A Private Affair – Extract
The thick curtain of trees suddenly ended; as they pushed and hacked their way through the last wall of green, the ground fell away before them and there was a sudden opening out of thick, long-stemmed grass and, in the distance, the glint of silver that marked an expanse of water, pushing the horizon even further away. Sweat was running off his face and body in streams. The soft, shape-shifting buzz of flying insects that had accompanied them everywhere for the past ten days abated abruptly, carried away by the breeze that the end of the forest had brought about.
‘Fuckin’ ’ell.’ One of the lads behind him spoke, echoing the sentiments of most of the platoon.
Ralph grinned to himself. He took off his glasses and the shimmering, wavering world receded even further in front of him. They were on the edge of a ridge, high in the central plateau of the country. The names on the map he consulted from time to time were quaint – Crossing Landing Bank; Dry Creek Bank; Cotton Tree, Roaring Creek . . . there was even a little village named Meditation. But there’d been nothing quaint about the fortnight he’d just spent with his first platoon of twenty four squaddies. In his new post as the CO of Panther Cub, the British army’s jungle-training programme, it was his job to take the men of his regiment out into the dense, almost impenetrable rainforest surrounding the capital. After his own, week-long induction, he’d spent ten days on base preparing for the expedition and then they were ready. They’d flown in one of the new Gazelle helicopters along the Macal River, glinting steel as it snaked through the dense, dark-green carpet of trees. They’d landed at the Guacamalo Bridge after one of the most turbulent flights he’d ever taken. Several of the lads were already green around the gills by the time they had their faces streaked with camouflage paint.
Now, after nearly a week in the semi-darkness of the jungle, to be standing on a ridge overlooking a grassy steppe was to feel relief permeate their bodies as well as their minds, to take in the sense of space and light and freedom as a physical release. As they emerged out of the jungle one after the other, the men fell silent. In another month or so, they would be shipped out to the Balkans for an operational tour that would last four to six months, depending. Their ability to survive it depended on their ability to survive what he had just put them through, and would continue to for the next few weeks. They were a good bunch; morale was high and the way they looked out for and after one another was exemplary. He couldn’t have asked for a better platoon on his first trip out. God knew they would need each other in the coming months. He knew from his own tour in Bosnia a couple of years earlier that it would be tough. Their rules of engagement for the theatre they were about to enter were murky. What worked on the streets of Belfast wouldn’t necessarily work in Pristina, yet the army was a slow, ponderous machine and it took time for changes to work their way up the operational chain, and then back down again. He was proud of the company and knew from the way they addressed and listened to him that he’d already won their respect. He’d learned from his father that a strict hierarchy lends itself to a better command situation. He never addressed his men by their first names and they were only ever to address him as ‘sir’. Respect was more valuable than popularity. He knew from experience that nothing could bring down the morale of a unit faster than a commanding officer who didn’t declare where he stood. His men knew exactly where he stood and that in itself was half the battle won.
‘Right, lads,’ he turned around. Twenty-four blacked-up faces looked expectantly at him. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon; in just under an hour, the sun would begin its rapid descent towards the horizon and the blanket of darkness would fall. He grinned. ‘Tea time.’