After their passing-out parade, they had a couple of days to say their goodbyes and ready themselves for the adventures ahead. Bertie told his sister to start knitting socks when he discovered he was being sent to the fields of Flanders. Arthur stocked up on baccy and German swear words, while Steve took a crash course in cursing en Español. Meanwhile, Gavin loaded more tracks onto his iPod and scrolled through miles of desert on Google Earth. Of the five, only Sam had no idea how to prepare for his posting. He was scheduled to stay behind in Catterick to play five-a-side football.
At first he thought it was a joke. But ten hours of footie day after day soon loses its funny side. He wondered if he’d been kept back with the wheezers and dickheads, the kind of lad you’d prefer to have fielding for the enemy, but no. Some of these stay-behinders were medal-winning athletes. Some of them had university degrees.
Sam used to enjoy kicking a ball around, but this was no game. The officers set up the tournaments as if the men’s lives depended on the outcome. Yet there was never any pride in winning, only the shame of losing and the gut-curdling punishment of cleaning out the latrines.
The squaddies felt their dejection all the more keenly whenever they heard from a former colleague: an ink-blotted letter from Bertie with half the words blacked out or a YouTube clip of Gavin with a towel round his head, pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia. Their mothers were grateful that no-one was pointing a gun at them on the playing fields of Catterick, but that was no consolation. Sam and the rest had joined up in a spirit of bravado and self-sacrifice. Soccer stars weren’t heroes to them.
Tension rippled through the camp when they were shown a copy of The Times with a eulogy for Bertie, describing him scrambling out of his trench and plodding through a muddy no man’s land, heedless of the enemy fire. They hurled their popcorn at the cinema screen as Pathe News sombrely announced Arthur’s final mission over Dresden. Their cursing drowned out the voice of the newscaster accompanying the footage of Steve in his dugout at Goose Green. Finally, after Gavin was paraded through the streets of Wootton Bassett draped in the Union Jack, Sam and the rest of his team could stomach no more. They refused to spend another minute dribbling a ball across a field.
The lads were terrified they’d be shot for insubordination. Lucky for them, the politicos had recently instituted a modernisation programme for the armed services. It might have been due to the shrinking public purse, or lawyers shouting about human rights, but, underneath it all, was the fact that computerised weaponry had rendered warfare less labour intensive. Bodies like Sam’s were surplus to requirements.
A team of management consultants were sent to Catterick. These suits proposed an away day to analyse the problem from different points of view. All ranks were encouraged to have their say.
Sam was rather chuffed when the facilitator scrawled his words in capital letters on the flipchart. “You want to be a hero?” she beamed. “I want you to be a hero, but how are we going to achieve it when we’re running out of wars?”
Her smile, her confidence in his abilities, soon took his thoughts away from soldiering. Indeed, the long rambling speeches of the bigwigs were sending him to sleep. Sam spent the rest of the workshop dreaming of persuading the facilitator out of her chalk-striped skirt-suit and into his bunk.
If the mechanics of the solution were ever articulated, he was unaware of it. All Sam knew was that they were to pack their kit bags and prepare for an overnight flight.
Strapped into his seat, banter criss-crossing the plane, Sam was too excited to think about the woman in the chalk-striped skirt-suit. Bertie and Arthur, Steve and Gavin had all done their patriotic duty. At last he’d have the chance to do the same.
Dawn was breaking as they landed, a pale light picking out a cluster of Nissen huts beyond the runway. Bleary eyed, they disembarked and shouldered their packs.
Across the yards of asphalt, Sam could make out some men milling about near the huts. Despite their uniforms, they looked too undisciplined to constitute a welcome party.
As the squadron marched towards them, he realised why the men appeared so unsoldierly. They couldn’t possibly stand to attention with bodies so deformed. Some were missing limbs, some disfigured by burns; one looked as if he’d had half his face blown off and another wore a tin mask over his, like some alien from Doctor Who. Sam shuddered to think what grotesquery lay behind it.
Stumbling over his disgust and disappointment, Sam found himself momentarily out of step. They hadn’t even given him twenty-four hours to feel like a proper soldier. Now, it seemed, he was to be an orderly at a military field hospital. He’d do anything to reboard the plane and fly back to Catterick. To parachute down to the football pitch and start kicking the ball from end to end.
He wished he could get his hands on that bitch in the chalk-striped skirt-suit. He’d give her some words for her flipchart all right. Words with four letters starting with f and c. Yeah, and as soon as they were up on the chart he’d teach her what they meant. He’d rip off her business suit and bayonet her f-ing c right up to her throat.
“Get a grip,” hissed the guy behind him.
Sam reddened, wondering if his mouth had betrayed his thoughts. He composed his features as the troop processed past the casualties towards the barracks.
They came to a halt at a large dormitory. Instead of the wooden bunks with rough grey blankets he’d been expecting, they were each assigned an iron bed with starched white sheets. The order came to put down their packs and change into pyjamas. Sam was surprised, but the prospect of mopping up shit and puke would be a lot more bearable after a kip.
A hand on his shoulder shook him awake. Rubbing his eyes, he propped himself up on the pillows. A figure in a white apron and pleated headdress, like a matron from a black-and-white movie, shoved a thermometer under his tongue.
Sam glanced down the line of identical narrow beds, each with a bemused-looking lad in khaki pyjamas muted by a thermometer. Yet he could see the sense in giving them all a check-up before foisting them on the patients. A common cold that a healthy guy would take in his stride could flatten one of those crips.
A group of white-coats progressed from bed to bed, checking their notes at each station. Sam couldn’t hear what was said, but he saw the revulsion pass across each soldier’s face as the contingent moved on. He felt reassured not to be the only one disturbed by their assignment. It helped him resign himself somehow. Mucking out in an infirmary wasn’t exactly seeing action, but he could get a whiff of it through proximity to men who’d drawn the short straw under enemy fire.
He straightened his back as the doctors neared his bed. He wondered if he ought to salute, but no-one else had done. He wished the nurse would come and relieve him of the thermometer. He wanted to give a good impression of himself.
The white-coats paused at the bed next to his, muttering between themselves about double amputees. Wide-eyed, the soldier watched them. Sam turned his head aside when the guy began to cry.
By the time the doctors reached him, Sam was resolved. He’d wanted to be a nurse even less than he’d wanted to be a footballer but, if that was what the army required of him, he’d rise to the challenge. He’d mop floors, empty bedpans, learn to dress suppurating wounds if need be. He’d do it cheerfully. He’d do it well.
The head honcho barked at him from the end of the bed. “Ah, so you’re the chap who wants to be a hero?” He didn’t wait for an answer before dissolving into a huddle of white coats.
Sam grinned as widely as the thermometer in his mouth would allow. He wasn’t alarmed by their mutterings about grenades, mustard gas and incendiary bombs. Their voices formed the backing track to his reverie: he’d earn his stripes for his bravery in caring for the guys who’d crawled through all that shit and come out the other end.
The doctor cocked his head towards him. “Great job you’re doing.” His dad had said exactly the same on the day of the passing-out parade.
The team moved to the next bed, apart from one woman who lingered behind. She looked almost too young to be a doctor, too good-looking. Sam imagined peeling off her white coat to find her pink and naked underneath. In reality he knew he’d have to take his time getting to know her, but that was okay. He assumed they’d both be here for the duration.
Her smile made his dick tingle as she passed him a clipboard and pen. “Consent form,” she said. “Sign and date it beside the cross at the bottom.”
Sam tongued the thermometer to the corner of his mouth. “You’re not in the army then?”
She inclined her head flirtatiously. “What makes you say that?”
Sam stole a cursory glance at the printed form. Third-degree burns to torso, amputation above right knee, removal of left shoulder and lower jaw. “The army issues orders. It never asks permission.”
She gazed uneasily at her colleagues as they shuffled to the next bed. “I suppose this is kind of special,” she said.
Sam would’ve liked to have chatted longer, but it wouldn’t be a great start to their relationship if he got her into trouble for dawdling. He scratched his name in the space provided. “When can I see you again?”
She seemed to recoil. He hadn’t shaved and he knew he’d have bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, but he’d always thought he had the type of face that pleased the girls. Then she giggled, “Well, I’ll see you in theatre but of course you won’t see me.”
So they were putting him to work in the operating theatre, right in the middle of the action. He’d never wanted to be a butcher’s assistant, but if it meant being closer to her … “Why won’t I see you?”
She looked confused, as if they weren’t speaking the same language. “You’ll be unconscious. We’re not so barbaric as to operate without anaesthetic.”
The lad in the next bed had stopped crying and was gawping at him and shaking his head. Sam crossed his legs under the bed clothes, petrified he’d piss himself. “What exactly have I signed up for?”
“Oh don’t worry about it,” said the doctor. “Everybody gets the jitters just before surgery.”
The shambling reception party when they stepped off the plane: heroism displayed in scars, in burns, in sacrificed limbs. One battle was as good as another in manufacturing heroes. The public didn’t care how their injuries were acquired.
Sam’s voice was nothing more than a whimper. “What is this place?”
His neighbour leaned across from the next bed. He could hardly stifle his laughter. “It’s where they turn you into a hero, cretin. Isn’t that what you want?”