Breaking the ranks

“He was pacing up and down the house. When downstairs he was pacing back and forth. The blinds were down. He was in doubt whether to open them or leave them closed. If he would open them it would mean it was business as usual. If he let them down something had changed irreversibly. The blinds took on a meaning he couldn’t shake. He was alone. It suddenly was the only thing that mattered. The only signal he could give to a world he knew probably did not care.”, General Sharma liked to tell stories and his staff liked them even if they were mostly clueless as to what they were supposed to mean. ‘Why don’t you write them down?’, an officer asked. To which his response was just a sigh. When he was ready to elaborate Lieutenant Dryker appeared. Late as usual, she seemed annoyed at all this procrastinating and clearly wanted to get on with it.

Sharma was their general in name only. He had long since devolved his operational duty to Dryker. Their relationship had always been intimate. He just happened to be a general and she just happened to be ill-fitted for being seen as one. Theirs was an odd marriage, one of mutual opportunity though. This day was different. Sharma punctual as usual was more fidgety than ever. Dryker as late as ever avoided to look at him waiting motionless but tense for him to formally open the meeting. She did not even bother to sit down next to him. He looked lost for an awkward moment that lasted long enough to create a wave of murmur in the troops. An unusual crack in their appearances so became audible. Was it because of what had happened yesterday?

“Lieutenant Dryker has the floor.”, Sharma suddenly said without bothering to stand up, then immediately tuned out. All was well as far as the meeting went. It didn’t go for long though as Dryker’s phone (that she had put screen down on the table) buzzed. She looked at it as if it was a needle being stuck in the palm of her hand. She paused, took it up, with a swift movement making sure the screen remained out of Sharma’s view. When she saw who buzzed she looked at Sharma and walked out straight as a bullet whizzing by. “Well, what now?”, the same officer asked breaking the silence born from Sharma’s muteness.

“Not what now.”, the general replied apparently considering the meeting itself as a brute force of nature interrupting the flow of his story. “What then? Should he open the blinds or not?” He looked at all of us with a gravity proper for getting advise on a crucial act of war. I looked around the room. As much as all respected him they needed to fight hard to conceal they found his quaintness finally had gained the upper hand. If lines would have been drawn in the directions of their gazes, they would have cut out Sharma’s silhouette with military precision. “Ah,” he said laughing out loud, “you probably need more tactical information. Well what had happened is that there was an altercation the night before. It wasn’t a big deal. He had dared the youngest of the kids into prying into the privacy of an older brother. This had been funny until the youngest stopped hesitating – and just did it. Family hell broke loose. Tears were shed. It wasn’t that big a deal though so it got patched quickly. But the flow of the evening was broken and through its cracks the devil that had haunted him for a long while now appeared. He could not go on as before anymore.”

At that point, Lieutenant Dryker reappeared just taking up where she left of as time had stood still in the staff room during her absence. We watched her pulling the needle out of her hand. It was an excruciating procedure in which she painstakingly refrained from a reference to the phone call just received. We were to do what she had started demanding us to do, only we were now to do it on the double given changed circumstances. I was the first to express misgivings, demanding why the sudden urgency. Others quickly followed suit. Her pain was twisting all of us into a knot of animosity. She looked at Sharma saying she deserved not to be questioned (and she did deserve that but one does not always get what one deserves, now does one?). Sharma said: “Come to think of it, Lieutenant, maybe I just continue what we were talking about in your absence before we come back to your point?” Dryker looked exacerbated, her whole demeanor shouting “No!, Obviously. No!”, but Sharma put his general’s foot down and continued as if all his questions from now on were duly rhetorical.

“So the meaning that his decision took on was this:”, he said, “pulling up the blinds meant putting up with a situation that couldn’t but spiral out of control and leaving them down meant changing that situation suddenly and irreversibly – in a way that would inevitably lead to the children feeling guilty about it. It was a good old Catch-22: damned if he did & damned if he didn’t.” He looked at Dryker and finished: “But not quite of course, because it is always better to postpone if the fall-out of your decision can cause collateral damage. So he pulled the blinds up and got on with it.”, then looking sternly at us in a way that we had quite forgotten he had in him, “And this is indeed exactly what we need to do here so cut the Lieutenant some slack, will you, and let her get on with it so you can get on with whatever it is you know she has good cause to want you to get on with. We will not make these staff meetings into parliamentary gatherings as we seem to have been getting used to.” And that was that, Dryker resumed, we complied and Sharma, well, took the bullet & closed our ranks again.

 

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