The Swaling, Part Forty Seven

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
We’d stopped near to the town centre, on a piece of scruffy land, all concrete sets and straggly weeds..
Abandoned Transit van,
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The Colonel toured Sleescale’s backstreet digs in his battered Transit van picking up our colleagues as if they were black economy workers to be delivered to building sites, cockle beeches or docks. Most of us pretended to be striking miners but others passed themselves off as Socialist Workers or students. Two of those present were girls. All except me were military in disguise. Those disguises were exceptional, not only the right clothing but the correct body language and attitude; slouched, chip on shoulder, monosyllabic. Some of the accents were excellent, similar to mine, others were dodgy, including Davies’s. Never mind, needs must and all that.

The second part of the Colonel’s early morning shift consisted of drop-offs close to likely trouble spots, with a careful nod towards where the media might be. The Colonel paired us, barking out a few simple instructions to those de-vanning. He had a nervous tic. It was overuse of, “Understand?”

“For the cameras. Understand?”

“Head for the coal washery. Left, right then right again. Understand?”

“Lots of shouts of ‘scab’, understand? Microphones love it.”

Thus far, this had been working a treat. The TV and press coverage had been what London had wanted. Whether London was pursuing the correct strategy or not wasn’t our concern. The feedback, via the Colonel, was positive.

“London’s happy. More of the same. Understand?”

He chanted more names as he swung the van to the side of the road and called for its back doors to be opened. Davies was paired off with someone else that day. No great shakes, I thought nothing of it, I’d wait my turn. But finally, only myself and the Colonel remained. We sat beside each other on the driver’s bench. The sun was peeping up now, banishing milking farmers, on the pasture between Sleescale and the hills, back to their beds and replacing them with delivery drivers and shift workers.

We’d stopped near to the town centre, on a piece of scruffy land, all concrete sets and straggly weeds. I’d guess it an abandoned filling station forecourt. Piles of rouble lay about like sleeping sentries half-heartedly trying to deter gipsies and Irish travellers from pitching camp.

With both hands, my companion yanked up the hand brake. He took his foot off the clutch to stop the engine with a stall. He wound open his window, lit a cigarette for himself and offered one to me.

“I don’t smoke, sir.”

“Not at school now, Worth. Understand?”

“I don’t smoke, Colonel.”

“That’s better.”

He looked at me, I looked at him. A husky, earnest voice emerged from between his ruddy cheeks.

“Not your kind of thing?”

I didn’t want to give anything away, the Colonel should do some heavy lifting first.

“What makes you think that?” I replied.

“The broken teeth and the black eye,” he replied with a smile, tapping cigarette ash to a filthy floor between pedals.

I reminded him that my teeth were only chipped and my black eye was getting better.

“You’re from a reconnaissance unit aren’t you, Worth?”

I corrected him, a research unit.

“Tell me about the research unit.”

Here was my chance to impress. Although there was too much argy (and far too much bargy) for me as an agent provocateur on the picket lines, I felt I was making an important contribution to the cause all the same.

“Were tasked to gather information on individuals and organisations to pass on to decision-makers.”

I reminded him that I’d been able to, without causing a war or raising suspicions, find out the names and details of ringleaders in the strike. Especially those involved in the organisation of flying pickets who threatened to spread disruption to more moderate collieries. In my time off, as well as being dragged up mountains and across lakes as Davies’s training buddy (while he beat himself into shape for his elite forces selection), I’d been hammering the local library and my contacts. I’d come up with addresses, phone numbers, connections between trouble makers, their family member’s details, press cuttings and court records. These could be used to disrupt what they were up to, to intimidate them and to show them in a bad light.

The Colonel had been doing some research of his own.

“While we’re on the subject, half of the time Davies thinks you’re his best friend in the world and the other half of the time you’re driving him mental. Try to be normal. Bite your lip a bit, try to fit in, see what the others do and copy them. Understand? Soak up the culture. Are you an only child, Worth? Perhaps even an orphan? Weren’t raised by the wolves on the rolling hills behind Sleescale were you? Might explain a bit.”

Here was my chance. “Of Davies, I hope I’m not betraying confidence, but there was something said on the train coming down from London. I’d like to pass it by you, if now’s the right time?”

There was some more ash to tip off the Colonel’s cigarette end. This time it went out of the window.

“It isn’t,” he said, “Tell me about Ulster.”

“More of the same,” I assured him. We compiled information on individuals and organisations and passed it up the chain of command. Much of this was in the public domain to start with, some easily obtainable from secondary sources, some required deeper research and even deeper IQ. More was available from snouts and informants. Everything was attributed and annotated, with caveats attached if needs be, to make life easier for the decision-makers.

“Actionable information in concise brown folders, that’s what we do,” I assured him.

He asked his next question carefully, and it included the word, “kill”.

I told him what he already knew. If a targeted individual was armed they could be shot by uniform after a warning. If not, they could be killed by paramilitaries. A name could be put about. The target’s personal details, movements and associations were available in flick books which, lost or pilfered, found their way to the right type of gunman.

“And all down to you, Worth?”, the Colonel asked, nonchalantly drawing on his cigarette.

“No, it isn’t. I compile and pass on a file, I’m not involved in any decision making or action.”

“Ever pulled a trigger?”

I told him that I’d never pulled one in anger but I was allowed a personal firearm. I left it at that. A life I was never to live passed before me. In a parallel universe, I’d won the dirty war, more or less single-handedly, stayed in Ulster and married my police cadet squeeze. She had a name, Brenda, and the long chestnut hair of a county star. We’d had ten kids, I’d become a clergyman in an exceptionally sleepy rural parish in County Antrim. Myself, Brenda and then wee ones might even have been the only parishioners. When the Reverand Paisley died I might be persuaded to take his place, until then, peaceful bliss. The Colonel whispered me back to reality.

“And the morality of all of this?” He wondered.

“There’s a committee in London one can complain to.”

“And have you?”

“Only once, a senior member of staff was handsy with the younger men. Nothing to do with Ulster. We all got sick of it and complained about him.”

“And what became of it?”

I pulled rank on the Colonel. This was an ongoing operational matter, ultimately the root of Swaling, and couldn’t be discussed.

Rather than being cross, he seemed impressed.

“Congratulations, Worth, you’ve passed the interview. The Queen has something other than being beaten up on a picket line in mind for you. Understand?” The Colonel tapped his nose. “Her Maj sent you up here on a pretext. Notebook and pen?”

I patted myself up and down, “Not on me.”

“Then I hope you’ve got a good memory. Wander into the town, buy yourself a suit at Marks and Sparks, nice shoes, tie, collar. Maybe even a bit of makeup for the shiner.”

He indoctrinated me into my new cover, adding, “Get a name badge and some business cards printed. Buy a briefcase. Don’t want to raise any suspicions. I can’t possibly discuss ongoing operations either, but from what little I’ve been told, it sounds like the leadup to another research wallah’s clever assassination. Up for it?”

He reached inside his coat, a poacher’s dark brown jacket with country sports collar, cuffs and padding. He pulled an envelope stuffed with money out of one of its poacher’s pockets and held it towards me.

I took it off him, removed the notes and made a fan of them. They included a piece of paper containing a nearby address and a lady’s name.

To be continued……

© Always Worth Saying 2021

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