Short Stories

As Reverend Richard arrives, I choke on a straw-full of banana milkshake, which damn near kills me. It’s an occupational hazard - breathing and drinking - and I manage to spray the thick yellow gloop an impressive distance.

‘Sorry ‘bout that, it went down the wrong hole!’

Richard doesn’t appear to be too disgusted and is soon at work with handfuls of paper towels. Snotty and stringy to touch, it takes some cleaning up, but before long he’s removed every trace.

‘All done. Are you OK? You look a bit red in the face now. We can do this a bit later if you need a few minutes?’

‘Nope, I’m good thanks. You want to see the winners?’

Richard already knows two of them - Alex Brown and Dottie Bath - and the third is a guy called Mark Miller. He lives in Brackley. I don’t know much about him, his Facebook profile doesn’t say a lot, but he’s certainly helped spread the word. Between the three of them they’ve generated a huge Facebook following. Alex got 182 likes and 14 shares. Mark Miller got 193 likes and 20 of his friends shared the link, but Dottie did the best. She got 198 likes and 75 people shared her link.

I watch as Richard picks up the hard copies of the winner’s profiles. He has an impressive hipster beard and the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man. My Sophie is envious of them. She wonders how he got such beautiful eyes. I’m more interested in how he’s managed to land such a hot wife. I always thought he was a shirt-lifter being a Navy boy and all. Richard’s a small, pensive man whose lips move as he reads. When he speaks he does so in a gentle way, but he’s a rugged sort, quite tough. It seems funny to me that he’s religious, because when he’s had a few beers (and he loves his beer), he’s a bit of a dick. He becomes his mischievous twin and gets himself into all kinds of trouble; he’s quite unscrupulous.

‘Sorry Danny, which order do these go in? Alex, Mark, Dottie?’ I signal agreement, I can’t be arsed to speak. Richard looks at me wryly. I can tell he’s read Mark’s profile.

‘You weren’t joking when you said there’s not much to learn about Mark on his profile. There’s nothing there! Don’t you think it’s a bit iffy, letting him get up and talk? Do you know what his speech is about?’

‘Nope.’

When I proposed the idea, I’d explained to George (my dad) that the competition is a public thing, but it didn’t worry him, so long as we got more support than last year.

‘We’ll just have to see what he comes out with. I’ll sort him out if he steps out of line, just you watch. Hahaha!’

Richard’s anxiety about the unknown man grows when I say that. It makes me laugh to see him so uptight. I grin and perform a loud banana flavoured belch to make him feel more at ease. As he slumps back into the chair to read the final profile he makes a loud huff, which suggests my efforts aren’t appreciated.

Richard raises his eyebrows sceptically. I know Dottie sounds a bit happy-clappy, but she hasn’t got anything else. If her spirituality gives her strength, then why the hell not. She’s been through a shit time!

A loud squeal comes from over in the car park and signals the start of things. Fuck, that hurts! The feedback from the PA iss vicious, but Gerry twiddles with something to silence it and Dad springs in to action.

‘Right people, gather round if you will please. Gerry, can you get the lads from over the back to come and join us?’ Gerry is flailing his arms around in a disconcerting manner and waving his clipboard at people. Sheep-like they crowd their way to the front of the truck stop café; The Hot Toast ‘we put the toast in Towcester’ Café. I know, it’s a terrible pun isn’t it - and only works when you pronounce Towcester properly - as in Toe-ster.

After a few moments of hub-bub one hundred or so motorcyclists stand together. A legion of leather, beards and tattoos.

‘Cool, great stuff guys. Thanks Gerry.He pauses. ‘Well! Here we are again then. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to another Ride of Remembrance organised by our friends the Christian Motorcycle Association.

‘For those of you who’re new to this it’s something we – the Hot Toast Café - host each year on Remembrance Sunday, for the CMA. We do it to pay our respects to the fallen soldiers of the two world wars, and more recent campaigns. It’s an opportunity to give thanks and to raise awareness of the importance of not forgetting; and to raise money each year for a named charity. Richard’ll tell you more about this when he gives his little talk. However, on behalf of him and the Café, I want to thank you for raising a total - thus far - of £758 from the sale of tea, coffee and breakfasts this morning. And every penny raised today will be going to…um, it’ll be going to…? Blimey, it’s the…it’s the Head-?' "Defence Medical Reha—" someone in the crowd yells, I know exactly why he’s forgotten ‘—Yeah, yeah blimey, how embarrassing is that? The Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court. Coo, I dunno. Idiot!’ He flushes. ‘Anyhow, last year the ride raised £1,270, so make sure you buy loads more tea and bacon sarnies when we get back from the ride as we need to raise at least another £500 quid!

‘In all seriousness we’re massively grateful to you for turning out on this crispy old day and digging deep, so well done you. Give yourselves a round of applause.’

A few half-hearted hands join Dad, but the majority remain silent. Poor Dad. I squirm with embarrassment. He’s got Richard’s notes all arse about face - one minute reading the next spouting waffle - no wonder he’s in a pickle! He’s always a bit clumsy when he’s emotional and excited and I’m always embarrassed by him. I’d turn away if I could.

‘Coo you’re a hard crowd ter please aren’t you? Blimey! Anyhow. You know I don’t like the sound of my own voice—ha-ha!—' Now people laugh’—Yeah, yeah, alright! I’ll keep this short because of the time. What’ve we got Gerry?—’ he cups his hand behind his ear’—eh? Can’t hear you mate? How long have we got?’

It’s 10.30 Gerry yells from behind some hairy-arsed leather clad giants with wild hair and piercings.

‘Right, so we’re doing OK.

‘This year we did something a bit different. A few months ago, Richard and I were sinking a few too many strong ‘coffees’ in the Brave Old Oak, when he asked me how we could make the event a bit bigger, get more people involved. I said to him it’s a brilliant idea, but we don’t have the capacity for any more people to turn up at the café; we don’t have enough marshals to help us on the ride as it is. But I agree with him, we do need to make it bigger. I felt as though I’d let him down by saying no to him, and then Dan the Man over there had an idea - well two ideas, so I’ll let him tell you about them now. Ladies and gents, Danny-boy!’

<Play>
‘Thanks Dad & thanks everyone for coming today. It’s fab to see so many people here.

‘When Dad was moaning about not being able to expand the ride, I couldn’t really avoid listening to him. All I got was ‘blah…blah…blah’ every five minutes. It was painful, but then pain is good. It makes us do stuff. He knows me too well, I wasn’t going to sit there and do nothing. That’s when I came up with the Facebook idea.

‘I know we don’t have the physical capacity, but there’s nothing to stop us from doing it in the virtual world. Our service this morning is being live streamed into the world of Facebook. We currently have 102 people watching us.’</Play>

Cheers go up around me, Dad is there clapping with all his might even though he doesn’t understand what live streaming is.

<Play>
‘To make things even more exciting Mental Mickey is going to stream the ride to East Carlton from his helmet cam. This will be terrifying as he’s not called Mental Mickey for nothing!

‘There’s also a JustGiving page linked to the ride, so that our virtual riders can contribute to the fund-raising efforts. We’ve now got £1,546 on the JustGiving page, which is the most amount of money ever raised by Hot Toast and the CMA!’
</Play>

The hairy-arsed bikers clap and whistle and cheer. The noise goes on for ages but eventually with the aid of some arm and clipboard waving from Gerry, they calm.

<Play>
‘I know - the power of Social Media - it’s awesome isn’t it? There was also a competition linked to the event page and the three followers with the highest number of likes and shares are all here today. They won the chance to say a few words of remembrance this morning and a breakfast feast provided by George and his crew.’
</Play>

#

Dad steps forward to the mic again. I can tell he’s emotional as his voice is thick and strained. Only Soph and I, perhaps Gerry too, know that he is choking up.

‘Thanks Dan-Dan. Give the boy a clap folks. Fantastic son, fantastic! What a cracking lad he is eh? Even though I do say so myself. God love ya Danners.’

I think I blush.

‘OK, so where am I. Gerry, you got the names there?’

He calls to Gerry, but it’s Richard who steps forward with the printed profiles of our Facebook winners. Gerry has his back to the crowd; a large white handkerchief flashes under his lumpy rosacea nose, it is back in his pocket in seconds. I feel the hand of guilt squeeze my heart and I am suddenly angry. Soph distracts me by calling Richard ‘God’s fairy-frocked helper’, which makes me snort with laughter and the remains of the banana milkshake spurt from my nose and that makes me laugh some more.

‘It gives me great pleasure to reveal the winners of the inaugural Hot Toast of Towcester Remembrance Ride Competition: In third place we have the smashin’ Alex Brown.’

The crowd shows its appreciation and rightly so. Alex is a popular man, a giant of a guy who would do anything for anyone who needed help, yet is a proven ruthless killer. He waves his hand in recognition and gives me a thumbs-up.

‘As some of you know, our Alex saw a bit of service in Northern Ireland—'the crowd whistles and jeers knowing that Alex has done several tours of duty‘—Alright, alright, he’s seen a lot of service. It’s an honour, as always, to have him here today. Well done son!

‘In second place a new fella to the area, Mr Mark Miller.’

There’s a small round of applause and people look around furtively to see if they can spot the interloper. No one knows him but there are plenty of people here wondering about him.

‘Mark lives just up the road in Brackley, and has managed to get a huge number of likes and shares and for that we’re massively grateful. Welcome Mark and thanks very much for all your efforts.

‘And finally - last but first - if you know what I mean? The winner is a lady many of you know and love, Mrs Dottie Bath.’

The air fills with whistles and cheers as the leather, beards and tattoos erupt. It is a popular result. There are many deserving amongst us today, but Dottie perhaps more than most.

‘Dottie’s an old friend, well not old, old, but has been a friend of the café for many years. She’s an example to us all. Sadly, Dottie lost four sons in action, three in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. You may also know that she lost her fifth son six months ago in a car accident, just up the road from here. Through her spirituality she has remained positive and somehow is still young at heart. She has more compassion and faith in her little finger than the rest of us put together. And I’m delighted that she’ll be doing a reading for us today.

‘Please, another round of applause for our winners.

‘Thank you. Great. On to proceedings now. How’re we doing for time Gerry? OK, 14 minutes. Right then. I’m going to hand over to the winners now, who will give their speeches, and when they’re done Reverend Richard Sind will come forward and lead us in some prayers. Ladies and gents, Alex Brown.’
 I watch as Alex shakes my Dad’s hand; the two men embrace with warmth and affection, I know my Dad sees him as a second son. I know we will all be OK so long as Alex is around. He accepts the mic.

‘Thank you, thanks George. I’ll start with a poem written by Charles M Province called It is the Soldier.’

Alex reads the poem with a passion we all relate to. The hairy & tattooed have a sobriety that has until now been missing.

‘As George just mentioned, I’ve seen a bit of action—'a solitary whistle from the crowd breaks his speech—'Yeah alright, I know! I’ve seen a lot of action and in my time I’ve met some amazing men, some real heroes - met some beautiful souls y’know? It tears me apart man to think of the buddies I left behind. The ones who didn’t come home with the rest of us y’know. Them ones whose ‘coffins were draped by the flag’ just like in the poem. But not just the recent ones, anyone who’s fallen, men n’ women who had families - they all had families - kiddies, parents, brothers and sisters. We probably all know of someone, or some family who lost people in World War I and II, and we probably all know people who have lost loved ones in the more recent campaigns. We’re reminded daily of the injured and traumatised heroes who fought for Queen and country, but we don’t remember the dead that well. Maybe it’s because we’re embarrassed and don’t want to think about being involved in the first place. But those deaths count as much as those that went down in the old campaigns. But you guys are here remembering them, and carrying on the great tradition of the Remembrance Day services that will make sure they’re never forgot. And I know, that if they could be here t’day, they’d be in tears to see so many people remembering them. God bless you all.’

Alex blew out a great puff of air from his large barrel chest and steadied himself by holding onto the microphone stand. I watch him swallow. I think I am the only person there who knows what he is about to say.

‘I want to say for the record that Terence Pike was my greatest buddy and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved him with all my heart. I’m proud to say that we were more than just soldiers together. I want to honour Pikey’s memory today by telling you that we were soul-mates, lovers and best friends. There isn’t a day what goes by when I don’t think of him. I love you buddy...me and Tigs miss you man.’

There’s silence from the crowd. A palpable awkwardness had them paralysed (which is ironic) yet I feel pride, pride that at long last Alex is being honest about the bond he and Pikey had forged on the front line. At last he can be open about their love, but it is sad that Pikey has been dead for ten years.

In true Alex style, he is soon making noise again, soon making us laugh.

‘And while I’m on the topic of being honest and open about who I am and what I love, I think you should know I’m a vegan now George, so I won’t be eating any bacon when we get back!’

The crowd claps, nonplussed at what they have just witnessed. Dad and Gerry are in deep conversation no doubt wondering what the hell Alex meant. I have the feeling that being a vegan is more horrifying to them than the fact that he is gay.

Mark Miller steps forward to take the mic and Richard shoots me a worried glance.

‘Yo! Well, look at little ol’ me! Freaking nice of George to have me bounce up here and talk to you guys. Wow, what a legend this fella is right? Wooooo! Le’s have a big round of applause for George the mighty gent! Where are ya George, George? Are there, come on, come ‘ere, lemme shake your hand. Awesome, awesome right - he d’man - init! You’re a diamond. Diamond geezer, a bloody diamond!’

Mark shakes Dad’s hand and does it so vigorously I can see the younger man starting to get a bit flushed in the face. Alex moves a little closer to the action, he looks a little on edge and I get the feeling he’s already taken a dislike to Mark who is way too noisy and jittery for Alex’s liking.

‘’K- let’s get serious then yeah? It’s serious alrigh’ us bein’ here. It’s a serious business, sad too init? Cos there’s those fellas who died an stuff, and well we ain’t gonna forget them in a hurry. ‘Cos those men - ‘cos those men have given us the freedom and the life we ‘ave today. Without them we’d be shit—Alex moves forward a few paces and tells Mark to watch his language—Oh sorry, sorry about that, I didn’t mean no offence, but things would be blood…err, bloomin’ terrible.

‘The trouble is. The thing what’s wrong. The problem is the goverm’nt. The goverm’nt takes money and houses and schools from us Englanders and gives it to anyone who comes here looking for a handout. You get what I’m saying? Our fellas died and now all we’ve got are all them immigrants coming in, takin’ our jobs and ruining our society. They bring with them their fuckin’ sorry, sorry, their Izlam - their Izlamic ways - blowin’ up innocent people on the streets of our own country. It’s shocking, terrible!’

My Dad and Gerry step forward to do something. I’m not too sure what they think they’re going to do, they’d be better off killing the mic, but they don’t. Alex on the other hand moves in for the kill and grabs out at Mark only he’s the nimbler of the two and within a flash he’s given Alex the slip and is up on a table preaching at the top of his voice, above the yells of ‘get off’ and ‘boo’. I spell out ‘shut up you fucking twat’ on my eye activated computer and Soph turns the screen off for a few seconds. Well he is a twat; but he’s a cornered twat and that’s funny. He’s a cornered twat who just can’t keep his mouth shut, which is even funnier.

Mark is leaping about on and off the table, running about hither and thither, but he keeps on with this rant. Alex is closing in on him.

‘It’s true though init? We let those bastard Jeehads in and give them houses and let them send their kids to school. And then we invite poxy Romanians and Russians in who are rapists and thieves and let them take all our jobs. It’s about time we took things into our own hands. We need to stand up and fight for our rights like them we’re remembering today and kill the fuckers before they kill us! Go Boris – hi lads—'

Within a nanosecond of the F word, Alex grabs hold of Miller and swings him away from the mic. I can’t see what happens next, but Alex and some of the other lads soon have Mark Miller under control and away from the crowd.

Richard looks unimpressed and gives me an ‘I told you so’ shrug.

Dad takes the mic, he looks mortified as he apologises like mad. I’m sure he’ll see the funny side of it, eventually. He sounds a bit flat when introducing Dottie Bath, but at least the problem has gone away. Dottie steps forward slowly allowing a little time for the furore to pass.

‘Bless you, thank you so much for having me here today and giving me the chance to say a few words of thanks.

I am a great believer that my sons did not die in vain.

‘The souls of my sons are not in purgatory. Nor, are they trapped in dark and unreachable places. Many men, women and animals have died, but they have died for good reason.

‘Each one of them was born with a plan. The universe, God, Allah, whoever it is you believe in, had a clear vision of what their lives would be like. Each one achieved their life’s worth. Each one blessed the earth with their presence, and with their selfless actions, we too are blessed.

I am a great believer that my sons did not die in vain.

‘With each day that passes I am free to choose, free to travel, free to live an abundant life which is rich and full. I am free to have a voice and cast my opinion. I would not have this freedom if it were not for our great-grandfathers, our grandfathers, our fathers, our sons. Each of us are free because of our nation’s gallant sons and daughters, who died protecting this country.'
  

I am a great believer that my sons did not die in vain.

       ‘My sons, a poem:       

When the snow falls silently

And kisses the ground before my feet,

I feel your hand in mine.

When the sun warms my back

And eases the plunging pain from iron clad muscles,

I hear your gentle voice.

When the wind whips my hair

And blows firm against my weakening step,

I see your loving eyes.

When the night comes

And presses against my crumbling heart,

I smell your soft, blond curls.

And when, like dismal November rain

My tears fall unchecked

I taste the sweetness of the love you brought.’

Everyone is calm and sombre whilst we wait for something to happen. Dad steps forward to take the mic from Dottie, but they end up in an awkward embrace. He hugs her, holds her for a bit too long, whilst Gerry once again reaches for his white handkerchief.

‘Well, now because of the interruption, we’re just about 11:00, so we’ll have the two minutes silence before commencing. Gerry?’

Gerry fiddles with something until the voice of the BBC broadcaster slices across the car park just before Big Ben tolls the hour:

  1 for the dead

  2 for the maimed

  3 for the damaged

  4 for the lost

  5 for the lonely

  6 for the afraid

  7 for the buried

  8 for the burned

  9 for the trapped

  10 for the traumatised

  11 for the remembered

#

I try to close my eyes to stop the tears, but they flow freely. My eyes are reluctant to close properly these days as they’re buried deep, so deep in scar tissue. Soph finds it disturbing because I now sleep with my eyes partly open; she doesn’t like it. I don’t bloody like it.

For the most part my eyes are the only bit of my body that work now and it’s fucking miraculous that they do as they’re my lifeline now. If I couldn’t see I’d want to die; I do want to die, but there’s something driving me to see - literally to see - what is going to happen next. Where the next moment of laughter is going to come from. Where the next moment of love lives.

I fend off the images that project in a jumble onto my brain’s own 3D cinema screen; I have techniques to help me do this. Smell however is different. Once I can smell the smell I have no magic tricks, no tools in the box, no aces up my sleeve - as the therapist called them - that stop me from being back in that ball of fire.

The smell lives in my nose and comes when I’m anxious. The smell takes me back to Afghan. The smell takes me back to the moment I take my foot off the IED. Back to the moment my senses are amputated along with my foot; before, during and after the moment I make contact with the trigger. BOOM!

My ears register an eardrum shredding scream.

I taste sulphur, grit, blood.

I feel nothing; the too deep burns and my broken neck deal with the pain: and I see black, smoky unconsciousness. I can smell the smell of scorched hair and burning oil. Of putrid, acrid, throat charring, burning flesh.

#

Richard is talking. It’s not unusual for me to drop off to sleep the excitement of the day has caught up with me. Soph smiles at me and wipes the dribble from my chin.

‘—not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Let us pray.’

I miss Richard’s sermon. He hasn’t had any beer, so it probably wasn’t very interesting anyway.

I feel bad that I don’t stay awake for the service, but I remember the fallen all the time. I envy them. The people who love me would surely shoot me for even thinking that, but it’s true. What is this life I lead? It’s no life for Soph and the kids that I do know; but I also know I love them and treasure every moment I have with them. And now I feel shit for even thinking about dying, especially when I think about the terrible things Dottie and Alex must endure. At least I still have my loves, even if I don’t do too well at showing them how much I love them. It’s early days I suppose.

Dad steps up once again to take the mic. I do love him, that silly old sod.

‘And now ladies and gents, without further ado let’s make our way out onto the road. We’re heading to East Carlton, then on to Woodend – both thankful villages - before coming back here for a spot of lunch and of course all the proceeds from the day will go to Headley Court. Keep safe, keep your distance, and thank you. Thank you for making the effort to remember, and thank you especially for helping Headley Court. They put my boy back together, and’—his voice was thick once again, a sob betrays him. He sniffs—’so yes, thank you.’

Soph and I sit as the riders leave the car park. Dad and Gerry go inside the café and Richard has donned his leathers and has gone on the ride.

She takes my flaccid hand and tells me she loves me.

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