Skinback Fusiliers, Episode Five

We present the fifth of ten weekly episodes from a brutal novel by an acclaimed British author

We present the fifth of ten weekly episodes from a brutal novel by an acclaimed British author.

The book is available on Kindle and through Amazon here.

Visit the Skinback Fusiliers page to read all published episodes, an introduction to the book, and a foreword by the author.


EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK

Two:

I tried to have a wank that night, to take my mind off everything.  I was in a room all on my own, which was one good thing when the lines were empty, and I tried to conjure Bridgie up.  It’s hard to get a proper hard-on for a girl when you don’t like her any more though, especially if you think she never liked you anyway.  She’d even stopped texting now, more or less.  It was safe to leave my mobile on again, not that I bothered much.  I got one sometimes out of the blue, usually insulting and unpleasant, usually about money.  The cheeky cow said I’d knocked off her CDs and her iPod, which is bollocks.  Whatever she’d had for two whole years, she’d had off me.

I realised after a while the end was soft and useless, and I worried that I’d still gone on, absent-minded, like.  Bloody hell, that was like a little kid does, isn’t it – pressing and prodding it for comfort, like twiddling your hair.  I didn’t want to stop though, in case it meant I’d lost interest in sex, so I tried to think of someone else.  I hit on Emma then, a girl I’d met at college as I was leaving to go to uni and she was signing on.  She was young and blonde and pretty lively and I got it off another girl she fancied me.  Big deal – I didn’t see her for ages after that, till I met her on the station one Saturday afternoon.  I was in combats, and we had a jokey conversation, she was very flirty, and called me General, which she thought was pretty smart.  Afterwards, two or three times, we met again, and she told me once, while she was pissed, that I could have her if I wore me uniform!  She didn’t mean it though.  I tried to bring her up into my mind, and stripped her jeans off, and her knickers and her top.  Her tits were Bridgie’s though – quite small, with big spready nipples.  This wasn’t going to work at all.

Quite lucky really, because when I’d given up, the bloody door banged open and a pissed-up bloke barged in.  He turned the light on and blinded me, then he let out a rousing fart.  It was the other old guy, the one who wasn’t Charlie Spencer, and he didn’t seem to really know where he was.

“Hey!”  I went.  “Oi, mate.  What you doing?  I’m in my fucking pit.”

It wasn’t very late, so I suppose he had a right to be confused.  He stood there blinking for a good long time, and he hadn’t really focused on me yet.  He was a big bloke, but he wasn’t tall, and his belly looked too fat for him to be a soldier – he wasn’t fit, he couldn’t be.  To me – no judge – he looked fifty if a day.  Could he be, and still be in the army?  Still be just a squaddie, come to that?

He cleared his throat.  His voice was deep and Yorkshire, Huddersfield, Leeds, somewhere over that way.  It wasn’t the slightest bit unfriendly.

“You’re in my fucking pit, you mean,” he said.  “What is this, a present from the Captain, or am I seeing things?  I’ve had this room a week now.  I’ve not seen you before, have I?”

He had seen me, although we hadn’t spoke.  And I had slept in this bed the night before, and on me own.

“I’ve spoke to your oppo,” I said.  “Yesterday.  Charlie Spencer.”

“That twat.  Well any mate of Charlie’s an enemy of mine, so I’m sorry, lad, you’re less than bleeding welcome.  To my room, my bed, my body, fucking anything.  Either you go or I do.  What’s it to be?”

This was getting serious, it was my bed.  I’d slept in it, this bloke was drunk or mad or both.  Now, to put the tin lid on, he sat down on the end, he plonked himself, and even with the army lack of springs he bounced me in the air.

“I’m called Ken,” he said.  “I like you, son.  Shall we have a drink?  I’ve got a bottle in me cupboard, it’s called a locker but it doesn’t lock.  I’ve got some brandy and me old guitar.”

He was up again, and I was bouncing, and he wrenched the locker door and it came open.  Empty, naturally.

“Fuck, I’ve been burgled!  Fucking fucking fuck, that were drei Stern, German three star!  And the guitar were a Martin, fuck my boots!”

I doubted that, but then you never know, do you?  I’d’ve liked a Martin but I’d never had the chance.  I’d’ve liked to have my guitar with me, even, it was a sort of comfort, but I’d been warned in no uncertain terms.  Squaddies don’t like proper music, and they don’t like people doing things they can’t, and most of all they can’t stand folk, the crap my mother brought me up on.  If you wanted to get beat up, you might as well just try Morris dancing, go the whole damn hog!  If this bloke really had a Martin they’d have smashed it, was my feeling. Destroyed it.  Either that or he must be awful, awful hard.

Suddenly, he crashed out of my room without another word, and I thought bugger it, he’s left the bleeding light turned on.  No hurry though, I was well awake by now, I might even get up again and toddle off and get another lager, sure as shit I’d not see him again.  Funny if he did have a Martin, though, he did look like a folkie in a way –  fat gut and alcoholic.  It made me miss the sorts of dumps I’d spent half my life in, despite the fact my mates all thought that I was mad.  Not just the music, neither.  The whole damn bit. 

He did have a Martin though, and he had a bottle ditto – next door down the passage where his room really was. He came back in laughing, guitar in one hand, brandy in the other, flipped the bottle on my bed, nodded, winked, and struck a chord. Then started cranking up his B-string with his tongue between his teeth.

“Pissed!” he said.  “Hang on.  That sound better?  That’s it.  Get some glasses, can’t you?  I’ve done my fucking bit.”

I was a bit self-conscious standing up in only a little teeshirt but what the hell?  Bridgie had failed me so there was no embarrassment there, and the three star brandy looked just the job.  I found a cup, and gave him the water glass, and while I poured he played a pattern of chords that sounded great.

“Is it a Martin then?”  I said.  “Honest to God?”

“Is it fuck as like!  Got nicked years ago, that did.  Johnny Roadhouse cheapo, I buy a new one every time some drunk cunt buggers it.  What you want?  English, Irish, Scottish, bluegrass, Dylan, blues, Bert Jansch, Bogle, or some other modern shite?  I don’t do rock and pop though, mate.  I’m too old and it’s too crappy.  Gimme that brandy.  Cheers!”

The session started then, and just went on and on.  He was amazing, this drunk old get, he had a voice like nails – not like his speaking voice – and he played brilliant.  Every now and then he stopped to suck down three star, and give me snatches from his life.  He’d come back from Krautland with Charlie Spencer for “a medical complaint” but he didn’t say what it was, and he drank the brandy in big gulps, never letting up.  It was a litre bottle, and he was pissed before we started, and although I kept my end up I was outclassed.  Good stuff though – as rough as arseholes, a German supermarket’s worst.  And however much he supped, he never played a wrong note or muffed a chord.  By the time he pushed the box at me and told me it was my turn to torture it, I was incapable.  I strummed a bit, I bolloxed up my chords and words, and Ken laughed his cock off and chain-smoked.

And then he changed.  It was gradual at first, then he went down pretty fast.  He asked me if I’d ever killed a man, and I said I hadn’t, and said I wasn’t sure I ever could.  Then I said: “It’s funny that.”

He looked at me across the nasty little smoky room.  His eyes had sunk into his face, sort of.  And he was sucking on his fag, his mouth covered by his whole hand, cupped in front of it.

“Funny?” he said.  “Why?  Why d’you think that’s funny?”

I didn’t like his tone at all.  His eyes were hooded.  His head was lost in smoke.  I tried a smile, but I was struggling.

“Well, I dunno,” I said.  “I mean…well it’s what I’m paid for, in’t it?  I guess they’d chuck me out.”

“You’re not paid to kill, you’re paid to fucking die,” he said.  “Ain’t you worked that out yet, you little twat?”

He was looking at the lino on the floor.  He dropped his fag butt and watched it smouldering.

“Killing’s all right, mate,” he said.  “Don’t knock it till you’ve fucking tried.”  He put his foot on the dog-end and ground it out.  “First time I got the chance was Kosovo.  I got this bloke square in my sights and the adrenaline shot through me like a fucking fire, I went bloody near delirious.  And then an officer moved in front of me.  Deliberate.  He could see the state that I was in.  To shoot the target I’d’ve had to shoot him first.  I bloody nearly did.  I wanted to.  I hated him.  I fucking hated him.”

And suddenly he picked his glass up just like that and drained it.  Then he picked the brandy up, the drop left in the bottle, then his guitar.  It was as if he hated me as well.  His face had gone like poison.  He hated me.

He nearly knocked the door frame out in leaving, and the impact of his shoulder shook the room.  I could hear him in the passageway, crashing from side to side.  No guitar sounds, though.  He never banged it once.  He didn’t drop the bottle, neither.

It was well gone two o’clock.  Work in the morning.  I switched off the light and lay there in the bed and felt like death.  I’d seen Ken’s face as he’d gone out the room, and I didn’t know what to make of it.  It had gone from poisonous to utter fucking misery.  He looked like a poor old useless sod.

Ah well, I thought.  It had helped to pass the time away…
Three

Normally in camp, I’d start trying to wake up about half six, and out of bed by quarter to for block jobs.  Today though, no reason to get up, I thought I’d take a little lie-in.  Fat chance. Sergeant Williams didn’t get to be a sergeant by being lax, and he’d decided to start his morning fun by beasting the new recruits at the crack of dawn.  I was still his bitch.

He came into my room like a bloody tank at six o’clock or so, in full combats and full of piss and vinegar.  He snapped the light on, and as I lay there blinking he pulled the covers off and started yelling, his idea of humour.

“Jesus, Tiny!  I can see where you got your name, la’!  Is that a lazy lob or have you had a hysterectomy?”

That’s what he said, straight up.  Even half unconscious and hungover I marvelled at his grasp of gynaecology, or at least his English.  It didn’t make me smile though.

“Come on!” he went.  “Out, out, out!  Hands off cocks, on socks, there’s work to do!  Sleep on your own again did you, sad bastard?  Jesus, what a stink of booze and old fags!  Are you a secret drinker, or was it company?”

Someone started banging on the wall then, yelling for silence, and it must have clicked with him.

“Fucking hell!” he said.  “Old Ken Rogers was it?  Serenade by moonlight?  You want to watch it, la’, he’s broken lots of fucking hearts.  More hearts than you’ve had hot fucking dinners!”

He’ll break the wall down if he goes on like this, never mind hearts, I thought.  If it was Ken he was in a right old rage, but his shouts and swears were muffled, like he had his head jammed in a pillow.

“Shut it, Ken, or you’re on a charge!”  Williams roared back at him, but he didn’t seem too bothered, really.

“He’s a good bloke, Ken,” he told me.  “Likes his brandy though, which explains the bleeding pong.  He don’t normally talk to twats like you, but he’s off his trike now, did it show?  He’s been everywhere, Balkans, Iraq, the ’Stan, and ended up in Deutschland cause they don’t count as an enemy no more.  If even that wa’ too much for the poor bastard, well fuck. It’s an ’oliday camp, innit?”

I wasn’t really listening, but I’d picked up on the broken hearts, if nothing else.

“What you on about, Sarge?” I said.  “You saying he’s gay?”

He looked at me as if I’d gone insane.

“Gay?  Ken Rogers?  Where the fuck d’you get that from?  We don’t have poofs in the army, mate, ain’t no one told you yet, and they weren’t even invented when Ken joined up.  Nah, Ken fucks women.  Lots of ’em.  Piles of ’em.  His last wife buggered off three months ago.  He went mad in Germany.  Got banged up.  He tried to kill the bastard that was fucking her.”

“What, some Kraut?”

“Fuck no!  Even Maureen wouldn’t sink that low!  Nah, sergeant in the Fusiliers.  Famous for it.  He’s got four kids round here, all with different women, all faithful army wives.  Got Ken down apparently.  It really got to him.”

I was out of bed now, three quarters dressed.  My combats weren’t that smart, I hadn’t really bothered much the night before, but I hoped Williams would be too wrapped up in his chat to notice.

“Yeah, well I spose it would,” I mumbled.  “He never mentioned it, last night, though.  He just sung, mainly.  Sung and played.  Brilliant.”

“Load of folkie shite,” said the sergeant.  “He wouldn’t know good music if you paid him.  Good soldier, though.  He’s killed more blokes than anyone I know.  Dozens of ’em, he’s got nerves of steel.  Well, except he’s started getting weird about it, which is why they sent him off to Krautland in the first place, according to Charlie Spencer.”  He laughed.  “Pain in the arse, really – he’ll be liking Moslems next!  Siding with Osama in Helmand!”  He laughed again, another shout.  “Pain in the arse like Charlie!  D’you get it?  He’s got piles!  Pain in the fucking arse!  Now fucking hurry up.  The new boys need their bleeding breakfast.”

When you’re in training, breakfast is the first meal that you drop, for two good reasons.  One, it’s followed by PT, which does your stomach in, and two, because it’s crap.  The rumour is they fry the eggs and sossies and the bacon up before they go out on the piss at knock-off, and leave them soaking in the oil overnight.  What we don’t eat (which is nearly all of it) they sell on to the local farms to give the pigs a treat.

But the very new boys, crap-hats, trogs – well they go to breakfast every day, and the kitchens put a special effort on for a week or two.  Sometimes the egg whites are even chewable, sometimes the yolks are only hard, not concrete.  Sadly that don’t last, nor does the crap-hats’ interest – and the more left over, the more cash-back from the farmer or the nearest prison.  That’s a rumour.  I lost two stone in my first three months.  That’s a fact.

So job one today, was to wander through the ranks, Sarnt Williams on one side, me on the other, and ask them how the scoff was, and how they were, and tell them how lucky they were they wouldn’t have PT today, the idle buggers.  Lots of them were still smiling – on Day Three! – and some of them were probably realising that life without a hangover wasn’t necessarily the end of the world.  My own eyes were closed up and glued with crap, and my mouth tasted like a nun’s gusset after a shag-in at the Vatican, so maybe it was a point of view.  I talked the talk, but I was dreaming of a shower, nothing else. 

Later, it was a case of playing escort as they traipsed from place to place, with the sergeant using me as his whipping post to show how hard he was “but fair,” the twat.  The idea was I’d been a naughty boy, and this is what I got for it.  If any of them had had a brain at all they’d’ve seen that he was just a bully and a fool, and in fact I spent a lot of time making faces behind his back, eye-rolling and so on, to make the point.  It occurred to me that if I tried I might get some of them to quit maybe, to go back to their mothers like they was entitled to.  By fuck, that would be a stunt to work on Williams!  That’d show the bastard.

The first few days are pretty weird when you join up, I could see it much more clearer now I was helping these poor sods.  They’d been sorted into their lines, they’d been tipped into their companies, they’d collected their bedding and been shown a few times how to make their bed.  These were the days the corporals came into their own, no answers back, right little Hitlers, and they enjoyed it.  If you were lucky you got one who would show you things and didn’t take the piss, but mostly you got blokes who liked to make you look a total wally.  The main way to do that was to say that your company was the only ones that ever did it right, and if you didn’t get your arsehole into gear you’d end up in C Coy, the biggest pile of shit in history.  Or D Coy, or A Coy, it didn’t matter – any Coy except the one you’d been ended up in, they were all the bleeding same in actual fact.

They also, all the NCOs right up to sergeant major, trained you up to hate somebody else.  It wasn’t personal, you just had to realise you was best and all the other bastards were inferiors – especially the Jocks.  They were easy targets because they were like the Scousers in a way – there was something wrong with them.  They always turned up drunk at every new intake, they snorted coke, and they attacked anyone and everyone, including each other, for no reason at all.  Their drugs problem was mega.  Massive.

Some corporals used to make us chant against the Jocks.  They’d get us into groups when no officers were about and sing sort of football choruses about what poofs they were, and how they all wore skirts.  In fact, in our division, anyone was a target who wasn’t from the North of England, and that included Liverpudlians.  The best thing we could think to say about the Scousers was that when they nicked the tracks off of the tanks it stopped us training.

As for blacks and Paks and gays, of course – hardly worth mentioning, is it?  In all my training time I only knew one camp lad, one lad who actually looked camp, like, and he went nearly crazy trying to be macho, to look and sound well hard.  He was keen as mustard (not keen as buggery, don’t even go there!), and pretty fit and pretty strong and always up for anything, no problem there at all.  But everywhere he went they all made kissing noises, and the sound of plungers sucking out of blocked up sewage pipes, and spat at him and called him fag and poof and queer and fudge packer and the rest of it.  On the range one day Sarnt Williams was thrashing another bloke and told him to do fifty push-ups.  Then, before he’d started, he told this gay lad to lie face downwards under him to “keep him hard at work!”  We all laughed like drains, but not long after he went unit, then got out.  Depression. 

That’s how Jamal went, come to think of it.  When Shahid was with him he got on fine, ’cause no one dared with Sha, but on his own he got the Paki this and Paki that treatment, and it seemed to get him down.  The NCOs were just as bad as usual, and one day he went for one of them, a skinny dim lancejack from Huddersfield, and they had a little scuffle before some lads pulled Jamal off and booted him about a bit, but it was Jam that got the book thrown at him.  According to Shahid, the OC said he had to try harder to fit in, and if he thought the lance corporal had made a racist remark he was wrong, it was a “misinterpretation.”  Then he gave him a little lecture on equality, and said it was Jamal who’d been picking on the lance in fact, because he had a “vulnerable position” and could lose his stripe!  I.e., Jam had done it on purpose to get the poor lad busted!  Jamal held on three weeks after that.  Then it was unit.  Depression.  Out.

And everyone was happy.  A result.

The most boring part of helping new recruits, for my money, was teaching them how to wash and clean their teeth, and iron shirts and do up buttons and so on.  When I hit Catterick, I thought the piss was being taken, big style, when my sergeant asked how many of us had a toothbrush.  But it was Big Knob, who I’d already worked out on Day Two was not so bad, and you could tell he meant it.  Everyone said they had, but you could also tell that lots of them were lying, they looked at everybody else to see what the question meant and what the answer ought to be.  I went in with about sixty other kids – I was the oldest, on account of university – and a good six of them had never cleaned their teeth.  They got issued with a toothbrush (and charged later, I expect), and we had a lickle demonstration.  Today, with Sarnt Williams, that was my job.  Wet the fucking brush, put on the toothpaste from the tube, wiggle up and down, and spit.  Yeah, Dumbo!  Spit!  Don’t swallow it.  Then rinse and spit again.  Then wash the brush and screw the cap back on the tube.  Do that every day and your Ma might want to kiss you, for the first time in your life.

You think I’m joking, don’t you – go on, admit it, my mum did.  No joke.  Some of these poor bastards, judging by the smell, didn’t even know you had to wipe your arse.  So maybe that’s the good bit, then.  Look at some of these poor fuckers twelve months later, and they’re fit, and proud, and civilised enough to get blown to pieces by an IED.  Look out you terrorists, here we come.  England’s finest. 

Ironing a shirt, shaving properly, blowing your nose, washing, having a shower.  All this I went through, all this I played the sergeant’s guinea pig to show.  I was from Blackburn, he told everyone, where we didn’t have running water yet, or flushing toilets, and you used your sleeve to wipe your nose on, and your girlfriend’s knickers after intercourse, if she was posh enough to wear ’em (and know the meaning of that word).  Even the lads from Blackburn fell about, especially when he asked if there were any Muslims in, despite the fact that everyone in the room was white.

“We’re completely racially tolerant in the army,” he said, “so I’ve got to ask.  Just ’cause you ain’t Paki-coloured don’t mean you ain’t a Moslem, and Moslems gob on the ground a lot, which squaddies, believe you me, do not.”  Pause.  “Not unless you want your bollocks nailing to the floor, d’you get me?”

After dinner, towards the end of the afternoon, I was feeling really knackered.  It was probably the last night’s booze, but my mum had always told me “brainwork,” as she called what she did, was just as hard or harder than “honest labour.”  I might have given her the benefit of the doubt, except it would’ve meant that officers did real work too, and that was bollocks, obviously.  All the officers in the training unit were so nice, so absolutely bleeding useless, so desperate to be fair, and “normal” and be liked.  But they weren’t, of course, it was the sergeants who ran the show, and their opinion of the flathats was diabolical.  They were toffs, they were rich stuck-up bastards who earned a fortune and knew fuck all, and lots of ’em had stupid toffy accents, to put the lid on it.  Figures of fun, that was the most respect they got.  Figures of fun and hatred.  No respect at all.

Case in point – on the last session of the afternoon an officer was in, all beaming smiles and encouragement.  This bloke was a lieutenant, bit old, bit podgy, bit useless or he’d’ve got promotion, wouldn’t he?  He give a little talk about the history of the army, how we were there to help these people (he didn’t say exactly who, but let’s guess the Afghans shall we, except the Taliban, ho ho) and “the goal for every soldier is to bring the gift of peace.”  I felt Ken’s brandy rising in my throat, and my eyes were flashing in the sunshine and the heat, and I’m like – Jesus, did I get this bullshit shot at me last year?  Did I hear it all and not throw up?  It must be brainwashing.  It must be something in the tea.  We must be idiots.

Then after he’d spoke, and the CSM had had a go, Sarnt Williams hit me with his masterstroke.  I was sitting in a total daze, head banging, and he must have said my name a dozen times before it sunk into my skull.

“Hassan!” he was going.  “Hassan!  Are you receiving me?  Earth to Tiny Hassan!  I’m sorry, sir, I warned everyone he was from Blackburn, but this is...  We call him Tiny because he ain’t too bright.  Soft-lad!!  Hassan!!!”

The whole room was falling about, and the officer, thank God, was joining in the fun.  But then I felt a bit pissed off, I got resentful.  Everyone was laughing, the day outside was fine and sweet, and my mates were in the country in the south, not long till knockoff time, beer, curry, river, girls.  And here was I, Williams’s whipping post, his bitch.  So bollocks to the lot of them.

“Well, I’m not sure if you’ve chosen the right man, Sergeant,” the lieutenant was wittering, “but at least the new boys’ll get the true authentic voice of squaddie-dom!  Lads, I give you Private ‘Tiny’ Hassan.  He’ll tell you how we live here day-to-day.  Thank you, Hassan.  Continue.”

Continue?  What, continue blinking?  I looked at Williams and his face was a picture of contented spite.

“Go on, la’,” he said, after a short wait.  “Cat get your tongue, did ’e?  Give the lads a lecture. Tell it like it is!”

But without the swear words, naturally.  Without the nasty bits, the truth.  I looked at all the pasty bastards sitting there, the sweepings off the classroom floor, the kids who wouldn’t ever get a proper job, and I felt really sorry for them.  Then I nearly laughed.

“Sir?”  I said, to the officer.  “Is that right, sir?  Tell it like it is?”

I saw the sergeant’s gob open but the lieutenant got there first.

“Why not?” he said.  “Just a normal day, for once.  Just a flavour of our life here in the garrison.  Catterick, men, is a really special place.”

I spose I bottled it in a way.  I felt this great big surge inside me, and the first word that rose up was fuck.  Well it would be in the army, wouldn’t it?  It fucking would be.  But something stopped me.  I glanced at the lieutenant’s face again, smiling happily, and I felt sorry for him, an’ all.  Now what’s that about?  I felt sorry for a dickhead officer.

“Six thirty, half past six,” I said.  I sounded like a speak-your-weight machine.  “Get up, the crack of dawn, and do the block jobs.  Well, have a shower first and get dressed.  Yeah, some people shower every day, your skin don’t fall off, honest.  Then after block jobs—”

A hand went up in the front row.  Jesus, keen bastard, eh?

“Please, er...  Mister...  Mate...”

“Dickhead,” said Williams, absent-mindedly.

“Sergeant!” went the officer, eyebrows raised but still smiling. “Good question, though.  Private?  Block jobs?”

“You know,” I said.  “Jobs on the block.  It might be, like... washing the showers out.  Er, sweeping up.  Mopping floors.”

“General tidying,” said the lieutenant.  “Is that it, Private?  General clearing up.”

“Yeah, well,” I said.  “I mean, yes, sir.  Well, like everybody’s meant to clear their own crap up and take it to the skips but that don’t last for long.  Most people just chuck it in the corridors, in bin bags if you’re lucky, because they know someone’s got to do it.  Sergeants are worst, and lancejacks next.  Whatever Sarnt Williams here wants you to believe.”

That was a try-on, just to see what happened, and everybody laughed their socks off.  Williams put on a laugh as well, but his eyes were after mine like heat-seeking missiles, which I avoided by grinning at the officer, who grinned back.  Normally these talks are boring, pointless.  Normally by now the recruits would be asleep.  I suppose it made some sort of sense to him.

“Oh, I forgot,” I said.  “Before the corridors you’ve got to do the bogs.  You know, clean up the porno mags stuffed down behind the toilets and rub off the crystallised piss all round the bowls.”  I nearly mentioned needles but I thought he’d only stand so much.  I bet he’d never seen a squaddies’ bog, I bet he’d not believe it, stupid prat.  Let alone the shit smeared on the walls.

“Hassan,” said Williams, struggling to keep his cool.  “Don’t get too daft, will you, la’?  Don’t tear the...bottom out of it.”

This got another laugh out of the crap-hats, because the word was “arse” and everybody knew it.  Another laugh, another nail banged in my coffin.  But the lieutenant still didn’t seem to be pissed off.  Smiling like a fool, in fact.  I blundered on.

“Anyway,” I said, “that’s the best part of the day over.  Downhill all the way now – it’s breakfast time.  The only good thing is that not many people bother going, because we have PT next, so what’s the point?  The more you eat, the more there is to run off, ain’t there?  And the fuller up your guts are, the worse it feels.”  I grinned out at them.  They were sitting there dead interested, probably wondering how much of it was true, and why I was allowed to say it, anyway.  “Best reason not to go I’ve left till last,” I said.  “It’s like eating shite.  It’s diabolical.”

“That’s pretty cynical!” said the lieutenant, almost fucking giggling.  “He’s ‘playing the old soldier,’ is what my colonel used to call it, but it’s a point of view so I won’t censor him!”

Sarnt Williams would’ve, if he’d been able to.  Sarnt Williams would have killed me.  I’d got the taste though.  What could they do to me?  More punishment?  Bollocks to ’em.

“PT, then,” I said.  “One hour, two, depending on how the sergeants feel that morning.  It’s usually a TAB or a boot run or maybe circuits.  If you’re in Sarnt Williams’s company you’re fucked, because—”

I had to stop then, because there was a gale of laughs and shouting.  Shocked, they were, pretending to be scandalised.  It’s funny, innit – swearing in front of an officer was the big taboo, it was like farting in front of the Queen or some bloody bishop.  But officers swear, I’ve heard them, and anyway they must do, it stands to reason – like the Queen must lay a good stiff shit from time to time.  But I must admit I’d shocked myself, thrown myself out of synch.  Not least because the sergeant’s look was black and stormy, like a bloody hurricane.  I’m not stupid.  I went for the recovery.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “that just slipped out.  The reason you don’t want to be in the sergeant’s company is not because you’re…you know…but because it’s the best, the boss company, so if you’re lazy, like I am, you get thrashed worse than in the others.  The fat blokes all end up at the back, and the rest of us get beasted because we should make sure that everybody’s fit.  D’you get it?  If some bugger can’t run, or won’t run, it’s your fault, all of you.  And everybody hates the Jock bastards, because they don’t even try.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because it sounded a bit like racism, and officers are very hot on that in theory, in case there’s anybody listening.  But Williams approved, and the lieutenant didn’t notice, far too thick.  So thick in fact I got another little dig in.

“It’s worst in winter obviously,” I said.  “Okay now, but in January they make you parade outside your CHQ and stand still in your shorts for hours.  You can see the officers and senior NCOs inside, having a laugh at you and drinking tea.  It’s worse though if you’re fat and podgy like I said, because then they take the piss as well.  If you’re unhealthy, see, it’s bad.  People look down on you.”

I looked at all the pasty faces and got a big smile on my mush.

“The best thing if you really do it hard, is that you feel good,” I said.  “After the graft the pay-off.  Back in the shower for a good long time, hot water, steam and a bucketful of gel.  I got switched on dead early when I joined – I always had ironed DPMs and polished boots to get into.  Do ’em the night before, it makes you feel great, no shit.  Oops, sorry sir.  There I go again!”

He looked at me like a friendly teacher (if these kids had ever seen one, which wasn’t likely when you think about it), and waved his hand like I should carry on.  I was on a roll.  I was enjoying it.

“After that you’ve got an hour to yourself, more if you’re crafty, like.  Nine thirty shower, change, and then sit in your room and play computer games, or watch Ballamory if you’re a real sad bastard, there’s no one in England knows more about kids’ and daytime telly crap than squaddies, you can win pub quizzes on it.  Then at eleven someone comes and says ‘what you on?’  And you say ‘Oh, I’ve got to go and see Lieutenant Blah, or the dentist, or the clerks about me pay,’ and at half past, maybe, someone else says ‘Warrior crews to report to garage after scoff,’ so then you’ve got to work out another reason, like a brain tumour or a heart attack, to keep you sitting on your arse.  I’m telling you, it’s a hard life.  Thank God we get well-paid!”

Wasn’t there nothing I could say to rile this twat lieutenant?  The kids were rolling in the aisles and he was smiling like Father fucking Christmas.  I didn’t dare to look at Sarnt Williams, there was no percentage there, no way.  I just enjoyed the laughing and the whoops and cheers.  I’d never spoke like this before about the army.  I’d never told it like it was.  Not to me mother, anyway.  Not to her in any way at all.

“Lunch,” I said.  “Let’s say burgers pie and chips.  Baguette on the side, with rice and extra bread and butter.  And more chips.  There’s salad – there’s even pictures of it on the walls, to show it’s good for you – but I’ve never seen no-one actually eat any, it’s fucking rabbit food.  Then from thirteen hundred on you sit around a bit, play football if you’re any good and get pissed on from a great height if you aren’t, then from fourteen thirty, that’s half past two in English, an NCO might try and nab you for a job, unless you can dodge again.  Everybody loves that, don’t they Sarge?”

I risked a look at him and his eyes were fucking gimlets, willing me to die.  The NCOs are there to keep you keen, see – if you ain’t, it’s them that’s failures.  I was digging him deeper and deeper in the shite, and the trogs were loving it.  They were delirious.  And he couldn’t make me stop.  He was completely bolloxed.

“Anyway,” I said, “sometimes they’ve got you skewered, haven’t they?  Say I’m on CFT Warrior – sent down to the garage, full checks, right?  But even that’s not too bad when you get used to it, is it?  There’s ways and means.”

The lieutenant was looking interested, so I pulled back a bit.  Didn’t want to drop me in it as well, did I?  I winked at them, my “audience,” out of his line of sight.

“Course, this isn’t me that’s talking now ’cause I’m a good boy, but there’s some awful skivers, Sergeant Williams’ll back me up, it makes his life a ruddy misery sometimes.  Let’s say it works like this.  This squaddie – anyone but me – gets sent down to do full checks, but he doesn’t have a clue.  The other driver might know what he’s doing, it’s just possible, but he’s fast asleep in the back, hung over.  So the squaddie looks around to find out if the Colour’s lurking, and if he ain’t, he does a crafty bunk.  Hide in me room until parade and fall-out – then fill up on scoff again.  After that the meatheads go back to the gym, the pissheads hit the pubs – not an option for you lot, yet – and the bad boys do some smoking in their room, know what I mean, nudge nudge?  Keen lads like you’ll box up your kit, polish your boots for morning, and that’s you squared away.  The night is young and Catterick’s stretched out like a... like a...”

I fell about all of a sudden.  I lost it.  Like a pile of diamonds, or a pile of horse manure?  Oh Catterick, world capital of the Shit Night Out!  The boggin’ slags, you wouldn’t touch ’em with a bargepole.  The Kingo hardmen in the pubs, the Jocks sky high on crack, the Yorkies saving money, the Scousers nicking it, and everywhere the crowds of scruffy civvy wankers, as miserable as prisoners of war.  Then all get drunk and back to bed as pissed as arseholes, night after night after fucking night.  I’d stopped laughing.  It wasn’t really funny any more.

“You can go to the gym, of course,” I said.  “You don’t have to go out drinking, there’s lots to do around the camp, there’s got to be, ain’t there?  Then in the morning...SSDD.”

“I know that one,” said the lieutenant, proud as Punch, the daft soft sod. “It means Same Shit, Different Day. And I say Private Hassan deserves a clap for that talk, chaps, don’t you?  Cynical but stimulating!  Well done, Private Hassan!”

He started, and poor old Williams joined in as well, he had no choice, did he?  Christ, that must have hurt.  I managed to avoid him in the crush to reach the canteen, because Lieutenant Bonehead wanted to have a word with him.  I actually heard him congratulate him, on my “performance.”  It was rough, he said, raw, a wee bit cheeky – but “pretty darn authentic.”

Yeah, thanks a bunch, I thought.  Plenty there for Sarnt Williams to pay me back for.  Oh Jesus – was I going to suffer.


The next episode of Skinback Fusiliers, GOOD TOOL, GOOD TOMB, GOOD LUCK, will be published on 2 May.