‘Open the box,’ said the nervous squaddie, waving his rifle at my nethers.
I sucked the chill December air through my teeth, like a truculent mechanic when you tell them there’s a funny noise from the back end of your car.
‘Probably not a good idea,’ I said, regretting many things.
‘Open the fucking box,’ he yelled.
‘You’re sure?’ I said, my teeth chattering the last seconds of my life away
‘Fucking. Open. The. Fucking. Box.’
Half an hour before, the world seemed a lot simpler, and safer.
Belfast in the mid-90s still retained the menace of car bombs, midnight rifle rounds, pinging off steel, and the real probability of finding yourself somewhere you wished you weren’t, in that ‘They’re going to discover my body up an entry, but at least I’ll be on the telly’ sort of way.
If you lived in the city, during the years of the Troubles, you developed an alarming array of skills. You possessed an acute geographical awareness, honed by kerbstone colours and the vivid murals, an ability to distinguish the size, proximity and nature of the various bangs and booms, and a vague sixth-sense that told you when to get the fuck out of wherever it was.
I’d moved there a few years earlier. A big fellah, with an English accent and a short haircut, so you might think there were places I wouldn’t be welcome, but I had a free pass. I worked in the theatre business, mostly community shows, so I could go anywhere. One day you’d be doing a show up the Shankhill Road in a loyalist club, the next, you’d be in the Bobby Sands room in Poleglass. It didn’t mean there weren’t a few raised eyebrows, and I got slagged mercilessly, but at the time, I reckon I ended up in more parts of the city than most folk who were born and reared there.
My first job was in the Arts Theatre, now a Bingo Hall. I arrived fresh off the ferry as they were rehearsing the Christmas pantomime. Now I’d a few years of theatre under my belt as a set builder and stage manager, so I thought I’d be able to fit in easy enough. But that first rehearsal made me question my life choices, even though I was there because the love of my life had got a job in the city.
The show was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The scene they were rehearsing was the croquet game, with flamingoes as clubs and hedgehogs as balls. The set was an enormous, gaudily-painted stage, sloping down towards the audience (a rake as we call it), with trapdoors for characters to pop up through.
All well and good, except it wasn’t. Some bright spark had had the genius-level idea of using remote control cars… for the hedgehogs.
The rehearsal was going downhill as quickly as the cars were, flying off the front of the rake into the first few rows of seats. And if their respective operators managed to keep them on the stage, the little bundles of fake fur were either trying to hump each other, or making mad, uncontrolled dashes at any actor who had the temerity to stick their head through one of the trapdoors. I sat in the stalls, watching the carnage, wishing I was back in England and I had never met my future wife.
The problem was simple enough. Citycab’s offices were next door to the theatre. Every time the taxi company radioed one of its drivers, the hedgehogs would respond with glee and abandon, as their new God spoke to them.
The rehearsals finished early, and the crew and director held a heated production meeting, before the stage manager, a lovely woman, came over to me.
‘Welcome to Belfast. It’s not always like this,’ she said, resignation etched on her face.
But it was always like this.
The look of terror on the taxi driver’s face, when I explained it was a prop gun that only fired tin-cans and I had to get it to rehearsals across town.
The time I got stopped by the army outside Unity Flats, driving an almost empty van, other than the six Silhouette theatre lights that were lying on their side, lenses pointing towards the doors, that did indeed look like an array of mortars and required several minutes of explaining.
And the time I got stopped at the bottom of the Falls Road with a load of props in the back of a borrowed van and a squaddie waved his rifle at me, demanding I open ‘The. Fucking. Box.’
Most of the time you could explain things easy enough, but not that night.
That day, I’d been building set pieces and props with a fellah called Alex. The workshop was in a complex of industrial units at the top of the Crumlin Road, between the Ardoyne and the maze of streets backing on to the Shankhill. It’s a retail park now, but back then it was a place were magical things were made, painted, and transported across the city.
It was Arts Theatre panto time again, and to be honest, I don’t remember what show it was, mostly on account of the PTSD.
And I’ve no idea why Alex was there either. He was cocky fellah from Oldham, but a great carpenter. Our job was to turn the smudged drawings of an unhinged designer into real, 3D objects, one of which was The Box.
Around five o’clock, I decided we should take the stuff we’d built and finished over to the theatre, so the director and designer could give us the OK. We loaded the rusting Toyota van up, shut the doors and headed off.
I didn’t own the van.
The production manager did.
That was my first mistake.
Now I don’t usually listen to the radio, but Alex turned it on and Cool FM blared the latest forgettable music. As we turned onto the Crumlin Road, there was a newsflash.
‘There are reports of a number of abandoned vehicles across the city. The army bomb disposal teams are attending and there are delays on the…’
It was an effective IRA tactic. Hijack a car, dump it at a busy junction and run. The RUC had no idea whether there was a bomb in it or not, so the bomb-squad’s robots would have to take a nosey and blow a door off or two. And while they were doing that, the city’s traffic would grind to a halt.
At least the army used a different frequency to Citycab’s radio, otherwise…
‘Oh fuck. We’ll never get down here. We’ll go the back way,’ I said.
I knew every short-cut across Belfast, and the ‘back way’ took us through the Peace Wall gates that divided the Shankhill and the Falls.
This was my second mistake.
When we got to the Falls Road, the traffic was jammed, and nobody was going anywhere.
‘This is useless. Might as well go back to the workshop and finish off the other bits,’ I said, as I swung the steering wheel and attempted to do a U-turn.
And the British Army emerged from the bushes, at least twenty of them, heavily armed and pissed off.
‘Oh shit,’ said Alex.
‘Oh shit,’ I replied. ‘Wind your window down and don’t say anything. I’ll explain.’
And I tried, as two squaddies pointed their rifles at us through the open windows.
‘Where are you going?’
‘We were going to the Arts Theatre on Botanic, but there’s bomb scares and…’
‘How do you know about them?’
‘It was on the radio and…’
‘Why’d you turn round?’
‘Because there are bomb scares and I thought we’d go back to the…’
And then I hear Alex’s voice.
‘You got a licence for that gun?’
‘Alex, shut the fuck up,’ I hissed.
‘Whose van is it?’
‘Ah, well, it’s a mate’s, he lent it to me.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Get out and open the doors.’
By this stage, my squaddie was shouting a lot.
I walked to the back of the van and opened the doors.
An odd assortment of gaudy props greeted that poor kid, including a four-foot square box, covered in swirls of glitter.
‘You’re sure?’ I said, thinking they were my final words.
‘Fucking open it.’
I released the catch and time slowed down.
I think the squaddie lost control of his bodily functions, and it was only the arrival of a bored RUC officer that snapped the world back into focus.
He laughed as I explained, and the poor squaddie calmed down.
‘Alright, you head on,’ said the RUC fellah, and we drove back to the workshop.
But I know that somewhere in England, there is an ex-army fellah, still having nightmares.
‘I want it big and as scary as you can make it. It’s got to leap out and freak the kids,’ was what the designer had said to us.
And it was.
A four-foot square, scary-as-fuck, Jack-in-the-Box.by