Imogen was pestering me the other day for her homework, asking for a memory of flowers. I simply couldn’t think of anything.
Then I remembered the nettles.
It was the mid-nineties and my cousin was cock-a-hoop to get to a disco in the west of the city.
Now, we were north Belfast, and although Catholic, we were not welcome over there as far as I was aware. It was a dangerous place to go.
“Think it over,” Marcus said. “There is a wee girl I met down the town, a Goth, and she and her mates are all going. Wee crackers.”
“I’m not into Goths. And it’s not our patch. We could end up in a back alley.”
But Marcus wasn’t for folding, and for the next few days he pestered me endlessly. “The girls round here are stuck-up, Fabien. These westies are wild and free.”
He was like Pepé Le Pew, the love-hungry skunk from the cartoons, frantically chasing the cat. He had to get to the Andytown disco, and I was going to be his wing-man.
“I have a mate up there called McGrattan. He’ll go with us and trust me, no-one will mess with him.”
God, Marcus was persistent, and every excuse I mustered was swept aside. Money? He had the money for us both. My part-time job in The Washington? Nugent was covering. My glacial apathy? It would be a night I would never forget.
He was right about that. We got dolled up in my house, as my mum was away to her sister’s overnight. Marcus had the stereo blasting and the fags going ding-dust and we got a bus at the Lansdowne Hotel and floated into town.
I was feeling a bit less fearful in the black taxi going up the Falls, as the craic was great, and the buildings and streets so familiar from the news. Murals and drunks and dogs and mothers pushing prams. It was like a Neil Jordan movie scene.
Then we met McGrattan. He didn’t look like a hard ticket to me. Long, blonde hair and jeans tucked into his basketball boots. But looks can be deceiving. Marcus smirked as we joined the queue, gleeking around on his tiptoes for his little kitty.
The atmosphere was electric. The Stone Roses and Oasis were blaring and we were pogo-ing around with all the friendly westies to Chumbawamba – “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down” – when suddenly the doors burst open and the DJ performed an emergency stop.
Bewildered, I looked around and Marcus and McGrattan were staring at the stage. Three men with balaclavas had appeared and one took the microphone.
“A chairde, I have an announcement to make about anti-social behaviour in this district. It has never, and will never be tolerated by the people here. We have a list of people we want to talk to this evening and I would ask youse to go to the front door quietly when your name is called. Gerry Thomson...”
I was frozen with fear. I thought there was a ceasefire? Maybe there were no rules in the west.
As he called out more names and lads began to sidle forward, McGrattan suddenly sprinted to the fire door and burst out. Marcus grabbed me and we followed before anyone really realised.
Out the back we ran into an area with long grass and nettles as big as trees and dived down beside him. He told us to shush. Then voices. “Where are you? We know you’re hiding, son. It’s gonna make this worse, you wee s***.”
Retreating footsteps, then silence. My heart was exploding and as I went to stand up, I felt McGrattan’s hand on my arm and his blazing eyes told me not to move.
An eternity, then the same voice. No, they really are gone. And they left.
How the nettles stung for hours. How McGrattan had fought and beat an IRA man the previous week. How close we had sailed.
It was a story I didn’t want to tell to my seven-year-old daughter.