Him in the Dust

by James Matthews

Chapter 7

The Worst Day

July 29th, 2006

I was feeling low. Sitting in the mess hall on my own I contemplated the previous day. All four of us had been back in the bunk. Tank and Jack were looking so close now. They seemed to be happy to let Lukas and I be alone, much to my annoyance. But last night was different. All four of us just lay in our bunks and didn't really talk.

Lukas was deliberately not interacting with anyone, and had left the text at six in the morning to go God's knows where and didn't return until Lunch time. I half expected Jack and Tank to ask me where he was, but they didn't. I think they knew Lukas was not talking to me and didn't want to get involved. But I wanted them to ask me. I wanted them to ask so I could find out whether Lukas is a complete dick, or I was going mad.

So this morning I got up early and found myself here. Jack and I had briefly spoken on the way to the showers about how much blood they had taken out of him. He reckoned they left him with about a pint, and I wanted to joke about that comment, but wasn't in the mood. I just squeezed his neck and thanked him for giving our comrades a fighting change of living, should they have needed his blood.

My cinnamon whirl was now dry and cold and the coffee I was drinking was now becoming an effort. No one came over to join me. Sure, I was sitting here quite early in the morning, but as I twisted my head around, even people I knew just nodded at me and smiled. Whereas I wanted them to come and sit with me to escape from this self absorbed pity I was feeling. Lukas was wrecking my head. I felt confused. I was in a war zone in the middle of the desert. Gone were the thoughts of the people I had killed. The blood I have spilt. No, all I could think about is Lukas. It was driving me nuts!

"Patrol tomorrow," came a voice, followed by a stroke on the back of my neck.


"Oh so you're talking to me now?"

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"

"Excuse me?" I blurted, slightly angry. "You stormed off yesterday without a word and then said nothing to me all last night while we were in our bunks."

"Did you attempt to talk to me?"

"That's not the point, and you didn't answer my question."

"Which was," he asked, sitting opposite me.

"Again with the fucking games Lukas. I can't handle this."

"So I was right, I should move tents."

"No...for fuck sake. I just want to know what your problem is."

"My problem is I'm in love with you and you are not in love with me."

I let my head fall into my arms on the table. Lukas stroked my blond hair.

"You wanna play squash?"

"No, my hip hurts and I have never played it."

"You need to go to physio."

"And if they send me home?"

"Then they send you home, that would be good right."

"And you?"

"What about me," Lukas asked, tearing a piece of my cinnamon whirl and placing it in his mouth.

"I want to stay with you."


I looked around. "Because I fucking care about you okay, and we stick together. I don't want you out there with anyone else. We get each other, we're a good unit. The four of us are."

"Awww, that's kinda sweet."

"Yeah, yeah, it's sweet. But I mean it. I'm not going home without you. I want you in one piece."

"Go to Physio Seb, get checked out."

"You can sort me out, right?"

"Is that a request?"

"Don't be funny. I mean my hip."

"I could, but I care about you too, and I am a general medic, not a physiotherapist. I think you need to get it checked out. I care about YOU Seb. More than you know."

"And the kiss?"

"What kiss?" he asked, now also stealing my now cold coffee.

"You stormed out after I said I would let you kiss me," I whispered, again looking around.

"I didn't storm out, I walked out. Seb, I'm not going to be an experiment for you. I'm not some fucking first aid test dummy to see if you 'like it' as you said."

"It wasn't supposed to come out like that. I just meant I feel close to you and I feel safe. I just don't know if I can give you what you want."

"Let's go outside and talk in private."

Lukas grabbed my arm and pulled me up. We walked out of the mess hall and I followed him, scratching my head.

Lukas led me around to some fuel talks and pulled up two plastic chairs that were leaning on two legs against them.

"Sit." he demanded, gesturing with his hand. I did as he asked.

"I'm sitting, now what."

"You wanna kiss me, do it now."

"Erm...what? I mean no, I can't, you've put me on the spot."

"Does the fact I like you gross you out?"

"It did...I mean when you first said it."

"And now?"

I sighed and leant back in my chair. "I guess like anything you get used to it. I never thought I would get used to killing Taliban. That first one gave me nightmares but now….."

"So no then?"

I looked at him after asking that and gently placed my lips on his. I felt his tongue gently enter my mouth and a hand come round the back of my head. My heart was racing, I wanted to pull away, it was the natural thing to do. I was a straight man. But somehow this felt okay...it felt nice. I let him explore my mouth. He tasted of him, if that's even an understandable thing to think. There was a hint of coffee. His fingers were gently massaging the back of my head. His eyes were closed. Everything was gentle. I reluctantly placed my own tongue inside his mouth. It was warm. Inviting. He was a good looking guy. Did I like this? I think I did. But there was a battle raging in my mind and I pulled away, before putting my head in my hands.

"You okay?" Lukas asked, almost whispering. "That kiss was beautiful."

"I...I wasn't freaked out okay?"

"What does that mean?"

I lifted my head up and looked him in the eyes. "It means I'm okay with it."

"Wow, that is really really so cute. You are amazing."

"So what now?"

"Well I dunno about you. I'm heading to the showers, I need to wash this Afghan dusty air and grit out of my hair."

"Before I could say anything he got up and walked away. I followed him with my eyes, seeing him lift his T-shirt up and rub his stomach. He looked back at me, and there it was!

That stupid smile. That teasing smile. He knew what he was doing. This was another game. He wanted me to follow him. Sorry but that was a step too far.

Now on my mind was the kiss. The kiss and nothing else. I could have been out on patrol being fired upon and I had a feeling that 'the kiss' would still be front and centre. I felt my hip spasm as I got up. It would have to wait. I was not going to physio

August 1st 2006

American marines and British civilian advisers were waging two wars in the hilly northern half of Helmand province. News was coming through fast and we were sent out in a Viking. We'd finally got some dogs out front, but we all knew that this tin box would not protect us if we went over an IED. IEDs were always on our minds. Apart from me of course. All suited up, helmets on Lukas sat beside me, his hand on my knee. I didn't remove it, and instead gently smiled at him. It was nothing sexual, but I was glad we were together. Tank and Jack were whispering amongst themselves. They looked calm which helped me. Every time we went out we knew one, two or even all of us might not come back. The Taliban were crafty fuckers with no regard for any life by the sounds of it.

I was learning all the time and now considered myself an experienced infantry soldier. I think we all did. That little bit more confidence that came each time we went out pulled us closer together as a group. We loved each other. We cared about each other and I would die for any of them...now especially for Lukas. We were morphing into something. He had invested so much into me and it was infectious. I was starting to have strange feelings for him. I did love him. Maybe not in the way he wanted but there was now something there that wasn't there before. At first I tried to fight it but now I was giving into it. I had never had a girlfriend, nor a boyfriend. I knew I was straight. I knew I was. I had to be. It was in my genes. I couldn't force what was not meant to be. But somehow, there was....something!

The heat was blistering and uncomfortable. The dust got in everything and I felt a burning in my chest. Was this place killing me?

In Musa Qala, the first wave of 40 commando and us, the Yorkshire regiment almost ran out of ammunition after two months of hard combat. Where the fuck was the supplies. Nothing was being dropped in and No one was saying anything. All we heard was that Brown.,.. Gordon that is, was pouring Billions in. Seven Billion I heard. So where was that money. What was it buying. We didn't dare criticize the government. We had to stay quiet. I hoped we could borrow some ammo from the yanks, but they used different weapons. It was fucking scary to think we might run out of bullets.

With no easy way to resupply them – it was too risky to drive convoys or fly dual-rotor Chinooks, the only helicopters we had.

Rumours had it we were going to be soon moving in to get the Taliban out of the city. We knew this would mean guerilla warfare and building to building searches. I didn't think we had the firepower. Tank was more confident. Lukas gave gentle talks to me to settle me. I needed that.

I was scared.

We drove close to two compounds which intelligence were confident were filled with Taliban

There was no deal to be made in Sangin, so our commanders sent more forces. We saw them flicking up dust a mile away and thought it safer to wait for them to arrive. Still I thought even with them close by they did not have the manpower to establish a decisive advantage.

The insurgents set up bomb-making factories in a valley that hugged the source of the Helmand river and they struck an informal mutual defence pact with drug barons who ran a network of opium-processing labs in hillside hamlets. Our commanders made matters worse by spreading our regiment across several small outposts along the valley, condemning them to a Sisyphean mission. they would clear insurgents from small parts of the district, but then they had to move on. We and our American allies grew even angrier when the Afghan army commander in Sangin and the district governor told him that British troops "were searching compounds, walking on the roofs of homes, and treating the local population badly – including pointing weapons at people and going into areas where women were working," according to a US State Department cable describing the visit.

"Where are you getting all this information from?" I asked Jack. WIt's not true surely, I know we haven't been up on those compounds."

"It was from a guy I know in 40 Commando. He heard it from another source. It might be bullshit, but things are heating up here."

Another three Vikings pulled up next to us. We were about half a mile away from the compounds. This was about to turn into the biggest push forward yet with 26 soldiers about to storm the buildings.

"It's gonna be okay you know," Lukas said, pushing my gun into my chest. "How's the hip doing?"

"Honesty, it's hurting like crazy."

"When we get back I'll take another look at it, but you gotta go to physio."

"If we come back."

"Seb! WHEN we come back."

"Right lads, out of the vehicle. Snipers in position. Infantry, start moving forward." The Commander said. He was American, I'd never seen him before. Why was he here. Where was Bennet.?

We started to move towards the compound, while the snipers stayed back and looked for targets that might take us out. I stayed close to Lukas. Strangely I felt at peace and not worried at all.

"Slowly now Tank," Lukas called. "Jack, Luke, Rimmer, Seb, stay to the left. We need to give clear sight to the Snipers."

I heard a bullet fly past me, and then it started. Gunfire everywhere. Where was it coming from?

"TANK, SEB, SPINNER, RIMMER," get over here! Jack screamed as we all started moving in the opposite direction. I ran over to the right side of the largest compound and had my gun ready, gripping it hard. I saw one of the Taliban run towards Tank. He had a vest on. I fired, and watched his head implode 6 feet away from Tank. Thankfully the belt did not go off.

"Tank, this way," I shouted. Lukas went around the other side and I heard multiple firing. I worried, but I was pinned down by four Taliban who were now out of the compound and running towards a bus shelter. We were in sight and had to move quickly.

Snipers Fired about five times. I saw two go down near the bus shelter but two made it through and hid behind the concrete erection.

"Lukas," I shouted, wanting him to shout back but he didn't. Tank and another six of us continued to hug the building wall to try and make it around the back. We were met by three Taliban soldiers. We all fired and made short work of them. I got spattered with blood in my face and chest, wiping it away immediately.

"Tank, where are Lukas and Jack?"

"Dunno, quick, we need to get inside. Guys, here, look a gap!"

"Lukas!" I shouted again. "Jack!"

"Here," Jack shouted back. "Guys we have a man down."

I feared the worst and in a moment of stupidity I ran across the compound alone towards the other exit which was to the right of the building. I saw Jack just appear in my peripheral vision. Two Taliban ran towards me. I ducked but felt a searing pain envelope me and I went down.

"Man down, we have another man down," Someone shouted.

More gun fire ensued. It felt like it was coming from everywhere. I tried to drag myself towards a dilapidated machine for cover. I'd been hit, but my mind was so confused as to where because of all the gunfire. Jack took a dive and landed next to me.

"Ahhh, no shit man, your leg!"

"It's fine, I'll stay here, do you know where Lukas is?"

Jack looked at me seriously but said nothing. I grabbed his uniform. "He's down. He's been shot in the back and ain't moving."

"Fucking FUUUUCK, I scremed. Hlf in pain, half in terror that Lukas was down.

The gun fire started to get less intense until finally there was silence.

"All targets eliminated Sir," Ryan Keller shouted. "We have 3 men down. 1 in a bad way. Requesting air support to lift out Sir."

Jack stayed with me and tried to keep me calm. He pulled out a bandage cloth from his uniform and tied it tight around my shin. I cried out in pain.

"Can we get out of here?" I asked. Jack seemed scared and on the edge, but then his expression changed as his training kicked in again. I saw it clearly. He said nothing and left me.

"Air support is ten minutes away. We have three down with GSW" I heard our commander say as he came over to inspect me.

"I'm okay Sir, but I can't get up."

"Stay where you are, soldier. But for you, the war is over. You're going home. Well done."

He went to walk away. "Sir, Lukas Hans, do we know if he's okay?"

"Seb, it's not looking good, he's having CPR now. He is badly injured"

The commander walked away and I saw Tank, his eyes were wet. We caught a glimpse of each other and I saw him shake his head. Then, looking defeated he walked out of the compound. Jack came over and hugged me.

"I know you two were close. But right now we need to get you out of here."

"A few minutes later I could hear the faint sound of rotor blades. We had cleared the building. But at what fucking cost.

I gently weeped in Jack's arms and went limp.

I passed out.

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