Don’t—don’t—don’t—don’t—look at what’s in front of you.
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again);
Men—men—men—men—men go mad with watchin’ ’em,
An’ there’s no discharge in the war !
Much meaningful business within the Armed Forces is conducted at the Senior NCO or Warrant Officer level, sometimes circumventing slower, official channels that take a great deal of time to catch up. The telephone rang in the Regimental Sergeant Major’s office at Tidworth and the RSM answered it. He exchanged the formalities with the person on the phone.
“Good morning, Frank. I’m Squadron Sergeant Major (SSM) Steve _________, Selections Cell at Stirling Lines. Are you well?
“Morning, Steve,” They had never met but both knew of each other and what this was about, “I suppose this is about the couple of our lads going up for selection?”
“Yes, tell me about them. Warts and all.”
The RSM wouldn’t have had it any other way, “They have both completed the Special Forces Briefing Course, passed the CFT, navigation and first aid with flying colours. Sergeant Paul Cavendish is a good soldier, steady career, but he’s getting on. He’s thirty-two and reckons this will be his last chance at making the selection. He’s been working hard on his fitness and aptitude, but honestly, I think he may struggle on the hills. I’d be grateful if you didn’t break him, he has years of good service left and should make Warrant Officer One easily in our pond.”
“OK, what about the corporal?”
“Ahh yes, Mr Mark Edge. Again, an outstanding soldier, very intelligent, kept his head on Banner and Op Grappel, although something seemed to have happened to him in Bosnia. He’s come back a different person. More focused, colder, but he’s put in a lot of work and is incredibly fit. I think it’ll be down to whether you want him and you must know about his court martial.”
“Yes, we’ve heard about that and out legal team have looked into it. We don’t think it should ever have gone for court martial and it shouldn’t disbar him from being eligible for selection. Frank, I suspect a “but” here.”
The RSM sighed, “Let’s put it this way, you either like Corporal Edge or you don’t.”
“He’s got a good write-up from this Captain Gardner, he ticks all the right boxes, yet I suspect you don’t rate him.”
“Oh I rate him, I just don’t like him.”
The SAS SSM was doodling on a pad on his desk, “Thank you, Frank. I appreciate your honesty. We look forward to seeing both of them next week. And thanks for your time.”
The Sergeant Major hung up and watched some troopers abseiling from a Lynx onto the flat roof of the old RAF Station Headquarters.
“Arsehole,” he said quietly.
Edge had trained hard for two weeks on Dartmoor, as all candidates had been warned to within an inch of their lives to avoid the Brecon Beacons. Edge had leave owing and he took it in Devon and spent his days and a few night on the Moor. It was potentially easier to navigate the more recognisable features on Dartmoor, but the weather was as unpredictable as the Beacons and the valley terrains with their mires as much of a challenge. He averaged twenty-five kilometres a day, the same as he would have to complete on the first part of the hill phase at Sennybridge. In the second week he completed a march of sixty-five kilometres, carrying a bergen of thirty kilogrammes and a piece of scaffolding tubing to simulate carrying a rifle. The march was completed in nineteen hours, twenty-one minutes and his navigation had been spot on. Edge knew that barring accidents or sheer bad luck, he could complete the four weeks hill phase.
But he was under no illusions. Edge knew that the directing staff (DS) would be watching the candidates’ every moves, both on and the few hours off duty. Edge remembered how to smile and be cheerful again, an act he found more difficult than the hills. He spent the long hours brooding darkly about a love he had lost as he pounded the Brecon Beacons and the pain he felt in his joints and back was nothing to the pain he felt in his soul.
He completed the Long Drag well within time but struggled slightly on the SF Swimming Test where he had to enter the water from height in full battle order, swim twenty-five meters, tread water for five minutes, hand out his kit and then swim 200 metres with the final ten underwater. The DS passed him, but warned he would have to work on his swimming.
The pace was unrelenting and the candidates were flown out to Belize for the nine-week jungle warfare and SF Standard Operating Procedures phase of the selection process. They had lost over half on the hills of the Beacons and a further 30% in the jungles and bush of Belize. The remaining candidates were put under extreme pressure, including sleep deprivation to test their soldiering skills. Edge found this more difficult than the hill phase and he was shocked at how much he had forgotten and the standard of soldiering skills required.
One morning in the final week of the jungle phase, an RAF Puma helicopter circled the clearing in the jungle and flared into land. Edge who was trying to tie a bivouac into the tree canopy, saw the Puma pass above and thought: There goes another one, probably a casevac. On the landing point the Loadmaster jumped out and went to find the detachment commander, carrying a priority signal. Ten minutes later, a member of the DS sought out Corporal Edge and stared up into the tree.
“Edge, come down, the Boss wants to see you.”
He felt his heart sink. So bloody close. Shit!
He abseiled down from the tree, “Collect your kit but not your weapon. Things are going to be moving fast for you.”
“What’s going on?”
The DS smiled sadly, “The Boss will explain.”
The detachment headquarters was an 18 x 24 tent. Edge pushed through the flap and was surprised to find the ops room was empty apart from the Major, He waved him in and gave him a mug of very sweet tea,
“Sit down Edge.” The Major said gently.
Shit, this is very bad. I must have fucked up royally.
“Mark, I am so very sorry you have to tell you this. I’m afraid that your mother has died. She passed away last week after a short illness, in the George Eliot hospital. For whatever reason, your family failed to notify your parent unit until yesterday morning. We have to get you home as quickly as possible. The Puma is going to fly you to Belize City Airport, where you have been booked on a flight to Gatwick. An RAF flight will pick you up there and take you to Coventry Airport.
“I understand that this must be a profound shock to you and there is little I can say to minimise the shock and sadness you must be feeling. We are all truly sorry and wish you the best in days ahead.”
“Thanks, sir. I don’t know what to say.”
The Major shook his hand, “Good luck, Corporal Edge.”
After the helicopter had left, the Major called in the Chief Instructor, “You heard about Edge?”
“Yes, Boss. A really tough break. Poor lad.”
“Does this mean we’ll have to scrub him?”
The Senior NCO thought about it, “No. He’s doing OK and will just miss one anti-ambush exercise. Most of the next few days will be wash-ups and Character Assassination Groups. I don’t think he would have gained much from that, given his personal circumstances. He’s put in a lot of effort, but he’s quite insular and difficult to read, but I like him. No bullshit or deflection from Edge. If he fucks up he holds up his hand and is always willing to help the strugglers.”
“Thanks, Geordie. So once he’s got this bereavement out of the way, we’ll put him through to Employment Training and SERE. That’s if he makes the window.”
Edge felt like a package being swept along by events totally out of his control. The Puma landed close to a Cessna Caravan at Belize City Airport. The flight had been held back specifically for him to get on it and the impatient passengers looked with a mixture of annoyance and curiosity at this soldier still wearing his jungle camouflage kit and webbing. The flight to Cancún on the Yucatan Peninsula took just under three hours. Edge was waved through the controls straight into the VIP lounge, where the rich and famous looked incredulously at this grimy apparition who had been in the jungle a few hours previously.
He was escorted onto the Thomas Cook flight to Gatwick and made comfortable in the first class cabin. The more camp than a scout jamboree and extremely kind and attentive senior steward made sure he was comfortable and provided him with a meal. Edge sat in bemused confusion, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He felt an emptiness but he hadn’t shed a single tear for his mother or for a Croatian woman he believed he had truly loved. He was angry and disgusted with himself for being unable to show emotion. Fuck, I’m just a robot.
At 20:00 Local the Airbus rumbled onto Gatwick’s runway and at the terminal, Edge was first off the aircraft. He was directed to a van by a ground handler wearing a fluorescent tabard and driven a short distance, to where an HS125 of the Royal Flight was waiting for him, its engines running. The RAF Loadmaster sat him down, patted him on the shoulder in a kindly manner and brought him a cup of tea in a paper mug. Not finest china for the likes of me.
The 125 took off and turned north, heading for the Midlands. Edge stared distractedly out of the window at the brightly-lit motorways and road network below. He tried to think about his mother, but it was just too painful. Then he wondered how his father would cope. I hope the old bastard appreciates her now she’s gone. Too fucking late. And then he analysed whether he had been such a dutiful son. He could have visited more often. But he escaped to join the army. He drained the tea that tasted as bitter as his thoughts.
The 125 landed at an almost deserted Coventry Airport, taxied to the terminal and the front door and steps went down. The cool evening air cut through his jungle fatigues.
“Good luck, son. So sorry for your loss,” said the Loadmaster.
A buxom lady in another tabard was waiting for him on the pan. As they walked towards the darkened, glass-fronted building, she put her arm around Edge’s shoulders and it was such a gesture of kindness and common humanity that he did feel tears prickling in his eyes.
“There’s a taxi waiting outside for you,” she gave Edge a faxed piece of paper, “Give this to the driver and it’s got a telephone number and website he can claim the fare from. I don’t suppose you have any money, do you dear?”
Once outside, the smooth mechanics of the military repatriation process seemed to come off the rails. Outside in the harsh glare of the neon lights, a taxi was waiting, its driver smoking and pacing. He was a man of Pakistani heritage with a beard, probably in his twenties and he looked aghast at Edge, looking him up and down.
“Man you’re filthy. You’re not coming in my cab like that.”
“It’s dry. The loose stuff has gone. If it’s good enough for the first class and the Queen’s Flight, it’s good enough for your fucking taxi. Note that it’s a taxi, not a fucking cab. Stop making a fuss and drive me to Nuneaton, like you have been contracted to do.”
Edge got in the back and dumped his webbing and daysack on the seat next to him. He realised with shock and amusement that his fighting knife was still taped to the webbing riser. The Taxi left the airport and the driver turned up the radio, listening to Radio Panj, a cacophony of wailing, Asian crap and very rude to his passenger. Edge looked at the rear side of the driver’s head and tried to calm his rising annoyance. On the outskirts of Nuneaton the driver said without looking at his fare:
Edge told him an address five streets away from his old house. The taxi stopped and Edge grabbed his kit. He passed the faxed sheet to the driver, “This is the phone number or website where you can claim the money for this fare. I’ve got no money on me I’m afraid.”
“You shitting me, man?”
“I presume you were told why you were picking me up?”
“Some bollocks is what they said.”
“There you go then. Thanks for the lift.”
“No, no, no fukin’ way, man. You fukin’ pay me now. No money, I’ll drive you to a cashpoint and get out fifty quid for double fare and pissing me about. Makin a mess of my cab, you kufar soldier bastard. You’re gonna’ fuckin pay me for…”
Edge grabbed the driver’s beard and hauled his head through the gap between the front seats. Their faces were inches apart and Edge’s twisted face was terrifying and grotesque in the interior light. Edge’s eyes were dead.
“I think you are mistaken,” Edge said very quietly, “Because I think you’re going to phone the number on that sheet tomorrow morning. Meanwhile I am going to get out of this taxi. Then you are going to drive away and we will never see each other again. If you think that’s not the case, then I have no alternative other than to rip your fucking face off. Do we understand each other?”
The driver saw the camouflaged handle of the knife on the webbing and realised that this man was very dangerous. This was no drunk punter he could overcharge, or drop off at somewhere in the town to get beaten up by his “brothers.” This was Iblis personified.
“All right, but I’ll fuckin remember you.”
“You had better,” said Edge and got out. The taxi sped off before he had closed the door.
He was so tired. He hadn’t slept properly for weeks and the lights of exhaustion were dancing on his peripheral vision. All he had to his name was his wallet, ID card, passport and the mud of Belize on his boots. His car, keys and civvies were back at Stirling Lines. Edge walked for ten minutes through the estate, meeting not another soul. A cat jumped down from a wall and approached him, tail in the air and he avoided it. He wasn’t fond of cats because they reminded him too much of himself.
He stood for several minutes outside his old house, which had always felt like a prison. The only reason he had ever had to visit it had gone forever from his life and was lying in the Co-op funeral parlour’s chapel of rest. The front garden was getting overgrown and his Mum would have hated that. There was a single light on upstairs, probably the landing light. Edge sighed. There was no point in putting off the inevitable. He opened the gate and went and knocked loudly at the front door. It needed repainting. He waited a long time and knocked again, louder and heavier this time. Another, brighter light went on upstairs and he saw movement on the stairs.
“Who is it? What do you want?”
“Dad it’s me, Mark.”
The door opened and Edge looked at his father. He seemed much older than when he had last visited and in a way diminished. He hadn’t shaved for several days and he looked unkempt. Edge suspected he had been drinking heavily.
“Mark, you’d better come in.
The sitting room was untidy, a half-finished whisky bottle on the coffee table and official documents. His father slumped in a chair and Edge moved some papers to sit on the sofa.
“So you finally bothered to come.”
“Dad, less then twenty-four hours ago I was in the Central American jungle. I only heard about mum this morning. When did she die?”
“Anne said she tried to get hold of you last week. Last Wednesday she went. She’d only been in hospital a week, some cancer that women get down…”
Edge felt a bubbling anger, “Did you try to notify me when she was seriously ill? I could have got back.”
“Anne’s been dealing with everything,” Edge’s father poured another whisky into a tumbler that was grimy and heavily fingerprinted, “Well she’s had to, seeing as how you weren’t here.”
Edge looked around the room and into the kitchen, with a sink piled high with dishes, “It’s a pity she hasn’t been dealing with the housework.”
“She does have her own life, now that she’s married.”
“When’s the funeral?“ asked Edge, “And can I have a whisky please Dad?”
“Day after tomorrow and help yourself.”
He went into the kitchen and eventually found a clean glass. When he got back, to his horror he saw his father was crying, “Dad, I’m so sorry I wasn’t here, but I think Anne could have tried harder to find me. Mum had all my addresses in her book. What about the death certificates, her savings accounts, stuff like that?”
“Anne and Ronnie have taken care of that. Ronnie had really been a tower of strength. I don’t know what I would have done without the pair of them.”
Ronnie was his sister’s husband. Edge thought he was a camp, mincing prick whom he had disliked instantly on the first and only time he had met him, at his sister’s wedding. He poured himself a whisky and drained it quickly. At least his father seemed to have pulled himself together and was staring vacantly at a dead bunch of flowers on the sideboard. Edge felt like a bastard, suddenly realising that his father had lost everything. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
”Why don’t you go to bed, Dad? We’ll get this place sorted tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry but your old room’s not been made up. I couldn’t find the bedding and we didn’t know if you were coming.”
I suspect my fucking sister did everything she could, to make sure I didn’t, “Don’t worry. I’ll sleep on the sofa for tonight. You get to bed.”
Edge watched his father shuffle away with an empty sadness. He seemed diminished, the big, bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met stalwart from the Freemasons lodge had gone. The shop steward from the Jaguar works who had held court in the local pub, now just a shadow. Edge did feel a degree of pity for him, but it had been hard. In truth he felt more pity for himself.
The next morning Edge woke early and gutted the downstairs, cleaning and dusting, putting on the washing. He suspected his father didn’t know how to operate the washing machine. He would hoover once his father was out of bed, then do the same for the bathroom and spare bedrooms. His was pretty much how it had been last time he had visited, although the bed hadn’t been made. That afternoon he borrowed one of his father’s golfing jackets and went into town to buy shirts, jeans, black shoes and a dark suit with a black tie.
That evening he cooked a meal for the pair of them, having had to borrow his father’s car and get in some essential shopping. They ate it in a companionable quiet, skirting round the subject they didn’t want to discuss. His dad steadily sank four cans of bitter and Edge polished off a bottle of red wine.
“I’m glad you made it home, Mark. Your mother thought the world of you.”
“I know she did, dad. And she thought the world of you,” His father looked at him doubtfully, “Just think of the little things she used to do for all of us. Even Anne, although she treated her like shit.”
“She didn’t even tell me she was sick. Why didn’t she tell me Mark?”
“Don’t know, dad. She never told me either.”
“But you were never here!”
“I wrote every week, wherever I was.”
“I bet she told that bloody priest every time she went in the TARDIS for the absolution of her sins,” his father said bitterly.
“She had her beliefs and her faith, dad. She never insisted that we were brought up Catholic. Confession is a sacrament to reconcile mankind with God. It’s one of the tenets of the Catholic faith, not a quick wash-spin cycle to rinse away naughtiness.”
“Do you believe that crap, Mark?”
“It doesn’t matter what you or I believe. Mum never lost her faith and she believed it.”
“Where was her God when she was dying in hospital, grey and gasping for breath?”
“We’ve all got to die sometime, dad,” said a young soldier who had been prepared to commit suicide by Serb in Bosnia the previous year.
After the requiem mass in the Catholic Church and the cremation, the wake was held in the lounge bar of a local pub, which Anne had booked at short notice. It was a ghastly and inappropriate venue to celebrate a person’s life, a grim, sprawling drinking factory on the edge of a housing estate. The priest showed his face, self-consciously sipped an orange juice and left. His mother’s female friends and acquaintances made similar apologies and left shortly afterwards. His father’s cronies stayed longer and the only relatives were Edge, his sister and her husband and his Uncle Jack who had travelled down from Perth. Edge was struck at just how few words his uncle and father had exchanged during the day and how upset he seemed to be over his mother’s death. Edge chatted with his uncle.
“Did you know she was ill, Uncle Jack?”
He looked at Edge’s father at the other end of the bar and said quietly: “Yes, she told me as soon as she was diagnosed.”
“Why didn’t you tell dad or me?”
“Because she didn’t want me to. Your father couldn’t have coped, and she told me you were going through selection.”
“This doesn’t make any sense, Uncle Jack.”
“It makes perfect sense, Mark. She had terminal cancer and knew when she was going to die, almost to the week.”
“I wish I had known. To have the chance to say all the things I should have said to her over the years.”
His uncle put his hand on his shoulder, “Life is seldom convenient like that, Mark. She was so proud of you. Are you still in the running?”
Edge shrugged, “Depends. I had almost finished the jungle phase. Who knows?”
Later his sister and her husband sidled over to speak to him. It was obvious that Anne had drunk quite a lot. Her husband Ronnie minced behind her, looking like he wished he could be somewhere else. He was wearing a dinner jacket with a normal tie, because it was the only dark suit he possessed.
“So you finally made it,” Anne said nastily, “Good of you to make the effort.”
“You didn’t let the Army know about mum until the day before yesterday, did you, you bitch?”
“Now wait a bloody minute,” Ronnie said in righteous indignation, “You can’t speak to my wife like that!”
“Fuck off Ronnie, you mincing, gay-bar loiterer,” Edge turned on his sister, “And you’ve done nothing in the house, you lazy trollop. Dad was living in squalor till I got home.”
“Oh, precious, little Mark. Mummies boy who made mum squander her savings, hiring an expensive lawyer to get you out of trouble. That cost her entire savings, because you’re just a violent thug.”
That wasn’t strictly true. Mark had paid Horace Cutler back in £200 instalments every month since the court martial and Cutler had shredded his mother’s cheque.
“She doted on you and you pissed off as soon as you could. She died of a broken heart, because of you.”
“Anne, you are a rancid bitch and you are incapable of having children, thank God. Which one’s the Jaffa, you or Larry Grayson here?”
“Right, that’s it. You, outside now!” said Ronnie.
Edge’s Uncle Jack was between them in an instant, “Ronald, stand down. He’d do you serious harm. Mark, outside with me. Now!”
Outside, Edge was pacing with nervous energy. His uncle pulled him round the corner, out of sight.
“Mark. Get a grip! It’s not Anne’s fault your mother died. It was no one’s fault. It was her time.”
“The bitch should have told me!”
“She did you a favour. You will look back and understand that. There’s nothing more you can do here. Go back and finish your selection and training. And I want a letter from you every month, telling me how you’re getting on. Make peace with your sister at a later date. Things are too raw now.”
Edge made himself absent from the rest of the wake, which had effectively run its course. Before he left, he asked the publican if the room had been paid for. Unsurprisingly it hadn’t, so Edge paid by debit card. In the past three months he hadn’t had a great deal to spend his pay on anyway.
The following morning he said good bye to his father and took a taxi to Nuneaton railway station. He was back at Stirling Lines at Hereford by 16:00. He had been on authorised absence for just over seventy-two hours. He was glad to be home.
This is dedicated to the outstanding Service personnel and civilians of the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC). They are responsible for the Management of British armed forces casualties and compassionate cases 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. The work they do on behalf of British Service personnel deserves far more recognition than it gets. The JCCC provide support to Service personnel and their families during what is for many a distressing and difficult time. I thank and admire all of you.
© Blown Periphery 2018