by Cath Barton
When Tommy was five years old he watched through a little gap in the fence as the Sunday parade passed his garden. He could hear when it was coming by the low thump of the big bass drum and the tooting of the wind instruments behind it. At school they had a music class in the hall once a week and there were things to play like recorders and triangles and, if you were really lucky though Tommy never was, tambourines which you could bang and shake. But there was nothing as big and shiny as the instruments in the band. There was one that curled all the way round the man who played it, like a snake. Tommy thought it must be squeezing the breath out of the man because his cheeks were puffed out and red. The men all wore peaked caps and they moved as if their legs were all joined together, like a centipede. His Mum said it was called marching. One day some funny ladies called Aunties with powder on their faces that looked and smelled like sherbet came to visit his Mum and asked Tommy what he wanted to do when he was a big boy. He said he wanted to be part of the man-animal with lots of legs that did marching. His Mum laughed and told the Aunties that he wanted to be in the town band, and this made Tommy cross because it wasn’t what he meant. But he couldn’t explain what he did mean, not even to himself.
When Tommy was eleven he went to a different school where they played in teams, though they didn’t move their legs in the same way. No ever asked Tommy to be in their team and that upset him but he didn’t show it. Instead he played games by himself on the computer and never went into the garden and though the Sunday parade still passed by he neither heard nor thought about it.
When Tommy was seventeen he left school and stayed at home, still playing computer games. One day his Mum lost her temper and told him to get out of the house and find something useful to do. He wandered the streets and fell in with two lads who offered him a drink. It passed the time but they weren’t a team. One day, in a blur of alcohol, Tommy told the lads the story of the marching band. They said he should join the army, that he’d get marching there right enough.
Tommy signed up. He got put in a team, he got the peaked cap and he even got a bugle to play. On parade the sergeant major yelled at him and he felt more alone than ever.
When Tommy would have been nineteen his Mum stood with her sisters, all pale-faced now, in the main street of the town and watched the parade of soldiers back from Afghanistan, their legs moving as one beneath the black-draped coffin.