Monday, 22 December 2014

Not The Brightest

When do you become old? When do you stop being young and accept that your changing body is very slowly shutting down, like a laptop running Windows 95 or an ancient golf umbrella?

For me it was 20th December 2014, about 11am in the morning, in a wooded field in Grendon, Northamptonshire, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. I went Paintballing. Paintballing is fun, they say. I got to dress up like a camouflaged fat soldier and run around in ankle deep mud carrying a gas-powered pistol that fires paint pellets at the speed of light. They sting a bit if they hit you. They provided a ‘Darth Vader’ mask for protection that rendered peripheral vision obsolete and also meant that everyone looked the same. I went with my two sons. It was an end of year treat for the under 12 footy team. One plays for them and the other supports them. A real family effort.  ‘Don’t shoot me boys, I am your father’, I wheezed through the plastic vent. This had no effect on my little Skywalkers.

The pellets weren’t the problem. I’d cut myself shaving with a hangover and had had a playful puppy bite you where it shouldn’t play. They both sting more.  Dressed as a Death Star Dad’s Army Veteran I simply forgot that I was a 47 year man who does very little exercise. I threw myself into Paintballing with all the passion of a twenty-something, forgetting that I could be a twenty-something’s father. I am not, but we are all twenty-something’s in our head, whether we are older than that fabled age or younger, both wishing to be that age for entirely different reasons. If you are one of the twelve year olds I was with  then you would ache to be a twenty-something for the dynamism and thrill of being at the apex of your physical prowess. Being 47 I was aching to return to an age where you could sleep through the night without rising for a pee and wondering if you’d turned the boiler off. That said, I was like Sylvester Stallone, yesterday. Not Sly in ‘Rambo’, you understand, more like Sly in ‘Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot’. Nevertheless I was determined to give it my best shot. At £6 per game I could hardly afford otherwise.

Capture the Fort. My finest hour. Pinned down by a barrage of paint we adults sent the tiny ones scurrying towards the bridge. ‘We’ll cover you’, we lied, as they ran into a hail of paint. This gave just enough time for us Oldies to slide across the mud and onto the bridge ourselves. Truth is the first casualty of war. And then I became old. Screaming in my best Hamburger Hill accent I dived forward, upward and onward toward the fort, landing three metres from it with a loud thud that sounded like a sixteen stone man falling flat on his face, chest, ribs and chin. I heard a loud crack. It must’ve been a twig as I landed.

We caught the fort, won the war and were the victors. Afterwards, I ripped my visor from my face and flicked my hair back in a victory flick. It hurt my neck. My ribs started to ache and my left knee was throbbing. I’d spent £50 on paint and I couldn’t get my oversized camo’s off as I had lost the ability to bend. A bath and a nap would sort it out.

A bath and a nap made it worse. I fell asleep on my bruised ribs and woke up groaning and wheezing and scaring the dog and making my wife and children laugh. That’s pretty much the family dynamic right there.

Not all of us have such a clear demarcation to ageing. Many of us simply find that some of the things we used to do become slightly more difficult to achieve as the years progress. Lightbulbs become harder to change as we struggle to read the box, struggle to stretch to screw it in and struggle to remember why we put the broken ones back in a box.

The one thing that never changes, for me at least, is the determination to stay a twenty-something, in my head at least. My eldest son was enthused with adrenalin following the Paintballing and was talking me as I hobbled around the house clutching my ribs and rubbing my knee.

‘Dad, dad, it was great wasn’t it? Dad, I shot loads. Dad, dad, can I ask you something?’

‘You can ask me anything, mate, you know that’

‘Can we go Paintballing again for my birthday in February?’

‘Hell, yeah,’ I said, ‘I slid across the bridge and captured the fort and shot loads, too. Course we can. Do you know where we put the lightbulbs?’

Monday, 15 December 2014

Other Cargo

Sergeant Frank Johnson stared in silent defiance at the Union Flag, drawn to the red in the middle. The roar and rhythm of the turboprops from the Hercules transporter plane merely added to his hypnotised solemnity. Deep rumblings passed throughout the plane, through him and around him and went…God knows where. They were cruising at an altitude of 20,000 feet and had just been told by the pilot that they had begun their descent into R.A.F. Brize Norton and would land in exactly 15 minutes. 07.21 hours. So very precise. Must be over England now. The noise seemed to grow and throb in his head, unapologetic to the occasion. He glanced momentarily away from the flag and observed his five young sombre companions, each lost in their own private acts of remembrance. Military Bearer Party Number One. That was how they were described on the flight manifest. Sapper Davey Howells, 21, of Coatbridge from the arse-end of Glasgow, skinny for his age, cheeky little sod, but as determined an Engineer as Frank had seen in his 16 years of service, was simply described as ‘Other Cargo’.
            The plane banked sharply for its final descent of a familiar route, punching through the lowest of the cloud hanging over the Oxfordshire countryside to reveal a waking England scurrying over a duvet of green. Frank’s back stiffened against the red harnessed webbing of his seat. His bearer party were quick to copy. The flag had remained rigid throughout the flight, fixed firmly as it was to the coffin which itself was tethered to the floor of the plane by six military-precision clasps. Frank’s stomach dropped as he felt the plane touch down. The roar of the turboprops slowly faded from inside the plane as it taxied to a ceremonial halt. Frank unhooked himself from the harness, adjusted the red sash on his dress uniform and eyed the others who sharply followed suit. The cavernous cargo door slowly opened to reveal a solitary, empty black hearse, a slightly overweight army chaplain clasping the Good Book and the wailing sound of a lone piper. Howells was nearly home. Frank had never felt as lonely as he stared out of the pit of the plane and ordered the clasps to be released. The hardest part of his journey should have been over.

The pub in Carterton was used to seeing its patrons in military uniform. The Americans had brought some small glamour to this market town in the 50’s and 60’s and subsequently the R.A.F. had been ever present at nearby Brize Norton. It was the closest watering-hole to the airfield and as ever it was the noisiest.
            ‘So where’s Davey gone now?’ Rob Atkins swallowed the last of his beer and looked around for a refill. The rest of the party shrugged their shoulders and looked to Sergeant Frank Johnson for an answer.
            ‘John Radcliffe.’ Frank saw them slowly raise their heads and realised they were just as confused as Rob.
            ‘John who…?’ The 20 year old Sapper continued to nudge and prod his empty glass towards the others as if it were a collection plate, eager to pass it on. Rob would never win any prizes for tact unless a girl was involved and yet Frank still trusted him with his life, if not his wallet.
            ‘Local hospital,’ Frank sighed, ‘their mortuary until Thursday then we travel up to Glasgow for the service on Saturday.’ Rob appeared to immediately take this information on board and then dismiss it.
            ‘Well Davey’s got a pretty decent excuse for not getting the next one in but it’s not my round and I can still taste desert. Who’s lining ‘em up?’ He slammed his empty glass down like a gavel and looked around for a reply. Frank waited all of three seconds before producing his wallet.
            ‘So what’s a Dragoon, then?’ Nipper Thomas had sidled up to the bar to collect the round with Frank.
            ‘Your mum, that’s who,’ quipped Rob, ‘she’s a right dragon so all the men in your valley tell me’
            ‘DRAGOON, not dragon, you prat.’ Nipper had ignored Rob’s barrack-room banter and looked to Frank for an answer. ‘Still, I’m very proud of the Welsh Dragon, me, very proud indeed. I’m proud of my mam too. Raised eight of us she did, all alone she was. Very proud indeed.’ The lyrical inanities of Nipper’s musings were interrupted by Rob.
            ‘Couldn't have been that alone if she had eight kids.’ Rob winked and smiled before snatching the beer from the bar and going outside for a smoke.
            ‘The Bold Dragoon. That’s the name of this pub, Sarge, isn't it? Why’s that?’
            ‘Why’s what Nipper?’ Frank had barely been listening to the boy from Bridgend and was watching Rob in the beer garden, who had moved seats to allow a delivery of beer into the rear cellar. Frank saw Rob’s eyes fixed on the dray men as they rolled their barrels down the ramp.
            ‘What’s a Dragoon? And why’s it Bold? Now a bold Dragon I could understand, red and fiery and the like, a bit like me on a Saturday ni…’
            ‘…Jesus, Nipper lad, give it a rest. What do I look like!? Google!!?’ Frank snapped at the small Welshman who shrunk at the rebuke. Nipper quickly grabbed two pints of lager and took them back to their table whilst Frank took the other three, his eyes still fixed on Rob in the garden, who had now finished his cigarette and remained seated outside with yet another empty glass still watching the delivery with detached intent.
            The table had fallen silent. Nipper had decided he didn’t need or want to know what a Dragoon was and Frank certainly wasn’t forthcoming with an answer. The other three Bearers in the party, Macintosh, Carter and Wilkie, had given up on their debate as to who had the best way to disrobe a young lady of a G-string on a dance floor.
            ‘I shared my birthday with him, did anyone know? Same year and everything,’ Nipper thought he was on safer ground here with Frank. ‘Though he was all of four hours older,’ he added.
            ‘Not anymore,’ was all that Frank replied, never taking his eyes off of Rob.
            ‘We were born in the same town,’ said Wilkie, who was interrupted by Macintosh.
            ‘Same town, my arse! You were born in Airdrie, Davey was from Coatbridge. Chalk and cheese pal.’ He may have lost the G-string battle but of this he was certain. Airdrie was three miles from Coatbridge.
            ‘We passed bricklaying together in Chatham,’ Carter added, ‘were gonna set up a nice little construction company when we got out. Had it all planned out apart from the name. Carter and Howells sounds so much better than Howells and Carter, doesn't it?’ He stopped and retraced the words in his head. ‘Er…didn’t it?’ Macintosh smiled as if a great revelation had passed over him and had to be shared with the world.
            ‘Not as good as Carter and Howells (deceased), might drum up a bit of sympathy trade.’ Frank was used to the sick and twisted humour of army life. It was one of the few things that seemed a constant. Whilst the boys were making jokes they were functioning and whilst they were functioning he could see them through the next few days. Frank’s mind jumped from Carterton to Kandahar. You never fully wash the taste of it from your mouth, no matter how many miles or how many pints you try to put in its way. The dust never really settles and it goes…God knows where.
            Rob Atkins was still sitting in silence in the pub garden, the sounds of the jukebox barely reaching his ears, his cigarette burned through to the filter and his beer glass empty. He watched as the first dray man roughly pushed the last of the barrels from the delivery truck and saw it roll down the ramp onto a dirty cushioned mat. It was then kicked nosily along the cobbled beer garden to the entrance to the rear cellar. A small vein throbbed in Rob’s temple, the grip on his empty glass tightening. The barrel disappeared from view but its dark rumblings could be heard from the cellar as it was placed into its final position. The second dray man, slightly overweight, emerged panting from the cellar clutching a clipboard as Rob raised himself from his seat.
            ‘This,’ he slowly said to the fat delivery man, ‘is my fucking beer.’
            ‘You what, mate, you signing for this?’ The dray man was confused as Rob stood in his way.
            ‘These barrels, this beer, it’s mine.’
            ‘If you say so, mate, can I have a signature then?’

            ‘No. NO! You take care of these barrels, you don’t throw them around, you don’t crash them into each other and you show them some RESPECT!’ With this Rob smashed his empty glass onto the table. The dray man backed nervously away as Rob stood silently in the garden with a smile on his face as the blood from his hand trickled into the cobbled stones and ran towards the cellar.