I'll never forget March 13th, 1996. The night before, I was at The Red Comyn-Inn in Dunblane, partying, happy, mixing with the superb people of the village. The next day, my door was banged by another hotel worker, to let me know my mum was on the phone. It was mum, in Northern Ireland who told me that something had happened in the town I was living in... Children had been shot in the local school.
I wrote this ten years after the awful events.
"I know exactly what I was doing this day ten years ago. I had just turned 30 and was taking a year out of Uni to work off some debt. I was working in a huge hotel and living in the hotel living quarters. On the morning of the 13th March, I was having a lie in – I was on a day off. The night before I had been out on the tear with my two friends from Euskadi (the Basque Country) and a few others who worked with us. We had drank calimotxo and smoked dope and had listened to Pulp, Oasis, McAlmont and Butler, Garbage, Sleeper, the La’s, Supergrass et al. We managed to sober Sharkey up enough to go in for his shift as Head Porter and Jamie was in trouble again for mixing with us low life – Managers were not supposed to drink with the staff.
I can’t explain that time easily enough. It was a time of drink, partying and total madness. Someone tried to burn down the big house we were living in on a number of occasions. Onditz, Aitor, Jamie and I travelled around the west coast of Scotland in his dad’s Mercedes and were absolutely out of our faces every night – Jamie passed out one night and pulled the most incredible face during his blackout. Onditz, Aitor and I laughed until we cried for hours and smoked his weed. We ate from the hotel fridges thanks to a knowledge of where the keys were kept and I introduced Aitor to George Best.
An incredible time. One of the most fun of my life (until that time). A time that came about by accident. A time that changed me forever. A time that wiped away most of what had happened previously, including having my heart ripped apart on one occasion by my “pragmatism” and on another by a blonde. A time when I had long hair and decided to cut it in order to get out of the accounts department and into portering. 10 years ago. My hair is temporarily long again – a ten year anniversary. This experience was the culmination of the madness that had started when I gave up my job in Northern Ireland and decided to get educated. A culmination of two years in college drinking and arguing with Big Ian and two years in Uni, drinking with Matt and arguing with everyone; a fantastic wedding and road trip with my cousin; smoking with Kev and loving everyone. Then getting pissed off with it all. So I left the student digs and moved in to Ledcameroch House.
I did night shifts as a night auditor, I did day shifts on reception. I worked in the accounts department and couldn’t get on with a boss who liked to hate so I asked for a transfer to portering where I carried cases, gave dollar bills back to Americans who thought they were actually tipping me with something valuable and had a joint or two out the back with a radge porter from Stirling.
I woke up on the 13th March earlier than I wanted to because someone was banging my door. I lived in a huge room – but it was dingy and dark. I had accumulated lots of furniture from my work as a cleaner during the summer in the University. Furniture rich students had left behind at the end of their student life. I had posters of Betty Blue; a woman smoking; an advertising poster from the Bad Ass Café in Templebar in Dublin and a “stop smoking” poster. I had an old TV a student had left behind. I had a small kettle my sister had bought me and lots of coffee and tea from the hotel. And someone through the haze was shouting, “Neil – telephone!”
Who the hell was phoning at this time? The person who was at my door told me it was my mum. What did she want?
I walked to the other side of the building in my pants and long teeshirt with the Indian saying, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.”
“Hello, Neil? I was just ringing to see what was going on. They’re shooting children.”
I didn’t understand. I thought she was saying that some other atrocity had happened in Northern Ireland. I was pissed off. If they had shot children, the peace would never come about. These “cease-fires” were a sham. We had all been fooled. I thought for a moment. If mum had thought it important enough to phone at this time in the morning it must be close to home.
“Where? Not Banbridge?”
“No. There. Dunblane. In a school.”
“There have been children killed. There.”
I remember someone walking past me. I remember asking them did they know anything about it. They didn’t.
It was around 10am. The children were just in the school really. Just changed for gym. Then the darkness had taken over that man. Those wee souls left never having experienced life beyond learning to change and writing their names.
I could tell you more about the rest of the week. How the journalists took over the wee village. How some of them treated the place like a war zone. How they insulted and broke people who had relatives caught up in the hell.
One journalist in particular had been a horror. He had complained, shouted at staff and in fact broke a journalists agreement not to photograph the funerals (local police gave him a night in the cells). I was on reception when he was checking out. I started running the night audit programme on the computer, delaying his check out. He started complaining to me about everything about the hotel , the area, the staff etc. I told him to take the time and write it all down. He did. When the computer was back on line, he came back and started whinging again. I lost the plot with him. I told him he was rude. He shouted, "I've been in war zones all over the world and I've had better service..." I shouted back, "This isnt a war zone... This is a village where everyone has a connection to the murdered children, including everyone who served you this week..." and I listed the staff he had insulted who had family effected. I shouted at him about how he had made a terrible time that bit worse for villagers, who worked there, and went through his list, explaining why people had not brought him his mineral water ultra fast (we were short staffed because of the fact the world's press had descended upon the sleepy wee village where everyone had a connection to the school and the killer). He looked quite shocked that someone on my side of the service/public relationship had snapped back. He said, "If all of that is true, rip up that list. I lifted it and ripped it up in front of his face.
I remember my night manager telling me I had been very close to the bone. But I didn't regret it, and the manager and two of the other night staff who had watched it all play out, applauded me. *
I could tell you about the stars who came to the hotel and strutted around as if they were doing something more than showing up. I could tell you of the exploitative management who asked people to work for nothing on the back of what had happened and made people feel guilty if they mentioned pay for the day (not me – I told them directly I wanted my pay for the day given directly to the Dunblane fund - i insisted I was given it in to my hand, and I dropped it into the fundraiser outside the manager's door). I could tell you of the thousands of pounds the hotel made. Of the children I met. Of the wee girl in crutches who had been shot in the Gym and who had the most angelic smile when she recounted meeting the Celtic Football team. Of the heart ripped out of a wee village.
That time changed my life."