Belfast Telegraph

Amid the horror, we Troubles kids built a normality

By Gail Walker

What a fantabulous afternoon I had on Saturday. A walk round Lurgan Park with my old and great friend Stephen Turkington, who is back home in Northern Ireland for a few days. And it was just as if we were still warming our rumps on a radiator in Banbridge Academy shortly after 8am before German or physics or English, putting the world to rights.

Or "missing" the first creaking, freezing Sureline school bus from Lurgan - and missing double biology (oh, the joy!). Instead we'd be sprawled across the back seats of a service bus shooting the breeze, reading Smash Hits and hiding out from, well, life.

And then there were all those years we spent at Queen's University, and the long summer breaks. We both had holiday jobs. Mine was working as a rookie reporter in the Lurgan Mail, something I'd done since schooldays, building up my cuttings file.

But some evenings when uninterrupted weeks of life in the sticks proved too much and we longed for the sophisticated nonsense of our city lives, Stephen would drive me to his parents' house on the Lough shore.

Madonna's Like A Prayer album would be blasting out as we cut through the gloaming along the undulating narrow roads reclaimed years back from the waters. And then we'd head out in the boat on the still water at dusk. I can still hear the waves lapping all around us; Stephen having a sneaky Woodbine, its bright little tip going back and forwards through the dusk as we watched the lights going on in his home back on the shore.

We'd be talking, talking, talking. Just like on Saturday when we circled the park lake then headed into town for a coffee. And always the years just fall away into space. We have such a bedrock of shared experiences, big moments, our own hinterland.

We turn over the names of old friends, like signposts that rush up to meet us on the road. I love that we don't see each other for ages, but it's like we last met up yesterday.

Way back then we listened to an awful lot of James Taylor, too, and that seems peculiarly apt as the years have rolled by. "Person to person and man to man, I'm back in touch with my long lost friend/Listen to reason and understand and think of me from way back when."

I love that Stephen knew my Dad; knew me and my Dad and the dynamic of that relationship and, indeed, of "our house".

I love that when I put some of this up on Facebook on Saturday night with a picture of the pair of us, other schoolfriends flocked in like homing pigeons.

Like Graeme's salutary reminder of the mortification that came with "missing" the bus, when your mother would drive like someone demented, overtake it, then pull up sharp, bringing it to a screeching halt. Seconds after she mounted her ambush you'd be summarily marched on board to the wild applause and jeers of the rest of the gang making their way from Lurgan and Waringstown and Donacloney at that dreadful hour of the morning.

We were the Troubles generation; Stephen left, I stayed. And as we dredged the past once more on Saturday we took a few moments to remember our Catholic school-friend whose policeman dad was murdered and Stephen's uncle, an innocent bystander killed in a shootout between police and terrorists, and all of the dead.

We remembered the day a huge bomb had exploded in Banbridge and our mobile classroom had seemed to lift off the very ground, its windows rattling fiercely. How the teacher went outside and stood on the steps and looked towards the town... and the growing clamour of alarms and sirens... and we walked out half-dazed behind him.

It was the time before mobile phones and we were desperate for news, to know if everyone we loved was safe. And we were desperate, too, not to know anything about it either. And all those morning assemblies when we would be asked to pray for a grieving fellow pupil and their family.

How lucky so many of us were to make it through, largely unscathed by cruel happenstance. And how long ago all that seems now.

It's like another country in many ways, even if some of the town names and townlands have a strange hold over us, because of what took place there. It's right to remember those things, too, if only to copper-fasten why they must never happen again.

All so long ago... until you wake up as we did on Friday to news of a bomb under a car, to a weekend of breaking news about arm finds. The resonances pull you back to places you don't want to go to.

No matter what was going on around us, for all the morning and evening headlines, I think school was something of a bubble for us. How astonishing that somehow we constructed a sort of normality among all that bedlam.

And that it is those things - quirky teachers, mitching, the great teenage dramas, Bowie - that we turn to first, every time, and not the awful discordant music that was playing all around us.

Belfast Telegraph


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