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A Pawn for the Queen - By Ken Lake (ISBN 9993261114)
Ken Lake served seven years in the Royal Marine Commandos, including serving four tours in the Northern Ireland conflict. Sniper trained, he was accredited with being the youngest section commander in Northern Ireland during the early 70s when Belfast went through its darkest hours. Ken says that his experiences in Belfast changed his outlook on life.

Recently on a peace pilgrimage back to Belfast after 31 years, he was welcomed by ex IRA and UVF activists in a unique bridge building exercise between protagonists of the conflict that cost so many lives. It was the first known dialogue between Ex British Forces and the IRA. The dialogue took place in Andersonstown, the Falls road and the New lodge districts showing that peace can be at long last a reality.

Some of his accounts can be read on Britain's small wars website

www.britains-smallwarscom/ni/ken4.html

A military and freefall parachutist and sniper trained and with a career that included a being a full time amateur boxer for the Royal Navy boxing team as well as a Ski instructor. Ken is a fitness consultant and sports director of the Marsa sports club. He was chief coach for the TV games 'Its a knock out for the Maltese teams.

He has worked as a fitness coach for soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming, Water polo, boxing teams and rowing squads

 He has also worked as a bodyguard and spent some years on the oilrigs. He lives in Malta with his family, where he operates a fitness studio.

A Pawn for the Queen is his first novel and was nominated for the international IMPAC Dublin Literary award 2003

9.50 Euro (Lm 3.95) locally 

£7.95 + shipping        world wide delivery
E-mail lakes@global.net.mt for ordering.

 

 


About the Book

Charlie White is a unique young man from a deprived family and home. Breaking away from the East End of London, Charlie enlists in the Royal Marines and becomes an instant hero in the Falklands War, winning the George Medal in a bloody action. Charlie, it seems, is destined for a brilliant career until, upon the bitter streets and the troubles of Northern Ireland, fate conspires to persecute him. He is wrongly accused in a highly charged incident that threatens to derail the delicate peace talks between Ireland and Britain with the U.S.A. brokering. Without any substantial proof of his innocence, Charlie is sacrificed as a necessity so the peace talks can continue.

After years in prison he is released, an angry soured young man. The IRA plots his death with the aid of a Mafia-contrived set up. British Intelligence MI5, a devastating ambush, a beautiful Maltese girl, action that moves from the Falkland Islands to Ireland, from London to Palermo and Malta - are all ingredients in this deadly game of life or death...

Short story section

The Royal Marines Muscle Mechanics

We stood to attention anxiously waiting for them to arrive. No doubt stronger words depicting nervousness could be inserted at this juncture as our hearts thumped wildly. Standing in three symmetrical lines outside of the imposing building, we were immaculately turned out. Wearing white painted plimsolls that lit up the dull morning and this footwear matched our other brilliant white attire, socks, white tops and long white shorts. The shorts had been starched and honed to a sharp crease that might possibly double as a razor. We were punctual, smart, ready but somewhat unwilling. A whole bundle of unwilling or whatever the adjective is, if the truth must be shed. 

From our white clad wear, one might be easily forgiven for picturing a wedding or maybe a first Holy Communion scene, and about to enter into God's wonderful kingdom. The innocent colour of our attire that usually depicted cleanliness or holiness was to be soon sacrificed and brutalized. That first morning outside the building and then indeed every other morning from there on, other particular demigods would act as supreme beings. The Cathedral that we were about to enter belonged to another type of religion, the body religion with gym fitness. Gym fitness, possibly a mild word to describe the legendry and cruel sufferings we'd heard about and apparently this brutality materialised in the interior of the hallowed hall standing directly in front of us.

We were Royal Marine recruits otherwise known as Noddies. This was week one, with 7 more months of hell in the supposedly toughest military training schedule in the world. Less than 30 percent of the 61 recruits that started in the squad would eventually succeed in winning the right to wear the coveted Green Beret. The hell hadn't started just yet but we were assured that today we would witness a new experience. Pain was apparently the key adjective and suffering followed by a hairs breadth. Blisters, bruises and tears happening shortly, would have been awarded short odds by any canny bookie.

The drill instructor had marched us over to the Gym changing rooms in our parade uniforms directly from an invigorating drill session that almost made us feel like real soldiers. Noddies egos though are less delicate than a chocolate micro-wave-oven in the Sahara desert at lunchtime in an establishment such as this.

"Halt! Right turn! Stand at ease. Stand easy.” The orders were shouted and we performed the movements with vigour.

 “Well-done squad, good effort, bags of effort today.” The drill instructor snapped and looked up and picked out the grey clouds with his eyes and then hunched his shoulders before he spoke again.

 “Physical training, ummm.” His face could have been sucking a sour lemon as his thin lips worked. “Good luck," said the drill instructor. “Gym,” he half said to himself as his eyes cringed and the slightest shake of the head was barely discernible.

 “Fall out,” he commanded then about turned and marched away smartly as drill instructors invariably do.

 We then changed quickly into our PT kit and then been subsequently inspected by our permanent training squad just outside of the feared building. Those smart uniforms placating ideal parade ground soldiering now hung on pegs, and naked without them, our vulnerability lie totally exposed. This was another ominous psychological factor against us.

 We scrambled outside to wait.

 The surroundings of this torture laboratory feebly tried to mollify our senses with a pleasant entranceway decorated with rhododendrons and other pretty looking flowers but didn't crematoriums have easy on the eye entrances? I thought cynically. Didn’t graveyards have pretty flowers? Didn’t dentists’ waiting rooms have colourful interesting magazines to look at, well maybe the last one was wrong, but we still have the desire to admire the beauty of the garden.

  We waited for our first Gym training session with the same desperate trepidation as a bandit might, as he stood blindfolded before a firing squad. Sweating with fear whilst awaiting the dreaded metallic snick of the rifles being cocked while the last ditch redemption hope faded.

A magpie flew by before swooping elegantly onto a nearby manicured lawn, soon joined by its mate. Near the middle rank, a butterfly danced, fluttering and twisting in the humid air. A fat wasp buzzed past my ear before landing on the back of Jones's leg in the front rank, ahhh, the joyous normality of nature performing on a grey, overcast day. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all, especially with the imminent drama of a possible wasp sting to loosen the mood.

The nervous energy of 61 men suddenly heightened. The Magpies sensibly flew off; the Butterfly batted its wings and jived away. Jones twitched the wasp off his leg before it could sting him. The clouds ganged up to obliterate the light. The world still turned, the fish still swam in the oceans and the trees still swayed as our moment arrived, but it was sort of different now because he came into view.

 The truth had arrived and our bodies cringed with the knowledge of pain that would accompany it. An immaculately proportioned figure approached us, a man easily identifiable from the descriptions given to us. We were now in the presence of the senior physical training instructor. He was dressed in white shorts, white singlet with red trimmings. The badge of the crossed red Indian clubs worn proudly on his barrel chest mocked us. The badge depicting ultra malevolence on that powerful chest upped our heart rates even further. Following just behind the barrel chest were three equally and arrogantly muscled, Corporal PTI's. We jerked very visibly at the first sight of these super fit looking men and wondered if the frightening and fearful rumours we'd heard about them were true. It was find out time, show time and reality time all mixed together. We waited for the big guy to light the fuse. 

The Senior Royal Marine physical training instructor looked to be in his early 30s, tall, blond and wearing an impassive expression, as he looked us over with his icy cold and penetrating blue eyes. 

 

"Be careful of the big, blond Colour Sergeant. I call him the chief muscle mechanic. He's a mean one, don't upset him whatever you do." The barrack room lawyer had gossiped royally to his attentive audience in the accommodation corridor. We didn't have to work hard to squeeze further words from the ‘lawyers’ mouth.

 "Yeah, the Chief's a right sadist. Apparently, he’s killed at least three recruits. Yeah, one of them had a heart attack, pushed this young kid too hard and then the kid just dropped down dead in the middle of the gym. Of course the Chief got acquitted because of diminished responsibility, but that’s the government for you." The barrack room lawyer laughed loudly as he pocketed the money for the new looking second hand iron he'd just sold us and then continued.

"See this iron? Yeah, it belonged to a lad from Lincoln. Yeah, he's in hospital now. The Chief done it to him, he did. Yeah, broke his leg he did. Snapped it just like a rotten tree branch on the assault course. Pushed him too hard and then." He slapped his hands together with a crack and we jumped with shock at the noise. The lawyer from a more advanced squad in the initial training schedule spoke like an old soldier swinging the lamp. We questioned him further on the life of the marines; after all he had been in Her Majesty's armed forces as a recruit for over 3 weeks now, he should know.

 We shuffled away with the iron and ironed our PT kit with exemplary diligence but the seeds of the new bogeyman had been sown.

 

The Chief Muscle Mechanic spoke crisply whilst we stood hypnotized unable to move a muscle.

"Good morning squad, a hell of a fine day isn't it?" He said amid the threatening bulging grey clouds in the dismal morning light. The eyes dissected us neatly.

 "Let's start with a big question shall we? A little verbal assessment before we start, eh?" He graced us with a pause and began unthreading our physical secrets slowly with his eyes. Peeling away the myth we recruits had designed individually as self-protection. Peering at us all, stripping through the scantiness of our flimsy training outfit with measured glances followed by a carefully crafted, long and uncomfortable pause that dried the mouth saliva of the men standing to attention.

 "All the West Ham united supporters, raise your hands, go." He suddenly barked out fast making us wince.

We look flummoxed was this, a joke? Thrown off balance, completely confused, looking warily at each other with furtive eyes. Good oh! Safety in numbers, no hand is raised. I wondered whether a West Ham supporter was a bad thing or not, perhaps it was a standard marine hatred for some obscure reason. An intense dislike of Arsenal was probably another Corps motto, bound to be, the Royal Marines were meant to be the best after all. Maybe he was wheedling out the rubbish before we began. I felt vindicated at my Chelsea support and felt slightly smug. 

"Oh dearie, dearie me. My word, not an auspicious start is it?"  The Chief shook his head slowly. We had guessed wrongly it appeared that was obvious at the way the Chief smirked sourly and shook his head.

‘Come on me, West ham aren't that bad, they are sort of my second team,' I thought defensively and wondered why my hand hadn’t shot up. Perhaps our failure in supporting the wrong football team was an ominous warning? Ok, gottcha, funny. Obviously this was an obscure and ancient Indian type of exercise to see who could shoot their hand up the quickest using a silly trivial question as bait? Or perhaps a trick type game that the marines really enjoyed. Bloody clever!

We stood dumbfounded and perplexed until the Chief then enlightened us.

  "I am Colour Sergeant Davies and these fine bodies behind me are my staff. As your physical training staff, we are at your service." He smiled and turned to look at the smartly assembled Corporals behind him.

 "Good, nice to meet you all and now that you know who we are; we in turn will get to know who you are. To simplify this getting to know each other phase, we will categorize you into two simple groups. These two groups are the unfit, useless, waste of time, space and money Noddies that won't complete the training. And the unfit, useless Noddies, but with some guts who will attempt and maybe complete the training. As I said earlier, quite a simple choice isn't it? This morning, the process will start and each individual can decide in which group you want to be in.

My initial task is to separate the men from the mice. I don't care much for mice; rather eliminate them immediately before they contaminate the real men. 61 Noddies will start this fine morning and to be truthful, I'm not very confident that some of you will get through this very first session judging by my first impressions of you all. Could be wrong, hope I am, course, it's up to you all now to prove me wrong. I will expect you all to give me nothing but your best effort at all times, right?

Right!

 Remember men, absolutely nothing else will be good enough, let that point become Crystal Palace or crystal clear depending on which part of London you live." He didn't pause for his humour to be appreciated. Or was it humour at all? Who could tell? His introductory speech had already scattered our senses.

 His voice barked on. "Another point before we begin. I presume you are all volunteers and not victims of conscription, right?" The Chief didn't wait for a reply because it wasn't a real question in the normal sense and he went on in the same vein.

"And I suppose you're getting paid for trying to become a professional assault trooper, aren't you? Of course you are. So please don't underestimate the strict training of the Marines because it won’t be easy. This training is not designed to be or I wouldn't be here would I? Be honest with yourselves, you don't actually look the typical requirement of a fit and elite fearless storm trooper prepared to serve in any situation anywhere in the world yet at the drop of a hat, do you? You must have had some kind of inkling to what you were getting into when you walked through those famous old gates." The Chief pointed toward the direction of the main gate. "I just hope your being here isn't just an act of bravado to win back your lost girl friends," He looked at us with a wicked expression. "That is of course, if you are that way inclined, humm it takes all sorts? Or maybe it's too prove something to Daddy? We'll find out soon enough, humm. Meantime, here are some of my rules. You can call me a chameleon if you like but instead of changing my skin colour to suit the environment, I'll adapt my attitude according to your performance. As you can see from my well-mannered introduction, I am behaving in a very gentlemanly and civil manner so far." The Chief stopped to let his words sink in.  "Just to remind you all, my job is to try and get you from looking like unfit scruffy civilians and to try and work a miracle and get you lot looking something like potential Royal Marines. From where I look at this moment, it seems that I have my hands full." He looked at us with his piercing blue eyes challenging us before he continued in his rich East London accent.  "Slackers will suffer before making a painful exit. Britain requires good quality men and that description follows my agenda, got that? Good!

Right then!” He suddenly stopped speaking and casually looked at each one of us in turn. “All the non-West ham supporters' 20 press-ups go! Come on get down. Far too slow. Stop! Stand up and pay attention. You, you sissy looking boy, move yourself when I tell you." He pointed at a red-faced sissy looking boy. "I'll be watching out for you, by thunder I will." He looked at us all. "This time let's do this drill properly, okay?  Ready squad," he shouted in a ferocious way that made the rhododendrons suddenly wilt.

"20 press-ups go." We dove on the floor and began pumping away with our arms heaving up our bodies. "Stop! Stand up! That was sorrowful." We stood up feeling like failures even though I'd done my best to please him like all of the others.

He shouted. "Hands up all the Manchester united fans." As quick as a flash we all put our hands soaring into the air, after the first mistake we are eager to amend our earlier failure.

 "Goodness me, Manchester united beat West ham 2.1 recently. What's wrong with this squad? Not impressed with your team choice, another 20 press ups, go!" 

The Chief Mechanic shouted with his a booming gravel voice that could wake the dead, not that an intelligent dead person would come back to life to suffer this forthcoming torture if this appetizer was anything to go by. We put even more energy into the press-ups and stood up smartly. The Chief looked at us for a long moment assessing us all individually, quickly with a practiced dead-pan-eye. Then he said sharply. "Well, let's begin it properly shall we gentleman, and start learning how to become Royal Marines?"

"God help us." We silently mouth the prayer collectively.

It started slowly enough at first; maybe the vicious rumours were just a myth? The Chief made us spread out and began a sort of gentlish warm up, joint mobility, light stretching. He was watching us all with a blank expression as he worked professionally.

When we got sort of relaxed, the torture really began and if anything those malicious rumours were understating the case. The Chief instructor seemed to love shouting at us and he loved to change his mind even more.

"Right, jogging on the spot, exercise commence. Keep going, work hard, work well, and stop. On the floor, go! Far too slow, stand up, go! Double over to that bush, go! Come on, move yourselves. On the floor, go! Too slow, stand up 10 tuck jumps, go! Tuck jumps, I said, go! Hey, you octopus limbed imbecile, don't you know what a tuck jump is? Corporal Gains, kindly demonstrate, the art of a tuck jump, if you please."

 Corporal Gains sprang into the air lifting his knees high, and level with his chest, performing 10 quite effortlessly.  The Chief rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then pointed at the sallow looking youth. "Got the picture now, you Octopus limbed imbecile?"

The Octopus limbed imbecile looked ashamed and stared at the floor in embarrassment.

 "Squad, 20 press-ups, exercise commence!... 18, 19 and 20. You, you Hideous fat boy, I've got my eye on you, pathetic I call that." The hideous fat boy had just managed two and a half press-ups before he collapsed.

"My Grandmother can do better than that, you hideous fat boy."  The Chief barked then leapt onto the floor and easily performed the press-ups. Then he nudged his face half an inch away from the fat boy’s wobbly, reddened cheeks. "Lose some weight fast and don't waste my time, you nasty fat person."

The Chief called for some deep breathing exercise so we could replenish our empty lungs. Hideous fat boy looked as though he'd rather be elsewhere, his eyes looking strangely alarmed, almost as if he wasn't enjoying himself on day one at the hands of the Chief.

"Okay, enough rest. On your feet, go! Touch something blue, go! Too slow! Running on the spot, go! Sprint, legs higher, faster, come on, get em up, higher." Our lungs work treble time, we sweat gallons and our hearts try to vacate the residence by trying to jump out of our chests.  Then more horrific words follow, it was time to meet our destiny.

"Into the gym, go!" The Chief muscle mechanic barked.

One tall and quiet Scottish lad went an awful looking blanched colour and knelt slowly on the floor with his head facing the floor.

"Oh, another hero, with time to say his prayers, eh? Good, very good, sign of respect that, I appreciate that type of reverence," The Chief said in a soft fatherly voice, before bellowing loudly. "Make sure you don't puke on my property, understand, Sunny Jim? Where are you from?"

The tall lad eyes mirror someone who’d just sucked double strength acid drops and then he manages to speak slowly. "Aberdeen."

"Aberdeen, what?"

"Aberdeen, Scotland."

"Wrong answer, you evil Scotsman. It's Aberdeen, Colour Sergeant, got that?"

"Yes, Colour Sergeant."

"For being an evil Scotsman, 20 press ups go!” The evil Scotsman manages just one before he vomits. "Good effort." The Chief says.

We enter the hallowed hall nervously minus the Evil Scotsman who is marched away by a Corporal to the sick bay. The Corporal muscle mechanics smile benignly as we enter the theatre of pain. We hesitate and feel like sagging like rabbits trapped by a gang of predators, but we know the Chief won't like that negative posture. Instead, we stiffen automatically as the Chief marches menacingly in front of us; he positively glows with vitality and malice. We all notice his mischievous eyes brimming with a terrible passion like an actor about deliver a master performance.

"One down, five minutes, day one, not bad that." His eyes scan us more thoroughly than an x-ray machine. The eyes linger on Hideous fat boy, whose fat red face is washed with rivers of sweat that cascade off of his chins like a waterfall.

  "Attention, straighten those blasted backs. Haven't you lot got any spines?" Shouted the Chief with his ferocious voice, which sends shivers along our spines instead.

"Right, find a colour spot, go!” We dash to the nearest coloured ball sized spots scattered around on the wooden flooring of the gym.

 “Running on the spot, go! Knees up, knees up," his voice rises to a crescendo. "Get em up higher, my great grandmother can do better than that and she’s long departed. Come on get em chest high, chest high, I said. Come on keep going."

Our eyes nearly pop out of their sockets as our hearts pump crazily until we finally hear that most lovely word.

 "Stop!" He shouts. "Stop moving, stop scratching yourselves, stop sweating, and stop breathing so blasted hard. My oh my, tired are we? Seems that we have some serious work to do here, eh? More work than an optimistic man like me anticipated." He suddenly stopped and walked around the floor with hands raised high as in praise and then spoke with a surprisingly hushed voice as he slowly stated calmly. "This is my Gym, my personal work theatre. Enter here at your own peril. This is the place, the place where we shape your bodies and try and get you fit. Try to make men out of you, men good enough to become Royal Marines. We only want the very best men, okay and we will work you hard, understand? And by golly you will get fit…. the ones that survive the training. Right, good, stand by?" He looks puzzled at our laboured breathing.

"What's wrong with you, you're not still tired, surely? Goodness gracious me, I'm getting seriously alarmed."  His eyes look to the heavens theatrically. We blanch and gasp for more breath.

"Control your bodies, stop fidgeting, and act like men. Remember your body is your temple, so control yourselves now," he commands. The last simple sentence is delivered to install self discipline. Turning his head, he smiles wickedly at his staff of Corporals before addressing us again.

 "Remember, it is mind over matter.” A well used pause is inserted to digest the words. “We don't mind and you don't matter, got that?” Another well spaced pause. “Right, break over, form four lines, go!"

The Corporals quickly organise us into four lines. We wait for the order.

 "The first rank, stand by to climb the ropes, exercise commence!" Shouts the Chief and then the Corporals begin barking at us dementedly making a cacophony of sound that reverberates around the walls of the large interior. It is like a zoo with us as the animals.

 We hurtle toward the hanging hemp and race up the rope touch the high gym ceiling and speed back down.

"Don't slide down the rope, you idiot," one Corporal screamed at a Noddy, then continues. "You're no good to your squad if can't hold a rifle because you have rope burns on your hands."

One Noddy can't hack it and falls like a sack of potatoes to the floor and lies on his back looking at the ceiling, like he couldn’t work out a complicated question.

A watching Corporal screamed at him. "Use your legs in a crossed fashion to grip the rope, you useless pervert, then you’ll make it to the top."

We watch with interest as the Noddy tried again and once more slid hopelessly down after climbing just 3 feet. The Corporal easily demonstrates a perfect rope climbing motion then orders the Noddy to climb it. "Use your feet correctly," he lectures. The Noddy with a steely determination inches to the top.

"Good effort." The Corporal shouts enthusiastically. Hideous fat boy is another faller but stays lying down on the floor looking utterly exhausted. The same Corporal by the ropes screams at him to get up. Hideous fat boy staggers to his feet and stands to attention crookedly with his scarlet cheeks and chins wobbling.

"Do you want to become a Royal Marine, fat boy?"

"Yes Corporal."

"Yes Corporal," the Corporal mimics him effeminately.

"Then try getting your fat backside up that rope on the double."

 Hideous fat boy makes a half-hearted attempt but falls down in a heap again and lies on his back looking all in.

"Sickbay, go, get out of my gym, you're not good enough," intervenes the Chief. "15 minutes, day one, two down, this has got to be the worst training squad in Royal Marine history," the Chief sneers incredulously and then shakes his head solemnly.

 The squad morale dips lower than our drooping shoulders at the words.

 Next, it's vaulting over the box diving over the mat in a forward roll and then leaping over a wooden beam. We want to do well, we want to make the Chief happy.

"Faster, come on, more effort. Faster," the staff, shout together like maniacs. One Noddy trips and lies sprawled in a heap on the wooden flooring and the action suddenly stops.

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie me," sympathies the Chief in a soft caring voice. "Corporal Gains, be good enough and run to the barrack block and get a nice comfy pillow. I do believe our Noddy friend wants to have a little lie down and take a nap. You know I didn't even realise that it was siesta time?" He looked at his watch, shook his head and then stared at the stricken lad on the floor. "Where are you from Noddy, Mexico?" The Chief is really hamming it up and delivers his lines impeccably.

"Manchester, Colour sergeant."

"Oh Manchester, umm, my wife comes from Manchester. That’s a fact, that's perfectly okay then, you can begin exercising again after your little siesta, but no hurry" the Chief croons.

Corporal Gains grins maliciously.

"20 press-ups, you clumsy Manchester person, go!" The Chief suddenly snaps.

 We toil, we sweat, and then we get shouted at by way of reward. We gasp and do our best but it's still not good enough. The Chief wants more, much more. Mercifully just before we give up and crawl to the corners of the gym and die, the torture suddenly ends.

"Good, that was enjoyable wasn't it? We certainly enjoyed it, didn't we staff?"

The Corporals nod enthusiastically. The Chief continues. "To wear the Green Beret you have to earn it. We don't want pretenders, no sir, we want real men. Fit men, got that? You'll have to do better tomorrow believe me? Today was a pretty damned pathetic imitation of a fitness training session. In fact, it's the worst I have ever seen, I've seen Girl Guides do much better." His penetrating blue eyes look like ice chips, as he looks us over. "Do much better tomorrow," he orders, then barks again. "3 minutes to have a shower, go!"

 59 of us sprint to the 8 showers. You didn't have to be a mathematician to work out that the equation is not in our favour. The unlucky ones who take more than the allotted time have their smart parade uniforms unceremoniously chucked out of the window by the Corporals. The uniforms, hats and boots land in heaps on the gravel outside. Noddies look tragically on at their uniforms that have taken hours of hard toil to lovingly prepare.

Clumsy Manchester person stands with tears welling in his eyes looking at his dust encrusted uniform lying in the gravel, in a trance like fashion.

 

 

 The squad has been strangely muted during the evening meal as the strenuous training regime really sinks in. The guys start talking about families and girlfriends with deep feelings, clinging on to a token of comfort and support. Hell, day one at the hands of the Chief and already the squad moral is completely shattered. Later in the evening after our many chores, the ironing, the dhobying or washing of our clothes, the polishing of boots, the brushing of the brass's and much more we look like the beaten army. Exhausted, we eventually crumple onto our beds like men condemned.

“Didn’t think it would be this tough,” somebody mutters. “And it is tough.”

"Poor things, wonder how much my girlfriends are missing me? Must be hard for them." One lad speaks to create a conversation as he lies in bed.

"Rearrange these next words into a commonly used phrase. Ready? Off, fuck." One seriously tired Noddy states seconds before the sound of exhausted snoring reverberates around the room.

 I'm missing Bracknell more than I could ever imagine. I close my eyes and ignore the aches of my tired muscles and think instead of the simplistic and safe life with my old hometown buddies. Why did we all leave home for this type of punishment? Why did we leave the comfortable civilian world and want to become Royal Marines? Was it from watching too many war films as a child? Was this experience just an extension of our childhood fantasies perhaps? The same questions must torment each of us until the tired eyes quickly fall. Sleep is well earned and easily entraps our exhausted bodies, leaving us at the mercy of our newly found nightmares that will from now on incorporate the Chief and his wicked ways. Sleep is only a minor extension of time until further punishment is meted out the following day.

 Many hours too early, the bugler rudely sounds the reveille call in the corridor, it is 6 am, and another cruel day begins for the squad minus one man. The evil Scotsman wakes from his sleep wearing a worried expression. Hideous fat boy's bed and locker are empty. Clumsy Manchester person looks at the empty bed forlornly and shakes his head.

Breakfast is quickly wolfed down because time is short with many chores to do before the day begins with a seemingly impassable inspection. At the backs of our minds the on- coming physical training is looked forward to with the same trepidation as several root treatments at the hands of a slow drunken dentist with shaking hands and a nervous disposition.

 

“First, we’ll start with a little loosen up with a small jog around the vicinity, then we can progress to some real work,” smiles the Chief, looking annoyingly fresh and full of energy.

Clump, clump, clump, clump our boots as we run together in step. Out of the gate, along the road past the tattoo parlour, along the front, cross the road and then turn off the path and onto the shingle by the sea and here the invigorating sea breeze hits us with a welcome tonic.

“It’s all about fun, fitness is fun. So come on you miserable lot and sing!” shouts a Corporal and he leads off the ditty.

 “The sun has got his hat on, hip, hip, hip, hooray, the sun has got his hat on and he’s coming out to play,” we all join in, it is fun and the pain goes away for a small moment. The Chief hands the mantle over to the Corporals and stays silent but watches everything.

 The Corporals make plenty of jokes and a few games are played. Then the shingle running begins in earnest and gets harder and harder and after 25 minutes of hard pounding, we feel exhausted.

“And stop,” commands the Chief back in his position of king and points south. “When you exit those Royal Marine gates, I expect you to act like proud, fit men. I have earned the right to wear this Green Beret, don’t ever devalue my special head wear by acting like wimps,” states the Chief.

“We are going to enter those depot gates acting like potential Royal marines, not damned imitators. Okay, stand by; break into double time, double march.”

We head back to the camp not looking particularly professional, we are a large group with a vast variety of fitness levels and this is clearly displayed when we continually get out of step, no matter how hard we try. Back into the camp, things digress during some heart breaking sprints and Noddies begin to tire and dramatically drop out gasping for breath.

“Useless,” the chief shouts and raises his arms in a state of complete despair.

Into the gym the circuit training takes us to a new level of agony.

“Halt! Pathetic, utter rubbish.” The chief shakes his head angrily. “You have to try hard to achieve anything in life. This wishy washy attitude being collectively displayed isn’t good enough by half.” He viciously thrusts out his finger near the face of a slim, blond lad who looks shattered. “Don’t tell me you’re tired. Don’t tell me you’ve had enough.” The blond lad looks crestfallen and his head drops. “Come on, chin up this is the real thing, not a rehearsal.”

The last few days have taken there toll and generally morale is down.

“You think I’m being too hard on you,” the chiefs casually spoken words instead of a shout, shockingly this activates a different emotion from the blond lad and a tear scrambles down his face. The lad tries to wipe his eyes.

“Stand to attention. If you can’t hack this easy stuff, then you get out of my camp. But by thunder you’ll finish this session first. Stand by, standby, go!”

We begin another circuit.

Sympathy isn’t in the Chief physical training instructor’s vocabulary, he is single minded in his desire to weed out the soft core.

 

“I didn’t expect it to be so difficult this quickly,” a normally quiet, easy going recruit from Guernsey in his early 20s breaks the silence as we gobble the hurried lunch in the galley.

“At this rate, by the time we get to Lympstone half of us will have already failed. I don’t know if I can take much more of this,” another lad adds and pushes away his half eaten fish.

All of us feel subdued after the blond lad doesn’t appear for the drill in the afternoon and the news soon filters through that he was seen with his suitcase wearing civilian clothes waiting for transport at the guardroom. Another recruit will never wear the Green Beret and will travel back home feeling unfulfilled or much worse, another original member of the recruit family has left our home. 

There isn’t time to dwell on weakness as the pace is continually upped. Days blend into each other and the main core of the squad slowly begin to adapt but two more members of the squad are back trooped with injuries and another lad takes the train back home    

 

The training accelerates and we are informed that a new level of torture will begin. The feared time eventually arrives and the PTI staff pair us off with a fellow Noddy who is roughly the same size. Before it begins, we mutely watch the soccer players as they run onto the pitch next to us. We are jealous of the happy foot-balling marines that look sickeningly content and without a care in the world running around like puppies actually enjoying their lives. We look longingly at the players admiring their banter, wishing our lives could be that easy and peaceful at that moment. Maybe the Chief would let us play instead of...

"This is your Oppo from now on, or until he eventually fails the training, understand?" The Chief states quite philosophically. Shunting the soccer from our heads as quickly as one may wish to forget Arsenal's double seasons, or these days, Seaman's 'Brazilian' free kick. We concentrate on the chief.

"Standby, go!" The command is barked and we set off running in a long line by the side of the football pitch. We are carrying our oppo's on our backs in a fireman's lift, which is unbelievably hard; a medieval torture rack would be more appealing as a choice of punishment, at least we'd be lying down.

"Double up you cretins," comes the familiar shout. "What do you think this is, a holiday camp? Come on get your lazy bodies moving." Just then the striker on the football pitch unleashes a blunderbuss of a shot that misses the goal wildly and instead the ball accidentally thwacks the head of one of the heaving carriers with a dull thud.

"Stop!" comes the shout from the Chief. We are more than happy to do so. The Chief's eyes light up with mischievous smile, a smile we already fear. We pant away like exhausted dogs with our tongues scraping the floor.

 "Don't drop your partners." Our master barks indignantly. We continue to pant. He marches up to the Noddy rubbing his sore head from the impact of the ball.

"What the hell is your name lad, Bobby blooming Moore? Who the hell gave you permission to play football, eh Bobby?" Cries the Chief. He looks to his corporals. "Did any of you give Bobby the permission to play football, staff?"

"Certainly not, Colour Sergeant," they shout together. It is pure theatre. We enjoy the interlude at another Noddies expense and wait for more drama.

"So Bobby, you just decided on your own to play football without permission, did you?" He shouts incredulously. "The Government is paying you decent money whilst we attempt to train you. Train you to get you fit and become part of an elite force. An elite force that might be required one day to defend the countries shores and her tax paying people. Taxpayer's money you pocket greedily, then spend on pints of Naffi beer as you ogle the pretty barmaid dementedly. Meanwhile," the Chief stops and points his finger accusingly at Bobby's bemused expression. "All you're interested in is playing blasted football." Watching the show with sick perversion, we lust after Bobby's blood. Even the football players stop to gawp as a corner kick is organised. 

"20 press ups, go!" The Chief shout almost softly, too softly. Confused, Bobby slowly drops his oppo, then leaps on to the grass with an impressive verve and begins the punishment with enthusiasm. The Chief looks at his staff with a straight face.

"Would you say I'm heartless man, staff?"

"No, colour Sergeant." Shout the corporals together in pantomime voices. Bobby finishes the press-ups speedily and springs up fast as a jack in a box to attention, wearing a large smile.

"What football team do you support, Bobby?"

"West ham united, Colour sergeant," Bobby screams. We laugh at Bobby's quick thinking candour. The Chief beams a real smile. The mood of the squad changes instantly.

 "Oh very well then, go on, double away and play your football, if you must."

Bobby shuffles his feet nervously looking indecisive.

"Go on then, double away and play your football." The Chief repeats and winks at the football referee, a fellow mechanic of course. The referee barely suppresses a smile.

Bobby hesitantly runs onto the football pitch as the players part to let him through.

"Oy, what about your oppo then Bobby? You going to deny him a game, you selfish twit?" The Chief yells.  The penny finally drops for Bobby and then doubles back to hoist his oppo onto his back. The ball is tossed to his feet and he runs as ungainly as a pregnant elephant towards the nearest goal as the players watch with the smiling staff and squad with amused interest. Bobby dribbles the ball surprisingly well before he boots the ball toward the goal. The goalkeeper dives exaggeratedly over the top to let it in. The referee blows the whistle and orders Bobby off the pitch. "Foul play for unsporting behaviour and carrying a fellow player, 20 Press ups, go!"

"Thank you for letting me play, Colour Sergeant." Bobby says cheekily before doing the press ups. The Chief wheels away looking strangely happy.

Who said the mechanics was humourless? Bobby, however has just reinvented the deflated morale for the squad; finding a chink of light in our darkness that we will grasp and build upon. We didn't appreciate earlier but the Chief has been looking for a 'Bobby' all along. The training has now risen to the second psychological level. The game is more interesting now. We are a little more armed.

30 minutes later we eventually finish in dishevelled heaps gasping for breath, lungs searing, hearts pumping at 200 beats per minute or more.

"You Noddies had better get new bodies quickly," comes the quip.

We polish, we iron, we clean, we bull our boots, we wax the floor, we dhoby our kit dementedly, and we keep everything clean. We march, we strip weapons, we learn about maps, we march some more, we wear different uniforms, we fire weapons, we get bullied, we march some more, we think of home. We enter the gym everyday.

 

"Right, with your partner you will enter the boxing ring and proceed to hit each other. The boxing gloves are cushioned so it will only hurt a little bit. All right then, perhaps quite a big little bit. We call this milling; it is excellent fitness training and also a fine Royal Marine tradition. We want to see controlled aggression, come to think of it, any type of aggression," the Chief smiles that smile again. "Boxing," he states quite liberally. "Is a form of modern day gladiator action? A man who has a heart will be seen during this period. Heart is certainly a key ingredient in this camp." 

Two by two we enter the ring, unlike the ark passengers love is far from our minds as we bash each other up for a minute of a whirlwind featuring flying leather arms and elbows. One Noddy appears to grow a crimson moustache.

"What's your name, Cassius Clay, eh?"

"No Colour Sergeant, it's Muhammad ‘bloody’ Ali."

"Very good Muhammad ‘bloody’ Ali, excellent in fact." The Chief smiles as he appreciates Muhammad's humour that Bobby has recently designed.

"That's the right spirit Muhammad. A little blood won't hurt you," barks the Chief. Muhammad smiles with a gap at the bottom of his mouth where his tooth had been a minute before.

"Heh, good blasted effort Muhammad." The Chief shouts with admiration at Muhammad’s sacrifice. Then moves toward Mohammad and peels his lips back to inspect the wound with genuinely serious eyes.

"Umm, down to the dentist, go," he speaks surprisingly softly. When Muhammad disappears, the Chief speaks to nobody in particular. His hushed words are words we will never forget.

"Muhammad will make a damned good marine. Ummm, looks like this squad has some potential after all. Growing a little back bone." he says in a new voice. Our eyes gleam with pride, maybe we can hack this training after all.

More gym, more shouts, more running, more abuse, we take it all. Circuit training, sprints, more shingle running along the beach. This is coupled with drilling, weapon training, endless inspections, manoeuvres and plenty else. We get stronger and better disciplined, importantly we become thicker skinned. The squad begins bonding together, it us against them and the rest of the world. Sometimes we feel like the forgotten few. We have grown. We want a Green Beret, it becomes a singular obsession.

 

The initial training period ends after 6 long weeks at Deal, we have accomplished part I and are beginning to look and act a little like real soldiers. The second phase is going to be longer and even tougher at the Commando training centre in Lympstone near Exmouth.

A party atmosphere lingers and the morale has soared to astronomical heights. To illustrate and magnify our little success in finalizing the initial part of training, we have a small pass-out ceremony in the NAFFI. This consists of a few drinks and we cordially invite all the instructors along. The evening is a major transformation from normal barrack room life, spliced liberally with lager and rum and Coke. The instructors entertain us with jokes and antidotes. Later, the Chief makes a fleeting visit, he doesn't take our alcohol offer and we admire him as he sips his orange juice. Before he leaves, he makes a small but memorable last speech.

"You have earned the right to tackle the second Royal Marine training phase. The discipline you have leaned during these last weeks will be the foundation for passing the second phase. It won’t be easy just as I haven’t been easy on you, and done specifically maybe you won’t appreciate it now but you will, one day. It is sometimes a tough world and those of you who eventually become Royal Marines will undoubtedly encounter serious situations. Being part of an elite combat force one day the chances are that you will have to deal with adversity and danger. The mental training to tune your toughness that my staff and I administered to you, may well be many times easier than the real thing. The Northern Ireland situation is looking very nasty at the moment. I would imagine that some of you could find yourselves in that sorry place, very soon," he shook his head dolefully and looked at us all carefully one last time as his eyes sparkled vividly. "Remember this and remember this well. Right here and right now, these will be the best days of your lives and you will never forget them, ever," The Chief laments with a smile. "Now, I want everyone singing my hymn."

 As one we begin the squad anthem.

"I'm forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, they fly so high they reach the sky and like West ham they never die."

 

We arrive at the Commando training centre at Lympstone and are once again the new boys. Our squad bonding strengthens as the camaraderie holds us together as we attempt to get through the rest of the tough training. We are united in our fear of the new physical training staff at Lympstone but the Chief has taught us well. The training intensifies in every way as we push the boundaries of our endurance and resilience further back and sadly our squad numbers diminish with each week that passes. The evil Scotsman, Bobby and Muhammad are still with us, thankfully. The octopus limbed imbecile has moved on to new waters, whilst Clumsy Manchester person has long gone back to Manchester.

We tackle the heart breaking assault courses. We climb the 30-foot ropes with full kit after the fireman's lift running with the oppo torture. We endure the endurance course. Submissively submerge ourselves through the tunnels including one filled with icy and dirty water. Why the hell did we attempt this thing in winter? With death defying determination we slide down the death slide and then swing through the rest of the 'Tarzan' course. We cross the regain rope over a tank of dank muddy water on our stomachs as our arms pull us a cross. In the middle of the tank we are ordered to dangle over it. Gradually, we lower our bodies underneath with outstretched arms before being ordered to regain the rope. The unlucky ones tire and eventually drop into the foul water, which means a complete cleaning of all the webbing and an extra hour on the rifle. Time that could be better used for resting is wasted. Things are tight and not a good time to get injured.

   There is the hated speed marching, running as a squad up to 9 miles with denim trousers, boots, rifles and our webbing weighing 45 lbs. The mechanics insist on the singing of nursery rhymes as we suffer.

"Jack and Gill went up the hill," we gasp together. Along the route several Noddies drop out to vomit.

"Come on, only another month to go," Shouts the new Chief mechanic. Another month, but a month filled with physical tests like the 30-mile yomp and the timed courses. It becomes obsessive now to clear the last hurdle in our plight to obtain the right to wear the coveted Green Beret.

 

 Those precious memories of those intensive training days fade gently away. Though as a sentiment to those days, I picture with fondness the old Marine gym and remember what it represented to us. The picture becomes clear and once again I see the wooden floors, adjustable wooden beams, the ropes, the vaulting apparatus, the dumbbells and the old barbells. In the corner is the old worn leather punch bag. It was a fairly standard set up for a male dominated gym of the 70s. I remember the leathery smell that always wafted into your nostrils as soon as you entered. The memories are wonderful testaments to a by gone gym era. The picture dissolves again and I focus on the modern gym of today.

 Carpets, tiles, large wall-to-wall mirrors, posters, drinking fountains are the furnishings in an air conditioning environment. Quadraphonic sounds blitz the ear. MTV is full on with all the other TV channels on monitors that adorn the walls that are viewed by the exercisers on the multitude of machines. There are the latest treadmills, step machines, elliptical machines, rowers, electronic bikes and all the varied resistance machines.

 I look around at the mixed bag of exercisers and see a diversity that I wouldn't have believed possible from those days in the early 70s. There are females, males, posers, single, married, all ages, all professions sweating together. The attire worn is mostly fashionable, smart, expensive and the shorts don't need ironing. I imagine the Chief and his staff watching the exercisers and then shouting out.

"Come on, what do you think this is a bloody picnic? 20 press-ups go, too slow, double around that beam, go. To slow." Running on the spot, go. Higher, come on higher yet, get those knees up. You, where the hell are you from, somewhere from outer space? Goodness, are you the thickest man on the planet? Try getting employment on Star Trek or something. Lordy, Lordy, if you had inherited a brain cell it would still be lonely. 20 press-ups go!"

 I can still hear his voice and the wicked taunting laughter echoing around the interior as he worked his unique psychology yet again on another unsuspecting new squad. 

 

THE LAST PATROL

An award winning short story

 I opened my tired eyes, eyes that looked out from a throbbing head that existed in an exhausted body. Another restful sleep had been denied and as a result, I felt shattered. I closed my eyes again but sleep wouldn’t comfort me, instead it became a source of torment. In annoyance and in a symbolic act, I rubbed the tiredness away from my eyes and found myself feeling quite philosophical and wondering just what the hell was this thing life all about?

 At 20 years of age, my dour thoughts emulated those of an older person. Stress and tension were the key attributes into this behavior with too many long hard hours and not enough rest and recovery.,,,and a few other things.

 Raising my head from my bunk bed, I looked around at the cramped, dreary and gloomy living space spiced with heavy fetid air. The hut like accommodation had been ‘home’ for 30 odd guys and the immediate area was shared with 9 other soldiers of my unit. These guys were now part of my family. Family, yes something positive had materialized and our bonding had been proven in many ways and would last eternally. Hopefully eternity would appear more realistic if we could get over this last day…. There, the same word had appeared in my head again.. last day, last patrol. Like the others, the last patrol syndrome had made me phobic.

 Tomorrow, Saturday 14 April was our leaving day after 4 long months of peace keeping duties in the province, this year would later acknowledged as the worst in Northern Ireland’s already sorrowful history. Tragically, our unit was already destined to go home minus 2 members and two more would never physically be able to play conventional football again and another would never see the beauty of the rising sun or his new born son’s first smile.

 The tiredness, the danger, and now into the last day of a confusing role in a modern day active service that wasn’t quite a war …. the frustration would finally end for us on the morrow and it wasn’t a day too soon.  

One tiny problem, my section in the ever changing roster would spend it working foot patrol duties in a notoriously hot area, one of the most dangerous in the province. Operating in such a danger zone had created this last patrol stigma and the heavy anxiety that abounded was plain to observe. Opposing players often worked this unlucky final day theme into their tactics to try and make it the last day on earth for some of us. Naturally this tactic created more tension and some soldiers in extreme cases would find anyway to avoid last patrols. This wasn’t a conventional war or even a conflict, it was a misery of mind bending attrition that was destined to never have a happy ending. This time and place was a fast burning fuse trailing to a powder keg of conflicting human emotions leading to an ever expanding repertoire of new ways of dying. Dying here wasn’t a great way of immortalizing the struggle in what would eventually be a fruitless useless waste of life against a wasted headstone of ignominy and 6feet of  soiled earth. Our role was to stay in the middle of it all and be generally detested for our efforts, no bands for a heroes return after serving here. European Vietnam… possibly

I continued to think out the last patrol ideology until somebody stirred in the hut, this seemed to signal the awakening of us all. We must all have been lying in our bunks silently pondering, silently fretting. Without many words of greetings, we collectively made our way through the military clutter than lay strewn around our pathetically small and run down living space and went outside into the ablutions hut. The washroom was another decrepit hut that amply personified the general ambience.

“This time tomorrow.” One of the lads said light heartedly as he lathered his face.

Strangely no quip is offered

After a hastily and ritualistic eaten breakfast, clasping piping hot coffee in black plastic mugs, we gathered and slipped into our pre patrol system huddling together sitting on our small soldier boxes than held our meager possessions. Apart from 3 days leave, the 4 months had consisted of daily patrolling sometimes as long as 18 hours when the anti went even higher than usual. So wardrobes of fancy civilian clothes weren’t required in this profession. Again, the section unusually quiet appeared reluctant to discuss this our last patrol in any shape or form.

The coffee mugs were put away as we prepared to get rigged up.  Rigging up was an art form with Denison smock camouflage jackets, flak jacket, belt order, first aid pack, batons, tin hats, riot gun and our third and most important arm, the 7.62mm self loading rifles playing the leading role is this identity. The obvious care in handling our personal weapons said it all, the playtime bell had long since sounded.

 Superstition had never grabbed me until I came here, but evidently we’d all developed some form of superstitious behavior or even moved deeper into our own different faiths and beliefs. Secret prayers were often mouthed, I would notice rosary beads being slipped into pockets, lucky rabbit’s feet, pictures of wives and girlfriends went into the flak jacket pockets. I fingered my bracelet as I always did before leaving the hut subconsciously. I stared down at the bracelet and brought back the story.

On the overnight Liverpool to Belfast ferry 4 months previously just before grabbing the last peaceful rest for a while, I wandered alone onto the open passenger deck to get some evening air and contemplate a few personal thoughts. Few passengers were about as I placed my hands on the guardrail and stared out to observe and enjoy the night serenity of the murky looking Irish Sea. Making the atmosphere somber, the moon was partially hidden by clouds giving scant illumination and also a haunting tranquility. I sucked in the salted air and spent a few moments in reflection about the impending tour and my recent promotion to Section commander and its seemingly impossible responsibilities in the troubled Belfast streets.  After a few minutes alone suddenly there was a feeling of being watched and I looked away from the movement of the sea to look behind me. In the shadows by the bulkhead I could see the outline of a tall slim man staring at me with some interest. While observing him, he advanced toward me without the slightest threat and I could distinguish a priest’s collar at his neck. The Moon appeared from behind a cloud and allowed shafts of light to penetrate the priest’s features for a few seconds.  He cocked his head at me and spoke with a soft lilting southern Irish accent.

“These are dangerous times my son. Sad and dangerous times indeed. You must take good care.”

I studied the speakers face and noted an unusual bemused expression of melancholy in his features. He looked in his early 60s with strong chiseled features and a even jaw. His vibrant blue eyes looked away for a wistful moment at the faded grey clouds that wisped in a straggled collection in the inky coloured sky.

 His eyes burned brightly as he spoke to me again. “You’re a young man to witness such troubled and turbulent times.”

I didn’t answer him but waited for him to speak again knowing he’d earmarked me for some reason.

He swept his hand over the full head of iron grey hair as he spoke in that easy going voice of his. “Those Irish streets that witnessed love and laughter will darken with sorrow for a long sad age before the sun eventually shines there again.” Strangely transfixed, I felt fascinated with his words and demur it seemed like I’d known this man as fondly as a favorite uncle.

“You are young,” he continued. “And your eyes will witness a soup of human tragedy that seems endless in its composition. Your efforts may appear to be wasted and in vain but a country cries in pain and your presence will be of tremendous comfort to some. Take good care my son and may the lord Jesus Christ watch over you and may the Peace of Christ be with you always.”

With that blessing, he exited swiftly leaving me alone at the guardrail and quite bizarrely I felt sorry to lose his company that had lasted  just a few moments. After a few seconds of pondering his words, I noticed on the deck where he’d been standing beside me at the rail a small silver bracelet. I picked it up and read the words inscribed on the bracelet. ‘BLESS ME.'

  Although I searched for the priest for nearly 30 minutes throughout the ferry I never came across him again. Before I slept in the tiny cabin that night, I wrapped the bracelet around my wrist fastened the clip that fitted perfectly and felt reluctant to remove it.  Since then it became instinctive to secretly expose it and read the inscription each time we left the safety of the base camp to go out on patrol.

I entered the operations room for the section's radio’s and a last minute briefing on the day’s activities and patrol agenda. My second in command was an older and experienced marine called Barry who'd accompanied me. We had developed a firm friendship and intimate mental understanding without the need for long conversations or in each others pocket socializing. We left the briefing with the intelligence officer in the knowledge that the area had been active throughout the morning following a series of gunshots during the night but thankfully hadn’t produced serious casualties.

I addressed the section as we assembled around into the armoured Saracen personnel carrier with our equipment.

“We’ve been performing this role for 4 months now in a systematic military precision, which makes us very professional, remember that. Today, we will see little exception in anything we have seen, dealt with and situations we have been involved with. Keep it tight and keep focused and everything will be ok.... It’s just another day at the office.”

 My words seemed quite assured for a 20 year old with a background I would have rather forgotten. I’d grown up on the streets of Belfast and learned about people responsibility and more importantly to the others in the section, I had matured into a good urban guerilla tactician.

“Let’s go” I ordered. We snapped our magazines onto our rifles at the loading bay and then climbed into the vehicle.

“Home tomorrow,” Somebody said to break tension.

“It’s Friday the13th today. Let’s beat the crap out of this patrol before we think about the ferry ride back.” A dour but well respected lad from Newcastle added. “And then...maybe I’ll buy you all a beer.”

“First time ever that.” Somebody nipped in. “And not that naffin brown ale stuff either you northern jocks love.” We laughed collectively as the driver squashed the accelerator with his sized 10 boots and passed through the barbed wire gates and sandbagged machinegun post. The Saracen's engine screamed its distinctive pitch as we out roared out of the safety and into the streets of our last patrol. A hush inside the vehicle was evident and the mood became more serious than any that I ever recalled on the tour. The driver of the Saracen flattened the pedal and the last patrol began

 It was a grey day with grey threatening clouds that matched the general ambience of a tortured city. Serious looking people went about their lives walking along anxious streets in a desperate way. The locals didn’t seem to stroll or saunter in their everyday lifestyle, pedestrians seemed to march with chins on chest angled at the pavements without much hope or resign, they walked with purpose not pleasure.

Everything looked bleak.

 The first few hours went by and I couldn't help recalling the words of the priest on the ferry came back as we worked through the naughty streets.  ‘A long time before the sun shines again,’ he’d said. Then I realized what his words had really meant.

 The afternoon arrived and it was time to patrol the sensitive areas again. The foot patrol away from the vehicle base comprised of 6 men, it moved with ease in well drilled organised tactical movements. 6 heads, 6 pairs of eyes, working as one well oiled team. The purpose of the patrol was to signal a visible presence of force in an attempt to deter violent acts and encourage authority. This was a land ridden with the sorry cancer of violence blended with revenge born from lousy politics and a sour history. Patrolling these troubled areas where major incidents could flair or even full scaled riots could escalate with the speed of a wind blown forest fire. Violence would break out from the tiniest gesture between communities with the merest insult fuelling incidents that instigated bombs, bullets and blood. Inevitably before the sun came down the undertakers would be busy making new boxes for other poor souls. Entire streets looked cold and unsympathetic with abandoned and derelict houses riddled with bomb scars and bullet holes. This land cried out with a passion.

 The patrol kept moving without the intention of provoking new problems. Some streets were so notorious for snipers and machine gun attacks that their notoriety became legendary and strictly avoided where possible but my duty was to keep a presence and defend the option of eliminating no-go zones

The afternoon dragged slowly on but somehow or other in my mind a tangible threat always seemed to exist, we’d collectively sensed it though we didn’t allow the luxury of the fear indulgence to initiate our fears further. We were psyched up, revved up and worked with a vibrant energy I hadn’t witnessed before. Something, somehow we knew would inevitably would happen that day, I tried to rationalise why. Was it simply Friday the 13th syndrome, or the last day and the last patrol phobia?   No, It wasn’t just these things, it was something else - deeper almost spiritual instincts, something I couldn’t read or understand… and would never understand. My understanding of this complicated life had limits

 Rifle leading the way, thoughts of home away from my head as a cold wind picked up as I lead the section toward an exposed junction filled with derelict buildings riddled with bullet holes, alleyways and danger.

God help me this was it…. This is where it would happen, the cold wind couldn’t cool the sweat on my brow and rationality wouldn’t quell the anxiety and tension. Some primeval instinct, an extra sense made me believe there was a real chance I could end my life here. My knuckles whitened holding the stock of my SLR, 3 men each side of the street, front men covering the forward area,  middle men the sides, last men walking backwards covering the rear. Hard targets, don’t standstill, switching the alert switch to full. What was the common weapon used against us?

Answer, M-16 Rifle, 39 inches long, 6.5 lb empty, 7.6 lb loaded, uses ball and tracer ammo only, a full magazine weighs 2/10 lb, magazine carries 20 rounds, gas operated, air cooled, selector switch has 3 positions (safe, semi-auto, automatic).  Maximum range 2,653 meters, maximum effective range 460 meters.  Rate of fire, 650-700 rounds per minute on full automatic, 150-200 rounds per minute when reloading 20-round magazines. Over 8,000,000 M-16’s made. On impact, the 5.56mm caliber piece of lead makes a small hole in your front and then blows out your back as the bullet spins on impact. Nice to know small interesting trivia like this when you enter a hot zone. Jesus Christ please help me today as I die in an alleyway then forgotten.

  The radio crackled… a stolen car has been set alight at a waste land a few streets away. We looked above the rooftops to see spiraling smoke ascending majestically up to the heavens.  We have no option but to check it out, this could be a COME ON, getting us into a killing zone, exposing us to a sniper’s bullet or a radio controlled bomb. This was max danger time.

"Shit."

Orders were given with the fewest words necessary. We moved off and soon approached the sight of the burning car from the least obvious direction from an alleyway between rows of houses, which at least gives us moderate cover. The car was burning like firework night 5th November, but instantly obvious was the fact that nobody was around to witness the spectacle. This was bad news as lack of people commonly equates to an incident happening, We watch, we observe in the relative safety of the alleyway. The radio crackles again with the news that the burning car was used in a shooting incident between the occupants and a police patrol.

 “Whiskey one, one Charlie, there could be casualties or weapons in the car, investigate, over.”  

“Shit,” I exploded with passion and quickly began to issue orders to minimize exposure to the patrol, I made an instant decision that only two members of the patrol are needed for the task , the rest would cover us. Selecting one of the patrol, a guy named Terry for the reconnaissance, the plan is to move fast in and fast out and give the vehicle the once over. Subconsciously, I checked and rubbed my bracelet, my heart was thumping fast, I really didn’t want to do this with so many exposed dangers for myself and the section. I began to try to control my breathing pattern and played forward the impending movement strategy in my mind.  The movement options, a jinking sprint to the car, a quick visual check careful not to open or touch anything that might trigger an explosion. The danger lay on the run in and the time spent at the car.

 I felt like vomiting. I couldn’t move for a second, I checked my bracelet again and closed my eyes trying to suppress my fear with prayer. I opened my eyes feeling ready and focused.  I nodded at Terry.

“Move.”

We dashed out into the direction of the car feeling incredibly exposed, weaving to the burning car waiting for the explosion or a few ounces of spinning lead that could easily puncture skin and bone and sluice the life blood into a gutter. Panting for breath, I arrived 5 meters away from the burning car, Terry following closely behind me took up a firing position a couple of meters away. I crouched down to look underneath the car but saw nothing unusual; I tried to see inside, bad vision obscured by smoke ruined that plan…… I would need to get closer to the car.

“Cover me,” I whispered to Terry. Terry swiveled around in a slow 360 turn with his rifle tight in his arms. I sprinted toward the car and looked inside as wisps of smoke from the dying flames allowed vision in the back seat ….nothing.  I began to move to the front driver’s door when I noticed something shiny on the floor, it was made of silver, a bracelet just like the one I was wearing it had BLESS ME on it. It was my bracelet, had it fallen off ?  I bent down to retrieve it.

Bang….. SMASH!

The sound was accompanied by segments of the car window that broke and sprinkled the interior of the car and a few segments that fell onto me, then the driver’s window caved in just behind where I’d been standing. Lying on the floor with the bracelet in my hand and fragments of glass nestling in my hair; I was stunned, almost paralyzed with shock until I Jumped to my feet with my rifle poised. No obvious threat however my senses felt magnified with an incredible adrenaline rush. The sound of running boots broke the eerie spell I seemed to be encapsulated in as Barry led two more members of the patrol toward me. Barry stopped in front of me with wide eyes, white face and incredulous expression of awe.

 Military automation took control and we followed up, patrolled where we thought the snipers position might have been, but we didn’t find anything. Within 25 minutes, the patrol was assisted by the stand by section and we were ordered back to the Saracen to reorganize.

 Later, the patrol finally finished without any further incident, however  our immortality had been questioned and we were all shocked at how close the grim reaper had been in inviting us to his lasting residence. 

The next day, finally, we left the province and once on the night ferry back to Liverpool we relaxed and sighed with relief judging by the amount of corny jokes bouncing about. After settling into the cabins, we headed for the bar, for beer, talk of pretty girls, backs slaps and promises of better and brighter days. A Feel good attitude progressed intermixed with tilted glasses more corny jokes and a general gratitude of survival. We’d taken our bonding to a level that would never witnessed be by any of us ever again. The overall relief was enormous and overwhelming and soon we began to remember those that weren’t as fortunate as us, which altered the atmosphere considerably. At this juncture nearing midnight and feeling the need for clean fresh sea air, I slipped away from the group and stepped up to the upper deck of the ferry. Few people were around so I picked a space alone on the rail staring into the Irish Sea. In this prose I tried to fathom out things spinning in my head.  It felt comfortable spending a few moments in isolation thinking about the incident on patrol the previous day. The word lucky pricked my conscience until a distinct feeling made me seek out the area behind me. A figure was immediately noticeable sitting at a bench with his back cutting a shadow against the bulkhead. I spent a few moments absorbing the detail before stepping across to the figure simultaneously unfastening my bracelet on my wrist. I looked up to the night sky and inhaled deeply feeling enchanted

 I stood behind the figure that hadn’t yet moved, but they must have realized somebody was close to him because my steps had been clearly audible.

 Knowing somehow that it was me that had to break the spell, I uttered quite evenly. “I believe this belongs to you.”

 The priest turned around, his deep blue eyes boring into mine with that same distinct melancholy expression

“No my son,” he answered straight away as if expecting the question and smiled warmly at me. He patted my hand gently, grasped the bracelet, looked at it and placed it into his long black overcoat pocket.

“It will go to someone else now. For a little while, anyway.” His eyes twinkled. “Bless you.” He said, then stood, turned and melted away into the night.

 © Copyright Ken Lake 2007