Norman carried his plate carefully across to the gingham covered table under the window, setting it down next to his cup of tea that had been as carefully transported a few minutes before. He could not walk without his stick and had to adapt his routine to fit around this inconvenience. He steadied himself on the back of the wooden chair and deposited his walking aid up against the window sill. He turned himself around and sat down heavily with a sigh of relief.
He assaulted the still steaming cup of tea with four spoons of sugar and smiled wryly at the silence that accompanied this act of rebellion. If Ruby had been sitting opposite him there would have been hell to pay. He closed his eyes and willed the disobedient tear to cease its descent down his cheek. He sniffed and reached for the butter.
His flat was in an anonymous looking block on a small estate that had been built in the 1990s. He had moved here begrudgingly from their little terrace house that had been home for fifty years. The council were going to knock the late Victorian homes down and make way for a modern housing project. As a widower without any living family, he did not qualify for one of the new three-bedroomed semi-detached houses. They had moved his bits of furniture and treasured belongings to the flat, but the money that they paid him for the compulsory purchase of the house was still sitting in a bank account untouched.
He managed his simple needs on his state and army pension, only glancing briefly at the monthly statements that showed a steadily increasing balance, before throwing them in a drawer in the sideboard. There had been an effort by his previous neighbours to fight the compulsory purchase. He had watched the protests in the street dispassionately, ignoring the knocks on his door from those soliciting his support. Ruby had only just died and a part of him had as well. He had been numb at the time and also strangely voiceless but he had looked upon the resultant pay out as blood money. As he looked around the small room that had never seen a visitor, he realised how much he had relied on Ruby and the community spirit in his old neighbourhood.
Norman’s flat was on the second floor of the building and thankfully the lift was in operation most of the time. He couldn’t manage the one flight of stairs now even with the stick; resenting this as evidence of his further decline. During the day the building had always been reasonably quiet and he barely noticed the passing of the hours. That is until he would hear the sound of the children returning from school and diving straight into the playground at the front of the flats. He usually opened his windows and sat with a cup of tea, enjoying their shrieks and laughter. It reminded him of his own dead son when he was that age; long before he joined the army and went to Iraq.
Recently however there had been new sounds and they drowned out the childish laughter. Teenagers from a neighbouring estate were prowling the stairwells and communal areas of the blocks nearest to them, but away from family and possible consequences in their own neighbourhood. His own block had taken on a seedy and unwholesome appearance with evidence of night-time drinking and drug taking on the landings and underground garage. The local residence association had contacted the police and there had been a begrudging response which included one or two more cars patrolling at night, but no arrests were made. The council representative had said that they were powerless to provide security with cutbacks to essential services already.
The residents now rarely went out at night unless absolutely essential; locking their doors and windows and turning their televisions up louder to cover the noises of anarchy on their doorstep. Children no longer played on the swings as aggressive teenagers of both genders took over the playground in the central area as a gathering point in the afternoons, jobless and bored. Graffiti began to spread across the walls of the ground floor and up the stairs; Norman shook his head at the hatred and violence it depicted. He had never felt so powerless in his life.
It was Wednesday and Norman always went down to the legion for a pint and bite of lunch. It was his only interaction with others during the week, except for the cashiers at the local supermarket. He laid out his suit on the bed and found a shirt that was crisply ironed. He would wear his regimental tie today and give his black shoes an extra polish. He needed to look his best for what lay ahead.
An hour later he made his way through the swing doors of the legion and walked past the walls covered with photographs of those who had served and passed away. One day his image would join them and younger men would mentally salute him as they walked into the bar. But he was not there yet, and grasping his stick firmly, he straightened his back and walked briskly through the tables of men talking quietly in this place that linked them to their years of service. Some looked up and said… ‘Morning Sergeant Major.’ He acknowledged them silently with a nod.
At the barked command thirty pairs of eyes swivelled to the front of the room and automatically several stood to attention. As Norman’s stern gaze descended on the other men, they too stood to join their comrades.
‘You have all served your country bravely, but now you, like me sit silently by and watch as an enemy infiltrates our way of life. The people we fought for are under attack and barricaded into their homes afraid to breathe in the fresh air and walk unmolested.’
Several men nodded and Norman could read their body language as he had thousands of soldiers before. They too had lost their purpose and it was time to give them their pride back.
Later that afternoon the children arrived home from school and were ushered straight into their flats on the different levels of the apartment block. A few stray elderly residents also made their way back from shopping and packed into the lifts that would distribute them over several floors. The block was preparing for the daily invasion of the gang.
They were not disappointed, and as the warm sun hit the playground it began to fill with the dross from the neighbouring estate, laughing and throwing their rubbish on the ground. When dusk fell they would start working their way through the block with their spray paints and drug paraphernalia; turning this community into a no go area for decent people.
Suddenly one the group caught sight of movement coming from the direction of the main road. He shushed his mates and one by one they went silent. They watched as an old man walking with a stick marched up the street with determination. He was followed by at least thirty men in rows, also marching in time. They wore suits and looked proudly to the front where their leader preceded them. Some of the youths began pointing and laughing but a tall, older boy told them to be quiet.
The marching men arrived in front of the block of flats and turned sharply to face the playground. Norman took three steps closer and placed both his hands over the head of his stick. He looked to his right as two large vans marked with the name of an industrial cleaning company pulled up to the kerb.
He turned and addressed the youths now waiting expectantly and looking at each other in stunned silence.
‘These men behind me have fought in wars around the world and are all trained killers. They will now be patrolling our estate day and night in teams of three and have orders to treat any they find defacing the walls, using drugs or threatening the residents as terrorists which is what you are.’
Norman paused and behind him he heard the snap of boots on the road surface as a number of the men took three steps forward and stood with their arms folded menacingly.
Sergeant Major Norman Smith pointed at the two vans. ‘These contractors will now clean the graffiti off the walls and remove your filth from the stairs and hallways. You will now pick up all your rubbish you have dropped and put it into the bins provided. You will then leave this estate and not return again. These men behind me are just a handful of those at my disposal and any ideas you might have of bringing reinforcements to assist you will be met with severe repercussions.’
The youth who the others followed, looked at the old man and smiled slightly as he shook his head. He pointed to the others to pick up their discarded cartons and soda bottles, which they did reluctantly. He glared at some and gave others a sharp word. He knew there were other soft targets out there. Perhaps not as convenient to his estate, but this one was no longer worth the hassle. Hoods up and hands in pockets, the youths turned and began to saunter nonchalantly out of the far exit of the playground.
As they did so Norman heard doors begin to open on the sunlit walkways behind him and voices as people tried to find out what was going on. He glanced behind him as the cleaning crews began unloading equipment from the back of the vans. He had finally found something to use that blood money for in a way that he could live with.
Applause broke out on the walkways, and as the last of the youths sauntered off down the road, a mother ventured out of the safety of the building holding her two children’s hands. They broke away from her and raced into the playground shouting and laughing.
Soon others left the surrounding blocks and came to speak to Norman and their new protectors. As he watched the exchanges between the former soldiers and the liberated residents he saw how they carried themselves now with pride and purpose.
It was good to be back on the front line again.