Wednesday 16th March 1977
I’d flown from RAF Gatow in Berlin, to Luton in the UK. From there I travelled by train to London and changed to a much faster train for my long journey north and my family home. To some, it might seem a tedious trip, but for me, every minute was worthwhile.
“Hello, Mum,” I said.
“Hello, son,” she responded. We performed the customary hug. The affection was one-sided. I didn’t dislike my mother, but my greeting felt artificial; to me.
We had a cup of tea, but I refused a meal, preferring instead to have sandwiches. I’d learned some time before, whenever I travelled, I couldn’t face a full-size meal. I figured my mind slipped into a travel and snack mode until I settled in my new location.
My siblings were all away with their friends or significant others, and my mother was at home alone. It was no surprise to learn my dad was in Clydebank enjoying a few beers. How unusual it would have been for him to be at home. I didn’t expect a red carpet welcome, and banners in the street, but hey, he knew I was coming back, and I knew where he’d be.
Although our conversation was strained, mainly due to my lack of input, I chatted with my mum for an hour and had more tea. I told her my plans regarding my two weeks back in the UK. She was happy to hear confirmation I was marrying but saddened it wouldn’t be a big church affair with all the trimmings and lots of guests. I’d already explained myself in a letter, but I did so again, briefly.
“We want to get married. It would be unfair and expensive to expect Avril’s family to travel from Northern Ireland,” I said. “Neither of us wants any fuss, and as it is, we’ll not have long together before we have to go our separate ways again.”
“Couldn’t Avril go back with you?”
“No, it’s not as simple as that when you live in West Berlin. I’ve got no right to married quarters until I have a marriage license to prove I’m married. You’ll have to take my word for it, that it’s too complicated.”
“When will you be together?”
“If Avril turns up, and we’re able to get married, we’ll have two weeks together here, and when I get back, I’ll be eligible for quarters. I have a few years service, which will gain us points, and if we’re married and separated, which we will be, we’ll earn extra points.”
“Could it be two or three weeks before Avril can join you?”
“It will more likely be two or three months.”
The conversation went around in circles for a while, and I suggested I took a walk to Clydebank to find my dad.
“You could take a bus.”
“Nah,” I said. “By the time I wait for a bus, I’d probably be halfway there on foot. Besides, I’ll enjoy the walk. I haven’t walked to Clydebank since I was about fourteen.” The truth was, I wanted to walk, and it was only about three miles.
“A pint of lager, please.” I turned from the barman to face a guy who was eyeballing me from two feet away. I wondered if it was because I ordered a lager, instead of ‘heavy,’ the local version of a pint of bitter. I paid the barman and thanked him, politely, and the guy on my left looked at me again. It occurred to me I stood out because I wasn’t speaking in a broad Glasgow accent, or a Clydebank accent, which is pretty close.
“Can I help you, mate?” I said to the guy who was staring. He was about my age.
He screwed up his features, as guys up there do because they think it makes them appear more threatening. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
I understood him correctly, although his local dialect would have been lost on most of my military colleagues.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been away for a while.”
“You sound English to me, pal.”
“Well, that’s too fucking bad,” I said, knowing I was riling him.
“You want to watch your fucking attitude, pal.” We turned to face each other.
“I’ll tell you what … pal,” I said. “If you want to talk about my attitude, why don’t you discuss it with the guy standing behind you.”
He turned and tapped the guy behind him on the shoulder. “Gordon, do you know this fucking guy?”
My dad turned, squinted, and pushed the dickhead out of the way as he approached me. “Of course I know him, you soft shite. This is Jimmy, my eldest.” Gordon was well-known to be short on stature, but shorter on temper. Fortunately, he was big on muscle and reputation, and when sober had the reactions of a cobra.
We did the man-hug thing, and my dad introduced me to the guys he’d been drinking with, including the dickhead I’d been winding up. The dickhead’s name was Chaz, and when I shook his hand, I made sure he’d remember the grip.
When alone with my dad, I said, “It was good of you to stay at home until I got back.”
“Aw, you know me, Jimmy. I had to get out for a pint.” He laughed off the fact that his drink was more important than any other aspect of his life. It always had been.
“I was running out of places to look,” I said.
“To look for what?”
“You,” I said, and shook my head. “I’ve been in four bars since I arrived in Clydebank this evening. In two of them you owe money, and you’re barred from the other two for fighting.”
“Did you say who you were?”
“You’re fucking joking,” I said. “In the first pub when I mentioned your name and saw the expression on the barman’s face, I said you owed me money. I used the same lie in the other places.”
He laughed, happy to have such a shit reputation. My dad had a strange attitude for a man in his mid-forties. I wondered how much longer I would share his way of thinking. I’d spent recent times working hard to avoid the demon drink. Of course, I’d let my guard down on occasion, and it brought trouble, but I was hoping those days were over.
My aim was to enjoy a couple of pints, and then get my dad home before he became a drunken heap. I promised him I’d go out for a beer with him the next night, and that supported my case.
Thursday 17th March 1977
I spent the morning at the family home but felt a sense of frustration, not being able to make phone calls for the purpose of booking anything or checking out the plans I’d made by letter. It wasn’t unusual having no phone in the house because we’d never had one. I was also confident the three public phone kiosks closest to our house would be out of commission.
During the morning, we were visited by my brother Patrick and his family; Theresa and their two-year-old twins. Patrick was eager to play a part in the proceedings and said he’d be happy to be a witness at the wedding or give us a lift, or whatever would be helpful. I thanked him but didn’t want his involvement. Theresa was genuinely pleased to see me leaving the single life behind.
“Nobody has mentioned David,” I said and looked around at their faces.
“You haven’t told him,” Patrick said, looking from one of our parents to the other. He turned to me and shook his head. “He’s doing a five-stretch for GBH.” He paused. “You know, causing grievous bodily harm?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m vaguely familiar with the terminology. Basically, his psychopathic tendencies are still being nurtured by being a gang member?”
“He’s not one of the gang anymore,” Patrick said. “He’s the leader, which is why he ended up inside. A lot was at stake in the fight, and he almost killed a couple of the opposition.”
“Oh, well that makes all the difference,” I said with sarcasm. “I’m pleased for him but I don’t think I’ll bother booking a visit. I’ll see him sometime if we’re both ever on the same planet.” I looked from my mum to my dad and shook my head. Neither of them had mentioned David, knowing I wouldn’t be impressed. “Dare I ask where my sister is?”
My mother said, “Anne is on the Isle of Man with a friend. They’re working in a hotel, gaining work experience.”
I almost responded by saying, as what? I took a breath before answering. “Work experience, at 20 years of age, which is another way of saying she couldn’t land a job,” I said. “At least she’s fitting into the family’s way of doing things.” I shook my head.
I was aware I was starting to sound a cut above, but unfortunately, it was a feeling I wasn’t ashamed of – because it was true. I had my own issues, but in comparison to what I’d returned to see, I was in control.
After a light lunch, I made my excuses and took a bus into Glasgow. I went into a café, and while enjoying a pot of tea, I went through the list of tasks and contact information I had in my trusty notebook. It took every ounce of willpower to avoid going into a bar. I’d come so far, and I had to hold it together.
During the afternoon, I made three important phone calls, dealing with areas of concern, and then I checked out the location of a couple of places. I was happier when I took a bus back to Drumchapel. I took my dad out for a drink, having insisted we stayed at home to enjoy a good meal first. I assured him I wasn’t staying out until the end of the night. I had an important date the next day.
Friday 18th March 1977
I told my parents that Avril was landing in the early afternoon, which meant I’d stay for lunch and then head to the airport. Patrick offered me a lift, but I declined politely, and when offered, I also declined the offer of his car for the afternoon. Nobody knew about my Court Martial and driving ban, which was how it was staying. They didn’t have to know that the apparently ‘sensible’ son sometimes hung onto reality by a thread.
To reach Glasgow Airport meant an expensive taxi ride or two bus trips. I had time on my side, and I wanted to savour the excitement of seeing Avril again after a year. I used buses. When I arrived at the main arrivals area and checked the timings, I was still early.
As I sat in the café enjoying my coffee, I watched couples, and it struck me, I might be alone when I left the airport. When we’d last written, we’d agreed I wasn’t to phone Avril’s house, unless there was a problem. Our house didn’t have a phone, so she wouldn’t be phoning me. I’d received a brief letter from her on Monday 14th, two days before I left Berlin, and according to her message, all was in order. I’d responded with a brief reply.
It felt strange, to be sitting in a large, modern airport full of travellers, drinking coffee, feeling nervous. I was more nervous than I had been in the final stages of our tour in Belfast in ’73.
While I stood watching the passengers appearing through the arrivals doors, it hit me hard. Avril might have a last-minute change of heart. What would I do if she didn’t show? A dark angel in the back of my mind was grinning. He knew exactly what I would do. I had a fallback position.
I’d booked a hotel room in a picturesque area, and if my girl didn’t turn up, I would go there myself. I’d walk and occupy myself somehow during each day, and drink each night, berating myself for being stupid enough to think somebody would want me.