I got back from Afghan just in time for England’s springtime, as if I cared, leaving the blessed British Army after twelve years faithful service. I love the Army, being super fit, the camaraderie, the structure, the feeling of being someone who matters, the being British, all of it, but it was time to go home to my wife and boy and try to live a normal life, whatever that means, while I still had two arms and two legs and a life to lead. I thought I’d got through it OK, everything intact, including what goes on between my ears.
I got a job pretty quickly – connections helped, mates who’d come out and joined this big security outfit. I’m one of a team that advises City types on security, anything from anti-theft to anti-terrorism at the top end. We also do some policing for them if they need it, at conferences, corporate events, that sort of thing. Mickey Mouse stuff really but it’s not too boring and it pays very well. The firm likes to have ex-SAS guys involved, it looks good on their website.
So, not too bad then? Trouble was, yes, I could do my job and do it well, and earn a good living, but outside work, back home, or in the pub, I just didn’t talk. One-sided conversations with Helen, mono-syllabic answers, I couldn’t seem to be able to chat about normal trivial stuff with her. And Alfie, well, he’s six now. I’d sit for hours, just holding onto him, listening to him tell his Dad about his world, but giving nothing back.
After about three months Helen had had enough. She’d been brilliant with me really, so patient, but ended up pushing me through some shrink’s door. Post traumatic stress, he said. Seen it loads of times with you Army chaps. It’ll come right but you need time. Thanks! Post traumatic stress, eh! Tell me something I don’t know. When you’ve seen someone blown to bits, be they comrade or enemy, it stays with you, it invades your dreams, it invades your daydreams. Anyway, the shrink made me feel more human I guess but I still couldn’t function as a husband (you get my drift?) or a father.
So, November arrives and Helen says, ‘Why don’t we take Alfie to the Tower to look at the poppies? There’s millions of them.’
‘What poppies?’, I said. The news had passed me by.
‘A huge carpet of ceramic red poppies, planted in the Tower of London moat to commemorate the Great War, World War I, 1914-18. It looks stunning on the telly.’
So we went, a couple of days before Remembrance Sunday. Very impressive it was. But it didn’t move me or anything. I just stared at the thousands of people there. Why? What did they know about war, the reality of it? Alfie enjoyed it though. Helen started crying on me so we went home.
So, where am I going with this miserable tale? Well, last Saturday I wandered to the shops for Helen, to get a couple of pints of milk and a medium sized harvester loaf, medium cut. Very precise she is! I passed by a charity shop. Outside, on a table, there were some second hand books for sale. Well, I don’t really read much, never have, but my eyes fixed on a tatty book entitled Poems of the Great War. For some reason it made me smile. I hadn’t been in a great war. Mine was a rather shabby one really. Never did understand why we were in Afghan. Anyway, I bought the book, fifty pence, and sneaked it home in an inside pocket.
That night I headed for the spare bedroom, as usual, but with book in hand. I thumbed through it with only marginal interest and curiousity and alighted randomly on a page. I read a poem even though I don’t read poems. I’m a soldier. I read it out loud to myself, very very slowly in monotone until I got to the last lines….
Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori
My hands began to shake and I started to cry. To yowl like a wounded animal. I hadn’t shed a tear, I reckon, since I was eight years old. Helen rushed in and sat down beside me and hugged me. She hugged me for twenty minutes and then suddenly I stopped crying. It was over. The whole bloody thing was over.
Last night I went to the pub on my own to meet Terry, an old school friend who’d become a teacher. We had a few pints and laughed and chatted about the good times. Then he looked at me, serious.
‘Tell me’, he said, ‘do you think we achieved anything out there in Afghanistan?’
‘Foxtrot alpha, Terry’, I replied, ‘sweet foxtrot alpha.’