How is all this going to end? It's difficult to say. It's an eerie business, watching the cops start blocking your road off, live on News 24, when there's all this talk about a crazy, lone gunman.
As situations go, it isn't like a meeting with senior management, or the other side in a business deal. Because while those can feel tense, and often quite threatening, and you might well think you'd like to start shooting, there's no real chance of that actually happening. I mean, you try taking a gun into work these days. Not that you should, of course, but when I first started out it used to be doable. So if it looked like there might be problems with a client, or I was due to discuss my appraisal or something, I used to pack my old 9mm with my lunch in my briefcase. Not to use it as such, so much as just have it there for moral support, or as a confidence-booster, in the same sort of way you'd wear a lucky tie, perhaps, or a pair of Arsenal boxer shorts.
But that was in a more liberal time. Nowadays, it's as much as you can do to get a letter knife past security. In fact at my place, you can't even do that. There was a day of amnesty at the office a while ago, on the strength of the argument that in a world of e-commerce, letter knives are redundant. I'd have begged to differ, but best, I thought, not to draw much attention to the state of Old Faithful, which was perhaps a bit sharper than strictly necessary, for opening the post.
So propped up here behind the kitchen furniture, with the garden trip-wired to the best of my ability (this involves frozen orange juice, lighter fuel and a mobile phone, but it's probably best if I don't explain - I'm sure it's on the internet, if you're all that interested) what I'm mainly wondering is, am I successful enough? It's the key question - am, or realistically was, I earning enough? Did my colleagues really respect me? Or would they, when interviewed, just say I was one of those quiet types?
Because conceivably, if I don't start shooting now, I'll be carted off to a open facility for professional men of a certain age, you know, for a bit, as a token slap on the wrist. The judge will be sympathetic. I haven't actually killed anybody, after all. Not through lack of trying, it's true, but who's going to miss the occasional crack house? Never mind the charity shop that ... rather got in the way that time. Anyone with even the most basic interest in property values in their area will understand why such outfits would be a negative, I suppose. And that applies, I think, to the charity shop in particular. What is it with those places? How can they possibly afford the rent in Notting Hill, where every other business seems like a front for a money-laundering operation? Help The Aged, we're told, but if they can't help themselves after seventy years, what hope is there really? Aren't you just throwing good money after bad? No, I'm not convinced either, but hopefully the courts might see it that way. And overlook the ash heap in Ladbroke Grove. Because everyone makes mistakes, every now and again.
Plus I did serve my country in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. I didn't mean to, really, I thought I'd sign up, get paid through college, and then just square bash for a couple of years, before settling down to a job in the City. I thought that after the Balkans, we'd lay off for a bit. Big mistake, that, but who, apart from the CIA, the FBI and the relevant airport authorities, could have predicted 9/11? Not me anyway. So I wasn't expecting to end my tour of duty with at least a semi-expert understanding (he says modestly) of the many interesting ways in which you can joint a man with a butter knife or something. I've never been good at anything much, but it turned out I was good at this. There were black ops with special forces, and ... well the less said the better.
So as you may or may not have gathered, I was pretty much a drooling lunatic by the time I finished my tour. When I looked in the mirror, all I'd see was a trained maniac, who was always going to know, because it's a bit like riding a bike, exactly how to finish off everyone in the room. So it was my bad luck, you could say, to have joined the British Army on 'Bomber' Blair's watch. 'Bomber' Blair being someone who'd have sent out troops, apparently, to deal with the statues on Easter Island if they didn't make the right noises, or looked at him funny.
So my finger's on the trigger, and the mobile keypad is close to hand. And the police, hilariously, are circling the garden. What sort of chance do they think they have? I'm quite tempted to mow a few of them down as a matter of principle. Because obviously none of them have ever seen combat. It's actually quite embarrassing to watch. What do they think they're playing at, crab-walking around like drunks at a wedding, onto a lawn they must know is booby-trapped, unless they can't read? I left a sign out and everything. Or do they think it's a joke? If so, they're about to be roughly disabused of that notion. I suppose I should probably stop them.
Seeing as fighting the cops ... well it's not a good look for an old soldier. And I did, in all fairness, lay on this reception for the local Yardies.
Anyway I should explain about The Punisher, as you may not be familiar. Frank Castle, the original Punisher, was a comic book vigilante who first appeared in the early Seventies. He started out fighting Spider-Man, but soon went on to bigger things. There was a film starring Dolph Lundgren in the Eighties, and another one a couple of years ago. And you might have seen the t-shirt, a white skull on black - simple, iconic, and I'm wearing one now. But enough of the fashion tips. Frank was part of the sub-genre that gave rise to 'Taxi Driver', Clint Eastwood's turn as Dirty Harry, and then later the Rambo films. Dangerous guys in the post-Vietnam landscape, was the general idea. So Frank, in any case, was an ex-marine who, back home after 'Nam, began another, much more personal war with the scum on the streets. His family, it's true, was wiped out by the mafia, but later iterations of the character (and after thirty years he's still going strong, so there must be a sort of enduring appeal) have portrayed that as an excuse, more than anything else, for Frank to get back to doing what he loved. Because while you can take the man out of special forces, you can't take the special forces out of the man.
It's a dilemma I can identify with. I don't know how common this is (obviously not very, or London, Manchester, Edinburgh ... they'd all look a bit like Baghdad at this point) but I found it quite hard to forget my training. I don't know how anyone manages, really. In the queue at the supermarket, in meetings at work, in every frustrating situation that modern life threw at me, which were, after all, just the same ones it throws at you, always inside there was the voice of the old soldier, eerily, icily calm, saying,
'Kill, Jim. Kill.'
And I was just so tired of having my car broken into. So the third time that happened in the same month, when I was woken up by the plaintive keening of my Lexus from the pavement outside, I suppose I just totally lost control.
I was sleeping in the front room when it happened, camped out on the sofa, guns lined up on the coffee table. Where did I get them from? Well you're supposed to hand in your kit when you leave the service, but they tend to overlook that if you know where the bodies are buried, which I did, and if you've been decorated, which I had. So I was out of the door in about ten seconds flat, and instantly, gloriously, back in Basra, back in Kabul. After six years in Accounts I was a bit out of shape (although still too handsome for prison) so the local yout' who'd lifted my car stereo were almost round the corner by the time I caught up with them. So I thought I'd hang back, and see where they were off to. Which, as it turned out, was just three streets away, and also, unfortunately, the neighbourhood crack house, where they weren't that short of a few guns themselves. Oh dear.
They came piling out the door, the Yardies, like a cloud of angry wasps. Looking at what they were wearing, all that bling, I was quite tempted to put them out of the misery, but no, just warning shots, I thought. Aim low, old soldier. I didn't want to risk killing any civilians, the resting call girls and ex-public schoolboys who were stumbling out after them, looking dazed, a bit shaken, as you would, I suppose. Plus there was the question of property values. Part of the (with hindsight, crazy) plan had been to help keep those buoyant, by cleaning the scum off Notting Hill's streets, but on reflection, turning the crescent into a war zone didn't seem likely to help out too much there.
Which was never more true than when, in full flight now, a handful of Yardies screaming blue murder on that leafy, well-appointed, West London terrace, I threw back a stun grenade to cover my exit. Horrendously, because I was rusty, I took a bullet in the shoulder. So the bomb veered off a bit to the left, bounced straight off the top of somebody's Range Rover, and, from there, with the ominous force of a Greek tragedy, into the window of Help The Aged. Which went up like the Fourth of July, on account, I suppose, of all the flammable tat. Oops. The explosion got the last few Yardies off my tail, but seeing as by this stage we were just round the corner from where I lived, it seemed all that remained was for me to go back home, put on News 24, and my Punisher t-shirt, and prepare for reprisals.
As a war on crime, it was a bit ill-considered. In Iraq, I did so much worse, and got a medal for it actually, but there's no point pondering the irony now. I've got three options, it seems, and not much time, at least judging by the coverage, live on TV. It's pretty disturbing, watching the snipers line up on the terrace, behind the cars banked opposite, the BMW's and so on. These days, are the police even trained to end a siege situation without just wiping out everything living? With all the firepower on display, I'm beginning to wonder.
And what would I be without the guns and grenades? What would I do without a Notting Hill postcode? Because whatever else happens, I'm going to have to move. And could I really go back to accountancy now, assuming they didn't just put me in Broadmoor? It's a definite 'no' from the inner old soldier, but I'm not sure. Honestly, what would you do?
© Quintin Forrest, 2008
Quintin Forrest has never been in the Army, never raided a crack house,never fire-bombed a charity shop and mined his front garden. He does, however, own a Punisher t-shirt.