The War

We interviewed the war. The war was depressed, smoking too much. And we were paying for the drinks. The war polished off three bottles of good red.

We were thinking “by the third bottle how can you even tell the difference?”

The war could tell the difference. The war had been doing this for years. And what did we know about anything anyway? We who weren’t the war. We who would never be the war.

The war was a mean drunk. The war said things about us that would have been better left unsaid. But wars, we discovered, do not apologise.

Actually, according to the war, there is only – has only ever been – one war. All wars are the same war. All over the world. The war, so the war told us, contains multitudes.

Consequently, the war contradicts itself, time and again. The war reserves the right to change its mind. The war, which is too big to be tied to facts. The war, which, when it acts, makes its own reality (“war,” says the war, “being the locomotive of history, and so on”).

The war likes to refer to itself in the third person.

“The war,” says the war, “won’t stand for this sort of thing.”

“The war,” says the war, “is tired of your nonsense.”

“The war,” says the war, “thinks you’d better watch out.”

And so on.

The war claims to have had a job once, claims to have worked in, of all places, a Viennese coffee house, back in the days when that meant something. Back in the early days of the Twentieth century.

The war remembers the moustachioed waiters gliding between the tables with glasses of Einspänner and piles of apfelstrudel and punschkrapfen, remembers the slanted pre-war afternoon light – that sort of light you don’t get anymore – the light glancing off the polished marble table tops, the light skidding along the brass rails and the zinc counter, the light spinning off millions of suspended, dancing dust particles.

And it was as if all of Europe was suspended, dancing like that. 

The war knew the beautiful, bent neck of every female customer, knew the brave shoulders of every strapping young man.

“It was a time of obscene innocence,” says the war, “back in the days before the war changed everything. The war which was me.”

Of course the war has regrets. You have no idea.

“I remember every face; every sunrise,” says the war. “Don’t you think I had hopes and dreams of my own?”

The war smokes all our cigarettes. The war with its feet on our table. The millions of feet of soldiers and prisoners of war and displaced peoples. And all of them needing shoes.

The war says “you try five thousand years of this, ten thousand years of this”.

The war doesn’t go back further than the end of the last ice age. The first thing the war can remember is the retreat of the great ice sheets. Then the carcases of millions of mammoth and woolly rhinoceros and giant ground sloth strewn across the vast plains of Eurasia and the Americas. And the last of the Neanderthals, cornered in some damp, foggy wood on the Atlantic coast, about to get its head smashed in.

Before that, nothing.

Not knowing is a relief.

The war dreams of forgetting.

The war says “But look at all the things I invented. Smartphones. Superglue. Mass production.”

“Wasn’t that… weren’t those things more generally the result of capitalism,” we ask, “rather than war?”

“Plastics,” the war continues. “The welfare state. The motorway…”

The war spilling someone’s drink on purpose. The war making dangerous friends at the bar. The war starting a fight and getting us all thrown out of the pub. The liability of the war.

Under an ice-cream moon the war sits on a beach throwing pebbles into the surf. The sea is glowing with the light of millions of phosphorescing bacteria. The war is subdued, thoughtful. How many hundreds of thousands of years, the war wonders, would it take to throw every pebble on this beach into the sea? Will the war even be around that long?

“Likely a lot of the pebbles would be washed back up onto the beach anyway…” we suggest.

“High explosives,” says the war. “That would do it.”

We can’t argue with that.

And was there also time for romance, back in those good old days? Was there a special woman in the war’s life?”

“Death was my only mistress,” says the war, “but, oh, she was a glory to behold. Give me another one of those cigarettes. Death in a black cocktail dress, two hundred feet tall. Death wading through filth and horror and not a hair out of place. Death swatting fighter planes out of the sky. Have you ever been with a two hundred-foot-tall woman, ladies and gentlemen?”

We shake our heads.

“You have to lift your thinking, that’s the first thing you find out. You have to raise your game. A woman like that – it changes your perspective. Her eyes, iced over in the bomb bay of a Lancaster, twenty-eight thousand feet above Germany, as I begged her to run away with me. Her devastating smile as we tumbled through the frozen night sky…”

Landscapes of the war (not to scale):

  • A hollowed out factory, the roof gone
  • A burning jungle (plus terrified locals)
  • The iron grey sea at dawn
  • A row of partially collapsed buildings, leaning into each other like drunk dancers
  • Endless wheat fields, and you can make out every blade of grass, and the tanks in the distance…

The war isn’t without a certain attractiveness. A certain worn and melancholy charisma. The war has kept its hair. Those wounded eyes are still clear.  The war, then, trying to get off with our wives and girlfriends, our husbands and lovers. The war trying to seduce our seventeen-year-old daughters, turning the heads of our sons. The war with its grief and melancholy and its wounded eyes, at the windows of our husbands and wives and our sons and daughters in the early hours of the morning.

That slick bastard. That sneaky fucker.

Then there was the time the war tried to go on holiday. Soft rain in the mornings, long grey cloud rolling down off the hills. The war, trying to put up a tent. The war flailing around like a dad in an advert, tripping over tent pegs and so on, accidentally flattening whole towns. The war hilariously burning cities and taking the tops off mountains. The low comedy of war….

“Is war inevitable?” we ask the war.

“As inevitable as the weather,” says the war. “As inevitable as childbirth and laughter and famine.”

“Is war preventable?” we ask. “Put off-able? Delay-able?”

But the war is crying in the forecourt of the all-night garage at four in the morning, wrestling with the wrapper on a cheese and onion slice. Huge, embarrassing sobs. The self-pity of the war.

“I can’t get the fucking thing… it won’t…”

The war as a victim – of history, of the modern world, of its own success. The war haunted by the deaths of children. The endlessly photographed deaths of children. The incomprehensible deaths of children. The war in its gigantic self-indulgence.

A crowd has gathered. At four in the morning, for God’s sake, in the forecourt of an all-might garage. Where did all these people come from? Don’t they have homes to go to?

The war wants to tell them about the Russian winter, the Indian campaigns, the conquest of Gaul. The war remembers Viking raids and cannibalism and human sacrifice. The war remembers breaking horses in the high desert, remembers rolling across Asia with the Golden Horde, remembers pulling back the tent flap at dawn to see thunderstorms dancing on the horizon, at the edge of the known world.  All that important stuff that nobody wants to hear.

We take the war home, tell the war it can sleep on our sofa.

“Ceramics!” shouts the war as we stumble up the stairs. “Clingfilm! The Gatling gun!”

We don’t know if the war even believes any of this any more.

But the sun is already coming up and the war has fallen asleep at the kitchen table, its huge snores sounding like the end of the world. Probably there are birds singing somewhere.  And we have no choice but to start thinking about how we’ll all get through the next impossible day.


– End –


[Originally published in the fantastic Hotel magazine, and subsequently included in the wonderful Best British Short Stories 2018]