Cpl Matt Donnelly peered through the knot hole in the large wooden door. He nodded to Stan, who was the squad’s point man.
Stan left the disused warehouse, walking slowly, looking ahead as the squad achieved patrol formation.
Matt stepped out next.
Gaz, the squad’s tail-ender, and Nick were the final two men in the patrol. Apart from Matt the other three men were Sappers, the official term for Private soldiers in the Royal Engineers.
It was two hundred yards along the narrow side street to Newtownards Road, and the only route in and out from the base. The street lighting was switched off for a few minutes either side of a patrol leaving or returning.
In their zigzag formation, the four men moved with stealth through the streets of their part of the troubled city. Each man had his rifle butt pulled tight into the shoulder, the barrel of the weapon pointing down most of the time, but in the general direction of the owner’s gaze.
The squad’s rubber-soled boots made no sound. Having been in the province for four months, there was no need for talking on patrol. A practised set of hand-signals was recognised by every member of the team. Even Gaz was confident, and he spent more time walking backwards than forwards.
As Gaz maintained his rearguard task he would occasionally glance across the street toward Nick. If there were to be a change of routine, Nick would give an indication. If the squad paused for a few seconds, Gaz would see Nick squat into a nearby doorway. Gaz would do likewise, but his primary focus was on the area behind the team.
It was common knowledge the easiest way to take out a member of a foot patrol was from behind, attacking from an area where only one pair of eyes might see something. It was tiring, but Gaz remained vigilant for four hours at a time.
One week stood between the squad and a successful tour. The unit was looking good to return unscathed to their peacetime barracks in Germany. Everybody on the patrol was looking forward to reaching the end of the tour. Before leaving the old warehouse, each squad was reminded by a sergeant that the two high-risk periods were the early days of a four-month tour, and the final days.
Twins John and Luke Donnelly peered from within a burned-out upstairs room. The entire building was a derelict, having been reduced to two gutted floors by a massive fire. John sat on the damaged freezer they’d dragged from the wrecked kitchen. He was a few feet back from the smoke-stained window aperture using binoculars.
The other twenty-year-old had no need for binoculars. He was using the regular iron sights on the stolen British rifle he was aiming.
“Are you feckin’ sure you’ll be able to do this mate?” John asked.
“When they’re in yer sights they’re feckin’ targets—not people.” Luke sniggered and glanced across at his brother. “It’s what the instructors used to say when I did my training in England.”
“I have to admire you mate, serving two feckin’ years with the British Army, just so you could learn their tactics and how to shoot.”
“Aye, well it was a small price to pay. I laughed and joked with them every day and fitted right in, especially when I told them about my older brother Matthew being in the Royal Engineers.”
“I wonder where our big brother is now.” John lowered the binoculars for a moment. “He could be out there with them boys patrolling our streets.”
“Nah, he’ll be a feckin’ corporal or a sergeant or something now, so he’ll be in Germany practising building bridges, or blowin’ them up.”
“Aye, Luke, but he might not be. We haven’t heard from him for a couple of years.”
“I don’t care either way because the bastard should never have joined the British Army. He should have come back to join the feckin’ struggle.”
“He joined up before any of the recent troubles kicked off.”
“Don’t be makin’ excuses for him, John. He knew the history of our country before he feckin’ left in 1967. He’s a feckin’ traitor. I’m glad our dad told him not to come back.”
John raised the binoculars and scanned the dimly-lit streets, but for a few seconds he thought about the big brother the family had exiled. It had been seven years since Matthew had left home.
Mary Donnelly sat at home in Chemical Street, East Belfast, watching television. She wasn’t looking at the programme, just staring at the screen blankly. Her mind wandered to what was left of her family. She and her husband had been so happy. They’d brought up four fine sons, and named them after the writers of the gospels.
“Please God,” Mary whispered. “Don’t let me lose any more of my boys.” Matthew had joined the British Army and his father told him never to come back. Five years later, in 1972, that same father and his favourite son, twenty-two-year-old Mark, were blown up while attaching a home-made bomb to a local politician’s parked car. On this chilly winter night, those dark thoughts came back to Mary as she wondered where her twins might be.
She’d tried many times to reason with her two remaining boys, but all of her offspring had their father’s headstrong attitude. Mary often wondered about Matthew, and whether he had a family of his own by now. They’d embraced before he left home, and he’d told her he loved her, but he had to find his way in life.
Less than a mile from Mary Donnelly’s house, her oldest son, was sitting with his squad in the living room of a Protestant woman. The team was enjoying a ‘tea-stop’ half way through the four-hour foot patrol.
Helen Grant, a forty-year-old widow, was plying them with sandwiches and trying to figure out why the man with the two stripes looked vaguely familiar. “I know your accent isn’t strong Matt, but you’re from Belfast originally, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said, but went on to lie. “Nobody would know me now because I left when I was young and my family moved to England.”
Helen was a nice woman, but Matt knew she was a journalist, which was why she was awake in the middle of the night. He wasn’t offering a tasty morsel—like the truth about his family background.
Matt and his team thanked their benefactor for the brew and snacks and slipped out into the dark alleyway behind the line of terraced houses. Two minutes later in formation they slowly walked along dimly-lit streets. The men stopped into doorways occasionally to observe all around them.
The guys knew they had one more 24-hour shift of foot patrols. Yes, they had other duties to perform in this final week, but only one day of foot patrols. In four months they’d been in the vicinity of five shooting incidents, but had survived all of them.
Only half an hour was left before the men of call-sign Three Four Echo would be unloading their rifles and having a brew and rest. It was quiet, but at two o’clock in the morning, there was nothing unusual about the silence.
“Psssst,” Gaz said from the back of the squad. All three men walking forward stopped and melted into doorways.
Matt looked back.
Both Nick and Stan nodded towards their tail-end-Charlie.
Matt observed his man at the back.
Gaz maintained a hold on the pistol grip of his rifle with his right hand and used his left hand to signal. He raised left forefinger and middle finger to his eyes, and then pointed ahead. On the street ahead were houses and a junction on the right. Opposite the junction was a six-foot high wall.
Matt looked along the dark street at the wall, and then it stood out like a beacon. Along the length of the brickwork a variety of anti-British slogans were sprayed, but at one point there was a patch of wall painted white. In the occasional moonlight, there were small patches of white shining. The paint was fresh.
Matt nodded and turned to give his tail-end man a thumbs-up sign.
The other two men looked ahead and acknowledged with a nod.
Using an open, downward palm, Matt signalled.
The team all nodded and observed.
Matt got up and walked forward. One minute later he was standing on the street corner opposite the white wall. He squatted down and slowly poked his head around the corner to look along the street.
On both sides, there were houses which were still occupied, but many others were burned out or had damaged windows. At the far end of the street stood a derelict with a gaping doorway and four dark window apertures.
“Bastards.” Matt turned and looked at the white section of wall. He was formulating a plan before he returned to his patrol.
Luke raised the rifle butt to his shoulder and rested the wooden stock on the damaged window ledge. He lowered his right cheek to press against the butt of the weapon and then closed his left eye and focused on the oblong white patch at the far end of the street.
“How are we doing for time John?”
“They should pass in the next ten or fifteen minutes,” John whispered. “Are you feckin’ sure you’re ready?”
“Will you stop feckin’ frettin’ man,” came the curt response. “I’m ready.”
“You said we should be right back in the room, so nobody sees the flash—”
“John.” Luke turned from the rifle to look up. “The window ledge is steadier than my feckin’ arm, and at this range, none of those fuckers are gonna see a flash.” He went back to concentrating on the white patch of wall. He was pleased John had agreed to nip out and do the paint job because it got him out of the way for a short while.
“At least, it’s drying now.” John focused the binoculars. “The feckin’ wet paint would stand out if they saw it in the moonlight.” He absently moved closer to the window as he adjusted the focus wheel.
Luke curled a finger around the trigger and his breathing rate increased as he watched.
A dark shadow moved across the white area two hundred yards away at the junction.
The muzzle of Luke’s rifle jumped and the noise of the shot echoed around the derelict room.
“That was a feckin’ shadow,” John said.
Matt flicked off his torch and nodded halfway across the street to Nick, the only member of the team still with him. He hoped his two best shots; Stan, and Gaz, had done what was required.
A single shot had ricocheted off the white paint. It was followed by two rapid shots.
Matt pressed on his throat mike.
“Hullo Zero, this is Three Four Echo, Contact—Wait Out.”
Matt remained squatted and peered around the corner to look at the far end of the narrow street, toward the derelict house. There was movement from within the doorway. Three long torch flashes were followed by a pause. Next came a long flash, a short one and another long one. OK.
Matt breathed a sigh of relief. He gave one short flash, one long one, and another short—R. Usually it would mean ‘Romeo, but in this case it was Roger; an acknowledgement.
He pressed his mike. “Hullo Zero, this is Three Four Echo, reference my contact report of one minute ago ….” Matt went on to briefly explain the scenario.
After calling in his report, Matt and Nick left the area of the innocent-looking white wall. They ran along the narrow street to the derelict, confident they had cover from the building up ahead. One of his men would be upstairs and one downstairs in the doorway.
In the quiet of the night, the sound of high-velocity shots was enough to wake Mary Donnelly from her usual restless sleep. As always when the twins stayed out doing whatever they did, Mary would doze off on the sofa through sheer exhaustion.
She reached for the radio and switched it on. For half an hour she listened to music and the idle chat of the DJ in the wee small hours. At three o’clock in the morning, a newsflash reported a shooting incident in East Belfast. Her broken heart was racing, so Mary went to make a cup of tea. A few minutes later as she was leaving the kitchen she heard an update to the earlier bulletin.
‘We now have more details from the Royal Ulster Constabulary about a shooting incident in East Belfast. It has been confirmed two men fired on an army patrol. The security forces returned fire, resulting in two fatalities. Both terrorists have been identified as local men in their early twenties ...’
The cup and saucer smashing on the kitchen floor were the last sounds Mary Donnelly heard, because her broken, weak heart stopped beating ten seconds later.
Cpl Matt Donnelly stood at the grave of a woman who’d recently died of cancer. Matt was dressed in a dark suit with collar and tie. A heavy overcoat kept the chill from his body, but his lips still trembled.
Alongside Matt to provide cover and give him support, was a plainclothes female soldier from the Royal Military Police. She was suitably dressed in a dark coat and wore a black hat with a veil. Under her coat, like Matt, she carried a loaded and cocked Browning 9mm pistol.
The pair stood at the graveside of a stranger, but Matt’s mind was on the multiple burials taking place fifty yards away. He wondered if he’d ever return home to Belfast, to openly visit his family.
At least, they were with each other now.
Taken from 'A Time of Courage: and other Military Stories'
Wednesday 13th June 2018
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