On the eleventh night of July I stuff my swollen feet into a pink pair of welly boots and open the door to a city that’ll soon catch fire. The wee boys and girls of Belfast had their fun earlier today, watching Orangefest parades and running mad around tires stacked to the sky, throwing stones and telling their hollering mums to piss off. But family hours are over now, and the Protestant kids don’t get to see the towering bonfires burn at midnight. At half-eleven it’s the men who own the streets.
A graceless ghost in the night, I thump my feet along the Protestant side of the peace line that separates the Shankill from the Falls Road neighborhoods. Dozens of walls just like this one stand all around Belfast. They built a few when the Troubles began, back before I was born. Called them temporary and thought surely they could end sectarian violence with concrete, steel, and barbed wire. And then they built more.
The few trees bordering this one lean like old men because Irish Catholic and British Protestant lads climb to the highest branches to toss over bottles, bricks, and words they heard their daddies say or discovered in graffiti outside their bedroom windows. People say the Troubles ended over ten years ago because there was a cease-fire of sorts and the death count dropped. But the peace lines know better. They feel the blind hatred behind every rock, every brick, every petrol bomb. They know there’s a reason we’re still separated.
My boyfriend Stephen said stay in tonight. But I’ve just had that dream again where someone takes my baby for a petrol bomb and over the peace line she goes. I woke with sweaty limbs sticking to our plastic mattress and a heavy weight in my chest that won’t let up.
I never wanted her in the first place. Always thought I’d have a kid’s bags packed the minute it popped out, tell it to change its own nappies and all. But I feel the way she moves inside me now, touching parts of me I’ll never see, and I know she and I are alike, so we are.
We both want out.
The streets of the Shankill Estate are quiet in these parts aside from the sticky arm flappings of a few drunken men. I look at each of them the way I have since I was young, firmly but with a proper level of disinterest so as not to encourage them, then I move on. If I ever meet my dad on the street, I’m certain I’ll know it. You can’t lock eyes with your own blood and not feel something beneath the skin, where things stay hidden until they’re ready to be known. Mum says the man who knocked her up twice was a tool and a drunk, so I figure he never made it out of Belfast.
When I was small my older brother died in a riot down the street. In the frozen months and years that followed mum told me about Florida: It’s sunny all the time, Analeese, and they’ve all got pools in their yards. On clear days we’d climb to the top of Black Mountain to watch Scotland sparkle white across the sea, smiling ‘cause it’s just out of reach. This will all be over soon, love, she’d say, and for a while her words were like the wee buns I loved to eat, sweet and filling.
But mum was on the drink every night and going mad when she wasn’t. Claimed the only drinking problem she had was that she had only one mouth. By age ten her words got loud and clumsy in my head, like fat, broken bottles in a blender. I started to realize her talk of leaving for America and going on holiday in New Zealand meant nothing. It was the things she didn’t speak of that mattered: my bullet-holed brother, my mystery father, our place inside these walls where everyone is a victim and no one is ever wrong. Well she was wrong, and more often than not I want to take a hammer to my head when she opens her mouth. A minor concussion would beat all she’s ever said. All anyone’s ever said.
I reach the Shankill and think maybe I should have stayed home, curled up in our sheetless bed and watched reruns of The X Factor till morning. Stephen was in a state before he left tonight. Already drinking and blinking his dirt-brown eyes like shoddy garage doors, flicking cigarette ashes on my fat, aching feet when I leaned in to kiss the scar on his neck. He worried the Catholics might set off the bonfire early from their side of the peace line, even though he claims that they’ve been trying for months now and haven’t come close, that they’ve horrible aim and the petrol bombs usually land somewhere in the street. But everyone gets a bit more aggressive the closer it gets to The Twelfth.
Most of the Catholic minority hates The Twelfth and all the days leading up to it, but some of us Protestants hate it, too. Some people leave town, if they can, to get away from it all. Tomorrow, maybe tonight, Catholic lads will wage war against the police for letting our Protestant bands march through the streets playing songs about defeating the Catholics over three hundred years ago. The ones throwing the bombs and hijacking the cars to send burning into police lines, they’re just kids, teenagers. But they’re armed by men who refuse to accept a cease-fire. Men who live for The Twelfth and hide in the shadows where they can watch the youths fight their battle. It’s all so predictable, really.
From the looks of it, though, there’ve been no riots yet tonight. Police vans line the street, but none of them are on fire, and the helmeted cop men look almost peaceful. Unruffled but ready. The shops are closed, the Crusty Bap and the chippy and the place where I used to steal my lip gloss all buried in the dark and gated up for the night. Two blocks down loads of guys are drinking, having a laugh and stinking of curried socks around an unlit forty-foot bonfire. The smell puts my stomach on wheels as I step around half-empty bottles on the ground, thrown about as if someone’s seeded a concrete garden with glass and watered it with liquor.
That was all me this time last year. I couldn’t get enough. Stephen and I’d go to the graveyard with mates five, sometimes six nights a week and get so rubbered we couldn’t tell the gravestones from each other. If there was money we’d buy grass and take a bus to the Bangor Marina and ride coasters past the blur of blue water and bluer people. Then there was the speed, and Stephen got me doing blow. He still does blow, but I can’t moan too much. Nearly every wee lad does it. So anyway that’s when I decided school was shite and walked out, refused to go back. Gave up designing dresses in my notebook and drew pictures of my social worker instead, brightly colored drawings of her sticking pens in her own bloody eye ‘cause I thought she was evil. Dead childish, so I was, but I knew I’d never make it to university. Who cared if I got any closer? Not me or anyone around me. I always knew there’d be court dates to deal with, but then I missed a few periods and started heaving up my innards when I hadn’t even been drinking. And now court doesn’t seem so scary anymore.
I pull my furry hood tight over my head against a mist of rain and weave through the clammy mess of men and alcohol till I spot Stephen, slouching in his nylon jacket but still taller than everyone around him. He’s facing the bonfire he and his mates started building out of tires and wooden crates back in January. They’ve got a wee hut inside with electric and all for playing Xbox and slabbering on about the Catholics and the cop men. But it’ll be ash by morning.
Stephen’s got a WKD vodka in one hand and what looks like a joint in the other. A signature look for him I suppose. I got with him last year because he has this brilliant head of black curls, and I liked that we both have curls. Plus he told me about the things he’s seen, things you wouldn’t see even in your nightmares. Saw his own dad hang himself, right in the backyard from the only climbing tree. From that day on his mum hardly cared if the kids were washed and fed, so the social workers came. Ten kids in all—they didn’t think nine was enough. That was the same year Stephen got the scar on his neck. He doesn’t remember what the fight was about, but someone had a knife. The night he showed me the scar under the soft glow of a streetlight, I’d never felt so close to anyone, which is probably why I didn’t stop him from feeding me pills, from bending me over a merry-go-round and pulling me along ever since.
Stephen and his mates move around the bonfire now, lighting it on all sides, and the crowd whistles and claps a broken tune. Seeing him here when he thinks I’m back at home, it’s like I really am some ghost in the night. Trudging around in the only place I belong and the only place I hate, waiting for someone to hear me.
I want to walk over and lean my head on Stephen’s shoulder. Erase the scar on his neck with my pinky, tell him how nothing is quiet inside me. I feel the weight in my chest pushing the words up and out onto my tongue where they burn the way the drugs always did, but as I watch him through a creeping veil of smoke a pounding grows loud inside my head. Louder than the King Billy tune someone’s playing by the fire. I don’t know how to get from here to there. I don’t know how to move as though all the systems and cells in my body have known the way all along. Was there ever a way?
If I somehow tell him, if I tell Stephen there was a dream, a nightmare, that’s why I came, he’ll throw his giant hands in my face, two dead, flopping weights. Go home, sort yourself out. If I tell him about Florida and all the places we could go, he’ll toss his bottle to the ground. Analeese, you’re a head case. And in the end nothing will change. In the end I’m fifteen, and I can bring a baby into this wet, godless mess, but I can’t get out myself.
There’s shouting on the other side of the peace line, Dirty orange prods. Catholic lads getting louder and angrier, eager for an explosion that’ll shake the world awake. But no one over here can be bothered by them at the moment because the fire in the middle of the lot is rising, slowly engulfing the rubber and wood, making its way to the Irish tricolor at the peak. I feel a kick in my ribs and tighten my arms around my stomach as if I’m holding her in. Keeping her safe with my twiggy arms and my paint-chipped nails.
Stephen has melted away into the frontier of faces set aglow before the flames, and I think how we are all the same. How many times has this scene been replayed? And all the ones before us, the ones who lived through the worst of the Troubles—a fiery living knot of cause and effect, looping and linking and choking us all.
I kick an uneven path through the glass garden and stand before the wall. Maybe there’s a girl on the other side. A Catholic girl who hates this holiday for its noise and smoke. Maybe she’s alone and forgotten and wants out too because how can anyone wake up to these walls each day and not think prisoner? I slump against the peace line and slide down onto pebbled dirt, tired from the weight in my stomach and the weight in my chest.
I think of the petrol bombs. The horrifying ones of my nightmares, the ones my brother threw on the day he died, the ones that take flight from somewhere behind me, intended to hit the bonfire, or anything, really, so long as it’s on the other side. But I’m not afraid anymore. The wall vibrates weakly against my back, a labored breath, and finally I recognize it for what it is: human. So very human even with its concrete, steel and barbed wire. And if every last wall fell tonight it wouldn’t matter. We’d still hold each other prisoner.
Fat tongues of flame lick the sky now, smoke rises like blooming ghosts, and even from here I feel a burn on my face. I close my eyes and whisper a prayer for everything to be OK, not knowing who’s listening, knowing only that all around Belfast dozens of bonfires burn hot and orange. Like wee Florida suns in the misty black night.