I was driving northwards across the border
into south Down and farther north, driving
through a lean vegetation into summer,
golden and sweet, allowing my mind to wander
to familiar and unfamiliar places. Amap
lay on the passenger seat beside me.
I’d reached for it, but was distracted
by the ten white crosses on the embankment
before Newry which made me think
of you and your troubled time: how
you’d hid beneath the bedclothes,
a starched white sheet and old blue blanket,
one which reminded me of our childhood.
‘How do I know it’s you?’ you’d said
from under the dishevelled canopy you had created.
‘How do I know you are not just a voice in my head?’
I’ve tapped you on the back to stir you
from your week-long disturbances, shifting
from sleep to waking dream. You groan
and move and peak out at me from under the covers.
Chocolate bar wrappers and sweet packets
litter the bed-side table. Bottles of water and
juice stand half finished. You sit up, finally,
not with the mock machine gun you fired
the first time I went to visit you.
‘It could happen,’ you bellowed dispensing
several rounds at the other patients.
This time your one caveat is:
It’s worse than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Said without the grin, but with the doleful
look you carry on occasion, the same no doubt
when you met in Spain two men from the IRA,
two men you say, who followed you there
after three years surveillance to interrogate
and torture you. I had just started to work
on the border when you fell into your troubled
state, filling out funding applications for peace
and reconciliation. ‘Peace money,’ is what
they called it, as if such an ambition had a price tag.
I wondered now as I drove across borders
what solicitude it would take to bring you back
to who you were. Not, I imagined, a doctor
who asked me if I thought what you talked
about had happened, had really happened. This
is your story, but I know you’re not going to tell
it, not again, not with the relish and obsession
you told it while still in it. Your time
inside was frightening, but amusing too.
When you were called for dinner once
and I went to leave, you pointed to a bed
and told me I was welcome. The next day
you recounted how the paramilitaries
had administered pain killers. Truth drugs,
you called them. You talked about how
they kept you against your will, how they
tried to drown you. I turn the radio on,
but it serves no distraction and so I drive,
drive on with the thought that this then is the legacy
of the conflict, or one of its legacies.
That after the bombings, the shootings, the warfare
and ceasefires, after peace and reconciliation,
what we, what some of us, are left with
is a man in a hospital bed, afraid for his life.
Drive on. And I do, into unknown territory,
marked with flags, unlike the mind
which is an unmarked maze, past Ballymena,
towards Coleraine, past the bunting
and the painted curb-stones towards
the end of another journey,
the end of another reverie and what I am
left with is the same uneasy satisfaction
I feel when leaving you on those occasions
after visiting hours are over, namely
the questions: what is real, what happened,
what really happened? And dear brother,
part of living, part of the struggle, our struggle,
I suppose, is that no matter how much we think
about it, interrogate our pasts or actions,
no matter how much we beseech you
or each other, we’ll never really know.