Sam Green (Prequel) Short Story

I could go on and on about His Trumpkiness’s attempt to dismantle NATO, the way he stood in front of The Queen before they inspected the guard, so she had to move around him, and the follow-up submission that was the Helsinki summit. Oh, and the fall out, back-tracking and subsequent undermining of Article 5 of NATO (collective defence) with his very recent comments about Montenegro. But I won’t.

Instead, a treat (I hope). I have written a Sam Green short story. It’s a prequel to Unsuspecting Hero. It is short – about 1,000 words, and designed for magazine submission, which I am working on.

It has a happy ending. But originally I wrote a much more Sam Green ending. I have added that ending at, well, the end, so you can compare and contrast.

Let me know what you think. And have a great rest of week.

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Sam Green Short Story Prequel

C Company Ops Room, Forward Operating Base (FOB), Helmand Province

Five years ago

It didn’t look right. It just didn’t. Sam raised a finger to the screen. She drew an imaginary circle around an area of the photograph. She stared. Worry lines on her forehead were amplified by the harsh, artificial light.

There’s something here.

She dropped her hand, turned and focused on a second screen to her right. It was smaller: 24-inch rather than 32-inches of the central screen. Its image looked identical to the larger one. A top-down view of the same beige and brown landscape. Sand and rock. A few shrubs. A gravel road. A culvert helping a trickle of a stream under the road. About a kilometre square of unforgiving Afghan terrain.

Sam raised her hand to her mouth and chewed on a knuckle. A bead of sweat formed in a fold in her neck, headed south and found its way under her combat shirt. It stopped where her already damp bra met her skin. She ignored the sensation. She ignored the heat. She ignored the enveloping tiredness of 14-hour days. She ignored the noise from the other operators in the room. The squawk of radios. The distant thump-thump-thump of the medivac Chinook landing.

She was totally focused. A touch of autism, mixed in with some OCD, enabled her to ignore everything but the task. She was an image analyst. No, she was a very good image analyst. Autism gave her an almost savant ability to see detail. And her OCD the doggedness to never give up; to find order when none wanted to be found.

Her two screens were loaded with the same satellite images. Except they weren’t the same. One set was taken yesterday at midday, the second from today at 8 am. A section of Route Pelican, a supply route between the FOB and Camp Bastion. Sam’s job was to assess the route. Look for where new engineering works might be needed as the gravel and tarmac had broken away after winter rains and the relentless pounding of Army trucks and escorts. And to find anything else that shouldn’t be there.

The series of images were taken less than a day apart. The rainy season was over. There had been no military traffic on the route during that time. Nothing should have changed.

And yet …

Hang on.

Sam leant back on her chair so she could take in both screens with the slightest of movement of her head.

Wait.

She leant forward so that her face was just a couple of inches from the left-hand screen. She could make out the LED’s pixels.

Yesterday. Gravel road. Culvert. Trickle of water.

She moved to the right. Again she was close.

Same road. Same culvert. Same stream. But this time … the stream didn’t enter and exit the culvert like the earlier image. This time there was a build up of water, a large puddle, on the northern side and no water on the other.

No!

Six things happened at once.

Sam spun on her chair, her concentration on the screens broken. Her pulse rate shot up and the accompanying adrenaline joined the blood pulsating in her ears. Her pupils widened as she took in the view she had experienced day in, day out for over four months. Large tent. No windows. Outward-facing desks and monitors. Maybe 20 staff. A large map table, with ink-scrawl symbols decorating the glass top. To one side of the map was a two-man trestle table: the boss and his signals operator. Black radio handsets and a green speaker. On the other side of the map table were three white boards displaying all manner of information. Above them, hanging from the tent’s metal frame, an analogue clock and a hand-made sign. It read: Think IED!

IED. Improvised Explosive Device. Terrorist made and planted. The scourge of the battalion. They’d lost two men already to Taleban devices. An armoured Foxhound blown over by a roadside bomb, killing the vehicle’s commander who had his head out of the top hatch, his neck snapped in the tumble. A second soldier lost as a remote-controlled RPG penetrated a Mastiff with a thin jet of molten copper, slicing the man in half. A lucky shot, missing the side armour and finding one of theirs.

One of mine.

The sixth thing Sam did was scream.

‘Boss! Have we got anything on Pelican?’

Captain James looked up and across at her, and then shot a glance at the white boards.

‘Hang on. Yes. Three-Zero Charlie. Routine patrol. Three vehicles.’ He glanced back at Sam …

… who was ignoring him.

She had to find the the culvert on the map. Water either side yesterday. None today, but a pool upstream. The culvert was blocked. It was a small thing. Tiny. Could be nothing.

But it might be …

‘Potential culvert IED. At …’ Sam was on her feet leaning over the map board. Her eyes and her fingers desperate to find the grid reference of the culvert.

‘… grid one-two-seven, four-six-six.’

She stared at the Captain, who now had a hold of a handset.

‘Hello, Mike Three-Zero Charlie, this is Zero. Over.’

He looked across at Sam. She was clenching her teeth; her heart bashing strongly against her rib cage.

Are we too late?

Nothing. The whole Ops room had turned, looking in. Their stares focused on the green speaker.

‘Hello, Mike Three-Zero Charlie, this is Zero. Over!’ Louder this time from the Captain. He was almost shouting at the handset, his knuckles white as he pressed the pressel on the handset.

Nothing. A crackle.

Still nothing.

Then, ‘Mike Three-Zero Charlie, Roger. Send, over.’

As relief swept across the room, the Captain replied.

‘Zero. Potential culvert IED at …’, he glanced at his notepad, ‘Grid one-two-seven, four-six-six, over.’

Nothing. Too long a pause?

‘Mike Three-Zero Charlie, Wait …’

A further pause. The only sound in the Ops Room was the steady hum of computer fans.

The speaker broke the silence.

‘We’re just short. My lead vehicle has pulled up 50 metres from the culvert. We debussing now in all-round defence. Thanks. Wait out for a further sitrep. Out.’

The captain looked across at Sam. Their eyes met. Hers were already filling with tears.

‘Good job Sergeant Green.’

Or

‘Hello, Mike Three-Zero Charlie, this is Zero. Over!’ Louder this time from the Captain. He was almost shouting at the handset, his knuckles white as he pressed the pressel on the handset.

Nothing. A crackle.

Still nothing.

Then, ‘Mike Three-Zero Charlie, Roger. Send, over.’

As relief swept across the room, the Captain replied.

‘Zero. Potential culvert IED at …’, he glanced at his notepad, ‘Grid one-two-seven, four-six-six, over.’

Nothing. Too long a pause?

‘Mike Three-Zero Charlie, Roger. We’re …’ And then a split second of terrifying noise. A shattering explosion and an accompanying cry. The speaker seemed to momentarily shake.

Silence.

The captain looked across at Sam. Their eyes met. Hers were already filling with tears.

Oh, God. No …

 

And now for something completely different

Happy Sunday. By the way, do we ever protest against a foreign leader? Really? Just because he/she comes over here? In numbers? How can one man and one man’s administration cause so much angst that people from a foreign country have to give up a Saturday to say ‘bog off’? One of the placards said “I don’t normally protest, but come on…”. Another… ‘feed him to the Corgis.’ Perfect.

On a different note, I thought you might be interested in an article I’ve submitted to the military’s pension magazine. Here it is – and have a good Sunday. At least today we’ll be rid of His Trumpkiness. I don’t think he’ll be coming back anytime soon. He does love to be loved, you know.

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on week to go and then this will be our future…

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Beware. There’s a heretic on the loose.

A quick résumé. Man joins the Army at 18, works reasonably hard, does lots of stuff – ticks boxes, commands his father’s battalion, stays married to the same woman and then … surely, sees it through to 55, buys a house in Suffolk (or Wiltshire), becomes chairman of the parish council and spends his days walking his garden whilst tending to his black lab? The perfect model of tweed, corduroy and Viyella?

Uh, well, no. Okay, so I am married to the same woman. And I did command my dad’s battalion. But at 44 I put my beret in the top drawer and became a teacher of mathematics at a school in sleepy Somerset. I still struggle to explain to myself why that happened. I guess much of it was about my need to break the mould. Both Claire (still my first wife) and I are Army brats. She was an Army nurse. I went away to the Army sixth-form college and was beasted around Sandhurst’s square at the tender age of 18. We were more institutionalised than a pair of Broadmoor inmates.  And yet, as time went on, we could imagine something other than the well-trodden path to our future little cottage in Wotton-under-Fire, just down the khaki-brick road.

Also, we were both tired. It is true to say that I had not spent as long away from my family as most – my medals dangling bashfully in a single row. But the Army knows how to take a couple of kilogrammes of flesh. Don’t misunderstand me, it is a fabulous institution. It looked after the pair of us as if I were its only employee and Claire its only unpaid social worker. But, ‘no’ is not a word in its lexicon, and it encourages you to grin and bear it. And, as I left, the 150,000 strong behemoth that I joined to face down Brezhnev and 3 Shock Army was leaner than a whippet, and heading for more cuts. I’m not uncomfortable admitting that I was shattered. So, with absolutely no qualifications at all other than armed with a mantra that I would treat all my students like little soldiers, I became a teacher.

I’m quite good at maths.  I’m also confident on my feet – you know, “Come on chaps…follow me”. How difficult could teaching be?

I was rubbish. No, it’s true. You can have the confidence of ten men but, until you get a grip of the syllabus, learn the tricks of the trade in the classroom (like: don’t smile before half-term) and suffer the exam cycle, confidence counts for not a great deal. You also have to remember that, having reached a rank where you have a small team of people to whom you can delegate wantonly, as a teacher you are at the bottom of the food chain. Okay, if you have a bad day you can take it out on your pupils, but there are few other privileges.  If you want a minibus to take the kids somewhere, not only do you have to book it yourself, you have to drive it as well.

And being a teacher is tough; the classroom an unforgiving place. Your pupils may look as innocent as a bunch of well-trained Naples pickpockets but, underneath their angelic facade, they’re a pack of hyenas. Kids can exploit chinks in armour better than an immaculately-placed arrow. And where else in the workplace is your output as starkly associated with your own competence than on exam results day? If Johnny doesn’t get the ‘A’ he needs to get into the university of his choice, then put on your body armour as Mum and Dad will want to know why. There is no hiding place. And it is tremendously hard work, day after day of classroom theatre where you are actor, stage manager, director, choreographer and make-up artist.

Is it rewarding? Oh yes – undoubtedly so. There is no feeling anywhere near close to watching young people improve in and enjoy your subject. Seeing them ‘get things’ which previously were as mysterious and opaque as a distant planet is something close to magical. As such, I can’t recommend teaching enough as a second career, I really can’t. Provided you’re happy to sweep the floors and order the pack lunches.

A few years in, and with Claire a houseparent (and uncomfortably outranking me), I made it onto the School’s senior team with responsibility for staff training, the non-academic programme and a bellyful of jobs that no one else wanted. And I did become an adequate teacher. But none of this was without effort … there’s a theme emerging here. So, after eight years of teaching we decided to transition to Stage Three of our lives: do nothing.

My Dad never understood why I left the Army. So he completely dismissed the notion of Claire and I loading up a motorcaravan and disappearing into the sunset, pursued by a cloud of unburnt diesel. To be fair he had a point; we had no plan other than to decompress. The Army had taken the wheels off; the School had burnt out the alternator and removed the wiper blades. We were exhausted and seeing family members and good pals struggling with life-threatening illness, we decided we’d take our chances on vagrancy. And, wow, it was fun.

Actually, it still is fun. Four years later we have just moved into a two-up, two-down in Bristol, but we still travel extensively in our charabanc. The intervening years were, without doubt, the best of our lives. Europe is a big place. And over La Manche they do love and cater for motorhomes. With a multitude of would-be foreign pals, we spent four years browning our knees and shaking hands with the most delightful of non-Brits.

Phew. Done that. Now take stock.

At 56 I have, from a old-fashioned taxman’s perspective, about ten years’ productive work in me. And that strikes a chord with some people. Other than the withering ‘oh’ (accompanied by a face that looks like it’s just chewed on a lemon) when you tell them that you’re living in a motorhome, the most popular comment is along the lines of, ‘So, you don’t work, then?’. You can see the cogs turning. That means my taxes are paying for you?

Mmmm. Not contributing is certainly not the reason why I am actually working – of sorts – doing two things. It’s more doing things that I enjoy. First, I mentor headteachers and senior school staff on leadership. It may surprise you that headteachers get no formal leadership training before they take the helm of a school. Some of them need help. I do what I can.

Second, and this surprised the bejeezus out of me, it’s writing novels that has caught my imagination.  During our extended sojourn I have written four thrillers: Unsuspecting Hero, Fuelling the Fire, The Innocence of Trust and For Good Men To Do Nothing. The series has Sam Green as the main protagonist, ‘a sort of female version of Jack Reacher but more edgy and much more prone to tears’. Even if I say so myself, all four books have received a good number of very positive reviews – please check them out. And I am about to embark on the fifth of the series which, I hope, will be out next year.

Do we regret any of the choices we have made? If I had stayed in the Army my time would be up and I would be haplessly looking for a job. A security consultant maybe? A small house in the country and a seat on the parish council? My own stool in the local pub? All of these are laudable ambitions and in so many ways I wish that worked for the pair of us. But. I really love the writing – and I’m fond of the leadership training and trying to make a difference where I can. So I guess we have no regrets.  We wouldn’t have missed a moment of our time in the Army, or at the School, but we don’t miss any of it for a moment.

What next? Currently the plan is ‘more of the same’. [For the record I am just finishing a 6-month part-time stint at a state school in Bristol. That is an altogether different story. Maybe for another time …] I’m waiting to see how my latest novel goes down in the market, and I have the plot for the next in the series firmly in my head.  That will take us through to next summer by which time we might be longing to settle down, get a red setter, buy some secateurs and volunteer to be the secretary of the village flower show.

But somehow, I doubt it.