One Careful Owner

The Norwegian military, struggling with dwindling supplies, is ordering conscripts to return their underwear at the end of their military service so that the next group of recruits can use them…


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Night had fallen in Svolvær, high in the Arctic Circle. Two months earlier, actually.

The unending darkness perfectly matched Arne’s soul as he sat at the bar, gloomily staring into space and into a grim future. He sipped his Aquavit, a drink that is essentially the Northern Lights in a glass. Normally the drink lit internal fireworks that warmed his stomach and his heart, but on this evening it made not a lighter-flick in the blackness he felt inside. He shook his head, causing his long blond Nordic locks to flick, and sighed, heavily.

“What’s wrong?” said a voice, startling him. Arne looked around. While he had been a thousand lives away old Fredrik had come into the bar, placed his walking stick on the counter and sat himself on his favourite corner stool, from where he would spend each evening telling anyone who would listen, and those who would not, that in the old days the nights were longer, the winters were harsher and you could leave your front door unlocked, possibly because burglars had no interest in dried fish.

Frederik nodded to the barman, who gave him a vodka. He lowered half of it in one gulp, and turned his attention again to Arne.

“So what’s wrong, young man,” he said.

“I’ve been conscripted,” said Arne.

Fredrik snorted, finished his drink, and nodded for another. “Is that all?” he said. “I did conscription years ago.”

Arne eyed him sceptically. Fredrik had, over the years, told stories in which he herded reindeer, whale-hunted, whale watched, worked on an oil-rig and co-wrote the Norwegian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The tallness of his tales were matched only by the shortness of his stature.

Still, thought Arne, military service had always been compulsory. “What’s it like?” he asked, cautiously.

“It’s fine,” said Fredrik. “It never did me any harm.”

Arne looked doubtfully at the walking stick, and at the speed at which his companion was drinking, but felt a tiny bit more hopeful. “Is it really not so bad?” he asked. “I imagined getting a haircut like a tennis ball, having a man shout spit-fully into my face, peeling half a million potatoes, trying to stab a dangling sack of sand with a bayonet and wriggling under a cargo-net in my underwear.”

“Well, that’s not right,” said Fredrik.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because -”

“You go under the cargo-net in someone else’s underwear.”

“What?” said Arne. “I’ve to wear a dead man’s pants?”

“Not a dead man,” corrected Fredrik. “Just a previous recruit.”

“But that’s gross,” wailed Arne.

“Not at all,” said Fredrik. “Wearing another man’s underpants was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“That’s a sentence that doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the rest of your life.”

Fredrik smiled. “Look,” he said, “I’m not denying that I found the idea pretty awful too, especially when I saw what they gave me. The previous owner must have weighed thirty stone. The pants were the size of a parachute. I could barely get my trousers closed, and when I did I looked like I was wearing a swimming ring under them.”

“That’s terrible,” said Arne. “Did any of the other men offer to swap?”

“No,” said Fredrik. “They just nicknamed me Bishop Tutu, and kept making me do ballet poses.”

Arne frowned. “I’m not seeing,” he said, “how this was the best thing ever.”

“Because,” said Fredrik. “Those pants saved my life.”

Here we go, thought Arne. “How?” he asked.

“Well,” said Fredrik, signalling for another drink, “I was shot in the Skafferhullet region.” He saw Arne open his mouth to speak. “It’s a border crossing between us and Russia,” he said.

“Oh, good,” said Arne, “because it sounded like a euphemism for being shot in the balls.”

“I was shot in the balls,” said Fredrik.

Arne tried to show no expression. “Seriously?” he said.

“Very seriously,” said Fredrik. “We never found out why. I had wandered very near the border, so maybe they were trying a warning shot and got it wrong. Maybe someone’s gun went off by mistake. Maybe they saw the shape of me and thought I was a yeti. Anyway, I felt this sudden thump in the groin, as if I’d been kicked in the crotch by the Invisible Man, and saw I had a hole in the front of my trousers.”

“And you’re saying,” said Arne carefully, “that the giant pants absorbed the bullet. Like a bible in a soldier’s breast pocket.”

“Exactly,” nodded Fredrik eagerly. “I took down my trousers, shook out my underpants and there was the bullet, still too hot to touch.”

“While you escaped unharmed,” said Arne.

“Not totally unharmed,” said Fredrik. “There was a lot of bruising. My genitals looked like an extra from Avatar for about six weeks.”

Arne smiled. “Is that why you have a limp?” he said.

“A limp what?” said Fredrik suspiciously.

“Um,” said Arne, suddenly curiously ashamed. “It’s just, er, that you walk with a stick.”

Frederik knocked back the last of his drink and stood. “Oh, that,” he said. “No, luge accident. At the Olympics.”

Arne raised his eyebrows. “You competed in the Olympics?”

Frederik stared back for a few seconds, as if deciding something. “No,” he said eventually, “I was hit by a luge, when I was a spectator at the Olympics.”

Arne watched silently as Fredrik wrapped himself against the cold. Then the old man patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s only a few months.” He pressed something into Arne’s hand. “Keep this,” he said, “and look at it when times are hard.”

Arne looked down at the misshapen bullet in his hand, then up at Fredrik, who winked, walked to the bar door, stopped and turned.

“Oh, and while you’re in the army,” he said, “don’t go commando.”







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