‘ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE’
Lieutenant Joel Graves snapped his eyes away from one of the department store’s magazines to inspect his wife. She stood in front of a gilt mirror, carved deeply with love birds.
‘Well?’ she said, …keeping her eyes fixed on her reflection, pointing her stilleto clad feet towards him, ‘Will these do?’
As he craned his head forwards for a closer look, a waxed lace brushed his brow from above. He glanced up to see a row of heavy black boots, hanging from a steely rod. Then the store began to close in on him like the walls of a stalling train inside an unlit tunnel. He stumbled, struck by an unexpected memory. One of soldiers. Hundreds of them. Limping in leather and compressed cardboard boots. Boots that were biting into their feet as they fought the furious, freezing squalls that belted across the pampas of that wretched colonial hangover.
Laden with 100 lb Bergens, and General Purpose Machine Guns, the men tabbed eastwards. Grey-green grasses gave way to tussac clumps and fields of granite rock punctuated by the stark beauty of arctic poppies. The distant mumbling of exploding mortar shells drifted across the winds. Flocks of Upland Geese, unaccustomed to such unbroken tranquillity, wheeled restlessly above.
A river needed crossing and Joel urged his platoon to tap dance over any stones visible beneath the heavy mist of dawn. Then they hit the lower ground of marsh and peat bog and their feet began to slide around inside the sodden boots, leading to the itching and tingling of trench foot. They had been marching for weeks, sometimes in complete circles since although routes were clearly marked on maps, none of them were visible on the landscape. Often it was not until someone spotted a scar in the marsh from tractor wheels that they could find their way again. Otherwise they relied on peaks, rocks or a line of fencing indicating settlement boundaries, to navigate.
The weak winter sun began to rise, and Joel ordered his men to rest up on a small hill. Mimicking their trusted Sergeant, Gordon, the men carefully sunk between clusters of dripping gorse and heather and used their ponchos to shield them from the rain. Some of them attempted to patch up their feet, retching at the odour of decay if narcosis had set in, before fumbling for damp matches and cigarettes.
Joel moved away to check on the remainder of B Company, strung out in a meandering line along the valley below. Like an army of doped ants, they snaked up the hill. He wondered what they could be thinking. Before they had begun the seven week voyage from England, few of them had even heard of this splattering of small islands in the middle of the south Atlantic, let alone been able to find them on an atlas. And despite all the training, he knew they hadn’t developed an ear for the sound of artillery, and most still couldn’t tell the difference between outgoing and incoming fire. He himself had what felt like a life time’s preparation for an opportunity like this, and he cursed their seeming vulnerability.
By nightfall the platoon had reached the steep slippery hillocks by Mount Longdon, the site of their forthcoming battle. They shifted their fearful but eager eyes up to the splintered spines of rock stabbing the clouds from the summit.
Joel ordered them to ‘dig in’, and clean their guns and bayonets. By now, if anyone found a corpse or severed leg, he would gratefully squeeze out the foot from the superior boot of the young dead Argentine as though it had been toothpaste from a tube.
Awaiting further orders, they sat around in the sleeting rain. Then Gordon began to sing a song, one from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: ‘Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side-Of-Life’. Sensing the start of a forthcoming unspeakable bond, the others gravitated towards him, their eyes softening with laughter and affection. Joel observed each of their faces from the sidelines. His smile flickered from amusement to anger. Paras should love no-one, he thought. Not here. Not now.
Back in the store, his wife interrupted his reverie with a sharp cough.
‘I was just remembering our boots,’ he said finally, as some form of futile explanation for his dissociated state. ‘Even these are better than the ones we had out there.’ He reached up to slap one of the dangling black boots with the back of his hand. The whole row began to sway, creating a soft THUD, THUD, THUD.