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BORDERLANDS – A Memory from 1992


The hard December sun shone in flat rays across the frost-whitened countryside. Just short of Dunshaughlin the car began to waltz. The road appeared dry. Did I have a flat tire, I wondered. Then it happened again. The car seemed to drift in line with the contours. That was no puncture, I decided. That was ice, black ice, invisible in the clear light of day. I let the speed drop off. Cars both ahead and behind me slowed to keep pace. I’d never experienced black ice, a consequence of living beside the sea, I supposed. No matter how much frost falls, the salt air will prevent it setting into ice to mess up traffic. I drove on, carefully.

My speed dropped from sixty miles per hour around Clonee to forty coming towards Navan. On a particularly bad stretch I dropped it to thirty. The only place I felt any confidence was where the road was lined with trees. Either because trees impede the fall of the dew on the road, or the heat from the wood creates a thaw, the wooded stretches were the only safe bits of road.

I drove around the by-pass at Navan. The earlier traffic seemed to have cleared the ice. Coming up the hill out of the town, though, the waltz returned. Sixty four kilometres to Cavan, the sign said. I re-set the odometer and drove on.

Borderlands. I’m thinking of you, Angela. I’m thinking of a house on a hill, with a window facing south. In December, the late afternoon sun shines straight in, flat beams of light hitting the wall hard and reflecting on to the bed. I dream of lying beside you, in the warmth and comfort of your arms. Again. I am a man of dreams, a man of wishes, wishing for what is not. Sometimes my dreams intrude on reality and reality intrudes on my dreams. Angela, you’re the lady who was meant for me. For all my life before we met, I was coming to you. When we’re apart you’re always in my heart and I’m always coming back to you.

It’s not easy. The last time we made love, I told you that you’re the one person I couldn’t live with and cannot live without. It was a Sunday afternoon. No winter sunshine then, just a grey October day, brightened by you, by your love, by making love. Afterwards we went for a pizza. Someday we’ll do it again.

Borderlands. It’s almost eleven o’clock. The sun is moving as high as it can in December. The day is bright, the sky clear, a blue dome marked only by the clear white line of a jet trail. The hard frost has frozen the moisture from the air and I can see for miles.

Cavan is hills, undulating like waves frozen in time, now white with frost. Usually when I come it is evening, the light in front as the sun descends. Today, the morning brightness shines from behind. Buildings and trees are not just pictures on the landscape, but hard and real against the slopes, big, solid farms and forests.

Driving slower helps me notice the landscape. As I leave Virginia, a man waves from his gate. I wave in return. If I was walking, I’d stop and talk, pass the time of day, then move on. Now I drive by, returning his smile.

Borderlands. I pass the quarry. Down the hill there are houses, smoke from chimneys rising straight into the clear still air. Not a breath of winds anywhere. It’s a good day to be alive. If you’re careful and don’t hit an unexpected patch of ice, you’ll live.

I pass the military barracks and the crystal factory. Cavan town is cluttered with Christmas traffic. Christmas trees for five pounds each. That’s a long way from fifteen pounds in Dublin. Christmas clubs now open. Everywhere, shops are buzzing for the festive season. On the far side of the town I pass the junction for Ballyhaise, then turn towards Enniskillen. There’s a lake on my right. On a Sunday morning a year ago, I flew back from Coleman’s Island in a helicopter. The pilot took us up to three thousand feet. It was a day like today and below was the land of lakes. Nothing but lakes. It seemed as though you could sail across Cavan. To the west we could see the Barnesmore Gap in Donegal, to the east the Cooley Mountains. It was a day like no other, when you could look right across the country and marvel at the clarity of the air. Any clearer and you’d see forever.

Borderlands. I’m coming to the border at Leggakelly. Cavan is a county that wears a beard of damp grass, dew dripping from trees, from rocks, from banks of earth at the side of the road. The morning sun sparkles on drops of water. Then there’s the Leggakelly Inn and the sign, Welcome to Fermanagh.

Borderlands. We’re in another country. The cars in front and behind continue towards Enniskillen. I’m turning right for the Christmas beer.

Borderlands. For me, the border has always been a combination of politics, guns, sex and excitement. Politics, because it was politicians who put a line on a map. They knew that a people divided would divert their energies to fighting to remove the border. That way they’d never  be a threat to the former colonial power. Politics, because I’d been brought up in a nationalist culture that sought to remove the line from the map, to wrestle that chunk of country away from the colonial power. The National Question, Republicanism, the Language, the great issues of the day while I was growing up.

Guns, because there were always people who would never accept that line on the map. They were happy to take up arms to remove it. Guns, because the people who guarded that border on behalf of the colonial power carried them. They were not our people. They were prepared to fight to keep that border there. It was their job, or they’d been told their lives would be poorer if the line wasn’t there. Guns, because the first time I ever went to Northern Ireland was on my way to Scotland with my granny. In the harbour town of Larne, I saw two policemen. They were talking, one leaning against his bike wearing a bobby’s helmet, the other with a flat peaked cap. But what made them stand out were the pistols on their hips. I’d never seen a policeman with a gun. When I commented on it, my granny told me to shush. Coming from an adult, her tone of fear surprised me. I was only eleven and considered adults omnipotent.

Sex. What’s sexy about a border, I hear you ask. Just that by crossing that line, you can buy Playboy and Parade and those other prick-teasing magazines that are banned in the good holy Catholic Republic of Ireland. I remember my first Playboy. The beautiful girl lay naked on the bed, her breasts small firm mounds. I was seventeen. She was a couple of years older. I loved that girl’s smile. I lusted after her body and I drained my own in contemplation of hers.

Sex, too, because there’s an excitement about the border. Things happen on a border that don’t happen elsewhere. A border attracts strange people. They do things people don’t do in the polite boring society of the hinterland. Order breaks down as people live their lives as they wish, not as they’re told. Laws are ignored, taxes are evaded, anarchy prevails in tandem with local values. Things are smuggled, things are traded and sex is just another commodity, given or taken for many reasons and in exchange for lots of things, like love, company, money, power, mercy.

And finally excitement. Why excitement? What’s exciting about a border? If you have to ask, you won’t understand. Everything is exciting. The politics, the thrill of an ideological frontier set in stone on a landscape. Something to be defended or demolished, depending on your point of view. The excitement of guns, of soldiers, of policemen, of intrigue, of the fascinating place that just is the border. And the excitement too of smuggling things home, like magazines, drink, fireworks and boxes of Kerrygold all those years ago.

Borderlands. It’s a thrill to be here, a wonderful place. I’m stopped at the filling station. I tell the girl to fill the tank, and she does. But the beer is expensive. This time the Budweiser is cheaper at home. The Single European Market is taking the border away. Now things are the same price everywhere. Soon there’ll be no point in smuggling. Ninety four pence a can here, eighty-nine pence a can in Ben Dunne’s. Why is it dearer here? Supply and Demand. There’s no St. Bernard’s to undercut the border shop. Better to buy your Bud at Ben’s than over the border. Now the border is irrelevant, and soon, where the economics goes, the politics will follow. If everyone is a citizen of Europe, then who cares whether they’re from the north or the south of Ireland? But the Royal Dutch is still cheap at fifty pence a can. Three trays, please. Sorry, we’ve no new Mars Bars, just the old ones. I’ll take two anyway.

I drop the beer into the boot of the car. The uniform is covered up. I get in and turn the car around, careful because frost has frozen the water in the potholes. True, this is Fermanagh, but Cavan is only a hundred metres away. Potholes are contagious, a disease that can cross borders.

Borderland. I drive back into the Republic of Ireland, back through Cavan town, back to the military barracks, and take over the Orderly Officer’s badges of office, the keys and the pistol. Loaded, of course. I settle down for the weekend, in command of the troops that go out to guard the borderland.

From → Writing

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