Saturday, 3 April 2021

Notebook – Belfast 1970

 by Peppy Barlow

steaming mug of tea

 

There is a clotted circle of glass in the centre of the door.  A spy hole.  She assumes there is someone behind it.  She has rung the bell.  Is someone looking at her standing in the street?  If she put her eye to the glass, she wonders, would she be able to see in?  See the other eye.  She thinks not.  The windows on either side of the door are boarded up.  It is not intended that people on the outside should look in.

 

            The door opens.  There is a man standing in front of her.  A policeman. without his cap.  A man in his fifties maybe.  Stout and grey.  Tall.  A massive figure filling the doorway. 

‘Yes, Miss,’ he says.  Eyes on the street behind her.

‘I’ve come about the notebook I lost. It must have dropped out of the car.’

‘You’re Miss……’

‘Williams.  Jenny.  You phoned the man I was interviewing yesterday.  Said someone had handed it in.’

‘Miss Williams.  That’d be right.  You better come in.’

 

            She passes him.  Catches the smell of his heavy uniform.  Waits as he checks the street and bolts the door.  Shutting them into the half light of the reception area. 

 

            There is another man sitting behind a wooden counter.  A heavy black telephone and a large book on the polished surface in front of him.  The first man goes slowly up to the counter.  Speaks quietly.  Almost in a whisper.  Not, she feels, in order to prevent her from hearing.  More so as not to drown out the muffle sounds of the street outside.  It is the tone of a sentinel.  ‘It’s the young lady.  The lady who lost her notebook.’

 

            The second man looks at her.  He is old.  Very close to retirement she thinks.  But his eyes are blue.  Startlingly blue.  Unexpected.  Like a mountain lake in summer. 

‘Indeed.  I have it here,’ he says, ‘Would this be what you’re looking for?’

He reaches under the counter.  Places her red reporter’s notebook carefully on the top.

‘Yes, that’s it.  Thank god you found it.  I’d be lost without it.  A whole week’s work.  Lost.’

 

            He opens the large book.  Turns it on the counter towards her.  She moves forward.  He takes a pen from his top pocket.  Holds it out to her.

‘If you’d just sign for it.’

‘Say I’ve got it.’

‘We wouldn’t want it to be going to the wrong person.’

‘I don’t think it’d be much use to anyone but me.’

 

            She takes the pen. He places a large square finger over the space where she should sign.  She notices that the hairs on the back of his hand are grey.  The skin freckled.  Ingrained with dirt.  Earth.  Brown earth.  Not the grime of the city.  She imagines him working a small plot of land.  Digging.  In his shirt sleeves.  Pulling patiently at the weeds.  Throwing them to the edge.  Stopping to survey his work.

‘You’re a reporter then?’ he says.

‘Of a kind.  I write about schools.  I’m an educational journalist.’

‘A journalist. That’s a new thing isn’t it Joe?  To have a journalist in our midst and not to have her asking about how we go about upholding the law.’

She thinks she detects the shadow of a smile.

‘Do you get many of them round here?’ she asks.

‘Not us.  There’s not enough that happens to us.   Not in a small place like this.  It’s the army they’re interested in.’

‘That comes into it.  What I write. It affects the schools as much as anything else.  More sometimes.  I was in a school this morning.  A Catholic school.  They’ve had the army billeted there for months.’

‘Ah, I’d say it does.’

If there was a smile, it’s gone now.  The man just looks tired.  Weary.

 

            The room is full of silence.  She wonders if it is finished.  If she can go. She picks up the book.  Puts it in her bag.  Turns to the other man.

‘Well, I suppose I should be going.  Back to work.’

‘I’ll just take a look for you,’ he says.  Goes back to the door.  Puts his eye to the spy hole.

‘Ah no.  You’d better stay in here for a while.  There’s a patrol coming down the street.  It’d be better if you waited.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

 

            She is standing in the middle of the room.  Half way to the door.  It is difficult to know what to do now.  She looks at the man by the door.  He shifts.  Looks at the floor.  Then looks up. Smiling. 

‘I’m sure you’d like a cup of tea.  While you’re waiting.’

‘I wouldn’t like to put you to any trouble.

‘Sure, it’s no trouble, is it Bob.  We always make one about this time.’

‘Then thank you.  That would be very nice.  I only get given coffee when I’m interviewing people.’

‘You can have coffee if you’d rather.  I have some in the jar.’

‘No, no.  I meant I’d rather have tea.  I like tea better.  That’s what I meant.’

‘Then I’ll get on with it.’

 

            He moves across the room.  Behind the counter.  To a door at the side.

‘Would be ready for a cup of tea yourself now Sergeant?’

‘Indeed I would Joe.  And let’s find the young lady a chair.  We can’t have you standing there like that.’  She looks round.  There is a bench against the wall.  Somewhere to sit.

‘I can sit there.’ 

‘No, no.  That wouldn’t be right,’ he says. ‘’I’ll find you a chair.’

 

            The Sergeant goes into the room at the side.   Brings out a chair.  Comes round the counter and puts it down.  She sits.  Feeling like a child at a high table. She can hardly see over.  He sees her.  Laughs.   

 ‘Oh no, that won’t do either. Here, you can have my stool.’

He comes round again with the stool.

‘There now.  You can perch on that and think you’re in some posh hotel.’

She thanks him.  Looks into the blue eyes.  There is laughter in them now.

Back on the other side of the counter he comes and stands opposite her.  His blue eyes twinkling.

 

            Joe comes back in with three steaming mugs of tea.  Goes back to get the sugar and four biscuits on a china plate.  She takes one.  Joe retreats.  Takes up his position at the end of the counter.

‘This is nice,’ she says, ‘Exciting.  I didn’t expect to end up drinking tea with the law’ 

The Sergeant laughs.

‘Ah, then, life is full of surprises.  We didn’t expect to be entertaining a young lady, did we Joe?’ 

‘We did not.’

They all laugh.

 

            Another silence.  She sips her tea.  Wonders if she should ask them about their jobs.  A wrong response in the face of their hospitality perhaps. The sergeant speaks first.

‘You’re English, I take it.’

‘That’s right.’

‘So what brings you to this place?’

‘I always get asked that question.  As if it’s a form of madness to want to be in Ireland.’’

‘It might be. Especially now.’

‘Well I like it.  I’m interested.  I’m going to be living in Dublin soon.’

‘That would have nothing to do with us,’ he says.

 

           

            More silence.  This time Joe speaks.

‘Aren’t you ever afraid now? Being about on your own.’

‘Should I be?  It all seems very personal to me.’

‘You’re safe enough round here perhaps.  I wouldn’t like to think of you in a Catholic area.’

‘I’ve never had any trouble. I try not to take sides.  Why would they bother me?’

‘You need only have trouble once,’ says the sergeant, ‘There are guns out there and they’re not afraid to use them.’

‘The army have guns,’ she says, not knowing whether this is a conversation she should be having.’

‘The army are English.’

‘Do you think I’d look English at the end of a gun sight?’

‘You look different surely,’ says the Sergeant, ‘We know our own.’

She looks straight at him.  The blue eyes have taken on a milky haze.  It is impossible to tell how serious he is being.   Joe interveners.  ‘Ah, we mustn’t be frightening the young lady Bob.  She’ll be safe enough, doing what she does.’

 

            The Sergeant turns and goes into the inner room.  Joe moves towards her a little.

‘You mustn’t mind him Miss.  It’s the way things are.  He’s from near the border himself.’

‘That’s alright.  I expect it was something I said.  I’d like to be going now though. Could you see if it’s safe?’

 

            Joe goes to the door.  She follows him.  He puts his eye to the glass.

‘Can I look through that?’ she says, ‘I’ve always wondered what it was like to see through one of those?’  He stands back.  She feels the heat of his body as she moves past him. She looks.  Redbrick.  White doors. The line of houses opposite smoothed into a circle of symmetry. 

 

            A child moves into view. Stands dead centre. Looking straight at her.  At the spy hole.  As though he is posing for picture.  She notices that he has something in his hand.  He is motionless.  His face immobile.  Without expression.  The face of a grown man supported on the body of a child.  He can’t be more than eight years old.

 

            Now.  He is moving.  Lifting his arm.  The hand with the thing it . He is taking it above his head.  Like a dancer.  Moving.  Aiming.  The thing is leaving him.  Coming towards her.  Across the space that divides them.  It smashes against the door.  And everything goes black.  She jumps back. Against the man behind her.  He weight absorbing the shock.  He turns her.  Takes her hand away from her face.  Looks worried.  Afraid.

‘Are you alright Miss?’

‘No.  Yes. I’m fine.  It was a child.  He threw something.’

‘Little bastards.  They’re always doing that.  I’ll see to him.’

He moves towards the door.

‘No, no.  It was only a lump of mud. Leave it.  No harm done’

‘He’ll be gone now anyway.  They don’t hang around.’

‘Well, I’ll be going then.’

‘If you’re sure you’re alright.’

‘I’m sure.’

 

            He opens the door.  Looks up and down the street.

‘There now.  All clear.’

‘Thank you.  I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble.’

‘You’ve been no trouble to me Miss.  Brightened our day.’

‘And thank you for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.  Come again when you’re next in the area.’

‘I might do that.’

 

            She walks away.  Down the empty street. Turns at the corner to see Joe cleaning the spy hole with a large white handkerchief.

 

            Three weeks later a man throws a child’s satchel from a passing car.  It lands on the step in front of the police station.  And explodes. None dead. One injured.  The newspaper report doesn’t give the name.  

About the author 

Peppy Barlow is a founder member of the Woven Theatre Company, a playwright and screen writer. She teaches Creative Writing at the Ipswich Institute.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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