War Crimes Chapter 16
Afarin Khan had never been blessed with the type of cleverness required to ingest, sift, collate and then regurgitate information onto an examination paper. If anything as far as the British State Education system was concerned, she was cursed with a questioning and interrogative mind. She took nothing at face value and questioned established wisdom at every cut and turn.
“Why are we concentrating on the Native Americans and Black people in the 1930s, Miss. Surely the depression affected all poor and working class people? What about the Chinese immigrants to America?”
“Why do we call the Nazis ‘Right Wing’ when they were called the National Socialist Workers Party?”
“Why is it when we’ve been sending millions of pounds to Africa over the past sixty years, do they still send their kids loads of miles with a manky plastic jerry can to gather water from a polluted river and then complain because they can’t go to school. Why don’t they boil the water or move the village a bit closer to where the water is and dig a few, new clean wells?”
Afarin Khan was blessed as well as cursed. She certainly ticked the right diversity boxes, she was “Asian,” she was a “she,” she was a Moslem and therefore came from a very special and protected niche of Liberal society. Her teachers expected very little of her because of her “disadvantaged” background, but in their heart of hearts, her kindly, liberal teachers with a social justice agenda hated her guts. She was roundly and secretly detested and had she been a white, working class boy, she would have been excluded at the drop of a Pussyhat. Unfortunately they had been hoisted by their own politically correct petard.
It was late spring in the secondary school in south Derby and the GCSEs were coming up. A clump of the more right-on teachers were in the common room, drinking fair-trade, decaffeinated green tea and discussing Afrin Khan’s prospects of achieving a reasonable set of examination grades.
“I don’t suppose we should expect too much. It’s quite surprising that she’s still in school to be honest.”
“I find her quite disruptive in the class,” the Religious Studies and Citizenship teacher observed with a trace of rancour, “She constantly interrupts me when I try to explain the six articles of faith in Sunni Islam and five roots of ‘Usul ad-Din in Shi’a Islam.”
They were joined by the physical education teacher, a rather strapping young woman with close cropped hair, interesting tattoos and numerous piercings, both visible and hidden. Because she was a lesbian, she also fell into a “special” and therefore protected category.
“Are you lot talking about Ms Khan?”
They nodded with pained expressions.
“Ahh, she does present somewhat of a challenge, doesn’t she? But I quite like her. At least she isn’t constantly menstruating like the other girls in her year, she will expend some effort and will at least take a shower after PE, unlike the other skanks.”
There were pained expressions around the group and the terribly camp arts and drama teacher looked like he was having a touch of the vapours.
“She just lacks application.”
The PE teacher drained her coffee, “No she doesn’t. Her problem is that she has a questioning and independent mind. The kiss of death for kids in state education. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some year eights to brutalise in the gym. Circuit training for the little bastards.”
Afarin always wore a Hijab to school, not because she wanted to, but because it was expected of her by her community, her female relatives and the oh so Liberal teachers. She hated it and pulled it off whenever she was at home. One afternoon on leaving the school, she saw a group of girls hanging round a pimped-up Mercedes parked outside the school gates. The girls were mainly year eights and nines and came from what their teachers and social workers called rather euphemistically, “troubled or challenging” backgrounds. Their white male classmates called them “skanks.” The men who would have been called by a reluctant media “Asian men of Pakistani heritage” in the Mercedes called them “fresh meat.”
Afarin Khan walked up to the car and sneered at the young men inside. Her father and her family originated from the Hindu Kush area of Afghanistan, so her first language was Pashtu. Afarin was also fluent in Arabic, Urdu and Bangla. Although she considered them to be of a lower social caste, she addressed them in Bangla.
“Looking for some little white girls for a spot of fun, are you?”
“Fuck off you Afghan whore,” the driver said to her in English.
“Yeah, piss off you Taliban bitch,” one of the white girls said to her.
Afarin shook her head with incredulity, “You do know what this is about, don’t you? What’s it been up to now? CDs? Play Station Games? Some fags? Soon it’ll be booze, then drugs and then you’ll end up staring at the ceiling in some grotty hotel, while their uncles, fathers and grandfathers queue up to fuck you. They don’t care.”
She looked at the young men in the car and her face screwed up with disgust, “مشيمة الخنزير.” She spat at them.
Afarin crossed the road as a police car drove slowly past. Despite looking into the parked Mercedes and at the underage girls outside a school, the coppers did nothing and the police car disappeared around the corner.
Her grades were predictably disappointing and she went home in tears. Her mother and sister were quite sanguine about it, because academic results meant little in their world. It was the reaction of her father that she was terrified of. Eventually she caught him alone and told him, fearing the worst. They spoke in English as he insisted, even in the home.
“Father, I messed my GCSEs up. I only managed a B in Science, a B in Art and Design, a C in Geography, a C in Computer Science, a C in History, a C in literature but two Es in English Language and Maths. I am so sorry.”
Her father smiled sadly at her. He and his wife and elder daughter had fled Afghanistan when the Russians invaded. He had been a high-ranking member of the Civil Service but carved a new life for himself in England. He deliberately avoided the Pakistani ghetto towns in the north and West Midlands and settled in Derby. He ran his own carpet business and he loved his middle daughter with all of his heart. There was something about Afarin that stirred his soul. She was just so unique and he wanted the best for her.
He had argued with his only wife when the child was small.
“No, she will not be cut. It is a barbaric superstition from the Swat valleys. Afarin will leave this world in exactly the same way as God brought her into it. I will not allow her to be mutilated. If you go against my wish, you will go back to the home country without me.”
He knew the problems his daughter faced, being torn between two different cultures. And he knew he didn’t want her to be in an arranged marriage with what he considered some inbred wide-boy from Pakistan.
“Come on, Afarin, let’s look at this dispassionately. You have two subjects with good passes, one of which is science. You have three other good passes. Unfortunately you have not done well in the two most important subjects, the ones potential employers care the most about. What shall we do about it?”
“I could go to college and get a part-time job.”
“You could, and so you shall.”
She hugged her father still crying, tears of gratitude now, “I thought you would be so cross, Daddy.”
“What’s the point? But I do worry about you. I won’t always be here and I want you to make a good life for yourself. One that will provide you with the opportunities this country offers, but nevertheless, a life that pays homage to your background, religion and culture. As a girl, Afarin, it will not be easy. Do you have any idea what you want to do?”
She shook her head, “I literally have no idea.”
“Then think. The choices you make now will be the most important for your future life.”
Afarin Khan went to college and struggled once again with English and Mathematics, but the difference was, that now she was in a class of men and women who actually wanted to be there. The disruptive morons had gone and at last she was able to concentrate, instead of waiting twenty to thirty minutes for an ineffectual, but oh so liberal teacher to gain a modicum of control over the class.
A few days before she took the examinations again, there was a display in the entrance hall of the college by a group from the Armed Forces Careers Office (AFCO). The Army display was quite impressive with lots of radios and technical stuff (no Guns allowed), but lots of boys toys. The two men and the woman from the Royal Navy looked really good in their best uniforms and the looped video showed ships and helicopters and was slick and professional. The Royal Air Force display had two females, one was a medic with an impressive tally of medals on her No1s breast pocket. The other was a pretty woman with long auburn hair, tied behind her head in a ponytail. She was wearing a green flying suit and with wings and two, tiny thin, light blue stripes on her epaulettes. She was sipping coffee from a black, metal insulated mug. She exuded confidence and easily batted aside the boys’ attempts to make a pass at her. Afarin looked shyly at her and the RAF lady caught her gaze.
“Hello,” Afarin said shyly, “What do you do?”
The woman put down her coffee and smiled, “Well….”
“Afarin, Afarin Khan.”
“Well Afarin, my name’s Louise and I fly one of these,” she said pointing to a picture of a helicopter on the display board.
“Cool. I bet you’ve got a degree or something.”
The RAF pilot nodded, “Yes, but if you join up you just need GCSEs and then apply for aircrew duties. If you pass the aptitude tests.”
She handed her a leaflet, “This tells you what you need to have for exams and how to do your homework before you apply to join.”
Afarin could have got lost in those hazel eyes and she felt hot with embarrassment. Louise had that effect on both sexes. She took a long time to read the paperwork on the bus and by the time she got home, Afarin Khan knew what she wanted to do. Unfortunately her father was not happy about her decision when she told him.
“Have you taken leave of your senses? You are placing yourself at odds to two communities, neither of which will ever accept you. The kufar will always distrust you and your own fellow-believers will ostracise you. To our community you will be dead!”
She was shocked by his negativity as she had always seemed such a beacon of tolerance, but it would appear that if the veneer was scratched off, the lie of multiculturalism was revealed. In truth, she was deeply disappointed with her father and her stubbornness kicked in. Now would not be a good time to tell him that she found the entire premise of a supreme being to be nothing more than a ridiculous throw-back to the Dark Ages.
Afarin passed GCSE English with a B and Mathematics with a C and the previous week she had celebrated her eighteenth birthday. That afternoon she put on her best job interview clothes, collected her educational certificates, birth certificate and passport, and walked into the Armed Forces Careers office on Sitwell Road in Derby and made an appointment. She sat the first of a raft of aptitude tests interviews and initial medical PULHEEMS. Seven weeks later she was attested into Her Majesty’s Armed Forces as an Intelligence Analysis (subject to successfully completing Recruit Training and the sixteen week course, in the fundamentals of Intelligence at the Joint Intelligence Training Group, Chicksands in Bedfordshire). She was initially paid over £13,000 pounds a year, a figure that was beyond her wildest dreams. Once her training was finished, she would learn to drive and buy a little car.
She could have written the script herself. Her transit through Recruit Training at RAF Halton was laughably easy because the race, religion and “special category” card was played at every opportunity. Not by her, but by the directing staff who were terrified of failing to show “cultural awareness.” In the end she became so pissed off with it, she asked for an appointment with her flight commander. Of course it was immediately granted.
“What is the problem, AC Khan?”
“I want to be treated like everyone else in my flight and not picked out for special attention, sir.”
The instant worry in his eyes was almost comical, “Has anyone…”
“Sir, you don’t understand. I want the instructors to stop tip-toeing round me like I was a delicate little flower. I want to be shouted at and sworn at like everyone else. In the past week during kit inspections and my weapon handling drills, I have made mistakes that anyone else on my flight would have got restrictions for. I want to make it by my own merits, not because I tick a diversity box.”
He looked at her with a slight smile and thought: Right you bitch. Be careful what you wish for.
Another major irritant for Afarin were the recruiters who wanted to photograph her at every cut and turn so she could be a pin-up for diversity at the AFCOs.
Relaxing on her bed, “Can you wear one of those headscarf thingies for the photos?”
“Do you mean a Hijab?”
“Yes, one of those.”
“What about a picture of you sitting at the table, reading the Koran?”
She was the only person on her Squadron who had no friends or family attending the ceremony. The problem was what to do during the two weeks leave before she started her Phase 2 training. It had been made clear to her that she was not welcome at home, mainly due to the attitude of her mother and sisters. But the craven weakness of her father left an emptiness in her soul. She approached the Padre who managed to persuade SSAFA to let her use the emergency married quarter, put aside for families who were in extremis due to family break up or major problems in a married quarter, such as flooding. It was a lonely existence, but Afarin had found that all of her life. Some people make very great sacrifices in order to serve their country.
Afarin struggled with the more academic elements of the Intelligence Analysis course but she was good at analysis and with the help of her instructors, she graduated and her first posting was to RAF Marham, a huge main operating base in the wilds of Norfolk, close to Swaffham, much beloved by Harry Hill. Afarin learned to drive in eight months and explored the area in her little Corsa, a part of the country she had never been to. Kings Lynn was interesting historically, but had seen better days. Norwich was a fine city that she enjoyed visiting but the less said about Swaffham the better.
She made friends on the station and socialised with them, but the boys were reluctant to get too close. Afarin was a strikingly beautiful young woman but the barriers were there and she hadn’t erected them. So surrounded by thousands of people, she remained lonely and unfulfilled.
She also found out that the route to aircrew through the ranks was much more difficult than direct entry from civilian life. Serving RAF personnel had far more hoops to jump through than keen youngsters coming in from university and Sixth Form College. There were always excuses when she tried to apply. We’ve had our quota from the ranks this year. You really need a degree or your work can’t spare you. It all led to her level of frustration and dissatisfaction, but she had made her bed and would have to lie in it.
On September 11th 2001, Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia decided to fly passenger jets into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon. President George W Bush decided to bomb a country stuck in the Dark Ages back to the Stone Age. The special forces of all English Speaking countries piled into Afghanistan to hunt another Saudi called Osama Bin Laden. These units required a massive amount of logistics support and the airfields that had been bombed to destruction suddenly needed to be re-activated to support counter terrorist operations. Which was why in February 2002, Senior Aircraftwoman Afarin Khan stepped off the rear ramp of a C130 on a provincial airport, a few kilometres south of Jalalabad, east of Torkham on the Afghan/Pakistan border. She was part of an enabling force of force protection, engineers, EOD technicians, flight operations, medics and chefs who were going to re-activate the airfield. It had been built by the Russians, bombed by the Americans and repaired by the Brits.
They set up an operating base of tents on the edge of the airfield. The bitter rains turned the talcum powder sand to a muddy mush and temperatures would regularly fall to the minus twenties at night. The heavy equipment arrived a few days later by Antonov 225 and the hard work started, but nor for Afarin, whose real work wouldn’t start until the Tornados and their RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Air Pod Tornado) arrived in theatre. She joined the RAF Regiment patrols that pushed into the local area and did a bit of hearts and minds stuff with the women and children. The men obviously shunned her.
A few Ground-hog Days after she started patrolling with the Gunners, a Land Rover that was bristling with heavy machine guns, anti-tank missiles and crewed by pirates, trundled onto the airport and two of its occupants headed for the operations tent. There followed a one-way discussion with the senior RAF officer and a runner was sent to the mess tent to find SAC Khan.
“Station Master wants to see you, Affi.”
“Oh no, why?”
The runner shrugged.
The Wing Commander was waiting for her along with four men who were dressed in a mixture of British, American and Afghan clothing. They scrutinised her like she was a particularly unusual specimen. The man who seemed to be in charge of the pirates smiled at her.
“You speak Pashto fluently?”
Yes, and Arabic, Urdu and Bangla.”
The man in charge of these strange visitors looked at her. He regarded her with a critical eye, a sardonic half-smile playing around his mouth. But despite the head scarf and the mean-arsed demeanour, by God he was handsome and he knew it. He had taken the time to shave unlike his companions and his eyes never left Afarin’s. She stared back at him defiantly. It was as though he expected something of her.
“SAC Khan, these gentlemen have requested that you be seconded to them for a few weeks and they have paperwork that is signed off by the Directorate of Special Forces, which rather trumps the Air Component Commander.”
“I see,” although she didn’t, “When?”
“Now, treacle,” the chief pirate said, “Get your kit, luv but don’t bother with your personal weapon. You won’t be needing it.”
They hauled her kit into the back of the Land Rover, where she met two more of the “pirates,” another good-looking one with long, wavy hair and a blonde man with a stubble cut and an Afghan hat.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To our base near Orgun, a couple of hours away. What’s your name?”
“No, your first name.”
“Hello, Afarin. That’s Henry, the boss, Wayne is your driver, that reprobate is Cooper, his Christian name is too embarrassing to utter and I’m Guy.”
She nodded shyly and looked at the weapons mounted on the vehicle. She seemed so small and vulnerable, with a hint of excitement at the unknown. She would turn their lives upside-down.
Afarin Khan was used as an interpreter by the patrol teams that operated from a tiny forward operating base (FOB) in the mountains that spanned the border. The base was a small cluster of tents, a prisoner holding cage, satellite dishes, guard towers and Hesco Bastions. It had an airstrip just long enough to operate C130s and a Chinook, two Black Hawks and an Apache were based there. The accommodation was luxurious compared with where she had come from. She had her own tent and ablutions. A proper bed with a mattress. The mess tent had armchairs and sofas and, a TV showing the American Forces Network, God knows where they had come from. She had everything apart from their trust and companionship.
One morning Afarin was sitting alone with her knees drawn up, leaning against a Hesco Bastion blast wall. She felt miserable and the cramps in her stomach were drawing and painful. One of the Blades saw her sitting and sauntered up.
“Hello. You look deep in thought. Everything OK?”
She looked up. It was Jarvis. She liked Jarvis because he was kind and never said anything unpleasant to anybody. She had never seen him lose his temper or even swear. He was wearing a black, woollen hat, that partially hid his long, wavy and luxuriant hair and he smelled particularly good. Jarvis was very nice to look at and unlike Henry Morrison, he didn’t know it. She could have liked Jarvis a lot and perhaps under different circumstance, she might have. But he was a Blade. Unreachable. Too good for the likes of an ugly, little Afghan bint like her.
She shook her head and he sat down next to her, his carbine clouting her shin, “Sorry. What’s up? Tell Uncle Guy.”
Afarin looked at him and decided to be awkward, “Well, Mr Jarvis. I have something of a “condition.” As Mr Morrison would delicately put it: I have the painters in. It’s been a few months and this time it’s heavy and painful.”
“Oh,” he said and stood up, “Wait there.”
She watched him stalk off and felt a degree of disappointment and contempt. These roughty-toughty men, running at the first hint of a woman’s monthly cycle. He returned about fifteen minutes later and gave her a bag, “A strip of Co-codamol, which should last you about four days and four chemical adhesive heat pads. Don’t put them on your bare skin, because they’ll burn you.”
“Where did you get these, Mr Jarvis?”
“The medical tent.”
“You didn’t tell them… Did you?”
“No I said I’d pulled a muscle in my back.”
Afarin could have cried at this unexpected kindness, “Thank you. Mr Jarvis, why does everyone hate me?”
He sat down next to her, “Afarin, nobody hates you. It’s just that we’re a pretty insular bunch and you’re an unknown quantity. I realise that we’re not making the best use of your language skills and you didn’t ask to be here. But here you are and you should make the best of it. Stand up for yourself. You’re as good as everyone else, just a little bit different.”
“What you mean is I’m not trusted because I’m like them out there, a Raghead.”
He patted her knee in a friendly, platonic manner, “No. It’s worse than that. You’re a Crab. What you need to do is push back. Get noticed and have a go at any numpty that treats you with contempt. The only way is to make them respect you. Stop being a grey woman.”
She laughed and smiled at him, “You’re like a big brother, Jarvis. Thank you again.”
He smiled back and looked away shyly. If only she knew what he really felt about her, and what his advice would unleash.
Afarin would go out with them on the WMIK as part of the support troop on patrols. She was always unarmed, always accompanied and she was only allowed to question women and not suspects who had been captured. The questions they told her to ask were clumsily framed and showed a hopeless understanding of the people and culture of the area. She bore it for weeks and finally erupted with frustration during a morning’s O-group meeting.
Because of the small number at the base and the nature of their operations, everyone except those on essential duties attended the weekly main O-group in the Ops tent, round the “Bird Table.” Not everyone, however, was expected to have a speaking part. The command group would run through commander’s intent, scheme of manoeuvre, the latest Int briefing, weather for the aircrews, a logistics briefing and command and signal codes. The Colonel would finish with a pep-talk and then any questions from the main players. Just before the Colonel turned to leave, Afarin stuck up her hand.
“I’ve got a question, sir.”
The Battle Captain moved to behind the Colonel and made a chopping motion at his throat to signal to her to shut up. She ignored him and ploughed on.
“Why am I regarded as somebody who is here on sufferance? Why have I not been issued with a personal weapon of any kind? Are you worried I’ll shoot myself, or some of you lot? Why do you only allow me to speak with local women with questions that have the most dumb-arsed framing so they can only be answered yes or no? Why am I referred to as ‘Genghis Khant,’ the ‘’PONTI Paki’ and my personal favourite, the ‘Gash with the ‘Tache.’ Why am I wasting my time and your time here, when I could be gainfully employed analysing data from RAPTOR Pods? You lot treat me with contempt and frankly, sir, I’m sick of it.”
The Colonel’s face was white and pinched. The grownups looked shocked and embarrassed, while some people were smirking. She thought the Battle Captain was going to spontaneously combust.
“Don’t worry. This Paki’s going to pack.”
She went outside and went into the MT compound, sat on the ground leaning against the wheel of a Land Rover and lit a cigarette. She was watching the Ops tent, waiting for the hammer to fall. One of the RAF Chinook pilots walked purposefully towards her after he came out of the Ops tent. His face was grim and as he reached her, he dragged her roughly to her feet and gave her a tight, warm hug.
“Very big balls, SAC Khan and an attitude the size of a planet. Good luck and I’ll help you if they get arsey. I don’t think they will.”
Nobody spoke to her until the next day and she had packed her kit and lay moodily on her bed, which she would miss. She heard someone moving outside her tent followed by:
“Come in. I’ve packed.”
Morrison, the man who had been in charge of the party who collected her came into her tent. He was holding a Colt L119AW short rifle and a pistol in a holster.
“Are you going to shoot me?” she asked only half joking.
“No, I’m going to teach you how to fire these. We’ve got all day and every time you get it wrong, I’ll kick your magnificent arse.”
They went to the makeshift firing range on the other side of the airstrip, which consisted of sand filled oil drums in front of a bund.
“We’ll be firing at 200 metres. Any further and you’ll be wasting your time. This is our weapon of choice,” he said holding up the short rifle, “The Colt Special Forces Infantry Weapon. 5.56mm calibre, same as the L85 that you’re used to. Single shot or fully automatic. Forget the single-aimed shot bollocks. You’re not gate guard at RAF Little Snoring now. You fire short bursts, three rounds max. Got that?”
She nodded with beautiful wide eyes.
“And stop looking at me like that, otherwise I won’t be responsible for my actions. Now. Loading your magazine. When you’re on the range do you count your shots?”
“No, I always lose count.”
“Me too. So this is how we know when to change magazines,” He held up a round with a red tip to the bullet, “This is a tracer round and it goes into the magazine first. Then three normal rounds. Then a second tracer round and then all the rest. Only put twenty-eight rounds in each magazine so you don’t knacker the spring. So you’re firing away in short controlled bursts and you see a tracer round go down. What does that tell you?”
“I’ve got four more rounds left.”
“You’ve got it. So when you see that first tracer round go down, you yell MAGAZINE and get ready to change. You make sure you can reach the pouch, make sure you can open it, but you don’t look down and take your eyes off the action. Got it?”
“Why do you yell MAGAZINE?”
“So everyone knows I won’t be able to fire for a bit.”
He smiled. Underneath the beard he was a very handsome man.
They spent all day on the range. First Afarin learned the weapon handling drills and how to strip it down for daily cleaning. Then she zeroed the rifle with single aimed shots at a Figure 11 target at 50 metres, before moving back to 200 metres. He ran her through short bursts, fire with movement and firing whilst moving position. By the end of the first session she was sweating like an adulteress in Kabul and was covered with ingrained grime and dust.
He opened his day sack and produced a Halal ration pack. Afarin scowled at him, “So you bastards had these while I’ve been eating rancid, processed fucking cheese sandwiches.”
“We found them in stores,” At least he had the good grace to look embarrassed.
In the afternoon they moved onto the pistol, which was a Sig. He thought it would suit her because it was so small and easily concealed, but she was having a great deal trouble cocking it with sweaty, slippery hands.
“OK you weak and feeble Crabette. Let’s try the Glock.” He produced a chunky, plastic block of Lego that looked like it should have been attached to the bottom of a Johnny Seven Gun toy. She loved its non-slippery tactile grip and was a natural with the chunky but very light automatic pistol. Each magazine held seventeen rounds and she fired twenty of them, from cover and on the move.”
“Bloody hell, Ms Khan, you’re a better shot than me,” he said as they sat sharing a coffee and watching the sun pour itself into the Kandahar Plains.
“What’s your name?” she asked, enjoying his company.
He turned his head to meet her inquisitorial gaze. She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, almost violet and flecked with hazel dots. She was small, lithe and he had to admit, she was in possession of the finest arse it had ever been his pleasure to view from behind. Her hair was black, cropped short out of necessity. A dusky Joan of Arc. He wanted to pull her towards him, but she was to him, still a kid, an innocent abroad. He would learn just how wrong he was. He was captivated.
“Henry,” he said reluctantly.
“Well, Henry, you bunch of bastards could have been a bit kinder to me when I first got here. I never asked to come.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, for what it’s worth, Treacle.”
“So what happens now?” she asked lighting a cigarette.
“Those things will kill you. You come out with us, still in the support WMIK, but we might have to ask you to speak with the bad guys. Do you mind doing that?”
“You’ll still have someone keeping an eye on you and you may have to hide your ample charms a bit, but a chest rig over the Osprey should help to conceal your lady-bumps. I realise that it will be impossible to stop you walking and running like a girl. You need to cover your hair as well. I know it’s short but very nicely styled. I presume you don’t want to look like Medusa. Do you have a Shemagh?”
“Yes, I wear it round by neck to stop the Osprey chafing my neck.”
“Of course you do. Well wear it round your head. I’ll show you how to wrap and tie it tomorrow.”
It was almost dark by the time they walked back across the airstrip to the camp in a companionable silence. The sky was purple and the stars looked like a van Gogh painting of Arles.
“Do I put these guns in the armoury?”
“No, you keep those weapons with you at all times from now on. They are your responsibility now, so don’t leave them in one of the traps when you do numbers one or twos. They should be made safe whilst in the camp and in vehicles. I will be doing random checks and if I’ve found that you’ve made ready, I will do unspeakable things to you.”
“What about when I have a shower?”
“Put a poly bag over the working parts and hang them on the hooks above the shower head.”
“So that’s what they’re for. I thought it was a bloody silly place to hang a towel.”
As they came to part company, she sensed a sudden awkwardness come over him.
“Err, me and the boys are having a few beers and watching baseball on the AFN (American Forces Network). I know you probably don’t drink, but you’re welcome to join us for a coke or something. It’s our way of saying sorry”
“I don’t drink,” she agreed, “But it’s nothing to do with any religious sensitivities. You see, when I was fifteen I got blind drunk on cider to piss my mum off. I thought I was going to die. I don’t ever want to feel like that again. Thanks, I’ll be glad to join you,” she reached out and briefly squeezed his hand, “And thank you for teaching me how to fire these gu… Weapons.”
There were a few, a very few other women on the base, a chef, a Krypto Analyst, two signallers and an RAF Battlespace Manager. Their company was much in demand in the mess tent. There was a proper bar but no spirits and tins and bottles. They did have wine. Henry made room for her when he spotted Afarin push open the door flap tentatively. He beckoned her over and made a few proper introductions. The driver was a Brummie called Wayne. He nodded shyly and apologetically. She learned that Wayne was a stand in for their usual two IC a sergeant called Mark Edge, who was currently recuperating after a severe wound received in Kosovo and he had also recently got married. Afarin got the distinct impression that Jarvis didn’t like this Edge very much. The WMIK gunner was a Corporal called Cooper. His number two was Guy Jarvis, whom she already knew. He was the only one who had shown any time for her and Afarin knew she could trust this soldier, explicitly. He was a gently spoken man from somewhere in the Midlands, Lichfield if she recalled. He seemed particularly smitten with Afarin’s performance at the O-group yesterday.
“Loved it. ‘The Gash with the ‘Tache.’ I thought the Colonel was waiting for the ground to swallow him,” he chuckled, “I told you that you needed to stand up for yourself. I’m glad you did, but was the neutron bomb really necessary?”
“Well I’m still here and not buried out in the cuds,” she told him and Jarvis gave a slight shudder.
“I’ll tell you what wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Henry muttered in her ear, looking at the bar, “Going over and apologising to the Colonel. Clear the air. And don’t call him sir, address him as Colonel.”
“But he’s only a lieutenant colonel, same as a wing commander.”
Henry chortled, “Err, not quite. Go on, big balls.”
Reluctantly she went over and stood next to the most senior officer on the FOB, “Excuse me, Colonel.”
He looked round and scowled at her.
“I apologise for speaking out in a manner that you would class as inappropriate in an O-group.”
He chose to ignore the semantics, realising this was half an apology. He smiled ruefully, “Well Ms Khan, I realise that the Royal Air Force may do things slightly differently, but I wouldn’t do it again at a bird table, if I were you.”
“Oh I wouldn’t, Colonel. Unless it were an operational imperative.”
He huffed in amusement, “Well, having delighted me with your presence, I think your friends who put you up to this are waiting to hang on your every word.”
When Afarin got back, Henry was taking ten dollars off the RSM.
“You put a bloody bet on me not apologising to him?”
“No, on you’re not getting thrown off the base.”
“You lot really are bastards,” she said trying not to sweep drinks off the table with her slung SFIW (Special Forces Individual Weapon). She had only just realised she was the only woman carrying a weapon.
“Why am I the only girlie lugging bloody gu… Weapons around with me?”
“Because you’re the only girlie who’s going off base with the blades and we want carrying and being confident with a weapon to be second nature to you.”
Suddenly Afarin felt humbled. They actually trusted her.
“I bet your Mum and Dad would be shocked if they could see you now.”
“To be honest, Henry. They wouldn’t give a toss. I’m dead as far as they’re concerned.”
He felt a lump in his throat, “Why? Because you’re here?”
“No. They haven’t known where I am for over a year. They didn’t want me to take the Queen’s shilling. It’s not the done thing in my community, apparently.”
He felt a desperate sense of sorrow for a young woman and gave her a manly, non-sexual hug. Her rifle clouted his shin.
“Well fuck ‘em!” Was the only constructive thing he could think of to say.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file