A Scottish Soldier Foresees His Death by Frankie Gault
Frankie Gault’s version of the WB Yeats poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ (contains swearing)
Ah wis nineteen when ah joined the British Army. It wis the first time ah had made a decision for, aboot, and by masel. In the late seventies, a hectic housing scheme in the West of Scotland didny appear tae offer an obvious escape route. Yer career choices were the factories, the shipyards or Borstal. By the time ah wis eighteen, ah had done the shipyerds an the exercise yerds, so aw ah needed wis the factories an that wis the set.
Further education wis jist like it said, further. When too many of yer teachers tell ye yer only fit for pushin a shovel, and even the decent teachers look as if they couldny give a fuck, well, whit chance have you got? Thick as a Brick, as a man once said. It‘s always the wrong choice when the easiest option becomes the most attractive. Ye begin tae get lazy and then ye stop askin why.
I saw this advert on the tv aboot three guys in a Tank. They wake up in the middle of this forest somewhere. The early bird lights this wee stove, cracks a few eggs and gets the pan dancin jist as the other lads wake up. Ah thought, superb it’s jist like goin campin, a wage as well, fuckin brilliant. Of course, the reality wis all too fuckin different. Ye only needed tae look at a paper, or listen tae the news. Then again, who gives a fuck fir the news when yer nineteen?
Ye can imagine how ma bold plan went doon wae ma folks. They all advised against it, especially ma Da, he had seen a bit in Borneo in the sixties. It was ma Granda though, that made me think about it the most. He pulled me aside and said to me;
‘Ye know where they’ll send ye son, don’t ye? Aye, that’s right Northern Ireland. Belfast probably. Don’t gie me that old spiel about learning computers and skiing, aw that shite. You’re jist cannon fodder son, that’s all, cannon fodder.’
Of course, ah wisny listenin. No when you’re ma age. It wis hard tae trust anybody over the age of twenty five, even yer family. Aw ah did wis listen tae ma mates an follow ma dick. Didny get much joy wae that either, sadly. We hung aboot the power station. It wis an old electricity sub-station but it was in the middle of the scheme, trees and rocks roon aboot it. The bizzies never bothered ye much. Perfect fir a carry-oot before hittin the boozer or whatever crap disco wis happenin.
Yer whit? Ye aff yer fuckin heid? Tell us aw yer jokin, will ye?
Naw, ahm serious guys, ahm gonny join, fuck it, whit else is there?
Ah looked at Alison when ah spoke, suppose ah wis lookin for some kind of reaction. It wisny long in comin.
Jamesie’s right, she said, yer aff yer nut.
She took a drink from a can and shifted slightly closer to Jamesie. I looked at Joe, he didny say anything for a minnit but then that wis what he always did. Eventually he shook his heid and said;
Fuckin hell. Noo, this scheme isny exactly a shinin example of late twentieth century urban plannin, and sometimes it seems like a fuckin open-air asylum, bit yer no gonny get yer baws blew aff, so why pit yersel in the position where ye might?
Senga nodded sympathetically bit it wis Alison’s sympathy ah really wanted.
Mibbe ye’ll get sent tae Cyprus, somewhere nice an warm eh? As long as ye come hame carrying yer bag, instead of a bag carrying you.
Naebody laughed and we carried on drinkin, but naebody begged me not tae go either. So, in a matter of weeks, I found masel inside Penicuik Barracks, learning how tae kill people.
As the first couple of months flew by ah began tae get this weird feelin. as if me joinin the Army had begun a chain of events that wid end badly. Ah shrugged it aff. Fact is I knew I didny have tae go through wae it. That wis a bit harder tae get ma heid roon. When I got sent tae Borstal it wis for breakin the law, nae arguin aboot it. Yer in, until they let ye oot, bit here, well, ah wis a volunteer
Basic Training reminded me of Borstal though, I remember wan day getting ready for a Barracks inspection. As we folded and laid our kit oot, I stopped and looked roon at oor ragged bunch. I couldny help but think back to Polmont. Ye spent the first six weeks in the Allocation Centre, or Ally Cally as it wis known. The dormitory inspections were fuckin forensic, wan wee speck of dust mibbe mean no gettin tae see Top of the Pops. An how the fuck can ye have a wank if ye don’t see Top of the Pops?
Then there wis these classes as well. Ye had to answer loads of questions which were meant tae gie the authorities a clue tae whit sort of a guy you were. These were called IPAT tests. Intelligence, Personality and Ability Test. Ah called them cowpat tests, as they were a pile of shite. Here’s a wee example: You have the choice of listening to either of these two pieces of music. One is a violin solo, the other is a marching band. Now, which do you choose?
How obvious is that, aggressive music or calm music? When ah pointed this oot tae the screw cum teacher and said ah wisny fussed aboot either, he said ‘Pick wan and answer it or I’ll batter fuck oot ye.’
Nae prizes fir guessing whit his choice wid have been. It was in these classes that ye found oot some of the lads were married with a wee wean or two. But some of the other boys were barely sixteen and some could hardly read or write.
Standing in the Barracks dormitory, I thought that the similarities were strong. Absent mindedly, I almost asked a lad what he was in for. Stopping myself in time I laughed, and put the year in Borstal tae the back of ma mind.
Ah began tae think more aboot death. Ah wis gettin taught the different ways tae end a life. Ah had already decided ah didny hate anybody and had no intention of killing a single person. Although ah knew that ivry situation wis different an that ah may have nae choice aboot it at least ah wanted to be a good soldier to the lads roon me.
Sometimes, lyin awake at night, ah wid wonder why ah joined up. Ah wis never very patriotic. Ah neither loved my country nor hated anybody else’s, and yet here ah wis.
Basic Training had hardly finished and we were all talking about Cyprus and Germany when they told us we were goin tae Belfast. Naebody said a word. Then ah thought about the television advert. The tank away oot in the middle of the forest, the lads wakening up on a clear Autumn mornin, the spit and snarl of a panful of eggs, the silent camaraderie, the computers an the skis. That looked such a long, long way away now. Ah looked at the boy soldiers roon aboot me. Ah could only see blank looks. Ah wondered whit they saw in mine.
It seemed as if Belfast wis on fire, there were bombings and shootings aw the time. A civil war looked tae be on the cards. The sound of a helicopter wis constant during daylight hours. If the fog wis low on Black Mountain ye widny see it, bit ye wid hear it though, a tumult in the clouds.
Oor unit wis lucky and as we were almost at the end of oor tour ah realised ah hidny fired ma rifle in nearly four months. Ah didny speak tae the locals, ah knew they thought we were an occupying army rather than a peace-keeping force. Most of them ignored us, some were openly hostile.
From time tae time ah wid see this girl in the area. From a distance she looked gorgeous, ah wanted tae get closer. Wan day we were on foot patrol ootside the shops on the Andersonstown Road when she got oot from a black cab at Casement Park. She ran across the road and went in tae a chemist. Ah made sure ah wis ootside the door. She came back oot an ran intae me an drapped her bag. Ah picked it up and handed it tae her. She grabbed it and stared right at me.
‘Get out of my way ye Brit bastard, out of my way, out of my town and out of my Country.’
As she spoke, her skin glowed with anger, her brown eyes and brown hair blowing across her face had me mesmerised. I had to catch my breath. I heard an English accent from my patrol and turned roon.
‘Forget her mate she’s just a rabid dog, a rabid Fenian dog. And you know what we do to rabid dogs mate.’
When ah turned back she wis gone.
Two days later we’re on foot patrol near Andersonstown Barracks. The barracks lie at the end of the Falls Road, the road forks at this point becoming Andersonstown Road and Glen Road. As we walked along we could see a couple of men at a bus stop. They looked drunk and began tae throw punches at each other as we arrived. Normally we wid have ignored them or wid have had a quick word, but we tried tae separate them. Wan of the lads said;
‘C’mon guys, the Rumble in the Jungle wis last year. Whit’s this, the Fall-Out in the Falls.’
While we laughed at this ah felt a punch on ma chest and ah staggered back an sat doon. Another shot hit me on the leg and ah lay back. Ah could hear ma mates screamin, firin wildly in the direction they thought the shots came from. Ahm ootside the barracks surely ahll be alright. Every noise seemed really loud. Ah raised masel ontae ma elbows an tried tae focus ma eyes. Across the street at the bottom of Glen Road there wis a bus garage and beside it a bar called McEnaneys. Ah thought the shots came from there.
Ma leg felt on fire and ah could hear a gurgling sound in ma chest cavity. Ah knew ah wid probably drown. At the gable end of a terraced hoose ah saw a glint in the sun. I narrowed ma eyes, squeezing them almost shut tryin tae see the sniper. Ah could see the rifle as it wis lowered and ah saw the balaclava. Were those the same brown eyes? Surely not, can’t be. Ma eyesight wis fadin an ah knew ah had tae be hallucinatin as ah saw the balaclava being slowly removed an the brown hair blowing across her face. Ah tried tae look again bit everybody wis gone an everything wis quiet. The noise of the helicopter seemed tae fade, everythin went still, ahm alright, ahm fine. Ah lay back doon and looked at the sky.
(Photo attribution: Jeanne boleyn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
This section: stories and poems, Writing
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- A Scottish Soldier Foresees His Death by Frankie Gault
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