A friend in need is a pain. That was one of his favorite sayings. Mind you, once you got to know him, you found that quite often he'd say things like that when he meant the opposite. Well, you stand by your mates, don't you? Even HE has a code of ethics, though they've been warped by wars in foreign lands that I know nothing of.
First time I met him was out on the hills when we were training together. Pretty little boy, I thought. Made the mistake of telling him so - and wound up telling the medical officer I'd busted my jaw falling down a bloody Welsh mountain. He typed it up on the report, all but accused me of lying, but let it go.
We saw quite a lot of each other after that. Ours is a small, select band of men, the best. We train to be better and many are intrigued by it. The Corps has its own brand of mystique about it. I think that's what attracted us both. We stayed because, quite simply, we were the elite.
We got our stripes at about the same time, too. I suppose it should've pissed me off with him being just a kid and all, but his experience abroad stood him in good stead. He was a reliable man to be around, even if he tended to be a loner socially, and he could stand his ground against almost anyone in a fight no matter how dirty.
I'd already made up my mind - Jock McKay, career soldier, twenty-two years professional, pension, gratuity, and a host of trades at my finger-tips. Not him! He was too young, too restless. How the HELL he lasted long enough to make sergeant, I don't know!
And then one day, POOF!, he decided to jack it in. No reason that he could put his finger on. He had been happy, he'd confided to one of the men closest to him, but now he had to move on. He didn't know where he'd go: stay in London, get a job in a foreign army training their guerrillas... I lost touch with him then.
Until the day one of my father's old cronies, a Major (retired, of course), called me up, mentioned that he had a problem that needed specialist equipment. Could I supply and deliver it? I said we are the elite. All he had to do was give me the requirements and the address. He made it easy, gave me the key to one of his agents' apartments. I nearly pissed myself laughing when I found out it was HIS flat. I couldn't resist telling Cowley about Amsterdam, and how, just for once, his boy had failed miserably. I think that the old man was more than a little amused. Seems that he holds the lad in high esteem even though, he admits, he's still a little headstrong.
The thought of teasing him again, just for old times' sake was too much. I delivered the goods all right, a box full of stun grenades, and I left a small memento especially for him - a little flower, delicate, pretty, young...
Cowley told me afterwards that his boy had been a little upset and embarrassed. Apparently, his partner had been in the room at the time, and had added to the humiliation by implying that it might have been a romantic message between us. I replied that he wasn't my type, that he was too willful, too independent, too unapproachable even as a friend. Cowley looked at me and smiled a very warm smile.
"I think he's mellowed a lot since he left the Army," he said enigmatically.
I shrugged and shook my head. Some people are meant to be alone all their lives. I told him so. He just laughed, bought the next round, and changed the subject.
It was seeing him today that reminded me. I walked into this pub I know - a real dive - but the beer's good. And there he was, leaning up against the bar, chatting away to the barmaid, flirting, and using his boyish charms. Sometimes I wonder if he knows he's doing it. He had two drinks in front of him, both halves, a quick one for lunch then with a friend.
I ambled over, stood behind him and ordered my own drink, waiting for him to react. He turned around and glared at me.
"Hello, McKay, how are you, long time no see," I prompted. "Come and join me for a drink. Well, thanks, mate, that's kind of you. Don't mind if I do!"
The anger in his eyes didn't abate one bit, and for a moment, I think he was contemplating murder. My jaw began to ache in anticipation.
"Oh dear, was it something I said?" I asked innocently.
He was about to reply when we were interrupted by his mate's arrival - a scruffy character thatched with brown curls, and wearing a leather jacket over a tee-shirt and washed-out jeans, who reached his hand to the bar and confiscated the glass next to mine. I saw the flash of green as he eyed me speculatively.
"Aren't you going to introduce us?" His voice was cold, the accent surprising - London, shades of northern England, well educated but playing it down. Deliberate disguise - the jacket hid the hand gun expertly. I had no doubts as to the newcomer's identity. He was watching us both like a hawk.
"This," he said, keeping his eyes on his partner, "is McKay. Remember that business with Uncle George's friend..."
"I remember." His companion smiled, and raised his glass in silent salute to us both. "Amsterdam?" He took a sip, trying not to laugh.
"Amsterdam," I acknowledged, and lifted my own drink from the counter, knowing how it rankled for him to lose to anyone.
He continued scowling until, with an exasperated sigh, his colleague picked up his beer and put it into his hand. He was mid-swallow when his partner toasted him, touching the rim of his glass to it and saying cheerfully, "Bottoms up!"
I thought he was going to choke, but he recovered very well, glanced across and waited until his friend was about to take another mouthful before retaliating.
"Up yours!" he replied sweetly.
Curly-top downed his half swiftly, and eyed his partner, impatient to be away. "I'm sorry," he excused them both, "but something's come up. We were just getting a quick one in."
I nodded, understanding. Cowley's boys are on twenty-four stand-by, ready to move at a moment's notice, like us. I saw Bodie breath a sigh of relief and he, too, drained his glass. He grabbed his partner's sleeve and tugged.
"Come on, Ray."
His mate smiled at me. "See you around, maybe."
"Not if I can help it," growled Bodie, pulling his friend towards the door.
I raised my glass to both departing figures. The barmaid came over to collect their empty glasses, and heaved a sigh, shaking her head as she watched them leave.
"Same again, love."
She took my glass with theirs and filled it again. I paid her, and leaned over the bar to look at her legs. She caught me watching, and we started to chat. You know, general stuff, the weather, football, and her regular customers.
And then she caught me and threw me, just as much off-balance as Bodie had been in Holland that time. I had slammed him into the mats and really shocked him.
"It's a bloody shame about your mates, though. The two that just left."
"Well, it's just... You don't expect them to be..." she dangled her wrist, "...bent."
Bodie had gone off to the loos and was sick for three hours after the judo match. I ordered myself a couple of doubles, and got quietly smashed.
It's the only time in my life that I've been floored without being hit.
-- THE END --