“Please! Let me go! I won’t tell anyone, I promise!”
“He’s lying through his rotten teeth! Do him, finish him off now Tom!”
The words from that night echo through my mind over and over, the night’s events that had brought me here to finally face up to the past.
“My Lord can you please direct Mr McCabe to answer the question?” The condescending voice demanded as it brought me crashing back to the present.
I could only mumble in reply.
“I’m sorry Mr McCabe, could you repeat that please?” The smug voice of the advocate asked.
“I said…” Lifting my head with a sudden but fleeting burst of dignity. “…It’s Sergeant McCabe!” I stated, proudly highlighting my rank to the packed courtroom.
"Ok, Sergeant McCabe, what is your version of the events which occurred on the evening of 21st August 2007?” The advocate rephrased giving acidic emphasis to the rank.
I looked around; firstly, at the dock where two of my closest friends stood doing their best to look disinterested, although I knew they were terrified.
Then my gaze drifted across to the gallery, and there it was. There sat the results of that night. The young Asian man, more of a boy really, confined to a wheelchair, nothing more than a shadow of his former self, an almost lifeless shell. Oh Jesus Christ! I thought as I noticed the small hand gripping tightly onto the young man’s inert arm, my widened stare followed the small limb to it’s source, I almost choked again as I noticed a young girl no more than four or five years old with a pitiless, firm expression fixed across her babyish features. My gaze met hers, there was a hint of loathing in her eyes and for what seemed like a lifetime the eye-contact held, until I couldn’t take it anymore, I dropped my eyes to the floor desperately searching for an escape from this nightmare, some scrape or mark on the ground where I can direct the conflict between emotion and conscience raging within but the floor was immaculate.
“Sergeant McCabe, please answer the question!” The presiding judge ordered.
“My Lord, may I be excused as I’m beginning to feel unwell, jus’ a short break is all I’ll need.” I once again found my voice, despite my head swimming in turmoil.
The judge sighed heavily causing me to fear the worst.
“Very well Sergeant, normally I wouldn’t grant such a request, however it’s getting close to lunch time and this seems a good juncture to pause things!” He turned to the courtroom “We will adjourn for one hour!” The judge rose, the bailiff’s shout triggering everyone else to stand before filing out of the courtroom.
Managing to find my way to the canteen, I ordered a plate of chips then found I couldn’t stomach anything; my gut was in knots, palms sweaty and my heart racing incessantly, thundering in my chest.
My head and heart were tearing me in two directions. On one hand sits my principles, the same principles I had joined the army to fight for, the respect and trust in justice and the strict conscience I have always had. On the other hand are my friends, closer than brothers, we had trained together, fought together, survived together and most of all they had taken the blame for everything.
As if in accusation, a quote I’d heard at school crept into my mind. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." These thoughts brought back that day; I decided to replay it in my head and, hopefully, make my decision.
We had arrived back in the UK after a second tour of duty in Iraq, friends and colleagues had been lost, we had been metres sometimes centimetres away from death on more than one occasion but now we were home.
“Ye off hame t’ see the folks Tom?” Staff Sergeant Davies asked me,I was his subordinate and friend.
“No prob’ly not, not for a week at least, am looking to relax not add to ma stress levels!” I joked.
Davies could be twisted on the odd occasion and a total hard nut most of the time but as an inexperienced corporal I found him an excellent soldier and officer whenever we were up to our necks in it back in Iraq.
Davies, two privates from our squad named Pearce and Jones and I had been inseparable since assigned to the same unit after training. We got drunk, picked fights and generally got arrested together. Davies suggested that we go out that night before starting our respective plans for the month long leave.
After finding a hotel in town and getting checked in we arranged to meet down in the hotel bar about six o'clock that evening. I decided to grab some sleep; Davies went for a wander whilst Pearce and Jones decided to go straight for the bar as soon as they changed out of their fatigues.
After a few hours sleep I had a shower, got dressed and made my way downstairs for six o’clock. I found the two Privates a little tipsy and bugging one of the pretty barmaids, as usual. A few minutes later Davies arrived and our group had a few drinks in the hotel bar before moving on to scope out the local nightlife. Eventually we found a relatively small pub-come-club and settled in to await it getting busy. More and more drinks followed, shooters, spirits, cocktails, various beers, ales, and lagers, Jones even tried Alco pops; much to everyone else’s amusement.
Davies, that mad bastard, I can still hear him today saying “Ya big Woman.” every time Jones appeared with another bottle of the latest vodka Alco pop. The time came for me to go to the bar for another round; the club had gotten much busier so it was a tight squeeze to get there.
On my way back, my hands full with drink, a young Asian man swung round bumping into me resulting in us both dropping our drinks. Being relatively sober I apologised and offered to buy the man another as replacement. The young man clearly smashed and looking for a fight pushed me; it wasn’t much of a push - although the intent to do harm was there - the capability wasn’t. I walked away and caught a glimpse of my adversary swinging a flailing punch at me; I managed to duck just in time. Davies suddenly appeared from nowhere; he must have been watching.
“Back the fuck off!” Was all I could make out before my friend lowered his voice and spoke to the young Asian man.
Davies had that trademark grin of his blazing across his taut facial features; the grin a frightening sight for anyone, it always looked so unnatural, wicked and screamed of the violence within him. I went to the bar to get another round in to replace the spilled ones, and on the way back to the table I noticed the absence of the man and his friends. After a few more drinks things began to blur together.
It must have been around 4am when I started to get my senses back, slowly realising all of us were in an alleyway just along the street from the club. Jones, Pearce and myself were throwing up whilst Davies just stood laughing and making bad jokes; apparently fine despite matching the rest of us drink for drink. I was beginning to feel better, although it looked like there was no end in sight for the two young privates as they continued regurgitating most of their intake from our heavy drink session.
Davies abruptly shot off towards the street, I would have followed him but my other two friends were still “dying” from their over-indulgence so I stayed with them to make sure they were ok; besides Davies could look after himself. I was beginning to get worried I was tempted to follow on when Davies finally returned; my face dropping as soon as I caught sight of the reason my friend had disappeared so suddenly.
Pearce and Jones were gradually recovering by that point - although they were still drunk. Davies’ hand had grip of a white shirt collar, on the front of which were bloodstains and literally hanging from the shirt was a young man! The man’s nose was broken but as both came further into the alley; one practically dragging the other, I was able to focus properly on the bloody pulp and the face behind it.
My gasp was almost audible as the recognition dawned; it was the man from earlier, the one who had tried to fight me. Gone was the cocky arrogance of before, his eyes now betrayed his fear. Davies threw his companion bodily to the ground at my feet.
“Foun’ this wee prick walkin’ doon the street, he tried t’ run when he saw me, but no’ fast enough, eh dickhead?” He said giving his victim a quick jab in the ribs with his boot.
The resulting whimper seemed to please him, Davies turned to Pearce and Jones.“Do ye know who this is?” Davies said, pausing, as they shook their heads in muted response.“This little sod took a swing at oor mate Tom here! Tom had apologised despite it being this arsehole’s fault that they spilt their drinks!” Davies continued, gradually getting louder towards the end as the memory from the club enraged him again.
“I’m sorry!” The young Asian man whimpered as he lay on the pavement frozen with fear.
“Did I tell you t’ shpeak?” The slight slur the first sign of the alcohol he had consumed over the course of the evening, although it took nothing away from the fearsome sound of his voice.
Another quick jab to the young man’s ribs; I winced at the contact, as even such a seemingly soft prod from my friend would hurt like hell
“Jones, Pearce, come on get a move on, thish guy needs a fuckin’ doin’!”
They hesitated for a moment then shuffled towards the man, Davies giving another swift wallop, this time to the soft tissue of the young man’s stomach causing him to lurch forward struggling for air. This was all the encouragement Jones and Pearce needed. All three men pounded mercilessly on their victim’s head and body. The young man trying to protect himself from the onslaught rolled into a ball but it offered scant shelter from the relentless assault.
Watching in horror, I flinched as the blows continually landed: feeling sick, rooted to the spot, unable to breathe or move. An eternity passed and the blows gradually began to fall away. The man was now just a purple and bloody red heap collapsed on the ground.
“McCabe come on, you finish him off!” Davies insisted, still panting from his exertions.
“Please! Let me go! I won’t tell anyone, I promise!”
“He’s lying through his rotten teeth! Do him, finish him off now Tom!”
Three choices and not enough time to think clearly: the consequences of each racing through my mind in that fraction of a second. I could step in - say the young man had had enough of a beating; standing up to my friend in the process - walk away; do nothing - or the final option, finish the man off; put him out of his misery.
It dawned on me in that moment that this had nothing to do with the incident earlier in the night; it all just being a pretext to cover what this was really about. Davies was taking out his frustrations, his fears, the grief and pain carried back from Iraq where we had lost friends and colleagues to countless suicide bombers, roadside bombs and ambushes. I began to fear for myself: if this was a way to take out his frustrations then Davies was more than capable of turning on me and that thought scared me.
I walked up the alleyway and round the corner out of sight but not earshot. My body involuntarily flinched again, hearing my three friends resume the attack. I felt sick, Jones and Pearce later told me that they became mentally and physically tired of the assault and stopped but Davies continued kicking - tears of pure rage streaming down his face. Moments later the two Privates pulled him away; his self-control gone he broke down. Rejoining them as Davies gradually got back his wits, allowing us to lead him back to the hotel. The next day we all went off separately to enjoy our leave, Davies was never quite the same after that night although we were still close friends something inside him had changed, broken that night.
My train of thought brought me onwards; ten months later, our unit had been on a tour in Afghanistan, I had been promoted to Sergeant. My squad - including Corporal Pearce and Lance Corporal Jones - were out on patrol for three days. Upon our arrival back in camp the commanding officer took us aside and broke the news. Staff Sergeant Davies shot himself whilst we were on patrol.
A fork dropped to the floor in the canteen, the resulting echoes bringing me back to the present for a moment. Refocusing my thoughts I continued replaying my memories.
I can still remember when we had been arrested - at Davies’ wake believe it or not. As standard procedure our fingerprints were taken. We had been kept in the cells for almost 24 hours with no charges; when the doors swung open, we were beckoned out.
“Sergeant McCabe, Corporal Pearce and Lance Corporal Jones you are charged with, that on the early hours of 22nd August 2007 you preceded to attempt to cause the death of Zishan Shahim!”
Other charges were read out but I didn’t hear them my mind had frozen in horror.
Oh my god. I thought to myself, all three of our mouths dropped open at exactly the same moment; I was numb and had almost managed to block that night out of my mind. I was expecting charges of breach of the peace or drunk and disorderly but not this,not attempted murder. In the end I was released; both my friends had taken the full blame. I had to remain in the country after being called as a witness for the prosecution. The memories were just making it harder for me to come to a decision on what to do. I looked at my watch; the hour’s reprieve was nearly up.
Standing up in a daze I walked out of the cafeteria and down the staircase. Shuffling my way slowly along the polished corridors in the direction of the courtroom - still no idea what to do.
The quote from my schooldays came back to haunt my mind; "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I didn’t do anything; I am guilty of doing nothing! Why the fuck didn’t I just stop them? Why didn’t I stand up to Davies that night, not for Zishan or his daughter, but for all of us? I continued silently berating myself as a few moments of indecision and mental chaos passed.
The court was being called back into session just as I rounded the corner; waiting until the last person had gone in, I took a deep breath, gave myself a woeful smile before stepping over the threshold, the courtroom doors slamming shut behind me.