Taxi-driver Liam Donnelly recalls a day in the 1970s, at the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Belfast, when he faced a potential life-or-death dilemma and the outcome which helped restore his faith in the people of his native city.
It happened one sunny Saturday morning in Seventies Belfast on the Falls Road. Sunshine brightens the spirits as well as the terrain. The people of that war ravished city welcomed the sunshine in a way that outsiders could never comprehend. It was a distraction, a respite from the grimness of their daily existence in a brutalised society.
It was a reminder of more innocent times when a jaunt into the city was all about shopping or a drink with friends. It carried no ominous nagging thoughts of bombs or sectarian murder back in the day.
After several years of strife people adapted to the reality of everyday life in a war zone. They had no choice. Life still went on – even in the midst of the mayhem all around them. It was essential to their survival. Essential to their sanity.
Anything could happen in those days and often did. When it did you could usually deal with it. Some protective mechanism was triggered in the brain. You were never completely inured to ‘the troubles’ but you learned to live with them. It was like the wallpaper in your living room, you knew it was there but you never spent your day just looking at it. You got on with life.
So it was on that sunny Saturday morning I was cruising along the Falls Road in my black taxi with the window down and the warm breeze wafting through the cab. It had been a good morning for business and my spirits were up. A rare emotion for taxi drivers. I had one passenger in the back of the cab, a young woman in her late twenties.
As I entered Divis Street, which is an extension of the main Falls Road, I spotted an elderly woman wandering perilously close to the edge of the pavement. I slowed down to take a look. I was struck by her quaint mode of dress. She reminded me of my grandmother.
I hadn’t seen garb such as this since I was a schoolboy. She wore a floral patterned wrap-around smock that covered up completely her skirt. The smock was sleeveless, revealing a pale blue woollen jumper beneath. Her stockings were thick and of a rare vintage. On her feet, fur trimmed bedroom slippers. There was something wrong here. I had to stop.
I eased the cab into the kerbside. I turned to my passenger to explain but there was no need. Concern was written all over her face. We each went to the old lady to offer our help. Her steely grey hair was tied up at the back of her head in a tight bun.
Loose strands swept across her wrinkled brow in the soft breeze distracting her. She swept them aside with a thin gnarled hand. Confusion was giving way to distress. Tears were filling the palest of pale blue eyes.
“I’m lost,” she whimpered.
We each took an arm, my lady passenger and I.
“Where do you live, darling?” I asked. Her eyes flitted from side to side as she murmured something incoherent. My lady passenger took the old woman’s hand in hers.
“Tell us the name of your street, dear, and we’ll get you home safely.”