I was as drunk as ten men when we left the Southsider. I had assumed that the night air would automatically sober me, but walking immediately acquired an unexpected novelty and I was tottering along in amazement. The street seemed to dart in and out of my face, as if it was a gigantic crow which was taking pecks out of me. I tried to fall in with the sounds of my own footsteps to steady myself.
Yet my drunkenness shot down to nothing, as the flame does on a cigarette lighter, when the distinct jingle of car keys slithered up from out of somewhere. There was a car parked in the shadow of Farmfoods and Toby was suddenly bearing down on it.
“Hey man,” James protested in a strained casual voice. “Maybe we should leave it for the night?”
James looked startled. Toby seemed not to have heard him.
The doors of the car were open and I ducked inside first, dismayed to be now confined inside this cramped shell. I just wanted to be drunk and to walk along thinking wistfully about girls, but the world was determined to keep on interrupting me. You must think about this – you must keep talking to this person – we’re all still here, you know.
James was in the back seat beside me, looking wildly uncomfortable. Until now, I was sure that Toby was as drunk as I was. He had matched every pint that we had drunk, and waited patiently until we had all finished before beginning again. Had this great deluge just disappeared, like a downpour on a summer’s day?
He still stank of drink, but he now looked alert and business-like. Perhaps when he got out of the car, the drunkenness would be waiting for him as normal.
We were rolling through the Edinburgh night and James and I both tried to give an impression that we were unconcerned with the quality of Toby’s driving. We watched without apparent interest as, incredibly, he stopped at a pedestrian crossing and waited for a string of disorderly girls to prance across. It looked like a great gust of wind had taken away most of their clothes, leaving their bare skin stinging in the night air.
For a moment the siren was prowling on the edges of my mind, and then the police car had swooped down on us and I was sitting bolt upright, flabbergasted. Of course I knew the law and the obvious risk, but it was still astonishing that the universe could really be so mean.
Dying is probably like this – you never believe that it will happen until the very last second. Toby gave one long groan and then promptly pulled over. The two policemen had left their car and they were trotting over to us, looking as blank and inhuman as riot shields. Toby wound down his window and he tutted with irritation as James wound down ours in the back.
We had been driving through central Edinburgh at five miles an hour. Toby would have to take a breathalyser test. He was now outside, puffing into what looked like an electronic box of Ribena.
I still did not believe that we would really get into trouble. I should have been making frantic arrangements and phoning up some muddled pyjama-clad solicitor, but I instead remained bathed in the peaceful sense that we were enchanted.
One policeman was now making a list of announcements to Toby in a loud, thick voice. Toby glowered at him. The other was peeling off his latex gloves and beginning to laboriously sterilise the breathalyser.
“This isn’t fair,” Toby remarked to nobody in particular. “I fight for this country.”
Both of the policemen froze.
“I’ve done two tours in Helmand and I’m going back next week.”
The policemen were now looking at each other.
“You got an armed forces card, buddy?” the first of the policemen asked, with a new note of respect, or at least uncertainty, in his voice.
Toby stared at him in outrage. “It’s back at my flat…”
“It’s okay, buddy,” the second policeman said quietly, dismissing the law with a wave. “We can see you know how to drive.” They were now slipping back to their car, as if they had just received news of a far more important crime several neighbourhoods away.
Toby climbed inside again and we all sat in silence for a moment, with that sudden, defeated feeling that you get when the drunkenness tires faster than you do.
When James spoke, I shuddered. His voice sounded petty and irascible, an impertinent little bleat. “You’re going to Helmand? For fuck’s sake – I thought you were smarter than that.”
Toby seemed to collect himself together with a click and to square up to the rear-view mirror. “What do you mean?”
“This preposterous war we’ve started and then managed to lose. I know it’s something that people are never supposed to say – that we’re apparently programmed not to be conscious of. You never hear the word “defeat” used alongside “Afghanistan”…”
Toby looked away. “It’s been difficult – a difficult job…”
“We’re a modern army with high tech weaponry fighting a bunch of farmers, AND WE’VE LOST! They’ve fulfilled all of their military objectives – they’ve booted us out of the country. We don’t even know what ours are. We’re not a militaristic society – people simply don’t follow what their army does anymore, what territory it’s seized and lost, how many soldiers have died or why. And the army seems to be just as clueless as we are. They actually sued somebody last month for shooting a Taliban prisoner. Perhaps if a few more of our soldiers had some vague, warlike hatred of the enemy, we might not have been humiliated so abysmally and with so…”
“Maybe you should fuck yourself you little shit,” Toby suggested. “Go and fuck off out my car before I smash…”
“Toby, you’re not a soldier yourself,” I said pleasantly. “You left the army three years ago. And as I remember you were a peacekeeper in Basra.”
Toby started the car with a choke, instantly forgiving James or else forgetting that he was still inside. “I don’t care,” he muttered. “People should show some respect.”