By Penny Butler
25 DEC 2012, ???, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
17:45 HOURS, THE MESS
The soldiers were a mass of yellow and brown, like the custard on their Christmas pudding. The wet-pitted kitchen staff unceremoniously slopped the dessert onto one plate after another. The regimented column flowed out like a river into hundreds of hungry mouths. The men and few women sat down in their uniforms on man-made chairs that scratched the surface of god’s land – but not their God’s. Knives and forks, and thumbs and fingers, ripped the food apart.
Trays clashed, elbows knocked and coffee spilled.
‘Jesus, watch it Clifford.’
‘Oh, I’m watching it. Your fat arse just isn’t moving.’
‘EIGHT PLATOON, CHARLIE COMPANY, BRIEFING ROOM, EIGHTEEN HUNDRED HOURS.’
Immediately, all heads turned to Hondo. He spat on his watch and rubbed his sleeve across the filthy face of it.
‘Ten minutes, eat up.’
Heads went down, food went in.
18:30 HOURS, BRIEFING ROOM
‘… Any questions or doubtful points?’ The Warrant Officer, fair but intimidating, looked at each solider in turn. No one spoke. ‘Alright then, I’ve got some questions for you.’
Minds raced with rendezvous, code names, weapons and sex.
‘Innes, how many rounds will you be carrying?’
‘One hundred, Sir.’
‘Whennam, tell me how many ration packs you’ll need?’
‘Three each sir, one for a day’s grub and then an extra two for… God knows what.’
‘Wrong Whennam, even God doesn’t know what. He can’t see shit through all this sand.’
‘Now, let’s see.’ Sir’s eyes skipped from one breasted nametag to the next. They rested on Clifford in no uncertain terms. ‘You there, tell me the mission objectives.’
‘Sir, the aim of our patrol is to kill, injure or capture any Taliban insurgency found active in Tarisdn.’
‘Correct. Hondo, mission specifics.’
‘Sir, we’re to meet at the marshalling area at 05:30 hours. At O-six hundred hours we move out. We’ll be marching ten clicks across cleared Coalition territory -’
‘- Hondo, let me just interrupt you there for a moment. The term “cleared” doesn’t mean jack shit out here. The Taliban are like filthy cockroaches, no matter how many times you spray ‘em, they just keep crawling back. Not only do these cockroaches have diseases, they have AK-47s, rocket launchers and fuck knows what else. So, keep your eyes peeled. You might need to stomp the shit out of them again. But watch your feet while you’re doing it, their shit’s explosive. Go on, Hondo.’
‘Thanks, Sir. So, after ten clicks we’ll be at the border between our occupied territory and theirs. We’ll continue north, in their territory, for another K. That should land us just outside the village of Tarisdn. We’ll find cover in the hills surrounding it and observe for possible threats. We’ll decide on the best mode of entry based on what we see. Then, we’ll kick some Taliban arse, secure the village and wait for HQ to send us a relief.’
‘Right. Now, listen carefully.’ Sir drew a measured breath. ‘Don’t, even for one second, let your guard down. That second could cost you your life and this sand pit isn’t worth one fucking Australian life, not one. So, if you die, I’ll be that fucking angry I’ll use black-fucking-voodoo-magic to raise you from the dead just so I can kill you again.’
The corners of his mouth twitched. There was a liberating moment of nervous laughter in the room.
Sir corrected his smile and the room went silent. ‘So, don’t be a careless dumb fuck. Understood?’
Heads bobbed in a murmured sea of ‘yessirs’.
‘I said. Is that understood?’
Eyes snapped front.
26 DEC 2012, ???, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
05:30 HOURS, MARSHALLING AREA
The soldiers sat about and leant against their heavy packs like giant, uncomfortable pillows. Loaded rifles slept on camouflaged laps.
‘Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck it’s early.’ Tetlow’s yawn escaped. It infected the group like a communal whinge.
‘I haven’t been up this early since basic.’
‘I didn’t even get time to masturbate. Did you, Clifford?’
‘Fuck off, Ross.’
‘Ooo, so tense. I’ll take that as no then.’
10:00 HOURS, DIRT ROAD
They walked along the road, several paces apart and in two files. The soldiers kicked up clouds of dirt with every step. It swirled around their legs like a polluted fog.
‘This road has been cleared, yeah?’
Hondo rolled his eyes. ‘You doubtin’ army intelligence Ager?’
‘Well, it is an oxymoron, Corp.’
‘That’s one too,’ piped Clifford.
12:00 HOURS, FOOT HILLS
Hondo paused in a small valley between two hills. ‘This’ll do. Tetlow and Ager, you’re on picket.’
The soldiers dropped their packs and plonked themselves onto the ground.
‘You alright, Clifford?’ Hondo asked.
‘Yeah, think so. Sat right onto an old tracer round. Fucking thing is still sharp.’
‘Better give us a look then -’
‘- yeah, come on Clifford, I wanna know if your arse is as hairy as mine.’ That was Ross.
‘Actually, Ross, you can go on picket for Ager.’
‘Aw Corp, come on.’
Hondo glared at him.
‘Now, Clifford, give us a look.’
‘Nah, Corp, don’t worry about it. Honestly, I’m fine.’
‘That was an order, Private.’
They went behind some bushes. ‘Ouch. Jesus, Clifford. I’m surprised you didn’t scream like a bitch, I would’ve.’
‘How bad is it?’
‘You’re bleeding quite a bit but it’s actually not that deep. I’ll patch it up, for now, but you’ll probably need a stitch or two when we get back to base. You’re lucky the phosphorous had already burnt off.’
‘You call this lucky?’
Hondo swabbed the wound with Betadine. ‘Could be worse, is all I’m saying.’ He grabbed a bandage and pressed it down firmly. ‘All good, now go get yourself a feed.’
They went back to the main group. Clifford sat down gingerly.
Ager was complaining. ‘How is it even possible that these rat packs taste sooo bad?’
‘Same shit, different day.’ Innes contorted his face in disgust and spooned something sloppy into his mouth. ‘Delicious.’ It dripped off his chin like vomit.
‘You know these things cost around a hundred and twenty bucks each?’
‘You’ve got to be shitting me.’
‘I shit you not.’
‘Where’s my lobster then?’
‘Back home, probably in the kitchen with your missus.’
Hartman imagined her leaning against the sink wearing her favourite summer dress and a smile, for him. ‘Lucky lobster.’
Nobody spoke; they were rapt, for a moment, busy in their own minds with blondes, brunettes or fiery redheads. In Whennam’s case, he was thinking about all three.
‘Clifford, what on earth are you doing?’ Innes was the first to snap out of it.
‘I’m trying to open my friggin’ can o’ beans.’
‘I can see that. Now, give me Fred.’
‘- Fucking-ridiculous-eating-device.’ Innes grabbed it off Clifford and, reaching into his pocket, swapped it with a standard can opener. ‘Now that’s a fucking-fantastic-eating-device.’
‘Moving out in ten.’
‘Hey Clifford, how’s your Beyonce booty holding up?’
‘Shut up, Ross,’ scolded Hondo. ‘In fact, shut up everyone. We’re about to cross into enemy territory soon so get your game faces on. Let’s leave off this road. I don’t feeling like getting my toes blown off today.’
14:30 HOURS, OBSERVATION POINT
Almost invisible, the soldiers lay in the hills overlooking the village of Tarisdn. Only their eyes moved. They’d crawled into position about an hour ago and hadn’t shifted since.
Whennam’s eyes landed on Hartman who motioned at him to withdraw. He passed the message onto Innes, who passed it onto Ager, and so on. Warily, they shuffled backwards, careful not to kick up any dust. Once they were hidden below the crest of the hill they pushed themselves up into a crouch and turned around. Hondo was already waiting for them.
‘Alright,’ he said in a low, clear voice. ‘Tell me what you noticed.’
‘Fuck all, Corp. There’s not much going on,’ offered Innes. The others nodded in agreement.
‘Anyone see any young men?’
They shook their heads.
‘Any suspicious carts?’
‘Not that we saw. Maybe in the buildings, though.’
‘Anything else you can think of?’
‘Not really, Corp. Except, well, even a village that size should have more going on.’
‘You think it’s too quiet?’
‘Put it this way, all I saw was an old man and his goat.’
‘Maybe they saw us coming and took off, Corp?’
‘Maybe they’re waiting for us?’
‘Don’t be so paranoid, Tetlow.’
‘What should we do?’
‘Carry out our mission, as directed. Anyone see a good point of entry?’
‘On the left, Corp, a back street. The buildings would provide good cover and there aren’t many open windows to worry about.’
‘Where does it lead, Clifford?’
‘To the centre of town.’
‘Sounds good to me. Anyone got a better idea?’ No one said anything. ‘Alright then; Hartman, Ager, I want you to move back into your positions and cover our entry.’
‘Sure thing, Corp.’
‘The rest of you are with me. I’ll take point. Ross, take up the rear. Keep yourselves spread out.’
13:30 HOURS, ??? VILLAGE
Quietly, they advanced into the village. They slithered, rifles raised and wary, between the buildings. They crept cautiously by windows and past doors; no one home. Hondo’s hand flew up and opened. He’d stopped mid step. No one moved an inch. He curled his hand into a fist and then pointed his index finger towards the sky. Rapidly, he rotated it in clockwise circles; turn around now.
They withdrew, quickly but cautiously. Desperate eyes searched everywhere; the front, the back, to the left and the right but, mostly, they scoured the ground. Metres passed, precariously underfoot, before they found decent cover. They crouched uncomfortably behind a thick stonewall.
‘Spread out in five metre gaps. Keep your eyes open and your heads down. And Sig, get me HQ on the radio.’ They hurried along the wall in single file like ants.
Hondo unfolded a map from his breast pocket and spread it on the dirt. His tough hands quickly flew along the grid lines.
‘One three Alpha, this is One Three Foxtrot, prepare to receive, over.’
‘Copy that Foxtrot. Send over.’
Hondo took the receiver. ‘Position GR 4:7:5:5. Evidence of IEDs. Request for Blood Hounds ASAP. High likelihood of enemy presence, caution advised. Over.’
‘Copy that Foxtrot, wait out.’
Hondo rested the receiver against his shoulder and looked to his right. ‘Innes.’
‘Pass this down the line. I saw some wires leading into a bunch of rubble. There should be some sappers here to clear our way pretty soon. In the meantime no slacking off, keep your eyes fucking peeled, understood?’
The receiver chattered into his shoulder. He lifted it to his ear, ‘Alpha, send again, over.’
‘Request granted; Blood Hound T.O.A 16:20 by bird. Secure a landing zone and defensive perimeter. Over.’
‘Copy that Alpha. Over and out.’
The two sentries sat at either ends of the wall. Their heads moved like carnival clowns scouring the horizon, back and forth, back and forth; any players?
The rest of the grunts surrounded a crude mud map.
‘I want teams of two here, here, here and…’ He stroked his stubble, ‘here. One grunt in each team will cover the landing and the other will cover the rear.’
‘A circle of death for anyone who tries to fuck with us, ‘ey Corp?’
‘That’s the plan. And one more thing, when the Sappers get here, if you see one running, don’t let him overtake ya.’
‘I thought so. Now, move out.’
16:20 HOURS, AN EMPTY HOUSE
Whennam slagged on his watch. ‘They’re late. We invite them to a nice bomb-infested village and they don’t even have the decency to show up on time.’
‘So, you got anything?’
‘Other than a shitload of sand?’
‘Hold on. Can you hear that?’
‘Better, I can see it; chopper’s here.’
Clifford watched it come closer and closer. Suddenly, it dropped and veered quickly to the right, only just missing an enemy rocket. ‘Fuck.’ Clifford scanned, cocked, aimed, shot and killed.
‘What the hell?’ Whennam whirled around. ‘Shit, you just shot yourself your first towel-head.’
‘I’ve lost sight of it. What’s happening, Whennam?’
‘The chopper’s hovering. The Blood Hounds are jumping out. Yep, they’re off. So the chopper is not sticking around.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘Corps out there with ‘em, showing ‘em where the bomb is. They’re setting up the robot.’
‘We’re going to be here a while, aren’t we?’
‘You still awake Clifford?’
‘How could I fall asleep with all this sand to entertain me?’
‘Funny. No dice with the robot. It’s coming back.’
‘Seriously, could this take any longer?’
‘You can’t rush perfection, Clifford.’
‘Or the dismantling of a giant bomb, I suppose.’
‘Quit whinging. You just got your first kill. Fuckin’ good shot too. Most of us didn’t think you had it in ya, to be honest.’
‘‘cos of your scrawny arms and all that.’
‘You know…’ Whennam sheepishly trailed off. ‘Anyway, you should be stoked.’
‘I am. I’m just keen to get back to base and –’
‘Of course,’ Clifford grinned.
‘Well, you won’t have long to wait now. They’re getting the suit out.’
‘About time. You reckon I can duck out and take a quick piss?’
‘Can’t you hold it?’
‘No way. Too much adrenaline.’
‘Well, can’t you just do it in the corner?’
‘Nope, stage fright.’
‘Fuck, alright, but ditch your pack and double-time it. I don’t want to get shot in the arse.’
‘It looks like they’ve finally disarmed it. We should be moving out in a sec. Yep, Corp’s waving us over.’ Whennam slowly stood up and stretched. ‘Got your shit sorted?’
He turned and saw Clifford’s pack resting against the wall.
‘Clifford? You’re not takin’ a shit are ya?’
He went outside.
Clifford’s water bottle was resting on its side; its contents had emptied onto the sand. They’d taken her.