Driving through a heavily forested area with banks on either side will see me slam my foot on the accelerator, hand on the stick-shift ready to face whatever is coming at a velocity that reaches 140mph on the straight and no stopping, regardless of what comes my way. Corners are taken nose dipping, handbrake spinning and back end swinging. Heart pounding. Body tense. I see everything. I hear everything. I am aware of every nuance around me: feeling for life forms as I speed through the darkly tree mottled road. Turns out that this instinctual go to mode can be a tad traumatic for passengers who thought it would be fun to ride with gentle, sweet little Katie to a Northern French weekend retreat, riding in her little British green TVR. My bad.
I didn’t drive like that on purpose. It was just a thing I did. A pre-programmed auto-pilot that clicked in under certain circumstances. Always absolutely in control but terrifying, distant and non-communicative, not really surprising that passengers got out when I stopped, pale, grey and throwing up.
Why the pre-set? I didn’t have a clue. I did have a doodle that I drew over and over and over again, until I finally had to have it tattooed on my upper left arm – right where a pair of stripes or insignia might sit if I were military. Which I am not. That doodle was a child’s version of the Selous Scouts insignia – a symbol that for me meant so much, both terrible and miraculous; strong and vulnerable; power unimaginable.
Twenty years ago I sat in a meeting surrounded by investment bankers (all male) who described just how much of a whore a woman had to be to have a tattoo. I said nothing. I never said much whilst they spun their wheels, quietly knowing that there on my left arm sat my tattoo. My talisman. My memory trapped somewhere in the recesses of my broken brain. A piece of me, undisclosed but there on my arm – a question unanswered.
I have noticed this need to tattoo their bodies in others who have experienced trauma – soldier friends tattoo their bodies to remember the ones they lost, the event that killed their brains (suicide bomber’s testicles and penis smacking into the windshield being one – do you wipe them off, or just kind of wait for them to fall off as you drive your 18,000 pound armoured vehicle through the dead children and mothers he just murdered?). Paramedics and Fire Fighters remember the ones they lost, the innocent victims that haunt them still 20 years on. Cops. We all have our way of marking our trauma in some way, with a tattoo.
Is it because by doing so we are asking the world to remember? Most of us have experienced the disgust, the prejudice and the horror at our experiences, the way “normal” people treat us with repulsion and hurt us with their ignorance. Is it our way of slamming it in their faces? Demanding that they sit up and take notice? Not forget?
He is a big blonde man with strong golden brown skin. He smells of cigarettes, sweat and engine oil. We are driving a BSAP Landrover, reinforced bottom for the odd mine we might hit but otherwise it’s pretty open. We are alone. There are no outriders behind or in front. No cavalcade which we normally run from Umtali to Salisbury in. He’s taking me from the Border Post HQ to my family’s coffee estate in Mount Selinda on the Mozambique border. It’s a few years into the bush war, but hasn’t quite reached the true evil hell it will become. He’s talking to me, trying to make me respond. I don’t speak. But I watch him with big green eyes. He’s kind and I like him. He cares about me and wants me to feel safe. Strange how much kindness others can give me when my own parents can not.
I feel his heart rate increase as we head into the Turinda forest. His body tightens and his eyes become wary, every sense he posses is on full alert. Our speed is consistent and fast, we are traveling at full speed – there will be no stopping, no reduction in velocity, until we are through the forest. No matter what we hit we will be flying through this place of ambush. Even when you expect it, it still comes as a shock. The first ping ping of automatic fire: never ceases to inspire terror in my little frame.
He slams my body into his pulling me behind and using his to protect me from the flying bullets. All the while foot asking the engine for as much as she could give. Never once pausing. His arm firmly protecting me not hesitating for a second in its powerful grip.
I don’t see much but I feel, hear and am aware of everything. It happens in slow motion. Time takes on a different flavour at times like this. Only those who have been through a fire fight can understand how we can exist at speed and yet at such a pace that every single molecule of action is seen, absorbed, stored. We met a support crew sent out to find us, there had been a farm hit earlier and they thought an ambush might have been set up in Turinda to get anybody travelling through it.
As we slowed, I saw the faces of those in front of us. Saw the fleeting look of terror in their eyes. Felt myself pulled free of his iron grasp, roughly hands checked me for bullet wounds or anything that would explain my blood soaked face, head, hands and body. I could have told them it wasn’t mine. It was his.
As they checked my little body for holes, he died at the wheel.
I still wish I’d been allowed to stay with him as he passed away to the other side where I know he is now. I want to hold his big fingers in one of my hands and let him know that I live because of him.
What does that tattoo on my arm mean?
It means I remember and I will never forget. It means I want the world to remember and never forget.
I don’t know his name. Just his face and his big hands. But he was a Selous Scout. Brave beyond borders, strong and courageous beyond understanding, terrible and wrathful like the winds of hell born on the fire of revenge.