Crossfire

Prologue

Helmand Province, Afghanistan,

October 2009

‘Medic! Medic!’

I could see that my platoon sergeant was shouting but, strangely, the sound of his voice seemed muffled, as if I was in a neighbouring room rather than out here in the open.

I was lying on the dusty ground with my back up against a low bank so that I was actually half sitting. Sergeant O’Leary was kneeling beside me on my left.

‘Medic!’ he shouted again urgently, over his shoulder.

He turned his head and looked me in the eye.

‘Are you all right, sir?’ he asked.

‘What happened?’ I said, my own voice sounding loud in my head.

‘A bloody IED,’ he said. He turned away, looked behind him, and shouted again. ‘Where’s that fucking medic?’

An IED. I knew that I should have known what IED meant but my brain seemed to be working in slow motion. I finally remembered. IED – Improvised Explosive Device – a roadside bomb.

The sergeant was talking loudly into his personal radio.

‘Alpha four,’ he said in a rush. ‘This is Charlie six three. IED, IED. One CAT A, several CAT C. Request IRT immediate backup and casevac. Over.’

I couldn’t hear any response, if there was one. I seemed to have lost my radio headset, along with my helmet.

CAT A, he’d said. CAT A was army speak for a seriously injured soldier requiring immediate medical help to prevent loss of life. CAT Cs were walking wounded.

The sergeant turned back to me.

‘You still all right, sir?’ he asked, the stress apparent in his face.

‘Yes,’ I said, but, in truth, I didn’t really feel that great. I was cold, yet sweaty. ‘How are the men?’ I asked him.

‘Don’t worry about the men, sir,’ he said. ‘I’ll look after the men.’

‘How many are injured?’ I asked.

‘A few. Minor, mostly,’ he said. ‘Just some cuts and a touch of deafness from the blast.’ I knew what he meant. The sergeant turned away and shouted at the desert-camouflaged figure nearest to him. ‘Johnson, go and fetch the bloody medic kit from Cummings. The little rat’s too shit-scared to move.’

He turned back to me once more.

‘Won’t be long now, sir.’

‘You said on the radio there’s a CAT A. Who is it?’

He looked into my face.

‘You, sir,’ he said.

‘Me?’

‘The CAT A is you, sir,’ he said again. ‘Your fucking foot’s been blown off.’

1

Four Months Later

I realized as soon as I walked out of the hospital that I had nowhere to go.

I stood holding my bag at the side of the road, watching a line of passengers board a red London bus.

Should I join them, I wondered. But where were they going?

Simply being discharged from National Health Service care had been my overriding aim for weeks without any thought or reason as to what was to come next. I was like a man released from prison who stands outside the gates gulping down great breaths of fresh, free air without a care for the future. Freedom was what mattered, not the nature of it.

And I had been incarcerated in my own prison, a hospital prison.

I suppose, looking back, I had to admit that it had passed quite quickly. But, at the time, every hour, even every minute, had dragged interminably. Progress, seen day-by-day, had been painfully slow, with painful being the appropriate word. However, I was now able to walk reasonably well on an artificial foot and, whereas I wouldn’t be playing football again for a while, if ever, I could climb up and down stairs unaided and was mostly self-sufficient. I might even have been able to run a few strides to catch that bus, if only I had wanted to go wherever