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John Berger's latest books are Here is Where We Meet (Bloomsbury, 2005), Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007) and The Red Tenda of Bologna (Drawbridge Books, 2007).

The Red Tenda of Bologna is available to Drawbridge readers for the special price of £12.

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The two banks of a river

He was thirteen, perhaps fourteen. He already had a man's voice but not the pace of a man's voice. He was in pain and determined not to show it. K and two other kids had knocked on my front door and woken me up. When there's trouble and bloodshed people often come to consult me, because they know I work in the pharmacy. And I assume this role, for, contrary to what some might think, it makes my life easier. Raf was wounded in the leg and couldn't put his right foot on the ground. They had carried him hobbling, his two arms round their shoulders. His name's Raf, they told me.

In the times we're living through, spontaneous courage begins young. What comes with age is endurance - the cruel gift of years.

They shot at him from one of their jeeps; he was out after curfew. He managed to crawl under an abandoned truck and then hide in a ruin. I told the kids I would examine him alone in the pharmacy. That way if the lights there attracted attention - it was past midnight - they wouldn't be implicated.

We fetched a stretcher from the shop, laid Raf on it, carried him back along the broken road and then shifted the stretcher on to the sickbed that's permanently in the pharmacy's back room. He'd apparently lost a fair amount of blood.

I told K he could come back in an hour or so if he wanted, and if, by any chance, he found the pharmacy without lights and bolted, it would mean I had taken Raf urgently to the hospital.

The three of them stared at me as if I'd become immensely large. Probably won't be necessary, I said reassuringly, I'll do our best to avoid it, but we have to imagine everything, don't we? If we're here, you knock three times on the door.

When we were alone, Raf smiled at me. Strange smile for someone so young - as if we had both, the two of us, qualified for something, and the smile was its proud acknowledgement.

They shot five rounds and I think three missed, he said.

Where's your mother?

In the village.

What are you doing here?

Working.

You work late!

You're working late too, he replied, and he screwed up his eyes. I wasn't sure whether in pain or as a sign of conspiracy. Perhaps both.

I eased off his jeans, swabbed his leg and cut with scissors the tourniquet at the top of his thigh. There was no sudden surge of blood so the artery, thank God, was untouched. He was watching me, curious, but not about his immediate condition: You know what I'm dreaming about? he asked.

I tested his reactions by scratching the sole of his dusty bloodstained foot and his leg twitched as it should. Its nerves were functioning. I washed his feet.

You know what I'm dreaming about? he repeated.

No, tell me. I'm going to examine your wound now, if it hurts too much, you whisper to me.

I'm dreaming, he said, of lying on the deck of a motor-launch and you're driving it, and we are far from the coast and the boat's thumping the waves. Thump. Thump.

There were two wounds which were adjacent. One was long and not very deep and the other was ugly and small and profound. My guess was that the bullet, which caused the first, had entered at a tangent, because shot from above, and had re-emerged where the wound ended above the knee.

Where's our boat going? I ask him as I pick up with my left hand the little clip instrument for holding open the lip of a wound. The bank of a wound as the French say, like a river bank.

In my right hand I have a canulla and with its tip I tap very gently along the length of the gash, waiting to hear a metallic click, or to touch suddenly the hardness of metal. You're more likely to register an embedded bullet like this than to see it with your eye.

So where are we going? I'm on my back on the deck and you're steering, he asked. To where?

There was no bullet. I let the lip fall back. Now for the ugly one.

You know something about the dreams of men, all of you men? I ask him.

Tell me, he says gruffly.

You love dreaming of comfort...

I was probing and I thought I heard the click of metal. I tapped twice more. A bullet.

And women what do they...? Abruptly he clenched his teeth.

We're going to do something to stop it hurting, Raf.

Don't go.

You think I'd leave you on the deck? Wait thirty seconds.

I stepped across to the analgesics where I found the diamorphine I was looking for.

I'm going to give an injection into your shoulder.

I did so (5 mg), and we both waited.

So what do women dream of? he eventually asked.

Of places no longer being separated, I tell him.

Places have to be separated, it's what kilometres are for!

The quiet logic of his reply reminded me of my husband, who is in prison.

Don't look now, I whisper, shut your eyes.

With my eyes shut I get scared, I see their Uzi 5s pointing straight at me.

Then look at my face not my hands.

So you have dimples! he said, you still have dimples.

From the bottom of the wound I extracted with the forceps a greenish bullet like a rotten tooth. He didn't so much as flinch. Next I dripped betadine into the wound until it overflowed like a volcano does. He clenched his right fist, nothing more.

Picking up, with a pair of tweezers, the 30mm Uzi bullet, I showed it to him.

And he began to sob. I put my head beside his, and after a few minutes he fell asleep.

I close his wounds with thread and a tiny crescent needle. After each stitch has brought the two banks of the river together, I circle with the thread around the tweezers that are holding the needle, to make a knot. And knot by knot I proceed. The flesh wants to be joined.

Tying the knots made me remember my grandmother's fingers and the way they moved when she was embroidering. They were defter than mine.

I fix two dressings, I place a pillow under his head. And I rock the stretcher in imitation of a boat riding the swell of the waves.

It was 2.30 am. We were alone, we were waiting. It was quiet.

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