I need you to picture the scene. This is a prostate cancer clinic. Seven men, all between the ages of forty and ninety, are sitting in the waiting room. We are all wearing pants, socks and one of those hospital gowns that fasten round the back. It’s biopsy time and we are all nervous, both for the discomfort of the procedure and for what it might reveal. Five men are called for in turn and go out. Two of us are left there. I find myself talking to a younger man who reveals he is an ex-soldier who served in Bosnia and for novel writing purposes I need to understand more about PTSD.
Is it moral to ask? If he’s as nervous as I am, will he want to answer? I knew I should leave it, but it was a real chance, and chances don’t come round very often. You write fiction, but that fiction needs to convince, needs to be as true as it can be. I’d read A War of Nerves by Ben Shephard, but I’d never talked to a soldier, never heard it face to face.
To my chagrin I don’t remember his name. I had to acknowledge him anonymously. I learnt so much from him and of course I had no pen and paper to make notes. Surgical gowns don’t have pockets! While we waited I pried more and more into the intimacies of his life. I could do this because he seemed happy to talk, indeed talking about it is part of the cure. He gave me details I used in Back Behind Enemy Lines. His wife, when he returned form service, had handed him his first child to hold, but he’d refused because he was thinking of his dead comrades who would never be able to hold their own children. He cried on his own. Once, in Bosnia, he’d parked his jeep on what he didn’t know was the ruins of a house. The bodies were still buried there and the air round him smelt like chocolate, so, for him, chocolate now smells of death. I used those details. When he was called out of the waiting room I thanked him profusely. I didn’t have a pen and paper, but I did have my I-phone so the moment he left I hurriedly made notes. Some of what he told me was too personal for me to exploit. When I’d written as much of this down as possible, I sat and thought about what it must be like to carry round secrets that you feel you can never tell, not in some cases, like Anna’s, for decades. It was one of those moments when my main character swam a little closer. I scarcely noticed the discomfort of the biopsy because my thinking was so intense.