No one was ever truly free. You were always tied to something; a mortgage, a loan or a contract. His first morning of civilian life began like it had in the Army. No different. He’d fulfilled the twelve-year contract and was now on another, the reserve. They could snatch him up anytime if, when, the threat of invasion arose. An invasion might just save the country.
How would he live? He hadn’t prepared for life outside. His combatant brothers had taken to security work in volatile areas where the pay was good. Fuck that! He could teach Ju-Jitsu, or arrest and restraint techniques at the local college. He could always get pissed while he thought about it, never had the chance while he’d been in, and never had the chance to go on a weekend bender. The nutters at the club would welcome him with open arms; he’d have to big up the Army shite as usual, keep them amused. Yeah, and there was drugs. Never did try drugs, might give that a try, he mused.
A knock at the door had Steve reeling for clarity. Instinct and good Army training had taught him to be ready and he was by the door in an instant – in a stance which, if followed through, would land him in prison. He quickly got back under the duvet and grunted a reply. His mum opened the door and peered in, squinting through her glasses.
“Now I know you don’t like being disturbed, but this being your first day out, I thought breakfast in bed would be nice.”
She pottered in, plastic tray held in front of her like a device ready to go off. She was always an early riser, up at five to tend the plants and let the cat out.
He took his head from under the pillow, rubbed his eyes and blinked at her. “Poached eggs as well, mum?”
He sat up. “You are a darling, mum.”
“Greg called round this morning.”
He looked at his watch. It was 9am. “Keen, isn’t he? Greg’s the radge one, isn’t he mum?”
“He got arrested last month for indecent exposure at St Jamesons’ Park.”
“That sounds about right for Greg.” Back at the base half his Squadron were just as bad.
“Let’s hope you don’t turn out like him.” She paused, lifted the spoon from the coffee and laid it back on the saucer.
“I’m thirty-one, mum. I think I’m the person I am now, no chance of me changing, eh?”
The poached egg was first on the hit list, straight in. He savoured the taste. The ‘slop jockeys’ back at the barracks couldn’t cook eggs like mum. A rapping on the door and the flapping of a letterbox had Steve hopping into his jeans and wrestling on a t-shirt. It sounded like the fun had begun.
“Is Steve coming out to plaaay?” A cackle of laughter followed the childlike invitation.
Who the fuck was that? He leapt down the stairs two at a time.
His mum arched her eyebrows, one hand on her hip. “Don’t get into mischief now.”
Don’t get into mischief now? What, me? Murder, mugging or rape? “Don’t worry mum.” He kissed her on the cheek and swung open the front door to be met by an empty back yard and a bare clothes wire. Greg was behind the bin to his left. Fresh indents in the ground marked his movements…and Steve could hear his rapid breathing. Must have run down: anticipation.
A can of low-priced Tesco lager was thrust into his hand. “Stevie boy!” Greg appeared from behind the dustbin. “At forty pence a can you can’t go wrong. Tastes like piss water though.”
“Scared the crap out of me, you daft sod. How you doing, mate?”
Greg had an Arsenal tea-cosy on his head. He always managed to end up at the wrong end of a football ground.
“Got this business venture and I thought of you instantly. What you reckon, Stevie? Wanna make some quick cash, bonny lad? Now don’t tell me you’re gonna take up shooting people, cos you’re probably sick of that.” He held up his hands defensively. “How’s about some decent work, like? Nowt violent, mind. Within the law, like.”
“Greg. You fucking psycho. There’s no way on this green planet am I working hard labour after the amount of shit I’ve seen and done.”
Greg’s grin nearly cut his face in two, his front teeth like two large gravestones. They clanked cans and headed off down the terrace. Steve felt exposed and vulnerable walking down a street, drinking a can of lager. No need to be on your toes, no need to be alert. He could finally relax. That would take time though; some things never changed.
The terrace was on a steep angle. Some of the houses had six or seven steps leading up to the front door, from where you’d have three floors to climb if you needed a kip. You were fucked if you were drunk as a lord. It was like climbing Ben Nevis on a bad day with a stinking headache and a poisoned stomach. Patterns of lead were still present on many of the windows. Steve’s grandmother had lead patterns on hers until he stole it – she still didn’t know who took it, even to her grave. Provided you weren’t chased off by the police you could earn a lot of cash in those days.
“Oh! Here’s Cranky Hall. This fellah’s going to be a fucking star, Stevie boy!” Greg indicated a man who looked like he was made from rubber. He’d stand, shoot an imaginary Indian, then bounce back into a brick wall.
“Yeah, Greg, I remember Cranky. Wasn’t he the fellah who lost his family?”
“Car crash I think. A1 just off the Metro-Centre, went off the road. Poor fucker.” A shadow seemed to pass over Greg, the thought dulling his inspiration.
There’d been a news reporter who’d gone a similar way, but that was through debt. He was lucky not to have lost his entire family. He’d spent a couple of years on a park bench on Brighton beach before a colleague tracked him down and saved him. Could Cranky be saved from this? It was twenty years since the fatal accident. He was probably too far gone to save. Some people were beyond saving.
“C’moooaan! Staand yeer ground!” Cranky regarded Steve with glazed eyes. They wandered slightly, but Steve was sure he could see some recognition in those tawny, blood-shot orbs. Cranky shot Steve and Greg, fanning back his thumb, the imaginary hammer, as a thousand bullets came flying out of his finger and blew them to smithereens.
They left Cranky sliding up a house on his left shoulder. “Is he alright? He had a house once. I mean, does he still have it?”
“He lives down here.” Greg waved the can toward a cul-de-sac. “The kids are a pain in the hoop. Poor bastard only wants to be left alone, know what I mean?” He slurped the dregs and wiped his chin. “He only goes to the workys. It’s the only place that’ll let him in.” Belching, he sent the empty can clattering down the street with a goal kick.
“Greg Stevenson! I remember you when you were in your nappies. Sucking on your thumb and shitting yourself!”
The rebuker could have passed for a crone. Her chamois cloth features were punctuated by a hooked nose crowned by a hairy wart. Her eyes, while small, held a resonance which nudged Steve’s memory.
Mrs Breadner, the dinner lady at Jubilee Primary School. She booted the empty can back at Greg with unnerving accuracy. “You can pick that up, you messy shite.” She began sweeping the step and the path beyond. She faltered in this task and stopped when she saw Steve. She seemed to grow taller, the broom held between both hands.
Steve covered the can with both hands. “Hi, Mrs Breadner.”
“Steven… Steven…” Was she about to cry? “How’s your mother?”
“You? Still working at the takeaway?”
Greg and Steve exchanged looks. “No, Mrs Breadner. I finished them a while ago.”
“I know, you daft shite! Think ahve got Alzheimer’s, eh? Still got it up here!” She pointed to the side of her head with a crooked finger.
What is it with these people, Steve thought?
She ushered him to her as Greg’s mobile went off, the sound of Tarzan yelling down the terrace. The sweet, sharp aroma of snuff permeated from her clothes. She put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him closer. The praying mantis (or so it seemed to Steve) bent her head to his ear.
“You want to watch that ‘un. Nowt but mischief!”
She began frantically sweeping the pavement that was her territory.
“Si, Tel and Dixie are in the Rose ‘n’ Crown. Come on then.” Greg glanced at the old lady who seemed to be sweeping away ghosts from her doorstep. Sweeping Steve’s ghosts away with any luck, Steve thought.
There it was again: a flashback. He only suffered from them hours after an operation. His world would be rekindled with flashes from rifles, orange flashes and the pleas of the dying. During an average morning he’d know it was coming, and it would only last ten seconds, sometimes while he’d count his money to pay for a bus journey, or while answering the phone.
“Steve, we’ve got to do something, mate!” Corporal ‘Chock’ Hershey’s face stretches in pain. He’s shaking.
“Leave ‘em, Chock! Leave ‘em! They’re as good as dead!” Steve yells over the cacophony of sound. “Shit. Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
Chock’s sliding away from him, bringing up gouts of blood from his mouth.
The bus conductor would be asking him repeatedly if he was okay. The phone line would normally be dead when he came out of the trance. Ten seconds felt like a lifetime in these situations.
“Fucking hell, Steve! You alright, mate? You’re not going to flip out on me mate, are you?” Greg laughed.
“Nah, nah. Ahm alright. C’mon.”
They walked on, past a milk float; Bobby, looking older, still doing the rounds. A rattle of newspaper flew by and clung to the windscreen of a car. Dogs roamed free in packs. They’d shoot these dogs in other countries.
What wonders and adventures lay beyond the next cul-de-sac? With the lads in situ at the pub, drugs, debauchery and alcohol were what lay beyond. Steve felt a layer of responsibility, a weight – while not too cumbersome, he could still feel it. The obligation someone has to their friends. The ghosts of his friends began to pull at him like the pain of a rotten tooth.