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War Game. By John Atkins.

            A man named Horace sat on his embroidered sofa, staring intently at the floor. He was in middle-age, perhaps forty-five, with a bushy head of white hair, prominent cheekbones and unnatural juicy lips which he licked from time to time. He was utterly engrossed in what was happening on the floor, or perhaps we should say what was not happening on the floor.

            This was very strange for you might have expected him to be engrossed, if in anything, in the furious hubbub that was going on outside. It sounded like a battle, and that was what it was, and so loud were the explosions, so frightening the scream of shells which were passing overhead, that this man, Horace, exhibited a kind of perversity in ignoring them.

            Perhaps he was bored into some kind of mental paralysis. He didn’t look the heroic kind, no gun-slinger or hit-man he, more like a clerk in the Ministry of pensions. So what was it on the floor?

            Well, and it sounds a bit like an anti-climax, and a feeble one at that, but it was also a battle. Yes, another battle! But a quiet one, with toy soldiers, all plastic and very realistic, if polite. But it was a strange thing to find this man Horace so bound up in his toy soldiers and at the same time ignoring the Armageddon that appeared to be going on outside.

            It was possible that his mind was unhinged, that it had swung to indifference. The medical profession admits the possibility of this. It was certainly odd that his toys seemed more real than the blood-and-thunder men outside.

            Here, perhaps, lies a clue. The men outside, though noisy and obviously possessing enormous power, were unseen. And the toy men were very much to be seen. And they were beautiful. They were arranged in ranks, and each rank had its own uniform, traditions, memories, battle honours and probably regimental marches. There were Scotsmen in kilts of the Gordon clan, there were Foreign Legion Zouaves, there were Uhlans and extraordinary horsemen with wings! There were even a few Red Indians grasping Tomahawks. Tanks, too, but they were kept behind the others. Presumably back-up troops, which suggested that Horace had very little idea of how troops should be used. The use of troops is of first importance, whether in the field (meaning streets) or on the floor. And very soon Horace was to learn that lesson. It began with a thumping on his door.

            This seemed to irritate Horace. “There’s no need to thump,” he shouted. “It’s open,” and then he muttered to himself, “I distrust politeness.”

            Into the room tumbled a lean and ragged soldier in what people call a flak-jacket, a uniform not represented in Horace’s army. The stranger (whose name and rank were Corporal Arthur Coulson, and whose number was 1576226) tumbled because he was wounded in the leg (the right leg). It was not a dangerous wound, flesh wound they call it – unless, of course, gangrene set in, in which case it would be more than dangerous, possibly fatal. But that’s tomorrow. Someone had cut his trouser leg away and bound the wound with a piece of blue shirt.

            “Sit down,” said Horace. He continued to stare at his battle.

            For a moment the corporal stared at Horace just as intently as Horace stared at  his battle, then sank heavily on to the sofa. “You seem to expect me,” he said.     Horace then looked away from his battle, looked at Arthur Coulson, and with the trace of a sneer, said, “Why shouldn’t I?”

            It was a question that demanded no answer.

            Suddenly and unexpectedly the corporal laughed. “I can tell you’ve never been in a war,” he said, pointing at the battle. “That formation is ridiculous.”

            “Ridiculous?” asked Horace. “It seems to work for me.”

            “Look at those tanks. What are they doing there?” He gave Horace a searching look and said, “Have you got air coverage?”

            “It’s not that kind of battle,” Horace said petulantly. “It’s a proper battle.” Arthur laughed, then winced as his leg gave a twinge, and then bent down to re-arrange some of Horace’s soldiers. But he stopped suddenly and swept a Uhlan aside. “That’s where I was cut down!”

            This infuriated Horace. He stuck out a foot and swept aside all within range – Uhlans, Gordons, Zouaves, Red Indians and a few First World War Lewis gunners and Camel Corps. “No-one was cut down,” he shouted. “It’s all pretence, all meaningless.”

            Arthur blinked in astonishment. “So my leg is meaningless, is it?” he said, and his face crumpled for a moment as if he were about to cry.

            Horace was now on the floor, re-arranging his demoralised forces. He looked up and asked, “Is that any better?”

            Arthur scrutinised the new order very carefully. “Yes. Better,” he said. He even smiled. “I think you’ve got a victory there.”

            “Like Cromwell at Dunbar?” asked Horace.

            Arthur ignored this pretentious bit of academic erudition. He stood up and walked across the room, slowly at first, then, stamping the foot attached to his wounded leg, more quickly.

            “Yes, it’s definitely better,” he said. His eyes drooped and he looked malignant. “And do you think that makes you superior?”

            “Superior?” asked Horace. He rose to his feet. “I play, you – work, do you call it? Work and die, play and live. Who decides?”

            Arthur opened his mouth to reply, possibly with a crushing rejoinder. Perhaps he was about to reduce Horace and his pretensions to rubble. Perhaps he was about to pierce his deplorable complacency, or what he felt was deplorable complacency (for, when one considers it, he knew very little about Horace’s mental or moral state, one doesn’t get very far in two or three minutes’ scrappy conversation), and reveal Horace for what he was, that is –

            But in fact he didn’t for the complete wall collapsed, the bricks crashed down with a shower of dust and smoke, and in a matter of seconds there was nothing but ruin. Under a weight of rubble the whole room and all its contents were broken. No, not all. The soldiers were not broken, for plastic doesn’t break. Arthur did. The irony is that he never knew whether Horace did.


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