I turned my face to the sun, pausing for a moment to appreciate the warmth of it on my skin, trembling in my attempt to supress the apprehension of not knowing when I would experience the same sensation again. The sound of Joel’s brash laughter darted through my eardrums over the sound of children squealing in the play park, parents chattering over a coffee in the café and dogs barking with the simple joy of a tennis ball being thrown.
I tried not to think about it. As my mother would have said: worrying about tomorrow won’t change it for the better, it’ll only change today for the worse. Sometimes I wish I’d listened to her more, made the choices she knew were best for me. The desperation I had to join the army only panicked her. If she could see me now, sitting in our park in our picnic spot the night before going away for an undecided amount of time, she’d most likely have a stroke all over again.
“Are you alright, Charl?” Joel called over to me. “Don’t worry, man. It’ll fly by, you’ll be home in a few months.”
I nodded slowly, avoiding eye contact. Looking around, I tried to save mental images of this park, the people from all walks of life sharing an open space, children playing and wildlife existing in the shadows, minding its own business. Suburban life is something that is taken for granted, with the majority of people born into it yearning for residence away from the noise of the town, or envisioning a high-powered city life. I craved discipline, the naïve thought of becoming a hero for my country, and once my mother left us, I saw no reason to stay in the town I called home. The day I was accepted, following years of gruelling training that I commenced of my own accord as a teenager, was when I realised what I’d really done. I’d sentenced myself to months, possibly years, of being someone else; someone who is constantly putting on a front to appear strong and collected, despite my inner thoughts.
I looked over at Joel and Marco, lying on the ground with freshly cut grass sticking to their skin in the heat. I sensed their disappointment, knowing that it was my own choices that were responsible for taking my friendship away from them. We smoked a final cigarette together, reminiscing about our days of youth through nostalgic conversation strung with nervous laughter.
Joel went into the shop first, a harsh sense of confidence gleaming through his eyes. Marco and I held back, watching Joel’s distinctive walk as he made his way between the aisles of the shop. I watched nervously, the cold air filtering across my tongue that protruded between my lips. Once Joel gave the signal – a loud, dramatic cough, Marco and I entered the shop. We grabbed one ice pole each from the freezer cabinet, and a Freddo chocolate bar.
“Fifteen pence each, kids,” the shopkeeper mumbled. We paid for our treats and left the shop.
“Here, Joel, I got yours!” I shouted. He thanked me loudly and followed us out.
We ran to the park, sweaty and breathless.
“What did you get?” Marco and I asked hastily.
Joel emptied out a pocket of chocolate bars onto the floor, and all of us tucked in. We got through almost half of them, wrappers piling up on the grass and chocolate smearing around our mouths.
A voice bellowed across the park, making the three of us jump up in alarm.
“You three! Here, now!”
I looked up and saw my mother, with the man from the shop, staring at us with a look of bitter disappointment.
For the next three weeks I earned back from my mother the monetary value of what we had taken through household chores, traipsing back to the corner shop every evening with a 50 pence coin, each day feeling more and more resentful. Mr. Davis would grunt and nod with a frown, taking the coin and sending me on my way with a flick of the wrist. My mother hated stealing. I’d let her down, and no matter what, I would never escape that incident. Even after I’d paid all the money back to the shop, my mother never did cease to mention that day each time I attempted to celebrate my successes. Joel and Marco seldom got a telling off from their parents.
“Shame you never learnt your lesson, eh Charlie,” Marco joked. “If you’d taken your mum’s advice maybe you wouldn’t be leaving us.”
“Mum didn’t want me to live,” I snapped. “I loved her, but she never let me experiment and learn lessons for myself. That’s what I needed to do.”
“You’re not going to be experimenting and learning from mistakes this time,” Joel butted in. “It’s strict, you know. All those uniform clothes, no choice of even what to eat or do in your spare time really. You’ll just be there, all those miles away, with no Wi-Fi.”
“I know, Joel. I’ve done all that training. I’ve worn a uniform, I’ve roughed it and I’ve shared a room with a countless number of people. I’ve polished my boots until I could see myself in them, I’ve run faster and further than I ever knew I could. I can handle myself. I’ve got this. After all, even if I haven’t, please just let me think I have.” I looked away. “I’m trained, and I’m strong. No matter who I end up fighting, I’ll make sure I get it right.”
I saw both Marco and Joel shake their heads, casting each other a sideways glance. Thoughts began rushing through my head, the world around me fading into a blur of memories and ideas of what was to come.
“You’ll have the world thrown at you”, Langfield barked. His distinctive posture appeared familiar, his dark, protruding brow shadowing his eyes from the aura of the single bulb that hung in the room. The way he stood, with a slight stoop, made him a peculiar looking soldier; yet his physical strength was apparent without witnessing him demonstrate it. “This is not a game of gun fights with little green men on your bedroom carpet. This is life and death. This is real. If you’re not sure about it, leave. If you don’t like it, leave. We’re not here to force you to be soldiers. We’re here to teach you to be good soldiers. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir,” I responded in unison with everyone else in that room.
Langfield walked around slowly, eyeing each of us in turn. He stopped in front of me, his face tilted towards the ground, his eyes merely visible from their sunken sockets. “And don’t any of you, ever, try to outsmart me,” he remarked, his gaze fixated on me. “It won’t end well.”
He turned and walked steadily out of the room, in a fashion not dissimilar from that of the men that carried my mother’s coffin to her grave.
I tidied my clothes, bulled my boots and contemplated whether this was really the right choice for me. I thought about my mother, my friends, everyone at home going about their lives without real fear. I thought I knew what fear was before I came here, it’s funny really. The fear I felt being caught stealing a few chocolate bars as a tearaway eight-year-old compared to the fear I felt here based upon the simple fact of whether my shoes were shiny enough. The discipline I’d experienced at home involved making up for wrong choices, not being attacked for them; this was going to take some getting used to. The familiarity of the rank structure, mirroring my experience whilst working for Jad, was an uncomfortable reminder of the past. Langfield’s stooping posture filled me with a dread like none I’d experienced before; the way his eyes seemed to hide from the light, skulking under his brow like a hidden treasury of twisted tales whispering in the shadows, how he stood over others with an air of authority yet an apparent lack of humanity.
I blinked harshly and looked at Joel. He laughed at me, joking that if I’m going to survive the next few months I’d need to keep my head screwed on and in focus, that Charlie-Land had to close. My mother was the last person to mention Charlie-Land. Just before she died, while I was sat wondering what I was ever going to do without her, she asked me to leave Charlie-Land for just a minute so she could spend time with me properly. That was the last thing she ever said to me, or to anyone for that matter.
“What’s it like in Charlie-Land?” my mother asked, stroking my hand. “I’d love to see.”
I smiled at her. “It’s a secret,” I whispered. “Only I can ever go there. It’s where I keep all my rememberings.”
My mother laughed lovingly. “Your memories?”
I smiled, my lack of front teeth on full display. “And my wishes. When I’m a soldier, that’s when I’ll stop going to Charlie-Land. Because then I won’t need it any more, I’ll be all happy outside.”
My mother’s eyes stopped dancing for a moment. “You’re not joining the army, Charlie. It’s horrible. Why don’t you do something else instead? You could be a doctor, or a builder, or a teacher, whatever you like.”
“I like the army,” I stated.
My mother continued stroking my hand, her blood red painted fingernails dancing in circles on my palm. “You wouldn’t want to leave me though, would you? Be sent away?”
I pondered for a moment. “I like holidays.”
I took one last look around me, finally settling my gaze on Joel and Marco.
“I’ll see you soon, guys.” I stood up to leave, as did they. Without thinking, I threw myself onto my friends, one arm around each of them, squeezing them tightly. I gulped, holding myself together like I had been trained so well to do, and without looking at their faces again I made off for home for the last time.
I opened the front door to silence, hearing my own footsteps echo along the hallway. I cooked a meal of spaghetti ragu, just as my mother had taught me – a dash of soy sauce to make it rich and a pinch of chilli powder for extra flavour. Eating slowly, I savoured each mouthful, whilst watching an argument unfold between two groups of schoolboys on the television.
After washing up and tidying my home to a mediocre standard, I dragged myself to bed despite the knowledge that the sooner I slept the sooner the following day would creep up on me. I had planned to stay up all night, enjoy each moment of freedom, but I’d lost all motivation and instead I opted for a night of dreams plagued with questionings of how I had ended up where I was. I had worked my days away in retail, putting on an almost-convincing polite smile as customers came in and out, then spent my evenings either helping my mother with her housework and cooking meals, or pushing myself further and further each night in the gym. My mother was content with my nine-to-five job, and I played along, I had a lot to make up to her that even she didn’t know about, and I enjoyed spending the odd spare evening with Joel and Marco. I’d drifted apart from them for a few recent years, while I went through a phase of desperately seeking a solid place in society.
I awoke early from my restless sleep, my heart pounding. I got dressed slowly, creating a final memory of being able to choose my outfit from a wardrobe of my own clothes before my individuality would be stripped away and replaced with generic, uniform garments.
I busied myself with my morning routine for the final time, before throwing on my jacket and walking out to the bus stop. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d caught a bus, but I knew for a fact that there was nowhere I could park my car for this length of time without acquiring a hefty fine. I focused on reciting in my head everything I had taken on board throughout the journey, from the lessons I’d learned on the street to the orders I’d had drilled through my ears throughout my training and my first few weeks working on the local army base.
When I finally arrived, I took a deep breath before taking a step into the next chapter of my life, a chapter in which I would no longer be Charlie Kitchener, but a number with nothing to set me apart from the rest, my individuality stripped back to nothing. As I sat and waited, I wondered whether there was a chance I’d get away with avoiding going anywhere. I’d changed my mind since back then, I’d made the wrong choice. My hands trembled and I closed my eyes, breathing as deeply as I could. My mind muffled out the sounds in the room, with two words resonating around my head. Six months. I did as I was expected to, and maintained my composure like I was trained to. I got in the van and travelled without protest. I accepted my fate and followed all orders. I changed my clothes and smiled as politely as I could muster to my new bunkmates.
“He’s meeting you on the corner of Grove Road,” Jad spat, his gold teeth glistening in the orange glow of the streetlight. “You be quick, it’s for a job tonight.”
I gulped down my anxiety, took the package and began to walk quickly towards Grove Road. I held the package with both hands in the full width pocket of my hoody. This was my last job before I stopped this, I’d been accepted into the army and I needed to focus on that and put all this into my past. Jad had said that once I joined I’d be even better at this job, his last runner had managed to worm his way out of a sentence after he was caught because he blagged something about the knife being for use by the army. He had a lot of contacts, he was lucky, just not clever enough to stay in the shadows – how he went and got himself caught I’ll never understand. I put up my hood, keeping my head down. After my mother died, I stopped caring what happened to me until I received my acceptance letter. That was all that was keeping me going. I dropped the knife to the customer, and took his payment. He grabbed my arm, dragging me into a wooded area, before checking over the implement carefully. It was crafted beautifully, yet soon it was to be tarnished with the acts for which it was produced. Once satisfied, he let me go. I ran back to Jad’s, gave him his money and ran home. I pulled my hoodie and jeans off, put them straight in the washing machine and started a hot wash. I washed my hands and face and brushed my teeth. That was it, my last job. Never again would I do it, the risk was too high. I had a life ahead of me again, I wasn’t prepared to throw it away over that one choice I made all those months ago when I first met Jad. I sat and pondered on my life, up until that moment. I’d always made everything up, except this. I’d just given a dangerous person a dangerous object, and what was more, I knew what was going to happen. As I sat there in my underwear I heard the clunking of the washing machine, slowly removing the evidence of my consultation with the man at Grove Road. My mother would be disappointed. I jumped up, threw on the nearest items of clothing I could find, and ran out into the night. From the conversation I had overheard Jad having on the phone earlier that day, he was involved. I smartened myself up, adjusted my hair a little and threw my hood up as I slunk to the one place I hoped to find that man. I saw a stooping man from a distance the alleyway behind Jad’s, with his back towards me, holding it, showing it off to someone. I ran. As I sprinted past him I snatched it from his hand. He tried to run after me, but I outran him, not stopping to catch my breath until I’d forced it down a grate covering a drain. Just as I went to leave I glanced behind me and saw the man hurtling towards me from around a corner.
I jumped up and fled, the man’s voice bellowing behind me: “Don’t you even try to outsmart me, it won’t end well!”
I never heard from any of them after that, not Jad and the others, anyone. It was odd, really, given the sort of people they were.
I glanced around at the basic room, the dull bed linen and everyone’s uniformed appearance. There was no place for personality here, nobody’s individual quirks shone out to me, I recognised nobody. I touched my finger where my ring should be, the ring I inherited from my mother. I craved it more than anything I’d ever desired. I wondered what my mother would say to me now that I’d gone against everything she had ever taught me. I’d have worked to make it up if there was a way, or if my remorse was believed.
I was exhausted after my second week on the army base, returning home with the single intention of sleeping and devouring multiple helpings of tea and biscuits. I flung my bags down and filled the kettle, adding a small spoonful of sugar to my favourite mug – I felt as though I’d earned it just this once. The doorbell chimed, followed by a heavy knock on the body of the door.
I opened the door to two uniformed police officers, in the same way that I had when my mother died. Just as it had happened then, the taller police officer spoke.
“Charlotte Kitchener?” he asked politely, exactly as they had then.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Charlotte, at this time you’re under arrest for unlawful marketing of knives as suitable for combat,” he stated.
I froze to the spot. My time with Jad was in the past, I’d ended it and I’d made it up to the community – I’d volunteered for ages to make up for that, I was even. I’d sorted it – nobody got hurt because of me in the end, not after I got that knife back from the man in Grove Road. I managed it, and I escaped him, I was free. I was free of my conscience and of being tied down by Jad.
The police interview was my personal definition of torture. I was upfront and honest about everything, even what I’d done to stop the man in Grove Road, whose face I began to reconstruct in my mind for the first time after months of blocking out my memories of that day. I envisaged his dark, protruding brow shadowing his eyes from the aura of the streetlights. The way he stood, with a slight stoop, made him a peculiar looking civilian; yet his physical strength was apparent without witnessing him demonstrate it.
I suppose I’d always known that the past would catch up to me, deep down. In reality, I struggled to even believe that one could repent and make up for their wrongdoings in a civilised, integral or honest way. The system catches up with everyone, that system being the dark shadows in the streets at night where men such as Langfield lurk, life on the inside, or in my case – both. While for me, the thought of my mother’s disappointment was enough for me to stop and think, for many I now know this isn’t the case. These two types of people cannot easily be distinguished, and even if they could, a jury can only give a simple verdict, with no humanity or individuality included. Six months may go by in the blink of an eye, but the experiences contained within those six months can change a person forever. I hoped, right up until the end, that I would be changed for better, not for worse. If my mother still had any level of respect for me, I hoped I could rely on reversing her favourite saying, and that was what I began to say to myself each morning, in the hope that I could maintain that, along with some level of positivity up for those six months.