Just a snippet - thoughts would be welcome. Chapter One Manchester, United Kingdom “Shahan!” Shahan Patel woke up, silently cursing the uncomfortable bed as he turned over. Sameena, his sister, was already moving away from his bedside, heading downstairs to make tea for the family. He rolled his eyes as he pulled himself out of bed, had a quick shower, and then followed her downstairs. Four years and he still felt like a guest in his uncle’s house. But perhaps that wasn't surprising, he told himself. Uncle Ahmed had done nothing to make any of them feel welcome, rather the opposite. His sole reason for allowing his sister and her children to stay with him was cheap labour for his restaurant. There were days when Shahan would have cheerfully strangled his maternal uncle. If his father hadn’t died five years ago… “I put your sandwiches in the box,” Sameena said. She was as tall and thin as Shahan himself, but where he had a rugged face hers was elegant, stunningly beautiful. Long dark hair framed a face that looked more vulnerable, perhaps more needy, than Shahan would have preferred. She would have been a model, if Uncle Ahmed hadn’t forced their mother to forbid it. The thought of one of his sister’s kids earning her own income…he’d lose all control over them. “Try not to be late home. You know what he’s like if we’re not ready on time.” Shahan scowled, sipping his tea. Every so often, he found himself seriously considering waylaying his uncle and pounding the crap out of him. The man exploited his nephew and niece, while giving all his care and attention to his two overweight sons. They were going to university to become doctors, or so Uncle Ahmed had told everyone; personally, Shahan suspected that anyone treated by them would soon regret it. One of his cousins was stupid and the other…his blood still boiled when he remembered the day he’d caught the other one peeking on Sameena in the shower. The fight – and the ensuring row – had almost resulted in him being slung out of the house. There were times when he felt that that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. “Take care of yourself,” Sameena instructed, as he picked up his bag and headed towards the door. It was still dark outside, with only the faintest glimmering of light in the distance announcing the oncoming dawn. “I don’t want to have to visit you in hospital. Or tell mum what happened to you.” Shahan shrugged as he opened the door. Sameena was the only person who knew where he was going, and why. He couldn’t stay in Uncle Ahmed’s house forever, let alone marry the girl his uncle chose for him or wait at tables for the rest of his life. Islam taught a great deal about being close to one’s family, and heeding one’s elders, but there were limits. Shahan had found his the day he’d almost killed his younger cousin. And as for the people who would nudge and whisper disapproval just loudly enough for their mother to hear…? They could go back to Bangladesh if they wanted to live like that, he told himself. One day he would tell them so to their faces. The cold air washed around him as he jogged down the road towards Rushholme, Manchester’s famous curry mile. It was waking up, with people opening their shops and pausing to chat to their friends, but no one took any notice of him as he turned and headed down towards the centre of town. He was doing a course at Manchester Metropolitan University; somehow, he’d never told his family that it only ran on Mondays and Thursday. The rest of the time was all for him. If he stayed at home, Uncle Ahmed would only find something else for him to do. He passed the library at St Peter’s Square and headed down Booth Street. It was still early, but the Army Careers Office was already brightly lit, with a couple of young men entering the building. Shahan checked his watch, out of habit, and reassured himself that it was barely past eight o’clock. They’d been told to be there at 0830, or else. Shahan had no idea what the ‘or else’ actually was, but he was fairly sure that being late was not something that would impress the Army. And the Army offered his only real hope of escaping from Uncle Ahmed and making something of himself. The door opened when he pressed the buzzer and he pulled his rucksack off his shoulder. They’d been told to bring shorts and a t-shirt; he’d checked online and discovered that it was also a good idea to bring deodorant and something to drink as well. He passed over his permission slips to the Sergeant at the desk – an older man with a face he’d liked on sight – and watched as the Sergeant checked everything. As soon as his papers had been checked, he was waved to one of the chairs and ordered to wait. The minutes seemed to pass achingly slowly. It soon moved past eight-thirty, yet nothing happened. A latecomer came into the office, only to run into the Sergeant. “And what time,” the Sergeant demanded, his voice changing from friendly to hostile, “do you call this?” The prospective recruit had the sense not to argue. “Eight-forty-one, sir,” he said. “I was held up…” “There are no excuses on this course,” the Sergeant snapped. “Give me your paperwork and take a seat. You’re holding all these lads up.” Shahan tried to relax as they were finally called to their feet and led out of the office, up to a black-painted minibus waiting on the kerb. He’d volunteered for this, he knew what he was doing – so why was he nervous? Nothing seemed to calm his nerves. ***The army barracks reminded him of one of the larger public schools he’d seen during his schooldays, back when he’d been in the football team and had been invited to play at a dozen different schools. He found himself smiling when he saw the soldier on the gate, carrying a rifle under one arm. Security was taken very seriously at the MOD’s complex of military bases across the United Kingdom; there was a brief exchange of words between the driver – another sergeant, he presumed – and the guard before the bus was allowed to proceed. Behind the massive building there was a set of smaller buildings, a handful of disappointingly civilian vehicles and a number of men in grey uniforms. He found himself staring at them – real soldiers, ready for operations – before the bus turned the corner and pulled up outside a smaller building. The driver opened the doors and bellowed for them to get out and run inside. Shahan wasn't sure what he had expected. He saw around fifty chairs, lined up in front of a dais. Two men stood at the side of the room, both wearing shorts and shirts. One wore a red beret that ought to mean something to him, but didn’t. There were running vests on each of the chairs, along with a handful of sheets of paper. The prospective recruits were told to take a seat and shut up. Shahan did so without hesitation. “Welcome to the Army Insight Course,” one of the men said. The Sergeant at the Army Careers Office had looked friendly, disarmingly so. This man looked like the gym teacher from hell. He was ugly; his hair had been cut right to the skin and his sharp blue eyes missed nothing. His voice was brisk and firm. He wasn't a man Shahan would have cared to upset, not with his obvious strength. And he didn’t look remotely impressed by any of the newcomers. If anything, he looked upset. “For those of you too stupid to have read the papers you were given at the office, the purpose of this course is to give you a very brief taste of army life – and to give us a chance to get a look at you. I am Sergeant Ball.” His gaze swept the room, daring anyone to comment, or smile. “I joined up straight out of school, back when I was a young nipper,” he continued. “I have seen service in Iraq, Bosnia and several places where it will probably surprise you to know that British soldiers have served at all. My mates and I” – he nodded towards men at the rear of the room, men Shahan hadn’t even seen until Sergeant Ball had drawn his attention to them – “have, between us, over seventy years of experience in the army. We have seen and done everything.” He smiled. It looked alarmingly like a shark, preparing to take a bite out of a helpless swimmer. “The good news, lads, is that we are also hosting a class from a nearby college, so we get to do the fitness tests first,” he said. “Isn’t that wonderful?” Shahan nodded, automatically. He’d been practicing every day since he’d realised that the British Army offered him a way out of his life, but he was still dreading the run. Every prospective recruit who wanted to join the infantry had to run a mile and a half in under nine minutes – or less. He’d run every day, calculating a mile and a half and pushing himself as hard as he could, but he was still nervous. There wouldn’t be a second chance if he failed. “Excellent,” Sergeant Ball said. “Now…get into your shorts and off we go.” Shahan changed quickly, ignoring the presence of the others in the room. He’d grown up sharing a room with his cousins, so he was used to undressing in front of other men. Some of the others seemed to have problems, but the Sergeant ignored their pitiful looks and hurried them along. Another soldier passed out a set of numbered vests, like the ones worn by athletes. Shahan pulled his on and joined the line waiting at the door. “Move,” the Sergeant snapped. They half-ran, half-walked out of the building and across a square into another building. Inside, it was a gym. A small crowd of younger men and women were waiting for them, including a slight girl who appeared to be only just entering her teens. Shahan barely glanced at her, wondering what her story was and why she was on the base, before he was caught up in a web of instructions. Form lines; hurry up and wait. It seemed odd to his eyes, but perhaps it made sense. The sergeants would be testing them all the time. The first test was easy, surprisingly so. They were each given two heavy cans and told to carry them across the room and back seven times before they passed them over to the next set of recruits. Shahan had no problem carrying the cans, but a handful of the younger ones from college seemed to be having real problems. The slight girl wasn’t among them. They’d been told that women only had to cross the room five times, yet she insisted on completing all seven runs. The sergeants didn’t look too happy. It made no sense to Shahan until he realised that they’d had to hold one of the others back until she completed her walk. The second test was even easier. All he had to do was lift a heavy bag onto a block of wood, and then pick it up again and set it down onto the floor. “It seems easy now,” one of the sergeants said, as if he’d read Shahan’s mind. “Wait till you have to do it a hundred times while loading or unloading a truck. Then we’ll see what you’re made of.” The prospective recruits had no time to reflect as soon as the last handful had completed their tests. Bellowing orders, Sergeant Ball led them out of the gym – yelling at anyone who was walking, rather than running – and onto the field. Shahan caught sight of a handful of uniformed soldiers watching as the recruits were chivvied along; it dawned on him, suddenly, that they were going to be pushed into a run. And then they had to run… “Pay attention,” Sergeant Ball shouted. He hadn’t even slowed down once. “We will jog round the main building once, and then break into a run. Once you’re running, the men in red overalls will point you in the right direction. If you don’t see a man in red, keep running in a straight line. Remember, if any of you actually want to join the Army, you need a good score on the run! This isn’t a race; your job is to impress us, not anyone else.” Shahan was already breathing hard as they rounded the main building. It struck him just how unfit he actually was, or was it just tension. Running in a mass of other bodies was harder than running alone, although he was sure that when they picked up speed it would be a lot easier to overtake someone else. The sergeants kept them moving, barking out orders when necessary. They didn’t seem to be winded at all – and the run itself hadn’t even begun!” “All right,” Sergeant Ball bellowed. They were approaching a yellow line on the ground. “Once you cross that line, get running – pace yourselves, but don’t stop. Anyone who stops will only be hurting themselves. If you really can’t run any further, go to the side and walk the rest of the way. On your marks…” Shahan wasn't running, not really, but the yellow line came towards him at impossible speed. He seemed to bound across it and then he started to run, counting off in his head as the mob of prospective soldiers disintegrated. One of the latecomers to the Army Careers Office ran past him at astonishing speed; Shahan was just about to run faster, after him, when he remembered that he had to maintain a steady pace. A soldier in red appeared out of nowhere and pointed to the left. Shahan managed to spin around and keep running, heading around the course. They were going to run all the way around the base at this rate, part of his mind thought, trying to distract himself from the aches and pains that were threatening to slow him to a crawl. Ahead of him, several others were slowing down, but still somehow running… The entire world seemed to have blurred out, leaving only him and the occasional presence of a soldier who shouted encouragement and pointed him down the correct path. He barely noticed it when he finally rounded another building and almost ran into a sergeant holding a stopwatch. “Eight minutes, forty-two seconds,” the sergeant bellowed at him, jumping back to avoid Shahan as he crossed the finish line. “Did you get that? Eight minutes, forty-two seconds!” Shahan was breathing so hard that it took several seconds to answer. “Yes, sir,” he managed, finally. His chest was threatening to explode. The entire world seemed to be greying at the edges…but he’d made it. He’d passed the run. Whatever else was coming, he told himself firmly, it couldn’t be any worse than this. He forced himself to stand upright as the remaining recruits came over the line. None of them had backed out, he noticed, although several came in after twelve minutes – disaster, for anyone who wanted to join a combat arm. Shahan wondered where they’d found the strength to keep going, before deciding that they really wanted to serve. Hell, so did Shahan himself. “Well done, all of you,” Sergeant Ball announced. Shahan wanted to glare at him, if he’d had the nerve; the bastard wasn't even breathing hard. And he’d run the entire course ahead of even the fastest of the prospective recruits. “It’s time for you to ****, shower and change – and then we will introduce you to the British Army’s cooking. The cookery courses in the army are the toughest in the world – they must be; no one has ever passed them.” It took Shahan a moment to get the joke, and then he joined in the general laugh. The morning had been bad, but he’d completed his run! Nothing else could be as bad as the run, surely… ***“All right,” Sergeant Ball said, after lunch. The food had been surprisingly tasty, but there hadn’t been enough of it and some of the meat in the curry had tasted of gristle. Shahan told himself firmly that it was an improvement on Uncle Ahmed’s cooks, who had come over from Bangladesh illegally and were kept working for their employer in the certain knowledge that if they displeased him, the UKBA would deport them back home the following day. “We’ve had a lovely run” – there was a slight pause as forty pairs of eyes threatened to scowl at him – “and now we’re on to the really fun bit. It’s time for you to tell us something about yourself.” He pointed one stubby finger at a chart on the wall. “Each of you is going to give us a presentation about yourself,” he said. “Remember; it takes brains as well as balls to be in the modern army. And we’re going to be listening carefully to every word you say.” Shahan had prepared, as best as he could, but his mind went blank the moment he stood up in front of the group. Somehow, he stumbled through it, as did most of the others. Most of them wanted more excitement in their lives, or to make something of themselves that they wouldn’t be able to do outside the army; a couple admitted that they had ambitions that could be boosted with an army career. One boy – Shahan wouldn’t have believed him to be more than sixteen – explained that he’d been a Royal Marine… “You jammy bugger,” Sergeant Ball said. Shahan couldn’t tell if he was really in awe, or if he didn’t believe a word of it. But surely the British Army would crosscheck with the Royal Marines and a lie would be easily detected. “What the hell did you do to get kicked out?” “I was a bit of a tearaway,” the lad explained. “I had too much fun drinking and eventually…” “Well, you’re going to have to work hard to convince us you’ve reformed,” the Sergeant said, firmly. He made a show of glancing down at a sheet of paper in his hand. “Well, we seem to have finished the room…so it’s time to go have more fun. Form a line and follow me.” Marching in single file, Shahan discovered rapidly, was nowhere near as easy as the movies suggested. The person in front of him seemed to be too slow and the person behind him seemed to be too fast, sending a series of collisions running through the line. They stopped outside an old blockhouse and the Sergeant started handing out green uniforms and hardhats, instructing them to put the uniforms on as quickly as possible. Shahan had his suspicions about what the uniforms had been used for before they’d been dumped in the blockhouse – they were more overalls than uniforms – and it was a struggle to get into the cloth, but somehow he made it. The Sergeant inspected them, made a number of biting comments, and then led them up a grassy verge. Shahan, who had been expecting something like laser tag, found it a little disappointing. The only thing he could see on the field was a single barrel and a coil of rope. Dividing them up into teams, Sergeant Ball led one team – including Shahan – over to the barrel in the grass. Up close, they could see that it sat inside a marked square on the ground. The sergeant picked up the coil of rope and waved it in the air. Everyone turned to look at him, waiting for instructions. They all knew better than to not pay attention. “All right, listen up,” the Sergeant said. “You are proud members of the British infantry – pick whatever regiment you damn well please – and you are on patrol in the midst of some godforsaken battlefield. And your vehicle” – he waved a hand towards a patch of empty air – “has just run out of fuel. The logistics morons back at base sitting in comfy chairs have forgotten to give you enough fuel to get you there and back again. And one of you was stupid enough not to check before you set out.” His smile grew wider. “The good news is that the pongos – that’s the RAF, for those of you who haven’t been trying to memorise slang in the hopes that it will impress us – have managed to drop you a barrel of fuel,” he continued. “The bad news is that the flyboys have managed to drop it in the middle of a minefield. If any of you put a foot over that line, you’ll be blown to kingdom come. So…” Shahan gulped as the Sergeant focused his gaze on him, just before tossing him the rope. “You are now the Corporal in command of the patrol,” he said. “All you have to do is get that barrel out of the minefield without setting off the mines. And you, latrine” – he glared at the former Royal Marine – “can keep your trap shut. Got me?” The rope felt cold and wet in Shahan’s hand. They wouldn’t have set up a real minefield to test recruits, would they? No; the very thought was absurd, and yet…it seemed impossible. They couldn’t reach over and pick up the barrel, or the sergeant would no doubt explode and leave them certain that their hopes for a career had come to a dead stop. He stared down at the rope…and suddenly it clicked in his head. Trying to bark orders like the sergeant, he organised the team into wrapping the rope around the barrel and then lifting it up by pulling on both ends of the rope. The barrel heaved alarmingly as they carefully moved it over the line, but they managed to hold it upright just long enough to get it out of the minefield. “Good work,” Sergeant Ball said. “The next task is going back to base and kicking the **** out of the logistics bastards. You can never trust them to do their jobs properly.” He grinned at them, nastily. “And now, for the next trick…” ***At the end of the day, Shahan was exhausted. His only consolation was that everyone else looked to be in about the same shape, apart from the Sergeant. He seemed to be unstoppable. “You’ll all hear from the careers office soon enough,” the Sergeant assured them. “You’ll go to Selection and then…? Who knows? You may be enlisting at Catterick Garrison, the largest of three Infantry Training Centres in the country, within the month. You might even be ready to serve in time for our next war. Anyone want to back out now?” Shahan shook his head. He’d enjoyed the day – apart from the run, he admitted to himself – and besides, it was better than spending the rest of his life working for Uncle Ahmed. And he might even earn enough to find a place for his mother and sister to live, away from the rest of the family. And he wanted to be a soldier.