His smile dulled as he wondered whether he’d ever see his family again. But… he’d imagined being a soldier for as long as he could remember: he had no choice. He sighed, straightened his back and pulled the greatcoat tighter across his chest in an attempt to fill it.
Without notice, the vehicle shuddered to a halt and the recruits roared as they bundled into a pile towards the front. The tailgate dropped and the tarpaulin flaps separated. Jez followed the others from the truck and smiled at the NCO who awaited them. A blow snapped his head to one side and his cheek burned with a blistering heat.
“What…” he began, and dropped his kitbag so he could lift a hand to cover the pain.
This time a slap rattled his brain and his beret slipped over his newly shaven head. He reached to straighten it and a sidekick sent him sprawling to the ground. But before he could get up the NCO had leaned over him and his alcohol-laced breath wafted into his nostrils, turned his stomach.
“When I tell you to speak, fucking speak. If I don’t tell you to speak, then keep your mouth shut and your stupid face straight. Now follow me, smartly…”
The group followed him into a large wooden hut where, apart from hosts of rusted steel-framed single bunks with wooden stools between, the quarters were unfurnished. Faded green gloss peeled from the walls. Wood plank flooring had shrunk and expanded so often it no longer butted together and a chilled wind whistled through.
Another assembly of cadets stood at the foot of their allotted bunks. The group included girls, but that hadn’t mattered to the NCO. Each of them held a small wooden stool at arm’s length that wobbled under a weight that increased with time. The lines on the cadet’s foreheads deepened, and their faces changed from red to white and back again. Whatever they’d done, they were paying a stiff penalty.
The NCO walked the length of the hut, turned and stopped with his hands behind his back and his feet apart.
“Don’t just stand there like a bunch of fucking idiots. Put those stools next to your billets,” he said, belting out as much noise as he could.
Somehow, the other recruits squeezed the stools into almost non-existent gaps.
“The rest of you, take off the greatcoats, grab a bunk and stow your gear.” He ambled back to the door from where they’d come and gave them a minute to get back to the foot of their beds.
“I am Corporal Nikolas and you will address me as Corporal or Corporal Nikolas. You do not call me ‘sir’. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Corporal,” Jez shouted along with the others.
He’d been under the impression that, since the war, women were no longer used by the military and his curiosity got the better of him. What kind of girl would volunteer when she didn’t have to? The NCO turned his back and Jez sneaked a look at the girls. He stopped when his eyes came to rest on the bunk opposite and gulped. A blonde girl stood to attention. Attractive without doubt, but that wasn’t what fascinated him. He’d never seen anyone so obviously a soldier in the making: such hard determination, eyes unyielding, yet stunningly embroidered in dark blue against a pale skin, unforgiving, yet such angelic features.
But then he withered under her gaze as a fierce glint in her eyes made him avert his own. She’d thrown him. He’d forgotten about the NCO and lifted his head, pulled the “little boy” face he used when Miriam got angry with him. He was sure the girl’s eyes softened, so he followed up with a coy smile. Before he saw a response, a dull clap left him staring up from the bed.
“Are you some kind of fool? What did I tell you about stupid faces?” the NCO screamed.
Jez panicked. This would be reported back to Colonel Petrichova. He had to make amends. “I’m sorry, sir, it won’t happen again, sir,” he said. Too late, he remembered what the NCO had just told him.
The corporal grabbed him angrily to pull him up by the shirt; Jez screwed up his face as fingernails clawed into his chest.
“I won’t tell you again: speak when I tell you and not before.” He cast him back to the bunk, almost turned away, but then came back and bunched Jez’s shirt into a fist. “And I thought I told you to address me as corporal.” Jez remained silent. “Well?”
“Sorry, Corporal, it won’t happen again, Corporal.”
“Lights out in ten,” Nikolas shouted, and slammed the door as he left, almost taking it off its hinges.
Jez sat on the lumpy old striped mattress and rubbed a hand over his still stinging head.
“Are you all right?” a stern voice asked.
He looked up. The girl had come over. Without permission, his chest beat out a drum roll. “Yes, I’m fine, thanks.” He tried to appear laid back and stood to offer his hand. “I’m Jez Kornfeld, pleased to meet you.”
She looked at the hand, hesitated, but then sighed and offered hers. “Anna Puchinsky,” she said, and shook his hand.
His fingers crumbled under the pressure of her grip – but that was only because he hadn’t expected her to grab him so hard.
The introduction finished as quickly as it had begun. “I’ve got to sort my kit out,” she said, and left.
He wanted to say something that might hold her there, but only nodded.
She got to the foot of her bunk, turned and smiled, and his heart leapt.
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Genre - Thriller, Crime, Suspense
Rating – R
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