Christ, one minute I’m walking behind Akmal and the next I’m lying on the ground, stunned, covered in dust and blood. His blood.
I never understood why there wasn’t a cloud in the sky when he stepped on that IED and blew away in seconds. How could someone like Akmal disappear so quickly on such a day? I saw worse too, but I can’t talk about that. Funny, I always seemed to have words to say to him when he was nearby, words that burst up from my gut but somehow got stuck in my throat.
I knew Akmal for nearly two years. He was a decent bloke. Unlike our sergeant, who was a real bastard: loud, cocky. You know the type.
‘You boys reckon you’re all heroes don’t you, just coz you wear a uniform and carry an F88 bang stick. You’re just a bunch of fuckin’ fairies. What are you?’
That sort of stuff. He reckoned we should be covering ourselves in ‘golden glory’ instead of sitting around on our arses most of the time. The gold bit got me thinking about what Sister Basil told us at St Brigid’s when I was a kid, the story of the gilded boy.
She told us that hundreds of years ago, at the coronation of one of the popes, a young boy was chosen to play the part of an angel in the pageant. Being selected was the greatest honour she said. So that his appearance would gobsmack all who attended, his naked body was covered from head to foot in gold leaf. He glowed like an angel and people crowded the streets and stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of him.
Akmal was like that for me. I was in awe of him. See, he had this look, and around him I wanted to be reckless, needed danger more than safety. If he’d asked me to get into a car without seat belts and drive at 200 k an hour, I would have done it willingly. He looked out for me though. If I was feeling like shit, he’d just have to say: ‘Hey Johnno, how come you’re cracking the sads?’ and I felt a bit better. There was something between us, something that I couldn’t quite put a name to.
One night Akmal came back to the camp after a patrol. They all looked like they’d seen a ghost, white as a sheet, the whole mob. They’d spent two hours under a mortar attack from the Talib. Later, it must have been the middle of the night, and I was as asleep as any fucker could ever hope to be in the middle of a war, when a hand touched me. It was Akmal. I knew what he wanted and I wanted it too. He slid into the bunk beside me. He was shaking like shit. I just held him ‘til he stopped shaking and we both dozed off for a while. I felt good, needed, for a change; but of course when I woke in the morning he was gone and we never said anything.
You might think that sounds sick, but what would you know? You’re not here, like us. Here in Oruzgan, always hot, dust in your teeth and throat and the air tasting of hot metal and oil. The locals looking at us sideways, saying things we can’t understand while their eyes scream: ‘Get the fuck out of our country’. And who could blame them?
Akmal could even speak a bit of the local’s lingo and that made them look at him differently to the rest of us, like they really trusted him. I tried but couldn’t get my mouth around the words, words that sounded like you were coughing up phlegm. I was just a nineteen year old from Forbes who didn’t finish High School. Jeezus…am I making him sound like some sort of hero? He was to me. And he had a wife and a little boy too. I saw their photo as a screensaver on his laptop.
I’ve still got something of his though. I took it a few months ago and now that there’s nothing left of him, I’m glad I did. I don’t know what came over me. It was night and I was lonely, like always. I pinched a pair of his boxers from his bunk while he was in the shower block. Now whenever I hold them up to my face I can still smell him, sweaty, stale and something else I recognised straight away. So I knew even he got lonely sometimes too like I did.
I didn’t tell you the rest of the golden boy story, did I? People were forced to shield their eyes when the sun flashed off his gold leaf. They loved him, cheered for him, not the pope, dolled up in his robes and crown thing. Then suddenly during the ceremony the boy collapsed and had to be rushed away. He was dead in hours. Sister Basil reckoned it was worth it because he’d shone like God’s angel for those hours. I wasn’t so sure. I’d rather be breathing and home sweet home than being someone’s bloody hero.
If I do get back home and I’ve got the guts I’m gonna go to Newcastle and visit Akmal’s wife and little boy. What am I gonna say when I get there? That we were mates? That we were more than mates but I dunno what it’s called? What the fuck were we? No, I don’t know what I’m gonna say yet, but I know one thing. Every kid needs a golden boy in his life, some sort of hero, especially Akmal’s kid now his old man is gone. Maybe that could be me. Who knows? And I know something else too (I think I’ve finally found the words now): the last thing I ever expected to find in this shithole was love.
John Bartlett’s non-fiction and essays have been widely published and will be collated into an e-book entitled A Tiny and Brilliant Light to be released in November 2017. He is also the author of two novels, Towards a Distant Sea and Estuary and a collection of short stories, All Mortal Flesh. He blogs regularly at beyondtheestuary.com.