‘There are ghosts out there. I can see them.’
The tank commander pushed his gunner to the side and looked through the sights. A troop walked slowly ahead of the tank. The soldiers walked in two lines and were just in view at the edges of the sights. Straight ahead was the normal rubble and destruction. A woman whose clothes had been torn by the bomb blast wandered around the rubble. Her body was stained with dried blood and smudged by dirt and dust. Her dress had been almost ripped in two and the edges were charred and frayed. Her underwear was visible and badly marked by the blast. The woman searched for a child and screamed. The troop leader moved her out of the way so the tank could proceed.
Inside the tank, the commander said, ‘There’s nothing there. There are no ghosts. What makes you so sure?”
‘There has to be. They just keep coming.’
The other three men in the tank crew looked at the floor. They were irritated but relieved that the gunner had cracked before them. Nobody was keen to say anything before anyone else. The crew heard a banging on the outside of the tank. The commander opened the hatch and the troop leader climbed in. The tank had been pristine when it had been restricted to camp and manoeuvres. Now it was unkempt and filthy like the men inside. War wearied everything.
‘Don’t we have ammunition in this tank?’ said the troop leader.
‘We have a problem,’ said the commander.
The rest of the men kept quiet. These were words nobody wanted to say.
‘The gunner’s gone crazy,’ said the commander.
The troop leader stared at the face of the gunner as if it might provide confirmation. ‘Well,’ he said.
‘There are ghosts out there,’ said the gunner.
‘Fire at them, then.’
‘There are too many. They just keep coming.’
‘It’s called a population. We’re at war.’
‘There are too many. I’ll be killing everyone.’
The troop leader took off his helmet in the hope that it might help him think. Apart from the gunner, everyone looked at him. Only the gunner appeared to be unconcerned.
‘We’ll be lucky to get medical help,’ said the troop leader.
‘Surely, it can all wait another day,’ said the commander.
‘For one crazy gunner?’
The commander and his crew looked at the floor and waited.
They were lucky. The chiefs pulled out the tank and the whole troop. The prejudice to success was too great, the report said. The crew recovered from the embarrassment and returned to action with a replacement.
The gunner was taken to a hospital. He entered the hospital accompanied by two soldiers and a nurse. The hospital was urban and modern. Every ward looked the same and the corridors were long enough to distort perspective. In a room that had a desk, a table and two shabby but comfortable armchairs, he talked to a psychiatrist who wore a long white coat, jeans and no tie. The psychiatrist was Scottish.
‘Do you see any ghosts now?’ asked the psychiatrist.
‘No, it happens when they ask me to blast the houses away.’
‘Do the ghosts look like ordinary people?’
‘A bit but they are damaged, wounded, some have missing limbs. Some don’t have any heads.’
The gunner was put in a ward that was labeled psychiatric. There were seven other soldiers in the ward. The bed that was allocated to the gunner was one of the two next to the corridor.
The nurse explained. ‘You have to serve your time before you get away from this end. Don’t ask me why but nobody likes being next to the corridor.’
The other men in the ward welcomed him. All shook his hand. They spent the day watching TV, old DVDs and a half hour of news between the DVDs. Once or twice they watched an old episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’. When they tired of that they played cards. One of the men neither watched TV nor played cards. This man read and during the day the gunner heard the others call him Reader.
At ten o’clock, the nurses told everybody to sleep. The gunner climbed into bed and although he worried about nightmares he was soon asleep. The gunner woke not long after midnight. It took him several seconds to wake properly and see what was around him. The other seven men were all awake and they all sat up straight on top of their beds. All had their arms folded and all sat bow legged. Around each bed were a group of ghosts. None of these ghosts moved, they stayed at the sides of the bed as if they belonged to the men. The gunner was still sleepy and the scene only became clear in stages. He noticed finally that there were also ghosts around his bed. The ghosts neither stared at nor molested him. Like all the other ghosts they were preoccupied with their own anguish.
The gunner was as afraid as he had been in the tank. He was relieved that his bed was close to the corridor. He left his bed and stepped outside the ward. There were ghosts everywhere, all packed in a wide column between the long white walls of the corridor. The ghosts were silent but, like the other ghosts inside the ward, their anguish was obvious. They had distorted faces and terrible wounds. The gunner wanted to escape but he could see it would have been impossible to walk through the packed bodies ahead of him. Fortunately, the ward was close to the outside wall of the hospital. He turned left, took a couple of steps and reached the large window in the wall. Outside the hospital was the city and beyond that fields, hills and desert. The window in the outside wall was bolted but the gunner did not think about escape. The ghosts in the ward were unpleasant but not as terrifying as the packed mass in the corridor. Outside, though, was worse again. There were ghosts everywhere. They lined the dusty urban streets, packed the fields, swarmed over the hills and became a dark blur in the desert. The gunner expected them to make a terrible noise but although there was noise it did not disturb him. It merely sounded like a violent wind. The ghosts in the corridor made a similar noise but because they were fewer it was different. The ghosts in the corridor made a noise that sounded like kettles being boiled. The thought calmed the gunner. He appreciated knowing that the horror could be worse.
He returned slowly to the ward and the other soldiers. They were still sitting up straight in the middle of their beds. Reader stood up and left his bed in the far corner of the ward. He walked through the empty space between the beds in the middle of the ward. The ghosts at the side of the beds ignored Reader. He sat down next to the gunner at the foot of the bed.
‘Reading doesn’t help you sleep, then?’ said the gunner.
‘I don’t like reading. I just got fed up of the TV. What happened outside?’
‘It’s crowded out there. They left me alone.’
‘So they do but there’s an awful lot.’
‘They just keep coming.’
‘There’s just too many,’ said Reader. ‘It’s why we stay here.’
The gunner looked up and stared at the other men sitting on their beds. None spoke but they all smiled. Their smiles were sympathetic.
‘It’s not great here,’ said Reader.
The gunner and Reader looked around the room at the ghosts and the different anguished faces. The ghosts had such awful injuries and as he looked again the gunner saw horrific details he had missed previously.
‘It’s not great here,’ said Reader, ‘but it’s better than out there.’
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