f i c t i o n  

f r e d  j o h n s t o n

 “. . .but I had more to do than spend all day resuscitating fish
when I had meals to prepare for humans.”
Bernadette Mulligan, FULL MILITARY HONOURS


It took all day.

Even when it was over, nothing  felt over.

When she’d given back the key, crossed the dead gravel space under the gashed children’s slide and the destroyed swings and handed the key to a man who stepped up from a table where they were playing poker, asked her if she could read the sign, look, there, on the wall, and that all complaints had to be made directly to City Hall; even when she’d told him she wasn’t making a complaint but handing back her key and they kept on playing with their blue overalled backs to her, the stale tea and cigarettes ooze of the place; it was a moment or two before this humped snarling rat of a man got up and approached her; even with the door of that dead flat locked permanently and the silent breathless dusty space inside no longer hers or her son’s or anybody’s, she felt the unsettling push of great earth-deep machines, cogs, ratchets, pistons.

The Corporation man, who lacked good manners, any kind of grace, eyed her up and down, took the key.


That was all he said. He went back to his poker game, pocketing the key. Maybe he’d slip a relative in to the flat before it was cold. He had the face for it, a world-meanness.

Some of them were sniggering and looking at her legs even though she was wearing jeans. Behind her, over the blocks of flats, a broken exhaust made a car engine sound like a tractor. The walls of the structures had once been white; salt in the wind had streaked them red and pink, you could step on a needle here or there in the wrecked thin grass, young lads were thugs. TV dishes sat out like mouths over the balconies, you could hear daytime programmes and the odd blue movie groan sweep down from the windows.

When Darren screwed her he kept one hand lightly pressed over her mouth because her gasp and shout embarrassed him, he thought everyone had an ear to the thin walls, he always bit his tongue when he came, trying to keep himself noiseless. You could hear the beatings scrabbling up from the floor downstairs too, your one screaming and the dog yapping and his swearing. It was not like in films or in books. The misery up here was what your imagination did with scraps of this and that. You couldn’t get this second-hand, like going to the Simon Shop and taking it off a hanger, no.

Someone’s rubbish spun upwards in a sort of widening visual poetry, like a piece of metal sculpture she’d seen in school, pages from men’s magazines with busty girls nude and some of the pages brownly stained as they lifted off into the air off the gravel and round and round as she walked away. She grabbed the buggy handles and pushed and Jackie twitched a little and squealed and they moved off. The child’s nose was running, the sun was hot, there was dust and dirty magazines in the air, there was the smell of hot engine oil and food frying and the teenagers moping, trying to look cool and hard and looking silly in baggy trousers and turned-round cheap baseball caps spitting all the time from their throats to look harder and menacing as they’d seen someone do in a Yank film or on TV. Or outside a betting-office. Or in a pub.

She folded the buggy while the taxi-driver held Jackie, who protested and flapped her thick short legs in her fat, hot nappy. Everything else had gone ahead, there was nothing but her and the folded buggy in the car’s boot and her daughter smelling now in the heat of the taxi and the radio playing, a programme host making his voice drop, drop until it was the same level and tone as the woman caller whose real mother she’d just met for the very first time. And how did you feel?

Sometimes radio or TV or newspaper people had visited the flats, but they’d never interviewed her and they’d avoided the middle-aged man living alone in the top flat who listened to Classical music and wrote book reviews on the side with his dole and poetry too, and they’d interviewed always and always the family on the opposite side of the playground, she was piggishly fat and he was always having Court orders against him to stay away but she’d always take him back and they with their six kids, two of them someone else’s, not his, were celebrities because they knew how to suffer well on camera and in front of  tape-recorders.

And still she would read that other man’s book reviews every Saturday in a national newspaper and see his poems, some of which she’d cut out and kept, meaning to frame someday, and no one ever bothered to interview him about the place or her, whose boyfriend, Jackie’s father, was a soldier doing his duty serving his country. There was, she knew, the life you lived and the life the TV wanted to see and they were different.

The taxi drove down the long road she’d walked up often with Jackie when she was even younger and couldn’t even fit in a buggy and she was aware of Jackie’s smell and the smell of her own clothes which most of the time was cigarettes, the flat had been small and one window was jammed shut and the Corporation had told her they weren’t responsible for damage done by herself in the flat but she hadn’t, the window had just jammed and they wouldn’t fix it and she hadn’t the money and neither had Darren. The Corpo, she’d been told by older women, will not do a thing for you. You have to take that from the first.

It was true. They had no respect for people in the flats. They were all related, that’s how they got and kept their jobs. The town thought it was big and sophisticated and growing because the Dublin papers said so, but it was really still a village and everyone lived up your arse, knew your business.

The taxi turned where the thatched cottages used to be, thatch yellow in the summer sun and the whitewash white and refreshing and they’d put slate roofs on because, someone had written to the paper, a preservation order couldn’t be put on them and then next thing the two lovely houses were gone, demolished over a weekend. There were letters in the local paper, but the Corporation only pretended to be angry and no one was ever prosecuted.

Now blocky, shoe-boxy structures were going up, grey breeze-block by breeze-block, ask the students any kind of rent they’ll pay it. And the Roumanians and Nigerians and Indians and all the rest will pay what they’re asked. There were politicians in this town owned flats and nothing was ever said. There were buildings went up, her Dad said, that defied every regulation you could think of, look at the height of some of them, and one or two of those responsible got roof apartments out of it, they could investigate themselves and find nothing all they liked. Every cat dog and divil knows.

Her Mam said you couldn’t go around accusing people just like that and her Dad said what about that man who was after the young lads and everyone knew about that and half the town knew who he was too and the police said in the papers they’d looked and wouldn’t be prosecuting, well known he wasn’t working class, some big knob. Her Mam laughed shyly and her Dad was annoyed at himself for saying something that might be construed as funny and therefore ruining his point.

Her Mam always reflected in the light from the kitchen window, the radio always on. Her Dad with a newspaper, her brothers washed, shaved, out, gone hours ago. But now her Dad would be at the house, and he was, with her brother James, the only one on the dole, thank God, and the taxi had taken the short cut by the hospital instead of going down the West where the out-of-towners, hippies had taken over the pubs, her Dad declared. No one from the town ever goes there, which wasn’t true. But her Dad used a different map when he talked about the town. Older, from the time he was born.

The taxi drew up, there they were. Furniture, what there was of it, bits of this and that, like objects blown into her life rather than purchased; her Dad panting and acting like a boss of something, James in tight white vest showing off his unworked muscles to God knew who, the houses small and bright and white and red-roofed in the grey light. The woman at the door greeted her reluctantly, you could smell that, the hesitation, then the anger for no reason at all, the voice.

“Just sign your name here, if you please.”

And she signed her name on the clipboard sheet, saw the other names, scrawls, one or two who couldn’t write. One hand on the pen, the other wrapped around Jackie, under her arse, the smell of her hot and horrible.

“Follow me.”

The woman was as old as her Mam, better dressed, a suit of blue, heels that clack-clacked as the sun went in and out bitterly; the sound of a chair scraping concrete, James swearing, the removal van like a snarling animal, the engine still on, the driver doing nothing. The woman moved fat-arsed up the concrete cream pathway, still dry cement and filler in the small garden, in through the gleaming blue door, pushing, the door didn’t fit properly. Inside the house the bareness and the cold and the smell of concrete and the empty space of the rooms stopped her breath like a sad pollen. She wanted to put Jackie down somewhere on the floor, clean her up, nappies in her bag, but the woman kept walking full of her impatience, moving from room to empty room, making her anxious, filling the little house with authority and threat and danger, no welcome, she wouldn’t rise to that.

“Here’s a tenant’s handbook. No lodgers, no late-night parties, no parking caravans or anything else out in the garden, no pets, you are not allowed to renovate or build on extensions without first notifying us first. All complaints about structural work must be made before the end of . . . . .”

Resenting, resenting, the woman could hardly hold herself back, contain herself; where did she come from that this is power to her, me standing here with a filthy baby and wanting to change her nappie, my new house? When the woman moved away, sleek her car and silvery blue, the air remained full of her, of her hard words and the sound of her voice, a landlady’s voice, pisses perfume, penny looking down on a halfpenny.

“I know your one’s brother,” her Dad said, passing with armfuls of chair. “A docker. Drinks his wage-packet.”

Carrying, trailing this listed information like a victory banner after him as he walked hunched up the path into the house, struggling to angle the chair around the door, she looked at her nails on her free hand, red-painted from something or somewhere, chipped, and she was biting them like when she was a kid in school she’d pick her nose from nerves. What her Dad was saying was don’t worry.

She changed Jackie’s nappy on the concrete chilled floor of the empty sitting-room, James looking down screwing up his face, the smell of her for the size of her, he said. Here, and she handed him the full hot nappy like a soggy bag of chips to get rid of. He swore at her but not angrily and disappeared with it.

Then there was laughter outside. The street was hers, she owned it now, no one else there, she the first in a house. The rows of new white houses squatted innocent and fragile on the big green space where the circus every Summer used to draw in, their fat coloured trucks and a marquee every year. Where the old woman half mad had gone to feed the lions and here arm chewed off. A court-case, all the town sitting in the galleries.

Hot hard high weeds lingered at the side nearest the dual carriageway, the roundabout where the cars went too fast and getting across with a buggy would be impossible, she’d said so on the first trip out here, her Mam saying if you turn this house down you’ll never get another, they’ll put you down the list.

And the houses, she had to admit, looked nice. Bits of gardens, full of rocks and occasional grass, you could bend down and pick up a piece of broken crockery, as if in some of those television Geographic films, you were excavating a Roman villa in Spain. New houses, the fields upturned, meant rats but they’d go away if they existed at all, but it was normal, said her father. A rat won’t do you any harm, scared of humans.

She took out smaller things that she could handle with one eye on Jackie and put them about, no nails in the walls, the woman had said but how else would you hang a picture? She took out a silly fat glass rainbow-coloured fish that Darren had won at the amusements when she was just pregnant last year by throwing three small footballs into a bucket and they stayed there. She put the mouth-open ugly thing and heavy too up on the little cement-dusted shelf above the fireplace, a great thing to have, a real fire. When she opened a window, double-glazed, the lock stiff, strange-feeling in her hand, she inhaled the earthy sexual tang of tall damp grass.

The rooms still wore emptiness like a shawl, mourning old women cluttered together, but they brightened up with a few chairs and a bed inside them. Jackie crawled and grunted. Her Dad came in, James came in, going and coming with boxes and items of furniture, you never could tell when they’d come in handy, everything. She tried turning on the electric cooker after her Dad had connected it to the electric, wouldn’t work so he tried again and Be careful! she shouted at him where he was especially in behind the cooker amid the wires with his pliers. Jackie she had to keep an eye on too. When they left, the sound of the rooms moving in and out breathing like an infant finding its lungs was a whisper like rain in her ears but it wasn’t and she thought she was hearing things.

They left. She made tea and toast and sat watching the grainy snow-falling TV screen, she’d have to get an aerial, I’ll fix you up with something James had said but he was always promising and she didn’t want to be caught for a licence she couldn’t afford Court. She liked Coronation Street. Even through the blizzard of a million million waves and bands and broadcasts and interference she could make out Ken Barlow. The colour came and went, mostly she watched in black-and-white. Jackie howled, teething. Darren arrived when it was dark. She could hear his voice out in the street shouting and laughing the way he does at the other lads, his mates in the Army. An engine roared, got angry, moved away. She heard Darren’s anxious little pawing at the door. She opened it, Jackie in her arms and he was all kissing them both. She backed into the hall, they said ordinary things. She steadied herself, nervous.

She had Jackie twisting still in her arms when Darren came and kissed her again a long time this time leaning down to her as she carried, leaning back, the sack-weight of Jackie, always on the same cheek for a long one, moving all the time she smelled his soldiery uniformy smell and sweat and the leather smell of his boots well-shined. He took Jackie from her and the child mewed and pawed him. He played with his daughter like any man, wuzzle-wuzzle, nuzzling her fat belly, making her giggle no teeth coming yet but on the way, a sound that made the house safe.

Darren looked like a child, a wee baby, his fuzz not a proper moustache yet at all. When he put Jackie down he seemed to unloosen a greater weight than what she weighed, a little bundle of fun, God love her. Darren seemed to not know himself for a moment and he was looking around a lot, what’s he looking for, it’s his new home, ours. Holding Jackie up too high to the ceiling and he’d been all smiles but not now all of a sudden like when you remember something you wish you’d forget. She made him tea but he’d brought beer.

He click-popped a tin open and drank loudly, gulping. He sat down on one of the erratically-placed armchairs. He wasn’t hungry, he’d eaten in the barracks, he told her this while he opened his uniform collar and slipped off his big black boots. He looked around the room; what do you think? He smiled, smiled. Now we’re all moved in, he said and smiled around and around, looking at the unpainted unpapered walls, at the open window.

She could see he was happy to be here, better than the flat and so long it took to get the Corporation to move them with the child and all.

I should have been here, he said, but you know I was working. I should have helped you shift things and move in.

I managed and now it’s done, she said. Her finality maybe confidence too unsettled him. He turned away from her, cradling his beer, a big baby man in a funny outfit all greeny-brown. She felt enormous, big in the head and heart.

The TV was too loud, he turned down the sound of Questions & Answers, though he appeared to be, open-legged, staring at it. The room, the house, was getting colder. She turned on all the rings on the electric cooker and a stodgy heat filled the place, uncomfortable, airless. Darren told her he’d go out for fire in a minute but he had something to tell her first, so sit down.

She took up Jackie so’s she wouldn’t ramble off just like that, the size of her and all that energy to burn. Were we all like that? Darren switched the TV off. The silence was horrible, ice-cold like a chilly beer in your throat. She lighted a cigarette. I’ll have one, might as well, said Darren. I don’t like smoking in front of her, said Darren. Well, she said and said nothing. He told her he’d been called up for Bosnia. Or Serbia. One of them. Jugoslavia anyway.

“Probably Bosnia,” she said for no reason in the wide world, she knew nothing about politics but she’d watched the news on TV a couple of times and knew the Army sent men out there and what happened. Now into her head came a tune she’d heard years ago by ABBA.

“Well,” said Darren, and his voice might as well have come out of the television for all she knew: “ I don’t know. Maybe I’m not even supposed to say where.”

“When are you off?”

Jackie squealed under her feet, she’d put her down again, the weight of the babóg with her big creamy plucks and hardly a hair on her head, her Dad and Mam both agreed she looked the spit of Darren. The man upstairs in the flats had written a poem for her about Jackie when she was born and framed it and that was nice of him but where’d she put it?

Darren was not enjoying his cigarette, he slurped his beer to drown the smoke, he coughed anyway.

“Will I see if I can run a bath for you with hot water?” she said, remembering that now, now in this empty new house she had a comfortable bathroom and hot water all the time if she wanted it, all she’d to do was press a switch and when the red light came on the water was heating up automatically.

“Have you the video on?”

“It’s not tuned,” she told him. And there’d be nothing worth taping anyway with the reception the way it was but maybe he could go out and get a film?

But Darren seemed, suddenly, to be made of cardboard, like a big cardboard soldier advertising a war movie outside the cinema when there was one on. She could see how he swam in a fragile kettle of greyish light, like a ghost might. Ghost stories of old houses in the dark alone. The sky outside and through the open window, which she’d better remember to close before they went to bed, you never knew what was out there her Dad had warned her, had turned a sour milky white and the orange lights of the city played up against it. It would be easy to be afraid out here if you let yourself.

“My Mam always told me never marry a soldier,” she said. She waited for Darren to laugh but he didn’t, old joke.

“Well, you’re moved in here and it’s way better than the flat,” he said. “Better for Jackie, too.”

There seemed to be no point at which their thoughts or words could touch. They both seemed to be talking to two other people, people who were not there but were there at the same time but in a manner of speaking were insubstantial as shadows on a wall.

She told him they were the only people moved into the estate, the very first. She told him about the woman and her arrogance and her husband on the docks. But Darren was far away. It was like you are when you have an argument and are not just ready for making up, the strange heat in the air between you.

“We should think about getting married when I get back.”

“Well, you know I’m ready for it if you are,” she said. She had the distinct feeling she’d said this before and he’d said what he’d said before.

“Now we’ve a decent place to live and all,” Darren said. Farther away and farther he sailed off through the blue darkening room. “I’m away in two weeks. Me and the lads, you know them, you’ve met them out with me.”

“These are the lads you used to go out with and cancel meeting me for,” she said. The room pushed in on top of her. She smiled in the dark, she wondered if he could see her smiling, the memory of a light little thing like that but she’d cried then, and what they’d argued about before Jackie came along, she’d felt so neglected and he had his soldier mates after all.

“Now, it wasn’t like that,” Darren said. “You know.”

“You look after yourself, wherever they send you” she said, when they’d had another little necessary silence.

“You can’t kill a bad thing,” Darren said. He was talking, it was as if, to the blind TV set.

“I’m going to start a photograph album,” she said. “When you’re away. We’ve taken millions of photographs and they’re all over the place, God knows where.”

Darren stood up. Shadow on his crotch. Army trousers, all pockets and baggy. He looked into the wall, the grey undecorated plaster. Will you miss me, he asked her? She couldn’t tell if he was joking, Darren was never sloppy.

“Of course I will,” she said. She would feel alone and weak for a while and she’d go to Mam’s or her own parents almost every day or they’d come for her, she would be swallowed up, she would be back in the womb of them all. She said what she knew reassured him.

But thinking about him not there, not even a few miles away in the big stone-gated ugly barracks where at least if you went mad you could go and see him for two minutes made her feel a bit sick, like when you’re going to faint but you don’t.

“You’ll not go off with some fancyman when my back’s turned?”

She felt, but she couldn’t see his face in the flicking dark, the scared little boy’s twitch in his voice. Not jealousy, Darren would never be jealous, he never cared what she did really, he was not possessive and thank God she’d heard of girls beaten for looking at a bloke. She grabbed Jackie up again in her arms, the suspicious hot waft of the child, was she filthy again? She saw Darren in the dark or the shape of him which is not the same.

“Soon as you’re in that lorry I’ll be out clubbing.”

Now this didn’t mean anything neither good nor bad but it was what they said and was necessary for saying, you know anyway the way men are, some men anyway, soldiers or no soldiers. Like kids. She wouldn’t do the dirt on him lonely and all as she’d be now and then anyway and she knew from the other girls that in any case when you brought a man back for a quick whatever-it-was and he heard the nipper squalling in the next room it put him off his stroke, off like a rocket, Bye-bye. Thought you meant to trap him. Cruel, some of the girls were, about men and the world. Just because bad things had happened to them.

She was building herself up with daft thoughts about maybe just once someone I fancied, but you wouldn’t bring him back here where Darren was everywhere, in the walls and all. Or Jackie’d see. But she wasn’t, deep down anyway, that type of girl. A kiss and cuddle was nothing and meant nothing, killed the night. Nothing else, definitely. Darren the only one. Whether he was here or not. But, then again, he’d never been away before. Even though the girls all said he would be from the start, being a soldier.

“You think of some awful things,” she told him now, scolded him. She touched his shoulder, the rough army cloth, the smell of his beery breath. She thought again about the poem in its frame for Jackie, where it was.

“Well, it’s just like when we all heard this morning, it was a bit of a shock,” Darren said. “The lads, like. Out of the blue.”

“I’m going to start a garden,” she said. I’ve never had a garden in my life and now I’m going to go mad out there, think of what it’ll look like.”

She saw Darren’s face turn in the dark, turn slowly like it was on rollers and carved out of stone, turn towards where a few stars had made their way through the pink yellow clouds in the high distance. The tin can in his hand was like something he was about to throw through the window but it was double-glazed and nothing was made of real glass anymore.

“They massacre whole villages and put them in deep holes,” Darren said. “It’s worse than the North.” Darren laying down a hard masculine emphasis on the three-syllabled word, massacre, a word that seemed to crack and fade at the end.

“But you won’t be near any of them,” she said. She studied his profile, black like you’d cut out of black paper in school. “We’re a neutral country. You’re just there to keep the peace.”

Darren shrugged; a small distant mountain, a cliff, trembling in the dark. Doesn’t matter, the certain horror and his own fear, she couldn’t understand. For the lads to talk about, nervous cracking jokes, some of them never away from home, not far anyway.

Silence swept around them both like dust, like when you opened a door and dust and dry earth came in. She felt it fill her eyes. Darren’s head, a roundy black bubble in the shadowy room, like an ornament or funny cuddly cushion bought as a present, what people think you like.

The sky broke apart and more stars fell through. It was hot and uncomfortable in the rooms now. She went out and turned off the cooker. She leaned over and closed the window, turned its funny-feeling lock. She closed the world out and the three of them in. Darren turned around and said with a breath that he wished they had candles, a bare light-bulb which was what they had hanging from the ceiling until she went out and bought a few shades wasn’t very nice.

There were things you could do with a house like this, he said, beats the flat, Jesus. He seemed to be talking to someone else in the room she couldn’t see. Someone who understood him better than she did. The heat died in the rooms, withdrew, she’d put up curtains, got them cheap, Darren’s Mam was good at doing things like curtains.

“I must buy some incense too,” she said. The smell of it, nice. Places far away, not here.

She imagined cold dark light all over them, the three of them painted in it, looking like corpses. Jackie should be in her bed, she’d make up the cot in the same room as she’d sleep with Darren and don’t try anything in case you wake her. Darren leaned over suddenly and switched the TV back on. Silver light exploded in the room.

She walked out of the glaring room, felt the blast of cold noisy light on her back, her shadow imprinted on the wall in front of her; a quivering image, black on white.

(for Nuala and John)


©2003 Fred Johnston


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