Read

April 2022 marks the fortieth anniversary of the start of the Falklands War. My brother Tom was a soldier then, though not sent to this conflict. I wrote Just Boys, They Were about the often hidden but devastating impact of war on individuals ten years ago and it meant a lot to me when Gutter published it. 

Just Boys, They Were

Andy remembered when the boy was born: the smell of sweat from his parka jacket; the glare of bright lights; the stick and release of soles on squeaky clean floors. And then the boy himself: perfection ripped from a burst wound, skin plump and moist, and smeared with blood.

Now he was coming for the weekend while his father went to a work’s training session. He wouldn’t be a problem.  He’d bring some device to keep him occupied and there were cartoons on cable. He’d stay two nights until his father came back for him. His mother was long gone. Of course it wouldn’t be a problem.

Andy stripped his bed and spread it with fresh sheets. He folded an extra blanket at the bottom in case the boy was cold, being used, as he was, to central heating. Both pillows were stained with dribble and they smelled, but there wasn’t time to wash them, so Andy pulled two slips on each of them. The boy wouldn’t notice. When had he ever noticed when he was that age? He and the boy’s father slept in the double bed in the end room together, back in the old house, despite the age difference. Moving the empty bottles from the side of the bed, Andy remembered his brother’s loosely curling hair, sandy brown, the soft down on his cheeks and smell of grass that hung about him even by the time Andy got to bed.

He hadn’t expected the boy to bring his hamster. When the doorbell rang, Andy inhaled to compose himself. ‘Alright?’ he said to Frank and the boy, seeing them like that, together on his landing, Frank with one hand on the boy’s shoulder and holding up the animal’s cage in the other. The boy was grinning.

‘Hope you don’t mind babysitting Sprocket,’ Frank said. ‘He’d have been okay on his own but … somebody says he’d miss him.’ He gestured towards the boy.

Standing in the hall with one hand still propping the door open, Andy said, ‘No – no bother. Come in!’

‘Thanks, Uncle Andy!’ The boy ducked under his arm with his schoolbag. He flumped down on Andy’s couch and started scanning through the TV channels with the remote control. His father stood in the doorway.

‘Coming in?’

‘Aye – five minutes. Fill you in on the picture.’ He lifted the cage up higher as he stepped in. ‘Where do you want me to install this?’

Andy closed the front door. ‘Anywhere you can find a space.’ They cleared newspapers and the ashtray off the coffee table and sat the cage on it. The hamster was scraping about in the sawdust.

Frank didn’t sit down. He nodded to the boy’s bag. ‘He’s got his pyjamas and his toothbrush. And a change of clothes just in case, but he shouldn’t need them.’ He looked Andy up and down. ‘You sure you’re okay about this?’ After a pause he added, ‘I meant it when I said about no drink.’

Andy squinted. ‘It’s a bit late to back out now if you don’t trust me.’

Frank nodded. ‘I guess. Right – you’ve got my number if you need me.’ He grinned, one cheek dimpling despite the leanness of his adult face. ‘You take care of Sprocket, then, son. Okay? Don’t leave it to your Uncle Andy. Promise?’

‘Promise, Dad. Bring me back something?’

Frank stood with his knuckles on his hips, the fingers of one hand jingling his car keys. ‘Aye – a dad in a better mood for having a weekend away from you!’

The boy stuck his tongue out. As they walked back to the door, Frank said, ‘Mind, if you need me, get in touch, but I don’t expect he’ll give you any trouble.’

Andy patted his shoulder. ‘No worries. Enjoy yourself.’

Andy closed the door and stood for a moment. He could hear his brother’s feet trot down the tenement stairs and behind him, in the flat, the cartoon chaos the boy was watching. He forced his breath to slow then went into the living room. ‘Alright, pal?’

The boy looked up then back to the television, eyes absorbed behind his glasses. ‘Fine, Uncle Andy.’

‘Good.’ He sat on the couch beside him. No point pushing to do anything for now if the boy was happy. The hamster was gnawing the bars of the cage, his pink front paws gripping like hands. ‘Does he always do that?’

‘Sprocket? Yeah. Or on his wheel. Sometimes I let him out.’

After the programme ended, while Andy was boiling the kettle, the boy brought the hamster through to the kitchen. It had soft-looking short brown fur on its back and a creamy white underside. All four paws were pink with long clear claws. Its eyes were black beads. Its whiskers twitched incessantly while it explored the boy’s hands as if sniffing for an exit.

‘Why did you call it Sprocket?’ Andy asked as he poured the tea.

‘Just fancied it. My dad suggested it.’ The boy’s face was smooth and still quite tanned after an October break abroad with his father. He had his dad’s hazel eyes and that single dimple that was only visible when he smiled.

‘Do you know what a sprocket is?’

‘No.’ He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. ‘What is it?’

The beast kept trying to drop off the boy’s hands, clinging on to the upper hand with the claws of its back foot, only for the boy to put his free hand underneath to catch him. It was in constant motion.

‘It’s a kind of wheel.  A notched one, with cogs on it.  You’ve got a bike, yeah?’ The boy nodded. ‘It’s the wheel the chain fits on. And you get them in tank tracks.’

‘Cool. Did you learn that in the army?’

Andy blinked. ‘Probably. Tea?’

That night, after the boy was in bed, Andy lay on the couch in the sleeping bag and watched the hamster gnaw the bars. Now and then it dodged past its bed and food dish to spin on its wheel, its four feet running while its eyes stared ahead into the cage wall. Then it ran out to the front bars again as if expecting to find itself in a different landscape. On and on it went, during the night. Andy drifted off, but woke up whenever the animal changed its routine. Each time he woke, he thought about Frank in some four star hotel. He wondered if there was a free bar. Wondered if the weather was rough there, as it seemed to be turning here, with wind rattling the slates and huffing against the brickwork, and whistling in where the rubber seal round the window glass had perished.

When the grey light of morning came in through the gap at the curtain rail, Andy woke, his shoulder aching from lying cramped in one position too long. He leaned up on his elbow. The beast had gone to bed and Andy watched it pull the tufts of bedding around itself then wash and tuck its head in ready for sleep. Andy reached for the remote control, turned the TV on quietly and fell back to sleep with it playing in the background.

He wasn’t going to let the boy waste time on his gadgets for the whole weekend. First, he took him to the supermarket for a good breakfast. Then, they’d hire a canoe at the water sports centre in the park. As they walked down the hill out of the small town towards the green space, clouds were looming. Andy and the boy arrived at the artificial lake to see wind lifting its normally flat surface. The man in the kiosk told them he was locking up the boats for the day. Andy held his hand over his ear to block the vicious wind.

‘What will we do instead?’ the boy asked.

Andy pulled his collar up.  It was only eleven o’clock and there was the whole of Saturday to fill. ‘Brisk walk round the lake?’

The wind penetrated his jacket, despite the warming of the fry-up. The boy’s face looked cold, too. There was no trace of the dimple. His cheeks were white and his lips were a red gash which his tongue kept licking. They walked along the path that skirted the lake, sometimes turning their backs to the wind to keep it off their faces.

Even the dogs were scampering to get home to the fire, dragging their owners with them.  ‘What are we going to do, Uncle Andy?’

‘What do you want to do?’

The boy sniffed. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Football? Bowling alley?’

A gust blasted them. There was no rain in it but the threat of it, icy with hail. They’d walked half way round the lake, now. ‘I know. Ice-skating.’

‘Ice skating?’ It would still be cold but they’d be out of the wind.

They trudged round the rest of the lake, following the path, heads down and hands in their pockets till they reached the mouth of the tunnel under the motorway. Inside its walls, they let their voices echo, the boy’s bright and sunlit and Andy’s brown and bass. The walls were daubed in blue and green graffiti.

Inside the building which housed the rink, the air was warm and damp, condensing on the boy’s glasses. It was lively with pulsing music. Competing with that, what sounded like sea-gull calls shrieked out. Skaters spiralled anti-clockwise, the insides of the loop travelling faster than the outside like some kind of wheeling, multi-coloured bird flock. Huge flat screens pieced together a wall of music clips. Andy and the boy exchanged their shoes for skates, the long red laces trailing down from the heavy blue boots as they carried them.

‘Have you skated before?’ Andy asked him.

‘Yeah, Dad takes me.’

Andy watched the boy push his feet into the boots and followed suit. The blade was a curved scythe, looking lethal. ‘These are safe?’ Andy grinned, glancing from the eager boy to the crowds spinning round the rink.

It took a while to get the hang of it. He edged round the outside of the rink trying to keep up with the boy, who was bent low – one of a dozen who wove at speed between groups of more sedate or cautious skaters. Andy watched him over the heads of the crowd, thinking he’d never be able to let go of the side. Then a new tune came on. The pack pushed out in time to it, right skate then left skate.

‘Come on, Uncle Andy!’ the boy said, surging past and away from him.

And there was that rhythm. Right foot then left foot. Andy loosened his grip of the rail – right foot, slide left foot. Round and round they went – right foot then left foot – and Andy grew confident: a part of something bigger. Right foot and left foot. Right foot and left foot.

Then he was down. His weak shoulder took the brunt of it: the cold, hard impact with the ice. What speed had he been doing? He sat up, holding his arm, conscious of the way the crowd split and flowed on either side of him. His shoulder was stinging.

Ice sprayed in an arc. ‘Are you alright?’ 

‘I’m fine,’ he said, biting the ache down. The boy and the steward helped him to the edge. Still wearing his skates, he walked on the rubber-clad floor like a man on metal limbs.

‘It was a bad bump – I’ll check your shoulder,’ the steward said. ‘And that’s a bad cut.’

His hand had been sliced. How had that happened? Lips of skin peeled away from each other in the hollow of his palm. Bright red blood dribbled down the line it made.

‘Was this your idea?’ he said to the boy as he sat down beside him. It was the wrong thing to say. The boy’s eyes teared up behind his glasses. ‘Hey, cheer up! It was me it happened to, not you!’ Andy raised his arm to wrap it round him, but pain seared through his shoulder.

‘You’ll need to get that checked.’

They were five hours at casualty. Each time the outside door opened another blast of cold air blew in, bringing crisp wrappers and a few sheets of newspaper with it. And when they were shown into the cubicle for treatment, there was that all too familiar enveloping smell. 

‘Are you coming in to keep your dad company?’ the nurse asked as she pulled the curtain across behind them.

‘He’s not my dad!’ the boy said, the emphasis on the first word. ‘He’s my uncle. I’m on a sleepover with him for the weekend while my dad’s away.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, peeling open the sterile dressing for Andy’s hand. ‘I bet he’s loving that.’ She met Andy’s eyes conspiratorially. He refused to wince as she cleaned the cut.

Swivelling on his stool, the boy prattled on. ‘Is this the hospital I was born in?’

‘Aye,’ Andy said, meeting the nurse’s eyes again, ‘but in a different part.’ Perfection ripped from a burst wound, skin plump and moist, and smeared with blood.

By the time they got home, Andy with one arm in a sling and that dressing on his hand, it was dark and they were starving. The boy opened the door with Andy’s keys. Straight away they heard the hamster.

‘Sprocket’s awake!’

The flat was freezing.  Andy plugged in the electric fire then heated soup while the boy squatted to put out grains and seeds for the animal.

Sitting on the couch in front of the fire, still with his jacket half on, Andy fought the craving. Just one drink would have done it – taken the edge off the throb in his shoulder and the sting each time he uncurled his palm – but he’d promised the boy’s father. Besides, he didn’t have any. Had made sure he’d finished it before the boy got there. Safer that way. Now he ate his soup. Oxtail with bread and cheese sandwiches. The boy fed bread through the bars to the hamster. Cheese, too. The hamster sat on its back feet and stuffed it in its cheeks then banked it in a corner to scoff in privacy later. That’s what Andy should have done: pushed a bottle down the side of the couch for when the boy was in bed.

After soup, they watched the lottery and the boy went to the ice cream van for crisps and cola. Andy watched him from the window, handing over the ten pound note he’d given him and then reaching up for the bottle and cradling it in the crook of his arm like a baby.

 Andy swallowed down painkillers with the cola but they didn’t take the pain away, not even when the boy was in bed in the other room with his 3DS. It was a different kind of bottle he needed.

Andy put the light out and eased himself into the sleeping bag. It was hard to do up the zip with his arm in a sling and his other hand bandaged. Cars went by in the dark, their headlights sliding over his ceiling while the hamster turned on its wheel. Andy listened to it. The wheel stopped and the animal scampered in the sawdust. It went quiet for a minute then the gnawing started again. Enamel on metal. On and on like a knife scraping bone. Andy’s bone in his shoulder. The old injury. He heaved over on to his side, facing the back of the couch, and kicked the swaddling bag out with his feet. He needed a drink. All the sinews in his body pulled in towards his belly and the churning drew them tighter, twisting in a slow circle.

Right foot then left foot. Right foot then left foot. Freezing rain wet their faces but they kept going. Shoulders ached from bracing their packs. Right foot then left over rocks and peat bog. Their feet slipped inside their boots, causing more skids than the snow on the ground. Wind burned the rims of their ears, and their pulse beat with the trudge of boots on shale. But they kept going: right foot then left in a steady rhythm.

A blast threw them. Andy’s shoulder hit shale. Men streamed towards them.

The cutting and gyrating of a helicopter. The all too familiar enveloping smell.

Andy woke with a start. He rose to sitting, blinking in the dark. Just boys, they were: perfection ripped in burst wounds, skin warm and moist, and smeared with blood. He rubbed his shoulder. The door handle creaked.

 ‘Uncle Andy?’ The hamster gnawed the bars then skittered over the sawdust as if towards the boy’s voice. ‘I heard somebody shouting.’

Andy patted the space on the couch beside him and the boy dropped down. They sat with their feet on the coffee table while the hamster dashed from wheel to bars, its four feet running, constantly running.

‘Are you alright, Uncle Andy?’ The boy’s face was bare without his glasses.

‘I’m fine, son.’

The boy bit his bottom lip. His top teeth were out of proportion – not yet grown into. ‘It’s just that Dad says …’

‘Dad says what?’

The boy wriggled his shoulders. ‘Sprocket’s noisy during the night-time, isn’t he?’

It was one weekend. It wasn’t going to torture him for a lifetime. Andy put his good arm round the boy’s shoulders and pulled him in beside him. Frank would be here after lunch-time. He remembered his brother’s loosely curling hair, sandy brown, the soft down on his cheeks and smell of grass that hung about him, even by the time Andy got to bed, that summer he was on sick leave after the Falklands.

He ruffled the boy’s hair. ‘Do you know, son? Sprocket’s just fine.’

Just Boys, They Were was published in 2013 in issue 9 of Gutter magazine