It was close to Christmas, the season of goodwill, and at the height of our ‘Troubles’ but like the great majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens, I – relatively unfazed and unscathed – was going about my normal life and business.
Such a luxury was not possible for people in ‘flashpoint’ areas, yet while sympathetic, there was little, I thought, that could be done.
Unfortunately there had been a squally shower an hour before, then a sudden icy snap – the classic conditions for ‘black ice’ to form. The road too traversed one of those unseen boundaries between the communities – unseen, that is, except where enthusiasts decide to mark their own territory with flags, murals and slogans. These can be helpful too, signifying that one is ‘among one’s own’ – or not! There were no flags here, but I was roughly aware of the unseen boundary, and perhaps just a little bit anxious. I was a woman, alone.
I was a woman, alone.
Rounding a corner, I hit a patch of ‘black ice’, lost control of my car and slewed broadside through a wire fence and post, and ended in a shallow ditch by a coppice at the side of the road. I was badly shaken but thankfully uninjured. I assessed my predicament and shuddered a little for the first time, anxious as to what ‘area’ I might be in. My car was stuck fast in a shallow ditch and I could not hope to free it unaided.
My car came off the road in the ice,’ I added in explanation.
‘Certainly, love. Come on in,’ and he waved me to enter.
‘No, no no. I just need to ring my husband.’
He smiled. ‘You look quite shaken. Come in and rest.
You’re the fifth one of the day’, he added, enigmatically.
‘You came off at the corner below? At the coppice?’
‘There was a fence there. Do you know it?’ I asked, stupidly.
‘I own it,’ he smiled. ‘Now, you’ll have a cuppa tea!’
‘I broke your fence! I’ll have it mended!’
‘First things first. We have to mend your nerves!’ he smiled.
‘Some one should tell the Roads Department about that ice,’ his wife offered.
‘Every time we do, they think it’s because of our fence. But it’s not!’
I had to avoid her eyes.
She was as friendly and considerate as her husband. Neither made any attempt to determine whether I was of their community or not (whatever ‘community’ they belonged to!). Hospitality was offered here on a civilized basis.
‘Oh, THAT’s what your husband meant about the tractor!’ I was relieved.
‘No. No tractor!’
‘Never mind. I’ll get the cub up outta bed.’
She was gone upstairs despite my protests and a moment later I heard her give orders to ‘the cub’. Shortly, a dishevelled lad in his teens came down the stairs and went out into the cold night on his errand of mercy. They wouldn’t let me accompany him.
‘He’ll need no help in this!’ they smiled together.
‘He’s doin’ it all the time!’
I was still there twenty minutes later when he returned with the news that my car was road-worthy and on the roadside verge. I had been fed sandwiches as well as tea and had contacted my husband and family by phone to reassure them I was well, if delayed. At no point did my hosts intimate that their hospitality was at all conditional. To the contrary! I was surely curious about them but said nothing that would betray my small-mindedness.
The need to reciprocate.
The need to reciprocate.
‘There’ll be no more accidents there, tonight, I think. My husband told me on the phone the bend will be salted immediately!’
A quizzical look was his only concession to inquisitiveness. I smiled.
‘My husband is an Executive with the Roads Department. He said to thank you.
And the fence will be mended tomorrow!’
‘No need for haste.‘
‘How much do I owe you for the damage, and for my vehicle’s recovery?’
‘No need. No need. Sure anybody would do the same.’
Then he thought a while.
‘Maybe some wee thing for the cub for Christmas!’
‘Rely on it’, were my parting words.
But it never happened.
A few nights later, a number of ‘loyalist paramilitaries’ burst into the isolated home of Mr and Mrs Fox and callously shot them both to death.
It remains one of our most eminent ‘unsolved crimes’.
I think I wanted to tell Mr Fox we can be magnanimous too, on our side of the fence.
And we can and we will.
Though these good people will never know it now.