Mirrors

February 8, 2013


When I was in Frankfurt I was employed by a bank that held the personal accounts of all serving U.S. military and their dependents in Europe.
I could not believe my luck when the VP asked if I had any objections to being part of a team he was sending to audit the Hawaiian arm of the organisation. The branch there came under his aegis of operations because it was also the IT center which processed all transactions of the individual accounts. (Yes, I know, we’re in Frankfurt and the day to day processing is done in Hawaii? Go figure.)
Anyway, I travel to the Islands and check into a self-contained apartment, with kitchen, in the Ilikai in Waikiki which overlooks the Marina. I make arrangements to collect the self-drive and, on the Monday, set out for work. (On the way there I’m listening to the radio and hear the DJ tell, well to me anyway, one of the funniest jokes ever*.)
The other member of the team, JG, is already there. We know each other by sight in Frankfurt but aren’t friends. He’s much younger than I am and rather naive. Here, we get along famously.
At the end of the week JG says he knows of a former female employee from Frankfurt now working on the island. He arranges to meet her Saturday morning and he invites me along for the day. We meet P. at the Maritime Museum and spend some time together as she shows us around the area before going for a coffee in the restaurant. When she is about to leave I suggest a photograph of the two. They agree and stand on the wooden steps outside the restaurant.
Two

The following Friday JG tells me he has to go to the airport as his wife is joining him for a few days. He seems embarrassed and is having difficulty in formulating a question to ask me. Eventually, he tells me his wife is extremely jealous and would I refrain from any mention of the very attractive sweet P. in her presence. Coming as I do from perfidious Albion, an assurance of this nature causes me no sweat and I agree, knowing full well that this promise is already doomed and a racing certainty to be broken.
I meet JG’s wife Griselda and it is plain from JG’s demeanour and behaviour, when in her company, just who is the dominant partner. She is everything he has claimed –intimidating and, to put it mildly, humourless —in other words, presenting me with too good an opening to miss.

Two days later I’m notified from HQ that I’m being sent onto Indianapolis to carry out a survey at a branch there.

It is time to act.
During our time in the hotel we have come to know the barmen pretty well and I ask one of them to give an envelope from me to JG , but only after I’ve gone, and only when Mrs JG is present and in hearing distance he should say,

“Bob left this photograph for you. He said you’d know which one.”

Two months later I met JG back in Frankfurt, unexpectedly happy to see me in the light of what had transpired. He and his wife were parting and the whole thing had been precipitated, a festering relationship brought to a head, by his initial rejection of the envelope, his wife’s insistence that he take it and open it, and his stubborn refusal to touch it, causing her to erupt into a stream of invective and to snatch the envelope from the barman. The print, and its transparent innocence, triggered a tirade and she launched into a litany of his perceived failings, including his timidity, lack of reliability, manliness and value. I could’t help thinking that, as much as JG welcomed the upcoming divorce, it was a pretty extreme outcome, based on the nature of the photograph that I had left for him.
Beach

*It was my birthday yesterday and the guys got together and got me a sweater. Nice gesture, but honestly, I’d rather have had a screamer or a moaner.

A Daisy Chain

November 4, 2012


If you had read my earlier post about ‘Q’ Tip and how he suffered a nervous breakdown before being ‘repatriated’ from Malaya you’ll recall that I didn’t go into too much detail regarding those factors that contributed to his implosion. Those of you with knowledge or experience of these matters, will be aware that, more often than not, people play a major part. The folks who affected ‘Q’ so drastically were his drivers.

The Transport section was an important part of the day- to-day workings of the Depot since it was responsible for collecting the various vehicles, shipped out from the UK to the Far East, that were the bread and butter and life’s blood of the unit. (How’s that for a stomach churning mixed metaphor?)

To say that these guys were characters would be unduly conservative.

Sergeant Jock McClean, rarely sober, was an irascible drunk, who threw his radio, through the window, closed at the time, of his six-storey apartment when the announcer coughed twice during the reading of the news.

There was the crew of the Diamond ‘T’ who had taken hostage the piano and its stool from the NAAFI, loaded it on a low loader trailer, and with one of their number playing ‘Chopsticks’ set off for the fleshpots of Johore Bahru. Driver, vehicle and trailer arrived safely but Liberace, piano and stool had exited somewhere on one of the hairpin bends en route.

The corporal responsible for the fuel pumps, an MOR (Malayan Other Rank) owned his own Kampong, of twenty houses, a Harley Davidson motor cycle and a BMW car, all paid for from an income supplemented with the proceeds of a special arrangement with the suppliers of the vehicle fuels. Each three-compartment tanker would offload two sections only, and the contents of the third was sold on the black market and the money shared. The NCO would simply sign for the full delivery and juggle the books.

With a perverse sense of inverted pride, the drivers even had their own theme song sung to the tune of Lili Marlene.

“Up the Bukit Tima*
90 miles an hour
We are the 221 boys
We Are a fxxxin’ shower
We can’t change up
And we can’t change down
The gearbox is in
But it’s upside down
We are the 221 boys
We are a fxxxin’ shower

Early in the mornin’
When we’re on parade
The Sergeant Major sings us
The Donkey Serenade
Some silly basxxxd
Shouts ‘Right Dress!’
You should have seen
The fxxxin’ mess
We are the 221 boys
We are a ………”

There were several more verses to this but I’m sure you’ve got the drift.

The Bukit Tima was a dual carriageway linking the south of the island to the Causeway, on the north side, which crossed the water separating Singapore from Malaya. A Malaysian customs post was at the far end of the dike. This was the route taken daily by the Depot’s drivers from the collection point, at the Dock Section, back to the vehicle depot. As a matter of protocol, probably to reiterate Malayan sovereignty, the Malays would briefly halt each convoy before waving it through. On one occasion, however, not everything went smoothly.

A convoy, of thirty brand-spanking-new-high-gloss-painted Bedford 3 Ton Trucks, set off from the Dock Section for 221 Base Vehicle Depot, the rear being brought up by Private Baxter. Baxter was a diminutive Glaswegian, known as Poison Dwarf, who had to take a double thickness car seat cushion on every assignment as he was unable to see over the steering wheel without it. The caravan of vehicles was negotiating its way through Singapore city and its many intersections when a Chinese civilian cut in between Baxter’s vehicle and the twenty-ninth. Annoying as this was for Baxter what made it more ire provoking was the interloper’s indicating a turn at the lights but continuing straight ahead. After the third occurrence, they stopped at the next red light. Baxter leapt out of his truck and ran forward. In those days, cars had arm indicators on either side, made of transparent orange plastic, that lit up when activated. Baxter asked the driver if he was going to turn right. The man answered in the negative. Baxter snarled, “Then you won’t need this,” and promptly ripped the offending indicator clear of the bodywork.

Back in his truck, aware that he had lost contact with the other Bedfords and would have to make up the lost distance, he resorted to a heavy foot on the accelerator up several miles of Bukit Tima. His vehicle was doing well over sixty miles an hour when it hurtled around the bend onto the Causeway—and into the tail end of the twenty-ninth idling vehicle. Baxter, before the days of seat belts, was fortunate enough to suffer no injury. However, all twenty-nine drivers, halted in front of him, hopeful of a expedited passage through customs, had not applied their brakes and each clutch was depressed, ready for a smooth takeaway. Twenty-nine 3-Ton trucks shunted, forcibly, into the rear end of the vehicle in front, resulting in the eventual compilation of one of the most convoluted, drawn out accident reports in the annals of 221’s Transportation Section history.

 

Deception

October 10, 2012


DECEPTION

The Warden looked out through the bay window at the wide expanse of woodland park that surrounded Craigie Open Prison. Most of the inmates were in the common room at this time of day and the park was virtually deserted. One or two lonely figures could be seen outside, but it was darkening too quickly to be able to identify them.

“Dr Severin is concerned about Cramer. He’s convinced that the risk of suicide has increased dramatically,” the Warden said. “McCreadie, in the next cell, has complained of being disturbed by rambling one-sided conversations during the night. I’ve also noticed a change in Cramer myself. I don’t want to take any chances. A suicide at this time of year could have an adverse affect on the behaviour of the other inmates.”
“We certainly don’t need that at any time of year,” said the supervisor of uniformed guards turning from the fireplace.
The Warden frowned agreement, returned to the desk, sank wearily into the chair and grunted, “Just increase the surveillance, Murchison, and maybe we will both have a quiet holiday.”

***

Ben Cramer stared pensively at his bloodless hands before raising his gaze to the solitary leaf clinging to the extended finger of the oak branch. It appeared as a small forlorn silhouette against the leaden grey of the sky which, dependent on whether one was optimistic or pessimistic, promised or threatened snow. The minuscule remnant of foliage had survived the ever shortening days of autumn and Ben was about to wager that it would see out the ravages of winter when, for no apparent reason, the leaf suddenly trembled, loosened its hold and spiralled down onto the surface of the darkened green of the lake. Ben sighed.
“Life abandons everything, sooner or later,” he mused. He wondered if the tiny leaf had felt fear and had screamed before it died. Had it possibly died much earlier, remaining on the tree as a fossilized embryo, or did it die when it touched the dank ice-cold water? He knew that death did not always bring fear, or even pain, and that a being could pass over without any great discomfort. The murder four years ago had taught him that much. Two quick deft slashes across sleeping wrists with an open razor had elicited no more than a murmured groan to signify the soul’s silent egress into oblivion. The gore had spouted in great welters from the gashes to form a pool on the bedside rug. At any other time, he could not endure the sight of blood without gut-wrenching dry vomiting, but he had remained as strangely unmoved that night as though he were an impartial observer rather than a participant.
During the past few weeks, however, the scene had recurred in his thoughts with increasing frequency until it appeared several times a day and, try as he might, he could not subdue it. She was right when she had said that they did not communicate, but he had always found it difficult to discuss their differences impartially when the heat of the hurt was still on him. He tried repeatedly to subdue the anger that flooded through him but could neither stem it nor apologize for his actions until he had given expression to the rage. It was as though he were a cauldron of boiling vitriol, which needed venting, or it would explode, splattering everyone and everything in its vicinity with its corrosive bile. It didn’t help when she demanded to know why he had acted stupidly. Many of the things he did in those days he now knew had been puerile, and he had aggravated the situation by his immature inability to concede.

***

Ben knew that when he went to the cell she would be there. It seemed as if she never left it nowadays. He could not always see her but he could feel her presence. When he could see her, she was not as she had been before the murder. He longed to be able to touch her, but knew he could not; she was of a different time, a different dimension. The world in which she existed was as restricted and confined as his, and both appeared unreal. He got to his feet stiffly, turned and limped spectre-like along the grass verge toward the main building, avoiding the gravel walkway. Shuffling noiselessly across the main hall, he wearily climbed the stone stairs to the corridor leading to the cell. Head bowed, he paused and listened briefly at the door, but knew as he did that he would hear nothing. Surprisingly, the cell appeared empty but as he passed through the darkened doorway, his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. He started as he made out the fragile, almost ephemeral, seated figure at the table. He crossed the floor and placed both hands on the back of the chair but she did not raise her head to acknowledge his presence.
Despite his many rages, despite the violence, he was really shy and sensitive. Ben knew that he was a coward at heart and dreaded mental hurt more than any pain. He did not believe that she could physically hurt him, even if she wanted to. However, she had the capacity to torture his feelings and his well-hidden sensitivity with her moods and sulky demeanour. Those periods, where she could sit granite-still and silent for hours at a time, had never happened prior to the acrimonious days leading up to that ghastly Christmas Eve. Until then, she had been so vivacious, and so compulsively energetic, that he had often laughed at her efforts to do too many things.
Naturally, she blamed him for what had happened to change it all, of that he was ruefully sure, but although he knew he had been wrong time and time again, he could not, even now, accept responsibility for what had happened.
Recently, she talked to him more, mostly during the interminable nights, and he would try to answer in a belated but honest attempt to meet her earlier oft-expressed pleas for “communication”. It was obvious despite what had happened that she still loved him, although the passion had justifiably dissipated. He sensed that she too detested this enforced separation. He had no fear of death or of the mysteries of eternity now. He would not hesitate to do whatever it took to be at one with her.

***

“Out on the landing, Cramer!” barked Murchison from the doorway. The two guards ignored his presence and bustled into the cell to search it with the effortless efficiency of constant practice. It lasted less than eight minutes and, as he knew it would, proved fruitless. The search party did not appear to be foiled or frustrated and he guessed they had hoped to find nothing.
“You know what they were looking for?” she asked in a whisper.
“No,” he whispered. She rose and went to the sink where she pointed to one of the wall tiles.
“It’s behind there.” He looked at her quizzically and moved over to stand beside her. When the tile was removed, he remained baffled until he saw the razor blade taped to its interior surface.
“It’s now or never,” she murmured. He nodded acquiescence and took a deep breath.

***

“How could this happen,” the Warden demanded, “a blasted suicide that we had every opportunity to prevent? I thought you searched her cell?”
“We did, Ma’am,” Murchison responded, bowing her head dejectedly, “just minutes before it happened.”
“For Heaven’s sake, surely the way she butchered her husband gave you some indication of what to look for,” the Warden snapped irritably, expecting no reply and receiving none from the chastened woman before her.
“Get the staff back on duty and start a full scale search before any more of the inmates decide to “leave” us!” She turned abruptly from the guard and went to the bay window.
She looked out over the wide expanse of woodland park that surrounded Craigie Open Prison. Most of the inmates would be in the common room at this time of day and the park was virtually deserted. One or two lonely figures could be seen outside, but the falling snow made it difficult to identify them. The Warden gazed unseeing through the wraithlike couple, who were walking towards the gate, hand in hand.

Requited Love

October 6, 2012


Marie McCracken clutched at the kitchen sink to steady herself against the stab of pain that wrenched her breath away. Mouth open and hunched over in anguish she held her hand against her cracked ribs and futilely willed the torment to subside. She dared scarcely breathe. The ferocity of the pangs did not abate. Then, slowly, agonisingly slowly, they ebbed, diminished but did not end. As she attempted to stand erect and breathe normally, she caught sight of her misshapen, swollen features in the wraith, shrouded in the damp darkness of a Belfast winter that was reflected by the kitchen window.

“God h’ull kill me dead one uv these days, so he wull,” she thought. The drunken beatings had increased in frequency and ferocity. Even when she feigned unconsciousness on the floor, eyes screwed shut and teeth clamped fast into her lip to stifle her cries, he would continue to kick her upper body until only sheer exhaustion halted him and he would fall, out of breath, into one of the ragged armchairs. Within minutes, his turbulent snores would fill the room and then, and only then, did she risk moving.

Last night had been particularly horrendous. Prone to flare up at any time when he had been drinking he had come home yesterday livid with anger. The soldiers had stopped and questioned him on his way back from the pub. This was bad enough but what incensed him most was that the patrol had laughed and mocked his attempts to involve them in a fracas.

The whistle of the kettle broke into her thoughts. Protecting her hand with her apron, she poured a measure of the boiling water into the teapot. She could hear the murmur of voices behind the closed door of the living room and knew that their meeting was nearly over. She swilled and emptied the teapot, dropped in three teabags and poured the remaining water over them. The mugs were laid out on the tray. As she stretched painfully to the shelf in the cupboard for the biscuits, she heard the door open and Billy’s voice.
“Is that tea reddy yit, wuman?” She turned stiffly and slowly knowing that he would not look at her.
“Ah’m just bringin’ ut”, she whispered through bruised, engorged lips.
“Aye, well git a move, wull ye’s”, he growled over his shoulder as he left the kitchen. Marie braced herself against the shaft of pain as she lifted the loaded tray and shuffled towards the living room.

“So that’s ut fer tonight. Don’t fergit what each of ye’s got to do. Musgrave Hospital. Three o’clock. Thursday,” said Billy as she came round the door. He broke off as she came into the room. She heard the uneasy movement of the men as one by one they caught sight of her battered face and arms. There was a hurriedly swallowed, “Jesus!” from Paddy Coyne as she placed the tray on the table. The uneasy silence continued until she closed the door behind her.
She returned to the sink and gazed mindlessly into the darkness. After a few minutes the noise of the men preparing to depart brought her back.
“Oh, God no!” she screamed silently as she heard one ask her husband if he was going with them for a “wee half”.
“Not agin, sweet Lord, please not agin.”
“Ah’ll be back efter ten,” said Billy to her stiffened back. She did not reply and waited for the sound of the front door closing. As a reassuring silence filled the house, she turned from the sink and limped into the living room.
She lowered herself gingerly into her chair. Almost immediately hot salty tears coursed unhindered down her faded cheeks. After a few moments she wiped her eyes and face with the bottom of her pinny.
“Why does ut have to be like this? Why?” she asked herself without hope. She stared into the comforting warm red coals of the fire.

It had not always been this way. Once they had been lovers and friends; warm hearted, caring lovers and close, inseparable friends. They shared everything, the good times and the bad times. When he had been ill with pneumonia before that Christmas when they were facing eviction, he had been as helpless as a child. Unable to get out of bed, unable to stand much less walk, she was his crutch. He had needed her then and she had revelled in his dependence on her. She needed more than anything to be wanted again. There could be no drudgery in a relationship where they both relied on each other.
She raised her eyes to look at the sepia-tinted photograph on the mantelpiece. He had changed, slowly but inexorably, after that night Seamus Flaherty had come for him, three years ago. He did not come home for two days and then he would say nothing. Almost immediately, he lost his place at the factory and his disappearances became more frequent. She dreaded the arrival on her doorstep of Flaherty. God, how she dreaded the visits. Those were bad times with the riots and beatings and killings. She knew intuitively that Billy had become one of the hard men. He had always sympathised with them. They all did. It was only natural. But, he had become totally committed to the Cause. That’s when the drinking increased beyond all measure followed by the fist beatings then the kickings. As a crutch, to keep up her morale she had scrimped and saved almost two hundred pounds from the meagre benefits they received, so that if she ever did find things so bad she had to leave, she could. She knew she never would, but now she didn’t even have that ‘out’. He’d found her savings and, well, that was that.

The news last week that Flaherty had been wounded in a failed bomb attack on Montpelier police station had filled her with an unholy but short-lived joy. That same day Billy had taken over the position of the incapacitated Flaherty.
In spite of it all, she still loved him. She couldn’t stop. She felt that the violence he showed towards her was born of guilt and unease. Maybe he could not smother the remorse he suffered from the brutality and evil of the things he had had to do for the Cause. If only there was some way that she could help him stop. She felt she was drowning in her own powerlessness. The futility of it all swept over her. She held her face in her bruised hands as she rocked back and forth. Now they were set to go again. Thursday it would be. That much she had heard. When would it ever end? Maybe he wouldn’t come back. God, she thought she would die if that happened. But, somehow this cycle of brutality had to end. At least as far as Billy was concerned. When would he come back to her as he used to be?

Only the ticking of the clock broke the silence as she eased herself painfully out of her chair. In the kitchen she felt the teapot and found it still warm. Maybe if something happened to prevent his being of any use to the organisation she could have her Billy back again. As she filled the cup, she heard the swish of the tyres as the Army’s patrol vehicle passed.
She remained motionless, with teapot in hand, her face flushing as the seed of the idea grew. She felt giddy with the enormity of the idea flooding her consciousness. She had the answer. She scuttled into the living room as fast as her aching legs would allow and rummaged through the sideboard drawer for the seldom-used writing pad and envelopes. With a pencil from the mantelpiece, she sat down and, ignoring the pain from her fingers, started to write.
*****
“Did anyone see who left this?” the inspector asked.
The desk sergeant raised his head from the night register and glanced at the letter.
“Afraid not, sir. It was lying on the desk when I came on duty. I brought it in to you unopened and….”
“Yes, okay,” the inspector interrupted. He turned from the desk then paused for a moment. “Get me the Intelligence Officer at Army HQ Lisburn. Put it through to my office.”

*****
Billy stopped in mid-sentence as two uniformed RUC men made their way past the group at the bar. The others at his table followed his stare and turned as the police officers approached. They remained silent and hostile as the two stopped and stood over them.
“Sorry about this, Billy,” the elder of the pair mocked,” but ye’re wanted down at the station. Finish yer beer .”
“What’s ut about, “Billy scowled.
“Finish your bloody beer and come with us. Now!” the other policeman snarled. They stepped back and watched alertly as Billy stood up.
“Tell Marie,” he said over his shoulder to the table as he made his way, between his escorts, to the door.

*****
“. . . returned to Westminster from Paris today. Now, for local news.” Marie put her hand to her mouth and stood in the doorway to the kitchen as the radio announcer continued.
“Here in Belfast it was announced that the Provisional IRA had claimed responsibility for the attack yesterday at Musgrave Hospital where all four men involved were shot dead by the security forces. A police spokesman would not confirm that it was an attempt to rescue suspected IRA member Sean Flaherty who had recently undergone an operation to remove bomb fragments from his left lung following his arrest after a failed bombing attempt. Flaherty, whose condition was stated to be stable, remains in custody. The spokesman also refused to comment on whether the security forces had prior warning of the attack. In Lurgan today …”

*****
“I believe we have identified the leak,” said McMahon as the Commandant stubbed his cigarette out. There was a brief silence before he looked up. “Tell me.”
“Monday evening, McCracken was taken into custody. Tuesday morning he’s out. Bright and sparky. And no bruises.”
“How did he do on his debrief?”
“A” Company commander paused before he replied.
“I’ve got reservations. He wasn’t charged and maintains he was not even interviewed by the police nor was he given a reason for being detained. Just fed, bedded and watered for a night and put back on the street. But, conveniently out of danger’s way until the op went down.”
“You’re not happy?”
“No. Flaherty getting hurt on the Montpelier op could have been bad luck or they could have set it off if somehow they knew the detonating frequency. Who knows? But, at Musgrave, they were definitely forewarned and consequently prepared. They knew about the attack beforehand, I’m sure of it.
“Who else knew about it?”
“Apart from you and me and the four we lost? Dermot O’Herlihy, but there are no valid grounds to suspect Dermot since two of his brothers were killed there. And before you ask, yes, we did interrogate him—thoroughly. He’s solid. That leaves McCracken. His attitude has been worrying of late. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be involved. Just the contrary, a little too keen for my liking. His drinking has definitely increased but somehow he’s able to pay off his tabs at McGinty’s and the bookie’s. Something doesn’t jell.”
“I’ve always respected your intuition, Kevin. And when in doubt, we know which side to err on. We won’t take chances.
“Take the usual steps for suspected collaboration. Is he here? OK, carry out sentence immediately. Oh, and document these Board findings for the record.”

*****
Billy watched the door nervously. Something was wrong upstairs. This wasn’t normal. He had been here for two hours and the others had only made desultory responses when he had spoken to them. He knew they were uneasy and it seemed as though they were on guard.
He started, as the door opened and McMahon walked in.
“Billy McCracken.”
His stomach lurched as dread filled his throat. He stood. At a nod from McMahon, the two closed in and held his arms.
“You have been found guilty of failing to fulfil the trust placed in you by your commanding officer. In accordance with the authority vested in me by the Army Council, you are to undergo the prescribed punishment forthwith. Take him out.”
He could not speak. His legs gave way and he had to be dragged across the room. He raised his eyes to McMahon’s stern face in silent plea. A stony stare answered it.
The door to the room across the hall was open. Billy erupted in sheer terror struggling, violently but futilely, to break free, at the horror of the naked iron bedstead and the fourteen-pound sledgehammer leaning against it.
Dermot, jacketless and with his shirtsleeves rolled up, came towards him with the handcuffs and leg irons.

*****
Marie ran the brush through her greying hair as she stood before the hall mirror. Taking the hairgrip from her teeth, she pinned back a stray lock.
Now that Billy had come home again, and to stay, she felt she had to make the effort to look nice. It was heaven to have him here all the time now. He didn’t take her for granted anymore and she knew he needed her more than ever. No more drinking, no more violence. She looked at the kitchen clock. Four. Time to put the kettle on. He’d be knocking on the bedroom floor any second now, wanting his tea.

Moving Scenes

June 16, 2012


The barrack room was the scene of many pranks. Some could be hilarious and a few extremely moving. One of the latter, devised by Johnny Tebbs, a National Serviceman from Leeds who claimed to have worked alongside Peter O’Toole on the local newspaper, was to booby trap the toilets. Who fell afoul of the trap was not important, but it was virtually guaranteed to be Gubby since he was the only one not present that evening.

Johnny decided to use the contents of a fire extinguisher for his bomb. The main tank of the standard Army issue extinguisher contained a solution of sodium bicarbonate in water, and an inner container of Aluminium Sulphate, harmless or inactive, when separate. When the solutions combined, usually by inverting the unit and smashing the plunger against a solid surface to break the glass vessels, the reaction would create gallons of frothy foam and carbon dioxide gas to douse fires.

With one charge emptied into the cistern and the other into the toilet bowl there would be no reaction at that time. To channel an unsuspecting user to the booby-trap Tebbs climbed over into the other compartments, locked all the doors from inside and clambered out.

Gubby returned in the early hours of the morning, more than the worse for wear, headed to the toilet, unaware that the eighteen occupants of the billet were dogging his footsteps. He disappeared into the prepared cubicle.

The noise of the flush was closely followed, a few moments later by a loud, exaggerated and explosive “sigh”. White amorphous foam blossomed over the door of the cubicle, rolled under it and expanded over the dividing walls into
the next cubicles. Almost a full minute later, the door opened, slowly, to reveal a bemused Gubby, enveloped in the white clinging froth, trousers and underpants lost somewhere in the nether regions under the surface of the clinging bubbles, with his face empty of all expression. Aware of the uproar his appearance caused the lads gathered round him, he looked around and down at the source of the eruption and said woefully, ” I should never have forced down that third Donner Kebab!”

Gubby attracted the attention of the many pranksters and practical jokers due to his apparent gullibility and good nature. During one boxing season, conscripted unwillingly to the unit boxing team, he was the brunt of many jokes. On other occasions he managed to involve himself in such situations without help.

One Saturday morning, the boxing team, because of overweight members failing to reach their designated weights for an impending competition, travelled to the Turkish baths in Antwerp to sweat off the surplus pounds without physical effort.

The Baths were located in the same building as the main swimming pool. On days when the use of the steam baths was reserved for men, the pool would be reserved for women.

Fortunately, for the boxing team that Saturday the Turkish baths were available for males. We went through the complicated system of hot and cold showers, ice-cold dips and plunges into vats of boiling water, prior to entering the steam rooms. Shortly afterwards Gubby found an unlocked door, which opened into the swimming pool area. Assuming that the pool was for use by the patrons of the Turkish Baths, Gubby threw his towel to one side and made a running dive off the side plunging naked into the water only to surface in the middle of a group of shrieking and supposedly shocked female bathers.

One weekend the unit hired a bus and made a trip to Amsterdam. Everyone’s thoughts were not on the picturesque sights and ancient architecture one could see in the Venice of the North but rather on the delights offered by ladies of the red light district whom, everyone believed, were the most attractive and sexiest in Europe. Gubby was no exception.

Within half an hour of arriving in the red – light district, Gubby had accepted a solicitation from an attractive young professional. In response to the questions that go to make up the customary small talk as they undressed Gubby claimed that he was a management consultant assisting Shell Mex corporation on a large new project.

The girl immediately collapsed in bursts of uncontrollable laughter and asked why a presumably highly paid executive would chose voluntarily to wear Drawers, Cellular, Green, British Army and Socks, Grey, Woollen, Worsted?

I would stress that the foregoing anecdote is based on hearsay, I was obviously not present and is not, I emphasise, not, based on any similar personal experience.

Gubby, although not proficient, enjoyed sports. Besides the exercise, he particularly relished the beer that invariably followed an army sports outing. Rugby was his favourite and he was selected to play on a regular basis. One occasion stands out.

Well and truly beaten by another Army team from Germany, we were not too despondent. There is no difficulty in remembering that we had lost that particular game because for the two years that Gubby played we never won a match. After three or four hours of heavy drinking in the Clubhouse at Grobbendonk the after-match “celebration” moved to the Torenhof, a small cafe in the village of Olen. In the pub we continued to sing and perform our drunken rugby songs. We liked the Torenhof particularly because the owner would ring a bell, randomly during the course of the evening, signifying that everyone standing at the bar at that moment was entitled to a free beer.

Probably everyone who has watched rugby has seen the occasion when a player has had to change his torn shorts in what would appear to be full view of hundreds of spectators. In fact, no one sees anything untoward because a ring of players surrounds the individual. We had a variation of this that we used to do in the Clubhouse. The performer, to the accompaniment The Zulu Warrior, sung by the group, would start a striptease, by removing his tie, and another player would dance around him. When the stripper had removed the next item of clothing and thrown it to a watching team member, one more dancer would join the first. This would continue for each item of clothing until the stripper would be completely naked in the middle of the group but unseen by anyone outside the circle. The clothing, item by item thrown back to the “artiste”, would be put back on, as members of the group, one by one, left the ring. Finally, all that would be seen would be the performer putting on his tie. Puerile, I know, but we were simple folks.

Normally we only performed in the Clubhouse but that night at the Torenhof we were fairly “wasted” and someone called on Gubby to do the Zulu Warrior. Gubby got up and things were going quite smoothly until finally he was wearing only a sock. At that moment, however, the barmaid, who had a wicked sense of humour, rang the bell and everyone in the circle dived for the bar.

To give the indomitable Gubby his due, bare-buff except for a grey, woollen sock, he joined the queue with the rest of us for his ex-gratis beer.

A Racing Certainty

June 4, 2012


Based on the belief by the British strategic planners that Belgium would rapidly be overrun by the Warsaw Pact in any future conflict the Vehicle Depot in Belgium consisted of a series of individual camps and sub depots spread over a wide area, in the region surrounding Antwerp. Each site, sparsely signposted, concealed in woods and copses, was difficult to locate. This was true for both newly arrived troops, usually sober, and for soldiers returning from local hostelries, invariably drunk.

“A” Camp, Olen, where the majority of the depot’s military personnel were billeted, was adjacent to, but hidden from, the main road from Herentals to Aarschot. Public transport was negligible and taxis were few. When they were available, the price was exorbitant. Facilities for extra mural activities, such as sports or hobbies were non-existent and cinemas, such as the Olen Fleapit, held no attraction for the single soldier. The troops spent many hours pursuing the age-old pastime of drinking, interspersed with fights with the locals or plundering local orchards and gardens.

There were many cafes and bars in the area, some of which
were only a few yards apart. However, the British soldier, who in the annals of his military history, has demonstrated a much vaunted prowess of marching from one hellhole to another, has a strong aversion to voluntary walking, especially after the consumption of alcohol. This is
evidenced throughout those areas of Europe, where Tommy has served, by the high incidence of bicycle theft. Technically the offence should not be construed as theft since each perpetrator had no intention of keeping the cycle but used it only to reach his billet where it would be abandoned just short of the main gate. This continued until visits by the Gendarmes had become so frequent that Commanding Officers intervened prompting the ‘rustlers’ to dispose of the push-bikes in canals, woods and ditches.

Belgians relied heavily on bicycles for transportation and until the arrival of British troops had no need for security or locking devices. Hence, the tandem bought at a local market, by Lofty and Gubby, was all the more noteworthy, since these two had been the leading “borrowers” in the region.

Soon the tandem became more than a means of transport for the duo. As a vehicle, in a country where the bicycle was king, a tandem was a remarkably rare sight. The Belgians, who at that time, dominated the sport of cycle racing with riders like Rik van Looy, four times world champion, believed no other nationalities could successfully manage a bicycle. This arrogance was the basis of Lofty’s confidence trick which was to work exceedingly well during the long hot months of that summer.

Lofty, a six foot three broad-shouldered Northerner, and Gubby, a ruddy faced good-natured ploughman from Gloucestershire, who deceptively appeared slow-witted, would arrive, expending great effort, on the tandem at a cafe in full view of the local tipplers. Gubby caused the impression of exertion, in the second saddle, by surreptitiously applying and maintaining pressure on the brakes. The tandem would invariably be the subject of discussion, and before long the two squaddies would claim that they could cover a certain distance in a specified time. This would cause amusement and such cynical responses from the Belgian side that wagers were the logical progression. The lap would be defined, the time established, a timekeeper appointed and everyone would gather outside as the duo mounted the tandem and set off.

Since both men were, despite their frequent carousing, physically in good shape, the stretch would be covered well within the stipulated time.

Like all good things, this scheme ended.

Lofty regularly had to steer the tandem home with an inebriated and dysfunctional Gubby aboard but declared one evening that Gubby had to remain sober to ‘drive.’ Gubby agreed but reneged on his promise. In the course of the evening he became totally drunk. He took his place, however, as tandem driver and they set off for home. Before long Gubby succumbed to the alcohol and fell asleep at the handlebars. The tandem left the road, remained upright down a very steep bank, and disappeared into the Albert Canal, just as the two racers fell off.

Unfortunately, patrolling gendarmes saw them and promptly took them into custody for disposing of stolen property. The tandem was never recovered.

Smoke and Mirrors

May 27, 2012


The security forces (SF), are naturally obliged to act within the bounds of legality, while performing their duties of maintaining law and order. The disruptors, who have no such constraints, are at a distinct advantage. Organisers of disturbances have the edge in determining when, where and how civil disobedience will manifest itself. They know they can wear down the resilience of the SF by false starts, bogus reports, and deployment of numerous fake IED, with lethal explosive devices salted among them, much as the IRA was to do so successfully much later.

The protestors, in our case, did it by forcing us to stand ready continuously for days, with just the threat of outbreaks. Eventually, the Army High Command decided to force their hand by fudging the legality issue and making the unrest occur when we wanted it to. Without going into too much detail, on one occasion a Marine sergeant rolled a canister of C.S. gas down the aisle, during a service at the Reverend Paisley’s Ravenhill church.

The soldiers of the British Parachute Brigade have epitomised Kipling’s Tommy over the years. Lionised In times of national danger, and despised in others. The media, which do not always get it right, spawn much of the adulation/vilification. On one occasion, their error provided a welcome morale lift for our unit.

The Reverend Ian Paisley had organised a day of celebration when thousands of his followers would march through the streets of Belfast. It was their open intention to parade through the Catholic neighbourhoods with the obvious risk of conflagration. Early that morning we were already manning roadblocks and searching cars of those heading for the rallying points, for offensive weapons, such as steel piping, baseball bats, wrenches etc.

As the day wore on, tension naturally rose and there were small outbreaks of containable violence throughout the city. At one point, we were deployed in the Montpelier area of Belfast. Along with twelve other paras I was locked in a confrontation with sixty, seventy women, some with children in their arms, while the others threw ice cream tubs filled with human excrement at us – successfully. The frustration of having five rounds per man, fixed bayonets, members of an elite fighting force, and male, I have to confess, was palpable. We were emasculated by our orders not to retaliate, and it was overwhelming. Worse, for our battered pride, was to come, when we were ‘rescued’ by the chance arrival of four members of the RUC who had none of our compunction in ‘explaining’ to the women that they should disperse.

Tails between our legs we left and were re-assigned to ‘protect’ the Catholic canton of Madrid Street, as it appeared the parade was to reach its first point of possible conflict. We arrived and hurriedly formed a line across the road as the head of the parade came into sight. Once again we fixed bayonets and put on our ‘They shall not pass’ faces, knowing full well we were on a hiding to nothing, if not worse.

The crowd, I can’t honestly say mob because, although they were threatening and shouted abuse, they were orderly. Above us, a helicopter clattered to and fro. We learned later that it contained press personnel from the News of the World.

At the last moment, when they were virtually upon us, the head of the column veered right and took the body of the marchers through a protestant enclave running parallel to Madrid. Violence had been averted.

Subsequently, the newspaper had a fantastic headline, and aerial photograph, on an article for the British public that lauded our actions, trumpeting “Thin Red Line Backs Down Mob”.

We, on the other hand, thanked our lucky stars for the professionalism of the parade stewards Paisley had assigned that day, their ability to strictly control their marchers and especially their orders that mid-afternoon was far too early for the confrontational violence to start.

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