Patrol

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Patrol

He spoke with a grimace, as if all words tasted bitter.

The view was the same as always. The cobbled square, large enough to hold a thousand people but nonetheless almost deserted at this early hour. The old buildings with their whitewashed stone and their black-painted timbers. The alleyways and the gutters and the omnipresent rain from a murky sky that never quite admitted full daylight.

“Good morning,” he lied, addressing the young woman who sold him a newspaper and a pouch of tobacco at just about this time every day. She had the grace to at least offer something approximating a distracted smile, accepting his money and counting out his change mechanically, while her gaze was still fixed on the mobile phone in her other hand.

No respect for their elders, he thought, without anger but with considerable wistfulness. Or for much of anything.

It was a changed age. So many things were gone, and so many more new things — none of any particular value — had taken their place. More people, more possessions, and lives even emptier than before. It was somehow fitting.

The old man put the tobacco in his coat pocket and tucked the newspaper under his arm, hunching his shoulders against the cold. He shuffled on, heading automatically towards the next stop on his daily route. It was like a patrol, he had often mused, and patrols were something he had often performed in his distant youth. But that was a far-away time, and in a far-away place. After he left his homeland, he had never returned, and eventually he had become accustomed to never returning.

The flower shop had been open for hours already despite the earliness of the morning, and the fat man behind the counter smiled enough to curl his own moustache, as usual.

“Good morning, Mr. Brandt,” he said, and the old man nodded in acknowledgement. The florist knew better than to push for conversation with one of his most valued customers, and instead remained silent. He produced the required small bunch of white tulips, wrapped them in a single sheet of brown paper, and handed them over without another word. His customer paid, nodded in turn, and left.

The sky had darkened, and for a moment the old man was reminded of that other place again, not far from the valley, in the space between the trees. It had been dark there too. It had been dark even at midday on the brightest day of the year, because the canopy of trees sheltered the clearing and hid away secrets that had not yet been discovered even with the passing of almost eighty years.

The old man was old indeed, in the latter half of his nineties now, but blessed — or cursed, perhaps — with unfailingly good health for his age. He had his eyesight and most of his hearing, he could walk readily enough even though he would never again run, and his memory refused to deteriorate no matter how much encouragement it was given to do so.

But am I not running even now? he asked himself, in the detached voice that he had long ago decided belonged to his own father, dead and gone for six long decades.

The old man’s father had been a quiet accountant, and a lover of music, and of history, and of his wife and family. He had never recovered from the war. His body had been untouched, but his heart was scarred beyond repair.

In shame at his son, who had become a monster so readily, the voice said. The old man didn’t bother to argue. He knew it was true.

The old man had burned his own uniform years ago. It had taken so long to burn. Out in the woods, so very far out, where secrets could be hidden, but he still felt exposed. It seemed to take a dozen hours, and he had felt like at any moment they would burst through the tree line, point at him, and drag him away.

Nazi, they would say. And he would not protest, nor would he resist.

The old man made his pilgrimage to the synagogue, bypassing the front of the building entirely, moving down the side street to where the carven memorial was. He took his flowers from behind the shield of his newspaper and laid them down just like he always did, barely even stopping, and then on he went.

The act still pulled a bead of sweat from his brow, even now. He was glad to reach the cafe which was his final stop. His usual coffee, and his usual plain pastry because he deserved nothing sweeter. He didn’t hurry, because old men didn’t hurry in such places, and when he had finished he went outside once more and paused to peer at his reflection in a neighbouring window.

The old monster grimacing back at him looked hunted, and tired, and empty. It looked like the photos on the news when another of his erstwhile comrades was tracked down in some far-flung country, and brought back to the fatherland for trial. It looked exactly as the old man would look if they found him at long last.

In the meantime, he would make his patrol each day, and he would lay his flowers down, and he would wish that this would be the day they finally came.


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