Let me tell you about a few things that have changed since I was a boy.
Back then, there wasn’t a nice big garden outside our house like there is now, only a heap of muck and a puddle of ooze that we used to surf in on the broken-off door of a cement mixer. We’d wreck around in that puddle what feels like all the time, until Ma came out roaring, I’ll brain yiz if ye cross this door mucked! And off we’d dash into the house for tea, kicking off our battered trainers at the doorstep, beating the muck out of them on the wall and leaving them to crust over in the sun.
Ryan always tittered and acted her, I’ll fuckin’ brain yizzz! And I copied him, I’ll fuckin’ brain yitthh, – for I’d a lisp that enough abuse from him and my older cousins would help rid me of. They’d get me to hiss, I’m Chritthh Yoobank and I’m a bokttthhher, and I would, for it made them laugh like mad. I was only 6 or 7 and didn’t know who Chris Eubank was. I said it to a big surly black soldier who stopped the car once to crack a smile out of him, but it only made the other soldiers laugh and not him.
That’s the other thing that’s changed — back then there was soldiers around everywhere all the time, and a gun was a thing to be wanted.
Me and my brother Ryan would dig ours out of the toy box and sneak up on the army men hiding in the ditches by our house. They’d always see us coming so we’d open fire, an empty plasticky rattle, and then we’d tell them to give us a go on theirs and say we could swap for keeps if they wanted.
One of them let me hold his one day and I nearly fell under the weight of it. That gave them a good laugh. Ma and Da warned us again and again about talking to them, and not to answer questions about Granda next door.
But they didn’t seem the worst of fellas, the soldiers, even though they’d English accents. Sometimes they’d even share food with us and ask if our Granda was well or not and if there were ever visitors.
Then we’d get bored of them for they just lay in the ditch all day and watched nothing happen until a helicopter came to bring them to some other field.
I forgot to tell you about the orchard too. It wasn’t just the muck heap and the puddle at our house — there was the remains of a miserly old orchard that connected our house to Granny and Granda’s. It was a scary place in the half light, all crooked boughs and knotted knuckles that beckoned you into the depths. I only ever went in there with my brother to pluck bitter golf ball-sized apples, for that was the best the sick trees yielded — we’d take a bite out of them and splutter, and fling them into the hedge across the road where sometimes they’d rebound off the helmet of a soldier hiding in the ditch. Fack off! He’d bellow and me and Ryan would laugh and run and shout Fack off! and his mates would all guffaw in that English accent and I’d swear they were going to shoot us and Ryan would say They’re gonna shoot us! And we’d scream and dash off around the gable and collapse in a heap of laughs.
Then one day during the holidays, we went to war.
Ryan was taking me to this perfect place he’d found to make a new hideout, It’s near the size of our bedroom and top-secret, he’d said. We plodded down to the far corner of the Dook’s field where the blackberry hedges met a thicket of birch trees whose bellies pressed against a rusty barbed fence. Vines of creeping ivy and brambles grew so thick they formed a dome over the little clearing and made a homely shelter of the place. We ducked down and crawled through a break in the ivy between the rows of barbed wire.
There was a small ring of stones and blackened ground where someone had made a campfire not long ago.
The Brits, he whispered.
A helicopter droned a few miles away, and just then we heard voices approaching. We scooted up the low hanging branches to hide.
Someone’s there, one of the voices said, but the accent was young and local. Through the branches we caught sight of two flashes of red hair. It was only our red-headed cousins Conor and Daniel, a pair of brothers like us, and another pair, Mark and Justin, also cousins.
Who the fuck’s there? Justin demanded.
Me and Ryan launched ourselves from the branches as soon as they came into the hideout and scared the hell out of them. It’s ours, I found it first, said Ryan with his chest out. He was younger than Justin and Daniel but just as big and strong – and even sharper tempered.
We argued for a long while about it, all witless insults and threats of violence, until someone’s Ma called them home for breakfast. We’ll be up at your house later to finish this, said Justin.
All four of them arrived up at ours with plastic machine guns and toy bows and sticky ended arrows. Me and Ryan grabbed our own rifles and a slingshot Da’d made us with a few pieces of timber and the fan belt of Granda’s old Lada, and a pair of full size bows we’d made by shaving the thorns from thick briars.
Nathan, yet another cousin my age, showed up and joined me and Ryan to even the sides out a bit.
We’ll take the orchard, said Justin. We’ll take the muck heap then, Ryan answered. We’d be able to see every move they made from our crow’s nest and snipe at them.
The four of them all plodded off into the trees and we climbed to the top of the hill, me and Nathan hauling ourselves up on jutting out bits of rocks and Ryan dragging us along by our collars. We fashioned ourselves half a trench to take cover behind by kicking and scratching away at the muck with our guns and fingernails and piling the clumps up in a low wall.
Are ye ready!? – Daniel or Justin roared from the orchard.
Come on! – We roared back.
The guns clacked and banged and spat for a minute and then an argument broke out. – I got you! No I got you! This is shite, yous are cheating!
We were cheating. And so were they I think. Conor’s orange head juked out from behind a disused sheet of tin roofing and he fired an arrow that clipped the skin of my ear when it whistled past.
The arrow signaled open and violent warfare.
Ryan heaved up a block of craggy muck and flung it across the divide, where it smashed into mucky dusty shrapnel all around them. Me and Nathan fired off a useless arrow apiece which dropped out of the sky no more than 5 feet away before we skidded down the muck heap and scooped up handfuls of goopy sod from the puddle and clodded them into the orchard, drawing curses and whoops of laughter when we found our targets.
They threw down their guns and arrows and started flinging clumps of hardened muck back. The shells screamed through the air and crumbled into dust all around us, and one aimed true cracked right into my head, flattening me into the puddle of filth and ooze. I’m Chrith Yoobank and I’m a bokttthhher! – Shouted Justin or Daniel.
Yous’ll give your Granda another heart attack if ye keep that up! Announced Ma from the porch, and that brought around a ceasefire.
The whooshing of propeller blades chopped overhead all of a sudden, we hadn’t heard it coming with all the noise we’d been making, and one of those big Chinooks made for the field behind Granny and Granda’s. Come on in before the Brits land, and take your shoes off at the door, said Ma smiling
Spaghetti hoops and toast and butter and Robinson’s blackcurrant cordial and talk about the battle and the best highlights and not a word nor care about the Brits for that was just life we thought, and Da hid his worry behind the newspaper and turning the TV up loud, and Ma hid hers in her busyness about the house and her smiles and pats on the head of us and the cousins.
Thanks Michelle, the cousins said in turn as they tipped their empty plates into the suds and they’d get another pat on the head for their manners.
Let’s do it again next week, said Justin or Daniel and we liked that idea for it had been a great day arguing over the hideout and playing guns and flinging muck in the sun and whooping and laughing and roaring.
We never did do it again. Maybe they’d all gone home head to toe in muck and cuts and bruises and were forbidden from ever playing guns up at ours again. Or maybe our parents were being careful with the army so nearby. You see, another thing Iknow now that I didn’t then were the horror stories of distant children being mistaken for real gunmen by skittish or trigger-starved soldiers.
Or maybe we didn’t do it again for no particular reason, only that Justin and Daniel were almost teenagers and too old for it, and we’d all soon get PlayStations and quad bikes to play with, and guns wasn’t such a good game anymore.
Anyway, the guns had mostly grown quiet by around ‘97, and one sunny day Me and Ryan and Ma and Da climbed in the car and took off for somewhere. They were in good form and smiled and laughed and didn’t give out when we stuck our heads out the sunroof, and we met a rally of cars all blaring their horns and whooping and waving Irish flags.
We drove for a long time in the convoy and ended up in a town near home again. A stage was set up in the square outside the pub and the bookies, and there were a few posters around in high places with my Granda’s face and some other people I didn’t know on them.
Ma and Da walked us through the crowd right up to the front. Alright John, Hi Michelle, people said and shook hands and smiled at Me and Ryan. At the front of the crowd I saw my uncles Ian and Terry and Granny and a bunch of other people I half – recognised.
A ripple ran through the crowd, and then they cheered and clapped when Granda, in better health, stood up on the stage and shook hands and smiled and yarned with a wiry haired man called Martin and a few other important looking people. That year and for the next few, Granda’s face wore a crooked smile on local election posters and people liked him and told Me and Ryan and Nathan we should be proud, and so that’s what we were.
But a few years after that again, his old heart finally gave up on his young body and he died. Ten hard years in prison had brought him a stroke in his 30s, heart attacks in his 40s, and death in his 50s.
Something again I know now but didn’t back then was that Chinooks didn’t swoop down from the sky and hover outside everyone’s house.
The wiry-haired man called Martin though, he got high up into government and made friends with a man he’d probably hated once and who’d probably hated him too. They disagreed on plenty, but worked together anyway to move everyone away from the guns for they’d done enough damage and the people were tired of them, and tired of being fearful.
The Children of The Ceasefire, people the age of me and my brother and our cousins, were the first generation in three for whom Guns would remain a child’s game.
On a Spring day not too long ago, Me and Da were clearing out old belongings from around home. In Granny’s shed I found an old election poster with Granda’s well-worn head on it, mottled and damp with time.
I contemplated the helicopters that used to land just a hundred yards away, and the soldiers that hopped out and scurried into ditches for their so called training exercises. I thought about how most of those lads were younger then than I am now, in their late teens and early twenties, with orders to watch the old man in the house, for his politics and his past made him someone worth watching, and made anyone related to him worth watching too. I wondered how much I’d accidentally told them when they used to ask me questions, even though I knew nothing as a boy. I thought about armed check points and riots on TV and noises in the night that me and Ryan were told were just the wind or ghosts and that we should stay in bed and keep quiet.
And I thought about worried, tense grown-ups whose worry and tension I didn’t notice then but thinking back, felt — like the force that pushes two magnets apart and distorts the air between them. That same force seemed to usher children out of rooms when someone brought news and closed doors behind them. Trying to look back on those days now is like looking through the wrong end of a looking glass — a kind of protective repulsion.
I snapped back out of the daze and studied Granda’s picture for another while.I gave him a nod and put him back where I’d found him, for someone else to throw away another day.
Then in our attic I found an armful of old plastic guns.
I took them all down onto the landing and chose the one I’d always coveted, one of Ryan’s that he’d never let me use. I took careful aim into the dimly lit hall, and squeezed the trigger. No clack or bang sounded – it had been broken for years.
I threw it in a pile along with all the other useless things we’d found.