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The Garden Seat

A garden seat with blankets on it, with a family in the background
The Garden Seat (courtesy Clare Stevens)

The garden seat was bought with Embassy coupons – like the green canvas two-person tent, the set of six yellow-and-brown checked plastic picnic mugs, a couple of thermos flasks, and possibly even the radiogram. My dad must have smoked a lot of cigarettes to earn enough of the little blue coupons to be able to redeem them for such substantial items as the tent and the garden seat. Some years later, when he was made redundant, giving up smoking was his first economy, and a good thing, too, but in the meantime the Embassy Catalogue had furnished us with a significant number of household items that we could not otherwise have afforded. But the best of them, the most valued and certainly the most durable was the garden seat.

It was made of solid teak, with armrests broad enough for a mug to be balanced on each of them quite safely. My parents ‘bought’ it primarily with mid-morning coffee breaks in mind; for days when it was warm enough to tempt them to sit outside for fifteen minutes but not worth fetching deckchairs from the garage. Our deckchairs had come from my father’s parents’ house; one was striped in orange, brown and green, the other two were a pale mud colour. Two of them had heavy canopies to keep off the sun, which needed to be adjusted with rusty screws and had a tendency to collapse once you’d got yourself nicely seated. We even had an Edwardian double swing seat, also with a canopy, that was kept in the rafters of the garage but so difficult to extract and assemble that I rarely remember it being used, though it does appear in family photographs, including some from my father’s childhood. 

The garden seat was given a permanent position in the middle of the lawn at the back of our house, ready for use at any time. Having said that, however, in the earliest photographs of it that I can find it is positioned between the bay windows at the front of the house, looking very handsome and new. My younger brother is posing on it, aged about six and very smartly dressed, so it must have been a Sunday. The sun is in his eyes so it is impossible for him to look at the camera, and the photographer – not my father, surely, for he was a very good photographer – has cut off his feet, so it is quite a frustrating image. It’s possible that the portrait was intended to be of the seat, not of my brother. There’s another one taken at the front of the house in which my sister is sitting on the seat with our orange cat, Jaffa, on her knee. We got him in January 1967, so the photograph was probably taken a few weeks later.

After that, the seat features only in photographs taken in the back garden: the centrepiece of family gatherings on summer Sundays; something solid for my dad to rest a picture frame against while he tried to restore it; the obvious place for us to be photographed showing off particularly successful haircuts, handiwork such as the papier maché fairy-tale castle my sister made for a school holiday project, or the silver salver that I won for musicianship in my upper sixth year. 

One dull day in our university summer vacation, my sister and I took some moody shots of one another dressed in outfits that felt Bohemian by the standards of our South Belfast suburb. She chose to pose perched in one of the apple trees, wearing a long flannel skirt with tiered flounces; I’m cross-legged on the garden seat, in faded jeans, a Viyella checked shirt with the collar carefully turned up, a baggy woollen jumper belonging to my dad and a much-washed, faded silk scarf, also a cast-off from Dad.

An aged photo of three people sitting around the garden seat in a back garden
(Courtesy Clare Stevens)

My mother and I were standing on the garden seat when the bomb went off that brought down three of our ceilings and broke five of our windows. It was early evening on 21 July 1972, and we had been stuck in the house all afternoon because a pair of soldiers had come to the front door not long after lunch and told us there was a suspected explosive device under the nearby railway bridge. They had advised us to stay away from our windows in case it went off, so we had closed all the bedroom doors and spent much of the afternoon sitting on the landing, with a transistor radio alternating between the local news station and the police frequency. 

At about three o’clock, there was a very loud explosion, which was obviously close to hand but didn’t sound like the railway bridge. It was followed after a while by a succession of strange popping noises. I couldn’t resist opening the door into the bedroom over our porch. From the window I could see flames and a thick column of black smoke billowing into the air. In the midst of it small canisters were flying up and bursting like fireworks. They were paint tins from the motor repair workshop of the garage and filling station half a mile away, Creighton’s on the Lisburn Road, where another large bomb had been planted.

Columns of paler smoke were rising from other areas of the city too and from time to time we could hear more explosions, at varying distances. The road over the railway bridge was still closed off at the end of our park, a common occurrence, so we had the usual build-up of cars and pedestrians trying to get access to their homes on the other side of it, but from the radio we began to realise how many other incidents the police and army were dealing with that afternoon. The IRA had planted 19 bombs across the city, some of them in very crowded places. Warnings had been given, but many were inadequate or confused; shoppers and office workers evacuated from one targeted building might be walking towards the location of another. 

The incident that dominated the news was the huge explosion that destroyed Oxford Street Bus Station, killing nine people and injuring many others. Almost sidelined was the car bomb left with no warning at a small parade of shops near our aunt’s house on the Cavehill Road, in the north of the city. When it exploded it killed three people, including Stephen Parker, a 14-year-old boy who had seen a suspicious package in it and was trying to get people out of the shops or into the storerooms at the back.

So it was some time before the army’s bomb disposal squad got round to investigating the suspicious package at our railway bridge. It seemed to take much longer than usual for them to deal with it; we had abandoned our place of safety on the landing, my father had arrived home from work and we were all in the garden, impatiently trying to see what was going on. My mother and I had climbed onto the garden seat to get a better view and were standing on tiptoes looking over our privet hedge and across a neighbouring garden to the red brick railway bridge. But in fact there was nothing to see in that direction when the bomb was detonated in a controlled explosion at about half past six. Behind our backs our kitchen window shattered on to the path, a few feet from where my brother was standing. We lost four other windows at the front of the house too. Several large chunks of plaster from the kitchen ceiling fell onto the table and work surfaces. The drawing-room ceiling collapsed with a soft but resonant thump onto the three-piece suite quite early the next morning, although that was the room furthest from the railway bridge. 

I actually can’t remember whether the third ceiling that came down was in the living room or the dining room; I have no recollection of clearing up, though I must have done my share of that. Despite the chaos in the city centre, I think the glaziers came round pretty quickly to replace our windows. My most vivid memory is of a school friend who lived a few doors away coming to our front gate, where I was talking to a group of other neighbours, with a ‘wee Valium’, a single tablet from her mother’s prescription, to give to my sister to steady her nerves. There was no question of ‘a wee Valium’ for me or our brother or either of our parents, somehow we just coped. I can’t remember how my sister’s greater distress manifested itself. 

The most important thing we felt was that we had been fortunate. The TV news bulletin was full of horrific scenes from Oxford Street bus station, heavily edited as we now know, though there was no disguising the fact that body parts were being swept into bin bags. But the bombs that afternoon affected every part of the city. In addition to the one at our aunt’s local shops, there was one in Botanic Avenue near the corner of Lower Crescent, the short street where our school was situated.

Next morning Dad and I walked up to the summit of the railway bridge and looked over the hedge to the two houses in the Ardmore estate that had borne the brunt of ‘our’ blast. Both had lost large sections of their roofs and several square feet of their back walls, so that the contents of their bedrooms were open to the elements. Toys, clothes and small items of furniture had blown down into their gardens. There were sounds of hammering, drilling, sweeping and glass cutting all around as people repaired the damage. 

We felt that we had got off lightly. It was just another Saturday in Belfast; we had mince and potatoes for lunch and an Ulster fry for tea.

A photograph of a family sitting on a garden seat
(Courtesy Clare Stevens)

When our parents downsized and moved to a seaside suburb on the other side of Belfast, the garden seat went with them, and it appears again and again in my mother’s meticulously labelled collection of photograph albums, and in my own less ordered boxes of loose prints and files of digital images. Mum and Dad are photographed with their next-door neighbours and with their next-door neighbours’ cat – another marmalade tom, this one called Toffee. There are shots of my son and my niece on their occasional solo trips when they would be despatched by plane from England or Scotland as unaccompanied minors to spend half-term or a week of their summer holidays with Granny and Grandpa. The seat moves around the small rectangular garden as Mum develops the space – extending flower beds, having a large Scots pine taken away in order to provide more light and space for a shed-cum-greenhouse. 

A few photos of my father sitting on the garden seat show him in failing health. Then he died, and Mum is pictured alone or with her sister, visiting from England. She purchased an additional, slightly smaller seat that was chosen primarily for comfort at a Royal Horticultural Society Garden Show at Hillsborough Castle, to fit the tiny patio in front of the shed, where it was in sunshine for most of the afternoon and evening. But when you sat there, as I often did with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in the months that I spent looking after my mother in her own last illness, you were looking across at the original garden seat, tucked against the privet hedge on the other side of the garden, to which it was gently manacled by long strands of honeysuckle. 

When my brother and I cleared the house two years later, the garden seat was one of the items of furniture that was loaded into a removal van and driven onto the overnight Liverpool ferry and down the A470 to my house in Wales. There it was unloaded at a remarkably early hour in the morning and placed by the removal men in a sunny spot in our courtyard, where I surrounded it with pots, some of them planted with blue and pink hardy geraniums uprooted from the gravel path in my mother’s front garden where they had grown prolifically. Although we rarely sat on the seat, I could see it from the kitchen window as I did the washing up. 

After a few years, however, the carefully-chosen smaller bench that had probably cost a lot more – well, it certainly wasn’t bought with Embassy coupons – and which I had also brought over from Ireland, began to rot and became too fragile to take anyone’s weight. So we swapped them round and now the garden seat that was delivered to my childhood home in Belfast 55 years ago sits on a much bigger lawn in Wales. A couple of its struts have been replaced and it has been treated with preservative, but otherwise it is in its original condition and just as sturdy and comfortable as ever. The person who uses it most is my English husband. I like to think my Dad is with him in spirit, as he catches the last rays of sun at the end of the day, listening to cricket coverage or classical music broadcasts on the radio. 


Headshot of essayist Clare Stevens
Clare Stevens

Clare Stevens is a freelance writer, editor and occasional publicist, specialising in classical music, choral music and music education. Born and brought up in Belfast, she went to a Scottish university, spent 30 years living in London and is now based in the Welsh Marches.

1 Comment

Lovely memoir 🌼

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