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16 October 2014
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Art Nolan

Art is currently studying nursing sciences at Queen's university Belfast. He lives in west Belfast and has worked as a nursing assistant for some years.

Either Side of the Hill by Art Nolan

He was never a part of either community, not really.

Rather, like the revenant, he walked the borderlands between each world, drifting in and out according to his needs. Happy, really, only in the in-between-place, the hushed hinterland of over-quarried hills, among the rusted, skeletal, dinosaur remains of long dead machinery. Where the rabbits scratched stealthily past him in the undergrowth of winds and blackthorn; or burst forth into the open in a panicked flurry of dusty jinking and jiving at his clumsy approach.

And where the crows called to him, occasionally, in short discordant jeers as they drifted overhead, mocking him for a peregrine tramontane in his émigré wanderings, then to fly off and squabble with each other over nesting sites.

He lived at once on the city-side of the Black Mountain in Belfast and in the quiet hamlets beyond – what he considered – his own personal hill.

To offset the harrying of the dark carrion raptors and to escape the silent, brief, but assiduous consideration of the red flash on the hillside that might have been a fox, he’d stray into one settlement or the other.

Sometimes, with boys he’d been schooled alongside, he was to be found in riot or football – both were just games to him, then. He strolled the streets with pals who talked of good jobs going for brickies and carpenters, if you took a course in the tech, and remembered old friends, many of them now dead, and the craic they got up to and he’d laugh until he cried.

He would meet with deadly enemies, the kind that only children have, mortal enemies, armed with diamond tipped intolerance and who hated him just because of what he was or what he believed, or where he lived.

And sometimes he was in gentle conversation with strangers on sweeping hillsides – where the wind, staking its own claim to the hill, pushed and buffeted their bodies as though to keep them moving along – who talked of work in fishing, farming or travelling to the city for some of the big jobs with the builders in restoration. And who muttered their own intolerances in hushed tones of the others who hated them because of what they were or what they believed or where they lived.

Once, he did a sponsored walk for his culture; they arrived in a village to find locals awaiting them with water and lemonade and the odd beer for the older men. He marched through oblique cottages that looked like so many crooked headstones in an old cemetery, his big-city-swagger made ridiculous amid the no-nonsense step of the countryman.
An old man called out from the watching crowd, “Countrymen walk from the legs, down, Bilfawst men walk from the shoulders, down!” and everyone laughed, including himself.

And others, yet, chided him for thinking he could change the way things were, telling him that he should go back to where he belonged and to what he was and to what he believed. And he felt the pride of a seagull named Livingston, of whom his father had told him when he was a child, and he pressed silently on as they returned their attentions to each other, where wrangling was sure of response.

And there were others, yet, only glimpsed, like the red flash on the hill, they watched but never openly engaged.

And when scuffling, bickering humanity became too much, again he ranged as far as the physical and political frameworks of the mountain would allow. Finding himself back in silent communion with creatures who, although curious, for the most part wanted none of his company either. And who bickered over food and species and territory.

He found he was not one person but many.

He was the city boy everyone knew, with the craic and the patter and the mischievous nonsense.

He was the visitor who drifted in occasionally, with his strange ways and strange dialect. He was intriguing, even mysterious, to his own surprise. He was a person from a far off land that was only the other side of a hill.

And he would vanish from the urban environs and wander through land shaped by seldom seen farmers. Once again amid the quivering rabbit, the attentive fox and the jeering crow. Creatures who struggled to get by and whose words were alien or unspoken – yet as understandable to him as any he heard either side of the hill.


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