DERRY

 

A poem by Colette Bryce

I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside

to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass,

by the river Foyle with its suicides and rip tides.

I thought that city was nothing less

than the whole and rain-domed universe.

A teachers daughter, I was one of nine

faces afloat in the looking-glass

fixed in the hall, but which was mine?

I wasnt ever sure, at all.

We walked to school, linked hand in hand

in twos and threes like paper dolls.

I slowly grew to understand

the way the tall Cathedral cast

its shadow on our learning, cool

as sunlight swerved from east to west.

The adult world had tumbled into hell

from where it wouldnt find its way

for thirty years. The local priest

played Elvis tunes and made us pray

for starving children, and for peace,

and, lastly, for The King. At mass wed chant

hypnotically, Hail Holy Queen,

mother of mercy; sing to Saint

Columba of his Small oak grove, O Derry mine.

*

We’d cross the border in our red Cortina,

stopped at the checkpoint just too long

for fractious children, searched by a teenager

drowned in a uniform, armed with a gun,

who seemed to think we were trouble-on-the-run

and not the Von Trapp family singers

harmonizing every song

in rounds to pass the journey quicker.

Smoke coiled up from terraces

and fog meandered softly down the valley

to the Brandywell and the greyhound races,

the ancient walls with their huge graffiti,

arms that encircled the old city

solidly. Beyond their pale,

the Rossville flats – mad vision of modernity;

snarling cross-breeds leashed to rails.

A robot under remote control,

like us, commenced its slow acceleration

towards a device at number six,

the family home of the politician

John Hume. Neighbours were warned

to keep to the rooms at the back of the house

to no avail: we watched from the front

as a metal arm played cat and mouse

with a hoax some boys from Garten Square

had made from parcel tape and batteries

gathered on forays to the BSR,

the disused electronics factory.

*

Like a stopper screwed more tightly on,

they elected Thatcher, increased the pressure

that reached a pitch in nineteen eighty-one

with the drawn-out deaths of hunger-strikers

in the Maze, our jail within a jail.

A billboard near Free Derry Corner

clocked the days to the funerals

as riots wrecked the city centre.

Each day, we left for the grammar school,

behaved ourselves, pulled up our socks

for benevolent Sister Emmanuel

and the Order of Mercy. Then wed flock

to the fleet of buses that ferried us

back to our lives, the Guildhall Square

where Mrs Burns, our scapegoat drunk,

swayed in her chains like a dancing bear.

On the couch, we cheered as an Irish man

bid for the Worldwide Featherweight title

and I saw blue bruises on my mothers arms

when her sleeve fell back while filling the kettle

for tea. My bed against the door,

I pushed the music up as loud

as it would go and curled up on the floor

to shut the angry voices out.

*

My candle flame faltered in a cup;

we were stood outside the barracks in a line

chanting in rhythm, calling for a stop

to strip searches for the Armagh women.

The proof that Jesus was a Derry man?

Thirty-three, unemployed, and living with his mother,

the old joke ran. While half the town

were queuing at the bru, the fortunate other

half were employed in issuing the cheques.

Boom! Wed jump at another explosion,

windows buckling in their frames, and next

you could view the smouldering omission

in a row of shops, the missing tooth

in a street. Gerry Adams mouth

was out of sync in the goldfish bowl

of the TV screen, our dubious link

with the world. Each summer, one by one,

my sisters upped and crossed the water,

armed with a grant from the government

- the welfare systems final flowers -

until my own turn came about

and I swung two hold-alls into a taxi,

hugged my mother, took my seat

on a flight and left that world behind me.

– Colette Bryce

Colette Bryce takes part in the John Hewitt Festival in Carnlough, Co Antrim, today, where she will include Derry as part of her reading. She also reads in the Town Hall Studio, Galway, next Thursday at 3pm in the Cuirt International Festival of Literature