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Chapter no 67

Spare

ONE MONTH LATER WENT to RAF Brize Norton and boarded a C-17.

There were dozens of other soldiers on the plane, but I was the only stowaway. With help from Colonel Ed and JLP, I boarded in secret, then crept into an alcove behind the cockpit.

The alcove had bunkbeds for the crew on overnight flights. As the big engines fired, as the plane roared down the runway, I lay down on a bottom bunk, my small rucksack as a pillow. Somewhere below, in the cargo hold, my Bergen was neatly packed with three pairs of camo trousers, three clean T-shirts, one pair of goggles, one air bed, one small notebook, one tube of sun cream. It felt like more than enough. I could honestly say that nothing I needed or wanted in life had been left behind, other than a few pieces of Mummy’s jewelry, and the lock of her hair in the little blue box, and the silver-framed photo of her that used to sit on my desk at Eton, all of which I’d stashed in a safe place. And, of course, my weapons. My 9-mm and SA80A had been surrendered to a stern-faced clerk, who’d locked them in a steel box that also went into the hold. I felt their absence most acutely, since, for the first time in my life, other than that wobbly morning stroll in Paris, I was about to venture forth into the wide world without armed bodyguards.

The flight was eternal. Seven hours? Nine? I can’t say. It felt like a week. I tried to sleep, but my head was too full. I spent most of the time staring. At the upper bunk. At my feet. I listened to the engines, listened to the other soldiers on board. I replayed my life. I thought about Pa and Willy. And Chels.

The papers reported that we’d broken up. (One headline: HOORAY HARRYS DUMPED.) The distance, the different life goals were too much. It was hard enough maintaining a relationship in the same country, but with me going off to war, it just didn’t seem feasible. Of course, none of this was true. We’d not broken up. She’d given me a touching, tender farewell, and promised to wait for me.

She knew, therefore, to disregard all the other stories in the papers, about how I’d reacted to the breakup. Reportedly, I’d gone on a pub crawl and guzzled a few dozen vodkas before staggering into a waiting car. One paper actually asked the mother of a soldier recently killed in action how she felt about my being publicly intoxicated.

(She was against it.)

If I die in Afghanistan, I thought, at least I’ll never have to see another fake headline, read another shameful lie about myself.

I thought a lot on that flight about dying. What would it mean? Did I care? I tried to picture my funeral. Would it be a state funeral? Private? I tried to imagine the headlines: Bye, Harry.

How would I be remembered by history? For the headlines? Or for who I actually was?

Would Willy walk behind my coffin? Would Grandpa and Pa?

Before I’d shipped out, JLP sat me down, told me I needed to update my will.

My will? Really?

If anything happened, he said, the Palace needed to know what I wanted to be done with my few belongings, and where I wished to be…buried. He asked so plainly, so calmly, as you’d ask somebody where they’d like to have lunch. But that was his gift. The truth was the truth, no sense leaning away from it.

I looked away. I couldn’t really think of a spot where I wanted to spend the hereafter. I couldn’t think of any spot that felt sacred, besides Althorp, maybe, and that was out of the question. So I said: Frogmore Gardens?

It was beautiful, and slightly removed from things. Peaceful. JLP gave a nod. He’d see to it.

Amid these thoughts and recollections I managed to doze off for a few minutes, and when I opened my eyes we were swooping down to Kandahar Airfield.

Time to put on the body armor. Time to put on the Kevlar.

I waited for everyone else to disembark, then some Special Forces guys appeared in the alcove. They returned my weapons and handed me a vial of morphine, to keep on my person at all times. We were now in a place where pain, injuries, trauma were commonplace. They hurried me off the plane into a four-by-four with blacked windows and dusty seats. We drove to a different part of the base, then hurried into a Portakabin.

Empty. Not a soul.

Where is everybody? Bloody hell, was peace declared while I was in the air?

No, the whole base was out on a mission.

I looked around. Apparently they’d left in the middle of a meal. Tables were covered with half-empty pizza boxes. I tried to remember what I’d eaten on the flight. Nothing. I began shoving cold pizza into my mouth.

I took my in-theater test, one last barrier to entry, one last measure to prove that I knew how to do the job. Shortly after, I climbed into a Chinook and flew about fifty miles to a much smaller outpost. Forward Operating Base Dwyer. Long, unwieldy name for what was little more than a sandcastle made of sandbags.

I was met by a sand-covered soldier who said he’d been ordered to show me around.

Welcome to Dwyer. Thanks.

I asked how the place got its name.

One of our lads. K-I-A. Vehicle hit a land mine.

The quick tour revealed Dwyer to be even more spartan than it looked from the Chinook. No heat, few lights, not much water. There was plumbing, of a sort, but the pipes were usually clogged or frozen. There was also a building that purported to be a “shower block,” but I was advised: use at your peril.

Basically, my tour guide told me, just give up being clean. Focus instead on staying warm.

It gets that cold here?

He chortled.

Dwyer was home to about fifty soldiers, mostly artillery and Household Cavalry. I met them in twos and threes. They were all sandy-haired, by which I mean their hair was matted with sand. Their faces and necks and eyelashes—also encrusted. They looked like fillets of fish that’d been breadcrumbed before frying.

Within one hour, I did too.

Everyone and everything at Dwyer was either caked with sand or sprinkled with sand or painted the color of sand. And out beyond the sand-colored tents and sandbags and sand walls was an infinite ocean of…sand. Fine, fine sand, like talcum powder. The lads spent much of their day gazing at all that sand. So, after completing my tour, getting my cot and some chow, I did too.

We told ourselves we were scanning for the enemy, and we were, I suppose. But you couldn’t stare at that many grains of sand without also thinking about eternity. All that shifting, swirling, whirling sand, you felt it saying something to you about your minuscule niche in the cosmos. Ashes to ashes. Sand to sand. Even when I retired, settled onto my metal cot, drifted off to sleep, sand was uppermost on my mind. I heard it out there, having whispery conversations with itself. I felt a grain on my tongue. On my eyeball. I dreamed of it.

And when I woke, there was a spoonful of it in my mouth.

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