My primary school was like something from Animal Lampoon’s Animal House. At one time it held the British record for the greatest number of pupils in a single early year’s school and it also had the largest class sizes. We were regularly squeezed into classroom’s and portacabins with anywhere up to forty kids at a time.
Looking back now I realise our teachers must have been saints. I know I could never muster up the courage to stare down forty boys and with a single gruff word manage to order us to open our books or be quiet. And yet, quite a few of them did (some were not so commanding! A student teacher was like sweetie mice to a monster).
Now all of this sounds just like life in any inner-city school of the day, but as you have probably picked up in my posts thus far, Northern Ireland always gives that little extra more.
I had three good friends during Primary School, three friends that I am happy to report are still my friends today and I am still in touch with all of them and see them (and yes, we do go drinking together and yes, it ends up as you might expect).
I have many stories from that period of my life that I will share over time with you, but the first of those is one that will stick with me to the end of my days.
I remember very clearly emerging from under the warmth of my bed’s blankets one morning, aware that my Mum had been shouting for me to “Get up and get on ye”, which means get dressed, for at least the previous five minutes. Not wanting to endanger my own wellbeing I knew I couldn’t push for one more shout. Except this morning, Mum surprised me by coming into my room and sitting down next to me on the edge of the bed. She had a very soft look in her eyes, so I knew I wasn’t about to get the face ate off me.
Now, from this moment on I will only refer to my friend as T, simply for reasons of privacy, although he has given me permission to write about him and his story. But still…I am being respectful.
Mum took a hold of my hand and started by asking me a question. “You know wee T?”
How could I not know?? I mean we had a shared passion for Starsky and Hutch on TV, he had a pet dog that we loved to tease and we both thought Manchester United were the world’s greatest football team (still are and still do!)
I nodded that I knew who T was and then Mum dropped the news on me.
“Well. T is not very well, and he won’t be at school for a wee while.”
“Oh? Can I go and see him?”
“No. No, son, we’ll just have to wait a while. Then maybe you can go and play with him when the time is right.”
It was the word maybe that made my tummy feel funny and questions to bubble up in my head. But, in those days, you knew when the time was right to ask more or to just take what you’d been given and consider a follow up another time.
What Mum had described as a wee while was, in reality, a number of months. Months without arguments as to who would be behind the wheel of his brother’s Ford Escort (or was it at a Vauxhall Viva…can’t remember exactly), parked immobile in front of their house. Months without arguing who would be Hutch and who would be Starsky. Months without playing with our Dinky cars in my back garden, ruining my Da’s flower beds as we excavated our own version of Tracy Island to park them in.
What had caused this sudden absence?
Well, T’s brothers were all mad on cars, particularly stock cars. So, one weekend they had all gone as a family to a race meet in the countryside. On the way home they stopped off for a bite to eat at a pub in, I think it was in Toomebridge, a small quiet town in County Antrim.
While in the pub, my friend T and one of his brothers decided to play a game of pool on the pub’s only table. T went to his Da and asked for the two ten pence pieces he needed to insert into those little slots that you then pushed home. This in turn angled the tray containing the balls in the table so they would cascade out the end and be available for use.
The tipping of the tray was what did it.
It was the trip that detonated the bomb.
T took most of the blast. How he survived is beyond me and certainly him too.
Once again, the most mundane of days had been made ugly by the most mundane of actions. Another violent outburst in Northern Ireland’s bloodied story.
T, as I have already mentioned, survived. He is one of my dearest friends to this day, and it was only relatively recently that I plucked up the courage to discuss what happened with him. Fascinatingly he refers to the incident as “My Accident”. When he first said this to me, I thought he was referring to some car bump he’d been in but as he kept talking, I realised he was referring to that terrible day in Toomebridge.
An accident…what a way to contain such an event in your own heart and mind. What a way to accommodate the horrific realities that a childhood in Northern Ireland at that time could deliver to you.
But the most powerful thing T said to me about the whole story was this. We were walking to the pub one day (no surprise) when he turned to me with a serious look on his face. If you knew T you would know that this was an unusual occurrence because he is one of the funniest people I know. He hung his head for a second and looked at his feet and then said to me “If we were kids going through everything we saw back then but now, we’d spend the rest of our lives in State funded therapy of some sort. And yet for us? Nothing. It’s hardly even talked about.”
That sentence stuck with me. T’s thought is enough to inspire me to write about those times, even if it is from a fictional angle. At least then some people might think and talk, and all that pain will have been acknowledged. It might end up meaning something more than just an accident.