Bosnia and Herzegovina (1993)
18+ The roar of explosives devastated the peace of the valley. Tibor had covered his ears with his hands before Milo flicked the detonator switch, but the thudding explosion set off the bells in his head again. He dropped his hands as dust and grit rained down on him and his men. When the dust cleared, it revealed the shattered shell of the century-old farmhouse.
Tibor noticed Milo grinning at him. How odd that a man built like a tank should seek praise like a child. "It was a good explosion, yes, Tibor?"
"Yes, Milo," Tibor confirmed, patting him on his broad back, "you placed the charges well."
The bells in Tibor's head eased their ringing. He raised his binoculars and surveyed the hills surrounding the farmhouse. There was no sign of movement, no sign of the family whose home they had just destroyed. Tibor was glad. Occupied buildings could be unpleasant. Too often, the family home became the family tomb. Bile rose and burned his throat at the thought.
"Come," Tibor said to his men, swallowing the bile, "now we blow up the barn." He shouldered his rucksack and led the men back down the hill towards the farm. The ringing inside Tibor's head had grown faint. But the bells were still there, like the echo of a distant church. Nowadays, the echo never left him.
Still, if he escaped the war with nothing worse than ringing ears, then Tibor would count himself lucky. Luckier than the dozens of men he'd seen killed and maimed. And luckier than his last recruit, a boy of only sixteen, who had lost both arms opening a booby-trapped door. You learned fast in this war, or you exited fast. Sometimes you did both.
Broken furniture, pots and pans, and other piles of household goods littered the track near the farmhouse. Tibor's men had ransacked the building before Milo set the charges. And the explosion had ejected other blackened items. Some of his men stopped to sift through the smouldering rubble with their rifles. Tibor shook his head and walked on. Hadn't they enough to carry on their backs?
"Hey, Tibor, look," called Milo from behind. Tibor turned and saw Milo, grinning like a boy, bouncing a football on the ground. "How you think we miss this?"
Tibor sighed. "I don't know, Milo, but how you expect to carry a football in your rucksack with all the explosives?"
Milo's smile froze, and the men stopped foraging and stared at Tibor. It had been a long month on patrol. They were all tired, filled with anxious thoughts of home, and scared of being killed. Perhaps a few, like Tibor, were feeling nagging guilt for what they had seen and done? Tibor sensed the pressure building inside his men and knew he had to relieve it.
"I tell you what, Milo, why don't we take a break? The barn can wait. You and the others have a game of football. I'll keep watch near the barn. Who knows," he shrugged with a smile, "maybe you will become sick of football? If not, you can carry the ball in your rucksack."
Milo's grin returned, and he laughed. "Okay, Tibor, thank you. Thank you."
Tibor turned from his men and walked down the track to the barn. It was risky staying in one place for too long, but his maps marked this region as cleansed a month ago. Theirs was a mopping-up patrol. It had been a week since they had come across anyone, and then only an old farmer and his wife. Bile rose in Tibor's throat again at the memory. Yes, letting the men play football was a risk, but it was better than the risk of mutiny.
Tibor squatted in the shade of the barn and stared through his binoculars at the far hills. Near the farmhouse, his men had split into two teams and marked out the playing field, with a wooden chair and chest of drawers for goals at one end, and a pair of rucksacks at the other. Tibor looked over and prayed Milo's wasn't one of the rucksacks. He watched his men jostle each other for possession of the ball, smiled at the triumph of the first goal, and then raised his binoculars again.
How many lifetimes since he had last seen a game of football, a proper match? Before the war, Tibor had watched his local team play every weekend. Now the home ground was a graveyard, and his village an enclave surrounded by enemy forces. His mother had smuggled a letter to him with the news they had shot and buried his father at the old ground. But since then, he had heard nothing from his mother. Tibor lowered the binoculars and brushed a calloused hand across his eyes. It was not wise to think of home.
An argument had broken out among his men over a disputed goal. Milo had the goalie by the throat and looked ready to strangle him. Tibor stood and called out, "Is it not enough our enemies try to kill us? Should we be helping them, too?" Milo released the goalie. He and the other men stared sheepishly at the ground for a few moments, before resuming their game. "How like children men are," Tibor muttered to himself and leaned against the barn.
As a child, Tibor had dreamed of playing football for his local team. He and the other boys in his village had practised in the streets every day after school, pretending to be the famous footballers whose photos they cut from newspapers and stuck on their bedroom walls.
Back then, it hadn't mattered what side of the river you came from, the religion you followed, or the colour of your eyes. If you could play football, you were a teammate, an equal. Back then, the only enemies were girls, taunting the boys playing in the streets from the safety of upstairs windows.
Tibor sighed and looked through his binoculars at the hills again. He had spent too much time reminiscing lately. It was dangerous to live in the past; it caused wars, like this one, dividing family and friends. Tibor's street team was the best in the village until the past caught up with them. It was a small incident, a disagreement over the price of vegetables between Tibor's father and another father from the other side of the river.
That night, Tibor's father had dragged him into the woodshed and brandishing his belt, he had forbidden Tibor from playing football with boys from the other side of the village. "Those people," his wild-eyed father had shouted, spitting on the woodpile, "are descended from dogs and sows. They are devils disguised as humans. Have you not heard how they feast on babies stolen from our side of the village?"
Tibor had heard the terrifying tales, but he hadn't believed them. He had played with these boys. They were not half-dog, half-pig, they were boys, boys who loved football, like him. Despite this, Tibor obeyed his father and never again played football with boys from the other side of the river.
As they grew older, the gulf between Tibor and his former teammates grew wider. They shared no words of greeting when their paths crossed in the streets and markets, only disdainful glances. Sometimes there were fights. Now there was war.
Tibor looked over to his men. Two had dropped out of the game and were sitting on a broken sofa, smoking. The others were shuffling after the ball, their enthusiasm for the game waning like their energy. Even Milo could only manage a tame trot when presented with a vacant goalmouth. Tibor waited for him to score the goal and then he walked back to his men.
"Well, Milo, after the war, you have a bright future as a footballer, yes?" Milo and the men laughed. Tibor smiled. He had been right to give them a break. "Do you still wish to carry this football, so when you are famous, you can say, this is the football I scored many goals with during the war?"
Milo laughed again and wiped the sweat from his brow. "No thank you, Tibor. We win the war first, then I think of football." He drew a knife from his belt and drove it into the football. Bile burned Tibor's throat as he watched Milo squeeze the air from the ball with the same boyish grin as he had worn last week, squeezing the life from the old farmer.
"Come," said Tibor, swallowing the memory and turning his back on Milo and the farmhouse, "now we blow up the barn."
© 1994, 2019 Robert Fairhead
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is an editor and a writer for Tall And True and blogs at RobertFairhead.com. He enjoys reading, writing, playing the guitar, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Footy with his son. Robert has worked as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, dog trainer and (wanna-be) writer. He also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
Footnote: As I blogged on Tall And True in November 2019, I started working on Both Sides of the Story in February 1994. It was my third submission to the then annual Ian St James Awards, at the time the UK's biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers.
The idea for the story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of stories about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. Phil Collins was singing Both Sides of the Story on MTV in the gym, and the music video set me thinking: Could I show both sides in a short story?
So I started writing Both Sides of the Story, as a five-part short story. Westminster, Bosnia, A Council Flat, and The Gym are four standalone vignettes. And Bad News is the fifth and final part, which links and resolves the story.
Please note, my intention in writing this short story twenty-five years ago was not to be an apologist for my characters or their actions. Then, as now, my goal was to follow Phil Collins' lead and try to imagine both sides of the story.