We present the seventh 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.
AL BEANO AND RICK O'SHEA
Six:The only trouble was, there’d been a slight mistake. The only other trouble was, by the time I found out, it was too late. I walked into the third pub and walked up to the bar, and despite the fact I was streaked with rain and looked a total tramp, they knew I was army so they served me, you don’t cut off the pipe that squirts the cash, do you? I only ordered lager anyway. I’d had some double whiskies in the other pubs, tipped into me pints, and they hadn’t let me do it last time, so I played it a bit cool. To tell the truth I was so pissed by now, I didn’t realise what the problem was when I walked round the pillar and saw Ken sitting there. The problem was that he was dead. I’d sat down with him and said “Cheers mate” before I remembered it. It was quite a bleeding shock.
“Tiny,” he said. He slurred the word a bit. His eyes were rolling in his head, like boiled eggs with blood in them. Then they cleared. “Tiny? What’s up mate! You look as if you’ve seen a fucking ghost.”
I knocked me pint over, across the table, all across the chairs, all over everywhere. They couldn’t see me from the bar, so that was all right. Anyway, it was Catterick. More often it was someone’s stomach lining.
“Fucking hell, Ken. Fucking hell, mate.”
He’d already made it to his feet. His trouser leg was soaking but he didn’t mind. By the time he got back with two big brandies in his hand, I’d got myself together, and my one didn’t touch the sides. It went down like a tosser on the Alton Towers flume.
“Thanks, mate. Thanks, Ken. Same again, is it?”
It took me longer to get served. I couldn’t make me fingers do the money. When I got back he’d moved to a drier table. His face was back to normal, too. Another lease of life.
“You heard about the kid then,” he said, not a question really. “Mate o’ yours, were ’e? You seem a bit cut up.”
“A mate?” I said. “Who was it, Ken? I don’t even know.”
“Young kid called Al. Blonde kid, ’bout eighteen. They told him this morning he weren’t passing off the square, the only one in his whole intake. Poor fucker couldn’t take it. They took the piss. Everyone. You find out who your mates are, don’t you – you ain’t got none. Your mother never tells you that, does she?”
“He didn’t have one, though, did he?” I said. “A proper mum.” I tried to think. I tried to beat my brain. “His real name’s not Al neither, is it?”
“Not now it ain’t,” said Ken. “His name now’s Rick O’Shea. That’s a joke, in case you’re too pissed up to notice. I heard it from his sergeant, then three corporals, it’s very funny, so they told me. After that I fucked off out of camp, the place is full of fucking ghouls. It’s worse than downtown Baghdad, at least the Muslims hate each other for a reason, it’s a religious thing, int it? Sunni, Shia, Allah’s lickle children just love to kill each other.”
I drank more brandy. Not exactly sipping, but slower than I had before. I couldn’t get my head round it. Albino. Beano. Al. What was his fucking name? Not passing off the square. Not getting his badge and beret like his mates. More weeks as a crap-hat. Still a trog, and lots more new trogs passing on the conveyor belt. He’d done it ’cause he couldn’t take the strain or something. And they called him ricochet, although he didn’t fucking miss, and said good fucking riddance.
“Were you on the ranges when it happened? Do you want another drink?”
“Yeah to both,” he said. “But he weren’t there, were he? His lot were on parade drill for passing out, they’d been marching up and down like clockwork soldiers. I ’spect that’s what got to him. Parade drill and marching, only he weren’t going nowhere. Why make him do the drill, then? Let me guess – to make him feel a cunt.”
I could imagine it. Even with Sarnt Williams not there to beast-in-chief there’d be some other smart-arse buggers. I bet they’d gave him bloody hell.
“But you don’t get loaded rifles, do you?” I said. Of course you don’t, not for parade drill. So he must have had some knocked-off rounds.
“That drink,” said Ken. “I’ll have some orange in it this time. I’m getting flavour blur. Go on, shift your idle arse, you nancy-boy.”
I thought I’d have orange in as well, or Coke or summat, because I was getting very pissed, and it was getting me down, it was a bleeding habit. Half the squaddies in the army were piss-artists, and half the homeless sleeping on the streets were ex-army, hadn’t anybody ever noticed the connection? When it came to it, though, I had the double brandy straight, to feel the smack behind the eyes. Two whole mouthfuls! Luxury! At least old Ken would always pay his corner.
“Still had to clean his weapon, though, didn’t he?” he said. “He went back to his room to get his cleaning kit, but he didn’t come outside again and no one bleeding noticed. All the others sat in line and spit’n fucking polished, oil, pull-through, joking with the corporals, and crafty Al locked up his door, got out his stash and bunged one up the spout. Bang. Brains everywhere. He didn’t even write a note out to his... Oh, you said he didn’t have one. Logical.”
He paused a bit. We thought a bit. Then he said quietly, “I wonder if any of my kids would think they’ve got a father. I wonder if I could ever tell them what I’ve done.” He paused a bit more. “My youngest daughter’s only six,” he said. “Do you know, Tiny, I can’t remember what she’s called. No, straight up, I’ve forgot her fucking name. Deborah, that’s it, little Deb. Her sister’s Donna. She’s got two half-sisters as well, off another of the many loving wives. I couldn’t tell you their names for a thousand fucking pounds. Just for the moment.”
It was his turn to get the drinks in, but he’d gone into Stop. That was okay, except I could see his eyes going off, I knew him didn’t I, we were old buddies now. I needed something, fast, to cheer him up.
“D’you know what, Ken?” I said. “It could be worse, mate. D’you know I thought it must be you when I heard it on the block. I thought you’d gone apeshit or something. I thought you were the fucking dead-un.”
He looked at me and his eyes were sharp and clear, if only for the moment. I thought maybe he was going to take it the wrong way, as if I was getting at him somehow, although I don’t know how. Then he shook his head. The bright look went away and he got down again. Down in the dumps.
“I told you, Tiny. Don’t you listen? Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” He laughed, although it wasn’t much of one. “That was the saying in the old days, did you know that – old soldiers fade away. We don’t now though, we slide into the gutter with our Tennants and our Special Brew. It’s the kids that top themselves. Except they never do, do they? They have accidents. That’s the army’s story.”
He lifted his glass and seemed surprised to find it empty. He looked at mine, and it was empty too.
“They’re prone to accidents, the very young,” he said. “They’re so prone it’s a wonder that they let ’em go and fight at all. It’s dangerous, fighting, I’d refuse if I was you, mate, I’d tell ’em that you’ve got a cold or something.” He paused. “I wouldn’t go again, I wouldn’t. And that’s straight up.”
He was going down, but he got to his feet and to the bar. Coming back he didn’t spill a drop, although his hands were shaking. The pub was full now, it was getting late. People knew us, from the camp, people knew the both of us, but they never spoke, they never even said hello. There was a black cloud hanging over him, and I was on the inside looking out. It felt like he was drowning. It felt like I was drowning too.
“D’you know what I saw last time in Iraq?” he said, after another silence. “I saw them cut a woman’s head off in the street, not chop it off but saw it off, cold blood. We were close enough to see the details, and they did it so we would see, because we couldn’t open fire, it was in a market, other women all around, and kids, and old geezers and ladies in their robes. Our translator said they said she was a collaborator, she’d been talking to the people on the other side, she was a Sunni but she’d been talking Shite, our little joke, to join in their insanity. It was stunted for our benefit, the translator said, they’d’ve rather waited for the TV people but they thought they’d never come. They sawed her head off slowly, side to side, and she was groaning and half-talking, squirting blood, and Tiny, you couldn’t even throw up because if you took your eye off them some bastard would have plugged you, wouldn’t he? Savages, eh? Utter fucking savages. And back in base that night, one of our lads, twenty two or twenty three, normal British soldier, salt of the earth – he started selling pictures of it that he’d taken on his mobile. Tenner a time for copies. Tenner a bleeding time.”
For some reason that didn’t get to me a lot. I mean, it sounded awful, but then they did this sort of business, didn’t they, I just couldn’t really get a grip on it no more. My main feeling, honestly, was I was glad I wasn’t there, it didn’t sound much like a war at all, it sounded like a slaughterhouse. I guessed that that was Ken’s point, really. He’d had enough. He’d seen too much of it.
But then he started in on other things, and he got so gruesome that I almost lost my taste for drink. The last time he’d been, he said, before they shipped him off to Germany to “catch up on some sanity,” he’d seen the bloody lot – Americans raping little girls, squaddies chucking people into filthy open sewage ditches to teach them how to swim, and worst of all collecting bodies with the Iraqi so-called army, nuts and gangsters and religious loonies to a man, the whole damn lot of them.
“We picked up more bodies than hyenas in brown boots,” he said. “Not just dead bodies, but minced, diced, sliced, dismembered. Kids of ten or so with their eyes drilled out with Black and Deckers and their teeth pulled out with pliers. Young girls with their tits cut off. Old men and ladies stabbed up the bum until they bled to death. I’m telling you, Tiny, it were grim. It were fucking diabolical.”
He lapsed off into silence. I said “D’you want another drink?” because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but he didn’t seem to hear me.
“We went in because someone said they were out to kill us,” he said. “We invaded them because of weapons that weren’t even there. They said they’d call us saviours, we were bringing peace, and it was a straightforward, stinking lie. I watched Blair say it. I watched him on the telly, and for years and years and years I could not believe that he were lying. I were a soldier, Tiny. I were proud. I were that proud, kid, you would not befuckinglieve it. A soldier of the fucking Queen!”
Even in the throbbing noise, the bass notes and the squaddies shouting at each other in the way of friendly chat, Ken was loud all of a sudden. But it didn’t last. He looked into his empty glass, and he held it up then dropped it. It smashed on the table and he ground his hand on it, and he didn’t even seem to feel the pain.
“Fifty thousand dead,” he said. “A hundred thousand dead, two hundred, three, maybe plenty, plenty more, we don’t even fucking know and no way are we fucking saying, are we? That’s our gift to them poor bastards, Tiny, us soldiers of the Queen. So what am I now? War criminal? George Dubya said his God told him to go in and save them, our twat said his God would judge him right and turned a Catholic to make it double sure, and the Muslims said theirs would burn us all in hell. I wonder which God’s right?”
“Bush loved his,” I said, quite drunkenly. “Blair loved both of his, straight and left-footer. Old Saddam loved his too, no bleeding doubt of it, and what about the Taliban? The question is, old mate – I wonder what God fucking thinks of them?”
This struck me as dead funny, and also pretty clever in a way. But there was a crash as Ken’s head dropped onto the table, onto the broken glass, and I saw blood leaking everywhere.
Whoops. Time to go. Cheers, mate. I’d like to stay and help you, but I can’t. I remembered what he’d said. A soldier of the Queen. He used to be a soldier of the Queen. I can’t help you, Ken, I’m sorry mate, I can’t. Can anyone?
Death of a Hero
I don’t think I meant to run, it’s just one of those things that happen, innit? My only feeling when I staggered out into the street was to get away from Ken. I wouldn’t even know why to that, if you asked me. Okay, he was pissed and bleeding and collapsed, but it was maybe all his stories that had got to me, and where it went from there. Ken was mental, and Al Beano had just topped himself. The best Ken could hope for was a medical discharge – depression, the magic word! – and the worst, if he didn’t stop shooting his mouth off, was dishonourable, even jail. If the ginger bastard really was an undercover man, if Goughie tried to brown-nose by ratting on his oppos… Well, shit.
Al Beano. I still couldn’t remember his real name, but I’d never call him Rick O’Shea, no way. I thought I’d better go to Tesco’s and get some brandy for the trip. The trip? What trip? I’d bought the bloody stuff, opened the bloody bottle, and took a giant swig outside on the pavement before that filtered through my bonce. What trip?
It was like when I found out about Bridgie and all the Irish bastards, in a way. I can remember how I felt then, and the only word I can bring up to describe it is “confused.” She didn’t like me maybe, but we were meant to be together, weren’t we? I mean, we slept together, and she took all my cash, and then I found out she was fucking my new mates, and she didn’t even mind when I found out! I mean, what was that all about? Explain it to me, someone. Explain the deal.
By the time I got to the station in Darlington I was arseholed, no doubt of that at all, I didn’t even know how I’d bloody got there, although a taxi would be my best guess. But I was arseholed, and I sat on a bench looking at the ticket I’d just bought and wondering what the fucking fuck. Why the fuck I’d bought one to Newcastle, when I’d never been and didn’t want to go. Why the fuck I’d bought one anyway. What was I doing? Was I on the run? And if so – why? I sat there blinking for a while or two (maybe a minute, maybe half an hour, I really do not know) and nothing came to mind. Slurps of brandy, that was nice. I was cold and wet and muzzy, but the brandy warmed me up.
Where was I going? Why Newcastle? Ah – that came back. I had been going to Manchester, to go and see my old mate Shofiq. No, not Shahid, Shofiq, another one, I’m a Paki-lover remember and my name’s Hassan, although I don’t go there very often, not even on me own, and I’d missed the train. Shofiq would’ve put me up, he lived in Withington and he was a total pisshead and all right. I got my mobiles off him, and he might even have a car by now. He’d hide me up, or drive me off somewhere, maybe back to Blackburn for a while, to see me mum. She’d be pleased I’d left the army. Pleased? She’d be out of her mind! Now how would I earn a fucking living? And I hadn’t left, I’d done a runner, too!
I felt terrible, then. No, terrified. Hollowed out with panic, galloping bleeding fear. What would they do to me? Would I go to prison? Would they send out RMPs to jam me into handcuffs? Would they beat me up? We were always talking about it, everybody did now and again, but I’d never known a squaddie who’d took the plunge and run. When the ticket woman said I’d missed the train to Manchester I’d felt relieved. Back at camp they’d have guessed I’d gone there, wouldn’t they, the heart of Lancashire, the northern Mecca? But Newcastle? They’d never, ever think of that. And then I saw the coppers, and I froze.
They were only wandering, I think, but when they clocked me it gave their lives a purpose, you could tell. They strolled towards me, both big and fattish, both steaming in the damp, and not unfriendly, not at all, not threatening. They knew I was a squaddie, though, for some reason people always do, which is another bleeding mystery – we don’t even have squaddie haircuts any more. I tried to hide the bottle by my legs. I didn’t have a bag or anything. I didn’t even have a coat.
“’Allo, mate, you look wet enough. What you doing?”
I looked up and give a smile.
“I’m off to Newcastle. I’ve got me ticket. I’m going to see me girlfriend.”
“We know you’ve got your ticket,” said the other one. “You wanted to go to Manchester. Moved, has she? That was sudden.”
Smartarse. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You on the run, are you? Want us to take you back to Catterick? We’ve got a nice warm car outside.”
“I’m not on the run. I’m just...”
I ran out of words. So much for them not knowing, just having a little wander, like. Of course they fucking knew. They even knew my fucking name.
“Private Hassan. Andrew. Back at camp, they reckon that you...”
But the train was pulling in. Newcastle. Noisy bastard. The copper stopped the talking for a while. He looked at his watch, then double-checked it with the station clock. I stood up. I picked up my bottle. No point in trying to hide it, anyway. The PA started waffling. I didn’t listen.
“He’s got another half an hour yet,” the other copper said. He said to me: “You’ve got another half an hour, Andy. Before they mark you down official. You going back?”
I couldn’t believe this. Maybe I was dreaming it. I felt pissed enough.
“Can I go now?” I said. “I’ve got to catch me train.”
It would be leaving in a second. There were fuck-all people getting on and off. The copper nodded.
“We can’t stop you, mate.”
“We can only give advice.”
“For half an hour. Then you’re official. AWOL, on the run.”
“We can give you some advice, though.”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t even say fuck off. I tried a smile, but my features weren’t having any. I felt terrible. I felt as if I was going to die, just drop to pieces on the platform. One of them was on his radio as the train door closed behind me.
It was raining worse in Newcastle, and I was more than half expecting the police or RMPs would be there to meet me. More than half hoping as well, I think, although I’m sure I wasn’t sure. By the time I got to Newcastle I’d be officially absent, and if they didn’t take me back, what then? I was in trouble, in deeper trouble, but I didn’t know how deep, I didn’t have a bleeding clue. I guessed the longer I was out the worse though, that was logical. So if I was going to be arrested, surely the sooner the better? And they knew where I was. They had to, didn’t they? They had to pick me up.
But they didn’t. I stood about and looked all over, and there wan’t a uniform in sight, except the railway lot. It was pretty late, and the weather was terrible, though the air was pretty warm. I was pissed as arseholes, I’d left the empty bottle on the train, and I wanted to lie down and sleep, or maybe vomit. I was lost on this great big giant station, in a dump I’d only ever heard of, and I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t have a fucking prayer. I rang up Shahid.
“Tiny! You bastard! You could’ve caught me on the job!”
Some chance with Shahid, I’d never known him at that sort of thing. But I couldn’t joke. There wasn’t any humour to come out of me.
“Mate. Sha. I need your help, mate. I’m in the shit.”
There was music in the background, and laughs, and pool balls. I must’ve said “are you in a pub,” or something, although I don’t remember that I did.
“Yeah,” he said. “That dump we went in on that first night out – no lager. It’s not so bad though when there’s no one in it, which there ain’t when they’ve moved on to town. Just me and Ashton and a few other lads, it’s a sort of lock-in. What’s up?”
“I’ve quit,” I said. “I’ve gone AWOL, I’ve done a runner. I’m stuck up in Newcastle in the rain.”
“What you done that for, you daft twat?” he said. “Newcastle? Poor bastard. You’ll go to fucking prison, mate. What’s happened?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Nowt. Nowt special. A kid got shot at camp. Topped himself, but...”
“Did you know him?”
“Nah. Just a crap-hat. But...”
“Tiny, what’s it got to do with you, mate? You can’t do it, Tiny! You can’t just do a runner. You’ll get... they’ll throw the book at you!”
“I can’t take it, Sha. I’m pissed off. You know we’ve talked about it. I’m getting out.”
“You can’t get out! Not by going AWOL! Shit, it’s not that bad, we have some good times, don’t we? We’ll be back up soon, me and Ashton will, the Three Must-get-fucking-beers! England needs us, mate, to fight the savages! We’re the Great White Bleeding Hope!
He was trying hard to get me out of it, but that didn’t even raise a smile. It nearly did – I had a vision of the Great White Hope, one drunk, one black, one Paki – but the gloom crushed down again. I was in a city street, well after midnight, in the fucking pissing rain.
“Look,” I said. “Stop talking bollocks, Sha. I need somewhere to sleep. Tell me where to sleep.”
There was a long pause after this, and I thought he’d hung up, even, until I realised I could still hear music and so on. My head was banging now. Clattering. When he came back on his voice was really serious, no more stupid jokes.
“Look,” he said. “Tiny. Mate. We’ve talked about it, yeah? The army’s just a prison sentence, man, but not so bad, except the food. We’ve got to stick it out, we’ve got to fight the lunatics. Look, mate – this is what to do. Phone Catterick. Phone the camp. Tell ’em where you are and what you’ve done. Tell them you’re coming back. You’ve got to, Tiny. You’ve fucking got to. Okay?”
No, not okay. Not okay at all. No way okay.
“Not going back. I need somewhere to sleep, Sha, that’s all. If you ain’t got no suggestions, fair enough. No way I’m going back, Shahid. No fucking way.”
He put Ashton on. At last, I thought – some sense. That’s how pissed I was. Some sense from Ashton. Jesus.
“Well ain’t you the bright boy,” he said. He didn’t even do a silly voice. “Look, old mate, he’s right, you’ve got to fucking listen. Go back before you’re absolutely fucked. D’you want to spend the next four years inside? D’you want to end up down in Colchester? D’you ever want to see the light of day again?”
“Oh piss off, Ashton. I’ve had enough of fucking bullshit. I ain’t going back. I’ve had it, mate. I’ve had it up to here.”
I could hear him breathing down the phone. That and pub noise in the background. I was jealous. I was lonely, too.
“You will have, mate,” he said. His voice was mild, he was really trying to be calm and sober. “Look, you’ve got to pull yourself together, Ti, you’re in the shit already, ain’t you? Have you got a pencil on you, a pen or something? All right then, I’ve got some mates. They know I’ve got a soft spot for white trash, so I expect they’ll let you in okay unless they’re all unconscious in their pits. I’ll try and ring ’em, anyway, and – oh hang about, Sha wants another word. He’s nicked my mobile, cheeky bastard. He’s been ringing camp.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had a bit of paper in my hand and I fucking near fell over. “You what!” I shrieked. “You fucking bastard, Sha! What you fucking doing?”
“Calm down, Cynthia, I ain’t doing nothing, as it happens. I’ve been on directory to find the camp at Catterick, and I’ve got fucking nowhere, it don’t exist, apparently. Bloke give me a central number in the end, down London somewhere, and guess what – no reply! He said I wouldn’t get one. He said the army only answers during working hours, it’s a well-known fact. He seemed to think I should’ve had a special number, seeing I’m a soldier. That’s fucking likely, innit?”
“Good if we’ve been invaded, eh?” said Ashton, in the background. “Give us the phone, Sha. Tiny. Write down this address. Just for tonight, right, and I’ll ring you in the morning, yeah? You’re fucking going back.”
Half an hour later I was standing on the pavement in the rain outside this little terraced house, and the only nearby sound was the taxi disappearing down this long, long road. I knocked again, and listened. Unconscious in their pits – what had he meant by that? No lights, no action, nobody. I knocked again. And knocked again. What had he bloody meant by that?
Oh you bastard, Ash, I told myself, five minutes later. Some sort of rotten joke this is, you bastard, not funny to an enemy, let alone a mate, not fucking funny. I knocked again. I knocked harder. I kicked seven kinds of shit out of the door. And at last a light came on. Footsteps. Like something in a bleeding horror film.
Whoops, I thought. I heard a chain rattling on the door. Whoops, I’m going to get my head smacked up for this, I’ve bloody nearly kicked the bastard in. It’ll be a big black hairy bruiser. It’ll be a giant. Poor little me. I giggled. I was pissed unconscious. I tittered like a total tit.
I didn’t think I’d even feel a thing.
The next episode of Skinback Fusiliers, BLACK GIRL, BLACK GIRL, DON'T LIE TO ME, will be published next Saturday, 14 May.