What war does to people

 

 

 

 So, although it was a sad shock, it was not altogether a surprise when the six republics which made up Yugoslavia began to show restlessness and, in due course, a desire for independence.  Having friends in all parts of the country, it was wretched to read reports of what was happening, and no where was it worse than in the republic of Bosnia Herzegovina, once known as the most liberal of them all.  And so, eventually, I found myself wondering what would happen if a child from Sarajevo, its benighted capital, were to be fostered by a couple in an English village.  So the first book was born.

Because of my great age, my childhood was during World War Two.   This experience was not merely of a disaster scenario that made for an exciting childhood;  it also made me more interested in how ordinary people coped with extraordinary events.  I became particularly interested in  the strong principle of cause and effect and war offers some unexpected as well as obvious examples.  Since 'my' war conflicts may have become m0re localised but they have also become nastier.

 

     

 

 

 

"There were about 50 small children.  They had been collected into one large dormitory to make the most of whatever warmth and light were available.  Most were in bed but some of the smallest had clambered out and were squatting on the floor, sucking their thumbs, rocking to and fro.  But noiselessly.  It was the silence of so many children in one place that was unnerving:  a kind of resignation more suited to a home for the elderly.

      Jovanka spoke sharply in Serbo-Croat to a girl standing in the middle of the room.  Her head was down, her face concealed by a dark lank curtain of hair andshe clutched a book.  Jovanka sighed.  "She is supposed to be helping me .... I ask her to make sure they stay in bed where it is warm now that it is dangerous to play outside.  But..."  She shrugged.

    Mike went over to the child, crouching down beside her.  Instinctively he pushed back the curtain of hair.

I called it Another Kind of Loving to indicate the kind of a loving a mother would have that enabled her to send her child to live with strangers abroad to protect her from the tit-for-tat of a Civil War.  So my hero Mike visited an orphanage in the war-torn city of Sarajevo and this was his experience:

She flinched but did not draw away until he tried to look at her book when she stepped back, clutching it harder and and glared ferociously at him.  She had dark eyes, a sallow unhealthy complexion and he saw then that she was older than he had first thought - perhaps eleven, twelve.... 

       "Her father was killed by a sniper;  Branka, her mother, is now very sick.  She is an old friend, from long ago, and asked if Jasminka should come here.  To be safer.  To help me...."  She paused.  "Branka is a Serb.  Jasminka's father Ismet was a Bosniak, a Moslem.  She was playing outside and he had gone to fetch her...."  She shrugged.  "I forget to make allowances.  But when tragedy is the norm...."

Because of several active decades in travel writing I've had the good fortune to visit some amazing places and meet some equally amazing people.  Some of them had been through 'my' war, many of them in what has come to be known as the 'former Yugoslavia, which I came to know very well over many visits.

  I also came to know the complex history which had divided its peoples for centuries respectively between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, thus laying the foundations of problems to come long before they became the nation of Yugoslavia following the First World War, which saw the end of both empires.

Perhaps because I had been thinking about them for a long time, my characters began to take over.  To some extent and because of his frequent absences Mike and his wife Sara had drifted apart, and she had a slight resentment  when he made the decision to bring the child back to England after rather little consultation.  Jasminka - who soon renames herself Minkie - becomes largely Sara's responsibility, though the child settles surprisingly well in the village and becomes especially attached to the elderly Justin.  Minkie learns that her mother has been killed in Sarajevo, Sara resumes a relationship from her past, and then Minkie acquires an American boyfriend, though refuses to make plans with him until she has revisited Sarajevo.  Her visit there coincides with 9/11 prompting new decisions at the end of the book.

.........   but what happened to Minkie ?

I had some helpful reviews.  Online reviewer The Bookbag wrote:  This hooked me, reeled me in and wouldn't let me go until ....the last page."

It was even more encouraging when readers began to ask, "But what happened to Minkie?"  So I decided to write a sequel which dealt with the same characters, as well as new ones, and featured not only the effects of 9/ll but those of the two World Wars.  It begins during the long march across a dwindling Germany in the early months of 1945 when one of the characters sees a friend succumb to friendly fire.  Pete and Jake are new characters, but Pete is married to a lass in Daerley Green, the village that became the scene for Another Kind of Loving.  The description of the march is very much based on my George's experience of it.

 

 

    "After  weeks  of marching,  first  east,  then west,  then  east  again they resumed a westerly course.   The whole world seemed to be on  the  move:  retreating  German  soldiers,  entire  communities emptying  in  panic  ahead  of  the  advancing  Russians,  and  the occupants  of  scores  of  prisoner-of-war  camps  herded  this  way and that for no clear purpose. 

    They  were  all  starving  and  exhausted.    Hunger  was  as much  part  of  them  as  drawing  the  next  breath  or  putting  one weary  foot  in  front  of  the  next.    Jake’s  septic  foot  was  worse every  day.    Pete  carried  his  pack  most  of  the  time.    They’d supported  each  other  for  two  years  in  the  camp;    there was  no question of them separating now.

    Jake still fretted about seeing his Annie again.

   “Don’t be bloody stupid,” Jake said, not at all sure that he would.  “We’ll be home in a few days.”

    That  seemed  to  satisfy  Pete.    He  looked  up  at  the  sky, buzzing  with  even  more  activity  than  usual.    Ahead  the  track followed the edge of a wood, but here it cut across open fields.   

     "Hey look at ours!" Pete exclaimed.  Circling above them several plans became recognisably Typhoons, the red  white and blue circles clearly visible.  "God it must be great to be flying up there!"

         In  disbelief  Jake  saw  the  puffs  of  smoke  from  under  the  wings. “Get  down  Pete,  for God’s  sake,”  he  yelled,  but  Pete was  still standing,  cheering when  he was  hit  in  the  stomach,  spun  round and  fell,  his  head  in  Jake’s  lap.   Death must have been instantaneous.

     “Bastards,”  Jake  screamed.    “Bastards,  bastards, bastards.”  He  cradled  Pete’s  head,  shifting  to ease the pain in his bad foot, and saw his tears of fury and grief fall on to his friend’s fair head."

Following the end of World War Two, austerity and a developing Cold War, a new generation wanted to change things and gradually it transpired that All We Needed Was Love, with a little help from alcohol or, increasingly, drugs.  Communes became quite popular, so I decided to touch upon this phenomenon in the last book of my trilogy - something which was to affect the live of my 'hero' Mike by casting 'Long Shadows'.

The main theme of this is a hinted at the beginning of the book:  that something happened in Mike's youth which made him responsible for the death of another boy.  There are also tensions in his marriage and the gradual realisation that he may be getting too fond of his foster daughter.   Minkie also has her own problems.  The book concentrates mainly on the mystery itself and the complexity of relationships.

Each of the later books was written because a number of readers asked 'But what happened next?'  I thought I had provided all the answers until a few years later I was asked this question once again.  By then my life had changed completely - I was widowed, living in a retirement complex, and thinking of trying my hand at a mystery book for the first time.  So, when asked this question and after struggling on exactly how I was going to tackle it, I went back to Mike and Minkie and the curious way the world had been developing in the interim.  And re-reading these books, I thought how well they might be turned into a trilogy in which each book could still be read separately, but which could also be read consecutively.  And so 'Distant Echoes'was born and, hopefully, will be available as a paperback during the autumn of 2018.

And maybe there will be a fourth book finally to complete this tale of what war does to people.