He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simple as that. It could so easily have been me. I am still selfishly grateful that he was there in front of me, that his action saved me from the suffering that most certainly would have been mine otherwise. It was a fine spring day and squads of noisy kids were terrorising the streets, throwing water bombs and good-natured abuse. The boys’ childish skirmishes were a welcome distraction from the sectarian tension which was roiling in the background as we built up to another summer where riot police blockaded protestors into the side streets of the Lower Ormeau while they forced through contentious Orange Parades.
I was walking maybe five yards behind him, having just crossed the Ormeau Bridge. He was beside the high, windowless, red brick side wall of the Asia Supermarket. To my left was a narrow strip of grassy, litter-strewn waste land. He was just an ordinary young man, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, trainers.
On the gable wall of the house across the street was a large circular mural. It was like a ‘No Smoking’ sign with a stylised Orangeman in place of a cigarette. It was captioned with the Spanish Civil War anti-fascist slogan No Pasarán. Underneath it were three shirtless boys, their skin beginning to burn in the sun. They were lined up at the kerb, shouting across the traffic at him as he walked innocently ahead of me. There was a football on the pavement in front of him, which they wanted him to kick back to them: C’mon mister – we can’t get across… So he checked the road right and left for buses and lorries, and then took a short run up, his eyes fixed on the ball. He should have picked it up and hoofed it like a goalkeeper – I like to think I’d have done that. The boys on the other side were wide-eyed with anticipation and incredulity. As his foot connected there was a quiet thud. If it hadn’t been full of stones, the football would have cleared the slow-moving cars perfectly; it was struck sweetly. But, of course, it only moved about three inches; he let out a howl of agony followed by a burst of expletives. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had broken a toe or something. In physical and mental pain he hopped to the bus shelter and sat down, tears lining his cheeks. The boys were bent double laughing; they didn’t even have to run away. The sight was comical enough, but I suppressed the urge to laugh as I went over to see if he was ok. He was more embarrassed than anything – he’d be fine – should have known better. Wee bastards got me a good ‘un. But there’s worse things could have happened to me round here. Own goal, mate, own goal.
Irish translation by Tom Clarke here.