Halward’s Road Trip 17th February 2018
Halward had been right. It was bitterly cold in the night of the desert and the water began to freeze in their water bottles. Ripley was due to take over stag from James at 01:30 but she was too cold to sleep and went out early to sit with him. As well as the multi-layers, she was wearing mukluks and a fur-lined hat with ear flaps. He was lying in the dry depression at the side of the road, his Minime pointing down the road to the west. Only one vehicle had passed and they laid low until it was out of sight.
“You’re half-an-hour early. And you look like Nanook of the North’s wife.”
“I can always go back.”
“No. Come and lie next to me. I could do with the warmth. Where on earth did you get that stuff from?” he asked.
“It was issued to me a long time ago… When I was in the RAF. I knew it would come in handy one day.”
“You were a Crabette? Bloody hell!”
“I was indeed, a Senior Aircrafts’ Person I’ll have you know. James, I know that I said you’d find out about me when we got home, but things have changed. I know you probably have a thousand-and-one questions, but let me say what I’ve got to say first. Please don’t go mental when I tell you.”
He sighed, “It’s all over, isn’t it? I thought it was too good to be true.”
She put a gloved finger on his mouth, “Stop and listen to me. Don’t grab the wrong end of the stick and let me explain. James, I love you more than anything in the world, more than my own life. But I’ve considered what will happen over the next few days and I owe you an explanation if anything bad should happen to me.
“My name is Afarin Khan and I was born in Derby thirty-six years ago. Like you I wasn’t academically brilliant at school. My Dad was a nice man and we had a fairly affluent background because he had his own business, but I’m afraid he was weak. My family came from Helmand Province and they were very conservative Muslims. My mum and sisters were the worst and when I was little, they tried to have me cut. You do know what that means?”
“Yes I know and it’s fucking barbaric! But you haven’t been have you?”
“No, James. I am all present and correct down there, as you well know. My dad intervened, but even so the writing was on the wall. I would have had an arranged marriage to some idiot and have to bear his kids until I prolapsed and then he could ship out a younger cousin from the old country. I knew there was no way I could ever escape the cultural pressure if I stayed in Derby and my sisters would probably have lined me up for an “honour killing.” Despite what you may think, Muslim families are a very matriarchal society and in the home, the women rule the roost.
“Predictably I flunked O-levels and re-sat the important ones at college. While I was there the Armed Forces Careers Office did a display. There was a lady RAF pilot there who flew helicopters. She was so glamorous and beautiful and I knew that’s what I wanted to do and it meant I could get away from home at the same time. My family disowned me and I haven’t spoken a word to any of them since I went to RAF Halton to begin recruit training.
“I applied to join the RAF and they told me it would be easy to transfer to aircrew training once I was in. They lied, but by then I was an Intelligence Analyst and was too important to be released to do the aircrew aptitude tests. In 2002 I was sent to Afghanistan as part of the enabling team at an old Russian airfield near Jalalabad. The Tornados and RAPTOR pods hadn’t arrived and I was bored hanging around the base with the medics, so I went out with the Regiment gunners to do a bit of hearts and minds with the locals.
“Your mob got to hear there was a Pashtun speaker in the RAF Det and they pitched up mob-handed and basically seconded me to them. At first I thought it was great going out with the Blades on patrols and helping with their interrogations, once I’d been accepted. I met someone I really thought I loved and I gave myself to him, although I knew it was a doomed relationship that neither of us could commit to. The Blades kept rotating, but I had become part of the fixtures and they forgot about me, as long as I could interpret for them. I worked with the American and Australian Special Forces, but after six months out there, there was a very bad IED and shooting ambush near Kabul. They took me so much for granted, it never occurred to them that I hadn’t been trained to their standards. An Australian trooper died in my arms, convinced that I was his wife…”
James Ellis knew that at this point she was crying as the trauma came back. He put his arm round her and remained silent.
“Sorry about that… When I got back to Marham, a spook came to interview me and asked if I would consider applying for selection to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, or 14 Intelligence Company as it was then. I was bored to tears analysing RAPTOR images, I detested my flight sergeant, I had nothing in my life and so I thought what the hell. The rest as they say is history. My first proper solo job was in Basra looking first of all for your troopers that got nabbed doing some dicking. Then I had to find the crew of that Puma helicopter that was shot down. Unfortunately the two pilots were killed and one of them was that lovely woman I met in the careers brief at the college. We managed to save the loadie because I found him.
“Since then on I have served in more Islamic shitholes than you could shake a stick at, both home and abroad and I’ve done jobs for MI5 and MI6. I have served tours with the Israeli Special Forces, Jordanian, Egyptian and Indonesian and I speak five languages. Those bastards that killed the RAF Tornado aircrew were well known to us while they were still in England. We almost had Parinoush Mahar, but we think he was tipped off by his “brothers” in the police service and he did a runner.
“James, I have been used by the British Government since the moment I got on that C130 at Qatar to fly into Afghanistan in 2002. They have put me in danger and forced me to kill people I barely knew. I have been wounded, shot at, knifed and nearly blown up. I’m not bitter, because I have nothing else. Correction, I had nothing else. I reasoned that I was using them as much as they were using me. But that’s all changed. I don’t feel empty anymore because I love you and I don’t want to do this ever again. But I’m going to have to, which is why I’m telling you this.
“James Ellis, my deepest love, when we get to that Russian airfield and you’re waiting for the Chinooks and the rest of the Blades, I’m going to have to go into Ad Dumayr, trace down Daffi Hashmi’s exact location for you chaps to come in and grab him. I always knew that I would probably die doing this job and I accepted it because I couldn’t envisage a life in old age being alone. I have no God to give me solace or any divine belief, but that’s all changed now. I have you and a chance of happiness, but I also have fear and a premonition that we’ll never see each other again. I’ve never felt such paralysing fear as this before and I really don’t want to die alone in that fucking town.”
“Then I’ll go in with you. You saved my life from that grenade, so it’s the least I can do.”
She laughed bitterly, “Oh James, if only you could. Your beard is ginger and you can’t walk like they do. You could never pass as one of them. You have to be one to really survive and you can’t even speak the language. I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t last five minutes and neither would I with you in tow.”
“So what am I supposed to do? Accept it?”
“I’m afraid that you’re going to have to, like I have.”
Ellis felt helpless and a degree of anger. She was right, she was being used, “Why don’t you go and sleep on it. I don’t mind doing a double stag.”
“I haven’t slept properly since we left Raqqa. I want to stay here with you for as long as I can.”
They nestled closely together and James thought, Sometimes, life can be a right bastard.
“I’ll continue to call you Ripley until we’re home. And we are going home. Together. I think Afarin is a beautiful name, but you will always be Scheherazade to me. I don’t believe in premonitions or predestination and I honestly believe we will always be together. If you stop believing that, then you’ll make a mistake and your premonition will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trust yourself and think of the future. I’ve got two more years before I’m pensionable and then I’ll settle down, with you and if God permits it, we’ll have lots of little Scheherazades and Tristans. If not, it’ll be fun practicing.”
“Oh, James. I hope you’re right, honestly I do.”
They got moving the next morning while it was still dark. They headed south on a poorly metalled road to avoid the towns along the main highway, particularly Palmyra. The Jordanian border wasn’t far away and they heard the constant rumble of jets above the clouds. Halward ordered that a Stinger missile should be at readiness on each vehicle. This part of the journey was through the heart of the Syrian Desert and there were no settlements or other vehicles and hadn’t been for the last three hours. It was no place for agoraphobics because there was nobody else for miles if things went wrong.
Ripley was travelling in the MWIMIK because it had more room and was more comfortable than the back of the pick-up. Shippers was on watch, “Manny” Cohen was playing patience out of the slipstream on the rear deck and Mr Hogan was banging out a blues tune on his harmonica. “Larry” Grayson was both driving and navigating with the desert compass, because he was their premier navigator. She would be constantly amazed at their life skills. A lance-jack who was a sniper and their premier navigator, who could navigate with a dial that had a needle sticking up through the middle of the bezel, using a map taped on one thigh and what looked like log tables on his other. These were the country’s true Renaissance men, not the effete poofs who regularly appeared on the BBC. We will lose all of this, Ripley thought bitterly, As we sink as a nation into degeneracy.
The Bagnold sun-compass was invented for his 1929 expedition to the Egyptian Desert, although some claim a similar device was used during World War One by the Light Car Patrols in 1917. Bagnold had at first used an aero compass, but the magnetic influence of the vehicles made its use on the move difficult. It was simple and a relatively easy instrument to use, even on the move. It became the standard tool of navigation for the Long Range Desert Group when it was founded by Bagnold in 1940. Its navigators soon became the unrivalled masters of desert navigation, and the traditions and use of this device had been handed down to the current SAS. It consists of a plain, bezel marked in Mils or degrees with a central spike to cast a shadow. Of course it requires accurate timing and knowledge and charts of the position of the sun, which is usually plentiful in the desert. In its simplest terms, it is a sun dial.
Ripley closed her eyes and began to run through the options of the manner of her death. She had felt pain in the past, more than should be expected. It wouldn’t be a sudden surprise, a bolt from the blue. It would be awful, protracted and gruesome. She would blow her own brains out rather than that and wondered what the few moments before she pulled the trigger would feel like. Would she be hyper sensitive, smelling colours and seeing emotions? She opened her eyes and stared at the horizon. She felt like she was descending into insanity.
“Hey, Ripley. You OK?” Cohen asked, “Come and play cards with me.”
“What do you want to play?”
Gin Rummy, but we can play strip poker if you like.”
“I’ll stick to Rummy. It’s too cold for getting my baps out.”
She stared at the following pick-up. Oh James. I wish we could have made love.
Occasionally they saw Bedouin with herds of goats and sheep in the distance. Sometimes they would have to slow down even stopping as small herds of wild Dromedary camels obstinately refused to move off the road and had to be gently nudged out of the way with the vehicles.
At 13:00 they pulled off the road and had a brew, while Halward went to set up the satellite comms link. There must have been a message for them, because when he had finished he pointed at Ripley and gave the “on-me” signal with his fingertips of one hand on top of his head. She trotted up to him.
“There’s been a change of plans, Ripley. You won’t be going into Ad Dumayr until the rest of the team arrives in the choppers.”
“They have some specialist kit for you.”
“I hope it’s a fucking nuke,” she told him.
Halward went to chat with the troops and compared notes with Grayson, “I make it around ninety-five kilometres to go.”
“I make it around ninety-seven, give or take.”
“So all being well, two to two-and-a-half hours.”
He and Mr Hogan went for grown-up chat, “How’s the pick-up?”
“It’s not too bad, runs a bit hot though, although it should get us there. I’m worried about Ripley.”
“She is rather quiet,” Hogan agreed, “But then again she has bloody good reason. I think we’re asking too much of her.”
“It’s not us though, is it? Yeah, I know it’s her job, but even so. Alone? I think she told James last night, because he’s being very quiet as well.”
“Bloody women behind the lines. Never agreed with it.”
“While I tend to agree with you, Mr H, there have been plenty of precedents such as Lorraine Adie, Madeleine Barclay and Violette Sazbo.”
“Yes, and we all know what happened to them.”
For the last part of the journey they struck west off the track and across the desert to avoid Palmyra. Although it was sandy and slow going in places, the desert consisted of steppe, a limestone bedrock plateau covered with gravel. There were clumps of coarse grass and vegetation that hadn’t been overgrazed by livestock. The desert had been used by the Ottomans to set up concentration camps, specifically to exterminate the Armenians as part of the genocide. The going was good and although the two vehicles kept their speeds down, dust plumes marked their progress.
An hour into the desert they spotted a Mil-24 attack helicopter some distance away. It turned towards them but maintained a distance from the vehicles. Halward got on the radio to the Supacat.
“Get a Stinger ready, but do not fire unless it engages us.”
The helicopter was still with them when they left the desert and pulled up onto the Major Route 2. They headed west with rising escarpments to their north and about twenty kilometres from their objective, the Mil-24 headed away to the west.
“I think they may be expecting us,” Halward mused.
“Will there be a bald Russian stroking a Persian cat?” Mengele asked.
“In a hollowed-out volcano,” suggested James.
“And sharks with frickin Laser beams…”
The window into the cab was open and Halward turned round to look at them, “Stupid boys,” he said.
Ahead and to their left were the low buildings of an airfield, complete with hardened aircraft shelters (HASs). They turned left off the highway following a sign in Arabic and Russian, complete with a little symbol of an aircraft. They followed the road for five hundred metres and stopped at the main gate and security checkpoint. Halward put on his beret, which he thought he’d lost and got out of the pick-up. He left his carbine in the cab.
“Well, here goes,” he said to the warrant officer as he walked past the Supacat.
They all watched in interest as a European man stepped out of the guard house in Russian disruptive pattern uniform. Halward halted and the Russian walked up to him. They both saluted formally.
“Good afternoon. I’m Major Halward.”
“I am Major Shwetz. We have been expecting you,” he said in passable English, which was in any case better than Halward’s poor Russian, “Please to follow me.”
The Russian officer indicated that the barrier should be lifted and the pick-up moved forward to collect their Major. The Russian climbed into a UAZ-469 light utility vehicle and they drove onto the airfield. It took the long route to a distant corner, deliberately avoiding a line of parked Sukhoi-25 attack aircraft and four Mig-29s. This area of the airfield was well away from the buildings and the hardstanding and consisted of a clump of dilapidated HASs. They looked like they had been on the receiving end of attention from the Israeli Air Force sometime in the past and the area was pockmarked with bomb craters. The blast doors of the HAS had long gone, probably dragged off for scrap and the HAS was a concrete semi-cylinder set off the taxiway. The Russian UAZ stopped and the Russian got out again.
“You can use this as your operational base, until such time as your helicopters arrive. Please do not leave this area without permission,” The Russian gave Halward a card with a cell phone number, “I can be contacted on this number.”
“Major Shwetz, could we please ask for a portable latrine and some water containers, full of potable water, or bottled if you have any. I will need to set up a communications link, which you will of course monitor. It should not affect your flight operations. Two tents would be good to set up inside the HAS and perhaps some brooms to sweep it.”
The Russian thought about this, “I’ll see what I can do.”
And then he left in the UAZ. The troopers got off the vehicles to inspect their new home.
“They shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” Cohen said sarcastically, “Oh, they haven’t.”
“It looks like we’re as popular as Jimmy Savile at a Mini Pops audition,” Mengele said looking at the blast-blackened interior of the HAS, “Boss, you’d better get on the blower to your Russian chum and ask him about a four-star hotel for the RAF aircrew. We could try it out first.”
“Stop moaning. It’s out of the wind and Ripley can make it a home-from-home for us. Get the Jenny up and running and drag out some of this shit, then we’ll move in the wagons and rig up the parachute.”
An hour or so later a truck rumbled up with a portaloo on the back. The troopers unloaded it, along with a couple of pallets of bottled water and two military tents. The Russian truck then moved to the next HAS and the four Russians on board proceeded to make themselves comfortable, setting up a tent of their own.
“It looks like we’ve got some minders, Major,” Mr Hogan observed.
“As long as they leave us alone, I don’t care. Get all the batteries and comms equipment charged as soon as the generator is on line. We’ll do two on stag, one at each end of the HAS. Not Ripley this time. In fact I’ll see if one of the Thompson Twins has anything to help her sleep. See if you can rig up some kind of lean-to to give her some privacy please, Mr H.”
“For James as well?”
Halward smiled, “Indubitably. And thanks to everyone. Travelling from one end of a hostile Syria to another is no mean feat. I’ll put it in the log for the Regimental Diary.”
“It might even be published one day.”
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file