I have written this story to try to raise some cash for a truly wonderful charity - Clark's Little Ark. They play a lead role in the tale which unfolds below. Sadly the animal sanctuary has lost much of its grazing over recent months and they are having to find £250 a month for the hay and straw they need. If they cannot find the cash, the donkeys will have to go and live elsewhere which would be a crying shame.
If you enjoy the book, maybe you will follow the link below and donate a couple of quid towards the cost of feeding the animals. Hell, even if you absolutely hate the book you can still help to feed the donkeys. Let's face it, it's hardly their fault if you think the story is a load of rubbish! There is one thing I can absolutely promise - you couldn't possibly find a more worthy cause to support.
If you enjoy the book, maybe you will follow the link below and donate a couple of quid towards the cost of feeding the animals. Hell, even if you absolutely hate the book you can still help to feed the donkeys. Let's face it, it's hardly their fault if you think the story is a load of rubbish! There is one thing I can absolutely promise - you couldn't possibly find a more worthy cause to support.
WHEN BROKEN LIVES MEND
I guess it all started with Terry Collins. Well. Not all of it. Just my part in it. And even that isn't really true. Because all I got on the day Terry came to call was a snap shot. A clip from a movie filmed five years ago in a place thousands of miles away. A series of pictures painted by a guy who was a whole lot more busted up than he knew. And a name.
Not Billy and Tanimu. Not then. That came later. And maybe the two names might have become the title of this story as their two lives became intertwined.
'Billy and Tanimu'
How their lives came together defied all odds. It happened in a particular place and time. Some might call it fate. I don't know what I call it. Just life I guess.
But I am digressing. I'm way ahead of myself. Because like I said up at the top of the page, it all started with Terry Collins. I arrived at work just after twelve on a slow, icy afternoon in February to find his name in the diary.
'Terry Collins. Vets Project.' He was due in the next day. Wednesday. At one o'clock. So I asked Anne what the story was and she said he had phoned just after eleven. He wanted to find out more about the Veterans Project. So she made him an appointment and told him we would look forward to meeting him tomorrow. Yeah, Anne is always very polite. We like to think we all are.
Wednesday was every bit as grey and cold as Tuesday. The Christmas break seemed a very distant memory whilst the promise of summer was as false as an election promise. The wall heaters were fighting a losing battle to clear to cold out of the building and I was seriously tempted to put a pair of gloves on.
Voices downstairs. Footsteps on the stairs. Anne first. Then my one o' clock. Not a tall man. Five seven maybe. As lean as a greyhound. Marks and Spencers from head to toe. Beige slacks and a navy blue golfing jacket. Polo neck shirt. The shoes? Oh yeah. Of course. Shined up within an inch of their lives.
How old? Hard to tell. Terry had the physique of a twenty five year old and the thin hair and wrinkled face of a sixty year old. His handshake rattled my knuckles. I suggested a chair and he sat. And suddenly I was locked on to his eyes. Gleaming somehow. Anger? Fear? An intensity certainly. Not just any old eyes. Windows onto a restless soul.
We worked our way through a few pleasantries. Tea? Coffee?
How do you take it? I asked, but I would have happily stuck a £50 bet on the answer.
It's always 'NATO' with lads like Terry Collins. Lads in their forties and fifties who once upon a time manned the front line in Germany with ten thousand Soviet tanks waiting on the other side. Why 'NATO' became army speak for milk and two sugars I have no idea. Sometimes I have asked but the only answer I have ever received is a shrug. Who knows. It's just what it is. Milk and two. 'NATO'. You ken? Aye. I ken.
By the time I got back to the table with one coffee 'NATO' and one coffee black, Terry's eyes were quartering the room around him.
Was it a case of old habits dying hard? How many exits? Blindspots? Ways in, ways out. Or was it unhappiness at the wretched state of the walls where our once leaky roof had left a permanant mark.
"Your walls are a mess."
I sat and nodded and explained.
"Going to fix them up?"
"Maybe. It's all down to cash Terry. Welcome to the Voluntary Sector."
A crease on the forehead. Digesting. Processing.
"Aye. Suppose so."
And now the restless eyes were wandering all over my work area like a couple of cornered mice. And they were far from happy with the general chaos. Had we been in a different time and place, I would have been in a world of trouble for being responsible for such a disgracefully unkempt personal space. I would have been peeling spuds all day, every day for a week. I would have been cleaning the parade ground with a toothbrush. And now the eyes flickered with anger at a world which needed to be ordered in the British Army way. He drummed his fingers. I could see the first inch of a tattoo under the cuff of his golfing jacket. I would have happily bet £50 on that as well.
I told him all about the First Base Veterans Project. How long. How many. Those we have done our best to help since 2010. Our walled garden. And all the while he sipped at his NATO coffee with a trademark ram rod back. Controlled violence on the inside and bland Marks and Spencers on the outside. A coiled spring.
"So Terry. Tell me about yourself. What we can do for you?"
And the eyes shot up to the level of mine.
"I'm OK. Fine. Just want to find out about what you do. That's all."
"Fair enough. What Regiment were you in?"
"KOSB. Then 1 Scots."
The Kings Own Scottish Borderers who had hundreds of years of history closed down when the MOD re-branded them into 1 Scots ten years or so
"The full 22."
Ah. The magic number. The full 22 years. A full term. A full race run. A full pension earned.
"When did you leave?"
I wondered if I was in for an hour or so of these clipped, pared down answers. Bare bones. Facts fired out in controlled bursts. Words used as carefully as conserved bullets in a fire fight. Pick your target. Short bursts lads.
"Ireland I guess?"
"Aye. Bessbrook Mill. Heard of it, have you?"
I nodded. "Sure. South Armargh, right?"
"Right. Fucking bandit country."
And with that Terry Collins was up and running. Like a human tele-printer. Twenty two years rattled out like an end of day report. All of it. A tough start in life on a scheme where not many of the men worked. Bits and pieces of bother with the cops, mostly for fighting. Shit exam results. A dad who buggered off when he was thirteen. And older brother doing a five in Barlinnie for a botched attempt to rob a Spar shop. A sister with three kids to three fathers all of whom had made like his own dad and buggered off.
And then a moment of clarity. A realisation that nothing good was ever going to happen if he stayed on the scheme and hung out with the lads he had hung out with since primary school. He needed out before he went down the same road as his brother.
And back then in the dying days of Thatcher there was only one way out for a tearaway Schemie like Terry Collins. The way out was nothing new. The way out had been the same for hundreds of years. The way out was a bus ride to a nearby town and an appointment at an Army Careers office where a sergeant from Airdrie had smooth talked him into signing on the dotted line and the King's shilling.
He ran through the back story through a further three cups of NATO. Basic training in the days when recruits were proper beasted. Really proper beasted. Kicked ten bells of shite out of us, so they did. Bastards. But when he said 'bastards' he said it with a smile.
A passing out parade and photos for his mum's living room wall. A year in barracks and then long hard months in the boggy fields of South Armargh. Bandit country. Three lads shot but none of them dead. One IRA guy slotted. Taken down from 40 yards with an SLR. Not by Terry. By the Sarge. Three bullets to the chest. Dead and gone before an ambulance was anywhere close. They had a right piss up after that one. A massive piss up.
A life laid out year by year. The corporal's course. The sergeant's course. A fiance. A wife. A house. A divorce. Her still in the house. Wed to a truck driver now. Well, he thought she was. Last he heard. Best of luck to her. But his eyes suggested something different. Something altogether harsher. I figured she was better off being with her truck driver.
Then it was Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice and his voice accelerated. By now it was like his hands had a life of their own. Now they were flat on the table. Now they were bunched into his pockets. Now they were rattling a pen on the table top to emphasise a point. And now there was a new mantra which Terry kept returning to over and over again.
"Lads were getting fucked up. I mean really fucked. Fucked in the head, you ken? Aye I know. You said. PTSD. You seen it, right? Ken what it's like. I was lucky. I was OK. But some of the younger ones...."
I was lucky. I was OK. Terry kept on telling me that. But it wasn't really me he was telling. I was nothing more than a sounding board. He was talking straight to himself. Over and over. I was lucky. I was all right. I AM all right. I WILL be all right. I have to be all right because I was a colour sergeant in the British army and we are carved from granite. We take what gets thrown at us. All of it. Just like growing up in the scheme. Just like when they beasted us at Catterick.
We take it and we take it and we take it again.
Not that he said any of this. Not in words. In his eyes. Those gleaming, angry eyes. In words he just kept on repeating his mantra. I was lucky. I was all right.
There was no point arguing the point. Had I argued the point he would have got angry and left. So I let him run.
Then he caught me on the hop.
"Aye. Outside. I'm not so good at sitting still. I get... I don't know. Feel trapped. Well. Not trapped. Just edgy. Best if I can walk. That OK?"
"Sure. Fine by me."
I got my keys and coat and we went downstairs and outside. I locked the front door whilst Terry scanned up and down the the street. I could sense him flicking his eyes along all the first floor windows. All the pedestrians.
And then we walked along the river Nith on a cold, grey February afternoon. Dog walkers walked dogs. Mothers pushed prams. Old guys sat alone on benches and thought about better times. Seagulls bounced around waiting for the chance of a dropped crisp. A mother duck led her ducklings across the slow moving water.
Terry had a Lambert and Butler going within thirty seconds of stepping outside. He offered me one and I said cheers but no and lit up one of my own rollies.
He was more and more animated as we walked. Anger at the Army rolled out. And anger at the Government for all of their penny pinching. Soft skinned Land Rovers and not enough body armour to go round. The new SA80 rifles which jammed all the time and were a complete bunch of shite. A fucking disgrace. And the fucking shite food. Meals ready to fucking eat. You wouldn't feed it to your worst enemy. And the bloody Yanks who had everything they needed. Christ they were eating steaks like nothing you've ever seen. And nobody had a fucking clue what they were supposed to be doing there. In Iraq. One the second tour all they did was hide out at the airport whilst the ragheads lobbed mortar shells over the perimeter fence. A complete joke. Living in fucking containers which were like fucking ovens and all so that smarmy, lying twat Blair could pretend it was all worth something.
He was angry now. Agitated. I could see why he didn't want to sit. He needed the space to wave his arms around. To make his point. To get it off his chest.
The first tour of Afghan was even worse. In Iraq it was mainly kids chucking rocks, but Afghan was war fighting. Proper war fighting. Every fucking day, so it was.
And now he was chain smoking. There was Edwards who had his knee shredded by a round from an AK. McDonald and Fleming who got mashed up by an IED. In a soft skinned Land Rover so they were, and a few days later that twat Blair was on the telly saying there weren't any soft skinned Land Rovers in Afghan. And Bennet. Took a round to the thigh and it got the main artery. Forty minutes before the Chinook turned up. Forty fucking minutes while Terry kept the belt as tight as he could keep it and all the while Bennet's blood drained out of him. Lost the leg, so he did. Poor bastard. Well fucked. A pure alkie now. A bottle of vodka a day. In Falkirk. Well, last I heard. Fucking joke. When a Yank got fragged they always had a 'Dust Off' chopper there in five minutes tops. Five fucking minutes. Seriously. If it had been five minutes they would have saved Bennet's leg. Seriously. The company medic told me. Raging so he was. Fucking raging. We all were. Cannon fodder. That's what we were. Same as always. Nobody gave a shite.
He stopped and stared out across the water. Out into the coldness of the Solway Firth. Over the dead grass and skeletal trees. He took a moment and sucked hard on his cigarette. He gathered himself. He stared all the way past the mountains of the Lake District.
And there it was. The famous thousand yard stare first identified in the jungles of Vietnam.
And all of a sudden he was walking again. Fast. Way too fast for me.
"Hey Terry. Steady on mate."
"Aye. Sorry. Forgot."
A jogger came and went complete with a nod of the head. A spaniel wagged furiously as it buried its head into a backthorn bush. A buzzard carved circles in the greyness.
And Terry Collins arrived at the last year of his 22. His full 22. His journey's end. The moment when enough was finally enough. The last straw.
"That last tour... it was..... Christ, I don't know. It was just pure shite. A joke. There was this FOB, see. Bad FOB so it was. A fucking awful FOB. You ken a FOB, right?"
I nodded. FOB. As in 'Forward Operating Base'.
"I knew it was all going to go tits up from the get go. I mean seriously. For fuck's sake. We were supposed to be a Company but we were twenty men short. Had this young Captain in charge. Wet behind the fucking ears so he was. First tour. Toffee nosed prick. Fancied himself as the next Duke of Wellington. The soft bastard was reading Kipling on the plane over. Honest. No kidding. Fucking Kipling.
'We were just a disaster waiting to happen. Cameron had already announced we were going to be buggering off so there really wasn't much point any more. Not that there had ever been any point. Not that we could see. Half of the best guys had jacked it in after the first tour. Nearly did myself. Wish I had. But like an idiot I decided to hang on for the the full 22. The pension, ken? All that shite for a lousy fucking pension. Should have had my stupid head examined. Two thirds of the boys had never seen any combat. I was the only NCO to have served overseas and Captain Rogerson... like I said. He was just a joke. Pure fucking joke."
He sort of shook his head. A bit like a wet dog.
"There were these two lads. Only eighteen. Three weeks out of Catterick and the Army had them on a plane to Kenya for pre-deployment training. Billy and Daz. Billy Dodds and Darren Hendrick."
And suddenly it seemed like a very different Terry Collins was speaking. The edge came off his barking voice. He stopped his furious walking and stood at the river's edge. He was like a boiling pan of water turned down to simmer. His smoking became less frenzied and more considered.
"Three weeks and straight on the plane. I mean, for fuck's sake. When I joined up they would keep you in the garrison for at least two years before sending you anywhere near Ireland. They knew lads needed time to adjust to their Regiment. To fit in. Find a place. Be ready. Billy and Daz weren't ready. Not even close. Just pure cannon fodder. Fuck."
He tossed his cigarette into the dark water and slumped onto a bench. The light was thickening now and there were less dog walkers sharing our path. I could sense closeness to the real heart of the matter. The real journey's end. The acid that was eating through the soul of Terry Collins.
He lit another and spoke in a much quieter voice. Not nearly so angry now. A monotone.
"I'm not saying they were bad soldiers, mind. They could have been OK. Billy was a quiet one. Came from some farm in the middle of nowhere. Whenever we did cross country in Kenya the little bastard always won by a mile. Fit as a butcher's dog so he was. Well organised too. Could never fault his kit. Everything always squared away. And never a peep out of him. His Catterick report only had one adverse comment. Said he lacked aggression. Not enough for them not to pass him though. Not ideal for some kid headed out to Helmand though. It's the way it is with some of them. Too nice for a war zone. That was Billy. Poor bastard. Him and Daz palled up at Catterick. They were the only two lads from south west Scotland. It was all they had in common, but it was enough. Came to the Regiment like a pair of fucking twins so they did."
For the first time Terry's hard face slipped into what might have passed for a small smile.
"Like chalk and fucking cheese so they were. Christ. Daz. Daz was the complete opposite to Billy in every way. I suppose I took a bit of a shine to him. He reminded me of me I suppose. Proper little Schemie so he was. Came from Dumfries. Sunnybank Estate. You'll know it right?"
I nodded. Sure I knew it. Of course I knew it. I'd known it for thirteen years.
"A couple of the lads told me the Hendricks were one of those families, yeah? Bad fuckers. His dad was away in Shotts for dealing. Doing a ten they said. Big brother was a smackhead. Snuffed it when Daz was fourteen. OD. Daz was looking like he would follow all the same footsteps. But then some Criminal Justice Social Worker managed to connect with him and sold him on the idea of joining up. He was in all sorts of bother right the way through Catterick. I'm not surprised. Proper mouthy wee shite so he was. But there was no way they were ever going to fail him. Not a chance. The British Army loves the likes of Daz. Always has, always will. Tough wee bastards from tough upbringings. They make great soldiers. The best. They're the reason why the British Army never breaks no matter how much shite comes down from the Government and the MOD and the fucking REMFs. Know about REMFs do you?"
I did. Just like I knew about 'NATO' coffee. You pick these things up. In time..
"'Rear Echelon Motherfuckers'?"
Another ghost of a smile. And a dreadful sadness. What was coming wasn't about to be anything approaching good.
"I knew we were going to be fucked within a couple of days of landing at Bastion. We were only supposed to be there for five days of acclimatisation before trucking up to the FOB. Didn't happen. A week went by. Then two. And every day Captain Rogerson would try and get some proper orders and every day they would give him a load of bullshit. So I asked around. Talked to other sergeants. Brits, Yanks, Aussies. Word was the FOB we were headed to was a right bastard. They hadn't been able to re-supply by road for weeks. The Taliban owned all the roads in and out. Re-supply by chopper only. The FOB was a complete basket case. Eventually somebody managed to cut a deal with the Yanks to provide the transport. Three Chinooks and three Apaches to ride shotgun. Just to get us in and the Royal Welsh out. So, yeah. We knew we were completely fucked before we left Bastion. Oh aye, we knew that all right."
It was his first time in a helicopter and it was brilliant. He had always wanted to take a ride in a helicopter and now here he was thundering across the sun bleached ground of Helmand Province at 100 mph. Theirs was the one on the right and Billy could see the other two giant birds lined up next to them whilst the Apaches ducked and buzzed around them like zealous kestrels. He seemed to be the only one showing any interest in the ground below. Daz was lost in whatever was playing through his headphones. Same as most of the other lads. It was too loud to talk. Everyone was acting casual. Like what they were doing was nothing. Like being part of a multi-million dollar air armada was run of the mill. He got it. It was their way.
But unlike the others, Billy was fascinated by the ground below. Most of all he was fascinated by the young shepherds with their flocks of skinny sheep and goats. And the complete and utter lack of any kind of decent grazing. This was very much his world. A large chunk of his eighteen years had been spent up on the hills above Beattock with the family flock of sheep. And Angus. The family sheep dog. His right hand. His constant companion.
Billy knew well enough how hard it was to make a success of keeping sheep on the green hillsides of their farm. So how on earth did these people manage? Everything below was desert. Well it looked like desert.
Watching the flocks below the thundering blades send his mind back to the world he had run from. This wasn't something he made a habit of. Why would he? There was nothing back there to want to return to. Just a series of snapshots of terrible things. At the time he hadn't really known how completely awful his life on the farm had been. How could he have? It had been the only life he had known. For him it had been the norm. The events which framed his childhood rolled through his mind like a slideshow. Lying in his cold room and trying not to hear the sounds from downstairs. His father's rage. His mother's fear. The mornings when his mum made his breakfast with yet another black eye. Watching her hopeless attempts to hide from him how drunk she was. Pretending he hadn't noticed. The morning when he was nine years old when there was no breakfast because there was no mother any more. His mother had left in the night. His mother had fled to her sister in Alloa.
And she never came back. And she never called or wrote. She just went, leaving the only him and his dad. And once his mother had gone it was Billy who had been the only target for his father's ever present anger. And nothing he ever did was right. Always wrong. Always sub standard. Useless. Pathetic. Constant criticism delivered with constant rage. Delivered with fists and boots. And now it was Billy's turn to eat his breakfast with a black eye. To be kept from school until all visible marks had healed.
The hills were his only escape from the constant brutality of the cold house. He lived as much of his life up on the hills as he could. With the sheep and with Angus. With the buzzards and the curlews and the lapwings and the skylarks. In the sun and in the rain. In the heat and in the cold. And without being aware of it, he became a part of the empty landscape.
Things got much worse when he was thirteen. The next door farm got permission for twenty windmills. A literal £200,000 a year windfall. His dad had dreamed it would be their farm. But it wasn't their farm. It was the next door farm. And his dad's anger darkened. So Billy started to sleep out more and more. Under the stars and in the rain. Almost immune to either heat or cold. He was as evolved to the elements as Angus.
Angus was the only one Billy ever talked to. Night after night as they sat by flickering flames. There was nobody else. No mother. No brothers and sisters. No grandparents. No mates. Just Angus. But Angus was a great listener.
He left school at sixteen with a few exams to his name. For a while a few lads had tried to bully him for his weirdness, but they had soon given up. Trying to bully Billy Dodds was like trying to bully a lump of granite. Pointless and boring. Through his ten years of school he never made a friend. He didn't know how.
By the time he turned eighteen he knew the farm was in trouble. By now his dad was drinking more or less all the time. There were no more beatings. Both father and son knew those days were over. The son had become too strong and too tall to beat. All his father had left were slurred and bitter words. Billy tuned them out. One by one supply companies cut off lines of credit and things started to fall apart.
Then Angus died. In his sleep. In the depth of a stormy autumn night. Billy woke to find himself next to the cold, lifeless corpse of the only friend he had ever known.
And he had cried for the first time in many years. Not for long. Just an hour or so. Then he went mechanical. He took a shovel from the barn and buried Angus high up on the side of the valley.
The view from the unmarked grave was of the twenty giant windmills.
He packed up a few clothes and the pieces of paper that confirmed his existence. He walked ten miles to the main road. He hitched a lift into Dumfries, walked into the Army Careers office and signed on the dotted line.
Catterick was the best time of his life by a country mile. He was always first in all things physical. His trainers couldn't get their heads around the quiet lad who couldn't be bullied. Everything they said and everything they did bounced off him. He took it with a smile. All of it. And there was so much to smile about. For the first time in his life he had some money in his pocket. For the first time in his life he was a part of a group. For the first time in his life he had a friend with two legs and no fur. A friend who actually talked back. A friend who talked all the time from dawn till dusk and made Billy laugh.
They had come from very different fractured lives, but it didn't matter. They became inseparable. They were like one.
Billy had really thought nothing could ever be better than Catterick. But Kenya was better. Kenya was like a dream. When they were given some time for themselves he had spent every penny he had to his name on touring the game parks. Amboseli. Tsavo. Magical kingdoms for the boy who loved animals better than people. A perfect wilderness for the boy who had become a part of his own landscape.
And now he was a part of a new adventure. Not that he had bought into all the big talk they had killed time with at Bastion. Billy had never in his life played an Xbox so he had no false illusions. What was coming would be hard. But life had never been anything but hard. He wasn't phased. He was fascinated.
He would have liked the flight to have lasted much longer than forty minutes. He would have liked it to last all day.
Their arrival at the FOB was all noise and dust and barked commands. It took less than five minutes for the giant Chinooks to pour out eighty Scottish soldiers and return to the burning blue sky and then back to Camp Bastion.
Waiting for them were 86 soldiers of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. And a hand painted sign hung up from one of the containers.
"Welcome to Fort Apache."
By now the anger had all but drained out of him. He sat on the bench with his elbows on his knees and he stared out into the fading light. He seemed smaller now. Quieter.
"Christ Mark, you should have seen the fucking place. That FOB. Tiny, so it was. Maybe a third of a football pitch. There were eight containers laid out in a box shape with sandbags plugging the gaps. You could see where the incoming rounds had dented the metal. The daft Welsh twats had hung up this sign. 'Welcome to Fort Apache'. Dickheads.
'We could see what it was like in their faces. Usually it would be all banter. Typical piss taking. Not this lot. Quiet as fuck. Just staring really. Like they were in some shitty zombie movie."
He pulled out his packet only to find it empty. I offered one of mine which he duly took and lit up.
"Rogerson went into one of the containers to get his brief from their CO. I got the corporals busy sorting the lads out and then collared their sergeant for a brew and a heads up. Well he didn't bother pulling any punches. No time. The Chinooks were due back in a hour to pick them up. He told me the FOB was a complete fuck up. They had given up patrolling four months earlier. No point. The Taliban were everywhere and leaving the FOB was borderline suicidal. Twice they had found themselves in pretty heavy firefights and called in air support only to get empty skies. To start with there had been a weekly re-supply convoy, but it had stopped months before. Now they bought most of their provisions from the head man in the town who sent his son out once a day with all the stuff loaded on the back of a donkey. They knew the kid was almost certainly briefing the Taliban all about the layout of the FOB but what the fuck else were they supposed to do? They'd lost all confidence in the re-supply choppers which hardly ever turned up when they said they would. Anyway, how much could the Hadji's find out? There were hardly any secrets. Eighty seven fucking sitting ducks hiding out behind a few poxy containers. Sometimes the Talibs came in the night to lob in a few mortar shells. Not that often. Once a fortnight or so. It had been three months since they had tried a full on attack. He told me to beg, borrow and steal as much ammo as I could because when they came we would need every bullet we could lay our hands on.
'After 50 minutes we could hear the Chinooks coming back. Rogerson came out with their Rupert and he had the look of a man who had shat his pants. The choppers landed and the Welsh jumped on board and fucked off. And that was that. Fort Apache was all ours."
By now it was all but dark and the cold was starting to eat through my coat. I wondered if I should suggest a move. No. Let him keep going. My instincts told me there weren't too many miles left on the journey.
"Once we had ourselves squared away Rogerson had us line the boys up for a briefing. Christ, what a complete and utter twat he was. Stood there with his hands behind his back like he thought he was General Montgomery or something. Said we might have heard that the Royal Welsh had stopped patrolling. Well we were not the Royal Welsh. We were 1 Scots and we would be patrolling. We would be following our orders. We would widen the perimeter and secure the perimeter. We would secure intelligence and we would forward it on. We would clear the Taliban from the town and resume work on the school. We would complete the mission in the tradition of the Regiment. When he was done I actually think he expected the lads to cheer or something. Wanker. Instead there was just complete silence and he looked like a little lost kid. I can still picture him standing there not really knowing what to do with himself. I suppose I should feel sorry for the daft twat, but I don't. The Welsh CO was on his way out. He'd handed in his papers so he had. Just wanted to get through the tour with as few lads hurt as possible. What the fuck was the point in doing anything else? The whole thing was done and dusted. Cameron had already said we were getting out. But Rogerson was an ambitious bastard. He saw himself on the General Staff pulling down a hundred and fifty grand a year. And if his career path required patrolling, then we would be patrolling. End of."
He gave me a look which was half hopeful and half apologetic. I nodded and crashed another fag.
"So the next morning we went out on patrol. Eight o clock sharp. 40 guys out and 40 left to hold the fort. It probably made sense to someone. Not to us it didn't. We saw it for exactly what it was. A feather in Rogerson's cap. A tick in the box. And you know what, it probably was. I have no idea where the fucker is now. How far up the ladder he's got. I can't stand to think about him. But he had his patrol. Just the one. Because after that morning we never stepped out of Fort Apache again."
Their official wake up time was 5 am, but Billy was awake from three. His stomach was filled with a mix of excitement and terror which breakfast did little to settle. They put on their kit layer by layer until the heat was almost overwhelming. At first there was plenty of bravado but by seven o'clock a tense silence settled over Fort Apache. They had written their death letters the previous evening. All weapons were gleaming clean. All boots were laced and double knot tied. Helmets were strapped tight. Sweat was coursing down spines.
Daz was fidgeting, but Billy was still.
At seven forty five they received a final briefing. This time it was Sergeant Collins who laid out the game plan. Two lines of twenty, either side of the road. Every man would be ten yards behind the man in front. Not more than ten yards. Not less than ten yards. They would be Squad One and Squad Two. Squad One on the right side of the road. Squad Two on the left side of the road. Findley and Macintosh would lead out with the IED detectors. He would be in the centre of Squad One. Rogerson would be at the centre of Squad Two. They would walk one mile to the edge of the town. They would walk a quarter of a mile through the centre of the town. They would turn and walk back one quarter of a mile through the centre of the town. They would walk one mile back to Fort Apache.
Walk in. Walk out. Announce themselves. Let the Hadji bastards know 1 Scots were here. Let the Hadji's know 1 Scots were not about to be fucked about.
Just like what they had practised in Kenya, right? By the book. By muscle memory.
No heroics. No bollocks. Walk in. Walk out. Eyes open. Everyone alert. Everyone on their toes. No fucking day dreaming.
Right then. Let's get it fucking done.
The metal gates swung open and they filed out into the burning sunlight. A cracked up road cutting a line through a baked flat plain. Drainage ditches either side. To drain what?
Heat haze. Already. Even at eight o'clock.
Hot as hell. Hotter. Sweat in the eyes. Sweat on the hands. Weapons cradled in the ready position. Hot metal. The soft sound of eighty pairs of boots crunching the gravel.
Half a mile.
The town clear through the shimmer. Halt. Wait out. Check in over the net. Check the full 360. Move.
Quiet. Ridiculously quiet. Mundane. Boring. Flat. Hot.
300 yards to edge of the town. Town? Barely. Low clay buildings. One street. Street? Barely. How many? Intell said just over 2000 but there was not a single, solitary human being to be seen. Just a couple of skinny dogs. Just the big birds of prey gliding the thermals overhead.
Stop. Wait out. Check in on the net. A dog rooting in a busted up cardboard box. The smell of open drains.
But no people. Not a soul. Not a twitch of life.
Billy was number seven in Squad One.
Daz was number six in Squad One.
"The Hadji's lit us up when we were two hundred yards out. One minute it was as quiet as the grave. The next minute all fucking hell let loose. I guess there must have been thirty or so guns. They were inside. We were outside. And what happened was what was always going to happen. The lads who had been under fire before hit the deck. The first timers completely froze up.
'I was in the middle of Squad One. Daz was thirty yards in front of me when he went down."
At first Billy couldn't comprehend what was happening. The hot, still air all around him seemed to come alive. Suddenly Daz fell. A trip? Then the sound caught up with the bullets and Billy started to compute. Gunfire. Incoming. Not a trip. And he saw Daz's leg didn't look like a leg should look. Frozen shock on Daz's face as he looked at the mush of gristle and bone which had appeared where once his right knee had been.
And all around Billy the air hummed and buzzed. And he was frozen in place at the sight of Daz's leg.
It had all been so normal. So empty. So hot. So quiet. So nothing.
Now it was something else. Now Daz was trying to get himself up but his leg made it impossible. Now Daz was staring straight at Billy with a pleading look. A desperate look with desperate eyes. And he looked like he was about ten years old. An all the swagger and bravado was gone. Instead there was nothing but sheer terror. And confusion. And incomprehension. Because this wasn't like it was supposed to have been. Not like the Xbox. Not like Catterick. Not like Kenya. And he wanted to get back up. And he needed to get back up. But he couldn't get back up because instead of a knee there was only a mush of gristle and bone. And somewhere in back of Billy's brain the words from the Kenya training started to make themselves heard. When a man goes down the nearest man gets to him and gets him into cover. The rest give covering fire. Daz was down. Billy was the nearest man. Daz was begging with his eyes. His child eyes. His desperate eyes. And Billy couldn't seem to move. Billy was all stone. Locked.
Noise was catching up with the silent movie.
Shouted orders. Wild swearing. Screams. Agonised screams. Agonised screams coming from the Daz's twisted mouth. When a man goes down the nearest man gets him into cover.
And then Daz's head burst open like a water melon. And he stopped screaming. And he stopped looking like a frightened little boy. And he stopped looking like a human being.
And suddenly Billy was falling. A huge weight smashed into him and he was down on the floor. In the dust. In the drainage ditch. And he couldn't see Daz any more.
"It wasn't a sniper or anything like that. Just pure luck. The Hadji's were just firing off everything they had and hoping for the best. No way they'd make a head shot from 200 yards. Not a chance. It was just pure bad luck. The air was full of imcoming and a round took Daz in the back of the head and the exit would took away the whole of his face. I was running when he got dropped. Running and screaming for the useless twats to get down and take cover. About a second after Daz got fragged I hit Billy like a rugby forward. I just dived at him. Hit him square in the chest with my shoulder and we both fell into the drainage ditch.
After that the lads were amazing. Fucking unbelievable. Orderly retreat all the way back to the FOB. Cover fire and move. Cover fire and move. Only two wounded. Nothing serious. Flesh wounds. The Hadji's fucked it up to be honest. They jumped the gun. If they had waited until we were fifty yards out it would have been a bloodbath. But they didn't. They couldn't resist it. Went early. We got lucky. One KIA. Two walking wounded. They won the firefight. We lost the firefight. But we managed not to break. The lads kept their shit together and we made it back. Everyone but Daz. Well that's not quite right. We got him back as well. But he was dead meat."
Billy came to his senses. Sergeant Collins was screaming into his right ear, his snarling mouth just two inches away.
"Get your useless fucking shit together Dodds and get some cover fire down...."
Billy shook his head and his vision cleared. And the training kicked in. He took a firing position. He sighted in on one of the clay walls where muzzle flashes flicked from the dark openings. He eased down on the trigger and fired off a three round burst. Collins smacked him on the back and started barking orders.
Cover fire and move.
Cover fire and move.
Back along the ditch.
Until the air stopped buzzing and jumping.
Until silence reimposed its hold on the baked flatness.
Until there was only the sound of scampering boots and more shouted orders.
Until the metal gates slammed shut and 39 Scottish soldiers fell exhasted to the dusty floor. Draining water bottles. Lying out flat. Breathing hard.
Getting their heads around it. Averting their eyes from the body on the floor. The body with a sheet thrown over it. The body that would never move again.
Billy didn't sit down on the dusty ground. He didn't lie out flat on the dusty ground. Instead he stood. He yanked off his helmet and held it in his right hand. He kept a grip on his rifle with his left hand. He closed his eyes to blink out sweat and kept them closed as adrenalin coursed through him. The words from training were supposed to be cast in stone. When a man goes down the nearest man gets him into cover.
And Daz had gone down.
And Billy had been the nearest man.
And it had been Billy's job to get Daz into cover. Into the drainage ditch. Into safety from the incoming bullets. Into the rest of his life.
But Billy Dodds hadn't dragged Darren Hendrick into the cover of the drainage ditch. Instead Billy Dodds had frozen up and a bullet had removed Darren Hendrick's face.
He kept his eyes clamped shut. He couldn't face the looks of hatred. Of course there would be looks of hatred. Everything his father had said over the all the years of his life had been proved true. He was pathetic. He was useless. He was worthless. He was a disgrace. A freak. A joke. An abortion. A piece of shit.....
And then his face exploded in pain.
His head was down now. Bony elbows on bony knees. Bony fingers interlocked. Very, very still.
He stayed silent for what seemed like a very long time. Maybe two minutes. I don't know. Something like that. By now it was almost completely dark and I was thankful for the mini torch I had on my key ring. I could sense Terry had reached his dark place. Maybe he was about to clam up. Or maybe he was taking a moment. A few quiet deep breaths. A pit stop before taking the last few dreaded steps to the locked room where his horrors were hidden away under the floorboards. So I waited as a small bat ducked and swooped along the edge of the river.
When he spoke I had to lean in to him to hear. His voice was small and hollow. Gone was the spitting anger and tough talk. Now he was like a middle aged bank clerk owning up to a chronic gambling habit.
"Its really hard to explain the way you feel after combat. You ken? I mean to someone who hasn't been there. People watch films. Read books. Play the Xbox. And they think they know. But they don't. Nobody does. Only the likes of us who have been there. Its all the adrenalin, you see. It keeps on coming for a while even though the firefight has stopped. And all of your emotions... Christ I don't know. They get magnified. Made bigger. Made massive. And they kind of eat you. Take you over....."
His head dropped down another inch.
"He was just standing there. Helmet in one hand. Gun in the other hand. He had his head tilted back and his eyes closed. Look I'm not trying to justify myself, right. I wouldn't do that. It's just my brain was all frazzed up. I was raging mad at fucking everything. The FOB. The mission. The lack of proper gear and decent grub. The way they had put Billy and Daz on the plane even though they were only just out of Catterick. The way all the experienced lads had put in their papers and jacked it in after the last tour. Rogerson and his nasty ambition. Ignoring everything the Welsh lads had told us and doing the patrol anyway because the public school twat wanted to show everyone how big his dick was. Just everything. Just the whole fucking thing. Give me a fag, will you?"
I gave him a fag.
"The anger just exploded. I had no control of it. And Billy happened to be there. I smashed him in the face. I smashed him with everything I had and I kept on pummeling him. His eyes opened as soon as I hit him. And if I had stopped, I would have seen the horror in them. The guilt. Shame. But the red mist had come down and I was like a complete madman. I felt his nose break with the first punch. I kept at him. Again and again. Over and over. And he just stood there and took it. Never raised his hands to defend himself. Never tried to turn and run away. Just stood whilst I hammered into his face. I guess it must have lasted thirty or forty seconds. Something like that. Three of the lads got a hold of me and dragged me off him. Rogerson was nowhere to be seen. He had gone straight into his quarters to hide away. They pinned me down on the floor and I was spitting and writhing and swearing. Know what? If they hadn't got a hold of me I would have probably killed him. Like some fucking psycho. For a few minutes I completely lost the plot. I suppose it had been building inside me for 22 years. And then it exploded. Completely. Never known anything like it. Fuck."
Billy snapped his eyes open as his brain tried to process the blow. There was no clarity. His eyes were bathroom windows. The world was a red blur. His face face felt like it had exploded.
Slowly pieces started to come together.
Somebody was hitting him. Somebody was hitting him unbelievably hard. He felt his nose splinter. And whoever was hitting him was also screaming at him. Swearing. Killing him for being so useless. Worthless. A disgrace. It was his father. Of course it was his father. It was always his father. It always had been. But as more pieces of the jigsaw slotted together a part of his brain started to ask probing questions. How could it be his father? His father was at home in Scotland. Not here. Not in Fort Apache. So who?
But his blurred brain had no problem with the why. The why was obvious. The why was in plain sight. The why was Daz. And no beating could be hard enough.
When a man goes down the nearest man gets him into cover.
Daz had gone down.
Billy had been the nearest man.
It had been Billy's job to get Daz into cover.
But Billy hadn't got Daz into cover.
Because Billy was utterly worthless. Utterly worthless. He could have raised his arms to defend his face from the hammering fists. But he didn't.
He kept his hands limp at his side. His SA80 rifle in one hand. His helmet in the other hand. Eyes open and unfocused.
The blows stopped when three figures rushed forward and dragged Terry Collins to the ground and held him there as he raged and writhed.
Billy took a step back.
And then another.
Blood was pumping from his broken nose and staining the front of his combat jacket red. He blinked his eyes closed and then opened them again. His vision started to clear and he saw seventy nine pairs of eyes locked onto him. Hating him for his worthlessness. Hating him for his weakness. Hating him for being alive whilst Daz was dead. And he got it. Because he hated himself for being alive when Daz was dead.
Nobody moved. Nothing moved. Not a breath of breeze. Not a bird. Not a human being. Nothing.
Only silence. Even Collins had stopped his furious thrashing and now he lay on his back panting shallow breaths.
Billy took another step back.
And another ten steps until his back touched something. He turned his head and found himself staring into a pair of brown eyes. And understanding.
The donkey who came from the town every day with their provisions. The boy who came with the donkey had backed off, his eyes wide with shock. What was the boy's name? Billy knew he knew the boy's name. The boy had told him his name the night before.
The boy was called Ali. Twelve years old with a shock of curly black hair. Glowing dark eyes and an impish smile. He had asked for sweets in broken English and Billy had given him sweets and been introduced to Ali's donkey. Billy had felt the bones along its back and frowned at its condition. Far too thin. It needed better pasture. Extra fodder. But this wasn't the hills above Beattock. This was Helmand Province. This was Fort Apache. No supplementary fodder here.
Now the donkey was standing as still as a statue. Only its ears moved as it flicked at the flies buzzing around its head. The kind eyes were a sanctuary. Billy dropped his helmet to the ground and wrapped his left arm over the back of the donkey and pushed his bloody face in close to the donkey's face. And he started to murmour in its ear. The men who watched couldn't hear anything of what he said. They just stared at his bloodied face pushed in close to the calm face of the donkey.
By now the red mist had cleared from Terry Collins. He found a calmed down voice and persuaded his captors to releases their hold on him. He pulled himself to his feet and brushed himself down.
Rattled by his loss of control.
He put his hands on his hips and held his head down whilst he took a few breaths.
Then he fixed his attention on Private Billy Dodds and the donkey.
He took a moment and then gave a small nod to himself and started forward.
"Look Dodds, I'm sorry OK? That was bollocks. Just lost it. Let's wrap this thing up and get you looked at....."
Billy snapped upright like an electric charge had cursed through his bones. His SA80 was in the firing position and aimed at the very centre of his sergeant's chest. There was a wildness in his eyes which stopped Terry Collins in his tracks. Billy looked like something out of a horror movie with his blood red face and bulging eyes.
And suddenly Terry Collins was as scared as he had ever been. He slowly brought is arms up. Palms down. He took a slow, careful step backwards.
"It's OK Billy. You're all right mate. Take a moment right. Deep breaths, yeah? Deep breaths...."
Billy kept the gun raised until Collins was a full thirty yards back from him. And then he resumed his one way conversation with the donkey whilst keeping his eyes on the sergeant and both hands on his weapon.
The door to the command post opened and Rogerson stepped out to see what all the commotion was about.
He took in the scene before marching to where Collins still stood in a passive pose.
"What the hell is going on here Sergeant Collins?"
Terry kept his eyes on Billy and the donkey. "Private Dodds is having an episode sir. Doesn't want anyone to get too close."
The Captain wasn't impressed by this. He turned and started toward Billy with angry steps. And once again the electricity snapped through Billy's bones and he stopped his CO in his tracks with the raised barrel of his gun.
Rogerson stopped too quickly. He tried to stop and reverse at the same time and as a result he lost his footing and fell backwards onto the dusty ground. He moved backwards like a frantic crab.
"It's OK Dodds. Nobody is about to hurt you. Just stay calm. We can talk about this....."
And once again Billy let the SA80 drop to his side as he continued to murmour into the donkey's ear.
And still the donkey remained as still as stone.
"Collins, bring the chaplain."
The chaplain didn't actually need bringing. He was already there. A part of the staring crowd. And he would have greatly preferred to have stayed in the staring crowd. He was a mousy looking man with thinning hair who was secretly counting down the days he had left in uniform.
He didn't have the look of a man who was confident his God was at his side as he stepped towards Billy. In fact he never got the chance to try out some soothing words from the bible. The rifle was once again raised before he even made it past his captain and sergeant.
He looked to Rogerson and shrugged his helplessness.
Rogerson waved him back.
Billy let the gun drop.
The heat hammered down on Fort Apache and clamped the silence into place.
Billy continued to lean in close to the donkey. Rogerson tried to assume a commanding air whilst not having the faintest idea about how on earth he was about to resolve things. Terry Collins could feel shame taking root in the pit of his stomach.
Later none of them could agree on how long the stand off had lasted. Some said five minutes. Some said it was nearer twenty. One was adamant it had stretched over half an hour.
In the end it was the boy who broke the spell.
His tiny voice was hugely enlarged in the baking silence.
"Please sir. I need going. I very late. My father, he very angry. When I late. He beat me when I late. He beat me very hard sir. Very hard sir."
Billy lifted his head away from the donkey's head and stared at the young boy who brought the provisions.
And the young boy who brought the provisions stared back.
And after a few seconds Billy stepped away from the donkey and laid his SA80 down on the ground. He knelt and placed his hands on his head and closed his eyes.
And the stand off was over.
Ali took the donkey by its makeshift bridle and led it to the gate.
Terry Collins went to the kneeling figure and laid a hand on Billy's shoulder.
"Come on lad. Let's get you inside shall we. Out of the sun, right."
Rogerson once again tried to find an air of command.
"In cuffs please sergeant. And under guard I think."
By now the February night had fully fallen. Closed in. Wrapped us in damp cold. Terry was nothing more than a shadow beside me on the bench. I passed him another cigarette and took one for myself. The flick of his lighter illuminated his bony face for a fleeting moment and then the darkness was back in charge.
"I guess I was saved by Rogerson's ambition. The twat. He didn't want any of it anywhere near his record. He had enough on his plate justifying the patrol. Called me in for a man to man chat. Said emotions had been running high. Perfectly understandable, so it was. No need to write up my attack. And no need to write up the stand off either. Just a case of post combat tension. Best forgotten. He told me to give Billy some time to get his head back together. Then the whole thing could be forgotten.
So that's what we did. We buried it. All of it. I went to see Billy. Took the cuffs off and let him know there would be no further action. Might as well have been talking to a stone. He just seemed to disappear off inside himself. Lights on but nobody home, you ken? He ate his food and he drank his water and that was it. Everyone had a go at talking to him, but there was nothing. He just sat there and stared. It went on for ten days like that. We knew he would have to be sent back to Bastion, but his face was in a proper shit state. There would have been too many questions. So we left him in one of the containers and eventually everyone gave up trying to get a word out of him. He was like a ghost."
He took a long hard drag at his cigarette and I watched the tip glow.
"Christ I felt bad. Fucking awful. I've never been so ashamed. I couldn't believe what I had done to him. He had just seen his best mate get his face blown off and I had beaten the shit out of him. Couldn't show it mind. No chance. Not when you're a colour sergeant in the British fucking army you can't. We're supposed to be a breed a apart. Indestructible. So it was a brave face and business as usual. But I knew I was done. Finished. Time fucking served.
'When the chopper came for him everyone kind of looked the other way. Like we were all ashamed or something. Like he was on the way to the gallows. Nobody said goodbye to Billy. He just left.
'After that things were fairly quiet. They lobbed some mortar shells at us a couple of times but that was all. We passed the word out we wouldn't be doing any more patrols and I guess they didn't have the stomach for a full on attack on the fort. Not with everything winding down. There was no need. We were fucking off with our tails between our legs and they knew it as well as we did. They had this saying you know. The Taliban. "You have all the clocks but we have all the time." That's how it was. We were nothing more than a fleeting inconvenience. And Daz died for absolutely fuck all.
Nobody replaced us at Fort Apache. When we left, that was it. Just a bunch of shitty conatiners in the middle of nowhere. Before we flew out of Bastion I made a few enquiries about Billy. They had flown him home to some army head shed. Then it was just rumours.
When we got back home I still had a couple of months to serve before getting out. I asked around. Called in a few favours. The official word was that Billy had been given a medical discharge. But that was just bollocks. The truth was too embarrassing. The truth was that one night he hopped it out of a window and just buggered off. Poof. Gone. And nobody had seen or heard from him since. If they hadn't fudged the medical discharge, they would have had to report him as being AWOL and that would have led to far too many questions. So they made him officially disappear. They got their paper trail in the proper order and forgot he had ever existed.
Remember, there were a whole bunch of redundancies in the pipeline back then and nobody wanted to blot their copy books.
Remember, there were a whole bunch of redundancies in the pipeline back then and nobody wanted to blot their copy books.
So that was that. I got out. Drew my pension. Got myself into security work. A few mates helped me out. It was OK I suppose. A living. I put the word out here and there. About Billy. About what had become of him. But there was nothing. Not a whisper. It was like he had just vanished. Then a few weeks ago I got a call from a corporal I had served with in Ireland. He's a regular at the British Legion meetings in Moffat. Told me how a few of the lads had been having a few pints one night. One of the guys was from Dumfries. Said a neighbour of his had been walking his dog one morning up in Mabie Forest. And the little bugger had disappeared. So he'd shouted and shouted and he was about to give up when he heard it bark. Said there was this weird bloke sitting by a fire fussing the dog like he'd known it for ages. The bloke was camping out. Miles from any of the paths. Long hair, beard, old combat gear. Looked like a cross between Che Guevara and Jesus so he did. Well, so the bloke with the dog said. Said he tried to say thanks a lot and all that, but the guy with the beard just stared at him. Never said a word. Just nodded. The bloke with the dog wondered if the guy in the woods was a veteran. You know. Let the Vietnam vets who buggered off into the forests when they got home. Said the lad was only young. Said there was something in his eyes. Something sad. My mate wondered if it might have been Billy.
It sounded about right to me. So I've been up there a few times looking for him, but it's a needle in a haystack. Maybe he's up there. Maybe he's moved on. Maybe it wasn't him at all. I don't know. Anyway. I'm leaving in a couple of days. Got a new job. Security. Down south. Another mate. So I'm off."
More silence in the darkness. And yet again his voice became even smaller.
"Maybe one day he'll come in to your place. Who knows. The thing is... Well.... If he does come, I need you to do me favour. I need you to tell him Sergeant Collins says he's sorry. Tell him Sergeant Collins was bang out of order. And tell him it wasn't his fault. It was just war. Just fucked up. Can you do that?"
And I told him I could. Obviously. And maybe some of the weight he had been carting around slipped from his shoulders. Or maybe I was just imagining it. I switched on my small torch and we made our way back along the path by the river to Dumfries. He didn't speak as we walked. I could sense he was all talked out. He had completed the mission he had set himself.
As we made our way through Dock Park towards the orange lights of the town I asked him if there was anything more we could do for him. He flashed me an angry glance and shook his head.
"No. Thanks. Like I said. I'm fine. I'm lucky. I'm OK."
I knew he wasn't of course.
And he knew it too.
But in his head Terry Collins was still a colour sergeant in the British Army and he always would be. So he was OK. He had no choice in the matter.
When we arrived back at First Base I asked if he wanted to come in for a brew and he said no. So we shook hands and I watched him make his way up Buccleuch Street with his quick, angry stride. A small man, old before his time. Quick footsteps on the pavement. And then he turned a corner and he was gone.
So did the story Terry Collins told put a hook in me? Of course it did. How could it not? It put a hook in me as a manager of a charity and it put a hook in me as a writer of pulp fiction. For a while I carried around the image of the Che Guevara figure up there in the forest. And yes, I did have a look. Twice, complete with my two Border Collies. But we didn't find him. Like Terry said, it was a needle in a haystack.
So February became March and March became April and the story of Billy Dodds slipped onto the back burner. Maybe he had left the area and found a new wilderness to hide out in. Maybe the vast emptiness of the northern half of Scotland had called to him? There was no way of knowing.
Then one bright sunny day with the smell of spring in the air, some answers to the Billy mystery walked in through our front door.
Amazingly enough, the answers came in the form of Mandy. Mandy is no stranger to First Base. She is a thoroughly charming individual who has made a complete and utter car wreck of her life. She must be thirty or so now but she looks a good two decades older. Her face is the face of twelve years of heroin. Washed out grey skin and way too many lines for a woman of her age. Sometimes her hair is washed, other times not so much so. Her clothes are old, shapeless and baggy. But her smile remains undimmed. Fair enough she has lost more than her share of teeth. And fair enough the teeth she has left are methadone brown. But when Mandy smiles, she smiles all the way to her eyes. And of course she can talk for Scotland. Nineteen to the dozen, from the very minute she bustles in through the door. If her life had taken a different course, she might have been working in a department store and winning all the prizes for best sales person. But her life hasn't ever been close to heading in such a direction. Instead Mandy is a nailed on favourite to win any prizes on offer for having the absolute worst taste in partners. We've seen them come and go over the years. They use and abuse her before leaving her as a result of overdose death or prison. She might as well have the word 'vulnerable' tattoed across her forehead. A procession of the worst kind of guys have taken a lend of Mandy and time after time she vows to make better choices. To turn it all around. To find a sunset to ride off into.
But it has never happened. The heroin continues to hold her in a vice-like grip.
When she came in on that April afternoon, she was talking her usual fast talk. How was I doing and how was the Agency doing and how was everyone doing? And she was fine, well not really, usual shite to be honest, but hey ho. Her referral slip said she was still in need of a food parcel that required no cooking facilities. Was that because she lacked the electricity to power such facilities or was it because she simply couldn't get her act together to use them? Who knows? I didn't.
"Can I help myself to the apples Mark?"
"Course you can."
"They say you're supposed to eat five a day, right?"
"They certainly do."
"Do apples count?"
"Well that's all right then. My Ma always said they were dead good for your teeth but I suppose it's a bit late for that. What with the 'Done and all that shite."
I was filling in the book and suddenly I was in the grip of one of the mental blanks which are becoming all too familiar as the years roll by.
"Christ Mandy. My mind's gone blank. What's your second name again?"
"Dunnae worry. I'm the same. It's Hendrick. Mandy Hendrick." and then in her extraordinary version of a posh voice. "Amanda Hendrick actually."
Why the hell had I not put it together before? I mean, surely. Small towns and all that.
"Tell me Mandy, was Darren Hendrick a relative of yours?"
It was like I had switched a light off. No more sunny smile. No more sparkle in the eyes.
"Aye. He was. My wee cousin. Terrible so it was. What happened.
Her eyes filled with tears and it knocked years off her. She concentrated on rummaging through her food parcel. She took out a jar of jam and placed it on the counter.
"I dunnae need the jam thanks. Got plenty."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Aye. Course you can."
"Did Daz ever talk about a mate of his called Billy. Billy Dodds."
"Yeah. All the time. Thick as thieves so they were. Made a right strange pair. Daz was a proper mouthy wee shite whilst Billy was as quiet as a mouse. Country boy. Came from a farm somewhere. Nice though. My auntie still sees him."
"Aye. Auntie Sheila. Billy called round to see her. You know. After Daz died. Then he started calling round every month and my auntie thought it would help if she gave him something to do. So she did. Asked him if he could do the garden. She's on her own see. Daz's older brother died of an overdose a few years ago and her man is still serving out a ten in Shotts. So Billy goes round every month to do the garden. Looks a picture so it does."
"Have you seen him?"
Mandy shook her head. "Nah. But my auntie has told me about him. Says he looks like a bit of a wild guy. Long hair. Big beard. Tatty old army clothes. Doesn't really speak. He can speak. He just doesn't. My auntie doesn't mind. They have a cup of tea together and she says it makes her feel closer to Daz. Ken what I mean?"
"Where does you Auntie Sheila live?"
"Sunnybank. 45 Union Crescent. She's been there for years."
I made a note of the address on a scrap of paper.
"Do you think she'd mind if I called round to see her?"
"Don't be daft. She's dead nice, my Auntie Sheila. Always gives me a cup of tea and a biscuit. Not like my own cow of a mother. She hasn't even spoken to me in five years. You going to see her then?"
"Yes. I think I probably am."
"I'll let her ken. I'll tell her you'll not bite."
"Well that's bloody decent of you Mandy."
"Dunnae mention it. All part of the service."
And with that Mandy left the building. I was in the process of folding the scrap of paper bearing her Auntie Sheila's address in Sunnybank when the bell above the front door announced a new arrival.
It was Yewande bearing her weekly donation of fifty home baked flapjacks. Today she had a companion, a woman of similar age and proud bearing.
"Hi Yewande. How are you today?"
"I am fine. I have brought Assibi to see you. She is from the North."
She said it with her chin pushed a little higher. Her eyes asked if I understood the significance of what she was telling me. I did. From the north of Nigeria as opposed to the south of Nigeria like Yewande. The north meant Hausa or Fulani whereas Yewande was Yoruba. The north meant Muslim whereas Yewande was a Christian to her toenails. So there would be neither tribal or religious division in First Base today. Well, three cheers to that.
I led the way up the stairs and cast a smile up at the poster on the wall showing Dr King wowing the world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I cleared away some clutter and took an order for two cups of tea. As I waited on the kettle I had no idea this was one of those moments when two stories come together. Of course I hadn't. You never do. It only comes clear later, by which time the stories are already intertwined. Joined at the hip. When they have become the same story. I guess the odds against Billy's story and Tanimu's story becoming a shared story must have been millions to one. Their stories were seperated by thousands of miles. Their stories spanned three continents. And yet without my knowing it, at that very moment their lives intersected on that bright, sunny April afternoon in our sleepy corner of South West Scotland.
I delivered the hot drinks and plonked down a donated box of selected biscuits.
Both of the African women considered the box for a moment and then decided to partake.
They looked very similar. Both had the same straight back and proud bearing. They exuded the same determination. Yewande had needed every bit of determination she owned in the years we had known her and her kids. When she had first come to First Base, her family was fighting its way through the Home Office's very particular version of Hell. While she waited and waited to be granted 'leave to remain' in the UK, she was not entitled to a single penny's worth of state support. To add insult to injury, she was also prohibited from doing so much as a minute's worth of paid work. She was told in no uncertain terms if she was caught working illegally her chances of being granted leave to remain would become less than zero.
So the family was required to live on fresh air for months and years by the charming folk in the Home Office. Her kids had no memory of Nigeria having arrived in the UK as little more than babies. All they had known was British life and British schools. Now the London Government was hell bent on getting the family on a plane to a country the kids had never known.
Thankfully the local community took a different view. Yewande's landlord said she could pay the rent when she could afford it. The parents from the kids' school rallied around the family while we kept food on the table. It had looked pretty grim for a while. The Home Office lawyers had been confident they were about to get the family deported. Thankfully a Glasgow appeal court judge saw things differently. He took on board the fact that Yewande's twin girls were having nightmares about being kidnapped by Boko Haram. And he decided to be a human being.
It took a sulking Home Office a whole eight months to issue Yewande with the National Insurance number the judge had deemed her to be entitled to. When the all important number finally arrived in the post, Yewande hot footed her way across town to the Job Centre and told them she wasn't leaving until she had work. She didn't have to wait all day. It took her six hours to secure an interview as a care home worker. And she got the job. Of course she did.
Now she assumed the role of meeting chair with her lilting African voice.
"Mark, Assibi is having a very hard time. She is like I was when I came here. I hope you can help."
Details. Four years in the UK. No husband. One son. Tanimu. Twelve years old. St Michaels school. A work visa expired. Leave to remain in the UK applied for. No decision yet. And yes, she had an immigration lawyer. The fees were taking all of the money her parents were able to send from home. For they were not rich people. They were farmers. They grew peanuts and pineapples. She had a private landlord.and no money to pay the next month's rent. By this time she was hanging by a thread and two tears wandered down over her high cheek bones. Yewande reached for her hand and squeezed.
I focussed on the notes I was making. The basics. I promised her we would make sure there would be food for them to eat. And I told her about our Donald Fund that would keep the lights on. I said I would fill in a couple of applications to local trusts who usually helped out. And maybe there was someone I could call to help with the rent a bit. Maybe. No promises.
"Are you religious Assibi?"
"I am Muslim. I think I am. I was. Now I can see no God."
Again Yewande squeezed her hand.
"It's just I would have had a word with one of the churches. I still can if you like."
"Please. If you can. I only need to think of my son. It is all that is important."
Yewande gave her head a determined nod. "I will take you to my church. We are not going to worry about God right now. Only Tanimu."
Assibi took a tissue from her handbag and wiped the tears from her cheeks and forced her chin back up high. She thanked me with her old school West African manners and the two women left.
So I had two pieces of paper now. One held an address in Sunnybank. The other held the details of a small lost family. There was nothing to join the pieces of paper together other than the fact they were sitting side by side on my table.
Well. So I thought.
I didn't get to make the trip to Sunnybank until the following week. To be honest I put it off. Dithered. I wasn't looking forward to knocking the door of a mother who had lost both of her sons. Who would? The fact Mandy had promised to tell her Auntie Sheila I wouldn't bite didn't hold a great deal of sway.
I made the two mile drive under grey skies and found Union Crescent easily enough. It was even easier to spot the house. It was the house with the pristine front garden, all weeded and ready to burst into the colours of spring. Deep breaths.
Was it a working bell? It was. I heard the sound of it roll through the house. Was anyone home? They were. Footsteps. The sound of a chain being removed. A small woman in a green cardigan, with cautious eyes.
"Aye. That's me."
"I'm Mark. From First Base. The foodbank. Maybe Mandy told you I would be calling?"
"Aye. So she did. Come in."
A left turn into a lounge that had been dusted and vacuumed within an inch of its life. An offer to sit. Tea or coffee?
She headed into the kitchen at the back of the house while I stood and took in the shrine on the wall. Photo's of Daz. Smart as paint and ramrod straight on the day he passed out of Catterick. Tanned and dusty in Kenya. Beaming on the left hand edge of a group photo in Camp Bastion. Every photo caught an impish smile. A freckled face. Mischievous green eyes. Very red hair.
And so sickeningly young.
And so sickeningly young.
I was looking at the Catterick photo when she came back into the room bearing two mugs. She followed the direction of my gaze.
"It was the best day of my life. The passing out parade. Our family... my family... well I suppose you ken well enough. We've had our troubles. There's never been much in the way of good news. But that day... it was just so special. I was the proudest mum in the world."
A small smile which seemed a stranger on her frightened face. "Here. Coffee. Black with two, yes? Have a seat."
I sat. Sheila sat. We endured an awkward silence whilst she stared up at the shrine on the wall.
Then she shook herself free of the memories.
"Mandy said you were asking about Billy?"
"Yes. I was. I gather you are in touch."
"We are. He first came a few months after Daz was killed. Nearly gave me a heart attack so he did. I did'nae recognise him. Looked like some sort of wild man so he did. He'd stayed with us a couple of times before. You ken. When they had leave. Nice lad. Quiet, but very well mannered. I could see he was good for our Daz. Always washed up the pots after they'd eaten their tea. And Daz did the drying. I couldn't believe it. My Daz. Drying pots and putting them away. Unbelievable. Billy was always dressed very smart. Tidy. He didn't go for the sportswear like our Daz. Dressed like an old guy in a way. Sensible shoes and clothes. Nothing flash. Just a nice quiet lad."
More silence, but easier this time. A clock on the wall ticked away the time. Outside a car splashed through some puddles.
"He looked so different. I didn't know him. Long hair. A beard. Old combats. Just stood there, so he did. Stood there while I figured out who he was. Stood and stared at me. He was like a drowned rat. Completely soaked. I think I said 'is it Billy?' or something and he just nodded. I got him inside and nagged him into letting me wash and dry his clothes. I was a bit bossy I suppose. Made him have a shower and he sat in Daz's dressing gown while his gear was in the drier. And all the while he never spoke. Just sat there and stared at the pictures. You ken. These pictures."
I nodded. Of course he did. Snap shots of a life which had been ripped away so brutally on a baking hot morning in Helmand Province.
"I fed him and he ate like a horse. Still didn't speak though. Just ate. And ate. I gave him his clothes back and he got dressed up in Daz's old room. When he came back downstairs I thought he might have been crying. Maybe not. I don't know. I said 'you'll come back won't you Billy?' and he nodded and left. Mind if I smoke?"
"So long as I can too."
She pulled an ashtray out of a drawer and we both lit up and sipped our coffee.
"I didn't know if he would come back. But he did. Maybe a month or so later. And we followed the same routine. I washed his clothes and he took a shower and ate everything I put in front of him. Didn't speak a word. Not a word. I asked if he would come back and he nodded. And he did. Once a month for the next three months. By now I knew speaking was a problem. I read about it on the computer. Maybe he'd had a shock. I figured he must have been messed up by what he had seen. So the next time he came I asked if he would mind doing some jobs for me and he actually smiled. I told him I struggled with the garden. What with being on my own and everything. Would he mind doing it for me? And he nodded. That's how it's been for the last year or so. Gets the neighbours gossipping, so it does. My very old wild man coming to call every month. I bet they have plenty to say about it."
"Do you get on with them? Your neighbours?"
A sad smile. "You should ken better than that Mark. You know about my man?"
I nodded. Ten years for supplying Class A's in copious quantities. One of the Sunnybank legends who had been brought down by every man and his dog giving statements against him in exchange for their own freedom. As far as I was concerned, ten years was too little, for her man was not a nice man. For years we heard from our clients all about the lengths her man would go to to defend his turf and collect his debts. But I didn't say any of that. Obviously. Instead I wondered how such a nice person could end up with such a piece of work. Then I thought of Mandy and figured appalling taste in men must have been a family trait.
"Please. That would be great."
She did the honours.
"Anyway, Mandy said there was something you wanted to ask me."
"There is. I had a visitor last week. Terry Collins. He was Daz and Billy's colour sergeant. Did they ever mention him?"
This provoked a dry chuckle.
"Oh yes. Said he was a right hard wee bastard so they did. He used to be all over Daz like a rash."
"Sounds about right. I certainly wouldn't much fancy getting the wrong side of him. He wasn't much impressed by the state of my desk. If we'd both been in the army I'd have been up on a charge. He's worried about Billy. Someone told him they thought they'd met Billy out in Mabie Forest. He said could I get a message to him. He said could I let Billy know his old sergeant hoped he was OK."
"That's nice of him. How is he? Still in the army?"
"No. He left when they got back from Afghan. Works security now. Says he's fine, but he isn't."
"Not many are. Quite a few of the lads from Daz's regiment have called round to see me over the years. None of them are right. Some are better than others, but they are all a bit broken. Enough to break your heart so it is. Enough to break your heart. Mandy said First Base helps them?"
"We do. Our Veterans Project has been going for six years now. We do our best."
"So what can I do?"
"Maybe you could encourage Billy to call in. Obviously I want to pass on Terry's message. Maybe we might be able to help him out. If nothing else, we can give him some food. I don't think he's in a good place."
"No. He isn't. I think he's living in his own little hell. But he won't talk. You ken that do you?"
"I do. Not a problem. I'm sure I can talk for both of us."
"Well, I'll do my best. I'll bring him myself if I can. You're on Buccleuch Street, right?"
"We are. Down at the Whitesands end."
"I probably won't stay. I'll just drop him off with you. If I can. Is that OK?"
"That's great. Thanks."
Three weeks slid by and the promise of spring became a reality. Mandy called in along with a black eye and a new partner who I would have loved to lock in a room with Terry Collins for ten minutes. Assibi became a regular and she was more than happy to take all the fresh vegetables nobody else ever had any use for. A local charity came through with flying colours and covered Assibi's rent for a month, which took a weight from her shoulders.
The Spring Bank Holidays emptied traffic from Dumfries's version of a rush hour and filled the streets with bored kids wondering if they were safe to go out without a coat. They were. It was actually pushing seventy degrees when Assibi came in with her son for the first time.
Tanimu was quite tall for his twelve years and he looked tailor made to be a box to box midfielder. He was dressed for church and carried a quietness about him. But it was the scar that snaked all the way from his chin to his hairline that caught the eye.
What on earth could have happened? I shuddered, but thankfully I am pretty sure I kept it well hidden.
"Hi Assibi. How are you today?"
"I am very well thank you. This is my son. This is Tanimu."
"Nice to meet you Tanimu. I'm Mark."
He stared up with me with eyes filled with a sadness that seemed absolutely bottomless.
"Do not be offended Mark. Tanimu does not speak. He is not being rude. He is a very polite boy."
"Of course. Are you staying for a drink? Would orange juice be any good Tanimu?"
My question was answered with a grave nod. We headed upstairs and the boy sat down at the table. He carefully took a book and pens from his bag and started to draw. He thanked me with his eyes and then gave all of his attention to the page.
"Has he ever been able to speak or is this a recent thing?"
Assibi weighed my question for a long time. She was well enough aware of what the real question was. Was her son's inability to speak linked to the terrible scar which ran down his face? Maybe she would decide First Base was a safe place to share the story. Maybe not.
Most people do.
Saturday was always the best day. By a mile. Not that Tanimu had a problem with the other days of the week. He liked school and did well enough to avoid the teacher's dreaded cane. Well. Most of the time. And Sundays were OK as well, though they meant several hours of hard work on the farm of his grandparents. But no day could compare with a Saturday.
The family would rise early and his father would drive them through the still quiet streets of Maidugari and out into the countryside. By the time they arrived at his grandparents' farm the sun would be pulling itself up and over the edge of the world. His grandmother always cooked the best breakfast in the world on a Saturday morning and Tanimu and his older sister Hasana would eat until their stomachs were ready to burst. His father and his grandfather would sit out on the verandah in the glowing red light of the dawn and talk about grown up things. His mother and his grandmother were in control of the best breakfast in the world.
Once all of the pots were washed and stowed away, everyone would embark on the task of filling the car boot with the pineapples his grandfather had picked the day before.
The main business of the farm was peanuts. The pineapples were a sideline. A Saturday sideline which only appeared on his father's market stall on a Saturday morning. For the rest of the week his father sold a wide range of stationary and office equipment. The Sanusi family had manned their stall for over forty years and business was good. They were a respected family in Maidugari and they lived comfortable lives. When his father had married his mother, there had been some talk that he had married beneath himself. A girl from a small peanut farm out in the countryside was hardly a proper match for a Sanusi. His father didn't care about the talk. He told anyone who cared to listen how it had been love at first sight when he met Assibi on their first day at university. His parents and grandparents tried to dissuade him from his chosen path, but their efforts had never been more than half hearted. In truth they had all been every bit as charmed by the girl from the peanut farm who had stolen the heart of the heir to the Sanusi business.
When his parents had married the family had bought them a fine house. Despite their region experiencing turbulent times, the Sanusi business continued to thrive. Tanimu and Hasana were sent to one of the best schools in the city and they wanted for nothing. Assibi raised them firmly and they were expected to work hard at school, at home, on the farm and on the market. Even though there was little time for play, both children were well aware of how lucky they were.
But on Saturday things were different. Once they had filled the boot with pineapples, they would drive back into the city and put their fruit out for sale. There were never any pineapples left at the end of the day. People always complimented Assibi on the sweetness of her family's pinapples. Most customers were regulars who had been buying the fruit from the family stall for as long as Tanimu could remember. Of course they didn't just come for the pinapples. They also came to drink tea and to catch up on each other's lives. There was little hurry on a Saturday. People had time to laugh and talk.
Once they arrived at the stall, his father would unlock the padlocks and raise up the shutters whilst Assibi, Hasana and Tanimu unloaded the boot. By now the market would already be filled with shoppers and there was usually a small queue of customers who would be waiting to get the first pick. Unloading didn't take very long and Tanimu was deemed to be too young and impatient to be trusted with displaying their wares.
Once the boot was empty, his work for the day was over and he was free to join up with the other boys of the market in a wild game of football that would last all day.
This was the reason why Saturday was the best day of the week by such a distance. Tanimu absolutely loved football. It was his greatest passion. His bedroom walls were adorned with photos of Nigeria's best players. And he was pretty good. There had never been a time when he hadn't been picked for his school team. He was strong and he could run all day. The bumpy patch of wasteground they used as a pitch was a perfect stage for him to show off his ball skills. They would play non stop for six hours or more and it never felt like more than a few minutes.
Today he knew it would be hotter than usual. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky and the summer sun would be very strong. Not that he cared.
The streets were busy now, filled with noise and colour as the city started out on the weekend. As usual the journey back into the city took well over twice as long as it had taken going the other way.
By the time his father parked up across the road from their stall it was nearly ten o clock and all of the neighbouring units were already open for business. Not long now. Just the one chore and then the day would be all about football.
His mother filled up the first basket and lifted it up onto the head of his sister. Tanimu had tried many times to learn the art of carrying a basket on his head, but every time it had ended in disaster. His basket was smaller than the one Hasana carried which annoyed him intensely. It was hard to hide his impatience as his mother carefully put in the pineapples one by one. Finally she gave him a nod of her head and he hauled the basket to his chest and waited for a gap in the traffic to open up.
And then time stood still.
Instead of a free flowing movie, the world was reduced to the slowest of slow motion.
Hasana had reached the other side of the road with the heavy basket balanced on her head. A motorbike drew up alongside her. And suddenly the brightness of the morning sun was eclipsed by an even greater brightness.
One second, his sister was right there. In his eyeline. Basket on her head. Her red dress shining in the sun.
Then she wasn't there. Nothing. A blur of crimson red.
But Tanimu's brain had no time compute the reason for his sister becoming nothing more than a blur of crimson. Because within an instant the shock wave released by the Boko Haram suicide bomber on the motorbike threw him backwards.
His body was thrown to a forty five degree angle as shrapnel hammered into the basket of fruit. It was why his life was saved. For if he had still been standing upright the white hot shard of supersonic metal would have penetrated his skull and buried itself deep into his brain. Instead it ripped along his face from his chin to his forehead before continuing on and slamming into a concrete wall behind him.
Three other metal shards tore through his unprotected legs as the pressure wave ruptured his eardrums. The back of his head slammed into the door of the car and took him into unconsciousness.
He never heard the giant roar of the explosion.
Assibi was surreptitious as she wiped the tears from her cheeks. Tanimu hadn't reacted to the story. Instead he had focussd all his attention on the picture he was drawing. I felt like I was frozen from head to toe. I was unable to even begin to comprehend the size of the horror.
She took a moment to compose herself. She took a careful sip of her mug of tea. She lifted her chin.
"My husband and my daughter were killed instantly. There was no pain. Forty six people died. Nearly two hundred needed a hospital. Tanimu was unconscious for nearly three days. And when he woke up he was not able to speak. It was four years ago."
"Things were very bad for us. We had insurance for our shop, but there was a clause. Acts of terrorism were not covered. Very bad. All our money was in the stock. It was impossible to start the business again. Our car was destroyed. The school said Tanimu could not attend if he could not talk. It didn't really matter. I could not afford the fees. I took him to live with my mother and my father. On the farm. I found a job working as a secretary. I stayed in Maidugari and I could only see him at the weekends. Every Sunday I took the bus to my parents' farm and I prayed when I arrived my son would speak to me. But he did not speak. He could not speak. I prayed, but Allah did not hear my prayers. The man who killed my husband and my daughter had shouted 'Allahu Akbar' before he killed them. And now Allah would not allow my son to speak. I could no longer pray to him."
She looked down into her mug which was now empty.
"Can I get you another?"
"No thank you Mark. I am fine."
"More orange Tanimu?"
A small shake of the head which was still bent over his drawing.
"After six months my father talked to me. He said Tanimu needed a good doctor. A doctor for the mind. He said I should go to England. He said I would find a good doctor in England. He said Tanimu would remember how to talk in England. I knew he was right. Only my son mattered now. I needed to take him away from Nigeria. Away from Boko Haram. So I sold our house and I bought two tickets to London. When we arrived I had enough money for us to have one room to live in. I found a job in a hotel on the reception desk. Tanimu started school and they arranged for him to see a doctor. It was OK. I had hope. But I only had a three year work visa. When it was finished, they would not give me another one. I had very little money left now and the rent was very expensive. A friend of mine had moved to Scotland and she said it was a very good country. She said the people were very kind. So we decided to come here. The first town in Scotland."
"Are you pleased you came?"
"Yes. I am very pleased. Tanimu's school is an excellent school. But as you know we have very big problems now. I am not allowed to work and all the money my mother and father can send is needed to pay for the immigration lawyer."
"And is Tanimu seeing a doctor here?"
"Oh yes. I think she is a very, very good doctor. He can see her once a week for one hour."
"But nothing yet? No words?"
"No. There is nothing yet. But I am very hopeful. He is doing very well with his schoolwork and I have to believe. I am determined to believe."
By now her chin was once again held high and her dark eyes blazed with determination.
"And in the four years since it happened Tanimu has never spoken once?"
"It is hard to say. When Tanimu was living on the farm with my parents, my father would send him to get water. The clean water was half a mile away and Tanimu would take our donkey to carry two barrels. Sometimes when my father watched him when he came back he was sure he saw Tanimu talking to the donkey. But when he asked him if this was true Tanimu would always shake his head. I do not know myself. I never did see this happen. Only my father saw this happen. My father is an old man now. Maybe he saw what he saw because he so wanted Tanimu to talk again."
A strange spooked feeling had been growing in me as Assibi told her terrible story. A boy witnessing horror and rendered speechless. Like Billy Dodds had been reduced to mute silence by the horror he had seen. The boy had seen his sister killed in front of him. The soldier had seen the same thing happen to his best friend.
And then both man and boy had spoken only with a donkey. Were they drawn by an aura of calm? Made safe by the kindness in the eyes?
I make no claims to be any kind of psychiatrist, but this was just too much of a co-incidence. It had to mean something. There had to be some kind of hope to be taken.
There just had to.
Assibi was looking at me now with unspoken questions in her expression.
"Sorry. I just... Well. I don't really know what to say."
"It is OK. I think it is good I can talk about all this."
"It usually is. In my experience."
I needed to move. I needed to get my head straightened out a bit. So I got up and walked around the table.
"Come on Tanimu. Let's have a look then. Looks like you've almost finished there..."
He had almost finished. And Assibi was absolutely right, her son was seriously good at art. The picture took me all the way back to my youth when I had travelled across West Africa in an old Bedford truck. Flat and baked dry and vast. Accacia trees and thin bushes. But the bare landscape was nothing more and the backdrop. The picture was all about the foreground. The main subject.
It was a donkey loaded up with two water barrels.
"That is really good Tanimu. I wonder if you and me might be able to strike a bargain. What do you think?"
His expression told me he was open to offers.
"I'm not like you. I'm completely rubbish at drawing. I'm a writer. Well, I try to be. I'm nowhere near as good at writing as you are at drawing. Anyway. I write stories. A few years ago I wrote a book called 'The Drums of Anfield'. It tells the story of this brilliant African footballer who comes to Britain to play for my team. Liverpool. Do you like Liverpool?"
He responded with a particularly vigorous nod.
"How about Man United?"
An equally vigorous shake of the head. My kind of guy.
"Good. Excellent. I reckon you'll enjoy the story. So here's the deal. I'll swap you a signed copy of my book in exchange for you signing your picture and leaving it for us to put up on the wall. What do you reckon?"
Another firm nod. And maybe the merest trace of a smile. Or maybe that was wishful thinking.
I dug out a copy of 'The Drums of Anfield' and signed as promised. Tanimu carefully wrote out his name at the bottom of his picture and we made a formal exchange.
"Thanks for that Tanimu. To be honest I reckon I've got the best of the bargain, but that's life I'm afraid."
Assibi got up from her chair, picked up her cup and Tanimu's glass and headed for the kitchen to rinse them out. I told her there was absolutely no need and I might as well have talked to the wall. Tanimu stowed his book in his rucksack and waited for his mum at the the top of the stairs.
"Thank you Mark."
"No need. Have you got all the food you need?"
"We have. We will eat very well thank you."
We were half way down the stairs when the bell over the front door sounded. We reached the bottom of the stairs just as Sheila Hendrick and a wild looking man with long hair and a beard came into the reception area.
And my spooked feeling was magnified by about a million percent.
Time stood still.
It was as if all the clocks had stopped.
In all, there were seven of us in reception. Anne and Campbell were sorting the food boxes in front of the counter. Assibi, Tanimu and I were at the bottom of the stairs. Sheila and her wild looking companion were just inside the door. But in that strange electrifying second, five of us might as well have not existed. For in that extraordinary moment there was only the man and the boy. The man with the wild hair and the faded combat gear. The boy with the Sunday school clothes and the scar running from his chin to his forehead.
Their eyes met and seemed to be glued together whilst the world stopped turning.
I guess in reality it was about two seconds, but it seemed like a lot longer. The clocks started ticking again. The world resumed turning. Assibi collected her bags of food. Tanimu pulled his small rucksack onto his back. Sheila gave me a pleased sort of smile and stood to one side as Assibi and Tanimu passed by and out of the door.
"And you must be Billy. Glad you've come in. I'm Mark."
I held out my hand and he shook.
But he didn't speak.
WHEN BROKEN LIVES MEND
Have you ever had a truly one sided conversation? It ain't easy, I promise you. The worst I ever had was when a LibDem MSP called round to see what we were up to. He just sat there and stared at me for over half an hour while barely saying a word. Unbelievable. I couldn't clear my head of the fact he was being paid over sixty grand a year to glower at me and say nothing.
It was easier with Billy. With Billy I had been expecting the silence. I sat him down and we soon fell into a workable mode of conversation.
Frown. OK. Too young for the NATO thing.
I sorted the drinks whilst he sat with a stillness which was clearly not unusual.
To get the ball rolling I told him all about our Veterans Project and he listened attentively. He seemed interested.
"Anyway. I best cut to the chase. I had a visitor a few weeks ago. Your old sergeant. Terry. Terry Collins."
His eyes flashed. Just for a second, but there was certainly something. Anger? Fear? Impossible to say.
"He told me all about what happened. Fort Apache. The patrol. Daz. What he did to you. All of it. Well, it seemed like all of it to me. I guess you would know better. Said he’d heard stuff on the Vets grapevine. An old mate said he thought you were camping out up in Mabie. Terry went up a few times to see if he could find you. No joy. Well I guess you know that. He told me he was headed down south the day after he came in here. Security work. And he asked a favour. He said should you ever call in, could I pass on a message. That OK with you?"
By now the stange eyes were eating into me like a diamond tipped drill.
"He asked me to tell you he was sorry. And he asked me to tell you it wasn't your fault. So that's my mission accomplished. Message passed on. You OK with that?"
A very slow thoughtful nod. He reached for a pen and sheet of paper.
He wrote 'How is he?' with a neat and careful hand.
I shrugged. "Kept on telling me how he was one of the lucky ones. Said he was fine. Unlike lots of the lads who served in Iraq and Afghan. To be honest, I didn't believe a word of it. He's a man being chased by an awful lot of ghosts."
Another slow nod.
"For what it's worth, I reckon he meant every word. You know. The message he asked me to pass on to you. It’s a burden he has been carrying for too long. So long as you're OK with it, I'll call him and tell him you've been in."
Nod. No hesitation.
"Can I tell him you accept his apology?"
Nod. Again, no hesitation.
"And can I tell him you agree it wasn't your fault?"
A slow shake. And for the first time his gaze dropped to the table as he bowed his head.
"Maybe that's something we can talk about?"
Shrug. Barely perceptible. I knew it was time to get us onto better ground.
"Right. That's all done. Let me tell you about Pamela."
His head came back up and his eyes were calm again.
And I told him all about Pamela. Mum of Fraser. Fraser the six and a half foot gentle giant who had served so magnificently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fraser who had only handed in his papers when his dad had died because his mum needed him back home. Fraser who was given a glowing reference by the army on the day he left. Fraser who had been made to feel like a worthless Sunnybank Ned by the man at the Job Centre who had sneered at his lack of skills. Fraser who had been told by a housing officer he would have to wait forever and a day for a house due to his lack of points. A single lad with no vulnerabilities. In your dreams pal. Fraser who needed to keep dragging in deep breaths to calm himself down when every man and his dog kept asking how many men he had killed.
For a while we thought we were doing a great job for Fraser. We sorted him a house in a village a few miles out of town. We sorted him some work and he was a regular visitor to our walled garden. Life seemed to be looking up.
But there was always a shadow there. He compulsively watched any documentary he could find about what we were doing in Afghan. And he asked me about it over and over and over again. After a while I realised he needed to know if what we were doing was right. If it was just. Which meant he was really asking me if what he had done had been right. If it had been just.
He never told me the whole story. But he told me enough. Fraser was one of the most decent men it has been my honour to know and what he had seen and done in Afghanistan weighed down his soul.
I thought he needed some time. I thought with his house and his dog and his job he would find a way to get his head around the whole thing.
One cold winter's morning we heard the terrible news. Fraser had taken his own life. The guilt had finally consumed him.
Half the town turned out for his funeral. I can remember very few worse days and for a few weeks I wondered why the hell I was doing what I was doing.
That was when I got to know the family as they fought their way through their overwhelming grief.
God alone knows how, but Pamela found enough strength to keep going.
She came through.
I told Billy how a few months earlier Pamela had done some fundraising. I told him how she had raised well over £3000 for our Veterans Project. So we could help others like we had helped Fraser.
"So. Here's the thing. Have you been camping out ever since you left the hospital?"
"So you're 'No fixed abode'?"
"Which I guess means you won't be drawing any kind of benefits?"
"You're living on fresh air then?"
Nod. A slight trace of a smile.
"Thought so. Let's talk about your kit, shall we? Tent, cooker, sleeping bag, all the gear? How is it? Top of the range?"
Shake. Another small smile.
"Can you work a computer?"
"Good. Here you go. The Amazon page is open. Have a browse. Order what you need. Don't go mental. But don't be stingy either. Order up what you need."
He gave me a questioning look.
"Seriously. Pamela would have my guts for bloody garters if I didn't offer. It's what the money is for. You're what the money is for. There will be a price of course. There always is, right?"
A wary nod.
"I think you'll probably have another garden to do, don't you?"
Nod. An actual smile.
He spent half an hour carefully picking out his upgraded kit. Tent. Sleeping bag. Gas cooker. Poncho. Kindle paperwhite. Some pans. A lantern. A head torch.
He needed a bit of prompting, but we got there in the end. He spent just shy of £400. I knew Pamela would be chuffed to bits.
"It should all land with us over the next few days. Are you good to call in again next week?"
"Perfect. I can give you a lift back to the forest. After we’ve been round to see Pamela and see how the garden looks. Fair enough?"
"OK. Sound. So I guess there's just one last thing. I need to tell you about Ralph.”
I told him about Ralph, the young NHS psychotherapist who has made such a difference to so many of our clients over the last few years.
But he was distracted now. His eyes were no longer on me. Instead they had found their way to the table. The occasional nod told me he was still listening, but my words had become incidental. For now his attention had been taken by the picture of a donkey laden with two water barrels.
Once I noticed this, I dried up and just watched. After a long silence he raised his eyes back to mine. His face asked the question but he made sure I knew what the question was. Very slowly he traced a line down the right side of his face with his forefinger. He started just under his hairline and finished just under his chin.
This time it was my turn to nod.
And I had that spooky feeling again.
Ok. So let's go back in time. Let's go back to the kind of question we were once expected to answer when we were studying English Literature. In my case, it's a pretty long journey. Four decades all the way back to flared pants, football hooliganism and secondary picketing. Maybe for you the journey is rather shorter. Maybe you come from a time when there wasn't such a thing as English Literature any more.
This is the kind of question we used to be given 45 minutes to answer in our 'O' Levels.
"What common themes can you identify in the story?"
Yeah, yeah. Terrible grammar. Loads of typos. I know.
Well, there would be the obvious one. A man and a boy who have lost the ability to speak after witnessing a terrible trauma.
And then of course there is the whole thing with the donkeys. They just keep cropping up, don't you think?
I probably need to explain why the donkey theme played so large for me. You see, for the last four years I have been a donkey owner myself. Our donkey is called Olive and it his her job to cart chopped firewood down from the forest. We live out in the back end of the Scottish nowhere and we rely on wood to heat the house. So we did some forward planning. Right now we are fit enough to cart timber down ourselves, but in twenty years time there will be no chance. So we landed on an old school, low tech solution.
She was four when she came to us and the average lifespan for a working donkey is forty five years. Which means she will see me out. 'Donkey's years', right? To be honest she isn't exactly the hardest working donkey you'll ever meet, but so long as you have a bag of chopped apples on your person she is generally ready and raring to go.
Anyway. Once you have a donkey of your own you tend to notice other donkeys about the place. And there are more than you think.
Instinctively I could understand where Billy and Tanimu were coming from. Human beings can be difficult to talk to. Donkeys? Well not so much. They carry a unique kind of calm. They just let the craziness of the world roll over them. They have this way of standing completely still and looking like they are considering the works of Aristotle.
Maybe that was why Tanimu's picture was such a magnet for Billy. Maybe there was something nobody else could see? There was certainly something. And in that moment a plan jumped into my head like an Israeli paratrooper.
A way forward.
The next morning I got into my van and made my way up the Nith valley to Sanquhar. It was the kind of Scottish spring day to make life absolutely worth living. The river sparkled in the sunlight and the trees showed off every kind of vivid green.
The old coal mining village almost looked content as I drove in. The high street was home to more than the usual number of people and for once the shops seemed to carry a hopeful air about them.
I took a right and worked my way through familiar narrow streets to the edge of town. Over the railway and past the sturdy square houses where once upon a time the mine management must had looked down into valley below. The narrow urban road became a narrow rural road.
I turned left down a small track to Clark's Little Ark.
This is one of my very favourite places. In my book, it is everything a charity should be. The right charity in the right place at the right time run in the right way by the right people.
Local, front line, welcoming, not judging...
It's a bloody long list.
The place was set up by Alison. In 2013 her son Clark tragically died from Cerebral Palsy when he was only nineteen. Clark had always loved animals and so Alison decided to open an animal sanctuary in his memory.
Like you do.
She managed to copper up enough cash to buy the grounds of an old brickworks and started out on the task of turning this derelict piece of ground in a post industrial coal mining village into an animal sanctuary and four years on she can feel very, very proud of herself.
Here is the very epitome of what a small, local front line charity should look like. No fancy head office with an expensive London postcode. No HR department. No all-expenses-paid jollies to conferences. In fact nobody gets paid at all.
She built up a gang of volunteers and the place came together plank by plant. When I first visited, it took me about ten seconds to realise these were people who would never judge anyone, which made them the perfect folk to give out our food parcels to anyone in Sanquhar who was going through tough times.
So they became one of our storage points.
I guess I should mention a couple of other factors which played pretty large at the time. When Alison first called and told me her surname was Shankly, my mind couldn't help but draw a map. Sanquhar lies a mere twenty miles south of the now disappeared village of Glenbuck. Both villages sit on top of the same seam of coal. And once upon a time a certain Bill Shankly mined that very seam of coal before heading south to make Liverpool Football Club what it is today.
Mention the name 'Shankly' to any of us Liverpool fans and we go all misty eyed. I first saw the great man from the Kop way back in 1973. So Alison's surname begged a question. Was she by any chance related? She was.
Bloody hell. I was talking to royalty!
And there was another thing. When I first arrived at Clark's Little Ark I was greeted with a sound which is now very familiar to me. It was the sound of five donkeys braying at me at the top of their voices.
So there we have it.
In Helmand province, in Northern Nigeria, in Sanquhar.
Anyway. Things haven't been great in Sanquhar for years. Ever since they closed down the pit. It is like the places in Pennsylvannia and Ohio we have seen so much of on the news over recent months. It's a left-behind village which is home to a lot of left-behind people. Lots of people are getting by on not much and you need to take a bus to find any prospects. There are many young families in Sanquhar who can only dream of having the spare cash for a day out with the kids. What they can afford is a walk up the hill to Clark's Little Ark. They can afford it because anyone can afford it because it is free at the point of use.
And that is a big deal in my book.
Mental health workers take along their clients. Local dafties serve out their community service hours and more often than not they stay on when their time is done. Kids with learning difficulties are brought along.
It is a haven in a world of austerity. And like First Base they have had to learn the art of living on the edge of a financial cliff. Somehow the money they need for the next delivery of hay and straw always turns up at the eleventh hour.
And yes it would be nice if they had enough in the bank to make them feel safe and comfortable.
It would be nice if there was lasting peace in the Middle East.
Lots of things would be nice, but they don't tend to happen.
Actually, I have just realised the brave new world of the new media offers me an opportunity here. We're online here which means I can slot in a link to a Border News piece about Alison's place. So why not take a break for the written word and check out some moving pictures.
Once upon a time the sound of a horn would have rolled across the valley to annouce a shift change at the pit. Now a rather different sound greeted me as I parked up my van and climbed out.
A raucous chorus from five heads lined up along the fence.
Alison castigated the donkeys for such a rude interruption to the stillness of the sunny morning and they grudgingly did as they were told.
"Have you got a few minutes spare? For a chat? I have a favour to ask."
She did have a few spare minutes.
In fact as things turned out, it required a spare two hours.
We had our chat and I asked my favour.
And Alison said "Aye. Of course. Nae bother."
Just like I knew she would.
The glorious spring weather didn't last for very long. Soon the depressions were once again rolling in off the Atlantic one after another. Summer clothes were pushed back into drawers and the drains gurgled. The leak in our kitchen ceiling seemed to get worse. Billy turned up a week after our first meeting just like he said he would and I took him round to meet with Pamela, complete with his upgraded gear. The sight of him put tears into her eyes because there was no escaping the fact there is an awful lot of Fraser to be found in Billy. They shared the same gentle quietness. The same kind of decency.
He signed up to do her garden once a fortnight and he was comfortable when she hugged him and hung on.
He agreed to the idea of calling into First Base once a week for a chat and a bag of food, though he drew the line at accepting a lift back to the forest. And slowly but surely Billy Dodds started to come in from the cold.
But he didn't speak.
Assibi also called in once a week for food and she kept us abreast of what was happening at the Home Office end of things. Or to be more accurate, what was not happening at the Home Office end of things.
We didn't see Tanimu again and Assibi's visits never co-incided with Billy's visits. But that didn't matter. Time wasn't so very important. When fate plays its cards, it plays them with patience.
I decided to give it six weeks.
And I gave it six weeks.
I decided on the second week in June as the right time to make my big play. By now we were all well enough used to Billy's silence. It was never uncomfortable. Communication was anything but one sided. He was able to hold his end up through nods and shakes and shrugs. By now he was smiling more.
I was on the phone when he arrived. Anne came upstairs to let me know he had landed. I found him waiting in the reception area in his usual place. Whenever he arrived he would spend a few minutes staring at the place on the wall where Tanimu's picture hung.
What was he thinking about? I for one hadn't a clue. There is a great line at the beginning of 'Dispatches', Michael Herr's Vietnam classic. He describes a press briefing where the an American officer is valliantly trying to refer to an old Vietnamese map with little success.
'Trying to read their maps was like trying to read their faces: and that was like trying to read the wind.'
"Have you picked up some grub?"
"OK. You get your bag sorted and I'll get my stuff from upstairs."
Raised, enquiring eyebrows.
Are we supposed to be going somewhere?
"It's a magical mystery tour. No point in going on and on. My lips are sealed. You'll find out when we get there. Fair enough?"
Once I was upstairs I fired off a text to Alison up in Sanquhar.
"We're on. 50 minutes"
A minute passed, then.
"See you when you get here."
Billy had a wry smile as we headed out of town and north up the Nith Valley. A grey morning had given way to a sparkling afternoon. Even though we both had our windows down the cab of the van was still pretty hot.
I waited until we were through Thornhill to start telling him all about Clark's Little Ark. Timing was everything. His expression suggested he already had an inkling of what I had in mind. Or maybe that was just me overcomplicating things.
I waited until we were at the edge of town and just a couple of minutes shy of Alison's track before saying how much she had on her plate: how she really could do with a hand.
I indicated left and eased down to the gate where Alison was waiting for us. She wasn't on her own. At her side was a line of five donkeys who were making enough racket to be heard in Glasgow.
And now Billy's smile was an inch or so wider.
"Hi Alison. Let me introduce you to Billy...."
We did the pleasantries and she gave him the tour whilst I hung back a bit and smoked. We walked up the track to the top field and its long view across the empty hills of the Galloway Forest.
At the highest point of the field next to a dry stone wall stood a key element of my plan. It was a run of the mill black plastic dustbin which had been surplus to requirements in our basement.
At first glance, there was nothing remotely interesting about the black bin. But the donkeys who had followed us every step of the way were more than interested. You see, they knew what was inside the run of the mill bin.
Alison shrugged the donkeys back and won enough time and space to lift the lid and pull out a carrier bag of apples which she passed to Billy who did the honours.
I started out on my pitch.
"It's actually pretty flat here. Maybe not such a bad place to pitch a tent. Hell of a view. And I don't suppose you would have any objections to anyone lighting a fire up here would you Alison?"
"No. None at all."
"So Billy. I was thinking....."
There was no need for me to finish my sentence. He was already nodding. More than that, he was smiling like I hadn't seen him smile before.
"We'll fetch your gear tomorrow then, shall we?"
But he had little or no interest in me. Instead all of his attention was on the five big heads which were pushing him back towards the wall.
After an hour we made our way back to the yard to dot the i's and cross the t's. Billy would set up his camp the next day and be available to undertake any work Alison needed doing. We would cover his train costs to and from Dumfries to pick up food and to see to the two gardens.
And that was basically that. The next day I collected him from the edge of the forest and took him to his new home. As I reversed the van back up the track I could see him sorting his stuff out.
One man putting up a tent. Five donkeys watching his every move.
Two weeks slipped by before my phone rang.
"I think we might just be in business."
"Well, when I was heading home yesterday I took a look back and Billy was up in the top field with the donkeys as usual. I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure he was speaking. I was too far away to hear anything and I could easily have got it wrong. There was just something. You ken?"
I said I did.
"Anyway. I arrived at ten this morning and he came down. He's been fixing up the dry stone walls. Nearly finished actually. I waved and said 'Morning Billy' and then I nearly jumped out of my skin. He said 'Morning' back. Just that. Just the one word. But he said it."
"So we might be getting there?"
"I think so. It seems like it"
And we were indeed getting there. Over the next month Alison, became certain Billy was indeed talking to the donkeys. And with each passing day he said a little more. Not that he was about to take up a job as a talk radio host or anything. But he was getting through whole sentences now. Maybe two or three a day.
I asked him about it when he next called in.
"Alison tells me you've turned into a right bloody chatterbox."
"Well come then. Show us what you've got."
"Piss off Mark."
Followed by a laugh. An actual laugh. It was the first laugh I had heard from him.
"She's actually a bit miffed actually. Says all she gets is a sentence here and a sentence there whilst you gab on to the bloody donkeys like some kind of washer woman. Know what I said to her? I said it sort of explains that old saying we have for people who never shut up. We say they can talk the hind legs off a donkey. I often wondered where that came from. I guess I know now."
"Like I said. Piss off Mark."
And that was that for the day. But it was enough. Never before had I been so pleased to be told to piss off. And I guess it is pretty unlikely I will ever be so pleased in the future.
Part one of my master plan seemed to be complete. The time had arrived for part two.
Step one meant a long conversation with Billy spread over two and a half hours of a baking summer afternoon. A heat haze hung over the distant hills and the buzzards overhead were having no problems finding thermals to glide on. He had his fire on smoulder, but it was enough to keep his blackened kettle steaming. We sat on the grass and stared down at the sleepy village below whilst the donkeys did their standing as still as statues thing. By now they had become his ever present companions. Where Billy went, they went. It was like they thought they were dogs. Well maybe not.
I talked for well over two hours. He threw in five sentences. But that was OK. It was more than enough. He was more than happy to play his part. He claimed the last words.
"Dunnae worry about it. It will be fine."
I collected Assibi and Tanimu at ten o clock the following Saturday morning. The boy was more animated than I had seen him before and he sat forward in his seat and watched everything with total attention. I asked if he had read my book and he nodded. I asked him if he had enjoyed it and he nodded. I asked him if he still hated Man United and he nodded. Assibi greeted this with the teeth sucking sound only people from Africa and the Caribbean can do properly.
We arrived at Clark's Little Ark just before eleven and the yard was filled with visitors. Billy was fixing one of the Rabbit hutches. He gave us a wave and signalled five minutes. I signalled no bother.
Tanimu's eyes were as big as soup bowls as Alison introduced him to the animals one by one.
And then Billy appeared looking every inch the kind of guy who might have just wandered out of the Alaskan mountains after being up there for five years. Alison, Assibi and I might as well have not have been there at all. He made a beeline to Tanimu and crouched down to put their faces on the same level.
"I'm Billy. Would you like to come and say hello to the donkeys?"
It was a sentence of truly epic proportions, by far the longest I had ever heard him utter.
It did the trick. Tanimu nodded and Billy took his hand. The donkeys had been fenced into the top field to ensure some privacy.
They walked away from us. A small black hand wrapped in a large white hand. A tall man with a wild hair and an athlete's walk. A boy with the same easy stride.
We watched them all the way up the track and into the top field. We watched them as they waited for the five donkeys to trot to where they were standing. Assibi was tense from head to toe and Alison quietly took her hand. And from where we were standing it was quite impossible to see if the boy was talking. And of course we knew it was far too much to hope for. Of course we did. But still...
After half an hour the two figures started back down with the five donkeys following close behind.
Again they were hand in hand, but this time they shared matching smiles. When they were twenty yards from us the boy took his hand away and ran lightly to his mother, his eyes shining.
"Mama. These are the donkeys."
I looked at Billy and took in his easy relaxed smile and I knew he was going to be just fine. And I looked at Assibi who by now was hugging her son close and I knew they were both going to be all right. And I looked at Alison whose cheeks were wet with tears and I figured she was going to be all right as well. And then I took in the five donkeys who once again were doing their standing still thing, and I knew they would also be all right.
In fact, in that moment on a summer's day in Sanquhar, everything was suddenly all right with the world.
As I drove Assibi and Tanimu back to Dumfries on that sunny afternoon it might have been tempting to consider the job was pretty well done and dusted. But it wasn't of course. There were still a whole bunch of problems hanging around in the in tray. It wasn't realistic for Billy to camp out in the top field on a permanent basis. Assibi was a few weeks from being evicted and the chances of a swift Home Office decision were up there with Queen of the South winning the Champions League.
Thankfully over the next few weeks things continued to look up. Billy agreed to see Ralph the psychotherapist and he told me the first few appointments seemed to be working. He was certainly speaking more fluently, though he was never going to be joining the local debating society. An anonymous donor pushed a cheque through our letterbox, which bought Assibi another month of breathing space with the rent.
Sure, it was just a sticking plaster but a sticking plaster can be a great thing when the wound is still bleeding.
In the last week of August I had a dental appointment. My appointed time was 10.40, but whoever was in before me was experiencing complications. Poor sod. The girl on reception said there would be a delay. Was that OK? I said yes, no problem. What is there not to like about a stay of execution?
There was a well thumbed copy of the local paper. I picked it up to pass the time. And on page seven a small article drew my eyes.
"Farmer found dead by postman."
It was a bleak little story of a postman unable to deliver a recorded delivery letter who become concerned at the smell through the letterbox. How he peered through the living room window and saw a slumped figure in an armchair.
And how the farmer in question was called Maurice Dodds, 59.
Could it be?
Forty minutes and one filling later saw me back in the Agency and Googling 'Fellside Farm Maurice Dodds' and there it was. Thirty miles north and in exactly the right place to match the details Terry Collins had given me a few months earlier.
It had to be.
I made a call to our Elizabeth, a local solicitor who is our Chairman. I gave her an ultra potted version of the story. Was there any chance she could find anything out? Was there a will? Was Billy in it? Assuming of course Maurice Dodds really was Billy's father.
And despite their differences, it turned out Maurice Dodds had indeed named his sole surviving family member as the person to take on the 300 windswept acres of Fellside Farm.
There were all kinds of small print of course. Thankfully the business was in a sufficiently miserable state to mean death taxes were not an issue. The bank had no stomach to repossess and try to find a buyer. They preferred to let the loans roll into Billy's name at a nominal interest rate rather than accepting a fat loss.
He moved from his campsite in the top field to the run down farm on the side of the valley on a grey October day. For just about anyone else on planet earth, the prospect of trying to eke out any kind of living from a flock of five hundred sheep in such an unforgiving environment would have been more than daunting.
But Billy Dodds wasn't just about anyone.
He was well enough used to living on fresh air and the air at Fellside Farm was as fresh as any to be found on planet earth.
Assibi and Tanimu moved in the next day and by the time I called to visit a week later the place was gleaming.
By now the labour had been divided. Billy was responsible for the sheep and the acres. Assibi ruled the roost in the house and she had ordered Billy and Tanimu to dig a her vegetable patch. She told me with her customary determination that she was an African woman. If she could grow pineapples and peanuts in Northern Nigeria, then she could certainly grow carrots and potatoes in Dumfries and Galloway.
She also put herself through an online crash course and was soon getting her head around the fine print of the farm subsidy system. She told me she was an African woman and if she could do the books for a stationary stall on Maidugari market, then.....
OK. You get the picture.
Billy has given over the three best fields to producing a crop of hay which he reckons will be enough to keep up with the needs of the animals at Clark's Little Ark.
He still does the the two gardens once a month and he now has Tanimu as his assistant. The boy is talking nineteen to the dozen now. It is like he is determined to catch up on every minute of his four year silence. Billy is teaching him how to turn their new Border Collie pup into a working sheep dog.
I know what you are wondering. Is there romance to be found in the fresh air of Fellside Farm? To be honest, I don't know. There might well be. If there is, I guess they will let me know in their own good time. Something Billy said the other day makes me think there probably is. We were standing out in the yard and the clouds were hanging down low and blocking out the view across the valley to the giant windmills on the other side.
"It's not easy making a living here. If those people in London don't say yes, I guess I'll have to learn how to be a peanut farmer. Can't be that hard can it?"
I said my knowledge of the ins and outs of peanut farming in Northern Nigeria was less than zero. However, the fact he is considering taking on such a dramatic new agricultural challenge seems to be telling.
Well. It does to me.
The Home Office? Christ. Who knows? Boko Haram are still terrorising the area around Maidugari and I can't imagine any Scottish judge would send a twelve year old boy back to such a clear and present danger. Especially a boy who has been through what Tanimu has been through. But we live in rather brutal times and it would be foolish to rely on any kind of human decency from our London masters.
I guess we'll see. If they are deported, I reckon they will find a way to be OK. Their broken lives have mended now. And the mend is strong.
I nearly forgot. Unbelievable. Yet another sign of age I guess.
Fellside Farm now has one more resident. She is extremely dignified and she goes by the name of Hasana in honour of the young Nigerian girl who fell victim to a Boko Haram suicide bomber on a motorbike.
Hasana is a donkey.
Well of course she is.
She is five years old and unlike Olive she is very much a full time working donkey. Tanimu is her task master and trainer. Every day the donkey and the boy make their way up the valley side to take food to the waiting sheep.
She is very much an old school beast of burden.
She is really good at doing the standing still thing.
Of course she is.
So my dear reader, I guess that's us done. But of course there is one last thing. Of course there is! You have heard all about Clark's Little Ark now. I really hope you are persuaded to give them a helping hand. If you are, please follow the link below.