Danny came back from Afghan with little black hollows in his eyes, and a dead man’s pallor. He didn’t talk much about it, and said he didn’t want to.
That I understood. My granddads were soldiers, both of them in the War – the big, capital W war that didn’t end all others after all – and I knew from my parents that they had never spoken about what they saw, in Italy and in North Africa. That was a generational thing, perhaps, but my dad didn’t speak much about the Falklands either, certainly not in detail, and certainly not to me.
So I had an idea from the start that Danny wouldn’t want to talk, and I didn’t mind when that idea turned out to be right. He was grateful to be home, and I was grateful to have him. He told me that he loved me, and that he wasn’t going back. I didn’t need him to say anything more than that.
We muddled along. We had some friends round, and opened some bottles and put some music on, and it was nice. Danny smiled and shook hands and chatted to people, and if his conversation tended to nervously peter out after a while, that was something we could all excuse. But after a while he got quiet and stopped looking at people who spoke to him. A slow unease spread across the room when he got like that, gossamer-thin and unacknowledged.
No one said anything but Mike. Mike was an old friend of Danny’s.
“I don’t think he’s well,” Mike said to me, as he was leaving. “He looks bad. Like, really bad.”
He was right. Danny had tanned as you’d expect, but there was a funny pale quality to his face that I couldn’t explain, and which had never gone away. “I’m just tired,” he had said when I first pointed it out.
“You’ve looked like that for weeks,” I said.
“I’ve been tired for weeks,” he said. Which was maybe true. He would wake up and lie quiet most nights. Sometimes he woke up and screamed. One time he hit me before he woke up, and after that he spent a week in self-imposed exile on the sofa before I could convince him that I didn’t blame him for my black eye, and took him back into my bed. At work I said I’d walked into a door, and worried that someone would notice the cliché.
After that, I began to wish that he would talk about it. It’s not that I wanted him to break down and cry on my shoulder. I didn’t. I don’t like sentiment, and I don’t like soap operas. In times of touchy-feely crisis, I quietly mourn the stiff upper lip. But Danny’s silence had stopped being natural. It didn’t feel like he was trying to be strong, anymore. It felt like he was behind enemy lines, and terrified that he would give himself away when he opened his mouth.
I didn’t raise it until after Jon died. Jon had been in Danny’s unit, and though I hadn’t known him well before I got the sense that they’d been close. He was in fatigues when he rang the doorbell, on his way to the barracks. He said he was flying back out in a week.
“Danny’s not here,” I told him. Danny was visiting his parents and sister that day. I offered Jon a cup of tea anyway.
“How’s he been?” Jon asked. I shrugged and told him as best as I could.
“We saw some fucked up stuff,” Jon said. “Him especially.”
“What kind of stuff?” I asked. Dead people, I guessed – mutilated women and bombed wedding parties, headless corpses, autistic children strapped with explosives and sent into market places. All the horror stories you heard.
“I shouldn’t talk about it,” Jon said. You could tell he was not quite at home with himself either, though not to the same degree. “Did he say anything about Boyle, though?”
“I heard.” Boyle had been Danny’s sergeant. He’d had some kind of breakdown. Now he was dosed out of his head in a psychiatric ward somewhere.
“He took it the worst,” said Jon, as if that wasn’t obvious. Then he shrugged and finished his tea. “I should go.”
“You can stay if you want,” I said. He smiled, looking a little sad.
“I’d love to. But I can’t, really. Tell Danny-boy I called.”
“I will,” I said, and I did.
“Jon’s going back?” he asked that evening.
“Yeah. That’s what it looks like.”
“Good luck to him,” Danny said.
Two days later the radio had a report about a soldier shooting himself in a barracks. There was confusion over whether it was an accident or suicide. Two days later, the Ministry of Defence named Jon. The statement stressed that investigations were ongoing, but Jon hadn’t left a note and he didn’t have a family, and the suggestion was that he had been careless with a loaded rifle.
Danny quietly left the room when the news came on, and I found him in our bedroom watching the little TV I kept upstairs. It was a re-run of a bad American sit-com, the kind of thing he once wouldn’t have been caught dead in front of.
“Are you all right?” I asked him. He shrugged.
“Come on,” I said. “Talk to me. He was your friend.”
“Yeah. I guess he was.”
“You guess?” I said.
You couldn’t talk to him when he was like that. I sat on the bed beside him, put my arm around him, and we watched crap comedy for twenty minutes without laughing. When the episode finished another one started. By now it was getting dark and the light from the TV was stronger than that from the window.
“There was an American with us,” Danny said, and he put a hand to his chin and rubbed it. “He knew what was going on.”
I didn’t say anything. I was afraid he’d shut up if I reminded him I was listening.
“We called him Hank,” he said. “Hank the yank. That was Jon’s joke, because he wouldn’t tell us his first name. He was some kind of Special Forces, I guess. He spoke Pashto, anyway.
“He was with us because there was a manhunt. An insurgent commander called Alhazred was supposed to be in our sector. Lots of guys like Hank got assigned to our units. They were called liaison officers. That was bullshit. They were there to give us orders.”
“Is that allowed?” I asked, after he’d been quiet a long time. Danny shrugged.
“Probably not.” He looked at me then, for what seemed like the first time in ages. “Do you want to hear all this?”
“Yes.” I found his hand and squeezed it. “Yes, I want to hear.”
“Okay,” he said. So I listened as Danny talked in a low monotone over a soundtrack of bad one-liners, and the room got dark as Danny told his story.
“We were going out a lot, then. Showing our faces around the local villages. Hearts and minds. The Americans had a joke about how that meant two to the chest and one to the head. Not Hank. He didn’t make jokes.
“So anyway. That’s Hank, and that’s what we were doing. And what happened was that as we were leaving one of those villages, this guy comes up to us – a young guy, a farmer, I guess. He goes to Sergeant Boyle and they speak – Boyle knew a little Pashto, enough to get by. This farmer tells him that the guy we want is in a compound in the hills north of the village. And then he says he can’t be seen with us and buggers off. Not a word about reward money or any of that.
“I thought he was probably trying to settle a grudge, when Boyle told me. Real informants want paying for it, and we get phony tips all the time. But Hank seemed to take it seriously. He wanted to go take a look at this compound.
“Now, there’s a procedure for this kind of thing. If you get tipped off, you report it, and the officers think about it, and if they decide to go in you do it with helicopters and armour and lots of people, so you can swat anyone who resists. Boyle told Hank this. Hank didn’t say anything. A little further up the road, I saw him on his radio, and a couple of minutes later we got a transmission of our own. The order was to check the compound.”
There was a raucous burst of canned laughter from the TV. Danny jumped and stared at it.
“I’ll turn it off,” I said, and leaned across to press the button. He jerked me back by my hand.
“Leave it,” he said. “Leave it. These compounds are big. Like mazes – you have courtyards and outbuildings and passages and storerooms, all jumbled together around the house, and then there’s a wall around the whole thing – sometimes more walls inside. Fucking nightmare to explore.”
Danny was holding my hand very tight and looking at the TV screen. The blonde lead actress was flinging her arms around like a puppet.
“So we’re looking at this one from a couple hundred feet off. The wall’s just taller than I am. Same colour as sand. A couple of birds on top, and lots of open ground between it and us – none of us were happy about just walking over, even if this was a wild goose chase. Hank told us to wait. It was pretty clear that he was in charge now. So we waited. Not a sign of life from the compound. And then after twenty minutes, we heard this buzzing. It came in high, and began to circle. Sounded like a mosquito, but it looked like a big bird.
“’First sign of trouble,’ Hank says. I was wondering what I was into by then. You can’t just make a call and have a fucking drone in position twenty minutes later, not in the normal world.
“It was still quiet when we got to the outer wall. And round the corner from us we found a hole in it, blown from inside. Looked as if someone had chucked a grenade. We went through it. It was a storeroom of some kind, dark, with doors out into the courtyard. There were shrapnel fragments where the grenade had gone off, but no sign of blood or bodies.”
“What did you do then?” I asked him.
“We had to sweep the place,” Danny said. “It was empty – like, really empty, like no one had lived there for years. All this brown stone, a couple of dead trees in the yards. Deserted. Smelt of dust, and old stone, and heat. And the whole time there’s this buzzing overhead, and I’m thinking to myself that someone’s been throwing grenades around – why the hell have they been doing that?”
“What?” I said, as gently as I could.
“Nothing. We were nervous, anyway – hot and sweating and out of our comfort zone. It was the birds that really spooked me. They were big bastards, some kind of vulture, and they were eyeballing us like we were lunch. Even Hank seemed uneasy. Then halfway across the second courtyard he asked if I could hear it.
“I couldn’t hear anything except that drone up above – at least, I didn’t think I could. Then I realised that there was something closer, this chuntering sound, like a dying engine – rattle and gasp, rattle and gasp. It was clear as soon as I’d noticed it, but damned if I’d heard it before. We reckoned it was coming from the storeroom across from us. It got louder as we hustled up. I realised it was a voice – a fucking weird one, but a voice.
“We weren’t in a mood to piss about. Jon shot the hinges off, and I kicked the door in. Me and Boyle muscle through, and there’s this little old guy in the corner, wrapped in his robes, scarf over his face, gibbering away to himself. Didn’t sound like Pashto to me, not like Arabic or any language I’d heard. All ‘kuh-kuh-thuh-thuh’ noises.
“It was dark in there – empty, stone room, dusty, no light except from the door. You couldn’t see very clear. Boyle yelled at the man to show his hands, but he just kept muttering. Then Hank shouts something in his lingo – he looked up then. There was a grenade in his hand.”
He looked at me then. It was the first time that evening. I could see his eyes were red and tired.
“What would you do?” he asked.
“I guess I’d shoot him,” I said. “If he had a bomb. That’s what you had to do, right?”
“Right,” said Danny, and he turned his gaze back to the TV. “Except it wasn’t me, it was Boyle – one shot, in the face, smacked him right down. And we all dived out when the grenade rolled away, but he hadn’t primed it. So Jon goes over to the body, and then he starts shouting – says ‘Fuck it, Sarge, you’ve shot a kid.’”
“Yeah. But thing is, this kid’s hair was grey – like almost white. He’d had a scarf over his face and his hair was white. I thought it was a little old man ‘til I saw the face. Top part was a mess, but you could tell from the mouth and nose. No hair. A kid’s face.”
“Is that what it was?” I asked, and pulled him against me. “You saw a kid get shot? Danny, I’m so sorry -”
“We found his mates,” Danny said, as if I’d said nothing, although he was muffled in my arms now. I felt suddenly stupid. I let go of him and sat back. “We found them in the cellar of the house. They were stockpiling stuff down there, looks like. Lots of ammo crates, tinned food. Shit like that.”
“Was there a fight?” He’d paused, and I felt he expected me to fill the gap.
“Didn’t need to be. They were dead. There were three of them – each one had an AK in his mouth and his brains over the wall. No sign of this Alhazred guy.”
“Shit,” I said. I could tell there was going to be more, and so I waited. It was properly dark now, at that odd point when there was still just enough light coming through the window to make the glow of the screen seem unhealthy.
“The cellar floor was all stone slabs,” said Danny, eventually. “They’d prised one of them up – the biggest. There were stairs underneath, just leading down. Old stairs, really old, worn away, and you could tell there was no room to swing a rifle. Boyle just wanted to shout a warning and chuck a grenade. He was shaken up after shooting that kid. You could tell he wanted to get out and away. Hank insisted, though. So three of us volunteered to go with him and Boyle – me and Jon and Darren.”
“Why did you volunteer?” I asked.
“Did you know Darren?” he said. “Decent bloke. Bit of a loudmouth, but a decent guy.”
“Why did you volunteer?” I said, louder this time. I was almost angry at him. He’d seen something down there, I was sure, and he’d come home like this because of it – because he had to be the first to stick his nose into whatever they’d found.
“For fuck’s sake! Am I telling you this, or aren’t I?”
He hadn’t even come close to losing his temper since he’d come back. It was a little flash of the old Danny.
“Yes,” I told him. “Come on. Tell me.”
“We went down with our Brownings and our torches. Real cramped. Seemed to go down a long way – I was up front, so I wasn’t counting steps, but it felt long. Hank was just behind me. I could hear him breathing the whole time. It spooked me.
“We got down, and found they’d rigged lamps and batteries at the bottom. I turned one on. It was a cave we were in – a proper cave, rocks and stalactites and everything. But you could tell it had been widened, that there had been things carved into the walls. Statues and pillars and all sorts of weird shit. Big carved slabs on the walls – bas reliefs, is that what they’re called? Tons of these things, anyway, and all ancient. It was like a museum.
“The Taliban boys had smashed it all up. One of the big ones they’d emptied a machine gun into. That one was at the far end. It was just a tall hunk of rock, chunks blown out of it, but you could tell it had shown something with an open mouth. We found the owner of the compound stuffed into it – that’s who we reckon it was, anyway. They’d roughed him up and shot him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said. “Did they think it was idol-worship?”
“I don’t know,” Danny said. “I could only see fragments, but –” He shuddered. “I think I’d have smashed the fucking things myself, if I’d had to live near them. I think they showed things like people.”
“Not really like people.”
“I don’t understand,” I told him. He was zoning out again, staring at the TV and lost in a memory of fragments not really like people. “Danny, come on.”
“There was a big chunk of stone with a book on it,” he said. “It was open. I went to take a look at it. The pages were made of some kind of metal, beaten really thin, and there was new leather binding around them, as though it had been re-done – maybe lots of times. I don’t know. There was writing cut into the metal – like Egyptian writing.”
“Hieroglyphs,” I said.
“Yeah. But fucked up. Not like you see in museums. And beside it there was a pad of paper, and a ballpoint. Someone had been writing. So I called Boyle. He took a look at it. They’ve been translating, he said. Then he read something from the pad out loud.”
“What did it say?” I asked.
“Don’t speak Pashto, do I? Whatever it was, suddenly Hank’s there, yelling, saying don’t read another fucking word. Boyle still had his Browning in his hand. Shook up like he was, I reckon he was about to smack Hank in the face with it. Except right then Darren screams. Actually screams, mind you. Screams like a little kid.”
Quite suddenly, he put his head in his hands and groaned, as though something was bubbling out of him.
“Jesus,” I said. “Danny –”
“I shouldn’t fucking tell you this,” he said, almost between his teeth. “It was opening. That’s what it was doing. Darren had been standing right by it.”
“What was opening?”
“The mouth,” Danny said. “The mouth was opening.”
He was shaking. I put my arms round him and squeezed hard as I could. “You don’t need to say, Danny,” I told him. “You don’t need to –”
“The body in it had gone,” he said. “It was opening. I thought it was on a hinge for a second, but the way the stone was moving –”
“It wasn’t a fucking statue!” He was almost screaming himself. “When have you seen a statue do that?” He gasped, jerked up, threw me off. I think I was crying by then. I can’t remember too well.
“They told Darren’s missus that he was killed by accident,” he said. “But I saw him go in. I was just fucking stunned, but Boyle, he went across the room like a shot, would have gone after him. Hank caught him by the belt. I ran to help. Boyle had got right up next to the mouth. He’d looked right in. He started yelling – ‘Did you see that, did you fucking see that? Jesus-God-Jesus, did you see that?’ That was when he lost it.”
“That’s how he went mad?”
“He’s not mad. He just saw some things.”
“Did you see those things?” I asked. He nodded very slowly.
“They started to come out of the mouth,” he said.
I sat quiet, still holding him. I could feel the tears on my face. He’d lost his mind, I realised. I loved him, but he’d snapped and broken inside.
“What happened then?” I asked. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Hank said to get out,” he said. “I realised what he was going to do – realised that he knew about this, that this was why he was with us, that this was what Alhazred or whatever the fuck his name was had been up to. So I took Boyle’s mic off him and yelled into it: ‘Clear out for the love of God, get out of the compound, they’re going to blow it!’ Jon heard me and stared, and then he twigged and he turned to Hank and said, ‘You fucking bastard, we’re down here too!’ And then I grabbed him and ran for the stairs. Boyle had already legged it. I shoved Jon up after him and he ran too.
“Hank started shooting. When I looked back, the things from the mouth were right up close to him and he was staring around, his eyes like big round watery balls. He knew better than any of us what he was looking at. He could have made it if he’d run when we did, but I think he was scared that they’d follow too quickly. So he stayed. I saw him put the gun under his chin when they got close, but I didn’t see any more because I was pulling myself up those stairs as fast as I could go. The lights underneath went out. I kept going – don’t know how I didn’t break my neck, but I got back into the cellar. Boyle was in the corner. He was gasping and crying next to the bodies of the men. Jon was with him. Looked like shit. I told him to help me, and we shoved the stone slab back over the opening. That’s the last thing before –”
“Before the drone hit the compound,” he said. “Two missiles. Somehow the cellar stayed intact. They had to shift a lot of stone, but they dug us out. The house had come down on top of us, the whole compound wrecked. Fucking lucky that the guys on top got out when I told them. But they got us out, and we all made it. ‘Friendly fire’, that was the story that got put out – an accident. That was how they said Darren died. They never mentioned Hank.”
“But I didn’t hear about that,” I said. “They’d have said – it would have been on the news.” God knows, I’d have heard if someone from Danny’s regiment had been killed by an American drone. It would have fuelled a week’s worth of controversy.
Danny shook his head.
“They covered it up,” he said. “Never made the papers. We were all briefed – all of us except Boyle. He was past it. They flew him home to the psychiatric unit. But we were told that it had been necessary. Chemical weapons, or something. I’m breaking the Official Secrets Act telling you this shit.”
“I know,” I said. I kissed the top of his head. “I love you.” I didn’t believe a word of it. This was something he’d crafted, something he’d cooked up lying buried in rubble – if that had ever happened, and I had my doubts that it could have been hushed up.
“One of the birds flew down,” he said. “The big ones I’d seen before. It was calling when they put me in the medical truck – ‘kuh-thuh-kuh-thuh’. A noise like that. Didn’t sound like a bird, no more than it sounded like a kid. I dream about that noise.”
He was breaking up.
“Shush,” I said. “You’re safe. It’s over.”
“We all survived. The cellar didn’t collapse.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You all made it.”
“You don’t get it. They didn’t even bury the cellar properly. It’s still there. And what’s underneath it is –” He looked at me again, suddenly quite calm. “Why do you think Jon did that? He couldn’t stand going back. Not with that place so near.”
“Shush,” I said. I pulled his head to my shoulder and kissed him and held him tight. The TV was still on. It still wasn’t showing anything funny.
I made a couple of discreet inquiries about psychiatrists. I read up about combat stress, fantasies, hallucinations. I didn’t mention any of it to Danny. He was no better. Still looking over his shoulder at every shadow. I think he knew that I didn’t believe him, and I think if anything that made him worse.
About a week later, when I’d finished work for the day and was walking from the bus-stop, something happened. I was running a little late. There was a bird on the wall outside our house, a big black creature – huge, in fact, some kind of buzzard or kite. I’d never seen that kind of bird in a city. I looked at it, and after a moment it looked at me, and I felt very cold when it did so. When I moved again, it took off and flapped away. I watched it until it was a small black speck far off in the sky, and as it disappeared I felt cold, and very small.
I didn’t say anything to Danny. I didn’t think it would help.
Harry Baker grew up across various bits of England, and is currently studying for an M.A. at the London Film School. He is a recent graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was a recipient of the Ivy Compton-Burnett prize for creative writing, and his short story ‘Fat Betty’ has just appeared in the January 2014 issue of Shock Totem magazine.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.