On Watch

February 6, 2012
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The blazing sun beat relentlessly down from the cloudless sky. Harry squinted, trying desperately to see against the glare. He was soaked with sweat and his heavy khakis were sticking to him. He had been on watch for over four hours and still had more than two to go. The platoon had drawn straws this morning for this shift, and Harry had been unlucky. The short straw meant he started at ten and ended at four: the mid day shift captured the scorching heat of the day (when only mad dogs, English tourists and soldiers were outside) and the guard was always left feeling exhausted and drained afterwards.
He scanned the landscape for the thousandth time that day. Having someone constantly on watch was a good idea in theory, but in practice it made very little difference. The enemy were masters of disguise, and could slink through the long grass as quickly as a serpent. Several years ago, a soldier on guard had been captured and taken to one of the enemy’s strongholds. Every bit of information he possessed was tortured out of him, and finally he had been decapitated and brought back to be scattered in front of this very base. Harry was still a newcomer to this war then. He still shuddered at the memory.
It shouldn’t have been like this. From when he was little, Harry had always wanted to be a soldier and a hero (the two things were interchangeable back then). He had joined the army when he was only sixteen, with only a few awful GCSEs to his name. It had been five years now, and every birthday he steeled himself to leave, but never could. What would he do afterwards?
It wasn’t as if he had nothing but the army in his life. He had married two years ago, to his high school sweetheart. He had to apply for special permission, and their honeymoon had lasted three days. Jenny had wanted to go to Italy, but Edinburgh had had to do – soldiers do not get paid much. She was pregnant now – with a girl, she thought, due in two months and to be called Annabelle. Jenny kept begging him to leave the army. “You could become a PE teacher,” she said. “You love sport, and you’re great with kids.” Harry was thinking about it. After all, fifteen more years in the army and he would have to leave anyway – if he had not been seriously injured by then, which in his view was unlikely. Harry scanned the landscape for the thousandth time that day. He was flagging. It was so hot here, and his uniform was so thick and heavy. As always, the fields of long grass before him lay still. There was no movement.
“Harry!” His friend James was suddenly standing beside him. “Harry, we just got the news. The enemy are approaching, not even a mile off.”
“What?” Harry stared at James. “They’re coming? Shouldn’t we be able to see them by now?”
“You know what they’re like. You won’t be able to see them till they are here.”
The words were eerily ominous; like something from a horror film.
“Well, good luck then Harry.” James slapped him on the shoulder, and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Harry stopped him. “You’re not going to help? You’re leaving me to fight them alone?”
James smiled, almost in a sinister way. “I think you can handle it.” And with that, he was gone.
A few seconds later, taken unaware, Harry’s hands were pinned behind his back and he was forced to the ground. A soldier in a brown uniform pushed a machine gun menacingly into his stomach and held it there. Harry choked, barely able to breathe. This was it then – the culmination of all his fears – and he was alone.
Remembering what he had been taught, and with the supreme effort of a dying man, Harry kicked out at the man’s feet, knocking him to the side so that he could roll away. Too out of breath to get to his feet, he remained on his knees and drew his gun. He shot desperately, aiming the gun wildly. Most of the enemy were heading inside the base, which was easy for them without a guard. A few stayed outside, clearly intending to kill him. They laughed as they shot at him, and Harry kept crawling to the side. If they wanted him to die, they could do it now: but they didn’t. They wanted to play with him first, to watch him suffer and fear. Angered by this cruel intention, Harry staggered to his feet. He was taller than most of the men, but far weaker at this moment, and he was running out of bullets. He had a knife, but it would be no use against the guns these men all carried.
One of the men laughed and said something in a foreign language. Then he went straight for Harry’s legs, rugby-tackling him down onto his back. They kicked him a few times, laughing when he choked and spat blood. Another man leaned over him; his face was like death, the black eyes seeming to fill the whole world. Whimpering like a child, Harry cowered back into the dust, all pretence of bravery forgotten. The man’s hands reached out for his neck. Harry closed his eyes and waited for death...

Harry wakes up, trembling and shaking all over. He is on the floor, his cheek pressed to the carpet. For a moment he cannot breathe, everything swept away by fear. Then he remembers that this is the carpet he bought in a department store with his wife and two children, and that they laid it on the floor of a three-bedroom house in an English suburb. He remembers he is a forty five-year old man with wrinkles and a beer belly who enjoys golf and Sherlock Holmes. He remembers that his fighting days are over.
Slowly and quietly, he pulls himself off the floor and slides back in to bed. The movement wakes his wife up.
“Harry?” She pulls herself up on her elbow and looks at him with sleepy concern in her eyes. “Did you have a nightmare again?”

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