There was a time when Malcolm had smuggled phosphates from Algiers to Libya. How else, really, in those days was a self-financed archaeologist to pay his crew of excavators (and more than the going rate at that)? He pulled at his tweed jacket atop his mustard sweater and cockeyed bowtie. Handsomely dressed, a perfectly disheveled emeritus with gold watch chain and wiry hair. And he had once even—you could see the astonished pride still in his eyes—coaxed the drunken Soviets into letting him aboard their nuclear submarine docked at Tunis. But there was only that one pause in his loquacious revelry. Could it have been that those phosphates were used in IRA bombs? Shudder at the thought. But, no, not at all likely. It was most assuredly all for agriculture. Most assuredly.
He was dining with a similarly small old woman of the same vintage who had said once while he was in the bathroom that Malcolm was “a good heart.” She had lived in Belfast throughout the troubles, fresh with a teaching degree in French from the Queen’s University. “Imagine every morning another news story, another policeman has been killed.” Screwed up eyes well socketed into a tough face, innocent like a snake: “Be a dear and get me another wine.” I asked once, stupidly, if she spoke Irish as well. “God no! Never been exposed to it.” (Clearly meaning quite literally that it was a disease, a kind of small pox of the mind.) And then, again like a fool, at dinner I had asked “When was the battle of the Boyne?” And she had clutched at her breast as if a coronary were setting in and exhaled “1690. Lord it is written on the strings of my heart.” Disbelief at the fool. And Malcolm talked of James II, exiled with all the Irish chieftains, scattered about the continent. The silent Dutchman had brought Orange finally to safe flower in Ulster.
The next day the North Atlantic was crying her eyes out. Naked branches lashed at the sky. Grey layered atop bleakness and grime. Went down to the city center of plaster pillars and light rose bricks to call for a black cab tour. Pat from Belfast picked us up in front of the city hall where the Union Jack flew limply in the rain and the giant white ferris wheel was just beginning to spin around silver lighted spokes. (Tattered signs hung over the streets: “Belfast wishes you a merry Christmas.”) The cab was British style with the roomy back seat. We drove a few minutes with the rain fogging the windows until Pat stopped and turned around to tell us the woes of Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Loyalist. On Shankill Road they celebrate with murals of William of Orange and Cromwell. On Falls Road they celebrate with murals of Bobby Sands and the other strikers. For one, redemption, for the other a massacre. For one, terrorists, for the other martyrs. And only a few blocks, one high wall, and barbed wire between them. In a single breath you are in a different world. Enemy territory. Gates still block many of the cross streets. Catholic homes caged by fencing to shunt projectiles away. The memorials on the Catholic side are still in pristine condition. It may be that peace lasts just as long as breath runs through Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams. We can only hope that the children come to care more for shoes and cell phones than their parents’ pain. Then at last we could lay history to bed. Pat smiled with sad eyes as we stepped out into the now dark rain.
That night after a pint at the Crown we found ourselves at Maddens ringing the bell to be let in. Struck up a conversation with Kerry the stout and John the elfin. He had lived on Falls road and knew Bobby Sands. Imagine every time you leave your neighborhood being assaulted by the police. Memories of a Catholic girl I knew from the North permanently with bruised soul. “It is an occupation.” Before the peace no one would sit with their back to that window. This place was bombed twice. And do you see that man? (Brian Boru, I presume.) We were introduced to Brian who had spent most of his time in jail. He had the contemplative afterglow of pain finally at peace. I spoke the rest of the night into his gentle eyes beneath welcoming glasses and he told me to cry if that is what it takes. Men reduced to tears, to animals, to fear and then through to the other side. I had seen Belfast. A bloody pulp, a reeling fighter, a scar, a pair of gentle eyes.