To say it was easy even getting out of Derry would be a lie. Lads were everywhere, keeping watch, just daring the RUC to try anything. That the constables hadn’t yet only added to my concern, and a little voice inside me kept whispering, Sunday was not going to be a holy day.
The Craigavon was empty, so I knew anytime a car approached it’d be an RUC patrol and I’d duck behind the lamp posts and stay still and they’d pass without a thought; it helped still being small. Once across, I hoofed up to Spencer Road and around to Irish Street to try and find the Dungiven Road. I knew it ran in front of Altnagelvin Hospital, so that was my first point of destination. I kept in shadow as much as I could, and when I heard voices would hold still till they’d passed, but I saw few on the Waterside.
I kept walking down Irish and felt somehow I’d gone too far so cut across to the next road -- which was Glenshane -- and looked around to find I’d actually passed Altnagelvin. I walked down Glenshane for a piece then saw a sign for Dungiven and knew I was headed right...and did it make me proud of myself.
I was past much of the housing and into meadows and farmland, now, and the quiet of it was different from the silence of the city. No, it wasn’t quiet, it was peaceful, like this is how the world ought to be. It took a bit, but if you listened you’d hear toads grunting and foxes yipping and owls calling, none of them screaming to call attention to himself. Water whispered down the ditch beside the road till it could join in with a pleasant little brook. A light breeze gave voice to the bushes and trees and leaves dancing about. It was cold so most farm animals were in their shelters, but you could still hear them offer a soft bleat or mew at the sudden footsteps of a fellow traveler.
It wasn’t a clear night, and while I was hardly sorry for it, I did feel it would have been nice to have the stars as companion to my wandering. I’d have to make do with the shrubs and owls and cattle that still braved the chill. I had hilltops to climb over and look around in wonder at the beauty of existence. I had glens to walk through as the road dipped low between mounds of earth and trees. Nearly nothing passed me for the first two hours of my trek, so my sense of one with the world remained intact. Even then, it was only a lorry or two ferrying winter produce to Derry’s markets thundering past that could break my reverie.
Oh, how I loved the smell of the air as I walked, even with the odor of manure mingled with it. It had a crispness that Derry’s cloudy air lacked. Only a few miles separated this part of the world from the city, but it’s as if they were on different planets to me. Different concepts of reality.
A tenderness settled over my heart, like a cozy blanket, and I began to hum a tune off the Johnston’s album -- “The Banks of Claudy.” I’d been playing to Mam’s distraction, almost. She only tolerated it because I mentioned I’d filched it from the Wellie’s, but truth is I bought it from Hurley’s shop on Shipquay. It seemed that made it mine complete, and I might sear the lyrics to my soul without fear of retribution now or ever-after and let them flow from me in a cracked voice --
“It was on one pleasant evening, all in the month of May.
Down by yon flowery garden, I carelessly did stray.
I overheard a fair one most grievously complain.
It was on the banks of Claudy where my darlin’ do remain.”
It was to heaven I was soaring, and all was well and good around me. I was myself and one alone, with nothing to bind me or hold me and little but road before me. Money in my pocket. My anorak warm about me. A gentle push of a breeze at my back. It was life as how it should be lived -- open and free from anything others might force upon you. I could have kept walking forever.
That girl would’ve been on this walk had I asked her, I knew for certain. Aye, she was Protestant, but hadn’t the two religions lived side by side for years without trouble? Weren’t there a number of Presbyterians as bad off as my family and wasn’t Billy’s proof of that, with him living in the Fountain, which was just as bad a disgrace as Nailor’s Row? But she wouldn’t have minded where I was from, even if it was Creegan. She’d have seen the need for this march, the need to show those few bastards in control of our worlds that they should have that control no longer, since they'd done so poorly with it. I knew because when she’d looked at me, she’d not seen a boy who’s Catholic or Protestant, but merely one she fancied. It was visible in her eyes, in how she looked at me, and I could picture her at my side as on we strolled, singing together as we marched to our own little fates.
So on we marched, with her as my shadow under a darkening sky, and we’d probably gone about six, maybe seven miles when the distant click of stones being tossed about and voices returned me to reality. They were alien sounds and jolted through my sense of wonder to make me stop cold. I was by some trees where the road cut through a rise so could see little more than the dark pavement carrying on ahead of me. Without really deciding to, I edged closer to those trees and listened carefully.
The words were indistinct, but they sounded happy and filled with fun as the sound of more stones clattering together accompanied them. They weren’t taking any care in maintaining secrecy about their whereabouts, so I couldn’t make out the reason for it all. I was about to continue on to see what I could see when I noticed a car approaching from the direction of Claudy.
I pressed closer to the tree trunks and was glad I did, for it was an RUC tender. A second car -- a saloon -- was right behind it. But they didn’t pass me; they stopped about a hundred yards down and some men got out, two of whom wore constable uniforms. They crossed the road and climbed up the hill...and were greeted by another man in naught but a sweater and cap, his face gleaming with sweat. They were too far away for me to know if I knew them and their voices still too indistinct, but without question they were much friendly with each other and quite happy with themselves. They turned away to look out at something so I scurried across the road to climb the rise. I was halfway up when I heard a lorry’s engine roar to life and seem to echo behind me, and I froze. I carefully looked around but saw nothing, even as the sound of the lorry driving kept echoing. Then it appeared from a side road across from the two parked cars and I realized I’d been hearing the echo of a truck that was in front of me. It drove off to Claudy, smoke billowing from its exhaust, its tail empty of everything but dust left behind by a load of bricks or stones.
I climbed higher and peeked over the summit to see a number of men, young and old, sorting out piles of stones as others laid up stacks of cudgels as one lad my age handed out cups of hot steaming tea -- and him I did know; it was Billy. And one of the men ferrying bricks to a pile further down the hill was his uncle.
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. After not finding him, yesterday, I’d felt he was going to be part of that crowd out to harry the marchers. But to find him helping prepare stones and bricks and cudgels to use against them -- that sent an icy dagger into my heart, laced both with fury and pain.
I dug my fingers into the cold earth and pressed my forehead against the ground to keep from doing or saying anything to reveal myself.
“You, boy -- what you doin’ up there?”
I jolted and half tumbled back down the embankment to find a constable walking up to me. The other constable was a few paces behind him.
“Headed home,” popped out of me. “What’s it to you?”
“It’s the back of my hand to your face if you don’t take a proper tone with me,” he snapped back. “Where’s home?”
I thought I caught a Belfast accent off him, so chanced saying, “Claudy. And where the devil’re you from?”
“What you doin’ here?”
“Nothing. Just off for a walk and -- .”
The other constable snarled, “I think he’s a fuckin’ Taig come to join his mates!”
“Leave off me!” I snapped back at him. “And who the devil’re you to tell me anything? You’re not from here! I know everyone in my town and -- .”
“D’yer know me?” And this tall man with a white armband strolled up the road. His clothes were too fine for labor’s work and a quick glance at his one ungloved hand showed his nails were well-kept.
“Should I?” I asked him back, feeling a sickness in my stomach. This man’s eyes were black and cold and I had no interest in even thinking of going up against him.
“I’m in Claudy.”
For some reason it didn’t sound right, him saying that. So I smirked and said, “Maybe on market day, and then only to buy, and then only when your man can’t do the work for you.”
His eyes glistened with anger, then he laughed and clapped me round the back of my head in a friendly fashion. “He’s too feisty to be a papist, lads. And too young to be a marcher. What’s your name, lad?”
“Billy Corrie,” I said, without a thought.
“Good Protestant name.”
“So what’s all this?”
“Don’t ya know of them bastards from Belfast -- little commie taigs -- they’re staying there, the night.”
“Not sleepin’, that’s fer certain,” laughed the big one.
“I thought they wasn’t comin’ till tomorrow,” I said.
“They may be comin’ but they ain’t goin’.” Everyone laughed at that.
I just smirked. “So you’re after stopping ‘em here, then?”
“No, just givin’ ‘em a real welcome.”
“Care to join us, Billy?” asked the man with the armband.
“Thanks but I’ve chores to do, now, and me mam’ll be seeking me out. I’ll take the back way home.”
“Back way?” It was the man with the armband eyeing me, wary all of a sudden.
I laughed at him and said, “You’re not from these parts, are ya?”
He grabbed my arm, tight and angry. “Where exactly did ya say ya lived? I don’t recall.”
I kicked him in the knee. He howled and fell but still kept hold of me so I had to yank myself away. Then I ran back the way I came, and I had no need to check to see if they were chasing me; I could hear their footsteps laced with curses the like of which I’d ever heard before. Then stones come whisking over my head and clattering down the road. One near clipped my ear. They were getting a better aim. Then I heard that RUC tender roar close then grind to a crawl -- I guess to let the fellow chasing me get in since I heard a car door slam -- so I rounded a curve and spun into a thicket of bushes and lay still.
The tender drove on past, so I guess I’d been out of sight around the curve when I hid. Soon as they were out of my sight, I slipped through a wire fence and crept on back towards Derry. I heard the tender snarl past, again, and someone cried out, “Billy, fair Billy, come out to play!”
Oh, aye, I’m Catholic so I must be a bloody idiot. Bloody bastards.
I heard them coming up, again, so sat against a thick hedge to catch my breath and let them take as long as they wished to give up searching. Then I heard them screech to a halt and my heart near jumped in my throat. Had they seen me? They backed up and skidded a bit, then drove off.
I had a feeling I knew why they’d run, so peeked over the top of the hedge and without question, I saw headlamps approaching. I couldn’t tell the car, but it was small -- actually a small lorry.
I scrambled over the hedge and tried to cut it off but I dared not yell to stop it -- those Proddy bastards weren’t so very far away and the sound of my voice would only bring them here -- and so the lorry zipped on past me without a thought, aiming to be showered in stones. Then my immediate thought went to warn anyone else coming and I backed down the road, aiming for a side lane I’d seen.
But I heard no yelling nor the sound of rocks hitting metal nor smashing glass nor curses hurled in either direction. It took only a moment for me to figure out why -- they were saving their hoards of weapons for the marchers and wished them to be unknown. They were planning something far worse than a mere harassment; they were planning a massacre.