John McCullagh May 19, 2005
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Jack McCulla and Bertie Jones walked across Bagnall Street and turned up the hill towards the park. On the other side, Geordie Smith had stopped to knock the McFee’s door.  One of the window panes had been broken and bits of glass were lying on the footpad. There was a broken cup a few feet into the road.

Bertie said,

‘Joe musta gone mad again. He’s a real head-the-ball when he’s stotious wi drink.’

Jack nodded. He was dying to tell somebody about something that had happened when he’d brought some empties back to the pub for his father, but didn’t quite know how to say it. Anyway maybe telling Bertie wasn’t a good idea.

 He’d tell everybody and Jack’s father might get to hear of it.  Jack knew he hadn’t done anything wrong but he felt that his da wouldn’t like it.  No need to rush to tell anybody.  He still had the two shillings in his pocket that the man had given him.  Anyway he was thinking more about the  match that would be starting soon –  they might let him join in if  they were short of players.  They’d let Stephen Connelly play last week and he was only eight. 

Not long after the match started a fight broke out between the two captains, Froggy Connelly and Will Halliday.  Everybody gathered round them in a ring shouting and swearing and pushing each other to get a better view.  Will bloodied Froggy’s nose and mouth and gave him a couple of kicks when he fell over.  Jack didn’t like Froggy and was glad to see him getting a good thrashing.  With jeers and finger-signs Will and his team ambled off down the road leaving Froggy and his mates to argue about the way the match had ended.  Jack decided to make himself scarce before Froggy decided to get his revenge by beating up a Protestant.  He ran across the road and pushed the flap of the letterbox in the top half his granny’s door.  He pulled out a long piece of string with a key on the end of it, pushed and turned it in the lock and let himself into the house, closing the door behind him.  He turned the round bakelite knob on the door to his right and stepped into the front room.

His granny was sitting in the armchair in the corner directly in front of him.  She turned to look at him, stood up and held out her arms.  Her once-black hair was heavily greyed and she had a double chin, the skin on her neck wrinkled and dry-looking.  She smiled and disappeared. J ack stood stock still, hardly daring to breathe.  This was impossible.  His grandmother had died on Christmas Eve, over six months earlier.  He had been to her funeral and knew she was buried in St Anne’s graveyard.  But he felt no fear, had no desire to run away because his grandmother had loved him and he had loved her.  She would never have let him come to harm.

Sometimes she had made him feel really ashamed.  Only a few months before she died, she had looked through this front-room window and seen Brendan McFee thumping him in the park.  They had been fighting over a game of marbles.  She’d come scurrying across the road swinging her sweeping brush over her head and shouting, ‘Leave our Jack alone – ye wee bugger!’ All the boys had laughed as Brendan ran off and Jack’s granny grabbed him by the jersey and dragged him back across the road into the house, closing the door behind her.  He’d felt two inches tall, but after she had given him a glass of milk and a big penny biscuit and had told him to stand up for himself and hit them back, he had felt better about it.

He sat down in the armchair and stared at the entrance to the scullery.  Once, when the rent-man had come she had told him to answer the door and say she had gone to do her messages.  She had stood behind the curtain into the scullery.  The man had walked straight in when Jack  opened the door, listened to what he had to say, and left remarking,

 ‘Tell your granny the next time she goes out to make sure she takes her feet with her.’

He had seen her feet in her old carpet slippers where the curtain fell short of the floor.

 Jack had felt very embarrassed about that but his granny had only laughed and spent the next few days telling all the neighbours about it.  She had even told the Reverend Hanna when he came on one of his visits with her copy of the Church of Ireland Gazette.  Even the minister had laughed and said that he hoped that wee Cherry Blossom wouldn’t grow up to tell fibs as well as his granny.  Jack didn’t like the minister.  He was always going on about the drink and he called Jack after the name of a shoe polish because of his jet-black hair.  Jack didn’t mind his uncles calling him Black Bob, the collie dog in the ‘Dandy’ who worked sheep for Andrew Selkirk in Scotland and had better adventures than Rin-Tin-Tin or Roy Rogers’s dog Bullet.  But Cherry Blossom sounded too much like a girl’s name and he didn’t like it.

He got up and walked into the scullery to see if there was anything in the bread-bin.  There wasn’t.   His uncles had eaten a lot at his house ever since their mother had died.  They were both hopeless at cooking and housework and his mother and his married aunt did everything for them including all their washing.  His father was always grumbling about it but his mother kept on doing it.  Jack wondered if she’d made a promise to her mother before she died.  He walked back through the front room and went up the short staircase and into his grandmother’s bedroom.  It still smelled of her.  On the wall above the bed there was a picture of a little boy with curly hair lying under a tree staring at the sky.  At the bottom were the words,   ‘Seek Ye the Lord where He may be found’.

On the opposite wall was an embroidered cloth in a frame.  In a variety of colours his aunt had years before embroidered,  ‘Christ is the Head of this house, the Unseen Guest at every meal, the Silent Listener to every conversation’.  His grandmother’s Bible still lay on the small table in the corner by the back window.   He sat down on the bed and remembered the night before his granny had died.

She had been in bed for three days and there were lots of whispered conversations among the adults.  On the evening before Christmas Eve his uncle John had come to the house and said that Mother wanted to see Jack.  He’d climbed the stairs happily to see her. But he had been taken aback by the pale face which seemed suddenly very thin and full of pain . He had sat where he was sitting now and taken her left hand in both of his.  The white pillowcase seemed not much whiter than her face.  She had smiled at him and whispered,

 ‘I wanted to say cheerio to you Jack.  Be a good boy and look after your mammy when you grow up.’

 ‘Where are you goin Mother?’  He’d always called her Mother.  His own mammy was ‘Ma’.

 ‘Ah’m goin to be with the Lord, son. That’s His promise to us all’.

‘But what’ll I do, Mother?’

‘You’ll grow up son and have your own children. And you’ll tell them about me and sing them ta sleep with ‘The Spinning Wheel”.

He sat in silence for a few minutes.  She lay with her eyes almost closed.  Suddenly, she sat straight up, looking over his left shoulder, her eyes widening. 

‘Jack, ah can see the banshee. She’s callin me to go’.

All the hairs stood up on the back of his neck and he felt cold and terrified.  He couldn’t turn round to look.  The little room with the shadows cast by the lamp on the table seemed to be full of death that instant.  His grandmother stared past him.

‘But Mr Hanna said there’s no such thing, Mother. He said Jesus made all those things disappear when he was on the cross. He said that in Sunday School’.

He was rigid with fear.

‘The Reverend Hanna doesn’t know ivrythin, Jack.  And don’t be scared.  She’s got no business with you.  Not for a very long time.  She’s come for me and I won’t be long.’

He had never kissed his granny in his life, and he didn’t now.  She lay back down again and squeezed his hands weakly.

‘Ah want ye ta make me a wee promise, Jack’.

Her voice was very quiet, her breathing quick and shallow.  He didn’t speak.  He felt her fingers pulling his, felt the ring on her wedding finger dig into his skin.

‘Promise me ye’ll try to keep off the drink in case ye turn out like yer grandda’.

He stared at her. ‘Ah promise, Mother’.

She stretched out her right arm and touched the top of his head.

 ‘You’ve got two crowns, Jack.  You’ll cross the water.  That’s what he did.  He was niver the same after he came back from Manchester. He’s had my heart crucified ivver since.’

Her eyes closed. He saw tears in the corners of her eyes.

Without daring to turn towards the window, he had edged out of the room and taken the stairs two at a time.  He had run straight out of the house and across the road into the park.  He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t.  She had died the following afternoon.  So then he knew she’d really seen the banshee and the Reverend Hanna was wrong.  And if he was wrong about that, he could be wrong about everything. Jack had known that nothing would ever be the same again.

Before the coffin arrived at the house, she had been laid out on the bed. Thelma Murphy from next door had brought him up to see her. There were little balls of cotton wool in his granny’s nose.  She looked like a waxwork.  Thelma had pushed him over to the bed and said,

 ‘Give her your last kiss, Jack’.

He hadn’t been able to do it.  And now after six months he had seen her again.

Jack stood up and slowly left the room and went down the stairs. In the front room he sat down in the armchair and closed his eyes. He wondered briefly if he should tell anyone what he’d seen when he had entered the house a while earlier.  He decided quickly that he wouldn’t.  Something told him that it would make his ma very unhappy. She would be convinced that Mother’s soul wasn’t at rest.  No, he would tell nobody.  It would be between him and his granny.  

He got up and left the house, pulling the two halves of the door tight shut behind him.

 

 

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