Belfast’s Children

January 2012 and Ioana’s parents were tired arrived they had arrived. It was a long journey from Romania to Belfast, but finally they had made it after two days on a bus, two journeys across water, and two days finding a place to stay.

The house may not have been much, but it was big enough and comfortable enough for two parents and an eight-year-old child. There was even a small yard at the back where the family could sit out if there was ever a day good enough to sit out in.

Ioana’s bedroom was just upstairs, on the left after the bathroom. This was the first time she had her own room. That it was small and what local people may have called poky, didn’t bother her at all.

Over the next few weeks Ioana’s room became a special place to her. It was the place she could go to be alone. The place where she could be herself and not be teased by the young boys and girls of the area. It was the place where she could be in her own world.

Ioana needed her own world. The world outside the front door was strange and unusual to her. The people spoke English, or so she had been told, but it didn’t seem to be the English she had learned back home. The streets were decorated with colourful murals that gave some colour to the otherwise dull world of the industrial city, but when she tried to find what they were about, she was either ignored, or worse, spoken to with words of such hatred that she realised she should never speak again unless spoken to.

It was easier for Ioana’s parents, her mother, Monica, got a job at a local hairdresser’s while her father, Razvan, was able to get plenty of work as a handyman repairing all kinds of things from cars to plumbing.

It was in this atmosphere that Ioana met Billy. Billy was a boy of around ten years old. He was a local lad, but unlike the others, he was friendly. Ioana first met Billy when she was walking home from school one day. Normally she was met by one of her parents, but on this particular day there had been a mix up and neither had met her.

Billy had appeared to her as if from nowhere. ‘Do you want to be friends?,’ he asked. ‘You and me, we can be friends, but don’t tell anyone.’

Ioana didn’t know what to say. She’d been told not to talk to strangers, and anyway, all the strangers that she had met had been awfully unfriendly, so she hadn’t really wanted to talk to them. But this one seemed all right.

‘I’m Billy. You’re not from round here, are you? What’s your name?’

Ioana was silent, still trying to work out the situation.

‘It’s all right, I won’t bite. Just want to be friends. You look like you need a friend.’

That was true. She did need a friend.


‘That’s a strange name. Where are you from?’

Ioana introduced herself, explained the family story, how they had travelled from Romania looking for a better life, and had settled down here in Belfast.

‘That’s funny,’ said Billy, ‘people coming to Belfast for a better life. We’re always trying to move elsewhere to find a step up the ladder. That’s why we’re building that ship.’

Ioana’s parents were beginning to get worried about her. She had developed the habit of talking to herself and whenever they asked who she was speaking to, she would clam up and say nothing. Still it was not unusual for a girl if her age to have an imaginary friend, and that’s what they supposed it was.

After a few weeks Billy asked Ioana if he could introduce her to another friend of his. Ioana was reluctant, but finally agreed. His name was Tim, and was another local lad.

Billy made it clear that while it was important that no-one knew about Billy and Ioana, it was absolutely essential that having Tim around was known to not a soul, cross your heart and hope to die. Ioana said, ‘OK,’ but she couldn’t quite understand it.

Billy and Tim tried to explain.

‘We’re different, you see. We’re from different parts. Different sides of the street. We go to different schools, we attend different churches on Sunday.’

‘But I still don’t get it. Why does that mean you can’t be friends?’

‘Don’t worry Ioana, we don’t get it too. But in these parts the only thing that seems to matter is history and tradition and a lot of people seem to think we have a lot of reasons to hate each other. We just don’t get it.’

‘That’s why when the ship is ready we have plans, we’re going to be stowaways and make it to America.” explained Tim.

Ioana wasn’t sure about this plan. It didn’t seem too sensible to hide away on a ship for such a long voyage, it was bad enough when they had travelled by coach from across the continent, and then they weren’t hiding.

What was worse she didn’t want to lose the two friends she had. Yet she also understood that friendship wasn’t about standing in people’s way. She kept quiet, except to ask one thing.

‘What is the ship, anyway? When does it sail?’

When Ioana went home that night she decided that while she had promised not to tell anyone about Billy and Tim, her parents weren’t anyone.

‘Mum can I talk to you?,’ she asked.

Ioana explained everything to her mum and how the boys were going to leave on the Titanic the next day, April 2.

‘Ioana, is this some kind of April Fool’s Day joke?’

‘No mum, what are you talking about?’

‘The Titanic was built 100 years ago, it sailed from Belfast on April 2, 1912.’

Ioana and her mum studied the history of the Titanic that night. No-one by the name of Billy and Tim were listed anywhere as passengers, nor were any bodies matching their description identified. 

The Book Worm

Her name was Matilda, but she wasn’t that Matilda. You’ve seen the film, perhaps the brighter ones of you have even read the book, and think you know who Matilda is. But this Matilda wasn’t that Matilda.

This Matilda was Matilda Jones and she lived at 231/3  Cardiff Road, Aberystwyth. She lived there with her parents, Marjory and Gareth, and her little brother, Derek. They were a happy family, they ate together, went to the park together, watched Gareth play for the local rugby club every Saturday afternoon. They were such a happy family that they could even survive Derek declaring he hated rugby, family was more important than even rugby.

But what was Matilda like? Matilda was of average height. Matilda liked the cinema, and all the noise and action that could be seen there. She hated books. At school Matilda struggled, but she got by.

This is not the Matilda you know, is it? I told you.

When Matilda was fourteen her teacher Ms Morgan, took her her class on a trip to the National Library of Wales. The library contains much of the literary treasure of Wales: the poems of Dylan Thomas, the stories of Roald Dahl, the plays of Twm o’r Nant. However, the real importance of the National was that it didn’t just have these English language books, that could be found just about everywhere, but that it contains all the books of the Welsh language.

During a tour of the library many important facts were stuffed into the minds of the children by the chief librarian, a Miss Spinters. Now it should be said that Matilda couldn’t quite bring herself to concentrate on them all, but if she heard correctly then we can say that the National Library of Wales:

  • has so many books that if you laid them end to end they could cover the whole coastline of the British Isles
  • that there are 5, 542 shelves on the library and it would take the cleaners three days to dust them all if they were to start and never stop till done
  • that some of the most precious books of the library had been lost in a fire started when the national dragon of Wales once visited when he had a bad cold

Well, as I said, Matilda was finding it hard to concentrate and perhaps not all those facts are true.

At the end of the tour the children were given a couple of hours of free time. This free time was supposed to allow them to the opportunity to go and visit the parts of the library that had interested them most so they could study them in more detail. Ms Morgan had stressed that the next day there would be an essay to write on their favourite thing in the library so they had better use the time wisely.

Matilda, as we said before, hated books. Finding her favourite or most interesting thing in this library was going to be a real issue for her. Yet she knew she had to find something to write about the next day or she would be getting the first ‘F’ or her life.

Matilda wandered alone for a while, but to no avail. Then she found herself outside a room that said ‘No Entry Unless Your Name Begins with ‘M.’ Matilda thought for a moment, she’d never been a good speller, but she was quite sure that her name did indeed begin with the letter ‘M.’

Matilda opened the door and entered. The room was large, it stretched so far that she couldn’t quite find the end of it within her sight. There were rows of books stacked on the shelves of the bookcases, and a long seemingly never ending table in the middle of the room. But what there was not was a single human being.

Matilda began to wonder if this had been such a good idea. Was this one of those pranks that the Griffiths brothers liked to play so much on people? She had to decide to scoot out of the room as fast as she could or stay and investigate.

Before she could decide a man appeared beside her. Where he had come from was a mystery, she was sure that no one had entered.

‘Hello, Matilda,’ he said.

‘Hello, Mr … er … sir … ‘

‘My name is Dahl. I am here to help you.’

‘Help me? With what?’

‘Well, I heard you have an assignment.’

‘Yes, I have to find something in this library that I like so I can write about it tomorrow.’

‘Well, that shouldn’t be so difficult, should it? We are surrounded by books here.’

‘Yes, I know, but I hate books.’

‘Hate books? Hmm, and why would that be?’

‘They don’t make sense to me. And it’s so tiring to try and make something out of them.’

‘Yet, you like films, don’t you Matilda, and they don’t always make sense either. Do they?’

‘No, but I can see the pictures and the images and when I think just a little it all makes a pattern for me.’

‘And what do you see when you look in a book?’

‘I see letters and words, and then people tell me that I’ve seen the wrong letters and words. And I have to start again, and this time I see different words, but still not always the right words.’

‘Can you put these yellow glasses on?


‘Put the yellow glasses on.’

‘But …’

‘Just do it dear. I know yellow was last year’s colour, but please, just put them on.’

Matilda decided that she probably shouldn’t argue. She put on the yellow glasses.

‘Now go the bookcase over there. Two shelves up and three books across on your right. Take that book and bring it here.’

Matilda did as she was told and went to Mr Dahl, who was now sitting at the long table.

‘Open the book, Matilda, What do you see?’


‘And what do those words say?’

‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’

‘Exactly as I thought.’

Matilda continued to read until it was time to go and re-join her school party.

The next day at school, at essay time, Matilda took out her yellow glasses. Ms Morgan wasn’t impressed.

‘Matilda, take off those hideous yellow specs.’

‘But I have to wear them,’ she tried to explain.

‘Have to? Don’t be silly.’

‘Mr Dahl told me to.’

‘Mr Dahl?’

‘The man I met in the library.’

‘You met Mr Dahl, impossible.’

‘It’s not impossible. I met him yesterday, he told me that wearing the yellow glasses would allow me to read and write well. Yesterday we read Dylan Thomas together.’

‘But you can’t have. Mr Dahl has been dead twenty years!’

‘Well, my Mr Dahl, isn’t,’ said Matilda indignantly.

‘Well, OK. You have one chance. Wear your glasses, and if you get an A, I’ll believe your story.’

When Ms Morgan read Matilda’s essay later that evening she smiled to herself.

‘Mr Dahl is back.’

The Cellar Ghost

Vlad is a name that is very common where I live. To be called Vlad is not to suggest in any way that you may be blood thirsty or evil intending.  It’s possible that your parents just imagined that one day you would grow up to be strong, powerful, and above all, brave.

Say the name Vlad to someone outside Romania, on the other hand, and the image is of someone entirely of the wrong sort.

Which type of Vlad this is – the strong brave Vlad or the Vlad seeking the bad in everything – is for the reader to decide at the end of this tale.

This story was told me by a very reliable man, an English teacher no less, and a man who was there at the time. I see no reason to doubt the truth of this tale.

The year was 1938, the month was November. The winter chill had not yet fully settled. The leaves on the trees were still clinging on for the most part, as deep and brown as they were. Vlad was not troubled by the leaves as he walked down Strada Rosetti and was turning into Strada Boteanu to attend his evening class at the British Council.

Vlad had signed up for the proficiency classes. His English was already good, but he sought perfection. He had heard that the classes at the Council were just the thing to help, and in particular the teacher, Mr S. Trict.

Unfortunately, for Vlad, while the teacher met all the standards expected of an expert in tuition, the same could not be said of the dedication to study that Vlad presented.

At the end of each class Professor S. Trict presented three pages of homework to be studied, and would assign a couple of pages of reading from the The Times. Vlad would always have a million other things to do which would cause him to be sitting in class still trying to catch up as the professor entered. Meanwhile, during the lessons, Vlad would forever be distracted, either dreaming of the potato stew he was going to eat that evening or the pretty girl in the row behind him and how he was going to woo her.

Unfortunately, Vlad found it hard to see his own faults and was quite sure that he deserved better than the Cs and Ds he was receiving for his work. He had asked the professor about his marks, but had been treated poorly in his eyes, apparently the professor thought he was lucky to have not been kicked out of the class, so poor was his effort!

So Vlad decided that if he wasn’t going to receive the grades he should, then the only thing to do was to award the grades himself.

He had noticed that the records of student performance were kept in the basement cellar. While the door to the records room was to hard to budge, there was another way in – a small window that could be found at the back of the building. Once he had slid in through this window he could find his file and alter the records. Simple!

It was a particularly chilly night the one that Vlad chose to execute his plan. Luckily the chill wind kept the guard safely in his hut and away from the building. Vlad was able to pass unseen. He went immediately to the rear of the building and there he was able to easily prise open the window.

What Vlad had not accounted for was that the drop from the window was greater than he thought, rather than the couple of meters he imagined, it was more like ten.  As he tried to work out how he could safely close the window and then drop to the floor without injury, he lost his grip. He crashed violently on the stiff concrete surface, and was in great pain. Blood was flowing from his injured leg.

He wanted to cry out, but how could he? What was to be his explanation for having been in the cellar? He hoped that the bleeding would stop, and with it the pain. Then in the morning he slip out the door when the cleaning lady came to tidy up. He had to concentrate and find his records and change the grades! That was what he was here, he was this close, he mustn’t fail now.

However, each time he tried to stand, he felt fainter. When he tried to drag his body across the room, the pain was unbearable. After a couple of hours he had to give up, he would to call for help no matter the humiliation. But it was a cold night and there was no one outside to hear him. Maybe, just maybe, he thought, there may be someone in the office. If he tapped along the metal pipes, the sound would echo into the office and someone would come to investigate.

However, he was mistaken, everyone had gone home early that day to escape the expected snow.

Vlad was in despair. His body was growing fainter and fainter. The blood wouldn’t stop. He had to lie down. If he would just sleep a few hours, his strength would return, he was sure. Yes, sleeping, that was what was to be done!

And sleep he did. Indeed Vlad is still sleeping, though occasionally he awakens just long enough to tap on a few pipes, to make a few distorted noises hoping that someone will come and find him. But no one has ever found him – alive.

From time to time a student will be brave and try and answer Vlad’s calls today, but we don’t recommend it.