The program cut to some footage of a large and mainly peaceful demonstration in central London. Duff-Rolecks was standing on a podium and giving a speech in front of a large and untidy nest of microphones.
"What began as an excuse to curb Russia's expansionism in 1854," intoned the MP, "has collapsed over the years into nothing more than an exercise to maintain the nation's pride . . ."
But I wasn't listening. I'd heard it all before a zillion times. I took another sip of coffee as sweat prickled my scalp. The TV showed stock footage of the peninsula as Duff-Rolecks spoke: Sebastopol, a heavily fortified English garrison town with little remaining of its architectural and historical heritage. Whenever I saw these pictures the smell of cordite and the crack of exploding shells filled my head. I instinctively stroked the only outward mark from the campaign I had--a small raised scar on my chin. Others had not been so lucky. Nothing had changed. The war had ground on.
"It's all bullshit, Thursday," said a gravelly voice close at hand.
It was Stanford, the cafe owner. Like me he was a veteran of the Crimea, but from an earlier campaign. Unlike me he had lost more than just his innocence and some good friends; he lumbered around on two tin legs and still had enough shrapnel in his body to make half a dozen baked bean tins.
"The Crimea has got sod all to do with the United Nations."
He liked to talk about the Crimea with me despite our opposing views. No one else really wanted to. Soldiers involved in the ongoing dispute with Wales had more kudos; Crimean personnel on leave usually left their uniforms in the wardrobe.
"I suppose not," I replied noncommittally, staring out of the window to where I could see a Crimean veteran begging at a street corner, reciting Longfellow from memory for a couple of pennies.
"Makes all those lives seem wasted if we give it back now," added Stanford gruffly. "We've been there since 1854. It belongs to us. You might as well say we should give the Isle of Wight back to the French."
"We did give the Isle of Wight back to the French," I replied patiently; Stanford's grasp of current affairs was generally confined to first division croquet and the love life of actress Lola Vavoom.
"Oh yes," he muttered, brow knitted. "We did, didn't we? Well, we shouldn't have. And who do the UN think they are?"
"I don't know but if the killing stops they've got my vote, Stan."
The barkeeper shook his head sadly as Duff-Rolecks concluded his speech:
". . . there can be little doubt that the Czar Romanov Alexei IV does have overwhelming rights to sovereignty of the peninsula and I for one look forward to the day when we can withdraw our troops from what can only be described as an incalculable waste of human life and resources."
The Toad News anchorwoman came back on and moved to another item--the government was to raise the duty on cheese to 83 percent, an unpopular move that would doubtless have the more militant citizens picketing cheese shops.
"The Ruskies could stop it tomorrow if they pulled out!" said Stanford belligerently.
It wasn't an argument and he and I both knew it. There was nothing left of the peninsula that would be worth owning whoever won. The only stretch of land that hadn't been churned to a pulp by artillery bombardment was heavily mined. Historically and morally the Crimea belonged to Imperial Russia; that was all there was to it.
The next news item was about a border skirmish with the People's Republic of Wales; no one hurt, just a few shots exchanged across the River Wye near Hay. Typically rambunctious, the youthful president-for-life Owain Glyndwr VII had blamed England's imperialist yearnings for a unified Britain; equally typically, Parliament had not so much as even made a statement about the incident. The news ground on, but I wasn't really paying attention. A new fusion plant had opened in Dungeness and the president had been there to open it. He grinned dutifully as the flashbulbs went off. I returned to my paper and read a story about a parliamentary bill to remove the dodo's protected species status after their staggering increase in numbers; but I couldn't concentrate. The Crimea had filled my mind with its unwelcome memories. It was lucky for me that my pager bleeped and brought with it a much-needed reality check. I tossed a few notes on the counter and sprinted out of the door as the Toad News anchorwoman somberly announced that a young surrealist had been killed--stabbed to death by a gang adhering to a radical school of French impressionists.
From The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Copyright © February 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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