The overcoming of political adversity to become the solution.
“Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!”
Ma had the TV on in the kitchen, and some ugly cretin of a man was goin’ on about how class Protestants are.
“Turn ‘at off! That prat ‘ill get thum nowhere, am tellin’ yese! Them bloody news programmes lickin’ his arse so as not to get a bomb under their cars. Gawd forbid they should at least show a wee bitta cultural diversity. There are two kinds of people in this quote unquote country. It’s hard ‘nuff bein’ a second class citizen in my own country without having to listen to it in my own home.” Da rattled his newspaper at the TV. My father was a good-looking man, with curly locks a perfect mix of chocolate and honey, matching goatee beard and engaging hazel eyes. My mother was very pretty with straight blonde hair just past her shoulders that she always wore down, and stunning blue eyes. My brother has Ma’s looks but Da’s hair and eyes, but I’m always told I’m the ‘spit of my ma’, which I take as a great compliment. I do look like her, but my hair is curly (still blonde).
“I’d rather convert than listen to him.” Ma reached up to the TV and put us all out of our misery.
“Thanks, Ma.” I smiled at her. My ma’s a good woman; reminds me of Countess Markiewicz – never afraid to speak her mind when her country is involved. The whole family’s the same; sure, my brother Tadhg is in the IRA, and if they don’t let girls in, I’ll be marrying one of their soldiers. I can’t stand ‘the other side’; it’s only after the two parades (Orange Order on the 12th of July, Apprentice Boys on the 14th of August) and I’m collecting rocks to throw next year. I need to start now though; two massive parades, like.
Da was scribbling on a picture of some British-Irish doll in the newspaper with an old biro with the top chewed beyond recognition, drawing a comically large moustache and all on her, which I couldn’t help but laugh at.
She was a campaigner against Home Rule, and it was her anniversary. Whuzeefook cares? The auld British... Well, they’ll all get what’s coming to them, and Tadhg will be one of our soldiers for independence, which is not the right word. Ireland has never been ‘dependant’ on them gluttonous gypes across the water. Ould Lizzie One, sent her men over here and wrecked everyone’s lives then and for the next, what, 500 years? If I ever lower myself to visit England, I’ll dance on her grave. And it’s not even her feckin’ started it all!
The door opened, and Tadhg came in with a tired smile on his face, whistling ‘The Irish Washerwoman’. He went straight and hid his bag in the corner of the attic, covered with boxes and an old dust sheet. That’s where he always kept it. Ye never know when those Black and Tans wannabes are gonnie raid yer house.
“Ye alright, pet?” Ma smiled proudly at him as she warmed the teapot.
“Aye, I’m grand, thanks. Nice day the day. Sun’s out, more Prods are hidin’, met a girl...”
“Awk, Tadhg, ye ould fox, ye! What’s she like?” Da punched his arm.
“Awh Jesus, Da. Wait de ye see her. She is just Ireland personified. Her hair is red and curly, her eyes are green, and she’s brave and strong. And I work with her Da.” We use the term ‘work’ when we’re talkin’ about the ‘RA. I dunno why, though.
“Nice one, son. Whaddye call her?”
“She’s called Saoirse. Saoirse O’Casey.”
“Good Irish name. When are we meetin’ her?”
“Jesus, Da!” Tadhg blushed. “I only started with her the day.”
“And wha? When I was courtin’ yer ma, the families were met within a fortnight.”
“Aye, that was the late 60’s, Da; it’s 1989 now.”
“It’s only 20-odd years!”
“And a lot has happened since then.”
“Aye, well. Is that Kevin O’Casey, her da is?”
“A good man is he.”
“And she’s just like him.”
“I’m proud of ye, son.”
Ma set a cup of tea down in front of each of the men. “Nice and strong, just like my boys.” She smiled and ruffled Tadhg’s hair, setting a perfect cup beside me, in my favourite mug. “Ye want a piece, son?” She called from the bread cupboard.
“Aye, thanks, Ma, bheith stiúgtha mé an ocras inniu.”
“Fadhb ar bith.”
“So what were yese doin’ today?” I asked him every day.
“Mostly recruitin’. A good lotta lads are wantin’ tae join us and good for them, too. More brave lads fighting for our cause.”
He narrowly avoided being interrupted by a knock on the door. It was quick and urgent, and very agitated.
I sprung up and went to the door, opening it to reveal Mrs. McCallion, who lived opposite, two doors down. She was Ma’s best friend, since they were no age. I’m best friends with her daughter Mary-Anne (just Mary to us). I used to bully her son John Joe, but now we’re friendly enough. Don’t go and think I was being mean; he was 3 years older, and bullied me straight back again. I was at an advantage though; you can’t hit girls, plus I had ol’ faithful Tadhg on my side. JJ’s away to school now – he always was wile clever.
Anyway, Mrs. McCallion (who preferred everyone to call her by her first name, Pauline) was at the door, tears dripping her. She was as white as a ghost and quivering like an arrow before its maiden launch.
“Jesus, Pauline, are ya alright?” That phrase started Ma running.
“Awk, can I come in, pet, only I have to talk to your ma and da. You wains too.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph; Pauline, what’s happened?” Ma was genuinely scared; Pauline McCallion was a woman who didn’t cry. “’Mon in, ‘mon in.” Ma put her arm around Pauline’s shoulders, which were shaking up and down like mad.
I followed them into the living room, where Ma sat Pauline down on the big sofa. M’Da and Tadhg scurried in, Tadhg nudging me.
“G’on and make her a cup of tea, nice and sweet. And give her a biscuit or somethin’. Go!” he whispered.
I obeyed him, sensing the atmosphere. Normally I’d tell him to ‘go die, make it yourself!’ but I knew this was not the time.
The pot was still hot; I was glad I didn’t have to go through the whole thing. I emptied out the teabags and some of the now almost-black tea. I knew Pauline liked it slightly weak, wee tiny drop of milk (literally about one millilitre), one sugar. I put in an extra teaspoon of sugar for the shock of whatever was putting her in that state. I put some bríosca seaclaide on a plate and carried it into her.
“’Hanks, pet.” She took a shaken sip of her tea, and Ma took it off her, putting it at her feet. I sat beside Ma, the two armchairs occupied by the boys.
“What’s wrong, now, Pauline?” Ma was rubbing her back gently. Ma’s great in a tough situation.
“Awk, Nóra...” She was shakin’ so hard she could barely speak.
“C’mon, what’s wrong, pet?” Ma handed her the tea again.
Pauline took a long gulp, the tea no doubtedly burning her the whole way down. “Gerard’s been shot.”
Everyone gasped. Ma spoke first. “Is he...?”
“Aye, he’s dead.” Pauline sugar-coated nothing, always said it frankly. “I was takin’ buns out of the oven when the phone rang. Some English houer ringin’ to tell me my husband lay dead in the morgue with a British bullet between his eyes. I didn’t believe her. I thought that there was no way it was my Gerry. I haddie see it to believe it. I drove down to the hospital, bloody police doin’ their precious ‘Stop and Search’ on the bridge, and there he was, on the big grey slab, not even a cloth on him to cover him. I don’t even know where Mary is or when she’ll be home, and I know JJ won’t be home for days yet.”
“Mrs. McCallion,” I used her formal name out of respect and empathy, “if you’d like, I’ll go over to your house and wait for Mary to come home.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, darlin’, here’s the keys.” Ma spoke for her. Ma took the keys outtie Pauline’s hands and handed them to me. “Don’t be tellin’ her yet. Bring her over here and let her mammy tell her.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
“Thank you, pet.” Pauline’s weak voice called to me as I walked off.
I ran across the street and into Pauline’s garden. I unlocked the door, and pushed it open with too much force (I was too used to my own front door, which was swollen with age and moisture and needed a good shove to open). I went flying into the hall, nearly falling. I composed myself, shutting the door behind me and slipping the key into my shoe. I sat in the kitchen, stealing a bun that Pauline had baked and left to cool. They were still warm, and so moist and crumbly. You know that warmth, the perfect temperature where it just about falls apart but still has a bitta give in it. Sweet Lord. She’s a great cook, but a better baker. Those wee buns she made, dear God, they were absolutely divine. For special occasions, she and Gerry would work together, her making the batter and him creating the extras. For Mary’s last birthday, he soaked raisins in apple juice overnight and then mixed them in and then making up the icing with the leftover juice. I almost gave myself diabetes with the amount I ate. They were her specialty; every wain on our street rallied round for them. I’m surprised Mary, JJ, and their older brother Gerard Jnr. (or just Junior to us; he was 23, and had gone off and gotten married, but still acted like a child sometimes) weren’t the size of houses.
The radio was still on, playing some silly pop song that according to the DJ was ‘sure to be a hit’. I yanked the plug out of the socket and threw it against the worktop, watching it bounce off the bread board. The roaring silence helped me think. I tried to imagine ‘Big Gerry’ lying dead on a dirty street, blood and life slowly draining from him. It was hard – he was built like a brick house, was Gerry. He wasn’t even a ‘joining man’, which was the funny thing – the only explanation for his death was...noooo. Caught up in crossfire. There had obviously been a fray, for lack of a better phrase, down the town. Jesus Christ, Almighty. Imagine how many other families had been torn apart today, how many more innocent people lay slaughtered and slain on the streets, waiting for an ambulance to take them to the hospital in vain, how many wives have fallen to the Altnagelvin hospital floor in grief and heartbreak.
The silence soon became too much and I had to put the radio back on. It was playing, like, a rock show special. It’s my favourite type of music so I listened proper. I recognised the catchy beats and sang along to the lyrics absent-mindedly before it hit me that Gerard McCallion, a surrogate uncle to me, was dead. I groaned and let myself burst into tears.
The song, forever now in my mind bittersweet, was swiftly followed by a news bulletin. A soft-spoken middle-aged lady revealed what I already guessed to the rest of the city.
“A riot has broken out in the Bogside area of Londonderry...” I found myself automatically correcting her. *Derry, ye auld Hun!* But, the Bogside? I live on Bishop Street! The bloody gateway to the Bogside! How did I not hear? “...many dead. Police and locals are...” She was interrupted by a detonation that shook the very foundations of the house. I lost my breath – now I could hear it.