Two boys and a war.





A short story by Ray Johnstone

The blade went in easily. Into the soft pale tissue on his wrist. He worked it deeper to make a firm incision through the thew or muscle or subcutaneous tissue or whatever it’s called that was inside his arm impeding the compliant passage of the cutting edge.

Asher watched. Fascinated. The memory of his father carving away at the breast of a Sunday turkey sprang to mind.

Denzil looked at him in the mirror and then down at his arm again. His fingers gripping tightly just above the cut as he applied pressure to the handle and found pleasure in the pain.




It doesn’t take much to work out that some of what follows is about self-mutilation. Sometimes called self-harm. It’s also going to touch on self-deception. And because it’s about young men, sexual practices are sure to crop up sooner or later.

Also, because one boy goes off to war, it’s going to get violent. With bad language in the dialogue. Especially when someone gets killed.

So, if you don’t like any of this kind of thing, ‘STOP!’ as a king once said to a White Rabbit. Close your mind and go and lie down somewhere. Read Hello magazine if you can find anything in it to read. Or Mills and Boone. Or something like that. But whatever you do, don’t read past this next full stop.




That same king also said ‘Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ So let’s take his good advice and do just that.

Starting with Asher then: despite his strange name, he was just your regular everyday boy next door. But as their young years drifted idly by, Denzil and Asher got to know each other really, really, really well. This may sound salacious, but it’s meant to show that their relationship was familiar and commonplace. Because there was nothing much out of the ordinary with these boys. Other than Denzil’s compulsion to cut for fun, that is.

By their mid teens they’d smoked and drunk and egged each other on to try mild drugs and regularly shown each other their erections and demonstrated the same to several girls and once been in bed together in a ménage a trois with a girl who most kids called the neighborhood bike, which didn’t sound as politically incorrect then as it does now, and who’s name was Janet, and who would take her knickers down if you gave her half a crown. If anybody remembers what that is.

And whenever she felt like it she’d regularly get her clothes off for a lot less. Sometimes with nothing changing hands, the exchange of certain body fluids aside. So, just for her own self-gratification, and as a result of rhythmic contractions resulting from the rubbing of certain body parts in close contact with other people’s. Otherwise described as the stimulation of erogenous zones which invariably leads to orgasm. Also known as fucking pleasure.

And while passing through puberty the boys had regular competitions to see who could spit or piss or shoot the furthest and who could fart the loudest or the longest. In other words, just everyday regular common or garden kids growing up together in the same middle class milieu.




When Asher walked out of the bathroom that day he’d seen enough. So he left Denzil to get on with his job. Which is exactly what he did. Cutting pain and pleasure from his arm.

For a while, nothing showed. Just creamy white unblemished skin. But with some evidence of a few granulating scars. Healed former attacks always covered up from prying eyes with his sleeves.


Denzil gently applied more pressure. Then tiny beads of red appeared when he parted the skin like opening the lips just above the perineum. As he’d just succeeded in doing for the first time yesterday. To discover a different kind of delicious ecstasy. With Janet.

A slight burning sensation. And a modicum of pain.  Followed by outright bleeding with blood pooling on the side of the basin. And running down the ceramic edge into the warm clear water. Ready to disappear down the plug in due course. Into the world of cigarette ends and human waste and female hygiene products and used and unused condoms and ejaculate and sometimes even far, far worse.

But now to make wonderful intricate patterns and effects as it mixed with water, like cigarette smoke curling upwards in an old TV interview. Or like strands of semen refusing to dissolve in the bath and clinging instead to adolescent pubic hair as evidence of the pleasure of playing with his penis when his grandmother had flown in through the obligatory open-to-prevent-temptation-when-boys-bath door to find him with erect penis and exposed glans as proof that he would burn in hell forever for this mortal sin.

The gore then fusing and blending into a rich rose hue. The envy of any vigneron worth his salt. Or his wine.

So that’s how it felt every time he did it. Visually stimulating, physically engaging, fascinating, highly pleasurable, and a little bit exciting to boot.

Trouble is, it was so gratifying that he couldn’t wait to do it again.




But what more of Asher? What happened to him?

And what about the nosy, religiously militant grandmother, last seen storming in through the open door to catch Denzil red handed with a right hand covered in creamy semen?


Well, let’s get on with Asher right away. And how he parted with Denzil.

But we’ll get back to Denzil’s gran later, because she too had several worth-looking-at skeletal frames hiding in her cupboards. Exempli gratia: she had full faith in what the civilized choose to call mumbo jumbo when found amongst those it’s de rigueur to look down upon.




It was Asher who first suggested it. That harebrained idea where it all started.


‘Let’s go along and listen to what they’ve got to say. If it’s bullshit, we’ll leave. We’ve got nothing to loose. And nothing else to do anyway. Probably for the rest of our lives if we can’t get jobs next year.’


The recruiting officer looked like he was smiling. But there was no mirth. He’d simply trained himself to do so by flexing the muscles at both ends of his mouth. Perhaps he thought it took the edge off the core idea he was committed to and doing his best to commit others to. Mainly any unsuspecting young minds that drifted into his orbit. Talking to kids about a career in killing people. As quickly and efficiently as possible. And at great, in fact enormous cost, to the taxpayer.

‘If it’s a job you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. Because what we offer in the army these days is careers, not jobs. High tech, state of the art equipment used and maintained by efficient, well trained modern soldiers. If I were you, I’d get my name down now. Get in while the going’s good. Because next year it might be too late. And you may not be able to get anything then.’

He showed them exciting boys own videos and gave them expensively printed brochures and pamphlets. He spoke of courage and loyalty. Brawn and brains. Split second decision making. Being in the thick of the action. Training that gives qualifications for life. Convincing, well presented, professional claptrap.

Asher asked him, ‘Does any of this include the chance of getting your balls shot off in action in someone else’s godforsaken country?’

The recruiting officer was shocked but didn’t show it. He turned the other cheek. As he’d been trained to do.

In any case he knew from experience that this is not how things worked in the army. Remarks like this were not on. Not in the hallowed halls of the defense forces. But he’d heard it all before. Just one immature kid showing off in front of another. He said to himself as he’d done many times before, ‘We’ll fix him, and the likes of him. He won’t be so fucking cock sure of himself when we’ve got him in our clutches.’

As it happens, the army never did get hold of Asher. It was Denzil who eventually signed up, and Asher who changed his mind. Or got cold feet. Or a yellow stripe.

Anyway, although their until then firm friendship went off the boil suddenly, just before Denzil went off to training and to war, they got drunk together for the last time.

Then they phoned Janet late and promised her lots. But the three of them  didn’t all get into bed together that night. Janet agreed to a special one-after-the-other deal. Asher went first. Denzil watched. Then it was his turn and Asher sat on the end of the bed playing with his already once satisfied but still half erect penis. Moving the prepus across the glans in a gliding action just as he had done inside Janet only moments before.

Then Denzil came and Asher came again and Denzil went off and disappeared into the army and they never saw each other again.




His grandmother was frightened. So she prayed for him. Just as she did to prevent cancer. And for her daily survival. To the panoply of saints who had the interventionist power to succor and protect her and hers. There are thousands of them just hanging about waiting for prayers so that they can tune in and then start about their good work.

She fervently believed in the power of prayer. She absolutely knew that Denzil would come back safely if she prayed to the saints to intervene. They would look after him. And return him in due course like a prodigal son coming home in triumph with ribbons and medals. She set in train a long and complicated, regular, daily regime of beseeching supernatural powers to ensure the right outcome. She knew it would work. It always had. She was never disappointed. So why should things change now?




Heat. Dust. Darkness. Fear. And repeat ad infinitum. Over and over. Day in, day out. The only thing that changed was the fear that increased every time. As the odds against coming back alive diminished.

Out on patrol Denzil found himself mimicking his grandmother. Part remembered part improvised. Any port in a storm. Protect me against trepidation. Lead me not into an ambush. With thy rod and thy staff or an allied helicopter gunship when necessary. Rid me of the idea of death and dying at the hands my enemies. Through the valley of Helmand. Help me to fear no evil. For Christ’s sake do whatever is necessary to comfort me.




The blade went in easily. Into the dark tissue. He worked it deeper, making a gaping incision and revealing the muscle in the man's neck.


He twisted the handle forcing the cutting edge through the cartilage and tissue that was reluctant to give way and expose the secrets of the life sustaining carmine fluid coursing up through the artery and back down in the veins in the insurgent’s throat.

He applied more pressure to the handle and felt the pleasure of the gushing as the blade went thought the carotid pipe and blood poured out of the gaping cut.

This time not at all like vaginal lips, but aping a wide-open gushing vulva. Denzil held on tightly for moments that were hours in his life as the man’s existence pumped away through his fingers, spilling and pooling and congealing on the desert sand. Then the man stopped writhing.


Denzil pushed the filthy thing away. He stood up. He was surrounded by fucking bedlam. Firefight skirmish mayhem. The aftermath of an ambush by militants, insurgents, nationalists, Islamists or whatever the fuck they were. Screaming, shouting, shooting. Cries of desperation. Calls for help. Cursing. Swearing. Blaspheming. And prayer. Calling on Allah, God, Jesus, mother, friends and others.

And then it was over. Except for the heat and dust and heat and dust and orders and obscenities and the sound of organized chaos.

Sitting in the wadi, Denzil saw soldiers shooting into bodies. Kicking the dying. Cursing the dead. Crying. Searching for souvenirs. The micro thin veneer of civilization abandoned. Atavistic traits in the ascendancy. And stopping just short of eating the enemy dead.

He looked at the body again. Dark hair, pale skin for these parts. Dirty. Bloody. Stone cold dead. And little more than a boy.

A saint had obviously done his work. For Denzil, but not for the boy. Responding to a prayer. Right was in the ascendancy. Evil vanquished. Irrespective of the age of the kid.

In a rage, Denzil fired into the boy’s body and ran back to his comrades who were doing the same to those they thought wounded – and some even to the dead.




More patrols. More mines. More deaths. Every day for months and months and months. The daily routine.

Daily, the fear and bile and hate and then at last the bliss of being back inside the perimeter.

They sat down in the sullen safety of high walls and barbed wire protection. Exhaustion. Depression. Despondency. Most men took off their helmets. Some of them their battle dresses. Some even stripped down to their underwear. Then the perennial question was trotted out for the umpteenth time. ‘Have any of you worked out what the fuck we’re doing here?’

And the cliché that always followed: ‘Shut up. Don’t start that shit again. It’s bad for moral. And it’s against regulations.’



Those who had the energy, ordered drinks, and one of the locals employed as a waiter sauntered off to get the order. When he came back he was carrying a machine pistol instead of a tray.

Denzil heard the sound of shots being fired, but not the one that flung the lump of steel tipped with brass towards him. Apparently no one in the vast cast of saints and other hangers on up there was listening either because the white hot projectile went through his throat severing the silver chain he’d taken from Janet that last night and ever since then had hung around his neck. He was dead before his body hit the ground.

Some show of gratitude from the man - who should have had a tray instead of a gun - for introducing western democracy to his fucking country. 

When they’d shot the waiter, the medics came in to clean up the mess. An officer who was writing notes in a book frowned when he heard one say, ‘Jesus Christ, how many times does this need to happen before we work out that they just don’t want us here. Not at fucking all.’

But rather here than on the village High Street, outside the school or the pub or the church or Tesco’s.

And, as the saying goes, we’ll show our metal. We don’t cut and run.




Asher had been in the pub long enough to know he was in the wrong place. He’d attended, as they say, an interview nearby. Warehouse assistant manager was the position advertised. In a factory in a not very nice area. There had been several dozen other applicants. He’d waited a long time. The personnel officer took an instant dislike to his accent. ‘Not exactly a career for someone with your kind of background.’

Hard to give a response to this kind of remark. ‘Well, I’m a hard worker. Keen to learn. And to be honest there’s not much around. Wherever you come from.’

‘That’s it. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. You see us as a stopgap, don’t you? You’ll do the job until something better comes along. Be honest with me Asher. That’s how you look at it, isn’t it?’

‘No, no. Not at all. I hope I’ll be promoted on merit. As soon as I show what I’m capable of,’ he said thinking quickly. ‘It’s a highly respected company. I’d like to make a career here. Near to where I was brought up.’

When he left he knew he didn’t have a snowball’s hope in hell of getting the position. It was the tenth or eleventh interview he’d been to in as many weeks. There was just nothing around.

‘Maybe Denzil was onto something when he joined the army. I wonder how he’s doing? Probably a bloody general by now. Making decisions. Giving orders. Leading from the front. Defeating the enemy in close combat. If he’s got the time in between fucking other officers’ girlfriends and wives.’

As he walked through the door, he knew it was the wrong thing to do. Get out now, a voice in his psyche said to him. But testosterone drove him on. He went up to the counter. The ambiance in the bar was not that friendly. There were no women customers. He tried to avoid the long stares. And some pointed remarks that he pretended he didn’t hear.

Assistant warehouse manager. Imagine telling someone that’s what you did. People would think you were mad.

They sent a kid over to him to ask for money to buy fags. The boy was probably underage. He gave the boy a tenner. They sent him back to say it wasn’t enough. Asher said he didn’t have any more. The kid said, ’You’d better find something, if you know what’s good for you.’

The barman started to pull the shutters down across the counter. It wasn’t anywhere near closing time. Several men got up and left the bar.

He knew he should have too.

Such a small price to pay. But pride told him that he had the right to stay. He listened to the message. He weighed it up. He tried to calculate the odds.


Then expediency helped him to decide to leave. Before things deteriorated any further, he thought. He should have left earlier. He would now anyway. Right now. He finished his drink. He got up and walked to the door. Everyone in the room stared at him. A knot of them got up and followed him outside.


The kids found Asher lying on the grass across the road from the pub. What grass there was, that is. He was on his back amongst the pizza packs, burger boxes, broken bottles, crumpled beer cans and dog shit.

One of the kids said, ‘Hey wake up, you prick.’ When he didn’t respond, they went through his pockets. There was not much of value.

‘Dead as a door nail, I’d say.’

‘But look. There’s a silver coin around his neck.' 

'Nah, it’s a charm. Some kind of magic. My gran’s got one. She’s religious. It sends a message, I think. You know, like them coloured plastic wristbands. The ones that say how you like to fuck. Or maybe it’s something to bring you good luck.’

‘Well it didn’t help him much did it?’

One of then pulled the St Christopher free and put it in his pocket.

Then they left him in peace.

Asher, so recently the lively teenage boy with the strange name, and now just another young man with pale blue eyes staring up at the cerulean sky through fixed dilated pupils.





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