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Clement's Corner: Men's Business

Owen Clement's story concerns a young man who is determined to wear an army uniform.

Left, right, left, right, marching feet pounded by on the pavement outside my living room window.

The urgent and relentless tramping had caused me to peer down on the street below. The grim expressions on the young soldiers reminded me of programmed robots. That is just what they were, I thought. They were trained to act without thinking or reasoning. Like many young men of previous generations, they too will come to suffer the consequences when the adrenalin stops pumping and they have to reflect on their actions. Ghosts of the horrors they had perpetrated, even though they had been under orders, would haunt them one day.

My nephew Ashton, the fair-haired lad third from the left in the second row, could have been me years ago. How I wanted to haul him out to make him heed my warnings. He would have thought me mad I know, but maybe when he lines up his weapon at a living target my words will spring out of his subconscious and cause him to reconsider, or even decide not to press the trigger. Heaven forbid that despite my words he has no option but to obey. It is no wonder old men call on these innocent underdeveloped youngsters to carry out their dirty, I should say, filthy work.

The phalanx of stiffly moving bodies slowly disappeared around the corner.

I poured myself a stiff scotch, sat and pondered on where in the future they will be called upon to exercise their newly learned power. Another dirty word: power. To some it is like an aphrodisiac. As power is known to corrupt, some of those lads will succumb to its charm and in turn be corrupted. The thought horrified me and I decided to do something about it. I pulled on my coat and headed out after the boys. I covered many blocks in my unsuccessful quest. On the way back to my flat, to my delight, I saw Ashton sitting alone on a park bench, feeding some pigeons.

“Hello Ashton”, I said as I sat down beside him, “You seem far away?”

“Hi Uncle Dan, I’m just having a break.”

“I saw you and your Reserve mates march by my place a short while ago Is there something in the air?”

He looked at me his brow puckered.

“Are you in training for something particular?” I continued.

He kicked at an imaginary stone but said nothing.

“Hush–hush, eh!”

“No not really – just normal practice.”

“Do you like the army?”

“It’s okay.”

“I mean do you like the idea that someday you might be called on to kill someone?”

I hadn’t meant to be so direct It just came out.

He looked uncomfortable and again said nothing.

“That is what you will have to do. You know that don’t you?”

‘I guess so. Somebody has to do it though.”

“Look Aston, all I ask is that you think very hard about the consequences.”

He nodded and stood up, “Sorry, I have to get back.''

I rose and squeezed his arm affectionately, “You will think about it won’t you?”

He nodded and walked off.

I felt guilty as I watched him leave, and yet did not regret for one moment what I had said.

*

I had returned home a few days later from my usual Saturday round of golf when the phone rang. It was my sister Donna, Aston’s mother. “Hi Sis”, I said, “What’s up”.

I could tell from her tone that she was about to be the bearer of bad tidings.

“I believe you saw Ashton.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

For some reason I was immediately alarmed.

“His company is due to go overseas soon to some trouble spot. He could not tell me where.''

“Did he tell you what I spoke to him about?”

“He did as a matter of fact. He laughed when he mentioned it, but I am sure it hit home.''

“He’s a big boy now. We cannot be responsible for his actions any more. All I hope is that he has taken my warning to heart and acts accordingly. Anyhow, what’s the matter?”

“His sergeant called wondering if I knew where he was.”

Taken aback I tried to comfort her by saying, “I wouldn’t worry. He needs time to come to some decision on his future I imagine.”

“I just I wondered if you knew where he might be?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Why don’t I come over and we could throw around a few ideas?”

There was silence at the other end of the telephone. I waited.

“You might think me strange but I have this strong premonition that something is terribly wrong. He’s been acting quite strangely lately. I’m really scared Dan.”

“I’ll be right over and we’ll ring around. I won’t be long.”

Not waiting for a reply I hung up and immediately drove over to her place. On the way I felt a sense of dread. Maybe I was responsible for Ashton doing something stupid.

By the time I got to Donna’s house she had been in touch with some of his close friends. None of them knew of his whereabouts but agreed to ask around and let her know if they found out anything. There was nothing more we could think to do but stay where we were and hope.

Donna had just decided to call the police when Ashton arrived, dressed in his army uniform. Donna immediately burst into tears and chided him for causing her distress.

I said, “Where the hell have you been?”

He stiffened and without saying a word to either of us pushed by and headed for his room, closing the door behind him. This was so unlike him that Donna and I silently stood, unsure of what to do next.

After a couple of minutes I said, “I’ll go and talk to him.''

Ashton’s father had left when Ashton was a baby and Donna had called on me at various times to take on this role.

I knocked and entered. He was lying on his bed fully dressed, gazing up at the ceiling. I moved over and sat at the foot of the bed.

“I’m sorry son. I shouldn’t have spoken like that to you the other day as you are an adult now. You’ve always known how I feel about war and its effects anyway, particularly on soldiers.”

“It’s not you Uncle Dan.”

Dolly burst into the room, “What’s this, men’s business, eh? I’ve been worried sick thinking you’d topped yourself. You saunter in, don’t say a bloody word and hive off into your room as if I didn’t matter at all. And you,'' she said glaring at me "you just leave me and head off in here, to have it out with Ashton. No consideration whatsoever for what I’m going through. Well fine, when you have reached a decision come find me and let me know, okay?”

She swung around, left the room slamming the door behind her.

Both Ashton and I were stunned by her performance. When I heard a second door slam I reacted and ran after her. She'd gone. My car was blocking the garage, so she had been unable to get her car out. I couldn't see her in the street.

Ashton came out of the house looking troubled.

“You go this way and I’ll go the other,'' I said.

He ran round one side of the house and I ran round the other. We met at the back, but there was still no sign of her.

We stood for some moments, undecided as to what to do next. Eventually we went back into the house, carefully searching each room. Then we went out into the street again, looking behind trees and hedges.

Still no sign of her.

We then climbed into my car. I was about to turn the key when I suddenly realised that we had not looked in the garage.

That's where she was, in her car, slumped over the wheel, weeping.

*

There was no stopping Ashton from joining his regiment. I was at my sister's house the next day when a cab arrived to collect him. Donna and I stood together, watching the vehicle disappear round the corner.

"I'm so sorry...'' I began.

"What about?''

"For forgetting that Ashton is no longer a kid. He told me last night, that he had been to see his girlfriend. When she realised he was determined to remain in the regiment they argued. As a result of that she ended their relationship.''

“Why the hell didn’t he tell me?”

I shrugged.

“Gawd! Men! Let’s have a drink, and I don’t mean a cup of tea.”

© Clement 2008


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