There are times when you imagine that life is doing its best to dispense with you. Everything around you either goes away, insults you, kicks you when you are down, pretends you no longer exist, or even deliberately tries to end your life.
That’s me, John Hawkins Freeman, soldier; or rather ex-soldier. The army doesn’t want me any more, having managed to survive being half-killed. I am officially ‘invalided out’, which is officialese for ‘medically unfit to be a soldier any more’; or more simply, ‘now useless’.
My life career, as a soldier; shot to hell.
I have no other talents. I trained as a soldier from my teenage years. Despite good school results, I did not take up the option of a university course as part of my soldiering, as I was having so much fun just BEING a soldier. The tougher the course was, the better I liked it.
The Marines suited me down to the ground, and later when the option of an SAS Selection course came up, I went for it. That five-week Selection tested me to the extreme, it really did. I laboured at times, especially trying to get round that horrendous forty-mile Endurance route in the Brecon Beacons in bad weather. A few guys have been known to die on that course - honest.
And, wonder of wonders, I passed. The average result is 10 per cent of candidates pass, so I felt honoured.
They let me become a squaddie, known as a Trooper, in the SAS Regiment. Your rank in your previous regiment was ignored, no matter what it was. You start in THE Regiment at the bottom, and work and learn your way up. They put me in a four-man patrol with the senior guy keeping a close eye on me. Patrols are part of a fifteen-man Troop – I was in Mobility Troop; we specialise in keeping transport running – and I was being trained in signals.
It was great! I became immersed in the SAS ethos: self-motivated, individualist, but part of an integrated team. Each of us specialised, so that we melded as a group with a greater range of abilities. Wonderful.
That first year, I went through all the courses that I could, and we had practical experience around the world in a whole slew of environments; from jungle to desert (jungle is the toughest, medically), so that we could excel anywhere.
Two years into that immersion process, I found myself and colleagues thrown into an anti-terrorist operation in Liverpool. No, it was not Irishmen, it was Islamic extremists. You know the style: “If you are not OUR extreme brand of Islam, you are an infidel.”
We were tasked with taking out this group who were cornered in a terrace house in a quiet residential district. Once the neighbours had been safely evacuated, in case of suicide bombs, we insinuated ourselves into the street, and got into a house on either side of the target.
We had been provided with architectural plans of the terrace, and so we knew that the attics were interconnected. Plan A was to get up to attic level and creep along in silent mode, ready to drop down on the targets below, once their positions were ascertained. Earpieces to our radios meant we could be advised without any noise to give us away.
Our mates passed on that there were three known targets, all located on the ground floor, so we had a decent chance on ingress via the attic trapdoor. My oppo was carrying the rope ladder for use when the trap was open. I reached this point without incident, then things started to go to pot.
First hurdle: the trapdoor would not lift. It must have been secured by a pair of hook and eye fasteners, on the underside. There was no way to get that trap open without noise of some kind.
Second problem: one of the terrorists decided to come upstairs; either to use an upper window as a lookout point, or just take some rest in one of the bedrooms, which were all upstairs. We heard him clumping up the lino-clad stair treads. Not good. Time to retreat to safer ground.
We began to reverse our crawl across the attic beams; no flooring on top of the beams, so careful manoeuvring called for. We have practiced this, so no sweat. At least, until I put my weight on one beam and it turns out to be merely a link between two beams, with no proper support.
Why it had never been correctly attached at both end joints, I will never know. Someone probably just forgot. Anyway, it was what it was, to my detriment. The short section of beam goes down under my weight, and pushes through the fragile plasterboard ceiling panel, as does my leg. Disaster.
I have no idea whether the insurgent was heading to the room below me, or the other bedroom, but unless he was deaf, he was bound to have heard the ceiling smash through. From our practice exercises, I knew that trying to pull your foot back up was almost impossible, due to the broken panel angles. I stamped down with my other boot to widen the hole, so that I might get myself back up.
There was enough daylight from the room’s window to see that there was a face at the doorway, looking up at me as my second boot widened the hole. Before he could do something dangerous to me, I dropped one of my flash-bangs through the hole. I went off as it hit the floor, and with this distraction, I pulled my legs up, dragged myself onto a solid beam, and started clambering towards safety.
Who knows what happened in the room doorway, but it appears that the guy had been holding an automatic weapon when he was hit by the flash and the concussion. A flashbang is a concussion or stun grenade with pyrotechnics, designed to disorientate the victim.
He must have been holding the gun in my general direction when it hit him, and his finger gripped the trigger tightly enough to set off a burst of bullets my way. I wasn’t quick enough to be out of the complete field of fire, and I felt one or more rounds penetrate my legs.
I continued to crawl to safety, and found myself being grabbed and pulled by my back-up mate. We got to the hatch next door, and he went part-way down the ladder before pulling me on to his back and carrying me down to floor level. For a time, I didn’t feel pain, due to the adrenaline rush, but when it finally hit me as my feet landed on the floor, I blacked out for a little while.
I recovered my senses in time to hear my mate calling for the medic, detailing my injuries and location, then saying to me, “Got to go, John. Duty calls.”
I replied, “Go. Go.” I tried to nod my head, but it must have hit the edge of the hatch as we had come through, for a fresh surge of pain went through my head, and I was out again.
Some time later, a herd of boots clattered into the room, and hands started to attend to my wounds, a voice reassuring me, “We’ve got you, mate. You’ll be okay. We’ve wrapped your leg wounds and you’ll be off to hospital soon. Might be a bit of a jostle with the stretcher going down the stairs, so I’ll put you out first.”
I never felt to injection of the knock-out potion, but it did its job, for I next woke up in the hospital. “Woke up” is a bit of a joke, for the doctors who revived me just wanted to ask me a few questions about what I could feel – bloody sore all over, mate! – then they told me I was going to the theatre, so they put my lights out again.
When I was compos mentis once more, the next day (I think), a doctor came along to inform me that most of the rounds had passed through my flesh, but one had hit my femur and smashed it somewhat.
That didn’t sound too bad, until they explained that they had been forced to install a pair of rods on either side of the leg, screwed into the bone above and below the damage. It was going to be months before I would be able to put much weight on the leg, and even longer before they would risk removing the splints.
After days of asking, I was finally told that all the terrorists had died during the assault on that house. A couple of other troopers had sustained wounds, but neither was severely hurt and were back at base.
A week or so later, I was visited by the regimental doctor. He examined all my medical records, viewed the damage, including the remaining bump on my head, and told me the bad news. I was still a bit woozy with all the painkillers that had stuffed into me, but I could take in what he was saying.
“John, you are not going to get back to fitness for your normal service for at least a year, if ever. That leg will never be as strong as before. The Service may be able to find you a desk job, if you want it, or you will get a medical discharge. In either case, you will be able to make a claim under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, and we can assist you with filling out the forms. The army runs on paperwork, as you will appreciate.”
Crap. My SAS job was down the toilet. No way was I going to sit at a desk, hearing third hand about the exploits of my former mates. Bad enough lying in this bed with my leg sheltered by this protective frame under the sheets; it stops me turning on my side to get more comfortable without a lot of effort. EVERY bloody thing is going wrong for me.
“Sir, I don’t think I could put up with a desk job. Sedentary is just not me.”
“Get used to it, son. You are going to be in a bed for weeks, then sitting up in a hospital chair, or perhaps a wheelchair if you want to move around or get some fresh air, but you won’t be on your feet for a looong time, John.”
“In that case, I’ll go for the medical discharge, sir. That is easier to cope with. At least I’ll be able to make my own decisions.”
“Very well. By the way, have you contacted your family? close friends other than the Regiment?”
“No, sir. I didn’t want to tell my folks until I knew how the land lies. Oh, fuck! Jenny!”
“Jenny, my girlfriend. She will be wondering where I am.”
“Ah.” The officer hung his head, looked uncomfortable, as if not knowing what to say.
“What?” I questioned him. “Is there something I ought to know?”
“Ah, I spoke to some of your mates before coming here, in case they wanted to pass on messages. One of them informed me that your girl was two-timing you; so perhaps you should prepare for the old heave-ho, now that you are off the reservation, so to speak.”
“Fuck! You are not shitting me, sir?”
“I kid you not, John. Another of the guys backed him up. It seems they knew what was going on, but were too embarrassed to tell you.”
“Damn. Not even a ‘Dear John’ letter then?”
He smiled in sympathy. “You never know, but I suspect not. More likely just a “no show” event.”
“Life sucks, sir.”
“It does, at times, even for the best of us, John. Consider yourself lucky it didn’t become more serious with your attachment to her. She would not have been a good choice.”
I pondered, “Mebbe so. Well, now I know what the prognosis is, perhaps I can tell my folks. BUT, I don’t want to go stay with them. I don’t want mothering. I can stand on my own two feet.” I stopped, frowned, and resumed, “Or I will, eventually.”
“I had better be going, John. Here’s my card. Get in touch with me about these forms, but there’s no rush. You stay on normal pay in the meantime, until things are sorted.”
“Thanks, sir. Goodbye.”
He ambled out, instead of a formal military step. I think that was to avoid overtly showing that he was fully ambulant, and not a cripple like me. I appreciated the gesture.
I didn’t get that ‘Dear John” letter, or even an email. He was right.
My parents appeared the day after I sent them the message about my injury, and were properly commiserating. They offered a home for me when I was convalescing, but I persuaded them that I would not be good company. I said that visiting them occasionally would be better for us all, and they accepted that plan; with some relief, in my humble opinion.
I put up with the hospital regime, but I think they had trouble putting up with me. I was a pain in the butt at times, through frustration. I used to be a real action man, now I was bedridden. It sucks, as the Yanks like to say.
Some weeks on, and I was moved to sitting in a fairly comfy chair beside the bed. I still had to use that bloody cardboard bedpan to pee, though they call it papier-mache, and a sturdier utensil for shitting into. At least out of bed you had a special seat you could use for defecation and peeing at times. It still felt demeaning.
In the field, in a hide, you defecated into a plastic bag, and sealed it, to hide any odours, and peed into a plastic drinks bottle for the same reason; we could not afford to be found by smell. On our way back, we tossed these into the undergrowth at random spots. Body odour in a hide, where you were there for days, could be disguised by smearing yourself and your clothes with the surrounding muck. The worst problem was farts: you had no control over them except for slowing down the escape to cut down the noise. The fart smell itself soon dissipated, we found.
It made no odds to us, as long as we remained safe and secure while gathering humint (human intelligence, as opposed to sigint – signals intelligence).
That was all history now. No more cautiously and carefully sneaking around in jungles or deserts or icy terrain. Just beds and wheelchairs and abandonment to civvy street.
I did get the use of a wheeled hospital chair, but the porters had to wheel us invalids backward to where we would sit in the sunshine, in a sheltered spot outside. In other conditions, we could be wheeled to the patients’ lounge, to sit in relative comfort and read newspapers or books – the lounge library was mostly novels – or play board games. They didn’t have GO, so mostly it was draughts (checkers to Americans) or chess.
I sometimes felt like screaming to be let out of this prison – for that was what it seemed like to me. Instead, I treated it like being stuck in a hide, and bided my time, looking forward to being released into the world outside this pleasant but restraining cocoon.
Okay. I got my wish: Release. The MOD signed off on my compensation claim, crediting me with a considerable sum. The hospital told me I could go home (wherever that is; the Regiment was my home, but I am now officially “not wanted on voyage”.
My MOD handlers helped me find a small flat on the level, so that I didn’t have to cope with steps and stairs. With my compensation, I can afford the rent. Still, I would prefer to work; and not live on my new funds. They would eventually run out, I knew.
I decided to apply my former training to my injured frame, and began regular and sustained exercising of my legs, to get my bad leg back into the old concept of being part of a pair. It ached for a long while, but gradually eased off. I became recognised as a regular walker around town. Townsfolk started nodding to me, and saying “Hello” in passing.
When asked about my limp – which was quite pronounced at the start – I passed it off as a bad accident. That elicited sympathy, but no real request for details. Where that questioned was actually asked, I simply stated, “Sorry, I don’t like to talk about it, as it brings back bad memories.” Extra sympathy, nil enquiries as a result.
As I got better, the comments were more along the lines of, “Nice to see your leg is improving, John.” Yeah, I admitted to being John, but neglected to volunteer my surname. I did not want to get too involved with fellow residents of the town.
Much later, I decided that my health had improved to the point that I could consider gainful employment, instead of subsisting on my diminishing funds. I registered at the employment exchange, or whatever they call it now to make it seem more encouraging. They offered me a range of jobs that they thought I could do. Most of them sounded boring and repetitive, without that spark of interest that I needed.
Then I got a letter through the post. A genuine letter, beautifully typed, with an official letterhead that seemed impressive. “Jeeves and Co.”
Dear Mr Freeman, It has come to our notice that you are seeking employment, having recovered from your injuries.
We are aware that your employment record up till now has been purely of a military nature. Our company offers an excellent opportunity to retrain, and we think that your past experience will be an asset not to be ignored.
All we would suggest at this juncture is that you come along for a preliminary chat at our offices in London. We shall of course reimburse all your expenses for that visit, rather than your usual travel warrant in happier times.
If we and you see ourselves as future colleagues, we can discuss terms at that point. I am sure you will not be averse to travel to other countries as part of your duties.
I am, Yours faithfully, (scribble) T. Margulies, Managing Director.
Well, that was a bit of a surprise. First time I have been head-hunted, even if it is only for retraining. There was nothing to say what the company did for its existence. Nothing either to say what the job title was, or what it entailed. It seemed a trifle peculiar; offering a job, including retraining, without any demands for a resume of my talents and current health. In fact, they seemed to know more about me than a company like that had a right to.
I was half-inclined to reject the offer outright, but curiosity is one of my failings. I wanted to know more. All-expenses trip to London, eh? I could handle that, and assuage my unfortunate curiosity.
I replied, Dear Mr Margulies, My interest is piqued enough to attend the proposed interview. My phone number is ****, so I would be grateful if you could call and find a mutually agreeable date and time. Any morning between 9 and noon, I am likely to be at home.
Yours, John Hawkins Freeman.
I bunged that off in the mail with a first class stamp to show willing, and got a call next day 10.45 a.m.
“Hello? Is that Mr Freeman?” It was a female voice, sounding authoritative. Good sign.
“It is. Can I help you?”
“I am Mrs Theodosia Margulies, Managing Director of Jeeves and Company. We have to arrange date for your interview, I believe.”
“Oh, MRS Margulies! Sorry about that. I assumed the managing director to be a man. My apologies, ma’am.”
“Good start, Mr Freeman. An apologetic demeanour is a requirement in our service. I shall explain more when you arrive, as it will be more private.”
Having sorted ourselves out, we set to, and fixed the appointment. After the phone call was concluded, I booked my rail ticket online, and got a good price for the journey.
I made a point of walking to the train station, carrying my overnight rucksack. That was nothing, compared to the loaded Bergans we used to carry, weighing up to 45 kg. I was happy to note that my fitness was much improved, five months into my recovery; improved, but nothing like SAS requirements. I accepted my new limitations.
I had also been celibate since I sustained my wounds. Much of that was of necessity, but more recently it was by choice. I no longer had much trust in the female of the species, and that attitude is not a good basis for dating. Not that women came up to me asking to get to know me better.
I wondered about Mrs Margulies: managing director. That was a surprise. I might have expected a tough dyke, but a married woman? Unusual, in my experience.
The building I was directed to was close to the MOD headquarters, but that meant nothing. In London, everything is squeezed together, with every bit of usable space being used for accommodation, provided you could afford to pay the going rate. Close to government buildings could be a good bet, financially, as it is not prime territory for the rich.
I found the address and came to the front door. Neat sign beside the door, saying “JEEVES & CO”; nothing else. I entered, expecting a guard on duty, or at least a receptionist, but all that was visible was a desk with a few brochures labelled “Jeeves & Co, butlers for top people.”
Butlers? They surely don’t see me as a BUTLER? That would be crazy. I may be daft, but I don’t do crazy.