On Customs Past

To “get Brexit done”, the British government is proposing that customs clearance centres be set up on both sides of the border. To me, at least, the idea of customs clearance centres is nothing new. I used to live beside one, ten miles or so from the border.

When it was blown up by a bomb, one night, I didn’t wake up. The blast was so tremendous, though, that according to my mother, the house shook, and my father had leapt out of bed and was already in the room where I was sleeping before the reverberations had ceased. I was 5 or so.

I used to walk past the site every day on my way to school. The two storey building – the kind of thing that in a pristine condition might have appeared in a Crap Towns postcard – was left abandoned after it was bombed a second time. Some kind of checks still happened in the yard behind.

There was a high canopy above the building’s entrance to that offered schoolchildren shelter -albeit amid broken glass and Harp cans and a smell of piss- whenever there was a downpour. You could jump up onto its perimeter wall, low on the footpath side but with a bit of a drop on the other, and feel a hint of adventure. Or you could use it as outdoor furniture, sit down and chat. On the way home from school, and then, years later, on the way home from the pub, a fine place for finishing off a takeaway.

There was a man I used to meet passing in front of the centre, me walking out from school, him walking into town. Probably late 40s to begin with, dealer boots, sideburns a decade out of date, greasy hair combed back. Not the kind to say hello or even nod but over time you grow that accustomed to seeing them that even if they don’t acknowledge you it feels like you have an understanding. He died. I found out later that it had been him and a couple of others who had held my grandmother hostage at gunpoint so that my father would drive a bomb into town.

The smell that lingers most with the memory of that place is rotting animal flesh. No burnhouse lorries ever stopped at the site, but they used to pass the junction where the customs stood. They passed once a week maybe, at home time. With the stench catching the back of your nostrils it felt as if you were being dusted in a thin film of filth.

The site lies empty now, the building long demolished and cleared. There’s no chance of the site being reused for a new customs clearance centre because there’s too much traffic at that junction now, and lorries pulling in and out would gridlock the whole town.

But even the fact customs clearance centres and other things are spoken about as a possibility, as though none of this had ever happened before, as though the speakers had decided all would be forgotten since none of it really mattered anyway, can only ever dredge up memories, impulses and reflexes long sedimented, even for things that happened first time round when we were asleep or unawares.

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