Skinback Fusiliers, Episode Three

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

We present the third 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.


ASHTON'S TALKING DOGS

Six

You could tell that it was brewing from the start.  We didn’t kill ourselves to get there and we walked again, which seemed a good plan at the time and was mainly down to Ashton.  He liked to check out the local females, he said, and upset them with what they were missing.  Shahid said he just liked to shake his gonads down, which Ash quite liked when Sha explained what gonads were.

In fact, he asked Sha how he knew so much stuff, big words and so on, and Shahid laughed.

“Ask Tiny, not me, mate,” he said.  “He went to university, which in Blackburn terms makes him an aristocrat, first class.  He’s the big words king.”

“Balls,” I said.  “I don’t even know what one of them is.  An errister-what?”

“Got you there, Sha!” Ashton crowed.  “You’re a stuck-up twat, I always knew it.  I bet you could’ve gone.  Too bloody idle, were you?”

Shahid wasn’t fazed.  Why should he be?  We were strolling on a quiet afternoon, still warm although the sun was nearly gone, no work to do till Monday and the world our bleeding oyster.

“It were me dad’s decision, nowt to do with me,” he said. “When my teachers told him I should try for uni he lost his English, didn’t he?  That’s the best thing about bilingualism.  You can forget which one you’re meant to know, any time you fancy.”

“Bi what?” said Ashton.  “You mean your old man goes with blokes?”

“Ho bloody ho,” said Shahid.  “He’s not even bilingual, come to think of it, his English is diabolical.  But when the school sent a translator he couldn’t speak Urdu neither.  Or Bengali, Hindi, double-Dutch, you name it.  It saved him thousands on me fees, and the translators are paid for on the rates.  This fucking country’s mad.”

Comes to something when your Paki mates sound like the BNP, but I let it go.  I was trying to keep the heat off me.

“So you’d have gone as well if he’d let you, right?”  I said.  “So why you tearing the piss out of me?  A year at uni, failed, don’t make you a middle-class wanker, you know.”

“So here’s the difference,” said Shahid.  “Your mum’s skint okay, but she sent you despite of it, and my dad could’ve sent me free but couldn’t see the point.  ‘No bloody thank you, Mr Britain – here’s my nose, watch me while I cut it off to spite my face.’”  He paused, briefly. “You should have stuck it, mate.  I would’ve done.  Or haven’t you noticed where you’ve ended up?”

We all laughed at that, but it didn’t feel so funny, really.  For a moment I was tempted to tell ’em I’d only joined when I was desperate, and because the lying bleeding adverts said that I could learn a trade like brickeying or carpentry or plumbing, but I didn’t want to go there, it pissed me off too much to even think of it.  I pushed Ashton into a pub instead, where I’d seen some totty peering through the window, and by the time we got to the Perokeeto, we were pretty well oiled and we had four exotic birds in tow (English country style!) to put the tin lid on it. 

Exotic?  Jesus!  They were completely mental, and as ugly as an American evangelist.  Ashton’s Talking Dogs, Shahid called them to their faces, but they didn’t mind, they needed “male escorts” to get in, that was the Perokeeto rule. They nearly talked our tits off in the pub, and they made me miss Bridgie, to be quite honest, because she was too miserable to talk at all most of the time.  They were okay though, not after owt, and it kept up the essential blood-flow in Ashton’s keks.

It was information that we needed, more than anything, and they were pretty hot on that once we’d got them going, although they had the cheek for starters to ask me if I was a pikey, which made the others fall about.  I’ve never been a tidy sort of guy, but for fuck sake!  Then they said it was a joke, of course, and clinched it by saying that the barman didn’t serve gippoes in any case, so I must be all right.  Anyway, said the funniest one, who was called Becks, pikies didn’t pal out with blacks and Pakis, did they?  Even pikies had their standards!

I told you they were mental.  They could’ve got their heads kicked in for that sort of talk, but Sha and Ashton played along as if it was the height of wit.  And now the conversation was round to gypsies, Sha kept it there.  He should have been a lawyer, really.  He was made for it.

It turned out there was a gypsy camp about a mile away, and they’d been coming in and causing shit for ages.  The girlies squabbled for a while if they were really gypsies, or “travellers,” or “diddycoys” (that’s what it sounded like), and with their crazy country accents it was quite a bit of fun.  Anyway, they said, they were bloody ’orrible, and filthy, and they’d turned the place into “a praaper slum.”  They chucked their rubbish over the hedges into the fields and road, they didn’t have lavatories, they spread disease (“it stands to reason, dunnit?”), and they all drove “Mercedeezeez and Beemurrz” and lived off the Social – special pikey rates, ’undreds and ’undreds of quid a week.  And they all had fifteen children and a dog.

“They smash the pubs up, too,” said Clare.  “They’re all banned, innay?  They go in the lavvies and shit straight on the floor.  And then they don’t use paper!  They’re animals!”

“Why would they do that?” said Shahid, keeping a straight face.  “Do they like getting shit up their fingernails to have a sniff at later?  Or is it nice and squidgy for their toes?”

“Don’t you be so daft!” said Clare.  “They paags, is what.  They just durty paags!”

“Paags?” said Shahid.  “Bloody Nora, what’s a paag when it’s at home?”

“You should know!” said Becks, bright as a button.  “Them things you Pakis ain’t allowed to eat.  Oinkers.  ’Ogs.  You know!”

“’E’s takin’ the piss,” said Ally.  “Tent funny, matey, ’tis serious!  They rapin’ girls now!  They stealin’ knickers off of lines!  When they were over in ’Ampshire near my aunty’s ’ouse a little baby disappeared!”

We were in Ashton’s territory now.  The rest of it he hadn’t bothered with.  Probably heard it all before about his family, back in Manchester.

“Told you, lads,” he said.  “Baby stealing, well-known fact.  Fuck that though, you can always get more babies, what’s this about rape, that’s much more interesting.  Have any of you lot been done?  Or don’t you fancy that sort of thing?”

“It’s true!” said Clare, completely scandalised.  “Tell ’im, Leigh-Ann.  You knew a girl, din’t you?  She knew a girl!  She did!”

Leigh-Ann was the quiet one, but she managed not to blush.

“Thass right.  Me cousin’s mate.  I even know ’er name if I could remember it.  Sarah... Sasha... no, summink like that.  Oh it was terrible.  In hospital for months, she was.  Turned her nearly inside out they did.”

“Ten of ’em!” said Clare.  “Thass what I ’eard!”

“Nah,” said Becks, the voice of reason.  “Four.  Five, top whack.”

“Ten,” said Clare.  “It was in the Gazette.  Ten of ’em at least!”

“Rosy, that was her name,” said Leigh-Ann, suddenly.  “I knew it was something like that.  Rosy.”

“Nah,” said Ally.  “Rosy Baines got knocked down by a lorry, that’s why she was in the paper.  Stupid cow.”

“That’s a different Rosy,” said Leigh-Ann, sulkily.  “’Ow would you know, anyway?  She was my mate, not yourn.”

We listened till we got dead bored, and then we took them to the club, like we’d agreed.  They still hadn’t asked us for anything, not even snout, which was amazing, but they’d filled us in on “all the useful local facts” as Shahid put it, laughing his socks off.  In fact we weren’t even sure that there were really any gypsies until we turned the last corner to the club.  And yeah, there were.  Lots of them.  And local lads with turnips in their hair.  And squaddies.  Nothing going off yet, but you could see it was going to be a lively night.  Tasty.

It had potential.  Shitloads!
Seven

Like every army town I’ve ever been in, this one was pretty weird.  It’s as if the people aren’t all there, really, they’re sort of inbred or something.  If Catterick’s famous for anything, they tell you when you get there, it’s famous for a shit night out.  This one was Catterick only more so.  Strung out along a long dank country road, with fields all round where the locals only went to shag their favourite sheep or bury babies.  The lively end, where we’d been at last night, had cafes, discos, dance halls, bowling – and was about as lively as a frozen turd.  This end had the Perokeeto.

From the outside it looked like what it was – an old-style cinema that had gone under when the multis had come in.  Not that there was a multi, even at the jumpin’ end of town (joke, by the way) ’cause we’d thought we might grab a movie earlier, until we asked.  The only reason it was here at all was that this end also had the off-road training base and the small-arms and hand-to-hand combat ranges, so lots of squaddies spent lots of time here, in a sort of separate barracks area.  Naturally, the army hadn’t thought about what they could do for pleasure – the army never does.  It’s a funny thing I learned quite fast when I joined up – they never learn. 

Thousands and thousands of blokes, mainly led by halfwits, who work and train and run and harden up, and once they’ve reached a certain point of fitness and frustration, get given time off with fuck all to do.  There’s sport, of course, and there’s daytime TV and Playstations and Wii.  There’s evenings off and most weekends, and the local slags to help you enjoy it.  Army town slags.  Boggin’.  ’Angin’.  The only ones worth screwing are married – the army wives – and that can get you into trouble.  The rest are your Leigh-Anns and Allys, who I wouldn’t touch with yours, mate, let alone me own.  Two pubs down this end.  Two pubs and one so-called nightclub.  The bleeding Perokeeto.

Another thing about army town women, is they’ll go with anyone at all, and they’ve got some kind of death wish.  That’s where the pikies come in, if you think about it.  I mean, I’ve got nowt against them, because I’ve never talked to one, they’ve never done me any harm.  I’ve seen their shitty camps, with their shitty women and their shitty kids, and quite honestly I don’t believe it when people tell me they’re loaded, because if they were they wouldn’t live the way they do, would they?  They’re just poor dumb bastards who stick together with their bloody dogs to keep off rubberneckers and the council, and they get kicked around from place to place like sacks of useless crap.  No woman in her right mind would go near any of the men – ratty little Irish bastards with ferret’s eyes, most of ’em – and them that do are slags, aren’t they?  You could see the pikies outside the Perokeeto, and you could see the local girls.  You could see the trouble hanging in the evening air.

“Why do they do it?”  I said.  Jesus, I was feeling philosophical.  “Why do they fucking do it?”

I didn’t mean just our girls, who’d left us now we’d got them in, thank God.  I meant all the rest of them as well, including Ashton, who’d been absorbed into the crowd, who’d gone off sniffing like a dog on heat for anything worth hunting.   The place was like a swamp, a throbbing, heaving jungle of bass and drums, with flashing lights and a roar of shouted talk that almost matched the music.

“Because they want a life!” roared Shahid, close to my head.  “They’re desperate.  I’m desperate for a drink, an’ all.  Shall we get some E’s?”

“Lager!”  I shouted back.  “Fuck E’s.  If there’s going to be a punch-up, I don’t want to have a smile stuck on me face, do I?  That way you get a fist through it!”

The rush at the bar was horrendous, and the aggression was already building up.  It’s as if they do it on purpose – not enough people serving, not enough space to cram the punters in.  Lager squirted out of plastic hosepipes, never a glass filled to the top, no time or room to check your change.  Then every now and then the shriek of girls when they find out how much the bastards are charging for a bottle of water – more than bloody Scotch.  I checked out later in the toilets when I went for a slash, and there were no taps either.  Take ecstasy, take water, even garrison slags know that.  So do the Perokeeto owners, obviously.  Ah well.  Dead girls must be good publicity in this one horse burg, maybe.

The other incredible thing was they were letting gippoes in.  Great rules they had on the door in this place – no girls without a bloke, no bottles, no lads already pissed.  But in came the pikies, all brown and slinky-eyed.  Race thing, Shahid called it.  They had to let him in, and even scum like Ashton, and the gippoes could call the cops on the same basis.  “Oh please, sir, it’s me human rights!  It’s the race relations act!”  And as they’d come for trouble, because they liked a fight as much as drunken squaddies do, they were probably tooled up as well.  Forward planning.  When it kicked off, it would really kick off good.

We went for a wander when we’d got our pints, because all in all there was damn all else to do.  We all liked dancing when the time was right, who doesn’t?  But the time wasn’t right tonight, it was farcical.  Ninety per cent of the people on the floor were female, dancing round their handbags like Blackburn in the old days, only not so well-dressed.  All the wall space was jammed with blokes, all holding pints in plastic glasses, all glaring at the dancers as if they wished they’d die.  And glaring at each other, in the flashing gloom, sizing up who was sizing them up, and where the fighting would break out.

Shahid shouted something in my ear.  I couldn’t hear him.  There was beer and curry on his breath when he bawled again.  That was close enough.

“Look!  Over there!  It’s Goughie!”

Ashton – back from his crumpet count (“minus bugger all worth shagging”) – nudged me from the other side. 

“Sod Gough!” he yelled, “Look over there!  The Colour Sergeant!  And there’s that SAS man!  Christ, it’s big boys’ fun tonight!”

The Colour Sergeant was a real big shock, because people of his rank don’t mix with us scum, hardly ever.  Within two minutes I’d clocked two other sergeants, and then the CSM!  Jesus H. Christ!  Serious! 

“What SAS man?”  Shahid roared.  “What you on about?”

Ashton and me exchanged a look.  Quite good that Sha didn’t know everything, after all.  We’d talked to this guy in the bar at camp one night.  He spoke like an officer, but he was all right.

“Him!”  I said.  “Ginger hair!  He’s only with us for the cover.  He works in Kosovo in plain clothes.  Sort of spy.”

Shahid looked at me as if I’d gone mental.  Miffed because he didn’t know, I guess.  Ashton caught the look.

“Oh fuck off, Stan, you don’t know everything.  Listen.  He’s got ginger hair, but no one takes the piss, nobody.  That makes him mega, okay?  Just fucking think about it, you stuck up bastard.”

But Shahid had lost interest.  He’d clocked someone else.

“Mart!” he said.  “Over by that pillar.  And Bollocks and Big Dave.  Christ, Mart’s black eye’s come out all right, ain’t it?  Like a rotten plum.”

“Well, it were him what told us there’d be a kick-off,” I said.  “Course he’s here, it stands to reason.  Steer clear, I reckon.  He’ll get us too, give him half a chance if there’s a riot.”

“I ain’t scared of Martin,” Shahid began, but Ash had picked out some others in the  click – Chas Hicks and Geordie George.  They were in the druggies’ corner, naturally, and Josh P would be there somewhere.  In the gents maybe, shooting up.  Then I saw Billy ’Unt and Timmo Hawes, which just left Sambo.  Who had more sense, in my opinion.  You don’t get to be dictator of Bongoland mixing in crap like this.

We just stood there for a while, like.  Spare pricks at a wedding, more or less.  Observers, maybe – that sounded better, didn’t it?  We watched Martie trying to grease up to the Colour and the CSM, and they didn’t fuck him off, which was bad news.  They were gathering a team.

“I wonder why they’re bothering,” said Sha.  “I mean, they don’t need these nasty little scrubbers to hang around with, do they?  Why should they care if the gippoes want to give them HIV?”

“Ooh!” said Ashton.  “Anal!  I like that.”

“Anyway, where are they?”  Sha went on.  “The pikies?  You white bastards all look the same to me!  Let’s have another pint.  I’m going to put a Scotch in mine.  Two.  It’s Saturday, lads.  Where’s the fucking buzz?”

The crowd were swirling now, but certainly I hadn’t seen no bloodshed, or even moves towards it.  But as we drifted off to get the booze, I did see Corporal Mart again, and he’d seen us.  He was tracking through the dancers like a gundog.  More like a big brown bear, in fact.  With a sore head.

“Wanker watch!”  I said.  “He’s after us.  Melt-melt-melt!”

Fat chance in this crush.  He saw us trying to evade and he threaded faster.  He kicked some girl’s handbag and she swore at him (we couldn’t hear it, obviously) and he swore back and made a lovely sign.  A bloke nearby sort of lunged at him – you leave my slag alone, even if I’ve never met her in my life before – but Martie jerked away and bashed on in our direction, saving himself for later would be my guess. 

“Ere!  Slags!” he shouted, when he was near enough.  “Where the fuck’ve you been hiding?  There’s going to be trouble, and we’re in with the CSM, I’ve volunteered us.  Clear-out time for pikey rapists.  The Final Solution.  And there’ll be drinks in it, he’s well made up.”

“We’ve got our own,” I said.  “We’re on our way for top-ups now.”

“Fuck that!”  said Martin.  “Booze afterwards.  It’s getting to the point!”

“We’ll be with you, Martie!” yelled Ash.  “You brown-nose bastard.”  (That bit was lower, nearly in a normal voice, nearly in my ear’ole.) He shouted again, top-level: “Sorry, can I call you Mart?  Are Shahid’s sins forgiven?”

He loved to push his luck, did Ashton, but Mart didn’t remember we’d “betrayed” him, probably.  Leastways, before he could speak, or even put his brain into the proper gear, it was too late.  There was a terrific burst of girlie screaming from across the hall, and a sort of surge around the edges that bulged the drinkers into the dance floor, knocking the ladies into their bags and each other’s arms and legs.  Ashton even managed to get a flash of fanny in the midst of it, he told me later.  Mental.

“Oi-oi!” said the Lance.  “Chocks away!  Come on you bastards!  The Skulls forever!”

You what, I thought.  You fucking what?  Who in the name of bollocks were the Skulls?

It wasn’t the big kick-off yet, but it was starting.  Mart shot off towards the CSM and mates, and Shahid, then Ash, bashed after him.  I got lost in a mass of screaming totty – running for the bar and lavatories, the two most important places when you think about it – and I din’t try to fight clear.  The kick-off end was getting frantic, and I saw two pikies and three squaddies throw themselves through the air and get into the ruck.  I also saw a pint beer glass flashing and flying through the light-show like in a magic trick, half-full and upright, not spilling a drop.  It landed on the back of some girl’s head – only plastic so hardly fatal – but she let out a shriek I heard from twenty feet away.  The beer poured down her face and neck in gushes, and she must have thought her brain was pissing blood.

There was a screech through the loudspeakers as the DJ scarred his vinyls, and his voice came on all shaky in a shout.  “Calm down, please!  Calm down everybody!  The police are on their way!”

Then, like a prat, he put the music on again, and it was drowned out by a gigantic roar.  Oh God, that lovely word, “police.”  Now there’d be some fun.  The bloodbath could commence.

I’d had enough, I must say.  I’ve never really gone in for this sort of thing, and I wanted out, I had no taste for it.  The rush towards the door was getting bigger and more violent, and the floor was full of screamers now, girls who’d been separated from their mates and handbags, some on their hands and knees, some jumping over them, all deadly heels and tree trunk country legs in stripes and glitter.  There was a flanking movement over to my right where Martie and my mates had gone, but I kept my face the other way in case Mart or some other bastard eyeballed me.  I wondered, not for the first time, if I really wasn’t cut out for the army.  Maybe I was fucking gay!

By the time I reached the door there was all hell breaking out, pandemonium.  The music had stopped for good, the screams were almost constant, and it was only the flashing lights that still told you it was party time.  I liked that.  A bloodbath breaking out and the wankers couldn’t even get round to turning the main lights on.  Then they did, as I pushed out into the lobby.  I looked back into a sea of seething bodies, everybody slugging everybody else and the tarts darting about like overweight butterflies.  Some of them could swing a handbag though.  I saw a couple of right good shots go in.

The bouncers looked at me a bit bemused when I went to get out into the street, because there were still masses trying to burst in, blokes and girls.  The tannoy was booming all over everything, but you couldn’t hear a single word, you never can, can you, it’s part of the tradition, part of what us English do so well.  I often wondered if we’d be any different when we were actually at the war, when we were actually being shot at and bombed out in the East.  I doubted it.  More and more I fucking doubted it.  Like them bombings down the Smoke.  The police radios wouldn’t work underground, like everyone had told the government year after fucking year, so they tried mobile phones, till some top genius closed the network down because it was too busy, and got promoted!  Forward planning. 

It was quite nice out in the street when I got clear.  There were lots of punters there already, and the ruck was going to spread from inside to out, no danger, pretty soon.  But for now it was just gangs of eager lads, gangs of totty tottering on their heels, and lurking gangs of pikies wondering if they were the heroes or the villains.  Traffic still running, not a cop in sight despite what the DJ had said, and a smell of frying onions from a burger van.  Mm, I thought – burger.  No, I thought, too close to the seat of the fire.  We’d passed a pizza place further down the road.  I’d go and get a pizza and a tin of Coke.

Big shock when I got there though.  Halfway along the line of customers, there was bloody Goughie!  He must have got out of the punch-up even quicker than I had, which made me feel a wee bit queasy.  I mean, I’d left for clever reasons, I couldn’t see the point of it, quite honestly.  But Goughie was a wimp, a nonce, a wanker.  He’d get called a yellow bastard if they found out he’d run.  So where did that leave me?

Time to split.  I didn’t need no pizza anyway.  And he turned and saw me, and his face took on a look that said it all – scum of the earth.  My stomach sort of dropped, but I might have even blushed as well, I really had felt bad about the way we’d thrown him to the wolves down at the curry place.  I sort of coughed.

“You got away okay, then?  From them Paki lunatics?  That’s all right then, eh?”

He had a funny face, Gough.  Sort of long and pale, and spotty.  No bruises, though.  He didn’t smile.

“No thanks to you lot.  Your idea of pals, was it?  Your idea of how to treat a mucker from the mob?”

“It was Shahid, really,” I mumbled.  Then I felt really like a traitor.  Christ, Gough was nowt to me.  He was a pillock.  Prat.

“What a twat,” he said.  “Too tight to pay for his own fucking curry, is he?”

“You’d be surprised,” I said.  “In actual fact he thought you’d be...well, he knew you’d get away okay.  He was dead impressed.”

Sound stupid enough?  It did to me.

“Anyway,” I said, more aggressively, “what you moaning on about?  It was a laugh, that’s all.  We waited for you down the street.  Thought you’d catch up later.”

“He’s a Paki twat,” said Goughie.  “And that other one’s a cunt-struck coon.  I never thought much of you anyway, but when you took up with that lot I knew the lads was right.  You’re a nigger-lover.  Or is that a touch of the tar-brush round your eyes?  Hassan, eh?  Hassan, is that your problem?”

I’d seen Gough bullied till he nearly died.  I’d seen him go through six months of pure fucking hell in training, and I’d sort of sympathised – no, I had.  I’d even tried to help him once, when the corporals had beasted him in the showers with buckets of cold piss and rubbed shit into his cheeks like L’Oréal (because he was worth it, yes you get the picture), and  I’d felt really pissed off with the stunt we’d played him at the curry shop, I’d damn nearly told him we were out of order.  But suddenly I’d found out why it happened.  For half a second I felt like smacking in his face, his pasty, sneering, wanky little face.  We were in a line of people queuing at the till, and they were watching us.  One woman had two little kids in tow and I realised she was terrified.  It hit me.

But I’d not done anything.  We were just talking to each other, separated by these punters waiting for a snack.  And I was enraged, I was going to jump him, I’d felt a great black wave of fury, roaring out of nowhere.  I saw this woman’s face, and then it hit me.

“That’s very nice that is,” I said.  I almost killed myself, to get control.  I thought I might be sick. “That’s great that is, Goughie, that’s fucking brilliant.  Why don’t you go away before I lose my temper?  Now!  There’s children.”

The lady’s face was like a picture.  Goughie, who’d gone pale and tense, was startled too.  Christ knows what he was thinking.  Christ knows if he wanted a fight, I haven’t got a frigging clue.  All of a sudden he turned, kind of twisted on his heels, jinking sideways.  He walked straight past me to the street, and his face was sort of churning.  I smiled at the lady, but she didn’t smile at me.  The lad behind the counter asked her for her order, but suddenly she didn’t want to buy.  She grabbed the children and bundled them around and away from her, off towards the door.  When they made noises she hissed at them, like a snake, it even frightened me.  An older lady tutted.  She looked at me with pure venom in her eyes, as if I’d done something, as if I was going to murder her, and she wasn’t afraid of me, no fucking way!  And I’d done nothing.  Nothing!  I hadn’t done a bleeding thing.

I didn’t want a pizza now, but I couldn’t let them see that, could I?  So I ordered and waited, and I tried not to watch people watching me, and I tried not to feel embarrassed, let alone be it.  I queued, I paid, I got me pizza and I went out into the street and turned my back on the road leading to the Perokeeto and I thought I’d walk away from it.  All of it.  The lot.  I was up to fucking here with it, the whole damn boiling.

You can’t ignore the sirens though, can you?  Even Goughie couldn’t, because when I got back towards there I saw him standing on the fringes, looking in.  It was like a magnet, and people were coming in from far and wide, they were coming out of the woodwork like creepy-crawlies.  It was like the Roman circus, in that film.

The fight had come out of the Perokeeto, and it was washing across the roads and pavements like a tide of dirty surf.  No one was in uniform, but you could tell the squaddies from a mile off, or I could, anyway.  Everyone was tanked up, pissed as arseholes, but we’re still the fittest, by a long shot.  You could tell us by the way we ran, and did long sideways kicks up in the air, both feet in, three foot off the ground.  You could tell us by the punches, and some of the killer judo jabs the lads were using.  Not official training, but everyone gets to know them, you’ve got to if you want to live.  In fact, if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were all tanked there’d have been some dead’uns, I would judge.  People never realise that, when they sound off about “drink-fuelled mayhem.”  Pissed punches usually don’t do much real harm.  What do reporters fucking know about drinking?  It’s a life-saver.

I hadn’t really realised I was pissed myself, but as the adrenaline shot through my blood I felt sick again, it got me in a wave.  It stopped me rushing in, and it made me want to heave.  I’d been at it for nearly twenty-four hours in a way, except for when I was actually asleep, and me legs felt like lead with weights on for a moment.  My mouth went dry, and I spat out a bit of pizza and chucked the rest away.  The moment passed and I stood back to watch.  Still felt shaky though.  I needed Scotch or something.  I needed to chuck up.

It was a fucking riot, no argument.  More and more blokes poured out of the Perokeeto, some to fight in the open, some to escape, who knows?  But if they thought they’d find some peace outside they’d got it wrong, big style.  Anyone who hadn’t found a target yet jumped on them like Homer on a doughnut, and anyone who was getting bored with kicking shit out of some half-dead corpse went for a bit of fresh.  The weak and beaten stumbled into the new boys, lambs to the slaughter, to get another battering, and the tide of new blood made it harder to break free of the crowd.  In fact in one surge, there were so many on the pavement that half a dozen got pushed up against a shop window till it smashed inwards.  You could see them fighting inside, among the granny knitwear, some with bloody great big glass daggers.  Cool.

The sirens took a damn long time in coming, they had a hard time getting through in any case.  This one-horse end of town had just the one main road, and by now it was pretty solid with jammed-up traffic and fighting blokes and screaming totty.  And blood and broken glass and abandoned shoes and handbags, ditto.  A couple of young hopefuls of the pikey persuasion were systematically upending them to look for money, and snatching others off of crying girls as well.  And being kicked and cursed and monstered for their trouble.  Oh, Saturday nights.  Don’t you just love ’em?

It couldn’t last, though, could it?  I’d moved up to Gough by now – solidarity, who knows? – and though we didn’t talk we felt like older, wiser brothers for a moment.  He pointed out our CSM, whose face was streaming blood and who looked so happy you would not believe it.  Then we did a pick-parade of lads we knew, and there were tons of them.  Geordie George booting someone’s head in on the ground, Timmo Hawes getting one right in the bollocks, then Corporal Martin swinging a lump of wood at some young gypsy guy and missing, typical.  Then suddenly I saw Sha and Ashton, and they saw us as well.  They burst through the crowd towards us, ducking and diving, and turned up full of smiles.  Ashton, for some mad reason, was carrying a handbag.  And then the police arrived.  Two vans, three cars, and not a horse in sight.  So much for the US Bleeding Cavalry!

“Jihad!” yelled Sha.  “Yippee, fucking jihad!  Sack Granada!  Drive out the fucking infidel!”

“Granada?” said Ash.  “What – are the TV here?”

“Ash,” I said.  “You’ve got a handbag, boy.  Are you trying to tell us something?”

“He’s stolen it,” said Gough, risking his face, in my opinion.  But Ashton maybe didn’t hear.

“I’m holding it for a lady-friend,” he said.  “Leigh-Ann, remember?  Someone squashed her nose.”

“Thus making her strangely better-looking and attactive,” said Shahid.  He left a beat, for comic timing.  “To a randy twat like Ashton, anyway.  Her face looks like a pink blancmange with raspberry sauce.  I like eating white girls, but this is something else!”

The police, to be quite honest, made it worse.  They were a challenge, maybe.  A common enemy, for pikies and squaddies both.  They poured out of their vehicles, batons drawn, riot helmets on, and waded in like men demented.  And women, too, some of them half my size, and I’m no giant despite me nickname.  They laid about them left and right, cracking heads and kicking legs and arses in the approved manner, and I guess they must have been using sprays as well, because lots of people fell back pretty sharpish, which isn’t exactly normal in this sort of do.  Then everyone regrouped and countercharged, and another shop window went in, and this one set off an alarm that boomed and brayed at a million bleeding decibels.  Then two more vans turned up, from the opposite direction, with grills over their fronts, and they began to push into the crowds and some of the screaming changed into real fear, not just a jolly jamboree.  I’m pretty sure I saw one girl go down under, and Sha made as if to run towards her, and Ashton held him back and shouted really loud at him.

It was getting harder and harder to stay out of it, though, if only because of the spreading of the battle.  But there were whistles now, and a sort of loudspeaker booming gibberish, and some serious beating going on from clubs and batons.  I saw one of the smaller police girls – no helmet, no face visor, blonde hair in a bunch under her cap – lift a stick into the air and our CSM step out of the ruck and punch her in the face and knock her over.  Then he went to kick her and the ginger SAS man grabbed his upper arm and put a hold on it I think, because it stopped him dead.  He turned towards Ginger, but his face was excruciated, and he didn’t try to belt him or owt.  The police girl got up, brave lass, and tried to stop her nose from pissing blood, but she was crying.  The CSM didn’t hit her any more – he couldn’t – but he disappeared into the crowd damn sharp, I’m telling you.

After that, though, the end was coming soon.  First off came two army trucks, like bats out of hell, but not with reinforcements – they were empty, and the backs were down already.  Two sergeants in uniform jumped out and started bawling at the squaddies to get in, and they weren’t looking for any funny answers, they looked fucking ugly.  Ashton saw his chance and jumped for one of them, and we followed on like a bunch of rabbits.  Gough and Shahid arrived at the tailgate simultaneously, and somehow Gough got tumbled to the ground, he slipped I think.  Then Sha shouted: “Look out lads, the RMPs are here,” and squaddies rushed up from every bleeding angle to get in.  Just to put the lid on, pikey trucks had the same idea.  A rattletrap collection of pick-ups and five tonners festooned with scrap and crap and children poured out of side streets and alleyways, and the gippo hardmen dived for them.  Within two minutes our truck was bouncing off through the crowds and broken glass, horn blasting, people dodging every which way rather than get crushed.  By one of them weird coincidences we saw Ally and Leigh-Ann right on the edge of it, and Leigh-Ann was all tears and snot, end of the world job, one shoe off and limping.

“Yo!” shouted Ashton.  “Present from Santa, baby!” and sent her handbag flashing through the air.  She caught it with one hand – she should of played for fucking England! – and her piggy little mush was suddenly all smiles again.  Funny, females, ain’t they?  We looked back down the main street and the crowds were melting too, the fun was almost over.  Our second truck was starting out, a cop was trying to stop the driver but wasn’t having any luck, and the rest were hammering the pikies with their batons as they joined the other rubbish on their flats and pick-ups.

“Good night out,” said Ashton.  “Yeah, very good night out.”

“Yeah,” said Sha.  “What a dump!  What a gang of wankers.  Makes you proud to be a Muslim!”

Gough’s pasty face said balefully: “You shouldn’t say that, Khan.  You live in England.  You should be proud of it.”

There were at least two dozen racists in the wagon.  There had to be, it was an army truck, it stands to reason.  And every one of them who’d heard the mealy words just fell about.

Race relations in reverse.  Sha was a hero.  We got back to camp in time to have a few more pints.

Until the morning, everything was champion.


The next episode of Skinback Fusiliers, 'CRUEL AND UNUSUAL', will be published next Saturday, April 16.