Friday, 6 February 2015

The Strongest Bonds

The Strongest Bonds

Big Al Lenahan peered through the thermal imaging equipment of the Scimitar into the darkness of the night, ‘Contact, 300 yards. Prepare to fire.’ Ghostly green figures moved through the darkness, confident that the veil of night hid them from the enemy’s view. ‘200 yards…’ Al growled in his gruff Glaswegian accent into the radio, ensuring all his mates were primed and ready.  As the Taliban fighters closed on their positions, the soldiers lay in their hastily dug trenches or sat in their fighting vehicles quietly waiting, each with their own personal way of dealing with the tension. Al mumbled an old song under his breath as he often did in times of tension. It may not have been a song many soldiers in the British Army sang but Al was from Donegal stock and saw no contradiction in singing quietly to himself… ‘T’was on a dreary New Year’s eve as the shades of night came down…’ This was it, not a training drill or a jaunt across Salisbury plain, but a real life or death situation. ‘100 yards...’ Al said grimly, his eyes pressed against the thermal imaging scope, ‘Prepare tae fire… Beside him, big Terry, a shaven headed Londoner with a quick fire wit and easy smile gripped the coaxial Machine gun, sweat shining on his forehead. Al glanced at him, ‘Steady Terry, almost in the zone.’ He glanced at the Tottenham Hotspur tattoo on Terry’s tanned left forearm, he was a dependable guy, a long way from White Hart Lane though.  To his right, manning the 30mm cannon sat Deek, a short, powerful Paisley lad who seemed frightened of nothing. As the Taliban fighters entered the killing zone Al half shouted the order into the radio; ‘Open Fire!’ All along the line a storm of steel erupted and snaked through the darkness towards the unsuspecting enemy. Tracer lit up the night sky and the crump of explosions was audible through the Scimitar’s armour. Terry traversed left and right with the machine gun sending hundreds of 7.62mm bullets ripping through the night air like angry wasps…’ Come on you Bastards, have some of this!’  After a while the noise abated and the radio crackled with the voices of men elated to have come out on top… this time at least.

Dawn broke over the Nahre-e-Burgha Canal, a dusty, orange tinted dawn which wafted the smell of cordite over their positions. The enemy was seemingly gone and so too their dead and wounded. They seldom left anyone or anything behind unless it was booby trapped. Terry grinned as he opened the hatch on the top of the vehicle, ‘Now let’s get some air in here, sweaty Jocks stinking up my tank all night.’ He clambered out and urinated against the back of the vehicle. Al was next out and seeing Terry relieving himself said, ‘I’ll get the grub seeing as you’re not too hot on the hygiene front.’ Terry grinned, ‘Bacon sarnies if you can Al and a brew too. Best get the sweaty git some too.’  Deek’s head popped out of the top hatch of the vehicle, ‘Only sweaty wan about here is you ya Cockney fud.’  Terry shook his head, ‘Speak English, Braveheart uh?’ Deek smiled and leaped down from the vehicle to check the exterior for any damage after the night’s action. ‘Look after your equipment and it’ll look after you’ was his motto. All seemed well, he sat on the already warm ground and exhaled. The pressure could be immense at times and he sometimes needed a few moments alone to compose himself.

Big Al walked up the dusty incline towards the already discernible smell of cooking. He glanced over his shoulder at the position he and his buddies held. They seemed so few in this vast and hostile land. He’d often wondered what the Politicians were thinking of getting 7000 soldiers to try and hold down an area the size of Scotland. But then he didn’t fight for them, he certainly didn’t fight for Queen or country. He fought for his friends who relied on him as he relied on them when the shit was flying. They were the strongest bonds of all. Terry shouted up at him, ‘Hurry up with the food Al, I’m starving.’  Al grinned and was about to reply when a crack rang out which he immediately knew was a high velocity rifle. Terry spun round, a surprised look on his face and crumpled to the ground. Al roared instinctively ‘Sniper!’ as he threw himself to the ground. Deek was already dragging Terry to cover behind the Scimitar as another shot sparked off the side of the vehicle a foot above his head. Al glanced at Terry lying still just 50 yards away, it didn’t look good….

A warm April breeze was blowing as Al Lenahan walked with his brother Tony along the Gallowgate. Strachan’s Celtic was taking on Rangers and as he was between deployments he made sure he was in town for the match. They entered a bar near the Barras where they’d arrange to meet a few friends. It was already full of green and white clad fans who were singing along with a serious looking, bearded young man who was playing a guitar on a small raised stage area. The place rocked to a familiar tune…

‘Go on home British soldiers, go on home
Have you got no fucking homes of your own
For 800 years we've fought you without fear
And we will fight you for 800 more…’

Tony grinned at his brother, still looking tanned from his time in Helmand, ‘They must have known you were coming.’ Al grinned back at him, ‘Better shutting up about my profession in here eh?’  Tony looked more serious, ‘Thousands of Celtic fans served in the forces Al, but I catch yer drift.’ They met up with a few old friends and the Guinness flowed as the tunes continued. Big Al even ended up on the stage amid great cheers to sing his party piece. Tony had his phone out filming him as he had the whole Bar joining him in a rousing rendition of a tune he had learned at his father’s knee…

‘T'was on a dreary New Year’s Eve
As the shades of night came down
A lorry load of volunteers approached the border town
There were men from Dublin and from Cork, Fermanagh and Tyrone
And the leader was a Limerick man - Sean South from Garryowen…’

He finished to a huge cheer and rejoined his friends, a cold pint being thrust into his hand. ‘That was good, yer still a fair chanter, big man,’ his brother smiled. Al shook his head, ‘Tuneless big growler mer like.’ His brother put his arm around his shoulder and said quietly, ‘For a squaddie you can sure sing the Rebs!’ Al nodded, ‘What do James Connolly and Tom Barry  have in common?’ Tony shrugged, ‘No idea.’ Al leaned closer, ‘They both served time in the British Army. Willie Maley was born in Newry Barracks!' So no contradictions with me doing the same. That said, I’d be out if they asked me to serve in Ireland.’ His brother nodded, ‘Nothing’s ever black and white bro, eh?’ Al nodded, ‘Naw but they’re green and white tonight.’ He turned back to the stage where the bearded singer had started another song.

Later that evening the friends stood together in the Jock Stein stand watching as Gary Caldwell gathered the ball in the dying embers of the game. Al glanced quickly at the clock on the scoreboard at the opposite end of the field which had read ‘90’ for at least a couple of minutes. Caldwell launched the ball into the box where Scott McDonald nodded it across goal to the gangling Venegoor of Hesselink who launched himself at the ball and buried it in the Rangers net. Celtic Park erupted like a pent up volcano and big Al was there in the middle of it all roaring his head off.  God, Celtic could put you through the emotional wringer, but they were his team and he shared every joy and disappointment that came with following them. Whether he was home in Glasgow or far across the sea, the bond with Celtic was still strong.


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