Leaving Belfast, 1971
The beam from the barracks’ searchlight
Crossed the terraced rooftops and through
The dormer window lit my bedroom wall:
Strange moonlight in a city
Sickened by the hatred of neighbours.
Another day had lapsed.
During the dark hours
The dull staccato burst of automatic fire
Broke somewhere in the silent hum of the streets –
Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. Semibreve.
And then the thin, piercing crack
And long, slow decay of the rifle’s response –
Like some kind of thunder.
I slept and woke to dark voices in the street,
The harsh slam of a car door.
The hard scrape of metal on pavement:
Hobnail boots stalking the early hours.
I counted the days. Dread irony lurked.
Would twenty years of growing
On this stony ground
Come to nothing –
Cut down in the crossfire?
Cruel the glib epitaph:
Wrong place, wrong time.
So many murdered and maimed.
I did the number check:
One, the bomb in the next street
And I unscathed. A shockwaved cactus
Flung from the window crossbar spiked Albert’s ear.
The cactus lived. But
Shockwaved chimney soot
Clouded Sunday dinner.
Two, the badly parked car on the street corner.
Passed it twice, there and back,
When from the kitchen I heard it
Wreck-bang in a metal mess.
Three, gunfire in the streets around.
Teddy’s winestore opposite, thrice looted.
Teddy, a ‘taig’, our neighbour of years,
Raking through the gears, making his escape.
The mob cheering the flames.
The heat bubbling the paint on our windows and door.
The day came when I ascended, Gatwick-headed,
And left a land quilted with fields,
Ochre and verdant.
Ulster, a land criss-crossed with borders -
Roads and hedgerows, laneways and kerbstones.
In Brighton I exchanged
The redbrick terrace
For the redbrick hall of learning,
And walked the winding path of a downland campus.
But in the early hours of that first night
A bomb exploded, wrecking my dreams.
From sleep I went auto, the old routine:
Radio on, telly on,
Wait for the word on the street …
Until in that moment the safe walls
Of a study bedroom brought relief.
Bomb report: Nothing
But the bang of a fire door on a heavy damper.
It was a lesson later to be learned.
The paradox: cut strings bind more tightly.