“Hey, look. It’s a hand grenade.”
“Here, in the hedge.”
A gaggle of us 8 year old boys, eyes like flying saucers, crowded round a gap in a hedge at the bottom of our Belfast street, 1979.
A moment before, we had been playing football. Someone had gone for a goal, overshooting by a few feet and leaving the ball stuck in the hedge of the house beside our imaginary goal posts- in reality, a gap between houses leading to the entry that ran the length of the street. Sticking to the golden rule of ‘he who hits it goes and gets it’, the wayward shooter ran over to the hedge to retrieve the ball. It was he who made the discovery.
Standing in the street with my friends, looking into the gap in the hedge, I could see a green oblong object with knobbly bits jutting out and furrows between. Familiar with Second World War movies and toys as we all were we recognised the shape immediately- an Allied Forces hand grenade. Its butt end was raised up and pointing towards us with its top end obscured by being stuck in the ground at the base of the hedge.
“Is it real?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen one.”
“It’s small, isn’t it?”
“Lift it up.”
“You lift it up.”
“Chicken. Buk, buk buk.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Lift it, well.”
So the conversation went between us with no-one ever likely to reach in and grab the thing.
Our gathering round the hedge caught the attention of an adult walking up the street.
“What are you boys doing?”
“Mrs, there’s a hand grenade in this hedge.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” This was and is the universal prayer uttered by all old women in West Belfast from time immemorial and that day it came with an admonishment,
“What the hell are youse doing standing so close to it?! Mon away ah that.”
She ushered us away and made us promise not to go near the hedge. We promised and she went off to get other adults. Soon, there was a right old crowd standing a few yards back from the hedge, wondering what to do.
One of those who gathered was my father.
After a few minutes of different people offering different opinions I saw my father come away from the crowd and go over to the hedge. He told everyone to stay back. We did.
He went right over to the spot where we had found the offending object and took a look. For my young boy’s eyes this presented a confusing picture. I didn’t know how to feel about what I saw. I was part petrified and part kind of proud of the old man (the old man would have been about 37 at the time; not old at all to this old man now!). I saw him lean in very close, until his head was inside the growth of the hedge. Everyone looked on with breath held. He cocked his head, first this way and then that. And then from inside the hedge he said,
“No. It’s not real.”
How he was so certain we didn’t know. Bur certain he was, because he reached in and lifted the grenade out.
“It’s plastic. It’s ok it’s plastic.”
After a moment of uncertainty, the people watching on walked over to my father to see. Indeed, the ‘grenade’ was actually not made of metal and explosives. It was made of plastic and sherbet. It was a hand grenade shaped sherbet holder- a sweet for children. I kid you not! In Northern Ireland. In the middle of the Troubles. A sweet in the shape of a hand grenade. You couldn’t make it up.
It seems that a child had discarded the ‘grenade’ some time previously and the ball hitting the hedge had uncovered it from its dirt and leaf covered resting place.
As quick as the drama began, the drama ended. The adults went back to their houses.
“That shot took a deflection off you. It’s our corner.”
“No, it didn’t. You hit it wide. It’s a goal kick.”
“Wise up, it’s a corner.”
The game resumed and so did life. Sadly, there were to be other times that real weapons did appear in and around the street I lived in. But for that day, no one got hurt. Nothing got damaged. It was a good day.