A touchstone of terrible realisation


The summer holidays are just around the corner and I’m reminded of Harry and Alfie’s 2011 trip to Portugal with their mum:

‘MY RETURN HOME the following evening, after another long sweaty journey in the ageing Wolf, was not a triumphant one. Within hours of stepping across the threshold of our magnificent Edwardian stained glass front door with its enormous hexagonal brass pull and letter plate my spirits were thoroughly deflated.

Harry and Alfie were pleased to see me. Full of questions about my experiences with the real soldiers, wanting to know if they’d given me a shooter, not quite believing me when I told them that I’d slept outside on the ground.

Jane barely acknowledged my presence. After I’d bathed the boys and put them to bed I found myself alone in the front room. I stared at my reflection in the antique gilt‑framed mirror above the mantelpiece and knew I was in the shit. But the silent treatment didn’t last long. The following morning Jane told me she was moving out and taking the boys with her. When she explained that she’d found a cottage for rent close to the city of York, near to her parents and in the catchment area of an excellent primary school, I didn’t object. In truth the news came as a relief. I didn’t know how on earth I was going to continue to pay the mortgage on our trophy property in Dulwich.

Since it turned out that Jane was expecting me to continue to foot the bill for her extravagant lifestyle, perhaps I should not have allowed financial considerations to cloud my judgement. I shall forever regret the fact that I did not properly consider the impact of our separation on our children, Harry and Alfie. I reasoned to myself that, given I was bound for Afghanistan, it actually made sense for them to be closer to their much loved grandparents.

Both boys would later make heartbreaking appeals to me to get back together with Mummy. I would do almost anything for my children, including going to fight a war over 3,500 miles away, but I couldn’t even begin to reconcile my differences with Jane. As Alfie would explain to me, he loved Mummy and he loved Daddy, so why didn’t we love each other?

In the summer of 2011, while I was in Canada training for deployment, Jane and her parents took the boys on holiday to Portugal. In one of their holiday snaps Harry and Alfie are standing together on a golden beach at sunset. Harry has a protective arm draped over his younger brother who is dressed in just vest and underpants. Both boys are waving and smiling directly at the camera.

It’s a perfect picture but also a painful one.

In my imagination the boys are waving goodbye to me. The image became not only a visual metaphor for the possibility that I might not return from Afghanistan, but also a touchstone of terrible realisation of the sense of abandonment that I was imposing on my children, the people I loved most in the world.’

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

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