John McCullagh December 27, 2006
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Liam Connelly got off his knees and sighed heavily. He had found nothing. 

The long grass stems with feathery ears like barley sprang back together as he stood up. Nearby four girls were skipping with a long rope. George Smith and Brendan McFee were playing marlies.  Bertie Anderson was sprawled in the grass watching Sandra Gordon bouncing three balls off the wall of the Big Hut. It was hot and Liam could feel drops of sweat trickling down the back of his neck. His feet felt hot and swollen. Under his left foot he could feel a fold in the piece of cornflake packet he had put there to cover the hole in the sole of his boot. His right boot had a black leather lace. The left boot was laced with a piece of string.

Liam spent most of his time in Bagnall Park or wandering the narrow country roads that threaded the boggy fields on the north-east side of Portnamon. He sometimes did this with friends but was just as happy doing it on his own. He was a tall, skinny youth of fifteen. His protuberant eyes looking out from behind round-framed National Health glasses had earned him the nickname of ‘Specky Four Eyes’: this was until that memorable day when he had inflated his first frog.

The trick was to insert a straw into the frog’s backside and blow steadily into it. From that moment he was simply called ‘Froggy’.

As the story spread, it became necessary for Liam to repeat the trick again and again and prove that it could be done, just to counter the inevitable comment ‘Bo***x’.  There had never been that many frogs in the park to begin with, but there were even fewer now.

 

Froggy’s problem was that he had actually become quite hooked on frog-inflating. It made him feel special. Nobody else was keen on doing it so it was somewhat of a badge of distinction. He spent part of every day looking for frogs and always felt quite disappointed when he couldn’t find any.

 

Froggy had a gang. As a bit of a misfit, it was perhaps inevitable that his gang consisted of other misfits who weren’t welcome in any other local gang. Froggy’s claim to leadership was based on a simple quality – a streak of viciousness that set him apart from all the other kids in the area.  His frog-inflating was a mere hors-d’oeuvre to the other items on the menu of his predilections.   When it came to dog-kicking, cat-swinging or bird-stoning, hammering rats flat and bloody with a shovel in his backyard or simply tearing the wings off butterflies, Froggy was without peer. He was a sadist, although if anyone had said the word to him he wouldn’t have understood it.

One thing that he did know was that he didn’t like Prods. Portnamon was a Catholic town. About two per cent of the population were Protestant. Froggie couldn’t quite get his head around the notion of ‘two per cent’ but he knew that it wasn’t a lot. Unfortunately most of them seemed to live in his street and in those around it. Every July, Union Jacks and other Prod symbols were rigged up in the lower end of the street where the Prods lived. The only house that didn’t have an English flag sticking out of a metal tube screwed to the wall under the bedroom window was the McCulla’s.  Froggy didn’t know why that was, but a year ago on the 11th of July he had taken a perverse pleasure in grabbing eight-year-old Jack McCulla behind the Big Hut in the park.   

Jack had struggled in vain.   Froggy’s gang had held him down. Froggy had broken a dead twig from the rhododendron bushes and speared a piece of dog-sh*t on the end of it.  Sean Kennedy had squeezed Jack’s mouth with his finger and thumb and nipped his nostrils together with his other hand; the boy’s lips and teeth had opened like the hole in a doughnut and Froggie had shoved the dog-shit right into the back of his mouth.   He had held it there firmly and Jack had eventually swallowed it.   When they let him go, Froggie had said, ‘That’s for bein a f**kin Prod bastard ye wee Orange shi**!’   He knew that Jack’s family had nothing to do with the Orangemen, but Jack was the smallest available Prod. As the boy ran off, Froggy shouted, ‘If ye tell anybody we’ll kick yer b***s up inty the back of yer neck!’

Unluckily for Froggy on that occasion, Freddy Loughlin had been walking up Bagnall Street past the park as Jack McCulla reached the pavement on his way back to his granny’s house.   Freddy worked in the local broo office. As Jack reached the edge of the pavement, he stopped suddenly, bent over with his hands clasping his knees and vomited into the gutter. Freddy turned back and asked him if he was alright. The boy coughed up more vomit and in answer to Freddy’s questions told him what had happened. The result was that a minute later Froggy was being led up the street by the ear and a full account of his dog-s**t attack was given to his mother. Three hours later, when his father came back from a hot day’s work at Haughey’s bakery, Froggy was thoroughly trounced.  His father was already in a foul mood because he had two big burns on one of his arms that he got while knocking out loaves from a baking tin.   Froggy never forgave Freddy, and quietly glowed with pleasure three months later when Freddy was found dead in his tiny front room, the walls and ceiling splattered with blood because he had slashed his neck with his cut-throat razor.

Froggy felt like doing something special. Failure to find a frog left him feeling empty. He walked past the Big Hut. Sandra Gordon was talking to Big Bertie Anderson. She appeared to be trying to show him how to bounce balls off the wall. Some hope.   Bertie was as thick as two short planks. He had as much chance of doing that as Froggy had of joining the Junior Orangemen.  And she was a Prod an’ all. They all deserved to be shot: the lot of them.

Froggy climbed the grassy bank, walked along a flat bit and then toiled up a steep slope to the bottom of the graveyard wall. The wall was about eight feet high. It was roughly mortared and bulged outwards halfway up.   Froggy jumped against it, fixing his left boot against a projecting stone. His hands grabbed a clump of hanging ivy and he pulled himself up far enough to throw his arm over the top. He hauled himself right up, twisted around and eased his backside onto the top of the wall.

Looking down across the park at Bagnall Street, he could see the open half-doors of the little houses.  Old Olly McCrum was sitting on his window-sill smoking his pipe. He never seemed to do anything else. Rose and Bridget O’Connor were cleaning their windows. They never seemed to do anything else either. Eileen Callaghan was down on her knees with a bucket of water scrubbing a half-moon on the footpad outside her front door. A Wordie’s delivery cart was standing outside the Mallon’s house, the horse between the shafts standing absolutely still with its head lowered almost to the ground.   It was a hot day, but smoke rose from many of the chimneys. Although most people had town gas cookers, most of them preferred to cook on their open ranges.  Scones and potato bread cooked on a round cast-iron griddle on top of the grate. Guinness bottles on the hearth opened by the easing of the corks from the bottles by the heat from the burning coals in the range.

Froggy swung his legs up, pulled himself around and faced the church.  Father Donnelly had told them in school that the English had built it in the fifteen hundreds.  But it wasn’t a real church.   It was false. It was heretic. Froggy wasn’t quite clear about the meaning of ‘heretic’ but the priest had said it was bad. So as far as Froggy was concerned it was bad, and everybody who went to it on a Sunday morning was bad as well. And the father had said that it was a Garrison church. That meant that they had lots of English army flags hanging in it. Those bastards had killed Irishmen and that was bad too.  And the people buried in the graveyard were all Prods. But their souls couldn’t have gone to heaven. They must be in Purgatory. And there was nobody to pray for them and get them enough grace to go into heaven because God wouldn’t listen to Protestant prayers. They would stay in Purgatory forever. They deserved it because they had turned away from the true church and the Holy Father. That’s what Father Donnelly had said so it must be right. That wee bastard McCulla deserved dog-shit down his neck. And even the clock was wrong. It was ten minutes fast. I t pleased Froggy that the Prods couldn’t even get the time right.

Froggy launched himself down off the wall.  He landed on a big flat gravestone, his hands breaking his forward flight.  In the Catholic graveyard where he went with his mother to clean his grandfather’s grave and put flowers in the granite pot he wouldn’t have dreamed of walking on a grave.  But this wasn’t a proper grave.  It was just a hole in the ground with a dead Prod in it.  That didn’t count.  And all around the slab the ground was covered in weeds.  They couldn’t even look after their dead.  He jumped off the gravestone, landing lightly on the gravel path.  He felt a gravel chip puncture the cardboard in his boot.  He looked down at the flat slab with the worn, carved inscription.  He saw the name ‘Fraser’ and the date 1882.  The rest was weathered and he couldn’t be bothered trying to work out what it said.  Besides, he was impatient to go to another part of the graveyard.

Froggy walked up the path to the front of the church.  Like all Prod churches, it was locked, but he tried the door-handle anyway in case someone had left it unlocked.  No luck.  He turned the corner and walked towards the Henry Street side of the cemetery.  Henry Street ran along from the top of Bagnall Street to the point where Brook Street levelled out at the top of the hill before dropping as Dublin Street towards the river crossing at Butler‘s Bridge.  As he passed a grave with a polished granite headstone carved to the memory of Arthur McBride, he noticed an orange butterfly with black spots on its wings settled on a wreath of withered flowers.  He stopped.  He moved slightly to the left so that his shadow wouldn’t fall across the butterfly.   Very slowly, he advanced his cupped sweaty hands to within a foot of it.   Suddenly, he separated his hands, lunged them downwards and brought them back together, trapping the butterfly between his palms.  He could feel the faint fluttering against his skin.  He opened his hands a little and pinched the wings between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.  The black worm-like body jerked frantically.  Froggy gripped it between the thumb and index finger of his right hand.  He pulled his hands apart.   Raising his right hand to his mouth, he slid the wings between his lips and ran his tongue backwards and forwards against the roof of his mouth, tasting the crushed bitterness.  He swallowed dryly.  He squashed the body against his palm with his thumb, and wiped it on the leg of his trousers. He moved on.

He arrived at a fork in the path and took the branch that led down in the direction of Brook Street.  At the second turning on the left he stopped to get his bearings.  Then he turned into the grass patch between two headstones and stopped.  In front of him there was a grave where somebody had been buried about a month earlier.  The dark yellow clay was piled up about six inches above the level of the path. Wreaths and bunches of flowers were stacked on top of the clay.  The little sympathy notes were curled and mostly unreadable because rain had made the writing run.  Froggy picked up one of the wreaths.  The flowers were withered and brown with rotted patches that looked like wet soot. 

Froggy was after wire.  As expected, the rain had done its work and the net-like wire frame into which the flower stems had been woven was well rusted.  It was easy to grasp a section between the thumb and index finger of each hand and with a rolling motion of the wrists twist it back and forwards until it broke.  Then it was simply a case of unthreading the length from the rest.  Little flecks of rust flew away as he pulled the wire out of the wreath.  When he had removed about two feet of wire, he rolled it loosely around the four fingers of his left hand. The roll kept its shape and he slipped it into the left-hand pocket of his trousers.  That would make about ten arrows.

Whenever the local boys played Cowboys and Indians, Froggy insisted on being an Indian.  Not an ordinary Indian, of course.  Geronimo.  Froggy had admired Geronimo ever since he had seen a film called ‘Broken Arrow‘ in the picture house.  Geronimo had gone on attacking the whites even after that big softie Cochice had made peace with them. 

He was like the IRA who kept on fighting the English and the Prods even though the Free State said they shouldn’t.  Froggy’s warriors were his gang, joined by whatever number of other boys were agreed in the setting up of the game.  Usually the Prods were the Cowboys and the Catholics were the Indians.  Sometimes as many as twenty boys were involved altogether.  While the Cowboys all carried cap-guns and threw stones, the Indians had sticks and they also threw stones.  Froggy had a bow and arrow.  And he loved using them.  He was famous for his bows.   Having stripped the thorns off a four-foot length of bucky briar, he wrapped a thick winding of string around the middle as a hand-grip.  Then he notched each end and strung it with cord, hooking the string over one end.  He stood this on the ground and leaned on the briar to bend it.   Then he looped the string over the other notch.  His arrows were made from the straight stems of dead nettles which had dried so that they had the consistency of light wood.  A couple of inches of wreath wire wrapped tightly around the end provided the weight to keep the arrow from tumbling over and over as it whizzed through the air.  It also stood a good chance of inflicting a satisfying cut on anybody unlucky enough to be hit by it.  Froggy had cut a few boys like this, but nobody had made much of a fuss about it.  He himself had a big bump on one side of his forehead where he’d been hit by a stone and something had happened to the bone and there was a hard lump under the scar.

Froggy dropped the wreath back onto the grave.  It landed upside-down but he did not bother to touch it again.  Instead, he looked around quickly to make sure that nobody was watching.  The church clock struck once for half-past two.  As a small cloud of midges circled his head Froggy took a long satisfying pee, jetting it over the dead flowers on the grave.  When he had finished, he shook himself and then tucked himself back into his trousers and buttoned up.  He cleared his throat and spat onto the headstone.  It slowly trickled down across the carved inscription.  A big bumble bee droned past his head.  He turned away from the grave muttering ‘Fu**in Prod’.

As he walked back up the path, he could feel a damp patch in his underpants. 

He felt good.

 

 

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