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The Veteran

The veteran looked agitated as he played the part of the pedestrian. After the noise of the city and its rushing crowds, the unsettled warmth of the suburban afternoon spoke of either peaceful contentment or quiet desperation. It depended on one’s point of view. To the pedestrian hurrying along the footpath, the quietness screamed desperately.

He shifted his white plastic shopping bag from hand to hand. The veteran appeared furtive, as if about to commit a crime, but did not look about him. He sweated but did not loosen his tie. For almost 20 minutes, he laboured across the suburb. He was breathing heavily as he approached the flats where he lived. He noticed his carport was empty and remembered his car was parked at the train station. He kicked a fallen leaf with an annoyance that added to his agitation.

The veteran did not check his letterbox and the brightly coloured advertising brochures were left to sag from the tight aperture. He turned from the kicked leaf and hurried up the stairs to his third-floor flat. The shopping bag was dropped to the step as he fumbled for the key to the door. As he entered the darkened flat, the veteran closed the door behind him and, despite his growing agitation, carefully locked the door.

He relaxed only a little in the cooler darkness of the room.

* * *

The flat was untidy but not too dusty. It was cool only by virtue of its closed windows and drawn, heavy curtains insulating the room. The style of building and fittings spoke of fashions of only temporary credibility many years earlier. Their continued existence in this building told of minimal maintenance or renovation.

The veteran’s flat was small: “a one-bedroom fully-furnished flat, quiet suburb, close to transport, cheap,” the ad had read at the real estate agent’s office. It did have one bedroom, together with a living area with a small kitchen in the corner and an aging bathroom. The furniture was there but was in the way more than it was useful. A huge two-seater lounge chair covered one wall of the living area and a good deal of the room as well. He used the kitchen table and chair but most often as a desk rather than pursuing any charade of dining. It was covered with books and papers. In the bedroom there was a bed and, scattered throughout the flat, was an unmatched assortment of small tables: a coffee table, two unmatched side tables and a low desk-like table, but too low to be a desk. He had never found any use for any of these tables and they were moved from corner to corner around the flat as other uses of the space dictated.

The suburb was usually quiet—except for the neighbours directly below. Their penchant for the earnest twang of country music played at high volume was remarkable and their repertoire matched. Fortunately, they were usually only home on weekends. The suburb itself was an in-between suburb, neither stylishly inner city nor respectably suburban. It was aging beyond its original use but not aged sufficiently to spark renewed interest among younger property buyers or redevelopers. So it was populated by in-between people: many of the properties were rented by older, single white-collar workers; young couples, marking time before launching into the mortgage belt; and a sprinkling of university students. Most people kept to themselves and regarded their residency in this area as temporary.

The “cheap” aspect of these premises was the main attraction for the veteran. Living by himself and wanting to keep it that way, he had had to find a place within his budget. The premises were cheap in contrast to other possibilities but, for what he got, the veteran begrudged his fortnightly rent. Despite this constant irritation, he had lived in this flat for a number of years and, in a way, it had become his home.

* * *

He was glad to be back here now. He placed the contents of the plastic bag into the fridge. This amounted to a six-pack of local beer and, as they were still cold from the bottle-shop fridge, his fridge was only called on to accommodate five of the six. He opened the other bottle and regularly sipped from it as he went through the various stages of arriving home.

But his agitation continued. He tore off his tie and business shirt, throwing them with venom against the bedroom door where they fell in a crumpled heap. After this purge, he seated himself for a moment and adopted an attitude of bewildered contemplation—but only for a moment. He was soon pacing the floor.

He paused to take another drink and was distracted by the topmost page in the pile of papers on the table. Squinting in the darkness of the room, he reached over to flick on the small reading lamp that also competed for space on the cluttered table. It came on with a flash that signaled its death. He swore quietly but purposively and shocked himself at the ferocity of his words. He had not used that expression since before his wedding day, when she had set out to “domesticate” him.

In a frenzy, he searched for another light globe. A couple of cupboards offered no helpful substitutes or suggestions. He unscrewed the light shade from above the kitchen area, took the globe and inserted it into the lamp where it instantly assumed its responsibilities. It shed a bold light on the table but beyond this halo only offered vague luminance, creating distorted shadows.

Outside, the light was fading and the fragments of light that had contributed to the dimly lit room were in retreat. This small lamp soon became the only source of light in the jumbled room. The veteran resumed his pacing but in this confined space the pacing amounted to little more than unsettled and irregular oscillation.

* * *

After some minutes of uncertain motion and the consumption of some of the second bottle of beer, the veteran had composed himself to some degree and seated himself at the kitchen table. He searched among the papers and books until he was able to retrieve a writing pad and a pen. The veteran paused for a moment. He took a couple of deep breaths and, apparently much calmer, began to write. He addressed the letter and paused again. He knew what he wanted to say, or rather what he had to say, but how to say it . . .

Words, always words. His thoughts were always imprisoned by words. The truth—if there was such a thing—was always a casualty of its expression. In his mind, he played with ideas, memories, dreams and nightmares. He alternately tortured himself and enjoyed the turmoil. His face was contorting in pain and horror and then inexplicably he smiled. It was a fleeting expression, quickly swallowed by another wave of anguish.

He hated the words in which he thought. War. He hated the words he had to express the thoughts, the turmoil. Murder. They were ugly words, they were noble words and they were pitiful words. Service. They were not enough. Guilty. Life reduced to words ceased to be life. Judged. But in his communications, even with himself, words were all he had. Death. To free the meaning from the words through the use of words—the one essential, impossible hope.

He clenched his teeth. He gripped the pen tightly as if poised to write. Without warning he leaned back on the chair and slapped himself across the cheek. He managed to startle himself and again crouched over the page expectantly. He read again the salutation and concluded it was not enough. It was not what he was trying to say. The balled page sailed across the room toward the bin and bounced off the closed lid but the veteran did not appreciate the accuracy of his shot. He had already turned to the new page, presenting itself for his attention. He shuddered at the enormous responsibility this page might bear.

* * *

The veteran wrote simply a single name by way of heading, salutation and greeting. Daughter. A few lines followed in quick succession. Innocents. He was seized by the growing realisation of the insufficiency of the words and lamented the poor quality of his sentences. Sorry. He wrestled with the frustration of attempting to express the near inexpressible and these half-formed reflections distracted him from the task that he had set himself.

His difficulties were exacerbated by the fact these thoughts, ideas and stories had never before been expressed in mere words. War. They were pictures, noises, smells, feelings that now he was trying to translate into writing on a plain white sheet of paper. Murdered. Nevertheless, he persevered. Children. He drank more often from the bottle and quickly finished the second. Guilty. He was becoming more and more distressed. Nightmares. The page was three-quarters filled when he broke down and cried. Judged. His tears flowed unreservedly like those of a small child confronted by a great disappointment. Death. He held his head in his hands and the tears blurred the words in his eyes before falling to blur the words on the page.

His sorrow continued unabated for some minutes. The tears had not washed away his pain and now he had run out of tears. His page was also ruined but he could not just throw it away. He carefully tore it from the writing pad and folded it in half before placing it under the rest of the writing paper. He faced another blank sheet.

The veteran began again. This time he began with a different name by way of address and made easier progress. Ex-. Some things were not as difficult to explain to adults. War. He ended this page with a brief apology and tore this sheet from the remaining pages. Sorry. That was done. Death. The veteran had not expected this process to be easy but it had been more difficult than anticipated. Memories. But some things just had to be done.

* * *

The veteran got up from the writing table. After his hurried hike from the railway station, the continued agitation and stress and his prolonged period of sitting, made him feel cramped and stiff. His earlier agitation had subsided into a dull, heavy ache. He went again to the fridge and retrieved the third bottle. He slouched onto the floor, leaning against the bulk of the lounge chair. With his eyes, he traced out pattern after pattern on the fading orange–brown wallpaper. He forced himself to follow the patterns across the wall. Different patterns presented themselves to his intense gaze.

He read every word written on the label of the beer bottle in a sate of rigid concentration. He reread most of the details and began to add up the numbers that were included. Despite using different sequences and combinations, he always managed to come back to the same answer. With difficulty, he finally roused himself from the floor. He splashed some water on his face from the kitchen tap and wiped his sleeve across his forehead.

With a start he remembered something that he intended to do earlier. Once again, he was annoyed with himself. In a couple of quick steps, he moved to the telephone and wrenched the plug from the wall socket. In his haste, the socket, constructed from plastic that had hardened over many years, cracked and he flung the loose cable end away in disgust.

* * *

The veteran seated himself again at the desk. He felt so tired. After the exertion with the telephone cord, he had moved back to the desk very slowly—like an old man. He felt old.

His shoulders slumped as he returned to his writing assignment. He wrote the first name again on a fresh page. Daughter. This new attempt omitted much from the earlier, now-discarded, tear-stained effort. War. Maybe it was best to leave out most of that stuff anyway. Guilty. His pen sailed purposefully across the page leaving a messy wake of jumbled thoughts. Memories. This letter stretched on to a second page—and on to the fourth bottle. Regrets. He still wrestled with expression and meaning. Alone. And he wrestled with himself. Sorry. Pausing became more frequent and somehow more poignant as he began to simply run out of things to say.

Run out of things to say.The thought hit him like a fist in the stomach and he gasped audibly. How could one run out of things to say when there was so much to say? Two-thirds of the way down the second page, he came to a halt. As soon as he did, a thousand ideas, thoughts and things that he just had to say, crashed in upon him. He threw the pen at the wall. Of course, he had not run out of things to say he had just run out of ways to say them. He also lacked the will to say them. That was enough.

* * *

The flat was beginning to be stuffy. He had not opened any windows and his stressed activities were heating the small space. He considered stepping out into the cool night air but decided against it. He seated himself on the lounge chair and held his breath for almost a minute.

With his windows closed tightly, most of the quiet murmur of the suburban evening was shut out. He tried to listen to the silence but was frustrated by the pounding of his own pulse in his temples. Irritated, he tried to forget he was controlling his breathing. The self-consciousness was claustrophobic. He alternated between holding his breath and hyperventilation. In his panic, he tried to find other thoughts to push his breath-awareness from his mind. But the other thoughts were worse.

He grasped at memories of his childhood. As a child, he had sometimes been preoccupied with breathing. He made himself scared that one day he might forget to breathe and choke on his own forgetfulness. But reminiscences of childhood brought with it other feelings. He remembered particularly the certainty. Apart from his own strange ideas, he was certain of how things were and of how things would be—a normal, “successful,” happy, family kind of life. The veteran almost laughed out loud in remembering but another invisible fist hit him in the stomach, winding him and once again he was forced to focus on his breathing.

He moved to the table and switched off the small reading lamp, sinking the room into darkness. Seated again on the lounge, he waited as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Around the curtains, delicate smudges of light from the surrounding suburb pushed their way into the room and he was able to make out the shapes in the gloom. He went again to the fridge. For a moment the light from the inside of the fridge illuminated the veteran’s face and a little of the room. But he did not take anything from the fridge and closed the door, causing a slight gust of refrigerated air and again leaving the room in near darkness.

* * *

The veteran made his way across the room. In the dark, he tripped on one of those ubiquitous table-things and angrily kicked it out of the way. Grabbing the telephone and raising the receiver to his ear, he heard nothing. He fumbled for the loose end of the cable and attempted to plug it back into the damaged wall socket. As he did so, he continued to hold the receiver to his ear. There was a static crackle and a momentary dial tone, then silence again. He played with the connection until a continuous purr sounded in his ear. He hastily dialed a long-remembered number and waited as the ring came to life. He shifted his weight and the connection fell from the wall. He swore again, dropped the useless receiver on the bench and hurried from the room.

He realised he had not entered the bedroom since his return home and that he was still wearing his sweaty undershirt and trousers. He could smell his own sourness. The wardrobe swung open and he leaned into the darkness amid the clothes, smelling the mustiness of the recycled wardrobe and its contents. From the back of the wardrobe, he withdrew a shotgun. It was an old and ugly machine but as he lay back on the bed he hugged it to himself.

* * *

A sharp report shattered the stillness of the warm night air in the suburb. It echoed through the sudden silence. Households for some distance around held their breaths.

Sometimes the greatest tragedies are followed by the most resounding and lonely silence.

—This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: Mystery” and “The Regular” and “Breakfast Radio Prayer.”

Image: William Merrit Chase, The Wounded Poacher (The Veteran), 1878

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