Brothers in Arms

Geraint Jones | 3 mins


The Church July 2009

There was no room inside, but it was the kind of beautiful day that can only be found in an English summer, the dappled sunshine suggestive of comfort and nostalgia, and so I found myself a place in the crammed churchyard. The crowd was a mixture of civilian suits and dresses shot through with uniforms from every branch and arm of the services. Hanging back at the edges were the curious onlookers, drawn in by the regimented pomp of a military funeral.

I felt eyes on me and looked to my left. A short, sallow-skinned man in the blue of the RAF took it as an invitation to approach. He was a southerner, and spoke to me as if I was a long-lost friend.

‘Alright mate. You were in Iraq, weren’t you? Two years ago? I never forget a boat race.’

He was an RAF Regiment gunner, and like all infantry soldiers I despised his type, thinking of them as blaggers and posers. I also disapproved of his use of rhyming slang – we were at a funeral, not on the set of a Guy Ritchie movie – but the man had come to pay respects to my friend, and so after the pause to assess him, I put out a grudging hand.

‘I was, yeah.’

‘You knew him?’ he asked, his head bobbing towards the church. I nodded. ‘You with him when he died?’

I hadn’t been. Jamie had become a friend as we went through pre-deployment training together. You can get to know anybody fast when you live in each other’s pockets for a few weeks, and Jamie’s infectious enthusiasm and outlook on life had left me with a big soft spot for the kid. His unit had deployed just a few weeks earlier, and now he was dead. Killed by a single shot from a sniper, as he called from a rooftop about his choice of ration pack for dinner.

I’d found out about his death on Facebook. I’d been excited when I saw him login to the chat application.

Hiya mate! How you doing?

Hi. James was killed this morning.

I didn’t have the sense to put it together.

Sorry to hear that mate :( Was he a pal?

Sorry. This is James’s mum. He was killed this morning.

And now I watched as his flag-draped coffin was carried towards the church doors by the rigid guardsmen.

But I wasn’t watching my friend.

I was watching his mother.

There was no sobbing. No sign of frailty. She carried herself like a queen, and my eyes threatened to leak for the first time as I saw that courage. I’d see it in other mothers of the fallen, and that strength breaks your heart and fills you with purpose in the same moment.

The service was held. Jamie would be buried elsewhere, a closed ceremony. I left the churchyard, changing out of my dress uniform in the alley behind a hair salon. Some of the girls saw me and smiled. I smiled back.

I pulled my car over to the side of the main road, watching as the dark fleet of Jamie’s cortege approached. The streets were lined. Afghanistan was the kind of shooting war the public could pretend to understand, not like the poisoned chalice of Iraq, and now our dead soldiers were revered, Kipling’s verse on the ‘thin red line of heroes’ as true as it ever was.

I looked again for Jamie’s mother. I didn’t know why. Perhaps I was thinking of my own. How she’d look if it was me in the ground. I didn’t see her, and traffic resumed. The people of the town dispersed, the war for them over until the next reel of grainy combat footage on the six o’clock news.

I headed west, to my unit. On the drive, I thought about Jamie, his family, and my own. I thought about how his child was without a father, his mother without a son. I thought about how we had both volunteered for a war that we knew nothing about. A war that had taken his life.

That night, I flew to Helmand.