Recently I attended a writing group at Queen’s University, where we did a 45 minute challenge where we wrote a story based on a famous quote. The following is what I produced – thanks go to members of Belfast Writers’ Group for helping edit the piece!
“Most of the great triumphs and tragedies of human history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people” – Neil Gaiman
Gosh, I hate the rain. You think I’d be used to it; after all, I’ve been living in this forsaken city for eighteen years. Still in bed, I peer outside from the sanctuary of my window, watching the drips trail down the outside pane like tears. Even this rain cannot hide the divisions that mar the view from this house. It is a view encompassed by a great, ugly wall; topped with barbed wire and etched with graffiti. The wall that separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’
If humans are good at one thing, it’s dividing ourselves. We love to set up borders; to build walls; to form our own cliques in our own corner of the planet. We hide behind the fragile identity bestowed upon us by society’s labels: Catholic, Protestant, Black, White, Man, Woman… Yet we are all fundamentally human; we all bleed red and we will all face the same ultimate fate of death.
I look down at my hand; similar in structure to yours, with its bones and its veins and its muscle and its fingerprint. It’s funny to think that something so common can be the cause of so much change. It is hands like mine that discovered vaccines, or wrote beautiful poetry, or held a newborn child. Yet these same instruments have been used to destroy, to sign death warrants, to divide.
My father always told me to consider that every time I look at my hands, I am looking at a choice: today, shall I use these for good or for evil? I have the innate potential for both; simultaneously saint and sinner. It’s up to me which I unleash.
Not that my father was any great sage, mind you. Towards the end, the stress of his job began getting to him; the constant abuse, the threats, the violence… As a result, he very often stumbled in drunk. There were no words of wisdom on those nights.
As always happens when I think of Dad, tears spring to my eyes, the six month wound still raw as ever. I wipe them with the back of my hand and determinately get out of bed. I have things to accomplish today. No point in wallowing in the past.
I riffle through my wardrobe, trying to find something suitable. There’s the school uniform – too ugly. The black dress I wore at the funeral – too over the top. The jeans Dad bought me last Christmas – too informal.
What does one wear to your Dad’s murder trial?
You think me vain, or heartless, for even considering such a trivial matter. Yet if the past six months have taught me anything, between the bereavement counselling and the sertraline tablets and the support groups, it’s that I must keep living, for Dad’s sake. Even occupying my mind with the mundane things helps me cling on to the edge of the abyss of my despair.
“Are you getting ready up there?” shouts my mum, releasing me from my reverie.
“In a minute-“
I hastily throw on the first outfit I touch, the blue dress I wore last summer. By the time I bundle several layers of jumpers and raincoats on top, it doesn’t really matter what lies beneath. I emerge from my room and meet my mum in the landing.
“Have you had breakfast, dear?”
“I don’t think I could possibly eat today,” I reply, and she nods knowingly.
Her composure is astounding. My love for my mum has increased in ways I never thought possible in the days since Dad was killed. It’s just the two of us now, yet she was able to keep it all together throughout all the hearings and the press interviews, while I was still a crying mess. Her curly hair is neatly pinned away from her face. Once it was a chestnutty shade of brown, but these days its original hue has been mixed with flecks of grey. Her face bears the scars of recent times; no amount of makeup can disguise the worry lines that have become so permanent. Yet she is still able to smile as she pulls me into a hug.
“This is it,” she whispers into my ear. “After today it will all be over.”
She breaks the embrace and looks at me with concern.
“Are you sure you want to come? It will be difficult. Court trials are not like what you see in films.”
“I’m an adult, Mum,” I assert. “I am going.”
To be fair, I’ve been an adult for the grand total of five days, but I need to do this if I’m ever going to get closure.
On the drive to the court, we are both silent, sending up our whispered prayers. I don’t even know what to pray for. Justice? Revenge? That all of this would just end?
When we arrive at the court our vehicle is swarmed by press, their cameras clicking incessantly and questions are hollered in our faces as we struggle through.
Time passes me like a blur, as if I am watching events taking place to another person. I’m ushered into the pew-like seats reserved for the victim’s family, and I sit in utter numbness and everyone buzzes around me, getting ready for the trial.
And then I see him.
I’ve only ever seen him on TV. But there he is, paraded in front of me, handcuffed and escorted by armed police.
The man who killed my father.
He’s not much older than me, really. His long, sandy coloured fringe does little to hide the utter fear in his eyes. He trembles as he takes his seat; a broken man. Whenever I look upon him, I feel the most human of emotions: hate.
I clench my hands and my father’s kind face floats into my mind. Choice, choice, choice, choice. My instincts tell me to throttle this man, make him feel even a fraction of the pain Dad felt. But it is these feelings that led to this mess in the first place.
Instead, I look at his face, into his eyes, which are now filled with terror. He’s little more than a child, really. Sucked into the apparent glamour of paramilitarism.
Without breaking eye contact, I use my hands to do what my father would be proud of. I raise my hand, palm facing the man, and I raise my index and middle finger:
These hands mean peace.