Craig treks through the darkening streets. Bruised purple clouds loom overhead. The sack makes a pleasant weight over his shoulder, two piping hot thermos stowed in his rucksack alongside four clinking mugs. He arrives in Limehouse just as the sun slips below the skyline. The shadows lengthen, cobbles gleaming under the golden street lamps. The fresh earthy smell of rain.
St Anne’s church looms out of the gathering dusk. The flickering glow of a half-dozen cooking fires on the rough heathland, like fallen stars. Craig slips through the gate towards the orange haze ahead. Black shadows, blue walls.
A stocky flat-capped figure steps out of a gloomy alcove. Barring the way. Thickset. Faded grey blazer stained with birdshit and river mud. Black woollen waistcoat over brown breeches and well-worn boots. His coarse dark beard frosted with silver. Shrewd blue eyes deep in a rugged face. Wine-red neckerchief at his throat. Double-barrelled sawn-off shotgun tucked casually over his right shoulder. Left hand resting on the dagger sheathed at his hip. The relaxed, easy stance of the Old West gunslinger. Hard as iron. Maybe early fifties. But awake, alert and briskly confident. Ready for anything. ‘State y’name an’ business.’
Craig halts five polite feet away. Smiling, palms up and open, universal body language for: Don’t give the nice scary man with the gun a reason to worry about you.
He holds out his cap badge. ‘Sergeant Harper.’ Lifts the bulging sack as a hopeful peace offering. ‘I’ve brought some things.’
The sentry glances over him, assessing. ‘Have you, sir?’
Lilting Welsh vowels, tone flat and deliberately neutral, as if saying: I’m obliged to use this word ‘sir’, but I don’t really mean it.
Craig lowers the sack. Holds up a thermos. ‘Staff Sergeant Baker sent me,’ he tries again.
The sentry frowns. His gnarled fingers drum on the hilt of his knife. Craig groans inwardly.
Ugh. The day had started so well. He was so happy. Dammit.
Too close to swing that shotgun around. Two strides in, crowd him, grab his knife arm before he can draw it. Crunch an elbow into his face and the shotgun’s yours. Sweep for hostiles, then bug out fast –
‘Craig!’ A small shadow hops daintily over the paving stones towards them. ‘Hi, mate!’
Brown curls. Dark eyes. ‘It’s okay, Dave. He’s the guy who gave me that money! Ten bob, remember?’
The sentry huffs and slumps his shoulders. ‘Bloody hell, Kate. You might’ve warned me we ‘ad guests expected.’ Lilting Welsh vowels. A little sing-song.
She pokes him in the ribs. ‘Sorry, Dave. No hard feelings.’
Craig raises his eyebrows. ‘…Dave?’
Kate giggles. ‘Everyone calls him that. You wouldn’t be able to say his real name.’
‘What is it?’
Dave shrugs. Gives a hacking guttural snarl, like a coal miner with a slimy lung disease. Craig nods. ‘Okay. Dave it is.’
Dave flashes a crooked grin and steps aside. ‘As y’were, Sarge. Carry on.’ He bumps fists with Kate, throws a rough salute and melts back into the darkness. Ever watchful.
Craig walks on, scanning the scene. Kate skips beside him. Leaf litter mulches under his boots. The grass glistens with dew. Dark figures moving about, keeping watch or talking quietly around the scattered fires. A pair of giggling urchins dash past, breathless from play. Kate breaks off to join them, vanishing into the darkness with a cheery ‘Take care, Sarge! Behave y’self now!’
He approaches the nearest cluster of murmuring shadows up ahead. The low crackle of sniggers, a deep rumbling chuckle. Fag ends gleam. A charred rabbit turns on a wooden skewer above the firepit, dripping with grease. Fat hissing amidst the flames. To the side, a blackened kettle on cherry-red coals.
One of the shadows lowers his dented tin mug. ‘What about Nietzsche?’ Gaunt face shadowed with stubble. Cropped iron-grey hair.
His right-hand neighbour scoffs. ‘Nietzsche. You haven’t even fookin’ read any Nietzsche.’ Bristly white beard. Silver hair hacked short beneath a mariner’s cap. Craggy face full of wrinkles.
‘I ‘ave, I swear.’ Grey Hair falters. ‘Uh…the Antichrist.’
A bowler-hatted shadow leans forward into the firelight. ‘Quote me somethin’, then.’ Dark bushy moustache. Dull grey vest under a black jacket. A watchful gaze.
‘Ah…what doesn’t kill me –’
‘For shit’s sake,’ the bald beefy guy on his left swats his shoulder. ‘Every schoolkid knows that one.’ He settles back to chew tobacco, his handlebar moustache quivering. Like a brawny circus strongman.
Grey Hair stews for a long moment, then brightens. ‘You will not get the crowd to cry Hosanna, until you ride into town on an ass.’ He looks around triumphantly. ‘Nietzsche.’
The others look blankly at one another. Then a chorus of muttered assent. ‘Yeah, that’s a good one.’
‘Yeah, nice one.’
Grey Hair preens. ‘See? I’m sophisticated.’
‘Sophisticated.’ Bowler Hat rolls his eyes. ‘Riiight.’
‘I am, too.’
White Beard snorts. ‘Pretentious as hell, more like.’ He swigs from his hip flask.
Grey Hair flicks his cigarette at him. It bounces off White Beard’s shoulder in a burst of sparks. ‘Takes one to know one, Graham.’
The banter makes Craig smile. Just like his old squad hunkered around the campfire, slinging shit at each other. Brother soldiers, for ever and always.
He scuffs his boot through the leaf litter. They all look up. Fall silent. Sharp eyes. Wary faces. Five veterans staring back at him, full of subdued menace and coiled tension, all hard as nails, all full of unit loyalty and hostile suspicion of the unknown stranger. Like a wolf pack united against a intruding rival on their turf.
Hands drift beltwards. Brush knife hilts and revolver grips. Good precautions, guys.
On a hunch, Craig waves. ‘Hi.’ Holds up the thermos. ‘Anyone for a top-up?’
Three pairs of eyes crease up. Not quite a smile, but their crows’ feet deepen. Then he takes out the pack of Woodbines.
‘Brought some smokes, too.’
And that gets Bald Beefy and White Beard perked up too. All five of them crack wide grins. Crooked smiles. Missing teeth. Craig eases down into the circle. Pulls out another thermos, to a smattering of cheers. Bowler Hat pats his back. Grey Hair squeezes his shoulder.
Hot tea and cigarettes. Universal ice-breakers, the world over.
‘Sergeant Craig Harper. Connaught Rangers. South Africa. Where were you?’
‘Graham. Highlanders. Kandahar,’ White Beard grimaces. A thick Scottish accent. Boiled down to muscle and wiry sinew in his old age, like a greyhound.
‘Mark. Warwickshires. Omdurman,’ Bowler Hat winks at him. Black neckerchief at his throat. Shrewd brown eyes, full of smarts and cunning like a fox. Unbroken nose. Maybe mid-forties. Knuckles matted with scar tissue. Trading his fists for his nose and teeth, as any good fighter should. Calm and competent.
‘Owen,’ Grey Hair grins, cleaning his nails with a dirk. ‘Black Watch. Tel el-Kebir.’ An ugly scar crawling across his left cheek. Lean and hardscrabble.
‘Max. Lincolns. Atbara,’ Bald Beefy grunts, still chewing. Thickset, broad-shouldered and bullnecked, his bulky torso straining against his pale workman’s shirt. Outweighs Craig by maybe a hundred pounds. All corded muscle, like a prize ox.
‘Roger. Fusiliers. Peking,’ rumbles a barrel-chested giant with a black scraggly beard, unkempt sideburns and twitchy blue eyes. Built like a great shaggy bear, a no-nonsense face that growls I don’t want any trouble, but try to start something and I’ll bring out the claws.
The thermos comes back. It sears all the way down, warm and soothing.
‘Where d’you serve, kid?’ Graham asks. ‘You miss it?’
The question startles him. He blinks, unsure. ‘…All over,’ he finally says. ‘I was-’ And his mind goes blank.
‘Scout sniper?’ Mark suggests.
‘Artillery?’ Roger murmurs.
‘Supply chain?’ Owen prompts.
‘Frontline infantry,’ he mumbles. ‘…Colenso.’ Stares into the flames. Heat washes over his face.
Dust in his mouth. Ears ringing from shellfire. Stumbling over corpses in the scorching heat. The wailing screams of dying men. The sickly-sweet stench of guts through the roiling clouds of smoke. The ground trembles under falling shells. Mud in his eyes.
‘Fall back! Get to the rally point-‘
‘Sarge.’ A hand on his shoulder. Shaking gently. ‘Sergeant.’
Craig comes back to himself with a start. His left hand clenched into a fist. Nails digging into his palm. Beside him, Owen’s face creased into a frown. Eyes soft.
‘You okay?’ he murmurs.
Craig flinches away. Drops his gaze. ‘Sorry.’ Shivers. Blinks away the screams. Swallows down a lurch of nausea.
Mark pats his back. ‘It’s okay, mate.’ Graham tips his hip flask into a mug, passing it over. ‘Get that down ya.’
Craig sips slowly. Hot strong tea, with a splash of rum. Warm and spicy. A circle of concerned faces around him. Eyes filled with sympathy. The rum tingles all the way down, settling deep into his stomach like glowing coals. Craig’s shoulders unclench.
All ex-military. A brotherhood of skilled warriors. Seasoned veterans from a dozen battlefields across the world. Sudan. Afghanistan. China. South Africa. Experienced in close combat. Bayonets. Knives. Fists. Gutter rats hardened by years of bareknuckle tavern fights and barrack-room brawls. Revolvers at their hips. Blades on their belts. Good enough against Boer riflemen; against white-robed fanatics hopped up on khat in Khartoum’s dusty streets; against Ghazi sharpshooters lurking in the Hindu Kush foothills; against dervishes screaming out of the simmering Egyptian desert with swords and carbines; against opium-doped thugs in the grimy back alleys of Peking.
Good against London gangsters any day of the week.
‘Harper!’ Baker slumps down into the firelight, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Didn’t expect you back so soon. I see you’ve already met Corporal Jones.’ He nods towards Dave patrolling the perimeter, then digs through the bulging sack, staring wide-eyed at the pill bottles, the fat bobbins of thread and the rolls of bandages. ‘Fantastic, mate. This’ll do a world o’ good. Cheers.’ He palms two of the aspirin pills – ‘your good health, Sergeant,’ – and knocks them back. Swallows. His eyes turn glassy, and he slumps back with a muffled groan. ‘Damn, that’s good.’
Mark chuckles. Craig’s ears feel warm.
‘Glad to help, sir.’
‘Just one thing.’ Graham squints closely at the bottle, then across at him. His craggy brow furrowed. ‘Why?’
Craig can’t say: Because I know how it feels to be on the outside, looking in. To have a place in the world, a place to belong, have it ripped away from you and not knowing how to get it back. To be alone, abandoned, cast off, adrift, helpless.
In the end, he just shrugs. ‘Paying it forward.’
Max claps him on the back. Owen squeezes his shoulder.
‘Thanks for the help,’ Craig smiles, and rises. They toast him with battered tin mugs, two bottles and a hip flask.
‘Take care, Sarge.’
‘See you ’round, soldier!’
He walks to the edge of the firelight. Pauses. Turns back, clenched fist over his heart.
‘Strength and courage.’
They grin and thump their chests in unison. ‘Honour and duty,’ they reply.
He wanders among the other hunched groups, looking for people with familiar stances, bodies coiled with tension and hollow, vacant eyes. Some won’t have a damn thing to do with him – they glare with sullen judging scowls, or bare their teeth and curse him away with fetid liquor on their breath. Craig knows the feeling; waiting for an outstretched hand to become a fist, when a friendly handshake looks too much like an incoming punch; he nods respectfully and keeps his distance. Shoulders slumped, silhouette minimised, gaze lowered, body language open and nonthreatening.
No harm no harm believe me…
To those that are willing to engage, those precious few brave enough to extend a sliver-thin thread of trust, Craig offers the contents of Baker’s list. The tea, the bandages, the pills. He buries deep the jagged memories of feeling less-than-human, scrabbling through the sucking mud to claw his way out the choking fog of war. Begins offering the things that the Olds, that Ellie, have gently coaxed him into: gifts, hot drinks, friendly conversation. Kindness. Given freely.
Sleepers huddled all around, wrapped in blankets and cloaks. The soft footfalls of a sentry crunching through wet leaves, men turning in restless sleep, the crackle of a smouldering log. The steady rhythmic scrape of steel on stone echoes from the tree line where Graham now sits on watch, sharpening his dirk.
Later, as Craig’s passing around bad jokes and more chipped mugs, one of the wary guys approaches: tense, skittish, managing eye contact in short, darting, frightened bursts. Craig spreads his hands, palms up and open, and doesn’t offer to shake. In the firelight, he can see the scar trailing along the man’s forearm – haphazardly self-stitched and crooked, but healed up good and clean.
‘You – you’re the pill guy?’ the man stammers. Craig nods.
‘…Thanks, man,’ the guy manages. A flash of a tentative smile. ‘I – It…thank you.’ He holds out a trembling hand.
Craig shakes it. ‘Anytime,’ he murmurs. ‘Anytime at all.’
© 2017 Tom Burton