When the War Ended / Paul Nightingale

When it was all over we said enough’s enough and made friends, hung out together and drank beer. The women had a baby shower, the first in a long time since no child had been born during hostilities. We had sex whenever we came home on leave, of course, lots of it, but none of our women became pregnant. They said it must have something to do with the fighting. Well, you men, they said, you know how you are with guns and killing people.

The expectant father was Willis, who thoroughly deserved the honour of being the only man to impregnate his wife while the fighting continued. He was a nice boy, very polite to his elders and betters; and not at all like most young men nowadays, the ones we despair of. Truth to tell, we’d gone to war hoping to get rid of a lot of our young men. It was the only way, and not a decision reached lightly, believe you me. For we didn’t like the way they turned out growing up; we wanted to wipe the slate and start over. These young men were the future we’d always dreaded. But Willis was different; I’d known his father in the old days (and I was almost chosen to be the boy’s sponsor, but that’s another story, one I’ll come to later if you’d like to hear it). We were all proud of Willis, who became a hero for all his good deeds on the battlefield; and then a hero again for being the first man to anticipate fatherhood. The papers talked about him all the time and our wives complimented his wife whenever they met her in the street or doing her shopping. They all wanted to attend the baby shower, and harsh words were uttered when some found out they hadn’t been invited.

After the ceasefire, as soon as possible, Willis was given our country’s greatest honour, the Presidential Bar; he was thrilled to find out he’d have to go to the palace to receive his medal. We told Willis’ wife she must be so proud of him. She nodded and smiled, and then, on live television, there she was smiling again, the same way as when she’d been in our kitchen. We heard the President congratulate her on the imminent happy event. We heard her thank him for his kind words. I’d curtsey if I could, sir, she said. That’s OK, the President said. He smiled and held her gaze for quite a while. Watching television we all saw the way he looked at her, the way they looked at each other, and agreed when Willis later told us he thought the President might have been hitting on his wife. You know, the way men do, he said. I mean, other men, he added quickly. I suppose you can do that when you’re the President, bitter. He was wearing his medal and we’d all gone up to study it closely. The Presidential Bar was small, not at all ostentatious. Tasteful, even. It meant Willis had killed a lot of our enemies, so you wanted it to be tasteful, something he could pass on to his son (we all hoped they were going to have a son; the younger ones among us even hoped to be chosen to sponsor the child, the first one born in peacetime and therefore a real honour to be named as sponsor). Willis said he’d put the medal away when he returned home, so we all wanted to have a good look now. No one had ever seen a Presidential Bar before; in fact, we’d all been astonished to hear that one of our own had been given such a prestigious award.

We were sitting round a campfire, eating the fish we caught. We agreed it was the best of times. Bob and Frank were there, and we hadn’t seen then all the time they were fighting on the other side. Glad to see you’re still alive, we said. Glad to be still alive, Bob and Frank joked. They brought the beer and there’s nothing like fish and beer, we all agreed on that. Henry caught more fish than anyone else, so he was allowed to drink more beer. It was important we all kept pace with each other, and no one was supposed to drink quickly to squeeze in the extra bottle here and there. Usually we thought that kind of behaviour was sly, but Henry was allowed to have more beer. Good old Henry, we said, we all said, including Bob and Frank; they slapped Henry on the back and pushed bottles in his direction. How dyou do it, they wondered, catch so many fish? Henry shrugged and even reddened a little (or a little more, embarrassment adding to the colour the beer had given him). He’s a modest boy, Bob and Frank nodding in agreement. We always thought Willis was the modest one, but Henry’s modest as well. We said we had a few nice, modest young men; they weren’t all like the ones we’d been hoping would die in the trenches. Bob and Frank agreed. There are some nice young men, they said, yes indeed; they’re out there if you can find them.

Willis was silent now. He hadn’t had anything to say for himself since we stopped admiring his Presidential Bar. He’d hardly touched his beer. Henry said he was drinking for the two of them, it looks like, and Willis tried to smile. It came out a little forced. They had grown up together, the best of friends since schooldays, so it came as a surprise when Willis announced Henry had been seeing his wife. There was silence. He just said it and no one knew what to say next. Bob and Frank opened more bottles of beer. We’d eaten all the fish.

Henry said Willis was mistaken. If anyone was seeing Willis’ wife it must be the President; everyone saw how they looked at each other. Those television cameras, he pointed out, they get in close and show you everything. Why else dyou think you were given that medal? We all saw how the President and your wife looked at each other. You were there, but we were watching on television. We missed nothing. Willis called him a liar. We said they should settle it like men, and so they fought. We drank beer and watched. We said we might go and catch more fish when the fight was over; watching then roll round and punch each other was making us hungry. They carried on fighting. We’re so hungry now, we took turns to say. We decided we wanted Henry to win the fight; after all, he was the best at catching fish. Willis was a good boy but no fisherman. We agreed we might starve if we had to depend on Willis to feed us. We can all catch fish, but no one does it like Henry. They went on fighting, Henry sitting on Willis’ chest now, punching him hard as Willis tried to defend his face while also trying to dislodge Henry. Soon he was exhausted and stopped resisting the blows.  His face was now a bloody mess and we could hardly recognise him. Hey, if we hadn’t seen the fight start, we mightn’t even know it was Willis down there. He looks nothing like the boy we saw on television. His own wife wouldn’t recognise him now.

Soon the fight was over and we congratulated Henry. I taught him a lesson, Henry said. He was breathing hard and the words came out in a hoarse whisper, but no one missed the pride in his voice. He nodded in the direction of Willis, who hadn’t moved. That was one good lesson I taught him, so much for fancy medals. He can take off that medal and put it away forever. Henry was standing now, so Willis could have stood also if he wanted to. He still hadn’t moved. Leave him, we said, let’s go and catch fish. Someone slapped Henry on the back and he said he was ready to catch fish until there were none left to catch. His voice was back now and he spoke proudly. Those fish won’t know what’s hit them. He’ll be here when we get back, someone said of Willis, who still hadn’t moved. Is he even conscious? someone else said. He might be faking it, shamed because Henry gave him such a beating. He started it and Henry gave him a fair beating. Bob and Frank asked if they should take the rest of the beer with them. We can’t leave it here, they said, he might drink it when he comes round. Henry laughed. If he ever does come round.

Catching fish we were all quiet; talking isn’t what you do at such times. It was so peaceful, with the sound of the water and thinking of the fish below. I couldn’t help but think of the time Willis had been born. I’d known his father for years and we always said we’d sponsor each other’s son. Sponsoring your friend’s son is the greatest honour you could ever hope for. (I honestly think it a greater honour than the Presidential Bar, although I’d never say as much out loud.) There’s no one else we could possibly ask, we always agreed. Our wives always said the only reason we wanted sons was to let each other sponsor them. We do all the work, they said. You put it to us, the way you men do, and then we have to do all the work. Willis’ father and I exchanged glances silently whenever this conversation took place; we never quite enjoyed the way our wives talked about sex. If they talked like that in front of us, we reasoned, sharing fears, how did they speak in private? What did they say about us when we weren’t there?

And then Willis was born and his father said the sponsor was going to be someone else, a relative I’d heard about but never met. They had to keep it in the family. Willis’ mother said it was for the best, but I think she never liked me. I think she was always resentful of my close relationship with her husband; for that reason she persuaded him to make the relative the sponsor. My own wife said I should accept that blood was thicker than water, a stupid phrase that suddenly came back to me now and made me think of Willis’ bloody body motionless after the beating Henry had given him. After all these years I was used to thinking of Willis as the son I never had. His father had always said Willis was a fine boy, and often apologised for not allowing me to be the sponsor. He said it a lot when Willis was a child, then stopped mentioning it as time went by. The cousin who became the sponsor was a regular visitor at their home and I got used to seeing him there. I was pleased when I heard he died in the war. I wanted Willis’ father to die also so they’d ask me to take over. Who else could we ask, they’d say; I’d say I needed time to think it over, you can’t rush a decision like that. When we were younger I wanted a son so I could refuse to allow Willis’ father to be the sponsor. I’d say it was important to keep these things in the family. I had two daughters, but that was different; their mother chose their sponsors and I was happy to let her do so, the girls nothing to do with me.

It had been a long time since I last thought about the sponsorship of Willis, which meant you got to buy presents on their sponsorship day. I’d have taken Willis fishing, and he might have turned out better than Henry in that respect. His father was no fisherman, so I could have taught the boy well. I wondered about Henry putting it to Willis’ wife. Did he go to her and say something that made her do it with him? Did they agree that Willis was a boring man who didn’t deserve a loyal wife? Did she, when meeting the President, think she might as well do it with him once her child was born and out of the way? But these were questions I couldn’t answer. I’d drunk a lot of beer and felt sleepy. Occasionally someone caught a fish; more often Henry caught one. Predictably he had more catches than the rest of us together. Quietly we kept count and set targets. Another five and then we finish for the night, we said, that kind of thing. It was unspoken that we were now in competition with Henry; together, we wanted to accumulate as many fish as he did alone. So our target was frequently revised upwards, and we made ourselves stay there all night, catching more fish. We had no intention of eating any of them. We might have thrown them back but didn’t. No one mentioned Willis, but we were all thinking of him, that much I was sure of.

Paul Nightingale is a teacher in London, England, currently working on a collection of stories and a novel. His blog (Schoenberg’s Favourite Colour @ isread.wordpress.com) includes critical work on Pynchon’s fiction and Howard Barker’s plays.

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