The Skinback Fusiliers, Episode Two

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
2 April 2011

We present the second 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.



What d’you do that for, anyway?”  I asked Shahid.

“What?” said Shahid, pulling on his toke.  “Save his life?  You’ve got to stick together, ’aven’t you?”

The sun was shining, and the weed was off of Sambo, and it was really good.  We were lying on a patch of concrete behind some sort of shed, and even the grass was steaming, it was that hot.  It was a sweet life, when you thought about it.  Smoking dope just after breakfast in the English countryside, and getting paid for it.  By the Queen!

“Oh yeah,” I said.  “Like in that dump last night.  You set him up for that battering, don’t deny it.”

“But you’ve got to get your own back somehow, too.  I’m a minority, ain’t I? I’m downtrodden.”

I grinned.  I was going to make a dead good point.

“So you’re a racist too,” I said.  “You’ve just proved it.”

He looked at me, and then he smiled. 

“I don’t hate him ’cause he’s white, though, do I?  I hate him because he’s Corporal Martin.”

That made me laugh.  I could join this game.

“He’s not white anyway,” I said. “He’s a Scouser.  Irish with a bit of English whore mixed in.  I hate the Irish, me.”

That came out sort of bitter, which it shouldn’t have done in actual fact.  In actual fact it wasn’t even true.  I still thought of Bridget – Bridgie – quite a lot.  And I didn’t really hate her.

“Girl is it?” he said.  “You don’t know what girl trouble is until you become a Muslim, mate.  Don’t tell me you’re ’ard done by.”

I wasn’t planning to tell him anything as it happened – I wasn’t half pissed for a start off – but it just came out. 

“Not much to tell,” I said.  “She’s not even really Irish really, according to her mum and dad.  They went to fucking Northern Ireland four hundred fucking years ago from Scotland, and they love the Queen.  They’re Protestants.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” said Shahid.  “So why d’you hate her, though?  What’s her name?”

“Bridgie.  From Portavogie.  The nastiest, meanest, coldest dump I’ve ever been to, and I had to pay her ferry fare as well, which was bog standard with her.  If she had a talent it was chiselling.  Tight bitch.”

He looked at me down his nose.  I couldn’t read his thoughts.

“I met her when I did volunteer work in Manchester,” I carried on.  “Needle exchange.  Druggy drop-in for druggy drop-outs.  She was one of them, but nearly clean by then.  Just a bit of dope, few E’s and crap like that, and when I went to uni she sort of tagged along, she shared my student lodgings, like.  Bloody nightmare.  She was like an anorexic whippet, all pointed knees and elbows, and the bed was two foot wide. Like sleeping with a bunch of butchers’ knives.” 

“Just stop complaining,” Shahid said.  “I never went to university.  Or shagged an Irish girl.”

“Not missed a lot,” I said.  “The sex didn’t last for long, and nor did uni, I got kicked out.  She started shagging the lads down the passage while I was at me lectures – and they were Irish, the real thing, from the south. They played rebel music all night every night, then slept all day and fucked my girlfriend while I went to class.  I learnt some good stuff off ’em, though.  Guitar tunes, songs.  I played a lot, them days.  I can’t believe it, looking back.  I really can’t.”

The sun went behind the clouds, and it got quite chilly.  Good job we were soldiers, eh?  Well ’ard.  I made a smoking gesture with my mouth and fingers.  Time for another one.  But Sha was thinking.

“I can’t see you as a folkie,” he said.  “Did you have long hair?  Come to think of it, I can’t see you at university, neither.  What were you in for?”

“You make it sound like bloody prison, mate.  Oh, some crappy boring thing, I only did it for my mum, she believed in education, she thought I ought to ‘have a chance.’  I had the A-levels, I should’ve got a useful job.”

“What, like the army?  Ho bleeding ho.”

“No, like helping druggies, I enjoyed that, anything.  But that’s the trouble really, innit, what’s a proper job?  I mean, you’ve got to live, and helping people, you don’t get paid at all.  Fucking peanuts.  Fucking disgrace.  And by the time I got kicked out of education there weren’t no jobs no more and I’d borrowed fucking thousands, and the army was telling great big steaming lies to get us to join up.  Like they pay you lots of lovely money.  I couldn’t believe it when my sister worked it out.  It’s just above slave fucking labour.”

He’d started rolling.   He gave the big fat joint a lot of tender care.

“I fell for that as well,” he said.  “They talked about the minimum wage as if we work a forty hour week.  For twenty four hours out of every twenty four, fifty two weeks a year, it’s closer to fuck all.  Or less maybe.  And then they charge us for the stuff we get to eat.  Amazing.”

The sun came out again, hard and lovely.  Shahid lit up and sucked and sighed and thought.  Me ditto.  Bridgie at the needle exchange when I first met her.  What a wreck.  Needle exchange!  Hola – if those wanks could only see me now.

“What were hers like?” he said suddenly. “Her mum and dad?  You said you went to Portathingie?”

“Never met ’em.  She’d left me waiting at the harbour because she thought she’d better check ’em out, she hadn’t let on I was in the Army.  She rang me on me mobile.  They were going to kill me if I ever showed me face.  End of story.”

“Are you winding me up?  I thought you said she were a Protestant?”

“Yeah, funny innit?  If I’d just been English I’d’ve been all right, she said.  No prejudice in her family, not much!  But the Army!  I thought she was ’aving me on at first, but she meant it, and she said she’d warned me what a weird dump Portavogie was, the silly cow.  The paving stones are all red white and blue, I’ve never seen so many Union Jacks in all me life, and every wall was painted with a slogan.  Fuck the Pope.  No surrender.  That sort of stuff.  Pretty little place apart from that, there were seals in the harbour.  It was full of ’em.”

He was pulling smoke down deep into his lungs.  His eyebrows went up a notch and he stared at me.

“Seals?  What real seals?  They’re not English, are they?”

“English?  How the fuck should I know, I didn’t talk to them!”  I got his drift.  “Course they’re English, they go everywhere, they swim.”  I took the joint off him and had a giant suck.  “Anyway, they’d be Irish, wouldn’t they?  Portafuckingvogieish.  There was lots of them, just swimming round.  Black faces.  Like Ashton and his family at the bleeding seaside.  Is Ashton English?  You tell me.” 

It was the dope talking, I guess, but we thought we were pretty bloody funny.  And just at that minute, just like in a film, who comes round the corner but Ashton himself.  Coincidence or what?

“Yo bruvvas,” he said, sticking his palm out and putting on his dimbo whiteboy badass talk. “’Ow it ’angin’ wiv yah den mah bwais?” He did it sometimes, especially to officers, because it made them feel like he was getting down with them.  He came from Whalley Range, in actual fact, and when he spoke to black mates you couldn’t understand a fucking word of it.  He was all right, Ashton.  He was a laugh. 

“Fuck off you nigger cunt,” said Shahid.  He grabbed the smoke back off me.  “We’re talking philosophical down here.  Did you ever see an English seal?”

“Seal?  I never even saw an English leak.”  He sat down on the grass – softer than the concrete – then jumped up again, wet arse.  “Fuck!  Why din’t you warn me, bastards!”

“They’re Welsh,” I said.  “Leeks.  Don’t you know nothing, Ashton?” 

“These trousers must be Welsh then.  Look, stop going on.  You fucking stoned or something?  Shahid – he’s after you.  He’s going to give you mega shit.  He’s got Big Dave and Tony and he’s going to have your arse.  Just thought I’d tell you, okay?  Though Christ knows why, you’ll only get what’s coming to you.”

Shahid was lying on his back now, lungs full, smoke dribbling from his mouth and nostrils, happy as a pig in shit.  He had the toke held out, but my fingers stopped before I reached it.

“Who?  Martie?  Why?”

Ashton said it with a look: revenge.  It wasn’t rocket science.

“He’ll have Billy ’Unt onside an’ all,” he said.  “And Bollocks Bowyer.  I thought we might take a ride.  Lickle trip into the country for our health, like.  Know what I mean?” 

Shahid laughed so hard he damn near dropped the joint. 

“You kill me, Ash,” he said.  “For our health!”

“Suit yourself,” said Ashton.  “It’s just he’s on your case, that’s all.  He’s putting it about all over.  You’re a monkey, and you’ve made a monkey out of him.  He ain’t having it, old son, he’s your superior, ain’t he?  In every way.  When Sambo asked him if it were a colour thing, Martie threatened to knock him down.  ‘I’m superior because of this,’ he goes, and sticks his shoulder out, as if his stripe was on his civvie shirt.  ‘Colour don’t come into it, you daft black twat!’”

Shahid giggled. 

“What did Wasambu say?  Nowt, I bet.  Christ, he really is thick that lad, int’e?”

“Nah,” said Ashton, “Sambo’s not thick, he’s up to something, he’s working it all out.  He’ll be the king of Bongo Bongo Land someday, I’d put me arse on it.” 

I nodded.  Sambo wasn’t thick, no way.  Half the barracks owed him money.  He lent it to you, and if you said you didn’t have none when he asked for an instalment back, he just smiled.

“Martie’s thick,” said Ashton.  “Did you know he failed the entrance exam for the NF once?  Straight up, that.  And the BNP and EDL.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Shahid. “It’s a hard exam, that is.  Question One, right?  What was Hitler’s first name?”

“Adolf.”  Quick as a flash, me.

“It’s Heil,” said Shahid, expelling smoke from every orifice.  “Heil Hitler.  Now who knows fuck all?”

“Talk of the devil,” said Ashton.  “On your feet, lads.  He’s found us.  Shahid – roach!” 

It flicked through the air and Ashton trapped it with his foot.  Scrudge-scrudge-scrudge into the long wet grass.  I whipped my coat off and swung it like a windmill.  When Corporal Martin fronted up, the air was clear as crystal.  What’s more, his face was full of fucking smiles, as if the night before just hadn’t happened.  Now what the hell was going off? 

“Been smoking weed, lads?”  (Blank stares all round.) “Should of called me in, I’ve got some great stuff in me locker.  Listen – heard the buzz?  There’s going to be a rumble tonight, other side of town.  The Perokeeto.  Our chance to score some big ones.  Us against the gippoes.  They’ve been getting uppity.”

It was a relief to know he’d let us off the hook, but I must admit I felt a sense of gloom and doom, and not just because I thought he might be stringing us along.  The sun was out, for fuck sake, the world was looking good, and Corporal Martin, like every other bugger in the army, could only think of trouble. I glanced around and saw that Sha and Ashton felt the same.  

“Bloody hell, Lance,” I said.  “Can’t we just chill for once?  We had a fight last night, ain’t that enough?”

“Beaten by the Banglas,” put in Sha, all reasonable-like.  “Got to prove it with the gypsies now, have we?”

He had a way with words, did Sha.  You could see him digging at Martie’s weak spot, picking at the sore.  And Martie almost fell for it, he had to nearly crack his face to keep up the friendly mask.  He was cooking something up.  Not pleasant. 

“Some of my best friends are gypsies,” Ashton said, winking at me on the sly.  “They provide a useful service to the black community.  They steal unwanted babies.” 

“They make you lot look good, that’s for sure,” snapped Corporal Martin.  “They’re even bigger shit than you are.”

“Nice,” said Shahid.  He made a face at Ashton.  “Probably even true.”

“Well fuck the lot of you,” said Martin, losing his cool.  “You’re not English anyway, I wouldn’t expect you to fucking understand.  Or are you yellow?  These Pikies have been taking the piss for weeks down here, they shit the place up.  They’ve got a camp down past the ranges, they’ve been doing things to local girls.  They’re bleeding animals.”

“Probably eat human flesh,” said Sha.  “I’ve read about ’em in the Daily Mail.”

“There you are then,” went Martin.  “Fact.  And we’re going to fucking clear ’em out, tonight.  Everybody’s in it.  The Para-boys are coming in.  There’s going to be a bloodbath, and we’re going to keep our end up.  Ain’t you ever heard of fucking honour, you fucking toerags?  Or don’t they have it where you come from?”

“Whalley Range,” said Ashton.  “Darkest Manchester.”

“I’m Oldham me,” said Shahid.  “Born and bred.  Waterloo Street forever, and Limeside can go to hell!  That’s honour, Corporal.  Paki Pride.” 

I kept my mouth shut, like I always did.  Hassan from Blackburn, even if I was completely white.  Would you’ve spoke?  Anyway, I thought Mart was going mental, completely ape.  But there was three of us, and only one of him.  He looked at me and his eyes were like little poison darts.

“You’re the fucking traitor,” he said.  “These two don’t know no better, do they?  But just remember, Sunshine – you ain’t got no protection.  We’re the fucking minority in this country now.”

I didn’t have an answer to that one, but Sha was grinning.

“Shit,” he said. “You got all the virtues, don’t you, Martie?”

“Fuck off you Paki twat!  And don’t you fucking call me Martie, okay?  Never!  I’ll fucking Agai you!  In fact fuck off the lot of you!  I’m ashamed to have you in my outfit.  I’m ashamed to have you in the British Army.  You’re finished.  All of you.  I’ve marked your fucking cards.”

He give us one more poison glare, turned on his heel, and buggered off.  Ashton joined us sitting on the concrete, but we none of us relaxed.  There was a lot to think about in that.

“What say we go to town and get a curry and a pint?”  Ashton said, finally.  “Lamb madras for me.  Ice cold fucking lager.”

“You’d need a vindaloo to get the taste of that twat out of your gob,” said Shahid.  “Hey, Tiny.  Don’t you go with no dirty slags tonight, will you?”

I blinked at him.  Now what? 

“You ain’t got no protection, right?  The corporal says.”

It wasn’t very funny, so no one laughed.


With all the pressure off, with pints of lager stood in front of us, and plates of poppadoms and chopped onions and raita while we waited for the stuff to come, we got onto the favourite subject, naturally.  For starters, Ashton hadn’t had it for twelve hours, maybe more.

“Yeah, but d’you reckon Goughie has?”  said Shahid.  “I mean, I’ve met some stupid tarts in my life, but not one stupid enough to go with him like, surely?”

“Oh come on,” said Ashton.  “There ain’t no bird on this earth won’t drop her drawers for someone.  It depends on the size of your trouser bulge.  That’s the clincher.”

“Bloody hell,” I said.  “That’s Goughie screwed.  I’ve seen his dick, it’s bloody near invisible.”

“Who’s on about his dick?” said Ashton, all innocence.  “I meant his friggin’ wallet.  How do you think rich bastards get the smartest totty, eh?  Look at that dwarfy git that runs F1.  Look at Piers Morgan, I read somewhere his knob was like a sausage on a stick.  Don’t stop him using it, does it?  Disgusting.”

Shahid called the waiter over – in Urdu, or something foreign – and ordered three more beers, then drained the last dregs of his first pint and wiped his hand across his mouth. 

“If Johnnie Gough was rich as Richard Branson,” he said, “he couldn’t get his end away.  You’re mental, Ash.  He married Mrs Hand.  He’s stuck with her.”

We were talking about Goughie because we’d just seen him off.  We’d nearly bumped into him in actual fact, down the street on our way to Curry Corner.  Every one-horse bastard of a town has got one these days, and you often find the squaddies there, because it’s proper grub compared with army shite.  He was looking for some company. 

“Look out!  Look out!” said Ashton, the man with eagle eyes.  “It’s Billy No-Mates!”

Shahid was in the lead, and he’d narrowed it down to two curry shops where the menu looked okay, he said.  He dodged us past the first one, though, because we knew that Gough might’ve clocked us, and did a sort of double round a crowd of punters and nicked into the second one like lightning.  It had a glass front you could see through, but Shahid didn’t let that bother him.

“Salamu elei kum!” he gabbled at two waiters, and sort of rushed them before they’d got out their reply.  He took us all in in a gesture, pointed through the window, and told them something very quick and fast.  They were superstars.  No questions asked.  We were bucketed through the plastic curtain to the kitchen – which was a first for me – and stood there like arseholes, wreathed in smiles.  Two cooks, two waiters, all skinny Paki men, all half discomknockerated.  We smiled, they didn’t, till one of the two who’d led us in did some explanations (or said some bloody thing, in any case).  And Shahid pulled the plastic beads aside, stared out for a few seconds, then spread his hands out like an Eastern lord.

“Thanks, lads,” he told them.  “I’ll do the same for you next time you’re up in Rusholme!  Come on boys, let’s eat.”

Speculating on the size of Goughie’s todger didn’t keep our interest very long, but we stayed with the subject, naturally.  Ashton, who was so keen on it he was even getting married, always wanted to talk about anybody else’s sex life, especially Shahid’s, which I thought was sort of weird meself.  But when Sha asked him why he wanted to know, he didn’t even understand the question.

“What d’you mean, why?” he said.  “Why d’you think?  I’ve never talked about it to a Paki, have I, I don’t fucking know none.  Bloody ’ell mate, where I come from we’re not exactly mates, are we, and to us your birds are bloody Daleks, walking binbags with a slitty little eyehole.  I feel sorry for ’em, like, but I’d never get to screw one, would I?  I mean, what do they wear underneath, for instance?  They don’t go bollock naked, surely!”

The waiters came up then and started dishing out, so Sha clammed up.  He smiled at them and nodded, and he thanked them as every plate went down, although I guess that they were Banglas and he hated them.

“Come on,” said Ashton, when they went away.  “Do they wear bras and knickers?  Thongs?  G-strings?  Bloody hell!  Aladdin’s cave!”

Shahid filled his face with curry.

“How should I know,” he said at last.  “I’m a Muslim, ain’t I?  I respect women.  I’m not an oversexed black monkey.” 

Ashton was disappointed.

“Respect my arse,” he went.  “You telling me that Asian crumpet don’t?  Because I don’t believe you, mate, no way.  Anyway, you got sisters.  You must’ve seen what they wear under ’em.” 

“I’m not a pervert, either,” Shahid said.  “And anyway, I don’t see my sisters any more, do I, I’m in the army.  At the risk of sounding racist, I’m the black sheep.  Shorn.  Cut off without a bleeding penny.  Even visiting our house I’d be safer with a rifle in me hand these days.”

“Bloody hell,” said Ashton.  “Just in case you want to cop a look?”  I think he was joking, but if he was it didn’t work. 

“Did you do something bad or something, Sha?”  I asked.  “To get cut off, like, or was it just the army bit?  Why did the family go against you?”

“Islam means submission,” he said.  “I didn’t fancy it.  I’d seen a bit too fucking much of it, growing up.  I loved my sisters.  Plus I’ve got two brothers and I hate them.”

“Bloody hell,” I said.  “Happy Families.”

“You don’t know the fucking half of it,” he said.  “One sister…”  He stopped.  “Well, let’s just say she’s as mental as the rest of them.  Submission, see?  It’s total fucking bollocks.”

“But you said it’s the same word,” said Ashton, triumphantly.  “See!  I got you there!  So Islam’s fucking bollocks!” 

I’m not religious myself, not in any way, but this all sounded wrong to me, it sounded...well...disloyal or something.  I mean, would I say that Christians were all mental?  Catholics?  Well, obviously I would, they are.  But for a Paki – somehow it seemed different.  Frightening.

“Fuck,” said Ashton, when Shahid didn’t take the challenge.  “You’ve got it bad, mate.  You can’t hate ’em enough to want to kill ’em, though, so why join the fucking army?  One madhouse to another that is, how much sanity do you see round here?  Martie Martin?  Bollocks Bowyer and Billy ’Unt?  You must be joking.”

Sha wiped his plate down with a bit of naan.  He stuffed it in and swallowed, a great big lump.  Like he was trying not to say no more or something.

“There’s mad and mad,” he said, at last.  “I got forced down to the mosque after school for years and bleeding years, chanting Arabic out of the Koran, the Q’ran as they call it now, can you hear the difference?  The bloke that ‘taught’ me was an old prat from the wilds of fucking nowhere, could hardly speak a word of English, who told us that we had to hate you lot, the kuffar, because you’re unbelievers in a godless country. Godless! Well, I was bloody born here.” 

He looked a bit upset, maybe, so I thought I’d try and lighten it.

“Well, he’s dead right there,” I said, “we’re unbelievers, that’s for sure.  I mean, England’s a Christian country, spose to be, but I don’t know anyone who actually believes the crap.  I mean, it’s Stone Age, bollocks, we just go along with it to save the sweat.  Bloody hell, even you go to church parades, don’t you?  Beats working, any day.”

Shahid finished off his pint, and his eyes cleared slowly. 

“Yeah,” he said, “and that’s the bastard, innit?  Stone Age bollocks, dreamed up by some fucking madman in a fucking cave, unbelievable.  And we believe in it and you’ve grown out of it, we need another hundred years.  I believe it too, in some sort of stupid, gutless way, I just can’t shake it.  Bred in the fucking bone.”

“Once a Catholic always a Catholic, that’s what my Auntie Ellen says,” said Ashton, brightly, then thought he must have got it wrong.  “What?  What’s wrong with that?”

“Nowt,” said Sha.  “You’ve hit it, Ashton, really.  We’re a lot like Catholics, except we kill each other instead of wasting time with arguing.  Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Wahhabi – each gang of them thinks their gang’s got it right and old Allah says the others must be killed, it’s only justice because he told them personal.  And the good thing is, when us Brits invaded it made it all our fault, they can kill us now in any country in the world.  Blow up a hundred Muslims watching the world cup?  Best news a Muslim’s ever heard, and that’s official from Al Qaida.  And we’re to blame.  It’s marvellous.”

We, you, him, them – it was too complicated for Ashton, and me as well if I’m being honest.  But my glass was empty, so I put me hand up for a waiter, and signalled three.  He nodded.  The universal language of the pisshead.

“We’ve got it right on one thing, though,” said Ashton. “They’ll kill anyone, your lot. I’ve studied it.  I’ve read it in the Sun.  No duff information there!”

“Yeah, and that’s your trouble,” said Shahid.  “As a race, society, whatever.  You know Jack Shit.  Jack Shit about fuck all.  All Jocks are mean, all Scousers thieve, French girls are all sexy, politicians all tell lies, and single mums all scrounge.  So Muslims are all terrorists.  It stands to fucking reason.”

“Well this bit does,” said Ashton comfortably.  “All terrorists are Muslims. Now that you can’t deny, can you?”

“And I’m a Muslim in the British Army.  Maybe that’s why I joined up in the first place, to show you it’s not true.”  Sha paused, as if he was thinking.  “Or to show kids in the places I grew up that there were other ways.  You can try to do things right and be a Muslim.”

“You’re not a Muslim, mate,” crowed Ashton.  “You’re a fucking traitor, I bet that’s what your family think.  Fact is you couldn’t get another fucking job, just like the rest of us, and bollocks to Allah!  Deny it, wanker, I dare you to deny it.  Bollocks to Allah!”

The new beer was arriving, and the waiter spilled some on to the table, where it ran off on to Shahid’s leg.  They both pretended to ignore it, but I thought I’d better change the subject off religion smartish.  And terrorism, come to that.  The trouble was, my mind was nearly blank.

“What did they say, though?  Shahid?  When you joined?  Did they mind?”

He stared for a moment, as if he didn’t get the question.  The waiter went off, but didn’t take the plates away. 

“My father beat me up,” he said. His eyes turned inwards, like he was looking inside his head.  He made a grimace with his lips. “The brothers brought some friends in from the mosque, they all joined in, they said it were an honour thing, I’d invited shame on the community.  Honour.  It’s a good word, innit?” 

Ashton wasn’t listening.  He made a noise and I followed his eyes to the window.  A face.  Pale and stupid, pressed up against the glass just like a kid.

“Shit,” said Ashton.  “Rumbled.  Get us out of this one, Shahid!”

Sha looked up.

“Good,” he said.  “Talking of honour, here’s our meal ticket.  And it means we can’t come back again.  The waiter’s fucking crap.”

He’d lost the both of us this time, but he didn’t bother to explain.  He watched the door open and he greeted Goughie like a long lost pal.  Gough didn’t even look suspicious. 

“Hi, lads.  Thought I saw you earlier.  What you doing?” 

“On-line poker,” said Ashton, not too unpleasantly.  “Can’t you see, you twat?" 

“You eating?” asked Sha.  “Grub’s good, mate.  Get us another beer, we’ll sit with you.”

Now what’s going on, I thought.  If I had much more beer I’d bleeding burst.  Crap and a kip, that would be my recipe for a quiet afternoon.  Maybe some movie.  Shahid couldn’t mean it, surely?

“Oh!” said Goughie.  He was surprised, but looked dead pleased.  “Yeah.  What a good idea.  What’s the prices like?”

“Rock bottom.  Cheap as chips.  Tell the lad I sent you.  Abdul, that’s his name, I think.  He’s a Catholic.”

“You what?  Catholic?”

Me and Ashton caught each other’s eyes, but we didn’t laugh.  Catholic.  What was the bastard on about?

“Aye,” said Shahid.  “Doesn’t talk about it much, but you can worm it out of him.  Hey!”  He called across and said a lot of Asian stuff, and the waiter looked amazed.  But he clocked onto Goughie’s face, then said, “Okay.”

“Go on,” said Sha.  “Get us three more beers and give the lad your order.  Just don’t tell him we’re army, okay?  It won’t go down too well.”

Gough hesitated – who wouldn’t – but Shahid sort of pushed him forward, smiling fit to bust. 

“The dupiaza’s good,” he said.  “Ain’t it, Tiny?  Just as good as mother used to make it!”

In half a minute Gough was deep in conversation with the waiter, buried in a menu while Abdul poured the pints.  Shahid reached across the table and shoved us all towards the door.

“What?” said Ashton.  “What the fuck—?”

“Shut up you fool,” Sha whispered.  “Out!  Out!  Out!”

“But we haven’t paid!”  I said.  “Christ, Shahid!”

“It’s down to Goughie,” Sha whispered.  “I’ve told the waiter it’s his treat.  Quick, before the bugger notices!”

He made it to the door like silent lightning, and me and Ashton were a second later.  The waiter saw us go, but I guess Sha’s story covered that ’cause he didn’t shout or nothing.  Out in the street Sha and Ash were into mega-giggles.

“Your face, Tiny!”  Ashton said.  “Don’t you like free food or summat?  Hey, bloody Goughie!  Like taking ice cream off a kid!”

“It’s the principle, not the cash,” said Sha, as if I’d understand.  “He’ll be okay, he’s got nowt else to spend his money on, has he?  Anyway, it’s that fucking waiter I was after, not old Gough.  He messed my trackies up, the Bangla get, and did he apologise?  Nah – because it were done on purpose, weren’t it?  I weren’t going to pay in any case.  Just this way, Goughie gets to take the flak!”

We’d made about a hundred metres from the cafe when there was a big commotion down the road behind us.  The door had slammed open and Johnny Gough was out, cork from out a champagne bottle, running like fuck.  Away from us, luckily, and chased by three Pakis (or Bangla-men, let’s get it right!).  Chinese waiters in a suchlike situation carry knives and cleavers, that’s a well-known fact, but this lot at least appeared to be unarmed.  And Gough was fast, fair play to him.  He was a champion!

“Shit, look at Goughie go!” said Ashton.

“I never thought he had it in him,” said Shahid.  “We ought to go back in and smash the dump up to show him some appreciation.”

“Nick the till,” said Ashton.  “Take a contribution for the trouble they’ve put us through.”

“Especially Goughie,” said Shahid.  “He didn’t even get a curry and a pint of piss. Shall we follow on and see what happens?” 

We didn’t, though.  We found a quiet spot down by the river and smoked a bit of shit. I kipped a bit, Ashton watched the girls and played a bit of pocket billiards, and Shahid did a bit of thinking.

Leastways, that’s what he said he did.  His final conclusion, apparently, was that we should go to the nightclub later and suss out the gippo thing.

“It’s the best thing about the army really,” he said.  “You can always guarantee a fight if you look hard enough.  I wonder if Goughie’ll come.  Hope so.” 

“You what?”  I said.  “Why?”

He laughed.

“He’s got potential,” he said.  “He’s just took on half of Sylhet single-handed, saved me the bother.  If I’m not careful, I’ll have to talk to him.  Make him a friend.” 

“Christ,” said Ashton, as if he was suddenly deeply interested.  He was.

“Look at the tits on that,” he said, pointing across the grass.  “World fucking class...”

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