I don’t often talk about it, but Clara, my sister in law, had asked me, so it felt rude not to answer. I flipped over a beef burger on the barbeque and pressed it into the grill. As if the burger was my discomfort. I cleared my throat.
‘The first time Sam saved my life, it had been raining all afternoon and it hadn’t stopped all evening; typical Ulster winter weather.’ I was back there again.
I could feel the cold water seeping down my collar and between my shoulder blades. My fingers were numb and my arms ached, my rifle felt even heavier than normal. We were manning the checkpoint again. I hated this job, everyone was angry and frustrated. My team were angry and frustrated at doing the work, stopping every car and checking the drivers and passengers and the people we stopped were mostly angry and frustrated, that their time was being wasted, that their life was so controlled. A few were abusive.
Things had hotted up again in the last few days and consequently we had just been told to check every boot in every vehicle. We got abuse mostly for keeping people waiting, sometimes tempers could fray, but the team held it together well. There was only another ten minutes for us to do then it would be another unit’s turn; we’d be finished for the day. I couldn’t wait.
I waved the elderly couple in the Datsun on and beckoned the Cortina through.
‘Evening. Where have you been and where are you going please?’ There were two of them a middle aged man and a younger lad. They were wearing painters overalls.
‘What’s it to you,’ the man said. The passenger smirked.
‘Just doing my job. Where’ve you come from where are you going please?’ This time I got a grudging answer. ‘Can you open the boot please?’
I walked around the car as the passenger got out with the keys. He opened the boot, there was something a bit odd about him. Most of the people coming through had been quite quick to do it, wanting to get on with their evening, to get home to the warm. The lad seemed to be just a little slow, just a touch too hesitant in putting the key in the lock and popping the boot open.
As he opened the boot my sixth sense started to twitch. There was a faint smell of petrol and the boot had some things in it. They were covered in a picnic rug. Who covers the load in a boot of a car with a picnic rug, unless they have something to hide? They had said they were painters and decorators finished for the day and going home, but something just didn’t seem right.
Then I made my first mistake; well I was tired and wanting to finish quickly, I just wanted to see what was under the rug. I should have asked the man to move the rug, but I didn’t. I went to move it; big mistake.
‘Step back from the vehicle please and stand over there,’ I motioned towards the wall, I stopped looking at the man; another mistake. But I did whistle the others in the team. Everyone perked up a bit, hackles rising.
The man started to slowly step towards the wall. I thought it was probably nothing. Gingerly, I lifted a corner of the rug and held it a few inches up. Paint pots and brushes and decorating kit, but it just didn’t smell right. There was a strong waft of petrol.
I pulled at the rug it was stuck on something. I made my next big mistake; I leant into the boot. I pulled at the cover, it came up, there was a milk crate of bottles, a couple cans of petrol and a load of rags. All the gear needed to make Molotov cocktails. I shifted the crate to one side and spotted the rifle barrel.
As I moved to stand up all hell broke loose.
The lad was almost at my side with a hand gun. He was aiming it at me. I lifted my rifle to butt him with it, he was too close now to aim it at him. I stuck him with the butt, he staggered back, but not before he pulled the trigger and I got a bullet in the leg.
I fell to the ground. Perhaps it was the shock, as the bullet hit there was a sharp intense stab and then I felt no real pain. I could feel warm blood seeping from wound and running along my leg, just like I had wet myself.
The driver of the car, the man, had leapt from the car too. He was brandishing a gun and had got off a couple of shots, wildly aimed at nothing in particular. He had been brought down with a shot to the leg and another to the arm. He had dropped the weapon and was shouting, he’d been quickly over powered by two of the team.
Meanwhile the lad was still at my side and was raising his arm and aiming at me again. I was looking down the barrel of his pistol. It was all I could focus on, I felt calm, not panicked at all, but I was frozen with inaction. I couldn’t see anything else but the barrel. I was transfixed by it, it seemed huge, it was my whole focus, staring down its black emptiness, just waiting, waiting for what seemed like the inevitable; the end of my life. Knowing it was coming at any moment, I felt strangely calm, placid, at ease, my mind telling me there was nothing else for me to do just to accept it.
Then I heard it. A huge, loud; tap tap.
My focus shifted, watching the barrel fall away. My eyes moved along the lad’s arm, across his shoulder, to his face. I saw the two neat reddened holes in his forehead shortly before he fell backwards like a tree.
Then I felt it; a sudden, massive, intense burning pain in my leg, they were right it really did feel like a red hot poker had been thrust into my leg. The pain was immense, it swept through me like a huge wave, sapping all my strength, all my presence of mind. It was all I could do to look down at my trousers soaked with blood, my head spinning, not able to see Sam, but hearing him calling.
‘You all right Sir?’ Sam asked standing over me.
I passed out.