On Leave

by Grant Price

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It’s an insular kind of existence, growing up with a soldier for a father. The army is everything. It gives and it takes away. It is your friend and your enemy. It is the reason why you can never truly call a house a home and are forever packing and unpacking boxes on housing estates whose streets are ruled by Lord-of-the-Flies army brats. It steals your father away for months at a time, forcing him to slog through jungles and deserts and snow while you remain at home, slogging through homework and paper rounds and puberty. It arranges “Family Days” that are held only when all the dads are away and are really just an opportunity for the lonely mums to drink too much. It makes sure his letters written on blue paper reach you, his spiky handwriting using up every bit of space and a disembodied voice telling you to keep looking after your mother. The army is God.

Eventually you grow up and you move out and you start a life of your own. For the most part, you let the vagaries of your army childhood fade to sepia. But there’s one thing you can’t let go. It comes at you in the night sometimes, poking you, bothering you, forcing you to remember. Something you wish you could unthink. And that something is this: back then, growing up, you sometimes wished your father would never come home at all. Each time he went away, you spent so long trying to become accustomed to the father-shaped hole in your universe. It was hard and it hurt. And just as you’d become accustomed to the pain and learned to live with it, there he was again. But he wasn’t the same father who stepped out the door three months, six months, a year ago. He was a stranger to you. You didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t recognize you.

And that caused some problems.


When my father returned home from exercise, peacekeeping or (twice) war, two people walked through the front door. One was Dad, the man who built spaceships out of Lego for my younger brother and me and taught us how to wire a plug and took us running with him. The other was the Sergeant. We were scared of the Sergeant. He was unpredictable, mean, mocking, aggressive. He could erupt like a bottle of fizzy drink kicked across a playground. Other times he was adrift from the world, so lost in a headspace that was protected on all sides by a chain-link fence and barbed wire that he couldn’t hear us when we spoke to him. My brother and I couldn’t work the Sergeant out, and after a while we stopped trying.

My father’s return after a long absence changed the entire dynamic of our home life. Over the course of a week, lines would be drawn in the sand, defenses would be prepared, and every activity, conversation, decision and remark would be used as ammunition in the battle between him and my mother, my brother and me. Before long, it was all against all. We were tectonic plates: part of the same world yet doing our best to destroy it whenever we rubbed up against one another. It would go on like this for days, but nobody would say anything about it. We would all refuse to acknowledge the Sergeant in the room – at least up to the point when the Sergeant tore the room apart. Then, after the clouds of smoke had dissipated and we emerged from our hiding places under the bed, at a friend’s house or down at the pub, we’d pick up the pieces and tape them back together. We would find that the Sergeant had disappeared. Dad was all that remained.


One year, my father arrived home on leave without telling us he was coming. Leave was like holiday, but for us it had nothing to do with beaches, theme parks, flights or ice cream. Leave just meant my father was at home, with us, until he had to go back to the army — until he had to leave. This time around, we hadn’t seen him for six months. He knocked on the door and my mother answered it without peering through the window first like she usually did. Her scream carried all the way up to my brother’s bedroom, where we were surreptitiously watching a copy of Die Hard. We ran downstairs to find him standing in the living room, his rucksack almost as tall as he was. He grabbed us and held us against him, and we breathed in the heavy perfumes of the army. Cheap washing powder. Cigarettes. Clothes that had been worn in a sodden field, stripped off, aired and stuffed into a bag before they were completely dry. Excitement, danger and boredom all mixed together. He held us close and my tears wet his uniform.

I didn’t know whether I was crying because I was happy or because I feared the tempest to come.


He was home for two weeks, just long enough for a proper explosion. Things started small. I ratted out my brother on the second day just to get some attention. I’d been out riding my bike on the estate, and on the way home I spotted him climbing over the fence into an empty end-of-terrace with a couple of his friends. Through a hole in the fence I watched as they threw clumps of mud at the windows and tried to kick in the back door. I spilled it to my father that night over dinner. Instead of rewarding me, he stood, took our plates from the table and emptied them into the bin. Then he told us go to go bed. I didn’t understand. I hadn’t done anything wrong. So I said as much.

That was a mistake.

The Sergeant lifted me up from the chair by the throat. My mother shouted for him to stop, but he ignored her. He stuffed two fingers in my mouth, caught my tongue between them and pulled it until it felt as though it would tear off at the root. This, said the Sergeant, is your tongue. You aren’t using it the right way. If you see your brother or anybody else doing something they shouldn’t, you don’t wait six hours before you speak up. You say it in the moment. Otherwise you’re no better than they are. The Sergeant let go of my tongue and gave my brother and me a few slaps around the head before we ran up to our rooms. My mother cried. My brother didn’t speak to me for two days. I didn’t blame him.


My mother was next. Her joy at having my father back was long forgotten by the end of the week. She didn’t like the way he rearranged the cupboards, how he re-parked the car if she didn’t back it into the spot, how he advised her to coil the garden hose around the tap in the garden rather than storing it in the overflowing shed. I don’t think he even realized he was doing it. In his mind he was making things more efficient, just as he’d been trained to do. For my mother, though, he was like a new employee picking holes in routines that had stood the test of time for decades. Maybe her ways weren’t the best, but they worked, and she kept the house ticking over just fine when he wasn’t there.

After the big shop at the supermarket on Friday afternoon, my father and mother were putting away the groceries in the kitchen when he reached into one of the bags and took out a jar of ready-made pasta sauce. In a cool voice, he asked what it was. My brother and I stopped hunting through the other bags. The Sergeant was back. I could hear the tension in my mother’s voice when she replied. He could read the label just as well as anybody else, she said. His gaze narrowed. Why had she bought a jar of ready-made sauce? Because it was easier, she said. Because sometimes she didn’t have forty minutes to spend putting together a proper sauce for two kids who wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. The Sergeant shook his head and told her he wouldn’t have it in his house. My mother made to snatch it, but she tripped on one of the plastic bags on the floor and her outstretched fingers pushed the jar out of his hand. It shattered. My brother and I jumped out of the way of the shards, one of which cut my mother’s finger open. She dissolved into tears. The Sergeant, incredulous, asked her what her problem was. You’re interfering, she said, as blood dripped to the floor. Always interfering. You come back and you think you know everything and you judge the way I live when you’re not here. We’re quite happy without you. The Sergeant stared at her for a moment, then grabbed the car keys and stormed out. My brother and I were asleep long before our beat-up Montego slipped into its parking space in front of our house again. My father was silent at breakfast the next morning. We all were.


Castle Bravo detonated a few days before my father was due to fly out to a country whose name I’d heard for the first time on a special report on the news. It was one of those dull afternoons that strangle imaginations and turn childhood into a chore. My father was watching a film on TV in the living room. The Guns of Navarone, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia or some other classic he’d seen a hundred times before. My brother and I were sitting on the floor doing a jigsaw of clouds against a blue sky. Neither of us was too invested in it. I think we just wanted to be around him before he left. My mother poked her head around the door and asked us what we wanted in our sandwiches. We asked her what she was offering. Cheese, ham, peanut butter, chocolate spread, salad or lemon curd. My brother and I debated what would be best. I was keen on ham, but only if it didn’t have the gelatine bits that made me want to retch. My brother asked for chocolate spread, but my mother reminded him he wasn’t allowed it after the time I convinced him to open his sandwich up, wipe the contents all over his face and sit at the table smiling until she noticed.

As we were chatting, my father asked us to keep it down. He couldn’t hear the film. We made our choice and got back to our jigsaw. Barely a minute had gone by before my mum poked her head into the room once more and asked us what crisps we wanted. What flavors were there? This time she had to check, and she returned with a multipack made of plastic and white noise. She had to walk in front of the screen to bring it over to us. We pulled out the packets to see what was still available. My father had a tendency to eat all three packets of salt & vinegar in one go, but this time there was one left and my brother and I both wanted it. We made a compromise to split it. My father reached over for the remote and turned up the volume until the speakers bled, so we raised our own voices. We had another packet to choose. Ready salted or cheese and onion. My mother called from the kitchen. Turn the television down. It’s too loud. Then she shouted to us that our sandwiches were ready. We were still sorting through the crisp packets. She appeared in the doorway, holding two plates, and asked us if we wanted to eat in the living room. Yes, we did. She asked my father to turn the TV down again. But it wasn’t him sitting in the armchair. It was the Sergeant. As she moved in front of the screen once more to bring us our sandwiches, he rose, walked over to the TV, and started taking the ornaments off the top of it. A glass dish, an enamel figure, a wooden carving he’d brought my mother from Belize. My mother’s back was to him, so she didn’t notice anything. Neither did my brother or I. We were too busy tearing open the foil packets. The speakers continued to blare.

The Sergeant shouted a question over the noise. You don’t want to be quiet? We turned to look at him. His hands were around the set. The V of his legs hid most of the picture. I could make out cliffs, lapping waves, part of a man’s head. He lifted the set up until it was close to touching the ceiling. The cable pulled taut and jerked free of the socket. The image disappeared and the sudden absence of sound felt like being thrown forward against a seat belt. The Sergeant snarled and spoke again. If you can’t shut up, nobody gets to watch.

He threw the TV against the wall.

A bang and a thud. The housing split apart. The back came loose and the green guts of the set spilled out. A white splotch like the tip of a cloud mushroomed behind the glass. My brother screamed. I watched, mouth open, one hand still in a packet of crisps. Reality hit us. The TV was gone. We both started crying. My mother got to her knees and wrapped her arms around us and told us it was okay. The Sergeant stood by the empty TV cabinet, eyeing us with what I was sure was hatred. I was scared, but I didn’t stop looking at him. He turned on his heel and left the house. It took us half an hour to calm down. When we were okay again, my mother told us to eat our sandwiches. Then she started to clean up the dead TV.


A new television waited for us in the living room when we woke up the next morning. It was large, with grey borders and an indentation underneath the screen that looked like a tight-lipped mouth. A low voice called our names from the kitchen. My mother was upstairs, still sleeping. The moment we walked in, I could see the Sergeant had packed his bags and left. It was Dad who sat at the table. Lines creased his tanned face and he looked much older than usual. His hair stood up in three different directions. I’m sorry, he said. I’ll never do that again. I don’t want you to fear me. Then he faltered. There were a hundred things he could have said to us but never would because it required an energy and a patience that he didn’t have, and a maturity that he would only possess when the time to talk about it had long since passed. He left his seat and crouched down and gripped us in a bear hug. And in that moment nothing else mattered. We forgot about the Sergeant who took control of our Dad and poured hot water on his brain and sent electrical shocks into his arms and legs and fists and used his tongue to say terrible things that we could never shut out. We forgot it all and we listened to his breathing and wished it was always like this.


The last day of leave was perfect. He took us on a day trip to London. We watched the Changing of the Guard, walked along the Thames, took photos at Madame Tussauds and ate fist-sized dumplings in a Chinese restaurant. We didn’t get back home until after midnight. Dad carried my sleeping brother into the house and put him to bed. Before he said goodnight to me, he told me to look after Mum once he’d left. I said I would, and he said he knew it already. He placed a calloused hand on my forehead and told me to go to sleep.

We saw him off the next morning, trying in vain to hold back the flood. He was dressed in his fatigues again. His heavy rucksack hung from his shoulders. As he climbed onto the idling transport that would take him to camp, he shouted to us that he would be back in a couple of months. We waved until the lorry turned the corner at the end of the road. Only two months, said my mother with a shiver. That’s nothing. My brother and I silently agreed with her, and the three of us trudged back into the house. And we all knew it wasn’t the temperature that caused her to shiver. It was the fact that when Dad next turned up on the doorstep, the Sergeant would be with him.


end of story

© 2019, Grant Price Go to top