“You see the hill behind the shoe factory?” Lieutenant Milo asked. 

  I squinted through the shattered window of the office block that we were using as a temporary command post.

  I could see a building with a giant shoe on top of it, somewhat shot-up and, beyond it, a hill covered with trees.

  “I see it,” I said. 

  “The other side of that hill,” Lieutenant Milo continued, “there’s a bridge across the river.  We need to know what strength the Militia are holding it in.”

  I asked him why we didn’t just send a chopper over to take a look.

  “We did,” he replied.  “Never came back.”

  Before I could suggest sending another, as if reading my mind, he said, “HQ vetoed sending another.”

  I suggested a drone.

  Lieutenant Milo shook his head.  “We’re too far down the pecking order.  HQ has bigger fish to fry.”

  “But they still want the intel.”  I completed Lieutenant Milo’s sentence for him.

  “You got it.”

  I continued to gaze at the hill, saying nothing.  It was just a hill, covered in trees.  I grew up near a hill covered in trees.  But this was a hill covered in trees in a war zone.  Not the same thing.

  “I want you to take two men with you and get that intel,” Lieutenant Milo continued.

  “So we just rock-up to the bridge and ask the first Militia we meet what strength they’ve got?”

  “That’s one option,” Lieutenant Milo replied, ignoring my scepticism.  “Or,” handing me three pairs of nightsight goggles, “you could take these with you for tonight.”


  “Tonight,” he confirmed.  “We need that intel ASAP.  Young man like you, if you set off now you should make the top of the hill by nightfall, find a spot where you can observe the bridge from and make yourselves a comfortable little bivouac, but not too comfortable – your mission isn’t to find the best place to sleep up there.”

  In my experience bivouacs are rarely too comfortable, but I didn’t say so.  Instead, I said, “Our mission is to do the math, as our American friends say.”

  “Exactly,” Lieutenant Milo replied.  “And don’t forget to come back with the intel.”

  It was his way of telling me to be careful.


  I decided to take Tomasz and Valod with me, Tomasz because he could speak the local lingo, which is always an advantage.

  “And why me?” Valod asked when I gave him his goggles.

  I told him it was because he could count.

  “Yeah,” he replied, “that’s the first thing they teach you when you start a maths degree.”


  It was getting on for noon when we set out, a little later than I would have liked, but I was sure that we would reach our objective as planned.

  “We could run the first few clicks,” Valod suggested enthusiastically, sprinting ahead.

  Tomasz and I weren’t so keen.  We held back, Valod soon slowed down and we caught up with him.


  My plan was to stick to the road as far as the village of Strelno, then find a path that would take us to within fifty metres or so of the top of the hill.  At that point we would leave the path and make our way through the trees until we found a suitable spot to set up our observation post.  The others agreed, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm, that it was an excellent plan that would probably win the war.


  It was early June, so pretty warm by mid-afternoon and our pace had begun to slacken.  I would have liked to have rested by the side of the road in the shade, but I was becoming increasingly concerned by our late start, so we pressed on, consuming our rations on the move.

  Tomasz was the only one who smoked, and smoked heavily – cigarillos with a plastic holder.  He was also the youngest, but he was the one who found the going the most difficult.  I thought that the cigarillos might have something to do with it.

  “How many’s that?” I asked as he lit another.

  He shrugged.  I think that he genuinely didn’t know.

  “Ten,” Valod answered.

  “You’re counting?”  Tomasz looked offended.  He must have felt like he was out for a walk with his father and older brother.

  “It’s why I’m here,” Valod answered.

  “Oh, yeah,” Tomasz said, “you’re the brainy one, the one with the maths degree.”

  “Except I never got it, thanks to our neighbours deciding to start a war.”

  I told Tomasz to enjoy his cigarillos while he could: “Because once we bivouac, I don’t want you giving our position away with them.”

  He took a longer than usual drag and blew out a cloud of smoke with a satisfied sigh.


  By the time Tomasz had smoked his cigarillo we were half a click from Strelno and about to leave the road when a figure appeared up ahead.  It was a sprightly elderly woman and she was hurrying towards us.

  We immediately trained our weapons on her.

  She raised her hands and shouted something.

  I asked Tomasz to translate.

  “She’s telling us not to shoot.”

  “They always do,” Valod muttered.  “Then boom.”

  I wondered if he really was as hard-bitten as he liked to make out, if he really would shoot if the old woman didn’t follow Tomasz’s instructions.  I don’t know if I would have.  I told Tomasz to tell her not to come any closer.

  She slowed, but continued to come towards us.

  I ordered Tomasz to repeat the instruction.

  “Tell her!” Valod reinforced the order.

  Tomasz repeated the instruction.

  This time she stopped and stood in the middle of the road, her hands still raised.

  “Tell her she can put her hands down,” I called to Tomasz, “but keep them where we can see them.”

  As he spoke, Tomasz walked towards her, his weapon lowered.

  “Keep your weapon up!” Valod shouted.

  They spoke together for several minutes, then Tomasz called over his shoulder, “She says there’s a sniper in Strelno.  Taking pot shots at the locals.”

  “Anyone hit?”

  “Only the priest.”


  “Just a flesh wound.  Grazed his arse.  She says she’s never heard such language from a priest.”

  “But he’ll live?”

  “Yeah.  He’ll need a cushion for a while, though.”

  “Not our problem, sir,” Valod said.  It was the first time that either of them had called me sir.

  Then from Tomasz: “What shall I tell her, sir?”

  Now he, too, was calling me sir.  I took it as a sign that things were getting a little hairy.

  I glanced at Valod.  He shook his head.

  “They need help,” Tomasz continued.

  “It’s not part of the mission,” Valod reminded me, unnecessarily.  “And we’re already behind schedule.”  Another unnecessary reminder.

  Tomasz repeated, “What shall I tell her, sir?”

  What should he tell her?  I’d no idea.

  For some inexplicable reason I told him to ask her her name, as if that would some how resolve the situation.

  “Karèn,” was the reply.

  “Tell her,” I began, “tell Karèn….” 

  But I couldn’t think what he should tell her.

  “Tell her what, sir?” 

  Tomasz was becoming increasingly agitated.

  I glanced at Valod again.  If I was hoping for support, I didn’t get it.  He studiously ignored me and continued to stare fixedly along the barrel of his weapon at Karèn.

  I called to Tomasz, “Tell her we would like to help, but….”

  “But what, sir?”

  “But we have a mission to complete.  An important mission.  Tell her….tell her….we’ll be back….or we’ll send help….tomorrow, hopefully….if we can.” 

  A slight smile from Valod indicated that he was happy with my answer, but I knew how it would sound to Karèn: vague, empty, mealy-mouthed.

  Tomasz and Karèn spoke again for a few minutes, then Tomasz re-joined us, with Karèn a few paces behind.

  He clearly had something to tell me, but didn’t know how to begin.

  “What is it?” I asked.

  TOMASZ: She wants to come with us.

  ME: No way!

  TOMASZ: She says she’ll be our guide.

  ME: Tell her we’ve got Google Maps.

  He told her, and she answered.

  TOMASZ: She wants to know if Google Maps will show us where the Militia have laid mines.

  VALOD: We can’t take passengers, sir.  Anyway, she’s only offering because she knows it’ll make us feel obliged to go for the sniper once the mission’s over.

  TOMASZ: She wouldn’t be a passenger.  She knows these hills, these woods like the back of her hand, been roaming them since she was a child.  She looks pretty fit, sir.  I mean….well, you know….fit like she could….

  ME: I know what you mean, Tomasz.

  I also knew how intimately you get to know hills and woods by roaming them from childhood and how useful that knowledge could be to us now. 

  VALOD: We’ve only brought enough rations for us three, sir.

  TOMASZ: For God’s sake, look at her.  She looks like she eats like a bird.  We can spare a few scraps.

  VALOD: You can spare a few scraps if you like.  Me, I….

  Then I suddenly made a decision.  I don’t know what it was based on.  We hadn’t exactly had a lengthy discussion or considered all the angles.  It was as if a coin had been flipped in my brain and decided me.

  “She’s coming with us,” I said.

  It was one of my better decisions, and – who knows? – perhaps it did win the war, as the others had joked that an earlier decision might.  It probably saved our lives, too.


  We were nearing the top of the hill when Karèn suddenly stopped and motioned to us to do the same and to say nothing.  Slowly, silently, without so much as snapping a twig underfoot, she edged towards Tomasz and whispered in his ear.  One after another the rest of us gathered round them.

  “She says there are some bad guys a hundred metres to our left,” Tomasz translated.

  Valod snorted, dubious.

  None of us could see any bad guys.

  “She can smell them,” Tomasz told us.

  Valod sniffed the air, displaying his scepticism of what he took to be Karèn’s claim to have some quasi-mystical ability to detect the enemy: “I can’t smell them.”

  Tomasz looked enquiringly at me.  I got the impression that he was inclined to think that Karèn was right.

  What did we have to lose?  If she was right, we could save ourselves a whole lot of trouble by dealing with the bad guys.  If she was wrong, we’d gone a few metres out of our way, lost a few minutes.  I gave the order to move fifty metres to the left, Valod on point.  Because he could count.

  She was right.  After a few paces Valod indicated that he’d spotted them.  The rest of us edged forward and a few moments later we saw them.  There were two of them, leaning against a tree, smoking.  That was Karèn’s ability – nothing mystical, just a nose for the distinctive aroma of the enemy’s cigarettes.  Passing Cloud: not available in Strelno, smoked by every enemy soldier.

  Of all the things that happened in the war – in war – what followed sticks in my mind more than anything else.  Dying for a smoke.  What an irony.  No, actually, there is something else, but I’ll come to that later.


  An hour later we’d set-up our observation post.  My decision to let Karèn come with us had been justified.  Even Valod had warmed to her.  Despite his earlier reluctance, he offered to share his rations with her, but she declined, eating berries and mushrooms instead and drinking from a stream.  Tomasz was right: she ate like a bird.  And, while we took turns on duty, she stayed awake all night, counting militia.

  “She’s quite an old lady,” Valod conceded as dawn broke.  We’d completed our mission and we wanted to get away before the militia realised that they were two men short.

  “She also cooks,” Tomasz told us.  “As you’ll see when we get back to Strelno.”

  Ah, yes.  Strelno.


  The local priest was a big man with a beard, an Old Testament attitude to vengeance, and a hunting rifle, which he didn’t hesitate to use, especially after the sniper had grazed his backside.

  “The bastard’s in the beekeeper’s house,” he told us.  “Top floor, third window from the right.”

  So, not just a priest, but a good scout as well.

  “I think I wounded him.”

  A decent shot, too.


  But we couldn’t simply trade shots with the sniper until one or other of us got tired of it or only one of us was left.  We had to go in, flush him out, get down and dirty, call it what you will.  And that wasn’t a job for the priest, or Karèn, come to that.  It was a job for Valod, Tomasz and myself.

  I asked the priest how many doors the house had.

  “Two.  One at the front, one at the back.”

  I told the others to take the back door.  I would go in through the front.

  The priest offered to give us covering fire.

  I said ok.  “But keep your head down.  This isn’t The Gunfight at the O. K. Corral.  This is the real thing.”


  So that’s how we did it - Valod and Tomasz in through the back door, me through the front, and the priest keeping the sniper busy with an impressive number of shots.


  I was first up the stairs.  I had to be.  The others followed.

  The door to the sniper’s room was slightly ajar.  He sat in a rocking-chair which he’d put at an angle to the window, a World War Two Lee Enfield across his lap.  Blood dripped onto the floor.

  He didn’t seem surprised or alarmed as I stepped into the room.  He turned to me, almost smiled, then slowly, casually began to raise the Lee Enfield to his shoulder.  Too slowly, too casually to be a hostile act, but not surrendering, appearing to invite death.

  The impact of my bullet drove him back into the chair, which began to rock and creak.  Something fell from a pocket and fluttered to the floor.

  The others entered.  Valod picked up whatever had fallen to the floor and handed it to me.

  It was a colour photo, now somewhat faded.

  It showed a young woman on the beach, ankle-deep in the sea.  She faced the camera beneath a sign that read CAMPARI.  She wore a bikini.

  I turned it over and read KARÈN.  ITALY.  1980.


  You might think it a little insensitive that an hour later the five of us were in Karèn’s kitchen eating boar sausage and borscht and being plied with vodka, but we were.  The response of the villagers helped overcome any sense of guilt, of waste, the madness of it all.  They were relieved and overjoyed, even more so when they heard about the two militiamen on the hill.  They crowded round us as if we were film stars or the team that had won the World Cup.  Perhaps that’s why I forgot about the photo until we were in Karèn’s kitchen.


  It was when I noticed an empty photo frame on the kitchen dresser that I remembered it.  The frame was just the right size for the photo.

  I handed the photo to Karèn and asked if she was the woman in it.

  She was.

  I assumed that the sniper had stolen it, but Karèn shook her head.

 “She gave it to him,” Tomasz told us.

  “It’s not giving if it’s at gunpoint,” Valod said.

  “It wasn’t at gunpoint.”

  “You mean she just gave it to him?” I asked.

  “A long time ago.  Before the war.  When he was just a boy.”

  “She knew him?”

  “He was called Mikel.  He was often here, sitting at the table like we are now.  Then, one year she went on holiday to Italy.  That’s when the photo was taken.  When she came back, she put the photo in the frame and put it on the dresser.  He was intrigued by it.  The sign.  CAMPARI.  The sea.  He’d never seen the sea.  When the family moved away, she gave it to him.  He must have kept it with him, even when their two countries became enemies.”

  We all fell silent.  The madness of it all had got to us.  It does that.  It creeps up on you, takes you unawares.

  Then Valod murmured, “She knew him.  She bloody knew him.”

  “Oh, yes,” the priest replied.  “She knew him.  He was her grandson.”

  That’s what I was going to tell you about, the thing that sticks in my mind more than anything else, more even than what happened on the hill.  It was that.  He was her grandson.