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I’m trying to piece together or find meaning for the randomness of life back in the ‘real’ world, having passed the summer in the land of synchronicity, Santiago de Compostela, (Sincron City perhaps) -where all opportunities and coincidences are considered to be life’s gifts, not just random. In no way does that account for ‘stuff that happens.’
For example, and this is a true story:
On a late evening stroll, a gentle dog is attacked by two thuggish dogs who appear from nowhere in an unprovoked attack, violent, pointless and shocking. The dog tries to escape and the two attack again going for the soft underbelly and the kill. Eventually, amid the screaming from the gentle dog’s owner, just a girl, and the growling of the thugs, the owners of the thugs manage to apprehend and stop the attack. The gentle dog flees, like an express train – truly, the colour of a dog running away. The owner, tearful, hurries after, calling sweetly lest she frighten the animal further.
Even the thugs’ owners are in shock and apologise to the retreating girl.
The gentle dog has found its way home and is cowering by the front door, panting, panting. Relieved, the girl pats and pets the dog and weeps again when she finds blood on her hands. Once inside, the extent of the damage is revealed and is horrific. A deep and worrying wound causes the girl and the dog to panic all over again. Advice is sought via friends on Facebook. ‘calm the dog; more die from shock than actual harm.’ Condolences trickle in. The dog can find no peace. So the girl scoops him off to the vet’s, nearing midnight. An operation is needed and the dog must be put to sleep in order to stitch the wound, layers deep and administer antibiotics and painkillers.
Would this have happened to another dog owner and their dog? Was it random violence that would have taken pace anyway or was this supposed to happen to this girl?
People talk of life’s lessons and I wondered if this incident had been ‘meant’ as a lesson for her. It certainly influenced a decision. It happened the day before she had interviews for a new job and a long list of flats to view in a town 40 miles away. She was looking forward to the challenge of the new. The kindness of her friends rallying with offers of help and messages of condolence made her think twice. Then, as the new town was so busy compared to the rural idyll she lives, she decided it would be no place for a sick dog. And so did not move after all. The gentle dog and the girl are doing well.
Two young men are slowly dismantling the bathroom in my mother’s house. I had assumed I would chivvy her round to our house for the duration but no, she sleeps on undisturbed by the banging and to-ing and fro-ing. The plumbers are undeniably quiet, no radio blaring, no effing and blinding to speak of. Perhaps I expected Del and Rodney Trotter. This is Wales and the plumbers are softly spoken Welshmen still waiting for the delivery of the new stuff with the old filling the garden. Although ‘Bloody hell’ in Welsh is still ‘Bloody hell’, It does sound better.
The spell in hospital has left its mark on my mother and ‘staying on’ is paramount. Still living on her own in her nineties after a lifetimes’ independence (a single parent, well before that term was current) each infringement is felt keenly.
A walk-in shower is another capitulation. Taking out the bath, moving to a bungalow and wearing false teeth seem to be rungs on the stairway to heaven. Slowly and dimly we grasp this, even though we have our feet squarely on that ladder ourselves.
I think of her sometimes as ‘the boxer’, for her fondness of watching TV, and for boxes of chocolates but mostly for her fighting spirit. Thankfully, she still has her marbles. The sight of her as we waited for the medic and the ambulance those weeks ago, spellbound, watching a Marcel Pagnol film, Le Chateau de Ma Mere , in French, with the broadest of (toothless) smiles, is still imprinted on my mind’s eye.
A black cab will take you up the Falls Road through the Peace Wall and back to the city via the Shankill Road for a tenner a head. The driver will act as your guide. Even after Friday’s shenanigans this was something we all wanted to do, Sunny Boy, Number One Daughter and I.
At ten Bobby, our driver, stepped out of his cab in front of the hotel and introduced himself. Within minutes we were out of the city and along the Falls Road which runs for nine miles and is parallel to the protestant Shankill Road. Linen mills used to lie between the two where the meters-high, miles-long Peace Wall now runs. Belfast women who worked the mills, catholic alongside protestant, would go through their sectarian doors in their own neighbourhoods at the start and end of each working day. One mill, now converted to a flour mill, still has and still uses the two sets of doors.
We stop at the line of murals which are political in nature, the most recent painted only on Friday night. The black and white replica of ‘Guernica’, perhaps the most famous anti war painting, is beginning to peel off the brick wall. The even bricks make it more like the tiled memorial in the Basque town itself. Another is in solidarity for Palestine. The pictures are deeply moving, not least because they commemorate history of our living memory that we have ceased to think about.
We stop outside Sinn Fein headquarters and learn a few words in Gaelic and immediately forget most. Siaorse, popular as a girl’s name, means freedom. We all remember that.
We hear of Belfast men who aught to be famous but aren’t because the Troubles have outgunned everything: Dunlop, DeLorean, C.S.Lewis and the man who invented defibrillators, amongst others.
Those who live in the Falls area consider themselves Irish and speak Gaelic. Those in the Shankill, with pavements painted red, white and blue and Union Jacks fluttering, consider themselves British. The two areas, although side by side, even look different.
We follow a coach to one of the gates in the wall, that open and close daily. We have seen the mainly Spanish tourists at the memorial gardens looking glumly at the lists of names carved in black marble, hearing of fire bombs and martyrs for the cause.
‘They come up from Dublin for the day and carry on to the Giant’s Causeway.’
We feel drained after barely an hour and murmur at their stamina.
‘Their guide’s an IRA man.’
Our Driver has the gift of the gab and could talk for Ireland or England, whichever his preference, but somehow this feels a step too far.
‘You watch now, at the gate. He’ll get out and let another guide on to take them round the Shankill.’ Sure enough, a thick set man in blue smokes and waits.
‘He’s ex UVF,’ and he laughs. ‘Bet they never thought they’d see the day.’
At the Peace Wall, Bobby presents me a pen and invites me to leave a message with all the others. There is a competition for graffiti artists here, even Banksy has been.
A message of hope for peace, what else? It is obvious both sides want peace. The world wants peace, the question is how to manage it.
He leaves us to walk through the Shankill murals, before delivering us to our start point. One with a gunman staring down the barrel of a gun is the most disquieting. Where ever you stand the gun points right at you.
Sunny Boy and I were in Belfast for his birthday weekend with Number One Daughter. Who was to know that the date coincided with the anniversary of internment without trial, or that the march this year should unleash such violence?
Wandering the city centre with a street map around 5pm on Friday afternoon, we were advised by a young woman to go indoors, ‘There’s going to be a spot of bother. Find yourselves a wee bar and sit it out.’
Out of 600 marches or parades in this area annually, twelve are contentious. The Parades Commission, formed as part of the Peace Process, usually adjudicates or dictates where the march will go. The city centre is traditionally ‘neutral’, but trouble was expected, as it had been since the Orange men were denied their usual route to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne. The march itself could have passed off peaceably, but the counter demonstration was the worry.
We saw shops pulling down shutters and armed police in riot gear spilling out of armoured vans standing around good naturedly waiting, presumably, for trouble. We took pictures and they did not seem to mind. We went back to the hotel two minutes away from the centre and although helicopters flew overhead and ambulance sirens sounded, there was nothing untoward. In spite of huge temptation to rubberneck ( Sunny Boy was not keen) we did as advised and stayed away.
The news had the extent of the violence, anger, retaliation, hooliganism (call it what you will) and the town’s absolute disgust at what had taken place. Belfast has worked hard for its reputation as the world’s second safest city, second only to Tokyo, we are told.
I have been away for over a month, walking first and then volunteering and then visiting family and friends. Quite why I should think that home would not change while I was away is a mystery. Nothing has stayed the same. Life (and the garden) has blossomed in my absence and rather than be missed I have missed much.
My mother who is ninety two has changed too, rather in the way that a baby will show great changes in just a month. Perhaps life is relative as time and accelerates at both extremes – the beginning and the end.
She is herself and not herself, a cold is laying her low and attacking her chest. I keep her company while we wait for the doctor to call. (An unheard of event). I made the appointment without her say so, also unheard of and she takes the decision stoically even when it gets to be a two hour trip to hospital. This is North Wales and beds are in short supply. The journey is taxing and uncomfortable. The two paramedics who man the ambulance, one to drive and one to care for my mother, are unbelievably young and unbelievably, though thankfully, competent.
It must be twenty years since either of us has been an inmate. Recent news of early deaths and gross incompetence punctuates our silences. There is no evidence of this in the ward, but it is an alien place. The first dose of drugs plus oxygen kicks in and breathing is easier. Sunny Boy arrives and we make tepid tea from a machine on the ward.
‘ What would you like for your birthday?’ My mother asks him. It will be on Friday. He reckons he has got to the age where there is nothing that he needs or wants, and my mother suggests an ice cream from the neon pink parlour in the harbour near home. This is a favourite haunt of hers and we make a date for when she is out.
On the way home, nearing midnight, I suggest a MacDonalds, the only place open. It must be twenty years since Sunny Boy has been in one. He is still mystified by the ‘speak’, ‘ Dyuwonfries? Dyuwonamele?’ , and that MacDonalds exists at all. Some things don’t change.