Four by Four, by Richard Gibney
by Richard Gibney
(This short story was featured on Ireland’s RTE’s short story season back in 2011.)
A mortar, launched from hundreds of yards behind Edward Greenway, goes off in front of him, spattering huge quantities of sand. As the smoke clears, he clumsily falls into the crater that the mortar has created. A second bomb lands, covering the first crater.
“Like the first crater was never there,” his friend says, years later.
Watching from a trawler so close to the beach that it is in danger of running aground, Quentin Colton suddenly feels violently ill. He vomits over the bow. The boat chugs out onto the dark sea.
Four months later, fire consumes rival butchershops belonging to Big Jim Merriman and Victor Slade. Strands of fire meet in an arc above the two men’s buildings to form a blazing handshake. Victor built his shop from nothing. Big Jim’s business has been in the family for generations. Both bewildered men sob on the street as they look on. Sizzling meat wafts on the air. Sirens wail.
A plane’s silver outline, stark against the velvet, dips out of the searchlights’ range, untouched by cannons.
A middle-aged father looks at the crimson night from his family’s doorless bomb shelter. An incendiary falls from heaven, illuminated by exploding flak. The man turns to his two boys, telling them to be good. With a bang, shrapnel tears into the man’s back. Lifeless, he slumps into the shelter.
Quentin sprints down the street, flames licking him from either side.
Jim Merriman and Victor Slade stand in the distance. Three huge explosions tear up shards of tarmac, blowing walls of a nearby building outwards. Quentin is hurled into a pile of rubble. He looks up. The men are gone, replaced by a smoking hole.
Quentin sees flashes. Uncertain if the flashes are bomb blasts or concussion, he reaches the street of his family home, now a fiery shell. With panicked eyes accentuated by the conflagration, Florence Merriman appears, asking where her father is.
Four years later, bullets ping off metal all around Quentin. Two bodies lie beside him. Throwing himself overboard, his head breaks the surface. He sees concussion flashes again. An amphibious tank alongside him blasts at the shore. Quentin wades towards the beach as fellow infantrymen fall. Dropping to one knee in the sea mud and pointing his dripping rifle, he sees a flash from the hill above the beach. He aims. He squeezes the trigger.
A soldier falls, his machine gun sliding innocuously aside. A second German soldier appears. Quentin shoots. The second soldier falls. Quentin sees another flash, directly ahead. He fires. A third soldier collapses, atop his cannon. A fourth German replaces the third. Quentin shoots again. The German’s head pops like a firecracker and his body falls.
Quentin shoots at each flash, hitting a soldier each time. He empties his own and picks up a second rifle. Hours later, when the beach has been seized, Quentin rounds up disarmed Germans, putting them in groups of four. He stands behind the sixteen kneeling men. He plunges a knife into the nape of the first, twisting the dagger furiously.
“Victor Slade!” Quentin roars. The soldier falls forward.
“Jim Merriman!” he shouts, stabbing a second.
“Vanessa Talworth!” He stabs another.
“My fooking father!”
Quentin moves to the next four, shouting a name at the back of each man’s head before he thrusts. His sergeant looks on as German soldiers collapse with dull thumps on wet sand. The sergeant clutches a limp arm as he sits on the beach smoking, a tin cup of tea beside him.
The sergeant inhales hard on his cigarette. He taps the ash onto the sand. Then he tells Quentin to stop. Quentin doesn’t hear him. The sergeant does not repeat the order.
Standing over the last body, Quentin’s chest heaves. Some of his colleagues look at him with a mixture of pity and fear.
Forty years pass. Quentin is watching the sunset on a beach. The night before, he fought with a fat man. The women resolved the drunken argument.
The same large man passes briskly. Nodding at Quentin, the man smiles and waves.
“Hallo, my guht friend!” the man shouts.
The tiny pinpricks of sweat on the German’s forehead resemble a constellation in the gap between his hairline and eyebrows. Sand crunches under his sandals. Quentin follows him. The German takes the path off the beach.
The German had been on several bombing missions over England, but he had lost family in Hamburg “when Mister Churchill returned the favour.” He had told Quentin the night before how very sorry he was.
Quentin was only sorry for his own father’s death at the door of the bomb shelter while shielding his teenage brothers: One brother now buried on Italy’s toe, the other in Singapore. He had argued with the fat German.
Now, Quentin stands behind him on the clifftop. The German turns, surprised, his forehead flashing its beads of sweat invitingly. Quentin hasn’t seen the flashes in years.
“Edward Greenway,” Quentin utters.
Quentin’s partner calls him from the beach below.
“Pardon?” the German asks, with panicked eyes. “Your Frau is calling. It is your retirement holiday, yes? You should be with your…wife?”
“We don’t need the blessing of a God who…” Quentin stops himself. The German waits, holding his breath.
“Eddie Greenway fell into a hole, see? Next thing, a second bomb lands nearby, covering the first crater completely. Like the first crater was never there.” Quentin stares towards the sea. “Eddie is gone. Six foot under, just like that.”
Florence Merriman comes up the hill to stand between them. She clears her throat.
“Come back to the chalet, darling. We can all hear the two of you,” Florence says, taking Quentin’s trembling hand.
They return to the beach cabin, passing a group that includes the fat German’s much younger wife and their two blond children. The silence is only broken by lapping surf. The German’s wife returns Quentin’s stony glare with an expression of pity and fear.