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
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
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
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
“What did you get?” Marco and I asked
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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!”
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
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
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.