We present the penultimate episode 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.
LAST TRAIN TO BLACKBURN
Here Comes the Bullet
The trouble with the army, is that nothing that you ever hear is true. Ever. In my time after basic training my mob were going – for definite – everywhere in the world that troops were stationed, and sometimes it changed three times a week. Afghanistan? Ireland? Iraq to sort out the shit we left there last time? – “yeah, deffo, it’s official.” Now the OC had told me we weren’t going off to war – which meant we were – and here I was on a bloody train to Blackburn to see me mum.
And I wasn’t on a charge, and the little crap-hat Jeff, Al Beano, Rick O’Shea, was not stone dead at all, but still alive and kicking in a civvie hospital.
Old Ken Rogers was dead for definite is what I’d heard first, and I’d got arseholed on the strength of it. Then Ken had told me it was Al, and this time it was for definite, he’d shot himself, “brains everywhere” – except he mustn’t’ve had none, because he missed. Fair enough by me an’ all – I didn’t want to see him dead, why should I? – although I was a bit pissed off. If he hadn’t topped himself, and made me think that he was Ken, I wouldn’t have got wrecked and done a runner, and I’d’ve saved myself a lot of mither. On the other hand I’d got a week buckshee, and he’d got his life back, also. Which in the army – was probably not so bleeding good. The one thing that it proved for sure is that nothing’s true, it’s all a load of testicles, just don’t believe a word the bastards say.
Anyway, the weather had dried up again, and the only black cloud on my horizon as the train clattered through the countryside was what line to shoot me mum and Vronnie. It’d only been about six weeks ago that I’d bullshitted I might be made up to lance quite soon, that everything was going great again, backtracking like a lunatic from being “negative.” And now I had a black mark on my record, I’d be lowlife from here to Kingdom Come, and it was only by some sort of luck I hadn’t been banged up for going AWOL. Oh Jesus – what if the Captain had rung up home to thank me “dad” in person for persuading me to go back? Oh Jesus, he still bloody might!
I stayed on until Manchester in the end, and I was wondering if to take the train back out again or go on the piss in town, when I saw some long fair hair I recognised – Emma. I called out, the way you do, and she turned round and smiled before I could regret it. She was in jeans and top and trainers and she looked so bleeding normal. I was in trackies and teeshirt, me, and scruffy as a tramp.
“Hi, Tiny. How you doing?”
“Hi. All right. You going home?”
“Yeah, been shopping. Coming on the train are you?”
So I made the big decision. Mum was half an hour away, and this girl who lived quite near our house was flirting, clear as daylight even to a prat like me, I couldn’t go wrong.
“Nah, I think I’ll stay in Manch,” I said, going wrong as usual. I did a funny little smile. “I got some leave. Few days to see some mates.”
“Suit yourself, general. Don’t fancy you in civvies, any case. Ooh, I love that hat you wear!”
She was being nice still, and I should have laughed, and I felt gutted as I watched her nice arse walk away and climb up on the train. I felt gutted, and I felt a sort of empty anger, too. And then I felt an utter dickhead, so I went into a bar and got a drink and rung up Shofiq. By the time I got to his place I was pissed. Which got me out of seeing mum if nothing else, din’t it?
I didn’t see her next day neither, as it happened, nor the next one or the next. In fact the honest truth is, I didn’t go home at all. Shof was living in a better part of Withington by now, a nice smart flat, and he had a nice smart girl-friend, too, a white girl called Sue. Me drunken bastard mate had gone legit, and when I sobered up they let me stay. Sue had a job, she had nice friends, and Shof was back at college, learning straight CT. Quite honestly, when I got a call from Sha and Ashton later in the week, it was a big relief. They’d finished in the south, they were coming back through Manch to have some drinking time, and were we going to meet? No way!
Naturally enough they were both pissed when they rung me, and you could hear them whooping down my mobile right across the flat. But there was no one there to bother except me, and I was out of there in minutes, and I didn’t leave a note. Not far to Whalley Range by bus, and so what if it was pissing down again and I didn’t have no coat? I was well ’ard, me – I was a soldier. And there’d be a floor to kip on, bound to be.
I had a funny sort of feeling, though, as I walked the last bit to the pub, it felt like there was something in the air. Shahid and Ashton drunk and noisy on the phone, little Carole in her bright white nightie with her legs tucked under her, so nice, so calm, so fucking kind, and Shofiq smart and sober in a proper flat, with Susie who tried to get me to ring my mum but only smiled when I said no. It felt like something weird was going on inside my head, and I didn’t fucking like it. Manchester was full of civvies, and it wasn’t Catterick.
I couldn’t make more sense of it than that.
There was something in the air for all of us that night, though, and as we went from pub to pub to pub, it seemed to bug us more and more. Ash, instead of getting randy, for once got sort of thoughtful, for example. It felt like something was coming out of joint.
“Legalise Crime,” he said at one point, in response to absolutely bugger all. “That’s my family motto, and it’s the same for all us English blacks. It ain’t our idea – we gets forced into it. For two good reasons.”
“Oh aye,” said Shahid. “Like that gang of hophead thugs back there?” We had moved out sharpish from the last place and were sitting in another heaving pub room with more pints of lager, getting hammered fast. “Name them, nigger boy.”
Ashton pondered. He had a long weekend, he was on his home patch, and he’d get to shag his missus later on. He should have been delirious.
“Number One,” he said, “all whities think we’re criminals, which is rampant prejudice. And Number Two, they’re right. No don’t laugh, I fucking mean it. My Uncle Gilbert used to drive a bus when I were little, and he always called it his. How could he afford that on his wages? A great big Magic Bus? He couldn’t. He’d bloody knocked it off.”
Was it the booze, or was he mental? We forgot to laugh. But Ashton, of the three of us, was the honestest in actual fact – or at least he hardly ever bent the law like we did – and it was giving him a bit of trouble, hence the jokes. He was under pressure, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He might be getting in the shit.
The point was Sonia, the fiancée, had been down to visit him on the exercises, which should’ve been excellent. Except you don’t do that sort of thing, do you, unless you’ve got a secret reason. Ulterior motive, that’s what Shahid called it, and he was on the ball.
It was simple, really, when we got it out of him – she wanted him to quit. It was out of the blue to Ashton, a stroke of lightning, but logical to her, as clear as bleeding daylight. It was something to do with the way things were shaping in the ’Stan and crap, and (when he got it out of her) the marrying and babies and shite like that an’ all.
“She said I’d have no chance with her if I got my cock shot off,” he said, “which I reckon’s fair enough, but she also said she’d been speaking to my cousins, which bloody ain’t, it’s strictly out of order. She said they’d give me a job at any time, good money, cash in hand, and as safe as bleeding houses.”
“Nice work if you can get it, son,” said Shahid, “but you’re signed up for the full four years, ain’t you? Who does she think you are? Houdini? How does she think you’re getting out?”
“Catch Uncle Gilbert’s Magic Bus,” I said. No one laughed at that one, neither.
“Yeah, well I told her that, but she didn’t believe me, women never do, do they? When I tried to get out dead legit in me first three months they knocked me back, and Sonia thought that that were my fault, too. For once it wan’t, I were being straight, it were the army that was bent. I put me name down but they said I never did, or someone had lost the form or some such bollocks. And when I asked to go again they told me I was out of time, nobody’s fault but mine. You can’t argue with the office, can you? What’s the point?”
“So what’s your problem, then?” I asked. “She wants you to quit, but you can’t for three more years. You’ll still get your oats off her, don’t say you won’t, I don’t believe you.”
“But she thinks there’s ways and means. And she thinks I won’t try really, ’cause I don’t want her to pin me down. She thinks I think she’s out to trap me.”
“Oh come on, Ash, you can’t hardly wait, can you? And you can’t get out, no way. You can’t even do depression, you daft git!”
He smiled, and looked at his remaining mouthfuls. Ash couldn’t do depression, except in twenty minute bursts. No contest.
“Yeah, but there’s always other ways and means,” he said, “I guess she’s right at that. I mean, the thought of not having me legs blown off in Helmand’s not a bad one, when you think about it, and it can mess the sex about when your girlfriend thinks you’ve got a death wish, silly cow. It’s just the family bit that worries me. The family motto, like.”
“Gawd, you and your family motto,” Shahid said. He picked up the pots. “Same again, is it? I can take a bloody hint.”
Squaddies always talk about how you can get out, it’s one of them subjects that just comes up, like daytime telly and how bone the army is, and it don’t mean a lot most of the time. But this time I could feel it really nudging, and I didn’t really like it. Without Ash and Shahid in camp it had been terrible, and without Carole I’d probably be on the run by now, or more likely down Colchester in a cell.
More to the point, if Ash was thinking that way, you could be sure as shit that it was serious. Ash had a habit of getting things done, he didn’t piss about. He slid his empty glass across to be refilled.
“D’you think you could get out then, Ash?” I said, as Shahid disappeared into the ruck. “What ways and means? I can’t fucking think of none.”
He looked at me and grinned. Relaxed as a newt, or would be pretty soon.
“You’re too well brought up,” he said. “My problem’s this: what’s worse, the army – crap food and getting shot at by the maniacs – or working with my bleeding cousins. You know what they’re into, don’t you? Cars. Ringing. High class motors, bent. Sonia can’t see it, because they all wear classy suits, they don’t do drugs, and me auntie’s lovely! But I’m getting married soon, I’ve got me leave all booked. I don’t want to spend me wedding night in Strangeways.”
The trouble was with Ashton was, you never knew if he was joking, and when the lagers and the porky scratchings came, he didn’t seem bothered about carrying the conversation on. I asked Sha if he’d been thinking of leaving as well as Ash since they’d been away down in the south, but he just shrugged.
“He talked about it, didn’t he?” he said. “But why now? What’s changed for me? I don’t have no gorgeous white girl down on her knees begging me to quit. Down on her knees begging me for anything, more to the point. I’m a puritan, remember, I’ve been ruined by mad mullahs, I’m damn near a sex-free zone. Put it another way – situation normal. Same shit, different day.”
“Well I dunno,” I said. “I mean, I know where you’re coming from, but I must say I feel different, kinda sort of, I feel like something might’ve changed.” I paused. Picked up my new pint and chucked some down my neck. “Apart from anything else, I think I’m drinking myself to death. I’m serious. I’m losing days, Sha, I don’t know if I’m on my tits or arsehole sometimes. I’m all fucked up.”
“Like I said,” he said. “Situation normal.”
But he didn’t laugh. He turned his head to Ashton.
“Are you still glad you signed up, nigger boy? Are you still…well, proud, like? To be in the army?”
Proud? What a word to use. But Ashton didn’t fall about and spill his beer, surprisingly. In fact he held his pint up and looked at it as if it had some answers.
“In a way,” he said. “I didn’t realise what shit the money would turn out to be, like, and the government needs shooting for their fucking lies, but someone’s got to do it, haven’t they? And if it’s either this or nicking Beamers, I dunno. I might stay in, whatever the ’ausfrau says. It keeps me off the streets.”
Shahid was clocking me.
“You was quite chuffed with it when I first got to know you, Ti,” he said. “You’d got fit, and off the dope, and you was the best shot in your company. If it’s shit now it was just the same shit when you joined, weren’t it? So what’s changed? It or you?”
I had to think a while. I drank some lager and I crunched some porky scratchings. The others did, as well. A quiet little scene in a noisy, blaring pub.
“Maybe it’s me,” I said, at last. “Maybe that’s its problem – it hasn’t changed and it never fucking has to, does it? We’ll be back up there on Sunday, won’t we? And so will Mart, and Big Dave Hughes, and Chas Hicks and Timmo Hawes and Geordie George. Are you telling me that you can stand it? That everything’s okay? SSDD and fucking hallelujah? That’s bollocks, in’t it? It’s all so fucking bone.”
Then Ashton dropped a casual little bombshell.
“Not Timmo Hawes,” he said. He took a great big swig. “He’s out. He’s on his way. Got done for drugs, din’t he? Class A.”
That was a shaker, a real one.
“Timmo! Class A? But Timmo don’t do drugs! Timmo Hawes?”
They both looked at me. Not amused, though, despite my ignorance.
“Yeah,” said Shahid. “Funny, innit? Random drug test after the ranges one night, about a week ago. Timmo fails with knobs on. There were so much in his locker when they checked it after, they banged him in the glasshouse straight away. Timmo’s out. I doubt they’ll even let him back to Catterick.”
I had to think that through. That sounded like a right old pile of crap. Timmo was a booze-hound, straight up and down. If he had a hero it was Homer, or maybe Homer and Barney Gumble rolled into one. Can’t get enough of that guzzling stuff!
“Maybe it was a plant?” I said. “Maybe someone down there had it in for him? Some southern bastard?”
“Maybe it weren’t. I mean, that camp were swimming in it, weren’t it? If you wanted any, you’d never find a better bleeding place.”
“But Timmo never did. Jeez, he was the biggest piss-head in the mob. Well, apart from all his mates. But drugs. Fuck me.”
“Yeah,” said Sha. “I tell you what though, Sherlock. We’ll never know. Will we?”
“And it’s bye-bye Timmo Hawes,” said Ashton. “Sweet fucking dreams.”
We’ll never know. We’ll never fucking know. But it makes you think though, doesn’t it? It made us all think. Our brains were bloody boiling…
Lance Corporal Martin was back on Sunday night, along with all the other buggers, and the new week started off the same as every other week – boring. Wake up, have shower, block jobs, breakfast, PT, TAB or circuit training, shower, change, do telly or the PlayStation, pie, chips, ignore the salad, sit around or get a game of football if your face fits, CFT Warrior, rifle cleaning, fall out. The only good bit was that I was off punishment (“Sarnt Williams said you was the best bitch he’s ever fucked” – Martie) and the walking deadheads – which included Ken – had been cleared off to a different floor, or put down or something, they’d disappeared. The bad bit was that Gough was back next door, and I hated him. He’d got above himself, he’d got an attitude, and if he wasn’t careful he’d get a fucking broken neck.
The only other good bit was we were going off to Wogland in a fortnight. Not a rumour, lads, it’s definitely definite this time, that’s definite. The ’Stan, or maybe somewhere else. And maybe it’s two months, or on Wednesday afternoon. No time to even kiss the girls goodbye, best have one last little wank.
That first full evening back, the Monday, I went down to Ashton’s room. I’d had me tea, which was shit, changed into civvies, boxed me kit away, polished me boots – ready for anything. Ashton had done the same, and bought some weed off someone in D Coy to start the evening off. He was in a really shitty mood, which was why he’d got the stuff, but he wouldn’t really say what was bugging him. The posting news had sharpened up our minds a bit, but we hadn’t done much more talking about leaving or stuff like that, there didn’t seem a lot of point. We’d signed up for good or bad, and for the moment – well, that was that. So bugger it.
But his mood was quite annoying when I’d mellowed out a bit, so I said we’d better go out and get a drink down us. We signed off at the gate, and went to Tesco’s for some brandy. Ash, as it happened, was due on ranges in the morning, but what the fuck? If he couldn’t shoot an SA80 straight by now, no point in worrying.
We took nearly an hour to knock off the brandy – only half a bottle, all we could afford – and Ash was still dead moody until I finally dragged out of him that it was over money – his bank was playing silly buggers with his pay. He’d had a letter and a statement saying he was overdrawn, and charging him for the privilege, and he couldn’t understand it. He showed me in the end, and it did look pretty bad – bleeding horrendous. But I couldn’t see a mystery there, no way.
“Look,” I said. “Check the dates. Two hundred out there. A hundred and forty there – that’s two days later. Sixty seven out there. Sixty one. One fifty three. For fuck’s sake, Ash, that’s where it’s gone, mate, and all them little ‘OD’s’ mean overdrawn, don’t they? So what d’you want to know?”
“Yeah yeah, I’m not bloody mental, prickface, I understand that, you twat. But all that out, and nothing fucking in, is there?” he said. “No pay or nothing, not a fucking cent, what’s that all about? Did you get paid this month?”
“’Course I did.” I thought for a second. “Well, I spose I did, I never looked like, did I? I guess the bank’d tell me quick enough if I got skint.”
“Too bloody right,” he said. “That’s what this letter says, innit? And they’ve charged another thirty quid for writing it, the bastards! But I haven’t had me pay! It’s gone missing!”
“It can’t go bloody missing. Where’s your slip?”
He looked at me. He made a funny face.
“I didn’t get one. When I got this letter I went down the offices to kick up shit. They said it were a minor cock-up. Something in the system. It happens.”
“Minor!” I shouted. “But you’re getting charged interest by the bank, ain’t you? Din’t you tell them that?”
“Of course I fucking told ’em.” Ashton sounded tired. “The corporal fucking laughed! ‘Your problem, mate – change your fucking bank!’ I went hairless. Shouting bloody murder. Sergeant come out in the end, give me a bollocking. He said he’d put me on Agai if I din’t shut up.”
We were in the pub by now, watering down the brandy in our bellies with some lager. Clerks hate squaddies. They love to screw things up for us, it’s the way they get their rocks off, they’re pathetic. They’re fireproof an’ all, though, untouchable. We drank and thought.
“What you going to do?” I asked. “Ring up your bank tomorrow? You might get more sense out of them. Well…”
“Nothing else I can do though, is there? ’Cept go back to the office grovelling. And hope the loot comes through and the bank don’t sting me too much bloody extra charges.” He sighed again, more like a groan this time. “It’s this honeymoon,” he said. “And then the wedding, when we gets round to it. It’ll bankrupt me, but she ain’t waiting too much longer. She wants to be a Mrs. Mrs Respectable.”
I tried to cheer him up.
“Well, you black twats are always on about respect,” I said. “You don’t know what it fucking means, like, but you’ve got to have it, haven’t you? If you’re talking about suits and Rollers, mate, if you think that that’s respect, it don’t come cheap, though. Weddings are for mugs.”
That didn’t help much, I will admit. He was drinking very slow, as if that would make a difference to his debts. He kept looking at the statement, really bothered.
“We’ve booked two weeks in Cyprus,” he said. “Arm and a leg job, Ti. All paid upfront, and now I’ve got to find some spends. Fucking nightmare. She’s worth it, though, the slag. ’Ere, what about that Goughie, then?”
A change of subject. God knows where it came from, but thank God it did. He’d been looking suicidal.
“What about him? He still looks like the same old streak of piss to me.”
“Yeah, ’course he is. He’s been sucking up to the CSM they reckon, though. Bollocks Bowyer saw him with Colour and Mart Martin. Three peas in a pod, big mates. Because he took the rap for punching that police tart, maybe. Something cooking up.”
I slid the last bit of my pint down. Looked at it significantly, like. He might be skint, but it was still his round.
“I thought I took the rap for that,” I said. I knew what he meant though. If Gough was being sneaky it meant trouble, except I couldn’t see what trouble there was left still to happen. We’d done our punishment, there wan’t nothing left to cook. And every other bugger in the pikie fight had got away scot-free.
“Funny innit,” I said. “He’s gone from being everybody’s kicking post to bleeding Supercreep. If he ever does go into action he’ll get the VC, I’ll put cash on it. Authentic British hero. No brains, no brawn, no fucking hope.”
“Oooh, bitter!” said Ashton.
“No, lager,” I said, quick as a flash. “And it’s your shout, get ’em bloody in!”
That actually made him laugh, and he went off to the bar looking not so bloody glum. Through the door came Mart, and Big Dave Hughes and Bollocks, and Josh (whose sister does), and Billy ’Unt – and Goughie. Thick as thieves they were, and twice as friendly. Except that Gough got in the drinks, and all of them had pints with double whisky chasers. Not much friendship there then, whatever the poor sap thought. They took up the tables next to ours.
“Yo, bitch!” Mart said to me. “How’s the battered bumhole?”
There was a bit more banter when Ash came back, but Martie was too dumb to dredge up much, and it fizzled out. They were already a bit rowdy, and they settled down to get the pissedness level up, with the corporal shouting off about some “master plan” he had. Pity we’d just got drinks in, we could’ve buggered off. No problem, though. A pint don’t last that long.
We’d lost our will for conversation – our will to live, you could say – but we heard pretty damn soon what Martin had in mind. It seemed he’d got his taste for trouble fired up down south, he’d been in punch-ups every other night, and his face was all cuts and bruises, some half-healed. Maybe the CSM was in on it. Maybe that’s what the crack had been. And there was more crack looming.
“I know you don’t give a fuck for footie, la’,” he said to Bollocks.” But it’s the big one, see. There’s Jocks involved. There could be well good trouble.”
Oh, football. Boring. That’s what Bowyer thought, and he’d need some convincing this time, you could tell.
“Yeah,” said Bollocks, “fair enough, but the Jocks ain’t involved though, are they? It’s England against some fucking team, they’re all the fucking same to me – but it ain’t the fucking Scotch. So where’s the fucking trouble coming from?”
“It’s Gough’s idea,” said Mart. “Nice one, Goughie, fucking smart, la’. We goes into Darlington and hits the sports shops, and we gets all their foreign flags, every last one in the bleeding town. What is it, Portugal we’re playing? Some gang of fucking wops, who cares? We’re all supporting England, okay, everyone’s supporting England except the Jocks, who’d rather bleeding die, so we flogs them all the wog gear to dress up in on the night! They’re thick, okay, but they’ll get the idea in the end, won’t they – they can be the official fucking opposition! It’s trouble guaranteed!”
I saw Goughie’s adam’s apple bob up and down. He was going to speak! Daring...
“Especially if we give ’em at half price,” he said. “I mean, you know what Jocks are over money.”
“Fuck off!” said Big Dave Hughes. “Them fucking foreign strips cost dosh, mate. Half price? You must be fucking joking!”
Billy ’Unt said: “Don’t be stupid, Dave, we don’t pay for ’em do we, where’s your regimental pride? The Jocks pay us half price, we pay the shops sweet bugger all. We go in mob-handed, create diversions, out like a dose of salts with all the gear. Or you can tell the shopgirls you’re Wayne Rooney, looking for a freebie. You look like fucking Shrek!”
“Who’s Shrek?” said Big Dave Hughes, and he wasn’t joking, either. “What for, anyway? Why the foreign flags, and that? Ain’t we supporting Ingerland?”
“Course we are, you dildo! And the Jocks support the enemy! England’s enemy, don’t matter who it is, it’s in the blood, innit? We get their money for the strips that cost us nothing, and we get an ’omemade war. Jesus, Dave. You are so, so thick. Get ’em bloody in.”
The match was in the Naafi, on the big screens, and someone sprung the idea on the Scotchmen a day or two before, fed it to ’em like some deadly secret. I don’t know who did the spreading of the virus – Colour I think – but he played a blinder. Suddenly there was Jock lads everywhere – sworn to secrecy among themselves, the halfwits – getting opposition shirts, and flags, and coughing up real loot if they couldn’t nick or beast them out of someone – to wear under normal, neutral stuff and infiltrate into the game on Saturday. They thought it was all their own idea, that was the best thing. They were going to time it to the second, wait for a signal, then switch from being Scottie squaddies into foreign football fans rooting for the dagoes – and screw the English to the fucking floor. It was a dead sweet plan, I must admit.
Then, two days before the match, fucking disaster. Out of the blue, out of a fucking cloudless sky, Shahid and Ashton both got knocked back. An army carve-up, pure and simple, and both of them completely blown away. Ashton’s leave was cancelled – his pre-wedding honeymoon, his fortnight in the Cyprus sun – and Shahid was pulled in by the RMPs. They wouldn’t tell him why – why should they? – but everybody knew, him most of all. Ashton was flattened, he was in the lower fucking depths. Shahid was so angry I swear he turned damn nearly white. And Goughie was behind it, it was obvious. Who fucking else?
The upshot was, that quitting came back in the air for us, big time. Four years to serve? Not fucking much! Ashton was so livid it’s a wonder he didn’t go straight over the wire the day he got the news, and as for Shahid, he just vanished off the block. Now you see him, now you don’t. The disappearing Paki.
So just like that I’m on me Jack again, the second time in no damn time at all. It made me think what it’d be like out there, Afghanistan, Iraq, even Iran if our Yankee masters decide we’ll give them some “democracy” as well. If I got a bullet in the head, fair enough – I’d be a hero, mum could be proud of me at last, and at least the army don’t charge you for your funeral yet, though it’s bound to happen some day I suppose.
But if Ash and Sha got killed – or if they did a runner, or got sent to jail for treachery – I’d be on my own again, full time.
Fuck that for a game of soldiers.
The final episode of Skinback Fusiliers, AT LAST - A WAR!, will be published next Saturday, 28th May.