By David Gardiner
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I allowed my hand to rest against the bulge of the Cobra Patriot 9 mm in my trouser pocket, to reassure myself that it was still there. A superb little weapon: light, accurate, deadly – and completely reliable. I could fire it without taking it out of my pocket. Often that was the best way.
I sipped my beer with eyes downcast to the newspaper that I wasn’t reading, totally alert to everything that was going on around me. At the far end of the room a television chattered out the commentary to a football match, all but drowned by the murmur of conversations in the intervening space.
I don’t suppose any of the other customers noticed the middle-aged man in the brown jacket with the fur collar when he shuffled in and pulled himself onto a high stool at the far end of the bar. He was in his sixties, which meant that he was too old to attract a single glance from any of the young businesspeople who drank here.
The bartender was older still, but his position imbued him with enough status to have struck up a conversation with two over-made-up office girls perched on bar stools, trying to make their gin and tonics last until the arrival of someone else, whose name I had picked-up as ‘Cynth’. He finished the story he was telling and smirked for a moment in appreciation of their polite giggles before strolling down to address the newcomer.
“Evening, Jed. Will it be the usual?”
Jed nodded and saluted smartly. It was some kind of private joke. Already he looked like a fixture, an extension of the dented old stool on which he sat, silent, as though everything he had to say he had already said, many times. It seemed that his only reason for being here was the meagre company of these indifferent, self-absorbed young folk.
Pulling the straps of my holdall over my shoulder and lifting my almost empty pint, I made my way to the bar and stood next to the newcomer.
“Good evening. I think we know one another. Aren’t you Jed Collingsworth?”
“Yes…” he looked me up and down with a puzzled expression. “I can’t say I recall…”
“Oh, it was a long time ago. Northern Ireland. Back in the 1970s. Beginning of the Provisional IRA bombing campaign.”
His puzzlement seemed to grow deeper. “Really? You seem a little young to have been involved in that…”
“I was just a boy. Ten or eleven years old. You still can’t remember me, can you?” The old man shook his head. “Do you mind if I join you?”
He looked a little uncomfortable but by way of reply he gestured towards the stool beside him. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. That would make it too easy. Spoil the fun.” I tried to sound jovial, and it seemed to help.
He smiled. “It’s a guessing game, is it?”
“Yes. That’s what it is.” I signalled to the barman. “Another one for the two of us please.”
He studied my face. “I doubt if I’ll remember,” he said. “That whole period feels like a different lifetime now. Ugly and painful and best forgotten. The Irish have moved on and so have I.”
I watched the barman pulling the lever to draw the two pints. “Us Irish are a funny lot,” I told him. “Very long memories for some things. I remember coming in to land at Aldergrove with my parents when I was just a lad. The pilot said: ‘We’re now approaching Aldergrove Airport, Belfast. Please put your watches back four hundred years.’ Good for a laugh, us Irish, aren’t we?”
He refused to take the bait. “I… think it’s great the way the Irish can laugh at themselves.” That was a clever answer. Jed had diplomatic skills.
I paused for a moment, deciding what to say next. I needed to be certain. I needed to draw him out. “Like I said, I was just a nipper back then. But there are things I can’t forget. You too, surely. Do you remember all the check-points and road blocks around the streets of Belfast? All the times you were sent out to stop cars and search people? You must have done a lot of that.”
“Well yes. Of course I remember. We all did a lot of that. More of that than anything else.” He frowned. “Look, do we have to talk about this? I mean, what’s the point? It was decades ago. The whole world is different now.”
It was my turn to think of a diplomatic answer. “Not as different as it would have been if things had gone differently.”
“What? You mean politically? Were you involved politically? I never understood any of that. Was never able to make head or tail of it. I was just a young squaddie fresh out of boot camp on my first posting, trying to carry out orders as best I could. I didn’t know anything about the rights and wrongs of it all. I didn’t have an opinion then and I don’t now. I just think streets ought to be safe to walk down and people shouldn’t go around planting bombs. Thank god it doesn’t happen any more. Something we did must have worked. That’s all that matters to me.”
“Something you did. Yes, you’re right. Something you did must have had the desired effect.”
“So it looks like you and I were on different sides of some ancient bit of bad blood that ended thirty years ago. All water under the bridge. No hard feelings. Okay?” He held out his hand and I took it without hesitation. I had no desire to make him feel uncomfortable. I just needed to be certain.
The heads on our pints had settled. The barman brought them over and I paid. “You two know each other then?” he asked.
“I know Jed. Jed doesn’t seem to remember me.”
“Were you in the forces? Jed and I were in the forces together – a long time ago.” He looked at me and I thought I detected a hint of recognition. “Did you have your picture in the papers. Years ago? Something political?”
“It was my father,” I said quietly. “Everybody said we looked very alike.” He hesitated for a moment.
“Oh yeah. Of course. Couldn’t have been you – you’re too young.” He left us and made his way back towards the two girls. It was pretty clear that he didn’t want to talk about Belfast.
I turned to Jed. From my holdall I drew out an old-fashioned British army steel helmet with a mottled green-and-brown cloth camouflage cover. I placed it on the counter between Jed and myself. “Your property,” I said. “Or maybe crown property. But you were the one wearing it.”
He stared at it but did not touch it. After a few silent moments he looked up at me.
“Maybe you remember who I am now?”
He nodded. His expression had become very uneasy. “It was 1970 or 71.” He spoke so quietly I could only just hear him over the buzz of conversations behind us. “Leeson Street, East Belfast.”
“That’s right. Go on.”
“We were out on a routine patrol in the Saracen – four of us plus an officer. In fact the officer was Rick over there.” He nodded towards the barman. “We got an order to question some Republican who lived nearby. I suppose Rick must have got it on the radio. So we parked up fifty or sixty yards from the house, and Rick told us to wait and keep our eyes open, and then he went off by himself.”
“Was that unusual?”
“No, not really. I suppose it was a bit unusual that he didn’t ask any of us to get out and give him cover. There were lots of snipers about at the time. Usually you would try to provide a bit of rifle cover if somebody was getting out. Anyway, he went by himself. He was the officer, we weren’t going to argue.”
“I think you know what happened then. Better than I do, really. The street lights were out. It was almost pitch black. That was deliberate, to make it harder for the snipers. We heard a single gunshot. We reckoned a sniper had had a go at the Captain. And when he came running back like all the devils in hell were after him, we were pretty sure that was what had happened. He jumped into the front of the Saracen and told the driver to move it, which he did. Then, as we pulled away, I heard this screaming kid. Really screaming, like he’d been seriously injured. I never heard anything like it. And he was running – chasing the Saracen and screaming like he might have stopped a bullet. I thought he was hit for sure, that we should get him to the hospital, and I leaned out of the back and tried to take his hand, yelled at the driver to stop, that the kid was hurt, but the driver didn’t stop. He speeded-up. We just touched hands, the little kid and me, and then we lost him. Left him behind in the dark. I’ve no idea what happened to him. I thought we should have stopped – picked him up. He was obviously in a bad way…”
“And that was when you lost your helmet?”
“That’s right. When I leaned out. I didn’t have the chin-strap on properly like I should have. It was always a bit too big for me, that helmet.”
“Did you ever find out what really happened that night?”
He hesitated. “Sort of. Well, I put two and two together. There was all that stuff in the papers the next day…”
“It wasn’t the British army’s most glorious hour, was it? And Special Branch were wrong about my father. He wasn’t in the least bit political. They must have got him mixed up with somebody else.”
“So… it was a cold-blooded assassination – like the Irish News said?”
“He pushed in past my mother, shot my father with a service revolver, right between the eyes. Simple as that. I saw it all.”
There was a distinct lull in the conversation. Up at the other end of the counter the barman had spotted the helmet and was walking slowly back in our direction.
“This is pointless.” Jed spoke in a breathy whisper. “Nothing can bring him back. We’ve got to move on. All of us. It was a totally evil, disgraceful act. But revenge isn’t going to make anything better… let some good come out of it. Learn from it…”
“I did learn. Our whole family learned which side we were on. Your captain did a brilliant recruiting job for the Volunteers.”
The barman had reached where we were sitting. He lifted the helmet and grinned broadly. “Hey, Jed,” he said, “I remember the day you lost this!”
“So do I,” I told him, returning his grin.
The Cobra Patriot is a relatively noisy gun. I like that about it – it helps to clear the room in a situation like this. One shot was all it took. He slumped forward onto the counter and knocked over Jed’s beer.
“I’ll buy you another one some time,” I promised him. “But right now I have to go.”
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