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Chapter no 109

Spare

THERE WAS SOME TALK, after the attack, about pulling me off the battlefield. Again.

I couldn’t bear to think about that. It was too awful to contemplate.

To keep my mind off the possibility, I fell to my work, got into the rhythm of the job.

My schedule was helpfully rigid: two days of planned ops, three days of VHR (very high readiness). In other words, sitting around a tent, waiting to be summoned.

The VHR tent had the look and feel of a student room at university. The collegiality, the boredom—the mess. There were several cracked-leather couches, a big Union Jack on the wall, snack foods everywhere. We’d pass the time playing FIFA, drinking gallons of coffee, flipping through lad mags. (Loaded was quite popular.) But then the alarm would sound and my student days, along with every other era of my life, would feel a million miles away.

One of the lads said we were glorified firefighters. He wasn’t wrong. Never fully asleep, never fully relaxed, always ready to go. We could be sipping a cup of tea, eating an ice cream, crying about a girl, having a chat

about football, but our senses were always tuned and our muscles were always taut, awaiting that alarm.

The alarm itself was a phone. Red, plain, no buttons, no dial, just a base and handset. Its ringer was antique, consummately British. Brrrang. The sound was vaguely familiar; I couldn’t place it at first. Eventually I realized. It was exactly like Granny’s phone at Sandringham on her big desk, in the huge sitting room where she took calls between games of bridge.

There were always four of us in the VHR tent. Two flight crews of two men each, a pilot and a gunner. I was a gunner and my pilot was Dave—tall, lanky, built like a long-distance marathoner, which in fact he was. He had short dark hair and an epic desert tan.

More glaringly, he possessed a deeply enigmatic sense of humor. Several times a day I’d ask myself: Is Dave serious? Is he being sarcastic? I could never tell. It’s going to take me a while to solve this guy, I’d think. But I never did.

Upon hearing the red phone ring, three of us would drop everything, bolt for the Apache, while the fourth would answer the phone and gather details of the op from a voice at the other end. Was it a medevac? (Medical evacuation.) A TIC? (Troops in contact.) If the latter, how far were the troops, how quickly could we get to them?

Once inside the Apache we’d fire up the air-con, strap on harnesses and body armor. I’d click on one of the four radios, get more details on the mission, punch the GPS coordinates into the onboard computer. The first time you ever start an Apache, going through preflight checks takes one hour, if not more. After a few weeks at Bastion, Dave and I had it down to eight minutes. And it still felt like an eternity.

We were always heavy. Brimming with fuel, bristling with a full complement of missiles, plus enough 30-mm rounds to turn a concrete apartment building into Swiss cheese—you could feel all that stuff holding you down, tying you to Earth. My first-ever mission, a TIC, I resented the feeling, the contrast between our urgency and Earth’s gravity.

I remember clearing Bastion’s sandbag walls with inches to spare, not flinching, not giving that wall a second thought. There was work to do, lives

to save. Then, seconds later, a cockpit warning light began flashing. ENG CHIPS.

Meaning: Land. Now.

Shit. We’re going to have to put down in Taliban territory. I started thinking of Bodmin Moor.

Then I thought…maybe we could just ignore the warning light? No, Dave was already turning us back to Bastion.

He was the more experienced flier. He’d already done three tours, he knew all about those warning lights. Some you could ignore—they blinked all the time and you pulled out the fuses to make them shut up—but not this one.

I felt cheated. I wanted to go, go, go. I was willing to risk crashing, being taken prisoner—whatever. Ours not to reason why, as Flea’s great-granddad said, or Tennyson. Whoever. The point was: Unto the breach.

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