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By Peter Mills

The Holy Land

Belfast, 1972.  Two girls go into town for a shopping trip, and have tea and scones in the Abercorn.

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Historical, Realism

Story Details

  • Title : The Holy Land
  • Author : Peter Mills
  • Word-Count : 2127
  • Genre : Realism, Historical

About The Author

Author

Peter Mills was educated at the Methodist College Belfast during ‘The Troubles’ until leaving Ireland to read Political Science at Warwick University. In 1973 he moved to London working in human resource management and then strategy consulting for British and American firms including JP Morgan and PwC. He has travelled widely and led large-scale projects for many well-known companies at home and abroad in places as diverse as Budapest, Manila, Philadelphia, Melbourne and Limerick. Peter is a member of the Chipping Norton Creative writing Group, living in the area with his wife in a 17th Century thatched cottage. He has two daughters, is a keen fly fisherman and downhill skier, loves the countryside and yet is frequently drawn to the metropolis. Peter is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

The girl was around seventeen years old and was dressed for a serious shopping trip ‘in town’.  She approached the house of her best friend and rang the doorbell.

‘Come on, we need to get moving.  You said we had to be there before three.  It’s a good half hour’s walk and we don’t want to be rushing, do we?’

She was methodical and careful which made her seem insignificant beside her friend who was by comparison rather loud, carrying herself with a degree of flair and style.  She was a full figure at seventeen, with short black hair, long legs under her mini skirt and as forward as a girl from the Aquinas Diocesian Grammar School could be.




She thought of herself as a convent girl, although that was not strictly true, and wanted to experience everything she could, pushing against her perceived repression.  She read a lot, especially the Irish writers like Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, and even Joyce.  She was no fool.  She wanted to be someone and for people to know it.  She liked taking risks whilst appearing unadventurous – the girlfriend most boys’ parents approved of.  She was up for all kinds of bad stuff but liked to know what she was getting into.  She was calculating.  She was much harder than her ‘nice’ manner and appearance belied.

Although very different, the two girls enjoyed being together. Both girls lived in Jerusalem Street with their parents.  It was deathly dull.

‘We need to get a move on,’  the first one said again.

‘The trouble with you, I do love you though, is that you need to loosen up!  Don’t freak out! We have loads of time.  Today’s all sorted. Don’t worry about a thing.  A trip down to the centre of Belfast and the shops.  What could be better?’

‘You said you’d sort out our handbags,’ she said. ‘So, what handbag am I stuck with?’

‘Don’t worry about handbags.  Here’s yours’ said her friend, pointing at a white rather fashionable faux leather shoulder bag.  ‘And here’s mine,’ carefully lifting a green bag with two gold tassels one end.

‘Not great’, she said, ‘Good job we’re going into town, today. I’m not keen on seeing this again’

She had been worried about Belfast shopping for ages now.  Since January when the Brits murdered ‘the Thirteen’ on that fateful Sunday in Free Derry it had felt different. It was 1972 and things were going from bad to worse. She was well read on Irish history, current affairs and the possibilities that lay ahead.

She felt she did not have what it took to look strong and assertive.  She was attractive in a particular way, fit and lithe, rather plain but elfin and engaging.  She had a shape and sexiness, which would only become fashionable in years to come. She was intelligent, self-aware and had the potential to be powerful.

‘Let’s go. You OK?’

‘I am very definitely OK.’

They left Jerusalem Street in the Botanic Ward of Belfast, known locally as ‘The Holy Land’, walked past Palestine Street and onto the Fitzroy Road.  The weather was ‘variable’ for the fourth of March.  In Belfast it is often said it is either raining or it is about to rain, with sunny spells during the day, every day.  People are always dressed anticipating bad weather or carrying wet weather gear they didn’t need after all.

The girls decided on the less direct route to Castle Lane walking past the university district, down Bedford Street by BBC Television Centre.

Having passed the BBC, they just needed to turn right into Howard Street and left down Adelaide Street.  They would be there in half an hour.

‘We’ll be there by a quarter past three’ she said.

‘That will do’

***

‘I’m going to be a “nipple”’ announced Andy to the group as they walked towards Castle Lane.

‘What’s that, Andy? I’ve always thought you were bit of a tit.’ said Brian, his best friend at school.

‘Nipple? Nipple? What are you on about Andy?  More of your sexual fantasies, I’m sure!’

‘Northern Ireland Professional Person Living in England!’

That’s me!’ said Andy

‘Bollocks’ said Brian.

‘I want to go to Trinity.  Who wants to waste their time in some hole like York or Hull or Coventry … or East Anglia?’

‘There are great places now in England.  Cool campuses, sit-ins, rent strikes, and all that …’

Rosy joined in, “I think too many of these English universities are a bit plastic and phoney.  Trinity is a real university.  Queen’s is a real university  … so are Oxford and Cambridge but I’m not at all sure about these white tiled and red brick places.’

‘Are you going for the Upper Sixth and Oxbridge, Rosy?’ said Linda

‘Not sure yet.  I want to.  But it depends on the results.  We’ll see.’

Andy and his girlfriend Rosy, Brian and his girlfriend Linda had been working on a project with the Community Relations Department.  They had all been studying political science.

The group of sixth formers had signed up to help an old Catholic man in his house in Damascus Street in the Holy Land, normally safe enough for middle-class Protestant Unionist under-age ’Do-Gooders’.

‘That old man’s house was rank, wasn’t it?’ said Linda ‘It was disgusting going in there.  I don’t think I can do this again, guys. I really don’t.  I feel I’m crawling. Don’t you?’

‘It wasn’t so bad.  The man has nobody to look after him.  He really was pleased with what we did today.  He even made us all tea and biscuits that he probably couldn’t spare, didn’t he?’ said Andy.

‘I’m knackered and need a drink’ said Brian. ‘How far is it to Kelly’s Cellars from here do you think, Andy?”

‘About fifteen minutes. Half way down Bedford Street, past the BBC and we’ll be there.’

‘I want a decent cup of tea and a cake’ announced Rosy to all assembled.

‘So do I … maybe sandwiches with the crusts cut off.’ agreed Linda.

‘No way!  After today we are not going to squeeze into the downstairs of … I know … the bloody Abercorn … and drink hot tea and sticky buns.  No way!’ said Andy.

‘Can’t we go there another time, girls?’ chimed in Brian, ‘ I have to have a drink, a proper drink. Not some afternoon tea malarkey.’

‘Okay’ said Rosy, ‘We’ll go to the Abercorn and if there are no decent tables we’ll go to Kelly’s’

‘Deal!’

***

The Abercorn, in Castle Place, in fashionable Seventies Belfast is buzzing.  It is the place for afternoon tea for the modern person.  The Catholic boss Bill O’Hara, has had trouble from the Protestant paramilitaries but has brassed it out.  For most people, the café has become the place of choice on a shopping day.  A safe place, a quiet café where mothers and daughters, couples and singles can meet for tea and a chat.

Andy and Rosy had been many times.  They preferred to drink at the Cobbles, Kelly’s or the Botanic – all cool bars for the 15 to 21 age group living in 1970s Ulster.  Underage drinking has yet to become an issue.  The pressure to behave with some maturity and style and yet not get drunk is perceived by their elders as a positive lesson in Irish life.

The day has been busy from the start.  The café was unusual in that it had a mezzanine floor slightly higher than ground level and a basement floor just below ground level.  Customers had to queue on stairs down to the basement reception desk.

A group of teenage girls have arrived, giggling together before finding a large table in the back. An elderly couple have shuffled into their usual table by the bay window awaiting their traditional tea and scone.  A middle-aged couple have slipped furtively into a discreet cubicle in the corner. Two mothers with pushchairs and babies navigate to an area near the ladies toilet.  A frail old lady struggling with an aluminium walking frame, sits down somewhat vacantly with her daughter who is also grey haired and trying to avoid ‘a fuss’.

The waitresses are all local girls.  They are living on tips, the over familiar, brisk and cheerful Ulster readiness to help ever present.

The two girls join the queue on the stairs.

‘Shit!’ she said, under her breath, ‘I didn’t plan on a fucking queue!’

‘We’re well ahead of time’

‘Maybe we are, but we need to be careful – it’s busy in here’ she said, ‘Relax.  Just wait our turn.’

Table for two!  Table for Two! Announces the waitress.

‘Over here, please, it’s not a great table but away from the bay windows.  Is that all right for you two?’ said the waitress, pressing sticky laminated menus into their hands at the same time.

‘Sure, this table is just fine.  It’s just what we want. We’re dead on our feet you know.  Shopping!’ She managed a smile.

‘What can I get you girls?

‘Could we have tea for two with milk and sugar, and two buttered scones?’

‘No problem!  Be there in no time’ the waitress said, ‘just wait a wee second.’

***

She is aware that her handbag is heavy and is struggling to keep her cool on her way back from the toilet.

She decides to put the bag under the table behind one of the table legs and once they had finished she would simply leave it there.

It is 4.05pm.




‘I think we have a phone call to make, don’t we?’ she announces, rising from her seat.

***

‘We’re wasting our time!’ announced Brian loudly. ‘We have no chance of getting a table for four and we’ve been here now for more than twenty minutes.  I vote we head for the local cellars of Messrs. Kelly complete with public bar and lounge.  Those in favour say Aye!’

Reluctantly the rest of the group agrees.

As they are talking, two girls emerge, slip past them and melt away into the crowds of shoppers outside.

‘The ayes have it, the ayes have it!’ said Brian, remembering his trip to Westminster earlier in the year.

‘Kelly’s is only about a hundred yards down Fountain Street.  Let’s go. Last one there buys the drinks,’ said Brian.

They start to run towards the pub.

Kelly’s is a wonderful old Irish bar full of the familiar sights and smells of drinking and regret.

‘Two pints of Double X and two halves of Harp, please’

It is 4.15pm.

‘BBC newsroom! How can I help you?’

‘I am phoning for P. O’Neill, I repeat P. O’Neill. There is a bomb in Castle Street, a big one.  The codeword is HAT TRICK.  You have ten minutes.’

The voice trails away and the line goes dead.

Willy Rainey is the duty supervisor at the BBC Newsroom and knows the code is genuine and current and knows what to do.  P. O’Neill is the Provisional IRA and the codeword is real.  Time was short.

‘RUC Central Belfast, this is Rainey at the BBC, Bedford Street with a genuine, repeat genuine, bomb warning.  There is a bomb in the Castle street area.  You must evacuate now.  Please acknowledge’

‘Thank you, Sir, are you sure of the codeword?’

‘Certain of it. I am the duty supervisor. It is PIRA and you have five minutes only, less probably’

‘All right, let’s get the place clear.  I’ll mobilise all security force assets in the area.  I accept the handover. Leave it to me.  G’day Sir’

Five minutes later, at 4.25 PM, a handbag containing a five-pound gelignite bomb explodes under a table inside the café.

The walls of the bar in Kelly’s start rattling.  The shock wave has hit the building.  The glasses and bottles begin to fall to the ground.

There is a heavy thumping noise like a massive rubber sledgehammer hitting a concrete floor. Falling glass. Then silence.

Nothing.

The seconds tick by.  Still nothing.  Then …

Bells. Alarms. Screams. Death.

Arms. Legs. Eyes. Lost.

Dust.

Horror.

Witnesses describe a scene of panic and chaos as the bloodied survivors from the café and passers-by stumble through the smoke, broken glass, blood, and rubble.  People are crawling over one another to get away, whilst firemen, on the scene in minutes, attempt to bring out the badly injured, many of whom lie with their bodies mangled, unable to move.

Andy and his three friends pick themselves up from the dust in the bar.  They are safe but weep uncontrollably.

The two girls walk back to the Holy Land knowing they would have to disappear, and quickly.

 

 

END

 

Peter Mills asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

 

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