Chapter no 72


AT TIMES WORRIED that I was actually missing out on the real war. Was I perhaps sitting in the war’s waiting room? The real war, I feared,

was just down the valley; I could see the thick puffs of smoke, the plumes from explosions, mostly in and around Garmsir. A place of tremendous strategic importance. Critical gateway, river port through which supplies, especially guns, flowed to the Taliban. Plus, an entry point for new fighters. They’d be issued an AK-47, a fistful of bullets, and told to head towards us through their maze of trenches. This was their initiation test, which the Taliban called their “blooding.”

Were Sandy and Tiggy working for the Taliban?

It happened often. A Taliban recruit would pop up, fire at us, and we’d return fire with twenty times the force. Any Taliban recruit who survived that barrage would then be promoted, sent to fight and die in one of the bigger cities, like Gereshk, or Lashkar Gah, which some called Lash Vegas. Most, however, didn’t survive. The Taliban left their bodies to rot. I watched dogs the size of wolves chew many a recruit off the battlefield.

I began pleading with my commanding officers: Get me out of here. A few guys made the same plea, but for different reasons. I was begging to go closer to the front. Send me to Garmsir.

Finally, on Christmas Eve 2007, my request was approved. I was to replace an outgoing FAC at Forward Operating Base Delhi, which was

inside an abandoned Garmsir school.

Small gravel courtyard, corrugated tin roof. Someone said the school had been an agricultural university. Someone else said it had been a madrassa. For the moment, however, it was a part of the British Commonwealth. And my new home.

It was also home to a company of Gurkhas.

Recruited from Nepal, from the remotest villages along the foothills of the Himalayas, the Gurkhas had fought in every British war of the last two centuries, and distinguished themselves in each one. They scrapped like tigers, never gave up, and as a result they held a special place in the British Army—and in my heart. I’d been hearing about the Gurkhas since I was a boy: one of the first uniforms I’d ever worn was a Gurkha uniform. At Sandhurst the Gurkhas always played the enemy in military exercises, which always felt a bit ridiculous because they were beloved.

After the exercises a Gurkha would invariably walk up to me and offer me a cup of hot chocolate. They had a solemn reverence for royalty. A king, to their minds, was divine. (Their own king was believed to be the reincarnated Hindu god Vishnu.) A prince, therefore, wasn’t far off. I’d felt this growing up, but now felt it again. As I walked through Delhi, the Gurkhas all bowed. They called me saab.

Yes, saab. No, saab.

I pleaded: Don’t. I’m just Lieutenant Wales. I’m just Widow Six Seven. They laughed. No chance, saab.

Neither would they have dreamed of allowing me to go anywhere by myself. Royal persons required royal escort. Often I’d be headed to the mess, or the loo, and suddenly become aware of a shadow on my right. Then another on my left. Hello, saab. It was embarrassing, albeit touching. I adored them, as did the local Afghans, who sold the Gurkhas many chickens and goats and even bantered with them about recipes. The Army talked a lot about winning Afghan “hearts and minds,” meaning converting locals to democracy and freedom, but only the Gurkhas seemed to be actually doing it.

When they weren’t escorting me, the Gurkhas were intent on fattening me up. Food was their love language. And while each Gurkha thought himself a five-star chef, they all had the same speciality. Goat curry.

I remember one day hearing rotors overhead. I looked up. Everyone on the base looked up. A chopper slowly descending. And hanging from the skids, wrapped in a net, was a goat. Christmas present for the Gurkhas.

In a great burst of dust the helicopter touched down. Out jumped a man, bald, blondish, the picture of a British officer.

He was also vaguely familiar.

I know this bloke, I said aloud.

I snapped my fingers. It’s good old Bevan!

He’d worked for Pa for a few years. He’d even chaperoned us one winter in Klosters. (I recalled him skiing in a Barbour jacket, so quintessentially aristocratic.) Now, apparently, he was the brigade commander’s number two. And thus, delivering goats on behalf of the commander to the beloved Gurkhas.

I was floored to bump into him, but he was only mildly surprised—or interested. He was too preoccupied with those goats. Besides the one in the net, he’d cradled one between his knees on the whole flight, and he now guided this little fellow on a lead, like a cocker spaniel, over to a Gurkha.

Poor Bevan. I could see how he’d bonded with that goat, how unprepared he was for what was coming.

The Gurkha took out his kukri and lopped off its head.

The tan, bearded face dropped to the ground like one of the taped-up loo rolls we used for rugby balls.

The Gurkha then neatly, expertly collected the blood in a cup. Nothing was to be wasted.

As for the second goat, the Gurkha handed me the kukri, asked if I’d like to do the honors.

Back home I had several kukris. They’d been gifts from Gurkhas. I knew how to handle one. But no, I said, no, thank you, not here, not just now.

I wasn’t sure why I said no. Maybe because there was enough killing all around me without adding more. I flashed back to telling George that I

absolutely didn’t want to snip off any balls. Where did I draw the line?

At suffering, that’s where. I didn’t want to go all Henry VIII on that goat mainly because I wasn’t skilled in the art, and if I missed or miscalculated the poor thing would suffer.

The Gurkha nodded. As you wish, saab. He swung the kukri.

Even after the goat’s head hit the ground, I remember, its yellow eyes kept blinking.

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