The fog still hadn't lifted when we drove away in the early hours of the morning. The RUC, the QRF and the sniffer dogs had moved in. The area was sealed off and searched for IEDs, and Bomb Disposal set about defusing the thousand pounds of ANFO.
It was a slow drive back on icy roads. Not much was said, certainly in our wagon, which would have to go back to its owner at some stage. Boss S gave out normal voice procedure as we passed checkpoints, radioing them in to Minky so he could mark the troop's progress. I was cold, and wet from the fog. My eyes stung from lack of sleep and disappointment.
Frank didn't say a word all the way back. Even inside the warehouse, with its glaring, twenty-four/seven lights, everything felt cold and dank. People went about the business of unloading and cleaning weapons, but I had another task. Ken had told me to collect Al's weapons from the job; they were to be made safe and bagged up for the RUC. Then I needed to gather any ammunition he had in his room. We all had hundreds of rounds for our different weapons in our lockers.
Saddlebags and Cyril were up in the briefing room with the RUC. They had to go through the civil process. It was just one of the drawbacks of classifying PIRA as common criminals instead of granting them the political status they craved. And it was important, too, that we were seen to operate within the rules of engagement. Everybody involved had to make a statement after a contact, and weapons that had been fired would be taken away for forensics. It was a fucked-up way of fighting a war, but we wouldn't have had it any other way.
There was a strong smell of burnt coffee in the corridor. I opened the door with the Mr Grumpy sign on it and went in. The coffee pot had boiled dry.
Somebody had already brought in Al's blood-soaked belt kit and dumped it on his bed. Frank had volunteered to sort out and pack his personal stuff. I was glad he was doing it and not me. I'd had to do it twice, but twice was enough.
I felt around Al's bits and pieces in his locker as I looked for ammunition. Under a pile of clean socks and underwear, I felt what I thought was a box of 9mm. I pulled it out, and found myself holding a Bible.
Was this the one doing the rounds so the blokes could arm themselves with quotes to get at Frank? It didn't look like it; this one had a dedication to Al on the inside flap. No wonder he hadn't given Frank a hard time, not even in the jungle. He'd been a Christian all along. All credit to him – at least he'd kept it to himself.
I finished gathering up his ammo and started to sort out his weapons. Al had taken an M16 with him on the job, and a 9mm pistol in a thigh holster. I unloaded the M16 first. I pushed down the magazine, and discovered he'd got some rounds off. Up until then we weren't sure if he'd had a chance to fight back.
I bagged up his magazines and turned to the bloodstained leather thigh holster. I pulled out the Browning, removed its magazine, and tried to rack back the top slide to unload it – but it wasn't happening. A round from the burst that had taken Al down had hit the top slide and jammed it in place.
I tagged it with a brown luggage label, ready for the RUC: 'Weapon still made ready – a round in the chamber.' Their armourers would take it down to the range and try to fire it off.
Some of the M16 mags on the chest harness had big holes in them. It must have been a fearsome burst. I was bagging them up as Frank came in. He didn't speak to me, just went to the locker and started his job. He was clearly agitated. He finally turned to me. His jaw was tight. 'What do you think about Ken on the job? I'm not impressed.'
'Frank, we weren't there. We have no grounds to say anything. All we know is what we saw and what we heard – which wasn't much. Ultimately, he was the commander. Al's dead, for fuck's sake. Nothing will change that.'
He was going to say more but I turned my back. Frank was getting on my nerves big-time.
'Oh, my Lord.'
I looked back. He was sitting on the bed, and Al's Bible was in his right hand. He held it up at me.
He then held up a small prayer book in his left, and three or four Christian music cassettes. Frank stared at me. 'I tried so many times to convert him.'
It was as if Frank was in his own world now. 'Why couldn't he have talked about his faith to me – you know, just the once? Why did he have to keep it to himself?'
I tied off another plastic bag and picked it up. 'We don't all try to shove our beliefs down other people's necks, mate.'
Ken's voice came over the intercom. Every room was wired up so we could communicate with each other and the ops room. 'All to the bar now. All to the bar.'
We went over there together. Nobody had showered yet, or even changed out of their wet clothes. Most still had their thigh holsters and all the party gear on. I'd opted for a shoulder holster. I was going to be sitting down: I wanted a quick and easy grab.
Cans and tots of whisky were handed round.
Ken held up a glass of whisky and looked around the room. 'To Al.'
We nodded. 'To Al.'
Nish stared at an empty whisky glass.
Frank's knuckles went white around his can. 'At least Al went down fighting. That's what he would have wanted.'
Saddlebags looked up. 'I'm not so sure, mate. I reckon he was just shot, no chance for him to return.'
Frank's head was shaking. 'He fired back, I just know it.'
The group stared at me.
'There were rounds out of his mag.'
There wasn't much more chat. We drifted away in ones and twos. Nish was more sombre than most. Frank began to open up. But it was all about Ken, and I'd seen the bitterness in his eyes as Ken raised his glass to Al.
I didn't understand, never have done, why Frank had it in for Ken. Maybe he just needed someone to direct his anger at, and Ken had been in charge.
As I took Al's kit to the ops room, I thought, At least we all feel a little better knowing that he returned fire. It's a soldier's thing. No one wanted to think of him just taking some rounds and dropping without having the chance to fight back. If that ever happened to me I wanted to be able to fire at least one round back, or even throw a stone.
I briefed the RUC guys about the 9mm, then went back to my room and got my head down. That afternoon I watched Countdown, and I failed to solve the conundrum.
A few hours after the shooting, two men were detained by Gardaí near Pettigo when they drove through a checkpoint. The car had been hijacked earlier and the owner was still in the car, at gunpoint. A Winchester rifle and eighteen rounds of ammunition were in the foot wells.
At first light, in a follow-up search of the area of the shooting, explosives were found in the blue Toyota, as well as the nine beer kegs containing the thousand-pound IED at the entrance to the Lodge. A radio and a pistol with six rounds of ammunition were also found near the gate where the body had jumped into the field next to Nish. He didn't have either on him when Cyril and Saddlebags challenged him: maybe he dropped them when he saw the headlights, and thought he'd bluff it back to what he thought was the ASU's vehicle and drive off.
Later that morning, the body Cyril and Saddlebags had dropped was identified as that of Antoin Mac Giolla Bride, a twenty-six-year-old Irish Army deserter.
The Toyota had been hijacked in Pettigo village, County Donegal, at about 9.30 p.m. the same night. The victim said four of the ASU were dressed in combat uniforms. Mac Giolla Bride wasn't.
Two of the ASU had worked at the culvert placing the IED. Two others were up the field on the Kesh side, positioned at the firing point. One of these, allegedly, was Kieran Fleming. Arrested in 1976 when he was eighteen, Fleming was sentenced in 1977 to be imprisoned indefinitely for terrorism offences. After six years in the H Blocks, he had escaped with thirty-seven others in September 1983.
The two at the culvert had just got the IED in position and hadn't even finished setting it when a car full of long-haired civvies turned up. Who would they have thought it was? UDR? RUC? INLA? Or just more smugglers? That was the thing in Northern Ireland. No one was ever sure. There was nearly always a time lag while everyone tried to work out who the fuck everybody else was.
It looked as if Mac Giolla Bride had heard Cyril's car, jumped out of the van and taken cover. He had chosen the same hiding-place as Nish.
Cyril then cruised past the van before turning and blocking the road. The guys didn't know it but they'd parked directly opposite the ditch in which two players were laying the IED.
Then Cyril heard someone walking towards him and Saddlebags. Nish had seen Mac Giolla Bride jump over the gate.
After dropping Al, the IED layers did a runner and kept going until they crossed the border. The two on the hill held their positions. One attached the wires of the device and tried to detonate. He tried several times but failed. Kieran Fleming wasn't a flapper.
I walked into Nish's room.
Frank was in there with him, sitting on Tiny's bed reading a letter. The telly was off. More dirty plates were piled in the corner.
Nish studied Frank's face, waiting for approval. 'You don't think it's a bit too heavy? A bit too much?'
'No, mate, I think it's good.' Frank looked up at me. 'It's to Al's parents.'
Nish shook his head. 'First letter I've written for about twenty years.'
Frank handed it back. Nish folded it and put it in an envelope. 'I needed to say something to them. We're not going to be able to go to the funeral, are we? We're on ops.'
Frank jumped to his feet. 'No, we will go! We will!'
He stormed off. There were guys on standby back in the UK, ready to fly over if numbers were needed. Afew of them could easily come over and cover.
Nish licked the envelope. 'Tell you what – Frank's got to wind his neck in. He'll be out of a job and probably a head if he carries on. Ken isn't going to take much more.'
I left Nish to his letter posting and went back to my room. Paul was out. I lay on my bed, waiting for Countdown.
Frank stopped by on his way back. He looked a little sheepish. 'Ken has already sorted it. Afew of us are going back to H.'
'Good news, mate. I've said I'll stay here. You lads who really knew him need to go.'
He hovered. 'You bored?'
'Yeah, waiting for Carol.'
'Want a book?'
'What you got?'
'You'll love it. Sex, violence, double-dealing, treachery – it's all in there, mate.'
'Go on, then.'
'I'll go and get it.'
Even as he disappeared from the doorway, I knew I'd fucked up. Sure enough, when he came back into the room he had his Claymore bag with him. He pulled out his Bible.
'Don't bother, mate. I'm not interested.'
'Why not? Why not give it a try? Al liked it. If it's good enough for him—'
'It – does – not – interest – me. I – don't – care. You're like a fucking ayatollah, trying to pump it down my neck all the time.'
'Ayatollah . . .'
The book went back into the bag and for a moment I thought he was going to laugh.
'I like that.'
He turned, and left quietly. It wasn't the right time for laughter.
Nish and Al had been supposed to be doing their EPC course every Monday. They didn't turn up very often, and it had become a standing joke that whenever the teacher asked them where they'd been, they'd say, 'I'm sorry, sir, I cannot answer that question.'
The Monday after the shooting, Nish handed in Al's calculator and EPCA folder. He also handed in a copy of the Sun. The headline read, 'SAS SOLDIER KILLED IN NORTHERN IRELAND'.
The forensic results confirmed what I already knew from the part-empty magazine: Al Slater's weapon had been fired. He'd managed to get off six rounds.
The autopsy report on Antoin Mac Giolla Bride showed that he'd been hit by nine, possibly ten rounds.
The episode was more or less over. There were scuffles at Mac Giolla Bride's funeral on Tuesday, 4 December 1984, when the RUC tried to remove a tricolour from the coffin on the outskirts of the estate where the Mac Brides lived in Magherafelt, but that, we thought, was that.
A few days later, Nish, Frank and a few others from the troop boarded a Puma that had just dropped off another lot from Hereford to cover for them. They flew back for the funeral at St Martin's Church, where the Regiment has a plot and most of the guys get buried.
Ken didn't come back with the others. He had to hang around for a couple of days to debrief the head shed about Al's death. While that was happening, he obviously got word about Frank having a go at him. Ken stormed back to the warehouse on his return and ordered everyone into the briefing room. He went for it as only Ken could. 'No fucking about now. If you've got a point to make, say it now – put up or shut up.'
To my surprise, Frank got to his feet. He stopped short of blaming Ken for Al's death, but he came very close. None of us really knew why. Perhaps it was because, for all his talk of eternal life, he couldn't deal with the fact that Al was dead.
I knew everybody was encouraged to have a voice in the Regiment, but this was tearing the arse out of it. As I'd said to Frank, how could we judge? We didn't see what they saw; we didn't hear what they heard.
'OK, stop.' Ken had had enough. 'Don't you think I've gone over what happened out there, time and time again? For fuck's sake, the man's dead.'
Frank got up again to have another twopence-worth, but Tiny intervened. 'Enough already, Frank. Wind your neck in.'
Nish got to his feet. 'Listen, I'm right there with Ken. I keep thinking, if only I'd done things differently . . . If only we'd had personal radios so we all knew what the fuck was happening . . . If only I'd fronted Mac Giolla Bride when he jumped the gate . . . If only, if only . . . Maybe this, maybe that. No one's to blame. It's done.'
I knew he wanted to believe that, but one look at his haunted eyes told me it certainly wasn't done in his head.
Cyril was next. It felt to me that he had more gravitas than the rest of us on this job. 'Nish is right. He's dead. There's fuck all we can do. He was a soldier. If you don't like what we do, get out and become a social worker. Debrief over.'
It was. It all stopped. Frank kept himself to himself for the next few days. Christmas came. Frank went away on R&R, and when he came back he dropped the bombshell. He was getting out of the Regiment.
Because of Al getting zapped? Surely not. It had to be religion. Frank wasn't saying. All we knew was that he was going on the Circuit (working for a private security company). He'd taken a job in Sri Lanka with one of the firms, training the Sri Lankan Army to fight the Tamil Tigers, the world's first suicide-bombers.
Nish kicked it all off one night in the bar. 'Come on, Frank, what about you having religion and being on the Circuit? It's just the same as being here, so why aren't you staying?'
Frank remained tight-lipped.
Nish stared at him, and then the penny dropped. 'Oh, fuck, you're going to become a vicar, aren't you?'
'A vicar . . .' Tiny cut in. 'Or, Andy, what did you call him? He's going to become an ayatollah!'
The troop was a close-knit group and Al Slater's death hit us hard. It's never easy losing somebody you know, but in the military there's not much time for mourning. I'd known a lot of guys in rifle companies who'd got killed, and those left behind just had to move on. It doesn't mean you've forgotten the guy, but Cyril was right: he was a soldier, and now he was dead.
The jokes came back slowly, but after a while normal piss-taking service was resumed. Tiny and Nish still tried to outdo each other on the stitch-ups, and Minky was still the primary target. He was a big-time boxing fan. He spent hour after hour in the gym trying to knock out the punch-bag or watching bouts on TV. One Saturday night there was a big fight coming up. To stop his enjoyment being sabotaged, he locked himself in his room with some cans of Tennants and a few packets of crisps. Nothing was going to come between him and his ringside seat.
The bell went for round one, but almost immediately his TV jumped channels. Even from two doors away, I could hear him yelling as he wrestled with the remote control and changed it back, only for it to happen again a minute or two later. What he hadn't factored in was that every room in the troop had the same sort of TV, and therefore the same remote control. As soon as Minky had locked himself in, Nish and Tiny had moved a couple of chairs outside his room and spent the evening holding their remote controls to the glass fanlight above the door and flicking from channel to channel.
The routine went on. Nish's guitar playing got worse than ever, and Ken signed up his Doberman with WeightWatchers. But forbidding the guys to give him sausages was like a red rag to a bull. Everybody started slipping them to him every night, and the thing now virtually lived outside the cookhouse door.
My afternoons were still filled with Countdown, then it was dinner, prayers, block jobs, the gym, and a date with the Lager Lovelies.
Meanwhile, in South Armagh, some ASUs were getting very active and hitting green-army patrols full-on. We were chosen to act as plastic ducks. Chris took three of us to set up a really bad OP outside a town where there was a known active service unit. We even pushed a radio antenna through the camouflage net, like something out of an old Second World War film, in case nobody had spotted us.
Frank and Saddlebags had a patrol in position with sniper weapons covering us from 500 metres. Nish and Tiny were in cars with some of the other lads, ready to give warning if a convoy of players came down the road to take us on, and then to counterattack.
There was nothing we could do but sit in the OP dressed as green army, eating dry sausage rolls and laughing at how stupid we looked. We must have looked so stupid that the ASU felt sorry for us because nothing happened. TCG pulled us out after two days. There were other fish to fry.
This time I was on the sniper side, giving cover from high ground across a brightly lit bus station. It was nine o'clock on a Saturday night, cold, icy, the grass crisped up. I had a great field of view through a glass-sided shelter and across to where they were planning to place an IED. They were going to leave it in a van in one of the bus spaces, then leg it.
It was going to be a hard arrest. That basically meant we'd come up against people who would naturally resist, and wouldn't be shy about using weapons. The TCG wanted these guys alive, which meant either they needed to interrogate them or to protect a source. For all we knew, the source, if there was one, might be one of those we were arresting.
Source information was gathered from many different people for many different reasons.
Some did it for money. I never really understood that one, because they would never get any more cash than they could naturally absorb in their lifestyle. That usually meant about eighty pounds a week – otherwise most of them would have gone straight out and bought a brand new car, which might have looked a tad suspicious sitting outside a minging council house. So why run the risk of getting your head drilled, or being burnt alive, for a couple of beer tokens each week?
Some became sources thinking they were protecting their husband or brother – whoever was in an ASU. 'If I tell you what he's doing, can you stop it?'
I had total contempt for these informers.
They were helping us win the war, but they were traitors. It didn't matter what side they were on, I had no sympathy for them when the Black & Decker was plugged in.
Finally, there were touts who did it for ideological reasons. They were highly placed within PIRA, and they gave solid information: the most powerful weapon in any war.
Whatever the reason, this job had to be a hard arrest: it wasn't going to be a walk in the park. If the players had weapons, they would use them. We were all at risk, and so were bus passengers and pedestrians but it can be so much more dangerous to let these things degenerate into a fire fight, rather than actively initiating the contact in the first place and therefore controlling it.
Chris was the patrol commander on the far side of the station. He was waiting with five other guys in the back of a van to hit the IED vehicle the moment it parked.
My job, and that of Nish and the other sniper, was first to give a running commentary to Chris and his patrol, since they were unsighted. We were then to give the standby, and take down any runners, or any bomb-laying backers who came to join in once the thing had gone noisy.
The place heaved with teenagers waiting for the bus to a night out on the piss. Dress code was short skirts, T-shirts, and lots of lily-white plucked-chicken arms and legs. Two sixteen-year-olds couldn't wait to get back to one of their mums' houses, and started shagging each other right there and then. She was classy enough to take her chewing-gum out.
We had dickers drive past the target, then come back on foot. It was all shaping up for a contact.
We kept on target until just before first light, when TCG called us off.
It was just part of the job, another variation on hurry up and wait. For every success there were twenty jobs that didn't end in contact. We did another target replacement, this time in an RUC station we'd been tipped off was going to be attacked. Nothing happened. We protected an MI5 agent when he met up with a PIRA source. It passed off without incident.
We got some good news. It was confirmed that Kieran Fleming, one of the players who'd got away the night of Al's killing, was dead. His body had been found in the Bannagh river.
When the two who'd been manning the IED firing point about three hundred metres from the Lodge had run from the follow-up they'd only got as far as the river when Frank and I had started to move along the bank to flush them out. They'd taken to the water to avoid my pheasant-beating. Although it was only twenty feet wide, the river had deep pools and was fast-running. One of the players had reached the other side, but when he'd got out he couldn't find his mate. Fleming had been ripped away in the flood.
His funeral was held two days later. I went along to watch. About thirty people were injured during clashes between mourners and the RUC. Plastic bullets were fired, and it took almost three hours to complete the procession from Fleming's home to the cemetery. When the funeral turned into the Bogside, three PIRA in balaclavas fired volleys into the air as British Army helicopters flew overhead.
I'd sent a lovely multicoloured plant instead of a wreath, and inflated a set of water-wings around the pot. I never found out if they made it onto the display. Al would have liked that.
One thing changed for the better after Al's death: Frank stopped trying to be a missionary. Maybe it was finding out that he wasn't the only one among us trying to fight back a tidal wave of devils, and that some people did it without all the song and dance. Or maybe he finally realized his words were falling on stony ground.
I'd also found my role model. Chris was a good lad. He only spoke when he needed to, and I kept reminding myself that I needed to follow his example now that I'd found my place in Seven Troop. I sometimes caught myself doing a bit too much talking now that I'd settled in.
I bet even Ken found him inspiring: Chris still sported the bright blond Viking look Ken must have had when he was raiding the English coastline in a tin hat with horns sticking out of it. He knew his stuff. He was a real professional, and exuded quiet confidence. When he spoke, it always meant something. Maybe that was because he didn't bother getting sidetracked by any of the nonsense that went on around him. Even Frank and his God and Nish and his farts failed to get a rise out of him.
We were all experienced, some had been senior NCOs in battalions, but he handled that and got people behind him. That was the way I wanted to be. Well, without the sniff before every other sentence.
That didn't mean I cut Frank as a friend or stopped driving the van for him to carry on the family business. It was always good to get out for a couple of hours if there was nothing much on.
We talked about Al's funeral as we drove down to the timber yard one day.
'I've seen a lot of mates die during my seven years in the Regiment,' he waffled, from the passenger seat, 'but this has hit me the hardest. Al meant a lot to me. He thought about the moral side of our work.'
I thought I'd better not tell him about the water-wings.
We talked about military funerals in general. I wasn't a big fan. Normally it's a coffin draped in the Union flag, and lots of 'Jerusalem' and 'I Vow To Thee, My Country'. Rarely a sermon, but often a eulogy from a friend.
Frank smiled. 'Yeah, but I bet you always say the prayers, don't you?'
'I join in on the amen.'
'Don't you even listen to the prayers, Andy? Listen and try to understand what they mean?'
'Of course not. I'm thinking about the man, and how he died. Prayers mean nothing to me, even when the flag's being folded and they get to the burial bit. I just think about the lad. For me, the only significant thing is when the bugler plays the Last Post. And that's nothing to do with religion, Frank – that's to do with the man, isn't it?'
Frank nodded. 'My wife was very upset when Al was buried. She really got on with him. Did you know that?'
'Yes, mate, you told me.'
'She was angry. She thinks most of the people I work with are animals. Al was the only decent one she met.'
'Yeah, of course. But look at everyone. They're lost, and so are you. Nish just farts for England and hasn't got a thought in his head, and—'
'Come on – Nish?' Frank was wrong. 'What do you think he does with all those copies of Time and The Economist? Wipe his arse? Or what about taking up the guitar, learning to read music? That's an enquiring mind, mate. I don't see you fighting with him over the Telegraph after prayers.'
'If he's got an enquiring mind, why doesn't he use it?'
'He does. It's all a bluff with him, trying to cover up the real Nish. I reckon he feels embarrassed about being clever and a tiny bit privileged, that's all. And maybe he doesn't want to use it the whole time. That's OK too, isn't it?'
Frank was a lot closer to Nish than he was sometimes prepared to admit. Both their fathers had had a drink problem and had made them shit scared when they were kids. And after Al was killed, both seemed to spend more time in their own worlds, slightly detached from the rest of us.
He sat back and put his feet on the dash. 'Maybe. But I just don't feel part of this any more. The Regiment used to feel like my family, but that's changed.'
'So you're replacing it with the Church?'
He laughed. 'Not yet I'm not. I don't have one. I'm still waiting for a white-haired guy to knock on the door and tell me where to go.'
'Then where do you worship?'
'I'm floating around. I've started visiting all the churches in Hereford. Even the Methodists!' He laughed again, but I didn't get the joke.
At least he was lightening up. He told a story of what had happened to him over Christmas leave. 'I knocked on the door of this woman's house – she runs their chapel – and she came out with flour on her hands. I said, "I've just become a Christian, I'm looking for a church." She said, "Couldn't you come back another time and we'll sit down and talk?" I said, "I can't – I'm in the army. I'm going to Ireland in a couple of days and I'm not back until March." I thought that would get me through the door, but she said, "That's all right, I'll still be here."'
'Will you go back when she's finished her baking?'
'I think I might be allergic to flour. I'm going to carry on trying them all.'
It was a light-hearted moment, but I couldn't help thinking that all he was doing was marking time with us until he found something better. That was what it felt like, anyway. 'Frank, do you really want to leave, mate?'
He thought for a while. 'Yeah, I'm ready to move on. God's going to take care of me.' He nodded a bit too vigorously. I didn't believe a word of it.
We got the warning order for a job in three days' time. A PIRA weapons hide had been discovered. Int had it that a new ASU was planning and preparing for a hit on an RUC station. The troop were to put in a reactive OP (observation post) and hard-arrest the players who came to collect.
ASUs would only go and pick up their weapons at the very last minute. Often they aborted – not because they'd found out they were going to get hit, but for stupid reasons like somebody having a flat tyre and not making the RV on time.
Sometimes the dickers would look at the target and decide not to take it on because a particular policeman hadn't turned up or there were extra police on duty or, just as suspicious, fewer. To them these were all combat indicators. They were paranoid about us hitting them. If they noticed anything unusual that they hadn't picked up on their recces, they'd bin it. It was a long war; they could wait.
All we could do on this particular job was set up an OP and keep eyes on the hide until the ASU turned up, or the Tasking and Coordinating Group (TCG) pulled us off target. The plan was that Chris would take in a four-man patrol on target the first night and set up an OP. It had to be really close so the patrol could see exactly what was going on, and be able to react quickly once the players had opened the hide – otherwise everybody would be running around in the dark and there'd be a gangfuck. Chris's patrol would stay the first four nights, and then Frank's patrol, including me, would take over for another four – and so it would go on until TCG said to stop.
The two patrols met in the briefing room and Chris, the overall commander, gave a quick sniff and started to give out the orders.
The main problem we always had on this sort of job was working out who was actually carrying out the weapons pickup. Sometimes an ASU might send out dickers first as cannon fodder, young teenaged lads who'd just walk past the hide and see if there was a reaction. These lads wouldn't even know it was a weapons hide, they'd just be told to walk a route – and they'd do it because they wanted to be in with the big boys. Sometimes they'd actually be told to empty the hide and dump the weapons in a skip or somewhere the ASU could pick them up in safety.
ASUs operated a cell system very much like the French resistance in the Second World War. All information was contained. Even if one of those young lads got lifted, nine times out of ten all they'd know were the names of a couple of other people in their cell. They wouldn't know where the weapons were, who their supplier was or even what the job was. Only one or two people had that in their heads, and would only reveal the details at the last minute. Lifting dickers might compromise not only the job but their lives. They might have been told to empty the hide, and they'd get excited and play with the weapons. As soon as that happened, we had no option but to go noisy.
Chris gave the order, therefore, that we would wait until whoever got onto the hide – whether it was a couple or the whole eight-man ASU – had physically got the weapons and mags out of the ground and it was obvious that they were the ones preparing for the job. The giveaway might be their age or whether they were loading the weapons rather than just playing with them.
There had been a fuck-up in 1978 that no one wanted to repeat. John Boyle, a sixteen-year-old Catholic, was exploring an old graveyard near his family's farm in County Antrim when he discovered an arms cache. He had told his father, who'd passed on the information to the RUC. The next morning Boyle decided to see if the guns had been removed and was shot dead by two Regiment guys who'd been waiting undercover.
Frank got to his feet. 'No. This is supposed to be a hard arrest. You're giving them the opportunity to present a threat. We don't wait until they load up, we arrest them straight away.'
Everybody, myself included, went ballistic. 'Come on, Frank, for fuck's sake . . .'
I knew exactly what I was going to do, whatever Frank said. If they had weapons in their hands and were just metres away, I was going to hose them down. Simple as that.
Things got heated. Most of us believed Frank could be putting other people's lives at risk here. This wasn't about us doing God's work against evil-doers, this was about a fourman patrol taking on anything up to twelve Provisional IRA.
Chris just stood there: water off a duck's back. He was the boss and this was what we were going to do.
After he'd finished the orders, I took Frank to one side. 'Listen, mate, I'm with Chris on this one. I'd rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.'
Frank had calmed down and even smiled. He sat back on the sofa. 'It's not always as black and white as that. I'm not going to kill them. We're there to arrest. We'll do that before they get their hands on any weapons.'
'Then you'd better make sure you take the right decision at the right time, or one of us will get dropped.'
He looked at me very calmly – too calmly for my liking. 'God will guide me, don't worry.'
I left him, and did worry. Not about the job – fuck it, if it kicked off on the ground, we'd deal with it. I worried about Frank. God and our kind of work didn't mix easily. Al had obviously found the right balance for himself. I didn't think Frank had.
Yet, for all that, I admired him for the way he stuck to his principles. It must have been tough to have a conviction that went against the grain of an organization he loved. I knew that, deep down, he didn't really want to get out. He was cutting off his nose to spite his face, and it annoyed me. But, as he'd said, Christianity had been pissing people off for years.
The job was cancelled the afternoon before Chris took the first patrol out. Maybe TCG decided the job wasn't worth it, maybe the head sheds were worried about Frank. We never got to see what Frank would do when push actually came to shove, but by then, I felt, the final nail was already in his coffin.
There was a bit of edge between Chris and Frank after the reactive OP job that never happened, but Frank didn't force the issue. Then he was taken off ops for a while to run the desk while Minky was away. The focus of the piss-taking now shifted from his religion to his past as a signaller.
The whole army ran on the tribal system. It bred loyalty and a feeling of belonging that never left you. You could take the boy out of the Green Jackets, but you couldn't take the Green Jackets out of the boy . . . And that was the way it had to be. No one should forget where they'd come from – unless they were a signaller, of course.
By March we were all back in the UK. After a couple of weeks' leave, we were getting ready to go to Oman. Apart from Frank: he was getting ready to go.
I couldn't see the sense of not fighting to keep him in: the Regiment was always keen to recruit good men, and it invested a fortune in training them. Just getting a trooper like me to the point at which I had patrol and entry skills cost more than it did to train a fast-jet pilot, yet when we said we were going to leave, no one asked us why or tried to change our minds.
Frank was an experienced corporal who was about to be made up to sergeant. He may have bored us rigid about God making his decisions for him but he was still one of the best when it came to planning and preparation. And I couldn't help feeling the whole God thing was a phase, maybe even an escape from something.
And he'd brought a hell of a lot to the party. Until he singlehandedly opposed the policy, signallers were only allowed to do a three-year tour with the Regiment then had to return to their units. Not only did Frank get the policy changed of scaleys only being allowed to do one three-year tour with the Regiment, he was responsible, too, for the Regiment changing the way they used pistols in CQB (close quarter battle), bringing their standards of combat shooting to a new level.
Frank had come back with phenomenal pistol skills after an exchange tour with Delta Force in the States. Delta had taught him the Weaver Stance, a method developed by Deputy Sheriff Jack Weaver during freestyle pistol competition in the late 1950s. It was adopted by the FBI, then the US military.
'The Weaver' allowed you to shoot much faster and more accurately. Instead of standing square-on to the target with both arms out straight, you stood side-on with your firing arm out straight and the other bent and pulling back. The isometric tension produced by pushing out with the stronger hand while pulling in with the weaker provided excellent recoil control when the weapon was fired.
Getting old and bold to accept this new Yank method was hard, but the results spoke for themselves. Frank stood his ground, as he did on everything, and got it accepted. Thanks to him being as much of a pain in the arse about the Weaver Stance as he was about his God, troopers could now double-tap a head shot over five metres with four inches of barrel. If Winston Churchill had been around, he might have said that never had so much been owed by so many to just one bornagain ginger-haired nutcase.
If you decided to leave an infantry battalion, where a soldier's training would have cost about three quid and a Mars bar, the CO would have sat you down and said, 'Stop, think about it. Think about what you're doing . . .' The Regiment's response seemed to be 'There are thousands who want to take your place, so see yer.'
Then again, maybe they know that from the moment there's doubt in your mind it's time for you to leave. Mentally, you've already gone.
We held the traditional auction of Al's kit. Even lads from other squadrons came along to the Paludrin Club, our Naafi in the Lines. Whatever his family didn't want was on display. Chris conducted the proceedings.
There was everything from a pair of socks to the air tank from his diving kit. People buy at stupid prices. The cash either goes to the next of kin or, if it was the dead guy's wish, towards a squadron party. Most of us, including Al, had written it into our will, and had also set aside five hundred quid to foot the party bill.
Al's parachute went for hundreds; I landed up with his Barbour jacket for something like four times what it would have cost in a shop – and I didn't even wear waxed jackets.
There was one more ceremony to be performed. During an evening down town Frank was presented with a glass tankard and a nine-inch statue of a trooper in freefall gear. 'Here you go,' Chris said, with a sniff. 'See you around.'
Everyone asked Frank about the Sri Lankan job he'd lined up, but mostly what they wanted to know was: 'Why are you getting out?' He fielded every question with the usual platitudes.
On our second day back from leave, Frank came into the Lines to collect his kit. Each squadron had its own block, but the combination of industrial carpet tiles and meshed-glass fire doors provided a unifying theme. The living accommodation consisted of one-man rooms with white Formica cupboards, a sink, a bed and a couple of shelves; there were showers and toilets at the end of the corridor.
The bottom floor of B Squadron's block was mainly for lads who lived out but needed somewhere to store their kit. People cycled in or ran, had a shower, got dressed. The singlys lived on the top floor, but usually not for long. This was Thatcher's Britain. Everybody was encouraged to get out and buy a house, and Hereford was probably the only place where a soldier could do that. Special Forces pay was good, and you knew that, fingers crossed, you'd be based there until you were forty.
My room faced Frank's across a corridor. I was sorting out my gear for Oman, and he was packing his plywood MFO (Movement, Forces Overseas) box. I was going to give him a hand bunging it in the back of his estate car.
It was about eight o'clock and everybody else was out for the night. I looked at him in his tracksuit as he minced about inside his locker. 'Frank, this Sri Lankan job, it's not exactly godly, is it? You could stay here and do the same thing, couldn't you?'
He didn't look up from his packing. 'Ah, but I can't stay, can I? I want to move on and find a church, remember?'
'Man can't live by bread alone, eh?'
'Yep, you got it. I've still got to pay the mortgage, and the kids are going to need shoes. Maybe I'll go to college when I'm sorted, study theology.'
'Become that ayatollah?'
He stood back from his MFO and smiled.
I nodded at the beret and the other stuff in his hand. 'You won't need that stable belt now, will you?'
The new-style belts were much thinner than the old ones, and the metal buckle with the winged dagger was tinnier. Being a new boy, that was what I'd been saddled with.
It disappeared into the box with everything else.
'Are you leaving because of Al? Is that what this is about?'
He shook his head. 'I told you. I don't belong here any more. Something else is filling my life.'
'Ah, right. And you're still immortal, are you?'
'We all are.'
'So that night Al died, how come you sent me ahead to flush them out of the hedgerow?'
I thought at first that God hadn't given him the answer to that, but I was wrong. 'Because I wanted to be the one to kill whoever killed Al.'
He then went off on one about Ken, the job that night, and why Al shouldn't be dead.
Fuck this. I felt all right being part of the squadron. I'd been there nearly a year now and my feet were firmly under the table. I'd proven myself. Besides, I'd been a sergeant in the infantry before I'd come here. I'd already killed, had already had to make hard decisions on operations.
'Frank, I've got to tell you – everybody always has a better plan than the one that's going to be used. Why? Because they know it's never going to be put into practice, so they can say what the fuck they like. They can gob off till the cows come home that their idea is better. And you know what? It gets even better with hindsight – the plan that never has to be used.'
I found myself ranting, because he was wrong.
'The fact is we all need a leader. Ken was the boy that night. He was there making the decision, one way or the other. You're just angry and frustrated, mate. You're angry with Al for being a Christian all along and not telling you. You're angry because he's dead. You may even be angry because you and your God couldn't save him. But you really need to get over it.'
Frank didn't answer. He turned away.
'So, you giving me that stable belt, or what?'
After several long moments he fixed me with his cornflower blue Bambi eyes.
We landed at Seeb International, just outside the capital, Muscat. I was excited about the three months that lay ahead. The whole squadron was going to practise desert warfare, and the Ice Cream Boys would be working beneath clear sunny skies. There was a lot of operational stuff like HALO (high altitude, low opening) to be done, but Nish was generally talking up the fast glide, the freefall part of the trip.
Most of the squadron had been to the Middle East before, whether on operations, team jobs, or training someone else's army. They were at home here, and I was finally feeling at home with them. I saw a lot of Nish's friends.
We stood around on the tarmac waiting for our transport and trying out our new sunglasses. You don't get country briefs when you go away: you're expected to have done your own homework. I'd found out that Qaboos bin Said al-Said had overthrown his father in 1970 with a bit of British help, and had ruled as sultan ever since. The population was about three million, and the borders stretched over a thousand kilometres. It was a big old place.
Oman was bordered by the United Arab Emirates to the north, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the south. The Arabian Sea lay on its eastern coastline, which faced India and part of Iran. The northern coast beyond Muscat, the Musandam peninsula, dominated the Strait of Hormuz, a major political and economic flashpoint in the Arabian Gulf. It was through here that the bulk of Middle Eastern oil flowed daily to run the free world's economy. Capture the Strait of Hormuz, and you could hold the Western world to ransom.
Up north were the vast, rugged mountain ranges of the hot, parched interior, but down in the south, between the sand seas, we were on the same longitude as Bangalore. They even had a monsoon season.
It hadn't taken much to discover the big things here were oil and natural gas, for which the leading customer was Japan. Or that it was a totally Muslim country, although the sultan was liberal. Alcohol was for sale, and in the cities women were allowed to wear Western clothes.
The Regiment had been founded in the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War and operating in Oman for years. Technology might have come on in leaps and bounds, but the principles of desert warfare hadn't. There was this stuff called satnav knocking around, but nobody really trusted it. The military had been using it since the late seventies, but the equipment was bulky and needed lots of power; great if you were on a warship, but not so handy on foot or in a wagon. Smaller satnavs were being developed for Special Forces, but they were still the size of house bricks. Their batteries ran out far too quickly, and the equipment constantly malfunctioned. It wasn't soldier-proof so got regularly smashed. It would never catch on. The best navigation aids were the skills the lads had relied on in the Second World War, when all they'd had were stars, compasses and piss-poor maps.
It wasn't long before the Omani Army turned up with a fleet of British-made Bedford four-tonners and we rattled off into the interior. In the middle distance, huge mountains pushed up against a perfectly clear blue sky. I'd been half expecting sand dunes and Lawrence of Arabia, but this terrain was hard-core. Elbows and knees would get torn to shreds out here.
We pushed along a single-track tarmac road across a vast rocky plain that stretched for miles in every direction. Sixteenth-century forts, built by the Portuguese when Oman had played an important role in the slave trade, rubbed shoulders with villages of mud and straw.
After an hour we came to a tented camp in the middle of nowhere. It was protected by wire fences, and looked just like the set of The Great Escape. Schwepsy was going to love this. He could play prison guard.
For the first three days we bedded ourselves in. The old hands had seen it all before, but as far as I was concerned even unpacking a .50-calibre machine-gun and mounting it on a Land Rover was new and exciting. The only thing I wasn't happy with was the early-morning temperature. It took the sun a good twenty minutes to get the place warmed up. I must have lizard DNA.
Tiny quickly developed a routine. The moment he woke, he sat up in his sleeping-bag in our twenty-man tent and shouted, 'I'm bored. Where's Frank?'
He wasn't the only one who missed having him around, if only to take the piss.
'He had to go.' Nish summed up the situation from his bed one morning. 'Frank's trouble is that he's a complicated mixture of happy warrior and embittered pacifist.'
Tiny wasn't too fussed about what Frank was. He still had the second half of his routine to perform. He'd get up, stick his head out of the tent flap, and look back, surprised. 'Turned out nice again!'
It made me laugh every time, but perhaps that was because he wasn't calling me a crap hat any more.
Paul missed Countdown, but I reckon that had more to do with Carol's perky consonants than the mental exercise.
Some of the scaleys missed their workouts so much they rigged up a makeshift gym. They hit the punch-bag stupid every afternoon, then did several hundred chin-ups and went for a run. Ken tried to join in, but the scaleys didn't roll out the welcome mat. They knew it was only a matter of time before he got bored with the bag and was challenging them to a fight instead.
The banter was non-stop. They were scaleys and we were blades or Jedis. The Force was with us. So was the food. A couple of local lads kept us in chapattis, while the cooks knocked up the rest of the scoff on their number-one burners, which flared like rocket jets along a narrow trench capped with huge dixies.
Most of the talk as we shook out was about freefall. The big one was CRW: not the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing, but Canopy Relative Work, the trick of flying your canopies towards each other and linking up.
'We need to get the troop stack going,' Nish announced. 'We need a holiday snap.'
'No, we can do this. It'll be a laugh. We get someone to fly base. The second lad wraps his legs into the first lad's rig lines, then slides down them until it looks like he's standing on his shoulders. And so on. We'll have the whole troop stacked by the end of the trip, easy!'
It might have been easy for him, but they hadn't taught me anything like this at Brize Norton or Pau. All I knew was that the more guys joined the CRW stack, the slower the forward speed became, but the faster the descent. That was why the best jumper joined last.
Nish stretched out on his camp bed. For once he wasn't smoking; standard operating procedures (SOPs) didn't allow it under canvas. He pointed at me. 'New boy goes first. Just keep on your heading and I'll come in to you.'
Harry, the Royal Marine Adonis, burst in. 'Raus! Raus! Ve hef found an escape tunnel.'
I didn't have a clue what he was on about. We followed them out to the perimeter wire, where Hillbilly was balancing a pair of upside-down jungle boots on the edge of a man-sized hole that went down about three feet. A sign above it, made out of a Figure-11 target, said, 'Eight Troop's escape tunnel.' Hillbilly was Six Troop, but he was probably the only one who could spell. We took bets on how long it would take Schwepsy to spot this and send down the Alsatians.
Harry rounded up the guys from the Mountain Troop tent. He wanted them to pose for a sign of his own that he'd hung above the main gate. It said: 'Stalag 13'.
We watched as he lined them up along the wire. They had to dangle their wrists through, and stare longingly towards the mountains. The sad thing was, the dickheads probably couldn't wait to get out and climb them.
Once we'd shaken out, it was time to get on with training. We were going to work first with our support weapons – the 81mm mortar, .50-calibre machine-gun and GPMG in its sustained-fire role. I knew the GPMG and .50 cal like the back of my hand after my years as a rifle-company infantryman. I also knew about the capabilities of the 81mm mortar and how to call them in for a fire mission. I'd just never fired one.
Ken sent me to join the mortar training group, and it turned out we had a bit of a head start. Nish had been in his battalion's mortar platoon back in Para Reg days, so he became No. 1 in Seven Troop's mortar team, Paul was No. 2, and I was No. 3. That meant I started off lugging the ammunition and putting my fingers in my ears when the thing went off, but I soon got to learn how to set the thing up and aim it.
The 81mm was still the backbone of fire support in any infantry battalion, lobbing as many as twelve rounds a minute about five kilometres. It could be man-packed in three loads, but mortar detachments were normally vehicle-borne. We piled everything into the Land Rover 110s, including more ammunition than my old battalion would have been allocated in about ten years, and moved out into the desert to play.
Like everything else we did, the sessions were fantastically un-army. There was nobody standing behind you insisting on safety checks and correct procedures. All we did was load a 110 with kit, drive into the desert and have a cabby.
We wasted no time keeping up the image of the Ice Cream Boys. We were in shorts, trainers and sunglasses, and out came the bronzer. 'I hate firing mortars in sand,' Paul moaned, as he brushed his arms. 'Sticks to the Ambre Solaire.'
Chris was our mortar fire controller. Each troop had one on the line, and each troop had a tube. We set the four tubes up about fifteen metres apart. The MFCs gathered in a little cluster behind us, under a bunch of old Martini parasols, and waffled away like a bunch of washerwomen. Chris had chosen well. He just barked the occasional fire-control order, then sat back with the others among the piles of ammunition and iceboxes loaded with food and drinks.
The mortar's range was set by the angle of the barrel and the amount of energy supplied by a series of explosive charges. Plastic rings of propellant a bit like horseshoes were wrapped around the stem. There were seven to start with; the more you left on, the further it flew.
What it does at the other end depends on the type of round: high explosive, smoke or illume. The HE fuse can be set for air burst, against enemy out in the open; delayed, when the round penetrates before detonating; or instantaneous, when it explodes as soon as it hits.
Nish and Paul could do all the jobs blindfolded. Even in a pair of running shorts and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he hunched over the optic sight, Nish didn't put a foot wrong. Then he'd laugh it off, as if none of it really mattered. His meticulousness seemed to embarrass him.
After three days of hosing down the desert, we were getting on-scheme and it was time for a competition. We built a series of sangars about a kilometre away. They were essentially trenches with rock protection around and above them, just like the Adoo had had. The object was to drive along in your 110, stop on command, jump out as a three-man team, assemble the mortar, fire, and score a direct hit with rounds on a delayed fuse. All the firing orders would come from your own troop MFC, ice lolly in hand, basking in the shade of his Martini parasol.
As we arrived with the mortar tube, base plate and ammunition, Chris started off with a fire mission. 'Immediate action!'
The guys waiting their turn sat back, jeered and threw rocks at us.
Paul threw the base plate to the ground, grabbed the aiming post and ran about fifteen metres towards the target while Nish married the mortar's ball joint into the socket at the centre of the plate. I held out the bipod for the barrel to rest against and closed the retaining collar around the tube. Nish attached the optic sight, lining it up with the aiming post to gauge bearing and direction.
I pulled the large green plastic cylinders of ammunition, welded together in pairs, from their metal containers, stacked them on top of each other and undid their caps.
Rocks and insults were still heading our way big-time. 'Come on, you dickheads, get on with it.'
Chris shouted the fire order: 'Direction – one six four.'
Nish adjusted the sight. 'Direction – one six four.'
Chris peered into his little handheld computer. 'Elevation – one two two eight.'
Nish spun the dials. 'Elevation – one two two eight. Number one – ready!'
There was a volley of rocks.
Chris removed the ice lolly from his mouth and checked his handheld computer. 'Two rounds, charge three – stand by!'
It was my turn to scream. 'Two rounds, charge three!'
I pulled out the first round, ripped off four rings of propellant and threw them into the empty ammunition box, passed the round to Paul and prepared the next. He removed the safety pin and put it into the plastic ammunition cap to keep tally.
I jammed my right foot onto the base plate to steady it, we threw two rounds down the tube to bed it in and Nish readjusted the sight accordingly.
'Enemy troops in trenches!' Chris was getting positively expansive.
That meant I had to twist the fuse at the point to 'Delayed'.
'Six rounds – fire!'
We loosed off one every five seconds.
There was a chorus of jeers as all six dropped around the sangar but not one went in.
I started to clean the tube as Boat Troop ran down from their 110, set up and fired their two bedding rounds.
They scored a direct hit with the second round of their six. They jumped up and down, and made sure we knew everyone outside Boat Troop was a wanker. Later, Mobility and Mountain also failed to get a hit, so Boat Troop won. Not a prize, they just won. That was what it was all about.
During the next couple of weeks, while we were playing about with the .50 cal and the GPMG, Ken managed to get hold of a Huey from the Omanis. The pilot came and picked us up whenever he could.
When you jump from an aircraft, the slipstream throws you out and you've got something to fight against. Jumping from a helicopter is the same as jumping off a building. You feel yourself gathering speed, but there's no initial resistance to work with. I found it very hard to get myself stable until Nish took me aside after the first couple of jumps. 'Just imagine you've got a big beach ball in front of you and you're trying to wrap yourself around it so you can slip it a length.' He grinned. 'Bend over it and really try and give it some. That curved shape as you hump is what gets you stable.'
Nish wandered around with an I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude, but actually he did. He'd been extremely sharp on the mortars, and was almost godlike when it came to jumping. The weird thing was, he didn't seem to give a shit about himself. He cut his hand one day, but didn't deal with it. 'I'd better clean that up later,' was all he said, but he never did. I was gaining the impression that, as well as being embarrassed about his intelligence and education, he didn't like himself that much.
After four or five goes at shagging the giant beach ball, I was getting stable straight away, grabbing air and sorting myself out. I felt like a kid who could suddenly ride his bike without stabilizers.
We drove out into the desert on the last day to RV with the Huey. We set fire to a pile of tyres and diesel oil to give us smoke, then jumped with civilian sports rigs. The lads all had their own, and Nish had brought me his spare. They were smaller and lighter than military ones; they just had to carry a body and no equipment. As a result they were faster, and you could spin around and play about a lot more in the air.
I had to learn how to pack them. The RAF controlled military parachuting, and never let jumpers pack their own chutes. Again, Nish showed the way. He told it simply, so I learnt quickly. He wanted to bring on people like me. Nish was fascinated by flying, not just freefall. He wanted to understand the theory and mechanics of it, and the heli pilot would end up spending just as much time on the ground, explaining how the thing flew, as he did in the air.
We got a last jump in just before the sun went down, and packed the rigs again in the light of the burning tyres. Nish sorted the lines that led from the rig up to the canopy. He turned to Chris. 'You know what, mate? I miss Frank. It's fucking weird without him. What about you?'
Chris just gave a sniff. 'No, not really. He's gone. Fuck it.'
'No, mate. Feels different, feels different.' Nish shook his head. 'I miss Al even more . . .'
One of the scaleys slipped on some rocks and broke his ankle – either that or Ken finally got the chance for a little contact sport. Nish was unfortunate enough to be the one walking past the squadron HQ tent when the sergeant-major needed an ambulance driver for a trip to Muscat.
We got wind of it before the casualty was even in the wagon, and handed Nish a king-size shopping list. 'And try and get a cool box.' Tiny counted out some rials. 'Fill the fucker with ice cream and beer.'
A few hours later, Nish burst back into the tent. He was all smiles but empty-handed.
'Where's the cool box?'
'Get this – they pay for blood. I just gave two pints. I'm a bit dizzy, but so what? It's over thirty quid a pint.'
Tiny was already on his feet, and it wasn't to demand his rials back. 'We get tea and biscuits?'
'Even better. Chocolate digestives.'
We went to inveigle the head shed into letting us trundle into the city and do our civic duty. Nish still looked pale but nodded so hard I thought his head would fall off. 'It's organized. The doc's waiting for us . . .'
We grabbed two dusty wagons. We weren't exactly in showroom condition ourselves. Our hair was so matted it stuck up almost vertically. We might have ended up quarantined at the hospital as a health hazard, but for thirty quid a pint it was worth the risk.
We bumped across the desert to the metalled road. Schwepsy sat in the back beside me. After a moment or two I realized that he was vibrating with excitement, and not just about making a big cash withdrawal from the blood bank.
'We rigged it up, you suckers!'
He was bursting to tell us about the 81mm shoot. Boat Troop's mortar team had placed a round in the trench the night before and attached a lump of PE (plastic explosive) to it, then they'd run a command wire to the base plate area and covered it with sand. Schwepsy hadn't taken out the safety pin on their second round. He'd just counted the round down to target, then detonated the one already in the sangar. All that time and effort just to win. We all wished we'd thought of it.
Bastards . . . But it didn't take us long to get our own back.
We were lining up outside the donor room, waiting for the needles to be jammed into our arms. Schwepsy had stopped laughing as soon as he'd smelt hospital. He edged further and further back down the queue.
Nish was first in, and came out three pints lighter than he'd started the day. He clutched his arm and looked like a ghost. 'Tell you what, mate, those needles – they're big 'uns. More like six-inch nails.'
All of a sudden, Schwepsy wasn't so sun-tanned.
Everyone caught on: each of the lads moaned and groaned more vigorously than the last as they came out of the giving room.
Schwepsy swayed. But he still went in. The lure of cash far outweighed the fear.
Fast glide was next on the menu. We'd be practising both HALO (high altitude, low opening) and HAHO (high altitude, high opening).
If you were jumping HALO, you were already above the location where you were going to operate. You jumped, fell, and opened the canopy as low as possible to avoid radar and minimize time in the air.
With HAHO, you used the canopy as a means of travel. You jumped out at, say, 30,000 feet, deployed the canopy, and used the winds and thermals to take you to where you needed to be. The canopy had a natural speed of about twenty knots, so if you had a fifteen-knot wind behind you, you travelled at thirty-five. HAHO called for extreme-weather clothing and oxygen equipment to survive temperatures as low as minus 40°C, especially when a fifty-mile cross-country descent could take more than two hours.
We flew south to Rustaq. The terrain down there – mainly sand and brush – was much better to land on than a frozen field in the UK. There was a whole spectrum of experience on display, with the now not-so-new boy at one end of the spectrum and Nish at the other – but luckily for me, the troop traditionally started from scratch on a fast glide, then worked its way up.
We jumped clean fatigue – no equipment, no weapon, no oxygen gear, just the parachute – initially from 12,000 feet. The sky was filled with guys tracking, arms back in a delta, steering towards each other so they could link up and fall as a group.
Keeping together in the air wasn't just a crowd-pleaser. You avoided mid-air collisions and ensured you hit the ground together as a patrol – usually tactically, at night, and carrying your own weight in gear. Nish was the master of the art after his time in the Red Freds. The best of what I learnt, I learnt from him.
The first time we landed, he took me to one side. 'Forget what they taught you at Brize, all that rigid star-shape shit. You've got to be flexible. Bring your arms and legs in more. Use your body; don't use your arms. It'll come, mate, it'll come.'
He lay on his belly in the sand and arched his back. He was dirt-diving, something we all did as we practised our relative work. His arms weren't straight out from his sides like I'd been taught. They were bent, with his hands almost in front of him. His wrists were limp. 'You want them to sway with the wind. Use the stuff, don't fight it.'
Some days we spent hours lying on two-foot by two-foot flat trolleys, practising relative work. You'd get on, arch your back, then propel yourself around with your feet, fine-tuning the linking moves. It wasn't a free-for-all: you flew relative and waited your turn to join in. The most important man was the pin. He was the one who had to fly stable-on-heading so the others could fly to him and stand off until it was their turn to join. The pin wouldn't be the best jumper – he normally brought up the rear. Small wonder, then, that I got nominated for pin and Nish was last.
We spent a couple of days doing nothing but fun jumps. We'd somersault, flip, track, spin, experiment with different ways of grabbing each other. We even did some pin checking, flying over your victim so you were in the vortex immediately above him as he fell. That would make you drop on top of his rig, and you'd both go unstable and tumble. It all helped you to get a feel for the air.
I soon found myself getting into the Ice Cream Boys' swing of things. Each time we landed, we ripped off our jumpsuits and stood around in shorts, boots and shades as we sorted our rigs. We took turns riding a couple of motorbikes cross-country to the nearest medieval settlement in search of ice cream.
The next big challenge was to stop the stuff melting during the thirty-minute return journey. It was Nish who came up with the idea of soaking a couple of Arab shemags in water and wrapping them around the plastic box bungeed to the backrack. As we caned it back across the desert to our C-130, the evaporating moisture acted as a makeshift refrigerator.
Most countries don't take kindly to military aircraft encroaching on their air space. They'll scramble an intercept, and if the pilots don't like what they see they'll hose you down with air-to-air missiles. On the other hand, commercial 'friendlies' blip across their radar screens every day of the week. A lot of our jobs would therefore start with freefalls from military aircraft flying along commercial air lanes, or from the cargo holds of commercial jets belonging to colluding airlines. They'd nearly always involve relative work, and almost never be clean fatigue.
We eventually started jumping with weapons and full kit, including a Bergen strapped to our arses. It was a whole new ball game waddling to the tailgate; the extra weight also restricted your leg movements in the air and made your body sit up as you fell. Even so, you could still do relative work – as long as you packed the Bergen right. Leave just one of the side pouches open and symmetry was lost. The air caught it and you spun like a corkscrew.
It only took one fully laden jump for Nish to start fuming. As far as he was concerned, this wasn't the way to jump with kit. 'It's safer on the front. It helps you fall, gives you a lower centre of gravity.'
But the crabs' manual said that was the way we had to pack it – on the back.
He argued non-stop with the RAF instructors. 'The whole planet banned this years ago – it's unsafe.'
They didn't budge. The manual was gospel.
The RAF pissed on our parade even more as the week wore on. They'd decided that equipment could be dropped in a big, bulky MFO box, the kind of crate Frank had been packing that day in Hereford. They'd rigged it up with a parachute designed for heavy equipment drops, and insisted it would work.
'All you have to do is jump out and fly relative to it.'
Nish took a suck on his cigarette. 'Which means we can't do any relative work. It'll be like Wacky Races trying to keep with this thing.'
Tactically, it would be a pain in the arse following it, because nobody would have control over the box. Not even the box would have any control over the box; that was why aeroplanes weren't box-shaped.
'Jesus fucking Christ,' Nish muttered. 'Two words you never want to hear from the air force.'
They took us to the truck upon which it was proudly displayed. The parachute rig was fitted with an automatic opening device (AOD), exactly the same as ours. As it encountered a specific level of barometric pressure (at whatever height you set), the AOD would pull the pin from the rig and let the canopy deploy.
We used them if we were jumping with equipment at night. It didn't take much to have a mid-air crash when you were tracking in the dark. If two heads collided you might knock yourselves out. The AOD would bang out your rig for you, even if it wasn't guaranteed to save you. As you spun and tumbled, the canopy might become tangled, or the lines so twisted it couldn't fully deploy.
We tried a daylight jump with the RAF's new toy and it just wasn't happening. The box fell at what seemed like more than terminal velocity and skidded across the sky. It was almost impossible to follow.
The moment we were on the ground, we gave the box a good kicking. Tiny tried opening it to see if it contained anything worth having. It was just filled with bricks and general rubbish as ballast. He wasn't impressed.
The RAF insisted we try again. 'Practice makes perfect, lads.'
The MFO box was mounted on a conveyor with stainless-steel runners, ready to be pushed into space. The opening height for the AOD was set at 3,600 feet this time. As soon as we were at 12,000, the loadmaster leant over and pulled the 'cherry' – the red plastic safety catch – from the AOD. We did the same with ours.
Nish sat and brooded over it. He seemed to be in his own little world.
As we neared the drop point, Saddlebags and I got up and stood by the bundle. No waddling: this time we were jumping clean fatigue.
While everyone else jumped with racing jockeys' goggles – much smaller and with vents on both sides – I still had the standard-issue monsters with no ventilation, so I had them lifted as usual, to clear the condensation. Next trip I was going to make sure I had a Gucci pair, to go with my own rig.
We got the 'ready' and 'set'. On the 'go', Saddlebags and I pushed the bundle off the tailgate and followed it out, tracking down fast and steep, but it was a lost cause. The fucking thing somersaulted and scudded across the sky, like a suitcase falling off a roof-rack on the fast lane of the M25.
Nish came screaming past us like a bolt of lightning, arms swept back. At first it looked like he'd crashed straight into the box, but he managed to get alongside it and gave us a thumbsup before pushing himself away and dumping his canopy with the rest of us at 3,600.
Saddlebags and I looked round for the bundle. It wasn't above us. We looked down.
The canopy hadn't opened.
It plummeted towards the desert floor.
By the time I'd sorted myself out and joined the CRW stack, bricks and debris were strewn in a huge circle all round the point of impact. Such a nice box. What a shame.
We landed within twenty metres of each other and Nish was laughing his bollocks off. By the time we'd stuffed our rigs into their bags and were waiting for the transport, he still hadn't stopped.
'That's enough of that fucking bundle jumping, eh?'
In the middle distance, the C-130 came in to land.
'How did you do it, Nish?'
He grinned. 'Spare cherry. When I tracked in, I stuffed it into the AOD. Safety catch back on. I'd better go and collect it before the crabs turn up.'
Nish mightn't have been too happy with things, but I was. This was the stuff of recruitment posters. Sometimes I'd be floating under the canopy as the C-130 landed on the desert strip below me. Sometimes I'd be eyeballing the little Portuguese forts and watchtowers on the hillsides, looking like something out of the Crusades. History was all around me. I loved this game.
We moved on to jumping with oxygen, from 18,000 feet, then 24,000, going higher and higher. Unfortunately, gas has a tendency to expand as you climb, and where Nish led, we followed. The back of the aircraft stank like a drain; everybody farted uncontrollably.
You had to make sure your teeth were in good nick for the same reason. Any air in a tooth cavity would expand. It wasn't unheard of for teeth to explode. Guys had also been badly injured when they flew with blocked sinuses.
Until the last minute, we were breathing oxygen supplied by the C-130. Two RAF jumpmasters moved around with orienteering torches attached to their heads, glowing a dim red so as not to destroy our night vision. Each had an umbilical trailing from his face mask, and their hands moved instinctively to make sure it didn't get snagged or detached from the oxygen supply.
The inside of the aircraft was totally unpressurized, so masks had to go on at 12,000 feet. And the higher we went, the colder it got.
One particular night, we were jumping from 24,000 feet. I checked my alti, one on each wrist. They weren't the old Lancaster-bomber type now but small plastic commercial ones. Like pretty much all sports gear, they were much better than standard issue. We were just below jump height. The command came to rig up. Because of the noise, the jumpmasters did this by holding up A4 flashcards and illuminating them with their red head torches. These were always presented in a set order to cover all the safety checks.
I pushed my Bergen behind my legs and put my boots through the shoulder straps, attaching the hooks on each side of it to my rig's harness. I was carrying in excess of a hundred and fifty pounds now. Besides my parachute, I had twenty-four pounds of GPMG rigged up along the left-hand side of my body. The main butt was detached so it didn't stick up above my shoulders and get in the way of the canopy lines, and secreted in my Bergen, along with four hundred rounds of ammunition, weighing another twenty-four pounds, spare batteries for the patrol radio and, of course, my own kit.
We detached our oxygen masks from the main console and switched to personal bottles. They held just twenty minutes' worth and were attached to a belly-band.
We got the order via flashcard to stand. The Bergen hung upside-down from the bottom of my rig. I tightened the shoulder straps around my thighs so I would be able to use my legs to fly. With so much weight hanging off me, my back wanted to arch. The main jumpmaster talked to the flight deck on his head mike, and the tailgate yawned open. Even though I had a helmet on, I heard the massive rush of air, and then a gale was thrashing at my jumpsuit. Far below, just the odd pinprick of light punctured the inky blackness way in the far distance.
The aircraft pitched left and right and gained and lost height continuously as the pilot lined it up towards the drop zone. We were formed up in two lines just short of the tailgate. I was number three in the left-hand line. We got the order to move, and the two lines leant into the weight before waddling forward like ducks. I had to grip the back of Tiny's rig for support.
The front lads, Nish and Chris, got their toes right on the edge of the tailgate. We braced ourselves as the aircraft swayed from left to right and the wind tugged.
The jumpmaster commanded the final pin check. I ripped open the Velcro flap on the back of Tiny's rig to eyeball the steel ripcord pin that kept his canopy in place. Easier said than done in the dim red glow – and by now my oxygen mask was soaking wet inside and my goggles were starting to steam up.
Tiny's pin looked good. It was positioned correctly and there were no obstructions to stop it being released from the rig. When Tiny pulled his handle, the steel wire would in turn pull the pin cleanly from the rig and open up the flaps that hold the canopy inside it. Under pressure from a spring, the drogue chute would be forced out of the rig and grab air. The drogue, in turn, would pull out the main canopy and lines attached to the rig.
I hit him on the right shoulder to let him know. I got the same from Paul behind me.
The two jumpmasters were now fixed to the fuselage via a webbing strap and stood on the edge of the tailgate gripping both Chris and Nish to stop them falling as the aircraft lined up on target. They soon thrust two fingers in the front guys' faces, and yelled. Nish and Chris semi-turned and did the same to the two men behind, and it went down the lines.
It had to be a yell. You can only just about hear it above the wind rush and the din of four screaming turboprops and, of course, we were wearing oxygen masks.
I pushed up hard against Tiny as the aircraft rocked from side to side. Beyond the open tailgate, there were no longer any pinpricks of light as reference. The sky and ground were one and the same.
I stared at the jump light consoles to the left and right of the tailgate. The two bulbs were unlit.
My goggles had steamed up again. I kept my left hand on Tiny, and with my right I lifted the lenses to let some air in.
'Red on! Red on!'
The red jump lights blazed each side of the tailgate.
Every one of us turned and screamed it to the guy behind him, in front, to anyone who was listening.
'Red on! Red on!'
The red lights changed to green.
Everybody screamed together: 'Ready . . .'
'. . . set . . .'
We rocked back in unison.
'. . . go!'
We pushed to the tailgate in a fast waddle, each guy propelling the one ahead. Tiny disappeared instantly into the blackness and I tumbled out behind him.
The aircraft's slipstream picked me up and took me with it. I felt huge relief as the weight came off, but I was upside-down and still being buffeted around in the slipstream. I spread my arms and legs and arched my back. Immediately, I flipped over into a stable position.
My goggles demisted instantly. Moving your head is about the only thing during freefall that doesn't affect your stability. I looked around, trying to spot other bodies in the pitch black.
It was going to be a two-minute freefall. I had just 120 seconds in which to find someone to link up with, and to try to make sure I didn't crash into anyone or they did to me. I knew they were just a few metres away as I stared into the darkness, but I still couldn't see a thing. The exposed skin on my face wobbled under the pressure of falling.
Some of the stars above me were blocked off for a second as someone tracked left to right above me.
My body jerked as someone gripped my arm and pulled me towards him.
Then another pair of hands from the darkness broke my right-hand grip to join in.
We held each other's jumpsuits, not knowing who was who, lengthening our legs to push ourselves closer together.
At 4,000 feet, we shook each other's arms, let go, turned, and tracked away from each other quickly to get some distance before opening.
I checked my luminous alti, and pulled the right-hand handle at 3,600.
The rig wobbled a little from side to side as the drogue pulled out the main canopy.
I waited, but got no bang from a frying-pan. It was more of a dribble as I got pushed upright; there wasn't any force. I was hanging in a sitting position.
My hands shot to the steering toggles. I ripped them off their Velcro and pumped both down rapidly in an effort to expose the canopy and help it grab some serious air. Sometimes they needed a couple of tugs to unfold.
Nothing happened. I knew I was still falling too fast. I looked up. It was too dark to see anything. I might have had a big bundle of laundry above me.
I looked down. There were no points of reference, just the rush of wind. I didn't need to check my altis to know I was well below 3,000. I had about thirty seconds to go before I hit the ground.
I couldn't think of anything else to do but scream, 'Shiiiit!'
As if that was going to help.
I kept on plummeting downwards. I stood a good chance of crashing through someone else's canopy and taking us both out.
I had to cut away.
I'd never done it before. I didn't want to do it now. But I'd run out of options.
I let go of the steering toggles. One hand went for the red cutaway pad on my right, the other for the reserve handle on my left.
I couldn't stop myself screaming again; as I grabbed I banged out my right arm as fast and hard as I could to cut away the main chute at the risers.
Immediately I fell even faster.
I was almost in a sitting position because of the Bergen, and it was starting to drag me backwards. I didn't want that. The emergency rig was on my back.
I yanked the left handle across my body. I could feel the risers of the reserve moving up and then – bang! – frying-pan time.
This wasn't a square canopy, just a basic round one. I had no control of it – not that I gave a fuck at that precise moment. The big problem was: it was so much smaller than the main canopy and I was carrying so much weight that I was still falling too rapidly. I had some other things to do.
I didn't waste time checking my alti. I had to release my Bergen or I was going to break my legs when I landed – at the very least. It was still down by my arse, attached by the two hooks to my harness. I pushed down the release arms and the bundle dropped the fifteen-feet length of its retainer rope. When I heard it hit the ground, I'd have a split second before my boots did the same. Then, with my feet in a proper parachute landing position, just like they'd taught me on my static-line course, all I could do was accept the landing.
The Bergen thumped into the ground. Then, feet and legs together, shoulders in, teeth clenched, chin tucked into my chest, so did I.
I came in like a bag of shit. I grabbed a few lines and pulled them in to make sure the wind didn't catch the canopy and drag me along the desert.
All done, I just lay there for a few blissful seconds as my goggles steamed up once more. It was pitch black. I couldn't hear or see a fucking thing.
I undid my rig, laid the GPMG to one side, undid my Bergen, de-rigged everything and bagged it up. I dug around for a head torch and tried to get my bearings. Without the ability to steer to the drop zone, I'd probably drifted miles off-course.
I got out my Firefly emergency beacon and sparked it up. It gave out rhythmic bursts of high-energy light. Sooner or later somebody would find me.
It was about twenty minutes before I saw the welcome lights of a wagon. A little while later, a four-tonner pulled up. Nish was driving. Paul, Chris and Tiny were also aboard.
For once, Nish wasn't grinning. Normal service was resumed, though, once it was established I was OK. 'There you go – fucking crap hat.' Tiny lifted my rig for me. 'It's gonna cost you.'
Have a malfunction, I discovered, and it was a bit like getting a hole-in-one. The Milky bars were on me. I thought, Shouldn't it be the other way round?
Nish stuck an arm around my shoulder. 'Listen, mate, no one packs a malfunction into the main so you can practise. You just have to wait for them to happen. You're going to have many more.'
He helped me with my gear and as we put it on the back of the four-tonner, he said, 'I bet that was the way Al would have wanted to go.' He looked away. 'If only I'd checked that guy jumping over that gate . . .'
Tiny shook his head in exasperation. 'Nish, for fuck's sake, stop. He's dead. Leave it.'
But, increasingly, Nish couldn't leave it. The fun and pisstaking were a smokescreen, a layer of bullshit to cover up the bad feelings. He would walk out into the night saying he wanted a smoke, but it was obvious he wanted to be with his own thoughts.
I think he really did blame himself for Al's death. He didn't need to, but nothing we could say would change that.
With just a couple of weeks left in Oman, the OC, whose name really was Rupert, got all sixty of us into the HQ tent to explain a new squadron rotation system. There was going to be a composite troop over the water. It would be made up of guys from each squadron, and the tour lasted a year. At some stage, everybody would have to get it under their belt. But what they were looking for now was experienced guys to step up to the plate.
I knew I stood no chance. I was too junior. I had my infiltration skill, but still lacked a patrol skill.
Nish and Hillbilly were bouncing around, but Schwepsy kept pretty quiet. He was thinking about getting out. He wasn't alone. The Regiment was like a feeder to the private security companies. Nobody got judgemental about it. If you'd been in for a while and a good job came up, you just had to do the maths. Schwepsy had told me that when Frank left.
It wasn't the first time I'd heard talk about the Circuit: the handful of really good outfits that had contracts all over the planet, for bodyguarding, advisories, on-the-ground fighting, you name it.
A lot of the guys had left after Operation Storm and gone straight back to highly paid jobs in Oman, training the army to keep the Adoo at bay down south, though the choice option at the moment was the one Frank had in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers were getting seriously sparked up, and there was bound to be a lot of work. People were trying to find out how much Frank was paid, and how long-term it was likely to be.
I was very happy where I was. The squadron was going to split up soon and zoom off all over the planet on team jobs, ops taken on by small groups, maybe four, maybe a troop, possibly as many as twenty or thirty. Nine out of ten times they'd be working for the Foreign Office, 'maintaining the UK's interests overseas'. Some would be fighting, some training other Special Forces groups, some sorting out the locals, then going to fight alongside them, perhaps trying to stop an insurgency or start one.
Some already knew what team jobs they were going on but didn't say, and nobody asked. Op Sec (operational security) was important. You only needed to know what you needed to know. Three who didn't know yet were Hillbilly, Nish and me.
Hillbilly sat on an old 81mm ammunition box later that night while Nish stretched out on his camp bed, debating whether or not to go over the water. A hundredweight sack of pistachio nuts stood on the sand between them. The waffle turned to team jobs in general. Nish knew exactly what he wanted. 'Anything in RWW would do me. I'd rather start a war than try to stop one.' He spat a mouthful of shells in Hillbilly's general direction.
I joined in. 'How do you get into RWW? How does that all work?'
Hillbilly did the same trick with the shells. 'You don't get in – they come for you. Nice work if you can get it. But first, me and Big Nose here, we're going over the water.' He shoved Nish away from his nut stash, then leant over and picked up the bag. 'It'll be a laugh.'
'I don't know about that.' Nish's expression had become serious. 'It'll be a chance to hose down a few more of those bastards who killed Al.'
'Nish, shut up.' Tiny put down his book at the other end of the tent. 'It's OK. It's all right, mate.'
Schwepsy appeared, his Aryan locks freshly washed and combed for an SS recruitment poster shoot. 'Guess what?' He helped himself to a fistful of Hillbilly's pistachios, cracked a couple open and spat the shells over Nish. 'Frank's back in H.'
Tiny was busy scratching himself. 'What happened?'
The pistachio-fest gathered momentum. Schwepsy turned to talk to Tiny. I was on the bed opposite so he spat the shells at me. 'Dunno.'
Nish sparked up: 'Probably overdid the ayatollah stuff, shoving it down everyone's neck. That's what's happened – he got binned.'
'Who knows? Who cares? Sounds like a cracking job, though.' Schwepsy bent down and grabbed the bag from Hillbilly. 'You two going over the water?'
Hillbilly shrugged. 'Sure, why not?'
I sat there like a spare prick at a wedding. It was like they were all getting ready for a great party and I hadn't been invited.
Tiny looked at me. 'I know exactly where you're going. Once you've done that scaley course, all crap hats go to F Troop. You'll be back to the jungle, mate.' He gave a chuckle and climbed into his sleeping-bag.
I thought: Fuck me, if he's that happy about it, I have to be worried.
We bummed around for a couple of weeks back in the UK, then everybody went their separate ways. Most went on team jobs; I was trying to get my head around Morse code.
By the end of the ten-week course, I'd be expected to knock out twelve words a minute, minimum. Out on operations we had to be able to communicate with each other – and with Hereford – to encode and decode, use all the encryption radios and make our own antennas. But when satellite comms were down and everything else went to rat shit, the faithful old dots and dashes would still come through. Everything we sent would be beamed to 'receivers', scaleys who lived in an underground bunker surrounded by satellite dishes and machines that went ping. It would be decoded and disseminated. But it always went to Hereford first.
Three weeks in, I could manage about one word every ten minutes. I went down town one Saturday afternoon for a breather. Coming out of McDonald's with a bag and a carton of Coke, I bumped into Frank.
He looked genuinely pleased to see me.
'All right, mate? How's it going?'
The smile slipped. I guessed things weren't going too well.
'Fancy a pint?'
We headed for the Grapes, an old haunt of ours.
'I heard you were back.'
'And I suppose they're all saying it was for preaching the gospel too loudly . . .'
Music banged away on the jukebox. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. Every table was packed with Saturday-afternoon shoppers having a quick steak and kidney pie and chips.
It was a pint of bitter for him, lager for me.
We had to stand inches apart because of the noise. The cornflower blues had lost their sparkle.
'The whole country's just one big minefield. I went there to train, but they wanted me to fight the Tamils – and for no extra money. It wasn't about Bible bashing; it was about not getting my legs taken off for no good reason.'
I got stuck into my Kronenberg and let him carry on bumping his gums.
'I learnt my lesson over the water. And, besides, what the company was paying me was just a third of what the Sri Lankans were paying them.'
'They did spread the word that you were Bible-bashing . . .'
'They would, wouldn't they? They wanted an excuse to get rid of me. I went to a church in Colombo, but that was all I did. I was stitched up.'
'What are you going to do?'
He turned back to the bar, suddenly deflated. 'I don't know.' His tone became aggressive. 'I'm on the dole. Can you believe it? I never asked for anything in my life. They said, "What do you do?" So I told them. Know what job they offered me? Where we just met up. McDonald's. Can you believe that?'
'There's definitely no work? You been that badly stitched up?'
'There's some bits and pieces of bodyguarding about. I'm looking.'
'Look, mate, if you need some cash, I haven't got much, but—'
He lifted a hand. 'It's all right. I've got the dole, and they've given me milk coupons for the kids. That's enough humiliation for one week.'
I racked my brains for the odd word of comfort, but I wasn't the world's best at emotional conversations. We just stood there and did a bit of synchronized gulping.
'You know what, Andy? I think I'm still numb.'
'It can't be a good feeling, getting stitched up like—'
'No, no, no – from leaving the Regiment. It feels like there's nowhere for me to go. I miss the drive into camp every day. I miss the lads. You're the first I've seen. There's just no sort of . . . clarity . . . out here. It frightens me.'
'That's because you're a happy warrior and an embittered pacifist.'
Frank's eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hair. 'You been eating dictionaries?'
'Nish's words, not mine. It's how a lad called Graves described his mate, Sassoon. Not the hairdresser, another poet.'
'Well, I'm not Sassoon the poet, I'm Collins the unemployed.'
'You saying you fucked up, getting out of the Regiment?'
He put his empty glass on the bar, and the fire came back into his eyes. There wasn't even a flicker of uncertainty. 'No, not at all. I'm off for a piss.'
I watched the world's biggest liar head off towards the toilet and got another couple in.
Airport Camp, Belize
Torrential rain pummelled the corrugated-iron roof of the Nissen hut. I felt like I was inside a giant snare drum. The MoD hadn't stretched to air-conditioning in the sweltering heat and humidity of Central America, but they had forked out for some Christmas tinsel and streamers, so we knew they loved us really.
My kit was packed on the floor ready to go. I was going to be back in Hereford in time for Christmas. The weekly RAF Tristar was about to land from Brize Norton with the mail and new bodies. The old ones were heading back to the UK the next day. I had an appointment at Woolwich military hospital. Not Ward 11, Snapper's old hang-out, but to find out what was wrong with my right leg.
I'd been here four months without injury, then done something to my knee on my last patrol along the Guatemalan border. I didn't know what or how, but in the jungle even a simple cut can become a serious problem. Fungi, parasites and exotic diseases battled to prevent your body healing. Within days, the joint had swollen up like a football. When I bent it, pus oozed out, and I could hear the fucking thing creak. Before long I was having trouble moving it at all, and had to be cas-evac'd out.
The rain eased and the drumming subsided. I lay there thumbing through back copies of Time magazine. 'SO FAR, SO GOOD,' said this week's cover. 'With candor and civility, Reagan and Gorbachev grapple for answers to the arms-race riddle.' Inside, I read about a bloke called Terry Waite who was flying to Beirut to try to free some hostages: 'An Anglican lay associate, Waite was drawn to the Church, he has said, for "its passionate coolness, its mixture of authority and freedom".' I made a mental note to remember that for next time I saw Frank. He was looking for a church; it sounded like this guy had it sorted.
It was all a bit happier than last week's cover: 'COLOMBIA'S MORTAL AGONY – A volcano unleashes its fury, leaving at least 20,000 dead or missing.'
Maybe Time alternated good weeks with bad; the issue before that one had 'HERE THEY COME' over a picture of Charles and Diana. The blissfully happy couple were on their way to Washington for a three-day visit. I could imagine the security frenzy.
The sound of punches and grunts took over from the drumming. A kit bag hanging from a tree outside the huts had been turned into a punch-bag, and Des Doom was giving it some serious stick. He was PVRing (taking premature voluntary release). It cost a couple of hundred pounds to break your contract, but then you were free to go. The trouble was, he'd only been in the Regiment four years, and had been taken off team jobs and sent to Belize for the whole duration of B Squadron's tour as a punishment. He was severely bitter and twisted about it, forever taking it out on the bag. I wondered whose face it was wearing today; he had a fair number to 'talk to'. They all suffered from NBPE – not being punched enough.
I didn't know what he was going to do when he got out; Des kept his cards close to his tattooed chest. But I was sure it would be as solid as a tank.
The only training facilities apart from the kit bag were some weights – a couple of catering-size baked-bean cans, filled with concrete, either end of an iron bar. After he'd made them the entertainments officer had obviously needed to catch some Zs.
Nish and Hillbilly were over the water. I'd had a letter from Hillbilly to tell me about a two-up, two-down in H that was going on the market after Christmas. The couple was splitting up. The male half of the relationship didn't know this just yet, but the female half had decided not to marry, so they'd be looking for a quick sale. Hillbilly was turning into one of Thatcher's golden children, often buying and selling property before it was even built. He would put down a deposit, and because new builds in Hereford were usually oversubscribed, he'd sell on his reservation to the highest bidder.
The owners of the two-up, two-down weren't the only ones going their separate ways. Nish had split with his wife and she had gone to Cheltenham with their son, Jason.
As a PS, Hillbilly said Nish had progressed from 'The House Of The Rising Sun' to 'Duelling Banjos' and it had been driving him deaf and mad. He'd banished Nish from the room they shared and made him practise in the sauna.
Harry was on a team job somewhere. He was thinking about getting out as well. He wanted to climb Everest, and the only way he could do that was to leave. Unlike other regiments, the SAS didn't grant their soldiers funds or time off for adventure training. It was particularly tough on Nine Troop guys, because they all got mountain lust sooner or later. Instead of pot plants and pictures, Harry's house was decorated with 1930s yoke-style ice crampons and old wooden skis. I couldn't make much sense of that. If I got some walls to hang things on, I'd go for something a bit more interesting than my old parachutes.
Des landed a final flurry of punches and the compound fell silent.
Guatemala had been making claims on Belize since the eighteenth century, and F Troop was part of the UK battle group stationed as a deterrent against incursions. There were four guys on aircraft crash standby with the Puma helicopter crew at any given time. The rest of us were out patrolling the border.
I craved that time away from the camp. Garrison life was boring, and neck-deep in bullshit. All there was to look forward to, apart from heaving the baked-bean tins, was tea and toast at 1100 in the sergeants' mess.
We went in four- or six-man patrols, dropped by helicopter, and spent ten to fourteen days on the look-out for Guatemalans.
The maps consisted of vast areas of closely packed contour lines, which were hills, covered in green, which was jungle. There were no proper roads, and very few tracks.
High humidity combined with sweltering heat meant that in theory there was a definite limit to how much kit a man could carry; the maximum should have been around 15 kg, but it could be much more. Mess tins were thrown away, because they were pretty useless things anyway. All that was needed was a metal mug, and a small non-stick frying pan, ideal for boiling rice in.
The most popular weapon to take into the jungle was the M16 or the M203 version that had a 40mm grenade launcher attached under the barrel. They rarely needed cleaning, so we didn't have to waste time and energy trying to keep our weapon in good condition.
One guy never used to touch his M16 at all, out of principle. He said, 'I know that it's going to work, I know that the weapon's reliable, so I don't need to clean it.' And the fact is, if you squeeze the trigger and it goes bang and a round comes out of the end, that's all you want.
I loved our contact with the locals – when it eventually happened. Every time we walked into a village near the border they would scatter. The Guats used to come over the river and steal their women at gunpoint, and to the villagers one set of jungle camouflage looked very much like another.
The kids didn't care if we were Guats or Brits: they just hoped we were there to give them something. They didn't understand us and we didn't understand them, but we had some good fun. The rest of the time they ran around between the huts, or on the small football pitch that was the pride of every village.
Some of these places were just starting to get generators, and visits from American Peace Corps volunteers. Like modernday missionaries, these fresh-faced twenty-year-olds were bringing in hygiene and preventive medicine, and the lot of the villagers was improving – or so the volunteers said.
The fact was they had lived like this for thousands of years. And now they had new illnesses, a new culture – and religion. The kids now wanted to wear Levi's and smoke American cigarettes instead of spending their lives surrounded by wallowing pigs and scrawny chickens. As soon as they were old enough, they left. You couldn't blame them, of course, but I sometimes wondered whether the price they paid was to have the soul sucked out of them.
There was a commotion in the corridor.
I'd have recognized that voice anywhere. Tiny had perfected his Snapper impression over the years. He'd come out for a few weeks to cover the changeovers.
He shoved his head round the door, pointed at my fat bandaged knee and laughed. 'I told you you'd hate this place. Some good news, though. Frank's on the Circuit.'
Frank must have thought the old guy with the white beard had sprung a miracle. If he'd gone without a job any longer, he'd have been forced behind the counter at McDonald's after all.
He'd been hired by one of the security companies to train up a protection team in Athens. The principal went by the name of Vardis Vardinoyannis.
'Richest man in the Aegean.' Tiny spread himself out on the bed opposite mine. 'Owns Motor Oil. Always under threat, always protected. Extremists have already dropped his brother.'
If Vardinoyannis was that much of a target, no wonder they'd snapped Frank up. He was one of the best shots the Regiment had ever produced.
He hadn't been doing himself many favours over the summer. He'd tried out all sorts of religious groups in his quest to find a replacement for Seven Troop. He even sang in a happy-clappy band in the shopping precinct on Saturday afternoons. Lots of the guys had seen him, and that sort of news travels fast. I supposed you couldn't fault a guy for praising the Lord in public with a smile and a couple of tambourines, but I wondered if he knew how much he might have been denting his prospects.
Tiny had made himself comfortable. 'Can you imagine him with the protection team? All those big black handlebar moustaches, and then suddenly up pops this little mop of ginger.'
The image made me smile, but it meant this Greek, or whoever was advising him, was pretty smart. Anyone planning a hit on the principal wouldn't pay much attention to Frank. The handlebar moustaches would draw their fire.
That's why female bodyguards were so highly valued. They simply don't look like part of the protection package. But she's not carrying the principal's sandwiches around in that briefcase: it's a Heckler & Koch MP5K that can be fired from the carrying handle; or maybe the whole briefcase is made of Kevlar as a ballistic shield.
BGs had to be pro-active, too, not just waiting for an attack but always anticipating one. What if a car rammed our vehicle a bit further down the road there? What if someone opened up from the crowd just feet away? You had to think like that otherwise you were the rabbit in headlights. The Seven Ps came into play with a vengeance.
Good VIP protection wasn't about a lot of heavies looking hard and picking their teeth with stilettos – that's just the show-business version. It was about the stuff you didn't see. It was about making sure that every detail of the principal's movements – where he was going to be, what he was going to do, when he was going to do it – was kept out of the public domain.
Family details, work locations, all that sort of information had to be kept tight. Vehicles had to be secured at all times so no devices – explosive or tracking – could be placed on them. Where did the post go to be checked and verified before it was handed to the principal? It wasn't just letter bombs they had to worry about: gases could be used in a postal attack. If the principal had a drink in a pub, the VIP protection team had to make sure that the glass came home with them, or was washed there and then; poisons could be designed to target a particular human using a sample of their DNA.
Everything had to be protected. If you missed one small component, your principal could be dead.
A businessman was targeted for months on end in Lebanon, but his security was excellent. He never went out without a team, and they always varied the route. The terrorists couldn't get near him, and the vantage-points from where they could see into his compound were too far away for a long-distance shot.
His PA lived outside the compound, in another part of the city. She drove to work in a Citroën 2CV and parked in the admin compound. Gent that he was, her boss came out every morning, regular as clockwork, and helped her inside with her briefcase.
One night, while the 2CV was parked outside her apartment, the players rigged it up with an IED. They trained binoculars on the compound from two kilometres away, and as soon as he went out to open the door for her they kicked it off. They were both killed instantly. All it had taken was just one chink in the armour.
Tiny propped himself up on one arm. 'You'll never guess what else. He got baptized in the Wye before he went away. Big marquee job on Bishop's Meadow.'
The river bisected Hereford. Bishop's Meadow was a park on its banks, with a shingle shore. Frank and his wife had literally taken the plunge. The church rigged up a big tent and turned it into a three-ring circus. Crowds came to see this baptism in the middle of town. Even Central Television was there.