Slipping Between Worlds
Prologue: "Stroke City"(1). The Creggan. Sometime in the middle 1980's.
It was shaping up to be a complete and utter shithouse of a day. Under the sort of chill grey Northern Irish sky that was either raining or threatening rain, and which was the perfect complement of the cheap bleak council housing estate all around them, Lieutenant Holtack took an anxious glance up and down Creggan Heights.
We should be moving. The patrol route gives me the choice of north-east towards Rathmore Roundabout or right into Fanad Drive and back towards the old walled city again, down past Creggan Eastway. But these bloody idiots have stalled us.
Creggan Heights had been designed as an urban throughway, a wide road designed to speed traffic through and around the estate as quickly as was optimal. Unless you lived here or had business here, there was no incentive to linger. From Holtack's specialised point of view, his eight-man patrol, escorting two Royal Ulster Constabulary constables so they could fly the flag and make at least a semblance of policing the area, needed to linger for just long enough, taking care to keep moving and watching out all the time for anything with the potential of upsetting their day. Neither the RUC nor the British Army was popular on the west bank of the River Foyle.
And, sod's law, on this bleak and highly seasonable July day, they just had to run into trouble. Holtack turned round towards the broken-down coach that was the cause of the bother. One of the RUC men was still blocking egress from the coach, backed by three Toms who, stalwarts of the battalion rugby team, had formed a front-row of the scrum immediately behind him. The remainder of the patrol had taken what cover they could, which was minimal, and were watching the street. Sensibly, the locals were indoors, and were not adding petrol to the fire. Holtack mistrusted this. This could be to allow an ASU a better field of fire, and it could be getting into position right now.
"Keep near the coach." Holtack instructed his men, needlessly. He was putting his trust in the IRA's oft-repeated statement that it was not an organisation of sectarian killers. That it would not murder people indiscriminately only for being Protestant, despite grievous provocation by Loyalist paramilitaries bent on indiscriminate killing of Catholics regardless of their actions and associations.
Even if a sniper could bag a Brit, the high-velocity bullet would go straight through him and into a coach full of Prots, putting holes in more people before it emerged from the other side of the vehicle and, who knows, coming to rest in the house of the Catholic family over the way. . Which would be bad PR for PIRA. Holtack was betting they'd worked out the odds, and were refraining from combat. Which means the dangerous time for us is moving out.
And these Prots were the dangerous sort, nasty-minded redneck idiots coming into Stroke City from elsewhere in the Unionist hinterland to march and play in one of the Orange marches. They hadn't been able to resist the provocation of needlessly driving in the long way round, through the Catholic ghetto of the Creggan, so that they could sneer and sing and throw insults and worse out of the coach windows at hapless passers-by. This had backfired on them when their coach had broken down right in the middle of enemy turf, but the stupid bastards hadn't had the sense to keep their heads down and not draw attention to themselves. Even now, several flutes were trilling, a drum was beating, and they were on the Sash again. Holtack wondered exactly how much alcohol was in circulation on that coach.
"You cannot prevent us!" the fat man was bellowing, inches from the face of an RUC peeler. Holtack wondered at the patience of the RUC man. If that fat shit in the UDA t-shirt was spitting in his face like that…
He stepped forward.
"Frankly, this is starting to get out of hand." he remarked to the other RUC man. "I appreciate this is your patrol and it's up to you to police the situation, but we are here as your immediate back-up. I'm not happy my men are in an insanely exposed position and the longer it goes on, the more exposed we get. I ask, and bear in mind at present I'm only asking: do you require Army intervention here to enforce an arrest?"
Holtack looked directly at the Fat Man, who tried to hold his gaze but blinked away, in the face of a scowl that said "Pissed-Off Army Officer Running Out Of Patience."
The policeman shook his head.
"These are our people, Lieutenant. We know how to handle them. Please leave it up to us? And is there any sign at all of that relief coach yet?"
Holtack looked to his radio operator for a report.
"Base have rogered, sir. Replacement coach and recovery team on its way as soon as they can roust out somebody prepared to risk it on this side of the river."
"Keep the line open. Constable, do you want me to radio for back-up? Two of you aren't nearly enough. You need more men and a few snatch-rovers to book the arrestees"
The RUC man shook his head again.
"There's no question of arresting…"
"…your own kith and kin. I know."
In the background, a snide Welsh voice muttered
Just like London, ain't it? Down there the taxi drivers do not go south of the river. In Londonderry, aye, they do not dare go west of the river."
Fusilier Pegden. It had to be. But he'd voiced a local condition, an unwritten law: in East Derry, the taxi and coach firms were all Protestant-owned, In the West, they were all Catholic firms. While a certain amount of mixing happened in the city centre, none dared cross to the opposite side for fear of paramilitaries.
It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
At least they're singing the official words, Holtack thought. But give 'em a chance and a few more beers and it'll be the other set of lyrics, the even more inflammatory ones. God knows, in this place and time that tune is inflammatory enough!
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.
Born in Wales, Phillip Holtack had attended a boarding school in Cheshire, just on the other side of the border and near enough to his family home in Denbighshire to make commuting easy, The school had an arrangement with the local professional football club that allowed its pupils discounted tickets for home games. Holtack had loved the match-day atmosphere at Edgeley Park, and his Saturday morning classes had dragged interminably on a match day, waiting for the moment when he could join the blue-and-white throng on Castle Street and Edgeley Road. He recalled that Stockport County, a club that had evolved from a Saturday side organised by a strict-rule noncomformist church, had adapted The Sash as its club anthem. Although he had been too young to see the deeper implications, its Firm of soccer hooligans had called themselves the Edgeley Volunteer Force after the Northern Irish paramilitaries.
It's forever being beautiful,
And the colour's white and blue,
I wore it proudly 'round my neck,
At Chesterfield & Crewe,
My father was a County fan,
Like me grandfather before,
And at Edgeley Park I love to wear,
The scarf me father wore.
"Sir?" Sergeant Williams asked, wondering. With a guilty start, Holtack realised he'd been humming the last few lines out loud.
"Funny thing, sergeant." Holtack said, recovering himself. If you'd asked the average County fan why he was singing a version of a sectarian Irish song, he'd have shrugged in perplexity. Despite appearances, outside the foully right-wing thugs of the EDF, it was not a sectarian football club, in the Glasgow Rangers sense.
"At home, that's only a football chant."
"Shame about here, sir!" the sergeant said, darkly. "Oh-oh. That fat -'s kicking off again."
"And I say again! We are free citizens of Ulster! You cannot prevent us!"
"Keep them on the coach!" yelled Holtack. His front-row forwards were a useful asset. If he needed power, strength and speed to blitz a bunch of rioters, banjo their way through and snatch an errant stroppy Mick, they were his men.
Stepping around and isolating the fat man, who Holtack noted with disgust had been allowed to leave the coach and who was now on the road remonstrating with the two policemen, the snatch-squad used their rifles, held level across their chests, as a physical inducement to the rest to back up and get back aboard. He noticed one of the spilling Micks trying to grab Fusiler Powell's rifle and to use it as a level to wrestle him. There was a sickening, gunshot-like crack, and the hapless Irishman fell back onto those behind him.
Bad move. Powell always was a master of the head-butt. Good, they're carrying him back on. Ok. Events have now placed the Army in charge to back up failing and ineffectual civilian authority. Good. Maybe we can wrap this one up.
Holtack stepped up to the Fat Man, holding his own rifle in an unthreatening muzzle-down position. He ignored the two policemen, who as far as he was concerned had had their chance and muffed it.
"Right. We're getting you a replacement coach so you can carry on your journey uninterrupted and unimpeded. My men are looking to your safety. What exactly do you want?"
The fat man – Holtack noted, with distaste, his arms were full of UDA and Loyalist tattoos – calmed down from what had been a default Paisely-like shout.
"I told you. We want to get off this coach as it's going nowhere. We want to form up as a band and supporters with our instruments and march from here to Diamond Square."
Holtack locked eyes with him, ignoring a Welsh voice that said, incredulously, are these people bloody stupid? Ignorant as well as plain nasty?
"Assuming I were to allow that, which I wouldn't, how far do you think you'd get? "
"Five to one says the corner of Fanad and Creggan Broadway…"
"You reckon, boyo? I'd say some of them get as far as Lecky Street and Rossville..."
"We are marching! No bloody peeler and certainly no Taig or Fenian is going to stop us/ The Fenians wouldn't have the guts!"
"I'm not bloody well escorting you! Which gives me a dilemma. I'm here to provide protection to the civilian police, who almost certainly would escort you even though they are prime targets. . My men also have a duty to dampen down any breach of the peace that happens in our patrol area. You are a bloody big breach of the peace and have been since your coach broke down here. And you are threatening what I see as my most basic duty of all, which is to get my men back to barracks with minimal casualties! I've had a gutful of you, your posing, and your antics! You just do not seem to realise or care what sort of danger you have placed my men in! So I suggest you get back on that fucking coach NOW or WE will start making arrests!"
"You can get out of my way, soldier boy…"
Holtack nodded as the fat man pushed him in the chest with an emphatic finger. Against his flak jacket, he hardly felt it.
"You both saw that, constables? Sergeant Williams? Good."
Holtack braced himself against a full-palm thrust.
"You leave me no alternative, sir." He said, raising his rifle, stepping back, and then stabbing the muzzle viciously forwards.
He felt the shock as it sank a good six inches into the fat man's gut, causing his eyes to widen and breath to be expelled in one pained gush as he doubled up and fell forwards. The front row stepped up behind to back up their officer.
"Now". said Holtack, to a suddenly silent and watchful coachload of UDA bandsmen.. "I do not expect to have to repeat myself. Get. Back. On. Board. That. Fucking. Coach! And wait!"
He turned and walked away.
"Well done, sir!" Sergeant Williams said. "We'd better get our reports straight when we get back to barracks. I'll make sure the men all saw that bugger take a slap at you, in case he sues for assault."
"And if I can advise, sir. Best get the duty armourer to check your rifle muzzle's still in true after that whack. Otherwise you still won't be able to hit the city wall from ten feet away!"
"Thank you for the vote of confidence in my shooting, sergeant."
"A pleasure, sir!"
Holtack grinned. Sergeant Williams, a fifteen year veteran, had been his platoon sergeant ever since he had arrived, green and anxious, to command Seven Platoon a year before. He was allowed a few liberties at his officer's expense.
Holtack adopted a defensive crouch and watched the street, hoping nobody watching had identified him as the officer in command. He heard the sound of the relief convoy turning up – a coach and a breakdown lorry escorted by a Saracen and a couple of armoured Landrovers.
He looked the other way and saw he first pedestrian in maybe half an hour. It was the old bag lady he'd seen aimlessly mooching around town, dressed in shabby black, pushing a wonky old supermarket trolley piled with black bin bags. He'd seen her in all the districts they'd patrolled: the city centre and Diamond Square, the Catholic Bogside, and the Prot Waterside.
Tramps and bag ladies get everywhere, he reasoned. They're beneath notice.
He'd also heard, from the Marines they'd inherited the patrol area from, that it wasn't worth anyone's while trying to search her down. The Marines had been concerned that she was being used to smuggle things around, the paramilitaries reasoning that fastidious soldiers of both sexes would shudder at searching a long-time bag lady. But she can't half move. Ignores all orders to stop, the lads, quite rightly, don't want to shoot and have an old lady on their conscience – a propaganda gift to the Provos, in this city(2) - and the only time a patrol got close enough to even contemplate searching that trolley, this bloody wildcat leapt out hissing and spitting from somewhere, went off like a car-bomp packed full of nails, and ripped a hole in Marine Goodier's face. While the patrol was concerned with Goodier, she disappeared. So just treat her like a bag-lady. I doubt she's much use to anyone. Her brain's scrambled, for one thing. Kept going on about millennium, hand and shrimp.
Holtack's section spent just long enough to see the bandsmen transferred to a new coach, his men forming a tight-lipped cordon, allowing them to pass in ones and twos at a time, waiting for trouble they could deal with. Then in the circumstances, they were lifted out in the Saracen, to be set down to resume their patrol on Creggan Road, near Brooke Park. Again, Holtack wondered about the little old bag lady with the wonky shopping trolley. She'll be okay. One positive thing about the Irish as that they tend to respect the elderly. The last yobbo who tried to mug a granny for her pension got turned over to the IRA for remedial knee surgery. And my Toms applauded that. Sergeant Williams was doing a night patrol when that little thug got kneecapped. His patrol reports were all suspiciously alike the next day – they heard the screams, proceeded to the area, found the injured youth, called up a blood-wagon to take him to Altnagelvin. No sign of the perps. I wonder what else went on? Eight Toms are concealing something there. But I'm only their officer, after all.
Paddy Meehan's bar served all sorts. Paddy was a kindly man, and saw part of his Christian duty as succouring those less fortunate than himself. He didn't know where the old woman had come from, but sure, he made sure she got a half-pint of Guinness and a leftover pie and chips from lunch service.
Her mind's half gone, poor old crone, and she sounds more English than Irish, but we've never been at war with their old ladies who are down on their luck.
Besides, a part of his Irish soul, that went far deeper that St Patrick and St Columb had ever reached, was sending up insistent ancestral memories that it was bad luck to offend a crone, regardless of her nationality. Better to send her on her way, with her inclined to give a blessing on the house.
She was happy to sit in the beer-garden out back, eat her pie and chips, mumble happily to herself…. And to feed that ugly scraggy three-legged moggy the odd chip, would you believe?
He looked at the assortment of small coin she had pressed upon him. Some recognisably British crown, but the rest foreign. One or two were odd: they showed the profile of a hawk-nosed thin man with a goatee beard. The letters were fogged from use, but he could make out "one penny" or "six pennies", and half-read a name. "Vet….ari? A-n-M-rk?"
Ah well, they'd go in the pot with foreign coins from people's holidays, all the pesetas and lira, and the ones who wilfully misunderstood and held British money to be foreign coin… Paddy dealt in both Irish and British currency, as on the border both were legal tender, and he'd seen his share of the world's foreign currency, but these defeated him. He shrugged. He'd done his duty by the old woman, anyway.
Outside in the small beergarden, Mrs Tachyon fed Guilty another chip. It was glopped down in two bites.
"What do you reckon, Guilty? We go to the place where they eat rat and put it into pies? Millenium, hand and shrimp! We might see Ron again, and his talking dog!"
She smiled. Such a nice country, Ireland, and lovely people. Despite the Troubles.
1 (1) London/Derry, depending on which side of the river Foyle you're on. . Hence to generations of British service personnel, "Stroke City". The Creggan - from the Gaelic for "a rocky place" - is a Catholic overspill housing estate in its western region.
(2) Bloody Sunday in 1971 saw the Parachute Regiment panic, lose control, and fire wildly at largely unarmed civilian protesters. This piece of madness had far-reaching repercussions for the British Army in Northern Ireland. In its essentials, all junior officers ever after were taught that if they ever fucked it up as badly as the Paras did and lost control of their men to that extent, then put yourself under close arrest afterwards and expect a court-martial. The day caused so much bad feeling that in itself it may have contributed to the whole mess dragging on even into the early 2000's with occassional flare-ups even today.
I am writing about London/Derry as I knew it in the 1980's. I am aware things have changed a lot since, the sangars and sandbags have gone, the place has been pruced up, and it actually looks like a lovely place to visit. I would like to go back there one day, but un-armed, this time.