Translated by Egor Perov

Burning Crossword

Go call Tommy . . . Doesn’t he want to join us again? Says he’ll eat in his room. Mum, I'm worried. Why is he like this? Well, this can happen to pilots after the war. Will he ever be the same again? Hey, what kind of question is that? How should I know? We all change . . . Children grow up, we grow old. And Tommy—what's going on with Tommy? Good grief, get off my back! Mum, I'm sorry . . . Mum, I didn't mean to . . .

May I come in? I'm sorry, it’s a terrible mess. No worries, I'm just so glad you’re with us—I can’t believe my luck! The Fillmores’ three sons didn't come back from the war, Mrs Harris lost her husband and her son, it's so terrible. But you are here, with us again! Yes, Mum. Tommy, tell me, what would you . . . Well, what would you like to do? I know that my hats don’t interest you, and, well, that’s no big deal, our business is doing awesome anyway. London has become so grey, so boring . . . I believe it should be a happy city once more. What word did you use? Awesome? Well . . . Yes, I exaggerate a bit, but we really do not want for anything. Ah, that word? That’s what they say nowadays, isn’t it. Oh, sorry, that was a bad word choice. Oh, come on, Mum. I simply don't know, I probably don't want anything. I'm just ashamed to still be clinging to you when you've been raising the kids alone all through the war. Tom, you know how I feel about you. For you . . . Any desire of yours is my command. And for all of us, you know that. We love you to pieces. Only . . . I'm sorry, I just want to say . . . All these bottles . . . Don't you think you're getting a little too used to it? I mean, like it’s becoming a habit . . . Yes, I guess so. Okay, Mum, I’ll drink less. Okay. Do you want to be alone? Yes. Maybe. I'll go for a walk. Who do you walk with? Do you have mates? War buddies? Please, what war buddies, Mum? What bloody war buddies? Oh, I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything wrong . . .

So, he doesn't want to help you either? With that second store? You know, it seems to me that it’s not like he doesn't want to, he just can’t. You are just making excuses for him. So many young people have returned from the war, and everyone is trying to make a go of it somehow. Of course, there’s the issue of unemployment and all that, but they also want to live it up a bit. And by the way, you are giving him everything on a plate. It's all down to the booze! And the rotten family bloodline. I don't want to think that. I still think it's all about the war. Something happened to him there. I just can’t work out when. When he was on leave, he always looked like he did before. Or did it just seem like that? He was happy, he joked, he was . . . cordial, as always. The little ones adored him, they were looking forward to seeing him again so much. But Lord, now he is here and not a word . . . He, you know, it’s not like he is rude—he has become sort of uncaring. Or not uncaring, just, I don’t know . . . distant. It's like he’s really not interested in anything anymore. Know what George said to me? “I miss Tom the way he was before the war.” You know what I think? Maybe he needs a doctor. Maybe it's a kind of an illness, you know, like the one the late Michael had when he, you know, back then . . . Maybe he needs to change his life somehow, and this would help.

Yes, ma’am, this is very common. Oh, so you know what it is . . . I mean, what’s wrong with Tom. Yes, ma’am, this is what they all have. You want to know if I mean “everyone who went through the war”? Many of them, yes, and not just soldiers. Ah, so it's good that this is such a common . . . ailment, then? It is an ailment, right? So how can we cure Tom? There isn’t a cure. How do you mean? Perhaps with time. Or maybe . . . But how long would it last? And . . . he would become, well, normal—that is, he would want to do something, work somewhere, he . . . would love us? Nobody knows. I can't predict, and it can vary. Obviously, this burden will remain with him for a long time. Perhaps forever. I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe that the past can weigh so heavy. And for everyone, no less. Surely you don't mean that the whole generation of men who went through the war, just like Tom, scream at night, do not know what to do with themselves, and look straight through you while talking to you—this cannot be! Ma’am. You live in London. Surely you must see what is going on around you? What has happened to the city, the gardens, the houses? Well, you must understand, too, that the soul of a person, his heart, his mind, is like a garden or a house destroyed by bombs—it will never be the same again. No, never, though with luck, maybe something else will emerge in its place someday. Or it won’t? Or it won’t—I want you to fully understand that this is also a possible outcome.

What did I dream about, Nessa? I dreamed that we were on a mission to drop bombs on a German city. We are not the first to fly in, we’re in the second wave. The first one dropped the Blockbusters, then the incendiaries. Now it’s our turn. Everything goes according to plan, just as it should.

We are flying in the second wave. As you can imagine, I'm glad that the payload is so small—just a 4,000-pound “cookie”—because the plane handles better.

And so I am flying in, getting closer, and I can already see the glow of all these fires from afar, on the approach. And now the city is under me—it is burning. Everything is on fire, every street. Do you know what it looks like? Like a crossword puzzle, in which every one of the letter squares is on fire. There are houses and people, but we can't see them from above; all we see is a burning crossword. I don't even know how to describe it to you, Nessa. Everything was on fire, absolutely everything. The city turned into a fiery whirlwind. And above us, above all the planes, a gigantic, awful pink ball. Just like when the Germans bombed Coventry early in the war. We have learned from them, you know? Go for it, boys. Taught them a lesson, didn't we? We are the good guys, we have big guns. The good guys learned to kill better than the bad guys, and beat the bad guys. And we also murdered thousands of children and women. But there was no other way! It was a Nazi city. It was a war. They wanted to destroy us, but we destroyed them. We were right. No mistakes. Good has won. This is how war works. And I'm sick of war, Nessa. I feel sick all the time, and I know for a fact that it will never stop.