Business Studies with Big Pol was always a comfortable option, always the first classroom to empty at lunchtime, always a lengthy discussion of last night’s televised soccer match at the beginning of his class. Big Pol got his name, predictably, because of his towering height and his propensity for polo mints. His height helped curtail any class indiscipline. Big Pol’s teaching strategy flowed from the horizontal position, his bum on the seat and legs on the corner of the table, the polo mints positioned in front of him. After his opening remarks about last night’s soccer, triggering an intense discussion, he allowed open debate of any topic depending upon his mood: history, literature, current affairs. Often he would simply say, “ask me any question, boys, anything you like”. Reading the next twenty or so pages of the textbook followed the discussion. If you had read it, you read more pages or simply dozed in a reading position, in silence. While this worldly contemplation took place, Big Pol read his thriller, the latest, or fed his passion for Raymond Chandler.

The active part of his teaching strategy occurred in the latter part of the lesson a question and answer session. To avoid him asking a question of us, we fired the questions at him. Often, he referred to the book or a diagram for discussion, or he got us to copy relevant definitions and diagrams from chapters. This was his paradigm in every class. The boys liked the easy predictability of this routine, and we always encouraged the interested soccer players in the class to shoot a question at him as soon as he entered the room, hoping someone would ask another before his attention went to the textbook.

While absorbed in a world of espionage or Marlowe, Big Pol let his fingers do the walking: he was notorious throughout the school for his proclivity to work his finger up his nose or up his bum. This he did without any awareness of anyone present. He was a bit of a dandy, a gentleman about town, wore smart shirts, well-cut trousers and highly adorned leather shoes and boots. Buckles dressed his shoes in silver or brass, leather piled on leather with carved intricate patterns. ‘A buckle is a great addition to any shoe’ - an apt Irish proverb I had discovered in a short story during the English lesson the previous week. His well-shod feet matched his bejeweled fingers. Silver, gold, and stone rings enfolded them. Celtic filigree produced in silver over emerald worn on his lanky-aged fingers, etched silver bands on his little ones. Different rings appeared frequently. His tight silvery beard covered his thin face; his mouth, almost lipless, and tobacco stained teeth were dominated by his sharp protruding nose, famous for enjoying frequent excavation. Only on close inspection did the surprising discovery of his deep set, beady eyes, betray those determined pupils. While his preponderance for saggy cardigans transposed him from a dapper dresser, a man about town, into a work-a-day teacher, his simmering eyes betrayed a man with a hidden passion.

After five minutes, Big Pol signaled to me to come up to his desk and asked if I could go to the nearby shop to get him some fresh baps for his lunch. I was not the usual errand boy as he always chose a local lad, John Deeney. John was tall, looked more mature for his age, and always encased in a duffle coat. He lived in the same street as the shop. We envied John because he could get out of bed ten minutes before school started and still be on time. In fact, on a few occasions he showed us his pajamas under his clothes. The previous week Big Pol and some of us had been chatting in the playground, idling away our time until recall for class. I summoned up the courage and asked him if I could perform the baps-buying role sometime. He said he would think about it. Therefore, when he called me up to the front, I didn’t think it was for buying baps, but something to do with school. I was a quiet, small student, flying below everyone’s radar.

Get me a bap and a cream finger from the shop across the green, can you manage that and not get lost?” He asked me in a squeaky soft sarcastic voice, as he handed me a pound note. “Don’t lose me change!” he added, as I made my way to the door.

Outside the door the corridor was empty and I relaxed. Darting down the three flights of duplicate stairs, and glancing up and down the bottom corridor, I hoped for a quiet exit. I particularly didn’t want to meet the principal, Brother Browne, whose brisk step of size ten sent a trail of chalk dust and dandruff in his wake. The foyer was clear, but on approaching the front door I heard a door open and the flap of a soutane. I stepped nimbly inside the medical room, an occasional sixth form study room. It was empty, just a couple of books littered the tables. His steps came towards the room and the door opened a little as I stood behind it, holding my breath, panic flowing through me. Brother Browne must have heard something, but the door closed again quietly. Relaxing, I heard his steps continue down the hall and disappear into silence. Stepping out, the coast was clear again and off I went, through the front door, through the school gate and up to the shop.

I crossed the soggy green, opposite a square of houses, where the corner shop stacked its vegetables outside on pale wooden boxes. Having got my purchases from a craggy faced man in an off-white, stained shop coat who barely looked at me during the transaction, I carefully counted the change and placed it in my empty left trouser pocket. I was determined not to be embarrassed in front of the class or Big Pol as I would have been if the change was incorrect or mixed up with my money or the assorted contents of my pockets. The thought of emptying my pockets in front of everyone terrified me. Keeping the bap and cream finger in good condition was essential, I held the white paper bag containing Big Pol’s lunch very carefully. The cream finger positioned on top of the bap, its white greasy filling soaking through the paper already.

I waited on the path to let a bus pass and cross the green again, when alongside me stood a familiar body, curiously wrapped in a large duffle coat. From within its huge hood came a grunting salutation. I did not reply. Was that John Deeney’s voice? Was John Deeney in class today? The person hid his hands in his pockets. However, something about the flop of the elbows did not look right. He scurried away across the green, towards the school. I looked at the sleeves of the coat, straining my eyes to see the sleeves tucked into his pockets. His arms were not inside the sleeves. Underneath the long coat, was a thin rifle barrel, just above his ankle, positioned tightly to one side of the trouser leg. This was the purpose of the oversized duffle coat. Slowing down my pace to let him get further away from me, he waddled into a lane next to the school. By the time I got to the gates, he had disappeared.

What kept you?” A question bawled at every boy tasked to get the baps, and the same answer always came, “there was a queue in the shop”. The ritual was completed with me getting a polo mint for my trouble. Leaving class for a short period was a better reward, although seeing a gunman had been unnerving.

I went back to my desk, looking out at the magnificent views down over the town, the cobalt winding river reflecting the clouded-spotted day. The sight of the town nestled on the curve of the river was always welcome relief from humdrum teaching. Through the windows on my left a couple of open fields lay beyond our playing fields, each bounded by tightly grown hawthorn hedges. I could see a group of men gathering under the hedge alongside the school’s grounds. It was not unusual to see groups using the field for target practice. The penny dropped - that duffel coat was moving weapons for this target practice session.

Big Pol asked us to continue reading our little red books, and ignore the dozen men milling around the field below. It was difficult. Mostly they stayed close to the hedge and out of sight, while a couple of them placed targets in the centre of the field – one was a round target and the other a dummy. This unreal movie, through the dirt-smeared windows, captured our full attention. We could not see the precise movements of the men but knew full well what was happening. Only the staccato blasts echoing through the sunny morning indicated something was amiss. After what seemed quite some time, Big Pol drew us back to his discussion of how business, in the real world, could make a profit.

Suddenly, all heads turned to look through the windows to determine the source of a great rumbling outside. It was the whoop-whoop of a helicopter’s blades, flying across the school’s windows. After hovering over the fields, it rose swiftly, realizing what was occurring below. The helicopter dipped again, flew at speed over the field and headed towards us, leaving the windows vibrating in its aftermath.

Big Pol sighed deeply. “Ah! Where were we? Write your questions and we’ll start.”

Five minutes later, the thundering whirring of three Wessex helicopters came into focus. They hovered over the fields next to the school until, one by one, they disappeared beyond the hedges and rose sharply again. British soldiers dropped into the higher field. We could see clearly their green garb moving along the upper hedges. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) or as they were known locally, the ‘Boys’ collected in a bunch by the lower hedge. A stream of shots rang out. A sniper had climbed a tree and let off a volley towards the newly arrived troops, who returned fire, scattering the top leaves of the trees where the Boys positioned themselves. Two fields and a hedge separated the warring parties. We had a grandstand view of the battle below, all of us now standing and watching through the windows. Further rattles erupted beneath us, as the British attempted to move forward but the gunmen held their defensive positions. From above, we could advise both parties how to advance given our strategic view.

Jeeze, boys I guess we better make a move, leave your books”, said Big Pol. Just then, a ginger-headed and bearded new teacher stuck his head into the room, shouting, “We will evacuate to the Quad, NOW!” The evacuation bell rang too, and hundreds of boys filled the corridors and stairs leading down to the Quad, a sanctuary from the gun battle above, and below the surface of the main part of the school. The Quad housed the metalwork room on one side and the woodwork room on the other. A pond had been sculptured by the metalwork teacher, and the woodwork teacher planted a garden of vegetables and other various plants. As the boys streamed into the safety of the Quad, they trounced everything in sight, the garden pounded by hundreds of tiny feet. The metalwork teacher stood astride his pond, attempting to save the newly installed fish by pushing away any errant boy. Escape was through a side gate, into a square of houses and down a winding hill.

Arriving in the square we found people going about their daily business, unaware of the life and death battle five minutes away. As we walked off, we realised our time was our own for the rest of the day. I went to a mate’s house for lunch on the other side of town to plan what to do with our unexpected freedom.