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Chapter no 25

Spare

HUGH AND EMILIE were old friends of Pa’s. They lived in Norfolk, and we often went to visit them for a week or two, during school holidays and summers.

They had four sons with whom Willy and I were always thrown together, like pups into a bunch of pit bulls.

We played games. One day Hide and Seek, the next Capture the Flag. But whatever the game it was always an excuse for a massive scrap, and whatever the scrap, there were no winners because there were no rules. Hair-pulling, eye-gouging, arm-twisting, sleeper holds, all was fair in love and war and at Hugh and Emilie’s country house.

As the youngest and smallest I always took the brunt. But I also did the most escalating, the most asking for it, so I deserved everything I got. Black eye, violet welt, puffed lip, I didn’t mind. On the contrary. Maybe I wanted to look tough. Maybe I just wanted to feel something. Whatever my motivation, my simple philosophy when it came to scrapping was: More, please.

The six of us cloaked our pretend battles in historic names. Hugh and Emilie’s house would often be converted into Waterloo, the Somme, Rorke’s Drift. I can see us charging each other, screaming: Zulu!

Battle lines were often blood lines, though not always. It wasn’t always Windsor versus Others. We’d mix and match. Sometimes I was fighting alongside Willy, sometimes against. No matter the alliances, though, it often happened that one or two of Hugh and Emilie’s boys would turn and set upon Willy. I’d hear him crying out for help and down would come the red mist, like a blood vessel bursting behind my eyes. I’d lose all control, all ability to focus on anything but family, country, tribe, and hurl myself at someone, everyone. Kicking, punching, strangling, taking out legs.

Hugh and Emilie’s boys couldn’t deal with that. There was no dealing with it.

Get him off, he’s mad!

I don’t know how effective or skilled a fighter I was. But I always succeeded in providing enough diversion for Willy to get away. He’d check his injuries, wipe his nose, then jump straight back in. When the scrap finally ended for good, when we hobbled away together, I always felt such love for him, and I sensed love in return, but also some embarrassment. I was half Willy’s size, half his weight. I was the younger brother: he was supposed to save me, not the other way around.

Over time the scraps became more pitched. Small-arms fire was introduced. We’d hurl Roman candles at each other, make rocket launchers from golf-ball tubes, stage night battles with two of us defending a stone pillbox in the middle of an open field. I can still smell the smoke and hear the hiss as a projectile rocketed towards a victim, whose only armor would be a puffer jacket, some wool mittens, maybe some ski goggles, though often not.

Our arms race accelerated. As they do. We began to use BB guns. At close range. How was no one maimed? How did no one lose an eye?

One day all six of us were walking in the woods near their house, looking for squirrels and pigeons to cull. There was an old army Land Rover. Willy and the boys smiled.

Harold, jump in, drive away, and we’ll shoot you. With what?

Shotgun.

No, thanks.

We’re loading. Either get in and drive or we shoot you right here.

I jumped in, drove away.

Moments later, bang. Buckshot rattling off the back. I cackled and hit the accelerator.

Somewhere on their estate was a construction site. (Hugh and Emilie were building a new house.) This became the setting for possibly our fiercest battle. It was around dusk. One brother was in the shell of the new house, taking heavy fire. When he retreated we bombarded him with rockets.

And then…he was gone.

Where’s Nick?

We shone a torch. No Nick.

We marched forward, steadily, came upon a giant hole in the ground, almost like a square well, alongside the construction site. We peered over the edge and shone the torch down. Far below, lying on his back, Nick was moaning. Damned lucky to be alive, we all agreed.

What a great opportunity, we said.

We lit some firecrackers, big ones, and dropped them down into the pit.

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