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Nicolas Travers
The Prisoners

The young soldier clambered from the back of the jeep and stretched in the hot sun before gathering together his kitbag, pack and rifle. It was still early, but the day promised to burn. The jeep driver kept his engine running, and he raised his hand silently. They had not spoken during the journey, and the driver still had some way to travel. The driver revved his engine as though in reply, and then he was gone, spinning his vehicle out in a cloud along the dusty road across the flat green grasslands towards the hills.

     For a moment the soldier stood and wrinkled his eyes in the sun, taking his bearings. His pale green beret and uniform marked him as belonging to the winning army - the losers' uniforms had been a pale khaki, and their berets all blue. Not that many enemy troops still wore berets. Many had been killed in the closing battles of the civil war, whilst the rest were all prisoners, or fugitives, melted away into the heat and the dust, seeking to evade roaming patrols in some forlorn hope of making their way home.

     He turned on his heel towards the gate behind him. The prison camp was no more than a collection of wooden huts set out in rows and surrounded by high razor wire fences strung between a handful of spindly guard towers, with a marble quarry somewhere beyond. No trees, no bushes, no flowers. It was a bad posting, with a bad reputation: a place of brutality, too far from any town for off-duty amusements, with nothing to do but watch the defeated.

     He walked towards the gate, and a soldier lounging at the door of a small hut just inside the wire watched him impassively, holding his rifle loosely, more as a formality than for any specific purpose.

     "You joining us?" His voice was flat, neutral.

     The newcomer nodded. There would be time enough later to learn names and explore personalities. For the moment he needed only to report his arrival to whoever might be in charge, find himself a bed, and locate the camp's messhall and canteen. Then he could explore further.

<  2  >

     "The office is the first hut." The soldier gestured vaguely with his rifle. "You'll find the commander in there."

     The office was sparse: a trestle table, an elderly typewriter, a filing cabinet, a field telephone and a couple of flimsy wooden chairs, with a step up to the door, and a second door at the further end. A lance-corporal sat picking at the typewriter like a hen pecking up grains, using a single finger in spasmodic little jerks.

     He looked up, and then glanced at a piece of paper. "You must be Smith."

     The newcomer nodded. "That's me." He took a buff envelope from a pocket and held it out tentatively. "Corporal."

     The lance-corporal sniffed. His rank did not seem to weigh on him very heavily. He tossed the envelope into a wire basket. "Can you type?"

     Smith shook his head and he sighed.

     "I'm doing death returns. They die like flies in this place, it's a bloody chore. Rows of names, ranks, numbers, and nobody cares a shit." He glanced at his paper again. "You can sleep in the second hut along, before the second gate. The cookhouse is in the hut with the chimney, the ablutions are behind it, the stores are next to the shithouse." He gestured vaguely over his shoulder. "Go and find a bed, dump your gear, then come back here. I'll tell the commander you've arrived."

     The second hut along held two rows of iron beds, each with a kitbox at its foot, and bedding neatly boxed in a blanket at the pillow end. One bed at the end of the hut was empty, and Smith put his kitbag down on the box at the end of the bed to stake his claim. But he kept his rifle. Men had been court-martialled and severely punished during the campaign for abandoning their weapons.

     A thin wisp of smoke spiraled upwards from the cookhouse chimney, and a little further on a high wire fence shut the prisoners off from the guards' compound. He pushed at the door to the ablutions building. It was much the same as any other ablutions building: rows of washbasins, mirrors, and showers, and a doorway leading to urinals and toilets beyond them.

<  3  >

     The door to the stores hut was half open. Smith pushed at it, and a man looked up from reading a magazine laid out on a rough and ready counter. Smith saw that it was one of the girlie magazines popular with support troops, men who had plenty of time on their hands, a collection of salacious texts and provocative illustrations.

     "You just arrived?" The storekeeper sounded bored. He put the magazine down, laying it flat on the counter, text downwards, and turned to disappear into a kind of cave behind him, with shelves rising from floor to ceiling in rows. Then he came back with an armful of bedding, dumping it on the counter, and took a pad of forms from some hidden recess beneath it. "Sign here." He stabbed at the pad with the stub of a pencil. "One tin mug, knife, fork and spoon, one mattress, one pillow and case, two sheets, three blankets. You can change the sheets once a fortnight - don't stain them." He leered, his eyes flickering towards his magazine and back at Smith. "Keep your rifle with you at all times when you are on duty, leave it with the duty NCO at the guardroom when you come off stag."

     He paused, a lanky man, with knowing eyes that had long since exhausted all the promises of provocative photography. "Don't ever leave it lying around, or the commander will have you trussed up and flogged, and don't think of selling any of your blankets to the prisoners, or you'll have to answer to me."

     He leered again, and Smith looked away. The man had the eyes of a goat, seeking and demanding.

     He laid his rifle on the counter for safekeeping, and took his bedding, carrying it back to the hut with the iron beds. The hut was still empty. He smoothed out the mattress and boxed his bedding neatly, before emptying his kitbag into the box, packing his things in the regulation way that he had learned at training camp: shirts and underwear folded neatly on one side, socks in one corner, shaving kit in another. Then he returned to the storehut for his rifle, and trudged back to the camp office. It was now really very warm indeed, but the shadows edging the huts were still cool.

<  4  >

     The lance corporal was still pecking at his typewriter. He stopped to look up. "Found a bed?"

     Smith nodded. The heat wilted his words before he could speak. "I've moved in."

     The lance corporal rose to his feet reluctantly. He looked Smith up and down, as though seeing him for the first time, and nodded. "Okay, I'll take you in to the commander." He paused, as though the heat made speaking equally hard for him. "Keep your rifle slung over your shoulder - he'll expect that."

     He crossed the office to the door at the far end and knocked. A voice grunted, and he pushed the door open. "A new trooper has arrived, sir."

     Smith stepped forward to salute. The commander sat behind a small table, facing him, a stocky man in faded green, his hair cropped close to his skull, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. A small cup on the table held a little pool of drying coffee grounds, and a glass nearby was half full of clear liquid, perhaps water, perhaps something rather stronger.

     Smith could sense the officer's eyes inspecting him. He rapped out his number, rank, and name with machine-gun precision.

     The officer nodded, staring at him. Then he reached for his glass, emptying it in a single swallow, and stood up. "You can come and escort me, you'll learn the ropes that way."

     The lance corporal spoke from behind Smith's shoulder. "You want me as well, sir?"

     The officer was busy buckling on his belt. He did not look up. "I'll need you to count the bodies."

     The gate to the prison camp proper looked as though it had been knocked together from a collection of scrap metal. A soldier standing in the shade of a hut just beyond the gate came forward to unlock it, saluting lethargically, his rifle slung over his shoulder. More huts stretched away in anonymous rows beyond the gate. A gunshot cracked some way ahead of them and Smith twitched, but the three other men were impassive, as though they had heard nothing. Machinery rumbled distantly. He followed the officer and the lance corporal, shifting the weight of his rifle sling on his shoulder.

<  5  >

     The officer walked to the first hut, and pushed at the door. Smith found himself standing in a small open space of floor, with rows of wooden bunks, stacked three high, stretched away the length of the building. The air stank of urine, and faeces, and something sweet, and sickly, and foul. Smith had smelt it before, during the campaign, when his regiment had cleared areas that had been fought over time and time again. It was the smell of death.

     The officer made a face. "They've done it again." He snapped the catch on his revolver holster free. "Find out who was responsible for clearing this hut this morning, corporal, and tell him I'll have him whipped the next time."

     He nodded towards Smith, and the lance corporal cleared his throat.

     "The commander expects the prisoners to clear their huts before they go to work." He rapped his words as though reciting from rote. "All toilet facilities must be cleaned, all bodies removed."

     The officer nodded approvingly.

     "Responsibility rests with the senior prisoner in each hut."

     The officer looked stern. "With the senior prisoner in each hut, and the NCO responsible for morning roll call."

     The lance corporal parroted his words.

     The officer pulled his revolver half way from its holster. "Right, let's see where it is."

     He made a sign to the lance corporal, and the latter began to walk down the narrow passage between the bunks. They were all empty, each with two blankets folded at one end. There was a second small open space at the far end of the hut, with a row of urinals and two toilets. Both toilets were filled with faeces, nearly to their brims.

     The officer skirted them disapprovingly. The lance corporal made a note on a clipboard. They began to walk back towards the door along a second row of bunks. The lance corporal stopped.

<  6  >

     "Here's one, sir."

     He reached into a bunk to pull a man's leg free. It did not move.

     The officer freed his revolver. "Is he alive or dead?"

     The lance corporal shook the leg tentatively. "I think it's dead, sir."

     "Turn him out."

     The lance corporal put his clipboard on an empty bunk, and pulled at the leg. A man slid out from between the blankets, clad only in pale khaki vest and underpants, to drop heavily on the wooden floor between the rows of bunks. He was young, had been young, a typical soldier with close-cropped head. Now he was plainly dead, his eyes staring blindly. A fly settled tentatively at the corner of his mouth.

     The officer looked down at him with an expression of disgust. "Make sure his bedding is burned."

     The lance corporal took a claspknife from his pocket and bent to sever the string fastening the corpse's identity tags around its neck, then straightened to tug at the mattress on the bunk, pulling it down on top of the corpse. He wiped his hands, one against the other. Smith saw that the end of the mattress was infested with lice.

     They trooped on, in a little procession. The lance corporal stopped again. "Here's another one."

     He put his hand on a bunk and tugged at a blanket. The blanket moved, and the lance corporal stepped back as though he had touched something infectious. The officer pulled his revolver free.

     The prisoner was very pale. He looked as though he was dying: his eyes flickered for a brief moment, staring at them, and then closed again, as though in submission.

     The officer raised his revolver, pointing it at the man's head, and then lowered it again. He looked at Smith.

<  7  >

     "Finish him off, soldier."

     Smith stared at the man on the bunk, then at the officer, eyes hidden behind his dark glasses. He had never killed a man in cold blood. The lance corporal looked away, disassociating himself from a confrontation that did not concern him.

     The officer moved his revolver, pointing it now at Smith. "I said finish him off."

     Smith did not move. He was a combat soldier, a fighting man. But he was not a murderer. He had killed several dozen of the enemy during the campaign, healthy men and wounded as well. But the wounded had always had weapons within their reach, and he had always been enflamed by the blood lust that pairs with close combat. He had never looked down, gun in hand, on a defenceless, unarmed man, and fired in cold blood for the pleasure of killing. He had seen others kill in such a manner, and had always been repelled.

     The officer clicked his safety catch free. Smith stared at him impassively. He had been too close to death on too many occasions to be frightened by a charade.

     The lance corporal coughed. It was plain that he was not prepared to put an attempt to enforce discipline at gunpoint on a par with finishing off a prisoner already lying at death's door. The officer's jaw tightened, and he swung his revolver back to point it at the prisoner. The explosion echoed in the confined space of the hut, and the prisoner's body jerked spasmodically.

     The lance corporal felt for the man's wrist and then let it go, to hang over the edge of the bunk as he deftly removed the corpse's identity tags. Then he took its leg and swung the dead body to the hut floor, to cover it with its bedding.

     They found a second dying man a few bunks further on, but this time the officer fired his revolver without a word. Then they checked a second hut, and then a third, and a fourth, and a whole row. But each of these further huts stank only of stale bodies, and the toilets in each were clean.

<  8  >

     The lance corporal wrote something on his clipboard as they left the last hut and held it out to the officer. The officer scribbled with a flourish, and then nodded towards Smith.

     "Take this man on a guided tour."

     The lance corporal watched as he walked off, and took a deep breath. "You took a chance back there." He did not look at Smith. "He can be a nasty bastard at times."

     Smith shrugged. "You were there."

     "True." The lance corporal was silent for a few moments, then spoke reflectively. "He can't type." They walked to a second gate at the far end of the prisoner's enclosure. The lance corporal spoke again as he waited for the guard to swing it open. "You'll be on one of two guards, a corporal and fourteen men on each, alternating days and nights. The night guards do two hours on, two off, sitting up in the watchtowers, the day guards take the prisoners down to the quarry. You're here for two months, or until we run out of prisoners."

     Smith thought of the dead men in the hut. "Who clears away the bodies?"

     The lance corporal frowned. "They do." He paused. "That is, they're supposed to. We've bulldozed a pit down by the quarry." He gestured vaguely with his clipboard. "They're supposed to turn them out every morning before rollcall, corpses on one side of the door, the ones who are too weak to walk on the other, collect their dogtags, and hand them to the guard commander. He does the necessary with the weak ones, then they wheel the bodies to the pit, shovel lime and disinfectant over them, and the bulldozer covers them with earth."

     "And the ones who stay in their bunks?"

     The lance corporal shrugged. "Either they walk, or they don't walk. The senior prisoner in each hut is supposed to check the bunks, but some of them don't like carrying men out to be shot." He spoke like a shepherd, talking about beasts in a flock, healthy beasts and weak beasts. "They're stupid, because the healthy ones benefit. We feed them down at the quarry, and the ration order is always the same, so the ones who live get more if some die."

<  9  >

     "No medics?"

     The lance corporal stared at Smith as if he had spoken in a foreign language. He did not reply for a moment, then shook his head. "No. No medics. Not for them, anyway. We've got an orderly and a couple of first aid kits." He scowled, the corners of his mouth turning downwards. "We're very primitive here."

     The gate swung open and they walked out of the prison camp along a track towards the sound of machinery at work. Gangs of men in tattered khaki uniforms were sweating in the heat to saw at blocks of marble, a couple of dump trucks scurried around them, ferrying marble blocks to waiting low-loaders that had probably carried tanks before the fighting had ended.

     Somebody blew a whistle, and the prisoners stopped working to head for a kind of open tent made of tarpaulins stretched between poles. The lance corporal looked at his watch. "They get half an hour break and fresh water in mid morning, then an hour for their main meal, and another break in mid afternoon. They eat again before we put them back in their huts."

     "Do any try to escape?"

     He shook his head. "Nowhere to hide." He looked at his watch again. "Right, I'd better get back to my typing. You can start tonight, six sharp at the guardroom."

     Smith met the other members of the camp's night shift in the messhall. Most had spent the civil war on frontline service, and were now waiting to be sent home. Merchant's clerks and shepherds and factory workers, rounded up by recruiting parties, unlike the men in khaki, who had seen the war in terms of a crusade.

     The food was the same as army food in every other camp where he had eaten, a brownish grey stew of meat and beans, served with square chunks of hard grey bread, and the other soldiers spoke little as they ate - each seemed engrossed in his own thoughts, as though thinking weighed on them heavily.

<  10  >

     Smith tried to find out whether any came from his home town, or shared his passion for fishing. But the rest of the night guard munched on in silence. They made it clear that memories and pastimes ranked as private matters, not to be shared.

     Guard duty that night was not onerous. The guard commander locked both gates, and four soldiers manned the machineguns in the watchtowers at each corner of the camp, with orders to shoot anything that moved in a floodlit zone ten metres either side of the boundary wire.

     Smith sat in his tower for two hours, and the world slept. Then he ate another meal of brownish stew, dozed for a while, and watched again. The prisoners' huts were still and silent, etched sharply in floodlights that glared implacably. Dawn came, and he watched streams of khaki-clad bodies file out of their huts to form up for morning rollcall, and then file away to an ablutions building. Some dragged out corpses and left them propped against their hut walls. Then all the prisoners marched away towards the quarry to be fed.

     The guards came down from their towers and trooped off to the messhall for breakfast - a rough porridge made from maize flour boiled in salted water and mixed with almonds and raisins. Then they slept on their bunks, or played cards in little groups, using small stones for counters.

     The night guard watched, and ate, and slept for another four nights. Then it swapped with the day shift. Smith was content to change - he had seen nothing, sitting up in a tower, cheek by jowl with a machinegun powerful enough to shred the prisoners' huts into matchwood. He had been bored.

     The day guard ate at dawn, before rousing the prisoners. Smith cradled his rifle as the prisoners came streaming out of their huts, making sure that he kept a safe distance from them. He had heard of desperate men taking desperate measures. The khaki-clad figures formed into rows, and then marched off towards the quarry. He followed at a safe distance, his rifle cocked, his finger watchful on the trigger.

<  11  >

     A open truck drove up, laden with steaming containers, and the prisoners formed a straggling queue, each man carrying a tin plate and a metal spoon. They held their plates up as two cooks standing in the back of the truck ladled out porridge, and then grouped under the tarpaulins to eat squatting on the ground, scattered in untidy groups. Smith saw that a separate group, a little to one side, wore sergeants' and corporals' stripes on their sleeves.

     A guard blew a whistle, and the prisoners grouped into work parties. They plainly knew their work, and moved without talking. Occasionally a khaki-clad NCO shouted a command. The guards stood and watched them, and occasionally changed position, if only to stretch their legs. From time to time prisoners broke away to urinate or defecate into trenches hidden behind rough canvas screens.

     One stumbled, and fell, as he was returning to his work. He lay on the ground, not moving, and Smith watched as a guard walked towards him. The guard gestured with his rifle, obviously wanting the prisoner to get back to his feet, but the man lay motionless, as though all effort had drained from him.

     The guard moved to stand behind him, in case the prisoner was feigning weakness and planned to try and snatch his gun from him, and prodded at him. Smith moved a little closer, in a kind of expectant fascination, and the guard raised his eyebrows expressively. He prodded again. Sooner or later the guard commander would notice what had happened and would come to settle the matter himself.

     The guard prodded a third time, and then, reversing his rifle, dealt the prisoner a hard blow with his rifle butt. Nothing happened. He looked at Smith again, and shrugged, now holding his gun pointing down at the prisoner's head, and fired. The body on the ground jerked just once, and then lay still. Smith noticed out of the corner of his eye that two vultures had fluttered down heavily to stand waiting perhaps ten paces away.

     He looked at the guard, and the man nodded. Smith killed the vulture on the left, the other guard killed its companion.

<  12  >

     The rest of the day was uneventful. Prisoners worked, and ate, and defecated, and one or two died.

     The two following days repeated the pattern. Smith tried to avoid the ground separating the prisoners' work area from their latrines, because those who were weak invariably collapsed on their way to or from performing their bodily functions, though some also fell beside the track leading back to the camp, and some fell at their work.

     He wondered idly, watching the khaki-clad figures scurrying about, whether any had come from his town, before the fighting, and whether any might even be known to him.

     He found his question answered on the afternoon of the third day. It was at the time of the mid-afternoon break, when a truck brought fresh water to the quarry. The prisoners often fought amongst themselves for precedence, quarrelling and scrabbling at each other like wild beasts in their urgency to slake themselves, and normally the guard commander left it to their NCOs to restore order. But this time a minor fracas appeared to be pitching captive NCO against captive NCO, and the guard commander ordered Smith and a second man to break up their quarrel.

     The two guards tried to use their rifle butts, but the quarrelling men were not to be parted. Smith stepped back. He knew that he was supposed to shoot one or other of them, but he had so far managed to avoid entering into partnership with death, and he was not minded to change.

     His companion was less squeamish. A shot rang out, and one of the quarrelling men fell choking to the ground. The second man straightened himself, his face glowing with a kind of victory flush, and Smith started. It was one of his teachers from school, a man who had been noted for his strictness and adherence to the most rigid observance of school regulations.

     Smith raised his rifle, and saw matching recognition in the man's eyes. He fired, a single shot, aiming at the man's heart, and he knew, in the sharpness of the report, that he had crossed a frontier. For death squares all accounts, and settles all disputes, and the dead are the only losers.

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