Zirui Peng – ‘To The Northerner’

“A thoughtful, well-written story about war and power, with a nice twist.” – Delia Jarrett-Macauley, novelist, academic and broadcaster

The creak of the door filled the whitewashed classroom. A stern gesture from behind my back saw the thirty or so students that I would teach for the next year all rise as I tentatively entered the room. They had been waiting for me, as the school director introduced me again for the cameras that flickered behind me. I walked past the packed identical rows of desks, a stark reversal of the open classrooms I was familiar with. Indeed, I did not belong there. Not in this school or country. My home, my family and my job would have been several weeks of hiking through treacherous mountains away. I kept walking. Any sane person would have baulked at what I was to do. The omnipotent government control promised by the news back at home. The videos of Southern atrocities that no one admitted to watching but still followed with a keen eye. All meant that a frail old man who never reached his potential was the ideal candidate for some one-off goodwill scheme like this. There was a reason no one gave a second thought about sending me.

I cowered by the teacher’s desk as I pretended to sort through my briefcase as I waited for them to leave. They soon tired, and the door swung shut and locked itself. As my footsteps rang throughout the room, instead of a group of youngsters bursting with youthfulness and energy, I saw dishevelled ruffians who looked years older than they actually were, bags under eyes, hunched backs – nothing contradictory to the scathing news feeds back at home.

We continued in a satirical pantomime of a lesson. The children gave monotonous, one word answers and the squeaking of my chalk was only punctuated by coughs and sneezes. I hoped they weren’t carrying some bug. I was relieved to see them leave midway through the morning.

Something needed to give. Midway through the next lesson would promise another visit by the reporters whom I was beginning to dread. I retreated to the comfort of one of my old encyclopaedias from home, hidden away in the bottom of my rucksack. The plastic wrapped volumes mandated by the South had long since been cast aside, proving more confusing and inept, then instructive. I remained, unconscious of time, until a gaggle of reluctant children filed back into the room. Now suddenly conscious of the position I was in, holding a banned book with, what I realised was a Northern flag emblazoned on the cover. How could I have been so foolish? But there were no running feet in the direction of the school office, no officials descending on the classroom. They stood there, transfixed by curiosity, at a seemingly alien scripture. I felt inclined to share.

Surprisingly carefully and respectfully, the book was passed around thirty or so pairs of hands. I was bargaining that natural human curiosity would override the institutionalised Southern suspicion towards the North. And so, the sound of pages turning, and hushed conversations filled the air. I could breathe again. At this point they would be just as guilty as me.

‘Excuse me Mister?’ an inquiring voice rang out.

I replied, ‘Yes?’

‘Your book’s wrong.’

‘How so?’ I responded cautiously.

He pointed an accusatory finger at a page in the textbook as he declared, ‘This says we started the war, but my father says- ’ He stared at me with annoyance.

‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that.’ I was being diplomatic. The bullet holes that dotted the walls of buildings back home, the rain-filled craters where shells once landed, and the pearly white gravestones that took over every park in the city – it was clear who was the aggressor. Why was the boy so certain? Still, it would be fruitless arguing about it now. ‘Look, there’s always two sides to every story,’ I began, ‘and you shouldn’t believe every little rumour you come across.’

‘What if I choose not to believe you?’ He still wouldn’t budge. This was silly. I flipped through the book, jabbing at certain pages along the way. ‘Firstly, you blockaded troops on the border. Secondly, you annexed a frankly stupid amount of Northern oil fields, then you started flinging missiles at us!’ I finished with a flourish. He would have no defence against that.

‘My father fought there, he would know. He saw the North invade with his own eyes. He was lucky to escape – they shot everything that moved.’

Was this a reflection of what those poor Southerners were fed? To rile them up, make them vengeful, to make them fight? ‘Well, if he’s the one you get this delusion from, I wouldn’t think very highly of him if I were you.’ A general murmur of dissent rose amongst the room. I understood. You don’t just question those who fought and died for you like that – it was the same in the North.

‘You know what?’ I turned to the boy. Best to remove the bad apple before it spread. ‘Why don’t you go stand in the corridor for a moment, eh?’ Looking rebellious, he wordlessly left.

In the following weeks an envelope would make its way into my hands, helped, somewhat unwillingly by the boy who stood firm and persistent in his beliefs. Enclosed was a note addressed ‘To the Northerner’, and a faded photograph. It was a photo of a soldier in war-era uniform. Not Southern. From the North. A deserter.

They told me to shoot such people on sight when I served in the army. A man who wouldn’t follow you into battle, who wouldn’t unquestioningly charge the Southern machine gun posts, was a liability.

The photo spoke for itself, but his accompanying note scrawled on the back stood out to me. ‘To the Northerner,’ it read, ‘You come to this country, with ideals, expectations they hammered into you. Those ideals turned me from Valedictorian to mere cannon fodder, but I escaped with my life. Now they’re doing the same to you’.

Zirui Peng is highly commended in the junior category of The Orwell Youth Prize 2023