I was prompted by a competition to write this short story. It didn’t win anything – in retrospect, it’s probably not story competition material, and I’m no expert in writing short fiction – but it means a lot to me for two reasons. Firstly, it was one of the few creative things I managed during the ghastly year following my mother’s death; and secondly, the subject matter of servicemen suffering from PTSD is close to my heart. I have been collecting for Combat Stress for many years now and I believe passionately that the mental health of our ex-services personnel is one of the great ‘Cinderella’ causes that we ignore at our peril.
It goes without saying that this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person either living or dead is entirely coincidental.
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS VERY STRONG LANGUAGE AND SCENES OF WAR VIOLENCE
Brad looked in the mirror and saw shattered shards of himself. He was sweating and trembling and his fist dripped crimson patterns onto the bathroom floor.
“I’ll fucking kill you”, he roared at the shadowy stranger. “I’ll blow your fucking head off. You fucking piece of shit coward!”
The hammering in his head drowned out the pounding at the door, the muffled shouts outside, the screaming child somewhere further off. It took forever for his focus to shift from the dark and sunken eyes in the broken mirror to the sounds reaching him from beyond the bolted door.
“Brad, Brad, for god’s sake, open the door! Open the bloody door! Brad!”
He turned, noticing indifferently the moonlight-sparkled crystals embedded in his knuckles as he unlocked the door and slumped to the floor, leaning back against the bath. He looked up at Clare as she rushed in, mascara streaming down her cheeks, her hair a frenzied mess. Blood oozed from a puffy crack in her lip, around which a purple flower blossomed.
She knelt astride him, sobbing, wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him, flooding him with warmth. His breathing slackened and the rage subsided.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered in whisky-laden breaths. “I couldn’t keep him out. I’m sorry.”
“We’ve got to get you help, Brad. We can’t go on like this.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.” Hot tears from his swollen eyes joined hers and trickled down his chest, across the dark-inked parachute between spread wings, topped with a crown and rampant lion. UTRINQUE PARATUS.
His words came in helpless spasms, dragged up from dark spaces in his soul. “I’m just fucking crap. I’m nothing. I don’t deserve you. You’d be better off without me. I’d be better off—.”
“Don’t you dare say that!” Clare leaned back and cupped his wet face in her hands. Her voice softened, and she breathed deeply, trying hard to steady herself, although the rock of her life was breaking beneath her.
“What is it?” she asked. “What are these dreams you’re having? Tell me.”
But all he did was slowly shake his head. Perhaps the words wouldn’t come, couldn’t come. Or perhaps he bound them up tight inside, chaining them lest they pollute what little was left of a normal life. Either way, nothing passed his lips, sealing shut his clenched jaws. She sighed, realising that yet again, there was no point asking any more.
“Look at me,” she said, scooping his tears aside with her thumbs. “We’ll get through this. I don’t know what they did to you, but we’ll fix it, together. I’m so proud of you, so proud of what you’ve done. You’re amazing. You’re the bravest man I know. You’re my hero. You’ve been through so many battles and come out the other side. This is just one more. But this time, you’ve got me and Megan. And we’ll get through it. Together. Okay?”
“I’m tired,” was all he could manage. “I’m just so bloody tired.” His red-rimmed eyes were flickering and only the smell of disinfectant penetrated his desperate fatigue as Clare tweezed shards of glass from gashes in his fists. She was a small woman, but after bandaging his hands, she somehow found the strength to haul the six-foot sergeant to his feet and half carry, half drag him to their bed.
Brad slipped into merciful unconsciousness the moment his head hit the pillow, so she went to find Megan, six years old and cowering in the corner of her little bedroom, wrapped in a blanket and clutching her Teddy bear, her face red and swollen with tears and terror.
“There, there, darling,” said Clare quietly. “It’s all better now. Daddy just had a really bad dream, that’s all.” She stroked the silken hairs off the tiny face and cradled her daughter, rocking gently, smelling that beautiful scent of childhood that only a mother can know. “Come on, let’s put you back to bed. Get some sleep now.”
Oh, the lies you tell as a parent, she thought.
She tidied up the master bedroom, righting furniture and hoping that a cold wash would shift the bloodstains from clothes and bedsheets alike. She found an empty Johnny Walker bottle under the bed – how had he managed to sneak that in without her noticing? – and rinsed it for recycling, before fishing in her handbag for her secret stash of cigarettes.
“SMOKING CAN CAUSE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH” screamed the warning on the packet, as she fumbled the first match strike with trembling hands.
“No shit,” she said, breathing deeply.
Sergeant Brad Simmons was proud to be a Para. In his early thirties now, he had joined up at eighteen after struggling with a couple of civvy jobs. His grandad had served in World War Two, one of the Paras captured at Arnhem. His father, a hard and silent man, had tabbed from San Carlos, via Goose Green and Wireless Ridge to Port Stanley in the Falklands; soldiering ran in the family. Then one day, his lunchtime stroll took him past the local recruiting office, and that was that.
After basic training, P Company parachute course was downright terrifying at first, but he kept his nerve and worked hard. Finally, he was on parade with that coveted maroon beret on his head, the winged parachute winking in the sunlight.
Immediately afterwards, fuelled by a drunken weekend leave and goading mates, he had his first and only tattoo inked into the skin above his heart, with UTRINQUE PARATUS on the ribbon beneath the symbol – ready for anything.
But now, he found himself in the Sangin Valley in Afghanistan. HQ had decided that they needed to take the fight to the enemy, and so had placed penny-packets of troops in ‘platoon houses’ – mud brick and sandbag compounds, in reality – across swathes of the most dangerous parts of Helmand. The idea was to mount patrols into Taliban-held territory, provoking them to attack.
With a local population indistinguishable from the enemy, it was a nerve-racking business. A man you passed in a village one day might be shooting at you the next, or laying an IED on one of your regular patrol routes. But unless you actually witnessed him carrying a weapon – usually an AK or RPG – the strict Rules of Engagement meant that you couldn’t take him out, which in reality meant that the enemy was always allowed to shoot first.
And so, on this September morning, as the sunrise split the sky, Brad Simmons moved amongst the patrol, issuing quiet, confident reassurance to nervous and already exhausted men who checked magazines and shrugged on their enormous packs. They were festooned with a hundred pounds or more of weapons and equipment, extra rounds and five litres of water per man – a crippling load, especially in an area where the going was interrupted by filthy irrigation ditches that had to be crossed and re-crossed to vary the routes taken. Lined with trees and bushes and reeds that blocked lines of sight, they made it easy for Taliban snipers to slip away unseen.
Between the ditches lay fields, frequently strewn with 1980s Russian mines. When no crops were growing, the parched surface left you dangerously exposed. And if the locals disappeared, then you knew that an ambush was brewing. But during the growing season, when tall maize or opium poppy crops soared skyward, it was even worse. Then, the Taliban would creep daringly close to the Paras and shoot unseen at point blank range before scuttling away to safety. The men found this hard to cope with and stumped blindly through the agricultural jungle to seek their tormentors, hot and bothered and tense as Hell, often blazing away at shadows rather than taking any chances. It was their Vietnam.
Brad knew the patrols followed an all-too-obvious pattern. They were usually unambitious. The distance covered would be just a few hundred yards, but might take several hours. Today’s mission of nearly two miles was considered a major undertaking, with the specific intent of capturing a Taliban leader and preventing a major assault.
But progress was frustrating, reduced to walking just a few dozen yards, before dropping to one knee to scan the surrounding countryside through their scopes. Then up again, staggering under the weight of the packs, before gaining another few yards and pausing yet again.
Out in front were the poor, brave sods with metal detectors, known as Vallons, slowly sweeping left and right, restraining the pace of the patrol as they did their vital work. If they found anything, then down on their bellies they went, quietly scraping aside tiny spoonfuls of soil until they found the deadly device.
But the crafty Taliban would frequently leave metal fragments as decoys, whilst wrapping the true killing devices in plastic, and wait until three or four men had passed the concealed Improvised Explosive Device before detonating it with a simple text message or command wire.
And on this baking hot September day, that is precisely what happened. An ear-splitting bang just yards away threw Brad backwards and he landed on his pack, his ears ringing from the concussion. Moments later, earth and stones and water from the nearby ditch rained down – red rain, and he spat fragments of flesh as he struggled to stand up.
“Man down! Contact front!” The cry was taken up along the line of men as they flung themselves down and shouldered their weapons. The crack and bang of outgoing fire was interspersed with the buzz and whip of enemy rounds coming close, very close to Brad’s head.
“Who’s down?” he demanded. “Where?”
A voice came from up ahead, heard only vaguely through the chatter of gunfire. “It’s Parker, sarge, and Chico. Parker’s lost a leg.”
“Fuck,” cursed Brad and, with a huge effort, he hauled himself upright and ran towards the sound of screaming, sprinting as best he could along the uneven path until he came to a clutch of men around two bloodied bodies. Corporal Carter was ripping a morphine dose open with his teeth, while Bennett was doing his best to apply a tourniquet to the writhing Parker, who alternated between howling in agony and begging someone to tell him whether his bollocks were still intact.
Brad dropped beside the man, squeezed his shoulder as Carter rammed the syringe home and reassured him. “Your leg’s in a mess, Dave, but Linda’s got no worries about anything else. We’ll get you out of here.”
He scrambled a few yards further, bypassing the huge crater in the path caused by the blast, until he reached ashen-faced Mundy and the Vallon man, Fredericks, who were kneeling beside Chico – not Second Lieutenant Beresford’s real name at all, but an affectionate nickname earned amongst the guys. Fredericks shook his head as Brad approached.
“I reckon he’s gone, sarge. I reckon he’s fucking gone.”
Mundy was the youngest in the platoon, just nineteen, and he looked pale. Chico was the platoon commander, the young officer who had taken him under his wing and coached him through his early days in the unit. Most Paras thought of young officers fresh from Sandhurst as useless ‘Ruperts’, but Chico had fitted in well and quickly won respect.
Brad leaned forward and tried to find a pulse. With Hell erupting around them, it was hard, but he just thought there was the faintest glimmer of life. He looked hard at Fredericks. “Give me covering fire, left flank – now! Mundy, grab Chico’s kit. Follow me!”
Reaching down, he grabbed the officer’s collar and hauled the unconscious man, dragging him back down the track. He hardly noticed the incoming rounds whipping the air around him, coating him with splintered maize stalks and throwing up clouds of hard-baked clay dust from the compound wall beside him. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned a corner, released the human burden and bellowed.
“Sparks! Get that fucking radio back here now!”
Lance Corporal Napier, the comms specialist, arrived within seconds, panting.
“Call for casevac. EHLS in that harvested poppy field we came through earlier – we’ll plant a smoke grenade to indicate wind for the helo. Then call support back at base. We need mortar rounds danger close at these coordinates” – he indicated a spot on a folded map he whipped out of his breast pocket – “ASAP. Got it?”
“Yes sarge,” said Napier, and set about his task.
Brad turned and ran back to the irrigation ditch just as Carter and Bennett rounded the corner, shouldering Parker between them. “Don’t stop here,” he said, “take him to the field 200 metres south that we crossed earlier.” The men nodded and staggered on.
The situation was serious. Brad splashed into the foetid ditch, stinking water up to his waist, and waded along the line of firing men until he came to Corporal Walker on the Minimi. He was sending out short bursts to the north east, towards a ruined compound about 200 metres distant. “What’s there, Dez?” he shouted into the gunner’s ear above the din.
“At least four Terrys in that compound, boss,” he replied. “Just keeping their heads down. Sutler’s getting eyes-on with a Javelin.” He grinned. “That’ll fucking mess ‘em up. We’ll smash ‘em!”
That was the last thing Walker ever said. Blood sprayed Brad’s face as a sniper’s round struck the corporal full in the face, reducing his features to ruin and blowing out the back of his head, sending the unfastened Kevlar helmet spinning into a patch of poppies that had seeded themselves next to the wall.
Brad watched as the throbbing Chinook rose and headed back to Camp Bastion, surrounded by flowering flares designed to decoy heat-seeking missiles. He checked himself, running through an automatic routine. Somehow, he was unscathed. Again. Walker had died just inches away, but not a scratch on Brad. Parker survived, but lost his leg and was nearly killed by infection from the filthy ditch. Lieutenant “Chico” Beresford died in the helicopter, suffering from massive internal hemorrhaging from the concussion of the blast and a slither of shrapnel that had pierced his side, leaving barely a scratch on his skin.
Brad had been ready for anything.
But not for this.
Surviving, living with the memories of the men he couldn’t save.
Across the inside of Brad’s eyelids, the endless movie played. The same voices, the same sounds, the same cold sweats, over and over again. Beside him, Clare watched his twitching lips and eyelids and wondered what the future held.
Would every day be like the last, with sudden bursts of rage and self-loathing? How far would the man she had known and loved shrink before her eyes, reduced to a sobbing shell? How many times would she have to mask the bruises and fear for her life and her child’s? How much more could she sacrifice her own life to save his?
“Go to sleep, my darling,” she whispered, and gently pressed the pillow down.
If you are affected by the kind of psychological trauma portrayed in this story then contact Combat Stress or the equivalent veterans’ mental health organisation in your own country. You can donate to my own Combat Stress Appeal here.