Supper in the Subway | Helen Lalas

 


Supper in the Subway

Helen Lalas

Hate and Coat Major Contest


Virgil kicked the puppy viciously, causing it to trip over its oversized paws in an uncoordinated attempt to get back on its feet. It scrambled back towards its target, a sodden grey mass that lay in a pile of overflowing refuse, but Virgil was too quick. Before the small bundle of fluff could reach its intended treat, his tormentor had grabbed the item and tucked it into the pocket of his coat.

“Get out of here, yer bleeding mongrel”, he yelled at the dog, which was still looking hopefully up at him. “It’s mine!” He pulled the battered army greatcoat closer around his gaunt frame and, hunching his shoulders against the biting wind, shuffled down the alley.

Mindful of the encroaching darkness and the need to reach the subway before somebody pinched his shelter, he hastened along, swearing and muttering as he kicked soft-drink cans and rubbish out of his path.

“Bluey,” he mumbled. “Got to get back to Bluey”.

Momentarily distracted, he didn’t notice a bottle lying on the path and, tripping over it, fell headlong into the gutter, cursing as a shard of glass ripped through his sleeve and gashed his arm. In an instant he was back in the jungle, a thick splinter of bamboo piercing his skin in almost the same place.

~

Virgil crouched, arm held over his head in a feeble attempt to ward off the blows. Sergeant Tetsamo had slipped a little in the grey mud, dropping his rifle in in an attempt to keep his balance on the narrow plank across the interminable slimy muck. Leaning carefully down to retrieve the weapon he had instead nudged it sideways, sending it sliding down the slippery incline to the river below, where his fellow guards stood at the bridge footings. Even from the top of the bank, Sergeant Tetsamo could see them snickering and hear chuckles from the guards behind him. When Virgil failed to smother a stifled laugh, he brought down on himself the inevitable wrath produced by such a loss of face. With no rifle to hand, the sergeant snatched a bamboo staff one of the prisoners was using as a crutch and laid into the culprit.

Had Virgil remained silent, he might have got off with just a few blows, but in that moment, something in him snapped. Drawing on the inner strength that had sustained him through months of working on the railway, trudging one foot in front of the other through each day of tropical deluges, insects and disease, Virgil struggled to his feet. “Get off me, you bloody Nip bastard!” he roared, shoving Tetsamo hard enough to send him backwards into a sodden puddle of sludge. Instantly, the other guards stopped sniggering and within moments Virgil was being dragged back to the camp, intermittently lashed across the shoulders, back and legs whenever he couldn’t keep up the pace. On reaching camp, another guard sent him sprawling to the ground with a final, brutal blow of a rifle butt across the back of his head, and he was kicked into the bamboo punishment cage.

Three nights later, Virgil tried yet again to stretch his agonised limbs, but there was simply no way of finding any comfort for a six-foot tall human frame cramped into a four-foot cubic cage. Every cell in his body ached, his mouth was parched and dry, and he was wracked with cramping waves of dysentery, yet still he sweated in the sultry heat. He drifted in and out of a semi-conscious state where death would have been welcome, but blowed if he was going to give those goddam bastard Japs the satisfaction. At that moment, a voice penetrated his consciousness.

“Virge… Virge, mate, its Bluey. I got something for yer.” Turning as best he could in the direction of the sound, Virgil could just see the outline of Bluey’s form in the bamboo thicket behind the cage.

“Here, mate, have a drink,” Bluey hissed, his thin arm extending a mess tin towards his friend. Virgil managed to squeeze his face up against the bars and jutting his bottom lip between the bamboo struts, eagerly drank as Bluey tipped the water carefully into his open mouth. “Easy, cobber… If you can get that down yer I’ve got yer a bite to eat”.

~

“Christ, I’m late”, Virgil thought as he heaved himself up from the ground, “hope Bluey has got there in time or it’ll be a cold ‘un for us boys tonight.” Relieved at least that he had fallen on the other side from the pocket which held his prize, he pulled it out to check for damage, but apart from the lingering dampness, it seemed unharmed.

Struggling to his feet, he saw a small boy watching him gaping-mouthed from the corner. “What’re you staring at, you little bastard? Piss off!” With half a smile at the child’s speedy flight, he patted his treasure and put it tenderly back in his pocket. Hurriedly, he continued on his way, suddenly feeling more optimistic about getting back in time, and confident Bluey would appreciate the gift.

This was a nice, plump, rat, fattened on the discarded leavings of a city society which had forgotten the privations of war and depression, and didn’t know how abuse and torture could turn decent men into unemployable, damaged husks, with barely a vestige of humanity left to them. This rat, plump enough to prevent its escape from a passing car, was very different from the lean creatures that scavenged around the railway camp, competing with desperately thin prisoners for any hint of scraps, or nipping at the bodies of those too weak from dysentery and cholera to chase off the vicious rodents. This rat, carefully nursed in the pocket of Virgil’s overcoat, was a very different beast from the scrawny, charred object Bluey had thrust through the bars of the cage that night.