Estimated reading time — 26 minutes
My name is Sean. Actually, that’s not my real name, but it will have to do. I live in a small tight knit community – the type where everyone knows everybody else. So, if I published my story under my real identity, I’d become a local laughingstock. Either that, or they’d send me to the looney bin…so ‘Sean’ it is.
I was born and raised in a small village in rural County Tyrone, Northern Ireland…or, the North of Ireland, as we learnt to call it. Looking back now it was a pretty decent place to grow up – idyllic countryside, green fields and turf fires, and a friendly community where people look out for their neighbours.
This wasn’t how I felt when I was younger, however. During my teen years I yearned for an escape from the dull and mundane rural lifestyle. My father ran a small farm, and my mother and uncle managed a pub in the nearest village. They were happy with their life, but I grew up wanting more.
When I turned 18 I moved up to Belfast to study at Queen’s University. This was my first taste of freedom and I loved it. During my time there I made new friends, entered into a series of fun but short-lived relationships, and partied hard, while somehow still finding time to hold down a part-time job and study for my degree.
Some of my contemporaries moved back home after university while others got jobs and settled down in Belfast. This wasn’t for me, however. I decided to take a gap year, travelling around South East Asia and then moving on to Australia, where I lived and worked for a year in Melbourne, meeting and befriending yet more interesting people, and enjoying life-developing experiences.
After my year’s visa was finished I returned to Ireland, but only briefly, as my wanderlust kicked in once again. After a couple of months freeloading off my parents, I got the opportunity to move to London and live in a shared house with some friends I’d made in Melbourne. So, I moved again and spent the next two years living, working and playing in the English capital.
I never really felt homesick during this time. I continued to ring my Mum once a week, lest she worry, and she happily chatted away, giving me all the family news and local gossip. To be honest though, I regarded this weekly call as more of a chore than anything. I was so wrapped up in my own exciting cosmopolitan life and frankly found the comings and goings of people back home quite boring.
Every now and again I would feel a yearning for the rolling green hills of Tyrone, for Tayto crisps and Ulster fries, but such feelings were rare. In truth, I wouldn’t have come home if circumstances hadn’t forced me to. Then one day out of the blue I got the call that every son and daughter dreads.
My mother rang me up and I could tell straight away she was upset. It turned out that my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and needed to receive chemotherapy. The doctors were hopeful, but the treatment would take it out of him, and so my Dad would struggle to run the farm. The bottom line was that my poor mother was upset and stressed, having to run back and forth between the farm and the family pub, not to mention looking after her husband.
My family is surprisingly small for an Irish family – just myself and my younger sister…let’s call her ‘Mary’. Well, Mary had recently gotten married and given birth, and so she had no time to help out with a baby to look after.
You can probably guess where this is headed. I was the eldest child and the only son. I had no real commitments and – if I’m honest – I’d been pretty neglectful of my family over the last few years. My Mum didn’t come straight out and ask, but it was obvious she wanted me to come home and help her out, at least until my Dad was feeling better. I could have said no of course, but deep down I knew I had to return home. I loved my parents and had to be there for them.
And so, I moved back to the Tyrone countryside, slept in my old room, spent my morning’s tending to the cows and my evenings working behind the bar. This is what I’d spent the last six years trying to escape from, but here I was nonetheless. But this part of my story isn’t that interesting…its what happened later which defied all rational explanation.
But, before I tell my story, I think it’s worth establishing a few other things about me. I like to think of myself as a fairly laid-back person, open minded but intelligent and educated enough to see the world through rational eyes, rising above the old-fashioned prejudices and superstitions of my homeland.
I grew up as part of the ‘Ceasefire Generation’, coming to age in the years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement which ended three decades of conflict in the North of Ireland. I was brought up as a Catholic and got dragged to mass every Sunday, but never considered myself religious.
Politics wasn’t my thing either. I considered myself Irish rather than British and would one day like to see a united Ireland, but I don’t believe it’s a cause worth killing over. I don’t support violence from either side and get pissed off by the sectarian divide.
That said, my family were victims of the Troubles. My grandparents on my father’s side were murdered during the mid-1970s in a random sectarian attack. This happened long before I was born, but clearly the tragedy had cast a dark shadow over our family. My father was (and still is) a man of few words, and he rarely spoke about his parents’ murder, although it must have had a terrible impact on him. I always just assumed that he found it too painful to remember.
I never knew my grandparents, and they were rarely mentioned when me and my sister were growing up, and so I never really thought about what happened back then. That is, not until the bizarre events of five consecutive nights during the late spring brought the nightmare home to me in a way I’d never thought possible.
The first night I saw them began like any other. I was working the bar in the village, trying to stay awake through the tedium. It was a Wednesday night, which was always quiet. A couple of regulars were in, nursing their pints and whiskeys, barely speaking or interacting with me other than to order more drinks. The television blared away in the corner, showing highlights of a football match played the previous weekend.
I paid my surroundings little attention, pulling pints when required but otherwise ignoring the punters and scrolling on my phone, checking out my friends’ Facebook and Instagram pictures and dreaming of my former life. The regulars had all headed home by 10:30, and with little prospect of further customers, I decided to close up early.
After closing the register and locking up, I climbed into my mother’s car – a reliable but not-too-sexy Skoda Fabia – and began the drive home to my family’s farm. It was a warmish spring night. The sun was down and there was a heavy cloud cover, meaning little to no stars in the dark sky above. The drive home was a relatively short one – just over 5 miles along a narrow country road which cut through the darkened fields and hedgerows.
It was a quiet drive at this time of night, and I would rarely pass any other cars. I was therefore astonished when I ran into a roadblock a couple of miles outside of the village. I saw the sign first, illuminated by my car’s headlights. It simply read – ‘CHECKPOINT AHEAD. STOP.”
I felt a wave of anxiety as I put my foot to the brake. I assumed this was a random police check, presumably on the look out for drink drivers. I’d foolishly taken a shot of whiskey at the pub after finishing my shift. It was stupid, but the drive home was a short one and I certainly hadn’t expected to run into any police out here. I reckoned I was within the legal limit but couldn’t be sure if I got breathalysed. The last thing I needed right now was a court appearance and my licence suspended. But I wasn’t able to turn around or bypass the roadblock, so I sucked it up and brought my vehicle to a halt.
It didn’t take long for me to realise there was something very wrong with this checkpoint. The road ahead was blocked by a land rover parked diagonally across the tarmac. The vehicle appeared military in origin, painted a dark camouflage green. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (or PSNI) still drove armoured land rovers in these parts due to the threat posed by dissidents. However, their vehicles were painted white with yellow and blue stripes. Also, the land rover ahead of me looked like an older model, the type which should have been decommissioned years earlier.
As I brought my mother’s car to a halt, a bright search light was shone through my windscreen, temporarily blinding me. My pulse rate quickened as I shielded my eyes and tried to get my bearings. Something seemed very wrong about this whole situation. I felt sick to my stomach and afraid, although of what, I could not say.
I dimmed my headlights but kept my engine running. There was a voice in my head screaming a warning, telling me to get out of there. But my rational mind told me this made no sense. After my eyes adjusted, I saw dark figures emerging from behind the land rover, slowly marching forward towards my stationary vehicle. I experienced an even greater wave of fear when I saw these men, as my brain analysed and attempted to make some sense of what I was witnessing.
I doubted very much that these men were police officers. Here in Northern Ireland, our police tended to be well-armed and protected. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to see this trio carrying guns and wearing flak jackets. However, their uniforms looked more military than police. What’s more, the weapons they had didn’t look familiar. Two of the men carried long rifles with wooden stocks, while the third held a bulky sub-machinegun with a banana style magazine. I’m no expert on weaponry, but these guns didn’t look modern.
Things began to link together in my head – the vehicles, the uniforms, and the guns. All seemed to be a throwback to a previous era. It occurred to me that this could be a film set, a period drama perhaps. Had I unwittingly stumbled into the middle of their scene, driving my anachronistic 21st century Skoda?
This was the most logical explanation, but it didn’t seem right. The way these men carried themselves they didn’t appear to be actors. They looked like they meant business. And then they raised their guns, aiming directly at my front windscreen. My heart beat faster in my chest, as I gripped so tightly to my steering wheel that my knuckles turned white.
But what really terrified me wasn’t their guns, but their faces. As the trio crept ever closer towards my car, weapons in hand, I was able to make out their features in the dim light. There was no colour in their faces, and their skin appeared as pale as milk. Their expressions were blank, with not a shred of emotion visible. And their eyes…Well, I’d never seen anything quite like them, not on a human being anyway. They were jet black, like a shark’s…dark and predatory, without a shred of human compassion.
Two of the men – if that’s what they really were – stood their ground, covering my small car with their high-powered rifles. The third, who I guessed was the leader of this ghoulish group, lowered his gun and walked up to my driver’s side window, standing just inches away from the glass, glaring down at me with those hideous eyes.
I didn’t dare to look at him directly, and couldn’t even lift my head to acknowledge him, my fear being so severe. I had never experienced such terror in my whole life. There followed a tension filled minute which seemed like an eternity. The figure just stood there, not speaking or moving – just watching me…his cold glare cutting right through me.
I simply sat there, my hands glued to the steering wheel, staring down at my dashboard. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me hoped this was all some kind of terrible nightmare, and I would awake safely in my bed at any moment. But this was more vivid, more real than any dream I’d ever experienced.
There seemed to be no end to this hideous moment in time. It became clear that the soldier – or whatever he was – would not make the first move. If I wanted to have any chance of getting past this, I would need to take action.
Taking a deep breath, I raised my head ever so slightly, and slowly moved my shaking hand across to the car door, where I flicked the switch to open the smallest of cracks in my driver’s side window. I glanced across at the ominous figure, focusing on chest level, as I couldn’t bring myself to look into his terrible eyes.
I opened my bone-dry mouth, struggling to speak through quaking lips. “…Good evening…Can I help you, officer? Do you need to see my driver’s licence?”
I realised how ridiculous my words sounded as soon as I’d spoken them, but my actions did provoke a response. I heard a deep croaking voice which sent a chill up my spine. Against my better judgement, my gaze was drawn upwards to his lifeless face, and into those predatory eyes. His mouth was open wide, revealing a horrible deep gaping hole that was darker than the night.
When he spoke, it sounded like no human voice I’d ever heard. The screamed words were so loud they almost burst my eardrums – ‘HE’S A TAIG! KILL THE BASTARD!”
After speaking these hateful words, he calmly stepped backwards and raised his submachinegun. Simultaneously, his two comrades aimed their rifles directly at me, poising their fingers on the triggers, preparing to fire.
I was frozen in complete terror, not believing what was happening. I prayed it was all a sick joke, but this final delusion was crushed when I heard the deafening crack of rifle fire, as my windscreen shattered, showering me with shards of broken glass.
I screamed as I desperately attempted to escape, ducking down and making for the passenger side door. I reached for my phone, even though it was far too late to call for help. More bullets penetrated the flimsy body of the car, tearing through the vehicle.
And then, I experienced an unbearable searing pain in my right shoulder, akin to being stabbed with a burning hot poker. I screamed again, this time in unbearable agony. I couldn’t believe they’d shot me!
I didn’t have much time to deal with this fact before I was hit again, and again…the multiple bullets ripping through my chest. All I could feel was pain and terror as I watched my own blood splatter all over the car’s interior. I couldn’t move…couldn’t breathe. And the bullets kept coming, with each hit bringing me closer to death. I collapsed into my seat, my head dropping and eyes shutting. Everything went black, and all feeling left my physical body.
I woke up screaming, my head shooting up off my pillow as I panicked, trying to figure out where I was. It took me a moment to adjust to my surroundings. I was lying in my own bed, in my childhood room, the first glimmers of dawn light creeping in through the curtains.
I heard a familiar voice shouting through the door. “Son, are you alright in there?”
My mother. She must have heard me screaming and was clearly concerned. Still confused, I thought on my feet, stammering through my response. “Yes Mum…everything’s fine. I’ll be down in a moment.”
“Okay then dear,” she replied, sounding reassured. “Breakfast’s nearly ready, and there’s fresh tea in the pot.”
I’d bought myself some time. Now I needed to figure out what in hell was going on. I discovered my sheets were drenched in sweat. Frantically checking my body, I expected to find bullet holes on my torso, but there was nothing – no wounds or marks anywhere on my chest or shoulder. My head was spinning but I managed to climb out of bed and walk across to the bedroom window, where I sheepishly pulled back the curtains.
I expected to see my mother’s car shot up to hell, its windscreen smashed and interior riddled. But the blue Skoda was sitting parked in its usual spot in our driveway with not a scratch or dent on it. I shook my head in disbelief. The events of last night were still fresh in my mind, so vivid and so real.
I had experienced true fear and felt actual physical pain. Had this all been a terrible dream? I couldn’t believe it, but yet, what other explanation could there be? I took deep breaths, trying to compose myself.
I tried desperately to make sense of it all, to rationalise what had occurred. Clearly, I’d been under a lot of pressure lately – working two jobs to help out the family. Then there was the whiskey I drank at the end of last night’s shift. Clearly it had all been too much for me.
I’d lost the plot last night. Obviously, I had driven home safely, and the whole ugly incident at the roadblock was nothing more than a vivid nightmare. Reassuring myself, I vowed to take better care of my mental health and to see a doctor if things got worse.
I decided not to mention anything about this to my parents, who already had enough on their plate. I really did hope it was a one-off, but I was dead wrong.
Thursday went by much as normal. I was busy enough, and so I had little time to dwell on the events of the previous evening. After my early morning breakfast, I went about my daily chores on the farm, suffering through the predictably damp and drizzly Irish weather.
Then, after lunch and a short afternoon break, I drove down to the pub to begin my shift. We do a pub quiz on a Thursday night, which meant it was busy. I was run off my feet and the craic was good, and so my mind was kept occupied.
It was after midnight before I was able to close up. I felt exhausted and stressed, but – remembering the events of the previous night – I avoided taking a drink at the end of my shift. I’ll confess that I did feel trepidation about my drive home, but I convinced myself that nothing bad would happen.
Well, I suspect you can guess what happened next. It played out more or less the same as the previous night. The checkpoint was located at the exact same position along the lonely road. My heart sank and my stomach churned when I saw those all too familiar words upon the metal sign – CHECKPOINT AHEAD. STOP.
I couldn’t believe this was happening again. Surely it must be some sort of elaborate trick, I thought. Having little choice, I brought the car to a halt, as once again the road was blocked by the same antiquated military land rover. And, too my horror, the exact same trio of unnatural armed soldiers emerged to confront me.
I kept telling myself it wasn’t real, that all this was simply a product of my tired and stressed brain. But, if this was a nightmare, I could not awake from it. The scenario played out as before, with the two riflemen covering me, while their sub-machinegun wielding commander marched over to my driver’s side window, glaring down at me accusingly.
I was somewhat braver than last time, raising my head to look directly at my enemy. But I couldn’t focus on those black soulless eyes. I did pick up on some additional details however, like the colour of the soldier’s beret, the harp type insignia on his uniform, and a small but distinct scar on his left cheek. I decided not to go down so meekly this time, electing to confront this otherworldly gunman head on.
“Who are you?” I demanded angrily, “What do you want from me? Are you even real?”
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t answer any of my quick-fire questions. Instead, he opened his gaping mouth and screamed the same hate-filled words from the previous night – ‘HE’S A TAIG! KILL THE BASTARD!”
“Shit!” I swore aloud, knowing all too well what was coming next. I desperately tried to escape, opening the driver’s side door and starting to run down the road, away from the checkpoint. I only got about six yards before I was hit, a bullet striking me square between the shoulder blades.
I screamed in agony before slowly falling down to the tarmac. More bullets struck me in the back, my blood spilling all over the road. Once again, I blacked out, taking my last breath as the darkness took me…
You can probably guess what happened next. I awoke screaming in my own bed, without a mark on me. It reminded me of the film Groundhog Day, except every night I was brutally murdered. At this point, it struck me there were only two possible explanations – either I was going insane, or I had been caught up in some kind of paranormal event.
I’d never believed in ghosts or the supernatural, and so in all likelihood I was suffering from a psychotic episode. But what would I do about it? Have myself voluntarily committed? That kind of thing could ruin your entire life, not to mention what it would do to my mother. Besides, I had no history of mental illness, nor was there any in my family as far as I knew.
A big part of me was in denial, not wanting to face this uncomfortable situation. I still hoped this would all just go away and become nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
Nevertheless, Friday wasn’t a good day, and I went through my routine in zombie mode, barely functioning or interacting with family or customers. My bar shift was the worst, my fear growing the closer it came to closing time.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Why not take a different route home? Well, this is exactly what I did on the Friday night. There’s actually only one other route from the pub back to my family’s farm. It involves driving the opposite direction out of the village and joining the main road, before looping back around. This adds about 15 minutes onto my journey, but I wasn’t too concerned by this point.
The main road was busier of course, but in order to get home I needed to drive down yet another lonely and narrow country lane. And, to my horror, the checkpoint was there waiting for me. The hideous routine was all too familiar by that third night, but my despair soon turned to defiance.
It seemed I could not avoid the deadly roadblock, but could I go through it? Throwing all caution to the wind, I put my foot down on the accelerator and sped straight for the stationary land rover, aiming to run it off the road, or die trying. They were going to shoot me anyway, right? So, what did I have to lose?
What happened next defied all logic. There was a flash of light, temporarily disorientating me, and suddenly I found myself 100 yards back up the road, once again approaching the checkpoint. Three times I attempted to drive through the roadblock, and every time my car was inexplicably transported back to the top of the road, where I would repeat the cycle over again.
Eventually, I gave up and accepted my grisly fate. I was reduced to angry tears when I finally brought my car to a stop. I screamed at the soldier when he approached, telling him in no uncertain terms to ‘go fuck himself’. It made no difference.
The shooting occurred exactly as before. The gunman spoke his hate filled words before he and his men opened fire. Next came the bullets, the pain, and the darkness. And… I woke up screaming in my bed.
Needlessness to say, I was in a pretty bad state by Saturday morning. The trauma of being brutally ‘murdered’ three nights in a row had inevitably taken its toll on both my mental and physical health. I couldn’t face going through the same terrifying ordeal all over again, and so I took the day off, telling my mother I was feeling ill.
Actually, this wasn’t much of a stretch, because I looked bloody awful. Mum was sympathetic, fussing over me and sending me back to bed with a cup of hot Lemsip. She arranged for a neighbour to help with the cows and for my uncle to cover my shift at the bar. I felt guilty, because I was meant to be here to help my family, but I desperately needed this temporary reprieve.
I needed to find out what the hell was happening and how to end it. Otherwise, I could end up trapped in this horrible death cycle forever. Knowing my time was limited, I frantically searched online for any information which could be relevant.
I had a number of clues to work with – the checkpoint, the soldiers and their uniforms, the vintage land rover, and the weapons they carried. Before long, I found myself delving into the dark history of my home country and uncovering forgotten secrets about my own family.
My first clue was how the vehicle, guns and the whole scene was reminiscent of the Troubles, the period of sectarian violence which had plagued my homeland for three decades. The ghostly soldiers I’d encountered looked like a throwback to the 70’s, and so I began trawling through archive photographs and film footage online. My ‘eureka’ moment came when I found an old photo of a military patrol and recognised the uniform, berets and harp shaped insignia. The picture was captioned ‘UDR patrol – County Tyrone, 1974.’
The uniforms, equipment and weaponry matched those carried by my assailants. I knew a little about the UDR, or Ulster Defence Regiment, from my history classes back in school, but I learnt much more during my online research that morning. The UDR was a locally recruited British Army regiment active during the Troubles. A lot of its soldiers were part-time and almost all were Protestant.
The regiment had a disputed history, with unionists believing they were good men defending their homes against IRA terrorists, while nationalists considered them as a sectarian militia which harassed Catholics, and sometimes murdered them in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.
I couldn’t believe I was asking this, but could the trio of soldiers I’d encountered be the spirits of dead UDR men? I didn’t believe in ghosts but couldn’t think of any other explanation for what I’d experienced. But, even if I accepted this unorthodox reasoning, it still didn’t explain what these supernatural entities wanted with me.
I decided to dig deeper. I found a website dedicated to the memory of fallen UDR soldiers during the Troubles. I turned out the regiment had suffered over 200 dead in the twenty odd years of its existence, and most of these were killed by the Irish Republican Army or other republican paramilitaries.
I trawled through their Roll of Honour, reading the tragic stories of men shot or killed by bombs, many leaving behind families or young children. Most of the entries had accompanying photographs. I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I was clutching at straws to be honest. But, when I saw it, my eyes almost popped out of my head.
I recognised the picture straight away – the facial features matched exactly, right down to the small scar on his left cheek. This was the man who’d accosted me at the checkpoint and ordered my death three nights running. His name was Andrew Jamieson…and, according to the information on the screen in front of me, he’d died over forty years ago, during the autumn of 1976.
Jamieson’s picture wasn’t alone. He’d died alongside two other UDR men, named Stuart and White. The three soldiers were killed in the same incident, blown up by an IRA landmine attack on their armoured vehicle as they conducted a mobile patrol outside of Cookstown.
I hadn’t seen the other two phantom soldiers as closely, but the photos of Stuart and White looked very similar to the rifle-wielding men on the roadblock. I felt a nervous burst of excitement as I read through the reports on screen. I was relieved to have made this breakthrough but frightened by the implications of my discovery. The soldiers I’d encountered were no longer living, and naturally I found this terrifying.
But I felt certain there was more to this – some connection between me and these otherworldly entities that I’d missed…I kept on searching, armed with this latest piece of the puzzle. I investigated the names I now had, funding more articles and reports about the 1976 bombing. But there was more. The three dead men weren’t just soldiers, it seemed.
There were multiple allegations against Jamieson, Stuart and White online, claiming they were also secret members of the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist terror group responsible for the murders of many Catholics. There were accounts of collusion between the terror gangs and the security forces, and these three were allegedly at the centre of it.
I read on, looking through various victim’s sites until I found something which resonated. The trio were suspects in several murders before their deaths at the hands of the IRA. And…one of the attacks they were linked to was – you guessed it – a shooting at a fake roadblock.
I wasn’t actually too surprised to learn this. It felt like all the pieces were coming together, like it was all beginning to make sense. But I was really thrown when I read the names of the victims. The couple who they shot were my grandparents. I felt physically sick when I read this, my heart almost bursting out of my chest.
These terrorists had murdered members of my family, and now their hateful spirits were targeting me. It defied belief, but this was happening. I mulled this over for some time, staring blankly at my screen. Deep down, I knew what I had to do next. This was a conversation I’d put off for a long time, but now I urgently needed answers…I would speak with my father and find out the truth of what happened on that terrible night in 1975.
I needed to mentally prepare myself for the difficult talk ahead. Since I’d been home, I hadn’t really had a proper conversation with my father, other than small talk about the weather, football, and so on. Every time he returned from hospital after receiving chemo, I would ask how it went and how he was feeling. He always replied to say he was ‘fine’, making it clear he didn’t wish to talk about his illness.
My father and I had a difficult relationship sometimes. He was ‘old school’, a tough old farmer who maintained a stiff upper lip and didn’t talk about his feelings. In fairness though, I hadn’t really made the effort myself. I loved my old man but couldn’t recall ever telling him so. But now I needed to get him to open up, because my life depended on it.
My Dad was sat in his usual spot for a Saturday afternoon, sitting in his favourite armchair in our living room, warming himself in front of the fire, scanning the newspaper whilst the TV was droning on in the background. The cosy and well-kept front room was filled to the brim with family photographs and other sentimental knick-knacks.
I was overwhelmed with a flood of emotions and childhood memories every time I came into this room. My Dad looked up from his newspaper, nodding his head to acknowledge my presence. He’d had another bout of chemotherapy the day before and was clearly worn out. The illness and his treatment had taken its toll. He’d lost weight, his face appearing gaunt and his skin had a slight yellow tinge. It was difficult to see him in this weakened state, even if (fingers crossed) his condition was only temporary.
“How are you Dad?” I asked nervously, as I took a seat on the armchair facing him. He tutted and threw back his head before answering in a flippant tone – “Can’t complain son. Not quite ready for the knacker’s yard.”
I snorted in feigned amusement. Such black humour was typical for men of my father’s generation. I decided to move on, knowing my father was no fan of small talk. I needed to get straight to the point.
“I need to talk to you Dad. It’s important.”
He set down his newspaper and met my gaze, with a look of confusion and concern etched on his face.
“This sound ominous. What is it son?” he enquired.
I took a deep breath before continuing. “I know you don’t like talking about this, but I need to know about granny and grand-dad, about your parents.
My father looked genuinely surprised – more than that, he seemed annoyed and slightly angry, like this topic was taboo.
“Now, why would you ask me about that now, after all these years?” he snapped back.
I could see he was trying hard to control his emotions, as was I. Obviously, I couldn’t tell him the real reason for my sudden curiosity. He would surely think me mad if I started blabbing on about ghouls and near-death experiences. And so, I lied, or at least bent the truth.
“Something happened recently that got me thinking about it…about what happened to them. I think I’m old enough now to hear the truth.”
My father exhaled, lowering his head and remaining silent for a moment, as if he was in a state of deep contemplation. I was surprised to see a small tear forming in the corner of his eye. Such displays of emotion were almost unheard of as far as my father was concerned. Eventually he lifted his head and answered in a croaking voice.
“Fair enough son, I suppose it is time you learnt the truth. Who knows how much longer I’ll be about for?”
I swallowed my pain upon hearing those words. I wanted to tell him it would be okay and that he would make a full recovery, but I couldn’t say this for sure. Besides, right now I needed to hear his tragic story. I believed it was the only hope I had of unlocking this deadly riddle.
“The first thing to know is that your grandparents were good and honest people. They went to church and took care of their family and neighbours. My father was a fair man and never took advantage of anyone his whole life. My mother lived for our family and loved her husband and children very much. They weren’t political at all and didn’t get involved with the Troubles. Not that this mattered to the men who murdered them…”
He sighed heavily, shaking his head and clenching his fist. This was clearly very difficult for my father, but he persevered.
“They set up a fake checkpoint that night. They reckon it was up for about two or three hours in total. At least three cars passed through before your grandparent’s. Two local Protestants who they let through, and one off-duty police reservist who showed his ID Card.
“There were three armed men, all dressed in UDR uniforms. They said the guns and clothes were stolen from an army barracks the year before. Maybe that’s true, but we all knew who was responsible. The local UDR platoon lost one of their men in an IRA attack the week before, and his friends were out for revenge. They didn’t care who they killed as long as they were Catholics. Your grandparents were just unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time…”
My father’s voice croaked, and a single tear rolled down his cheek. I’d never seen him like this before and wasn’t sure how to react.
“Thirty-three bullets fired.” he continued mournfully, “Thirteen hit you grandfather and ten your grandmother…They never stood a chance. We couldn’t even have open caskets at the funeral…”
He came close to falling apart completely at this point. I felt like reaching out to embrace my father but found I could not. All I could do was mutter inadequate sympathies – “I’m sorry Dad.”
In any event, my father was able to pull himself together and carry on. “You know, losing my mother and father almost broke me. The grief and the anger… The police never brought anyone to justice. Perhaps they were in on it. But we all knew who was behind the attack. Three UDR men, also in the UVF…”
“Jamieson, Stuart and White…” I muttered, repeating the names I’d become so familiar with over the last few hours.
My father looked up in surprise before nodding his head in confirmation. “So, you’ve read the reports then. Yes, they were the three. They literally got away with murder. Jamieson was a local boy, you know. I used to see him around the village, acting like nothing could touch him. I confronted him one night in a pub, called him out as a murderer. The bastard laughed in my face. We got into a fight. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. But the police came and arrested me for assault…Arrested me! Can you believe that?”
He paused, shaking his head in disgust. “I thought long and hard about getting revenge and even considered joining the IRA so I could get those bastards.”
I was genuinely shocked to hear this. My father was a formidable character, but I’d never known him to be violent.
“What stopped you?” I asked.
“Your mother did.” he answered firmly, “We’d just started seeing each other around that time, and she was my rock. We fell in love and got married, and a few years later, you and your sister came along. I had my own family and responsibilities. After a while, the pain and anger faded. I kept it from you and your sister because I didn’t want you to grow up with fear and hatred, like my generation did.”
I nodded my head in understanding. Suddenly it all made sense. Dad had carried this tragedy with him all these years, keeping it all inside to protect his children. I suddenly had a new found respect and admiration for my father. This was the most open and frank conversation I could ever remember having with him.
“Do you hear what happened to them? To Jamieson, White and Stuart?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. They died in an IRA bombing about a year later.” Dad answered.
I knew this was dangerous territory, but I had to push for more. “How did you feel when they died?” I enquired sheepishly.
My father slowly nodded his head as if he’d anticipated this question. “I thought I would be happy, that their deaths would bring me some satisfaction. But, to tell the truth, I felt sad. These men had done my family a great wrong. But they were still sons, brothers, and fathers. Yet more families were grieving, and for what? No son, hatred is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I’ll never forget what those men did, but over time I learnt to forgive them.”
After such an emotional conversation, we decided to share a drink together, my father pouring two large glasses from the bottle of whiskey he kept for special occasions. After the drink, we embraced and my father excused himself, saying he needed to rest. I was sorry to have put him through this, especially given his current condition. But at least I now knew the truth, and maybe I had found my way out of this hellish cycle of violence.
The next day was Sunday. I hardly slept a wink the night before with the terrible images running through my head. Nevertheless, I got up the next morning and went about my daily routine, acting like everything was normal. My mother wasn’t convinced, telling me I looked pale and should take an extra day to rest up. But I dismissed mum’s concerns, telling her I was fine and to stop fussing. My dad simply smiled, patting me on the back as he sat down to take his morning tea and toast.
I finished my chores around the farm and set off to the pub that afternoon to start my Sunday evening shift. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t preoccupied, working the bar in zombie mode on what was luckily a quiet night in our family’s pub. I kept thinking of the conversation with my Dad and about the ghoulish sentries waiting for me along that lonely stretch of road. I had a plan, but – as night fell – I had doubts. But what choice did I have? Sooner or later I would need to confront this thing, otherwise these ghosts would literally haunt me forever.
The drive home was predictably nerve wracking. My hands shook as I clutched hold of the steering wheel, and my stomach was in knots. Part of me still hoped for a clear run home, but no such luck, as soon the bogus checkpoint came into sight. The whole scenario played out as before. I didn’t try to drive through the roadblock or resist in any way, knowing it would be futile.
I knew what to expect, but this didn’t make it any easier. Now I knew what these men had done when they were alive – an act of pure evil. It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check. My whole body shook as I watched the lead soldier approach – the ghost of the man once known as Jamieson. As before, he marched up to driver’s side window and looked down upon me.
I opened the window slowly, letting in the cool night air. It took every ounce of my inner strength to lift my head and look into those dark, dead eyes of his. Despite my immense fear, I saw something when I stared into the dark abyss – a terrible sadness weighing him down. I realised then that this ghoul was no longer something to be feared, but rather to be pitied.
I opened my mouth to speak, whispering words which carried from one world to the next. And what I said was this – “We forgive you.”
As soon as I spoke the words, something very odd happened. I saw a glimmer within Jamieson’s eye, a sign of humanity which had previously been absent. It seemed like a huge weight had suddenly been lifted from this being’s weary shoulders.
I’m still not sure what exactly happened next. I remember a flash of light that temporarily blinded me, and then a gust of cold wind which chilled me. When I regained my senses, Jamieson was gone, and so were his two ghostly comrades and the land rover. The road in front of me was totally clear, and there was no sign that the checkpoint had ever been there.
I sat there for several minutes with my hands on the wheel, dumbstruck at what I’d just witnessed. Finally, when I was satisfied it was safe, I put my foot on the accelerator and drove on.
It’s been almost a year since the bizarre events I witnessed. The roadblock has never reappeared, not once. I’m fairly confident that Jamieson, Stuart and White have moved on to another place. I hope they have found peace. My Dad has responded well to his treatment and is now in remission. He’s back at work, which means the pressure is off my Mum. Nevertheless, I decided to stick around for the time being, as I’m enjoying reconnecting with my parents, my sister and my newly born baby niece.
I haven’t told my family what happened out there on that lonely country road. They would probably reckon I was mad. But I know what I saw and experienced. It was real. I’ve since come to believe this all happened for a reason, and I was meant to confront these ghosts which had haunted my family for so long. Then again, maybe that’s all bollocks. What would I know? I’m just a wee barman from County Tyrone after all…Now, whose round is it?
Credit : Finn MacCool
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