind his back.

He felt peculiarly cheerful. He had nothing to lose besides the watch, and he was prepared for the loss anyway. He picked up his cards with a smile.

Victory. And then another, and so on. The players changed and Boy kept winning all they were willing to risk. Every time he threw the watch into the pot it came back to him and it never came alone. His cards did not matter that day.

After a couple of hours there was nobody wanting to play anymore. Boy restocked his backpack with everything he needed. The rest was stuffed into a sizable canvas bag. He weighed it in his hand. Heavy, he thought. Food, cigarettes, chocolate, coffee, some meds, a pocket knife and some knick-knacks of questionable value. He should be fine for about a month if he was careful. He’d had his ‘lucky night’. He was rich.

“Thank you gentleman. Was a real pleasure.”

Boy turned and went into the bright sunlight heading towards the quarters of his regiment. After a few dozen paces he turned into a side alley between two buildings, passed a heap of debris and took another few paces when something suddenly hit him. He turned towards the debris and saw a local huddled under a ragged blanket staring at him with empty eyes, in his hands an empty clay bowl. At first Boy couldn’t make out his features, but the more he looked the more the man became the only real element of the whole surroundings.

Boy stood before him for a while and finally led by an unknown impulse moved over and laid the sack in front of the stranger.

“Take it,” he said.  “If you’re frugal, it may last you a month. Or maybe more.”

The beggar didn’t understand the words. How could he, since Boy spoke Polish? Finally he understood the gesture. On his worn out face formed an expression of utter gratitude mingled with disbelief. He rushed to his feet only to fall to his knees before his benefactor to thank him in broken English.

“Its ok, don’t worry. It’s nothing really.”

Boy stepped back and watched the man gaze into the sack. After a while he raised his head and, praising Allah, he cradled his precious new possessions like a new-born child and headed down the street.

Boy started following him, as it was on his way anyhow. After some time he kept it up even though he had already missed the turn to his quarters. There was a sudden urge to learn more about the beggar, to see what he would do with the offering. Boy tried to maintain a safe distance and keep his pace quiet in order not to frighten the man. If he were to turn his head he would see Boy, but he did no such thing. He only quickened his pace as if the devil himself was on his heels.

Suddenly he disappeared into a passageway and Boy could not make out his steps any longer. He followed the man into a small courtyard filled with nothing but dust, dirt and some rusty equipment. The man was nowhere in sight. Boy looked around. Two gaping holes, remnants of what used to be doors, loomed in the broken walls. One of them was filled with debris, the other barricaded shut with an old, rusty barrel and some wooden boards. On the other wall hung a decrepit piece of carpet covered in a thick layer of dust, making it almost indistinguishable from the surrounding walls. Pondering the reasoning behind hanging a piece of carpet on a wall, Boy moved closer and then he saw a fresh footprint in the dust.

He lifted the fabric and moved down a narrow, winding staircase. A pungent smell hit his nostrils as he was descending further into the darkness. After a further few steps the stairs turned and Boy could make out a subtle light gleaming against the dark walls. He turned to look around the corner.

Then he saw them – sitting, kneeling and lying in quite a spacious cellar, so many of them that not a single scrap of floor was visible. The old, the young and the feeble. He took a closer look and the origin of the odour suddenly became clear. Not only were there too many of them for such an enclosed space, but many of them were malnourished, sick or wounded.

They rose and turned towards the one sitting in their midst, their feeble hands outstretched and their hunger-filled, gleaming eyes fixed on the canvas bag. The beggar slowly took out object after object and handed them to some chosen person amongst the crowd. They accepted Boy’s gambling fortunes as though they were a gift heaven sent.

That’s when Boy understood he needed more of it.

And he knew exactly where to get it.

 


Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 7 February.
Arthur Wright's StoryBloody SandThe Boy's Tale
Part I Part I Part I
Part II Part II Part II
Part III  Part III Part III

 

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