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Brave Boys
Vivien Jones

 

I must not watch the News, Julie told herself. The clock straightened to attention at six o’clock, she clicked the remote and the screen flashed into life.

There was another one of course, only one this night, nineteen (she flinched) a blurred face in camouflage, beret askew, sand all round. A boy called Barry. Three brothers, a fiancé, school friends of a year back and the parents, stunned, facing the cameras, not able to speak. A spokesman for the family said they were devastated. She took up her pencil and put a cross through the last four strokes on her list, making thirty five this month. Someone ought to do something, she thought, something like we did at Faslane all those years ago.


She had been so frightened, by her father as much as the chance of being arrested. It was because she said she was going to take Bobby.

‘You go if you have to, but don’t take the baby! What if you get arrested? Whatever are you thinking of, you silly girl ?’

His face was red. He didn’t usually shout. She had stood up to him though.

‘I want him to have a future. I want them to see what harm they could do.’

Her father had turned away.

‘I fought a war for the likes of you. People died, you know. Just so you could be free to say what you liked. What a bloody waste of time!’

This was her Daddy - Daddy who smelt of aftershave and pipe tobacco, whose navy uniform was scratchy against her cheek. Daddy who had embodied all that was safe and hopeful.

‘You said I should say what I believe in.’

She spoke to his shuddering back. When he turned around she saw he was fighting tears. Puffed up with resolve, still she wanted to run into his arms and be his darling Julie again. She almost did it, was on the tipping point when he closed the conversation, bitter and cold.

‘But I didn’t expect you to believe in rubbish.’


Where are they now though, she wondered, all those young women growing old like me. Not likely to want to sit down in the road linking arms, singing, smiling into the faces of military men as they tried to disentangle them, not resisting but falling limp so they were dead weight. The military men had not been taught how to deal with the passive, except by whispering obscenities which they hadn’t been taught either but which seemed to come easily. Julie had been surprised by the hatred in their eyes or perhaps it was fear. Once, a younger soldier with a child’s complexion had tugged at her arm. On impulse, she had asked him,

‘Don’t you have a mother, sisters like me?’

He had recoiled from her as if from a hornet sting, dropping her arm.

‘My mother. My sister know how to behave, you fucking hippy cow!’

The swearing sounded awkward, tacked on, but he was shaking with anger. An older soldier beside him grabbed back her arm and spoke to the young one.

‘Know what to do with these bitches ? Fuck them, fucking fuck them. That’ll shut them up.’

He squeezed her arm hard. She flinched.

‘He’d do that to your mother and sister too,’ Julie spat out, pulling away from his grip. He dropped her arm, turned to the pushchair.

‘This yours ? Taking care of it, are you? Little bastard. ’

He wrenched the pushchair towards him. Bobby was still asleep but stirred at the sudden movement. Julie gasped and threw herself between him and the pushchair, howling. Two women on either side, dolphin like, sprang close. He was two feet taller than any of them but he stepped back.

‘Fucking animals!’


Julie had often thought about that moment when peace had been the last thing on her mind. She thought she might have tried to kill him if he hadn’t backed off. They used to taunt conscientious objectors with questions like that. What if they raped your mother, your sister, your daughter – would you fight then? How can you know, she had wondered, because he had backed off, pretended to lose interest in her but from that day, she had left Bobby at home.

Her mother had surprised her though. Her father had been so furious, refusing to speak to Julie any more so that she had crept around the house being anywhere that he wasn’t – having breakfast early, lunch in her room and a cooling dinner in the kitchen after he had gone through to the sitting room to watch television. Her mother had hovered between them, slipping into the kitchen to whisper to her and Bobby as she ate but not for long. She heard them arguing about her, her mother appearing with reddened eyes. But the morning of the demo, as she was trying to leave the house quietly, her mother had come downstairs in her dressing gown and pressed a five pound note into her hand and whispered

‘Good luck, darling. You tell them.’

Julie had always wondered how far away her mother had been to grabbing her coat and going with them.


So, no current contact list. Not strictly true, she had a contact list of friends who played bridge, friends who were in the Book Club, friends who were in the Dance Fitness group and friends who were just friends. Julie couldn’t think of a single one who had shared more than a passing word about the dead boys with her. ‘Brave boys.’ Was what they usually murmured. If she tried to continue the conversation they changed the subject. It was too emotional. In spite of being children of the Sixties, her friends didn’t always ‘let it all hang out’ to one another but preferred talking about their good health, their slim figures, their active retirements, their tinted hair, their stretched faces. Julie thought it was possible that they didn’t actually care any more than they had in the past when they had laughed at her, or despised her for being so ‘serious’. One of them had laughed out loud and said ‘Oh, go and join something, Julie – go online and sign petitions or something – but shut up about the war. There’s nothing we can do about it.’


Just once she had managed something of a conversation, with Bill who was her regular dance partner, who had been in the army. They’d been at the pub after the dance session and the five o’clock news had come on the overhead television. It was the day that another 19 year old had been shot dead. They’d both looked up at the huge screen, at its sweep across a sandy landscape, then a photo of the dead soldier, Peter.

‘Oh dear, not another one.’

She had been close to tears. Bill had turned white.

‘Oh dear Lord, that’s a lad from the town. I know him. Used to work at the butchers. Nice lad. Sold me sausages.’

‘How awful.’ Julie had pressed his hand.

‘Bloody waste.’ Bill had said.’ They’ve hardly started. They should send old men to war.’

‘I heard they don’t have the proper equipment.’ She said.

‘Too bloody busy bailing out the banks!’ he said before tipping the last of his beer down his throat.

That was when Julie decided to do something..


I have to be realistic, she thought. I’m not brave enough to pour petrol on myself and burn outside the House of Commons and anyway these days you can’t get near the House in case you’re a terrorist, but I might be able to do this. I know Bobby is expecting to inherit and there’ll still be the house and it’s not as if he’s badly off. The next night made her mind up. There had been three more. Three more photos. Eddie, Jonathan and Robert. 21, 29 and 24. Eddie had ginger hair and supported Liverpool, Jonathan and Robert were both fathers of young children. This was what they said about them on the news. Vehicle ran over a mine. Next of kin have been informed. Is it worse, Julie wondered, to know that two other families are broken too ?


One step at a time, she thought, easy things first. She took a good long look at her bank balances. At £100 a day her savings would last for 100 days. She would use the ATM so she wouldn’t have to speak to anyone at the bank, not at first anyway. Who to pay it to concerned her. She was fairly sure that that the Army would have no bank account for donations and she couldn’t choose a single soldier to support. She didn’t know any army families anyway. What if she asked the press, the local press, to start a fund ? The town had a twice-weekly paper, ‘The Ayrshire Press’, that covered news across the region and had twice run campaigns on local issues. She phoned the editor.


They agreed there would be no coverage until she’d made the first week’s payments. Julie had laughed when he said there was always a chance she might be a nutter with no money but she saw his point. There must be so many people, sincere people, who would like to do something but just never got round to it. Newspapers don’t report small failures, she thought. So, that Monday afternoon, she threaded her way through the shoppers and withdrew her first £100 and took it to the newspaper office. It took her ten minutes between bank and office and she felt good enough afterwards to chuckle at babies in prams and smile at the young men chatting by the shop next to the bank. Come Friday, she felt quite excited as she set off for her fifth trip. On Monday she would work with the editor on a centre-spread. He thought it stood every chance of snowballing – a local fund for local soldiers would make it real - people are more inclined to give to a cause for something they can identify with. Peter’s funeral was due to be held that week, bound to be a huge turnout, television even, he had mused.

It was raining and the street was quieter than usual. People dashing between shops but the young men were there, huddled under the shelter of the bank’s pediment, hoods up against the rain. She made her transaction, dropped the notes into her handbag and replaced her card in her purse. She turned away from the bank and started towards the newspaper office.

She felt their presence like a warm hug, two beside, two behind, before they guided her sideways into an alley between the buildings. The two beside her now lifted her by her arms and fast walked her deeper into the alley towards a pile of huge catering bins. They pushed her against the wall behind the bins. One of them was sniggering.

‘Don’t shout. Shhhh.’

‘Give us the notes.’

Julie’s knuckles were white with intent. One of them saw that.

‘Don’t muck about. Give us the bag.’

‘Take it, Ash.’

‘Shuttup. No names.’

In turning, his hood slipped off his head. Julie saw his face.

He didn’t care. Julie was back at Faslane.

‘Wait’ she said.

‘Give us the fucking bag.’

‘I will. If you let me speak.’

‘Just take it. Cut it off her. Here.’

There was a glint of metal.

‘It’s leather. You won’t cut it with that.’ Julie said. ‘Let me speak.’

‘Fuck off, lady. It’ll cut you.’

He moved forward. The one called Ash put an arm out.

Julie shivered.

‘Let me speak.’

‘Go on then – one minute.’ Ash said.

‘This money is for equipment for soldiers. Boys like you.’

‘Fucking Boys!’

‘Go on.’ Ash said.

‘They’re dying every day.’

‘More fucking fools them.’

‘Army twats.’

‘Go on.’ Ash said.

‘They don’t have the right equipment.’

‘Is that it?’ Ash asked.

Julie slumped against the wall. They stood around her, smelling a little of sweat not completely masked by aftershave but there was now a bass note of something darker emanating from them. The one who had sniggered was now twitching, looking over his shoulders back down the alley. The one called Ash was staring at her hard, looking like her angry father and the young American MP at Faslane at the same time. She saw disgust in his eyes.

‘You old hippy.’ Ash sneered, each word larded with hatred.

His words wounded her.

She dropped her bag. Ash scooped it up, tipped it up, pocketed the cash and threw it back at her feet. He gestured to the others to follow, walked halfway back down the alley before whispering something to the one who had sniggered, the one with the knife. He turned back.


Julie woke to the flicker of a television screen above her. Two dead soldiers,

uncounted number of casualties in an accidental hit on a 21st birthday party,

a government spokesman says it’s all going very well, all things considered. She dozed in and out of several more news bulletins before she saw that Bobby was sitting quietly beside her.

‘Hello’ She whispered.

‘Mum.’ He looked so strained, she thought. How long has it been ?

‘Shall I fetch a nurse?’

‘No. Just stay. What day is it?’

‘Saturday. It’s been a week’

‘Was I bad?’

‘Yes.’


‘Can’t feel anything. Have they cut anything off? ’

‘No. You’re sedated. Knife wounds are painful. Oh Mum…’

Bobby was crying, bent over her bed but she couldn’t reach him.

‘Don’t Bobby, don’t. I’m all right.’

His sobbing softened. He took a deep breath and straightened.

‘We want you to come and live with us.’

‘Don’t be daft. That would be awful.’

‘You’re not that bad.’

‘No, you. You’d drive me nuts. ’

‘Oh Mum. You can’t go on like this.’

‘Like what?’

‘Doing mad things. Taking risks. These causes. You’re getting old.’

Julie sighed.

‘You never did care for what went on in the world, Bobby.’

‘Oh don’t start that. I just don’t share your views.’

‘You’re like your granddad. ‘

‘Well, he wasn’t so bad.’

Julie turned away.

‘I’m tired now. Can you let me sleep?’

Bobby got up and kissed her cheek.

‘We’ll talk some more. Goodnight.’


No matter how hard Bobby nagged and the women police officers persuaded Julie wouldn’t talk to them. She had a problem with uniform, he told them, well aware how lame it sounded. She’d been trying to help young soldiers, kids in uniform. Actually, it was a problem with authority, he corrected himself. The young policewoman had raised her eyebrows and asked if Julie wasn’t a bit, well, old to have that kind of attitude. Bobby had shrugged. She’d always been that way, bit of a serial protester. They let Bobby know that they knew the lads that had mugged Julie, knew them from their habit of hanging about in the shopping precinct, but without witnesses and with paper money….


Julie dreamed about Ash. Sometimes he was in the army, a corporal, in charge of a bunch of scared nineteen year olds, a natural leader commanding with his voice unless something more physical was needed. In her dreams Ash led his patrol towards some dreadful danger, broken buildings perfect for snipers, ground soft enough for mines. They were armed and armoured but heads are soft and limbs get blown off from beneath. Julie woke up just before the explosion wondering if she feared it would happen or wished it would happen.


At other times Ash was lurking in dark places with his mates, intent on some villainous scheme, watching her, pointing at her, directing them towards her. She minded his cool leadership far more than she minded the sniggering one’s careless violence. From these dreams she woke sweating. Ash, the soldier and Ash, the lout became hard to separate in her mind and sometimes the dusty soldiers on the television back from some patrol among silent, resentful inhabitants. All had Ash’s face, all had just done what Ash had done to her.


There were a series of furious arguments with Bobby. He was cruel in his frustration, told her she’d never grown out of her reckless student behaviour, was irresponsible, selfish and thoughtless and an embarrassment to them. Her convalescence with his family was fraught. When he overheard her interpreting the television news to her 14 year old granddaughter it was the final straw. A month after the mugging, Julie moved back, still tender where she’d been stabbed and tearful when she thought about it, but ecstatic to be home. That night she ordered three reinforced motorbike security chains at £100 each from the internet that were described as being highly resistant to hacksaws and bolt-cutters. She would wear a skirt for reasons of modesty – no protective ring of women this time to shield her peeing into a plastic jug – and eat a packet of prunes to clear herself out before she went to the town hall with its beautiful iron railings. Once the chains had arrived she phoned the editor and told him what she planned. He was delighted and promised to send a photographer.


Julie sat one the floor with a fistful of marker pens and a huge placard. She’d pencilled in ‘Stop the War’ but it sounded a bit lame. It wasn’t quite what she wanted to say. Through the evening she tried lots of other wordings to get close to her feeling, but they all sounded blunt and hard. She thought about Faslane and about her baby, Bobby and the rough raw anger of the military police. She thought about Ash and his anger, about the sniggering one and his

callow obedience. Finally she wrote and was satisfied. When she left the house the next morning with her basket of chains, pee jug, sandwiches and thermos she carried a placard that said ‘Let our baby boys be gentle’. Let them work that out, she thought.