Leave, a Kindle novelette

I thought I might include the first segment of the story I uploaded to Kindle last month, which is for sale here so readers can see if it suits them.  It’s a story based on true events from the conflict in Northern Ireland, and is told from the point of view of a British soldier at the end of his tour, waiting for his leave and desperate to go home. I wanted the story to reflect the black humor, monotony and constant threat of nuisance and violence for soldiers in that situation.  Thanks for looking!

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Leave – about the first 2000 words.

November 17th 1990

 

Tonight we’re approaching Cookstown SF Base up Killymoon Road at a steady pace, the only noise is our boots slap-slap-slapping on the wet tarmac.  The road is like a black mirror with street lights exploding yellow all over it.  Our brick of four men is walking in the road, another four are over the hedge in the field, another ahead of us on the right and a fourth about twenty five yards behind us, parallel in the alley.  We patrol as a multiple – twelve men.  In my brick are me, Lance Corporal Stevie Greene, Red Mclaughlin, Charlie Daniels and some Ulster Defence Regiment guy who has been patrolling with us.  It’s twenty three hundred and our orders are to be at the corner by Derryloran between now and midnight.  Killymoon Road runs between the Loyalist Jubilee Park and the Catholic Knockmoyle Estates.

There are five days left of my tour in East Tyrone.

About six weeks ago there were five days left too, and ten weeks before that there were five days left.  The CO says I must be doing something right since they want me out here, tacked onto different companies.  I need this to be the last five days though; this is it, me done – out of the army.  Elaine’s at home.  I’ve got my own house now my dad’s gone.  I feel like life is happening without me.  Elaine said on the phone that she was looking forward to having me home.  I said to Stevie I’m looking forward to being somewhere where people aren’t trying to kill me.  Looking forward to sleeping from dusk till dawn.  Looking forward to my own house, my own space.  I’m getting too old for this life and I’m worn out with it.  Getting jumpy, every time a car backfires or a door slams on the base.

‘Warren on that corner, you two opposite the pub.’ The Lance Corporal splits us up over the junction.  Another brick go up Birchgrove to the Catholic Club, one sets up a road block and Chilli’s lads run satellite from behind a wall a hundred yards away.  Someone throws the stinger into the road and Hammond stands with a red lantern warning oncoming traffic.  There’s a solitary street light over the Gaslight Bar and it gives the whole junction an intimate feeling, like a nativity.  It’s freezing.  I spent last night awake, guarding a ‘find’ – a barn full of guns – and today in a ditch noting license plates on Clare Lane. I’ve not slept in thirty six hours and my eye lid is twitching like a dog’s tail.

The pub sounds busy enough.  After a while the door flings open – we all look – and the volume builds.  Then it swings slowly shut on its hinges and no one comes out.  We shuffle in the breeze.  After a few minutes a couple of lads explode from the pub on a tide of shouting voices.  They’re known to me, Ulster Volunteer Force guys.  They stop laughing and straighten up and walk along towards the estate giving us sideways glances.  A few minutes later Garry Doherty opens the door and he leans against it smoking and grinning at us.  Some lads join him and they walk peaceably past.  The pub empties, dribs and drabs of half-drunk men sidle past us.  Occasionally we mention their names, and nod as though we’re back at home amongst old friends, it’s a trick.  It’s as good as training your sights on them.

‘Alright Johnny, how’s the shop?’  I’m really saying ‘I know you, I know where you live, I know what’s important to you, so move along’.

I can’t believe it when midnight comes and no one’s kicked off.  We come through the South Check Point – Victor Sierra – towards the base, lit up like a football stadium.  We stand at the loading bay near the door – an armoured sandpit – and empty our weapons.  The Sergeant checks each of our rifles and we fall in.

Our multiple squeezes into the briefing room, all twelve of us.  There’s a strong smell of cow shit and the vinegary scent of sweaty men.

‘Right that was peaceful enough – I’ll not keep you.’  The Lieutenant sits on the edge of a table and flicks through his notebook.  I notice Red is asleep, his chin on his chest.

‘Anything to report?’ the Lieutenant asks without looking up, ‘Apart from that you all stink of shit.’

‘What are we on next?’ I ask, my voice grating on my throat and loud in my ears.  Four days to get through.  The rotation of tasks means there’s a multiple on the base – resting, or so they say.  There’s a multiple on the permanent checkpoints on the main road, then one on rural patrol and one on urban.

He pauses, ‘We’re patrolling Cookstown in the morning and Pomeroy in the afternoon.  Oh-Six hundred, so get some hot food and some sleep.’  The Lieutenant leaves and everyone groans.

We slouch around on the mess chairs whilst Gaucho fills a greasy pan with eggs and Red watches bread toasting.  Biting through the toast, tasting the hot gravy of yolk warms me up a bit but I can barely keep my eyes open under the harsh bulbs.  As soon as I finish it I shower and hit the sack, it’s oh-two-hundred.


November 18th four days left.

‘Egg mayonnaise or cheese?’  A young cook called Donald manages us making piles of butties for our urban.

‘Cheese and tomato,’ I say and he steps out of the larder and hands me a block of vacuum-packed cheddar the size of a suitcase and I shoulder in at the stainless steel counter and wait for a knife.

It’s a uniform population here.  Young, white men, well, mostly white, with short hair and moustaches.  Men with small, quick eyes, built like boxers.  Men with strong grips and tattoos, whose glance you avoid.  Men who look uncomfortable in civilian clothes, who look vulnerable and pink without their helmets and a smearing of greasy camouflage paint.  Crowded into the SF base as the leaves fall and a grey November rain blankets every street.  We exist in a pressure-cooker.  We piss together in long echoing bathrooms, eat together in the yellowy glare of dangling bulbs.  We smoke on our narrow bunk-beds and sleep for short periods twelve to a room always to be woken up by some bastard watching MTV on the portable in the corner.  Then we fight together too, putting our lives into the hands of our squad.  We’re just waiting for that helicopter ride back to RAF Aldergrove.

My boots are still damp from yesterday; my combats are streaked with mud.  We’re stood down at six for no reason and spend two hours drinking coffee in the mess, reading old newspapers about Thatcher’s Britain and shivering like bastards.  At eight I get Elaine on the phone before she goes to work, its been a long week of patrols and I’ve not been able to ring her.

‘Hello?’

‘Elaine.  I can’t talk for long, we’re just going out.’

‘Hello stranger.’

‘Sorry I didn’t call we were out on patrol.’

‘They’ve not moved you out to this godforsaken thing in the desert have they?’

‘No I’m still where I was, we’re getting leave before we get deployed anywhere else.

‘Have you heard anything about coming home?’

‘They’ve not said anything about not doing at least.  C-Company’s coming out to relieve us.  I think they’re at full strength, they’re just back from training in Hastings.’

‘Wow, so you’re coming home for real?  It’s been ages, how long has it been?

‘I dunno, nearly six months.’

‘Six months…’ she repeats, and is quiet.

‘Has anything changed?’ I ask. ‘I mean in the last six months?’

‘Oh, nothing really, just you know, your parent’s old place, it needs a bit of a spruce up I think.  Do you know his old car is in the yard?’

‘Yeah, I have a vague memory, well I haven’t been there for ten years, I’m looking forward to seeing the place.’

‘How long will you be home for?’ she asks.

Someone shouts into the room – ‘Tabbing out at eleven-hundred.’

I take the opportunity to wrap it up, ‘I have to go love, we’ve got a patrol.  I’ll ring you again when I know more.’

‘Okay, well be careful, you know?’

‘Don’t make any big plans yet, you know what it’s like.  I’ll ring you when I hear something definite.’

In my room I hang my trousers up to dry, put some fresh newspaper in my boots and lie back down on my bed for an hour.

We’re in a pig-van at midday.  I’m top-side with my SA80 rifle round my chest, keeping an eye on a group of teenage lads on the street corner who are busy talking but keep shooting glances at us.  At least we’re not on foot, but we’re a bloody obvious target stationary like this.  A car passes and I note it with cold fingers.  A stone pings off the side of the Landrover and I look across the road to the gang, I didn’t see who threw it.  Next to a baton gun on the shelf are twenty four rotten eggs off the cook, an unofficial weapon.  Next to the eggs is a Charlie-one form with a list of license plates.  I read them out onto the net and write them as they go past, in the ops room someone checks them on a database.  Occasionally an Ulster accent comes back from control ‘Strong trace’, or ‘Family trace’ or just ‘trace.’  When I get any IRA trace I tell the checkpoint down the road the plate and model of the car so they can ‘randomly’ search it.

The teenage lads seem restless, I can see them picking up stones and empty milk bottles.  Red shoulders the baton gun and I fetch up a couple of rotten eggs.  A face-full of egg can knock the wind out of someone pretty fast.  The Lance Corporal suggests we do an hour at the top of Chapel Street though and we pull off amidst erratically launched stones and shouted abuse.

Red shakes his head.  ‘What do you do if you see a Catholic boy running across a field with half his face blown off?’ he says over the growling engine.

I shrug.

‘Stop laughing and reload.’

It’s dark a few wintery hours later; we’re stopped at the Pomeroy Royal Ulster Constabulary Station for some cheese on toast and mugs of tea.  I take the last bite as two red transit vans pull into the car park and screech to a stop, we see them on the CCTV screens.  It’s a cold night.  Rain turns to snow and turns back to rain, lightly drifting down like feathers, invisible apart from where there’re security lights. We hear the punch-code being typed in and a Sergeant comes in shivering and slapping the rain off his dpm jacket.  He pours himself a tea from the flask on the table and then in a low voice orders our multiple into the back of the CPVs – Covert Patrol Vehicles – or plain old unmarked vans.  The lads chew on crusts as we whistle up the B4 back towards the base.

I keep thinking about home – like before I was married – before I even left – like when I was a kid.  It’s strange – it’s because its dad’s house I’m going back to, not Elaine’s mums like usual, camped out in her spare room, sleeping between the legs of her dad’s model train set table.  The house I grew up in is mine since both mum and dad are dead now.  My dad left it how it was when mum was alive; I expect it’s a pig-sty.  I’m nervous and excited.  I’ve had little more than two days doing nothing in the twenty two weeks I’ve been here.  My hands ache with holding my gat, my feet are battered and my back is creasing.  Maybe ten years ago this was fun, but now I’m knackered.  I’m becoming tetchy.  Getting scared of trips like this – cruising down back streets with our lights off.  Twelve armed men in two unmarked vans.  They never tell us what we’re doing, so you kind of forget what you did afterwards because it wasn’t clear; because it didn’t have a name.  I have almost no clear memories of my time here.  Just that it’s been constantly night, cold and terrifying.

I’ve spent the five years I’ve been married between Berlin and Northern Ireland, and the thought of going back to Elaine makes me a little nervous.  I don’t know what I’ve got to be nervous about.  Our calls recently have become shorter and shorter.  I think I haven’t anything to say to her and she must think the same thing.

‘Anyway you can tell me all about it when you get back,’ she’s started saying, cutting the call short before we have any uncomfortable silences.  I don’t know what she means, what does she want me to tell her about?  Mud, rain and dark nights.  The occasional half brick glancing off my helmet, the infrequent gob full of spit in my face, the constant fear of sniper shots or petrol bombs.

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