rosetteCongratulations to the winner of the short story competion, 2016

James Purchase

The Bag Lady

When we arrived in the main street we spotted the bag lady's bicycle leaning against a low wall. We knew that’s where the school would be. We knew there was trouble but she was nowhere to be seen. I marvelled, not for the first time, at the great distance this sad old lady seemed to be able to travel. She never rode it, she pushed it everywhere. It was a man’s bike with bags balanced over the cross bar I doubt she could even ride it but she always seemed to be there. As if she was patrolling her patch. It was early in the morning and the little town hadn’t fully woken up yet. Most of its inhabitants were contentedly unaware of the horror about to greet them after their meagre breakfast.

The sarge barked "Kit up !" We grabbed our individual equipment and then "Right brace yourselves, lads. Imagine in your heads what you're going to see…… then multiply it by 100. I don't want anyone spewing up, or ending up on a Help for Heroes program. It's not going to be pretty….it's another beheading "

“Hence the bag lady” I muttered to nobody, below the drumming of the troop carrier’s engine. We called her the bag lady to hide and trivialize her real role. She carried body bags and was paid to retrieve body parts from bomb explosions, stray missiles, rocket attacks etc etc etc. Just civilians. We looked after our own, but it was obviously women’s work to collect Afghan’s fragmented dead.

I was the first out of the back of the Vector. Even with my shades, the bleaching sunlight squinted my eyes. I immediately took my position for covering fire to protect the emerging seven others in our squad. There were surprisingly few out on the streets. But they would come as soon as they knew there wasn't going to be a firefight. "Clear" I bellowed and move on to point.

It's unlikely any middle-aged person hasn't heard the death cry. That primeval wail uttered at the death of a loved one, the eerie lament of the banshee. I heard it that morning I was just 20 and I’ve heard it every day since. As I peered over the low wall I saw and heard the school teacher, Johnny Kalif, trying to hold the head of a young child onto its body. Insanely trying to repair the damage that had been wrought by his God-fearing fellow countrymen.
The bag lady rocked backwards and forwards on her knees by his side crying and praying. She was giving him space to grieve and, with a wave of her out stretched arm, kept the police at bay before they had to wrench Johnny away from his son. His ‘pop up’ school if you like was on our patch. I’d met him a few days earlier on a ‘show of strength’ visit in support of his efforts. We were all highly trained. It’s remarkable what ‘never look twice’ things the mind can blank out in necessity. We continued to secure the area. We'd seen many videos and photos of the horrors of wars, but multiplying by 100 times wasn't enough. Not when it's you in the moment and it's your eyes the distraught are looking into.

I was on auto-pilot. On ‘look out’ but not seeing anything other than the blood-drenched Pieta behind the school wall. We held our position in silent anticipation for about twenty minutes while the police and the bag lady did their bit. Then the sarge’s shout startled us with an "All clear.”

By then, people had gingerly started to enter the sunlit street. Our Vector started up with a woof of smoke and a heat shimmer from its engine compartment. The day was about to start again for the silent patient line of ramshackle lorries, by reopening the road. The sarge quickly then frantically waved it shut down again. He'd spotted something. I tensed lifting my rifle to firing position. Then I too saw them. The Taliban. Several of them sitting outside the front of the café, right across the street from the school, as if waiting for it to open. About six of them in all seated at the brightly coloured tables except for one, the leader, who stood leaning with a hand raised above his head against its veranda pillar.

We recognized them immediately. Though in civvies they stood out, as much as we did in this area of Afghanistan, from the rest of the population. They just wanted to let everyone know they had committed this crime in the name of Muhammad -peace be upon him. Not them personally but them all the same. They were about to humiliate us yet again by showing the locals we were a pointless and impotent force. They knew our rules of engagement. So long as they didn't have weapons and weren’t actually firing at us we couldn't do anything. Our trigger fingers were tightly bound by the rules.

It was right to have rules it just didn’t feel like it. It was a police matter and the police were terrified of them and with good reason. The Taliban weren't as cocky or as brazen with the Yanks. They knew they weren't as disciplined as the Brits. A never to be reported or admitted shot would often go off when they patrolled. But we were The British Army and Britannia rules the waves by never waiving the rules. They weren't gloating as such, just staring at us, the enemy in their land, incapable of protecting the people from them.

Then the sarge walked slowly to the centre of the softening Tarmac street and broke the rules. He raised his weapon. The Taliban shifted alarmed but the sarge raised his hand as if to reassure and bizarrely smiled. Deliberately slowly he lay down his rifle, his side arm, helmet, body armour and finally, thereby explaining what he was doing, his sunglasses. He stepped over the pile.

He was calling them out. He was unarmed unprotected unafraid. This was caveman, school yard, football terraces, and closing time at the pub stuff. He called them, any or all to a man to man fight. Even the hot dusty breeze was stilled. The gathering crowd stopped breathing. The hard men sitting on the iron chairs in the morning sun began to giggle, wriggle and then squirm. One to one or six to one they knew the sarge wasn't budging.

The day was heating up quickly but my sweat was caused by the uncertainty. This was a scenario I hadn’t been trained for. Normally I knew what my job was and everyone’s in my squad. This was abseiling with bailer twine. Without the rules we were no longer a highly efficient fighting force we were ten green bottles standing on a wall.

My eyes were everywhere, scanning the roof line, the Taliban, and our sergeant. He was standing legs apart in just a standard issue kaki tee-shirt. He was in an eye to eye tussle with their leader, who had gone pale. There were no giggles now. He too was unsure what was next, flight or fight? The sarge then gave his final confirming message. With his arms by his side and his palms facing their leader he gently beckoned them to “c’mon” in the universal language of the alpha male. Something zipped onto my visual radar. I flicked my head up to see a fist-sized rock shoot past the sarge's ear and clatter to a halt on the café’s marbled veranda floor.

I was on point, trained to always look to the front. I knew at least two lads would be on back-up. I thought we were in for a biblical stoning but, as I glanced over my shoulder, I saw the bag lady had already reloaded her right arm with another rock and launched it at the Taliban. It wincingly hit the back of the hand of the leader, as he tried to protect his pure white turban. Made all the more painful for being thrown by a woman, I thought. Another then another and another dozen rocks pebble dashed the pale blue sky. The crowd, mercifully and bravely, had sided with us.

With a tumbling and clanging of chairs the Taliban reps scurried down the adjacent rat hole where they'd furtively come from. High Noon on Main Street was now over. The road was opened and time restarted.

Back in the Vector the sarge simply said “Sorry Lads I lost it … won’t happen again …..or be mentioned again…” and it wasn’t.

I obviously think of that day everyday, but as yet I haven't needed to contact Help for Heroes. There was only one hero there, it wasn't me, or the sarge or even the bag lady. The next day, Johnny Muhammad Kalif reopened his school.