The story of Vo Thi Sau

The first time I saw a photograph of Vo Thi Sau I had no idea who she was. I had wandered into a small bookshop on the corner of Pho Ho Hoan Kiem in Hanoi, to avoid  the rain.  I was browsing through the bookshelves when I noticed her image on the cover of a book that was simply called Vo Thi Sau (A Legendary Heroine).  As most of the other books were about the American/Vietnam war I was curious to find out who this enigmatic looking young girl was and what had she done to deserve having a whole book dedicated to her.

I arrived in Hanoi just as they were experiencing the coldest weather for seventy years.  Everyone was wearing heavy Winter jackets and huddled around makeshift fires lit in braziers on the street.  Despite the cold, they all seemed in good humour, getting on with daily life and excited by the prospect of snow. I  flew in to Hanoi from Ventianne, Laos, where the weather had been a sweltering 33 degrees. I had lots of teeshirts but just one longsleeve top which meant I was ill-prepared for the unexpected cold snap. My main priority, on arrival, was to get a jacket and I was definitely in the right place for that as all the top end weather gear is available on every street corner in Hanoi.  These days all the big brand companies have manufacturing bases here.  The shops are filled with factory seconds at rock bottom prices and travellers flock here to pick up bargains.  After searching round the markets and some serious bartering I finally got one.   The cold weather eventually gave way to rain that cascaded down in torrents like a waterfall from the heavens.  I was on my way to Hoan Kiem lake, which sits elegantly in the centre of the city, with the lively backpacker district at the top end and the ritzy, chic area at the lower end of the lake. Hoan Kiem is a lively hub of vibrant activity, as young and old, rich and poor mingle together on the shores of the lake.  Some walk across the brightly lit Huc bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on Jade island, built in honour of the legendary 13th century general Tran Hung Dao.  On the weekends the whole area is traffic free and young people gather to sing, dance and listen to music while children play safely in the street.  In the early mornings the older generations gather by the lake to exercise, do Tai Chi and other healthy activities as the sun comes up.  It is a place where people come together as a community to enjoy their leisure time with their families.  It is a great place to go to get to know the locals on the weekend.  The lake itself has an interresting history steeped in local mythology.  In1428, the emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when he was approached by the golden turtle god, Kim Qui, who asked him to return his master’s sword.  Le Loi was given the sword by Long Vuang, the Dragon King to help him with his war against the Ming dynasty.  When the emperor eventually returned the sword he renamed the lake Hoan Kiem which means Returned Sword in Chinese.  Hoan Kiem is actually Chinese as the  language was in common use in Dai Viet (former name for Vietnam) at the time.  There is a rather picturesque tower standing on a small island in the lake called Thap Rua or Turtle Tower  The original name of the lake was Ta Vong or Green Lake because the colour of the water is always green.  There have been turtles in the lake for many years but their numbers appear to have dwindled in recent times.  As the rain lashed down relentlessly, I was glad I had the protection of my recently acquired jacket, but I knew it was unlikely to withstand the deluge that was about to descend.  It was at that point I decided to duck into Artbooks to seek refuge.  It was, thankfully, near at hand just as the heavens opened.  Bookshops are invaluable, as a safe haven from inclement weather, wherever you are, and its great to feel at ease whenever you drop in.  Generally, you are left to your own devices and can browse while you wait, without feeling the need to buy anything.  On this occasion a very polite young lady asked me if I needed assistance.  I looked out at the rain, beating hard against the glass, (distorting everything in sight as though people were melting in front of my eyes) and knew I would be there for a while. “I will let you know if I need anything.”  After that I was left alone.  The bookshop itself had great charm with lots of interesting books in English, French and Vietnamese.  I already had the impression that Hanoi was a city where culture, art and literature were highly valued and an important aspect of city life.  I have since learned that art and literature were always considered as a necessary framework of learning and the great leaders of the past insisted that their military commanders were just as conversant in the arts as they were in the art of war.  The Temple of Literature, built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, was Vietnam’s first university and still stands as a is living testament to the value placed on learning in Hanoi.  Its ancient, well-seasoned, teak hard, wooden pillars support its physical structure while, at the same time, symbolising the enduring strength and quality of wisdom and learning housed within. It reflects the tranquillity and serenity that flows from learning and, like knowledge itself, it survives and grows on down through the centuries.

As I browsed through the books, with one eye still fixed on the weather I could not help but notice that many of the titles related to war.  This was not surprising, as the country’s recent history had been dominated by this topic for so long.  It was not that long ago since the conflict had ended in 1973 so it was still fresh in the memory for people both North and South.  There were quite a few titles on display that sparked my interest.  I grew up when the war in Vietnam was on our television screens most evenings and in the papers almost every day.   The point of view, whether pro or anti war was nearly always American.  I don’t recall seeing an interview with anyone from the Viet Cong or hearing about the their suffering, except when an outrage such as My Lai or the napalm bombing of villages occurred.  Photographers like Don McCullin captured the horror of the war but most young people in the sixties were, almost overwhelmingly, against the war.  We intuitively knew it was wrong and our whole youth culture understood railed against it.  We saw people like Muhammad Ali make a principled stand and we were part of a youth movement that wanted peace not war.  All our rock star heroes within a vibrant counterculture spoke out against the war.  In Ireland we heard about someone’s brother or cousin being killed or maimed in action.  We knew how unpopular the war was in the United States. It was not that long since the second world war had ended. We were still in the middle of a cold War with Russia and we were being warned about a potentially greater threat emerging from China. Back then young people just wanted to smoke pot, make love and listen to music.  We were sick of war and the pompous  hypocrites intent on pursuing it.  Nixon was like some strange beast who had scrambled out of the primordial ooze intent on defecating on all our aspirations.  In Vietnam the war is more aptly referred to as the American war.  America lost 58,000 troops in the war and this came as a great shock to the people back home. It turned the tide against the  government and military who were ready and primed to escalate further if and when the opportunity arose. The Vietnamese losses were huge by comparison. The figure stands at over 2 million which in itself is mindboggling.  This figure includes, not just the combat victims, but also those who died as a consequence of chemical defoliants, famine, disease and relentless bombing campaigns which killed so many innocent civilians.  Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people were prepared to lose everything they had in order to prevail.  Ho once said that “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours.  But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” This statement reflects the iron will and determination of a people who would never give up the struggle.  In the end they did prevail, despite the cost.  It was this war that dominated the bookshelves because it was fought against the world’s most powerful nation. Before the Americans got involved, another conflict had been raging against the French who were the dominant colonial power in the region since the 1840s.  Their influence had extended into Laos, Cambodia and parts of Thailand which were collectively known as Indochina.  Ho Chi Minh and his followers, the Viet Minh, had fought a bitter war of attrition against the French which had eventually ended in 1954 when the French were finally defeated.

France sought to impose its cultural, religious and moral values on the Vietnamese and other countries in the region.  Like most colonial powers of the time it siphoned off as much wealth and resources as it could find, to support an empire satiated with ever increasing profligacy and excess.  They introduced Christianity to countries that already had their own well established belief systems that had existed for centuries.  The colonial style architecture that still exists is, without doubt, often elegant and impressive.  Their are many, arguably, positive aspects of colonialism that are visible in Vietnam or Laos to this day. The quality of  bakery and pastries is markedly superior in Vietnam than elsewhere in South East Asia and the women have a sense of style and elegance that would not be out off place on the boulevards of Paris.  However, none of this was requested or wanted by the people.  It was imposed by a foreign power that invited itself into their land with the intention of extending their influence in the region.  Vietnam has always taken pride in its ability to govern its own affairs and, historically, it has resisted foreign invaders down through the centuries.  The great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who ruled the Yuan dynasty, invaded Vietnam (or Dai Viet as it was then known) in 1257.  The Dai Viet army was initially defeated but their forces remained intact and managed to make  a clever tactical withdrawal.  In 1258 the Dai Viet army, counterattacked and drove the Yuan army back.  They returned in 1285 when the brilliant general Tran Hung Dao was in command of all the Vietnamese forces.  After a few battles the Yuan army retreated to China having had little success and suffering greatly from tropical illnesses.  In 1287, Kubla Khan, still smarting from the lack of success in the previous campaigns sent an army under the command of his favourite son, Prince Toghan.  He had five hundred thousand men and a fleet of 500 ships and he was determined to teach the Vietnamese a lesson and demonstrate his overwhelming  superiority and power.  Tran Hung Dao predicted the movement of the Yuan/Mongol army and more importantly he lured their navy onto the Bach Dang River where he laid a very clever trap for them.  They were blockaded on the river from both ends so they could not go back or forward.  The Mongol fleet was completely annihilated and their expedition was an absolute disaster.  It was such a humiliating defeat for the Yuan/Mongols that they swiftly retreated back to China.  Kublai Khan, who by then, had lost his appetite for further conquest, was more than happy to negotiate peace with Dai Viet, who, buoyed by their victory, ensured they got a great deal.  The Vietnamese, therefore, are very proud of their history of resistance against foreign invaders and their ability to overcome what seem like impossible odds.

By the end of the second world war French Indochina was rapidly unravelling.  Germany had occupied France in 1940 and the Vichy government based in the south was just a puppet administration with no real power.  Despite this they still tried desperately to hold on to their possessions in South East Asia.  France fought against  Thailand during 1940 – 1941.  The Thais saw the German invasion of France as an opportunity to regain some of its disputed border territories and a number of battles ensued.  The Thais were quite successful against the French army on land but the French navy was superior.  The Japanese, as the new dominant power in the region, intervened and brokered a peace between them to avoid an all out war in the region.  The situation in Vietnam was disastrous.  The French were generally disliked for their incompetence and heavy-handed treatment of the people.  Like most colonial powers before them they treated the locals as an inferior race whose sole purpose was to serve them.  This gave rise to a powerful Nationalist movement which was led by Ho Chi Minh.  He inspired  his people to stand up and take matters into their own hands to free their country from the yoke of colonialism.  He roused them with his words, “We have to win Independence at any cost even if the Truong Son mountains burn.” He united the nationalist movement under one banner  with diverse tribes and ethnic groups forming a cohesive fighting force that became known as the Viet Minh.  The French occupied most of the North of the country but Ho and the Viet Minh fought an ever growing and successful guerrilla campaign against them.  He recruited men and women, young and old from small towns, farms and villages as well as infiltrating his people into key areas of French administration.  Every single person had a role to play whether great or small.  This instilled a sense of unity and loyalty in his people that they shared a common cause that would eventually lead them to victory.  At the end of the second world war President Truman was concerned about the situation in Indochina and identified the French as the main part of the problem.  He wanted them out and was, for a while, considering supporting Ho Chi Minh.  But when the British joined forces with the French against Ho Chi Minh, America had to support its wartime allies.  This left a void that was soon filled by the Russians and Chinese who provided arms and support to Ho and the Vietminh.  The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1948, Vo Thi Sau was just a young fourteen year old schoolgirl when she joined the Viet Minh.  When I first saw her photograph I was struck, not just by her youth, but also by the strength of will and determination in her eyes.  She looked like she was staring out into the void at something that the rest of us could not see or understand.  When I picked up the book and started reading through the pages I noticed that the English translation was not word perfect but this just gave it a certain air of charm and authenticity.  Initially, I assumed it was about the sixties war but as I read further it became clear that it related to the earlier conflict with the French.  I did not know a lot about the Viet Minh or French Indochina, for that matter, but I had read about Dien Bien Phu and its significance as the battle that brought an end to French occupation in the region.  But who was this young girl called Vo Thi Sau?  What had she done and what did she achieve? Why had this book been written about her?  So many Vietnamese had died in the wars so what made her so special?  I wanted to know what had set her apart from other Vietnamese heroes.  There is something strange and haunting about that image on the cover of the book.  She looks as though she already knows and understands her destiny and excepts it without question.  She appears to be looking out beyond her own life and, perhaps, into a better future.  I was struck by her youth and the extraordinary circumstances that thrust her into the frontline of the conflict.  In another era she would probably have chosen a very different path.  She would probably just be one of the many young women you see today in Vietnam, lively, carefree, embracing the modern world with all its innovations.  She was a product of her time and inevitably influenced by the rapidly changing world she lived in.  Many of her friends and family had joined the Viet Minh and the rising tide of Nationalism, (inspired by Ho Chi Minh), had swept across the land carrying all before it.  When I left the bookshop as the rain subsided I had a copy of Vo Thi Sau A Legendary Heroine (by Nguyen Din Thong) in my pocket.

Vo Thi Sau was born in Phuoc Tho Commune, Dat Do District in 1933.  She was the fifth daughter of Nguyen Thi Dau (mother) and Vo Van Hoi (father) in a family of six.  Her parents were not wealthy but the children were well brought up and cared for.  She was noticeably tall compared to other Vietnamese girls of her age.  Her mother said that she was always a good, well behaved child but quite independent minded.   Once she decided on a course of action she was always determined to see it through to the end.  Vo Thi Sau, like many young people of her age, was swept up by nationalist fervour and the desire to be free from colonial oppression.  The Viet Minh provided the perfect outlet for this.  People of all ages had joined the movement inspired by Ho Chi Minh who was determined to drive the French out.  The Vietnamese people wanted to control their own destiny even if it meant that “The Truong Son mountains would burn.”  She was just starting high school when she volunteered for service in 1947.  She was detailed to carry out reconnaissance work on troop numbers and movements in the locality.  She showed great aptitude for this work.   It is likely that her age and gender helped her to avoid detection.  This brought praise from her superiors but she wanted a more direct role in the action against the enemy. She had an intense hatred for the French colonists and was probably aware of the atrocities that had been perpetrated on the local community.  She may well have seen the French committing these acts first hand or certainly have known individuals, friends and family who had suffered.  She wanted to be at the forefront of the struggle and was willing to take whatever risk necessary to achieve it.  Her  opportunity arose when it was decided to attack a platoon of French troops at a local event. On 14th July 1948 she went to Dat Do market, armed with a grenade.  She managed to get near enough to a group of soldiers and threw the grenade straight in amongst them.  The grenade exploded killing one French officer and injuring up to a dozen soldiers.  When she had completed her task she managed to escape without detection.  Today some people might look on this as an act in of terrorism and many European countries, including France have recently suffered from these atrocities.  I would be the first to condemn acts of violence against innocent people wherever it happens.  But Vo Thi Sau, despite her age, was a guerrilla fighter intent on freeing her country from colonialism and France was the sworn enemy.  It is clear that she was committed to a cause that required exceptional people in extraordinary circumstances.  Should someone so young have been involved in the first place.  If we judge her by today’s standards the answer would probably be no.  But those standards did not apply in her time and there is no evidence to suggest that she was forced to do anything against her will.  It is likely that many other young people her age were involved in one way or another but she stood out among them.  The French had ruled the whole region for over 100 years.  Laos, Cambodia and some parts of Thailand had come under their influence.  With the exception of Thailand, European powers had colonised most of South East Asia.  Colonialism, by its very nature, favours the colonists at the expense of those colonised.  The inhuman treatment of the rightful inhabitants in so many colonies across the world is well documented.  It is an inevitable consequence of colonialism that people will be subjugated  in order that they do not resist, while their resources are being pillaged.  It is also inevitable that the downtrodden will rise up, at some point, and strike back.  They will fight for their freedom because it is a fundamental part of human nature to want to be free.  They will seek the right to self determination to make their own decisions, (whether right or wrong), and have the freedom of choice. Vo Thi Sau was a willing participant in Vietnam’s march towards self determination and the right of the people to chose their own destiny.  Her involvement might well be controversial, if judged by today’s standards, and perhaps there might be some justification for this.  But Freedom movements are born in exceptional times and give rise to individuals and circumstances that are unique to that particular time, place or event.  She was forged from the anvil of a resistance movement and became its young, passionate, standard bearer.

The attack on Dat Do market was seen as a clear victory for the Viet Minh and Vo Thi Sau received  praise for her part in it.  At that time there was a Vietnamese Governor of the region who was hated by everyone because he was seen as a French lackey.   He had identified many local men involved with the Viet Minh against the French.  Many had been imprisoned, tortured or killed.  He was earmarked for assassination by the Viet Minh and Vo This Sau was chosen to carry out the attack because of her success with the previous raid.  The second attack took place in February 1950.  She boldly walked into the governor’s office and threw the grenade at him while shouting “traitor” and “Long live the Viet Minh.”  On this occasion the grenade failed to explode and she was caught while trying to run away.  She was taken to the local prison by soldiers and interrogated.  It is understood that her interrogation was brutal and no concession was made for her age or gender.  She refused to give her interrogators any information and was eventually transferred to Chi Hoa prison in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Her mother was unable to find out where she had been taken as the authorities did not want to allow her any visitors.   After pleading with the prison and army for some time her mother was given permission to make some restricted visits.  She remained unbroken despite the ill-treatment and abuse from her captors and had lost none of her previous commitment or desire.  There is, ironically, a number of interesting similarities with her story and that of the French patron saint Joan of Arc.  Joan, also known as The Maid of Orleans, took up arms against the English during the Lancastrian War, (The Hundred Year War).  Joan was just sixteen when she said she heard the voices of St Margaret, St Catherine and Michael the Archangel beseeching her to approach Charles V11 (The Dauphin) and ask him to allow her to lead his army against the English.  He was known as an indecisive man, (in his early days), and at first refused her.  After petitioning him a number of times he finally relented and Joan rode out, at the head of the army to the town of Orleans.  After nine days the siege was lifted, the English were routed, and Joan became a hero.  Charles was crowned king of France soon after.  Joan, like Vo Thi Sau, was just a young girl when she first experienced combat and she shared the same passionate hatred of the invaders that had seized her country.  She was determined to drive them out and free her people.  It is likely that she probably witnessed atrocities and knew family and friends who had been subjected  to torture and brutality.  Joan was also taken prisoner by the enemy but in her case she was betrayed by her own people and burnt at the stake as a witch.  It is said that Charles, having done nothing to prevent Joan’s death, suffered great remorse afterwards and this spurred him on to find his courage and drive the English out of France.  Joan was posthumously pardoned by the pope in 1456 and eventually canonised in 1920. She became an iconic symbol of French national pride and is always linked with their struggle for freedom.  Like Joan, Vo Thi Sau was a simple country girl but, unlike Joan, she was inspired by the words of Ho Chi Minh who was very much a living person.   They both shared  a deeply held conviction that spurred them on to act against the invaders.  Vo Thi Sau was not betrayed by her own people but the Vietnamese collaborators who worked for the French would have welcomed her arrest.  She remained in Chi Hoa prison for two years while her fate was being decided.  She often sang to keep her spirits up.  She was allowed some visits from her mother who kept her informed of what was happening back home.  The French, on their part, were faced with a big dilemma.  They wanted to make an example of this young resistance fighter to show they were still in control and that they could be tough on anyone who took up arms against them, regardless of age or gender.  They were, however, faced with one big problem.  According to French law at the time, a woman could not be executed for murder and a minor could not be put on trial.  The case of Vo Thi caused a stir in some sections of French society.  After the war the Socialist movement was quite strong in France having played a significant part in the resistance against the Germans.  Concerns were raised about her case, so her trial was delayed until a petition had been heard in the French parliament.  The argument about her age and gender were aired but then dismissed on the grounds that the law, as it stood, only applied to citizens living in France and did not extend to those living in a colony especially a colony that was in open rebellion against them.. The state was determined to show a strong hand when dealing with the rebels.  The same country that had made a national hero of a young woman, martyred by the English for fighting against them, was completely oblivious to the case of a young Vietnamese girl who they were about to make a martyr of.  Martyrs are unique individuals and usually created from the callous and unjust acts that are perpetrated against them.  They are more often than not, an unintentional by-product of a myopic oppressor who fails to recognise their actions will serve only to create a rallying point for those oppressed.  The unshakeable resolve and spirit that is kindled in the flame will not be extinguished for generations to come and the martyr will live on in the hearts and minds of the people.  This was how Joan rose from the ashes to become a symbol of strength and hope for her country. The French were, unwittingly, about to provide Vietnam with its very own young martyr.

Despite the fact that French law forbade the trial of a minor or the execution of a woman Vo Thi Sau was tried in a French court without proper recourse to justice.  The verdict was a  foregone conclusion before the trial had even begun.  She did not deny her part in the attack or plead for mercy.  She was unrepentant, which made the judge’s task a lot easier.  When the charges against her were read out to the court she responded  by saying that she did not consider it to be a crime for a patriot to fight against the invader.  The judge was not interested in justice as the accused was considered to be a an enemy of the state.  Her actions represented a direct challenge to French authority in the region.  The Judge saw his role as both the arm and clenched fist of the state that would wrestle back control and restore French authority in its colony.  Vo Thi Sau was sentenced to death but this did not dampen her spirits in the least.   When the sentence was read out she shouted out in the court “Down with colonialism “and ” The Resistance will be victorious”  French nationhood began in earnest as a direct consequence of the execution of a young woman whose spirited resistance against the invader had rallied her countrymen behind their king.  This same country was now prepared to ignore its own laws and history and take the life of  this young Vietnamese woman. In hindsight it seems like an act of supreme arrogance, stupidity or both by a desperate beast frantically flailing about in its final death throes.  Considering that France had just recently been invaded by Germany you might expect them to have a more acute awareness of the situation and the presence of mind to deal with it.  But the corridors of power are, more often than not, populated by strange people who live in a constant state of paranoia and  tend to react incompetently when faced with situations that require poise, cool heads and calm thinking.  The consequence of their actions is usually disastrous leaving a bigger mess than the one they had already made.  It seems like everything they did, in those final days  in Indochina served only to re-inforce their reputation for incompetence.  This helped to spur the Viet Minh on to further their efforts in the final push for independence.  Vo Thi Sau’s act forced the hand of the French, as it was a direct challenge to their power that would require a firm response. After the decision was taken to execute her she was transferred to Con Son island in the  Con Dao Archipelago.  She was the first woman to be sent to Con Son prison and was held in the police quarters away from the main body of  prisoners.  The execution was to be carried out as quickly as possible avoiding contact with the other prisoners.  Con Son is frequently referred to as an island paradise but behind its scenic beauty lies a dark and unpleasant past.  It was built in the 1860s to detain political prisoners and other violent criminals.  It is thought that up to twenty thousand people may have died there during the time it was in use.  They were buried in the nearby Hang Duong cemetery.   French,  Americans and Vietnamese have used Con Son as a prison.  The prison housed the  notorious “Tiger Cages” originally built by the French. There are approximately one hundred and twenty and they were built away from the main prison.  The cages were dug in pits in the ground and were exposed to direct sunlight.   A metal grill was  placed over the pit so that when the sun beat down the occupants would have stripes on their bodies which gave rise to the name.  The soldiers would poke sticks through the bars and beat the prisoners.  They would then throw lime over their open wounds and urinate on them.  The prisoners could barely stand up or move.  Left out in the searing heat these cages had an agonising physical and mental effect on the unfortunate occupants.  In nineteen seventy, a U.S. congressman, Tom Harkins, hearing of the inhumane practices at the prison, visited Con Son and discovered the cages were  still in use and the prisoners were suffering all manner of deprivation.  When he returned to the U.S. he exposed the inhuman practices to Congress.  Today the island is once again a tranquil paradise that welcomes mostly tourists and visitors.  Some former prisoners and their warders still live on the island in peace and harmony together.

Vo Thi Sau spent just two nights on Con Son island before she was executed.  The French prison commander probably did not want her to be near the other prisoners as this would likely have caused disruption.  She was detained in the police quarters just outside the prison itself.  After the attack on the Governor, which led to her capture, she had spent just under two years in prison.  She was nineteen years old, ironically the same age as Joan of Arc when she was executed.  Remarkably, Vo Thi Sau still showed no sign of fear and continued singing in her cell, to keep her spirits up, the night before she died.  This unnerved the Captain and his men who were anxious to have the execution over and done with as soon as possible.  The prison chaplain visited her to give her the opportunity to confess and receive absolution.  She told him, defiantly, that she had nothing to confess since she had not committed any sins.  She said he would be better served hearing the confessions of the Captain and his men who were the real guilty ones.  There is no evidence that she practiced any religion but, regardless, she was more than satisfied that she would meet her end with a clear conscience.  She told the chaplain her only regret was that she did not kill more soldiers. Her fellow prisoners sang a well known patriotic song, Chien Sy Ca that could be heard resonating throughout the prison.  The Captain tried to persuade her to wear a blindfold for her execution but she refused.  She said she wanted to see her homeland one last time and she also wanted to look her enemy directly in the eyes before they shot her.  The Captain was reluctant to grant her this final request saying that it was against the law of his country to execute a prisoner without a blindfold.  She reminded him that it was also against the law of his country to put a minor on trial or to execute a woman so why the sudden concern now for her legal rights.  He reluctantly agreed and she was led out, under escort, to face the firing squad.  She was taken to a spot near the graveyard, under the shadow of Mount Chua and tied against an old tree stump.   They tried to put a blanket over her face but she would not allow it.  All through this ordeal she continued to sing Tien Quan Ca (now the Vietnamese national anthem) a favourite song of the Viet Minh.  The firing squad consisted of seven men, some of them hardened veterans who had served in many campaigns.  They were issued with two bullets each but generally, with seven soldiers firing simultaneously, the second round should not be needed.  Vo Thi Sau stared down the firing squad with her piercing gaze and kept on singing until  the moment that the Captain began to bark out the firing orders.  At that point she stopped singing and shouted “Down with the colonial occupation” and “Long live Ho Chi Minh.” The rifles cracked out seven shots but astonishingly Vo Thi Sau still remained alive and standing.  She had been hit in the hip with one bullet and another bullet slightly grazed her face  but all the others had missed her.  It is possible that some of the firing squad had been drinking in order to give them the courage they lacked..  Many soldiers do not like this duty but are obliged to follow orders.  Sometimes they drink to take the edge off the task, understandable, if asked to shoot a nineteen year old girl.  It has also been said that they deliberately shot wide in defiance of the order because they believed they were dishonouring their country and their flag.  Most Vietnamese believe that it was because Vo Thi Sau’s gaze was so piercing, and her spirit so unwavering, that it unnerved the firing squad so much, they missed their target.  Whatever the reason it was clear the Captain was well and truly rattled by this turn of events.  Instead of ordering a second volley he walked up to Vo This Sau, put his revolver to her head and shot her dead.  It happened on 23 January 1952 when she was only nineteen years old.  In his book Nguyen Dinh Thong mentions that one of the firing squad, an old veteran,  threw down his rifle in disgust, after the execution, and said he would never fire another shot again, because of what he had witnessed that morning.  Shortly after, he left the army for good.

Vo Thi was hastily buried in an unmarked grave in Hang Duong cemetery.  The French wanted to erase her name from history as though she had never lived.  But some of the prisoners who had discreetly watched the soldiers knew where she was buried.  That evening they went to her grave, under cover of darkness, and erected a makeshift headstone made of bricks they had gathered from their work.  When the soldiers discovered it the next morning they destroyed it and scattered the bricks everywhere.  This did not deter the prisoners.  They returned at night and built it up again.   Despite the fact they received severe beatings when they were caught near her grave they continued to rebuild the headstone whenever the French knocked it down.  Vo Thi Sau had kindled a flame that would not be extinguished that easily.  It would shine on through Vietnam’s turbulent history to light the way on the path to freedom.  At the Battle of Dien Bin Phu her name was shouted out as a rallying call by the Viet Minh troops.  French rule in Vietnam came to an end in 1954, two years after Vo Thi Sau’s death, but this was only a temporary respite for the Vietnamese people who would face a far more powerful foe, the United States, in a war that would go on until 1973.  This war would take the lives of many Vietnamese, old and young, fighters and civilians as well as American troops.  Vietnam is a peaceful place today and has, incredibly, moved on from its recent past.  It now has excellent relations with many of its former foes.  It is a young and vibrant country full of hope and promise.  Con Son island has become a place of pilgrimage where people, young and old, go to pay their respects to Vo Thi Sau.  Candlelit vigils are held at her grave and she has assumed an almost saint-like status as a martyr for her country.  Her memory lives on as an example of the unselfish sacrifice that she willingly made for her country.

When I first read the book Vo Thi Sau I was captivated by her story.  As far as I am aware she is not very well known in the West and I really wanted to tell her story.  I made a few attempts to write it while at home in London but for some reason it did not happen.  When I was due to fly to Thailand in September this year I thought about packing the book just in case I might get some inspiration and finally write her story.  Unfortunately, I forgot to pack it so it is still sitting on a bookshelf in my apartment.  After a couple of weeks in Chang Mai I started writing again and after completing two short stories I decided it was finally time for Vo This Sau.  I started to write the story but realised I was lacking some crucial source information contained in Nguyen’s book.  I continued as best I could, piecing together information from the internet with my own recollections and using anything I could find.  As I knew I would be returning to Hanoi I thought I would just wait and get another copy of the book there.  As luck would have it my accommodation was just a short walk from Artbooks were I had bought the original copy some three years ago.  I went there, eagerly expecting to put my hand on the shelf and just lift a copy, only to find they no longer had it in stock.  I scoured all the main bookshops in Hanoi and they all gave the same answer.  They knew the book but hadn’t had it in stock for some time and thought it might be out of print. I continued to write the story, as best I could, and have finally completed it.  It has been such a great experience to come back to Hanoi and finish the story here.  This is my third visit and each time I enjoy this city more.  I cannot believe the pace of change that is happening here right now.  It is such a young and vibrant place and so full of promise.  I have always found the people friendly and welcoming as indeed has been my experience in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city.  When I look at the young people enjoying peace and modern living I think of Vo Thi Sau and all the others who sacrificed their lives to make this new, outward-looking Vietnam possible. When I mention her name to young people they all know of her but their world today is very different to hers, with their mobile phones and pop music.  Vo Thi liked to sing so I am sure she would not disapprove. I’m sure she would join in with them.  Her spirit lives on in the laughter of youth that is possible today because of her and all those others.  I walked around Hoan Kiem lake on Sunday evening when all the young people were out, singing and dancing or strolling with their partners.  It was quite emotional for me to be there watching all the youthful enthusiasm that contributes so much to the life in this city.  I felt privileged to be part of it and to have the opportunity to write about Vo Thi Sau.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Special mention for Nguyen Dinh Thong and his book Vo Thi Sau (A Legendary Heroine)Con Dao Tourism for the useful and helpful information

The people of Hanoi and all my dear friends in Vietnam














A Bone of Contention

I remember certain things from childhood.  Little incidents from the past that pop up every now and then in the mailbox of my mind.  They re-awaken dormant memories that linger on in my subconscious.  Just like postcards they provide a fleeting image and a message that remind me of other place, other times, maybe gone but not forgotten.  Sometimes it is sounds or smells, tastes or feelings that remain here when all other traces appear to have disappeared.  They can be amusing, but just as often, they summon up much darker images from the past.  Some of my oldest memories are just fleeting glimpses of childhood.  I remember being in the garden of our house in Devonish Road in Hull on a lovely summer’s day digging up clods of earth to make little houses for the worms.  I remember that there were lots of red, yellow, white and pink flowers growing in the garden.  I was chatting away to myself or the worms when my mother came up behind me unaware and I got a bit of a surprise when she spoke to me.  I felt embarrassed because I had been talking to myself.  I think I was probably four or five at the time.  It is one of my earliest memories  I remember falling from the roof of a shed at the back of the garden.  The shed was called The Pidgeon House.  An apple tree broke my fall and saved me from any serious injury.  There were a few cuts and bruises.  I remember falling into the fire in our livingroom.  I still have the scar on my upper arm as a permanent reminder of that event.  I was taken away to what was known as The Infirmary and they treated the wound.  I was about five years old when I contracted a fever which back then, in post war Britain, was still quite a serious condition .  The ambulance arrived and took me to a fever hospital.  I screamed my head off all the way and nearly drove the ambulance crew completely mad.  I was placed in the women’s ward because of my young age.  They thought it was better for me there, but in reality, it was touch and go.  Most of the women on the ward died.  In those days pneumonia, fever and bronchial conditions took their toll and any pre-conditions such as smoking, working conditions or damp, smoke-filled homes just accelerated the inevitable.  Many of those women were elderly.  There was a woman in the bed next to me who had a big anchor tattoo on her forearm and she was always very kind to me.  Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.  She seemed to be there for quite a while and then, suddenly, she was gone.  I got lots of toys from family and  visitors who were only allowed to peer at me from behind a glass screen as visitors were prohibited from entering the ward.  When I finally left, all the toys were confiscated as there was a danger of contamination.  I had an enormous resentment against the whole world because of the loss of those toys.  Somehow, I had managed to survive.  Later on, I remember my Uncle Danny visiting from London with his family.  My cousin Paul got a ladder and put it up against the side of the house so we could all climb up and get in the bedroom window.  When uncle Danny found out what was happening he made all of us young ones go inside and as Paul was climbing out onto the ladder from the bedroom Danny pulled the ladder away.   Poor Paul was left dangling there half in and half out of the window.  Danny was really angry with Paul but we were standing there bursting our sides laughing.  My mother was annoyed with Danny for leaving poor Paul dangling there.  She always had a soft spot for Paul.  I also have memories of looking out from the bedroom window on Summer evenings watching the slipstreams of training jets, from nearby Leconfield airfield, make  patterns in the evening sky.

At that time we were living in Hull, Yorkshire.  We were an Irish Catholic family living in a northern English city that had a golden statue of King Billy as a historic reminder of where their allegiance lay.  We were raised to be proud of our Irish heritage and when a young Queen Elizabeth visited Hull in 1957 my mother, always the patriot, gave us each an Irish flag to wave as the she went past.  We were probably typical Yorkshire children in most other aspects but we always wore shamrock on St Patrick’s day and heard our mother sing all the old Irish songs.  I remember the very special magic of Summer holidays spent in Ireland .  To get there we had to cross the Pennine mountains into Lancashire.  There was one occasion when we did this by car and another when we went by train.  We crossed the Pennines on a steam train with great clouds of smoke spewing out from the engine.  There was always a big panic to get the windows closed when we entered the tunnels, to avoid the carriage filling up with smoke.  The carriages consisted of finely upholstered seats facing each other with luggage racks made of netting, overhead. The window could be opened or closed using a big leather strap which pulled up and down.  As far as I recall you had to put your hand outside the window if you wanted to open the door.  There was no heating in the carriages and if the weather was cold you had to ensure you brought a couple of rugs to cover your legs.  This was not a problem for us as we normally travelled during the Summer.  My recollection of the towns we passed through is vague  but I think that Doncaster and Huddersfield were on the list.  Once we crossed into Lancashire the landscape changed drastically.  We were now in the industrial heartland of Britain where everything appeared much darker and every building seemed to be black or grey.  Huge chimneys pumped out vast clouds of toxic smoke that looked like mythical beasts lurching awkwardly over the horizon.  The noxious smells of burning coal, anthracite and gas were ever present and storm clouds gathered to discharge their contents of acid rain on the poor, unfortunates who lived below.   When we finally arrived in Liverpool we entered a very dismal and dark city.  In those days the beauty and splendor of the magnificent Victorian buildings had been eradicated by constant contamination of smoke from the industrial age.  It was not long after the second world war and many of the industrial cities had been bombed by the Luftwaffe which also left its mark.  Today most of these cities have recovered and the stonework has been restored to its original state so that we now can appreciate the architecture as it was originally intended.

Once in Liverpool the next leg of the journey was to cross the Irish Sea on what was affectionately known as The Cattle Boat.  We travelled with B&I, the Irish shipping line, which sailed from Liverpool to the North Wall in Dublin.  The ship was decorated with emerald green paint, lots of shamrocks and harps everywhere and friendly smiling staff who spoke with irish accents.  You knew immediately that we were heading off to a different land  that was going to be very special.  We were enchanted with stories of Leprechauns, the Little People and of course the Banshees who put the fear of god in us.  I can remember eating chips on board the ship and thinking how good they tasted.  We slept in bunk beds in cabins with portholes.  Before we went to bed we were allowed out on deck and I remember a strong sea breeze blowing in my face while seagulls followed in the wake of the ship, as it sailed out of harbour.  Our parents came to put us to bed and told us to go to sleep because “tomorrow you will wake up in Ireland.”  The next morning I remember being out on deck as we approached land and my father pointing across the water and saying “Look there’s Ireland’s Eye”.  I looked everywhere and all I could see was an island but no sign of an eye.  I had half expected some big eye to be staring back at me out of the sea and was disappointed when I was told that the island was called Ireland’s Eye.  We landed at The North Wall in Dublin and watched as the ship was steered into the harbour and thick, heavy ropes were thrown ashore and secured to the moorings.   It seemed to take forever before all the unloading was finally done and we were allowed to go ashore.  There were no roll on roll off ferries in those days and everything from the ship had to be unloaded using huge rope nets.  I did not get sea sick on the crossing and, thankfully, it is something that I have not experienced to this day.  I have witnessed others in absolute agony and hope that I never have to go through it.  I do not remember much about Dublin as we stayed there only briefly while in transit to the West of Ireland.  One thing that did stand out was the fact that the colour green was everywhere.  The buses were green, the mailboxes were green and many of the buildings were either fully or partially painted green. There were lots of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets.  Some carried barrels of Guinness and had huge harps painted on their sides.  There was no mistaking it, we were definitely in Ireland.

The next thing to catch my attention was the trains.  They were modern diesel trains and not the old steam engines that had carried us across the Pennines.  We left Dublin and before long we were out in the countryside.  We were on our way to Roscommon, the town my father came from.  The countryside in Ireland was so much different to Yorkshire.  The fields, the trees and everywhere you looked was such a lush green colour except were the grass had been mown and laid out like golden rows in the meadows waiting to be built into hay reeks.  There were sheep and cattle grazing lazily in the hot sun and everything appeared much closer than it was back in Yorkshire.  It felt like you were right in the middle of everything.   We had breakfast on the train served on white tablecloths in the dining car.  The breakfast was a full fry with eggs, bacon, sausage, black and white pudding and toast.  The meal was accompanied by a large pot of tea and waiters ran back and forth to make sure everything was to our satisfaction.  The trains were slower back then so there was plenty time to eat a meal at your leisure. The train bumped and clanked along and this made eating and drinking a more challenging prospect but took nothing away from the overall enjoyment.   As with most families we probably had our disasters.  Spilling tea or egg and sausage flying off the plate.  It is likely that a row or argument broke out at some point.  Strange thing is my memory is a big vague on this point.  I think they call it selective amnesia.  There was, of course, a huge difference in the way everyone in Ireland spoke.  The sing song accents of the Irish, were different to the gruff, abrupt dialects we were used to in Yorkshire.  I can certainly remember that my first impressions were that it was a warm, friendly, smiling, place.  We passed first through Mullingar and then through Athlone where we  were told to look out over the bridge when we crossed the river Shannon.  Once we crossed the great river we had finally arrived in the West, which was the only part of Ireland that really mattered.  There was a welcoming party for us at the train station in Roscommon.   Uncle Finian, Aunty Aggie and our cousin Kitty Hogan all came to meet us and there was lots of smiling and hugging and fussing over us.  We were loaded with our luggage into two cars and we drove to Main Street were, for the first time we saw The family name above the shopfront door.  Our Granny had a business which was located in the centre of Roscommon town.  She was there at the door to greet us with warm hugs saying “Ye are all heartily welcome.” This was probably the first time we heard the expression “Ye” but were soon to discover how commonplace it was.  The next word that was to enter our newly discovered Irish vocabulary was “Gossoon” “Are the gossoons hungry? Are the gossoons tired? where are the gossoons” When I first heard it I thought they might be referring to an animal or a farmyard bird but soon realised that we were the gossoons.  This was the local word for children which was used extensively, not just in the West, but in many other parts of Ireland.  These days when I go back to Ireland I don’t hear this used at all.  The other word, commonly used at the time was “Ara.” Ara this and Ara that which could often be accompanied by or replaced with “Musha.” “Begorrah” was also thrown around quite a bit. Our cousins, the O’Hara’s were there to greet us with  Aunty  Eileen and Uncle Chris.  Rob, Cathy, Jinny and Tom.  They were the first Irish cousins we had met and it opened up a whole new world for us.  Rob and Cathy were older than me but my cousin Jinny and I were the same age.  Of course I have to mention Mutt and Tan the two dogs who jumped all over us.  Tan was a Golden Labrador with a great personality.  He was a lovely, friendly dog.  It was harder to determine Mutt’s lineage but he probably had a large number of breeds in his DNA .  He was built low to the ground for speed and was to become quite a character in his own right around Roscommon town.

I remember that Summer was just so full  of new experiences. We went out with Uncle Fin (as we called him) and his men to help with the hay.  We were obviously more of a hindrance as we just wanted to dive into the haystacks, tear them apart or slide down the sides.  My brother Con was in his element but I was completely devastated with hay fever and did not enjoy it with all the wheezing and sneezing.  We went out to the bog, which was a strange and mysterious place with tales of Will O’ the Wisp and The Little People.  We were held back from where the real work was happening because it was dangerous with sharp turf cutting implements being swung about.  We made tea and ate home-made bread, scones and apple pie which tasted so much better out in the open air.  The days seemed always to be long and sunny and everywhere we went we met friendly, smiling people.  Our Aunt Aggie was the exception.  She always seemed to be angry and we felt that she had taken an instant dislike to us.  She praised our cousins all the time but never seemed to have a good word to say for us.  She always seemed to find fault.  Even when she was trying to be nice it was either condescending or insincere.  She came across as a bitter person and perhaps she had her reasons.  I understand now, as an adult, that these things are a lot more complicated and require understanding.  However, as a child, it is not easy to be on the receiving end of an adult’s unresolved issues.  Uncle Fin, on the other hand was gregarious, fun loving and always had a kind word.  He was likely to treat you to an ice cream or give you money.  He knew how to talk to children and liked to take us out to his farm.  He occasionally worked in the business but was much happier out on the land with his cattle or whatever pet project he happened to be involved with.  He argued with my Grandmother constantly because she wanted him to work in the shop, where she could keep an eye on him, while he tried everything possible to get away.  Granny was a large lady and had problems getting around.  She was a strong woman for those times.  Her husband Peter had died at a fairly young age leaving her to raise a family of five.  She had built up the business on her own, often working alone in the shop.  There was no heating in those days and the  shop would have been open to the elements.   She once told me that her children had a difficult upbringing with their father who apparently drank a lot.  He was barely ever mentioned which suggests that their memories of him were not that good.  I don’t remember my father ever talking about him except maybe once or twice.   Granny said that she tried to make life easier for her children because they had a tough time earlier on. Uncle Fin did not like the idea of being a shopkeeper.  He liked to be able to roam free and wild.  Being in the shop under the constant supervision of his mother was not his preferred option and besides he had a great love of farming.

For us it was all just one big adventure.  There was a beautiful old ruined castle at the edge of town.  It had been owned by the O’Connor family who had ruled these parts for many centuries.  They were once the most powerful family in Ireland and ruled as High Kings.  They were often at war.   Down through the years they fought against the Normans and later against the English.  But just as often they fought among themselves. There was always a dissident family member ready to raise an army and lay claim to the throne.  The family eventually lost all their lands and titles because they refused to submit to English rule.  Their descendants still live on in Clonalis House, Castlerea, in North Roscommon.  Roscommon Castle was originally built by the Normans in 1269 and over the next few centuries it would regularly change hands between the Irish, Norman and  English, until, in 1659 it was finally sacked and partially dismantled  by the Cromwellian army.  For young children it was an enchanting place.  We could climb on the battlements and explore the ruins as we let our imaginations run wild.  The fact that it was a ruin made it more special with ivy growing up the ancient walls and rooks flying overhead, their haunting cries echoing through the battlements.  We imagined old battles, prisoners locked up in dungeons and the king holding court as his queen and knights feasted in their great halls.  There were so many places to climb despite the many dangers that existed.  We met a local lad one day who told us there was a tunnel that led all the way from the castle to the Abbey, almost a mile away.  He knew this because he had been in it with a friend and they had seen a coffin with a sword lying on top of it.  We thought this was amazing.  When we went back that evening to Grandmother we told her what we had heard.  Auntie Aggie was there and immediately began to interrogate us.  “Who told you that.  You shouldn’t talk to strangers.  That’s just a load of nonsense.  What were ye doing down there anyway.”  Aggie was totally lacking in tact, awareness or subtlety and spoke to us as if we were an unwanted burden that had been foisted on her.  She gave the impression that children had to be put in their place and it was her role in life to do so..  It seemed very clear to us that she did not like us and she did not care that we knew.  She had a fairly volatile relationship with both my mother and father.  My mother and Aggie did not get on well and had already crossed swords once or twice on this trip.  She did not seem to be a very happy person and I’m sure there were reasons for this.  As an adult, looking back, I have some sympathy for her but as a child it was very unpleasant to be on the receiving end.  My grandmother, on the other hand was a fair-minded and tolerant woman and understood children in a way that Aggie never could.  It felt, at the time, as though Aggie wanted to steal the magic from our childhood to compensate for the lack of it in her own life.  When Granny was present she would intervene on our behalf but if no other adult were there Aggie turned on the unpleasant mode.  She once made my sister sit on a chair without moving for over an hour.  Many legends, fairytales and myths have a wicked relative who try to take the joy and happiness from those around them.  For us Aggie certainly fulfilled this role.

We had not forgotten the story about the tunnel from the castle to the Abbey and we were determined to find this place and carry out our own investigations.  We were intrigued by the possibility of finding treasure.  A day came when our parents had gone off on a trip to Ballinrobe races and we were just hanging around the house trying to amuse ourselves.  Aggie was floating about in her usual surly mood and eventually popped her head round the door and said “Why don’t ye go off and play somewhere.  Ye should be out in the sun and not stuck in the house all day.”  We didn’t need a second invitation.  We were more than happy to get as far away from her as we possibly could.  After playing around the yard for a while we got bored and Con suggested we should go and find the Abbey.  My sister Tess was hesitant but after a while the excitement grew and we all agreed to go there.  We had a general idea of where it was located but as we were not sure we asked a couple of people along the way.  Roscommon is not a big town with a population of about five thousand people so the Abbey was not that difficult to find.  Back in the nineteen fifties it was safe for children to wander around on their own  or at least that was the perception at the time.  Finally we came to an old iron gate that opened into a field where a stony pathway led to the Abbey some distance away in the field.

St Coman, who the town was named after founded an abbey on this site in the 6th Century.  However, the remains of the abbey that survive today date from the 12th century.  It was built by the O’Connor family initially for the Augustinians.  Following a turbulent early history when it was, at various times, destroyed by fire, hit by lightning and sacked by William De Burgh it became a Dominican friary until it was dissolved by the reformation in 1578.  While Roscommon castle seems unusually large for such a small town, the abbey is beautifully compact and elegant and fits into its surroundings as if it had just sprung up out of the earth.  it epitomizes the uniquely romantic quality that old Irish ruins possess as testament to a troubled but enduring historical past.  When we walked through the gate and onto the path that led up to the abbey we felt a sense of awe.  Here it was, at last, the place that occupied our dreams and imaginations since we first heard about it that day at the castle.  We were excited at the endless possibilities that lay before us.  In those days it was covered in ivy with the ever-present rooks circling overhead and beckoning us to come closer.  We did not need an invitation, we were in sight of our holy grail. As we climbed over the stile that led into the building we were soon aware that this place was a lot different to the castle.  For a start there were tombs within the walls of the abbey, one of which had a full size effigy, in stone, of a knight lying in state, sword by his side, in full armour and a dog at his feet.  We had heard about the High King, Rory O’Connor and we assumed this must be him.  (The stone figure is, in fact, thought to be Felim O’Connor, who founded the abbey and was buried there.  It is also possible, that it is one of his descendants as the tomb was constructed thirty five years after his death.  There were many tombs in the abbey and we recognised some of the family names of people still living in the town.  We were not the slightest bit scared because I don’t think we knew much about death, the dead or history so it was just fascinating to imagine that we were in the presence of an ancient king.  We spent some time exploring on our own.  The place was overgrown, full of nettles and weeds with tin cans and cigarette packets strewn around carelessly.  In those days old monuments were not as well cared for as they are today.  These days there is a lot more oversight of ancient ruins in Ireland.  Today the hand of Heritage seems to be everywhere.  Wherever you go in the world there is a certain familiarity about the  Interpretive Centres, gift shops and restaurants that dominate the ancient sites.  While they can, sometimes, be useful they can also take away the natural charm and romance of an old site.  The long tentacles of consumerism seem to reach into the past as well as the present.  However, I recognise that many of these old monuments might be beyond salvation if it were not for the intervention of national heritage.  I do not know how we strike a proper balance but I believe it is important not to lose the essential spirit of the place.

As I was wandering around, daydreaming and probably hoping to discover some treasure I suddenly heard Con calling, “Quick, over here, look what I’ve found.” Tess and I rushed over just as Con was rooting up a piece of old corrugated iron that lay on the ground beside an old crumbling tomb.  “What is it, what is it” we both shouted excitedly as we raced across to join him.  Just as we reached him he kicked over the rusty old cover to reveal a hole in the ground.  To our astonishment we could see below into a tomb that had two stone coffins, one on each side.  Everything down there was dark and smelled damp and musty.  That did not deter us.  Con went in first.  There was a drop of a few feet before we landed on the stone floor of the tomb.  My sister Tess stayed above to keep watch and to help us climb out again.  We were innocent and fearless, at the time, and just saw it as part of a big adventure that had begun at the castle with the local lad who first told us of the tunnel to the abbey.  As far as we were concerned we had just found the abbey end of that same tunnel.  It took a bit of time to get used to the darkness in the tomb but once we did we could see that there were just two large stone coffins.  Next thing Con turned to me and said “Look what I found.” He showed me a wooden crucifix that had been lying on top of the coffin.  The wood was very dark and the brass figure of Christ was worn down and covered in dirt.  “Wow” I said, that’s amazing.  Tess was listening from above and said “Show me, show me” so we handed the crucifix to her and started searching again.  Before long Con had found something else.  This time it was a bone.  The bone was about a foot long and had been lying on the floor of the tomb.  “Let’s take this back for the dogs” said Con.  There were always a few bones lying around the yard and we never gave much thought as to where they came from.  We were city kids and I was just six while Con was a year and three months older and Tess had the same age gap with Patrick.  Had we been Irish children we would probably have had a much better understanding of the significance of what we were doing.  But to be honest, we were pretty clueless.  Tess gave us both a hand up out of the tomb and we examined our finds and wondered what to do with them.  Tess didn’t want to have anything to do with the bone but she was quite taken with the old cross.   Knowing that Granny was fond of her religion she suggested we bring the cross back to her as a present. con and I decided we would bring the bone home for the dog.  I’m not sure what she thought of our plan for the bone but she didn’t seem to object.  We couldn’t believe our luck.  What an adventure it had been that day and now we had some treasure to bring back with us.  It wasn’t a pot of gold or a sword or anything like that but we were sure that our presence would be warmly received.  We trotted back across the fields, into town and up the main street with a spring in our step. When we reached Granny’s place we entered in triumph through the archway, into the yard, finally racing into the kitchen with our treasure.

There to our horror, standing in the middle of the kitchen was none other than Aggie. “Mother of God where have ye been all afternoon.  I’ve been out looking for ye all over town.  I was nearly going to call the police.  What divilment have ye been up to.” This was not quite the welcome we had expected on our triumphal return.  We had hoped to see Granny or our mother there so we could immediately win favour with our gifts.  They were nowhere to be seen.  We did not realise how long we had been gone and did not understand the fuss, after all, was it not Aggie herself that had banished us earlier that day.  Tess bravely blurted out “We were at the abbey Auntie Aggie.” “What took ye down there” replied Aggie suddenly scenting there might be something in the air.  Suddenly there was an ominous sense of foreboding in the air.  It was just at this point that Tess, in her naivety, made what was, in retrospect, a great error of judgement.  She lifted the crucifix high to show to Auntie Aggie.  “We found this cross at the abbey and we brought it home as a present for Granny.  At this point I suddenly realised that all was not going as it should be.  Aggie’s face had begun to twist and contort in a strange and frightening manner.  If we had any knowledge of Valkyries back then we would have recognised what was about to descend upon us from a great height.   Ah! if only Con could have seen what I saw, but, unfortunately, he was oblivious to the purple rage that was circulating in Aggie’s veins and what I imagined as steam coming out of her ears.  Somehow he thought that Aggie had responded positively to the crucifix.   So, without a by your leave he produced the bone from behind his back, lifted it up, almost under Aggie’s nose, and proclaimed “Here’s a bone we found in the abbey and brought back for the dogs.” Aggie pounced on us like a wolf on the fold, pulling hair, pinching arms, grabbing and shaking us all at once and then individually.  I remember having the novel experience of having both my hair and my ears pulled simultaneously.  The cross had shot up in the air and was lying on the ground somewhere after the first assault and the bone had slithered across the kitchen floor and was lying in a corner.  Meanwhile Aggie was roaring at the top of her voice “Graverobbers, ye’ve robbed the dead, Oh! Sacred Heart of Jesus the dead will come tonight to claim their bones.  Oh! God, Oh! God what have ye done ye’ve defiled the graves of the dead.  Ye’ve brought a curse down on us”   We were trying to digest all this new information while, at the same time, trying to avoid the next onslaught.  At this point Aggie stopped swinging because she realised her verbal attack was having a greater effect and she was struggling to keep both attacks going at once.  It was mostly shaking, pinching and pulling so there’s only so much of that you can do before it loses its effect.  The worst part for us was that we suddenly realised that instead of doing something good  we had, in fact, committed a terrible deed, the enormity of which, we were just beginning to understand.  We had not previously known much about the dead and we had certainly not considered that they could come back once they had died.  We had heard about the resurrection but that was Jesus and he could do almost anything.  The bone suddenly began to take on a new significance that we had previously not considered.  It was now possibly the bone of a dead person and we had removed it from its happy home where it had lain for god knows how long.  With this came a new-found fear that we had never felt before.  Aggie had certainly done a great job alerting us to the possibility that the dead might return to claim what was theirs and not look too kindly on anyone who had stolen from them.  Having expended most of her energy by this time and obviously aware that her message had hit home she addressed us once more.  Her face was a strange mixture of dark purple, red and pink that carried an implied threat as she spoke “Ye’ll go back to the abbey and ye’ll take those things that ye stole from the dead and ye will put them back exactly where ye got them.  When ye’ve done that ye will kneel by the tomb and pray and ask the dead to forgive ye.” “Will you come with us Auntie Aggie” asked Con more in hope than in expectation. “Get off with ye” she said “I didn’t steal from the dead.  Don’t come back until ye’ve done everything I told ye or there’ll be all hell to pay.” As we retrieved our now unwanted gifts and headed out through the yard, heads bowed I turned one last time and said “Can we bring the dogs with us.” Aggie made a charge in my direction, which I took to be a no, and I scuttled off a bit faster out of the yard.

It is hard to describe what the walk back to the abbey was like now that we had images of the dead, ghosts, spirits and graverobbing indelibly carved on our young minds courtesy of Auntie Aggie.  It was crystal clear to us now that we had committed a heinous act that could have the most serious repercussions.  The offending objects had been placed in a bag and as we slowly made our way along we alternated between periods of silence and periods of animated discussion, mostly on what was likely to happen.  All of the outcomes that we discussed seemed to have an unpleasant ending.  From not really knowing anything about the dead we had suddenly been awakened to the possibility of ghoulish figures flying out of their graves and hauling us down to god knows where.  The nearer we got to the abbey the more it began to look like a place of terror and despair and we were its unwilling victims.  Aggie had done an excellent job of educating us on the unique world of Irish ghostlore in just a short space of time and we were about to go right to its very heart.  As we opened the little iron gate into the field every part of it seemed to clank and creak in a way that it had not done on our previous visit.  The skies were darker, casting ominous shadows over the abbey walls.  We were passing the bag from one to another like pass the parcel but without the laughs. “You go First” “No you go.” All natural leadership had deserted us and we were bickering over who was it  who got us in this mess in the first place.  Tess finally volunteered to carry the bag and take the lead provided she did not have to go in the tomb.  We accepted that as the best compromise on offer and trundled on into the abbey.  Once there we went on tiptoes, forgetting for a moment, that if all those ghosts were flying around or they would see us anyway.  By the time we got to the tomb we were pale and shivering but we did notice that the dead did not seem to be to be taking any interest.  I kept glancing over at Felim O’Connor’s tomb to make sure he was still lying there.  The thought of this old warrior coming at us, sword in hand gave cause for some concern.  Thankfully, he was not paying attention to our shenanigans.  We pulled the cover from the tomb.   It seemed very dark down there with the added possibility of an unpleasant surprise for whoever entered.  After lengthy discussions Con suddenly grabbed the bag and was gone from sight in one leap.  Would we ever see him again?  That question was answered in about ten seconds flat as he emerged like a little blond ferret shouting “Pull me up, pull me up quick, get me out of here”  Tess and I grabbed an arm each and hauled him out of the tomb.  “Did you put them back where you got them” said Tess.  “No” said Con “I left them in the bag on the floor.  “Oh no” said Tess, “Aggie said we had to do it properly.”  We stood there looking at each other and I suddenly noticed both sets of eyes were on me.  “No, no” I said “I won’t do it” “You’ve got to” they said, “Its your turn”  In the world of children when it arrives at your turn there’s not a lot you can do.  Refusing your turn is never an option.  I made a final protest but to no avail.  Slowly I was lowered down into the darkness by the other two.  Every single part of me was shaking like a leaf.  I was petrified.  I was mumbling prayers “Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee.  Mother of god pray for me.  All the Saints in heaven pray for me” as I went further and further in.  I put my hand in the bag and took out the crucifix and placed it on top of the stone coffin, “Father forgive me for I know not what I do.” Next I took the bone out and placed it on the other coffin, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As I turned I felt something grab me from behind.  I let out a piercing scream and ran.  As I did so my tee shirt, which had got caught on a protruding piece of iron, stretched as I tried to escape. I thought the dead had come for me and were hauling me back into the tomb.  I turned to face my worst nightmare and then I saw what had caused the problem. I let out an insane howl of relief, wrenched my teeshirt free and shot right up and out of that tomb as if it was resurrection day.  I wanted to continue with my flight but Tess stopped me and said “No wait we still have to go on our knees and say the prayer.”  We stopped for a moment, went as if to kneel, looked at one another and half in laughter half in fear said in unison “Let’s get the hell outta here.”  We ran as fast as we could.  I was the slowest so I was well behind the other two.  I didn’t care as long as I was moving further away from the abbey with no sign of the dead in pursuit.  “Maybe they’ve been dead so long” said Pat “They just can’t be bothered.”  That seemed like a reasonable explanation but to be honest it didn’t really matter as long as we were well away from the scene.

It was only when we approached Main Street again that we realised our ordeal was not yet over.  We had dealt with the threat from the dead but now we had to face the more daunting threat from the living.  As we walked through the yard and into the kitchen our worse fears were realised.  Aggie was there and now she was joined by Granny who was seated on her customary chair near the Aga.  “Well what have ye to say for yeerselves” said Aggie her voice barely concealing her rage.  “We put everything back like we found it” replied my sister.  “They robbed the dead Mammy” said Aggie turning to Granny for approval.  “We’ll be haunted and probably worse” she went on.  Granny was clearly  unhappy with the line Aggie was taking and said “Now, now Aggie leave them alone they’re just gossoons”  “But Mammy did you not hear what they did.  They’ve disgraced us.  We’ll be the talk of Roscommon”  “We will not” said Granny a tad more forcefully than Aggie was expecting.  Granny then turned to us as we stood there together, heads bowed, trying to look as sad and sorry as we possibly could.  My sister blurted out our version of events interspersed with occasional interventions from my brother and I.  Aggie stood there like a cold, wet day in mid Winter unwilling to rise above zero. I got the impression that Granny seemed to understand the logic behind our ill-fated mission.  Being a staunch Catholic she did not approve of our actions but there was definitely no outright hell and damnation.  “Now tell me” she said “did ye put everything back where you found it.”  “We did” con replied confident that we had completed the task.  “And did ye pray at the tomb as I asked” Aggie enquired.  “Oh we did, we did” we all said in unison with a knowing side glance at one another.  Aggie then turned to Granny and said “I think they should be punished.  Send them to their room without anything to eat and make them stay there ’till they’ve learned their lesson..  They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with This.  They’ve brought bad luck into our home and we’ll be cursed from this day on.”  This put my Grandmother on the spot.  While she accepted that a wrong had been done she also knew we were just children who’d made an honest mistake.  The big question was whether to go for the severe punishment that Aggie was advocating or to find a softer option.  We stood there frozen to the spot unable to look up, down or sideways.  Aggie made one final effort to influence Granny’s decision.  “Think of the shame, think of the bad luck it will bring.”  She had barely got the last word out of her mouth when we heard the sound of laughter and great excitement coming from the front hallway.  It was my mother and father, my uncle and a few other friends who had just arrived back from the races.  There was a great commotion and as they entered the kitchen.  All attention was directed away from us and onto them.  Amid the laughter and merriment they held up bank notes and waved them around for all to see.  My mother came over and hugged us while at the same time showing us the money.  They had a big win on the last the race at Ballinrobe and it was all due to a tip they received from an old friend whose name I gathered was, (would you believe it), Felim O’Connor.  There are many who will tell you that there is no such thing as co-incidence but who am I to say.  Granny was happy with the news.  While she did not approve of drinking or gambling she always liked to see people happy and the added bonus of a big win helped to smooth the way.  Aggie still tried desperately to get back to the moral high ground she had so recently occupied, but to no avail.  “But they robbed dead, they robbed the graves, they brought bad luck home with them.”  This no longer carried the same weight as it had done previously.  We made sure that we joined in the festive spirit to distract attention from ourselves.  At this point I think Granny was relieved that this diversion had effectively resolved her dilemma.  She asked for more detail of the big win.  “What was the name of he horse” she enquired.  My father turned and looked at us, with a little twinkle in the corner of his eye, as he replied “The horse that won the last race at Ballinrobe, God bless him, was called “Bone of Contention.”




Fur’s contact

I returned to my home in London after travelling in India, Nepal and South East Asia for almost two and a half years.  It was not the first time I had returned to London but it was the first time back in my own home which had been let out to tenants while I was away.  It was some time at the beginning of November 2016 and the climate, though some degrees cooler than I had been used to in Northern Thailand was not unpleasant.  It was good to be home again despite the fact that I had to force the front door as I did not have a key for the Yale lock.  The lock had been replaced by the lettings agency, in my absence.  The agency had not responded to my emails or phone calls asking them to meet me at the apartment but, fortunately, at least I did have a key for the mortice lock.  Otherwise I would have been in real trouble.  The flimsy Yale lock gave without too much pressure and suddenly, there I was, back in my own home again.

The scene that greeted me was quite familiar.  The thick beige carpet in the livingroom which the carpet shop had described as champagne-coloured when they sold it to me.  The funky abstract painting dominating the space just above where the fireplace had been.  A friend had once jokingly described it as being like the imprint of an old rusty barrel on canvas with two lines drawn through it to make it interesting.  it was actually called  Equilibrium and I bought it with a windfall I received at work some years ago.  It still held pride of place in my livingroom.   The old furniture was beginning to look its age (a bit like myself) but with a warmth and familiarity that for a weary traveller like me was welcoming after a long journey.  I was grateful to discover that the apartment was more or less intact and had not suffered any dire consequences as a result of the letting.  I met the first tenants before I left and got on quite well with them. We have since stayed in touch on social media.  Lorenzo was a well known tattoo artist and Barbara was a photographer.  They were both from Brazil and got married while staying at my place.  I knew very little about the second tenants except for the fact that they kicked up quite a stink when they first moved in, seemed  to  settle after a while and then kicked off again before they left.  I let the Lettings agency deal with them, after all, that was what I was paying them for.  But I was grateful that I did not have to face any major consequences of my decision to let.

I had travelled for quite some time and had slept in many different places.  While my financial circumstances were reasonably good I was certainly not able to afford 5 star travel and accommodation.  In fact there were more than a few occasions when I could delete all those stars and replace them with black holes as a more appropriate measure to describe the level of accommodation I stayed in.  There was the rickety old overnight bus ride, manically driven up the Western Ghatt mountains in India. Not long into the trip I thought that I had signed my death warrant by travelling with what began to feel like the tour bus from hell.  Whizzing round hairpin bends at full tilt while crazily beeping the horn and trying, at the same time, to overtake lorries.  Steering right on the verge of the road so that I got a first class view of the drop down below me.  Crazily lurching from side to side while barely avoiding the cars, trucks and buses coming in the other direction.   Somehow I managed, eventually, to fall asleep, only to be wakened by the driver, at midnight, to inform us that we had reached our first rest stop and everyone had to get off and head for the roadside canteen.  I slept on hard wooden boards in hostels while trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal.  But after a full day’s trekking, ever upwards into the mountains, sleep on a hard surface was no problem. I was so weary and exhausted I could just about make it into the sleeping bag and then it was lights out.  I slept in so many guest houses of varying quality that I can’t remember half of them but there were lots of garish colours, dodgy electrical wiring and a whole world of insects and lizards that, previously, I never knew existed.  The breakfasts could at times be challenging, to say the least, but most of the time it was good fun and I shared the experience with so many new friends that I met along the way.  On one occasion in Cambodia, I arrived at a hostel in Siem Reap after an overnight bus trip.  I was so exhausted I just went out like a lamp on the bed.  Some hours later I woke to the noise of people scurrying around in the hall and talking loudly to each other.  At the same time I noticed an odd smell which I presumed was coming from somewhere in the hall.  Still only half conscious I staggered out of bed and started looking around.  I opened the window and just as I did so, the electrical socket on the wall burst into flames. I let the staff into the room and as they set about dealing with the fire, I collected my gear and headed for the hall.  After some time the owner of the place emerged apologising profusely and explained that the fan had overheated the socket.  He then said “Its ok you go back in now.” I politely declined and checked out thanking my lucky stars that I had escaped with my life.

So on entering my own home again, I felt a warmth about the place that, perhaps, I had probably not appreciated before.  It was almost as if the old place was trying to reach out and give me a hug.  I was more than happy to hug it back in return.  For me there is a marked difference between the place that you come from and the place that you call home.  My background and Nationality is Irish but I did not actually live there for very long.  I am proud of my background and happy to call myself Irish but London is my home and has been for most of my life.  It is often said that no matter where you travel in the world you will always want to return to London.  I can understand why this is so, as it is a place so diverse in every aspect, from the very poor to the wealthy from colour, race, creed or religious belief and also those who choose not to practice religion or believe in a deity.  London is a special place that you can only begin to understand if you live there.  Hackney, where I live, was the place chosen by many Dissenters who fell foul of the 5 mile law introduced in 1665 by Charles 11 to prevent those who disagreed with the teaching of the Church of England from conducting their business from within the city walls.  The long title of the Act describes it as an “An Act for restraining Non Conformists from inhabiting in Corporations.” As a result of this many Dissenters had to move 5 miles away from the city walls and Hackney became one of the preferred destinations. This part of London has provided homes for many refugees down through the ages from the Lacemakers from the Lowlands in Elizabethan times fleeing from the war with Spain to the Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.  The nineteenth century saw many Jews from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine arrive as well as Irish fleeing famine in the mid nineteenth century.  London has a long tradition of providing homes and work for refugees.

After a couple of days the agency finally got in touch and said they would like to come round and do a handover.  I thought, well better late than never.  When Ali arrived he was full of heartfelt apologies and excuses that seemed to include all manner of holocaust, fire and flood.  I got him a coffee and sat him down and he spoke of all the checks they had done before the tenants vacated which sounded as if they could  have been inspecting a Saturn 5 rocket.  He asked me if I had noticed that the carpets had been professionally cleaned and I replied no.  Having cleaned the carpets myself over the years I knew what they looked like when cleaned properly and it was very clear to me this had not been done.  I said “Send me the receipt for tax purposes” and Ali started to scribble furiously in his notebook.  He then changed the subject to the tenants and regaled me with a few anecdotes which, (to my horror), included mounting a giant movie screen from the celling.  Thankfully there remained no evidence of this so I was not too bothered by the revelation.  He then went on to talk about a black cat that kept coming into the flat and heading straight for the sofa.  This seemed to be quite a common occurrence according to Ali.  I remembered that various cats would hang out in the garden at times but I could not remember a black one.  As neither I nor my neighbour had any pets the moggies would vie for the territory claiming different spots in the garden, on the walls or the extension rooves as their own.  I had no idea who owned these cats but they obviously had homes in the neighbourhood somewhere.  We also had a family of foxes that been there a long time, breeding and raising their young.  They seemed to co-exist quite well with the cats.  I saw a fox one morning saunter up past a cat, who was lounging on a low garden wall in the neighbouring property.  The cat did not move or show any regard for the interloper who was only about a foot below.  The fox, on his part, did not even turn his head in the cat’s direction but slowly went on his way.  I figured they must have some kind of understanding between them that allowed them to co-exist in this way.  Strange really, introduce a dog to the scene and all hell would probably break loose.

Apart from foxes and cats the other main residents that abound in the locale are squirrels.  Its hard to know where to start with these amazing little creatures.  They are endless fun to watch, cocky, mischievous, unbelievably acrobatic and as cute as hell with their little bushy tales flapping all over the place.  It is hard to think of them  as members of the rodent family as they epitomise everything that the rodent does not.  The poor old sewer rats got a bad deal when the gene pool was being dished out.  Destined to live out their lives universally despised while their little bushy-tailed cousins are adored.  They live below ground or behind dark crevices constantly scurrying around like thieves in the night trying to avoid a whole host of lethal enemies.  You won’t find Attenborough whimsically gushing about the poor old sewer rat and yet they can be found everywhere.  I stayed in a hotel in Panjim, Goa, my first week in India.  The restaurant was in a large area that was partially outdoors.  I will never forget watching this massive rat slowly sauntering along the side wall of the restaurant.  Partly surprised and partly panicked I drew the waiter’s attention to it.  He was stoically non-plussed  by its presence.  As he watched it disappear into a void at the corner of the wall he turned to me with a roguish smile and said “he is gone now.” I couldn’t argue with his logic and  realised that as all animal life is considered sacred in India they obviously have  much greater tolerance of animals than we do in the West.  Our attitude seems to be “let’s exterminate everything that isn’t us.”  A Hindu lady once told me that eating a cow would be like eating her own mother.  I guess that puts it all in its proper perspective.

The squirrels engage in a constant battle with the cats who sneak along the walls and fences in the vain hope that they will catch them.  I have often watched this drama play out while sitting in my back garden.  The cats use all their predatory guile like feline ninjas as they creep along.  With each step they coil up like taut springs, patiently waiting for that one opportunity.  But time after time it ends in failure as their nifty little adversaries are always that one leap ahead and their ability to climb up the tree with  gravity-defying agility is breathtaking to watch with their combination of speed and strength.  I always got the impression that the squirrels were playing with the cats.  So often it was left to the last second before they took off and they would, sometimes, just sit a few feet up the trunk, in what appeared like an act of defiance, waiting for the cat to make one last, desperate leap before launching itself once more beyond its reach.  Strangely enough, I never saw the black cat engage in this activity.  It was as if he had figured out the futility of it all and decided it was not worth engaging.  He was not prepared to subject his dignity to such an ignominious loss.

I was back in my home about three days when I first encountered The Dark Shadow wandering along the hallway as I came out of the livingroom.  I live in is a raised ground floor apartment in a mid 19th century house in Clapton, Hackney.  It is a reasonably large house containing 5 apartments, three above and one below me.  My apartment has good sized rooms with 11′ ceilings.  The houses were originally built for wealthy city workers who wanted to live in the countryside but also be able to commute to the City of London in reasonably quick time.  They were built in the 1860s, shortly after the railway had arrived, on the edge of Hackney Marshes near the river Lea providing an ideal residence for the upwardly mobile city gents.  Fortunately, the wide open spaces of Hackney Marshes still remain, but the metropolis has long since engulfed most of Hackney.  The internal hallway in the apartment leads from the livingroom to the kitchen and as is a raised ground floor apartment.  There is a stairway of approximately 12 steps down to the garden.  While at home I often leave the kitchen door open to let the air in.  Prior to my letting the apartment I was not aware of any animals ever wandering in.  As the estate agent had told me about this black cat I knew immediately that this had to be the one that I had been warned of.  At this point I should explain my relationship with animals and pets.  I like most animals, birds and insects.  In fact I tolerate spiders up to a point as I understand they serve a useful purpose and they are fascinating to watch.  I don’t like mice around the place but will try and get rid of them humanely rather that kill them if I can.  Growing up in Ireland we kept dogs and cats but they had to sleep  outdoors or in the garage.  The cats usually were able to find ways of sneaking back inside and hiding in the attic but the dog did not enjoy this luxury and had a bed in the garage.  We were always around cattle and pigs and various other farm animals so I never had a problem with them.  During my mid twenties I spent a couple of years on my uncle’s farm in the West of Ireland.  I loved working with the cattle as they could, sometimes behave like domesticated pets.  It was, however, a great shame knowing that they would be sold for slaughter at some point.  Living in an apartment in London is a different matter.  I have never kept a pet because of the long hours when they would be left alone.  I know it is different for cats as they are happily independent and can get along quite nicely on their own.  I would not want to leave a dog on its own for any length of time as they need company and rely on contact with their owner.  I was at work most of the time and when on holidays I liked to travel so keeping a pet was never really an option for me.

As soon as we saw each other in the hallway there was a brief pause like you might see in an old Western movie when the protagonists in a gunfight finally come face to face having wandered the streets looking for each other for what might seem like an eternity.  Our eyes briefly met and I could tell The Shadow was wondering who the hell this was until I let out a roar and charged ominously in his direction.  This was like a reflex action on my part with its origins in the methodology used back in the old days in Ireland whenever a furry creature was seen loitering where it was not wanted.  The Dark One did not need a second warning.  He was off and gone legging it down the back stairway in a manner that would have drawn a standing ovation from the squirrels had they been watching.  I did feel a bit guilty but not a lot.  I was aware that he had apparently been coming into the flat at will and unless I wanted to acquire a pet by proxy I had to set some boundaries.  So, over the next few weeks there were a number of encounters. Not always in the hallway but quite a few times in the bedroom as the window was often left open to let in a the air.  This was sometimes a bit traumatic as The Shadow would panic when he saw me and make a mad rush for the window.  It was obviously a lot easier for him to enter than to get back out again.  He would get a bit flustered trying to leave at maximum speed.  I did not shout or rush him as I did not want him to get frightened.  I wanted him to know that he should not be there but that he had enough time to make his escape.  I’m sure any pet lovers reading this might think I was a bit callous and maybe I was.  But the way I saw it was that he was not my cat and someone, somewhere must be looking out for him despite the fact that I never saw anyone with him.  I think he thought of my place as an extension of his territory and had obviously been welcomed by one of the previous tenants.  Lets say I had him on a retraining programme.  It certainly worked as, after a short time, there were less and less attempts to storm the ramparts.

I would encounter him from time to time.  He seemed to enjoy mooching around the binsheds at the front of our property, sometimes lounging on top to catch the last rays of the fading sun or lurking about in the long grass chewing stems or scraping the woodwork of the binshed with his claws to sharpen them in preparation for his nocturnal excursions or the occasional combat with rivals from the locality.  Every now and then he would appear on my windowsill, the huge green eyes with dark almond-shaped pupils peering in with what seemed like envy or perhaps it was just an expression of regret.  I began to meet him from time to time on my way home.  He made a point of avoiding me as soon as he saw me despite my occasional attempts to reconcile and make friends with him.  I came to admire his haughty independence and respect the fact that he did not wish to make contact.  He would disappear for long periods and re-appear, once again, as though he had never left.  Around this time some South American neighbours, a mother and her daughter, moved in above me. The mother spoke no English but the daughter, who was in her early twenties spoke a little.  They struggled to understand how their electricity meter worked and I tried to help them as best I could.  There were other times when they had minor crises and they would knock on my door.  I always tried to help as I knew how difficult it was to be in another country and not understand the language.  Every small task takes on mammoth proportions and any offer of help can make a big difference.  After a while the daughter acquired a couple of cats.  I knew this because I started to hear miaowing and initially thought the noise was coming from within my apartment.  I searched a couple of times thinking that a cat had got inside but then realised the noise was coming from above.  They were never a problem as they did not make a lot of noise.  When I finally saw them I was amazed at their size.  This was partly due to the fact that they were neutered or speyed or whatever it is they do with cats to stop them breeding and partly due to the fact that they never left the confines of the small flat they lived in.  They were very gentle and liked to be petted but were mostly kept indoors.  Once or twice I had to go out on the flat roof to retrieve cat cushions and other cat related items that had somehow fallen out the window.  Compared to The Shadow these two were almost like a different species.  He was almost wild and definitely free, roaming as he wished among the gardens seemingly disinterested in human contact while the two eunuchs above me relied totally on their human keepers.

As time passed we went our separate paths.  By that I mean, I no longer tried to befriend him and he cared even less about me.  Then, in the Autumn of 2017, I was lounging on my sofa with earphones covering my ears, listening to Comfortably Numb when I heard a sound, that seemed to grow ever louder until I knew it was definitely not the album.  I sat up and there he was just sauntering in to the livingroom, (like puss in boots), without a care in the world, giving me the feline version of the song.  I probably sat up too quickly because it spooked him.  I had intended to offer the olive branch but before I could do so he was off and gone like a runaway train down the track.  I couldn’t help feeling regret that I had lost the opportunity to make friends.  Not long after we were confronted with one of the worst Winters that I can remember.  It didn’t help that I had just spent a couple of years in tropical climates.  As age catches up with me,  the cold sees to creep into my bones with much greater intensity reducing me to an near catatonic state as I try to keep myself warm.  It is not always like that but when it hits hard I long for the balmy, intense heat of the tropics.  Moving around is a chore and every part of me seems to creak.  It is on those days that I really feel my age in every single part of my body.  What distinguished the Winter of 2018 was its sheer relentlessness.  It just went on and on.  Most Winter’s you get an occasional break that gives, at least, a temporary relief from the worst ravages.  This Winter gave no such respite and we had to endure the perfect union of The Beast from the East and Storm Emma as they combined to rock us back on our snow-covered heels.  It was during this period that I happened to see the Shadow lying down in the garden.  I did not give him much thought, as he and all the other cats would sit in the garden from time to time.  But when I came back, after a few hours, he was still there.  I went into the garden, slowly and careful not to spook him.  He just lay there with the odd movement of his head, lifting it wearily to gaze up at me.  I didn’t try to stroke him as he seemed quite weak and I thought it might cause him stress.  I just talked soothingly but he seemed not to be too aware of me.  He looked thin and emaciated which caused me some concern as I thought he may be suffering from some cat virus or perhaps he had eaten something that contained poison.  I went back into the kitchen and got a bowl.  I filled it with milk and got some bits of sausage and bacon and some butter.  I laid it out in front of him and left him there in the hope that he would eat the food.  He never did.  It remained there on the plate for a couple of days until I finally removed it.  He had recovered at some point and was nowhere to be seen.  I was not sure if he refused my offering out of a sense of pride or whether it just didn’t take his fancy.  I know that these days some pets will only eat a particular type of food and nothing else.  It is a far cry from the cats we had at home that would eat anything that was offered and sometimes not offered.  If left, unintentionally, on the table or sideboard, the cats would carry out a quick daring raid that would see a leg of chicken or a rainbow trout disappear from the kitchen table or larder as though it had never existed.

This was indeed a strange year.  No sooner had the icy breath of Winter touched our cheeks for the last time than we were embraced in the arms of Helios by a Summer that would have us reaching for ever more magnificent superlatives to describe it.  Finally a Summer to rival  the blistering hot summer of 76 that some of us still remembered.  I certainly did but with a lot of mixed feelings.  Broke, more or less homeless, definitely rudderless and most probably gormless.  It was to be the beginning of my long march back to sanity after the those drink and drug fuelled years of my late teens and early twenties.  I guess you might call it a re-awakening on what would eventually become my path to normal living.  But that summer was really hot and it went on forever.  For those who might not understand, summers in Ireland and the U K are characterised by the amount of torrential rain that falls continuously throughout.  Just as the sun seems to be readying itself to shine brightly through the clouds, a spot of grey will appear, it will grow and grow until all the white fluffy bits have been enveloped and then the clouds burst open and pour their contents down upon us poor, hopeless optimists who dared to think that maybe, just maybe, this year would be different.  Occasionally, we might be gifted with a few days, or even a week or two of fine weather but this is usually the exception rather than the rule.  More often the summer is characterised by a palette of dull grey which is why the inhabitants of these islands are so keen to head off and invade the beaches of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and anywhere with a bit of Med  where our pale bodies and red faces are an endless source of amusement to the locals .  There are various versions of the term “Roast Beef” used to describe us sun-starved Northerners that have become an indelible fixture on beaches right across the Mediterranean.  The Summer of 2018 will live long in the memories of those who donned their shorts and tees-shirts in early May and did not once have to consider a mac or an umbrella until the end of August.  At first it was about getting out there at every opportunity.  Walks in the country, trips to the seaside, furious work around the garden to get everything done before the rains came.  But the sun shone, without a word of a lie, from early morning until late at night, getting ever more intense until, like all those people who live with the searing heat as a normal part of their day, we began to cover up and seek out the shade as the sun turned the landscape into a dry, burnt out wasteland previously unseen in these green and pleasant lands.  People started to seriously consider the effect of global warming, worrying about the crops and rising prices of food because of the lack of rain.  Forest fires and barbecue bans became regular news topics as we revelled in the sunshine while simultaneously worrying about the future of our planet.  Such is the human condition, when we finally get something that we have longed so many years for, we find a reason to tear it all down again.  Never happy with what we’ve got.

This was not a great time for the cats.  Their furry coats do not wear well in the intense heat and this meant they were not seen very often as they were probably busy finding the shadiest and coolest area where they could lie down and doze until evening when they could re-emerge and pursue their nocturnal adventures.  I barely caught anything but the odd glimpse of The Shadow during the summer.  I probably spent more time in the garden that I had ever done before.  I have never been a gardener.  But this summer I got stuck in and started growing herbs, some in pots and others directly in the ground.  This was reasonably successful and I enjoyed the whole process so much that I paid a couple of visits to Columbia Road and bought Honeysuckle, Jasmin and a Japanese maple to add to the various other plants that I had already grown.  It was quite a lot of work to keep everything watered during the summer but I did so regularly and took great pride in the results.  As the Summer progressed my focus turned to my upcoming trip to Chang Mai in Northern Thailand.  I had been there, a couple of times, previously.  I had made quite a few friends and kept in touch with them in my absence.  I had booked the flight, one very cold morning in February, as a commitment to shortening my next Winter in London.  I would go in early September and return at the beginning of December.  As time grew closer I started getting back into travel mode.  Travel opens up so many different possibilities.  The different sights and smells, strange fruits that you have never seen or tasted before.  The vibrant Sunday market in Chang Mai’s Old Town full of delicious food and drinks and the wonderful mix of cultures from Western backpackers to the more recently affluent and capricious Chinese.  The Thais are more than happy to take money from allcomers for this is The Land of Smiles and the Thais, above all else,  enjoy doing business. Over the centuries they have managed to adapt to circumstances as they arise and turn it to their advantage.  They are the only country in South East Asia that was never colonised by Europeans and they managed to persuade the British and the French that Thai neutrality would be to both of their advantage.  One has to admire their diplomatic skills in maintaining their independence in such a volatile region.  Northern Thais are known to be laid back and that is the great attraction.  Chang Mai is a nice sized city and this works to its advantage.  It is a favourite stopover for backpackers and digital nomads.  Like many South East Asian cities it is inundated with scooters and diesel-spewing vans and lorries but nothing quite as bad as Bangkok, Saigon or Hanoi.  The locals are friendly and tolerant of the multitudes that descend upon them at various times.  The local dish Kao Sau (chicken and fried noodles cooked in coconut milk) is just part of the delicious culinary array that is available on every street where restaurants abound and the street food will have you going back for more and more.  Travel provides us with a vista beyond the dull and mundane horizons that can so easily imprison us in our own small worlds.  Opening up to other people and places, that are outside of our normal experience, makes us better people, more tolerant, more accepting and less fearful of “the other.”

The last few days before leaving was busy.  All those niggly little details.  Do I need to do this before I go, do I need to speak to him or her, do I have copies of this or that.  As all this was going on I was still fighting a war with a moth infestation that I had, unfortunately, acquired.  At one point I thought I had got on top of it only to find they had somehow survived the intensely cold winter and were revelling and proliferating in the glorious Summer.  I had visited a reign of terror down upon them having researched all I could on You Tube until I was one of Hackney’s leading experts on the species.  I regret to say that I must have slain hundreds of them as well as seeking out their larvae and eggs and treating them to a tsunami of bleach.  I don’t enjoy killing any living creature but I had no other alternative and when I discovered they had eaten my favourite Foxford scarf it was the last straw.  It was either going to be me or them.  There were still a few around at the time I left but certainly not very many.  I packed away anything that I thought was remotely edible into plastic bags and any container that could be zipped up and hoped for the best.

I was about to lock up the kitchen door leading to the garden when I thought of one last task I had to do which was to conceal a set of keys somewhere in my back garden in case I ever needed to gain entry in an emergency.  When I opened the back kitchen door  who should I see standing near the bottom of the stairs but The Dark Shadow himself.  I said “hello there” and proceeded down the steps expecting him to scurry back into the bushes.  Instead he kept his distance but started to talk to me in that strange cat language that always makes me think that I should understand him because it sounds so familiar.  I replied to him and he looked at me as if to say “that’s not what I was talking about mate, you obviously weren’t listening to a word I said.”  I went about my business, which took me probably five or six minutes.  When I turned around he was still there standing directly in my path as I walked back.  This time there was no turning or running away.  He miaowed and purred and came up to me and as I bent down he came over and started to nuzzle his head against my hand.  This was the first physical contact that I had ever made with The Shadow.  We had never been this close before and certainly never on such friendly terms.  As I stroked him, he playfully bit my hand without hurting me and returned each time to allow me to stroke him again.  I couldn’t help thinking that somehow he knew that I was going somewhere and had come to say goodbye.  But how could that be.  It was, surely, just a chance encounter after all.  Strange that over these past two years we had not exactly been what you would describe as bosom buddies.  I had grown to respect and admire this wonderfully independent creature who roamed the streets and gardens nearby.  He had kept his distance from me and there had never been any desire on either part to change those arrangements.   But perhaps that is what brought us together at that point.  Despite all our differences we shared a deeper connection.  Two weary pilgrims on the road to nowhere perhaps. Whatever the reason it was an encounter that touched and moved me in a way that didn’t really need an explanation.  It was just pure and simple an exchange of mutual affection  The Dark Shadow and I, first contact, peace and understanding.

IC 30/09/2018