Skinback Fusiliers, Episode Four

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

We present the fourth 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.


CRUEL AND UNUSUAL

Martie’s revenge took a fair time coming, but when it did it hit home good, and it was me that took the brunt of it.  Maybe that was because I’d not backed them in the Perokeeto punch-up, but why I should have thought he’d let us off the hook in any case I can’t imagine.

First problem in the morning was the hangover, next problem was it’s Sunday.  I came round slowly, and I really thought I might have died.  There was no Martie in the room this time, thank fuck, and no Dave Hughes neither – he must have deposited the lance in his proper bed for once.  Sha was beside me as per, and the other two were Ashton and Wasambu, which made me a racial minority for the first time in my life.  As I lay there willing me eyes not to explode, Sambo got up, ebony and silent, slipped on some clothes, and buggered off.  Wouldn’t see him at service, neither – he had exemption.  Sha said he carried his God around in a wrinkled leather bag between his legs, which was probably a joke but who was checking?

The hangover worried me a bit, because I’d never got one till I joined the army.  I drank enough, God knows – my mum worked on the principle that kids only go mad about stuff that’s banned or rationed, so I spent most of my school years smashed.  Me and my sister used to raid her spirits too – we both got dead smart at adding water to the bottles, which is quite an art – and we learned the other trick, to lie and lie and lie.  My sister was brilliant at this.  I saw her cry once, real tears, when she was accused of nicking brandy, she just “could not believe you don’t believe me!  I’m your daughter!  I do not tell lies!!”

She told me afterwards she’d been so pissed-off that mum suspected her that she almost ran away from home, “to teach the cow a lesson.”  She also told me that she’d nicked it.  Well, of course.

But hangovers were different, they were new.  Which either meant I was getting old and past it, or I was hammering it too much.  I’d enjoyed the army once.  For the first six months I’d almost loved it, I thought I’d found my fucking slot.  Just wars.  Killing mad Muslims for the good of all, including them of course.  Now my eyeballs were about to burst and I wondered what the fuck.  Yeah.  What the fuck.

Shahid was excused services as well as Sambo, obviously – but he never missed.  It was him and the only other Asian that I ever met inside, a lad called Jamal, that made me realise what a prat I’d been at first for saying no.  Jamal went to services for a quiet life, the way he rode all the other punches and all the other insults from the English lads.  Then he quit, with depression, and everybody laughed their tits off, which just goes to show, don’t it?  He’s probably a terrorist by now, who knows?  I would be.

Funny though.  Canon Fodder (as we called the padre, ho bloody ho) couldn’t persuade me, and he used every underhand trick known to men of God.  First time, in the first week after intake, would you believe, he bowls into the lecture room, unannounced, and stands there looking at us like we were meant to know something.  We weren’t, of course: that was the technique.  Every morning since we’d got to Catterick there’d be something new sprung on us, and we were meant to be confused.  Sometimes weapons, sometimes the rules of combat, sometimes HIV.  Then one day it’s this dude in a major’s uniform (that was a guess; at this time I still didn’t have a clue) and a dog collar.  That was the giveaway.  He looks all round the room, and smiles the smile, and parks his fat arse on the table at the front.

“Good morning, men,” he said.  “You all believe in God, I trust?  Any Moslems here?  Any Jews?  Any Hindus, Sikhs, or Parsis?  Well, we all believe in God, don’t we?”  Joke coming: “Even Catholics!  There’s only one God, even if we give him different names!”

There was something about him that got right on my tits.  Even his crack about the Catholics, which was aimed at the Scousers I imagine, didn’t win me over, although I’d already had a dose or two of Scouser medicine since I joined up.  I felt like saying “how d’you know He’s not a She?” but I couldn’t be arsed.  It’s a line my mum and sister used to kick about when Vronnie (that’s my sister) was small enough to half believe.  “I believe in God and Germaine Greer,” she said once, and it brought the house down.  Germaine Greer was old some Aussie dyke apparently, back in history.

He was going on, though, and I suddenly realised we were going to have a prayer.  Just like that, on a Tuesday morning in a dump in Catterick.  A sort of taster, before we got down to the nitty-gritty.  No one had denied that they believed, no one had said “hang on, no way, fuck off.”  Or anything.

“We needn’t kneel,” he said.  “It’s strictly non-denominational, and we don’t want to mess up your new finery.  But let’s close our eyes, shall we?  And clasp our hands.”

Shit!  I couldn’t do it!  I didn’t want to do it!  I’d even raised it in the recruiting office, the religion thing, and they’d fell about and said no way!  Another of their little lies.

“Sir!”  I gabbled.  “I’m sorry, sir – I don’t, sir!  I mean, I don’t... I ain’t got no religion, sir!  Excuse me!”

“He’s a conshie!” someone shouted, and the others fell about.  Not Canon Fodder, though.  He waited till the noise died down, and he looked as if I’d laid a toolie underneath his nose.

“Forgive me, men,” he said, “if I don’t join in your mirth.  This…gentleman...” He stopped.  Everyone was silent.  “Name?” he asked me.  “Rank?”

“Hassan, sir.  Andrew.  Um...”  I didn’t have a rank I knew of, and damn well he knew it too.  “Er.  Recruit, sir.  Soldier.”

“I doubt that,” he said.  “What platoon?  What section?  Who’s your sergeant?”

There was a good long pause.  I didn’t fucking know, did I?  My mind was blank.

“Please sir, I can’t remember, sir,” I said.  They called him Big Knob, my sergeant at induction.  He called himself Big Knob.  I couldn’t say that to an officer, could I?  Least of all a bleeding reverend.

“Can you remember why you don’t believe in God?” he said.  “Or is that beyond your intellectual capacity also?”

I was blushing, I felt like shit.  But if I had a passion, if my mum had brought me up with anything like that at all, it was a belief that God did not exist, or if he did he was a bastard.  (Or she.  Let’s hear it for little Vronnie, eh?)  I’m not the most best-speaking sort of person normally, I come from Blackburn, for fuck sake.  But I could play the parrot sometimes, and today it came out good.  My mother talking.  Years and years and years.

“It’s a jerrybuilt construction, sir,” I said.  “It’s something men dreamed up because we’d be terrified to be just animals clinging to a ball of... er... rock in nothingness.  It’s a baby’s dodie, sir.  A comfort blanket.  A dummy tit.”

I think he’d geared himself up to be furious, but he was overwhelmed by my mates.  They weren’t mates at all, they were just would-be’s like myself.  Poor lost bastards who’d do anything for a laugh, and laugh at anything, an’ all.  They fell about.  They howled.  They went hoarse.

“He said tit, sir!  He said tit!  Can he say that, sir, you’re a vicar, sir!  He said tit!  And we was praying, sir!  Oooh, sir!”

That was him fucked, too.  That was the two of us.  But I realised I was fucked for good; he wasn’t.  And nor was Shahid, neither, who’d joined in mocking me and was a blatant liar obviously, because whatever else he was, he wan’t no bleeding Christian.  Later, when I got to know him (and his name), I found we had a lot in common on the God subject, and that he chose to go to church an’ all that bollocks quite deliberate, like he ate proper food and not the special shite the cookhouse did for Muslims and the other  “mad minorities.”  Not like poor Jamal.  They wrecked him in nine weeks. 

When the shouting had died down, Canon F had got it all worked out again.  The crazy bastard didn’t dismiss me, he suggested that everyone should pray for me, to “help me to enlightenment.”  That got to me I must say, although I tried my hardest not to let it, and it got to the others as well, because there probably wasn’t one believer in the whole damn lot of them.  They was screwed as well, see, and they couldn’t slide out now, could they?  They were officially believers, ganged up against the lousy heathen – me!  So every church parade from here to Kingdom Come had got them on the list, and the padre could tick all the boxes when the questionnaires came round.  Atheists?  We don’t have them – our men believe.  Like the army don’t have racists, and the army don’t have bullies, and the army don’t have crackheads, and the army don’t have gays.  Like fuck they don’t.  Like fuck.

At the end of it, I couldn’t get a punishment, because you can’t be forced to believe can you, even in the army?  Major Fodder just told me that he’d suggest certain duties for me every Sunday, nice and early, in lieu of sitting in the chapel with my friends.  I wouldn’t want to waste my time, would I?  And I could have no objection he could see, no way.  I got sent to the kitchens usually, to pick my nose and fart off Saturday night’s vindaloo and lager, and like most army punishments it was completely pointless, and more or less forgotten in three weeks.  Except that my “non-believer status” was on my file, and everyone always knew, and every time we went on an exercise or to a different camp or anything, I had to tell, and explain, and hang about like a spare prick, and it was mega, mega boring.

Shahid used to take the piss as well.  He said what if we were wrong and there was a God or Allah in the clouds?  He’d get seventy three virgins – Muslim perks – and I’d get eternal hell.  Actually he said it was a mistranslation and he’d only get a bunch of grapes, and he’d have to kill a Christian anyway to make it as a martyr, which might get him into trouble with the padre.  So in the end, sometimes, I went to services just for the crack, and to stop them asking stupid questions.  Part-time believer, sort of.  Look good on a job CV that would, eh?

Anyway, this Sunday morning – the day of Mart’s revenge – religion turned out to be the least of my worries.  The padre down here was a boring bastard, I’d found out the week before, but today the Lord had other plans for me.  I had a shower and a shit to clear the stale booze out, but as Sha and Ash and me went to the eatery we clocked alien activity.  Outside the main block was two police cars, and there was a lot of lads milling about, and a lot of officers.  This caused a buzz for us.  Maybe some pikie had got killed!  When we queued up for our scran, though, we heard it was much worse.  They’d let the coppers into camp because they’d had to; they’d got a warrant or some fucking thing.  It was a tin-lid job apparently.  The town was well pissed off with constant trouble from the squaddies, and heads were going to roll.  Someone, at long long last, was going to be in the shit.  Up to the testicles.

Chas Hicks and Bollocks Bowyer were jumping up and down like blue-arsed flies.

“It’s bloody typical,” Chas was screeching.  “We sort their gippoes out for ’em and all we get is blame.  Jesus, they’ve been nicking stuff and raping girls for yonks and the fuzz have done fuck all.  They don’t know they’re born, these sheep-shaggers!”

“Gratitude!” said Bollocks.  “That’s what they ought to give us, they ought to give us fucking medals!  They’re trying to arrest blokes!  Squaddies!  I’ll tell you what, we’ll break the place up tonight, no danger!  Last night’ll be like a poofters’ pantie party!”

I had a sudden picture of the cop-girl and the CSM.  It was a real punch.  It could have smashed her face in.

“Bastard coppers,” said a lad I didn’t know.  “I got one a good kick up the arse, I know that much.  They’ve got no bloody right!”

“They’ll not do much,” said Shahid, soothingly.  “We’re fireproof in here, it’s strictly invitation only, the police have got no jurisdiction.”

“You what?  Talk English can’t you, Stanley!”

“We don’t even have to let them in,” said Shahid.  “That plain enough for you, Dumbo?”

“Fucking Paki,” said Bollocks, in disgust.  “They’ve took Martie in, in any case.  That serious enough for you, is it?”

Ashton snorted.

“So who’s that up there, then?  Bloody Elton John?”

That shut Bowyer up, because Martie was walking through the door right then, followed by Big Dave and Billy ’Unt.  It shut me up, too, because the lance stalked straight up to me with a sort of hardman sneering look.  I noticed his mug was even worse than the day before – bent nose, black eye, and now a good split lip. Couldn’t fail to notice really, because he stuck his face right up to mine and he wasn’t going to kiss me, neither.

“You!” he said.  “Get in that office!  Now!  Where’s your mate?”

I goggled.  If I had mates they were there in front of him.

“What for?”  I said.  “What mate?”

“The other yellow bastard.  The other pansy toerag.  Gough.”

Ashton fell about.

“They’ve found you out, Ti!  Goughie’s your bestest pal!”

“Shut the fuck up, you!” snapped Martie.  “Where is he, Hassan?  The captain wants you in the office.  He’s bloody livid!  Now!”

“What for?”  I said again.  “I mean...”

“Are you refusing, soldier?  Shift!”

It was madness.  It was upsetting, if you know what I mean.  But five minutes later I was standing in front of Captain Sanders listening to what I’d done.  It was terrible, I was a thug, a ringleader, and it was only because my lancejack had stood up for me that he’d persuaded the police not to “pursue the matter.”  What matter?  He wouldn’t tell me.  I couldn’t ask.  I fucking knew!

He was a tall man, this Captain, probably not thirty, with rimless specs.  After his little bit of shouting, he played the kindly uncle bit, only disapproving.  More in sorrow than in anger, that sort of diarrhoea.

“But I didn’t do it, sir,” I said.  “That’s the honest truth, sir.  I didn’t do nothing.  Anything.”

The look of sorrow got more sorrowful.

“Hassan,” he said.  “Can’t you just tell the truth for once?  Can’t you be man enough?”  He sighed.  “Not in your nature, I suppose.  Something you just can’t bring yourself to do.  Ah well.”

He’d been standing up, now he sat down.  He picked up a pen and marked something on the pad in front of him.  He was going slightly bald.

“So now you’re insulting your own lance corporal,” he said.  “Now you’re calling him a liar.  I’m sending you back to Catterick.  You and Private Gough.  We can do without you here.  The pair of you.”

What to say to that?  Some fucking punishment, I don’t think!

“Yes, sir.  Sorry, sir.”

I knew the rules, the regs, and so did he.  I could do no right, and he could do no wrong.  If he moved, salute him.  If he spoke, apologise.  I wondered vaguely where Gough had got to.  Perhaps he’d done a runner.  Perhaps he wasn’t as stupid as he looked.

Late that afternoon, they put me on a train and sent me back to Yorkshire, which some would say was punishment enough.  Out of all the bastards in the ruck last night, me and Goughie were the only ones to get it in the neck.  He hadn’t done a runner, by the way, he’d been having a crap.  I didn’t see him on the train, cause he avoided me, and it didn’t take much working out that he blamed me for everything, including grassing him up (and myself as well, presumably, the stupid twat.)

I did have a conversation with the ginger SAS man, though, who turned out to be a pretty decent bloke, and it passed the time away.  He laughed like a drain when I said we’d thought he was something undercover, but he did ask me about my mates in the army, about Sha and Ashton, and if it had turned out as good as I’d hoped it would when I joined up.  I didn’t want to go on too much, in case I bored the tits off him, but I did tell him how they’d conned me out of learning a trade, which was why I’d come in in the first place.  He said my timing was unlucky.  The only skill they really needed in a squaddie nowadays was to keep the numbers up – and stop a bullet, naturally.

I found out later that he’d had a talk to Gough as well, in another carriage.  From what I gathered, Gough had told him Shahid was a terrorist, some sort of Muslim nutter.  And Ashton was a maniac for sex.

You’ve got to laugh, ain’t you?  That Goughie.  What a bleeding dick.

CRAP-HATS TO THE SLAUGHTER

One

I’d not had much to do with Sergeant Williams before I got sent back to Catterick, except working out how to avoid him.  He was on intake mainly – because he was too brainless to do a proper job, was the general feeling when you got to know him.  Pretty bog standard of the army to think that new recruits weren’t important, but it wasn’t like that, exactly.  Some of the new lads took to him big style, because he was hard and macho and everything that lots of kids had joined for, I guess – so that they could be like him.  He was a mate of Martie Martin ditto.  Which said it all for me.

I was eating on me own on the first morning of my “punishment,” half through choice, when I clocked him coming to my table.  He smiled the smile, which gave me fair warning there was shit to follow, and reached across and picked a sausage off my plate.

“Worth eating are they?  Or just the usual shite?”

Why wait for my opinion?  He held it between his thumb and finger and sniffed at it hard, snot rattling in his throat.  Then he give it a lick, all up its length like a prick in a porno, and smacked his lips.  Then he dropped it back on my plate, right in the middle of the fried egg that I was eating.

“Yerk,” he said.  “Fucking vile.  I don’t know why you put up with it.  Shoot the cook, I say.  Where’s your mate?  Your bumboy?  Gough?”

How should I know?  I hadn’t really seen that stubborn bastard since we’d got out of the taxi from the station.  The ginger SAS man had taken it, and let us share for free an’ all, which was amazing, unbelievable.  But there were only seven soldiers on our whole floor when we got back to our lines, and Goughie even moved his stuff to the furthest empty room that he could find away from me, to make it clear that we weren’t mates.  (He must’ve thought I didn’t know!)  We weren’t even talking, it turned out, even in the taxi.  We were like a married couple waiting for the kids to die so we could get divorced.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Williams had decided humiliation would be the best thing for my soul, the smartest punishment, so I was going to be his “bitch” to help him with the latest intake, who’d come in the night before.  Williams, who was white (or Liverpudlian at least), fancied he could do the ’ard-man Yardie talk (he couldn’t) and even did it with the ’ard-man black recruits we got sometimes.  They had to take it, naturally, not because he was hard himself (he was) but because he was a sergeant.  Ashton had been one of the few black lads who’d took the piss once, months ago.  He never did again.  My role, my part in it, would be to show the poor new trogs about, take them to where Williams told me to take them, answer their stupid moron questions, wipe their arses if they needed it.

“You’re trained, see,” he said.  “The government have put a lot of cash in you, and we’ve got to make some use of it, ain’t we?  You can strip down an SA80, can’t you, la’?  And fire the fucking thing, although I doubt if you can hit a target.  And you can drive a Warrior, and service it, and work a radio, and march an ’undred mile in full kit with a cooker and a kitchen sink stuffed up yer arse and turn water into wine if you’re stranded in the desert.  Can’t yer?”

Oh aye, I thought.  And sleep suspended by me foreskin up Mount Everest, and boil a kettle with a candle in an Arctic gale, and shit standing on me fucking head.  And within six months or so I was off to Helmand or Sangin to show the madmen of the world we were the sane ones, and they should vote like us, and have an English God, and never drink and drive, not even on a camel.  I could even tell them why, if anyone was dumb enough to ask.  Cause the Yankees say so, right?  Don’t you for-bleeding-get it.

“Well?” said Williams.  “Are you dumb as well as fucking stupid?  All that training needs some use, don’t it?  And why you dressed up like a plumber on a call?  You’re on punishment, have you forgot?  I’ll give you thirty seconds to go and get your combats on.  And don’t forget to clean your plate away.  Whoops.  Butterfingers!”

As I went to stand – I didn’t bother to say I’d been told the night before to put on coveralls – he tipped my plate up and shot the leftovers across the plastic tabletop.  I saw some squaddies smile and snigger but I just got a pile of paper and pushed it all back on again.  He watched me set off for the bin.

“Outside here in five mins, Hassan.  Don’t keep me fucking waiting.  Twenty press-ups for every second that you’re late.”

It was the second day for the new intake of crap-hats, and as we went across towards the big reception hall, they did look pretty comical, I must say.  They all tried marching everywhere, because they thought that’s what they had to do, and unlike on the first day, the corporals and the sergeants had dropped their Mr Nice Guy act.  As we came round the corner one NCO was screaming: “Don’t fucking march, you fucking twats!  You can’t even fucking walk yet!  You look like a crowd of pregnant chimpanzees!”

“Cunts,” said Sergeant Williams, affably.  “Where do we dredge ’em up from?  Look at the hair on that one.  Look at that kid’s keks.  Has he shit ’em, do you reckon?”

The faces were amazing.  Pale and pasty most of them, mostly scrawny, some with puppy fat.  About fifty came past us, sort of marching, sort of stumbling, and only two of them looked two points above completely useless.  Which the sergeant seemed to think was a good thing.

“We had another Scotch lot in yesterday,” he said.  “Train down from Glasgow, coach from Darlington.  They’re mad them Scotchies, do you know that?  All pissed.  Every last man jack of ’em.  Man Jock, I mean, geddit?  The bus was full of sick.  Diced carrots and tomato skins.  The stink was ’angin’.  Animals.”

“Good fighters, though,” I said.  I couldn’t call it racist because it was true, the Scots who joined when I did were completely mad.  They did lines of coke before going to the gym in the morning.  They drank Scotch and lager even in the church.  And they fought.  Each other.  Us.  Pub landlords, punters, coppers in the street.  All the regiments, all the lads from different parts of England, were trained to get at each other, it was meant to keep us on our toes, to make us proud.  But the Jocks were different.  They really hated us.  It was mutual.

“Aye. ’Cause they’re brought up wearing skirts maybe.  They put up with a lot of stick.  Or maybe it’s cold breezes on their bollocks.  Anyway, enough chit-chat, la’.  You’ve got work to do.”

The next few hours, in the big reception room, were really jack, really mega-boring, and stank of sweat and farts.  The lads were all crammed in, but it was pretty quiet, because no one had a lot to say, they’d only met each other the day before and they were nervous.  A normal life chucked up, four years to go unless you dared to take the instant get-out clause (and the taunts and insults if you did), and nothing to ease the growing feeling of disaster but smoking and self-pity.  Shit city, except you couldn’t shit ’cause no one can, the first few days.  Hence the smell of botty-gas.

First off, the poor saps were sorted into their regiments, which involved queuing up for endless ages while junior officers and senior NCOs clucked and fannied round with piles of paperwork, and told them lies about why they’d be better off in such-and-such a mob and not the one they thought that they were joining.  It wasn’t the only lie they’d heard before they got here, you bet your life on it.  At the recruiting offices where I joined, they sort of talked the pay up sky-high as well, and failed to mention what came out of it, just little things like food and rent, and life-insurance.  Can you imagine it?  They charge you for your scoff, which any self-respecting pig would turn its nose up at, and they charge you for your sty, which ditto, and they charge you in case you lose a leg or bollock “fighting for your country!”   The only cash I heard a mention of was the special bonus if I joined up fast, and joined the infantry.  They didn’t tell me why, though.  They didn’t mention the big black holes they’d buried all the money in.  And the infantry.

My job today, my punishment, was to wander in among the new lads with the sergeant, and smile, and wink, and give the proper answers to any awkward questions they might ask.  It was a bit like when I did exams at uni in a way, except the smell of farts was stronger.  I looked at all these faces, the hard, the scared, the dopey, and it was more a blur than anything.  Mostly the things they asked were stupid – like “are we allowed to smoke?” and “how long do we get to have our dinner” – but sliding to the ridiculous, like “is it good here, will I like it, do you reckon?”  I could mumble something stupid back, and I could lie in my teeth about how smart it was, but I couldn’t engage my brain in it, no way, and every now and then Williams would rip the piss off me to entertain them, and I’d put on a smile and they’d have a nervous laugh.

“He don’t mind, lads,” said Williams.  “He’s a big soft twat is Tiny.  Any Scousers here?  Any ’ardmen from da good old ’Pool?  Aye, I can see it in your eyes, nice one la’!  Well, ’e’s from Lancashire, int’e, a fucking woollyback.  Worse, from bleeding Blackburn, need I say more?  Just laugh away!”

Every now and then he got his knife in someone, too, and made it plain he’d “marked their card for them.”  A pale-faced blond one in particular, his hair so light you could see his pink skull through it.  The sergeant really picked on him.

“Look at that,” he said to me.  “Over there, by that window.  He’s like a pink-eyed fucking fairy.  What the fuck’s he wearing, tell me tha’?”

A dead good jacket is what.  Brilliant.  That’s what Sergeant Williams meant, I guess – he fancied it.  He moved in sharpish, and I had to follow.  To spread a little peace and joy.  He touched the lad on the shoulder from behind, and he jumped half out of his skin.

“Hiya la’,” he said.  “Boss jacket, eh?  Look even better on a man, know worra mean?”

The lad was tall like Sergeant Williams, but not so stocky.  Probably ten years younger though, and not a sergeant.  Not anything.  A trog.  A crap-hat.  His pale face went bright scarlet in half a second, it seemed to glow.  He tried a smile, but he was smart enough to realise he’d done something wrong.  Like exist, for instance.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Er... sir.  I got it at the weekend.”

This could have been the cue for Williams to get nasty. You were told not to call NCOs sir even before they got you off the bus.  Officers were sir, no bugger else.  You could get hanged for calling a sergeant sir.  Castrated with a rusty spoon.  But the sergeant just smiled a great big sunny smile.

“Good choice, Al – it’s fucking A.  I’m going to buy it off of you.”

The lad’s eyes were pale an’ all, and you could read them like a book.  They said “You what!?  Sod off, why don’t you!”  But his mouth said, “Er.  Um.  I’m not really with you, sir.  It’s not for sale.”

He was swallowing, and his Adams apple bobbed up in his neck like a giraffe.  Long neck.  Big Adams apple.  Williams’s smile went harder.  The other crap-hats were watching now.  Mouse and snake.  Breakfast. 

“Don’t call me sir, la’.  I’ll have to Agai you, know what that is, do you?  Agai 67.  I said I like your coat.  I’ll give you forty quid for it.”

The eyelids were blinking now.  The eyes were looking hunted.

“But.  But I only got it at the weekend...er...”

“Sergeant,” I said.  And the sergeant glared at me.  First warning.

“Sergeant,” said the crap-hat gratefully.  “I mean... I mean it cost me eighty pounds.  Um, eighty five.  My mother bought—”

Bad mistake.  All the other trogs were laughing.  Oh the release!  Release of pressure.  Not for the victim, though.

“Ah,” said Sergeant Williams.  “Ain’t that nice?  Did I say forty, Al?  Make that thirty five.  No, make it thirty.  Bloody hell la’, you drive a hard bargain.  But thass my last offer, you tight cunt.  I ain’t goin’ any lower.”

The trog’s eyes went from him to me, as if there was something I could do about it.  The sergeant’s eyes went on me too, and the last traces of a smile had gone.  He fished his wallet out.  Honest to God, he had a wallet, that’s how bleeding low he was.

“Don’t fuck me about, son,” said Williams.  “It’ll be twenty five if you make me wait much longer.  Last offer, take it or leave it.”

“Leave it?  Can I—”

“No you fucking can’t, you dildo.  Count of three.  Going, going—” He jerked three notes out, and snapped them between his thumb and fingernails.  The crap-hat was brighter than a beetroot.

“Gone,” said Williams, almost conversational.  “Now get the bastard off before I kill you.  Tiny here’ll tell you.  I will, won’t I, Tiny?  I fucking will.”

My eyes locked with the poor sod’s, but only for an instant.  Then he was looking downwards, and the jacket was half off.  Oh fuck, I thought, just what the fuck is this?  Just what the fuck is going on?  I felt his eyes go on me again and I couldn’t look at all, I felt like utter shit.

The sergeant took the jacket and looked at it with contempt, as if it was a disappointment, utter crap.

“You see,” he said.  “That didn’t hurt much, did it, la’?  It didn’t hurt at all.  Sergeant Williams,” he added.  “In case you might forget.  Not sir, but Sergeant Williams.  And this here’s Tiny, me latest bitch, know wharra mean?  He does everything for me.  And I mean everything.”

He threw the jacket at me.

“Carry that,” he said.  “You can take it down to Oxfam later, maybe.  Jesus, I’m so generous it’s embarrassing.  Walk on, bitch.  We got more work to do.”

I saw the pale boy later in the day, when all the formal stuff was finished, and we were going to the Naafi bar.  When I say we, I mean the squaddies, not recruits, they aren’t allowed to drink for the first six weeks, they aren’t allowed inside a licensed place at all, on or off the camp.  They aren’t allowed off the camp either, come to that, so no chance of getting plastered anyway.  No drink, no drugs, no sex except for Mrs Palm, no mobile in your pocket to call your mum or girlfriend if you needed a good cry.  People did get stuff of course, especially the drugs, which you could hide much easier than a vodka bottle.  Mobiles were pretty easy, too, but they were frowned on big style.  If one went off in a lecture room, or on the range, it was shit up to your trollybobs.

No, I saw the lad when I was going to the bar, and on my own, thank Christ.  Apart from me and Goughie, the five on our floor who weren’t down south were the usual bag of walking wounded, with the three youngest bunged up to the eyeballs with depression pills.  It’s the quickest way these days if you miss the “get out of jail free” slots – you get depressed and with luck you get discharged.  Not so long ago, they reckon, most of it was sham, but now it’s real.  With half the army suicidal, the brass fight back by keeping you in until your head actually explodes.  Which means that Catterick’s chockful of nutcases in uniform – who merge in nicely with the local population!  The other two were older men, sane or mad I wouldn’t like to say.  They seemed to hate each other in their own right, and every other bastard for good measure.  The one I’d spoke to came from Cheshire, where posh people live, the polite society.  He was carrying a rubber ring.

“Charlie Spencer.”  He didn’t stick his hand out or nothing; so much for polite society.  “Just back from Germany.  Operation for me bastard piles.  What you here for?”

Why lie?  Too much like hard work.

“We had a riot.  Down on the exercise.  I got kicked back.  Punishment.”

“Lucky bastard.  Cushy, eh?  How long you been in?”

“Oh, about eight month.  I dunno.”

“Eh!  Eight month!  Cushy!  ’Ere – see that locker there?  Name on it says Khan.  Is that a fucking Paki name?”

Why argue?  Too much like hard work.

“Well, he’s an Asian, like.  He’s alright, he comes from Oldham.”

His eye turned nasty.  It was as if I’d said a sewage farm.

“Oldham!  It’s fucking full of ’em, that is!  Dump!  Nice lad my arse.”  He paused.  “Any more in, is there?  I hate Pakis, me.  I always said, the day they let a Paki in, the British Army’s dead!  I’ll shoot him if I see the bastard, straight up I will.  It’s mine, okay?  It’s fucking ours!  When’s he coming back?  I tell you, I can’t hardly wait!”

Sane, then.  Barking sane.  That was that one solved.

As I approached the Naafi, I saw more trouble fronting up for me, and I was getting sick of it, quite honestly, well sick.  The pale trog was waiting for me, and he was with a bunch of other crap-hats.  I tensed.  Maybe they were going to fill me in.  Oh, not another bleeding fight.  I was really, really sick of it.

“Hi, lad,” I said.  “Sorry about all that shit earlier.  You’ll get to know Sarnt Williams.  He’s a cunt.”

His eyes opened in a sort of shock.  Unexpected, that.  Jesus, it even surprised me, the way I said it.  Well ’ard; not.

“Oh,” he said.  “Oh.  Bloody hell, like.  Thanks.”

Well, don’t get too excited, I thought, it don’t mean I’m your best mate.  I don’t give a shit for you, tell the honest truth.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Well, see you, then.  I’ve got to get a drink. I’m gaggin’”

They were all looking at me, curiously.  Like in a zoo.  I was in combats.  Sergeant’s orders.  I’d be in combats till I hit the pit.  Day after bleeding day.

He said: “But it’s... it’s sort of stealing, isn’t it?  Is he allowed to do that?  I mean, I said it weren’t for sale.”

“You took money for it, Jeff,” said one of them.  Jeff.  I’d really thought his name was Al.  Albino.  It hit me.  Jesus.  That bloody Williams.

“I know,” said the boy, unhappily.  “Christ, what’s my mother going to bloody say?”

Nobody laughed this time.

“Can I complain?” he said.  “I mean – is there someone I can talk to?”

I didn’t have to think for long.  But I was trying to be kind.

“Not really, mate.  I mean, you can, but it’d be quicker just to cut your own throat, save them the trouble.”

“Shit, that’s really tight,” said someone.  “You can’t be serious?”

He sounded just like my sister Vronnie.  But I made a face, then smiled.

“Who’d believe you, mate?”  I said.  “He’s a sergeant, ain’t he?  They’d tell you to go and fuck yourself.”

“But I’ve got witnesses!  You saw it, didn’t you?  You were there!  What are you, are you a corporal or something?”

“I’m a squaddie, and I need a fucking drink,” I said.  “Get real, okay?  You’re in the fucking army.  I’m not a corporal and I never fucking will be.  If I said Williams had robbed you of that coat I’d be a corpse.  You sold it to him.  Get real.”

They stood around and watched me go in silence.  Food for fucking thought, I thought – surely some stupid bastard knows the rules of joining up?  For the first six weeks you can just walk away, you’ve got the right, never mind what some bastard sergeant tells you.  So do it.  Do it while you can.  Just do it.

’Cause one day soon you’ll find it is too late, my friends.  You’ll find out soon you’ve missed the bleeding boat. 

And then there’s four more years until the next one sails…  By then you could be dead and bloody buried.


The next episode of Skinback Fusiliers, EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK, will be published next Saturday, April 23.