Fiona Barr, born in 1952 in Derry/Londonderry, depicts a young mother who reads political murals for pleasure while strolling her child through the streets of Belfast. “The Wall-Reader” illustrates Northern Ireland’s tense political environment, where seemingly harmless and everyday activities such as walks, conversation, and pleasure reading can instigate the threat of violence and lead to flight and exile.
‘Shall only our rivers run free?’ The question jumped out from the cobbled wall in huge white letters, as The Peoples’ taxi swung round the corner at Beechmount.
‘Looks like paint is running freely enough down here,’ she thought to herself, as other slogans glided past in rapid succession. Reading Belfast’s grim graffiti had become an entertaining hobby for her, and, she often wondered, was it in the dead of night that groups of boys huddled round a paint tin daubing walls and gables with tired political slogans and dichés? Did anyone ever see them? Was the guilty brush ever found? The brush is mightier than the bomb, she declared inwardly, as she thought of how celebrated among journalists some lines had become.
‘Is there a life before death?’
Well, no one had answered that one yet, at least, not in this city.
The shapes of Belfast crowded in on her as the taxi rattled over the ramps outside the fortressed police barracks. Dilapidated houses, bricked-up terraces, splintered chaos and amputated life, rosy-cheeked soldiers, barely out of school, and quivering with high-pitched fear. She thought of the thick-lipped youth who came to hi-jack the car, making his point by showing his revolver under his anorak, and of the others, jigging and taunting every July, almost sexual in their arrogance and hatred. Meanwhile, passengers climbed in and out at various points along the road, manoeuvering between legs, bags of shopping and umbrellas. The taxi swerved blindly into the road. No Highway Code here. As the woman’s stop approached, the taxi swung up to the pavement, and she stepped out.
She thought of how she read walls – like tea-cups – and she smiled to herself. Pushing her baby in the pram to the supermarket, she had to pass under a motorway bridge that was peppered with lines, some in irregular lettering with the paint dribbling down the concrete, others written with felt-tip pens in minute secretive hand. A whole range of human emotions splayed itself with persistent anarchy on the walls. Messages: ‘Ring me at eight, don’t be late’; declarations: ‘Two bob and she’s yours’; exclamations: ‘Man. Utd. are fab’; political jabs: ‘Orange squash – great’, and notes of historical import: ‘3rd Tank Regiment wuz here’. Oh how she longed to linger under the bridge taking each wall in turn, studying the meanest scrawl, pondering sensitivity, evaluating character, identifying subconscious fears, analysing childhoods.
‘One could do worse than be a reader of walls’, she thought, twisting Frost’s words.
>> note 1 Instead, though, the pram was rushed past the intriguing mural (‘murial’ as they call it here) with much gusto. Respectable housewives don’t read walls!
Her husband had arrived home early today because of a bomb scare in work, as he explained. Despite the bombings which had propelled Northern Ireland onto the world’s screens and newspapers, most people regarded these episodes as a fact of life now; tedious, disruptive at times and only of interest when fatalities occurred. The ‘Troubles’ as they were euphemistically named, remained for this couple as a remote, vaguely irritating wart on their life. They were simply an ordinary (she often groaned at the oppressive banality of the word), middle-class, family – hoping the baby would marry a doctor thereby raising them in their autumn days to the select legions of the upper-class.
Each day their lives followed the same routine – no harm in that sordid little detail, she thought. It helps structure one’s existence. He went to the office, she fed the baby, washed the rapidly growing mound of nappies, prepared the dinner and looked forward to the afternoon walk. She had convinced herself she was happy with her lot, and yet felt disappointed at the pangs of jealousy endured on hearing of a friend’s glamorous job or another’s academic and erudite husband. If only someone noticed her from time to time, or even wrote her name on a wall declaring her existence worthwhile, ‘A fine mind’ or ‘I was once her lover’. That way, at least, she would have evidence that she was making an impact on others.
That afternoon she dressed the baby and started out for her walk. ‘Fantasy time’ her husband called it, ‘Wall-reading time’, she knew it to be. On this occasion, however, she decided to avoid those concrete temptations and, instead, visit the park. Out along the main road, she pushed the pram, pausing to gaze into the hardware store’s window, hearing the whine of the saracen as it thundered by, waking the baby and making her feel uneasy. A foot patrol of soldiers strolled past, their rifles, lethal even in the brittle sunlight of this March day, lounged lovingly and relaxed in the arms of their men. One soldier stood nonchalantly, almost impertinently, against a corrugated railing and stared at her. She always blushed when she passed troops. ‘Locked up in barracks with no women’, she had told her husband. (He remarked that she had a dirty mind). Hurrying out of the range of his eyes and possible sniper fire, she swung downhill out onto Stockman’s Lane and into Musgrave Park.
The park is ugly, stark and hostile. Even in summer when courting couples seek out secluded spots, like mating cats, they reject Musgrave. There are a few trees, clustered together, standing like skeletons ashamed of their nakedness. The rest is grass, a green wasteland speckled with puddles of gulls squawking over a worm patch. The park is bordered by a hospital which has a military wing guarded by an army billet. The beauty of the place is its silence. It has only this. And here silence means peace. Horror, pain, terror do not exist within these railings. Belfast is beyond their boundaries, and past the frontiers of the eagerly forgetful imagination.
The hill up to the park bench was not the precipice it seemed, but the baby and pram were heavy. Ante-natal self-indulgence had taken its toll – her midriff was now most definitely a bulge. With one final push, pram, baby and mother reached the green wooden seat, and came to rest. The baby slept soundly with the soother touching her velvet pink cheeks, hand on pillow, a picture of purity. The woman heard a coughing noise coming from the nearby gun turret, and managed to see the tip of a rifle and a face peering out from the darkness. Smells of cabbage and burnt potatoes wafted over from behind the slanting sheets of protective steel.
‘Is that your baby?’ an English voice called out. She could barely see the face belonging to the voice. She replied yes, and smiled. The situation reminded her of the confessional. Dark and supposedly anonymous, ‘Is that you, my child?’ She knew the priest personally. Did he identify her sins with his ‘Good morning, Mary’, and think to himself, ‘and I know what you were up to last night!’ She blushed at the secrets given away through the ceremony. Yes, she nervously answered again, it was her baby, a little girl. First-time mothers rarely resist the temptation to talk about their offspring. Forgetting her initial shyness, she told the voice of when the baby was born, the early problems of all-night crying, now teething, how she could crawl backwards and gurgle. In fact all the minutiae that unite mothers everywhere.
The voice responded. It too had a son, a few months older than her child, away in Germany at the army base at Münster. The voice too talked with the quiet affection that binds fathers everywhere to their children. The English voice talked out from the turret as if addressing the darkening lines of silhouettes in the distance beyond the park. Factory pipes, chimney tops, church spires, domes all listened impassively to the Englishman’s declaration of paternal love. The scene was strange, for although Belfast’s sterile geography slipped into classical forms with dusk and heavy rain-clouds, the voice and the woman knew the folly of such innocent communication. They politely finished their conversation, said goodbye and the woman pushed her pram homewards. The voice remained in the turret, watchful and anxious. Home she went, past vanloads of workers leering out past the uneasy presence of foot patrols, past the Church.
‘Let us give each other the sign of peace’ they said at Mass. The only sign Belfast knew was two fingers pointing towards Heaven. Life was self-contained, the couple often declared, just like flats. No need to go outside.
She did go outside, however. Over the weeks the voice had become a name, John. It had become a friend, someone to listen to, to talk to. No face, but a person removed from the city’s grotesqueries and colourlessness. She sat on the bench, the pram in front, the baby asleep, listening, talking, looking ahead at the hospital corridors stretching languidly before her. He talked of his wife, and the city he came from. In some ways, remote as another planet, in others as familiar as the earth itself. Memories of childhood aspirations grown out of back-to-back slum, of disappointment, the pain of failure, the fear of rejection in adolescence. Visions of Germany, Teutonic efficiency and emotional hardness; Malta and Cyprus, exotic, crimson, romantic, legendary, the holiday brochures come to life.
She told him of her family, of escaping through books, longing to endure noble pain and mysterious wildness, to experience outrageous immorality, to be as aloof as Yeats himself. To be memorable, she told him, was her awful imagination-consuming desire, even if only to have her name on a wall that would stand for centuries. She told him of Donegal, its vitality and freshness, its windswept, heather-blown beauty, savage waves plummeting and spume crashing onto sheer cliffs and jagged rocks. She tried to paint a picture of the place and tell how forlorn and vulnerable it made her feel, but her expressions were inadequate, her words mere clichés. She felt she had begun to talk in slogans.
Each week the voice and the woman learned more of each other. No physical contact was needed, no face-to-face encounter to judge reaction, no touching to confirm amity, no threat of dangerous intimacy. It was a meeting of minds, as she explained later to her husband, a new opinion, a common bond, an opening of vistas. He disclosed his ambitions to become a pilot, to watch the land, fields and horizons spread out beneath him – a patchwork quilt of dappled colours and textures. She wanted to be remembered by writing on walls. And all this time the city’s skyline and distant buildings watched and listened.
It was April now. More slogans had appeared, white and dripping, on the city walls. ‘Brits out. Peace in.’ A simple equation for the writer. ‘Loose talk claims lives’, another shouted menacingly. The messages, the woman decided, had acquired a more ominous tone. The baby had grown and could sit up without support. New political solutions had been proposed and rejected, interparamilitary feuding had broken out and subsided, four soldiers and two policemen had been blown to smithereens in separate incidents, and a building a day had been bombed by the Provos.
>> note 2 It had been a fairly normal month by Belfast’s standards. The level of violence was no more or less acceptable than at other times. Life has to continue, after all.
One day – it was, perhaps, the last day in April – her husband returned home panting and trembling a little. He asked if she had been to the park, and she replied that she had. Taking her by the hand, he led her to the wall on the left of their driveway. She felt her heart sink and thud. She felt her face redden. Her mouth was suddenly dry. She could not speak. In huge angry letters the message spat itself out,
>> note 3
The four-letter word covered the whole wall. It clanged in her brain, its venom rushed through her body. Suspicion was enough to condemn. What creature had skulked to paint the word? Whose arm, dismembered and independent, had swung from tin to wall to deliver judgement? The job itself was not well done, she had seen better. The letters were uneven, paint splattered down from the crossed T, the U looked a misshapen O. The workmanship was poor, the impact perfect.
Her husband led her back into the kitchen. The baby was crying loudly but the woman did not seem to hear. Like sleepwalkers, they sat down on the settee. The woman began to sob. Her shoulders heaved in bursts as she gasped hysterically. Her husband took her in his arms gently and tried to make her sorrow his. Already he shared her fear.
‘What did you talk about? Did you not realise how dangerous it was? We must leave.’ He spoke quickly, making plans. Selling the house and car, finding a job in London or Dublin, far away from Belfast, mortgages, removals, savings, the tawdry affairs of normal living stunned her, making her more confused.
‘I told him nothing’, she sobbed, ‘what could I tell? We talked about life, everything, but not about here.’ She trembled, trying to control herself.
‘We just chatted about reading walls, families, anything at all. Oh Seán, it was as innocent as that. A meeting of minds we called it, for it was little else.’
She looked into her husband’s face and saw he did not fully understand. There was a hint of jealousy, of resentment at not being part of their communion. Her hands fell on her lap, resting in resignation. What was the point of explanation? She lifted her baby from the floor. Pressing the tiny face and body to her breast, she felt all her hopes and desires for a better life become one with the child’s struggle for freedom. How could she invite the trauma of war into this new pure soul? Belfast and innocence. The two seemed incongruous and yet it must be done. The child’s hands wandered over her face, their eyes met. At once that moment of maternal and filial love eclipsed her fear, gave her the impetus to escape.
For nine months she had been unable to accept the reality of her condition. Absurd, for the massive bump daily shifted position and thumped against her. When her daughter was born, she had been overwhelmed by love for her and amazed at her own ability to give life. By nature she was a dreamy person, given to moments of fancy. She played out historical, romantic, literary roles in her imagination. She wondered at her competence in fulfilling the role of mother. Could it be measured? This time she knew it could. She really did not care if they maimed her or even murdered her. She did care about her daughter. She was her touchstone, her anchor to virtue. Not for her child a legacy of fear, revulsion or hatred. With the few hours respite the painters had left between judgement and sentence she determined to leave Belfast’s walls behind.
The next few nights were spent in troubled, restless, sleep. The message remained on the wall outside. The neighbours pretended not to notice and the matter was not discussed. She and the baby remained indoors despite the refreshing May breezes and blue skies. Her husband had given in his notice at the office, for health reasons, he suggested to his colleagues. All aunt had been contacted in Dublin. The couple did not answer knocks at the door, carefully examined the shape and size of mail delivered and always paused when they answered the telephone. Espionage and treachery were the order of the day, or so it seemed. It was time for reappraisal, for scrutiny of goals in life and the opportunity for survival. They agreed they had to escape for their lives were at risk now. Touting is punishable by death, tradition has ordained it so. The cause and its victory must be pursued.
Their cases and tea-chests were packed in the hallway. Old wedding gifts, still unused, library books hopelessly out-of-date, maternity clothes and sports wear, chipped ornaments and cutlery. They cluttered up the place as they awaited the day of departure. An agent was taking care of selling the house and getting a suitable price. A job was promised with an insurance company in Dublin, and their aunt had prepared a room for them. They told no one in the street. They would write later (omitting the address, naturally), enclosing a cheque for milk and bread bills. Every eventuality was covered, every potential loop-hole filled. Their exodus, their little conspiracy, was planned with exactitude and cunning. Then they waited for the night they were to leave home.
The mini-van was to call at eleven on Monday night, when it would be dark enough to park and pack their belongings and themselves without too much suspicion being aroused. The firm had been very understanding when the nature of their work had been explained; there was no conflict of loyalties involved in the exercise. They agreed to drive them to Dublin at extra cost, changing drivers at Newry on the way down.
Monday finally arrived. The couple nervously laughed about how smoothly everything had gone. Privately, they each expected something to go wrong. The baby was fed, and played with, the radio listened to and the clock watched. The hours dragged by as the couple waited for eleven to chime.
She wondered what had happened to the voice, John. Had he missed her visits? Was he safe? Quickly she dismissed him from her thoughts. It was her selfishness and silly notions that had got them into this mess. She never had a great store of moral courage, content to lie down and accept in true Croppy fashion, as her husband always said. She had never been outstanding or bold, having gone along as peacefully as possible. It was her child who had given her strength, life and freedom from her old self. But would they make it?
They listened to the news at nine. Huddled together in their anxiety, they kept vigil in the darkening room. Rain had begun to pour from black thunder clouds. Everywhere it was quiet and still. Hushed and cold they waited. Ten o’clock, and it was now dark. A blustery wind had risen making the lattice separation next door bang and clatter. At ten to eleven, her husband went into the sittingroom to watch for the mini-van. His footsteps clamped noisily on the floorboards as he paced back and forth. The baby slept.
A black shape glided slowly up the street and backed into the driveway. It was eleven. The van had arrived. Her husband asked to see identification and then they began to load up the couple’s belongings. Settee, chairs, television, washing machine – all were dumped hastily, it was no time to worry about breakages. She stood holding the sleeping baby in the livingroom as the men worked anxiously between van and house. The scene was so unreal, the circumstances absolutely incredible, she thought ‘What have I done?’ Recollections of her naivety, her insensitivity to historical fact and political climate were stupefying. She had seen women who had been tarred and feathered, heard of people who had been shot in the head, boys who had been knee-capped, all for suspected fraternising with troops. The catalogue of violence spilled out before her as she realised the gravity and possible repercussions of her alleged misdemeanour.
A voice called her, ‘Mary, come on now. We have to go. Don’t worry, we’re all together.’ Her husband led her to the locked and waiting van. Handing the baby to him, she climbed up beside the driver, took the baby as her husband sat down beside her and waited for the engine to start. The van slowly manoeuvered out onto the street and down the main road. They felt more cheerful now, a little like refugees seeking safety and freedom not too far away. As they approached the motorway bridge, two figures with something clutched in their hands stood side by side in the darkness. She closed her eyes tightly, expecting bursts of gunfire. The van shot past. Relieved, she asked her husband what they were doing at this time of night.
‘Writing slogans on the wall’ he replied.
The furtiveness of the painters seemed ludicrous and petty as she recalled the heroic and literary characteristics with which she had endowed them. What did they matter? The travellers sat in silence as the van sped past the city suburbs, the glare of police and army barracks, on out and further out into the countryside. Past sleeping villages and silent fields, past white-washed farmhouses and barking dogs. On to Newry where they said goodbye to their driver as the new one stepped in. Far along the coast with Rostrevor’s twinkling lights opposite the bay, down to the Border check and a drowsy soldier waving them through. Out of the North, safe, relieved and heading for Dublin.
She noticed, as the van drove along the Liffey quay that wall messages existed here too. Their meanness saddened her. Wall-reading had been fun, a spur for the imagination, a way to be remembered. All her life she had longed to be remembered through walls, the people’s medium. Now the medium itself was as destructive, as deadening as the concrete it was written on. She had neither the strength of character nor the fine moral fibre necessary to be remembered. Yet, strangely, despite disappointment, she felt glad in a peculiar way and not such an abysmal failure after all. One person, the voice John at least, would deliver her memory to his family and friends, would perhaps pray for her ambitions and maybe even admire her simple-minded ignorance of Belfast’s sordid heart.
Some days later in Belfast the neighbours discovered the house vacant, the people next door received a letter and a cheque from Dublin. Remarks about the peculiar couple were made over hedges and cups of coffee. The message on the wall was painted over by the couple who had bought the house when it went up for sale. They too were ordinary people, living a self-contained life, worrying over finance and babies, promotion and local gossip. He too had an office job, but his wife was merely a housekeeper for him. She was sensible, down to earth, and not in the least inclined to wall-reading.