A soldier returns to his childhood home.
"In the army, yeah?" The cab driver asks as we pull away from the station.
"Yeah," I nod my head. I guess it's no secret. If the short haircut and the army suntan didn't give it away, then the army issue bergen rucksack sitting on the backseat would.
"On leave?" The cabbie wants to make conversation.
"Yeah." I am tired after the journey and I don't feel like talking. Next he will ask me where I've been and I don't want to tell him. I look out of the passenger window and the cabbie gets the message.
We pull up outside my parent's house. While I pull the bergen out of the back the cabbie gets my grip from the boot. Feeling guilty about rebuffing his attempt to make small talk, I tell him to keep the change, and after he's driven away I stand for a while, looking at my childhood home. Technically it is still my home, my one permanent, fixed abode. A small council house on a 1960s estate, it is starting to show its age. The shabby exterior is relieved by the bright floral material of the curtins, and the ornaments visible on the window sill, which are my mother's attempts at gentility.
I take a deep breath and heave the bergen on to my back. I pick up the grip bag and stagger up to the front door. My whole life is in these two bags and I am struggling under the weight. I knock on the door and push it open at the same time.
"Hello, hello!" I call out. Our old dog is standing in the hall way. He slowly wags his tail and sniffs the air as he looks at me, and I imagine the memories swirling through his doggie brain.
"Oh it's David!" My mother rushes out of the kitchen and I submit to her embraces. The dog joins in the jubilation by wagging his tail furiously and running in circles, his nails tapping on the lino. My mother pulls her head back to look at me. "How are you? Are you hungry? There's food in the fridge!" A small child appears in the door way. "Look Jennifer, it's your Uncle David!" My four year old niece looks at me for a moment and then runs away screaming. My mother is crestfallen. I laugh.
I drop the bergen and the grip in the hall way and go into the kitchen. My father is sitting at the table. Jennifer sits on his lap with her little arms around his neck, sobbing.
"She says a monster is eating her uncle!" My father shakes his head, "It's all right love, look here's your uncle, he's alright, see?" His attempts to get the child to look at me are fruitless. He looks up at me, "How are you son? Are you alright? I don't know what's got into her. She was so looking forward to seeing you."
"Oh dear!" My mother says, "I'll put the kettle on, shall I?"
"Yeah, that'd be great," by the time I answer she is already doing it. I sit opposite my father, "How's things going?"
"Oh fine, fine," he says while resting his chin on his grandchild's head.
"What's the matter Jennifer, don't you remember me?"
Between us we manage to coax the child into looking at me and after a while she decides it really is all right and that her uncle is home and safe. The tea is made and my father and me sit and talk. My mother insists on making me something to eat and starts rattling pots and pans. My father tells me about the family and my sister's new job. I nod and smile and show an interest. He asks me about my plans and I tell him I am on leave for the next three weeks and after that I will officially be a civilian again.
As my father talks I look at his face. He has aged. His hair has much more grey than I remember, yet it's only six months since the last time I saw him. The swallow tattooed on the back of his right hand is faded and barely visible against his deeply tanned skin.
My father has three tattoos. On his right forearm is a grinning skull pierced by an anchor and a sword with the motto 'Or Glory' underneath. On his left is a winged dagger flanked by the initials E and H. But as a child my favourite was the swallow in flight on the back of his hand. On a Sunday afternoon he would lie on the sofa in the front room and sleep. My sister and I would take an arm each and colour in his tattoos with our felt tip pens. I would take the grinning skull while she took the winged dagger. Whoever finished first would get to colour in the swallow as well. Eventually he would wake up and, after praising our efforts, go and wash his arms in the kitchen sink. Now I have a tattoo of my own; on my upper right arm is a large cartoon bulldog flourishing a union jack, with the words 'These Colours Don't Run' underneath.
My mother hovers around us. She lists the contents of the fridge and tells me I must eat something, I am looking thin. I am not hungry but I indulge her desire to mother me, and she is pleased when I agree to have some food. She too is looking older.
On impulse I reach over and take my father's arm and turn it so I can look at the grinning skull. He looks puzzled.
"Your tattoos have faded," I say. "Do you remember when me and J used to colour them in?" He laughs. I pull up my sleeve and we compare the vibrant colours of my tattoo with the faded grey lines on my father's arms. Jennifer looks on with interest. Eventually she sits on my knee and amazes me by reading out the headlines of the newspaper.
"That's very good Jennifer, who's been teaching you to read?"
"My mummy teaches me."
"You'll be going to school soon won’t you?"
"That'll be nice."
My mother places a plate in front of me with a cheese omelette on it and Jennifer goes back to her grandfather so I can eat. My mother sits down to watch me. She talks incessantly, for which I am grateful, while my father just puts in a word or two, or nods his head occasionally. Jennifer has found a pen and is busy drawing round all the capital letters in the newspaper. The dog is under the table asleep.
I manage to finish the omelette and tell my mother that it was lovely.
"Would you like another cup of tea?"
"No thanks. What time is J back?"
"Well, she finishes work at six on Saturdays, and she's normally here before seven."
"Okay, well I might go and lie down for a few hours." I nearly say I am bollocksed, but I manage to catch myself in time, "I'm so tired. I'll see you later Jennifer." I get a kiss from the child, and my father smiles as I get up from the table.
I heave up the bergen and the grip in the hall and almost destroy the light fitting above me.
"Careful David!" My mother has come into the hall to watch me go upstairs.
I climb the narrow stairs, taking care not to scrape the walls with my baggage. I go into the smallest bedroom which is my sister's old room. She moved into my room as soon as I left home and she now shares it with Jennifer. I have spent perhaps twenty nights in this room over the last six years. After I deposit the bergen and the grip on the floor there is no room to do anything but lie on the bed. By now I am yawning uncontrollably, so I kick off my shoes and enjoy the luxury of the clean cool bedding. I feel I should undress but the effort required is beyond me. The tiredness has hit me like a fist and in a few seconds I am asleep.
I have not really slept well for years. I dream. My dreams are not exciting or frightening. They consist mainly of routine incidents or conversations from the previous day replayed over and over again, as if I was trying to remember something, but couldn't quite get it.
This time I relive the preparations for going on a patrol into Basra. I sit in the briefing room and take notes. There seems to be something wrong with my hearing. The voice of the briefing officer is muted and indistinct. I ask a question although I cannot quite hear what I am saying or the reply. After the briefing I assign tasks to the members of my team so they can prepare for the patrol in the morning. I sit on my bed and study the map. I have to choose a route for the patrol through the city. The army has designated different colours to the main streets as the names are, to us, unpronounceable. The Blue route is out. There were three men killed there last week. That leaves only the Red or Green routes open to me. I don't like the Red route; too many overlooking buildings. But the Green route is the long way round which means more time on the ground. In the morning I will have to file my plan with the Operations Room before we leave. I yawn and rub my eyes. I feel so tired I am unable to make a decision. I lie back on the bed and try to think.
It seems to be the next morning and we are ready to leave. But there is something strange going on. I am not in command here. I am one among many and I do not see anyone I recognise. We are herded onto an old bus like the one I used to go to school in. Inside the heat is sweltering and my uniform is immediately soaked with sweat. More sweat runs out from under my helmet. I hold my rifle between my knees with my clammy hands grasping the barrel. We sit crammed together in silence as the bus pulls away. The speed increases and we sway from side to side as the bus turns sharply first one way then another.
We drive along a narrow dirt road through a dry and dusty landscape. We start to climb and the driver grinds the gears as he fights the gradient. Soon we are high in the mountains. The road clings to the mountainside and out of the window I can see we are travelling next to a sheer drop. I can see the bottom of the valley far below.
Now the bus stops. The road is too narrow for it to go on. We quickly debus and someone leads us forward. The road gets steeper and narrower. We walk briskly in single file keeping close to the man in front. As someone at the front stumbles the line concertinas and we bunch together. We are being herded like sheep and although I know it is wrong I have to obey. We walk hunched over with our rifles close to our chests, trying to make ourselves look smaller.
The road gets narrower still. It is little more than a mule track now. We slow down as the going becomes more difficult, crouching lower and lower until we are bent double. Occasionally I have to put a hand down to the ground to steady myself. No one says anything but I know we have to stay low.
Aping the man in front of me I drop to my knees. I manage to keep moving forward on my knees and one hand while I use my other hand to cradle my rifle, trying to keep it out of the dirt. The stony ground starts to bite into the palm of my hand and my knees. All around me I hear the sound of men grunting with effort. Like me they are gasping for air and straining to fill their aching lungs. After a few more metres we are forced to lye full length on the road and use our elbows and knees to propel ourselves forwards. The boots of the man in front of me are only inches away from my face. I flinch as he kicks out, throwing dirt into my face and the bore of my rifle. We move as fast as we can, as though our lives depended on it. I gasp for air through teeth clenched with effort while my arms and legs burn with pain.
It is dark now and the road has become a path barely wide enough to take me. The dirt my elbow throws up disappears off the path into the void below. Every breath feels like it will tear my lungs apart. Soon I will start to vomit.
I jerk violently awake and sit up breathing heavily. The room is in semi-darkness. The only light coming from the street outside is the sickly yellow glow of street lamps. I look at my watch.
Bollocks. It is nearly nine o'clock. I hadn't meant to sleep so long. I sit up and put my hands to my head and rub my scalp. Shit.
I need to go to the bathroom, and as I pad across the upstairs landing I listen to the voices downstairs. I can hear my sister and an unidentified male voice. I assume it is her latest boyfriend. They must be waiting for me downstairs.
In the bathroom I take a piss then wash my hands and throw water on my face. I look at myself in the mirror. I don't understand what is happening to me. I have a dread of meeting people, of looking into their eyes and feeling their sympathy or admiration. I feel incapable of answering their questions. I had been looking forward to coming home. I wanted it so badly I could taste it. But now I am here I have an empty gnawing in my gut. The future seems threatening and, above all, unknown.
Basra is two hours ahead of us. I wonder what they are doing there now. Maybe sleeping or on patrol. Or maybe being mortared. Or maybe dying.
While I was over there all I wanted was to come home. Now I almost want to go back.
I pull myself together and go downstairs. I find them all in the front room.
"Here he is!" My mother's face is shining with joy. My father looks nervous. My sister throws herself at me and locks her arms around my neck.
"Oh Dave! Dave!" I get a big wet kiss and I can feel her tears on my face. Jennifer comes and clings to my leg. I notice another person in the room as he gets up and comes towards me. He is a slight young man with dark skin, a wispy beard and large liquid eyes. He smiles hesitantly. My sister turns to him, wiping her eyes.
"Dave, this is Ahmed."
As I shake his hand my mouth opens and I hear myself speak.
"As salaam alaykum." It is one of the four or five Arabic phrases that I know by heart.