Wednesday, January 31, 2007


There are many ways in which the world divides, and one is this. There are those who, as children, have lived in places where disturbing sounds in the night turn lights on and bring people to windows and doors. And there are those who, as children, have lived in places where those sounds engender darkness and silence and invisibility.

When I am back home I walk up the hill from the Foyle. Everything has changed. Everything is different. The dim and tiny terrace homes that had stood for centuries to hold the overcrowded families of the Catholic lower class have disappeared, first swapped for the horrors of sixties and seventies urban rebuilding, places like the highrise Rossville Flats, and then again for the colorful stucco of the homes that today line these streets. Now there are real furnaces and real waterheaters and good plumbing and they do not tilt the way the old ones did. The roofs and windows truly keep out the rain and the North Atlantic wind, and new smaller families fit comfortably in new larger bedrooms.

But none of that is important. Because I tend to see what was there. Between the sky and the paving stones my eyes and ears fill with phantoms. If it is daylight children run down streets laughing as grim-faced soldiers hold automatic rifles. If it is night then the demons run wild, no matter what I try to do. In those nights every shot, every wrong footfall, every yell, every heavy vehicle tyre sound – and all these came with every sunset – were greeted by people shutting lamps off, and drawing curtains, and shushing children, and keeping them out of the range of windows and doors.

And there is nothing more frightening to a child than to see fear in their parents' eyes.

So yesterday I sat at a dinner table, and was introduced to a compatriot, as she called herself, or another expatriate, I wanted to counter, but attempting politeness did not. "From what I hear," she said, "you must be delighted by the breakthroughs this weekend. Now things can really start to be over." She was, I had learned, Protestant, from Hillsborough, the big-treed, high-tea, old "Royal Suburb" south of Belfast, but had lived in West London for the last 2
0 years. Life in nice places, I thought, must be wonderful, and you cannot really hold it against them. "I suppose," I offered, "it suggests a chance, and a chance is better than nothing." I shifted my speech to sound as fully a Derry Catholic as possible. That sound that a Dublin friend calls "Irritable Vowel Syndrome." "You wouldn't be one of those Sinn Fein hard-liners now would'ya?" she attempted to sound Irish. "Nah," I said, "the other end of the spectrum. John Hume was a friend of my Da's. I've always been on the side of the angels. And like all angels, I'm just waiting for humanity to understand."
copyright 2007 by Ira Socol