Saturday, October 11, 2008

Operation Doughnut

A creature of unwavering habit, the sun ducks down behind the brewery, the cloud-ribboned tapestry of day unravelling in its wake as the dark veil of night descends upon the parish. An owl hoots, a dog barks, and from the belfry of St Benedict’s there rings a low, solitary knell, its mournful tone hanging briefly upon the air until, unheard and unheeded, it dwindles forever without trace into the black silence of infinity.

In the deepening gloom of his ancestral cottage, a young man stirs, glances up at the clock on the mantelpiece and heaves a long, embittered sigh of weary resignation. By a Herculean effort of the will he shakes off the inertia of reluctance and rises slowly from the comfort of his chair, shrugs into a threadbare overcoat and sets off into the night. Tormented by remorse, he treads the familiar path, the faintly glowing embers of hope fading like the memory of a dream and crumbling with every step into the lifeless dust of despair.

He reaches his destination, walks across the yard and enters the messroom, knowing at once he’s been betrayed. Fred ‘Judas’ Ventricle looks up and smirks, and he knows he's finished. His secret is out. The game is up. It's over.

Resigned to his fate, he stands before them, a defendant awaiting sentence, his bowels threatening to loosen as the icy claw of reality grips his innards. But then, when all seems lost and hopeless, he digs deeply into his meagre reserve of youthful resilience and produces from his pocket one last card to play.

“Who wants a doughnut?” As the old brown clock strikes the eleventh hour, he pulls a sugar-dusted ring of jam-filled stodge from the bag and offers them round. The dam bursts and a flood of mercilesss abuse sweeps over him, and as his equanimity drowns beneath a tidal wave of humiliation, he thinks back to the previous night and the scene of that shameful aberration.

“They’re waiting in the canteen. Through here, lads. Down the corridor, turn right, second left, left again, right, left, straight ahead, it’s on your right. You can’t miss it.” The duty sergeant lifted the wooden flap and we crossed over to the other side. Fred seemed to know the way and the sign above the door was clear enough, yet still I felt certain that we’d taken a wrong turning, because I’d been expecting to find half a dozen bleary-eyed coppers sitting about drinking tea, and we appeared instead to have stumbled upon some sort of clandestine assembly of the freemasons deep within the bowels of the Ferris Row police station.

The air was thick with smoke and banter, and the coarse easy laughter of men on overtime flew freely about above the low murmur of anticipation.

“Ah, at last. Come in, gentlemen,” called the Worshipful Master, looking pointedly at his watch and inviting us to take a seat. The room fell silent as fifty faces turned to conduct a brief examination of the new arrivals, delivered a unanimous verdict of indifference, and directed their attention towards Detective Superintendent George Jennings. I looked to Fred for guidance, but he had already made himself at home on a chair to one side, so I sat quietly beside him as the man called Guv proceeded to address his audience in a language I struggled to comprehend.

It was alpha this and bravo that, an ETA at the RVP, the ARV and the SPG, an ASU of the IRA, the TFU from DHQ, the DCC and SOCO. Nonplussed, I turned again to Fred, but he was already asleep, his head against the wall, nostrils quivering, mouth agape, so I just sat there nodding with feigned understanding as I looked around the room.

At the front sat a dozen detectives, and scattered about here and there was an assortment of white-shirted standard-issue coppers, but what drew my attention was the phalanx of stern-featured thugs with low-maintenance haircuts sitting at the back in dark overalls, chewing gum and cradling sub-machine guns and staring unblinkingly ahead as though at something a thousand yards beyond the wall. Blimey, I thought, this is exciting. My first armed incident and we’re going to storm an embassy.

At that early stage in my career, my soul was still tarnished by the original sin of keenness, the quaint enthusiasm of youth untempered by the wisdom of experience, and I was yet to appreciate that the armed incident, far from being a source of excitement, is actually a masterclass in anti-climax and provides nothing of interest to the ambulanceman beyond a most welcome opportunity to sit about doing nothing for a couple of hours. And as long as he is properly equipped with the essential tools of his trade — a half-decent paperback, a flask of tea and a plentiful supply of tobacco — the time will pass pleasantly enough. And unless he is the sort of queer cove who nurses a predilection for patching up gunshot wounds and is yearning for something along the lines of a Sidney Street siege or a Hungerford massacre, he will not be disappointed.

As chance would have it, our destination was in neither Sidney Street nor Hungerford nor, on this occasion, was it an embassy, but a two-storey house in a grim narrow street of early Victorian slums sandwiched between the gas works and the candle factory. According to information received, said Guv, jabbing a wooden ruler at a map on the wall, Mad Dog Maloney and his gang were holed up here, inside number twelve Kandahar Road, with the proceeds of the Catford job and a veritable arsenal of guns, grenades and plastic explosives. We’ll be going in hard and fast, with the advantage of surprise, and the objective is to take them all alive.

“But,” he emphasised with a meaningful pause, the wink implicit, “the safety of my officers is paramount and, well, just use your judgement, lads, reasonable force and all that. I think we all know the score.” Guv raised an eyebrow and a deathly hush fell upon us.

A muted cough broke the silence, then another, followed by the gentle rustling of movement as furtive glances were exchanged, and a ripple of sly complicity swept across the room.

I sat there astounded. Use your judgement? Reasonable force? Know the score? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Surely this couldn’t be happening. It had to be a dream.
We were going in hard and fast and we were going to shoot the Fenian bastards in their beds. Barely able to contain my joy, and in lieu of punching the air and dancing a jig, I nudged Fred with an elbow. He grunted an oath and continued to snore.

But hang on a minute.

Fred and I wouldn’t be bursting in to confront an armed and dangerous gang of bank-robbing terrorists. We’d be parked up in our van about three streets away drinking tea, well out of harm’s way. We wouldn’t be involved at all. We wouldn’t even get to see anything. In fact, now I thought about it, we really weren’t even on the same side as the coppers, because the official policy of the healthcare professional is one of strict neutrality at all times. And when the history of the Battle of Kandahar Road came to be written, we would be remembered as nothing more than non-partisan non-combatants.

But who was I kidding? We wouldn’t even merit a footnote.

It struck me suddenly that I was nothing but a stretcher-bearer in the presence of battle-hardened troops, a conscientious objector with a red cross on his hat, and I expected at any moment to be approached by a lady policeman bearing a white feather. But as I looked about I noticed something which hadn’t registered before. There were no lady policemen. There was not a single woman present. Not one. And then by one of those curious leaps of association, a mysterious spark within the cerebral whatsname, I found myself thinking of an experience from the dark and distant days of my childhood.

Mother was expecting one of her gentleman callers and wanted me out of the way for a couple of hours, so Fr O’Kneel, the parish priest, had been enlisted to take me off her hands for the afternoon and I had accompanied him to the Clapham Odeon, where we sat in the back row sharing a tub of popcorn and watched a film called Operation Doughnut, an all-action blood-and-gutser about a long-forgotten battle in the Sobang Mountains of Korea in the summer of ’fifty-one.

“So then, lad, what did you think of that, then?” He turned towards me as the credits rolled, his arm draped casually across the back of my seat. “It was brilliant, Father,” I beamed, “really exciting.”

“So tell me now, my boy, why do you think you found it so exciting, eh?” He edged a little closer, his knee pressing against mine. “Um . . .” I began a little uncertainly. “Well now, lad, let me tell you why,” he interrupted, smiling crookedly and trembling slightly, his face curiously shiny, a bead of perspiration clinging to his upper lip. “It’s because there was not a single woman in it. Not one.”

And then he put his hand on my leg and whispered that I had always been his favourite altar boy, that a bright future awaited me in the Church. He could help me, he said, he’d speak to the bishop, and if I came back to his house with him now, he’d introduce me to some of his chums who’d show me a tremendous trick with a jam doughnut. Would you like that, lad?

“Any questions?”

“What channel are we on, Guv?”

“Good point, Skip. Right, listen up, guys. All call signs will use channel seven, talk-through on. Okay then, anything else?” He happened to catch my eye and I watched in horror as my hand rose into the air as though of its own accord.

“What’s it called?” I heard myself asking as a thousand eyes turned upon me.

“How do you mean, son?”

“Well, I mean, has it got a name? This . . . um . . . this operation we’re on. You know, like for instance . . .”

Guv’s face seemed to mutate before my eyes into that of Fr O’Kneel and I found myself surrounded not by dozens of bemused coppers but by a ring of leering, salivating priests. My heart was pounding, my head was spinning, my vision blurred and cloudy. My thoughts turned to chaos and I had no idea where I was or what I was trying to say. So I just blurted out the first thing that came into my head, knowing even before I spoke that it was completely wrong, so terribly, terribly wrong, that it wasn’t what I had meant to say at all.

But I said it anyway.

“Operation Doughnut,” chuckled Fr O’Kneel, throwing back his head. “Mission accomplished.”

The cruel, triumphant laughter crashes over him like a relentless torrent of humiliation, sweeping him away to a dark, terrible place of unending suffering. On and on it goes, louder and louder it grows; on and on and on, like it will never stop, pursuing him through the door as he flees from the rectory, wiping the sticky mess from his lips, spitting and gagging, blinded by tears as he runs into the graveyard and falls vomiting to the ground.

And as he lies there, paralysed by nausea, weeping with shame and remorse, there rings from the belfry a low, solitary knell: a monotonic hymn to the fleeting transience of innocence; the plaintive valediction of a soul consigned to hell. It hangs upon the air for a thousand lifetimes, before dwindling forever without trace into the black silence of infinity.