Short story: A shortlisted entry to our This Means War series competition, marking the centenary of the start of the first World War
Anthony Ferner is a retired professor of international business. A relatively new writer of fiction, he is a member of the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Fiction Group.
Coffee is a sacrament, an affirmation of belonging in this sun-drenched city. I love to watch the coffee-master behind the bar. He gathers the fresh roasted beans, chooses shifting mixtures of Arabica and Robusta, balances them with sensuous expertise. In his birr mill he grinds them to a powder. He knows how to let the grounds luxuriate in the water, hot but not boiling, offering up their heavy charge of aromas, and he adds sugar to order. We use terms from the Turkish (or is it Farsi?) for the degree of sweetness: shad or morrour, which is quite bitter, azh, orta, tchok. When I am pensive and inclined to linger on the past, kuchara tchok, the sweetest of coffees, lightens my mood. I love his pouring technique, the pot held high to build the creamy layer of foam. I anticipate the warm, bittersweet taste, the sensation of fine grounds on the tongue.
My favourite coffee house in the city is Café Tortoni, on Al Karabanchel, a winding street that drops steeply towards the sea. I went there often, after I returned from Europe, breaking off from work to spend a lazy hour in the cool interior. It was a place of regulars, so I quickly became aware of a newcomer, a man who would sit and watch the coffee-master with the same attention as myself. We would exchange a discreet nod of mutual recognition: two coreligionists of this exalted rite.
One morning, he raised his head to sniff the fumes, and smiled and said, ‘Imagine, in the old days they roasted the beans over open fires in the back yards, on the flat roofs.’
I nodded, remembering my childhood, before the troubles. The whole city was an olfactory pleasure dome then. I believe the aroma of coffee hits some region of the brain, of joy of course, but also of intense recollection; it sparks a sense of place, a sense of the city.
I’d been away, studying in Berlin and Lyons, but I was lured back by nostalgia for the light and for the gritty texture of the coffee, by a fading memory of the city’s perfume of attar of roses and orange blossom water, by the reassuring presence of the sea. The city was rebuilding, there was a tense calm, people had started to go out again in the evenings.
The newcomer always carried an iPad. He was a man in his forties, I’d say, well-presented, carefully shaven, wearing a precise moustache. He’d sit in the corner, side-on to the flickering television. He’d motion to the black-aproned waiter who would bark an order through to the coffee-master behind the counter and return with a tray bearing a pot of dark coffee and a glass of water. If it was mid-morning, the man would sometimes have patisserie too, always the same honeyed concoction of wafer-thin layers of pastry with nuts and almonds.
One day, when there were no tables free, I joined him, as if our meeting had been prearranged. He was sitting quietly with his coffee and his iPad, glancing up from time to time to look at the television. His eyes were deep brown and benevolent, and they had a frank, open quality; too frank, I thought later, the kind of frankness that hides a great deal. We talked about the first days of summer and the delights of our refreshing inland breeze - the vent’tov, God’s air conditioning as we call it - that rolls down off the mountains. We speculated on when the weather would turn. The city always waited apprehensively for the late summer wind, the vent’moixadu, to blow in hot and moist off the sea, turning the place into a steamy hell.
We talked too about how the city was beginning to bustle again. Like all returners, I sensed the fingers of the past everywhere, but his conversation about the city and about the wider world was somehow bland and detached, light and airy. There was an excess - I don’t know - of equanimity?
‘Let’s hope it lasts,’ I said, ‘this optimistic burst, this renewed energy.’
He smiled, in the way foreigners do when listening to your language and understanding it only imperfectly. He was not a foreigner, of course, he was one of us, with the guttural twang, the pithy expressions.
‘This city has come through a lot, and we seem to have survived,’ I said.
He glanced at the television, as if he hadn’t heard my remark. There was news footage of tanks firing on tenements, some regional conflict that seemed to have been going on for years.
‘It’s a pretty intractable situation,’ I said.
We both looked at the screen. I saw only the horror of war, shells pounding residential areas of a stricken metropolis. It reminded me of our own conflict. How could it not remind him too? Yet he seemed attentive to the screen, keen, absorbed, turning half round in his chair.
‘That’s a T-72A,’ he said, ‘Russian-built, it would be the export model with thinner armour - after all, it is mainly for domestic repression, no. The Russians have modernised their whole fleet, but there are client states that still buy the cut-price stuff.’
I looked at him with surprise at his knowledgeable, neutral tone. ‘But these are killing machines,’ I said. ‘They’re shelling their own people.’
‘Indeed they are. It’s as well the sound is turned down. But they’re also excellent feats of engineering, one must learn to be dispassionate. Don’t you think?’
I was unsure where he was leading me. This city was the last place where one would want to think dispassionately about conflict and bloodshed, and the killing of citizens by their compatriots.
It had been a reign of terror back then, during the Tripotazo. It had begun on the day that the season’s first vent’moixadu blew in, the 18th August, a sweat-laden Sunday. Nearly eight years ago now.
The cars came, Minis usually, with blacked out windows, some jacked up on their axles like cartoon vehicles. The bulging round headlights gave them the look of a wide-eyed sociopathic infant, the sort who in its chubby fingers grasps a hatpin. A mother and father would be walking along the street, holding their young child by the hand, often still a toddler, tottering along in front of the buggy in that determined way of those too young to speak. The windows of the Mini would roll down, with a faint whirring of the electric motor. And, with deliberation, the muzzle would slide forward and a single shot would be fired to the throat. There would be screams and shouting and the screeching of tyres and handbrake turns, and the smell of hot rubber on tarmac, and the child would be lying dead in blood. The distraught parents, clothes clammy and darkened with sweat, would be beating their hand against the child’s breast. Some would then smash their head against the road. People recalled afterwards in the more tranquil phases of grief that, when the window wound down, they’d glimpsed a single white chrysanthemum in the flower-holder on the stylish dashboard, and smelt its astringent mausoleum odour.
In those times the war against adults was waged by a war against children. There were no orphans of the troubles, only grieving parents. The infection incubated quietly in the poorer districts. Only when it spread to the wealthier neighbourhoods did the authorities start to take measures. The newspapers every day bore photos of tiny corpses lined up in rows in makeshift morgues, their faces uncovered, blanched in death, in their ears the traditional gold studs presaging an adulthood that would never come.
Things got worse. The early ones were the lucky ones, their children died in a moment, and with them all their dreams. Even when whole kindergarten classes were rounded up by smiling men in regulation dark glasses and slaughtered in the playground, even when flamethrowers were used, the end was brutal but swift and unambiguous. But afterwards came the phase of the kidnappings. Children were abducted and held for weeks before being left on doorsteps in the night like wounded ghosts with hollow eyes, unnameable sufferings inflicted on them. Parents had to experience every day the slow, repeated death of their children’s future.
After one gruesome atrocity, the municipal governor sent armoured personnel carriers onto the streets, to restore confidence, so he said. The military vehicles patrolled the near-empty city, inspiring panic as much as security, their tracks ripping the tarmac of the great boulevards. A few days later, a Mini Estate, scissored up on its suspension, its windows smoked, drew to a halt outside the governor’s palace. The back doors opened, and a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into the armour-plating of a personnel carrier. There was a silent pause, a waiting. And then came the explosion and the crepitating flames, burning alive the helpless crew. Within hours, a video clip of the incident was playing on a loop on 24-hour television channels across the world, and the governor had withdrawn his troops from the streets.
Even for those not directly affected, it was like living in a waking dream of horror from which there was no escape. The humdrum humanity of the city was stripped away until little was left but locked-in pain and fear. Even the coffee houses closed. Only gradually, through countless small acts of bravery and civic duty and the patient sifting of patterns from a million random pieces of intelligence did the city fight back and identify the insurgents and neutralise them. Then, for several months, an exhausted calm reigned, the city too done-in to move. At that point I went to Europe, to breathe, to recover.
The troubles were called the Tripotazo, which in our pungent dialect means the sting of a scorpion, and there are echoes of another word which denotes the collective sense of shame and violation felt when men touch up women on crowded buses or trams.
‘I admire very much the beauty of tanks,’ the man was saying as we sipped our coffees. ‘I admire their technical complexity, their variety. You think there is a particular model, no? The T55, say, or the T62. But in fact each model has almost endless modifications, different camouflage, adjustments to armour, upgradings of weapons systems.... Do you follow?’
‘Not really, I’m not sure I do,’ I murmured.
‘I see the beauty of tanks. The beauty that exists beyond the function. The meaning beyond the meaning, if you like.’
‘But the form, the beauty as you call it, is the function, isn’t it? Their meaning is war and destruction.’
He did not reply, but took a sip of coffee and dabbed his moustache with a paper napkin. He motioned to the waiter to bring us another round, and called out too for honey pastries. The man brought them and slid them across the table to us with an impudent grace.
‘Even the barmen are losing their fear,’ I said, trying to fill the silence, ‘regaining their old “panache”’.
‘I hadn’t really noticed. Look,’ he said, pushing his iPad into my line of sight. ‘Let me show you.’
He caressed the screen with his careful fingers.
‘I manage their beauty by changing their scale. That helps control them, control the fear they inspire. You see?’
He opened a folder of photos. Photos of model tanks.
‘How small are they?’ I asked.
‘They fit comfortably in the palm of your hand,’ he said.
He clicked, enlarged, explained the significance of each rusting caterpillar track, of each design of camouflage, of each variety of gun turret. ‘I assemble them from kits,’ he said, ‘customise them with small pieces of wood or metal that I shape in my workshop. Then I paint them.’
There were dozens of photos. His fingers swept the screen ushering in model after model. Soviet, cold war. Czech and Polish variants. Italian upgrades. US Pattons. British Challengers.... He stopped at one and dabbed his finger at the iPad. ‘You see? I’ve captured the texture of the body armour, these plates here, it wasn’t easy.’
I nodded, dazed by the profusion of detail.
‘They call it ERA. Explosive Reactive Armour. You have high explosive sandwiched between two sheets of metal. When a missile is fired at you, the slab of explosive detonates and this disrupts the missile’s attempt to penetrate you.’
‘Interesting,’ I responded, uneasy that he’d said fired at you, not fired at it. Penetrate you, not penetrate it.
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘And because the plates are moving, at every moment of attempted penetration the missile has to cut through fresh metal so it never gains entry to your interior.’ He stabbed his index finger through the air as he spoke, his eyes gleaming. ‘And if it does breach your defences, it’s spent and exhausted. Too exhausted to cause damage to those delicate soft tissues within.’
‘To the people... the personnel in the tank, you mean?’
I considered the photo. ‘So much ingenuity and energy expended in the pursuit of violence, and the avoidance of it.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘don’t the weapons designers simply design a more penetrating missile to overcome this effect?’
‘Yes, of course. They try. It’s a mini-arms race. They’re always attempting to overcome your defences. You are always attempting to overcome their overcoming, as it were.’
He swooshed his fingers over the screen, enlarging the high-definition images still further. It was amazing how he had managed to capture through careful painting each rivet in the body armour.
‘The trick,’ he said, as if reading my thoughts, ‘is to make adjustments for scale. If you painted as if painting life-size, it would never work. It’s an art to get it perfect. I use a good magnifier, of course, and very fine brushes.’
‘How many hours do you spend on this, on one tank?’
‘Many. Thirty perhaps. If it’s complicated, forty or fifty, or this, let me show you - this one was very tricky, with the camouflage netting, and you see here, the rust on the tracks, this took me over a hundred hours. It’s a lifetime’s endeavour, you could say.’ He smiled. There was something practised about his smile, not false, yet not spontaneous.
‘Astonishing,’ I said. ‘The attention to detail is truly astonishing.’
I registered that he’d slyly abducted me into his world, engaging with something that held, so I thought, no interest for me. These scale models were strangely compelling in their miniature perfection that caught and incorporated all the dents and scratches and mud and dust, and streaks of rust, of the real world of battle-worn military hardware.
And then it happened, like a warp in that small world, catching him unawares, extinguishing his even smile, startling his placid eyes.
Amid the tanks, suddenly, this photo, so out of place, shocking in its way, this soft, gentle photograph. It was of a little girl, about three years old, with curly hair bleached blonde by the sun and the sea, her brown eyes laughing, innocent, the front teeth milky white and gappy in their pink gums; the dimple in her cheek; the gold studs in her ears.
The man looked confounded, his pained eyes staring at the screen, his mouth hanging open.
‘Not a tank,’ I said, stupidly.
He did not respond.
‘Your daughter?’ I ventured.
He made an awkward noise, a sort of strained rattle in the throat, not replying to my question, and with swift wipes of his finger dragged the image out of the folder and dropped it into another.
‘My wife,’ he said at last, ‘she doesn’t understand the technology, she doesn’t understand folders. I like to put things in their places, but she is a little disorderly, untidy. I keep telling her, I’ll buy you your own iPad. Order, keeping things straight, it makes life easier. But, you know, she really doesn’t get it...’
He trailed away, and in that moment I understood, I saw the inward dullness of his gaze, his eternal attempt to move the point of impact, to avoid the penetrating missile. I could not look him in the eye, afraid that his defences had been breached, and that a raw flayed persona lay within. I felt chill, and all the horror of the Tripotazo came flooding back. Expressions flickered like static on a screen across the man’s disintegrating face.
He had not said a further word when he moved back his chair to stand up. He nodded politely and took his leave, his hand clutching the iPad tight to his chest.
I sat watching the tanks on the television, and grew pensive, and called to the waiter to bring me a sweet, sweet pot of kuchara tchok.
Anthony Ferner is a recently retired professor of international business. A relatively new writer of fiction, he’s a member of the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Fiction Group. He has completed two novels and a novella that he hopes to publish. Though he’s British and lives in the West Midlands, he had the foresight to marry into a family with strong Irish connections, so spends part of each summer in Mayo.