© Gareth Pilkington 18th October 1999
Saw this advert, didn't I? Join the army. Change your life.
Boot camps. Military thugs. Don't do as I do - do as I say.
Where's the difference?
I was born in Birmingham. King's Heath. Grew up in one of those concrete estates. The kind nobody ever talks about. The kind polite society pretends don't exist. Full of blank, empty faces. Blank, empty lives. Bit of theft, dealing. Been there. Done that. Times change. Hunter. Hunted.
Join the army. Pride in appearance. Queen and country.
Piss and wind!
(Answering himself) Saw what happened to my mates. Perhaps I owed them something; Mum, anyway. And you know, don't you, when it's your last chance.
Shit or bust!
How Jimmy laughed.
"Fucking army, man? Bang, bang! You're dead!"
My best mate, Jimmy. Bunked off school together. Fifteen. He was shagging this thirty-year-old who worked in the headmaster's office. She fixed the records.
"Bang, bang! You're dead!"
No angels, were we! Never caught, though. Knew every trick in the book.
The army? He cracked up. Rolled around on the grass, pissing himself.
I sound old for 21? Seen it all. Anyhow, it's not your age, it's what you remember; how often you remember.
"Bang, bang! You're dead!"
An overdose? Fuck that! Talk about street smart. Someone offed him. Took him out. He was into so much. I was in this godforsaken hell-hole facing another battery of blank, empty faces.
Mum wrote. Jimmy's dead.
Had to get outside.
Ten years I'd known him. Ten years!
Needed a breath of air. Couldn't cry, though. Never cry.
Orders? Curfew? Nothing to Jimmy and me. Into the town. No sweat. Pissed. I just wanted to get pissed. Alone.
But where? On what? Dark, cratered streets. Skeleton buildings. Peace-keepers? Ha! I could hear the crump of shells all round me.
No street lights. No electricity. Black. Coal black. Tar black. Dangerous.
What the fuck? I died, I was dead! Army life.
"20 dollars, mister."
It wasn't the first time he'd said it to me.
One thing the army did teach. I learned languages as if I'd been born speaking them.
Street kids. Took over at night. Nasty. Brutish. Kill you for your watch soon as look at you. Shoot the little bugger. No one would look. No one would care. One less 'disease'. Sad, sad city.
Didn't even turn round.
Persistent bastard! Don't like that. Never have. Gets to me. Couple of times, if Jimmy hadn't… I fingered the automatic at my hip. Jimmy was dead.
So little light. He'd found a tiny strip of brightness spilling through a broken shutter.
"I'm real good!"
Twelve, thirteen. Younger? The future destroyed, you age fast. Seen that often. (Pause) Too often. Ragged. Dirty. Christ! I could smell him - from twenty yards. Ugly as Satan. Very dregs of society.
Shattered land. Bumped into scores like him. Sad, hopeless faces. Defiant posturing. Touting for business. But clean. Infinitely more appealing. Nobody would look at this one. Not even for one dollar. Nobody could be so desperate.
"What do you do for five dollars?"
Why did I ask? I didn't want to know. Not my scene. Maybe, just at that moment, I needed to hear a new voice.
He came closer. Shirt nearly torn in two; every rib standing out, individually.
I turned away. Then, Jimmy's voice.
"Poor little fucker. Give him your ice cream, Rich. I'll buy you another."
I was… Twelve?
Odd like that, Jimmy. Hammer the shit out of any poncy bastard who got in his way. But, once in a while, take off his shirt - give it to a tramp, offer a wino a swig from his own bottle. Never worked out why. I wouldn't - except when he made me. But - no one to make me now. Wanted to cry for him. Can't cry. Never could.
Pulling a fifty out of my wallet:
"Go and take a bath!"
His eyes widened.
"This is all night, mister."
Staring at me. Confused.
"You heard me. Piss off!"
Tried to push the money back. Little sod. Walked away. Back to base. Felt better - doing something for Jimmy.
I knew. Don't ask how. Little shit! What lies was he hoping to sell? Had to scare him into silence.
No chance to get out straight away. Maybe time would help. Every couple of weeks, authority for local order, such as it was, rounded up street urchins. Packed them off to state orphanages, which make King's Heath sound like paradise. A few escaped. Many - disappeared. Vermin, weren't they?
Two days later - back in those dark, uneasy streets.
The guards would have chased him off. He was around somewhere. I could feel... Smell him, more like.
"You little toe-rag!"
Suddenly I'm clutching my fifty dollars and he's running into the night. No way! That gift was for Jimmy.
"What the hell are you playing at?"
"I don't take no charity, mister."
Might as well have kicked me in the stomach. There was something in those eyes. Pride. Fierce, desperate, struggling against reality.
It couldn't be! Wasn't possible. I knew life; the concrete tomb in Birmingham, the decaying ruins looming over me. But it was. Pride. Foolish, inappropriate, useless.
Whoever once had responsibility for this human wreck had instilled it deep. The deadly sin of pride. I should have been laughing.
And yet… In him…
Pushing the money into his shirt collar:
It must have sounded vicious. He started to tremble. Unless it was cold, hunger - worse.
"I don't take no charity!"
I frowned fiercely. He wasn't fazed.
"Got a name?"
No hesitation. Why should he care?
"Richard. Keep the money."
The protest was rising inside him.
"Okay. I'll buy you."
"What do you want me to do?"
A puzzled frown.
"Talk. You can. You are."
He nodded. But then had nothing to say. For an hour, maybe two, we trailed through the darkness together. What must we have looked like?
As he scarcely spoke, I told him about Jimmy. The time he'd jumped into the canal at Gas Street, fully clothed, to rescue a cocker spaniel, and then found out the dog loved his daily swim. And the time he pulled two kids from a blazing terrace in Balsall Heath and melted into the night before anyone started wondering about the number of cars with broken quarter-lights. Our light-fingeredness in supermarkets; how we'd hot-wire a car for the occasional joy-ride.
He listened in solemn silence.
When I'd finished, I felt ashamed. I don't know why. Had I betrayed Jimmy? Jimmy who was dead. But who I couldn't cry for.
I turned to go.
"Don't you want me?"
"Not like that."
He's trying to give me the money again! For Christ's sake! I draw my gun, raise it to my temple.
"If you won't keep it, I shall be so upset…"
His face was pure terror. How could I be such an arsehole? What the poor sod must have seen.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!
"I'm really sorry. That wasn't funny."
Had to get away. Couldn't look back.
Couldn't relax either. Jimmy and I used to curse our lot. Called ourselves the forgotten underclass.
I'd avoid Carl in future.
Easier said than done. Had to escape the false comradeship, the jealousies of military life. The city air, thick with sounds of death, was still cleaner than the fog of potential destruction which suffocated the base.
Left it as long as I could. Five days. Within moments, he's pushing the fifty dollars at me. No other of his kind would have. Nor me, nor Jimmy. This time we mooch along in silence, stopping only once, when the continued sight of his rib cage drove me to mend the sodding shirt myself.
I'm botching the stitching - no seamstress for Christ's sake - and he's gazing open-eyed as if it were a magic trick. Then, I can't be shot of him. He'd have followed me into the base if I hadn't pointed out the depth of the shit I'd be in.
"You come back tomorrow."
It wasn't a request. He'd vanished before I could tell him his demand was impossible.
Four days elapsed before I took another moonlit stroll.
Not there! No real surprise. The authorities catch up, eventually. But I do feel cheated. As if I've lost…
He appears from nowhere!
Where is he trying to lead me? To be mugged? Beaten up? Murdered?
To the shell of a bakery. The outlines and charcoal scars of the old ovens are visible even in the half-hearted moonlight. Not one of the walls reaches higher than my shoulders.
He checks very carefully to see we are unobserved. And before I know it, I'm in a tiny, cramped dungeon - cellar is too grand a name. The smell of him is overpowering. I'm close to gagging.
Pride in his eyes again. This is his place. I know, I am hugely privileged.
Becoming slowly accustomed to the dingy candlelight, I make out a dirty pallet, covered with a moth-eaten blanket, a small store of candles, a jug of water, half a loaf of coarse dark bread, two blackening bananas.
He starts to peel these at once. For me. Must have got hold of them the day he asked me to come. Now brown and mushy, he has to scoop them into a bowl. Pours on something from a tin. Condensed milk perhaps - can't make out the label in the dim, flickering light. I'm presented with the bowl and offered a choice of crudely-made wooden spoons.
"Eat with me and you'll be my friend."
I can only stare.
Pulling out the fifty dollars:
"I can't use this. They'll say I'm stealing. I'd be punished. But, if I may, I will take a dollar for talking to you. I need to buy some milk, for Mischa."
A scrawny, flea-bag of a cat, not much more than a bag of bones, lies curled up, asleep in the middle of the blanket. I'd thought it a patch before.
He's dipped his spoon into the bowl and eaten a mouthful of the sludge before he realises I've not moved. Breaking off a piece of bread and pushing it into the palm of my free hand, he speaks more urgently.
"Eat with me, please."
A heel of hard, stale bread.
I'm twenty-one, man. Twenty-one! Not a child. Weeping like a fucking teenage girl. Crying for him, for Jimmy, for myself. Jesus Christ! I never cry. I can't cry.
But that scrap if bread…
Stumbling out of his 'house', can't speak. Then what? I ran, didn't I? I know I wandered round in circles, lost. Hours before I wondered who I was, let alone where. Lucky to escape detection. But back to base.
I'd failed him. But tomorrow I'd…
Tomorrow. The political situation worsened. We're shipped home without warning.
Oh, he'll be there. Or somewhere close. A kid with his spirit? His honour? And his cat. I'll find them.
My only fear is, when I do, I won't be able to repay him for everything he's given me. B ut I'll try. I'll certainly try.