War... - Editor
No Alarms and No Surprises
by Brian Lyons
The first time Mickey had seen Afghanistan was as he had thundered down into its terrifyingly beautiful landscape in the belly of a great C17 Globemaster. He'd been dazzled by the form and colours of the harsh yet stunning scenery he had swept over. It seemed to him to be a land comprised of huge towering snow-topped mountains, or the swirling dunes of vast breathless desert plains with thin green stains following sparse river valleys.
As they had started to descend, his neighbours on the plane had wedged their helmets firmly under their seats. He quickly did the same; he'd seen Apocalypse Now too.
The gentle tones of No Alarms and No Surprises, one of the more melodious of Radiohead's tracks, rippled across his consciousness through the earphones of his MP3 player. It was a strangely appropriate soundtrack to his very first descent into this country. He took it as an omen.
Mickey loved his music and knew it could be a tool to help him through his time in this place. It could save his sanity. Now, without anything else, he clung to it, finding significance wherever he could in every line. However he was aware that his experiences, and the memories they generated, would, in the end, probably destroy the relationship he had built with those much-loved songs.
"You awake?" Dook was restless. Nothing was happening and he was getting fidgety.
Mickey just grunted, he couldn't think of a sensible answer. Besides, he was enjoying the rare moment of peace they had been afforded.
"I was thinking."
Mickey groaned but held his counsel.
"You know the way these Taliban geezers, these suicide bombers, reckon they'll get hold of a load of virgins when the die?"
"Seventy two," Mickey corrected.
"Yeah, whatever." Dook paused. Mickey braced himself for whatever pearl of wisdom was, no doubt, on its way. "Well, there've been women bombers, haven't there. So what do they want?"
"Well a bloke might want a virgin, but a woman wouldn't want one, would she?"
Judging it not worth a reply, Mickey flicked a look toward a buzzard soaring up a couple of hundred feet above the jagged ridge of rocks where they lay. He squinted at the searing sun beyond it, careful not to look directly. The sky was as big as in a John Ford western, but who were the Cowboys and who were the Indians.
He was used to pains and aches around his body, but his feet were currently giving him the most trouble. In the heat they got soft and he could feel the pads of hard skin swimming about against his boots, sore blisters forming. Blood blisters.
To Mickey, in these conditions, the joy of getting to wash his feet was almost biblical in scale. Most of the time he simmered inside the uniform and body armour in the heat and dust. When he got the chance to relax on base, stripped down to just a vest and shorts, he could feel the pleasant evening breeze caressing his skin as he inhaled the spicy scent of marijuana from the Afghan's quarters. Something to look forward to.
It was well above 40 degrees now. For some hours, since daybreak, they had been lying stationary and on the lookout for movement on the dusty track which stretched out across the bleached plain below him towards a group of small brown hills about a mile away. It seemed most unlikely to him that anything hostile would be moving at this time of the day, but what did he know. The bird up above was the only thing showing any energy and it was just floating on the thermals swirling up from the baked earth.
"Bollocks," he cursed quietly to himself as a large drop of sweat slid down from the tip of his eye-lash and plinked into his eye. Without thought, he twisted his hand up from the pistol grip below the rifle where he rested his cheek and wiped at the salty solution in his eye. "Shit," he swore again, with more venom this time, as a few grains of sand found their way into his eye. He blinked rapidly to dislodge them, reluctant to show any more movement than necessary.
"Whassup bitch?" queried Dook. "Can't you keep still?" Like most of us to some extent, Dook's speech showed sharp signs of the transatlantic cultural influence.
Rich coming from you, thought Mickey. "Sand in my eye, you dick."
"Dipedy-fucking-do, man. Sand in your dick, my eye."
Dust devils appeared out of nowhere, skipped across the dry sand and disappeared just as quickly. All was quiet again and fat flies played around them as Dook busied himself wiping the sand from his rifle barrel.
A celestial pencil marked the vapour trail of a high flying jet on the lapis lazuli sky. Mickey wondered what sort of plane it might be; it was far too high to discern whether its purpose was to deliver tourism or death.
Porteus, their platoon commander, leopard-crawled through the rocks to them with Muldoon, the long-suffering platoon sergeant, in tow. Mickey and Dook exchanged a private look which Muldoon must have seen. "Enjoying yourselves lads?"
They grunted their monosyllabic replies.
"Nice day for it, eh?" He looked in vain for enthusiastic responses. "You'll be delighted to know we've just ordered up a little lunchtime entertainment for our ragheaded friends over there."
On queue, a Harrier jet screeched overhead. It performed a first pass - presumably to check what it was supposed to be attacking - executed a long sweeping turn and came back around to unload both of its rocket pods into one of the hills they had been watching all morning. It erupted in a series of explosions, the sound rippling across to them moments after the vision.
"Those bastards'll be back in the bar for a beer and a blowjob before you can blink," alliterated Porteus.
He seemed to be expecting more action so they all dutifully watched and waited until it became clear that no more Harriers were coming to the party after all. Dook thought aloud: "What if they hit the wrong hill?"
Porteus's matey smile disappeared as fast as a banker's conscience. "OK boys, let's go and clear up that mess." He scuttled off, Muldoon frowning behind him.
"Miserable tosser," commented Dook when he judged him to be out of earshot.
After hiking the mile across the desert, Mickey and Dook found themselves in the smoking ruins of the demolished hill. They picked their way through the remains of what had turned out to be a relic of a previous conflict. There were a series of badly battered trenches and shallow bunkers, not very extensive, and they were carefully checking them for any occupation. So far there was a striking absence of any sign of insurgents. The Stereophonics' Just Looking was playing in his head.
Dook prodded at something in the debris with the end of his rifle. It was half of a broken wooden sign, black Cyrillic script painted on a faded white background.
"This must have been a Russian position," Mickey reflected.
"What do you think it says?" pondered Dook.
"Beware of Harriers?"
Mickey caught the slightest movement at the very edge of his vision, behind Dook"s back, and turned his head in time to see a head and shoulders appear from a hole in the side of a pile of earth and stones. A wiry, feral little man, with a bloody head bandage and a stained loin cloth, burst out of the hole and flew towards Dook waving a rusty old scimitar and shouting "Allahu Akbar".
In the same moment he both screamed out Dook's name and fired at the man, hitting him in the thigh and the stomach. The man's legs gave way under him and he fell face-down into the dirt. He frothed at the mouth and with a muttering growl kept repeating his mantra, over and over again. His arm, with the sword in it, thrashed about until Dook fired several more rounds into him. It had happened so quickly - then all was quiet again.
"Jesus, that was so weird," Dook was genuinely shocked.
"The odd thing was if he had stayed put we probably would have missed him."
The man had curled up into a foetal position at the end. Mickey didn't say anything, but he really didn't feel bad about ending this man's life – the critical fact for him was that he had protected his mate.
"It"s like he wanted to die."
"Maybe the sign means look out, fucking nutters about."
Now they had moved on to the outskirts of a small town, a dusty little place built of mud brick on the edge of the eternal desert which had switched back and forth several times between British and Taliban control. Mickey watched as Porteus, described colourfully by Dook as "a two-faced prick, as useful as a worm's hole to an elephant", hovered while Muldoon studied a map with the Khadamdar, or platoon sergeant, of the Afghani unit they were working with.
The Section was strung along the bottom side of a dusty little square which the main road cut straight through. On the opposite side, about twenty metres away, was the village bazaar. Metal-shuttered shops behind them were set up in a row of mud-brick buildings. The more security conscious local businessmen set up their businesses in shipping containers nearby. Bloody skinned carcasses, presumably of sheep and cows, hung in the open on filthy hooks. Black clouds of flies swarmed about them. Mickey wondered if this marketing ploy could work anywhere else.
After reaching some decision of vital strategic importance Muldoon and the Khadamdar moved off down the main drag between mud-brick compound walls and across a battered bridge over a dusty nullah about fifty metres away. Porteus jogged after them leaving Mickey and the others sitting and waiting for orders, and feeling vulnerable.
While they were waiting for orders Mickey was having a little rest in the shadow of a decaying wall which, like every other structure in the whole sorry country, could have been there for ten years or a thousand. On the radio someone was moaning that half the locals in the unit they were working with were doped out of their heads again and more of a danger to Mickey's mob than to the Taliban.
Mickey watched the busy to-ing and fro-ing of daily life keenly as he sat on the ground with his back against the wall, resting his aching feet. He laid his rifle across his knees and risked slipping off his helmet and scratching his scalp. A pair of women swathed in grey burkas washed clothes and rugs outside a house further down the road. One of them was particularly young and moved like an athlete, her step as light as a cat. Most of the local men were off working at Coalition bases; he wondered what temptations there were for pretty young girls here in their absence.
The problem for Mickey and the others was that they were sitting targets. Any lunatic with a rifle could be drawing a bead on them at any moment and the longer this waiting went on, the twitchier they got. Every village or town had its "dickers", the ones who watched and recorded their movements, passing them on to the insurgents who could then prime their rockets and lay their ambushes. Sometimes they sat there brazenly with a mobile phone, watching them.
Everyone moving through the little square kept their distance and traveled slowly. With the omnipresent threat of suicide bombers, and too many soldiers with itchy trigger fingers, the locals were eager not to make any mistakes.
Dook arrived just then and sat down next to him, kicking up a small cloud of dust with his customary puppy-like energy.
A tall, thin young Pushtun rode by on a sad looking donkey pulling a small cart which bumped along behind it on a pair of car tires. He had a dun-coloured pakol hat perched on his head and wore the ubiquitous white dish-dash with a black waistcoat. His sandaled feet skimmed the stony road and he looked completely out of proportion to the little beast which bore him. His straggling black hair and face put Mickey in mind of Grace Jones sucking a wasp.
Dook spat in the direction of the Pushtun and smiled. "Wonder if he plays football like Drogba too."
Dook was a positive, forward-looking lad and had decided in his wisdom that they would go on to do something together in the real world after they had both survived this thing. He always said Mickey should be the brains and he would be the brawn, the energy. Together they would rule the world.
"I was thinkin' of bein' a porn star."
Mickey could only smile. Although it was fair to say, if you wished to maintain your self-esteem, Dook was not the man to stand next to in the shower. "I remember."
Dook's ideas for life after Afghanistan had been many and varied. "But I was thinkin' the shaggin's alright, but having to do it hour after hour, day after day with them slags? Nah, it'd end up puttin' you off. Might catch AIDS off 'em."
"Nah, imagine old slappers like Jordan wavin' their growlers at you all day long."
"So that's it. No jig-a-jig for a living?"
He paused. "Nah, music, that's the game for me."
"Yeah. You've inspired me. You and all the music you listen to. I'm thinkin' I'll be a DJ."
Mickey shook his head bewilderedly; what next, politics?
"I'm going to put together a demo, Progressive House. Chilled-out stuff, you should take a listen. It's gonna' be a one hour long mix compilation. I'll stick it on the net. Got a mate back home with contacts who can get us a good venue an' all."
These ideas always sounded plausible to begin with. Mickey let him think on it and quietness settled between them.
Digweed, a baby-faced 18-year-old with a soft West Country accent when Mickey had met him back in England at the Depot, walked past with the regular tread of an automaton. He had aged at least five years in the few months they'd been in-country. Mickey had noticed this effect with many of the kids after their first taste of real combat. They become thinner, like winter-skinny deer, and quiet with the dull stare of people who have been to a lot of very dark places in too short a period of time. Digweed didn't smile any more, or speak unless he had to. Mickey pulled his knees up in front of him, and watched him pass.
"Oi, Shitseed, how's it swingin'?" Dook called out in Digweed's direction.
Digweed stopped and looked over at them briefly. Despite the heat of the sun his face was pale as a ghost and he made no comment. He simply turned and moved off with his rifle slung over his shoulder, plodding down between the high dirty walls of the compounds towards the bridge.
"There goes one mad motherfucker."
Mickey said nothing in reply and once more they drifted off into their own thoughts.
Suddenly he was thrown onto the floor as reality was tested violently with the quivering, body-shocking rage of a huge explosion. It hit them after some single storey buildings on the other side of the bridge dissolved into a wall of dust. It took several seconds for Mickey's brain to re-engage and begin to make sense of what had just happened to him. The blast wave had hit first, stunning him and throwing him back against the soft brick of the wall. Then a cloud of debris had boiled up the lane from the bridge like a pyroclastic flow from a volcano. Somewhere in the jumble of sensory impressions the concussion of the explosion had rattled his inner ear into numbness. He tasted the metallic tang of blood and smelled the damp cement-like odour of building dust and burning plastic. Consumed by the cloud he curled into a foetal ball, the barrel of his rifle clutched in his fist. He coughed and spluttered, dirt filling his eyes, mouth and ears.
He came to his senses and remembered he had been sitting next to Dook seconds before. He looked back to where he thought they had been and all he could see was rubble covered with a thick layer of dust. Then one of the piles moved, rolled clear of the others and started to shake itself off like a dog.
Bits of building and twisted metal were raining down and they both dived back against the wall for cover. They waited until there was just dust coming down.
"Shit, that was a big one."
"Bloody hell, look at your lid Dook." His helmet had a piece of shrapnel embedded in its top, about the size of a fifty penny piece.
Dook took it off and examined it, running his finger along the edge of the metal. "Felt like a slap round the ear by my Ma." One of the few things Mickey knew for certain about Dook was that he was an orphan. His mother had died when he was quite young.
"Maybe it's her way of telling you to be careful."
For once Dook had nothing to say. He put it back on, declining to remove the metal fragment. It looked like a tiny satellite dish to Mickey and he smiled.
"Was it one of them suicide fuckers?" Dook had his voice back.
"Does it matter?"
People were shouting at each other over the radio.
Mickey turned back to look at what was left of the bridge. Dook started growling like a wolf and popping off shots at apparently random targets. "What the fuck are you doing?"
Dook stopped firing. He stood breathless looking at Mickey, his eyes slowly focusing back on him from some distant la-la land. "Come on Mickey, let's go see what's left down there."
Witnessing the effects that an explosion can have on the human body was not an enticing thought, but Mickey braced himself for it yet again. Dook leapt up and scampered off down the left-hand-side of the lane scanning ahead and to his right. Psycho-bunny was back. Mickey took to the right side and covered the left and behind them.
He soon became aware his mind was playing a soundtrack as he moved along; anachronistically it was One Day Like This by Elbow.
When they got to the bridge a hyperactive Porteus appeared from nowhere with barely a scratch on him – Mickey knew somehow, wherever he went, he was always going to manage that trick.
They found enough of Muldoon and the Khadamdar to fill a small bag, but they never saw Digweed again, any of him.
That night in their compound, Mickey whiled away the hours after sunset, as the odours of local cooking dispersing on the breeze. Nearby his mates amused themselves gambling on mortal combat between scorpions and camel spiders, or lit their own farts.
"Here, have you heard this? Listen to this shit." Dook had arrived waving a mobile phone at Mickey.
"There's a recording on it. Got it off the corporal attached to Intel. They've got scanners listening to all the radio and phone traffic for a hundred miles."
The quality wasn't brilliant on the recording; there was a fizzling background and bad reception. Two or three voices were conversing by radio, speaking one of the local languages. Mickey guessed Pustun as it was the one they seemed to hear the most, but he was no expert.
The voices were excited, hurried. Suddenly, the middle of the stream of foreign jabber, a phrase leapt out at him in a broad Brummie accent: "Salim, Salim, where are you."
There was a crackling pause, followed by the same voice again: "This jihad game's tough, man."
There were sharp exhalations of breath as they looked at each other, the implications sinking in. There had been rumours about this, but that is the first time they'd actually heard it.
"Did you know any Asian kids back home?"
Dook shrugged. "I suppose."
"Did you get to know any of 'em, you know, play football over the park with them?"
"Get on OK with them?"
Dook screwed up his nose. "Maybe."
"So what would you do if you met a Talib out here that you recognised from back home?"
"Might buy him a drink."
"What if he had done something terrible, like killed a mate of yours, and you had the bead on him and he begged you for mercy?"
Dook grinned. "Well, if he'd topped Porteus I'd offer 'im a fag and beer."
"Seriously though, if he'd killed one of us."
His eyes narrowed and darkened. "No problem, I'd fucking gut 'im."
As Mickey ran, there was the sound of boots scuffing and thudding hurriedly into the dust and a dull metallic clink as an errant piece of metal inevitably – no matter how carefully bound - found some other metal to clank against.
They were clearing a mud brick compound, everything dull brown and dusty. Like dozens of other villages and compounds they had been through many times before. Sometimes they came under fire, sometimes they didn't. In this case they received some small arms fire and a rocket propelled grenade or two from a few hundred yards away as they passed; nothing out of the ordinary and not particularly accurate. This compound was about one hundred metres square with most of the buildings up one end away from the main gate. A few huts and lean-tos were dotted about the rest of it.
Porteus, affecting a stern look and a clenched-fisted salute based on fictional film and TV references, was now being followed around like a puppy by Savage, a nervous young sergeant who was the official replacement for the sorely missed Muldoon. Savage, skipping along behind Porteus and seeking to ingratiate, had rather irritatingly taken to aping this salute. It was Dook who first coined the phrase 'Porteus and Savage out fisting together' to describe the phenomenon, but before long the whole company was in on the joke. Having such a sergeant didn't bode well for their future well being.
Dook was convinced that if Mickey's and Porteus's schools had been reversed, Mickey would have been the officer and Porteus would have been the squaddie: "A very dangerous accident of birth," as he put it.
Porteus had told them an RPG attack had come from this area and so they were making their way through it, first grenades into each room and then firing past each other into the dark interiors. Muldoon used to call it ratting, and he had often wished aloud he had his little Jack Russell with him.
Mickey was having a breather, squatting down with his pack leaning back against the mud wall of the compound. The rest of the section were working through some rooms further on, he would join them in a moment. Holding his rifle with his right index-finger on the trigger, always careful, laid it across his legs. He took off his helmet with his left hand and, releasing the rifle to lie across his lap, wiped the thick film of sweat off the inside edge of it. Flicking the liquid away into the dust he then stared upwards into the beautiful clear blue sky. The sun was intense as usual and the air dry as a bone. He guessed the temperature must be well above 40C degrees, possibly as high as 50C. Great things helmets, although he always felt they restricted your hearing. He rubbed his hand through his sweat drenched crop and listened, now unimpeded, as the section shot-up something in the main house.
In the middle of the compound a wind-blasted tree stood stark black, decorated with just a few bird droppings to brighten it up. It was left with just a few papery-looking leaves, clinging to it like lost prayers.
A small lizard with black and white stripes along its body sat on a pile of sandy debris a couple of yards away from him and they stared at each other, the lizard loving the heat and the soldier grudgingly putting up with it. Mickey wondered what the big issues were in the creature's world today.
Then the lizard shivered and turned its head to face a corner of the inner wall beyond which the remainder of Mickey's section was working. Its little feet twitched and in a blur of movement it scampered off its pile and disappeared.
A second later Dook darted around the same corner and slid down into the dirt to a sitting position, like a Premiership goal scorer, with his rifle held out in front of him. "So this is where you are, Porteus wondered where the fuck you had got to."
Mickey smiled; he would have to keep a closer eye on the local fauna. "On another day Dook, in another land, we would pay good money to be sitting watching the wildlife in a place with weather like this."
Dook looked around him at the dirty little compound and screwed his nose up sceptically.
"Bit of a shit hole really. I'd prefer to be a long way away in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt."
Mickey picked at the stiff edge of his front body armour plate. It didn't take long for the rubber edging strips of the modular plates to get worn and for the edge to get a little frayed. In time, with the heat of the day and with the damp waves of sweat, his skin had become rubbed raw.
Dook sat down beside him and for a moment they both gazed into an imagined future. "…and flip-flops, of course."
A sudden gust of air rattled the rotting door of a small hut about 10 yards away against its frame. It startled them both and they instinctively trained their weapons on it.
"What do you think?" Dook asked, the moment of light relief had vanished and they were sharp again.
Mickey said nothing but sprang up and quickly covered the ground to the wall of the hut. He stood with his back to the wall to the right of the door and Dook sprinted to the left. Mickey checked his rifle was cocked and ready. Neither of them had any grenades left so Mickey used hand signals to say that he would go in first and Dook would support.
After taking a deep breath Mickey, deciding on a whim not to kick the door, gently pushed it in with the barrel of his rifle.
There was a slight creak as it opened and, since the room had no windows, he peered carefully inside and waited until his eyes grew accustomed to the contrast between the stark brightness of the sun outside and the dim interior. He was using the sight on his rifle and could see something in the far corner, a heap of rags perhaps.
He couldn't see any obvious wiring anywhere for a booby trap so he decided to chance a move. He slipped across the doorway and crouched down inside against the wall and scanned the room through the rifle-sight.
The image resolved itself as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and he realised that he was actually looking at a man lying still on some primitive kind of trestle. He was clearly badly wounded, there were blood stains on the torn white shirt and baggy trousers, and his left hand was draped over his chest. His right dangled down in the shadows below him.
On the floor near the man lay an AK47 and an old fragmentation grenade – pin intact, next to it. Mickey quickly moved close enough to kick them away well out of reach, all the while keeping his rifle trained on the man. Then he backed away again.
It didn't take him long to realise the man was either asleep or unconscious and senseless to the sounds of him and his rampaging section outside – given the noise the rest of the section were making, it was probably the latter. Black hair, rags and blood, mates of his had been shot or blown up in similar circumstances – Mickey would not take chances.
As he watched he saw the man twitch in the gloom, his dark Asian eyes blinked open and seemed to take an age to focus on him. The right hand lifted gently up from the shadows holding something up towards Mickey. It was a small rectangular black thing with a wire snaking back from it into the darkness near the man's neck. His thumb was on top of it and he cradled it in the rest if his hand. He held it like a TV remote control towards Mickey. Was he about to trigger a bomb?
He looked a little like a certain middle-eastern gent, laid out after a hard day on a cross; the appalling innocence behind those dark assassin's eyes. Being who he was he certainly wouldn't have thanked Mickey for such an observation.
Something was stopping Mickey from pressing the trigger of the rifle which he aimed at the chest of the man. It was as if he was showing Mickey something, like an offer of redemption. It was that thought which Mickey couldn't get past and it stopped him from shooting.
"I'm on a roll this time. I feel my luck could change…" Radiohead were haunting him again, Lucky this time.
Then there was a crash as Dook finally lost patience and burst through the door, and a fraction of a second delay as his eyes become acclimatised to the poor light.
Dook was a man driven by instinct, not by thought, and his decision was made before he realised it himself. He had seen the thing in the man"s hand and he fired two quick shots into the breast of the dying man.
A low gasp escaped the Asian's throat and it reminded Mickey of his own father's death. Mickey saw the puncture holes in the chest and saw the blood flush gently across what was left of the torn white shirt, slowing now he was dead. For the first time he noticed the room smelled strongly of faeces.
Dook looked down at the dead man and pointed to the thing in his hand, "Is that what I think it is?"
Mickey prodded it with the barrel of his rifle. "Depends what you think it is."
"Could be a booby trap, be careful Mickey." Dook involuntarily moved backwards towards the door.
Mickey reached down and lifted it up gingerly, examining it carefully. In the poor light it took him a moment to recognise that he was looking at a small black MP3 player. There was a dull glow from the little LCD screen on the side of it and he saw it was still working. There was even a track playing. He looked at the earphone dangling from the dead mans ear but it was daubed with blood and he didn't fancy it.
He pulled his own earphones out of a pocket and plugged them into the player. He was expecting some sort of Asian music, like the stuff they used to play in Indian restaurants before they shipped out all the flock wallpaper. Or perhaps a recording of one of those gents who sits at the top of the minaret and calls the boys to prayer.
When he realised what he was listening to, Mickey looked at the little thing in surprise. The last track the man had chosen to listen to was really not what he was expecting. Thom Yorke's tortured tones urged on gentle melody of No Alarms and No surprises.
The man's eyes were now blank, the face slack, any idealism, religious energy or hatred had evaporated.