The Syrian Governorate Raqqa, December 2017. The city of Ar Raqqa
Wherever she went in Raqqa, Ripley was constantly followed and almost inundated by children. She had made a mistake, even though she had been told not to do it, she gave a group of street urchins some compo sweets. And the word had got around. Whenever she left the building, they would be ready to pounce. One or two at first, then ten, then twenty, following her like she was some dusky Pied Piper. Ripley had reverted to wearing the traditional clothes of the Syrian Arabs, in order not to look too military. Despite the misery and shroud-waving of the extortionate charity advertisements that appeared on daytime television to fleece older and more gullible people, the Syrian children were incredibly resilient. They would have to be because they were the country’s future.
It was refreshing to see that since ISIL and their hated female modesty police, the al-Khansaa Brigade had been driven out of the city, the women had reverted to wearing the colourful hijab known as the Shayla. Simply it was a headscarf that was worn round the head to rest on the shoulders. Some women were even bare-headed, as if they were sticking two fingers up to ISIL and their whores. Ripley also wore the Shayla because they were colourful and made her feel feminine. Some of Syria’s 10% Christian population had also come back to the city, but much fewer numbers than those who had been forced to flee when ISIL arrived.
Huge areas of the city had been devastated during the battle to liberate it and ISIL forces had turned every street block into a redoubt. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had been supported by American and Coalition air power, as well as the artillery pieces of the US Marine Corps. It had taken two months to drive ISIL from Raqqa and as a result, the Old City had suffered particularly from devastation. The SDF were a composite group composed primarily of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian/Syriac militias, as well as some smaller Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen forces. It was astonishing that such a disparate grouping could even tolerate each other, let alone fight under a unified command.
There were still American Special Forces operating in the city and the surrounding areas, which was why Halward’s troop was tolerated in Raqqa. It was helped by Ripley’s being such a culturally aware member of the team and her language skills. The SDF now controlled about one third of Syria, mainly in the north-east of the country and this included the former ISIL capital of Raqqa. What would happen in subsequent years when the Syrian Army and the Russians finally drove ISIL out of the country would be interesting. It was likely that Syria would become a partitioned country, but as the SDF controlled some of the oil fields, it was unlikely that the Regime would tolerate this. But for the time being, that wasn’t Halward’s problem.
The troop had set up incongruously near an amusement park, in what had been left standing of the Crown International Hotel. Five rooms had been made habitable on the first floor, one each for Halward, Mr Hogan and Ripley, the rest sharing three to a room. On the ground floor they cleared a living and cooking area and Ripley was asked to provide a woman’s touch, much to her annoyance. However she did buy some rugs and material for screens from the local market, using US Dollars from their expenses slush fund.
Ripley loved the freedom she felt in Raqqa, although she always took her Glock concealed and a Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife under her trousers on a calf sheath. Having the children in tow proved to provide a surprising benefit. If the children trusted her, then so did the adults and she was able to provide some useful leads to Halward, concerning the activities of Daffi Hashmi and Parinoush Mahar, since they had arrived in the city from Ash Shaddadi. They had been seen in Raqqa although their whereabouts were not known now. The trail of Gamal Kirmani was cold although he was believed to still be in Pakistan.
The SDF had captured a number of European fighters, mainly from Denmark, France and Germany and they were awaiting extradition by their country’s intelligence services. Ripley had interrogated them at length and had enough evidence on the two English-born terrorists to hang them for atrocities committed in Raqqa alone, let alone the torture and murder of the British aircrew. A couple of the captives were white Europeans, Muslim converts and they both had the regressive gene. Ripley pondered what it was about fat or scrawny ginger kids that made them want to maim and kill people they knew nothing about. She half-jokingly concluded it was something to do with being bullied as children.
Halward didn’t approve of Ripley’s forays into the city alone. She had to sit him down and explain the type of jobs she had done in the past and the various places she had done them. But if Halward had been reluctant, Ellis was deeply troubled. At first he had tried to follow her, but compared to Ripley, he was useless and she always managed to give him the slip. When she returned to their headquarters, his moodiness and silent treatment made her chuckle.
“What’s wrong with James tonight?” Mr Hogan had asked her.
“He doesn’t like me going out on my own, just in case I’m up to no good. The silly arse tried to follow me and I had to lose him.”
“I can’t say I’m ecstatic about it, Ripley, but I dare say you can look after yourself. Would you please be careful, for all of our sakes. We couldn’t do without you, but I guess you know that.”
Ripley and Ellis’s blossoming relationship was very discreet. They had made a non rumpy-pumpy pact until they were off the operation and they were covertly affectionate to each other when nobody else was about. But people had realised. Halward knew, simply because it was his job to know. He had been a little upset, because at the beginning he hadn’t rated Ellis, whom he thought had gobshite tendencies. But as time had gone on, he realised that under the occasionally jokey façade, the sergeant was a kind, shy and thoughtful man, who occasionally overcompensated. Ellis was a first-class soldier, who he and therefore all of them could trust with their lives. And he had trusted Ellis with the terrible burden that both of them now had to carry and he knew he would do it because he did love her. But most of all, he knew that he made her happy. The slightly melancholic Ripley had gone. She had fully recovered from the pneumonia and was upbeat and cheerful. But really and truly, because he was a thoroughly decent man, he wished them both well and prayed that it wouldn’t end in tears.
Mr Hogan knew because of his age and life experiences. He had been young once and instantly recognised that the two people were in love. He didn’t fully approve, any more than approved of women serving on the front line. And for good reason. The Israelis had begun to segregate the sexes in units because they realised that emotional attachments weren’t conducive to ignoring casualties and winning the firefight. While he understood that Ripley was a first-class whatever she was, he knew their tight-knit team would be devastated if she went down. But he too wished them well and just hoped that James kept it in his trousers until they boarded the C17 home and then they could join the mile-high club for all he cared.
Doctor Shipman knew because he was a good amateur psychologist, a people watcher extraordinaire and he had seen the way James Ellis’s behaviour had changed when he had been tasked to look after the sick Ripley. It amused him to watch them and like Halward and Mr H, he wished them well. But he did think to himself, James, you lucky, lucky bastard.
“Manny” Cohen was convinced that Ripley was a lesbian. He occasionally pestered her to bring a lovely Arab girl back to the hotel, so he could watch. The rest of them thought that Ripley was one of the lads with the added advantage of having a lovely arse and pair of hooters to cheer up mealtimes and morning ablutions.
Ellis knew that Ripley was no Isolde and he sure as hell wasn’t Sir Tristan. There was no way that either of them were Pre Raphaelite oil paintings. But his Scheherazade was beautiful enough to compare with the Sophie Anderson 19th century depiction of the woman from The 1,001 Nights. But the Antoon van Welie depiction of Sir Tristan on the boat was definitely not Sergeant James Ellis. Ellis’s nose was neither straight nor noble. It was pugnacious and crooked from when it had been broken during a spot of Milling. His hair wasn’t luxuriant and was in fact making a tactical withdrawal into a widow’s peak. Welie’s Tristan was clean-shaven and classically sculpted. Ellis’s stubble hadn’t been designed by anybody, but Ripley could never tire of looking at him.
During their fleeting moments alone they would share affection like star-crossed lovers. She promised she would tell him everything about herself, good and bad, once they were together back in England’s green and pleasant land. In the meantime she constantly interrogated him about his past.
“Look Ripley, to be honest my life is pretty much a non-event and I’m a boring bastard.”
“But I want to know. Please?”
“Well, I’m from Manchester, hence the Manc-Walk. I was dragged up on a council estate by my mum and sister, well half-sister and half-caste. My dad didn’t even bother to hang around, but at least he was a Honkey,” He smiled to show he was joking, “And my mum had a bit of a drink and drugs problem, hence the serial “uncles” and my very dusky elder sister. But don’t get me wrong, I loved her. She was a better mum to me than my real mum.
“I was useless at school, thick and disruptive. But good at sport, it was the only subject I enjoyed, that and metalwork. I thought I could get a job in a garage or factory, but I was too dense. It was gangs for me, but never drugs, mainly booze and fights. The police knew my inside leg measurements and what I’d had for dinner. I was a serial youth offender and destined for a life in prison.
The police weren’t cun*s back then… Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Ripley. I thought I’d stopped swearing around you. Please forgive me.”
“Just go on, James.”
“The police at least tried to do their jobs back in the 1980s and 90s and they did know their local communities. There was one copper who bothered to actually speak to me when I was arrested for something stupid. He told me exactly what was going to happen to me. He was an ex-matelot I think. He said I would be arse-fucked in prison, sorry, there I go again, lose all my teeth and be dead by the time I was thirty.
“He said the Army was my best choice and for once I actually listened to someone and joined up at seventeen in 2000, the Queen’s Last Resort. I hated being told what to do and being shouted at, but it began to grow on me. I did my GCSEs, the big four and got on, because I could see there was a point to it all. I soaked up the courses like a sponge and did a couple of A-levels and made sergeant pretty quickly. I went for selection in 2009 but wasn’t ready and got through the following year. The rest as they say, is history.”
“What about girls, relationships? You said you weren’t married.”
He looked down shyly, “To be truthful, I haven’t had much experience at long-term relationships. Plenty of one-offs and I do like women… A lot, but Larry Grayson can fair turn a bloke’s head.”
She laughed and he smiled. If you could get a woman to laugh you were practically home and dry, unless she was laughing at the size of your cock.
“I honestly don’t know why you’re giving me the time of day, Ripley.”
“Perhaps it’s because I love you, James.”
“This is a bloody dream and I’m going to wake up in that Iraqi border post and find out that I was the one who was sick. And that all of this is a product of my delirium.”
The next day was Christmas Eve and Ripley woke up early. It was a sunny but rather cold day so she dressed warmly, slipped out of her room and went downstairs. “Frank” Carson was on stag and she waited until he wandered past on his rounds and then headed off through the dilapidated and depressing amusement park. During their tenure, ISIL had decreed that anything remotely enjoyable was haram, so the area had been stripped of lights and colourful hoardings. In their twisted mentality, the park had been used to crucify and burn alive prisoners, or just anybody who had offended their sensibilities. Some of the trees still bore the marks of the nails and had burned bark.
She was too early for the street urchins for which she was profoundly grateful. She was carrying a folded holdall which would have attracted the attention of the children and made her task almost impossible. They felt no fear of the gruesome reputation of the amusement park and had become something of a nuisance for playing on and around the Supacats. Everything that could be “removed” had been taken off the vehicles and stowed inside the ruined hotel. The .50 Cal was mounted in a sangar on the roof of what was once the kitchen block and the Minimes guarded the front and back of the buildings during stand-to.
The minarets of a mosque reared above the single-storey buildings and on a piece of open ground, a market had set up and it was relatively busy despite the early hour. Ripley began a protracted period of retail therapy, buying food and various items. She paid with her own US Dollars, probably over the odds, but these people deserved a bit of a financial break. Then she carried the items back to the hotel with some difficulty, in the folding holdall. A couple of the troopers were up and preparing breakfast, so Ripley slipped past them and went up to one of the abandoned rooms. It was missing its windows and balcony and was as cold as a fridge, so the food wouldn’t spoil.
That night she wrapped eight items in brightly coloured paper. The following morning, very early she slipped downstairs with the food in the holdall and started to prepare it in the kitchen area and lay it out on a couple of tables, surrounded by rugs. Then she put on the water and made a large jug of aromatic green tea, which she gave to Mr Hogan first as he was on stag. The rest she took upstairs and served the other seven in their beds.
“It’s Christmaaaaaas” she screeched in her very worst Noddy Holder voice.
When the members of the troop came downstairs, they saw the food laid out on the tables.
“What the hell is this?” Demanded Jamie Cairns when he saw the food, “Salad? Salad for bloody breakfast?”
“This, Doctor Mengele is a typical Syrian breakfast feast for your delectation. It’s all fresh and wholesome and you can have your stodgy crap for Christmas Dinner this evening.”
There were tomatoes sliced in olive oil with garlic, yoghurt, hummus, dukkah, which was a nut and grain based bread as well as pittas. Olives, hard boiled eggs and spicy pickles. And of course green tea, lots of it.
“Fill your boots.”
They sat round the table to eat the first fresh food they had eaten in weeks and they loved it in spite of themselves. Ripley gave each one of them a present she had picked up at the market and wrapped last night. There was a moth-eaten French Foreign Legion beret for Major Halward, a probably stale Romeo y Julieta cigar in an aluminium tube for James, a Tallit for “Manny” Cohen, A copy of Grey’s Anatomy in Arabic for Jamie Cairns, an old set of dental instruments for “Shippers” Roberts, an ancient Russian radio for “Frank” Carson and a vanity set for “Larry” Grayson. She went outside with her carbine, gave Mr Hogan his present of a pocket watch.
“There’s some decent fresh food inside, Mr H. I’ll stag on for a while.”
He opened the present and looked down at her, choked-up by her thoughtfulness. He was a giant compared to her and it looked slightly anomalous when he hugged her very tightly, “And we never got you anything. It didn’t occur to us. I know you don’t do the religious stuff, Ripley, but may God go with you, whichever one you may or may not follow.”
He went to walk away, then seemed to have a thought and turned back, “And I hope you and James make each other happy. Carefully though eh?”
It was 02:55 when Ripley padded silently down the stairs, a couple of minutes after Shippers who was going on stag. She had been unable to sleep, so she went into the living area and sat on the rat-chewed sofa that they had covered with one of the tarpaulins from the vehicles. She sat in the darkness and waited for him to come back in after his stint on watch.
“Hello, James. I’ve been waiting all day.”
He didn’t switch on his torch and came to sit next to her. She nestled up to him and kissed him.
“This is bloody difficult,” he said with a note of frustration.
“We have to be patient. Mr H knows by the way. He said that he hopes we make each other happy.”
James sighed, “And there was me thinking we were being discretion itself. At this rate I’ll have to cart my bollocks onto the C17 in a wheelbarrow. If they haven’t exploded first.”
“In which case, I’m going to play with your head, James.”
She took his hand and guided it up under her baggy Norwegian shirt, resting it on her left breast. He felt the skin of the areole pucker and the nipple expand and stiffen slightly.
“You’re a bitch, do you know that?”
“I’ve been called a lot worse than that, I can assure you.”
He brushed it with his fingers and gently squeezed. She closed her eyes, bit her lower lip and moaned softly. He could feel her heart thumping under his hand. He was inundated by her, his senses wired to the moon.
“What is it my, Sir Tristan, the most noble, chivalrous and kindest of all the knights?” she whispered in his ear.
“I think I might have had an ND.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file