I was lying on the grass in the Falls Park one afternoon with this girl when she rolled over and faced me.
“How long have we been going out with each other,” she asked, as she screwed a piece of straw through my thick hair.
“About fourteen years,” I replied, getting a bit edgy at her impatience.
“Okay,” she said, and closed her eyes tight. “What colour are my eyes?”
When she had finished crying, about three weeks later, I never forgot the colour of her eyes – bluey-green. How I remembered was that it rhymed with Hughie Green of ‘Opportunity Knocks’. Many years ago the British army carried out illegal census-taking, not only gathering the names and dates of birth of all within a household but checking the number of bedrooms and the various colours of the wall-paper. To be on the run and pretending to be some Alliance Party snotter from Beechmount, who had never farted and never wanted civil rights to begin with, one had to be like Memory Man out of Hitchcock’s ‘Thirty Nine Steps’, when being quizzed by the Brits about the snot’s parlour.
Fortunately, many of the Brits had huge gaps in their teeth to suck in extra air during sniping, but which meant that they had trouble pronouncing English words with more than one syllable. Nor could they read or write. One of these Intelligence Officers stopped and asked me to describe the colour of the wallpaper in our bathroom.
“Blurple,” I bluffed nervously.
“Ta, mate,” he said and I made a clean getaway.
At school the nit-nurse checked your worms, your ears for wax, your blood for pressure, and that your little undercarriages were all hanging in the right sequence. That lady was underpaid but amazingly hadn’t heard of unions. She probably delivered babies during lunch. She also did the test for colour blindness, holding up cards on which you were supposed to see different numbers.
“And what do you see?” she asked.
“A ball of coloured frogspawn,” I replied, which was the truth.
“And what do you see now?”
I told her I saw a different ball, but it was still frogspawn. Meanwhile, Ruairi Maguire was passing the word down the line that he would never fly Aer Lingus if I was the pilot. “Do you know you are colour blind,” the nurse informed me. I thought she was lying, because I could see all the colours, just couldn’t make out what numbers were buried in the middle.
Davy Rice, our biology teacher at secondary school, spoke to us about genes and made the mistake of telling us that a father can’t pass on colour blindness, it’s a genetic disorder passed on from the mother. One day during a big adolescent row with my mother I shouted, accusingly, “You made me colour blind!” and withered her, to my eternal shame.
Folks had fun when I hit the green ball on the snooker table, thinking it was red or brown. In jail my cell mate Roy McCool had to coordinate my clothes for visits and for court. Last year, after I did a reading in Twinbrook Library, Jim Gibney came up to me to tell me that I was wearing a brown shoe and a black shoe. People who see me on TV think I have only one black tee-shirt and one charcoal jacket. Not so. I have six of one and four of the other: I stick to the simple colours that I know, black and tan, whereas my Da scares me with his bright, polka dot and striped ties, and shirts and jackets of stunning hues and weave. One day he’s a Butlins’ Redcoat. The next he’s the Amazing Joseph.
When you tell people you are coloured blind they go, “Really! Okay then, what colour’s my jumper?” Then they laugh at your answer, ask you to go through it again, and you think, would you like me to give you a coloured eye? Colour blindness does have some advantages because our night vision tends to be better than average (which is handy for finding one’s way home), and we look for outlines so we don’t get confused by camouflage. Colour-blind people were used in World War II spy planes to spot camouflage in German camps – big giant frogspawns, no doubt.
Looking back, I can now say without fear or contradiction that ten per cent of the innocent men in Long Kesh were interned because they were colour blind and gave the wrong answers about their wallpaper. The other ninety per cent of innocent men were in the RA.