And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
C.P. Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians
I AM THE last of my group – the others are all dead or have gone missing – and before me lies the bridge, spanning a wide black river, the other side constantly shrouded in mist. It is an old wooden thing, the piles shaped like hour-glasses, its handrail a meandering zigzag. I have never dared walk on it, but if I stand at the end and look out to where it is eventually engulfed in mist, I can see a number of boards missing and many more eaten by damp. The river beneath it seems hardly to move, and I have watched – sometimes all day, from first light to last – a broken twig or branch float by on its way downstream to my left. The mud of the bank is thick, pasty and grey, scattered with reeds both living and dead; two steps into this mud and you would be up to your ankles, six and you would be up to your knees, any more and you would more than likely disappear forever. I've been here for months – I can't tell you how many – and in the absence of further orders I have remained at my post. I guard the bridge, against what I don't exactly know, but I suspect that somewhere in the mist on the far side of the river an enemy must lie waiting, that they are a different colour, their eyes a different shape, their God a different God to ours, that the bridge is therefore of some strategic importance, and that this, collectively, is the reason behind the orders I still carry crumpled in my pocket.
The plane comes by every fourteen days and drops a little parcel tied up in hessian beneath a small white parachute. If it falls on my side of the river, I am able to retrieve it and add its contents to my store: fourteen cans of Borlotti beans, seven candles, one box of matches and a small bar of chocolate. But once every twenty-eight days, as if by clockwork, I must stand and watch helplessly as the parcel descends and disappears swaying into the mist on the far side of the river. I sometimes think it only does it to annoy me. But I shouldn't complain: to be supplied once a month is better than not being supplied at all, and on the days when luck is smiling I will hear the distant drone in the east, look up to see the plane roaring in overhead, see a door fling open and my parcel fly out, and watch happily as it sways down to land in amongst the trees nearby. There I open it up, count each item a few times over in the hope the Quartermaster may have perhaps made a mistake in my favour (he never has), then wrap it up again and carry it back to camp.
My dwelling place is the small hut set in amongst the clump of trees a little way back from the river, put together bit by bit over the many months of my stay. Beyond this clump of trees lies an expanse of grassland that I have called The Paddock, and beyond that again more trees, sparse and low-lying, extending across the flats as far as the eye can see. The hut is well concealed from land or air; the clump of trees forms a canopy overhead and its entrance looks out on the bridge, over which I am therefore able to keep a vigilant watch, according to my orders. In the early days – I mean before the coming of the plane – I simply slept and all but lived within this clump of trees on the ground. I ate only grass, drank only the water I could squeeze from my clothes, and sat staring out for days on end at the river, the bridge and the mist. I was, I admit, expecting the order to withdraw to arrive any day – my post seemed pointless – and therefore saw no sense in making myself too comfortable or going to any great trouble.
But, as each day passed and no such order arrived, I thought it wouldn't do any harm to make a few little improvements around the place, if only at the very least to shield me from the rain that drizzles here for weeks without cease, so I set about weaving from the reeds by the river a large square mat which I then secured with more reeds to four trees in my clump at a height of about two metres until, after a good two weeks' labour, I had a sloping and almost waterproof roof; by the time the plane was returning on a regular basis and I had put from my mind any thoughts of moving I had woven three walls too.
I have since closed in the entrance to this hut with a parachute cloth smeared with mud for camouflage and hung another cloth down the centre, dividing it in half. On one side of this divide I've made a bed from reeds and hessian (beside it an empty bean can-and-candle lamp), and on the other side a storehouse in which to keep my supplies. I don't own much, but on the three shelves of timber plied from the bridge and stacked one above the other on rocks gathered from out on The Paddock, you will find: my rifle, now a little rusty and in bad need of some oil; my knife, which has served me for everything from cutting reeds to opening beans; my writing materials, a standard issue Spirax 560 pad and pen; the old plastic orange juice bottle that I use to store my water, found a few months ago washed up on the bank and retrieved at the time by poking a long stick into its neck and drawing it up out of the mud (I sit it out overnight beneath the trickle from my roof and by morning it is invariably full); my eating utensil, called a spork – a novel thing, carved by me for the purpose and so named because of my sense of humour; and, last but by no means least, in quantities varying more or less with the time of the month, my beans, my candles, my chocolate and my matches.
It's a regular little home now, and outside the entrance I have put together a fireplace with rocks, with an old log drawn up beside it for a seat. Here I sit after the evening meal, sometimes well into the night, perhaps writing a few lines in my pad as now or simply staring into the dying red of the coals and quietly thanking, as I often do, the plane for its coming. For, even if every second drop goes astray – and it does, alas, without fail – and even if my rations are simple and my life a little spartan, still I have my reasons to be thankful: the early doubts about the importance of my post here (I lived for weeks with these doubts), the sense of having perhaps been left behind and forgotten, the feeling that my original orders might in fact have become redundant, all these worries were quickly dispelled as I first watched the plane fly in overhead. So someone must know of my existence I said to myself on that first day, someone has remembered me, someone has said in some faraway office with telephones and filing cabinets and wall-charts and memos: that young man who holds the bridge, he must be supplied, his post is important, he's protecting our interests, he cannot want. I took great comfort from these thoughts then, and have comforted myself with them many nights since.
I SUSPECT I am somewhere near the sea, for the smell of salt air sometimes comes to me when the breeze is in the south and the birds I sometimes see flying upstream past my camp I believe to be sea-birds, though I am no master of ornithology. So I assume that my river must widen out a little downstream into an estuary, and that this accounts for the slow, wide, lazy thing it is. It was on the strength of this theory, in fact, that I once even tried my hand at fishing. Though the river itself was an uninspiring looking thing – I hardly believed a tadpole could live in it, much less a thing as appetising as a fish – I nevertheless thought that one or two lost souls may perhaps run up it with the tide, under the influence of the moon, and that by fishing when the moon was full I might swing some luck my way. So I made a hook from a piece of wire that had stiffened the collar of my jacket, tied all the strings from my packages together and waterproofed this ten metre length of what I now called fishing line with candle-wax, attached the hook to the end and to this hook a bean, and for three successive full moons I sat soaked through the night waiting for my hypothetical fish to bite. But there was no bite – there were no fish, as I first thought but had dreamed against – and eventually I gave it up. I remained convinced, though, that the sea was nearby, because on still nights I have sometimes even heard the waves, the swell of the water and the beat on the sand, and have even, I think, felt its presence – as you do sometimes, they say, as if by instinct. Nature is an extraordinary thing, I've realised that now. I was here for two months at least before I noticed the flowers out on The Paddock, the ones that open only at night – pretty purple little things they are, with black and orange stamens. I don't know their real names, but I have called them the Night Flowers and have often stumbled out with a candle in the dark to pick a bunch and arrange them in a can in my hut.
Yes, all in all my days have been full: these are my best years – I don't want to waste them. I'm still a little vague about the whys and wherefores of my stay (are they really all hiding over there in the mist?), but they've always been a little vague, I'm not frightened to admit it. Certainly I've never seen any action; the deaths in my group (if deaths they were) all happened in my absence. They marched off inland behind our Leader one day – Stay here! he'd barked over his shoulder – and I never saw them again. And when, three days later, a Private called Ball emerged staggering from the trees on the far side of The Paddock, gave me my orders 'Hold the bridge' and died at my feet, I couldn't find a mark on him, and only a tiny dribble of saliva from the corner of his mouth betrayed an otherwise serene appearance. It took me three days to dig a hole big enough to hold him; on the third the rain came down in buckets and the walls collapsed. I gave up and cast him off instead with full honours from the bank of the river and watched him float slowly downstream. I've missed a little human company since; if Ball had lived things might have been different. We could at least have discussed the pros and cons of staying, the relevance of my orders, even perhaps the meaning of the plane.
Ball, I would have said, as we sat by the fire of an evening sucking thoughtfully on a new bar of chocolate,Ball, I'd say, every fortnight the plane comes by but every month it drops the parcel on the far side of the river, and while we live on our meagre rations (and how meagre they would have been if Ball had lived!)over there in the mist there lie perhaps a dozen parcels that could provide us with a veritable feast. Are we really expected to stay here forever, guarding the bridge against an enemy we've neither seen nor heard?
We have no new orders, Ball would reply, so we remain faithful to the old, but who's to say that tied up in the next parcel dropped from the plane there might not be some note, just the briefest word, to say what is expected of us next?
But Ball, I would reply to that, what if, amongst all the parcels that have fallen from the sky, we have been unfortunate enough to have received only those without such notes and that over there on the other side there lie mouldering in the damp perhaps a dozen new orders we're constantly ignoring? Perhaps we've been told months ago to abandon our post and draw back inland – or, what is more alarming, to cross the bridge and take the enemy post on the other side?
I don't think so, says Ball, and he pokes the fire with his stick. And besides, isn't the fact that the plane comes by at all proof enough that we're expected to stay?
But Ball, why?
You have the orders, he'd reply. Isn't that enough?
But Ball, I'd say, listen. And we would, and hear far off the sound of a wave, the swell of the water and the beat on the sand. Isn't that the sea?
So you say, he'd say.
Smell. And we would, and catch the faintest whiff of salt in our nostrils. Isn't that the sea?
Yes, he'd say, knowing any argument was useless.
So if the opposite side of the river belongs to the enemy, which we have no reason to doubt, and if the sea is some way – let's say a kilometre – downstream then what, Ball, I ask you, could prevent the enemy from crossing the mouth of the river by boat, pressing inland across The Paddock, and attacking our camp by surprise from behind? Surely they must have boats, the enemy? And sea-going ones at that?
Ball merely nods, a look of quiet panic in his eyes.
So what then, I conclude, is the strategic importance of the bridge, and what is our reason for guarding it?
Ball remains silent. I celebrate my victory with a swig from the water bottle. He throws his stick into the fire; it smoulders an instant, then bursts into flames.
I'm going for a walk, he says. He gets up awkwardly, gives me a parting glance – half smile, half reproach – and walks off into the dark.
I scrape up the coals of the fire into a neat round pile, light the candle in my hut, lie on my back in the dull yellow light and go over the events of the day: cleaned three empty bean cans, removed the labels and put them in my store; gathered one handful of grass from The Paddock, though not as good as last week's from the south-east sector; wrote three pages in my pad and note that my pen is running out; sat, I think, a total of five hours watching the bridge, with nothing to report. I then listen for a time to the deep foggy silence and feel the sea lapping at the walls of my hut. I think of Ball, far out there now floating on the waves, his chubby cheeks full of water, his skin all puffy and white.
But perhaps, he says, incorrigibly, there is a guard post like ours down at the mouth of the river to repel this sea-borne attack, and as much as it is their duty to watch the mouth of the river for boats, so it is our duty to watch the bridge for men?
I smile, then hear far off the 'caw' of a bird and the faint grey flapping of wings. I turn to the two bean cans beside my bed, take a pebble from one can and drop it into the other, then blow out the candle and turn over to sleep.
LAST THURSDAY – I think it was Thursday, a 'plane day' anyway by the only calendar that counts – I was down by the river collecting ink. Tomorrow, I had said to myself while drifting off to sleep the night before, I must solve the problem of writing, and in the morning I had woken with nothing but that on my mind. My pen had almost run out the previous week, during the conversation with Ball, but I had for some time observed, during those long uneventful afternoons when I sat by the river for hours on end with my rifle resting meaninglessly in my lap, the thin strip of black slime that collected at the very edge of the river where the mud of the bank met the water, and how, given a new pen adapted for it – a young reed trimmed with a knife would be best – and a good supply of this slime, I might meet the prospect of my old pen running out with equanimity.
By midday I more or less had the contraption I needed: an empty bean can attached to a long stick by a short piece of string with another longer piece tied to the bottom of the can running back down the stick to my hand. With it I was able, after some experimenting, to stand well clear of the mud at the bank, lower the can into the stream of slime and, with the hand-held string, adjust and tilt the lip until a thin trickle of black flowed into it. With the can then quarter-filled, I'd release the tension so that it bobbed upright again, draw it back on to the bank and take it to the fireplace where, by sitting it on the still-warm coals of the previous night's fire, I was able to evaporate off the excess water until I was left with a small amount of black liquid – for all intents and purposes, the consistency of ink.
By late afternoon I had what must have been a good third of a can of the best-quality writing ink and was feeling, I must say, very pleased with myself when it struck me that something was wrong. I stood a moment confused and disoriented, and counted off some days in my head. I went into my hut to check the two bean cans that I use to keep track of the days, and sure enough one held twenty-eight pebbles and the other, as it should, held none. I counted them out into the palm of my hand to be sure I hadn't lost one in the long counting-off since my last supplies, but still with the same result.
I hurried outside and looked to all points of the compass – though it was from one point only that the plane should come – and away in the west a soft grey glow through the mist announced that evening was almost upon me. I ran with my boots squelching and plopping to the far eastern side of The Paddock – as far east as I'd ever been before – and stood peering up into the clouds. I stood there long after the grey light had gone and the Night Flowers had bloomed like spring roses around me, staring up into the low-slung dark, straining my ear for the sound. I heard every noise imaginable – noises I'd forgotten existed, noises from this world and the other, noises so old and unfathomable they sent shivers through my head – but still I didn't hear the noise of the plane.
I stayed out there half the night on The Paddock, cold, wet and shivering, and when hours later I lit the candle in my hut, crawled into bed and stared at the patterns flickering on the ceiling, all kinds of new doubts and halfformed questions and whole elaborate scenarios built up around them played on like little movies in my mind. The plane didn't come that night, I knew by then it wouldn't, and I woke late the next morning with still no sign of it and wandered around all day in a trance. I tried to write a little in my pad (I had my new pen and should have been excited) but all I could manage was: Last Thursday – I think it was Thursday ...before the desire to say anything more deserted me. I went to check my store, I don't know how many times, but of course this was the one contingency I'd never covered myself against. The last visit from the plane was fourteen days ago, but the last successful drop was twenty-eight, and save for a tiny piece of chocolate already grown white with age, my store, of course, was empty.
At what must have been about five o'clock that afternoon, a boat came down the river. I watched it gliding, powerless, out on the very edge of my range of vision, through the sheets of mist. It was a small yacht, a clean white hull and a bright blue sail hanging limply from the mast. By straining my eyes I could just make out the words on the bow: Pretty Polly. There was no one on board. It took from what must have been about five o'clock to what must have been about six o'clock to move past a point level with the clump of trees upstream from my camp to a point just below the bridge. So it must have been about quarter past six when I heard a shot and saw the sail flutter suddenly before it drooped and hung loose again. I knew at the time that all this was a dream, brought on by my hunger and the wild galloping of my thoughts, so I simply kept watching as it floated in my imagination on its way downstream until it was eventually lost in the mist.
At half past six, it must have been, I woke from this dream and realised what had happened. My heart went cold, I ran to my hut and grabbed my rifle (it suddenly felt useless, strange, as if I were holding a stick) then stood at the bank and looked out across the river. How many times have I looked out across the river, but have I ever looked out so intently? I cannot say where I found the fortitude that then let me pull the trigger (it fired, I couldn't believe it); I didn't even look where I was shooting: the bullet, I think, just split a reed near my feet and was swallowed up by the mud. But within a few seconds the call had been answered. A muffled crack rang out from the other side and echoed up and down the river. We exchanged shots then, tentatively at first then more rapidly, turn for turn, as if speaking a language only we understood and saying all we needed to say, until I'd emptied the only magazine I had. He lasted three shots longer, but he too, it seemed, didn't have another, for then all went silent and the silence remained. It took some time to fit the pieces together, and then fit these pieces in with the others. It was then another minute or so before I threw my rifle down the bank of the river and watched it sink into the mud.
I STAND EACH day at the end of the bridge and slowly lift my gaze as I examine the boards one by one until the last is engulfed in the mist. I note every one that is missing and every one that is rotten, as far as I can see, then draw up a diagram in my pad with oblongs of different shades to represent their various states – for example, three safe, one rotten, one safe, one missing, two safe, two missing, etc. – and every day I go over this diagram and commit the pattern to memory. It is never more than a depressing sight; I wonder could a mouse walk on it with safety, let alone a man? But the value of this diagram is obvious, and a good memory of it essential, as the crossing itself will be made under the cover of darkness, on the next moonless night, three days from now. While I see the risks attached to such a decision (and the risks are great, given the state of the bridge), I feel I cannot take the greater risk of being seen to abandon my post in broad daylight. I don't know who it is I fear, but my fear is great; if I'm caught, I know I won't live through the consequences. Beyond that section of the bridge I've mapped out – the only part that, even on the clearest days, I can see with any certainty – I will just take it step by step, though I plan to carry a strong stick with me with which to tap each board in the darkness as I go and listen to the sound – or silence – it sends back.
Preparations are now well in advance, but above all it is the state of the bridge itself that will determine what else aside from a stick I carry with me, for I will obviously have to travel light. I'll take my water bottle of course, lashed to my waist with a piece of string will be best; a white piece of cloth, just in case; my pad, my pen and a supply of ink, in a hollowed-out stick stopped up at one end with wax. I still don't know why I want to take a length of rope, but setting off on an expedition without one just seems to go against the natural order of things, so in addition to learning the pattern of the bridge I have also occupied myself these past few days with tearing my dividing curtain up into long thin strips, tying these strips together into longer strips again and painfully plaiting these longer strips into a piece of rope some twelve metres in length. When I'm finished, I will coil it up and secure the ends and wear it like a sash around my body. Lastly – and perhaps foolishly – I intend to take with me a bunch of Night Flowers: a kind of gift, I suppose, and a symbol, I hope, of the new life to come. The rest of my things, the little that's left, I will leave in the hut which I have decided after some consideration not to dismantle (aside from removing the dividing curtain and returning the three shelves to their place on the bridge) in the belief that it should remain here as a testament – for whoever may come by and in the likely event of my not returning – to the pitiful conditions under which I have lived and faithfully despatched my duty.
Of course, what I lack above all in these preparations is food for the journey, and I am already almost half-starved. As I did my star-jumps yesterday – part of the daily exercise routine I started on the day I resolved to make the crossing – I suddenly went all dizzy, felt my legs collapse from under me, and spent a good half-hour regaining my composure and my breath. The grass I then ate to recover myself I immediately brought up, like a dog, and I haven't been able to keep down any since. Sucking a pebble has helped – the irony in it being one from my now useless calendar even more so – but I still get terrible cramps in my stomach and occasional fits of retching. But alea jacta est, the die is cast.
AS I SAT on the log three days later waiting for evening to finally fall, I felt as ready for the crossing as I would probably ever be, though my hand had begun to throb a little and I'd broken a lace on my boot. The problem of hunger had to some extent been solved, in the strangest of ways, the day before. I'd been lying in bed, my preparations more or less complete and feeling too weak anyway to do anything more, gazing absent-mindedly at the pattern the camouflage formed on the cloth at the entrance to my hut when I saw it shift a little – strange in itself as there had been no breeze for days – and then saw, crawling through the gap at the bottom, a bird: medium-sized, a chocolate-brownish colour with white tips on its wings, a kind I'd never seen before. I watched it bob and weave its head as it looked around the hut. It took a few quick light-footed steps and stopped beside my bed, where it cocked its head to one side and looked at me as if about to ask a curious question. I flung my hand out to grab it, but it flew up towards the ceiling. I leapt up, almost fainting for an instant, and lunged at it as it fluttered in the corner above where my shelves used to be. I managed to grab it by the wing while the other flapped madly, showering feathers in my face, and then somehow wrap my other hand around its body. It thrust its beak into the flesh, drawing blood, and kept trying to peck at the wound it had made as I slowly moved my hand up towards its neck; the beak fell open, snatching for breath. I throttled it until the flapping subsided – staring it all the time vengefully in the eye – then put its head under my foot and pulled until I heard a little crack. I had the fire lit within minutes, and by the time it was a good hot bed of coals I had plucked out the wing and tail feathers and skewered it through with a stick. I fell upon this meal as if I'd never eaten before in my life, crunching the bones and swallowing the entrails whole, until what no more than an hour before had been a living thing was now no more than a beak and a pile of blackened quills and bones. The best of these bones I kept in my pocket, and I sucked them throughout that and the following day with a pleasure far greater than any pebble had ever given me.
Darkness was already washing the last grey glow from the sky in the west as I made my final preparations that night. I changed the bandage again on the throbbing hand, re-threaded my boot with a piece of string, tied the water bottle to my waist and looped the rope around my body. In a few hours I'll be gone, I thought; by tomorrow all will be resolved one way or the other. If I have any doubts, it's too late to be dragging them up again now. I walked out on to The Paddock for the last time and waited in a kind of happy trance until even the after-image of that last grey evening glow had faded from my eyes and, as they opened one by one around me, I picked a bunch of the prettiest flowers and tied them up with string. I didn't light a fire that night – it would only have given me a stronger hankering for some beans – but just sat on the log sucking a bone, waiting for what I thought was midnight to come around, making a final check of the things I would carry with me and repeating over again in my mind the pattern of boards on the bridge.
The next morning found me waist-deep in mud. I had followed the pattern for the first half– hour or so without fault, and beyond that groped my way along the handrail, hearing only the sound of stick against board and the rise and fall of my breath until I had eventually reached out my hand and found nothing, tapped the stick before me and heard a very different sound, then gingerly put my next foot forward and felt it touch solid ground. Against all expectations, I had somehow arrived on the other side of the bridge and stood a good five minutes in the pitch black and silence wondering what to do next. I took out my water bottle and wet my lips – and my shirt too, having missed my mouth in the dark – then groped back again for the comfort of the handrail. It was some kind of fear, I suppose, the fear I think of being found standing there stupidly on the edge of the bridge come dawn, that then made me take a few tentative steps out into the dark and, waving the stick out in front of me like a kind of extended limb, a few more. Half an hour later, as I stood in mud up to my knees, believing I had walked so far inland as to have encountered some kind of swamp and too confused or simply too tired to find my way back, I cursed those first few impulsive steps and was still cursing them when, some hours later, completely exhausted and now in mud up to my waist, I nodded off to sleep.
Dawn brought the greatest shock of my life. The stick was now resting on the surface of the mud; my forearms lay across it, my head on my forearms, my torso bent from the waist at a right angle to my legs, now completely submerged beneath me. The 'caw' of a bird I think it was – the morning type – that first stirred me from the strangest of dreams. I opened my eyes and saw Ball, lying face down a few feet away from me almost completely covered in mud and recognisable only by the colour of his hair and the boil on the back of his neck. Through the mist beyond Ball, I could just make out the black water of the river and, to my right, very clearly, the bridge.
It took me some time to piece it all together, it was too much to believe in one gulp, but it was obvious that I was standing waist-deep in the mud of the riverbank about twelve metres from where I'd let go of the handrail the night before, that I'd walked around in circles until I'd somehow walked back towards the river, and was now looking out, to my great consternation, at the mist that enshrouded the far side and my camp: behind me was the countryside I had mistakenly thought myself to be walking in, somewhere the swamp I had even more mistakenly thought myself to be standing in. It took a little longer to fit Ball into the picture, but it seemed by first impressions that I may have been right about the sea after all, and the tide, though it brought no fish, had somehow brought my old companion, full moon by full moon, back up the river until, on the opposite bank, he was almost back where he started. He was not the Ball I remembered: his hair was falling out and the collar of his shirt had begun to rot away, but at least he was buried, or very nearly – which is more than I could ever do for him – and this gave me no small comfort in the midst of my present troubles.
I turned from Ball again towards the bridge, and could at least congratulate myself for having thought to bring a length of rope: there above me and to my right one pile of the bridge sat up a little above the level of the boards. I converted one end of the rope to a lasso and, after only a few attempts, I had found this pile and pulled it tight. And after ten minutes or so of heaving, hand over hand, I had pulled myself up out of the mud and finally stood where I should have remained standing all those hours before.
The sun was still struggling up somewhere in the east, but already the light was enough for me to take my first real look at this side of the river. I did, and was suddenly struck by the strange sensation that I had not crossed the bridge at all. In front of me, no more than thirty paces away, was a clump of trees in every detail the same as the one that concealed my hut; beyond it lay grass and more scattered trees, the vista I knew so well. It was only after taking a few steps forward and peering more closely at this clump of trees that I saw for the first time, hidden amongst them, what looked like a sheet of corrugated iron and, a little further away to the right, an old rusted drum set up above the ground on rocks. I stepped back a few paces and coughed – a small, affected cough – and suddenly the fear I never thought I'd feel washed over me like a wave. A shiver went round the back of my head and buzzed up in my temples. I took out the white piece of cloth and hung it on the end of the stick. I coughed again, but there was no response. There were thirty paces of open ground between me and the clump of trees. I drew myself up to full height and, with the white cloth dangling from the end of the stick in one hand and the bunch of Night Flowers – badly crumpled – in the other, I slowly made my approach.
It was a hut all right, much sturdier than mine: three corrugated iron walls and a roof the same, and a curtain of hessian sewn together at the entrance. I put a hand on the coals in the bottom of the drum and thought I detected a faint glow of warmth. I approached a little closer, suddenly aware that I'd lost a boot, perhaps somewhere in the mud, and knocked softly three times on the wall of the hut. I stepped back and waited, feeling as I did that I should for some reason be smoothing down my hair, and finally, now certain there was no one in there, I parted the hessian at the entrance and stepped inside. It took me a little time to adjust my eyes to the light, and I stood there with a small living thing palpitating above my heart as I waited for each object to slowly assume its shape. There was a bed, similar to mine though raised off the ground on four rocks and a sheet of iron; a pile of empty bean cans in one corner and beside it a pile of unused cloth and hessian; three empty shelves, in every way identical to mine, stacked one above the other on rocks. But the shelves were not all empty, and with my eyes now better adjusted I could see on the bottom one, weighted down with a small pebble, one lonely piece of paper torn hastily from a pad. I picked it up and stepped out into the light.
To my Leader, my comrades, or whoever may read this note. I have stood guard here for just over six months with little to report. The supply drops have mostly been successful and I have managed as best I could, supplementing my diet with fish. Thirteen days ago I fired on the enemy for the first time as he sailed past the Eastern shore of the island out towards the centre of the lake. He returned my fire without making contact and a few days later I saw his body washed up in the mud. The following week the boat drifted up on to the Western shore and I have secured it there for my use. In the absence of further orders I have decided to cross the channel in this boat, secure the mainland end of the bridge, and re-establish my guard post there. In case the enemy should find this note first, I am withholding my name and rank. Yours, 3923-2872-1774.
JUST AT THAT moment I heard a familiar drone in the east, looked up to see the plane roaring in overhead, saw a door fling open and the parcel fly out, and watched as it descended swaying into the mist on the far side of the bridge.