by Leo Gillard
On a normal day, Bel woke up when an alarm went off. Sometimes that alarm was just his alarm clock, sometimes it was the gas warning, sometimes a medication alert, sometimes a car on the street below or the house across the road, and sometimes it was an air raid alert.
That day, however, it was one of the more normal options available. His alarm woke him up to tell him to go to school. Trying and failing to rub the tiredness from his eyes, Bel pulled on the uniform he definitely hadn’t forgotten to hang up when he got home the day before.
And when he wandered downstairs, perhaps slightly later than he should have been to get to school on time, everything was perfectly normal. He ate a normal breakfast, had a normal conversation with his mother, and took a very normal journey on the bus to school.
It was lunchtime when things were no longer normal. First came the air raid warning, when they all bundled into the shelter at the bottom of the school fields. It had become routine, now the war had been going on for three years; once they were all settled in the shelter, they put in their headphones and continued the online classes that had become a necessity.
That was when the news started to come in; the attack had come from a different direction than usual. The opposite direction, in fact. The reason the air raid had come at a strange time, the reason that the distance between the warning being given and the planes flying overhead was shorter, was because they’d come from the southern border.
The southern border that was only a few minutes away from the school by bus. The southern border that Bel had crossed on the way to school that day. The southern border he crossed twice every single day.
The course of action was so clear and so unclear at the same time. Clearly, the school wasn’t safe; there was now an enemy air base barely a twenty minute drive away. The whole area would be a war zone within weeks, if not sooner.
The only problem was where anyone would go. Where Bel would go. The hostilities had been declared so quickly that there was no crossing it right then, no negotiations until the initial conflict had died down.
The first night, Bel went home with a friend who treated him like glass. He called his mother and they cried on the phone together, but there was nothing really to be done. He couldn’t return home, she couldn’t cross over. Soon enough, she would be moved somewhere safer. Soon enough, he would be too, yet those places would be even further removed than they were now.
In the morning, school had been suspended. The government were working out where there was space for people to be sent, if there was anyone who would take someone whose home was on the other side of the border.
Once that did come to pass (it took longer than his friend’s family were comfortable with; for a few days, Bel was sleeping on his headteacher’s sofa), he moved into the city. It was a strange experience: Bel had always been told that cities were full of all kinds of wonderful people from all over the world, people who didn’t care as much about where you were from. Not like some tiny border town in the middle of nowhere, where everyone cared.
Instead, he found that the people of the city knew his accent, and they didn’t like it. They didn’t find it interesting that he could read two languages, or that he’d grown up in a country that had been a friend less than a month before.
Growing up on the border had always been something he’d seen as a fantastic opportunity. He could do whatever he wanted, choose whatever he wanted. He’d been a part of two cultures, could engage in two completely different traditions and worlds. He could choose what he liked and mix the two, and that was exactly what he’d done.
And yet, on a very normal day, that had all been stripped away. And he was left with an empty promise of a war he wanted everyone and no one to win.