Short Fiction

A Cautionary Tale

By A. T. Zanker

It has become a common theme in human history that the fashions of the day die on the morrow, and that their incorruptible adherents’ sense of scale and proportion dies with them. White-hot rebellion segues into a new orthodoxy, and it often proves too much of an effort to change one’s ways. And why should one, when one has name and reputation? Such possessions can act as beacons in the Hegelian counter-blast, leading one through the danger and out into the open waters of happy irrelevance. It is only when one has neither name nor reputation that the shifting tides of fashion can bring disaster and insanity, as one attempts to hold a course through the darkness, avoiding both shallows and open sea, where the swell rises above the gunwales and the wind pulls the mast down to the horizon.

Such was the tragedy of Julian Smith, a boy unsurpassed in his knowledge of WWII aircraft specifications, who realized one day that nobody cared for his passions as much as he did. Julian was 11 years old when the military history fad broke out on the campus of Dirkland Primary School. His presentation of the Hunt for the Bismarck had been finished earlier that winter, and hung proudly on the wall of Room Eleven. The one meter-long photocopy of the Tirpitz was distorted in the middle, where Julian’s exertions to flatten the book on the glass screen of the photocopier had proven insufficient. The book had been destroyed but Julian had consoled himself and a series of librarians that it had been worth it. The liberal amounts of pencil that had been used on the sea and sky had done much for the overall effect of the presentation, and Julian had been pleased with the degree of fidelity achieved in the shades of the camouflage. The caprice of adding Fairy Swordfish torpedo biplanes in crayon in the upper-left corner had, he admitted, been less successful, but their erasure had proven impossible without substantial damage to the photocopy, and the librarians had persuaded him to refrain from such drastic surgery.

After the gratifying success of “The Last Days of the Bismarck” Julian had decided to take on a new project, one of a more ambitious scope, in the remaining weeks of the winter: a chronicle of the various forms of powered flight researched and employed by the Third Reich between the years 1933 and 1945. The presentation he envisioned would stretch across an entire wall of Room Eleven, and would hang like a Greek frieze below the ply-board ceiling - compact, unified metopes separated from one another by stylized triglyphs. Ample space, Julian reasoned, would thus be left on the opposite wall for the display of “Allied Countermeasures”, research for which would begin upon the completion of “Eagles of the Reich”. This next project would follow Anglo-American aircraft design from the Hawker Hurricane through to the Glocester Meteor. Such projects were too much for a single 11 year old, even for one endowed with Julian’s incandescent energy. For “Eagles of the Reich” Julian had elicited the help of Paul, Mark and Bradley (all boys whom Julian trusted) retaining them with rations of cheese of the laminated variety. Julian was to hold artistic authority, keeping an eye on the grand picture while he delegated duties to his factotums: the Christchurch winter was long and so were Dirkland’s lunch hours, and Julian envisioned that the majority of the project would be completed by the spring.

A roll of brown newsprint was procured from Mr. MacGuire, and the duties were divided up. Paul was to concentrate on the various bomber designs – all the major contractors such as Dornier, Heinkel and Junkers were to be represented. Mark was instructed to research and write up the history of German fighter aircraft, while Bradley was to focus on experimental and unmanned systems, such as the Messerschmidt rocket aircraft and the Vergeltungswaffen I and II. Julian had taken upon himself the onerous duty of documenting the possible future of the Luftwaffe. Even before work on “Eagles of the Reich” began, he had completed preliminary sketches of the Siegfried Moon Base and the Junkers JU930 Hovercraft/Jump-jet. All in all it seemed a happy arrangement. While the others worked on sticking their colored photocopies onto the newsprint in course of the grey, wintry lunch hours, Julian dispensed cheese to keep his workers in line and worked on his own sketches, occasionally taking them up to Mr. MacGuire to inspect.

Things went on like this for about two weeks, the newsprint roll gradually filling up with official photographs of military aircraft and hand-written descriptions of their specifications. Exceptional care was taken over details such as bomb payloads and fighter cannon caliber. Mr. MacGuire came over to where the four were working every so often to congratulate them on their diligence: “Nice work, lads, nice work!”. Such felicitations gave them all a feeling of accomplishment. Spring was threatening, but Julian felt confident that he could control his workers with extraordinary cheese bonuses. He found that his own particular area – the future of the Luftwaffe – required little in the way of research or photocopying, and that he could spend most of his time criticizing the work of Paul, Mark and Barney. He also discovered that the threat of withholding cheese was more of an incentive than the promise of extra rations; his mother was beginning to wonder about what he was doing with all the cheese anyway.

Then the first day of Spring broke; it had been a drizzly morning, but at play the clouds had lifted and the puddles on the Big Field had reflected the first rays of the sun for days. The following hour had been fidgety, the class paying no attention to Mr. MacGuire’s maths lesson but looking anxiously out the window, just in case the rains had started again. Julian had been worried for a different reason – he predicted a massive outlay of cheese would be necessary over the few remaining days before the completion of “Eagles of the Reich” and its triumphant mounting on the wall. The project was looking good – only one or two spaces of brown newsprint were left – mainly, Julian had noted with a critic's eye, in Bradley’s portion. When the lunch bell rang, the other students rushed for the door, and Mark, Paul and Bradley with them. Julian got there first, however, and barred the door with his body. He was big for his age, and had once cracked Stewart Widdle's thorax by sitting on him in anger after a game of bloodsport. Mark and the rest knew better than to resist him.

“Let us out, Julian! We’re sick of working for you!”

“You’ll finish the work first. I’ll give you extra cheese today. The Big Field’s wet, anyway.”

“We want to play basketball.” Bradley had the ball, and started bouncing it forlornly.

“I say No. Finish the project first; then we can stick it up.”

“The project? We’re sick of the project. Come on Paul, Mark: let’s finish the project!”.

With that, Bradley walked over to newsprint that was unfurled along the edge of the room and began to rip their contributions off. The other two followed him. The PVA glue that they had mixed together proved strong, and sometimes the photocopies ripped in their fingers instead of peeling away. Julian ran over and tried to fight the others off the project; at the same time, he sought to roll the newsprint back up so as to protect it from the onslaught. Tears were in his eyes as he flailed with his arms against Mark, Paul and Bradley. They, emboldened by their advantage in numbers and the fact that Julian had to make defending “Eagles of the Reich” his priority, began to enjoy taunting him. They threw the pieces of thecheese that he had given them back at him and laughed, taking turns in lunging at the project and ripping at the newsprint. It was a hopeless cause, Julian realized. Finally, he gave in, turned away from his tormentors, gathered the project, his project, in his arms and crushed it into a large ball of about a meter in diameter. Having protected it in this way, he lay on top of it, covering it with his body, taking the blows of his underlings on his kidneys, arms and legs. His tears were absorbed by the newsprint, leaving dark brown marks.

Mr. MacGuire returned from lunch at one o’clock that day to find Julian in the same dorsal position in which the others had left him.

“What on earth has happened?” he exclaimed. “You’ve destroyed your project, and an entire roll of newsprint! What made you do it?”

Julian realized he had a choice to make – perhaps the first of his adulthood. He could either throw himself upon the mercy of his teacher and suffer the laughter of his peers, or he could suppress everything and hope to begin work on “Allied Countermeasures” the following winter with a new crew.

“I decided… I decided I didn’t like the topic, Mr. MacGuire. The work wasn’t up to standard anyway and I had to fire the others”.

“Go and stand by the flagpole, Julian. The principal will have a word or two to say to you shortly.”

Shame stung Julian’s ears as he stood at the flagpole and the other members of his class passed by him on their way back to Room Eleven. Mark, Paul and Bradley sniggered from a way off, bouncing their ball in a provocative manner; Julian stared back at them with all the pride and menace he could muster.

Such was the fate of “Eagles of the Reich”. Nor did “Allied Countermeasures” get off the ground the following winter. By then everyone was into Greek mythology, and colorful pictures of Medusa andthe Hydra draped the walls – overwrought, Julian thought, and tasteless. His class had shifted rooms; it was now stationed in Room Twelve. At the end of the year, Mr. MacGuire had rolled up “The Last Days of the Bismarck”, and had handed the scroll over to Julian with a nod.

“I enjoyed having you in my class this year, Julian. Hopefully things go better next year; I’m sure they will” he added, dubiously, shaking his old, bald head

Julian knew nothing about Greek mythology, nor did he want to. Over the year, he continued burrowing into military arcana, talking about his researches with anyone who would listen. Gradually he came to be seen as something of a bore by the class – no-one would sit with him at lunch, and his new teacher, Mrs. Elliot, was not prepared to waste any class resources on his projects. At the end of his primary school career, Julian found himself very much alone, but chose not to attempt to rectify the situation.

“It is they who are the heathens” he thought, viciously. “I am the one who is right. The military technology of the Second World War is a subject of vast interest for anyone with a brain. Soon everyone else will come round to my point of view; I just have to wait for this adolescent phase of theirs to pass”.

“Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the World
And ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl
Love n hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands
The hands that slap his kids around cause they don't understand
How death or glory becomes just another story
How death or glory becomes just another story
In every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock n roll
Grabs the mike to tell us he'll die before he's sold
But I believe in this - and its been tested by research
- he who fucks nuns will later join the church
From every dingy basement on every dingy street
I hear every dragging handclap over every dragging beat
Thats just the beat of time - the beat that must go on:
If you been trying for years - we've already heard your song”

- Joe Strummer

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A Cautionary Tale was published on 31st January, 2009.

About the Author

A. T. Zanker Biography »