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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