Celtic Illumination, part 86, I’m walking backwards for Christmas
I have just noticed that Tom Taylor, who was the deputy team leader of the Valley team, has just been awarded the MBE for services to SAR operations. Well done Tom, when I take up the throne of Ireland I’ll give you a proper award, for you were always a prince to me. I’m sorry, but when people like barrow-boy-done-good Alan Sugar can buy a title, it sort of demeans the award you so richly deserve.
Another prince and fellow Irishman was Louis Henry the SWO’s man. Louis had stayed very much in the shadows during my trial but now here he was standing in my room saying that he had come to collect me. As a novice I was now expected to live with the team. It didn’t take long to get my gear together and we drove, I know, certainly going up in the world, to the mountain rescue section. Jack came out and told me to follow him into the second, in a row of four, accommodation blocks.
These were old wooden, single storey, buildings. A central corridor ran from front to rear, with single bedrooms either side and an ablutions area in a central position on one side while opposite was an area for drying and washing clothes. I would say there were ten to twelve rooms in each block. Jack pointed at three rooms. “Those three are empty, take any one you want.” I opened the door of the closest one he had indicated and said, “This one will do.” It was a generous sized room, especially compared to what I had just left.
“Right,” said Jack, as he turned to leave.
“Eh?” I said, stopping him. “Any chance I could have a bed please?”
“Bloody Hell!” sighed Jack, as he continued on his way. “I’ll send Rick over. Bloody novices!”
Rick came over and took me to the end block. He opened a room which was full of beds and mattresses and lockers. “Help yourself,” he said. “And give me the key back when you are finished.” I took a couple of lockers and a bed and set my room up. Home sweet home. I hadn’t unpacked anything so took the key over to headquarters to return to Rick. Jack called me in and asked how I felt. I told him I was fine so he told me to take a week’s leave and then on my return I could start my training properly.
I hadn’t thought about taking leave and supposed it would be nice to spend a week just lazing about, especially after what I had just been through. I collected the appropriate warrants and set off for Liverpool. I did my usual pilgrimage when in Liverpool, still feeling the same about the Beatles and the wonderful city itself. I wandered over to the Pier Head and knew that new security arrangements had been put in place, for the protection of service personnel travelling to and from Ireland.
I had been told that I would not use the same check in and arrival procedure as civilians. There would be a special check in desk for service personnel. I should have known what to expect. There was a rumour that two Irish Guards had been thrown overboard some time before, mid crossing, and this incident had brought about the new security measures. The arrivals hall was a large area with coffee machines and the like, but it also had a huge glass front.
The dipshits in the army had placed a portacabin outside this window and above the entrance door the sign ‘military personnel only.’ So any person, perhaps civilian, perhaps terrorist, sitting inside the arrival hall would be able to watch, in comfort, every single military person travelling on that sailing. I promised myself that I would never check in again as military.
I followed my standard crossing procedure and managed to secure a seat in the corner of the lounge so I could observe the whole lounge and hopefully not get involved in any of the shenanigans I expected would follow. The bar opened long before we sailed, and I bought a couple of pints of beer, which would save running up and down to the bar if the lounge was packed with passengers. I was just relaxing when an exceptionally pretty young lady came into the lounge.
There was something about her that was different, whether it was the fact that she had lovely straight red hair, or a sweet smile that made your knees wobble, I’m not sure, although it could have been the fact that she was drinking pints of Guinness. She came and asked if the seat next to mine was vacant. I had hoped to keep the seat either side of me vacant for the whole of the journey so I could have a little personal space, but I invited her to sit beside me and as you would expect, we began to converse.
It turns out that her name was Catherine and she was a geriatric nurse working in Rochdale. She was from Derry and was travelling home for a family function. When it came to my turn to explain myself I wasn’t sure what to say. The extra security measures that had been brought into force, perhaps had un-edged me, so I told her that I worked at Ogwen Cottage in North Wales as a member of a civilian mountain rescue team. I was wearing my Dolomite boots and carrying a rucksack, so I felt that it would allow me to talk about how I looked and what I knew, without saying that I was military.
“Oh!” says Catherine, scraping some white foam from her top lip. “My friend works for an RAF mountain rescue team there. His names Louis Henry, do you know him?” In my life I have made many journeys and utilised many forms of transport. However I have to say, snogging my way across the Irish Sea was a very pleasurable and exciting method of travel. I don’t know why, but when I think of that journey I always think of the Goons song, ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea.’
We exchanged details and promised to keep in touch, as you do, and then set about getting off the ship. The army had excelled itself with the new security measures. As we disembarked a Regimental Sergeant Major stood at the bottom of the staircase, clipboard in hand.
To his right was an unruly mob of people, waiting for friends and family and to his left, transport for military personnel. Most military people would approach him state their name, rank and number, which he would then award a tick to on his clipboard and they would wander off to his left and the appropriate transport. I however had to report to him, or else they would have thought me overboard. I then had to walk away to his right and into the waiting mob.
I got out of there as quickly as I could and found myself almost running across Belfast constantly looking over my shoulder. Belfast had changed and to get into the centre you had to go through military checkpoints. I approached my first checkpoint and was told to place my ruck sack down as they were about to search it. I was thrown against a wall and patted down by a rather overzealous RUC officer. As he opened my rucksack I flashed my military id card at him and he closed up the rucksack telling me to go on my way.
The central bus station was behind the Europa hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe, so I felt quite uncomfortable waiting for a bus to Newry, wondering if the hotel would be coming down around my ears any moment. I was able to relax in Warrenpoint and Fegan and Rogan made sure I hadn’t forgotten how to jive or even shout ‘Yee ha!’ But in a strange way my mind was elsewhere and I couldn’t stop thinking about Catherine. I wondered if she could jive, she could certainly snog.
I do remember one day I went into Warrenpoint and was wandering about when I called in to say hello to the O Hare boys in their clothes shop. It was quite normal for people to drop in for a chat and a bit of craic. One of them, I think it was Pat, was reading a red top newspaper. “Aren’t you at Valley in North Wales?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, surprised that he would bring it up. “Look,” he says, showing me the newspaper while discussing the story with his two brothers Gervais and Francis. I was shocked. Seems that a major wife swopping circle had been unearthed at RAF Valley and nobody told me about it. I wondered if I knew anybody involved.
Back at Valley I reported to Jack, having informed Louis that I had met Catherine, I didn’t explain about how we had passed the time on our journey. Jack was very business-like. “Here,” he said, throwing me some land rover keys. “Take that down to MT and get the tyres changed.”
“I can’t drive Jack,” I said, feeling somewhat inadequate.
“Can’t drive?” sighed Jack. “Well you’re no bloody use to me!”
“Air traffic has been trying to get me on a course for yonks now,” I explained, in my defence, adding. “There’s just no places.”
“Air traffic?” shouted Jack, who lifted the telephone and began to dial while muttering expletive, after expletive, about air traffic control and their ability, or lack of it, to organise a piss up in a brewery.
“Hello!” barked Jack, to whichever lucky person had answered the telephone. “This is Jack Baines, team leader at Valley Mountain Rescue; I need to get one of my troops on a driving course pronto.”
Jack began scribbling. Mountain rescue team leader and qualified to use a telephone while writing stuff down, how nifty was that.
Jack replaced the receiver and handed me a piece of paper. “Next Monday, RAF Saint Athan’s, here’s your course number, be there.”
As I left his office he was still muttering out loud about air traffic and how utterly useless most of them were, and to tell you the truth I couldn’t have agreed with him more.