Some of them would be dead by morning. I could sense their calmness when they spoke to me, humbled by their first violent engagement. The Company had been here for a day and their time was short. Some had already made their peace; kneeling with the padre ready to find some closure before the battle. I swear that if I could, I’d hide them all to keep them safe, but I knew that wouldn’t help the situation.
I’d been in Port Stanley when the Argentineans came. Their big black trucks thundered up the main road; soldiers were pulling all the key people out of buildings and questioning them. I thought they were going to shoot everyone at first. It didn’t help when we found out that one of their top brass was originally British. I mean – the cheek of it. How could you do it to your own countryfolk? It’s just not right. They tried issuing us with pesos to spend as the new currency; this went down like a lead balloon. The economy hadn’t really adjusted to the new regime yet, and rumour had it Maggie was sending help. We decided to sit tight and wait out the storm.
James, my only son, had been wanting to join the Defence Force for as long as I can remember. His dad would have been proud of him had he been around. At first James simply said, “Mum. It’s time I left to fight the Argies.” What could I say? That was just so typical of a boy to say such things. I didn’t say anything – just burst into tears. I told him not to be so stupid. A ten year old boy couldn’t fight; not at his age. He was fascinated by the Army and often went into town with me on weekends to see the soldiers based there. We only went on odd weekends; the roads were bad and the Land Rover had problems.
It was only a few days ago I got that knock at four in the morning. I had a funny feeling it would be our boys; they’d taken Goose Green and the helicopters were flying everywhere. When the Company came in, they looked haggard. You could see in their eyes that something wasn’t right. They were troubled with that nagging, tormenting demon replaying the nightmare.
My kitchen became a hostel, where these shambling men would fill their metal tins with soup. I let one of the guys kill several sheep the first day to make a mutton soup with potatoes; a kind of Irish stew. The guys loved it; they’d been on chocolate bars and tinned army food. The men had foot complaints from the long march – they’d marched about eighty kilometres across marshy bog land. My back yard was big enough for a couple of sections to pitch their ponchos. The attic became the HQ.
They brought this guy in, he’d lost his foot to a mine. The medics flopped him onto the dining room table, where we have our breakfast. He looked like the next dish; all bloodied and black. I found his foot in a plastic bag in the sink. That was the first and last casualty they brought to our dining table. I said they could use the living room by all means as a medic station, but leave me my kitchen. I didn’t eat much that day.
One poor soul always had a smile for me. I think his name was Derek. He always had a joke and poked fun at James.
“You got a man, then?” he asked while I brought an axe down on some wood.
“I might. Why d’you ask? Interested?” I thought that a bit silly of me, but he seemed to know I was teasing.
“Nah. Saw your young ’un. Nice kid. Wants to join the Army, don’t he?”
“He’ll be a sheep shearer like his father.” I forced a grin.
“He’ll make a fine soldier. Do you proud he will!”
“Whatever he’ll be, he’ll make me proud anyway.”
He pulled out a photograph and rubbed it with his thumb. I frowned at it, that couldn’t be him! He pointed to himself. I pretended not to notice.
“Sharon, me and Jennifer. Jennifer’s gonna be a star one day.” Derek’s face changed ever so slightly. It was Derek the Decorator, or Derek the Bank Clerk, but not Derek the Paratrooper.
Some would show me photos of their loved ones and name them, there were too many to remember. They were always laughing. That must have been their way of dealing with it – the killing, I mean.
I barred the men from using the toilets. The smell was unbearable. Captain Kelly made them dig toilets out in the back yard, much to my relief. I felt guilty doing that. I mean, they were here to liberate us from the bloody Argies, weren’t they? But enough’s enough. When there’s a queue of them waiting and it’s past the front door with that winter chill coming in, it’s not good for James. The smell was goddamn awful and you got a whiff of it in the kitchen.
When I found out they were to take the mountain, I felt like crying then and there. The mountain was occupied and I knew some would be killed. I can see them now – smoking away and chatting, trying to forget the inevitable, trying to enjoy the moment without those feelings they must have.
It was Derek. He looked uncomfortable, like he was going to ask me out. He paused, put his hand in a smock pocket and pulled out an envelope. Surely it’s not, I thought.
“I’ll come and get this back off you in the morning.”
I took the envelope. It was addressed to his wife and daughter in England and I can remember not saying a word.
He looked at me. “If I don’t come back, post it for me, will you?”
Sixteen more soldiers gave me envelopes. I wondered why they never gave them to the padre. They were queuing up, a line of sniffling beggars waiting for their soup. I used to work in a kitchen in London before I met my late husband, that’s how I remember the homeless. I suppose these were homeless and though they looked distraught, at times I could sense anticipation when they were together.
They weren’t livestock, they were family men; fathers, husbands and sons – soon to be forgotten about when this was over. Each man touched the hearts of at least a handful of people back home. When they go, the pain must be excruciating. There’d be Remembrance parades and ‘we shall remember’, but in the end some will be forgotten. Either in their graves or on the streets, as most of them will end up. A lot of people in the soup kitchens were ex-services, who couldn’t adjust to normal life.
I turned and held onto the sink, tears dripping onto unwashed dishes. James had brought a bucket of water and I held him, the rattle of battle in the background. I squeezed him and thanked God he was only ten.
“The RAP’s on a forward slope…”
I looked up to see the padre, identifiable by the crosses on both collars of his battle smock.
“Oh. That’s the medic. I mean, I’m at the first aid post. RAP Regimental Aid Post. We’ll be slightly exposed to the Argies. You best hang on to the letters for me now. I’ll be back down to collect them in the morning – hopefully I’ll be giving them all back. You can get the kettle on when we get back, eh?”
His blurred image faded from my kitchen and I wiped my eyes.
The sounds of battle drummed into the night; artillery, aircraft and machine-gun fire. Orange light flashed through the windows, shadows danced on the wall, and I held onto James until he slept. I don’t think I slept. James drifted off during a lull of noise and I was thankful for whatever had caused it.
In the morning my usual routine was to make coffee and porridge for James. I carried on as normal, as if the Paras hadn’t come at all. James came in wide-eyed and though I could see surprise, there was a mild sadness in his voice.
“Mum. Come and see.”
He dashed off out into the back yard, hopping over the bungee cord of an abandoned poncho. I could hear it rattling away but I couldn’t help but stare into the back yard.
A couple of soldiers were carrying long bags into the garden, some folding in the middle. Then they lay the stretcher down and rolled the bags onto the garden next to the others.
How naïve can you get? I mean, I thought they were carrying soil into the garden. I just wasn’t thinking straight. Why would stretcher-bearers be carrying bags of dirt? Then the smell had me gagging; burnt flesh and the coppery scent of blood. A Corporal approached me. “Miss … er, sorry. We’re gonna have to leave them here until the choppers arrive to pick them up.” He wouldn’t look at me, just stared at my little boy. He smiled at James, eyes glistening, and turned away, hobbling to a wall. He then took off his helmet and cried.
I noticed Derek, he had come loose from the bag and was resting on the arm of an Argentinean like a long lost friend, or maybe a lover. An obscene group of bodies, unashamed and equal in their flesh, unceremoniously dumped. Couldn’t they have segregated the dead? Other bags had ripped from the journey down the mountain and I could see a Bandsman heaving, stooped over by the corner of the house, his mate patting his back.
I look back now and realise that in the end, they were all the same; Argentinean and British alike. Just flesh and blood. Derek was one of many and I still get letters from Sharon, his wife. I wrote to her after the war, I thought it right I should tell her about his last two days.
How he made James laugh.
How, in his death, he made me understand what we are.