(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
The loader, Akhmetov,
laughed harshly. "All these days and you still expect
gratitude?" He knelt on the ammunition crates on the floor to peer over
Alyosha’s shoulder. "Wonder if they were all in bed with the Nazis."
Alyosha watched the
corporal in charge of the squad of soldiers walk over and talk to the old man
with the moustaches. He nodded and came back to the tank.
"He says the Nazis
weren’t here," he called up to Tereshchenko in the turret. "He says nothing
happened here, no one came."
"Yes?" The senior
sergeant’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. "Ask him about those trenches we drove
past in the field."
"I already asked him,
Starshina. He says they dug them to stop German armour coming, in case they
turned up." He spat eloquently on the ground. "A likely story, seeing they left
the track untouched and the trenches are all pointing east."
"Take your men and search
the village," Tereshchenko said. "Stay ready to move fast if anything happens.
Akhmetov, load anti-personnel. Everyone on alert."
Alyosha watched the
villagers through the front hatch. They stood where they were, looking
uncertainly at the tank and at the soldiers who were now beginning to move
through the village. A chicken began clucking and quickly fell silent.
"How long," Sasha the
gunner muttered, "are we planning to stay here, Starshina?"
"As long as it takes,"
Tereshchenko said irritably. He sounded on edge, and this worried Alyosha
because Tereshchenko was normally as emotional as a block of wood. "I want to
find out what’s going on here."
"Starshina," Fyodor said.
The old man with the moustaches was stepping warily towards the tank. "Looks
like we have complaints."
"The soldiers," the old
man said to Alyosha through the hatch, since he was the most easily visible.
"The soldiers are stealing the chickens."
"What’s it to you,
dedushka?" Fyodor leaned over to glare up at the old man. "We’ve come to
liberate you, and all you can talk about is chickens? The soldiers need food.We need
Tereshchenko called from the turret. "Listen, Dyadya," he said to the old man.
"We haven’t had a proper meal or sleep in days now, and we still have a long
way to go. I think a few chickens are the least of your worries."
"If you want food," the
old man said eagerly, squinting myopically up at the turret, "we have bread and
even a few eggs. You’re welcome to them." His watery blue eyes blinked
earnestly. "But please don’t disturb the chickens, and the women –"
As though on clue,
someone screamed in the village, a woman yelling. Alyosha glanced uneasily at
Fyodor, but he was fumbling with the lock of his machine gun.
"Listen to them!" the old
"What do you expect in a
war?"’ Akhmetov leaned across Alyosha’s shoulder. He squinted at the afternoon
sunshine, his narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing. "Soldiers are men, old
man, and they need their fun."
"Fun?" The old man was outraged, his jaw quivering. "You call that fun?"
"Oh yes." Fyodor didn’t
look at anyone, and he might have been talking to his machine gun. "After days
and weeks of facing death constantly, not knowing if you’ll ever even see a
woman again, I’d call it fun. All right."
Tereschchenko said. "We aren’t the Nazis. Get them back here."
At that moment, there was
a shot, ringing out sharp and loud, from the other side of the village.
Everyone in the tank stiffened. Alyosha grabbed at the steering tillers. Fyodor
swivelled his machine gun, the stubby barrel traversing the street.
"Zhopa," Sasha swore
softly. "What the hell is going on?"
Nothing happened for a
long moment. Alyosha, watching the old man, suddenly had a feeling that he’d
been expecting the shot, that this was what he’d been trying to head off with
his complaint about the chickens. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to
crouch in the dust like the others. He’d just turned round and was looking back
at the village.
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