It wasn’t until we returned to camp that I found out why Knibbs had a profound loathing for milkmen. This hatred would lead us into trouble for which I, inevitably, would be solely responsible.
We’d been patrolling County Fermanagh for the past two months, with hardly any trouble from the local PIRA boys. Internal feuding had taken the heat off us, for the moment. We’d generally get into a helicopter and then be dropped off somewhere in the hills. From there it was simply a walk back to camp while completing tasks of varying complexity thought up by somebody who hadn’t set foot out of the base. On this particularly drizzly March morning we were to conduct a series of ‘Eagle VCPs’. This had an element of surprise, which other VCPs couldn’t muster, unless you hid in the roadside bushes.
A thumbs-up from me signalled to the door gunner – we were ready. The downward pressure from the rotor blades washed spray in the marshal’s direction as we ascended into the rain. I was bemused at how anyone could complain about the weather. The rich green land was literally teeming with oxygen.
“Facking rain! Ev’ry facking day!” Knibbs’ wide boy accent shrieked above the chopper’s thunderous engine and even coaxed a glance from the door gunner. “No wonder these bog-trotting fackers are so depressed! Keep yer facking island!”
I normally regard Knibbs with contempt. He doesn’t think before he opens that cockney mouth of his. He’s always complaining. Gives the Rifle Company a bad reputation. We’re not all like Knibbs; some of us read the newspapers from the front page onwards and not the back page first. I try to make a difference.
The other two are Hicks and Tommo. Hicks is from South Africa and a devout Nazi. Tommo is a ruthless nutcase from Glasgow; never made it beyond the rank of Lance Corporal despite his sixteen years in the Army. He’d joined the Army when I joined the Cubs, and had probably slept with more girls than he could remember. Tommo had no sense of fear or smell, and had a complete disregard for other peoples’ feelings. He enjoyed taunting Hicks about his white supremist beliefs, as well as his ginger hair. Together they were a powder keg ready to ignite.
With the helicopter doing ‘top gun’, we would operate on our own. The heli crew would scan for heat sources in the fading light and inform us of any approaching vehicles. I, being the team commander, would chat up the driver of the vehicle for information. I felt I was the only one competent or appropriate to conduct this task. Tommo and Hicks were at either end as cut off: far apart from each other and out of harm’s way. I didn’t know about Hicks’ family background, and that’s where our problems began.
We went about thirty minutes before being informed of our first approaching car.
“I bet it’s a facking white Volvo. Facking pikey bastards!”
The headlights were still on as I approached the vehicle. That usually denoted ‘attitude’. I was right; it was a car full of teenagers. Probably the driver’s first car, he was probably Catholic (that meant anti-British), and he wasn’t going to lose face in front of all his friends.
He looked around smugly at his friends before turning the stereo up. It was playing ‘Fuck the British Army’ by the Pogues.
“Can you turn that down?” I shouted, glancing at them through the window.
Tommo looked around and stood up. Dragging the caltrops, he laid them in front and across the rear of the vehicle. What was he up to?
“Keep them here for three hours,” he said.
I shrugged at the car’s nonplussed occupants. We have a card we present to the windscreen, which the driver is invited to read. It says ‘comply with British Forces or face arrest. Any complaints can be brought to your nearest PSNI station.’ I placed this card on to the windscreen.
Tommo pulled out a black permanent marker and looked at me before scrawling ‘Back in 3 hours’ on the back of the card. He then put it under the windscreen wiper, letting it twang against the window. Grinning, he turned and sat by his cut-off position.
After ten minutes the driver turned the music down and wound down the window.
“Aren’t you supposed to ask us some questions?”
Before I could open my mouth, Tommo snapped, “You can fucking wait there, you ignorant little cunt!”
“But we’ve got a party to go to,” the driver protested.
“You should have thought about that when you turned your fucking music up!”
“We ought to bring back internment for you low lives. Velt would be a better place without youse!” Hicks shouted.
A girl in the back seat of the Ford Escort began to sob. She was quite pretty despite her gross misuse of make-up. Looked more like an extra from Culture Club. The driver began to console her, a look of fear and concern beginning to grow on his face.
The problem with having a lunatic Scotsman and a Nazi is that they don’t know when to stop. I raised my hands to both Scotsman and South African and approached the car.
“Can you show me your driver’s license, please sir?” I asked, removing the card from his windscreen and letting the wiper twang again. Knibbs was at the rear of the car staring in, like some crazed baboon at a zoo. I looked at the offered license, which read:
Kieran McFadden, 21 Glebe View, McNulty Estate, Craigford, County Fermanagh.
“Whereabouts are you off to?” I asked.
His face had a primitive look, like the two of us were displaying acts of defiance. There was a basic primordial aspect to this. His show of masculinity in the face of adverse pressure from other tribes; his girlfriend wouldn’t forget this in a hurry.
“Back home.” He said it sheepishly, somewhat broken. Then I noticed why. Tommo was just over my shoulder, and there was genuine fear in the boy’s eyes.
“Not so fucking cocky now, are you? Eh?” hissed Tommo, his face a mask of anger.
“Tommo,” I said. “Please.”
He pulled the caltrops away from the front of the vehicle. It started and stalled, then kangarooed its way down the lane. I grimaced at the scraping sound Knibb’s rifle muzzle made as it gouged paint from the car’s bodywork. He gave me a look of pure innocence. “Won’t be seeing those fuckers again for a while,” he said.
The aircrew notified me of another vehicle, a slow moving van was approaching. This would be the last vehicle before we moved off. In the pale light of dawn I could make out the ghostly silhouette of the van. It whined its way smoothly to our position. It was a milk van; yogurts in the rear, lemonade, and milk next to the yogurts.
I couldn’t help but notice the pulse throbbing on Knibb’s forehead.
I greeted the milkman a bit too jubilantly. “Good morning! You’re probably the first milkman I’ve had the pleasure to stop.”
“Free fuckin’ milk,” Hicks murmured.
“Morning. What can I do you fellahs for?”
It was then that I noticed the milkman had a Yorkshire Terrier on the passenger seat. It stood on its hind legs, resting its paws on the dashboard, tongue lolling out. Breath creating rings of condensation on the windscreen. It looked like it had just run a long way.
Knibbs was a bit too quiet for my liking as he circled the milk float. “Do you knock twice?” he asked.
The bemused milkman looked at me as he handed his driving license over.
“Ever gone in for an extra cup of tea? When your shift is over and the kids are at school? Eh? When the husband’s at work?”
“Knibbs! What the fuck are you doing?” I’d had enough of this. This lot had been in a funny mood all week and it was culminating in this.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Knibbs said, presumably aiming his comment at me. “I facking hate milkmen!” A bottle of milk crashed onto the road as he squealed the word ‘milkmen’.
The Yorkshire Terrier made a sound like a cough and I could hear the beginnings of a growl at the back of its throat. The second crashing bottle spurred the little devil into action. I swear I could see cold anger in its eyes. It leapt from the seat, launching itself into the air. Landing with a scrape of claws, it found its balance and raced towards Knibbs. Knibbs was busy smashing his way through bottles of Dandelion and Burdock, more bottles of milk. His rifle swung left and right.
I gave the milkman, whose name I managed to get before he snapped the driving license out of my hand, a look of apology. He got into his float and stepped on the electricity.
“Fucking lunatics! I’m trying to run a business here!”
To Hicks’ delight (he had a manic smile on his face), Knibbs was trying to kick the Yorkshire Terrier from his trouser leg. The dog swung from his trousers by its teeth, its hind legs swinging in a perfect circle like they were a circus act.
I hastily called in the Lynx helicopter, which landed in the next field. We managed to collapse the VCP and board the aircraft.
We sat in the hub of the throbbing helicopter and looked at each other. I’d have words with Knibbs when we get back. Get him when he’s alone and find out what happened. I’m likely to get my balls chewed for this. Tommo pointed to Knibbs’ trouser leg.
Knibbs began to wipe furiously at the yoghurt stain from it. Cursing no doubt the pervayer of dairy products.
We were in the room stowing all our gear when Knibbs straightened and walked to the door. He had a rifle in his hand, the magazine still fitted. He held the rifle by the iron sight, thought about something, looked back at his rifle then put it down.
“Can I just clear something up?”
“Your little tirade at the check point, perhaps?” I mused, “I was going to get you alone.”
“Well I don’t give a fack really and this shit ain’t nice. You lot. Don’t say nothing to know one. Right,” He pointed a nicotine finger in our general direction.
“This gonna be fuckin’ long? Ave goat corry on in a minute,” Tommo interrupted with a degree of concern in his voice.
“My dad worked at a baker’s and he used to leave the house at half 4 in the morning,” Knibbs began to struggle and slowed down. I thought he was about to cry.
“I’ll cut this short for yer, shall I?” Tommo said.
“Aw Tommo. Let the bloke finish, will yer?” I asked Tommo.
“Naw. He’s havin’ problems gettin’ it oot. Am I right?” Tommo directed this to Knibbs. His silence answered the question. “Your Dad’s gone to work. You’ve gone on a paper round and come home to see your mommy being rattled by the Milkman. That’s why he takes a black tea and only has toast for brekkers. Tell me ahm wrong, wee man.”
Knibbs sat down and began to clean his rifle. It would seem a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders with the help of Tommo’s unorthodox Kilroy moment of truth.
We all began to clean our rifles.
“Tea anyone?” Hicks asked.
“Yeah. Get the fucking kettle oan ya radge.”