‘Okay, peeps,’ Stacks called us to order on the bus. ‘All wearing body armour? Got your bed roll, spare knickers, wet wipes, condoms, asthma inhalers, flask of warm milk, vitamin pills, pair of bed socks, single wank-sock, PMT tablets, reading material – in short whatever you might need in for an overnight stay away from this beautifully administered camp in case we get stuck where we're off to? We’ll be going now from here to the airheads. There we’ll be transferred onto a helo for the short flight down to Camp Smitty. The helo may be running late as I hear we have a Brigadier in the area at the moment and he mistakenly thinks that his need of the helicopter is greater than yours.’ He sat in the front passenger seat. ‘Right, Michelle, we’re off.’
At Basra airport, unfamiliar even though we had landed there only the day before, there were hangars left of us, workshops right. A passenger jet, a spindly black helicopter and an aeroplane like a basking shark were parked on the near side of the runway.
‘Forty-five minutes here to kill, been told, ‘Stacks said. ‘There’s tea over in the workshop right; maybe even a few biscuits – you never know your luck.’
In a Charles and Di souvenir tin were Jammie Dodgers. ‘Genius bit of luck!’ I said.
Lieutenant Mitchell took our tea and coffee orders. He had curls like fried mince and his eyelids were slightly too big for him. He spoke almost in a whisper, turning to face at precisely right angles to each person in turn as he asked if they wanted tea or coffee, and then milk and sugar? Ian asked for tea with a cow and a couple of Julies.
Lt Mitchell asked again if Ian wanted milk and sugar, sir?
‘Yes, a cow and a couple of Julies.’
‘Sir, milk and sugar?’
‘A cow and a couple of Julies, thanks.’
They went back and forth till Stacks threatened to deck them both.
I put my tea down on a workbench to have both hands free to take my Jammie Dodger apart, gnawing the fondant while I waited for Stacks to be given his tea.
‘That was odd,’ I said quietly to him. ‘Not allowing Ian to use military-speak?’
‘Not wanted from civilians.’
‘Ian was in the SAS.’
‘Really?’ He was holding a Jammie Dodger by a finger in the jam centre. ‘Actually, I can see that. He looks meat-headed enough.’
‘What, and you’re Jack Spratt lean?’
‘Thank you for asking, but during my last physical it was recorded with hushed tones that my quad muscles had a perfect length to girth ratio.’ He jerked his head in Ian’s direction. ‘Anyway, once you’re out, you’re out. Now, where’s the plasma screen?’
I followed him outside and across a gravel patch to the holding bay. Other than for the gigantic plasma screen TV, we might have been in a defunct section in IKEA. Tonks and Rhod were watching football and Stacks sat down with them. He looked round at me and smiled archly. ‘Footie, princess?’
In the opposite corner of the holding bay a woman was sitting drinking coffee out of a flask. She was plump with knotty black hair swirled under her uniform cap. I asked if I could join her.
She nodded. ‘I would like that.’
She was US Army Captain Miriam Bennington. Her twenty-two years’ service had finished the previous May and she had signed up for extended time to teach the Iraqi army. ‘Which is easier said than done, believe me!’ Daily, for the first two weeks of her lectures, one or other of her students had been delegated to excuse himself and cross the compound to the commanding officers’ suite to report Miriam for speaking to men before she had been spoken to. ‘Finally, finally during my most recent class, not only did none of them leave to snitch on me, but one of them asked me a question. An actual question, imagine that. True, he asked if I was married and did my husband permit all my free behaviour, but still.’
There was a metallic wheeze as the door opened behind me.
‘Photo opportunity, Iestyn,’ Nicky called. ‘Let’s make the most of the delay; come and put your tutu on.’
I apologised to Miriam and went outside.
‘You can change behind the wall next to the runway,’ Nicky said. ‘Our press office will love both of us for this.’
Behind the wall, keeping an eye out for anything that might land while I was knickerless, I dressed in my full stage rig. Nicky asked Ian to take the photos as his camera had a higher pixel count. He snapped me on the runway with a backdrop of an Apache helicopter and some oil-wasting fires, being chased onto a passenger jet by Andy, Tonks, Rhod and Gina and performing pas de chats in and out of the portaloo designated For Diarrhoea and Vomiting Quarantine Only. When Stacks got word that the helicopter was due in any time now I dodged back behind the wall to change. Bending to untie my shoe ribbons I looked around the sky for the approaching helicopter. It was quite a way off yet. My right shoe came untied easily and, as the helicopter’s drone changed to distinguishable thwocks, I turned my attention to the left. The knot in the ribbons wouldn’t come undone. ‘Come on, come on,’ I muttered, feeling air displaced by the helicopter blades rushing over me. When the knot finally gave I slipped the shoe off, pulled my tutu over my head and grabbed my knickers by the elastic. The helicopter touched down.
‘Naomi Campbell over there, we’re off,’ Stacks called from the other side of the wall.
I had a t-shirt on, so thought it would be safe to pull my tights down beneath it.
The gust from the helicopter blades blew the t-shirt up. Please, the Brigadier hadn’t been looking out of the VIP window just then.
Clapping his hands Stacks began, ‘Right, peeps, finally. In a short while -’ He fell silent as the Brigadier with entourage came this side of the wall. The only Brigadier I’d ever seen before was an opera goer at the Royal Opera House, and he had been neatly made and giggly. This present Brigadier was towering and awesome. He wore a beret and a sneer and had medals gleaming everywhere. ‘A most interesting welcome committee,’ he said in regal Home Counties giving me a cold look.
I bowed to him. There were not-quite stifled guffaws round me. ‘No,’ I said to the Brigadier, ‘I wasn’t being sarcastic bowing. It’s just that…that…’
Expectancy all round. I looked up at the Brigadier. ‘That…’
And still more expectancy.
‘Well, I’ve only seen one, small, Brigadier before - and you’re huge.’
‘Gentlemen,’ he said.
His escort surrounded him like so many pilot fish at a whale shark’s gills and he walked through our group.
Stacks guffawed. ‘Can’t wait for the report into the A-Pod office: “War hero called porker by rather rotund himself drag ballerina”.’ He gestured with his head in the direction of the airfield. ‘Right, all, onto the helo, please. You’ll walk in single file out across the airfield to the back of the helicopter, then up the ramp, again in single file. Don’t look at the propeller. It has a mesmerising effect like a flute on a snake and people have been known to take a running jump into it.’
He had to be pulling our legs, even though his expression was butter wouldn’t melt.
The sun was directly on us from behind the helicopter as we crossed the airfield. The noise was enervating. I leant into the buffeting, displaced air stream. Sudden heat and a stink of petrol hit as I teetered up the ramp at the back of the helicopter. Light on board was through portholes, seats faced inward set into walls encrusted with dials, baggage space ran along the centre. At a window three quarters of the way down on each side a gun was mounted. One of the flight crew, a Prince William clone, directed us to metal skeleton and canvas flesh seats. He winked at me and held a camera out. Cupping my hand over the screen I looked at the photo displayed. It was of me apparently mooning the Brigadier. I asked him not to put it up on Facebook.
A counterpart to Prince William was helping Spoons and Stacks tie down a metal case. Prince William gave Tonks a sick-bag and indicated that he should pass it round; Tonks picked two yellow boxes out of the bag before handing it on to Rhod.
‘Oh, earplugs,’ I said. ‘Not a sick-bag to share.’
Final checks and then, wasp-like, the helicopter rose into the air and thrust forward. Prince William and counterpart sat behind the guns and peered past them at the ground. Stacks was looking about him as though he wanted to be doing something. Through the porthole between Rhod and Tonks opposite I watched the airfield give way to desert road, a straggling white stone bungalow, burnt out cars and a caravan of camels.
After half an hour or so Prince William went along the two lines of seats and made us all show him that we were belted in securely. We flew over clumps of date palms, then parallel to a ravine with a single row of square two-floor houses along its floor with windows facing us. Amid panicked screams the helicopter dropped straight at the ground.