The sun was shining and that was good. Summer had gone and autumn, all too brief, was ending. The train slipped out of Botanic and I prepared to return to the place I had once called home.
I walked from the platform to the seafront. The beach had gone. A field of boulders held the tide at bay. They called to me and I climbed up, tempted to run along them all the way to Marino. The rocks had given me peace once; crawling, jumping, slipping, falling. The pain had been delicious; the bruises, the scrapes, the scars, the leathered hands, proof that I would endure. From Marino, I had made it to Cultra and from there to Helen’s Bay. Come the spring, I shall make this my ritual. I shall return to my roots.
I turned away, and slipped beneath the railway bridge, into the subway, then up to pay my respects at the War Memorial. A wreath lay upon fresh white paint and, above me, the bronze soldier stood in perfect detail; life size; his face, his rifle, his bayonet as real as the mud that clung to his legs as he advanced, hopelessly, across the mire of Northern France.
Holywood High Street had changed. Everything was painfully clean; sanitised. Hints of the past remained; a strand of tattered bunting, faded to pink and baby blue, the white now a kind of cream. I smiled. It was a hint of the authentic. Around me, I saw the ersatz; coffee houses, art shops. Flowers spilled onto the street at regular intervals. Nestled among them, the beautiful people sat, smug in the sun, drinking their cappuccinos.
I turned a corner and saw more of the same. I walked and turned again. In a dark and narrow entry, rough men plied their trade. I looked away. It was not my concern. A pile of rubble lay at the bottom of Spencer Street. It had once been a corner shop. I crossed the road and there they were. The Scottish flags and Union Jacks hung limp in the warm air. Every lamppost bore them.
It was safe to return. The tenant of number ______ was gone. I felt sorry for the staff and fellow pensioners in her new home. The war that we had fought and she had won continues to this day. I, the adult, stand between her and the child whose mind she broke. The endless scream no longer deafens me. The drugs have turned the volume down.
The hill was steep and things seemed, at first, to not have changed. I looked closer. Grey plastic framed the new double glazing. Among the houses was a block of flats. The stairwells were no longer open. Vestibules provided an added layer of protection. In a side street, steel shutters hung loose from the windows of a house that was……… no longer empty. I moved on.
There were no people. They had, perhaps, been beamed up by aliens. I saw no children.
The knee-high wall of my old home now bore a steel fence. I stood and stared, but not for long. I did not even look up to the bedroom in which my first breakdown had played itself out and the war had entered its brutal, vicious endgame. The house, I knew, was tenanted, but there was no sign of life, not even a twitch of the net curtains.
At the top of the street, a lone builder sawed a sheet of plywood. I followed the footpath as it curved into Ardlee Avenue and walked the route to my old school. Tall hedges crowded out the pavement. My betters, in their big houses, were keeping the world at bay.
A steep and shaded path led down to the tennis courts. In a different life, I, and anyone, could wander into the grounds of Sullivan Upper just like walking through Queens. A black gate barred the way. I had not the heart to see if it was open. I had become a stranger, and this place a ghost town.
I passed the Catholic Church that I, the defiant one, had openly refused to attend. I continue to this day. I have, like Patti Smith, not sold myself to God.
I had hoped that one thing had remained. It was gone. I had bought my model kits in that shop and crafted them with weeks of loving care to then see them smashed one by one until I had submitted to the invalidation.
As I walked, defeated, down the High Street, a young woman smiled at me. I was glad of that.
Written October 2011