Jean-Pierre was a fresh faced youth who was looking forward to his bac’ in the summer. He fixed me with that unanswerable question. I hadn’t really thought about it seriously before. For days we’d heard reports on the wireless: The home counties falling one by one to the Bolsheviks. It seemed inevitable that we were going to have to buy merchandise from Clide.
After lunch that afternoon I took Blissett’s landrover down to Llandovery. I searched around the town pubs for half an hour before I found Clide. He’d been with Mademoiselle Anise, the supply teacher, all day.
“I can sell you rifles, mate, but I think you’d be better off with carbines for these kids.”
“How so?” I asked.
“They’re inexperienced. Most of them have never handled a real gun. What are they? Thirteen, fourteen? They probably still play war – bang, bang, you’re dead!”
“But you said the Lee Enfield is a good rifle.”
“In my humble opinion, Mr Tossio, it’s the best. But I can give you fifty Winchesters at a very good rate.”
“What about those American M1 carbines?”
“They haven’t been invented yet. This is 1920.”
I’m embarrassed to say that the old swindler won me over. I used the money that we’d put aside for to take he kids on a day trip to London and agreed delivery for Wednesday morning. I knew we wouldn’t stand a chance against the long range capabilities of the Russkies’ Mosin-Nagants but I hoped that perhaps the element of surprise would save us.
I drove back to Llandovery feeling slightly depressed. As I approached the hostel Luther came running through the gates towards me. His face carried an expression of intense agitation. I slammed on the brakes and got out leaving the landrover parked in the road.
“What’s the matter, sir?”
“Where the fuck’s the rest of the legs?” He waved a lego spider at me, “One of those frog kids got it mixed up with the starter set.” I followed him inside and we looked over the lego shelves. Various Kinder Surprise toys were Blu-tacked to the brick work and cars, tractors and spaceships lay broken on the common room floor. I tried to explain to him about the Winchesters as I extracted black bricks from various models but he didn’t really seem to be interested. Ever since the demolition of Nelson’s Column he’d been hitting the juice pretty hard.
I spoke to the hostel staff and arranged an early dinner so that I could talk to the kids as soon as possible about the current situation. Miss Jones magicked up a treat with the last of the tinned sardines and some local potatoes and runner beans. The tables of the refectory were a buzz of adolescent hi-jinx. Luther was back on form. For all his faults Luther was great with the students and I felt I’d be needing his support in the days to come.
Well Luther kept me up until early the next morning. Telling the students what was going on after dinner had caused some excitement. Some had been scared or apprehensive while others were determined to test their youthful mettle on the advancing russians with all the rash foolhardiness of the young. When we’d got them off to their dormitories we cracked open one of Luther’s bottles of cognac and enjoyed a fine havana. Perhaps it was the prospect of impending death that drove Luther to attempt to formulate his situation as accurately as possible.
“The past in the mind of a man is created dynamically in the period of the present as a constant. We must not think of the past as a chain of events leading to every now but created in the moment.”
“Created in each moment?” I asked finding Blissett’s monism difficult to follow.
“No, no, there is but one moment. There is no succession of presents and the future is as illusory as the past. Consider if you will the man who dreams: Between the time he lays his head on the pillow and the hour that the cock crows he may live whole childhoods, experience the rise and fall of civilisations or view the fate of galaxies. But in real life he has but spent a single night adreaming.”
I laughed and drained another bulb of his excellent cognac, “and what prey tell is the practical upshot of his philosophy, O Gautama?”
“That there is no future for us to save this unopened bottle for.”
Bluish light was creeping between the shutters when we took our heavy selves to bed. Luther followed me to my room and stood in the doorway shifting uneasily. We wished each other goodnight and there was a pause as if he were waiting to speaking. I Looked him in the eye and finding nothing forthcoming I bid him a second goodnight and closed the door.
I’d spent a few dreamless hours beneath my quilt when I was awoken my a sharp rap at the door. Finding my kimono and clogs I opened the door to find Clide bathed in the light of another golden morning. I followed him outside to supervise the unloading of the Winchesters. Some of the students, curious to know what was happening, were hanging around the open windows of the refectory. Clide passed me a box of cartridges. I loaded them one by one into the carbine. Tying my kimono at the waist I walked over to the students.
“This, children,” I worked the lever action to load one cartridge into the breech, “this is a Winchester carbine. From today onwards your lessons will to centred around learning to use one of these,” bringing the rifle to my shoulder and sighting along the barrel I followed the path cut by a swift in the morning air. At the last moment before it vanished into the woods I fired once bringing the bird down on the road. The sharp report echoed in the mountains and brought silence to the gathered students.
There was a creak from above. All heads turned to the naked figure of Luther Blissett at the french window. “Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to sleep in here.”
Later that day after an excitable lncheon I retired to my room. From the refectory I could hear singing. Luther had found an old guitar with two missing strings and was leading a the students chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”. Voices would drop for the title line and rise into an enthusiastic cacophony of “Allelujah!” He was certainly good for the troops morale and the preparations for war had made him slow his drinking somewhat.
I was investigating the possibilities for ambushes with an ordnance survey map in my room when there was a knock on the door. “Come!” I called folding the map away. It was Mademoiselle Anise. I motioned her to a seat.
“We are leaving,” she said.
“Clide and me, we are leaving for Ireland.”
“I see. The kids look up to you, you know?”
“I know,” she shrugged and pushed the hair out of her eyes, “I think they should come too.”
I stared at her for a minute. She looked away and folded her arms.
“And when the Reds come to Ireland what will you do then?”
She opened her mouth a few times like a fish, “What good are you going to do here, Linus?” She spluttered, “These are not soldiers: they are children.”
“Children have been soldiers since time immemorial. This is no time for your bourgoise sentimentality. They will learn the glory of war by bitter experience. They have been pampered and molly coddled by doting parents this will make men of them.”
“And the girls?” Mademoiselle Anise stood up. The singing had stopped downstairs.
“I never thought of you as a traditionalist.”
“Have you asked them?”
“If they want to fight and die and learn the glory of war by bitter experience.” She stood there glaring at me her face and neck had turned the colour of lobster shell. Finally I broke contact and fished the flat pack of Senior Service from my shirt pocket.
“They do not know what they want at that age.”
I was rather surprised that she left it there. She closed the door quietly and her footsteps rattled down the wooden stairs. Lighting my cigarette and walking over to the french windows I saw Clide outside seated in the cab of an anachronistic Opel Blitz, the engine running, he didn’t see me. Some of the students were climbing into the back. Opening my desk draw I unwrapped my Webley from the striped scarf I kept it in. Breaking the cylinder open I checked that it was loaded.
Seating myself before the french windows and resting the heavy barrel of the Webley on my left forearm I aimed at Clide’s head. He had sold me the Winchesters at a reasonable price so I bore him no grudge he but he had made a bad decision. Crossing me is always a bad decision and he would have to be made an example. Clide was sat sideways on the driver’s seat of the Opel Blitz, his boots on the worn metal step. He was concentrating on rolling a cigarette and he considerately presented the top of his head to my revolver. I anticipated the recoil, the explosion and the smell of cordite. I wondered idily whether Clide would fall back into the cab of the lorry or topple down the step to lie inert beside the left side front wheel. I squeezed the trigger.
My perspective rolled upwards as the chair was kicked from behind. The shot went off and up into the blue cloudless morning. I windmilled erratically trying to regain my balance but the force of gravity and the kick of the Webley threw me inevitably onto the wooden floor on my back. My skull hit the floor with a heavy thud. My vision flashed red and the revolver hit the floor beside me.
Above me, upside down from where I was lying, Luther Blissett stood grinning boyishly brandishing a square handgun cunningly fashioned from lego bricks. There was shouting outside and I could hear rapid footsteps coming up the stairs.
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
Luther grinned and pointed the toy gun at my head:
I floated in velvety darkness, soft luminous globes of red and green loomed in the preconscious gloom. Opening my eyes I was in a dark humid place. A ceiling fan rotated noisily but did nothing to relieve the heat. I was lying on a soiled sofa dressed as I had been in the hostel. It was immediately obvious that I was no longer in Wales. I sat up to find Luther Blissett sitting beside a small square table sipping at a glass of brandy another chair stood empty before the table.
The room was square. A window on each of the four walls. Smokey reddish light filtered in through the gaps between the blades of the blinds I could hear a crowd shouting, occasional bursts of automatic weapon fire and explosions could be heard in the distance. Looking around there was no door in any of the walls. A square hole in the centre of the room seemed to have stairs leading down from it.
“Where am I?” I said voicing my immediate concern.
“In a house on four stilts, Arjuna. Look out of each window and you will see a different war occuring on each side.”
“The name’s not Arjuna!” I stood up and walked over to the empty chair. “The name’s Tossio, Linus Tossio!”
He laughed, “We’re between the wars here, Linus. This is it! Wait until nightfall and there will be four more armed conflicts going on: Same rules, same game!”
I was beginning to tire of his metaphysics, “How did we get here? Has Clide taken the student’s to Ireland?” I realised then that I still had the revolver in my hand. He smiled again, that same beatific smirk. I’d show that blue faced bastard he couldn’t laugh at me. There was no surprise on his face as I shot him. I’ve shot a lot of men and a lot of women and most of them have looked either surprised or shit-scared. He fell sideways, off his chair and onto the floor.
Within minutes I was down the spiral stairs and into the fray. I stopped a car outside the Piazza and ordered the driver to get out. South of the river the aerodrome was on fire and the rebels had taken over the radio station. It was getting dark as I hit the autostrada but the night was lit by a hundred small fires.