Life During Wartime (Ark Royal Short) – Snippet

26 Nov

This is a different sort of character from the usual Ark hero/heroine. Let’s see how it works.

Chapter One

“Richard!”

Richard rolled over, glanced at the sunlight beaming through the window blinds and closed his eyes.  It couldn’t be that late, surely.  He’d been up half the night playing Naval Command on his datanet terminal and he’d only gone to sleep a few short hours ago.  He wriggled against the lumpy mattress, trying to get comfortable again.  His mother had taken his old mattress for the guests, two weeks ago, and hadn’t bothered to replace it.  He had a feeling she was hoping he’d forget that he’d ever had an older and softer mattress.

The door crashed open.  “Richard Tobias Gurnard,” his mother snapped.  “Get out of that bed at once!”

Richard opened his eyes again.  There were worse things to see on waking, he was sure, but his mother in a foul mood was probably worthy of a honourable mention or two.  It was hard to see, sometimes, why his father had married her.  Richard loved his mother, but … they had very little in common.  There were times when he understood why his father had joined the navy, putting dozens of light years between him and his wife.  If he’d lived …

“This is my room,” Richard protested.  “You shouldn’t come in …”

“You are seventeen years old and on the verge of being late for school,” his mother informed him.  She rested her beefy hands on her ample hits, her eyes never leaving his face.  “Believe me, I do not want another call from the headmaster.  I certainly don’t want to sign another punishment slip.  If it happens again, I will …”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Richard said.  He glanced at the clock.  Eight o’clock.  Stupid o’clock, really.  “I’ll be down in a moment.”

“You’d better, or your sister will have eaten your porridge,” his mother thundered.  “And if you go to school without breakfast, you’ll be starving until lunch.”

She turned and stamped out the room, slamming the door behind her.  Richard sat upright and sighed, wishing – again – that his family were wealthy enough to hire a private tutor.  He learnt so much more from private lessons than formal schooling, caught between apathetic teachers and fellow students who spent half their time goofing off and the rest picking on him.  Richard wondered, sometimes, why his father had insisted Richard carry his name.  He hadn’t been a sadist, surely.  Didn’t he know how easy it was for someone to make fun of the name?

Dad was a strong man, Richard thought.  He’d seen his father’s medals.  Anyone who laughed at him would be duffed up good and proper.

He stood and dressed, hastily.  The school uniform felt as crappy as always, even though it was the last day he’d have to wear it.  Grey trousers, grey shirt, grey jumper, grey socks … he’d rebelled, just slightly, by wearing black underpants.  Rumour had it the girls wore all sorts of underclothes under their jumpers, but Richard didn’t believe it.  Wearing the wrong uniform wasn’t a harmless little prank like plagiarism, bullying and drawing insulting caricatures of the headmaster in the bogs.  It was serious.  Any girl who wore the wrong underwear would be lucky if she was merely sent to a borstal.

His reflection looked back at him as he gazed into the mirror, feeling a twinge of disgust at his appearance.  He was just a little overweight, enough to be noticeable; his blond hair fell over a pudgy face that had yet to lose its baby fat.  He was condemned to six hours of PE a week, thanks to the school-to-military pipeline, but it hadn’t done much for his weight.  Richard was honest enough to admit it hadn’t put much effort into it, yet … he’d never felt the urge to engage in any sporting activities.  What was the point?

He walked downstairs, telling himself that today would be different.  He was getting his exam results, the exam results he’d slaved so hard to get.  He’d already applied to a set of proper universities, places where intellect was respected and barbaric physical sports simply didn’t exist.  He’d meet people who actually understood him, he told himself; he’d meet intellectuals who could actually challenge his thinking.  And, most importantly of all, he wouldn’t be conscripted into the army.  He wouldn’t be called upon to fight in the war.

The radio was blaring loudly as he stepped into the kitchen.  Something had happened … he caught snatches of babble about places he’d never visit and things he’d never see as he picked up a bowl and filled it with porridge.  His sister Elizabeth was seated at the table, reading a datapad as she finished her breakfast.  She was two years younger than him, with long blond hair that was strikingly attractive when she wasn’t wearing the school uniform.  He hoped she’d be fine, once he left for university.  She was smart.  She’d have a good life if she didn’t let someone sweep her off her feet.  Richard sometimes wondered if that was what had happened to his mother.

“Better not be late today,” Elizabeth advised.  “You know how the Beast gets when someone’s late for assembly.”

“Better to skip it altogether,” Richard said, as he sat down and started to eat.  “It’ll just be another boring lecture about who died and brought honour to the school.”

He ate quickly, knowing better than to press his luck.  The Beast – Headmaster Gordon – was a former military officer who had no qualms about meting out harsh punishment to boys and girls alike.  Some people claimed he’d been kicked out of the army for unacceptable brutality.  Richard didn’t believe it.  He’d always thought that unacceptable brutality was the way people got ahead in the army.  Richard had once spent several hours trying to match the headmaster’s name to the army lists, only to draw a blank.  He had a private theory the headmaster was a Walt, a poser, but he’d kept it to himself.  The Beast wouldn’t have hesitate to beast him if he’d heard even a hint of the theory.

“Don’t forget your bag,” his mother shouted from up the stairs.  “And go now!”

Richard groaned, grabbed his coat and bag and hurried to the door.  The black mark on it signified that someone in the family had made the ultimate sacrifice and given his life for his country, but no one outside the family itself seemed to care.  Too many men – and women – had given their lives in the last five years of war.  Richard wanted his father back, not a meaningless medal and a fatherless life.  His greatest fear, the one he wouldn’t admit to anyone, was that he would end up just like his father.

Elizabeth joined him as they half-ran onto the streets and joined the others heading to school, a stream of grey-clad teenagers who blurred together into a single mass.  Richard tried not to react when he spotted a handful of sporty kids amongst the throng, chatting happily as they tossed a ball during the walk to school.  He’d long since grown used to being picked last for teams – he’d never liked sports – but he would have been happier if they left him alone.  They actually liked school, somehow.  They saw sporting careers as their only way out of poverty.  Richard had looked it up, when one of the school bullies had bragged he’d be playing for a famous team within the year.  The odds of him suceeding – of anyone suceeding – were lower than the odds of winning the lottery.

The throng grew larger as the school came into view.  Richard glanced at his sister, then waved goodbye and headed towards the boys side of the playground.  The handful of climbing frames looked as cracked and broken as ever, despite endless promises from the council to repair them.  He’d never dared climb to the top, not when there was no shortage of wankers who’d try to pull him down.  The concrete below the frame promised a hard landing and a week or two in hospital for anyone unlucky enough to fall.  Richard had heard PE teachers claim that suffering built character, but he wasn’t going to risk it.  He already had quite enough character.

A couple of boys kissed their girlfriends, then ran towards the growing lines as the school bell rang.  Richard felt a stab of envy, mingled with an odd sense of disdain.  He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t remain trapped in the grim town, that he’d find a job and build a life for himself somewhere else.  London perhaps, or Edinburgh.  Or even Manchester, somewhere where there were jobs for intelligent students too smart to waste their time playing games.  He joined the line as the whistle blew, ducking his head to avoid catching the teacher’s eye.  The teacher at the door was already holding a datapad, ready to record the names of anyone who came late.  They’d be for the high jump at the end of the day.

It’s the last day of school, he thought, as the line began to move.  Can’t they give us a break?

The door loomed up in front of him, a solid metal structure that looked as if it belonged in a prison.  The school really was a prison … he winced as he pressed his hand against the bioscanner, trying to ignore the prick of pain as the scanner sampled his blood and pronounced him clean.  He’d always wondered what would happen if the scanner reported he did have the alien virus, although he was pretty certain it was just security theatre to keep the proles under control.  The virus was airborne.  If he had it, he’d have infected the entire line of prattling boys by now.  He’d read as much on the dark web. 

Richard tried to breathe through his nose as he stepped through the door, into the school, and walked down the corridor to the assembly hall.  The school stank of stale cabbages and quiet desperation, the sense that most of the students wouldn’t go on to long and prosperous careers.  The smell grew stronger – the stench of too many sweaty bodies in too close proximity – as he found a place to sit in line and sat down.  There were no seats in the hall, not even for the older students.  He’d heard the teachers were scared of having chairs hurled at them.  He would have liked to believe the rumour, but it was probably another cost-cutting measure.  The assembly hall did double duty as the indoor gym.

A figure sat down next to him and sniggered.  “Hey, dickhead!”

Richard groaned, inwardly.  Colin.  He hated Colin.  The asshole didn’t have a single working brain cell, as far as Richard could tell, but that didn’t stop him leading a charmed life.  Girls loved him, teachers made allowances for him … he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with so much if he hadn’t been a star on the sports field.  Richard was sure Colin would have been expelled by now if he hadn’t brought in the medals.  Colin was too stupid to know it, but his charmed life wouldn’t last.  He wouldn’t go on to fame and glory, not if there was any justice in the world.  Or so Richard told himself.

He did his best to ignore the taunts as the remainder of the students filed into the vast chamber.  Really, did Colin think he was the first person to remember that Dick was short for Richard?  Or that dick was slang for penis?  He probably did.  He wasn’t smart enough to realise the joke was older than the Beast himself, older than the oldest person still alive.  Richard hated his name, more than he cared to admit.  He intended to change it as soon as he got his majority.

The Beast stepped onto the stage, his mortar board so perfect he could have stepped off a recruiting poster for schoolteachers.  He was a sour-faced man, his long black robes cut to hint at his powerful body.  Richard did his best to pretend to pay attention as the headmaster started to speak, praising the former pupils who’d given their lives in battle against the alien foe.  Richard winced, inwardly, when the Beast mentioned a handful of familiar names.  It wasn’t common to know students who were more than a couple of years older or younger than oneself, but he’d known a handful of older boys on the block.  Two of them were now dead, according to the Beast.  Richard would have liked to think he was lying.  It wouldn’t be the first time the headmaster had lied to the school.

The speech went on and on, to the point that even the teachers started to look bored.  Richard amused himself by mulling over the Beast’s military credentials, wondering if the headmaster really had been in the army after all.  If he’d been a high-ranking officer, surely he would have kept the title … right?  He’d openly claimed to have killed men in combat.  Maybe he’d just been a cook, a cook who’d poisoned the poor bastards who’d had to eat his food.  He’d seen that joke in a TV series that had been banned long ago.

He was relieved beyond words when, after a cursory and compulsory rendition of God Save The Queen, the younger students were dismissed.  The older students waited, shuffling uncomfortably as the Beast informed them that their exam results had been returned from the board and some of them had interviews with guidance counsellors.  Or consolers.  Richard groaned at the pun, then managed a fake titter with the rest of the students.  The Beast had earned his nickname, whatever the truth behind his military service.  It wouldn’t do to draw his attention on the final day of school.

“And I trust, when you have made something of yourselves, that you will remember what made you,” the Beast said.  “Dismissed.”

I’ll remember you, all right, Richard thought, as he stood.  The headmaster had no shame.  It was really too early to start hitting them up for donations.  And I’ll donate a rusty penny if you try asking me for money.

He held back as the students tried to cram themselves through the doors and push their way into the lobby.  There was no point in running, not when he was already in the midst of the crowd.  Instead, he forced himself to calm down as he followed the rest of the students up the stairs, past classrooms they’d never have to enter again and down a corridor to the notice boards.  The building really did look like a panopticon prison.  A man standing on the top could look down at the lobby, without being seen by the people below him.  But there were laws against treating prisoners so badly.  Richard had once considered trying to make a formal protest.  Being sent to school in such a building probably constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  He hadn’t bothered, in the end.  It was unlikely that anyone would pay more than a moment’s attention to him.

He felt his heart twist as he made his way down the corridor.  It would have been nice to have friends, it would have been nice to have someone he could be himself around … he shook his head.  It would have been nice, yes.  And while he was wishing, he’d like a pony.  He glanced up at the library, his hiding place while classes were out of session.  He couldn’t wait to go to university.  He’d sell his soul for the chance to actually make something of himself.

Colin waved at him.  “I’m going to the army!  And I’m going to shoot assholes like you!”

Richard bit down the reply that came to mind.  Colin was good at mindless brutality.  No doubt he’d fit right in.  Richard was a more sensitive soul.  He ignored the whoops and cheers as Colin and his friends headed for the exit, ready to spend a week of freedom before they reported for training.  They didn’t matter.  All that mattered, right now, was getting out of the dump before the poverty sucked him back in.  He told himself, firmly, that he’d made it.

He found the exam results and skimmed through to find his name.  A student needed 95% – whatever that meant – to go to university.  Richard had already filled in the paperwork and filed it, but without the result he’d get nowhere.  He passed over a handful of names – he felt a flash of vindictive glee as he noted Colin had only scored 15% – until he found his own.  He could hardly bare to look.

His heart skipped a beat.  94%.

Richard stared, feeling his legs start to sway.  He barely caught himself before they buckled and he hit the floor.  94%!  He was dead.  He was … his head swam.  He was going to join the army and do his national service and … probably get killed, blown away by his squadmates before the infected zombies ever got a shot at him.  Colin had made it clear, time and time again, that he’d kill Richard if he ever got a chance … Richard told himself that he must be mistaken, that Colin was merely being an asshole who made normal assholes look bland and boring, but he couldn’t believe it.  He was dead.  The tiny note ordering him to see the guidance counsellor mocked him.  The man was probably going to measure him for his coffin.

He thought, briefly, about skipping the meeting and going home.  Perhaps there were other options.  Perhaps … he couldn’t think of any.  There were stories about underground organisations that claimed to help draft dodgers, but he didn’t have any contacts.  And the rackets wouldn’t help him either.  He didn’t know who to ask …

… And he was too much of a coward to try.

Helplessly, tasting bitter defeat, Richard made his way to the guidance counsellor’s office.

5 Responses to “Life During Wartime (Ark Royal Short) – Snippet”

  1. James Jeffery November 26, 2019 at 2:10 pm #

    I think it works, certainly got me hooked to see what happens next.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 26, 2019 at 2:27 pm #

    Looks good.

    Minor nit, isn’t the Monarch the father of Prince Henry? Thus it should be “God Save The KIng” not “God Save The Queen”. 😉

  3. Vassilis Drakopoulos November 26, 2019 at 9:00 pm #

    Oh, I just looked on the mirror!

  4. Doug November 29, 2019 at 2:14 am #

    Could be good, you never know what could happen. I jioned the AF and 22 years later I
    Retierd with a BA in math. and a MS in systemaitniagiment.

  5. Simon Norburn December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am #

    “her ample hits” ?hips

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