"Hello Zero, this is Echo Sierra two one Alpha. Check, Bravo, India, Whiskey, four three niner five, a dark Ford Escort, over."
"Zero, blue, discretion, out."
My world came crashing down with Corporal Johnston's vehicle check. I hefted the butt of the light machine gun into my shoulder taking proper control of the weapon with my finger resting on the safety catch, just as I had been drilled, and peered through the IWS image intensifying sight. I acquired the vehicle as it turned into the gateway of the house we were watching. My hand moved towards the cocking handle. Exactly as per the drills.
The green glow of the image was heavily speckled with little bright points as the electronics worked their magic. OK, it was first generation equipment and not as clear as we're used to now but I marvelled at the sight picture even as I followed my wife's car along the driveway to the house. I heard the crunch of gravel as it came to a halt at the door - and watched as a slim, dark haired, woman, dismounted the vehicle, walked to the door, and let herself in.
I'm quite sure most of you haven't got a clue how a husband comes to be watching his wife enter another man's house through a weapon sight, so I suppose I'll have to give you some background.
I'm Drew Wilson; I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during what was 'The Troubles'. I'd been brought up as a protestant but like most families we had catholic aunts, uncles, and cousins, so bigotry was something foreign to us, until it all kicked off. I still don't understand it. Although, like most working class kids at the time, I had turned out to 'defend' my area when the police and army came in looking for paramilitary weapons, (and yes, they did search proddy areas as well as catholic).
Rioting was a bit of sport to brighten up an otherwise ordinary day. Anyway, you didn't get badly hurt unless you got hit by a rubber bullet, or half a brick thrown from just behind you, or broke your petrol bomb at your own feet. Everybody laughed at you if you did that, especially since the best way to deal with it was to piss yerself. Most of the time the injuries were often pretty minor, you only went to hospital to claim compensation.
The worst would be if the police and soldiers had been kept on the streets for too long, and they were getting tired. Then they fired the rubber bullets at short range, and they would hurt like hell or, if they hit your head or just over the heart they could kill. If you fell during one of their charges, you could get a real hammering with the batons and shields and wind up with broken bones. We learned when to run. Sometimes some paramilitary dickhead would open up with a rifle or sub-machine gun (SMG). The sport would end and we'd get offside sharpish.
I left school as soon as I could, and my first job was as a hospital porter, getting back and forth on a Honda 50 moped. As rioting escalated so did the injuries coming in. My idea that it was just sport was soon changed. I covered almost every part of the hospital, including the mortuary. In addition to "normal" patients, I had seen casualties from riots, shootings, and bombings. Now I had to deal with people who didn't make it ... and their relatives.
Seeing the grief of people of all religions coming to see their child or parent, husband or wife, loved one or lover, for the last time, reinforced my conviction that, by and large, people are people. I know there were some who used a death to harden their hatred of 'the other side' but their grief was always the same. Eventually I got so angry about the pain and anguish I felt; I could no longer stand on the sidelines. I had to DO something.
I looked at the alphabet soup of "organisations" "defending" "their" communities and easily came to the conclusion that one paramilitary thug was as bad as the other. The police were the most evenhanded. Despite the propaganda they were standing between both sides and they were hated as much by the UVF and UDA as the IRA and INLA. The problem was that they didn't just accept people with two arms, two legs, two eyes, and two ears. They had educational standards.
I had left school as soon as I was sixteen and that meant I didn't sit any exams. It was possible back then. My application was rejected but the police recruiter suggested I try the Ulster Defence Regiment, which had been formed as part of the army. He said if I did some time with them and studied for Maths and English exams at night school I could apply again later and I'd have a bit of experience as well.
EXAMS! This needed a lot of thought. I went down to the club and sank a few pints of the black stuff.
Long story short, I joined the UDR and started night school. The UDR was part-time so I could do it at night and at weekends. I could fit duties around my hospital shifts and night classes. By this stage I had bought myself a CL175 to get around but I was lucky enough to get the army to give me a car driving licence so I could drive the Land Rovers we used.
Duties meant that I could be on patrol one or two nights every week. We also had to do guard duties and training. On weekends we rotated through patrols, guards, range, or training days. Each company was supposed to have one weekend where there was nothing on but they were often wiped out by courses or community work. Every two or three months we would have a training weekend at one of the field training centres from Friday night to late Sunday afternoon. Think T.A., F.C.A., or National Guard, but doing operations at the same time.
Of course, nobody had to do every duty. Tasks required only a proportion of the company, and there was a different company on each night. I did a lot of patrols and eventually the inevitable happened. The patrol I was part of stopped some of the people I worked with. I knew they were anti security forces, so I talked to the section that dealt with our personal security. They told me that the best thing for me was to move house and quit my job. I should avoid any patterns in my life because if my details got back to the terrorists they might try a Close Quarter Assassination (CQA). I did the first two and moved into a small flat, but I had to finish my night classes if I was going to get my exams.
They told me I should apply for a gun for personal protection. The army wouldn't give me one because there was no confirmed threat to me so I had to apply to the police and buy a handgun. I bought a second-hand, Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, (J frame, 5 shot, 17/8¬" barrel, easy to carry in your pocket, for you gun nuts out there) and was allowed 25 rounds at any one time. I discovered later it was a dead mans gun. He didn't get a chance to draw it before he was shot in the back. That's why I was able to afford it.
I got jobs labouring on building sites and passed my exams. The few nights that I did have off, were spent relaxing in the flat, practising the guitar, tin whistle, and fife, maintaining my bike, and working on an old Ford Anglia van. I had bought it cheap, to use in the winter. Like a lot of my friends I had joined one of the local flute bands when I was a kid. They were called flute bands but most played the fife, that's where I learned tin whistle too. I taught myself guitar because I thought I might get into a band, become a rock star, and get out of N.I. I left the flute band when I joined the UDR. They didn't like you to be in them because some of the less reputable ones were recruiting grounds for the paramilitaries and the army isn't keen on divided loyalties.
I applied to the police again, but they had moved the goalposts. Now, they wanted 5 'O' levels. I had two. There were so many people wanting to join they could pick and choose. I was approaching twenty-one and starting to understand what my parents had tried to get through my stubborn head. You get nowhere without some sort of qualifications. Hell, I wouldn't even have been able to get beyond Lance Corporal if I hadn't done those two exams.
This needed a lot of thought. This time, instead of the club, I went home and talked to Mum and Dad. They told me to go to my old school and talk to my former headmaster, Mr Prescott. I took the advice.
Money wasn't too much of a problem, as I'd been doing two jobs for nearly two years, and hadn't been able to go out much at night. What, with classes, patrols, and training? Labouring wasn't going anywhere and I could do duties at night to earn money, so, I quit labouring, moved back in with Mum and Dad, started Technical College as a mature student, and planned a future. I also did the army course for promotion to Lance Corporal.
When college was out I was able to join what were called the "dole patrols". These were 4 man teams (known as a "brick") who would form extra patrols to augment the police and regular troops during the day or to assist with guard and escort duties. (No, we didn't provide sexual services to all the gay redcoats, we would provide armed cover and 'native' guides to other units, equipment moves, recovery of broken down vehicles, and things like that.)
With all the heavy industry in Belfast at the time I decided to do City and Guilds in engineering. It was hanging out in the cafeteria at the Technical College between classes that I met Jean. She was doing RSA classes in office administration. She was about 5ft 6in and a (British) size 10, long glossy dark hair, and deep brown eyes. With all my experience talking to people in the hospital, on the building sites, and in the army, I was, naturally, a very shy and introspective sort. It took all of about 2 seconds for me to ask her out. (Hell, we were at war. I might be blown up next time I got into my van, or get shot answering the door. Strangely we were safer on duty than off).
Well, she of course thought I was an arrogant wee shite, who was too full of himself. BUT, she didn't shut me down right away. So I sat down at her table and engaged her in conversation. Like I said, I had talked to all sorts of people when I worked at the hospital and I had dated a few of the student nurses, so I could charm the ladies when I really wanted. It wasn't long before I had her laughing and I just knew I had her hooked. I asked again for a date, she said no, and left for her next class.
Augh well, crashed and burned, but it wasn't the first time. I hung about the cafeteria between classes hoping to bump into her again but it was a full week until I saw her. This time she was with a gaggle of girls from her course. Still there's no time like the present, so I asked her out, again, and this time she was quiet for a moment, bent her head, looked up at me from below her eyelids, and said, "OK." I still don't understand it, but I felt all the clichés. My heart was thumping, I couldn't breathe, I was bathed in sunshine, and the birds were singing. I had never felt anything like it. It was even better than my first time in bed with a girl ... nearly.
So began our courtship. She was working for the Civil Service and they were paying her tuition. She did one day and one afternoon and evening at Tech and the rest of the time she was in work. That was why I hadn't seen her for a week. We started sharing lunch when she was at college and I would pick her up after work or night class, in the van, if I could get it running, otherwise the bike.
Unusually for a girl, in those days, she had moved out of home when she got a job. She came from a country village called Aghalee near Lough Neagh. She had got two GCEs in maths and English and good enough grades in her CSEs to get a job in the Civil Service. When she was 18 she moved up to Belfast and shared a small flat over a shop in an area called Bloomfield, with Sandra, whose brother was a policeman. This was on the bus route to Stormont, where she worked, and to the college. She didn't know anyone in town when she moved up, but she soon made friends at work and at college.
She had a few boyfriends at home, and had gone out with a couple of lads from work or college, but nothing serious. The guys from town thought they would be able to dazzle her 'cos she came from the country, but, as she said, she knew how the cock covered the hen and the bull serviced the cow, so wasn't about to be tricked into anything. She was amazing, so natural and unaffected. She could charm the birds from the trees and every other truism you can think of. I was absolutely mired in everything about her. Oh, and she had a mean right jab and left hook - she had three older brothers - all farmers.