It’s half past one in the morning on a chilly night in early June 1982.
I’m in Wolverhampton, a town in the English Midlands. Specifically on the Railway Station, half way through a two-hour wait for a connecting train and my backside is numb. The plastic bench seems designed to deter travellers. It’s working, there’s only me. The bench is cocooned in a transparent plastic shelter, open towards the tracks. In here there is almost no sound, just the distant whisper of late night traffic on the damp city streets. I’ve been to a funeral then my car wouldn’t start, double whammy. So I’m forced to rely on the railway timetable. I hate it when things are out of my control. But something is about to happen that will change forever how I view my frustrations.
It’s very gloomy. Dismal lighting leaves a line of dirty yellow puddles down the platform when I hear shuffling footsteps and a man appears in the half-light. He’s dressed in army fatigues with sturdy black boots and he's carrying a large rucksack over one shoulder. Body bent, he looks utterly exhausted. He glances at me and slumps down at the other end of the bench. As far away as he can get.
A train clatters through the station transporting dangerous goods in odd-shaped, reinforced wagons. Dark matter rolling through the night. On and on goes the train. Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da. Finally the toxic beast disappears, a sinister red light diminishing at it’s rear. Then the sound dissolves in the dark. Silence again.
I look at my companion. He’s leaning back against the clear plastic, eyes closed.
He’s about my age, I’m twenty two. He’s got short dark hair and at least two days stubble. There are three chevrons on his sleeve making him a sergeant I think. He must sense me watching because he turns. He appears to have difficulty focussing. His eyes are dull and distant. We both look away.
From somewhere up in the roof, pigeons flutter, jostling for position.
In the gloom I hear the soldier say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’
I don’t know how to respond.
‘I can’t do anything,’ he says, ‘I can’t sleep or eat or think about anything. It’s killing me.’
His hands are trembling.
‘It’s my friend,’ he said, ‘I left my friend behind.’
Over the next half hour he tells me the story. He’s angry and tearful. He is on his way home from fighting in The Falkland Islands, a nasty little war between the United Kingdom and Argentina over an isolated group of barren rocks in the South Atlantic. He’s been travelling for four days, catching lifts on returning supply aircraft. His fighting is done. He was a winchman on a helicopter. ‘I’m the one who dangles at the end of the rope,’ he tells me matter-of-factly.
One day he was sick and couldn’t fly. The crew was scrambled and his friend went in his place. The helicopter was shot down. The young sergeant was hauled from his sickbed to join the rescue attempt.
Helicopter crews wear life-vests incorporating a homing beacon activated when they come into contact with water. He told me that they could hear the pinging of his friend’s beacon as they hovered over the spot where the craft was downed. Searchlights scanned the angry sea but there was no sign of either wreckage or survivors. His mate’s life vest pinged despairingly from the bottom of the sea.
‘I can hear it now,’ he says, ‘on and on and on. It won’t go away. It’s so loud.’
He looked at me. ‘Will it ever go away?’
I couldn’t answer. I just said I was really sorry.
He was no longer an army sergeant, he was a young guy not long out of school, who was destined to carry a burden for the rest of hs days.
Somebody will tell him that it wasn’t his fault, but he’ll never believe them.
How on earth do you live with that?
Now, when I feel bad, I sometimes think of that nameless soldier.