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'La Dolce Vita' a novel by Guy Martyr 9.

La Dolce Vita instalment 9 of 20

They found some tents to dwell in: "A volunteer to cook!" called Horatio, surprising himself sounding almost military, thank you Simon, - thank you, Horatio, sir! a way out of this rather tiresome compote into which he had fallen: rather, follow his star, if anything good is to come out of the mess, and do the cooking; the candle-lit nights in his London pad, wine on the go, a lovely lady to cook for, success at the market on the way home from his high pressure job in the City markets, a far off dream of opening a restaurant, and here, the perfect opportunity to indulge his passion, to season the ragout to his own, well-formed taste. A brew and a stew were soon bubbling away.

The local men came over and introduced themselves, except they could not speak English, nor could Horatio's men speak theirs. They were apparently Arabs: that's the best anyone could come up with; where in the Arab world they be, no one could surmise. Those men were very friendly and went diligently about their business - at least they, of any, knew what they were supposed to be doing, which was the construction of the perimeter fence. This promised to be miles long, of tall concrete poles, wire mesh netting and barbed wire topping.

Horatio and his men spent the next couple of days getting to grips with the construction of living enclosures for the 'Prisoners of War': more or less side-less huts, for which rudimentary plans had been provided. Horatio was missing Sergeant Sparrow. Not Sparrow, but a sergeant. The work was hard; he had his thinking to do, to make sense of the plans, calculate quantities and cutting lists; someone was needed to be in charge of the men - a foreman. He had tried the obvious candidate for promotion in these circumstances, Alan, the carpenter and joiner, but he was entirely averse to taking any kind of role of responsibility - "Oh no sir, I'm just in this to do my time, then go home. It's not my kind of thing, sir." Alan: Alan had grave misgivings about going on his Service: he had been self-employed only a few months as a carpenter and assembler, on the strength of landing a big contract - some big wig was building a huge new house by the river, and he was to take on all the carpentry and joinery. He could leave the job with his assistant, but he didn't particularly trust him, nor particularly rate his skills. And the labour you could get these days - what labour? The Polish lads they'd worked with weren't bad, but try finding anyone locally - everyone wanted to work in the media in London, not in a carpenter's in Bedford.

He was married, with two young children, but his wife was getting pretty fed up - they never went out any more and they were always tired . . . He wondered occasionally if she would still be there when he got back. But he had not been able to gather himself to appeal against the call up - he actually agreed with the principle of national Service, so had gone, though without any enthusiasm.

On the last day at home he had stalked his workshop, sharpening, oiling and putting away all his tools - despite modern technology, he still had a large collection of hand tools, many a legacy of his father, the like of which were almost unobtainable now - where can you get a 22 inch jointer plane today, a decent paring chisel?

Giles shied away from Horatio's seeking gaze - "I really don't want to make myself conspicuous, sir" he drawled with effortless superiority. Giles the toff: "Oh come on, 'toff', no one uses that any more. I did go to a, oh well, Eton, and we do have a house in the, er, country." Poor Giles had come in for a ribbing from some of the platoon from the first because he was so, well, exotic, posh people being rather hard to find these days - not gone, one suspects, merely well camouflaged. But it was good-natured ribbing. Giles had the toff's natural charm and was surprisingly guileless, so had become instantly well-liked. He was thought a bit mad for going on his Service, as it was widely believed that you could buy yourself out if you had the money, and knew the right people - and Giles certainly fitted that bill. Or why not try to become a regular officer - attend the officers' school - it only meant another six months' Service. But Giles had wanted to do his duty, and held a strange affinity for what one might call common humanity, so was drawn to experience sweaty life in the ranks. He was only 19; a whole life ahead. Great leadership later. This was the time of discovery.

Simon had rather gone to ground in the kitchen - "I think I'll just, er, sit this one out, Horatio."

What about the salesman, Steve? Steve. Steve was good! oh yes, best area sales-person two years running. Salesforce was his life - the rush, the targets, the smart carriage. He could sell anything, to anybody! Well, that was two years ago, when the boom was on, when he was relatively new in the business. The climate now was tougher all round - recently he hadn't even covered his costs in a month! No pay, just commission. High risk. The highest!

Why had he accepted that contract?

The call up was a bit of a life-line.

Steve didn't want any more risks for the time being; another one for whom lack of responsibility would be welcome.

Darren was too young to be considered for promotion. Darren. Ah Darren! loved by all, rascly, cheerful, ruddy as a Herefordshire bull, leaping at the chance when his call up Paper came. His mother wept when he went, Sarah in the village kissed him and cried too, his younger brother wished he could go. His father took the matter in his stride, unmoveable as the earth he tilled - on an old-fashioned farm in an almost-forgotten corner of Shropshire. Darren had felt quite comfortable at Leek - not too far from home, up on the hillside, in the wind the sun and the rain.

Horatio promoted Javed to acting corporal, by virtue of being the only really keen candidate, though he was not really up to the barking of a true sergeant. Javed had always been a keen boy, a keenness to which his teachers had responded and which had resulted in his being urged into science, a rather unpopular subject these days, what with all the difficulties arising from Invention Planning laws, and the general ubiquity of scientific, or technological means' at the touch of a computer - more and more shady too were the groups from whom the benefits of a scientist could be an asset: generally the outer satellites of military-associated enterprises, or dubious, life-controlling experimenters with funding from goodness knows where. But Javed had responded in turn with enthusiasm and application - he would never be brilliant, but he would always be a useful cog in the machine.

Horatio's prayers were answered apace, however, by the arrival

of . . . a sergeant! A strong, solid-looking soldier turned up in a dusty jeep: "I'm Sergeant Peters, Assault Pioneers. 'Been posted to your platoon, sir."

"Assault Pioneers," thought Horatio. "Useful!" But Horatio wasn't quite sure: there was something about the man: he looked a little too fit for an Assault Pioneer, and his uniform bore unusual insignia hinting at rare skills and achievements. Curiously, he and Jack seemed to know each other, at least be on nodding terms, as they nodded so on his arrival.

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