“. . .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,
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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