Balaclava by Chris Green
The coach has just left the bus station. We are waiting at the lights when, through the back window, I catch a glimpse of a man in a balaclava, running through the crowd. He is waving a handgun around. He shouts out something. He fires shots indiscriminately at the passengers in the bay next to the one our coach has just pulled out from. I am paralysed. I can’t believe this is happening. As the lights change and our coach moves off, the gunman fires more shots.
‘Did you just see that?’ I shout to the woman who is sharing the long back seat with me.
It is a pointless question. It is clear she didn’t see anything. She has her head in a Jodi Picoult paperback. She is about forty and dressed for a long journey with lots of layers, maroons and purples. She is surrounded by a good selection of mismatched travel bags. She is using the luggage to guard her space. She does not want anyone else to take the seat next to her. Her body language further suggests that she does not want to enter into a conversation with a strange man on a coach, especially one who is behaving hysterically.
‘What!’ she says, not looking up from her book.
‘There was a man in a balaclava firing shots,’ I say.
‘What are you talking about?’ she says, maintaining a vexing level of disinterest. She even manages to turn a page.
‘I saw him out of the back window,’ I say. ‘Look!’
I point frantically. She starts to pay a little attention, but we are now some distance away, and it is difficult to make out anything through the traffic and the drizzle.
The man in the seat in front of us has turned around. He gets up and comes back to where I am sitting. He wipes the window with the sleeve of his jacket. But it is too late. The coach has turned the corner.
‘He was there,’ I say. ‘A man in a balaclava. Firing shots. Into the crowd waiting for the coach.’
‘You sure of that, bud?’ he says, leaning over me. ‘I didn’t see anything.’
He is one of those people who do not appear to understand the etiquette of personal space. He has bad breath, a mop of unruly dark hair and a black beard that is starting to go grey.
‘Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?’ I say.
‘You haven’t been smoking the waccy baccy, have you?’ he says.
I feel intimidated by his attitude. I wonder whether I should try to attract the attention of the coach driver, to get him to turn the coach around to find out what is going on. But even if he were to go for my story, why would he want to put us all in danger? Health and Safety would dictate that coach drivers are required to put the passengers’ safety first at all times. They probably have a procedure to follow regarding terrorist activity.
I sit back down. I begin to doubt what I saw. Sometimes when you are stressed the mind can play tricks. And one way or another, I have been feeling a little odd lately. I’ve had a lot on my plate. All I want to do is get home. The coach is surprisingly empty. To avoid getting any further interruptions, Jodi Picoult Reader moves her bags up towards the front. Waccy Baccy, having returned to his seat, keeps turning round to check what I am up to.
‘You OK, bud?’ he says. His accent is difficult to place, somewhere between the Midlands and the Moon. ‘You were having a bit of a turn back there.’
I nod. I want to keep my distance. As we make it out onto the dual carriageway, I ease my up the coach to get away from him. I call Halo on her mobile. It goes to voicemail. Perhaps she is in the garden. Sometimes she sits out in the early evening with a glass of white wine. I try closing my eyes to relax myself, but I keep seeing the image of the gunman. I can see him clearly now, much clearer than before, in his dark clothes. He is running, shouting. He has the gait of a young man, perhaps in his twenties. He is slim, athletic. Most distinctively he has a balaclava to conceal his face.
I remember learning at school that Balaclava gets its name from an 1854 battle in the Crimean War which was part of the Siege of Sevastopol to capture Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea. British troops used these face coverings to protect themselves against the bitter cold. On the streets today, balaclavas convey a more sinister message. To most people, they represent a warning that something bad is about to happen.
The coach claims to have free Wi-Fi, but I can’t get in on my phone. What I witnessed though is sure to be on the TV news later. It will be the main story. The gunman will probably have been shot by police marksmen, maybe in another location, He will have gone down fighting to further his cause. Martyrs help to raise the profile of terrorist organisations. This is one of their recruiting strategies. The newsreader will say how many people were killed, and a reporter will interview some witnesses to the incident. A security expert with an unlikely name will suggest it is time to raise the threat level from substantial to severe perhaps even critical. Over the next few days, there will be speculation as to how the gunman slipped through the net. Why hadn’t the security services flagged up such an obvious killer? They will talk about radicalisation without anyone explaining exactly what radicalisation involves.
I get home and switch on the news channel. Halo asks me what is wrong. I normally greet her with more fondness, and rarely watch the news.
‘Haven’t you heard anything?’ I say.
‘I have no idea what you are talking about, babe,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you come here and give me a cuddle?’
I get the impression she may have had several glasses of wine.
There is nothing about it on the news. There are reports of boatloads of migrants arriving on the Kent coast, an update on the debt crisis and a lengthy analysis of England’s humiliating exit from the European Championships at the hands of San Marino.
I give Halo a detailed account of what I saw.
‘What’s got into you?’ she says. ‘Why do you think it is that no one else saw it, and it hasn’t made the news? You have been working too hard. I’ve noticed that you have been a little strange for the last couple of weeks. I’m worried about you. Perhaps you ought to take a few days off or go and see Doctor Stoner.
I do not tell her that I have been taking a few days off work. In fact, I lost my job two weeks ago after they noticed I was behaving strangely, but knowing how disappointed Halo would be, I have not gotten around to telling her. Meanwhile, I have been going through the motions of going off to work, but instead of staying in my usual accommodation which was tied in with the job, I have been hanging out with my old college friend, Jazz. Apart from anything else, Halo doesn’t approve of Jazz. As his name suggests, he is a musician, and she understands that musicians have all kinds of bad habits.
I start searching the internet. The web is often quicker off the mark than the television news channels with breaking stories. There has to be something here. To my amazement, though, none of the news sites has anything relating to this attack, or for that matter any attack. I google likely search terms in case the news media has overlooked it, coach station, balaclava, handgun, that sort of thing. Google comes up with pages and pages of special offers from National Express, cosmopolitan ranges of protective headgear and a bewildering array of handguns.
Over the weekend, I can’t stop thinking about what I saw. More and more details about the incident come back to me. I explain this to Doctor Stoner. He suggests my erratic behaviour is likely to be attributable to skunk. Skunk, he explains, doodling on his desk pad, does not affect the brain in the same way that weed does. Traditional weed or hash has a balanced THC: CBD ratio. With skunk, THC, the psychoactive element is not balanced by the anti-psychotic element, CBD. In a word, skunk is very high in THC and very low in CBD. This increases the risk of paranoia and even psychosis.
‘But I don’t smoke skunk, Doctor,’ I say.
‘You still like the weed then? Good man!’
‘No! I don’t smoke weed either.’
‘Just hash, then?’
‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Not even a little.’
‘No,’ I say.
‘Well, it may not be that then. I haven’t prescribed you anything …… unusual lately, have I? Let me have a look.’
‘I think I really did see a man wearing a black three-hole balaclava firing shots from a Glock G17 pistol indiscriminately into the crowd in Bay 6 of the coach station.’
‘Then why have you come to see me? Don’t you think it’s probably the police you need to speak to.’
Inspector Gaffer and Constable Newby arrive at the house in response to my call. I give them a detailed account of what happened. Inspector Gaffer makes careful notes and contacts colleagues on his radio. Constable Newby is just there as decoration, it seems. He flicks through my CD collection. He takes a particular interest in the Nick Cave section. Surely he is not old enough to have heard of Nick Cave.
‘You are telling me that all this happened last Friday,’ Inspector Gaffer says. ‘Why didn’t you call it in then? Withholding information relating to a serious crime is an offence, you know.’
Why is the man trying to be difficult when I am trying to be helpful.
‘I’m telling you now!’ I say, trying to be assertive.
‘Let me see if I’ve got this right,’ he says. ‘You say that Behrang Malik, the slim, athletic-looking man firing shots with a Glock G17 Generation Three 9 millimetre pistol into the middle of the crowd of people waiting for the 5:35 for Birmingham last Friday evening wore black Adidas jogging pants, black Converse cut-offs, a charcoal grey SuperDry quilted zipper jacket and a black three-hole SAS style double-layered knitted acrylic balaclava.’
‘Not the middle of the crowd, Inspector’ I say. ‘Malik appeared to be aiming at Norris and Shonda Grooms from Handsworth and Rolf Heller from Acock’s Green, and they were all just a little back from the middle. He was not a very good shot. Perhaps he had been to the wrong training camp, or perhaps he was self-radicalised. The first shot caught Norris Grooms in the right arm and the second shot missed all of them. The third shot hit Rolf Heller in the chest, and he fell to the ground. The fourth shot ………..’
‘You were able to see all this from the back seat of the coach?’ says Inspector Gaffer.
‘Yes. Clear as day.’ I tell him. ‘The fourth shot narrowly missed Shonda Grooms’ shoulder and ended up ….. ‘
‘Even though, you say there was heavy drizzle and the window had misted up.’
‘Yes. And then the man in the military mac with the medals called out for everyone to duck down. Behrang Malik then aimed lower. By then our coach was turning the corner, so I’m not sure what happened next. But even given Malik’s limitations as a sniper someone must surely have been killed.’
‘Yet Division says that no-one else has reported the incident,’ says Inspector Gaffer. ‘That’s a little strange don’t you think? ……… Can you check some of these people out, Newby!’
‘Which people would that be Sir?’
‘The gunman for a start, and try to get the right name. It’s Behrang ……. Malik. Then the ones our friend here has been talking about, Norris and Shonda Grooms, was it, and Rolf Heller.’
My phone rings and I pick up.
‘Hello. Is that John Stanton?’ says the voice.
‘Yes. John Stanton speaking,’ I say.
‘Doctor Stoner here,’ he says. He sounds a little nervous.
‘Hello, Doctor.’ I say.
‘You were in the surgery the other day and I looked up your, um ….. records to see if I had prescribed anything ….. unusual,’ he says. ‘Well! …….. I’m not sure how to say this. I think I might have made a small mistake. You had been to see me three weeks earlier, and I gave you something for your IBS. Do you remember?’
‘Yes. You gave me some tablets and told me to take them twice a day,’ I say. ‘They cleared it up in no time.’
‘Ah! Did they? Did they indeed? And then you stopped taking them, right?’
‘Well, no. You told me to complete the course.’
‘Ah! I see. That is unfortunate,’ he says. ‘Why I’m phoning, you see, is because I inadvertently prescribed the wrong medication. I must have been having an off day. You know how it is. Similar name, you understand. I expect you’ve made the same mistake now and again after a pipe or two. It’s easily done. But what I accidentally gave you is Apocrozil, an experimental new drug. According to this paper I’ve just read in my medical journal, it was not rigorously tested. The report says that it may have a number of strange and possibly alarming side effects. You haven’t found yourself subject to how can I put it, …… delusions or flights of fancy recently, have you?’
‘I don’t think so, Doctor’ I say. ‘If anything, the opposite. I have been very focussed lately.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved