Six weeks of X-rays, injections and physio later, the football around my knee joint deflated without the doctors having had a clue what had caused it. Maybe something had bitten me. There was a week or two more of bruising and creaking, but then I was back in business.
I was promoted to lance-corporal. The extra pay came just in time for me to be able to afford the house Hillbilly had told me about. It was a Westbury starter home: two gas fires on the ground floor, no central heating, and walls so thin I could hear my next-door neighbours flush the toilet. I didn't care: it was mine. Only a matter of time, I said to myself, before I fulfilled my boyhood dream of a place with an acre of land and its own moat.
Chris had already faded from the troop by the time I got back from Belize. By March I was running around Hereford, not doing much except training and wondering if Hillbilly had known that the previous owner of my house was about to walk away because he was shagging her, while the rest of the squadron was running around all over the planet on team jobs.
In June 1985, South African forces had carried out a raid on Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and twelve alleged ANC members were killed in their sleep. The South African government claimed that ANC guerrillas used it to launch attacks inside South Africa; there had been several mine blasts, which had killed white farmers near the border. The Botswanans said that they did their utmost to prevent ANC military activities inside its borders. They turned to the Brits for help, and I was told to learn Swahili.
I joined Eno, whom I'd met over the water, and about half a dozen others down at the education block each day. The course tutors were a mixture of guys from the Education Corps who were only four lessons or so ahead of us, and two Anglican missionaries who spent more time reminiscing about the good old days than they did teaching us the language.
I didn't mind: it was fun. And I was getting a second patrol skill. If I passed, I'd get extra pay. Every penny helped. The asking price on the house had been twenty-five grand, but the big-time negotiator from South London had haggled it down to twenty-four and a half. To save on bills I still hadn't had the gas reconnected, and boiled water for brews with a hexi burner in the stainless-steel sink. The kettle came from my room in the block.
My furniture consisted of a microwave, a telly, a small stereo, a chair, a bed, and a china ornament of a cat the previous owner had left on the mantelpiece. I didn't need a radio. The party wall became a speaker when my neighbours listened to Radio 4. I bunged all my washing in the laundry at camp, and survived on food from work or cartons of egg fried rice that I collected from the town in my ever-decaying Renault 5. For all that, I was happy. I'd become one of Thatcher's children.
Nish and Hillbilly were still over the water, but I was hearing strange things. Nish kept having run-ins with the head shed over there, and his wingman, Hillbilly, kept having to fend them off. Nobody was too sure what it was all about. Maybe it was Nish's incessant guitar playing. Maybe he and Hillbilly just didn't like the command structure. There were always problems in a troop made up of guys from different squadrons who hadn't grown together.
Things wouldn't have come to a head like that in Seven Troop. It was small; everybody knew each other; everybody had a voice. Every troop was like that, except the composite over the water. For whatever reason, it sounded like one of the operations people, the guy who was doing the equivalent of Minky's job at the time, had it in for Nish, and Nish wasn't exactly turning the other cheek. He'd been given a couple of chits as warnings: a third strike and he'd be out. I couldn't understand it. This wasn't like Nish. He was far too intelligent, articulate and funny to let himself get into those kinds of arguments. I hoped his wingman could sort it out.
I hadn't heard much about Frank now he was in Athens, so I was really pleased to bump into him again. I was halfway through the six-week Swahili course and wandering round with a fistful of vocab cue cards, mumbling away to myself like an idiot, when he shouted to me from the other side of the road. We landed up in the Grapes again.
Frank looked a lot better than he had last time, and insisted on buying. 'It's all right.' He tapped his jacket. 'I've got some drachmas left over.'
We chatted about various people he hadn't seen for a while, and the big topic of the moment, the nuclear reactor that had exploded at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Wales and the area round Hereford were thought to be vulnerable to fallout.
'You still on the Athens job?'
'That's all finished.' He handed the barmaid a tenner. Music blared. One or two other lads gave the Bible basher a nod of recognition. 'I had fun in Greece but it was time to go.'
I didn't ask why. The BG world was very fickle. You could get binned because the principal didn't fancy the smell of your aftershave. Or you had a job for life because he liked playing chess with you.
Frank didn't look at all worried. He had other things on his mind. 'Guess what happened while I was in Athens, though? I finally got to talk in tongues.'
'Oh, right . . . I didn't know you were trying.'
'Yeah, for months. I was going to the Pentecostal Church here, and failed dismally. I was beginning to think I was being punished for some sort of sin in my past.'
I shrugged. There were probably a few to choose from.
'Then all of a sudden one Sunday I opened my mouth and words I'd never heard before came spilling out.'
'I know that feeling.' I held up my cue cards.
'Not Swahili, you twat. I was speaking in tongues. I was talking to God.'
'That's all well and good, mate, but he ain't going to pay you for it. Why don't you give Terry Waite a call? Sounds like he could do with some close protection while he tries to get those Yanks out. And you could do the tongues stuff together, eh? You wouldn't even need an interpreter.'
I started doing a bad impression of a TV evangelist waving his arms at the sky.
It got a smile out of him. 'I don't think he'll be into tongues. He's an Anglican. But, anyway, I've got another job.'
He put his glass back on the bar. He'd seen the expression on my face. 'I was surprised they'd let a Bible basher back on the Circuit as well. It's with Ralph Halpern, the guy who runs the Burton chain.'
I wasn't sure who he was talking about, but Frank couldn't wait to fill me in. 'Britain's most highly paid executive. He's on a million a year plus.'
A radical splinter group of the PLO had issued threats against Europe's top Jewish businessmen, and Halpern didn't want to take any chances. Because no specific threat had been issued against him, he didn't qualify for Special Branch protection. He had to hire his own.
Frank looked smug. 'I was only going to be there for two weeks but they kept me on.'
The music was starting to bounce off the walls. Frank moved a bit closer. 'We're moving to Bobblestock. I'm a yuppie now. Earning good money. Company cars too – BMWs and Mercedes. Things are going great.'
Bobblestock was one of the new estates springing up around the town. Hillbilly probably held deposits on all of them.
'Good stuff. So, still no regrets about getting out?'
He took a bit too long to finish his pint, put down the glass and wipe his lips.
'Nope. Not one.'
The Swahili bit the dust for one reason or another, and we started our squadron build-up to take over the team, part of which meant being on standby as back-up for the troop over the water.
The landscape had changed over there. From 1976 to 1983, only nine PIRA players had been shot by the Regiment, but we were taking the war to them, these days, and they were standing their ground. They had plenty to fight with. Once they'd been starved of weapons and ammunition, but now they were awash with Armalites, Semtex, and even heavier stuff like RPGs, machine-guns and flame-throwers. The thank-you letters were being sent on a regular basis to other terrorist groups like the PLO, and rogue states such as Libya – as well as to thousands of naïve Americans.
The Yanks fell hook, line and sinker for the PIRA publicrelations machine's portrayal of the island as something akin to the 1950s John Wayne film The Quiet Man, with Black and Tans raping and pillaging the poor helpless locals on a fulltime basis. PIRA somehow managed to link their brand with shamrocks, leprechauns, fiddles and Guinness, and the dollars poured into the Noraid bucket like they were going out of style.
Even so, during a period when the 12,000 soldiers in the green army only dropped two PIRA players, the twenty-man troop had accounted for eighteen. Ken's choreography of the information war was reaping benefits, without a doubt.
One of the lads from A Squadron was getting married in Hereford and a lot of the others wanted to fly back for the stag night and wedding. I was one of six guys who volunteered to stand in. We flew over in a couple of Pumas, and as we came in to land at the back of the warehouse it felt a bit like coming home.
It wasn't difficult to find Nish. I followed the wavering electronic chords of 'Duelling Banjos' to the same old block, and found myself standing outside Al's room.
I hammered on the door and called Nish's name.
Several megawatts of amplifier fell silent, and were replaced by a very aggressive 'Fuck off!'
He hit another chord.
I banged on the door again. 'Nish, let me in.'
'Who the fuck is it?'
'It's me – Andy. Let me in, for fuck's sake.'
A key turned in the lock, but the door didn't open.
I let myself in to find Nish's room in its usual shit state, but what really worried me was the shit state of Nish. His eyes were glazed. He was in a rage. He looked almost possessed. There were dents in the plasterboard wall and his right hand was bleeding. Blood was smeared over the guitar.
He sat down on Al's old bed.
'What the fuck you doing, mate? You all right?'
He tipped a cigarette from the pack and placed it with difficulty between his fourth and little finger. His normal smoking fingers looked like a pair of freshly grilled sausages. He'd probably broken them on the wall.
'I suppose so. Just getting wound up by that cunt.'
The smell of sulphur caught in my nostrils as he managed to light a match. 'No, that fucking sergeant.' His hands shook with anger.
'He's had to go to TCG. That's why I've locked the door. Without Hillbilly standing in the way, I'm going to drop the cunt.'
Blood trickled down his hand as he smoked, first onto his wrist and then the dark blue duvet. Things had been going downhill. One of the sergeants was rumoured to be on accelerated promotion and that meant that as long as he didn't fuck up within the next few years he might even get a commission. It meant he was playing things by the book, and that wasn't good news for Nish. Nish didn't play things by the book.
'Why don't you just wind your neck in, mate? You've only got five weeks left of this tour.'
They'd had another run-in just before I arrived. Nish being Nish had taken the piss out of him in the briefing room. They'd started arguing, and Nish nearly dropped him. That explained the dents in the walls. Nish had adopted the Des Doom recipe for stress relief.
'Why don't you turn that guitar down a couple of decibels? He's going to come down and bollock you again, and it'll all kick off. You'll just drop yourself in the shit. You touch him, mate, and it's you that's fucked, no one else.'
He covered his face with his hands. Smoke leaked out between his bloodied fingers. 'I know, I know. Fucked up, isn't it?'
He lowered his hands and smiled.
That worried me most of all.
'You've got to calm down. Just a few weeks to go and you're back. Tell you what, I'll get some brews in, and you stop playing that fucking thing. You're shit at it, anyway.'
He nodded, but his eyes glazed over again as he lay back on Al's old bed.
I walked down the corridor to the Burco and saw the sergeant hovering outside the accommodation. He was waiting for the guitar to start up again.
I waved. 'All right, mate? I'm just fixing me and Nish a brew. You want one?'
I didn't know him; I just knew of him. I had no idea why he'd been picked out for accelerated promotion, and I didn't really care. All I cared about was Nish.
He hardly gave me a glance.
Hillbilly got back about an hour later. He took one look at the blood on the walls and turned on Nish. 'What the fuck have you been up to now?'
His hair was a bit longer, and he was wearing a black-leather bomber jacket, denim shirt and jeans, but otherwise he looked exactly the same. He gave me a nod as he sat down next to Nish. 'You've got to cool it, mate.'
A bit later, Hillbilly beckoned me into the corridor. 'Listen, I'm going to get the stupid fucker out for a drink. He's retreating deeper and deeper into himself in here. But I've got to stay with him. If he drops your man, he'll get RTU'd (returned to unit). You coming?'
All three of us went into the bar. It was Saturday night, and most of the lads who weren't at the nuptials had gone to see the Tasking and Coordinating Group crew. The sergeant was at a table in the corner. The place had been gentrified. They'd progressed from cans of Tennants to proper glasses, and there was even a draught tap. We ordered three lagers and stood at the bar munching peanuts. Nish lit cigarette after cigarette.
Nish looked calm, but he wasn't. Close up, I could see he was sparked up. He'd changed since Oman. And what was all the shit with using Al's room?
Hillbilly introduced me to the new game in town: 'not a pub crawl so much as a Republican crawl'. He and a few of the others had started going into Belfast and having a pint in the hard-line PIRA pubs – 'It has to be a pint, no halves, that's cheating' – and walking out. They had a list and were ticking them off one by one, like kids with an I-Spy book. 'We went into Andersonstown last week and had a couple. Nish here stood right next to First Battalion, didn't you, mate?'
The Belfast Brigade of the Provisional IRA covered the largest of the organization's command areas. Founded in 1969, along with the formation of the Provisional IRA, it was historically organized into three battalions: the 1st Battalion based in the Andersonstown/Lenadoon/Twinbrook area of west Belfast; the 2nd Battalion based in the Falls Road/ Clonard/Ballymurphy district of west Belfast; and the 3rd Battalion organized in nationalist enclaves in the north (Ardoyne, New Lodge, Ligoniel), south (the Markets/Lower Ormeau) and east (Short Strand) of the city. Hillbilly and co were playing a big boys' game.
Nish smoked and listened. 'Tell you what – we'll have a game of pool in a minute.'
'Yeah, good idea, mate, let's do that.' I emptied my glass. 'Mine's a pint. I'll go and set them up.'
The pool table was in the corner furthest away from Sergeant Fast-track and his cronies. As I set up the balls, I glanced back at the bar. Nish was taking his socks off. Hillbilly stared at me with a helpless look on his face.
Nish put his trainers back on and shoved his socks into his jeans pocket. The two of them came over and I flipped a coin. Hillbilly was going to kick off.
We finished what passed for a game, and Nish stubbed his cigarette out on the floor. He pulled one of the socks from his pocket, picked two balls off the table and pushed them down into the toe. His eyes were fixed on Sergeant Fast-track.
Hillbilly grabbed his cue and turned it horizontal to restrain him. He tried to push him behind a pillar and out of sight. 'Fucking calm down, mate – give us the balls. You're going to kill somebody with that. Calm down . . . Look at me . . .'
Nish didn't respond.
'Get Fuck-head out of here, and quick.'
I rattled over to Fast-track's table. 'I need some help. You've got to show me Jimmy's weapon rack . . .' I tried to sound like the keenest new arrival on the block. 'Come on, you've got to show me. Nobody's told me where the weapons are. Nobody's even told me where the ops car is. What happens if we get a call-out?'
He looked me calmly up and down. 'You're not on the standby team, are you? Otherwise you wouldn't be in here, would you?'
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Hillbilly still trying to get some sense into Nish.
'Oh, all right, for fuck's sake.'
He got up and off we went. He took me to the armoury under the briefing room, which I'd been to hundreds of times before. He showed me all the racks, we went through the protocol, and then he showed me the ops car.
I made all the right noises.
He went back to the bar and I headed straight for the accommodation block. Hillbilly had steered Nish home, and he was stretched out on his bed.
Hillbilly emerged into the corridor. 'He's got me really worried, you know. He specified this room – it was Al's, wasn't it?'
'That's Al's bed he's sleeping in.'
'All I can do is look after him, Andy, but it's no fucking picnic. We need to get him back to the squadron.'
I was driving past the armoury one evening about six weeks later when I spotted Nish. I'd heard he'd been back from the troop four or five days, but he hadn't shown his face at the squadron before he went back over the water to finish his tour.
I stopped the Renault and rolled down the window. 'Oi!'
He turned, but he wasn't wearing the kind of expression I'd hoped for now he was back.
He wandered over and hunched down beside my wreck, studying the wires hanging out of the dashboard before pulling the cigarette from his mouth. 'I've been stitched up. They're going to bin me.'
'No, mate. Not a chance.'
'They just have.'
The day he'd come back, he'd gone to the squadron office, but was told there was a problem. One of the intelligence officers over the water had sent a message that an unauthorized civilian had dropped Nish off at the warehouse.
'It wasn't even at the warehouse.' Nish took a lungful of smoke. 'It was way down in the main camp.'
He'd been given a week to write his defence before going in front of the CO. The week had ended today.
'You won't believe this. The woman concerned, the "unauthorized civilian", was with me at an RUC do. She's got clearance – she works for the RUC. She didn't even know I was in the Regiment. I told her I was a scaley.'
She'd offered to drive Nish back because it was pouring with rain. 'It wasn't a breach of security – she never went near the warehouse.'
I'd never seen Nish serious for more than five minutes. Now we were into double figures.
We all had our cover stories over the water, and they varied according to the circumstances. Maybe you'd been working at the airport or you had something to do with British Telecom. You always needed a feasible cover story to give you a reason to be where you were, whether it was at a roadblock near the border or having a drink in a bar. It didn't stop there. Every time you met someone new, man or woman, in a café, at a filling station, no matter what was happening, you'd run a P check on their name and car plate.
If they had any terrorist history, or any connections with players who had history, they would have been flagged and we would be told about it. We would also be told where they lived and worked, if they were married, if they had kids. P checks were not only meant to protect us. You never knew what might turn up. It could be the first step in the cultivation of a new source. Even if you hadn't talked to them, you filled in a Casual Contact Report.
'You don't have to justify it, mate. You're many things, but you're not stupid.' This just didn't smell right. 'What's going to happen? RTU?'
'Yep, for a year.'
That wasn't so bad. 'That'll be gone in no time.'
'Nah, I've binned it. I've PVR'd.' He smiled, and there was a glimmer of the old Nish, but it was just a veneer. 'I've never been particularly comfortable with authority figures, especially officers.'
'Don't know. I've always wanted to fly. Maybe—' His eyes shone. 'I've always wanted to beat the highest freefall record . . .'
The cigarette described an arc across the sky and he went into another world. 'Twenty miles high – that's three and a half times higher than Everest. It's a vacuum that high – no sound, right on the edge of space. I'd accelerate faster than the speed of sound before dumping the canopy. Fucking great.'
'Don't you need a space suit and a helping hand from NASA to get that high?'
Nish came back down to Earth for a moment. 'I'm going to dump my kit at Hillbilly's.' He stubbed out his cigarette and stood up. 'I've still got Jason's school fees to pay. I can't let him down. I'd better start thinking about getting a job, hadn't I? But, first, I'm going down town. You coming?'
I went, along with plenty of others. None of us could believe how he'd been dealt with. By the end of the evening, Nish was sitting in a depressed heap. It wasn't just the alcohol. 'I've fucked up, PVRing. Even driving out of the camp was a nightmare. That's me, I'm history.'
There was no way he'd go back and beg. Once you'd made that decision, you had to stick with it.
'You know what? I've even got a letter from the CO, congratulating me on the last couple of jobs. For all the fucking good that did me.'
Life went on – and I wasn't sure the sergeant ever knew how grateful he should have been for that. He'd had a narrow escape from Nish's sockful of spot balls.
Frank was still with Ralph Halpern, only he was Sir Ralph now. Nish was BGing for the comedian Jim Davidson. Hillbilly had introduced them and they'd become good mates after Jim had done a couple of shows for us at the Paludrin Club. The three of them were peas out of the same pod, working hard and playing even harder.
Jim had had a bad reputation in some quarters, but he'd always been there for the Regiment. He was one of the very few people who never asked for money when putting on a show for the military. Even the cost of going into operational areas came out of his own pocket. He was on the board of a number of army charities, and had personally raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for them.
For all that, he had a lot of ups and downs in his personal life, and I was never too sure who was looking after whom. But by the sound of it he and Nish were having a great time, and it seemed like Nish was getting back to his old self.
They were having a party at Hillbilly's one night, and Hillbilly had nipped into the bedroom with some girl while Nish guarded the door. Hillbilly's girlfriend walked up the stairs and asked where he was. Nish knocked loudly on the bathroom door. 'You in there, mate?'
Hillbilly jumped out of the first-floor window. The girl he'd been with climbed out, grabbed the drainpipe, and swung herself onto the next sill. She came out of the bathroom just as Hillbilly ambled up the stairs with two pints of milk he'd nicked off the neighbour's doorstep. 'Just popped down the garage for supplies . . .'
So, things seemed to be back to normal for the pair of them.
I was a sniper on the counter-terrorist (CT) team. We used the PN 7.62, with Lapua ammunition, handmade in Finland. The weapon of choice for close-range work was the Ticker, a .22-calibre three-burst rifle that had a suppressed barrel and gave accurate head shots at anything up to about sixty metres. The weapon got its name from the gentle ticking sound it made as the working parts slid into place when it was fired.
A burst of three .22 rounds into the head dropped the target like liquid – and at the same time, their small calibre meant they didn't pass through his skull and drop any Yankees standing behind him.
Every available bit of downtime was spent on the ranges with these weapons. We needed to be sure that when we took a rifle from its case after hours of travelling and bouncing about, we could place a round in the chamber, take a head shot from the standing position at 200 metres, and hit the centre of mass – which, on a Hun-head target, was the little circle on the nose. One round, one kill, that's what it was all about. Unless it was a Ticker, of course, in which case it was one burst, one kill.
Life on the team got even more interesting when I was called into the squadron office and told I was going away with RWW for a couple of weeks.
'Don't ask, just go.'
Hillbilly had been given the same message as soon as he came back from over the water. He told me it felt like all his Christmases had come at once, which pretty much summed up how I felt. I was still a junior, still a lance-corporal. RWW was way beyond my experience and skills.
With two guys from RWW – the 'Wing' – we set off in an Escort estate for Larkhill, the Royal Artillery camp on Salisbury Plain.
One of them was a Jock I'd come across a couple of times in the Lines. Andrew only spoke about three words a day, and when he did you could only understand him if you were close enough to watch his lips move under his sandy moustache. The accent was impenetrable.
'You're going to learn how to operate Blowpipe, the shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile system,' he announced, as he checked the road map, using up a week's word ration in one go. 'It's a heap of shit.'
You needed a degree in physics and the ability to process about ten different things at once. I'd never been good at the tapping-your-head-while-rubbing-your-stomach-and-hopping-up-and-down-on-one-leg trick when I was a kid, and deploying Blowpipe was like doing all that while using a type-writer and counting backwards from a hundred. Blindfolded.
Once you got the launcher on the shoulder, and it was a heavy bit of kit, you had to keep the sight picture on the target the whole time. That meant following it with the missile launcher on your shoulder. You'd kick off the missile, then have to guide it manually via a thumb joystick. In other words, a target could only be taken on when it was coming directly towards you or going away from you.
'We had them in the Falklands. Out of ninety-five fired, there was only one kill.' Andrew had a sudden burst of verbal diarrhoea. 'Blowpipe? A hosepipe would have done better.'
After two days of trying to master a weapon that was soon to be scrapped anyway, we switched to Stinger, the American equivalent. Not only was it lighter and easier to operate, but the electronics were far more sophisticated and the warhead deadlier. Its sensors locked onto the heat signature of the target; you fired it and off it went. The only vaguely complicated thing you had to do was a thing called super-elevation, to give the missile time to come out of its housing on its kick motor and drop a fraction before the main motor fired up and took it skyward.
Stinger was a brand new bit of kit at the time of the Falklands. In fact, it was the weapon's combat debut. British forces had been equipped with half a dozen of the things, but the only person who had received proper training on the system, an SAS trooper who was due to train other troops, was killed along with 21 others when the Sea King he was aboard crashed into the sea on 19 May. He was carrying all the Stinger training manuals at the time.
The Jock had first-hand experience of how good it was. A patrol from D Squadron, with Andrew in command, was on some high ground on the morning of 21 May as a squadron of Pucará attack aircraft screamed in to zap our ships. He had just a few seconds to read the instructions and fire. Luckily, the Americans always used cartoons in their instruction manuals, and despite missing the page about super-elevation, Andrew let one go and down came a Pucará. The pilot ejected safely and walked back to Goose Green, which was still in enemy hands at this time. The Argentines surrendered the next day without another one being fired. It wasn't for want of trying. After Andrew's bull's-eye everyone wanted a go, but nobody was familiar with the weapon's recharging procedure. Stinger's score for the conflict was therefore: Fired 1, Killed 1. Ninety-five times better than Blowpipe, then – and the same rate as a sniper should achieve.
I wish I'd been there. As I discovered later, Andrew always took his teeth out on jobs because they were so expensive he didn't want to lose them or get them smashed. And he always wore bright red braces under his combat gear. He must have hoped that if he was captured, everyone would assume he was Coco the Clown.
He was a good lad. Towards the end of the course I sometimes got as many as ten words in a row out of him. I eventually asked him what I was doing there.
'The Wing might need some help later on, and you've been recommended.'
I sat there feeling quite pleased with myself. 'Recommended? What's the job?'
Andrew sucked on his Embassy. 'If you're on it, you'll find out, won't you?'
Eventually I did.
Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the SIS and the CIA had begun covertly backing the Mujahideen with training and arms. The West didn't take too kindly to the idea of Soviet troops massed that close to the Gulf oilfields.
At first the training was basic and carried out in safe-houses in Pakistan, but by 1982 the SIS was infiltrating Afghanistan. Things went badly wrong, however, when one of our teams ran into an ambush. The Brits escaped and made their way back to Pakistan, but the items they left behind presented the Soviets with a massive propaganda coup. Passports and other incriminating documents were paraded at a press conference. Whitehall denied it had anything to do with them, and some lads suddenly PVR'd quite soon afterwards.
The Regiment got more heavily involved in Afghanistan when I was sitting in the Malaysian jungle after Selection. They helped the Mujahideen with their communications and control systems, but soon found they couldn't risk teaching them the 81mm mortar or heavy weapons. The Russians would descend the moment they heard them firing.
The solution was to bring Muhammad to the mountain. We'd round up about thirty at a time and get them out to Pakistan. Then we'd throw them on a C-130, and have a twoweek trip to one of the little islands off the west coast of Scotland.
The groups would spend a fortnight firing heavy weapons while chatting tactics on how to take down the Soviets' comms and how to hit their major command so it lowered morale. At the end of their stint in Andrew's back yard, we'd put them on the C-130 with a packed lunch and a can of Fanta, get them back into Pakistan, then over the border to put theory into practice.
Everything was going very nicely until the Russians deployed their Hind gunships. Basically an airborne artillery park, the Hind was the most formidable helicopter in existence. It turned the tide again. By the mid-eighties, the Americans were flapping big-time. The Kremlin needed to be taught a lesson.
Ronald Reagan suddenly hailed the Muj as freedom fighters, but the only way they could win this war was by making the Russians pay such an unacceptable manpower cost for the occupation that public opinion turned against them and the army started to rebel. Simply put, that meant killing and wounding as many Soviets as possible, and fucking up their infrastructure in any way we could. Just about anything was a legitimate target.
Before that could happen, the Hinds had to be eliminated.
The Stinger was the obvious solution. The trouble was, it was so good at knocking things out of the sky that the Americans suddenly got reluctant to let go of them. The risk of them falling into the wrong hands was just too high. So we were tasked with teaching the Muj how to use Blowpipe instead.
Unsurprisingly, after our sessions with Andrew at Larkhill, it wasn't long before we discovered that it really was a piece of shit. The sky was still full of Hinds. The Americans had to relent. They opened the toy cupboard and broke out the Stingers.
The training had to begin all over again. The west coast of Scotland reopened for Mujahideen short breaks and the C-130s resumed their shuttle service.
The kit started to filter into Afghanistan via covert convoys, but the shifty fuckers weren't using them. The Stingers were far too nice and shiny, and the Muj were saving them for a rainy day.
It was then that we had to get our hands dirty. We ambushed, attacked, blew up and killed anything that carried a hammer and sickle.
Inevitably, it was only a matter of time before the story broke that the Brits were supplying Stinger missiles and lads were in-country. The Soviets went ballistic, but the government was able to deny everything.
The Stingers did tilt the balance a little. We helped make Afghanistan the Russians' Vietnam. Eventually they'd had enough. One day, they just got in their tanks and their few remaining Hinds and crept out of town.
By now the Mujahideen had turned into really well-trained fighters. All they'd lacked in the beginning was battlefield organization. We had taught their junior commanders, the boys on the ground, how to deploy their lads a lot more effectively – and their weapons as well. They had learnt not only command and control, but how to plan and prepare operations, use explosives, and control the fire of heavy weapons and artillery to the best effect. One of the junior commanders who had passed through our hands was an Arab freedom fighter who'd come over to fight the Soviets in the name of Islam. His name was Osama bin Laden.
Some of the tactics used by the Taliban against NATO troops today are reassuringly familiar. If our guys are ambushed, they know exactly where the Tali cut-off and machine-guns will be placed – because it was we who taught them in the first place.
We withdrew soon after the Russians, and the Muj started kicking the shit out of each other again. Fifty thousand people were killed in Kabul alone during the civil war that followed.
The Taliban finally won in 1996, and they ran the shop until late 2001. Then, after 9/11, the USA came calling with a few thousand tonnes of bombs so the Northern Alliance could enter the city and take over for the US forces that were 'liberating' the country. And the show goes on.
Even today pallet loads of Stingers are unaccounted for. They could be lying in somebody's cave, still waiting for that rainy day, or they could be in Iran, being busily reverse-engineered. The US and UK governments are still shitting themselves about them, and with good reason. Atransport aircraft dropped with more than a hundred troops on board would make for the mother of all Prime Minister's Questions.
Nish was off to Buckingham Palace to receive the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his part in the target-replacement job that Al had volunteered for. At the same ceremony Al was to be posthumously awarded the MM, just two short of the VC.
I knew it would be a good day out for him. I'd been to Buck House myself to receive the MM when I was a Green Jacket. I felt pissed off with the Regiment, though, when I saw Nish back in camp being issued with No. 2s, best dress uniform. It felt like all of a sudden the head shed wanted him back for a day or two because there was something good on – or maybe they just didn't want him turning up in civilian clothes and the Queen asking him why.
Nish looked really happy to be back. In fact, he was radiant. He was starting to look like his old self again.
But as we chatted away in the team's crew room while he waited for his corporal's stripes and SAS wings to be sewn onto his No. 2s, the mask slipped. 'I've been out of the Regiment nearly four months and there hasn't been a single day I haven't regretted leaving. I miss you lads, and I miss the life.' At least he wasn't in denial like Frank still was.
He scuffed the ground with the toe of his plimsoll. 'Can't stop thinking about Al. If only I'd fronted Mac Giolla Bride, he'd be coming along to the Palace with me.'
'Mate, it's too late. As we've said all along, it's done. He's dead.'
A couple of days after the investiture, I was amazed to see Nish strolling around the camp with the CO like some sort of royal visitor. Guys were doing double-takes wherever the pair went.
I met up with him in the pub that night.
'I'm back in!' He beamed. 'God save the Queen!'
The invitation had said Nish could bring two guests to the Palace, and he'd invited his mother and his son, Jason, who was now eight. They took their seats and Nish took his in the line-up. He was last of about fifty.
'The Queen arrived dead on time and chatted to each of us for a minute as she gave us our award. It took an hour for her to get to me.
'She said, "Is your family here?"
'"Yes, ma'am, I've brought my mother and my son."
'"They must be very proud."
'She asked me about where we'd done the job; apparently she used to go fishing there as a child. She said she was sad that so much had changed. Then she asked, "What are you doing now?"
'I didn't want to say I was BGing a comedian, so said I was between jobs.
'"You're no longer in the army?"
'"Unfortunately, no, ma'am."
'"Are you intending to go back in?"
'"I seriously hope so, ma'am."
'According to my mother, we chatted for another five minutes – she timed it.
'Then the weird thing. As we were leaving, a group of senior head sheds came over and asked me why I'd left the Regiment.
I told them, and one of them said, "Well, do you want to go back in?"
'That was that, and I thought no more about it. Jim Davidson had arranged a big piss-up in Bristol with all the girls from his show. We got so hammered that when Hillbilly phoned I could hardly hear him.
'"What the fuck have you done now?" he was saying. "The RSM's trying to get hold of you."
'I said I'd call him tomorrow when I was sober, but Hillbilly said it had to be that night. The RSM had left me his home number!
'I phoned him and he said, "The CO's been speaking to me and he wants the answer to a question. Do you want to come back in?"
'"All right, come and see the CO tomorrow."'
He beamed again. 'The rest is history.'
'That's fantastic news, mate – when do you start? You coming on the team?'
The smile slipped. 'There's a catch. Story of my life – so near and yet so far. The deal is that I have to go to Twenty-four Troop for a year. If I do that, I can come back to Seven.'
Air Troop, G Squadron, was known as the Lonsdale Troop because all they wanted to do was fight each other. It seemed a small price to pay, considering he'd got into the swing of it over the water. The year would fly by. And maybe they'd move him sooner after a few hundred renditions of 'Duelling Banjos'.
I started doing the build-up for a team job with Hillbilly. Things started to feel as though they were back to normal.
'I won't miss the two-in-the-morning calls.' Hillbilly grinned. 'He used to phone and say, "This is Clarissa, say hello to Hillbilly. Oh, and who's this the other side of the bed? This is Fifi. Say hello to Hillbilly."'
Three months later I was sitting in the Paludrin Club having a pie and a mug of tea when in walked Andrew from the Wing. He motioned me over to a quiet corner.
'I've been offered a job on the outside.' The sandy moustache twitched as he rolled up some Golden Virginia. 'I'm looking for lads.'
'What is it?'
It had to be something to do with the Firm, the SIS. Andrew had been doing nothing but work for them for about the last three years.
'I can't say just now, but you interested?'
'Mate, I'm sorry – I've just been picked up and can't get out of it.'
'Where you going?'
14 Int, Walts, Dickheads, Operators, Spies, Men in Cars, Murderers, Assassins – the Det had many names, depending on who you were and which end of their weapons you were standing, and Eno and I were their newest recruits.
The job would last two years, and we had no say in the matter. We were going, and that was that.
Until 1972, information-gathering responsibilities in Northern Ireland had been split between MI5 and MI6. Both organizations worked to their own agenda, and the intelligence was piss-poor as a result. The army took the decision to set up its own secret intelligence-gathering unit, which was given the cover name '14th Intelligence Unit', or '14 Int' or the 'Det' (Detachment) for short.
Male and female recruits were taken from all three services and put through a course that lasted six months and covered techniques of covert surveillance, communications and agent-running. They were trained in part by the Regiment at a camp near Hereford, but that was where the connection with the Special Air Service started and finished.
To us they were Walts (Walter Mittys), and the Det was the last place any of us wanted to go. It wasn't that long since the Det had wanted a Regiment lad to go and hide in Dungannon, watching people go in and out of a betting office. The OP was compromised by kids and the lad got away, but the Det wanted him to go back the next day and do exactly the same thing. One of the officers of the Det was overheard saying, 'It doesn't really matter if he gets compromised because he's not one of us.' Ken heard about this and sorted it out in his usual persuasive manner.
Now two guys from each squadron were being approached to go, and most were saying no. In the end the CO called in all the squadrons to give us the good news. 'The Det is something that you will do. The skills that they've got, we must have back. We're starting to lose it, yet we're the ones that developed it. One way or another, we'll regain that skill. It's all part of becoming a complete soldier – we need complete soldiers.' You either loved him or hated him; there was no in-between.
There was a lot of bad feeling. A vigilante mob from D Squadron went around threatening anyone who put his hand up to volunteer. Eno and I kept ours down, so I was just a little concerned when I got approached by Andrew in the Naafi.
Just a few days before his job offer, Eno and I were called into the CO's office. 'You have two options,' the CO said. 'You either go over the water for two years, or you go nowhere. You volunteered for the Regiment, you volunteered for operations. This is an operation. If you're refusing to go on operations, you're not staying in the Regiment.'
The first person I bumped into on day one of the training package was Tiny. 'I'm on the training team.' He grinned. 'You can call me "Staff" and I'll call you "Walt".'
The instructors were a mixture of Regiment and people from the Det who were back from over the water for a couple of years.
Everybody was given an alternative identity, keeping the same initials and the same Christian name, and something similar to our real surname so we didn't forget it. Working under an alias, we'd always sign our name in a way that reminded us of what we were doing – perhaps it was a pen of a striking colour, or one that we kept in our right-hand breast pocket rather than the left.
We learnt the skills of covert entry to look for information, weapons and bomb-making equipment, and of leaving so that no one had any idea we'd been there. We would be working against players who were switched on. If we fucked up, everything would be compromised.
We learnt how to follow a man and his family for weeks to find out what their routines were, where they went, who they did what with, trying to establish a time when we could get into the house.
Did he go to a social club every Saturday night with his wife and kids? Maybe he got back, on average, at about midnight, so we had between eight and eleven to get in, do our business and get out. But that wasn't good enough. If it was July, it wouldn't get dark until half ten. So you might have to wait a couple of months or until he went away to visit his parents for the weekend or maybe took a week's holiday on the coast.
He had to be under surveillance all the time, to ensure that when he did go to the club with his wife and kids, his wife didn't leave early to put the kids to bed, or if they were on holiday, that they didn't come home early because the weather was crap or the kids were ill.
We had to learn how to use all sorts of cameras, including infra-red equipment that would enable us to photograph serial numbers and documents – and photographs. We had to take in Polaroid cameras as well, to take pictures of the tops of tables and desks, to make sure we left them exactly as we found them. We had to make sure we never left sign. If it was wet and muddy, we had to take our shoes off and put others on. We couldn't just run around in our socks. If the floors were tiled, the sweat on our feet might leave marks.
Our voice procedure on the net became very slick. We had to be able to give a complete running commentary without moving our lips. In Northern Ireland, somebody was always watching; you could never forget third-party awareness.
There had to be complete honesty on the ground. There wasn't any space for bullshit; if you fucked up, you had to put your hands up and say so straight away.
By the end of the course we could break into any kind of vehicle, house and building. There were no other operators anywhere in the world with the degree of knowledge that came from a combination of surveillance, technical attack, covert CTR (close target recce), and methods of planning and preparation, plus the skills we had already learnt in the Regiment.
I realized how fortunate I was to be a 'complete soldier', and I could see now that those who'd volunteered to do this initially were the enlightened ones – and that had to include the CO. I was able to do all the kinetic stuff with guns and explosives, but now I could also stand back and become the grey man, gathering information, making appreciations, planning and preparing covert operations. After all, the most effective weapon in any war is information. It's not the guns: they're just useless lumps of metal unless you know where to get in, and how, and can point them at the correct target.
By the time Eno and I got on the ground in Derry, the second largest city in the Province, the pair of us looked and acted like locals. I even had the Kevin Keegan perm that was all the rage. To be fair to the others on the course, we'd had a head start. We'd both been raised on London housing estates, and neither of us was shy about gobbing off.
I was now a full corporal in the Regiment, and loving every minute of my job. I liked nothing more than spending an evening breaking into players' houses, or roaming the streets looking for targets. And, unbelievably, I was being paid for it.
The whole purpose of the Det was to gather information about terrorist active service units, their weapons, hides and known associates, so we could pre-empt attacks, make arrests, and save innocent lives. This was done in a wide variety of ways, from putting OPs on their hides and following the players who used them, to planting surveillance devices inside the weapons they'd cached and letting them take them away.
'Jarking', the planting of miniature transmitters inside weapons and equipment, more correctly known as 'technical attack', had started in the late seventies. The idea was that the devices would be activated when the weapon was picked up, and the terrorists' movements could then be monitored. By the time we were on the Det, more sophisticated devices had been developed, which not only allowed the location of the weapon to be tracked but also acted as microphones, enabling us to listen to PIRA conversations.
It was inevitable, of course, that PIRA would discover its weapons were being jarked, no matter how clever we were at disguising our work. These people weren't idiots: they had scanning devices. We were all playing the same game: they knew that the weapons were being tampered with, they knew that their buildings were bugged. They would use countermeasures, which we would try to counter-counter.
Another important part of the job was the identification of potential sources. A player might have younger brothers or, better still, older sisters. The women were more emotionally intelligent, and often desperate to do something that would help their brother. Sometimes we could be close enough on OPs to listen to sisters begging their brothers to stop before they got killed. We could then work with them, explaining that we might be able to protect their family member if they told us what he was up to.
I felt quite comfortable wandering our patch, but it took me a long time to find out why I got so many nods from the Strabane locals. It was bandit country down there near the border, with more weapons than Dodge City. A couple of PIRA lads had been zapped just before we arrived, and tensions were high.
We had to break into a particular player's garage, but the area was well lit and overlooked by houses. We'd have to be on-target for at least thirty minutes if we tried to defeat the locks, so the only answer was to copy his keys.
The RUC set up a vehicle checkpoint on the road he took to work. These mobile patrols were a regular occurrence around the city. They operated plate checks for twenty minutes or so, then moved on to do the same thing somewhere else. They ran an everyday P check, and of course he came up as a known player. He was pulled to the side and taken for questioning while his car was searched. When the keys came through, we'd have just a few minutes to take impressions before he got suspicious. In any event, we'd have to do the break-in within a couple of days. Nine times out of ten, as soon as a player had been separated from his keys even for a few minutes, he'd change all his locks. As I said, they weren't stupid.
I caught a glimpse of the guy while he was being searched, and I couldn't believe it. Maybe I was an Irishman . . . I certainly had one as my identical twin brother.
We needed to coerce a high-ranking player into becoming a source. He had close links to Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA – or Sinn Féin IRA, as the Protestants liked to call them. If you'd broken this boy in half you'd have found the tricolour running through him, like 'Blackpool' through a stick of rock.
The player was high profile and well connected, so the decision was made to stitch him up and use him. By now I was a team leader. We placed surveillance on him for a month. We found out who he met, who he telephoned, what they talked about, what he liked to eat, where his wife had her hair done. None of it revealed anything useful.
They were squeaky clean. Not even a private video of him and his wife playing doctors and nurses. He regularly attended Sinn Féin meetings, rallies and lectures, but they were all perfectly legal. What would have been nice was evidence of a massive overdraft because he was addicted to drugs, gambling or hookers. There was none of that, so we had to get creative.
Northern Ireland was, and still is, a deeply conservative place – no matter what side of the religious divide you're from. To be outed as homosexual would have been bad enough, but as one with a fondness for underage rent-boys? A social nightmare – and illegal. They would have marched down to his house and burnt him out.
The plan was simple. We'd go into the house and plant something compromising when the opportunity presented itself.
It was two weeks before he took his wife to a Saturdaynight fundraiser in Strabane. We'd made duplicate keys on the last visit. Another team kept a trigger on them for the night, and our earpieces buzzed as we listened to the news of how many sugars she was having in her tea and how long it took him to have a piss. By the time we left, the evidence was tucked away among his union magazines and volumes of Irish history, and we'd arranged his subscription to a specialist magazine published in Amsterdam.
The following morning, my team were on the ground in our cars, ready to take him. An RUC mobile patrol of two armoured Land Rovers was also standing by, with a couple of guys from TCG in the back. They were going to set up a vehicle checkpoint on the road ahead, once we'd worked out which way he was going.
An RUC and army search team was on stand-by in the security force base at the other side of the river. A rifle company would move in and cordon off the area while the rest of the guys conducted house-to-house searches. To keep it authentic, these lads would have no idea what they were looking for, but they were thorough. They'd find the gay porn under the marital bed and we'd tip off a journalist or two.
We had no idea where the target was going as we followed him but the lads in the Land Rovers were listening in, and the vehicle checkpoint was in position. He got pulled, and his car was searched; so far, standard stuff. He was then shoved into the back of one of the Land Rovers. I could only imagine his shock at seeing the two TCG lads sitting there in jeans and T-shirts. I wished we'd had cameras as well as microphones.
We were parked outside a Spar shop four hundred metres away, waiting to hear him accept defeat. The pitch was simple: you come over and start working for us, or by the end of the day you'll have been exposed as a gay-sex pervert. Just think about all the problems you'll have with Sinn Féin, the IRA and the unions, let alone your wife and family: you're going to be fucked.
The pitch was hard, yet sympathetic. We wanted to be able to work with this guy. He listened to it all, and then he said: 'Go ahead, I don't care. Everyone will know it's not true. And in any event I'd rather be known as a gay pervert than say one word against what I believe. I'll tell everyone what you've done today, and they'll side with me because I'm true to the cause. So go on, let's see who comes out on top.'
I couldn't tell if he was bluffing; it certainly didn't sound like it. But it didn't matter: he'd won.
He was released, and no searches were carried out. He probably went straight home and found the planted evidence himself. The job was a complete failure, but none of us minded. The guy had to be admired. There wasn't even a hint of treachery about him. And despite all the information we got from sources that did save lives, they still gave me a bad taste in my mouth. No matter what side you're on, no one likes a traitor.
Hillbilly called a few days later. He was going away with RWW (revolutionary warfare wing) on a fastball. There wasn't even time to pack. He didn't know how long he'd be out of circulation. 'Keep tabs on Big Nose for me, will you? Look's like he's getting stitched up again. The CO's not letting him come back to Seven Troop.'
We had information that some weapons were going to be taken to a house in the Bogside. Two players would come and collect them for a shoot on British soldiers.
It was nearly last light. Eno was in an Astra up on the high ground of the Creggan. The brown-brick terraces were gloomy and depressing. The smashed street-lights and abandoned cars added to the effect. There wasn't a blade of grass to be seen, just patches of churned-up mud. The sky was shrouded by coal smoke belching from every chimney. After a night fucking about here you could smell it on your clothes.
The weapons had been jarked and he was waiting for a beep. I was backing about four hundred metres away – out of range of the jarks but close enough to give support.
It was raining. The locals had their heads down against the wind. The estate was on the high ground of the city and a strong one always rattled through.
I sat low in my Fiesta. My feet were blocks of ice. My hands were tucked under my thighs. My head was freezing too, but at least my Kevin Keegan mullet kept my neck warm.
The fingers of my right hand were wrapped round a pistol. The Creggan and Bogside estates had been Catholic strongholds for centuries. The Bogside used to be exactly that, a bog. The Catholics camped there during the siege of Derry in 1689, then moved up here, to the Creggan, to get out of the shit.
Three weeks ago, a soldier in cover on the corner of the street just ten metres from where I was sitting had taken a round in the head. The street painters had already been out and filled the street corner with a picture of a PIRA sniper firing from the kneeling position. Brits come up here if you dare – but don't expect to go back down.
'Stand by, stand by. They're moving.'
The beeps had gone off in Eno's earpiece.
This wasn't the time to jump up and start moving, but to check no one was looking or passing by before I turned on the engine and rolled out.
Eno followed the signal down the hill towards the Bogside, just a hundred metres from the old city wall. I backed him as he soon found himself behind a blue Escort, two-up. The P check came back clean.
They drove into Cable Street, on the edge of the estate.
Eno pulled in. He'd done his bit. The Bogside was closed to vehicles; this was probably as near as they could get to the drop-off.
'Stop, stop, stop. Just past the Sinn Féin office, on the left. Passenger door open, lights still on.'
I was already parking my Fiesta and dumping my car pistol under the driver's seat as the Escort turned into Cable Street. It was blocked off at the other end to protect the Sinn Féin office from drive-by shootings. As casually as possible, I locked my car and started walking towards Cable Street.
I could see Eno's Astra parked up in front of me, next to the massive murals commemorating the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981, alongside freedom fighters with their raised fists clenched around M16s. They were probably painted by the same guys who'd just been busy up in the Creggan.
Eno was keeping the trigger on the Escort, so I had a running commentary from him on what was happening round the corner.
'Big sail bag being taken out the boot. Engine still on, driver still complete. That's the bag out, wait . . . wait. Closing boot . . . boot closed. Bravo One's foxtrot towards the estate. Black leather on jeans. He's aware.'
I turned and saw the bag-carrier check behind him before disappearing into the warren of the 1960s housing estate.
'Delta has Bravo One. Temporary unsighted.'
The Escort backed out of Cable Street and Eno was on the net telling the desk. The car wasn't important now. The sail bag was.
The Bogside's architect, if there was one, must either have been a fan of scary movies or high on LSD. It was a maze of two- and three-storey tenements interconnected by dark alleyways. Some alleys led to others; some just came to a dead end.
I kept telling myself I belonged there. You must always have a reason to be where you are. If you don't feel it emotionally, you don't look as if you feel it physically.
I had well and truly bedded in. I was a local. I didn't have a shave until Friday night. I wore market jeans and cheap trainers.
It was getting dark. The few street-lights that still worked flickered on. Kids shouted and screamed as they chased a football through the puddles. Scabby dogs skulked in doorways. I passed a corner shop, an old freight container with a heavily padlocked door.
The kids stopped playing football and stared. Children as young as five or six got paid as dickers.
I'm going to see a mate, that's why I'm here.
They didn't know who I was. They wouldn't be thinking: there's a Special Forces soldier or a Det operator. They'd just be thinking: Who the fock's he? Has he come down from the Shantello or Creggan? Or has he come over from one of the Protestant estates the other side of the river – is he here to shoot someone? They looked as nervous as I felt.
I bluffed it. I stared them out.
Who the fuck are you looking at?
I had my hands in the pockets of my parka. One thumb was on the pressle of my comms set.
'Bravo One still temporary unsighted, checking.'
It wasn't a problem. I would also hear the bleeps once I was in range. I wanted to find the weapons, not the player.
I didn't know what time it was. I wasn't wearing a watch, in case someone came up and asked for the time. With an empty wrist, you could just shrug and keep moving.
Eno wouldn't leave the car. He was backing me now: he might need to ram it through a barrier to come and get me out.
I came into some sort of square. I got a faint signal. Adults were looking at me as well now. Faces were pressed against the glass in one or two kitchens, trying to see through the condensation.
The whole of Derry was made up of tribes. Those faces didn't know me, and this was a war zone. Just about anything that was unknown and moved could be a threat.
I looked right back and stared them out.
Who are you looking at? Get back to boiling your cabbage.
I still had a faint signal. It got stronger as I walked.
A couple of male voices had materialized behind me. I wasn't turning back to look. Why should I?
I kept walking. If they challenged me, I'd front it out. My accent was just passable in short bursts. But why should they challenge me? My mate lived on this estate. There was no hesitation in my stride – I made sure of that. After all, I had every right to be here. I knew where I was going. I turned left down the next alley to see if they carried on following.
Shit, dead end.
No way could I just turn round and come out again. It would look unnatural. I'd seemed to know where I was going, so why would I suddenly get it wrong, unless I didn't know?
The mumbling voices stopped at the mouth of the alley. The fuckers were checking me out.
Think: you have to have a reason to be here!
I faced the wall of the dead end. The ground was littered with dog shit, old Coke cans and a burnt mattress.
The voices still murmured to each other. It was easy enough to guess the conversation. 'What the fuck's he doing down there? What's going on?'
I unzipped my jeans and went to take a piss, but it wasn't happening. I started counting. How long does a piss take?
Eno was in my ear. 'Delta, radio check. Delta, radio check.' He hadn't heard from me. He was readying himself – did he come in on foot, or stay in the car?
One hand still on my cock, I double-clicked the pressle with the other.
'Roger that – you're all right.'
I wasn't all right. I didn't know if I had a drama here or not. I had a weapon, but if I had to shoot these guys it was a long way back to the car. There just weren't enough rounds in the magazine to deal with the opposition that would pour out of every doorway.
It was all going on behind me, and I couldn't turn round to see. If I did that, it really would kick off.
'Have you got a mayday?'
A mayday signified something less drastic than a contact. There was a problem, but it didn't mean you were going to draw down and give away your cover.
I double-clicked. It was a possible mayday.
'Roger that. You still got the trigger?'
I could just hear the beeps in my ear.
'Roger that. You want me foxtrot?'
'Roger that. Do you want me standing by in the car?'
'Roger that. Engine on.'
The lads were still behind me. They weren't going to come down the alleyway, but that didn't make me feel any better. It was still the fear of the unknown, of not being able to look behind and see the scale of my problem. It scared me more than anything else I had experienced. It was all to do with not having control.
Thirty seconds had passed. I zipped up and turned. The guys had gone. I walked to the end of the alley. The only people in sight were kids on rusty old bikes.
I turned left to carry on with the job and was soon walking past the player. He was empty-handed and heading out of the estate.
As the cabbage-cookers checked me out and kids threw cans at the dogs, the signal got stronger.
Eno did the talking for me. 'Stand by, stand by. You have the bleeps.'
I carried on walking. I exited on the other side of the estate and followed the back-streets to my Fiesta.
I mumbled, 'I've got thirty-one, thirty-three, thirty-five . . .'
Job done. The weapons were in one of those houses. We both had to lift-off now because we'd been exposed. Other lads would already be on their way in to get a trigger.
For our contribution, Eno and I were awarded a medal. The investiture was formal, of course, but I didn't have any trousers. We were just running round in jeans and trainers. I certainly didn't have a tie, and there wasn't any time to buy anything.
I turned up to the ceremony in a borrowed pair of thickserge RUC uniform trousers, a pink casual shirt and an RUC clip tie. At least my shoes were clean. I spent an hour polishing them, something I hadn't done since battalion days.
It was only on my way there that I realized I hadn't had a shave. It didn't really matter. It wasn't as if the Queen was going to do the presentation. That honour fell to the guy in charge of the Det. And it wasn't as if they were real medals. Eno and I had both won the Army Spy, Class 1. It was cardboard wrapped in silver foil, tarted up with a bit of ribbon and a cartoon of a sleuth with a magnifying-glass.
It was a great night, with something to eat and a couple of beers in the Det. Funnily enough, I felt just as proud as I had when I'd got my MM from the Queen – possibly more so. I was getting this one from my peers, even if they were Walts. None of our work was ever attributed to us. There might have been a passing mention of a bomb factory in the local paper, or some assault rifles being unearthed in the Bogside during a routine army search, but nothing, of course, about the three months of undercover work that had gone into tracing the ASU, sourcing their equipment, finding where it was all collated, and where it was moved for assembly – which could be anywhere from a derelict warehouse to somebody's garden shed.
No mention of the army then being given a tip-off and told to search a whole row of houses.
20 March 1988
I sat in front of a TV with the rest of the Det, watching helicopter footage of an IRA funeral that had taken place in Belfast the day before. The eye in the sky had fantastic optics. It was there so we could identify every mourner without risking anyone on the ground.
Caoimhin MacBradaigh had been killed three days before by an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) gunman in Milltown cemetery as the three-member ASU slotted by the Regiment in Gibraltar were being buried. Michael Stone had gone in there with a pistol and hand grenades, killed three people and injured sixty others. He was chased to the motorway and beaten up by the crowd, then rescued and arrested by the police. Catholic Belfast was inflamed.
The FLIR (forward-looking infra-red) footage showed us a grey-scale screen with a bird's-eye view of MacBradaigh's procession. Hundreds of mourners crammed the narrow streets.
Then, inexplicably, a silver VW Passat headed straight towards the cortège. It drove past the Sinn Féin stewards, who tried to direct it out of the way. Instead of just turning, the Passat then mounted the pavement and turned down a side road. The camera operator stayed with it. Was it another Michael Stone-style attack by the UDA?
The side road was a dead end. The Passat turned around, but by the time it got back onto the main road that, too, was blocked by taxis.
It tried to reverse, and was then swamped by bodies. In full view of the world's TV cameras they jumped all over the vehicle, rocking it and smashing the windscreen.
The driver tried to climb out of his window as more black taxis moved to box him in. He fired a shot into the air and the crowd fell back. But only for a moment. The hard core surged again, armed with wheel braces and anything else they could grab. One of them wrenched a stepladder from a photographer and rammed it through the windscreen.
Two men were eventually pulled from the car, punched, kicked, and dragged into a nearby sports ground where they were stripped and searched.
The poor bastards were then thrown over a wall and shoved into the back of a black cab. The jubilant driver waved a fist in the air.
They were driven to Penny Lane, off the Andersonstown Road. Two PIRA stabbed them in the back of the neck before executing them with shots to the head and chest.
As PIRA scattered, a priest appeared. The image of him administering the last rites to the naked and mutilated bodies was to become one of the most enduring of the war.
Only a handful of us in the room knew that the priest, Alex Reid, was already deeply involved in peace negotiations secretly taking place between Downing Street and Sinn Féin.
From start to finish, the incident had lasted no more than twenty minutes, but we all knew we'd never forget it. The dead men weren't UDA coming in for the attack. They were two army signallers: Derek Wood, who was twenty-four, and David Howes, who was twenty-three.
Later that day, PIRA issued a statement saying that the Belfast Brigade IRA claimed responsibility for the execution in Andersonstown of two members of the SAS, who had launched an attack on the funeral cortège of their 'comrade volunteer, Kevin Brady' (the English spelling of Caoimhin MacBradaigh).
I knew them, but they weren't SAS, and they weren't Det operators. They were signallers at Headquarters Northern Ireland. Wood should have been taking the new lad, Howes, to a security base in North Howard Street to show him a communications transmitter, which he would be servicing for the next couple of years. Howes had just been posted from Germany to take over from Wood, who was almost at the end his tour.
The two corporals should never have been anywhere near the funeral. Support guys were supposed to stick to defined, constantly changing routes. Wood would have been told, 'Today, the red route.' And that was the route they should have taken.
I never understood why they ended up in that street. They would have known the funeral was taking place. Everyone did. There was a strong sense of tension and anticipation in the area. It was out of bounds to everyone, even the green army. Maybe they just got lost.
They didn't know how to handle themselves when things went wrong. That wasn't their job. They were technicians. And even if they had been SAS, sheer weight of numbers would still have overwhelmed them. The only difference would have been that instead of only one round being fired from a thirteen-round mag – and into the air, at that – there would have been thirteen dead men lying on each side of the car before they got lifted.
Harry Maguire and Alex Murphy were convicted of the murders and sentenced to life. There was a sad postscript. It emerged during the trial that if PIRA hadn't been so illiterate, there was an outside chance Wood and Howes might have been spared. Howes's ID card said he was based in Herfod. Herfod wasn't Hereford: it was a British military garrison in West Germany.
In 1998 Murphy and Maguire were freed as part of the Good Friday agreement, after serving just nine years.
Twenty-four Troop didn't work out for Nish. The CO went back on his promise to let him come back to us after twelve months, so he quit the Regiment and went on the Circuit. He'd just got back from Rio, where he'd been standing in for someone on a BG job, so I needed to be in Hereford. I'd promised Hillbilly I'd keep an eye.
I was called back from Derry to the warehouse, where Minky was waiting with a brew in the crew room. 'They roped you in as a Walt as well?'
I went across to the Burco and fixed myself one. 'Where's Eno?'
'Still out, mate.' There was still no smile, still no acid reply about him only becoming a Walt over everyone else's dead body.
Something bad had happened.
'No, mate. Hillbilly.'
My first thought was that somebody should go and tell Nish. I really didn't want to do it over the phone.
The fastball made sense now. The Khmer Rouge had driven several million Cambodians, desperate to escape the killing fields, across the border into Thailand. The enormous refugee camps that had sprung up were a huge financial drain on the Thais, and an even bigger source of social unrest. The only way they could get the refugees to return to Cambodia was to replace the Khmer Rouge.
Ordinarily the world's policemen would have stepped in, but the CIA and their associates were finding it almost impossible to obtain political clearance for black operations, these days. The new Freedom of Information Act made it harder to keep the skeletons in the cupboard, and American public opinion wouldn't have stood for planes laden with body bags coming back from South East Asia all over again. They offered the Thais money and intelligence, but no other support.
That was where we came in.
They could have helped the Thais launch a conventional attack, but that would have risked a very expensive and openended commitment. It might also have provoked a reaction from the Vietnamese, who had their own Cambodian agenda. They had invaded in 1979 and installed their regime in Phnom Penh, but most of the rest of the country was still in Khmer Rouge hands.
A secret training camp was set up near the border, and over the next few months Hillbilly and a number of others flew out to Bangkok, met with the Cambodians, then went forth to generate mayhem.
The operation led to the Khmer Rouge's very first military defeat. Whitehall was able to 'maintain the UK's interests overseas' and the Cambodians were able to build on that success; by September 1989 they had forced the Vietnamese to withdraw. That, with the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in February of the same year, signalled the end of the Cold War.
Minky went to give Eno the bad news and I finally made contact with Nish. I hadn't heard him so upset since the night Al was killed.
'I knew he was due back in the next couple of days . . .' His voice cracked. 'I just left a message on his answering-machine to give me a shout as soon as he got in.'
His breathing became more laboured. I pictured him gripping the phone in one hand and a fistful of cigarettes in the other.
I didn't know how Hillbilly had died, or even where. The official version was that he had been found in his hotel room.
Nish was none the wiser. 'All the squadron would say is that he was on a team job and had a heart-attack. But I ain't buying it.'
Nor was I. Heart-attack? The boy didn't do drugs or steroids, and was mega-fit.
'You all right, mate?'
He wasn't crying, but he was close. 'Yeah, fine.'
We never did find out how Hillbilly died, and I suppose we never will. I'm certain about one thing, though: it doesn't take six weeks to get a guy's body back to the UK if he's died of a heart-attack in a hotel room.
Eno and I had a can or two the next day. I muttered Frank's line about the tiger and the sheep. That was about all we could do. We couldn't even go to the funeral in Hereford when Hillbilly's body eventually came home because we were still on operations.
Nish managed to pick himself up, and headed off to Swaziland with Harry. They'd joined a task force of ex-Regiment and Intelligence Corps guys set up to combat the rhino and elephant poachers. They identified the dealers, unmasked corrupt officials and trained the anti-poacher units. When Harry asked if he was up for the job, he jumped at it. It was right up his street, and I guess it helped to fill the vacuum left by Hillbilly's death.
Schwepsy was also out and about. He was well established on the Circuit, which meant that not too many days would go by without somebody somewhere being called an 'orrible little man.
Des was finally allowed to get out after the Belize punch-bag disintegrated and there was nothing left to pummel. He and his family were in Washington DC. He was BGing Saad Hariri, the son of the man being tipped as Lebanon's next prime minister.
Saad was in his early twenties and went to Georgetown University. The family didn't like high-profile security. They wanted close protection, but subtly provided – a Regiment speciality. Des could look good in a Turkish brothel or the White House, as long as he kept his tattoos under wraps. They'd scare the shit out of the First Lady.
Frank wrote me a letter while I was still over the water to say he was praying for Hillbilly and he was as glad as I was that Nish wasn't on his own. Sir Ralph Halpern had been in the limelight: we'd all been reading the red tops and loving every minute. 'Five Times a Knight', as he was now known, had been catapulted from the financial section onto the front page after his girlfriend, Fiona Wright, had sold her kiss-and-tell memoirs. I'd asked Frank for the low-down, but he wasn't telling.
He said life was really good. He was working a week on, a week off, and still driving flash company cars. He'd joined the congregation of All Souls at Langham Place, and was no longer doing the happy-clappy thing. My Terry Waite joke had led him to the Anglican Church, and he wanted to become a minister.
I couldn't imagine Frank in a dog collar. He still only ever wore Rohan trousers, a checked flannelette shirt, and a knitted tie.
'Why the tie, Frank?'
'Because when I buy a train ticket people treat me differently.'
You had to be happy for him. Like Des, he was living his dream.
The letter ended with an invitation. Frank, ever the optimist, wondered if I'd like to come to his ordination, whenever that was going to be.
None of the troop I'd first met in Malaysia was still around. They'd all been killed, had got out, or were away on long-term jobs. After training the Det, Tiny had disappeared onto Planet Spook. Chris had gone to the Wing, then back over the water to run the troop.
Saddlebags had become an instructor, running Selection. Same as anywhere else, once you'd gone, you'd gone. The new faces took over.
The day after I got back from Northern Ireland, a team of us were scrambled to Cyprus. Terry Waite's little trips to Beirut hadn't quite worked out the way he'd hoped. He'd been chained to a radiator for two years and it looked like we'd have to go in and unfasten him. The plan was a smash-and-grab: the helicopter pilots were giving us fifteen minutes on the ground to shoot our way in, do the business, and bundle him aboard. In the end, we had more stand-tos than brews as we hung around in an RAF hangar, and were finally sent home. Maybe it suited the powers-that-be to leave him where he was.
I was glad Frank hadn't taken my advice and asked Waite for a job: he might have ended up sharing a radiator.
I hadn't seen much of the Ginger One. While I'd been over the water, he'd been all over the shop. He'd fallen out with Sir Ralph and moved on to Mohamed Al Fayed. But Sir Ralph still owed him a bonus. Bizarrely, he had an opportunity to confront him about it while he was on the Al Fayed team. The Burton boss was in his gym, having swapped Fiona for a running machine. Frank went at him like a righteous terrier and chewed him into submission. He got his cash. If he ever did become a minister, I pitied his parishioners. When he brought out that collection plate, they'd be handing over their houses.
I got back from Derry a 'complete soldier', finished a threemonth demolitions course, and was then sent to learn Spanish. At least I knew why this time. A new team job had been running in Colombia for the last six months. G Squadron were there at the moment, and two B Squadron troops were set to take over.
The cocaine trade alone was worth twenty billion dollars more than the combined wealth of McDonald's, Microsoft and Kellogg's. The coca leaf grew like a weed all over the Andes, but Colombia was where it all came together. You only had to look at a map to see why. It joined Central America to South America and had hundreds of small airfields and harbours within reach of both the eastern and the western seaboard of the USA.
Colombia was one big coca warehouse, and its thousands of square miles of rainforest were peppered with primitive drug-manufacturing plants (DMPs) where the leaves were processed into paste and then white powder. They were thrown up from bits of wood and palm, and easy to camouflage.
The Medellín and Cali cartels were awash with money. At one stage, Pablo Escobar, the leader of the world's most powerful drugs cartel, offered to pay off the country's national debt if the Colombian government just left him alone. Their private armies had every weapon on the planet: heavy weapons, RPGs, heavy machine-guns, ground-to-air missiles and helicopters. Cubans and former Israeli Special Forces trained them. There were fire fights at every level of the drug business, from dealers on the streets to pitched battles against the anti-narcotics police or security forces. In Colombia, the drugs war really was a war.
With twenty thousand drug-related murders a year, it had become the most dangerous place on earth. The most frequent cause of death for a Colombian adult was gunshot wounds. It was a social problem, but it required a military solution.
The Regiment had trained with America's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the US Coast Guard, and run operations inside the UK to thwart IRA attempts to raise funds through drug-dealing. Margaret Thatcher offered to help, and the Regiment became part of what was called the First Strike Policy. Stop the manufacture of drugs at source, the theory went, and they wouldn't end up on our streets.
The strategy was to attack the drug-manufacturing plants in the same way we would an enemy airfield. The objective was to destroy both the pilots and the aircraft. Technology is easily replaced; skilled humans aren't. And the more chemists and technicians we could take out, the better. A new DMP could be set up in two or three days; it wasn't so easy to get hold of the people to operate them.
The job was top secret. No one was to know what was going on, or where we were flying when we left Brize Norton one Sunday morning. The reason we couldn't tell anyone, we discovered, was because Downing Street wanted the Sunday Express to have an exclusive. 'SAS IN COLOMBIA' was splashed all over their front page the day we left. The picture showed some G Squadron boys kicking in a DMP door.
Our new staff-sergeant appeared. Gaz was just short of six foot, with wavy brown hair. He was so fresh-faced he looked like a fourteen-year-old with stubble – and, recently divorced and immensely sociable, he was bent on reliving his youth. Gaz was tailor-made for B Squadron. Even the sergeant-major called him Champagne Charlie. He wore Armani suits and Jermyn Street shirts; if Hillbilly had been alive, the town would have been a nightmare with the two of them on the prowl.
Gaz was an ex-Green Jacket, as were his brother and his dad. And they'd all either been in the Regiment or were still. Everybody wanted to be best mates with him: with his family connections, he was SAS royalty. It was only a matter of time before his mum turned up for Selection too.
Gaz had left the Regiment for a couple of years. He'd departed as a corporal and immediately been given a troop on his return. Some of the guys in the squadron were bumping their gums because he'd PVRed to become an outboard-motor salesman, then jumped two ranks when that didn't work out.
Outboard-motor salesman? I couldn't believe they fell for that story. Apart from anything else, it was such a bad one.
Gaz was one of the guys who'd suddenly resigned from the Regiment in '82. Soon afterwards, Russian helicopter gunships had started falling out of the skies all over Afghanistan.
We started training the anti-narcotic police shortly after we arrived in Colombia. We had a ten-man patrol each, and took them through every facet of jungle warfare – surveillance and counter-surveillance, aggressive patrolling, OPs, close-target recces and demolitions. They were all right, those lads, considering they were just doing it to feed their families. They didn't really want to be out taking on the cartels, and we sometimes had to coax them into working.
Once we'd spent a month training them up, each two-week patrol was tasked to cover four square kilometres of rainforest. When they found a drug-manufacturing plant, they'd carry out a CTR and plan an attack. The other three patrols would RV with them. But they were nearly always unsuccessful.
The problem was that we had to radio every operational detail to Bogotá, and that included the timings and taskings for the helicopter gunships. They would keep out of hearing distance until we attacked, then be on target within two or three minutes to take out any runners. The DMPs were often sited by rivers so the lads could have getaway boats at the ready; some even cut a landing zone (LZ) out of the rainforest and had a heli standing by. It was the Hueys' job to hose them down.
But Escobar's boys had thought of that. Palms were greased and the helis overflew the DMP minutes before we attacked. As soon as they heard the rotor blades, everybody would leg it. We destroyed the empty camp, but that didn't mean much.
It wasn't our only problem. The ANP (anti-narcotics police) weren't too keen on camp attacks. To make themselves feel better, they wrapped coca leaves round sugar cubes and sucked them the night before. By the time we'd positioned them at the start line, they were ready to sing and dance all the Broadway hits.
Then Gaz took control of the Bogotá situation. He was the only person we were in touch with. When we found a DMP, our comms went directly to him. He would tell everybody else where to go and what to do at the very last minute. We also took control of the ANP situation. Once they'd gathered at the troop RV we made them our prisoners, and ensured they didn't smuggle in any coca leaves or sugar after we'd checked their kit.
The strike rate went through the roof. Chemists and technicians were getting dropped big-time. We'd hit a camp, kill as many as we could and melt back into the jungle while the media were helicoptered in to photograph a handful of smiling Colombian policemen.
For all our successes, the ocean of drugs was so vast that whatever we did was just a raindrop. You could only restrict the trade; you couldn't eliminate it. The drugs barons' billions bought them too much insulation.
After every couple of patrols, we headed off for a day or two of R&R. Bogotá was probably the most exciting city in the world. There was nowhere else I could think of where grandscale lawlessness met such a tidal wave of drug money head-on. The war wasn't only in the jungle: it was here on the streets.
The big appeal of Bogotá, as far as we were concerned, was the food. We lost a huge amount of weight on the pig swill we were given in the jungle so we'd spend a couple of hours in the shower at the Dann Norte or the Cosmos Hotel, then head down to one of the restaurants in the embassy district.
That particular Saturday, we were hoping to catch Carl Williams taking the world heavyweight title from Mike Tyson on a bar TV. The next day, we were going to watch a bullfight in the old part of town. The bullring was the size of Wembley. The steaks weren't much smaller.
I was clean, freshly shaved and smelling frou-frou. I picked up my 9mm and shoved it down the front of my jeans. We were out on a social, but in that part of the world you didn't leave home without one. I shoved a spare magazine down the side of my shoe and folded over my sock to keep it in. Gaz did the same.
The pavements were bustling. Blacked-out Mercedes swept along the potholed roads, narrowly missing the kids who lived like feral cats in the craters where the sewers had collapsed. Their skin was black with grime. Their hair hadn't been washed or combed for years. The Colombian government reckoned there were ten thousand street kids in this city alone, living in parks, under bridges and in sewers, stealing and begging to stay alive. They were called los desechables – the disposables. In some areas these small hungry thieves drove customers away from local businesses. The traders' solution was to hire local death squads to clean up the streets. Thousands had been murdered.
We headed for a steak and fish place with a Scottish theme and an indoor driving range in the basement. You could take a swing between courses. We'd been there many times, and we always steered clear of the fish. Bogotá was high up on a mountain plain. The sea was miles away.
Instead of street-lighting, this part of town had huge flaming gas torches. If you could see one, you knew you were in the right place – unless you were a desechable, in which case you knew to keep well away. The area teemed with Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the national security police. Their remit seemed to be to look after civil servants, politicians and drug-dealers – people with money, basically.
They were always in civilian clothes, but they didn't exactly keep a low profile. During the day DAS cars would scream between the lanes of traffic on the decaying boulevards, bristling with Mini Uzis. The traffic parted like the Red Sea did for Moses.
At night, you'd see them lurking in doorways, usually in white armbands so they could identify each other if things kicked off. Everybody was wary of the DAS, and that included us. This was the drug capital of the world, and if you were in the secret police that didn't mean you'd turn down the odd line or two. Some of those lads were totally out of control, but they had the badge of authority – and a 9mm machine-gun at the ready.
A Merc pulled in at the kerb as we arrived, and bodyguards swarmed from the other vehicles in the cavalcade. The door opened and a pair of gold-tipped cowboy boots hit the pavement, followed by the principal, with slicked-back hair, an Armani suit, lots of gold, and a fur-coated beauty on each arm. It was like a scene from Miami Vice.
Gaz and I embarrassed ourselves for a moment, gawping at the women – the air-con was always on low in those limos: what was the point of trousering all that drug money if you couldn't drape your women in mink? Then we sliced a few balls down the driving range and tucked into T-bone steaks the size of cartwheels before wandering off in search of a bar that had the fight on.
We'd just turned down an alleyway towards a neon club sign when we heard gunfire about twenty metres ahead of us. Three or four short, sharp bursts. We hugged the walls for cover and drew down our weapons. We weren't looking for a fight, but we'd shoot and scoot if it came to it.
Five or six guys with Mini Uzis were silhouetted against the neon. I caught a glimpse of white armbands and heard laughter as they slung something onto the back of a pick-up.
'Fucking hell,' Gaz said. 'They're dropping the kids again.'
A tarpaulin covered the load. All that would be left were some bloodstains on the paving, and that was nothing unusual. We knew what was going on, but nobody talked about it. They called it social cleansing, as if it was some kind of rodent-eradication programme. Fuck knows where they dumped the bodies. They probably became pig feed.
Gaz looked like he wanted to take them on.
I shook my head. 'Soon as they see weapons they'll hose us down. Time to go.'
The DAS boys would be sparked up after their little spree, and they wouldn't worry too much about taking out a couple of extras.
I shoved my pistol back down my jeans. 'Come on, mate, let's bin it.'
The moment we moved, half a dozen kids who'd been hiding near the pick-up jumped up and ran straight towards us. They couldn't have been more than six or seven, but it was difficult to tell. Cartwheel-sized T-bones weren't on the menu for those guys.
The DAS lifted their 9mms but spotted us at the end of the alley in their arc of fire. They set off after the kids, shouting for them to stop.
Gaz tucked away his weapon just in time. The kids surged around us and we slid them between two wheelie-bins to get them out of the way. There was nowhere else to run.
The DAS drew level with us, sweating like pigs. They'd obviously been doing a lot of killing tonight. Each had a Mini Uzi on a sling over one shoulder, pointing straight at us. We kept our hands in view.
Our Spanish was good, but I pretended it wasn't. 'Inglaterra! Embassy! Inglés! Británico!'
Neither of us looked remotely like Our Man in Colombia. Drug-dealers, maybe; diplomats, unlikely.
The kids cowered at our feet. The stench coming off them was unbelievable. But the DAS couldn't give a fuck about them now. This was a different kind of challenge. The smallest and skinniest one hollered and jabbed his Uzi at us like it was his index finger. Every time he did so, the sling dropped further down his arm until it was taut.
His finger was on the trigger.
If he had the safety off, he could be zapping us any second.
The kids were whimpering.
Then one of the lads by the pick-up yelled up the alleyway. My Spanish was good enough to know he was saying they'd be severely in the shit if they dropped a couple of unarmed civilians from the embassy.
They stared at us, well pissed off, then turned and stalked away.
The kids stayed huddled between the bins.
I told them to scarper but they didn't budge.
Gaz pulled some US dollars from his pocket. As soon as they spotted them they saw the light. They grabbed the money and legged it back up the alley. They turned right, away from the embassy district. We watched them scatter in a blur of scabby feet and ripped T-shirts. Then, thinking about it, we ran a couple of hundred metres too, in case the DAS lads had second thoughts, decided to drive round the block and pick up the arseholes who'd fronted them. I didn't fancy ending the evening in the back of their pick-up.
We dived into the busiest bar we could find. Hundreds of locals were bunched around three different TVs. Gaz had already spent ten dollars so the Heinekens were on me.
We toasted each other with a clink of the bottlenecks on a job well done, but the celebrations were short-lived. Tyson beat Williams by a technical knock-out in the first, and remained undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
We'd been cut off from the rest of that world, fighting our own little war. By the time we got back from Colombia, there was a big new one going on that we'd heard nothing about. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and the whole Regiment was gearing up to return to its desert roots.
Not Seven Troop, sadly: B Squadron were scheduled to take over the counter-terrorist (CT) team. Gaz was in charge, and I was his second-in-command.
As the drums kept beating across the Gulf, every TV screen was filled with footage of Coalition forces preparing to put Saddam back in his box. American generals gave daily press calls to CNN in the Saudi desert about the urgent need to stop the rape and murder of Kuwaitis and kick out the Iraqi invader, while Saddam was telling another CNN crew he didn't know what the fuck they were on about.
Saddam promised the Americans the Mother of All Battles. The media loved it. Cameras in both corners of the ring! They hadn't had that in the Falklands.
Back in the UK, B Squadron were in a dark mood. It looked as if our stint on the CT team would take us into the spring of 1991 and beyond, and by then it might all be over. The Regiment was planning to be in the Gulf for the long haul. Not only were we going to miss the start of the war – for Special Forces the most important part, because we'd be involved before it was even declared – but we might also be stuck on the CT team for yet another tour: the three squadrons in Iraq might not be able to disengage.
There was stuff going on in Hereford that had never happened before. Regimental HQ was preparing to move to Saudi, lock, stock and barrel. The communications centre was huge, and its equipment was dug in below its quarters. Scaleys lived like moles down there, receiving and transmitting signals twenty-four/seven. It was a huge undertaking, but with three squadrons committed to one operation, it had to be done.
The Regiment wasn't geared up for the scaling of weapons and kit. We were strategic troops, 'set to task'. There were green ops, very much like the impending Gulf War, with lots of weapons, vehicles and all that aggressive, kinetic stuff. There were black ops, which the CT team were part of. Finally there were grey jobs, the team jobs with long hair and trainers. We suddenly needed three squadrons' worth of green stuff, which was proving hard to get hold of.
We in B Squadron got on with our job, which was preparing for Islamic extremists to attack the UK mainland in retaliation for the invasion.
I was responsible for IA (immediate action). If the thirtyminute team got called out, I would grab an Agusta and a couple of signallers and fly straight to any incident – be it a hostage situation or helping the police blow in a few doors to get into a house and make arrests.
As the Coalition armies massed on the Saudi border, A and D Squadrons were already behind enemy lines. The CO called us into the Regimental HQ briefing room and announced that G Squadron would take over the team earlier than expected and B Squadron would deploy to the Gulf. We would deploy half a squadron at a time. The first to go would be the Red Team, which was us. Thank fuck for that: I was going to get involved in this war after all. It was why I'd joined the Regiment in the first place, having missed out on the Falklands.
But, first, four of us had to head off to Tucson, Arizona, to visit the world's biggest aircraft graveyard. We were meeting up with some Delta patrols to practice methods of entry.
The place was like a mechanical sunset community. Thousands of aircraft had been mothballed and shrinkwrapped. The air was clean and dry, ideal conditions for military equipment and human beings in their twilight years.
Rows of ground-attack helicopters, fixed-wing fighters, bombers, you name it, stretched to the horizon. There were a few square miles of civilian aircraft, too, and those were the ones we were interested in. They'd been seized during drug operations or from African countries that had defaulted on their payments. We were allowed to blow up the ones that were beginning to show their age. I hoped the pensioners in their retirement homes wouldn't get wind of it or they'd be flapping good style.
We spent a very happy two weeks climbing like monkeys over 747s with the Delta lads until we'd got it just right. These guys were on the CT team Stateside, and were also bracing themselves for terrorist attacks.
We flew home via Washington DC. The UN Security Council had just passed Resolution 678, authorizing military intervention in Iraq if that nation did not withdraw its forces from Kuwait and free all foreign hostages by 15 January 1991. The TV screens at the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue were stuffed with US generals and plucky young soldiers telling the world how keen they were to implement it.
A technology expert talked about the first page that been written for something called the 'World Wide Web'. The Conservative Party had chosen John Major to succeed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. In Germany, which had reunified a month ago, the very last section of the Berlin Wall had been demolished.
The military attaché mentioned that Des Doom was still in town, running a BG contract. Some of us thought it would be a good idea to hang around for a couple more days to see him, and familiarize ourselves with the Washington landscape, just in case. The embassy bought it. We didn't tell them we just needed time to shop for Cannondale mountain bikes, which were half the price there.
A gang of us piled into an embassy vehicle and headed out onto the Beltway. Des really was living the dream: his house was a plush executive mansion with a long gravelled driveway and lawns carved out of the Virginia woodland; there was a huge Lincoln Towncar out front, and the obligatory basketball hoop – not an improvised punch-bag in sight.
He ushered us into a lounge the size of a football stadium. The fireplace was wider than my whole front room.
'Great to see you all.' He handed round the Jack Daniel's with a big grin. 'You know I've got Nish working with me?'
Nish was going flying the next day – did I want to come along?
'Flying? Where did you learn?'
'Africa. Come on, it'll be a laugh.'
We met up the next morning. He lived at the bottom end of Massachusetts Avenue, the street all the embassies were on, in a very smart apartment. There was half a Mars bar and a can of Coke in the fridge, and that was about it, apart from a big pile of dirty cups in the sink and, of course, an overflowing ashtray. Otherwise it was completely bare.
We leapt into his company Saab. He drove like he was going for pole position in the Indy 500. I was amazed he hadn't been caught. Anything over sixty here and the police were usually all over you.
'I thought you were too busy in the bush, doing your David Attenborough bit with Harry . . .'
'There was downtime. Never took the test, though. I wanted a commercial licence and my instrument rating, so I came over here.'
The explanation was wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
The airstrip was forty-five minutes away. The morning frost had melted by the time we pulled up outside a small clubhouse. Several private aircraft sat in front of a couple of hangars. The two guys who ran the place knew Nish well. As he paid his ninety dollars for the hour's rental, one of them treated me to a huge grin and some prime Dick Van Dyke Cockney. 'You'll need your motor over there in the hangar, mate.' He didn't tell me why.
We drove to what I was hoping would be a state-of-the-art Jet Ranger with leather upholstery and a bar, but which turned out to be a tiny Robinson two-seater.
'Do us a favour, will you, mate, while I do the pre-flight checks?' Nish threw his fag end out of the window. 'Grab the leads out of the boot.'
'What the fuck you on about? We going to jump-start this thing?'
'Yeah.' He threw the map at me. 'You can navigate as well.'
He opened the bonnet and made the connections, then hopped into the cockpit. His pre-flight checks seemed to consist of adjusting his arse in the seat and getting another cigarette on the go. The heli coughed and belched black exhaust, then the rotors kicked off. I retrieved the jump leads and moved the car out of the way.
Nish gobbed pilot stuff into the radio and we lifted off.
'Where we going?'
'Back into the city. You're going to love this.'
Nish said he did this a lot to keep his hours up. He had his eye on a plane he was going to buy with the cash he'd made from this job and fly back to the UK.
'Across the Atlantic? Fuck me, what is it? An executive jet?'
'Nah, I'll bung a couple of jerry-cans in the back.'
Nish was in his element now we were airborne. We followed the Potomac river into the city. We were coming in low – very low – but that was the law here. Ronald Reagan airport was within spitting distance of the White House and aircraft were landing and taking off all over the place, so we almost had to roof-hop to keep out of the way.
'Any other city you have to be miles high. And in Europe, certainly London, you need two engines so you can clear habitation if one fails.'
We were coming in to the city limits. I could see nothing but freeways feeding it with cars. There'd be no clearing habitation if this thing failed.
I talked a bit about the Regiment, told him things must be going downhill because I'd been promoted to sergeant. The Gulf came up, but I changed the subject when I saw Nish getting pissed off because he wouldn't be there. 'You still going for that record?'
It was like I'd opened a floodgate. 'Yeah.' His face lit up. 'Gonna beat Joe Kittinger's jump.'
'How high was it?'
'I've told you a million times. Twenty miles. Come on, keep up.'
'And he survived?'
'Of course he did, you dickhead. It's not a record for dead people.'
I knew very little about the attempt, apart from stories told in freefall circles. Nish knew everything, down to the insideleg measurement of the guy's space suit. Joseph Kittinger was a US Air Force captain who'd jumped from a helium balloon with an open gondola 102,800 feet above New Mexico on 16 August 1960. He'd looked like the Michelin Man, but without his space suit his blood would have boiled and his organs exploded.
Towing a small drogue chute for stabilization, he fell for four minutes and thirty-six seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 m.p.h. – close on the speed of sound – before opening his parachute fourteen minutes later at 18,000 feet. Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, causing his hand to swell. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall, and fastest speed by an un-powered human through the atmosphere.
The jump was made in a rocking-chair position, descending on his back, rather than in an arch, because he was wearing sixty pounds of kit on his arse and his pressure suit naturally formed that shape – it was designed for sitting in an aircraft cockpit – when it inflated.
And Nish was going to beat it. He was used to falling in the sitting position with a Bergen hanging off his arse.
'Who's going to finance it? You can't just hitch a ride in a hotair balloon, can you?'
'Harry's got it all sorted. He knows one of the Guinness banking family.' Loel Guinness ran a company called High Adventure, set up to support sportsmen and -women involved in big performance and endurance events like climbing Everest. That must have been how Harry had got to know him.
He turned to me and grinned. Ash fell from the cigarette he still had clamped in his mouth. 'Joe was also the first guy to fly a gas balloon solo across the Atlantic, so I'm really following in his footsteps. Fucking great, eh?'
The cost was going to be massive and he'd need a shit-load of training, but he was up for it. As soon as Saad finished at Georgetown, it was going to become a full-on job. As long as he survived crossing thousands of miles of ocean in a singleengine aircraft first.
He pointed up at the clouds. 'Space ain't that far away, mate. If a car could drive straight up, it'd take less than an hour.'
'Driving the way you do, or legally?'
I got another big grin. 'Wonder if I'll see Frank's boss while I'm up there? He's a vicar now, you know.'
'You heard from him?'
'The odd postcard. Whenever he finds one of a nice busty nun.'
The Robinson shuddered into a hover. We were so low over a clapboard house we were making the shingles flap. A guy in the yard looked up and shook his fist at us.
Nish gave him a cheery wave. 'Shouldn't live there if he can't take a joke.' He gave another wave. We were about to blow the roof off. 'That's where they filmed The Exorcist. Great film. Have you seen it? Directed by William Friedkin.'
He pumped off left and back towards the river. Next stop was the White House, but we didn't stay long. We got a fearsome bollocking on the radio. Seconds later we were back over the river.
'What're all those crosses for, mate?' I pointed at the mass of felt-tip marks on the map. 'Landing sites?'
'There's loads of places to land in the city. But those are where I've scored.'
He'd land by a bar or a restaurant and go in for a Coke. Nine times out of ten, a woman would come up and start chatting because she wanted to go up in his helicopter. He would play the polite but stupid Brit, and they loved it.
I smiled to myself as he waffled away. He really was looking and sounding like he had in the old days. No talk of Hillbilly or Al, just flying, freefalling and women.
Almost the moment we were back in the Saab, it all changed again. He turned to me, his face serious. 'Listen, mate, you be careful in the Gulf. We do things in life that we're never able to forget.'
I nodded, not sure what he was on about. But, just as quickly, he broke into a smile, either to cover up his anxiety or to turn what he'd said into a joke.
We'd been in Saudi a while, but now the Gulf War was really kicking off. A Chinook helicopter flew us into enemy territory north-west of Baghdad. On board was an eight-man foot patrol under my command. Our radio call sign was Bravo Two Zero.
Our mission was simple: to destroy a fibre-optic cable that ran from Baghdad into the western and north-western deserts, from where Saddam was deploying his Scud missile teams against Israel. His reasoning was simple. If Scuds continued to rain on Tel Aviv and Haifa, the Israelis would be provoked into fighting alongside the anti-Saddam coalition, and the alliance would crumble. There was no way Saudi or the others would countenance being brothers in arms with the Israelis, even if they just did their own thing.
Half-squadron groups from Aand D Squadron were already combing the deserts, but they were up against it. The Scud launchers were small and mobile. Unless they were lucky enough to bump into one, all they could do was wait for a launch, then try to track and destroy it.
At one stage the whole Israeli Air Force was circling Israeli air space, poised to retaliate. George Bush cut a deal with Yitzhak Shamir: the Israelis gave the Coalition a two-week window in which to take out the Scud threat. If we failed, Israel would attack.
All our planning and preparation changed overnight. We'd focused on traditional SAS tasks like the disruption of supply lines and communications, prime-target assassination and industrial sabotage.
We suffered from kit shortages just like everybody else. We had to make our own Claymore anti-personnel mines from nuts and bolts, plastic explosive and ice cream cartons. Everything else we begged, stole and borrowed, even down to ammunition and 40mm grenades for our M23 assault rifles.
And, of course, we were going out there in such a rush that we hardly had any information. Nobody knew exactly where the cable was, let alone how best to destroy it. The mapping consisted of air charts, which only showed major man-made and topographical features. But our attitude was: Fuck it, that's what Special Forces are all about – getting on with what you've got and improvising the rest.
It was nothing new. When the patrols from B Squadron had gone into mainland Argentina to do recces for the attack on the Marines' barracks and the airstrips, all they'd had to get them onto target were the maps in Michelin restaurant guides. There was plenty of detail on the ambience of various Tierra del Fuego eateries and the quality of their steaks but, strangely, absolutely fuck all on the location of the nearest Marines' barracks, its approach roads and defences. But that was all they could get their hands on at the time, so that was what they used.
Anyway, the primary task of Special Forces was to gain information. That was why, nine times out of ten, we went in without any.
Bravo Two Zero deployed, but we never found the cable. We only discovered later that it ran alongside the northern main supply route (MSR) from Baghdad and headed north-west towards the Syrian border. What we did find, at first light the next morning, was a pair of S60 anti-aircraft guns just four hundred metres from our lie-up position (LUP).
This was no big problem. Our most important weapon on this sort of job wasn't an assault rifle, a 60mm rocket or a light machine-gun, it was concealment. We would just lie up in daylight, move out at night and get on with the job. The problem was that our radios didn't work.
Steve 'Legs' Lane and Dinger had been trying everything they could think of to send our sitrep. I liked Legs. He had the longest and skinniest pair I'd ever seen, which made him a bit of a racing snake over the ground, even with a Bergen on his back. He'd started his army life in the Royal Engineers before transferring to the Paras and was still establishing himself after having passed Selection about six months before. Like all newcomers he was a bit on the quiet side, but had become firm friends with Dinger.
It wasn't difficult. Dinger was tall, with wiry blond hair, and he was wild. He was also ex-Para Reg and new to Seven Troop, and had taken up Nish's mantle as our resident smoker and wit. I think they even came from the same part of the world. It probably had something to do with the water. He was a great man to bounce off, just like Nish, and I took to him instantly.
No matter what Regimental HQ tried, we hadn't been able to let them know we were alive and getting on with the mission. But having no comms didn't mean everything stopped: we still had to get on with the job. The most important thing was the mission. Nothing else mattered.
There was a contingency plan in the event of radio failure: an RV with a helicopter the following night. But first I had to take out a four-man recce patrol at last light to try yet again to locate the fibre-optic.
Vince Phillips, my second-in-command, would man the LUP. He'd come from the Ordnance Corps. Aged thirty-seven, he had just under three years' service left with the Regiment. He was a big old boy, and immensely strong – not only in body but also in mind. I valued his honesty, and his realism. His wild, coarse, curly hair, moustache and sideboards made him look like a mad mountain man, which was pretty much what he was. An expert mountaineer, diver and skier, he walked as if he had a barrel of beer under each arm. Most things were either 'shit' or 'fucking shit', but his main complaint in life was that his time in the Regiment was nearly up.
We were hiding up in a small wadi, waiting for last light. At about 1630, we heard movement about fifty metres away. Akid was taking his goats for a bit of a spin, and the lead animal had a bell. We stood to.
The goat came up and peered over the lip. He gazed at us and chewed away on a bit of old tumbleweed, then his mates came up and they checked us out too. We could hear the kid shouting, and it wasn't long before he was staring down at us, and we were staring up at him. He didn't have a clue what he was looking at, but eight weapon barrels told him it was a drama. He turned and legged it.
Vince scrambled up the wadi, but it was too late. The boy was making a beeline for the S60s. We were compromised.
Even if we'd caught him, we wouldn't have killed him. Special Forces don't roam the countryside with daggers drawn. We wouldn't kill a civilian unless it was absolutely imperative, and that had more to do with self-preservation than morality. If enemy troops rocked up to the outskirts of Birmingham or Manchester and slotted the first kid they bumped into, they wouldn't last five minutes when they were captured.
There were also tactical considerations. We'd have had a dead weight to carry, because everything we took in on the ground, we took out with us when we left. It was called hard routine. We pissed into containers and shat into plastic bags. We didn't cook, smoke – which Dinger hated – or leave anything to show the enemy we'd been there.
If Vince had caught the boy, he'd have found himself tied up out of sight of the S60s, with a stomach full of ration-pack chocolate to keep him happy. He might have OD'd on Yorkie bars, but he'd have been alive.
We had no option but to head for Syria, about 180 kilometres away. The CIA had organized a rat run for downed pilots and people like us, and we'd been told our contact would have a white sheet hanging out of his window in the first village we came to across the border.
After we'd all stopped laughing, we decided we'd give that one a miss and just find a friendly embassy in Damascus.