Army 100

The world is at war and Reagal Black is just one of the millions fighting it.

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1. Chapter 1

That it is only right to fight for your country is an idea of millenniums ago, that death in patriotism is good and noble, just as old, but to have to fight for your country in a war that can never be won, simply for a chance at a free life, is an idea so new and so radical, that it can only be the future.

Reagal tugged at the hem of her faded blue skirt. It was much too short, especially for her graduation ceremony, but she had grown so much this year, and the stupidity of buying new clothes for someone in their last year of school was common knowledge. A new dress for one occasion would be such a waste. Reagal would be gone for two years, wearing only combat clothes, and would return to a dress that neither fitted nor suited. Silly really. And of course, there is the fact that she may not return at all.

 Only two weeks ago, Reagal’s friend Honour heard news that her brother Amos had died in a particularly gruesome battle. More than three hundred soldiers died, but it may as well have been only Amos, for the whole street had loved him, polite and well mannered as he was. They were all sad to hear of his passing, but it was made harder still for his grieving family that he only had two more weeks to go until he could have come home. Reagal had in truth, never really liked Amos, believing him to be a suck up and a schmoozer and was in fact more concerned for herself than she was for poor Amos, for now her leaving day was fast approaching, Reagal’s mother would be insufferable.

 Already Diamond Black often took into fits of crying at the thought of her baby girl going off to the army, but now, with news of another death, so close to home, Diamond was being completely unbearable, unable to even fold Reagal’s socks without breaking down. If there was any person Reagal felt more sorry for than herself, it was Honour, Amos’ sister, who was no doubt putting up with the same as Reagal, but ten times worse. Honour was also sixteen, and about to begin her two year conscription to the army like Reagal and the rest of their year at school.

            Finally turning her attention to the stage, Reagal saw Mildred Keats, the head girl, leaving the podium with a smug grin on her face, no doubt believing herself to have delivered the best speech in the history of the world. “It can’t have been that good,” Reagal thought to herself, pulling absentmindedly at a thread on her cardigan sleeve, “because I didn’t listen to one word of it.” Now the principal, Mr Thomas was at the podium, beginning his own speech. Reagal tried to listen this time as she felt it could well be a morale booster, and as much as she told her mother that she had no fears going to war, there was no denying that every day leading up to this one, the ball of terror which had been manifesting deep inside Reagal got a little bit bigger, until today, when it was threatening to burst free.

            “You are all here, on this balmy June morning, with feelings of fear and excitement.” Mr Thomas’ voice boomed confidently across the green, but Reagal wasn’t sure that what she was feeling was even a little bit excitement. “Fear of the known and unknown things which lie ahead may not be pleasant, or desired, but things which must be done all the same.” Thus far listening to the speech did not reassure Reagal, but only added a sensation of nausea to her ball of terror. “And excitement you are feeling for this opportunity to grow into mature and independent people.

“You will all leave your homes today, and when you return, you will no longer be children, but adults. You will learn so many things in the next two years, about feelings you never knew there were and how to deal with grief, in ways you never thought imaginable. You will learn to not care, at times when you couldn’t care more and you will learn to live with people who you may not like. This is the time in your lives when you find out who your friends and enemies are, and where to draw the line between them. Petty school yard quarrels are behind you now,” Reagal felt a strange urge to laugh now, and she was not why, except perhaps that “school yard quarrels”, as Mr Thomas called them, were forbidden with an iron fist, and when they did occur they were far from petty.

 Reagal was always fascinated to hear stories from her great-great-grandfather Jack, about the times when all of the laws were not so rigorously enforced. Guga Jack was particularly fond of telling the story of how he once got arrested for having a fist fight with another boy in the park after school, but was simply told off and sent home. Now it was different, so much as pinch a person without consent, you may as well say goodbye to your freedom.

            “And yes it is true, not all of you will return,” Mr Thomas continued, Reagal, thoroughly regretting her decision to listen to his less than inspiring speech, tried to sway her attention to something less daunting, but it was no good, she was hooked, “but remember this if you forget everything else you have ever learnt at this school: only the cowardly die defeated. You are going to fight a war, fact. But how you fight it? That’s up to you. And with that, we shall start the official ceremony.” As the first names were called out, Reagal thought about what Mr Thomas had just said, about fighting your own way, or at least she thought that was what he meant. He had a point, she supposed. Wouldn’t it be much preferable to die (if you must) with your head up, battling until the end, to cowering behind the stronger and better, just hoping not to be seen?

            “Reagal Black!” Mr Thomas called her name, for what sounded like the second time, and Reagal jumped before half running to the stage. She shook Mr Thomas’ hand before taking her Education Certificate from the administration lady standing next to him. Reagal could have sworn he threw her the evil eye as she walked away. She returned to her seat, waiting quietly for the ceremony to end.

            When the last person had received their certificate, and Mr Thomas had said his final farewell, they were free to go. Reagal hopped up from the front row of seats and started looking around. She saw Honour being accosted by her already crying mother. Reagal began to walk the length of the rows of chairs which had been set out on the park green, taking full advantage of the almost mockingly good weather. The sun beamed down on families, all terrified they might not see each other again after today. Her mind drifting again, Reagal jumped hugely when somebody came up behind her, flinging their arms around her shouting, “NINJA HUG!” She swung her left arm back, punching her accoster in the face.

            “Ow!” Reagal turned to see her younger brother (by just over a year), Roman standing, covering one of his blue eyes and his nose with a hand, “Nobody’s going to mess with you in the army are they? You’ve made me bleed!” He showed her his bloody hand, and when she cringed away, began attempting to wipe it all over her.

            “What are you two doing?” Reagal and Roman jumped to attention when their father came over, a stern look on his face, as there almost always was. “Roman, what happened to your face?”

            “Nosebleed.” He answered shortly. Siblings in the Black household did not tattle on each other for giving bloody noses, or they’d have a lot more than a bloody nose to worry about.

            “The side of your face is all red too, did somebody hit you?” Their father furrowed his eyebrows and looked around, as though expecting to see his attacker standing near by. Atticus had very intimidating look, tall and broad, with his surly features, dark blond, close cropped hair, and bushy eyebrows, you would sooner believe he was a soldier than an architect.

            “I walked into a tree branch. Go on then, tell me how idiotic that was.” And Mr. Black looked for a moment as though he might do just that.

            “Don’t be absurd Roman, we’re not here to talk about you. Clean yourself up before somebody sees and thinks you’ve been brawling.” Reagal, noticing Roman’s struggle to mop up the blood with his shirt sleeve, pulled off her cardigan, allowing the warm sun to pour onto her bare arms, and offered it to him, biting her tongue against the laughter; he looked ridiculous.

            “Hank oo.” He mumbled, pressing the tightly knitted garment to his face. Their father was not looking at them, but he shook his head slightly in disapproval. As Reagal watched Roman try desperately to get the blood to stop flowing, she felt a pang of yearning in her gut. Thinking about it then, Reagal did not believe she would survive for a whole year without Roman around to make her laugh and to defend her and for her to punch in the face when the going got tough. Even though he would be joining the army in the following summer, there was no real chance she’d even see him. She new there to be thousands and thousands of people at Army 100, where she was be going, and had no idea if she would be allowed to see him if the were not in the same brigade. This made her yearning worse, as three years of Roman free living, was not something Reagal could easily imagine.

            Looking up again, Reagal saw her mother approaching, tissue in hand, but smiling all the same. “Congratulations Reagal!” She was trying to sound cheery, but on saying her daughter’s name, Diamond’s voice cracked a little.

            “Thanks Mum.” Reagal allowed herself to be scooped into her mother’s arms, for a hug that lasted a bit too long. When she was released, Reagal straightened her skirt as her mother blew her nose loudly. Roman had now removed the cardigan from his face, but it was now smeared with blood, as was most of his shirt.

            “What happened!” their mother now noticed her bloodstained son, with genuine fear in her eyes, also assuming Roman had been in an illegal fight.

            “He walked into a tree. Probably had his eyes closed” Atticus sounded resentful, ashamed to have a son stupid enough to maim his own face.

            “Oh baby, are you okay?” As her mother snatched the sodden cardigan and began attempting to wipe Roman’s face clean, but really just spreading the blood around even more, Reagal looked to her father, who had been watching her.

            “I suppose I should congratulate you too, even if you did make a fool out of yourself.” Reagal assumed it was her having her name called twice that got her branded a fool.

            “Gee thanks Dad.” Atticus heard clearly the sarcasm, but chose to ignore it. After all, he would not see his daughter for at least two full years after today and he thought it best not to ruin the occasion by scolding her.

            “Come on then,” he said to the group at large, “We better get home quickly so Roman can make himself at least half presentable for dinner.” The bitterness was only too clear in his voice, as he turned on his heel and headed for the road. Atticus had always wanted a son to be proud of and to show off, a son who would fight well in the war and get a respectable job. He wanted a son who would be just like him. Roman came, baring little resemblance to his father, except for as he got older, growing tall and broad. Roman had the dark brown hair shared with his mother and sister, and eyes which stayed blue and did not turn so grey they were black to match his father’s like Reagal’s did. But Atticus was willing to overlook his son’s appearance, since it did, after all, have nothing to do with how the boy turned out.

The big disappointments came as Roman grew up. He was not particularly good at mathematics, but preferred languages, he never liked sports and refused to even try out for any teams. He did not play in the street as the other boys did, but preferred to stay indoors and read, while Reagal was the one playing football outside. The biggest blow came when Roman was twelve, and in cleaning out the home of a dead relative, he came across a very old guitar. He taught himself how to play it and took great care of the instrument, and disgusted his father in the process. Music was not a thing of great respect, and Atticus was unendingly embarrassed when Roman played at the wedding of a cousin when he was fourteen. And now he looked at his son, who should have been his pride and joy, and saw an imbecile. He looked at his son’s stained shirt in disgust, wondering what people must think of him.

He looked then to his daughter, tall and quite pretty Reagal looked something to be proud of. Good with numbers and ideas, she seemed more likely to have a first-rate job than Roman. In fact, apart from being terribly absent minded, Reagal just about summed up Atticus’ idea of a perfect son, except of course, that she was undeniably female. He sighed as he led his family up the street on which their three-bed semi was situated. “Get up stairs, wash your face and put on a clean shirt.” Atticus pointed to the stairs.

“Yes sir.” Roman said glumly, knowing all to well how his father felt about him, he started up the stairs, dragging his feet, without looking at anyone. Reagal followed quickly, taking the first steps so close behind her brother that he was forced to speed up and walk properly. They heard their father sigh as he walked to the kitchen, where Diamond was fussily making tea. “What?” Roman turned to his sister at the top of the stairs, where a narrow strip of carpet bore the four doors of the upstairs rooms, crammed together so tightly that hardly any of the pale yellow paint could be seen.

“Nothing, I’m just getting a clean cardigan because somebody bled all over my other one.” Reagal sidestepped her younger brother and opened the furthest door which led to her box-like bedroom.

“Well it’s hardly my fault that somebody punched me in the face.” Roman opened the next door, which led into his own, similarly tiny room.

“Now, now Roman, you mustn’t tell fibs, you walked into a tree, remember?” Reagal grinned as her brother shook his head and walked into his bedroom. She then turned to her own little nook. Looking at the large bags of possessions to go back to the charity shops from which they had most likely come, and the singular box of others to be stored until she came back, if she came back. Reagal suddenly found herself longing to stay. Up until that point, while being completely terrified and afraid of what was to come, she had never even thought, not even once, about staying behind. Of course, staying behind was not an option; if she didn’t complete her two years conscription, she would loose her citizenship, no matter how many generations of her family had lived in Britain. She would be excluded and forced from the country. She didn’t know much, for it was impossible to visit, or even contact a person once they had left, but she could only assume that the banned were sent to a country of neutrality like Norway or Iceland. It did not matter, because once a person was deported, they were never seen, or talked about again, even amongst families.

Reagal looked out her window. There were children playing a game with an old ball in the midday sunshine, kicking it off the footpath at each other’s feet, running and laughing. She smiled, remembering her own happy childhood, lived out in this little house, or rather, outside of it. It was true that her parents could not often afford brand new clothes for them, and it was also true that they only ate butcher’s meat once a week, if at all, for the price was high and funds were low, it was also true, however, that they ate every meal, and were not often forced to skip lunch or dinner, like other families on their street and Diamond and Atticus made certain that their children always had shoes on their feet and warm coats in the winter, which could not be said the same for all of Reagal’s classmates. Reagal looked to the football which her mother had left on the uncovered bed, next to her backpack. It had been her birthday present back in November. By now it was somewhat scuffed, and far more grey than white, but in a better condition than that of the children in the street. Reagal picked up the ball and tossed it in her hands. She looked again to the children, playing with their tattered ball, most of the dark leather pealing away from the layer beneath it. She had been planning on bringing her ball with her as her one luxury item, but now decided that the children in the street would have more use for it that she.

Pulling on her cardigan, there came an impatient shout up the stairs, “Reagal!” her father’s harsh voice was, to a certain extent, muffled by the bedroom door but there was no denying the irritation in his voice.

“Coming!” Reagal shouted back, wrenching open her door whilst hoisting the bag onto her back. She lifted the ball and turned to her room. Four bare walls pressing their grotesque baby pink shades in on each other, and a worn out mattress on a worn out bed, Reagal was not sad to leave her room, and was now beginning to feel excited as Mr Thomas had described. As she ran down the stairs and out the front door to wear her family were waiting, Roman now looking quite smart in a clean blue shirt, she wondered hopefully if she would have a more comfortable bed at the army, and if the people would be nice.

She called to the young boys down the street, before kicking the ball to them, imagining her giant ball of fear soaring away with it. The children shouted their elated thanks as she walked away, grinning, because although her nerves and fright had by no means disappeared, she could not deny, that doing a good deed did really put a spring in her step. Well, it did until her father snapped, “Reagal, walk like a normal person; people will stare.”

 

Dinner was a quiet affair, Reagal couldn’t remember ever eating out, and marvelled at the waitress taking their order, and thought how nice it must be to be rich and to have other people to do your cooking and cleaning all of the time. The restaurant was busy, filled with school leavers and their families, and though there were huge numbers present, the place was not particularly loud; indeed, it was in fact almost silent. Reagal’s family were no different from the others; her mother made forced conversation, her father replied stonily and stared at some place over Reagal’s head and Roman was tapping a beat against the tabletop, muttering along to it.

Their food came, and they ate in silence, and Reagal was shocked when it was her father who suggested dessert, even allowing them to choose anything they pleased from the menu. Reagal and Roman both immediately choose chocolate fudge cake, the most expensive dish there was. Atticus pursed his lips but said nothing, thinking that he could spare a few pounds, seeing as he had only one child to feed for the next year and after that none at all.

Reagal had only had chocolate once before, since the beans to make it had to be imported and so it was quite rare, and therefore, expensive. For her sixteenth birthday, Guga Jack had given her a whole bar of the stuff, the kind that comes all wrapped in foil and paper, and sit on the high shelf behind the tills in supermarkets. One square, she had given to Roman, for she felt it selfish to keep the whole thing to herself, the rest she had kept hidden in her sock drawer and tried to savour, without much success. The cake was excellent, and had they not known that their father was highly volatile, and likely to scream at them if they did, Reagal and Roman would have both very happily licked clean their plates.

Once their dishes had been cleared away though, Reagal began to wish she had not eaten anything, let alone a large slice of chocolate cake, as she was feeling very queasy. It was nearing five o’clock, and the buses to Army 100 left at half past. Reluctantly, the Black family followed the others who were walking from the restaurant. They walked in silence back to the park where the ceremony that morning had been. As they rounded a corner, and saw the four large buses parked right in the middle of the trafficless road, Reagal’s stomach gave an almighty lurch. Her fear must have shown on her face, for Roman put an arm around her as they kept walking. They stopped not far from the doors of the first bus, the one which Reagal would be on. For a few moments they all simply watched other families saying their goodbyes as people began to board the buses.

Suddenly, Reagal’s mother pulled her into the second suffocating hug of the day, and began crying onto her shoulder. As she consoled her mother, Reagal thought about how very backwards it was. After a moment, Diamond straightened up, doing her best to stop crying.

“I’m sorry Reagal, I just can’t believe that you’re really going, I’ll miss you so much!” she sniffed, as her husband patted her gently on the shoulder.

“Come on now Di, you’re embarrassing yourself.” Atticus gave his wife a tissue and a quick hug. As Diamond busied herself with cleaning up her face Atticus turned to his eldest child.

“Well then, I suppose this is goodbye.” He sounded uncomfortable as he said it, and he could not quite look Reagal in the eye. Reagal thought, he might be angry and unreasonable and a bit of a tool sometimes, but he was still her father and so she threw caution to the winds and wrapped her arms around his middle, and to her pleasant surprise, he hugged her back.

“I love you.” Reagal spoke into his chest in hopes that her brother would not hear.

“And I you.” He stroked her hair before stepping out of the hug, neither party looking to each other.

“Roman.” Reagal said his name quietly, pulling him into her embrace. They hugged for a long time, Reagal whispered to him, “I’ll miss you the most you know.”

“Of course I know,” He answered squeezing her tight, “But we can write and I’ll see you next summer.” Reagal nodded as she pulled out of the hug, and was surprised to find her eyes filled with tears, for she hardly ever cried.

“I better go.” She gave her mother another quick hug and lifted her backpack from the grass. “I’ll write okay? Loads, I promise, don’t worry. I love you.” Reagal climbed the steps into the gleaming bus, cutting off her calls to her family. Looking up and down the rows, there were not a lot of empty seats. Finally, she found a space next to her friend, Honour Cootes.

“Hi.” Reagal muttered, shoving her bag into the rack above.

“Hey,” Honour smiled, “Is your mother in floods or is it just mine?” Honour pointed out the window to where her mother was standing being hugged tightly by her father.

“Nope, mine too.” Reagal sat and pointed out her own family, her own mother was now being comforted by both her father and brother. They were quiet for a moment, “It must be very hard, knowing, I mean, your brother.” Reagal stumbled on her words in an attempt at conversation.

“I suppose,” Honour watched her parents, “We weren’t close, but he wrote me a few letters, while he was gone. I don’t think he would have came home anyway, but I suppose there is a difference in him not coming home and him not being alive; at least if he had been just staying in the army, we would know he could see us again someday at least.” The bus shuddered to life as Reagal considered her words. They both waved to their families as the bus pulled off, and Reagal could have swore she saw Roman wipe tears from his eyes. Yes, Reagal thought, there is knowing for certain that you will never see him again, and then there is knowing that there is a chance. She thought of how unfair it all was that she should have her brother and Honour should not. And as they drove away from home, further and further, Reagal was sad to be leaving it behind, but happy too, that she had things there to leave.

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