Summer fiction: Control Zone by Abbie Spallen

‘The kooky space-time continuum … known as the Troubles must be given the definition of having been a time spent at the height of the Troubles’

Regarding the space-time continuum, what you have to understand is that those of us living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles often found ourselves an unwitting part of a wondrous anomaly.

And as is the kooky nature of space-time continuums and indeed anomalies, it is only in hindsight that we have even been made aware of said anomaly that, completely unbeknown to us, we found ourselves in: that any time referred to as having been spent in Northern Ireland during the period known as the Troubles must be given the definition of having been a time spent at the height of the Troubles.

Even if that time was a tiny wee short period during a larger, say, 30-year period, all times thus spent, must, it would now appear, to have been apportioned the specificity as time spent at the height of the Troubles. And who have we only journalists to thank? Indeed, it would appear that every single journalist who has spent any time here, say, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, late ‘80s, early ‘90s or … has also been given a sort of a reverse elastic definition of that time having been, without a Tardis, at the height of the Troubles.

A vortex of heights. A 30-year height and beyond this height what is there only other heights? A place of wonders indeed

Of course, problematic within this is that the existence of all these heights should facilitate one or two, Jesus even half an hour of lows. But no. It would appear not. Lows be banished. During the period known as the Troubles, there appear to have been only Eamonn Holmes and heights. A vortex of heights. A 30-year height and beyond this height what is there only other heights? A place of wonders indeed.


And, in that place of wonders and … heights, we also had a thing called a control zone. A control zone being, a particular situation, on a day out shopping or that, whereupon a family, as a family, a bit like my own, a unit of say four people, mother, father, boy and girl, would come across a particular area designated as an already bit of a ballbeg of a nuisance, this being indicated by the swearing and references by the father of same unit to said ballbeg’ and also hoors’ melts. This area, a few streets or whatnot, was one whereby, under the law of the land, the occupants of a car were obliged, under no circumstances, to leave that car unoccupied.

Therefore, upon finding themselves in this situation, a family, or indeed my family, would take the collective decision to leave someone behind. Now bearing in mind that control zones were plentiful, and most decisions becoming almost automatic in their madness at this time, during one of these many, many, too many to even mention for fear of boring you, heights, the family, mother, father, brother would exit the car, lock it up tight and leave me, their youngest and only female child, behind. For hours.

The reason for the existence of the control zones was obvious. But not so much to her. At the time of the heights of the non-lows, cars were often used as a bomb. An unattended car would be suspicious and therefore blown up. The child’s instinct, however, on being instructed to mind the car was to believe firmly that it was entirely up to her to prevent the bad boys in the IRA (other organisations being available) from actually using said car as a bomb. That it was her responsibility, when approached by one of the bad boys in a sort of a bomb pimp guise, to persuade them, that she was not that type of Catholic and they were to go away.

As she minded the car, the child in question certainly thought twice and indeed often and forensically about her role as a guardian of said car, dissuader and bomb preventer

The reason for the confusion being the awareness among Catholics that th’authorities (other th’authorities unfortunately not being available) had an uncanny tendency to come to the conclusion that it was a natural inclination among Catholics to offer up their car, and even in some cases their own life as a proxy. Perhaps it was thought that being in their own car would make these Catholics take a moment and think about how they were now supposed to get to work with no car and possibly no legs or head. And on thinking that, they might indeed make protest at being singled out and included. And even suggest that Mad Dog Slim in a balaclava there should maybe move themselves onwards, find another ride to pimp and therefore render the bomb shenanigans if not thwarted, then postponed.

As she minded the car, the child in question certainly thought twice and indeed often and forensically about her role as a guardian of said car, dissuader and bomb preventer. And all at the age of eight.

Her brother, being older and having, as his mother would say, the hands of the fucking divil, was excluded from any business with the car on account of said hands of the fucking divil and their predisposition for taking off the handbrake and rolling the car down any hill and maybe into another car, water or brick wall. It has to be said that this had never actually happened. The reason for that being that the mother was forearmed.

This forearming having been miraculously gained from an incident in the mecca that was Dundalk Shopping Centre over the Border, in the mecca of the South, rendering it a sort of a double mecca in a land already wondrous. It was in this double mecca or meta mecca that the boy child did once press the escalator button resulting in the abrupt stoppage of it and the abrupt stoppage of everyone on it, and it having been going in a downwards direction, everyone on it also going down and completely arse-over-tit in a loud exclamatory meta mecca sort of an invocation as Dundalkese as in what fuckin’ hoor, fuckin’ just did thon in the name of fuckin’ Christ?

The hanging around in those shaps being the highlight and in fact only light of any child in the height that was the Troubles

The mother, on hearing this, and also hearing references to whether in fact it is possible for a child’s hands to be possessed by a demon, made, in her eyes, the completely rational decision to walk away. This walking away leaving him in effect a demonically digited waifling in the eyes of the law, not to mention the escalating-ly perplexed ex-escalator exitors (”Was it that wee c***, there?”), and the “I’m just going to shift my belt round my big belly in a very important way” big-shifting-bellied security staff.

Of course, in years to come, any idea of maybe questioning the parenting skills of well, parents that would abandon a child in a shopping centre as opposed to the usual practise of merely losing one by maybe just a wee bit of neglect was to be mentally quashed with the notion that seriously, you’da walked away from him too. You’da run.

Today in the car, however, the very same brother was not running, but definitely displaying a bit-of-a-skip on being escorted, himself, on a day out to the shaps. Like a reward. For the being of a dick. And the same brother with a nonchalant, backward glance, full of all the fuck yous, a truly possessed infant could muster and now cast in the direction of the sister.

And let us not underestimate the power of the shaps. The hanging around in those shaps being the highlight and in fact only light of any child in the height that was the Troubles. Any ordinary excitement of hangin’ around in shaps being elevated even further by the fact that sooner or later, somebody, somewhere might blow them up. Them blew up shaps often subsequently advertising a bomb-damage sale with a bomb-damage sale sign in the window. The very existence of these bomb-damage sale signs being in themselves an anomaly considering the times that were in it and the lack of home printing and the having to get everything from somebody else.

Which meant that somewhere, even England, maybe Luton, there might have been a factory printing bomb-damage sale signs purely for the Ulster market. Us being snobs, my granny having been the actual manager of an actual shap in the town called Snaubs, we eschewed anything from a bomb-damage sale because my ma said it made you smell of Semtex.

The realisation that life is fundamentally unfair might be a series of enlightened nanoseconds during a period of time spent on one’s own, in a car, at the age of eight, protecting that same car from masked gunmen, during a war, while your brother, at that very moment, was probably horsing his face into an ice cream; vanilla, with a flake.

It is fair to say that, under normal circumstances, the appearance of this face cloth would fill any child with paroxysms of horror

And every window left closed. And the mention just now of an ice cream, fairly indicative that it was summer and possibly hot. But don’t you worry now, this is not that sort of story. I did not die. Because along with all the marvels of this place and the magic and jumpers that smelled of tributyl citrate, and long before the concept of water in a bottle, did we not have, my own mother’s early invention of wet wipes? Which is why this child might have climbed over the back seat and into the front passenger seat to do a bit of a rummage between the gearstick and an old shoe, the bounty in her quest: a freezing-cold, wet, mouldy face cloth wrapped up in a bit of tinfoil.

It is fair to say that, under normal circumstances, the appearance of this face cloth would fill any child with paroxysms of horror. The rustle of that tinfoil and the slap on the fiseog of soap-mush and DNA, a thing of nightmares, more powerful than any bomb threat or mortar attack or “Jesus I will run into a hail of bullets to get that thing away from me”. Now, though, it was balm, albeit monstrous balm of congealed slime in a poreless and peerless shiny incubator from hell.

Settling back, in the back seat, face cloth on head, bravely sucking on a corner for relief; a government-approved mini-vanguard against terrorists, it was then, becoming relaxed, that she made the terrible mistake of moving her leg 3cm to the right. For her brother, the Luciferian possession having spread throughout his body, rendering him a veritable cornucopia of troublesome appendages, would ofttimes leave his trendy coat-with-a-zip in the prime spot 3cm to his left, so that the zip would absorb every ray from the sun, heating it up to a point not far off that of molten lava. And the proximity of which next to soft Irish skin leaving a sort of a zip-shaped branding mark, possibly not unlike that on the arse of trendy cattle. Which is what happened.

Silently screaming into an interminable void, she looked down at her poor leg and saw the track of the zip not snaking but straight and brutal, like train tracks hot, red, just poured in a foundry where maybe no Catholics were employed. And she knew full well that her brother would have done that deliberately, his head probably rotating at the time he did it, a full 360 degrees on his neck.

But it passed. This pain passed. Pain always passed. The face cloth was sucked and for now Snoopy mad Pup stayed away.

Someone was approaching the car.

She looked up and out the window to be met with the sight of two moustachioed Royal Ulster Constabulary men, heavily armed and with a swagger that came with an overabundance of facial hair, a proximity to the heaviest artillery, and an absolute unawaredness of just how much that facial hair made them look like The Village People — only the RUC Northern Ireland branch of The Village People and without the collusion of cowboys (or so they said, anyway).

They looked like twins. Then, finding it easier to see without a face cloth on her head she was able to ascertain that one was, in fact, female. The swagger was the same. The hands placed on either side of a bullet-proof jacket, like a farmer with dungarees, as if to say, “Behold, I’m a farmer and these are my dungarees” or “Behold I’m in the 98 per cent Protestant police force that is the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and this is my bullet-proof jacket. And, if you follow the line of that there bullet-proof jacket you’ll come to my big belt with my big gun and here, behold, I am not like a farmer in the slightest actually. Are you a Fenian?”

Which was not what they said. They never said that. Not in the vicinity of a car. Or even a Fenian. Because they knew. Everybody knew that they knew. What she was. What the car was. With one check on the radio next to the hands on the bullet-proof jacket they had already radioed in the number plate and had found out its religion for yes, in this wondrous place even the cars had a religion. And even though the car might be the wrong religion it had, from the radio, got the all clear. The all clear registering her and her family as a secondary sort of Fenian family, cut-price Catholics if you like, not worth bothering about but absolutely stare the fuck out of any member of it just to be safe.

And maybe for fun.

So, they did.

And, still unfortunately with one corner of the face cloth in her mouth and sucking on it, she stared back.

And there was such merriment there. In their eyes. And it was unfortunate for her that a metaphor had just the second before popped up like, like a taunt like, like the imprint of a hot zip like, meaning that they had now maybe had imprinted on their minds what they knew to be a truth about her. That these two disco twins, who were definitely not gay, had come up with an unspoken opinion of this here Fenian eight-year-old in this here Fenian car. And it’s fair to say that that opinion might not have been kind. Not unkind maybe, but not kind. Maybe, even not kind but with a tiny bit of pity, which was worse.

And as they stared, they shared some sort of joke, muffled by (both) moustaches which begged the question in her head, “was that what the moustaches were for? To hide mutterings, they might have about Fenians or abandoned children or maybe the status of a child in a family?” Which, when she thought about it, suddenly made sense. Oh, they were clever. Clever enough to muffle whispers with facial hair and clever enough to know the religion of a vehicle. But not that clever though. She knew from their mutterings that they thought they knew all about her. Her aforementioned status.

Even MI5 couldn’t be sure that her family did not love her completely and see her as something to be left

That her family, for whatever reason, had chosen her as the one to mind the car, to sit in the heat during a time of conflict and be no better than a dog. That’s what they thought. But they were wrong. Their sniggers misplaced. Excessive. Even. And just because, when she looked around there seemed, indeed, to be no other lone children left in other cars; merely lone fathers, and one solitary smiling octogenarian with no wit, maybe there were, and she couldn’t be sure, and therefore neither, with all their knowledge and cleverality could they. And, of course, what they were oblivious to with all their power and technology was the facts about the brother and his legs. And his hands. And his brain.

Even MI5 couldn’t be sure that her family did not love her completely and see her as something to be left. Behind. Had they indeed known all that, then they would have known her properly? And her status. Which was above a car. Really. And the knowing of this would absolutely not have induced that pity in them neither. Pity mostly from the female one of course, she having her own status as a woman in a 98 per cent Protestant and probably 99 per cent male police force and anyway this was just some Fenian kid.

And even if they, these two cops, did think, and even had that knowledge at their disposal, with special branch and the CIA and Captain Marvel on their walkie-talkie things next to the thumbs: that her father thought alternative parking in a non-control zone too hard to find and too expensive, and that it was much easier and safer to leave his youngest girl in a car instead of himself, this hairy-lipped woman had no right to pity her for this was just how it worked out and none of this was any reflection on her importance at all and not something she would wonder about for the rest of her life, too embarrassed to ask her friends if they also, had been left behind.

Until she did one day ask a friend who replied, “no, they didn’t. Because that is very fucked up.” To leave a child. Alone. Without liquid. But you see, she was wrong too; her friend. She didn’t know everything. Even the most knowledgeable and informed couldn’t have known everything. Hands. Feet. And that lack of knowledge of everything meant that she knew then, as she knows now, that they were wrong to think her unloved. Or unliked. Or surplus. And that other things were done. She did know and remembers now that she was glad when the two of them finally, still laughing and still muttering, walked away.

Finally, hours later, when her family arrived back, and just before they opened the door, more importantly, just before her brother opened his door, she moved the coat with the zip over so that it might meet, now also heated by the sun, with a piece of his leg as he sat down. He flicked it out of the way with his foot like a pro and as he settled in beside her and grinned, his breath smelled lightly of vanilla.

  • Abbie Spallen is a writer, actor and film producer. Her awards include the Windham Campbell Prize for Literature, the Stewart Parker major award, The Tony Doyle award, The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Her plays include Abeyance, Pumpgirl, Strandline and Lally the Scut.