My cold index finger crosses the smooth sheet of glass protecting the long list of the dead, not coming to rest until I spy a familiar name. I trace its letters, running my clammy digit across the squeaky surface.
V…o…l….J..a..m…e…s…O..’..C…a…h…a…n.. 2nd… B..e..l…f…a…s…t….B…r….i…g…a…d…e
“No touching,” barks the rosy-cheeked watchman.
I ignore this imperative.
“I said no touching!”
I turn to face him.
“Move along now.”
In silence, I study his stone-cold features—his milk-white skin… his ruddy cheeks.
“Move along I say. Along with ye, now!”
Fighting such a scrawny dragon is pointless.
I stagger away from the Troubles Exhibition to start down the metal turret stairs of The Ulster Museum, headed out toward Botanic Gardens. Upon reaching the green I pause for a moment beside the dead oak, the same one which first I met some years prior—the oak painted orange, a red hand branded upon its trunk. The ivy encasing the rotting oak has now grown dense. What little life that once existed has since been squeezed from the asphyxiated plant. There will be no redemption, no miraculous rebirth, no Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Moving along, following the footpath, I soon pass a stout, healthy oak. Two red squirrels wrestle at its base, playfully quarrelling over an acorn. I mutter to them, “Kind sir, your astonishment’s odd, I am always about in the quad; and that’s why the tree will continue to be since observed by Yours Faithfully, God.”
I start off toward University, contemplating a bar hop along the stretch from Great Victoria Street to Bradbury Place. Two pints in The Crown. From there I will move on to the American Pub, the empty, lifeless American Pub. No craic in there at all, so just a pint and then it’s Robinson’s, there to sit and sip a lukewarm pint or two until some uninformed soul wanders in wearing a Celtic Football Club jacket and is asked to turn it inside out on the instant or else get the feck out.
“We want no trouble in here,” the barkeep will say in a polite tone. “Celtic jackets are trouble.”
An argument will ensue about sports. Next, the talk will turn to politics prior to degenerating into religious banter. Who wants to argue over such rubbish? A total waste of time and energy, nothing but bunk—pure bunk. Standing here on University in the chill, misty air, I zip my Belfast Giant’s jersey. Everyone and anyone can cheer for this team. No history envelopes them. Nietzsche was dead on. History breeds paralytic egotism. History is a myth, a lie, a farce, a bloody red herring, redder than Old Nick’s Saga of the Six Counties. What if no history surrounded Ireland? What if all of Irish history ceased to be? What if Ireland’s painful history was erased from all memory, if every bigoted bridge was burned? Might things not fall out better that way? Maybe religion needs to go as well. After all, that too is part of the dragon. Next, it’s a fierce short hop from Robinson’s to Lavery’s Gin Palace, where my own troubles began on that long-ago night. A few pints will pass my lips while I make small talk with the locals and watch multiple football games on the numerous tellies. When at last I dare to step tipsily out from that dim pub into the dimmer-yet night, it will be quite late. But not so late that I cannot hail a black taxi to carry me on to Madden’s for a drink before I stumble over to Kelley’s Cellars for one last jar or two. By then the narrow city streets will be abandoned. A soft rain will still be falling. I will trek back toward the Lisburne Road on foot, staggering and swaying as I go, veering left at University to head toward the Botanic District.
But no, none of this will do. Not tonight. No jaunt tonight, since some invisible, inescapable force leads me in a different direction, entices me not toward City Hall, but toward another destination. You see, I am but a fish in this mighty river, a half-breed of a trout, pulled ever onward by some electric current to God-only-knows where. And so I turn about to trod toward my fate. I pause on the corner of University and University, around the block from a third University. Jesus, what were they thinking when they named these streets? The night seems so silent, too serene for a Saturday e’en, as if the whole population of Belfast is dead and gone. A speeding black Belfast taxi whizzes past, its tyres swishing on the slick street surface, sending raindrops dancing in all directions, racing its occupants onward toward Andersontown or the West Falls Road. Past Queen’s University I bear left, back into the late-night shadows of the Botanic Gardens. I glance downward, focused on the footpath, watching dancing rain droplets splash on the chill concrete. They capture lucid rays of dim city lights, glimmering white and red and bluish green. Liquid colours run mad on the cold, concrete footpath. They follow the straight corner channels of the neat cement squares, crying out for order, for that methodic, false security which humanity superimposes on the chaos of uncertainty that engulfs all of us, for that false symmetry which we humans create in the vain hope that blessed sleep might sooner be achieved.
The chill rain soaks me to the soul, but not to worry. This storm shall cease as well, shall give way to scattered bright spots followed by yet more rain. I pass beneath a street lamp and pause, still distracted, still looking downward, not forward. Ringlets of water perturb an otherwise motionless thin pool of rainwater. Amidst mirrored reds, whites, and blues I discern my own distorted reflection. And then I see the word. One repetitious word stenciled on the footpath. One short term rendered in alternating red, white, blue, green, white, and orange lines of letters. One sole, misplaced adjective, spelling out over and over and over:
The vanity of the human condition strikes me, sends my thoughts about the brevity of life reeling, the greed of so many, the lack of concern for humankind and for this earth of which we are stewards. Granted, there will be a few brief bright spots along the way, but in the end, we all shall pass like so many downpours. What is the purpose of our existence? What is the end for which we were placed here? Or is there no purpose or end at all? These stenciled tri-coloured sorrys will fade in time. Da’s compass will be rendered useless. This footpath will crack, erode, dissolve into nothingness, as will this city. This country. This world. All sense of history will vanish, lost like this rain. So, does sorry suffice? Can sorry heal eight hundred years of hatred and brutal violence? Can mere stenciled apologies serve to undo history?
I gather my composure and, veering northeast toward The Ormeau Road, I cross Botanic Court. I follow the narrow street of Agincourt several blocks, passing Carmel, then Palestine, then Jerusalem, until I reach Damascus. Damascus Street is now a distant, misty memory. Damascus Street where I, as a small child, once lived, where we as a family once dwelt. I turn right onto Damascus, heading toward the fluxing river. As I start down the dark, quiet street, I spy a vintage black Austin Mini Cooper. Parked on the far side of the street and idling, its steady wipers slap aside pummeling raindrops.
Blessed rain, cursed rain that compels the rivers to run.
Near block’s end I pass my childhood home. The Cooper’s headlights flood the street, shine toward the river, illuminate the falling raindrops. The Cooper gains a bit of ground on me as I approach the Stranmillis Embankment. I make for the Lagan River, turning east to tramp the few remaining blocks. Reaching the tee at the Ormeau Road, I look backward.
The Austin Mini Cooper sits idly parked in the distance.
Until now I have met no one the entire way, save that Mini Cooper, but now I hear voices—happy voices—joyous, drunken, muffled voices rising upward into the misty night air. They grow all the more boisterous with each step I take. Looking to my left I find their source—a red brick building on the far corner—a public house of some sort. I approach the nameless structure and, upon reaching it, I run my right hand along the wall nearest the entranceway, experiencing its coarseness, rubbing its riddled surface.
Bullet holes. Boundless bullet holes.
I open the nonresistant green batten entry door and step into a dark, smoky space seeping with the sounds of good-humoured, joking male voices. In a small room to one side, unobtrusive women chat, smoking slender cigarettes as they sip their sherry. In the far corner of the barroom two fiddlers sit playing traditional tunes. I find a vacant seat at the bar and call for a pint of the black stuff. If I sit long enough, I reason, the stalking Cooper is sure to move on. I keep to myself, speaking not one word, simply taking in the craic, listening to the jovial chatter and the traditional fiddling.
Several pints later, I rise and step out into the deepening night. I look to my right. No sign of the Cooper. Looking to my left, I survey the Ormeau Bridge that spans the Lagan River, dividing north from south. A bit further downstream, the same filthy river turns an acute twist to divide east from west. I lumber along the rain-soaked footpath until I reach the deserted bridge. I follow its footpath, headed southward. Pausing mid-bridge, I stare downward into the Lagan to ponder events recently brought to light.
When first Desmond told me the truth, I did not believe him. Da a terrorist? Da a gangster? No, not Da. Da came from a good family. He was no gangster. Da married a fine woman. Da loved his God and his country. But what or who was his country? Was it what it once was, what it is now, or what it will or might one day be? These Irish. One moment they condemn violence, allow the strangers to deny them their rights while they themselves deny their own feelings, their very heritage; the next instant they take up arms while winking to one another about the provos. Perhaps Da was a terrorist. So say some. So says British “history”. Others declared him an unwilful martyr. But now, what does any of this matter? Now he is gone. And Mother? Persecuted, punished, scarred for her love of the man and gone. My wife? Gone as well, in her own way. My sole sibling, a mere infant? Gone. Gone by my own hand. Desmond assured me that I was not to blame, that I was but a wee toddler with no inkling what a Webley could do to a fellow. The burden is not mine to bear. This was not my sin. It was Mum who left the weapon easily accessible, Mum who set it there on the bed stand, Mum who left me unattended. Nor was it my failing that the IRA gave it to her for protection from the UVF. Violence and bigotry fostered by the reigning strangers caused this whole mess, not little Pól O’Cahan. It wasn’t my sin that ravished an entire nuclear family, that took away my baby brother long before I could teach him the names of the dinosaurs, and of the fishes of the river and lough. No one remains save my loving grace, my dear Gráinne, and she stolen by me from the invaders, as in my own lust I once tried to steal Éimhear back from the enemy. Oh, Gráinne, what terrors await us in the indeterminate future? Will the Lord be there to protect, to save, to redeem? My faith wavers. Where has He been these eight hundred years? Where is He now? Not here on this bridge. Not present in this No Man’s Land where bigoted anger reigns. Lord, still my troubled soul. Walk with me. Assure me that You are in command, despite every iota of empirical evidence suggesting otherwise.
How long my meandering musings muffled the clattering sounds of the approaching mob, I do not know, but here I now stand mid-bridge, flanked by two angry mobs of youths pitted against one another. They have emptied out from the closing pubs found to either side of the river. To my north are nationalists, to my south, unionists, all of whom have converged upon this political-boundary-of-a-bridge that separates one subculture from the other. They scream insulting names at one another; they shout bigoted slurs. What shall I do? Shall I call a parlay? Shall I sprint north or walk south?
No. Not north. Not south. I am neither of these angry dragons who draw ever nearer to one another. I am neither of these opposing factions who blight one another, hurling intimidations and emptied ale bottles at their adversaries. Missiles whiz past my ears. Some smash on the rain-drenched road. Several strike their intended targets. Others fall short of their mark to slide along the slippery asphalt. Someone aims a rocket into the throng, ignites it and then another and another and another. A full-blown civil brawl erupts. Stones join the barrage, flying to and fro at a maddening pace. Oh, Lord, bring an end to this. Slap an Anti-Social Behaviour Order on The City of Belfast prohibiting the brandishing of Roman candles, rockets, stones, masonry, and drained ale bottles.
My hands riveted to the cold rail, insensible to the rioters, I survey the river’s rusty, muddy depths while contemplating my next move. I gaze downward into the polluted river. Heraclitus was wrong. We do step into the same river twice. In Belfast we step into the same river daily. This erratic river is unmoved. This aberration of a river has not diverged one single smidgen since 1690, nor have the political boundaries of this city, nor the bigotry of its citizens. This river is the same river that Grandfather Nigel lobbed mistake after mistake into decades past, the same river the Brits tossed Seamus into, the same rank river I now stare blindly into.
A car horn blares. A black Cooper’s blinding headlights pierce, then part, the angry mob. The driver leans hard on the hooter which shrieks amid the deafening screams and curses of the crowd. I stand still, blinded by bright headlights. Accelerating exponentially, the mini veers first to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again before bearing down on me. No time to think. No time to choose sides.
My apologies to Heraclitus, but we do leap into the same river twice.
I lunge headfirst into the filthy Lagan to embrace unholy communion with the rest of Nigel Stone’s irreversible mistakes.