“God, preserve us. What are you . . . dense as well as stupid?”
I sat quietly looking back at him, seeing only disappointment and contempt, hearing only hostility and anger; suddenly remembering all of those reasons I so rarely visited.
“We always knew you never had much of a brain, but now you’ve lost your bloody common sense as well.”
It had been over two years since my last visit, and four since the one before that, and yet he was still finding the showing of any affection for me to be as difficult as I had always found any discussion with him. I stood listening to yet another lecture, in a familiar line of the same, and made myself an unspoken promise. . . The next interval would be longer still.
“Now listen to me and listen carefully, Michael, because I want you to think long and hard about this. This isn’t a game, and these people aren’t like regular armed forces. These people are killers, born killers.”
I had only broached the possibility of my transferring to the regiment to fill one of our many embarrassing pauses in conversation, but the intensity of his reaction surprised me. I smiled inwardly at the description, knowing how exaggerated it was; knowing that no human being is a born killer. Whatever we become is a product of teaching or environment, and more often both.
“I met some of them in Cairo, during the war.” He went on. “They had a different name in those days; called themselves the Long-Range Desert Group, or some such nonsense, but they were just the same bunch of cold-blooded cut-throats they are today. Even in those days they considered themselves an elite force, but in my book there is nothing elite about wanting to kill your fellow man. . . And they wanted to kill, believe you me; you could see it in their eyes.”
I couldn’t agree with that, but knew exactly what he meant, because I too had met some of them, and I too had seen those eyes. There was a special look to those eyes. It was a strangely-disconcerting look; a vacant and yet penetrating stare that went through your own gaze, and then focused on a point at the back of your head. That look had nothing to do with being a born killer, though, or a cold-blooded cut-throat. That look was just like everything else to do with the regiment: tutored, and practised, and intentional.
“Well I’ve been on exercises with them all over the world, and I believe they’re the best of all the Special Forces, but they’re not all killers . . . that’s just media hype and nonsense. They may have been in your day, but not today. Oh, and they never worked as LRDG. They sometimes worked with the long-range guys, but mostly they worked ahead of them.”
From infancy, and on through the various stages of childhood, moving my lips to silently rehearse whatever I had intended saying was something I’d always done; often when I felt unsure or intimidated in some way, and always when I spoke to him. In those days it had been one of the many faults he so often criticised me for, further undermining my self-confidence and further compounding the problem. . . But that had been then, and this was now.
“Mind you, that doesn’t mean they don’t kill. You know as well as I do that they do, when they have to, when it’s necessary, but forget all that born-killers stuff. They’re simply doing the job they’re paid to do; a job they happen to be good at. Anyway, what on earth’s the point of belonging to any branch of the armed forces, if you have no expectation of fighting and possibly killing? I mean, let’s face it, apart from anything else it’s sheer hypocrisy.”
For the first time in living memory I was arguing with him; stating my case and contradicting him, without rehearsal of hesitation, on a subject I knew better than he. I watched his amazement, at the uniqueness of such an event, and then noted the confusion that followed, as he considered the argument’s merit and my authority to make it.
“Anyway, I didn’t say I was going to join them. I just said I was thinking of applying. They probably wouldn’t take me. They’re incredibly selective, and even if I did manage to get through the weeding-out period, the training programme after that is long and tough. . . and I mean tough.”
I couldn’t tell you why I had felt the need, but I had lied about my misgivings to somehow comfort his; childhood conditioning perhaps. It looked to have worked, though, because the tone of voice, responding to my carefully-worded olive-branch, was one I’d not heard before. It was softer, less aggressive, and almost conciliatory: well, perhaps not that, but definitely less aggressive.
“But there is a chance you will apply, and there is a chance they will take you?”
I shrugged my shoulders, in feigned nonchalance, and answered in the same manner.
“It’s a possibility. I’ve got some skills they could use. . . well, as a basis for further training.”
“What skills have you got that could possibly interest people like that?”
The scorn had returned to his tone and was plain. He seemed mildly annoyed that anyone would ever confess to such ability, let alone boast about it. Then again, maybe he was still smarting from my earlier contradiction. It seemed the greater the proverbial absence the colder our hearts had grown; colder even than they had been those five or so years earlier, when I had walked away from this place to begin a new life and find a new home.
“Well there’s mobile and fixed comms, I seem to have an aptitude for that, and I’ve got some good field experience from all over the world. Then of course there’s small-arms, and basic survival stuff. And I’ve done some boxing; oh yes, and some unarmed combat training.” I watched the eyebrows rise and the brow furrow, before hurriedly adding. “It was something I mostly did in my spare time. Just some basic throws, with a bit of karate and savate thrown in. Nothing compared to their level, but it could be something to work on.”
Once again I had stood my ground and given my answer, without rehearsal or waver. Once again he appeared surprised by the show of self-confidence.
“Well I just don’t understand you, Michael. I never did, and I doubt I ever will. Isn’t the outfit you’re already serving with demanding enough for you?” I watched the eyes narrow, as doubt returned to the features and a possibility occurred. “You did go back into it, didn’t you, after you came back from Libya? I mean, we just assumed that. . .”
Five short years ago the thought that he didn’t know or care, or hadn’t even bothered to find out where I was or what I was doing, would have deeply wounded. But, as I said, that had been then and this was now.
“Yeah I went back into it, but it was never all that demanding. Anyway it’s changed; it’s not the same. The old spirit’s not there anymore, and the edge is gone. They’re talking about transferring the wing up to Benson; moving us in alongside the Queen’s Flight. If that happens, it won’t be five seconds before there’ll be more interest paid to polishing cap badges and painting pavements, than understanding whether we can do our job. I was thinking, maybe it’s time for me to move on; thought I’d see if the regiment can use me. . . assuming I do decide to move on.”
“But haven’t you considered the alternatives? Surely there must be something, and just about anything would be better than that? What about trying the RAF Regiment? They do some interesting work, I’m told. What about transferring to them?”
“Become a Rockape, you mean? Automatically present arms, or shoulder arms, or do an about-turn, every time I hear a click? No thanks. I’m looking to move forward, not take ten steps back.”
“But surely there must be something else you can do; some alternative to that?”
“Yeah, I could always buy myself out; go work in a factory.”
“Don’t be flippant.”
“I’m not; it’s a serious possibility.”
The only father I had ever known was clearly seeing less of the boy he had once tried to mould into his own image, while I was finding less of the authority I so vividly remembered in him. Perhaps he saw no further need to preserve the pretence of caring; especially for an adopted son with so little gratitude in his manner and so little warmth in his heart.
“Frank, what on earth are you doing? We’re due at Angela’s in an hour?”
My mother had made her entrance, seemingly unaware of my presence. She suddenly noticed me, as I rose from the corner armchair, and made no effort to disguise her disappointment.
“Oh it’s you, Michael. What an honour. . . So what do you want?”
I looked across, firstly to my mother and then on to my father, as if seeing each of them for the first time. I saw her aggression and disenchantment, and wondered what unhappy combination of misery and circumstance had conspired to make her that way. Then I turned back to him, and felt a peculiar sorrow as I saw his previous interest and intensity fade to nothing.
I watched his head drop and his shoulders slump, as he shuffled away from centre stage and into the wings of his favourite armchair. I saw the life visibly drain from him, in just a few short seconds, and suddenly understood why.
“Hello, Mother. . . just dropped in for a quick chat, and to see how you were both keeping.”
I crossed the room, to plant the obligatory peck on a proffered cheek. She eyed me suspiciously, and then snorted disapproval as she looked me up and down.
“Well, we haven’t got time for any of that now. We’re on our way over to Henley. And before you ask, the answer’s no. We can’t take you with us, because you’re not invited. Anyway, you look like a yob with that haircut and those filthy-looking jeans.”
She knew I had no wish to join them, and no intention of asking. Her comments had all been to do with an imaginary world, which she held in her mind like a delicate long-stemmed rose. Everything at the top of the stem belonged to her and to hers, and was fragile and perfumed and tinted pink. Everything below that belonged to me and to mine, and was dark and hostile and barbed.
“I wouldn’t want to take you over to Angela’s new house looking like that. They’ve just elected Alasdair captain of the rowing club.”
“Good for him.”
Another suspicious look surveyed my thinly-disguised sarcasm, before she puffed the feathers and began again.
“Angela’s been promoted, you know. She’s the new staff nurse, on the ICU, over at Battle Hospital. . . That’s the Intensive Care Unit.”
“Good for her.”
This time the sarcasm had been a little too overt.
“It is good for her. She didn’t waste every opportunity she got, unlike some I could mention. She’s made something of her life. Her new house is beautiful, and in a very well-to-do area.”
“Yes, I know the area. They’re thinking of transferring the wing up to Benson, and that’s just outside Henley. We’ll probably bump into each other, down at the Leander Club bar.”
I watched her falter, take in the interruption’s annoyance, consider the irrelevance, ignore the flippancy, and carry on regardless. I should have saved my breath.
“She’s got it looking an absolute picture. Of course, Alasdair’s in overall charge at the brewery now. He’s doing ever so well. such a charming young man. There’ll be a new edition along soon, if I’m not mistaken. You know, Michael, with our Angela making such a success of her life, I do sometimes wonder where we went wrong with you.”
“It’s all in the genes, Mother. . . it’s all in the genes.”
My mother had obviously forgotten the comment, made all those years before, because her expression didn’t alter by as much as a flicker.
“Well if you’re expecting to stay the night, I’m afraid. . .”
“I’m not, Mother, you don’t have to worry. I only stopped in to say hello.”
“Well I’ve got nothing in for supper, and we’ve got to rush. If you’re hungry, you’ll have to get fish and chips. Come along, Frank, we don’t want to be late. Michael, if you’re not staying the night you’ll have to go now. I’ve got to lock up, and I’m not giving you another key to lose.”
She had never given me a key, in the past, but the assertion that she had, and I’d lost it, seemed to please her. I said nothing to contradict, and smiled politely. She ended the audience, with the toss of a regal head and the sweep of a dismissive hand, before ushering me out of the front door.
I stood watching as she glided down the pathway, slipped through the dutifully-opened door of the family saloon, and assumed pride of place on the front passenger seat. There she perched, looking neither left nor right; presumably intending to block out my unwelcome presence to all but the most peripheral of vision.
My father nodded a cursory goodbye, and had been about to drive away when a further curt instruction caused a long-suffering husband and father to draw the car alongside the kerb. He sat quietly, while a domineering wife and mother lowered the passenger window and called out.
“I do hope you’re not leaving that monstrosity there.”
This time the look of disgust only briefly surveyed me, before turning to deride my aged motorcycle. It was a classic; a Beezer C15, and my only serviceable transport.
“I’m only leaving it there while I wander up to the fish shop. Don’t worry, Mother, we’ll both be long gone before you get back.”
“I should hope so too. We have a position to keep up in this community. Having a scruffy-looking object like that cluttering up the drive isn’t part of it. Oh, and incidentally, Michael. . . I do hope that monstrosity isn’t leaking oil all over my drive?”
“It wouldn’t dare, Mother. . . It simply wouldn’t dare.”
In truth, I’d only said that after they’d driven away. Although I had only visited my parents on three brief and less than memorable occasions, during the previous five years, the lessons that we learn in childhood last a lifetime.
I watched the back of the latest Wolseley, in a long line of similarly-styled cars, disappear around the corner, then thrust my hands deep into my pockets, and set off to the other side of the village and the fish and chip shop. With the weather turning chilly, I walked briskly out of the close, and on up to the High Street, where I slowed the pace, and began idly reminiscing as I wandered past familiar places and took in the tranquillity of a deserted village centre.
I can’t tell you why, but as I wandered along in front of my old junior school I suddenly stopped and peered through the metal railings; hazily recalling the painful memories that still echoed around the emptiness. I looked for the gap by the steps, where I used to hide myself away at break times, and remembered just how confused and disoriented and lonely I had been during my schooldays there. From there, my thoughts moved on, to recall so many other days of loneliness and isolation; in different schools and in later years.
A frosty morning in late January of 1965 came to mind, and all of those other unhappy memories, that had constituted my life until then, came similarly flooding back.
They were memories from the years of childhood naiveté; the trusting years, the unknowing years. Memories of a time of ignorance. Memories formed before I came to understand that any available love for me had been conditional. Memories formed before I came to realise the true legacy of an orphanage, and the true value of an unwanted child.