Excerpt

PROLOGUE   

They walk from the city centre, following the bus route home. Her arm is linked through his.

            “Wait,” she says, stopping suddenly. “I can’t walk another inch in these friggin’ things.” 

She leans against him for support as she pulls her shoes off swollen feet. She touches her heel and winces. 

            “Blister.”

            “Come on,” he says offering her his back. “I’ll carry you.”

He puffs with the effort. After a hundred yards, he sets her down. She sways and topples against him.

            “Oops,” she giggles. 

            “I told you that you should have gone easy on the rum and cokes.”

An armoured vehicle turns into the street. He holds her upright as he catches his breath. The vehicle slows then rumbles past.

            “Wankers,” he mutters. 

            “Good craic tonight, wasn’t it?” 

He nods. 

She looks at her watch.

            “Christ, is that the time? My ma will tan my hide. Come on,” she says, tugging at his arm. 

They set off again, her in stockinged feet. 

They turn into a dark, terraced street, its lights long ago smashed. 

            “Nearly home,” he says when he sees the chip shop.

The odour of fried batter hangs in the air. There is another smell; she knows it but can’t place it. 

            “What’s that?” he says.

            “What’s what?” 

Her eyes are on the pavement, which is littered with empty wrappers and cigarette stubs. She watches out for anything sharp. She sniffs the air again. Paint? Yes, that’s what that smell is, she realises.  

He nudges her.

            “Over there. Look!”

They peer at the lamp post in front of the chip shop. Something  - a rag doll, or a scarecrow - is tethered to it. The head is black, as if it has been charred in a fire; the stuffing has come loose. 

They edge closer. 

            “Shit! It’s moving.”

She puts her hand to her throat. 

            “Oh Jesus,” she says. She takes in the paint and the feathers, the shorn hair. “That poor girl.” She looks up and down the street. The house lights are off. No sign of anyone watching. She takes a step forward. 

            “We should do something,” she says. 

He holds her back. 

            “Don’t get involved.”

Out of the darkness looms a bloodied brute of a man. He has a knife. 

They back away. 

The man staggers past. He stops at the lamp post. 

The girl twists, trying to free herself. She wants to cry out but her voice is muted.

            “Sshh,” the man says.

He saws furiously at the rope. He cuts her free. 

The girl slumps into his arms.  

The man gently removes the tape that is covering her mouth.

            “Daddy,” she sobs, clinging tightly to him.

            “It’s alright, love,” he says. “I’m here now.”         

 

 

CHAPTER 1   

November 1971

Brenda cupped her hands to her mouth and blew. Her breath escaped in wisps and hung white in the air. It was one of thoseNovember days when the sun shone bright in a clear, blue sky but the cold could flay you.   

The older women had dressed sensibly in thick woollen coats. Some wore furry hats that nestled on top of stiffly permed hair; others covered their heads with shawls. Handbags hooked over arms, they listened earnestly to the speaker on the steps of Belfast City Hall. She’d been rambling on for ages. Brenda hopped from one foot to the other and willed her to wrap up her speech. A crow flapped across the roof of the building. It circled the crowd once, cawing loudly. The first heckler; she was sure it wouldn’t be the last. 

A young mother beside Brenda balanced a small, rosy cheeked child on her hip. An impressive river of mucus flowed down the child’s face and into the corner of its mouth. In the name of God, could she not just get a hanky out and wipe its nose? Brenda retched. She was beginning to wish she’d never come. Her dad would think she was mad to stand around here for hours. He’d laughed when Brenda first mentioned the peace group. He couldn’t see what a bunch of Christian women were going to do. 

            “Do they honestly think they can change things with a few prayers?” 

            “There’s nothin’ wrong with prayin’, Jimmy,” her mum had scolded. “You should give it a go.”

Brenda was crushed. Of all people, she thought her dad would understand. 

Her dad had a knack for soothing ruffled feathers, for getting one side to hear the other out. He was always the first to step in and break up a scrap. Before long he’d have both parties shaking hands, each thinking they’d won.  “More listening and less shouting is all it takes”, he’d say. “It’s something our politicians should learn”. 

            “There’s more to the peace group than that, dad,” Brenda had tried to explain. “At least they’re trying to do something.”

But her dad was having none of it. 

It was midday now. The women were beginning to attract the attention of the Saturday shoppers. A man approached the police and army cordon and demanded to know what was going on.

“Peace rally,” was the police officer’s clipped response.

“A what?”

The man looked the women up and down. He squinted at the messages on their placards and mouthed the words.

            “Women Together?”

The police officer shrugged. 

The man sauntered back to his group of friends. A young lad, who looked like his son, caught Brenda staring at them. He nudged the others. They put their hands together in mock prayer, then dissolved into fits of laughter. Brenda turned back to the crowd. Her face was burning.

“Stupid gobshites,” whispered a voice in her ear.

Brenda started. A girl had moved into the spot beside her. She grinned at Brenda. 

            “Just ignore them.”

A permed head swivelled round and tutted. The woman’s face was makeup free apart from a dab of coral lipstick which had obviously been applied to pursed lips. Brenda giggled.

            “Want a Polo?” asked the girl, reaching into her bag. “I’m Hazel, by the way.”

Brenda nodded. She fumbled as she tried to extract a mint from the top of the packet. “This is my first rally,” she said.

            “I hope it won’t be your last.”

            “I’m not goin’ to be put off …” Brenda lowered her voice. “… by arses like those men over there, if that’s what you mean.” She jerked her head in their direction. 

            “Good on ye.”

            “Mind you, I thought there’d be a bigger turnout.” 

Brenda did a quick calculation. Fewer than two hundred she reckoned. The evening paper had written a feature about the women, praising them for the work they were doing. It had inspired Brenda to come along today. She thought more would have felt the same. But then it was one thing to wish that the killing would stop; it was another thing to actually try to make it stop.

There was a ripple of applause. The speaker paused for a moment to soak up the crowd’s appreciation. She turned to a fresh page of her notes and continued. Hazel groaned. 

 “She does go on a bit,” said Brenda. 

Hazel rolled her eyes. “Count yourself lucky. You’re not the one who has to live with her.” 

“Huh?”

“She’s my mum.”

Brenda tried to picture her own mum addressing a crowd like this. No chance. Her mum believed in avoiding trouble, in keeping herself to herself although it didn’t stop her wanting to know everybody else’s business.

            “Mine would skin me if she knew I was here,” said Brenda. She …”

            “Troops out,” yelled a man from the back of the crowd.

Hazel’s mum faltered.

            “Brit lovers!” came the shrill voice of a woman.

A small group of men and women had unfurled a banner. The group began to chant loudly.

Hazel’s mum fell silent. Brenda braced herself, waiting for the moment when it would all kick off. A large space opened up as the peace women sidled away from the hostile infiltrators. Someone tried to snatch the banner. A scuffle broke out. Elbows dug into Brenda’s ribs. A boot stomped on her toes; she yelped in pain.

            “Move!” shouted a soldier. He was clearing the way for two police officers dragging one of the protestors towards the security cordon. He shoved Brenda on the shoulder. She staggered backwards.

            “There’s no need for that!” Brenda yelled after the soldier. She was shaking as she turned to Hazel. “I’ve a good mind to report him.” 

            “What’s the point? Sure he’s only doin’ his job.”

            “Yeah well, they’re always throwin’ their weight around.”

Brenda remembered when the soldiers first arrived; they’d been sent to protect Catholic communities like hers. She’d welcomed them then, thinking they’d only stay for a few months. Now she just wanted them to go away and for everything to return to normal. 

Hazel’s mum had recovered her composure and finished her speech to loud applause. She was now making her way towards them, all bouffant hair and lacquered nails. The closer she got to them, the larger the bouffant became. Brenda’s eyes widened. What in the name of …?

            “She’s a singer,” said Hazel by way of explanation. “Ulster’s answer to Tammy Wynette, according to my dad.”

            “How did I do?” beamed Hazel’s mum.

            “Really well,” said Brenda. “Shame about the interruption.”

Hazel’s mum waved her arm dismissively. 

            “We have to rise above things like that.” 

Brenda took in the woman’s towering candy floss hair.You’re doin’ a good job of it. 

            “I need to catch up with the others,” said Hazel’s mum turning to her daughter. Why don’t you take a dander into town for a while?”

            “How long is a while mum?”

            “I don’t know – say a couple of hours,” she replied tetchily. She  smiled at Brenda. “Nice to meet you, dear. It’s good to see we’re attracting some young ones.” 

            “Hang on a minute. Where will I find you?” asked Hazel but her mother was already weaving her way through the crowd.

            “That woman’s a nightmare.”

            “Come on,” said Brenda. “I’ll go with you. I need a hot drink inside me. It’s Baltic out here.”

They passed some police Land Rovers. Inside sat some surly looking protestors.

*

The coffee shop smelt of cinnamon and freshly baked scones. Brenda had spotted a huge lemon meringue pie on the sweet trolley on the way in; she was definitely having a piece of that.The girls chatted as they waited for their order to arrive. It turned out they were both in their first year at Queen’s University. Brenda offered to take Hazel to a cafe she knew on the Stranmillis Road.       

            “The food’s a lot better than that shite they serve up in the Student’s Union.” Brenda thought for a moment. “Well, most of the time.”

Hazel said her mum was organising a Woman Together meeting. 

            “Why don’t you come?”

            “Will you be there?”

            “Of course. My life wouldn’t be worth living if I didn’t go along to support her.”

            “Alright then,” said Brenda. “You’re on.”

The waitress brought two steaming mugs of hot chocolate, each topped with a swirl of whipped cream and a chocolate flake. Brenda took a bite of her flake and set it on the saucer far enough away from the side of the mug to ensure that it didn’t melt. She took a couple of spoonfuls of cream, then tilted the mug to her lips and sipped. The liquid was scalding. She set her drink down to cool while she waited for her meringue pie to arrive. It never did. 

The waitresses had stopped serving. Instead they were working their way round the tables telling people they needed to leave the premises immediately. 

            “Ah Jesus,” said Brenda. She looked longingly at the sweet trolley. “Typical of my luck.”

            “It’s probably just a scare,” said Hazel. There were so many false alerts these days that she, as did many others, viewed them as a routine annoyance. 

A policeman stuck his head round the door to reinforce the urgency of the bomb warning. The waitresses herded customers towards the door. Brenda and Hazel grabbed their coats and reluctantly followed them out. The top of the street had been taped off. The bomb disposal squad had arrived. They’d have to do a full search of the premises. It would be ages before they gave the all clear. 

            “May as well go home,” said Brenda. “See ya.”

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Brenda yelped. The water from the hot tap had suddenly turned ice cold. 

            “Mum,” she hollered. “Are you filling the kettle?” 

It was an annoying quirk of their forty year old plumbing that every time someone turned the taps on downstairs, the hot water upstairs ran cold. Her dad kept promising to fix it.

            “Sorry. Finished now,” shouted her mum.

            “Ok, thanks … shit!” 

The water had switched to boiling. Brenda inspected her hands. It was a wonder she hadn’t lost a layer of skin living in this place.

Her mum would be off to mass soon. She’d have made herself a cup of tea, peeled and chopped the vegetables for Sunday lunch and had a quick whizz round with the hoover. Brenda heard the key turn in the back door and her mother’s footsteps in the yard. By the time she had made her way downstairs, her mum had pegged a full wash of clothes to the line. Her dad’s overalls, shirts and vests looked huge as they flapped in the breeze next to her mum’s slips, skirts and blouses. 

Brenda poured herself a bowl of cereal. 

            “Get off, you stupid thing,” came a voice from outside.

Brenda’s mum was making her way back into the house with the empty clothes basket. Next door’s cat followed, weaving in and out of her legs. She gave it a boot with her toe. The cat shot in through the open door and ran under the kitchen table. Brenda filled a saucer with milk and placed it on the floor beside her chair. 

            “Don’t be encouraging that ball of fleas,” said her mum. She made a grab for the scruff of its neck but the cat arched its back and dug its claws into her legs. Her mum let out a cry just as Brenda’s dad wandered into the kitchen. He looked at his wife’s ripped hosiery and the little beads of blood that had formed on her shins then burst out laughing. 

Mrs MacRae narrowed her eyes and fired tiny daggers in his direction. “I’m going to have to change these now,” she said disappearing upstairs. A few minutes later she popped her head round the kitchen door. 

            “I’m off.” 

            “Bye love.” Mr MacRae planted a kiss on his wife’s lips.

            “Get off me you big lump,” she said pushing him away. “That’s prickly.”

Mr MacRae rubbed his unshaven face. He grinned then reached for her again. Mrs MacRae made her escape.

            “I’m starved,” he said once his wife was out of the house.  He opened the oven door and peered inside. There was usually a full Irish breakfast being kept warm for him.

            “She didn’t have time,” said Brenda.

Her dad shut the door with a sigh.           

            “I can make you a fry, if you want?” 

            “You’re alright love. Cornflakes will do me too.”   

Brenda was relieved. She hated the way the lard spat and jumped at you from the pan. 

Mr MacRae set a fresh pint of milk down on the table. He pressed his thumb on the foil top and peeled it back. Brenda screwed her face up as he poured the thick, creamy head of the milk into his bowl.

            “I don’t know how you can stomach that.”

            “This is the best bit.” he said. 

Her dad proceeded to eat his cornflakes with one hand and turn the pages of the Sunday paper with the other. Occasionally he’d shake his head and mumble something about keepin’ it in your trousers.    

            “What’s the big scandal this week?” asked Brenda. 

            “Ach, it’s just the same old thing … someone cheatin’ on their wife … that actor fella who just got married. You know the one.”

Brenda knew exactly who he meant; she was disappointed.

            “Let me see.” She pulled the paper towards her and checked out the photograph. “I don’t get it,” she said, shaking her head. “His wife’s far nicer lookin’ than her. What does he see in this one?”

            “Maybe she goes like a train?”     

            “Daddy!”

            “I’m only sayin.’”

            “Well she looks like a right minger to me.”

            “Who does?” 

Brenda’s sister, Clare, had finally made an appearance. Nursing a fierce hangover, if the pinched look on her face was anything to go by. 

            “They seemed like a really nice couple.” Brenda pointed to the picture in the paper.

            “It just goes to show,” said Clare. “You can’t trust any man.”

Mr MacRae cleared his throat. 

            “She didn’t mean you, daddy. You’re different.” Brenda meant what she said. Her dad wasn’t at all like the other men round here.

Mr MacRae was a mountain of a man - big hands, big feet, big heart. Yet when he spoke it was with a soft Scottish brogue. He was as commanding a presence in Brenda’s life as the tall gantry crane, straddling the Harland and Wolff shipyard, that dominated the skyline of east Belfast. As a child she’d watch for him turning the corner of their street at the end of his working day. He’d stride down the road, his lunchbox tucked under his arm. Brenda would run to meet him; she’d scream with delight as he swept her up with his free arm and carried her into the house. He was still a big man but these days his stride was shorter and his hair was streaked with grey. 

Brenda often wondered what it must be like for him living with two squabbling daughters and a wife, all demanding to be heard. Their spats would come and go as suddenly as a summer storm. Brenda’s dad never sided with any of ‘his girls’. There were no winners or losers in his house. This irritated Brenda and her sister Clare no end. Especially Brenda; she always wanted to be right ... in his eyes.

            “I’ll take no more of your backchat,” her mum would scold, then turn to Brenda’s dad for support. “Did you hear what she just said to me?”

            “Aye, I did,” he’d answer. 

            “Well?” Brenda’s mum would stand with her hands on her hips.

Her dad would lower his newspaper, take another puff of his pipe and look thoughtfully at her.

            “She does have a point, love.”

Her mum would glower. The smile that had crept over Brenda’s face would vanish when he added, “And your mum does too. So don’t be givin’ her any more of your lip.” 

The bickering would cease and the house would once again fall quiet. Awkwardly quiet, until Mr MacRae broke the moody silence with a wickedly accurate impersonation of a neighbour that had them laughing in spite of themselves.

Brenda was only three when they’d left Harris for Belfast. Just a toddler, her mum said; she couldn’t possibly remember being there. Yet sometimes an image would bud in Brenda’s mind … like walking for miles with her dad, her tiny hand in his, along the creamy sands of Scarista beach. Had they actually done that? Or was her own hazy recollection of her early years the result of her dad’s storytelling?

            “Don’t be fillin’ the girl’s head with rosy memories,” her mum would scold.

Her mum could have saved her breath. Brenda enjoyed listening to her dad’s tales of the island as much as he loved telling them. She’d sit on the rug next to his chair and rest her head against his knees. As he spoke, Brenda could picture his parent’s cottage and his father out in the bay, hauling in the lobster pots. She could hear his mother working in the weaving shed and the clatter of the loom as she whipped the shuttle to and fro. She could smell the peat from a roaring fire and taste the bite of a single malt whiskey. 

            “A crofter’s life was a tough one,” he’d tell her, “but it also made people stick together. We looked out for one another.”

“If it was all so perfect, why did you leave?” her mum would cut in. “I’ll tell you why,” she’d continue without pausing for breath. “Because there was no future in the God forsaken place.” 

            “I know, I know but I still miss the beauty of it,” he’d say wistfully. “Those views …” 

Brenda’s mum would raise an eyebrow in scorn.

            “Fat lot of good that is. You can’t earn a living from fresh air.” 

Brenda’s dad would ruffle Brenda’s hair. “More’s the pity.” 

Brenda was wrenched from her memories by the sound of Clare’s disapproving voice.

            “Oh for cryin’ out loud! Did you not think to bring the washing in?”

Brenda stared out the window. It had started to rain.

            “Ill do it then, will I?” said Clare.

She ran out in her dressing gown and slippers and began to strip the clothing from the line. Brenda was close behind her. Typical, she thought. One minute it was all sunshine and stiff breeze – the perfect drying weather. The next, it was pissing down. Clare hurriedly unpegged the washing and draped it over Brenda’s outstretched arms. They both dashed back into the kitchen. Brenda dropped the sodden clothes into the basket her mum had left on the floor.

            “Is Peter comin’ round tonight?” asked Clare.

            “No.”

            “Oh? I thought you two …”

            “Well, you thought wrong.”

            “Come here a wee minute, Brenda,” said her dad, beckoning her over. 

Mr MacRae pointed to the paper which lay open at a double page spread. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that was you.” 

Brenda stared at the black and white evidence.

            “Um …”

            “What do you mean it’s her? Let me see,” said Clare. “So it is!” She furrowed her brow as she took in the scene. “Where is this? Who are all those people?”

Brenda told them about the rally, why she’d wanted to be a part of it, who she’d met, that there had been a bit of a skirmish but nothing too serious. Clare’s face darkened. “I’m sure the security forces took care of it.” There was a bitterness to her voice. 

            “I didn’t mean to keep it from you but …” Brenda’s voice tailed off as she met her dad’s gaze.

            “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” was all he said.   

 

 

CHAPTER 3   

Brenda walked briskly. She didn’t need to look at the street names; the kerbs told her what part of Belfast she was in. Red, white and blue. Prod colours. In Brenda’s street they were daubed green, white and orange. Different turf, different flags. She passed a giant mural of a man on a white horse. His hair was long and curly, like a cocker spaniel’s ears; he wore a red and gold jacket; one hand was on the reins of his horse, the other brandished a sword. 1690 was the date painted on the wall. No Surrenderread the slogan. King Billy, mustering his troops for the battle that would rout the Catholics once and for all. What was she doing here? She wasn’t wise in the head. 

Brenda glanced over at Hazel. It was all right for her. She knew the area well.

            “Don’t worry,” said Hazel. “We’re nearly there now.”

            “Thank God!”

            “Just don’t be sayin’ any Hail Mary’s.”

            “Fuck off,” replied Brenda, laughing at the very idea of it. 

            “By the way, I promised Mum we’d give her a hand to set up. Hope that’s ok?”

Hazel’s mum had arranged for tonight’s meeting to take place in the Presbyterian church hall not far from where Hazel lived. Women Together groups from all over Belfast were coming to a sewing circle.

It was Mrs Kennedy who first suggested making the quilt. She said it would be a great way to bring everyone together, a chance to get to know each other better. The quilt would be a symbol of their shared hopes. If that’s what they thought, then good on them, but Brenda wouldn’t be joining in. Quilting? That was for grannies. Besides, the last time she’d sewn anything was in school. It was a square of embroidery that she somehow managed to stitch to her skirt. When she lifted the piece up to show the class, her skirt lifted with it, giving everyone a full flash of her pants.

          *

Hazel’s mum was still switching the lights on when the girls arrived. She briefly greeted them, then disappeared into the small kitchen to put a couple of bottles of milk in the fridge. The walls of the room were lined with stacks of plastic chairs and bare wooden trestle tables.

            “Give me a hand with these radiators, girls” said Mrs Irwin, reappearing from the kitchen. “It’s brass monkeys in here.”

There was no sophisticated heat control system. The radiators were either full on or turned off completely. Brenda and Hazel set them all to full. Together they pulled the chairs down from their stacks and placed them around the tables which they had dragged into the centre of the room, to form one large rectangle. 

Women began to arrive shortly after seven o’clock carrying sewing baskets stuffed with brightly patterned swatches of cloth, spools of threads in a rainbow of colours, pins and needles. They brought with them offerings of food - mostly sandwiches and filled rolls - which they handed to Hazel’s mum through the kitchen hatch. 

            “We’ll not be goin’ hungry, that’s for sure,” said Brenda. “There’s enough food here to feed half of Belfast. As long as you like sandwich spread and sliced pan.” 

The women formed themselves into clusters around the table, each group working on their allocated section of the quilt. 

*

Already the windows had misted up. Brenda tugged at the neck of her jumper. The sweat was lashing off her.

            “Is anyone else hot?” she asked, getting up from her seat. “Mind if I open one of these?”

No, they weren’t hot; it was nice as it was, thanks. Brenda reluctantly sat back down beside Hazel and her mum and continued to swelter and prickle. 

            “Now that I’ve had a chance to sleep on it …” said Ann Muldoon.

            “Not literally Ann, I hope.” Joan Anderson gave her a wink. 

Ann Muldoon returned a vinegar smile. “… I’ve had second thoughts about the shamrock idea.”

The women had chosen symbols that represented their life in Belfast; these were to be stitched into the quilt.

            “Who the hell picked a shamrock in the first place?” asked the woman next to Mrs Muldoon. “Might as well add a leprechaun for good measure.”

The women burst into laughter with the exception of Mrs Irwin who looked as if she’d sat on her own pin cushion.

            “I’ve been working on this all week,” she said, holding up a garish bead-encrusted patch of green fabric.

            “And that’s, um … a lovely job you’ve made of it,” said Ann Muldoon, “but maybe we should leave shamrocks for the souvenir shops. We need something more personal to us.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement. 

Mrs Irwin placed her green square on the table. 

            “We all agreed on the dove and the shamrock at the first meeting. If I remember rightly, everyone was happy enough with the choice at the time.” 

            “I don’t remember havin’ much say in it,” mumbled Ann Muldoon. 

Mrs Irwin glared across the table. 

            “Of course if there are any fresh ideas it would be nice to hear them.”

Brenda had never heard the word nice spoken with such steely coldness.

            “What about something that represents the children?” someone suggested. “All these riots and killings are ruinin’ their lives.”

There was a murmur of approval. In the end they decided, much to Mrs Irwin’s disappointment, to ditch the shamrock and replace it with a symbol of two children holding hands. Mrs Irwin was placated with the promise that the dove motif would be kept. 

Ann Muldoon got to work on cutting the new template.The women thensettled back into their sewing, catching up on the week’s events and swapping stories. Brenda observed them at work and threaded needles on request  (‘your eyesight’s better than mine, love’) and listened in to their conversations. 

            “All hell broke loose on my street last night,” said Joan Anderson. Not that you’d know; there wasn’t a word about it on the news this mornin’. I swear to God, there are times I think I’ve dreamed all this up.”

Brenda knew exactly how she felt. There were nights when her own street turned into a battlefield. She’d lie in bed, listening to the rip of automatic machine guns, like she was caught up in some war in a faraway country. But it was happening right here, on her doorstep. Occasionally, if she was brave enough to peek through the curtains, she caught the flash of an armalite from a window further down the street. It was always a shock to Brenda that a raging gun battle could take place and yet there’d be no record of it. Where did all those bullets go? Was no-one ever hit or injured? The empty cartridges that littered the street the following morning told the real story.

            “Take my Billy …”

            “Can’t say I’m tempted, Joan.” The woman laughed. 

            “He says he’d sooner die than give up Queen and country.”

            “And would he?”

            “If he had enough pints in him he’d fight anyone.”

There was a shared sigh of solidarity from the women. 

            “I’m sick to the teeth of all their fightin’ talk,” said Ann Muldoon. “It’s the men that are draggin’ us into one disaster after another.”

            “I know and we’re the ones left tryin’ to hold the family together,” replied Mrs Anderson.

            Holding the family together was becoming harder by the day. Brenda’s mum was thankful she only had daughters. She didn’t have to answer a knock on the door and explain why her teenage son wasn’t on the streets stoning soldiers like the rest of his contemporaries. Her husband, with his Scottish roots, could just about be excused his impartiality on the grounds that he was foreign. A son, born and bred in Belfast, would be an entirely different matter. He’d be expected to support the ‘cause’. 

            Cause was a strange word, thought Brenda. It meant different things depending on what part of the city you came from. For Joan Anderson’s husband, Billy, it was fighting to remain part of the United Kingdom, to stay British. For most in Brenda’s street it was fighting against the British suppressors. 

            “It’s getting worse, so it is. I’m scared for my boys. I’ve told them not to walk home on their own at night.” Ann Muldoon crossed herself. “Not unless they want to be shot.”

A brief silence fell on the group. At night, groups of Protestant paramilitaries had taken to driving through Catholic areas, on the look out fora lone Catholic man.They’d open up with semi-automatic rifles then speed off, leaving their target to die from his wounds.

Brenda glanced at Mrs Anderson. Surely her Billy wouldn’t be a part of anything like that? Mrs Anderson was shaking her head in disgust but Brenda thought she caught a flicker of doubt in her eyes. 

            “Where will it all end?” said Mrs Irwin.

Surely it must end soon, thought Brenda. Things couldn’t go on like this forever. Not if enough people like them spoke out.  

 

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