Yesterday, I started my radio show with two anti-war songs. This morning, I’m going to play a whole list of anti-war songs. That, and speaking out against the war in Ukraine, and all wars, seems all I can do at the moment; and writing poetry about war. I’m lucky. I’ve never been in a war. I don’t know the courage it takes to defend your home(land) against an aggressive expansionist and ultimately deluded neighbour. There has always been so much talk about the special soul of Mother Russia. That soul was stolen a long time ago, centuries ago, by its own rulers, communists no better than tsars. Everything always ends with the robbery of the poor, and with the young and poor as cannon fodder of the rich and powerful.
I have relatives in the part of Germany that was East Germany. When we lived in the then West Germany, we used to go and spend some holidays on their farm, their production supposedly exclusively for the state. They smiled at us and shared the secret that they’d always declare one less pig than they produced, or one sheep less, or 100kg less corn. And they’d rear the extra animal in the barn, scented with dry straw and corn, away from the prying eyes of the Party. The thing I remember most clearly is that we’d drive to see them – a long drive – and that, at the border crossing, we’d have to run the gauntlet of the Russian tanks and the soldiers with machine guns in their ready hands, and the watchtowers and the barbed wire, all in so-called No-Man’s Land. It scared us every time. That memory only came back to me this morning when I was wondering what to write. I have four DVDs full of my father’s photos from those days, but I’ve never spent time looking through them (partly because the soundtrack is dreadful; maybe I should overdub with Hans Zimmer). I’ve not seen those relatives since 1974. The kindly parents are probably long dead by now. One of my favourite uncles by marriage was Ukrainian. He died a long time ago, too. Just like all my mother’s siblings and most of their spouses. They fought a war, but they didn’t die in it.
The point is that war has never been far away from the centre of Europe. And that central Europe is and always has been the most likely theatre of war in any conflict between the superpowers. This is why I walked with CND. This is why I became a pacifist.
I write this to contextualise myself. Maybe that border crossing is why I like John Le Carre’s books so much. Maybe that’s why I mainly write historical fiction. For context. Without history we know nothing. Without understanding history, we are nothing. And keep making the same mistakes over and over again. War has always been driven, not by the needy struggling to survive, but by those who already have what they need to survive fighting to feed their greed.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 14
The room has been ransacked. Drawers pulled out, their contents spilled across the floor. Aggie picks her way through the mess. The desk on the far side of the room is bare, except for unplugged cables trailing down the back of it. He didn’t have any clothes in the suitcase, after all, did he? She raises her eyebrow when she sees the drawers in the desk are undisturbed, tries to pull one of them open. Nothing. It can wait. She picks up the papers lying on the floor, as if she were tidying up after a party, piling them on top of each other unseeing, until the floor is clear. Her hands full, she sits down on the strangely untouched, pristine, unslept-in, tidy wooden double bed, and starts going through the papers. Cyrillic letters. She frowns. Madam’s face. The words mean nothing to her, even though she can understand them. Banalities. Parties. Dates from years ago. Irrelevance. No official stamps. Nothing that makes sense of what’s happened in the last few hours. Why leave such a mess?
The bedside tables have nothing in them except the usual detritus of a marriage; jewellery, make-up, spare change and forgotten mementos tied in red ribbons, scribbled notes that have lost their meaning and their colour, the faded passion of the past. Toys. Aggie avoids them. There’s nothing here that gives her an answer. She closes the cupboards, wipes her hands on her trouser legs. Her sense of intruding has receded into a walnut-sized hardness at the bottom of her stomach. She gets up, leaves the papers on the bed, walks into the en-suite bathroom. It’s spotless. She nods her approval. She lifts the top of the toilet cistern. Only someone stupid would hide anything in here; all those films showing it as the ultimate in clever tradecraft have killed it, assumed too much, made it too easy. Even with her stature, she has to stand on the toilet lid to reach the ceiling, to tap it for any hollow echoes. Nothing. She jumps down, lands lightly on her feet, scratches her head. Irritated.
She runs back into the bedroom, grabs the papers, skips up the stairs, drops the papers on her desk, grabs her lock-picking tools, and drifts back down the stairs. No humming. Maybe he has settled for sleep rather than escape. She sets about unlocking the desk drawers, can’t figure out why Sir wouldn’t have forced them open. The noise? Perhaps he didn’t want to alert her to what he was doing. The first lock clicks open. Or he knew there was nothing in here he needed. She’s staring at a small black handgun now. She strides into the bathroom, picks a towel from the rail, picks the pistol up with it. It fits into the palm of her hand. Too small to be Sir’s. So it must be Madam’s. Why would she leave it here? Only if she wasn’t expecting trouble. Or she had a spare. But the handle on this one is so shiny, so well-used that it must be her favourite. That could explain the panicked call. She drops the towel onto the bed, checks the gun’s magazine. Full.
Decision made, she walks down the hallway to the now silent room he’s in, unlocks the door with the hand that’s not extended with the pistol in it. He’s turned off the light.
‘Don’t even try,’ she says as she flicks on the light. ‘We’re going to work together.’