Peace walls

Belfast, 2011.

Tuesday 20th September. 21 Calcutta Street. The address in the police file was in a terrace of black-roofed, bay-fronted houses of dark red brick. A tiny area of concrete enclosed by low walls lay in front of it, and the wooden gate scraped an arc across it as Rivers pushed it open. A middle-aged man answered the door. Rivers showed him his police ID. ‘Tim Rivers, from the Historical Enquiries Team,’ he said.

The man looked at him wearily. ‘My mother’s in the lounge,’ he said. ‘I’m Michael McCarthy, Patrick’s brother.’

In the small parlour, dim light filtered in through lace curtains, and an elderly lady sat on a velvet covered sofa, among a clutter of furniture. The gas fire was lit, even though the day was warm. Faded photographs of children hung on the walls and a framed print of the Virgin Mary, maternal arms extended in blessing.

Rivers shook Mrs McCarthy’s wrinkled hand, and introduced himself. He helped himself to an armchair. He explained that the Historical Enquiries Team reinvestigated deaths linked to the Troubles. ‘My part of the team’s mostly retired RUC officers – we look at deaths where security forces weren’t thought to be involved. The rest are for the other half of the team: officers from outside of Northern Ireland.’

They had picked up on his London accent. ‘Yeah, I started off in the Met, but I transferred here in 1975, been here ever since – got dragged out of retirement to work for the HET.’

Rivers smiled, the McCarthys didn’t. Michael said, ‘What good can you do, after all these years?’

‘What we do is, we interview any potential witnesses who are still alive, re-examine all the evidence from the time of the death, sometimes using new forensic methods, and then we decide whether the case merits further investigation. We keep you informed, and you get a full written report.’

‘Ah,’ sighed the old lady, ‘nothing will ever bring my Patrick back to me. You know, he was my youngest, he was the baby. He was sixteen when he was killed, I had not even begun to stop believing that he was a child.’ Her gaze went to a photograph on the mantelpiece. A teenager, in school uniform and National Health spectacles, grinned into the camera. His ears stuck out from beneath his short dark hair and behind the spectacles the grey eyes were alight with mischief.

Mrs McCarthy turned her wrinkled face up to Rivers. Her eyes were grey and clear like her son’s. ‘The day he was killed, the Army searched the house,’ she said. ‘They were looking for weapons. The floorboards were up, the gas fires were off the walls, it was bedlam. They unscrewed the back of the television set. I was in shock.  They found nothing. Nothing! I had to give a statement, and then no policeman was ever in this house after that day. They closed the case a month afterwards, no evidence, they said. I don’t know if it will help to rake up the past, to be honest with you. Will it take away the hurt?’

Michael leant forward and placed his hand over hers. ‘Maybe this is our last chance, mother, we’ve been asking these questions for thirty five years, and never hoped to get answers.’ He turned to Rivers. ‘If we could just know, why? For what purpose was he killed? Who was involved?’

Rivers nodded, but did not say anything.

‘She still keeps his bedroom for him,’ said Michael. ‘Shall I show him, mother?’ The old lady nodded her assent, grief furrowing her features.

Rivers followed Michael up the narrow creaking staircase. The small room at the back of the house was immaculately clean, the bed still made up with the sheet and blankets folded back at the corner, waiting for its occupant to return.

Faded posters were pinned to the walls, showing Brigitte Bardot wearing flowers instead of a bikini, beside the black designs of heavy metal bands. A pair of white trainers was on the floor underneath a small table. On the table was a tin of Brut aftershave and a bottle of Corona orangeade, its contents darkened by age. There was a small cassette recorder in a black leatherette case and a collection of cassette tapes, some with commercially printed labels- Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple – and others handwritten. Rivers placed a hand on the wardrobe door, raising a questioning eyebrow to Michael, who nodded. The dead youth’s clothes still hung inside.

Michael leaned against the wall, looking out of the window across the back yards. ‘She washes and irons the sheets every Monday,’ he said. He turned to face Rivers. ‘Do you think you’ll find anything out?’

‘I’ll do my best,’ said Rivers, ‘but we can’t usually bring the case to a prosecution. But even if we can’t further the investigation we often find out more information. Sometimes that helps.’

‘No conviction is going to bring my brother back. He’s never coming back, I know that. I lost my mother too, the day he died. She used to sit and cry for hours. And my Dad died in ’81, he was only in his forties. A broken heart, the doctor said. But if we could just understand,’ said Michael. ‘Why was Pat killed? You know, after he was shot, there were rumours that he was in the IRA, that he was killed for a reason. I couldn’t get a job because of it, not for a long time. But, you know, he was just a boy. He was harmless. Look at his room, look at his things. All he cared about was the heavy metal.’

Rivers followed Michael back downstairs. Sitting down in the same armchair he faced the old lady.

‘Tell me what you can remember about the events leading to Patrick’s death,’ he said, taking out a notebook.

Thursday 8th January, 1976.

‘Tea’s at six, now, don’t be late! And make sure to be careful!’

‘Right, Ma!’ Ducking her kiss on the doorstep, Patrick McCarthy heard the click of the latch as he closed the front gate behind him and made his way down rainy Calcutta Street. It was the last day of the school holidays. He was going to call for his friend Andy Wilson, and then they were going to a music shop on the Andersonstown Road. He still had some Christmas money to spend. He crossed the main road which divided the area, Nationalist on his side of the road and Unionist on the other. A few blocks away from his house, on Woodville Street, Patrick pushed open a garden gate. But a bullet fired from a parked car hit him in the back, and he never made it to the front door. The car pulled away unobserved, and by the time the Wilsons realised that something had happened, Patrick was dead in a froth of blood.

Tuesday 20th September, 2011. The door closed behind him, and Rivers walked to the end of Calcutta Street. He paused at the corner. The road that Patrick would have crossed for the final time was now divided by a peace wall – a twenty-foot high steel barrier topped with railings, built ten years previously. The wall was decorated with nationalist murals. A black taxi pulled up and a small group of American tourists got out, posed in front of the murals for photographs, and got back in the taxi.

The street was empty again, and Rivers was alone with the peace wall. How strange, that after all these years, the fragile peace could only be maintained by these huge barriers, by the living of parallel existences. More flags flew than he ever remembered in the past, here the Irish tricolor, as well as a Palestinian flag. People had got used to the walls: interruptions to the flow of traffic in the city, obstructions to be navigated, like railway lines. They leant objects against them.

It took him a good twenty minutes in Belfast’s midday traffic to get the few yards to the other side of the peace wall. Here the Union Jack flew from the houses, and in places their blind ends were painted with Unionist murals. Rivers drove down a quiet side street and parked beside a patch of waste ground.  Across Woodville Street was a grassed area, and behind it a terrace of nineteen-sixties rendered houses, with small front gardens. The middle house in the terrace had been where the Wilson family had lived. They had moved to Glasgow in the 1970s, traumatised by the death of a teenager in their front garden. Patrick would have walked along in front of the houses, paused and turned left down the garden path. From where he was parked, Rivers would have had a clear sight of him, though perhaps not close enough to be certain of his identity.

Rivers drove back to Lisburn. The Historical Enquiries Team was based in an old police station building on the outskirts. Inside, a mobile steel shelving system held 3,259 red files.

McCarthy’s file was a slim one. The day that Patrick had died had been the day after the Kingsmills massacre, when eleven Protestant workers from a linen mill at Glenanne had been shot by a group calling itself the South Armagh Republican Action Force. The day before that, six Catholics had been murdered at Whitecross by loyalist gunmen. Patrick’s death had barely made the news.

Jim Baxter, who had died in 2005, had been the officer in charge of McCarthy’s case. There had been no witness statements and Baxter had put little in the file. ‘Why am I surprised?’ Rivers thought to himself. He had heard of one investigation, into the beating to death of a man outside a pub, where over seventy people had claimed they were in the pub toilet at the time.

The weeks that followed were slow and frustrating. The murder was most probably the work of loyalists, but at the same time there had been a number of nationalist killings of suspected informers. Cross-checking records eventually established that the bullet had probably come from a gun stolen a year previously from Army barracks. Years of tracking the arms trade told Rivers immediately that the theft had been carried out by loyalists, but that didn’t get him very far. With some effort he tracked down Andy Wilson.

Wednesday 29th February 2012. It was a relief to Rivers to be back in London, even though you would have thought the only function of the city was to host the Olympic Games. He stepped out of Goodge Street Underground station and mingled with people from everywhere in the world, hearing a hundred different languages in a couple of hundred yards. Wilson lived in an ex-council flat near the tube station. Rivers followed him down a short corridor, which was almost blocked by the coat rack, and into a stale smelling living room. Wilson cleared takeaway cartons and food-encrusted plates from an armchair and gestured to the space. Rivers hitched up his trouser legs and eased himself down, shaking his head to the offer of a coffee. Wilson sat on the sofa facing him, leaning forward, sweatshirted belly hanging down, his elbows on his knees.

‘Are you OK to talk to me about what happened?’ said Rivers. There was silence, and Rivers’s glance wandered from the ageing, blotchy man in front of him to the fading photographs collaged in the clip frame above the blocked up fireplace, a smiling woman on a white plastic lounger, two little girls on a beach with sunlight in their hair, a family bike ride, more beach photographs, pink tricycles in a back garden, a camping holiday, a theme park photograph – Wilson and his daughters on Pirate Falls.

Wilson cleared his throat. ‘Pat was my best mate. What else do you want me to say?’

Rivers spread his big hands silently. At times, his job was more to listen than to ask.

Wilson’s hands were trembling. ‘My marriage broke up, in case you’re wondering. My drinking, depression, I could never be normal. I’m still on the tablets.’ Wilson paused, swallowed. ‘So, I came over here, thought I could leave it all behind. I went to North East London Poly, I thought I’d enjoy student life, but I wasn’t like the others. They’d ask about Belfast, and you’d tell people you’d seen your friend shot dead, they’d not know what to say. It was like they were from a different world, ‘what’s the matter with you people?’ they’d ask, then they’d change the subject.’

‘And what should they have said?’ asked Rivers.

Wilson raised his deep-set eyes. ‘They should have said, it wasn’t your fault, Andy, there was nothing you could have done to save him, it’s not your fault that you’re alive and he’s dead, not your fault that he was a Catholic, and shouldn’t have been walking around in your neighbourhood. Not your fault that, if you hadn’ta been his friend, he wouldn’ta been killed. But they couldn’t say that because they didn’t know enough, and they didn’t want to know. No one from here wants to know how much hatred there is in so small a space. It still makes me angry.’

‘Do you believe that was why he was murdered?’ asked Rivers. ‘He wasn’t involved in anything that you knew of?’

‘Paramilitary, you mean?’ Wilson scowled. ‘There’s no way, he was just a kid, OK? All he cared about was the heavy metal. He used to dream of a job as a roadie. He was so full of his music that he hadn’t time for anything else, you know?’

‘And then your family moved to Scotland?’

‘So, I’d had a Catholic friend, a Taig as they called it, so we were isolated. Rubbish got thrown into the front garden. Someone painted KAT on our front door – Kill All Taigs. No-one felt sorry for us, Pat’s family didn’t want to see me. And you just could not put the memory behind you. ‘Remember this’, ‘remember that’, remember the fucking Battle of the Boyne! Month on month there was more of it, flags here, murals there, pictures of gunmen on house walls. My mother used to cry for home after we moved to Glasgow, but she cried for how it used to be, not the hell it had become.’

‘Do you have any idea who could have killed Pat?’ asked Rivers.

Wilson frowned down at his hands. ‘One afternoon I came home from college, and there was a kid with a paint spray in the front garden. I shouted at him, and there was a scuffle, I chinned him and then he ran across the grass. But then he turned, and he started swearing at me, then he shouted out, ‘Bobby Bates killed your mate, and you wait, he’ll come for you.’’ Wilson looked up again and exhaled heavily, his mouth in a cynical twist. ‘Well, it’s hardly proof, is it?’

Rivers shrugged. ‘Bates was shot dead in 1997. You probably knew that.’

Before he left, Rivers shook Wilson’s hand. ‘It wasn’t your fault, Andy,’ he said. Tears rolled down Wilson’s bloated face.

Wednesday 16th May 2012. Rivers had the radio on as he drove through rainy Belfast, zigzagging around the peace walls. The comb-bound report into McCarthy’s death was in a briefcase on the seat beside him. Around him, the economic growth that had been fuelled by the peace dividend was fraying. High streets with boarded-up shops, rising unemployment, falling manufacturing. The radio reported the trials of Ratko Mladic and Charles Taylor. Rivers thought of all the multitudes whose deaths had been pointless, and whose killers would not be identified. War crimes tribunals, Truth Commissions, no policing would never be able to solve the past.

Who was really guilty, the men who fired the weapons, or the central command who sent them to do it? The politicians? The media? Even the leaders were there by some collective will of some part of the population. The will of people who sat at home, saying ‘we’re innocent’, ‘we never embraced violence’, ‘we were never paramilitaries’, ‘we just want peace and security’.

He knew that he would have to face Mrs. McCarthy, and tell her that there was no reason for Patrick to have been killed. He was a Catholic in a Protestant area, an otherwise random victim. His possible killer would never be convicted. The old woman would have to go on living like so many others, in the knowledge that her favourite son’s life had been unfulfilled and that his death been futile.

What broke his heart was that she thanked him.

He drove away from Calcutta Street, passing through a gate in one of the peace walls. At dusk the gate would close.

© M Wallis 2020

20 thoughts on “Peace walls

  1. giselle, I found this story very moving… and think it is your best since I joined CW January this year. The back and forth works really well, along with your – well researched story. Really well done!
    Fizz x

      1. Thanks giselle… out of Heathrow early tomorrow morn – no idea where I am off to lol Dearly beloved arranged this as a surprise 🙂 Am taking notebook for people watching …
        Fizz x

  2. Good Evening Giselle,

    I’ll read your story shortly. I’m sending this message to please ask you to look to the discussion tab for a new May-12 voting centre & if you’ve already voted to repost your votes there (if possible doing so after considering the new entries).

    The competition widget was essentially broken for a number of people, I’ve explained just how in the relevant discussion topic.

    Thanks in advance (looking forward to reading your tale)!

    Andy K

  3. Very good, I thought. And well written. Nice to see someone tackling such a meaty subject, and in such an admirably unsensational style.

  4. Giselle,
    I have read your story and am very impressed with the content.
    The difficult subject which you have tackled and the timeline theme have worked very well.
    It is very well written. Well done!

  5. Simply stupendous. Moving, saddening and thought provoking. Using your small story you skillfully comment on larger subjects. Thank you for creating this.

    1. Many thanks rightlyknightly. It is a very sad subject unfortunately, and some of the background reading had me in tears. In particular a book called ‘Bear in Mind these Dead’ by Susan McKay, which was about killings on all sides and the long term effects on the victims’ families.

  6. Hi Giselle,

    I’m really impressed how well you have evoked the place and time. A moving story where timeshift flows well to complete the tale. It is understated too. Very good!

  7. Not my usual light-hearted / sci-fi reading material, but I must admit, I’m very impressed. The story flows well, keeping me “in the moment” and has a very polished feel. It’s a shame really, as I had plenty of Waldorf and Statler quotes I wanted to use. 😉

    I’m just kidding of course; I knew that it would be good. I look forward to working my way through your back catalogue!

    Andy B. x

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