When we arrived, the city, or what was left of it, was deserted. Though many buildings lay in ruins, some remained standing. Since all the original inhabitants had been killed or run away, finding shelter was not difficult. The streets were strewn with rubble. All the windows were broken. The water mains were smashed. Water, though is resourceful: freed from pipes, it takes the line of least resistance. If it needs to, it stands and waits. It wasted no time turning the gutters into rivers. Here and there it formed patient pools. Water needed to be fetched and boiled so, for the likes of Luka, Marie or myself to survive, you needed watertight containers and the means to start fires. If you had a tin can or a magnifying lens you guarded them assiduously.
We followed the guitar. We could hear someone somewhere playing a classical piece, one of those that seems to run on and on in a steady trickle of notes. It led us to a low, single-storey building: perhaps it had been a health centre. There were desks, steel trolleys, drawers full of files written in a foreign language. They provided us with the fuel we needed to boil water and keep warm for a few days. But most of all there was the guitar.
Why did we follow it? Instinct, I suppose. It sounded beautiful. There was very little beauty around in those days so, of course, we found ourselves drawn to it. And then there was the fact that when we found the guitar we would find the guitarist. They might be one of us, in which case they might join us. They might not be: in which case we would have ourselves a hostage.
As we walked through the open doorway the sound of the guitar suddenly got louder. I went in first so I saw the guitar player before the others did. Behind me, Luka pulled out his knife. I shook my head and gestured to him to put it away. The guitarist was a young man in his twenties, about the same age as us. He looked at me and smiled. He kept on playing. We just stood there at first, then we sat on the floor, and listened. He kept on playing right to the end of the piece.
He said his name was Martin. He spoke our language in an accent I’d never heard before. He said of course we did not need his permission to stay but that he would be glad of the company. So we stayed.
“What were you playing?” asked Luka.
“Bach,” said Martin. “It’s called Prelude in D Minor.”
Luka raised his eyebrows and nodded, as if to say he had made a discovery.
The four of us lived in the building for a few days – perhaps a week. We worked together foraging for food, water and fuel. Things were not so bad. We found a flat in a block nearby where the owner, we decided, had hoarded food and cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer. Of the owner there was no sign. He must have fled without his hoard, or else he was dead. In the evening we sat around the fire drinking, while Martin played the guitar. For a few hours at a time we almost forgot the terrible situation we were in and the terrible things that were going on around us.
In those days nothing stayed the same for long. First, the shelling started. We all sat together under the only desk we had not burned and listened to the shells whistling overhead. One fell close. The sound was deafening, the building shook and a blast of dust and small debris blew in through the windows. Then the tanks came. I first heard the drone of their engines when I was out fetching water. I hid in a nearby building, under the stairs. There were soldiers, too. From where I was hiding I could hear them shouting.
It was a long time before everything went quiet again. I guessed that the soldiers and the tanks had moved on. There were no people left there to kill or rape, apart from ourselves (and, by then, we knew all the good hiding places). There was nothing left to steal. Most of the buildings had been destroyed. There was nothing left for them to do.
I waited until it was dark then I made my way back to the health centre. I could see very little but there seemed to be no-one there. I thought perhaps they were hiding, like me. I sat in the dark and waited until morning. Perhaps, somewhere close by, they were doing the same.
When the sun rose, I began to look around. My friends had disappeared. I did find Martin’s guitar though, smashed, as if someone had trodden on the sound-box. Perhaps the soldiers had found them. Perhaps, I hoped against all hope, my friends had broken the guitar themselves, stumbling over it in their hurry to escape. That night, as usual, it was very cold. I burnt what was left of the guitar on the fire to keep warm.
(c) Sackerson 2014
All rights reserved