Nick Burbridge

The Intelligence Officer’s Tale
(1974)

Out of Ashford Barracks
in an unmarked van the new squad
of undercover men, bound for the six counties,
pilgrim to Canterbury for a last dry run.

Dropped in the street like navvies
watched from hidden points
they separate to make dead letter drops,
stalk quarries, reform in the house of God.

Follow the rogue recruit.
Though he adheres to his disguise –
single-minded patriot,
fast-tracked from the Engineers –

even now he’s lanced by doubts
which will unravel him in time
so he spills secrets of a dirty war.
Yet with senses finely tuned

he sets out on his tasks, taking
the surreal course between facades
as he’s been taught, so when it seems
that stooges stalk him, he sprints playing fields,

darts through a toilet block, climbs
from a rear window, doubles-back
and waits under an oak tree,
replica against his palm, until he’s clear.

Weaving like a manic orienteer
he finds orders in a park bin,
meets his source, uncovers a fake cache,
flushes with success, turns home on time.

But when he enters the drab precinct,
sees his shadows lost by the cathedral gate,
and in hushed aisles novices
in donkey jackets gather,

the keen mask falls; leaning on a pillar,
chill between his shoulders and adrenalin
still breaking in his gut, now drills are past
he can’t believe he swallowed

the recruiting officer’s slick line:
this is a true man’s service.
All he has been trained in seems
a kind of madness, and not soldiering.

Where he is bound, the charge
to set up, infiltrate and turn,
takes lethal form; it’s an insidious campaign,
to fight an enemy beyond the law.

In a moment he will be defined.
He hesitates – but in these ranks no man turns back –
and steps out to be counted; now
as he will be attacked, he must attack.

Nick Burbridge © 2016

Tour of Duty

Armagh, six months in. The undercover man
has half-forgotten his own skin; a stranger
with cod accent and thick beard
meets him now whenever he appears.

Locate him in an unmarked car
in a side-street on a hard estate;
he stares towards the viaduct
and the surreal installation
of a train derailed, thrust into the air
like an outsized artillery piece.

It is no accident; chance alone dictates
the steel hulk has not shot from the bridge
and broken on the slates below
as loyalist collaborators meant.

No chance must be lost; through quick bursts
of static at his ear, orders pass
to move in, evacuate,
and, house by house, tear streets apart.

He hesitates, familiar now
with the howled rage of women
as armed strangers violate their homes;
screams and tears of children;
curses of men bruised and taken,
what interrogation means.

Yet he knows this pillage will uncover
weapons primed, that, like each soldier’s death
and fall-out from each blast, legitimate
the will to occupy, the need to kill.

As cordons are set up, and men in uniform
appear like peacekeepers,
he goes out to take part,
eyes still fixed on the stark image

sprawled across the track above,
creaking and ticking.
The officer within
the rough disguise recoils:
to fight a war with this intent
spells the worst kind of defeat.

Nick Burbridge © 2016