Comp by Craig Burnett

The young woman marched into Sergeant Fawley’s office and, before he could rise from his chair, dropped the television on his desk. The television was a great block of a thing, 30 years old at least, and when it landed on the desk, clouds of dust spurted from its innards all over the sergeant’s paperwork. When the dust cleared, Sergeant Fawley saw yellowed plastic veneer peeling from the television’s casing like dead skin. Its corners were chipped. Loose wires snaked from a rusted metal grille. In the middle of the screen, a few inches from Sergeant Fawley’s face, was a single bullet hole.

The woman stepped back and looked at him expectantly. Her skin was bronzed, baked almost. It reminded Sergeant Fawley of the boys he had commanded on his last tour. Even the pastiest ones had a tan by the end. In the mess tent, some of the boys would joke about blending in with the locals, about coming home with an Afghan wife. That is what they seemed to be saying, anyway. The jokes stopped if Sergeant Fawley came too close, so he kept to a bench at the other end of the tent. Best not spoil the fun. Sergeant Fawley had a tan too, of course, but he didn’t notice until the tour was over. The day the unit landed back at RAF Benson, he had stared into his mirror for a long time, wondering who exactly was staring back at him.

The tan was long gone now. Sergeant Fawley looked at his ghostly reflection in the TV screen. The curve of the glass made his already vast chin and forehead seem even bigger. Such a bland face, he had heard his mother tell a friend once, when they thought he was out of earshot. Or maybe she was talking to his teacher? When Sergeant Fawley’s thoughts drifted back to his reflection, he noticed the bullet hole was hovering between his eyes.

He looked the woman up and down. Legs firm, chin up, back straight as an iron girder—she wouldn’t be out of place on the parade ground. Hands like a soldier, too. Hard and cracked. Like all the farm girls, he supposed. There were a few farming families left in the valley, but otherwise it was nothing but sheep and mud and young men undergoing basic rifle training. For the past six months, they had been training under Sergeant Fawley’s supervision.

The woman stepped forward and slapped a sheet of paper on top of the TV set, blowing more dust through the air. “Comp,” she said, and folded her arms. The sergeant coughed and picked up the letter. It was grubby and dog-eared, a year old, clearly a standard thing sent to every property near the firing range. The woman had underlined one of its sentences. Any object of a value less than £1,000 destroyed by stray range fire liable for as-new replacement, with no receipt or proof of purchase required. Sergeant Fawley’s men checked the range before any exercise started, and in theory all the firing should stay in a tightly controlled area. But very occasionally, stray bullets turned up in machinery or bags of feed or luckless stray sheep. The claims used to drag on for months, until headquarters decided set compensation was a saving in the long run. When Sergeant Fawley took the job, they had told him he would have to sign off on claims, but hers was the first.

Sergeant Fawley gestured at the television. “So how did…”

“It was in the lane, at the bottom of Kennet’s Hill.”

“And what was it doing…”

“I was carrying it up to Jim at the Three Horseshoes. He wanted to borrow it, put it on the bar for the World Cup.”

“World Cup’s not for another month.”

The woman shrugged. “That’s Jim’s business.” 

“And you were going to carry it all the way to the Three Horseshoes? This bloody great thing?”

She shrugged again. “Car was with Geoff Ruddings for a fix. Only picked it up today.”

Sergeant Fawley raised an eyebrow. “Just in time to come up here.”

“Repair cost me £80. Old bloke backed into me. One of your officers, I’d imagine, probably been in the Three Horseshoes all afternoon. In fact, I should get comp for that too.”

The woman’s eyes were jumping around the room, and there were was a faint tremble in her hands. For all her bravado, she was nervous, scared maybe. But fear takes people differently, Sergeant Fawley thought. This woman seemed built of the same stuff as the helicopters and helmets and body armor that had surrounded him in Afghanistan. Designed to harden on impact. There had been a few men like that in the unit. Connors. McBride. Aftaz, the interpreter with the lazy eye and endless questions about life in the U.K. Matthews, for the first few months at least.

The sergeant sighed. “Right. So you were carrying your TV to the Three Horseshoes… what’s your name, by the way?”

“Not my TV. Mum’s. She bought it. For all of us.”

“Right. Your mum’s TV. Does she know you’re…”

“Doesn’t matter, does it? Doesn’t affect my comp. As new, that’s what the letter says. As. New.” She waved her phone screen in the sergeant’s face. “£200 for a new TV at the Argos in Hereford. Sale price, that is. Sale price.”

Sergeant Fawley looked from the letter to the television. “So you were walking down the lane at the foot of Kennet’s Hill…”

“Yeah, and I remembered the chickens were laying and I hadn’t got the eggs in. So I put the TV down and went back, and I started doing a few other jobs too, and I must’ve forgot. When I remembered that evening, I went back and found it like this.”

“You forgot. Forgot you had left your TV in a hedgerow. ”

“Not my TV. Mum’s.”

Sergeant Fawley rose to his feet, suddenly angry. “The thing’s not worth ten pounds. You’d have had to pay someone to take it away, even before it got damaged.”

The woman did not flinch. “Still worked though, just about. Doesn’t matter what it’s worth, what it’s not worth. Doesn’t affect my…”

“Yes, yes, all right.” The sergeant sat down, his face flushed red.

“So you can sign it, yeah? You’re in charge?”

“I’ll need to call someone.”

“Why?” She tapped the paper. “It’s the rules. I’d have thought you lot would be all over the rules.”

Sergeant Fawley shooked his head and dialed division headquarters, unsure of what he would say to the person on the other end. A secretary answered, told him someone would ring back. The sergeant’s visitor was right of course. The rules were clear. And rules are sacrosanct, pure in their clarity and universality. That’s what he’d told the unit, in a halting speech delivered hours after their arrival in Afghanistan. Over there, Sergeant Fawley had clung to the belief that they were all the same under the rules. Even if they couldn’t share a joke in the mess. So, as the days wore on and the men slipped further away, it seemed obvious that only an ever-more rigorous application of the rules could bring a sense of purpose and camaraderie.

At the tribunal, it was suggested to Sergeant Fawley that the fervor of this pursuit “may have obscured other considerations.” The question was asked by an officer of Sergeant Fawley’s own age and rank, a man with the same uniform and haircut and stiff-kneed walk. Sergeant Fawley did not answer. He was lost in the same feeling that had struck him when he stared in the mirror at RAF Benson.

The visitor began to wander around his office. She seemed more relaxed, after prompting him to stand up and sit down again. Sergeant Fawley felt his grip on the situation loosening. Images of his unit—the blank faces that had greeted his speech—filled his mind. The woman opened a filing cabinet and peered inside. “Is this what you do all day then? Sign forms?” With the cabinet still open, she wandered over to a picture on the opposite wall. Sergeant Fawley at forward base, squinting into the sun, stood awkwardly at the end of a row of men. She turned to him, then back to the picture, then finally back to him, and nodded. Pity? But how could she… second guessing himself, that’s something he’d done plenty of in Afghanistan. Afterwards, too. He was relieved when headquarters rang back a few seconds later.

The sergeant explained the situation, ending his account with a clumsy whisper of, “It just doesn’t seem very fair, sir.” But he was beaten, and he knew it. Five minutes later, he stared out of his window, watching his visitor climb into her car. She sat behind the wheel for a while, and for a horrifying moment, he thought she was going to come back. There was something uncanny in the way she’d squared her shoulders, in her tan, in that look she’d given him. He scowled, crossed the room to the open filing cabinet and slammed it shut. God knows why he kept the letter buried in there—who he would ever show it to. He could recite the damn thing word for word, in any case.

While the tragic events of 12 April could not in all likelihood have been prevented, Sergeant Fawley’s conduct fell far below that expected of a serving officer. The panel accepts Sergeant Fawley believed he was working to preserve discipline within his unit, but the panel finds he was negligent in the care and well-being of troops under his command. Recommendation: transfer to a non-combat role. The tribunal notes Sergeant Fawley’s sincere desire to send condolences to Private Matthews’s family, but we feel such contact would not be appropriate at this time.




Anna tried to start the car, but the shaking and the sweat on her fingertips made the task impossible. No chance of getting to Hereford with the banks still open anyway. She would have to go tomorrow. She fished a bottle of water out from under the seat and tried to take a swig, but the tremor in her hands set the lip of the bottle rattling against her teeth. Her jaw ached. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw the television on the back seat, its wires trailling into the footwell. It had been the sergeant’s one condition—that she take it away with her. She wondered what to do with it. Maybe Geoff Ruddings could fix it? He could fix anything, Geoff. Maybe even in time for the World Cup.

Anna dipped her hand in her pocket and felt the sharp edges of the check, and the shaking start to subside. There was supposed to be life insurance to take care of everything—she remembered mum grumbling about the cost when they cleaned out the gutters last summer. But apparently there had been a missed payment somewhere along the way, and that was that.

The sergeant hadn’t been so bad, in the end. What was it mum used to say? Show them your teeth, girl. Every time Anna complained about squaddies wolf-whistling, or bothering her in the Three Horseshoes. Show them your teeth, girl. It’s funny, she thought, the things you remember about a person.




Craig Burnett was born in Dundee and lives in South London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He tweets @cburnettwriter.



(Front page image via)

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