So, it has come to this, the dust and heat and diesel smut, the smell of the men next to him, unwashed since they stopped by that creek and bathed. There are three of them with V. Let’s call them Tom, Dick and Harry. Heat and dust, their heads and mouths swaddled with scarves. Rifles held, catches on. The line of pick-ups, behind them, ahead of them. The sun stripping back the sky with white immensity. Dogs and boys chasing in their wake.
They had taken V’s passport. No need for it. No going back. V will fight and there will be a special place for him. If he goes back, he’ll be locked up. If he goes back he’ll be hunted. His family died as he crossed the border. He will not return to them. These are his certainties. V might believe in them, only he can’t quite, not always, not always believe. He thinks of the kid they made him shoot. The kid they’d caught crossing back. He was French. He was wearing a pair of Nikes, new ones. Someone had made him take them off before V pulled the trigger, shame to get blood on them. The rifle kicked and bruised V’s shoulder. Got to hold it tighter. Like this.
There are mountains in the distance. He doesn’t know their names. A hint of green that makes him think of moors back home. The villages they pass are deserted, the fields untilled. They are waved through checkpoints, the convoy hardly slowing. They stop at a ruined airfield to pray and share out water. The heat rises off metal and tarmac in a giant yawn.
V thinks of the girls in his school laughing, whispering behind their hands. He is too much of a good-goody. When victory comes he will choose a wife. His teacher said V has a good future, university, anything he wants if he studies hard. What did he know? A bit of posh, a southerner, roughing it for a year or two in the academies. It was in his eyes that he thought he was better. That’s the way it is back home, everyone acting like they’re better than V.
Tom and Dick are from the same town. They look like brothers. Harry is three years older. He has light brown hair and blue eyes. V thinks he is a little simple. It’s Playstation 3, he says, levelling his rifle. When they reach the lines, they’ll be first to deploy. Cars and trucks litter the roadside, burnt out. Armoured vehicles peeled open. Villages of rubble and wire, furnishings shredded into pennants. Dogs passing from body to body, from wife to mother. V thinks of the pleading and of the Nikes and of the bruise on his shoulder. Hold it tighter. The ammunition boxes in the pick-up dance around V’s feet. Up ahead someone starts to shoot the sky, the orange tracer making a lazy arc in the pale blue.