The Shellscrape

 In Britain, Life Junctions, Vignettes

This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.

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We’d been bugged out long before the midsummer dawn. There was no rest in the Kentish wood that night; just quiet watchfulness and careful duties. We’d been on field exercises for a few days and were already weary. I wasn’t shaping up to be a great soldier, but we had to be soldiers first and specialists second, so the basic training was a necessary step on the road to my language specialisation.

Mark Goldfinch in the 1980sEver breaking into my thoughts was the imagined vision of Dan, a childhood friend. The phone call home had told me he had died and I had already missed the funeral. Nobody had wanted to distract me during the basic training, even though I was only two dozen miles from them. A girl walking with her family under the chalk cliffs at St Margaret’s had discovered Dan, still in his car, upside down and after a couple of tides had ebbed and flowed. The vision haunted me.

And I was cleaning weapons, doing drill, learning field craft and bulling boots through those Summer weeks. If I hadn’t been so engrossed in my own future before I joined, perhaps I could have chatted to Dan: discovered something; stopped him. Nobody wanted to believe it was suicide. Nobody would ever know for sure.

So I was in a wood near Stelling Minnis, dirty and sleepy, when there came a tumult of thunder flashes, shouts, the crackling of blank ammunition. The perimeters were being overrun by the enemy, and we had to grab what we could and bug out, form up at a suitable rendez-vous and then walk through the verdant chalk downland to our next camp. The hedgerows and chalk paths were familiar from my school cross-country runs around Hougham just a few miles away.

The beauty was short-lived, for we reached the next camp – a chalk pit – in the early afternoon on the hottest day of the summer so far. The chalk reflected the sun’s glare. The heat overwhelmed us. And we had to dig shallow trenches to lie in and be vigilent, and perhaps later to sleep: one shellscrape for two people. My buddy was an undertaker’s son, which had its good points and bad. He helped dig a great shellscrape that we covered with our ponchos to make a shady hole. But he regaled me with undertakers’ stories, of embalming and of collections: depressing black humour amid the white chalk.

The drone of insects, scraping of picks and murmur of weary voices made that afternoon stretch interminably. We seemed outwith the real world. Yet as I lay down in the shellscrape, from a certain angle I realised I could see the A2, and at regular intervals double-decker buses the size of match-boxes would head north to Canterbury or south to Dover. I could see a bus stop. I realised I could be home in an hour. It was 3pm. I could be home by 4. I could find out what happened to Dan, and visit his parents and mutual friends. I could seek closure, comfort, solace.

But weary inertia mixed with fear of the consequences of desertion, and the result was a new-found determination to stick with the job I’d signed up for. I didn’t cast off my webbing; leave my rifle and walk across to the bus stop. Instead, I stayed and endured a mock chemical attack, donning gas mask and charcoal-lined chemical protection gear. I lost another night’s sleep before the exercise finished the following day. I gritted my teeth and refused to give in to temptation. I needed to become a soldier, even a poor one, before I could become a really good language specialist. I went on to be one of just two people who finished the 18-month language course, from a dozen starters.

What I learned that day was the value of having goals in life that are worth committing to. I was committed to the goals of study, career and travel that the Intelligence Corps offered, and prepared to rise above physical discomfort and even grief at the loss of a childhood friend in order to succeed at those goals. I’ve travelled that road many times over the years but had completely forgotten that day. Then, years later, I found myself on the top deck of a bus heading from Dover to Canterbury. I couldn’t see the the chalk-pit, but I remembered the decision my 19-year old self wrestled with and took there that summer’s day, and was proud of him.

Goldfinch Line

This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.

  1. The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
  2. Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
  3. Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
  4. Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
  5. Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
  6. Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
  7. The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
  8. You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
  9. On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)
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Old Larnaca BusMark Goldfinch Gibraltar 1987