The hot, heavy globules of sweat racing each other down my neck. The thick clumps of dirt stubborn under my fingernails. Burning behind my eyes, my brain like cotton wool, your fast empty words. Stop talking.
With all the ambition of a crumbling pensioner, I dig my empty rifle into Tom’s back and I feel my insufficient secondary school education trailing clumsily out of my mouth in sharp wretching coughs. Everything I’ve learned was sliding around at the top of my throat and now it plays around in the grimy, jaded clumps of jet black air. “TOM! GO!” his stumbling gallop, the crummy soles of his lace up boots, darting dancing flying mud, my spattered chest.
Unclean. Contaminated. Dirty.
I remember my desolate kitchen worktops and Andrea’s compulsive desire to keep them immaculate. Straight wide bricks marching down the sides of our run-of-the-mill orange rooftop, dispirited grey weeds lapping at the edges of our hanging baskets. Bye bye, suburbia.
I hunch breathless, my helmet obscuring my vision as heavy beads of sweat roll down the side of my face. Grubby fingers. Andrea would have a fit, her straight blonde bob always curled under her pointed chin perfectly. I can feel the cakes of mud breaking apart when I grasp my rifle, and I think of the scratched plastic paintball gun at home with innocent spheres of paint ready to be fired into a small child’s back. My small child. Her shimmering purity.
The bedsheets at base camp are crisp and cold like layers of brittle snow. They have no smell. Andrea constantly insisted on pungent liquid soap the colour of the bile I choke on due to the fumes here. It used to crawl rudely up my nose and bite the insides of my nostrils, distracting me from sleep.
Here, I sleep alone, with room to kick and snore and moan and sigh. I am permitted to leave on my warm thick socks which Andrea used to complain about. Contrary to my wife’s habit of talking in her sleep, the only inane jabbering I hear now are the voices ringing in my ears.
Here, I can shovel my food into my greedy mouth and guzzle and belch. The other men cheer and laugh, beefy hands patting me on the back in congratulations, greasy smirks, enervated discoloured teeth. But Andrea would sigh and roll her perfect round eyes at me in anger. Better out than in.
Now I’m out.
Here, that hideous yellow sweater she got me is distant and out of my way. Hauling on the same khaki overalls with dull acceptance day in, day out, rids me of that burden. The burden of cashmere and cordurouy and grazed dark leather. I have a uniform now. I have an escape from the mundanity of fashion.
…Although everybody back at home has a uniform too, it just doesn’t uphold the same meaning as my ugly one piece. They just differ slightly in cut and colour but never in meaning or purpose.
Screaming, shouting. My ears hot and uncomfortable under my helmet. A sauna in my skull. My companion’s rasping breath tumbling out of dirty cracked lips, nudging the side of my face, I remember my little Alice’s perfect pink mouth, her undistorted pale white teeth. The way she laughed when—
And I have to. I steady my unruly trembling fingers and press down on the trigger of my gun.
A man dead. My job done. The guilt heavy like a sack of bricks. His forgotten blood trickling predictably down his muddy vest. Following the map, trailing clumsily over his protruding muscles and crawling onto the ground in puddles.
We may have had everything in common. He could have been interested in tennis and Samuel Beckett and american mustard and Led Zeppelin. He might have liked the same films as me, drank the same beer, cried at Titanic. He too might have taken on the same pretentious arrogance as me about politics, delivering his wisdom with flailing hands, the same hands that are now curled in despondent grimy fists by his sides.
I step back from my finished work, the thick watery mud playing in the gaps in my soles. The rifle suddenly feels heavier than it ever did as it weighs down my weak inexperienced arm, I’m not cut out for this. Serving my country. Noble fighting. Saving the world.
So why don’t I feel like a hero?