Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Asleep in the Barn (2010)

When the old woman went to tidy the barn, she found a man asleep on the floor. Slowly, she crept inside to have a better look.
The man was very young. He was about twenty but, asleep, he looked like a child: he slept with his thumb still next to his mouth. He looked like he’d been born sleeping and would die sleeping. The old woman couldn’t imagine he’d ever wake up. He had black hair and his face and hands were very muddy. He wore a strange sort of heavy linen which was a brown and green colour and it looked as if it had seen a bit too much mud as well. A big browny-green rucksack full of who knows what was his pillow and there was a rifle sticking out of the bale of hay beside him.
He was a soldier. But it took the old woman quite a long time to work that out. Her eyesight was going and the first time she saw the man she didn’t spot the rifle. She just saw a man.

She nursed him to health. His condition was bad but it could have been worse; there was a large bruise over his eye and gashes all along his back. Every day she brought the man food and drink. She knew he couldn’t stay there forever. They’d have to talk about it someday, her and her husband, and they’d have to ask the man where he was from.

It was autumn and it was cold and the leaves were starting to fall. One morning the old woman left her kitchen through the back door, carrying the now traditional bread and cheese she gave the man every day for breakfast. She opened the door of the barn to find the man rolling up his pack and shouldering his rifle. When he caught sight of her, he stood up straight.
They stared at one another.
The soldier said nothing, but slowly, slowly, put his rifle down on the floor and held out a grateful hand. The old woman smiled and sat down beside him. Soon he was finished, and when asked if he would like some more, he was quick to reply.
Together they left the barn and walked towards the house. The old woman unlocked the kitchen door and went inside, where she began preparing more bread and cheese. The soldier leaned against the kitchen cupboard and looked with mild interest at the pictures on the walls. They showed men riding on horseback waving long swords.
As the soldier ate, the front door creaked as the old woman’s husband returned home. He was whistling. He stamped on the doormat and, taking off his boots, left the hallway and made his way straight to the kitchen. He looked at the soldier with mild surprise.
Bread and cheese, and the promise of good work, was all it took to persuade the soldier to stay.

It only took a day or two for the soldier to become a third member of the household. He did every task imaginable. He fed the ducks and the pigs and the chickens; he fetched the eggs and he washed the plates after every meal; he swept up the sty and did the housework. But most of all he enjoyed digging with the old man in the field which lay behind their house. They would get up early every morning and dig for two hours before breakfast. The soldier told them that where he came from, near Lyons, he had helped out with digging on a farm ever since he was a little boy. He said he was never more comfortable or happy than when he had a spade in his hands.
This went on for two months, but one day there came a ring at the door. The old woman opened it to find another soldier standing there, bearing the name of Lefevre. She was rather surprised but politely invited him in. He stepped smartly into the living room and shouted, “Where is he?”
The old woman tried to explain that the soldier was now a member of the household, but this new arrival was having none of it. He forced his way into the soldier’s bedroom and grabbed him roughly by both shoulders.
“Now listen here,” he spat. “Running away from your battalion is a charge punishable by death, you little git. We wouldn’t waste any time on the likes of you crawling back to us if I was in charge, but the General wants you hung. I was sent here ‘cos you were seen in the village. Now come on!”
The terror on the other man’s face was quite terrifying in itself. He shrank away from the strong arms of his superior officer and mumbled something about handing in leave.
“I’ll show you handing in leave. Come on!” Lefevre looked around him with disgust. “What are you doing in this hovel, anyway?”
The man muttered.
“What? What did you say?”
He muttered again, a little louder this time, but still scarcely a whisper. He reddened.
“You like digging?” said Lefevre incredulously. “You like digging?” He laughed almost violently, propping himself up on the old woman’s dressing-table and howling as he pound the wood with his fist. When he had finished, he said, “Tell that to the General and the firing squad. You never know; he might make you dig your own grave. If you’re lucky.”

Lefevre dragged the soldier out of the front door. “I’ll start up the engine,” he told him. “Say your goodbyes to your ... er...” he cast his eyes over the old couple, “hosts. You have one minute.”
He stomped off to a large jeep which was parked over the old woman’s tulips. This bore many more soldiers, all of whom had their rifles ready and aimed at the front door. They must have been expecting trouble.
The soldier was no trouble. He went quietly, and turned only to say a quiet goodbye to the old woman and her husband. He looked at them pleadingly as a cat looks when it is forced to go out into a cold, rainy night. But their tearful kisses could do nothing for him.
The strafing sound of the engine crashed in their ears and the jeep began trundling down the drive until it was at the corner of the road. “Come on!” shouted Lefevre through the open window.
The soldier did not have time for one last look. Fearing Lefevre’s anger, he began walking solemnly towards the jeep. To the old woman and her husband, it did not seem like he was a condemned man walking towards a military vehicle with a rifle in his hand. To their eyes he was wearing a sweaty vest and overalls, and was alone in a wide field of growing crops. Ahead of him was a tractor, and in his hand a spade.

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