The Military Liaison Officer (MLO), Sgt Mark Sutcliffe, drove me to Headley Court. He wore the insignia of ‘The Poachers’ of The Second Battalion of The Royal Anglian Regiment on his right arm. Always gregarious, he impressed me in the hospital. I liked him – one of the few people that Melissa distinctly remembered too. Our conversation on the journey was good humoured. We stopped for coffee at Beaconsfield services. Mark pulled into a disabled parking bay near the entrance.
‘How come you’re parking here? Do you have a permit as part of your job?’ Surely he wasn’t parking there on my account. I’m not disabled.
‘Nah, I’ve got a disabled badge.’
‘Really, what for?’
He pulled up his left trouser to show me his prosthetic leg. I became aware of the slight limp, to which I had been oblivious before. His patrol came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2006. A rocket-propelled grenade took his left leg off. He became one of the MLOs for Selly Oak upon returning to work. He knew he had both a unique insight into the recovery process and empathy with injured personnel.
Driving westbound along the London Orbital, we soon caught sight of the relentless flights back and forth to Heathrow. I was unnerved by my reaction to these aircraft. My facial muscles tensed. I withdrew into my body. I cowered. An aircraft could explode, drop into my path. I looked away but my fear increased.
I expected a car to veer off the road and crash. There were too many. They were too close. They needed to stay away, keep their distance. Threats appeared from everywhere. Is it going to be like this for every car journey?
I began to doubt Mark’s driving ability, as I had done with Anna’s a few days before. He was missing a leg after all. I flicked my eyes from the car speedometer, to his hand movements on the steering wheel, to the subsequent action on the road. My focus switched, looking at the head of a Dalmatian hanging out of a car window. Its salivating tongue flopped wildly and the joy in the animal’s dark eyes eased my anxiety. I repeated to myself: It’s ok, don’t be stupid, the plane and cars are not going to crash into you, calm down, it’s ok.
Once off the M25, near Leatherhead, we meandered along the southern slopes of Epsom Downs until we reached Headley Court.
I preferred seclusion to the annoying sounds of the television and the trivialities of dayroom existence. Any respite was short-lived.
Another fear manifested itself when I was alone in the wardroom. Often I had a sense of doom: a Taliban threat? Something unknown was waiting to attack. I tried to dismiss this thought, though the terror affected me.
I became increasingly melancholy. I tried to relax by walking through the long gardens, all enclosed by a high red-bricked wall. Seated moments of meditation were provided by one of a few wooden benches. This is shit. When dejected, I would look through the branches of trees, gaze at the sky. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get a grip. Look at the clouds. They’re beautiful. You’re alive. I tried to be positive but struggled.
My mood improved each time I went to the gym. I was initially very disappointed with my fitness levels, but I excused this. I had been unable to exercise since early July.
I lost four stone, which is hard work even on an enforced diet. For a slender six-foot-four man (my fighting weight is fourteen stone), this was not complimentary, and my six-pack had gone. My mission was to get fit and have my body back again.
Though the gym was frustrating I was allowed to go on the bike for fifteen minutes. I sat on the static bike in a loose-fitting Army brown t-shirt. The speed of the flashing monitor reminded me my heart was uncomfortable.
‘Stewart, I think you might want to stop there. Don’t try and do too much too soon.’
‘Really? Maybe I’ll be ok if I slow down a bit.’
I climbed off the bike and stepped onto a mat to test my strength. I adopted a press-up stance and lowered my body. I could smell the stale sweat of months of dripping foreheads, mixed with antiseptic cleansing products. My chest and arms strained after a few exertions. This increased the thumping and tightness in my head.
Stopping, I tried to convince myself not warming up had hindered my athletic performance. I wanted to do squats and press-ups. Just like in Afghanistan and all those other gym sessions. I was angry I could not even complete four press-ups. I had to submit and accept I was not as strong or as fit as the instructor. But I did have a better tan, so that was a point to me.
My abject performance added to my desire to leave as quickly as possible. I need to get fit. I like being fit. Will I get back to Afghan? At the same time, I was afraid of going back. I did not want to experience another injury. If I can’t go back I’ll support 2 Mercian from home. Maybe I can do some welfare stuff, organise the welcome home parades, arrange cocktail parties and the like.
I paced outside the smoking area on the first Thursday. It was the end of the programmed day. My mobile pressed against my right ear.
‘Melissa, it’s a bloody conspiracy theory, they just want to keep me here for no reason…there’s nothing wrong with me…I’m bloody Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s why they keep giving me all those drugs. They’re trying to make me really poorly. I feel like throwing a sink out the window and running away.’
‘Calm down, Stew. You are poorly. They’re giving you medication to help with the pain.’