The fifth novel from Andrew O’Hagan, “a novelist of astonishingly assured gifts” (The New York Times Book Review), finds him at the height of his powers. Set between Captain Luke’s tour of Afghanistan and his return after a catastrophic mission, The Illuminations is a beautiful, deeply charged story that reveals that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
Early one morning in the summer of that year a troop carrier roared past a melon stall on the road to Maiwand. Inside the vehicle the boys were ribbing each other, the boys of A Section, a pair of fire teams in the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers. It wasn’t strictly an Irish regiment but it had always attracted boys with a sense of Ireland behind them, a number of songs or a father who swore by an old decision.
The cab shook and you could taste the dust. The lads were jammed in the middle of the convoy. Captain Luke Campbell was in charge of the section and he sat in the Vector with his rifle flat across his knees. He was talking about the Afghan servicemen they were meant to be looking after during the mission. ‘The
nobs can blab all they like,’ Luke said. ‘There are ANA troops I’d choose over half the Paras.’
‘Too right,’ Private Dooley said.
‘No messin’,’ Flannigan said. ‘I’d take the ragamuffins every time over the Plonkers.’
Luke screwed up his face. ‘But we’re not training the Plonkers, much as they fucken need it. We’re training the Fundies. Keep it clear in your heads: we’re the Operational Mentor Liaison Team.’
‘We’re their Sandhurst,’ Dooley said.
They rode along and the air got hotter. Private Lennox had been up top for two hours with sand smacking him in the face and he was melting when he came down. They passed another stall. The boys’ tongues were hanging out for a cold drink but the boss said they couldn’t stop because every local fucker was probably a roadside bomb. ‘Best fucken army training in the world,’ he said, ‘and you crows are still unconvinced that water is better for you than cans of Fanta.’ Private Flannigan of fire team Delta saw on the gauge that it was fifty degrees inside the Vector and he clocked that Lennox had nearly passed out when he dropped down. The boys from Charlie team pulled off his armour and fanned him and pumped him full of water. Flannigan cleaned his face with a wet wipe and grinned. ‘You’re fucken burning up, our kid.’
Private Dooley removed the boy’s helmet. ‘I’ll just hop off the bus and get him a Ribena,’ he said.
‘Shut up, Dooley,’ Flannigan said. ‘It’s the South Armagh of Afghanistan out there, nothing but Terry Taliban waiting behind the wall to chop your balls off and send them back to your mammy.’
‘Bring it on, bitch,’ said Private Dooley, a big, smiling boy of eighteen with fleshy lips and a bent ear. Nothing surprised him. They all cheered and Lennox sat up. ‘He’s back!’ Dooley said.
‘You were fucken babblin’, man. The heat got to you.’
‘What’s the difference?’ Flannigan said. ‘That’s the way he always talks. A thick gypsy from Belfast, eh?’
‘Shut your face,’ Lennox said, then Flannigan reached inside his tunic and took out a Lambert & Butler, passing the cigarette to Lennox as the vehicle jolted and went on. It had been Lennox’s first tour the year before and Flannigan looked after him when they were pinned down together during a battle on the Pharmacy Road in Sangin. The boys in this section were close and they all knew it. And the soldiers in the rest of the platoon, travelling behind, they knew it, too. The boys in A Section had their own language and said whatever they wanted.
‘What you got a thigh-holster for, man?’ asked Flannigan. He was from Liverpool and never got tired of mocking.
Dooley looked like he’d barely started to shave. His green eyes were bright and he used a lot of words, some of them wrong.
‘Shut yer face,’ he said. ‘This gear is highly appropriated.’
‘You mean “appropriate”,’ Luke said. ‘Get some more water inside you, Lennox. You’re dehydrated.’
Lennox’s red face was shining with sweat. ‘Have you seen Dooley’s thigh-holster, sir?’
‘You were out for the count a minute ago,’ Luke said. ‘Spark out. Couldn’t take the pace.’
The boys laughed and Luke smiled and turned away. ‘You just keep saving up for your big fat gypsy wedding,’ he said to Dooley.
‘Harsh,’ Dooley said. Then Luke studied the map. The boys loved it when the captain joined in: it made them feel lucky, grown-up, selected. ‘I’ve been thinking of inventing a new thing for the wedding,’ Dooley added. ‘Worst man. Like the opposite of best man. I was thinking of asking Lennox: he’s definitely first choice. He could make a speech proving he’s the biggest gobshite ever to leave the Falls Road.’
‘Your talk makes me proud of my regiment,’ Luke said.
‘Thank you, sir. Veritas vos liberabit.’
‘Regimental motto,’ Flannigan said.
‘Onwards the 1st Royal Western,’ Dooley said to himself, looking down at their boots smeared in dirt. ‘The truth will set you free.’
Luke was always telling Major Scullion that his boys were the salt of the British army. Especially 5 Platoon. They were full of shite, he said, and they talked non-stop, but when it came to fighting these men were the bomb. Luke was a full ten years older than most of the platoon and had spent a lot of time with them at Camp Bastion and in Salisbury. The boys recognised Luke was a bit of a thinker but he wasn’t the careerist kind of officer. They never said it to his face, but they knew, they all knew, that
his father had been a captain in the regiment and had died in
Sergeant Sean Docherty was driving the vehicle behind, carrying a group of men from the Afghan National Army. Docherty was quiet, thought Luke, a self-made officer who missed his wife and steadily avoided most of the banter around him. Luke was always conscious of the men, checking their positions, ensuring they were ready, and for him they constituted an unconscious world of faith and necessity. You go to sleep knowing these men might be the last thing between you and the shit. They stand up for you. They think your thoughts. They need what you need. He loved the banter and the way the banter brought the boys together. But he felt worried on the road to Maiwand that they were jumpy in advance of the mission. They weren’t coping well with the heat and their brains were soft from months spent doing nothing, killing some imagined enemy on screen, posting rubbish on YouTube, or lying under mosquito nets thinking hard about the car they’d buy if they ever got home.
The convoy stopped on Highway 1 and some of the ordnance blokes got out to check for roadside bombs. ‘That’s fine,’ Luke said to the three soldiers in the Vector, ‘you can get down. We’ve got half an hour. Try not to shit your pants. Eat the oranges but not too many. This is Terry bandit country and we’re camping right in the middle of their spawn-point here, waiting for them to drop on us.’
‘2M2H?’ Dooley said.
‘No, Doosh. Not too much to handle. Don’t be a prick. I just don’t fancy my crack platoon getting wiped while sitting on their skinny wee arses eating tropical fruit. Keep your peepers open and do what the captain says, there’s a good lad.’
The Royal Engineers had work to do on some of the convoy’s vehicles and the search for roadside bombs took longer than they thought, so they were stuck. Luke radioed to Sean in the vehicle behind, telling him to ask the ANA soldiers who knew the terrain if they had any clues about where the bombs might be. ‘They should do,’ said Sean’s crackling voice. ‘They probably planted half of them.’
Sitting against the trucks, shirts round their necks, the boys had smokes going. It was way too hot. ‘If you don’t know the difference between Death Metal and Thrash Metal,’ Lennox said, ‘you may as well just get out your fucken assault weapon and start
blowing your tiny brains all over the fucken desert.’
‘He reasoned,’ Luke said.
‘I mean it, bitches. I can’t believe I’m turtling here in the sand with a bunch of fucken newbs with a low-ping connection to the universe – Dooley, Flange, look at the nick of them – and it’s Game On in this shithole and these fucken ’tards think that “The Punishment Due” by Megadeth is an example of Thrash Metal. Cop on, bell-ends. Go up the front there and sell that shit to the Gobblers.’
‘What’s the Gobblers?’ Dooley asked.
‘The Grenadier Guards,’ Luke said.
‘Awesome. It’s all Royal Engineers up there,’ Dooley said.
‘The Chunkies,’ Lennox said. ‘A corps of Bennies up there with a single fucken standard grade and a metal ruler between them, pumping up tyres and thinking they’re God.’
‘Fuck them all, man. We got the battle honours.’
‘Fucken right,’ Flannigan said, leaning on the cabin door and closing his eyes. ‘But we’re the ones sitting here for hours going red pigs . . .’
‘Like boiling,’ Flannigan said. ‘And the cocknoshes up there, man, the fucken Chunkies, giving it fuck-o-nometry with some cunting Rupert from Bastion nodding all impressed like and we’re sitting up here getting Kit-Kat arse in the sun.’
‘Some officers are dicks and they’ll always be dicks,’ Lennox said. ‘Not you, Captain.’
‘Steady,’ Luke said.
‘Jesus,’ Dooley whispered. ‘I wish something would happen. I want to be all over this map. I want a whole lot of kills and then I don’t give a fuck what happens. They can take me home.’ His voice had gone down a level with the heat and he swigged water from a plastic bottle and then threw the bottle into the road among the rocks.
‘I don’t care what anybody says,’ Lennox said. ‘Megadeth is not Thrash Metal. It’s Death Metal, so it is.’
‘The guitars are gunning, man. It’s Thrash.’
‘Bollocks, it is.’
‘They practically invented Thrash. Them and Metallica.’ Lennox began poking himself in the chest. ‘I’m telling you, man. I was into them before any other kid at St Gerard’s.’
‘Cop on, Lennox, you daft bitch. Get real. You were about two when Countdown to Extinction came out.’
Lennox pondered this. ‘I was definitely listening to Youthanasia when I was in primary school, so I was.’
So the conversation went, all day, half the night, between joints and scran, boredom and mortars. The time to start worrying on a mission, Luke always said, is when the boys are being too nice to one another. And in a firefight, you only panic when the boys go silent.
He smiled and walked off the road. He could see the wavering line of the horizon and everything in the distance looked like a form of sunstroke. There was a mud house by an irrigation ditch, a smell of shit and rotten hay, a man in a pink turban strolling with his goats. Out there, the ragged mountains appeared like a video still, not reality but a screen-grab. The whole scene looked parched and ruined. A clear picture came into Luke’s mind of a fresher landscape, Loch Lomond in the black-and-white summer of an old photograph at his grandmother’s. He could almost taste a pint of lager, and taste Anne’s art. He didn’t think that any of his Helmand images would end up in a frame.
There was heat inside the heat. Sweat ran down the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades. Luke hated the hours it took to dig out landmines and the wait for incoming fire. Scullion said the mission would be the biggest logistical task of the war. Two hundred vehicles and a shitload of grunts desperate as fuck to get out there and banjo the Taliban. Luke felt weak. Just as there was heat inside the heat, there was weakness inside his weakness. Everything is dense with itself out there; everything is thick with its own crazed lack of known limits. Things could escalate. You could sense it in your nerves and feel it on your skin.
Jesus, the boys were mad for action. They were mad for wildeyed bogeymen covered in rags, for teams of degenerates to appear on the horizon wearing beards and mucky sandals, pouring through the heatwave with their sabres held high. By late August the men in the platoon were chin-strapped and breathing through their arses. They needed a story to tell and they needed pictures. They longed for something they would hate the moment it arrived. But they wanted it and their want appeared to seep into the deadly hot distances that surrounded them.
‘Jesus,’ Luke said. They’d given up on the famous victory long ago and now they gave a toss for nothing but the regiment. To everybody it was a cluster fuck where nobody wins.
‘Mad out here,’ he said quietly.
Luke walked a dozen yards away from the convoy. The horizon was a bundle of grey and brown garments, a heap of old linen, surely not stones and mountains. The distance seemed to come and go in the heat, it appeared to liquefy before him and he felt lost on the empty map with the troops and vehicles ranged at his back. At Bastion he’d told the boys to write their last letters. A quick note just in case. Two seconds. They wrote them while waiting for their turn on Xbox.
It began early on that first day. It began with the melting horizon and the threat of forces lying outside his vision. He felt the Kajaki Operation was cursed and he wanted to be out of there. He felt the pressure of his younger self, the one who missed his father, the boy in touch with beautiful ideas. Back then, Luke often walked through Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow to spend the day with his gran. Anne was a woman who lived quietly and knew how to disappear into her own experience. He could still see her standing near the window with a magnifying glass and an old catalogue, sitting him down to explain things. Even when speaking to a boy she spoke as a person not only ready to invest in you but ready to bear the costs to the end. In Helmand, he already understood that Anne was now ill, and, thinking of her, he realised her quest had long since become part of who he was himself. It was inside him. He didn’t yet know what her quest was, but he had never forgotten that by going round galleries with him and talking about books, Anne had given him the world not as it was but as it might be. He could see himself as a boy on her sofa with a large seashell clamped to his ear. He felt he needed her more than ever, he wanted her close, the person who once revealed to him a world beyond the obvious. He recalled the time she took him to Dunure Harbour. He was twelve years old and they stood holding hands on the jetty, the wind pushing them back as they took great gulps of air. ‘Breathe, Luke!’ she said. ‘You can’t argue with that! Fresh wind off the sea. Oh my. I wish I could catch it with the camera.’
It all felt different now, the ethos, the habits, the taste he and his fellow soldiers had developed for a high kill ratio. Out there, staring into the mountains, it occurred to him that he had travelled far from his old resources, far from Anne Quirk and her mysterious belief that truth and silence can conquer everything. Was she even real in herself, he asked. Or was she just another of life’s compelling hopes? He remembered her bringing books back from the library and then disappearing down to England for weeks at a time. His mother wouldn’t tell him anything about Anne’s story and the books stood, in his mind, for everything missing. ‘You’re the first officer I’ve met in years’, Major Scullion had told him, ‘who knows that Browning is not just a small arms
Luke and the major were now miles from the shared conscience that had once elevated their friendship. Something was wrong. ‘Jesus,’ he said again. ‘This war is dirty as fuck. There’s nothing good here. And we the police are coming to our end.’ He blew out his breath and watched his thoughts vaporise against a wall of daylight. Some crazy box of frogs out here, he thought, goats and fuck knows what, Fat Alberts flying overhead dropping cannon on the wrong people.
Andrew O’Hagan is one of Britain’s most exciting and serious contemporary writers. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He was voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. He has won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.
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