The Belfast Question

This story is based on something that really happened to me to when I went back to Northern Ireland in my 20s. I was born there, and my family shifted to New Zealand when I was four. My father was a Presbyterian minister in Country Armagh (termed “Bandit Country” in 1975 by then Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees because it was known as a hotbed of IRA terrorism). The IRA had issued him with a warning after British soldiers were seen landing their helicopters in the fields behind our house. A brick was thrown through my bedroom window and narrowly missed my cot. Our dog, Sandy, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It was time to leave.

Anyway, I was at Carrickfergus Castle, a famous landmark about 20km north of Belfast, and I had missed the last bus. Suddenly a black taxi stopped and the driver wound down his window to offer me a free ride back to town. Unlike in this story, however, it was a brief and innocuous ride, with the friendly driver dropping me off by Queens University, where my father once studied theology.

Belfast was a disconcerting place back then. One minute you’re quietly doing your shopping in the local mall, the next minute you turn your head in the street to see a camouflaged soldier holding you in his rifle sights. I can’t imagine what it must have been like at the height of The Troubles. The unrelenting climate of danger, suspicion and imminent violence must have been almost unbearable.

I hear it has changed a great deal since my childhood, with tourism playing a major part in the life of the city now. I don’t know how I feel about that, really. It seems somehow grotesque, to graduate from terrorism to Tiki Tours. (Hey, let’s go see where those soldiers were shot!!) But every country souvenirs the terror in its history. “Lest We Forget” is the more noble interpretation of this.

As for the title? I can’t speak for recent times, because I have lived in New Zealand for so long now. But certainly for years in Northern Ireland, whether you were Catholic or Protestant not only could determine the difference between life and death, but also entirely (and oppressively) defined you as a person.

One more thing: Ciaran Carson is one of my favourite Northern Irish poets. He wrote a great deal about The Troubles, and I wrote my Masters thesis on his poetry. More on that in another post.

Now bear with me, this one is quite long (said the bishop to the actress). And this will make sense if you read to the end: Saoirse is the Gaelic word for “freedom”.

 

The Belfast Question

 Since everything went up in smoke, no entrances, no exits.

But as the charred beams hissed and flickered, I glimpsed a

            map of Belfast

In the ruins: obliterated streets, the faint impression of a key.

Something many-toothed, elaborate, stirred briefly in the

            labyrinth.

 “Smithfield Market” – Ciaran Carson

It didn’t look as big as she remembered. The picture in her mind, which she was now being forced to relinquish, was of a colossal structure of red brick, so high and so wide she could barely juggle each of its dimensions in her memory at once. She had been certain that the house sat on top of a huge hill, palatial and alone. But now, as she stood in front of an average-sized town house, cars effortlessly accelerating up the gentle suburban slope, she realised she would have to prepare herself for a series of imaginative disappointments.

Mentally, she opened the gate, crunched across the white shell gravel and up three steps to the front door. From what she could remember, immediately inside the door and slightly to the left a red-carpeted staircase led to the second storey landing. She and her sister used to bump down it on their behinds when they were little. If you turned to the right instead you found yourself in a large drawing room (Why do you call it that, Gran? Do you draw in there?) with dark panelling and a faded orange and black carpet. By now, no doubt, someone had lifted it to reveal floor boards full of borer and potential, and polished them.

In one corner had stood a wooden grandfather clock. It had seemed enormous to her little self; the king of time-telling. A vague flash of memory: her grandfather laughing, his hands in the pockets of beige trousers, his slippers green and sturdy, the frames of his glasses thick and black as beetles. And another: her grandparents talking in the hall in hushed, urgent voices, the hairs on the back of her neck bristling. There’s always someone. Watching. Listening.

It was only three o’clock and already she could sense the daylight becoming restless. Large clouds had congregated in the mid-distance. She buttoned her jacket. Although she had considered knocking on the door and explaining who she was and asking to have a quick look around, she now decided against it. The disparity between what she remembered and what she would find there would be too disheartening.

She decided to try to catch a bus back into town. Buses are buses all over the world, she thought. It can’t be that hard. Looking up and down Old Cave Hill Road she couldn’t immediately see a bus stop, so she decided to walk down, towards (she consulted her pocket map) Antrim Road, which as far as she could tell was a main route back to the city centre.

Air always smells different in a new country, her mother had told her, until you start walking in it. This was her first time overseas by herself. She had landed only 24 hours previously, and despite her passport’s testament to the fact that she had, in fact, come home, she hadn’t been prepared for the walloping sense of unreality, of difference. She felt dizzy and disorientated. Her first jetlagged breath outside the terminal in Belfast had been her first taste of fresh air since Auckland.

After about ten minutes she approached a T-intersection. Antrim Road. She turned right and crossed over. It was a pretty road, lined with brick walls and lots of trees, the large red houses all set back from the pavement by small green gardens, and without exception, gravel driveways. Always pays to hear them coming before you see them.

The low sky glowered and the air was metallic. She walked faster, eyes straining ahead for a bus stop, but she couldn’t see one. A heavy drop on her head, than another on her arm. They were hesitant now but wouldn’t be for long. She hadn’t thought to bring her raincoat, or an umbrella. She looked behind her, up Antrim Rd, as the rain started to fall in earnest. Jesus, it was quick. One minute it was all heavy sky and anticipation, the next a deluge. She ran, in that slightly embarrassed way one runs when next to a busy road, until she found half-shelter under a large tree. Now what?

British cars crawled tentatively past, windscreen wipers on overdrive. Then she heard a deceleration and splashes as one of them pulled into the kerb beside her, tyres bashing through the rain-filled gutter.

“Hello there! D’ya need a ride? I can take you into the city centre if that’s a help?”

She squinted through the sheets of rain and saw a glowing TAXI sign. The front window was wound down and the driver was leaning over the front passenger seat, beckoning to her. “Sure I won’t charge you. I’m on my way home so you may as well jump in.”

She felt something catch in her gut. Trust no-one, and nothing. “I was going to catch a bus into town,” she called, leaning down to the window level but keeping her distance. “Do you know if there’s a bus stop nearby?”

The taxi driver looked impatient, flung a glance at his watch. “Sure you’ll be waitin’ a long time, it’s another hour or so until the next one. Look, do you want a ride or not? I’m gettin’ soaked here. I’m just tryin’ to do you a good turn, so I am.”

She looked into his bright blue Belfast eyes. He wore a green peak cap and a grey zip-up parka. She could see a band on his wedding finger. For a precious second, he reminded her of her grandfather. She reached for the door handle. In a flurry of wet activity he moved books and papers from the front seat to make room for her. Then she was in, the door was closed, and the rain was battering on the roof as if angry she had escaped it.

The taxi driver immediately indicated right and pulled out into the traffic.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re OK,” said the driver, trying unsuccessfully to wipe condensation from the front window with his parka sleeve. “Jeez I can’t even see where I’m goin’, so I can’t.” He took a quick glance at her. “So where are you from? Didn’t think you were a local, you just had a look about you, a bit lost, you know.”

His accent was like singing, with lilts and turns and inflections, but it was raw singing; insistent singing that wouldn’t take no for an answer. In his voice she heard brick and beauty and battle. Again she thought of her grandfather, and she felt safe.

“I’m from New Zealand. I just arrived yesterday.”

“First time in Belfast?”

“No,” she said, “I was born here. But…it’s my first time by myself. I’m going back to London on Monday.”

A pause. He didn’t ask any more questions, didn’t even ask her name, but instead made an offer. “I could take you on a wee tour if you like. Show you a bit of the city. The bit most tourists want to see anyway. That OK?”

She said quickly, “I’m not a tourist.” She felt indignant. She wasn’t here to sightsee; she was here to reclaim, to remember. Remember what, though?

The driver laughed and lifted his hands off the steering wheel, holding them up in an expression of surrender for a rather alarming few seconds. “OK, OK, didn’t mean to offend you. Just being friendly, you know.”

She said suddenly, “Is Falls Road close to here? Could we drive down it?”

He laughed again and said “Ah!” in the manner of someone who has just won an argument. “The Falls? Aye, it’s not too far. Sure if you want to see it you’re OK.”

She felt young and silly. She wanted to prove herself to him, to validate her Irishness.  “What about Shankill Road? It’s not far from Falls Road, is it?” She silently dared him to laugh at her again. “I’d like to see the peace lines, too. They’re still up, aren’t they?” Her inflection made this a statement, not a question.

His expression changed. She couldn’t fathom it. Was he angry? Shocked? Scared? Surely not. The Troubles were over long ago. Northern Ireland was at peace now.

She couldn’t remember much about living in Armagh. Vague recollections of helicopters and soldiers on the streets and unease; monitoring the faces of her parents carefully to gauge whether she should feel anxious or not. One day her father had come home ashen-faced, belligerent. He had been stopped and frisked in Belfast because he had been wearing a trench coat and a black cap and “looked suspicious”. That night she had heard her parents arguing, but she couldn’t make out the words, just the troughs and valleys and violent spikes of adult voices at war.

She wondered if the taxi driver was Catholic or Protestant. The Belfast Question. Did it even matter anymore? She raised her hand to the cross at her neck, pressing her finger against the tiny broken Jesus. She wore it only because her father had given it to her for her 21st birthday. She hadn’t been to Mass in years.

The taxi driver lifted the front of his cap, resettled it on his head. “The peace lines. Aye, there’ll be no takin’ ‘em down if the people have anythin’ to do with it. We’d feel strange without ‘em, so we would.”

“But…the Troubles are over now, aren’t they? So why do you need them?” Unwittingly she was surrendering to his superior status as A Person Who Actually Lives Here.

The driver looked thoughtful, and guarded. He looked her up and down as if taking her measure, deciding what he could and could not say to this young woman who seemed to want to lay claim to his own city. “There are echoes, you know. Echoes. You wear the same suit for long enough, you don’t want to take it off, you know? Besides, nothin’s really over, not here. It’s just…waitin’, you know?”

She didn’t know. Waiting for what? They drove in silence for a few minutes. The rain started to ease as they approached a large roundabout. The traffic had become thicker, more insistent. They were close to the city centre. A swift navigation across the roundabout and before long they were turning right. The taxi driver settled his Tour Guide cap. “This here’s the start of the Lower Shankill.”

She looked out her window. A weak ray of sun had cut through and the street looked like it had just emerged from a carwash. A cheap one. It has missed many stains, and left a grey film over everything, even the numerous brightly painted murals that adorned gable walls on both sides of the road. The Red Hand of Ulster. The Union Jack. UFF, UVF, UDA. The Shankill Butchers.  The taxi driver delivered a quick, practised tutorial on what it all meant. There was no pretending now. She was no Irish expert.

A man in a balaclava stared down at her through the sights of his rifle. No surrender. An icy resonance nudged her, sighed, and moved on. Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

“This here is Lanark Way,” the taxi driver said eventually, indicating left. “This is how the UDA boys got through to The Falls.”

A massive metal wall snaked away to their left, its gravitas tempered by colourful, modern graffiti. She had noticed other sections of wall as they had been driving, but had attached no significance to them, looking as they did like half-finished structures, or grubby remnants of demolition. She had pictured the peace lines as one continuous giant fortification, dividing the city sternly and decisively in two. This fractured, defaced labyrinth was unexpected. Once again her mind had betrayed her.

When they turned into Falls Road the taxi driver continued his commentary, but his voice seemed to fade in and out the way radio frequency did over the Bombays. Another memory, blurred but insistent: her father and grandfather, driving quickly, her in the back seat, then falling asleep in a pub while big men drank and talked in their hard, nasal lilts. Tiocfaidh ár lá. The stale smell of beer, the swirl of old carpet, doors opening and closing. Driving again, darkness, the foreign funk of an unfamiliar car. I know this road, she thought.

The taxi driver pulled over and idled in front of another mural, one that was attracting a considerable amount of attention from pedestrians who were obviously tourists. She noticed a number of taxis slowing down as they passed the giant image, curious faces and cameras crowding at the windows. It was a smiling, long-haired man, who looked to her like someone out of That ‘70s Show. “That there’s the headquarters for Sinn Féin. Your man there, that’s Bobby Sands. Hunger striker, died in The Maze. He was a hero to the people around here. Still is.”

Why had they painted him so happy? His cheeriness seemed disproportionate, child-like. With a start, she registered a tiny word at the top of the mural. Her name.

You see? I belong here.

She took in the tourists, the clicking cameras, the giant souvenir shop postcards. Freedom fighters, paramilitaries, martyrs and taxi tour advertisers rubbed colourful shoulders and jostled for attention. See us. Hear us. Remember us. Smile for the camera. A wave of vertigo gripped her, then drew back.

“They miss the fightin’, some of them do.” The taxi driver stared at smiling Bobby Sands. “It made them heroes, so it did. Larger than life. That’s the problem with peace, you know. It’s bland, like bread and butter. Sure we’d been fightin’ for so long, it made us who we are. We may not be fightin’ now but you can’t change a man’s heart, so you can’t. The guns are here now.” He put his hand on his chest. “Here.”

He looked embarrassed, but he had started something now and she could tell he wasn’t about to stop. He killed the engine and turned to face her.

“Could I ask you to do somethin’ for me?”

She hesitated. Was this where he would ask her to accompany him to a hotel? He cleared his throat, leaned over her to open the glove box and drew out a package wrapped in brown paper.

“Look, you seem like a good girl.” She bristled at the use of “girl”, but let it go. “It’s just that…well I need this to be in London by Monday and I don’t want to send it by mail. I just don’t trust ‘em to take care of it, you know, I don’t want it damaged, or lost.”

He looked awkward, guilty. She could guess where this was going, and she felt the first stirrings of real fear.

He pushed on. “Will you not take it back to London? Sure I can get someone to pick it up at the airport, it’ll be no bother. I’ll even pay you for your trouble, so I will.”

She stared at him, and then at the package in his hand. She wondered if he would try to stop her if she opened the door now, and bolted. Her heart hammered in her ears. She was certain he could hear it.

Suddenly, she saw that he understood. There was a spark of something in his eyes. A suspension, a sense of savouring, of nostalgia…then it was gone.

He shook his head, as if shaking off the past. “It’s a notebook, love. A notebook full of letters. That’s all. Me parents left Belfast years ago. They wanted me to go with them but…this is me home, me country. I had business.” He paused. “Me mother died, in London, and her funeral’s on Monday. I can’t go but…me Ma wrote me letters, lots of letters over the years. She was proud of me, so she was.” He paused, and something in him seemed to inflate…then grow smaller, and smaller. I want me Da to have the best of ‘em. That’s it. That’s all.”

She took the packaged notebook from his outstretched hand, read the address on the front, turned it over and read the taxi driver’s name and address on the back. A jolt of recognition. They must have driven right past his house.

“I can’t take it,” she said, no longer afraid. “I don’t think it would be right.” She paused. “I think you should go, you know.”

The taxi driver met her eyes, his face inscrutable. “I can’t go. They’ll be watchin’.”

They looked at each other. Suddenly she wanted to tell him everything, to tell him that she felt displaced, adrift in this puzzling, painted, postbellum city that taunted her with half-memories, that she had expected to find her childhood here but had instead found a city that was no longer hers.

“I’m Saoirse,” she said. “My grandparents lived here, on Old Cave Hill Road. We lived in Armagh and we used to visit them all the time, before we moved to New Zealand. My sister and I would stay on the weekends. They’re both dead now, but I came back to have another look at their house and sort of…see what it was like to live here.” She paused, unsure how to continue. “It’s just…well it’s different to how I remember it. To how I thought it would be.”

“The house, or Belfast?” he asked, gently taking the package back from her.

“Both,” she said.

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