Scott Andrews

Children's Crusade


Caroline opened her good eye and winced. It was hard to divorce the pounding in her head from the shockwaves of the explosion that still reverberated around the small room. The walls were painted white but they glowed orange as the fireball billowed up the street outside.

Even with her head swathed in bandages, her hearing muffled, and her vision clouded by the lingering anaesthetic — not to mention the fact that one of her eyes was healing underneath a thick gauze dressing — Caroline knew instantly what was occurring.

Someone was attacking the base.

The night was warm and the window was open. It rattled in its frame and a wave of hot air pushed the curtains towards the ceiling.

She was lying flat on her back with her hands on her belly and was wearing what felt like a cotton nightdress. The crisp white sheets felt luxurious on her bare calves. It had been so long since she'd felt clean sheets.

She remembered her mother ironing the bed linen in front of the telly, watching Eastenders from within a cloud of steam.

The curtains fell back into place and the orange glow faded and began to flicker as fires took hold. Caroline heard the crack of small arms fire; sporadic at first, then constant and concentrated. Fire and a firefight. She wondered how long it would take for the conflict to reach her room, and what would happen when it did.

She sniffed the air, expecting cordite and smoke, but instead smelled lilies, strong and pungent. She focused on the chest of drawers that sat against the wall directly in front of her. The sense that she was one step sideways from reality was reinforced by the uneasy feeling that the world was somehow flatter. If she never recovered the use of her other eye then things would always be this way; the depth of the world reduced to one smooth surface, like a painting or a television.

On top of the wardrobe stood a large green vase which held about ten flowering lilies, their petals white with streaks of purple and yellow. They were exquisite.

Caroline wondered where Rowles had found them, and smiled at the thought of her best friend.

Then she frowned. Where was he?

Engines now, outside. Deep, throaty roars and the rumble of caterpillar tracks coming closer. Tanks, then. She could not imagine who would have the resources to attack this place, the most heavily defended position in the country, base of operations for the entire British Army.

She licked her lips. Her mouth felt musty and she had a sharp, bitter taste at the back of her throat, like bile or grapefruit. Wondering what the time was, she gently rotated her head until she could see the clock on her bedside table. 10:15. Not so late, but it was already dark outside.

She stroked her belly through her nightshirt, feeling the flat planes of her abdomen and the hollow empty ache inside, a reminder that she had not eaten for at least 24 hours. Then she thought: it may be more than that. How long had she been unconscious? It could be days.

She felt no disquiet at the prospect of having lost time in this nice, clean, envelope-smooth bed. What a nice place to lose time, she thought.

A distant whine grew into a piercing shriek that swept across the outside sky like a banshee. Fighter jet. No, two fighter jets. As they screamed overhead there was a whoosh and a hiss then a series of loud explosions as the planes launched missiles into the most entrenched positions, or eliminated British tanks or buildings.

Her nice warm bed didn't seem a safe place to be, but Caroline did not panic. She was too weak from surgery to lift herself into a sitting position, let alone leave the bed and search for shelter. The knowledge of her helplessness freed her from fear. There is no point, she told herself, being afraid of something you can't change; you will survive or you won't and there's nothing you can do to influence the outcome either way.

A tank ground to a halt beneath her window. She heard a whirr of engines as the turret rotated and the gun was manoeuvred into firing position. Then a moment's pause before her bed shook as the shell was fired.

Now she could smell gunpowder and the tang of hot, oiled metal, but the smell of the lilies was not entirely swamped. She imagined the flowers fighting back against machinery, and winning.

Since the explosion had woken her, Caroline had heard no noises from inside the building where she lay, tucked up safe on the second floor in her convalescent room. Now she heard the unmistakeable clatter of boots on the stairs at the end of the corridor. It was one person, running. Looking for somewhere to hide, perhaps? Or coming for her?

The footsteps got closer, then she heard many more pairs of boots coming up the stairs in pursuit.

Caroline scrunched her toes against the soft, smooth bed sheets in a tactile farewell just as the door to her room burst open.

'Caroline?' It was Rowles. He was breathing hard, on the verge of panic, which was unlike him.

'What's happening?' she said. Or at least that's what she tried to say. Her tongue felt like a lump of meat in her mouth and her lips seemed swollen and heavy. What she actually said was 'Wa han,' but sweet, faithful Rowles understood her.

'American army,' he said, by way of explanation as he closed the door behind him, grabbed a metal-framed canvas chair and shoved it under the door handle. Then he ran to her bedside, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

'They may not check too carefully,' he whispered.

The door handle rattled immediately. She'd thought he was being optimistic.

The boy she trusted more than anyone else alive crouched down beside her bed with a machine gun aimed at the door. It was cocked and ready to fire. He was defending her with his life, and she felt an overwhelming flood of affection for him. It took a huge effort but she managed to lift her right arm out from under the covers and reach across to stroke his light brown hair. He glanced up at her and she smiled at him. His wide eyes and small freckled nose gave him the face of an angel, but stare deeper into those eyes and there was only pitiless darkness. Hard to believe he was only eleven.

He smiled back and just for a moment his eyes lightened. There was still some feeling in there, after all. She hoped one day she'd hear him laugh. But she didn't think it likely.

She remembered her father laughing at an old repeat of Morecambe and Wise, his eyes creased to slits as he literally held his sides and rocked back and forth on the sofa like a laughing policeman at a fairground.

If Rowles was going to die here, she was glad she could die with him. She'd heard Matron refer to them once as Bonnie and Clyde, so it was fitting.

The door ceased rattling and the footsteps clattered away.

A moment later she heard boots descending the stairs.

Rowles stood up and walked around the bed, then pulled the curtain aside a fraction and looked out at the battlefield.

'I don't know why they're attacking, but I think they're winning.' There was a huge explosion nearby and he pulled back from the window, shielding his eyes. 'It's not safe to stay here. We have to go.'

Caroline wanted nothing more than to run away with him, but she would need to be carried, manhandled, pushed in a wheelchair. She was twelve years old and would have described herself as solid, even stocky. Rowles was eleven and thin as a rake. There was no chance. She wanted to tell him to go without her, to save himself and leave her be. But her treacherous mouth wouldn't form the words and, she realised with some surprise, she was too selfish for that. She wanted to be with him, no matter what.

'Wel air,' she grunted.

'Good idea. I'll go look for one. Back in a mo.'

He pulled the chair away from the handle and cracked open the door. Once he'd assured himself that the corridor was clear he slipped out, pulling the door closed behind him.

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