“The final hour before battle tests the mental and physical stamina of even the most experienced soldier”.
That’s what Dad told you; your real dad, not the idiot Mum’s currently shacked up with. She calls him ‘Derek’, or ‘hun’. You call him Waste of Space, but only behind his back.
“Waiting to go into battle, you need to stay focused, but calm,” Dad said, talking to you about his tour of duty in Helmand Province.
“Too keyed-up and your body floods with stress hormones. That’ll make you anxious and drain your physical stamina, but,” he had continued, looking at his hand as if the memory was right there in his palm, “get too relaxed and you lose all your adrenaline. You’re gonna need that adrenaline to overcome the fear”.
Dad said some soldiers used anger to keep them focused, but anger was like dynamite, he reckoned.
“Anger makes you impatient; it clouds your judgement. That sort of thing is going to get you and your mates blown to kingdom come,” he said.
Dad was always telling you stuff about his time in the army, his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. You can’t remember nearly as much of it as you’d like; you wish now that you’d paid more attention.
You seethe with impatience as Mum and Waste of Space murmur their goodnight’s and quietly retreat out of your bedroom. Mum pauses to close the blind over your skylight. Waste-of-Space slinks out, your death-stare burning a hole in his back.
You wait in the dark, counting the beats of your heart; ‘babum, babum’ – two beats every second. You listen hard. There it is; the creak of the stairs shortly followed by the reassuring murmur of the TV. Creatures of habit, they’ll be settling down to an evening of TV, family-sized snack-bags, fags and cans.
Time for action. Since getting home from school, you’ve been busy and are raring to go. You reach a hand down the side of the mattress groping for the hidden torch – Waste of Space’s torch. He says it has the power of a million candles. “That’s how they measure the brightness,” he insists, seeing the doubt in your face. “You know, mate – like how many candles would it take to get the equivalent brightness?”
‘Equivalent’ is the longest word you’ve ever heard Waste of Space say. You’re amazed he even knows it.
“Like a car’s power is measured in horses, yeah?” he insists.
You look at him blankly.
“You’ve heard of horse-power haven’t you mate?” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
“By the way…”, he’s serious now, “never point that thing into the sky at night, ‘specially not at planes or helicopters. It’s too powerful yeah? Shine it at a police helicopter by accident and they’ll fine you big time – except it’ll be me they send the bill to, you get me?”
Happened to his mate, he says. You’re barely listening, but he goes on.
“Worst case scenario – you dazzle the pilot, cause the fucking thing to crash – that’s manslaughter right there.” He pokes you in the chest to emphasise his point. He’s full of shit – it’s only a torch, not a rocket launcher.
Radiance from the torch beam illuminates your subterranean blanket-world. You often smuggle the torch into bed. You like to experiment with lighting different tent-like structures made with your knees, imagining what? Lunar landscapes, ice caves, animal burrows…
Sometimes you pretend to be trapped, buried under an avalanche, waiting to be discovered, wondering whether you will suffocate before or after the torch batteries fade and die. The idea of choking to death in the dark horrifies, but also excites you. Not tonight. Tonight, you’re on a mission; there’s wrong to be righted, war to be waged. Dad would be proud of you.
Pulling back the bed-covers, you shine the torch around your room, lighting up the war-game playing out on the carpet; it never really ends, just like the real wars your dad fought in. There’s a truck towing a crane on its way to the railway bridge to rebuild the broken section, dynamited by enemy saboteurs. Your mercenaries awaiting its arrival; they fight on the side of good – provided the price is right. Tonight they are defending the bridge repairs, all too aware that the recent act of sabotage is likely to be followed by an all out attack.
Sergeant Slaughter is in charge at the bridge. He comes to attention and salutes you.
“Sergeant, I have new orders for you – special ops mission. Now!”
“But Sir..?” Slaughter replies, clearly unhappy at being diverted from the imminent threat facing the bridge.
“That’s an order soldier,” you imagine barking at him. You’ll have him back at the bridge well before the Nazi-zombies attack. How can you guarantee this? Because you command both sides in this battle. Sergeant Slaughter does not need to know this. For one thing, it’s above his security clearance and for another, revealing just how little his actions affect the battle’s outcome could seriously demotivate him.
Quietly you pull on a black hoodie, tracksuit bottoms and your karate pumps. Hidden inside your wardrobe, is a backpack containing the following items which you put together earlier following the worst day at school ever.
- Cigarette lighter
- Rubber gloves
- No Nails glue (multi-pack)
- Old rags (ripped up T-shirts)
- Squeezy bottle full of petrol (siphoned from Mum’s car)
- Dog tags (your Dads)
You sneak downstairs, past the living room door, which is outlined by thin flickering light from the TV. The sound of a police documentary bleeds from Waste of Space’s surround-sound system, which you know, from the red bills that land on the doormat, he hasn’t finished paying for yet.
You hate Mum and Waste of Space’s predictable evening routine; can’t bear their boozy laughter and shrieks of delight. They are probably not even watching the programme, just looking at funny videos or porn on the Internet while texting friends. All their friends are just like them; small-minded gobshites forever wanging on about who’s treated them unfairly, or what’s wrong with this country.
The family therapist Mum makes you see says you lack empathy. Easy for her to say; she doesn’t have to live your life. Besides, your dad was never like them. He’d seen the world, fought for his country, knew his own mind. After Helmand, Dad was a bit messed up in the head, couldn’t find a job except as a bouncer on the doors of the rougher pubs and clubs in the centre of town. Even that work dried up after he roughed up some lad who wouldn’t back down – put him in intensive care for three weeks.
Eventually after a massive row with Mum, Dad said he couldn’t stand living here anymore. Later you heard he’d gone back to Iraq as a private security guard where he said they didn’t much mind whose bones he broke just so long as they had brown skin. He left you his dog-tags in an envelope with a note saying they were of no use outside of the regular army. The note also told you to be strong and not to let anyone push you around.
Without Dad’s wage coming in, Mum had to sell the house and move into this small house on a massive estate full of the kind of families where everyone wears crappy sportswear, whether or not they play sport.
School is shit. You started in time to choose your GCSE options, which Mum was pleased about, but the other kids have had years to make friends and find their place in the pecking order. To them you’re still the new kid, the outsider no-one wants to sit next to in class, picked last for footie, never asked home to anyone’s house for your tea, tripped and kicked by secret assailants in the queue for assembly; bottom of the pile basically. Mum worried at first, came into school a few times to talk to the headmistress, but then she met Waste of Space and any ambition she might have had to make your lives better vanished in a fog of fag smoke and mind-numbing weed.
Waste of Space works as a mechanic down at Las Vegas Arcade and Slots. You’d hoped that would give you some reflected glory, a little bit of status, but no – thanks to a lesson on the history of Romany travellers given by Mr Tucker, which touched on their tendency to work on fair-grounds and amusement arcades, Alan Young (aka the class clown) gave you the nick-name ‘gyppo’.
To your horrified amazement and despite your protests, the name ‘gyppo’ hovered on the tongues of your classmates, occasionally landing on you like a bloodthirsty gnat. Over the course of a week it mutated like a virus into the word ‘gyp’ – at which point it stuck fast, burrowing into your DNA to the point where you hear that name even when looking in the bathroom mirror.
If it had stopped there, maybe you could have accepted your worm-like status, but it never does; when you’re bottom of the pile it never, ever stops.
Someone had been nicking phones out of school bags and a rumour started that it was you. Pretty soon you were fair game; anyone who fancied it could call you names (mostly ‘thieving gyp’). Bigger kids would push you over in the playground or stamp on your feet in the corridors. Sometimes younger kids would point and snigger and you’d find out later there was spit all down the back of your blazer.
After about a week of this, things got worse; ‘course they did. Barry Darnley, the king-pin of your school year, appointed himself as your judge, jury and executioner. To begin with he limited himself to aggressive accusations of theft, often followed up with a well-aimed thump, dead-leg, or occasionally a headlock if he had an audience.
Then you heard whispers that Barry’s own phone had gone missing.
After that it was like you were radioactive. Everyone avoided you. Nobody wanted to risk being seen or even associated with you in Barry’s mind. You were almost relieved when Paul Shackles, one of Barry’s gang told you to come to the playing field at 12:45 with Barry’s phone. If you did as instructed and Barry got his phone back, he’d probably give you a smack to teach you a lesson, but leave it at that. No phone and he’d beat the shit out of you in front of the whole school. No show and his gang would find you, drag you naked around the school field, then beat the shit out of you in front of the whole school.
You showed up five minutes late, to find pretty much the whole school waiting to see a fight. There was silence as you walked towards Barry, who stood surrounded by his hangers-on, hand palm up waiting for you to hand him his phone. You shook your head and showed him your empty hands then patted your empty pockets.
“You what?” snarled Barry.
“You muppet Gyp,” sneered Paul. “Now he’s going to kill you”.
“Thieving gyp” shouted someone from the crowd.
Barry swung his fist and connected with your mouth. It hurt like hell and knocked you off your feet. Then he was on you like an angry bear, holding you down with one hand, while punching your face with his club-like fist. The crowd cheered.
At first you were so dazed, you just lay there, soaking up blow after blow. Strangely each one seemed to hurt less than the last; either Barry didn’t know how to punch properly, or your adrenalin was blotting out the pain. You started to feel calm and focused. Dad had taught you how to fight your way out of most hand-to-hand combat situations, but he hadn’t covered what to do if pinned down and thumped senseless by the school bully, cheered on by a vengeful mob. He had, however, insisted that winning a fight was less about your own strength and more about finding your opponent’s weakness. Your left hand was actually free, but there was no way you could punch Barry while his knees were pinning your shoulders down.
As yet another punch split open your lip, you began to resign yourself to losing, and losing badly, but at that moment a faint voice crackled in your head. It sounded like Sergeant Slaughter, then again it also sounded a bit like Dad.
“Find his weakness, then strike without mercy,” it commanded.
Suddenly you saw your opportunity. Stiffening your right hand you struck Barry in the throat with a forearm karate chop, willing all the force of the impact to focus in the heel of your palm, just like Dad had taught you.
Barry immediately fell off you clawing at his throat and whimpering like a wounded dog. The crowd gasped. You dragged yourself to your feet just in time to see Mr Malkie, aka ‘Alky’ heading briskly in your direction, a rhythm to the way he walked.
“Ye boy,” he shouted pointing at you with an accusing finger. “What in God’s name is the meaning of this?” He gestured towards Barry, writhing on the ground and the expectant crowd, clearly thrilled by this unexpected development.
“He wanted to fight,” you muttered, eyes fixed on the flattened grass.
“Look at me laddie,” barked Malkie. “And ye agreed I suppose? Like fighting, do ye?”
You glanced up at Mr Malkie’s fierce, sandy-bearded face. He didn’t know you and you only knew him by his reputation, none of it good: Scottish, drinker, loner, puritanical; obsessed with searching out and cracking down on any physical contact between the sexes.
“No sir, I had no choice sir,” you finally managed to splutter. Malkie tutted.
“God gave us freedom of choice, laddie. That’s how He, and we (he pointed at the school building behind him), get the measure of yer character. By the choices ye make.”
He poked you in the chest to emphasise the word “ye”.
Why do grown-ups feel they have the right to do that?
Barry was still writhing on the grass fighting for breath. Your dad warned you that a chop to the windpipe was only to be used as a ‘nuclear option’.
“You can really hurt someone, so you’d better mean it,” he had explained. Good. You hoped you’d done permanent damage to Barry Darnley, you told Dad in your head.
Mr Malkie finally cottoned on to the fact that Barry might really be injured, not just milking the situation. He knelt to examine him and you saw alarm mix with grim concentration in Malkie’s eyes as he attempted to give basic first aid, putting Barry in the recovery position and checking his airway.
After phoning for an ambulance Malkie eyed you accusingly.
“What did ye do ta him?” he growled.
“He did karate on him sir,” some girl you didn’t know called out.
“Thank you, Julianne,” said Malkie triumphantly.
“And he nicked Barry’s phone, sir,” added Paul Shackles, making you wince.
“Is that was the fight was about Paul?” asked Malkie
“Yes Sir, Gyp, wouldn’t give it back Sir. Then he hit Baz.”
Malkie held your shoulders and tried to meet your gaze with his bloodshot eyes.
“Is this true?” he demanded, with quiet menace, breathing sour whiskey fumes in your face.
You shook your head silently, trying to decide which was the bigger injustice – Malkie letting Paul Shackles call you ‘Gyp’, or giving credibility to the idea that you had been persecuting the school bully rather than vice versa.
“Don’t lie to me laddie – ye have ‘guilty’ written all o’er yer face. You cannae even look me in the eye, let alone mount a credible defence”.
Later, alone with Malkie in his office, his manner changed, as if he wanted to appear reasonable, as if his earlier tough-man act was a performance to impress the crowd. He sat casually on his desk, while you stood awkwardly, your back to the door
“So…” he began, stroking his beard and regarding you with what could almost be described as a twinkle in his eye.
“What am I to do wi’ ye?” The pally tone of his voice combined with a starry look in his eye, was totally unnerving.
You said nothing, concentrating hard on the backs of your hands.
“So…” he said again more business-like this time. “I have a proposal for ye laddie.”
You glanced up at him briefly then back at your hands.
“And my proposal is this,” he continued. “Violence begets violence, an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ as The Good Book says. However, since Barry Darnley is currently incapable of claiming his own restorative justice, I am going to claim it on his behalf…by caning ye.”
What the hell? He had your full attention now.
“But that’s not allowed sir,” you stammered.
“Technically you are correct laddie and tha’ is why ye will tell nae-one, you understand? You must be punished for the good of this school; to preserve school discipline. This is my way of dealing privately with the situation without having to involve the headmistress, who, as you may know, has a zero-tolerance approach to violence”.
“No sir, you can’t do that sir,” you cried in protest.
“Or…” Malkie purred, grinning at you in a way that made your skin crawl.
“…Or,” he repeated, “I can take ye to her now and ye will be excluded from this school immediately. To be quite frank wi’ ye, that may happen anywa’ if Barry Darnley is seriously injured. Either way, be assured that unless I speak in yer defense, ye will definitely be kicked out, ye understand me?”
You could smell his toxic breath even from across the desk. You nodded hopelessly.
Mum was going to kill you. Much as you hated this school, you also knew it wasn’t easy to get a place here – it was that kind of area; you aspired to shit, because the alternatives were literally unbearable.
Somehow Malkie talked you into it, twisting your words, wearing you down. For some reason he wanted your shorts and pants down so he could check he wasn’t leaving any obvious marks. Whatever, you just wanted it over and done with. He produced the cane from his desk draw, swished it back and forth then and indicated for you to bend over his desk.
He started with fairly gentle strikes, but they got progressively harder until you were biting your lip, trying not to cry out, stony eyes glistening with pent up tears.
You flashed on Sergeant Slaughter and his doomed defense of the rail bridge. Would he stand and fight the Nazi-zombies despite their obvious combat advantage of being dead already, or would he attempt to retreat and regroup, possibly under the bookcase? You imagined calling him using a scrambled radio frequency:
“Sergeant Slaughter, come in please. I repeat, come in!”
After a sickening pause during which you could hear Malkie breathing heavily, the radio crackled into life.
“Reading you loud and clear sir, please state your position.”
“Captured by enemy,” you replied. “Require immediate evac. Repeat, immediate evac!”
Malkie was now swishing the cane behind your back. After a split second of absolute panic, a familiar wall of detachment slid into place, shielding you from the ugly reality grown-ups seemed to accept as normal.
Sergeant Slaughter crackled in your ear again sounding apologetic.
“Negative sir, too risky, you’re on your own. Get out by any means necessary.”
Outraged, you tried pulling rank, using a killer line you remembered from a film you and Dad had watched.
“Sergeant, evacuate me now, or I’m going to rip off your arm and slap you with the soggy end!”
But Slaughter was right; rescue was impossible. It was up to you. Grabbing your trousers and pants you hoisted them up and turned to face your enemy. To your horror, Malkie had unbuttoned his trousers. You blundered to the door and made your escape, holding your trousers up with one hand.
“Same time, tomorrow, laddie,” Malkie shouted after you.
You collect your mountain bike from the garage. All the houses on this estate have a connecting door between house and garage, making it easier to pollute the entire house with deadly car engine fumes, either out of stupidity or despair. After all if this concrete box you call home, with its postage-stamp lawn, surrounded by thousands of similar boxes, similar lives, similar aspirations – if this is the peak of your life’s achievements, who could blame you for wanting to gas yourself?
After school today, you followed Malkie’s car home on your bike, so you know he lives in a bungalow in the less scruffy area of roads and shops known as ‘old-town’. You pull your hoodie tight around your face and cycle past his windows, glancing in furtively. The freak’s sitting at a desk in his front room peering intently at a computer screen. Preparing a lesson? Watching kiddy-porn more likely.
You double back, park your bike, and slip down the side of his bungalow, scaling the gate to the rear garden with ease. There’s a security light, but it’s not working. Semi-darkness shrouds the back of Malkie’s bungalow. Standing so still that you can hear your own breath, you open your back-pack, taking out the torch, followed by a tube of No Nails. The torch’s brilliant beam makes you squint. By its million-candle light you squeeze glue into the back door lock, then all along the slide mechanism of the French windows, finally wiping the excess off on the wall before it sticks your gloved fingers together.
Next you tackle the bedroom window, standing on a plastic garden chair, holding the torch in you left hand while sealing the frame tightly shut. That’s two tubes of glue gone, two left. Finally you knock loudly on the back door before quickly returning to the front of the bungalow. You’re just in time to see Malkie leaving the living room, presumably to investigate the sound of knocking.
Out come the remaining tubes of glue. You seal the front windows shut as quickly as you can, then fill the front door lock. You radio Sergeant Slaughter:
“Perimeter secured. Preparing to attack.”
“Roger that,” Slaughter replies.
Crouching by Malkie’s front door, you take the lighter, the squeezy bottle of petrol and the old t-shirt from your back-pack. You soak the t-shirt in petrol before jamming it through the letterbox and lighting the protruding cloth. The flame singes your eyebrows, but you stay in position carefully pushing the t-shirt through the letterbox with the end of the squeezy bottle and squirting the remaining petrol into the hallway. A blast of heat hits you full in the face before you have time to snap the letterbox shut. Wiping your sleeve across your sweating brow and stinging eyes, you retreat to the safety of the pavement. From there you stand and watch as the bungalow catches fire.
When you next see Malkie, he’s running frantically from room to room trying to find an escape route. He stops to beat his fists pointlessly against the sitting-room window, then grabs a standard lamp and hurls it like a spear at the glass. You flinch, but it bounces off the thick double-glazing, narrowly missing his head. Smoke and flames begin to engulf the room.
Suddenly Malkie spots you. He stares in disbelief then tries to shout something, but is overwhelmed by an attack of coughing which doubles him over, temporarily hiding him from view. You wait, then he’s back at the window yelling at you. You move in close, straining to hear. His words are too muffled to hear clearly and are interrupted by desperate cries of fear and panic, as fire and smoke begin to fill the space behind him. He might be shouting “Get help”. Then again… you attempt to read his lips. Is he shouting “Get help” or…wait a second… is he shouting “gyp” at you, the cheeky bastard?
You stare at him, fascinated to witness the exact moment and nature of his end. Look at the pathetic sicko; eyes tearing from the smoke, finger-tips and palms pressed white against the pane. Pocketing your gloves, you pull out Barry Darnley’s iPhone from your coat pocket. So what if you are the phone thief? It changes nothing. Malkie spots it in your hand and nods frantically, presumably encouraging you to ring for help. Fat chance, paedo!
An idea comes to you. You point the phone at Malkie and start filming. The mix of astonishment and wide-eyed terror on his face makes you snigger, causing a bit of camera shake. He turns and runs back through the smoke towards his crappy kitchen. Seconds later he reappears wielding what looks like a steak tenderiser. In between fits of coughing, he manages to swing the meat mallet at the windowpane. The glass cracks.
You stop filming and take a step back, anticipating a second blow. But Malkie’s spent. He collapses, choking, eyes blood-shot and bulging. Shame. You were hoping to watch him burn like a Guy Fawkes, but you should probably have expected the smoke to get to him first.
You turn your back on the blazing bungalow intending to leg it home before the emergency services arrive. Behind you glass smashes. You spin around not knowing what to expect. Somehow Malkie’s smashed a hole in the window, although being double-glazed it hasn’t completely shattered. He tries to widen the hole one-handed, his other hand clamped over his mouth to protect his lungs from the smoke. You stand transfixed, incapable of not staying to see what happens next.
A well-aimed blow with the meat mallet and the hole is now big enough for Malkie to jack-knife through. He begins to emerge head-first, coughing and gasping for breath. For a brief moment he holds your gaze, murder in his eyes.
At this moment, the air being sucked into the house through the broken window meets the oxygen-starved flames and ignites. To your astonishment and delight, the bungalow explodes like a bomb, literally blowing a hole in the roof and raining debris down all around you. It’s beautiful and awesome against the night sky. From the air it must look like a million candles all lighting up at once. You half expect to see a helicopter spiraling out of control down into the blaze.
The roaring flames cast tongues of alternating light and shade on the pavement. No sign of Malkie, but a smell like barbeque floats on the sooty, debris-filled air. Lights are beginning to come on in the neighbouring houses. Sirens wail in the distance. You head for home.
Back in bed you upload the video from your phone to social media using an anonymous account. Then you open the skylight blind, lie back on your bed and look up and out into the night sky. It’s a clear night apart from the odd wisp of cloud and you can see several stars twinkling in the night sky. There’s the North Star, which your dad taught you to recognise.
“Saved my life more than once when I got lost in the desert,” he said.
You glance at your bookcase, at the small urn containing Dad’s ashes which Mum won’t have in the lounge anymore. One day soon, you’ll give him a proper send off. Maybe put his ashes in a firework and send them rocketing into space? You imagine firing a bullet at the ashes and turning them into a diamond, but you know that will never happen. You yawn and consider trying to sleep.
“I’ll take the first watch,” announces Sergeant Slaughter.
“Right you are soldier,” you reply”
“I just wanted to say congratulations on a successful mission, Sir”
“Thank you soldier”, you reply, deciding to postpone the Nazi-zombie attack which will wipe out Sergeant’s Slaughter’s platoon and leave him with an infected zombie bite – until another night.
Dan T Patton earns his living as a digital content consultant. He’s also been a journalist, written a book about The Cure and spent 10 years at MTV, despite which he’s still a big music fan! His literary influences are modernist in style, but wide ranging in terms of genre. His favourite stories shake apart his atoms then subtly rearrange them he has recently been published in the MTP 2017 Winter Anthology. He lives in South West London with his wife and three girls, two of whom are cats.
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