Jan Harris

Unnoticed to the Ground

 In all the months I’d spent in Iraq I hadn’t cried once. It was a matter of pride among the women soldiers to be as tough as the men, so we just got on with our jobs and didn’t let ourselves get too involved.

Since I came home though, the smallest things started me blubbering like a baby. Like the bird. At first I thought it was an autumn leaf falling but it hit the windscreen of my Peugeot 206 with a thud and bounced off into the road. Perhaps it was a sparrow, or maybe a wren. Sandwiched between a four by four towing a caravan, and a boy racer itching to overtake, I couldn’t stop to find out.

The bird seemed to fall straight down from the oak trees which lined the road, rather than fly into the windscreen. I hoped it was dead before it hit the car, knocked from its perch by some avian disease, at least then I wouldn’t be responsible for its destruction.

The familiar choked-up feeling hit me again, and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. It was the third time I'd cried that morning and it was only nine o’clock. That must be a record, even for me. Despite the tears I didn’t feel sad, just empty, as if everything that mattered had been sucked out of me, sealed up in a vacuum bag and stored on top of a wardrobe, out of reach.

The only time I came close to crying in Iraq was when children were caught up in the fighting. One little girl reminded me of my kid sister. Something in the way the corners of her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Her name was Rabab, and she used to hang around her gate waiting for us to pass by. Some of the soldiers gave her chocolate.

I remembered the day a suicide truck exploded outside a Sunni mosque. We were sent to help people trapped among the debris. As soon as I saw the white dress covered with red flowers I knew it was Rabab. Her mother had her arm around her, as if they had fallen asleep together. Except you wouldn’t go to sleep in a pool of blood, would you.

I suddenly felt angry with myself for crying over a silly bird, when I hadn't shed a tear for Rabab. I turned off the main road and stopped on a quiet lane while I dried my face and pulled myself together.

I parked next to the village church. It was just the sort of place you’d want to get married in, a grey stone building half-hidden by chestnut trees, its bell tower soaring above them all.

It was still early, only nine fifteen. I was officially on leave for another two days but had decided to head back to base early, keen to throw myself back into work.

I got out of my car and wandered up the drive and through the cemetery. It was cool among the trees, and I started to feel calmer, more at peace with myself. Most of the graves were well tended, with stone and marble pots full of flowers in various stages of decay.

I noticed that the church door stood open, so I wandered inside to look around. The interior smelled of an uneasy mixture of damp and polish. The church was completely silent and specks of dust danced in the beam of light that shone through the stained glass window above the altar.

The pews were decorated with embroidered kneelers. One of them caught my eye – a picture of a sparrow with the words “he sees the meanest sparrow fall”. It must have taken someone hours to make; the stitches were tiny.

At the far end of the pew I saw an archway and beyond that a spiral staircase leading up the bell tower. I counted the steps as I climbed. Forty in all before I reached the ringing chamber, where six maroon and gold twisted ropes hung down from the bells up above. They ended in loops that reminded me of nooses.

On the far wall of the chamber a wooden ladder led into the belfry itself, where the huge, iron bells hung in a metal frame. Each was decorated with a border of vine leaves and the largest bore the date 1780 and an inscription. I ran my fingers over the letters - "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty".

One more ladder, an aluminium one this time, led up to a trapdoor which swung open easily, allowing me to climb out on the very top of the tower. The countryside stretched out in front of me, a patchwork of gold and green fields, hedges and woods, with the road snaking away into the distance.

I looked down to the churchyard below. The graves looked tiny, like postage stamps against the grass.

It was easy to step off of the roof and up onto the low wall of the tower. The stone was so thick I was able to balance quite easily. I felt the wind tug at my coat, as if it wanted me to lift my arms and soar into the clouds.

I stretched out my arms and shouted “come on God, don’t just sit there watching – come and catch me”, as if he was some sort of super-hero who would come swooping down from the sky and take me in his arms just before I hit the ground.

Except I knew he wouldn’t do that, he would just watch until I hit the floor and that would be the end of me, just like the sparrow. Just like Rabab and her mother. Just like all of us in the end.

I shut my eyes and waited for the wind to carry me forwards. It would be so easy just to relax and let everything go.

Then I heard voices from below. A small girl and her mother were walking through the churchyard. The girl was carrying a bunch of flowers. They stopped at one of the graves and the woman took the old flowers out of the pot. She went to fetch water while the little girl arranged the fresh ones. I wondered if the grave belonged to her grandma, or grandpa. I hoped it wasn’t her father, or her sister.

The wind tugged at my coat again and I almost stumbled. I quickly stepped back onto the roof, not wanting to scare the child and her mother. Not wanting the girl to have to remember my broken body on the ground. Not wanting my own mother to have to bring fresh flowers to a grave.

I looked back down into the churchyard but the child and her mother were nowhere to be seen. I watched for a long time, wondering if they were hidden by a tree, or had gone into the church, but they didn’t reappear. It was if they had never been there at all.

I drove away from the church as if nothing of any importance had happened there. My next tour of duty was due to start in less than a week, and I had people to see before I left.

 Jan Harris © 2008

[Note: this is a work of fiction and any similarities to any persons' experiences herein are purely coincidental]