Gerry passes me a Pellegrino and sinks back into a wicker lounge chair on the patio he handbuilt with his son. Sun is beating relentlessly down the canyon hillside, which he has planted fastidiously and still tends. I feel my skin start to burn, but am too conflict-averse to say anything. Gerry has not been cursed with this particular Irish affliction. His bronze brow creases like the linen of his open sand-white shirt as he transports me back to Belfast in 1970.
“We didn’t have phones in those days, so my father-in-law Tommy walked down. He lived on the Cregagh Road, and I lived further down from him. He said, ‘Gerry I need you to do a job for me,’ and I said, ‘no problem, tell me what it is.’ I would have done anything for him. He says, ‘my mother’s stuck. We need to go down to the Divis Flats and bring her here.’ We were watching it on TV. The whole thing was televised. But it was only five or six miles from us.
“Very few people had cars. I had an old banger of a car. Tommy came down and he asked me because the buses were all off the roads. There was no taxi goin’, you wouldn’t have got a cab for to go there. It was no man’s land.
“There was a lot of young IRA lived in the flats and there was always trouble with the special branch of the police. The B-Specials as they were called. They weren’t really trained police, but Protestant Bully Boys. They’d break down the door if you didn’t answer it. Just back the Land Rover into it. Their only job was to sort out the IRA.
“They’d send in the B-specials to deal with the young. The provisional IRA were all young. Anything from 14 years old to 30. And when I say some of them were 14, I mean it. The old IRA didn’t want to get involved. They were in the 1922 rebellion and they didn’t want to go back to prison again.
“This old car, a navy-blue Ford Cortina, more often you pushed rather than drove it. We got it through the barricades. We said we were there to pick-up, and they accepted us and let us drive on. We got outside these towering flats which the night before, and the night before that they were peppering the outside of the building with STEN gun bullets.
“I can see his face, like. He was deadpan, white face. I’d never seen him like that before. Even in the car. We both smoked. I think we must have smoked 20 cigarettes the couple of hours that we were away. And it was continual! You were usin’ one of the old cigarettes to light the new one. He was a very religious man too, and he was prayin’ in the car that she’d be alright. And he just…was lost, lost for words.
“When we got through the barricade there was bonfires on either side and they’d blocked the roads. The cars were exploding with fuel inside them. The place was in darkness. They blew out all the lights because they didn’t want the B-Specials to see them. They were all dressed in black and wearing balaclavas. They had a few rifles, but the rifles were made in the 1914 – 1918 war. They had to fire and then load. These other guys were peppersprayin’ them.
“Tommy left me in my car in the wasteground in front of this place, and he says ‘I’ll be back.’ Then a crowd of about 20 young yabos arrived and they came over to my car. They didn’t ask me what I was doin’ or what was my business. They started to rock my car. And 20 people can lift a car no problem and let it drop and lift it again and drop it again.
“Lucky enough, one of the so-called leaders, an older man in his 30s, said, ‘Stop, stop this.’ He looked and spoke like a schoolteacher. He was in control of this mob. When he told them to stop, they stopped. And he said, “what’s your business here?”
“I said ‘I’m here with Tommy McCullough. He’s my father-in-law, and he’s down to find out about his 86-year-old mother who lives down in the Divas Flats.’
‘I don’t know Tommy McCullough.’
“I says ‘he comes here one Saturday a month to meet his friends in Charlie Daly’s Pub. So, if you know anybody who drinks there, they’ll know Tommy McCullough.’
“So, he says, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll go back in again, you leave this car alone, if you want to stay here, stay here, but do not touch this car.’ This is, as he said, a mission of mercy.
“For 15 minutes I waited. It was like two hours in my time because I’m looking at the guys and they’re looking at me and I’m goin’… I don’t like this one bit. So, my father-in-law came with this guy and he said to me, ‘Oh Mrs. McCullough is in a school in Andersonstown. And they’ve set up beds there for the people, temporary, and she’s gettin’ well taken care of. And I’ve already called the school and found out where she is.’
“So Tommy gets into the car, and I says I can’t wait to get out of here. After the rock ‘n roll it had got! I said I hope it starts, I hope it starts. And it started and off it put-put-put! backfired a couple of times, and off it went!
“He says to me, ‘it was very nervewracking inside.’ And I says you ought to have been out here! I says I never drink whiskey, but I need a glass of whiskey. I’m shakin’. He started to laugh because he’d been really, really worried and he was so thankful.
I went home and for a couple of nights afterwards I was having nightmares.