Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 6
Fighting Man

                  

Leafy Branch was the last to stop laughing and the last to notice Tolly standing in the doorway of the Waggon. His braying cantered on into the sudden silence like a singularly stupid horse outrunning its fellows when they have had the sense to stop. Even then he misjudged the mood, jeering: ‘Ey up! It’s the ’ero of Kar-toom come to call us up, lads!’ No one laughed.

A bitter swirl of freezing air blew into the room around Tolly’s legs. One of the crib players, sitting with his back to the door, half-turned and called: ‘Shut the bloody door!’ before he too saw Tolly and what was in his eyes, and fell silent.

Months of training had straightened Tolly’s stance and filled him out. First there had been the drilling, his shoes and his suit giving out before their boots and service dress arrived – initially the despised blue uniforms that made them all look like bloody postmen, before their proper khaki came – then the marches in the endless autumn rain with pack and rifle – wooden rifles in the beginning, then the old long Lee-Enfields – then the forced marches at the double with full pack and rifle, slabs of lead substituting for the ammunition they did not have. Kitchener’s chocolate, they called it. Their feet had suffered cruelly until they learned the soldier’s trick of rubbing soap inside their socks.

The recruits had dug and revetted trenches, miles of them in the saturated soil, then practised storming them and defending them by turns, the NCOs screaming novel obscenities. Bayonet practice, yelling and lunging at straw-filled sacks. Endless physical jerks, the hated Swedish Drill. More marching and drilling, and drilling and marching, and marching and drilling, not a minute to yourself from dawn till dark, days and weeks of work and ravenous hunger and nights of exhausted sleep, on the ground in the mushrooming ranks of tents before they had got the huts up, just in time for the cold weather.

But the aches and kinks of the early days had straightened out, muscle fibres had multiplied, Tolly’s lungs had gained capacity and his sinews had tightened.

Thousands of volunteers had crammed into the camp at Lyme Park, hundreds more arriving by the week, and with that many young men thrown together from all classes and all walks of life there had been tensions and occasional clashes. Tolly could recognise the weal left by a fist when he saw one.

He had recognised the tell-tale lump on his mother’s temple, the ugly blue and yellow swelling reaching back under the hairline, though she had kept that side of her face turned away from him when he had arrived off the leave train and then tried to blame the bruise on a slip on the ice that had gripped Millbridge since before Christmas. Tolly was not fooled. He knew what it was and who had done it, and he knew where to find him and this was the last time, by God.

He stalked through the streets under stars like bright ice and rammed open the door of the Waggon, seeking his man. He saw his grandfather and stared at him. He could feel the hardness of his own frame under the service dress. The khaki gave him authority. Here was a fighting man.

‘Now then Tolly, we’ll have no trouble in here,’ said Tram Stop Bob, the pasty-faced landlord, into the thick silence.

‘And you’ll have none,’ said Tolly, ‘if he comes outside with me.’

Leafy’s eyes were dull and drunk, but he was surrounded by his drinking cronies and still cocky. He was 62 now and retained his old pub-scrapping cunning, besting many a younger man, and a bit o’marching and a uniform didn’t make that young Tolly a match for him, bloody mummy’s boy.

But…there was something different about him…

‘You’ll not take on the whole Waggon, will you lad?’ he asked.

‘I’ll not have to,’ said Tolly.

He was right. Leafy’s mates drew themselves imperceptibly away from him, opening a none-of-our-business distance by minute changes in the angles of their bodies. Leafy was sitting on an oak bench with six other men but he was sitting alone. He licked his lips, his eyes darting from left to right.

‘What’s up, Leafy?’ asked Tolly. ‘You’re a big man when it comes to smacking women around. Come and try it with me now.’

‘Oh, that were nowt!’ blustered Leafy, realising what this was about. ‘She were having one of her do’s, you know what she’s like – come and have a – ’

Tolly strode forward, grabbed his grandfather by the shirt and heaved him to his feet. Leafy’s cronies scattered, their beer going flying.

Tolly hauled the older man to the door, thrust him through, bundled him across the frozen street and slammed him against the doors of Clegg’s stables with a booming rattle. Whinnies and thumping stamps of alarm sounded from inside. Leafy was surprised by the strength in his grandson.

Men spilled from the lighted door of the Waggon. From the corner of his eye Tolly saw a tall shadow round the bend in the street and stop. Leafy started trying to kick him.

The power of calculated violence, activated and directed by British Army training, suffused Tolly like cold fire. His first blow was like a wave that had crossed an ocean of years, building momentum, starting from small humiliations and gathering strength through a thousand half-remembered slaps and shouts, through a childhood of helpless tears and a boy’s pain and fear. The blow gathered force and fury like a black-skied storm, bringing vengeance for every hurt Tolly had endured. He held his grandfather against the stable door with his left arm, planted his booted feet, pulled back his fist, took a great deep breath, and let him have it.

A straight right. The blow burst on Leafy Branch like nemesis. His nose cracked to one side, ejecting blood and snot. The skin over his left cheekbone ruptured like a tomato. ‘Bloody ’ell,’ muttered one of the watching men. Tolly followed it up with a right hook. Rotten teeth splintered. Leafy swayed and Tolly delivered a thudding left to his solar plexus, doubling the older man up and taking the wind out of him. Tolly met the descending face with his knee, snapping the head back up for a hammering rain of further blows, concentrating on the eyes, the blood flying.

Leafy was offering no effective resistance, stunned and shocked under the assault, trying only to shield his imploding head but somehow staying on his feet. Joy sang through Tolly. He felt power. He felt strength. A crashing blow to the right ear felled the older man to his knees. Tolly went to haul him back to his feet, shouting: ‘Come on you fucking bag of shite, I’m not done with you yet!’ but felt a strong arm wrap around him from behind and pull him away.

‘That’ll do Tolly,’ said a quiet, broad voice in his ear. ‘I can’t be turning a blind eye to murder in Millbridge.’ Sergeant Lomas, the local copper, a calm pillar of silver-buttoned British beef.

Tolly stood panting, ablaze with red fury and relief, fists still clenched, exulting. Leafy was on his hands and knees, spitting blood and bits from a wrecked mouth, steaming fluid leaking from him on to the frosted pavement. He squinted upwards through fast-closing eyes; saw the policeman holding Tolly back.

‘Sergeant,’ he gasped, the word a wet slur, ‘you saw – I want – ’

‘I saw,’ said Sergeant Lomas. ‘I saw you slipping in the icy street, full of ale, and this devoted grandson of yours trying to help you up, and you slipping again and again, too drunk to stand. That’s what I saw. That’s what we all saw,’ he added, glancing at the knot of watching men. ‘Wasn’t it?’

They shuffled, looking down at their feet and at each other. ‘Aye,’ said a voice.

‘That’s right,’ said the policeman. To Tolly: ‘Get him home, son. We all know he’s had it coming, but now he’s had it and we’ll not want any more. That’ll do.’

Tolly nodded, his breath coming back, and crossed over to Leafy’s kneeling form. The older man quailed as Tolly pulled him to his feet. Tolly shoved him off down the street like a guard with a whipped prisoner.

Sergeant Lomas gave the Waggoners a straight look, nodded gravely, and proceeded on his beat. The men went back inside the pub, into the warm, sat down, ordered up fresh pints – demanding free refills because it wasn’t their fault their beer got bloody spilled, was it? – and set about laying down the legend of the night young Tolly Tolman, Leafy’s grandson, came home on leave from the Army and knocked seven bells o’shite out of the old man for whacking his mum, Bert Tolman’s widder, aye, gave him a right proper seein’-to, he did. Owld Leafy – a hard man in his day, mind – was never the same after that and that’s a fact.

 

 

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