(I have decided I need to write more fiction, so I’ll be jamming the occasional short story in here in future. Such Blog entries may be slightly longer than usual. I beg your patience.)
I checked my watch. 0752 hours. Less than ten minutes to go.
It would be a slaughter. There was precious few of us left, and we were all tired … so damn tired. Our rations were almost gone, we were fatigued, there was little left in the way of weaponry, and I was certain that some of the lads were suffering from Shellshock. And in less than ten minutes we would have to defend against an assault which would dwarf everything we had seen so far. We didn’t stand a chance.
I did a quick headcount. Only a dozen of us, all in all. Not enough, never enough.
Why did HQ always send me the innocents? The cannon fodder? There had been so many when we recruited in the summer, but now there were only a few left. Those who had nothing else to live for. Nothing could prepare them for what they would deal with today. If they were still alive by sunset they would be changed forever – a little bit more cynical, more jaded. Dead inside. And all for what? A mistaken notion of loyalty? The possibility of a handshake and a “well done” from the Bigwigs at Head Office? Perhaps even a medal? If only they knew how hollow it felt to be given one, in exchange for …
Pull yourself together, man. It’s not like you haven’t been here before. Remember last year?
This was almost the worst part. The damn waiting. The quiet. Everyone alone with their own thoughts; thinking of loved ones, of things unsaid, dreams unfulfilled. My wife kissed me before I left, same as always. She never questioned why I did this. She knew it was my duty.
In this calm here, before the storm, my mind wandered back to History class in school. I remembered reading of the Christmas Day truce. When opposing sides put down their weapons, cast aside their differences, and enjoyed a game of football in No-Man’s Land. They sang carols.
To me, it all seemed a bit far-fetched. I had watched any number of England/Germany football games, and I couldn’t remember seeing any friendly camaraderie or Christmas-spirit in any of them. But whether it was true or not … Today was Boxing Day, and in eight minutes time – no, make that seven minutes now – any cessation of killing on that Christmas would be eclipsed by the scale of massacre that will assuredly happen here. Today. Now.
On the battleground known locally as Curry’s Superstore – Doncaster Retail Park branch.
There was growing unrest outside. Mutterings, jostlings, dissent. Even though the glass doors were covered in “SALE!” signs, the Horde were still visible behind them. Hideous, unnatural shadows were cast against the washing-machine posters – the suggestion of the terror to come. If I looked just hard enough, I was sure I could see someone actually eating one of the cardboard signs we’d put up on the lampposts last week. They were Hungry; and insane beyond all reason. There was no rational thought, no hint of human emotion. They were driven by nothing but blood-lust, and their handfuls of money-off coupons.
Of course, there was something I had to do. I wished it weren’t so; but no matter how hard I could try and blot it from my thoughts, my clipboard could not be so easily ignored.
“There’s one last thing to sort out before we open. One final task.” I looked up. The least I could do was to look them in the eye. I owed them that much respect, at least.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush. As you all know, Fairfax was injured during The Scrums on Christmas Eve. He was put in the hospital, after trying to break up a fight between customers. He was kicked repeatedly in the Blu-Rays. He’s resting at home. Doc says he won’t be back on active duty until March … at least.”
Silence. They knew it was coming.
“So we need someone on Customer Services. Returns duty.”
Some gasps. A female sob.
“Stop crying, Alan. I’m not going to pick anyone. I’m asking for volunteers.”
There was a moment’s quiet. Everyone faced-forward. I hated myself for asking.
Then a voice spoke: “I’ll do it, Sir.”
I regarded Jenkins carefully. A quiet but thoughtful lad, Jenkins’ expression was one of grim determination. Well, what I could see of his expression, anyway. Over his usual uniform he wore a hockey mask, American-Football shoulder pads, cricket box and shin pads, and held a baseball bat in his right hand. Either he had received a lot of sporting goods from Santa this year, or he’d been in this situation before. He’ll go far in the retail industry, I thought. Or drink himself to death, like old Hoskins.
“You sure you’re up to it, Jenkins?”
“Yes, sir. Done this sort of thing before, sir. Last year I served at Argos, Wakefield High Street.”
I was impressed. “Good man, Corporal. Right … any other questions?”
A pimply faced adolescent coughed. New recruit, only joined last week. I knew he’d be dead before lunchtime. I felt vaguely guilty that I couldn’t remember his name. He spoke up. “How did you get that medal, sir?”
I’d almost forgotten I’d put it on this morning. A mark of respect, for friends lost. The memories were too painful to keep inside, but too tragic to tell anyone else. I sighed. They might as well know.
I sighed, and stared at nothing. “Services Above and Beyond … on Christmas Eve ’99.”
There was a gasp. Eyes widened like dinnerplates. Jenkins spoke first.
“You mean you were on active service during … Furby Christmas?”
It still stung now, all these years later. Just to hear someone speak its name. I nodded, and lowered my eyes.
Janet didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t want to talk about it … or perhaps it was just surprise that made her ask: “What was it like? What did you do?” she blurted.
How could I possibly tell them? They couldn’t understand. We lost some good men that Christmas week. Young men. Some only just out of short trousers.
“I was serving in a branch in Dorset. I’d only been assistant manager for a month.
The crowds were heaving. We were beyond capacity, but a minibus of marauding mothers with umbrella-fold pushchairs had beaten down our security guards, and they were crammed in tight.
We were all out of Furbies, and were slowly dispersing the crowds with Gameboys and tear gas.
Then a delivery lorry arrived, and some of the customers saw a new consignment of Furbies being unloaded out the back.
Someone snapped. A grandmother. I’ll never forget her. Probably normally a gentle, kind soul; but that day had turned her into a slavering maniac. She started screaming “Must have one! No-one can stop me! I’ll kill you all!” and ran for the staff door at the back of the store.
If she’d continued like that she’d have started a stampede. God knows how many would have died. I knew I had to stop her.”
I didn’t want to say any more, and yet I continued.
“I unloaded two pricing-guns at her. 9mm calibre, point blank range. It didn’t even slow her down. She just kept running. I thought she’d never stop. In the end I had to beat her to death with a PLEASE QUEUE HERE sign. It was the only way.
I was never the same again. They gave me a fortnights R&R, pinned a medal on me, and then transferred me up here.”
I looked up at them, hoping for a sign of forgiveness – that they understood. They just looked shocked, bewildered. Their world was turning upside down, and it was my fault.
Then, as one, they saluted, squared their shoulders, and turned back towards the doors.
I checked my watch again. 0758. I cleared my throat. “Right, close enough.” I heard myself say. “Let them in, Janet.”
And let slip the dogs of war …
(This short story is inspired by, and dedicated to, the fine staff of Curry’s and Comet on Coypool Road, Plymouth. On the Monday after Christmas I watched them act selflessly and tirelessly to stop shoppers killing staff and each other, fighting over Wii remotes with 2 quid knocked off. They all deserve medals, or another star on their badges at least.)