To this day the incident haunts me in nightmares. It’s not too often, but often enough to ensure I never forget. Why do I still occasionally wake up in a cold sweat?
In order for you to understand, we must visit Northern Ireland, but not the place you might see today, with fewer shootings than Manchester or London. I would need to take you back to 1975, to a time when shooting and bombing in Northern Ireland was commonplace.
I was laying awake in my bed, listening to the symphony of six of my room-mates snoring and making other noises in the semi-darkness. Apart from the human sound effects, there was a variety of aromas drifting and polluting the atmosphere. I knew how many others were in bed because there was only one unoccupied bed, and it belonged to my mate Harry. His bed was made and the blankets were neatly tucked in. That suggested that he was out on some thankless task well into the night.
I got up on one elbow and lifted my cigarettes and lighter, but decided against it and put them back on my bedside locker. I rolled onto my back and clasped my hands under the back of my head. I heard the creaking of the room door being eased open.
In the dim glow from outside lighting I watched as the well-built figure in a leather jacket snaked between the beds trying not to disturb anyone. I knew it was Harry, or ‘H’ as he preferred to be known. He hated his name. ‘H’ was the only man in the room that had shoulder-length hair so he was still easy to distinguish in semi-darkness.
‘H’ reached his bed, which was only about three feet from mine. I watched in silence as he sat down on the bed, rested his elbows on his knees and then leaned forward to rest his chin on his clenched fists. He sat perfectly still, staring straight ahead at his locker.
After a few seconds he muttered an obscenity and stood up. He groped in his jacket pockets and produced a sizeable bunch of keys. Rather than put a light on, he tried to open the locker in the dark, but as happens on these occasions he dropped his keys.
“Bollocks,” he whispered to nobody in particular before squatting to pick up the offending keys.
“Finally bedtime mate?” I asked in a whisper.
“Sorry Tom,” he said and turned to peer into the shadows toward my bed. “Did I wake you?”
“No mate,” I said and sat up. I reached for my Benson and Hedges King Size and selected one. I offered the pack to ‘H’. He accepted one then reached across with his lighter to offer me a light before lighting his own.
“Thanks,” I said and took a deep drag of the poisonous gases before blowing most of them out again. ‘H’ was never the most talkative, but I stayed quiet to give him the opportunity to chat if he wanted to. On this occasion, he did.
“I only came back in to grab some cigarettes and then I’m off out again.”
“You are taking the piss,” I said in a strained whisper. I checked my watch. “Where the fuck are you going at two o’clock in the morning?”
“I wish I was taking the piss,” he replied. “I have to go up to the radio site.”
“Not that little unmanned compound on the mountain?”
“Yep, afraid so mate,” he said as he came around to sit on the edge of his bed to face me. “The secure radio link to Belfast and Lisburn is down, but it must be re-established.”
Apart from the dim glow from the barrack street lighting, there was the occasional bright flash of red from the end of our cigarettes. I could see his face when he took a drag and he looked shattered.
“Who’s riding shotgun for you?” I asked, but I wasn’t prepared for the answer.
“I’m on my fuckin’ lonesome mate,” he said and gave a wry smile.
“Not now you’re fuckin’ not,” I said and slipped out of bed. I put my cigarette on my ashtray and pulled on my jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Will you come with me?” ‘H’ asked, and I could sense a brighter tone.
“Too fucking right I am,” I said. I put on trainers and grabbed a jacket. “You go and get your vehicle ready mate, and give me 10 minutes to sign out a pistol.”
“You’re a fucking star mate,” he said and stood to pat my shoulder.
We made our way slowly through our snoring, smelly comrades and eased the door closed.
Less than 30 minutes after ‘H’ had arrived in the room, I left a message in the guardroom and we were in a blue Ford Escort driving out of Londonderry on the Clooney Road. There was a patchy mist, so we both realised that it would get worse as we headed towards the coast and the radio site. We didn’t discuss it, but as we cleared one heavy patch we exchanged a silent glance and both shook our heads.
Our destination was Binevenagh, the western edge of the massive escarpment that towered over the Binevenagh Forest. It was a magnificent view on a clear day but it was going to be rough up there on a foggy night. We were under no illusions about the importance of the radio equipment. In the event that a terrorist organisation like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) managed to put the telephone system out of operation - our military radio relay equipment would provide a secure telephone network across the province. The authorities would have communications.
We passed the Maydown Industrial Estate and headed toward the predominately Republican district of Greysteel, I noticed that my friend was driving a bit faster to get away from the area. While he concentrated on the road ahead and watched for any unusual activity, I noticed a lone car sitting in an otherwise empty filling station. It looked like a male and female in the car, but I couldn’t see more detail.
We maintained our speed through the area and I offered my opinion.
“I wouldn’t worry about any of them shooting at us here ‘H’.”
“This is Greysteel mate,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed the Republican flags on the telegraph poles?”
“Yes, I noticed them mate,” I said, “but they wouldn’t shit on their own doorstep. Terrorists are nasty, but that doesn’t follow that they’re stupid. They’ll have somebody watching the barracks. They’ll know when we left ... and they’ll know our registration number, but they wouldn’t touch us here ...and they don’t know where we’re going.”
“I didn’t think of that,” ‘H’ said as he slowed to the speed limit.
“I suppose that’s the one saving grace about this time of the morning,” I said and glanced in the nearside mirror. A pair of headlights had just come on. I cursed silently.
“What’s the saving grace?” ‘H’ asked.
“Traffic will be light, which works in our favour.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “It means we can make good time.”
I knew from his reply that he’d missed my point ... and he hadn’t noticed the headlights. I tried to make it look casual as I glanced over my shoulder, but when I turned to face front I lifted the Browning 9mm pistol from inside my jacket and placed it under my left thigh.
“Are you okay mate?” ‘H’ asked and glanced down at the weapon’s new location.
“I feel more comfortable now,” I assured him, but I was lying.
A few miles further on, we drove through Ballykelly, passing the ‘Droppin Well’, a bar and disco used by many of the soldiers from the nearby Shackleton Barracks. Along the main road on the right, there was fencing and sentry posts between the roadway and the houses, because all of the housing on that side was military married quarters.
“Take the Seacoast Road,” I said. “It’s just up ahead on the left.”
“Yeah I know,” ‘H’ replied, “but it would be quicker to go on to Limavady and use the A2.”
“Please, just humour me mate,” I said and then I glanced in the nearside mirror.
Within 100 metres of turning onto the minor road, the mist dropped around us again, but much heavier. I glanced in the nearside mirror and was dismayed to see a set of hazy lights taking the same turn we had just taken. The road led to the coast, Magilligan Prison and the mountain location we were heading for. There were very few houses.
The mist lifted again for the distance of about three streetlights. I glanced over my shoulder before speaking and realised my mate was aware of my agitation.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Keep checking your mirror,” I said. “See if you can identify the car that’s behind us. It’s maybe 100 metres back, but watch for it under the streetlights.”
When we were in more relaxed circumstances, cars were one of our favourite topics of conversation. It took two glances in the rear-view mirror before ‘H’ spoke, but he didn’t look at me, he concentrated on his driving.
“Red coloured, Mark 3, Ford Cortina.”
“Bollocks,” I said.
“Have we got a problem?” he asked, still concentrating on the drifting mist.
“No,” I said, “but if that fucking car is still behind us when we turn ... they might have a problem.” I slipped the Browning from under my thigh, pointed it into the foot-well and pulled back the breech slide to load a round into the chamber. I held the weapon in my right hand and gripped the armrest with my left as ‘H’ pulled a hard turn onto the narrow track for the mountain. Not for the first time, I had to remind myself that if I opened fire I would need to have good reason. Targets were one thing. This was for real.
“Are you sure you’re okay mate?” ‘H’ asked.
“I’m just fucking dandy mate,” I said in my most sarcastic tone. “Now get us up here as fast as you can.” I was forced back into my seat as ‘H’ dropped down a gear and treated me to his impression of rallying. If I’m being honest, he was pretty good at that particular impression.
It was a dangerous route even on a clear day because the track was narrow and had high hedgerows all the way to the top. I knew there were few places to turn off so I figured we’d be just as well going to the tiny compound. It was at the highest point and the compound was the only reason anybody would go there.
To give credit to the guy, ‘H’ had every horse under the bonnet racing, but he still managed to put a sentence together as our bodies were jostled in the small car.
“What’s the plan when we reach the top?” he asked.
“Right,” I said. “This main track passes the smaller track that leads to our compound. The only reason to turn left is to go to our radio compound isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said, “there’s fuck all else up there.”
“Okay,” I said. “Take our turn when you reach it, then stop after 100 metres and switch off your lights.”
“What made you suspicious?” ‘H’ asked.
“The filling station in Greysteel was closed,” I said, “but there was a red Cortina sitting on the forecourt. Two occupants in it, but no lights, and smoke was coming from the exhaust. It pulled out after we passed.”
“I’m sorry mate,” ‘H’ said, shaking his head. “I should have seen it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “You were too busy breaking the speed limit in patchy fog while watching for non-existent gunmen.” Nerves caused us both to laugh.
We reached the left turn, which we negotiated and noticed that the mist had lifted. The narrow track was moonlit and we could see the compound and tiny building up ahead on the right. We could see for miles around, but we couldn’t appreciate the view. ‘H’ stopped and switched off the lights. We both got out and looked back to the junction.
“Right mate,” I said. “You unlock the gate, get into that building and get that fucking radio working.” I walked around to stand behind our car facing the way we’d just come.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“If that car drives on past the junction I’ll join you.”
“What if it turns up here”
“If it turns up here,” I said as I got down on one knee, “I’ll be putting fucking holes in it.” At this point, my sphincter muscle was getting more exercise than it would with a good dose of the shits. I was well-trained in the use of weapons, including my pistol, but like most soldiers, I’d hoped to complete my tour without having to shoot anybody.
I heard my mate dealing with the lock on the heavy gate, but I had a suspicion he was still on the outside. I didn’t hear it close and I knew he didn’t want to leave me. I watched the junction and just above the sound of the breeze I could hear an engine approaching.
I cupped my left hand under the pistol grip and rested my right forefinger alongside the trigger guard. At 25 metres, I was confident I could nominate head or body as my target, so I figured on being able to hit a car at 50 metres. The approaching engine noise got louder and I saw a faint light coming uphill toward the junction. A red car passed the junction slowly and I saw a flash of red along the hedgerow and then nothing. It had stopped.
The car rolled back past the junction in silence, but all the lights were off now. I parted my lips to assist my hearing and the engine sound was there, but it was faint. My nerves were as tight as a bowstring as I saw the shape slowly turn into the track towards us. The passenger window was open. It was the only dull part of the car because the moon was creating a shine on various parts of the glass and bodywork.
I knew if the mist drifted in again we wouldn’t see each other, but it stayed clear and as the vehicle crept along the track I saw a head and arm reaching out of the passenger window. Long hair lifted in the breeze.
I raised my weapon into the aim, slipped the safety with my right thumb and screamed, “Stop!”
In response, the headlights were switched on, which almost blinded me, so I was a sitting duck. I reacted according to the situation and squeezed the trigger. The weapon’s barrel had hardly come back down from the slight kick, when I sent another round on its way. I was vaguely aware of the sound of breaking glass. I maintained my position and my sphincter muscle was breathing rapidly. Who were they and what where they doing?
The vehicle engine revved and tyres screeched, as the driver reversed back to the junction and spun on to the main track. There was more burning rubber and revving as the car hurled back down the gradient.
I stayed in my kneeling position for what seemed like an eternity until I heard ‘H’.
“Are you okay mate?” he asked.
“Can you smell shit?” I asked, applying the safety before I stood up.
“No mate,” he said and looked from me, up and down the track.
“I’m okay then,” I said. I swallowed hard. “Could you light me a cigarette?”
“Were you worried about shooting somebody?” he asked.
“No mate,” I said and drew hard on my cigarette. The mist had gone and we were treated to the sight of the thousands of twinkling lights of County Londonderry laid out below us.
“I was worried about us being shot,” I said without looking directly at my friend. He didn’t comment and I continued with an equally important concern. “I was also worried about shooting some innocent bastard.”
We got the radio working, made a brief report and then had no issues on our return journey. The next morning we both had to file reports on the incident, including the use of two rounds of live ammunition. I also had to clean the pistol after the armourer made his report.
It was about a week later that the nightmares started.
In the nightmare, everything remains the same up to the point when I open fire. Unlike the actual incident, in my dream, instead of the red car reversing away, it doesn’t move, so I walk forward to investigate. I find a pair of dead teenagers, a boy and a girl ... and a solitaire diamond ring in a small red box.
Tuesday 6th June 2017
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