‘let us rather go apart from the track unto some place of outlook, and sit us there, and war shall be for men’ – Homer, Iliad
The Wee Man glanced into his side mirror before pulling the indicator sharply downwards. Placing both hands carefully on the steering wheel, he moved the vehicle onto a minor road. It felt heavy, almost as if the power steering had failed. He drove for another half mile then branched right at a fork in the road, following a narrow and winding route to the reservoir. The Wee Man knew the spot well from his many fishing trips, first with his pal Pete and later with his son, Johnny. The boy loved fishing. His wife Margaret always used to say, “like father, like son.” He allowed himself a brief moment of calm reflection as his thoughts swept him back in time to the good old days. The reservoir was a secluded spot known only to a handful of locals. The summer months were the peak time for the angling club in this part of County Antrim. As the days got shorter and the nights longer, fewer and fewer people came here. One or two hardy souls still braved the turn in the weather to walk their dogs, though the bitingly cold winds generally signalled an end to the fishing season.
The Wee Man relished the solitude this place afforded him. It brought him closer to nature. The scenery was breath-taking, the calmness it brought to the lonely figures it drew to it all made it a special place. Like others who had come here before him, he always felt a sense of inner peace here. There was something magical about this secluded spot, nestled amongst the tall conifer trees, creaking in the strong winds blowing up from the Irish Sea. Even in Spring, the place was cold and damp, though it retained a charm all of its own. Most Autumn evenings now brought rain showers. A sense of foreboding was in the air as made his way closer to his final destination.
As The Wee Man slowed his car down in anticipation of the sharp turn into the reservoir car park, he noticed the road was soaked from a fresh downpour. It looked beautiful. He remembered seeing a photo of the Antrim Glens on a calendar in his kitchen. It was a very homely image. He flip-flopped his feet as he changed down through gears of his car, dropping from forth into third, then into second, slowing almost to a crawl before swinging the car in through the open gate. The Wee Man confidently reversed the car up against the dry-stone wall. The white light illuminated a thicket of trees towering over the car park. It was dark. The moon was covered mostly by cloud in the night sky. As the car jumped backwards it let out a high pitch screech. The Wee Man had been driving for forty years. He was an expert. He’d only had this car for a couple of years. It ran well and he liked the fresh smell of leather and carpet. It was unusual for him to drive a new car.
Thirty years ago The Wee Man was forced to change his car frequently for security purposes. He had to live an anonymous life as a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA were his main opposition. They targeted people like him, especially when they were off-duty, driving their own vehicles. There was something intimate in their targeted killing. They invaded private lives like no other militant group. The IRA had become efficient in placing bombs under cars like those owned by The Wee Man. He was always careful to check beneath his car every morning on the off-chance the opposition had left him a surprise. He also had to vary his route daily. It was on one of these runs that he discovered the reservoir.
The Wee Man loved driving. Cars were his chariots as he rode into battle day after day. Every successful journey was another blow against the terrorists.
It was here, amidst the conifers, a few miles from his home, that he came in search of solitude. It was his quiet spot. As long as he took care to vary his routes, it was the only place in the world where he knew he would be safe from the enemy.
As he drew the vehicle level with the car park entrance, he pulled on the handbrake. He let the engine run for a few minutes, before switching it off. The vehicle shuddered to a halt.
Silence began to descend all around him, as the engine wound down.
He heard a barn owl someway off in the forest.
The Wee Man took out his mobile phone and fidgeted with it, his dumpy fingers clumsily stabbing at the screen. He sent a text to his wife then switched it off. She worried about him. He told her not to. For years she paced up and down by the front window of their home, waiting for him to come back from work. Those were times that seemed to go on forever. It seemed like they’d never end. She was terrified of something happening to him, she often said. He was her whole world. He opened the glove box and casually threw the phone inside, replacing the cover judiciously with a click.
Darkness enveloped the car. He drew shallow breath for a split second then sat back in his seat and stared out across the still water, which glistened in the moonlight. He suddenly became emotional. He didn’t know why. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his jumper. A light breeze cut across the water. The trees to his right swayed a little. He heard them creak as they moved from side to side, gently, effortlessly almost.
With a metallic click, The Wee Man opened the car door. He put one leg out onto the gravel floor, stabbing it with a hesitant crunch. Then he lifted himself out and pushed the door shut behind him. Gravel was disturbed as he moved deliberately across the car park. He was short in stature, a “Wee Man” some of his friends and neighbours called him. He trudged towards the heavy damp bank of the reservoir, making steady progress as he placed one foot in front of the other. He’d caught many trout in these waters. He’d always kept what he caught. After planting them on the back of the guiles with a priest, a heavy metal bar no longer that six inches, used by anglers the world over as a means of putting the flapping fish out of their misery. The Wee Man brought half a dozen trout home one day in the summer. They were all piled on top of one another in a double-wrapped Tesco bag. His family greeted him like a conquering hero that day. Margaret had her hands full all afternoon with the grandchildren, Josh and Emily, while, his son and daughter-in-law went to Portrush for a weekend away. It was difficult for them to get time off work even in their early sixties, and besides The Wee Man and Margaret didn’t mind taking the kids for a weekend. He was hoping to show them how to prepare the fish for cooking. They always loved to help their granny and granda in the kitchen. The Wee Man showed Josh how to gut the fish. It was something he had taught Josh’s dad, Johnny, when he was that age.
For a moment The Wee Man’s mind lingered on that weekend. On the Sunday he and Margaret took the kids down to the coast to Donaghadee for ice-cream in the Cabin. They’d the finest 99s anywhere in Northern Ireland. It was a wonderful day out. Later that evening, the kids packed up to return home to their parents. The Wee Man and Margaret were finally alone and could put their feet up. She liked to catch up on her weekly TV programmes. He loved his wife and his family. He’d fond memories of Johnny when he was small. “Ack aye. That’s good son,” The Wee Man would tell him, as he recalled the family holidays to their caravan near Ballyvester beach where the kids would run and around and play football or cricket and get up to general mischief. He realised that these memories masked others, of the times when he couldn’t always give Johnny his full attention. His duty had a habit of getting in the way of a fuller family life. He’d been a soldier back then. He served for twenty years in the Ulster Defence Regiment, at one time the British Army’s largest infantry regiment. It drew its members from across Northern Ireland and in turn its members still lived in the community, accepting the risks that service inevitably brought with it.
The Wee Man had served his country proudly. A quarter of a century in its ranks, retiring as a senior non-commissioned officer, a Sergeant-Major. He reflected the long days and nights he spent on operations in Northern Ireland. On weekend exercises in England, in Scotland and in Wales. In places like Otterburn, Warcop and Sennybridge, he enjoyed the camaraderie, the discipline his long years of service instilled in him. He worked hard as a soldier, priding himself as a proficient practitioner of what the Army called Internal Security Operations. The vehicle checkpoints, the duck patrols, the searching of hedgerows, farm buildings, residential houses and the endless stream of cars, buses and lorries. He had fond memories of helicopter flights down to the border. He rarely spoke about his service. It was too dangerous anyway. One slip of the tongue in unknown company could invite scrutiny from faceless terrorists. Besides, too many things had happened. He preferred to bottle all that up. He would deal with it when the reckoning came.
That evening he relented. The memories came flooding back. Ally Wilson, one of his closest friends, had been blown up in an IRA landmine attack as he led his UDR patrol along an isolated country lane near Clougher. A routine operation, it left three other soldiers dead and another badly wounded. The injured man was so badly disfigured that his own wife didn’t recognise him. Then there was Jimmy Graham, shot as he climbed out of the shower at his sister’s home in Antrim where he had been living in between death threats. He’d taken shelter there after being issued with a death threat by the Provisional IRA. The IRA gunmen who visited Jimmy that afternoon hadn’t far to run after the murder, for it was said by a CID officer that the man responsible simply blended back into the community from where he had emerged to deal in death. Rumour had it that the man who pulled the trigger even showed up in the aftermath of the attack to observe his handy work amidst the flurry of crime scene activity outside the family home. The Wee Man was away on a course at the time but heard all about it when he returned. Jimmy’s lifeless body was apparently carried from the house wrapped in a bed sheet, the death shroud completely soaked in blood. His sister Ella tormented with grief, was led away from her home by paramedics. She was still clinging onto her dead brother’s hand in the back of the ambulance. She lifted her head only long enough to glimpse her neighbours watching on. They say the gunman smiled whenever he saw her in distress. It was later reported by tabloid journalists that the gunman who shot Jimmy Graham became ecstatic and whooped with joy whenever the newsflash came on the television in his local social club. He’d borne a grudge against the family for years, even before Jimmy had joined the UDR. The uniform gave him the excuse he needed to pull the trigger, obliterating all hope of a peaceful resolution to a neighbourhood dispute that predated the Troubles.
The trickle of memories soon became a flood. As The Wee Man looked out across the water, it began to lap loudly upon the shoreline. In the far distance he could see the red light aloft a power station on the edge of Belfast Lough. He saw a plane taking the long approach as it neared Belfast City Airport. Suddenly, he felt as if he was in company again. Ally, Jimmy and the boys were sat around in what the military called a harbour position, eating their ration packs. It was the time when they’d gone down to the border to work alongside 4 UDR. Everyone had early 1980s haircuts and long moustaches. They looked like Mexican bandits. They talked lovingly about their wives and girlfriends, the holidays they’d been on or were planning, and they talked about their children, how they were doing at school or whether they’d be attending the Army’s annual summer camp for the children of servicemen and women. The Wee Man felt an intense sensation of belonging take hold of him at that moment. It was the best feeling in the world. His reflections on the past were rudely interrupted as he caught a glimpse of a car whizzing past the reservoir, making great haste along the country road. Young men in a hurry, he thought. They’d learn soon enough. As the driver changed gear, he dragged out the roaring noise of the acceleration. Seconds later he was gone. The commotion, the lights, all reached a crescendo in the distance. Silence returned to the reservoir and its immediate surrounds. Even the owls had ceased their merry chorus. And it was at that moment that The Wee Man felt alone. As if he was the only person left in the world.
The Wee Man took a step forward, closing in on the shoreline. He stared at the water. It looked cold. He winced at the thought of dipping his toe into it. He was still wearing his clothes, he told himself. He shouldn’t be so silly. It wouldn’t be that much of a shock. Drawing his legs together almost at attention, he lifted his chin and walked forward with military bearing. Slowly at first, like he was dragging out his step. Just like he’d always been taught. The Wee Man looked around as he moved forward. He suddenly became more aware of his bodily motion. It was like a sombre funeral march. A few moments later he was knee-deep in the water. Seconds ticked by as he moved with purpose. It seemed ridiculous that he would be doing such a thing.
What would Margaret say?
“Where are your waders love? You’ll catch the death of cold darling. Wrap up warm. I don’t want you getting a cold. You’ll be off work again if you keep that up. Come to bed sweetheart. Let’s snuggle up together. You’ll feel better in the morning. It’ll pass. Drink isn’t the answer. Your medication has you up the left. The GP doesn’t know what she’s talking about. We have to get you help.”
Margaret’s voice soothed him as the water flapped around his chest, then touched his neck and, finally, swept over his head. He sat down, calmly at first, the stones in his pockets weighed heavily on him, dragging him down, down, down, into the depths of the icy cold water. He was soon submerged in the dark heart of the dam. It was coming close to Johnny’s birthday. “I wonder will he get my card?” he thought, as he closed his eyes for the last time.