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Soldiers

Chapter 1.

'Stop fidgeting, men,' said a corporal in front.

They weren't fidgeting. They were shivering.

The first morning was a revelation, the sun barely streaking the sky. Lined up in the rear ranks with others from his hut, Doyle never believed it could be so cold.

Or so bloody ridiculous. He kept glancing over at the second parade. Sick parade, he'd overheard; no matter how sick you were, mornings saw you join the sick parade, standing around shivering in the cold like a martyr just to register as appropriately sick. Following which was a good long walk down road just to get to treatment: no M.O. He'd never had much thought for the army before, but pictured some mechanical thing, a perfect example of efficiency. Well, think about how much of the world the British Empire once ruled. It had to be efficient, behind the facade of saluting and bloody ridiculous parade, wheels turning shining and exact.

Now, he tried to avoid thinking, feeling instead a growing confusion for the martial achievements drummed into him at school. How the hell had any of that been possible, lumbered with this inescapably ponderous system? So much for laughing at the goosestep, he was nearly in hysterics at the sight of the company sergeant major.

Who then handed the parade over to a lieutenant, who handed it over to a captain, who handed it back to the lieutenant, who handed it back to the company sergeant major, who dismissed it.

The loneliness was as bad as the cold, and getting deeper.

Later on the mess parade, Doyle found momentary joy in listening to the troops talk to the corporal in charge, telling him in particular what they thought of him, his dubious ancestry, and explicitly what he could do with his mess tin. Doyle had never been enamoured of hierarchy himself, and after years of mixing with boxers, bookmakers and street corner loungers he thought himself tough: the comments still shocked him to chuckling.

The morning was spent marching up and down the parade ground, in right turns and left turns and about turns, left wheels and right wheels. Squad was formed on the right, then the left, and at the halt, and marking time. Lunch saw another ridiculous ritual of mess parade, the food warm and plain and good, an officer calling through with the routine request for any complaints, all to go unheard. Doyle ate as though starving, which, after a morning full of walking and going nowhere he was. In the afternoon they performed a battalion route march with the battalion band playing out front. Watching his fellow soldiers swell with pride after a day of being beaten down, Doyle choked down his suspicions about the insidious propaganda of flag waving and band playing; he was lonely enough without sharing his disillusionment.

After they got back from the route march, they were dismissed. Doyle sat on the steps near his hut, conscious of the ache in his calf muscles and a pervading sense of wrongness. Gradually, the company formed around him; in the tradition of cannon fodder everywhere, England's finest loungers posed against the low stone wall, the stairs, the back wall of the hut, cadging fags and conversation with equal ease. Seemed like half of them were Liverpudlians, no surprise considering where the training camp was, but the tribal camaraderie was getting Doyle down.

'...if he starts talking about Africa hit the poor bastard with something.' The group broke up laughing, to eject one disgruntled soldier, who spouted, 'Fuck the lot of youse, then, deal with it your own way.'

The lone figure powered towards the steps. Doyle scarcely had time for brief impressions, short straight dark hair and shadowed eyes, and somehow a better fit of uniform, as though the man wore his like skin instead of the pretender Doyle felt in it — then Doyle scrambled to his feet to get out of the way.

Something betrayed him, the weariness of his legs, moss on the shadowed stone. Doyle's foot went out from under him. He fell forward, with the benefit of height his shoulder striking the man's chest a hard blow.

Who went sprawling on his backside in the dirt, the shocked, unguarded expression as he looked up at Doyle naggingly familiar.

The loungers laughed vigorously.

Doyle forgot his weariness, bending to offer his hand, which was rejected. Those eyes gleamed as the soldier glared up at him, climbing to his feet without assistance. He stood there, large hands clenching at his sides.

'I'm sorry,' Doyle said. 'I slipped.'

'Yeah, just as I went to pass you by. Of course.'

'That's right.'

'I suppose you think you're funny, do you?'

'I said I was sorry.' Doyle wondered what was contributing more to the soldier's anger, his sore backside or the amused and growing audience.

'You will be, all right.'

'I'm not looking for trouble—'

'Now that is funny, funny man, because you're about to find it.'

'For Christ's sake! I apologised, what else do you want me to do?'

'Yeah, Bodie, what? You want him to massage the thick head you got from drinking too much brandy with your "old mate" the sergeant last night?' called someone. The scouse was even thicker there than Bodie's faint tinge.

Bodie did not look around. 'You keep out of this, you pricks. Or you'll get it too. One way or another. What are you smiling at, you see something you like?' That last to Doyle, with unmistakeable belligerence, and a sudden crispness that would have suited the corporals' tent.

Bodie was tall, taller just than Doyle, with a sort of face that seemed unremarkable except in fleeting moments of stillness. In just as fleeting a moment Doyle recognised the mobility of expression as the unselfconscious camouflage it was, in the company of soldiers: Bodie was a handsome bugger, if he would let himself be.

Always one for the low blow, Doyle said cheerfully, 'Your charming face. Though you want to be careful, darling, if you pull that one too often it'll stay that way.'

The boys guffawed, Bodie flushing in shock or rage. Doyle settled in for the long haul; after all that marching, this was a familiar rhythm, at least.

'No one wants a bloody pansy in their battalion.'

'Don't worry,' Doyle said. 'I won't tell them about you.'

The laughter became a roar, and Bodie went white. He stepped back, wrenching to undo his jacket. His hands were trembling. 'They stuck me in here to kill Nazis. I don't suppose you've got any German blood.'

'Not a drop.'

'Figures. I'm going to take you apart. And then,' without even a trace of humour, 'if you ask — very nicely — I might let you crawl away.'

Doyle turned his back deliberately and unbuttoned his coat, and the shirt beneath.

Soldiers ran from the lines of huts, cries in the distance of 'fight!' 'brawl on!' A circle was formed, and someone took Doyle's over-things, the cold suddenly ignorable through the rough, inadequate vest. 'Do the bugger over,' someone whispered gleefully in Doyle's ear. 'Bloody fool reckons he's a fighter, been in the wars already.' From another side, 'Watch it, man. Bodie's a king-hit merchant.'

One of those, Doyle thought, both grim and delighted. He knew the type of man who went out looking for a fight. Doyle had been one, too; was one. Hard to break the habit, even after years of law and order — he did not like backing down whatever the consequences.

Bodie led with his left. Doyle slipped it easily, but stepped full into the right blow ripping into his body. His elbow dropped mechanically, but the deflection hardly worked against the force, his ribs stinging with fury, the crowd roaring. Bodie grinned through it all. Doyle knew a grin of pre mature victory: so he thought Doyle was easy? Bodie came in again, and Doyle spoked him with a left lead and a kick that jolted him back to his arse.

Again, that look of stunned, unguarded shock, before Bodie levered himself up in a single, threateningly fluid motion. This time he circled with caution. Doyle picked a new note in the noise around them. 'Take six to four and back Curly!'

Bodie bent his head, looking at Doyle from under lowered eyebrows. Doyle was overconfident and Bodie deceived him, letting go with both hands in quick succession, left to the face, right to the body, the same strike as his first when Doyle had expected something different, only this time he followed with an unfair elbow. Doyle went sprawling, his breath gone, the roar of the crowd coming from far away.

'Two on Bodie! Pound to ten bob. All right, you set? Up you get!'

As Doyle rose, he saw Bodie's gloating grin hanging like a full moon in the sky. All trace, ab stract thought as to the bugger's handsomeness evaporated, seared away by the sneer. My God, Doyle thought, what would Sid Parker and Maurice Richards think if they could see me now? Knocked out in the grass in a brawl with a shifty-eyed lout.

Doyle's resentment crystallised at everything, at the war, at the army, at the formless, shapeless emotions that drove him to make gestures like leaving his life for an unenviable death; all the suppressed years of hatred of those street-dwellers who had both been his job and made it hard: the timewasters, the waste of his time, the loss of his future, the fear for his freedom, all embodied in that flushed face hanging over him in unwarranted victory. In that flaming crystallisation, Doyle suddenly placed the inexplicably familiarity Bodie bore: a drunk, in the south London cells, brought in on a freezing Friday night for disrupting the peace and discovered to be several years A.W.O.L. from his post in the Merchant Na vy. Why, the bugger hadn't even chosen to enlist, for good reason or bad. He'd got away from a prison term with conscription instead, and a heavy fine.

One of the few things Doyle could do right was fight.

He walked straight into Bodie. Feinted with his left, and as Bodie ducked Doyle came in with an uppercut to the right. He misjudged only slightly, hitting Bodie right on the edge of his mouth. He went down and Doyle rode out the mad roar, the blood-lust roar he knew so well for how so often it had threatened his career, pounding all sense out of his ears.

Bodie lay on his back. Doyle saw nothing but his fallen opposite, another victim of his misplaced rage.

'What the devil is this all about, man?'

'Get up, Bodie,' Doyle said thickly. 'Get up. I'll teach you something about bloody pansies. It's all to do with the wrist.'

'Do you hear me, man? What's all this?'

The stranger's voice again, a lilt which suddenly penetrated Do yle's haze. He looked over his right shoulder and saw no one there. The soldiers had vanished, completely and utterly.

Doyle turned to his left, uncertainly, looking straight at Major Cowley, temporarily in camp so rumour had it, on a 'need to know' basis. At Cowley's shoulder looking grimly horrified stood the lieutenant-colonel, commanding officer of the battalion.

'Nothing,' Doyle said. 'Sir.'

He added the address reluctantly. He had said it before, but it would never come easy to him.

Major Cowley snorted. 'You boys should keep your fighting for the battlefield, there'll be enough there to give you a gutful. Why don't you have a coat, a shirt? It's dashed freezing.'

'I, uh — I haven't been issued with any.'

The lieutenant-colonel gave Doyle a glare threatening dire consequence for the lie, even as Cowley fixed the CO with his own disapproval. 'See this man is fitted out with appropriate issue first thing. It's a disgrace, t he troops wandering around half-dressed. What is this battalion, a damned hiking club?'

Bodie creaked unhappily as he rolled to his knees, rising by increments. Doyle wavered, uncertain if his offer to assist would make things worse.

Cowley glanced between them, dark stare settling on Doyle.

'What's your name, soldier?'

'Doyle, sir. Raymond Doyle.'

'Your— friend's?'

Bodie was still struggling with his breath, looking up at Cowely, his unformed panic scarcely hidden.

'William Andrew Phillip Bodie,' Doyle supplied helpfully. 'Sir.'

'How the —' Bodie lurched upright. 'How the bloody hell did you know my full name?'

'I looked you up in Who's Who. Famous, aren't you? Or infamous, at least.'

A cloud came over Bodie's face, suspicion and anger. 'You're a copper, you have to have been. Or you were a copper—'

'And not three weeks ago, you were jailed for a disturbance of the peace. You're a tro ublemaker and a deserter, more trouble than you were worth behind bars, so rather than keeping you in they foisted you off on the Lieutenant-Colonel here. And I'd bet he's half a mind to drum you out of this battalion, too. Isn't that right, sir?'

Before the Lieutenant-Colonel could even open his mouth, Cowley harrumphed loudly.

'Aye, Doyle, that's right. And it's also insolence.' His eyes narrowed speculatively. 'Aye, I know your reputation, William Bodie. Doyle's a policeman, so you think? And you, Doyle: that's a reserved profession. How did you get around that?'

'I resigned.' Superior or no, Doyle could not help the angry stillness creeping into his tone.

Cowley's lips pursed. 'You chose to enlist—'

Doyle opened his mouth, prepared to tell the Major to mind his own sodding business, committed to the fact that however it came out would see him pay dearly for the freedom to speak.

'It was my fault,' Bodie interrupted quickly. 'The fight, sir. I picked on Doyle, here.'

'No, sir. I picked on Bodie. It's my fault.'

Cowley considered the both of them carefully, seeming to come to some conclusion without words. He nodded sharply. 'The two of you can spent tomorrow on fatigue duty. Maybe you'll learned to enjoy each other's company better in the salubrious atmosphere of the cookhouse and the latrines. Well? That's all, dismissed!'

'Sir.'

'Yes, sir.'

Cowley glared at them both for a heartbeat longer and stalked away, gathering in his wake a further collection of dutiful corporals, Doyle grimacing at the recitation of the cohort (sir, yes sir, yes sir), noticing only belatedly Bodie wore the same expression he did.

Doyle looked at Bodie. Bodie looked at Doyle. Dual and sheepish grins broke the silence.

'My name's Bodie, as you seem to know.'

'Mine's Raymond Doyle, I think you were out for that bit. You can call me Ray.'

Bodie smiled again . Doyle decided he liked the smile, even as suggestive as it was of having just heard or told a dirty joke, it was an emotion wholeheartedly given.

'Oh, can I? Is that a privilege?' Bodie held out his hand. 'I'm sorry. I thought you were a bit of a tosser. And, well, I was spoiling for a fight. I hadn't seen that pack of arseholes for —' He waved a hand at the back of the hut, where the group of loungers had been. 'Well, since I took off out of this hellhole in the first place five years ago. We're ok?'

'Forget it. We're ok.'

Bodie shifted his weight from foot to foot, lips parting as if to say something else, considering. A slow blooming purple stained the pale chin, caught at the corner of his mouth. Doyle couldn't help staring, guilt flowering just as lushly. Bodie hadn't deserved that, not when Doyle had gone hitting him for all the wrong reasons.

Bodie took the stare to mean something, what Doyle didn't know, but after some shuf fling of his boots in the dirt, Bodie gazed up at him almost eagerly.

'Listen, Ray,' said with an inevitable diffidence when using someone's name for the first time, 'I was thinking, while I was lying there. Where we're going to wind up, we need some decent backup. I reckon a bloke what can use his fists like you — Jesus, that last one was a —' another enchanting grin, rueful and unashamed, 'well, how about you and me —'

The last words had come in a rush. Doyle stepped into the breach, not wanting to look too closely at the emotion which made him speak.

'What I need right now is a friend.'

Bodie darkened. 'And I'm not good enough for an ex-copper?'

'I didn't mean it that way— Oh, Christ, that. I don't give a bugger about your record!'

'For someone who doesn't give a bugger, you bloody well memorised my name and offenses.'

'I've a good memory for names and faces, offensive or not. I mean it, Bodie. I don't giv e a damn about your record.'

'What a coincidence, neither do I.'

Doyle took the offer before it was revoked, touching Bodie's shoulder briefly, a light apology. The tension falling out of Bodie's frame surprised him, the expression easing into a youth Doyle hadn't expected.

'Hey, mate, we're all right. How's about we see what they've got for us in the canteen?'

'It'll only be milk,' Bodie warned. 'Want a stronger nip and you'll have to kiss enough arse to get into the corporals' tent.'

'Or the sergeant's?'

'Yeah, well.' Bodie shrugged. 'Long story. Let's save it for a boring night.'

'Good to know the class divide thrives even in these dire straits.'

'Oh, mate, you wanted equality?' Bodie shook his head. 'And then you went and joined the army.'

'Guess I did, at that.'

'God save us, not an idealist.'

Doyle shoved him back, grinning. 'Hey. An idealist who put you flat on your back.'

The cold was n ot so bad that night. Bodie had moved over next to him, and before lights out said awkwardly, 'We'll share our blankets, Ray, it's warmer that way.' He folded the blankets and put them across the bed, giving several more thicknesses. 'G'night, mate.'

Doyle smirked in the darkness. 'Good night, sweetheart.'

Bodie was still laughing about that the day after, spent in the latrines and the cookhouse. A strange place for a noble friendship to flower, Doyle thought, until Bodie reminded him glumly of the main component of manure

Continue to Chapter 2


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