In the period between Bloody Sunday and the reorganisation of the parachute regiments after the attack on the Brigade HQ, during the time that Frank was serving the remainder of his second Irish tour in Belfast, an attractive colleen named Kathleen O’Brien was going about her normal business. She was from a typically large Catholic family, the youngest of five sisters and two brothers. They had grown up in a run down and dangerous district of Belfast, swallowed up by the plethora of soulless housing estates thrown together after the second world war in Andersonstown, just off the Falls Road.
No bones about it, the house in which Kathleen was born and spent her formative years was nothing short of a slum, one of the worst even by Belfast standards. The area had been unsafe to wander around after dark before the troubles had begun. Now, even a trip to the filthy and draughty lavatory built in the back yard was a risky expedition late at night because of the large population of rats of the two as well as four legged variety that had relocated from the nearby Lagan redevelopments taking place. The vermin had vacated an area dominated by huge derelict buildings towering over foul smelling and polluted river water, spreading into the residential estates like a plague. When the wind blasted in from the East straight off the Irish sea, swept through the docks and whistled into the city, nobody was inclined to leave the comfort of their warm bed to go and use the bog anyway. Instead, everyone had access to a facility known affectionately as a ‘honey bucket’ to use at night. Often the repugnant vessels were overflowing by morning especially when the men had been out drinking so that the whole house stank of stale urine by breakfast time.
There were three bedrooms in the house. When the family had been younger, one of the bedrooms had been occupied by Kathleen’s parents Conall and Nora O’Brien, one shared by her two oldest sisters and the other by Kathleen and the remaining two sisters. The two brothers had slept in a poky little back room downstairs, just off the kitchen. To the front of the house was the parlour, the only room in the place which wasn’t riddled with damp so it was the only one that any visitors were ever shown into and the children had rarely been allowed in there at all. There was no bath within the house. When the kids had been small they had been unceremoniously dumped on the kitchen draining board by the irritable and bad tempered Nora where they were roughly scrubbed down in the sink once a week whether they needed to be or not. As they grew older they used their father’s tin bath which hung from a nail hammered into the back door. The time and trouble it took to fill the bath with water heated on the stove and to keep it topped up meant that the same water was shared until it became murky and thick with scum. Not a pleasant experience and bath night was never one to be relished by any of the family. Once Kathleen became more independent and if she had enough spare pennies she preferred to nip down the road to use the old Victorian public baths over on Ormeau Avenue.
Other than Kathleen, none of the family had shown any inclination to improve their lot or better themselves in any way. Kathleen had been only an average student at school but had gone on to enrol at the local college in the hope of achieving enough further education to give her a leg up into a catering career of some sort. Meanwhile, the boys and their father laboured on and off in the docks over the years but more often than not they were unemployed and spent their time in the house, in the pub or at a clandestine meeting somewhere between the two. At least now that her four sisters had left home to bring up families of their own there was more room in the house but it was and always would be a shit hole.
Kathleen didn’t like her parents much and had little time for her siblings either. They all seemed intent on destroying their own lives by getting involved in the sectarian squabbles and violence synonymous with ‘The Troubles’. Her brothers Finn and Callum had both had dealings with the IRA and later the Provisional IRA. They had done so since they were schoolboys and had built reputations that put the fear of god into anyone who had anything less than a hundred percent sympathy with the cause. Their father, formerly a PIRA activist himself but nowadays just a run of the mill fat and lazy bigot, gave them a constantly hard time but deep inside he was proud of his sons. He enjoyed lording it in the local pubs like a tribal chieftain even though neither he nor the boys had been involved with anything of note for quite some time. Conversations around the house mirrored those heard all over the neighbourhood, centring on the things rumoured to have happened, were expected to happen or had never happened. The men scrutinised everyone they came into contact with, suspicious of every detail of their lives and occupations. Woe betide anyone who gave even the slightest hint of doubt as to where their loyalties lay.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in Derry, the lines in the sand were drawn deeper and straighter. Propaganda, fund raising and the planning of atrocities, even though rarely carried out were stepped up to a much higher level in the O’Brien’s patch of the city. Not a day went by without there being one sort of crisis or another such as involvement in the riots, reports of traitors who should be investigated and dealt with, in fact sorting out anyone who displayed different religious or political views to the O’Brien boys. It was how they gained their perceived respect from everyone in the neighbourhood and Kathleen was sick to death of it. All she dreamed of was escaping the violent, dangerous streets of Belfast and her filthy depressing home. She longed to get away from her dysfunctional family and to build a meaningful life for herself. What’s more, she didn’t care at all how she was going to go about it.
Some of her former friends had managed to escape from their miserable existence by getting themselves pregnant by a British soldier. Any soldier. Once their family found out then there was the high risk of being ostracised, made an example of and severely punished, for example by being tarred and feathered. If they were lucky though, they were booted out of the area before the likes of the O’Brien boys became aware because if they did they would bring down vicious repercussions upon the entire family. The girl concerned would simply disappear, usually finding a way of following their entrapped soldier back to the mainland never to return. Kathleen had no qualms about doing the same but knew that the consequences for her if she were to be caught would be even more extreme, possibly life threatening. She had to be more picky about who became her ticket to freedom, to be absolutely certain that she could vanish without a trace.
Frank Woolf had caught her eye one day when she had stumbled across him supervising a roadblock in the city centre. She’d been clothes shopping and was carrying a couple of carrier bags towards the bus stop on her way home. The soldiers had been doing their best to be polite and friendly to the public as they went about their work, perhaps attempting to build bridges after what had so recently happened in Londonderry. However, trying to win hearts and minds while at the same time causing so much disruption and frustration was an impossible task leaving them wide open to a constant stream of verbal abuse and threatened violence.
The soldiers who had set up the road block had been wearing the maroon berets and winged cap badges of the despised parachute regiment but she’d immediately been drawn to a guy who appeared to have taken charge of the squad. He wasn’t a para, she could see that. He was wearing the double chevrons of a corporal and was the only one of the soldiers wearing a navy blue beret. His job was to carry out the physical inspection of the vehicles and speak to the drivers while the others remained in defensive positions and made sure he worked in safety. Giving off an aura of calm and natural leadership it was immediately apparent that the other soldiers respected him, carrying out his instructions without a moment’s hesitation. Kathleen had watched from across the street for a while and then having made up her mind, checked her appearance quickly in the reflection of a shop window before strolling confidently across the street.
“Hello,” she said, gaining the corporal’s attention with a beaming smile. “I can see you’re with the REME.”
Kathleen had spotted his silver cap badge which depicted a rearing horse below a royal crown, backed by a lightning flash.
“What of it?” came the reply. Not friendly but not too rude either.
“I know you’re busy, but I was wondering if you had time to take a look at my car,” Kathleen went on. “It’s stopped back there about half a mile and I can’t get it going again. I’m bloody stranded.”
Kathleen stood very close to the young corporal, accidentally on purpose brushing his arm with her breast. She didn’t own a car and never had done but was certain he would refuse her request out of hand. No soldier was stupid enough to fall for what might easily be an IRA entrapment.
“You look like you know what you’re doing,” Kathleen continued, putting down one of her bags and placing a hand on his arm. “Christ! that’s a good strong arm so it is. You must work out a lot.” She was flirting blatantly, confident in the effect she always had on men.
“Look love. You know that’s well out of the question. I’m sorry, I’ve got enough of a job to do here as it is. You’ll have to call a garage or somebody to come out and help you. Here,” said Frank, rummaging around in the pocket of his jacket. “I can give you a tanner for the phone but that’s the best I can do.”
The tone of the soldier’s reply was a little less gruff, bordering on friendly as he waved away the driver of the car he’d been inspecting.
“Pity,” she said, making eye contact and holding his attention. “I’d make it well worth your while.”
Her voice was low with a slight rasp to it and the tone had an instant impact leaving the young corporal in no doubt whatsoever of her interest in him.
“What’s in the bags love?” he asked, delving into one of them enthusiastically. “Hmm nice gear, I may need to search you properly though,” he was grinning now.
The conversation continued with quite a bit of laughter and plenty of innuendo. After a few more minutes the corporal spoke to one of the other soldiers.
“I need a bit of a break lads. Let them all through for now will you while I go and have a cup of tea and a fag,” and with that he took Kathleen’s arm and guided her to the rear of an armoured vehicle parked nearby.
The young corporal had appealed to her in many ways, not least his good looks. Kathleen had sensed something about him, a single mindedness coupled with determination but with just a subtle hint of vulnerability escaping from his gorgeous if unusually coloured eyes. She could tell that he wasn’t as hard nosed as the image he was trying to portray, even if the other ignorant grunts he was supervising couldn’t. This guy had definite possibilities. As a bonus, being a corporal and a tradesman meant he would be on better money than the other squaddies she’d approached too. Kathleen decided there and then to give this one her best shot.
They’d had it off that first day in the back of the armoured personnel carrier after Frank had handed responsibility for the roadblock over to a lance corporal. He’d led her into the back of the massive vehicle, winking at one of his colleagues.
“I’m just going to ‘search and question’ this young lady in private while the kettle’s boiling.”
It was surprisingly suitable in the back of the APC with long padded benches along each side and no windows. She must have made a good impression because as they relaxed with a cigarette afterwards, Frank had extracted as much information about her as possible and finally jotted down a phone number where she could reach him when he was next on guard duty. After that first time and over the next few weeks there had been covert meetings between the two of them at every opportunity, making secret arrangements by pay phone or passing sealed notes at the camp gate. They’d had gratuitous, lustful sex everywhere. As well as in the back of vehicles they had been at it in alleyways and behind buildings as well as in secluded corners of local parks and wasteland. Frank had even smuggled her into camp a couple of times when he’d been on duty as guard commander.
Kathleen convinced Frank that she was on the pill and he never questioned the fact regardless of her obviously being a catholic. But despite a total lack of precautions on both her and Frank’s part, even with the amount of sex they performed together over the following months, she hadn’t been able to fall pregnant by her randy soldier boy. Disappointingly, after her third menstrual period since the beginning of their affair, it crossed Kathleen’s mind to ditch Frank and find herself someone else. It would have been a shame as she was enjoying herself so much but surprisingly, just a couple of weeks before his tour was due to end, he had asked her to leave with him, or at least as soon as was feasible. She was shocked at this development. They had been sitting on a bench in a secluded corner of a small park close to the army barracks when he’d put the proposition to her. Her jaw had dropped and she’d sat there genuinely flabbergasted as he stammered and stumbled over the right words to describe his feelings for her. Frank told Kathleen that he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Ireland without her and she couldn’t believe her luck. She had finally found herself a way out and hadn’t even had to get pregnant, a result in itself as she’d never been too keen on kids anyway.
Kathleen threw her arms around Frank and joyfully exclaimed how she felt the same way. There then followed a serious yet tactful description of her home situation, the attitude of her family and how dangerous and difficult for her it was going to be to get herself away. She’d already touched on this subject with Frank but hadn’t wanted to lay it on too thick for fear of discouraging him, but her concerns were genuine and she needed a good plan in place before she was prepared to risk leaving. He had listened intently but not appeared overly phased by her concerns. They agreed that absolute secrecy was obviously imperative, firstly from her family and friends but also as Frank explained, from his own colleagues and superiors. Fraternisation with the locals beyond a certain level was forbidden by the army and if his superiors became aware of his plans they would do everything possible to discourage him. He might even get into serious trouble.
Frank and Kathleen spoke for a long time that day in the park, analysing every move and discussing solutions to each and every perceived obstacle. They continued to meet regularly during the following days, excitedly going over everything, each of them wanting to ensure that the other hadn’t had second thoughts. Kathleen in particular needed constant reassurance because once their plan was put into action there could be no going back for her. Not ever.
At long last, in early May the day came. Frank’s tour ended and he departed for the final time with his unit back to Aldershot in Hampshire. He left Kathleen a gift of some cash not only to show faith but also to enable her to fix herself up with a passport. A passport wasn’t really necessary to travel to England from Belfast but it was likely to be needed at some point in the near future as Frank had already put in for a transfer months before, hoping to be posted out to BAOR soon after his return to England. It fitted their plan well as it would be more difficult for Kathleen’s family to track her down if she only stayed in Blighty for a short while before going abroad. Kathleen had never possessed a passport as she’d never had the opportunity to leave the country before. Careful to ensure that nothing would come directly to the house she had visited the Victoria Street passport office in person and applied for an urgent ‘fast tracked’ service. Within a week she had gone back and picked it up, paying with some of the cash that Frank had left her and stashed the passport away in her hand bag, never letting it out of her sight. Then began the waiting along with the difficulty of acting normally, keeping her secret safe from her brothers, sisters, parents and even her closest friends.
She wrote letters and posted them off secretly, there were even one or two telephone conversations but she couldn’t risk receiving anything through the post from England. Not without going to a lot of trouble to ensure that it wasn’t discovered by the family. It was about six weeks later that the first stage of their plan came into effect. A package arrived for her from England, wrapped securely in liveried packaging from a posh London retailer but it had been addressed care of an old friend of Kathleen’s who lived just down the road, a girl she’d known since primary school days named Róisín Murphy. Róisín was the only person that Kathleen felt she might be able to trust. Certainly not trust with her plans to leave Ireland for ever, but to keep secret the lies she had to tell her about the package. Frank had timed the delivery to arrive within a few days of a predetermined date. Kathleen explained to Róisín that the package contained a surprise fiftieth birthday present for her mother Nora. She described the contents as a fashionable, tooled leather shoulder bag with a floral design that Nora had seen in a magazine and drooled over. However as it wasn’t a design that was available in Ireland, Kathleen had needed to send away to London for it.
She’d collected the parcel from Róisín as soon as she became aware of its arrival and smuggled it up to her bedroom where she’d been able to open it in complete privacy. The package did indeed contain the chosen bag, but within its inside pocket which had been glued carefully down to disguise its very presence, there was a wad of money in the form of English pounds. Most importantly the cash shared an envelope with a one way aeroplane ticket to England, details of the flight booking and an official letter containing an address where she could prove she would be staying should the question arise while passing through the airport. Removing what she needed she stuffed the bag back into its wrapping and shoved it under her bed, right at the back against the wall where it wouldn’t be discovered.
Just a few days later when the time finally came, Kathleen packed just a few essentials into a small holdall and made ready to leave. As an afterthought she reached underneath her bed and removed the shoulder bag complete with its packaging. Taking a deep breath, scanning the bedroom one last time she left secretly by through the back window onto the roof of the back porch and dropped down lightly to the ground. It was late evening and her father and brothers were down the pub while her mother and one of her sisters were in the front parlour watching television. She said no goodbyes, she left no note. There was nobody at all she could trust and nobody she cared enough about to risk saying farewell to anyway. If any member of her family had discovered what she was up to they would have killed her, of that she had little doubt.
Pulling her parka hood up, not daring to look back she hastily negotiated the few yards through the gloomy back yard pausing only to toss the shoulder bag into the dark, stinking confines of the outside lavatory as she passed, causing a scurrying of startled rodent feet from within.
“Happy fucking birthday Ma,” she muttered to herself and then went out through the back gate and away down the alley which ran at the rear of the terraced houses, parallel to the street. Cutting through a narrow ginnel which led along the perimeter of the corner shop on the opposite side of the alley she emerged onto the next street, pausing to check that all was quiet. Once confident the coast was clear she moved on, keeping to the shadows where possible as she stealthily made her way along those depressing dark streets. Once she had travelled a good distance away from home she ducked into a public telephone box and called a taxi to take her directly to the airport. She used a cab firm she had never used before, not wanting to risk meeting a driver she was familiar with. When it arrived she emerged from the shadows and settled deep into the back seat with head down and hood up so as to remain anonymous to any overly curious passers by.
After her arrival at the airport Kathleen spent the entire night nervously awaiting her early morning flight. She sat on an uncomfortable chair trying not to appear suspicious, avoiding eye contact with anyone. She pretended to read a book for a while but soon found herself pacing around the departure lounge like a caged animal. The wait was excruciating but at long last dawn broke and she was able to board the plane to England and a new life.
Kathleen had never flown before so experienced a mix of emotions. Nervousness, apprehension and excitement fought for dominance however it wasn’t until the huge door of the plane finally slammed shut and the plane was taxiing out onto the runway that she dared to relax and enjoy the new experience, knowing that all bridges to her past life were now burned. She was no drinker, at least not in the same league as the rest of her family but once airborne she ordered a large Bushmills Black Bush from the flight attendant and silently drank a toast while watching the slate grey foreboding Irish sea pass silently beneath. Kathleen vowed never to return to her homeland and downed the spicy, resinous, silky smooth whiskey in one swallow. It had an instant fortifying effect and she enjoyed the sensation so much that she bought a large bottle to take with her as a present for Frank. For the first time in her life there was enough money in her purse not to have to think twice about the expense.
Landing with a larger than expected jolt on the runway of Luton airport Kathleen joined the eager throng of passengers bustling from the plane and strode excitedly into the arrivals area where almost the first person she saw was Frank Woolf, waving to her excitedly. She dashed over to him and they hugged each other heartily, laughing and giggling like teenage lovers. Then Kathleen presented Frank with his gift before they hurried away from the hubbub of the airport. Neither of them could have been happier.
From Luton they took the train into London and then down to Aldershot where Frank had found the cheap but fully furnished bedsit for Kathleen to move into straight away. It was part of a Victorian house that had been converted into flats in a reasonably pleasant area backing onto the Manor Park about a mile or so from the army camp where Frank was now billeted. He’d signed the lease in his own name to be on the safe side and paid a month’s rent in advance. Tiny and scruffy the accommodation might have been but to Kathleen it was a palace compared to the depressing slum she’d fled just a few hours previously. Frank had even gone to the trouble of stocking the kitchenette cupboards with essentials and buying a big bunch of flowers which he’d clumsily arranged in a milk bottle and placed on the windowsill. Nobody had ever bought flowers for Kathleen before and she hadn’t expected such a gesture from her rough and tough soldier boy. It helped to confirm that she had made a good choice and was at last on the right path.
That evening, once Kathleen had slept for a few hours she indulged herself in the luxury of a hot bath, washing away the final grimy traces of Belfast. While she soaked, Frank set about preparing a steak dinner to welcome her to her new life with him. Lighting a tall candle with a flourish of his Zippo, he sat and entertained her with humorous stories of army life as they demolished the meal and an accompanying bottle of Mateus Rosé. Frank appeared to be an entirely different person from the soldier she’d first laid eyes upon that day on the dangerous, dismal streets of Belfast. After eating they spent the evening drinking a good portion of the Bushmills whiskey, making love and talking dreamily about their future before Frank had been forced to return to the barracks and Kathleen was left alone to revel in her good fortune. Exhausted, she crashed out on her bed and slept the deepest sleep she had ever slept.
The little bedsit served as home for the next two months while Frank continued to soldier on in the barracks. Kathleen even got a job locally at a restaurant, cash in hand to help pay her way and contribute towards the cost of an intensive course of driving lessons. She was surprised at how easily she took to driving, learning quickly and building confidence in herself at the same time. Everything was going so well but the nervousness and concern about being tracked down by her family never fully left her. She did everything she could think of to remain as anonymous as possible, even refusing to allow Frank to arrange for them to get married despite his pleading in case a newspaper announcement or other traceable record leaked out and found its way back to Belfast. Kathleen was certain that an intensive search for her would be under way. Despite the importance of it underpinning her new life with Frank, the wedding would just have to wait.
It was a huge relief when one evening Frank turned up at the bedsit grinning from ear to ear with an impressive bouquet of flowers in one hand, a new bottle of Bushmills in the other and an official looking slip of paper clutched between his teeth. The ongoing reorganisation of the parachute regiments meant that many of the attached personnel were being redeployed. New postings were being handed out thick and fast and Frank’s had just come through. Casually he explained that he was off to REME HQ Battalion LAD, stationed in a place called Bielefeld in Germany. Nothing too exciting about the posting but he assured Kathleen that once he’d settled in with his new unit she would be joining him just as soon as he could arrange it. She was speechless with a mixture of relief and excitement.
From that point, everything happened in a blur. Frank sought and received permission from his CO to get married and knowing they would soon be leaving the country, Kathleen agreed to his proposal. She insisted though that the wedding ceremony must be arranged to take place in Germany and Frank agreed that it was the safest course of action. But he didn’t see any harm in having a bit of an engagement party before he shipped out. News of the forthcoming nuptials came as a surprise to Frank’s colleagues. Not one of them had known anything about his fiancé or how long he had been seeing her but upon meeting Kathleen nobody could blame Frank for taking the plunge. She was stunning. She knew it, Frank knew it and soon it became obvious that everyone who met her was of the same opinion. It was around that time that Frank’s attitude regarding Kathleen underwent a slight change, barely noticeable to her at first but the atmosphere became gradually more uncomfortable as time passed.
In the beginning she paid it little mind, being swept up in the whole new and exciting existence that swirled and blossomed around her. But she sensed a slight air of mistrust despite her doing nothing to deserve it. He questioned her quite thoroughly if she was going out anywhere without him. He didn’t seem to like her working in the restaurant where she was constantly and blatantly ogled by the male clientèle. Neither did he like her spending much time with her colleagues outside of working hours. But it was of little concern to Kathleen and she put it to the back of her mind. Soon, Frank left for his new posting in Bielefeld leaving Kathleen to tidy up the loose ends in Aldershot with reassurances that arrangements would be made for her to follow him out as soon as possible. True to his word it was a matter of only three weeks before a letter arrived to say the time had come. During those last weeks Kathleen’s driving instructor was able to arrange for her to take her driving test due to a last minute cancellation and she passed first time. There was nobody to celebrate with but within days she received a full driving licence in the form of a little red canvas covered booklet. It was by far the most treasured possession she’d ever owned. As she prepared to move home for the second time in her life the prospect of leaving the UK and going properly abroad filled Kathleen with even more excitement. Things were panning out better than she could ever have imagined.
Germany immediately surpassed Kathleen’s expectations. Before leaving Aldershot, to prepare herself she’d borrowed guide books and magazines from the local library and devoured them, finding it hard to believe that she would actually be travelling to a foreign land to live. The day after her arrival in Bielefeld the wedding took place. Under strict instructions from Kathleen, Frank had arranged a simple affair in the camp’s chapel. After a brief honeymoon in the form of a long weekend in Bruges, yet another stamp in her passport, Kathleen’s new life began in earnest. It had been less than three months since she’d fled Belfast with little more than the clothes she stood up in, a pocket full of cash and a big promise from a young squaddie she barely knew.
There was a long waiting list for married quarters in Bielefeld with there being several garrisons in close proximity. Being newly weds they were forced to rent privately again but Frank had already found a very nice apartment in town. Surrounded by beautiful countryside Bielefeld turned out to be an attractive place to live with every amenity you could think of in close proximity and a thriving night life. Things appeared to be almost perfect to begin with but alas they didn’t remain that way for long. Frank was obviously besotted with Kathleen but as time went on the mistrust she’d previously sensed became allied with an abnormal level of possessiveness as he developed into what could only be described as a total control freak.
Once the honeymoon was over, the Woolfs socialised hardly at all and Frank made it crystal clear that he wasn’t keen on Kathleen going anywhere or doing anything even on her own. On the rare occasions that they did attend a party or a function of some sort, Frank would lock those blazing green eyes onto anyone who he thought was ogling his new wife excessively, giving them a hard stare that left no doubt what was likely to happen if they continued.
Life soon became dull and frustrating for Kathleen. She never lost sight of what she’d escaped from, fully aware of what the future would have held if she’d stayed in Ireland. She never regretted the decision she’d taken but began to realise that although it wasn’t quite as if she’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, she had landed in what appeared to be barely smouldering embers. She was the sort of person who might have preferred a fire.
Having now seen what the world beyond the Falls Road had to offer, Kathleen knew that she had risked too much and come too far to be satisfied with the mundane and suffocating existence that had befallen her. Seeds of doubt began to germinate.