Marc was not his real name. The first thing that surprised him about The Farm was how little the instructors cared about his individual performance. They didn’t care if he was first at something, or fastest at something, or best at something. They were, however very interested in how well he worked with others. Once, when he filled his water bottles alone he was berated for his selfishness.
“Porc égoïste!” shouted the Corporal.
Helping others was not an easy thing to learn for a young man who had survived the darker streets of Amsterdam. It was late afternoon, winter at The Farm. Marc was standing at attention, shivering in the freezing rain with 45 other recruits. His body ached from the day’s exertions. His thoughts turned to a hot shower and the evening meal, as always served with wine.
“Diviser en groupes de deux!” ordered the Corporal.
Marc paired up with Filipe, the lanky Portuguese. They adopted the wrestling stance, facing each other. Water dripped from their faces.
“Commencer!” shouted the Corporal. That was fourteen years ago. There were easier ways to learn French.
There are places you can go where you are struck at once by the brutal purpose of an endeavour. A steelworks for example. Or an abattoir. The battlefield is such a place. It has occupied the minds of warriors for millennia. Like others before him, Marc approached it first in his mind, wondering whether he would have what it takes. Then one day when he was as physically sharpened and as precisely drilled and it was possible to be, he sat in the open doorway of a Puma helicopter watching the signs of civilisation fall steadily away. Marc looked at his fellow Legionnaires, living proof that men from anywhere in the world could become close as family. He could smell them: sweat, face paint, Kevlar, machine oil; professionals. On the ground he looked down at his dusty boots and then out to the battlefield, always looking in the same direction as his weapon. Somewhere out there, within the range of his FAMAS assault rifle were other men intent on his destruction. That was 5 years ago. And there were easier ways to earn Euros.
It was day four of Marc’s solo whoring operation in Amsterdam. After another long deployment in Mali, Marc was spending his hard-earned Euros on Anna, a tidy piece of Ukrainian ass. They were a good match; she was also a professional and didn’t go by her real name either. She wasn’t even Ukrainian. But then again Marc wasn’t really French. After five years’ service he’d become a French citizen, finally safe from the troubles of his Dutch youth. Now, after fourteen years in the Legion including three combat tours he held the rank of Adjutant, a senior non-commissioned officer. In 48 hours he was due to report to The Farm for his first posting as a recruit instructor, a non-negotiable deadline.
Marc knew about whores. His mother had been one in Amsterdam, back in the ‘80s. A week ago he’d heard through his half-brother that she was ill, and wanted to see him. It was a taxi ride from the bed he shared with Anna. And yet, he was undecided. The taxi was waiting outside. As he closed his overnight bag, the text message from Filipe’s wife came as a surprise. Filipe, the lanky Portuguese. Anna was on an hourly rate so she feigned interest.
“Is it one other girlfriend?” she asked in broken English.
“None of your business,” snapped Marc as he read the message with concern.
Marc sat in the departure hall of Amsterdam Schiphol with his boarding pass for Marseille. A bus would then take him to Castelnaudary, and then on to The Farm. He thumbed his smartphone looking at the map of the Marseille waterfront. If he was quick, Filipe’s place was on the way.
Filipe and his wife Denise ran a small seafood restaurant. It was just before 4 pm when he arrived, still quiet before the dinner rush. Marc was taken aback seeing Filipe. Filipe, his wrestling opponent in the rain.
“Dutch, it’s been far too long,” said Filipe, holding his arms wide.
Marc wasn’t sure how to embrace a man in a wheelchair. He recovered quickly and knelt on one knee beside him. Filipe, who’d taken the brunt of the IED blast. Tears filled Marc’s eyes involuntarily. Filipe, whose dried blood was still on Marc’s Kevlar. Denise’s entrance broke their embrace.
“Marc, I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she said as she greeted him with kisses. “Oh, and this is our Claudette.”
“Hello Uncle Marc,” said a five year old girl, “would you like a Grolsch?”
Marc had to stop himself from laughing at the deadpan delivery of the tiny, serious girl. “Yes little one,” he said with a smirk. He watched as Claudette expertly flipped the wire opening on the large green bottle and poured Marc a neat glass.
“You will stay for dinner, yes.” said Denise. It wasn’t a question.
Marc sat at a table alone and watched the dinner service as he ate. Filipe rolled among the tables, taking orders. Claudette delivered the plates and drinks. Denise commanded the kitchen. He was touched by the easy rhythm of this little family. He thought of the new life Filipe and Denise had begun to build here. Filipe’s place in France had been hard-earned. Because of his wounds he’d been granted automatic citizenship, a tradition known as “French by blood shed”.
Claudette was in bed by 10 pm. The last guests were putting on their coats and Filipe and Denise joined Marc at his table, bringing tumblers for the wine.
“You are due at barracks tomorrow?” asked Filipe.
“Yes,” said Marc, “don’t want to blow my pension.” He turned to the matter at hand. “What’s this about the Corsicans?”
Filipe looked at his wife. “I thought you said you wouldn’t tell him?” he said, clearly annoyed.
Denise steadied him with her hand. She touched his cheek, “I didn’t know who else.”
“Then I will tell him,” said Filipe solemnly. “As you know Denise came to Marseille to get away from the gangs. There were family connections. The Corsicans are moving into Marseille. A man has been visiting us at the restaurant.”
“Extortion,” concluded Marc.
Denise took her chance, “and someone has approached Claudette outside her school.” She began to break down and rested her head on her husband’s chest. He stroked her hair. As he did this, Marc noticed the small tattoo on the inside of Filipe’s forearm, near the brachial artery: his blood group A-negative.
Getting hold of a firearm in Marseille was no easy thing, particularly when your enemy were the ones running the guns. Marc dressed as an American tourist and spent a week gathering intelligence on his new target. He was now well overdue for duty at The Farm, but this mission was sacred. He would go after their leader.
Marc came to consciousness, awoken by the sound of muffled voices and keys. His left eye was swollen closed and throbbing. He looked up to see his arms tied at the wrist with a thick plastic zip tie and taking the weight of his body on a meat hook. He saw his own blood group tattoo: AB-positive. He was in a concrete room that smelled of bodily fluids. He was struck by the brutal purpose of the place. It was early morning. The room faced north. He could hear two men talking on the other side of the steel door.
“He killed the godfather,” whispered one.
“What do we do with him?” asked the other.
One of the men opened a small peep door. Marc didn’t need to look. He could smell them: fear, tobacco, alcohol, dirty clothes; amateurs. They were thugs, without a leader, men without dignity. A smile curled at the corner of Marc’s parched lips. He now had all the information he needed for his next battle. He knew he would take them.