Helmand on Earth
A modern day retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ dedicated to the people of the armed forces and their families
There was once a regiment of five-and-twenty soldiers. They were like brothers for they had been serving together so long. Their uniforms, shades of beige and chocolate, were ever so lovely. The very first thing they heard ever day was “Soldier!”. It was shouted by their Commanding Officer whose shrill tone cut through the heat in Helmand like an alarm clock through a hungover head. After waking up and coming to the realisation of where they were, each of them dressed, made their beds and lined up in the makeshift barracks for inspection. It had been so long now that each solider looked exactly like the other. The never-ending sun had resulted in each having a deep, muddy tan and heads had long since been shaved to give relief from the constant stifling heat. Only one was slightly different: he had but one leg, for he had lost the other two years earlier after the explosion of a roadside bomb. And yet he stood just as firmly on his one leg as the others did on their two, and he is the very one who turns out to be unique.
The Army had been reluctant to let Tom Stevens return to Helmand but he had insisted. He didn’t want a civvy job. His old friends back home no longer understood him. He loved his family but he had no girlfriend, no wife, no children. So he vowed that as long as his heart beat in his chest he would serve his country. He did the physio, experimented with prosthetics, didn’t like prosthetics, learnt to walk with crutches. Then he went back. And he stood out. Not because he had one leg left. Because he was a wonderful soldier, and a loyal friend.
In the camp where they were stationed there were many other soldiers, but the one that stood out the most was Paula Bennett. Through a tiny window in the makeshift barracks Tom Stevens watched her. Outside was nothing but beige landscape shrouded in inky darkness. A group of lads were stood smoking, their white mist bleaching the dark skies. It was all lovely, and yet the loveliest of all was Paula Bennett who was standing in the open air of Helmand. She too was dressed in beige and chocolate, but her hair was the brightest blonde and a narrow ribbon of it hung over her shoulder just like a drapery; the full moon shone in the sky and lit up her whole face. Paula Bennett was stretching out both her arms, for before she went on tour she had taken ballet lessons, and then she had raised one leg so high in the air that Tom Stevens could barely see it, and she looked like she had but one leg, just like himself.
“What a beautiful girl!” he thought. “But she’s too good for me. I have nothing to give her. She’s like a mirage – beauty appearing in this oppressive heat. I would talk to her but I would disturb her lovely dance!” And then he stood on lifting himself up on one crutch behind the window. From here he could look right at the lady, who continued to stand on one leg without losing her balance.
Later in the evening when Tom Stevens went to bed an image of Paula Bennett on the tip of her toes and with both arms outstretched was imprinted on the back of his eyelids.
Now the clock struck twelve and bang! A bomb had gone off in the distance.
Tom Stevens felt pain where his lost leg had been and wished he couldn’t hear explosions ever again. Then he felt guilty for not hoping no-one had been hurt first. No-one else hurt like he had been.
Now, when it was morning and the soldiers got up Tom Stevens and another lad in his regiment, Tony Spencer, went out to investigate the explosion. The Commanding Officer’s shrill tone of “Soldier!” came cracking over Tony Spencer’s radio. “We need you back at base.” Tom Stevens told Tony Spencer he would go investigate the explosion site without him. He would be fine. Nothing else could happen to him now. So Tony Spencer turned back and Tom Stevens and his crutches carried on. Whether it was fate or bad luck, suddenly Tom Stevens went headlong with terrible speed. His leg turned up in the air and he landed on his head losing consciousness.
Tom Stevens’ regiment became a search party, trailing the beige landscape but they couldn’t see him. Eventually they gave up and returned to base. Tom Stevens was presumed dead and the next day the Commanding Officer would have to translate his shrill tones to paper to inform Tom Stevens’ family of the tragedy.
When Tom Stevens woke up the oppressive heat of day in Helmand had gone and it was a very cold dark night.
Tom Stevens looked around and the inky Helmand darkness was illuminated by an orange glow in the darkness. He found his crutches, hauled himself up and went towards it.
Tom Stevens found himself on the very same camp he had been on before! But the ladies’ makeshift barracks was on fire and all the soldiers were stood outside, some screaming, some crying, some shocked into silence. All the soldiers were stood outside. All the soldiers except Paula Bennett. Before anyone quite realised he was there, Tom Stevens had forced himself into the flames.
Tom Stevens stood in the glow and felt the terrible heat – but whether it was from the real fire or from love, he didn’t know. He found Paula Bennett and she looked at him. Then a door opened, Tom Stevens wrapped his arm around Paula Bennett’s waist and they were pulled from the flames by Tony Spencer.
The next day one of Tom Stevens’ crutches was found in the ashes melted in the shape of a little metal heart. And on the day that Paula Bennett became Paula Stevens, the hair that had shone brightest blonde in the Helmand sun, was still burned black as coal.
Copyright D M Day, 2011