Stewart Devitt was born in Belfast and now lives in New Zealand. He is an experienced training professional specialising in communication and personal development,http://www.sdtraining.co.nz. He holds a Masters Degree in Management Learning from Lancaster University, NLP Practitioner, from Bennett Stellar University, Seattle. With Professor Dory Reeveshttp://www.reevesassociates.co.uk he carried out research for the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland on Evaluating the Effectiveness of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Whilst still involved in the training field he now devotes more time to writing, a lifelong hobby and firstname.lastname@example.org.
A green hill far away
By Stewart Devitt
Kevin pulled down the trunk from the attic and wiped away the years of dust to discover it was dark blue and not black as expected. How was he going to fill it? Never one for accumulating clothes he had said a small suitcase would be sufficient. However he had been quickly and abruptly overruled by his mother and, as she would inevitably end up doing most of the packing, he knew it was pointless to argue. It was she who had applied for the job on his behalf, telling him he needed to get away to a better place where trouble was not always around the corner. His father supported the decision, although his effort to introduce a touch of humour by commenting that trouble was only a stones throw away had elicited a disapproving glance from his mother.
There had been no interview, just a letter addressed to him confirming his start date and remuneration and that was enough for his mother to arrange his travel and hostel accommodation. A job in the British Civil Service was not what Kevin had envisaged, or desired, and was a far cry from being a professional soccer player or boxer. Yet as he made sure Big Teddy, togged out in the black and white colours of Distillery F C, was tucked away in the corner of the trunk he knew there was no turning back. His elder brother, locked behind bars in the Crumlin Road, just listened in silence when Kevin gave him the news during a weekly visit. His face however said it all, Kevin was just a wimp.
His mother said goodbye at the front door with a hug that seemed to last forever as her tears slid down his cheeks. Ten minutes was all it took to get from the Grosvenor Road to the docks and his father parked the car within easy walking distance to the Heysham steamer. Silence filled the air as they made their way to a single berth cabin on the lower deck, neither wanting to speak lest words opened the flood gates and their manliness would evaporate. After a clumsy man hug his father pulled out a set of rosary beads, placed them in the palm of Kevin’s hand, gently closed his fingers around them, turned, closed the cabin door and was gone leaving Kevin all alone.
The ship docked on time and by 8.00am Kevin was sitting in the London bound train looking out on a dismal day as the rain splashed heavily against the windows. He had not felt like eating breakfast although by the time the train reached Crewe the hunger was gnawing at him. There was time for him to leave the carriage, brush past the newspaper placards with the tragic news of a landslide that had engulfed a school in Aberfan, and buy a mug of weak milky tea and a stale muffin. The unsmiling faces around him added to his feeling of loneliness.
He had been to London before although always with his family or as part of a school trip. Now he was on his own and the place seemed overwhelming in its size, the noise and the speed at which everyone moved. Furthermore it felt unfriendly and the sight of so many dark skinned people unnerved him. A short ride on the Circle Line took him to Sloane Square and as he got off the tube all he wanted to do was to turn around and start the return journey to Belfast. Reality set in as the moment passed and he was left on the platform with his suitcase, walking as if on automatic pilot towards the exit.
The hostel was a big gloomy red brick building and after filling in the required registration forms he was shown up to a room on the fourth floor. There just opposite the door was his trunk, placed at the bottom of an iron bedstead. A small chest of drawers was beside the bed with a reading light which Kevin quickly established wasn’t working. Three roommates stared at him in a quizzical way, offering no welcome or introduction. Kevin nodded at them and in an attempt to start a conversation asked for confirmation that the bed opposite the door was his. A tall, well built boy of around Kevin’s age introduced himself as Brian and a smaller boy with jet black hair, red cheeks and big white teeth said he was just called Jock. The heavy Glaswegian accent provided the reasoning for his name. The third occupant shrugged, said nothing and returned to reading his copy of The Sporting Life.
As it was nearing mealtime Brian indicated to Kevin that he should follow them down to the dining room where they ate all the meals that were provided for them. This included breakfast and evening meal every day and lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Within minutes of entering the room Kevin soon realised that if he wanted to be part of a conversation he had to accept being called Paddy, Pat or Irish. Jock smiled at his irritation and said he would get used to it.
Work in the Ministry of Defence in Blackfriars required battling with early morning commuters as they pushed and shoved to get into the underground stations before cramming themselves into carriages like sardines. It was survival of the fittest and Kevin soon realised that it was futile to wait for the next train in the hope that the crowds would have eased. By the end of his first week he was elbowing and pushing with the best of them showing little regard for gender, age or disability. The work itself was routine, boring and continuous with the only light relief coming from the mid morning and mid afternoon tea trolley. This was wheeled through the department by a lady from County Clare who said everyone called her Molly. She always had a smile on her face and slipped Kevin an occasional custard cream without charging.
In between breaks he took telephone calls from embassies across the world, checked lists of weaponry that were stockpiled at various army barracks in England and gained detailed knowledge of small arms and heavy artillery. It surprised him how easy it was for foreign countries to accumulate arms and ammunition. At lunchtime he usually went outside for fresh air and to escape the well meaning attentions of Madeline, the young girl who kept smiling at him from the desk opposite. At times when he felt a greater than usual wave of loneliness he would phone home and speak to his mother, although time usually ran out before they could have a meaningful conversation. The final word was always with his mother as she told him not to get into trouble.
Evenings were spent mostly in and around the hostel watching television in the communal lounge or going to the YMCA at Tottenham Court Road to read through their selection of magazines and newspapers and people watch. Here too he could get a decent shower with the guarantee of hot water. Supper was routine with a visit to the snack van, parked in the middle of Sloane Square, for a cup of hot Bovril and a sausage sandwich bereft of butter although liberally covered in brown sauce. This was all his budget would allow if he wanted to experience some form of social life.
Weekends saw him explore central London where he enjoyed walking through
Regents Park and Hyde Park Corner, often stopping to listen to the oratory. There he listened to stories, pleas and proclamations from a range of people expounding their religious, political and social beliefs. Those advocating for Irish freedom were regular speakers and Kevin pondered how his real life experience didn’t quite match all the rhetoric of the platform. He still felt lonely, finding some respite in visiting museums and art galleries, and occasionally St Patrick’s church in Soho, where he could disassociate from the outside world and wrap himself in a peaceful blanket of meditation. When he returned to the hostel he would take out the beads his father had given him and wonder how they could possibly help.
Kevin enjoyed an occasional drink although found many of the bars near him over crowded and unwelcoming and he seemed to have a magnetic attraction for prostitutes, drunks or down and outs. He sought out some Irish bars in a bid to feel more at home although found the Bunch of Grapes just a drinking hole for rugby enthusiasts and when he went to Ward’s Irish House in Piccadilly his peace was disturbed by a middle aged woman parading into the bar, waving a Union Jack above her head, followed by an entourage of around twenty Japanese or Chinese tourists. The woman circled the centre bar area went in and out of the Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught snugs before heading back up the stairs to the main road to continue their walking tour of the area. The bartender took it all in his stride although for Kevin it was his first and only visit.
One Saturday night he found himself standing outside Mooney’s in the Strand and as he pushed through the doors immediately felt more relaxed as the buzz to the conversations had a friendly ring. The fog of cigarette smoke was not to his liking although he reasoned, as he would not have to endure it for any length of time, it would do no irreparable harm. A man with an obvious Dublin accent standing at the counter, cradling his pint of Guinness as if contemplating whether or not to drink it, said hello.
The conversation developed slowly, leading to an exchange of names with Thomas being empathetic to Kevin’s circumstances. After all he said London was a big place compared to Belfast and it took time to make new friends and settle in. It was well into the conversation when Thomas asked what he did for a living and Kevin, without a second thought, began explaining in detail his boring routine at the Ministry of Defence, being very open about his surprise at the ease countries were able to obtain arms. Thomas listened carefully, nodding from time to time, encouraging Kevin to keep talking. They had a second pint before parting company, expressing hopes that they would meet again. Thomas mentioned in passing that he popped in most Saturdays, just for the craic.
A month later Kevin again pushed open the doors of Mooney’s. Nothing had changed in his life, the job was still boringly routine, he was demotivated and lonely with little money and no-one he could call a real friend. At work he was Mr Murray whilst back in the hostel he was still Paddy, Pat or Irish. Thomas saw him coming and beckoned him to join the group he was with, sliding over a dark inviting pint. As before Kevin relaxed in the atmosphere and easily entered into the conversation with those around him, one of whom was unmistakably from his neck of the woods.
Another round of drinks appeared as the talk turned to more of a political nature. Kevin listened, rather than contributed, to the discussion and only became part of it when Thomas mentioned to the others where he was employed and the nature of his work. There was no break in the conversation as the man with the Belfast accent stated that Kevin would be able to get them some guns then. He said it with a smile on his face, and the others were laughing, although Kevin noticed an intensity in his eyes.
Later that night Kevin phoned home and as his mother accepted the reversed charged call he had a long chat with both parents. They felt relieved he sounded more content although his mother as usual ended the conversation by telling him to keep out of trouble and that he was better off where he was.