Northern Iraq, December 2017
Halward clambered up into the extremely cramped rear compartment of the Supacat. They had cleared a space so that Ripley could lie down. She was huddled in her sleeping bag plus bivvy bag, curled up in the foetal position. Her eyes were closed and she was shivering.
“Hello, Ripley. The Thomson Twins tell me that you’re nor feeling too good.”
She opened her eyes and smiled wanly, “I’m being a bloody, useless frippit, aren’t I?”
Halward felt the skin at the back of her neck. It seemed as hot as a radiator and clammy, “Just rest for the time being and keep warm,” he patted her shoulder affectionately and jumped down from the vehicle. He, the warrant officer and the two medics walked away for a conference out of earshot.
“At first we thought it was food poisoning, because James got her that Kurdish crap this morning. Cold and not cooked, but she hasn’t had any other symptoms such as diarrhoea or vomiting. She is complaining of high abdominal pain, but that’s not necessarily a typical symptom of food poisoning.”
The other medic was nodding along in agreement. Under different circumstances Halward would have been amused. The Special Forces patrol medics were trained to such a high medical standard they seemed to forget they were troopers. Ironically the medics in the SF Support Group sometimes forgot they were medics and thought they were troopers.
“OK, so it’s not food poisoning.”
“Unlikely, boss. Next, because this has come on so quickly, we thought about toxic shock syndrome, because she is complaining of a sore throat, has a cough, a very high temperature and seems confused.”
“Halward frowned, “You mean the infection that can be caused by tampons?”
“Not exclusively. Toxic shock is caused by bacteria entering the blood stream. It may be due to a penetrating wound that won’t necessarily show redness or infection at the wound site. But Ripley said she hadn’t menstruated for some months due to stress and privation and there was no sign of any wounds.”
“You examined her?”
“Extreme duress,” his sidekick confirmed.
The major was becoming impatient, “All right, Doctor Mengele, it’s not food poisoning or toxic shock. Perhaps you’d like to stick your neck out and make a tentative diagnosis.”
“Well of course we don’t have access to laboratory or x-ray facilities, but I would plump for pneumonia. She has been coughing for some days and the infection could have been low grade, what is called “walking pneumonia” and then it flared up, exacerbated by the extreme cold of the last couple of nights.”
“What about Doctor Shipman here?”
“Pneumonia. Eighty per-cent sure it’s pneumonia and her lungs are congested.”
Halward stuck his hands in his pockets and sighed, “Shit! All right, so what do we do?”
The two medics looked at one another, “Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, a couple of nights admitted to a medical centre for observation, but out here… We’ve given her an injection of broad spectrum antibiotics and paracetamol to bring down her temperature. We must get her under cover, out of the wind and somewhere warm. Keep her comfortable with someone keeping a close watch on her while we do two-hourly Obs. They will have to do everything, give her medication and take her to the toilet if necessary. We need to give her fluids intravenously because she’s dehydrated. If not, we have to evacuate her by air to a field hospital.”
“Worst case scenario?”
“She dies out here within the next forty-eight hours.”
“This is unreal,” Halward, said, “She seemed fine this morning.”
“She was hiding it and should have told one of us.”
“Can anyone else catch it?”
“It’s possible if she coughs over anyone, although a simple facemask can help. We’ll monitor anyone who has contact with her and zap anything with antibiotics.”
Halward looked at the warrant officer, “OK, chaps, do what you have to do. We’ll think of a plan for getting her under cover.”
After the medics left they looked at a map with a red filtered torch, “Not exactly teeming with habitation, is it?” Hogan observed.
“What about this place about five clicks south on the track to the border? It’s marked as a border checkpoint but there’s no road.”
“It could be on an old caravan route. Camels don’t need tarmac.”
“Well it’s all we have. Get everyone prepared to move.”
Hogan was worried, “Look, Boss. Why don’t we just call in a chopper and get her out of here. We can delay until another interpreter comes out.”
Halward shook his head adamantly, “It’s not an option. How long will a new interpreter take to assimilate? Ripley is trusted and she’s mission critical. We can’t miss our window for rendezvousing with the Canadians.
The warrant officer stared long and hard at his major, “Look I hate to ask you this, but are you and Ripley operating under different orders?”
Halward knew that if he lied, the trust within the team would be compromised. A sudden gust of wind pulled at his keffiyeh.
“I am. I have a directive that comes from the Cabinet Office through the Directorate SF. Ripley has no idea because I haven’t told her yet.”
“And when were you going to tell the rest of us?”
“When I told Ripley. Don’t be pissed off with me, Mr Hogan.”
“Don’t be stupid, sir. I’m over twenty-one.”
Halward smiled. “Thanks. Now who’s going to look after Ripley? I don’t want the Thompson Twins getting it. We might need them if anyone else comes down with it.”
“James Ellis,” said Hogan without even thinking.
“You’re kidding. He constantly takes the piss out of her.”
“Have you ever asked yourself why? Ellis is a very shy chap. He hides it behind that façade of bullshit. Who moved Ripley’s kit inside last night? Who cooked the breakfast while she was having a lie-in? Who went over to the Kurds and got her something to eat that wasn’t pork based. He is absolutely smitten with her.”
“Bloody hell,” Halward didn’t know if he were more surprised or jealous, “Ellis it is then. Better give him the good news and get everybody ready to move in ten minutes.”
There were two buildings, a large one with a type of garage door that could house one of the Supacats and the majority of the patrol. The doors had gone but their opening faced south out of the wind. The second building was much smaller, more like a booth on a frontier post, just a large opening where there had once been a window, although the door was still in place. It too faced south and the window could be blocked off with a poncho to keep in the heat. Fortunately because the buildings were so far out in the bundu, the locals hadn’t used them as a lavatory. They had moved in a tri-fuel tent heater that was running quietly on diesel fuel.
Ripley was fractious, constantly moving position to ease the pain in her aching limbs. They decided not to put her on a cot, so they had placed a folding camouflage net on the floor and covered it with a tarpaulin. Inside of the booth was uncomfortably warm, but she still shivered inside her sleeping and bivvy bags. Outside by one of the Supacats, one of the medics and Warrant Officer Hogan was giving James Ellis his instructions.
“Why me? He demanded.
“Because, Mr Ellis if you recall you said to her: Hey, Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you! Well now is your opportunity.”
“Why can’t the Thompson Twins do it?”
“Because we don’t want them getting pneumonia as well and you’re expendable.”
“Oh thanks for that. You’re all bastards!”
The medic gave him detailed instructions, “OK James, Watch her closely and take her temperature every hour. You stick it in her ear, her ear, got that? Then you press this button and read off the digital readout. If it goes above 39.5 come and get one of us. You must keep giving her sips of water, just water, no screech. Try and get her to take these paracetamol dissolved in water, two every five hours. Now this is important, you must let us know when her kidneys start to work.”
“And how the hell am I supposed to know when her kidneys are working?”
The medic stared at Ellis as though he was a particularly stupid pupil, “She’ll need to go for a piss.”
“And I’ve got to stay awake all night?”
“What are you moaning about? You don’t have to go on stag.” Hogan said unsympathetically, “And you’ll be nice and warm.”
“She seems to be freezing, although she’s hot. What do I do?”
“Get in the sleeping bag with her.”
“You are bloody joking.”
“Perks of the job, lad,” said the warrant officer, patting Ellis on his shoulder.
“One last thing, James. If you start to feel sick, let us know straight away.”
Hogan had the last word with him, “It’s important, James. Her life is in your hands.”
“You mean she could die?”
With a heavy heart Ellis went into the booth. He settled down next to her, too hot to get in his sleeping bag. Ripley had a lucid moment and looked at him.
“James, what the hell are you doing?”
“Looking after you. Drink this, as much as you can.”
She managed to get a goodly amount of the water down, so he tried dissolved paracetamol. She started to cough as she tried to swallow it, “Hurts too much. Why you?”
“Because apparently, I’m expendable and you’re not.”
Later he was reading Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire with a head torch. Ripley was mumbling deliriously. He bent his head down to try and hear what she was saying, but it made no sense.
“When will you finish? There’s a lot of work, Henry… I only came because of the owls… Frightened me… See you in another five years…”
She started to shiver quite violently, so he checked her temperature. 39.2. Up .2 from an hour ago. Ellis chewed his lip anxiously. Reluctantly he took off his boots and slithered into her sleeping bag, which seemed to calm her slightly, but she felt like an oven.
“Please get better, Ripley. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.” He switched off the head torch and lay quietly in the darkness, spooned up against her back. He wondered who Henry was.
Another version of Ripley, an ethereal manifestation of her, looked down at them both and felt a deep love for this clumsy and indelicate man. This Ripley reached out a hand without substance and tried to caress his stubbly face. Ellis woke with a start, he had fallen asleep but something had woken him. He felt a spreading warmth on his thighs.
“What da… Oh, fucking no way.”
He climbed out of the sleeping bag. His trousers were soaked, “Oh bollocks!” He looked down at her and she was still asleep but seemed slightly more peaceful.
He knew he couldn’t leave her like that so he bit the bullet and grabbed his own sleeping bag out of his bergen. He pulled off her sleeping bag, which was soaked, as were her trousers. Nothing for it, he closed his eyes and dragged off her trousers then stuck her in his sleeping bag. He hung her sleeping bag and trousers on a nail in the wall. It was hot in the small building, so they would soon dry. He went out into the night, made for the larger building and found one of the medics.
“Her kidneys are working.”
He sat up and looked at Ellis’s soaking trousers, “Oh dear. Thanks for letting us know, James.”
Ellis stalked back out into the darkness before the first sniggers began. As he changed his trousers he heard the laughter from the other building.
He made Ripley drink more water and she managed to choke down half of the tablets, even though she was non compos mentis. At dawn one of the medics came in and gave her another injection of antibiotics.
“What was her temperature when you checked it?”
“39.2 as of two hours ago.”
“Still too hot, but at least it hasn’t gone up any more. How are you feeling?” He looked at the drying bedding and clothing and sniggered.
“Stay with it James. The next few hours will be important.”
By 11:00 Ellis could no longer give any form of toss about A Column of Fire or Ned Willard’s wanting to marry Margery Fitzgerald, despite their being on opposing sides of the religious divide. He checked Ripley’s temperature, which was 38.9 and he tried to get her to drink some more water. By midday he felt his eyes closing after having read the same paragraph three times.
“Where are my trousers, James?”
He opened his eyes and stared at her, “Ripley?”
“Well? Where are they?” she croaked.
“They had to go,” he told her solemnly, “They were getting in the way when we tried a reverse cowgirl.”
“You took my trousers off, you bastard!”
“I had to. You had an accident.” He looked at the sleeping bag and trousers drying on the nail.”
She groaned with shame, “So whose maggot is this that I’m in?”
“Did you look?”
“Of course not.”
“James, I need to go. Badly. But I feel so weak.”
“There’s a bucket over there. I’ll help you.”
She relieved herself and he put her back in the sleeping bag, then handed her the trousers, “They’re dry now.”
He went outside to empty the bucket and found Jamie the medic, “She’s awake and her temperature is down to under 39.”
“OK, that’s good. Get her to take more paracetamol and rest. If she’s hungry, just give her a couple of biscuits brown. You rest too. I’ll tell the boss.”
When he got back into the small building she was beginning to go back to sleep. He would let her sleep before trying to get her to take the tablets. He lay down next to her with his back to her. He was tired and felt his eyes closing but before he went under she turned over and put her arm round him.
“Thank you, James.”
He smiled and went to sleep. So did she, cuddled up behind him.
Before dawn the next morning Halward had another O-group with the warrant officer and the Thompson Twins.
“I believe that Ripley is over the worst.”
The double act nodded enthusiastically.
“Can we move today?”
The medics did some tooth sucking and Halward recognised concerted arse-covering when he saw it.
“Well, ideally we would suggest…”
“But this isn’t ideal, is it?” said the major patiently, “Ideally I would be in Derbyshire, doing a nice, leisurely stroll to a country pub, for a few good pints and a decent lunch. Ideally I wouldn’t be in this God-forsaken shithole, but we all are and that includes Ripley. Can we move her and continue with our mission, or do we stay here, let her get back to full strength, miss our rendezvous and bin the mission? That decision is mine, but I won’t carry on at any price.”
Jamie looked at his colleague, “She’ll need to be on ultra-light duties for the next forty-eight hours. We’ll need to make her very comfortable by rigging something up in the back of the vehicle and continue to look after her. It’ll probably take a week for the antibiotics to kill off all the infection in her lungs.”
Halward looked towards the lightening sky in the east, “Thank you, fellers. Do your best. I want to be underway by dawn.”
The warrant officer watched them scurry off, discussing the best way to carry her, “We could rig up some kind of hammock…”
“This must be a bloody important directive that you’re operating under,” Hogan observed trying to sound non-committal.
“It is. And I don’t like it one bit.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file