We deployed to Iraq in 2005. In April it was and by July it was all over for white Dave. You'd never heard of Al Amarah, I bet, but his family will never forget it, will they? They'll always know where it is and how to spell it. They'll be fluent, mate, in grief and loss at least. Never grow old, eh, Dave? Age will never wither him - not you, mate. Or, I guess, the other two poor sods killed there the year before. Their pre-deployment photos sitting like shrines on mantelpieces somewhere right now, I bet you. "Who's that mum?", some cunt kid will ask as he stares up at the photo. "That's your uncle Frank son, he was ever so brave," she'll reply, dabbing her hankie at her eye.
Anyway, I just remember stepping off the plane into a wall of heat. The kind of heat like I'd never felt before. Stifling, that was it, stifling mate. It was like being waterboarded under a massive wet duvet at first and then, you know, well, you just get on with it, don't you? A new normal, mate. That's what it was.
When I came back home though, in that October, you know what? I fucking missed it. All of it. Every fucking bit of it, mate. Imagine that? I mean, don't get me wrong: it was sad about white Dave and all that, but I was in a groove out there, mate. For the first fucking time, I'd felt something, it's true. I felt like I was alive, and I know, I do, I know this sounds so sad, but I felt alive for the first fucking time. Things meant something. There were ups and downs; there was life and death. Anger, joy, pain. And then it was gone. All of it. And I was back home again. There weren't any colours anymore. It was just grey. Flat. Life, I mean. I'd look at people and they didn't seem real somehow. They hadn't seen what I'd seen, had they? They didn't know what I knew, and I kind of felt sorry for them. Then I hated them. They were like fucking aliens, mate.
I had felt everything. And now I felt nothing.
When I got back, it was like someone had flicked a switch. Turned all the bloody lights off again. But it was kind of worse this time, you know, than before. Because nothing kind of made sense, or even fucking mattered. And I couldn't make it, could I? I just couldn't force it to make sense. I don't know if I'm even making sense now, but I'd see these sheep running off to work or worrying about the gas bill or talking shite about some celeb or something and I couldn't be arsed with any of it. Every day was life or death out there, weren't it? It mattered. I mattered. And then I came back to a world where the most important things in people's lives were the gas bills and soap stars.
It didn't make sense, mate. None of it. But, more than anything, everything seemed so fucking dull and boring. You know? As I said, it was all grey, mate.
I don't know, but that last long lockdown, yeah, the year long one, it was hard, weren't it? It hurt, mentally. I mean I survived, didn't I? But I guess I wasn't sure where I was going in life back then, but who did? So I looked back a lot to where I'd been. In life. Living in my memories. I guess that's why I'd come back to Smethwick in the first place though, right? Because I'd been unsure about where I was going for such a long time. Retracing my steps back as if I'd lost a set of fucking keys or something, all the way back to Smethwick. Instead of just having faith in the future, manning up and pushing forward. Keeping it moving mate, and all that. Having faith in finding myself a future instead of being scared shitless. Of everything. I should've fucking stayed in London, mate, in that fucking house. Waiting for anyone who was coming back and fucking wetting them up.
Maybe I've always been though, hadn't I? You know, scared. Scared fucking shitless of life. Always waiting for a belt to come down from the shadows at any minute.
Anyway, I arrived in Dudley first and stayed in a hotel down in Castle Gate, didn't I? After that long drive up from London, until I could find a place in Smethwick. You know, my clothes still smelled of smoke from the fire. I remember that as I crashed down on the bed in that hotel room, before I sat up and looked out of the window. Sitting there on the edge of the bed. Grass stains still down my back.
Those first few days I'd look at myself crying in the bathroom mirror. Then I'd splash water on my face, and sit in front of the TV all day and watch some shite, then repeat the cycle. Just looking at myself crying and feeling every part of me draining out until I was empty – and then I'd stop. I don't know if I should say this, but you know what, you know fucking what? It felt so good. Crying, I mean, seeing myself doing it. Feeling it. Feeling something. Feeling human. Then I'd look at myself in the mirror and wonder how I'd got so old, and then what the fuck had I done with my life? I'd throw it all onto that emotional bonfire, every fucking sad memory or downer about myself and let it burn out in the open. That's right. No, I wasn't fucking crying about Mr Adeyemi, mate, I was crying about myself.
Then the tears just stopped.
Just like that. I guess everything had all burnt up, hadn't it? All that self loathing, mate, and there were just ashes.
You know, I had that dream again last night. I guess it's more of a recording than a dream by now. Like a film, even, innit? But real. Because it happened, didn't it? All of it. Somewhere back in a previous chapter of life when I could feel alive again. When I could feel everything. OK, bear with me, but when mom died, father had sent a wreath with a card, because he didn't come, did he? To the funeral, I mean. Anyway, do you know what he wrote on that fucking card though? Go on have a guess, mate.
You're thinking it was something like, "You were the love of my life and I wish I'd been a better man" perhaps? Fuck off mate, you know what that cunt wrote? "Life is touch and touch is pain." That's it. That's all. And you know, that's all I've thought about since back then, about life, because he weren't wrong, was he? Well, was he? Think about it. It's what I think about every time I have that bastard dream.
You know, it always starts the same bloody way. It never starts before or after, always at the same point when we get there just after the explosion, halfway through our second tour, me and Dave's. Black Dave. Both of us standing side-by-side, bystanders not doing jack, really, just watching the freak show of the Warrior burning with those flames dancing around it. It always looks like a sad, fucking upside-down turtle on its back, don't it? As some bloke runs up to it and pulls one of the red fire extinguishers off from the outside and sprays out white foam, while five lads are burning to death inside.
It does nothing though, the foam, does it? The orange and black evil-looking flames and smoke keep licking up into the sky. Then the guy with the extinguisher throws it down, right on the ground, doesn't he, before trying to open the doors with his bare fucking hands, mate. But burning them and stumbling backwards, his hands out in front of him like he's carrying an invisible tray. Then falling onto his back, those hands sticking up into the air now. As he's screaming out words I can't hear. I'm straining to hear what he's saying, ain't I? And I'm just about to make it out. Then, out of the blue, Dave falls to the ground, and it all feels so real: the dream, or this moment, after all these years.
You know, mate, I'm always surprised at the bright redness of the blood that pumped out from the wound in his neck. As it seeped out through his fingers he had clamped over it and as it rolled down to soak into the dirt of the road. I stand there gawping, don't I? Just looking down on him like a loon, before I fall down to my knees and put pressure on the wound, pressing down on his hand all the time. That's when I hear the snap of a bullet passing by my head and drop on top of him, trying to shield him from another bullet. Or maybe I'm trying to bury myself into the ground. Save myself, you know? Anyway, our eyes lock as I scream for a medic, all the time my hand on top of his, over the wound, blood pumping through our fingers as my other hand holds his other hand tightly, squeezing his finger together so tight that they overlap. He stares back at me trying to speak but coughs up blood instead. "I don't know what to do," I say to myself, as ammo cooks off in the Warrior, and I feel the heat from it even from where we are. I try to cover him again with my body even more this time, as some lads fire off in different directions and more rounds start to come in.
All this time we're looking into each other's eyes.
I see the fear growing on his face, just around his eyes at first, and then he cries, that one tear bubbling over at the corner of an eye and then running down the side of his face. I'm trying not to cry myself. I shout, "Dave, Dave mate, it's going to be alright. Just stay with me, mate." I remember slapping his face and shouting, all angry like: "come on mate, stay with us." And then I just tell him, "it's going to be OK," and then softer, "it's going to be OK," almost in a whisper, you know? Trying to calm him down as he tries to catch his breath in those fucking hiccup breaths like I'd take after father's beatings. He's all agitated now, mate, distressed, and I'm trying to keep him still, to hold onto him as the tears are flooding from both of us. Then he just stopped. Just stopped breathing. I waited, I did, waited for the next breath, but it never came, his mouth still wide open. Blood all over his chin and down his cheek as he just looked up past me towards the sky. Just like that, and then everything just relaxed. It was like he was melting into the ground, his body going limp as his life slipped away from him, my hand still squeezing his, and me still waiting for that breath or an eye to blink.
It all went silent, didn't it? Not a bastard sound, mate.
I mean, the rounds were still coming in. The lads were still firing and the Warrior was still burning, but none made a sound. It was like watching a film with the sound turned down. Even when the medic pushed me off Dave, when my bloodied palms landed on the ground and the sand stuck to them, there was still just silence.
Then I wake up, don't I? And it's all over, the dream. It always ends there and I'm spat back out into the world again. Anyway, this morning I just lay there and then raised my palms up, just to check if Dave's blood wasn't still on them. Then I laid back and looked up at the ceiling for a moment before I rolled over for my smokes. It doesn't hurt anymore, you know? The dream. I mean it still makes me feel a way, sad and all that, but after all these years, all the sharp pointy edges, the ones which would stick into me and gave me so much shit for so long, are all kind of sanded and smoothed down now. Do you get me? After all these years, it's just like sitting through a film you watch every Christmas: you know what's coming but you watch it, anyway. Time, mate. It's a healer, innit? Besides, worse things have happened at sea since then, mate.
Fuck me Dave. I didn't think you'd cop it though. Not you mate.
It's funny though, even when I was in the army, even back then, I never thought that anything could happen to me. Nah, not me mate, not even to Black Dave either, to be fair. We were bulletproof. No, for real, I thought nothing would ever happen to us. One hundred percent. Oh, don't get me wrong, I knew some poor sod in the battalion was going to cop it, get slotted you know, during the deployment over there. Maybe even a few. Sometimes I'd look at people around me and almost feel bad for the poor bastards, knowing that some of them wouldn't be coming back. Even having flashes of seeing their flag-draped coffins being carried down the ramp of a transport when I was talking to them and then trying to put a mental lid on it all as they chatted about some shit. Dave never thought the same though. He was religious, though, weren't he? He prayed, went to services and all that out there and everything. Praying to white Jesus to save him. I mean, I wanted to have a go, didn't I? Ask him why he was praying to white Jesus. I did, mate. But I never did. I never gave him both barrels about it being the religion of our oppressors. Nah, mate, out there, if it made him happy it was all good. Besides, he was a thinker though, weren't he. He'd have tied me up in knots with reasoning and I'd have been coming out thinking, you know what this white Jesus bloke ain't so bad after all. But yeah, Dave always thought about what could happen, you know? "About the consequences of our actions," he'd say. Me? Well, I was different, wasn't I? The weights were my therapy. And I'd pump the fuck out of them. Those guns weren't going to make themselves, mate.
You know, we only ever had one argument: that one time he told me I should write to my father just before our second tour. "Write and say what?", I asked him. "Tell him where you are. Tell him who you are, now. That you're a soldier, tell him that. If anything happens to you, I'll find, I will," he said. "Get fucked, get bloody fucked," was all I said back to Dave. To be fair, he didn't push it. But you know, I wrote that letter, I did. Only because I knew it would fucking kill him to know I was serving the Evil Empire. I guess that's when I really thought about going home. Just like that, a little crack in my defenses happened. You know, going back to find him began to grow from that moment. Then we flew out. I felt the world burning again, and I got lost for a while.
But Dave gave me his own letter, didn't he, a few weeks after this, when we were already out there, telling me to take it to his parents if anything happened to him. Jokingly, I said it wasn't the African ones, was it, because I ain't going that far, mate. Then we broke down laughing, bloody giggling like little schoolgirls, we were. Saft sod.
But that was the last time I saw his folks. They were polite, you know. I mean his dad still had that look on his face like I was going to rob the family silver until I handed over the letter. They both hugged as they read it to themselves, him holding it with his hand trembling, his wife leaning against him, sitting there on the armrest of the chair, both reading in silence. I never knew what Dave wrote, and I didn't ask to either. I didn't want that in my head. But at one point I saw his mom look up from the letter and smile at me with tears in her eyes. I guess Dave had mentioned me, right? But what could I tell them about Dave? About us going on the pull, getting pissed and having tear ups? Me watching him die? Nah, nothing, was there. So I kept quiet, bottled it all up, and afterwards found a boozer by the train station, all bloody candles and diners on dates, it was.
So what did I do? I started a fight with some poor cunt. Broke his nose, just because he backed into me accidentally. I knew it was an accident, but I just turned, no words, just bang. Then did a runner into the night with the sound of some woman screaming behind me.
Yeah, I know, I did that. The look on his face, it was shock, mate, then he just grabbed his face. I did. I shouldn't have...I know, because, he did fuck all to me, not really. But he seemed so happy, didn't he? I saw him earlier, and I just, well. I did what I did, didn't I?
Life mate, oh fuck, what I am crying for? What am I fucking crying for, eh? Eh? For fuck's sake. But sometimes I just...I just wish...fuck it man. But, life, yeah man, you know, it's just so fucking hard sometimes. It just fucking is. It's just hard.
So yeah, I stayed under the duvet the last few weeks, waking up in the morning and just scrolling up on my phone, yeah, on social media mainly, going back in time, I was, as I scrolled downwards. One morning I saw a photo of mom I'd posted way back when, some Mother's Day shit, I think. And out loud I just shouted, "Oh mom," I said, "Oh mom, what a hard bastard life you had but your son loved you, he did, with all his fucking heart."
Then I went for a piss.
You know, no matter how old I get I'm always amazed at my ability to do that. To stand there and send a stream of piss into the toilet, I mean. I'm always amazed that that yellow liquid is coming out of me. I mean sometimes, and don't get me wrong, I'm horrified when I see the colour of it, especially if I've had a session the night before. But it always seems like some wonderful magic trick – pissing. Anyway, as I stood there, with one hand on my hip and the other on me old fella this morning, I began to do a clockwise circle and piss around the toilet bowl. It was like I was bloody five again. Admiring my handiwork. You know, when we were kids in primary school in Dudley, we used to see who could piss the highest up the stainless steel urinal. That's when I thought of dad; I remembered being that kid again who would look forward to seeing him so much after school. Then I lost my train of thought and had a case of friendly fire on the toilet seat.
As one door closes another opens, they say. If mom hadn't died, I wouldn't have run away and had the life I had, would I? I'd have probably stayed in that factory, still be there now packing boxes, wouldn't I, when I think about it. But the world since then, since the Malaise, had changed, hadn't it? It just seemed, I don't know, just a little bit nastier, all hard edges and bluntness. Maybe I was nastier too? If you can imagine that, right? I'm joking, mate. It just seemed like nobody gave a shit anymore about being nice. No pretending – the saying back then was "I'm just keeping it real!"
Back then you could say anything you wanted. You could keep it as real as you wanted. Even some Tory MP used the phrase when he was caught calling the Prime Minister a fat bastard. "Keeping it real," he said – and that was it. Maybe it was because we were all online, all the bloody time during that year that people turned into dicks, but when we all had to re-enter into the real world again, scores got settled. Well, it came from nowhere really, the end, it just kind of happened, you know?
Everyone had thought that 2020 was a bad year, but when the second wave hit in the winter nobody knew then what was coming. Then a year later when the third wave hit you didn't have time to turn around before there was a fourth, and well, we were told that we'd be locked down for almost the whole of 2022. And the rest is history.
When I moved back up here, I got work as a debt collector and business was, well, booming, to be fair. I coined it, mate. Remember me telling you we all got a little bit nastier? I didn't care: it was me or them. Those poor fuckers who I hounded for money I knew they never had. Walking their TV out of their houses for all the neighbours to see. Kids crying as you grabbed up their PlayStations, mom sitting on the bottom steps of the staircase, tears running down her face. Old people, single moms, the disabled, it didn't matter. I got paid, mate.
The government even expanded our powers, didn't they? Cops were so overstretched that they turned into proper toy cops, didn't they? Fuck me, there was a new sheriff in town, mate - and that cunt was me. I'm laughing, but it was true, weren't it? We could access all types of data too, and then they sent me on that private detective course. I mean it was online, but you get my drift. I turned into a proper investigator. So many people were running off from their debts, hiding their identities and all that, that we had to have new skills in tracking them down, didn't we. We weren't debt collectors anymore; it was about fugitive acquisition, for fuck's sake. Fucking Bounty Hunter. "Bounty Bar," dad would have said, "doing Babylon business." Black on the outside, white on the inside.
That's when, OK, I should have said this earlier, but that's when I found our Ronnie, one of father's kids. Hear this: he was due for a fucking knock from me, for a reposession. Crazy, right? Ronnie was father's son who I lived with for a bit. He was still fucking living in Smethwick. Imagine that. Two streets down from the old bloody house, too, that same one I ran away from all those years ago. The same one we both got beatings in, me, him and his sis. Well my sis, half-sis. Fuck me, all these years I could have just gone back and maybe bumped into him taking his dog for a walk, or some shit. All that training, you know, skills to find people and, anyway, it is what it is, right? That job though, man, sometimes I'd wake up in the morning and I'd leave my heart on the bedside table before going to work. Because I did some bad things, I did, but what else could I do?
"Man have to dead fi man live," father used to say. So, it was me or them, wasn't it? Come on, think of it? Me or those damn kids crying over their PlayStation I took out their hands and spirited away. I had to live, man, I did. Besides, I was a soldier, and the pandemic, the Malaise, all that shit, it was all just a new fucking war. New battles, innit, but all battles are alike, mate, they all boil down to, well, it's them or me, me or them, mate. That's all. And you know what, mate, it wasn't going to be me, was it? I wasn't going to lose, and they weren't going to beat me – not those sniffling strangers. Fucking crying over fucking tv's and fucking toys. Because I owed them fuck all, I owed them nothing.
So, I rang Ronnie, I did. Just like that. I know, I know, I said I hadn't known where father's kids were, but, anyway, yeah I rang him. I did, just the other day. I just picked up the phone and belled him. Pretended I didn't know him, told him I was a debt collector, asked him questions, just to check it was the right Ronnie. Then I dropped it on him – told him who I was. POW! Then there was just silence and me listening to it. Thought the fucking phone had gone dead, or the cunt had hung up. Then all I could hear was crying. The bastard was crying. Then he just laughed, you know, then I did, and then it was just, it was just, it was good, you know. I felt a weight lifted off my chest. A weight I'd carried for so long. I felt bad for hating him all this time when he'd done fuck all to me. Then we just talked about the three of us getting beating, him, me and our sis, Josephine. Then he told me didn't that Josephine had died in the second wave, hadn't she. A nurse she was, helping others till the end, he said. Then it went quiet for a bit; I think we were both crying then. Then I brought up that time she'd farted when we were getting beating one time, and then we both laughed again.
He told me I would have loved her, if I had known her. It wasn't a dig or nothing, about me running off, he was just saying. All those years I wasted man, the family I missed out on. All of them. They had always wondered what had happened to me. Even tried to find me, they did, my brother and sister, Ronnie and Josephine. And then he asked, didn't he?
"Father," Ronnie asked, "did I want to know about father?" I just froze, everything stopped, even my heart seemed to stop beating. Maybe because it was caught in my throat? It was like I couldn't even breathe. "He's still with us you know," he said, almost laughing, he was, "do you want to see him?" Twenty bloody years, and in one phone call Ronnie was my brother again, and we were family, and mate, I still had a fucking father. One call and everything I thought I knew, everything which had churned and had chewed me up before it spat me out, it was over. All these fucking years, mate, didn't matter anymore.
That's all I said, just yes. Just that one word. "Cool," Ronnie replied, how about the weekend? "Yeah, yeah," I replied, and just like that, just fucking like that, I'm going to see father on the weekend. I'm still taking Ronnie's TV, mind. Walking it out the house for all the neighbours to see. Nah, I'm joking mate. I'm taking his kid's PlayStation. If he has one.
Then I put the phone down and just cried. Like a kid, like a little fucking kid, like poor little Abeo, wailing it all out into the world - only I still had a father.
Chapters though, innit?
It's just chapters. Life, I mean. Think about it, just a series of random chapters that we string together and then pretend it's a life. When we look back. Little bubbles of time, mate, that burst when they're over, and then don't ever seem real afterwards, you know? After we've moved onto the next one. Onto that next bubble, that next chapter. Your mom dies, your friend does too, and they seem like they're the same thing, but they aren't, are they? They're separate moments, years and thousands of miles apart. Trapped in different chapters and parts of your life.
Maybe in a few weeks time, after the weekend, that bubble of time that will come to an end, it'll burst, eh? And I'm back to thinking he's a cunt all over again? Closing that chapter and moving on. Thing is, right, whatever happens, I know Dave would've been happy for me, just for trying though, mom too, to be fair. They both would though, mate, wouldn't they? You know what Dave would say, coming up to me with a hand out to touch fists,"Bad Boys for life." Wouldn't he?
Anyway, we'll see mate, won't we? It'll all come out in the wash. It all will. What comes next, what comes next, I mean. It'll play itself out, mate, and we'll see.
Won't we? We'll see. We'll see what comes next, what the future holds and all that, I mean in the mile to come. In that fucking hard mile, mate, that gets longer and longer. That mile that I have to drag myself through with every fucking footstep, and all the time waiting for the belt.
Anyway, I'll get through, innit? You know? Watch me. I will, because it's just another fucking chapter, ain't it? Really, you know? Just another one, that's all. It ain't nothing more than that, mate. No fucking more.
It's just another chapter.