It was a family tradition to die and the day had now arrived for Aubrey to go to war. He’d spent much of his young life worrying such a day would never come. As he brushed his teeth he brushed them with a fury that channelled blood into his spit, spit that drained away to… the sea, he supposed. Aubrey grinned without humour at the considered reflection of himself and wondered if he would have any teeth left to clean by the end of the day. He wiped paste from his lips onto the sleeve of his uniform, grabbed the bag that hung heavy from the bannister and left home for what he supposed could be the last time. He wondered if he would be missed, wondered of the tears that might be shed. Slamming the door on his mother’s goodbye, the spring rain washing away such thoughts, Aubrey heaved his burden over his shoulder, a weighty reminder of his fate and victory to come. The harsh morning sun blinded as he made his way along the glistening pavement, passing the row of tenements he’d known a lifetime; a street and a lifetime so often in shadow. But not today. Today the sun lingered low at the end of his street and the day’s shadows were yet to be cast. Hand to brow, the boy squinted at tethered silhouettes of barrage balloons above. ‘Yes,’ thought Aubrey, ‘it would be a fine day to die.’
It had been inevitable that Aubrey would someday join the navy. His father had lived and died at sea, as had his grandfather, apparently. Aubrey had often accompanied his father down to the harbour to see him off on those dark mornings, to be there in the same spot as if he hadn’t moved a muscle all day until his father returned. If his father’s tales were to be believed, the boat’s captain, Bill Frazer, was a mean old beggar, yet the captain had nevertheless allowed Aubrey to heave that thick wet mooring line over that rusting red bollard since learning that Aubrey was a grand 8 and a half years of age. It was upon that rusting red bollard that Aubrey would sit and wait for the boat, waiting for his father and the men. Aubrey liked to be around the men. They swore and so his father swore and Aubrey then saw his father the man. Mother would not approve. While waiting for the boat, for his father, Aubrey would sometimes tug at the ropes of the other boats to see if he could pull them in. Aubrey could barely lift some of those ropes, some of them 8 inches or so, like the one his dad used to throw him. The height of the harbour wall obscured the open sea but Aubrey would keep a lookout for the the gulls that accompanied his father’s boat and the catch that it carried. The boat, all 24ft of the finest Class II Seiner would glide into the harbour with all the men busying themselves with some task or other. All except his father who made a point to stand proud, a foot placed upon an aft cleat, arms folded until alongside when he’d salute his own son, maintaining his balance and poise as if it were easy to do so. He made many things look easy to Aubrey. Then he’d toss the hawser for Aubrey to tie-off.
Yes, saltwater diluted Aubrey’s blood and his fate was sealed when the naval recruitment officer visited the school. Aubrey sat in alphabetical order amongst the other 12 year olds and, like them, had listened impatiently and without interest to whatever it was that Mr Knudsen had been wittering on about, waiting for what he had to say about the man in uniform sat behind him and the poster display of warships, salutes and large binoculars with swastikas reflected on each lens. Mr Knudsen eventually allowed the officer to address the children and that officer stood tall as he did so, looking quite the man in his dress blues. He had convinced Aubrey not only by the way he stood, but by the way he stood out. The officer addressed the room, yet it seemed to Aubrey as if he addressed him more than the others. He even made eye contact. There was a challenge to be met, skills to be acquired, respect to be earned, a wide world to see, a life to defend; the navy was the life.
‘Fight for your country,’ commanded the officer. ‘Fight for your loved ones, your family, your way of life. Fight for king and country. Fight for God. There is no more honourable a calling, and there has never been a greater threat than the one heading to these shores.’
Father would no doubt approve and the uniform was very smart.
Any heroic vision Aubrey had imagined of himself in such a uniform was beaten out of him that lunchtime by The Littles. The Littles were anything but – five of the tallest, or at least widest boys in the year who spent their free time destroying school property and the occasional school pupil. Boy or girl, they did not discriminate. On this particular day, and not for the first time, Aubrey became the object of their affections. Aubrey had seen his friend George up ahead in the lunch queue and George duly beckoned Aubrey over to join him. An obliging sort that Aubrey was, he didn’t even get a word out before a hand grabbed at the very roots of his hairs and yanked his head back as far as it would go.
‘Get back,’ growled a voice that strained through gritted teeth.
As the owner of the voice cast Aubrey out of the line against the wall of the corridor, Aubrey saw that it was John Dunn, the meanest and widest of The Littles. Rumour had it that Dunn’s father had killed a man in a pub fight, which was why he was never around, and why Dunn had taken exception to Aubrey. Aubrey’s father had died with honour, had died romantically and without a trace, and that wasn’t fair. As a result, Aubrey now stood before an audience of boys and girls laughing at him as he absent-mindedly patted his hair back down.
‘Who’d ya think you are, eh, Barker?’ said Dunn, before gobbing onto Aubrey’s trousers and making the question somewhat rhetorical.
Aubrey looked to George, who was of no use whatsoever in such scenarios, being even shorter and skinnier than Aubrey. Knowing this and knowing that Aubrey knew this, George turned about and looked straight ahead, hopelessly conspicuous. With watering eyes but without a word, Aubrey made his way to the back of the lunch queue, his scalp on fire.
‘Aye, that’s right,’ came Dunn’s voice down the line. ‘Get ya later.’
And he did. During a particularly sweaty bout of hide ’n’ seek, Aubrey’s hiding place was given away when Dunn and The Littles pointed him out to nobody in particular, before dragging him out from behind the bins, tearing the pocket of an already-torn blazer.
‘Among the rubbish, eh?’ said Dunn. ‘A typical Barker. Right, lads? Like yer mum, right? Right, Barker?’
‘You… you shut yer face,’ Aubrey countered, surprising himself.
‘Aye?’ shoved Dunn. ‘Make me.’ He shoved Aubrey again. ‘Come on then.’ More shoving. Dunn was the sort who pushed you away when he wanted you to come closer.
A suggestion was made to smack Aubrey by one of The Littles. Aubrey considered his predicament, assessed the situation, calculated the odds. He recalled the headache he’d suffered one long night the previous summer after Philip Doyle had broken his nose for him, after already accusing him of being a pikey. However, Aubrey knew that if he were to ever fight for his country, he’d have to fight. The enemy was approaching and Aubrey was heavily outmanned. What would his father have done? Before Aubrey had a chance to answer such a question, Dunn buried his fist into his stomach, knocking the wind and soul right out of him. Aubrey thought he’d never breathe again as the world around watched, pointed and laughed. While busy bent double, a hand shoved him over onto the tarmac, followed by a swift boot to kidneys.
‘Tig,’ said Dunn, gobbing again. ‘You’re it. Same again tomorrow? Oh, and if you tell on me, I’ll get yer sister an’ all.’
‘This means war,’ Aubrey whispered to the tarmac as he stayed down. He had no intention of telling. Nobody told. You fight your own battles. Fighting was a part of life, but now was not the time. The teachers frowned upon it, as did mother. It wasn’t allowed yet. Aubrey couldn’t wait to join the navy. Then he would be a legitimate hero.
On the eve of his war, Aubrey hadn’t wanted to return straight home, it being possibly the last time he would ever return home. Instead, he headed down to the harbour. There were a few people milling about but nobody could distract him from his fears and hopes. He located the rusting red bollard and took his rightful place despite having nobody left to wait for. The men had taken from the sea until the sea had taken the men to the bottom of the world.
‘How many fish have fed upon the fishermen?’ Aubrey pondered.
Now, however, the evening was still, the water calm and no boats were to return, just like the day he’d waited for his father in hope and in vain. He looked to the sky as much as to the sea. The boats already moored bobbed up and down, their languid bells ringing upon the tide, calling time on the day. Aubrey leaned forward and peered down at the rusting ladder that disappeared into it’s own reflection and he fought the urge to descend. His father was down there somewhere. ‘One day,’ thought Aubrey, ‘one day I’ll follow.’ But there was a war to be won first, a fight to be fought. A good fight. The whole world was busy fighting it and now it had come upon Aubrey to fight also. He sat up straight and inhaled the salt of the air, his foot tapping the thick rope that pierced the still water and emerged up to his father’s boat, the one that he knew was no longer there, never to return. The rope was heavy as Aubrey pulled at it.
Yes, it would be a fine day to die. Aubrey felt something approaching envy for those who’d had the honour of dying for their country, their family, their way of life. Dying for a living was what Aubrey and all his friends had wished their days away to be able to do, and now Aubrey was to be the first. He was to fight. Like a man. The spring rain had subsided by the time Aubrey reached the school gates and he soon saw The Littles perched on a bench like a murder of crows, perched beside the large puddle that overwhelmed the drain near the bike sheds. Time was of the essence, war would not wait. There had to be witnesses and there were many waiting for the bell. No time like the present. Aubrey’s shoulder ached with the weight of his bag and he set it down, unbuckling it and peering inside. As mother was frequently fond of screaming, Aubrey was slapped ‘into the middle of next week’ whenever he misbehaved, and Dunn had certainly misbehaved. Aubrey reached inside and retrieved his weapon of choice and the weapon was still damp and as heavy as the sea.
The Littles nodded behind Dunn and Dunn turned, amused as much as perplexed to see Aubrey Barker standing before him, a thick length of rope dangling from a clenched fist. Complementing that fist was a large knot that Aubrey had tied at the other end, a Double Overhand knot the size of a real man’s fist, and it was this knot that struck Dunn’s jaw, literally wiping the smile from his face. It was the lower part of the jaw that was broken, and Dunn was sent flailing into the puddle that never drained. Aubrey heard distant cheers and jeers somewhere around him as he waded into the water. Dunn’s blood, like the rainwater, refused to drain away. The hand that Dunn didn’t use to hold his face together reached up, yet was no match for the Double Overhand. The cracking sound was produced by Dunn’s thumb as the knot struck it. And as Aubrey brought the rope down onto Dunn again and again and again, cheers became pleas, those pleas then becoming cries, then silence. The war was over and nobody was the same again. At some point Aubrey was relieved of his weapon. At some point arms enveloped him, but instead of embracing him they restrained him. Both boys were limp and sodden as they were pulled from the water.
The silhouette of Mr Knudsen lurked in the light of his office window, contemplating the world outside and the world within. Aubrey could see that he had his hands behind his back (as always), but the rest of the man was somewhat lost to shadow and sun. Aubrey looked away from the light and followed the sound of the grandfather clock in the far corner. ‘Not long now,’ he thought, ‘not long before mother would appear.’ Aubrey rubbed one hand against the other, both chaffed by rope. Mr Knudsen cleared his throat and turned his attention to the boy stood before him, his sallow features clenched, his sighs heavy and heartfelt.
‘I asked you a question, my lad. What gives you the right… the right to do such a thing to another living soul, hmm?’
‘Don’t know, sir.’
“Don’t know, sir,’ says he. Well, it’s a question you need to consider, my lad. Certainly a question your mother should consider, don’t you think? Hmm?’ Mr Knudsen took a step into the room and fondled the a stack of papers on his desk, the stack that never seemed to diminish. He jabbed a finger onto them with each word. ‘Frankly, I’m somewhat tired of doing your mother’s job for her. Poor woman, I know, has her hands full as it is, but there is a limit to what I can do for you or for her. What would your father think? Have we not taught you well? Have we not instilled in you the virtues expected of all of God’s children?’
Aubrey watched as Mr Knudsen orbited the grand desk that separated them, the man never once breaking eye contact. It was only a matter of time.
‘That poor lad out there, what did he ever do to deserve that, eh? Good heavens, you almost took his jaw clean off. Believe-you-me, you’ll be borstal-bound before you know what’s hit you, which will be me, I assure you. Care to explain to the boy’s mother, his father why you did what you did to their boy? And to think I thought your poor mother a respectable woman raising respectable children. Dear oh dear oh dear.’ As his head shook, he reached down and found the cane without looking. ‘Violence has no place in a civilised society. It solves nothing. What do you want to make of yourself, boy? Why, if you only knew the world you live in.’ Mr Knudsen positioned himself so that Aubrey could smell the kippers he’d had for breakfast. ‘I don’t take any pleasure from this, you understand, but you leave me little choice in the matter. Rules are rules.’
‘W-war,’ sputtered Aubrey.
‘Come again,’ said Mr Knudsen, peering down his nose.
‘I want to go to war. See the world, fight the enemy, gain a trade. I want to join the navy. That’s… that’s what I want to make of myself, sir. I suppose.’
Mr Knudsen studied the boy’s eyes until locating the truth behind them, ‘Commendable, boy. Commendable indeed. But they don’t take just anybody. Not yet, anyway. No, sir. No, there is a time and a place for fighting, I assure you.’ The man bowed the cane between his fists as he made his way behind.
Aubrey considered his lack of options. It wasn’t that long ago when they’d be caned on the palm of the hand, but that technique was now solely reserved for the girls ever since John Oakley had whipped his hand away at the last moment and Mrs Peacock had struck herself on the shin, much to the delight of everybody but Mrs Peacock. Now, however, all boys must bend over until they touch their toes, though trousers are to remain up to lend proceedings a semblance of civility. Never did anybody any harm, apparently. ‘Never did me any harm,’ said the man as he raised the cane above the boy. ‘Now, touch your toes, boy.’ The boy obliged. ‘And believe me when I tell you, young sir, that you’ll one day look back on this moment and thank me.’
Blood rushed to Aubrey’s head as he touched the tips of his sodden shoes, ‘I’m sure I’ll be forever grateful, sir.’
As a boy growing up in Scunthorpe, of all places, Ian wanted to be a writer. More specifically, he wanted to be a novelist. Even more specifically, he wanted to be a knovelist with a silent ‘K’. Nevertheless, Ian moved to Edinburgh and has since self-published his debut novel, The Life Lived, has appeared alongside Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood in the book Tales On Tweet, and has read his short story work twice at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Along with short stories, Ian threatens to complete a second novel whenever his two young children allow him the time.
If you enjoyed An Acceptable Violence, leave a comment and let Ian know.
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