The lads of the 42nd Infantry Battalion sat slumped on the Land Rover’s steel floor as we lurched over dirt tracks; shade from the tarpaulin kept them cool as they spoke quietly together, in Irish. Since arriving in Cyprus, they’d spoken no other language. I knew most of them had joined up at barracks straight from the Kerry and Galway Gaeltachtaí. There was no one from Wexford, apart from myself. The Irish was oddly soothing to hear, if I ignored their wary tone.
I sat in the driver’s seat, sunglasses shielding my eyes, and kept the Land Rover shuffling at sixty miles an hour. Its engine growled and sputtered, leaving smoky exhaust behind us.
Beside me, Byrne, the company sergeant, lit a fresh Woodbine and rolled down the window. He spoke into the Land Rover’s vehicle-mounted radio, grunting our location back to HQ. His FN rifle lay across his lap, the barrel aimed out at the land. He paused, glanced over his shoulder.
“Still talkin’ the Irish, lads? Too browned off with us Jackeens, yeah?”
No one replied. He smirked and blew smoke out the window. Turning to me, he said, “Jaysus. The fuckin’ state o’ that shower, Ned. Thinkin’ we can’t understand ’em. Not as if we can’t hear ’em. Tell y’one thing, if they were as smart as they thought, it’d be them runnin’ the show, not me.”
I made to reply, but a crackled squawk from the radio cut me off.
“Infantry. 42, this is HQ, do you copy? Over.”
“Yeah, go ahead there, boss,” Byrne responded into his handset.
“Don’t stay too long in Lefka, righ’. Just head in, get what yis need, and get out. Time’s not on your side.”
I stared out of the windshield and kept going. Our convoy was led by my Land Rover. Two armed personnel carriers travelled behind us, along with the main vehicle of officers and heavy equipment. We were on the coast road, which uncoiled ahead of us.
It was late afternoon. We were a patrol unit from the Irish branch of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, with three weeks left of a six month tour of duty. We’d been sent in to maintain peace, following violent clashes between the island’s Greek and Turkish populations. For the last five years, the bloodshed had become too frequent to ignore. Greeks had been shot en masse in the grainfields. A crowd of Cypriot Turks had been massacred on the border of Limassol Province earlier in the year. At Famagusta Harbour, Greek-Cypriot guerillas had been discovered receiving arms shipments. Many inhabitants on the mainland fled their homes under cover of darkness after being looted.
We were the UN’s fourth Irish deployment, taking over from the 7th Infantry Group, who’d left just before we arrived.
Our orders were to refuel in the small village of Lefka, before continuing on to our outpost up in the Troodos Mountains, a neutral zone. Cyprus is an island of peaks. Driving an armed convoy through this landscape was a challenge I hadn’t expected.
Byrne pivoted his head to look at me for a minute, before snapping it back towards the windshield. “Ned, how far off are we?”
“Five miles to go, sir. I doubt the heat’ll let up anytime soon.”
“Ah, stop. Last thing I need is more fuckin’ mosquitoes comin’ between me and my sleep.”
“That’s true enough, sir.”
Since leaving HQ in Nicosia, I’d been on edge. All of us were. We’d plenty of ammo and supplies. Our radios were all in working order. But even with every strategic position dotted around Cyprus, none of us really knew what to expect. So far, we hadn’t fired a single shot, but we knew the guerrillas were out there, crouched in wait of unwary targets. Snipers kept cover in eucalyptus groves and the vineyards. Gunfire might erupt on us from a roadside gully; there was nothing we could rule out. Turkish or Greek, it didn’t matter. How were we to know the difference between ambush and accidental discharge?
On top of that, it was our stop-off point had us worried. We were briefed that while Lefka was a Turkish enclave, Greek-Cypriot cadres ranged the surrounding hills; we’d have to be especially vigilant passing through.
Everything we needed to know was relayed to us the day before deployment. I remember being briefed with the entire battalion in the departure lounge of Dublin Airport by a stocky drill sergeant from the US Air Force. A tour of duty in Cyprus, he said. Peacekeeping operation for the UN. Troops from other nations taking part. Fatalities to be expected. For most of us, it’d be our first time leaving Ireland. Might as well have been the other side of the world to me, or Shangri-la, for all I knew about it. I remember boarding the Globemaster, the first time I’d ever set foot on an aircraft. Ann, my wife, had blinked back tears at the viewing lounge by the terminal. Maggie and Nicola, our two eldest daughters, held her hand and watched me leave. All around us, the lads were saying similar goodbyes. All of us were in uniform, as crisp as we could hope to be for the entire mission.
“Look after yourself,” Anne whispered to me as I held her. I assured her I would, not really believing it. I kissed her and our daughters, promised them they’d see me soon. We’d five nippers by then; our sixth was on the way, shortly. I knew I wouldn’t be home in time to hear its first gurgles. I hoped that whatever apprehension I felt wasn’t showing.
We’d been married for nearly a decade by then. Ann had had to leave her job after we got together, as the law dictated at the time. Whatever money we had came out of my army pay.
The Land Rover moved quietly enough, but I was worried about giving away our position. Every so often, we’d pass through farming country. No checkpoints or OPs, no need for papers or passports, no furnishings of order we could resort to. The only people we saw were the hunched, black-clad figures of women at work in the vineyards. Men rarely ventured out in broad daylight, for fear of being shot; they’d stay indoors, drinking coffee. Only the women could move freely outside, picking grapes off stalks, their scythes flashing in the heat. I noticed they didn’t stop working, even when our convoy trundled past. A few would glance up and stare after us until we had vanished from sight, but none waved, or even stopped what they were doing. The sight of an armoured lorry, bristling with artillery and fatigue-clad men, didn’t seem to faze them. The few children we saw sat on the roadside, watching us wheel by without fear or amazement, their faces stretched down to hungry, staring masks.
Our first time out on patrol was during harvest season. We took our position just outside Pergamos, setting up a small base-camp on the vineyard’s edge. Throughout the night we kept watch, scanning the dark horizon on all sides, until the order to head back to base came through.
“Should we not be looking after them?” I’d asked Byrne, nodding at the hunched, slow moving figures that shuffled amid the grapevines at dawn. “We might save more if we hang on here.”
“Save ’em from what, Private?” Byrne replied. “Have y’heard any shots since we arrived?” “No, sir, I haven’t.”
“No, well then. We’re not here to save anyone, Ned. We’re to keep an eye things. And you’ve to just keep your eye on drivin.”
I didn’t reply, and closed my fingers around the small gold ring in my pocket. It was my wedding ring; I took it off whenever I was off base. I was too afraid of getting wounded or killed, and havin it stolen. Both me and Byrne were two of the few married men in the entire squad; most of the troops weren’t even shaving yet. At night, Ann swirled through my dreams, her dark hair brushing her shoulders, her eyes sea-green and inviting, her voice a soothing whisper in my ears. The longer I was away, the more she’d visit me in my sleep, until I swore I could smell her perfume and tasted the soft curl of her lips long after I awoke, surrounded by the wheezy snores of the others. The ring was the first thing I made sure I had on me, before my rifle or bullets or dog tags, every morning at parade. And I kept seeing her everywhere. In the rear-view mirror, on the roadside, amongst the women in the fields.
A mile off, I saw the asphalt coil away into a tangled cluster of fields. The mosquitoes were out in force. I cursed to myself. For all the heat, I noticed the grass was far lighter than in Ireland. White dust swirled on the roadside, whisked by wind. Heat fumes wriggled a mile off. Roads snaked every which way, as though trying to confuse me or render the map superfluous. Sunlight glinted off gunmetal. Beside me, Byrne grunted. “Them mosquitoes must be takin’ orders from the Greeks. Fuckin’ relentless so they are, Ned.”
“Yes, Sir. I suppose.”
“Like rats in the desert, wha’? Fucked from here to there, says you.”
“We’ll be grand, sure. ’Nother five miles never killed anyone.”
I wasn’t in the humour for small talk. In my head I was thinking of what I’d put into my next letter to Ann, my wife. I’d be seeing her and our children soon, once the month was out. I wrote her every week, detailing everything as best I could in a way that didn’t get her worried. There was plenty I kept out. Mostly I talked about the sea’s lustrous aquamarine, the roads, faces of people I saw. In every letter, I was careful not to call Cyprus a battle zone. Right now, there was nothing to tell her.
For all the Cypriot heat, it was a relief to finally be away from Dublin’s grey brickwork. I didn’t miss much about the old town. Beggars flung crumbs for the seagulls like feed, before shuffling off to drink the few bob they had in the early houses. Roadsweepers hauled refuse laden carts down the sidestreets; steam and coal dust choked the air around Britain Quay where the ships offloaded. On the Liffey, Guinness barges steamed to and from the brewery; slimy green strips of algae smeared the quay walls at low tide. Every second building seemed marked for demolition; the knock-down gang swarmed over them with shovels and pickaxes. On O’Connell Street, Nelson’s statue gazed skyward from its column; a year after I got back from Cyrus, it’d be blown to kingdom come. Before signing up, I’d worked as a busman, driving Leylands for the CIE; City Hall to Dame Street, Phoenix Park to Dun Laoghaire. Mini cars and lorries swarmed around me as I stopped and started on the morning drive, all the way from depot to terminus. I saw so many faces on my routes and got to know the city so well, the rooftops and the lampposts, that I just got sick of it all. People were reckless crossing the streets then. And before we tried keeping the peace in Cyprus, a different sort of peace was being bartered back in Dublin. The unions were on the warpath. I’d marched at the front of each picket line. Better pay for a better job. We’d earned it.
In the end, the unions felt I was strong enough to speak on their behalf. I knew I was not. I’m not John Wayne, much and all as I wished I was then. In the end, it was me they wanted to be General Secretary. I said I wouldn’t do it. I’m not a leader. I never have been. The men needed someone who could stand for them, and wouldn’t be converted by bribery or coercion. I’m just not that kind of man. I could only be so outspoken until I’d be looking at the sack.
Every man has an enemy against whom he’ll never win. That’s a lesson that never comes easily. If you’re anything like me, kindness is the enemy you know you’ll never beat. I’d heard and seen enough union men killed off with kindness, sniped by possibility of a better job, better pay, more decent living for them and theirs. And they always took it. They abandoned their men very quickly. I knew that I’d be going down that road as well, if I became general secretary. And my son had only just been born. It couldn’t be abandonment for him. Where we lived in Dublin, there were plenty of young fellas who grew up never knowing their fathers. A boy needs his da, I’ve always believed. Walking out the door to go and play soldiers out in Cyprus was a hard choice. He needed me there, to see my face every day and know who I was.
Then again, Cyprus was the only choice I had left. After the Union, the jobs I could easily have taken seemed to vanish. Maybe I’d more certainty back then. Didn’t seriously think I would die out there. But the ten bob I made with my busman’s pay wasn’t enough. And now I wanted to see my son’s face again. In dreams, in the Land Rover’s rear-view mirror, in the faces of the starving children of that country, children the same age as him. Some of them did wave, mind, but they were far and few between. It was around then that I started having nightmares of my son, naked and bleeding, and chained to a paling post in a deserted field, crying. Crying with a child’s distraught frenzy, for me to come and rescue him, to cut him loose and keep him safe. I’d see his face, red and swollen with tears, and I’d lose sleep, wondering why I’d ever left Ireland. I should be at home, I’d repeat constantly to myself. I should be watching over my son.
If there was a message to be found in any of the dreams I had, it was this: why did you leave him? Why did you leave your boy? He’s suffering now and you can’t help him. A father helps his son while he’s able.
When I finally applied to re-join the army, one of the questions on the form held the caveat that I may very well die if sent into a battle zone. Was I willing to make that sacrifice for Ireland, they asked. Far as I was concerned, Ireland was a grey-green boil on Europe’s left arse-cheek. But I needed the work. So I went on basic training – seventeen weeks of hell in Wicklow, firearm drills at barracks, orienteering. I was able for it all. The only Irish I learned to speak or understand were the drill commands at the barracks: “Deas iompaig!” (Turn right). “Cle iompaig!” (Turn left). “Iompaig thart!” (Turn around).” “Seasaig ar ais.” (Stand at ease).
Like all the others, I was stationed at the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Portobello. Of course, our actual experience in combat was negligible. It wasn’t until after I entered the barracks that I actually held and fired a gun for the first time. The weight of it in my hands was a shock. By the time I finished up, I was a top-notcher, instructing the newest recruits in weaponry. You name a gun, I was the man to talk to. I could give you detailed specs on an MK 4’s muzzle flash, a Gustav m/45’s blowback, or the recoil of a Browning semi.
Before that, though, there was basic training. I’d my own induction among the lads. It was in the barracks barber shop. My name was barked out as I stood in line.
“Private N. Wade, you’re up next!”
I sat in the chair, while your man got his clippers ready. He grazed it over my skull, my locks fell to the floor. The fella in the next chair caught my eye.
“Here, what did he say your name was?”
I glanced over. “Eh, Private Nick Wade, sir. HQ Company. You?”
“John McCormack. They call me the Count.”
“Yeah? Y’much of a singer?”
He smirked. “Am I fuck. Voice on me like a bleedin’ engine, so I do.” He peered at me.
“Wade? Do I have tha’ righ’?”
“Like Ned Wade? The hurler?”
“Eh, yeah. No relation, though.”
“Ever seen him on the pitch? My jaysus, can he do damage. Rakes in the silver, he does.”
His rapt expression told me I was already in his good graces. My surname could shore me up, come whatever may.
“I don’t really follow the GAA. But I know of him.”
“Well, they’ll find somethin’ for you right enough. A fella by the name of Wade does be needin’ somethin’ to keep himself occupied.”
And that was that. I was Ned now, no longer Nick. Whenever I was introduced to one of the lads, or called on to give my name at parade, I called myself Ned. Some of the Gaeltacht lads even called me Eamonn. But most of the battalion never even found out my real name. The entire time we were in Cyprus, I went by a name that wasn’t my own. After a while, I stopped being annoyed and just got used to it. Byrne told me I was better off calling myself Ned, anyway. “It’s good for morale,” he’d say. “Some of the lads used t’play hurlin’ before they signed up. If they know Ned Wade’s on their team, it’ll keep their spirits up.” But I’d never swung a hurley or hit a sliotar in my life. I was an oddball, detached from the run-around nature of army life and yet oddly respected for it. Of course, I chatted and laughed with the others, engaged in the jokes and slagging, but on the whole, I kept quiet. The reason being that, during training, it was discovered that I was an excellent marksman. Snipers would be sorely needed in Cyprus.
The water hurdled past my ribs as I plunged in, cold and heavy, soaking my fatigues. I dug my boot-heels into riverbed, waited for my balance to return against the current. Wind hissed through the grassy bank. Heavy grey clouds drifted overhead, grazing the shoulder of Lugnaquilla’s foothill. My weapon, which I’d slung to my shoulder, was a 7.62 FN MAG, an open bolt, long-range sniper gun with its own folding bipod, capable of taking a man’s head off a mile and a half away. If it was aimed right. Even in a high wind blowing downward, my eyeline smudged with dust and my target a thousand or so yards off and moving fast, I’d still manage to take it down.
But it wasn’t a man I was scoping for, not today. The target was hidden amongst the trees, on the far bank. You needed a hawk’s eye to see it. I could just make it out through the scope, a skeletal little carving of a Celtic Cross, its silhouette black amongst the fronds. A thousand yards off, I heard a buzzard squawk.
There was a rock mound jutting up further upstream. I sloshed a little deeper into the flow, until it lapped at my chest, clenching my teeth against the cold. The rock mound came up to my shoulders. I leaned forward, close enough for the water to brush my jaw, and shut my left eye to get a better look. Fastening the bipod to the gun barrel, I propped it on the rock. Before aiming the FN downrange, I put my eye to the scope.
The world shrunk into a single, black-rimmed sphere. For a second, nothing existed but the curve of the trigger off my fingertip, the fine crosshairs and the target’s tiny outline. It lurked amidst a knot of gorse, nailed crudely to a tree, its nimbus spread wide. If I fired now, the bullet would zip through the air for a good half-mile before it hit anything. If the target moved, even the slightest motion would give it away. I always pulled that trigger slowly. Once I locked on it, I’d relax. Under those clouds, the surface of the water looked pitch-black. Despite the river’s heavy flow, there was barely a breath of wind. I was lucky to have kept the FN dry and above water. I took a breath, and squeezed the trigger back.
The bullet spat from the barrel, a flurry of white smoke wafted over me, and through the scope’s ringed lens, I saw the cross fracture and drop before the echo faded away. It was a near-perfect hit, the nimbus cracked right down the middle. Lowering the FN, I trudged back upstream and into declared my headset: “That’s a hit, boss.”
“Affirmative. Right under the crossbar. Ned Wade strikes again.”
After that, I couldn’t ever look at a Celtic Cross, or any cross for that matter, and not think of a target.
By the time we reached Lefka, the stench was unbearable, even with the windows open. I slowed to a halt at the checkpoint by the village entrance, which was nothing more than a long, striped pole extending across the road. Beside it was a makeshift medical depot, its grey walls riddled with cracks, while in the distance the golden-brown mountains loomed. Byrne signed us in to the sentry, who lifted the pole in the air, and the convoy snaked down the bumpy road into Lefka. Once we reached the centre, I parked and killed the engine outside a small cafe.
“We’re not stayin’ here long,” growled Byrne, and he spat out the window. I’d gotten used to deserted streets, but Lefka was thronging. It was market day. Stalls were set up in the main plaza, and a steady stream of people, women mainly, drifted from street to street, haggling loudly. Dogs slept in the long, jagged shade of palm trees. Every building was boxy and whitewashed, coated in stucco. Depending which side of the border we were on, we usually saw either the Greek white-and-blue stripes, or the scarlet, star-and-crescent emblem of Turkey. Here, there were no flags, not even outside the depot or the mosques. Soldiers in UN stripes were dotted around, standing their posts or else pacing about absentmindedly, their rifles cradled. Guns and fatigues were now part of normal life in this village, it seemed. In the cafe, a group of men sat in the terraced shade, arguing amongst themselves. When they saw our uniforms, they waved us over.
“You hang on here, Ned,” said Byrne. “I’ll find yeh a min’ral or somethin’. He climbed out of the Land Rover, sloped into the cafe. He’d be in there for a good while, I knew, downing cup after cup of dark coffee with the local head man. It was a show of hospitality that he, as patrol commander, couldn’t refuse.
I lay back against the headrest and shut my eyes. I thought about my wife, mouthed the first words I’d say to her when I got back to Dublin.
A screech came piercing up from the plaza, jolting me upright. I could tell when I saw the woman, from the way she moved, something was wrong. I would have noticed her anyway, had she not been wailing to the heavens. The sun’s glare stopped me seeing her properly, but even at a distance I saw she was groping for something to grab onto. The street was crowded enough, but everyone, soldier and civilian alike, walked right past her, without even turning their heads. As she neared, I saw she was young, about my wife’s age, with dark hair. Her threadbare shawl, drawn up like a monk’s, told me she was Turkish. Only when she reached my passenger door did I see why she was stumbling. Her eyes were covered in cuts. She was blinded and bleeding heavily.
My fingers closed instinctively around my wedding ring in my pocket; my spine tensed. Had there been an attack? We’d been briefed not to interact with Turkish women; their culture forbade them from talking with us. But I had to do something. I flung the door open and sprinted round the front of the Land Rover. She had tottered rearward and was now sloping against the café terrace, gasping for breath. None of the men took any notice. Almost as if they didn’t hear her. A part of me hoped Byrne would step out of the café to see what the noise was. Her wails still soared over the noise of the street. I approached her as I would a small animal caught in a snare. She flailed her arms limply, trying to grab hold of anything she could. I reached out, managed to grip her hand and shoulder, and hold her steady. She fell to me, huddled tight against my shoulder, squeezing my hand.
She smelled of eucalyptus.
“Can… can I help you, Miss? Hospital?”
Once she heard my voice, her howls quieted to a scared whimper. Her free hand reached up, fingertips brushing over my nose, lips and jaw. Both her hands and wrists, I saw, were crisscrossed in deep scratches. I glanced up and saw several of the men in the cafe watching me, curious to see what I might do. Their expressions were blank. One of them blew smoke. Another swished around the coffee in his cup.
I’m not one to disobey orders. But the medical depot was only a mile back up the road. I took a breath and lifted the woman into my passenger seat. Then I bolted back behind the wheel, and revved the engine up.
She kept whimpering, heaving out words I didn’t understand. I think she was praying. But she also quietened a little once I shut the door, sensing now that she was shielded. I pulled out of the parking space and drove for the checkpoint, where the medical depot was. If any of the lads saw, or if Byrne ran from the cafe, bellowing at me to get back, I didn’t hear or notice. I kept one hand on the steering wheel while she held onto my free one. Her hands felt small and coarse on mine, and with her head resting on my shoulder, I saw and felt the blood more clearly. It oozed into her shawl and dress, and over my sleeve.
It was then that I started wondering what colour her eyes had been. What was the last thing on earth she had a good look at, before her eyes were taken? Did she see a wayward eucalyptus branch snap back and plunge the world into stinging darkness? Or worse, a blade, swung at her? There was no telling what had happened to her.
The soldier at the checkpoint flagged me down and, as I pulled up, looked ready to tell me off for speeding. But his expression changed the moment he saw her huddled beside me. All he did was nod and let me park at the depot entrance. One or two of the other sentries watched us climb out, but they made nothing of it.
All this time, she didn’t let go of my hand. I led her under the low canopy, into a crumbling foyer. Stretchers were laid out in rows on the hard stone floor. A young medic, also wearing the UN beret, rushed over to us. He pointed me to the nearest mat, and filled a bucket of water. I knelt and tried to guide the woman down but she flailed madly, her hand still clenching mine. The blood on her cheeks was starting to crust. She tugged at my sleeve, until she was sure she lay on solid ground. It took me a moment to let her go. When I turned to leave, I saw the medic place the bucket of water next to her, and kneel down. The last I heard of her was the sound of her wails, echoing off the flaked wall.
Outside, the sentry offered me a cigarette, which I declined. I was going to drive back to the village, I said, and he needn’t worry about any more irregularities. He gave a wordless nod and let me climb back into the driver’s seat. I turned the key once more and headed back down the ramp into Lefka. I hoped I hadn’t put the 42nd Battalion too far behind schedule.
I turned down the main street. Byrne, his lips stained with coffee, stood outside the cafe. He glared at me behind his sunglasses as I got out and saluted. A few of the others were with him, some carrying sacks and boxes of supplies. “Nice day for it,” he said. “Enjoy yourself up there?”
He took off his shades. “I’m not havin’ you flutin’ around without my leave. That’s not what we’re here for.”
“Make sure y’don’t do that again.” He turned to address the lads. “Right, men, let’s go. ’Mon, hurry!”
There was a scramble as everyone piled back into the trucks. Byrne climbed into the passenger seat beside me.
“Tell me why y’took the vehicle without notifyin’ me.”
“Sir, with respect, a woman was badly hurt, and no-one else seemed to be helping. I acted on instinct.”
“Ned, I’m only lettin’ y’away with this once. Pull another stroke like that, and you’re on half rations. From now on, y’don’t do a thing without my say-so. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Sir. Crystal.”
“Good. Then let no more be said about it. Get us out of here, Ned.”
I turned the Land Rover out of the gate and drove us west, out into the mountains. The lads went back to whispering in Irish, or sleeping. Byrne drank from his canteen and stared straight ahead. The radio crackled with static and blurry updates. An hour later, we’d reached our compound, and would be settled in by sundown.
Image by Michael Klajban of Forest road in Troodos Mountains, Cyprus (wikicommons).
Daniel Wade is a Dublin-based author. He was awarded the Hennessy prize New Irish Writing in 2015, and his poetry has appeared in over two dozen publications. Follow his progress on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.