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The white flags of the Taliban fluttered from the crumbling mud walls of the village and people stared at us with blank, hostile eyes as the armoured vehicles rumbled along the narrow, dusty lane. Captain Beaumont was quieter than usual, his mouth set in a grim line beneath three days’ growth of beard. I wanted to ask him what he thought was up but after a week in his company I’d already learnt when to keep my journalist’s mouth shut.
After a few stints embedded with various regiments in numerous war zones, I’d developed a bit of a feel for trouble myself. I guess a kid would call it ‘Spidey sense’. I just called it my ‘Oh shit’ sense.
They started firing at us from the rooftops, a couple of fuckwit snipers with nothing better to do than take pot shots at British soldiers. Bullets pinged off the vehicles, spat in the dust and slammed into walls.
The explosion came from the front of the convoy. Rolling waves of dust funnelled through the alley. Our men returned fire in workmanlike silence but, beyond the uneven tattoo of battle, one man’s screams cut through me like a knife.
I tucked my shaking hands between my knees and prayed there wouldn’t be grenades. We were proverbial sitting ducks in armoured vehicles of dubious construction. There was sod all in the APC to hide under. We just had to sit it out and hope there were no IEDs. At moments like this, it was hard not to imagine my paper’s headline, ‘Journalist Evan Harrison killed in ambush’. I wasn’t ready to die. I was thirty-two and had issues that needed to be resolved.
“Call in air support,” Beaumont barked into the radio. “Tell them to hurry the fuck up. I can’t send the fucking medic in while those fuckwits are firing at us.”
I didn’t hear the reply but, given Beaumont’s choice language, I didn’t think the choppers would be too long. Our lot were doing their best and a sharp, pained yelp made me think one of the snipers was hit but the other kept firing erratic bursts into the shooting gallery. As the long, turbulent minutes passed, my fears of grenades and IEDs faded a bit. The insurgents would’ve used them before now, rather than waste bullets. Perhaps I wasn’t going to make the headlines in the wrong way...this time.
I watched Beaumont. He gnawed at his thumbnail while he peered through the slatted window. His dark eyes were a study in contained agony and fury. I don’t know if I could even begin to understand or try to describe what he was feeling.
The roar of the incoming choppers shattered the impasse.
“Thank Christ for that.” Beaumont spoke into his radio. “All right, send in the medic. We’re clear.” He took his helmet off, ran his hand through his spiky hair and sighed. “I hate this fucking job.”
“Yeah.” There wasn’t much else to say.
<p style="text-align: center;"><strong>* * * *</strong>
I couldn’t trail around after Beaumont twenty-four-seven. I had my own tent, a cot and my laptop. The internet connection had been fucked, more or less, since I’d arrived. It meant I could open my laptop and not be inundated with scores of emails or distracted by surfing the net when I should be writing. That’s what I told myself, anyway. Mind, it also meant I finished writing my daily piece in no time, which left me time for sod all. I listened to a lot of music and read one or two books I’d downloaded before I left. But I also had a lot of time to sleep and think.
One night, after a particularly disgusting chicken curry MRE, I couldn’t sleep. I’d finished the books. I’d written my bit for the day. There wasn’t much else to do while my stomach wrestled with the ersatz korma. I opened a file of old photos, curious because it wasn’t labelled. It was an odd collection—bits and pieces—a family birthday, my sister and her kids, a drunken weekend...
It had been a wedding. I didn’t remember whose. Most of the pictures seemed to be of Colin, my best mate. I looked at the photos and tried to remember the last time we’d got together. Jobs and girlfriends kept getting in the way these days. In spite of those obstacles, we’d been best friends since university. I took a long time over those photos, looking at Colin with his messy, black curls, bird’s-wing brows and dark eyes—damn those brown eyes. Seeing him again made me think about things I really tried to avoid—things about myself and where I fitted in the world.
I closed the file, shut down the laptop and tried to sleep. I think it was probably the curry. I know I had some strange dreams and woke with a hell of an erection. I was ashamed that the erection had been fuelled by disjointed images and memories of Colin. I fought the fierce tug of longing and headed for the crooked pipe in a canvas box that served as the camp shower.
The dreams stayed with me as I grabbed some breakfast in the mess tent. It was largely empty, which was good, because I didn’t feel much like talking. I wasn’t sure I knew how. The squaddies almost always talked about the women they’d left behind, or women they fancied. It wouldn’t have gone down so well if I’d told them dreams about my best mate had left me randy.
After breakfast I wandered outside and discovered the reason why the mess was so quiet. They’d decided to let the men phone home using the satellite phone. I was glad of that and hoped that Beaumont was able to speak to his fiancée, because he spoke about her so often. It was clear to me that he hurt with missing her. I wandered across the compound, trying to shake off the dreams. I found Beaumont, hands in pockets, kicking a stone through the eternal dust.