There is nothing to it but the old story. I joined the army at seventeen and let myself get noticed by a training sergeant who had been something more in his time. The Service offered me an education in return for another three years, and it seemed a good bargain – but they have me for life, of course. It is a hook through the heart, this work, and they are careful not to make the offer to men who can walk away from it.
I had already turned down an education once. I could not do so twice. I have told you that I joined the army at seventeen. My mother was against the idea, but I was her only son and her only support. I could not watch her drudge for us any longer. Where I come from, the army is the only real option for a boy with no leaving certificate and no family to find him a place. My mother said that if it was only the money I should stay at school, that I would be able to give her more in five years than I would ever earn in the army. I did not think that any amount of money would help her five years later, and I was right.
I must have made myself conspicuous a dozen ways, but it was the girl who clinched it.
The girl? I had her blood on my hands.
It happened this way. It was my first home leave. I suspect I thought that I was God’s gift to the world, but I had no one to share that gift with. My friends were still in school, or working, or both. My mother was pleased to see me, but she did not want me under her feet all day. The only old friend I could rake up was a girl I had known slightly in school, and paid less attention to than I ought to have done. I had to go away and come home to see what her stepfather had been teaching her to think of herself all the time we were in school.
I called when her stepfather happened to be out, and I refused to take no for an answer. I wanted to catch up, because that first stretch in the army is an aching long time when you have never been away from home before, and I wanted to treat her, because even in a short conversation I had begun to see that something was not right with her.
I took her out to lunch. It was the best place I could afford, but you should not let that lead you astray. Our recruits are not paid so much to start with, and after barrack stoppages and home remittances there was very little left to burn a hole in my pocket. Think of one of those down at heal diners that turn up so often in American movies and you will not be far wrong.
I kept her talking about mutual friends, just to see a little animation in her features, and tried to work round to asking what was wrong. I never did ask, but I found out what was wrong beyond any chance of misunderstanding.
Her stepfather had come home and found a cold lunch on the table and no girl to serve it to him. An obliging neighbour had pointed him in our direction, and he came straight round to collect her. I would like to say that there was a scene. I would like to say he dragged her off, despite my protests. She went with him as meekly as a lamb, and I did not interfere. I heard him tell her that she was giving herself airs, and even then I did not react. I had learnt a lot more from my basic than you will find in the training manual. I sat there looking at the sad remains of the meal that was too good for her, watching the bubbles rise in her drink, and thinking about the way she moved, and the bruises I did not need to see to know were there.
The rest is hearsay, you understand. I only had a forty-eight hour pass, and as my sergeant told the civilian police, I was back in barracks with the customary three minutes to spare.
The girl’s stepfather went out drinking that night, and he must have had more than his usual skinful, because he fell down on his way home – fell down several times. There were no witnesses, and he tried to make a case against me – to save face, I suppose. The police went through the motions, as I have said, but it was clearly nonsense. I could not have been in two places at once, and you only have to look at me now to imagine the skinny runt I was at seventeen. It was absurd to suggest that I could have taken down that bear of a man, even drunk.
I have had no reason to go home for a long time. He lives there still, though I heard that he almost died of pneumonia last winter. He has become a hopeless drunk and – well, people forget. He has their sympathy, since he has no daughter to look after him.
But did I not say that it was her blood I have on my hands? Less than a month after my first leave she broke her neck. I was young and I was stupid, and I thought that he had learned his lesson. She fell down the stairs during a power cut, and it was not only her neck that was broken. Of course there were no witnesses. Be careful when you play games with justice. It has a tendency to cut both ways.
When my mother died a few months after that, all I had in the world was a reputation in the wrong circles, a debt to my sergeant . . . and perhaps one other thing. They call me ruthless, now. If I am then it is a lesson I learnt hard.
I should have broken his damn neck when I had the chance.
If you know Viennese Waltz, then you may recognise this as the story that Pavel Yakovych told about a certain boy of his acquaintance, a slight, pale, brown haired boy with steel-grey eyes. If not, then I’m rather pleased you met him this way instead.