It was dark now and they'd come to this spot from the valley below and would be here for some time. There were four of them, each huddled into their own little world, each trying to find some comfort in the gloom and drizzle. There was malevolence and danger about the place, a feeling of being perched on the edge of the world, a sense of foreboding, nothing tangible, just a feeling. The silence ate at him, gnawed at his nerves. His mind was left free to wander and free to wonder at the demons out there beyond his vision.
He stamped his feet trying to get some blood round to his toes. He had to stand but the others had managed to find space to lie down. The kit on his shoulders was beginning to pull but he daren't take it off, daren't lose it to the night. It was too important.
He tried to avoid the darker thoughts and his mind drifted to the easy days of his youth. Of camping and hill walking and cragging. He loved the open space, loved the freedom of simple, uncluttered decisions. But how had he got sucked into this? To a world where danger was ever present, where his decisions weren't his own.
Of course, survival had its rewards, to enter the fray and come out the other side was exciting, gave him a buzz. But you had to get to the other side and right now there was no guarantee.
In the distance he could hear a dog barking, could even just make out the faint glow of street lights bellow. If he reached out he might touch them, but he knew they were a world away. Still they taunted him, cried out to him. Odd that he should be so keen to leave their dreary comfort, odd that he should long to be back amongst them so soon. Like stepping from the warmth of the kitchen into the cold of the cellar, two different worlds running parallel. Why was he here? What drove him to this?
He'd spent much of his youth in the hills. His parents had taken him away most weekends. Snowdonia, The Lakes, Scotland and as far afield as the Alps. He had grown to love the outdoors. It was familiar to him and had always been his friend. He'd learnt to climb, to map read, to look after himself and to feel at home in the wilder corners of the world. This love of adventure had played its part, had led him down his chosen path.
Here it was different. Here the comfort of the open space was gone and left him feeling exposed and anxious. What was it he was trying to prove? He'd talked about 'facing the elephant', an expression of facing his fears. To see if he was a man, to see if he could stand his ground and not be found wanting. Would he make it or turn and run?
His decisions in this place could mean life and death to both himself and the others around him. The responsibility weighed heavily. He looked at his watch. Time to move off soon. Thank god. He whispered to the others to get ready. The rain had passed and the first sign of the sun's early rays began to appear off to the east. It was a welcoming sight. It made things clearer, swept away the doubts and fears. The radio crackled with a distant voice and he responded in kind, rolled up the VCP and took his position at the front of the 'brick'. The dawn was beginning to break and the four young Para's patrolled back down the lane, back into the welcoming arms of West Belfast.