Nick Burbridge

The Intelligence Officer’s Tale


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