Chapter 1 At The Hunting Lodge.
Friday October 4th 1968
-Pure, unadulterated shite!-
Quentin Bega, a first-term, first year student at The Ranch (the name given to St Joseph’s College of Education in Andersonstown,) shook his head in disagreement. He was seated in a bay of The Hunting Lodge, with a fellow first-year, Kieran Costello and Arthur McAllen, also a first year but repeating having had to leave during his first attempt because of what he termed “the head-staggers”. The table was covered in chip packets and spilled beer, the ashtray filling rapidly. Having consumed one round apiece of pints, they were in disputatious mode.
“He’s not that bad”, opined Quentin. “Shite covers it adequately.”
“Yer oul bollocks,” riposted Costello, “his lectures are pure shite and that’s a fact.” To add emphasis to his argument he lifted a cheek and farted loudly.
“Boys, boys, boys,” Arthur McAllen set down his glass and looked owlishly from one to the other, “neither of youse has yet to sit through a full week of Starkey’s drivel. Sure, you’re stuck in this hole most of the time.” He waited for either to comment, then continued, “Solemnly I say unto you, Starkey has plumbed the depths and is now mining, for our delectation, PURE…UNADULTERATED…SHITE!”
As the ancients did with classical Gaul, the lads had divided the quality of their lecture experiences into three. Shite was the term applied to discourse that was of some interest and utility, pure shite denoted material of no interest but some utility and pure, unadulterated shite (which appellation stuck to most of their lecturer’s output) was stuff that held no interest whatsoever for the lads, and was deemed to have little or no utility. That they had scarcely begun their desultory studies in education in no way vitiated their feelings of having gained the measure of this new place (republican Belfast) and their surroundings.
Jimmy Devlin felt contempt for the smart-arses. He nursed a Guinness and watched the trio from across the room. Students! Coming in here with their airs and graces. The old man had been made the butt of their larking last week and now they would pay. He turned to the small, grey man beside him sipping at a hot whiskey.
“Is that them, Da?”
“Aye, but son let it be…”
“Not a chance!”
“Sure it was only in fun, and anyway, the tall, geeky one with specs made the remark-“
“Then he’ll answer for it.”
Jimmy was their age but got up before six to make it to work, real work, on the site across town. He was also nursing a swollen jaw and aching ribs. He’d got off the bus that morning shortly after six at Divis Street and was walking across to the Unity Flats complex, nearing completion in Carrick Hill, where he worked as a brickie.
“Show us your paper.” Two young lads in their late teens were blocking his path
He automatically reached for the pocket of his duffel coat. He’d purchased The Irish News, as he did every morning, at the corner shop next to where he got off the bus.
Then he stopped, “Buy your own paper.”
“We want to see yours.”
It was on.
Jimmy was small and wiry and quick on his feet- and with his hands. He threw his work-bag down and caught the larger of the pair with a jab to the side of the head.
“You Fenian bastard!”
Jimmy lashed out with a kick to the groin of his mate who caught his swinging foot and upended him. They swarmed on top of him gouging and swinging. Slippery as an eel, Jimmy got out from under them using his head, knees and fists to inflict as good as he got. He grabbed his work-bag and legged it towards North Queen Street. His assailants gave chase but he was faster, adrenalin and fear for his life lending him speed.
He reflected bitterly that he’d have to go the longer way round, now that the lads from the Shankill would be watching for him on his former short-cut. And that would mean getting up a quarter of an hour earlier!
“Are you for Derry this weekend?” Quentin enquired of Kieran. He knew that Arthur was heading down to the family boat-hire business on Lough Erne. He was broke did not relish a weekend at the Ranch in the halls of residence without any mates to provide craic for the next couple of days.
“Aye, my bollocks of a brother wants me to join him for the parade tomorrow.”1
“Give it a miss, man; sure you don’t want to bother with all that political crap.”
“Yeah, but if I don’t the bollocky one won’t sell me his clapped-out car at a price my purse will bear.” This gave all pause for thought- to have a car of any kind would confer undeniable status for a student of The Ranch, and by extension, those connected with the fortunate wheeled one. Shanks mare was overwhelmingly the mode of transport for the impecunious trainee teachers of Ireland at that time, bicycles were not uncommon, and, for a dozen or so, their motorbike carved a raucous path through the Belfast streets. But a car! Only a handful possessed one- generally final year students. Quentin sighed:
“Aw, frig! Do you mean to tell me that I’ll be stuck up here on me tod for the next two days?”
Arthur interrupted, laughing, “You’re as transparent as a washed window, Bega. None of that oul flannel about missing us- you’re skint and the thought of two days without your ration of piss is bringin’ you out in welts.” He opened his wallet and handed a five-spot over the table.
Feigning insouciance, Quentin pocketed the note. Barely unpacked, last weekend he’d lost his term’s grant in one poker hand. He smarted at the thought of the grovelling to be gone through when he visited his home in the Glens of Antrim the following weekend. His mother would part with the cash, but not before two days of lectures and phone calls to her two sisters to inveigh against the stupidity of her youngest son and the fact that silly wee blert had yet again scalded her poor oul suffering heart.
The three friends, having met for the first time when they moved into the halls of residence at the Ranch, were already gaining a reputation for unruly nonconformity. The seeds of unrest, sweeping across from Europe where the students in Paris were demonstrating that they were a potent force and America where the opposition to the Vietnam War was gathering force, had found fertile ground in the cohort just arrived at the college where the old system of prefects transplanted from Catholic boarding schools was already being challenged.