Greg tracked Steve down to the hill where they first fought back the Station gang with sticks and stones. A legendary tale told in secondary schools. The wormwood plank by the blackberry bush had been laid there in the time when the miners would walk back from the pit and eat cold boiled potatoes. Dockyard workers had taken this route when picking berries, pausing to take in the scenery.
+++++Steve watched Greg approaching. He’d finally eased down, no more ghosts following him. The throbbing in his hand had subsided; the cuts not as bad as he’d thought. He’d taken the way across the fields, over the stile and past the blasted oak, its rope swing barely intact from the branch. The meeting ground acted like a sanctuary, the memories of childhood conflict filled the vacuum the Army had created.
+++++“Remember when we were young’uns, aye Stevie? That bairn, whatsis name? From the Radestocks?” Greg picked the subject randomly from memory.
+++++“Who? That daft ginger-haired one? The radge one?”
+++++“Aye. Remember when he stuck a toy cat up his nose, one o’them small plastic ones, mind. Do you remember? Howay, you must do!”
+++++“That must’ve been about twenty year ago. What’s he up to now?”
+++++“I think the daft shite joined up. Anyway, the cat’s up his nose, yeah? He stuck a dog up there as well.”
+++++“I could never work out why he did that.”
+++++“When he stuck a police car up there I worked it out. He sent the dog up there to get the cat out. When that failed, he sent in the police!”
+++++In that split second Steve felt like he was twelve again. The laughter was easy and free, it was like a vent. Ferris always said laughter was the best way to free the tension. Leaves whipped up from around the base of the stone, hoisted high on a pillar of air. Seagulls circled around in it.
+++++“I knew Sid was going to be a problem. I figured you probably didn’t want to talk about your time in the Army, like. Thought a new job might suit you.” Greg turned and sat back on the rock.
+++++“Bicycle repair man? Milkman? I need a bloody shrink, never mind a new job. My head’s all messed up at the moment, mate.”
+++++Steve hadn’t admitted this since his return from Afghanistan. A total of twelve people from his squadron had seen the CPN. There were more soldiers in need of help, he knew that. He was one. The flashbacks were a constant reminder that he wasn’t entirely innocent. He’d committed legal murder and left friends behind to die.
+++++It hit him when he least expected it. In front of his friend, at least it wasn’t in the pub. It punched him in the chest, the pent-up pressure of guilt – agonizing and self pitying. “I left them behind, Greg.”
+++++“Who?” Greg took off his tea-cosy.
+++++“The rest of the lads. I mean… We were on a job on the border with Pakistan. I knew it was a load of bollocks. The information we got and the Americans got was completely different.” Greg steadied Steve’s hand, which trembled by his head. “We walked into an ambush. The fucking yanks knew about it because they avoided the route.”
+++++“Fuckin’ Americans, eh?”
+++++“It wasn’t their fault we ran into it. It was ours. We were so pig headed – we didn’t listen to them. The J2 cell told me after our extraction. What’s the point? In me telling you this?”
+++++“Cos you’re me mate? Isn’t that a reason?”
+++++“I suppose it is, Greg. It’s not like I was away for long, was it? Some bloody adventure.”
+++++“So you left them? The lads, I mean. And they died?”
+++++“It was either them or all of us.” Steve put his face in his hands. “What the fuck do you do? I was scared!” Greg backed away as Steve kicked into the air. “Alright. I was fucking scared!”
+++++He ran to the rock and held onto it for support, for an anchor, like the Gods were going to pluck him away.
+++++“I’m a fucking coward! A chicken shit!” His face sought the sky for answers.
+++++“Jesus! Stevie!”
+++++“I pissed myself, Greg. Do you know how it feels to be flown back to base with pissed trousers while the rest of your team are being mutilated on the ground?”
+++++Greg, dumbfounded, couldn’t possibly answer.
+++++“I’m ashamed.” Steve was on his knees. “I’m living with it, everyday, every fucking day.”
+++++It was Greg’s turn to say something now. “That’s called a guilt trip, mate. I read an article about a bloke who did the same thing, except this was on some motorway in the south. He left his family to burn in their caravan. Said he could hear them screaming for another three minutes. Imagine that, how do you think he felt?” Greg gently squeezed Steve’s shoulder with one hand. “He felt guilty as hell, but if he’d gone in, he’d have died too. I think the best thing you can do now is think, what would they say?”
+++++“I know what you’re saying, mate. It’s just that…that..”
+++++“That, nothing. Bollocks, Stevie! Do some good – do them a favour and do some good in the world, man! You’ve got your whole life ahead of yer. Divven’t gan and throw it all away because of guilt. It’ll eat yer up inside. Worse than fucking cancer!” A vein pulsed on Greg’s forehead.
+++++“I haven’t heard you that angry in ages, Greg.”
+++++“I can’t see a mate lose the plot. You’ve seen and done some shit, but you’re here now.” Gregg looked at his watch. “Do you know what time it is?”
+++++Steve shrugged.
+++++“Time we were back at the Rose and Crown. How’s your hand? You scared the fuck out of George, y’daft sod. C’mon.”
+++++He flexed his hand and joined Greg down the hill. You’re here now. You are here. He had that, at least. There was nothing more to be said.