The Boeing 777 charter aircraft approached over the flooded fields west of Oxford. The young woman in seat 35D opened her eyes and turned off the borrowed iPlayer. She was not dressed like the other passengers in their desert camouflage fatigues. She wore a green reversable puffer jacket, a pair of long, American air force trousers over black, tightly fitting shorts, training shoes, khaki green t-shirt and a jacket the movers had given her at Qatar. Her hair was loosely covered by a hijab that hadn’t been wrapped.
The Army personnel had not too quietly asked why a “raghead” was on their flight. They had flown out of Basra the previous night by C130, as the airfield was under sporadic indirect fire. Tracking down the Persian Gulf, the C130 had been locked on by Iranian radar. There followed a terrifying fifteen minutes of evasive manoeuvres, as the aircraft kept firing chaff and flares. She had seen the frightened face of the loadmaster and if he was scared, so was she.
At Qatar they were all shepherded into an enormous hangar, with trestle tables holding tea and coffee urns, disposable platters of endless corned beef sandwiches. She was freezing cold and grabbed a tea, then lay in the corner of the hanger, curled up on the hard, cold floor. A mover was watching her, so alone, about the age of his daughter. What was she doing here and why was nobody looking after her? He went across, shook her gently and gave her his puffer jacket.
“It will make you a bit warmer.”
She smiled at him. My God, her eyes were beautiful.
“I can easily get another one.”
“Thank you, Sarge,” she put it on. It swamped her.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Chocolate. I could murder for some chocolate, please. I don’t have any money for the vending machines.”
He came back with two bars of dairy milk.
She tore into the packet, wolfing down the chocolate, “Steady on, you’ll make yourself sick. There are sandwiches you could have on the tables.”
“They’re not Halal.”
“Oh, I see. Where are your clothes?” Although he didn’t see at all.
I had to leave the chador behind when we fought our way out of the safe house. It was too constricting.” Her eyes were gleaming, hyperactive, one stage away from mental breakdown.
“Where are the rest of you?” asked the mover.
“Seeing the General. They will get a later flight.”
“I’ll see if I can get you a pair of trousers to keep your legs warm.”
After about ten minutes he came back with a pair of American camouflaged trousers and gave them to her, “They’ll be a bit long.”
As she pulled them on there was cat calling and whistling from some of the soldiers from Basra. But at least she felt warmer and thanked the sergeant, mover.
“The charter aircraft is here and has almost finished refuelling. I’ll make sure you’re one of the first to board.”
The last time he saw her was as she left the hangar, looking like a little girl in clothes too big for her. He watched her go and shook his head.
At Akrotiri in Cyprus, most of the Army personnel got off the aircraft for a few days’ decompression, which meant she was alone in a row of seats to lie down. As the wheels went down for the final approach, a member of the cabin crew came up to her.
“Ms Khan. Once the aircraft has stopped, make your way to the front because you’ll be one of the first to get off. A vehicle will be waiting for you.”
She yawned and nodded. The green fields were framed by the brilliant green of spring growth. The summer was old and tired when she left and on this spring morning seemed like a rebirth of the countryside. The field gave way to a road, then concrete until the Boeing’s wheels rumbled on RAF Brize Norton’s runway. She closed her eyes and gave a silent prayer to be home. It had been a damned near-run thing.
The aircraft stopped and she went forward to the comfy seats, where the staff officers and generals sat and they stared at this scruffy little urchin. She waited until the doors opened, flooding the cabin with crisp, Oxfordshire air. Down on the pan, two men in dark suits were waiting for her and she was whisked part the customs and bag reclaim, to where a car waited for them outside the terminal building. The men were pleasant enough.
“Did you have a good trip, Ms Khan?”
“Bloody awful, but at least I’m home. Where are we going?”
“To one of our debriefing facilities in Oxford. You’ll be there for a couple of days, but it’s the trick cyclist’s report first.”
“Will Alan Bartlett be there?”
“He will join us later. He is very keen to see how you are.”
The car drove east to Oxford and took the northern ring road. On the bypass the car took the road to Sunnymead and pulled into the drive of a large house, screened by trees. She followed them into the house.
“There’s a room upstairs for you, facing the rear, which should be quieter. Have a shower and then come down for lunch at around 13:30. This afternoon you’ll get your psychiatric assessment and that’s pretty much it until tomorrow morning, when the debriefing starts.”
“Could someone get me some cigarettes, please, and a lighter.”
“You can only smoke around the back, not in the house. And please don’t leave the property. Any particular brand?”
“I’ll get them,” one of the men said, “There’s a supermarket down the road.”
She went upstairs to her bedroom with a large bed and wet room, where she soaked under the shower for ten minutes. On the bed was a pair of black cotton trousers and a top, some long underwear and a hijab. She smiled to herself and put them on, leaving the sports bra, not wrapping the hijab tightly. She went downstairs and saw a packet of cigarettes, and a disposable lighter on the hall table. She went outside and lit one. It seemed surreal, smoking in an Oxford suburb, listening to the traffic out at the front. When she went back in a lady in a black dress and apron showed her into the dining room, where a buffet was laid out.
“It’s all halal,” she told her, “So tuck in.”
She took some cold chicken and vegetables, fresh dates and a Roasted aubergine Fattoush. She dined alone but spotted the camera in the corner, so they were watching her. However, the lunch was good and afterwards she relaxed in an armchair and read the papers. At half-one a man came into the room, while the lady cleared the dishes away. He smiled and sat down opposite her.
“I’m Flight Sergeant Carlin and I’m a Registered Mental Nurse from Brize. I am here to give you your preliminary assessment.”
“Because it’s standard procedure for watchers at the end of their tours. Can I continue?”
“OK, but I may not be able to answer some of your questions.”
“Because elements of my tour were highly classified.”
He opened a briefcase and took out a sheet of paper, “Well we’ll just have to work round it then. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Could you answer them on a scale one to five, one being not at all, three moderately and five extremely. Did you discharge your weapon at a human target?”
“Yes.” She answered.
“Was effective fire returned at you?”
“Do you get Repeated, disturbing memories, thoughts, or images of that stressful experience?”
“Two, perhaps a little bit.”
“Do you get repeated, disturbing dreams of the experience?”
“It’s too early to tell.”
“Suddenly acting or feeling as if the stressful experience were happening again (as if you were reliving it?”
“Again, too early to tell.”
“Do you feel very upset when something reminded you of the experience?”
“Not very. A little, perhaps.”
He made some notes on the paper, “How about having physical reactions for example, heart pounding, trouble breathing, or sweating) when something reminded you of the experience?”
“Not at all.”
“Do you avoid thinking about or talking about the experience or avoid having feelings related to it?”
“Do you suffer loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy? Do you feel distant or cut off from other people?”
She smiled and looked down, “I have always felt cut off from other people, even my own family, which is why I’m doing this job. I do miss having a close, intimate and loving relationship. I made love with one of the SAS rescue team in Basra, but it was just sex and we went back a long way. The man I knew could love me wasn’t there. I think I frightened him off.”
“I’m sorry. Life can be a real bastard,” he said, “So you feel emotionally numb or unable to have loving feelings for those close to you?”
“I don’t have anyone close to me.”
“And do you feel your life will be cut short?”
“I know it will.”
“Do you feel anger or irritability?”
“Sometimes. Two, I guess.”
“Do you feel hyper alert, jumpy and easily startled? Of course, you do, stupid question. Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
“No. Am I a gibbering wreck?”
“No more than any of us. You display some anxiety, but if you suffer from sleeplessness, bad dreams and recurring negative thoughts, contact an RMU. I think the closest one to Hereford is Cosford.”
He stood up and shook her hand, “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Get someone to share their life with you.”
“If only. Goodbye Flight.”
She went outside and smoked a thoughtful cigarette, before going upstairs for a lie down. A dinner gong woke her up at 18:00 and in the dining room she was accompanied by one of the spooks. To her surprise he was youngish, quite good looking and excellent company, amusing and he explained the rankings in MI6.
“Technically, yours was an MoD operation under the auspices of DSF, but it was also a joint op with us. The information you passed concerning Iranian Republican Guards operating in Basra, was most useful. Your finding that loadmaster and his rescue was a classic operation.”
“How is he?” she asked.
“Alan Bartlett will be able to tell you when he comes tomorrow, but we think he’s OK. Now I’m an SIS officer and you are an agent. It’s quite an honour to meet you, by the way. We seldom meet the exceptionally brave men and women, who do the dirty work for us. This curry is particularly good, don’t you think?”
“It is nice. Try the lamb and the rice is good as well. We don’t usually have rice and bread. Where is everybody else?”
“Just me I’m afraid and the housekeeper. I will be staying tonight.”
She was willing to bet he wasn’t alone. Somebody would be monitoring the cameras.
“It feels so strange,” she told him, “Two nights ago I was fighting for my life, and now I’m having excellent food in an Oxford house. I don’t have a home, just places where I sleep.”
He looked at her carefully. There was no hint of self-pity, merely a statement of fact.
“Did you not feel drawn to any of the other watchers? You were the only woman in the team.”
“Oh no! That would break our code of mutual dependency. It would have been terribly destructive to the team.”
“It makes it hard for you, though, I would have thought.”
She smiled remembering back to the four of them sharing that house, “Not really, I didn’t fancy any of them. We had no secrets though.”
He nodded thoughtfully and tried to imagine four of them in a house in Basra. He just couldn’t.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” she enquired.
“No. If I can I’ll answer truthfully.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jean-Claude and it is my real name.”
“In that case, I’d like you to call me Afarin.”
“As you wish, Afarin.”
“OK then,” she said mischievously, “Timothy Dalton or Piers Brosnan, which one is better?”
He thought about it, “Timothy Dalton is certainly tough enough. Brosnan tends to play it for laughs, although I believe a new Bond is due out this year, Daniel Craig.”
“He was very good in Munich. We watched it on DVD back in Basra. Do you have a licence to kill, Jean-Claude?”
“You’re being naughty, Afarin. No, I don’t, any more than you do. But you’ve certainly mixed it, haven’t you?”
“Until two nights ago, I have never killed anyone or any living thing. You tend to re-write your understanding of morality when people are trying to kill you, or worse, capture you. It was what they wanted, to take me alive and oh the fun they would have had.”
“You’re very brave, Afarin,” Jean-Claude told her, mopping some of the sauce in the platter with a piece on naan bread.
“I wasn’t. I was shaking with fear. It was worse that when that poor Brazilian electrician was killed in front of me. I was spattered with his blood.”
“Why do you do these things? Why put yourself through such mental and physical torment? You’ve earned a rest, to settle down with a good steady man and have a family.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Jean-Claude, but good, steady men are in pretty short supply. The manly traits have been bred out of them, by a lack of a father figure, feckless mothers with serial boyfriends and an education system that stamps down on the natural competitive joy that boys have. Are you married?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Why?” she asked bluntly.
“Because I travel a great deal and Alan Bartlett is a hard taskmaster.”
“Are you happy with your masculinity, Jean-Claude?”
He realised she was gently joshing with him, “Well I did play Rugby for Cambridge, I share an office in Vauxhall Cross with another male and two female officers and no, I don’t have a personal secretary called Miss Moneypenny.”
She leaned back in her chair, “That dinner was delicious. Thank you for your company, Jean-Claude. I’ve got a final question…”
“No, I’ve never had a homosexual relationship and I do like the ladies. Does that cover it?”
“Actually, I was going to ask if this place has a bath. You see, nice as the wet room is, I’ve had nothing but showers for nearly eight months, and I would love to do a girlie soak in the bath with some bubbles.”
“Yes, there’s a bathroom three doors down to the left of your room. The tub may be a bit antiquated and you might have to give it a bit of a clean before you get in it.”
“Will you be in at my de-brief tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes, with Alan and he may bring one of the women from my office.”
“If I don’t see you later, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As she left the room, she concluded that Jean-Claude was really nice. He watched her leave and concluded she was absolutely beautiful.
Upstairs she got undressed and in the wet room, made the most of the Venus razor they had thoughtfully provided her with. She looked at herself in the mirror and thought that scissors would have been useful as well, but she made the best job she could with the razor. She wrapped a large towel around her and padded to the bathroom. While she ran the water, she poured in bubble bath and was pleased to find there was no camera.
She lay back in the water and felt totally relaxed and decided to get dirty while she got clean. Six months was a long time and she had to bite the flannel to avoid making a noise. She thought about Henry Morrison, Jean-Claude, but most of all a man called Guy Jarvis, she had last seen in Basra over six months ago. Back in her room she debated whether to have a last cigarette, but she was tired and got into bed. She said the Muslim prayer for the dead she had killed, then fell into a dreamless sleep.
In the cellar, Jean-Claude went into a room with monitors for the interior and exterior parts of the building. A man reading a Tom Clancy novel looked up.
“She’s gone to bed,” he said, “She is a damned good looker. Really cute.”
Jean-Claude pulled out a chair and watched the monitors, “She certainly is, but I wouldn’t want to cross her. She can bite.”
© Blown Periphery 2022