Excerpt

PROLOGUE   

January 1973

They walk from the city centre, following the bus route home. Her arm is linked through his.

            'Wait,' she says, stopping suddenly. 'I can’t walk another inch in these friggin’ things.' 

She leans against him for support as she pulls her shoes off swollen feet. She touches her heel and winces. 'Blister.'

            'Come on,' he says offering her his back. 'I’ll carry you.' He puffs with the effort. After a hundred yards, he sets her down.

            She sways and topples against him. 'Oops,' she giggles. 

            'I told you to go easy on the rum and cokes.'

An armoured vehicle turns into the street. He holds her upright as he catches his breath. The vehicle slows then rumbles past.

            'Wankers,' he mutters. 

            'Good craic tonight, wasn’t it?' 

He nods. 

            She looks at her watch. 'Christ, is that the time? My ma will tan my hide. Come on,'  she says, tugging at his arm. 

They set off again, her in stockinged feet. 

They turn into a dark, terraced street, its lights long ago smashed. 

            'Nearly home,' he says when he sees the chip shop.

The odour of fried batter hangs in the air. There is another smell; she knows it but can’t place it. 

            'What’s that?' he says.

            'What’s what?' 

Her eyes are on the pavement, which is littered with empty wrappers and cigarette stubs. She watches out for anything sharp. She sniffs the air again. Paint? Yes, that’s what that smell is, she realises.  

            He nudges her. 'Over there. Look!'

They peer at the lamp post in front of the chip shop. Something  - a rag doll, or a scarecrow - is tethered to it. The head is black, as if it has been charred in a fire; the stuffing has come loose. 

They edge closer. 

            'Shit! It’s moving.'

            She puts her hand to her throat. 'Oh Jesus.' She takes in the paint and the feathers, the shorn hair. 'That poor girl.' She looks up and down the street. The house lights are off. No sign of anyone watching. She takes a step forward. 'We should do something.' 

            He holds her back. 'Don’t get involved.'

Out of the darkness looms a bloodied brute of a man. He has a knife. 

They back away. 

The man staggers past. He stops at the lamp post. 

The girl twists, trying to free herself. She wants to cry out but her voice is muted.

            'Sshh,' the man says. He saws furiously at the rope. He cuts her free. 

The girl slumps into his arms.  

The man gently removes the tape that is covering her mouth.

            'Daddy,' she sobs, clinging tightly to him.

            'It’s alright, love,' he says. 'I’m here now.'         

 

CHAPTER 1   

1971

Brenda cupped her hands to her mouth and blew. Her breath escaped in wisps and hung white in the air. It was one of those November days when the sun shone bright in a clear, blue sky but the cold could flay you.   

The older women had dressed sensibly in thick woollen coats. Some wore furry hats that nestled on top of stiffly permed hair; others covered their heads with shawls. Handbags hooked over arms, they listened earnestly to the speaker on the steps of Belfast City Hall. Brenda hopped from one foot to the other and willed her to wrap up her speech. A crow flapped across the roof of the building. It circled the crowd once, cawing loudly. The first heckler; she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. 

A young mother beside Brenda balanced a small, rosy cheeked child on her hip. An impressive river of mucus flowed down the child’s face and into the corner of its mouth. In the name of God, could she not just get a hanky out and wipe its nose? Brenda was beginning to wish she’d never come. Her dad would think she was mad to stand around here for hours. He’d laughed when Brenda first mentioned the peace group. He couldn’t see what a bunch of Christian women were going to do. 

            'Do they honestly think they can change things with a few prayers?' 

            'There’s nothin’ wrong with prayin’, Jimmy,' her mum had scolded. 'You should give it a go.'

Brenda was crushed. Of all people, she thought her dad would understand. 

Her dad had a knack for soothing ruffled feathers. He was always the first to step in and break up a scrap. Before long he’d have both parties shaking hands, each thinking they’d won.  'More listenin' and less shoutin' is all it takes', he’d say. 'It’s something our politicians should learn.' 

            'There’s more to the peace group than you think, Dad,' Brenda had tried to explain. 'At least they’re trying to do something.'

But her dad was having none of it. 

It was midday now. The women were beginning to attract the attention of the Saturday shoppers. A man approached the police and army cordon and demanded to know what was going on.

            'Peace rally,' was the police officer’s clipped response.

            'A what?' The man looked the women up and down. He squinted at the messages on their placards and mouthed the words. 'Women Together?'

The police officer shrugged. 

The man sauntered back to his group of friends. A young lad, who looked like his son, caught Brenda staring. He nudged the others. They put their hands together in mock prayer, then dissolved into fits of laughter. Brenda turned back to the crowd. Her face was burning.

            'Stupid gobshites,' whispered a voice in her ear.

Brenda started. A girl had moved into the spot beside her. She grinned at Brenda. 

            'Just ignore them.'

A permed head swivelled round and tutted. The woman’s face was makeup free apart from a dab of coral lipstick which had obviously been applied to pursed lips. Brenda giggled.

            'Want a Polo?' asked the girl, reaching into her bag. 'I’m Hazel, by the way.'

Brenda nodded. She fumbled as she tried to extract a mint from the top of the packet. 'This is my first rally,' she said.

            'I hope it won’t be your last.'

            'I’m not goin’ to be put off …' Brenda lowered her voice. '… by arses like those men over there, if that’s what you mean.' She jerked her head in their direction. 

            'Good on ye.'

            'Mind you, I thought there’d be a bigger turnout.' 

Brenda did a quick calculation. Fewer than two hundred she reckoned. The evening paper had written a feature about the women, praising them for the work they were doing. It had inspired her to come along today. She thought more would have felt the same. But then it was one thing to wish that the killing would stop; it was another thing to actually try to make it stop.

There was a ripple of applause. The speaker paused for a moment to soak up the crowd’s appreciation. She turned to a fresh page of her notes and continued. Hazel groaned. 

            'She does go on a bit,' said Brenda. 

            Hazel rolled her eyes. 'Count yourself lucky. You’re not the one who has to live with her.' 

            'Huh?'

            'She’s my mum.”

            Brenda couldn't picture her own mum addressing a crowd like this. Her mum believed in avoiding trouble, in keeping herself to herself although it didn’t stop her wanting to know everybody else’s business. 'Mine would skin me if she knew I was here. She…'

            'Troops out,' yelled a man from the back of the crowd.

Hazel’s mum faltered.

            'Brit lovers!' came the shrill voice of a woman.

A small group had unfurled a banner. As the group began to chant loudly Hazel’s mum fell silent.

Brenda braced herself, waiting for the moment when it would all kick off. A large space opened up as the peace women sidled away from the hostile infiltrators. Someone tried to snatch the banner. A scuffle broke out. Elbows dug into Brenda’s ribs. A boot stomped on her toes; she yelped in pain.

            'Move!' shouted a soldier. He was clearing the way for two police officers dragging one of the protestors towards the security cordon. He shoved Brenda on the shoulder. She staggered backwards.

            'There’s no need for that!' Brenda yelled after the soldier. She was shaking as she turned to Hazel. 'I’ve a good mind to report him.' 

            'Why? Sure he’s only doin’ his job.'

            'Yeah well, they’re always throwin’ their weight around.'

When the soldiers first arrived they’d been sent to protect Catholic communities like hers. She’d welcomed them then thinking they’d only stay for a few months. Now they seemed to cause as many problems as they solved. 

            Hazel’s mum had recovered her composure and finished her speech to loud applause. She made her way towards them. 'How did I do?' she beamed.

            'Really well,' said Brenda. 'Shame about the interruption.'

            'It happens. You learn to live with it.' The woman turned to her daughter. 'I need to catch up with the others. Why don’t you take a dander into town for a while?'

            'How long is a while, Mum?'

            'I don’t know – say a couple of hours.' She  smiled at Brenda. 'Nice to meet you, dear. It’s good to see we’re attracting some young ones.' 

            'Hang on a minute. Where will I find you?' asked Hazel but her mother was already weaving her way through the crowd.

            'Come on,' said Brenda. 'I’ll go with you. I need a hot drink inside me. It’s Baltic out here.'

They passed a police Land Rover. Huddled inside were a couple of surly looking protestors.

*

The coffee shop smelt of cinnamon and freshly baked scones. Brenda had her eye on a huge lemon meringue pie she'd spotted on the way in. The girls chatted as they waited for their order to arrive. It turned out they were both in their first year at Queen’s University.

            'Have you tried the cafe on the Stranmillis Road?' asked Brenda.

            'No, not yet.'      

            'I must take you some time. The food’s a lot better than that shite they serve up in the Student’s Union.' Brenda thought for a moment. 'Well, most of the time.' 

            Do you fancy going to a Women Together meeting? My mum's organising one.'

            'Will you be there?'

            'Of course.' said Hazel.  

            'Alright then, you’re on.'

The waitress brought two steaming mugs of hot chocolate, each topped with a swirl of whipped cream and a chocolate flake. Brenda took a couple of spoonfuls of cream, then tilted the mug to her lips. Her meringue pie failed to arrive. 

The waitresses had stopped serving. Instead they were working their way round the tables telling people they needed to leave the premises. 

            'Ah Jesus.' Brenda looked longingly at the sweet trolley. 'Typical of my luck.'

            'It’s probably another scare,' said Hazel. 

A policeman stuck his head round the door to reinforce the urgency of the bomb warning. The waitresses herded customers towards the door. Brenda and Hazel grabbed their coats and followed them out. The top of the street had been taped off. The bomb disposal squad had arrived. 

            'Let's get out of here, Hazel.'

They made their way back towards the City Hall.

            'I better find Mum and let her know what's goin' on.'

            'Do you need me to stay?'

            Hazel shook her head. 'No, you're alright. She'll be here somewhere.'

            'As long as you're sure then, I'll head on home,' said Brenda. 'See ya.'

 

 CHAPTER 2

Brenda yelped. The water from the hot tap had suddenly turned ice cold. 

            'Mum,' she hollered. 'Are you fillin' the kettle?' 

It was an annoying quirk of their forty year old plumbing that every time someone turned the taps on downstairs, the hot water upstairs ran cold. Her dad kept promising to fix it.

            'Sorry,' shouted her mum. 'Finished now.'

            'Ok, thanks … shit!' The water had switched to boiling. Brenda inspected her hands. It was a wonder she hadn’t lost a layer of skin.

Her mum would be off to mass soon. She’d have made herself a cup of tea, peeled and chopped the vegetables for Sunday lunch and had a quick whizz round with the hoover. Brenda heard the key turn in the back door and her mother’s footsteps in the yard. By the time she had made her way downstairs, her mum had pegged a full wash of clothes to the line. Her dad’s overalls, shirts and vests looked huge as they flapped in the breeze next to her mum’s slips, skirts and blouses. 

Brenda poured herself a bowl of cereal. 

            'Get off, you stupid thing,' came a voice from outside.

Brenda’s mum was making her way back into the house with the empty clothes basket. Next door’s cat followed, weaving in and out of her legs. She gave it a boot with her toe. The cat shot in through the open door and ran under the kitchen table. Brenda filled a saucer with milk and placed it on the floor beside her chair. 

            'Don’t be encouragin' that ball of fleas,' said her mum. She made a grab for the scruff of its neck but the cat arched its back and dug its claws into her legs. Her mum let out a cry just as Brenda’s dad wandered into the kitchen. He looked at his wife’s ripped hosiery and the little beads of blood that had formed on her shins then burst out laughing. 

            Brenda's mum fired tiny daggers in his direction. 'I’m goin' to have to change these now,' she said. A few minutes later she popped her head round the kitchen door. 'I’m off.' 

            'Bye love.' Mr MacRae planted a kiss on his wife’s lips.

            'Get off me you big lump.' She pushed him away. 'That’s prickly.”

He rubbed his unshaven face, grinned and reached for her again. Brenda's mum made her escape.

            'I’m starved,' he said once she was out of the house.  He opened the oven door and peered inside. There was usually a full Irish breakfast being kept warm for him.

            'She didn’t have time,' said Brenda.

Her dad shut the door with a sigh.           

            'I can make you a fry, if you want?' 

            'You’re alright love. Cornflakes will do me too.'   

Brenda was relieved. She hated the way the lard spat and jumped from the pan. 

Her dad proceeded to eat his cornflakes with one hand and turn the pages of the Sunday paper with the other. Occasionally he’d shake his head and mumble something about keeping it in your trousers.    

            'What’s the big scandal this week?' asked Brenda. 

            'Ach, it’s just the same old thing … someone cheatin’ on their wife … that actor fella who just got married. You know the one.'

            'Let me see.' Brenda pulled the paper towards her and checked out the photograph. 'I don’t get it,' she said, shaking her head. 'His wife’s far nicer lookin’ than her. What does he see in this one?'

            'Maybe she goes like a train?'     

            'Daddy!'

            'I’m only sayin'.'

            'Well she looks like a right minger to me.'

            'Who does?' 

Brenda’s sister, Clare, had finally made an appearance. Nursing a fierce hangover, if the pinched look on her face was anything to go by. 

            'They seemed like a really nice couple.' Brenda pointed to the picture in the paper.

            'It just goes to show,' said Clare. 'You can’t trust any man.'

Mr MacRae cleared his throat. 

           'She wasn't talkin' about you, Daddy. You’re different.'

Brenda meant what she said. Her dad wasn’t at all like the other men round here. He was a mountain of a man - big hands, big feet, big heart. Yet when he spoke it was with a soft Scottish brogue. He was as commanding a presence in Brenda’s life as the tall gantry crane, straddling the Harland and Wolff shipyard, that dominated the skyline of east Belfast. 

            'Oh for cryin’ out loud, Brenda. Did you not think to bring the washing in?'

Brenda stared out the window. It had started to rain.

            'I'll do it then, will I?'  

Clare ran out in her dressing gown and slippers and began to strip the clothing from the line. Brenda was close behind her. Typical, she thought. One minute it was all sunshine and stiff breeze – the perfect drying weather. The next, it was pissing down. Together they unpegged the washing and dashed back into the kitchen.

            'Come here a wee minute, Brenda.' Her dad beckoned her over. He pointed to the paper which lay open at a double page spread. 'If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that was you.' 

            Brenda stared at the black and white evidence. 'Um…'

            'What do you mean it’s her? Let me see,' said Clare. 'So it is!' She furrowed her brow as she took in the scene. 'Where is this? Who are all those people?'

            'A peace rally at the City Hall.'

            'What were you doin' there?'

            'Showin' my support.' Brenda looked to her dad for his reaction but he was still staring at the paper. 'Anyway, I'm glad I went. They've invited me to a meeting.'

            Clare snorted. 'You're not goin' to go, are you?'

            'I'm thinkin' about it.'

            'Catch yourself on, Brenda.'

            Brenda gave her sister a sharp look. 'Do you even know the first thing about Women Together?'

            'It says here,' said Mr MacRae, drawing their attention back to the paper, 'that there was a disturbance.'

            'Some people were protestin' about the troops.'

He looked concerned.

            'A bit of a skirmish, Dad, Nothin' serious. The Army moved them on.'

            Clare’s face darkened. 'I bet they did.' 

            'It was meant to be a peace rally. They were turnin' it into somethin' else.'

            'For fuck sake, Brenda. Whose side on you on?'

Mr MacRae scoowled.

            'Clare, just because your mum's not here doesn't mean you can use language like that in the house.'

            'It's not about takin' sides,' said Brenda. 'That's the whole point.'

            'Oh yeah? What are your precious peace women goin' to do when those Orange bastards start burnin' us out. Eh? I'll tell you ... Nothin'!'

            Brenda threw her hands up. 'There's no talkin' to you, Clare, when you get like this.'

            'That's because you know I'm right.'

            'Pack it in the pair of you. Can a man not enjoy a bit of peace and quiet in his own home?'

            'I'm only tellin' it as it is,' said Clare.

            'Aye, well we've heard enough.'

            Clare looked at her dad, then Brenda. 'In that case I'll leave you to yourselves. I'm away to get dressed.'

            'You're not annoyed with me, are you?' said Brenda once her sister had made her way upstairs. 'For goin' to the rally, I mean.'

            'You can go to as many rallies as you like, as far as I'm concerned.'

Brenda smiled. Her relief was shortlived when he added.

            'I just hope you know what you’re gettin' into.'

            'I'm not goin' to do anything stupid, if that's what you mean.'

            'Good because I wouldn't like to see you gettin' caught up in any trouble.'

            Brenda couldn't help laughing. 'This is Belfast, Dad. You can't avoid trouble.'

            His face remained serious. 'You know what I mean.'

Brenda knew he was only looking out for her but she wanted to find out more about these women and what they did. Because, despite what her dad said, it felt like exactly the sort of thing she should be getting into. 

              

CHAPTER 3   

Brenda didn’t need street names. The kerbs told her whose territory she was in. Red, white and blue. Prod colours. In Brenda’s street they were daubed green, white and orange. Different turf, different flags.

She passed a giant mural of a man on a white horse. His hair was long and curly, like a cocker spaniel’s ears. He wore a red and gold jacket. One hand was on the reins of his horse, the other brandished a sword. 1690 was the date painted on the wall. No Surrender read the slogan. King Billy, mustering his troops for the battle that would rout the Catholics once and for all.

What was she doing here? She wasn’t wise in the head. Brenda glanced over at her friend. It was all right for her. She knew the area well.

            'Don’t worry,' said Hazel. 'We’re nearly there now.'

            'Thank God!'

            'Just don’t be sayin’ any Hail Mary’s.'

            'Fuck off,' said Brenda, laughing at the very idea of it. 

            'By the way, I promised Mum we’d give her a hand to set up. Hope that’s ok?'

Hazel’s mum had arranged for tonight’s meeting to take place in the Presbyterian church hall not far from where Hazel lived. Women Together groups from all over Belfast were coming to a sewing circle.

It was Mrs Kennedy who first suggested making the quilt. She said it would be a great way to bring everyone together, a chance to get to know each other better. The quilt would be a symbol of their shared hopes. If that’s what they thought, then good on them, but Brenda wouldn’t be joining in. Quilting? That was for grannies. Besides, the last time she’d sewn anything was in school. It was a square of embroidery she somehow managed to stitch to her skirt. When she lifted the piece up to show the class, her skirt lifted with it, giving everyone a full flash of her pants.

Hazel’s mum was switching the lights on when the girls arrived. She briefly greeted them before darting into the small kitchen to put a couple of bottles of milk in the fridge. The walls of the room were lined with stacks of plastic chairs and bare wooden trestle tables.

            'Give me a hand with these radiators, girls,' she said, reappearing from the kitchen. 'It’s brass monkeys in here.'

There was no sophisticated heat control system. The radiators were either on or off. Brenda and Hazel set them all to on. They pulled the chairs down from their stacks and placed them around the tables which they had dragged into the centre of the room, to form one large rectangle. 

Women began to arrive shortly after seven o’clock carrying sewing baskets stuffed with brightly patterned swatches of cloth, spools of threads in a rainbow of colours, pins and needles. They brought with them offerings of food - mostly sandwiches and filled rolls - which they handed to Hazel’s mum through the kitchen hatch. 

            'We’ll not be goin’ hungry, that’s for sure,' said Brenda. 'There’s enough food here to feed half of Belfast. As long as you like sandwich spread and sliced pan.' She pulled a face. The combination made her stomach churn. 

The women formed themselves into clusters around the table, each group working on their allocated section of the quilt. 

*

Already the windows had misted up. Brenda tugged at the neck of her jumper. The sweat was lashing off her. 'Is anyone else hot?' she asked, getting up from her seat. 'Mind if I open one of these?'

No, they weren’t hot; it was nice as it was, thanks. Brenda sat down beside Hazel and her mum and continued to swelter and prickle. 

            'Now that I’ve had a chance to sleep on it …' said Ann Muldoon.

           'Not literally Ann, I hope.' Joan Anderson gave her a wink. 

            Ann Muldoon returned a vinegar smile. '… I’ve had second thoughts about the shamrock idea.'

The women had chosen symbols that represented their life in Belfast; these were to be stitched into the quilt.

            'Who the hell picked a shamrock in the first place?' asked the woman next to Mrs Muldoon. 'Might as well add a leprechaun for good measure.'

The women burst into laughter with the exception of Hazel's mum who looked as if she’d sat on her own pin cushion.

            'I’ve been workin' on this all week,' she said, holding up a patch of green fabric.

            'And that’s, um … a lovely job you’ve made of it,' said Ann Muldoon, 'but maybe we should leave shamrocks for the souvenir shops. We need somethin' more personal to us.'

            'We all agreed on the dove and the shamrock at the first meeting. If I remember rightly, everyone was happy enough with the choice at the time.' 

            'I don’t remember havin’ much say in it,' mumbled Ann Muldoon. 

            'What about something that represents the children?' someone suggested. 'All these riots and killings are ruinin’ their lives.'

There was a murmur of approval. In the end they decided to ditch the shamrock and replace it with a symbol of two children holding hands. Hazel's mum was placated with the promise that the dove motif would be kept. 

Ann Muldoon got to work on cutting the new template.The women thensettled back into their sewing, catching up on the week’s events and swapping stories. Brenda observed them at work and threaded needles on request  (‘your eyesight’s better than mine, love’). 

            'All hell broke loose on my street last night,' said Joan Anderson. Not that you’d know; there wasn’t a word about it on the news this mornin’. I swear to God, there are times I think I’ve dreamed all this up.'

Brenda knew how she felt. There were nights her own street turned into a battlefield. She’d lie in bed, listening to the rip of automatic machine guns, like she was caught up in some war in a faraway country. But it was happening right here, on her doorstep.

Occasionally, if she was brave enough to peep through the curtains, she caught the flash of a rifle muzzle from a window further down the street. It was always a shock to Brenda that a raging gun battle could take place and yet there’d be no record of it. Where did all those bullets go? Was no-one ever hit or injured? The empty cartridges that littered the street the following morning told the real story.

            'Take my Billy…'

            'Can’t say I’m tempted, Joan.' The woman laughed. 

            'He says he’d sooner die than give up Queen and country.'

            'And would he?'

            'If he had enough pints in him he’d fight anyone.'

There was a shared sigh of solidarity from the women. 

            'I’m sick to the teeth of all their fightin’ talk,' said Ann Muldoon. 'It’s the men that are draggin’ us into one disaster after another.'

            'And we’re the ones left tryin’ to hold the family together,' replied Mrs Anderson.

Holding the family together was becoming harder by the day. Brenda’s mum was thankful she only had daughters. She didn’t have to answer a knock on the door and explain why her teenage son wasn’t on the streets stoning soldiers like the rest of his contemporaries. Her husband, with his Scottish roots, could just about be excused his impartiality on the grounds that he was foreign. A son, born and bred in Belfast, would be an entirely different matter. He’d be expected to support the ‘cause’. 

Cause was a strange word. For Joan Anderson’s husband, Billy, it was fighting to remain part of the United Kingdom, to stay British. For most in Brenda’s street it was fighting against the British suppressors. 

            'It’s getting worse, so it is. I’m scared for my boys. I’ve told them not to walk home on their own at night.' Ann Muldoon crossed herself. 'Not unless they want to be shot.'

A brief silence fell on the group. At night, groups of Protestant paramilitaries had taken to driving through Catholic areas on the look out for a lone Catholic man. They’d open up with semi-automatic rifles then speed off, leaving their target to die from his wounds. Sometimes they got it wrong and shot one of their own.

Brenda glanced at Mrs Anderson. Surely her Billy wouldn’t be a part of anything like that? Mrs Anderson was shaking her head in disgust but Brenda caught a flicker of doubt in her eyes. She wondered if Billy knew his wife was here tonight. If he could see her now, what would he make of this bonding with the other side?

 

CHAPTER 4

Andy rubbed his eyes and groaned. His back ached from lying on his makeshift bed and, as usual, his mattress had provided little padding. A cockroach crept from beneath a blanket. He blearily watched it track its way along the edge of the bed. He shook the blanket and the cockroach dropped to the floor; it scuttled towards the skirting. Andy reached for one of his boots and brought it down hard. There was a satisfying crunch.

The old cotton mill was now his ‘home’. It was a temporary barracks, slap bang in the middle of the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankhill roads. Andy’s job was to keep the warring tribes apart. From the outside it looked like one of those tall, red-bricked buildings in a Lowry painting, belching smoke from its huge chimneys. But the chimneys of this mill no longer smoked and the building had been lying empty for years. Clattering spinning wheels and looms had been replaced with metal beds and the detritus of a hundred or more squaddies, all cramped together. Mess cans, packs, flak jackets, helmets and boots lay on the floor. A rifle was propped beside each bed. On the plastic chair that served as Andy’s bedside table he had placed an alarm clock, his watch and a picture of him and his wife smiling happily from their wedding car.

Andy grabbed his wash kit. His squad was on the first patrol of the day. He checked the rest of his men were awake and moving. Dave still snored loudly. 

            Andy kicked the metal frame of his bed. ‘Rise and shine,’ he bellowed. Dave didn’t stir. Andy kicked a bit harder. 

In the washroom they were passing around a newspaper. 

            ‘Take a look at the tits on that.’

A pretty girl, naked apart from a pair of scanty knickers, was cupping two enormous breasts and smiling brightly. 

            ‘I wouldn’t mind burying my face in those.’

            ‘A little runt like you?’ said Andy. ‘You’d suffocate if you could find a stepladder.’

Andy had only arrived and already he couldn’t wait to get out of the place. He could live with the grimy windows, mouldy walls, peeling paint, even the cockroaches. It was the smell of sweat and cold grease he found hardest to deal with. He breathed the rancid smell in, day and night. It seeped into his clothes and his bedding; it clung to his hair. No matter how hard he tried, he never felt he got rid of it.

After a quick scrub Andy dressed and headed to the canteen. ‘Taff’ was cooking breakfast.

            ‘One fried egg with that special burnt edge you do so well and two slices of bacon that have actually seen the pan, please.’

            ‘Sod off,’ replied Taff without looking up from the batch of fried bread he was tipping into a large aluminium serving tray. 

Andy proceeded to pile his plate with everything on offer. He poured a mug of strong tea, spooned in three sugars and took a large gulp. 

There was a space at a table in the far corner. A small, wiry-looking soldier was perched on the end of the bench. He shuffled up to make space for Andy. 

            ‘Cheers Smithy. How’s it going?’

The entire table burst out laughing at the enquiry.

            ‘He thought he’d drop in on the locals yesterday, Sir. Pay them a surprise visit,’ said one of the group.

            ‘Oh very fucking funny,’ replied Smithy.

More sniggers.

            ‘Fell through someone’s front door,’ continued the soldier. ‘Landed on his bony arse right in the middle of their hallway.’ 

Smithy had been out on patrol. He’d stopped for a quick breather.

            ‘I was squatting in a doorway and had my back pressed against the door. How was I to supposed to know it was on the latch?’

He’d fallen backwards and landed like an upturned turtle, gun flailing in the air.

            ‘They weren’t too happy to see me.’

There was another howl of laughter from the table. 

Andy swiped the last of the egg off his plate with a chunk of bread. He shook his head. ‘You twat.’

Back in his sleeping quarters he pulled on his flak jacket and slung his rifle over his shoulder. He wound his way down the dark, twisting stairs and clambered into one of the armoured vehicles. It was time to go to work. They were only a few hundred yards from the gate when the first brick ricocheted off the metal grille beside his head. 

 

       

 

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