Authors: Alison Layland
Tags: #epub, #ebook, #QuarkXPress
About Alison Layland
SOMEONE ELSE'S CONFLICT
HONNO MODERN FICTION
In loving memory of my father, David Howett
I would like to thank all at Honno, especially Caroline Oakley, Janet Thomas and Helena Earnshaw, for their hard work in bringing this novel to publication.
Special thanks to my friends Elaine Walker and Martine Bailey for invaluable insight and support at all stages of writing this novel and beyond. Thanks also to Simon Rees for advice under the Literature Wales mentoring scheme, to the lovely Ty Newydd Writers' Centre and to Ann Stonehouse for all-round support and friendship, including providing me with a writing retreat at a critical stage. I am also grateful for the feedback and encouragement I received from Wendy Barker, James Layland, John Stonestreet, Kari Sperring, Heather Mitchell and Mary Perkins.
During my travels in the Balkans I met and talked to many people whose help was vital to my understanding, along with the chroniclers, in fact and in fiction, of the 1990s wars and their aftermath. I am grateful to them all, and to Zoran Stojanac for help with the Croatian language.
Thanks to barrister Richard Davenport and forensic investigator Paul Beeton for valuable advice on points of law and police procedures. Any errors in interpretation are mine.
And last, but never least, my heartfelt thanks to my family, especially my husband David, for everything.
The boy wakes. It is still dark. The intermittent distant rumble is not a storm, or even a dream. He gets up and dresses quickly. The sporadic artillery fire is closer than he has ever heard it. Peering through the curtains, he is unsure whether the faint glow above the bare mountain ridge heralds approaching war or simply the sunrise. As he turns away, about to run to his parents' room, he hears a quiet but insistent tapping on the window. His friends beckon. More afraid of losing face than confronting the still-distant menace of what is approaching from beyond the mountain, he is soon out in the cold, pre-dawn twilight. He waves away their taunting â he is the youngest, and they accuse him of not wanting to come â and after a rapid whispered conference they head for the rise above the village, a perfect look-out. Their plan is to scan the road that winds down from the ridge and run back with details of the vehicles, the weapons, the number of men. Heroes valiantly raising the alert before diving for shelter with their families in the cellars. It is all too unreal, the more so for the constant TV reports, to be truly frightening.
But none of the boys can believe how fast they are. They are still watching the vehicles straggling over the ridge when the front of the small convoy is almost on them. And then the shelling begins. He watches, horrified, as a chunk is blasted from his neighbour's house, then another. He prays silently that no one is inside. Suddenly they are running back down, keeping to the trees, their planned warning redundant. He trips and the world comes up to meet him with a sickening crunch. It feels like only a few seconds that he lies winded, but it is too long. Although he is not seriously hurt, when he sits up and scans the slope below, it is empty. His friends have either given him up or are themselves too terrified to notice he is missing.
By the time he is on his feet and making his way cautiously through the sparse woods, the war has reached his village. Of course it actually reached them a while back. His best friend and his family, along with the other Croats, left months ago. Others, Serb refugees from Croat and Bosnian-held areas, have come here and taken over abandoned houses. Everyone has stories of relatives or friends elsewhere who have been killed, or horrifically injured, or lost their homes. The war is why he has not been out of the village, even to the next town, for a long while. And it has caused the constant lament and calls for retribution on the news, his parents' attempts to conceal their terror as they watch it all too obvious. Now it has come for him, too.
He picks his way carefully, as if a snapping twig beneath his feet could possibly be heard above the growing chaos below. There is no breeze but he keeps thinking he sees movement around him. He crouches immobile by a tree, watching the destruction unfold as the attackers move in. The returning fire, from the small unit installed to defend them together with men from the village, many of the villagers armed with little more than hunting rifles, does little to stop the onslaught. They were supposed to be safe now. This wasn't meant to happen. But it has; the Croats are moving in to reclaim their land. He is supposed to hate them for it. He has tried, but doesn't understand why his people claimed it in the first place. What does it matter? Remember what happened in the Second World War, they tell him, never forget how the UstaÅ¡e killed tens of thousands of Serbs, lots of them children like you! But that was a different age, and try as he might cannot think of his friend's parents, or his teacher, whom he liked so much more than her replacement, as child-murderers. But now he watches smoke rise from another house. He tries to make out who is running desperately across the street, only to crumple â he shuts his eyes briefly. He desperately wants to reach the comfort of his family.
He wills his feet to carry him down the last of the slope, and creeps his way between the houses. As he reaches the corner with the main street, he crouches behind a parked car. He hopes it won't be hit and explode into flames. The smell of burning is all around him â he breathes it in, and with it, terror. The sound of the gunfire drums into him. There is shouting, women screaming, crying. He wonders if he can hear his mother or his sisters. He cannot tell. It is everyone. The whole village is on fire. There is shooting from windows â his neighbours, his father. Shooting from the street â the others. The shock of an explosion.
He wishes he'd been born a Croat so he could be somewhere else now. This thought shames him and he pushes it aside by trying to work out how he can cross the street to his house. But the shooting keeps him trapped and he crouches further into the shadows behind the car.
He hears the sound of running, peers out to see two men duck into a doorway across the street. The Enemy. One man raises a hand to shield his face. The boy realises the building beside him is ablaze. He cowers between it and the car, cringing in the heat, the noise, the dust. He closes his eyes, wishing he could close his ears, trembling for an age until the shooting and the explosions die down, flaring up again intermittently. He thinks again of the ragged convoy, cars heaped with belongings, leaving. He is not the hero who set off up the hill half an hour ago.
He hears snatches of the two soldiers' voices. Their words sound foreign. One stands, yells out to his comrades down the street. The boy understands him this time. Blood runs from a cut on the man's cheek. The other pulls him back down, muttering something in the foreign language. The boy forgets his fear in a moment of anger. He would spit if he dared. There is movement as the soldier with the bloody face rises again, runs a little way down the street. The boy slowly leans and risks looking out; the foreigner is watching his comrade, wary, ready to provide covering gunfire. The boy follows his gaze, turning his head as slowly as he can so the foreigner will not notice him. A defeated huddle cowers in the middle of the square; others are being herded in by more soldiers. It is not far, but it looks like another world. Buildings he once knew are belching flames and smoke from windows and doors. People he knows are helpless victims held motionless at gunpoint. He cannot see his mother or his little sisters, but thinks they must be there. Or dead. He wants to pray but the domed church is ablaze and the priest on his knees among the prisoners.
This is not real; he will wake up soon. He watches them pull a man forward. It is his father, shirt stained red. They beat him and kick him until he screams. They beat him until it is no longer his father. Until the body lies twitching on the ground. Until the whimpering stops. Then there is a shot. As the soldier who rubs shoulders with foreigners watches, mutters encouragement, as two men grab another of the subdued villagers, the boy turns away, shaking.
Through tears he looks up and sees the foreigner's rifle aimed at him. Why is this man here? This is not his conflict. It is not the boy's conflict, it is not anyone's conflict any more, it is hell. The heat from the burning buildings is becoming unbearable. Motionless with fear, the boy stares at the foreigner. It is not the face he expects to see; it is an ordinary man's face. The eyes blazing with intensity, but otherwise unremarkable â dark hair, weathered skin, the shadow of a beard. Not a hideous face. Not a child-murderer's face. The foreigner moves slightly, breaking the moment, and the boy tenses. He does not want to die, not even now.
He realises the man is saying something.
The boy hardly understands through the foreign accent and the crackling of the flames. He hears it again, more clearly.
The rifle twitches. Not to kill him, not this time, but to indicate the lane he has just come down.
Run, idiot, go!
foreigner aims high, shoots. The whining ricochet from far above the boy's head snaps him from his paralysis and he obeys.
If he stayed on the bus, what difference would it make? He'd hardly been thinking when he chose to board this one. A sense of developing routine unnerved him. Jay shook his head, smiled a faint self-deprecating smile. The same route, but he could get off somewhere different. Somewhere less remote. He liked the sense of freedom he got from boarding a bus and buying a ticket to the end of the line, to leave himself free to choose where he ended up. This place had always looked good when he passed through. He put his hand on the rucksack beside him in readiness to get off. No rush; someone had stood and rung the bell.
The centre of the little Dales town of Holdwick looked more interesting than the impression its pretty but somnolent outskirts had given. The bus slowed at the edge of a central square â an elongated, irregular square, he told his inner pedant â lined by venerable stone buildings with ground floors housing a collection of neatly tended shop frontages, tea rooms and a pub. A small bustling market stood at its heart. He got up, swung the rucksack onto his back with an ease born of long practice, and braced himself â he'd noticed during the journey that this driver liked playing with his passengers. Having deprived the man of the satisfaction of seeing him so much as flinch as the bus jerked to a halt, he gave a cheery thanks and stepped down. Despite the inexorable advance of years he still prided himself in his agility, though preferred a test more worthy than mind games with a bus driver to prove it.
The fine autumn day had brought plenty of late-season tourists out to join the locals and the colourful market stalls were fairly busy on this Saturday afternoon. A stubborn awareness of the days of the week gave him structure in an otherwise unstructured life. As he passed the greengrocer's stall he caught the proprietor's eye with a smile. First things first; an enticing smell drew him to a fish-and-chip shop. He took a handful of change from his pocket and without counting saw that his bus ticket had consumed the fish â the mental image was an interesting one â leaving him with only enough for a bag of chips. Freedom and a limited diet. Fine. Hopefully that would be put right by the end of the afternoon.
His rucksack gave him anonymity in a town used to hikers and he sat on a bench near the market stall to eat, watching insignificant dramas of everyday life play out before him; concentrating on the activity at the stall. The burly, red-faced trader was pacing around the side of his display, occasionally pausing to adjust the artfully-arranged piles, nodding every now and again to a small team behind the stall, but mainly shouting out to the passers-by: âTwo pound f'r a po-ound!' âSavoys fit for a king, love!' Jay assumed that cabbages had been a bargain at the warehouse that morning. The undiminished dark green pyramid indicated that Savoys obviously weren't top priority with most of the shoppers today, orbs fit for a king though they probably were.