Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, Episode 181. If you recall, we left our protagonist sitting ruefully in his chair looking out the window and about to take a snooze. But the apartment is empty. Just the lights of Manhattan visible through the large picture windows. Now the lights come up as he re-enters, obviously one of those motion-sensor switches had been engaged. He is carrying a filled bread-roll in his hand. He eats ravenously as he paces back and forth, back, and forth. Finishing his nocturnal repast he licks his fingers, wipes them on his dressing gown and sits again to take in the view of the city.
The gun. I will not have one in my house. Even a replica to hang tastefully on the wall. Although I used to love them. Playing Cowboys and Indians, I wanted to be with the cowboys in every game because they had guns only- not those environmentally friendly, if deadly, bows and arrows. An early memory, before we returned to Aruba in the mid-fifties. The Irish News had an account of the dying gasp of the, then, latest occurrence of IRA insurgence. I cheered at the headline of a policeman being shot. Through the pores, you see… my father was outraged, and my mother joined in the deprecation of my childish glee. They had memories enough of the Black and Tans’ predations in Ireland in those grim years after the First World War and the rivers of blood that flowed in the forties.
Suitably chastened, I took care to conceal my love of that quintessentially twentieth century icon. In Aruba, borrowing American friends’ BB rifles, I was a crack shot, killing lizards and iguanas before my age was in double digits. Under the sea, I would impale reef fish with a rubber propelled spear-gun which I concealed under the house. Kids love blood. Some more than others. I remember being on the receiving end of a BB gun. We were down at Rodgers’ Field where we played baseball and soccer and held track meets. Steve Flaherty, the friend I mentioned earlier, had brought along a relative nicknamed Gordo who was visiting from the States; a gangly, bespectacled guy who had scabs on his arms that he picked at all the time.
We had Steve’s BB gun and were taking pot-shots at this and that. Steve dared me to climb one of the lighting poles that surrounded the field. Do kids still do that? Dare one another to do stupid things? Course they do. I stood on Steve’s shoulders and reached for the first metal rung, swung up and began the precarious ascent. The rungs were meant for adults rather than a runt like me. I reached the top and stood inside the lighting platform, arms raised in triumph. Ting! There was a noise, but I ignored it and started the even more precarious descent. Ting! Again, that noise. Tingchik! I grabbed at my eye- was it a bee sting?
There was blood on my fingers, not much, but blood, nonetheless. I looked down. Steve was trying to take the BB gun from Gordo. Gordo just pushed him to the ground and raised the gun in my direction and pumped it for another shot. It took less than a couple of minutes for me to complete the descent, but it felt longer as, eyes tightly shut, a succession of BBs hit the pole, my arm, my neck, my leg. I ran enraged towards Gordo, Steve just stood there looking stunned. I swung at Gordo, but he had a much longer reach and landed a punch that put me on my back, winded. “Why? Why?” I gasped, crying. “I wanted to see if I could make you fall”.
Perhaps it was that episode, perhaps it was “the decade of love, man,” but I began to lose my zest for bloodletting in the sixties. On reflection, though, it may have had something to do with reality. In the summer of 1969, five years after returning to Ireland from Aruba, I was dreaming in the country, deep in the Glens of Antrim. Lazing the days away, reading Lord Byron and generally being an aesthete, I thought that it would be fun to be among the decadent boyos of the fin de siècle of Pater and Wilde and…I heard it on the radio. Bombay Street in Belfast had been burned out the night before. The latest instalment of the Troubles had begun in earnest. The college I had just completed my initial year of tertiary education at, in Andersonstown at the top of the Falls Road, Belfast, put out a call for volunteers. Emergency housing had to be found for those residents of the lower Falls who had the misfortune to live, at that interesting time, too close to the Shankill Road.
The civil service bureaucrats could not, or maybe would not, respond to the unprecedented demand. I packed a bag and caught the train to Belfast. Other students, too, had responded to the call. My psychology lecturer, at our initial briefing, told us solemnly that, first names were OK for the emergency but that the appropriate academic formalities would have to be maintained when lectures resumed in September. No buses then, all burned out, and barricades going up in all the streets, and Radio Free Belfast, and me, dazed by drink after trying to forget how I had to process, via forms that drain humanity, the sad detritus of lives caught in the terrible text of yet another colourful page of history. I remember walking late at night towards the centre of town, along the Donegall Road, past corrugated iron ramparts, knowing that I might be in the crosshairs of a gunsight. Knowing that it would be something more potent than a BB gun.
I wasn’t brave. Just, young, confused and, generally, drunk. Evacuating people from North Queen Street and running them in a shonky motor over unapproved roads and across the border to an Irish army camp in Donegal, I feared the B Specials, bogeymen to our generation as the Black and Tans had been to my parents. The next few years, a phantasmagoria. Who, but an optimist, or someone not terribly well in touch with the real, would marry? But I did, and rented a house, as a student, off the Whiterock Road. My wife pregnant, clambering over barricades to get to work, one day called into a corner shop and was pushed unceremoniously to the floor as a rubber bullet crashed through the pane of glass in the front door and ricocheted among the tinned goods. We had that rubber bullet as a memento on the mantelpiece for a while: I don’t know what happened to it.
I, protective husband that I was, remonstrated with the local women that night, that I would not let my wife go out on bin-lid duty- this was the early warning technology of the savvy citizens to warn the local brigade of British Army patrols, and she, returning to the corner shop the next day, encountering a wall of silence as she was motioned silently to the counter to buy her bread and milk and sugar. My propensity for daydreaming nearly killed me. I was walking through a back lane towards our digs from one of my last lectures, psychometrics I think it was, when I became cognisant of an alien voice.
A British soldier, my age, was pointing a gun at my head, shaking, as his hands clenched his SLR. I hadn’t heard his repeated calls to stop. I think what saved me from a beating, or worse, was my accent- not at all typical of Belfast- when I explained that my mind was elsewhere. Elsewhere, was Australia. Gunfire was in the air, as my father picked us up to take us for a few weeks back to the relative peace of the Glens of Antrim before we flew to the land of OZ. It was 1972.
Even there, the gun. I remember being with friends from Belfast, in the outback of New South Wales shortly after we had arrived. They were hunting feral pigs and kangaroos. I took with me a guitar, an orange box with rusty wires, really, and on the first day’s hunting, I was given, should I want to join in the sport, a .22 with a telescopic sight. A popgun, next to their more potent armaments. A feral sow broke cover: she was running heavily, sway-bellied with, with… and, as I raised the gun, I saw, through the scope, the dust pop off her flank as the larger rounds pierced her…
I have never fired or held a gun since that day. But others were not so squeamish. No, as the decades turned over, as the calendar pages spun away into time’s vortex the appetite for guns grew until, in Europe, which thought it had exorcised the demons from the Holocaust, a new horror called ethnic cleansing arose and Goran SImic captured it in his poem, The Calendar:
I heard the fall of a leaf from a calendar./It was the leaf for the month of March./The calendar belongs to a girl I know./She spends each day checking the calendar/and watching her belly grow./Whatever is in her womb/was nailed there by drunken soldiers in some camp./It is something that feeds/on terrible images and a terrible silence./What fills the images?/Her bloodstained dress, perhaps,/fluttering from a pole like a flag?/What breaks the silence?/The fall of the month of March?/The footstep of her tormentor- his face/the child’s face, the face she will see/every day, every month, every year/for the rest of her life?/I don’t know. I don’t know./All I heard was the fall of a leaf from a calendar./
Oh, yes…the nineties showed us a thing or two about barbarity and violence. And the strangest thing is: who cares? The victims; certainly, those who can still feel anything. Their family and friends, obviously. But for the rest of us- with a few exceptions of course- you perhaps?- it is all something happening in electronic space, which unlike the Newtonian construct, is not vast, empty and silent, for most part, but babbling and buzzing and bedazzling: a welter of sound and image and exhortation to buybuybuybuybuy…
I, meanwhile, was drifting on my raft, spinning in the choppy seas of that last turbulent decade, as my calendar pages dropped, year by year, waiting for a boat to appear to fish me from the confused waters. My raft, now, as then, an unlikely craft. Buoyed by my family, a few good friends, and flotation devices that I assert, though others may demur, saved my sanity: my guitar and literature and music. [play Oblivion Mountain]
What will he get up to next? I hope he does not charge around the apartment attempting a vigorous dance to exorcise the demons that seem to be cavorting about in his head. He looks around the apartment and seems to be looking for something. It is not here because he now exits stage left, but not, in this case, pursued by a bear, like the unfortunate Antigonous in Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition