We present the final episode from a brutal novel about life as a British squaddie, 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.
AT LAST... A WAR!
Like I’ve said before, you’re taught to hate everyone except the men in your own mob from the first day of training almost. But when it comes to it, even people with a natural hatred for each other, like Manks and Scousers, Lanks and Yorkies, can join together to fuck off a common enemy. The civvies, say, the Taffs and Brummies and the southerners. And the Jocks.
Before we even passed off of the square, before we swapped crap hats for badge and beret, we knew half a dozen chants about the kiltie-men which were bound to lead to fights, and we used them every where, and every way, we could. That meant fights on the block, fights in the lines, fights on the ranges, in trains and buses, fights in Catterick, even the sergeants in their mess. When I say we, I don’t mean me, particular, I wasn’t that bothered much. I just mean us. The good guys versus them.
So when we crowded in the Naafi for the match, the air was like electric, it was jumping. The Scotchmen kept the flags and strips we’d sold ’em hid from us (thinking they were so fucking crafty!), and our fanatics looked like butter wouldn’t melt, they looked like lickle fucking angels. Ooh, there was going to be a holocaust!
It didn’t come off quick, that would have spoiled it. In any case, the actual game, far as I could tell who don’t give jack shit for football, was too boring to get up much extra buzz, enough to tip from tension to a fucking bang – at least until the booze kicked in. But with both my mates out of circulation, let’s just say that I was bored. Too bored to stay away from bloodshed, too bored to wander round the empty town, but also too bored to notice who the actual side was that licked old Ingerland. Portugal? Yeah, that was it maybe. Although I could be wrong. But they did lick us, although it took them long enough. And when they did – and by then the booze was running down the throats like water – the Jocks went wild. They erupted like volcanoes. Volcanoes on the piss...
They did it sudden, like, and the way they whipped their hidden flags out, and stripped their tops off down to the foreign, winning shirts, was a touch of pure, wicked, evil, magic. One instant they were England fans, down in the mouth and disappointed like the rest, and the next they were foreign nutters, waving their colours, whooping and shrieking like bloody dervishes.
“Ye wank-airs! Ye wank-airs! Fuck the English! Fuck the English fairies! Scawe’land f’r’evair!”
Well everybody knows the Jocks are hardest, that’s ancient history. They’re not the biggest, they’re not the brightest, they sure as shit are not the best. But fired up by coke and whisky, the little bone-head bastards are unbeatable. They swept across the Naafi floor like a horde of devils pouring out of hell, and a hail of glasses sailed in front of them. They bounced off everything, the ones that didn’t smash, off the chairs, the ceiling, mirrors, regimental photographs, off the fruit machines, and people’s heads, and soon the walls were pissing blood and lager. Some optic bottles got smashed behind the bar until the shutters were crashed down, and one of the telly screens went off with a bang and flash.
The Jocks are hardest, man for man, but this fight was about numbers, as much as anything. All the English buried the hatchet, so to speak, then looked for a Scotch head to bury it in again, and for the first phase everybody went by colour. England flags, tied around necks like capes, went rushing at the foreign flags, then at Scottish crosses that got conjured out of nowhere. I saw one Jock almost strangled by a Union Jack that two squaddies twisted round his neck and pulled till he went purple.
Then it got sectarian, in a way – one group of Proddie Glasgows who’d been supporting England (for real) got turned on by the Celtic fans. They teamed up with the little Welsh contingent (“Free Wales with every twenty litres,” as the petrol slogan used to say), but some Irish Guardsmen decided they hated the Taffs more than they liked the Catholics and soon it was a free for all.
Not everyone was fighting. Not me, for starters – I like my anger personal – and it was easy to avoid if you kept your brain switched on. I quit after about ten minutes, but before I got back to the lines I was overtaken by lads from the Naafi who were foaming at the bleeding mouth, and then I passed them rushing back into the fight again two minutes later with knives they’d picked up in their rooms, and madness in their pissed-up little eyes. Not long after that the barking started, and the RMPs turned up in droves and went in with the dogs. Then blokes came running back towards the blocks with blood and slobber on them, and their trackies torn to buggery.
After that, more or less, it became a spectator sport. Lots of us just stood about and watched the dogs and MPs chase the squaddies, then sometimes the squaddies chase each other or the dogs. Big Dave told me that the corporals in the mess were having the same fight on their home ground, and he said he’d seen Mart Martin smack another lancejack with a waffle. Yeah, a waffle, not a bottle, that’s what Big Dave said, and I didn’t like to comment. But I did hear Sarnt Williams forcing some lads back when he saw them sneaking off. “Oi,” he said. “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Go and get the Jock cunts, you lazy little bastards!”
It was reckoned later that the fight went on for two full hours, but that don’t seem very likely in my book. But there was skirmishes and boozing late into the night though, I’ll grant you that, and Catterick that evening was not the sort of place you’d want to take your granny for a cocktail, even though a good half of camp couldn’t get passes out for love or money. The shouting and the smashing up of furniture in the rooms and corridors got right on Ashton’s tits because of his mood, and when I saw him he was furious and kept muttering that we ought to tell the papers, to let the outside world see just what shit the army really is. He’d been on the phone for two days on and off, to the fiancée mainly, and the bank, and quite honestly he didn’t know what to do.
“Our boys!” he said. “That’s what they’re always on about, the Daily Mail and shit, our marvellous, wonderful, fantastic fucking boys. And they treat us like animals, and that’s what we fucking are! Our fucking, fucking boys! It needs shutting down, Ti. It all needs fucking shutting down.”
And not much later, when he’d cooled off a bit, and I’d persuaded him to have a suck or two out of a tin, he said, “I’m running, mate. I’ve had enough. I’m gone.”
“Shit, Ash,” I said. “But why, though? I mean, like, where to?”
“Why? Because I’ve changed me mind, you dick. Why? D’you really have to fucking ask? I can’t do it, Ti. I can’t stay here no more, I’m off for bleeding good. I’ll go up and hide with Carole and the girls in Newcastle, the RMPs won’t look for me up there. The girls’ll put me up okay till Manchester’s clear of the bastards, won’t they? They’ll see me right.”
“She’ll bleeding kill you, mate.”
“Who? Carole? Why?”
“Not Carole, you twat, bleeding Sonia. You’ve lost your honeymoon already. What good will it do to go on the run? She’ll see you even less, won’t she?”
They’d sprung the honeymoon disaster in the way they do these things to squaddies – just in a sudden meeting that they’d called us to, the whole damn lot of us, not just poor old Ashton. We’d been sat down and left waiting in a room for half an hour, then an officer and a sergeant had waltzed in, all smiles, and announced that “normal scheduling was up in the air” – i.e. cancelled – because we “might be moving out.”
Moving out, sir? Where, sir? Why, sir? When? No answer, there’s never any answer – but mysterious smiles, as usual. We’d find out “soon enough.”
Ashton had went hairless.
“Soon enough, sir! But I’ve got leave, sir! It’s booked, sir! I’m going on my honeymoon to Cyprus! I’ve had the dates for weeks!”
The bringer of bad tidings was only a second lieutenant, about ten years old, but smugger than a newly-polished arsehole. He’d looked at Ash like he was the lowest form of life.
“Getting married are we, Private? Is this official? Do the office know?”
Like buggery they did. Marriage wasn’t in it, for the moment, it was not even official in Ashton’s book. Just the honeymoon. His fury grew. You could see it building up inside him. His tongue was tying up in knots.
“But I’m off, sir! It’s been cleared for weeks! I’m going Cyprus with me girlfriend!”
“Your girlfriend or your wife? Is there some confusion in your mind?”
Everyone was laughing, naturally – kick a bugger when he’s down. Ashton tried to speak again, but lost his words.
“But sir,” he said. “But sir, I mean – but sir, the whole fu…but it were all fixed up, sir. The whole… I’ve paid!”
Oh how happy did that make the young lieutenant! How happy.
“We’ll I’m sorry, Private, you know the rules. You’re in the army 24/7, you can’t just take time off because you fancy it. Good heavens – we’re at war. They need us out there. They need fresh blood, fresh bone, fresh sinew. We can’t stop so that you can get some shagging in, can we, be reasonable! This could be your chance to be a hero, and think how proud your girlfriend’d be then! Much more exciting than a honeymoon, I can tell you.”
End on a joke, that’s the golden rule. The unfunnier the better (though that one was worth the laugh it got, fair play). But it was the end, Ashton didn’t get the chance to witter on for longer, the sergeant made it clear he’d play the heavy if need be, the time had come. We trooped out in silence, and Ashton was the silentest of all.
Over the next two days, though, he forced himself not to just give it up completely. He spoke to everyone he could, hung round the offices, wheedled the liaison clerk, the RSM (tried to see him; failed), he even thought of writing to his MP, except he didn’t know he had one, or if he did do, who it was or how he could find out. The upshot was, the simple fact, the inevitable, unvarnished truth – he was fucked. It had started with a minor row with some pay clerk corporal about his overdraft, we were all agreed on that. But you can’t ever prove it, can you? It’s just one of those little army things.
After the riot, as we sat drinking Stella in his room and listening to the chaos still going on outside, he brought me up to speed. “I’ve been onto the travel agents three times again today,” he told me. “I tried to get my money back, or switch the dates, they told me to piss off. That’s why I’m going, Tiny. Too many bastards saying just piss off. Well I am. I’m leggin’ it.”
“Life of crime, mate,” I said. “Ain’t that what you said you was afraid of?”
I thought that he might dob me one, but then he laughed.
“D’you know, mate,” he said, “I joined up first to keep me from a life of bleeding crime. I had to earn a living and I couldn’t do nowt else, there weren’t nothing. Now I’m destitute, even if I fucking stay. I can’t afford to fucking stay. Sixteen grand a year, mate, and I’m meant to get married on it. I’m gone. I’m getting out of here.”
Like I’ve said before, when Ash reckons to do something, it gets done. I had a growing feeling in my stomach. I was getting right pissed off.
But I didn’t have another word to say.
Shahid’s case, when we finally got to see him again on Sunday night, turned out to be completely different. We hadn’t seen it happen, but he’d been lifted by the RMPs on Friday and given five to pack a bag, they’d been as crafty as a gang of shithouse rats. The story later, that went round the lines, was he’d been fingered by Goughie as a Muslim terrorist, and was took off to be shot. We didn’t buy that shite, we knew Shahid too well, but we wondered how he’d wriggle out, big style. And in fact, he said – he’d gone to get promoted.
He came back into my room about eight o’clock, where me and Ash were drinking, and he looked pretty pale, for an Asian. Ashton was still depressed – he’d picked a fight with a lancejack office clerk after the Sunday service and was probably on a charge next morning – and I was getting that way too. The whole deal seemed just pointless, ridiculous, it was like a bear pit, not a bleeding army. And I’d heard as well that old Ken Rogers had just got “sent away.”
“Christ, where you been, Sha?” I said. “We thought you’d been locked up in the fucking Tower and that was that. Didn’t they believe you were in love with Alkie Ada after all?”
He threw his bag down on a bed, and picked up a can of lager.
“I ain’t been no farther than the other side of town,” he said. “I tell you, when they do exotic, they do it bloody marvellous. They didn’t even have halal meat for me.”
“You don’t eat halal,” said Ashton. “What you on about?”
“It’s the principle, you twat! They were trying to butter me up, weren’t they? They wanted to get me on their side. And they couldn’t even work out that Muslims don’t eat roast pork.”
“But you do eat pork,” Ashton gives it. “I’ve fucking seen you!”
“Oh shut up, Ash,” I said. “If you don’t get it, just shut up, why don’t you? There’s more Stella in me locker, get some out. Shahid – who did it to you? Was it Goughie? Who was there? Was it the ginger bastard?”
He looked at me as if I’d gone stupid, too.
“Were it fuck as like. I told you, din’t I? It was the Captain, and two blokes from somewhere else. In civvies, but I figured out they must be special branch or summat, although I don’t think they’d ever met a proper Paki face to face. They asked me if I spoke Arabic. I said a bit of Urdu, I din’t bother with the loonies at the mosque no more. That seemed to perk ’em up a bit. They asked me what I thought about religion.”
“Bloody hell,” said Ash. “Lecture time. I bet you bored the bastards half to death.”
“Hope so. I don’t think so, though. They seemed to be a bit pissed off more like it. I said I thought anyone who believed in God was pretty much insane in my opinion, whatever name they called the bastard by. The OC went bright red. But one of the civvy men goes ‘At least Christians don’t blow their fellow men to pieces, do they,’ and I gives it, ‘I thought that’s what the army paid us for.’”
“Fuck me,” said Ashton. “You din’t really did you, Sha? You bullshitter.”
“Well, it were something like that,” said Shahid. “We talked round and round in bloody circles, it went on for ages. Most of the time I din’t know what they were trying to say, it was like in riddles. They asked me what I thought of terrorists, I know that much. And if I thought suicide bombers had a point. We know all about suicide bombers, us Pakis. You ask anyone.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What did you say?”
“I said I were a bloody Asian, not insane. I said that’s why I joined the army, weren’t it – because I were worried sick about poor dicks who listened to the Stone Age mullahs and blew up people in the street and fucking babies in the name of fucking Allah. Din’t say fucking, come to think of it, but I nearly did. I were getting kind of mad with ’em although I still didn’t realise what they were driving at, exactly. Then the OC put me right, poor bastard. I hadn’t really noticed till then what a prat he is, ain’t he? He is really, really thick.”
“They all are,” Ashton said. “That’s how they get the job. They’re mental.”
“Yeah well,” Sha goes. “He used that word an’ all. He told me Muslims are mental, borderline insane, he actually said that, then he said, ‘not all of them, of course, not all of you!’ And then he goes, ‘you must agree?’ The funny thing is, he was trying to make it better. He was trying to make me understand the problem. Then he must’ve saw my face, and he goes: ‘I’m not a racist, Khan, of course, but...’”
Even Ashton fell about at that.
“Not a racist but what, for Christ’s sake?” he hooted.
“He lost his thread a bit,” Sha said. “He were embarrassed, like. He wan’t a racist, he goes on, but lots of ‘my lot’ were, maybe. Well, pretty sort of crazy, anyway. Funny ideas. Worshipped a sort of... The upshot was, the army needed guys like me. Role models. Example to the fruitloops to get real. Did I agree? The others didn’t help him out much, they looked at him as if he was a proper twat, I were almost tempted to tell them I agreed with him. Then one of them come out with it. The giveaway that they were special branch or something.”
He necked the tin and took a good long pull.
“‘If it’s really why you joined the army, Mr Khan,’ he gives it, ‘if it’s because of worrying about extremists an’ all that, how would you like to do a little bit more? For your country. I take it you see yourself as British, do you?’”
“Cheeky bastard,” Ashton says. “I bet he wan’t born in fucking Oldham like you wa’!”
“Mister Khan though, eh,” I said. “It’s a start Sha, innit?”
Sha carried on, despite the piss-takes.
“‘A little bit more what?’ I asks him. ‘A bit more persuading Muslims to join the army? Or just spying on my mates? I see myself as English because I bloody am, and I joined to show some people we’re not all fucking mad. Is that what you’re saying? Sleeping with the fucking enemy?”
“Good film that,” said Ash. “Is that the one where you get to see her cunt?”
“If you want to see a cunt,” I said, “look in the mirror, Ashton, the professor’s talking. Go on Sha. What’d he say then? I’m listening.”
Sha shook his head. And Ashton only grinned.
“Oh, he asked me if I knew there was a war on. A fucking war on terror, you know, east v. west. Democracy. Teaching human rights to backward nations, great things like that. I said I didn’t know what great things he meant. Half a million civilians killed in Iraq, maybe? Bombing raids from unmanned drones, wedding parties our speciality? What’s that teaching anyone? Except they’ve got to fight us to the fucking death. I asked him if he’d ever thought of that.”
He took another slug of lager.
“And then I said we’re going to lose,” Sha said. “Even the Yanks have give a sort of date, which means they’re moving out whatever state they leave the country in, and we stay till then or even later, their loyal fucking poodle. We’re only hanging on to save a bit of face, we had no pissing right to be there in the first place, and the more Muslims get killed, the more Muslims’ll try and kill us in revenge. And fighting an invader ain’t illegal, in anybody’s book.”
“Pissing hell,” said Ashton, when Shahid ran out of steam. “Did they call a redcap in? You’ll get done for treason you will, Sha.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. They started muttering and mumbling, and one asked me how I could claim to be a loyal soldier if I thought we’d got the whole thing wrong, and how dare I say it wa’ illegal which it bloody wan’t, and how the fuck would I know? I stared him out. I said I’d changed my mind, and a loyal soldier who saw something wrong were duty bound to say so, surely, it were logical. I said I joined up because I thought we weren’t the enemy, we wa’ there to do a proper job, and if I’d realised… Oh I don’t know, I sort of packed up then, I were getting me knickers in a twist. I thought one of them wa’ going to hit me, in actual fact. He went black, it were amazing.”
“Black?” said Ashton. “I knew they couldn’t be completely bad!”
“Fuck off, daft twat,” said Shahid, but he had to laugh. “Anyway, you ain’t heard the best bit yet. The OC agreed with me, the gutless pillock! He said a soldier had to think, it was how you could pick a good ’un from the rest. And he said he’d brought me in to make me up to lancejack!”
This was a real stunner. Me and Ashton goggled.
“He didn’t?” Ashton breathed. “What, you a lance? Lance Corporal Fucking Khan?”
Shahid emptied the Stella can. And crushed it with both hands.
“Not likely, is it? I’d like to say I turned it down, but I never got the offer. He just said he’d brought me in to – and told me what I’d missed because of my attitude! The other two nodded like two clockwork arseholes, but they didn’t dare to smile. Then the OC said ‘Better luck next time,’ and they both muttered something and he went bright red again. From where I were sitting, I’d say my future in the army don’t look very bright. What d’you reckon, lads?”
He clicked a ring-pull open and took a hefty slug. He didn’t seem right bothered.
Ashton said another funny thing. It must’ve been his day for it.
“You’re better out of it, ask me,” he said. “Whatever they say, they hate your lot worst of all, deep down. But just because you keep your arseholes pointing west to pray, don’t mean you’re arseholes, does it? ’Ave you ever thought of driving cabs?”
“What about your uncle what nicks buses? Could he get me one, if you have a word with him?”
“They wouldn’t let you go, though, Sha,” I said. “It would look terrible for the army racial quota figures, wouldn’t it? Bloody Ada, Ash’d be the only black twat left, except for Wasambu-Sambo – and he’s a bleeding foreigner!”
“Aye, well I ain’t hanging round if Shahid goes,” laughed Ashton. “If they can see you as a lancejack, Sha, they’d make me up to general if I was the last one left, wouldn’t they! Oh Christ, the responsibility! No way. No fucking way…”
Which only left one question, as far as we could see. We’d need more Stella. We’d need to put our bloody minds to it.
Three Ways to Leave the Army
That was it, really, for all of us – although I’m not saying there was anything dicey about the way we did it, you never know who’s listening do you, and you never know how long the army’s memory is. The fact is that we did. We got the bullet. Three bullets, three of us. It was pretty neat.
Put it another way we all got out of there, and it was honest and legitimate, and all above the board, and if anybody questions us, we know the answers to every question, don’t we? All for one and one for all was what the three musketeers reckoned, according to Dogtanyan, and we stuck together, we were a team through thick and thin. It ain’t so easy to get out these days, although joining up’s a piece of piss since only fucking royalty and other low grade morons want the job. They’ve raised the age bar to include geriatrics, white sticks are standard issue if you drive a tank, and they take green men from outer space. Funny to think that fifty years ago there was a colour bar. Ashton and Sha would’ve been laughed out of the recruiting office.
What did for me – and I swear to you this was not a put-up job – was another piece of army lunacy. There was a random drug test due on the Thursday, I took it like I always did because I knew that I was clean – and failed. I don’t do drugs, see? I used to work in a needle exchange, I spent time with crackheads and no-hopers, I even slept with a poor neurotic bitch from Portavogie. To pass the time I’d done some bits of dope maybe, a tab of E or two sometimes, but all the random tests I’d ever gone to I’d passed A1. And this one wan’t no different.
Most people in the camp who don’t do drugs take the random tests, and they always pass, surprise surprise. Sometimes people who do do drugs get randomed by mistake, and fail. I figure that’s quite reasonable. If they’re so off their face they don’t notice when one’s due, it makes sense that they should leave the army. After all, some of the weapons they give us to play about with can be very dangerous, can’t they? Ask Al Beano, Jeff, the one that tried to find his brain and missed.
The point is about the tests, is that they’re random, which in army logic means that every bugger knows just when they’ll be. So if you don’t do drugs you go along to get some free time off, and if you do you don’t. You go hiding in the bog, you get busy, you do a CFT. There were lads on my lines who could hardly walk and talk some days, and as far as I know they’re still lobbing RPGs at ragheads in the sand. If they’d ever had a test the lab technicians would have fainted, or sold syringes of their samples down the clubs for rocket fuel. But they didn’t have a test, because they damn well knew the rules. I went along this Thursday as per usual, innocent as a newborn babe. And failed.
Would you believe it?
It was a real big shock this was, as I told my mother on the phone, a mistake, a mystery, some sort of army snafu that I couldn’t understand. Why would I do it, mum, I said – when the OC called me to his office I honestly thought I was going to get promotion like they’d offered Shahid Khan, my mate. I was one of the good guys. I always had been.
The funny thing was, was the drug I got picked up for. The OC said it was cocaine, and the test was definite. I asked if I could have a second test, on the same sample, and he said I could if I paid three hundred pounds, and the result would be the same, they always were. He asked me, if I said I hadn’t done it, how it could have been there, so positive? I said I didn’t know. And when I thought about it, I cited the football riot and the piss-ups that had followed on. My sister Vronnie said it was the “drug of choice” these days for spiking people’s drinks. Her best friend’s mum, a nurse at the infirmary, said they did dozens of young kids every weekend. It was an epidemic.
Vronnie rung me up later, in actual fact, and said “Nice one Tiny, but wouldn’t pot have been a cheaper way to go?” A fucking cynic in the family. You’ve got to laugh though, an’t you?
She’d’ve been dead wrong in any case, because the times they were a changin’, which was another funny thing. When I’d joined the army, not so bleeding long ago, you could get chucked out for soft stuff like weed or dope, or even getting ratted once too often. Now though, it was only the hard gear that they bothered with, and after a few more years in the Sandpit, if we last that long out there, you’ll have to be so full of drugs you’ll go off like a bomb when they stick a needle in to test you. Otherwise, according to Shahid, they’ll be so short of cannon fodder they might even have to stop the fucking war – or call up Tony Blair’s kids, ha ha ha.
Drugs or no drugs, though, they took a damn long time to let me go, compared with Sha, who got out like lightning with a very sudden case of acute religious persecution. Dead true in one way, I suppose, because it must have really pissed them off the way he pissed on them. He’d gone to see the Padre bold as brass, and said he was going to become a member of the Wahhabi sect, was that all right? The Major had to say he was delighted, naturally – all faiths welcome here, my son, even if I’ve never heard of ’em – till Sha kindly spelt it out. Wahhabis are the gang of nutcases who think that all non-members, including other Muslims, have to be killed off as a sacred duty because old Allah said so (but only to a Wahhabi, naturally). So next time he got issued with an SA80 and a clip, said Sha, he’d have to shoot down all his mates, unless they converted on the spot. Plus officers. Plus Padres.
“But why?” goes Canon Fodder.
“Because blood is thicker than water!” Sha gives it. “It is written! And the Koran Q’ran’t be wrong!”
We all knew he didn’t mean it, and maybe they did too, but how could they prove a thing like that? They questioned and questioned him, and he never cracked a smile. He went everywhere carrying his good book and never changed his story by a single word. He left ten weeks before I did, although they kept him waiting months and months and months for the pay that they still owed him, the office clerks’ revenge, sad twats. He’s not a terrorist, though, however hard they tried to make him. In fact I think he still tries to talk sense into pissed-off young Muslims outside mosques from time to time, and sometimes they beat him up for it. When I asked him why he bothered he said he had a sense of duty.
“That’s why I joined the army in the first place, innit? I thought if we could stop foreign Muslims wasting other foreign Muslims’ blood it might stop brainwashed English Muslims flocking out from here to kill Yank and British squaddies – and other Muslims. Stop English Muslim dickheads putting bombs on trains and planes and buses full of other English Muslims. I were born in Oldham, Tiny, it’s full of English Muslims and it’s my fucking home. England’s where I fucking live.”
“But the army chucked you out!” I said. “You joined, and then you couldn’t stand the bastards any more, they drove you into quitting! And I mean, it was us lot that invaded in the first place, wan’t it? You can see their point in some ways. Even I can, for Chrissake!”
“Their point, my point, your point, whose point, Tiny? That’s what’s fucking bugging me. They killed three thousand on 9/ll, and we killed five hundred thousand just to pay ’em back in a country that weren’t involved to start with. Mad enough for you? Try this: My sister still thinks the Muslims had nowt to do with the Twin Towers, it were a Jewish conspiracy. And when you ask her a conspiracy to do what, how dare I question Allah’s will? And she wants to be a teacher, Tiny, she wants to mess with children’s minds. Maybe we started it, but it’s Muslim killing Muslim now, and maybe it always will be. What is it? Are we stupider than you lot? We can’t be, can we? What’s the fucking reason?”
We had a fair few conversations like this these days, and Shofiq and Susie down in Withington, where I’d gone to live now, sometimes joined in, too, they’d got to be good mates. It made me feel a bit ignorant to tell the truth, and Shof and Ashton couldn’t take too much of it, but Sue and Shahid argued black was blue, because she said she’d been a Catholic and knew where he was coming from, and said that both of them was “damaged goods.” She said the Muslims’ problem in Britain was simple – they still thought God was real, and couldn’t believe the British didn’t and might be bloody right.
“It’s not stupidity,” she told him, “You’ve been conned, indoctrinated. And one day you’ll all wake up and realise they’ve been telling you porkies, just to keep you where they wanted you, and then you’ll slowly come all right. Your mullahs, the men who know it all, the men who get it straight from God – they’ll end up like our priests in Ireland, brain dead with whiskey and a nice fat housekeeper who gives a lovely handjob when the need arises, so to speak. When my dad was young, every other son in every other house in Ireland was sent to train to be a priest, and now they have to bring them in from Poland, like the plumbers and the plasterers. It’s brainwashing, Sha, all brainwashing. Get over it and find yourself a sex-mad English girl. She’ll teach you what religion’s all about! Shofiq knows!”
Ashton’s way out had been the most spectacular, although it could have blown up in his face big style, but he was getting desperate. He didn’t trust the drugs thing, religion was a no-go, and he thought his scheme was foolproof anyway. First off he nicked a car one night, completely pissed, no licence, no insurance, no cock-all, and demolished a bus shelter just by the camp, his get-out from the army, guaranteed. But although he got a mega bollocking, the army kept the cops away and covered up for him, like they could do brilliant if they wanted to. He was a quota-boy, remember, one of the ethnics, one of the few, as Winston Churchill put it. And he could hardly tell them it was done deliberate, could he?
Insubordination, insolence, farting in church – after that he tried the lot, and got damn all down them roads, neither. Three days in cells, one severe beating off Sergeant Williams and Martie Martin, two painful sessions at the dentist for his broken teeth.
When he was totally pissed off with all the duff attempts, he “changed the habits of a lifetime,” and got his cousins to set up a failed “robbery” – and bloody nearly got sent down, because they cocked it up. Luckily his fiancée stood by him – she was pregnant with their little girl – and she looked so respectable in the witness box, so nice and demure, so very, very white, that they damn nearly let him stay in the regiment as well, which would have been the worst disaster in his life! He’d asked me to be another character witness, as it happened, and I told him not to be so bloody mad – unless he wanted to go down, to avoid the wedding that he’d still not managed yet. After pleading guilty – probation, and a promise to go straight – he did go straight, as well. Still beats me at pool.
It took me ages to actually get out, to get clear of the garrison, they kept me hanging round for yonks while they fooled and faffed about, and it must have cost the country hundreds in wages and that sort of stuff. It was all free time for me as well – they couldn’t let me do anything, least of all get me fingers on a weapon “while under discharge orders” – but the wankers in the office couldn’t get it together, no way, except to wind me up. I got lots of weekends off, though, and me and Emma took up finally, although she finishes with me if I ever lose my temper, which is terrific training after all the shite they’ve piled on me. As well as basic IT stuff with her, I’m going back to college soon, to train up for some sort of job. Shofiq and Susie have been brilliant.
The others in my army life, I must say, have faded from my memory pretty fast, and pretty far, and I don’t regret their going for a bleeding moment – because I didn’t make so many proper mates, did I? On the other hand, I don’t regret signing in the first place neither, come to think of it. I needed something to give me life a kick up the arse, and it did some great things for me, too, until I messed it up. I got a lot of strength, a lot of fitness, even a bit of confidence, in a funny sort of way. And that’s growing all the time.
I feel pity for the poor sods that are still there though, especially the halfwits that don’t even know they’re being screwed and slaughtered to save some bastard’s face. And I can’t help feeling sorry for the ones I see on telly, brown, and hard, and active, and looking like their weapons are a part of them, like they’re some sort of a brilliant, natural, human man-machine, born and bred to fight.
For some lads it’s dead good, I’ll go along with that. Some lads love it, some lads think it’s mint. And in a way, I sometimes wish I could have ended up like that, I feel maybe I could have done if things had turned out different. I feel sorry for them, with just a little touch of jealousy. And then I look at mum, and Vron, and Emma, and I think.
I think: Let’s just hope they’re not the ones who have their cocks shot off and find their only helpers are the social and the NHS. Let’s just hope they’re not the ones who get sent away from hospital with a bunch of pamphlets for depression and go back home and butcher up their mum and dad. Let’s just hope they’re not the ones whose families have to sue the government to get half the compensation they shell out for a typist with a broken fingernail. Let’s just hope they’re not the alkies in the gutter in any street in any town or city, although they’re pretty damn likely to be, according to the stats.
Talk to them alkies in the gutter. Ask them if they can remember what the recruiting adverts told ’em. Or why they’re not off laying bricks.
I don’t think of them a lot, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think of them at all if I can help it – who does, they’re only failed fucking soldiers, ain’t they? But I always try to give ’em something, if I can. Most of ’em did their best, in a funny kind of way. Didn’t they?
I think of poor old Goughie quite a lot though, poor creepy, stupid Johnnie Gough. He worked up into a proper soldier, like the OC had said he would, and he went to fight “Old England’s Foe.” He was in some vehicle, maybe a Jackal, I don’t know what sort for certain, and it found an IED. One killed inside, and Johnnie Gough blown out across the sand on fire, like a Catherine wheel off its pin. He was invalided back, and farmed out to the NHS, and waiting lists, once the army medics had done the little bits the government would pay for.
What was it old Ken had sung?
“You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg,
You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg,
You haven’t an arm and you haven’t a leg,
You’re an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg.
You’ll have to sit out with a bowl and beg –
Johnnie I hardly knew ya.”
An eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg. Yeah. That was Goughie. Nice.
And when I see the hearses drive through Wootton Bassett on the telly, and the faces of the guys in uniform, smart and brave and wonderful in their obit photographs, I fucking cry. Not for the gutless bastards who sent them out there, though. Not the lying, stupid, politicians.
Not for them, at all.
A piece by the author on the novel and the powerful reactions provoked by its serialisation will appear on Monday, May 30th.