Strike Up The Band

OK – time for another short story I feel. This little piece came out of a writing class with the wonderful Dennis Hamley. He gave us two postcards and we had to find a way to incorporate them in a piece. My postcards were of three men with no faces in colourful suits and a man taking his head off. This story was the result. It’s been rejected by a magazine (not their kind of thing they said) and has yet to make it on a longlist anywhere,(one day, sigh) but I rather like it, even if it is a bit on the dark side….

I see him every morning, when I step out of the house to get the milk. Every morning at seven o’clock. Sometimes it’s ten past, I don’t always get out of bed on time these days. Every day he smiles, “Good morning,” before taking his head off with his bare hands, whilst behind him the fiery sun explodes through the clouds. His mouth is open in, laughter? Rage? I’m never quite sure. He does it long enough to know I have seen him, the neckless head, the headless neck. Then he places it back, says “I’m feeling light headed today.” or some other smart alec remark and walks away. It is no use trying to trick him, to stay in bed, to refuse to go out. If I don’t make it to the door, he enters the house, does his little turn and leaves me to face up to the day ahead.

The faceless men are always there to observe our morning encounters. They stand grey-headed on the opposite side of the street. Their featureless bodies not entirely dreary, on account of the colour of their suits. I’ve been seeing them every day for weeks now, but it still never ceases to intrigue me, why, when everything else is uniform, they choose to dress this way. There’s Mr Tartan, with his red and black squares. Next to him, Mr Flower Power, in his mustard-suit adorned in bold florals – pink, blue, red and white. Last of all, Mr Stripes dressed in irregular diagonals – greens, reds, yellows, oranges, a surprise of purple.They never speak, but sing an early morning chorus:

Let the drums roll out,
Let the trumpet call,
While the people shout, “Strike up the band.”

I have stopped shouting at them to shut up, it upsets the neighbours. It upsets my wife, who asks me why in God’s name I am standing on the doorstep yelling nonsense again.So I go back inside, the song ringing in my head. I take the milk to the fridge as my wife doles out the assignments necessary for the smooth running of Operation Schoolrun. When all are fed and watered; have lunchtime provisions; all teeth are clean; shoes polished fit for a sergeant-major – I dispatch my family in the four by four, and I can leave the house to go to the job I am supposed to attend each day.

The job I am supposed to attend each day, but have ceased to attend for several weeks now. My wife doesn’t know. She must never find out. Every morning as she takes the children off, I dutifully walk down the road to the train station. I am always pursued by my grey-faced, colourfully-suited choir.

There is work to be done, to be done,
Let’s have fun, fun, fun,
Come on son of a gun, gun, gun, take your stand.

I take the train as I am supposed to, but only for two stops. At Southend Central, I get out and walk through the back streets, coming down the hill by Never Never Land in the cliff gardens. I used to play there once, before the cliff falls and the vandals, in a time when every nook and cranny spelt adventure. Now there are keep out signs, the paint is peeling off the play-houses and I don’t want an adventure ever again. As I reach the pier, my grey men are singing from their mouthless faces with gusto,

Form a line oh,oh,
Come on, let’s go.
Hey leader, strike up the band.

I suppose I don’t mind them really. Some days I even quite like their singing. It gives me something to hum along to, so I don’t have to worry about anything else. About the fact that I am not at work. About the fact that I stopped going sometime ago, around the time my friend with the detachable head arrived. Around the time my personal choir started following me around. So I sing along as I start out down the pier, the tune beating my path over the creaking boards out to sea. Through the cracks between the wood, I can see the water deepening from the brown, muddy shallows, to the green swirly depths where the motorboats launch. The wind strengthens its grip on me. By the time I reach the end of the railway line, the water is grey-green, the air sea-fresh. Of course, since the fire, there’s not much to see out here: the burnt out buildings of 2005, adding to the blackened timbers of the previous fires further on out to sea. Only the lifeboat station has survived the latest conflagration intact – still on hand to rescue those in need. I’m not sure there’s any salvation for someone as lost at me, but I like to sit here, tucked in a corner, out of the wind. I like watching the fishermen and the large ships going up and down the estuary. Sometimes, I pretend I’m on board a ship, far out to sea, a long way from home. It’s better than staying at home, at any rate, sitting with my memories.

It doesn’t do any good to remember. It leads me to places I’d rather not be. Places where I was sent by the grey faceless men. The men who make all the decisions without ever living through the consequences. The faceless men who send others into war zones, they would never dare enter themselves. Like the convoy on the way to the Christmas Panto. Andy, Pat and Dean dressed as clowns in their tartan, floral, stripy suits, wearing silly noses and making daft jokes. Alec, smart Alec, not so smart that day, poking his head out of the side of the humvee we borrowed from the Yanks. Alec, smart Alec, not so smart that day, whose head was lifted right of his neck. A headless neck, a neckless head, as the roadside bomb exploded beside our truck and we were sent helter skelter, and all the while on the radio I could hear the sound of singing:

Form a line, oh, oh.
Come on, let’s go.
Hey, Mr. Leader,
Hey, Mr. Leader,
Please strike up the band!

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