The crowd really were going wild. I was banging out power chords on my Gibson Les Paul, and they wanted more. I turned round and grinned at my drummer, Boy George. His red painted lips grinned back. Mr Powell, my old physics teacher was plucking his bass guitar and hurling abuse at the crowd. I swore at him. He was a bearded slap-head twat and had no right being in my band.
I was rolling towards my legendary guitar solo. My entire reason for being. The girls in the crowd would cry, the lads would cheer and I would become a god. The crowd screamed out as one. ‘AIR RED!’
I stopped playing and looked at Boy George. He obviously had no idea what the crowd meant either. He had given up drumming and was now struggling to open a KitKat instead. Mr Powell had abandoned his bass guitar and was now hurling chalk dusters, as well as abuse, at the chanting crowd. Again, as one they all shouted. ‘AIR RED!’
I opened my eyes. In my sleep I had managed to wriggle deep down inside my sleeping bag and once I squirmed free of its suffocating weight I sucked in deep lungfuls of the cold night air. I then sat up, put my hands on my nob, yawned, and had a scratch of myself. ‘AIR RED!’
This time the words were clearer. They were louder. It wasn’t a chanting crowd singing them. It was a man shouting them. I sat perfectly still and strained to listen. The man shouted again. ‘AIR RED!’
My ringpiece twitched violently. Panic began coursing through my veins and I scurried out of my sleeping bag. I landed heavily on the desert floor as I fell off the stolen American cam-cot I had been slumbering on. Other voices had now taken up the ‘Air Red!’ chant and I scrabbled around in the darkness, desperately trying to get dressed.
I found my helmet and pushed it onto my head, fumbling for maybe two or three seconds with the chin-strap before giving it up as a lost cause and cursing its shit design. ‘Fucks sake’ I cried out into the darkness, after struggling furiously to get both of my legs into one side of my combat trousers.
I then pulled on my body armour and grabbed my boots. The panic had become too much, and my desire to survive outweighed my desire to be properly dressed. With boots in one hand and socks in the other I made a frantic dash through the night towards my trench.
I dived in headfirst. Laying there at the bottom of my hole gasping for air, having winded myself in my efforts to get into some cover. In the darkness all around me, other teenage soldiers were also standing-to. Cries of ‘shit, fucks sake and bollocks’ echoed along the Kuwaiti border.
I slowly got up and peered out across the lip of my trench toward where my Armoured Fighting Vehicle sat motionless in the dark. My rifle was under the stolen American cam-cot in front of the AFV. ‘Fucks sake’ I cried and another mad dash through the darkness took place.
Once back in the trench I knelt down and pulled on my socks and boots. I then grabbed my rifle and began fiddling with the chinstrap on my helmet. A face appeared at the top of my trench. I cried out and then pulled the trigger on my rifle. It wasn’t cocked. Shit. Silence. Time to die. I was nineteen years old. The face then spoke to me. ‘Sit tight and stay in your fucking hole. It’s Air Yellow.’
I opened my mouth to speak, but the face had disappeared, melting back into the shadows of the night. The twitch became a spasm. I cocked my rifle and waited.
I don’t know how long I stood in that trench for. Maybe one hour, maybe five. I remember standing quietly chewing on my dog tags, frustrated at the thought of my cigarettes being out of reach, a mere 20 metres away. I remember waiting for the enemy tracer rounds to come screaming in and their shells to explode. I remember wishing I’d put on my combat jacket as I shivered in the cold and I remember my ringpiece twitching.
I was feeling very sorry for myself. I cursed the desert. I cursed the Arabs and I cursed the recruiting Sergeant, whose lies about skiing and abseiling were really starting to piss me off. I was thinking about my cigarettes when I saw him. A figure was crouched down about fifteen metres from where I stood.
My right thumb flicked the safety-catch on my rifle from safe to fire. My left eye squeezed shut. I pointed my rifle barrel toward where the figure stood.
Foresight or target? I couldn’t remember. Was it the foresight or the fucking target I was supposed to focus on? I was seven years old again I heard my big sister chanting. ‘Ippa dippa dation. My operation. YOU-ARE-NOT-IT!’
I could see the ranges in Catterick Garrison where I had been trained to fire and reload my weapon to kill the enemy, but I couldn’t remember if it was foresight or target? The figure had closed to within five metres. Is it my first round that’s tracer or my last round, or are they all tracer? Are there any rounds in the magazine at all? Oh god, please mum. I don’t know if my guns got any fucking bullets in it. ‘Password fuckwit.’ The figure hissed at me.
It was Gus. It was Gus the Paratrooper. It was Gus the Paratrooper who’d already been to war. I wanted to cry. I wanted my mum. I wanted to stop shaking. I wanted to go home. Gus said nothing after I lowered my weapon. He simply climbed into the trench beside me and began carrying out his preparations for war in silence.
I said nothing for ten minutes. Eventually my desperation to know what was happening became too much. I looked at Angus and asked him a question.
‘What does Air Red mean mate?’
He shook his head in disgust and then quickly began chuckling.
‘It means we are about to get bombed and die horribly’ he said, his body now heaving with laughter.
I’d survived the start of the war. Thousands of other men had not. The night turned to day, and lectures about Air Red were held at intervals of five minutes. It meant quite simply ‘Enemy Aircraft Attack Imminent!’
It took me a long time to get away from the War-Machine, my mates and the cries of AIR RED! When I finally managed to find a quiet part of the Desert, I sat down and cried. My tears fell onto the floor and collected into little lumps of grit and despair. Babylon had a new visitor. He wore a yellow suit and dropped big fucking bombs.