A response from some of our 2nd years, in French, to the issue of Global warming.
The two detectives stood over the autopsy table, regarding the remains. The dead man had been Caucasian, middle-aged, overweight and balding. The body had a flattened, burst look, the flesh of the torso split in a number of areas. The intestines had already been removed, most of them having to be brought in separate from the body. The left arm was connected only by tendons and strands of muscle. As the coroner sprayed the corpse, cleaning it down, the water ran red with blood onto the stainless steel table and down the drains set into its surface. There were ligature marks on his wrists that indicated they’d been tied, and the man had a strange blood-bruise that circled most of his face, the face itself misshapen as if something had tried to suck it into a hole.
The coroner was a lean man with African features and a bass voice that sounded suitably sombre as he spoke into a recorder about the each step of the post-mortem. He spoke in German, his diction clipped and precise. The room was chilly, its surfaces all white tile, steel work units and painted concrete walls. The coroner said something to his assistant, a sallow, pinch-faced young woman, who handed him a scalpel. He began to make a Y-shaped incision down the torso, preparing to open up the chest cavity.
Unlike scenes in so many films, when a body falls from a great height, it rarely lands intact. It is, after all, a soft container of flesh whose shape is reinforced with rather brittle bone that tends to break on impact. The overall effect is that of dropping a meat balloon full of blood. The two detectives watched with detached interest, as a customer might watch a butcher prepare joints of meat. This was not their first autopsy.
Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, tasked with investigating crimes with far-reaching consequences. They were in this room in Berlin today because the dead man might have a connection with two open, and possibly connected, cases. Blowfly was neat and trim in dress and looks, his Oriental features stretched over fine bone structure, his manner still and relaxed, a faint Irish lilt to his voice. Jerm had a more neutral English accent, was more restless, and taller and more angular, with cropped dark brown hair which was never quite brushed into place. Her face had a subdued, dour expression without seeming cold, though whether that was from her job or because of her character was anyone’s guess.
‘So this guy fell from this building, TV Tower,’ Blowfly said.
He’d only arrived half an hour ago, having come in on a different plane to Jerm. He was still catching up.
‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘The Fernsehturm. One of their most famous buildings, overlooks Alexanderplatz. His name’s Erich Ulbricht. He was a broadcaster, but he didn’t work in the tower himself.’
‘What’s with the mark on his face?’ Blowfly asked.
‘Oh, you’ll love this. When he hit the ground, he was wearing a gas mask.’
‘You heard me. A gas mask. The guy was wearing it when he was thrown off.’
‘We sure he was thrown?’
Jerm had a picture of TV Tower ready on her phone to show him.
‘Oh yeah, I know it,’ he said, nodding.
It was straight and thin, tapering to a point like a needle. About two thirds of the way up was a sphere, with another, rectangular structure above it. Most of the rest above that was an antenna.
‘See the glass ball?’ Jerm said. ‘That’s where the restaurant and viewing gallery are. Usual deal with these things, great view of all the big stuff nearby, you know; the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz . . . And it turns too. These restaurant places always have to turn now. Anyway, whoever did this to the guy, hung him by his feet down over the ball bit here. He was hanging right down in front of the windows of the restaurant.’
‘Kind of like . . .’
‘. . . A public hanging? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. There’s a definite punishment vibe coming off this thing. So he’s let hang there, his wrists tied behind him, wearing this gas mask and he’s thrashing around . . . Some of the staff think to run upstairs to see if they can pull him up. But when they get to the office he’s hanging from, they throw open the door and it’s . . .’ She paused. ‘The door was rigged. When they opened it, it released the end of the rope.’
Blowfly looked back at the corpse on the stainless steel table.
‘Two hundred and ten metres, give or take.’
‘That’d do it all right.’
Neither of them spoke for a minute. Blowfly already knew why Jerm had taken an interest in the case. Erich Ulbricht worked for Hewbrys Holdings, or at least, the radio station he worked for was owned by the company. Hewbrys Holdings was connected to two of their other cases; a bush-fire in Australia and a terrorist attack on the Thames Barrier in London. And now this.
‘Different M.O.’ Jerm commented. ‘Completely different situation. Again. But it’s got the same stink off it. Someone’s playing games.’
‘Yeah, I’m having a theory,’ Blowfly said.
‘Great, I’ll call the press.’
Blowfly didn’t rise to the jibe. He was well used to his partner’s sarcasm. They were both about to say something else, when the coroner lifted his head and pulled down his mask for a moment.
‘I just thought you’d be interested to know,’ he said to them, his English spoken with a trace of American twang. ‘The gas mask had its breathing tube sealed. He wouldn’t have been able to breathe while he was wearing it. My preliminary examination of the lungs confirms it. He was asphyxiated. Even if he hadn’t fallen, he would have been dead within a minute or two.’
‘Any idea why?’ Jerm asked.
‘I believe that would be your job,’ the coroner replied. ‘Though I’m sure the Berliner Polizei will already have a long list of suspects. Mister Ulbricht was a divisive figure in Germany.’
‘How so?’ Blowfly said.
‘He was what you’d call a “shock jock”. Paid to spout offensive opinions. Even the name of the radio station, “Schutzwall“, is intended to get a rise out of people. Strictly translated, it means “rampart” or “protective wall”, but you would just call it, “the Wall”.’
‘That was the name of the Berlin Wall in German,’ Jerm told Blowfly. ‘Der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. The Anti-Fascism Rampart.’
‘Yes,’ the coroner said. ‘Though, perhaps it’s intended to be ironic, given Ulbricht’s politics and those of the station generally. He was the poster boy for every right-wing, reactionary campaign over the last few years. He would have had plenty of enemies already, but after the guest he interviewed last week, well . . . there are probably thousands more.’
‘Why’s that?’ Blowfly asked.
‘The living aren’t my problem,’ the coroner said. ‘They’re yours. The interview got posted everywhere online. You should hear it for yourselves. You’ll understand.’
Giving them a grim smile, he pulled up his mask and returned to his work.
Erich Ulbricht’s fateful interview had been with a Polish woman named Dominika O’Reilly. She was an environmentalist who had been brought on to talk about the pollution in China’s cities; she had written an article about it in one of Germany’s newspapers, comparing it with the pollution Berlin faced in the seventies and eighties. She was thirty-six years old; a lean, active looking, slightly unkempt woman, her straight blonde hair cut in a bob just below the jaw-line, the features of her face blocky but strong and attractive, prematurely lined by what appeared to some underlying anger or frustration. Her eyes had the intensity of a campaigner.
‘Ulbricht brought me on to his show to make a point,’ she told the two detectives, her accent a light-sharp, chirping mix of Polish and Irish. ‘I was there to talk about climate change, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I had to say. He just wanted an excuse to go off on a rant about China.’
They were sitting down at a wooden table and benches outside a café beside the Documentation Centre at the Berlin Wall Memorial. O’Reilly had chosen the location, saying she did not want to be interviewed in a police station. She had had bad experiences with the police in the past. Blowfly and Jerm were inclined to agree. They had already checked out her criminal record, which listed a series of arrests for various extreme protests, ranging from chaining herself to mining machinery in Australia, to hanging off a bridge in the path of a container ship carrying toxic waste down a river in the US. She was now a German citizen; seemingly the only country she’d lived in where she’d never been arrested. Blowfly had a latte in front of him, Jerm had a black coffee and was lighting a cigarette. O’Reilly had only asked for tap water. She didn’t look too happy about the cigarette smoke, but she didn’t say anything.
‘When we talked on the phone,’ Blowfly began, ‘you said you weren’t surprised to hear Ulbricht died wearing a gas mask. Hearing that someone’s been thrown off a building with a gas mask on would be pretty surprising to most people.’
‘I’m not most people,’ O’Reilly replied. ‘Perhaps I was being insensitive about someone who’d just been murdered. I don’t particularly care that he’s dead, but it’s horrible how he died. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The reason I said I wasn’t surprised was because of his background. You said you’d listened to the interview?’
‘Yes,’ Jerm said, exhaling smoke, ‘but we’d like to hear the story straight from you.’
O’Reilly sipped her water, tilting her head back to look at the sky. Across from them was one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with one of the old watch-towers. It was there as a monument now, a reminder. But Berlin had moved on, consigning that part of itself to history.
‘It’s funny, how different things are normal in different places,’ the young woman said. ‘Fifty years ago, that wall dividing the city was normal. Stasi surveillance and all its informers, the horrible paranoia, was normal. Life recovering from the world’s worst war was normal. City streets obscured by a choking smog was normal. Now we think this is normal, what we have now. And yet this has only existed for such a very short time. I like this normal – here, now, in Berlin. The environment is taken seriously.’ She gestured over her shoulder at a billboard on the wall. It was for an organization called Naturschutzbund Deutschland, and showed a boat passing through water whose surface was carpeted in garbage. ‘It’s part of normal conversation. People don’t consider you a nut for talking about conservation, climate change, that kind of thing.’
Jerm thought about the other two cases they were still working on; one that concerned bush-fires in the Australian state of Victoria, the other the Thames Barrier in London. Both had an environmental facet to them, though she and Blowfly had been unable to establish that as a solid connection.
‘You very worried about climate change?’ she asked.
‘I should be,’ O’Reilly answered. ‘But I mustn’t be worried enough.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because it’s so serious, I should be out planting bombs to stop all this coal mining and oil drilling. I should be helping to blow up these mines and oil rigs. That’s how serious it is. It’s going to bring down civilization as we know it, so I should be doing anything possible to stop it. But I don’t. I should be willing to go to prison to make change happen, but I’m not. I don’t go far enough.’
‘You’re not going to do anyone any good in prison,’ Jerm remarked bluntly. ‘Tell us about the circumstances leading up to the interview.’
‘Yes, the interview,’ O’Reilly said, grimacing. ‘Not that it was an interview at all. I’d been asked to talk about my article on air pollution in China. In some cities, on some days, they have to wear masks when they go out on the streets. That was what I wanted to talk about. I mean, it’s only a symptom of the level of carbon in the air. You know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached four hundred parts per million?’
‘I’ve heard it,’ Jerm said, ‘but . . . well . . . I don’t really know what it means.’
‘It hasn’t been that high in the last three to five million years!’ O’Reilly exclaimed, her voice taking on the tone of an evangelist, her hands clasped in the air. ‘Back then, sea levels could have been thirty metres higher than today. The atmosphere’s been doing its thing, changing ever so slowly over all this time and then the industrial revolution comes along and suddenly the carbon levels start rocketing . . . It’s not just a few shifts in the weather we’re talking about here. We’ve affected the air and the seas so much, we’ve changed the Earth’s future capacity to support the world as we know it. That’s how big a deal this is. That’s what I wanted to talk about . . .’
Pausing, she lowered her hands, giving the two detectives a sheepish, but bitter smile.
‘You see how I get. Anyway, I knew Ulbricht would ambush me, turn it into a chance for him to launch into some tirade against China. I’ve been caught out by people like him before. They don’t want real discussion or debate, they’re not trying to draw out the truth. This time, I thought I’d take a different approach. I’d employ some of his own tactics. I’d dig up some dirt on him. I knew he’d grown up in East Berlin, so when I was invited on the show, I contacted someone I know at the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde, the Stasi Records Agency, who hold all the old files from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.’ She rolled the German words off her tongue, as if tasting them. ‘My friend was surprised nobody had done a search on Ulbricht before, given the number of people who hate him, but there you are. Anyone can apply – the MfS files are all open to the public. Or perhaps nobody had dug far enough down. The Germans are keen to let it all lie, I suppose. It’s taken a lot of tolerance for Berliners, living together in the same city, to get past the suspicion, the paranoia that existed back then. Imagine how you’d feel if you found out that your neighbour had informed on you to the Stasi – or even one of your own family? If its people had looked for revenge on one another, Berlin would have descended into chaos. Instead, they had to forgive and forget, to get on with their lives. It’s so complex, so fascinating. And it’s extraordinary, what you can still find in the Stasi files from that time. Did you know they have an archive of sweat and body odour samples? I think it was for when they needed to use tracker dogs. The bastards even recorded your smells . . .
‘Whatever. I learned that Ulbricht had worked for the Stasi. He was an informer first, in university, then an operative, then an interrogator. The last references to him in the Stasi material were in connection with the South African Police. I kept digging and found mention of him in a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. Apparently, when the wall fell, he moved to South Africa, where he continued to practise his trade.’
She paused once again, for effect this time, to ensure she had the full attention of her audience.
‘Ulbricht’s method of choice was the gas mask. He would put it on the prisoner and, if the victim didn’t talk, he’d block the air tube so they couldn’t breathe. He would do this until they passed out, then open the tube again. When the prisoner regained consciousness, he told them he would do it again, but this time he’d let them suffocate. He claimed they never failed to tell him everything he wanted to know. After the fall of apartheid in ’94, he ran back to Germany. No charges were ever brought against him in either country. He managed to successfully build a new life in the media, covering up his past.’
Blowfly and Jerm had already heard the story, and Ulbricht’s apoplectic reaction to it during the interview, which had resulted in the show going off the air while O’Reilly was escorted from the building. Ulbricht had been placed on a leave of absence until the issue was resolved. Even a controversy-courting station like Schutzwall FM couldn’t employ someone who might have once been a torturer.
‘So a guy whose job it was to torture information out of people became an interviewer on the radio,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘Nice.’
‘He polluted the airwaves with his filthy arguments and accusations,’ O’Reilly said, scowling. ‘He used his position to humiliate others, to inspire fear and hatred and to denounce decent people with his propaganda and to undermine scientists who were warning against climate change, which was one of his pet hates.’
‘As I said, I’d never wish that kind of death on anyone, but I’m not sorry he’s dead. Whoever did this, they’re making a point. A bit heavy-handed, I’ll grant you . . . and unlike me, they’re not compromising. To be honest, I’m surprised someone hasn’t already claimed credit for it. This isn’t a normal murder, I think it’s the act of a terrorist. And terrorists want publicity.’
The three talked for a little while longer and then Blowfly and Jerm thanked Dominika O’Reilly for her time and she left. The two detectives regarded each other for a moment.
‘Definite pattern around this climate change thing,’ Jerm observed. ‘They’re all aspects of global warming, aren’t they? You get more bush-fires in Victoria, more storm surges along the Thames. And now this: a climate change denier who’s also a torturer, outed by an environmentalist.’
‘There’s something else,’ Blowfly added. ‘I think there’s something here about the classical elements.’
‘The classical elements, the four states of matter . . . y’know; earth, air, fire and water. Earth is solid, air is gas, fire is plasma and water is liquid. Although sometimes there’s five, if you include the quintessence, or aether.’
‘Oh, sure. Right.’
‘No, listen,’ Blowfly persisted. ‘The first victim, Cameron Davis, burned to death. The second, Antonia Abbot, drowned. This guy, who “polluted the airwaves”, fell through the air while suffocating . . .’
‘Yeah, yeah, I get it. But . . . so what?’
‘So it’s symbolism of some kind. Like O’Reilly said, someone’s making a point. Yes, it looks like the work of terrorists, but where are the claims of responsibility? She’s right; terrorists want publicity – that’s what it’s all about. I’m betting there’s going to be another victim, possibly two. And the next one’s likely to be something to do with earth.’
Jerm slapped the table and blasted smoke from her mouth.
‘Goddammit, Blow! You’ve cracked the case! We just have to stop someone dying of earth and we’ll nail the bastards who are behind this.’
‘You’re such a piss-taker,’ Blowfly sighed.
‘You’re such a bullshitter,’ she retorted.
‘It’s why we make such a good team,’ he replied, grinning.
She smiled back, picking up her case and taking out her tablet. Opening a window, she typed in Ulbricht’s name and the words ‘climate change’.
‘Let’s see if he pissed off anyone special with this denial stuff,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘The violence against the victims has all been up close; it feels more personal than your average terrorist. I’m betting it’s someone who actually met him – maybe someone who featured on his show . . .’ A photo caught her eye and she stared at what had appeared on the screen. She spread her fingers over it, zooming in on the picture. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’
‘No question o’ that,’ Blowfly murmured.
‘Smart-arse. Look at this.’
The photo was only tagged with Ulbricht’s name, but the image showed four people. The detectives recognized three of them. The image was a scan of a newspaper article about a group that had been assembled by the CEO of Hewbrys Holdings to ‘investigate the possible effects of climate change on air quality in Central Europe’. The people standing next to Erich Ulbricht in the picture were named in the newspaper’s caption, but it was just part of the image; the words wouldn’t show up on a search of the web. Next to the radio presenter was Hewbrys’ ‘Environmental Affairs Spokesperson’, Antonia Abbot and ‘Atmospheric Chemist’, Cameron Davis. The fourth person was a ‘prominent environmentalist’ named Michal Jánošík. Jerm went on to do a search for Michal Jánošík online, while Blowfly opened his laptop and checked him out on the Interpol database.
‘He’s got a record,’ Blowfly said. ‘Numerous arrests; most seem to be for protests of one sort or another. He’s got a sheet longer – and more extreme – than O’Reilly.’
‘He’s also dead,’ Jerm declared. ‘Murdered last year. Looks like we’re going to Poland.’
I opened my eyes and sat up in bed looking around the bland, empty room as I did every morning, to remind myself of where I am. I stood up and walked over to the corner of the room where there was a small dirty bucket that had the word “toilet” painted on it. I did as I did every morning and when I was finished I walked to the centre of the room and sat on the floor with my legs crossed adjacent to the window. The light from the outside hit my face and I thought to myself “The sun must be out to play”. As I looked up to peer out the window, the light blinded me so I had to squint to see. The outside was like a painting that has been worked on to perfection, the clear blue sky was bright and full and there was only a few chalky clouds perfectly placed so as not to disrupt the view. The sun was in its full glory, it appeared to be smiling onto the world with such grace and joy as to bring life to the planet and made the distant green hills that showed their peaks look all the more alive. I sat here a while looking out the window taking in the beauty of what was through the glass portal in my wall.
I heard footsteps coming from outside the door and, as they drew closer, I sprung to my feet and shouted out “Mommy” as I ran towards the door. My mother walked into the room and quickly shut the door behind her. She did this every time she walked into the room and I never questioned why. She turned to look at me, I always thought my mother was the most beautiful person in the world. Her eyes were light blue like the sky and always had the same look of love, She had gorgeous blonde hair that would glisten when the sun would hit it and a slight smile that always made me smile right back at her. She opened her arms and wrapped them around me. “How are you my son?” she whispered in the most delicate voice I could imagine, I looked up at her and softly kissed her pale cheek before replying with, “I want to go outside”. My mother’s embrace loosened as she bent down to my level holding my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes with hers, “You know the outside is dangerous sweetheart” she said while brushing her hand through the hair around my ear. “I’ll be safe I promise”, I protest with a grin on my face, She looked into my eyes again “We’ve talked about this sweetie, the outside world is a dangerous place filled with people who will hurt you”, she says calmly. I could feel her grip tighten as she said this and her voice sounded like she had a lump in her throat, however she kept the same smile and never looked away from me, she kept her composure.”But what if….” I started but she halted me by saying, “Now lets get you fed sweetie”, as she rose back to her feet. She now continued with the usual morning routine, she walked over to the window and opened it to “let in the freshness” as she always told me. This was my favourite part of the morning because I could hear the sounds that were outside. I ran up to the window and looked up, I couldn’t reach it but I just closed my eyes and listened to all the wondrous sounds that came flooding into the room. My mother left to go get my breakfast but I just stood there with my eyes closed, listening to the seemingly endless world outside of my window. A familiar sound met my ear “BIRDS!” I shouted happily, as I listened to their careless chirping, a grin once again appearing on my face I kept listening for more sounds and as I focused in on the things such as cars, the wind, motorcycles and footsteps. I waited for my favourite sound of all…..People. I love listening to the voices of people walking past and especially the sound of other children playing in the streets, although it made me want to know what it would be like to be out there with them, the sun on my face, the wind in my hair and maybe, just maybe, I could be the person that someone else is listening to out of their window.
I heard the door opening again and my mother walked in with a bowl in her hands. She placed it down on the desk in the corner of the room and gestured for me to come and sit on the small tattered stool that was beside her. I had already guessed what she had made for me and as I sat down and looked into the bowl I was confirmed right. “Porridge again?” I moaned, She laughed a little and calmly said, “Don’t you want to grow big and strong?” in reply. “Of course”, I said enthusiastically grabbing the spoon in my hand and taking my first mouthful. I left it in my mouth and smiled happily when I realised she had added honey, I quickly ate the rest of the bowl and turned to face her. She was just standing there smiling at me, I smiled back and she put her hand on my head and said quickly, “Time for lessons”. Everyday my mother would give me lessons in reading and writing and she taught me lots of interesting things. She got my pencil and copybook and placed it on the desk in front of me. She picked up the pencil and began to write out a sentence for me to copy down. As she did this I noticed a bruise on her arm. I asked her about it but she quickly pulled her sleeve down and told me she fell. I knew she was lying but I copied down the sentence like I was asked and did my work.”Its your birthday soon”, my mother said with a smile, “what would you like?”. I was suddenly filled with excitement but I could only think of one thing, “To go outside maybe?” I asked cautiously, she gave me a disappointed look and I quickly said, “A new chair? This one is old and falling apart.” Her look softened and she just nodded in agreement and once again ran her hand through the hair around my ear. Suddenly I heard another pair of footsteps at the door. I turned to look only to see my father standing there. My father was a tall broad man with small, sharp eyes and a rough face. He always had the same look of anger on his face and he rarely came into my room. I saw my mother tense up as he entered as if she was scared. My father didn’t say a word but instead just looked at me, then at my mother and snapped his fingers I knew what this meant, mother had to leave now. My mother bowed her head, she kissed my forehead and whispered “Goodbye sweetie, I’ll see you later” before closing the window and leaving with my father. As my father closed the door he turned to me and ordered “behave” with a sharp tone. I simply nodded in reply bowing my head sad to be left alone again.
I jumped awake. A nightmare had once again haunted my night’s sleep. It was about my father. He had taken away my mother from me once again, except she wasn’t coming back. I spent a while curled up in bed, tears streaming down my face. I didn’t dare cry in case I woke father. Eventually I rose from the bed and walked over to my best friend, the window. I sat cross legged and once again peered through this portal to a world much bigger than my own. The moon was full and high in the sky spreading light throughout the darkened world. The sky was not quite black but rather a dark blue which silhouetted dark clouds and birds gliding through the air. I stood and walked towards the window, reaching for the handle that mother uses to open it every morning like clockwork. I couldn’t reach. Disappointed and upset, I crawled back into my bed and forced myself to close my eyes, I doubted I would sleep. I lay there for a while wondering if I would ever fall asleep and if my mother would be here in the morning. I wanted to see her so badly. I turned to my side and clutched a pillow to my chest. I didn’t like this, I wanted my mother to stay with me longer but she always left. I lay thinking about this for a while before I found myself growing more and more tired, before falling back to sleep.
The next morning seemed to come almost instantaneously. The room began to light up and I slowly peeled open my eyes. I stayed laying in bed for a while before I was disturbed by a crashing sound from beneath the floor. Startled, I put my ear to the ground and tried to listen. It was mother and father. Father was shouting, he must be mad. He gets mad a lot and that’s how mother gets the bruises. Sometimes he isn’t happy giving her bruises and he tries to give them to me, but every time he’s tried to, mother has stopped him, even if it means her getting more herself. The sound of them fighting and the thought of mother being hurt caused tears to flow down my face. I lift my ear from the floor and sat up, keeping my head down. Sitting there for a while I heard a sound coming from above me. I looked up to see my friend, my window to a world beyond this one that I knew all too well. As I glared through the glass I realised out what the noise was, rain. “The sky must be crying too”, I whimpered to myself under my breath, taking in the scenery that I’ve memorized by heart. The sky was filled with dark, looming clouds that seemed to have an ocean’s worth of water flowing from them. The raindrops bounced off window and trickled down to the bottom over and over as I stared through it. The fields in the background were barely visible; of what I could see they looked wet and dreary, as if the sky’s tears had washed away the life. I buried my face in my knees and continued to cry along side my only friend. I waited there in the middle of the room waiting, waiting for my mother to come up with my breakfast and for her to let me get that “fresh air” she thinks is so important for me. I waited for what felt like years, just wanting to be able to talk to someone again, although it seemed like today would be the first day mother wouldn’t come to be with me. My tears had dried up but the heavens still wept like a newborn child. Just as I had given up on the idea of seeing mother today I heard fumbling outside the door. The handle moved and the door slowly opened. It was mother. I jumped to my feet and ran towards her, arms open wide and a grin on my face. She fell to her knees and held out her arms, grabbing me as I came into reach. This close, I noticed it. She had blood on her lip. She mumbled the words “people are cruel and evil things sweetie” under her breath and I just replied with, “I know” ,holding her close. She smiled and kissed my cheek before standing and walking over to the window. The weather was still terrible but she still turned to me and said, “You need your fresh air” and opened the window regardless. The noise of the rain suddenly became much louder and a cold breeze blew through the room. I could hear a whistling sound from the wind outside and an occasional car driving on the wet road below. Mother looked at me and smiled “I have a surprise for the birthday boy”, she said still smiling at me. My face dropped, “Its today?” I asked confused. “Mhm”, she answered walking over to me, “I’ll be back soon with your present and your breakfast”. She kissed my forehead and left the room. I got excited now, had she gotten what I asked? and would she spend longer with me today? After a while I heard a noise on the opposite side of the door. I lept back to my feet in anticipation, eyes locked on the door. For a few seconds there was nothing but then the door flew open revealing not my mother but my father. He was rocking on his feet as though he was half asleep and a stale smell quickly filled the room. His hands were unsteady but in the left he held a brown bottle and in the right thick, black belt. He took an unbalanced step towards me, mumbling inaudible sounds beneath his breath. My hands were trembling, I was scared, and I didn’t know where mother was. He raised his right hand. I put up my hands to shield my face and closed my eyes, waiting for the impact. Smack! I felt it come down on my side. I stayed there as I felt the belt strike me again and again and again before eventually hearing the sound of my mother’s voice screaming at him to stop. My father started to turn around and walk towards her but as he was about to reach her, he fell flat on his face, unconscious.
I was still shielding my face when mother walked over to me with the same bowl of porridge and a spoon. I could see out into the hallway, I had never seen it before and it was a long room with cream coloured walls with a few doors along the walls. When mother noticed me looking she immediately closed the door. She then hastily said, “Wait here”, leaving the room once again. I began to eat the porridge but was taken by surprise to find nothing special about it. “It’s my birthday I thought she had a surprise for me”, I thought to myself. This thought was interrupted by her walking back into the room; in her arms was a solid wooden chair. It was much bigger than the stool that I have been using for as long as I can remember. She put it down beside the old stool and beckoned me to come sit. I did as she wanted but as I sat, I clenched my side in pain. Mother lifted me up and pulled up my shirt, There were red marks along my side that felt like they were throbbing. I saw mother starting to cry but she stopped herself, I couldn’t help but think she was doing it for my sake. I was confused. Mother knew father was like this but she stayed. She knew he would hurt her but she let him. I turned to her and asked her this. She wiped the tears from her eyes and brushed her hands through my hair as she did when she spoke with me. “I stay to keep you safe and away from the danger sweetie”, she said, still caressing my hair. I froze. The reason she stayed was to keep me safe? I was the reason that father could hurt her. I began to cry and buried my face in mother’s shoulder. She put an arm around me and rubbed the small of my back. I caught a glimpse out the window. The weather that had began to lighten up had only worsened. The rain was pelting down from the sky like little bullets shot from the clouds. The outside looked dead, empty and void of life, as if the water had just washed it all away.
Both mother and I jumped when we heard staggering from outside the door. Father must have woken up. Mother told me to wait as she quickly staggered to the window forcing it shut, then leaving in a hurry, not wanting father to come back inside the room. Left to my own thoughts an idea struck me. My only wish was to be outside and the only thing keeping mother here was me. I heard father shouting again and mother shouting back at him but only one thing was going through my mind. Outside! I wanted to see what was beyond these walls but more importantly I needed to help mother. If I left then mother would have no reason to stay. My body began to move on its own, running over to the window, reaching for the handle, my only way to the outside. I couldn’t reach and began to become disheartened, thats when I saw it, the chair. Grabbing it and dragging it over to beneath the window I climbed up onto it. I reached once again stretching as much as I possibly could before finally grasping the handle in my hand. I’ve never been this close to the window before, I could see myself in the glass. I had never seen my reflection before and was surprised by what I saw. My eyes were light blue like my mother but my hair is black like my father’s; the thought of me looking like him repulsed me enough to ignore my reflection. As I twisted the handle I noticed something, the rain had stopped and there were spears of sunlight piercing through the clouds. Amazement struck me, I had seen something I had only ever seen once before. A rainbow. It was so beautiful I could only compare it to one thing, mother. It was as if it was her, smiling at me as I looked at the shining colours in the sky. Smiling back like I only do to mother I forced the window open and a cool breeze hit my face. Pulling myself up, I saw more than I have ever seen before. The world does not seem so dangerous but rather beautiful to my eyes, I see the hills that I have adored my whole life and the roads where I heard the cars drive past, I see the world that I want to explore. If I did this it would let my mother leave, this was the only thing that gave me the confidence I needed to pull myself through the portal in which I have only ever looked into before now and now I am entering it, the world beyond these walls. As the first beam of sunlight hits my face I realise what I had done, I’m outside.
With Yeats and Heaney in Tallaght, Islington and Reinickendorf
These were meetings that were more than warm-hearted. Over three weeks in February and March, I spoke with young people at three different schools about two poems that I believe have something important to say about the relationship between the individual and the respective climate in which he or she lives and thus also about the consequences of climate change. The poems in question here are “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” by William Butler Yeats, which was published in the Crossways collection in 1889, and “A Postcard from Iceland” by Seamus Heaney, which was written 100 years later. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, while Heaney received it in 1995. Around fifty students told me the different thoughts and feelings the two Irishmen’s poems had provoked in them and I listened, frequently both moved and amazed. The schools where I presented the poems were the Mount Seskin Community College in Tallaght near Dublin, the Islington Arts and Media School in London and the Romain Rolland Gymnasium in Berlin.
The Meditation of the Old Fisherman
You waves, though you dance by my feet like children at play
Though you glow and you glance, though you purr and you dart;
In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay,
When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.
The herring are not in the tides as they were of old;
My sorrow! for many a creak gave the creel in the cart
That carried the take to Sligo town to be sold,
When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.
And ah, you proud maiden, you are not so fair when his oar
Is heard on the water, as they were, the proud and apart,
Who paced in the eve by the nets on the pebbly shore,
When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.
In Tallaght, Islngton and Reinickendorf, three students each read out one of verses of the Yeats poem to the class. All three classes were particularly keen on the repeated line at the end of each verse, which to many students felt like waves breaking on the shore. Others were enchanted by the “back and forth” produced by the poetic foot, reminiscent of dunes or pulsations, while others were astonished about how an old fisherman at the end of his life thinks about the world and so many different things: everything may change over time, but love and yearning always remain the same. We spoke at length about the connection between the human disposition and the climate and weather. What is climate anyway and what is weather, what are the differences between them and how can these differences be described? The boys in particular asked what “crack in my heart” might actually mean – whether Yeats, as it may seem, was really only concerned about love and its transient nature. I remember a silent student sitting with us in the art room at Mount Seskin College, shaking his head even as he read the poem again and again, quietly and just for himself. It was only at the end of the lesson that he finally gathered his courage and started talking about the floods in 2014, whereby numerous Dublin suburbs were destroyed following heavy storms and weeks of rain. “Suddenly a river that had never been there before came down the hill and carried the houses away with it, my grandparents’ house too.”
Seamus Heaney talks about another similarly unusual, yet very different river at the start of his 1987 poetry collection The Haw Lantern, whose motto is:
The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.
Heaney’s poem “A Postcard from Iceland” delighted the students in Tallaght, London and Berlin in equal measure. Comparisons were immediately made to Yeats’ stanzas, while many immediately noticed that this poem too contains voices from real life talking about a lost connection, albeit in a different, more ironic tone:
As I dipped to test the stream some yards away
From a hot spring, I could hear nothing
But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.
And then my guide behind me saying,
”Lukewarm. And I think you’d want to know
That luk was an old Icelandic word for hand.“
And you would want to know (but you know already)
How usual that waft and pressure felt
When the inner palm of water found my palm.
The longest discussions followed my question about whether the sense of a direct connection to the Earth represented by Heaney in the poem still holds if the hand in question is being bathed in artificially heated water. Independently of one another, all the students responded here with a resounding no. We were all in agreement that Seamus Heaneys’s poem is an account of two conversations, not just one held by a tour guide with a tourist visiting an island but also the conversation that nature, the Earth or creation has with anyone who is open and sensitive enough to join in. “We all ultimately know the language of lukewarm water”, said one student in Islington and another in Berlin. “When it comes down to it, everyone remembers what it was like to be in the womb – it’s just that it’s impossible to communicate that.” The climate in which each of us lives perhaps gives us a similar feeling of unconscious security: “(but you know already)”.
What language is capable of making this clear and what language can speak of the dangers that climate change brings with it? In these schools on the edge of three European capitals, not even a trace of helplessness was to be found, but rather lots of youthful vigour and curiosity, a lively interest for unfamiliar standpoints, a great deal of empathy and above all the willingness to finally make some changes to things according to one’s one ideas rather than the established ones. A fifteen-year-old student at IAMS, the Arts and Media School in the London district of Islington-Finsbury, found a fantastic impromptu image for how to overcome the mutually disavowing debates on climate change in science and literature: “On the clock of my life, the language of poetry is the minute hand and the language of science the hour hand.”
Photos: Students at Mount Seskin Community College (1), Oisín McGann in front of the Mount Seskin “Substation” (2), the Romain Rolland-Gymnasium, Berlin-Reinickendorf (3), Students of the IAMS (4), the entrance to the IAMS in Islington. John Keats went to school in nearby Finsbury. The four tenets of the school at its entrance: “Confidence Aspiration Reflection Respect” (5)
It might seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain why the recent decision by the Irish people to include same-sex marriage in our constitution gives me hope that we possess the capacity for a much greater public appreciation of climate change.
And no, it’s not just because climate change has long been viewed as bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberal issue and the referendum was a victory for bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberals everywhere. Though there is that too. For me, the most heartening aspects of the campaign for the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples were its sheer positivity and how visible it made the more enlightened views of the Irish towards LGBT people. The new law recognized that change of attitudes, and it’s the difference between laws and attitudes that I want to talk about.
Let’s put things in perspective: Ireland’s laws, and the attitudes they originally reflected, specifically concerning homosexuality, date back to the Victorian era. The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act outlawed: ‘the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal’. So homosexuality was aligned with bestiality, under the heading, ‘Unnatural Offences’. The state’s official position on this remained unchallenged until about 1970, when David Norris, lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, spearheaded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, trying to get it decriminalised.
It wasn’t until March 1983 that Ireland had its first Gay Pride Festival. In 1988, Norris, by then a member of the senate, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights over the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Irish Constitution. It was a legal process he had started in 1977, that was beaten down in both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court.
The law declaring that homosexuality was illegal was eventually changed in 1993, with the future Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore (who had campaigned on this since his student union days), declaring: ‘The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays.’
That was in 1993. Think about that for a second. A little over twenty years ago, according to Irish law, you could still be put in prison for making love to an adult, consenting partner. It was written into the same statute that included: ‘Causing bodily injury by gunpowder.’ and ‘Impeding a person endeavouring to save himself or another from ship-wreck.’ And it was included in the same sentence as bestiality. By 1993, however, nobody in their right mind would have attempted to try someone for the ‘crime’ of gay sex. That law is a reflection of the establishment’s position back in the nineteenth century, but it also reflects the attitudes at the time when, we must assume, Ireland’s population had the same proportion of homosexuals as it does now. People who had to live their whole lives suppressing their emotions, hiding their loves and denying their true natures for fear of arrest and imprisonment. If they were in any way religious, then, by the teachings at the time (and still for some religious nuts now) they would have been assured by their religious leaders that God himself condemned their ‘abominable’ kind.
And though society evolved after that law was passed in 1861, those damning words remained there, a fixed point in a tide of slowly shifting public opinion. Strong, vocal, passionate activists started arguing for this law to be changed, but for a long time, the Irish conservative, predominantly-religious public opinion wasn’t ready to accept it. With growing numbers of people starting to take an interest, however, and looking beyond religion for their moral principles, the campaign began to gain momentum. Women’s rights were, slowly, gaining ground and this, in turn, contributed to other civil rights causes. The conversation on gay rights spread from being one held solely among strident activists fighting for a cause; to people interested in civil rights in a more general way; to people who just wanted to see others treated decently; to people who didn’t have strong feelings about it but figured, ‘Well, why not?’. As we became more aware of the need to distinguish between them, everyday discussions expanded from just ‘gay’ rights to ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’.
It took over a hundred years, but the weight of public opinion swung from steadfast resistance to the idea of LGBT rights, to a recognition and common acceptance of it.
By which time, the 1861 law was looking more and more absurd, along with many of the Victorian values it reflected.
So in 1993, homosexual sex was made legal. Which was an improvement, but, given how long it had taken, not what you’d call a giant leap for mankind. Looking back at that change in law now, to a time when I had just left college, even I feel a sense of embarrassment about how backwards my country must have seemed to anyone attracted to the same sex. I can imagine what it would be like if someone told me, after years of having to conceal it, that I could no longer be put in prison for having consensual sex with a woman. Would I be relieved? Yes. Grateful? Not a whole lot. But then what could you expect? The Irish were screwed up enough about straight sex. Despite the emerging crisis of AIDS, condoms had only recently become widely available, after bitter opposition – once again – by the church. Only a few years before, it had still been legal for a man to rape his wife. To use the term often trotted out by the ‘No’-siders in the referendum, marriage was ‘redefined’ when the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, was passed in 1990, so a woman could legally refuse to have sex with her husband. Even if the Irish were slowly accepting how unjust our society still was, laws don’t change quickly. And constitutions, by their nature, change even slower.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the Civil Partnership Bill was passed, not allowing marriage, but giving the relationships of homosexuals and transgender people some rights under the law, including the right to adopt children. LGBT couples still didn’t have equal rights, but it was considered a victory nonetheless. The bill went a long way towards helping the public get its collective head around the idea of LGBT marriage.
In 2011, the first openly homosexual TDs were elected to the Dáil. Jerry Buttimer, John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan took their seats, representing Cork South-Central, Dublin North-West and Meath East respectively. Here was proof of public acceptance forging ahead of legal recognition. In legal terms, it had taken nearly twenty years, to go from homosexuality being illegal, to it being so accepted that you could be open about your sexual preferences and be voted into government. And help write new laws. But the Irish people had been changing for a lot longer than that – it just took the plodding system of government a long time to catch up.
In January 2015, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay government minister when he came out publicly. At this point, Ireland was recovering from a crippling recession and a regime of harsh austerity. There were, and still are, huge protests over the move to start charging for the domestic water supply. The country was suffering and morale was low – but one thing was lifting our spirits. The referendum was looming and the country was clamouring for same-sex marriage to be recognized. It had gone beyond a gay rights issue. This was Ireland wanting to move on from its reactionary, conservatively religious roots.
The ‘Yes’ campaign was, at times, marred by negative terms and imagery, but it was overwhelmingly positive, not just about homosexuality and transgender people, but about our society, about Irish identity itself. The campaign was marked by joy, colour, humour and good will. We wanted to be better, more open-minded, more inclusive. We wanted tangible proof that we had changed for the better and were ready to spread the love. And what’s more, we wanted the world to know it. We had a pretty straightforward decision to make. We were voting on adding the following words to our constitution:
‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’
That’s it. You wouldn’t think it was such a big deal, except there were a couple of million opinions to take into account. I remember walking into the polling station with mixed feelings. On one hand, it seemed bizarre that I should be voting on someone else’s right to get married. I didn’t believe in asking my wife’s parents for their permission to marry her – why should somebody have to ask the whole country? But I also walked in with a sense of excitement about voting that I hadn’t experienced in years. And it wasn’t just me. The country was buzzing with anticipation.
We still weren’t sure of a win. Progressive amendments to the constitution had been defeated many times before by the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church and the conservative element in Ireland, one that might be less vocal these days, but still had a strong foundation and, vitally, had a better record of voting. Ireland’s youth, in particular, had long shown a disconnected cynicism about the political process.
But not this time. The young voted in record numbers. The old came out in support. People from a range of religious backgrounds. There was no urban/rural divide, no division between classes. This was bigger than just an issue over LGBT rights; Irish people were making a statement about the kind of society we wanted. And for a whole lot of straight people, it felt good. When the referendum was passed by a margin of two to one – the biggest margin of any referendum in Irish history – journalist and commentator, Fintan O’Toole said it simply: ‘This moment is not a gift from Ireland to the LGBT community. It’s the other way round. Thanks for making us proud of ourselves again.’
So here’s the thing: Ireland had already changed by the time the law caught up and made it official. That new law will not end discrimination; the world will never run out of assholes – they’re a renewable resource. But it has been made clear that discrimination will no longer be tolerated by society or the law.
That wouldn’t have been possible if public attitudes hadn’t changed dramatically long before that. The law didn’t lead the people, it was the other way round, but making it official marks the end of a process where the idea went from radical, to progressive, to accepted, to just plain . . . normal. And though the change in the constitution will now ensure LGBT couples will have equal rights, it has also made it possible for society to do much more beyond that.
In the campaign to raise awareness about our climate, to promote a more environmentally conscientious way of life, passionate activists have swum against the tide for years, calling for change. Unlike the ultimately personal question of equality and marriage, climate change is a difficult, theoretical, complicated and bewildering issue, but in more recent years, discussion about it has become more mainstream, with those in power now including it in their manifestos, wanting to appear progressive, forward-looking. As they so often do, our elected leaders are watching public opinion, gauging its direction. They want to show they have an eye on the big picture. Climate change has now become the stuff of day-to-day conversations, a part of the small picture, as people accept that it is happening, that we are past the point of preventing it, that its effects are being felt already and it is becoming a part of all our lives.
It is now largely accepted (at least in Ireland) but our official position on the matter still has to catch up – and this time it’s going to take more than one shift in the law to achieve it and to motivate people. But those changes won’t just bring a solution to one problem. As modern life has drifted farther and farther from nature, it has caused all kinds of problems whose solutions lie in the very practices that will help our environment. Getting outside more, getting more exercise, taking the time to reconnect with nature; thinking more about what we’re eating and where our food comes from; making better use of our water; questioning the cost of convenience, reducing our waste; harnessing nature rather than fighting against it; demanding technology that does things better instead of doing more things unreliably; making sure it’s in a business’s interest to be ethical as well as profitable . . . These are changes that will have long term effects, but also offer immediate improvements in our lives – and they can be used to instil the kind of infectious positivity in the campaign against global warming that won the referendum campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.
A lot is going to have to change and, as we’ve seen with LGBT rights, with women’s rights, children’s rights and so many other advances in our country, society is slow to accept a new direction – but it can and it does. As far as climate change is concerned, public opinion is almost there, but to recognize that new reality and to really turn things around, it needs the structure that only new laws can provide.
And we’ll get there. It won’t be easy, but some of it might actually be fun and in the end, maybe we’ll feel good about ourselves for making the world a better place.
For younger kids, or primary school teachers, here’s a little poem about Earth and the daft life that lives on it.
These things on my skin!
These things on my skin!
I’m all that they’ve got,
I’m the world they live in.
Flowing waves, blowing winds,
Move like hands round a clock,
I’m a thin living skin,
Round a hard ball of rock.
Just look what they’re doing!
Can’t they smell the bad air?
I was fine with the poo and
The farts that’s all fair.
They’re all living creatures,
They have to let rip,
It’s part of their nature,
But I’m ready to flip!
They’re drilling my skin!
They’re drilling my skin!
They’ve oil rigs and diggers,
They’re jabbing them in.
It’s the smoke that’s the thing,
That drives me insane.
That and the digging,
The drilling . . . the pain!
I’ve got land, I’ve got seas,
There’s enough to go round,
But stop cutting down trees!
Don’t dig up ALL my ground!
They crawl on my surface,
They’re making me itch,
The smell makes me nervous,
Makes my atmosphere twitch.
They’re eating my skin!
They’re eating my skin!
Machines in their billions,
Gulping it in!
Watch them poison my soil,
Watch them making a mess,
Burning coal, burning oil,
Liquid dinosaur flesh.
It took so long to make,
It took millions of years,
But they’re so quick to take it,
They have me in tears.
My whole body’s ruined,
I mean, sure, it’ll mend,
If these slobs, these buffoons,
See some sense in the end.
They put stuff in the air,
That should stay in the land,
What’s that doing up there?
I’ve had all I can stand!
They’re burning my skin!
They’re burning my skin!
Their fires like cigarettes,
I’m breathing in!
The air and the oceans,
Are losing their cool,
It’s got me emotional,
Feeling the fool.
The smoke’s like a blanket,
All itchy and hot,
It’s warming this planet,
When I’d just rather not.
My weather’s mutating,
And not for the better,
The bits they all hate,
Will get hotter or wetter.
These things on my skin!
These things on my skin!
They’re changing my weather,
With new waves and winds.
The heat whips up storms,
Churns up the sea’s flow,
From the whales to the worms,
Nature’s hit with cruel blows.
But there’s still hope for me,
There’s still all those kids,
Who are starting to see,
What the grown-ups did.
To that thin layer of air,
The air they all breathe,
Now they’re starting to care,
About where this all leads.
Flowing waves, blowing winds,
Move like hands round a clock,
I’m a thin living skin,
Round a hard ball of rock.
I’m all that you’ve got,
I’m all that you need.
Before I get too hot,
You should stop and just . . . breathe.
Friends of the Goethe-Institut opened their home on Friday, Feb 27th 2015 for Dublin’s Weather Station and visiting writer, Mirko Bonne. Mirko read from Ice Cold Heaven and was joined in panel discussion with Irish writer and playwright Mia Gallagher and Irish Antarctic adventurer Mike O’Shea. The discussion explored what kind of heroes or heroines we might need to address the realities of climate change with reference to ‘Boss’ Mirko Bonné’s fictional personification of Shackleton.
Mia Gallagher’s debut novel HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006) was widely acclaimed and won the Irish Tatler Literature Award (2007). Her short fiction has been published internationally, won the START award (2005) and was shortlisted for Hennessy, Fish and Trevor/Bowen Awards. Extracts from Mia’s second novel have been published in Ireland, the UK, the US and will feature in two anthologies in 2015. These include the anticipated Young Irelanders collection (New Island) edited by Dave Lordan and On Displacement, an Italian-English co-publication with New Island and Guanda, Milan. Mia has received several Bursaries for Literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and was writer-in-residence with IADT/dlr Arts Office (2009-2010). She is currently working on a new novel and in spring 2015 she will enjoy a two-month writing residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Of German and Irish heritage, her work reflects on both cultures. Mia has been facilitating workshops in writing, storytelling and performance since 1997 and also professionally edits, critiques and mentors other writers.
Mike O’Shea began climbing at the age of 13 in the McGillicuddy Reeks near his home in County Kerry. One of the first people in Ireland to gain the Gold Gaisce Presidents Award, he has extensively climbed the European Alps and internationally. Mike has also crossed Lake Baikal in Northern Russia, Chiles North Patagonian Icecap and the Southern Icecap on Kilimanjaro as part of The Ice Project. The summer of 2013 also saw Mike guide seven Irish groups up Kilimanjaro.