Published on May 5th, 2006 | by The Beige Baron0
Dining Out on Dreams of Revenge
After a six month stint in Belfast, under the gun-metal sky and the threat of random violence, I was finally getting the hell out of Northern Ireland. It had been a brief visit this time, my previous stay had lasted four years and I swore I’d never return. Ireland has a strange, romantic power and it drew me back like a big green magnet. But like any romance, the honeymoon had ended and I needed to make my bed elsewhere.
On the surface, it seemed like the wrong time to be leaving. It was June 1997, the greatest political breakthrough in the last thirty years, the Good Friday Agreement, was only three months old and it was summer. A new kind of optimism had begun: old political foes had shook hands at the behest of the people; political prisoners from both sides of the sectarian divide had been released; the tribes had stopped rattling their shields for the time being and declared a wary truce. The sun was out and down in South Belfast, at the edge of Queens University, people were moving their furniture out onto the footpath to sit in its rare shafts. A student sat strumming a nylon-stringed guitar on his doorstep.
From long experience I knew this feeling would not last. Marching Season was coming. Protestant Orangemen take to the streets to celebrate the victory of the Dutch Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James of England at the battle of the Boyne on the 12th of July 1690. They march in military cordons through hostile Catholic areas all over Northern Ireland, pipes and drums pound and wail their way through anthems of hate like The Sash. It’s a frightening display of intimidation. No amount of protest from Catholic residents will divert the Orangemen from their ‘traditional routes.’ It’s like allowing the Nazis to march through Jewish neighbourhoods: ‘But we’ve been doing this for years! It’s tradition.’
From my third floor flat just off Botanic Avenue, I could see across the railway line to the piles of fuel for the annual bonfires. They were becoming bigger each day. Kids piled these things high with raw, wooden pallets and armfuls of tyres. Stacking them up like a kind of Tower of Babel, waiting for the culmination on 12th of July to set them alight. From the river Boyne to the Glens of Antrim, a black pall would obscure the summer skies of Ulster for a long week of sectarian tension.
Things are never simple in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement had been scrutinised long enough for the opposing factions to find some holes in it, and a celebratory Peace Concert set to be held in the grounds of Stormont, the Northern Irish parliamentary building, was facing some fierce opposition.
The concert had already been denounced by fire-and-brimstone Protestant preacher-cum-MP, the Reverend Ian Paisley. To anyone rational, the man is a foaming lunatic: a bigot to the core; a huge man with a loud voice and a large audience among the die-hard Loyalists. No Surrender to the IRA. They’ll fight the British to remain British. Elton John was billed to play at the concert and Ian Paisley’s objection was typically biblical: ‘First they let in the Papists, now they’re letting in the Sodomites!’ I guess he felt that the citizens of The Province, as he called it, had been fucked in the arse enough without risking Elton John having a crack at it.
It is these kind of things that lead to apocryphal stories like the one about a pilot who was giving his usual farewell address to the passengers on a flight from London to Belfast. As the plane descended, he got on the PA to wish the passengers a safe and pleasant journey and added, ‘We are about to land in Belfast, please set your watches back 800 years.’
Indeed. This troubled corner of the world had been coping with the fall-out of vicious imperialism and civil warfare since the Normans trashed the Abbeys of Downpatrick in the 12th century.
In that same tradition of institutional vandalism, I’d burnt all my bridges with social security. Despite having worked for the past few months in the insurance department of public-transport company, Ulsterbus, I had continued to claim housing benefits. Well, that’s not strictly true: I simply never stopped claiming the benefits, and the cheques just kept coming every fortnight. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I promptly cashed the giros at the Post Office and went about my business, ignoring the heavy consequences that would surely come.
Part of the twisted justification for this fraud came from the fact that my flat had been turned into a construction site and the landlord had kindly reduced my rent considerably while the builders demolished the place. I had been moved around the building, from flat to flat, as they renovated each one.
The hallway was full of plaster dust from dawn till dusk, my shower had been removed because the water leaked downstairs through the gaps around the unsealed tub. On Friday afternoons I would knock off at midday and come home to find a startled team of men in overalls stuffing empty ‘crisp’ packets down the back of my sofa while they watched Home & Away.
The meagre Housing Benefit cheques were more than enough to cover the rent with a bit of money left over for beer and hash. Combined with the wages I was already earning, I’d been living pretty well and had saved enough cash to cover a week of mindless debauchery in the Netherlands.
Luckily for me, the Social Security and the Housing departments didn’t seem to talk to each other that often, and I’d slipped through the net for the time being. I knew they’d eventually put two-and-two together and come up with my National Insurance number. But I was not prepared to spend another couple of years in Belfast paying the money back: playing snooker at the halls in Shaftesbury Square; eating chips smothered in gravy at 1am; smoking ten-packs of shortened cigarettes they called ‘stumps’, and buying the Telegraph off the squawking paperboys on Chichester street.
On this fine afternoon, as I walked down Botanic Avenue to Shaftesbury Sqaure, a patrol of British soldiers picked their wary way past the furniture in the street. Fingers on the triggers of their fully automatic rifles, scanning, just frightened boys in a game of soldiers that was all too real. They were tense and ready for anything. Anticipating the sniper’s bullet from an attic window, or an invisible tripwire that would turn them and any innocent bystanders into a red mist.
As the soldiers passed, the man with the guitar didn’t even stop strumming. The security presence in Northern Ireland is so ubiquitous that it almost becomes invisible; just another part of the landscape. Under a horizon dotted with observation towers, bristling with ariels and satellite dishes, a patrol of heavily armed soldiers fades into the streetscape like a bunch of camouflaged lizards on a rock.
I left the phone connected, the TV I’d rented still running for the builders, overdrew my Ulster Bank account and booked a ticket to Amsterdam at the STA. People were waiting for me in London but first I had to get to Amsterdam for a well earned rest from the harsh realities of living in a war zone.
I had a large, khaki kit-bag that I’d bought at the Army Disposals down in one of a cluster of narrow covered alleyways called The Entries. The bag was about a metre long and tied up at the top with a belt threaded through a dozen metal eyes. It had the faded name of a squaddie and regiment number stencilled down the side. God knows what had happened to the poor bastard who’d packed it on the eve of a tour of duty of the most dangerous place for a British soldier to be, but it was the perfect bag to be carrying out of Aldergrove airport on a summer night.
My plane was due to leave at 9pm which left me just enough time for a drink at The Crown on Great Victoria street before I got the airport shuttle from across the road at the Europa bus station.
The bus station was situated behind the Europa hotel. The hotel looked like a bank and was probably built like one too. The Europa has the dubious honour of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. Anytime there was a ripple in the political fortunes of one group or another, someone would park a van full of semtex out the front, dial the hotline from a nearby phone-booth, give the codeword and walk away. Roughly thirty minutes later, after the security forces had evacuated everyone from the surrounding area, the giant glass façade would crash down on the Grand Opera House next door like a shower of solid, deadly rain.
You don’t have to spend much time in Belfast to hear a bomb. It’s a disconcerting experience to say the least. It’s not like the movies: there’s no roar or flash or diving for cover. If you’re nearby, you feel the energy being sucked out of the air as if a huge supernatural storm is about to break, then the ground gives an almighty heave, and a split-second later comes the apocalyptic boom. The shockwaves can be felt for miles. A couple of pounds of plastic explosive is enough to demolish anything. I was in a car once when a bomb went off nearby away and I thought someone had leapt onto the roof or the all the tyres had suddenly exploded. The rear number plate actually snapped off on the road. The force these things generate is nothing short of phenomenal. But it’s all pure and basic physics and chemistry. Any nut with a grudge can mix a bag of fertilizer with some industrial strength detergent and create unholy chaos for a good few hours.
But here in Northern Ireland the grudges run deep and are firmly held. There’s no cooling off: revenge comes hot, straight from the kitchen and the Irish have an extensive menu of retribution.
At the Crown I ordered a pint of Guinness and sat in one of the booths, or snugs, as they’re called. They have black leather seats and intricate wooden doors that you can close for privacy. The lamps in the place still run on kerosene and the floor is a mosaic of black and white tiles worn smooth around the brass railed bar. I needed no privacy so I left the door to the snug open, waited for the Guinness to settle, lit a Marlboro and opened the Irish Independent to the crossword page.
On my second trip to the bar, a short wiry man with a shaved head and a wispy, adolescent moustache noticed my Australian accent and struck up a conversation. Even though I held an Irish passport, my accent was a great ice-breaker in a part of the world where one’s nationality immediately carried all sorts of political and religious baggage. I had no need to explain myself like the English do when they venture over here, and was treated as a novelty. This soon became tiresome if I wanted any real relationship with people, but ultimately made for an easier ride.
Benny joined me in the snug. He was nervous, obviously in the grip of some kind of amphetamine psychosis, or fundamentally damaged by solvent abuse like so many young men I’d met there. The paramilitaries controlled everything in the tower-block estates like the Divis Flats in West Belfast where Benny was from, including the drugs. The paramilitaries are a brutal kind of law enforcement in places where the cops simply can not and will not go, and they had a very puritanical attitude towards hard drugs and what they called ‘Anti-Social Behaviour.’ This included anything from joyriding, burglary to drug abuse. Anyone caught using heroin (if they could get it) would be kneecapped, no questions asked. A year in hospital and learning to walk again while grasping the rails of a treadmill was a far better deterrent than any prison.
For all their faults, the IRA had done a sterling job of keeping smack out of a society that would have taken to it like a bird to the air. After all, they needed recruits and nodding out at the butt of an AK-47 while a patrol of British soldiers wandered past a well planned ambush just would not do.
So guys like Benny usually stuck to booze and hash, the occasional dab of bathtub speed, or when times were tough, a can of solvents and a plastic bag. This produces an instant, horrible brain-scrambling high which lasts only a few seconds but leaves deep and permanent brain damage.
Benny was very keen to make friends. He’d just served a stretch in the Maze; a notorious prison just south of Belfast near a town called Lisburn. It was the place where Bobby Sands had starved himself to death in 1980 in a shit smeared cell while still winning a seat in Westminster as a Sinn Fein MP.
‘You need any hash in Belfast, I’m your man’ he said as he twisted his pint of Tenants around on the coaster. I explained that I was leaving in a few hours but I had a block of Singapore Grey in my boot. I gestured down at my Blundstones and took out the blackened silver pipe I had on my key-ring. His eyes lit up and we finished our pints and headed out the back to the keg strewn alleyway between the toilets and the cellar.
I was not too keen to endure the scrutiny of Northern Irish airport security drunk and under the influence of hash but what the fuck. I had a straw cowboy hat strapped to my army kit-bag and a pair of orange tinted aviator shades that would hide all manner of obvious indiscretions. I would be too obvious to attract the wrong kind of attention. Besides, what kind of moron would try to smuggle drugs into Amsterdam? It all made a weird kind of sense. The problems I’d gone through to actually get this hash that Benny and I were now smoking behind the Crown demanded that I consume it.
The previous evening I’d gone up to North Belfast to say goodbye to some friends. After a few beers, the need for an altered consciousness was acute and all the usual avenues had been exhausted. At the end of the street lay a park the locals called the Waterworks. It was merely a grim, yellow-grassed field with a storm water drain in the centre about which a local cadre of delinquents gathered. We could score down there if we looked and acted right. This proved to be the problem. As Martin and I approached, the group caught sight of my 1976 leather jacket: bought on Smith street in Collingwood, Melbourne, but looking every bit the standard IRA issue, all that was missing was the beret and the AK, and Martin’s plastered hand, the result of a recent random spray of bullets into a Catholic pub. The group scattered while Martin waved his cast at them and shouted that we were friendly. Eventually, one of the cannier members of the group figured out who we were and came back up to the house in a taxi with a nice soapy ounce block of pure grey hash.
It was my share that Benny and I now burnt at the end of a short silver pipe at the back of the Crown. The high got him talking and he spun around to show me the bite marks on the back of his head. Sustained in some trivial yet bitter battle over some small comfort in the Maze. He tried to convince me he was on the level by forcing me to call his home number from the payphone inside the pub. I dialled and a girl answered. I asked for Benny. The girl said he was not there, which I knew since he was standing beside jabbing me with a 20p piece in case the money ran out. I thanked her and hung up.
My shuttle was set to leave and I gave Benny a couple of cigarettes, grabbed my bag from the snug and headed across the road to the Europa.
On the plane I was surrounded by a group of English schoolboys in full uniform. They were rowdy but not offensively so. Private school kids, all square jawed and handsome. The boy next to me looked about sixteen and had his hair gelled up into a faux-hawk. I set my hat on my knee and settled down into the short flight by ordering a scotch and dry. Once my drink arrived, I asked my neighbour what was with the uniforms. They were an English high-school rugby team from Kent that had just been over to play another Northern Irish school. ‘Did you win?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, we always do, ‘he shrugged and said in his plummy voice, ‘the Irish boys are good but they play dirty.’ He looked out the window at the dark, rolling glens that banked below us, seeing only enemy territory. I took a sip of my whisky and left him to it. — Vincent BlackShadow