CW: Gun violence, death
The air hung heavy with the foggy dew of a February morning.
Through the single-pane window, dampened though it was, could be heard the regimented tramp of a platoon of British Lancers. The melodic jingle of them was harmonised by the footfall of their heavy boots. They passed by, unseen in the fog.
The well-worn sound of sirens echoed down the street as they had done from early morning but neither of us paid heed. Nothing new for a Belfast morning.
I sat rigid at the table, uncomfortable in the starched school shirt that was too small but ‘would see me through to the end of the year’, whilst Ma poured the cornflakes into the bowl before me. The tinkle of them played merrily against the threatening chorus outside.
A little milk splashed free onto the table as she filled the bowl, seeping its way down the tables grains before a cloth could had.
“Hurry yourself up or you’ll be late,” Ma said before dragging the hairbrush through my tattered mane, the futility of it lost on her - though her annoyance was clear when I ran my fingers through it, immediately undoing her hard work.
From the counter, the little radio spat and crackled out a song my mother liked and she hummed to herself as she flitted from mother-job to mother-job; cleaning and wiping, hanging the wet clothes, folding the dry.
I shovelled in a mouthful. The crunch drown out the world around me.
“Ma, sugar please,” I said, mouth still full, sending a burst cornflake shrapnel into the air.
She whisked the sugar over to me and wiped down the table once more, humming out the dying notes of the song.
Da’s absence wasn’t even registered by Ma and I. He was never there in the mornings.
He was the milkman, passing through the local streets in his van before the cocks had time to clear their throats, swapping empty bottles for full ones, often with only the dawning sun for company.
He’d tut and he’d sigh as he trundled past the burnt out cars and the bombed out bars of Belfast. He’d nod to soldier and gunman alike as he made his rounds for few others were out on the streets that early.
That’s how he was; open, friendly, peaceful.
“We’re all born the same, we all die the same,” he’d say, “and we’re all the same in between.”
That’s how he raised me; free from hatred and division.
I took another mouthful, much more to my taste this time, the flakes not offering as much resistance.
“Fix your tie, will you? You look like you were reared in a field, that’s no way to be heading off to school.”
The usual scolding from Ma on a school morning.
The song ended and the radio rang out eight bells. A familiar voice greeted us.
“Good morning, the headlines.”
We continued our customs, me chewing, Ma cleaning.
Crunch, wipe, fold.
And the radio said, “There’s another shot dead on the streets of Belfast. Early reports say he died with a gun in his hand.”
Crunch, wipe, fold.
The reporter prattled on, other disturbance, the humdrum of the politicians, the rise of fuel costs. Another Belfast morning, the same old routine.
Crunch, wipe, fold.
It was the knock at the door, the three heavy raps, that broke the dullness.
I looked at Ma, her eyes as wide as my own.
With Da on the rounds, I was the man of the house. I started to rise, but Ma’s firm hand returned me to my seat.
“Stay,” she ordered and I obeyed.
I watched her as she stepped from the kitchen, drying cloth in hand.
I heard her gasp from the hallway as she opened the door. I knew what that meant.
The chill of the foggy dew that rushed the open door seized me.
The officer stood the entire time, directly across from me in the kitchen. Between us, upon the table, the bowl lay unfinished; islands of orange flakes bobbing on a placid sea of white.
The radio was silent now, freeing the stage for the solemn tick-tock of the clock.
He stood there. His uniform was clean and crisp with the dark green jacket buttoned professionally. He did not remove his cap, emblazoned with a harp donning a crown.
“I’m very sorry,” he said without emotion, “very sorry for your loss.”
He cleared his throat and looked between Ma and I. She was still crying, but it was silent now. Her reddened eyes bore the pain which was spilling over blotched cheeks.
I was numb.
I stared at his tie. It was fitted right up to the collar, neat to his neck. He wasn’t reared in a field I thought.
“How-” Ma started but was ambushed by a sob.
The officer cleared his throat again.
“He was seen walking up Fitzgibbons Street with, what I’m told, was a revolver. The army opened fire and he… well, he…”
The officer blinked hard and cleared his throat again.
“I’m very sorry,” he repeated.
The silence that fell rotted into an intolerable discomfort, putrefying the air. Another throat clear did nothing to shift it.
“No,” I said though my throat was dry, “Da wouldn’t have- he couldn’t have- he didn’t have a gun. He wasn’t involved.”
The officer nodded to pacify me but his eyes betrayed his lack of belief.
“We will, of course, carry out a full investigation once the army have completed their assessment.”
Empty words I thought.
The officer saw himself out and in his wake was left the true absence of Da.
In the bowl, the cornflakes were sodden.
It took twelve years. Twelve tormenting years and an independent commission for the truth to come to light.
Call it what you want. There was no gun.
The solider had mistaken a bottle of milk for a revolver and had opened fire without a word of warning.
My Da. Dead. Over a bottle of milk.
They say there’s no point crying over spilt milk. I hate that saying.
Ma never got over it, went to her grave without the truth and now lies beside Da, just like they did in their bed. Born the same. Died the same.
I enlisted as soon as I could. Not to free my country, not for injustice. Just for revenge.
I have done awful things. Terrible things.
But I make no moans about it. I do not apologise for it, to any man or god.
We are born the same. We die the same. But we are not the same.
I am not the same as I was. I changed at eight o’clock that February morning.
So now here I lie, in the foggy dew of the morning, with my rifle, awaiting the jingle of an oncoming platoon.
I wonder what the radio will say.