Neil Mackay tells how a chance encounter with a wounded old friend has now compelled him to confront the physical, emotional and mental trauma he’s experienced throughout his life

SOMETIMES all it takes is the smell of nicotine from someone’s clothes, and I tumble back through whatever internal time machine operates inside my head to find myself staring into the barrel of a gun – the mouth of the muzzle a black, hard, empty circle like the heart of a black hole.

The fingers on the hand holding the gun stink of stale cigarettes, and there’s a black rind of old hashish under the fingernails. I watch those fingers as they curl around the trigger and squeeze – the gun ready to fire straight into my face.

Psychologists call it a flashback. I call it one of my slip-away moments. I might be sitting in a restaurant and someone who has been smoking outside will walk past me. I catch the whiff of nicotine from them, unexpectedly, and I’m back in 1999.

I’m 29 again and I’m sitting in the living room of a loyalist terrorist in Northern Ireland. He chain-smokes cigarettes and joints. I smoke myself but the continual reek of tobacco is starting to make me feel sick. I’ve known this man quite some time. I’m a reporter, and covering Ireland and paramilitary violence is one of my specialities. I come from Northern Ireland but I live in Scotland and write for Scottish newspapers.

Every time I travel back to Northern Ireland to cover some murder or bombing or rioting, I meet up with a selection of paramilitary contacts so I can understand what’s going on with republican and loyalist terrorists. This man is one of these contacts.

I arrived at his house a few hours ago and we’ve been drinking. I’ve had a few, and he’s had too many. He’s also started to smoke joints, crumbling hash into Rizla papers on the table that sits between us. He’s drunk and high and he’s also got a gun on the table. The Good Friday Agreement may have been signed a year previously, supposedly bringing peace to the country, but there’s still killing.

A solicitor called Rosemary Nelson, who represented Republicans, had been murdered not long ago, and there’s a sense that the north could erupt again. That’s why I’m here.

Ostensibly, I’ve met this contact to talk about what’s going on within loyalist terrorist organisations, but I’m also interested in him. I like to write about more than just the bare facts of the news. I want to include some human dimension in my reporting, so I always try to find out what makes these killers I speak to tick. What’s a gunman like when he’s being a dad? What does a terrorist commander do when he goes shopping with his wife? These questions interest me. I tell myself that I’m trying to understand the men behind the monsters so readers can understand them too.

My contact has a son aged around eight. He loves him with the fierce passion that only a dangerous man can love their child. We’ve been talking for hours and he’s been fidgeting with his pistol – all the while cleaning it, taking it apart and putting it back together again, putting bullets into it, taking bullets out again. There are weapons all over his house. The windows are bullet-proof glass, and it would take a tank to get through the reinforced steel front and back doors.

I feel I’ve come to know this man well enough over the years to ask questions which might reveal a little more about him as a human being rather than just a gunman and terrorist. So I ask him about his child. Does he worry that the life he lives might influence his son, that his kid might grow up to be like him?

There are times when you can see violence appear in the eyes of other men. My contact slowly looks at me and his eyes are stony, they narrow – he holds my gaze, hard like a strangling grip, and there’s silence for a moment.

Then he speaks. “What did you say?” he asks – but it’s no question.

I realise I’ve gone too far. I’ve insulted him. A cold, slow sensation, like iced water, flows through my body as I think of the locked steel doors, the unbreakable windows. He’s drunk, high. There’s a gun on the table. I could feel violence on him.

I apologise and say I didn’t mean to upset him. It was a silly question I’d asked him.

He never breaks his stare. His hand moves and I look down. He’s picked up the pistol on the table in front of him.

“You’re a f*****g c**t,” he says.

I said something like, listen, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to offend you.

“I like to kill c***s like you,” he says.

I call him by his name and say: “We’ve known each other for years, come on.”

He raises the gun now and points it straight in my face, the barrel is less than an inch from my nose. It’s all I can focus on – the black hole of the muzzle where the bullet comes from.

“I’m going to f*****g kill you,” he says. “And I’m going to f*****g enjoy it.”

The hand holding the gun is so close to me that I can smell the nicotine from his fingertips, and see thin crescent moons of dry black hashish under his nails. I watch as his finger curls around the trigger and I see the metal move. I don’t even have time to beg or say please don’t kill me, I’ve got two baby daughters. The finger tightens and the trigger goes back hard and fast.

There’s no bang. Just a click. He starts to laugh.

“You should have seen your f*****g face,” he says.

He’d slipped the bullets from the gun, without me seeing, and dry-fired the empty chamber in my face. He’d put me through a mock execution for a laugh.

“You’re a good lad, Neil,” he says still laughing. I laugh too. Was it funny? I couldn’t tell. I sit drinking with him for another hour and then leave. I put what happened out of my mind. Or at least I thought I did.

Heart of the matter

A FEW years ago, now in my forties, I thought I was having a cardiac arrest. My heart was racing, my chest ached. I was terrified. The doctor checked me over and told me there was nothing organically wrong with me – but my heart rate was going crazy at times. “Maybe you’re having panic attacks,” she said. “Anxiety?”

Stupidly, arrogantly, I thought I was made of stronger stuff than that, but obeyed my doctor when she referred me to a psychologist to see if there was something up. Deep down I knew all wasn’t right.

That psychologist took my mind apart like it was a Lego toy. I can’t even remember the path she followed with her questioning but before I knew it she had me talking about my experiences with violence throughout my life.

I found myself talking about the violence that had been in my life when I was a child. I wasn’t directly involved but I witnessed a lot of brutality between adults. I even remembered trying to stop some of the violence and shouting at the grown-ups to stop hitting each other.

I found myself talking about being in a bomb blast as a kid – about growing up on a rough-and-tumble housing estate in Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles as a teenager in the eighties and the sense of menace that saturated everything. I told her how I’d been nearly beaten to death aged 14 by a gang of skinheads. They’d kicked and stamped on me – I had teeth knocked out – and tried to kill me. They only stopped when an off-duty police officer who lived in a nearby house came out with his weapon drawn.

I told the psychologist I went a bit off the rails after that. I could have easily drifted into a life of petty crime, but I got myself back on track after a few years. The one thing that saved me was my brains. I was clever at school and as O Levels approached, I put my head down and watched the A grades come in. I wanted more success then, as I knew that would get me out and away from where I lived, away from all that violence and ugliness. I got the marks I needed, and won myself a scholarship to Queen’s University.

Towards the end of first year, a gang of loyalists attacked me and a group of my Catholic friends (I’m from a religiously mixed family and couldn’t care less what church you go to) outside a student nightclub. I was kicked senseless and beaten around the head with 2x4 timbers. When I woke up in hospital, a cop told me I was lucky I wasn’t dead.

I told the psychologist that I became a journalist in Northern Ireland but moved to Scotland after I received death threats for my reporting. I wanted to get married and have a family in a country where we all felt safe. But my work as a writer always centred on violence and violent men – it was like I couldn’t let go of violence. I needed to explore it. Was I obsessed with it too? Trying to work something out?

I found that I couldn’t stop talking to the psychologist. I told her that I felt violence had stalked me my whole life. I told her about the mock execution – that it was the worst of all my memories. I told her about being abducted as a reporter in Northern Ireland, and held by gunmen with a bag over my head.

I told her that throughout my life I’d tried to drown out memories of all these things in self-destructive ways. Drink, drugs, sex, work – these are all ways to fill your mind up with experiences right here in the present moment which mean you can’t think of the past.

There were times when I felt like the luckiest person on the face of the Earth and other times when it felt like some black gelatinous blob had consumed me whole. I wondered out loud if maybe we all aren’t messed up in some sort of way just from being alive.

I felt myself getting tearful as I explained how thankful I was that my behaviour had only damaged myself over the years, and not those I love. But at times, I must have been so hard to live with and love. I told her the worst thing was that sometimes I’ve turned these events that happened to me into after-dinner stories – I made foolish jokes out of what was eating me alive from the inside out.

The terrible thought that I can’t get out of my head, I said, is that other human beings inflicted damage on me, and changed me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s like they still live inside my head or my soul. I’ve never wanted to hurt another human being, but I’d happily kill those men with my bare hands.

They come to me when I have these slip-away moments, I told her. I could be lying on the couch listening to music and something would prompt a memory of a gun or a boot or a hood, or screaming or crying, and I’d be back in that moment as if I’d time-travelled. And there were always the same repeating thoughts: “You could have died. How did you not die? Imagine if you’d died.”

Then I’d physically shiver and judder as I expelled the thoughts and memories from my mind – like a dog shaking water from its fur after swimming in a pond.

The psychologist listened. A kind and considerate woman to whom I owe a great debt. She told me simply I had post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s an incredible amount of violence you’ve experienced over your life,” she said. And she referred me to a specialist in trauma therapy.

I was dazed by the diagnosis. Bewildered. I didn’t like the idea of being medicalised but she had shown me something was wrong and I knew I needed to deal with it. The appointment arrived for the first session with the trauma specialist. But I didn’t go. At the time, I found excuses – this meeting or that meeting – but really, I was too cowardly, maybe too full of pride, to confront what needed to be confronted.

I told nobody apart from my closest loved ones about the diagnosis. I changed my lifestyle – slowing down, taking things easier – but did nothing else. It wasn’t enough, though. Nothing should fester.

Words of courage

That was a few years ago now. Then just a few weeks ago, an old friend called Chris Lindsay contacted me. I’d shown him the ropes as a young journalist in Northern Ireland before I left to live in Scotland in the mid-90s.

Chris told me that in 2005 he had been caught up in a bomb attack in Belfast while reporting on rioting for the BBC. He was injured and could have died. It had messed him up. I felt a gush of understanding and empathy for him.

Chris was part of a group of journalists in Northern Ireland planning to write a book about their experiences of PTSD, trauma and physical injury while covering the conflict.

Chris had written a chapter on what happened to him. He knew I’d written a number of books and wanted me to cast my eye over his work as an author. I was happy to.

I read what he’d written and felt ashamed. If Chris and these other reporters had the bravery to confront what happened to them, why didn’t I? I feel sorry for men who can’t show their feelings – now I was one of them. Why had I refused to even go and see the trauma specialist? Why had I kept this all buried inside?

I knew the answer. I was scared of seeming weak. I knew so many people who had suffered so much more than me. How could I complain?

My experiences were nothing compared to people who have lost their loved ones, to reporters who have been shot.

But there was nothing weak about Chris honestly explaining in his writing how exposure to violence had damaged him – both mentally and physically. In fact, it was the reverse of weakness. It was brave.

I told Chris about what happened to me. I said I didn’t have the courage to do what he’d done.

He told me courage was the wrong word. It’s not about being brave, it’s about being honest and confronting what happened to you. Speaking about it and writing it all down was therapy, he said.

So that’s why I’ve written this. I’m going to go back to my original psychologist and ask her to set up an appointment with the trauma specialist I failed to visit. And then I will see what happens.