“…and if the soldiers want to use the bathroom, that’s fine. Just make sure they leave their guns outside so they don’t scare the students”.
Those were my manager’s parting words as she walked out the door, leaving me to supervise the adult learning centre for the evening. The soldiers who sometimes used our bathroom were outside, situated close to where the riots were expected to break out later.
I discovered, through conversation with these soldiers over a number of evenings, that the riots were surprisingly organised. I had been informed that, “the kids have been sent ‘round the shops to tell them to close early”. Apparently, the kids were generally the people who threw the first missiles too. They were doing as they were told. They were following orders. They were idealistic and determined, but they didn’t really understand the situation. Sometimes they threw bricks at the soldiers and sometimes they walked up to them, full of youthful bravado, and challenged, “Here mister, giz a go wi’ yer gun”.
I was in my early twenties, recently married and putting in place firm plans to leave Northern Ireland for good. Having grown up there, the sight of armed soldiers on street corners was pedestrian, normal, just-the-way-things-were. Other things that were normal included still being evacuated from shopping centres following bomb threats even though that wasn’t supposed to happen any more, trying to figure out from a distance if the people stopping cars further up the road were soldiers who would advise me to take a different route or men in balaclavas who might want to take my car and set fire to it to form a road block, and hearing so much in the news every day about how this was now a time of peace but being painfully aware that it really wasn’t.
As a teenager, I became accustomed to being asked “What are you?”, meaning was I Protestant or Catholic. I was neither. I got used to levelling bigger, taller, older people with my heavily-lined eyes and hissing “I’m a fucking Satanist”. I wasn’t one of those either, but it shut people up.
As a child, I became accustomed to understanding that the history I was taught in school was one-sided and flawed. I learned quickly not to point this out. My view of the world was that people were people and killing each other was wrong. Perhaps I was naive but I knew that I felt uncomfortable with the sectarian views that some of my friends had started to exhibit, repeating phrases they’d heard, hating those people because these people said you should. Just the way things were.
I didn’t feel in any way attached to the bit of rock my parents had decided to live on at that point in time, in a decision-making process that had nothing whatsoever to do with my choices because I had been four years old when we moved from Saudi Arabia to Northern Ireland. We had lived in other places and now we lived in this place. My concept of belonging had been formed around the idea that home was the people who loved you, wherever you or they may be in the world. Home was not a country or a history of a country, not to me, not at that time.
I didn’t take sides. I didn’t think people who engaged in violence had any business calling themselves Christians at all because if there was a God, s/he most likely wouldn’t be OK with all the shooting and rioting and bombing. I called myself a pacifist even though I didn’t really understand what that meant, simply because it felt like the only way to truly say “I am not part of this”, to say that people I knew who had lost people they loved to this violence should not have had to live through such an experience. It’s not that I believed that other countries didn’t have troubles too, but I knew with a profound certainty that to get away from these troubles, The Troubles, would somehow be enough for me.
By the time I was in my early twenties, when I worked at the adult learning centre and smoked cigarettes with the soldiers outside the front door, I had reached capacity with the whole Northern Ireland situation to the point where I didn’t care any more, didn’t want to try to understand any more. Everything felt hopelessly broken and wrong and doomed to repetition. To me, at that time, people were divided into three groups. The first were those who actively engaged in the violence, terrorism and organised crime. The second were those who accepted ‘the way things were’ and although not involved, shrugged their shoulders and put up with it. The third were those who, like me, just wanted out.
One evening, as I saw crowds gathering at the junction just down the road, the ‘flashpoint’, I asked one of the soldiers if he thought I would need to close the centre early, because if I did, I’d need to let the tutors and students know. He said I probably would and asked if I was OK getting home. I nodded towards where I lived, about five minutes walk up the street, and said I’d be fine. He asked if I was going to be all right on my own and I replied that I would only be on my own until my husband got back from work, but that yes, I would survive. I rolled my eyes, cynical and bored and oh-so-unaffected. I lived here, after all, so none of this was new to me. It then became apparent that his attitude was not one of genuine concern. He took a step closer, backing me against the wall, leering over me, and said,
“A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be on her own at all. I could come home with you, just until your husband gets back. He’d never have to know”.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation word-for-word, but do I remember feeling cold inside, shutting down, building walls and locking doors. Accustomed as I was to men a foot taller than me invading my personal space and engaging in flirtation wrapped in intimidation and entitlement, I quietly but firmly talked him down before turning to go back inside and get my work finished quickly so that nothing would be left undone when I walked around the classrooms telling everyone we had to close, then locked up on my own hoping that no actual shots would be fired while I was still close enough to be in any real danger. I didn’t consider anything less than gunfire or explosions to be ‘real danger’.
One of the soldiers who, based on what I’d seen of him over the previous few evenings, seemed to be in charge of the others even though he looked to be not much older than me, followed me towards the door and asked if I had ever considered a career in the armed forces. I laughed and said I didn’t do well with authority. I pointed out that if he was on a recruitment drive, his timing seemed a little off, considering what was going on right now and how hugely unappealing that would be to pretty much any sane person.
“It’s not a recruitment drive”, he said, “It’s just the way you handled that situation”, nodding towards Mr I Could Come Home With You, who was standing nearby, “and the way you are about all this. You’re calm. You’re not scared of it”.
“But don’t you have to believe in it all?”, I asked. “Don’t you have to actually give a shit about what happens and feel like you’re on the side of what’s good, like you’re doing the right thing?”
He lifted one shoulder in a weary shrug, lit a cigarette, then after a moment of thought, replied, “I don’t know any more”.