On Being Sean O'Brien's Stunt Double
By Bob Little, UK (Published in Issue 9)
The party had spilled out onto the street so I sat on the garden wall.
‘Hello Sean,’ said a passing drinker.
Nodding acknowledgement, I opened my can of coke.
‘Is Gerry not with you?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know where she is,’ I replied truthfully.
He opened his hands, questioning.
I took a sip from the can.
‘She’s probably digging vegetables with her dogs.’
He looked me up and down critically.
‘But you’re not him.’
‘But I can be.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Well Jane Hirshfield gave me a big hug and a small kiss and she wasn’t too embarrassed.’
‘I’ll not go that far. But I do remember when once I gave him a lift to the fish quay after playing football.’
‘Playing football!’ I thought. ‘Bollocks, that’s not in the job description…….’
We both took a drink.
‘So what do you do?’ he ventured.
‘Well….I sit in a room, and I think and I write.’
‘No, as me. Though passing strangers might think I’m Sean.’
‘So you write?’
‘I write. And I think.’
‘What do you write about?’
‘Mmm. End of Life Care was a recent one.’
‘And you make a living?’
‘It’s a bit slack at the minute.’
We both took a drink.
‘So now you make a living being Sean O’Brien’s stunt double?’
‘No.’ Then a long pause. ‘But I did introduce him to sloe gin.’
‘Aahh’ he said with a big sigh and walked off.
Bob Little*, won an outstanding contribution to adult social care award in the Great NE Care Awards (November 2010). The poet, Sean O’Brien bears a passing resemblance to him.
(*Note from the editor: I am also proud that he's my dad.)
‘I don’t know why we had to leave the hotel so early,’ said the man grumpily as he increased his pace to try to keep up with his wife and small son. ‘It’s only,’ he looked at his watch, ‘half past seven on a bloody Sunday morning.’
The woman didn’t answer, knowing that if she just ignored him he would subside. At the next corner she stopped to check the map. They had left the city centre now, and needed to cross the road that exited from the inner city by pass.
‘It’s that way,’ the man indicated, ‘over near that tower block and church.’ He instinctively held out his hand to the child to cross the road. The boy grasped his hand, and when the green man flashed they made their way across.
‘Dad, you can let go of my hand now,’ said the boy. The man, realizing that he’d nearly crushed the boy’s hand, relaxed his grip. ‘And where does that go to?’ The boy pointed down the motorway.
‘Dublin,’ replied his mum, reading the road sign, ‘and the other way is to Larne where you get the ferry to Scotland,’ answering the boy’s next unasked question.
‘And where are we going?’ asked her son.
‘Over there.’ His dad turned away, slightly shrugging his shoulders. ‘To see some walls.’
The boy was hot so he took his pullover off and pushed it in the bag next to the brolly and rain coat his mother was carrying. The man carried his light summer jacket over his arm. They walked on. The road was quiet, with few cars and even fewer pedestrians. The buildings were a mixture of old terraces and post-war council houses. By the side of the road was a 20 storey 1960's tower block.
‘Dad, what does occ-u-py mean?’ asked the boy, looking up at the sign outside the tower block. ‘It usually means lived in,’ replied the man. He went over to read the sign.
'And what does 'ev-ict' mean?
The woman explained. ‘Soldiers took over the top two floors of this tower block during the war as a lookout post.’
‘Was it a shooting war?’ asked the boy, getting a bit more interested.
‘Yes, it was a shooting and bombing war,’ his dad began.
But now the boy was pointing further up the road, where he could just see the colours of enormous paintings along the walls of houses.
‘Look, there they are!’ he quickened his pace and pointed. They walked on another hundred yards. The dad asked his son to slow down.
‘I hope these are better than yesterday’s,’ said the boy. ‘All those were the same, men with masks and guns, or the queen and her family.’
And then they were there.
‘These ones are great, dad!’ The boy wanted to rush, take them all in at once. His parents were much slower, wanting to look at each one and take their time.
The woman smiled at the man. ‘I knew that you would like them,’ she said.
But the man was uneasy. ‘Come on, we’ll go back now,’ he began, turning to make his way back towards the city centre.
The woman didn’t move. ‘I want to see the Sands mural,’ she said simply. He could hear the quiet determination in her voice. ‘It’s only another half mile further on.’
‘It’s going to rain,’ he half mumbled.
She held out her hands, palms upwards, looking at a near perfect blue sky.
‘There are some dark clouds over there.’ He pointed far to the west.
‘You know the forecast said that the rain would come early afternoon. And it’s just, what time is it? Twenty past eight.’
He looked at her. ‘You know that I’m not comfortable with this.’ She didn’t say anything. ‘I don’t like playing tourist in other people’s grief.’ She still didn’t say anything. ‘I think this is stupid and reckless.’
‘Did you come up to this community last time you were here?’ she interrupted.
‘No, I stayed in the city centre.’
‘Was it too frightening?’
‘You don’t beat about the bush do you? Not so much the soldiers pointing guns as you turned the street corner, the burnt out buildings, or the stupid bastards speeding around in armoured cars: what was really frightening was that it all appeared so normal and everyday. People seemed to be just getting on with their lives with all that happening around them……..’
‘But it’s different now,’ she said. ‘Look around.’
He seemed not to have heard her. ‘I was 19 then and it was my choice. I’ve got three sons and you now. And tomorrow is our wedding anniversary.’
She held out her hand. Reluctantly, he took it. Hers was warm. Her eyes sparkled as she listened.
‘You know last time I hitch-hiked up from Dublin. I stood right outside the Army road block at Newry. Then years later, I was telling this story to my old friend Siobhan, who was trying to get us to hold meetings in Belfast. I told her that I’d been here once before. She laughed, said that the bhoys must have thought me a ‘thick bloody Englishman: too stupid to shoot.’ I think that she was joking, but I don’t want to be that reckless again.’
‘She must have thought it safe, though, even 5 years ago, when she asked you to come to Belfast?’
He took a deep breath. It was almost a sigh.
They walked further up the hill. Stretched across a side street was a scruffy, 15 foot high, barricaded wall which blocked the end of the road. They went over. A sign at a gate read ‘Closed due to the marching season.’
‘I think that this is the so-called peace wall,’ explained the dad.’ Did you realise that our wedding anniversary is the opening of the marching season?’ While he was explaining to his son about the marches the woman had already turned into a small park.
It was a garden of remembrance, neat and small, filled with grass, small marble stones and silence. They read the names. Many had died. Some, a few, on 'active service'. The most recent deaths were only from two years before.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it,’ said the woman. ‘It has the same loved feeling as the memorial in Minsk. Can you remember?’
The man nodded. ‘They lost a fifth of their population, about two million people, that was 60 years ago.’
‘And this war, is it finished yet?’ piped up the child.
‘Come on, the Bobby Sands mural is just a bit further up, then we can go back,‘ said the woman.
‘Who is Bobby Sands, mum?’ the boy asked. The man heard her reply as he wandered up the road, watching the people go about their business. Fixing cars, going shopping or to church, driving past.
‘Dad did you know about him, how he starved himself to death?’
But he couldn’t say anything because he looked up and there it was.
‘It’s not a very good painting of him, is it, dad?’
The peace wall loomed from the top of an embankment. Huge, dominating: twice as high as the rooftops. They stood with their own thoughts for a while.
‘Come on. We’ll get a bus back,’ suggested the woman eventually.
So the three of them stood for ten minutes at the bus stop which was outside a newsagent’s, overlooking a park. The street began filling up with people who were walking dogs, buying newspapers, talking to their friends and neighbours. Not a bus in sight. The buildings were recognizably inner-city, run down. Late Victorian pubs, a bookies’ and fish and chip shop. Far across the park stood some smarter Edwardian Terraces.
Fifteen then twenty minutes they stood waiting for a bus. The man thought: if we’d walked, we’d have been out of here by now.
Then an old man nearby flagged down a passing cab. The back seat was already full with people. The driver motioned him to get in the front. The old man was very unsteady on his feet: he managed to get the cab door open but as he stepped back, he stumbled against the boy’s father who put out his hands and caught him, stopping him falling over.
‘Here, I’ll help you in,’ he said. He eased the old man into the front seat, making sure that he didn’t bump his head. Lastly he lifted the swollen, slippered feet in, and closed the door. The old man nodded: the cab drove off.
‘You’ll need to wipe your hands,’ said the woman, handing him a tissue, ‘I think he wet himself.’
‘It was a stroke he’d had,’ said the man, sweaty. By now it was getting very warm.
Within 30 seconds they had waved down another cab. This one was empty.
‘Can you take us to the big fish sculpture at the river?’ the woman asked.
‘Oh no, I don’t go down that far, just past the flats,’ said the driver.
‘We can walk from there,‘ said the man, anxious to be going. His son shot him an ‘oh dad’ look as he said it.
On the way back the boy pointed out the things they had seen. He’d liked the wall murals best.
'There's the paintings dad….I loved them! They’re bright and full of life. Yesterday’s we saw were all about death.'
As they passed the flats, without slowing, the driver said something over his shoulder.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the man, I didn’t catch that.’
‘I said, I suppose I can take you to the river,‘ the driver repeated.
The city felt different. The driver left them quickly with a ’have a good day now‘ as he reversed.
‘I need a drink, something to eat… and a wee,’ said the boy.
The clouds were thickening over the sun. ‘Yep, me too,’ his dad agreed.
They wandered around for ten minutes through all the new buildings and the shops and offices, yet nothing seemed to be open.
‘It’s only 10:30,’ said the woman. The man pointed out a very scruffy café nearby. ‘I don’t mind him using their toilet, but I’m certainly not eating there.’ As the child went in she turned to the man. ‘Why at first did the taxi driver not want to bring us all the way?’
‘I think picking up English folk on that road might have made him a little bit vulnerable – this being just before the marching season. And maybe the river was beyond his safety zone.’
‘Oh’ said the woman, wondering, a bit shocked. It started to drizzle.
After ten minutes in the steady rain, they found an 'indoor shopping experience', whose signs promised food.
‘Burger, pizza, fish and chips, Chinese, Indian or Mexican? And a cup of coffee?’ Signs everywhere in this city, he thought, for everything and anything.
As they ate at a table in the middle of the deserted hall, a woman wearing one of the food outlets’ uniforms hesitated twice as she passed.
Finally she came to take their tray.
‘I recognise you, you know.’
The man and woman caught each other’s eye.
‘You were the people who helped the old man into my taxi’. Her whole face smiled.