The city, or what was left of it, was deserted when we arrived. Though many buildings lay in ruins, some remained standing. Since all the original inhabitants had been killed or run away, finding shelter was not difficult. The streets were strewn with rubble. All the windows were broken. The water mains were smashed. Water, though, is resourceful. Freed from pipes, it always finds the simplest route. If it needs to, it stands and waits. It'd wasted no time turning the gutters into streams. Here and there it formed pools. Water needed to be fetched and boiled so, for the likes of Luka, Marie or myself to survive, you needed watertight containers and the means to start fires. Back then, if you had a tin can or a magnifying lens you guarded them assiduously. We were well-equipped, considering. That day, we made our camp in one of the first empty houses we came to. We were a little apprehensive, worried that we might be set upon by other scavengers in the same position as ourselves. We took it in turns to stay awake and keep watch that first night.
The next morning we went out foraging. Not far from our camp, we came across the remains of a corner shop. It was still well-stocked: it looked as if we were the first to come across it. There were cigarettes, of course. None of us smoked but we took a few boxes in case we got the chance to trade them. There were whole boxes full of batteries, too. We took as many as we could carry. We had a radio between us and each of us had a torch but none of these things are much use without them.
As we were coming back out of the broken-down doorway into the street we could hear, in the distance, the sound of someone playing the guitar. Intrigued, we followed the sound. Whoever it was was playing a classical piece, one of those that seems to run on and on in a steady trickle of notes. We knew it wasn't a recording because every now and again the player stopped and worked on the passage they'd just played. We were a little wary. We had no idea who the player was, or if they were alone. (Most people knew it didn't do to make too much noise in the city. If you did, you never knew what unwelcome attention you might attract). The sound led us into a low, single-storey building. We entered cautiously through the remains of the front door. We moved quietly from room to room. There were office chairs, desks and steel trolleys everywhere. From the look of it, it had been a health centre. The place had been ransacked. Keyboards and screens had been knocked off the desks and trampled on. Sheaves of files, all written in a foreign language, had spilled out across the tiled floor. If nothing else, they would provide us with the fuel we needed to boil our water and keep us warm for the next few days. Over it all floated the sound of the guitar. As we wandered through the building it seemed to be getting louder and closer. Then, all of a sudden, through an open door, it seemed to be coming from the next room.
Why had we followed it? Instinct, I suppose. It sounded beautiful. There were very few beautiful things around in those days. And then there was the fact that when we found the guitar we would find the guitarist. They might be one of us, in which case they might join us. If they weren't, we would at least want to observe them and evaluate any threat they might pose to us. I remember thinking the intensity of the performance gave us grounds for optimism. A naive assumption, in retrospect, but one which turned out, on this occasion, to be correct.
As we walked through the doorway the sound suddenly got louder still. I went in first, so I saw the guitar-player before the others did. Behind me, Luka pulled out his knife. I shook my head and gestured to him to put it away. The guitarist was a young man in his twenties, about the same age as us. He looked up at me and smiled. He kept on playing. We just stood there and listened. He kept on playing right to the end of the piece.
He told us his name was Martin. He spoke our language in an accent I’d never heard before. He said of course we didn't need his permission to stay and that in fact he would be glad of the company. So we stayed.
'What were you playing?' asked Luka.
'Just a piece of Bach,' said Martin.
Luka raised his eyebrows and nodded, as if to say he had made a discovery.
'At home, I had music to play from. Here, I have only the pieces I can remember,' Martin said.
We stayed with him for a few days – perhaps a week. We worked together foraging for food, water and fuel. Things were not so bad. We found a flat in a block nearby where the owners, before they left, had hoarded food and cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer. There was a yard behind the health centre. We built ourselves a fire there every night. We used to sit around it drinking, while Martin played the guitar. For a few hours at a time we almost forgot the terrible situation we were in and the terrible things that were going on around us.
In those days nothing stayed the same for long. First, the shelling started. We all sat together under one of the few tables we hadn't burned and listened to the shells whistling overhead. One fell close. The sound was deafening, the building shook and a blast of dust and small debris blew in through the windows. Then the tanks came. I first heard the drone of their engines when I was out fetching water. I hid in a nearby building, under the stairs. There were soldiers, too. From where I was hiding I could hear them shouting.
It was a long time before everything went quiet again. I guessed that the soldiers and the tanks had moved on. There were few people left there to kill or rape that we knew of, apart from ourselves (and, by then, we knew all the good hiding places), and there was very little left to steal. Almost everything of any use had been taken or destroyed.
I waited until it was dark before making my way back to the centre. I could see very little but there seemed to be no-one there. I thought – hoped – that perhaps the others were still in hiding. I sat in the dark and waited until morning.
When the sun rose, I began to look around. My friends had disappeared. I did find Martin’s guitar though, smashed, as if someone had trodden on the sound-box. Perhaps the soldiers had found them. Perhaps, I hoped against all hope, my friends had broken the guitar themselves, stumbling over it in their hurry to escape. That night, as usual, it was very cold. I burnt what was left of it on the fire to keep warm.
Dominic Rivron has been various things, from a care assistant to a piano teacher. His work has been published in a number of magazines, including Scratch, The Poetry Bus, Dream Catcher, and Obsessed with Pipework. He lives in the North of England. His blog can be found at http://asithappens55.blogspot.com. Dominic recommends Médecins Sans Frontières.