Congratulations to Antony Putman, whose story, My Friend The Enemy, made it to the final four in the recent NAWG competition. You can read his story in full here:
My Friend The Enemy
by Antony Putman ©
The river divided our countries.
It was fast flowing for the most part, except for one small area. That was where the island was. The water should be faster, but for some reason, it slowed. That was how, at nine years old, I was able to swim to the island. That was where I first met my ‘friend’.
I reached the shore, a hopefully waterproof bag on my back. It was foolhardy, but how else would I carry food and something to dry myself with?
‘Who are you?’ A voice said above me. Looking up, there stood a boy, not much older than me, and he did not seem to be wet. ‘You swam here?’ He asked. I nodded. He pointed behind him, ‘I used a boat.’
I reached into my bag. Thankfully, the rag I brought along seemed dry. It took about a minute to get my hair mostly dry. Draping the rag over a branch, I walked over to the boy, holding out a hand, ‘My name is Franz.’
The boy took my hand. ‘Abel,’ he said, and we shook hands. We both released and Abel said, ‘Are you hungry?’ I told him I was, but not to worry, as I had brought something. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘I was coming here with two others, but they couldn’t come in the end. And as I was the one getting the food, I’ve got enough for three.’
We walked over to the other side of the island. I saw that there was a small cove, almost like a lagoon, that was out of the current. A rowboat sat tied to a stump. Abel went to the boat, reached in and pulled out a large cloth bag. He came back and showed me what was inside. Bread, cheese, some cold meat, a few tomatoes and some milk to drink. It was much more than the measly offering I had brought.
As we sat there on a blanket, eating, we talked about our families, our friends, what we liked.
I glanced over my shoulder, ‘Where did you leave from?’ I asked.
‘Over there.’ Abel replied. I turned, expecting to see him point behind me, but was shocked to see him point to the opposite bank! I was confused, because he talked to me in my native language, albeit with an accent.
‘What’s the matter?’ Abel asked.
I pointed at Abel, then at the riverbank before us. ‘You’re from over there!’ I cried. I started to back away.
‘So?’ Abel snorted. He waved his hands, as if pointing at the island, ‘On maps I have seen, the border doesn’t go through this island, it goes either side of it.’
‘So?’ I replied in kind.
‘So,’ Abel said, ‘It doesn’t belong to anybody. Here, we can just be two boys, playing on their island.’
‘If it’s not part of your country, and it isn’t part of mine, let’s make it ours.’
I thought about this. It would be hard to keep it quiet, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. ‘Good idea,’ I said. I sat back down; picked up the food I had dropped, and started to eat again.
Once we had finished eating, we explored the island. It took just over a minute to walk from one end to another, and I found there was a cove, on my side. We eventually arrived back at the blanket. I looked at the sky. The sun was starting to drop towards the hills.
‘Time for me to go,’ I said.
‘See you tomorrow?’Abel asked.
‘Can’t. The day after?’
‘Sure. Oh, by the way, you know how to row, don’t you?’
‘Well, you won’t get wet, then, will you?’
I laughed at that and waved as I walked down to my side of the river. I threw away my food and sealed the bag. The swim back was quicker than the outward journey. I got home as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
‘Where have you been?’ My father asked me as I walked in.
‘I was playing on an island.’
‘Really? By yourself, were you?’
‘No. There was another boy there.’
‘Well, make sure you don’t get into any trouble,’ He said, and walked into the kitchen.
My father owned the baker’s shop in town. I was the middle of three children. He knew that I was interested in more than baking, so I was given a little leeway in certain things.
After the evening meal, I went up to the attic, one-half of which had become my bedroom, the other half being my brothers’. A heavy curtain acted as a divider.
The access to the roof was on my side, much to my brothers’ annoyance, and that night, I used it. Carefully, I moved to the chimney stack and stood on the small platform that had placed there years before. I turned to look in the direction of the river, to see if I could locate the island, but it was too dark. Slowly, I went back inside. As I climbed into bed, I thought about the adventures that lay ahead, before sleep enveloped me totally.
The days came and went, and every time I visited the island was like a new experience every time. Most of the time, I would arrange to meet Abel there. Other times, I would be alone. I found out that Abel was good at languages, which was how he was able to speak to me easily. I asked if he could teach me his, so, for about twenty minutes each time we met, I learnt another way to talk.
We decided to build a shelter at one end of the island. We collected all the dead wood and each brought pieces of canvas that had seen better days. We had just finished putting it together when the heavens opened. No water came in, thankfully, but we knew we could not stay there, as the sun was beginning to drop. Having built it above the high water line, we were sure that it would still be there when we came back. We ran to our boats. I untied mine and started to row. When I arrived at the shore, it was as if I had swum across. When I entered the house, my father took one look at me, shook his head, and went back to reading his book. The next day, I found my grandfathers’ greatcoat in my room. I would not get so wet again.
Nine years passed. Approaching my eighteenth birthday, I had to decide what to do with my life. Enrolment at the country’s main university seemed like the best thing to do. The day before I was due to leave, I had arranged to meet Abel on the island. Arriving there, I tied up the boat and walked up to the crest of the mount. Abel was already there, and there was a worried look on his face.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘My country’s joined the war.’
I was taken aback. The war that Abel was on about was supposedly hundreds of miles away. That his country had become part of it was frightening.
‘What are you going to do?’ I think I already knew the answer.
‘Everyone of appropriate age is to report to the town hall in the morning. There we’ll be assessed before being assigned to the relevant training centre.’
‘Did you memorise that?’
We both laughed.
‘You off to university, Franz?’
I nodded. ‘To learn about languages. And maps.’
‘Sounds like a lot of fun.’
‘I hope so.’
I extended my hand, thinking he would shake, but he walked up and hugged me. We stood there for a while before he released me. ‘Look after yourself,’ I said.
‘You, too,’ he replied. Then he turned and walked to his boat. When he got there, he turned and waved. I waved back. Then I turned and walked to my boat. As I rowed to the shore, I wondered if I would ever see him again.
It would be just under eighteen months before my country entered the war. I thought myself, somewhat foolishly, safe from enlistment. But, due to what I had been studying, I was enrolled into intelligence. The war was only two years old, but many countries had joined on either side. That Abel’s country had joined the aggressors was a mystery at the beginning, but through my studies, and now, as I poured over the intelligence reports, I understood. How soon would it be before their guns fired over the river into my home?
A year later and I was now in charge of a section of intelligence. Twenty-one years old and people called me ‘sir’. Pouring over reports to work out what the enemy was planning, my section stumbled onto some worrying news. The aggressor planned to invade us! Reading the reports, I was shocked to find out that artillery had been moved into range of my hometown. I went directly to the high command. They too were shocked at the news and immediately ordered reinforcements to move to the river. I asked that I go along, as I knew the terrain. Reluctantly, they agreed.
We were on the outskirts of my hometown when the shelling began. Clouds of smoke and debris erupted at random points. I worked out the distance and pointed to a field next to the road. The artillerymen pulled their guns into the field and began setting up. Within half an hour, the first guns sent their replies. Our tank crews were inexperienced, so they had waited until our barrage had begun before moving off. It was both a scary and an impressive sight: Tanks, trucks full of infantry and more artillery moving along the road.
The convoy reached the forward line, a set of trenches and fortifications two hundred yards outside the towns’ ancient walls. These defences looked over a flat plain two miles wide, then a small dense area of woodland and finally, the river. The tanks and infantry would move to this side of the wood, while the artillery would set up at the defensive line and wait for those back at the field to arrive. For the next few days, many shells went in either direction. The tanks and infantry were in position and, apart from the odd shell falling close, unbothered.
After eight days, with the town in ruins and, from observation, their nearest village destroyed, the aggressor asked for a meeting of truce. Neither side could decide on where to meet; until I mentioned the island. Strangely, when we suggested it, the other side said they had this in mind. I started to wonder. I asked to join the party, citing knowledge of the currents, and the topography of the island. Some were sceptical but agreed.
Several hours later, I stood once again on my island. We walked up to the crest and saw the delegation from the other side. Abel was with them, standing next to their leader. He turned to Abel, whispered something and Abel stepped forward. ‘Gentlemen,’ He said in my language, ‘We are here today to ask for the surrender of your country. If we do not receive it, we will take it by force.’
After a moment’s silence, I spoke, in his language, ‘Did you memorise that?’
Abel looked up. Seeing who it was, he smiled. ‘Just a little,’ he replied. He reached into his pocket.
Suddenly, a shot rang out. A red patch appeared on Abel’s uniform. Suddenly more shots rang out from both sides of the river. There was no cover. I sat Abel up. ‘They’re fighting over our island,’ I said, knowing there would be no reply. The sound of an incoming shell made me look up. I felt at peace, next to the enemy who was my friend. Then I felt no more.
© Antony Putman