CRAIGAVON, COUNTY ARMAGH
Adrian Fox was born in Kent, England, in 1961. Both Irish, his parents had gone to England to find work but later returned to Northern Ireland to set up a home for their growing family and to start a business of their own. "Little did they know," Adrian says, "that in just two years they would become part of the nightmare [the Troubles] and that my father's small car repair centre in Belfast would be taken over and used as a British Army post and our home would be taken from us by force and burned."
Having spent his first six years happy and content in England, Adrian simply was not prepared for the violence he saw in Belfast. "It seemed like hell," he says. His school life was so affected by the chaos of the Troubles that he left school at age fifteen to become a butcher's boy.
"A friend of the family saved my life in a gun battle," he recalls, and was killed just minutes after getting me home safely." Adrian himself sometimes was involved in the violence until one day everything changed for him: "As a young teenager, thinking this war a part of me and I a part of it, one day I was rioting with the British Army and I split a black soldier's head open and my friends congratulated me on such a fine shot but I ran home through the streets sick to my soul. And on the way a woman stood screaming in an alley, 'The bastards have shot my son!' Her son's busted body lay there with his intestines hanging out like snails on the concrete. Then as I cried myself to sleep I knew this war was not a part of me. I can still see those faces of the dead and injured."
Now living in County Armagh, happily married with three children he loves very much, Adrian's commitment is to his family, his writing, and peace. He has had quite a few poems published in anthologies. One of his poems, "Breath of Peace," was recently issued as a song on a CD by a Belfast band. The following story is Chapter Two of a book he is writing called Freedom Winds.
One for the Road
I didn't feel the beat of my heart until I was six years old. If I felt it before then it was only a faint murmur so I take it for granted that my first six years were spent cocooned in peaceful innocence.
Mum said I was a laid-back child full of wisdom. As long as my high chair tray was piled high with food I was content. Dad, who always differed, said I was a lazy child who needed too much attention. I suppose I was somewhere between the two assumptions.
My heart beat like it had never beaten before. It felt like my body was vibrating with fear. Reluctantly I stumbled up the mobile staircase, mother's strength tugging at my arm as I stopped, taking in the sight of the massive steel bird, holding the handrail like the branch of a tree when falling.
On reaching the platform, she turned to me to reassure me that everything would be alright. Seeing the fright written on my grimaced face and the buildup of tears, she took me into her arms. I clung to her like a leech -- so close our heartbeats entwined.
This was my first time on an aeroplane. Flying to Belfast, of all places, with my head stuck in my second sick bag as if I had been given some premonition of what the future had in store. The year was nineteen sixty-seven.
What a rush of relief I felt when the aircraft taxied to a halt at Aldergrove Airport and we were in a taxi rolling through the lush green countryside. My heartbeat returned to normal as the beautiful rolling hills opened to me from the backseat, as we climbed hills filled with cattle, sheep, and little cottages and farm buildings. I had only glimpsed scenes like these in books or stories from my mother's childhood as my early years were spent in built-up towns and cities in England.
I was lost in a daydream of what my new home would be like, picturing fields to run and play in, rivers to fish with friends. My dream was shattered as the taxi fell from the last hill to civilization, past houses, shops, schools, churches, and hundreds of people on the streets.
The taxi turned off the main road where the sun was shining brightly. The side streets were dark and dismal as if an instant depression had erupted in the heavens. Grey clouds formed above, blending bleakly with the rows of closed-in redbrick terraced houses, like a garden filled with overgrown weeds.
I knelt on the backseat observing with disappointed eyes my new world, far from the beautiful scenery of my imagination. The nearest resemblance to trees were the old gaslights. Now converted to electricity, they lined the dreary streets. Scruffy, hard-looking kids swung around them enclosed in a strong rope.
I watched the older boys who played football on the road without any fear of the traffic. They leered at me through the glass.
"There's the school you'll be going to," said my father. It stood empty and evil behind the high rusted spiked double gates, surrounded by a brick wall. Along the top of the wall ran three layers of rusted barbed wire. My heartbeat grew wilder at the thought of attending such a school.
The taxi turned left into a narrower street and pulled up alongside the kerb. The daylight withdrew even further. It was more like dusk than late morning. This is hell, I thought, standing there on the pavement, waiting for someone to open the blood-red door of the bleak two up/two down [two rooms on the first floor/two rooms on the second] terraced house.
An old worn woman with mousy dead hair and an apron over her drab dress opened the door. We stood staring at the stern old woman, awaiting a smile or some expression of welcome. Dad approached her and they embraced, bringing a slight smile to her tired face.
Sarah was old and had lived alone since my father left her and the only home he knew as a young teenager. She had little time and energy. Working at the local mill where she had lost two fingers and all her pride, she spent the rest of her time in the chapel. She was a stern woman who never wed. Not many got to know her or wanted to as she dictated her religious beliefs too often.
I lay deep within the blankets of my temporary bed, a mattress on the cold linoleum floor. I shook with fear of the night coming into the room. My mother's voice from the room below brought a little comfort until my mind went wandering.
The story Sarah told me earlier was reoccurring in my mind, my imagination running wild. As she spoke with a hard northern brogue, she shot forward, just inches from my face, like a witch from the darkness. "The banshees cry at night," she said. "Don't let them see you. If they do, they'll throw their invisible combs and, if they hit you, you will die."
My insides were cold. Wanting to urinate, I took the chamber pot that rested on the only piece of furniture in the room.
With my left hand I tore at the tiny blemishes on my skin. I lay there looking at the only light in the room. A tiny crucifix enclosed within a glass tube shone a subtle red glow onto the picture it projected, adding to the sinister face of a man with a fixed glare, blood trickling from the thorned wounds of his forehead.
I turned away from the light and buried my head in the bedclothes, thinking this is an evil place with evil fleas and people talking of banshees and death, trying so hard to remember friends and good times from my short past. Eventually I fell into a sleep.
I rose from the floor and stumbled across the room in my brother's hand-me-down pyjamas. The turn-ups of four years fell in the night and hung around my feet like slippers.
I opened the curtains revealing the darkened street. I looked up to see a bright sunny day. The morning could not penetrate the street's shadows, the identical rows of houses on each side of the cobbled road were so close. I watched an elderly lady bending over her fire hearth with a little brush and shovel in her aching hands as if her back were locked and she was in terrible pain.
My older brother Terry told me there was no such thing as banshees. "It's only the cats crying," he said.
That night, before I retired, I went to the back room. I looked from the window. With my brother's reassurance, I tried hard not to be afraid.
The moon and stars reflected on my emotion-filled eyes, watching my new world nightmare. The moon threw shadows in the yard. The grey steel bathtub hung from a nail on the wall like a sinister doorway to hell. The toilet door creaked with the night's breeze and the memory from earlier in the day came fleeting back.
I held myself from falling into the hole in the wooden bench, surrounded by whitewashed walls, covered in massive webs and spiders crawling like the plague of sadness in my mind. And that door I closed upon myself I thought would swing open and something evil would be waiting. My fear running wild, the old rusted lift latch jammed. I kicked and thumped on the door, hurting my hand. The door swung open and no one was there.
I ran to my mother who was washing dishes in the sink and held her with all my might. "I don't like this place," I stammered and shook in her clutches. From the window the sights were eerier than they were in the daylight. Behind the yard wall was an alleyway I couldn't see into and I was glad because the dark figures of mind scurrying along the alley would only bring more frightened confusion.
A dark redbrick wall ran the length of the back alley. Like an extension to the yard wall, three rows of rusted barbed wire ran along the top of it. Three acres or so of rugged concrete lay beyond the wall. The unlit building loomed bleak in the centre of the playground. I dreaded my first days at that school with those rough-looking boys who played football in the street.
The cats hissed and whinged and fought somewhere in the darkness. Oblivious to the sounds, I was lost in the sights of hell. My sister entered the room and startled me. Noticing the buildup of sadness in my eyes, she sat on the bed reassuring me that everything would be alright. We went downstairs and had supper together. I felt good sitting with my family just like we used to before this strange upheaval.
Over the weeks, the hell within my mind dwindled as I learned to cope with a cold, rough northern way. Sarah took a shine to me, calling me the apple of her eye, hugging me and showering me with toothless kisses.
I reminded her of my father when he was a boy. "You're the spit from your father's mouth," she kept telling me.
We called her Aunt Sarah, although she wasn't. My father was left as a young baby for Sarah to rear, abandoned by a mysterious woman who ran off to some unknown freedom.
The mystery was never solved as both Sarah and my father were deep, secretive people who held the skeletons of their past secured within the vaults of their minds.
My father took a job as a panelbeater/sprayer [auto body repair person] and purchased a house for us. Before we moved from Sarah's I caught sight of a scene that would be etched in my memory forever.
I watched from the front bedroom window. My mother had tucked me into my temporary bed but I couldn't sleep. I saw a small stocky man running onto the street from a darkened alley. Dressed in a black bomber jacket and jeans, he wore a grimaced, painful expression on his white complexion, as if he were running for his life.
From the darkness came five black figures, their long coats flowing like shadows on water. The dim streetlights and the moon reflected from the shiny black peaks and the silver buttons of their uniforms.
The spectacle was like a private, disgusting entertainment for my benefit only. I stood affixed, as if I was the only punter [spectator] in the theatre.
The small stocky man was brought to the ground on the pavement below my window. The truncheon [club] flashed in the moonlight, impacting the side of his knee like thunder, sending shivers through me as if my bones were breaking. They kicked him into the gutter and took batons [nightsticks] from their coats. Hearing every contact of those batons with his body, my insides twisted. I tried to turn away or make a sound, but couldn't. I was numb with disbelief.
One of them jumped into the air and fell with the full force of his body weight, hatred and hobnailed boots opening the skull like a rotten potato. They beat him for what seemed a long time, but I couldn't be sure as I was locked within those moments. Names I did not understand rang in the night like howling gales. "Fenian!" "Bastard!" "Irish cunt!"
The men laughed a sick, horrid laugh and disappeared into the darkness. Then one returned. I hoped he returned full of remorse and would pick the man up from the gutter. Little did I know that this incident in nineteen sixty-seven would be the norm for a quarter of a century.
The blood drained from my face as the broken body was shoved another foot along the gutter by the spit-polished boots. "There's one for the road," he said and disappeared into the night.
What sort of evil place is this, I thought, waking from the trance of hatred-ridden sights. I held my churning guts. My head grew light. I turned from the window to the picture of Jesus thorned and then to the busted body on the pavement and knew this can't be right.
As if I had all my young mind could comprehend, I slumped to my knees with exhaustion. My insides rolled and threw out their contents. The peas rolled like marbles on the cold floor.
After a sleepless night of sifting through my mind for an explanation -- even now as I write this twenty-eight years later, knowing the politics of Northern Ireland, I still cannot fathom how a human can lower himself to such degrees of hatred -- I dressed and went out onto the street before breakfast to see the stains and convince myself that I wasn't just dreaming. But the only signs remaining were spots on the pavement, bleached cleaner than the rest. I looked down to the blemishes of artificial purity like a lost soul.
I spun on my heel as if I knew my mother was there behind me. I gripped her and held her, pressing into her warm tummy like a newborn. "It happened. It happened," I cried.
She gripped me, knowing she was powerless. "I know it happened," she said. She dropped to my level and whispered, "Push the memory away. Everything will be alright. We'll be moving soon."
She held me and we walked across the pavement. Her tears erupted and she wiped them away and they fell behind her eyes, cascading into her heart.
Copyright © 1997 by Laurel Holliday
Our Lives in the Crossfire of Northern Ireland
Children of the Troubles
Our Lives in the Crossfire of Northern Ireland
"All my life I have been afraid. When it would get dark I would lie in bed and be frightened to move in case men would be outside who were going to smash the doors in with a sledge hammer and then shoot whoever is in the house as they have done before."
-- Bridie Murphy, age twelve
More than sixty Catholic and Protestant children, teenagers, and adults chronicle their coming-of-age experiences in the war zone, from bomb-devastated Belfast to the terrorist-ridden countryside.
"It was like my head exploded. It's an experience you can't really understand -- getting shot in the head -- unless it's happened to you.
-- Stephen Robinson, wounded while walking home from secondary school
For the first time in thirty years there is some hope for an end to the murders and bombings that have wounded more than 40,000. But the ravages of war remain indelibly etched on the minds and souls of the generation known as children of "The Troubles."
- Atria Books |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9781476775333 |
- February 2014