The passage of time can be unforgiving and, for Billy McCurrie, 45 years have not dulled the memory of what it felt like to take the life of another man one winter's morning in Belfast.
alking at his home in England, where he has been a pastor for two decades, he's immediately transported back to that moment, to that street in the east of the city, to those bewildered, panicked eyes that met his, as dawn broke on February 19, 1976.
"The opportunity came to take part in an execution," he says, his Belfast accent still strong despite the years across the Irish Sea.
"Like us, he was a member of the UVF. We were told he was an informer. There was myself and an accomplice. We picked up the guns. My accomplice knew more of the details. He knew where the guy worked and what time he turned up for work.
"We were waiting for him in a derelict street. Nobody saw us during the shooting. It was 20 minutes after it before the police turned up. We were clean away."
Did their victim know he was about to die?
"Oh yeah, that's right. There was a confused look on his face. He had turned into a derelict street, reversed his car, come back up the street and two young lads had appeared from nowhere. You could see the puzzled look on his face. It's as clear as if it happened this morning. It was just cold and bloody and merciless. The two of us were as guilty as sin."
To put this conversation in context, we've been talking for some time about how McCurrie went from paramilitary killer to pastor, a twisting, disturbing and ultimately desperately sad narrative that has taken us from the IRA murder of his own father, through his years in the UVF and on into the Maze Prison, where he got down on his knees one Christmas Eve to ask Jesus for forgiveness.
McCurrie readily agreed to the interview and nothing is off-limits. His answers are direct and thoughtful. I don't think he wants to talk in detail about the killing he carried out, but when I pull him back over those fateful hours he doesn't flinch from answering.
Certainly, the young Billy didn't go looking for the Troubles; they found him. Now 62, he grew up in the Lower Newtownards Road area. He was third youngest in a family of five; the fifth child was born six months after the death of his father. His dad worked for John Kelly, the coal merchant. There wasn't much money, but the family were happy.
As a youngster, he was oblivious to the violence that started in 1968. On the morning of the night his father would be murdered, the pair went for a long walk together. His dad had been made redundant just days earlier and McCurrie reckons he probably wanted to collect his thoughts but instead had to listen to his son prattling on about the Apollo space missions and the World Cup.
James McCurrie, a Second World War veteran, was one of the first civilians to be murdered in the Troubles. His son describes him as "a man of very high principles who wasn't in the Orange Order but was a unionist. Fair play was a big thing to him. I have very fond, loving memories of my dad. All that was robbed by republican terrorism. Dad was shot dead by the IRA, a totally indiscriminate shooting".
At 11.30pm on June 27, 1970, McCurrie's mother was chatting on the doorstep and he was playing in the street when he heard "a prolonged blast of automatic gunfire". Though he didn't know it then, that was the moment his father died. He was 34.
Earlier, there had been trouble in west Belfast after the Whiterock parade, but the east of the city was quiet. McCurrie's father had enjoyed a drink in a club on the Albertbridge Road, then invited a few friends back home for a cup of tea.
"He went on ahead to get his wife to put the kettle on," explains McCurrie. "As he ran around the corner, IRA gunmen opened up and he was killed instantly."
What has since become known as the Battle of St Matthews had begun. The shooting lasted for six hours. For decades the IRA claimed it was protecting Catholics from an armed loyalist mob, but loyalists dispute this, saying the IRA lured them into a well-planned trap.
In the ensuing mayhem young McCurrie was separated from his mother and taken into a neighbour's house. "People were saying in hushed whispers 'it's awful, does he know?'" he recalls. "I sensed something was wrong and tried to run out of the house. I was crying and saying 'where's my daddy?' And a friend's father grabbed me and said 'your dad's not coming home, your daddy is dead'. Things became a bit of a blank, though I remember saying 'perhaps this is God's will' and he shook the life out of me and said 'there is no God'. He used an expletive referring to the republicans and said 'it's them who did this, never you forget that'. From that moment, God was written out of the equation. God became an irrelevance because if there was a God, He could have stopped it from happening."
The bullets that killed his father just kept travelling, with young Billy now joining them on their trajectory. "The family was turned upside down and hate and bitterness entered the home, the longing for revenge. Yeah, it just grew day by day. All I wanted to do was to leave school as soon as possible and join the paramilitaries."
At 16 he joined the junior wing of the UVF. "I went into it wanting to kill as many people as possible," he says. "Three of us joined on the same night. A guy asked us what we wanted to do. I said 'the only thing I want to do is kill'. He laughed, gestured to 50 young lads behind him and said 'Join the queue'. I felt frustrated."
Shortly afterwards McCurrie transferred to the UVF "and got the opportunity to take part in an execution".
Two weeks later he was arrested, subsequently convicted of murder and handed a life sentence. Initially he was "proud as punch, in with the boys, doing my bit for the country". In the H-Blocks he took a history degree with the Open University. "For a while I thought Mr Marx had all the answers," he says.
By 1979, however, he was becoming disenchanted with both communism and "the hypocrisy of loyalist paramilitaries", whose chiefs talked openly with senior republicans but frowned upon him for "thrashing out ideas about Marxism" with lower ranking republican prisoners. "It was okay for the top brass to talk to them, but not for the rest of us," he says.
When a terror chief's nephew was sentenced for rape and they were ordered not to mete out the usual hiding to him, he was appalled by the double standard.
And something bizarre was happening. Every six weeks McCurrie was being mailed religious magazines from New Zealand. "The address was handwritten. The only mistake was that my prisoner number was 691 and they had written G91. To this day I don't know anyone in New Zealand. I opened the first one, caught the name of Jesus and threw it in the bin." When they continued to arrive, he gave them to a fellow prisoner, Peter Thompson, who was a Christian.
A trip to the medical room for a headache tablet in August 1980 proved pivotal. Thompson was also there and McCurrie pondered aloud about who was sending the magazines. The medical officer, Joe Martin, said "Do you not think it's God?"
McCurrie continues: "And then Joe said that regardless of whether I believed in God or not, there is a God and if I died then the state I was in meant I'd go straight to Hell and I wouldn't be a non-believer then. He said that everybody there believes and you are there for ever. I was wrong-footed by that."
On Christmas Eve, 1980, a woman named Gladys Blackburn visited his cell. "She described what Jesus looked like on the Cross. God opened my eyes to see what was happening on the Cross and God opened my eyes to see myself. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I realised that Jesus was dying on the Cross for me. When she left the cell, I got down on my knees and confessed my sin. There were no claps of thunder or flashes of lightning. If anything, I felt fully clean. I was being asked to accept that Jesus died for me and to confess it others."
He pauses, then continues wryly: "Accept it on the basis of what I'm feeling? Yes. Confess it to others? Er, I don't think so."
That's because the next morning McCurrie feared a barrage of abuse if he revealed he'd become a Christian. He calculated that if he told the guy in the next cell - a notorious gossip nicknamed 'Shirley' - the news would soon spread. "It was a cop out, but that's how I got round it."
He told his family about his conversion. One sister deemed "it's better than communism" and reckoned his "religious phase" would see him through the remainder of his sentence.
But his faith deepened and his mother, who had initially been furious at any suggestion of forgiving her husband's killer, became a Christian too.
McCurrie left prison in December 1985 and went to the Irish Baptist College the following year, where he met his wife Roberta, who is from Magherafelt. They married in September 1989 and have five children, Natasha, Rosanna, Larissa, Elijah and Jonah, aged from 30 to 17. Since September 1999, he's been pastor at the Independent Baptist Church in Ormskirk, near Liverpool, where the congregation numbers around 70.
He'd asked the elders to forewarn the congregation about his backstory, but when he gave his testimony "I could see their jaws dropping and realised they hadn't done so". But they don't probe him about his past, he says.
His wife feels he should move on from it. "She gets frustrated that I haven't left it behind. She says it's still 1970 for me, but my story is a carrot that draws people. Churches tap into that and invite me to talk."
McCurrie is a victim turned victim-maker but devoid of self-pity. "You could say what happened to me was tragic, but nobody twisted my arm up my back and made me do it. I was culpable. I could say if my dad had not been killed, I wouldn't have gone down that road, but that's by the by. I knew exactly what I was doing and there was no justification for taking a life. If you'd been talking to me at that time, in a warped way, I'd have tried to justify it."
The man he killed was Dessie Finney, an only child whose parents are deceased. McCurrie says it's up to me whether I include his name in this article, though he worries it might upset a relative in the wider family circle.
Has he ever contacted Mr Finney's family? "That's a good question. Restitution is a big part of the Christian faith and after I became a Christian, there was a revival in the Maze and that was a question we all had to tackle. We sought advice from the authorities and statutory bodies, who all advised against it.
"Some people ignored the advice, got in touch with victims' families and the results were devastating… disastrous. I made tentative enquiries about getting in touch with my victim's family and was told it would not be appreciated."
McCurrie pauses, then adds: "And to answer your question from a victim's perspective, if I received a letter tomorrow from one of the gunmen who murdered my Dad saying 'sorry'… well, 'sorry' would be an insult, 'sorry' would be trite for 50 years of pain, 50 years of tears. It's different if the victim's family makes the first move, but the perpetrator shouldn't make the first move.
"And what was I going to say to my victim's dad? 'Sorry, I've got my life together now, I'm a Christian, I'm forgiven, praise God?' He'd still be trying to put the broken pieces together."