King & Webber
‘How’d you sleep?’
‘About the same.’
‘How much is that then’, asked Webber.
‘Three or four,’ said King.
‘That’s what you normally get?’
‘If I’m lucky,’ said King.
‘Is there a reason for that?’
Webber and King were walking towards the one cafe on the main road of Grey’s River, it offered what appeared to be the best chance of a decent breakfast.
‘How long have we got,’ asked Webber.
‘I thought the idea was that we’d have as long as we like. Isn’t that the idea of a road trip? The plan is to have no plan.’
‘I’m on a promise,’ said Webber. ‘I have to buy Gill a holiday when I get home. You don’t have wife and kids to worry about. I kind of need to have some sort of plan, otherwise we’ll end up at the other end of the country and you’ll have to drive back while I catch a plane, to save my own bacon if nothing else.’
‘Where does she want to go?’
‘You remember Gillian don’t you.’
‘Of course, I would’ve gone for her if you hadn’t.’
‘She’s not cheap to run, although what woman is.’
‘Mine was, but that’s because I was always broke or away, usually both.’
‘On a tour you mean?
‘Usually. Hey tell me Joe, you have three kids didn’t you?’
‘Yep,’ said Webber. ‘All boys, except for two.’
King laughed, more to appease Webber’s early morning attempt at humour, at a joke that he’d probably told too many times for even Webber to think might be funny.
‘How old’s the youngest again?
‘Fighting off the boys I’ll bet.’
‘Not yet, she’s a smart girl, keeps ‘em at bay for the most part. As least that’s what it looks like anyway. Gill knows more than I do.’
‘Of course she does, it’s the mother daughter thing isn’t it. Are you going to have to report in each day, or is Gill going to trust you?’
‘She trusts me alright, just wants to know what where I am each day that’s all.’ Webber paused and then added. ‘So what are we going to do each day. I know it goes against the grain of the road trip but we probably should have some sort of rough idea.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said King. ‘Some idea. First idea is breakfast right here.’
The two took a table in the sunshine and enjoyed the first breakfast of the road trip that didn’t entail a highway service station life threatening pastries.
‘Look at the news will you,’ said Webber. ‘The things people are reading, we’re all voyeurs.’
‘Including you,’ said King. ‘I wouldn’t worry about what you read. I’d be worried about what your kids read.
‘Thanks a lot, as if I haven’t got enough already.’
‘Then stop trying to be above it all,’ said King.
‘What are you going to do now that your out of the service,’ said Webber.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you officially employed?’ King shook his head, as if he didn’t want to discuss it further, which he didn’t. ‘So what are you going to do? You have to have something to do.’
‘Someone like you, with the expertise that you have. Surely?’ King looked at Webber with bewilderment, which might have been mistaken for disdain, except that he was beyond it, the amateur analysis that came with being comfortable.
‘Really, what use am I to society, really? Come on Webber, give it your best shot. An ex army commando who can kill people, knows where the bodies are buried. I’m talking about the political bodies. Don’t ask me about the physical bodies. You’re the smart one. You’ve gone for long term stability. Nothing controversial. Wife, kids, house, suburbia, station wagon.’
‘How’s that make me smart, just makes me predicable.’
‘You’re the corporate type, tell me where I’m gonna fit in, eh?’
‘People might want to hear your story,’ said Webber.
‘People might want to hear my story.’ King folded his arms and repeated. Webber knew what he was on about. Sarcasm shouted like a spoilt child. ‘So, what story is that Joe, eh? What story? Who is people eh? Who is people?’ King was now agitated. Or was it regret, Webber couldn’t tell. He wouldn’t even have been able to tell what kind of regret it might be, without asking King, and he wasn’t about to start.
‘Phew, I’d hate to get on the wrong side of you mate. Really.’
‘Don’t stress yourself about it, questions we all ask ourselves when we’re no longer wanted. I’m not political, I wouldn’t be interested in going further in the defence force, it’s war gaming at the highest level. Why would I want that?’
‘I’m thinking of business people.’
‘You know someone who wants a job done?
‘Not that sort of job,’ said Webber. He laughed, to try and diffuse the situation, when King had already done it for him.
‘I’ve been asked if I was interested.’ Webber gazed at him. ‘In a job. On someone.’
‘Geez mate, are you serious?’
‘I’ve even been approached by the police to do a job.’
‘Because you can shoot?’
‘And because I know how not to leave a trail. Should we agree that we’re going to talk about my military career, or not talk about my military career, while we’re on the subject,’ which suggested that at least King was open to the idea that talking about it, that it might be a topic of conversation. ’Whatdya think?’
‘We should talk about it, as long as you’re happy to,’ said Webber. ‘We may as well be prepared to bring things out into the open, it doesn’t have to go any further.’
‘What else then,’ said King. ‘We may as well put everything on the table. You, women, the law, sex, love, politics, everything.’
‘We’ll talk about those things anyway won’t we? I’m saying that if you are going to be reasonably honest with me, with yourself, than at least you have to be able to talk about your line of work, or how you got to here, that sort of stuff. That’s what guys on road trips do isn’t it? Anyway, we want to have a good time don’t we?’
‘I need to have a good time after sitting in a hell hole for three years.’
‘I reckon you’ve got PTSD mate,’ said Webber.
‘There’s no reckon about, I know I’ve got PTSD. As soon as you step on the plane to come home you can book PTSD in.’
‘How do you get rid of it then?’
‘You don’t. You have it for the rest of your life, although coming on a road trip helps me take my mind of it,’ said King.
‘And so you don’t sleep?’
Most of what King could have told Webber about his time in Afghanistan Webber would not have believed had it come from anyone else, a story third hand from some odd acquaintance for instance.
He, Webber, just wanted to have some time out, he didn’t know he was hitting the road with a returned serviceman with PTSD. King, for his part, didn’t think it was such a big deal; he figured any man above the age of thirty who’d had to try and make it in the world would have PTSD. It would, however, be a big deal if Webber kept referring to it. But he hadn’t. He just thought of sitting in a fox hole for three days waiting for insurgents to pass by. He thought about the five year old Afghani girl, killed by stray sniper fire, that she would never grow up to even get the chance to develop PTSD, let alone grow up to married, heart broken, a mother, a teacher, a whatever.
‘Have you kept in touch with any or our old schoolmates,’ asked Webber. ‘Pollo
‘Don’t ‘spose we’ll be going anywhere today then.’
‘We’ll walk into town and get a coffee.’
‘We could drive,’ said Webber.
‘We’re not invalids.’
‘I need to check my share portfolio.’
‘You need to check it or you want to check it.’
‘Okay, I only want to but it’s a hobby.’
‘You need another hobby,’ said King, laughing at Webber as they headed from the trailer King and and Webber had been occupying for the past week.
‘Let’s walk, we’re not invalids yet.’ The two men walked, like it hadn’t been thirty years since they’d seen each other, they were still young, relatively speaking, depending who you might relate it to, wondering whether the road trip was what they were after.
‘May as well get breakfast too. What’ll we talk about?’
Webber checked his port folio as they walked. Just they had found a table, a nondescript cafe on the highway, or was it the main street, of Grey’s River, King asked Webber – ‘where do you suggest we go?’
‘Don’t know, where do you feel like going?’
‘Somewhere with a good pub for a decent feed tonight for a start.’
‘Something to talk about over breakfast,’ said King. ‘We’ve done kids, wives, girlfriends, life moves on. How is your port folio?’
‘The market’s not open yet. It’ll be down today.’
‘So why did you feel the need to check it?’
‘I didn’t and I don’t.’
‘Well, that’s a riveting start to the day isn’t it.’ King and Webber both laughed as they walked towards the cafe.
‘Why don’t you tell me about your work? said Webber. ‘More interesting than working your way up a corporate ladder. Afghanistan, tell me about Afghanistan.’
‘I got commissioned out,’ said King.
‘But you must have stories though. You haven’t signed any confidentiality document or anything have you?’
‘No, I can talk if I want to. It’s more a matter of if you’d believe me. Maybe later.’
‘Try me,’ said Webber, as they settled into their breakfast, Webber checking emails on his iPhone, while King looked at the menu. ‘Alright then, I’ll tell you about some of it.’
King started telling Webber about being down a foxhole in Afghanistan, waiting for help to arrive, hearing noises at midnight, not knowing whether it was friend or foe, wanting to piss, man did he want to piss but if he did they would smell the urine and his position would be given away. He’d be shot in the head but boy did he need to piss, his bladder was about to burst and so he summoned thoughts of an old girlfriend and tried a different tack. He smelled anyway so what would it matter, the noise went away, he started to ache, his stomach cramped to the point of not being able to breath without groaning but just as he was about to groan like a knife had pierced his abdomen he looked out, seeing nothing, and arched his back, as much as the fox hole would permit, and emptied his guts of air and gas and pain, and his bladder emptied like a late night at the hotel urinal of the old town when the music is finished and patrons stagger towards the wall.
Webber sat perfectly still while King talked. He could barely believe what he was hearing, an old school friend who he hadn’t seen for thirty years, a commando in the army, on day one of their road trip, on no sleep, spilling thee beans on Afghanistan.
King went on to describe how sleep was cast aside while he was in that foxhole, sleep didn’t exist, a concept foreign to him, except for a few minutes during a lull, which was the worst time to be asleep because it meant that something was about to happen. And if something was about to happen King needed to know about it, often before the forces that were making what was about to happen happen knew about it. That was his job, it’s why he could shoot a cap off a bottle from one point four kilometres of verifiable distance. Webber sat listening, mouth aghast in wonderment.
Sitting in a fox hole for four days, trapped by insurgents who wanted nothing more to claim him, because of their paranoia, a trophy to present to their commanders, who might anyway have been replaced by the time they returned with him, allowed scant room for ablutions, so another fox hole was created, below it. So to be able to shoot a cap from a bottle from a mile away was just the start of it, talent and hard work merely the entry point to being one of the chosen few. How the nerves hold up is the real issue, how one copes with the sort of deprivation we would scream to the waiter about over a long lunch.
Sitting in that fox hole, staying awake for four days, eating beef jerky and gels that would at once make him buzz and within minutes make him drop off, eating the scorpion that had crawled into his crotch, pissing into the faeces that stank, waiting for things to be made clear to him, and here the irony kicks in, his primary concern was whether his father approved of what he was doing, whether he considered that he had made wise choices.
He asked himself, as he sat in the foxhole, whether his brother really wanted him to do well in life, whether his brother was happy with not being as good as him. For his brother, a devouring passion, if time is given over to finding it, would having fallen short, eat, like a worm, at the heart from the inside. King hated him for it while his brother sat bleary eyed knowing, roughly, that King was somewhere in the world, in a uniform, plying at his failed passion, which became, not that his brother would know it, mere survival, crouching at the mouth of a foreign graveyard praying that his bladder would not explode.
King went on to describe sitting in the foxhole watching, while he waited for his bladder to explode, as three insurgents peered, with their eyes Atlantic wide for opportunities to make names for themselves, into crevices and abandoned fox holes, some occupied by the dead, no good to them, some occupied with vipers nests, he wondered if his father would be approving if this rather undignified standoff between victory and death, the latter of which would be the quicker, less painful option.
Most of the time King told the sanitised version, only because his mates insisted on trumpeting his heroism. Otherwise King kept his own counsel, he didn’t want to talk about it. For him being one of the chosen few, one of those asked to strain every sinew, occupy a forward position, alone for days, sitting in a foxhole, was part of what he had been called to do. Webber was incredulous, not wanting to believe what King, on an Autumn morning that presented itself as perfect, was telling him.
‘When I go back I couldn’t sleep. I’d walk up at midnight, walk around, watch television, go back to bed, get up again. I went to a doctor, before you ask, and he gave me medication for it but it turned me into a zombie. I was useless for the rest of the day. It dulled all my senses.’
‘Didn’t the government pay for anything.’
‘You kidding? I tried acupuncture and it worked for a little while but it was expensive. She said my energy was low. I already knew that. My thyroid was shot, the liver wasn’t responding she said. PTSD the doctor said but the pills fucked me up. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t do this road trip if I was still taking the pills. Come on, now it’s your turn to spill. Tell me about Gill, you’ve been with her for too long.’
‘Twenty five years. Three kids, one grandkid on the way. I had to get a special leave pass to get on this trip. Do you know how many mates of mine are wondering who you are? Why I’d go on a road trip with an old schoolmate who couldn’t even be bothered coming to the school reunion?’
‘I was otherwise engaged.’
‘You always said you were out of town. Were you?’
‘Does it matter? I’d be telling tall stories that no one would believe. Anyway, you’ve done alright. Your kids are grown up, your wife is a cracker.’
‘Ah, she’s got a few cracks around the edges but she’s pretty good. And so, you’re footloose and fancy free. You can’t complain.’
‘Is that what you think?’
‘Well, you know what I mean, every situation has it’s upside.’
‘Divorced. It wasn’t easy being married to a serviceman. My ex-wife would tell you that. Doesn’t matter. Claudia, she was okay but I was an obsessive individual. What can I say?’
‘I still envy you,’ said Webber.
‘No, no, no, you don’t,’ said King. ‘You don’t want to have to see a dead five year child that you’re partly responsible for. You don’t want to know. You just don’t want to know. The thing is a mess. It’s not something anyone can understand. Anyway, we have to find a good pub and have a few beers and listen to some good music.’