Warning: this piece contains strong language
It was a damp night in Belfast in February (or was it March?) of 1972 that I didn’t kill someone and I wasn’t put on trial for murder...perhaps I should explain?
It’s funny what you think about in moments of fear and confusion, about the odd chain of events that have led me to crouch down, making myself as small as possible and hopelessly trying to push myself back into the unyielding hedge beside the footpath while I watch death rolling slowly down the hill towards me. Damn these street lights.
They called it 'The Troubles' and I had picked up that it was something to do with Protestants and Catholics. But it made no sense to me. I had grown up in Essex and never gave a thought about which church people went to - or didn’t go to. I knew my neighbours back home must be Catholic because they went to a Catholic club and we didn’t, but that wasn’t something to get upset about. It would have been nice if someone had told us what ‘The Troubles’ was all about before sending us across to Ulster from our barracks in Edinburgh.
The car moves slowly down the hill towards me, its lights off. I can see shadowy figures inside. I am only allowed to ‘cock’ my rifle when ordered to do so - or if in immediate danger. I cock my rifle putting one ‘up the spout’.
I was only here because some of the Corporals in my company had been demoted to Private for gambling, and I was ordered out on patrol with one other Lance Corporal, seven Private soldiers and a young officer (who was more of a hindrance than a help). Somehow, I ended up as ‘tail-end charlie’ so when all other eight members of my patrol went, one by one, around the corner and out of sight, I was the only one visible to those in the car coming down the hill.
They have to be up to no good, don’t they? Four men driving slowly with the lights off? We are in Whiterock after all (a notorious IRA controlled area). I raise the rifle to the aim and get the driver in my sights.
I wish they had let me go on the ‘Op Banner’ (training that the other guys went on a few months ago), but I was only a pay clerk and ‘wouldn’t be doing any of that sort of thing’; just admin duties, manning the canteen and a bit of driving. I had been in the army for over three years (being an ex-apprentice), but I was still only eighteen. This was actually my second foot patrol; the first had lasted just a few minutes. The local housewives had spotted us and set up a chain of banging dustbin lids to warn the IRA that we were out and about so the patrol commander called on the radio for an armoured ‘pig’ to come and pick us up. Tonight’s patrol looked as if it could have a worse ending.
The car is moving impossibly slowly and all of the windows are open. It turns the corner in front of me, along the road where the rest of the patrol have already gone. The four lads inside look about my age. I take off the safety catch, keep my aim on the driver and gently put pressure on the trigger - not too much - just enough to put some tension on it.
I remember overhearing a radio message when I was in the ops room a couple of weeks ago. The Commanding Officer got everyone together afterwards to congratulate the guy on the radio for passing a short succinct message describing contact with the enemy and mentioned that it was acceptable in the circumstances to miss all the standard radio procedure, call-signs etc, in getting the message across. I had heard the actual message: ”WE SHOT SOME C***”. I wondered if tonight a similar message would be sent.
The car moves off along the road, slowly but steadily past my patrol. I ease the pressure on the trigger and apply the safety catch, then move around the corner to join the rest of the guys who haven’t even missed me.
The driver hadn’t sneezed, nor had I, the shot hadn’t been fired, no one died and no one was on trial for murder. The car had been stolen and was later found abandoned, but the lads were probably just out for a laugh and not trying to draw attention to themselves. After the patrol ended, I mentioned the lights being out on the car and was told that was fairly normal and meant as a friendly act by many locals when they saw an Army patrol to avoid illuminating them as a target – no one told me!
All I have to do now when I get back to our base in the Royal Victoria Hospital is unload my rifle, carefully removing the bullet ‘up the spout’ without anyone noticing and asking awkward questions.
As I made my way back to the canteen to buy my ration of two cans of beer, I wondered if those lads were having a beer somewhere and were they IRA sympathisers, or rebels, or just lads trying to get by in troubled times?