Ely - Cardiff - South Wales
My bedroom door opens allowing a bleak shaft of light from the landing to divide the darkness. Instantly I am wide awake and sit up in the bed. Sillouetted in the light a familiar figure approaches my bed and sits beside me. My Dad is home. He's the best Dad in the world. He's gentle and unbelievably easy going and has eyes like huge brown puddles that never hide what he's feeling. Also he's a very brave man. I once overheard him telling our neighbour he was in the Merchant Navy. When my Dad mentioned somewhere called Murmansk I heard the neighbour state - with huge respect in his voice - that men did not come any tougher than those who went to Murmansk. In a quiet whisper Dad inquires.
"What's wrong my handsome? Mam tell me you were upset!" He always calls me 'his handsome'.
In the half light his face is obscured but I can almost feel the warmth of his grin...
‘Mr Alfred Graham'
From the inside pocket of his jacket Mr Graham slowly removes a maroon coloured beret. You can here a pin drop as he enquires.
"Does anybody know what this is?" Before anyone can answer he hands it to the nearest boy telling him to pass it around. Moments later I am looking down at a shiny metal badge showing a small parachute from which wings protrude on either side. I then hear Mr Graham murmur.
"In the war I was a paratrooper!" Seven words which grip every last boy squarely in the palm of his hand. The very word - 'paratrooper' is spell binding and has the same awesome value as Apache, Legionnaire, Commando or Gladiator.
‘Violence proves nothing'
"I'm in terrible trouble Dad!" I murmur, oozing worry and guilt.
"What have you done?" He says quietly.
"I just shot one of Mr Hedges pigeons Dad! I swear I didn't mean to! I aimed at the chimney pot so they would fly down to the coup! He's coming to see you! He's... bringing the police!"
I am totally amazed when Dad - completely unruffled - his smile undiminished simply murmurs. "Oh dear!"
Mam, appearing in the hallway - aware something is seriously wrong - insists on hearing the whole story again and is beside herself with worry - more so when a sudden loud pounding on the front door knocker is so abruptly demanding it can only be one thing. Dad opens it to reveal Constable Dobbs who is so monstrously huge he effortlessy blocks out the evening sunlight. Beside him stands Mister Hedges, clenching the poor deceased pigeon whose head flops lifelessly around each time he moves his hand. Beyond our front gate half the neighbourhood are gathered, muttering to each other as they watch the proceedings. I feel immensely ashamed. It is a huge event to have a policeman knock your door.
"Mr Mallory?" Says Constable Dobbs glaring at me. "Would you mind if I have a word?"
Dad nods and steps into the front garden but not before looking at me and stating with very curt emphasis.
"Get up to your bedroom! I'll deal with YOU later!"
Even as he pulls the front door shut I'm bolting upstairs.
In the seeming blink of an eye a year passes and I awaken one morning to find I am taller, that my voice has deepened and hair is appearing where there was never hair before. From nowhere comes an instinctive compulsion to write. Never bereft of words to translate feelings and images into text, when the school publishes a one off magazine called the ‘Elysian News' I immediately submit a short story. To my absolute amazement the story is accepted and published. Oh the joy of seeing my name in print. Mam and Dad are enormously proud and inquire if I want to be a writer...
"No!" I reply. "I want to be a paratrooper!"
His breath is a foul blend of garlic and stale beer. As he speaks tiny droplets of spittle are ejected that I can't avoid breathing in. Continuing to effortlessly hold me with one hand he lowers the other one which returns in seconds clenching something he has removed from his pocket. It's a cut throat razor. One of those things Barbers use. With his eyes never budging from mine and as if in slow motion he thumbs a small lever at the end of its handle making a shiny steel blade emerge. I am riveted - transfixed by it. The surge of abject fear which reverberates through me is unspeakable. He is Psychopathic - quite literally capable of anything
Walking dejectedly home I sit at the dining table in our back room and as I stare into nothing I begin to feel a surge of grief building inside me that is painless yet at the same time a pain like no other. Suddenly the tears that wouldn't come flood my eyes and refuse to stop. When Mam hastily appears from the kitchen I hear her drag up a chair and place it next to me. I feel her arm settle on my shoulder and hear the agony of acceptance in my voice as I weep like no one should ever weep. "My Dad's gone!" I say over and over...
‘De Couche Place'
Within these cabins are men of huge personality and larger than life repartee who tell jokes, anecdotes, true life dramas or argue politics. I yearn to be like them - to join in and say what I think, but I lack the confidence to venture an opinion. Instead, I hide behind the safety of a book or a newspaper, polite, inoffensive and eternally vigilant for the trivia, the unguarded moment that may lead to confrontation and potential violence.
Such is my life at age eighteen.
‘One of life's genuine giants'
His eyes suddenly bulge with angry impatience. With a meaningful pause between every thunderously spoken word he retorts with unexpected wrath.
"DON'T - JUST - NOD - AT - ME!" Slowly prodding the side of his temple with his index finger his next comment has all the impact of a verbal sledgehammer as he booms with almost savage emphasis...
"THINK - BILL! Stop allowing yesterdays fear to determine all your tomorrows - has that sunk in? Is it absolutely clear in you mind?"
Like an obedient, scolded child I rapidly and very loudly exclaim.
"Yes Mr Graham! It is clear in my mind!"
As fast as it arrived his wrath vanishes. His eyes soften as he urges...
"Events have not removed your courage Bill - they have smothered it - made it dormant! It needs awakening, revitalising and for you my boy, the key to that is determination!"
Hanging on his every word, absorbing them, devouring them as surely as paper tissue will soak up fluid, I try to imagine what on earth he will say next...
With an endless supply of tinder dry twigs layering the forest floor a small fire soon crackles into life. Dangling from the tripod I've made from thick wire coat hangers is my enamel Billy can - a relic from my fireman days. Within half and hour I'm sitting with my back against a tree, the blanket around my shoulders and sipping the best cup of tea I have ever tasted. The smell of the fire, its glowing warmth and the gentle hiss as air occasionally escapes from the burning wood bring a sense of accomplishment which makes my confidence soar. It's been a long arduous day and my eyes feel heavy. The luminous dial of my watch shows its two thirty. Beyond the intangible foliage surrounding my campsite the vague pulsations of the nightlife confirm all it well as I drift off to sleep.
I have no idea why I suddenly awaken...
The entire forest is utterly still and silent as though holding its breath in mammoth expectation of something terrible about to happen. I now discover an instinct I didn't know I had - a sort of built in deep rooted rader that informs me, warns me, I am no longer alone; that beyond my campsite someone is watching my every move. Realising this causes my stomach to instantly hollow as the hairs on the back of my neck give a brief but distinct shiver.
In that moment the absolute silence is shattered by the unmistakable sound of a twig snapping. Mesmerized by the fact hedgehogs and squirrels do not step on twigs and break them, overwhelming panic begins to mushroom inside me as surely as a pebble dropped into a pond will cause ripples to spread out. Even more petrified as I remember those boyhood rumours something evil lurks in this forest at night, feelings of flight begin to consume me.
Then, the totally unepected happens. As though cutting a swathe through this tangled fog of indecision and infectious speculation - the inner voice of my thoughts silently scream a more sensible alternative....
'For God's sake Billy' It pleads rationally. 'Calm down and get a bloody grip of yourself! For a start - get away from the fire: He can pin point you in the glow of the fire: The darkness and the forest are both neutral - use them to be equal with him. You came here to confront fear! Do it! Do it Bill! Do it now!'
Spring - 1970
I am informed I will work on what is called, ‘the presentation squad'. A nice name for what is in reality a toilet cleaner. So there I am on that first Monday morning, walking around the factory carrying a bucket filled with disinfectants and a smelly mop whose handle is filled with replacement toilet rolls. I resolve to get on with it and take it in my stride. I simply don't understand what is happening to me. Since that night in the forest I have become a totally different person.
Summer - 1970
I am extremely content, especially in the company of my daughters for whom being with me in the workshop is far more popular than the television. I join a Judo club and rapidly proceed through the grades to blue belt discovering I have incredibly fast reflexes and an awesome will to win. I hear my workmates talking about the citizen soldiers of the TA, the Territorial Army. Like many people I know nothing about it whatsoever but when it ignites my boyhood ambition to become a soldier, I feel myself drawn to it like a cat to cream.
‘The Airborne Brotherhood'
In my periferal vision I note he is slowly nodding and as his tone adopts that of someone who has suddenly become enlightened I receive a baptism into the scathing - merciless humour of a Parachute Regiment Sergeant Major.
"So YOU'RE Private Mallory are you?" He murmurs knowingly.
"Yes Sergeant Major..." I mumble almost apologetically.
"I've yerd all about you son!" He drawls knowingly. "Five bleeding minutes in the Army and you try to join the Navy? Next week you will no doubt try to join the Girl Guides and in the meantime you thought you may as well enlist in the Airborne?"
Disbelieving - completely unsure how I am meant to react - I move my eyes a fraction in his direction causing him to instantly and very curtly command
"Look to your front!" As I stare robotically at a point on a nearby wall he continues...
"Story I yerd is that you drove a three tonner around the parade ground up at Maindy for two months until you nearly drove it straight up your own arse and disappeared altogether! Is that correct?" In that moment I hear myself wonder....
'Dear God! What am I getting myself into?'
‘At last, a uniform'
Mid - 1971
I eventually walk over to the bar area which is immensely crowded. Waiting my turn to be served - one of the men - who looks tougher than flint - glances at my black eye and murmurs. "Wha'you drinking kid?" Several others turn and grin. I step forward and never feel on the outside again.
So passes my first night in uniform - thus beginning the broadening of my horizons...
Early Summer - 1972
The Regimental Sergeant Major marches into view and mounts a small rostrum. Everybody - Officers, Selection Staff and assembled recruits fall under his awesome shadow as he meaningfully states.
"Gentlemen! I thank you all for attending this selection cadre. The regular Parachute Regiment accepts only the very best and this applies to its reserve forces! We want the absolute cream among You! Sadly, many of you won't be here in two weeks from now, but once again I thank you for attending and wish every one of you the best of luck!" He pauses and then abruptly commands...
"Selection Staff - carry on!" So begins selection. Two weeks designed to wear out a Mule...
‘Slightly more demanding'
July - 1972
An RAF Officer comes down the ranks shaking each man by the hand and presenting him with his Para wings. As he hands me mine I gaze down at a small piece of green fabric showing blue wings either side of a small white parachute. I look at him and smile. I want to say ‘thank you sir' but I am far too choked up for something as simple as words. It is an intensely private moment for me...
‘A Scorpion, a Snake, a Shark and a Sniper'
The United Arab Emirates
January - 1973
I leave all my kit in the hallway and immediately go upstairs to see my girls. In the glow of the landing light I tip toe into their bedroom and stand staring at them. Much the same as my Dad did with me, I kiss them on the forehead and tousle their hair. Whilst doing so my youngest daughter awakens and in the semi darkness exclaims with tremendous excitement. "Daddy's home - Daddy's home!"
The other two immediately spring to life. One of them quickly puts on the main light. I have looked forward to this moment so much but am amazed when all three freeze, rub their eyes and simply gape at me as the baby of the family explodes into tears declaring with much apprehension.
"Your not my Daddy! - Your not my Daddy!" The ruckus awakens Helen who comes rushing in flapping like a budgie, wearing curlers and an expression that couldn't be more fraught if King Kong himself was outside the window. Only when I calm everyone down do I realise what the problem is.
I am quite literally darker than a spoonful of Nescafe.
Cyprus - 1973
In the harbour itself is anchored an Arab Dhow with enormous coloured sails. Talking to some holidaymakers we discover the movie is called 'Ghost in the Noonday Sun' starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Tony Franciosa. Little do we imagine we are about to become movie makers. Sitting around a table in the bright sunshine of a quayside Taverna, making our beers last and generally watching the world go by, a guy walks passed our table and stares at us with much obvious curiosity. Middle aged, carrying a clip board and wearing a sun visor, he politely enquires if we are squaddies.
"Squaddies my arse!" Replies the regular indignantly. "We're Paras!"
"Paras!" He exclaims. "Excellent - How would you like to be in this movie?"
Even now, all these years later, the mere sight of him can evoke a surge of fear within me that bring horrendously detailed flashbacks.
‘A wing and a Prayer'
Winter - 1974
The pilot, wearing a WW2 leather helmet, levels off at two thousand six hundred feet where, one at a time, we climb out onto the wing which is immediately outside the door less cab. Gripping the struts between the upper and lower wings we then stand in a spread eagled position until ordered to go. Stepping backwards our parachutes are pulled open by a static line known as the 'dope rope' Floating down from that height you have almost two minutes in the air to play with the highly steerable parachute on which is stencilled - USMC - 1964.
‘Pennies from heaven'
Guernsey - Channel Islands
Mid Summer - 1975
Someone makes the interesting observation that if you filled Wembley Stadium to capacity on cup final day there would only be a mere handful present who have parachuted into the sea the way we intend to do it. To avoid being entangled in the parachute underwater we will release all the harness couplings on the way down and jump clear at the last moment. With the enthusiasm that has long been ingrained into us, we can't wait to get on with what will surely be the experience of a lifetime...
Chapter Twenty 0ne
‘The brutality of the Swan'
Summer - 1976
Flicking hastilly through the remaining pages before passing the paper on, a picture suddenly catches my eye. It shows a little African girl about ten years old. Her body is tiny and emaciated making her head seem huge. Her eyes, enormous and frightened, dominate the entire picture. Beneath her is a caption saying. 'Just two pounds a month will keep this child alive'. Minus the barbed wire and the striped prison garb she is identical to the little girl I saw in Belsen yesterday. As I close the newspaper and elbow the guy next to me, gruffly pushing it into his hand, I reflect that we can put a man on the moon, transplant a human heart, build an aircraft that flies faster than a bullet and tear the side out of a mountain to save a trapped dog, yet the unrelenting conflict of centuries teaches us nothing. Absolutely nothing. I know I will be a better and wiser man for being witness to these emotive and intensely thought provoking experiences...
Chapter Twenty Two
‘One Para to another'
Had he been in the Gospel Hall I knew exactly what I was going to say and do. I would have held out my hand, grinned and said quietly...
"Hello Mr Graham - remember me - Bill Mallory. I believe I owe you ten pounds and five years of unbelievable self discovery!"