“I’m hit mate.” Cuddles says, and I look round. He’s grinning, there’s a hole in his thigh that you could fit your thumb in. I gesture to the signaller, but he’s already on it. Chalky saw the muzzle flash and we send a blizzard of 7.62 millimetre rounds through the open window. Glass, wood and masonry fly. The tinkling sound the empty shell casings make as they bounce around our feet is actually quite pretty, like little brass raindrops. Passers by cower in doorways screaming. Cuddles tourniquets himself and joins in, still grinning at me. “I got fucking hit mate.” he laughs. Three men die and Cuddles gets a medal and a week off.
In Northern Ireland you never asked someone what religion they were, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, it was just rude. You asked people what football team they supported and if it was Rangers, you knew they were Protestant, if it was Celtic you knew they were Catholic. If it was Liverpool or Man U, you knew you were being told to fuck off and to stop asking personal questions.
We called it ‘the troubles’. We never called it a civil war but that is what it was.
We used to pass this sweet, little old lady’s house every time we went on patrol. It was a corner terrace. She had a Rangers flag in the window. “God bless you lads.” she would say from her doorstep. It was good to meet people who liked having us there, good not to be spat at and called names, good not to have things thrown at us.
One day we were locked down by a fire-fight further down the road, and I was crouched in her doorway in the rain, waiting for the ‘all clear’ “Would you like a sandwich dear?” she asked me.
“Thank you Ma’am,” I said, “that would be lovely. We may be here for some time.” The rain soaked through me, through my combats, through my soul, I hated Belfast. The sandwich was thick and bulging and the smell of ripe cheddar and pickle warmed me.
My corporal came screaming across the road and bashed it from my hand, just as I was about to take a bite, called me a fucking idiot and bitch slapped me. I watched the sandwich land in a puddle and spill open, watched the little blue pellets of rat poison roll from it into the gutter.