That Summer Con and I spent a lot of our time cycling our racers past Ciara Connelly’s house while drinking cans of coke. “Cycling a bike while drinking a can of coke really impresses girls,” said Con. He was very convincing on the subject of girls, being the only person I knew who had a life-sized poster of Wendy James from Transvision Vamp on his door.
Con had customised his bike by gluing on accessories – a digital watch, various pouches and packets, a plastic cup and a pea-shooter he could shoot peas out of while cycling. Customising bikes was also impressive to girls, he said.
We were lounging on the lawn outside Con’s place, tired out from constantly cycling with our cans of coke (now battered and filled with water), when little Willie Brennan came running up the road. “They’re back! They’re back!” he cried.
“Who are back?” asked Con.
“The army men!” he said gleefully. We looked at each other, shrugged and followed him.
Down near the green where our estate ended, there was a little wood. There, in a clearing, a group of kids had gathered, boys and girls aged from around eight to 12 (our age). In the centre were the army men. They were about fourteen years old. They were wearing army surplus gear that was a little big for them. The big one had aviator sunglasses and a light moustache and was chewing on some grass like a paramilitary bumpkin. The other was smaller. He had permanent frown, like he was doing difficult sums in his head, which on reflection he definitely wasn’t doing.
“When you’re living in the wild,” the big one was telling the group, “you need to survive on nature’s bounty.”
His friend rooted in his army swag bag and pulled out a tin of beans.
“Like this tin of beans,” the big one continued, gesturing towards the tin, while his frowning chum held it out like a pretty assistant on a gameshow.
“How is that nature’s bounty?” said Sarah Dunphy, who was no fun. “A tin of beans? Did you find it in a hedge?”
But nobody was listening to her because the little one had begun stabbing the tin with a hunting knife. The hand movements were fast and violent but his facial expression never changed. He punctured the tin and beans went flying everywhere. Then he passed the battered tin to his commanding officer, who started to eat the beans from the tin with his own knife. It was very dramatic.
“Those beans are raw!” said Willie Brennan, his eyes wide with astonishment. We were all very impressed by the sight of someone eating cold beans with a knife.
“Now it’s drill time,” said the army man with aviator sunglasses. There was tomato sauce on his chin. They’d set up a kind of obstacle course around the wood with materials pulled from an unfinished housing estate.
They drilled us for an hour, getting us to crawl through barrels, over planks and through a nettle patch. Willie Brennan sobbed when he cut his leg on a rusty nail, but he cheered up when the big soldier spat on the wound.
“Spit heals wounds,” he explained.
“I don’t think it does,” said Sarah Dunphy, but everyone groaned and told her to shut up.
“Now,” said the big one “Combat.”
His eyes passed along our group, as his friend sat on a log whittling a stick. “You,” said the Captain, pausing at Con’s brother Sean. “Run in that direction.”
Sean obediently ran off out to the edge of the woods. The small soldier got up off his log and launched the stick after Sean. It whirled through the air and hit him on the head knocking him off his feet.
“Wow!” said Willie Brennan. “Just wow! That was amazing. Wasn’t that amazing?”
We all thought it was amazing.
“Um, shouldn’t we check if he’s okay?” said Sarah Dunphy as Sean struggled to his feet.
“Jesus, Sarah, give it a rest,” said Con.
Training lasted for two days. We were paired up and encouraged to hit each other with branches while the army men nodded approvingly and made suggestions about “technique”. Sometimes things got a little heated. Sean was particularly aggressive.
“Oh, he’s got the red mist again,” Con would say, shaking his head, as Sean battered a smaller boy.
“Maybe you shouldn’t always fight smaller children?” I’d suggest.
“But they’re easier to win against,” said Sean, which was true. They were much easier to win against.
Eventually the bigger army man said: “Now you’re ready for what happens next.”
We all stopped what we were doing and looked at one another. “What happens next?” said Willie Brennan with a gasp. “What happens next?!”
“You must run,” said the larger teenager. He was wielding his stick like a baton. We could see ourselves reflected in his sunglasses. He would tap out each beat of the ensuing phrases “Across the fields.” The stick tapped. “And we will chase you.” The stick tapped. “We will bring you back.” The stick tapped. “And tie you to this tree.” He gestured at the biggest tree in the woods, which was an old, gnarled and dead looking thing that we called an “oak” (although I don’t think it was). “With this rope.” He gestured at his friend who had taken a very long blue rope from his bag.
“Will you beat us when you catch us?” asked Willie Brennan.
The fourteen year old army man chuckled warmly. “Maybe a little bit,” he said.
It sounded like great fun.
“This is crazy,” said Sarah Dunphy. “I mean, who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Shut up, Sarah,” said Con.
“So,” said the big army man, ignoring Sarah, “we’ll count to a hundred and then come after you. One…. Two…” We all looked anxiously at one another, then fled in different directions.
The first day being hunted I did quite well. I hid in a ruined house for hours and watched the two army men chase down other children one by one. It was fun to listen to their wails as they were caught, thumped and dragged back to be tied to the tree. I was only caught that day because I got bored and lonely.
Being caught by the army men was an exciting experience. You’d be walking along a stream/sewage pipe, cautiously glorying in your freedom, when suddenly you’d see two uniformed teenagers bearing down on you with determined looks on their faces. They’d rugby tackle you to the ground, maybe knock you into the water/mud and then deliver a few swift, cool punches. “That was amazing,” I’d think. “I hope I’m like them when I’m bigger.”
The days when you were caught early on were a bit boring. You might be alone tied to the tree at around ten in the morning, and depending how good at hiding the others were you could be without company for some time. I’d sit there whistling to myself and sighing.
As the day progressed you’d be joined by other boys and girls. It was all very time consuming. There was only one rope, so everyone would have to be untied so a new child could be introduced to the situation and then the small soldier would start wrapping the rope around us all over again.
By evening time there would be eleven or twelve children tied to the tree, all chattering away, usually about what “manoeuvres” we’d be doing tomorrow and where we were hurting. Meanwhile out there in the fields, the teen militia men were tracking down the stragglers.
I was very excited about it all. Sadly, just when the bigger army man was moving on to “rooting out spies” the whole operation came to an abrupt end. Some child in injured delirium told their parents all about the “drills” and the war games and the gentle beatings. The army men disappeared. Things returned to normal.
“That was fun while it lasted,” said Con, lying out on the green sucking an ice pop.
We’d moved on by then. Con’s granny was staying at his house, in his room and his mother had made him take down the life-sized poster of Wendy James.
“Granny’s scared of it,” Con explained.
I was only half listening because I was trying to affix a pea shooter to my bike with superglue. I had glue all over my hands and was worried about sticking to things. In the woods we could hear Willie Brennan drilling a platoon of smaller children. It was a long, lazy summer.