It’s not all about angels, shepherds and wise men, you know. My part was a lot less glorious, in the light of a cold morning…
“What is it all about, Sarge?” I asked.
The sergeant stared at me coldly. “Orders, soldier, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about orders.”
Another voice piped up gleefully. “I’ve heard some astrologers came and told the Old Boy there was a baby who was going to take over his job, and the Old Boy’s gone off his—”
“Just shut it!” said the sergeant.
He looked at me, and pulled out another man I’d not worked with before.
“Right, you two. A roadblock here. You get started while I post the others. Nothing comes out of that town without us searching it. Boys under two, remember. Now, jump to it!”
It was very quiet, and the sergeant was on his way back before the first vehicle came our way, a dilapidated old thing driven by a young man who had an even younger girl beside him. They stopped obediently, clearly nervous. Most people get nervous in the presence of armed men; was that all it was, or was there something more?
“What’s all this?” I asked the driver as my oppo went round the back. All kinds of junk was piled up behind the young couple. The girl, pale-faced, stared at the floor; the boy turned to me stiffly, like a wooden puppet.
“It’s all our stuff,” he stammered. “We’re leaving. I’ve got a new job – in Egypt. I’m a carpenter…”
The morning was so still that I could hear the sergeant’s tread as he came back towards us. I plunged a hand down between two sacks; you have to look as though you’re doing something. My fingers touched something, warm and yielding. There was a small whimper from the depths, and I froze.
The driver froze, too: I could feel it. The girl turned deathly white and began to cough loudly and with painful, whimpering sobs; it was too late for that. The sergeant’s footsteps crunched nearer. The other soldier cocked an eye at me across the haphazard pile of gear. I had no idea what he was thinking; maybe he felt like me, but I knew he was a hard nut, so maybe not. I had no time to think, but there are some things a man can do and some he can’t. I took a wild chance.
“So you’re even taking the cat with you?”
The boy, speechless, nodded his wooden head helplessly.
“Go on,” I snarled at him as unpleasantly as I could, waving him forward. “Get out of here! Move!”
“What’s all this about?” said the sergeant suspiciously, arriving just as the young couple started to pull away. He wasn’t asking me: he’d always reckoned I was soft. I didn’t look at him; I could be a dead man before I had the chance to take many more breaths, and by then those kids, and their kid, would be dead, too. They were gathering speed all too slowly. I braced myself to get in the sergeant’s way – since I was a dead man anyway – but there was nothing I could do to hinder the other soldier. Everything hung on his answer.
“Waste of time, Sarge,” he said. “We thought we’d found one, but it turned out it was a cat!” He turned and spat his disgust into the sand.