John McCullagh May 18, 2005
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Fourteen-year-old Catherine Murphy walked down towards Mount Street thinking about Mr Brown.  He might have said that he was all right, but he didn’t look very well.  Only the day before, she had heard her mother telling a neighbour that he looked very failed.  Most of the young people in the street thought that he was a bit peculiar.  He was always dressed in black and sometimes rode a really ancient bike, but her mother always said that he was a gentleman.

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.

 Catherine turned left into Mount Street and walked briskly towards Woolworths.  She had been saving up her pennies and could now do what she had wanted to do for a month.  She was going to buy a hula-hoop.  Most of her friends had one, and she had been feeling like the odd one out.  Even Sister Dorothea had told them in school that for once the Americans had invented something that was good for children, not like chewing-gum and Mars Bars.  Just as long as the girls didn’t use them in front of boys.  Catherine hadn’t understood that bit, but she’d worry about it later.  All the girls were saying that a hula-hoop was great for the figure.  Now that she had breasts she wanted to make sure that the difference between her waist and her chest could be seen, that everybody could see that she was really growing up.  And the girls all said that it was great for the hips too.  She was worried about her hips because her grand-mother and her mother both had huge hips and Catherine didn’t want to turn out like that.

 There was a queue in the corner where the hula-hoops were hanging on a wooden frame with branches like a coat stand.  Months earlier, she had felt like an idiot standing here in a big queue of boys to buy a Davy Crockett hat for her younger brother Frank as a Christmas present.  But this was different.  As she left the shop carrying her hoop, Catherine thought about what she planned to do later.  She knew that in about an hour there’d be a football match starting in Bagnall Park and that George Smith would probably be there with Brendan McFee.  He usually was.  He didn’t play very often because he wasn’t very good and was rarely picked.  So it would be a good chance to stand near him and maybe he would talk to her.  And after that who knew what could happen?

 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 Protestant Grammar School where he had gone after passing the Eleven-Plus.  She’d failed hers and was at the Catholic Secondary Modern.  Now she wished she’d worked harder in case he thought she was a bit stupid.  And who cared if he was a Prod?   Sure, her own mother had been one and it hadn’t stopped her marrying Catherine’s da.   Mind you, she didn’t think George would change his religion.  His da was very nice but she knew he was a Mason and might even be an Orangeman, though she’d never seen him marching in a parade.  And she could never become a Protestant.  Even her mother had told her that she wouldn’t want any of her children having a mixed marriage.  Ma was a convert and took chapel even more seriously than some of her da’s family.

 But never mind.  Who knew what could happen if two people fell in love?   And one of them – herself – had already done it.  She just had to work on him.  He was a bit shy and she wasn’t much different.  But she’d reached a point where she had to do something.  She couldn’t wait any longer.  She thought of him last thing before she went to sleep after saying her prayers, in which she now automatically included him.  She was sure that praying for a Protestant was probably even more important than praying for Catholics.  She was always afraid something awful might happen to him.  What if he broke his neck playing rugby?  What if he got polio?  She thought of him every morning when she woke up.  Was he up?  Would he fall in love today with some other girl?  Would some hussy ask him out?  She couldn’t even eat all her porridge any more and her mother kept asking her if she was all right and looking at her in a very worried way.  Yesterday morning she had mentioned Doctor O’Connell.
 

‘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 Victoria Street.

 Hanging above the mantelpiece was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Catherine looked at the red heart surrounded by thorns with the burning fire of love behind it and felt a sudden tremor of apprehension.  Should she even be thinking about a Protestant boy the way she was?  Only last month the family had made a special novena to the Sacred Heart – nine days of prayers.  All through June the little red vigil light had burned beneath it day and night.  She thought of the second promise to St Mary Margaret – ‘I shall give peace in their families’.  What peace would there be in her family if she ended up going out with George Smith?

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 Bagnall Street had either no garden at all or had what amounted to an extended back yard with a few feet of coarse grass.  But the Murphys had a real garden about thirty yards long.  Close to the house was a small shed in which her father kept three pigs. The garden was their territory and they had rooted everything up so that there was no grass left,  just hard earth and dust in the summer and mud or frozen earth in the winter.  Today the sun was splitting the trees and the pigs were staying in the shed.  Her father sold the wee pigs and occasionally slaughtered one of the boars he had kept and raised.

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.

 Catherine saw George at the bottom of the hill, walking past Albert Taylor’s shop, where little Jack McCulla and Bertie Jones were looking into the window.  She stood behind one of the trees at the back edge of the pavement and was able to watch George by tilting her head slightly to the right.  He wouldn’t be able to see her. He stopped at the McFee’s house and rapped on the door. He pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and waited.  After a few moments he knocked again.  When the door remained closed he continued up the hill.  She turned and walked into the park, keeping the trunk of the tree between them.  She had no idea what was going to happen now, and she felt a little breathless.  But she smiled to herself.  He’d be on his own.

 About a dozen boys had arrived on the old tennis courts which were now used for football.  There was no grass now, just hard earth with a few weeds poking up here and there.  One half of the pitch was nearly a foot above the level of the other, but over the years boys had dug away the edge between the old tennis courts and the result was a gentle slope at the halfway point which didn’t interfere with their playing. She had heard her mother and Mrs Lawson talking about the days before the war when people from places like the Ardee Road had come here to play tennis.  Some had even come in motor cars.  It was the only part of the park that was level, where Bagnall Street flattened out before climbing once more to meet Henry Street. The rest of the park sloped up in a series of banks to the churchyard wall.  Her mother had said that it was ridiculous before when well-off people could come to play tennis but the boys had nowhere except the street for playing football.

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 (Derry City) and the other mostly Protestant (Linfield).  There was always an argument about the width of the goalposts (piles of jerseys) which had to be paced out to everybody’s satisfaction. There was never a referee.  Arguments about play were settled by shouting and sometimes threats and even blows.  The girls could never understand why the boys bothered.  It was so different to playing hopscotch or with ropes and balls, when everybody had a good time and did things together.

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 Ireland against Czechoslovakia In Sweden? He started playing here, you know. Not bad, uh? Bagnall Park to the World Cup!’

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’.

‘Aye.’

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 Bagnall Street in silence.  They passed the pump with its big curved handle.  Some of the houses weren’t connected to the mains and the pump was their only source of water.  Old Annie Mulligan was trying to fill a zinc bucket but was having trouble with pushing the handle.  Her black cat was sitting on the pavement watching her. It followed her everywhere just like a dog.

‘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 Henry Street and turned left.  Five minutes later they were outside the town, climbing a narrow road with hawthorn hedges along each side.  A couple of months earlier she had come up here to pick bluebells. The air had been heavy with the strong sweet scent of the white hawthorn blossom and she had never felt happier.  Now she was wondering if she could ever again fell so content.

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.

‘OK’.

 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.

‘Catherine! Catherine!’

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 Canada at Easter. As she brushed strands of dead grass from the back of her skirt she trembled.  What was he doing here?  Somebody must have seen them and told him.  What on earth was going to happen now?

‘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.

 

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