Login   Sign Up 


Last Words

by Christian Drake 

Posted: 27 June 2004
Word Count: 4321

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

After stepping off the autobus, he looked at his watch. The second hand had ceased to tick. Its lens became decorated with small droplets of rain as he held it to the sky. Despite the thing being broken for some time, he knew he was late. Not too late, but impolitely so.
Fortunately, he was not far from his destination. His father lived in an apartment, in one of the many monotonous, grim, Orwellian blocks that had drained the city’s beauty since it was obliterated in ’41 during Op. Barbarossa. The buildings, rising like cliffs out of the beach, seemed to smudge into the grey of the sky. The road was potholed and withered. Turning the corner, onto the street on which his father lived, the man knocked into an old woman who carried, in her gnarled arms, a baby wrapped in rags. Due to her frailty, the woman fell backwards and lost her grip on the infant. The baby began to fall to the ground but the man, showing a great deftness, knelt on one knee with both arms out in front of him and caught the young thing. It began to scream.
The aged woman stood up as quickly as her time on earth would allow and snatched the child from the stunned man. She tried to appease its cries, and then looked up fiercely into his eyes,
“You idiot! This is my granddaughter!”

“I…I am sorry I didn’t see you, madam, I wasn’t concentra-,” she pushed him backwards furiously,

“Her mother was just blown up in Afghanistan, you bastard! And you nearly killed her!” she pushed her face right into his, “You watch where you are going!” The old woman spat at his feet and hurried off, trying still to calm the hysterical infant.
He turned and watched her disappear round the corner he had just come by and then looked back down the street in front of him – it was empty, save for the vast spread of snow that had settled on every surface open to the sky. Thinking of other things, the man continued on to his father’s apartment.

* * * * * * * *
The yellow and brown mountain was half covered in snow. I lay resting behind a small rock – but one that covered my body entirely – and watched the village in that deep valley through my rifle scope. I didn’t dare move much. Somewhere, in one of those dark, lifeless houses, there could have laid the mujaheddin, waiting for movement in the hillside. And yet, some hours had passed where I had seen no disturbance of the emptiness, so I put down my rifle and moved well back behind the boulder.
I opened my water bottle and drank half of it, which was stupid as I had no idea how long I was going to be stuck there. The sun disappeared behind a huge carpet of cloud that was immensely dark. The clouds were so broad and so deep set into the horizon that I knew not to expect sunlight for several hours, if at all, before dark. With a sigh I leant around the side of my cover once more to watch the village. A few minutes passed where my concentration lapsed due to a great lack of sleep.
Then I was roused from my reverie by a nearby rumbling. It was a tank-at last! some relief. At least, I prayed it was. There had been times when I had seen the mujas commandeer one of our T-72’s or MKVs. So I chose to wait, hiding behind that small rock, to make absolutely certain that the tank was friendly, as it wheeled around the sloping base of the mountain on which I rested.
* * * * * * * *

She was washing some dishes when the doorbell rang. Quietness had embedded itself so deeply in the apartment’s character that the tumult of the bell sounding gave her a terrible shock. She let a plate slip out of her hand and fall into the foamy sink, spraying the woman with water and soap. She swore, took off her apron and went to answer the door.
It was her stepson. Vassili: tall, moody and loveless. He wore his uniform and a long grey greatcoat over it that was speckled with rain and mud. He smiled at her, very briefly, and kissed her on the cheek as he removed his filthy boots and left them in the hall outside.
“Natalia,” he said apathetically, “good to see you. I’m sorry to be so late.”

“That’s alright Vassili, was it the buses? They are a disgrace! You know, the Transport Commissar should be shot!” She winced at her outburst. Vassili didn’t respond and walked passed her into the kitchen. He noticed the dishes, half-washed.

“Are you managing?”

Natalia walked beyond him to the sink and pulled out the plug. The water drained out very quickly, leaving behind foam-soaked plates and cups that looked like victims of a shipwreck, washed up on shore.
“Fine, yes I’m fine. It’s not so bad. How is the army?” she asked nervously. Vassili looked out of the window, concentrating and trying to relax his eyes’ focus so he could make out the rain drops outside.

“We’re winning. The Muslims are stubborn but have inferior weapons. We shall break them soon, I am sure of it,” he lied, “then it will only be a matter of clearing up the dead,” he added morosely.

“Good, well…I should think you will want to see your father.” He looked at her and nodded. “I’m afraid the doctor said that no one can see him until he’s arrived. The medication…” Vassili understood, “…but he will only be a few minutes. Please, sit” she gestured to the table behind where he stood, “would you like some coffee?” Vassili brightened up his expression and turned to sit on one of the chairs tucked under the table.

“Yes…wait no, do you have any vodka?”

“Of course,” she brought out a clear glass bottle from the cupboard above the sink, dried a glass that was in it and handed them to him across the kitchen-side. Then she turned and continued to wash the dishes.
Natalia was taller than most Russian women, with greying hair that was once a dark brown. Her face was badly cracked from wearing too much American make-up that she would buy on the black market. Her eyes were deep set in her head and her nose ran thinly down her face. Vassili sat watching her, sipping at his drink. She knew he looked at her and stared out of the window, uncomfortable, watching the street below.

* * * * * * * *

The tank, a deep green and lined with red, lazily entered the village, flattening a house in doing so, until it rested like a great lion in a clearing in the centre. The hatch swung open and I quickly grabbed my rifle in case the mujas had the tank. I looked into the scope and adjusted the lens, watching the turret with all the concentration I could muster given my exhaustion. A head came up out of the tank and looked frantically around. He was a Russian, thank God! The man pulled himself out of the hole and jumped down from the vehicle.
Relieved, I stood up, very stiff (for the first time in two days) and waved to him. I shouted and began to walk down the slope. The man saw me and lowered his weapon, watching me descend. But I had not gone twenty steps when I saw movement across the other side of the valley. I was too far to make it out exactly, but I saw two men, mujas!, stand up and one held an anti-tank gun which he pointed to the T-72 and fired. A great cylinder of smoke sliced through the air and punched into the side of the tank. It shook terribly and I could see its right track was destroyed. I dived down to the ground like a shot and crawled to a thicket about ten yards behind me up the slope.
Terrified, I turned back to the valley and saw black smoke billowing from the tank. There were shouts coming from the ridge on the other side of the valley. The rocketeer stood up with his arms in the air and was jumping and screaming. Suddenly there was a rush of activity in the village. Men, women and children ran out of their hiding places amidst the houses and surrounded the tank. The Russian who had left in time was running up the ridge towards me. I knelt up and gestured for him to hurry. Then I froze and collapsed down behind the thicket. The Russian, struggling up the craggy slope, stones slipping under his feet, failed to see two men with headscarves were pursuing him. Their speed showed their obvious aptitude for life in the mountains and, concurrently, humiliated the lumbering Russian soldier as he was quickly caught up, beaten and dragged back down the hill. I could have covered him with my rifle but I was too afraid of revealing my position. When he had an opportunity to, my comrade looked back up the mountain to where I rested.

* * * * * * * *

Vassili, sat reminiscing, was disturbed by the dissonant ring of the apartment’s doorbell. His stepmother turned off the kitchen tap,

“That’ll be him, Vassili,” she left to answer the door. Vassili took the bottle of vodka and put it on the floor behind his leg. Then he finished his glass and stood up,

“It’s a shame, you see, I come back from the Urals expecting good weather so near to the Baltic but what do I return to? Unbearable rain!” Natalia and the doctor walked into the kitchen. Vassili picked up his glass and replaced it with a noise so that he was noticed. The doctor immediately stopped his pleasant chatter and turned to face him.
The doctor was short, oriental-looking, with an old-fashioned beard. He wore dark trousers, a white shirt and a brown waistcoat, all of which were too small for him. Natalia looked at the two men,

“Oh, doctor, this is his son, Vassili. And this is Doctor Erschlehvske – he’s been very good to your father.”

“Thank you,” Vassili nodded militarily.

“Those are your boots outside?” Vassili nodded, “I assume that you are on leave from Afghanistan,” the doctor peered at the badges on his patient’s son’s arm,

“Yes, I just completed a tour of duty.”

“So you aren’t a conscript?”

“And how long were you out there?”

“Fourteen months,” interrupted Natalia.

“My goodness! You know I have a friend in the medical corps who says it’s an awful mess down there.” Vassili stiffened up,

“It isn’t so bad, at least, not in the mountains where I am. Your friend probably serves in Kabul where there are civilians and soldiers. So his ordeal would seem worse,”

“So you measure the ordeals of war only by how many soldiers die?”

“I am one…and soldiers are the only ones I meet,” Vassili said indifferently. He felt immature, sustaining the censorship of Afghanistan when Erschlehvske clearly knew exactly what it was truly like.
Natalia, sensing these men were very different, tapped the doctor on his shoulder,

“Doctor, Vassili is very anxious to see his father.” Erschlehvske smiled,

“Of course. I’ll go and rouse him and administer the medication,” he paused, “you both know that there is very little time left.” Vassili’s stepmother nodded slowly but he himself just stared at the floor; it was only the second time he had been told his father was dying. “Right, well, I shan’t be more than five minutes, and then I will return later tonight.”
Natalia smiled meekly and the doctor walked out of the room and down the hall. Vassili sat back in his chair and picked the bottle up off the floor. Natalia watched him, silent. He purposefully avoided her gaze.
“You look a lot like your father, sitting there like that with vodka.” He slammed his glass on the table,

“I shall need a stiff drink to face him,” he replied dryly.
She turned and walked over to the sink again, put on her apron and turned on the kitchen tap to full ferocity to block out any other noise. About thirty seconds passed until Natalia angrily put down the plate she was washing and turned off the tap,

“Is that all you plan to do then? Get drunk, kiss him on the forehead and then ‘back to Afghanistan!’ to fight the Mujaheddin?”

“Would he do any more for me?” Vassili began to knock back glasses of vodka at a faster rate.
“Look at you! That war has turned you into a ghost. You’re so pale! And do you know what else? You’re just like your father was when he came back from fighting the Nazis!” Natalia had been friends with her husband’s first wife – Vassili’s mother – and had known him since before the Second World War. She married him in 1968, when Vassili was sixteen.

“Yes, well, war does that to a man,” Vassili had stood up and was looking out of the window. His stepmother threw a dishcloth onto the kitchen side.

“That’s fine! You can act like you don’t even know me when I answer the door! And you can visit once a year when I know you could come more often! And when you arrive you can drink all the vodka in this house to forget whatever the hell it is that happens to you in Afghanistan! But you will not end it with your father like this! It’s just a waste!”

“A waste of what? He’ll be dead by morning!”

“You would forget all your time together? Your childhood?”

“Childhood! Childhood! What did I do but spend my first sixteen years looking after my mother? And then you two put me in the army and since then I’ve been fighting in Czechoslovakia, Chechnya, Mongolia, Armenia and now Afghanistan! For fifteen years almost! Fifteen! And all that while I’ve had NOTHING to come back to.” He sat down on his chair again. Natalia was briefly silenced,

“You wanted to join the army,”

“I wanted to get away from you,”

“Was it all so unbearable?”

“To watch my mother’s friend usurp her like that? Yes it was.” Natalia gasped at his remark. Vassili, not looking at her, lifted his coat from the back of the chair and put it on.

“What are you doing Vassili?” no answer, “Vassili! Don’t go because of me – just see your father,” her stepson began to walk towards the door…

“Are you leaving?” The doctor’s question checked Vassili in his exit, “Your father waits for you,” he pointed to the door at the end of the corridor that was slightly ajar.
Vassili nodded and smiled. He walked passed the doctor and muttered a few indiscernible words of gratitude, and then he walked on a few more paces before stopping abruptly,

“Oh, Doctor Erschlehvske,”


“Tell your friend in the medical corps that if he says anything else like that about Afghanistan to a civilian then I will report him to the war office.”

* * * * * * * *

My attention darted from the soldier to the T-72. The noise had become insufferable. Dozens of mujas were throwing stones at it while black and grey smoke poured out like blood from a wound. Then an arm plunged up out of the hatch and a man pulled himself out. He was burned. Terribly so. His hair was like water on his head and matted in with the scalp. His face was black from the smoke but I could see the raw skin underneath and that his left eye had been dried out. His clothes were still partly on fire and the poor fellow could barely get off the tank. The mujas didn’t stone him but one of them picked up the cooked Russian and carried him to his comrade, the one who had tried to run to me.
He shouted his friend’s name in horror as he beheld the extent of his burns. Many of the mujas were spitting on them and kicking their heads. The crowd was in such a state of fervour that I shivered with fear just watching the demented fury on their faces (women and children too), through my rifle scope.
Then two more mujas, one could not have been more than thirteen, climbed on top of the tank. One carried a large plastic canister – bright red with a black screw cap – the other a long, thin, old-fashioned rifle. They sat either side of the hatch and waited for pauses in the surge of smoke to look inside. Again, amidst the smoke, a head appeared from the T-72. This one was burnt much worse and was screaming, blinded. The muja with the rifle battered the Russian back inside the vehicle with the butt of his weapon, while the other unscrewed the canister. He began to pour a clear liquid (petroleum!) into the belly of the tank.
Suddenly a great ball of golden fire pounded out of the hatch and sent the two mujas flying off the sides – to the amusement of the mob. The two Russian soldiers, half-beaten to death and lying curled up on the dusty ground, watched despairingly while the screams of the others trapped inside the tank began to die out as the black and grey smoke billowing out increased in severity.

* * * * * * * *

Upon placing his hands on the door handle of his father’s bedroom, Vassili was slapped in the face by a vision of the smouldering T-72.
Temporarily, he paused by the door, rubbed his eyes, and went inside. The room hadn’t changed at all. It was very dark; the curtains (a deep red) were drawn and filled the room with a crimson glass. There was a mahogany armoire by the window with a mirror on it as well as various cosmetics. To the left of this was a small table with a single chair beside it and atop that sat a fragile looking radio.
And then there was the bed, broad and carved from oak, with an awning above it that cast a shadow over its occupant: Vassili’s father.
He was looking at his son. His long face and overhanging cheekbones were grimly lit by a small electric lamp to the side of the bed. A thin grey beard had begun to grow on his face. The old man wore a dressing gown and lay under several blankets that were firmly tucked under the mattress.
“So you got some leave. Good.” Vassili’s father gestured to the far corner of the bed.

“How are you doing?” Vassili put the old radio onto the table and moved the chair to the side of the bed.

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” his father retorted in a way that reminded Vassili of himself.

“Obviously…sorry,” the son took out a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket and lit one. He offered one to his father, who declined, “What, are you worried it’ll kill you?” He let out a wry smile to which his father grinned. The two laughed together, largely just at their situation. The old man, recovering his breath, pulled himself up and leaned back against the bed’s awning.

“Did you speak to your mother?”

“She’s not my mother,” Vassili said ardently. His father groaned,

“For god’s sake boy, when are you going to grow up? She’s been your mother for half your life!”

“The latter half; the pointless half.” Vassili put his feet up on the bed and began to blow smoke rings. He leant slowly back on the chair, “that doctor’s a real blencher. Tried to give me a lecture the ethics of war.”

“Oh he’s a real shit I know. From West Sayan, I think.” Vassili laughed,

“A Mongol! I’m surprised you trust him with your health!” His father grabbed his arm with a strange eccentricity that he hadn’t seen before,

“Erschlehvske’s a good doctor! Whatever he is: a Mongol, a coward or trying to screw my wife, the man knows how to care for the sick.” Vassili’s father considered himself, “You’ll be surprised how much death will change a man.” He relaxed his grip.

“You’re talking to me as though I don’t know about dying, when killing is my vocation.” The old man took his son’s cigarette out of his mouth and began to smoke it.

“So how is the war? I have heard terrible things –”

“From Erschlehvske?”

“Among others.”

“You shouldn’t listen to him. We are winning in the mountains. I admit, in the cities, it is impossible to stop the bombings, but in the mountains, where I am, we have the advantage.” His father looked at him, disbelieving,

“You forget, my boy, that I have fought in a soviet war before. I know how they encourage silence.”

“Why do you assume that I am censoring?” Vassili found it difficult to continue to act as though he wasn’t deeply haunted by his experiences in Afghanistan.

“You forget, Vassili, that I have fought in a soviet war before. I know how badly we fight them.”

“Things are different now. You struggled through Prussia with a moisin nagant slung over your back.” There was a sudden knock on the door.

“What?” both father and son spoke in tandem.

There was a nervous pause from the person who just knocked on the door. Without opening it, they spoke,
“Vassili,” Natalia mewed, “your CO just called. Your leave has been cancelled. He said you have to report to your base in Velostok tonight by six.” Vassili looked at his father thoughtfully and bit on his thumbnail,

“Shit.” he turned back to the door, “What’s the time now?”

“Four thirty.”

“Could you remind me when it is a quarter past five, Natalia?”

“Of course,” her footsteps faded down the corridor. Vassili’s father frowned at him,

“Velostok is nearly two hours away at this time of year. You’ll be late.”

“We shan’t go until the morning. And besides, this is the first leave my regiment has had in six months. Do you think the others will be so punctual?” Vassili was reluctant to tell his father that he was risking a court martial by being late. He was beginning to find some kind of comfort in the idea that this man, one who he had never been very close to, could perhaps keep him from the war he had come to fear and despise so much. Equally, Vassili knew how irrational and infantile that new found comfort was.

“If you’re sure. I won’t have you being flogged on my account.”

“I’m sure.”

“So…” his father rubbed his hands together, “speak to me honestly my boy, a son to his father, and tell me what the war has been like.”

“What do you want to know?” Vassili grew suddenly uncomfortable. The room, which was already very warm, became airless and stifling.

“Well, I don’t know a thing, you always keep it to yourself. I don’t even know what your regiment is called.”

“I can’t tell you that.” The old man smiled at his son’s formality,

“Of course. Well then tell me about your enemies, the…mujaheddin?” Vassili took his feet off the bed and turned, facing his father, and wiped the sweat forming on his forehead with his sleeve. “Or, can you not talk about that either?” Vassili took out another cigarette and lit it. “Look, my boy, if you aren’t at ease talking about your war then don’t force yourself –”

“They’re good. At what they do, they’re very good. The word ‘mujaheddin’ is Kurdish for,” he hesitates, accessing his troubled memory, “for ‘man of freedom’. They fight like animals; instinctive, frenzied. We have the weapons: T-72s, rockets, migs and enough ammunition to blow the shit out of anything that moves.” Vassili gestured emphatically with his hands as he described the firepower at the disposal of the Soviet Army. “But it counts for nothing in that bastard country. The mountains limit the movement of our tanks terribly, the migs cannot navigate in the constant clouds and I have gone two weeks with no supplies twice this year!” His father took the cigarette from his mouth. As he inhaled he concentrated his eyes on the glowing tip and then chuckled,

“Typical Soviet logistics. You know,” his father began on one of those tales of the eastern front that he used to hate so much, although now he had experienced a war himself they seemed less wearisome, “there was a time in the war when I was stuck on the banks of the Don for five weeks without any ammunition or food. The only thing that saved us was that the Germans had less.”

“Less? I thought the Krauts were always one up on us and that’s why we did so well to beat them back.”

“Oh god no! The Wehrmacht was a disgrace as soon as Volgograd had resisted. I remember we used to throw our rotten food to them when we were near enough.”

“Really! Did they eat it?” Vassili was finding himself strangely interested in what the old man was telling him. He was sure that he had heard this before but it now possessed a significance that was not there when his father would gaudily recount his experiences as a soldier of the Red Army in Vassili’s youth.
“No,” he grinned malevolently in the light of the electric lamp, showing more of that unnerving eccentricity, “because we would follow the food…with a grenade for dessert.” His son snorted once, amused but ashamed at being so.


Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Jumbo at 18:27 on 27 June 2004  Report this post


I think this has great potential as the start of much longer piece. I take it you have plans for it.

But I think it does need some tidying p and some heavy editing. Have you tried reading it out loud - or, better still, have someone else read to out lod to you?

A couple of examples where the piece needs looking at.

“You idiot! This is my granddaughter!”

“I…I am sorry I didn’t see you, madam, I wasn’t concentra-,” she pushed him backwards furiously...
Who is speaking here is not entirely clear until you re-read the paragraphs. And the reader shouldn't have to do that! Normally actions attached to speech relate to the person who spoke the words -but of course this si a rule - and rules can of ourse be broken.

In from the cupboard above the sink, dried a glass that was in it Was the glass in the cupboard - or the sink?

You might think about removing the parantheses in liquid (petroleum!) into and the curtains (a deep red). It sounds like the author coming through, feeding the reader with extra information.

And there is a repetition of the phrase “You forget, my boy, that I have fought in a soviet war before. Or something very similar. I'm not sue that the repetition works. Do you really need it?

I hope you don't mind me banging on a bit - but you have said, Go on, I can take it!

In any case, these are small points, and this is a great story - with great potential

All the best


halfwayharry at 19:30 on 27 June 2004  Report this post
I found this interesting and engaging. I agree with Jumbo. I don't know how you write but the main thing that I have learned is to write something then put it away for a period of time, go back to it and edit it.

I note from your profile that you are 16 so am highly impressed with your writing.


Becca at 22:08 on 29 June 2004  Report this post
Hi Christian, I liked the idea of a withered road a lot. Is this a short story or the start of a novel? If it's a short story I feel that the characters I'd want to be watching are Vassili and Natalia, I think having three different set-ups even if they come together at the end is tough, and that you could tell the story through one of them. Because of the dialogue between the people in Natalia's house, I found them the most alive of your characters. Hope this helps. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .