Sing like you know the w.., p.12

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 12

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  He marched in and straight up to the table. Billy stood up, probably intending to greet him. Ray stepped in really close, hopefully so close that no one would see his right arm extended a little as if to shake. Instead he made a clenched fist and drove it, pivoting at the elbow, up past Billy’s chin and into the underside of his nose.

  It was not such a powerful blow but it caused shock. Billy staggered and Ray put an arm round his shoulder pulling him on and unobtrusively planting his knee into the inviting target of the man’s undefended groin.

  -Whoah there, Bill, looks like you’ve had more than enough for one evening, he said in a loud, cheerful voice; let’s walk outside a little and get your head clear.

  Whether anyone was fooled there was no time to judge. Speed was half of the battle. No one stopped them as Ray walked Billy down the side street, towards the car that had been tailing him. He noticed that the driver’s body lay as he’d he left it. Good. He punched Billy a few more times in the kidneys and pulled the man’s overcoat down around his arms: that would make it more difficult for him to move, but still, mustn’t forget he’s a dangerous one. Next he opened the passenger door and shoved Billy in.

  -Look at this, your man has left the keys in. Very obliging of him. I suppose you have people looking out for my car, so we’ll leave it here for now. If I don´t collect it in the morning, your boys can keep whatever the street rats leave of it

  Billy wasn’t saying anything. Hawkins showed him the gun.

  He made the drive as short as possible to a place that he thought was outside of hostile territory and deserted, and then it was time to talk.

  -Tell me the story Billy. There’s something badly wrong here. I make a friendly offer to sell you all that stuff you say you need. No rubbish. Armalites, nine millimetres and plenty of rounds. But then you arrange the meet in a place where we could never make the trade and it turns out you’ve got someone waiting outside for me. And I find out he’s carrying this crappy pistol, with a cheap looking silencer on it. I was forced to assume that your intentions were not friendly.

  -You’re no arms dealer, Captain whatever your name is, you’re a fucking para.

  -You could be right, though this arms dealing seems like easy work when you get into it. Maybe I should give it a try. Learning on the job is the best way to start, they say. I’m not Captain anybody though. They don’t send commissioned officers to deal with low level scum like you. I’m only a sergeant. And tell you what, I volunteered for this as well. Can you believe it? What could I have been thinking of?

  -We know all about you

  -So I’m not as clever as I thought. But here I am and there you are, and what does that make you? Anyway I’ll be out of this shit tip in a few weeks, I’ve done my time

  -You won’t ever have done your time as far as I’m concerned.

  -Rash words. And by the way Billy, I know your real name. Couldn’t you have chosen an alias that was less orange?

  -You’ll be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your sad life mister

  -Well I’ll not be looking for you at least

  He shot the man in the spine, then dragged him out of the car and put two more in the head. Orders were to observe only, and if appropriate to detain for questioning, but so far as Hawkins could see this was a war, which meant that they weren’t orders so much as guidelines. By all accounts most of the loyalists hated Billy as much as the Provos did, and with reason, so it was not likely he’d be missed, and fortunately the weapon couldn’t be traced back to Ray.

  All in all, a good night’s work, except that now he had to dump the car and take the long walk home, in the freezing cold through the watery bloody snow.

  ***

  Just before the war got properly started, Matthew got a call to meet Tim after work. They hadn’t spoken for a while, but he knew that Tim’s life was chaotic as always. He was finished with the service, but since escaping the army he’d been in no hurry to start anything else. Tim’s excuse was that he didn’t want to end up like his dad, who’d moved the whole family away from their home in Wales to work for a Manchester firm. His father had been fifteen years in the company before they made him redundant. Now he was on the dole, without a chance of a decent job, living in a place where he had no roots.

  Tim never said much about it, but they knew that the father had suffered some kind of breakdown and found it difficult to set foot outside the house. Tim blamed it on the family uprooting, but so far as Matthew could see it was Tim himself who was most in need of ties. At some point in his teens he had become a patriotic Welshman, though he’d only set foot in the principality on day trips to Llandudno. He seemed to think that if it were not for the family moving house, he would have been living in an imagined Celtic paradise where everyone was his friend and all his weekends would be spent singing his heart out at Cardiff Arms Park, drinking and complaining about the English. It was a dream of home that could only be sustained by permanent exile.

  Tim had been drinking before Matthew arrived. He had kept his army haircut, which made him look more aggressive than at college: a loud little man with a big nose and short hair. People who didn’t know him, and some who did, tended to keep their distance.

  -You took your time.

  -Some of us have to work for a living.

  -But not you, you’re a journalist. That means you live in a pub, right?

  Matthew let it pass.

  -Is tonight a big night or an ordinary night? He asked.

  -Big night.

  -What are we celebrating?

  -I got my call up today. Back to join my mates in the Welsh Guards boyo.

  -Don’t boyo me, you Manc Taff. What are you talking about?

  -There’s going to be a war, haven’t you heard?

  -You mean the Malvinas?

  -I mean the bloody Falkland Islands. One of Her Majesty’s territories isn’t it? Don’t give me Malvinas.

  -Well you talk as if Wales was an occupied country, so I’m surprised to hear that your sympathies are with the Empire. Anyway, what has it got to do with you? You’re finished with all that.

  -Reservist mate, they don’t let you off that easy. They can still call on us when the country has need. Like bloody King Arthur in his tomb we are. Get me a pint, heroes don’t buy their own.

  But Matthew had become serious.

  -Tim, they can’t make you go. I mean you can’t go.

  -Now I don’t understand you.

  -This war, if it happens. It won’t happen, it’s too stupid. But if it does: there’s no justification for it. You know those Argentine generals just want to fight someone to divert attention from the mess they made of their country. And Maggie Thatcher wants war for the same reason. It would be, well, immoral. And there’s nothing there but some sheep and a few crazy farmers who don’t want to learn Spanish. It’s just some rock off the coast of South America, thousands of miles away from us.

  -The Argentines want the islands badly enough.

  -Well let them have them, if they feel so strongly. It’s not a war for that: it’s only to keep a conservative government in office, all wrapped up in the Union Jack like Winston bloody Churchill.

  Tim at least heard him out without interruption.

  -I don’t know about any of that, but even if you were right, it wouldn’t make any difference. I’m still a soldier. You don’t ask questions like that and you don’t let your mates down. What do you want me to do - give them a call and say sorry lads; I’m sitting this one out? My mate says this war is no good, but I’ll be with you for the next one provided it’s one we approve of. It’s like any time when someone gives you an order; if you stop to argue about whether it’s the right one, somebody gets killed. A soldier has to do what the next man up the chain tells him, or everything falls apart.

  -You’re no soldier Tim. You’ve said as much yourself. That’s not your nature. It’s killing or being killed, not some game. It might be you who gets killed, have you thought about that?

&n
bsp; -I might be killed crossing the road when I leave this pub. I might die of thirst before you buy me another bloody pint. Anything could happen. And I’m a soldier. I’ve got a gun and a uniform like the others. What do you think is the nature of most of them?

  There was no point arguing so they drank themselves stupid instead. The next day Matthew went down to the station to see Tim off. He was wearing uniform, though he said that some little tosser would probably spit at it or say something that was out of order. Bring it on, he said. He didn’t look as hung over as Matthew felt, but neither of them had much to say. If David had been there he would have found the right words, but as he was in London working on some deal there were just the two of them together with the awkward silences that each hoped the other understood.

  Matthew was upset for days afterwards. He couldn’t even explain to David why it had all hit him so hard, and that inability gave him a superstitious dread that something bad was going to happen. He couldn’t even express his thoughts, as if for fear that to do so might make them come true.

  His consolation was the unreality of it all. Matthew couldn’t believe that at this stage in history, the end of the twentieth century, two civilised countries would make war on each other over something as trivial as who had the biggest flag. Certainly the crisis would to come to nothing. There would be a few weeks of nationalistic posturing with negotiations going on quietly behind the scenes, and then a peaceful resolution that pleased no-one. But even so, in the part of him that was not amenable to such reason, the sense of dread remained.

  ***

  Tim remembered the next few weeks as mostly boring: stuck on a boat all that time; moving, but really in the same place, and with the same people. It was incredible that people paid to go on holidays like this, though they would have a bit more room, probably. All the panic to get ready before they sailed; and then it was such a long way and nothing to do in the meantime. The on-board conditions were cramped and there was no privacy, but he was with his mates so he didn´t mind that too much. Worse was that there was plenty of time to spend wondering why he was there at all.

  They all heard enough of what was going on in the world to know that the make believe war was drifting towards a real conflict. The talking was going nowhere, and all the while, slowly but inexorably, they were getting closer to the physical point of no return, where talking stopped and the momentum of events would take over. It seemed to Tim like a strange nightmare, a battle of wills between two equally petulant children. Neither had anything to gain, but both were unwilling to lose face. The men told each other that there was some undeclared reason why a piece of rock in the South Atlantic might be worth them dying for. Oil reserves or something as valuable must lie in the territorial waters. But regardless of the reason, if you believed them, the men could not wait to see action. It was a stupid eagerness but Tim was not immune to it, though he was one of those who argued that a peaceful outcome to the mission was most likely. Now that the Argentines had seen their bluff called they would back down.

  -We’re like the Grand Old Duke of York and his men, he said. We march up to the top of the hill and we march back down again. By the time we get there, the politicians will have sorted it out.

  -Better for us, said one of the other junior officers. I don’t mind marching back when it could be a bloody long drop down the other side of the hill.

  But whatever they said between themselves, when Tim thought about the size of the deployment that they had only glimpsed when leaving England and what it must have cost, he couldn’t see how they could be recalled without a fight. The nearer they came to their destination, the further away a peaceful outcome seemed.

  Who knew what the other officers were thinking, behind all the smiles? Most of them seemed to be as desperate as the men to see action. Tim supposed that it was from all the time they had spent training, never expecting to do the job for real, and now it didn’t seem so childish or like they were only pretending. All of them, himself included, got excited thinking and talking about it. Matthew and David would have laughed out loud if they could hear some of the things he had said.

  If it´s a phony war, he thought, then I suppose we can brag and boast all we like: and if it´s not then we´ll find out soon enough. But still I look around this ship and I know I don’t really belong. I’ve done the training, but I´m here on false pretences. It was only the money I wanted, not to be a soldier. I suppose I shall do my duty, but will it show? Calm down. Just keep steady and don’t let anyone down.

  But then again, he noticed that most of them, even the shouters and brawlers, had some quiet moments, just sitting on their own; or as near as you could be to on your own in this floating sardine can. You noticed it more the further south they sailed.

  That was the real problem on a boat: too much time to think.

  ***

  While the task force maintained its steady progress towards the islands, further to the south, the cruiser ARA General Belgrano (formerly USS Phoenix) accompanied by two destroyers, was making way easily on a calm sea at a good rate of knots. The light winds offered no cause for concern, although the forecast threatened deteriorating weather by close of day.

  In other times it would be a joy to be at sea on a day like today, but now Captain Bonzo’s thoughts were fixed on the action that they seemed certain to face soon; even though he knew that, for the moment he was out of range of the British aircraft carrier. He had no suspicion that a British submarine had been shadowing them for the last three days, but he was painfully aware at all times that his ship was in a theatre of war. A threat could come unexpectedly from any direction.

  -It’s always the same. The generals send us to be killed, and afterwards no-one can remember why.

  He knew that some of his officers were frustrated by the futility of it. Of course the other ranks were full of enthusiasm, as they should be; and none of his officers would dream of discussing their doubts, even between themselves. The Captain was confident that they would all do their duty whatever happened; even the new young men. You could see it in their eyes: this was their ship, and they loved her as sailors must.

  However, a captain must not let his love of ship blind him. He must be aware of her weaknesses too. She was old and she was vulnerable: he was particularly concerned about attacks from the air. Without those Sea Cat missile launchers they would be sitting ducks for aircraft. He only hoped that they lived up to the promises of the Englishmen who sold them to his government. The helicopters must be kept operational too: much depended on that.

  Still, she was a lucky ship. The Japanese had not managed to wound her at Pearl Harbour, and she had the reputation of being unsinkable: a reputation that would more than probably be put to the test.

  He was aware of all kinds of talk aboard ship; rumours flying at every level. Everyone was nervous: it was normal. The British would back down: they were afraid to fight and not prepared to risk their ships. The Americans would insist on a negotiation. Some of the junior officers believed that the navy’s ships would not be attacked if they remained outside the imaginary exclusion zone that some British admiral had drawn on a map: as if war was a game, like soccer, that you played within the context of a marked out field. All kinds of nonsense, and everyone willing themselves to believe what suited their mood at the time.

  A captain could smile at such talk, within limits. There was always talk on a ship and mostly it was harmless. He kept his orders to himself; and in any case they did not reveal so much as he might expect; but he did not believe that any navy in the world would send so many ships on such a voyage only to make a show. No more than he believed that his generals would admit that they had made a serious miscalculation and abandon the reoccupation of the islands.

  These islands that were only of interest to a few sheep farmers. It was the fault of the politician, Peron. Years ago, everyone had forgotten about the Malvinas before he revived the stupidity. Anything to get the people excited and to present himself as the spirit
of the nation. That was the problem with elections; politicians talked all kinds of dangerous rubbish and afterwards they couldn’t wash it off their hands. The generals should have quietly dropped the nonsense as soon as they were rid of him. No-one doubted that the islands were Argentine, and eventually they would be recovered, but the recent strategy had been mistaken. The British would probably have preferred to be free of the islands, if a handover could be achieved without loss of face, but they would never accept this slap in the face of an invasion.

  So there would be a war, only for honour, over land that no-one cared about, and yet there is no honour in a war that is fought without good reason.

  At least the British would be far from home, and the plan, so far as the Captain could guess it from his orders, was not a bad one. His ships were to patrol the area to the south: Groups 79.1 and 79.4 would hold position to the north. The British force would have to sail between them to reach the islands, and when they did his fleet would have its chance. Much depended on them coming within range of the air force before they were engaged, and the weather would play its part.

  For now the sea was kind. The men knew their work, and the cruiser made way with a quiet efficiency that was satisfying to her captain. If there was tension on board, it was good that the crew should feel tense, so long as it did not wear them out. It was important to keep up the drills and the discipline this close to the action. If the engagement came, the men must react as if it were no different to their training, thinking of what they were expected to do, not of what might happen to them.

  He felt an impact.

  -What was that?

  -Torpedo Capitan, port bow

  -Damage report, quickly.

  Already men were running to react to the situation. If there was a fire, if the magazines caught: well, it would be the end.

 
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