Two Little Boys and A Can of Coke…
The senses we have are brilliant, aren’t they? No really. They are.
Just imagine, not having a cold can of Coca-Cola for nearly two months, and then, coming back in from a three hour morning patrol and finding an ice cold can of Coke with a post-it note stuck to it saying, ‘Drink. Enjoy.’
For once I was lost for words. It had an old style ring-pull and the can exploded with a whoosh when I popped it and opened the can. Peeling the ring pull back, a little bit of froth came out of the can…and then I raised it to my mouth. The taste. The cold. The sugar rush.
I am sure in some sort of 1970’s sci-fi film, the camera would cut away to show blood-vessels dilating and pumping faster as the chemical rush hit my system. I felt it too. The sheer pleasure of the cold, sweet, sticky liquid gulping down. Like in some advert I took the cold can and held it to my head. Again, more sensory pleasure, the feeling of the condensation hitting my skin, cooling instantly my forehead and the tip of my nose.
I wanted to ask where it had come from, to thank whoever the person was for this…to ask…’How…?’ But I was speechless. My lips were sticky with the sugar and caramel of the coke, my tongue alive with the taste, my throat wet. The slightly metallic after-taste in my mouth. Pure bliss.
Quickly finishing the can, in just two or three draughts I crushed it and the Intelligence Officer asked if I enjoyed it.
I turned to him and asked ‘Did you get these, Boss?’
‘Yeah, it’s my crate for the other night when I screwed up on the radio net.” IO had had gotten himself all confused when speaking on the radio and had used incorrect ‘voice procedure’ and so had been fined a crate of pop for his ‘crime’.)
‘Well thank you. I can’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a can of coke quite so much.’ I replied crushing the can ready for the bin.
‘Alex, why are you so…wet?’
I looked down. In the pleasure of the can of pop I had forgotten that I was soaking. Just 10 minutes into the patrol, at the edge of a farmers field, with the Check Point patrol base still in sight, we had needed to cross an irrigation ditch. The way over was provided by two pipes arranged one slightly above and to the right of the other.
It was as good as a bridge as you would get in the middle of a field in Afghanistan. The sort of thing the 9 year old Alex would have loved to play on. I looked at it and then down at my kit. Body armour. I clipped my rifle to the lanyard on my right shoulder, and then shifted the weight in my day sack on my back. The 9 year old me, playing in the fields near my parents home may have loved it, but the 41 year old me, with all this kit on didn’t like the look of it.
The young squaddie in the patrol in front of me took a few steps and was across. Easy. Hmmmm.
I looked at it again. How do I do this? Yeah, facing the higher pipe, that way. If I over balance I should be able try and fall forward over the top of it, and not into the water.
I took a step forward and realised that my left foot was going to be facing the wrong way, so I shifted it, trying to slide it over the 5 or 6 inch pipe.
Oh, yes. It slid. There must have been some mud on the soul of my left boot and how it slid. My foot totally slipped off the pipe, kicking my leg out as a result. Gravity took over and I tried to regain my balance. I failed. I tried to push my body forwards, hands desperately grabbing for something…anything…to hold. But the pipe was too smooth. And in any rate I was falling in the wrong direction. The weight in my day-sack pulled me backwards…and down.
‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhh f…’ But the rest of that word was lost in the splash of me hitting the cold water. Cold. Dirty. Smelly. Water.
I scrabbled forwards, the barrel of my rifle dipping in the water, but thankfully not fully going under the water – the lanyard holding it securely to my body, leaving my hands free. Hands appeared from the ‘bridge’ and the side the ditch.
‘Take my rifle’ I said and unclipped it – handing it up to the young Rifleman. Another hand came down and I was half pulled and half clambered out of the ditch, dripping. Soaking from the waist down. The most important thing was that I hadn’t gone under totally. My camera, my radio, my GPS, my MP3 recorder (for recording conversations with locals) were still totally dry, and I knew the dry bag inside my day-sack would protect my kit.
My dignity however was not protected. And I was soaked.
Normally this would be a bad thing. If you fell into a river or ditch in the UK, you could be certain that you’d be shivering in 10 minutes. Not so out here. In fact, it was a God-send. Only 10 minutes into the 3 hour patrol and I was nice and cool, and would stay cool for the next couple of hours at least. Yeah I smelt bad, but, well, in fields with cows and goats, who’d notice one more bad smell? It wasn’t as if we were going to be going anywhere posh! We were just going to a nearby village, chat to the locals and get a feeling for the ‘atmospherics’ there.
And an hour later as we sat with a couple of the local elders, under the shade of a couple of trees, I couldn’t help but notice that they looked at my wet trousers and furrowed their brows a little. But I didn’t mind. Just for once out on a patrol here I wasn’t boiling up in the heat.
We left the Elders to their own conversation and moved off, the morning heat building. We had a good 50 minutes of yomp to get back to the CP. And despite the cooling effect of the wet trousers, underwear, boots and sock, the heat built under my helmet, and I was happy to take a break for five minutes as the other call-sign out on the ground with us moved to another position.
Sitting by the path, I took my camera out and snapped a couple of pictures. The ripping of the velcro opening the pouch must have been what attracted them. Two children. One about 9, one about 4. Brothers Both dressed in brown ‘dish-dashes’. They eyed me suspiciously. Not sure if they should come closer. I took advantage of the wait to take my day-sack and helmet off. I reached into the pack and pulled out a foil container with some ration pack biscuits inside. I tore it open and offered the eldest boy one. ‘Biscuit’ I said.
He came closer and took the ginger biscuit from me. The bravery of his brother brought the younger one closer.
‘Sta nom?’ I asked, in my appalling Pashtu. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘I added, ‘Ma nom Alex,’ tapping my chest.
‘Ma nom es Mahmood’ said the elder of the two.
‘What about you’ I said to the little one. ‘Sta nom?’ But he wasn’t so brave. This alien from outerspace, with gloves, goggles, a radio headset, body armour and rifle was staring at him, and he did what ALL four year old’s would do when asked their name. He hid behind his brother. I offered another biscuit, and took a bite of one myself to show them they were safe to eat. They nibbled and the Mahmood’s face made a look of surprise as the taste from the ginger biscuit hit his mouth. I wondered if he’d ever tasted anything like that before?
My camera was still resting on my leg, and I held it up, showing them. ‘Picture?’ I asked.
They looked confused. So I took a snap. And immediately turned the camera round to show Mahmood his image on the screen. He laughed. His brother peeped and giggled. I held it up again and they stood back. Mahmood crouched by his brother and put an arm round him.
‘Cheese!’ I said and they smiled…and I got a lovely picture of two boys enjoying time together in the morning sun. They laughed at the picture I showed them. With still so sign of us moving on, I took out my multi-tool and showed them. They were fascinated. Standing mouths wide as I unfolded one implement from the handle and then another. These were the first two children I had met out here that hadn’t immediately come up to me and asked for ‘choclit’ or ‘kalam’ (pen). It seemed as though they had never actually seen, or spent time with a Brit.
Putting away my multi-tool, I got my MP3 recorder out. They looked quizzically at it. I set it to record and asked them their names again. Again only Mahmood replied. Playing back his words his eyes went massively wide. And his brother roared with laughter. I wished that I had some sweets for them. But it was approaching the end of the patrol and other than the ginger biscuits I had nothing. I gave the rest of the packet to them and stood up and putting my gear on, moved off.
The heat was ramping up quickly and we still had a good 20 minutes of walking to go. I sucked on the drinking tube and drained the last of the 3litres of water I had brought out with me that morning. Great, I thought. No more water. And then suddenly I saw the tower that marked out CP come into view from behind some trees. Another ten minutes and we’d be back in. But this was going to be the hottest 10 minutes, walking up a baked road, exposed to the burning sun, going up a small hill, that with the kit and the heat felt for all the world like Mount Everest.
And that is why that can of coke was so welcome. But as I drank it I thought about Mahmood and his brother, and wondered if the explosion of taste that was going off in my mouth was anything like the explosion of taste that must have gone off in their mouths when some alien had given them a biscuit and had taken their picture.