THE VINTAGE SUITCASE
Sarah had bought a vintage leather suitcase in a charity shop. Its corners were scuffed, and it was very heavy indeed. It had 1920s travel stickers all over it- Hotel Splendide Monte Carlo, all that. Impossibly chic. It was not very practical, since it was made for the days of porters and baggage-cars: but she didn’t care.
Well, Sarah took the suitcase on holiday. When she saw it come trundling through on the airport carousel, labels and all, she grabbed it quickly and carried it off, wondering if her back would stand the strain. If anything, it seemed even heavier than when she set out. When she got home, she hoisted it onto the bed to unpack. It made a rattling noise. Surely that sound had not been there before? Had something broken en route? She unlocked it, threw open the lid, and gave a gasp. To her dismay, she realised that she had brought the wrong suitcase home.
It was full to the brim with toy soldiers. Some of them were lead, some were wood. They all had different uniforms: British grenadiers, Saxon bowmen, Roman legionnaries. Sarah was initially worried about who had her stuff - the swimsuit covered with sand, the boring novel, the unbecoming cardigan - but she decided that she had come out of the swap to greater advantage. Toy soldiers were usually a boy’s game. But now she could play.
Accordingly she tipped them all out onto the table. She was of an orderly turn of mind, and divided the little soldiers up according to their period and uniform. It might be fun to re-stage some of the great battles of history and create a tiny facsimile of the terrain and the strategies. The original owner had had a full set for the battle of Waterloo. So she began with that.
She arranged Wellington and Napoleon at the head of their respective armies, with the right proportion of cavalry and artillery, and with the serried ranks arranged as eye-witnesses had described. It took a long time. She went to bed once the battleground was arranged to her satisfaction. When she came down in the morning she couldn’t believe her eyes. Napoleon had won. The British batallions were laid waste and Wellington was beheaded. There was sticky red stuff all over the table which was hard to remove, and when she picked up the tiny Napoleon, he bit her finger. Shaken, she put the Waterloo soldiers away in a box. It must have been a trick of the light.
Next day, Sarah took out the Roman soldiers and the tiny Scottish barbarians. She had always been fascinated by the story of the Ninth Legion, who had disappeared and were presumed ambushed by the recalcitrant Scottish tribes. She made tiny models of trees from garden cuttings, hid the Scots in them, and arranged the Romans in an orderly horseback procession through the forest. After she left the room to cook dinner, she heard the most appalling din. When she rushed back in, she found that the Romans had won the day. They had eviscerated the barbarians, whose insides were spilled out like sausages. They had kept their Eagle, and the Scots’ valiant assault on the Empire had failed dismally. Sarah began to think that she no longer knew what the real history was.
She thought she’d have one final attempt, and she reconstructed the field of the battle of Agincourt. Here were the sturdy English bowmen, light on their feet: there were the armoured French, clumsy on their palfreys. Yet again, the orthodox version of events was destroyed by the little soldiers. As soon as Sarah’s back was turned, the bows were broken by the hooves of the clanking steeds, and the French had won the day.
Sarah was now seriously rattled. Not only did the tiny protagonists have minds of their own, but the history she had learned and the accounts she had trusted had no credence any more. Was everything other than it seemed? Did the vanquished always try to turn the tables? How could she live, if the evidence of her own eyes contradicted that of the authorities?
There was only one thing for it. She swept all the little soldiers back into the leather suitcase. Some of them were bleeding and some were yelling. She tied a stout rope round the case, and took it back to the airport, delivering it to the Lost Luggage Office. To her surprise, her own case was there. She carried it home, but was afraid to open it. Her underwear and towels might have come alive as well. And they too might tell a tale of contradiction, of rebellion against the accepted facts, of uncertainty. Far better to leave the suitcase locked and stacked away. For the moment.