A Second of Silence
A single, solitary bead of sweat caressed James’ face as it slid from his hairline to his chin, clinging desperately to his patchy stubble before landing in the dust. Smoke curled from the angry red of the cigarette held loosely in his left hand. He inhaled the chemicals and a burst of sweet endorphins lifted the corners of his mouth into a rare, indulgent and slightly twisted smile. James, or ‘Jam’ as he was known to his friends, was by the operations tent, waiting. A row of jeeps stretched to his left, kissing the compound wall and shimmering in the vibrant heat of the sun, which was burning like a giant golden disk in the unbroken, blank, blue canvas of sky above him. A feeble wind teased James’ hair out of his startlingly green eyes and gently encouraged a small flurry of sand to chase around his ankles. A general hum of voices and metallic clicking filled the stale, arid air. The grating sound of knives and forks scraping plates in the mess tent and the familiar, casual chatter of an LS8A1 semi-automatic rifle as it was loaded and checked drifted through the air. All these sounds were familiar and comfortable to James, however there were two sounds every private dreaded hearing. One was your Corporal shouting your name, the other was the sharp pop and clatter of an AK-47. Enemy fire. Little did James know that he would be hearing both before the day was out.
‘James!’ roared Corporal Daniel Straight as he stormed out of the operations tent and strode dead ahead, until the blinding sun caused him to pause and rest his aviator sunglasses on his nose. ‘James! Where are you, boy?’ James, who was stood four feet behind Straight, coughed softly into his hand. Straight stiffened immediately and turned sharply and abruptly on his heel. ‘James!’ Straight shouted, at the same volume as before. He took another two enormous steps and came to rest just inches from James’ face. Corporal Straight glared at James. Daniel Straight met James’ generous six foot two height comfortably, but was at least twice as broad and held clenched fists at his sides or behind his back at all times, giving the impression he was always ready to knock someone to the ground. One of his ears looked uneven, like a small child had simply stuck it on poorly with glue and tape. It was rumoured that it had almost been ripped off by a member of the Taliban during a covert operation in his first few weeks of service in 2003. James, however, learned from a reliable source that it had happened when his Dad had accidentally thrown him into the air too high as a child and he struck a ceiling fan. He was famous for saying that even through the tinted, reflective lenses of his glasses he ‘Could have Death itself looking down at its feet.’ James though, much to Straights annoyance, met his gaze coolly and calmly. Straight had never liked James. Straight was not intimidated by a man wielding a gun, shouting in his face or firing off threats. A man like that could be dealt with swiftly with a bigger gun, louder shouting or worse threats, all available to Straight. But a quiet man... An intelligent man, armed with knowledge and the power of reason rendered Straight terrified. Not that he’d ever admit it. ‘James, I have just been ordered to assemble a team including one close arms Private, one long distance specialist and two technicians to take three jeeps and travel forty miles East to another compound, and guess what?’ There was no response from James, who simply reached up and scratched his nose, expectantly. ‘I believe you are the lucky close range specialist for the job! I shall be accompanying you all to make sure you get there safely. We roll out in an hour! Pack your things.’
James entered the cool, merciful shade of the mess tent and sat down beside Doug, a jovial man, whose skin was so dark he didn’t look any different to how he did when he and James arrived together six months ago. They had been in basic training together at the same barracks and developed a strong friendship. Doug nodded at James and said around a mouthful of food ‘What’s up?’ James didn’t reply, he knew exactly what was coming. Straight needed a long distance specialist, and everyone knew Doug was the best sniper in the base. Including Corporal Daniel Straight. Sure enough Straights ragged voice could be heard over the din of the mess tent. ‘Doug! Doug! Where are you, boy!?’ James raised his eyes at Doug, who whipped out his trademark red-spotted handkerchief and wiped his shiny bald head. Doug smiled a shaky smile. ‘Oh, goody...’
Before he knew it James was sitting in the back of one of the jeep’s beside a jittery technician, behind two other vehicles all pointing towards the compound’s imposing gates. Doug was sitting in the jeep in front with another technician, Corporal Straight the one in front of that. James could just see Straight’s arm hanging out of the driver’s side window as it held up four fingers. Four minutes. Nerves started to scratch at the base of his back, scurrying up his spine and tickling the corners of his mouth into an apprehensive half-smile. This was why James joined the army. He had been a teacher before deciding to sign up, but the predictable, safe, monotony of life in a London suburb had slowly worn James into a state of depression. He longed for excitement, yearned to meet new and interesting people, to challenge himself. To experience danger. The closest he’d come to any real danger in the last few years of teaching was putting a child in detention with a father that had threatened to ‘put him in hospital.’ James had never been to hospital before, but he knew if he ever did end up there he wanted to be there for something real. Something that really meant something. Not a scrap in a school yard with an overweight, middle aged man. This was dangerous. They were hoping to arrive just before nightfall as it was at least an hour and a half drive through potentially occupied Bad Lands. Straight pushed his hand into the air again and held up one finger. One minute. Suddenly, the door of the jeep in front swung open forcefully and Doug fell out of the vehicle into the dust, scrabbling backwards. James’ hand immediately slid to his trigger. Doug jumped to his feet and held his hands up to both the other jeeps. He was fine, it seemed. He approached the Corporal and had an animated conversation involving Straight slamming his hands on the steering wheel so it blew the horn loudly, causing Doug to jump and dash to James’ window.
‘What happened?’ said James, peering through his windshield into the other jeep.
Doug sighed, laughed, and said ‘Techy I was with, he popped.’
‘Ah, I see’ murmured James, suddenly understanding Straight’s anger. ‘Popped’ was the term used when someone couldn’t take the fear that went with leaving the safety of the compound and was violently sick as a result.
Suddenly, Straight was at Doug’s elbow barking orders. ‘Right! James, Doug, we’re taking this jeep! I’m driving! You!’ he shouted, pointing a stout finger at the quivering technician in the seat beside James. ‘Get your friend in there cleaned up, get that jeep out of the way, and get behind the wheel of that vehicle. This is going to put us behind...’ he growled, shooting daggers at the jeep in front. ‘This means we won’t arrive before dark. Can we all handle that?’ he hissed, his gaze resting on the almost whimpering man beside James. They all nodded. ‘Good! Get to it then!’
Half an hour later and both jeep’s were rolling down a winding track that hugged a sheer, rocky cliff. The sun sank slowly below the blood red sky line and stars were slowly blossoming overhead as the sky turned a deep, bruised purple. The temperature was dropping rapidly but James was still sweating, as was Doug whose handkerchief was resting in his lap. The gentle creak of crickets and the rumble of the jeeps powerful V8 engine were the only sounds that pervaded the still air. Suddenly the jeep in front reared up on its back wheels as a fiery red and orange conflagration sent the vehicle careering off the narrow path into a ditch where it quickly caught on fire. Corporal Straight slammed on the jeeps brakes but it was too late. A short rattle of fire had burst the front left tyre and sent the second jeep spinning through the air.
They seemed to hover gracefully for a few seconds before crashing heavily into the ground and rolling over and over until the jeep came to rest on its back. James promptly vomited on the roof of the jeep, which had now become the floor, and focused his rolling eyes to his right where the two technicians had extricated themselves from their wrecked jeep. Their lower legs were visible, frantically turning in every direction when two incredibly loud bangs dropped the technicians to their knees, and James turned his head as quickly as possible. He cracked open one bleary eye and looked at Doug, who seemed to have come to his senses much faster that James. James felt like everything was underwater as he watched Doug struggle with his seatbelt and shout something unintelligible in James’ ear. Corporal Straight had already wrenched his seatbelt free and was yelling things like ‘Lock and Load!’ and ‘Fall out!’ Military phrases that lost all sense and meaning in any real situation. He had fallen to the floor and was attempting to kick through the jeep’s windscreen. Eventually, he simply raised his weapon and shot the glass twice. He pulled himself out of his seat and heaved his battered body through the shattered window, where he then warily approached James’ side of the car so that he was covered from the enemy fire. James could feel Doug wrestling with his seatbelt next to him as he slowly became lucid enough to add it all up in his head. The jeep’s gas tank was now completely exposed and James could hear an AK-47 gnashing its steel teeth in the distance. It would take a skilled marksman about seven well-aimed bullets to pierce the gas tank, and James could faintly hear them pinging off the jeep’s body work.
Doug fell from his seat and landed heavily in James’ vomit. He edged under the space between James’ head and the jeep’s roof and squeezed out of the shattered window. He crouched beside Corporal Straight and James could hear them shouting as he wrapped his fingers around his seatbelt.
The buckle had released the belt but it was still wrapped around the twisted metal of the seat beside him. James pulled with all his might but his vision was blurring and a dull throb was developing behind his burning eyes.
Doug was trying to get back to the door to assist James with his belt, but James could hear Straight yelling that he’d be in the ‘Line of fire!’ James tried to shout, to tell Doug to back off, to leave him, something, anything. But all that came out of his mouth was a thin, dry rasp.
Doug threw Corporal Straight to the floor and leapt at the jeep’s crumpled door. He grabbed the edge of the window, and James could fuzzily see his strong fingers straining against the door’s mangled hinges.
Doug wrenched the door upwards in one final, colossal, desperate effort. James watched as Doug’s fingers slipped from the window frame, causing him to accidentally straighten up to his full height for a split second.
This bullet didn’t make a metallic ping as it missed the gas tank. Instead, it made a soft thump. James watched Doug’s red-spotted handkerchief float to the ground. James squeezed his eyes together so tightly it felt as though a roaring, whistling wind was rushing in his ears and his pupils were being pressed against his eyelids. Doug’s handkerchief had looked decidedly more spotted with red than the other hundreds of times Doug had whipped it out in front of him.
James wasn’t religious. Never had been. He had always considered himself proudly atheist. However, in that moment, James crossed himself.
A second of silence.