Soltau is a smallish town, slap bang in the middle of the vast Lüneburg Heath. As part of the occupation agreement after the second world war, a huge tract of the heath had been designated a military training area for the British army and other NATO forces excluding the Bundeswehr. It was a facility for them to exploit in their efforts to help defend Germany against the Eastern Bloc during the cold war. As a result the heath was forever crawling with tanks and all kinds of other war machines although unusually the entire area was left open for the local inhabitants to go about their daily business. It was a crazy arrangement resulting in thousands of claims for compensation by the local residents and businesses within the area. Serious accidents were commonplace. Towns and villages and particularly the surrounding farms took a constant hammering. Roads and pavements in residential areas were often ripped up by churning tank tracks as they slewed around sharp turns which weren’t designed for such massive and clumsy vehicles. In the countryside fences and hedgerows were flattened and ripening crops were destroyed before they could be harvested. Buildings shook violently day and night from the percussion of massive explosions until many could resist no more and simply fell down. Even some of the river banks were destroyed as convoys of heavy armoured vehicles carried out flotation and river crossing exercises. The landscape had the appearance of a desert and six days a week, to the soundtrack of exploding anti-tank shells, grenades and automatic rifle fire the place resembled a war zone although mercifully live ammunition wasn’t in use for training.
Understandably, the locals detested the military presence in what must have once been a stunning area of natural beauty teeming with wildlife. Many bars and restaurants barred soldiers from entering their establishments although others were only too happy to tap into the huge revenue that a horde of heavy drinking, relatively well off foreigners offered. Fights and confrontations in the towns and villages were an every day occurrence. On Sundays however, it went eerily quiet because no military movement was allowed on the ranges at all. Therefore that Sunday I enjoyed a relatively peaceful wander around what is essentially a typically picturesque German town despite its surroundings. Then I spent what was to be my final evening as a civilian in a pleasant little bar which served good quality food.
I got up early the following Monday morning and inspected myself in a full length mirror on the inside of the door of the wardrobe in my accommodation. Most of my bruises had faded almost entirely and apart from a slightly stiff shoulder I felt reasonably confident that I looked the part. I spent a bit of time honing my appearance before packing everything I wanted to take with me and making my way to Bournemouth Barracks. I was excited if a little nervous about my re-entry into the British army, realising that this first day would probably be the most important if quite difficult. For a start, somebody was going to break the news to me about what had happened to Kathleen and Peter while I’d been away. I had been thinking hard about how I would handle the news, or rather how Loopy would have done. I concluded that it would have been a mixture of shock and sadness but tinged with a touch of ‘they got what was coming to them.’ Loopy had never been overly sensitive in my experience and so that was how I decided to play it. A bit cold but show just enough signs of sadness. I’d have to wing it to a certain extent though.
Despite my slight apprehension, I was already mentally slipping into my new role quite naturally. I decided that the best way to avoid dropping any clangers would be for me to be more reserved than I naturally was. Loopy had always been a bit aloof to put it mildly and had never been particularly friendly with anyone, especially upon first meeting them. I’d be the same and make sure I kept conversations brief and to the point, get on with my job and let things take their course. The longer the deception went on the lower the chance of being caught out I surmised. I didn’t remember Loopy ever talking voluntarily about his past and even though I was familiar enough with his back story, I wouldn’t either. What could possibly go wrong.
‘I’m a full corporal now,’ I drummed into myself as I approached the guard room at the camp entrance. Perhaps it hadn’t been the customary method of gaining promotion and I was now two years older than I had been before I went to America but well, every cloud and all that.
The camp was on the outskirts of town to the north and the way in was through a large wide red brick archway flanked by tall offices that were rendered in an attractive sandy hue. As I headed towards the archway, a green van caught my attention, screeching to a halt just along the road on the opposite side, very nearly knocking over an old lady struggling with a heavily laden shopping trolley as she attempted to cross. As it was ahead of me I couldn’t make out the occupants but there were a few raised voices from other passers by which developed into a heated and animated exchange with the driver. I couldn’t quite hear what was said as at that precise moment an aeroplane passed overhead, losing height as it approached the international airport at Hamburg I assumed. Its massive jet engines made an incredible din as it roared away, drowning out the every day sounds of the street. Peaceful this little town definitely was not. The old lady appeared to be unharmed and as things calmed back down I continued on my way, not wanting to get involved and certainly not needing the distraction. On the outside I felt like I was holding things together well but inside, now that I was about to make my entrance, my stomach had started churning. I felt as nervous as a long tailed dog in a room full of rocking chairs.
The array of buildings which greeted me as I emerged on the other side of the archway were a hotchpotch of German architecture. Some with hints of Art Nouveau or Gothic, others were Bavarian chalet styles with ornate decoration and low pitched roofs. Taller buildings displayed exposed wooden frames and symmetrical rows of sash windows. Despite this eclectic mix it all looked very attractive from the outside at least. Not too austere and threatening as many army barracks can be. My first impression was that I was going to like it here. I nodded to a couple of uniformed soldiers as I passed them and headed for the guardroom door. The two men were obviously on duty but were acting casually. The atmosphere was about as far removed from the infantry battalion barracks back in Werl or for that matter HQ in Bielefeld, as it was possible to be.
Once inside the guardroom my nostrils filled with an all too familiar whiff, the powerful combination of Brasso, floor polish and Windolene. Guardrooms around the world all seemed to smell the same, bloody awful. I introduced myself to the guard commander at the desk and showed him my ID card and he made a quick phone call. A couple of minutes later a REME lance corporal appeared on the scene, shook my hand and introduced himself as Bill Horner.
“Everyone calls me Jack though.” Of course they did. “We’ve been expecting you, where’s all your kit?” he asked.
“As far as I know it was brought up for me on Friday from Beilefeld by one of our drivers, a bloke called Cleary. Miserable sod. You’d remember him if you saw him. I’ve come directly from Canada actually, been on a spot of compassionate leave.”
“Ah, probably at the QM’s then. I’ll take you over and give you a hand with lugging it up to your room. We’re on the bloody third floor. Is there a lot?”
To be honest, I didn’t have a clue so just answered vaguely, “Depends what you call ‘a lot’ mate.” It was the sort of reply that Loopy would have given. The pronounced Lancashire dialect I had slipped into seemed to allow me to project a more sullen demeanour quite naturally.
Once we arrived at the Quarter Master’s stores it turned out that there wasn’t a huge amount of kit considering Loopy had been living in married quarters, albeit a tiny furnished apartment. He must have ditched most of his home contents after vacating the place which was understandable I supposed under the circumstances. Another bloke, a young private who looked about seventeen years old was ordered to give us a hand too so between us we were able to hump all of the luggage comfortably to my accommodation in one journey. As well as my battered, mud stained rucksack that I’d brought with me there were two large green canvas duffel bags, each stuffed to the gills with army clothing and boots. There was also an army issue suitcase, the beige canvas textured type with heavy duty reinforced leather corners that ensured that any squaddie could be spotted a mile away when on his travels to and from leave. They weighed about as much as their contents but would last forever. I assumed my one contained civilian clothes and personal effects. Each piece of luggage had the name ‘Woolf’ and the last three digits of his or rather my army number stencilled on it. In addition there was a sturdy cardboard box containing a selection of about two dozen LPs, some paperback books, a photograph album and a whole load of bric-a-brac rattling around in the bottom. Not a lot to show for a lifetime, even one as short as Loopy’s but at least I wasn’t going to be bogged down with a load of stuff I had no use for.
The private picked up the cardboard box with a loud grunt. He was pretty puny and the box looked very heavy. I told him “You’d better not drop anything out of that mate,” and gave him an unfriendly glare. His face reddened instantly but he replied with confidence. “No problem Corp.”
I was already enjoying my new rank immensely.
The barrack rooms, once we’d left the Quarter Master’s store and scaled the six short flights of stairs up to the third floor to reach them, were a lot more appealing than some of the billets I’d had the dubious pleasure of in the past. As a corporal I was now in the privileged position of sharing a double room with another corporal as opposed to the six or eight berth rooms the craftsmen and privates inhabited. It transpired that I would be sharing with lance corporal ‘Jack’ Horner who struck me as a reasonably decent bloke. The double room he unlocked and ushered me into, apart from the two beds was furnished with a writing desk and chair each, a bedside locker and reading lamp. There was a large wardrobe each and in the corner a small refrigerator was whining away gently. I assumed it belonged to Jack. We even had our own wash basin and toilet ‘en-suite’. A tall sash window looked out onto the parade square below.
“Here’s your door key. I’ll leave you to it then Frank. When you’re ready come down to the LAD and I’ll introduce you to the guys. I expect the boss will want a word so I’d wear clean kit if I were you. ‘Q’ Muncey’s OK but he’s a bit of a stickler for smartness. Without going over the top, he likes people to at least look like they’ve made an effort, especially the NCOs. You can borrow my iron if you haven’t brought one, it’s in the bog,” he gave me a grin and nodded at my jeans which were obviously in need of a good laundering. Again I hadn’t a clue whether I possessed an iron or not so just said “Cheers mate.”
Jack gave me directions to the workshop which was about a fifteen minute walk away. I had to exit from the back entrance to the barracks and take a narrow lane across part of the adjoining ranges. I wouldn’t be able to miss it he said and then left me to unpack. When he’d gone I turfed everything from the kit bags out onto my bed and from the pile selected a pair of khaki trousers, green pullover, stable belt and work shirt along with beret and boots. Normal barrack dress and working gear to be worn beneath overalls in the workshop. I smiled proudly at the double stripe stitched neatly onto the khaki armband I’d be wearing over my sleeve. I also selected the cleanest looking pair of overalls I could find and rolled them up to take along with me, not knowing whether I’d be starting work straight away or not. More than likely there would be a load more admin to take care of first I thought. Having stored the rest of my army kit in the wardrobe I gave myself a quick slosh down at the wash basin, taking a peek under the dressing that covered my newly acquired tattoo. It appeared to be healing well, Silver Moon had done an excellent job bless her. Apart from being an essential part of my transformation, it would always serve as a reminder of her and the rest of those Canadian hippies at the commune who’d been so welcoming and generous to me.
Once washed I ran Jack’s iron over my shirt and trousers. Putting on another man’s shreddies and socks, even if clean was always going to be an odd experience but at least this time they were freshly laundered. I got dressed quickly, relieved that everything including the footwear appeared to fit OK even if the pullover was slightly roomy around the shoulders.
I couldn’t resist opening the suitcase before I left, to take a look at what civvies I had inherited. The neatly packed clothing inside consisted mostly of jeans and sweatshirts, the kind of gear I always wore which I stowed away in my wardrobe and drawers. In a zipped up document wallet stowed to one side of the suitcase I found a sheaf of paper work, some of which made interesting reading. I opened the crumpled, oil stained pay book that all soldiers had to present to the paymaster on every weekly pay parade. It indicated that I would be earning a good deal more than I used to as a lowly craftsman. There was also an army savings account book. When I opened it I was pleasantly surprised to find a very healthy amount saved up in it, Frank had been nothing if not thrifty. In the book I could see where he’d withdrawn a large sum for his fateful trip to Canada but despite that there was almost a thousand pounds still remaining. It was more money than I’d ever had in my life. I tucked my passport in with the rest of the documents and placed the wallet in my locker, planning to go through it all in more detail later.
The last thing I did was flick through the photo album. It was filled mostly with snaps of a serious looking, combat kitted out Frank lined up with groups of other hard looking guys from the various units he’d served with. I was surprised to even find one with yours truly sat in the foreground along with the rest of the members of the LAD in Bielefeld, posed in three ranks in front of our huge Scania recovery vehicle and low loader. I recognised it as a photograph I also possessed in my own meagre collection although I’d never been one for keepsakes. The last time I had seen my copy it had been in a frame propped up on the mantelpiece in my mother’s living room, the memory of it causing me to dwell on the fact that as Frank Woolf I no longer had any family to speak of. More poignant though were three wedding photographs featuring an obviously besotted Frank with his equally happy looking and beautiful bride Kathleen, both beaming directly at the camera as they stood at the top of a flight of stone steps outside the camp chapel in Bielefeld. I had been at the wedding along with everyone else from the LAD and remembered it well although Frank and I had never been close friends. Studying those snaps I experienced an uncomfortable feeling, taking in the joyous expressions on the happy couple’s faces, both totally oblivious of what fate had in store for them. In a more sombre mood I finished getting myself ready. It was time to get over to the LAD workshop and meet the members of my new unit before starting work. It wouldn’t do to keep the boss waiting on my first day.
Following Jack’s directions I walked right through the camp to the rear gate where I took a narrow gravelled road leading out onto the ranges. To my right where I exited was a compound, bordered by a high fence with heavy duty steel gates and pylons topped with powerful looking spotlights. The perimeter fence surrounded a low lying, windowless and ugly building made of black bricks with a sandbag sangar outside its only entrance. I could see a soldier in combat kit near the gate, obviously on guard duty and in one corner of the compound, another guy was making some repairs to one of a row of large dog kennels. There were no dogs there that I could see but I deduced from the warning signs plastered over the building and on the fence, that this was the armoury and would be guarded, particularly at night with the help of war dogs. This triggered memories of my time in Londonderry where I’d often shared night guard duty with dog handlers and their intimidating companions. The dogs were always huge German Shepherds and were the most formidable deterrent imaginable. I have always loved dogs but those buggers put the fear of god into me whenever I met one of them on a dark night. It was a sobering thought, knowing that all the only thing standing between me getting my throat ripped out or not was a whispered command from the dog handler. Everybody was polite to the dog handlers, always.
Inside the armoury I knew there would be rows of SLRs and machine guns in racks, hand guns, metal cases of live ammunition, all kinds of grenades, you name it. I wondered how long it would be before I would have the opportunity to sign out a weapon and spend some time on the firing range. Loopy had been a crack shot if I remembered correctly. He’d represented the REME in the past and it would be on his or rather my record for sure. I was no slouch with a rifle myself but feared that I might require some intensive practice before I could raise my standard close to his level. I wondered what would happen if I found myself entered into an inter-unit shooting competition. Many of these sorts of scenarios had been popping into my head since I’d taken on his identity. It wasn’t productive. I really needed to stop concerning myself with things that might not happen and which anyway I could do nothing about. I just had to get on with my new life and hope I could deal with anything that cropped up as and when it occurred. There could be no going back now.
Beyond the armoury I passed through an obliterated landscape which must have resembled a scene from the battle of the Somme. To one side of the road and beyond heavy Armco barriers where heathers, gorse bushes, trees and shrubs had probably once thrived, was what appeared to be the armoured vehicle test track. To confirm it, at that very moment the tumultuous and unmistakable scream of a massive Rolls Royce power pack at full throttle assaulted my ears and within seconds an FV432 armoured personnel carrier thundered into view. To most people the 432 wasn’t the most aesthetically appealing of vehicles but to me it was like seeing a much loved old comrade. Weighing in at about fifteen tons, over fifteen feet long and nine feet wide these hefty slab sided lumps of steel had a top speed of about thirty two miles per hour, although I knew that a little creative tinkering with the throttle governors could increase that considerably. As it approached, the leviathan’s mighty tracks churned and spun, ripping and tearing at the mutilated surface beneath and spitting debris high into the air as it surged over rises and plunged into dips like a battleship crashing through giant breakers in the North Atlantic. I stood there mesmerised for a moment, watching the driver as he wrestled with the tillers and slewed expertly around a sharp curve. Fond memories bounced to the forefront of my mind as I admired the colossal machine thundering past. Of all the experiences I’d had in my relatively short life, driving an APC at top speed over such terrain rated as one of the most thrilling and I realised how much I had missed the life I’d once known.
With a little more of a spring in my step I proceeded for a further half mile or so until I crested a rise and there in front of me was the LAD workshop. Beyond I could see a large concreted area where sat row after row of armoured vehicles, a few Bedford four tonners, Land Rovers and a couple of big recovery trucks. The main building had the look of an aircraft hangar with doors rolled up fully despite the winter chill in order to discharge poisonous exhaust fumes. Loud rock music blared from several large speakers at high volume, accompanying the cacophony made by powerful unsilenced engines running at full chat. Oily mechanics crawled all over the machine’s pale blue painted innards, wielding king sized tools and yelling boisterous banter to each other across the floor. Welcome home.
I went through the hangar door and spotted Jack and a staff sergeant talking to someone else through a serving hatch in the far wall, so made a beeline for them. Passing close to one of the vehicles I could smell the rich, surprisingly pleasant aroma of hot oil emanating from its opened steering unit just inside and to the front of the engine compartment. The huge steering bands inside the unit with their glistening chevroned linings were partially immersed in heavy oil which reached high temperatures when the tillers were applied at speed. When the cover was removed a mildly acrid whiff was released which I would best describe as smelling like strong coffee laced with liquorice. This was the essence of a tracked vehicle workshop and although some people found the smell a little nauseating, personally I reckoned that if somebody ever found a way to bottle it, it would have the makings of an excellent men’s deodorant second only to sizzling bacon.
Approaching Jack and the staff sergeant who were still nattering away to a storeman through the serving hatch, somebody close by sparked up an arc welding gun and produced a blinding flash which lasted several seconds as he welded a thick stud onto the side of one of the vehicles. I only just managed to turn my head away in time.
“Oi! Haven’t you ever been told about warning people nearby when you’re welding? I’ve had enough arc eye for one lifetime thanks you bastard!” I growled at him, slipping into character. After all I was a full corporal and he was a mere craftsman.
“Sorry Corp. I didn’t see you there,” the welder replied sheepishly, tapping away with a small clinker hammer as he inspected his work.
I went over and tugged at the name tag stitched to his overalls so that I could read it. I didn’t say anything more, just gave him a disgruntled look and walked away. I was beginning to think I might become a better NCO than the original Corporal Woolf had ever been. When he noticed me, Jack broke off the conversation with the storeman and came over.
“Here he is Staff. The new bloke from Bielefeld. Corporal Woolf.”
“At last,” the staff sergeant chipped in, offering his hand. “John Brunswick or ‘Bruno’ when off duty. Wasn’t sure when you’d get in. Glad to have you on board though. Bloody rushed off our feet we are. So, straight here from Canada I hear. Good trip? You look a bit knackered mate.”
He wittered on in a broad Brummy dialect as if he’d known me for years, putting me at ease and dispelling some of my apprehension about introducing myself. He was a huge man, aptly nicknamed and I’d have bet my last penny that beneath his clothes his bearlike physique was covered in a thick mat of body hair.
“I’ll take you up to the office first, let everyone know you’re here. Then you can get your overalls on and get stuck in.”
We strode briskly across the workshop to a metal staircase which rose up the wall to a landing where I could see a row of glass fronted offices. As we walked, having to yell above the constant din all around us, the staff sergeant asked me what experience I’d had with A vehicles, what groups I had on my driving licence, courses I’d attended, all the things he probably already knew from my records. I had the feeling that he was just making conversation for the sake of it, knowing full well what news I was about to receive about my wife. I wondered how many of the others knew. Fortunately I was able to respond confidently and accurately to every thing he asked. We climbed the stairs and walked into the first office where behind a desk sat the AQMS, a warrant officer class two who basically ran the LAD, answerable only to the CO. Bruno rapped on the door and went straight in.
“Corporal Woolf sir. Just got in. Thought I’d let you meet him before I put him to work. Up to our eyebrows we are sir.”
I shook hands and muttered something about it being great to be there. Bruno about turned and clattered back down the metal stairs to the workshop floor and I was left alone with my new boss.
“OK,” ‘Q’ Muncey began in an exaggeratedly friendly tone. “The CO, Captain Garret is out this morning. I expect he’d like a word when he gets back but for now, I won’t beat about the bush. It’s fallen to me to give you some bad news. Sit down Corporal.”
I kept my face as expressionless as I could and took a seat opposite him, knowing full well what was coming. Out of the blue it struck me. The easiest way to handle the situation.
“Before you go on on ‘Q’, I think I know what you’re going to tell me and, well... I already know all about it. Well, I’m assuming you’re going to tell me about what happened to my wife in America?”
“Yes. Really? Well.... how did you find out? How are you coping?” he was stammering now. The poor bloke looked so relieved. He’d probably been more nervous about this interview than I had. I dropped my eyes to the floor for a moment, as if to compose myself before taking a deep breath and answering.
“I actually flew into Frankfurt from Canada on Saturday morning,” I said. “One of the first things I did was to phone my old unit to check that all my kit had been sorted out for me. It had been a bit chaotic when I left. I thought that if I needed to, I’d still have time to get over to Bielefeld and pick it up myself before reporting for duty this morning. Well, when I rang I was told to hang on while they got a mate of mine on the line and he gave me the news then and there over the phone.” I paused for effect, then carried on.
“I can’t believe it really, what happened while I was away. I was totally shocked but to be honest, you may not agree with me but my view is that she made her own bed so she had to lay in it. As for the Kraut and the other bloke, well they got what they deserved as far as I’m concerned.”
I could see that ‘Q’ Muncey was stunned at my attitude so I eased off a little. In a quieter voice I continued, “Sorry if that sounds harsh. I’ll get over it eventually but I did love that woman you know, and it’s difficult to come to terms with what she did. Being hard is the only way I can deal with it for now. I’d rather the rest of the guys didn’t know all the details if you don’t mind ‘Q’. I’m not really ready to talk about it yet.”
“OK. I understand but you know what the jungle telegraph is like. Somebody will have heard all about it and, well a story like that will have spread like wildfire. It’s probably already made the papers in England, maybe Germany too. But I’ll get the NCOs to have a word, make sure you’re given a chance to get your head around things. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you. We all have our own ways to deal with what life throws at us and I have to say, you’re probably handling the situation better than I would under the same circumstances,” he shuffled some paperwork and picked up a pen, indicating that the interview was nearly over.
“Right, have you any questions for me? No? Well I’ll let you get to work. The workshop is up to its neck in work and we’re a bit behind schedule. Go and find Staff Brunswick and he’ll find you something to do,” he said brusquely and that was that.
Relieved to get that awkward first interview out of the way, I left the office and went back over to the stores where I signed for a toolbox containing all I’d need to get started. I put my overalls on and accepted a work sheet from Bruno who pointed to an empty bay that I could use and said he’d send a craftsman over later to work with me. Then I went out the back of the workshop towards the nearby vehicle park to track down my first patient.
The feelings of anticipation increased as I walked along the front row of 432s, studying each number plate until I found the one that matched my worksheet. The vehicle had the name ′Omniscient′ stencilled in white characters along each side at the front.
“Hmm. All-knowing, all-seeing. I bloody hope not,” I said to myself.
I was really looking forward to getting back to what I did best. The driver and commander hatches were sealed up from inside so I walked to the rear of the vehicle and opened the double back doors. I was greeted with the familiar silvery steel, textured floor plates with long bench seats to either side which could carry up to ten troops and their equipment. In the gloom I could just make out the raised forward compartment to the right, illuminated only by a dim glow of light passing through the periscopes fitted into the two forward hatches. It was a narrow space housing the fold-up commander’s stool and footplate and in front of that the driver’s seat with tillers, dash and all other controls to hand.
I clambered through to the front and got comfortable in the driver’s seat which had been squashed down to its lowest setting, allowing enough headroom for the hatch to be shut. Rotating the hefty handle on the underside of the hatch I flung it open so that it locked securely into place in the fixing above. Light flooded in enabling me to get my bearings. It must have been at least fifteen months since I’d last sat at the controls of a 432 but it felt completely familiar as I reached over my right shoulder with my left hand and twisted the big black master switch. It made a resounding clunk as the electrical power flowed and the clocks and dials on the dash lit up. Checking that the two steering tillers were locked fully back, I switched on the ignition and heard the lift pump housed under the floor plates at the back of the vehicle, come to life. Giving it a second or two, I thumbed open the starter switch safety cover and started her up. She burst into life after just a few turns of the starter motor and settled down to a familiar pulsating rhythm. I cranked up the seat so that I could see above the lip of the hatch, selected a forward range of gears and released the tillers ready to ease her forward. It was then that I sensed a movement behind me and turned my head.
Callum had stuck to his decision. What better place could there be to beat someone to a pulp, actually more than likely kill him. Hidden in the back of the armoured wagon nobody would see and nobody was likely to find the victim for hours while he and Finn made their escape. Clutching the lump hammer he moved stealthily through the vehicle park with Finn close behind who had armed himself with a huge wrench. Woolf had stopped by one of the big tracked vehicles, still studying the sheet of paper he’d brought and then gone around the back of it. The brothers closed in.
There wasn’t room to swing a dead cat in the front compartment of the 432, let alone the clumsy weapon that Callum had chosen but he gave it his best shot. Fortunately for me the hammer head glanced off a part of the bulkhead as he swung it and spoiled his aim. Despite that, the four pond lump of iron still made contact with the top of my forehead above my left eye as I twisted in my seat to confront him. I immediately saw stars. The pain was instantaneous and my legs went into spasm causing me to jam my right foot onto the vehicle’s accelerator plate. The vehicle surged wildly forward, the sudden motion causing Callum to be thrown backwards onto Finn and the pair of them ended up in a heap on the floor behind me, cursing and swearing. It gave me a second to gather my wits despite the force of the blow I had received and well aware of blood streaming from above my eye. I roared at the top of my voice and launched myself over the tandem seats at the intruders, making a grab for the lump hammer before my attacker could swing it again. I crushed his wrist with my right hand, hoping he would drop the weapon but he was strong. For a second we struggled face to face there on the floor and in that moment I recognised the mutilated face of my unfriendly acquaintance from the airport. Two things then happened simultaneously. The other guy swung at me hard with a heavy duty wrench which thudded into my back just below my neck causing me to lose my hold on the first guy’s wrist. At that same instant the rogue 432 which had continued its forward momentum unpiloted, crashed violently into the back wall of the workshop sending the three of us tumbling into the forward bulkhead. We were all stunned by the ferocity of the impact but I was the first to regain my balance and smashed my right fist into the remaining eye of my attacker still crumpled on the floor. It connected perfectly and I immediately knew he was out of the game. I twisted around to face the other one who was setting up to deal me a second wallop with his wrench. The short straight left I delivered was ineffective, glancing off the top of his skull but enough to get him off balance again and ruin his swing. Before I could follow it up, the rear door of the 432 was flung open and Bruno’s face appeared, livid with rage. Several of the other guys jostled behind him.
“What the fuck’s going on here!” he yelled before making full sense of the carnage in the back of the vehicle. I’ll give him his due, he reacted swiftly once he’d taken stock, grabbing the remaining upright guy by the hair with one of his big paws and effortlessly dragging him through the door, throwing him roughly onto the ground where he put a size twelve boot on the man’s neck to stop him from getting up.
“Who the hell are these two!”
I got up and staggered outside, holding a hand to my head, blood pouring between my fingers.
“I haven’t a clue Staff,” I said. “The world’s worst car thieves perhaps? They jumped me before I could ask. That fucker’s out for the count though,” I indicated over my shoulder with my thumb. The crack on my head was taking its toll and my legs were starting to weaken now that the adrenalin had stopped flowing. I slumped against the back door of the wagon, struggling not to go down.
“Let me get up you fucking bastards!” came a cry from beneath Bruno’s boot, the unmistakable Belfast accent immediately resonating with everyone. It was almost a year to the day since the Birmingham bombings at the hands of the PIRA and I had a feeling that Bruno might not be too keen on the Irish as he ground his boot even harder into the neck of the young bloke, causing more squeals of pain. If I’d had any strength left I might have given the guy an extra wallop myself. Between the two of them they’d nearly taken my head off.
“Tell me,” I said, looking at the sea of faces swimming before me. “Does everyone who gets posted here receive the same welcoming party on their first day?” Then my legs gave way and I ended up sitting on the ground with my back to one of the 432′s huge tracks.
The big staff sergeant took charge. Someone produced a couple of large cable-ties and secured the prisoner’s wrists. Then the two thugs, once fully conscious were hoisted roughly to their feet and frog marched inside to wait for the MPs to arrive. After a cursory look at my head wound Bruno asked Jack to get me over to the medical room. I needed stitching up apparently. The understatement of the year. There was blood everywhere. To be honest, the knuckles of my right hand were the most painful of my injuries. They’d had a hard time of it over the past few months. I went quietly to see the medics, still confused as to what had actually occurred but dead chuffed that once again I’d managed to come out on top.
I was sent from the camp’s medical facility in an army ambulance to a local hospital to have my head looked at properly and after some X-rays the doctor decided to keep me in overnight to be on the safe side. I didn’t complain. I needed some time to get my act together again. It was beginning to feel as though my nightmare would never end. On the plus side I took the opportunity to ask them to check my left shoulder over, the one which had been dislocated back in the Cascades wilderness. It was still stiff and a bit painful but now I had the opportunity to blame it on the attack I’d just suffered.
“Probably just jarred it or torn a ligament,” said the attentive doctor after prodding and poking at my shoulder vigorously. “I’ll give you a jab to ease the pain and help it heal up,” he continued.
I spent the rest of that day and the night, under observation in case of concussion. I was awoken every few hours and checked over by the nursing staff but I seemed OK, no blurred vision, slurred speech or vomiting. I wondered if it was possible for a person to become immune to it. Over the past few weeks I’d had more than my fair share of practice. In the morning I was woken early and after another thorough check up, was given some breakfast and told I would soon be discharged. I had my arm in a sling, a bandaged hand and a ridiculously thick dressing on my forehead which concealed a throbbing, painful lump and four stitches. Nothing too serious considering what might have happened, I shuddered at the thought. You don’t use a four pound lump hammer on someone unless you really mean business.
I was getting my stuff together after breakfast when a couple of guys in plain clothes strode across the ward and approached me. They introduced themselves as MP sergeants and needed to know everything I could tell them about the incident the previous day. I gave them everything I could remember, starting with the reason for my compassionate leave to Canada which they already knew all about. I went on to include the incident at the airport upon my return as I suspected that it was likely to come up during their investigations regardless of whether I mentioned it or not. As one of the MPs scribbled in a notebook I did my best to respond to the grilling the other gave me as fully and accurately as I could. I told them that at the time, I’d assumed the guys pursuing me at the airport had either mistaken me for someone else or they were just attempting to mug a random passenger although that really didn’t add up.
To my surprise and without me prompting, the guy writing the notes put his pen away and closed his book before informing me, “They’re the O’Briens, Callum and Finn. Brothers from Belfast. PIRA sympathisers well known to the RUC. We called Belfast last night. They got back to us pretty quickly as they’ve had a lot of dealings with the whole family over the years. You should know those lads. You were married to their bloody sister.”
Of course. The truth dawned on me with complete clarity. It was Kathleen’s brothers. They must have somehow found out Loopy’s whereabouts and gone after him. Nearly bloody well succeeded too. Immediately I could see how this might work in my favour to add credibility to my deception.
“Bugger me!” I exclaimed. “So that’s it! I’ve been racking my brain trying to fathom out why they picked on me. I knew she had two brothers but I’ve never seen either of them before. Not even a photo. Kathleen never liked talking much about her family. Obvious reasons. It all makes sense now. She always said her father would have had the pair of us killed if he’d caught us when we first got together. I’m guessing the bastards were able to track me down after all this time when they found out what happened to her and that Kraut she ran off with. Easy enough to track her back to Germany I suppose. Christ, they were trying to kill me then!”
I was laying it on thick, shocked and outraged. The two cops appeared to be convinced.
“Maybe, but there might have been more to it. We’ll find out eventually. Meanwhile they’re not going anywhere.”
“I hope they get what they deserve, the murdering scum.” I went on.
“Don’t worry about that Corporal, they’re in deep shit. The RUC will be picking up their old man this morning. If we can get the lot of them off the streets it won’t be a bad thing. From what we can gather it would only be a matter of time before they actually did kill someone otherwise.”
The two MPs got up to leave. “We’ll be in touch again, you may be required as a witness once they go to trial.”
I didn’t like the sound of that much but I knew full well it would be a good few months before the O’Briens saw the inside of a courtroom. When the time came I’d express my concern about other IRA people having a go at me and make sure I was given anonymity. I finished getting ready and left the hospital with a pocket full of pain killers and in far higher spirits than when I’d arrived.