THE INNOCENT CASUALTIES OF WAR – An excerpt from “Nor the Years Condemn” by Justin Sheedy
THE INNOCENT CASUALTIES OF WAR – An excerpt from “Nor the Years Condemn” by Justin Sheedy: The story’s main character, Daniel Quinn, having crossed the planet from Australia and having been in fighter combat already, is on London Leave, September 1942…
He’d walked for blocks, hardly thinking, just walking, from cross-street to cross-street the bombed-out sites becoming more and more frequent, the people less and less. Most vehicles had followed detour signs way back, a soul shuffling along here and there, one pushing a child’s pram filled with what looked like rags.
By the time he was nearing St Paul’s Cathedral, the city’s bomb damage had grown to desolation. With the dome looming, he realised he was walking down a canyon of ruins, on each side of him windows framing only grey sky – skeletons of buildings where once people had lived, worked? Impossible to tell. Rounding a corner of high empty walls, ahead of him lay a city block.
Around its vast perimeter was a frayed pale red ribbon on sticks, fallen down in places.
Quinn looked out across the plain of rubble. About a hundred feet across it, he thought he caught sight of some small animal. Until it stood, and he saw the tattered cap – a small boy, dwarfed against the backdrop of the cathedral dome.
Quinn lit a cigarette. And trod carefully out over the broken bricks and masonry towards the child.
Still with around fifty feet to go and almost losing his footing over the foundation of a shattered wall, Quinn dropped his cigarette and called out.
‘You alright, son?’
A tiny face glanced up like a squirrel on its guard, only to turn slowly back away. No answer came.
Quinn continued towards the boy and, drawing closer, saw he was digging in the rubble at his knees. ‘Are you alright there, mate?’
The digging continued.
Drawing up to the child, Quinn saw his face was dirty, hair matted.
‘Yes…’ the child said.
Quinn noticed a toy to one side – a tin model car of some kind, its green paint chipped and faded. ‘Having a game, are we?’ Quinn put his age at about five, just a bit younger than Angie, at least, the last time he’d seen her. Yet the child at Quinn’s feet had an air wholly unlike his little sister – one of complete detachment… As if Quinn wasn’t even there.
‘No,’ came the answer finally. ‘…I find things sometimes.’
Quinn paused before asking. ‘What kind of things?’
Quinn saw the model car was rusted. ‘Well,’ he smiled cheerfully, ‘maybe you shouldn’t leave them out in the rain, eh?’
Quinn remembered it was a Monday. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
The child didn’t answer.
‘Do your parents know you’re here?’
The child seemed to have to think about this.
‘I suppose so.’ He kept digging. ‘…The lady at the shelter said you can see everything from Heaven.’
Quinn paused again. ‘…I’m sorry, mate.’
The child extracted another sad little object from the rubble. ‘I used to cry… When I was four. But I don’t anymore.’
‘Do you live near here?’
‘…I used to.’
Quinn scanned the area – not a soul in sight, no sign of inhabited dwelling. ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’
‘Maybe you could tell me where they are?’
‘…Wiv my mum and dad.’
Quinn shook his head minutely. Jesus. Poor little thing.
He wished to his core there was something he could do, something to help the kid but what? Give him some money? Quinn realised he’d none on him – hadn’t stopped at Australia House to draw any. A thought struck him and he fished in his tunic breast pocket. No sooner had he handed the chocolate bar down to the boy than he’d snatched it, ripped the paper open and was devouring it hungrily. As he did so, for the first time since Quinn’s arrival, he cast furtive glances upwards.
After several eager mouthfuls, the child spoke with chocolate teeth. ‘Are you a soldier?’
‘Have you killed many people?’
Quinn considered his total. So far, three fighters, two bombers… So nine men. He couldn’t be sure precisely. ‘…A few.’
The child simply kept munching.
Then it came to Quinn: He’d quietly report the kid’s plight to someone at Australia House. Better still, he’d put a notice up on the board at the Boomerang Club: Maybe some of the blokes’d pop by now and then, bring him this and that. In fact, the more Quinn thought about it, it sounded like an idea that just might catch on at the Boomerang Club. It was something anyway. He couldn’t think what else – He was back on ops tomorrow, and a special op no less. He considered the boy a final time, and moved to go. ‘Well. You look after yourself, little mate.’
There came only more munching, and a vacant stare.
Quinn started to make his way back across the rubble, already considering what best to write for the club noticeboard, when, nearing the perimeter ribbon, he fairly stumbled on a plank of old wood. Dusting himself off, he noticed a sign at the end of the plank, his misstep having unearthed it from shattered bricks. Out of frustration more than anything, he flipped it over with his shoe.
RESTRICTED AREA. DANGER OF UNEXPLODED BOMBS.
BY ORDER. A.R.P. DEPT. HOME OFFICE. 1940.
Quinn spun around back to the child.
No Way… If I’m gonna get blown to bits let it be doing what I joined up for, not for some kid I never met playing with Death every day for two years already – Not on your Life.
Quinn knocked off his cap and started determinedly back out over the broken stone.
In his next moments, his mouth went completely dry – Maybe the kid had survived this long due to body-weight alone! Quinn knew his every next step could bring the blinding flash of an explosion he’d never hear. No. No sound. Only a pounding between his ears – his own heartbeat. Drawing ever closer to the child, he felt a droplet of sweat trickle down his brow. It plopped off his nose and landed on a mortar dust-covered brick by the child as Quinn hooked an arm down, scooped the child up by the waist, spun and reversed in a single motion.
On the way back across the ruined ground, Quinn became aware of another sound: Under his arm, the boy was howling – something about his home.
Quinn said nothing, to close the distance between them and the perimeter ribbon his only goal.
Reaching it, he slung the kid down on his feet to face him, gripping his shoulders as he bawled with tears.
‘You must never go back in there! Never! Don’t you know you could get killed?!’
Slipping Quinn’s grasp, the child was gone, his sobs echoing back off blasted walls. As they faded, Quinn bent slowly forward.
Placed a hand on each knee.
And spat again.
* * *
NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN and now Book 2 in the series GHOSTS OF THE EMPIRE by Justin Sheedy are now available in the UK at Waterstones, WH Smith, also via Amazon UK and The Book Depository. In Australia at DYMOCKS bookstores, GLEEBOOKS, BERKELOUW BOOKS, THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL and all good independent bookstores.
To read further excerpts of NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN, click HERE.