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Times of War: Tobruk, Episode 6

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The Boy’s Tale Part II

A sharp strip of moonlight painted the irregular silhouette of a large building clearly against the surrounding darkness of the night. Once it had been one of the city’s main office buildings. Now its spacious, reinforced basement contained the storage and administrational facilities of the Brigade.

Spotlights were sweeping the night sky, in search of enemy aircraft. There was the occasional roar of engines in the air, and the distant rumbling of ships being reloaded and made ready in the harbour.

Along the wall, two watchmen met and hurriedly exchanged a password and the information that everything was in order, before turning away and proceeding in opposite directions.

With the sound of their footsteps fading in the distance, two gleaming eyes appeared in the shadow and a dark figure of a man emerged from the shallow niche in the wall.

It had taken Boy an hour to get to this point and another fifteen minutes to find the right moment. Now he took a few fast steps toward the nearest window. Using his bayonet he levered up the shutter’s latch, opened the shutter and pulled himself up onto the windowsill. Leaning on his elbow he started to search for a way through the window with his other hand. Luckily, one of the window panes was broken. Boy put his hand through, felt the hook, lifted it and then opened the window.

Holding onto the frame, he lifted himself up and quietly slipped inside. He closed the shutters only to hear voices approaching outside. He crouched by the window completely still, hearing his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

An eternity seemed to pass before he dared to move towards a door he had seen upon entering the room. It was not locked. It led to a small room with another door. A faint light protruded from underneath it revealing two bunks occupied by two sleeping figures. They lay motionless and their regular breathing told him they were out cold.

He left the door ajar and, with extreme caution, started slowly walking between the bunks. One step away from reaching for the door handle, one of the sleeping souls stirred.

“Benek?”

Boy heard a sleepy voice. He could feel drops of cold sweat running down his spine.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing” he whispered, trying to hide the tone of his voice. “Need to take a leak”.

The man turned his face to the wall again. Boy opened the door and went out into a lamp-lit corridor.

He didn’t have much time now. He wiped off the camouflage paint he had applied to his face previously and rushed toward the intersection. One quick look around and he ran down the staircase. Now he needed only a few more seconds to reach the next intersection then he would find himself in a short corridor ending in a gate made out of steel bars and closed with a latch. It was recently installed there to prevent any unauthorised personnel from entering the storage area.

On the left side of the corridor there was a small utility closet with a ventilation shaft near the floor, leading to the storage room, and just about big enough for Boy to squeeze through, if he was lucky.

Boy entered the closet and was about to start removing the grating, when he heard footsteps. He leaned closely against the wall by the closet door and held his breath. He could hear the gate opening, and then he saw the quartermaster leaving the store. In that fraction of a second Boy had made a choice.

When the quartermaster disappeared around the corner, he jumped out from the closet and with one huge leap crossed the distance to the gate, driving his hand between the latch and the frame of the closing door. The gate was heavy and he could barely contain the cry of pain. He slowly opened the door and walked inside.

Boy knew the exact layout of the storage space and all the goods inside. He took out a canvas bag from his backpack and swiftly filled it with all the necessary medicine and bandages. He then moved to the food section and started stuffing his backpack. When it was full, he secured the straps, put the load on his back and seized the bag. He turned to head for the door only to find the quartermaster in the doorway with his gun pointed directly at him.

Boy froze, terrified, his bag falling from his numb hand. They stood motionless for a few excruciating seconds before the quartermaster finally started lowering his weapon.

“It’s unbelievable” he said, shaking his head. “You’re stealing from your own Brigade, your fellow countrymen. During the siege. You will be court martialled for this! You know, what it means, right?”

“Sir, if I may…”

“You may shut up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve noticed you’ve been up to something. You’ve started coming here more often, finding any possible excuse, looking around. I decided to wait. I don’t get much sleep lately anyway, so… here we are. Now, before we leave here, tell me: why did you do it? You don’t need stuff to lose in a card game. You’re not going hungry. What for then?”

“I…” Boy considered lying, but realised it was not going to change anything. “There are people there, civilians. Sick, wounded, hiding in the basement. Like… like rats. I wanted… for them…”

Boy fell silent. The quartermaster scrutinised him looking for the signs of deception. Finally he sat down on the crate and lowered his head a little. After a while he looked up at Boy.

“Sit down. I want to tell you something.”

Boy sank to the floor and leaned against the crate, suddenly devoid of all strength.

“During the Great War I was living with my mother and my little sister in Galicia. My father was with the army and we had no idea where or how he was. I was twelve. In the autumn of 1914 the Russians began their counteroffensive. We could hear the guns. There was a river of people and vehicles running through our village, as the Austro-Hungarian army were retreating.”

“Is everything alright, sir?” They heard the voice coming from the entrance. “Were you talking to someone?” Judging by the tone, it was the quartermaster’s deputy.

Boy couldn’t see him. He tried to be as small as possible, and stay invisible behind the crates.

“Everything is alright” answered the quartermaster calmly, with a trace of sadness in his voice, hiding the gun behind his leg. “Actually, you know–” he added after the short hesitation “–I was imagining sitting next to my little son and telling him his bedtime story. I miss him a lot.”

“Does it help, sir?”

“Sometimes.” The quartermaster sighed. “You should go to sleep. We expect a shipment tomorrow. It’s going to be a long day.”

“Yes, sir. Good night, sir.”

They could hear fading footsteps and the gate closing when the deputy left the storage room.

The quartermaster rubbed his face.

“Where was I? Ah… The Russians were getting closer, drunk on their success after the first few defeats. We had to run, but it seems it was already too late. My mother fell sick and my sister was only five years old. Our horse and wagon were confiscated by the army.”

The sound of sirens came in from the outside. The night air raid had just started. After a few seconds they could hear a muffled boom and felt the slight tremor, as the first bomb fell. The quartermaster looked up for a second, but it seemed he was concerned only about his story.

“When the last supply wagons were going by our house, something strange happened. One of the drivers stopped in front of our house and told us to get our most precious belongings and jump on the wagon. He waited for us, faking some maintenance like mending the harness or fastening a loose horseshoe. He hid us in the freight and took us as far as he could.

Finally we reached my father’s family and we made it through the rest of the war. I don’t remember the details, but about one thing I’m sure: we lived because of him. We survived because, without any gratification, he risked everything and took civilians into a military transport.”

The quartermaster fell silent, looking as if he was reliving the past, accompanied by the falling bombs and the rattle of the anti-aircraft guns. Finally he drew a deep breath.

“Sometimes we make mistakes on the freight registry” he confessed, putting his gun in the holster. “Some things get destroyed on the way”.

Boy’s eyes opened wide. Was it possible…?

“This conversation didn’t happen. You were not here tonight. However, if I catch you again – and make no mistake, I will catch you – you will face court-martial. Dismissed!”

Boy jumped to his feet, saluted, picked up his bag and bolted for the door.

“If you really want to help those people” added the quartermaster over his shoulder “find another way.”

 

***

Coming back to my quarters during the night air raid wasn’t easy. I even got reprimanded by the sergeant for not staying in the shelter. Nothing really important happened though, and after a few hours it seemed that I didn’t have the conversation in the place I wasn’t in. No one came to me, no one asked about anything, there was no news…

Two days later I got a little time to spare. I went to the ruined part of the city, dug out my backpack and bag form the rubble where I’d hidden them before, and went to see the beggar.

This time we went together to the very same basement I’d seen previously. He gave out the food from my backpack, I tended to the sick and wounded. One of the small girls could even speak a little English and translated for me, so the rest could get my advice. Or at least I hope they did.

Now I’m sitting at the harbour, watching the ships of various sizes, boats scattered around - some on the water, some by the shore, cranes and trucks. I wonder what else I can do. What way there is for me to help those people?

The only thing that comes to my mind now is that I should go and find some help. Someone with a better knowledge of the place, with a good ability to fix things, solve problems. And I think I may know of someone just like that.

His name is Adam Wolsky, if I’m not mistaken. He’s Canadian. They say he knows everybody in the city. They say he could do everything for you, fix anything, contact anybody for you. That is, before he lost Fatma.

She was a half-British, half-Arab translator assigned to the headquarters in Tobruk. A creature of charm and beauty, petite, lithe and dark-haired, she was the object of admiration for many soldiers. However she was interested only in one of them. And he fell madly in love with her.

I’d seen them together once or twice, and in those moments I thought there was no more beautiful a couple in the entire world.

Few days ago she was returning to Tobruk from her short leave on board the patrol craft. The ship became the target of the air raid and was sunk. Fatma went missing.

They say Wolsky is not the same man since he learned about it. I hope I can convince him somehow to help me.

The ships, the boats… There has to be something in this city I can use to help those people…

 

***

“What brings you here?” asked a man in his early twenties, wearing the uniform of the Canadian Army. “I don’t see visitors often. Especially strangers.”

He was sitting on his bunk, hunched, holding a tin cup in one hand, and a small picture in the other. He was unshaven, his messy hair falling over his forehead. This once charming man, always sweet and smiling, now looked as though someone had clipped his wings.

“I’m no stranger. I’m a Rat, like yourself, a medic from the Carpathian Brigade. They call me Boy. I have a favour to ask,” replied Boy.

“I don’t have time for favours,” muttered the Canadian.

“Alright, a deal then,” Boy insisted. “I have something really nice. A watch.”

“Not interested.”

“Take a look. It’s a good piece of work, English, real gold. It only needs a new strap”. Boy held the watch in front of him, so the corporal could see it. “It’s my lucky charm. It brought me a lot of luck, saved my life even. Maybe it’s time to pass it on. And look, here, on the bezel, it has the initials engraved: ‘A.W.’ You see? Adam Wolsky, as if you ordered it yourself.”

“And what am I supposed to do with it?”

“You can wear it.”

“I already have a pocket watch, a gift from my father.”

“In that case you can give it to…” Boy bit his tongue just in time. “…to somebody. Or trade it. Come on, you don’t have to do anything yet, just listen to me. You might help somebody, save their lives. It’s way better than sitting here feeling sorry for yourself.”

Suddenly Wolsky’s eyes darkened and he looked as though he wanted to punch Boy in the face.

“Just listen. Please.” Boy held the watch in his outstretched hand and looked at Adam with a pleading, yet unwavering expression on his face.

Corporal Wolsky put his cup down, straightened up and slicked his hair back with his hand. He looked deep into Boy’s eyes, sighed heavily, relaxed a bit and took the watch from Boy’s hand. He inspected the dial then turned it around and rubbed his thumb against the engraving.

“Alright, brother Rat.” He looked at Boy again, this time with the hint of a smile. “What’s this favour of yours?”

 


Stay with us.
The next episode of Times of War is coming on Saturday, 7 March.

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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