‘What a fucking waste of time.’ The marine who said this was talking to me, to the desert around us, to himself.
There had been a flurry of activity when the helicopter arrived, in a howl of dust and kerosene. The ambulance had rumbled by, the driver’s face tight as they drove the casualty to the main entrance of the hospital, and then some muted shouts as the broken man was wheeled inside the faded green tent. We had hung around at the smoking area, not wanting to be the first people to go back inside, but not wanting to miss out on how the shout was going.
‘Padre to A and E.’ Not good, not good at all.
I finished my cigarette and looked out over the camp. Home. What the hell were we doing here? People were swearing, avoiding eye contact. Careful, it might be the dead man’s friends, his oppo. Didn’t want to piss anyone off. I started to walk back towards the sickbay, a tent just next to the main A and E. I wanted to have a bit of time on my own, but that’s not easy in a camp with four thousand others.
Hassan, one of the Afghan interpreters, was waiting for me, with a local labourer in tow. I could smell a sharp aroma of spices, stale sweat and rough cigarettes. I tried to raise a smile. I felt like shouting at them, telling them both to just fuck off out of my sickbay; to leave me alone, to stop bothering me.
‘Sir, this man, he needs to see you.’
‘Tell him if he’s so fucking ill, he could have come here two hours ago.’
I felt like a bastard saying it, but it was a daft game of saving face I felt compelled to play. If you started seeing ‘them’ at any old time, they took the piss and turned up for any old crap all throughout the day.
Hassan was older than me. He had talked of his children, shown me photographs of smiling kids in seventies clothes. They were in Kabul, I think. He had to lie to his neighbours about where he worked, in case his family were targeted by the Taliban. I’d tried a few Pashto phrases out on him, and he hadn’t laughed. I’d shared some photos of my kids too, and we had what I reckoned was a decent working relationship going on.
‘Sir, not good news.’ It was a statement and a question together.
‘Not a good day for us.’ I agreed.
‘Not good.’ He waited, then slowly turned away and beckoned for the labourer to follow him, and they left the tent. I was alone again.
I looked around for something to take my mind off what had just happened. A couple of crappy celebrity gossip mags that banged on about some daft tart from Coronation Street. Is this what they really care about back home? I’ve just seen a young man die, and all around the country people get revved up about whether some actress has lost some weight. I felt a surge of anger and then it passed, making way for something else. Resentment? I didn’t know. What a fucking waste of time.
• • •
I filled up the kettle from a plastic drink bottle, found my Uma Thurman mug at the reception desk and sorted myself a coffee.
It’s the little things that keep you going, and I was chuffed to see there was a bit of Gucci coffee left, shipped from Columbia to Britain and then to Afghanistan. Nice one. I filled up the mug, and stepped outside the tent again, wanting to see a friendly face, and not some bloody local.
Three of my medics were still at the smoking area, looking at the ground. Faces that an hour ago had been laughing, joking, taking the piss were now set in masks of fucked-offedness. I walked slowly over. You had to say something, walking up to a bunch of your guys. I’d seen it look too cheesy, too matey, and then the derision was obvious. The officer had to be able to get the respect of, be a confidant to, and be at ease with his men. I also knew that if they thought you were a cock then you could turn up with handfuls of tenners, and they’d still think you were a cock, just a stupid one. Did I really care about that? About what they thought? Yes, I did. I then felt a stab of conscience. There was a dead man, and all you care about is what a bunch of guys think about you. Shallow bastard.
I grunted noncommittally. Too early to ask if anyone was okay. I lit up, and stared out at the distant mountains.
Simmo spoke first. ‘Was that some local trying to see you? I hope you told him to do one.’
‘Yeah, I wasn’t in the mood really.’
The others mumbled a variety of agreements.
No-one spoke for a minute. Neilson stretched, farted and ground out his cigarette. ‘Back to work, eh? See you fellas.’ He walked off, towards the stores tent. We watched him leave, scuffing his feet at the loose ground. Small puffs of dust kicked up and hung around for a few seconds, and then all that was left was the smell of his fart. Normally that would have been the trigger for a few ‘dirty bastards’ or ‘fucking hells’ but not now, and the absence of banter was obvious. The silence hung around us, so all I could hear were the diesel engines of the diggers, distant barking from the kennels and the rattle of a truck as it rolled past on the camp road.
The three of us stood there for a bit longer, and then as one we walked back to the sickbay. We had half an hour to kill before lunch, and there were no more locals hanging around. Hassan must have fobbed them off. He’d be back after lunch for the afternoon’s fresh cases, but that was two hours away.
Simmo reached for the iPod that was perched on the fridge. I looked up from my chair where I was sipping my coffee, waited to see what he’d choose. The other man, Ian, stopped flicking through an old magazine and lifted his head too.
The voice of Lou Reed filled the room. ‘Jesus, Simmo. How fucking appropriate is that?’ Ian said, but he didn’t move from his chair. I sat there too. We all sat there, staring into space while ‘Perfect Day’ played. I could see Simmo slowly shaking his head, breathing slowly, and Ian, miles away.
I wondered who the dead marine was. Had he been here? Had I treated him? Stood next to him in the lunch queue? Was he married? Kids? Just a kid himself? Bloody hell, it was fucking horrible. I felt numb, angry, sad, lost. I don’t belong here, stuck in some poxy tent in the middle of some bastard desert in some godforsaken country, while every so often broken and dead young men get dumped at our camp by the Chinooks, like some cat drops dead mice in a kitchen, and then fucks off again.
I felt the anger rising inside me, looking for an outlet, but there wasn’t one. I couldn’t pick up my rifle and waste whichever fucker had set the IED that had blown up the marine. The most I could do was be rude to a local because a nasty part of me viewed them all with suspicion.
The song ended, and I got to my feet, still feeling angry. ‘Bollocks to all this. Let’s get some food.’
‘You’ll be 20 minutes early, you daft bugger,’ Ian said, looking up.
‘Well, let’s have another fag then. Fuck it, anything’s better than listening to that shite,’ I replied.
‘Cheeky git!’ Simmo was grinning.
The other two got up and we went outside again. Something seemed to have given, and it didn’t seem so tense around us. The noises of the camp seemed more obvious somehow. Life was cracking on. Once you hear people swearing happily at each other, then everything’s okay, I thought. It’s the silences that I can’t stand. Christ, I’m so strict about Sebastian swearing. Kirsty would be outraged. I grinned to myself. Sorry, sweetheart.
Would you recognise me, Kirsty? Would you be disgusted by my language? The casualness of the swearwords? If you saw me now, with my crappy beard and shaved head, you’d probably think I was a thug, someone to avoid, to talk about at dinner parties as being the kind of person you were pleased to move house to get away from. Chav scum in another uniform.
What would you think of the smoking? I’d stopped last time you saw me, a couple of months ago, waving goodbye as I drove off to Brize Norton, still wearing jeans and a T-shirt, not this soldier get-up. What would the kids do? Sebastian would think it was cool, I guess. The twins? If they ran away from the scary man in the combat gear and the rifle, who’d blame them? Baby Sofia? Well, she’s too young to take any of this in.
But you, Kirsty? Would you see why I can’t feel sad now—how that has to come later? And why should I feel sad? I probably never knew the guy who died. Maybe you’d be shocked at my attitude to the locals. How different from the caring GP who left your driveway. All those chats about helping the people of a broken country, hearts and minds, doing some real good over there. All those glasses of wine where your husband sought to justify what he was involved in; why he volunteered to go to Afghanistan.
Would you see all this? You’d see three blokes smoking away, their eyes now raised and heads turned as another Chinook wheels lazily in above the far side of the compound, and watch the wave of dust surge up, until all you can see is a yellowing cloud, with a furious beetle spinning around inside it. You’d smell blocked drains, old food from an unemptied bin, a background smell of shitty dust. You’d see your husband, at home so smart in his naval uniform, now crumpled and dressed up … like who? How the hell can I even begin to explain what this is all about?
I looked over at the main hospital entrance. A group of local civilians sat in the shade of the flapping tent door. From this distance they looked like someone had left their washing bundled up there—four piles of blue and red clothes. They were squatting down on their haunches, looking over at the three of us. Did I really hate them? I certainly behaved as if I did. I turned away and faced the other two. I didn’t hate the locals; I just wished they’d go away. I snorted to myself. Go away? They could hardly go away from their own country. We were the intruders here, the occupiers. Fuck it, no time to think about that. Nearly time for lunch.
I looked at the other two. No-one spoke. ‘Shall we?’
Ian took our mugs and jogged back to the sickbay to lock up, and then we walked towards the cookhouse. Others too, in small groups of twos and threes, and I thought of the size of the queue, a daily complaint. We lined up, avoided any real conversation, until with a start I realised that I was eating my food, and hadn’t thought about the poor bastard who’d just died for the past ten minutes.
I felt guilty. I finished my meal in silence, left the busy cookhouse to try to find a quiet corner again. •
Nick Martin is a GP. He trained in Britain, worked around the world with the Royal Navy and now practises as a GP in Australia.