The Right Word

The car bounced through the North Ossetian countryside as Joseph kept up his continuous commentary. Two hours without hesitation or repetition. The man was a perpetual word machine.

“So, you two. You are married?”

It took a moment for me to realise he was asking us a question. Paula jumped in.

“No. Well, yes, we are, but not to each other.”

“Oh.” Joseph leered and tapped the side of his nose.

“No,” I said. “We’re just colleagues, that’s all. We’re not, you know.”

“Hey. There’s no need to be quite so enthusiastic in your denial,” laughed Paula. “A lady could be insulted.”

“What about you?” I said, to hide my embarrassment. “Are you married?”

“Me?” said Joseph. “No. I married twice. They go. I don’t know why, they just leave. So now, I look for wife number three.” He laughed. He laughed a lot. I wondered if I could pass the time by counting how many laughs per hour he racked up.

“Maybe you could find one that’s deaf,” muttered Paula, not quite quietly enough.

Joseph laughed again. “Yes, deaf. Because I talk much, yes.” He turned to face us, oblivious to the road ahead, one hand on the wheel while he gestured to his face with the other. “And maybe blind, because I am ugly too, yes?” He laughed again, turning to face front in time to avoid disaster. “Ugly. Is right word, yes?”

“Yes,” I said. Paula kicked my ankle.

“I would say rugged, Joseph,” she said. “A face that’s seen life.”

“Yes, yes. We see life here. Look at people’s faces. This is not Hollywood. We see true face of life here, and life is bitch. Bitch. Is right word, yes?”

I’d spent several days walking around town, photographing people and places. The average life expectancy here was sixty, but even middle-aged men looked ancient. I had to agree with him.

“Yeah,” I said. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

Joseph nodded happily, then took up his commentary again, telling us the history of Ossetia, Chechnya and Ingushetia, ancient and modern, local gossip, what was wrong with the government, where to eat, what dishes to try and anything else that fell into the forefront of his mind.

We entered the outskirts of the town shortly after lunch. It looked like every other town in the area, as though it had come out of a 1920’s newsreel of a depression-hit rural community. Joseph parked alongside a fence that circled a rundown wreck of a building. I thought back to my first school, a Victorian monster of a building. One end of the school looked relatively untouched, though the years had peeled the paint. The other end had an extension that had obviously been added later. It was pockmarked, and at one point the wall gaped open. Joseph stopped talking and for several minutes we just sat and stared at the ruin, the only sound the engine clicking as it cooled.

“Government, they want to tear it down,” said Joseph finally. “People, they say no. Government want to forget. People want to remember.”

“What do you think?” said Paula.

“I think people should win, whatever they want. Me, I want to forget, but I cannot. I want to forget, but I must not. No-one must. Come.”

We left the car and walked across the playground towards the main entrance. Cyrillic lettering was carved over the lintel. I raised my camera and took a few shots. The door opened and a babushka appeared. She eyed us suspiciously and spoke to Joseph. He answered, the only word I could pick out being ‘journalist’. It’s the first word you learn when you’re abroad. It can save your life. The second thing you learn is when to keep quiet about your job.

The old woman walked up to me and stabbed me in the chest with a bony finger. I couldn’t help but stare into deep set eyes filled with more misery than one person should ever have as she launched into a passionate speech, stabbing me each time she wanted to make a point. Then she stared, searching my face for some sign. Apparently satisfied, she nodded curtly and walked off. I turned to Joseph and raised my eyebrows.

“People come here, many journalists. After, you understand. Everyone want to know. But then they leave, and no-one comes back. She said you must come, you must see, you must tell. You must not let them forget.”

“Well, that’s our job,” I said. We followed Joseph to the main door. On the concrete step he stopped, pulled off his hat and turned towards us.

“Number One School, it’s like church, you know? Me, I am -, “he circled his hand, searching for the word. “Not believing in God.”

“Atheist,” said Paula.

“Yes. Is right word. Atheist. Born under communism. But here, it’s like church, you understand?”

“Sure,” I said, not really understanding. Still, I took off my baseball cap and stuffed it into my chinos. Joseph nodded, turned, and led us into the deserted school. Our steps echoed as we walked along the empty corridor. Bottles of mineral water lined the window ledges. Splodge paintings lined the walls like schools the world over, though they were curling and dusty. Finally Joseph disappeared through a double doorway and we followed.

It was a gymnasium, obviously added onto the school some time after the main building had been built. Most of the windows were broken. Holes gave the wall an acned look. Part of the wall had gone, and the sunshine spilled through.

And everywhere stood bottles. Mostly they were small bottles of water, the sort you buy in stores, though some were milk bottles, or beer bottles or even jam jars, all filled with water. Here and there a splash of colour revealed a bottle of juice or cordial. They were everywhere, on the high windowsills, on the floor, on every flat surface. Bottle on bottle of water.

“Hole,” said Joseph quietly, nodding towards the ruined wall. “Government says bomb, some people say tank.” He shrugged. “Does not matter. Here, see?” He pointed to the intact walls. “Bullets. There, bomb.”

“Jesus,” I whispered, turning slowly and pulling off shot after shot with my camera. “It must have been a blood bath.” He was right. I was whispering in reverence. It was like being in a cathedral.

“Why the bottles, Joseph?” I heard the catch in Paula’s voice.

Joseph looked around, then walked to a collection of bottles against a wall. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small bottle of Coke. Squatting down, he placed it carefully amongst the other bottles and remained there. For an atheist, it looked suspiciously as though he were praying.

“Joseph?” said Paula.

He stood and turned. The afternoon sunlight, shattering through the bottles in the window, gave a stained glass effect to the atheist church. The rainbows glittered off the tears running down his cheeks.

“Knowledge Day,” he said. “Is what we call first day of school. Knowledge day, and not just children, but mamas and papas, and their mamas and papas. Speeches, food, good time, yes? They come, dressed like soldiers. They take everyone here. Some run away, tell police. So police and soldiers, they come with guns and tanks, and in here, the terrorists wait with guns and bombs. See up there? They sit children there, in window, so no shooting. Some, they put bombs on. You understand? Bombs on little children, like jacket. So, soldiers wait, terrorists wait. Siege, is right word? Yes?”

He sighed and shook his head, looking around the gym as though he could see them. “Something happened. Maybe a bomb, maybe a sniper, maybe angry papa. Everyone say something different. But something happen, and bang, bang, pow.” He waved his hands around, miming the guns and the bombs. “Over three hundred dead. One hundred eighty-six children. You understand this? One-eight-six little children, dead.” He shook his head in disbelief. Paula grabbed my hand and I squeezed it. I knew she was thinking of her own kids safely back home.

“The bottles?” she said, her voice catching.

Joseph dragged his sleeve across his face and stepped close. His face was a terrifying mix of grief and anger.

“It is not enough they put bombs on children,” he said. “Not enough they put them in way of snipers.” He made a gun of his fingers and poked them into my temple. “Not enough they put gun to head of little children. Not enough. Three days, you understand? Three days of siege, and little children, all in here.”

My camera hung by my side. Somewhere I knew I should be capturing his face on film, but I couldn’t. Paula was hanging onto my arm with both hands now.

“The bottles?” she repeated.

Joseph looked around the room. “Three days. And all time, they said no drink. No drink for the children. Not enough just to kill them. So now, people give them drink. Too late, too late, but now they can drink all they want.”

I looked around. There were bottles without number, hundreds, thousands. I knew now Paula had her hook. That’s what journalists do, they twist facts into stories, because who wants to read just facts? Monstrous, but true.

“I am Georgian,” said Joseph. “Not from Beslan. Not even from North Ossetia. Atheist, so I do not hate Muslim, or Jew, or Christian. I do not hate Chechnya or Ingushetia. But these people, I hate. They are bastards. Bastards, is right word?”

I screwed my eyes shut, willing the tears back. Journalists cannot, must not get involved.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that’s exactly the right word.”

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

5 Responses to The Right Word

  1. snodlander says:

    A year after this obscenity, my brother Devilstick Peat went out there to help the survivors to laugh again. He’s out there now, revisiting the place. After I wrote this I showed him it. He paid me the great compliment of saying I had caught the essence of it.

    Sometimes a fiction writer just can’t write a horror story worse than real life

  2. simon who first brought me here to beslan just read it and is well impressed

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