John McCullagh November 16, 2005
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Turning into Bagnall Street, Kerniff Kelly ate the last soggy piece of wafer with ice-cream trickling from it and wiped his hand on his thin white cotton shirt.
 

His fingers and lips were sticky and he had tiny flakes of chocolate on his chin.   He didn’t like it here.   There wasn’t much to do.  The chip shops only had flat breaded fish; no batter like in Houndsworth.   No mushy peas.   He’d seen most of the films that had been showing in the picture palace since he’d arrived.  He could see that he was the only person in the town who wasn’t white, and everybody stared at him as if he was from another planet.   He’d seen heads put close together in conversation and knew they were making remarks about him.  He felt completely foreign.  He knew that the kids regarded him as a novelty and one boy had looped his arms and pretended that he was scratching his armpits like a chimp.

Nobody could talk with their hands like his mum and dad.   He had never felt so lonely and he had another fortnight to go.   Even his granny and granddad didn’t seem able to smile at him much.   And what was all this stuff with flags and bonfires?   Nobody had even tried to explain even when he’d given his uncle Ciaron a piece of paper and a pencil to write for him.   It was as if he was a parcel somebody had sent them and they hadn’t bothered to open it.

He couldn’t understand why he’d been sent here.   It had been different once before when Mum had been here too.  This time, she’d told him that she had to go into Dudley Road Hospital for an operation, but hadn’t said what was wrong with her.   He knew that she’d been losing weight for months and always seemed pale and tired.   Kerniff hadn’t asked what was wrong, but he knew from the manner and the worried faces of his dad’s family that it must be serious.   

But a fourteen-year old wasn’t to be told. His dad had always said that children were meant to be seen and not heard.  Well, they didn’t hear him at all, did they?  Why couldn’t he have stayed at home or gone to his aunt Christine’s?   His mum had given him a sheet of paper with his journey details on it and stuck him on a train at New Street.   She’d asked a woman in the carriage to help him change at Crewe. 

Then he’d gone all the way to some place – where was it? – Stonerare in Scotland And then the boat to Larne.  Fair enough, his uncle Ciaron had met him at the harbour, but Kerniff had been very hungry because he’d finished all his sandwiches hours earlier and Ciaron hadn’t even taken him anywhere to eat.   Kerniff had been on the move all day.  And when he’d arrived in Portnamon he’d been offered a cup of very strong tea and a slice of something called soda bread.   That was it.  If it had been the other way round, his dad would have stuffed Ciaron with curried goat and rice and beans.

So all this stuff his mum was always going on about – the Irish being great welcomers to foreigners – was a load of rubbish.   And they didn’t like coloureds.   He knew that.   He could see it in their faces, in their eyes.   They were as uncomfortable with him as he was with them.  There was one young boy who seemed different.  He always smiled shyly when he met Kerniff, lowered his eyes and hurried past.   But the smile was genuine and it made Kerniff feel better.   And young Jack’s house didn’t have a flag on it.   Kerniff didn’t know what that meant, but he knew that it made Jack’s family different to lots of others in the street.   He reckoned that it was connected with religion, but he couldn’t be certain.   All he knew was that his grandma went to Mass several times a week in the Catholic church, and Jack’s family didn’t.

As he pushed open the unlocked door of the Kelly’s house, he immediately smelled boiling kale.   That meant that they would be having what Ciaron had written as colcannon for tea.   That was something his mum had made a few times, and he’d liked it.  Mashed potato with boiled curly kale, fried together with butter in a fying-pan.   And HP sauce.  They made that in Aston and you could smell it a long way from the factory.   But the Kellys had colcannon about four days a week and he was a bit fed up with it.   When he got back to Brum he’d ask his mum not to make it again.   He missed salted fish and all the other things that didn’t exist here.   They seemed to live on fried food.   But he was only here for another two weeks, so he’d get by.

The door to the front room was open.  His granny was sitting on the sofa behind the door.  She was knitting what looked like a sock.  Eileen looked up as he came into the room.  She smiled briefly and said something.  He had no idea what it was.  She dropped her eyes back to her needles.  The light in the wireless was on, so she must be listening to something.  His grandfather Pat wasn’t in; he was probably down the pub.  He seemed to spend half his life there.  In Brum, his dad went for the occasional pint in ‘The Village Maid’ in Houndsworth, but over here the men seemed to spend more time in the pubs than at home.   Kerniff couldn’t understand how the women put up with it.  The men never did any cleaning or ironing like his dad did. The women worked like slaves and spent all their time cooking and cleaning and ironing and doing the washing.  He had tried to help his granny to put the washing through the mangle in the back yard after he first arrived, but she had shoved him away, shaking her head; so he hadn’t bothered after that.

Kerniff went into the kitchen and took a loaf from the metal bread-bin.   It was white-enamelled with the word BREAD in blue on the curved hinged door.   He took a bread-knife from the table drawer and cut a big door-step off the end of the loaf.   His mum called that part the ‘heel’.   There was a butter-dish on the table with a slab of Portnamon Creamery butter melting in its paper wrapper.   He folded back the wrapper and eased off a big knob of butter, bright yellow in the centre and darker and runny around the edges.   He used the bread-knife to smear it over the bread.   He looked at the bottle of milk on the window-sill, but he could tell that it had gone off from the little clumps of yellowy fat clinging to the glass at the top of the liquid.   He filled a cup with water from the tap, having let it run for a while to get it cool.   He decided, as he chewed the bread to go out again.   There was nothing to do here.   The kitchen was very hot and the smell of the simmering kale from the big saucepan on the cooker was overpowering.  He rinsed the cup under the tap and placed it upside-down in the sink. He passed through the front room and his grandmother didn’t even look up.  He closed the door behind him and looked down across the street to the park.

There was a football game going on, so he crossed the road and walked onto the grass to watch.   A girl and boy passed him at the edge of the pitch but they didn’t greet him.  The girl was smiling broadly, the boy seemed anxious.  Kerniff wondered if they were an item, but had no way of knowing.  He sat down on the grass to watch the match.  It didn’t last very long.  An argument started almost immediately over whether or not there should be a penalty because one of the players had tripped a member of the other team.  One of the captains smacked the other in the mouth, drawing blood.  The two teams starting effing and blinding at each other;  Kerniff couldn’t hear a word but he knew what was happenning.   One lot walked off upping fingers at the others.  Kerniff saw the young boy he liked detach himself from the small group of spectators and run off.   The second team milled around throwing their arms about and shoving each other around.   Eventually, they all walked off and Kerniff lay back on the grass, closed his eyes and began to doze in the sunshine.

He was going down the Soho Road on a Number 41 bus.  His mum and dad were sitting in front of him.  Men were smoking and drinking outside the ‘The Frightened Horse’.   As they passed Villa Road and dropped towards Hockley, the conductor came up to the top deck and said, ‘You haven’t got the right ticket.  Get downstairs and get off the bus, you little black bastard!  We didn’t win the war to have your kind here taking all our jobs and women’.

Kerniff’s mum and dad had disappeared.  The conductor grabbed Kerniff’s shoulder and shook him.  He sat up. The young lad was pulling at his arm. Kerniff blinked several times, coming to.  He stood up and looked down at the boy, who held both his hands up and pointed at his left palm with his right index finger.   He waved a hand in Kerniff’s face and then slowly spelled out the words, ‘Hello, I am Jack’, using the signs Kerniff knew so well, the signs he had worked so hard at for so long at the Mayfield Special School in Finch Road.   The boy wiped his palms across each other, touched his index fingers together, tapped his left palm twice with the index finger of his right hand, which he then brushed against the ring finger of his left hand.

‘Hello’,  Kerniff automatically signed.  ‘How do you know how to do that? You’ve never spoken to me before.  I thought you were a bit different than the others.  This is great.

Jack looked alarmed, going pink as he stared at Kerniff’s rapid hand movements.   Kerniff signed, ‘I’ve been feeling so lonely.  I can’t believe my luck.  I’m Kerniff’.

The boy pulled a piece of paper and a pencil from the left-hand pocket of his shorts.  He hunkered down with his left knee on the ground and rested the paper on top of his right thigh.   When he had finished, he passed the paper to Kerniff.   He’d written,

‘Sorry.   I only know four words yet.   I learned them yesterday from a page in an old annual and my uncle Harry helped me.   I’ll learn more tonight.’

Kerniff felt an acid taste flooding his mouth.  He was standing in bright sunshine, but he felt a darkness sweeping over him.  Brum felt even further away. He looked at Jack who seemed as downcast as himself.   He reached out and touched the boy’s left shoulder.   Then he shrugged and turned away.  The tears came, and they were hot.

He didn’t want the boy to see them.

 

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