War Crimes Chapter 3
Billy caught up with Mark in the locker area, opposite the ground floor Lavs. Billy was a slightly plump kid so it was no surprise that he was sweating slightly and a little breathless. But like the trusty dispatch rider that he was for the school’s downtrodden, misunderstood or the non-conventional, Billy had an important message to deliver. He skittered to a halt as though riding an imaginary horse. All he needed was a cavalry hat and blue trousers with a red stripe. In the Belbin team roles matrix, Billy would have been a Resource Investigator.
He would have saluted because he liked and respected Mark, as did most of the Non-conventionals. Mark was kind and thoughtful. Mark could help with homework (except maths). Mark knew all about stuff like clouds, where the best hides were in the woods and the difference between the Messerschmitt BF109 E and G variants. (The BF109 G didn’t have struts on the empennage and had rounded wing tips). Mark could easily have slipped in with the Conventionals but chose not to. He was the cat that preferred to walk on his own and that was dangerous.
“Mark, they told me to tell you. They’re gonna get you after school.”
“Who is, Billy?” Mark asked, although he didn’t really need to.
But it wouldn’t just be Ali Munroe. It never was. He slammed the locker shut and picked up his PE kitbag, because it was Wednesday afternoon and treble games. The water fountain wasn’t working and hadn’t been for the last two weeks. Mark was glad he had gulped some water from the taps in the lavs. Belbin would have identified Mark as a Plant with definite Shaper tendencies.
Billy shrugged, “Since when do they need a reason?”
Mark decided to cross the bridge when he came to it, after treble games. With any luck they would want to go home while he had a shower. Most of the kids in his class didn’t bother, preferring to get out of school as quickly as possible. They wouldn’t dare start anything in the gym or changing rooms. Mr Jennings took no nonsense.
It was a dry and bright afternoon and Mark fervently hoped that if they were outside, it wouldn’t be football. Hockey he didn’t mind, even cross country was OK, but Mark hated football with a vengeance. This was probably another reason why he had drifted into the Non-conventionals’ camp. He wished they could do cricket or Rugby, but this was a state school in the Midlands and the boys played football and the girls played netball. Mark hated the team selection and the inevitable: You can have Edgie, coz he’s crap. There would follow an hour or so of pointless chasing after a soggy ball that bloody hurt when it hit you.
But despite the limitations of the curriculum, Mr Jennings was an exceptionally good PE teacher, one of the few in the school who could control a class of boisterous, hormonal boys. He had served for twelve years as a PTI in the Royal Navy and believed that fitness and training could be achieved in a minimum of space with the imaginative use of equipment. Like Mark, he didn’t much care for football, which he regarded as a lazy teacher’s cop-out. He had spent his entire lunch hour in the gym, pulling out wall bars, ropes, mats and vaulting horses, which were scattered randomly around the gym. Virtually every piece of equipment had been utilised and Jennings was bristling with energy.
The boys were lounging in the corridor, changed and ready when Jennings strode in with his uniform of white singlet and Ron Hills. Some of the younger female teachers rather held a candle for Mr Jennings, which was a pity because it would never be reciprocated.
“Get off the walls and stand up straight, you bunch of reprobates!” he yelled at them counting heads,
“Where are you, Bannister? Got you, stop skulking. All of you in the gym now, two lines facing, six feet apart. Move!”
They moved and once inside, gazed in muted awe at the myriad of equipment laid out. This was going to be very different.
“Right. We’re going to play “Pirates.” The rules are simple. Anyone I see touching the wooden floor spends ten minutes in the sin bin…”
Some of the lazier boys exchanged smirking glances.
“Doing star jumps!”
“Oh, siiiiirrrr. That’s not fair”
“Well don’t touch the floor then. It’s simple. You can go on the mats, the vaulting horses, bars and ropes. We start with one catcher who will be wearing one of these,” he held up a bunch of plastic bands, “Once caught by touching, there will be no rugby tackling or wrestling, the person who has been caught will go to the centre of the gym and put on a band. They then become chasers. Any questions?”
“How do you win, Sir?”
“The winner is the last one of you that hasn’t been caught. Monroe, you’re a fine specimen of a young man. Your mother must be so proud of you. You’re the first chaser. Now spread out and start on a piece of equipment. Chaser, you start in the middle and go on the first blast of my whistle. Two blasts, everyone freeze. Ready?”
Jennings blew the whistle and it started. A seething mass of boys diving, ducking, dodging. The chaser easily caught the first of the slower and unfit boys, but they were poor catchers. There were falls, and disputes, which Jennings arbitrated with a double whistle blow. It would never be allowed in today’s health and safety obsessed school environment, but the kids were loving it, shouting and screeching with joy, using sets of muscles they never knew they had.
The PE teacher was a very clever and skilled fitness trainer. The kids were sweating and red-faced with effort, but they didn’t notice how hard they were working because they were having fun. It also gave Jennings the opportunity to see which boys needed to be developed and who were the fittest. He became interested in a short, wiry little kid called Mark Edge, who had climbed almost to ceiling height and evaded one of the fitter chasers by swinging from one rope to another. The boy was fast, agile and had surprisingly good upper body strength for one so young. Jennings resolved to find a sport that would suit Master Edge for his fifth year at school. The more he thought about it, Jennings decided that this chap would make an excellent fly-half.
After two hours of this, they were panting and running with sweat and most of them though that it had been one of the best afternoons they had ever spent in the school. Billy thought that he was going to die. Jennings blew his whistle for the final time.
“You help me put the equipment away and you can all get off early. After a shower! Got that?”
“Sir my bus doesn’t arrive until half-three.”
Mr Jennings thought about this, “Do you know what that is, lad?”
“Unlucky. Now come on everyone, the quicker you do this, the quicker you can get back to the loving arms of your families.”
Mark got back to the changing room and glugged more water from the tap. He saw Monroe and his thick sidekicks saunter out of the changing rooms, shirts untucked in some audacious show of defiance. He dared to hope that they had forgotten about whatever slur he had caused them and took a long shower, without the interruption of having his wretched sister banging on the bathroom door. Mark took solace under the tepid but welcome shower and did what he always did during these moments without the distraction of other people. He wondered what the hell he had been put on the planet to do.
Out of the shower, Billy was waiting for him, sitting red-faced on a bench and Mark smiled in gratitude.
“Why don’t you come home with me? You can cut along the bypass back to get your bus. You don’t have to go through the park.”
Mark towelled himself vigorously, enjoying the burning itch of the increased blood flow, “Thanks for offering, but I have to get home. They will have gone by the time I leave.”
Billy wasn’t so sure. He was a faithful dispatch rider, but totally unsuited to standing in the corner of the infantry square next to Mark.
“See you tomorrow, Mark?”
“Sure you will, Billy. Keep the faith.”
The final bell hadn’t gone yet when Mark left the school. He thought about waiting and slipping away with the throng, but that seemed wrong for some reason. The park and playing fields were quiet this time of the afternoon. The earlier brightness had given way to a dull, late spring afternoon and the trees along the Wem Brook were getting their full livery of early, bright-green leaves. The only other person in sight was an elderly dog walker, some 300 yards away. He could see the traffic moving on the A4254, where his bus stop was.
A later version of Mark Edge would have admired the simple efficiency of the ambush and that later version of Mark Edge would have known how to deal with it. Ali Munroe appeared out of a clump of dogwood shrubs, about fifty yards ahead of him. Belbin would have categorised Ali Munroe as a sociopath. Mark weighed up the options of a right-flanking move, but one of Munroe’s henchmen appeared out of the Wem Brook woods on his three-o-clock. The third one had been waiting near the school and was tracking down the path on Mark’s six-o-clock. The park’s tall, wire fence blocked his left flank.
He knew what would follow and knew that he was outgunned and would be outfought. So he went on the attack and sprinted towards Munroe while the others were still too far away. Munroe was much taller and stockier, but Mark caught him on the right shoulder with his forearm. It hurt his elbow, so it must have hurt the soft, fleshy area around Monroe’s subscapularis muscle. He turned and received a fist to the side of the head. Mark reeled but managed to get a fist into Monroe’s gut and another to his nose before the other two were on him. Inevitably he went down and had to protect himself from a fusillade of kicks.
He was saved by the dog walker who ran towards them and slipped his dog, a very lively boxer. The man yelled and the gang looked up and saw him running towards them. It was the large dog that decided the day and saved Mark from what would have been a severe beating. The few punches he had managed to get in had been telling and if it hadn’t been for the bounding boxer, they would have finished the job. Monroe and his gang headed for Wem Brook and the woods, hotly pursued by an exuberant dog barking in joy at this new game.
“Are you all right?” the man asked helping Mark to his feet. He looked at his face, grazed by the sole of a shoe and a nostril that was trickling blood. The boy was grateful to this courageous, elderly man who hadn’t looked the other way.
“I’m all right, thanks, mister. Thanks for saving me.”
He handed Mark some tissues from his pocket, “Do you know those kids?”
“Then you should tell one of your teachers.”
The boy mentally shrugged. If it didn’t happen of the school grounds, they didn’t give a toss. Instead he said, “I will, mister.”
“Where are you going?”
“To my bus stop on the road over there.”
“I’ll come with you ‘till it arrives.”
He had some trouble retrieving his dog that like Royalist Cavalry, preferred hot pursuit to going back on the lead. Eventually it came to heel and the man was good as his word, waiting with Mark until his bus came. That elderly man had performed a kindness that had restored a youngster’s faith in humanity. A corner of the blanket of his depression had been lifted. As Mark stared gloomily at the unlovely sprawl of the town, he decided that he fucking hated Nuneaton and wold leave it the first opportunity he had.
He was lying on his bed drawing. It was Saturday so his Dad was playing golf with his cronies from the Jaguar works. His sister was out shopping with her gang of plastics, as he called her friends due to the amount of makeup they wore. As they were sixteen, they had little time for a runty, insular younger brother. Mark was drawing a Junkers 88 night fighter stalking a Halifax bomber from below. He was having a few problems getting the Junkers’ tail right, a fact not helped that he was using a plan and elevation plate in a book to render a three dimensional drawing. But the Halifax was just right and the night sky competently finished with his drawing pencils of varying hardness.
There was a gentle knock on his bedroom door and Marks mother came in. He was really worried about his mum, because lately she seemed to have sadness about her. It didn’t help that she was overshadowed by an overbearing husband and a daughter who on occasions showed an astonishing level of disrespect. She was the constant in Marks life and he loved her. Both his father and sister called him a mummy’s boy.
“I managed to get the mud out of your blazer and I’ve stitched the seam at the shoulder,” she sat on his bed and gave him a wan smile, “Is there something you want to tell me, Mark?”
He rolled over, deciding to give the tail fin a rest, “Don’t think so, Mum.”
“Are you being bullied? It’s just that’s the third time you’ve come home with damage to your school clothes.”
Mark felt his face begin to burn with shame and embarrassment. One of the most pernicious effects of bullying was it turned the victims into apologists for their own misery. His mother ruffled his hair because she didn’t need to ask any more questions.
“Keep Tuesday and Thursday nights free.”
“Because we’re going to put a stop to this.”
He had expected to hate the evenings in the Karate Dojo and the first few times he felt terribly self-conscious, in his school sports kit, while the other kids were a maelstrom of kinetic energy in their dōgi. He had been frightened of having to chop planks and screeching like Bruce Lee, but the experienced Sensei took the newcomers through the basics, concentrating on the kihon, the fundamentals of self-discipline and the endless training of his runty little body. After his first week, he ached in parts he never knew he had. Much to his surprise, this was the part that appealed to Mark’s inner self and he felt like bursting with pride when the Sensei presented him with his dōgi after the first few weeks.
The karate he practised at the dojo placed emphasis on fitness and self-development for the younger members, rather than fighting in its purest form. They practised with punch bags and mannequins before being allowed to fight each other and by the late summer, Mark attended his first grading and reached the grade of yellow belt. By the autumn he was an orange belt and would attain a green belt or 6th kyu in the following February. The kata he had to master were becoming increasingly more difficult and he barely noticed how fit he was becoming. By now he didn’t need his mother to drive him into the town and happily got the bus, looking forward to Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
His father was dismissive, “Why can’t you do a proper sport like boxing or football instead of all of this stupid, Chinese wrestling?”
His sister would take the piss by imitating a very bad Bruce Lee routine with all the screeches or she would call him the ‘Karate Kid.’ As far as school went, he and his fellow Non-conventionals endured a low level of insurgency bullying, but one evening after practising for the school play, Billy was ambushed by the Munroe Gang as he left the school. Billy was subjected to a violent assault where he was kicked in the head and lost an upper left lateral incisor. Martin Bleeston (another Non-conventional) caught up with Mark at lunchtime.
“Edgie, have you heard about, Billy Walsh? He got beaten up by Monroe last night after the play.”
“So that’s why he wasn’t at school this morning. Bastards.”
“His Mum came to the school this morning and complained to the headmaster.”
“They won’t do anything they never shitting-well do!” Mark said with feeling. Fuck was still very much in the fuel-air explosive grade of swearwords. The C-word was of course the nuclear option that would result in probable excommunication.
Mark pondered the fate of Billy Walsh all afternoon. Affable Billy who wouldn’t hurt a fly and whose crime was to be fat, or ‘big boned’ as Billy’s mother said. The Non-conventionals’ convoy system could never work all the time. Billy returned to school the next day and scurried around, taking cover with other, available Non-conventionals, like a wounded zebra on the periphery of the herd. He had the beginnings of a black eye, a grazed cheek that bore the imprint of a training shoe and a hunted, frightened look.
Mark felt the familiar stirrings of his deep, seething bouts of anger that always seemed to be dormant within him, like geothermal activity under Yellowstone National Park. His anger was a symptom of anxiety, overcompensated by violence. Mark associated anxiety with cowardice and his anger was a coping mechanism for deep-seated anxiety. Yes, sure he was angry with Monroe and his gang, who were swaggering around the school environs like petty gangsters, but he was angrier with the teachers in his school who were in loco parentis and were supposed to have a duty of care over their charges. They seemed indifferent or wilfully blind to someone who had obviously suffered a serious assault. Only Mr Jennings seemed to notice Billy Walsh’s contused face and stopped him in the corridor.
“William Walsh. You appear to have been in the wars. Is there anything you want to tell me? I might be able to help you know.” It was like he knew, because he did.
And Billy so wanted to tell Mr Jennings, and Mark who was with him so wanted Billy to tell him as well. But that would break the code. That would be a long, social suicide. Jennings knew it. Billy certainly knew it and Mark knew it, because he went through school life like a middle-rank Bomber Command crew, halfway through their first tour. While the German night fighters were attacking a lone Sterling, coned in the searchlights the Mark Edges and Martin Bleestons could slip unnoticed into the clouds. Billy shook his head and Jennings smiled sadly.
“You know where I am, Lad.”
That afternoon, lost in the boredom of Alpine transhumance in double geography, Mark Edge decided that he was fed up of being a middle-rank Lancaster crew and decided to become a Serrate Mosquito night fighter.
The following week Mark had a dental appointment at 14:30 (tooth hurtee as his fellow losers giggled). It was only for a check-up, but his mother’s note didn’t specify that and Mark had no intentions of returning to school. He headed for the Horeston Grange area of Nuneaton and waited patiently around the Wadebridge Wood. He had already conducted two surveillance operations on Ali Munroe’s trip home from school, a walk of about a mile and a half. He noticed one of Munroe’s wing men peel off for the bus station, while the second headed for Hill Top. Mark guessed Monroe would take the short cut through the Maltings and across the disused railway to Etone College Sports Fields. It was quiet this time of the afternoon, the period between the primary school runs and the returns from work. Mark spotted him heading towards Wadebridge Wood and his anger was dark and seething in his soul. Monroe passed his ambush position and Mark moved swiftly, approaching from Munroe’s five-o-clock.
The first inclination Monroe had that anything was amiss, was when the flat palm of an open hand smashed into his right ear. It was a massive blow that sent a shockwave of air into his middle ear that dizzied him and in agony, Ali Monroe staggered and fell over. Mark was on top of him, straddling him and keeping his arms pinned down with his knees. He pressed his index and middle fingers down behind Monroe’s collar bones and pushed his fingers in hard, behind the clavicles. Mark’s fingers were bony and rock hard after continually pounding a basin full of builders’ sand. Ali Monroe started to wail, then scream with pain.
When he was satisfied that Monroe was incapacitated, Mark clenched his fist and started to batter his face, not with the knuckles, but hammering down with the padded bottom his fist. Monroe’s nasal cartilage went, but he kept going. Mark Edge subscribed to the IDF version of deterrence. You can’t argue with violent entities who want your destruction. The anger had taken over, the red mist. It had taken less than thirty seconds and Monroe was barely conscious, leaking watery blood and mucus.
The red mist dissipated and Mark felt fear. He stood up and ran to where he had left his coat and school bag in the trees. He risked a final look at Monroe, who had pulled himself up on one elbow and was trying to stand up. Monroe was snivelling and wailing like the child he still was. Heart thumping with dread, Mark disappeared through the trees, sobbing with guilt and fear. Unknowingly, he had laid out the template for the rest of his life.
Mark spent an agony of three days before Ali Monroe returned to school. Every day and night he expected the police to come to his school, or knock on his parents’ door and spent sleepless nights tossing and turning, racked with guilt. When he returned, Monroe wore his facial scars and broken nose as a badge of triumph. He was a celebrity because he had been beaten up by a gang of big, very big kids. He told how he had tried to fight them off, but they had knives and he was lucky they hadn’t killed him. But the bottom line was, even kids like Monroe have a code, and he would have been destroyed if anybody found out he had been beaten up by Mark Edge, the school’s loser-in-chief. But he was also afraid, because he had met a far more violent person than he could ever be. Monroe hunted with a gang, but Mark Edge was the solitary tiger burning brightly in the night. Ali Monroe was afraid, because he had seen the deadlights in Edge’s empty eyes.
Mark also noticed a remarkable and distasteful phenomena, the fact that certain females seemed naturally drawn to violent, sociopathic bullies. Irony passed his fifteen-year-old self with barely a whisper, but again this would come to haunt him in later life. There was name calling, random unpleasantness, but not one of the Non-conventionals was ever singled out for violent attention ever again. In truth, as they grew older, other distractions got in the way…
Mark’s year was one of the last in English schools to sit GCEs and he had done well. Bs in English, history, woodwork and technical drawing, Cs in Geography and Spanish, a disappointing D in mathematics and an F in religious studies, in an era when other faiths were identified, but still not studied with fawning slavishness. England was still a country in contact with its core beliefs and values.
There remained the problem of what he was to do when he left school. Mark had always had an interest in all things military as a child, from making rather a good job of Airfix kits, to drawing aircraft. He had watched in stunned fascination, the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, fighting a war over and in a small group of islands at the bottom of the world. He had lived with Irish Republican terrorism as a fact of life and knew a significant number of people and their families in the West Midlands that supported the IRA. Collection jars were often found in pubs frequented by the Irish Republican community, not the first destructive parasites the English were forced to tolerate. He despised them.
Mark had an uncle whom he really liked and often wished that he had been his father. He would have been astonished to find out that his Uncle Jack was indeed his father, in a time when his mother was a vivacious and attractive woman, before being browbeaten by an overbearing husband and an over-indulged, obnoxious daughter. His father never talked much about his brother, but his mother did, always with a little, faraway glimmer in her eye. Jack Edge had been had been a corporal in the Support Company of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment from 1951 to 1952, during the Korean War. Uncle Jack had been in the sniper platoon. On the rare occasions he visited, Uncle Jack had shown a keen interest in young Mark. Uncle Jack was the hero Mark so badly needed and at seven-years-of-age, Mark decided he wanted to join the Army.
One evening, his “father” brought up the subject of Mark’s future and employment prospects, “I’ve managed to enrol you in an apprenticeship at the Jaguar works, in the body and design shop. Your exam grades aren’t too bad, but I had to pull a few strings to get you in. They’ll even grant you release to college to get the Maths you ballsed-up.”
Mark knew a storm was brewing, “That’s very kind of you, Dad, but as I’ve told you, I want to join the Army.”
His father was contemptuous, “What? A bloody mummy’s boy like you. The first time the IRA shoots at you, you’ll shit yourself.”
“Possibly, but I have no intention of working for the rest of my life in a car factory.”
“Why? Not good enough for precious, little Mark? Well, working in a bloody car factory had put a roof over your head.”
“I thought that was the Council.”
“Which regiment? The Queens Own Airfix Kit Makers?” Edge senior chortled at his own joke.
The sniping continued for over a year because Mark’s father refused to sign any paperwork that would have allowed him to join the Army, prior to his eighteenth birthday. Mark got a part time job in a garden centre off the A5, lost his virginity and learned to drive. He honed his fitness levels and achieved Nidan level black belt. His mother remained supportive despite her misgivings and wore down his father who agreed to sign any paperwork the Army required. Frankly, he would be glad to see the back of his disappointment of a son.
At seventeen and seven months, Mark Edge was attested into the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment (29th/45th Foot), issued with a travel warrant to the Army Training Regiment at Pirbright and two days’ pay. The day he left home, his father was at work, his sister told him he wouldn’t last the week. His mother drove him to Nuneaton railway station.
“You will write.”
“And make sure you have breakfast every day.”
“And for God’s sake, take care of yourself.”
There seemed little to say as the two of them waited for the London train. As it came into view, his mother hugged him tightly. She felt as frail as a bird.
“Bye, Mum. Don’t worry.”
She didn’t wait for the train to pull out, giving Mark a last wave and a sad, little smile. The tears were streaming down her face by the time she got back to the car. She was crying over the loss of a son, and the years she had wasted living with an empty, overbearing bully. How she wished she had followed her heart and the only man she had ever truly loved. It started to rain.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file