by Andrew Foote

Chapter 33

The courier had made an express delivery at six in the morning, so by the time I showed up with the sandwiches, most of the outstanding work had been completed.

It was time to fire it up.

Coupled together with chains, the half-track took up the strain, carefully inching forward towards the doors.

No power to the tank's engine meant no steering; it missed hitting the door pillar by fractions of an inch, but then, once out in the open air, the engineers donned ear defenders before connecting the tank's electrics up what can only be described as a huge battery charger.

There was some messing around before Thilo was given a hand-held radio, and speaking to the driver, the engine began to turn over.

I had expected a whine as the starter-motor fired up, but instead, the engine turned slowly sending puffs of smoke into the air from its two exhaust pipes.

The engineers walked forward, and showing Thilo something inside the engine bay before making a few adjustments, tried again.

This time there was considerably more fumes from the exhausts, but undeterred, they went for it again.

Now we had the occasional flame coming out of the pipes, then suddenly the engine caught with a God Almighty roar. Flames and fumes poured from the exhausts; the noise was deafening, but then the guy in the driver's seat reduced the revolutions to tick-over before climbing out to leave it idling.

I wasn't, nor have I ever been mechanically-minded but I was still interested in why the motor turned so slowly before it eventually started.

"Compression. The ratio is very high so the gearing between the starter motor and the engine must be low or the battery wouldn't be able to cope. Like all military vehicles of this era, to keep the costs down, they made them simple. They didn't bother with glow plugs or pre-heaters, they relied on friction and the compression of the fuel to enable it to start which is fine in warm conditions, but during the winter it can take a lot to get them running and the batteries would have to be enormous if that gear ratio was higher."

"Not good if you needed to get away in a hurry if the weather was cold."

"They'd run them up every few hours for ten or fifteen minutes to keep the engine warm, or if they needed to stay quiet, they'd light a fire under the belly plate."

"Remind me to buy some firelighters and kindling."

"Winter ration packs normally come with smokeless briquets packed in sealed bags so I wouldn't bother buying your own!"

"Are we getting driving tuition today?"

"As soon as we're satisfied everything is alright with this old lady, we'll take you out in groups of three plus one of the boys. We can rotate you around so you can get a handle on not just driving, but as the tank commander and the gunner. Work out how you want to split everyone up and we can get away as soon as we can."

Six groups of three; our medic boys wouldn't be doing this today, made for a long and tiring day. Two hours per group then factor in the time it took to swap around meant that it was gone nine in the evening before we had supper.

I decided that, even though I was looking forward to the experience, I'd put myself down as part of the last group to go out, otherwise everyone else was picked in alphabetical order.

No everyone enjoyed driving, but then they'd enjoyed the role as navigator/tank commander or gunnery officer so it was sorted out between them.

I don't care for large vehicles, but I LOVED this!

Shit, it seemed as if you could take it anywhere you liked; plough across soggy fields, run into buildings and still it would come out on the right side of damage!

Okay, 'John Deere', I might not like you much, but I'm prepared to give you another try after all this is over.

It was dark by the time we got back to school, we'd done the wet field thing and taken out more dry-stone walls that I could count on both hands and I was disappointed it was over.

Fair to say that I was seriously pumped up by the time we hit the showers and got to the dining room.

"Fun time had by all?"

"Could say that! I've never ridden in something more uncomfortable, noisy and smelly, but on the other hand, it was possibly the most exciting driving experience of my life!"

"I'm told they're taking out the guns tomorrow. Tom Ainsley thought that might happen because even when new, they were unreliable and prone to jamming. They'll be cleaned up and disabled before being used as exhibits."

"Did he say anything about them being replaced, Jim?"

"I asked that, but he didn't know, but we don't understand anything about machine guns."

"We hardly knew anything about guns, period, before Easter. Why go to all the time and expense to refurb the thing; I mean, the fuel costs alone for today had to be considerable. If it doesn't have any operational capability, then it just seems like a fun waste of time."

James shrugged his shoulders.

"I think we only have to look at what we already know, Steve.

Moving the majority of the school to Shap; that must be costing them an arm and a leg. Then there's getting us out on exercise for three days, testing our resolve and tenacity. They try to ambush us but we turned the tables on them, and now we spend two days messing around with an impotent piece of hardware.

My guess is they plan on making some serious upgrades."

"You reckon the threat level is higher than they're letting on?"

"Can you think of any other reason?"

"Bastards! I've told them time out of number to play straight with me!"

"And doubtless they got the message broadcast in very loud quadraphonic. They know you well enough to understand you'll detonate, so, if they are keeping you out of the loop, there has to be a very good reason for it."

"I hear you. I made a promise to Thilo to stay calm and reasonable, but it's very difficult."

"Give it time. They'll have to say something eventually.

Are you going up for drinks later?"

"Actually, I think I'll have an early night. I need to think clearly, and drinking won't help.

See you in the morning, Jim…… and thanks for the chat."

I didn't stay awake long enough for thinking time; I was asleep before my head hit the pillow, and I never knew anything else until Thilo woke me with a mug of tea at eight the following morning.

He was already dressed in his fatigues, and as he drew the blinds, the early morning sunlight hurt my eyes.

"Methinks you needed that early night!"

"Yeah, I did. One minute I'm talking to James, and the next, I could barely keep my eyes open.

Did I miss any fun?"

"No. I think all of us were pooped. A couple of drinks each and it was away to our beds.

I got up here about ten o'clock but you were totally out of it by then."

"Yesterday was a blast, but I hope today is gentle. The training on the Fells was physically tiring, but then capturing those Territorial boys was mentally draining. Not only that, but taking Mr Collins was madness. What might've happened if he was armed? Someone threatening him using a broad Afrikaans accent with him knowing about all the issues, - Dear God. I could have got us all killed!"

"He did mention that, but it punctuated it by telling us that many successful operations are audacious and crazy. We had him totally on the back foot, - he even said that had he been carrying, there would've been no other option open to him but to comply."

"I still feel bad about it. He's doing his utmost to train us, give us the ability to face up to this situation, but I made him look like an idiot."

"That's not how he sees it. He looks upon it as a major achievement. We didn't get angry, we used our brains. We didn't give up even when we knew we were in trouble, and then we go on to capture the guy who's the expert in nasty stuff."

"Did he happen to say what we're doing today?"

"Gun practice. Alun's not had much of an opportunity to get to grips with that rifle, - we've got small arms training and the other lads are having their G36's modified due to an issue with the shell ejector shield. There's a doctor coming here from one of the air bases so Henry, Julian and Charlie can get some updates."

"We carry G36's as well as the Beretta's. Our ours going to be sorted out at the same time?"

"I've given them to Pete. We won't be there as we've got to go to a meeting at eleven o'clock."

"Who with?"

"Spooks I think.

Promise me you'll try to keep cool?"

"I'll do my level best."

"Please do? By all accounts, this won't be Mr Askwith or his mate at the meeting. It's going to be someone senior."

We were ushered into a room on the west wing of the school that was normally our science block and introduced to a Sir Malcolm Edwards, a senior officer with MI6.

He wasted little time going through all the pleasantries, but just shook our hands before getting down to business.

We were the only people in the room.

"We've done a lot of digging over the last month or so. We have managed to discount quite a number of possibilities; however, we are far from being confidant regarding your safety.

One of these concerned the possible involvement of Al Shabaab, about whom we know very little other than their desire for the adoption of Sharia Law world-wide.

For years, the lines of communication have been dormant, that was until yesterday at 3.44pm UK time when we received a radio transmission on a secure, reserved frequency.

I won't bore you by playing the entire broadcast, but we believe it to be genuine as they signed on with passwords, then finished with key words that only they could know.

Please listen to this edited version."

It was scratchy and faded in and out, but the message was clear.

"We send this to the government of the United Kingdom and her allies.

We have received reports that Al Shabaab are under suspicion for targeting two of your citizens, and further investigation means that we are now in possession of their identities, one Viscount Stephen Leon Broadhurst, a Peer of the Realm, and a Mr Thilo Roker who is a citizen of South Africa.

We wish to make the following statement.

We don't have any interest, neither do we have any intention of harming these people. If they have sinned, then they are answerable to Allah, not us.

Whoever is threatening them is not, I repeat, is not one of our number, here or around the world.

Further to that, if we find that anyone is using the name of Al Shabaab as cover for their actions, we will find them, and will punish them according to our beliefs and practices.

Mr Roker. Viscount Broadhurst. You are non-believers, but that said. May Allah walk with you for the rest of your lives, certain in the knowledge that we mean you no harm."

The transmission finished leaving only the hiss of static through the speakers.

"You really believe that's the real deal?"

"There can be no doubting it. Those people never stray from their practices; the last time there was traffic on that frequency was eight years ago and we had almost given up monitoring it.

No, this is very genuine, and oddly enough, it gives us hope that we might be able to negotiate with them…… or rather, you might."

Thilo looked at him in disbelief.

"You, WHAT? You expect us to travel to Somalia?"

"No! Nothing along those lines! But what if we could set up a dialogue between you and them?"

"To what end? How might that help?"

"We cannot underestimate the significance of this occurrence. For years they have consistently refused to communicate, yet suddenly they see a reason to break with tradition and all because they're anxious to distant themselves from your attackers.

We have to ask the reason why, and there can be only one conclusion."

"Go on?"

"They think that what happened is wrong. They're trying to send a message that this sort of thing is unacceptable despite their strict regime and doctrine."

"You want me to talk to them?"

"Well, preferably both of you.

Viscount? You were mentioned in that communiqué, so we were thinking along the lines of a joint response, thanking them for their reassurance and that you would be happy to maintain a form of dialogue with them so long as it remained non-political."

I looked at Thilo. He nodded to me.

"We should do this, Steve. We can't expect to turn them around, but to be able to exchange messages or tap into their intel network might give us a clue about who's behind the attacks."

"Just so long as it's messages only. I don't want to find ourselves in open conversation with them."

Sir Malcolm interrupted us.

"Past experiences would suggest that they wouldn't want that either. They mightn't even respond to you, but it has to be worth trying. A simple message expressing your thanks for the reassurances they've made together with asking them to share what information they might have would be enough for now."

"Form of words? Not understanding what might be acceptable to them might be our problem."

"We took the liberty of putting something together in the event that you agreed to do this. We can look at it, edit it until you're satisfied that it's what you want to say before recording it for transmission. After then, it's a case of sit back and wait."

Our message began with the traditional way that one Muslim might greet another.

'As-salamu alaykum wa-rahmatullagi wa-barakatuh.' Or 'Peace be unto you and so may the mercy of Allah and his blessings.'

I wondered about this. Would it be acceptable for a non-Muslim to greet a Muslim this way?

Answer; yes, it was, and his response to you would be the same. He was obliged to do this as it was a sin to do otherwise.

The rest was a straight-forward message of thanks followed by words about our hope for a swift end to our troubles and our need for help in securing that outcome.

Simple, respectful and to the point.

Sir Malcolm had us switch between us so both of our voices would be heard, recorded it onto his laptop and sent it of as an encrypted email for onward transmission to Somalia by GCHQ in Cheltenham.

"I imagine they'll send it within the hour, and as soon as I've had confirmation, I'll delete it from my machine and leave you to the rest of your day. If we have any kind of reply, I'll make sure you're kept up to speed."

Just then his phone rang with a message giving him the head's-up that it had been sent.

He deleted our voice message then ran a scrubbing program on his laptop before putting it back in his briefcase.

We showed him out to where an RAF staff car was waiting for him, and he was gone.

The following day and school life returned to the normal routine of studying for our exams in the morning and some brigade work together with free study time in the afternoon leaving our evenings clear to allow us to relax together.

Alun had some difficulty mastering the Russian equivalent of the McManus. It was lighter and had a kick like a mule, but his instructor made some adjustments to the stock and from that point, he was able to hit targets up to two miles distant with little effort.

The modified H&K's worked well, and after some intensive training, our brigade work was slimmed down to one hour a day.

Not all of our relax time was spent in the pursuit of booze. Nigel had managed to persuade Mr King to allow us access to the woodwork room where we did a joint operation in fashioning a proper bar, and for people like me who preferred to sit at a bar rather than in an armchair, we made four stools.

After the bar was in place and the shelving behind it stocked with bottles, we headed into Keswick to look for some ambient lighting and replacement furniture, - all of which we managed to find in various charity shops.

Why people chuck out quality stuff surprises me, but we found really nice table lamps and shades, an overhead light as a replacement for the harsh strip lamp, three easy chairs and four settee's, three low coffee tables and an assortment of what I call Barrel chairs, - sort of a cross-over between an easy chair and an upright dining-type chair.

It took three trips using the half-track to get everything back to school and a total outlay of £846 or £48 each!

The charity shops had a good day, but we weren't finished yet.

Nice as it looked with smart, comfortable furniture and accented lighting, this was a large room and the walls were bare.

We weren't allowed to decorate, but we could hang pictures, erect shelves for books, magazines and ornaments, so it was back to Keswick to hit the charity shops again.

Books weren't a problem, so we selected stuff that was readable such as adventure novels by author's such as Andy McNab and Clive Cussler, David Baldacci and Gerald Seymour. Good stuff, even if you only wanted to read them once, but future sixth-former's would also enjoy them.

We managed to get hold of some really nice framed pictures and a selection of ornaments ranging from vases to oddities such as an old flat iron and two vintage tin cars, - one was a 1940's racing car and the other was a 1960's open-top Triumph Herald, before Mark came up with three more lamps.

These were 1970's wax and water things. The heat from the bulbs warmed the wax and made it bubble up like large globs of goo rising to the top of the glass before cooling and sending them floating to the bottom before the whole thing repeated itself.

One had red water, one blue and one green, and so pleased with his find, he offered to pay for them himself as well as his share of the rest of this stuff.

I think 'WOW!' does it for me! £1000 had completely transformed our common room from a functional space to a very cosy and welcoming room. (I especially liked Mark's lamps! 'Cool and wonderfully retro' works for me!)

Our adopted fifth form lads, Charlie, Jules and Henry fitted in well.

At our age, sometimes younger boys can be a pain in the arse, but not them.

Jan had a strong faith as did they, but they were a very welcome addition to sixth form life.

Taking of Jan?

He managed to come up with a heap of those cardboard coasters you see in pubs.

These read 'Jesus loves you. But he could also turn water into wine!'

He had them printed specially once he saw the amazing transformation of the common room, and more were on offer once we ran short.

His own personal contribution to the party.

Mister's King, Amos and Collins were regular visitors but refused our offer of free drinks. Instead, Ben added them to the Tab list which they could settle with him at the end of each month.

All sounds rather nice, right?

Yes, so far as it goes, I suppose it does, but we were waiting for a response from Mogadishu, and it was a long time coming.

No matter how nice the pub, if your mood is low or if you're otherwise distracted by events, then you could be anywhere.

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