by Dawn Smith
There's a black spot on my paper round. I've been bitten by two dogs, attacked by wasps and chased by nutters on bikes, all in the same street. And I only started the round last year. My dad says there's a black spot on the A46 on his way to work. He doesn't know the meaning of suffering.
Mons Avenue. All the streets round the old barracks are named after battles, like Marne, Somme, Arnhem - and Mons. Mr Stevens at number 10 told me he fought in one.
'I'm living in the wrong road,' he said. 'Here I am in Mons Avenue, but by rights I should be round the corner in Anzio Crescent. I don't suppose the council would move me, eh?' He sometimes chats when I take round his Evening Echo. He hasn't got a wife, and his dog died. He put a sign in his window this year that says 'Lest We Forget'. I thought he meant his dog at first.
We're doing World War One in history and I said I know someone who fought in the war. Mr Jenkins took the piss.
'Oh, we've got a psychic in the class. Had a séance lately, Matthew? Or is it time travel you're into? Oh no, you can't have a time machine, or you wouldn't be late for class. Ha ha.'
I learned quite a few things in that lesson. Loads of men got killed in World War One and anyone who didn't die is dead now. The streets round the barracks are named after two different wars and Mr Stevens was in the second one. And Mr Jenkins isn't funny. But I knew that anyway.
I also found out about two valleys at the battle of The Somme called Sausage and Mash. And a poison gas called Mustard. I told Dad and Simon, next time we had sausages for dinner.
'What are you on about?' said Simon, looking at me as if I was a turd.
'That's what they're called.'
'So what? You think that's funny?'
'I never said it was funny.' But I couldn't stop smiling. The more he was mad at me, the more I couldn't stop. It was like when my nan died last year and I kept wanting to laugh at the crem, even when Dad started crying.
'What is it then?' said Simon. 'Hilarious?' He gripped his fork in his fist and some spit came out of his mouth. I could see it on his lip.
'No. I was just saying.' I put my head down and ate some potato.
'Nothing,' I muttered.
'Give him a break, Simon,' said Dad. 'He didn't mean anything.'
'Stupid little prat.' Simon threw his fork down on his plate and went out the back door. Some of his gravy had splashed on my hand so I licked it off. Dad sighed.
'He can't help it,' he told me. 'It's hard for him, being back.'
I shrugged. Simon's been out in Afghanistan. There was some kid in the street who turned out to be a suicide bomber and two of Simon's mates got killed. He gets flashbacks, or something. And everything pisses him off.
I wasn't hungry any more, so I took my plate to the sink.
'What, you not having mustard?' said Dad, holding up the jar and putting on a stupid grin. I gave him a smile back, but not a big one, and shook my head. I started washing up while Dad ate the rest of his dinner, then I washed his plate and the pans while he dried. We didn't say anything, but he stood next to me while he wiped, then we both put the pots away, moving round each other and passing stuff, weaving in and out like an ace team.
Simon was drunk when he got back that night. I heard him come upstairs and go into his room, banging against the walls like someone moving furniture who wasn't very good at it. Then it went quiet and I waited, trying not to breathe. I couldn't hold it for long, so I let the air out really slowly and felt the heat coming back off my pillow. Then he started.
If I told Simon I heard him crying at night he'd smash me in the face. Maybe kill me. But he must know I can hear him. Dad built the wall to turn one big bedroom into two small rooms when we moved here, after Mum died. You can hear snoring and coughing and everything. When Simon was at school he used to sneak fags upstairs and I could hear him clicking the lighter. Then the smoke would start coming through a gap at the top of the wall. I used to stand on my bed and try to suck it in. But he doesn't smoke any more, not since the army.
The night of the sausages, he started doing big, blubbing sobs, worse than usual. Loads of snot and dribble, like a baby. I knew it was because of his girlfriend. They were supposed to be getting married when he came home, but she changed her mind and gave him his ring back. Her sister's at my school and she told me. I hoped he wasn't going to cry like that every night because it kept me awake. I put my head under the pillow and tried to scrunch up my ears the way I could screw up my eyes. But it didn't work.
The next day was a Tuesday. I remember that because the Echo was doing a World War One supplement on the first Tuesday of every month, and if you didn't put it inside the main paper before you pushed it through the door, it rucked up. I sometimes forgot. Mr Stevens came down the path after I'd delivered his paper, and shouted from his gate.
'I can't read this, young man,' he said, waving his mangled copy of Those Who Served. I couldn't blame his dog because it was dead, so I went back and gave him number 12's copy.
'Thanks lad,' he said. 'I've been waiting for this. All about the Battle of The Somme.'
'Sausage and Mash,' I said, without thinking. Then I felt a bit stupid. But he gave me a smile.
'That's right! The two valleys. You've been learning your history.'
'A bit,' I shrugged. 'At school.'
'Good, good. So they told you about our local pals regiment, who lost half their men on the first day?'
I shook my head.
'Then you need to read the paper, my boy.' He waved the supplement at me. '500 chums dead in a day. It's all in here.'
I felt a bit nervous but I really wanted to ask him something, so I stayed by the gate. He was smiling at me so I thought it would be OK.
'Did any of your mates… I mean your friends… die in the war? I mean your war?'
'Oh yes,' he said, not smiling any more. 'It's what happens.'
'Did it…' I couldn't think of what to say next. I wanted to ask him if it did his head in and turned him into a nutter, but I couldn't ask him that. I could feel myself going red.
'You all right, lad?'
I shrugged. 'It's my brother. He's got back from Afghanistan. He's not the same.'
Mr Stevens nodded. 'It's what happens.'
'But you're all right?'
He laughed. 'Well, I'm all right now.'
'So… he'll be OK?'
He put his hand over the gate and squeezed my arm.
'Give it time,' he said.
I was surprised because he squeezed me really hard and I didn't think he'd have that kind of strength any more. I thought about the bruise I was going to get. Another black mark from Mons Avenue.
'I'd better get going,' I told him.
'All right lad. You take care.'
I nodded and walked off. I didn't give a copy of Those Who Served to number 12 because they were a young couple with a little kid and I didn't think they'd care. When I posted it through number 14's door, their dog ate the paper as usual, but they were an old couple with a young kid and I didn't think they'd care either. I couldn't help it, when I walked up the road I counted 'Care', 'Not care' at every door. But then I didn't care much either, did I? Except for Simon...
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