I was done teaching at the country school.
Ken was busy working and I was beginning to feel antsy. I needed something to do. I decided to take a course in Irish history at the university. It was an enrichment class, not a regular university course.
We met after the regular classes were over. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the course was heavily weighted by the professor in favor of the status quo, British rule. “We’ll win,” he’d say. “ Just stay strong. We have the army on our side.” I stayed quiet, taking ideas in, trying to figure out what mattered so much. Why did the professor and most of the students (I was by far the youngest person in the class) want?…
…and was it worth all the killing and bombing?
The older women (there were a lot of them) were ready to mother me and take me to their side. They warned me against walking at night. They brought cookies to class.
They were really nice until I asked a question that suggested that maybe the minority Catholics in Ulster had a problem that was real, a problem the army couldn’t solve. (Not the smartest move on my part…
…But I was a talker by nature and I opened my mouth.)
I sat there, pretty sure that I was not going to be welcome anymore. I was right. I got up my courage to go to the next class. No one made eye contact with me. Of course, I should have stayed quiet. I was, at best, a blundering American, at worst, probably rude given the makeup of the class. I didn’t go back anymore. It would not have worked. I could have apologized, but I didn’t. Maybe I should have?
Instead I concentrated on the everyday which took plenty of time: making forays to get potatoes, cabbage and carrots. (Pretty much what we lived on) First you had to figure out where you were comfortable walking and shopping. That always caused me grief. I never could take a blithe, “what will be, will be” attitude.
And then there was the actual shopping itself.
It was nothing at all like shopping in the States, just picking what you wanted and putting cash on the counter. Oh, no! There was, I learned, an art to getting potatoes that were not sprouting, carrots that didn’t have soft spots and cabbage that wasn’t overdue for a compost heap.
First you had to approach the greengrocer as a friend, but you needed degree of certain meekness.
What did he suggest? Asking was always the best approach. It showed respect for his trade. He’d sit on a sack of potatoes and think. When he spoke I strained to understand his heavy Ulster accent. He’d get irritated by this and motion for me to follow him. The cabbages were in a heap in the back room. He rooted around and produced one for me. I smiled and asked for the potatoes and carrots. Somedays, he seemed so irritated by my lack of understanding his speech (in the beginning) that I wondered whether or not he’d even sell me the things I needed. It wasn’t as if I had many places to choose from. But, over time, I understood him and when I came in one day and offered him a slice of homemade apple pie, we became fast friends. My greengrocer. He always sat on the sack of potatoes and the women (never men) waited in line to get his attention. He smoked a pipe and never, in the year that I was there, did I ever see him hurry. His time was his own.
I was still frustrated at the lack of social interaction we had.
The Irish, by and large, did not invite us into their homes. It wasn’t all that unusual. If you wanted to socialize, you went to a pub. Well, okay, but pubs were getting blown up. I wasn’t eager to go to a pub.
I became brave.
We had had Ken’s friend Peter and his wife Briad over for tea, a tea that included sandwiches and cakes and scones. They were clearly surprised by this, but they seemed to like it and invited us over for the next Saturday night.
I was excited. I’d be in a real Irish home!
Peter liked games so he suggested beforehand that we plan to play the game called RISK. You know it, I am sure. The game of global domination, armies, strategy.
A perfect game to be playing in Belfast at that time.
Their house was about a mile’s walk away and it was a fair night, no rain. So, we walked. They lived in a row house that I found fascinating because the house stretched back, not out. All the room were off a central hallway that led to the kitchen in the back of the house. Understand, these were not New York upscale row houses. These were okay, but not at all fancy. They were basic, one next to the other with little room for light to come in. The baby played on the floor.
Briad and I played with Ken and Peter for awhile. But, we grew tired of the game long before they did. I helped Briad put the baby to bed and we made another pot of tea. She talked about life with “the troubles,” how she worried about Peter because he spoke so openly in favor of the IRA. How he went to meetings that made her nervous. “He’s a dad now,” she said,
“He needs to think about what it would mean if he went to jail. Or worse.”
I gulped and nodded. I hadn’t really thought about Peter being involved in a way that could land him in jail, or worse. And how much was he involved? The paper had just printed the ruling that anyone who even knew someone was involved and didn’t report it could be held. Whew!
Well, we liked the two of them, no matter what. (Did Peter own a gun? Did he participate in the worst of things, the bombings?) I looked over at the two of them, Ken and Peter, both of them intent on global domination. I didn’t like the game at all. I caught Ken’s eye and cocked my head. It was late. Eleven. Long past the time when it was smart to be out on the streets.
But, Ken didn’t or wouldn’t get the message.
The two of them played on and on. Briad nodded off in the chair. Eleven turned to twelve then twelve thirty. When it dragged on to one, I finally said, with a degree of ill grace, “Ken. I am falling asleep here. I need to go home.”
“Okay,” he said. Not a bit flustered.
And here’s where Risk entered, not global domination. Just survival.
We left the house which was in a Catholic district and walked toward home. Our house was located near the university in a Protestant district. So, we had to cross territories.
We had to walk past real armies.
We talked. Well, actually, I ranted. I want to go home! I had wanted to leave hours ago. My worry was that a bomb would go off somewhere. We’d be blown to bits.
That did not happen.
What happened was that we had to pass a barricade.
They were all over on street corners and in alleys. British soldiers hunkered down behind sandbags.
Young kids. Scared kids.
When we passed, they were standing there, with their guns pointed at us. I could see the barrels from the corner of my eye. This was not good. I forced myself to talk to Ken so that maybe they’d hear my accent and let us live.
I heard the guns click open ready to fire.
Click. Then silence. It seemed a long way past that barricade.
“If we get killed because you played RISK so damn long I will be really mad.”
‘Keep walking” he said. “Just keep walking.”
We walked. We made it past the barricade, past the closed pubs and home. I shivered under the sheets, too angry with Ken to burrow next to him. I shivered for a long time until Ken moved over next to me. He was still reluctant to acknowledge the possible danger we had been in. “We didn’t get shot” he said. “They were just taking precautions. They didn’t shoot us. They were ready just in case we’d try to toss a bomb.”
Sure. Sure he was right. We didn’t get shot. The soldiers were taking precautions. But it made no difference to me. I didn’t know how to live in that world and I didn’t want to learn.
I know what the click of a gun sounds like when the person’s ready to fire.
I know what the breathing of a scared soldier sounds like.
And, I made it clear lying there in the dark with Ken that the risk wasn’t worth it. I started thinking of how to go back home.
I didn’t want to play Risk ever again.
Photo Credit: Flashbak.com