Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Silent Voices: Screaming Aloud 1

This is a long short story, a story loosely or tightly wound about a period of time when, I guess, many of the potential readers have not yet lived. In that sense of people being gametes, neonates, toddlers, infants, not conscious of history going on around them or not even born. It is a piece about history but it is not history, it is a long short story.

Because it is a long short story and a bit about history as well it will contain memories and ghosts of people who have lived, are living or never, ever existed and the similar is true of the events which create the thread on which the long short story is hung. A long short story is not the truth nor is it a bundle of lies of no value at all. A long short story is about a truth the reader finds for themselves among the lies, deceptions and hyperbole of the author and the author’s actual self and experience; this "not true story but a story which may or may not contain a truth or two", starts:

"Richard and me had a system."

‘Head and Neck’ came to me: Richard was ‘The Rest’.

To the uninitiated this appears, at first glance, a rather lopsided division of labour leaving Richard with most of the body to deal with but as you read and the story's episodes unfold over the next few days, you will eventually understand the logic and why Richard had the easier job.


"Hi! My name is Julio da Silva, I have just turned 16."

I live in one of the many slums that skirt Buenos Aeries, to pretend they are not slums the intellectuals call them fancy names like ‘barrios’ or ‘favellas’ but they are slums. Slums where dog, cat, chicken, goat and human excrement mingle on the streets, where children struggle to ever make their fifth birthday and of those who do, too many will be shot or stabbed in the incessant gang wars between the rival ‘landlords’ and their men, squabbling over control of the drug and prostitution markets, before they are twenty. The better off of the slum dwellers have solid concrete brick blocks for walls and corrugated tin for their roofs. The really posh will have electricity and running water, toilet facilities, rooms and even a front door - 2 cm steel plate, bullet proof, lockable – and a garnish of razor wire around their property boundary for that additional crime prevention feature.

Me and I friends lived at the bottom end of the ‘barrios’ housing ladder. For me that means a 4m square ‘hollow concrete’ block box, no windows, a tin roof held together by rust and a tarpaulin for a door. I shared this basic block with my mother’s parents, four sisters and two brothers. Running water came down the walls and electrical supply came from the highly dangerous procedure of illegally tapping into the local domestic supply at the nearest lamp post (along with thirty or more, local worthies).

Give Dad his due, he had improved the place with the ‘add ons’ the intelligentsia who call our slum a barrios would refer to these ‘add ons’ as ‘quaint bijou extensions’ but were more accurately stolen wood, tarpaulin and tin ‘lean too’s’ against the back wall of the ‘house’ – but at least they allowed us brothers and sisters our own space.

Occasionally we had to ‘flit’ when the local authorities decided they should be seen to be ‘in control’ and spent a day or two knocking down ‘illegal and insanitary’ shanties. Usually we had enough warning of their arrival and would take our bijou extensions down so the council would not steal our walls and roof, saving us the hike down to the local tip to hump the materials back to remake them.


I can read, count and write thanks to the diligence of the Jesuit Fathers – when I say diligence, read - innumerable beatings. I go to church most Sundays because it is a good way of staying warm and dry in winter and cool in summer, for an hour or two, and just maybe my prayers will be heard and God will strike down Father Orlando with more vigour than he ever beat me or at least tear off his ‘cohunes’ which have lead to quite a few choir and altar boys pain and humiliation (My big brothers warned me off becoming one of Father Orlando’s ‘little helpers’).

I have two avenues of escape from the grinding poverty of my family. I can join the local gang and hope I survive the wars and revenge killings to get high enough in the organisation to make decent money, at next to no risk (except for assassination by other gang bosses or members of my own gang clawing to the top) or there is football and the thousands of other slum dwelling kids who think they are the next ‘Ossie Ardiles’ or ‘Mario Kempes’.

Some job choice for the kid on the make!


I have just got back to the house I share with my friend John, just a stone’s throw from the docks at Devonport. I was playing in a mixed hockey match and we had won, John has Sunday lunch on the go – it was his turn. I am planning to meet my girlfriend, Mandy, at the Brown Bear then take in a film and a meal in downtown Plymouth, at the best Chinese Restaurant in the West of England (no blow, it really is), such is the excitement of the life, I live. John’s girlfriend, Jane, has joined us for lunch so John has pulled out all the stops in the best traditions of a Lancashire Sunday lunch. I know, it would have been better if they were ‘Janet and John’, a bit of ironic humour for those primary school generations of the 1960’s (Janet and John have their first orgasm – See John put his hand up Janet’s skirt ....) but they are not. I am about to go for a shower, as I am still in my cold and stiffening hockey gear, the phone rings a dismembered, highly stressed voice says, “Get off your arse and into work as fast as possible, we have an emergency.”

I remembered it was my birthday, explains the film and meal combination with the certainty of a shag for afters. So that was the film and meal bit gone west – I wondered for a brief second if the shag would still be on but that would depend on the nature of the work emergency and whether I was back at a decent (or indecent) enough hour. I showered and got into my work gear, Jane phoned Mandy, for me, to explain I had a work emergency; I gulped down lunch and headed off to the dockyard.

Whatever was going on, it had to be very serious because the ‘dockies’ were moving piles of rubbish that had lain unmoved since the Suez crisis. There was a stream of ‘Jacks’ heading towards their ships and the gate showed condition ‘red’ which meant there was a serious terrorist threat, to my mind. I pitched up in my department: this was clearly serious when even the boss was in on a Sunday.

“Great to see you, sir, there’s a ten tonner with a driver and LMA waiting for you.” said Fleet Chief Munday, “The boss wants you to pick up all the portable units in the dockyard and bring them here for maintenance and restocking. He then wants you to review the ships on this list, identify which require prioritising and move the mobile surgery units to those with most need, once the portable units are serviced and re-stocked (Ah! that will be me and the LMA’s task as well) you have to set them up on the ships next in priority, not covered by the mobile units. Then you have to organise the deployment of clinical teams to the clinics, portables and notify their bosses of where they will expected to be at 0815 tomorrow to start work – the Port Admiral kindly requests you have it all done as of yesterday.”

It appears while I was playing hockey, we have declared war on somebody, on my birthday as well – but whom?

Football was my great escape, especially now I actually fit the family football boots. Football boots you say? Yes, at some point my dad found them on the rubbish tip when looking for replacement walls or roofing materials, proper Addidas boots they are, pretty perfect when brother number one got them, some rich kid must have dumped them because they were now too small or possibly out of fashion. Now, like Cinderella, they fitted me and I could go to play the ball, properly dressed. After three years of hard use they still had enough stud left to be called a football boot. Today was an important day for us youngsters with dreams to play professionally, the Chief Scout of River Plate was said to be watching our game. Our coach was sure I could make the grade and hinted he had given the nod to the Chief Scout to watch out for his attacking right midfielder (me). It was a great game we won four: three, I scored the winner from thirty yards from a free kick. The great man beckoned me over and asked my age, “Sixteen, Senhor”, and said he would be in touch to go for a weekend’s coaching for possible selection in late March 1982, just as the River Plate pre-season training got under way, “You are a good boy,” he said, “I believe you have a future in the game, here’s my card, I will send details and money to get you to the selection weekend, to your coach. Don’t worry about decent boots we will sort that out for you when you turn up.”

I went home to tell my parents the good news, dad did not seem very happy for me, mum handed me a Government envelope with my name typed on the front. It was my call up papers to do my two years conscription in the Argentine Armed Forces; I was to report to Puntas Arenas in one month for basic training (in this they were not kidding as I later found out) but what about my chance to make it in professional football?  Surely if I contacted River Plate they could help me avoid conscription? 

I was in tears, my chance to get out of the barrios blocked by the Argentinean Government to probably spend two years in the shit hole that is Tierra Fuego, freezing my bollocks off for ten pesetas a day when I could have been part of River Plate’s first team squad, earning ten or a hundred times that. My dad tried to calm me down pointing out I would at least have my own clothes (not hand me downs) plus three guaranteed meals a day and a solid roof over my head – possibly even heating. He was sure River Plate would still be interested, once I had done my two years serving ‘La Patria’ and built a bit more muscle, grown a bit, got even fitter.

Two years, to a sixteen year old, looks like an eternity.

I pleaded with my coach to ask River Plate to get my conscription deferred but he told me unless my family could find the 10,000 peseta to bribe the local council man, to lose me off his list of conscripts, I would have to go. He told me the same thing as my Dad, River Plate would wait but anyhow I was good enough to play football for the army, he would have a chat to some Army friends in their football coaching system and see what he could do for me. If I did a bunk and did not go then I could definitely say goodbye to a River Plate contract, they would never be allowed to sign a draft dodger by the current military government. So I could hope to play football in the Army and if they thought me good enough I would get soft postings – it was an easy enough straw to grasp at; when you are sixteen.......


It was just before midnight when I finally got back to the house having completed my tasks and been pre-briefed about what I was to do on the Monday. Mandy had tried to stay awake. She was propped up on her pillow, her specs had drifted halfway down her nose and the book she was reading was held lifelessly in her left hand, her face delineated by the bed side lamp catching the soft down of her eye brows and the contours of her calm and peaceful face. I stripped off, gently gathered her specs and her book and switched off the lamp – shagging was clearly off the menu, we were both too knackered.

I turned on my side and settled down to sleep. As I did so, this sweet smell of young woman drifted into my nose and a disembodied, sleepy voice stated the obvious that I was home at last. Her arm wrapped round my chest, her nipples brushed against my back and I sensed the hair of her bush against my backside. As she pulled herself closer to me to achieve 100% contact, her hand then slid lower down my body and she kissed the nape of my neck – maybe we were not that knackered, after all.

We had twelve days to move the whole fleet from peace time to a war footing; this involves a massive logistical tail to enable the military dog to have a wag. We are not just talking the panoply of war – the shells, the bombs, the weapons rounds or the men and what they eat and drink – nor even fuel but all the preparations required to deal with the wounded and dead, the materials of life and death if you will. Within 48 hours the military medical stores were empty and yet there were still shortages of medical supplies for both the frontline and support ships, not to mention the Royal Marine Commando medical teams. Key items which were the difference between life and death were not to be had. Someone then decided we were to be allowed to raid local NHS Hospitals and pharmacy stores for what was essential, someone had to be authorised by Royal Warrant to undertake these raids on NHS medical stores to secure what was necessary – I ended up as that someone.

Back into the five tonner I went with Fleet Chief Munday as driver and a police sergeant in case any NHS store person got uppity with us and, of course the warrant. In the next five days I got to know the Hospitals of the West Country and their stores people at first hand. Most were very helpful and freely gave what was reckoned to be excess to their immediate requirements to help us out. There were only a very few occasions when the Fleet Chief and I wandered away while our Police Sergeant explained to the jobs worth confronting us just what their continuing obstructive behaviour would involve them in, in terms of fines and possible imprisonment. The Fleet Chief and I then usually found them co-operative, if still a little on the recalcitrant side. By the time the second wave of ships left Devonport I had been working fourteen hour days and there was still the conversion of the Survey vessels into ambulance ships, the next wave of ships and their storing to be completed.

By the time the second wave had sailed it was decided to give me a break to brush up on my general anaesthetic and resuscitation skills, for two weeks, at the Stonehouse Naval Hospital. It was a sort of holiday because at least I was only working eight hours a day and had the weekend off.

Yet I missed the bustle and purpose of the previous three weeks of April; of being left alone by senior officers to solve the problems they set me and come up with workable solutions. You may have noted the lack of much mention of hockey or Mandy, over this period; this is simply because I did not have the energy to do either. My first weekend off, when I was at Stonehouse, I gorged myself on both, at a mixed Hockey Festival in Worthing. After Stonehouse I was put on 24 hour notice to ‘sail’ from RAF Brize Norton – I know, it is an RAF Transport hub but such are the Navy’s arcane ways and language.

The call to go came as Mandy and I were watching the evening news about the loss of the Sheffield. I would be picked up by transport at 0800 – Mandy and I headed to bed.


We conscripts from the Barrios assembled on the football ground where my dreams of playing for River Plate had almost come true. They organised us by our numbers and ordered us around by our numbers which we then had to put on our suitcases before throwing them by numbers into the back of a numbered truck before getting on a numbered bus in the right order of our numbers – all of which left us numb and silently worried we could only talk if they authorised our number to do so. Having been numbered off we then met the drill sergeant in charge of our bus who reminded us we were now just numbers and would remain as such until we completed basic training and left his care. He could not be arsed to learn our names but would call us by our last three (numbers, in case you have not quite caught the drift and are as slow as poor Alphonso). He then gave us another number which was our training platoon designation – ominously it was First Platoon, even Alphonso worked out what that would mean, by the time we reached Punto Arenas, and began our training as ‘Naval soldiers’ – not Marines, because the Argentinean Marine Corps are a professional and elite force while we are just bloody, useless, fucking conscripts.

"What are you!"

"The excrement that runs in the Barrios’ streets, Sergeant!"

Puntas Arenas was grey, grim miserable and packed with military. The bus spewed First Platoon out on to the parade ground where our Sergeant started on one of the many rants we would hear over the next six weeks as we shuffled into three lines and he practiced more shouting as we were deafened into being able stand to attention, at ease, turn right and left (as if we had not been doing this naturally since birth) and march off in step from the correct foot. After an hour of this we were marched off to stores to draw our ‘kit’. This involved more shouting as to your height, waist size, inside leg size, shoe size, chest size and head size. I stated my dimensions as militarily as possible (after being a Naval soldier for just over an hour) and the Corporal looked at his friends and shouted, “Another order for fucking Mothercare in Buenos Aires!” I passed down the line getting cap comforter (one), underwear set of (two), pair of combat trousers (two), Combat Jacket (one), Shirt (two), Poncho (one); unless you are Alphonso you will have got the idea by now, ending with signature (one). We then marched to our barrack block where our bunking arrangements were arranged by our numbers (bet that gave you a surprise) and told to get our fucking kit on and parade in ten fucking minutes. From now on I will not mention the word ‘fucking’ because I expect you to take it as read it is contained in all military statements between sergeants and conscripts in singles or multiples within anyone sentence or command.

Of course none of our kit fitted and left you wondering why you had bothered calling out your statistics in a fine military manner but with judicious swapping you quickly learned how to get yourself sorted. Some lads who had motorcycles knew how to adjust the webbing in the helmets to size; others knew how to lace up the long military boots in the right way and such like, so groups quickly formed to share knowledge and help each other out. Ten minutes saw us stumbling out of our barracks in our oversize kit and onto the parade ground where we lined up as per our numbers in three lines.  We were first on parade and first to get yelled at for looking like sacks of mouldy and shitty potatoes (You have to insert the word ‘fucking’ to your own taste and sensibility – remember?) The sergeant and our platoon corporal then inspected us rabble, twitching uniforms here, pulling adjusters there, shouting all the time in the wild hope of making us look like Naval soldiers in our blue camouflage uniforms which had in most cases ‘room to grow into’ - as my old Granny would say. To add to our enjoyment it started sleeting and snowing – so much for the advantage of being a Summer conscript.

At the end of the second week the truly useless conscripts who always tick-tocked on parade, never got the hang of putting their uniform on and generally were so pathetic nothing could be done with them, were weeded out to spend their next two years cleaning pots and pans, peeling vegetables, painting whitewash on things that needed whitewashing or permanent night watches. Looking back they were the lucky ones. The rest of us moved onto training with our FN rifles which was mainly more drill, learning to put the bayonet on without cutting your fingers, stabbing the bloke in front or dropping it on the ground. We then spent a bit of time charging at sacks which had never caused us a minute’s bother, yelling and sticking them with our bayonets either hanging in the air or more cowardly, it seemed to me, when the sack was already on the ground. It was noticeable on the parade ground the ‘F’ word was less in evidence when the sergeant or his corporal addressed us, things seemed to be improving. With two weeks of basic left we were allowed to actually fire our rifles on the range, on two occasions, but that was it, we were two year conscripts and would never fire in anger, so there was no point teaching us important stuff like how to maintain our rifles in the field, unblock jams, load magazines or strip them down, oil them, put them back together again because unless we were on guard, the rifles would stay in the magazine under lock and key, never to see a live round except for monthly firing practice. There were more important things to organise before we marched off parade as ‘Naval soldiers’ - the inter-platoon football competition.

I did the thing my Dad said you should never do in the military, I volunteered to captain and organise our platoon team. The sergeant and corporal acted as selectors in our practice matches, I ran the training and tactics side and to my amazement discovered that Alphonso the Stupid was a brilliant centre back/ sweeper and incredibly good at organising the defenders around him into a formidable defence. I made him my vice-Captain and between us we created an effective if not a necessarily gifted side. The sergeant was so amazed that he made football training a ‘special duty’ so squad players could train rather than cleaning the barracks, doing kitchen patrol or cleaning out the toilets. We rewarded him by being his first ever First Platoon to win the football competition along with the much prized Commandant’s Platoon Drill Trophy he always coveted. The night before we passed out he asked me what I hoped to do after the two years were up because he was certain the Marines would be interested in me signing on as a professional. I told him I hoped to play professional football when my time was over and had a trial with River Plate organised for March 1982 which I would save up my leave to get to, I showed him the card from the River Plate Chief coach. He left me saying – if you do not make it with River Plate get in contact and I will get you into the Argentine Marine Corps, you would be an excellent marine, fit, intelligent with a good head on your young shoulders.

1 comment:

  1. A good read, Paul. I look forward to the next instalment.