Fourteen-year-old Catherine Murphy walked down towards
He had lost his wife years ago, her mother had once told her, and he had never been the same since. He was very quiet and he never seemed to get drunk like most of the other men in the street. And although he was a Protestant, he wasn’t an Orangeman, which was unusual. People even said that when he was young he had learned to speak Irish.
She’d been thinking about him all the time for weeks. Every time she met him in the street or the shop or the park she felt her heart race and her face blush. She became very conscious of her freckles and tried her best to stick her chest out a bit so that he could see she was very different from the time years ago when they had swung on ropes around the lamppost opposite her house. He had once pulled her pigtails and run off because she had shrieked that her mother would hit him with the sweeping-brush. She smiled and then grimaced when she thought how differently he must look at the girls in the
‘Ah’m O.K. ma! There’s nothing wrong with me. Niver mind the doctor. There’s nothin wrong. Honest.’
Catherine walked into the house and straight up the stairs. ‘Ah’m back ma!’. No answer. Her mother was probably down at the market.
The back bedroom was tiny. There was just enough room for two beds with a gap of a few inches between them, and a small wardrobe. There was a tiny fireplace that was never used. Not even in the winter when you woke up to find ice on the inside of the windows. The black mantelpiece was made of metal and there were tiles with flower designs down each side of the grate. Catherine and her sister slept in one bed, their two brothers in the other. It hadn’t bothered her when she was young, but now she wished she could have some privacy. She wondered how George Smith would react if he could see inside her cramped little home. If he could see that they used overcoats on the beds in the winter because there was only one eiderdown and that was on her parents’ bed. And sheets made from big white flour-bags cut up and sewn together by her mother. How could she ever invite him back here? It must be great living in one of those big houses in
She lifted each foot in turn to pull off her sandals. She jumped onto the boys’ bed by the back window. It was a bit lower than her own and her head wouldn’t touch the ceiling. She looped the hula hoop over her head and lowered it to waist height. Holding it with her hands just above her hips, she thrust her pelvis forward and started to rotate her hips. She immediately lost her balance and fell onto her knees. She stood up again. This time she placed her feet wider apart. She tried again and let go of the hoop. It caught against her right hip and she managed to move it through two full turns before it fell round her feet. This was going to be hard work! She left the hoop where it was and stepped onto her own bed and then onto the floor.
She paused and looked through the small sash window at the garden. Most of the houses in
Catherine had some horrible memories of the slaughtering, which had been happening as long as she could remember. First her father would get three or four of the neighbours to come and help him. The pig would be dragged out of the shed with a noose around its neck and one around its front legs, a third around the back legs. It would be screaming with an ear-piercing intensity. They would drag it on the ends of the ropes down the four steps onto the concrete surface of the back yard. While the men struggled to hold the pig, her father would lift up his huge killing hammer. This had a cone-shaped head with a flat end which narrowed to a pointed spike. Lifting the hammer high, her father would whack the pig with the flat end, then, when it had collapsed, he’d roll the shaft, raise the hammer and bring the spike down hard on top of its head. The bone would splinter and the twitching body would gradually become still as the pig died. A horrible thick slobber would foam from its mouth. Once, she remembered, a pig had managed to drag the men back into the garden after being struck the second time, and had pulled them along with blood and bits of brain spewing out of its skull.
She shivered at the memory. It all seemed really cruel to her but nobody else seemed to think there was anything wrong with what they were doing. From a big black iron pot on top of a gas ring attached by a rubber pipe to a tap in the kitchen, her father would pour boiling water over the pig and shave the bristles off with a cut-throat razor. The skin was always pink and shiny when he did that. Then the men would haul the pig up on a steel ring fixed in the side wall of the back yard, using the rope strung round its back legs.
Her father would take a well-sharpened carpenter’s knife and cut its throat, then slash it down from between the back legs to the ribs. As the flesh opened, its blood would pour out. Then her father would pull all the blue and purple guts out into a wooden tub which one of the men would have shoved underneath. Even little Jack McCulla would have watched it all happening, standing with a big plate to get the liver for his mother. Catherine’s father would then take the pig’s bladder and blow it up like a balloon. When he’d tied the neck with a piece of string, the boys who had come through the house to watch would start kicking it around the garden like a football.
As the pig hung dripping, her father, blood drying on his hands, would light Woodbines for all the men, give them a shilling each, and then hose the blood down the grating outside the back door. For days the neighbours would come to the house to buy their meat cheaper than at the butcher’s. They had helped to raise the pig by giving all their refuse to her father, who simmered it for hours in a Burco boiler in the yard, sending a sweet-sour stink over the walls and roof and down the street.
Catherine eased her feet back into her sandals and went downstairs, through the front room and into the kitchen. There was a mirror in a dark varnished frame hanging on a hook on the back of the kitchen door. She looked at herself carefully and decided that she was stuck with what she’d got and couldn’t do anything to make herself more attractive. Her mother would have a fit if she found her wearing lipstick. He’d have to make do with what she had if he was interested in her.
She left the house, leaving the front door open as usual, and walked across the road towards the park where the boys had started to gather for the match. As she stepped onto the opposite pavement, she glanced down the hill to see if there was any sign of George. A small group of people were gathered at the McFee’s front door. She saw that one of the window-panes was broken and there were bits of glass on the ground, glittering in the sunshine. Joe must have come home drunk again and started throwing things around. She thought it was a pity for the McFees and how lucky she was that her parents had such a happy relationship. They had arguments like everybody else but there was never any violence or swearing. Poor Brendan and Sean must be really unhappy a lot of the time and their mother must be absolutely miserable. Suddenly the front door of the McFee’s house was slammed in the faces of the people on the pavement and she saw them turn away, one of the men shrugging his shoulders.
When a game was organised it was simply a case of anyone who was interested turning up. The team captains then picked their sides. Froggy Connelly was one captain, Will McDonald the other. This lent the games the extra interest of Froggy’s team being Catholic (
She was very conscious that George was now standing only a few feet away. As the teams moved to the side of their captains, it became obvious that neither Froggy nor Will was going to pick him. When the match started he was the only boy who had offered himself who had not been picked. Catherine felt sorry for him but was also pleased that it gave her a chance to talk to him. She moved closer to him and when she was standing right beside him she turned and said,
‘Hello Geordie. Is Brendan not here?’
‘Hiya Catherine. No, ah called at his house but nobody answered. And somebody has broke their winda.’
‘His da, I’d think. He’s done that before. Ah don’t know how Brendan puts up with bein’ in that house . His da’s a buck eejit‘.
‘Yer right. We’ve never talked about it, but he must know that ivrybody else knows what goes on. Dunno how he manages to be as nice as he is. His father’s a complete bastard.’
She looked straight into his big brown eyes.
‘Would ye not like to be playin?’
‘Well, ah’m not exactly Roddy Campbell, so it’s probably just as well’.
She thought how well he spoke nowadays.
‘There’s always a real argument if anybody does somethin stupid.
Here, what did ye think of Roddy playing for Norn
She hurriedly changed the subject.
‘D’ye remember the time ye pulled my hair and I said my ma would whack ye with the brush?’
‘God, Catherine, that musta been eight years ago. Ye remember that?’
‘Thinking about it the other day. We used to play a lot together when we were young’.
His eyes followed the play while they talked. She folded her arms and pulled them in and up, feeling her breasts push outwards.
‘D’ye not get bored just stannin here?’
‘Well, usually me and Brendan talk about things like the fishin if he’s not playing either.’ He was ill-at-ease.
‘Ah hope he’ s OK. His door isn’t usually shut like that.’
‘I was thinkin of goin for a wee dander up Miller’s Hill to get some flowers for my ma. Ah don’t suppose ye’d like ta come wimme?’
She was amazed she had said that. She felt a blush flooding her cheeks. She found that she couldn’t look at him. There was a silence between them. An argument had already started among the players about whether or not somebody had been tripped deliberately. Froggy Connelly was swearing and gesticulating at Will Halliday, who suddenly yelled,
‘Fenian f**kin liar’.
‘Yeah, why not? This is gonna end up in a fight’.
She was taken aback by his immediate acceptance. They walked out of the park, passing the darkie boy who was staying at the Kellys’. They walked up
‘D’ye want a hand?’
George filled the bucket with nine strokes of the handle. Because Annie couldn’t lift it, he carried it across the road into her house. Catherine thought how good he was. They walked up to
They were walking close to each other and his arm suddenly brushed against hers. She felt excited. It had been a momentary contact, but they had touched for the first time since they were children. On an impulse, she reached sideways and grabbed his hand. She squeezed his fingers, looking straight ahead. He didn’t draw back and a few seconds later his hand tightened around hers. Neither spoke. She drew her breath in sharply and released it in a long slow sigh.
They reached the top of the hill and looked down along the road curving away towards Newtownedwards. A crow was picking at a heap of cowclap which looked like a huge dark-brown meringue in the middle of the road a few yards in front of them. The crow suddenly flapped into the air with a raw croak and disappeared over the hedge. Somewhere, a dog started to yap.
There was a gap in the hedge to their left. The yellow grass on the bank was flattened and there were cigarette butts on the road. Obviously a stopping-point for walkers, courting couples maybe. She waited, staring at the low hills in the distance. A heat haze wobbled up off the road.
‘D’ye wanna siddown for a minute? It’s hot’. She nodded.
Her throat was dry and she thought she must have sounded like the crow. He let go of her hand and they climbed onto the bank.
They sat for a minute without speaking.
‘Gotta hula-hoop theday. In Wullworth’s’.
‘Yes? That’ll shape you up. You’ll have all the boys after ye’.
She looked at him. Did the idea make him feel jealous? She gnawed her lower lip. When he was younger he’d have said,’Aye’, not ‘Yes’. She realised that the way he spoke was now different to hers. Not all the time, but often. He was getting posher.
‘You must have somebody at the grammar school you fancy?’
‘Me?’ He laughed. ‘No chance. There’s a lotta them are paying fees to be there. They look down on people like me on scholarships. Their fathers are bank managers, solicitors, things like that. Golf players. Some of the ones in my class have even been on exchange holidays on the continent. Their mothers are in the bridge club and they’ve all got vacuum cleaners, fridges, that sort of stuff. They wouldn’t look at me. They’re more interested in their own kind. But when I end up at university I’ll be as good as any of them’.
She was surprised at the sudden intensity in his voice.
‘I prefer people I belong with. Like you’.
Suddenly he turned his body towards her and put his left arm around her shoulders. She was so surprised she didn’t move. He brought his face forward and pressed his lips against hers. He sat back immediately, blushing. Her heart pounded.
‘Sorry’. He looked sorry too.
‘It’s all right. I liked it.’
He did it again, for longer. He brought his right hand round behind the back of her head and pressed her face to his. They rubbed their lips together and their breath came in bursts through their noses. Her whole body stiffened as he changed hands. His left pressed the back of her head and she felt his right cupping her left breast. She breathed even faster and his hand dropped and came up again under her blouse. She felt his fingers trying to slide under the bottom of her brassiere. She squirmed and trapped his hand under her arm and pulled back.
It was her da’s voice.
The two of them scrambled down off the bank into the road. Her father was striding from the top of the hill, red-faced and angry-looking. He was wearing the lumberjack shirt her uncle Frank had brought him from
‘Go home, Catherine! Go home! You’ve no business bein here! And neither have you’, pointing at Geordie, who was standing staring down at his feet.
‘We weren’t doin anything, daddy. We were just talkin. Honest. Sure ye know Geordie’.
Her father looked at her hard.
‘Aye, ah knowim.’
He paused and sighed loudly.
‘Look Geordie, it’ nothin against you or yer family. God knows yer ma an da are good people. An by all accounts you’re a nice lad. Ah’ve niver heard a word said against ye. But this kinda thing isn’t on. Ye know as well as I do that east is east an west is west. Stick with yer own side, ‘cos Catherine’s goin to. Her ma an me are gonna seeta that. God knows we know all about it. It’s taken years for people to drop all the sh*te about turncoats and traitors and we’re not gonna let any of our ones put themselves through all that too.’
Geordie looked straight into Mr Murphy’s eyes.
‘That’s OK, Mr Murphy. Catherine’s right, but. We were just havin a wee craic. She’s gonna pick some flowers for Mrs Murphy. But I’ll get on down to the park. Ah’ll see ye, Catherine.’
He started up the road and disappeared without looking back. Catherine stood looking at her father. She had tears in her eyes. She knew how much he loved her, and his face was sad. She knew he was right but maybe one day things would be different here. She reached for his hand.
‘Ah’ll get the flowers the morra after chapel.’
Hand in hand, father and daughter walked slowly over the crest of the hill.
The sound of the yapping dog faded away behind them.