This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1700 words.
Paula operated the hydraulic platform at the back of the converted car. Once it was safely down, Darren wheeled himself out into the car park. She handed him the trays of paper poppies to rest on his lap, then removed the folding table and the two collecting boxes.
Once they had set up inside the entrance to the supermarket, Paula told him that she would be back some time after four to pick him up. She made sure that he had his flask of tea and the sandwich safely stowed in the small pack hanging from the handles of the chair. Waving goodbye, she walked back the short distance to the car.
She had been a great friend to Darren over the last few years. A soldier’s widow herself, she had taken the edge off of her grief by becoming heavily involved in helping others. Darren really loved her, but not like that. There would never be anymore ‘like that’ for him. Poppy Day was on a Friday this year, so a nice busy day in the supermarket looked promising for his collection. Of course many would have already bought their poppies, but selling them on the actual day always managed to catch the last of the stragglers, or those who had avoided them until now. Paula had set up his table in the gap between the entrance and exit. It was prominent enough to be seen, without affecting anyone getting in and out with their trolleys.
Darren backed his wheelchair into position next to the table, and put the extra boxes behind the open one on display. He held on to one of the collecting tins, then placed the other at the front, where it couldn’t be missed. There was no doubt that he cut a smart figure, even sitting down. He wore his beret and shiny cap-badge, a black blazer with his regimental cloth emblem, and his row of medals on the left. The military tie looked nice over a crisp white shirt too.
Below the waist, the story was somewhat different. Elasticated joggers covered him there, the legs pinned up so that they did not dangle beneath the travel rug that was wrapped around his waist, stopping just short of the footplates that he would never need to use. If he didn’t move around too much, nobody would notice the urine-collection bag that hung alongside, connected by a tube that went into his body.
When he left school, it had been a lot harder to get a job than he had expected. Despite some reasonable exam results, there was nothing much on offer. He had settled for being an assistant at the garden centre, and made the best of the low wages, and lack of prospects. But despite working hard and managing to actually enjoy the job, falling sales meant cuts, and he had been one of the first to be laid off. After a pointless summer, he decided to join the army, overcoming the concerns of his parents. Army life seemed to suit him from the start. He liked being outdoors a lot of the time, and didn’t mind the routine that bored so many of his fellow recruits. By the time the war against Iraq came along, he felt ready. And once he got to Basra, he discovered that he was.
By the time his regiment was sent to Helmand Province some years later, he had made sergeant. Despite his youth, the young officers relied on his experience to sort out the company, and on his cool head when it came to the fighting. But Afghanistan was a very different war to the one he had known in Iraq. Although those at home may not have been aware, it was a hard fight. Darren found he was feeling jumpy and edgy, and wondering who he could rely on. Long days in the compound dodging rockets, and fighting boredom, as well as the Taliban. These were followed by intense fire-fights, and nervy patrols, where everyone you saw seemed like the enemy. The company had its worse day ever there, four killed and seven injured. After that, they got leave, and returned to the garrison in the UK.
Mum pleaded with him not to go back. Dad told him to get out of the army. Old school-friends said it was a pointless war, and they were doing no good being there. Darren didn’t argue with them, as he knew that they would never understand. You fought for your mates, the blokes next to you. The reasons didn’t concern you. You were there, and that was all there was to it. So you stuck together, and looked after each other as best as you could. When the time came to go back, he felt almost relieved. Life at home was too strange now. He had been gone too long.
The second patrol of that tour started off the same as most of the others. Wandering along a dusty track bordered by fields, heading for a mud-walled compound about a mile further on. Private Cobb was on point duty, and the Lieutenant was behind Darren. He was saying something into the radio, probably a report to headquarters. Cobb stopped and held up his hand. He had seen something he wasn’t happy with. The old trailer was overturned against the side of the track, and had a large pile of rocks stacked under it. When Darren got up to Cobb’s position, he agreed with the Private that it seemed out of place, and suggested they turn back.
Then there was the sound of air rushing past. Darren felt as if he was flying through the air, in a cloud of choking dust. And he was. He couldn’t remember the impact as he connected with the ground. It knocked the breath out of him, and he was aware that he couldn’t hear anything. He could see the young Lieutenant’s face, and he appeared to be screaming, but made no noise. At least none that Darren could hear. Twisting his head around, he could see what he presumed was Cobby, lying crumpled in the field to his right. There wasn’t enough of him left to fill a rucksack. Darren’s first thought was of Cobb’s chubby young wife, and the toddler back home who would never remember his Dad, despite being shown the photos. He tried to get up and help the Lieutenant, but was unable to stand.
Back where he had been standing, he could see some legs lying in the road, still wearing their boots. His eyes were obscured by blood, so he rubbed at them to clear his vision. The left side of his face was wet, and when he couldn’t make things any better, he looked down along his body instead. Most of his left hand was gone, at least three fingers, anyway. He tried to move his legs again, but the left one didn’t seem to be there, and what remained of the right one refused to respond. But he couldn’t take it in. There was no pain. Why was there no pain? That would come later.
The rest was a blur. Medics, morphine, stretchers, and finally, a helicopter. Base hospital became home for a while, as he tried to understand that he had no left leg, not much left of his right one, and only half a left hand. His left eye had been removed, and his left ear was mostly gone. Things didn’t seem right between his legs either, and when he found out that most of his manhood had been taken by the blast, he pleaded with the medical officer to let him die. They wouldn’t do that of course. He knew that all too well, but kept asking anyway. The Padre came to visit, and informed him that his parents had been given the news that he was wounded. He would be flown home to a hospital in England, as soon as there was space available. He confirmed that Cobby was dead, and that the officer had sustained a severe head injury. Some of the platoon came to see him, but from their expressions, he could tell just how bad he looked.
The hard work started once he got home. Seven operations in less than two years. More pain than he could ever have imagined. He gave up on a glass eye, preferring to wear a patch to cover the gaping hole. Nothing could be done with the left leg, but they might have been able to fit a prosthetic to the right one. Darren told them not to bother. He would get used to a wheelchair instead. Despite the injuries, the worst thing was having to live back at home. To see his parents’ faces every time they looked at him. Learning to cope on benefits, using a disabled toilet and shower specially adapted for him. Changing the bag attached to the tube between his legs, and taking all the tablets lined up for him every day, all too aware that this would be for the rest of his life.
He did all the usual stuff. Sat alone for hours, drank too much alcohol, and contemplated suicide. His Mum and Dad were being dragged down with him, and his old friends soon stopped coming round. After a while, he started to get used to it. Then he decided to help where he could. Charity collections, talking to other wounded soldiers, speaking to schoolchildren, he was up for anything they asked of him. Once he met Paula, he was inspired to do even more. He told the doctors that he wasn’t going to have any more operations, and they could forget the plastic surgery on his ear, and trying to reconstruct his hand. This was him now, and he would just get on with it.
The supermarket lobby was a bit draughty, but Darren didn’t mind. He spotted a couple coming his way, and raised the collecting tin as they drew close. The man was young and fit, reminding Darren of how he once looked himself. The girl avoided looking at the disfigured man in the wheelchair, but the shaking of the collecting tin attracted her partner’s attention. He paused for a second, patting his pockets. A sheepish grin appeared on his face as he spoke.
“Sorry mate, no change.”