He studied the stranger’s face in the mirror. Regardless of how many times he told himself otherwise he knew it was his own. Each individual engraved line crinkling across his face like an estuary told a story; they were a memory. He sat on the worn out chair with a yellow stain on the left hand rest, thinking back to the things he had done; how life used to be. As he did so he pulled a bit of the frizzy stuffing from the side of the chair which was pushing through the slapdash sewing that held the chair together. He thought about the bad things he had done in his life with remorse. He thought about the people he knew and loved. The friends he had made and the friends he had lost. He thought about the people he’d taken out of the world; the people he’d killed. It had been fifty three years ago but still that day haunted him. As he thought of this a little crescent of a tear appeared in his right eye like the sliver of a new moon in the night’s sky. It dangled there for a moment and then dived to the ground and onto his brown fluffy slippers which his grandson had bought him the week before.
‘I’m so sorry to have done this to you,’ Mary said shovelling her seven year-old son Peter and his rucksack into the room. ‘At such short notice too,’ she paused and smiled, exhaling she kissed the old man on the head. His few strands of hair that were left ruffled as his daughters warm humid flustered breath flowed from her nose. It tickled. ‘Thanks Dad.’ He nodded in response and raised his eye brows which pulled his face into a smile. Mary’s attention moved to her son; she patted him on the head and messed his hair.
‘We won’t be long,’ she smiled. She picked up an apple and placed it on the table ‘make sure you eat this Peter,’ and with that she sent one last appreciated glance at her father and left the room. The door’s automatic sensor, detecting that someone had left, closed after her. ‘Everything is much more regulated and safe now’ the old man thought; ‘not a child playing sport without complete body pads and no little boys climbing trees with potato guns.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Almost everything is a…what do they call it now? A safety issue’ His thoughts trickled off.
‘So, what was all that about then?’ the old man smiled looking at Peter with an amused look. The little boy tugged at his jumper and placed himself on the floor by his grandfather’s slippers; absentmindedly stroking the toe of the left one. He sat up straight arching his back backwards and then flopped himself down again as if preparing himself for a long and very complicated story. Just before he started he cleared his throat. He didn’t quite know why he did, but he thought it was the right thing to do. He had seen his father do it many times when talking to other adults so thought that it would be a mature thing to do, especially when talking to a Grandfather. ‘One must be on their best behaviour,’ he remembered his mother saying. Picking an unidentifiable small black object out of his sock which was so sweaty it felt like it was radiating humidity, he started.
‘Well, I didn’t go to school today because I didn’t feel very well,’ and he gave a pathetic cough as if to reiterate the point; his grandfather chuckled. ‘Mum was in a bad mood because she couldn’t go to work. She had to look after me and that made her cross. Anyway, I was watching cartoons when I heard the phone ring. I answered it in my most grown up voice’ he paused as if expecting a reaction and when none was given he continued, a little reluctantly as if disappointed with his grandfather’s lack of response ‘The voice said that he was calling from Saint Luke’s secondary school; the school where Sam goes to. I handed the phone to mummy and then I went back to my cartoons.’ He looked up and smiled. ‘One had a monster in it!’ he looked delighted as if this was the most amazing fact he had ever told anyone. ‘I think Sam was in trouble’ Peter finished.
‘I see,’ his grandfather said with no trace of shock in his voice. Sam was always getting in trouble at school. He was an opinionated cheeky boy with a loud voice which is good in a playground or a rugby pitch but less appreciated in a classroom or in a confined space with anyone, in particular, an air tram. Sam wasn’t rude, just very loud and very animated when he spoke. Air trams are very crowded and not as steady as aeroplanes when they hit turbulence so shouting and screaming really isn’t appreciated. There was a pause when Peter and his Grandfather sat with a faint smile on their faces thinking about what had been said and fantasising about what possible trouble Sam had got himself into this time. The old man remembered the last time Sam got in trouble that the school called the nursing home because there was no answer at the boy’s home. He smiled. He remembered it was something to do with the glass biology room where half of the right hand wall was an aquarium. It had something to do with a teacher’s mobile phone radar tracker ‘accidently’ falling into it and killing the fish. The last person to have touched it just happened to be Sam. ‘Back in the day there was no such thing’. The old man thought ‘Teachers had to be vigilant to catch a student with a mobile phone, not rely on some gadget which sensed its radio waves and let off a little alarm.’ It seemed funny to him how much things had changed. When he was young he used to sit with his Grandfather and couldn’t understand how he couldn’t understand how to use a Windows 98 computer. He now understood how fast technology moves. ‘If you saunter, you just get left behind,’ He thought. The old man remembered another time when Sam got into trouble at school. The teacher’s patrolling chair drove into the wall during an exam and again Sam just happened to be the one who had the control in his hand at the time under his English paper Two. Worst of all was the Air tram though when they were flying to France for a holiday; he couldn’t even bring himself to remember that.
Like most little boys at the age of seven, Peter couldn’t sit still for long, and soon a serge of buzzing energy hit him. He picked his nose and stood up, inspecting the greyish bobble of snot on his finger. He looked at his grandfather who crinkle his mouth together, raised his eyebrows and rested his head sideways on his hand. He looked very unimpressed with his grandson.
‘Tissue,’ was all his grandfather needed to say for Peter to leap up and leave the room in search of a tissue. He returned followed by a woman in a blue apron with a tiny watch on her pocket which Peter was fascinated with. It made him feel like he had been transformed into another land where everything was tiny and he was a great big giant. His Grandfather noticed his fascination and couldn’t understand why small boys took such interest in such little things, although it did remind him of when he was young, waiting for his appendix to be removed. A nurse came in with a similar watch. He remembered that the hospital room which he was in had Winnie the Pooh on the window and Blue Peter stickers on the door. He used to like Blue Peter but sadly it had been taken off the BBC long before his Grandchildren had been born so he couldn’t talk about it to his grandson; this made him slightly sad. He thought back to the pocket watch. He didn’t think he would ever have noticed the watch if his grandson hadn’t pointed it out and didn’t think he would ever think of it again.
‘Good afternoon Colonel. Here is your midmorning coffee. This must be your grandson,’ she smiled and wiped a strand of wild wispy hair briskly behind her ear. ‘Today’s lunch is chicken pie with a green salad or chilli tacos. The vegetarian option is minestrone soup with fresh pesto bread. What would you like?’
‘The chicken pie sounds lovely thank you,’ he smiled.
‘Is your grandson staying or will you want to come down to the dinning room with the others?’ she asked.
‘I will eat in the dinning room. Peter will be collected soon, thank you nurse,’ he smiled a friendly smile and she nodded adjusting the blankets on the bed and fiddling the angle of a plastic rose which stood on the windowsill, the cloudy sky outlining the shape of the vase. She tapped some numbers into the timer on the wall. ‘It will ring when it is lunch and the electronic bus will come and get you, see you later colonel’ and she left the room.
‘The electronic bus!’ Peter cried. ‘We have one at school, I love it’.
‘Back when I was young we didn’t have the electronic bus.’ The little boy gasped.
‘We walked to lunch from our classrooms. We walked down the corridor; the floor didn’t suddenly spring up seats and start moving. We used to have to use our legs,’ he paused smiling at his grandson’s expression. ‘There were no automatic wasp zappers either. If we wanted to get rid of a wasp we chased it around the room with a fly swat or we left it alone. Things have changed my boy’. Peter looked shocked and asked attentively as if it may be a touchy subject.
‘You mean there were no remote controlled rockets which actually orbit the moon and take pictures and then come back down?’ His grandfather shook his head.
‘We had remote controlled aeroplanes.’
‘Those are boring. No one has those anymore.’ There was a moment of silence when Peter tried to understand how his Grandfather had actually coped with living a life with no rockets which actually went into space, and then he continued. ‘Why did she call you colonel and not Grandfather?’
‘She isn’t my Grandson you little pest’ he laughed, lifting his arthritic leg in the air and giving a friendly kick in Peter’s direction. ‘How agile I used to be,’ he thought. He continued, ‘I was a soldier. You know that. I fought in Afghanistan,’ Peter was automatically captivated. The image of soldiers, guns, fighting and bombs filled Peter with childish excitement. Sensing that his grandson thought of war as a game, he felt angry. It wasn’t the little boys fault, he knew that; but it upset him deeply. It felt like the sun descending in the sky and finally hiding behind the black sheet of night which seems to engulf the world.
‘It wasn’t nice you know. It was very hot, dusty and dirty. It’s not like your interactive video games you have at home. There were no rocket jet packs like today or torpedo sleep guns where you put the enemy to sleep; not kill them. The war wasn’t a game; it wasn’t like your video. Once someone dies you can’t type in a cheat for the level code to make them come back. They don’t come back.’ Peter pondered this; he looked sad. But Peter was an inquisitive child and like his brother, loved to talk.
‘Was it scary?’ he asked his grandfather.
‘At times yes it was.’ his eyes paled. To Sam it looked like his Grandfather had left his body and all that was left was his shell; it scared him.
‘Grandfather, Grandfather,’ Peter said tugging at his trouser leg. Once Peter had realised that his Grandfather was listening and his mind and attention had re-entered the room, he relaxed.
‘I’m not afraid of anything!’ he said.
‘Really,’ his Grandfather smiled.
‘Really! Not wasps or sharks; not those silly robots which clean your house and hoover the floor. Not guns or bombs or bad guys. I’m not even scared of dying.’ There was a pause while Peter tried to breathe but he was so excited and overwhelmed with excitement of war and guns that he hardly gave his body time. He gave himself just enough time to inhale a tiny bit of stuffy oxygen filled with memories, guilt, lies and the faint smell of cleaning detergent and carried on. ‘Did you kill anyone when you were at war Grandfather? It must have been really cool!’ there was a pause. It was a pause that no one had ever experienced before. It was too heavy; too long. It was too drawn out, too painful. It hurt. It hurt so much and was filled with so much pressure that when the door swung open and in the doorway stood a rather flustered and angry Mary with Sam behind her, it was like all the pressure that had built up pushed out and everything was how it should have been again. Normal. A life which consists of constantly pretending and forgetting; A life in denial.
‘I was just telling Grandfather how I’m not scared of anything,’ Peter smiled completely oblivious to the horrendous silence he and his Grandfather had just endured.
‘That’s lovely, now pick up your rucksack, we are going home. Thank you again dad for doing this. I will call you tonight. Come over for Sunday lunch or something. Let’s talk later’ and with that she left with her two boys marching behind her; Peter running his hand along the wall of the home, dragging up undisturbed dust which had been there for weeks, nestling snugly in the groove of the crisping old cream paint work that coated the wall.
The old man was left to think and pick up the pieces shattered inside of himself which his innocent grandson had stirred up. He picked up his coffee which was now cold. The white milk swirling, curdling with the water making patterns in the brownish red liquid reminded him of the sky; a red sky; the sort of violent red night sky which is expecting a vicious storm; a night where the clouds deliberately subtly delicately dance into the sky before crashing its water below. It reminded him of the afternoon he had spent everyday that followed it trying to forget. He was forced to think about the pain he went through; the guns, the damp, the fear, the pain. The people he killed.
He tried desperately to forget but remembered the bomb landing. The bodies scattered everywhere, some alive but most not. Soon he was a man lost in his past. He was oblivious to the present moment. He pictured the memories of his past and what he did as a character in a book and images began to push their way back into his head. They unravelled in his mind in a book format; this was the only way he could cope with them, and even then they were sometimes too vivid and too distressing for him to deal with.
The bodies reached out to him, their bloody bony fingers jetting out as if hooked around kite handles. They clawed at passer’s ankles; chest heaving as they struggled to fill their lungs with the sweaty dust and rubble polluted air. He wanted desperately to help the wounded men but for their own safety they had to move on. What five months of war where mines blow up under your feet and suicide bombers target you is that each man had to look after themselves. Not only were the men fighting a physical battle but a mental war too. They had to struggle with themselves; the guilt and the pain. They had to do things they had never dreamt they would have to do and then deal with the deep drowning feeling of remorse whenever they looked at themselves after they had done it, alone. There was a member of the Taliban straight in front of him. He knew if he didn’t shoot he would be dead. He had a family back home. He promised his little girl that he would be back. Without pausing he aimed his gun and shot. The bullet travelled. The bullet hit. It was the man who shot the gun who fell first; rigid and shaking. The victim of the bullet, the man from the Taliban had a delayed reaction but finally fell, floppy and lifeless; dead. The sniper stood up and without looking back at the dead Taliban member, trudged on. The mud splattered up his trousers as the tears splattered down his face.
Half of buildings stood; if it they were lucky. Most were reduced to rubble, crumbled to the ground; black, dirty, and useless.
The sun was coming down now but the sky looked menacing; red, hot, angry. It was as if God was looking down and was angry about the war and the events that had taken place. God was angry about the killing. Clouds began to subtly delicately dance into view and that meant only one thing, a storm.
It was easier for him to move in the dark. The backpacks seemed to increase in weight though the later it got. Stopping and resting should have been a good feeling but it only gave time to thinking. Stopping inside the city centre where members of the Taliban could be an