SHORT STORY CONTEST
MY BEAUTIFUL, BRASH, BEASTLY BELFAST
by Seamus Scanlon
A Saracen parked askew, silhouetted at dusk against the fog rising slowly off the Lagan, the high rimmed wheels straddling the fractured footpath, the dented grey metal armor a dull sheen in the fading light.
The boy runs across the stone littered road toward the shops, his mother calling after him from the doorway—Watch yourself.
—It’s OK Ma.
The riots are over for a while. Tea time. A few teenagers in the gloom crouch behind burned out cars at the end of the road, smoking, Balaclavas and slingshots in their hands, watching, waiting.
His sister Bernadette runs out the door after him, rushing past her mother.
She cries out—Bernie! Bernie!
The boy turns his head. A puff of smoke from a high recessed gun slit in the Saracen. He feels the velocity of the heavy tumbling baton round displacing air near his face. The sound of it he feels still. The bullet hits Bernie on the bridge of her nose—lifts her off her feet—dashes her against the door lintel. Her face is blown asunder. Her brain tissue and blood streak down the wall of their house. A corrupt Belfast Passover.
Their mother screams.
He wants to scream himself but nothing comes out.
He stumbles back—his rag doll sister lying broken. Neighbors run out—pull the mother away.
The Saracen indolently moves from its position, its underbelly exposed as it drives over makeshift barricades of the Holy Land— Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Cairo Street. As it slowly moves off down the street, the crowds are back out now. Stones cascade off the armor siding.
The priest arrives. The RUC arrive. Bernie’s blood flows across the footpath, spilling over the lip, pooling on the roadway. The ambulance arrives. With ashen faces they try to mop up the blood, they cover Bernie’s face with a white sheet but mottled red stains spread quickly across the fabric. The boy walks over to stand beside Bernie’s body.
His mother still screams, stricken, sirens cascading off the narrow grey streets as more ambulances and police cars arrive. He looks down at the roadway, the bright black- red blood from his sister’s head and nose and ears and mouth molding itself around his shoes and flowing on. He takes his shoes and socks off and stands in the warm blood so he won’t forget.
The undertaker takes the body away to the Royal Victoria, the neighbors take their mother away, the boy’s gaze follows the hearse before it disappears in the mist of the Ormeau Bridge. Neighbors try to persuade him to come indoors. He stands on the wet pavement until the night is high and the chill wind from the Lagan makes his knees shake. He walks into the house, tracking faint red blemishes on the lino in the hallway. In her bedroom he pulls the sheet over his head. He lies awake all night. In the morning the red footprints are embossed on the white sheet.
At the wake the next day crowds flood the front parlor. The open coffin rests on hard backed kitchen chairs. Bernie’s head wrapped with heavy white bandages. Whispers. Coughs. Blue-white cigarette smoke shrouds the mourners. Women in the kitchen pour drinks and tea and hand out ham sandwiches in muted silence.
The boy stands at the head of the coffin. His mother hunched in the chair beside him vacantly staring ahead. The boy wears black trousers, white shirt and black tie. He stands there all day. He watches everyone in the room that approaches. He shakes hands with mourners who try to comfort his mother. They don’t try with him. Just shake hands. Young gaunt boot-boys with sallow skin and fierce ferocious eyes nod at him. They touch his hand in passing, calloused hands, petrol tainted hands, joy-rider hands, stone thrower hands, skinny hands, lethal hands. He nods back.
He stands all night beside the coffin after his mother is taken to bed, when the neighbors drift home, when the relatives try to snatch sleep in the narrow bedrooms upstairs.
At the funeral Bernie’s schoolmates form a guard of honor as the cortege leaves the house for the church. Skinny pale legs and skinny pale faces, black ties and white shirts—the uniform of the Irish-hated. The mass is full of weeping and god-redeeming.
The coffin is carried up the steep road from the church, the boy and his cousins carrying Bernie. Her classmates walk alongside the coffin practicing the walk of sorrow, which they will soon bring to perfection.
* * * * *
Every night from high rooftops the boy throws petrol bombs. He kisses each bottle before it flies end over end, the light cascading off it before it lands. He works quietly, efficiently. He went up the roof the night of the funeral. His concentration is total. His throw is prodigious. Girls admire. Kiss him. He waits until the Saracens are out of range of the other throwers. Squaddies leaning against the hard metal sides. Smoking. Laughing. Their rifles pointed to the ground. Relaxing.
Then the boy walks to the lip of the roof. He pulls petrol bombs from their crates. An acolyte lights them and then he throws. A wide flaming arc. The Squaddies scatter, but too late. The bombs land true—melting skin into their khaki uniforms. His mother watches him every night when he leaves the house and waits up until he comes home. Her sorrow burns deep. It’s a fine polished arc biting into him.
Outside the city, he is brought on long weekends when the sun is high in the summer sky and Catholics escape Belfast to the south and in the fading evening he fires his revolver at targets in the wind break trees of a safe house. The muzzle flash elegant, tapering into a jagged white corona of light twelve inches in front of the muzzle, the bullet cropping low-lying branches before hitting the cans and bottles in the shadows. The interval between shots is long as he lets the echoes of the gunfire dissipate before raising his arm again. When he fires a full chamber he flicks the cylinder free in a practiced manner, the barrel pointed high into the air, letting the cartridges fall into his calloused hand and then dropping the warm casings into his pocket. With slow efficiency he reloads and fires again, the night growing darker, the blossoms of gunfire growing whiter.
* * * * *
He sits on the floor in an upstairs bedroom of a safe house in Ballymurphy, his back leaning against the wall covered with wallpaper of an Indian hunting party felling buffalo with lances and arrows, bareback on wild looking horses flashing through the long grass breathing down on the fleeing prey.
The window is open, catching the street sounds—Angelus bells, whoops from children playing in the long summer evening, the throb of army helicopters hovering over the Belfast streets.
Listening for footsteps coming up the path, listening for the laughs of local girls, listening for the English accents so admired and hated. A new pistol smuggled in from Spain with a patina of gun oil still clinging to the dull grey metal lies on the floor beside him. An older guy sits opposite him. To supervise him. To blood him, purge him.
The footfalls come up the path—girls laughing in the darkness.
Off-duty Squaddies sprawling drunk on the couch in the sitting room. Relaxing. Revelers. A Friday night out in Belfast City— “where the girls are pretty.” Where things get tricky. Where the Undertones played Teenage Kicks and Stiff Little Fingers played Suspect Device. The music trying to push the hate disease back with the pogo, with staccato chords, with jagged rhythms. To push it back behind the barricades. Back into the clustered terraced houses where enmity seeped out for Brits or Prods or Taigs.
Girls from Republican families—fierce, fire- tried, fanatical—lure them in for the cause. For the kill. For brothers on hunger strike, for brothers shot dead by Paras, for brothers butchered by Prods. Fragile, febrile forever afterwards.
The Squaddies had it coming.
Soldiers of the Realm.
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Out.
Tough working class youths plucked from the grim estates of Coventry, Manchester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton—pushed off to the even starker streets of Belfast. My beautiful, brash, beastly Belfast.
Protecting the empire for White Hall mandarins with soft hands who took cream tea and played war games. Gloves off. The red hand of Ulster. Dipped in blood. No surrender. Fuck the Pope. Fuck the people. A strategic necessity old chap!
Silently creeping down the stairs in runners, dry mouthed, bursting through into the sitting room.
Taken by surprise, the Squaddies suddenly sober, anxious, youngsters only, brothers two of them. Cropped haircuts like the boy, unarmed, rising from the sofa, unsteady, Teenage Kicks playing.
The girls grab their bags, run out the path, pulling close the door behind them.
—Silently the boy watches them, taking it in, the gun covering them, sweeping in small arcs, steady.
The older man comes in behind the boy.
—Sorry lads—to them.
To the boy—Do them.
Firing, aiming, some shots missing—hard to believe, a foot away. The Squaddies fall, lie there, arms outstretched, quiver, bleed there.
A wee boy killer.
That boy was me.
Seamus Scanlon is a writer from Galway, Ireland with an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College (City University of New York). He won the 2011 Fish Publishing One Page Story award ($1,400) and the 2010 Over The Edge Writer of the Year Award ($1,000). He currently works as the librarian at City College’s satellite campus, The Center for Worker Education, and won a Carnegie Corporation/New York Times “I Love My Librarian” award in Dec. 2009 for his work there. He has been published in Global City Review, Promethean, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Review of Post Graduate English Studies (RoPES), Sunday Tribune, Collection Building, Medulla Oblongata, the Lineup 3, Fish Anthology 2010 and 2011, and Beat The Dust.
“This story was prompted by deaths of children from head wounds inflicted by baton rounds fired by security forces in Northern Ireland and ‘on the other side,’ savage killings of (almost boy) soldiers by the IRA.
Retaliation, misery and mercilessness raging in a beautiful city.”