We present the eighth 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.
BLACK GIRL, BLACK GIRL, DON'T LIE TO ME
Black, yes, but not a bruiser, no way a bruiser, not even after ninety seven pints. She was small in fact, but really small, about half my size, as far as I could see. She was in a nightie, and she looked more than half asleep. She just stared at me, through the gap. Not stupid, then. That chain had rattled going on, not coming off.
“Hi. I’m... well, I’m... Well Ashton rung you, yeah?”
“Ashton? Ashton? No, did ’e ’eck.” There was Manchester in her voice, unmistakable, and I thought thank God, thank God for that. Don’t take a lot, does it, when you’re pissed? “The phone’s knackered,” she added, like an afterthought. “We an’t bothered, really, we use us mobiles, don’t we? What, you an army mate, are you? Why aye, man-pet – you’re soaking to the skin.”
She said that in a different sort of accent (Geordie – like them wankers on the box, that Ant and Dec), and it was a kind of joke, to make me feel okay. Then she smiled this big wide smile and rattled the chain off, and said “D’you want a brew? I’m called Carole, with an E.” Oh, it was like bloody coming home.
It started slowly, because basically, I didn’t have a thing to say. I felt so, like, you know, embarrassed, out of place, that I sat there like a total dick for ages. What I really wanted was a piss, it was getting desperate, but you don’t like to say, do you, specially not to a girl. All she wanted to do was make me feel at home I think, so she give it the small talk for a while and it got worse and worse. I mean, she didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, and I’d turned up in the middle of the night, well pissed. What should we’ve talked about? The price of fish in Grimsby?
In the end I think I was going to literally piss myself, and I couldn’t even stand up now because my dick was swole up like a firehose and she would’ve thought – well, God knows what she would have thought, but she’d have been dead wrong, whatever. And I think I might’ve made a little noise, I might’ve had a little moan or something, or maybe she was psychic, because she suddenly bounced up to her feet and sort of shouted.
“Oh my God, that brew! Oh look I’m sorry, love. Do you take sugar? Oh God, what a cow!”
She shot off to the kitchen then, and I shot off down the passage to the pisser, and nearly had to break me thing in half to get it out. Wall, seat, cistern, they all got a squirt before I could control it, but I used plenty of paper to mop up with so I hope she never noticed. I had her figured for a nurse in any case, so I spose she wouldn’t’ve minded all that much.
She offered food with the mug of Typhoo (“only cheese and bread and stuff like that, sorry.”) but I think I would have chucked up on the spot so that was easy. But then she offered paracetamol and I had a go at that, and, being stupid, I asked her if she had some weed, which I did not want and didn’t even know why I’d mentioned it. She knew, though. She laughed.
“Bog off,” she said. “If you was a racist Ash wouldn’t bother with you so no stupid jokes to break the ice, okay? You don’t want weed, and I ain’t got none, end of story. And no more booze, okay? You’ve took your paracetamol.”
So she was a nurse then. I was blushing. I felt a total prat.
“Sorry,” I said. Well, sort of mumbled. “It’s just I’m…I’m…”
“Half pissed. Yeah, I know, love. But you’re here now, you’re all right. We’ve got a bed for you and you can sleep it off all day tomorrow if you want to, I’ll be off to work and the others are away, and you’re more than welcome, anytime. What you doing here, are you on leave or something? Funny place to spend it, Newcastle, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
I’ve got a way with words, you might have worked it out by now – I can’t express meself even when I know roughly what I’m thinking. Now, today, this moment, I didn’t have the foggiest idea, to be quite honest, or maybe I did – the foggiest, that’s what it felt like, inside my head. Thick fog. Confusion. A little bit of pain.
“I’m on the run,” I said. “I’ve quit. I’ve just fucked off. Sorry.”
“Oh,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. ‘That’s nice’ don’t seem to cover it, somehow. Oh bloody ’ell, love. You poor thing. Do you want another cup of tea?”
That made us both laugh, because I’d hardly started on the first one, but I bloody did, an’ all. I chucked it down my neck and held the mug out and she took it and went out, a swish of long white nightdress. I sat down and pulled myself together. I sat down and wiped my fucking eyes. When she came back she gave me tea, then turned an electric fire on. She sat down in an easy chair and tucked her legs up under her. Shit, I thought. She thinks it’s going to be a long night. She thinks I’m going to talk. She’s going to die of fucking boredom.
She didn’t mention me being on a runner, that was the funny thing. She asked me where I came from, and how I knew Ashton, and who our other mates were, and what was Blackburn like, was it a dump like everybody said, but nothing to do with bunking off, not even why I’d ended up in Newcastle like a drownded rat. When I got tongue-tied she didn’t laugh, and if I stopped talking halfway through a sentence she didn’t hurry me, she didn’t seem to mind at all, or even notice. She made me endless brews, and some time later I got a tin of soup and bread, then three square corner yoghurts, bloody A. Before I really knew it we’d sat up half the night and she was bloody great to me, she was like a sister, the best a bloke could ever have, and I was getting sober – without pain!
There were four of them shared the flat, it turned out – all girls – and one of them was Ashton’s ex, and he still kept in touch and came to see them sometimes. I must’ve raised me eyebrows or summat, because she said “to see, I said, and nothing else. They’re friends, okay?” and I bloody believed her, which put old Ashton in a brand new light, no danger! The way she said it, I wondered if she was a schoolteacher, not a nurse, but she just worked in an office, that’s all, in a supermarket. She said Ashton was a great bloke, and he was engaged to his ex’s sort of cousin, and he was like a little lamb. Jesus, I thought. Where do we go from there? Next Shahid’ll be a bleeding Catholic.
The girls were at a concert somewhere – Whitstable or Whitehaven Bay or some other place I’d never heard of – so I had a choice of beds, she said, not just Ashton’s sofa in the telly room. I didn’t even wonder if she’d let me kip with her, I didn’t even think about it. She was just there, all kind and sisterly, in this big white nightie, and she was smiling, like tea and sympathy, big style. And when she finally did get round to asking why I’d run, it seemed completely natural, like she really wanted to know, not just looking for a bit of dirt or scandal. I was still tongue-tied, though, but only ’cause I’d never put it into words before, not even to myself. Why had I? Why had I just walked through the gates last night without signing out when I’d thought that Ken was dead, why had I give the duty squaddie the big finger when he called out to me? Why?
I said: “Carole, no bullshit. But I’m fucked if I know – oh, sorry, like. Is it all right to swear?”
“It hasn’t stopped you so far, Andy,” she said, laughing. “Don’t mind me, love, I’d join in if I could, like. Way I were brought up, know what I mean?”
The Andy shook me. I must have told her my real name. Politeness city, eh? Or the booze, who knows? I was almost stone-cold now, though. Just the start-off of a splitting headache.
“I don’t know, though, and that’s God’s honest truth,” I said. “I mean – it’s shit, that’s all, the whole thing’s shit. No rhyme or reason to it. The officers are stupid, they try to be your mates and call you by your nickname once a fortnight, and they get it wrong.”
You could see her thinking, fucksake, is that all? And it wasn’t, of course, but how to say it?
“That sounds pretty…well,” she said. “Well, I mean…”
“Look, I can’t tell you, Carole, that’s the honest truth. I mean, well, fuck, that’s just the officers, innit, and… Look, the sergeants. I mean. Well, one of ’em’s right into me at the moment, he’s a total bastard, Williams he’s called. Him and his mates. And he beasts the corporals, too, and the lancejacks. Thrashes them. You know? They’re scared of him, terrified, know what I mean?”
She didn’t, you could see it. Beasts, thrashes, it was double-Dutch to her. I struggled to explain, to find the words, and then I couldn’t. I played the easy card, I went a different route. Look on the positive, as mum would say. Look on the pissing positive.
“At least it isn’t boring, though,” I said. “Say what else about Sarnt Williams, he isn’t boring. The army is, though. Maybe that’s why I run, who knows? That’s the worst thing, Carole, that’s the thing that gets down in your bones. It’s so fucking, fucking boring. Same thing, day after day, day after fucking day. It never changes.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I work in a supermarket.” But she didn’t say it in a piss-off way, it was just a thing to say, part of the conversation. She was interested, still. She was on my side, all the bleeding way. She said: “Why did you join up, though? If it’s so boring? Or didn’t they mention that in the Army Offices?”
We had another little laugh at that, she was dead smart, Carole. And I heard meself tell her the truth, say things I don’t think I really knew myself. About how I’d gone to uni because my mother thought I ought to try, to “have the chance,” although I really knew I didn’t want to do it, because I couldn’t really see the point. Fact was I only knew at my age people were meant to be growing up, and I didn’t think I’d even started. Being out there, earning a living, relationships and children – it was a thousand miles away. I figured it would come to me, or I would come to it, but it wasn’t yet, the process wasn’t even starting, stirring, rearing its ugly fucking head.
“I was studying,” I said. “They called it studying. A subject I was sort of guided into, that I’d never thought of before and I’ve never thought of since. It was a big black hole. I was diving in to show I was maturing, to make my mother proud, to say thank you for all she’d tried to do. Oh shit.”
“I failed. By the end of my first year, I failed every subject, every exam. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know why I was doing it, I just wanted it to end. I felt terrible. I felt a complete and utter failure.”
“But you had the A-levels!” Carole said. “You’re not thick, you passed them! Did you take resits?”
“I’d rather’ve cut my throat, quite honestly. You say that I’m not thick, but that’s the way it felt, I’m telling you. And all me old mum’s hopes. And all the cash I’d cost her. I felt like bloody crying, honestly.”
She looked at me.
“Hard man.” She grinned. “But your mum did, didn’t she?”
Smart bitch you are, I thought. But I really like you, Caz, I really do.
“She did when I joined the army. Floods of it. Lake Niagara.”
“Yeah,” said Carole. “I should bloody think so too. Why did you do it, though? Bit different from university. D’you want another brew?”
She yawned, as if her brain was going on to automatic, and I yawned too. Time for bed soon. Jesus, I was tired. Jesus bleeding H. But I thought about her question. Bit different. Yeah.
“It seemed a good idea,” I said. “No brains needed, no school-type bollocks, no eff-all.”
And money in the bank, and no one to feed and worry for me day to day, and someone to tell me what to do. I did it to take the pressure of my mum, that’s how daft I was. At that age war and life and death meant nothing to me. It never occurred how much they’d mean to mum.
“You men are mental,” Carole said. “You just don’t get it do you, Ashton’s just the same. We worry for him. We worry for him all the time.”
Ashton again. I couldn’t get my head round it, quite honestly.
“It wasn’t just me,” I said, defensively. “My sister Vronnie talked her round as well. She said statistically I had much more chance of being run down by a bus in town than stopping a bullet, and at least I’d end up learning something useful – like a brickie, say, or a plumber or mechanic. Much more useful than I’d learn at uni, anyway.”
“And did you?”
“Did I fuck as like, it was a con like every other bleeding thing they said was going to happen. I learned piss-artistry that’s all, and Olympic standard swearing, and a bit of minor thieving, and I go mad with rage if someone crosses me, and I earn fuck all and owe a bleeding fortune. I even owe the government me one-year student loan back. The only good thing is, in the army, I’ll never earn enough to have to pay it! They can bloody whistle.”
I wanted a drink again. Not tea. I nearly asked for one. Carole unfolded her legs and leaned towards me. Her sleepiness had gone away.
“So did you hate it straight away, then? When did you realise you’d got it wrong?”
I thought a bit, but I didn’t need to think for long. They pitch it brilliant – it’s quite good, it’s interesting, until it’s just too late to walk away. I think I realised it about five weeks after I’d missed me chance to go. After I’d signed up for four years.
“Well,” I said. “I didn’t hate it from the start, to be quite honest I sort of loved it. I mean, I got fit, I lost a ton of weight, then put it back in muscle, I played with rifles, played lots of sport, drove Land Rovers off road, all sorts of boss things. It was like…well, it was sort of like I’d found what I was looking for, my mum was chuffed to death. Still worried, like, but chuffed as well. ‘He’s loving it,’ she used to tell the aunties. ‘New lease of life, I think he’s found his fucking feet at last.’ Not fucking, obviously, this was me mum, but you know what I mean. When it changed, I didn’t dare to tell her, I didn’t want to, it was so nice to have done something right at last. I haven’t even told her yet how bone it got, how utter, utter crap. She hasn’t even got a clue.”
I thought that through, as well. Not completely true, but not so far off.
“I did say once I wan’t so keen,” I said. “When I’d finished training. There’s a lot of bullying and racism when you join an actual regiment and I did get pissed one night and say I hated it. But she went mad, really. Well, it was more she looked as if I’d hit her in the face. Terrible.”
“Oh God,” said Carole.
“Yeah. She went ‘But you said you loved it! Oh love, it seemed so wonderful!’ And me sister’s like ‘But it’s money coming in! It’s only for four years!’ Yeah. Four years unless they shoot me brains out, I thought, that used to be her fucking worry once, that didn’t last long, did it? And then mum goes: ‘But what about Bridgie? Won’t she be disappointed?’ and I bloody near threw up. Talk about clutching at fucking straws!”
“Bridgie? Is that your girlfriend?”
“Sort of. Well, used to be. The thing is, they both hated her. She was Irish. Well, she was a royal pain, in actual fact. But they were prepared to like her again, pretend to, anyway – just to keep me in. Keep me out of mum’s hair, like. Jesus. Bloody diabolical.”
“But you were going to go to war,” she said. “Afghanistan or something, they must’ve known that, surely? I mean, what if you’d been killed?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe they really hoped I’d die, d’you reckon? Deep down. Save a lot of bleeding bother.”
Carole’s face went furious.
“That’s bollocks, Andy! I’m not having that, no way! You don’t mean that, do you? That’s just ruddy crap.”
It could have been a shouting match. I couldn’t let that happen. And she was bloody right.
“Okay, okay,” I said, “I’ll take that back, okay? Maybe I’m just shit scared is all. Maybe I’m just a coward. Am I allowed to say that? Does that sound right?”
“Well, I don’t know, do I?” she said, still pretty brisk. “Are you? Scared, I mean?” Her voice went softer. “If you aren’t you ruddy ought to be, it don’t make you a coward in my book. It’s dangerous. Lots of lads get killed. It’s terrible. I’m sorry if I shouted, love. I didn’t mean it, either.”
I shook me head. I was being serious.
“Yeah, I guess I might be, in the end,” I said. “There’s more chance with a bleeding bus, though, when you think about it, int there? It’s not the war I’m scared of, it’s the army. It’s the shit. The bollocks. The way we just exist to save some bugger’s skin. Some shitty politician’s skin who started it, like. We may not even get to war it’s turning into shit so fast. The whole thing’s so fucked up I wouldn’t be surprised. A glitch. Computer error.”
She smiled, but she wan’t that daft, no way. She shook her head and let out a big sigh.
“That’s not what Ashton says,” she said. “He reckons you’re going pretty soon, he says it’s on the cards. Afghanistan, Helmand, whatever. He says the story’s out.”
“The story’s always out,” I said. “Three times a week it’s going to happen, something, anything. It never bleeding does. The only thing you know for sure is you know damn all, and the damn all that you know is definite. That’s how they like it.”
“Well he’s getting married, though,” said Carole. “That’s how sure Ashton is. Didn’t you know that? He’s got a honeymoon booked in a few weeks. Pre-wedding honeymoon. Malta or somewhere. Majorca maybe.”
First I’d heard about a honeymoon, but it sounded right for Ash. If he did get posted and he missed the actual wedding, fair enough. But he’d get the honeymoon in, no bleeding way! I grinned, a bit sickly. To be honest, I didn’t care no longer. Suddenly, I wanted me bed. Suddenly, I thought I might fall over soon. I was completely buggered.
I sort of half stood up, and Carole got up, too. Her face was full of sympathy. She shook her head.
“God, you look terrible,” she said. “I’ll wake you in the morning, shall I? Before I go to work. Look, you can stay here longer if you like, you’re more than welcome, honest, love.” She stopped. “But I’d go back if I was you. I really, really would.”
I looked at her. What did she know? She looked straight back, and give a little smile.
“Why?” I said.
“Because,” she said. “Well, I don’t really know. It just feels right, know what I mean? You’ve only missed a day, they won’t do much, will they? Anyone can tell that you was drunk. I’ll be a witness if you like. I’ll give you my mobile number. Tell ’em to ring me. I don’t mind, Andy. I think you ought to go.”
“Hah!” I said. I was going to slur my words. “You just want to see me get blown up, don’t you! You just want to see me in Afghanistan!”
She didn’t smile, but she wasn’t angry, neither. She just looked at me.
“You’re not afraid of that, I know you’re not,” she said. “And your mates are going. Think how bored you’ll be without them. Now that’s really boring. Go on to bed. In there. D’you want another brew?”
“I’ll piss myself,” I said. Last gasp of bravado.
“You won’t be the first one,” she said. “Sadie was the last. On her birthday, silly cow. You get to bed. I’ll leave the light on in the loo.”
She walked across and kissed me. I thought that I might cry. It was terrible.
“I’m called Tiny,” I said. “Not Andy. Thanks.”
“Size don’t matter,” she said, and laughed like a drain. “Go and get your head down, love. I’d like to hear the rest, one day, all the ins and outs. But go back in the meantime, Tiny. Do it for me. Do it for yourself. Okay? Night-night.”
And she went out through the door.
Shahid rung up in the morning, and he’d already rung the camp, the crazy bastard. He’d told the switchboard he was my dad and told them to pass a message on. That he’d spoke to me, and I was in Newcastle, and I was coming back to camp and I’d got pissed but okay now. I couldn’t believe it, really. That he’d had the bloody neck. But Carole had gone to work so I couldn’t talk to her, and when I rung up Sha again to argue he told me he was busy, and piss off back to Catterick. So I did.
It was like some sort of nasty dream, going in. The squaddie on the gate looked me up and down and asked me if I’d slept in a pigsty or a hedge, then laughed his socks off and said I had to report to the RSM immediate and he was fucking glad he wan’t in my shoes. The corporal in the RSM’s office told me to go and have a wash and change into a uniform, and come back in fifteen minutes, and God help me if I wasn’t super-smart. And when I looked for my trousers they were underneath my mattress, no cleaner than the night before. I got back looking like a victim of a bomb blast, and the RSM didn’t bollock me at all, he even smiled.
“Jesus, Hassan,” he said. “What a mess. I hope your story’s good, lad. Your father’s on your side, apparently. He rang up, did you know? Explained it to the switch.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. (He was the RSM. The NCO you did call sir). “He’s... he’s good, my dad. He told me to come back. He said it was the best.”
Jesus. Now Shahid was my father. Official. What would me mother say?
“Aye, well he’s dead right there. Go in now. Captain’s waiting. You’d better tell him you fell off an elephant or something. It could explain the way you look.”
I was starting sweating. This was all wrong, everyone was being nice. I knew the Captain would be if the Sarnt Major was, because the Captain was as soft as shit. He was sitting when I opened the door, looking at his keyboard. He glanced up and smiled.
“Give me a minute, Private. Take a seat. Nice of you to press your uniform. Sorry – joke.”
Jesus. He was trying to put me at my ease. Jesus. I could easy shit myself. Then he turned away from the screen, and he said: “Well.”
“Er. Yessir. Sorry, sir. I mean I’m... I’m sorry, sir. I mean it. Sir.”
His eyes were pretty keen in fact, they were sort of boring into me. The trouble was I wasn’t sorry at all, it was a lie. I wondered if he knew, but I didn’t really care, I just hoped I didn’t get the glasshouse. I wished I’d stayed away. Gone on the run. Got a full-time job. Say McDonald’s. Oh bleeding hell. Alternative career. Oh bleeding, bleeding hell.
“Why did you do it, Tiny? Do you know?”
Tiny! That really put the fears up me. Was I here to get a medal? I licked my lips. Mouth like shit, despite the toothbrush job I’d done. Made me gums bleed.
“Do what, sir?”
Oh shit, bad mistake. I saw his face change.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I didn’t mean that, sir, I’m... like, confused. I don’t know, sir. That’s the honest answer. Sir. I think, sir.”
“Are you worried about Afghanistan? There’s no certainty we’re going there, you know. Nothing’s decided yet. It could be Canada, or Germany, or Kosovo.”
Now he was bullshitting, so that made two of us. But I didn’t mind.
“No, sir!” I made it sound like I was annoyed he thought I was a coward. “I’m not a coward, sir. I didn’t join the army to run away!” Whoops. But he didn’t smile.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. Just because things out there haven’t gone…well, exactly the way the politicos expected, in some people’s opinion. Which is nothing to do with us, of course, in any way. We’re paid to fight, however hard it might turn out to be. We’re soldiers. It’s what we do.”
To me, he sounded a bit uncomfortable, sort of stilted, but I guess I’ll never know what officers really think, or if they even think at all. Squaddies are paid to “fight not think” is fair enough, and officers get paid more than us because they’ve got a lot more thinking not to do. Or something. My brain was hurting. Cut down the argument. They’re a gang of wankers, overpaid.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I won’t do it again, sir, honestly. I think it was the drink.”
He looked at his computer screen. He tapped the keyboard. He nodded, like a bleeding judge.
“It has been noticed,” he said. “Are you worried about your drinking, Tiny? Do you think you ought to talk to the MO?”
Yeah, bloody likely – not. I bet he was a pisshead anyway. My doctor back at home is. Famous for it. I shook my head.
“I don’t think that’s the problem, sir. I’m maybe a bit... you know, sir. Just at the minute. I got bounced back from the exercises, sir. Me mates are all still there. But I’ll cut down. I promise, sir. I’ll just stick to beer.”
“Very wise. Whisky is the devil, Hassan, that’s what they brought me up to think.” He read the screen some more. “Hhm. Hhm. Well, you must admit you brought it on yourself. Why did you hit that young police officer? A woman, too, in actual fact. Which makes it rather worse, doesn’t it?”
I looked at his soft face and I didn’t know if I should hate him or some bugger else. Should I deny it? Was there any point?
“It wasn’t me, sir,” I said, “and that’s the honest truth. It was a sort of riot, that’s all I can say. I think someone must have... made a mistake, like. It wasn’t me. Sir.”
“Hhm,” he went. “Oh well. But you’re not depressed about it? Not that I’m saying I believe... but you’re not claiming...ah... depression?”
The magic word.
“No, sir. I was pissed, sir. Sorry, sir, drunk, sir. I was drunk, not dep— Not suffering from depression, sir. Sir – does it mention Khan on there, sir? Shahid Khan? ’Cause if it says he’s a terrorist, I... well he’s...”
He was staring at me. Then at the screen, as if to check.
“Shahid Khan? A terrorist? Whyever should it, Private? What are you suggesting? Are you saying that he is?”
“No, sir! No, sir! No! No he’s not sir, that’s the point! He hates them, sir, he thinks they’re fucking mad! I’m sorry, sir, I—”
“Oh forget it, soldier, swear if you must, for God’s sake! Just what is it you’re trying to tell me? Just spit it out!”
Christ, this was all completely wrong. I’d kill that Goughie. I’d fucking kill him. I was panting, so I took a breath or two. Calmed down.
“I’m sorry, sir. I thought... no, nothing, sir. Private Khan’s not a terrorist, sir, he’s one of the good guys. He’s not even a Muslim any more, he thinks it’s mental, sir, he thinks we’ve got to win.”
“Do they bully him? Is that what you’re saying, Hassan? Is it a racist thing?”
I was goggling. What was this wazzock on about?
“Sir? What, bully Sha? Not likely, sir. No way!”
“Hhm,” he went again. I think he was completely lost. He picked up a pen and dropped it back on to the desk.
“No racism, eh? Well, that doesn’t surprise me, actually. This is the best outfit I’ve ever known on the racism front. And bullying, as well. Some regiments are... well, it can be a problem, but... well, I’m glad you agree, Tiny. I’m very proud of it, in actual fact. I’m very proud indeed.”
I’d’ve mentioned Al Beano if I’d had the guts. Or if I’d known his proper fucking name. I had a sudden picture of Johnnie Gough running bollock-naked between two long lines of us on the block in Week Four of our basic training, being punched and kicked and spat at because the corporals said unless we give him some hammer for his messy bed we’d get much worse. And it suddenly got to me. No racism! No bullying! Was he completely fucking mad?
“Well!” I said. And I was almost spluttering. “Well the reason they don’t bully Shahid, sir – is because he’d bloody kill them! But racism, sir! Well! It’s terrible! Black lads and Pakis, sir – they get it in the neck, sir! One lad called Jamal, sir – he quit, don’t you remember? They made his life a misery! He damn near fucking topped himself!”
“Watch your language, will you!” said the captain, sharply, and I must’ve goggled like a fish, because he added: “I will not hear racist insults, understand? It’s no help at all to call our Pakistani soldiers names. They are your comrades. They are your friends.”
“But…” I went. “But, but… Sir, it’s not me that’s racist, they are! The sergeants! Corporals! Lancejacks! There’s even officers—”
I thought he’d blow a fuse. He slammed his hand down on his table and his keyboard jumped up in the air. He shouted at me.
“Enough! I do not want to hear this!”
“And bullying!” I said. “I’m bloody sick of it! Take Johnnie Gough!”
My voice was trembling. I was running out of steam. His eyes were beady on me, but he could see I’d given in. He could see what I was thinking – shit, I’m in the shit, big style. As I wound down I could see that he’d relaxed. Game set and match to him. He smiled at me, the patronising twat.
“I think it’s the army that you’re sick of, Tiny, that’s the truth now, isn’t it? You mention Johnnie Gough, for instance, and let me tell you this – for Private Gough we predict great things, he’ll be a credit to the British Army. I’m right, aren’t I? You’re just brassed off with things? Jealous perhaps, just a little teenie weenie bit? Or maybe you’re in love. Is it woman trouble? We can be very sympathetic if you try us.”
I shook my head. What could I do? Jealous of fucking Gough. In love. God bloody save us all.
“No, sir. No, sir. Honestly.”
“Listen,” he said. “My guess is you’ve got the jitters, lad, whatever you might say, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, I do assure you. But I’ve told you, and you have my word on it, we are not going to Afghanistan in the near future, nor Kosovo. You can count on it, you can tell your friends. Okay? Does that feel better?”
“Sir,” I said. I just wanted one more try. I’d spat it out to Carole, I knew it could be done. “Sir,” I said, “I ain’t afraid sir, honestly. It’s just that… Oh, I dunno. It’s not how I expected, sir, it feels a…it feels like it’s a waste. I mean, sir. I’m not stupid, I was told that I could get a trade, something for afterwards. I mean, this lot’s not going to last for ever, is it? Not even that much longer, a lot of people say. I was promised at the recruitment office, that’s why I joined. A bricklayer, a plumber, you know? And when I started here they knocked me back. They laughed at me.”
He was looking at his screen. He was scrolling through and stopping. Then scrolling through again.
“Well the problem is, Hassan,” he said. “We don’t need bricklayers, do we? And anyway, what good’s a trowel when some Taliban comes at you in Kandahar? What good’s a hod against an IED?”
A grin spread on his face, then he clocked mine and stopped it. We stared at each other, and his mouth went back to normal.
“The point is,” he said, “you didn’t go to the recruiting office to become a plumber, did you, you went to serve your country. There’s a war on in Afghanistan, and if we don’t contain it there, they’ll bring it to the towns and streets of England, won’t they? Al Quida is the threat. However long it takes, we’ve got to beat it. Stop worrying about the future, soldier, and learn to be proud. You’re the backbone of your country.”
My mind was very cool now, but I’d given over arguing. I thought calmly: so I’m a backbone, what about me arms and legs? Even if I knew how bricks were laid I couldn’t lay them then, could I, how would I earn a living as a legless brickie? I tried to make a joke for him, to make him grin again, he’d started to look sort of sad. But I couldn’t think of a way to put it.
There was silence for what seemed a good long while – just dim shouting from the square outside, a buzzing fly. Then the OC made a funny noise, a kind of brisk sound, as if the time had come to move it on. Ah well, I thought. Let’s hear the worst. Glasshouse, would it be? Or Colchester, God forbleedingbid. Or just more punishment, more time as the sergeant’s bitch?
But he hadn’t finished yet completely, and he was still backtracking, in a way.
“Look, Tiny,” he said, “we need soldiers don’t we? That’s the bottom line. That’s why you joined up in the first place, I’m very sure of that, you were willing to risk your life – to lose it, even – for something that was right. And people around you now, people you don’t rate, rough people, bitter people, vicious people, even – well, you’ll be surprised, you’ll be astonished at how they will turn out. They’ll be soldiers. Some of them, believe me, will be heroes, fantastic, daring, terrific men. Good God, man, what’s the alternative? Hitler had to be fought, didn’t he? So did Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, the insurgents. Someone had to be prepared to make the sacrifice. Am I right or am I wrong?”
I wished I’d had Shahid in with me. He could’ve argued back. The trouble was I did believe him. It was just…
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I suppose.”
“And you suppose quite right, Hassan. The army’s vital, and you are the army. You serve a useful purpose as a common soldier, and don’t you let anybody tell you otherwise. You are a hero. Not potentially, but now. Because you’re here. Because you’re learning. Because you’ll be prepared, when push comes to shove, to give your all. Your life. Do you agree?”
Oh, what a lovely question. Oh, what a prat. A hero or a dead hero. Was there any difference? What could I say? What was there left for me to say?
“Please, sir,” I said. “What happens to me now? Is it the glasshouse? I’d really like to know, sir. Sorry.”
He shuffled papers. He studied his screen. He put his finger ends together, and he smiled.
“Tiny,” he said, “Potentially, I see you as a fine soldier – no, really, really fine. You’re so unusual, such an original sort of chap, compared with the normal run of squaddie. Play it right, and all this will be forgotten, I can promise you.” He tapped a single key with his finger, as if it was significant. He nodded, got dead serious. “It shouldn’t affect your future career in any way. How does that sound?”
Like bullshit. Like total bullshit. I didn’t say so, though.
“It’ll have to go on your record, of course,” he went on. “You understand that, don’t you? But I can see no reason why that should cause you any grief, it’s not even that unusual for certain lads to take time out these days. I’m very glad your father rang, though. I’m very glad he sent you back so promptly. And I’m inclined to believe you about that police girl, too. Like I said, I have you down as a good man, Tiny. Of great potential. Does that surprise you?”
It had surprised me that he even knew my name, quite honestly. But I knew the rules. I knew them better every day.
“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”
“I have every confidence in you. I feel you’ll work through this problem patch and go from strength to strength. I also understand your point about missing your comrades, especially Private Khan. After what you’ve said he sounds very interesting. Yes. very.”
No mention of Ashton then, I noticed. But there’s black and black, ain’t there?
“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”
He scratched his nose. Crunch time. Fine words, but now the punishment. I held me breath.
“I’m giving you a week’s home leave,” he said. He paused. “To get your head together. Does that sound fair?”
Fair? Fair? What could I say? ‘Yessir, thank you, sir’ didn’t really cover it, did it?
But I was in the British Army. What could I do?
“Yessir, thank you, sir,” I said.
And I mean that most sincerely, folks... I really do.
The next episode of Skinback Fusiliers, THE LAST TRAIN TO BLACKBURN, will be published next Saturday, 21 May.