I remember my old boss Justin describing a significant moment in his life.
He’d been quite successful up to that point. An entrepreneur in the fullest sense of the word, inventing things, selling things, getting by. He’d started a wholefood shop and delivery business, and for a while it all jogged along pretty well. But things started to get tough for one reason or another. His home was at risk. He had to work twice as hard just to keep his head above water. The stress of it all began to bite, and uncharacteristically for Justin, he buckled, losing that bright and slightly crazy optimism that had always buoyed him up. He began to daydream about regular hours, getting a job, having someone else take the strain. He’d always imagined he might like it in the army, attracted by the esprit de corps, perhaps, the foreign travel, discipline, routine spiced with adventure. He liked running and climbing and getting dirty. He started to think he’d missed his calling.
So at forty years old he marched himself into the nearest recruitment office, shook the sargent’s hand and sat down.
‘Where do I sign?’ he said.
The sargent shook his head.
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Sign up? Enlist? I’ve come to join the army.’
‘Sorry mate. You’re too old.’
‘You could always join the reserves. But unless you’re a doctor or something – I take it you’re not?’
‘No. I’ve thought about being a doctor….’
‘Then – sorry.’
‘So let me get this perfectly straight. What you are telling me is that I will never, EVER be able to enlist in the army?’
‘As things stand – correct.’
‘Not ever. No.’
‘For the rest of my life? All of it? I can never be a soldier? That avenue is completely closed to me now?’
I can picture the sargent tensing slightly, glancing past Justin, gauging exits, strategies. Standing up to end the interview.
‘I’m afraid so. But thank you for your interest.’
‘That was the first time I’d ever really had to accept my own mortality,’ Justin said, handing me another box of yogurt-coated raisins to stack. ‘The finality of it all was completely shattering. I mean – there was nothing I could do about it! I could never be a soldier! That was it!’
‘Yeah. Well. I’ll never be an astronaut.’
‘It’s not the same thing.’
‘Because that’s the first time you’ve ever said anything about being an astronaut. Whereas I’ve always thought I might join the army.’
‘Really? I had no idea.’
‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’
‘What about Margaret? Did she know?’
‘Know that you’ve always wanted to be a soldier?’
‘Of course. Half my family were in the military.’
‘But they were conscripted. Along with most of the rest of the population.’
‘At least they were young enough. I’d have ended up in the Home Guard. Bastards.’
He slammed the van door shut and then leaning back on it, took out his tobacco pouch and rolled himself a cigarette.
‘He may have had ten years on me, but I was a helluva lot fitter.’
‘I think you had a narrow escape. I can’t imagine you as a soldier.’
‘Why? What d’you mean?’
‘I don’t know. You’re too much of an independent spirit.’
‘Independent spirit!’ he said, flicking the match away and blowing out a great cloud of smoke. ‘Shagged-out spirit, maybe. Anyway. What the hell. I’m thinking of opening a jazz club. And if I do, he’s not coming in….’