I must have fallen asleep - I was jerked awake by a particularly large hole in the ground, and I slammed into Robbie’s elbow.
‘Where are we now?’ I asked, rubbing my side.
‘Errm…not far to go now, half an hour or so?’
‘Ok great, I need to stretch my legs soon. By the way Rob, you do know that your elbows are really sharp, don‘t you?’
He laughed and nudged me in my ribs.
‘Guys, shut it for a bit, I need to concentrate.’ Josh growled from the front seat.
‘That sounds…dangerous,’ Robbie commented, winking at me.
There was silence in the Land Rover as Josh studied the map of Helmand’s Province that we had been given.
The silence was interrupted by a deafening eruption of noise. Instinctively, I ducked and shielded my head and eyes with my arms. I can’t remember exactly what happened next - the vehicle was blasted apart in a mayhem that ripped the four of us from our seats, and from each other. The thunderous boom echoed again and again in my head, although the silence that settled upon us disturbed me more. I uncovered my eyes tentatively, and a trickle of blood blurred my vision. I wiped my face against my shoulder, and flinched as tiny flint stones transferred from my clothes to my cheek, ingraining themselves into my skin. Touching my fingers to my head, I felt a patch of warm liquid seeping into my matted hair. I looked at my hand and saw the bright red stain on it, and wiped it onto my trousers. I tried standing up, clambering over the mangled roof of the Land Rover and I bit back yell as my foot caught against the metal framing that was slicing into my skin. I grit my teeth together and pulled my leg out of the narrow gap, causing the framing to slice along the length of my lower limb. Blood welled up along the gash and I bound my shirt tightly against it as a makeshift bandage.
I falteringly stood up, and I tried to observe the chaos that surrounded me. The vehicle had been blown up beyond repair, most of the damage to the front of the Land Rover where none of it was intact. The seats had been ripped from it and had landed 20 metres away, with shards of glass spread across the sand, glinting in the sun. I didn’t need to look to see whether Halim or Josh were still alive - the messy red heaps of flesh confirmed their deaths. If a sturdy vehicle had been destroyed, a flimsy human body would definitely have been eradicated with it. But Robbie?
I limped towards another lifeless form that lay face down on the floor, not too far from where I was. If I was alive, surely he was as well.
‘Come on,’ I prayed silently. ‘You have to be alive. Please God, don’t let him be dead.’
I knelt down next to him, and turned him over. His eyelids flickered as I fumbled for his pulse.
‘Rob? Rob! Come on mate, you’re alive, say something!’
I quickly looked at his arm, the bone from his lower arm stuck out at a strange angle, piercing through his skin. I gagged and looked away.
‘Mate, it’s broken. But sit up, it’s not safe here!’
‘What…happened?’ Robbie sat up dizzily, and winced as his arm shifted position.
‘Roadside bomb. Josh and Halim didn’t make it.’
Robbie glanced over to the two mounds of blood, and wretched. I steadied him while vomit surged from him onto the glass covered ground. He wiped across his mouth, and shakily got up.
‘Careful with your arm, yeah?’
Silence met my sentence, and I stared up at him. He was looking at me with a sheen of horror reflected on his face.
‘What? Does it hurt?’ I questioned, puzzled.
‘The thing you’re kneeling on…I think it’s another one.’
‘Another what?’ I looked down, and my heart paused for a few seconds. The distinguishable markings of a homemade bomb device flashed across my eyes. I looked back up at Robbie.
‘Rob? What do I do?’ I whispered desperately. ’I think the trigger is still in it, but if I get up, it will be pulled out.’
He didn’t answer me.
‘Rob! What do I do?’ My hysterical shriek echoed into the silence.
‘Hold it in place, and I’ll take over. Get away.’
The realisation of what he was about to do struck me.
‘You can’t do that! I won’t let you - I’m the one stuck on this, thing, I’m the one that’s meant to die!’
Robbie smiled sadly and briefly. ’James…you can’t do that. And I won’t let you die. I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have children, I don‘t have many friends or relatives. My mum is the only one who will be affected. But you, you have your whole family. You have Jessica, and your daughter. They need you. I won’t let a girl have her father snatched away from her like this. And I won’t let Jessica be broken because of your death.’
‘They’ll survive without me - Rob, please. You don’t have to.’
‘Yes I do. You know as well as I do that Jess won’t survive. She’ll live, yes, but a meaningless existence - her spirit won’t survive. And you want to see your baby, don’t you?’
I had no answer to his question, because I knew he was right. And I knew he was doing the right thing. But why did this feel so wrong?
‘Ok…’ I breathed.
I carefully stood up, keeping the trigger in place with my hand. Sweat mingled with my blood in this effort, dripping onto my eyelashes.
‘I’ve got it…’ Robbie whispered, as he pushed the trigger down firmly with me.
I let go, and I saw fear flicker across Robbie’s face. Tears ran down my face as I observed my friend. Self sacrifice was the ultimate form of love, of friendship, of kindness. Willingly and wholly dedicated to serving others.
‘Go! I can’t hold it down for much longer, just get away from here. Just…remember me James. And tell my mother yourself, in person. Go!’