Yesterday we went on a taxi tour of the murals of Belfast.
Our guide was clearly a tough customer. About fifty but wiry and spry, his nose had been broken more than once and he referred darkly to an injury he’d sustained in The Troubles. Despite his appearance, he was friendly, albeit in the slightly terrifying deadpan-kidding style of the Scots and Northern Irish.
“What’s the first thing customers taking this tour ask me, d’ye think?”
“Ahm, ‘What side are you on?’” John ventured.
The guide scowled.
“I was gonna say, ‘What’s your name?’”
There was a long pause and we wondered if we should just tiptoe away.
“Nah, you’re right,” he grinned, “It’s, ‘Are ye a Catholic or a Protestant?’ Well, I’m not going to tell ye. And the reason I’m not going to tell ye is that we want to be evenhanded, so we do. It’s not our job to win you over to one side or the other, it’s our job to show you the sites and explain some of the history behind the conflict. At the end of the tour, if you still want to know I’ll tell you, but I’m not going to tell yiz now.
“Now, what d’ye know about Belfast, if anything?” he asked.
I looked sideways at John, who could write a book on the subject.
“Er, there was a conflict here,” I say.
“No!” he took a step back. “Here?! You don’t say! Not here. This peaceful little place!”
“And, to be clear, even though you’ll hear me talk about Catholics and Protestants, this is not about religion. Religion is dying out here as it is elsewhere in the world and most people don’t go to church. This is about the relationship between two countries called England and Ireland. And it goes back 900 hundred years. Dinnae worry, I’m not going to bore you with all that history now,” he said. “The main thing I’m going to be talking about is the wee conflict that started in 1969 and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.
“Now, I often say that The Troubles didn’t really start in Ireland at all, they started some years before in a wee town in the United States of America called Alabama. Why would that be?” he paused his easy teacher patter to await a response.
“Uh, that was a center of the Civil Rights Movement,” John said.
“Right ye are. Martin Luther King Jr. and others started a non-violent campaign challenging discrimination laws. That movement forced desegregation in the South and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Belfast in the 1960s was a segregated city and the Catholic minority faced housing, employment and voter discrimination. The biggest industries in Northern Ireland were owned by Protestants who employed Protestants. A Catholic was less likely to find a job and if he was lucky enough to find one, it was generally a low-paid, low-skilled job. In 1971, 6.6% of Protestant males were unemployed compared to 17.3% of Catholic males. This was a problem for Catholics because if you were poor you had to share housing. According to local law, only the home owner and his wife were entitled to a vote. If you rented or sub-let a house or if you lived with your parents, you could not vote.
“A group of students at Queens University here in Belfast were paying close attention to what happened in Alabama and they decided to form the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In the beginning, their slogan was simple: ‘One Man, One Vote’.
“In 1969 a radical left-wing group went on an anti-government march from Belfast to Derry. Ulster loyalists attacked the marchers at several different points. And this set off months of riots and serious sectarian clashes. The Troubles had kicked off in earnest.”
Our guide closed the van door, hopped into the driver’s seat and we set off on our way.
“Even today, 22 years after the Troubles, Belfast is a divided city. We come together in the business center to work, eat and talk but we don’t live together. If you’re Catholic, you will live on a Catholic-majority street; if you’re Protestant you will live on a Protestant-majority street. It’s not divided cleanly in two, either. I always say that if you looked down from space with one community white and the other black that it would look like a chessboard.”
“Is there any way to tell just by looking who is who?” John asked.
“Yes,” the driver nodded. “If you look at a man’s eyes, if the right one is slightly bigger then that man is a Protestant. And if he has bushy eyebrows, he’s a Catholic.”
Again with the deadpan.
“Seriously, though, there are three questions people will ask. The first is, ‘What’s your name?’ If your name is Niamh, Siobhan, Sean, Finn then you’re Catholic. If your name is William, Elizabeth, Victoria, Kyle then you’re Protestant. The second question is, ‘What school did you go to?’ Even now, 93% of schools are segregated by religion. Third question, ‘Where do you live?’ Like I said, communities keep to themselves, even now.”
The van was leaving the business center and we found ourselves in a street festooned with Union Jacks. Not only was there a flag on each streetlight, but there were little Union Jack pennants strung between the streetlights like a net over the road.
“Can you guess which sort of community we’re in now?” The driver asked. We felt no need to answer. “Shankhill Road. 100% Protestant, 100% Loyalist. If the flags don’t tell the story, all you have to do is look at the murals. Over there you will see one.”
He nodded ahead and we saw a painting of a giant red hand surrounded by words of greeting: Aloha! اهلا وسهلا! 欢迎! Velkommen! स्वागत है!
“You can read the word ‘welcome’ in every language but one,” the driver said. “That one being Irish.”
“The Red Hand of Ulster that you see here” he said, “Is actually an Irish Gaelic symbol for the Ulster region. It comes from the story of Labraid Lámderg, Labraid of the Red Hand. The Kingdom of Ulster had no heir so everyone agreed it would be decided by a boat race; whoever’s hand touched the shore of Ireland would be made king. Noticing that he was losing the race, Labraid cut his hand off and threw it onto the shore, winning the race. His own hand! Why didn’t cut off one of his servant’s instead? Proves the old kings weren’t as smart as they thought they were.
He turned into a rather desolate looking housing tract where there were brick houses whose windows and gardens were decorated with Union Jacks, pictures of the Queen and garden ornaments. The street was dominated, however, by this proprietary announcement.
“This,” said our guide, “Is the probably the most feared district. And the second battalion company seven is the most feared in Belfast.”
Oh? I thought, suddenly well shaken out of the remains of morning drowsiness (I’d woken up much earlier than usual for this tour). Then why are we here?
“The UDA stands for the Ulster Defense Association. It was formed in 1971 by Loyalists as an umbrella group for several different groups. As you can see, they control this patch.”
“And here we have two associated groups. Then in the middle you have the UFF, Ulster Freedom Fighters. This wasn’t really a different group but it was a cover name for the UDA, which didn’t want to be outlawed. The UFF was branded a terrorist organization in 1973, whereas the UDA weren’t proscribed until 1992. The Ulster Young Militants is the youth branch of the UDA.”
“Er, they’re um not still, like, in operation they?” I asked. “This is just, he he, a kind of nostalgic relic?”
He laughed heartily.
“Oh no, they’re very much alive and kicking today, as is the IRA, and lots of other paramilitary groups. Now, I’m going to show you the two greatest heroes of this particular community. Look to your left and you will see a man who sits just below God in their estimation.”
“Ah,” said John, “William of Orange.”
“That’s the one. William of Orange was a Dutchman and a Protestant. The Dutch flag is orange, and that’s why members of the loyalist association here call themselves Orangemen. When the Catholic King James II of England was deposed in 1688, William came over from Holland to take his place. James went into exile in France but he came to Ireland to try to recover his kingdoms. William followed him here and defeated him decisively in July 1691. The battle that really ended it all was the Battle of Aughrim, the bloodiest ever fought on the British Isles, but for various reasons the battle everyone celebrates here is the Battle of the Boyne.
“Orangemen celebrate the Battle of the Boyne every year on July 12. At midnight on the morning of the twelfth they light bonfires decorated with the Irish Republican flag and effigies of the Pope. This is the view from my house on July 12th.”
He held up an ipad to show a city dotted with large bonfires.
“All to celebrate a war that happened more than three hundred years ago. Now look to your right and you’ll see a very famous guy who is the second greatest hero of this neighborhood. When you hear the words ‘Top Gun’ you probably think of Tom Cruise but when I hear it I think of this man here, Stevie McKeag.”
We looked up at a huge portrait of a guy in camo and a beret. He looked a bit like Prince Harry but a lot meaner.
“The reason he was called Top Gun is that every year the UVF would have a prize-giving and the winner was called Top Gun. The way you got this prize was to kill the most…what’s the missing word?”
“Er, C-C-Catholics?” I sputtered.
“Correct!” he chirped. “Let’s get out and have a look,” he opened the van door.
Do we absolutely have to? I wondered.
“So…do the people living here not mind…people taking pictures?” John asked casually.
The driver waved his hand dismissively.
“I’ve been coming here ten years now, there’s never any bother. And later on in the day, this carpark will be that crowded with tourists. You see those gunmen there, to the left of Stevie McKeag? Who are they pointing their guns at?”
“Me,” I said.
“Correct. And notice when we walk over here, the guns follow us, as do his eyes. The message is clear: If you’re from this neighborhood you’re safe. If you’re an outsider, you’re not welcome.”
I walked quite quickly away from this mural over to a pretty pale-blue wall covered with what looked like the painting of a quilt.
“This here is a mural that is the result of the Good Friday Agreement. The deal was that any street that covered up a sectarian mural and replaced it with a mural promoting peace, that street would receive funding for development. Often times it was the women who took the lead there. Generally speaking, what women want, women get. The women around here put this painting up and as you see there is a fenced-off area here awaiting development. If you look at the mural, each panel of the quilt has a word on it. What are the two words that stand out to you?”
“Um, ‘Love’ and ‘Mother’?” I asked, like the swot I am.
“Well, to me, no offence, it’s those ones down the bottom, ‘Loud’ and ‘Stubborn’; they’re talking about the men y’see. Well, as I have a wife and a 15-year-old daughter at home I’d be inclined to say it applied better to the female of the species.”
“If you look over here,” he beckoned, “You can see the mural that used to be here.”
“Wow,” John said. “An Iron Maiden imitation, but a really bad one. That thing looks more like an alien.”
We headed back to the van. I was watching in my peripheral vision for curtain twitching but didn’t see any.
Our guide then took us to see the most famous of several Peace Walls in the city. This is the very tall (25-feet high), reinforced wall that separates the Falls Rd, which is 100% Catholic from Shankhill Road, which is 100% Protestant. It runs for several kilometers, to the foot of Divis, a big hill that overlooks the city.
The driver pointed to a big gate making a gap in the wall.
“That gate closes at four in the evening and opens at eight in the morning. It opens in time to let schoolkids through and closes after they go home, before any trouble starts. The gate is automatic and controlled by the police. If a report comes through of conflict starting, the police can push a button and close the gate. But even through the closed gates local kids throw stones at each other.”
“When did the wall get built?” I asked.
“It was meant to be a temporary measure. You see, at the start of the Troubles there was an incident on Bombay Street, just here, in fact.” He parked the van. “Before August 1969, Bombay street was more integrated than it is now. There were Protestants living on that side and Catholics living on this side. But one day Protestants burned some Catholic houses to the ground. In retaliation, the Catholics came over and burned some Protestant houses. Pretty quickly, Protestants on that side decided to grab all their belongings and get out. Same with Catholics on this side. Then, when the British Army came over to keep the peace, they had a big problem. They couldn’t tell who was who. They didn’t know the trick of looking at the eyes and eyebrows. The wall made their job just a bit easier. Actually, when the wall went up, it was only meant to be temporary, but here we are in 2020 and it’s still here. I don’t think it’s coming down any time too soon, either. Maybe in a couple of generations. For now, it works. I’ll tell you one thing, though. If the British scrap the Good Friday Agreement with Brexit, I wouldn’t like to be here two years from now.”
We got out and had a look at the wall close up. It was covered in colorful graffiti and names and dates.
“Before, it was just a wall. It got the name of Peace Wall when Bill Clinton visited and was asked to write a message of peace on the wall. The Dalai Lama followed suit and since then, thousands of people, lots of celebrities included, have added their names and messages of peace on it.”
He handed us a marker pen.
“C’mon, if it’s good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for yiz.”
I couldn’t think of anything clever, so just put our names down.
“Has anyone bombed the wall before?” John asked.
“No bombs yet. But if you look up at that rusty mark up there, that’s the stain left by a Molotov cocktail.”
We got back in the car and had a look at some of the murals as we passed through a gate from the Protestant side to the Catholic side.
This was a mural on the Protestant side:
This was a mural on the Catholic side:
We then visited a little memorial garden honoring Irish Republican volunteers and martyrs. Many were women, which doesn’t seem to have been the case on the other side. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries at this point.
A little way past the memorial garden we stopped outside a mural depicting a smiling young man. Inset in little ovals were a few other men.
“This here is Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who died in his fight to gain political prisoner status. For years he was kept in solitary confinement. He was beaten. He refused to accept the name of criminal and refused to wear the prison uniform. He started wearing a blanket and his fellow political prisoners followed suit. This was called the Blanket Protest.
“Guards started attacking prisoners when they left their cells to empty their chamberpots. Sands and his fellow Republican prisoners then started the Dirty Protest—refusing to wash and smearing their cell walls with shit. Margaret Thatcher refused to acknowledge that their demand to be treated as political prisoners was legitimate. Sands began his hunger strike on March 1, 1981 and died after sixty-six days.
“Why the words MP? During his hunger strike, a Member of Parliament died suddenly. The vacancy in a seat that had a nationalist majority of about 5,000 seemed like a good opportunity to draw attention to Sands’ plight. He was nominated and won the seat on 9 April, becoming the youngest MP at the time. About one month later, he died.
Walking around the corner from the mural, we saw that the building was the local office of Sinn Féin.
“I sometimes used to see Gerry Adams coming in to work here. Well, that’s the tour. I hope you enjoyed it. Now that it’s over, d’ye care to hazard a guess as to which side I’m on?”
“Catholic?” I said.
“And John?” he asked.
“Well, that seems too easy,” John prevaricated, “I’m thinking you might have been bending over backwards, I’m going to say Protestant.”
Belfast is a surprisingly wonderful city for running, with no shortage of greenways, parks and riverbank trails. My favorite place for long weekend runs is definitely the towpath, which runs for 11 miles alongside the Lagan River and forms the backbone of Lagan Valley Regional Park, an area of 4,200 acres that includes meadow, forest, marsh, historical estates and urban parkland.
The towpath is a remnant of the Lagan Canal, a 27-mile water route linking Loch Neagh (the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles) to Belfast Harbour. The canal’s main purpose was transporting coal to Belfast. In an era when roads were undeveloped and there were no trains or motorboats, ‘lighters’ were pulled along the canal by a horse, which was led by a guy called a ‘hauler’ .The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn opened in 1763 and is known as the Lagan Navigation, ‘navigation’ being a term used to describe a river whose water is made more navigable by a system of locks . The second part, from Lisburn to Loch Neagh, opened in 1796.
By the 1950s, the Lagan canal was rendered obsolete. But even today there are a few reminders of the old days—a cute lock-keeper’s cottage, an abandoned canal barge and the towpath itself, the trail along the banks where horses plodded towing the boats. The path is now paved with asphalt and has become a popular walking and cycling trail. In fact, it has even been absorbed into the National Cycle Network of Northern Ireland, which explains the silent wheeled ones who zoom past you every once in a while.
The waters of the Lagan are dark and deep, reflecting the varied greens of trees and plants that grow on its banks. Birds are at home here; I regularly see herons, terns, gulls, coots, mallards and Irish magpies with iridescent green in their black feathers. Allegedly there are also tufted ducks and jays (garrulus glandarius) but I have never seen them.
A lot of the riverside plants are unfamiliar to me, especially the pink things I’ve nicknamed ‘bucket flowers’ that grow in great clusters all along the banks. I’m pretty sure they’re the source of a delicious fragrance that combines elements of watermelon, pepper, honeysuckle and grass. On warm August days it seemed each bucket flower was occupied by a bee and I took care not to bump into them or into the pin-pricking nettles on the path’s verge.
My towpath trail begins at the Belfast Boat Club, the biggest multi-sports and leisure club in Northern Ireland. It’s always pretty busy around there, with the tennis courts full and the joining restaurant very popular.
Further along the path on the opposite side of the river is Belvoir Forest Park, which is the only place in Belfast where I’ve gotten seriously lost. After running around in circles for two hours and emerging briefly onto I finally emerged onto a street called Galwally Avenue and guessed my way back into town.
Ever since getting lost in Belvoir Forest Park I tend to stay on the other side of the river until getting to the little red bridge, which takes me over past some restored locks, an old lock-keeper’s cottage and then on over John Luke Bridge. This was named for the famous Northern Irish painter John Luke (1906-1975), who started out working as a riveter in a Belfast shipyard and is considered one of the greatest Irish painters of the twentieth century.
John Luke Bridge takes you past a car park and into Clement Wilson Park. This, was apparently the site of a clog factory until bought by Wilson Management Ltd. in 1929, when it became a fruit-canning factory. Because the factor was so far from town, factory staff wandered around the surrounding grounds during their lunch break rather than going home. This allegedly inspired management to landscape and prettify the grounds. The city council bought the area from the Clement Wilson factory in 1974 and it is now a very pretty park with a paved trail suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.
Weaving between dogs, children, cyclists and hand-holding couples, I eventually get to Shaw’s Bridge, an impressive structure that owes its existence to the need for artillerymen to cross the River Lagan to carry out Cromwell’s genocidal conquest of Ireland. Originally oak, the bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1709 and has remained in its original condition ever since.
When I get to the Mr. Whippy Truck and Shaw’s Bridge, it means that I am only a couple of steps away from Barnett’s Desmesne, which is named for its last private owner William Barnett, a grain merchant and the breeder of the first Irish horse to win the Derby (Trigo, 1929). The grounds include woodland, flowery meadows and a grand renovated Georgian mansion called Malone House. This stretch of the towpath is probably my favorite because it is usually very quiet and peaceful and there are some beautiful old trees overhanging the path. Occasionally I have come across people doing a spot of line fishing from the path.
The next bulk of city-owned green we meet is Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. This is named for a Belfast ship owner and his wife, who was made a Dame for services to Admittedly the towpath skirts its borders so I have never actually been in the park proper but by all accounts it is a nice place covering more than 128 acres, which includes the City of Belfast International Rose Garden.
After that there is a mile of green water. A BBC article says that it’s probably just duckweed but others think it’s algae. I’m not sure, but it’s a striking sight. Along this stretch of towpath there are some cow fields. That’s about where I turn around.
If you are ever in Belfast when it’s not raining, or if it is raining and you have a raincoat, I highly recommend the towpath for an afternoon of wonderful wandering.
We’ve been in Belfast for nearly two months now and I’m afraid I’m getting almost fond of it. Don’t get me wrong, its bad press is well deserved. Even in mid-summer it’s rainy, surly, and redolent of chip oil. The badly painted paramilitary murals, the damp Victorian brick, the predominance of the word ‘wee’—it all gets to you after a while. Even the seagulls are abnormal. I’m from Dunedin, where gulls are unusually aggressive and screechy but even they don’t compare with these mussel-cracking hippogriffs, which are enormous and scream as if they are murderously angry at you personally. I don’t particularly like any of that. Nor did I appreciate the way a bystander completely ignored my bellyflop onto concrete earlier this week, even though it happened right next to him! I told him so too, haughtily thanking him for his concern as I winced away. And yet, the strange truth is that this city has a proud history of conscientious kindness totally at odds with its appearance and reputation. And that strain of humanity is still there, even if it’s not necessarily the first thing that you notice.
Possibly the main thing that struck me after moving here from Portland, Oregon, is that I haven’t yet seen anyone sleeping rough. In Portland, every riverbank and bridge and slope of highway is populated by human flotsam. Confined to rare public spaces, they subsist where they can forming a straggling alternative city along bike lanes and rivers, half-invisible until respectable people complain about their unsightly existence. Actually, in Vancouver, Auckland, Rome, Bueños Aires and London you also see people sleeping on the streets, the same official irritation with their despair. Maybe there is a tent city Belfast and I just haven’t seen it, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but it’s a noticeable difference for a visitor.
As you can see from the map, Belfast is bluntly divided into the four compass directions. The downtown area, fitting into the white D shape, is densely commercial, with the predictable global franchises, gift shops and a few prominent expensive sculptural reminders of the Good Friday Peace Agreement plonked down where tourists can’t miss them. This one, standing over the River Lagan, is ‘The Beacon of Hope’ by Andy Scott, otherwise known as ‘Nuala with the Hula’.
A little further along the river bank you see ‘The Big Fish’ by John Kindness, a representation of the Salmon of Knowledge bradán feasa, a figure of Irish legend that got smart by eating hazelnuts.
Then in Arthur Square, a popular spot for street preachers, we have ‘The Spirit of Belfast’ by Dan George. It is supposed to represent the twin industries of linen and ship-building on which the city was built, but locals call it ‘Onion Rings’.
The main shopping center, Victoria Square Shopping Center is topped with a dome that allegedly offers a 360-degree view of the city, though it has been closed for several months due to covid-19 precautions.
Despite these splashy and fairly unconvincing modernities, the great heart of Old Belfast remains in evidence, particularly in the narrow alleys known entries that connect the main streets. In the eighteenth century, when Belfast was known as ‘Linenopolis’, this area was packed with the people who worked in the factories, drank in the pubs and worshipped at various churches (Catholic, Anglican, Church of Ireland, Free Presbyterian…). According to many people, it was in the entries were where modern Belfast really began.
Joy’s Entry holds a particularly honored position as it is named for Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the remarkable Society of United Irishmen. Founded in 1798 and inspired by the French and American Revolutions and Scottish Enlightenment, this was a sworn society committed to equal representation of all men (no matter what their religion) in a national government. In doing this, they were rebelling against the British Crown’s policy of repressing and dispossessing Ireland’s Catholic majority. Interestingly, the Society of United Irishmen were almost all wealthy Presbyterians. Himself the son of two industrialist families, McCracken helped organize a nation-wide rebellion, for which he was swiftly arrested. In 1798, refusing to give up the names of other United Irishmen leaders, he was court martialled and hanged in Corn Market at the age of 30.
Henry Joy’s sister Mary Ann (1770-1866) was just as impressive. She fought all her life for political equality for women and for women’s rights in general. She campaigned for children’s welfare and for prison and social reform. Passionate about abolition, she refused to eat sugar and as an elderly woman stood on the docks at Belfast Harbor handing out pamphlets detailing the evils of slavery. As the co-owner of a Muslin factory, she refused to lay off staff during an economic downturn, preferring to eat the costs herself because she knew the workers had nowhere else to go.
Thomas McCabe (1739-1820), another member of the Society of United Urishmen, was also a strong proponent of abolition. He opposed the plans of Waddell Cunningham, the founding President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and owner of sugar estates in the West Indies, who wished to form a slave-trading company based in Belfast. In 1786, when Cunningham held a meeting in the Exchange to establish the Belfast Slave-Ship company, McCabe walked there from his shop and made a fiery speech, famously declaring, “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.” And he had enough influence to sink the venture before it began.
Speaking of local heroes, almost daily I pass by a Victorian-era water fountain erected by public subscription to the memory of Francis Anderson Calder (1787-1855). Although he was a Commander of the Royal Navy and saw some ‘warm conflicts’ , that’s not why the city built a funny-shaped fountain to his memory. His real claim to fame is his involvement in the Belfast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Thanks to his efforts, water troughs were built throughout the city for the refreshment of horses, a measure that was later adopted throughout the United Kingdom.
Finally, a taxi driver wised me up to Professor Frank Pantridge. I was in the taxi on my way to the dentist saying (lying) that I didn’t know anything about Belfast. Helpfully my driver (who coincidentally had the same dentist) explained that this was the home of Van Morrison, C.S. Lewis, George Best, the Titanic and Defibrillator.
“Is that a band?” I asked.
“No, the defibrillator,” he explained helpfully and left it at that.
After some research, I have divined that Professor Frank Pantridge did not actually invent the defibrillator, but he did come up with the idea of making a portable version that could be used as soon as possible after a cardiac arrest, when it would be most effective. The first version, which was able to run off a car’s batteries, was produced in 1965.
The funny thing is, this is not even the most remarkable thing about Pantridge’s life. As it happens, he was a Prisoner of War in World War II and was forced to work on the Burmese/Thailand railway. He developed a severe thiamin deficiency called beriberi and was extremely weak on his return to Belfast. In spite of this, he managed to complete his medical degree and to study the heart, partly motivated by his own experience of beriberi, which (among other nasty things) weakens the cardiac system. Thanks to him, we have a piece of equipment that has saved thousands of lives.
I guess the point of this post is that a lot of great people have lived here. The next time Belfast’s rain gets up my nose, I will clench my teeth, look to the sky and murmur the names of these five paragons of the Prickly City, “Henry, Mary Ann, Thomas, Francis and Frank, remembered be thy names!”
Conflict is a sine non qua of fiction and war has been a central concern of story tellers for millennia. From Gilgamesh to “Nefarious War” by Li Po to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we humans are fascinated by tales of struggle, trauma, death and survival.It is no surprise, therefore, that the Northern Irish conflict known as The Troubles should yield its share of stories.
This is experimental novel set in Belfast in the 1970s won the Man-Booker Prize in 2018. The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old girl who is stalked by an older paramilitary figure, ‘Milkman’. Anna Burns was born in Belfast. Her first novel No Bones (2001) is an account of a girl’s life growing up in a dysfunctional family during The Troubles in the 1980s.
This novel tells the story of a reunion of three Northern Irish sisters shortly before the ceasefire of 1994. It explores their shared memories of childhood and growing up during the Troubles, providing a compelling picture of Northern Irish history in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Deirdre Madden was born in County Antrim and many of her novels focus on the turmoil of the north. Her 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness (1996).
Former paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims and vows to assuage his guilt by targeting those he ultimately blames for their deaths: politicians, security forces, street thugs and bystanders. His vendetta threatens to derail the peace process and everyone wants him gone. David Campbell, a double agent, accepts the hitman job, for his own reasons. The Twelve (published in the USA as The Ghosts of Belfast) was Neville’s debut novel. He has since published six more critically acclaimed books, mostly set in Belfast.
Adrian McKinty is probably best known for The Chain, a kidnapping thriller set in Masachusetts. But he also has a famous series of crime novels set in Belfast during the Troubles, starring Royal Ulster Constabulary Sergeant Sean Duffy. The first of these books was The Cold, Cold Ground (2012). He said of the novel, “It didn’t sell very well, but it ended up getting the best reviews of my career. I got shortlisted for an Edgar, won a couple of awards, and so then that set me on that path for the next six years of reluctantly, kind of being dragged into writing about Northern Ireland in the 1980s.”
Miles Flint is a surveillance officer for MI5. He is sent to Belfast to witness what he believes is going to be the arrest of some PIRA members. However, he discovers that he is really going to participate in the assassination of the Irishmen and that his own life is at risk.
Scotsman Ian Rankin is one of the big names of crime fiction, of course, but he is better known for his Detective Inspector Rebus novels, which are set in and around Edinburgh.
Alex Connolly is either schizophrenic or really does have a 9,000-year-old demon for a best friend. It’s up to child psychiatrist Anya to find out. The novel touches on the legacy of trauma in terms of mental health. Author CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast and published her first novel, the best-selling The Guardian Angel’s Journey in 2009.
In 1969, as Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, a man and his wife struggle to keep their romantic secrets buried in the past. Michèle Forbes was born in Belfast but has been based in Dublin since her university days. Apart from being a writer, she has a distinguished acting career. Ghost Moth was her debut novel and she has also published some award-winning short stories and another novel, Edith & Oliver (2017).
A retired couple originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland decide to go for a little holiday. In Amsterdam, between sight-seeing, they take stock of their lives, with the result that fissures form, frustrations bubble up and memories and scars from the Troubles start to ache again. Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast but has lived in Scotland since the seventies. He has published five novels and five collections of short stories.
Saoirse is the daughter of a member of the RUC and her mother is a Catholic from Donegal who struggles to cope with the sectarian pressures of life in Belfast in the 1980s and turns to drink. It is only when she is a teenager that she discovers what tore her family apart. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Belfast and has written three novels and several plays.
Young British Army Officer Charles Thoroughgood is deployed on his first tour of duty in Armagh and Belfast at the height of The Troubles. The experience leaves him disenchanted with army life, to say the least.
Alan Judd is the pseudonym of Alan Edwin Petty, a former diplomat and soldier who now works as a security analyst and writer. A Breed of Heroes was made into a BBC television film in 1996 and a sequel, Legacy, was published in 2001.
In hindsight, Sarah may have seen a handsome guy pulling a purple suitcase through the departures lounge that morning, but if she did, it made no lasting impression. The people around her did not register as individuals but rather as elements of the great shimmering international swell, the commotion and spectacle of Guangzhou Airport. They were all chorus members in a great Broadway show in which she was the heroine, a small-town Australian girl preparing to step into the great adventure of her life—her ‘overseas experience’.
Just that morning she’d said hooroo to her granddad in Merimbula, taken a short hop to Sydney then flown from Sydney to Guangzhou, which she knew nothing about except it was in China. It was the first foreign country she’d ever been to (if going to the airport counted), so it felt as if she’d already gone through the looking glass and landed in a strange alternative world.
Two hours later, seated at Gate A129, she was writing assiduously in her diary: In transit at Guangzhou. Only two legs to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Bloomingdale’s, eat a hotdog, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.
She chewed on the end of her pencil, wondering what that ‘someone amazing’ might be like. Would he have red hair? Or dark? Would he be more artistic or sporty? On the whole, she preferred artistic. Muscles did nothing for her. What kind of music would he be into? Anything, probably, except country. She was rudely shaken out of this interesting reverie by an announcement:
“Calling passenger Sarah Jellico, please come to Gate A126. This is the final announcement for passenger Sarah Jellico.”
Looking at her boarding pass in dismay, she realized she’d been waiting at the wrong gate. Grabbing her old backpack, she scrambled to reach the gate just in time.
In row 15, Alex Huang (the owner of a purple suitcase) sat uncomfortably wedged between a giant man who smelled like cabbage and an elderly woman who poked him with her elbow every time she held a newspaper crossword up to her face. He was ready for the flight to be over when it hadn’t even begun. There was some hold-up. Why was it taking so long?
The reason for the delay suddenly came hurtling down the aisle, apologizing blithely as she accidentally smacked other passengers in the face with her bag. Although Alex had to admit that the girl was technically attractive, with honey-colored curls and smattering of freckles across her nose, his main feeling was annoyance. As she flung her bag in the overhead locker, three books fell out, one of them hitting the crossword lady on the knee. This involved further delay and Alex (along with the rest of the passengers) watched with irritation as she scrambled to collect her scattered belongings.
To his dismay, Alex noticed that the only empty seat on the plane was the one in front of him. Sure enough, this human disaster area plonked herself down and immediately activated the ‘recline’ button. Now Alex was not only hemmed in to the left and right, but a cloud of blonde hair was in his face, tickling his nose. Admittedly it smelled quite nice—she used some kind of fruity shampoo—but that was not the point. The point was that his patience was near breaking point.
“Miss? Excuse me, miss,” he said tensely.
There was no reply. Peering over the seat, he saw that she was wearing earbuds. Tentatively, he tapped her on the shoulder. She twitched as if shaking off a fly but otherwise did not react. Boiling with rage at this point, he pinched her arm quite hard.
“Ouch!” she squealed and leapt to her feet, tossing her head and glaring at him in an imperious way. She looked, he thought, a bit like Boticelli’s Venus if she’d recently been stung by a bee. By now the entire cabin was staring at her, no longer simply irritated but also afraid.
“What did you do that for, ya mongrel?”
“Sorry?” Alex said, confused.
She took her earbuds out.
“What did you say?” she growled.
“I said ‘Sorry?’” Alex replied.
“Apology NOT accepted.”
“Miss!” said a flight attendant hastening along the aisle. “Sit down please miss.”
“I was sitting down until this drongo assaulted me,” she pointed a finger at Alex.
“I would ask that you be seated immediately miss. The plane is about to take off.”
“Did you hear what I said though? This dingleberry assaulted me! How would you like it if it happened to you? What about the global hastag-Me-Too movement?”
“Is this true?” the stewardess asked the general seating area. “Did he assault her?” Everybody shook their head.
“Cowards!” Sarah hissed at them. She then addressed the stewardess. “I’d like to be seated elsewhere. I don’t feel comfortable staying near my abuser.”
“That is not possible,” replied the stewardess, who was now joined by a bulkier associate. “Sit down now or you’ll be escorted from the plane.”
“Throw her off!” a voice called out from row 22.
“Fine,” Sarah huffed, hastily sitting down, “But I’m complaining to the airline. This is a serious violation of my human rights. I’m going to Tweet about it right now in fact!”
“Please don’t use electronic devices while the plane is taxiing for take-off.”
“Since when is that a rule?”
“Miss…” the bulkier steward growled. She hastily turned her phone off.
“And ensure that your seat-back is upright.”
“Fascists,” Sarah hissed, as her seat-back twanged into a vertical position.
As soon as the plane was in the air, Sarah leaned her seat back as far as she could. Alex closed his eyes and pretended not to notice, though a seething hatred burned whitely in his soul.
At John F. Kennedy airport, the crowds were immense and buzzing. Sarah had never seen anything like it before. People from everywhere flocking like birds to this great cultural hub. Despite that little unpleasantness on the plane, she was now in a fantastic mood. Here at last! The air itself seemed alive with possibility.
“I’m actually here,” she whispered.
The immigration line was very long but she didn’t even mind. As she gazed at all the faces, the time passed quickly. Then, over in the U.S. Citizens line, she noticed the handsome Chinese guy who’d been sitting behind her. Grimacing, she thought it was a shame that such a poisonous snake was so good looking. His T-shirt hugged his torso as if it had been painted on, and his biceps were annoyingly bulky. Probably spent hours in the gym looking at himself, what a wanker.
Sarah strode forward, handing the border guard her passport.
“How long will you be staying in the United States?”
“What is the nature of your work?”
“I’ll be nannying for a family in Manhattan,” she said. “The Dixons. Do you know them?”
“No ma’am. May I see your working visa?”
She handed it over.
“They seem like really nice people. So goodlooking. The dad is loaded. And the kids are unbelievably cute. The daughter—she’s five—has these Shirley Temple ringlets–”
“What is the address you will be staying at?”
She gave the address.
“It’s really near Central Park. I’m hoping to see it while I’m there, maybe go see Cats. I’m a big fan of the theater, which is why New Yo—”
The border guard handed her back her passport.
The final step was getting her suitcase. Skipping over to the conveyor belt, she once more spotted that vile excrescence who’d been sitting behind her.
“Well, at least I’ll never have to see him again,” she thought huffily before grabbing a silver Samsonite suitcase off the conveyor belt and hauling it away to the exit.
Waiting for her in the foyer with a sign reading ‘Miss Sarah Jellico’ was a man in a fancy chauffeur uniform.
“Hello!” she beamed. “I’m Sarah.”
“Hello,” he said. “May I see your identification please?”
“Er…OK,” she showed him her passport. He examined it carefully, then nodded. “This way.”
When Alex finally made it to his mother’s house in Queens, he was exhausted. Much to his mother’s disappointment, he didn’t even want dinner.
“You OK, honey? You have a fever?” She touched his forehead. It was unlike her son to turn down clay pot rice.
“No thanks ma, I’m not hungry. I’m just really tired. There was an idiot on the plane in front of me and—well, I’d rather just go to bed.”
“Shall I bring you chicken noodle soup?”
“No, I’m not hungr—” seeing the steely determination in her eyes, he immediately corrected himself, “Well, can you make some ginger milk pudding?”
She nodded, satisfied, and patted him on the cheek.
He hauled his suitcase upstairs. For some reason it seemed much heavier than usual. Maybe he really was getting sick. Considering all the weight training he’d been doing, he can’t have lost so much conditioning so quickly!
When he got to his room, he went to unlock the suitcase and noticed the key didn’t fit. Then he realized that the suitcase wasn’t even locked. Flinging open the lid, he stood and stared for a full ten seconds.
His subsequent cry of anguish echoed throughout the house. Twenty seconds later, his mother was knocking at his door.
“Alex? Are you OK honey?”
Alex gritted his teeth.
“It’s OK, ma, I just stubbed my toe.”
In fact, this was true. Realizing he had taken someone else’s luggage had been the last straw. It prompted him to kick the wall with a bare foot.
Groaning quietly, he stared at the open suitcase and wondered what to do. Inspecting the exterior, he could see no name tag. The only thing to do was to search the contents for something that might yield clues.
The first thing he noticed was that the owner clearly identified as a woman. The reason the suitcase had weighed so much was that it was packed with a salon’s worth of haircare products. There was also a staggering number of bras, lacy underwear, dresses and five pairs of shoes. Other items included a battered looking stuffed koala bear, five packets of Licorice Allsorts, a book about Early Childhood Education, a Hello, Dolly! poster, a pair of hot-pink rollerblades and a Garfield alarm clock. Inspecting the front pocket, he found a small hardcover book with Vincent van Gogh’s A Starry Night on the cover. Opening it, he realized it was a diary.
Sarah felt a bit glum. The chauffeur, Mr. Maduro, had been extremely serious. At first, she assumed he was just shy and therefore resolved to charm him with enthusiastic chat. She’d gushed about how much she was looking forward to meeting the family and baking cheesymite scrolls and pavlovas. She wanted to teach the kids all kinds of games and songs. Then she’d tried to get his opinion of good places to hang out in the city—bars, clubs, shows, things of that nature.
Finally, he’d cut her short.
“Miss, I think you have the wrong idea. I’m gonna tell you this once and it’s just between you and me: This will not be a vacation for you. You will not be going to bars. You will not be fraternizing with the family. There is a chef—you will not be allowed in the kitchen. You are here to work, that’s it. Understand?”
“But—” she started to speak, then stopped. Clearly this man was disaffected. Perhaps he’d had a bad childhood or something. There was no use talking with someone like that, they’d see the worst in everything.
“Oh,” she nodded, “I see.”
“Yes,” he said, warming to his subject. “You have to think of the family like a big company, OK? Like Walmart. You’re an employee. You do your job. You do not share anything personal, you do not show weakness of any kind or they will cut you down, squeeze the blood out of you and drink it like vampires.”
“Sheesh. That seems a bit harsh.”
“Harsh?” he laughed bitterly. “Yes, it’s harsh, believe me. Watch your back. Don’t give them any excuse to take advantage.”
“Um, but, Mr. Maduro? With all due respect, I’m the nanny. I’m working with children so I have to be a bit emotional and personal. Also, the whole reason I came here was to see the Big Apple! How could I possibly miss Broadway?” she snorted.
“Just wait,” he said ominously, shaking his head. “You’ll see.”
Now here she was in a bedroom that was small, spotless and completely white. It had zero personality. Instead of having a view over Central Park, it looked out on a brick wall that was also white. On her bed, she found a printed and laminated letter that read as follows:
Information for Nanny
Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.
Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.
She yawned and put the letter on the chest of drawers, deciding to read it later. Right now, this room needed some pizzaz, like for example a Hello, Dolly! poster. She took her suitcase and went to open it but found she couldn’t. After a couple of minutes spent trying to pry it open, she gave up and gave the thing a closer look. At that point she noticed a tag attached to the handle.
She went to get her cellphone out of her backpack and realized it had no battery power. Then she went to charge it but realized the plug didn’t fit in the outlet. Then she just flung herself onto the bed and started to cry.
Listlessly eating ginger milk pudding, Alex flicked through the diary, skimming for some kind of contact information or clue. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any. He couldn’t even figure out the author’s name. Or anyone’s name—everyone was referred to by nicknames or initals.
Judging from the bits he skimmed, the author wasn’t exactly a brain surgeon. It was all stuff about best friends and what she wore to a party and boys she liked. There was a little bit at the end about her coming to New York, but that was no use because obviously she’d come to New York or he wouldn’t have her suitcase right now. She seemed to have done a brief nannying course by correspondence, but that wasn’t much of a lead.
Then his eye stumbled on a reference to a trip to Bondi beach. The author was weighing up whether to wear her rose-pink bikini or black one-piece. This engaged his imagination pleasantly for a several moments, until he latched onto was that Bondi beach is in Australia. Australia. It rang a dreadful bell. A country where they used special Australian words. G’day mate. Kangaroo. Drongo.
Sick to his stomach, he grabbed his smartphone and looked up the word ‘drongo’ in the urban dictionary. It was, he read, an Australian synonym for ‘dumbass’ or ‘idiot,’ e.g. “It doesn’t go in the shed, ya drongo!”. his worst suspicions had been confirmed. In one of Fate’s little ironies, the suitcase he had in his possession belonged to the one person in the world he did not want to ever see again: the bad-luck blonde who’d accused him of assault.
He leapt up and paced the length of his room wondering how to approach this problem. It admittedly pleased him that that young harpy must be experiencing considerable distress without her koala bear and rollerblades. On the other hand, he needed his suitcase. Besides, he felt a little sorry for her. After all, she was new in the country and all alone, poor thing. If he returned the suitcase in spite of her rudeness then she might be eternally grateful to him and consider him something like a knight in shining armor coming to her rescue. Maybe she would even throw her arms around him in gratitude, possibly attired in a rose-pink bikini—but that was beside the point. The point was to get the luggage back to its rightful owner as soon as possible.
And in order to that, he had to read the diary again, very carefully, for clues.
Sarah woke to the sound of hammering. It felt as if each blow was reverberating in her head as if she were some hapless squirrel inhabiting a tree being hammered by a woodpecker.
“Whaa—at is it?” she moaned.
“Miss Jellico, it is time for your interview,” a woman’s voice penetrated the door.
“Agghh,” she gurgled. “Just a minute!” she croaked.
“Please come quickly, you are late.”
She jerked herself up suddenly, appalled. The memory of the previous day came crashing into her tender consciousness.
“OK, I’ll be right there!” she sang and snapped into action. She gave her hair a cursory comb, splashed some cold water on her face, tugged at her blouse to smooth out the wrinkles and sprayed her person with Fruity Fresh Body Mist.
“Right, here goes!” she said to the girl in the mirror. “Time to meet your American family.”
As she stepped out the door, she was met by a worried looking woman in a crisply ironed maid’s uniform, complete with white cap.
“Hello,” Sarah said, “Are you the mum?”
“No, I’m the maid. My name’s Mina.”
“Hi!” Sarah stuck out her hand. Mina did not respond.
“Please come quickly, Mrs. Dixon and the children are waiting.”
Sarah followed Mina along a corridor into a living room where everything was eggshell white—the carpet, the walls, the furniture, even the flat-screen television. It made Sarah blink a little. When her vision came into focus, she saw three figures—a woman, a girl of about five and a boy of two, all staring at her and all dressed in the same eggshell white.
“Good morning, Sarah,” said the woman in a soft, musical voice. “Please take a seat.”
“Hi. Um, good morning,” Sarah mumbled.
Mrs. Dixon regarded her for a few moments and Sarah started to squirm under her gaze.
“Did you have a restful sleep after your journey?”
“Yes, it was great! Thanks.”
“Good, good…well, let me introduce you to your little employers. This is Annapurna. Can you tell Nanny how old you are?”
“I’m five,” she declared solemnly.
“And this is Winston. How many years old are you?”
“TWO!” he shouted, grinning and holding up four fingers.
“Pleased to meet you Miss Annapurna and Master Winston,” Sarah beamed. “You can call me Sarah. I’m sure we will get along great.”
Mrs. Dixon coughed gently.
“Actually, the children will be calling you Nanny. We’ve found it is difficult to retain people so just for the sake of continuity and stability, we consider it preferable that every new girl have the same name.”
“Oh,” Sarah considered it. “All right then. Nanny.”
“Did you have a moment to have a look at the house rules we left in your room?”
“Mmm? Oh. Yup, yes,” Sarah nodded.
“And you agree to the terms?”
“Absolutely, they sound great,” Sarah smiled.
“Excellent,” Mrs. Dixon smiled back, each tooth white and polished as a pearl. “That makes things easier, doesn’t it. Then if you wouldn’t mind signing this contract.” She offered Sarah a pen and paper.
Sarah obliged and handed the paper back.
“So. Nanny,” Mrs. Dixon said. “I know it’s only the first day but I’m afraid that you have set an unfortunate precedent.” She glanced at a slim diamond-studded watch on her wrist. “The children and I expected you here an hour ago. Annapurna will now have to miss her ballet lesson and we may even be late for her abstract drawing class. I want to impress upon you the vital importance of punctuality.”
“Sorry about that. The thing is, my cellphone’s on the blink. I do have an alarm clock but it’s in my suitcase and I don’t have it right now.”
“Indeed? But I saw Chaffeur taking it up in the elevator yesterday?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t mine. There was a mix-up. In fact, related to that, I am wondering if you have some kind of universal adapter? You see I need to charge my cellphone and—”
Mrs. Dixon waved her hand.
“As you must know from reading the house rules, your point of contact for quotidien considerations is Maid. I’m afraid that I have a very busy schedule and am unable to spend time thinking about extranea.”
“Little things that don’t concern me. Another thing: I notice you are wearing scent. Please desist for the duration of your employment.”
“Oh, is someone allergic?”
“They are not, but in aesthetic terms it is displeasing and does not accord with the ambient space. Please use toiletry products without scent from now on—they will be provided.”
“Right, roger that. Um. I was also wondering about things like meals. Is there a café in the neighborhood? I, like, really need a cup of joe right now.”
“Meals are to be had in-house at six o’clock sharp, as you know after reading the house rules,” Mrs. Dixon replied. “Lunch will be served in three hours, I’m sure you can wait until then. I’m afraid caffeine is not permitted.”
“Nanny is a bit fat, isn’t she mummy,” Annapurna said, casting a critical eye over Sarah’s voluptuous physique.
“Cheeky little monkey,” Sarah huffed.
“What is that curious accent, Nanny?” Mrs. Dixon inquired.
“It’s Australian. I come from Australia, remember? I said on my application.”
“Oh no, I didn’t handle the paperwork personally, that was handled by the agency. In any case, I wonder if you might tone it down. I’ve been watching a delightful program called The Great British Bakeoff; do you know it?”
What’s that got to do with the price of fish in China? Sarah wondered.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it.”
“Try to talk more like them if you can. Their accents sound so delightfully educated. I would be pleased if the children can absorb some culture.”
“I have Australian culture…I bought some great kids books from there. Paula the Platypus, Donald Plays the Didgeridoo. If I ever get my suitcase back, I can read those.”
“Hmmm. Perhaps. But in the meantime, work on sounding more like Julie Andrews in that old movie if you can.”
“You don’t mean Mary Poppins?”
“Yes, that’s it. That would be perfect. All right, lovely to meet you. The day’s schedule is here on the coffee table. Please refer to Maid if there is anything you need.”
Mrs. Dixon stood up and sashayed out in silk pants, leaving Sarah looking at the two children, and the two children looking back at her, deeply perplexed.
Alex was good at deducing things. As a private investigator’s assistant, it was his bread and butter. But without even a name to go on, this was something of a conundrum. Finding one particular girl in New York amounted to finding a dingo print in the Outback. Essentially, he was working blind.
He went back to the very first page of the diary and started to read.
Worst New Year’s ever. In the history of the universe. I didn’t even get drunk I was that crushed. T. dumped me—just like that–for Shayla Scott. I never even saw it coming.
Well, here I am starting a diary. Here is where it’s at. Tomorrow is the rest of my life! Is that how it goes? Today is the first day of my life? No, that’s not it either. Never mind. I bought this because it’s time to Get Real. My best friends have all gone to uni or overseas and here I am, age 19, with nothing but great hair, $2 in my bank account and a lust for life.
OK, so what if T. dumped me? On New Year’s Eve. When I literally spent the last of my savings to look so hot. As Gazza says, the fact that he even did ANY of that means he is a giant deadhead and it was a narrow escape. Now is the time to get my shit together. Now is the time to dance in the rain! Now is the time to blossom into Jennifer Aniston post-Brad.
I have to have a plan. I can’t work as a checkout chick at Coles the rest of my life. I mean, it’s a good job and I like the people but you need a plan in this life, I need to get out of Merimbula. And that’s not just because T. still shops there, god I hate him. But I also love him. But I’m trying not to.
I talked to Lobbo about my problem. She says it’s important to have goals and dreams. She has a dream board to help her visualize success—I’ve seen it, it’s nice. She wants to work in fashion and stuff so she’s posted arty pictures of classic dresses and shoes from old issues of Vogue, a really artistic sketch of the Eiffel Tower and inspiring words.
She says the thing you have to do is decide what you really want, then just create a beautiful image of it to put in your room so that you can see every day and it’ll inspire you to move ahead and live your True Reality.
Couldn’t stop thinking about T. How could he do that to me? We were together for three months, that’s practically married at our age. And now I’m wondering if he was hooking up with other people while we were together because now G. says that that absolute skank Shayla is five months pregnant. She was his girlfriend before we were together and now I’m wondering if he ever even really stopped seeing her even while he was seeing me???? When G. told me she was having a sprog, I said I have to ask him if it’s true. I was this close to driving over his place and confronting him. G. and L. physically restrained me and we ended up just having mojitos and remembering school days. School seems so long ago now. But they left and now I feel bad again. How am I ever going to get over this.
So I spent two hours figuring out a goal. I realized that ever since I was little I really wanted to see New York. And I also love kids and want to have maybe 5 kids or maybe more, so what could be more perfect than nannying in New York? Several birds with one stone:
Get the hell out of Merimbula
Get work experience
Get ankle-biter experience
Meet someone new who won’t treat me so bad
Strangely moved, Alex read avidly through Sarah’s record of digging herself out of the pit of despair, of signing up for the nanny course, making new friends, feeling confident and planning for her trip. Then he came to the final entry:
Only one leg to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Macy’s, eat a hotdog, ride the Subway, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.
Closing the diary, it occurred to Alex that she must have written this at Guangzhou Airport, just before they saw each other for the first time. He felt the tingle of Fate’s slipper walking over his grave. It was ordained that he would return the book to her and she would realize he, Alex Huang, was the New York Someone she longed to meet. And that T. was a pathetic wrinkled anchovy.
And now he had a lead. She’d worked at a place called Coles in another place in Merimbula. With him it was a matter of moments before he was on the phone.
“Hello? Are you the manager of Coles? Hello. My name is Tillman Harper and I would like to make a complaint about one of your staff. I was in there on—” he paused to squint at the diary—“last Friday and there was a young lady there who was very rude to me. Why didn’t I mention it at the time? Well, that’s a good question. I tried not to make a fuss at the time but it has since festered so, here I am. Anyway, I don’t know this young lady’s name, but she is about five foot eight with long curly blonde hair and a few freckles on her nose. What’s that? You say you know her? She’s done this sort of thing before? And she no longer works with you? Ah. What’s her name please? You see, I’m so traumatized by the incident that I would like to talk to her about it. Sarah…Jellico. I see. Oh, she left for America? Well, that’s too bad, I would have liked to give her a piece of my mind. Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.”
Alex smiled with satisfaction. From now on, it would be a cinch.
Sarah had had one of the worst days of her life. Truly, almost as bad as New Year’s Day when she’d cried her eyes out over Tristan licking Shayla’s tonsils at midnight.
There were so many ways it was bad.
The kids were like something out of a horror movie, especially the little girl. She had that kind of doll-like appearance and preternatural self-possession that made Sarah feel like she was constantly being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Every time Sarah deviated from any ‘house rule’ Annapurna was right behind her, making a mental note so she could report back to the Big Chief. Little Winston had a sunnier, more carefree personality but he reveled in getting himself into potentially suicidal situations. Like a moth to the flame, he was drawn to sharp objects, electrical appliances, the balcony, plastic bags. Even apparently harmless things, like his stuffed ‘sheepie’ was a hazard—Sarah caught him stuffing it into his mouth and turning a pretty shade of blue. When she took it away from him, he started bawling at the top of his lungs.
After a couple of hours of this, she was relieved to hear Mina announce that lunch was ready. This was a chance to lock Winston in a highchair and to momentarily distract Annapurna from surveillance. When Sarah saw what her lunch was, though, she nearly had a conniption fit.
“What’s this?” she asked tremulously.
“This is the house lunch, Miss. A salad of raw vegetables and whitefish, with lime dressing.”
Sarah stared at the small pile of shredded cabbage and carrot with a slimy lump of raw fish next to it. Her eyes began to swim with tears.
“Is it, um, a starter? Is there anything else?”
“No Miss,” said Mina. “That’s it.”
“Don’t you like it?” Annapurna asked, with sinister interest.
“Oh, it looks delicious!” Sarah said. “Why don’t you eat up your soup before it gets cold, dear?”
“After lunch, I will need to get your measurements for the uniform, Nanny,” said Mina. “So I can sew it overnight.”
“Uniform?” Sarah gulped.
“Yes, Miss,” Mina whispered. “It’s part of your contract, you know.”
“Don’t you like uniforms?” asked Annapurna.
“Oh yes, I love uniforms,” Sarah smiled in a sickly sort of way. “Listen, Maid, can I talk to you in the corner for a second.”
Sarah drew Mina apart and whispered.
“Would you mind watching the kids for two ticks while I go out and get a phone adapter?” Sarah whispered.
“No Miss, you’re not supposed to go out,” Mina shook her head.
“What? You mean, like, ever?”
“You must stay at home except for when you are accompanying the children.”
“What?!” Sarah nearly fainted.
“It’s all in the contract miss,” Mina said.
“Why are you whispering?” Annapurna asked.
After enduring a full day of misery, Sarah finally handed the children over to the night nurse and went to her room. As soon as she locked the door behind her, she flew to the nightstand where she’d left the laminated sheet and read the list of house rules:
Information for Nanny
Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.
Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.
The Nanny MUST:
Be prepared to start work at 7am sharp. Breakfast is served from 6am to 6.30 in the kitchen.
Wear a clean uniform at all times when on duty.
Remain in her room when not on duty, unless given written permission.
Adhere to a strict diet. No caffeine, sugar, red meat or alcohol will be permitted.
Never curse or shout in front of the children. Physical punishment of any kind is grounds for dismissal.
Smile and be happy.
Never use or any electronic device except when off duty and in her room.
Never wear fragrance or scented beauty products.
Never wear jewelry
Dazed and sightless, Sarah let the page fall from her hands.
“Sweet suffering wombats. What have I got myself into?”
“Hello, is this Mr. Jellico?”
“Speaking,” said a raspy voice.
“Hello, my name is Alex Huang.”
“G’day Alex, what can I do you for?”
“Well, it’s about your daughter Sarah.”
“My granddaughter, you mean? That ratbag? What’s she done now? Aw Christ, I s’pose you’ve knocked her up have you?”
“Don’t apologize to me, young fella, you’re the one I feel sorry for. If I were you, I’d change me locks and get the hell out of dodge. Lay low for a while until she calms down a bit. She can get as cross as a frog in a sock when she gets the wind up her. I don’t imagine you’ll be any too popular at the minute.”
“Well, if you didn’t use protection and now she’s with a bun in the oven.”
“Wait, no! I didn’t get her pregnant.”
“No? Thank the big guy upstairs for that, for your sake. I have my doubts she’d be a fit parent, let alone a bloody nanny. God help the family in New York that drew her as a short straw.”
“Actually, Mr. Jellico, that is sort of the reason I’m calling, you see. I’m in New York right now and—”
“Don’t beat about the bush, I haven’t got all day.”
“Right. The thing is, I have her suitcase.”
“Why would you have her suitcase?” Asked Mr. Jellico, puzzled.
“And she has mine.”
“I don’t understand. Is this one of these Japanese games young people play nowadays? Don’t you have other things to be doing? In my day we didn’t have time to play silly buggers, we had real work to do—”
“No, no: it was an accident. At the airport, we accidentally took each other’s bags. Now I need to contact her to get it back.”
“Well, why don’t you just call her for gosh sakes? My word, the world is going to the dogs when a young man from New York has to call a duffer in Sydney, Australia, just to figure out the facts of life. You want to contact Sarah, just give her a bell. It isn’t rocket science.”
“Uh huh, yes, but I don’t have her phone number is the thing.”
“Ah, I get you now. And you want me to tell you her phone number.”
“Um, yes. Please.”
“Rightyo, lad. Sit tight. I’ve got it written down somewhere here.”
At last, after a protracted conversation with the elderly eccentric, Alex had the number he wanted. He dialed the number and was disappointed to see that the phone was off. However, he left a message and waited. And waited. And waited.
Sarah woke the next morning having had very little sleep. For one thing she was starving and didn’t want to miss breakfast, for another she was racking her brains on how to get out of the situation in which she now found herself.
She was pretty sure that anyone else in her position would simply hand in their notice. But the thing was, she was dead broke, she knew no one in the city, she had no way of contacting her friends and family in Australia. Even if she did get in touch with them, what good would that do? Her friends were as broke as she was and grandad would just laugh, the crazy old coot. Maybe she could escape and call the cops? But it would be her word against the Dixons, and Mr. Dixon was a big-shot judge! Besides, she’d idiotically signed that ‘terms of employment’ thing.
It seemed as if the only thing to do, for now anyway, was grit her teeth and keep going until a solution occurred to her. Just as she’d come to this conclusion, she heard a soft knock on the door. She leapt up, opened the door, pulled Mina into her room then locked the door. Mina dropped what she was carrying in surprise and gave a little whimper.
“Listen Mina,” Sarah snarled, “What’s the deal?”
Mina looked at her with wide eyes.
Sarah grabbed her by her crisply ironed lapels and pushed her against the door.
“Don’t play dumb. Spill the beans. How do you get around these stupid house rules?”
Mina kept her mouth shut. Sarah heard a crinkle and put her hand into the pocket of Mina’s apron, retrieving a giant pack of M&Ms.
“I knew it!” she said triumphantly and shook them in front of Mina’s face. “How did you get them? You have a black market? You have mules? How can I get in on the game?”
Mina shook her head.
“Don’t be a hero, Mina,” Sarah said. “You think Mrs. Dixon is going to like you carrying these little sugar bombs around? Because I will tell her. Unless you help me.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Mina hissed. “You’re new. You’ll be out of here in two weeks, just like the rest. I’m here for the long haul. I have five kids and two grandchildren in Guatemala.”
“I’m no grass. Besides, I need you. We work together. Right, so what I need is an electrical adapter to charge this smart phone—and I need it by the time I finish my shift tonight. If I don’t get it, then Mrs. Dixon is going to learn that you’re a big old chocolate hog.”
“OK, I’ll do my best,” she muttered.
“Your uniform is on the floor. Put it on if you know what’s good for you,” Mina blurted, before hurrying out.
Ten minutes later, Sarah emerged from her room in a uniquely unflattering outfit. Someone, apparently, had looked up ‘nursery governess uniform, 1910’ on the internet and taken it from there. There was a hideous long black dress with a white collar and white cuffs, all made of some scratchy material. There was a long white apron with a frilly hem and black lace-up boots. There was also a frilly white bonnet, fastened under the chin with a ribbon.
“What have I done to deserve this?” Sarah muttered, looking in the mirror.
When the morning arrived and Sarah had still not phoned him back, Alex started to worry. She did not seem the sort of girl who would ignore a phone call telling her that her licorice allsorts had been recovered and were ready for pick-up. He feared something had gone terribly wrong.
He opened her diary and found the one place she mentioned the family she was going to work for: the Dixons. Apparently they were rich and they lived in Manhattan. Easy. He could locate them in a couple of hours, max.
Except he couldn’t. They were extremely hard to find. There was nothing on social media, nothing in phone directories, no images. Hitting a brick wall, he paced his room and considered. The experience of frustration reminded him of something: looking for someone who’d once been an FBI agent who’d gone underground. This Dixon guy was rich, maybe mega rich. But he wasn’t advertising himself. So what was he? Some kind of top-level government employee? An under-the-radar businessman?
Finally, he had to admit defeat. It was time to call his boss, the peerless International Private Investigator known only as Xeron.
“Why are you calling me? I thought I told you not to call me,” that icon said with his mouth full. He seemed to be eating some kind of sugary cereal, but it was hard to tell because as usual he appeared in silhouette and his features were obscured.
“It’s an emergency. I’m trying to get in touch with a girl,” Alex explained.
“That’s not an emergency,” Xeron scoffed. “That’s life,” he chortled at his own joke.
“I need your help.”
“What is it?”
“I need to find a guy named Dixon in Manhattan.”
“You’re calling me for that? Everybody knows that.”
“I don’t. I couldn’t find anything on him.”
“You think a Judge in the Court of Appeals is going to post his cat pics?” Xeron snorted.
“Yes, of course you can’t find him. He’s not a moron. Evil, maybe, but not a moron.”
“Oh, this and that. He’s come to our attention before. What’s your interest? Oh that’s right, a girl. Who’s the girl?”
“She’s gone to work as a nanny for him.”
“What? Why oh dear?”
“He’s sort of a…what do you call them?”
“I don’t know, what do you call them?”
“Like a …a person who exploits staff… slave driver–you get the picture. Imports vulnerable foreign workers and makes them work in terrible conditions.”
“But surely that’s illegal?”
“Ye-es. He knows how to get around it though. He’s a judge, remember?”
“Well, anyway, what’s his address?”
Xeron gave him the address without having to give it a second thought.
“We’ve been trying to catch him in the act for years, but it never sticks. You know how it is. By the way, why did you need the address?”
“I’m going there right.”
“What’s that?” Xeron dropped his spoon in alarm. “I strongly advise you not to do that. Security in that building is intense. You will not get through to the twenty sixth floor.”
“Thank you, I’ll make a note of that,” said Alex, writing 26 on his hand.
“Alex! No! Please reconsider. If he finds out who you are, he will destroy Bloodhound Private Investigation! It will be very easy for him to do that.”
“I won’t tell him who I work for,” Alex shrugged.
“How can I persuade you that this is a bad—”
Alex switched off the video chat and started getting ready to go.
Mrs. Dixon looked beautiful and pained, like an operatic heroine who’d just learned that her father had just been condemned to death by the tyrannical king.
“Please sit down, Nanny. Annapurna told me something very troubling last night. I want to speak to you to ascertain the facts,” Mrs. Dixon, dressed in a suit of robin-egg blue, clasped her hands on her lap so tightly that the knuckles were white. “She said that you were rough with little Winston. I must remind you, Nanny, that physical punishment of any sort is anathema—”
“What?” Sarah said. “I don’t remember being rough.”
“You took sheepie away from him and hurt his finger,” Annapurna explained in a mature and disapproving tone. Winston pouted and glared at Sarah, the memory revived.
“I do not see the humor,” Mrs. Dixon said, appalled.
“I do not see the humor,” Annapurna parroted.
“He was choking on sheepie. He was literally turning blue, so I had to take it away in a hurry. I didn’t hit him or twist anything, I just took it out of his mouth to save his life.”
“Seepie,” Winston murmured mournfully.
“I’m sorry, but that sounds implausible to me,” said Mrs. Dixon, “But at any rate, see that it doesn’t happen again. Now, the children have a very full program today. I’ve written it all down here. Make sure they get to their programs punctually; Mr. Maduro will be waiting downstairs with the limousine. Any questions, Nanny?”
“No ma’am,” Sarah said. “No questions.”
Just as Alex arrived at the huge shiny apartment building, he saw Sarah emerge. Smitten as he was, even he could see that her outfit was bizarre and unflattering.
“Hey!” he shouted out of the taxi window. “Sarah!”
But she didn’t look up. She was focused on getting two small children into a limousine.
“Can you follow that car?” He said to the taxi driver.
“Eh?” The taxi driver said. “Sorry buddy, that’s not in my job description.”
“I’ll give you two hundred bucks if you follow that car.”
“OK, sir. Yes sir.”
The limousine stopped outside a large modern building called Junior Juilliards. Alex jumped out of the taxi, with the silver suitcase, and hauled it over to where Sarah was helping a little boy carry a miniature violin case.
She stood up straight and looked at him, amazed.
“You! From the plane? How do you know my name?”
“I have your suitcase,” he pointed by way of explanation.
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“That’s OK, you can just leave the suitcase in the limo. Mr. Maduro? This is my suitcase, can you put it in the boot?”
Mr. Maduro scratched his head.
“She means the trunk,” Alex explained, then stepped forward and touched her on the arm.
“I really need to talk with you.”
“Wait a minute! I see what’s going on here…” she stared at him wide-eyed. “You’re a stalker! You deliberately took my suitcase at the airport and you’ve been following me around ever since. I’ve seen movies about people like you. Mr. Maduro, call the cops please.”
“What? No! Don’t call the cops,” Alex said to Mr. Maduro.
“Oh strewth, we’re going to be late for the lesson,” Sarah said, “Come on kids!”
“You’re not supposed to curse, Nanny,” said Annapurna.
“I’ll wait for you here,” called Alex as the three of them disappeared into the music school.
“So, Mr. Maduro—mind if I wait in the limo?”
The chauffeur shrugged, which Alex took to mean assent. He got in the back feeling reasonably pleased with himself. It wasn’t everyone who could have located a single Australian cutie in a city of 8.54 million people.
Finally, Sarah emerged with her young charges. She herded them into the car, helped the kids into their car seats and got in. Thanks to her floppy bonnet, it wasn’t until she’d finished that she realized Alex was there.
“What the bloody hell is he doing here?” she shrieked.
Winston started to cry at the loud noise and Annapurna put her hands over her ears.
Mr. Maduro, intent on getting to Central Park Zoo on time (Mrs. Dixon could track his movements with a GPS device), ignored Sarah’s demands that he stop the car.
Sarah put her seatbelt on and glared at Alex over Winston’s car seat.
“You are going down, mate,” she said. “I have your name, phone number and address. The police are going to be very interested in you.” She fumbled for her phone and remembered she didn’t have it on her.
“Calm down for one second,” Alex said. “In the first place, the police aren’t going to do anything. In the second place, I want my suitcase. In the third place, I have to tell you something and you weren’t answering your phone.”
“So tell me now.”
He looked at the little girl staring at him with wide blue eyes.
“Um, no, I need to tell you in private.”
“I don’t have an adapter for my phone, OK? That’s why I wasn’t answering it. And it’s none of your business anyway.”
They rode on in silence for three blocks and then something occurred to Sarah.
“Wait, what do you mean I wasn’t answering my phone? How do you know? You couldn’t have known my phone number! And how do you even know my name?”
“I read your diary.”
“You—” For once, Sarah was speechless. Alex could see her starting to go into her frog-in-sock routine and hastened to soothe her troubled waters.
“Not like that. I just needed to find out who you were. I’m sorry.”
“You read my diary. You absolute munter! I knew you were the devil incarnate as soon as I set my eyes on you.”
“Look, I know—it sounds bad, but how else was I going to find out who you were? Normal people label their luggage with their address or at least their email or something.”
She glowered but allowed him to continue.
“So I found out you’re from Merimbula and that you worked at the supermarket there. I called them to get your name. Then I called your grandad, who, by the way, is a little bit odd.”
“Yeah, well, at least he’s not a scuzzy perv who reads girls’ diaries,” she pouted.
There was a period of silence.
“Is he your boyfriend?” Annapurna said.
“No, he is most definitely not.”
“Why is he in my daddy’s car?”
“That is a very good question. What do you think the answer might be?”
“I think he’s a jewel thief,” the girl answered decisively.
“You might be on to something there Annapurna.”
“Here is the Zoo!” Mr. Maduro called.
“OK, kids, come on, we’re going to see some animals.”
Alex sprang out of the car, helped Mr. Maduro get a stroller out of the trunk and chased after Sarah and the kids, who were already hurrying away.
With Annapurna gazing at spider monkeys and Winston nodding off in his stroller, Alex finally took the opportunity to explain.
“Look, I see you’re mad at me but the main thing I have to tell you is you’re in danger. I know about your employers. They’re known for exploiting workers.”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me something I don’t know,” Sarah scoffed. “Do you think I’m wearing this Edwardian garbage bag out of choice?”
“You have to quit.”
“Quit? Oh yeah and then what? Go back to my mansion in the Bahamas? I’m completely broke, mate. I can’t afford a Big Mac let alone a plane ride back home.”
“You can come and stay with me,” he suggested. She looked at him doubtfully. He seemed sincere.
“I mean at my mom’s house. Until you can get home. She’d be happy to have you. She likes having people to cook for.”
“Well, that’s kind of you, I guess. Maybe it’s a good idea. But I dunno, you actually seem nice and all but you’re basically a complete stranger.”
“I don’t think so. I feel like we’re friends,” Alex said.
“Yes, sure,” suddenly he saw something in the corner of his eye. “I know what would cheer you up—wait right there.”
In two minutes he was back, with a hotdog in his hand.
“This is the real deal: mustard, ketchup, pickle, the flavor of immigrant dreams…”
“A New York hotdog from a New York hotdog stand!”
“You got it. Try it,” he held it out to her. She took a big bite and rolled her eyes.
“It’s so good!” she looked as if she were about to cry.
“I thought you’d like it,” he grinned. Seeing a large blob of mustard on her chin he carefully wiped it off with a napkin. She looked at him with a promising hint of distressed-damsel-saved-by-knight in her eyes.
“You know what else you might like?”
“Well, yeah, but how?”
“It’s literally ten minutes’ walk away. Come on, you can’t see New York without visiting Bloomingdale’s! And the kids will love it.”
As it happened, the kids didn’t really love it that much.
“I wanna thee the TIGER!” Winston wailed, when he realized they were leaving.
“They don’t have a tiger anymore,” Sarah said.
“I’ve already seen Bloomingdale’s and mummy said we have a glass-making class after the zoo.”
“Come on, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go on an adventure!”
On the way to the department store, Sarah was turning matters over in her mind. Strange, she thought, how you can be so wrong about someone based on a first impression. If she’d only known him from the plane, she would have said he was the most revolting cane-toad that had ever hopped out from under a rock. Now, well, it was different. Only this morning she’d considered life barely worth living, but now the magic in living was back. He had really interesting ears and walked a bit like a dancer.
As she was thinking these things, he turned around to smile at her, which made her blush.
They spent a couple of blissful hours wandering around the store. In truth, Sarah was less enthralled with the store than with life itself. Quite suddenly, she realized, she had fallen in love. The specter of Mrs. Dixon no longer bothered her in the least. Every time Annapurna pointed out the shocking irregularity of the excursion, Sarah merely picked her up to give her a hug.
By the time they got back to Central Park, however, Mr. Maduro and the limo were nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a police squad car and a burly cop who stepped forward.
“Miss Sarah Jellico?”
“Yeah?” she said.
“You are under arrest for child abduction. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
“Two calls in one day? This is a record!” Xeron said jovially.
“It’s about that girl. She’s been arrested,” Alex said.
“What did I tell you? And did you listen? No and no. All right, tell me what happened.”
Alex detailed the day’s events.
“So there you have it. I really need your help on this one.”
“What a ballsup,” Xeron muttered. “OK, I’ll see what I can do. We’ve been sitting on this one for years, waiting for the right time to move. My friend in the NYPD hired me to collect witness reports and he says he’s almost got enough to convict. Then you come in like some kind of sex-crazed bull in a china shop…Let’s just hope this is going to work.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Send the lastest batch of evidence into my pal and urge him to arrest Dixon for unlawful employment practices this afternoon.”
“What about Sarah? Will she be safe? Can you get her out of jail.”
“I think so,” Xeron said. “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll see what I can do.”
Two hours later, Alex was at the family home polishing off a clay hot-pot, when the doorbell rang.
He opened the front door and saw Sarah, with two silver Samsonite suitcases, on the stoop.
“Sarah!” he cried and hugged her.
“Can you pay the taxi driver?” she asked. “I don’t have any cash.”
Five minutes later, she was sitting at the Huang family table with a clay hot-pot in front of her. She had a wonderful tale to relate.
“It was so strange,” she said. “I was sitting in this jail cell and all of a sudden a cop came and said I was free to go. I asked why but they wouldn’t say. And then I said I needed to go back to the Dixons to get my stuff but somehow, all my stuff was already at the jail, as well as your suitcase. The cop said under no circumstances was I ever to try to contact the Dixon family ever again. I had to sign a piece of paper, which I did, and then I was free.”
“Very strange,” Alex agreed, then reached over to squeeze her hand. “But good that it’s all over now. What say you and I go see a Broadway show tonight?”