His mind drifted back to a cold clear morning not unlike this one; it was the second to last time he would see his uncle alive. They lay, side-by-side, knees on damp grass, torsos pressing against the dry clay in the middle of a hawthorn bush; he could feel the cool closeness of Kevin's body. They had cleared a couple of small circles through the spray of white flowers and the long barrels of the rifles peeped out into daylight. The weapons were always referred to by their nicknames. Kevin's Springfield was "Yankee Doodle", Liam's Dragunov – "The Russian Lady". Both were stowed across the border in secret places, shuffled constantly between safe houses, taken care of like special children. When they reappeared it was always a Christmas moment: the hasty unwrapping and the fresh smell of something new; the perfume of gun oil.
They lay motionless for over an hour. Cars passed on the distant road. The cold air from the Lough squeezed inland through the ship canal and fanned up over the hillside. Through the scope he could see the whitewashed cottage with the smoke rising from the chimney and the child's tricycle tipped on its side in the driveway. Just beyond that, the railway bridge with the old graffiti daubed across it: "SAS sleep two to a bed". Out of view, beyond the bridge, was an abandoned car with a pair of twisted wires trailing from a wheel arch into a nearby thicket of gorse. Somebody had phoned it in and sooner or later there would be a response.
This was the third such operation that Liam had been on in two months. Both of the previous outings had ended up nothing more than exercises when the intended targets failed to show. Kevin had explained to his men, in one of his tight little lectures, that the joy of spotting unprotected foot patrols in South Armagh was a pleasure from the distant past. The Lynx helicopters, moving fast and low, leaving behind a trailing smell of burning paraffin in the waving grass, had taken care of all that. This new reality had forced Kevin's unit out further into the open, right to the very edge of their invisible empire.
A Saracen appeared; six big wheels spinning up dirt and roadside grass.
"Bingo!" Said Kevin.
The armoured car did exactly what it was supposed to do; it moved fast and used the hedgerow for cover. It barely stopped at the T-junction, faked left, but turned right. It roared under the bridge and disappeared for no more than five seconds, and then came roaring backwards at full tilt. It stopped outside the whitewashed cottage, and sat there. The driver had no doubt seen the decoy car and the poorly concealed command wire and would have assumed, incorrectly, that there was safety back behind the stone bulk of the railway embankment.
Nothing happened for a long time, yet Liam didn't dare raise his eye from the scope. He knew the field where he lay was packed with hidden young men, all filled with fear and excitement, their breathing stopped as they waited. They wanted this thing to be done and be over, even if it meant a dreadful memory that would walk beside them for the rest of their lives. They wanted to go home and start forgetting.