It’s stopped. The buildings have gone, the streets are rubble – and now there’s nothing.
At last, the war’s over.
Only it isn’t. The destruction, the horror and the misery repeat themselves – the same images, the same soundtrack – explosions, scared faces, sirens and pools of blood. Talking heads comment on the latest butchery in solemn tones, and everyone’s sick of it.
The bodies came home, then the soldiers came home. Everyone was relieved the war was over – people were looking forward to getting on with their lives – but things turned out differently. We seem to be in unknown territory. Security and media pundits proclaim another kind of war – a struggle that could go on for a lifetime, for generations – the beginning of an epoch of perpetual war.
So? Maybe it was ever so.
From the remote past, a bit of mental flotsam – a semi-fact that’s somehow found a way to lodge itself in memory: ‘In the last two thousand years there have only been thirty-three years of total peace in the world – with no war anywhere.’
This may be fiction – how could anybody know, for God’s sake? – but it holds a truth. It’s hard enough getting a person out of a war – it’s harder getting the war out of the person. Whether we wish it or not, memory is faithful as a shadow. We forget that when memory goes, we go. Without memory, we’re nothing. Somehow, we have to find a way to balance life with memory.
This is the time of year when the past comes back with a special clarity. The sun’s lower in the sky, closer to the horizon. The light’s yellow with dust from the harvest, and everything – the stream and the trees and the hills beyond – seems to shine with an almost biblical radiance – just like Afghanistan, at this time of year, in the mountains. The sunlight’s at the same angle, the leaves are beginning to turn, and by now there’s probably snow in the higher passes. Time’s running out, food supplies are low, and there’s still a long way to go – over the Hindu Kush – before there’s even a chance of a hot bath and some creature comforts.
It was a terrible journey, yet the images from that time are like glimpses of another, earlier existence – in spite of everything, there is still a bright, savage innocence.
The past surfaces unpredictably. Sometimes memory is so immediate the past seems no distance at all. A sight, maybe, a sound or a scent, and in less time than it takes to think, one is in the vanished moment – present in the past.
With luck, memory can be as wonderful as Proust’s delight – the unexpected rediscovery in the fragrance of a morsel of madeleine – a miraculous epiphany. But memory is unreliable. It has a will of its own, and we’re not entirely in control of it.
A barbecue – the smell of burning in the summer air – and, for a second or two, a forgotten corpse is horrifyingly present in the middle of a conversation with a neighbour about the weather.
Swallow – swallow again – and nod.
The moment passes.