Mastre Hambís put out his cigarette with his boot. ‘Come on boys, not much left’. The soldiers lazily got up from the comfort of the giant carob tree’s shade and prepared themselves for another couple of hours of work. Mastre Hambís owned the farm right next to their outpost, and they were helping him collect all the hay bales and stack them up in storage for the winter ahead. The July sun was scorching the red earth as they reluctantly came out of the shade.
Panikkos had a soft spot for Mastre Hambís, as he reminded him of his father who was also a farmer. Mastre Hambís only had one daughter, who had married and moved to Australia, so he had nobody to help him with the farm. An old man of an age impossible to accurately guess, he had the vivacity and spring of a mountain goat. He’d often turn up at the outpost with a tray full of kléftiko and a crate of beers for the boys. It was almost as if he had de facto adopted the soldiers at the outpost. He’d seen them come and go, fresh out of training and into the boredom and solitude of the ceasefire lines, hardened, disillusioned and hopeful out into real life. On his farm he grew potatoes, barley, kept sheep and goats and had the obligatory fruit garden, so common a pattern in the region. Whatever the season, there was something to harvest, something he needed help with, but also something he could offer the boys. Oranges, mandarins, potatoes, peaches, apricots, plums, water melons. They sometimes pinched some fresh milk from the jars he put out for the dairy collection. His contribution came to substitute the dreadful slops the regiment’s kitchen insisted on calling food, a pile of something or other which arrived at the outpost in a tin container at the back of a truck, covered in the red Mesaoria dust. The contents of the tin pot inevitably became food for the six or seven dogs and puppies the soldiers kept at the outpost.
They hopped on the cart drawn by Mastre Hambís’ tractor and he led them to a field about a mile from the main farm. The hay bales, cubic beasts peacefully sunning themselves, were waiting to be collected. Mastre Hambís parked the tractor in the middle of the field, and the boys started stacking them onto the cart, hauling them from the two plastic strings they were tied with, their heavy boots clumsily stumbling in the caked earth. It was hard work, the sweat was pouring down their bare backs, bits of chaff and dirt covered their bodies and faces, making them look like those images of the peasants of a bygone time. Their youthful bodies were so tanned they had the appearance of leather, their eyes burning bright from under the dirt.
“Aman kopelia*! We’re fucked!”, exclaimed Andrikkos. They all turned and looked at the cloud of dust following the fast-approaching regimental Mercedes jeep. There was no point trying to either hide or pretend they were on a patrol. Their weapons and kit were left behind at the outpost-they were there to carry hay bales. They just stood there, waiting for their approaching fate. The sight of the Mercedes usually meant the regiment commander or, even worse, the battalion commander, a development which would surely land them in court-martial.
The jeep pulled up and out came Lieutenant Hristofís with a folder in his hands. Their despair started evaporating, because the only person who could possibly let them off lightly was him. Hristofís was a mild-mannered chap who was clearly in the wrong profession as he couldn’t harm a fly. His dream was to be a primary school teacher, but he got his exam preferences mixed up and ended up in military school instead. He was always bossed about not only by his superiors and his peers, but also by the odd conscript who overstepped the mark and gave him a hard time. The only time he punished a conscript, because the presence of the commander gave him no choice, he offered a tearful apology afterwards.
“Hey guys, what’s up?”, he asked as he approached the boys with his folder under his arm. “I went to the outpost and the lads there sent me here. Did you all become farmers now?”. “Erm, Mastre Hambís here needed a hand sir, so we did it out of boredom. I hope you don’t mind” said Kostís, the sergeant and technically the person responsible for the squad. “That’s fine, I didn’t see anything”, replied Hristofís “as long as the commander doesn’t get wind of this, he’ll have your balls on a plate”. Swearing just didn’t agree with Hristofís, and the word ‘balls’ just sounded odd coming from his lips, even in an environment such as the army where swearing was common speak.
“They are very nice lads Mr. Hristofís, they were giving me a hand, I hope you don’t mind”, added Mastre Hambís. “No, that’s fine, just don’t say I said so” smiled Hristofís. “Anyway lads, I’m here for your payment”. The statement was immediately followed by loud cheers which echoed in the almost desert-like landscape. The conscripts only received about £20 per month, barely enough for cigarettes, but pay day was always a good time nonetheless. “Thank you re Hristofí!*” they said, patting him on the shoulder, as if he was a mate who’d come back with cans of lager. After they’d all signed the form and pocketed their money, Hristofís jumped in the jeep and he was on his way to the next outpost.
They returned to their job with renewed vigour and in a good mood, quickly throwing the bales onto the cart. Mastre Hambís smiled from under his moustache. The sun was beginning to dip to the west, and the sea breeze was finally starting to blow.
*Aman kopelia = god help us lads
* re = you, hey you, mate
Part of the Army Tales series
With thanks to KnifeJuggler for the photo