Turning Back The Sands Of Time

Photograph by Kalpesh Lathigra, Story by Malcolm Hollingdrake

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My mother worries all the time. I guess it’s only natural. I’m her first born so maybe I’m special… I’d like to think so. When she knew I was coming here, to Afganistan she nearly had kittens. I remember the day vividly.

            “They’re not sending you there, yer now’t but a kid.”

            “I’m nineteen, mum, and I’m in the army. It’s my job. I can’t pick and choose like these so-called snowflakes. If they say you’re going to Timbuktu I’d have to go. Are you not proud your lad’s fighting for Queen and country?"

            She didn’t answer, she just finished serving the Sunday dinner like she always did when I was home. It was always the same, too, for as long as I can remember. Yorkshire puddings and onion gravy as a starter is what we always had, followed by roast beef and all the trimmings. I can smell it now. It’s even making my mouth water just thinking about it. If they served that here in this God forsaken hole they’d make a fortune. Our kid, my young brother, David, started having apple sauce with his Yorkshires when we once had roast pork and it caught on. We all have it now. You should try it.

            Just checked my boots, it’s what they always tell you in case something’s crawled in them overnight. No self-respecting thing would come into this tent with this shower, its all snores and farts. Some nights it’d be safer sleeping in your gasmask.

            There’s sand, everywhere. When I first arrived it took me back to my first days at school. Used to love the sand tray. The first thing we learned was A… B… C. You probably did too. I was chuffed to bits when I could say the whole alphabet, sang it like Mary Poppins to anyone who’d listen. Here, in this place it’s a bit different. The first thing you learn is I.E.D. You know what that stands for?  Improvised Explosive Device. Sounds really quite innocent doesn’t it but believe me, I’ve seen one go off and they’ll have your legs off and anything else if they’re strong enough. Blind you too. The sand is thrown into your eyes, Sandblasts them. Saw that first hand. Not here, back in Bradford when I was just a teenager.

            While I put my gear on let me tell you what happened. Six, maybe seven years ago, I went out a couple of night before bonfire night proper. We had bangers and we were up to no good. Anyway John Totty was always a bit of a nutter. His parents were quite posh but John… he was just daft. We were near this building site and we were tossing these bangers imagining we were attacking the ruins of some town. John, bless him, decided to bury two bangers in this huge pile of sand. He lit them and ran. Nothing happened. I told him to leave them.

            “You can have some of mine, Totts.” That’s what we called him.

            “The sand’s covered the fuse. I’ll just light them again.”

            I remember seeing him turn and smile and walk up to the pile of sand. He knelt down and shone his torch. It was then they went off right in front of his face. The scream, it turned my legs to jelly. He rolled on the sand, his hands covering his face. Two of the lads with us just ran off. I went to Totts. You should have seen his face, it was raw.

            “I can’t see, Tony, help me I can’t see.” 

 

            

“Tony, you ready?”

            Got to go on early patrol along the gulley and then the irrigation canal. There’s been a sighting of Taliban. We have to follow all the rules of warfare but those guys, they make the game of death up as they go along. 

Give me a minute and if I’m not lead I can finish Totts’s story. If I am, then forgive me, I need to concentrate fully.

            “Grimshaw.”

            That’s me, Tony Grimshaw. The lads call me Reaper.

 “Sir.”

            “You’re lead. IED rules. There’ll be a Vallon Man ahead as usual but keep to track especially close to the banking and hedging. Understood?”

            “Sir.”

            Let me explain. A Vallon man is the one with the Vallon mine detector, he sweeps and we follow. Move away from where he’s been and… well you’re in the hands of Lady Luck.

 

 

            The eight-man patrol moved away. Helmand Province was a place of mixed beauty. Where man watered, the fields were rich and green. Where the poppies grow, row of row, in Helmand fields, the boss used to say. It was from a poem about the First World War, he said.

            It had been slow progress but the deserted and ruined village was visible. To a two year old you could see it was the perfect place for an ambush and the placement of an IED but it needed to be searched. One of the drones flying way above believed there to be enemy activity.          

            Caution was now the name of the game. We wait. The Vallon Man will do his sweeping dance and we wait. I have time. 

Remember I was telling you about Tott’s? Well the sand had blasted the surface of both eyes, Christ he was in one hell of a state. Never got his vision back in one eye and the other he said was like looking through a steamed-up mirror. I warned him, too.

The group started to move and split either side of a wall. The doorway was the lead man’s responsibility. It was then the first shot was fired. It buried itself into the clay brick exploding fragments like a mini volcano. 

            “Spread!” I shouted as the group dived against any cover they could find. We needed to locate the shooter. 

            “Reaper, not the door!” I heard but I was committed.

            The IED was triggered by a small wire. I saw the flash but then nothing… nothing but fog.

Malcolm Hollingdrake You could say that the writing was clearly on the wall for someone born in a library that they might aspire to be an author, but to get to that point Malcolm Hollingdrake has travelled a circuitous route. Malcolm worked in education for many years, even teaching for a period in Cairo before he started writing, a challenge he had longed to tackle for more years than he cares to remember. He has written a number of successful short stories, has nine books now available and is presently writing the eighth crime novel set in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. 

Kalpesh Lathigra (1971, London, UK) studied at London College of Printing , and lives in London. Lathigra's work occupies the space between documentary and  art.  Recent exhibitions include Lost in the Wilderness at Webber Gallery, London, Return to Elsewhere  for Photoworks/Brighton Photo Biennial 2014, National Portrait Gallery (UK), PhotoEspana and Noorderlicht. He has been awarded the  W.Eugene Smith Fellowship, World Press Photo Award and Lightwork Residency. His first book “ Lost in the Wilderness” is a body of photographs with the Oglala Sioux and the Pine Ridge Reservation was published in 2015.

© 2016 A Thousand Word Photos

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