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
He stumbles back—his rag doll sister lying
broken. Neighbors run out—pull the mother
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
This is a work of fiction and as
such is the author's interpretation
of well-publicized events. While
the geography is real, the
characters in this work—including
the narrator—are creations of the
BBC Arts Extra interview with
Seamus Scanlon (7/26/11)
Host: Marie-Louise Muir
|Bookslut interview with
Seamus Scanlon (Dec. 2012)