One:



My old mum – bless her – had me bang to rights. You’re a slacker, son, she’d say. Work-shy. Just like your dad, may he rot in hell! And she was right. Back then, though, I took the almost daily rebuke as part of some global parental script. All my pals reported similar. Apart maybe from the dad bit. Most of them knew who their dads were. It never dawned on my adolescent mind that, in her own uneducated way, mum was actually trying to be helpful; that she knew the way things were, she knew that living with false hopes was the road to ruin. You had to see things the way they were, not the way you wanted them to be. You can’t take it out, she’d say, if you haven’t put it in. They were coded messages, sure. But, in hindsight, no less true for that. Cruel to be kind. She knew her stuff, did my old mum.

Her terse prediction about my first job – shelf-stacking in the Co-op - was that it wouldn’t last five minutes. She was actually wrong about that; it lasted until well after lunch time.

Shortly after that, mostly because my pals were doing it, I signed on at the labour exchange. And they were a halcyon few months. Sixty quid a week for doing bugger all; a quantity I was beginning to specialise in. It couldn’t last, of course. And it didn’t. They did their best, I’m sure. Kept offering me jobs and arranging interviews. All of which I ignored. Why bother with all that crap, I thought, with the snooker club just around the corner. They didn’t seem as reluctant as they professed when they eventually, and arbitrarily, signed me off.

I was eighteen by then, and with no education worth mentioning, my job prospects were in the decimal point region. But it wasn’t the job I wanted, it was the money. The trick, I was learning, was in bypassing the first to get at the second.

Trick? Bloody miracle, more like.

I tried picking fruit. If any kind of work is bloody hard, it’s fruit picking. A half a bucket of gooseberries and I was done for. Maybe I had a weak back. That little stint is also to blame for my aversion to blood, and an even deeper aversion to work.

Then, on mum’s say-so, there was a labourer’s job with Uncle Jim’s building firm. I say Uncle, but who knew? I say firm, but there was just Uncle Jim and his wartime buddy, Henry Morton, working out of a lock-up under the Pond Road viaduct. And if I screwed this one up, mum asserted, I’d be for the bloody high jump! I didn’t actually hear the conversation Uncle Jim had with mum a couple of weeks later, but I can guess.

Mum didn’t actually lay hands on me, but she only just didn’t.

Strangely, though, it was old Henry Morton who sorted it, even if neither of us was aware of it at the time. I thought he was a pain in the arse, droning on about his soldiering days. Best days of his life, he reckoned. Four square meals a day. Free this, free that, and free the other thing. Plus they taught you a trade. He was in the Engineers and they trained him to dispose of bombs. I didn’t think too much about it while I was with the firm, but a phrase he’d used quite often stuck in my mind. Blowing things up, he liked to say, was better than sex. What I found weird, if not vaguely obscene, was the thought that old Henry Morton, who was sixty if he was a day, knew what sex was about in the first place. That poser more or less overrode any deep thoughts I may have had about the possible joys of blowing things up.

In any event, after a slanging match that must have had the entire street riveted, mum – bless her – eventually showed me the door, and I moved into the Tamar Street squat with my pal, Phil Patten. Such a move had been on my mind for some time in any case. So it was no real hardship.

We are all such idiots when we are suffering from rampant youth.

I never saw mum again. In later years I was to think about her often. Almost daily under certain conditions. The memories coming as remorseful stabs to the heart. But not then. Not at that time. Like I say, back then I was an idiot. Back then I knew everything there was to know about everything and didn’t give a shit.

That Tamar Street stint was another halcyon period. Everything was hookey, everyone was bent, no-one gave a crap. And the girls – three of them – threw themselves around like sex was about to be legislated against. Amy Patterson. Now, there’s a name to conjure with. Amy was in the wholesale business. Three at a time. Four at a time. It didn’t matter to her. And it was sex with Amy Patterson that would remind me, with increasing regularity, of old Henry Morton. Who was it said that the attitude of sex is ridiculous, and the pleasure momentary? Whoever it was, that’s what sex became. Certainly with Amy Patterson. Sometimes it was a chore just to get from start to finish. Which was all very weird because I had grown up - (that’s a laugh!) - thinking that sex was the be-all and the end-all of everything.

My nineteenth birthday saw me up to my ears in payday loans and not much else. I was the antonym of get-rich-quick. The polite reminders were morphing into threats, and the heavies and the bailiffs always seemed to know where I was at any given moment. The greater threat, though, was the £200 quid I’d borrowed locally from Jimmy Munson. That 200 had done its own sums and promoted itself to 500 in the space of 2 overdue weeks. Though we were never great pals, me and Jimmy, we had kicked about in the same dingy streets all our short lives. He was a few years older than me, and several lifetimes smarter. His dad – dead now – used to run a pawn shop on Digby Street, next door to the old Gem Cinema that was now a second-hand emporium. When Jimmy took over the business he had his head screwed firmly to his shoulders. That’s what a dad’s influence can do for you. No offence, mum! Street-wise to a fault, Jimmy cleverly followed the trend and turned the pawn shop into a payday loan company. A bloody good move on his part. But a bad one for me. He smiled when he handed over the £200 I needed for a beat up Audi that was to be my ticket to a job running errands for Lou Randall, who had a betting shop on the high street. But it was a crooked smile, like he knew something I didn’t.

Which he did.

Jack the Lad, I wrote the Audi off well before the first loan repayment was due. By which time I had earned £600 from Randall, and not one penny of it had gone on either motor insurance, road tax, or anything other than a provisional driving licence. I spent the sheer bulk of it on drugs, booze and allied entertainment, and simply frittered the rest of it away. So now the law was snapping at my heels, too.

Jimmy wanted his money.

And so did everyone else.

The law needed my licence, such as it was, and the magistrate’s court was requesting my presence within its judicial walls.

Even the squat was no hiding place. Me and Phil Patten, who was in much the same state of repair, moved to another squat over on Balsover Street. Amy Patterson wanted to come along with us. I was in two minds about that, but Phil, luckily, told her to fuck off. None of it did any good; today’s creditors have noses like bloodhounds. But all the bother was giving me pause for thought. Better late than never, mum would have said.

Two significant things happened then, within a couple of weeks of each other.

Me and Phil Patten were coming out of the snooker club and who should we almost bump into but Henry Morton. It was not a joyful reunion. Henry’s surprised face dropped into a mask of disgust and looked me up and down, disinfecting me. After a brief moment’s hesitation, and bold as you like, he stepped up to me and shoved his face inches from mine. Below mine, actually. I had at least six inches on him.

“D’you know what you are?” he hissed at me, “you’re a prize fucking moron!”

This was old Henry Morton. The boring old fart with a couple of days stubble on his wizened old face, and whose breath, as it always had, smelt of brown ale and peppermint. Ancient, useless, and clapped out. Except that, ancient and useless and clapped out as he may have been, he squared up to me like a bloody hero. I would not have given him credit for that kind of guts. And I was well impressed.

Phil, who had never met Henry Morton, stepped forward a pace. “What the fuck!” he began.

Henry Morton’s penetrating gaze did not even flicker. “You stay out of it, Mary! I’m talking to Gladys, here. This worthless piece of shit!”

I’m not sure why, but I took a step back.

“You killed your mother, y’know,” Henry Morton went on, his voice rasping like a cinder under a door. “A better woman never walked this fucking earth, and you killed her!”

He made a sound in the back of his throat, like he was moaning. His arm came up, fist clenched. I was too surprised to react one way or the other. But he didn’t hit me. He hovered there for a second, his puny fist trembling slightly. Then, with another guttural moan, his arm dropped and his expression softened into one of mere revulsion. He simply shook his head, turned away, and was gone.

I’m not sure how I really felt about that short confrontation.

I’m not even sure how I felt about the news that mum was dead. I think I just filed the information away someplace in my addled brain. Back in those days I could do that; simply disappear the information I didn’t want to consider. Such was the story of my life so far.

But that was the first thing.

The second was that Jimmy Munson’s boys clobbered me in the alley behind the Territorial Army drill hall one gloomy night. I had never seen either of them before in my life, so they had to have been imported. Jimmy was obviously taking himself up in the world. For myself, I would have needed miner’s boots and a pickaxe to have sunk any lower. And, eons too late, I was beginning to realise it.

They beat the living crap out of me, ending up holding a six-inch nail to my right kneecap. A bloody great hammer appeared from nowhere and hovered over the nail. Just the once, the guy with the hammer gave the nail a gentle tap. Real gentle. The hammer barely moved. But it hurt like buggery and I almost crapped myself. Not just because of the pain. I can take quite a bit of pain, and I’d had injections that hurt, physically, more than that. But that jab, plus the thought of what a six inch nail driven through a kneecap could mean to the rest of your life, turned me into jelly.

The guy with the hammer told me that all this would stop if I coughed up with the money. £800, it was, now. Well, there was fat chance of that, and I had no other course but to say so. The hammer lifted a few inches. I very nearly passed out.

Then the guy holding the nail leant closer to my ear and whispered that there was another way, and I was listening to him. Intently. A few favours, was all. For Jimmy. One or two simple jobs. The debt would go away and I’d be on easy street.

Shit, at that moment I would have agreed to marry Jimmy Munson if that’s what they’d asked of me!

The moving finger that guides all our lives almost made its bored entry and moved on. I knew what the favours would be. I had bought quite a bit of weed from Jimmy, and I knew that he dealt in the hard stuff, but was having trouble importing it. A couple of his “mules” had already been collared and detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. And that, apparently, was to be my road to salvation.

Mum was tutting her special tutt and gently shaking her head.

But the finger did not make its entry and move on. Instead, it indicated a spot just over the nail guy’s close-cropped head, and actually pointed directly at a barely visible poster proclaiming the regular army’s current recruiting drive. The best days of my life, I heard Henry Morton saying. Free this, free that, and free the other thing. Something else that Henry Morton bragged was that his military service had taken him around the world more times than I’d had hot breakfasts. And somewhere else in the world was where I needed to be. And quickly. But at someone else’s expense.

Here was an epiphany.

It wasn’t a blinding flash of an epiphany, but it was a definite indication. And Mum was suddenly smiling a smile she had never smiled before. And she was nodding.

Since the iron was hot, not to mention shaped like a six inch nail, I said, “Tell Jimmy I’ll do whatever he wants!”

I didn’t sleep well that night, if I slept at all. The squat had a party going. Not that I can clearly remember a night when that squat didn’t have a party going. But this, suddenly, was different. I was backed into a cul-de-sac of my own construction and my life was no longer my own.

Don’t get me wrong here. The moral ramifications of the drugs trade did not come into it. Not even slightly. If I’d thought I could have got away with it, clean, I would have muled any kind of drug from anywhere, to anywhere, and sold it to whoever had the money to pay for it. Old, young or infirm.

The barman down at the Sheaf – I’ve forgotten his name – had it pegged. There was a news item on the tele about some politician who was apologising for smoking weed. Deep regret, the bastard was professing. Paddy Robins – that was his name! – grunted a terse, “He ain’t sorry he did it. He’s only sorry he got caught!”

Morals, Paddy maintained, is a word you find in a dictionary.

What gnawed at me that night was the fact that I was no longer in control. In control was a lad more or less my own age. And the bastard had bested me. Worse, a demon had been exposed. They had scared me shitless. Perhaps if Jimmy had approached me in a different way, on more of a thug-to-thug business level, equal partners, maybe, everything could have been different. 

So I was also angry.

Mostly at myself for not seeing it coming.

More correctly, for not realising that such an outcome was the inevitable result of the life I had, so far, chosen to live.

Mum knew it, bless her.

To have gone along with Jimmy would have been to roll over and play dead. And I did not want to do that.

So I didn’t.



*



This soldier appeared at the door, the sound of his stud-booted approach down the corridor still echoing off the bare walls of that godforsaken building. To judge from the pristine state of his dark blue uniform with gold bits all over it he had to be a general, or something. He was about thirty. His boots had black mirrors on the toecaps and the creases of his trousers appeared to have been sewn on. His haircut came straight out of some marines’ movie. He was carrying a clipboard. He looked around the room without surprise. Here was a guy who knew exactly who he was and why he was there. And he knew exactly the timbre of the people he would find in that room. If I was uneasy before his arrival, I was unnerved now.

There were upwards of twenty of us, standing or sitting around trying to look nonchalant. Desperately so, in my own case. As the echoes of the man’s footsteps faded, so the mumble of voices died to nothing. The sudden air of expectancy was palpable. Outside the window, groups of men were being marched up and down on the parade ground, and getting yelled at. I was in a foreign land. I could not relate Henry Morton to any of this. Maybe it was different in his day.

The general raised the clipboard and scanned it briefly. He seemed to squint as if he couldn’t quite read something, and he held the clipboard closer to his face.

“Amber…Barra – barra canna?” he said, hesitant, but not self-consciously so. Hell, there was nothing self-conscious about this character. This man was all over it.

A black guy over by the table with magazines on it stood up, raising a hand into the air. He was wearing a suit that belonged to someone else. Which had me wondering whether I should have made more of an effort. Not that I even owned a suit, or knew anyone who did. “Here!” he said. Some spit must have found its way down his throat, the way it sometimes does, and he almost gagged.

“Was that right?” the clipboard asked crisply, “Barracanna?”

The black guy cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. Near enough, sir.” He sounded like he came from Birmingham. Up that way somewhere.

The clipboard’s eyebrows dropped and his expression darkened. He sighed heavily and tapped his shoulder with the clipboard. The action must have been significant to something, but I couldn’t figure out what; there was nothing up there but a gold braid cord. “I’m not a sir,” he breathed acidly, “I’m a sergeant.” He said it as if he had said those same words, in that same order, every day of his life. He inclined his head at the door on the other side of the room. “Through that door. Turn left. Room six.”

Twenty pairs of eyes watched the poor sod move to the door and step through it. I felt sorry for the guy. How the hell was he, or any of us, to know the difference between a sergeant and an officer? Maybe if they wore badges. I am an officer. I am not a fucking officer. That would be easier.

The sergeant returned to his clipboard, removed a pencil from under the bulldog clip and made a quick entry. A tick, it looked like. Then he called out another name. It wasn’t mine, so I allowed my mind to wander.

Despite my uncertainties I was trying hard not to be intimidated by polished boots, some gold braid, and a roomful of hopefuls. I’d seen just about every war film that’s out there. It was just a case of joining the dots.

But the sad truth is that I was out of my depth here. I felt it, I knew it. The room was full of guys who, to my mind at least, with the possible exception of Barra-wotshisname, all appeared to know the score, while I was having difficulty sorting arse from elbow. I’d thought I was streetwise. Maybe not in Jimmy Munson’s league, but streetwise nevertheless. Shit, I had thrived in squats, living amongst people who didn’t give two damns for authority, rules or principles. I had screwed the system out of thousands of pounds and spent it on sod all. That took savvy. I had even scaled the heights of Mount Amy Patterson! Yet, here, in the presence of Mr spick-and-fucking-span, panic was setting in. I should not have even been there. For Christ’s sake, I should never have made it through the interviews and the medicals, never mind getting all the way to bloody Aldershot. I don’t think I ever dreamed it would get this far.

It was a mistake, I realised. The whole damned thing was suddenly a mistake.

What put me onto the rollercoaster in the first place, and took me on over the hump, was the need, the compulsion, to get one over on Jimmy Munson. That was my goal, and my only goal. And I had achieved that with bells on. He didn’t have a clue. As far as Jimmy was concerned I was on my way to Tenerife at that very minute. I had his 150 quid expenses money in my pocket, tucked into the emergency passport that he - yes, he! - had sorted. And I had an airline ticket that would never see the light of day. Plus, Jimmy’s contact in Tenerife would be waiting there until the cows came home. And good luck to him.

I had done it.

Brilliant!

And it had not been easy.

I had lived two lives for a while. One was pandering to Jimmy Munson, the other was attending interviews and stuff like that, without the one side ever knowing about the other. I didn’t even tell Phil Patten what I was doing. When Munson eventually cornered Phil, and he would, for certain sure, Phil wouldn’t have to lie. It was the best I could do for him.

But this was well before I wanted to get off the damned bus. At that time I was still desperate to get on it. Jimmy was already arranging my passport and setting his cogs in motion. A quick trip to Tenerife, and then on to some other place. The contact waiting for me in Tenerife would clue me in on that. Eventually I would pick up a package and fly home via a different route. A trial run, Jimmy said. A couple of days in the sun. A piece of piss, he said it would be.

Well, stuff Jimmy Munson!

Except that I wanted off the bus now.

But, to get off something, you’ve actually got to be on the damned thing.

Arse or elbow did not cover my dilemma.

If I quit, I wondered, if I just walked out, how far could I get on a ton and a half? Depressingly, the question answered itself. If it was even a valid question. By doing what I had done, I had burned all the bridges. I certainly couldn’t go back and try to simply disappear. That would be the road to certain, and lifelong, ownership of a set of crutches. Or worse. So there was no other option open to me. Strangely, I did not consider, even once, an attempt to pick up the pieces; to go back and shoot some line to Jimmy Munson, maybe taking the next flight out to oblivion. The mules never, ever, got away with it. Not in the end. So I was stuck with what I had, where I was, and what I was doing. I did take a little consolation from the thought that, at some other point along the line, there would be an opportunity for me to slink offside, to find another way. I just had to stick with it and wait for that moment. Unless…

There was one possibility.

They didn’t take convicted criminals into the military, even back then. In one of the interviews they had asked me if I’d ever been in trouble with the law. What was I going to say? I told them I hadn’t.

So maybe, just maybe, they would realise the lie and tell me to piss off and stop bothering them.

The only spanner in that works was that I had not yet actually been charged with anything in a court of law. They don’t give you a criminal record on the strength of a summons. At least, I didn’t think they did.

“Bentley…William.”

It took me a moment to drag my thoughts back into that room. I had only half-heard my name being called and I tried to put right a mistake that wasn’t a mistake. And, as happened too often in those days, false bravado compounded the problem. 

“It’s William Bentley,” I explained, laying emphasis on the last word. With what I hoped was an off-hand shrug, I added, “Billy...”

The man lowered his clipboard slightly and regarded me coldly over the top of it. The bulldog clip seemed to be growing out of his nose. He chuckled softly, deep down in his throat. “Oh, my goodness me,” he said heavily, as if the weight of the world was suddenly on his shoulders. “We’ve got one of them, have we? A bleedin’ comedian!”

One of the guys over by the window let go with a chuckle of his own and, too late, I realised my mistake.

“Pardon?” I temporised, frantically trying to rerun the last few seconds in my mind, but couldn’t. I would cheerfully have parted with that 150 quid for nothing more than the merest hint of a clever come-back line. But nothing came to me.

“You’re pardoned,” said the sergeant, again playing to the gallery. More of the guys joined in the chuckle and I was feeling about three inches tall. I hated the shiny blue bastard with his fucking clipboard.

“Okay…Billy!” the man said, raising his eyebrows to his audience, as if sharing some kind of a private joke. “We’re all very pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” The sardonic smile vanished. “Now get your arse through that door. Turn left. Room six. D’you think you can manage that?”

. I stepped over to the door, desperately avoiding eye contact with anyone, the soles of my trainers squeaking on the polished floor boards.

I think that was the first time in my life I had actually been made to feel like a second-class citizen.

It would not prove to be the last.



Two:



The detonation itself, what I remember of it, didn’t sound like much. Almost trivial, like distant thunder, maybe. Or a packed soccer stadium, three streets away, when a popular goal is scored. That kind of noise. Indeterminate by itself. Unless you knew the cause. But there was nothing trivial about the concussive shock wave that followed.

Lifted bodily, our Jackal 4x4 kicked sideways against the wall of the mosque, which seemed to disintegrate, showering everything in my world with rubble and dust and noise and confusion.

It happened so quickly, and so unexpectedly, that my brain stopped operating. From nothing to everything in less than a blink. I could see the swirling dust and the debris but could make no measurable sense of it.

A split instant earlier everything had been normal. Expected. Routine. Not a particularly good day, but a normal day. And like all the other normal days, nothing was going to happen, despite the new intel. Or, just as likely, because of it.

Local Intelligence in Malmo FOB (Forward Operating Base) was a joke. At least, up until that moment it had been a joke. But you’ve got to stay on the ball. Regardless. The law of averages was always a contender in Afghanistan.

Sooner or later…

Even the trees, cowering limply in the sunlight, appeared to be pissed off by the ceaseless inactivity of it all. The Khaza foothills, barely visible over the flat roofs, were a shimmering mirage. If there had ever been any blue in the sky, it had long ago been bleached out by the merciless sun. This was a callous land. A land of effortless death and constant uncertainty.

The few rickety tables on the veranda outside the café on the south-west side of what called itself the town square were near deserted. Just a couple of locals puffing on their hookahs, gazing over at us with something approaching tolerant amusement on their wizened faces. Behind them, though unseen in the deep shadowed interior, Jassim Khan, my opposite number in the Afghan army’s bomb disposal unit, and our two tame Afghan policemen would be whiling away the hours playing knock-out backgammon. These guys had the best of it. And the worst of it.

The kids that had been playing when we arrived had long since been vacuumed indoors by their burkah-clad mothers. They did that wherever we went, like we were there to eat their young, or something. Bloody rude, I called it.

Upwards of three thousand people lived, existed, in that town and, here at the very centre of it, I was aware of only two of them.

They couldn’t be blamed for staying out of sight, of course. They didn’t know what the fuck was going down. And in this case neither did we. A possible reprisal raid, was all we knew. Against one of the town dignitaries. We were there to stop it happening, if it happened. Same tired old story.

Harry Patterson, his SA80 cradled, ready, in his lap, was sat behind the wheel playing with his damned phone, an expression of intense concentration etched onto his sunburnt face, forehead creased with deep trenches. There was a bead of sweat clinging to the tip of his nose, waiting to let go. His thumbs were moving like mad things over the tiny screen. The sound effects were beep beep beeping annoyingly. Some game where a big lemon chomped on tiny grapes. I had been hoping that it was going to run out of charge soon.

Ben Myers, manning the Quick Change Barrel machine gun, the QCB, currently trained aft, which placed his dangerous arse within inches of my head, was trying to imitate the strange inflections of the Imam’s voice, drifting tinnily from the loudspeaker high on top of the minaret. This was one call to prayer that wouldn’t see a lot of takers. Certainly not in the mosque itself. Personal prayer-mats in the front room would be favourite on this one. Except, obviously, for the two guys over in the café. My guess was that they were Christians. But I didn’t give a shit, either way.

Leaning on the sill of the door on my side of the cab, Boss-man Turner, the smell of his unwashed armpits mixing with the ambient smells of sewerage and rotting vegetation, seemed to be deep in thought as he tapped the microphone of the Bowman radio against his chin, its pigtail lead stretched in front of me to the set in the middle of the dashboard. We were waiting for the heads-up call that never came.

The bulk of 3-platoon was spread strategically around the town waiting for the axe to fall. Maybe in shade, maybe not. Two-section to the west, and Three-section covering the eastern approach roads. Troop disposition was Boss-man’s territory.

Then, like a badly executed cut in a movie, it had all changed.

Weirdly, the microphone itself ended up in my own lap, but Boss-man himself was nowhere to be seen. Certainly I couldn’t see him. Not that you could see much through all that choking dust and mess.

For long disjointed seconds I could only sit there, trying to pull it together, my teeth grinding on sand. The barrel of Harry’s SA80 was jammed into my ribs. But for the restraint of my seatbelt I might have been skewered on the damned thing. Ben had pitched forward – or, backwards from his own point of view - into the driving well and was all arms and legs between me and the passenger-side door

The imam in the mosque, unsurprisingly, had gone silent.

Then I heard the distant crackle of small arms fire and the crump of a grenade. I woke up at last, and fumbled for the microphone, all fingers and thumbs.

“Alpha-zero! Alpha-zero! This is Charger. Contact! Contact! Stand by!”

Harry Patterson was trying to sort himself out, his face painted with dirt. He was looking at his hands, frowning, probably wondering where his damned phone had gone more than anything else. I thrust the mic at him. “Hold this!”

Ben hadn’t moved, and was in the damned way.

I was about to yell at him to get his fat arse out of there. Then I saw why he wasn’t moving. The right side of his face was a bloody mess and his helmet was minus a huge, jagged chunk of itself. This was not a bullet wound. It was something else. Like someone had laid into him with a forty pound hammer. My brain, having somehow found its way from standing-start to sound barrier, stumbled again. Shit! This couldn’t be happening! And where the fuck was Boss-man? Decisions were his job. So was calling in the situation reports.

I could hear the crackle of gunfire but could not pin down the direction. The world was still hiding behind a dust screen. I snatched the mic back from Harry’s limp hand. He’d been simply staring down at it blankly.

“Alpha-zero! Alpha-zero! Casualty! Casualty!” Inconsequentially, I wondered if maybe they had heard the explosion. Malmo FOB was about twenty kays north of us. How far did sound travel in this kind of heat?

I glanced back at Ben, hoping to see blood pulsing from his wound, which would indicate that his heart, at least, was still pumping. There was blood, sure, but it was not pumping. The horrific wound to his face just sat there being a mess of shiny red spinach with bits of bone in it. I knew beyond doubt that his golden hour had already turned to dust. I grabbed his neck and felt for a pulse anyway.

Then, like something out of that same movie, a grubby hand flipped up from below the level of the door and grabbed the sill hard. Then another. I heard a grunt. Then first Boss-man’s helmet appeared over the rim of the door, then his dust-coated, sweat-streaked face, wide-eyed, blinking madly.

Behind me, Harry Patterson said, “Fuck!” He’d probably just seen Ben’s condition.

The radio said, “Charger! Charger! Are you requesting an evac?”

Where did the silly bugger get that idea from? I also wondered whose voice we were hearing. Blanco Martin should have been on Comms, but that was not Blanco’s Belfast accent. It sounded more like the new guy’s drawl. What the fuck was his name? Whoever it was, it was oddly reassuring to picture the scene back there. The support team would be dashing around like blue-arsed flies. Bitch Peters, in full flying gear, would already be haring out to the waiting chopper, regardless of whether he was going to be needed or not. I did not envy him. Never had. Who could wear more than body armour in this fucking oven of a country? And it was still only early July.

“I repeat,” the radio insisted, “Are you requesting an evac?”

I waggled the microphone at Boss-man. “Are we?” I nodded down at Ben’s head.

Boss-man urged as if he were about to throw up. At first I thought it was a result of seeing Ben’s wound. Then he clamped his eyes tight shut for a moment and breathed a heavy, almost shuddering sigh. He was dragging his own ducks back into line.

The radio said, “Charger! Are – you – requesting – an - evac?”

Boss-man reached out. “Give me that fucking microphone!” he grated angrily.

I handed it over.

Twenty kilometres to the north, in their air-conditioned pansy-hut, “D” Team would be glued to their computer screens, watching the flashing dots that represented the individual Troops in Action. The dots would be flashing red now. Troops in Combat.

At the mic, Boss-man grated, “Alpha-zero. Negative! Negative! Wait!” He urged again, and grimaced. I could not see him much below chest-level, and I wondered if he was hit or something. He raised his free hand and showed me his open palm, telling us that he was okay. Maybe he was just winded. He sucked in another deep breath, threw the microphone in the cab and unclipped his portable comms-set from his utility vest. “Three-section! Sit rep!”

“Wanker” Barclay’s voice. “Clear over here, boss. What the fuck was that?” His section - Don Cheadle and Mark Andrews, plus a whole bunch of the newbies - was spread about somewhere over on the far side of the mosque, covering the approach roads from Bala and Chitti.

Wanker’s nickname was not necessarily a reflection of his personal habits, but you couldn’t have anything even vaguely transmutable into a “Bank” in your name, and hope to get away with it. Not in this man’s army.

The dust was down to a fine film now and it was possible to see the world again. What had been the café, over the other side of the square, plus most of the house next to it, was a heap of smoking rubble. I could see no sign at all of either the Hookah smokers, Jassim Khan, or the policemen. Just the mountain of rubble. Picking their remains out of that lot would be a job for specialists.

Another quick scan told me there weren’t any enemy either, certainly not line of sight. The main, and current, problem was elsewhere. So what the fuck had caused all this?

It was not a howitzer round, or anything like that. You can hear those babies coming a mile off. Unmistakable. So that, when they hit, you are ready for it. No safer because of that, of course, but mentally prepared for it. At the very least.

A mortar round?

Did the Taliban possess a mortar round that powerful? 107mm was the best they had, according to the intel. That blast was triple that.

Doubtful, then.

 And there had been no vehicles parked anywhere nearby. Me and Jassim Khan had checked all that. So, not a car bomb either.

An IED maybe?

But, where? The café itself? The house next door?

If it was in the café itself it must have been buried deep. And I do mean deep. Or up high in the eaves somewhere. Between us, me and Khan had made an MD8 sweep of the area the instant Three-Platoon had arrived early that morning. The MD8 is the most powerful IED detector available. Specialist. It doesn’t miss things. But there are ways of fooling it, if you’ve got time on your hands and you know your stuff. Khan had taken one side of the square, which included the mosque. I took the other. My side included the café!

But they, whoever the fuck they were, would have had neither the time nor the opportunity to bury anything. Certainly not while we were there. And they wouldn’t have done it before, because no-one knew we were going to be there.

Which was the brainteaser.

Boss-man said, “Two-section! You there, Jamie?”

Jamie’s voice, pitched way higher than normal, but without the slightest hint of panic. “Taking fire, boss. Not a lot, but enough. Light weapons only. About a dozen out there. Maybe more. Over by the wadi. In it, actually.” He chuckled. “Grid 270,114. No immediate panic.” You had to laugh with Jamie. He was educated. Last month they had given him his second pip. A full lieutenant now. But none of us held that against him. He was Boss-man’s 2i/c. “No casualties here so far. Who copped it over there, and what the fuck was that?”

Boss-man said, “Send Sweeney over here on the double.” He wasn’t wasting words. Or breath.

Sweeney Portman was the medic.

A sudden volley of shots sounded on the suffering air. Distant. Still impossible to judge direction.

Boss-man, who, possibly alone amongst us, knew exactly what our function was within the greater scheme of things, like the precise identity of the Taliban’s intended target, took out the map he had been studying earlier, and looked at it again. His face told the story. He was in pain. I knew then that he had not requested Sweeney’s presence for Ben’s benefit. Ben was out of it anyway. It was for Boss-man himself.

Harry must have read my mind. “You okay, boss?”

Boss-man scowled at him. “Never fucking mind that!” He nodded down at Ben. “Get this lot sorted.”

And that was the way you handled it. The king is dead, long live the king! There was no other way of coping with that kind of loss.

Me and Harry manhandled Ben into the back of the Jackal, where I covered his head with a spare flak jacket. Just to be sure I again checked for a pulse. Fat chance. Wendy’s face popped into my mind, all smiles and blow waves. Wendy was his wife and we had all met up last leave home. Ben and Wendy. Harry and his girlfriend, Brenda. Boss-man and his wife-but-not-churched, Mary Bennetts, who was also in the forces. Then there was Tom Barclay, Blanco Martin and myself. Between us, we had done London to death. A stopover on the way back to the line. I wondered if it would be down to Boss-man to write a letter, or something. We all joked about that kind of shit but, so far, that was as far as it went. The casualties; the bad ones, were all happening elsewhere. Other sectors, other platoons.

The unlucky ones.

It was all-change now.

Sooner or later…

Jamie came back on the radio. “You there, boss?”

“Yeah, Jamie. Go for it.” Tight. Controlled. But with an uncharacteristic tremor. Boss-man had ten years on all of us, and he was the rock 3-Platoon stood on.

Sporadic gunfire seemed to be coming from all over now. Like a badly manufactured firework. A duff Catherine Wheel, maybe. It didn’t sound like gunfire, but it was.

“I think we’ve been flanked. Two or three of the bastards. Grid 270, 118.” Heavy emphasis on the last number. “ Repeat, One, one, Eight!

“Okay…” Boss-man squinted at the map, his eyes flitting from point to point as he calculated the new options. Then he flinched as if someone had landed him a kidney punch from behind. An involuntary grunt hissed from between clenched teeth. He stiffened momentarily, then quickly controlled his expression and glared at me. He was daring me to comment.

I said nothing. But it didn’t look good.

Sweeney Portman appeared at a bend in the main drag a few blocks south of the demolished café. He was hunkered down as he loped, zig zag, up the street towards the open space. It was a reasonable guess that he had taken fire on his way here and was cutting down the odds.

Boss-man looked at Harry. “Make sure the wheels still work.”

He tapped the sill of the door, as if designating which wheels he was referring to. Which made me smile, despite everything. The Jackal was all we had by way of transport, the trucks having been pulled back to neutral ground long ago.

Harry breathed an uncertain, “Right, boss,” and climbed back behind the wheel.

Into the radio, Boss-man said, “Three-Section?”

Wanker: “Yeah, boss?”

“I need a gash body over here on the QCB. I don’t give a shit who it is. But get them here on the double!”

“On his way!”

Boss-man took the radio from his mouth then immediately put it back again. “And, Tom?”

“Yeah, boss?”

“One one eight is not your sector, but it’s close. Get a squad down there.”

“Already sorted, boss.”

A figure wearing a long blue robe appeared out of the door of one of the houses north of the ruined café. A man. He did not have a gun in his hand. Then a woman in a full-body burkah came out of the same door. They both disappeared into the adjoining house, the door slamming shut behind them.

Collaterals.

Maybe they had been visiting friends when it had all started, and now wanted to get back home. It would be the same all over.

Bang! Let’s all disappear.

How the fuck could these people live with this shit day to day, week to week, lifetime to lifetime?

Boss-man looked at me then. His expression was tight and strained. As if it required an effort to control it. He tried to smile, his moustache standing out in stark contrast to the colour of his skin, which, despite the coating of dust, seemed to be losing its weather-beaten tan. “Not your fault, Billy,” he breathed, “You couldn’t have done anything differently.”

I had been hoping that he wouldn’t say something like that. In the unspoken depths of the remark lurked the other bit; that if I was better at my job, maybe I would have. The uncomfortable truth was that IEDs and land mines and such were my territory. For every one that I missed, someone could suffer. 

I was as much a part of Three-Platoon as anyone, having been with it since its inception, but the “attached” label was sometimes hard to disregard. The reality was that, on paper, I was attached from 33 Engineer Regiment Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC). This made no difference to the price of kippers, not to the guys, and certainly not to myself, but it was there. A slight division. Almost imperceptible, but, there, if you felt the need to look hard enough.

Boss-man shook his head in a lost kind of way. “And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We all know we’re leaking like a sieve here. Sometime between the briefing, and now…” He let that hang in the suffering air.

I nodded. “Yes, boss.”

He smiled again, but it was a smile mixed with a grimace of pain. “But I need you in the gang now. Okay?” He was saying that he didn’t need me with the metal detector or the IED equipment, or with any of the skills I’d had painstakingly drummed into me, he needed me with a weapon.

“Whatever you want, boss?”

 “Get your arse down the main drag. Call it a recce, but expect bother. You’ll be Red-two.” He flapped a tired arm vaguely southward. “Could be they’ve installed a sniper down there someplace. Watch the fuck out of it! And we’ve probably got enemy inside the perimeter. You see something moving, you tell me. Pronto!”

“Sure, boss.” I glanced down at his side. The top of his trousers glistened blood. Not blood covered with dust, but fresh, shiny and new. And spreading. He seemed to be standing in a small puddle of it. I thought about mentioning it. Then I thought about not mentioning it. He’d already know.

As I stepped away from the Jackal, Boss-man grabbed my sleeve. “Just a recce,” he repeated, his voice suddenly tired, almost listless. It was as if he was half cut. The words seemed to slur together. “I’ll send one of the newbies down after you. Backup. Be prepared to receive him.”

Harry had his foot on the Jackal’s starter, which seemed to be screeching in protest.

I nodded, “Okay, boss,” and made to move off, but he held onto my sleeve, his expression suddenly intense. “Just in case,” he added, flicking a quick glance at Harry - whose entire attention seemed to be on the whining starter motor - then leaning closer to me, his voice now a tight, hoarse, whisper, “Rahman Kahemi. Number twelve, Medina.” His eyes held mine, adding more than the bare words.

At that moment the Jackal’s diesel roared into life.

Boss-man grunted. “Well, that’s something, anyway.” He released my sleeve and returned his attention to the map. “Go, Billy!”

I don’t know why, but I had a crazy feeling that Boss-man had just told me something I didn’t want to hear. Not in words, but in inference.

As I passed him coming up the other way, Sweeney, panting like an asthmatic, said, “Who is it?”

“Boss-man. Looks bad, and getting worse. Gut wound, I think. Bleeding like a bastard. Ben’s out of it. Did you slot anything down there?”

Sweeney shot a glance back over his shoulder. “Is that where you’re headed?”

“Yep. Sort of.”

 “Ibni Street. Pharmacy. Second floor.” Sweeney indicated left. “Up about a fifty metres. A bay window. But a fucking useless shot. A local sympathiser, I reckon. What happened to Ben?”

“Fuck knows.” I pointed at the ruins of the café. “A piece of that, I think.”

Sweeney shot a glance at the pile of rubble, mouthed a silent, “Jesus”, then nodded and started on over the open space towards the Jackal, already unslinging his medical pack. Over his shoulder, he called, “Be fucking careful down there. They’re in amongst us, I think.”

Fucking careful was what I planned to be.

But sometimes being careful doesn’t matter a shit. Sometimes it comes at you from the wrong direction. Like Ben. And Boss-man. How do you legislate against a piece of flying building? Or a shard of shrapnel from a grenade that wasn’t even tossed at you, personally.

Luck.

It was all down to luck.

Ben’s luck had run out. It could just as easily have been me. The only difference would have been that Ben Myers owned a doorstep, back in Northampton, that the Families Officer would be standing on in a few hours time.

Shit!

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how Wendy would take the news. And, as for the two kids! And for what? For a people who scooped up their own kids the second we showed our faces on the streets.