Instead of evening prayers at the mosque we’d meet at his house and he’d take me camping. His bedroom had a World War II stretcher, old pictures of young men in uniform, and clutter out of which he’d drag webbing and a rucksack for me. We’d load ourselves up and walk off into the hills around Burnley. En route, M would fill my head with stories of the Falklands War, show me how to find my way using the stars, and let me have a few drags of his cigarette.
Camping for two lads from Burnley was a simple affair. It meant stringing a poncho across some trees next to a reservoir cut into the hills. We’d clear the ground of the biggest branches and snap them over our legs for a fire. M didn’t like the spiders that hung from the branches, and I didn’t like the frogs from the reservoir. We reasoned that the fire would keep both away. We didn’t need it for cooking; you don’t cook Mars bars.
After pitching camp, we’d go exploring. We’d walk through dark woods to the water’s edge, and M would tell me about commando operations from the World Wars. He’d tell me about the British Empire and how the Indians served with the British Army. It was a heady cocktail of adventure and it felt right for me. I wanted more. M would test me on finding our way back, letting me lead the way. We’d rest up, eating chocolate as M played the Stone Roses on his Walkman with speakers.
Two years later, the A-level examination board helped M deliver me to the army. My exam results were abysmal. My parents were distraught. A career in medicine was no longer an option. M knew exactly what to do. He sat me down, lit a cigarette, and rewound Who Dares Wins. After we watched Captain Skellen infiltrate a terrorist group, he took me to the local Territorial Army base.
I signed up to join Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers. M was so proud of me when I got my army number, when I became “25097331 Sapper Sarwar, Sir!” I then transferred to the regular army. Years later when I found myself thousands of miles away in Basra, M wrote to me. Seeing his handwriting on the army-issued blue letters with the Iraqi wind blowing sand into my hair, I could only feel one thing—I’d made it. He’d held my hand until I flew.
During my service I deployed to Cyprus, Kuwait, and twice to Iraq. I qualified in bomb disposal and mine clearance. I skied in Germany, France, and Austria. I jumped out of planes over England. I rescued a young girl off a mountain in Wales after qualifying as a Mountain Leader and made friends who mean so much to me. I never did get that arranged marriage. Instead I met my first girlfriend and fell in love. I’m afraid M won’t be around for your kids; he’s too busy. But I’m glad the government sees the value of the guiding hand.
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