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Lavishly camouflaged and armed with broken branches and sticks, customised until they resembled the latest in 1970s mercenary hardware, and with Army/Navy store cast-off berets and cap badges and a canteen each slung around their waists, the two boys knelt and appraised the ridge on the other side of the field with a grim, professional eye. Vantage points for snipers abounded. There, by the outcrop of stone that guarded the left flank and that looked down into the hollow defile at the edge of the ridge, was a clear position for ambush.
[private]Alexander lowered his binoculars. William placed his rifle on the ground and checked that he still had his grenades to hand; he had fashioned them from the pine cones they had both collected behind the house before they set off. He was relieved to find them still in the pouches of the clasp-buckled belt his grandmother had brought back for him from the Army/Navy store. Alexander had one similar. Glinting at the front of his sky-blue beret, Alexander had the cap badge of an RAF lieutenant. According to his badge, William was in the SAS. A screen of tall grass shielded them both as they planned their advance. William swallowed a brackish mouthful of warm water from his canteen and, unconsciously, Alexander did the same, without taking his eyes off the ridge up ahead.
‘Frontal assault,’ William offered. ‘Grenades, covering fire?’
‘Attack from the flanks?’
The older boy sighed through the nose and shook his head. He took his beret off and scratched the red weal it had left on his forehead. It was always either too tight, or not tight enough.
‘No,’ he said. ‘We need to be careful with this one. Infli –’ He paused. ‘Infiltrate!’
William nodded sagely. Cradling the rifle in his arms, he slithered through the gap in the fence and began crawling through the field of wheat that separated them from the ridge. As his canvas trainers disappeared into the swaying stalks, Alexander tucked his beret into the epaulette on his shoulder and followed.
Both boys crawled on elbows and knees on the crumbling earth, parting the stalks with their hands. Although only a foot apart, they couldn’t even see each other when they turned their heads, and talked only in whispers in case the enemy should hear. Sweat marked furrows down their faces; under their hands when they paused to listen, small insects, translucent geometries, scurried and hid in the ground.
When he judged that they were about halfway across the field, Alexander hissed for William to stop. There was a rustling sound off to his left, and then after a moment he could see his brother’s face painted with stripes of light and shadow. Alexander raised an index finger and jabbed it skyward, then followed it with a flat palm extended horizontally. William shrugged. Alexander raised himself carefully on one elbow, and then got to his knees, his bare head brushing the tops of the stalks. They were, he could see, almost at the foot of the ridge. They had come further than he had thought, and to get this far undetected owed as much to fortune as to experience and skill.
William lay down, wriggling until the pine cones in his belt pouches didn’t bite quite so hard into his back. He wondered what was going to happen next; Alexander frequently took the lead on these expeditions, and made all the decisions regarding structure and narrative form. Alexander, being two years older, had a surer grasp of the way he wanted things to play out. William broke off a blade of wheat and began chewing its musty stem, picking at the sheaths to excavate the kernel, which always tasted vaguely nutty when not quite ripe. After a moment, Alexander’s face reappeared through the stalks.
‘We’re at the bottom of the hill,’ he explained in a careful whisper. ‘That bit of rock is just over on the left.’
William rolled over onto his stomach.
‘What happens now?’ he asked.
‘Diversion,’ Alexander suggested. He thought back to the film they had been watching on video solidly for the last week, fast-forwarding through all the talking to get to the parts with the shooting and explosions. He felt the lack of something, but couldn’t quite say what it was. Then, when he saw William chewing the blade of wheat, he snapped a stalk in two and did the same, and felt better for it. He cleared a small patch of bare earth between them, and drew with his finger a rough diagram of the layout.
‘This,’ he said, pointing at an indentation in the earth, ‘is us.’
‘Right,’ William said.
‘This,’ Alexander said, pointing at another indentation on the other side of his diagram, ‘is the rocks.’
‘We need something that makes them think we’re attacking from one side, while we really attack from the other.’
‘You should charge up the slope – grenades, shooting, explosions – while I sneak round and get them from behind. They’ll never see it coming.’
William considered this for a moment, and concluded that he would have suggested the same. It made perfect sense.
‘Synchronise watches,’ Alexander said, although neither of them was wearing one. ‘I’ll whistle when I’m in position, and then you go in all guns blazing.’
William nodded wordlessly, steeling himself for the action to come. He hefted his rifle into position, checked the grenades again, unpopped the pouches on his belt so he would be able to grab them quickly when they were needed. With a curt smile, Alexander vanished further into the swaying field as he made his way around the far edge of the ridge.
While he waited, William thought of the same film they had been watching so much recently, as many as three times a day. The sun overhead was hot, and it put him in mind of the heat of Africa, where Richard Burton and Richard Harris had fought their mercenary campaign, only to be sold out at the last minute by the politicians back home. When the time came, William hoped that Alexander would shoot him to spare him torture the way Burton had shot Harris. He knew that if the positions were reversed, he would do the same.
A long, low whistle arrived on the breeze, mournful and precise, and almost before he knew what he was doing, William was on his feet and hiking madly up the slope, grenades flying from his hands towards the outcrop of rock and the soldiers he could see behind it. Explosions rent the air, and the crack of tracer rounds spit up dust around his feet. William flung himself to the ground, rolled twice further down the slope, and then he was up on his knees with the rifle barking in his arms. He zigzagged up the slope, crouched to fire off a few staccato bursts, and then continued to run towards the rocks. He was keeping their heads down. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Alexander, still with the sky blue beret in his shoulder epaulette, breasting the opposite slope of the hill. Alexander threw a trio of grenades that landed exactly where they were meant to, and in moments the action was over.
‘You were shot!’ Alexander said, incredulous. ‘I saw it! At the end there, just before I threw the grenades.’
‘No I wasn’t.’
‘You were! You should have rolled down the hill.’
‘Flesh wound,’ William said. This was the catch-all explanation for any brush with death that left either of them mysteriously unscathed, as if the flesh was a negligible part of the body that could absorb any amount of punishment with minimal effect. Alexander looked as if he might be on the verge of saying something else, but then, wisely, decided not to challenge it.
‘Well anyway,’ Alexander said, ‘there was one that escaped.’
‘Where did he go?’
In reply Alexander raised an arm and pointed off towards the forest on the other side of the valley. It was not far; only two more fields to cross, and these just ploughed earth and bare grass. Two hills opposite gave the forest an undulating line against the sky. The boys rarely ventured that far. The forest was dark and deep, and although good to explore, the return journey always seemed more exhausting than it should. It was just that little bit too far, too out of bounds. That, of course, was part of the attraction.
William thought about how much water he had left in his canteen, and knew that it was about half full. Enough to get him there, and there was a stream that ran around the bottom of the slope between the hills that separated the forest into two parts. They could always refill their bottles once they reached it.
‘Okay,’ he said nonchalantly. He set off walking first, digging his heels into the reverse side of the slope so he wouldn’t slip, using the barrel of his rifle to support his weight. Alexander watched. He shouldered his rifle, recovered the grenades he had thrown into the bunker, then followed William down the hill. William was waiting for him to catch up.
They walked at the edge of the field, strolling casually as if the escaped enemy couldn’t possibly get very far, and would obligingly wait for them to decide that they were ready to begin the pursuit. William kicked divots of dried earth and watched them explode into dust over the toes of his trainers. He knew that when he took his shoes off this evening, before bed, his feet would be black with dirt. Alexander never seemed to have this problem. No matter how long they played outside, or how far they strayed into the countryside from home, Alexander would remain as clean as when they had set out, while William would look like some feral child dragged from a wolf pack’s lair. As they walked along the edge of the field, the grass up to their waists, they noticed scraps of tufted white sheep’s wool, coarse and greasy to the touch, caught in the fence’s barbed wire.
When they reached the first few trees that lay scattered on the edge of the hills, both boys paused and decided to take a short break before they went any further. The day was warm. When they looked back at the way they had come, they could very vaguely see the shimmer of heat coming off the slate roof of their house, in the distance. Beyond that, more hills, trees, fields, and the glinting speck of a passing car up on the high road.
They both drank from their canteens, and took off their army jackets to reveal the army t-shirts, considerably too big, they were wearing underneath. Their grandmother had managed to find jackets small enough for them, but t-shirts were another matter. Both were wearing jeans. William took off his beret for the first time in hours, and rubbed the red mark on his forehead. As he adjusted the beret ties, Alexander looked into the darkness of the forest up ahead of them. It started with short oaks, birch, elm, random assortments of deciduous trees, and then became a thick spiny tangle of fir and evergreens somewhere in the middle, before, Alexander assumed, petering out into oaks and birches and so on again at the other side. They had never been that far through.
An unspoken moment passed and they collected together their things, jackets tied by the arms around their waists, their rifles used as walking sticks as the two boys climbed up the slope into the forest. Passing the first trees, William was going to say something about the enemy soldier they were chasing. Without any discussion between them though, he knew that Alexander had dropped that game. They were moving into another. This wasn’t The Wild Geese any more; it was something different. Alexander probably didn’t know what the new game was either.
Stepping into the woods was like closing the door of your bedroom in the middle of the day, and drawing the curtains. It was light with the sun overhead, but a dusty half-light that smelled like a strange mix of old woodsheds and their mother’s dressing table. Bluebells and the monstrous discs of plate mushrooms grew side by side, and the wood underfoot was dank and rotten. The sound of the summer’s day beyond the woods was deadened, and a soft stillness fell over them as they walked. The talked less, and when they did speak, their words seemed blasphemously loud. William turned his walking stick back into a rifle, and walked with it held at the ready against his chest. Alexander turned his stick into a sword that he swung back and forth against sprays of bracken and the bluebells. They tramped on, and when it grew cooler, they each took the jacket from around their waist and pulled it back on.
On the way they paused to watch a black beetle the size of a toy car, with two opposing spikes growing out of its head, negotiate its way down a protruding tree root and into the undergrowth, where, despite its size, it seemed to disappear and where they couldn’t find it again.
Although they thought they were walking in roughly a straight line, before long they had reached the stream that that ran between the two hills. The foliage overhead was thinner here, and sprigs of foxgloves bent their heavy heads down towards the water. William took Alexander’s canteen and reached down into the quick-flowing crystal, holding the bottles with numb hands underneath the surface until they were both full. Alexander inspected carefully what he could see of the water inside, before gingerly taking a sip. It was so cold it made his teeth ache.
They lay down on the grass. Neither was hungry. The branches overhead were still, and there was no breeze.
William was going to suggest that they head back (this was the furthest they had ever been), but Alexander was soon on his feet and pointing back into the forest.
‘Come on,’ he said, all pretences and games now dropped. ‘Let’s see what’s on the other side.’
The stream that ran between the hills was fordable much further back, and so for now the boys had to continue on the left hand path. They headed back and turned right, and tried to keep the tree line in sight. Another ten minutes’ walking and the trees began to shade into pines and firs. The ground underfoot was a mattress of brown spines and cones. William took the grenades from his belt – they were just cones again – and dropped them. They had been able to keep the sound of the stream near them at first, but now the door of the forest had been closed and all was silent.
The policeman let William try on his hat, the black hat with the chequered black-and-white band around the rim, which came down around his ears and felt more like he was wearing a helmet. In the police car, Alexander could see that there were no handles on the doors in the back. He wondered how anyone sitting in the back seats, the way he and William were sitting now, would manage to get out. Their mother sat up front with the policeman, and although he was trying to talk to her, she kept looking in the rear view mirror and asking the two boys if they were all right? She asked so many times that William began to wish there was something wrong with him, so that he could say No, I’m not all right, which was evidently the only answer with which she would be satisfied.
William turned and looked out the back window to see his father’s car behind them. His face floated pale and ghostly over the steering wheel, the glass of the windshield striated by bars of sunlight and pools of shadow as they drove through the narrow country roads.
Alexander was struck with an odd sensation that the journey it had taken them most of the day to walk was over in a matter of minutes when it was retraced by car. The speed with which they were home seemed to nullify the rest of the day; it was like they had never left the house, and everything they had done up to then was a story they had cooked up between them in the empty dining room, with the boxes still unpacked and the coal fire spitting and sparking as they dropped little balls of carpet fluff into the flames.
Later that evening, as they lay in bed talking over what had happened, William realised that he had dropped his cap badge for his beret somewhere in the forest. The dagger and the wings on either side of it, a dull brassy gold amongst the dead pine needles, the spilled handbag and the half-buried clothes. Who Dares Wins.
Tomorrow, perhaps, or the next day, he would head back and see if he could find it.[/private]
Richard W. Strachan lives in Glasgow. He has had stories printed in Markings, Sein und Werden and Gutter magazine. He writes regular book reviews for The Skinny and The Scottish Review of Books. He also writes a blog at richardstrachan.wordpress.com