I was thirteen then and just beginning to take an interest in girls. I had had one girlfriend, Monica Jones, a neighbour’s daughter, with whom, amazingly, I shared a birthday. I think that was all we had in common. Our childish tryst didn’t last.
I was single and fancy-free again, and happy to be so, though I had plans. I had set my eye on a stunningly beautiful brown-eyed girl I had spied one Saturday, conversing with her older sister who worked in our only department store, Foster-Newells.
I was in town to buy The New Musical Express. My ‘pay’ went on this every week, and there was very little left over.
I was obsessed with the new pop music, now universally transmitted to working class homes, for even in our penury we could afford to buy wireless sets. These tunes lend a common bond to teenagers everywhere. Our tiny world became global.
I was always somewhat of an oddball, and knew I was held as such. Music was in my soul and emerged from my mouth even when I didn’t realize everyone was gawping at this eejit singing aloud to himself.
I fancied my singing voice too and hoped that people would admire its tenor as I passed. Instead they felt sorry for me and gave me a wide berth on the other side of the road. But I wasn’t dangerous and wouldn’t even have detained them while I was in full song.
I think now it probably turned the girls off me too. There had to be some reason. I wasn’t such a bad-looking guy.
She was somewhat older than me and way above my class, I knew. Also she was a Protestant. This was not a handicap from my personal point of view, but perhaps, my religion might be from hers. There would be family problems too.
The fact that all this ran continuously through my fevered imagination will give you some idea of my innocence at the time.
But I had a source of relief from my delusions and fantasies. I was still young enough to play the street games that dominated our life before the intrusion of television.
This was the ‘kaddy’ season.
The ‘kaddy’ was an eight inch long oblong piece of wood, about half an inch square with sharpened ends. You balanced it on the end of the kerb with half of it projecting and struck it sharply with a heavier wooden rod. It spun fiercely into the air while your opponent tried to catch it, a difficult and dangerous exercise. If caught, you were ‘out’ and he was ‘in’. If not, whatever number was uppermost on the kaddy’s poker-burned face when it came to rest (I, II, III or IIII) was the number of further strokes allowed to you while you were ‘in’. With a delicate tap on the pointed edge, you would then make the kaddy spin a few inches into the air, where you were allowed one further stroke to whack it fiercely, the object being to put as much distance as possible between home base and its final resting place. Your score would be the number of leaps your opponent would need to span this with ‘long jumps’. At any stage when the kaddy was airborne, your opponent could gain advantage – be ‘in’ – by catching it.
I was winning that fine sunny winter’s morning in January when the breadman, Michael Campbell, came along on his normal rounds. Winning was important. In any case I didn’t welcome his breadcart parked across our play area.
These servicemen were usually sensitive to our needs and tolerant of us, despite the fact that kaddy was mostly restricted to the road, where the hard surface made raising the wooden object easier than from the soft adjoining ‘greens’.
For once he acted as though he hadn’t even seen us as he hastened to our parents’ doors to impart his grave news.
It must have been his animated behaviour that drew our attention away from our normally all-consuming game.
We didn’t know it then but his visit would herald an end of our innocence: and not just for us, but for our sleepy backwater of a town as well.
That’s why I remember Pearl Gamble’s murder. Michael Campbell had news of the terrible event. She was the young woman who worked in Foster-Newells. Her younger sister was my paragon: the object of my desire and dreams.
We had occasionally caught furtive glimpses of another world, exciting but sleazy – a sex-driven, more dangerous world – in the pictures and columns of the Sunday newspapers our fathers read, but pretended not to, for they knew this pornographic material ought not to be placed within their children’s reach. Our angry mums disdained it too, and castigated our fathers for bringing such rags as the Sunday People and The News of The World into their homes.
To make matters worse we were occasionally graced on Sunday afternoons with a social visit from a group of two to three Mercy Nuns, who believed it part of their Christian duty to express their support for growing Catholic families in their immediate neighbourhood. They were educating most of the girls of our families and I was delighted and amused by their visits. You see, I was beyond their power and influence, for they didn’t teach me. They were my sisters’ teachers. I had hordes of sisters, I don’t think then I knew just how many! And of course, I was constantly at war with my sisters. These nuns became my unwitting allies in our never-ending struggle for our parents’ attention. They would hurriedly and fussily scatter in search of schoolbags and unfinished homework at the nuns’ approach.
Still, no one was surprised when the nuns failed to visit the next day, Sunday 29 January.
After Michael Campbell’s visit, there was only one topic of conversation in every Newry home. And it was unsuitable for nuns’ ears.
The breadman was late that Saturday morning. Just as well, really, for otherwise he’d not have had his tale to tell. The first scattered and discarded clothes of the missing girl had not been found until nine thirty on the Upper Damolly Road by farm labourer Bob McCullough when he was out mending gates of a field in the vicinity. Memory can play tricks but I believe that our breadman knew not just the details of what had happened, but also the name of the victim and of the chief suspect.
Our game of kaddy was reluctantly abandoned as we followed the news-bearer from house to house, hoping not just to rehear the story being told, but to see the listeners’ reaction, and in the hope of hearing a previously missed detail.
I had to suppress my personal interest for fear of being mocked. I suffered a maelstrom of emotions. Most of all I wanted to be there to console my brown-eyed girl. Much later I learned her name, but then I had only a strong mental image of her.
Older brothers of some of the older lads of our gang – and friends they knew across the town – were acquainted with Robert McGladdery, or with those who knew him.
From the start the police were confident of his guilt.
McGladdery was a brazen and arrogant young man. The police took him in for questioning and later released him, confident that he would soon lead them to the hiding place of items missing from the murder scene.
This eventually happened but during that week of freedom, McGladdery led them a merry dance. Also, in addition to his ever-present police shadow, he had picked up an entourage of interested followers. I never learned whether they were made up of personal friends or morbid voyeurs, fascinated by his celebrity status, or a combination of both, but I was shocked that a murderer could receive such attention.
Of all the details that came out in his trial, only one stuck fast in my mind. The evening of the murder, at a dance in a local hall they were both attending, McGladdery had requested the Elvis tune It’s Now Or Never. The title was interpreted as significant. I could never after hear one of my favourite tunes without tears welling in my eyes.
I never again set eyes on my previous paragon.
McGladdery was found guilty and sentenced to death. He appealed but lost.
Five days before Christmas, he was hanged in Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast, the last person in these islands to die by capital punishment. He was mourned by few.
On the same day, my father came home with a Christmas present for his teenage children.
It was a stackable Record Player. There were thirty singles too.
I was unable to play my favourite one.