An exclusive short story
For once, the schoolyard looked less like barracks. Its high walls, topped with barbed wire, had banners pinned to the brickwork. "FOR A BETTER WORLD", they said, with crude paintings of children holding hands and standing on top of a globe. There was red, blue and white bunting, a jagged attempt at jollity, over the entrances to classrooms, and in one corner of the cindery Tarmac a teenage band blasted out a popular song.
“You will buy something, won't you?" Robbie asked his mother. "It's for charity."
Yes, Polly agreed meekly. Although it was possibly the twentieth time that year she had been expected to hand over money for some cause or other, she would find some pretext to give £5 or £10 or £20 of her earnings to it.
Besides, the school fête was always a good excuse to turn out her own cupboards and bookshelves to see what she could pass on. Once on the stalls, however, these CDs, clothes and books always had the charmless air of the ejected. Who could possibly have bought this stuff, now that its essential uselessness had been revealed?
The tin, however, was new, as red as holly berries, empty and oval. One of two dozen or so piled high in a kind of ziggurat at a stall, it drew Polly as a possible receptacle for cakes or sweets. The one she had always used, painted with fruits and flowers, had become scratched and battered over the years by small, demanding hands. She had been thinking for some time that it ought to be replaced.
“Tins for the Troops!" called a woman, rattling one. "Sign up for Tins for the Troops!"
In the act of searching for her purse, Polly hesitated. So the tins were not for personal use after all, but another way of extracting yet more for charity. Most people, she now noticed, were avoiding the stall, their eyes sliding past it in that polite, impersonal way of English people who don't want to be embarrassed. The war had become something that you just didn't talk about. A few years ago, even those who opposed the Iraq war had seen some point in sending troops to Afghanistan. Now, anger, shame, guilt and sorrow about it all had added to the general feeling of repugnance. Even the poppies on sale for Armistice Day had taken on a tinge of bitter irony.
"It means such a lot to them, to know they're supported," the woman said, catching her gaze.
“Well, I don't exactly -"
“They're just doing their duty."
What harm could filling a tin with sweets do? Surely, they could have that much.
“Please remember to include a Christmas card. Thank you."
It wasn't that Polly supported the war, but the soldiers themselves were another matter. They were only a few years older than her own children. She'd seen them sometimes, at motorway service stations: enormous young men, all muscles and thick cropped hair and testosterone in tip-top training. Their skin seemed to be made of something quite un-like her failing flesh. Their shiny black boots were the size of small boats. If I saw someone like that running towards me with a gun, I'd be terrified, she thought; yet when she saw the way her son's torso was slowly assuming
an approximation of their V shape, she felt only pride.
“Do they need toothbrushes?"
“The list has suggestions. No chocolate. It melts in the heat."
The woman gave her a brief, sad smile. Was she an army mother? She was of that indeterminate age, like Polly herself, just before a face becomes a cartoon of itself. Almost every woman in the school playground was like this, blurred by maternity. Their boys were used to being mugged for their mobile phones, for money, or just for being young. They spoke in deepening voices. Mostly, they just grunted.
“We can ship anything out before Christmas as long as it's under two kilos."
She was wearing a plastic-coated badge with a photograph of herself on her lapel. Mrs Winters, it said.
“I suppose that excludes a helicopter, then."
The woman grimaced. "If only."
“Is your son in Helmand?" Polly asked.
“He was a pupil here, you see. That's why they let me do this."
“I hope he'll be all right."
The woman looked at her, and Polly could see a kind of desperate steadfastness.
“Yes. So do we."
Polly's eyes filled with tears, the tears that rose so often and unbidden to her eyes these days.
“I can't imagine what you're going through. It's disgraceful, the way they're being treated out there - "
“Mum, stop embarrassing yourself," said her son.
He dragged her away.
“Just don't speak," he hissed. "You can't open your mouth without saying something stupid."
“Really? I was only talking to that woman about her son in Afghanistan."
“Why? You know nothing about the army."
Once, she had taken first Tania, then Robbie into school, disentangling their frantic fingers as they probed into any nook or cranny of her body like ivy rather than be parted for half a day. The violence and passion of their love consumed her, even as she offered herself up to them willingly. They were as jealous of her work as if it were another lover, constantly complaining about it, interrupting it and asking for her help with their homework because she was all-wise and all-knowing. In those days, she had sent out a shoebox of children's toys and sweets every Christmas to a charity caring for children who were victims of war. It had been a simple gesture of goodwill to an anonymous child somewhere in the world who had lost everything, even their toys; and when she saw how much her own children had, she felt it could only be a good thing. Perhaps this was why she wanted to do it again. Only she didn't know what to send to those who were no longer children.
Yet there had come a time when school became the place where each of her children had their real lives. Tania and Robbie were fanatically loyal to their friends; the slightest adverse remark about this person or that was met with fury, but her own authority on any subject was questioned, then derided. First her grasp of maths, and then her understanding of science, geography, history and politics were exposed as derisory. She had hoped to be able to talk to them as equals, but her job, unlike their father's, paid very little and this meant that both she and it were contemptible.
“I don't see why you bother with work," Robbie said, on many occasions. "It's not as if you make anything happen, is it?"
“You shouldn't have had children," said Tania. "You'd have had a real career if you hadn't."
Polly took the tin home. Robbie eyed it hopefully.
“Are there sweets in that?"
“No, it's for soldiers in Afghanistan. I'm going to put some presents in for Christmas."
“What do they need presents for? They've got guns," Robbie said.
He had gone straight to the controls of his Xbox, to play Call of Duty and talk to his friends online. To him, being a soldier was one long adrenalin-packed adventure of shooting people to the sound of swelling music. Every so often, he pressed a button, and enemy soldiers screamed, threw up their arms and vanished in a cloud of red specks.
“Hey, I poned you, man!" he called through his headset to his friend.
Where did this word "poned" come from? It seemed to mean something like "punished" or "humiliated". Polly looked at her son's face, flushed and slack as he pressed buttons to shoot again and again and again. It's not real, she told herself. It's only a game.
“They still need stuff. Immodium," said Polly, beginning to read the list inside the tin.
“What's that? A kind of bullet?"
“No, it's medicine to stop diarrhoea."
“Why do they have diarrhoea?"
“Maybe it's the heat. I wonder whether they have bad food?"
“It can't be worse than school food. Anyway, they don't care. You shouldn't feel sorry for them. They're having fun."
“They're not. They're trying to build democracy."
“You really think that?" Robbie's fingers pressed the buttons, and a frenzy of gunfire erupted on the screen. "They enjoy killing, Mum. That's what being a soldier is."
Polly put on her glasses to read the rest of the list. "Wet wipes."
“Ugh, like babies?"
“I don't suppose they get a chance to wash."
“I can hear your blades whirring."
Robbie was always accusing her of being a helicopter parent, hovering anxiously over him. There were no women in his game, and when soldiers on his side were maimed, they lay slumped on the floor or on stretchers, bleeding. If he himself got shot the screen went red, briefly, then cleared. If he got killed, he went back to an earlier stage in the game. He claimed it was incredibly realistic, though there was another game due out soon which was even more so, and he wanted it before Christmas.
“I suppose I just feel sorry for them, that's all."
“They're grown-ups, they don't need you to give them baby stuff."
“Hmm. Batchelors Super Noodles. I don't know what those are, do you?"
“Like pasta, sort of. They're vile," said her daughter. "What's for supper?"
Robbie returned to his game, where the soldiers on missions never needed to stop and eat. What woman would wage a war, given the practicalities? Well, apart from Mrs Thatcher, perhaps. You would just think about all the clean socks that soldiers would need, and realise the pointlessness of it from the start.
Chewing gum . . . If the troops needed Super Noodles, were they actually starving, or unable to eat solid food? What about roughage? Should she include a packet of muesli, in case the Immodium worked all too well? Polly's mental image of a filthy young soldier falling gratefully on the free packet of Alpen included in a recent Ocado delivery was almost too powerful to resist. It all seemed very dreary as a present, though.
None of it was easy to assemble. For Immodium, she had to go to the chemist near her bus stop, and it was surprisingly expensive. Waitrose did not appear to stock Batchelors Super Noodles, though it had pasta with squid ink. Eventually, she got two pots from Tesco Express. To cook it, all you had to do was boil a kettle and pour a cup of water in. The exhausted tangle of dried-up starch swelled in seconds, miraculously plumped in the way that she dreamt of herself becoming one day, in some second access of youth. Only the wakefulness that parched her skin would never pass. She thought of Mrs Winters, worrying about her son in Helmand. How much worse it must be for her. The noodles tasted salty, like tears, but lay in her stomach like dread.
Batteries. Of course, they must need them for iPods, or even for laptops. Polly had heard they took all sorts of gadgets into the camps to alleviate boredom, as well as the body armour they had to buy. That was how the scandal about MPs' expenses had been uncovered, hadn't it? Two off-duty army people had been moonlighting at the House of Commons or something. Well, everyone was disillusioned about everything these days. She remembered the way, when her children were small, Christmas had regained its magic for her after years of feeling not very special. The sense of
wonder, of miraculous possibilities just from a string of coloured lights, had been reborn . . . only year by year it faded again, to become yet another chore.
Something to entertain them. According to family legend, Polly's great-grandfather had survived the Somme because a leather-bound volume of Herodotus in his breast pocket had stopped a bullet. The oval tin was only just big enough for one paperback, and she was bound to get it wrong. (Probably, she should send porn, only she couldn't bear to.) Those chunky ones by Dan Brown or Andy McNab would stop a bullet all right, but leave no room for any of the other stuff. Neither was suitable for Christmas, anyway. Best not to include a book, then. Maybe something like a miniature chess set, or was that too intellectual? You just couldn't know who it was going to, or how it would be used.
“I just wish I could think of a present that's a bit more fun to send."
“Maybe my old Action Man," said Robbie. Polly shuddered.
“That would make the tin look like a coffin."
“Oh, you had to say that, didn't you? You just had to!" said Robbie, furiously.
“Well, it would."
“They're soldiers, they don't care."
The tin was almost full up. She had bought everything on the list.
Now for a Christmas card. It'd have to be a leftover one, because the tins must go out early, in order not to clog up the post from the families. What would a solider like, far from home? A scene by a Dutch master of people skating in the 17th century? No, inappropriate. There were some tasteful Japanese prints of people in kimonos in the snow, ditto, but none of any British landscapes. Perhaps that would only make them homesick.
Maybe an Italian Renaissance angel? An atheist might be offended. An armchair by a fireplace and a Christmas tree laden with candles might be sufficiently neutral, and yet it looked so smug. This is what an ideal English home looks like on Christmas Eve, only you and your families aren't having any of it.
How absurd they all were, these images! Polly shuffled through them, despairing. A robin redbreast would have to do. They were fierce, territorial birds, after all.
“Wishing you a -" What? "A safe return home", she wrote, blowing her nose. That was all she could wish for. Just come home safely, don't get blown up, don't kill any women or children. Don't kill any men, either, unless they are trying to kill you. ". . . and a very Happy Christmas."
“Is that it?"
“Yes, I think so."
“It's not very special, is it?"
Polly asked, humbly, "What would you like, do you think, Robbie? If you were in the army, on the battlefield, and you got a present from home?"
She expected her son to turn on her, with all the sarcasm and savagery of his new strength, but he said: "Sweets. Those nice ones in coloured wrappers. That's what I'd like, Mum."
“That's what would make me remember being with you."
When the tin was packed up, Robbie took it into school in his rucksack. It was collected by Mrs Winters, and despatched by plane to Helmand Province. Then, along with thousands of other tins, it was piled up in the building used as a chapel at base camp.
Eventually, when the war was over, the Super Noodles, Immodium tablets, Christmas cards and chewing gum were found, and thrown away. But the sweets were eaten, and their wrappers strung up by children on a long, long string; and they shone like glittering jewels, until the sun bleached them.
Amanda Craig is the author of six novels, including A Vicious Circle, Love in Idleness and, most recently, Hearts and Minds (published by Little, Brown, £12.99). She is also the children's books critic of the Times. Her website, which includes recommendations for children, is amandacraig.com