‘Get this down your neck, Scott, you pasty-faced bastard!’
Liam Scott, eighteen years old, just back from his first tour in Afghanistan, had barely recovered from the night before. He turned towards Jason Finch, a Geordie born and bred, who was holding what looked like the devil’s own drink – a glass filled with something thick and blood red. Unsteady on his feet, Liam grabbed the glass-topped counter. The bar girl backed away, clearly concerned that whatever was in his stomach was about to go rapidly mobile.
‘My arm hurts,’ he said.
He hadn’t bothered to get changed, just had the shower-in-a-can courtesy of a hefty all-over blast of body spray.
‘What did you expect?’ said Jason, standing at the bar like it had been built just for him. ‘Tattoos don’t usually tickle.’
Liam snapped round. ‘What?’
Jason reached over and rolled up the sleeve of Liam’s right arm. Under a large patch of cling film, stuck to the arm with tape, was a greasy mess of white and pink covering a tattoo.
‘I didn’t . . .’
‘Well, all that ink says you did,’ grinned Jason. ‘Gleaming, mate!’
Liam peeled away the tape and caught sight of himself in the mirrored wall behind the bar. The tattoo was the cap badge of the Rifles Regiment, a bugle horn, under which was inscribed the word ‘Rifleman’.
‘That greasy stuff is actually nappy cream,’ said Jason, knocking Liam from his reflection. ‘Works a treat on helping a tattoo heal, apparently.’
Liam’s arm stung like he’d been punched with an injection. Whose stupid idea had it been to come out to Ibiza so soon after getting back from theatre, and then to go and have a tattoo? he thought. Oh yeah – mine. Genius.
Jason grabbed a pint of lager so cold that tiny ice crystals floated in it. He necked it. ‘You don’t look so well. And by that, I mean you look like crap.’
‘Cheers, Finch,’ Liam replied, eyes open to stare bleary-eyed at his companion. ‘You always were a bastard.’
‘Shut y’face, man,’ said Finch, his thick Geordie accent cutting easily through the hum and buzz of the bar. ‘You’re alive because of me and my awesome ground sight. Don’t go forgetting it.’
Liam couldn’t respond to that. He’d served alongside Jason for six months in the heat and insanity of Afghanistan. It had been the most exciting, dangerous, terrifying and fantastic time of his life. It was also the saddest, after the loss of his mate, Cameron, courtesy of a well-aimed RPG by the Taliban.
‘Ground sight’ was a term all soldiers used for keeping a keen eye ahead for anything unusual – and that anything could range from an oddly scraped patch of ground to grass bent the wrong way. Jason’s ground sight was almost supernatural. Everyone, including Liam, had trusted him implicitly. Yeah, he was cocky about it, but it was allowed. He’d saved more lives than Liam could ever guess at.
‘Hangover cure,’ said Jason, handing Liam the evil-looking drink. ‘Bloody Mary – bloody brilliant!’
Liam may have trusted Jason with his life, but with his stomach he wasn’t so sure. ‘You a doctor now, then?’ he joked. ‘You’ll need to work on your bedside manner.’
‘Shut up and drink up, or sod off.’
Liam took the glass from Finch’s hand. The liquid was dark red and thick, and floating in it were bits of celery and cucumber. Ice cubes chinked off the sides of the glass, the sound reminding him of 5.56 cases knocking against each other.
‘Hair of the dog and all that, right?’ growled Finch.
Liam raised the glass to his lips.
‘Drink it, man!’
The first swig and Liam gasped, his breath caught in his throat. His whole face was burning up.
Jason shrugged, ordering himself another pint. ‘A Bloody Mary needs a kick,’ he said, and revealed a small bottle he’d hidden in his left hand. The label showed a red chilli with wings, like the famous SAS dagger insignia.
Liam couldn’t speak, just nodded. His face was melting.
‘Who Dares Burns,’ said Jason with a mischievous wink. ‘Hotter than napalm. Love it!’
At last Liam found his voice. ‘It’s like swallowing lava!’ Then, with a deep breath and a shake of his head, he jammed the glass between his lips, ignored the pain and drank the pure fire.
‘Get in there!’ said Jason, placing his pint of iced lager in front of Liam and clamping him hard on his left shoulder. ‘Give it a few minutes, and you’ll be raging, mate! Would I lie to you?’
Liam gripped the pint and took a deep, cooling draught. It didn’t dampen the pain, but it still felt good. It was a sensation he and the rest of the lads had lusted after on an almost hourly basis while in the relentless heat of Afghanistan.
A shout came from where the bar opened out onto the street, and Liam watched a bloke walk from the bright of the day across to where he and Jason were standing.
‘Hi, Chris,’ said Liam.
‘Christ on a bike, you look crap, Liam.’
‘Cheers,’ said Liam, gulping more lager. ‘Where’s the rest of your crew?’
‘Unconscious,’ said Chris. ‘Can’t take the pace.’
Chris was part of a group Liam and Jason had bumped into the last couple of nights. A civvie in his early twenties, something in Sales, he said, Chris was out in Ibiza on a stag week. He always called Liam by his first name, whilst in his army life Liam was very used to just being ‘Scott!’
‘How much did I drink last night?’ Liam asked, not really wanting an answer.
‘I wouldn’t sweat it,’ said Chris. ‘It’s why you’re here, right? Hell, if I’d just come back from what you chaps have been doing, I’d be a wreck.’
‘Oh, we’re broken inside, Chris,’ said Jason, and pretended to cry.
Liam laughed. Grim humour was an essential part of dealing with life as a soldier in combat. Even with rounds flying, he’d found himself sharing jokes with his mates. It was a survival mechanism and it worked.
‘I’m being serious, though,’ said Chris. ‘A six-month tour of Afghanistan? That’s jolly serious.’
‘He’s been here five minutes and he’s already said “chaps” and “jolly”,’ smiled Jason. ‘Sounds like an officer straight out of Sandhurst!’
For the next hour or two, Liam managed to gradually regain a sense of actually being alive. And Chris was just happy to hang around and listen to their stories. Liam had heard every shitting-into-a-bag, lucky-escape, calling-in-air-support story ever told, had even recounted a few himself. Hearing them again reminded him not only that he liked being in the army, but also that he was already missing being out in theatre.
He had memories of what life had been like before he’d joined. Back then, he’d been drifting, spending most of his time hanging out with a few mates, doing a bit of free running to keep himself busy. His future had seemed far away, too distant to even worry about. Then, one night, his best mate Dan had been killed in a free-running accident. And since that awful moment, so much had changed, had happened, that Liam knew he was different now, and wondered if he’d ever be able to go back – not to how he used to live, but simply to life outside the army.
‘Totty, eleven o’clock,’ said Chris. By now, the first crowd of drinkers were starting to swarm back into the bar for a Happy Hour that lasted until early evening.
‘You sure you’ve never been to Sandhurst?’ asked Jason, glancing over to where Chris was signalling them to join in and have a look. ‘Totty . . . who says that?’
‘Me,’ said Chris. He placed his empty glass on a nearby table. ‘What say we go over there and have a chat?’
Liam made to follow, then looked back at Jason. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be my point man?’
By the time Liam had got to the girls, Jason had overtaken him and was already deep into a war story.
‘So this Terry, right, he’s just been taking pot shots at us with this fuckin’ RPG, yeah? And then his mates turn up, and suddenly it’s getting really fruity . . .’
One of the girls, tall, attractive, and with a perma-nent look of indifference slapped across her face, said, ‘Sounds boring, if you ask me. Do you talk about anything else? Or is it always war and guns and fighting?’
‘You’re joking, right?’ said Liam. ‘I’m not saying it’s fun, but it’s definitely not boring.’
‘No one asked you to join up,’ she said, sipping from a glass that seemed to hold more fruit on sticks and brightly coloured umbrellas than actual drink. ‘Who’d want to be in the army anyway? All that shouting and being ordered about. Seriously dull.’
Liam’s mouth fell open. Having only arrived back from Afghanistan two weeks ago, he’d not had much chance or cause to mix with civilians. Not until now, if he was honest. In those two weeks, all he’d really done was sort his kit out – and go to London to collect a medal, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. It had been awarded after an action in which he’d been cut off from the rest of his multiple, with another soldier who’d lost his foot to an IED. The Taliban had been hunting them, but Liam had managed to keep them both alive, and evade capture, until they were eventually rescued.
Life in the army had been anything but dull.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, looking at the girl to try and get the measure of her, work out if she was actually serious or not. Then he added with a smile, ‘Joining up was the best decision I ever made, period. Wouldn’t swap it.’
Liam saw Chris wink at him, then turn to the ladies to let loose his charm offensive.
‘Anyway, ladies, what brings you out to Ibiza? Holiday? Exams over? Or just to have the chance to meet handsome blighters like us?’
The girl with the sour face sneered, but her three friends giggled.
‘Let’s start as we mean to go on, shall we?’ continued Chris. ‘Drinks?’
The girls jumped at the chance of free booze, but as they gave Chris their orders, two of them happily exchanging them for a peck on the cheek, Liam was knocked to one side as four lads pushed through to stand with the girls.
‘All right, ladies?’ said the one who’d glanced against Liam. ‘Miss us?’
Liam could tell the girls were unimpressed, even the one who looked like she spent her life sucking lemons.
‘We told you to leave us alone last night,’ she said. ‘And in case you didn’t understand, we meant for the rest of the time we’re here as well, OK? Just go away.’
‘Hey, just relax, babe,’ came the reply, dripping with more swarm than charm. ‘You don’t need to play hard to get. There’s still plenty of me to go around, hey, mate?’
The lad winked at Liam and slipped his arm round the girl’s waist, pulling her close. He was tall, well groomed, and looked fit, his shirt clearly too small on purpose, just so the girls could get an eyeful of his pecs and biceps.
‘I don’t think she’s playing hard to get,’ said Liam. ‘Maybe you should just forget it?’
The lad’s face turned from cheeky to cheerless in a beat. ‘Who the fuck asked you?’
Chris walked over, carrying a tray of drinks, and without a hint of hesitation, the lad reached out and helped himself. ‘Cheers, mate!’ he said, taking a swig.
‘He’s not your mate,’ said Liam, disliking the new arrivals more with every passing second. ‘And that’s not your drink.’
The lad let go of the girl and walked over to Liam, still holding the drink. ‘Nice haircut,’ he said, then clocked the tattoo. ‘You a soldier boy, then? A squaddie?’
Liam didn’t respond. He’d been warned about people like this. Dickheads who liked to take the piss out of stuff they didn’t understand, and who thought the army was an easy target.
The lad stood to attention, then saluted, as his mates laughed and gathered behind him, hyenas behind a wolf.
‘We’ve got ourselves a bona fide war hero here,’ he said. ‘I bet he’s SAS. A killer. Scared, aren’t we, eh?’
Jason stepped in. ‘Hey, mate, we’re not looking for any trouble. So why don’t we all just relax, eh? Good times, right?’
The lad ignored him. ‘Join the army, huh? Travel the world, meet interesting people, and kill them!’
‘We don’t do it for fun,’ Liam said.
‘Don’t give a shit what you do it for,’ he replied. ‘But do me a favour, next time you go out there, step on a land mine or something, yeah? You dull fuck.’
Liam clenched a fist tight. ‘You what?’
‘A good squaddie is a dead squaddie,’ continued the lad, spitting the words at Liam like rounds. ‘Least that way we know you’ve done your fucking job!’
Liam’s world shifted. He wasn’t in the bar any more. He was back in Afghanistan. Gunfire and explosions and shouts and screams filled his ears. He could smell dust, cordite and blood. And in his arms was Cameron, bleeding out his last few moments of life: a good squaddie – a good friend – soon to be a dead one.
Liam came back online a split second later. Then he heaved Jason out of the way, and let rip.