The Skinback Fusiliers, Episode One

openDemocracy and Our Kingdom are proud to serialise The Skinback Fusiliers, a fast, funny and deeply disturbing novel about life in the British army today seen through the eyes of three young men. The book is available on Kindle and through Amazon here.
Unknown Soldier
29 March 2011

We present the first 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.



I know the meaning of a really bone night out, and it hit me there was a good one coming up when our corporal suggested we went out on the town to kick-start a few Pakis. It wouldn’t have been that unusual, I suppose, except it was about an hour after we’d had a mega bullshit talk on race relations. The major finished off with “be nice to Johnny Wog, it’s what the British Army do, it’s called building trust,” and it made me wonder if I’d made the right career choice. Better off as a shithouse cleaner, say. Better paid, in any case!

The weird thing was, he wasn’t a Colonel Blimp-style crusty, although he did tend to talk like something off the films. He was quite young, and seemed quite friendly in a stuck up kind of way, but he was completely out of touch. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Johnny Wog. Embarrassing. What school do these wankers go to?

The Lance Jack’s name was Martin, talking of race relations, and he was a Scouser, which meant he was a fully paid up hater anyway. He hated blacks (nignogs) and Asians (Pakis), and worst of all he hated cops – it came with the territory. In fact he hated everybody, really, except for other Scousers, it was like something in their mother’s milk, and if there hadn’t been any Asians in this one-horse town, he’d have chosen someone else to give a kicking to. But there were Asians, and they were Banglas, which meant the Asians in our crew could join in the battering as well, which was handy.

The thing was, it was like at school. White kids beat up the Pakis, that was normal. Then the Paks beat up the Bangladeshis, and we all joined in to give the gippoes shit. In some schools black kids were in the mix, but we only had two in my dump, and they were ginormous. Even the teachers didn’t shit on them.

When I say the Asians in our crew I mean just one, in actual fact, and I glanced across to see how he’d reacted to the corporal’s crack. His name was Shahid, and by one of those things you can never understand, he’d got to be my sort of mate. He was sort of lanky, sort of soft-skinned, and he had these big brown eyes that could have caused him lots of aggro in the army if he hadn’t been so hard. In the navy he’d have been rammed to death, if you get my drift. But he had this way of smiling at people he despised that really put them on the spot – because they didn’t know if he was being submissive or tekkin piss, and he had that look on now. Just to confirm it, like, he winked, on the side the corporal couldn’t see.

“You’ve got a problem there, Corp,” he said, with his funny little crooked smile. “There ain’t no Pakis in this town to kick. Tek it from me.”

“Fuck off,” said Martin. His eyes were small and glittery, because he guessed he was being set up. “What you on about, you fairy? Place is fucking crawling with ’em. Fucking vermin.”

“Ah,” said Shahid. “There you might be right, corporal. But I promise you they’re not from Pakistan. They’re Bangla men. A very different kettle.” He gave a little tiny pause. Timed to a millisecond. “That’s the problem, innit? We all look the same to a Scouser.”

There were ten or twelve of us in the room, and we took the chance to have a little laugh at that. Martin didn’t mind because he’d got his dig in first – he’d called Shahid a fairy – and he hadn’t kicked up about the basic proposition, which was to go out looking for a bit of white supremacy, when it boiled down to it. It would be a pretty craphole Friday evening if we didn’t have a fight – black, white or khaki – specially ’cause the billet they’d tipped us into was the pits. The so-called Naafi bar had one pool table and no Sky, and the lager you could tell was piss just by looking at it. In any case it was full of Paras, and you don’t mix with them, do you? If you want your face.

“Banglas, is it?” Martin answered in the end. Dazzling Scouser wit coming up, you could tell it from a mile off. “I don’t care if they’re the wild men of Borneo. They live in this dump, so they deserve a kicking. Who’s in? Everybody? Gough?”

We looked at Goughie then like a band of monkeys, like Mart had knew we would. Psychology he’d’ve called it if he could pronounce the word, but it wasn’t rocket science, trust me. Every unit’s got a Gough, and everybody looks at him, because to look at him is to give yourself a boost. Feeling down? Look at Goughie. Feeling clumsy, dozy, lost? There’s your man. Wondering if you’ve reached the bottom of the slide, if there’s nowhere further down to go? Well, you get my meaning.

He didn’t have a first name, Johnnie Gough. Whoops – giveaway. He’d been older than most of the recruits when we started, maybe nineteen, maybe even twenty, and he was born to fail, it was writ all over him in letters ten foot high. He was tall, and pale, and spotty, and after the first few weeks he never spoke, unless a corporal or a sergeant made him, just to have a laugh. The best bet was he’d be a suicide, a Deepcut Diver. I shared with him up at camp in training. He used to cry himself to sleep.

“Eh, Gough? Eh? Are you fucking deaf, or something? I said are you fucking deaf? Geddit?!” 

Goughie nodded. 

“Yes, Corp.”

“Yes Corp what?”

Gough blinked at him. The corporal sneered.

“What, Corp?”

“What Corp, yes Corp, what? Kick a Paki is what. Is that what you want to do, eh? Is it?”

Gough blinked again. His spots stood out against the skin. There were small cuts on his face, from shaving.

“Yes, Corp.”

Martie crowed triumphantly.

“So you’ll be on a charge then, won’t you, you racist twat? It’s against the law to kick a Paki till we get to fucking Helmand!”

Shahid put in quietly: “He’s in the clear then Corp, ain’t he? He’ll be kicking Banglas. You’re all right, Goughie. Panic over.”

“Soft get,” the corporal told Shahid, but not with any poison in his voice.

“You’ll get a reputation you will, Stanley, standing up for wankers. Goughie got you on a promise, has he?”

Shahid just grinned, ignoring him (and the joke: Paki-Stan, geddit?) and everyone started sorting out their gear. We were on a course down in this barracks, half uniform, half coveralls, so it was a case of out of work clothes, shower, dress up in finery, stuff some scran down our necks, and wander. The fact we wouldn’t be in uniform meant nothing in a town like this – they were trained to instant recognition. If there was any slappers looking for a bit of beef-bayonet, there we were, and the local lads would keep well clear because we were mob-handed. The normal plan was get tanked, get laid, and find someone to batter who wasn’t in the Paras.

It all went pretty well, up to a point. It was a right old dump to start with, and you had to work dead hard to get a buzz. It was way out in the country, see, but not the real country, like we were used to, hills and rocks and stuff like that, it was all green and rolling with piss-wet trees and woody stuff, on the edge of the training ranges. The barracks was just out of town, on a quiet leafy road, and it was raining, but we didn’t mind the walk, we didn’t have to. Back in Catterick it would have been taxis, or some lads who had cars, but here the taxis wouldn’t pick up squaddies, on account of too much vomit, we’d been told, too much fucking off without paying. It was a pisstake really, I reckon: we had no trouble getting taxis other times. But it suited the landlord of the nearest pub, didn’t it? I mean, anyone who’s got a licence and a garden shed in falling distance of a barracks has died and gone to heaven. Simples.

I was first up to the bar for my shout – me and Shahid – which was a trick I’d been trained up to by my sister, who’s done bar work since she was knee high to a turd. The landlord was a fat aggressive sort of bloke, and he didn’t bother with a smile.

“Two pints of lager, please, mate.”

“We don’t do lager.”

I was gobsmacked.

“You what?”

“No call for it.”

“Come on, Tiny! Get your finger out!” That was the corporal. Pissed off I’d got served first. Stirring it. 

“What d’you mean no call for it? There’s twelve of us here, we’re calling for...”

A smile began to form. 

“You can always bugger off,” he said. “It’s only two miles to the next good pub.” Two lies in two seconds: not bad, eh? But while I was wondering how far to push it, Martie Martin took his chance. He elbowed me to one side, grinning at the landlord.

“Four whiskies, mate, and make ’em big’uns, eh? For the grown-ups in this sorry fucking lot.”

I got in second, though, that was something. Scotch for me and gin for Shahid, with a tonic (“Fucking hell, Stan – you really are a poof,” said Mart), so the rest decided they’d go exotic too. It was Pernod, Drambuie, Pernod AND Drambuie, rum and ginger wine, you name it, and the landlord raked the cash in with a happy Christian feeling in his heart. No smile, though, although his prices were sky high.

If we’d had brains, if we’d had any common sense at all, we’d just have had the one, then gone on and found a proper place to have some fun in, wouldn’t we? But we didn’t. It was just one more, and just one more, and then one for the road. If we’d had brains we wouldn’t have been there in the first place. If we’d had brains we wouldn’t have been in the army, would we?

Next stop the ’Stan, know what I mean, the fucking Sandpit? Next stop mopping up the shit the Yankies’ve laid out for us, the burned up babies, the blown up brides and grooms, the bits of hearts and minds they scatter round the place. They kicked us out of Sangin because our government starved us of the gear to do the job with, and next stop is catch the bullet. Corporal fucking Martie’s Volunteers. The Skinback Fusiliers…


Next stop, in fact, turned out to be a lot of drink, a few taxi rides I don’t really remember, Martie Martin getting completely arseholed and pulling rank like there wan’t no tomorrow, and a little bit of sweet revenge. It cost a tooth or two, a drop of blood, a fair few swollen lips, but it was worth it. It was down to Shahid, too. It was Shahid’s big night out.

It was the taxis started it. When Mart had had enough Grouse down his neck he got fed up of the Pub with No Beer, and tried to shift us out. He couldn’t get a cab for love or money, and the landlord wasn’t going to help clear out his only customers, was he? Then Shahid disappeared into the rain to use his mobile, and turned up two shagged out old Nissans, three times round the clock, with two shagged out old Bangla drivers who took all twelve of us, because the price was right. I could see the tarmac through the hole underneath my trainers, which was a good thing really. It let in enough air to blow the exhaust fumes and the farts away.

“Christ, what a shitheap, couldn’t you do no better than this?” said Martie, with Scouser gratitude. “Ask him where the best place is. Booze and tarts, that’s all we want. It’s not a lot to ask, is it, you useless Paki twat?”

The driver, a harmless sort of geriatric without a lot of teeth, glanced back with a big smile on his face.

“Sorry, sir, I am a Muslim. I do not drink.”

He and Shahid laughed out loud, then talked quietly and rapidly between themselves. Urdu or something, maybe, like the kids back at our school. Then Sha winked at the lance corporal. 

“The Southern Cross,” he said. “All tastes catered for. Best fucks, best fights, best fixes. And he’ll tell me where we can go on to after, if you really want some trouble. The Bangla boot boys, where no white man dares to tread!”

“Just fucking try me,” said Corporal Martin. You could see his chest and shoulders swelling. And his head. “Just let ’em fucking wait and see... Ask him! Go on! Ask him!”

“I will,” said Shahid. “It’ll be a pleasure. He’ll want a big tip, though, lance. He’ll be letting his own side down, won’t he? That must be worth a few.”

“How much spare you got?” said Martie, punching Goughie in the ribs. “Come on, you tight cunt, it’s a fair point, ain’t it, la’! You’ll be my fucking friend for life.”

It’s easy in the army if you know the rules. Poor Goughie did. He’d learned the hard way.

As shit pubs in shit towns go, the Southern Cross was pretty normal for a shit night out, and at least the landlord knew what lager was. We did drinking, smoking, chatting up the local talent, dancing, shouting till your bloody voice went hoarse, you name it. Some of the totty looked half-willing in a dozy, empty Friday night sort of way, but I wasn’t in the mood to try it on. My mum – who shouldn’t know, as far as I can see – told me when I joined up that the uniform would have them flocking to me, and God knows why, it seems to work an’ all. She told me to be careful, and she blushed dead scarlet, and I thought of her one night when I was having some tart up against a wheelie bin, and it ran away from us. I thought of my mother and my sister, and I picked myself up and buggered off and left her lying there. She shouted something that I didn’t want to hear, and I got put on a charge next morning because I’d tore me keks. Yeah, mum was right. I should’ve been more careful, shouldn’t I?

By the time Martie told us we were moving out, everyone had had enough and didn’t bother arguing. Our resident druggies, Josh Peters, Chas Hicks and Geordie George had scored thanks to Wasambu (Sambo – he was Ugandan) who homed in on anything illegal, didn’t use it, but always took a cut, while the booze fanatics Timmo Hawes and Big Dave Hughes had got their skinful along of Mart. Ashton, who was as black as Sambo but English and a total gash hound, led the charge towards the tarts, followed by Pete Bollocks Bowyer (more bollocks than brains), and Billy Simmonds, known as Billy ’Unt because he was one. Ashton was my mate, along with Shahid, and denied he was a gash hound through thick and thin, because he was engaged to girl in Manchester who’d cut his balls off if she knew. To prove his purity, he’d settled for just a blow job round the back. 

It was Martie Martin – hard as arseholes as he liked to see himself – who had come off worst, he was as pissed as a pudden on a legless high. He’d bummed two twenties off of Geordie George and made it clear he wouldn’t get it back, and he’d told Josh Peters that he’d fucked his sister, which for all I know was true, she was known to put out for a wrap when desperate. He’d told anyone who’d listen that Sambo was a Zulu prince, and had gone from Stan to Shag to Shithead Paki Ponce with Shahid, and demanded that he found that club the taxi man had promised us. So Shahid did. And it served Mart fucking right. We had a well good laugh.

It was a set-up, obviously, even the dimmest buggers in our team knew that except the corporal, which says it all, I guess. It was a dead hole with a little Asian bouncer on the door, who wasn’t big enough in fact to bounce a ball, and it was laid out for a bit of drinking and not much else at all. There were a few blokes sitting about in corners, drab as drab, and tell the honest truth it could have been a rest room behind a taxi firm. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe they were mini-cabsters on a break. Some of them were even drinking tea.

I looked at Shahid’s face to get a hint at least, but I got absolutely nothing. He had his easy smile on, and he was making big friendly gestures with his arms, as if to say “well here it is, lads, enjoy!” It clicked quite quickly, though, that he’d brought us here to have a laugh was all, to show the corp up for a wanker, to take the monumental piss. With this magic get-out clause for him – it was all the taxi driver’s fault, the lousy Bangla toerag. Quite honestly I didn’t mind at all, I thought that it was pretty smart. Except that there’d be trouble over it, when Mart got Shahid back to camp. I thought he’d have his bloody guts for garters.

For a moment it was like something from the films the OC showed us in the training for Afghanistan. The Asians looked at us, we looked at the Asians, and it was like East meets West, the merging of the minds and cultures, the road to better understanding – not. They were sitting down, with beards and puzzled faces, and we were standing over them, tall, and drunk, and arrogant. The master race. 

“This place stinks,” said Big Dave Hughes. “I need a pissing drink.”

“But where’s the tarts, Corp?” said Peter Bollocks Bowyer. “You said we’d get some tasty Moslem minge.”

“Hey! Mohammed!” said Corporal Martin to a seated man, an old man with white hair and beard. “We paid good cash for this, Grandpa! We want crumpet.”

There are some things that you just don’t say, I reckon, in a certain situation, and in three seconds we’d said three of them, with knobs on. So “Run,” yelled Shahid, and as half of us shot towards the front door, a dozen lads with sticks burst through another way to batter us. Our boys barged through them to follow us – Chas Hicks knocked the bouncer over like a ninepin – which left Martie, Bollocks and Big Dave to do their version of Custard’s Last Stand. Outside we stood and listened for five minutes to let them make their mark on history – because no one liked them anyway – and then we did our duty and waded back in, freshened and regrouped. 

It was very dark now – lights had been turned off – and Shahid did a lot of Urdu shouting while we all got punched and kicked and punched and kicked them back, but it didn’t last that long. Fights look good on films or telly, but they don’t do much harm unless someone draws a blade. The Asian lads had won in their terms – they’d driven out the invaders, hadn’t they? – so they didn’t bother to come outside and risk the coppers bringing white man’s justice in. That can be expensive, if you’re not a white.

We didn’t get a taxi, though – funny that, but no one seemed to want to know us – and it was a long walk in the lashing rain. Lance Corporal Martin had a broken nose – which was nice – and there were some cuts and loosened teeth or so, but all in all it had been a good successful Friday night. When we got back to the camp, Martie lost his sense of balance and fell down and smashed his face on the lavvy pan, then threw up all down himself. No one really tried to help him, much.
“Mission accomplished,” said Shahid, as we rolled into our pits. “And as usual, God were on our side. Amazing how that works, ent it?”


We had a lie-in in the morning, which we well needed, given it had been our first night out since we’d been posted to this hell hole. In fact they’d been working us like ten-pee tarts, with no time off for good behaviour, to show us who was boss. We were actually down here to be the “enemy,” to be the targets in some hard-man training for the Paras. Not as punch bags, no way, they would have murdered us, they had an image to keep up. But every day we had to go out on the ranges, and make like “aggressors” or “insurgents” to be tracked down and “eliminated,” ie killed. It was good hard dirty filthy graft.

I thought I was the first to wake up in my room, it was so quiet, but when I opened my eyes, thinking of Bridget, I saw another pair, big brown ones, staring at me. They were pretty close, because this camp was built before the dawn of time, and in them days there were eight beds in it, not four like now. In them days, Shahid’s nose would have been down my bleeding throat. He grinned at me.

“Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “Shall we go breakfast, or just stay in bed and enjoy the reek of dried-up blood and vomit?”

“Fuck off,” came a muffled voice from opposite. “Just fuck off and shut your fucking row up.”

It was the corporal. He’d not died in the night, then. Ah well. I blinked my eyes a few times, testing. Not even a headache. Brilliant.

“What time is it?”

“Fuck off! Fuck off the fucking noise, you fucking arseholes!”

“Gone eight o’clock. We’ll get talked about. We’ll miss— Fuck, Corp! What have you done to your fucking face?”

Corporal Martin had suddenly sat up. Jesus, what a fright. The one eye you could see was wild. Especially when he realised where he was.

“Christ,” he said. “Whose bed is this? Christ fucking Jesus!”

“It’s okay, Mart,” said Shahid, soothingly, “it’s Billy’s bed, but Billy didn’t stay. You’re still a virgin.”

“Christ,” said Corporal Martin. He was really shocked.

“I’m not kidding you,” Shahid said. “You were drunk enough to lose your honour, but you still said no. Are you a Catholic, by any chance?”

The last head poked out of the covers, bleary eyed. It was Big Dave Hughes. He’d been pissed as well, completely wrecked. Still big enough to tip Martie into Billy’s pit, though.

“You watch your fucking lip,” said Mart aggressively to Shahid. “I’ll put you on a fucking charge.”

Shahid winked at me.

“Pals’ night out,” he said. “All equals now, Lance. Don’t you remember that bit?”

He suddenly flung his covers back and stood up, tall and willowy. He had on a tee-shirt and boxers. He reached out for his shells.

“I won’t interfere with your ablutions, ladies,” he said. “Me and Tiny are off to get some breakfast, right Tiny? We’ll make sure the butler keeps your coffee warm.”

I shifted fast now. Fair enough to rip the piss off Martin, but if Big Dave had heard the “ladies” bit we could end up dead. If he understood it, that is. Hard to tell with Dave, though. He had reverse reactions. His reflexes worked the wrong way round. Sometimes he twitched his leg because the MO had tapped his kneebone three weeks before. I grabbed me gear and scarpered.

The breakfast, as predictable, was total crap. Not so long ago, my Mum had told me, the government decided squaddies ought to get more proper stuff to eat, you know, Jamie Oliver-type sort of bollocks about how actual food would make us better fighters, all change for fresh veg and pork from proper pigs. Yeah, and the Pope’s a Jew.

“What’s up with you, then?” Shahid said, as I looked at the stuff on the electric hotplates. He dished out half a ton at random. “It’s only bleeding food, you div.”

Have you ever seen fifty fried eggs floating in warm oil where they’ve been for half an hour? Have you ever seen bacon twisted into lengths of black and yellow corpse intestines? Fancy it, do you? Join the British Army. You can have fried bread, too. Handy for dabbing on your piles.

“Them baked beans look like last night’s sick,” I said. “All pink and lumpy.” I took some bits of toast, and some marge and jam, and followed him towards a table. “Anyway, ain’t this lot against your religion, you bloody heathen? You’re not allowed it, are you?” 

“Nah,” he said, “that’s pig and stuff, but this is champion for Muslims. I don’t know what it is, granted – but pork it ain’t, I guarantee it. Next you’ll be telling me you believe in God.” 

I couldn’t really make Shahid out, quite honestly, so I picked up a bit of toast and crunched it, and watched him fill his hole with shite. He dabbed his lips with a slice of soggy bread as if it was a serviette.

“Or maybe it’s your escape plan,” he went on. “Starve yourself to death and get out that way, is it? I know you’ve got a death-wish, Paki-lover.”

I gaped.

“Fuck off,” I said. “I think the food is shite, that’s all. And I ain’t a fucking Paki-lover. I’ve known you too fucking long.”

“Yeah, maybe that’s why they call you it,” he said, not laughing at the joke. “Hanging about with me and so on. You didn’t even notice how they looked at you when we came in just now, did you?”

Well, that was truth and no mistake, I hadn’t noticed anything. I find messtimes the worst part of the lot, best done switched off, if you follow me. The stink, the stainless steel, the dirty fork prongs, the food, the grease, I try to stick me mind in neutral. But I still didn’t get what he was driving at.

“I wouldn’t call ’em Pakis, anyway,” I said. “It’s illegal, innit? Racial insults. Did you miss the lectures, or don’t you care?”

“I don’t have to care,” he said. “I’ve got immunity. I can call a spade a spade, you ask Ashton! But you don’t do it anyway, do you? Why not? Are you scared you’ll go to prison?”

“Very funny,” I said. “Hey – what d’you call a Paki with a crossbow?”

Shahid smiled.

“William Patel! D’you get it? See? I called you Paki!”

“And you’re a racist git,” he said. “What d’you call a sarcastic cowboy?”

“I dunno. Go on.”

“Tex Piss!”

We were being looked at now, I noticed that, and no mistake. Not only sitting with a Paki, but laughing with him, too. And then in walks Corporal Martin, with Big Dave Hughes and Billy ’Unt. His face was terrible, and he got a storm of yells and wolf whistles. He gave a little bow all round.

“You should see the others, though!” he said, to all and sundry. “Two still in hospital is what I heard. Billy – get’s a cup of tea. Sausage, beans and eggs, okay, four sugars. And hash browns if they’ve got ’em.”

“Come on,” said Shahid. “My bullshitometer’s going to blow a fuse. D’you want a smoke? I’ve got a bit of weed.”

The corporal tried to stop us. As Shahid stood up, he beamed in on him like a (one-eyed) laser gun. His body was bunched up for trouble. He pulled Big Dave towards him by the arm.

“Ah,” he said. “The target. D’you want to score some points, Davie my friend?”

Dim Dave looked stupid as per usual, but me and Shahid got the message fast enough. I got up too, quick but casual. Trouble was, he was between us and the door.

“Oi, Paki” he said. “Where d’you think you’re going? You owe me, bastard. And you, wanker.”

The interest-level shot up like a rocket. The chat-level went down to balance it. We had an audience.

Shahid stared into Martin’s face as he walked up to him. If he was nervous it didn’t show at all. I kept my end up best way that I could. A thumping was unlikely here, even with a moron like Big Dave as strong-arm man. But if a lancejack takes against you, things can get quite rough. There’s a lot of shit a lance can put your way. Shed loads. And shit always rolls downhill.

Billy dodged back to reinforce the human wall, but me and Sha were fast, and for the moment they moved back, hemmed in by plastic chairs and tables. A low whoop went up – appreciation of the tactics.

“Come on, Paki!” came a sudden yell – anonymous. “Knock his other fucking eye out!”

That wasn’t going to help, and Shahid tried to defuse it.

“What’s up, Corp?” he said. “There’s plenty breakfast left. Billy – get the man that cup of tea, why don’t you?”

Martin was four-square now, dead in front of him, his chin stuck out like a cartoon ape.

“You fucking set me up, you little bastard,” he began. “You and them Paki poofters in that shithole.”

“Bloody hell, Corp,” said Shahid. “Banglas, I told you, all—”

“Shut it! You’re fucking dead, you are! You’re going to—”

Just at that moment the double doors swung open, and Corporal Martin shut his mouth so fast he almost bit his tongue off. He’d been shouting, and the whole damn world could hear, inside and out the room. It was an officer, one I didn’t know, one of their lot, not ours. He was a big man, a captain. Silence reigns and we all get wet. You could’ve heard a pin drop.

“Lance Corporal Martin, isn’t it?” he said. His voice was calm and pleasant. That stuck-up tone they all have, even the ones who think they’re normal blokes like you or me. The sort of tone that makes you want to smash their faces in. The voice of reason, I don’t think.

“Yessir! Sorry, sir!”

“Sorry for what?” said the captain. His eyes took in Martin’s mashed up mug. I caught a gleam of “target” in his own eye. They could come down big on that sort of thing, when it suited them. I saw him glance at Shahid. Bruised mouth, slight cut to the eyebrow, he’d not got out entirely unscathed himself.

“Well?” the captain said. “Have you two men been fighting? Is that what you’re sorry for? Look at your face, man!”

Tough order that, looking at your own face, but no one thought to laugh. He could smell blood, it was standing out a mile. Bad enough to hit a squaddie – bullying! It just doesn’t happen in the Army does it, it’s a well-known fact! But to hit an Asian – sweet! If Shahid played his cards right, old Martie’s days with a stripe were severely numbered. He wouldn’t even touch the sides, they’d throw him down the road – and it was no skin off this captain’s nose, it wouldn’t be his outfit going short, would it, just brownie points and no mistake. Zero tolerance! No racists here! He’d probably get the frigging MBE.

Martie was sweating on it. He wasn’t so thick he couldn’t see it coming. Big Dave Hughes just looked confused.

“No, sir!” said Corporal Martin. “We ain’t been fighting, sir! I walked into a door!”

“A door with fists? We don’t have doors with fists down here, Lance Corporal. They’re civilised down here. The doors.”

“Door with a door knob, sir.” He stopped. “Honest truth, sir, I were pissed. Friday night, sir.” Another pause. He swallowed. “Honest truth, sir, we got in a fight. In town. Not just me, sir, few of us. All mates.” Last pause. Covering all the options. “Then I walked into a door.”

“They jumped us, sir,” said Billy ’Unt. “In a club, sir. Some P—”

Even Billy saw which way that line was going. He stopped. His mouth hung open.

“Some pricks,” said Shahid, looking at the captain’s eyes. “Sorry about his language, sir. Billy... well, he’s from Rochdale, sir. We got jumped by some yobboes. Scallies. They were after squaddies, sir, and any bunch would do. We copped for it.”

“Well, I hope you came off best!” the captain said. It came out automatic-like, he couldn’t help himself. 

“Yessir!” said the corporal, just as automatically. A sort of grateful grin, half proud, half rueful. It brought the captain to his senses, maybe. Too much stupid role-play. His face went severe again.

“You’re a non-commissioned officer, not a thug,” he said. “On your honour, is this true? Were you set upon by local yobs? No provocation?”

“Yes, sir!” said Corporal Martin. “No, sir! No provocation, sir!” 

“I’m a Muslim, sir,” said Shahid. “We don’t tell lies, sir, we’re not allowed to, Allah says. Lance Corporal Martin took the brunt of it, sir. He were standing up for us.”

It was getting OTT. Maybe the captain was too frustrated to notice. Still, it had passed a little bit of time for him, hadn’t it? He’d not have had anything better to do. He had one more try, though, fair play to him.

“Muslims don’t drink, either,” he said. “Do they?”

“Do we,” corrected Shahid, mildly. “No, sir, that’s right. Have you studied comparative religion?” He stopped before he went too far. “No, sir,” he said. “But we’re very good at calling taxis.” Pause. “And driving them.”

So that was that, then. The officer gave up the fight before he lost his temper with an Asian, and we took the opportunity to slide out of the canteen after him, before Martie could make up his mind to kill Shahid on the spot. We went and found a comfort zone behind the garages and smoked a joint or two.

Sometimes, the army could be almost sweet.

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