Over the next three days, three of my men died.
Vince went down on the second night. We'd gone out there expecting European spring weather. Instead we got a near- Arctic winter, the worst the area had seen for thirty years. Because we were on hard routine, we didn't have sleeping-bags. We slept in our Gore-Tex, always ready to move. After a contact that ended in hand-to-hand combat, Vince took the fight to the Iraqis, even though he'd badly injured his leg at our LUP. As the temperature plummeted past the freezing point of diesel, he perished from hypothermia.
Those men displayed skills and courage of the highest order when they were in the deepest shit – which wasn't easy when you were just over five feet tall. Bob Consiglio was of Swiss- Italian extraction and known as the Mumbling Midget. Despite his size he was immensely strong, and immensely stubborn. He insisted on carrying the same load as everyone else. All you could see of him from behind was a bloody great Bergen with two little legs going like pistons.
He'd been in the Royal Marines and lived life at full throttle. When he was out on the town, his favourite hobbies were dancing with and chatting up women a foot taller than he was. Hillbilly would have been proud of him. I certainly was.
The Mumbling Midget was the next to die. The night was a frenzy of death and chaos on both sides. Bob was up front with the Minimi light machine-gun. Everyone else was out of ammo. He ran into yet more Iraqis. As the contact kicked off, he stood his ground to give the rest of us time to escape, screaming at the incoming fire. Then his ammo, too, ran out, and he took incoming. He dropped like liquid. Without him we would all have gone the same way.
The patrol had got scattered, and Legs and Dinger had to swim the Euphrates to dodge their pursuers. Dinger didn't want to, but Legs showed the way and kept them both alive. They were captured the following day. Legs died some time later, almost certainly of hypothermia.
Only one of us made it across the border. Chris, the one with curly brown hair, was originally from the Territorial Army and had joined Mountain Troop about four years before the war while I was away in the Det. This was his first time on operations. He had spent a couple of years in Germany doing mountain stuff, and whatever they'd taught him certainly seemed to work: he continued on his own and finally made it to Damascus.
The other four of us were captured at different points along the Iraqi border on that third day, and spent the next seven weeks in interrogation centres in Baghdad. One of them was the infamous Abu Ghraib. Our hands were cuffed behind our backs and we were blindfolded, stripped naked and repeatedly beaten by the guards on our way into and out of interrogation.
There were two types of interrogator. Some of the military boys had been trained at Sandhurst during their war against Iran. And then there were the secret police; those lads really enjoyed their work.
We were whipped, and burnt with red hot spoons heated over paraffin stoves. We were hit with planks and steel balls swinging from sticks. My teeth had been smashed by toecaps and rifle butts when I was caught within spitting distance of the border, so a dentist was called in. He said he'd worked in Guy's Hospital for nine years, gave a chuckle and yanked out one of my back molars with a pair of pliers.
All of those lads wanted real-time information they could act on there and then. What had we been doing? Where was everybody else, and what would they be up to?
They knew the Regiment was out and about, because the Scuds were getting hit. They wanted information to help them counter those attacks. Our job was to keep that information from them.
The phrase 'prisoner of war' was a load of bollocks. We weren't prisoners of war, we were prisoners at war. We still had a job to do. The simple reason we weren't going to tell them what they wanted to know was that the guys on the ground were our friends. We knew their wives, their kids, even their dogs and cats.
The weeks that followed were all about trying to be the grey man, trying to minimize the number of beatings and make ourselves appear so insignificant we simply didn't matter.
It didn't really work. Baghdad was getting the shit blown out of it from an hour after last light to about two hours before first light. We were even taking incoming at the compound. There was no running water, no electricity, and the families and friends of our guards were getting killed and maimed. Meanwhile, their enemies were right under their noses, handcuffed, naked and in solitary confinement. Not unnaturally, they came in and took it out on us. Those kickings and beatings scared me more than the interrogations. My mind began to go wild.
Things got so bad I even tried talking to God, but He didn't answer. He was probably too busy having his ear bent by Frank.
And then I remembered a lecture by someone who'd had far more experience of this than I hoped I was ever going to get. He was a United States Marines pilot who had flown Phantoms in Vietnam. He was shot down over Hanoi and spent six years in solitary confinement under continuous torture. Every major bone in his body was broken. He never got any medical care. He ended up with no teeth, no hair, no muscle mass. He was a mess, but he was alive. The Regiment invited him to visit. If prone-to-capture troops like us listened to the experiences of others, there might be one sentence that would help if we were ever in the same situation.
My mind was going haywire in my Baghdad cell, but I discovered his words did help me.
Hold on to the memory of those you love and want to see again.
I thought about the lads on the patrol, and particularly the ones I knew were dead. I swelled with pride. I hoped I was their equal. I had no worries about dying. We all knew you started from nothing and you were going to end with nothing. That was part of the deal. I almost felt jealous of Bob Consiglio, who'd gone down fighting; I might just be starved or beaten to death.
I even thought about Frank's tiger and his sheep, and decided the silly fucker had been right all along.
I didn't feel bitter and twisted. Nobody had forced me to be a soldier. I had no fear of being killed – fuck it, when it happened, I just wanted it to be quick, like Bob, while doing my job.
I could hardly take the kudos of being in the Regiment and then moan about it when things went wrong. People got killed. That was what happened. If you didn't like it, there were plenty of guys who wanted to take your place.
I managed the odd smile sometimes. I imagined Bob watching me. He'd be taking the piss out of the crap hat huddled in the corner in a pile of his own shit.
To begin with, I'd taken capture personally. It was the first time I'd really failed at anything since joining up. But then the optimist in me said, 'It'll be all right. I'm not dead yet. Maybe I'll get to the next stage. I just need to get through the next interrogation, the next beating, the next day, the next hour . . .'
Again, the pilot was an inspiration. I remembered how he'd started off his talk. He'd held out his hands with his elbows tight against his sides, and he'd walked three and a half paces, turned, walked three and a half paces, turned again. I'd stared at him and wondered what the fuck he was on.
'This was my cell . . . this was my space . . . for six years . . .'
He went in there playing the big Marine, but all that shit was taken out of him. Get aggressive with two of them, and next time they brought in four.
'They have control of your life. There's nothing you have control of physically, they can do what they want. The only thing you can control is your mind. Let them have that, and you've lost.'
I sat in my cell and thought about his pain and fear. His family didn't even know he was still alive. I didn't know if anyone knew I was. There was nothing I had control over but my mind. I resolved to keep it mine.
I used the same thought process I had when I was a kid. However bad I thought I'd got it, there was somebody who had it worse. I was only on week three, week four . . . The American lad had had six years of it, and he'd survived. I'd been an infantry soldier and a Special Forces soldier for more than sixteen years. I was used to being wet, cold and hungry. I was used to fighting. I was even used to getting beaten up. I was in an infantry battalion, for fuck's sake. This guy was a pilot, flying from the cocoon of an aircraft-carrier, dropping a bomb from an air-conditioned office in the sky, then flying back for doughnuts, coffee and a spot of volleyball on deck.
Then, on his seventy-seventh mission, with just three to go before he got binned, he was shot down. The journey from cocoon to bamboo cage was short and sharp. At least I had a roof and a concrete floor.
I kept on and on, grasping at straws, trying to dredge the positive from the negative.
I was eventually released three days after the other three from the patrol, along with the remaining five or six American pilots who'd also been held in Abu Ghraib. There was some famous footage of General Norman Schwarzkopf, the Coalition's supreme commander, shaking hands with them as they came down the steps in Riyadh. The SAS prisoners were round the back of the aircraft, about to be whisked off to the British military hospital in Cyprus.
Back at the Lines, we had a couple of sessions with Dr Gordon Turnbull, the RAF psychiatrist. He'd treated the mountain-rescue teams at Lockerbie in 1988. The patrol's survivors sat in a comfortable room in the officers' mess as Gordon explained what post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was all about.
For starters, it wasn't a disease but it was a clinical condition, a natural physical and emotional reaction to a deeply shocking or life-threatening event. It could and did affect anyone, and there was nothing unmanly about experiencing it.
One of the main symptoms of PTSD was an unwillingness to talk about the events that had brought it about – so one of the main challenges in helping sufferers was to engage with them and get them to accept treatment. Some still felt misunderstood by the medical establishment and society at large, and ended up suffering in silence. Others carried so much guilt with them – yet another symptom – that they felt unworthy of help.
PTSD could affect every aspect of a sufferer's life – not surprising when the symptoms included insomnia, recurring nightmares, persistent high anxiety levels, severe mood swings, hyper-alertness, violent and aggressive outbursts, lack of concentration, sexual dysfunction and depression, self-loathing for surviving when others had not, self-isolation, inability to readjust to normal life, inability to communicate with loved ones, or to reciprocate love, and the desire to remain solely with others in the same position, who therefore 'understood'.
PTSD sufferers might also experience alcohol- or drug-related problems, often caused by an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms away. Some just lost it completely and resorted to violence – ranging from spousal abuse to murder when the stakes were cranked up.
I knew quite a few lads who fitted the bill one way or another.
Flashbacks brought on by reminders of the trauma could be the most debilitating feature of PTSD. They occurred when the brain was unable to process the imagery it had received during a severe traumatic incident; our brains needed to make sense of it before they could store it, so they played it over and over again, like an old record, until they did.
I took a long, hard look at myself. Nothing to worry about so far. I didn't have nightmares. I didn't feel depressed. In fact, I felt lucky. I was alive. But Gordon left me very aware that I shouldn't take anything for granted. I'd have to watch myself, maybe keep a mental checklist of the symptoms. Just in case.
Until quite recently PTSD had been perceived in the military as a sign of weakness, and stigma was still attached to therapy of any sort. Guys often wouldn't admit they were suffering; apart from anything else, they didn't want those close to them to think they were mad. This was certainly the Regiment's first foray into this landscape, and only happened because we'd been taken prisoner and tortured.
I already knew of a place in Wales that many from the green army had gone to after the Falklands. These were rough, tough Paras and Marines, but they'd needed help. I'd also heard that a couple of guys from the Regiment had gone there secretly.
Delta Force actively embraced therapy. They even had their own doctor. Why pay so many millions to train someone, then watch them fall apart at the seams? Why not try to stop it before it happened, or try to help them through it if it did? For the time being, jumping in a car and heading secretly for Wales was the only real option for the rest of us.
We spent about six months mincing around doing debriefs to a range of intelligence and military organizations, and receiving continuous medical treatment. My teeth took a lot of sorting, and I had some nerve damage in my left hand. The doctors seemed to like sticking little steel probes into my skin and passing a current through them to see if it jumped up and down like a frog's legs in a scientific experiment.
I learnt a lot more about the Iraqi side of things. Information came back from the CIA and our own spooks that the Iraqis had thought we were an Israeli raiding party, and that they had taken more than two hundred casualties, dead and wounded, as we legged it towards Syria.
We discovered why the radios didn't work. We were given the wrong frequencies, which was down to Regimental HQ's move from Hereford to Saudi. If you had to communicate with Hereford from anywhere in the world, you didn't just press a button on your radio.
With our Regimental HQ held together with gaffer tape in the middle of the desert, we had been given the frequency ranges for the southern footprint, covering southern Iraq and part of Kuwait, instead of the northern footprint nearer Syria and Israel. We'd been carefully laying out our antenna wires so we could transmit coded and encrypted signals in very short bursts to prevent interception by radio scanners, but the signals that reached Riyadh had been corrupted.
It was nothing new. There had always been fuck-ups, and there always would be. You couldn't hold it against people who were doing their best in difficult circumstances. At Arnhem, in 1944, they were given radios with a range of less than three miles even though the attack force was spread up to eight miles. With communication between units almost impossible, the battle had spiralled into isolated pockets of desperate action.
War isn't a science. Machines can go wrong. So can people.
Frank and I fixed to meet up at the Merton, a small hotel with a bar near the railway station. Frank was a curate now, whatever that meant. I'd heard he was wearing all the black and white kit and frocks and collars and all sorts, and I was looking forward to seeing him decked out.
I was disappointed. He was in the same old green checked shirt, blue Rohan trousers and red Gore-Tex jacket. The only thing different was an orange woolly tie. He looked like a deranged train-spotter.
'Frank! Where's the collar?'
'Working hours only.'
He saw me glance again at the tie.
'People really do treat me differently. I was called "sir" when I bought a train ticket yesterday.'
'That's because you look like a lunatic and he was scared you were going to smash the window and throttle him.'
He already had a pint of bitter in front of him and a pint of Stella for me. The bar was quiet; just a couple of old fellers in the corner. I pulled up a chair.
'What's it like, then, this curate business?'
'Great. My whole life has changed from physical to cerebral – what I believe in, what I do for a living, my friends—'
'Hey, I'm still your mate, aren't I?'
'It's different. I don't see you lot every day. Even my house is—'
'Fit for an ayatollah?'
He shook his head. 'Lodgings. Everything's changed. Even vocabulary.'
'Your accent has, for sure. You're not so Geordie.'
He chuckled into his beer. I obviously hadn't been the first to tell him that. 'They say every cell in the body renews itself, so the voice box probably does as well. I don't think there's a cell left in my body from my Regiment days.'
Yeah, I thought, and that's why you're dressed exactly the same as you were when you were in the troop – apart from the tie, of course. 'You're talking shit.'
He opened his mouth to answer but I pushed on: 'How long does it take to become an ayatollah?'
'Three years. I was just going to do the two-year diploma course, but I went for the degree in theology. It feels good having those letters after my name. I was ordained by the bishop in the cathedral. It was fantastic. Shame you missed it.'
He paused. 'You know, at my ordination, I was helping administer wine at the service. There was this woman who kept looking at me. I thought, Do I know you? She wasn't smiling; she was looking daggers. I felt quite unhappy in her presence. And I thought, I wonder if she's a witch.'
I put my glass down. 'You administering the wine or drinking it, mate?'
'No, really, a witch. I felt unhappy in her presence. There is evil in the world, Andy. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Are you OK?' He looked at me intently.
'You trying to do your spiritual healing bit here?'
He leaned across conspiratorially. 'It would help. Don't be embarrassed. I've had quite a few ex-Regiment guys come to me since I've been back. Whether you were the victim or the torturer, it's never going to go away.' He sat back.
'Maybe I can help. That's what I do now, remember?'
I shook my head. 'Listen, mate, when I start barking at the moon I'll give you a call.'
He smiled sadly. 'Remember over the water when we dropped all the wood off at the target sheds? Remember what I said? The door is always open. It still is, Andy.' He reached for his beer.
'I'd get yourself a wedge, mate. It might be like that for quite a while . . .'
Frank was connected to two churches. I knew St Peter's. It was slap-bang in the middle of town, with a huge spire you could see from miles around. I didn't get to find out where St James's was until one of the squadron lads got married there. I turned up at the wedding, and there was Frank in all the black and white gear. I felt proud of him. I was hoping to see him at the reception but he didn't turn up. I thought I knew why. Sinking the odd pint with me was one thing. Surrounding himself with the Regiment was quite another.
Frank did a lot more weddings and baptized a pile of babies for Regiment guys. He had also got himself involved in a lot of kids' support groups. He would take them canoeing or walking in the hills, anything to show them there was more to life than nicking cars or frightening old ladies. I admired him for that and wished there had been a Frank about when, as a kid, I'd needed one.
Towards the end of the year, the patrol was decorated with three Military Medals, for Vince, Steve and Chris, and a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for me. This made Bravo Two Zero the most highly decorated patrol since the Boer War, and me the most highly decorated soldier in the British Army. I'd have preferred it if everyone had stayed alive.
As the camp tailor was measuring me up and kitting me out in No. 2s, best dress uniform, I thought about Nish. He'd taken the piss out of me big-time the night before. 'Going to see her again, eh? Garden party this time?'
I couldn't even find my medals, and there was a bit of a flap on because none of us knew if you had to wear them. I couldn't remember what I'd done last time. We eventually discovered I didn't need them, which was just as well.
This investiture was totally different from the one I'd gone to when I was twenty. It included another group of people who wouldn't be given their awards in public – the Det.
We all arrived in a covered coach, curtains drawn, accompanied by wives, girlfriends, kids and all sorts. We went into Buckingham Palace and about twenty of us, plus companions, were led to a private room overlooking the garden. We hung around for quite a while. The Queen was having private meetings with the families of the lads who had died, and she wasn't rationing her time. I watched the kids run amok and jump all over the fancy furniture.
The Queen came in and asked us to sit down. We were called up one at a time to get our medals. There was an eccentric mixture of uniforms on display. The Jocks were in tartan trousers or skirts, and the CO had holes in his lapels from his previous rank. There was nobody there to tell us the correct protocol, so we each followed the guy ahead. The first one up had clicked his heels as he did a little bow, so we all followed suit. She must have thought she was decorating an SS brigade.
When my turn came, she smiled. 'Congratulations. We hear you were the commander of Bravo Two Zero patrol?'
'Well, you must feel very proud.'
'Of the men in my patrol, yes, I am, very much so.'
And that was that. Ceremony over, the Queen left for a cup of tea and a sticky bun. The big french windows were opened and we were invited into the garden. The kids ran riot and nobody complained.
One of my mates had a five-year-old, dressed up like a pageboy. He pointed up. 'Look!'
We all turned to see the Queen leaning on the banister halfway up the staircase, watching us fucking about in her garden. She was smiling.
The D Squadron lad picked up his boy, and he waved at her. 'That's the lady who gave you your new badge.'
The Queen waved back.
Snapper had written a book in November 1989 called Soldier I, after the letter designation he was given during the inquest on the embassy siege. He'd said he was going to write it when he was bouncing around just before he went on the Circuit, but none of us really took any notice. It was Snapper talking, after all.
The head shed had asked to read the manuscript, and so did the MoD, to make sure it didn't compromise national security. Everything was fine, until the book became a bestseller. All of a sudden gums were being bumped and it seemed Snapper had done a bad thing. The head shed waffled endlessly about how outrageous it was to profit financially from your Regimental experiences, but our reply was: 'Hang about, you're the ones who said it was all right and, anyway, he went through the process.'
Of course, the same didn't apply to senior officers writing about Special Forces activity. Those were 'memoirs', not revelations.
Snapper didn't care either way. He was out on the Circuit with his 'I'm totally sane' chit in his pocket, oblivious to the lot of it. For some of us, however, the sudden shift in attitude in high places was going to have far-reaching consequences.
There was a message from Andrew on my answer-phone when I got back. 'Give me a call. There's still a job for you if you want it.'
I went to a meeting at his new set-up. It wasn't the plushest I'd seen, but practical and fit for purpose. I soon discovered, over a brew in a chipped mug, that the offer wasn't for a specific job: he was asking if I wanted to be part of the company. He knew I was on the Wing, and he knew I was conscious. All the lads working for him had the same CV. Andrew had a new business model in mind: everybody working for the company would have a stake. I got out a calculator and did the maths.
There was no getting away from the fact that I could only stay in the Regiment until I was forty, whether I liked it or not. Seven years to go at a push, and that would be the end of my service. I was a senior sergeant, looking to becoming a staff-sergeant after I finished the Wing. I would probably leave as a warrant officer, but then what?
'Get out and be a part of something,' Andrew urged, from beneath his sandy moustache. 'Be a part of something you can help control.'
It wouldn't take me long to decide. I just wanted to run the idea past someone to make sure I was doing the right thing.
Next time I met Frank, I shoved a brown-paper bag across the table. 'Here, change that fucking thing, will you?'
Frank's orange woolly tie had to go. The replacement was from what the market stallholder called his autumn collection. It wasn't exactly designer gear, but the red polyester almost matched his Gore-Tex jacket. He told me that a few of the guys had approached him now he was all frocked up and they could tell him their problems in confidence. 'Same still goes for you, Andy. And if you don't want to talk to me, I know a secret place in Wales where you can go and get help if you need it.'
This was over a burger at what had become our regular meeting place, the Micky Ds behind St Peter's. We called these lunches our McSummits – with fries.
He'd just bought a bag of coat hooks. The morning prayer meetings were popular.
'You get nightmares?'
'Yeah! I see you coming at me with a great big Bible, and I wake up screaming! Listen, I know about the place. Eat your chips and keep the sauce off that smart new tie.'
He hadn't been listening. 'Seriously, Andy.' It wasn't just his accent that was different, these days: the tone had become very clear, precise and measured. 'If you want, I can introduce you. It's OK, you don't have to be embarrassed about it.'
I stabbed my last chip into his tub of ketchup. 'Not for me, mate. I'm probably just too thick to realize I've got a problem. Tell you what, if you really want to help, why don't you pay for the burgers?'
That shut him up. But only for a moment.
'I'm thinking of being a stab. Joining them as a padre.'
We always gave the TA a hard time – Stinking Territorial Army Bastards. I didn't know why, because they were good lads. Frank said he'd been approached to be the chaplain of 23 SAS, one of the two territorial units up north.
'The money will come in handy. Plus I get to do some soldiering and I can be a padre.'
'Bollocks – you want back in. That's what it's all about. You want to play soldiers again.'
He shook his head. 'It might look that way, but I've just been over with Delta. They asked me to go back and conduct their annual prayer breakfast. I've got to tell you, Andy, it was a good experience. Every man attended. They wanted to be there – it wasn't a Scale A parade. I want to do more of it.'
I wasn't surprised. That kind of thing was standard operating procedure within the US Army. Religion was still an acceptable part of military life.
'Nice try. You're talking bollocks.'
He wouldn't have it. 'No, I just want to help the lads, that's all. Just as well I didn't give you my stable belt, eh?'
'If you can't find it, you can have mine.'
He did a double-take. 'You PVRing? It's a big step – and a horrible feeling walking out of that gate. You sure you won't regret it?'
'What? Like you?'
'Maybe. You going on the Circuit? Don't jump at the first job. Think hard, because once you're out, that's it, the end.'
'That's why I'm using you as a sounding board.'
I told him about Andrew's job offer. I was thinking of getting out after Christmas. The job didn't start until July, so I was just going to bum about until then. I'd never dossed. Joining up at the age of sixteen meant I'd never done anything but soldier, and now it seemed like time to move on. 'Why not, eh? Ponytail, shorts and flip-flops, working on a beach somewhere.'
He slipped his hand into his Gore-Tex jacket and produced his wallet. I sat back, enjoying the moment.
'Here.' He ripped the Velcro open and handed me a folded sheet of paper. 'I got this from Delta, and I thought of Nish. You have it, I'll get another.'
I shoved it in my pocket. No way was I going to open it in front of him. It might have been a song. Frank might have wanted to start hallelujahing round the Ronald McDonald statue with me in tow.
'You seen him lately?' he asked.
'I've been away. He's still doing this skydiving from space thing, isn't he? Still in Russia?'
'Back soon.' He nodded thoughtfully. 'Listen, I'm worried. He's not looking good again.'
He picked up his coat hooks and what was left of my fries in their little greaseproof-paper bag, and we headed for the door. He smiled as he opened it and let me through with a flourish. 'Remember, Andy, it's always open. I know I can't talk you out of PVRing. I know you just wanted me to validate it. Just remember, it's possible that you want to avoid what you feel, escape from something you can't quite explain.'
That was experience talking.
We went our separate ways. When I got back to my car I unfolded the bit of paper. It was a poem about soldiers and God.
A Prayer for Rescue from Enemies
1 Oppose, LORD, those who oppose me; war upon those who make war upon me.
2 Take up the shield and buckler; rise up in my defence.
3 Brandish lance and battleaxe against my pursuers. Say to my heart, 'I am your salvation.'
4 Let those who seek my life be put to shame and disgrace. Let those who plot evil against me be turned back and confounded.
5 Make them like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on.
6 Make their way slippery and dark, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
7 Without cause they set their snare for me; without cause they dug a pit for me.
8 Let ruin overtake them unawares; let the snare they have set catch them; let them fall into the pit they have dug.
9 Then I will rejoice in the LORD, exult in God's salvation.
10 My very bones shall say, 'O LORD, who is like you, who rescues the afflicted from the powerful, the afflicted and needy from the despoiler?'
11 Malicious witnesses come forward, accuse me of things I do not know.
12 They repay me evil for good and I am all alone.
13 Yet I, when they were ill, put on sackcloth, afflicted myself with fasting, sobbed my prayers upon my bosom.
14 I went about in grief as for my brother, bent in mourning as for my mother.
15 Yet when I stumbled they gathered with glee, gathered against me like strangers. They slandered me without ceasing;
16 Without respect they mocked me, gnashed their teeth against me.
17 Lord, how long will you look on? Save me from roaring beasts, my precious life from lions!
18 Then I will thank you in the great assembly; I will praise you before the mighty throng.
19 Do not let lying foes smirk at me, my undeserved enemies wink knowingly.
20 They speak no words of peace, but against the quiet in the land they fashion deceitful speech.
21 They open wide their mouths against me. They say, 'Aha! Good! Our eyes relish the sight!'
22 You see this, LORD; do not be silent; Lord, do not withdraw from me.
23 Awake, be vigilant in my defence, in my cause, my God and my Lord.
24 Defend me because you are just, LORD; my God, do not let them gloat over me.
25 Do not let them say in their hearts, 'Aha! Just what we wanted!' Do not let them say, 'We have devoured that one!'
26 Put to shame and confound all who relish my misfortune. Clothe with shame and disgrace those who lord it over me.
27 But let those who favour my just cause shout for joy and be glad. May they ever say, 'Exalted be the LORD who delights in the peace of his loyal servant.'
28 Then my tongue shall recount your justice, declare your praise, all the day long.
I screwed it up and chucked it in a bin. That boy never gave up.
The Robocops manning the main gate were MoD policemen, but they had enough weapons dangling off them to take on global crime. It was a really strange feeling driving past them out of the camp, seeing the Lines in the rear-view mirror for the final time.
I was even sorry to say goodbye to the red-brick campus buildings, crumbling though they were due to crap repair work or ground subsidence, depending whose lawyer you were. It had been home for the last ten years. I forgave myself the little lump in my throat.
The friends and relationships weren't going to disappear, but I was losing something that had been my life since I was sixteen. I knew now how Nish and Frank had felt. And, like them, all I really had to show for it was my stable belt and beret.
I'd had to go round the different departments to get my discharge papers signed and sort out my pay and taxes, get bombarded by questions about where I was going, what security company I'd signed up for. I also experienced that short, sharp, aggressive severance from the system that everyone talked about.
Being presented with my tankards was the final nail in my army coffin: one from B Squadron and one from the Wing, plus a statue of a military freefaller from Seven Troop; once you get that, there's no going back.
That's it, you're out, have a nice life. I comforted myself with the thought that this day would have come eventually whether I liked it or not, so I might as well get on with it.
Something that wasn't going to happen was my seven months of dossing around in pony-tail, shorts and flip-flops. Andrew needed me to start work for him straight away, and something else had come up.
Just before Christmas, I'd been approached by an officer and asked about Bravo Two Zero. The reason certain people were interested in my thoughts, he said, was because there was so much conjecture about the patrol in the press. We'd been attributed with everything from blowing up a power station in Baghdad to attempting to assassinate Saddam. Even the main MoD building in Whitehall was buzzing with theories. It was starting to take on a life of its own.
The suggestion was that, maybe, possibly, telling the true story would put an end to the rumours and get the whole thing over with. I wasn't averse to that, but then it was suggested that if I did agree to tell the story, maybe it could be part of a more wide-ranging Regimental history. I said I'd think about it. I did, and decided that if anyone was going to tell the story, I wanted it to be me.
I'd got to know John Nichol and John Peters, the Tornado crew shot down over Iraq in 1991 and paraded, battered and bruised, on TV for all the world to see. In fact, Nichol and I had stood next to each other in the line of prisoners waiting to be released at Baghdad airport. When they got back, and while they were still serving RAF aircrew, they wrote a book about their experiences called Tornado Down. I phoned them up and got some advice.
I decided to go for it. It wasn't going to be the cathartic experience that Frank thought I needed but it would be a nice memento, and the few grand I hoped I might be paid would come in handy.
A few months later, the manuscript went to the MoD. They wanted a number of changes, which was fine by me. The fibreoptic cable had to be called a landline, for example, and they suggested different locations for the patrol's area of operations, and asked me not to talk about certain bits of kit that were still tactically sensitive. That was also fine by me. I wanted to tell the BTZ story, not compromise equipment and future operations.
The vetting process was deeply civilized, and I had a number of requests from the MoD for signed copies when the book was finally published.
While this was going on I continued to work for Andrew. I wasn't about to bin the day job.
Nish had finally bought himself a Cessna and flown it back to the UK. In typical Nish fashion, of course, he did it without any of the proper radios or safety kit the regulations said he required. Anything he did take was second-hand and stuck together with gaffer tape.
He'd nicknamed the four-seater Zephyr. Aircraft are much cheaper in the States, so his plan was to sell it once he got back and make some money to put towards the big skydive. By the time he landed, there wasn't much aircraft left to sell. He'd ripped out the two back seats to take an extra fuel tank. Then, because it only had one engine, which had already failed a couple of times during test flights, he removed most of the bolts from the door and decked himself out in an immersion suit. If he'd had to ditch, he planned to kick the door out and jump into his life-raft, a blow-up dinghy he'd bought at Toys Us. 'I might end up beating my dad's record,' he told me over the phone. 'He paddled for seventeen hours after parking his Spitfire in the Med. How long do you reckon it would take me from Newfoundland to Iceland?'
Nish didn't have the right radio or antenna, but he'd taken care of that. He tied one end of a roll of wire to a brick, which he dangled under the aircraft. To communicate with the various air-traffic controllers and jets zooming above him on the North Atlantic routes, he wound out or wound in a few more metres, depending on the prevailing frequencies. 'I knew all that antenna theory would come in useful in the end . . .'
Hare-brained as it was, he made it. He flew up into Canada, then across the Atlantic to Iceland, and eventually made it to Scotland, as you do. By the time he arrived, he'd changed his mind about selling. He'd got too attached to the single-engined heap of shit, I supposed.
As soon as he was back, the skydive from space took over his life. His house was turned into offices, and most of his time went into pestering the Russians for some of their Soyuz life-support suits. The Americans wouldn't cooperate in any shape or form. Maybe they were protecting Joe Kittinger's record.
There was something else on the bubble. Nish had a girl-friend – sort of. I'd never met her. I didn't even know if she was in the UK. They'd got together in DC, after I'd left. Her name was Anna, and depending on which week I spoke to him, she was either Russian or Russian/Filipina. One minute she played classical music, the next she was training to be a doctor. As long as she made Nish happy. If she was here, I wondered what she made of his company car: a battered old Ford Sierra with more rust than paint.
Frank always worried about everybody, all the time. Part of his job description, I supposed. All the same, I did call Nish to check up on him, but the phone kept ringing. The answer-machine was off, and that meant he was away – freefalling, or maybe flying Zephyr to Moscow. The boy had always been here, there and everywhere, and always at 100 m.p.h.
As for Frank, I wasn't sure if he knew that he had finally admitted he'd fucked up by getting out. I felt uncomfortable about him going off to play soldiers again. He'd got what he wanted, I thought: his church, his frock, his flock. I felt proud of him at weddings with all his gear on. He looked the business, especially now he had a decent tie.
You have to nail your colours to a mast at some stage, and it seemed Frank's hammer was still wavering in mid-air. Now he worried me almost as much as Nish did.
I'd met up with Nish a couple of times between his attempts to drum up support for the skydive from space and freefall gigs in Spain. While he and Harry, the Royal Marina Adonis, were busy sunning themselves, I was working on a BG job in the north-west of England, just outside Blackpool. Nish's shiny new brochure landed on my doormat and told me his jump was going to be from a ten-million-cubic-foot helium balloon. It said:
Fibre-optic cameras in [the parachutist's] helmet and a microwave transmission device on his body will allow viewers to see exactly what he sees as he reaches speeds of over 800 m.p.h. International bestselling authors Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsyth have agreed to provide commentary during the live TV coverage and subsequent documentary.
I gave him a call to take the piss. He sounded happy. He said he'd done a deal that meant NASA were finally on board.
'What sort of deal?'
'I've got to help Harry get a scientist and his gear up a mountain.'
NASA had developed the Tissue-equivalent Proportional Counter to measure levels of solar radiation and their effect on the skin. It had already been used on several Shuttle missions, but the spacecraft moved too quickly to register any useful results. The scientist, Karl Henize, was going to measure the level of radiation reaching the Earth's surface at various altitudes during the climb. The data would be shared by NASA and High Adventure, Loel Guinness's company.
'Done any climbing yet?'
'It'll be on-the-job training. You sort of put one crampon in front of the other, don't you?'
Rather him than me, but he was looking forward to it and I was pleased for him.
Next time I saw him, a few weeks later, Nish just wasn't Nish. He'd lost a lot of weight, which I put down to training – combined with the fact he was trying to give up smoking. He sucked fruit gums non-stop, but it wasn't working. He'd get through a packet, then celebrate with a couple of cigarettes.
Frank was right: his condition was a cause for concern. He wasn't that happy-go-lucky any more. All his oomph had gone. He even seemed a little slow on the uptake, like he was thinking a bit too much before speaking. And he looked like shit.
I still hadn't met Anna. She was in her early twenties, about twelve years younger than him and, in Nish's words, 'exotic'.
Her father really was Russian, and her mother Filipina. And she really was studying to become a doctor. She could speak Italian, play classical music, all that gear.
She'd come over a couple of times after Nish had got back from DC, and must have liked what she saw. She had approached Bristol University, and was continuing her medical studies there. The strange thing was that there weren't any pictures of her in his house – but maybe that was because the place was so full of brochures and skydive from space shit.
'I don't have time.' He shoved another fruit gum in his mouth. 'Overworked. Know what I mean?'
'You'll be fucking overworked when you start humping up Everest.'
Nish wasn't the only one who had me worried. Frank was giving up St Peter's and thinking about joining the army full time as a padre. It wasn't very Christian of him. Who was I going to have my McSummits with from now on?
Nish went off with Harry, and Bravo Two Zero was published in November. It went straight into the bestseller charts, and ended up the biggest-selling war book of all time. I couldn't believe it. Not even the publishers had expected it be so successful.
It was during that first month of success that the problems started. Armchair generals were filmed muttering that I was giving away secrets and endangering national security. These so-called experts had no idea that the book had been cleared. I read articles that said the MoD were dismayed by the revelations. I couldn't make any sense of it.
'It's what sells newspapers, Andy.' The man next to me on the back seat of the staff car jabbed a finger at one of the offending broadsheets on my lap. 'Don't let them worry you.'
I wasn't about to argue with such a high-ranking member of the defence staff, especially as we were on the way to Sandhurst, where I was to deliver the Christmas lecture.
Nish was still away; I hadn't seen him since he'd left for Everest last autumn. Frank had disappeared off the face of the Earth. This happened all the time; it wasn't as if we lived a nine-to-five existence and made a point of seeing each other at the end of the working day. Like bad pennies, they'd turn up. No news was good news.
Or so I thought.
I was overseas when I heard rumours that Nish had killed somebody. I couldn't get hold of Frank, Andrew, Harry, anyone reliable. In the end I had to phone the Lines. I got passed from pillar to post, and everybody had a different version. Nish had killed a man. Nish had stabbed a woman. He was in prison in France. He was in hospital in England.
'Any idea how I can get hold of Frank Collins? I think he's with the TA up north.'
'He's with 5 Airborne Brigade.'
I got him on the military extension at Aldershot. 'What the fuck's going on, Frank? He's killed a guy?'
'No, no, no. A guy died on the Everest trip. Nish was with him.'
'Thank fuck for that – I had visions of him locked away and—'
There was a brief silence at the other end of the line. Then: 'He has been. It was his girlfriend he tried to kill.'
'Anna? What the fuck's he playing at?'
'I don't know. He stabbed her. She's still alive. He hadn't slept for days. He had a complete breakdown. He thinks everyone's out to kill him. He thinks Anna's the devil. He's paranoid . . .'
'Where is he now? What can we do?'
'It's all been taken care of. He's been in an asylum in Chamonix.'
'They were on holiday with Harry and his girlfriend.'
'He been charged?'
'I don't think so. They brought him back to the UK. I'm praying for him.'
'Harry, Des and Schwepsy. They hired lawyers to get him out of there and into a London clinic. He's getting great support, but he's lost his mind.'
His nightmare had started on the Everest trip. There were twenty-four of them on the attempt to climb the North Face. The NASA guy, Karl Henize, was a keen amateur climber. Nish was the only inexperienced one.
Henize was an astronaut-scientist. He'd been on the support crew for Apollo 15 and Skylab missions, orbiting the Earth something like 120 times. During the Skylab-2 mission, he had been responsible for operating the Shuttle's robot arm, and conducting several scientific experiments. He was also a big-time astronomer with loads of technical papers to his name. He'd discovered more than two thousand stars, designated by the letters 'HE' in star catalogues. The boy was a bit of a star himself.
They were all humping up the North Face of Everest when, at about 17,000 feet, Nish began to suffer a severe headache. By 18,000 feet he was dropping behind. His head pounded. He vomited. His pulse rate shot up to 100 beats per minute. It was altitude sickness. His only chance was to go back down to base camp, reacclimatize, and start again.
He recovered after a couple of days and set off again to meet the rest of the lads, who by now were way above 20,000 feet. They'd stopped to acclimatize for a week before the next bound.
Nish was at 24,000 feet when he met Harry and a couple of other lads coming down. They were carrying Karl in a Gamow bag, a portable hyperbaric chamber. Through the small plastic window, Nish could see that his lips were blue and his eyelids were fluttering.
The bag had to be continuously pumped about once every five seconds – not to maintain pressure, but to flush fresh air through and prevent CO2 build-up. At some point the next day, it was Nish's turn on the pump. He talked to Karl about his time in Africa with Harry, trying to keep his mind working even if his body wasn't. It was to no avail. They buried Karl on the mountainside under rocks and shale, as he had requested.
Nish was physically shattered and also devastated that yet again someone had died on his watch. And his problems were far from over. No sooner had he left one nightmare behind than he came home to another.
Nish and Anna travelled to France to spend New Year with Harry and his girlfriend, who lived just outside Chamonix. By the time they arrived, Nish was convinced she was the devil, and was out to kill him. He wasn't eating, in case her plan was to poison him. He was skinny as a rake now, a shadow of his former self. He also hadn't slept for seven days. He was a soldier; he was on stag, waiting to be attacked. He had to be really clever and manoeuvre around her, because he knew she could read his mind.
They picked up a car at the airport and headed for Harry's place. Anna drove. Again, Nish had to be hyper-vigilant. At any corner she might drive off the road and throw the car down the mountainside. They'd burst into a ball of flame, and because she was the devil, she would walk out of the blaze with not a scratch on her and he'd be burnt to a crisp.
As they came into Chamonix, Nish spotted a group of gendarmes on a street corner. He got her to stop the car. He jumped out and ran over to them, fucked, emaciated, face gaunt through lack of sleep. He couldn't speak French, and they couldn't speak English. He pushed and shoved to try to help them understand, but something seemed to be getting lost in translation. Why didn't they understand she was trying to kill him? She'd cast a spell over them; they were now on her side.
As the confrontation escalated into a gangfuck, Anna phoned Harry. He turned up just in time to save Nish from being arrested or beaten.
Harry got them to their hotel, but Nish just lay there on stag: his eighth night in a row without sleep. In the twilight hours it came to Nish that he was the chosen one, and must take up the sword against evil.
In the morning, Anna confronted him. 'Nish, you must eat something.' She tossed him a tangerine.
Not a fucking chance. He threw it back at her and she caught it.
She's sharp, he thought. As she would be: she's the devil.
Did he have to eat all of it? he wondered. If he ate all of it, it was going to kill him. If he only ate a bit, it might appease her. He might manage to stay on her good side, so she wouldn't turn him into a ball of flame. But once that was done, she'd have to die. He'd have to kill her. If not, she would also kill his son, Jason.
The four of them hit the slopes, and by now Nish was pleading with Harry not to leave his side, not even when he went to the toilet. Harry was the only person he could trust to protect him. He knew Harry was too smart to be taken over by Anna and drawn into her web.
On the drive back Nish started barking at the moon. He couldn't contain his thoughts any longer. He told the three of them that Anna had to die, and he explained his plan. As they came into Chamonix, Harry pulled up at a hospital where he knew one of the doctors.
Nish saw at once that Harry and his girlfriend had fallen under Anna's spell. They were now on her side. He couldn't hang about. He had to kill her before another moment was lost. As they walked into the hospital, he grabbed a pair of scissors from a tray and lunged at her. The blades glanced off her head and dug into her shoulder. He pulled them out as she went down screaming. He needed to get them into her eyes to kill her quickly.
Harry took Nish to the ground, just as the scissors sank into Anna's chest.
Nish was triumphant. 'Did I kill her? Did I kill her?'
Harry held him in a headlock until help arrived. Nish was sedated. The police handcuffed him and took him to a psychiatric clinic. He was locked in a white-painted room that reminded him of an ice cave. It had a ventilation hole high in one wall. The shining white guard who always stood outside was an iceman.
I banged on the door of Nish's house in Hereford. I could hear the mid-morning talk-show waffle coming through the windows. He never actually watched the programmes. He just wanted them on so the noise and flickering screen stopped him thinking too deeply.
Even his smile of greeting was laboured. He was painfully thin. His whole body shape had changed. He would have been more at home on an Oxfam poster than an ad for Calvin Klein. His eyes were wet and dull, not sharp and feral. The wolf had fled.
As we headed past the brown sofa and the minging duvet he spent his life curled up beneath, a Daz commercial sparked up on the TV. 'You need to get hold of some of that, mate. Give that duvet a treat.'
He hardly ever left the front room. His world revolved around that brown velour sofa peppered with cigarette holes, and the duvet that looked like he'd found it on the towpath.
Overflowing ashtrays and plates of half-eaten toasted cheese sandwiches covered almost every horizontal surface in the kitchen. At least the drugs were making him hungry – after a fashion.
That wasn't the only side effect. He was like a zombie a lot of the time, yet he couldn't sleep. He had muscle spasms and shakes, a dry mouth and blurred vision. Chlorpromazine, one of the cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs he was taking, was a stupefier. It made him drowsy and lethargic. He still thought the whole world was against him, but he couldn't be arsed to do anything about it.
The kitchen looked like he'd furnished it from a car-boot sale, which he probably had. Cups and mugs were piled in the sink waiting for the washing-up fairy to visit. His white plastic garden chair still stood opposite the fridge. He would sit there and have a conversation with it if there wasn't anything on TV. He liked having a chat with the fridge now and again; it agreed with everything he said.
All the windows were shut, and the place stank of cigarettes and farts, but it wasn't funny any more.
Nish could only recall brief flashes of what had happened after the stabbing. He had a memory of lying on the floor with people holding his arms and somebody sitting on his back. He could hear Harry's voice, telling him everything was OK, not to fight it. The floor was cold against his cheek, and there was a strong smell of polish and disinfectant. For a while he thought he was back in the corridors of Para Depot as a young recruit.
Anna recovered and flew back to America, but things were touch and go for Nish. The French doctors wanted him sectioned; the police wanted to bring charges. His head was a car wreck. From the window of his ice cave, he had become preoccupied with fixing which way was north. He wanted to know if he had to cross the Alps to reach safety. He knew it was going to be difficult, dressed in just pyjamas and a dressing-gown, but these things had to be planned down to the last detail.
Harry had slipped into international-rescue mode. He called Des, Schwepsy, Loel Guinness and Saad Harari, Nish's old boss from Washington. The best Parisian lawyers were trying to sort something out.
Weak light penetrated the greasy net curtains behind the sink as he picked about in the landfill with nicotine-stained fingers. He scratched his stomach through his open denim shirt. 'Want a brew?'
'Yeah, why not, mate? But you going to give them a rinse this time?'
The milk would be off, as usual, and at least a dozen diseases clung to the bottom of each mug. Outside in the garden, the fence was still down after last year's storm. The grass was high enough to hide a hippo. The poor guy was fucked. It was all he could do to turn on the tap.
Harry had called Des in the States. He'd dropped everything and tried to get a flight, but it was easier said than done. Blizzards had brought America to a standstill and he'd spent two days snowed in at the airport before he could even get to New York. He immediately booked himself on more than twenty flights via the Far East and South America, anywhere as long as it meant getting to Geneva.
Des had breezed into Nish's ice cave, full of insults and banter. 'Hey, Big Nose – how's it going, madman? I always said you belonged in a padded cell.'
Schwepsy, ever Mr Formal, shook Nish's hand. They were working with the firm of lawyers that represented the French government, and getting the best medical advice. They had to find a British doctor to take responsibility for him, and a private jet, since no commercial airline would fly him, even in a straitjacket. Loel Guinness had offered his plane, and Saad was picking up all the other tabs. Des's contribution had been to organize champagne for the flight, and some very pretty nurses.
A few days later, they flew Nish home. An ambulance was waiting to whisk him straight to the Charter Clinic in Chelsea. One of the psychiatrists there looked after the royal family. No expense had been spared.
As he minced around trying to put the kettle on, I pulled several bundles of fifty-pound notes from my jacket. I threw them on the kitchen worktop, trying to make it look casual.
He frowned. 'What's all this?'
'Your mortgage. If you don't pay it you'll be out, mate. The lads have had a whip-round.'
He hadn't been working. He hadn't even had the strength to fill in the DSS benefit forms. His mortgage payments were in arrears. I wasn't sure if he knew that – or if he did but didn't really care.
The drugs that were helping him were also fucking him up. Sometimes they didn't calm him, and he'd have another attack of paranoia. The last one had happened in the Stonebow Unit in Hereford General. After four weeks at the London clinic, he'd moved there as an inpatient, and then an outpatient when he gradually improved. One day, he punched a nurse because he thought she was out to get him. It was letters and cards and flowers straight afterwards, of course; he was horrified. She was OK about it – it was all part of the job, and she'd been there before. She'd even helped him fill out a couple of social-services forms that he'd filed on his kitchen table when he got home.
He pulled a bottle of milk from the fridge. I caught a glimpse of a Mars bar and a couple of lumps of cheese in there, and that was about it. He looked at the wad. 'I can't take it, mate. You know that.' His speech was slurred.
'It's not a question of can or can't,' I said. 'You have to. I can't give it back – I can't remember who gave what.' That was a lie. Everybody had put in five hundred quid, except Frank. He'd put in a grand. I'd said it had to be five hundred from him and five hundred from God, and no fucking about. I knew where both of them lived.
'Think of it as a loan.'
He looked at me blankly. 'That's all well and good, but I'll never be able to pay it back, will I?'
'Some loans are very long-term, all right?'
He dropped a mug on the worktop for me and studied the cash. After a while, he pulled a note from one of the bundles.
I shuddered as I tasted the tea. 'You might think of investing some of that in a carton of fresh milk . . .'
He pushed the money into the back pocket of his jeans. He didn't even try his tea. He obviously wasn't that mad.
'Fancy going to see Hillbilly?'
I nodded. 'Good thinking.'
Nish didn't go out that much because he didn't like people talking about him as he shuffled along the street. He liked getting a lift.
'Give us a minute.' He went into the front room and rummaged in a couple of shoeboxes.
I drove over the old bridge and through the town towards St Martin's.
We stopped outside a small Spar on the way and he jumped out.
'Get some soap while you're at it, mate,' I called after him. 'Take the Daz challenge.'
He didn't come back with milk and washing powder, or even the cigarettes I'd thought he'd gone in for. Instead, he was brandishing a bottle of Captain Morgan. 'You don't need that, mate. You got enough drama as it is. You don't need to throw that shit down your neck.'
'Shut up, you dickhead. It isn't for me.' He shut the car door. 'Well, what are we waiting for?'
I drove up the Ross Road in the direction of the Lines, and turned into the gravel car park by the church.
We walked along the hedgerows and into the Regimental plot. Traffic ran up and down the main drag, but trees, hedges and an old stone wall did a good job of blocking out the noise. I've never been sure if the noise actually stops at the wall, or if my mind just blocks it out while I'm there. Whatever, it was a peaceful spot.
We walked between the precise rows of headstones.
The low wall to our right was lined with the plaques of guys who'd gone home to their own people or been buried in-theatre.
I knew too many of them.
Some graves had flowers on them: some fresh, some getting on a bit. Some had nothing at all, but the whole plot was neat and crisp and well tended.
When I came to see the guys I usually stole a few flowers from the other graves and spread them about among my lot. Nish did the same. He bent over Hillbilly's grave and arranged a small bunch in a jam jar. These guys would always share a brew; it was madness not to.
He seemed more on the ball now. Maybe he'd just needed to get out.
I left him to his thoughts and had a few of my own.
Nish got up. His jeans were soaked from the knees down.
His face changed as he took the rum from his jacket. He unscrewed the cap. 'Time for the gunfire ration.'
He poured a tot over Hillbilly's grave. 'There you go, mate. Cheers.'
He took a sip himself. 'If only I'd done something about that cunt who jumped the gate.'
I wasn't too sure if he was talking to Hillbilly or me.
'If I hadn't been such an arsehole over the water, maybe I would have been with you.'
It was Hillbilly.
'Maybe I could have saved you.'
He fished in his back pocket and passed me a folded sheet of paper. It was a letter from the OC, dated 6 March 1986 – just a few weeks before he got binned. It was the one he'd told me about the night we went downtown.
As you know we have recently within the space of a week conducted two successful operations . . . My purpose in writing now is to acknowledge formally your contribution to these successes and to the currently encouraging situation . . . You have every right to be fully satisfied and indeed proud of the work you have done. Please accept my personal thanks and, on its behalf, the gratitude of the Regiment. Well done.
'If I'd just wound my neck in, I could have stayed in B Squadron with Hillbilly. I might have been with him on the Wing. I might have been there with him. Maybe, maybe . . .'
I handed it back. 'You can't beat yourself up. He'd want you to get on with your life.'
He handed over the rum and I took a sip as I followed him over to Al's. He did the same little ceremony there, had a drink with him, then looked down and shook his head. 'I know I keep telling you, but I'm sorry, mate. Not a day goes by . . .'
After a few moments in his own world he turned to me. 'Might as well do your lot while we're here, eh?'
We started with Bob Consiglio, whom Nish had never met. I told him he was a good man, and should have got the VC for what he did.
'He was like an Action Man-sized Rambo.'
I struck the pose, my imaginary machine-gun on my hip, my arms juddering back and forth like a schoolboy playing war. We laughed, but we both knew what the Mumbling Midget had done for the rest of us that night.
We toasted him and I poured a large one over his headstone as it started to spit with rain.
Nish had a sudden thought. 'Hey, did Bob like rum?'
I didn't know. 'Tough shit, he's got some now.'
He took the bottle and poured a little more over Bob. 'Just in case he does.' He laughed for the second time in as many minutes. He was the happiest I'd seen him in many months.
We went over to Vince. Nish kept the bottle. 'I'll do him – I know he likes a drop.'
He poured a generous measure. 'Here you go, big boy.'
He took another swig and passed it back to me, then rested his hand on Vince's headstone. 'I wouldn't have passed Selection without him.' He slapped the marble. 'This boy saved my bacon.'
Nish told me what had happened on the Fan Dance. It came quite early in Selection, and involved running all over the Brecon Beacons with a Bergen hanging off your shoulders. It was the middle of winter. Nish was in shit state. His head was spinning and he was sitting in the mud. It was so cold he could no longer feel his hands or feet. His sweat was starting to freeze. He knew people died up there on Selection. He propped himself against a rock, and as he struggled to sort himself out, he heard, 'You all right, mate?'
'I looked up and saw a big fuck-off moustache looking down at me, and it was this fucker.' He slapped the stone some more. His eyes were welling up and he made no attempt to hide the fact. 'Didn't know him from Adam, but he made me take some sips of water, unwrapped his own Mars bars and forced two or three of them down me. "Come on, mate, you'll be all right." He got me up, and started me off again.'
He wiped the tears from his cheeks. 'If Vince hadn't been there, that would have been me fucked on the first week.' He looked at me. 'He didn't have to stop and help me. He didn't even know who I was. Fucking good lad.'
Nish spent the next fifteen minutes standing next to Vince, moaning and honking about how he had been portrayed in a book somebody else had written about Bravo Two Zero.
He was angry. The rum got passed backwards and forwards. I wasn't too sure how Captain Morgan got on with Mr Chlorpromazine.
'Don't worry, mate. The important thing is, we know him; everybody who matters knows him.'
We followed the low wall, pausing now and then to have a look at lads we knew and share a thought. We reached Steve Lane's plaque and I gave him a splash. I realized we were getting a little bit pissed here, because I missed it on the first attempt.
We sat on one of the old wooden benches like a couple of winos as the rain started to fall more heavily, and set about finishing the bottle.
There'd be five minutes of silence, and then he'd spark up. Then he'd go quiet again. I didn't mind. I normally came here on my own. It was good to spend time here with someone who talked back.
'What made you mad, mate – do you know yet?'
'They seem to think it's a chemical imbalance in my brain. And, by the way, I'm not mad.' His eyes sparkled. 'I've had a psychotic breakdown. The problem is, they can't say when this imbalance happened.'
'It had to be at birth – I've never known you any different.'
Either he didn't hear or he didn't get it. 'I just don't know, mate, I just don't know. Think of all those HALO jumps, on and off oxygen every five minutes. Right on the edge of hypoxia we were – I know that now. Maybe the whole of Seven Troop is affected. Maybe I'm just the first to fall. Maybe the trigger was Everest. I was in shit state up there. It was like I had a jackhammer in my head.' He took another swig and passed the bottle. There weren't many left. 'I don't know what caused it, but fuck it, I've got it.'
He went quiet again. 'You know, you're right – I'm officially mad, aren't I? No Snapper chit for me.'
Then, out of the blue, he made an announcement. 'I've got a sort of a girlfriend.'
'That's good, mate.'
'Yeah, early days.'
He lit a cigarette, suddenly worried that his fingers weren't yellow enough. I wasn't going to ask. If he wanted me to know, he'd soon tell me. It might have been somebody out of the Stonebow Unit who was just as mad, or it might have been his next-door neighbour. Who cared, as long as there was somebody with him? He was being looked after by friends: Harry, Des, Schwepsy, they'd all been in and out. Cameron Spence, an A Squadron guy, had looked in whenever he'd got leave from protecting the Algerian oil fields. Everybody did as much as they could, but the guys were bouncing around all over the world; they had stuff to do.
We sat there for an hour before our bollocks started to freeze. Nish was shaking. I didn't know if it was the drugs, the temperature, or the fact that we were both soaked to the skin.
'Time for a cab?'
He nodded and rose unsteadily to his feet, sucking on yet another cigarette. 'Did it work for you?'
I straightened up as best I could. 'Did what work?'
'The book. You know – was it a cathartic experience?' He scrutinized me carefully through a cloud of smoke.
We both swayed unsteadily. I knew he was trying to get serious.
'Maybe it would for me – you know, like a way of picking off the demons, then kicking 'em out.' He mimed pasting up a poster. 'Just published in hardcover today, ladies and gentlemen, Nish Bruce's epic, How To Be A Fruit.'
'Sounds good to me,' I said. 'It might help. You never know.'
I pitched up at 5 Airborne Brigade in Aldershot to talk to the Parachute Regiment. The NCOs were particularly interested in the command and control, planning and preparation aspects of the Bravo Two Zero patrol.
I bumped into their new chaplain. Round the barracks, his nickname had become Padre Two Zero once word got round that we'd been in Seven Troop together.
Frank loved being back in the army. He reminded me of a bright-eyed recruit, striding around in his frock with a spring in his step and his medals dangling.
We walked down Queen's Avenue, the main thoroughfare. He wore a maroon beret with a padre's cap badge, and a dog collar under his Para Reg smock. His SAS wings were emblazoned on his shoulder.
'Happy now, Frank?'
'Very. I've even taken up mountain climbing.'
I raised an eyebrow. I still couldn't understand why people wanted to climb up something and then climb right down again, just to be able to say they'd done it.
'And you're bringing God's word into poor, ignorant squaddies' lives?'
'Some of them.' He tapped the wings on his shoulder. 'This lets them feel they can talk to me. I tell them even Stephen Hawking thinks there must be a God.'
Every now and then he was greeted by a beep from a car horn or a shout and a thumbs-up.
'Yes, I'm happy. I'm back. The money's good as well. I'm freefalling again, and I want to climb K2.'
'You should never have got out in the first place, should you, you dickhead?'
He smiled. 'You seen Nish lately?'
'Back in H. He's still dribbling, still on the meds.'
'I've been praying for him.'
'That's good, because I've been getting drunk with him in the Regiment plot.'
I was expecting a disapproving frown, but none came.
I left Frank to carry on God's good work, but before I jumped in the car back to Hereford he grabbed hold of my arm again. 'I want to write a book, you know.'
'About what, mate?'
'I want to talk about God – how it all happened, how I found Him. I know why He put me here, Andy, and that's to help people. I think it would help them to know my story.'
9 May 1998
I wandered back into the marquee with Nish. The Eurovision Song Contest was certainly giving everyone an appetite. Mountains of food and drink were being consumed as Terry Wogan reminded us briskly of the competing acts before the big vote. A chorus of cheers and boos rang round the tables.
Nish put an arm round my shoulder. 'Great party, mate. Now, where's Jackie Collins disappeared to?' Frank's Baptism of Fire had come out the previous October and turned him into a bit of a celebrity: Nish had instantly dropped the Father Frank handle and rebranded him.
The tabloids loved him too. He was an irresistible combination of Rambo and Mother Teresa. He still carried his Claymore bag over his shoulder, but he just had his Bible in it these days – and a bundle of photographs because people kept stopping him in the street and asking for his autograph. Not a day went by without a flood of fan mail and more requests to speak about his experiences than he knew how to handle.
Frank was out of the army again, still trying to find I don't know what. He'd finished the padre bit, and was being courted by every overseas charity and children's welfare group on the planet. He was still freefalling, and spent his weekends running up mountains to get closer to God Squad HQ.
Nish seemed to have banished his demons and got himself together enough to write a book. Freefall was coming out in three months. He gave me a sheepish grin. 'Then you'll see how mad I am.'
He spotted Livvy – who was living with him now – and went off to join her. She was in her thirties, very pretty, and juggling a job with being a single mum of two small girls. Nish was besotted. I was happy for him. Somebody was gripping him, and it looked like it was working. She must have seen something in him, too, if she was willing to stick around after taking one look at his sink and that terrible brown sofa.
He was still on the meds because he still had paranoid episodes. One time, he thought the IRA were out to get him, disguised as road workers. He'd been aggressive with people, angry, sad, morbid. He'd been in and out of the Stonebow Unit, drugged up to the eyeballs for days at a time, but Livvy had been at his side throughout. She'd cleaned up the house and seemed to have sorted out his life.
One of the upsides of his new medication was an obsession with personal cleanliness, although he still seemed intent on smoking himself to death.
Frank sat down beside me as the final votes came in. The Israeli transvestite won, and I was eighty quid to the good on the sweepstake. It didn't get better than this.
By mid-afternoon everybody who'd stayed overnight – in tents or sleeping-bags on the floor – had rattled off home. I minced around picking up empties and getting the marquee ready for collection.
At six o'clock, I heard the chug of a big old diesel engine coming up the drive. We weren't expecting more visitors. I went outside and stood on the bridge as Frank parked his Mercedes box van, the size of a small truck, in the mud. When he was away doing God's work, it was his travelling church and mobile home, all in one. He prayed, cooked and slept in it.
He'd put the family business to good use, kitting it out with a bed, bench seating, and cooker surround. Nish had nicknamed it Pikey Two Zero when he'd first bought the thing and dossed on an old mattress on the bare metal floor at freefall meets, but now it was carpeted and had all mod cons he called it the Popemobile.
Frank rubbed his hands together as he walked up the path. 'Finished early, so I thought I'd see if there was any food left.'
There was, tons of it. But he was lying. When he'd left, it had been to go sky surfing at Peterborough, three hours away, en route to London. It was Frank's latest craze, jumping with a snowboard strapped to his feet and trying to slalom across the sky.
We sat in the kitchen and finished off the last of the chicken in creamy something or other with rice, and he told me about the latest offer he'd had to front a scheme for a children's charity in Africa. Initially, he'd been excited about it. Now it didn't look so good. 'I want to go out there and get my hands dirty, but all they're really after is another patron.' He'd had the same problem with inner-city charities. He was desperate to take the kids canoeing and climbing, but they just wanted him as a fund-raiser. He said it made him sad and frustrated.
'So what are you going to do? You fucked up, getting out a second time. You've got to get a plan together, mate.'
'I'm not sure things ever go according to plan. They didn't for Tommy Shanks, did they?' He played with his food like a child, pushing it around his plate. Not pissed off, but sad. Miserable, even. I'd never seen him like it. 'You know people for years, and they change and do things you'd never expect . . .'
'You all right, mate?'
'No, not really.' He fixed me with his cornflower blues. 'I've been thinking about Al. The waste and stupidity of it all. Why couldn't we have been there to save him? What are we doing with our lives?'
He was getting a bit too deep for me. He was the one who was supposed to know the answers, but he just kept coming out with more questions. 'I always try and do the right thing – be a good person. Why am I so lost?'
'I thought God sorted all that shit for you. Hasn't He got a plan?'
Frank stared into the middle distance. The pulpit voice was back, very clear and precise. The miserable face lit up. I was suddenly in the presence of the fervour of the convert. 'I do have a plan. God has given it to me.'
'Can He give me one?'
'No, not this plan. This plan is to stop the feeling of being lost. You don't need it. If you did, He would have given it to you as well.'
'So what's he got up his sleeve this time? Starting up an orphanage in Angola? Building a church on top of Everest?'
This evening Frank wasn't biting.
He got to his feet, helped himself to four or five cans of Coke and packed away some fruit and hunks of cheese. 'Free food and drink, that's what I came for. So that's it, I'm off.'
I walked him back to the van. He jumped in and I walked alongside as he reversed down the drive.
The window powered down.
'Call me as soon as you can tell me this plan of yours, OK? I'm doing book stuff in New York for a couple of weeks, but then we can get together. Have a McSummit, eh?' I suggested.
He stopped the van and stretched out his hand. 'Yeah, I'll see you, Andy.'
'In London, when I get back.'
'Let's do that.' He locked his eyes on mine and didn't let go of my hand. I thought he was going to kiss me for a minute, but then he changed his mind.
17 June 1998
I threw open the door of my hotel room, which overlooked Central Park. The message light on the bedside phone was blinking. I hit the playback button, and heard a familiar voice. It was Mark Lucas, my literary agent in London, and the guy was almost crying. 'I've got some bad news.'
It had to be Nish, I just knew it. He'd done something stupid again.
'It's Frank . . .'
Oh, fuck. Parachuting accident, it had to be.
'He's committed suicide . . .'
No. I'd misheard. There had to be some mistake.
I sat down – collapsed – on the bed and hit the repeat button.
'He committed suicide . . . yesterday . . . give me a call.'
It was the early hours of the morning in London, but I picked up the receiver and dialled.
I hadn't misheard. There hadn't been a mistake.
Frank had plugged the gap under the door of a friend's garage, run a hosepipe from the exhaust into the cab, then locked himself in and turned on the engine.
I sat there on the bed in a Manhattan skyscraper with its panoramic, 70mm movie view of the city that never sleeps, and all I could think was: Frank, you cunt.
24 June 1998
The line of mourners snaked along the pedestrian walkway of Hereford town centre and into St Peter's Church. I recognized former and still serving members of the Regiment, wives, friends and a whole lot of other people Frank had collected over the years. I stayed outside with my fellow pallbearers, waiting for the hearse to arrive.
A bell tolled. Shoppers stopped and watched. They all knew whose funeral it was. The local media had made it a big deal.
There were plenty of theories bouncing around as to why he'd killed himself. Some said he was angry with God. Some said he was angry with everyone. Others thought he was just angry, full stop. Look at the way he killed himself, they said. That was angry, no question. I wasn't convinced. I thought he was making sure people didn't forget him. He wanted to be a tiger for a day. The soft lad had certainly done that.
Frank was a searcher, who couldn't find what he was looking for. Did he even know what it was? He found God and got out of the army. But he missed his old life and missed Al, and missed the opportunity to kill the man who'd killed his mate. He was up and down, all over the place. Post-career anticlimax was the latest syndrome that Rumour Control had him suffering from, but I thought it was just another word for post traumatic stress disorder, and I had a feeling Gordon Turnbull would have agreed. But that was too easy an excuse.
Frank bounced around trying to work out what he wanted, and he couldn't because he'd fucked up when he left the army – he'd finally admitted as much that day in McDonald's, just around the corner from where I stood. The Church had never filled the vacuum. Even when he'd got back in as a padre, the gap was still there. He'd wanted to help people, but he'd still wanted to be a soldier. He'd wanted to come back to the Regiment.
He left a letter saying he wanted to be buried next to Al and the others in the plot, but that could never happen. They got him as close as they could in the civilian area, but even in death he couldn't find his way back into the fold.
The suicide was well planned and prepared. He'd known what he was going to do at the party, and that was just one of the things that pissed me off. He'd known exactly where he was going, and didn't even pull the safety cord. It made me fucking angry. We were his mates. He kept telling me he was there to listen and help others with their problems, so I made the mistake of assuming he didn't have any of his own. God was on his side – wasn't that supposed to solve everything?
He'd spent the rest of his days trying to replace what he'd walked away from. And he'd never managed it. Regret had consumed him. Maybe that was why he didn't feel he could tell anybody. But we were his mates, for fuck's sake.
My anger was probably a way of salving my own guilt; I knew I'd never quite forgive myself for not realizing what the fuck he was up to. It seemed so obvious now. Why hadn't I spotted it?
The hearse arrived, and we carried the coffin inside. I took my seat in the big old imposing stone edifice, but I took none of it in. I thought back to the time over the water when we'd talked about funerals in the van. I didn't listen to the waffle; I just thought about Frank and how he'd died. Like I'd said to him, the prayers meant nothing to me. Only the man did.
I looked around me. He'd certainly picked up a weird collection of people on his journey. There were friends from his evangelical, happy-clappy days, from the theology college, prayer groups, the cathedral lads down the road, the kids and youth groups he'd helped. You could tell the guys from the Regiment. Most had sun-tans and ill-fitting suits, and crammed the walkways and galleries rather than sitting down. It was the biggest crowd he'd ever pulled in this church.
I sat there listening to speaker after speaker say great things about him, but all I could think was: What a waste. He could have done so much to help people, if only he'd realized it was OK to ask for help himself. After all, he'd kept telling me it was OK to do that. We would have taken the piss out of him, of course. But we would have helped.
The Bishop of Hereford had opened one of the great halls of the cathedral down by the river, and most people headed down there after the service. The family had arranged a private burial at St Martin's, in a plot just ten metres or so from Al and the rest of them. We lowered his coffin into the ground, and then I stood back. I felt I was imposing. This was family shit.
I stayed a while after they'd gone. I was going to walk down to the corner shop and buy some gunfire ration.
One of the gravediggers approached me. We recognized each other from previous visits I'd made. He held up a carnation that had been left behind after the service. 'We're going to fill him in now, Andy. You want to say goodbye?'
I took the flower and stood there, telling the dickhead he'd chosen a fucking stupid way to die. Then I threw the flower into the grave and the lads got busy with their shovels.
I wandered down to the Spar and bought a half-bottle, then dropped by Al, Hillbilly, Vince, Bob, Legs, all the rest of the dickheads lying there. Then I went off to the cathedral for sandwiches, sticky buns and wine.
The hall was packed. It wasn't the first time any of us had been to a friend's funeral, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. We toasted Frank, and when the free drink ran out we melted away to clog up the pubs and wine bars. There were a few more smiles about the place now, and some laughter. Now we'd escaped the austere surroundings of the cathedral, we could take the piss out of Frank and remember him as friends should.
Nish actually bought me a drink, and we propped up the bar, ties loosened.
'You know, Frank came back on the Sunday, and he said goodbye. I didn't realize.'
'Why?' Nish looked bemused. 'I tell you what, Andy. There's many a time I've thought about being Frank's lead scout on this particular mission.'
'Not you as well, mate. What the fuck's going on here? You two been licking the same kill-me spoon?'
He took a big gulp of Stella and his hands started to shake. 'The nights are the worst. That's when I think about topping myself. I've worked it all out – how to do it, when to do it, what songs I want at the service, the whole fucking thing. And remember, I want burning. I don't want to rot in the ground like Frank.'
'That's the drugs talking, mate. Everything's all right. You've got a bit of control now. You've got Livvy, it's all right. Stop being a dickhead.'
'No, mate. I've got my Para Reg head on for this. I know what I'm talking about. It's all good. I've got it planned out. But don't worry – it's only when you decide you will commit suicide that you can. When that happens, you don't think about the service or where you want to be buried, you just go and do it.' He talked quite happily about it as the Stella made its way down the glass. He drained it with one final gulp. 'But he knows where's he going, doesn't he? He's going up to see his boss. Fuck knows where I'll be going.'
I wanted to tell Nish that I thought Frank's problem was that he kept looking for certainties in a world where they were a bit thin on the ground. But I thought there was time enough for that. 'Another pint? You're buying.'
Cameron Spence came and saved the day by offering to buy. I liked Cammy, even if he was from the Queen's Regiment. He still bit like a hungry fish when he got a hard time for it. He was a wiry, Road Runner type of guy, and the world's most intense and honest man – to the point at which he made men angry and women cry.
He raised his glass. 'Here's to Frank. I would've had him in my patrol any time.'
It was the highest accolade Frank could have received from any of us.
The next day, the Sun ran a story that said I'd been standing at Frank's grave with a carnation in my hand, crying. And I don't think they were wrong.
8 January 2002
The early-morning traffic snaked along the Oxford road. I was on my way from London to Hereford for a meeting with Andrew, then hoping to hook up with Nish the following day. I'd see him every month or so, unless he was away jumping.
He had married Livvy, but things didn't pan out. Last I'd heard she was in the Caribbean with her children, working as a property developer. I'd never asked him about it; I wasn't sure what the reaction would be. I didn't want to turn him even loopier than he already was. And just because we were mates didn't mean we had to do the big emotional thing every time we stopped off for a brew.
The meds kept him under control, and he was spending a lot of time freefalling in Spain. He still dreamt about the jump from the edge of space. Things were all right – as far as any of us could tell.
He'd called me the week before, sounding happy and upbeat.
'All right, mate? Listen, I'll be in H on the ninth – you there?' I'd asked.
He'd laughed. 'Yeah, I'll be there all right. Hey, I've got a new mobile number.'
'Wait.' I grabbed a pencil and pad. 'Go on.'
'I'll see you later on, mate.' He carried on laughing.
'Your number, dickhead – what's your number? Where are you, anyway?'
The phone went dead. I'd tried to call him back, but the number was withheld. That wasn't a problem. He knew I'd be in Hereford, and he knew I'd be with Andrew.
Since Frank's death I'd just been getting on with my life, much like anybody else. I was still writing, working on the odd movie and building the security company with Andrew. My big interest outside work was promoting army education. Al and Nish were my inspiration.
All infantry recruits, from the Guards to the Paras, received their basic training at the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick in North Yorkshire. At any one time, about eighteen thousand squaddies were based in the garrison town, making it Europe's largest military base. I did a regular turn. I stood in front of a roomful of recruits, all aged between seventeen and twenty-one, and began with an apology. Andy McNab wasn't six foot six and four feet wide, and he didn't wear a Superman costume. Then I talked about the first book I ever read as a boy soldier: Janet and John Book 10. It had been written for eleven-year-olds, which was just as well because that had been my reading age.
I showed them clips of film and bits and pieces of SAS derring-do, the gist of my message being: 'Look, lads, if I can do it, so can you. Use the Education Corps. Suck them dry, because that's what they're there for.' Then I finished by quoting the Education Corps captain who'd changed my life the day he told me and the rest of the zit-covered sixteen-year-olds at Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion: 'Everybody thinks you're thick as shit, but you're not. The only reason you cannot read or write is because you do not read or write.'
Not much had changed since then. These lads were still predominantly from the inner cities, and came with all the baggage: broken families, social deprivation, little or no education, exposure to drugs. Nearly half the new recruits still joined the army with the reading ability of an eleven-year-old. Nine per cent of them joined with the skill levels of five- to seven-year-olds. That didn't mean they were thick. It meant the state-school system hadn't gripped them.
Literacy skills were now as much part of basic training as weapons, fitness and battlefield tactics. You could be educated and a soldier. Go that route, and you had the world at your feet. I'd got quite passionate about it. Any minute now I'd turn into an ayatollah.
I smiled to myself and tuned in for the traffic news.
What I heard instead was the story of a man who'd jumped out of a Cessna yesterday, on the way back from Spain. It wasn't a freefall accident. He'd jumped out on purpose, without a parachute, while a female friend flew the aircraft. The man had been identified as Charles Bruce, forty-six, one of the world's best freefallers, with nearly four thousand skydives to his credit.
He had a friend and business partner called Judith, who was also a big-time pilot and freefaller. They owned a plane together. I guessed she must have been flying it. But I didn't have her number.
I called Andrew. 'You heard?'
'You didn't get my message?'
I hadn't bothered to listen to my voicemail. I'd been in too much of a hurry to get on the road.
I stayed in Hereford for three days, and the story became clearer by the hour. I phoned Jim Davidson. Minky had already called him, and he was in pieces.
Nish and Judith had been in Spain for a couple of weeks. That must have been where he'd phoned me from. They were doing a series of freefall displays. As they were making their way back to Hinton airfield in Northamptonshire, Judith radioed Brize Norton and requested permission to make an emergency landing. The wings were icing up.
Bad weather had forced them to land at La Rochelle. After the cloud had lifted they'd refuelled and set off again. The plane's wings started to ice up so Judith decided to take the aircraft up to 5,000 feet, above the cloud. Ten miles from Brize Norton, Nish had slid his seat right back and undone his belt. She'd tried to grab him, but he'd pushed open the door and gone out head first.
Judith descended over Fyfield and flew in low circles, trying to see where he'd impacted. She must have been absolutely traumatized. The locals watched the plane nearly roof-hopping before she finally had to bank away and head for Brize Norton. Soon afterwards, someone found Nish's body on a football pitch at the edge of the village.
We bounced around the pubs and wine bars, bumping into lads who'd known him, and a couple of his ex-girlfriends.
Nish had finally completed his skydive from the edge of space, and the general consensus was that he would have been smiling all the way down – a great big carefree wolfish grin that stretched from ear to ear. 'Nothing else comes close to those first few seconds after leaving the plane,' he had written in his book, 'because once you take that last step there is no going back. A racing driver or a skier or a climber can pull over and stop, have a rest, but with parachuting, once you cross that threshold, you have to see it through.'
That night, I had a dream.
Nish, Frank and Al flew towards me, pushing out their legs to catch more air. Their three heads were so close together they were almost touching. Frank opened his mouth and let go of the orange he'd been holding between his teeth. It bounced about between them for three or four seconds before being catapulted out of the vortex. I did a forward roll, then a backward roll and banged out of it to stable-on-heading. Al did a forward flip that took him into a rapid descent. Frank turned, drew his arms back into a delta wing, and tracked across the sky. Nish gave me a big thumbs-up, back-flipped out and disappeared.
It was standing room only in the crematorium chapel. Those who hadn't been able to make it that far were packed shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and still others spilled into the courtyard and onto the lawns outside. Nish had touched so many lives.
The Red Freds were out in force, as well as mates from his Para Regiment days and, of course, the Seven Troop lads, which now included Dinger. I even caught a glimpse of Nish's next-door neighbour. It wouldn't have surprised me to see the guy from the corner shop on the Ross road, and the nurse he'd taken a swing at.
Harry looked around at them all and choked halfway through the eulogy. There was no singing. Nish just wanted to be burnt and have the whole thing over and done with.
Afterwards, we moved off to the airfield he used to jump from. The clubhouse was as jam-packed as the chapel, but a lot noisier. This was a celebration, not a doom-and-gloom affair.
A lot of us hadn't seen each other for a while. Ken was over in one corner. Rumour had it he was running around with a bunch of Russians. People didn't ask; if he wanted you to know, he'd say. He was waffling to Saddlebags, poking his chest. He looked as though he was about to drop him. He was probably just telling him a joke.
Ken had been right about the strategic war in Northern Ireland. Once peace negotiations were under way it had become very clear that our task had been to eliminate those who never intended to give up the gun. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams had wanted to get on with the politics, and we'd smoothed the path. Hard-liners who'd slipped through the net had resurfaced as the Real IRA.
Saddlebags now worked in the City as head of security for some financial institution, complete with Gucci car and even Guccier loft apartment.
Tiny was training to be a physics teacher. I wouldn't have wanted to be in his class. The kids would have nightmares.
Chris nursed a bottle of Pils. He was a pig farmer now. I thought that would suit him rather well. He didn't have to talk to them much; all he had to do was share a little grunt and a sniff with them from time to time.
Paul was on the Circuit, here, there and everywhere. Des Doom and Schwepsy were suited up and looked like moguls: they ran a security business and it was going strong. About a month ago I'd caught sight of Schwepsy from a taxi in the City. He was in a pin-stripe suit and carrying a briefcase, striding purposefully towards the entrance of an office block. Some poor fucker was about to be on the receiving end of an almighty bollocking. I leant out of the window and shouted, 'Oy, dickhead!' but he didn't look back. The insult couldn't possibly have been aimed at him.
Harry had stayed on in Chamonix, still soft in the head about climbing mountains. The hair had almost completely gone. It probably made him more streamlined at altitude.
As the shadows lengthened, the storytelling gathered pace and volume. We swapped memories of Nish's farts and bogeys and stitch-ups – just as he would have wanted – and also of his courage and skill, leadership and compassion, which we knew he would have hated.
I sat in the corner in the early hours and took a moment with my own thoughts. My dream replayed itself: the three of them freefalling like magicians just feet away from me. Their smiles widened in the slipstream as they watched the crap-hat new boy doing his best to keep stable.
I was the only one left alive.
Had Nish suffered from a chemical imbalance? Was it the cumulative effect of many episodes of hypoxia? Or was it PTSD? I knew he'd never really got over the deaths of Al and Hillbilly. Or, maybe, had he just thought, Fuck it, I've had enough, and jumped? There are some people who go for it full throttle, in life as well as death – and if things went on like this, the guy in the corner shop would be able to retire early.
I smiled. I knew Nish would have been laughing all the way down. He'd probably picked out the exact spot where he wanted to land and tracked towards it.
I now knew for sure he'd planned it all. It wasn't an impulse.
He'd given the others the same mobile-number story. It had been his excuse to call us to say goodbye, like Frank had done on the day of the party without me realizing it. Maybe that was where he'd got the idea. I remembered him telling me at Frank's funeral, 'It's only when you decide you will commit suicide that you can . . .'
I raised my glass to him. I didn't know whether to feel sad or happy. I'd lost yet another mate, but he had died doing what he wanted to do – and how could you deny a friend that?
St Martin's Church, Hereford
The guy behind the counter gave me a pitying glance when I bought a bottle of rum at ten in the morning. I was making a bit of a habit of this. I felt his eyes following me as I walked up the Ross road in the rain and nipped round to the back of the graveyard.
Frank got his first, not because he was the new boy but because his grave was on the way to the plot. I knew he'd never been that keen on the stuff, so I gave him a drop or two extra. He had some catching up to do.
I moved on, mouthing my thanks to Nish – this was a much better idea than flowers. I splashed Steve Lane's plaque, then walked through the lines of headstones. There had been a few new additions to the suicide club since Nish and Frank had set the thing up. One lad had left a complete order of service behind: which songs he wanted sung, where he wanted to be buried, even what flowers he preferred.
There were fresh flowers on Al's grave. I gave them a good sprinkle and moved on to Vince.
He got his ration next, and I spent a moment or two taking the piss out of him for stopping to help Nish on the Fan Dance. Then I poured the last of the black stuff over Bob and headed for a brew and a waffle with a couple of the lads in town.
I'd visited the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and come across a lot of the guys who were now out on the Circuit, and there was no doubt in my mind that a couple of them should have been queuing up outside Gordon Turnbull's door. I still give myself a mental MOT every now and then to make sure I'm not behind them.
I'd met up with Snapper in Kabul in 2006. It was great to see him, even if he did make me pay for the tea. He was still as mad as a box of frogs, and had enough weapons and radios dangling off him to take on the Taliban on his own. He was one guy who would never suffer from PTSD. There was far too much going on in his head to leave room for anything else.
After the 2003 invasion, I went back to the place where I was captured in Iraq. The Regiment had erected a cairn on the banks of the Euphrates to commemorate Vince Phillips, Steve Lane and Bob Consiglio. The locals were told it was booby-trapped; that if they tried to pull it down, it would pull them down too.
I couldn't stick around. If you stood still anywhere in Iraq for more than ten minutes the militants would be on their way. But I was there long enough to absorb it all. I still didn't feel bitter, resentful, guilty, anxious or violent. I just felt lucky to have come out pretty much unscathed, and privileged to be standing there next to something that the guys had built during the war to celebrate the memory of some brave friends who'd died.
I smiled to myself. Camaraderie hadn't gone out of fashion. I realized that was what I missed most. It was what Frank and Nish had missed, too.