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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes:

Soldiering On
Mark Cunliffe

The air around the soldiers was filled with a frequent and incessant distant clapping sound and an equally incessant but much nearer metallic pattering sound, almost as if a demonic and somewhat industrial thunderous rain was falling down upon them. In actual fact, the clapping was the sound of high velocity weaponry being fired from insurgent lines and the metallic pattering their bullets hitting into several things almost at once; the earth, kicking up dust with such a flurry that the men became increasingly mobile, their vehicles, specifically the tyres, rendering them immobile and ultimately one young Private Collins whom Colour Sergeant Simon Hunter had just told to ‘run like fuck’ the result of which rendered Collins immobile forever.

Simon Hunter now stood on the scorched Basra ground in a state of shock as the rest of his unit continued to retreat. This sudden immovability on his part was not a wise choice as a man such as he, standing at 6 foot 8 inches in large fitting British Army combat fatigues, would make a very easy target for the rebels, yet still he stood for several seconds until a superior officer grabbed him and manhandled him away at speed. Asked later what thoughts went through his head at that point, Simon Hunter recalled that in exact order they were as follows; ‘Shit’, ‘He’s dead’ and ‘I want to leave the army now.’

Six months later Simon Hunter had had his wish granted and was sat in a van in a small side street back home.
"Did you kill anyone?" the younger man in the passenger seat asked.
Simon sighed, when was he ever going to shut up; "I don’t want to talk about that, anyway no one should ask that question of someone"
"Yes they should" the passenger replied.
"Like policemen to suspected serial killers, there’s an example of when you should definitely ask that question"
Simon Hunter turned to face his passenger and asked with incredulous amazement. "Are you autistic?"
"Well yes as a matter of fact I am" the younger man said simply
He immediately felt embarrassed; after all he’d only really just met the guy so he wasn’t to know. He offered up his apologies; "Oh, right, explains a lot then. Look I’m sorry."
The younger man in the passenger seat still wanted to talk it seemed; "My teacher said I should have gone to college but I was like what’s the point? I want to earn real money, see the real world."
"What?" asked Simon Hunter completely confused and at the end of his tether.
"My art teacher," explained the passenger, "he wanted me to go to art college he thought I was that artistic."

Simon Hunter could not believe it. He’d never met anyone so stupid. He turned in his seat; "Jesus, look if you simply have to, you can ask me anything about the army right anything that isn’t to do with actual warfare or battle ok?"
The man in the passenger seat thought for a moment whilst Simon turned back to look through the windscreen.
"Ok, um" the younger man paused to think of something to suitable to ask. Going from his track record so far in the brains department, Simon presumed this may take some time.
Finally he finished the question; "Um, did you get to hold a lot of officers’ balls?
"Only during initiation." He replied without looking, but clearly this humour went straight over the young man’s bald little head.
"Look erm Dave," Simon began.
"Derek," the younger man said
"Sorry?" Simon said.
"Derek, my name is Derek."
"Sorry, well Dere.k"
"That’s quite all right," Derek added.
Simon ran a hand through his greying light brown hair in quiet frustration "Erm yeah, Derek why don’t we try and sit in silence for a bit eh? We’ve got a job on, best to be vigilant" Simon Hunter suggested.
"Oh ok" Derek agreed and with a sigh of relief he could barely conceal Simon Hunter returned to his view from the windscreen.
"Can we not have the radio on then?" Derek asked
"No!" said Simon curtly.

Jesus, Simon Hunter thought, how had it come to this? A career in the army, Colour Sergeant in The Royal Fusiliers with a family history of soldiers serving back to Charles I, only to jack it all in after one too many bullets getting far too bloody close and to end up in civvy street making ends meet working for a bailiff firm that your old mate from school runs and having to work alongside the bosses dopey nephew whilst waiting for some poor mug to come out of work so they can repossess him of his car. Brilliant, genius, he thought bitterly.

"When Uncle Frank said his squaddie mate was joining us, I expected something very different," Derek droned on. Closing his eyes briefly and offering up a little request of give me strength to a Lord that in all fairness Simon Hunter had shunned some 20 years previously, Simon eventually replied with; "Well we’re not all Rambo you know"
"No, I suppose not. But like, you’re very intelligent?" Derek said with that rising inflection that Simon had began to notice everyone of a certain age using back in England. It really got on his tits.
"Only comparatively," Simon replied and then realising this swipe had not been understood, he added. "And?" he immediately cursed himself; why was he even replying?
"Well I expected a, well macho dickhead and although you’re very big, you’re not like, a-a-"
"A what?" Simon asked
"Spazzy meathead" Derek said leaving Simon Hunter stunned at his tact and diplomacy.
He raised an impressive quizzical eyebrow; "A spazzy meathead? Look Derek mate, I was a professional soldier, a Colour Sergeant, my family have a history in soldiering dating back hundreds of years; I was educated privately for a time too"
"Oh," was all Derek could answer
"And I watch BBC4, so y’know, it all helps to not becoming a spazzy meathead," Simon concluded in his defence with a little chuckle at Derek’s choice of phrase. Bloody hell, he’s annoying but I’m warming a little to him, he thought.
"And what is a Colour Sergeant then, what was your job?"
"Shouting at people," Simon said and leaning in to show some steel added, "I did it very well"
Derek, still not getting the message continued blithely on; "Well yes, I can see that, you have a powerful voice, very distinctive. What does your father think then? About you leaving I mean?"
"Well, he was a bit disappointed to be honest; I think he’d rather I’d have stayed ‘til retirement"
"You came close though."
"You cheeky fucker I’m 38!"
"Oh" said Derek with sweet innocence.

Simon sighed once more, just ignore him he thought, but for some reason he charged on in, much like his entire military career in fact; "Dad’s 70 now, so it’s not like I need his approval. I did twenty years in the Fusiliers that was enough, here look" he said and lifting his bum up from the passenger seat he proceeded to lift out his wallet for a photo.
"I don’t want to see any wounds!" Derek said and turned to face the passenger window before sneaking another look to see what direction Simon’s hand was going in; "Especially on your arse!" he yelled with his eyes firmly shut.
"You daft prat I’m getting my wallet, I’ve some photos in here, look, there you are" he said and passed over a picture of him from a few years back in full military dress. They both looked down at the barrel chested man in the photo, standing proudly in the black uniform, medals gleaming and the visor cap pressing firmly down upon his snout under which a moustache, now long gone, bristled.
"Aw," Derek said. "And was this fancy dress?"
"What? That’s the correct military dress of a Colour Sergeant in The Royal Fusiliers you dumb fucker! Jesus you halfwit have some respect!"
Derek meekly pulled a face. "I’m sorry, honestly you need some help to control that temper. I’m not one of your privates"
"No but you are a bit of a dick," snapped Simon and he ran a hand across his face and counted to five. It wasn’t Derek’s fault, he was only a kid, and clearly with borderline special needs to boot; he couldn’t possibly understand what the army was like.

"Sorry son and actually for your information yes I am getting help. I see a counsellor as a matter of fact for post traumatic stress. Iraq isn’t a holiday you know, and seeing a young lad, a couple of years younger than you even get shot down in front of your very eyes is not an experience I’d wish on anyone. I’d had enough fighting to last me a lifetime. I did my tour I got back and I bought myself out, and look what I’ve come home to? Not exactly a home fit for heroes is it? When Robin Hood came back from the Crusades I dare say he had it tough fighting for the freedom of his people but he didn’t have to go to the jobcentre every week and have his soul chipped away, and I couldn’t fight for the people there, they want to claim and sit around watching Jeremy Kyle all day. Well not me. It’s not been easy, but y’know you’ve got to…." He trailed off, at a loss and in truth a little overwhelmed at the outpouring he had just done.
"Soldier on," Derek concluded for him with a big smile.
"Yeah, something like that," Simon said, returning the smile and feeling a little relieved to get all that off his chest, even to someone like Derek. As his counsellor had been telling him, it’s good to talk and get back into society again.
"Sorry if I bothered you before," Derek said. "I tend to go on a bit I know. I don’t know when to shut up really. Uncle Frank only gave me this gig I think to get me out from under people’s feet"
"It’s ok Derek," Simon answered and kind of meant it. "Your Uncle Frank has been good to me getting me this job and saving me from the dole queue. It’s not the best job in the world, it’s not what I really want to do, but it is a job, money coming in and a sense of pride in working for a living again. My counsellor says it all helps and it does, it really does. And anyway, a relation of Frank’s is a mate of mine"
"Really? Thanks Simon," Derek said.
From across the road, a short man with dark hair and stubble was leaving the office. "Hang about, I think that’s him," said Simon. "Just check for me Derek"
Derek looked at the docket and the attached photo; "Yes, yes that’s him"
"Right," said Simon unhooking his seatbelt and opening the van door. "Come on before he gets in the car and gets away."
Both Derek and Simon got out of the van and slamming the doors shut proceeded to walk across the road steadily towards the man, Simon taking the lead and pulling up the zipper on his leather bomber. "Stand a little bit back Derek when we get there, I’ll do the talking right?"
"Ok," said Derek
"Mr Harris?" Simon called as he got closer to the man and the car, a black Vauxhall, "Mr Steven Harris?"
"Yeah" Harris replied his eyes shiftily and warily taking in the two figures. "Who wants to know?"
"My name is Simon Hunter and this is my associate-"
"Derek Buckley. hello," said Derek cutting in.
"Yeah thank you Derek" Simon said raising a hand to his opposite number. "Yes, look, we are bailiffs I’m afraid Mr Harris and our firm has taken on your unpaid debts and have the power invested in us by the courts to today seize goods to the costs of, well in short Steve mate" Simon said leaving the script, "we are here to take your motor"
"What?" said Mr Harris incredulously, "No, you can’t do this! No fuck off!" and then sizing himself up against the well spoken authority from the 6ft 8 broad figure in front of him, proceeded to lunge at the bald 5ft 10 mostly silent and gormless looking figure that was Derek, sending him crashing to the road with a yelp.
"Shit," Sighed Simon wearily and he threw himself down upon the figure of Mr Harris and yanked him up from the prone Derek and, above the grunts and cries shouted. "Look mate play the game and just give us the keys yeah?" Unfortunately and, albeit accidentally, Mr Harris’ elbow went into direct contact with Simon’s nose with some considerable force which subsequently broke it sending the giant frame of Simon Hunter down flat, his jean covered arse hitting the kerbside with a thud.

Realising that his luck was in and time was of the essence, Steven Harris seized his opportunity, he licked his lips, scratched his head and ran round to the Vauxhall door, and fumbling with the much desired keys, he managed to open up the car and sped off from the scene leaving Simon sat on the floor, hands on his face, and Derek slowly getting up from the road.
"I think that may be broken," Derek said with a wince and an upward inflection as he saw Simon Hunter’s bloodied nose. Simon spat "Fucking brilliant isn’t it? I pack the army in to get away from aggro and the only gig offered to me after six months is one where I get my nose broken for the first ever time in my fucking long and dangerous career"
"Yes" Derek said still staring in a transfixed state at the blood. "It does seem a bit ironic doesn’t it?"
Simon looked in wonder at Derek. For a moment it looked like he may get angry but it passed and with a grunt he managed to say, "Shut up Derek there’s a good boy and get the van"
"Shall I take you to hospital then?" Derek asked.
"Yeah" said Simon getting rather unsteadily up on his feet. "But first, we’re going round to Mr Harris’ house at a speed that would get Lewis Hamilton shitting himself, take the fucker’s car keys, get the job done and then and only then will we go to casualty"
"Oh" said Derek. "Ok" and they walked towards the van
"Unbelievable, absolutely brilliant." Simon Hunter cursed to himself bemusedly whilst holding his nose.
And an hour later they were sat waiting in the local casualty department, and Mr Harris was, indeed, without a car. The eternal soldier was true to his word and soldiering on.

© mark cunliffe September 2008

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