Forget the sand you knew as a child. Forget the thick, wet sand you pressed into crude castles; or the hot, dry sand you sank your feet into, wriggled your toes under to cause tiny earthquakes, and later tipped out of shoes for days to come. That’s not sand.
This is sand. It has more in common with misting Yorkshire rain than anything solid, the way that without you noticing it settles on you like new skin, and by the time you realise it’s part of you, coating your hands, stinging your eyes, cracking between your teeth.
This is the sand, the bastard motherfuck sand, that the men in the compound know. And it is in this sand, on their third month of deployment, that James ‘Patch’ Roberts finds and catches a scorpion.
Scorpions are among the rarer creatures that can be found calling this barren scrape of land home. More plentiful are rats, and dogs – strange, wraithlike half-wolves, whose ribs strain at their shrunken coverings as they slope apologetically in search of scraps. And, of course, the fervent militants, the enemy, who are perhaps the only things to have ever been here by choice.
Patch Roberts is not here by choice. It’s true that no-one forced him to enlist, there was no draft to be obeyed, but there are other ways for a decision to taken for you, such as a need for money and a lack of palatable ways to get it, that combine to gradually constrict your options. And he has certainly not chosen to be here, not while Sarah lies at home, swollen and anxious. Catching the scorpion is the best thing to have happened to him since Sarah greeted him on his last leave with a tearful, beaming smile.
It’s not only the rarity of his prisoner that sends Patch running to the mess tent in excitement, although its announcement is certain to afford him a little celebrity. It is also the distractions from the dry tedium of the routine of patrols, meals, cards, and sleep it promises: rats can be fed to it in a variety of ways, or, if someone can repeat Patch’s feat, scorpion battles can be fought, the winner’s owner rewarded with cigarettes, admiration, and pornography.
The first question is, inevitably, a challenge: “Let’s see it then.” This comes from Tommy Walsh, a squat nucleus of rage who, as he says it, is sat red and bulging from his white t-shirt on George Charles’ lap while George strokes his hair. There is nothing sexual in this arrangement, and any suggestion to the contrary would be met with a quick and violent denial. Both Tommy and George have girls back home. But here in the long, lonely days, comfort creeps in through whatever crack it can find. Like sand.
“It’s outside.” They gather around the plastic prison in eager, bristling anticipation. Its occupant hisses and scuttles against each wall, but there’s no exit to be found. Above it a series of holes punched with nail scissors let in taunting dry air, as fresh as exists here. Patch basks in the glory. “See the stick?” he says, pointing. “That’s how I got it. It ran in there and whumpf, fucker’s trapped.”
Tommy is reluctantly impressed, but seizes on a remaining flaw. “How you gonna move him?” Patch opens his mouth to reply then stops. It’s a good question. The floor of the scorpion’s cell is the same ground they’re stood on; if they pick up the box it will be free.
“We just gotta slide something under, like with a spider. Tommy, go get a magazine.” Tommy does, without argument – not just because George is his commanding officer, but because it’s a good idea. Tommy has a horde of old magazines under his bunk, which are sometimes the envy of the rest of the unit, but more often the disgust.
He comes back grinning. “Bit tame for me,” he says, handing it over. The others can’t quite keep the revulsion from their faces, which Tommy clearly enjoys. They pinch up as though they’re in the compound lav in the afternoon heat.
“Jesus,” mutters Patch. He lifts the box a fraction, just enough to fit the edge of the magazine under. The scorpion watches him with glittering eyes.
“Wait wait wait!”
“We should get some for the sides,” says Tommy. “They can squeeze through dead small, like rats.”
“Sure you’ve got enough?”
“Yeah, I’ve got enough,” Tommy leers, and disappears again, this time returning with three more magazines. It’s a delicate operation: Patch gradually slides one magazine under, while George clamps another one on each side, so that at no point is there a chance for the scorpion to escape. Tommy, having supplied the materials, lies back with the remaining magazine.
Eventually, with a jolt that makes all three of them tense up, Patch lifts the far end of the box up and onto the magazine cover. The scorpion skids a little on its glossy new world, and it makes a scattering tapping sound as it crawls over a luscious blonde who wants to show off her favourite toys.
“Did you have to put it cover up?”
“I’m not turning it over.”
The box is only a little smaller than the magazine, which poses a fresh challenge: the scorpion might knock it off its flat, filthy platform. Tommy suggests using the centrefold rather than the cover, but this is quickly rejected – there would be no way to do it without creating a gap at the crease. Then George fetches a boot from the pile awaiting repair and sits it on top of the box, leaving the airholes clear.
“The fucker’s not getting out now.”
The night shift starts at eight, although they have been up since four, the heat driving them from their sheets as the afternoon sun made rest tortuous. The sky is already as dark as ink when they go to the gate of the compound to relieve the day shift, and the lack of sleep is as usual catching up with them. Nevertheless, they are glad to be there: there is often as little to do on shift as off, but at least there is the possibility of an incident to keep them alert. Too long without patrol and you become sluggish, accustomed to the blurring of hours, days, and your thoughts.
It is a relief, too, to be free of the confines of the compound, to not feel trapped or pinned down, to feel like free soldiers again, if only for 12 grinding hours at a time.
“Much happen?” calls George to Sajid as he leads the day’s team in.
Sajid replies with a shake of the head. “Couple of convoys in the morning, no trouble. They’ve gone quiet on us.”
“Alright. Get some sleep, we’ll take it from here.”
The three of them walk past their counterparts with nods of acknowledgment, and are several steps away when Tommy turns and calls back: “Don’t let the scorpion out!”
“Bastard,” mutters Patch, but it’s too late – the day shift have turned, their interest piqued, and he has little choice but to explain. They finally depart with promises not to touch the box, but as soon as they’re out of earshot Patch turns to Tommy. “What you do that for?”
“It’ll still be there.”
“Better had be.”
George has tolerated the delay to the start of their shift, but he has no interest in his men bickering, and tells them so. In his camo he is an intimidating figure; it is easy to forget that underneath the khaki he has a suaveness that wouldn’t look out of place in a casino.
Their task tonight is the same as every shift: prevent the militants from laying improvised explosive devices on this stretch of the supply artery, and see the safe passage of any convoy that comes through. The fighting is mostly further south, and the men here often liken themselves in disgust to security guards rather than soldiers. They sit in shallow trenches along the side of the road, and wait.
It would be more bearable if they could relax, but any lapse in concentration could mean disaster for their men elsewhere, and they are loyal and proud. So they take up their positions a few dozen yards apart, and listen for any unexpected sound, knowing that anything they do hear will more than likely be a dog. Sometimes an overzealous soldier will shoot one scuffling on the road, although the distinction between reflexes and boredom is murky.
In the oppressive, empty hours, with nothing to occupy him, Patch often finds his thoughts drifting. This is the lesser form of shirking, private, and his eyes stay on the road at all times even as his attention travels. Tonight he wonders whether the militants work in shifts too. He supposes they must. He’s never previously thought of them as anything other than an amorphous mass, but now he realises that this is untenable. He enjoys thinking things through like this; it is satisfying, and brings a sense of completion.
Unlike the rest of the company (most vocally Tommy) and contrary to what he knows from the occasional deliveries of weeks-old newspapers to be the prevailing view back home, Patch feels no particular hatred for the men on the other side of the road. He sees his role here as a neutral one: he’s doing a job. He holds no strong feelings about the war, and in his mind he is carrying out his tasks in the same routine way an office worker would. But this equilibrium is threatened by the realisation that the men he might kill – and who might kill him – are not some seething mass, but a collection of individuals. The idea troubles him throughout the long, quiet night, and when it is over he gives himself up to his bed just as soon as he is satisfied that the scorpion is still safe in its clear plastic prison.
The next days bring a period of time off, and a letter from Sarah, both of which help to distract Patch from the weariness in his body and mind, and the sand that has invaded his hair, shoes, clothes, and even food. But of most help is the scorpion. He has guarded it closely from the others, who would have risked its escape in pursuit of their own enjoyment. His reluctance – and occasional refusal – to allow them access to his arachnoid charge has meant their interest has waned and he can now tend to it without fear of interruption.
He feeds it rats. Sometimes dead if he finds one, but more often alive. The first time he released one into the box, slowly and carefully, he feared it might overpower the scorpion. But its writhing bulk was no match for the poison, and soon it was shuddering on the floor, and soon it stopped shuddering altogether.
Every few days he lifts the box to clear the bones. The scorpion never makes a move to escape, but he is careful anyway; he thinks it would be more likely than not to return after a brief foray of freedom, but he is not sure enough of this to test it. If it did flee he would have no hope of catching it, and he’s seen no others. In this strange hostile environment, without Sarah or a surrogate to provide comfort, he has developed something akin to a connection with the scorpion. He enjoys its malevolent presence.
After a few weeks of night shifts, the roles reverse, and soon enough Patch finds himself watching the barren road in the stifling heat. The dogs are scratching in the dry dirt; they are the only living things to be seen. If there are militants on the far side of the track, there is no sign of them. Not that Patch minds the uneventful shift: today he has broken a promise to himself, and brought the scorpion with him.
The first few hours are the most enjoyable of a shift for a long time, except for the brief moment when he wonders what Sarah would make of his new pastime. In order to keep it from Tommy and Charles he has taken an end posting for the day; even without being able to touch it, the scorpion offers a sort of companionship that can’t be found among the men.
He is not, however, oblivious to his duties. He has made a pact that in return for his smuggled distraction he will be more alert than ever, so when Tommy silently signals that a convoy is approaching, he leaves the scorpion in its box and focuses. The few moments as the convoy passes are taut: it is in this short span of time that an oversight can be revealed, or a particular cunning of the enemy be made known, in the most brutal way.
There is a distant rumble, which could be mistaken for thunder if that was ever a possibility out here. The trucks are travelling at some speed – hitting an IED at speed has much the same effect as hitting one slowly, but speed makes ambushes less likely. Soon the sound swells to a roar. When he was young, Patch would watch speedway with his uncle, and he’s never lost the love of the tang and howl of engines. When his son is born (he is secretly sure it will be a son) he’ll take him too.
As the convoy, all six trucks laden with food, ammunition, boots, and body armour, hammers through it scuffs up a tide of dust that pushes towards Patch. He needs to be able to see any sudden charge, so he steps back to give himself a better view – and in doing so, he kicks the box that contains the scorpion off its magazine plinth.
His first thought is a low shock of pain as the boot falls from the box onto his exposed ankle. Only as the rattle of the trucks recedes and his tension falls does he realise the consequence of his slip.
He looks around at the upturned box, then the sand around it, looking for anything that might show the direction the scorpion has gone. There is nothing: its scuttling is light and deft enough to leave no trace.
But then. Movement from the corner of his eye. Something small and black, shining in the sun, scrabbling over the ridge into the road. Patch watches it through the swirling cloud of dust, and then, before he can think, he hurls himself after it.
The shots ring out quick and loud. Then there is silence – one group of men is tense, waiting for another invader, the other confused. All is still, save for an unnoticed arachnid darting over the sand, and the interested lope of dogs towards the carcass in the road.
Tommy takes his chance: the dog nearest to Patch collapses in a blood-burst heap. George fires the next shot, and in the absence of returning fire, the two of them continue to shoot until the dogs are dead or scared off, off to find another meal.