A burst of gunfire shattered the country-quiet of his Breton garden. Instantly his mind flashed him into his nightmare memories of fighting in the dust that was Iraq. Again he heard the screams of wounded children. The silence of death. The insane excitement of shooting at an unseen enemy.
As suddenly as it had started, the noise of gunfire stopped and his horrific, vivid memories collapsed into the silence.
William shuddered; it had been more than twenty years now, since the war in the Gulf, and still the memories of those awful weeks could cut into his conscious mind. William was a tall man, well muscled and proportioned, his wavy dark brown hair had begun to grey around his ears and was a little longer than usual. His clean-shaven oval face, clear blue-green eyes and strong chin could perhaps be best described as ruggedly good looking, rather than handsome. His ingrained military training ensured that he looked after himself and even now, after a day cutting grass in the orchard, he looked presentable.
~ ~ ~
William is my name by the way, not Bill, not Will and I certainly won’t answer to Willy. I had insisted on this since I could speak. I know, it’s about as trendy as sniffing snuff, but there we are…..it’s William….indulge me.
I joined the Royal Marines straight from college, sometimes it seems so long ago that it must have been someone else’s life. It was against the advice of my tutor, he tried hard to persuade me to find a career in writing or maybe go after a degree in English. But I felt a duty to please dad and he was pushing me in the direction of the Army, where he’d spent much of his adult life and even longer talking about it. Personally, I’d have preferred the Navy and saw the Royal Marines as a kind of half-way house so, against the advice of the people who really knew me, that’s where I went. Now I often wish I had that time over again. But of course, opportunities like University usually only come around once in a life and anyway, I guess as a young marine, I felt comfortable, or to be truthfully blunt, in a rut. Regular pay and a life that was totally organised for me, even down to what clothes to wear each day and, very often, what food to eat. Irresponsible you might think, and now, I’d probably agree with you.
I completed my commando training just in time to be included in the battle for the Falkland Islands in 1982. Some of the lads travelled in comparative luxury on board a converted liner, I went courtesy of the Navy in HMS Fearless. The bravado and comradeship was amazing. What we weren’t going to do to the enemy wasn’t worth thinking about. Some veterans told us stories of actions that they’d been involved in but their descriptions of the same events varied between heroics and total shambles, depending on the teller and the depth of beer. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the chaos and confusion that I found in that spat of a war.
That incident left me with some deep disillusionment about the ability of the service’s directors to actually control anything. But we did our best despite them, and as you know, came out of the chaos as the victors. But what a cost, and I don’t mean money, it was truly awful. Cold, hunger and thirst were bad enough, but combined with the bombs, mines and the whine of bullets, it was almost unbearable – if you thought about it. We tried not to, but when your best mate blows half his body away by treading on a mine, it’s impossible to stay detached. Like most of us, I gathered underlying scars in the back of my mind. I could usually manage to ignore them, but just now and then they’d show up in the corners of the night. It’s a good thing that, at the time, I didn’t know that worse, much worse was to come. Man has an unsurpassed ingenuity when it comes to killing, maiming and terrorising other, often innocent, human beings.
It was toward the end of the South Atlantic conflict that I started keeping my personal journal. Just a plain notebook really. I always carried it around in my shirt pocket along with a pencil, but was careful to restrict my jottings to times when I was alone. You see, since I had been a young schoolboy I’d felt a self-conscious longing to write poetry, but I feared the barbed comments of so-called friends and especially my father. I mean, I’m six foot two inches tall and have the build you’d usually associate with an international rugby player. So, openly claiming to be a poet, when you look like me, invites spitefully aggressive comments from the ignorant. And with my retarded confidence of the time, I felt it best to bury the notion. But lines and sometimes whole verses would still drift into my mind. I began writing them down, before they disappeared back into the foggy grey-matter that lived between my ears. Now I’ve got several volumes, all of them dog-eared and worn, but they look good on the top shelf of my bookcase.
When we finally got back, we found that we’d been upgraded to Veteran Troops having been survivors of intense enemy fire, and we all picked up a campaign medal. There wasn’t a special parade for the presentation though – it came in the post, courtesy of Royal Mail. But then there were the victory parades, parties and always, too much free beer.
It was through the haze of a party hangover that I was told that a group of us were to be taken to form a special duties squad. We’d be getting specialised training in a lot of new things and for me it meant learning more about explosives than you’d think was possible. We were to become a tightly integrated group of men known as a ‘Snatch Squad’. The name had an unfortunate gutter-slang association that gave us a false reputation and provided some envious comrades with a stack of verbal ammunition. But it was serious, it would be our job to go behind an enemy line, sometimes to rescue prisoners or hostages, but mostly we would be sent to hunt and ‘snatch’ opposition leaders back to our HQ for interrogation. There was no choice in our selection, I was just told that I’d been put forward as a volunteer. I often wondered who I’d upset.
~ ~ ~
It was several years later, after we hit the dust of the Arabian Gulf and Iraq, that our new job really got underway. There’d been little jobs here and there, most of ‘em didn’t even rate a word in the newspapers, not even the Sun. But now it was different. We’d been luckier than some of the others and became known as an “elite” squad. That tag gave us the opportunity to tackle the most difficult tasks. More and more I took shelter in my notebook and my poetry from the horrors of everyday life and work. And of course someone noticed. It was bound to happen. We were living one on top of the other and working more closely than any other squad or group.
We’d just returned from our most audacious mission to date. In broad daylight we’d forced an entry into an enemy barracks and brought home a very active government Minister and friend of the local dictatorship. He wore more medals than Heinz beans, but still he begged, cried and then threatened. The fly-boys had been in just before us with their so-called smart bombs, to soften things up. Well, I’m sure they did their very best but, they were as successful as a medieval blunderbuss. They’d hit the target of course, made our job a whole lot easier, but they’d also demolished a tall block of flats and, something that’ll stay with me forever, blasted an overcrowded orphanage and nursery. The screams of injured, innocent kids, many of them trapped and crushed by rubble and burning debris. Then there was the cold silence of the twisted dead and dying, some just babies, it was as chillingly awful as it’s possible to get. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the scene without doing something to help, but we knew that this was one of the strategies of the ruling dictator – they’d used the kid’s orphanage as a shield. And a strafing burst of enemy machinegun fire reminded us of their callous intent. There was none of the usual banter and leg-pulling on our way to rendezvous with the chopper, everyone’s mind was brimming with thoughts of what lay behind us. Our target’s complaints were totally ignored, it was that or a bullet.
We all got back to our barracks safely, no injuries, not even a scratch. I’d just showered off the dust and war-paint and was pulling on some clean fatigues when a staff messenger came to the barracks asking me to report to the boss’s office. I pulled on my grossly misshapen green berry and reached into my back-pack for my journal. It was gone. Now I knew what this summons was about. At first I felt a wave of anxiety, a trembling. Then I felt bloody angry. Someone had been ferreting about in my rucksack. My private stuff! And obviously, they’d found what they were hunting for.
~ ~ ~
I growled at the corporal sitting behind his super-tidy reception desk, he raised his eyebrows in query, but I ignored him and knocked once on the Major’s door. The corporal fumbled with the phone on his desk as I opened the door.
‘Ah…Lieutenant Blake’ said Major Perrin, hurriedly closing a desk drawer. ‘Good of you to come over so quickly. Please, take a seat.’ he was a small man, balding, with a ridiculous comb-over. Red spots of a simmering temper showed on his cheeks. He never had liked me.
I was still bloody angry so stayed on my feet. ‘So, who was it….sir?’
I dragged a hard chair toward me and dropped onto its seat.
‘Yes sir.’ I gave him grudgingly. My anger had begun to drown in my tired mind.
Perrin, his uniform spotless with trouser creases like blades, looked up at me.
‘Some while ago, someone mentioned that they’d seen one of my Lieutenants with a diary. Of course, that’s against company regs as well as Queen’s regs for an action scenario. But, that’s something that you know.’ Perrin cocked an eyebrow in query.
I considered saying nothing, but what the hell. The worst he could do was send me home. So I just nodded.
‘I ordered a confidential search of everyone’s gear this morning. We found this.’ he reached into a drawer and held up my most recent notebook. ‘No need to tell you where we found it. Or what is in it – is there.’
My anger bubbled again, but I had begun to find this interview pathetic so I just nodded. And despite myself, I felt a broad smile creep onto my lips.
~ ~ ~
I guess the smile sealed my fate. He went ballistic, threatening all kinds of hell and torment, but eventually he just did his worst, he sent me home with a report that was less than star-bright. He kept my bloody notebook too. Maybe he saw something in the private verses and thoughts. I can but hope.
It didn’t matter to me, I’d had enough and my time was just about up anyway and there was no way I’d consider signing up for another stint. There was nobody at home who’d care, all my relatives, those who were left that is, were distant and scattered about the globe. There was one person though, a rather lovely lady called Janet.
Janet was so ardently passivist, that the last time I’d met her, she’d refused to speak to me when she discovered that I was a Marine. She was my first call after I’d handed back what was left of my uniform kit and watched a disinterested marine shred my ID card. With my best, smoothest chat-up line, I called and asked if she’d like to buy an ex-marine a cup of coffee. Just a few months later we were in the Plymouth registry office, a new gold wedding ring in my sweaty palm.