Troy’s mother had gone to bed after the main course, leaving Troy, Kolankiewicz, Wildeve and one sister to finish the meal alone. She had been charmed by Churchill’s dressing for dinner, something Jack and Troy chose not to do and something Kolankiewicz never would, but perhaps the presence of two such trenchermen as Kolankiewicz and Churchill had proved too much for the old lady. Troy had seen few men with the appetite of Bob Churchill. But he, at least, was virtually tea-total. Kolankiewicz could drink a pub dry. The Big Man had declined to join them on the grounds that “an evenin’ of toff chat would like as not bore the britches off me and worse lead to me missing me favourite programme on the wireless.” A pity, Troy had wanted to see the look on his face when he realised there was a Sasha as well as a Masha. As identical twins went they were identical.
Troy had never had any trouble telling them apart, but he’d known his own brother get them mixed up, he’d known both of them to exploit the fact for all it was worth, and, as yet, time and chance had not wrought enough differences in their characters one could drive a playing card between. They were, as Troy was wont to think and utter, one dreadful woman with two bodies. He decided to reward the Big Man for his churlishness by letting him find out the hard way. Masha had gone home on Boxing Day—let him “discover” sister Sasha for himself. All the same the Big Man had been right about toff chat. Even Wildeve was stifling his yawns as Kolankiewicz unburdened himself of one of the many theses he seemed to store up in a mental sack. Silently Troy thought conversations a bit like this, though surely less intense, must be taking place all over the country—”when the war is over” had all but displaced “before the war” as an opening gambit.
“It won’t be the same,” Churchill was saying. “It can’t be the same.”
“You’re speaking professionally?” Troy asked.
“Indeed I am. But it’s your profession as much as mine.”
“What are you expecting? A sudden surge in the possession of guns?”
“Goes almost without saying. Call it the debris of war. Any war. The flotsam and jetsam. Whatever shade of government we have, whatever system we set up for the demobilisation of a million men-at-arms we’ll never get back so much as a fraction of the hand guns we’ve issued.”
“Souvenirs,” Wildeve offered. “All my uncles kept an old Webley in the desk drawer throughout the twenties. We boys thought it was great fun. Never saw one fired though.”
“Lower your sights a little,” said Churchill. “What happens to a handgun in the possession of your uncles is a world away from what happens to it in the hands of a man for whom it has become simultaneously his first taste of freedom and power.”
“Bob is saying,” Troy said, “that we can expect a crime wave as soon as our boys get home.”
It wasn’t that Jack was thick, thought Troy, more that he was distracted. He had had the feeling for several minutes now that Sasha had been playing footsie with him under the table—the slope of her torso, the sense that she was stretching out, the seductive grin on her too, too pretty face—and as Jack’s innocent ehs and reallies mounted he had been certain the damn woman had winked at him.
“Jack, we’ve turned a million men loose on the continent. Some may come back and settle for being bank clerks or hewing coal again but as many won’t. The Labour Party may talk of a quiet revolution after the war. What they don’t see is that it’s happened already. It wasn’t necessary to politicise the working classes, it was necessary merely to turn them loose. And when they get back they may well just take what they want. Legally or not. They won’t wait on a change of government and they won’t tuck their old Webleys or their ‘souvenir’ Lugers in a desk drawer to amuse the kiddies with.”
“But,” said Wildeve, “It didn’t happen that way after the last war now did it?”
“That was a very different war,” said Churchill. ‘men came back hammered into the ground. It may not be for a man of my age to say this and I certainly wouldn’t say it in the presence of a serving soldier, but this generation, this English generation, have got off lightly. It could have been so much worse.”
Kolankiewicz, having kicked off this discussion, had said nothing for several minutes. His interjection cut through brusquely.
“You English. You English. The island mentality. The compromise with history. You do not know the half of it.”
“Meaning?” said Troy.
“Where were you when the war ended?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Humour me. I am a cranky old Pole.”
“I was three,” said Troy, with a hint of exasperation, “And Jack wasn’t even born.”
“I was thirty-two, pretty well where I am now doing pretty much what I’m doing now,” said Churchill.
“And I,” said Kolankiewicz, “Was a twenty-year-old conscript in what remained of the Polish regiments of the Imperial Russian Army. Forced to fight a war to defend a country we hated against a country we hated almost as much. Poland has always been in the middle. So much in the middle that for hundreds of years at a time you find it erased from the atlas and all but erased from history. The war you date as ending in 1918 ended a year earlier for the whole of Poland and Russia. And in its place began another which has never ended. When the Germans put Lenin in that sealed train to the Finland Station, they had sent us a time-bomb. By 1920 I was a prisoner of the Whites. Suspected of being a Red, wanting merely to be a Pole. Stuck on a train of cattle wagons on the new border with Poland and shipped east. You may say I had not run fast enough. Quite so. A Lesson hard learnt. Ever since I have not ceased to run. I have lived in the same house in the same backwater avenue in Hampstead Garden Suburb for sixteen years now—and still I run. Every day and every night I run. What do you English know of running?”
It was a blunt, almost brutal little speech. A rain of bricks and rubble clunking down around them, bouncing the cutlery and shattering the china. In a few swift sentences Kolankiewicz had demolished the edifice of argument, pulled racial rank on them all and upped the ante. There was a pause as he helped himself to more port. This time Troy was certain, Sasha had winked at Wildeve.
“What you are both focussing on,” Kolankiewicz went on, “are the social and criminal consequences of demobilisation. I cannot fault you on this, Bob. You are in all probability right. What I saw in Poland and Russia after the last war were the effects of total war on the civil population. On those who did not or could not fight and on those who were too young to fight.”
“Total War?” said Troy.
“The phrase has been in use for a while you will find.”
“It’s your use of it that bothers me. It’s used to describe . . . how shall I put it . . . a mobilisation of resources . . . you’re talking about it as a culture . . . as a substitute for culture.”
“If it is all you know of life, if it has shaped the values by which you live then it is your culture. Substitute or not. I met it face to face. I said I was not swift enough to run in 1917. It would have been convenient to find myself on the German boundaries, to be part of the newly-mooted Poland. Mea culpa I found myself in the hell that was the embryonic Soviet Union. And, as I was saying, I found myself with a one-way ticket to Siberia. It was January. Not the kindest of months. The train ground to a halt in a mountain of snow just this side of the Urals. I never did find out where . . . Mumsk or Bumsk . . . it scarcely matters. Among my many travelling companions was another ragamuffin such as I was myself. But he was older than me, older than any of us young men being herded East. I knew him. I’d known him as a sergeant on the eastern front, under the name of Ivan Volkonsky . . . the name he was doubtless born with . . . but I also knew his nom de guerre. Since 1917 he had been ‘Leonid Rodnik,’ a general in Trotsky’s Red Army. He knew me too. His secret became a bond, as it were. The idiots guarding us would have had a prize, if only they had realised just who they had. How they caught him Rodnik never said. But, as the train sat the best part of a month in the deadly cold of a Russian winter I got to know him rather better. I got to know his life story and he mine—what little there was of it. Indeed, I owe much of my command of Russian to his tutelage.
Each wagon would be allowed out once to day to piss, to shit and to gather wood. We stripped the forest of kindling while the Whites watched and fed the pot-bellied stove inside our wagon. And when we ran short Rodnik opened up his shirt and revealed what had kept him warm those weeks, a lining of several million roubles in Tsarist currency. We fed that into the stove too—I was warmed by the heat of burning money. Rodnik started to laugh. Infectious. The whole wagon joined in, hysterical with laughter at the thought of burning that which most of them would have killed for but a few years earlier.
We starved and we fell ill, and each day the guards would take the most infirm among us and dispatch them to the next world with a bullet to the back of the head. It was obvious, even disregarding the fate that awaited us on the other side of the mountain, that if the train did not get through the next tunnel soon we would all die in the same fashion. The rough justice of the judge with the rifle. You may recall the long passages in War and Peace when the French march their prisoners westward shooting the wounded as they go. It was not unlike. One of those moments when you seek no parallel in literature. I have never seen myself as Bezukhov. Indeed I have never been able to read the book since. No matter.
As dead wood grew scarcer the guards escorted us further and further from the train. Every so often someone would make a break for it and get a bullet in the back. We were lucky. I escaped without a scratch, Rodnik took a bullet in the arm. But we ran. In half an hour they gave up the search. Why waste a bullet? Winter would kill us anyway.
On the third day we stumbled into a dream . . . no . . . a fairy tale .. a setting from the Gebr’der Grimm. It was dark . . . an hour or so after dusk. We came upon a clearing in the forest. Tiny huts built of branches, a camp fire burning, a stew of some forest creature bubbling, an array of utensils beaten out of tin, a hard circle of earth, clean and worn as though someone had lived here a while . . . but of that someone there was not a sign. So . . . we raided the pot and we ate. We had neither of us shown any ability to live off the land. We had starved for those three days, and for weeks before that we had lived on rations of nothing but oats and kasha. It was a matter of minutes before I saw them. They had been watching us all along. Then they came out of the trees, those hideous, blackened bodies . . . and not one of them four feet tall. A dozen children living wild in the forest. Rodnik put down his tin plate and stood to speak to them. The first child stuck a spear in his chest, another aimed at me and missed. A third crawled along the ground and sank its teeth into Rodnik’s leg. We ran again. Or I ran and Rodnik hobbled, dragging the demented child along by its teeth. I leapt a ditch. Rodnik could not. The weight of the child held him down. He screamed at me ‘Run’ and I ran. I looked back and saw children swarming over him like flies upon a carcass. I spent a night in the forest. I circled. Determined to rescue Rodnik if I could. Not knowing the folly of such a thought. The next day I entered the same clearing. The children were gone, the camp fire burnt still. But there was no sign of Rodnik. I approached the pot, prepared once more to rob Lilliput to keep Brobdingnag alive. I picked up the beaten tin ladle, stuck it into the stew and raised a mouthful to my lips, all the time looking around the for the children. And from the corner of my eye I saw a pile of long bones, and another pile of the clothes Rodnik had been wearing. And I knew what was in the pot. I knew what it was I held to my lips. I had almost eaten the delicacy known as long pig. Those children had killed, skinned and jointed Rodnik—put him in the pot and eaten him. I ran. It seems to me now that I ran all the way to England. All the way to Hampstead Garden Suburb. When I die you can shovel a spadeful of North London into my coffin, much as Chopin’s friends shovelled a bit of Poland in with him. Whatever . . . I ran, and they did not catch me.
Who knows where those children had come from? How far they in their turn had run to escape the war? Who knows how long they had lived like that, without parents, without teachers? Who knows how long they went on like that? The little cannibals of the Russian forest. Orphans of the total war. Stripped of all morality. Stripped of anything you or I might recognise as civilised values. That is total war. And I will warn you now that there is a whole generation growing up in England stripped of conventional morality. Cannibals? Perhaps that is unlikely . . . but a generation that survives by taking what it wants . . . ?”
Not so long ago it seemed—had it been last February or March in the depths of winter?—Troy had faced a bunch of urban urchins in Stepney in London’s East End. He recalled the mixture of innocence and greed that had flickered across eight small faces as he bribed them all to help him search a blitz bombsite for the remains of a corpse. His old mentor Sgt Bonham had been outraged. Not simply the bribing of kids, that alone was bad enough, but the knowledge of what they might find. Troy had had no doubts. He was not corrupting youth. Youth had been corrupted long before he got there. Those boys had had the best part of five years of war. They were ten years old or thereabouts and their memories of life before the war must have been scant. They’d known little else but rationing and deprivation—wanting was their world. But try as he might Troy could not see the comparison Kolankiewicz was making between the savagery he depicted and the children he had met. It was still an innocence of a sort. Take away the simple fact of death—a body to whose fate the kids had been indifferent, not it would seem out of callousness or war’s familiarity but out of a paucity of imagination—take away that body and it wasn’t Kolankiewicz’s primitive nightmare in a Russian forest it was . . . it was . . . The Coral Island . . . it was adventures with Jack and Ralph. Wasn’t it?