BELFAST. EARLY 1970s. I am a fourteen-year-old boy on a shopping expedition with my mother. Objective: the purchase of a new overcoat for school, and church, and general overall nice presentation. Few things in life are more exquisitely embarrassing for a young boy than such a shopping trip with his mother. Each has in mind a completely different kind of coat, and the endless parade before shop assistants and posing in front of mirrors is a delight for one and the purest form of torture for the other.
To make matters worse, I have a bad, feverish cold, the day is freezing, the shops are too hot and Belfast is a very, very dangerous place.
I am miserable and anxious in a way that no child should ever be. My mother, deeply religious, firmly reliant on divine mercy, is oblivious, unconcerned, wrapped in the sheer pleasure of pursuing and purchasing a new coat for her son. I cannot believe her insouciance. I know this place and its dangers and I cannot communicate them to her. I do not share her need for a coat and I would rather be anywhere else.
Belfast then was a fortified city. British soldiers, fully armed, as much targets themselves as guardians of the peace, manned checkpoints and barricades at every street corner where you would be body searched, asked to open your bags, prove your identity, state your business, give no lip, take the insults. Armoured cars called Saracens trundled along among the shoppers, part of the street, part of everyday life: normal. Gun battles were a daily occurrence and bombs would explode without warning.
The coat, when it was finally tracked down and decided upon, was a vile, three-quarter length affair, all style and no substance, which I came to hate. Made of an indeterminate synthetic material, it was too light to be of any use against the cold and – since it was hoodless – the rain. I froze for the rest of that winter and subsequent ones until, with my own money, I bought a dirt-cheap but substantial parka anorak which had by then become all the rage. I couldn't decide at the time if I actually liked the coat my mother bought me. Maybe it was stylish – I wasn't sure, I was too young to have an opinion on three-quarter length coats. I remember clearly that I felt flattered by the expense. Money was tight then in a way that's hard to imagine now: expenditure of any kind was an event, momentous. You somehow had to be pleased and grateful.
Once the coat had been singled out and tried on and the details discussed with the sales assistant, I was placed on guard beside it. "Stand there and don't move till I get back. I'm just going round the corner to see if there's anything in that other shop."
She moved off with determination to ensure that there wasn't one last bargain in the one last shop, or the purchase of the coat would not be as perfect as it might be. I shifted uncomfortably, not at all sure how to stand guard on the coat which had been returned to its rail. I was conscious of my reflection in the big plate-glass windows of the shop, gleaming in the winter sunshine, of the sales girls busy with their tasks, of men browsing through the clothes rails. I was relieved that the end of the shopping expedition was in sight and we could finally get out of the city.
I stood looking out at the street waiting for my mother's return.
THEN THERE WAS an angry orange flash that simply didn't fit with anything. I could only stand and watch this strange incomprehensible orange apparition that swirled and rose upwards towards the roofs like an evil genie released with venom and hate from its bottle. At the same instant – and all that now happened was in the one instant – the plate-glass windows of the shop bent inwards in a way that your mind tells you glass cannot bend, held a strange pot-bellied shape, seemed to strain to hold their integrity then shattered into pieces. It was as if the glass was trying to hold back time itself.
The glass gone, an enormous force hit me in the chest and sent me reeling and staggering among the coats. I struggled for breath, and struggled in vain to make sense of what was happening, then let myself be drawn toward the orange flash that was now transforming itself into a black and red blazing column of smoke. Although everything was noiseless and distorted, I was aware that there had been a loud bang. It was, if you can imagine, a bang that was too loud to hear: too big, too powerful, too close – it overwhelmed your ears.
Other noises came in quick succession after the bang. There was a hollow "whump" as the glass bent and then, like a million tiny church bells, the glass broke and tinkled and tinkled and seemed to fall forever. Apart from the glass, there was a silence in which the ear tried to recover and reassert its hearing, willing normal sounds to return – which they slowly did, one sound at a time. At first a scream here, a cry there until all the world seemed to be crying and screaming endlessly, and the individual noises coalesced as one horrendous noise that froze your heart.
As if commanded by the screams, I moved toward the noise in the street, crunching across the broken glass, unsteady, tottering from side to side but forward, the screams rising in intensity as my hearing returned. Before me in the street lay fifty or sixty – impossible to count – little old ladies, clutching in one hand their shopping bags and in the other their handbags, like so many upended turtles, struggling to right themselves, crying in pain and terror, covered in blood. In this same instant – for time had indeed stood still – in this one outraged fraction of a second I looked among these little old ladies, and all little old ladies look the same, for the one little old lady that was my mother and I couldn't see her. Time had stopped and in this one continuous never-ending glance I looked at each of these women in turn, looked at each covered in blood, writhing and wriggling on the ground, unable to move beyond the coats into the street, unable to find my mother among them.
The bomb had been planted among beer kegs and crates of beer on the back of a delivery lorry. It was a small bomb comparatively, fifteen pounds, but its force was magnified as the steel and glass of the kegs and bottles became so much shrapnel that literally scythed all the women down – and I would swear that they were all women, just out shopping.
I STOOD IMMOBILISED, looking over the women in turn again and again, discounting each of them, recognising none. It all seemed to happen in one short second yet it was long enough for the ambulances to have been summoned and arrive. The screams continued all the while, softer here, louder there, and the lorry burned and crackled now, a sinister backdrop, its deadly work done. I stood, for I had to stand as I was told, looking and looking, checking each woman, as if somehow I had missed my mother.
She tackled me eventually, in a rib-cracking embrace born of sheer relief. She too heard the explosion, had retraced her steps as quickly as she could, fearing for me as I had feared for her. The key to survival had been a simple quirk of taking a different street to the shop by way of shortcut: that was the difference between life and death. With a strange presence of mind, or perhaps none at all, she paid for the coat and we fled the city, all too aware that there could be more bombs at every turn. In those days there usually were.
All of this happened in an instant, a moment of time that stopped for me on that day and has never moved forward. It is frozen forever in my mind and in a weird way my mind has been frozen in that day, a counter lode to everything since. If I hear of a bomb somewhere else in the world – London, Iraq, Madrid – then I am there too with the screams. I know and wish I didn't.
OLD MEN IN smoky back rooms conspire to force their ideas and destroy the ideas of others by killing and maiming little old ladies and whoever else just happens to be there. Those backrooms are as much in Washington and London as anywhere else and always have been, even back to ancient Rome. The ideas they try to kill may be patriotism, freedom, independence, self-rule, Protestantism, Catholicism, materialism, republicanism: any idea, all merely ideas that cannot be killed, least of all by killing people. Killing people does not kill ideas, still less does it achieve them. The dead hold no ideas, think no thoughts. The maimed and disfigured think only of their pain, the bereaved only of their dead. In the end, all wars end in talking, all swords in ploughshares.
Old men – and it is invariably old men, even when they direct the actions of younger men – kill people the world over to kill their ideas, so that their own ideas will prevail.
There will be new Balis, new Hiroshimas and a host of places we have not yet heard of and men not yet old will find ideas and people not yet born to kill. Save us from the egos of old men.