Brian's cursing over some admin hiccup in the otherwise perfect running of the company. Hookey, like me, is collapsed in a chair, snoring. My eyes now closing. Tiredness creeping over me. Drifting into half sleep...
Tired and wet! I've been here before! Strange thoughts. Half unconscious flashback images stealing around the murky corridors of my mind. Half back in Belfast, the other here in cold wet Brecon.
“Come on! Get up! Move your ass.” I'm yelling at a mud-and-rain-soaked recruit, trying to haul himself off the ground.
“Get that fucking rifle barrel out of the mud, you stupid shit.” All this above the crack of S.L.R.s and the shouts of my N.C.O.s at the rest of the section. The ground is uneven clods of thick grass, hidden holes and pools of water. Ahead a fifteen-foot-wide stream. There's a gasp as the crow in front of me hits the ice-cold water and wallows around up to his chest, weighted down by thirty pounds of equipment.
“Come on you fairy this isn't a swimming pool! Get across!" It's the second time I've been across the stream, so I'm already soaked through and freezing cold. There's a certain delight in watching somebody else do it. To the right an ashen faced crow lying on the ground, his rifle moving in a lazy arc.
“Smith, you bastard, you're supposed to be covering. Get that rifle firing.” He looks at me and for a brief second thinks of unloading the entire magazine of live rounds into my chest. The N.C.O. behind hits him with a large lump of wood and amid screams of abuse, Smith hauls himself off the ground and wades through the water.
Despite all the abuse the lads are working well, moving carefully but quickly and, apart from the occasional desire to give up, getting on with the job in hand. The “job” is to capture a sniper position up on the hill in front of us, the position being “held” by wooden targets. The back brace on one target is shot through and starts to topple. Before it hits the ground a burst from the machine gun, over on the right flank, smashes it to tiny pieces. Jones, the crow in front of me, zigzags forwards while Smith covers him. Smith is approaching exhaustion and starting to give up. He fires, and the round smacks into the ground inches away from Jones' left boot, whines away over the hill.
“Smith you little shit, what the fuck are you trying to do?” He looks a little shaken. “Bill, sort that cunt out,” I shout to Cpl. Conway. Just one more incident to talk about once the exercise is over.
The rain is coming down harder now, the icy drops lancing into my face, stinging; sodden beret clamped to head, smock twice its weight with water. This is the most dangerous part of the exercise. Tired crows nearing the end, bunching together, firing at the targets now only twenty-five metres ahead.
“Apply safety catches and skirmish through the objective.” I try and counter the noise. The N.C.O.s catch the call and the firing ceases. Euphoria that they have reached the objective takes over and the crows skirmish through, screaming and cursing. I hand over to Cpl. Conway, who carries on with the reorganisation and consolidation of the position, and walk over to a small outcrop of rock at the top of the hill. Looking back across the valley to a small wood about two hundred metres away, three figures emerge and start running with the awkward gait of men laden down with heavy equipment. Every so often one of them trips and stumbles over the rough ground, but they keep on coming. As they get closer I can hear the rasping pants as they struggle for air, their kit clunking and squelching, bruising their hips.
L.Cpl. Hedges brings the gun crew in on my signal and positions them. I feel good.
The sound of singing and splashing carries up through the valley and figures appear at the door of the hut to watch the procession. Standing out in the pouring rain, cold and wet with huge smiles on their faces, shouting obscenities together with derisive gestures. Four months ago, they were just a bunch of out-of-work unfit youths who fancied themselves as paratroopers. Out of the seventy that originally formed the platoon, there are thirty here on the range. And they are all fit, healthy and happy. Sometimes.
Time to stop the daydream and get the last section through. So it's trot down the hill, wade through the stream and nonchalantly stroll up to where the section is waiting. Fully kitted out. Laden down with ammunition and other equipment. Now slightly nervous as the moment of truth has finally arrived.
“O.K. lads. Listen in. Safety procedures...” I run through the briefing, give them the scenario and off we go again. My platoon Sgt. just grins and disappears back inside the hut, muttering something about having to get on with the admin. His words echo strangely in the doorway.
“The Ardoyne was...”
“Ardoyne...” Someone in the background talking. Waking me.
The word is emotive enough in Army circles. That such a small area could cause so much suffering and hardship is barely credible. Before we arrived in the place, no police had been into the area, no taxes had been paid, rates, electricity bills, nothing. How big? It was split into two. The old Ardoyne and the new. The old is about three hundred yards long by the same width, crowded with terraced housing. The new is slightly bigger with a more modern standard of terraced housing. Surrounded by OPs, five in all, with nearly two hundred and fifty men patrolling it by day and night. Still the shootings occurred. Ambushes, bombs thrown. Delightful little spot to spend four or five months of your life.
Awake again. Mouth like the inside of a fisherman's boot. Numb joints, numb mind. Toms standing in the dull glow of the light bulb. Rifles in hand, slings attached to wrists. Blackened badges on battered berets. Listless shuffling, mindless banter. I file the planned route in the Ops Room and then we go out into the clammy cold midnight air. It's stopped raining. Score one against Sod's Law. Cover across the Crumlin Road. Slippery street and few cars. Up by Fort Knox and slip quietly and unobtrusively into the Ardoyne.
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Genre – Autobiography / Biography & Memoir
Rating – 18+