Reporting for Duty

I curl my fingers around the stem of the wine glass. My fingers squeak on the crystal as they move up and down. The bottle is curiously warm to the touch as I trace my fingers along the edge of the label and run them around the swell, before picking it up with a swing of the arm. Music is playing through the speakers; I hum along regardless of who it is.

* * *

Sand has thickened the flag that hangs stiffly from the pole, lining the fabric and masking the Union Jack in a muted dirty yellow. Years of exposure have deadened it, although lines of soldiers still salute to it every morning. I salute with them, my hand shaking from exhaustion and doubt.

It used to remind me of home. Of quaint English habits and the trumpeting national anthem; the Queen’s weedy speech on Christmas day and bushy, dark moustaches on the mouths of men. Now it is part of my scenery, in sight from anywhere within the twenty five mile radius of the camp, blasting its obnoxious tune with oblivious immortality.

We get anxious out here for too long a time; with nothing to do, we end up pacing, snapping at our tails and whining like dogs, waiting on orders. To make us feel more at ease we have a steel tin trailer, marked ‘Pizza Hut.’ You can order a stuffed crust margherita from the middle of the desert and call it British. I get excited when it arrives and jostle in the queue with the others, but it is disappointing, all I taste is grease and grit. I wonder if it was any different back home.

* * *

The wine tastes bitter as it slips down my throat, but the effect is pleasant. I feel a gentle fuzz wrap itself around my brain, taking me into those familiar arms of a mother soothing an infant. It rocks me, back and forth, back and forth.

Back and forth.

* * *

In a distant corner of Camp Bastion is a football pitch. A rickety corkboard sign is propped up at the edge of the set rectangle, with clumsy letters painted in black.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS.

I like to watch the men play. I love the way their faces set into determination as they race after the ball and crack into a triumphant grin when it bounces past the unknown marker for ‘goal’. I sit on the side-lines and wait to be called in as referee; this happens often and is a near impossible task. In the thick of the sport, the sand is kicked up into a swirling dust cloud that pools around the players’ lower bodies. Within seconds all I see is disembodied chests and heads bobbing through the cloud, following no pattern and getting nowhere.

That was a foul, you must have seen it.

Hands in the air: I didn’t see anything, sorry. Try again. I’ll look harder this time.

But no matter how I squint, how deep into the cloud I wade, I see nothing and shrug my shoulders at the players. All’s fair in love and war, I say.

* * *

Turn the music up. I can’t hear it. No one ever talks about how wine deafens you. I poke my belly: the wine has filled it and pushed it outwards, I am a bloated, stranded whale on the sofa. When I try to stand my legs flutter as if filled with water from the thigh to the ankle; it is sloshing around inside of me. I shake my head, eyes rolling as if to clear the buzz: but my lids are heavy and my brain soft like candy floss – the pink kind, the kind that kids share on a first date at the pier.

All of this I have felt before. All of this I expect. But I had never realised how wine dams the ear canal with cotton buds and refuses entry of sound. I clap, trying to scare noise back into my body, imagining it as having crawled out of me in fear. Come back, I clap. Come back.

My pulse drums in my neck. In the mirror, I can see the throbbing artery pushing at my skin.

* * *

The Mastiff moved like a lethargic monster through the sands, beige, caged, prepared for any disaster. If you saw it from the outside, it looked blind, the slots where windows should be boarded up with white board, eyeballs without irises. Instead, the sight was electronic, streamed through cameras and fed to screens mounted in front of the noses of two drivers. I never understood why they needed two. Maybe the first would get lonely, seated by himself in the small compartmentalised front.

It was an afternoon of smooth transitioning, scouting the surrounding area, reporting back on sightings of Terror. Smooth, until –

BOOM.

The world was flung into disarray, my head smashed against metal, and all went black.

Fifty two hours later, I watched as the Mastiff, chest swelling in pride, rolled out of the repairs warehouse. The scorch marks were rubbed away, the dents popped out. It was brand new, ready to do it all again.

* * *

The faster I spin, the more I laugh. My arms are outstretched, brushing the prickly branches of the Christmas tree, the smooth oak of the mantelpiece, the steel stalk of a lamp. A beautiful man – really beautiful, just look at him – stands in the doorway. His arms are folded and he looks serious. I wish I knew why.

Come and dance with me!

He doesn’t move, and so I ask again. And again. And-again-and-again-and-again.

He leaves.

* * *

The world is on its head. There is a shining boot swinging gently in front of my face and I know it is not mine. I wonder whose it is. My eyes feel as though they are about to burst from my sockets. That is how I know I am upside down.

Panic sets in.

I look around me, left and right. Three other men are suspended like me, two of them unconscious. The one other who is awake is bracing his body against the truck roof – or floor, I can’t tell which. He is gulping in air, his cheeks ballooning and collapsing in on themselves in a rapid rhythm. Blood is oozing from a gash in his head; he is blinking crimson rivers from his eyes and he has noticed me. He calls my name, asks if I am ok.

Silence. I fumble at my lap, trying to find the clasp to the straps holding me in. Be careful, he tells me. Brace yourself.

With difficulty, I wrench the belts from me and fall headfirst onto the floor – ceiling. It hurts my bones and I lie still for a moment, just one moment, waiting for it to pass. But I mustn’t stop for long. I shake my head, trying to ignore the screaming ache that is setting in, the thick muted noise that is playing ceaselessly in my ears, and move to help.

* * *

There is a picture of me in uniform hanging on the wall. I hate it. With unsteady hands, I remove it from the nail and tell it this. I tell it three times before I throw it at the fireplace and watch it smash into a thousand glass-shards.

* * *

The news that we are going home reaches me early in the morning. I feel a leaden feeling set in my stomach at the news and start packing up my belongings. It doesn’t take long. One pack; one pair of boots tied at the laces and slung over my shoulder.

A convoy of 31 trucks is lined along the main road through camp. I am pointed to my transport and climb aboard. Our packs are jammed against our knees, cramped in the tiny space. When we set off, my palms start sweating and I wipe them repeatedly on my trousers. I recognise the man sitting opposite me: it is the man from the Mastiff with the tears of blood. He is really beautiful when you look at him. I hadn’t noticed that before.

My eyes don’t leave his face for one second. We are going home. A loud clang sounds through the cabin as we jolt over a rock, and I notice his nostrils flare, the whites of his eyes expand in panic. He notices me watching and his mouth grimaces an apologetic smile before his faces realigns.

* * *

The sun is rising, its grey light seeping around the frayed edges of the curtains. I raise my head to it and stare. My tongue is dry and sticks to the roof of my mouth; I have a cut on my hand and I don’t know how it got there. The empty wine bottles have been kicked out of sight so I don’t have to look at them. Good.

Wincing, I hobble to the window and clutch at the curtain. I pause before I wrench it open and allow the light to blast into the room. The pain is unbearable, intense, blinding, but it is real. I am home.

I am home.

 

*****

This is a piece of fiction I wrote, inspired by real life stories and blogs I have read about soldiers during and after war. It is being published in the literary journal of my university and was written for the theme of ‘Now’ ; right now, we are in a position where we are witnessing men coming home from years of war, and I wish to honour them and remind others of their humanity and sacrifice with my words.

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Extra-Terrestrial Relations

Let’s start with a cliche:

Everyone makes mistakes.

Never heard that before... Source: http://thetikitakalondon.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/interlull-half-time-boring-boring-yawn-boring/

Never heard that before…
Source: http://thetikitakalondon.wordpress.com

True, we all nod our head in a vaguely bored, accepting sort of way when we hear those three words. We use them as an excuse for when we slip up: I’m only human, we all make mistakes. And we do. There are times when even the best of us mumble along in speech, digging a deeper, colder, lonelier grave beneath our feet as we go. We insult, accuse, condescend. We misunderstand, misinterpret, mis-communicate. We reject, scoff, and scorn.

We have all been the victim to a lot of mistakes, especially in love. There are relationships where people say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it’ so many times it’s easy to lose track. This apology can work up to a point. It works because of the truth of the statement we started with. Everyone makes mistakes, so I can forgive you, you didn’t mean to. The problem arises however, not when it’s multiple mistakes that are made, but when it’s the same mistake over and over again. 

It’s at this point that the apology grinds. Because there’s a hard nugget of pure honesty inside us all: you know that not everyone makes the same mistake over and over. You know that if the same mistake is made twice, then the apology becomes meaningless, because if it was meant the first time it wouldn’t have happened the second. You feel that if they loved you as much as you loved them that they wouldn’t be so human as to make mistakes. For when love is involved, you elevate the person you love to a state of more-than-human, held to unspoken promises and assumed rules.

(An eerie, alien state, not achievable with our puny human minds.)

Then comes the anger. It’s not evident at first, because you love them and don’t want to start a fight. But it’s there, waiting to be noticed. And when it does, you are faced with an impossible swell of feelings. You demand apologies that you know you won’t accept because you’ve been angry for so long you won’t believe them any more. You want gestures and touch and whispers to make it better – whilst hating being in the same breathing space as them. You fight all those fights you put off at once, and make it so much harder to pull through that you’re in danger of losing sight of that love you started with.

When reading this objectively, it’s easy to see where the thought process gets distorted and sets up impossible barriers. In fact, it seems so obvious that it’s almost a pointless thing to say. But when it’s happening to you, when you’re in the moment, there is nothing but acute betrayal and anger. There is no room left for forgiveness, not straight away – and that’s ok.

It is because we are human that we hurt and get hurt, and it’s that very same humanity that means it’s alright to be upset for a while after mistakes are made.

This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. For years in my relationship, I have forced myself to shrug off repeated mistakes and hurts, to put them down as innocent error. To an extent, I believe I was right to do that, for there are times when pettiness and quarrels can – and should be – avoided if possible. But at the same time, I began to realise that I was doing that at the cost of tiny portions of myself. I would chip away at my own ethics, my self belief, my self worth, my passion and reactions. I would keep myself in check when an argument arose because I was so terrified of hurting him.

I was so terrified of hurting him that I forgot how much he hurt me in the process.

Everyone makes mistakes; we are all human.

We are all human; we all love.

We all love; we are always learning.

When love comes along it seems such a miracle, such a treasure, that we covet it. We cradle it in our hands and wrap it in cotton wool, swearing to protect it forever. But that woolly little bundle is made of everything we had and everything we were before we were in it: which means it can still be ugly sometimes, it can still be human despite our expectations of it. Those fights, those battles, those arguments, those tears and shrieked insults are what make love beautiful: surviving in the face of all that, and with acceptance of it is the true miracle.

So when that joyous bundle hurts us, we should say so. We shouldn’t balk from shouting out in protest or expressing our rage. Equally, we shouldn’t shy away from sitting someone down and calmly explaining what they’ve done and how it’s made us feel. We should do whatever we can to ensure that we don’t ever simply sit in silence and take it. You lose yourself to love in the silence.

And you’d be a fool to let yourself disappear.