Sven Goes to War. Part 11. Between the Wars
Between the Wars.
It was all very straightforward. The base was housed in a former pickle factory on the outskirts of S. Climb up by a series of squat sharp ladders onto the flat roof and there it all was; distant adobe tenement blocks, their own roofs crowded with tall angular aerials, windcatchers, badgers, the ancient spiralling minarets of many mosques, a nearby white square-windowed cottage the owner of which, a hermit, was said to be simple but who himself claimed to be a direct descendant of the mighty king, Xerxes I, murdered at the height of his powers by Artabanus, the commander of his own royal bodyguard.
Each morning he, the hermit, would emerge naked onto the same patch of crumbling concrete, swarming with the large red ant, Manica rubida, common to the region and said to be able to strip a goat of flesh in twenty minutes flat, and by a contraption of his own devising, broomsticks bound end to end and then together at the top with hempen rope, tip a bucket of water over himself.
It was by this cascade they marked their reveille.
Stories existing of the West side of the pickle factory being haunted, the former owner, that bastard, Babak Tehrani was said to have always carried a sharpened scythe in his belt and be not afraid to use it, like the infamous Zoultan, the Berger of Baghdad, in Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights, to cut fingers from misbehaving employees, and it was these fingers that were the ghostly presence, stealthily entering any viable hole while you were asleep before making their way to your heart, which they would grip with a deathly chill, causing nightmares the lingering memory of which would last throughout the day, the soldiers always kept to the East except when, in groups of at least four, they would climb the mighty stanchions that swept up to the distant roof and dive headfirst into the still half-full pickling vats. Then, laughing they would cavort and dive, tossing the remains of floating onions at each other, before emerging stinking and slick.
It was a vainglorious vinegary time.
Like the simple man of the cottage, that hoary descendent of Xerxes I, shall I at least set my lands in order?, for the most part the soldiers existed in a state of nudity.
Strange times breed strange bedfellows but this was not without precedent.
It was Mike Four, born Mihajlo in the town of Szentes, who told them of his Great Uncle Pataki, a member of that famous Cold War Hungarian basketball team that had travelled the length and breadth of the country by train and in the nude, only donning their clobber on match days because if they didn’t, and here he drew a finger across his throat, Khrushchev would have got wind of it and had their arses on spikes outside the Országház.
Országház, said Mike Four, taking in their confused looks, Hungarian Parliament. On the banks of Danube. Very beautiful building.
Set off nicely by arses on spikes, said Mike Three, who was the funny one and one day dreamed of appearing at The Royal Variety performance, if I don’t get my balls blown off in this blasted war, or other parts of me even less conducive to quick one-liners and startling repartee.
Like your mouth, said Mike Two.
Or your arsehole, said Mike Five.
I’m always talking out of it, said Mike Three. Boom boom.
(He was the funny one.)
Tuesdays and Thursdays were the only days when they routinely donned their uniforms and on the nights before these days a kind of unstated ceremony would take place; floors would be swept, bedding shaken out, clothes neatly folded at bunk ends for the following day.
It was on a Monday night especially that some of the men would even go so far as to kneel and pray, dear God, protect me on the morrow, and protect my family and protect my loved ones, and protect the fishes in the sea, and protect the mighty whales, hammerheads, kraken (thanks to Mike Five for these last benedictions due to his former life as a fisherman on the Saint Helena who plied her trade between the Barents Sea and Peterhead in Aberdeenshire) because it was on a Tuesday, by common agreement, decrees signed secretly in dusty tents, camels standing guard, dromedary-like, that the war itself would take place, in the DFA (Designated Fighting Area), a maze of old waterways and an abandoned castle built in the 1930s for some Prince who had long since fallen from favour and then committed suicide by slicing off his own head, the tradition of which his cousin had learnt of during a trip to Kyushu along with how to safely dissect a fugu (pufferfish) and kiss a geisha without causing dishonour to her family.
Wednesday nights were an altogether more raucous affair. On Wednesday nights the men would shave together standing in a line before iron buckets filled with tepid water and then stick elaborate, impossible, fake moustaches on each other’s faces, a glorious find from the bazaar at A where they had also purchased sweetly smelling incense sticks, tiny earrings in the shape of hissing snakes, elaborately decorated shawls that doubled as disguises if they wanted to go out in the early hours of the morning and chant with the other men as the daily train from P. arrived, carriage-packed with produce and smelling sweetly of saffron, cardamom, ginseng, a lifeline in these troubled times.
After the shaving and the sticking, Dali, Fu Manchu, Lampshade, fully moustachioed up, the men would push (each other) and preen (themselves) before the base’s single mirror boasting, as if they might have been in a fairy tale, about who might be the fairest of them all, and, more to the bloody point, who might win the heart of Esta Esfahani.
It will be me, sweet love.
And why not me!
This might go on for hours, what else was there to do?, before the men, Mikes the lot of them, fell exhausted onto their bunks, being careful to topple, tipple, nipple, on their backs to avoid the disturbance of their precious moustaches from the caravanserai, mahal, ghorfa, bazaar, (rock the) kasbah.
In this land there were so many names for what was essentially the same none of them would have been surprised to learn that there were fifty words for sand.
Don’t eat the yellow stuff. Boom boom.
(Mike Three, he was the funny one.)
It is the nature of modern warfare, and not so modern, for see the those incendiary leaflets dropped from aerostat machines onto Napoleonic battlefields, your general is descended from a baboon who eats his own shit while you prime boeuf being led needlessly to slaughter, to win not over bodies, machinery, power, but also hearts and minds. And to this purpose, Esta Esfahani, long-limbed, almond-eyed, and with lips a bee would sting you for, would come to the factory to teach them, the soldiers, local customs, manners, and the strange hard edged language they heard drifting over five times a day from the mouths of the muezzins.
In those first days and weeks Sven, being not of the kind to fall for a person of the opposing sex, had it all from each of the Mikes.
- Mike One, a butcher by trade, was to open a sausage roll shop in the East End of London, Frying Pan Alley, and the thing is son, in my sausage shop every day will be Christmas, tree, lights, the whole shebang. And Esta. She will be the Santa Claus of sausages, the Saint Nicholas of pastry.
- Mike Two, a self styled sex machine, the pumper from Kuala Lumpa (his mother being half Malay, the other half being proud Scot, growing up in Govan under the shadow of the shipyards), claimed both men and women had always wanted him, although I’ve never given in to the heady lure of cock, not even at the Poulton-le-Fylde Marlon Brandon lookalike jamboree when all the guys were at it, and while still at school had been given nickname of the bike, even Priest Gonçalo coming to him for womanly advice, Bless me son for I wish to sin. Esta though, he claimed, had tamed him. So heaven help me God, he said, I won’t even knock one out in the shower.
- Mike Three, the funny one, would write his own sitcom. Me and Esta, we’ll be like Barbara and Tom Good (The Good Life), Laura Denton and Mike Selway (A Fine Romance). They would win a BAFTA each for Outstanding Comedy Actor and Actress and make the move seamlessly to Hollywood and jointly host the Oscars.
- Mike Four, the Hungarian, simply wanted to make love to a woman having only previously been with Mike Six, he of the boob-tube and extremely pucker poop-shoot, during a drunken night in F. that was never to be talked about but always was, on and on, long into the night until Mike Four, absurdly angry, would climb up onto the roof and sleep there under the stars, Antares, Pleiades, Betelgeuse.
- Mike Five, the fishermen, wanted nothing more than to return with Esta to Peterhead and while he sailed the seas in search of the mighty kraken, she would be waiting at home for him, not wifely, but teaching Peace Studies in the school for mermaids, war-mongering creatures by nature, with their Poseidon forks and Mata Hari biographies, she was born Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod, half-woman half-fish to the greatest Merman of all…
But Sven loved Esta in a different way. For having exhausted enquiries with the Mikes regarding Stanley, no, we’ve never had a Stanley here, we’ve always been just Mikes, except for you, are you sure you’re not a Mike?, she was a conduit to the outside world.
“These people,” she said, “you must make them love you. Not raining down bombs, killing their children, something else.”
And so each Thursday morning after their lessons she would take them into S. and it was here, in the multitudes, that Sven believed he might find Stanley, his webbed feet caressing the pavement or, more likely, down at the municipal pool, creating waves, arrowing through the flat waters like a torpedo.
Billy Bragg - Between the Wars
Picture from here