Sleep had eluded him yet again. The sheets were drenched with sweat and he kept staring lifelessly at the roof. His body shuddered at irregular intervals as the same dream played through his mind in a never-ending loop. It had been so many years since that day. That damned day when he had almost lost everything.
The war was long over. Twenty years come this spring. But he remembered it all so vividly as if it had happened only yesterday. Those shadows had remained with him for all these years. And the memories had taken over his dreams. His stomach heaved suddenly but he felt too weak to rush over to the basin.
He managed to sit and then threw up on the floor. The vomit spattered the floor in a wide arc. Its strong and unpleasant odour filled the room. He kept wretching till he had lost whatever little he had eaten for dinner last night. Dry heaves rocked his body and subsided only after a while. The smell permeated the entire room now. It didn’t surprise him to see the vomit streaked with blood. It was the effect of all that alcohol. That was the only thing that could make him forget; if only for a short time.
The scenes of past horror that had been filling his mind faded away. His vision swam as the heavy vomiting had made tears appear in his eyes. The headache just kept increasing in a painful crescendo.
Feeling thirsty suddenly, he reached for the bottle of cheap scotch on his bedside table with his right hand. The bottle crashed on the floor and shattered with a loud noise. The brown liquid started mixing with the vomit. He cursed angrily. This happened almost every morning.
He examined his right hand under the sunlight streaming in from the small, open window. It ended in an uneven stump just before the elbow. But somehow he could still feel the missing forearm; like an old phantom not willing to let go. He got up from his bed and moved towards the china basin, trying hard to avoid stepping into the pool of congealed vomit.
A small piece of glass served as a looking mirror. He gazed at it, afraid of what would stare back at him. His face looked haggard and deep wrinkles covered it. The eyes were sunken deep and dull. The right side of his face was a horrible mass of highly scarred and sagging skin and the ear was missing.
He had lost them all in the war but had collected numerous rewards for his service. An artillery shell had exploded near him, turning his hand into a mangled pulp and reducing the right side of his face to disfigured tissue. The doctors had told him in the beginning itself that they would not be able to restore him. He had just accepted his fate. That was all you could do in those days.
He looked again at the age weary face. Nobody was able to tell that he was only forty. He looked at least two decades older. He splashed some cold water on his face. Feeling more awake, he went back and sat down on his bed again, ready to perform his daily ritual.
It had started the after the day he had come back to his home back in 1944; a broken and scarred nineteen-year-old man. Only to discover that his fiancée had married someone else. That memory still pained him. She had pretended to not recognize him and had shut the door in his face.
Thinking about it would hardly make it any less painful, so he let it go. He opened the drawer built into the bedside table and took out the old pistol. He turned it around in his left hand. It was fully loaded, as always. He put the barrel in his mouth. His hand was shaking badly and a bead of sweat ran down his face.
His fingers twitched around the trigger. He felt that would finally pull it today. But that feeling soon subsided. He replaced the pistol back in the drawer and closed it with a bang. His entire body was trembling now but he managed to bring it under control.
Suddenly the room felt stifling and claustrophobic. He finally seemed to notice the putrid stench and wrinkled his nose. It was a small room. Shreds of blackout paper still hung along the window. There was place only for a tiny bed and the table. The basin was kept on a stand in the corner. A small door opened into the cramped bathroom which also contained the loo.
He couldn’t bear it anymore. He grabbed his coat and hat and rushed outside, locking the door behind him. Descending three flights of stairs, he emerged out into the street which was bathed in warm sunlight.
The headache had become more bearable now; it was almost gone. The sunshine soothed him immensely and he started walking up the street without thinking. He would be fine wherever his feet took him. Soon he arrived at the intersection at the corner of which stood the Richmond Hotel.
He passed the grand entrance and peered inside to see richly dressed people idling about without a care in the world. He turned his eyes away and adjusted the hat to cover the ruined part of his face. Feeling a sudden chill, he squeezed tight his shabby coat and put his hand in his pocket.
The street was slowly getting filled with people, going about their morning business. It felt like all of them were staring at him. He increased his pace till he came in a relatively empty stretch of road. There was a small bench ahead of him and he gratefully sat down on it.
Seeing a boy of about ten selling newspapers around the corner, he shouted for him and bought a copy of The Guardian. There was some loose change in his pockets fortunately and he used it to pay for the paper. The headlines read – “North Vietnam Bombed Again”.
The situation in Vietnam was getting serious. He was pretty sure that soon they would be plunged into another long and futile war. These people will never learn, he muttered. There was a large image on the front page – a devastated Vietnamese port. His headache returned with a vengeance. His eyes were fixed somewhere far and remote as the visions started; the same dream that caused his insomnia.
He was younger and in a soldier’s uniform. Everything was blowing up and he was running. Death was getting closer with each moment. The soldiers around him, his comrades, were falling back and slowly getting sucked into the blasts. He was slowly getting tired and his speed was reducing. Then the shell landed and the world exploded.
He shook his head violently and the hallucination dissipated. He was sweating profusely and his breath was coming in tortured gasps. A vicious bout of shaking took over his body and he accidentally bit his tongue. He slipped from the bench and fell on the cold asphalt. People were starting to stare now and were pointing at him. Blood pooled inside his mouth and he spat it out. His head cleared finally as the shaking ended. He got up unsteadily and decided to return home. He stopped only after he had closed the front door of his apartment behind him. Then he slowly slid down to the floor.
There was a big tear in his coat where it had scraped against the ground. His arm was also scraped a bit. He wiped off the small amount of blood on his coat. It was destroyed anyway. Feeling something under him, he shifted from his position to discover that he had been sitting on a rumpled envelope. It ought to have come in the morning when he was out. The landlady must have slid it under his door. His address was written on the front neatly in black ink. The official seal of the Department of Defense adorned the top right corner.
He tore open the letter as quickly as his disability allowed him. His apprehension was slowly rising as he opened up the folded sheet of paper inside.
“Lieutenant David Atkinson, the government would like to thank you for your great contributions in the last World War. You must have heard about this situation in Vietnam. The government requires your assistance again. You will be reinstated to all your former titles, effective immediately. A vehicle will be sent to your house to pick you up on the noon of 26th October. You are doing your country a great service.”
David put down the letter. I can’t go back to that hellhole! He tried to tell himself that frantically in his thoughts. The attack was coming again. His vision was fading away and he was back in that devastated field trying to escape. He banged his head against the wall a couple of times. Pain shot through his skull but the visions stopped. Blood started trickling down his face. He then realized that it was 26th October. He looked at the clock frantically. Quarter to twelve. He still had time.
There must be something he could do. He could try to run away. But he was sure they would find him and declare him a traitor. He had only one option now. David tried to put a handle on his doubt and looked at the table drawer. He approached it in a daze. He didn’t seem to notice as his foot dragged through the vomit. He sat down on the bed again and took out the pistol. His hand was not shaking at all. Suddenly a dry chuckle escaped him. This of all things to harden my resolve, he thought! He broke into a mirthless laugh. He only quieted down when he saw the clock again.
Five minutes to twelve. He realized he was subconsciously trying to delay the moment. It was no use really. David heard the sound of footsteps coming from below. They were here for him. The sound of the footfalls was approaching closer with each passing moment. A bell tower somewhere started to chime ominously as the clock struck twelve. Counting down to my end, he thought. The footsteps were almost at his door.
“So long then,” David muttered slowly as he cocked the pistol. Someone started knocking on his door. Then the loud gunshot rang out through the street.
~ Areeb Ahmad | Edited by Farrokh Jijina