Funny the things you notice when someone is standing in front of you with a gun. On this particular occasion (because there were many) I noticed three things. Firstly, this person was about the same age as me. Secondly, he looked really pissed off. Thirdly, and I don’t know why I looked at his hands-oh yeah, he was carrying a gun that was pointed kinda in my direction in his hands- I noticed that he had tattoos across his knuckles.
Belfast, 1991. In a dark street in the middle of Turf Lodge, working my way home from a friend’s house nearby.
It wasn’t unusual to be stopped by a patrol of British soldiers. Since I was about 14 I had been stopped several times per week. Mostly, it was a perfunctory conversation about who I was and where I was going. Sometimes the soldiers were even quite polite. Sometimes. I had long since stopped being anxious about this. I didn’t feel much at all about it really. It was a part of existence in this part of the world. And to be honest, I had switched off.
So, when I was stopped by this particular patrol and was questioned by this particular soldier, I guess my mind wandered a little and settled on his tattoos. In the middle of the mini interrogation under the street lights, I asked the soldier about his tattoos.
“You like Pink Floyd?”
“Your tattoos. Do you like Pink Floyd?”
I waited to gauge his reaction to me turning the tables and asking him questions. Experience had shown me that not many of these soldier guys wanted any sort of civil or personal conversation to ensue from our encounters. But, ever the optimist, and never the violent type, I gave it a go.
“Yeah”. Eloquent response. I’ll go a bit further, I thought.
“Cool, man”. I matched his eloquence in my recently acquired hippy speak.
“Yeah” I laboured the word as if to add emphasis and let him know that I really did like Pink Floyd. This, unfortunately, was a wee white lie. I didn’t not like Pink Floyd. In fact I had had a sense for many years up to that point that I should like Pink Floyd (like hippy speak, I had also recently acquired hippy hair and hippy clothes). I just didn’t really know much of their music. I had heard some of it and broadly liked it. So while my lie to the soldier was indeed a lie; it was only a white lie. And, given the context, it facilitated an easier conversation than could have been the case. So, yay Pink Floyd!
Thankfully he didn’t ask me to name any of their songs or albums. Instead,
“What else you into?”
For the next few minutes we traded bands and songs we liked. We both relaxed into this conversation and bizarre as it sounds, I think we both enjoyed talking to each other. It turned out he was the same age as me: 19.
“What are you doing over here, man?” This question could go wrong.
He had a faraway look of sadness in his eyes now.
“I don’t want to be here. I hate it here. I don’t really want to be a solider at all.”
“Then why are you? A solider, I mean.”
“Have you GCSE’s or A Levels?”
I had both and told him.
“Well, I don’t. I was rubbish at school. Came out with nothing. Couldn’t get a job. I’ve been on the dole for ages. I was pissing my life away. So, it was either join up or stay on the dole. So, I joined up. And ended up here.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know his whole story, but I could see that he had a limited amount of choices in life and he made the best one he could. And ended up here. Belfast. Most of my friends who came from Belfast didn’t want to be in Belfast in 1991. So I could imagine coming here wasn’t the best experience in the world.
There was a cough from one of his soldier friends who had been watching our conversation evolve. He seemed to speak fluent cough, because his body language changed. He stood more erect. He looked over at one of his mates (someone further up the chain of command I guess), then at me.
“See ya” He moved off, gun in hand scanning the street around him.
Unhappy in Belfast 1991.
I walked home and in the ten minutes it took me to do so, I didn’t think much of our meeting. I had other things to deal with in life. I was young. I was lucky to have opportunities that many didn’t. But this conversation stayed with me. Every time I see a person with tattoos on their knuckles it reminds me of that young lad I met in Turf Lodge. Whatever happened to him? I hope his tour of Belfast was uneventful- for him and for those he encountered.
Jim Deeds is a husband and a father from Belfast. During his 44 years, Jim has worked as a busker; a film maker; a play write; a bar man; a glass washer; a social worker; a therapist; a manager of a children’s home; and an NHS manager. He is currently a pastoral worker for the Diocese of Down and Connor and an author. It is this variety in life experience and his observations that Jim brings to bear in his writing, always looking for the spiritual amongst the ordinary day to day. His book of spiritual reflections and poetry is available at http://shanway.com/product/surfing-lifes-waves/ priced £7