Something began to pulse in my forehead; blood forced itself down my temple. I could hear the thump of my heart. A numbness travelled to my arms, and into the hands that clamped the letter. They weren’t mine, they didn’t feel like mine. The tremor in the letter that I held got worse as I read the recipient’s name.
The name on the letter wasn’t mine, it was William Tell aka Billy Jean. That wasn’t right. I looked again: William Tell. No, it was my Sandra’s handwriting. She was writing to Billy Jean. The same Billy Jean who was in his hammock, munching on an apple. I turned the letter over and noticed the sender hadn’t put her name on it, just ‘you know who!’ My stomach lurched threatening to spill breakfast out.
The boys from my patrol stared, like dogs waiting for dinner, at the pile of mail I had in my hand.
‘Come on then! Where’s me fuckin’ mail?’ Hammy shouted. ‘Don’t stand there gawpin’.’
I think I dropped the pile on the floor and wandered to my bed. I sat on its edge and closed my eyes. Not my missus. Not Sandra. Not my Sandra.
‘How come you get so much fuckin’ mail?’ Hammy ranted flinging mail in Billy’s direction.
Billy Jean laughed quietly and tapped the side of his nose. My stomach turned. That’s right, you tap your nose, you fucking loser. There are some things you just don’t do. Shagging your mates’ wifes is one of them.
Billy had a smug grin on his face. When he looked at me his grin dropped. I was staring at him. Maybe he knew I knew. Maybe it wasn’t her. The handwriting was the same; that was the problem. It had to be her. She went out the weekend before I came out here. They must have met up then; must have.
The next morning we prepared for the patrol. I began to put my Osprey Armour on. I felt for the area under my armpits. A bullet had took out a Marine last year and smashed his ribs up, it went through this part. The neck guards were next, but nobody wore those. It was too hot and cumbersome in a contact. The neck was exposed; supposing a stray bullet hit the neck in the heat of battle? Who was to know?
The full compliment of our patrol included attack dog, interpreter, psychological operations officer and a host of other add-ons. Our team had a machine gun for use in enemy suppression. We hadn’t used it much and I had just the right idea for it when we were contacted by the Taliban. I say when because we were always contacted out on patrol, sometimes it was from the locals. They just want a pop at you; it was in their nature I suppose.
We filtered out into the canal network and poppy fields. We ambled along paths and climbed fences. People sat and watched us from doorways and windows. There was an air of nonchalance, no curiosity, just a safe distance between us. The heat began to feel heady in the matured sun of midday; I sucked on my water reserves. Goats tethered to fences strained at their leashes if we got near. It seemed we were a threat. I kept my eye on Billy Jean in front of me, his exposed neck damp with sweat. I raised my rifle and peered through the optical sight. Billy’s face filled the scope, the chevron aiming marker wavered just above his nose. My chest thundered.
Every sniper had this dilemma and vomited after their first kill, but I was no sniper, I was his team commander. I held my breath.
He was staring right at me. A question in his face, like, ‘What the fuck are you doing!?’
I pointed beyond him and he stepped back. I knelt. ‘Billy, you’re in my way. Lone compound, top window.’
He looked to the building, ‘Seen.’ Then gave me another look.
We emerged from the poppy field complex and crossed a ditch. Hammy fell in and we all laughed. He clambered out cursing and swearing at us, this only made it worse. He lay on his back and began to crack up himself.
‘That’s probably the first bath you’ve had since you’ve been here,’ I said.
‘That was actually refreshing,’ Hammy replied.
We stopped and got down. The distant rattle of small arms fire in the background. I pressed the earpiece of my radio close waiting for the inevitable report of contact.
‘Hotel 21, this is, Carbon 10 Contact. Contact, Fuck!’ The hiss of static in my ear sparked me into action.
We moved over to a derelict compound. I waited by the corner, pointed to Hammy and to a berm. ‘Put the gun down there and cover the field.’
He lay the machine gun down and his mate fed ammunition into it. I raised the rifle and looked over to the field. A group of men presumably Hotel 21 were running in my direction – over open ground. Very dangerous and stupid. The rattle of rifle fire and the thud of a heavy machine gun could be heard.
‘Billy! Go check the building out’ Billy was off into the building. A low boom followed by a crack earmarked the use of RPG rockets in the contact.
The chatter on the radio resumed:
‘Stilton is down. Stilton is down!’
‘Calm down. Move back to the tree line and head to compound Kilo 411.’
‘Roger that. Hey! Put some pressure on it.’
The radio spluttered the remains of 24 men and their lives.
I could have just walked in, put the gun into Billy’s side and squeezed the trigger. No one would have known. Hammy and his loader were laying down watching Hotel 21 get closer to us.
‘Stay here, guys. I’m gonna check on Billy,’ I said. Hammy looked right at me and nodded.
I turned and stopped. Billy Jean was there, smoking a cigarette – looking at me. ‘It’s clear.’
‘You checked upstairs?’
‘It doesn’t have an upstairs floor. A 1000 pounder must have took it out.’ His hand rested on his rifle’s trigger-guard. Something in the way he regarded me and Hammy made my eye twitch; a momentary movement. He smiled. ‘You need to be a little more careful with that,’ he said pointing to my rifle and backed away into the compound.
I could hear them galloping over the turned soil like beasts of burden. One man turned. He fired a volley of bullets into the tree line behind them. ‘Get in the compound!’ Their commander screamed. We moved off into compound and moats of dust began to float down from the ruined floor above. The air seemed to shift, white walls shimmered in the suffused light. Billy raised his arm, he’d seen something then he got down and waved somebody else in.
I could hear their voices, ‘Put him down there. Quickly, get the drip over here! No! Stop, listen…In the vein.’ a gasp, then, ‘here give it here. I’ll do the fucker!’ A dying man, I didn’t recognise him, lay on his back fighting for air like a fish on dry land. It looked like some perverse nativity play. One of the team turned to look at me, a bag of saline in his hand. His round ringed eyes pierced mine; lines of muck and grime accentuated his wrinkled face. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me.
‘You guys okay?’ Chips their commander ran to the doorway and kicked it shut. ‘We got a machine gun on the tree-line?’ He asked me.
‘Hammy’s covering it,’ I replied. ‘What the fuck happened?’
‘Caught up in an… an ambush,’ I pushed a cigarette into his mouth and lit it for him, ‘I should have…,’ he inhaled and relaxed, ‘…seen it. The signs were all there.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Done a nine-liner?’ I asked. I didn’t remember hearing the call for an air ambulance.
‘Yeah, I did one.’
‘Where’s Sgt Mills?’
‘Oh Christ! Millsy. Millsy.’ Chips got up and paced the derelict, like some crazy detective on speed. ‘We have to go back. We’ve gotta go back. Doc.’ He appealed to the medic who knelt by the dying man. ‘We have to go back.’
The medic sighed and shook his head. ‘I’m no fucking doctor, Chip, and it don’t take the brains of an Arch Bishop to tell you that Millsy’s dead. He ain’t coming back.’
‘Hammy! Hammy,’ I hollered for the machine gun and placed him by the door pointing out toward the treeline. Artillery shells streaked through the air and the earth leapt skyward in a perverse mexican wave upon their impact. The reports shook the building. The pressure in my head began to build up.
I raised my scope and there they were, 400 meters away, people with what looked like long barrelled weapons or were they hoes? ‘Target. Four hundred.’ They were barely recognisable by the green behind them like oil in water. No option. ‘Engage.’
He looked up. ‘I don’t see anything.’
‘Don’t care. Just aim for that telegraph pole. Just below the white marker,’ I said and made my way to the centre of the compound.
‘What happened to the others?’ I asked Chip.
Chip sat by the wall and drew in cigarette smoke. ‘They were pinned down as well.’
Hammy’s machine gun barked into life. Dust began to fall from the emaciated roof.
‘We got a Chopper inbound?’
‘Yeah. 15 minutes.’ The medic said, his hand firmly on the man’s chest.
Where was Billy Jean? I thought just as he barged into the compound, rifle ready. ‘There’s twenty blokes with RPGs and rifles coming this way.’
We were only seven and that didn’t count for much, if anything we’d have to hold out until the cavalry arrived. The chinook evacuation helicopters always had escorts – Apache Gunships.
‘Stay here,’ I said to the medic, ‘Chip! Come on. Get up! Time to square this away.’
We moved to the rear of the compound and lay behind rubble. I set Billy near the front, he was a better shot than me. I turned to Chip. Chip fumbled with a cigarette and sat.
‘Come one Chip. Sort your fucking life out!’
‘Millsy. He just went up. His boot. His boot. Hit me in the fuckin’ face. Still had his foot in it.’ Chip laughed and inhaled the cigarette. I closed my eyes and breathed.
She hadn’t gone out with her friends that weekend in Brighton, had she? Oh, no. I looked at the prone form of Billy. I felt for the frag grenade by my side.
‘Roger. Whiskey 35 ETA in five minutes.’ The voice on the radio had the static of an air callsign. Sweet Jesus, it was the pilot of the chinook announcing the arrival time.
Twenty blokes. How the fuck were three of us meant to take them on? I crawled up to Billy Jean, he turned to me.
‘Keep quiet. Don’t engage, unless they spot us,’ I whispered. He nodded.
‘Here give my missus this will yer?’ He handed me a letter.
‘Okay,’ I gave the letter one final look and stuffed it in my side pocket. I crawled back to Chip.
Then I saw them like demons from a dream, walking perfectly quiet, doing hand signals to each other. They filed passed us, I could see their red bandanas and one in an Arsenal top. The ghosts of my world floated past carrying with them their weapons to take on the west. One murmured to himself quietly.
The bark of a machine gun broke the silence. A thud of a grenade deafened me and we opened fire. I can’t remember much about it, but an automated algorithm whirred into action. We fought through the ruins, taking cover and keeping their heads down. We moved through the compound covering every corner, every nook, me and Billy Jean, we immersed ourselves, we shouted to each other. It was wonderful, yet horrific.
Chip died where he sat, still smoking a cigarette. The medic died over his casualty, his pistol still clenched in his hand. Hammy took a grenade to the face. Then it was my turn. I snapped back as if some force had whip lashed me. I fell and my world reeled in swathes of light. Billy pulled me by my armour. My ears rang with renewed peals of torment. He pulled me to the side and wiped his brow.
He stood over me, rifle in his shoulder. I watched as his rifle jack hammered away, bucking in his shoulder. Hot cases landed on my face and I tried to laugh. Billy Jean shagging my wife?
He knelt by me, ‘You think I’ve been shagging yer wife!?’ he shouted. He laughed and snatched an ammunition magazine from me, reloaded his rifle and continued firing. Then he stopped, knelt down as if to pray and silently rolled forward.
It was a while before I could move my arms and pull myself up. I had a cracked rib and my helmet had deflected the bullet that nearly spilled my brains into the back of it. I could hear someone moan. A couple of men in rags were laying over each other.
As if by a trick of the light, the helicopter seemed to be a speck of dust on a wall of shimmering fat. Suspended between the sun and it’s lover’s bed, the image wobbled and seemed to spin out of control before reforming. I could sense the drumming before feeling it. The rhythmic vibrant churn of rotor blades, the sound I never thought I would anticipate like I did now. To my right the bulk of an Apache hovered. Cartridge cases rained down on me like mana, the 40mm cases made a clunk, clink, tinkle sound as they bounced from brick to mortar. I checked Billy. A bullet to the face.
I felt for the letter. Still there. Undamaged.
I got up and ran to the helicopter.