So yesterday was a seriously idyllic day in a quintessentially British way. A river cruise along the River Avon under azure summer skies followed by lunch with a mysterious English Rose in the gardens of the Bath Boathouse and a late afternoon swim with Sweep the dog at Avon Riverside.
It’s the Britain I travelled 4,500 miles to protect:
‘I TRIED HARD, harder than usual, not to raise my voice as I ushered Harry and Alfie out the front door. It was Monday morning and I didn’t want to be late for school. More importantly, I didn’t want Harry and Alfie’s last memory of their father to be of ‘Grumpy Dad’. We went through the usual checklist:
Book bag. Check.
Shoes on the right feet. Check.
We were off, joining the procession of carefree children and their parents making their way down the lane.
Past the Post Office and the tennis courts.
Over the hump‑backed bridge, finishing line of the hotly contested annual village duck race.
Carefully looking left and right before crossing the road by the War Memorial.
Past the Black Bull pub, scene of Sunday afternoon coca‑colas.
Up the snicket, through the five‑bar gate and into the school playground.
I hoovered up every detail of the five minute journey, conscious that it might be the last few moments I would ever spend with my children. They would not see me again until I returned from Afghanistan and, although we didn’t discuss it, that might well be in a wooden casket or, worse still, unrecognisably shattered and broken.
No good for climbing trees.
No good for playing footie in the park using coats for goal-posts.
No good for games of off‑ground touch in the front room (don’t tell Mummy).
I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want them to think about it.
In the days leading up to this moment I’d carefully explained to them that I would be going away for nine months but I would return for R&R – rest and recuperation – in just three months. In time I hoped for Alfie’s birthday, although I couldn’t promise this. We discussed what we would get up to in the two weeks I’d be back; this mostly involved eating junk food and watching movies. Harry and Alfie quickly cottoned on that the usual parental controls would not apply. Every time the subject came up the checklist of stuff that wasn’t normally allowed grew longer.
It was an awkward wait for the bell that would signal the start of the school day. To everyone else in that playground it was a Monday morning just like any other. Children were excitedly catching up on the weekend’s news and activities. Parents chatted in little groups, glancing at their wrist watches as they waited for the teachers to take charge. It was a scene being played out, no doubt, right across the country but as an absentee father it was not one in which I belonged. I felt that all eyes were on the stranger in the midst of this tight‑knit village community.
I wanted to justify my absence more than my presence. They may or may not have thanked me for it but I was now keeping company with rough men standing ready to do violence in order to preserve this peaceful village idyll.’
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.