I was asleep in my bedroom under the eaves of the student house in Rugby Road when it happened. My little bed was lifted clean off the floor, the jolt of its return awakening me. My first thoughts were that it must have been a big one, and fairly close by; and I wondered where it was exactly, and how many had been injured or killed. As the echoes of the explosion died away, the night filled with the clanging of alarms; shortly afterwards the inevitable sirens joined the racket. It wasn’t easy getting back to sleep. I found out on the news the next day that the IRA had detonated a massive bomb – over 1,000 lbs – in Fulton Street, outside the back of Donegall Pass police station. The blast had ripped through the small side-street, wrecking the Shaftesbury Square dole office and shattering windows in the surrounding streets. Pakenham Street was trashed.
When I went down to look, though, the destruction wasn’t as impressive as I expected: the Dole Office was still standing. The huge slabs of pebble-dashed concrete which clad the building seemed to have done a good job of soaking up the blast. Maybe it was designed to be bomb-proof. The windows were a different matter: not a single pane of glass remained intact on the front. The vertical blinds that remained hung skewed at odd angles, rattling in the wind. Some confidential papers hung pasted to the walls by the wet, squally wind, others were scattered in the street, folded unevenly and stuck to lamp-posts, walls, the doors of unfortunately-parked cars.
The structural damage to the dole office wasn’t apparent from the outside, but it was sufficient to ensure that it never reopened. It’s still there to this day, defiantly squatting on a prime City Centre location; nothing but an ugly, grey, derelict shell. While they regrouped and moved the benefits operation to The Conor Building, South Belfast underwent a social and financial transformation; scores of claimants went to work abroad and took undeclared holidays, making full use of the lengthy period of postal signing that followed the bombing. It was fiesta time in Sandy Row.
He’d left the car overnight in Posnett Street car park, across the road from Donegall Pass RUC Station. They’d felt the low crump of the explosion in their threadbare B&B room; the building had shaken, and the windows nearly rattled out of their frames, but thankfully they hadn’t come in. The tumbler of water by her side of the bed had fallen onto the floor, filling one of her shoes, but mercifully that was the extent of the destruction. It was bucketing with rain as they walked down Botanic Avenue to collect the car and head back to Drogheda. Her heart sank when she saw the white tape cordoning off the top of Dublin Road and Donegall Pass; the Landrovers and small groups of police. They turned off Botanic Avenue into Posnett Street, their steps quickening. It was a mess: glass and paper everywhere. It wasn’t easy to spot their little Ford Metro at first: debris had coated everything in the area, and the teeming rain had turned the dust from the explosion into reddish-brown rivulets and pools of dirty muck on the cars.
The Metro was in bad shape: the rear window and three of the side ones were gone, and two tyres were flat. They brushed the chunks of safety glass from the car seats so that she could sit out of the worst of the rain while he went to phone his friend and get help. She got a small cut to the side of her hand for her efforts, but kept calm, didn’t give out about it. Fortunately he had a packet of tissues in his coat pocket. It wasn’t too serious, just one more inconvenience in a rapidly growing list. He went to a phone box nearby on Botanic, made the call. A friend would tow them to a nearby garage where the car would be patched up well enough to get them home. While they waited, they made the car as comfortable as possible. They folded jumpers onto the seats to protect them from the sodden material and the barely-visible crumbs of glass. He erected the umbrella in the driver’s window; it kept the worst of the rain off him, although it still swept in through the other windows on the blustery wind. The umbrella could not be wedged in any practical fashion, and his wrist got sore from having to grip it at an awkward angle.
Their friend took more than forty miserable minutes to arrive; he’d had to cut short a visit in the countryside near Lisburn, contact the mechanic, and find a tow-rope. Eventually the cars were linked and the umbrella withdrawn; they gingerly manoeuvred the Metro towards the exit. As they approached the window of the battered payment booth, a hand framed in a damp, dirt-smeared, black cuff extended towards him. They hadn’t noticed the attendant. Ticket please, mate.
My first thought is for the child. She’s in the cot next to me squealing her wee lungs out. Time is warped, stretched. I am functioning on a primal level: breaths coming fast, senses sharp. I reach for the bedside light switch: nothing. The electricity is off. I can feel the cold damp air coming through the shredded curtains. My face is sticky and wet with blood down one side; I wipe it away with my hand, and detachedly locate and remove the small shard of glass. It does not hurt. The noises from outside add to the confusion: alarms, police sirens, fire engines, shouting. I’m shouting – at him – to give me his cigarette lighter. After fumbling for a while he passes it to me. I flick it with my thumb and we have light. As my eyes grow accustomed to the gloom I can see that the bedroom is covered in nasty little slivers of glass; it’s over everything. I lean over the cot, holding the lighter close. She is shrieking, kicking, rubbing a fist in her left eye. I can’t tell where she’s bleeding from at first; there is too much blood in the way. I scream at him to ring an ambulance. I don’t even know if he’s alright – haven’t even looked his way yet, really – but he’s up and away downstairs to the phone without complaint, so he must be OK. He has to be OK. I grab a discarded t-shirt from the chair by the radiator, shake the glass off it as best I can, turn it inside out, and start to dab at her arms and face, until I can see the cuts. I’m ineffectually murmuring soothing words: mummy’s here, brave wee lassie, going to be alright, shush wee pet. She doesn’t calm down. I cannot tell how bad it is; the blood is flowing very fast, and I can’t see properly. She is only nine weeks old, doesn’t deserve this. There is no time for anger; I must save her. The metal lighter wheel is hot against my thumb, and I let it go out for a while, working in the dark from memory. I can’t work from memory. He comes puffing up the stairs, has to go out to ring, the phone is out as well. Go! I yell, now! I know it’s not his fault, and hope he understands. He pulls on trousers, shakes fragments out of his shoes, curses, and runs, laces trailing. As the front door slams, I know that I’ll be expecting every ambulance I hear outside to be the one that is coming to take my wee girl to safety. Hurry, for God’s sake, I implore, hurry. I still cannot tell how bad it is. The lighter burns my thumb as I work.