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Chapter no 71

Spare

AFTER RECEIVING PERMISSION to cross my airspace, a pilot wouldn’t always cruise on through, he’d arrow through, and sometimes his

need to know conditions on the ground would be urgent. Every second mattered. Life and death were in my hands. I was calmly seated at a desk, holding a fizzy drink and a biro (Oh. A biro. Wow.) but I was also in the middle of the action. It was exhilarating, the thing I’d trained for, but terrifying. Shortly before my arrival an FAC got one number wrong when reading out the geo coordinates to an American F-15; the result was an errant bomb landing on British forces instead of the enemy. Three soldiers killed, two horribly maimed. So every word and digit I spoke would have consequences. We were “providing support,” that was the phrase used

constantly, but I realized how euphemistic it was. No less than the pilots, we were sometimes delivering death, and when it came to death, more so than life, you had to be precise.

I confess: I was happy. This was important work, patriotic work. I was using skills honed in the Dales, and at Sandringham, and all the way back to boyhood. Even to Balmoral. There was a bright line connecting my stalking with Sandy and my work here now. I was a British soldier, on a battlefield, at last, a role for which I’d been preparing all my life.

I was also Widow Six Seven. I’d had plenty of nicknames in my life, but this was the first nickname that felt more like an alias. I could really and truly hide behind it. For the first time I was just a name, a random name, and a random number. No title. And no bodyguard. Is this what other people feel like every day? I savored the normality, wallowed in it, and also considered how far I’d journeyed to find it. Central Afghanistan, the dead of winter, the middle of the night, the midst of a war, while speaking to a man fifteen thousand feet above my head—how abnormal is your life if that’s the first place you ever feel normal?

After every action there would be a lull, which was sometimes harder to deal with psychologically. Boredom was the enemy and we fought it by playing rugby, our ball a heavily taped-up roll of loo paper, or by jogging on the spot. We also did a thousand press-ups, and built primitive weightlifting equipment, taping wooden crates to metal bars. We made punch bags out of duffels. We read books, organized marathon chess matches, slept like cats. I watched grown men log twelve hours a day in bed.

We also ate and ate. Dwyer had a full kitchen. Pasta. Chips. Beans. We were given thirty minutes each week on the sat phone. The phone card was called Paradigm, and it had a code on the back, which you punched into the keypad. Then a robot, a nice-sounding woman, told you how many minutes you had left. Next thing you knew…

Spike, that you?

Chels.

Your old life, down the line. The sound always made you catch your breath. To think of home was never easy, for a complex set of reasons. To

hear home was a stab in the chest. If I didn’t call Chels, I called Pa. How are you, darling boy?

Not bad. You know.

But he asked me to write rather than call. He loved my letters. He said he’d much prefer a letter.

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