his team, was on call twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, when overtime allowed, and each of them knew the McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Kentuckys better than they knew their own kitchens. It was a life, of a sort.

Suzie drove. He took the back seat. The heat in the car emphasised the failure of the cooling system and sweat from his forehead mixed with the sauce on his lips. He cursed.

Bill said, ‘Come on, boss. It’s wonderful – blue skies and no clouds, we have a result and the world’s at peace, you know what I mean.’

She turned to all of them, faced them from the door. ‘You will do it. You will find them. You have to.’

She was the Widow: not a name she had sought but one that had been given. There were others in the village community who were widows and some who were widowers, and there were three sets of orphans, but she alone had been awarded that title. Almost, she wore the given name as if it were a medal of honour… and authority.

‘Instead of drinking, eating, pretending a corner of a cleared field is a cause for celebration, you should be out there, searching.’

Her man had been a self-proclaimed patriarch in the village. He had gone out into the early-evening failing light and had not come back. With him had been Petar’s boy, Tomislav’s and the young cousin of Andrija. For the last days of the defence of the village she had tried to step into her husband’s boots. He had commanded the irregulars who fought to hold their homes and keep open the Cornfield Road, but she had been elbowed aside – not just verbally but physically – by Mladen. They had not come back. She had been pushed out of the command bunker and sent to the deep cellar, a crypt, below the church where the wounded were, and had not felt the cold November air on her face for four days. She had stayed, buried like an animal, in the carnage hole that was a useless imitation of a field hospital, until Mladen had come to her. He had had to stoop to pass through the cellar and only fading torches had identified for him those she tended, who had suffered horrific injuries. Now the painkillers and morphine were finished.

He had groped towards her, past the radio that played the live broadcast of Sinisa Glavasevic, who was trapped in the town further down the Cornfield Road. Mladen had knelt in front of her and taken her hands, bloodstained, in his; he had begged forgiveness for her expulsion from the command bunker and had told her the resistance was over. That evening all those who had the strength to run, walk or crawl would go into the corn and try to reach the defence lines at Nustar and Vinkovci. They could not take the wounded. She was told that further defence was suicidal, would achieve nothing, and that the village, with no anti-tank missiles, could not be held. It would be her decision as to whether she stayed with the wounded or went into the cornfields. She had stayed, of course.

She did not talk about what had happened in the hours after the men and other women had fled under cover of darkness. She did not speak about the arrival of tanks in the heart of the village, and the torches beaming down the steps. She had never discussed the actions of the Cetniks as the wounded – with herself and two other women who had remained – were dragged crudely up the steps from the cellar into the nave of the wrecked church. Catheters, bandages and drip tubes had been wrenched loose, and clothing ripped from bosoms and stomachs. She had kept silent about what had happened. Forty hours later, a Red Cross convoy had been permitted to evacuate the handful of survivors. They lived as if they were dead. Minds worked, ears listened, eyes saw and feet moved, but souls had been killed. When, seven years later, the Widow had left a prefabricated wooden home outside Zagreb and returned to the devastated village, she had been elevated to matriarch, mother to them all. Nothing passed in the village unless she endorsed it.

‘You search for him. You know where to find him. Do I have to take up a spade? Is that woman’s work?’

As teacher in the village school, her husband had been a man of books. There were more books in their home than in all the others in the village. She had qualifications in nursing. He had been undisputed in his leadership: no bank managers lived there, no agricultural co-operative managers and no priest. His authority had been handed on to the Widow.

She had stood for an hour in that kitchen, had drunk only water and refused the open sandwiches, cake and fruit.

An electrician before the war, Mladen lived off a good pension payable to the surviving commander of the village and responsible for its ‘heroic defence’; he had the additional status of widower. Behind him – she thought the boy uninteresting – was the son, Simun, who had been born in the church crypt on a day of fierce shelling, and whose birth had killed his mother. Mladen was a big, bull-shaped man but had knelt before her and she had accepted his guilt.

The farmer was Petar. His wife had survived the capture of the village and the loss of her son, and lived in a lonely, soundless world. And there was Tomislav, whose elder son was dead, missing, disappeared, whose wife and younger children had fled. He was the one who had known how to use the weapons that should have come through the cornfields that night. There was Andrija, the sniper, who had escaped, his wife Maria, who had been captured and violated, and Josip, the clever one and the coward, the one they needed and the one they despised. She saw them all in Petar’s wide new kitchen, which the government had paid for.

There were others. She knew each one. She had treated them, ushered them into the world. She dominated them.

‘Find them – you owe them that.’

What hurt as much as the loss of her man – stupid, obstinate, pompous – was that he had not shared with her the detail of the purchase. Who had Zoran met? Who had been given the money and valuables collected in the village? He had spoken only of seeing his nephew from the ministry, but the nephew had been killed by a shrapnel burst at the bridge over the river at Karlovacs. She knew nothing, and it was a cut to her self-esteem.

She looked each of them in the face, was given mumbled promises that the search for her husband’s body and the three others would start the next day. She snorted.

The Widow went through the door and the boy, Simun, pushed forward to take her arm and steady her down the steps, but she shrugged him away.

The sun had dipped. Her shadow was thrown long and sharply angular on the road. She went by the church, most of it rebuilt, and took a lane leading out of the village to the north. She passed one house where Serbs had lived and where the pram chassis had been found, and another where the handcart had been dumped, but there had been no word of what had happened to her husband and the younger men. It was a long walk for her but the sun’s strength had slackened and she had her stick. She hobbled forward on a worn path of packed earth and the corn rose high on either side of her, dwarfing her. Far in the distance there was the tree-line and the river. She went as far as the corn and stopped where the planted strip gave way to verdant weed. At the point where she stood, there would have been, until that morning, a metal sign, a little rusted after thirteen years, that warned of the dangers of going on to mined ground. Birds sang and flipped between the corn stems. A buzzard wheeled. She could imagine how it had been, and that fuelled the hatred.

To the north, the town fronted on to the great and historic waterway, the Danube river, a winding, sprawling snake with a slow, endless slither. The other three boundaries of the town were formed by cultivated fields that stretched away, that summer of devastating heat, with long strips of corn, sunflowers and vines. Alongside the crops were planted the speciality of that region of central Europe: mines had been rooted in fertile ground, beside the mass graves of civilians and soldiers. That year promised a good harvest – trailer-loads of grain, vats of oil, casks of wine and, as happened every year, the fields would give up more of the maiming devices. More of the graves would be uncovered where the dead had been dumped but never forgotten. The agricultural land on the plateau high above the Danube had always held graves, had always been on a fault line of violence. It was far from the great cities of Europe, remote from the councils of hurrying leaders. Who cared? Life moved on.

The town surrounded by minefields and mass graves was Vukovar. It had lived, barely, in the eye of a media storm for a few days as winter had set in during an atrocity nineteen years before. Vukovar had been an image of dead cornfields, distant columns of smoke rising to gunmetal skies, of mud, misery and murder… but it was all far away from London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. It was even further from Washington. Who cared if savages butchered each other in a distant corner? Not many. Did it matter? Not a lot. Now most memories had wiped away the name of a small town on a fine river. Vukovar.

But a minefield had been cleared, and a farmer would drive his tractor, the next day, over the ground that an old German shepherd dog had found to be safe. He would have confidence in the dog’s nose, and those who had not forgotten – would never forget – would watch the plough turn fresh furrows. A new strip would be prepared for

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