Dunelm War, by Justin Lau (First Place – Short Fiction)

This short story was awarded first place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.

* * *

Tim, a third year anthropologist, pushed Old Man John over the side of Elvet Bridge into the river. For the locals of Durham, this proved to be the final straw; there remained only one path, and that was the one to war.

The students didn’t take it seriously until four pissed engineers staggering to Klute Nightclub on a Wednesday night were ambushed by fifteen burly men who grabbed their flailing limbs, lugged them to the Market Place and roped the helpless quartet under the 3rd Marquees of Londonderry. At dawn, their hung-over mates discovered them barely conscious, severely hypothermic, teeth chattering incessantly, drenched in their own vomit and urine. As a result, undoubtedly empowered by the spirit of Charles William Vane with whom they had been intimate till the break of day, and on behalf of the entire student body of Durham University, they declared war against their co-residing townsfolk who had overstepped the boundaries and dared to threaten their pride.

Barricades were set up within twenty-four hours. Non-combatants were urged to stay at home and out of harm’s way. White chalk lines were drawn on the knobbly cobbles to demarcate their respective territories. The locals (referred to as the Durhamites) cordoned off Gilesgate and Claypath, and set up their headquarters at the Gala Theatre, while the students (Durhamnus) established theirs at the Bill Bryson Library, and claimed the Hill and Elvet. The Viaduct remained the central field of much direct conflict, soon characterised by significant pandemonium, with the Durhamnus blaring their music to exasperate and the Durhamites clamouring for them to shut the hell up.

And it was amicably settled upon that the Market Place, faithful to its name, was to be the centre of trade, of blows and words, of ostensibly peaceful treaties and negotiations. So were the enduring bridges—Kingsgate and Elvet—and the Bailey determined to be mutual territory in which, as much as humanly possible, peace should reign. Durham Cathedral declared itself an asylum for the blessed peacemakers fleeing from such violent activities. No one dared dispute its holiness and both sides consented not to involve any higher power for righteous fear of divine retribution. ‘Keep the Lord Almighty out of this,’ remarked Mrs Potts at a town council meeting and was duly met with a resounding, ‘Amen!’ unlike any heard in all of the churches on a Sunday morning.

The historians studied the origins of the Dunelm War—aptly designated after Durham’s Latin name—tracing it back to the commonplace interactions of raucous drunks, with their name-calling (‘Chavs!’ ‘Little shits!’ ‘Fat bastards!’ ‘Twits!’) and the occasional brawl, nothing unusual in a city shared by those of town and gown. But then, roughly four months ago, encounters began to escalate in a wholly rash manner. Bellowing matches took place on the streets, the Bailey college students screaming insults and obscenities as they descended the slope, and the locals coming up from the Market Place jeering and throwing bottles. Not long after, several students started pelting locals from the Durham Castle towers with expired potatoes, shouting, ‘Peasants! Peasants!’ In retaliation, the locals persuaded Subway to bar access to students. When several attempted to force their way in, they were assaulted with spicy cheese, cold meatballs and broken tills. Still, the students viewed these incidents as a pastime, the locals as a petty nuisance. With Tim’s shove, things became official.

*

The first week bristled with guerrilla operations, each side familiarising themselves with their territories. The objective was to carry out reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence on their surroundings. The Durhamites’ knowledge of hidden paths through the woods and by the rivers proved indispensable, while the Durhamnus felt rather despondent at their meagre knowledge of the city, habitually confined as they were to the lecture halls and classrooms. Morale was raised when the boats were brought out and began cruising up and down the river, the coxes emphatically shouting instructions in a not-so-discreet manner. Every so often, minor public clashes occurred, but both parties viewed themselves in a deadlock in which proper conflict had not yet begun. Preparation first, war later.

Geography students studied contour lines, perusing historic maps sold each year as expensive luxury gifts. Business management students drew large blueprints outlining transportation means and devised strategies for other logistical matters. A group of officers and soldiers were assembled to form the DAF, aka Durhamnus Armed Forces, an impressive worldwide collaboration, composed of members of the Singapore Armed Forces, Finnish Defence Forces, Republic of Korea Armed Forces, Turkish Armed Forces, etc. There were also those currently enlisted in Britain’s RAF or RN, forming a most formidable congregation of soldiers.

Each army officer prepared a rousing speech ‘to fight and die for freedom’ (first sending it to the English students for editing, then liaising with theatre nerds to perfect emphases of certain words), though they ran into the problematic situation of being unable to use the rather restricting word: ‘country’. Using the ambiguous term ‘global’ to unite the multiplicity of identities under one common branch solved this problem: ‘For our global liberty and sovereignty!’ Furthermore, ‘We band of brothers and sisters!’ was thrown in to please the Shakespeare-loving English students and ardent feminists.

Three rounds of negotiations were held at the Town Hall over the next month, all resulting in abysmal failure due to the students not understanding a word being said to them. ‘Speak English, you stupid commoner’ was met with ‘You posh twats, take yer fookin’ posh fookin’ talk and piss off’ and both parties had to flock off before a deadly punch-up. The students scoured the language department for those who could somewhat understand and interpret what the locals were saying in order to prevent further miscommunication.

The line in contention was this: ‘Alreet lads, I’m ganin tuh myek this fair on yee,’ (simultaneously, language students flipped through pages of lexicon graphs and tables with impressive speed, translating: ‘Now I’d like this to be a fair fight and we won’t relent…’—with the now-enlightened students nodding and both parties thoroughly relieved), ‘but divvint be bringing me family intee this kakky.’ (‘…but we do have families, wives and kids to think about, so make sure you don’t bring them into this ugly affair.’)—following which the students applauded, the locals too; and the Durhamnus commended the Durhamites for their respectable proposition, which received quick and gracious acceptance.

*

While this was taking place, other groups were dealing with their own unique set of problems. Here is an overview of all external parties not directly involved in the war but nevertheless affected by it:

Most cafés and teashops went on hiatus, though Vennels Café continued serving tea, remarking: ‘Aye, well we’ve been through worse n’ this, like. Y’kna, back when th’ English Civil War was gannin’ on. We was bled dry 374 years back by those bliddy Jocks. But through it all, business just went on. Didn’t stop for nee fooker. This 16th century block still stands well proud.’ The pubs too operated as usual, not necessarily picking a side but rousing up appropriate banter according to their customers. On request, the Swan & Three Cygnets drafted a schedule: Monday, Wednesday, Friday for students; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for locals; and Sunday was a ‘free for all, jest divvint gan brekking any glasses, mind.’ Ultimately, victory speeches went all round for whichever side gave them the most business.

The neighbouring town of Darlington became a refuge for the students-turned-residents who disappeared into hiding out of fear of being lynched by both parties for failing to pledge allegiance to either side. Likewise, other residents not originally from Durham chose to lock themselves in. Postgraduates were content to hide away at Ustinov College, a good thirty minutes’ walk from the Market Place, knowing it was much too far for anyone to bother with. The PhD candidates remained undisturbed, the Durhamnus viewing their work as extremely respectable, and the Durhamites fearing the irrational wrath of those rudely interrupted. These students, who had dedicated most of their lives to analysing one minute aspect of a generally unknown topic, were rumoured to be rather on edge, and all were wisely advised to leave them alone.

The Asians, who made up the majority of international students, got down to business before affairs reached a violent pinnacle. They assembled their intimidating force in numbers, plus Eastern European reinforcements, and began protesting the whopping £14,000 they had to pay in spite of lectures and tutorials missed because of the impending war. It was an historic day for the internationals when after seriously threatening to bring in home countries and governments as backup, the university agreed to settle this dispute by promising a reimbursement.

The professors were torn. Some felt obliged to side with their prodigies, their cherished pseudo-progenies; others felt it a duty to maintain social justice and defend the rights of those whose brave ancestors first occupied this land thousands of years ago. One English professor opted to write a poem about the whole ordeal (it was entitled ‘The Durham Land’ in much-too-obvious admiration for a certain Eliot poet). Others acted upon this new enthusiasm and began writing academic papers tracing the fascinating course of civil conflicts in British parishes and counties, scrambling in excitement upon discovering they were witnessing the first of its kind, desperately racing against each other to be the first to break new ground.

The police was comprised of a group of flustered men in neatly kept uniforms, honestly rather lost about what to do. Protect the people, that was certain; ‘but, howay, how much can we knack the people we’re tryna protect when it’s fo’ their own good, like?Sergeant Patsy organised the ground forces to set up barricades, while Officer Knomly scoured YouTube for global leadership summit videos with politicians debating similarly complex issues, hoping to find the key to their vexing question. After a mere five minutes, he came to the conclusion that even world leaders were just as, if not more, confused as they were.

Churches simply bemoaned current proceedings that attempted to overturn years and years of reconciliatory efforts. Not wanting to crumble without a fight (they had a solid Cornerstone after all), they intensified the frequency of monthly Sunday afternoon lunches meant for the intimate bonding of residents and students, transforming them into weekly lunches. Soon, they had added Monday afternoon teas, Tuesday morning brunches, and so on and so forth. A most peaceful, loving defiance.

Finally, Bill Bryson, ex-chancellor and the eponym of the university’s purple library, was chased down and asked about the inevitable war: ’Bill, we’d like your opinion on the situation in Durham. Some students are allegedly fighting the “good fight” in your name.’ Predictably, Bill refused to comment and vanished, his publicity manager announcing he had begun to write his next travel book. (A few days later, Peruvians reported spotting a big American man with a big American beard dressed in traditional clothing and riding a llama through the Andes.)

*

Time was ticking. Many were content to sit back and wait, but there were a few who were itching to get their dirty hands involved in some action. Several preliminary rounds of aggravated conflict occurred during the first few months of negotiations. Traces of border skirmishes were left on Kingsgate Bridge in the form of a pasty mixture of coagulated blood, mucus and tartar sauce. Fire trucks wailed loudly into the night as they doused several burning boathouses. Hospitals were filling up with locals who had being gashed by the swords and rapiers that usually adorned the walls of the Hogwartsian dining hall of Durham Castle. Things were quickly brewing out of hand.

Soon, a date was given for the great clash. It was to be in a week’s time, exactly three months after Tim versus John. Passions had been roused so vehemently, tensions on a high, that many wondered if the Dunelm War would in fact begin sooner. The majority of Durhamites were plagued by insomnia, anxiously awaiting the fate of their beloved home. The Durhamnus fared slightly better, accustomed to many a sleepless night in the library. So the historic city of Durham waited in both heightened anticipation and dread for total, all-out war.

News of the imminent Dunelm War spread far and wide. Newspapers reported that the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was dismissing it as ‘some remarkably ludicrous antics only to be expected from our daft neighbours.’ The people of Durham were swift to react, students and locals joining forces, plotting their next move hand-in-hand against those bastard imbeciles. And soon enough, someone observed Tim downing a pint or two with Old Man John at the Swan & Three, and knew everything was going to be all right.

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