Biting Through

John Ratcliffe


I still remember how the next chapter in my life started. It was a Friday night in early September 2005, and I was feeling pretty good about things. Months earlier, I had begun online dating with some success, and that evening I had met a young lady for dinner in one of Melbourne’s many inner-city restaurants. Living close to town, I had decided to ride my mountain bike over. Friends of mine were having a party in another part of town; so, once the date was over, I retrieved my bike and peddled off to catch up with them.

The air was warm for the start of spring, and I enjoyed the short ride from town along the river and over the bridge that led into the quiet streets of South Melbourne. It was after midnight, but I was feeling energised by the Red Bulls and vodka I had been drinking. I found my friends soon enough — not surprisingly, they were deep into an extended drinking session that had begun at four o’clock that afternoon. The novelty of my arrival by bike went largely unnoticed. Not that it mattered, because I was simply seeing if the party was what I was expecting. It wasn’t: after a beer or two, I decided it was time to call it a night.

I could smell rain on the breeze, and was soon treated to a warm drizzle, gently falling and wetting my shirt, as I headed for home. I found the rain and the smell of the air quite pleasant; but, when the drizzle changed to more of a shower, I raced to beat the approaching downpour. Just as I reached my apartment block, the heavens opened. I was soaked, but quite exhilarated. I had a quick shower, put on a robe, and fixed myself a nightcap. Both my housemates were away for the weekend, so I had the place to myself. We were on the twelfth floor, and two sides of the modern apartment were floor-to-ceiling glass that came together at a daring angle, jutting out towards the bay. We had placed a big leather swivel chair right at the apex, from which you could look out over the sea.

The rain had just been the prelude; from where I was, I had a God’s-eye view of a once-in-a-lifetime electrical storm that was slowly approaching Melbourne. I had been reading Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity and had bought a digitally remastered copy of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells — the album that had launched Virgin, and which I remembered my brother listening to in the seventies. I had queued it up before sitting down; now, as the storm approached, the classic track gracefully unfolded. I sat transfixed in the darkened apartment as lightning bolts landed here and there, striking buildings, bridges, and the bay. It wasn’t long before the lightning was all around me. Perched in my seat, I felt like I was riding into the storm, carried aloft by the strains of the music. The storm hammered for hours.

Finally, weariness overtook me, and I got up and made for my room, leaving the lightning to continue on without me.

The following morning, sitting at the coffee table, I opened my laptop and began checking my emails. One immediately caught my attention. I wrinkled my brow again and again, trying to focus on a word that seemed to float from the screen: Afghanistan.

A couple of years before, in 2003, I had had a ‘deployment seizure’ — something that happens when you see your friends going off to war and you suddenly want to join them. I don’t remember discussing my decision with Cherie, but she knew of my time in the military and understood that there was a possibility of my being redeployed in a crisis. I knew the likelihood of going overseas was low, but I had still wanted to put my hand up and give it a try. I had sent my resumé to some of the security companies operating in the Middle East, with little if any reaction from them. It’s a highly paid and dangerous industry, and very difficult to get into — especially if you’ve hung up your spurs some time ago. There were already thousands of other soldiers who had only just left the military, who I realized would probably get a chance long before I did. Nevertheless, I was undeterred. I had friends over there, and it seemed that whenever I caught up with the rest of my companions, the Middle East was all we ever talked about.

We used to hold a recovery breakfast every Sunday morning, with an open invitation to anyone from the unit to attend. It was in a coffee shop in Acland Street, St Kilda, one of Melbourne’s trendy, grungier suburbs. Whenever I dropped in, there were always a dozen or so catching up at the back of the café over eggs and coffee. Some of the men were going overseas, and some had just got back; laptops and slideshows would be produced and nodded over solemnly, with a chuckle or two breaking the seriousness when someone we knew was spotted clowning for the camera. Old hands, Dorians of the unit, would trade their knowledge with guys fresh from theatre — people like me, who just enjoyed being able to stay in touch with friends, and young men keen to see action.

My first brush with contract-security work had come in the previous year, in 2004. Cherie and I were working in the medical practice, and we were both in my office one Friday afternoon when the phone rang. When I answered it, a female voice at the end of the line asked me to identify myself. I looked at Cherie, and could see she was bemused as I spelled out my full name. We would get the occasional weird call, and this seemed like another one. There was a ‘Please hold’, and a click at the other end, before a male voice came on and asked me if I was still interested in working in Iraq. I was silent for a moment, not quite expecting this. ‘Sure’, I said, thinking I would just go along with the mysterious caller.

‘How soon can you deploy?’

‘How soon would you like me?’ I replied, still smiling.

‘In 24 hours’, came the answer.

I stiffened. ‘Right …’ I said, a little stunned. ‘I’ll give it a try.’

 ‘Good enough. Someone will ring you in the next couple of hours

with a mission brief.’

I put down the phone and slumped in my chair. I looked at Cherie, who stared back at me with concern. After a moment, I drew a deep breath and said, ‘Looks like I’m going to Iraq …’

Sure enough, the phone rang a few hours later, and another person, this time calling long-distance, asked me to identify myself again. It was my controller, the guy who would oversee my part in the mission and would be my point of contact. After the formalities were over, he told me I would be used for a job that required me to accompany another soldier to a town in western Iraq and spend ten days in an observation post there, reporting on insurgent activity. Our post was to be the home of a family sympathetic to the coalition, and I got the impression that we would be hermetically sealed in a room, unable to leave for the duration of the operation.

‘Are you cool?’ the caller kept asking me.

‘Yes, I’m cool’, I would reply, not fully understanding what he meant by the word.

‘… because if you’re not,’ he continued, ‘the family will hand you over to the militia, and you’ll end up swinging off a bridge somewhere by the end of a rope, so you have to be cool’.

Biting Through John Ratcliffe