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The little bright one - vicious beatings and deciding to leave Belfast

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I'm running. It’s a bright, clear autumn night, the sky framed by the eaves of Victorian houses.

There are 12 of them and two of us. A word passed between them and the chase is on.

I don't know this part of Belfast, but I know that if we make a wrong turn now we'll be killed. Just stopping in the wrong street will get us killed.

We’re wearing jeans and simple t-shirts, nothing that’s obviously gay or nationalist, but they know, somehow they know.

My friend Dara looks terrified because he grew up in these shadowy streets. He knows far better than I what’s coming after us. We’re not being chased, were being hunted.

My throat is dry, but I want to shout. Where are the police? Where are the citizens? Why is there no one on these miserable empty streets?

And what the hell is wrong with these men? Don’t they have lives, don’t they have girlfriends, and is this the best thing they can think to do with their Saturday night?

Who raises sons like this? Who would want to claim them?

Everywhere I look the streets are deserted. It’s just them and us.

We’re trapped. There's a broad wire police barricade ahead of us. It’s like a curtain drawn across the deserted street, and no way out.

And they’re upon us instantly, screaming. I remember one face in particular, pale and tight as a fife drum, spittle flying.

Odd, the thoughts that come to you in such moments. Looking at my friend I think, “The name Dara means little bright one in Irish.”

They’re kicking him to the ground. Twelve of them. Grown men. We’re both going to die.

A baseball bat appears and connects with my skull above my right ear – I hear the loud dry crack - and I’m unconscious.

I met Dara at university in Belfast in 1994, where he was studying Irish. Red haired and green eyed, he was a head turner and he knew it.

But we were not quite each other’s type and so we became fast friends instead. I didn't like Belfast, even with just announced ceasefire I felt its menace, and I was anxious to move on as quickly as I could.

But Dara was at his ease there and he helped me. He was the perfect counterfoil, all grace and welcome, showing off the clubs and the bars to me, always ready to have a laugh or play around...

When I open my eyes I’m still on the pavement. My left cheek is soaked in my own blood. The police are here, an ambulance is coming.

I can see Dara about 10 feet away. Someone has put a blanket on him and he’s silent and not moving, but he’s still alive.

In the hospital the nurse tells me that a stranger saw us and that he brought help quickly.  She says the stranger darted away quickly then, afraid for himself.

The nurses are so kind and thoughtful they almost make me cry. It’s like they belong to a different species to the men we just encountered. They dote on Dara, they even nickname him 'smiler' because he never does.

In the days that follow CAT scans will reveal Dara has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Immediately after the attack he suffers a series of seizures.

It’s like experiencing birth trauma, he tells me. It feels to him as though he’s being ripped into consciousness. Talk about a wake up call, he jokes.

His seizures are concerning, his doctor tells me. The effect is like an electrical storm glinting in the brain.

It takes me hours to recover from the attack, but he looks bad. I’m discharged on the same day but they keep Dara in hospital for a week.

In the weeks that follow it becomes clear to me that my friend Dara from Belfast has been hurt in a different, deeper way. The laughing boy with a girl’s long eyelashes no longer wants to go out at night. He stops calling on old friends and becomes withdrawn and sullen.

He tells me he’s finished with Belfast. It belongs to men like the ones who beat us. It’s filled with hard men and death and that’s all it knows, he says.

He vows to move away. And move away he does. Six months later.

To Japan, the other side of the world, on the JET program, where he teaches English to students who marvel at his red hair. He stays there and he never comes back.

I don't hear from him again. Years pass. Maybe he’s running still.

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