by Jay Merill
The part that’s left of me never sleeps the night through cos it’s on the lookout for every sign. Of trouble; danger; loss. My ears are always listening.
This was the way of things in my Army days. Now I’m living on a London street it holds good too. In Afghanistan though you weren’t the only one on guard. You always had your mates. We were all watching and wondering together. You rely on each other. There’s the pressure of not wanting to let your mates down and the pressure of knowing they’re feeling the same. You don’t want to be the one they have to die for. The glory of it is that in body and in mind you are never alone. People often talk about being a part of something, but I tell you, till you’ve been in the Army you don’t really know what being part of means.
Seen limbs and blood, heard screams, smelled death. Tasted death. Seen mates around me shot; blown sky high. Seen severed arms, twisted legs all bloody, strewn like stuff from a rubbish-tip that the rats have mauled. Seen severed heads, eyes glazed in terror, silent mouthed; the ring of screaming carrying on in my own head long after the images are past. In the freezing winter, up on exposed tracts of land. Burst of explosions, sound of shots. The stench of smoking guns and of human flesh. And here I am still, in 2013. Acton, West London, another winter. ‘Douglas,’ I say to myself. ‘What you doing?’ I have no answer. Mates of mine have died, yet I have not. I feel like a bastard, I feel disloyal; I shouldn’t really be here. Or anywhere. If you’ve never been a soldier you’ve never felt guilt like this, or the despair that goes with it. Being in a war zone changes the way you are in your head forever. I’m sitting here in Acton High Road, by the Town-Hall. What was all of it for? What is anything for? I ask myself.
I’m on my own now and I deserve to die. I was the one that survived. That is really being alone. I can’t take it but I want to take it. I still hear the screaming now and I try to stop up my ears to get rid of it. But sometimes for days on end, I can’t. This is the poisoned freedom of the one who has returned. The discharge, being on my own and unable to cope; becoming homeless. I sit here, on my uppers, thinking as how it’s my just deserts. Mike, my best mate’s dead and so should I be.
Rattling through the night into the interior of Helmand Province. Aiming to get to Lashkar Gah. We were together, in this truck. Side by side and then there was a holdup. In Nad-e Ali holdups happened all the time. I was looking out for snipers in the dark. But couldn’t see a thing. There was this kind of a rush. I recognised the sound though I didn’t want to. And I sat frozen for I don’t know how long. When I looked at Mike I saw his body slumped forward in his seat. A round neat hole gleamed at the top of his forehead. Drops of blood collected slowly and dripped every now and then. When I looked down I saw they were falling on my hand. I felt as if it were a dream. But it wasn’t of course. It was reality. Dreams are what I’m left with. And nowadays they’re just the nightmare kind. The bitter cold and living rough and not having any place to call a home. I’m used to all of that.
In my sleep I re-live all the old terrors, tell myself, if only I can be on my guard better I can change the past. Then I wake up and know I can’t. Why Mike and not me? This is the thought in my head all of the time. And I want it there. The sense of loss. It’s my punishment for being here; my only companion. It’s what is left of me. Perhaps I can’t live with it; but for sure, I cannot live without it. I’m not seeking an escape.
Jay Merill lives in London and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. Her fiction is recently published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Bunbury Magazine,The Casket of Fictional Delights, Flash Fiction Magazine, Litro, the Big Issue and more.