Today’s story comes from a Tunbridge Wells Writers virgin, Matthew Frank, who found the project outline here and bravely threw his hat into the ring at the last minute! We look forward to meeting you in the flesh in 2018, Matthew, and thank you for your contribution today….
Laugh Out Loud
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.” – The Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett. One of Dobby’s favourite lines. Stark liked to keep an open mind. The Physicist had been at this properly for a century or so and there’d been enough theory swerves to keep the suspense alive.
Stark fell into the books of Terry Pratchett in Headley Court Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, after devouring just about everything else on offer. His mum brought books, pre-loved, but despaired of the speed he devoured them. He needed a Kindle, she said, but he forbad the expense. Her money was always tight, and he liked paper. Books were artefacts, not pixels.
Headley Court’s library was well enough stocked. There were far more Andy McNab and Chris Ryan style books than you’d expect – well-thumbed, through foxed to positively badgered. It might be nice to believe his fellow inmates enjoyed scoffing at such times-ten exploits but for some strange reason the luckless and limbless of the British war machine still loved a military adventure romp. Not Stark. He’d never seen the appeal, and now it just reminded him of horrors and hopes past.
At least he was reading again. After two months of physio, therapy, agony and boredom… And before that, a roundabout of surgeries, recoveries, scans and consultations and more surgeries at Selly Oak Hospital, seeing the other poor sods ship in and out… Books couldn’t keep it out. Nothing could. His poor mum confused at the unread book stack, worried at his empty assurances…
Shipping out to Headley Court shifted his focus. No more surgeries, for now at least. Reuniting with familiar faces from Selly Oak, less grey, coming back to life, coming to terms…
Coming to terms – or saying so. Soldiers tackling the problem before them, attacking physio, enduring therapy, seeing improvements, ignoring the onrushing plateau… the inevitable tailing off of improvement, the darkening dawn. Stark was the lucky one. Limbs, eyes and essentials present and correct; insides mending – only the mind in bits, and to hell with that. And then, finally, the boredom between terrors, picking up the same book from atop the same pile and opening the first page yet again… but finally turning it, and the second, and on… Until the stack was gone, and his neighbours’, and the librarian moving from amusement to exasperation.
And then Dobby arrived…
Private Kevin Dobson. Nineteen. Two legs, one arm and both eyes gone. IED, midway through his excited first tour of Helmand. Stark had made three full tours, and a day. One of many days best forgotten, frequently re-visited.
Dobby liked Terry Pratchett and Stark read aloud to him. Dobby’s favourite character was Death, but Stark quickly developed a fondness for Granny Weatherwax and Sam Vimes.
They read almost the whole canon together before Dobby shipped out. The docs could do nothing more for him, the prosthetics guys had him up on short pegs, the shrinks thought he was doing amazingly well and his family wanted him home for Christmas.
So did Stark’s, but in a rare agreement with the shrinks, he stayed put.
They stayed up late the night before Dobby’s off to finish The Hogfather, Pratchett’s take on Father Christmas, Dobby laughing. He’d heard all the jokes before, he’d read them all before he lost his eyes, but they just got better, he said. Stark was sitting alone in the common room a week later, watching the leaden sky for signs of snow, when the chief head-shrink appeared.
‘I’m sorry, Joe,’ was all he could add. ‘I know you two were close…’
Boxing Day. Dobby had made it through his first Christmas and called it a day. His poor family had no inkling, and blamed themselves… How could a blind boy with one arm and no legs hang himself?
Stark knew the answer as well as the shrink. The British Army, best in the world, churning out capable, determined, resourceful young men and women… Soldiers, tackling the problems before them.
Stark opened the book on his lap. The Hogfather. Dobby’s parting gift.
‘Some things are fairly obvious when it’s a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe telling you them,’ he read, recalling Dobby laugh out loud.
The shrink nodded without understanding, and left Stark to his book.