Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Sim's Card

All around, festive lights are flickering. On trees, in windows, in truck cabs and shops. Some windows have candles alight. It seems that everyone needs some extra light at such a dark time of the year. The short days bring only temporary respite from the long nights. Even then they're merely a dim glimmer of hope, the cloudy skies preventing the sun from breaking through and showering some of its warmth. For so many, this time of year, far from being a time of joy and family gatherings, is a time of loneliness, fear, and heartbreak.

Having never before had the need to break into a house, I found it a difficult decision to make. It had always been the police's job to break doors down. This time they had no units to send, and the report I'd been given was one of a child, possibly a baby, crying continuously. The call had come from a concerned neighbour, who'd heard crying when they went out for the evening, and had returned hours later to still hear the same noise. There were no lights on in the house.

As we arrived (I was in the FRU (fast response unit), but had an observer -a nurse turned medical student- with me for the night), we could hear the whimpers through the letter box. We called, yelled, banged on the door, rang the bell, all to no avail. No lights came on, no curtains twitched, no movement. Throwing caution to the wind and cursing Health and Safety rules, I looked at Beth, my observer, told her she never saw a thing, and broke the door down with two swings of an oxygen cylinder. Note for future reference - they make damned good battering rams.

The first light switch clicked ominously like an empty rifle. No flash of light, just an echoing click. The second did the same. As did the third. I went back to the car and found a torch, and carried that and the newly redefined oxygen cylinder as self-defence. Just in case. I had a quick look up and saw that none of the light fittings had any bulbs in them. We searched every room, and tried to follow the sound of the cries. It was like trying to find the end of a rainbow. Every time we thought we'd pinpointed it, it seemed to move, and we started wondering if we were actually chasing a cat rather than a baby. Ominously, after a few minutes, the noise stopped.

Having found nothing downstairs, other than a framed photograph of a soldier standing proudly in dress uniform, we started up the stairs, a double flight, with a small landing half way up. The darkness seemed even heavier here, the torchlight making minimal difference. In the dull glare of the torch I checked the first set of stairs, skipped the landing, and looked directly upwards. My heart rate doubled and I could feel the sweat starting to build as the adrenaline pumped itself round my slightly terrified system. I still don't know why I kept going, rather than waiting for back up, either in the form of another ambulance or the police. Stupidity rather than bravery, I assure you. Reaching the top of the first flight, and stepping on to the landing, I tripped over a boot, and yelled in fright. The boot was attached to Sim.

Sim looked like a ghost, a pale, almost skeletal ghost, hands nothing but skin and bone, terrified, wild, bloodshot eyes sunk deep into his head. He was cowering in the corner, legs folded up into his chest. Then the tears streamed, and the all-too-familiar cry that we'd heard from outside returned. Sim was no baby, or child. He was a fully grown man, looking decades older than the mid-30s that he was, a shadow of what he probably used to be.

He wouldn't, maybe couldn't, talk for a long while. I'd informed control that we'd found him, that there was no child involved, and they in return told me that they had no ambulance to send, and that the police would be at least an hour as well. Beth and I were ready for a long stay, unsure of what to expect. We asked questions, made statements, promised help, if only he would talk to us. Beth tried to put an arm around his shoulders, a gesture that at first he repelled, horrified, but then accepted with a look of desperation. Sim cried into her shoulder for a full ten minutes, before at last regaining some composure, and whispering a barely audible "Sorry".

We talked some more, Beth and I, while Sim would only answer by nodding or shaking his head. There were intermittent sobs, long silences while we searched for the right questions to give us the answers we needed. The photo downstairs eventually registered in the recesses of my mind, and I realised that this shadow was once that same proud soldier.

"Is that you? In the photo downstairs?"

A nod of the head confirmed my suspicions.

"I was a soldier once. Miss it too! Miss the friends, the closeness, the action. Would go back tomorrow if I could." I told him a little of where I was, what I'd done, what I'd seen, and what it meant to me. Slowly, the tears dried.

For the first time, Sim looked me in the eye. I'd found it. The connection we needed. And then he talked. For the next 20 minutes, uninterrupted, he talked, and we listened. About the Army, about his life without it, about the injury he'd received that meant he could no longer serve his country. He spoke of the nightmares he has, the flashbacks, the friends he'd lost. He told us that the Army was not only his life, but his friends, his family, his support. He cried about being jealous of his friends who were still serving, how they couldn't visit him while they were away on a deployment. How he was left all alone, now that they'd been away for three months. He had no food, no electricity, no money, and not a soul in the world to turn to. He couldn't bring himself to leave the house, the thought of the outside world terrifying him. Tonight was the night he was going to end it all, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He sat on the landing and cried for hours, until we arrived.

We talked some more about how we could get him some help, and reluctantly he'd agreed to try. He'd come to the hospital, talk to the doctors, the crisis team, the social workers. He made no promises about succeeding, but at least he'd give it a go. "At least I'll try to get to see one more Christmas."

Weeks later, and after a few days off, I returned to station for my next shift to find a card and an almost empty box of chocolates, just sat on the table. I looked in the card, expecting to see another "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year" message from a grateful member of the public, or maybe even from our management. Happens sometimes. Instead, it had two sentences inside.

"Thank You for understanding and saving my life. From one ex-soldier to another".

Sim's chocolates were gone.

Sim's card is still safe.

Hopefully, Sim is too.


Anonymous said...

Never know when I'm going to need the tissues !!

Anonymous said...

I would like to think that TB, GB, BA - and a whole load of others - might sometime get to read this post. But I imagine it's a vain hope.
Not in my name Mr B - and most of us who said that do not denigrate what the boys offer on the altar you built for them. We support them to the hilt. But you don't.
Ben - is there any way you can get this story more publicity? Sometimes the dead are the lucky ones. It's the one's left behind who really suffer, whether it's family or comrades or ex-comrades.

Anonymous said...

beautiful writing, difficult but important reading. thank you.

Anonymous said...

My husband has PTSD. Not many people understand.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

To: Anonymous-2

I don't want to turn this into a political argument. But this is nothing to do with the Gulf War, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and related syndromes, have been around for much longer (ever heard of Shellshock?), and I hope you're not trying to say that, say, WW1 and WW2 were "unjust" wars because of that.

The only additional publicity this story should get is to bring to attention the plight of these poor ex-soldiers, not to make cheap political points.

Ben Yatzbaz said...

Anon 2 & 5:
This was indeed not meant as a political post. It was meant to tell the tale of personal struggle against horrible odds, and to make people think. On a personal level, even a social level, but not necessarily a political one. I'm just trying to show life as we don't always get to see it. Lets leave politics to the bickering children in Westminster, and do what we can to improve our little corner of the world.
ps - please see the new rules on anonymous comments... :)

Anonymous said...

i know YOU didn't mean it as one. But Anon2 appeared to try to turn it into one.


Ben Yatzbaz said...

Not sure I should accept 3 kisses as a "signature", but ok, just this once...
And by the way, Anon 2 - I'd love to think that I could get this more publicity, but to be honest, it's not a recent "story". I'd just like to hope that someone reads it and feels strongly enough to do something about it.
Thanks all, again, for taking the time to read and comment.

Hotflash said...


Thank you for sharing this story. It was a sad story, hard to read, but I think it is so important. At least for a moment, a difference was made and a hurting voice was heard. And you have shown a snapshot of what most would rather keep hidden in a closet or worse yet, deny exists at all. The pain is real, and the compassion is too. Merry Christmas.


nickopotamus said...

It's phenomenal the difference you can make to someone just by sitting and talking to them. You can do far more than can be done by all the interventions and advanced skills in the world. It's the easiest, and most satisfying, way to save a life - yet so few people understand that.

Anonymous said...

I'll add my thanks.
I left a long time ago through injury (a training accident. My wife tells me that it took over 10 years to get over my MD.
I found myself returning to a world that was both familiar and totally alien at the same time. I no longer fitted and yet I had to build a life in this strange land. The rules and codes I lived by didn't fit into this strange land. Work was difficult to come by and when it arrived impossible to retain.
Eventually I healed and moved on. Twenty plus years latter I still dream of those days.
Life is good now but I thank you for reminding me of where I have been and that others are there still.

A good post.

Lizzie said...

This gave me chills. Another reminder of what could happen - of what might be. Not something that I want to read, but something that I should. I've seen it and I pray that I won't become it.