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شاگرد قصاب

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بخش 01

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WHEN I WAS A YOUNG LAD TWENTY OR THIRTY OR FORTY years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. I was hiding out by the river in a hole under a tangle of briars. It was a hide me and Joe made. Death to all dogs who enter here, we said. Except us of course.

You could see plenty from the inside but no one could see you. Weeds and driftwood and everything floating downstream under the dark archway of the bridge. Sailing away to Timbuctoo. Good luck now weeds, I said.

Then I stuck my nose out to see what was going on. Plink – rain if you don’t mind!

But I wasn’t complaining. I liked rain. The hiss of the water and the earth so soft bright green plants would nearly sprout beside you. This is the life I said. I sat there staring at a waterdrop on the end of a leaf. It couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to fall or not. It didn’t matter – I was in no hurry. Take your time drop, I said – we’ve got all the time we want now.

We’ve got all the time in the world.

I could hear a plane droning far away. One time we were standing in the lane behind the houses shading our eyes from the sun and Joe says: Did you see that plane Francie? I said I did. It was a tiny silver bird in the distance. What I want to know is, he said, how do they manage to get a man small enough to fit in it? I said I didn’t know. I didn’t know much about planes in them days.

I was thinking about Mrs Nugent standing there crying her eyes out. I said sure what’s the use in crying now Nugent it was you caused all the trouble if you hadn’t poked your nose in everything would have been all right. And it was true. Why would I want to harm her son Philip – I liked him. The first day he came to the school Joe says to me did you see the new fellow? Philip Nugent is his name. O, I says, I’ll have to see this. He had been to a private school and he wore this blazer with gold braid and a crest on the breast pocket. He had a navy blue cap with a badge and grey socks. What do you make of that says Joe. Woh boy, I said, Philip Nugent. This is Philip Nugent, said the master, he’s come to join us Philip used to live in London but his parents are from the town and they have come back here to live. Now I want you to make him feel at home won’t you? He was like Winker Watson out of the Dandy in this get-up of his only Winker was always up to devilment and Philip was the opposite. Every time you saw him he was investigating insects under rocks or explaining to some snottery-nosed young gawk about the boiling point of water. Me and Joe used to ask him all about this school. We said: What about these secret meetings and passwords? Tell us about the tuck shop – come on Philip but I don’t think he knew what we were talking about. The best thing about him was his collection of comics. I just can’t get over it, said Joe, I never seen anything like it. He had them all neatly filed away in shirt boxes not a crease or a dog-ear in sight. They looked as if they had come straight out of the shop. There were comics there we had never seen before in our lives and we thought we knew plenty about comics. Mrs Nugent says: Make sure not to damage any of those now they cost money. We said: We won’t! – but afterwards Joe said to me: Francie we’ve got to have them. So you could say it was him started it and not me. We talked about it for a long time and we made our decision.

We had to have them and that was that.

We called round to Philip and had a swopping session.

We cleaned him out. I admit it. It was only a laugh. We’d have given them back if he asked for them. All he had to say was: Look chaps, I think I want my comics back and we’d have said: OK Phil.

But of course Nugent couldn’t wait for that. Anyway we left Philip with his pile of junk and off we went to the hide going on about it all until the tears ran down our faces. Wait till you hear this one Joe would say one flea says to the other what do you say will we walk or take a dog. He was reading out all these jokes I couldn’t stop the laughing, I was choking. We got so bad I was hitting the grass with my fists crying stop Joe stop. But we weren’t laughing the next day when Nugent got on the job.

I met Joe coming across the Diamond and he says to me watch out Francie we’re in the wars with Nugent. She called at our house and she’ll be round to you. Sure enough I was lying on the bed upstairs and the knock comes to the front door. I could hear ma humming and the shuffle of her slippers on the lino. Ah hello Mrs Nugent come in but Nugent was in no humour for ah hello come in or any of that. She lay into ma about the comics and the whole lot and I could hear ma saying yes yes I know I will of course! and I was waiting for her to come flying up the stairs, get me by the ear and throw me on the step in front of Nugent and that’s what she would have done if Nugent hadn’t started on about the pigs. She said she knew the kind of us long before she went to England and she might have known not to let her son anywhere near the likes of me what else would you expect from a house where the father’s never in, lying about the pubs from morning to night, he’s no better than a pig. You needn’t think we don’t know what goes on in this house oh we know all right! Small wonder the boy is the way he is what chance has he got running about the town at all hours and the clothes hanging off him it doesn’t take money to dress a child God love him it’s not his fault but if he’s seen near our Philip again there’ll be trouble. There’ll be trouble now mark my words!

After that ma took my part and the last thing I heard was Nugent going down the lane and calling back Pigs – sure the whole town knows that!

Ma pulled me down the stairs and gave me the mother and father of a flaking but it took more out of her than it did out of me for her hands were trembling like leaves in the breeze she threw the stick from her and steadied herself in the kitchen saying she was sorry over and over. She said there was nobody in the world meant more to her than me. Then she put her arms around me and said it was her nerves it was them was to blame for everything. It wasn’t always like this for your father and me she said. Then she looked into my eyes and said: Francie – you would never let me down would you?

She meant you wouldn’t let me down like da did I said no I wouldn’t let her down in a hundred million years no matter how many times she took into me with the stick. She said she was sorry she had done that and she would never do it again as long as she lived.

She said that was all there was in this world, people who let you down. She said when Mrs Nugent came to the town first there was nobody like her. I used to be up the town with her every day she said. Then she started crying and saying this awful place and dabbing at her eyes with a tiny bit of tissue out of her apron pocket. But it was no use it just frittered away into little pieces.

The light slanting in the window and you could hear the children playing outside in the lane. They had set up a shop and were paying for groceries with pebbles. They had empty soap powder boxes and bean tins. No – its my turn one of them said. Grouse Armstrong scratched his ear and yelped running in and out among them.

I was thinking how right ma was – Mrs Nugent all smiles when she met us and how are you getting on Mrs and young Francis are you both well? It was hard to believe that all the time what she was really saying was: Ah hello Mrs Pig how are you and look Philip do you see what’s coming now – The Pig Family!

But it didn’t matter for me and ma we were great pals after that any chance I got I says to her well ma do you want any messages up the town sometimes she did and sometimes she didn’t but I always made sure to ask her anyway. She gave me my dinner and says Francie if you ever have a sweetheart you’ll tell her the truth and never let her down won’t you?

I says I will ma and she says I know you will son and then we’d just sit there for hours sometimes just staring into the firegrate only there never was a fire ma never bothered to light one and I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I said what fire do we want its just as good sitting here staring into the ashes.

I don’t know what night it was I think it was the night the town won the cup da had to be left home it was one of the railwaymen dropped him at the door. I stood on the landing but all I could hear was mumbling and coins dropping on the floor. I was going back into the room when I heard something breaking I wasn’t sure what it was but it sounded like glass. Then I heard da cursing the town and everybody in it he said he could have been somebody hadn’t he met Eddie Calvert who else in the town had ever met Eddie Calvert who else in the town even knew who Eddie Calvert was? Who? he said, Who? He shouted at ma: Do you hear me talking to you?

She mustn’t have said anything for the next thing he was off into the speech about his father leaving them when he was seven and how nobody understood him he said she lost interest in his music long ago and she didn’t care it wasn’t his fault she was the way he was then he said she was mad like all the Magees, lying about the house from the day they married never did a hand’s turn why wouldn’t he go to the pubs she had never made a dinner for him in his life?

Something else broke crockery or something and then ma was crying: Don’t blame me because you can’t face the truth about yourself, any chances you had you drank them away!

It went on a long time I was just standing there listening to it all I knew I should have gone down but that’s no use now is it I didn’t did I? I didn’t go down and that’s that. I was trying to listen to the cars going by on the Newtown Road and saying to myself: I can’t hear anything in the kitchen now it must be all over.

But it wasn’t all over and when I stopped listening to the cars I’d hear him: God’s curse the fu king day I ever set eyes on you!

The next day we got out of school early on account of the town winning the cup and when ma seen me at the back door she got all flustered and started making jokes and all this. Then she got her purse down off the window and says here Francie, there’s sixpence – why don’t you go on round to Mary’s sweetshop and buy yourself a quarter of dolly mixtures? No ma I says, I won’t buy dolly mixtures but I will buy two Flash Bars and a macaroon bar if I can can I? Of course you can she says. Now go on go on and her face was red and patchy and hot like she’d been sitting bent over the fire only there was no fire. It was a pity but Mary’s was shut so I had to come back and tell ma. I wanted to see if I could still get keeping the sixpence. But when I tried to open the door it wouldn’t. I knocked at the window but all I could hear was the tap ssssss. Ma must be up the stairs I said whistling and rolling the tanner round in my hand wondering would I get the Flash Bars after all or maybe six cough-no-more black toffees. Then I heard a clatter I thought I’d better get in the window to see what that was I thought maybe Grouse Armstrong or someone was in stealing the sausages again but when I got into the kitchen who’s there only ma standing there and a chair sideways on the table. What’s that doing up there ma I says it was fuse wire belonging to da just dangling but she didn’t say what it was doing there she was just stood there picking at her nail and going to say something and then not saying it. I told her Mary’s was shut could I still keep the sixpence she said I could Yee ha! I said and bombed off out to the border shop to get six cough-no-mores but then when I got there I said two Flash Bars and a macaroon please. When I got back ma was doubled up in the chair by the dead fire for a minute I thought she was shivering with the cold but then she looked at me and said: You know you were only five pounds weight when you were born Francie.

It wasn’t too long after that ma was took off to the garage. She says to me: I’m away off up the town now Francie I have to get the baking started for your Uncle Alo’s Christmas party. Right, I says, I’ll just stay here and watch the telly and off she went I didn’t notice the time passing until I heard Mrs Connolly at the door with da and some other women she said ma’d been standing for two hours looking in the window of the fishing tackle shop with the bag on the ground and a tin of beans rolling round the footpath. Da was flushed and when the women said they’d have to see about a nightdress he got even more flushed then Mrs Connolly said never mind Benny I’ll look after it and she tapped him on the shoulder like a mother then hoisted her skirts and went off upstairs singing. He went out into the scullery then I could hear him swigging whiskey in under his coat. He was waiting for them to call out through a megaphone: Don’t move! Stay right where you are! Put the whiskey down nice and easy and don’t try any tricks! A few more women came in and stood whispering by the fire. I could see Mrs Connolly pulling the zipper of her housecoat up and down going terrible terrible but I didn’t care. Take ‘em to Missouri! said John Wayne and hee-yah! he rode off in a thunder of hooves. They hung around for a while talking about this and that, stuff they thought da might like to hear, about the town band and the way the government was ruining the country but he wasn’t any more interested than they were, he just kept on nodding he’d have nodded no matter what they said. If they had said wasn’t it terrible about Mrs Lavery’s daughter being eaten by wolves on the Diamond he’d have nodded and said yes indeed it was. Mrs Connolly said well I’d best be off now I’ve left his dinner on the stove and you know what men are like if you don’t look after them. Oh now, they said, and gave her a shove, who are you telling, at least your fellow eats mine will eat nothing I give him. Oh they’re a terror the men, a terror now to the living world. All was left of John was a cloud of dust and the desert pocked with hoofmarks. I’ve a bit of business to do said da, you’ll be all right, and handed me two bob. Then off he went to see about his business Tower Bar business that is. I didn’t know anything about ma and all this but Joe filled me in. I heard Mrs Connolly saying breakdown what’s breakdown Joe. I says, Oh that’s when you’re took off to the garage, Joe told me, it’s when the truck comes and tows you away. That was a good one I thought, ma towed away off up the street with the coat on. Who’s that, they’d say. Oh that’s Mrs Brady they’re taking her off to the garage.

Joe said there was some crack in this town and there sure was. Hand me down the spanner I think Mrs Brady’s ankle needs tightening. Oh now, I said, what a laugh.

There was some good laughs in them days, me and Joe at the river with our noses in the water, hanging over the edge. You could see the dartboard eyes and the what do you want me to do faces of the fish. Hey fish, Joe would say, fish? fu k off! What do you think of that, fish? we’d say.

Then we’d go off on our travels.

It was all going well until the telly went. Phut!

That was that then, a blank grey screen looking back at you. I fiddled with it but all I got was a blizzard of snow so I sat there looking at that in the hope that something would come on but it didn’t and there was still nothing when da came home. How did it happen he says and I told him. I was just sitting there the next thing – out like a light. He pulled off his greatcoat and it fell on the floor. Right, he says, all business, let’s have a look at this now. He was humming away to himself happy as Larry about it all. Then he says you know there’s not as much into these televisions as the likes of Mickey Traynor makes out. He had bought it off Mickey Traynor the holy telly man that was because he sold holy pictures on the side. He fiddled about with it for a while but nothing happened then he shifted it over by the window and said it could be the aerial but it only got worse there. He hit it a thump and then what happened even the snow went. After that he started to rant and rave about Mickey. He said he might have known better than to trust the likes of Traynor, him and his holy pictures don’t fool me. He’ll not sell me a dud television and get away with it. He’ll not pull any of his foxy stunts on Benny Brady. I’m up to the likes of Mickey Traynor make no mistake. He smacked it with his hand. Work! he shouted. Look at it – I should have known it’d be no good. Work! How long have we got? Six months that’s how long we have it, bought and paid for with my hard-earned money. But I’ll tell you this – Traynor will give me back every cent I paid him every cent by Christ he will!

He drew out and out his boot through it, the glass went everywhere. I’ll fix it, he said, I’ll fix it good and fu king proper.

Then he fell asleep on the sofa with one shoe hanging off.

There wasn’t much I could do then I got fed up watching the birds hop along the garden wall so I went off up the street. I said to myself well that’s the end of John Wayne I knew it’d lie there glass and all and nobody would ever bother coming to fix it. Ah well, I said sure Joe can always tell me what happens and it was when I was thinking that I saw Philip and Mrs Nugent coming. I knew she thought I was going to turn back when I saw them. She leaned over and said something to Philip. I knew what she was saying but I don’t think she knew I knew. She crinkled up her nose and said in a dead whisper: Just stands there on the landing and lets the father do what he likes to her. You’d never do the like of that would you Philip? You’d always stand by me wouldn’t you?

Philip nodded and smiled. She smiled happily and then it twisted a bit and the hand went up again as she said: Of course you know what she was doing with the fuse wire don’t you Philip?

She thought I was going to turn back all red when she said that but I didn’t. I just kept on walking. Ah there you are Mrs Nugent I says with a big grin, and Philip. She looked right through me and it was one of those looks that is supposed to make you shrivel up and die but it only made me grin even more. I was standing in the middle of the footpath. Mrs Nugent held on her hat with one hand and took Philip with the other would you let me by please she says.

Oh no I can’t do that I said, you have to pay to get past. She had all these broken nerve ends on her nose and her eyebrows went away up nearly meeting her hair what do you mean what on earth do you mean she said and I could see Philip frowning with his Mr Professor face wondering was it serious maybe, maybe something he could investigate or do a project on. Well he could if he wanted I didn’t care as long as he paid. It was called the Pig Toll Tax. Yes, Mrs Nugent I said, the pig toll tax it is and every time you want to get past it costs a shilling. Her lips got so thin you really would think they were drawn with a pencil and the skin on her forehead was so tight I thought maybe the bones were going to burst out. But they didn’t and I says to Philip I’ll tell you what Philip you can have half. So what’s that then one shilling for Mrs Nooge, I said and twopence halfpenny for Philip. I don’t know why I called her Mrs Nooge, it just came into my head. I thought it was a good thing to call her but she didn’t. She got as red as a beetroot then. Yup, I said again, ya gotta pay the old tax Mrs Nooge, and I stood there with my thumbs hooked in my braces like a Western old timer. She got all heated up then oh yes hot and bothered. Philip didn’t know what to do he had given up the idea of investigating the pig toll tax I think he just wanted to get away altogether but I couldn’t allow that until the pig toll tax was paid, that was the rules of pig land I told them. I’m sorry I said like they always do when they’re asking you for money, if you ask me its far too much but that’s the way it is I’m afraid. It has to be collected someone has to do it ha ha. She tried to push her way past then but I got a grip of her by the sleeve of her coat and it made it all awkward for her she couldn’t see what was holding her back. Her hat had tilted sideways and there was a lemon hanging down over the brim. She tried to pull away but I had a good tight hold of the sleeve and she couldn’t manage it.

Durn taxes, I said, ain’t fair on folks. When I looked again there was a tear in her eye but she wouldn’t please me to let it out. When I saw that I let go of her sleeve and smiled. Right, I says I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you by this time folks but remember now in future – make sure and have the pig toll tax ready. I stood there staring after them, she was walking faster than Philip trying to fix the lemon at the same time telling him to come on. When they were passing the cinema I shouted I ain’t foolin’ Mrs Nooge but I don’t know if she heard me or not. The last thing I saw was Philip turning to look back but she pulled him on ahead.

A fellow went by and I says to him do you know what its a bad state of affairs when people won’t pay a tax to get by. Who are you he says. Brady I said.

He was wheeling a black bike with a coat thrown over the handlebars. He stopped and rested it against a pole then dug deep in the pocket of his trousers and produced a pipe and a tin of tobacco. Brady? he says, would that be Brady of the Terrace? That’s right I says. O, he says, I see. You see what, I said. Your father was a great man one time, he says. He was one of the best musicians ever was in this town. He went to see Eddie Calvert, he says then. I said I wanted to hear no more about Eddie Calvert. You don’t like music, he says, do you think the town will win again Saturday? I told him I wanted to hear nothing about football either. You don’t think its a great thing the town won the cup? he says. No, I says. I said it was it pity they didn’t lose. I see, he says, well what’s this tax you’re talking about, you seem to care about that. He was all on for a discussion about the government and the way things had gone. There was a smell of turf fires and buttermilk off him. He tapped the bowl of his pipe against his thigh and he says which tax would this be now.

He thought it was some outrageous tax the government had brought in and he was about to say its time this quit or they have the country destroyed when I said ah no its not the government at all. It was invented by me, and its only the people I say.

And who are you, he says.

Francie Pig the Toll Tax Man, I says and he shook his head and tapped the pipe again, that’s a good laugh he says.

Laugh, I said, I don’t know where you get the idea its a good laugh. Then he said tsk tsk and you’re an awful man altogether. He puffed on the pipe. Pig Toll Tax, he says, that’s the first time I ever heard that now. He kept opening and closing his mouth over the brown stem like a fish smoking. Oh you needn’t worry your head about it I said, it has nothing to do with you. What it really should have been called was The Mrs Nugent and Nobody Else At All Tax but I didn’t tell him that. I see he says well in that case I’ll be on my way.

His index finger jumped off his forehead gluck now he said and away off up the town with the bike sideways and the wheels ticking.

I went into the shop. The whine of the bacon sheer and the shopgirl licking a pencil stub racing up and down a wobbly tower of numbers on the back of a paper bag. The women were standing over by the cornflakes saying things have got very dear. Its very hard to manage now oh it is indeed do you know how much I paid for Peter’s shoes above in the shop. When they seen me coming they all stopped talking. One of them moved back and bumped against the display case. There you are ladies I said and they all went right back on their heels at the same time. What’s this? I says, the woman with three heads? When I said that they weren’t so bad. Flick – back come the smiles. Ah Francie, they said, there you are. Here I am I said. They leaned right over to me and in a soft top secret voice said how’s your mother Francie? Oh I says she’s flying she’s above in the garage and it won’t be long now before she’s home. They’re going to give her a service I says, hand me down the spanner Mike! Ha, ha, they laughed, that was a good one. Yup, says I, she has to come home shortly now to get the baking done for Uncle Alo’s party. So your Uncle Alo’s coming home! they said. Christmas Eve I said, all the way from London. Would you credit that now says Mrs Connolly with a warm little shiver, and will he be staying long? Two weeks says I. Two weeks she says and smiled I was going to say do you not believe me or something Mrs Connolly but I didn’t I had enough on my plate with Mrs Nugent without Connolly starting. He did well in London, Francie, your Uncle Alo, says the other woman. Then they all started it. Oh he did well surely he did indeed, a great big job and more luck to him its not easy in these big places like London. It is not! Mrs Connolly’d say and then someone else would say the same thing over again. It was like The History of Alo programme. But I didn’t mind. I said now you’re talking and all this. Mrs Connolly said: I saw him the last time he was home with a lovely red hankie in his breast pocket and a beautiful blue suit.

I seen him too, he was like someone in the government or something.

He was indeed. It takes the Bradys, they said.

Every time, I said.

Good man Francie, said the women.

I’ll tell Alo to call down and see you when he comes home, I said, you can have a chat with him about London and all.

Do that Francie, they said. I will indeed, I said. Then I said well ladies I’m afraid I can’t stay here I have to be off on my travels.

Dear dear aren’t you a ticket Francie? they said. I’m away off up the town on business to do with the toll tax. Toll tax? I never heard tell of that now Francie. What would that be?

Oh it’s invented by me, I told them. But of course Nugent won’t pay it. You might as well be trying to get blood out of a stone.

Nugent? says Mrs Connolly, Mrs Nugent?

Yes I said. Well, be it on her own head. She won’t be getting by so handy the next time.

They were all ears when they heard it was to do with her.

Getting by? But getting by where, Francie, they kept saying.

On the footpath I said where do you think, where else would you want to get past?

The footpath? they said.

Yes, I said again, the footpath. You’d think the three of them had gone handicapped all of a sudden the way they were staring at me.

I could see Mrs Connolly fiddling with her brooch and saying something out of the side of her mouth.

Then she said: There’s no denying it Francie, you’re a rare character!

The other two were hiding behind her now I think they must have thought I was going to stick them for a few bob tax as well.

Oh now I said and off I went out the door as I went by the window I could see Mrs Connolly saying something and the other women nodding then raising their eyes to heaven.

I stood on the Diamond. A tractor went farting off home to the mountains with a trailer of muck. Who’s this only Father Dominic swish swish and the creak of his polished shoes well Francis he says and how are you today, drrrumm drrrumm. By God Father that’s a cold one I said rubbing the hands real bogman style. Hmm, he says, it is indeed, are you waiting for someone?

No, I said, I have a bit of business to do.

Business he says, what business would that be now?

I knew what he’d say if I told him about the Pig Toll Tax. Toll Tax hmm that’s very interesting now yes we’ll have to see if we can put a stop to that so I told him nothing. I’m waiting for Joe Purcell, I said but I wasn’t Joe was away at his uncle’s.

Ah I see, says Father Dom with his two thumbs like dwarfs doing an old-time waltz in and out of his little black buttons.

How’s your father? he says.

The best I says, never better.

Good good, he says, and your mother will be home soon?

She will. She’ll be back on the road by Christmas.

Christmas, why that’s wonderful news he says.

Yes, I said Alo’s coming home.

He wanted to hear all about Alo.

Alo, he says. You must be proud.

I am, I said.

Christmas Eve you say.

That’s right I said.

Well with a bit of luck I’ll run into your Uncle Alo. This town should be proud of him. Your mother was telling me all about him and the great job he has over in London.

Ten men under him, I said. Then he smiled at me and looked me up and down. When he was ready to leave he leaned right in towards me so I could see the wiry brown hairs up his nostrils like the inside of a mattress and he says would you not run on home now Francis like a good lad, mm?

The way he said it sounded like he was nearly going to give me a few bob if I did. I should have said yes indeed I will Father if you will just be so kind as to oblige me with a small fee of five shillings Going Home Tax. But I didn’t. I just said sure Father I will indeed. But I didn’t. I went off down the street and as soon as I seen him going into the presbytery I hopskipped back round by the Newtown Road. There was a drunk lad with a ripped coat lying in the doorway of the Tower singing I wonder who’s kissing her now into a bottle. Then he’d quit for a while and say: Uh! Uh! for a while with his head nodding like a cloth doll you’d see in the back of a car. He shouted over at me: Do you know me do you, do you know me? I just stood there looking at him. I didn’t want to go home and I didn’t want to stand there. He kept on saying it with the eyes wild in his head do you know me do you? It was getting dark and when I looked up there was one of them moons you’re not sure if its there or not and the first dusty flakes of snow were starting to fall. We’re early this year they said but sure all the better. That’s right I said as I caught one of them on my tongue and licked it.

fu k me said Joe the face of that, it was a monkey banging a drum in the window of the fancy goods shop with a chin bigger than its head. Farmers drove off to the mountains with big blonde dolls saying mama roped to the roof racks. Tyretracks of slush webbed the streets and there was music all night long in the upstairs of the Tower. Someone was battering Nat King Cole to death and an accordion wheezing help! half strangled. There were children and a dog on the white fairgreen and the town band marched again on its fourth lap of the town as if it was condemned to wander for all eternity until all the tunes came right. It was a powder country, ice floes bobbing on the freezing water of the river.

What will youse do now fish, said Joe, youse have had it now!

We stuck our noses in it but there wasn’t a dartboard eye to be seen. Sorry: Gone away, signed Fish. Our twin fishing poles sat there for days without being touched.

Back from the garage there was no holding ma, talking nineteen to the dozen whiz here one minute, there the next, it wasn’t just the floor you could see your face in but everything. One minute she was up the stairs and the next she’d be standing right beside you talking then away off into something else. She said we’d never be run down in this town again we’d show them we were as good as any of them. She looked into my eyes and said: We don’t want to be like the Nugents. We don’t want to be like any of them! We’ll show them – won’t we Francie? They’ll envy us yet! We’re the Bradys. Francie! The Bradys!

I said we sure were. I was proud as punch. Everything was starting again and this time it was all going to work out right. Look look she says to me look what I bought she says its a record the best record in the world. I’ll bet you never heard a record as good as this Francie she says. What’s it called ma I says its called The Butcher Boy she says come on and we’ll dance. She put it on hiss crackle and away it went. Whee off we went around the room ma knew the words inside out. The more she’d sing the redder her face’d get. We’ll stop now ma I said but away we went again.

I wish my baby it was born

And smiling on its daddy’s knee

And me poor girl to be dead and gone

With the long green grass growing over me.

He went upstairs and the door he broke

He found her hanging from a rope

He took his knife and he cut her down

And in her pocket these words he found

Oh make my grave large wide and deep

Put a marble stone at my head and feet

And in the middle a turtle dove

That the world may know that I died for love.

It was a good song but I didn’t know what was going on in it. When it was over she says what do you think of that Francie – he went upstairs and the door he broke he found her hanging from a rope! He wasn’t so smart then the butcher boy was he. She starts telling me all about it but I didn’t want to hear any more. Then whiz away she goes out to the scullery singing some other song oh no she says them days are over that’s all in the past. There’s no one will let Annie Brady down again Francie!

She’d leave the record off for a while then she’d go in and put it on again. Anytime you’d come in, from school or anything, it would be on. And ma singing away out in the scullery.

After all this her new name should have been Ma Whiz. One minute she’d say I see Mrs Connolly has a lovely new coat then before you had time to answer she said are they turning off the town water or something about the hospital when I was born. Then off she’d go again rolling pastry and stacking butterfly buns on tray after tray.

The house was full of cakes.

Full of cakes for Uncle Alo, I said.

That’s right she says, Alo loves cakes. If that’s one thing your Uncle loves its cake.

And butterfly buns, I said.

You’re right, she said, I’ll make some more.

It got so bad you nearly had to tunnel your way into the house with all the cakes. A few times I knew da was about to say: Stop singing that cursed song! But he didn’t in case whiz she’d be off to the garage again. He just went off to the Tower instead and didn’t come back till after closing time.

I saw Philip Nugent on his way to music with his crocodile-skin music case. He stopped outside the home bakery and waited there for a minute. Then she came out and I saw her looking towards me. She handed Philip a white cardboard box the kind they used for the cakes. She was handing it to him real slow. Poor old Nugent – she really thought I cared about her and her cake. I had to laugh. Us with enough cakes to feed an army! It seemed like years and years ago I had cared about anything to do with Nugent. I didn’t even bother going near them. I just turned on my heel and off I went, still laughing. Mrs Nugent would have a long wait before she ever caught me worrying about the likes of her again.

Ten men under him, I said to Joe.

Joe whistled and sent a flat stone skimming down the river.

Ten, he said, ten whole men. That’s hard to beat Francie.

There’s going to be some party in our house that night Joe, says I.

The Alo party says Joe.

The party to end them all, I said.

Whee-hoo! cried Joe and a big shower of spiky sunlight arrows coming through the gaps in the trees when you chinked your eyes.

The nights before Alo came I didn’t sleep a wink thinking about him. We’d be coming down the street and there’d be Nugent. She’d be mad for us to talk to her. Who’s that woman Alo would say to me in his English accent, she keeps looking over. I don’t know, I’d say, I never seen her before in my life. Then we’d walk on until she was a speck standing in Fermanagh Street. Then it started all over again with me and Alo on the Diamond getting ready to set off once more down the street and Mrs Nugent trying to attract our attention. Please Francie, I’ll give you anything she’d say. Sorry I’d say, too late. Then I’d cut her off and say: What was that you were saying Uncle Alo?

The town was quiet after the bars closed. All you could hear was Grouse Armstrong howling away.

You know what he’s saying when he does that says Joe.

No, I says, what.

How the fu k do I know I don’t know dog language says Joe.

I COULD HEAR VOICES. THERE WAS SOMEONE OUTSIDE THE HIDE. It was Buttsy from the mountains. Mrs Nugent was his sister. He was in a bad way poor old Buttsy. He looked like a priest on the cover of Africa magazine with his freckles and the carrot hair falling down over his eyes. Peepil please help me build my hospital. But all Buttsy cared about hospitals now was putting me into one. He kept shouting out: Brady! Then he’d light a fag and I could see his hand was shaking. Devlin kept saying to him: Don’t worry Buttsy we’ll find him he can’t have gone far. He had a pain in his head I could tell from the way he kept rubbing over his eye. Soon says Devlin, we’ll have him and we can do what we like with him. The whole town wants him to get what he deserves. If we get our hands on him before the police I know what we’ll do with him, we’ll drown him Buttsy what about that?, Devlin said. But Buttsy had more sense. He knew they were only wasting their time if they hadn’t found me by now they weren’t going to, them or the police. He just sat there by the river with his elbow on his knee and an inch of ash hanging from the fag. The bastard must have come out this way, Devlin said, poking about in the bushes with a stick. Hey Brady! he called again. It triple-echoed across the mountains. If you’re in them woods Brady you better come out. But it was no use so in the end they just went back towards the town.

When they were gone I came out and stuck my face into the river. Hey fish I said are you there? Yoo-hoo!

Come out you bastards!

THE CAKES WERE STACKED IN TOWERS ON THE CHAIRS. THERE were some on top of the wardrobe and the washing machine. There were ones with icing and without, all decorated with hundreds and thousands and marzipan and different kinds of designs. I had a hard job keeping all the flies away. I went at them with the rolled-up Irish Press. Back, dogs! I said. I had to make sure they didn’t manage to land on the icing at all because if they did you couldn’t hit them in case you’d break up the cake altogether. Would you like another slice of cake Francis? said ma from the scullery. I didn’t. I had already had eight. I went off up the town and anybody I met I told them about Alo. Then I came back down again: Any sign of him yet? Whiz away off again. It was the best time in the town for a long while. The breadman skipped into the shop with a tray of fresh loaves wrapped in holly paper. Children tossed pebbles and watched them ping off the fountain’s big white crocus of ice. Please give a little it could help a lot the radio said. When I got home ma was wearing white gloves of flour and rolling more pastry just in case we run out she said. Then the car pulled up outside and in they came, Mary from the sweetshop and everybody popping corks and dusting snow off collars. I couldn’t take my eyes off Alo. Sure enough he had the red hankie in his breast pocket and the trousers of his blue pinstripe suit had a crease would cut your hand. His steel-grey hair was neatly combed in two neat wings behind his ears. He stood proudly by the fireplace and I thought to myself Nugent? Hah! Nugent has nobody like him. I felt like cheering. Welcome to the cake house said ma, that’s what you call this place, wiping her hands on her apron. Call it what you like, home I call it smiled Alo and gave her a big hug. Da was late but the party started anyway. Here’s to Christmas and all in this room, he beamed and raised his whiskey glass.

Now you said it Alo, they said, to the man himself, Alo Brady.

Ah yes, says Alo, yes indeed and swirled the whiskey in his glass.

Where does the time go, where does it go at all? Twenty years in Camden Town this Winter, would you believe it?

You’ll never come back now Alo.

Come back? What’d take him back, am I right Alo? He has it far too good over there.

Ten men under him, called ma from the scullery.

God bless all here said Alo and long may they prosper.

I still couldn’t stop looking at him, the gold tiepin and his polished nails, the English voice. Nugent’s was only half-English. The more you thought it the harder it was to believe that Nugent had ever been anything worth talking about. Ah yes, he went on, I’ll never forget it. Euston Station, London town!

A big spot Alo, you were a long way from the town then!

Nothing only my coat and case, what have I let myself in for I said.

The streets of Piccadilly, Alo!

Now you said it. Spent the night in the YMCA. Don’t talk to me!

All corners of the earth, he says!

Now you said it!

Well would you credit that!

Boys oh boys.

Twenty years to the day, he says!

Well you’re here now so here’s to your health and all in this room!

Cheers they said and I heard the front door click closed and then da was there they hardly noticed him at all. His eyes were small like ball bearings he just moved along the edges getting drink and saying nothing. Then they said there you are Benny and started back into the old days.

Oh if only Pete was here now.

One of the best characters in the town poor Pete.

Music? There wasn’t a song he didn’t know.

Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me!

That was his!

To go so early, who’d have thought it?

The Good Lord, he does his harvesting and he forgets no one!

Bing! Could he sing Bing! Dear Hearts and Gentle People!

No better man to sing it!

Please God he’s happy where he is now!

Alo’s eyes were brightly lit what about a song he says and off we went to the sitting room. He angled his elbow on the piano and when they sang White Christmas you could hear him above everybody else as he put his whole heart into it. You could see the veins in his forehead as he strained for the high notes. When the song was over they lapsed into silence and their eyes glazed over.

Mary, they said, you never played better.

Oh now, says Mary, I haven’t played in years.

Since Alo went away, they laughed.

Go easy on the girl or she’ll play none!

Also sang Tyrone Among the Bushes. Sweat spread a dark stain on his back. He raised his glass and took a bow.

You never lost it Alo, they cried, Tyrone Among the Bushes you’ll not top that!

Who’s next for shaving!

Then there were recitations, Dangerous Dan McGrew and Sam McGee mush mush in the Arctic snow.

By God it’s better than a play!

Now who, I ask you, needs the West End after that! Am I right Alo?

Now you’re talking! laughed Alo.

Ma arrived with a silver teapot and on the plate a castle of butterfly buns with its turrets ready to topple.

Who’s for a few buns she said or maybe you’d like some cake? I’ll go and get some. I have plenty of slices cut.

No this is grand we’re well fed here sit down and rest yourself never mind us!

We’re an awful crowd!

Alo stood behind Mary with his hands placed on her shoulders and sang When you were sweet sixteen.

The clapping went on for over a minute and she didn’t know where to look.

You shouldn’t she said.

Alo’s face was red as a beetroot and his eyes were wild. He laughed and then went down on his hunkers, half-crouched and ready to leap an abyss. I could see him checking all the faces in the room and then when he was satisfied that everything was all right he let out a kind of a growl and out of nowhere grips her by the arm. It took her completely by surprise and she nearly fell off her stool.

And why shouldn’t I me darling?

He fell into her lap and his legs swung out and up into the air.

Ma squealed and everybody cheered.

We may get the priest! they cried.

Just for a split second I though Mary was going to throw her arms around Alo and burst into tears. She kept biting her nail and her lip was trembling just like a kid when it falls and everybody’s asking are you all right are you all right?

But she didn’t burst into any tears. When the laughter had died away, Alo struggled to right himself with one hand and straighten his tie with the other. As he got up his fingers lightly brushed against her cheek and she bent her head. Then someone went to say something but didn’t say it. After that there was silence but Alo didn’t want silence. He rushed over and poured himself a fresh drink. He called for another song.

What about the Inspector of Drains from the County Leitrim? The man himself – Percy French!

Mary hunched herself up over the keyboard so that no one would see her hands were shaking. The flies were at the cakes again and there were crumbs all over the floor where Alo’s elbow had knocked a plate. But no one even noticed. There was a spot of butterfly bun cream on the triangle top of his red hankie. It was well past two and everybody was singing different songs. Would you look at the time someone said and a long low whistle glided across the room.

We’ll never make Mass in the morning.

Time we were moving so, they said.

You’ll stay another while, please! said Alo.

There’ll be more nights, they said, man dear but it was great to see you Alo!

Let me, said ma, and went to the hall for their coats.

Well there you are, said da, standing in the doorway and smoothing his hair back from his forehead with the edge of his hand.

Now we’re right, they said, or right as we’ll ever be!

Alo shook hands and said goodbye. He didn’t want to let go their hands when they made to go off to the car he was still holding on. They called from the car Please God it won’t be so long the next time!

Mary tried to look away but a magnet pulled her eyes back until they met Alo’s. He reached out to touch her on the shoulder then retracted it again like a shoplifter losing his nerve at the last minute. He didn’t know what to do then so he just stood there. He was standing almost on his tiptoes. If it had been earlier they all might have whistled or hummed to get rid of the silence. Now all they did was jingle coins and fasten overcoat buttons, they couldn’t think of anything else to do. Mary’s lips parted to speak. I knew what she was going to say. She was going to say it was lovely to see you but that was exactly what Alo said and the sentences collided in mid-air. Mary tried to start again. So did Alo. Then Alo went pale and leaned forward. He kissed her softly on the hair and when she looked again he was gone. He was back inside with the whiskey bottle. Da muttered something under his breath I don’t know what and the ball bearing eyes were cold steel in his head. The chickenhouse fan was droning away, the hens as happy as Larry inside their warm woodchip world of burbling beaks and swooshing seed. It was like they were saying: Well we’re all right. You won’t find us worrying! We’re too busy burbling and waiting for our dinner!

Mary was already in the car I don’t know whether she was crying or what all I could see was these blurred faces leaning over to her in the back seat.

Things get to her, said da, her time of life its not easy for a woman, you’d think he’d have more wit a man of his age.

He said it under his breath but I knew he was talking about Alo. Ma said nothing, pretended she didn’t hear it but she must have because he was looking right at her when he said it.

The engine chugged into life. The car took the corner by the ash pit out onto the main road, and everything settled back into silent white.

Da just stood there like he was in some kind of a trance. He kept flicking his thumb against his forefinger. I wanted to say to him stop it, quit doing that. That was the best night ever, I said.

Its time you were in your bed, he said.

Inside Alo had opened another bottle of whiskey. He hesitated staring at the silver curls of the torn label in the palm of his hand. Da said I could sleep on the sofa so I lay there with my eyes closed but there was too much going on to sleep, it was like a firework display of all the things they had been saying. Shadows ate up the room. One last song, said Alo, and a nightcap to wind it up, what do you say Benny?

No more singing. There’s been plenty of singing.

Ah now Benny, laughed Alo, don’t be like that. A wee bit of singing never hurt anyone, am I right Mrs?

He started into The Old Bog Road, he said that was the one the priest had taught them in the home all those years ago. I knew as soon as he had said the word home that he regretted it. When you said it even when you weren’t talking about orphanages, da went pale sometimes he even got up and left the room. Alo tried to cover it up by saying Will you ever forget the time we robbed the presbytery orchard?

He laughed. Then he laughed again. But it was all wrong. It was like the moment before a cracked glass shatters. When da didn’t answer, he just kept on asking all sorts of questions.

He told more stories then more singing. He was singing at the top of his voice. It was the silence around da that made me ice all over. Then ma wept. He paid no heed to that either, just sat there behind a glass wall of silence. Alo had his back to the fireplace like he had when he came in first. He kept waiting for da to speak. He wanted him to speak more than anything in the world. But da would only speak when he was ready. Then I saw him look at Alo. I knew the look. He wouldn’t take his eyes off him now until he had finished with him. I saw him do it to ma. They could pierce you them eyes good as any blade. Then he said it. Who do you think you’re fooling Alo? Are you going to go on making a laughing stock of yourself or are you going to catch yourself on? Do you think any of them believe that shite-talk you’ve been going on with all night?

For the love of God Benny leave the man alone, cried ma.

Coming home here crowing about Camden Town, do you want to have us the laughing stock of the place?

Look at him with his wee red handkerchief. Did the wife iron it for you?

Not again ma cried not again please Benny!

I warned him! I told him I wanted to hear no more of it! But no, we had to have it, then on top of that carrying on with her like a schoolboy halfwit. The whole town knows that too, made a cod of himself with her. Never even had the guts to ask her out straight till it was too late. Oh Camden Town’s a great place Alo, we all know that. Camden Town’s the place he met the only woman he ever laid a finger on. Took her to the altar because he was afraid to ask anyone else. Twenty years his senior for the love of God. Half-blind and hates him from the day she married him!

I knew ma wanted to hold it in she didn’t want any of that to start now I knew what she was afraid of she was afraid of the garage. But she didn’t want to let Alo down, she would never let anyone down. She had to say it. Dear God I’m sorry Alo, she said.

But da wasn’t finished yet. I knew he wasn’t near finished but I just lay there and didn’t say anything that’s all I did I just lay there with my eyes closed pretending I was asleep.

Ten men under him, said da, that’s right. Closing a gate in a Backstreet factory that’s what he’s been at from the day he landed there, tipping his cap to his betters in his wee blue porter’s suit. Oh Alo went far, make no mistake!

Ma touched Alo on the forearm he looked like a child who had soiled his trousers.

There was sweat on da’s upper lip it shone like needles. He said: He was always the same, from the minute we were dumped in that Belfast kip. The same softie halfwit, sucking up to the nuns and moping about the corridors. You know what he used to tell them? Our da’s coming to take us home tomorrow! Night noon and morning I had to listen to it! You’d be waiting a long time if you were to wait for Andy Brady to come and take you home! I told him to shut up! What did we care I said we’d manage on our own we needed nobody. I told him it was all over. But he wouldn’t listen! Couldn’t be shut up, him and his mouthing! And the rest of them taking a hand out of him every chance they got!

Ma cried out. I never seen her face da before. Don’t blame it on your brother because you were put in a home! Christ Jesus Benny are you never going to come to terms with it! After all this time, is it never going to end?

The side of Alo’s face jerked and for a second it seemed as if he was on the verge of saying something really daft like: Do you think it will rain? Or Where did you get that tablecloth?

He didn’t though. What he said was: Its getting late. Maybe I’m as well get to my bed.

Then he said: I’ll hardly see you before I go.

He asked ma did the bus still go from the corner. She said it did.

Da had a whiskey glass in his hand. It was trembling a little. I thought maybe he wanted to fling it from him, throw his arms around Alo and cry at the top of his voice: How about that Alo? Fairly fooled you there! That took you in hook line and sinker! Me and Alo – the years we spent in Belfast! The home? A wonderful place! The best years of our lives! Me and Alo – we loved every minute of it in there! Isn’t that right old friend?

When all this came into my head I wanted to leap up and yahoo. I wanted to cry out let’s have another party I’ll go and get Mary and the whole thing can go right this time what do you say to that Alo is that a good idea?

But that was only me raving and didn’t happen and the next thing I heard was the sound of the front door closing, you could hardly hear it at all. Ma was in a bad way now. It destroyed you that place, can’t you see that?, she said. You can’t even talk about it, can you? Not even after all this time! Its no shame Benny that you were put in there! And even if it was, no shame should make you turn on your own brother like a dog!

He didn’t like that and he turned on her then. He said at least he never had to be took off to a madhouse to disgrace the whole family. I knew then ma was never in any garage but I knew all along anyway, I knew it was a madhouse I just didn’t want Nugent or anyone to hear so I said it was a garage. But then I knew too that Nugent knew all about it Mrs Connolly and the women would have told her. So I don’t know what I bothered saying anything about a garage for at all. I could hear Nugent saying: Imagine him thinking he could pull the wool over my eyes!

When da said that she ran out of the room and I didn’t know what to do. Da was laughing to himself he said what did he care? He clutched the whiskey glass like a weapon and poured himself another. He stood in the middle of the kitchen.

I’ve always gone my own way, he shouted. Everything I ever did, my way – father or no father! No thanks to Andy Brady or anyone else! Do you hear me?

He just stood there waiting for another argument to start. That was what he wanted but there was no one there to start it with. Then when it didn’t happen he didn’t know what to do. He just stood there holding the glass swaying, like a drugged giant in the middle of the room. You hear me? he roared again and some of the whiskey spilt down his trouser leg. He watched it dribble until it reached the floor parting into twin rivers on the lino. It went right across as far as the bottom of the door. He kept looking at it as if there was some hidden meaning in the pattern it was making. Then he started crying, his whole body shuddering with each sob.

I waited until he was asleep in the armchair and then I opened the front door and went out into the morning.

I was afraid because I hadn’t planned it and I had never run away from home before. I should have brought a bag or something. But I didn’t. As soon as I got out the front door I just started walking. I wanted to walk and walk until the soles of my boots were worn out and I could walk no more. I was like the boy on the back of a colouring book I had. His cheeks were fat red plums and he blew a puffjet of steam from his mouth as he walked up one side of the globe and back down the other. I had a name for him. I called him The Boy Who Could Walk For Ever and that was what I wanted to do now – become him once and for all.

I left the town far behind me and came out onto the open road. The white clouds floated across the clear blue glass of the sky. I kept thinking of da and Alo standing outside the gates of the home all those years ago. How many windows do you think are there says da. Seventy-five says Alo. I’d say at least a hundred says da. The priest brought them inside through long polished corridors. The assembly hall was crowded. They were all cheering for the two new boys. The priest cleared his throat and said quiet please. I would like you to meet our two new boys he said. Bernard and Alo. Bernard and Alo who? said all the other boys. The priest smiled and rubbed his soft hands together. I was waiting for him to say Brady and finish it. But he didn’t say Brady. He said: Pig.

Every day I walked until it got dark. I slept under bushes and once in a tyre. I didn’t know what day it was when I reached the city. I was exhausted so I leaned against the big sign. It read: WELCOME TO DUBLIN.

The buses were green as gooseberries and a stone pillar cut the sky. This is Dublin I says to a fellow yeah its Dublin where do you think it is for the love of Jaysus. I liked the way he said that and I tried to say it myself. Jay-zuss. Who’s that over there I says to this woman and she looks at me with her mouth open. A big grey statue mouthing about something in the middle of the street and birds shiting all over his head. I thought it was the president but she told me it was Daniel O’Connell. I didn’t know anything about him except he was something to do with the English and all that. The way they were going across that bridge you’d think someone had said: I’m sorry but we’re going to let off an atomic bomb any minute now. Bicycles going by in dozens, tick tick tick. Where were they all going. If they were all going to work there was a lot of jobs in Dublin. It was eight o’clock in the morning. There was picture houses and everything. Over I went. The Corinthian Cinema written in unlit lights. What’s going on here I said. The creatures were coming to take over the planet earth because their own was finished there was nothing left on it. The shaky writing said they came from beyond the stars bringing death and destruction. I’d have to go and see them aliens when it opened up. I went into a chip shop. There was a woman with bags and half a beard muttering to herself and spilling tea on the saucer. She said she hoped the communists won she said they’re no worse than the rest of them. She looked over at me and told me she had two sons. And neither of them were any good she said. I wasn’t listening to her. I was thinking about how I was going to get money to see the aliens. The girl says to me what would you like. I says chips. What have you been up to she says you look like you’ve been dragged backways through a ditch. Oh just walking I says. You’ll need a few extra chips so she says and gives me a big heap. I could see her counting money in behind the counter. Then off she’d go into the kitchen with the door swinging behind her I could hear her going on about dances. I wished the old woman would hurry up and get out, her and her sons and her bags. Soon as she waddled off I waited for the girl to go back into the kitchen. I was in behind the counter like a bullet and I stuffed any notes I could into my pocket. Then I ran like fu k. All the way down the street I kept thinking: Hunted from town to town for a crime he didn’t commit – Francie Brady – The Fugitive!

Except for one thing – I did commit it. The first thing I did was I went into a sweetshop with bullseyes and the whole lot. There was a woman there with a chain on her glasses. What did she think – someone was going to try and steal the glasses off her face? Thirty Flash Bars I said. I put them all into my pockets and ate as many of them as I could.

There was a smell of stout and a big ship pulling into the dock. I wondered was it time for the aliens yet. How would it be? I went into the Gresham Hotel and ordered a slap-up feed. Who’s going to pay for this? says the waiter licking his pencil hmm hmm. I am my man I said, Mr Algernon Carruthers. I seen that in one of Philip’s comics. Algernon Carruthers always on these ships going around the world and eating big dinners. Certainly Master Carruthers he says. I knew what he thought that I was one of these boy millionaires. There was a woman smiling at me. Good day madam! I said. For fu k’s sake!

I bought bubblegum cards and spread them all out on a park bench. I had Frankie Avalon, John Wayne, Elvis, and a load of other ones I don’t know who they were. I took buses all over the place. Whiz, buses shooting by like arrows. This is some place, this Dublin I says. Then it was time for the aliens. I stocked up at the kiosk. Are you going to eat all this yourself says the man. Oh no I says, my brothers and sisters are inside the whole family ma and da too I said and I could see him looking after me I think he knew well there was no one else in there. Come on aliens youse bastards!, I was thinking as I pushed Maltesers into my mouth one after the other.

Tinny voice the mayor squared up to the alien leader and told him he’d never get away with it. Every army on earth will fight you he says. But the alien just laughed. He had a human body that he stole off some bogman of a farmer that gave him a lift but you knew by the twisted sneer that inside he was a fat green blob with tentacles like an octopus and his face all scales. Make no mistake he says we will control the world and neither you nor anyone else in this town will stop us. It was him saying in this town made me think of the women and Mrs Nugent they were always saying that. Mrs Nugent said: I’ll tell you one thing our Philip wouldn’t do it. No son worth his salt would do what he did, disown his own family.

She looked at the women and said: No matter what they are they’re still his own flesh and blood!

Mrs Connolly sighed: Ah God love them its a pity of them. I seen her the other day and she was at her wits end. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate without him running away like that!

Now you said it Mrs.

It was pouring rain. I stood on a street corner staring at this sign. It was a big neon baldy man. He was bald when the sign wasn’t flashing but when the sign flashed there he was with a big head of hair. It was a great sign. Why Go Bald? It said that over and over again in all different colours. I could have stayed watching it for ever. I heard a girl singing it was in a church so I went in. She was wearing a white dress and singing a song about gardens. I never heard singing like it. The notes of the piano were clear as spring water rolling down a rock and they made me think about Joe. The first time I met him was in the lane at the back of our house. We must have been four or five at the most. He was hunkered down at the big puddle beside the chickenhouse. It had been frozen over for weeks and he was hacking away at the ice with a bit of a stick. I stood looking at him for a while and then I said to him what would you do if you won a hundred million billion trillion dollars? He didn’t look up, he just went on hacking. Then he told me what he’d do and that kept us going for a long time. That was the first time I met Joe Purcell.

There was a snowdrop on the ditch that day I remember because there was only one. It was one of those days when you can nearly hear every sound in the town as clear as the girl was singing now. They were the best days, them days with Joe. They were the best days I ever knew, before da and Nugent and all this started.

I sat there for a long time I don’t know how long. Then the sacristan came and wheeled the piano away. When I looked again the girl in the white dress was gone. But if you listened carefully you could still hear the song. Down By The Salley Gardens that was what it was called. I wanted to sit there until all trace of it was gone. It was like I was floating inside the coloured shaft of evening sunlight that was streaming in through the window.

I knew that I would look back some day and wonder had I ever been there in that church or did I imagine it all?

That was the way I thought about those days in the lane with Joe maybe we had never lived them at all. The priest came down and put his hand on my shoulder. He says: Do I know you?

I says no. He says why are you crying my child?

I says I’m not crying I pulled away and went out into the street. I stayed by the canal. Rat, I said, fu k off!

I leaned over the quayside wall. The brown water was streaked with strips of orange and yellow. I don’t know what made me do it ma, I said. An old fellow stopped and says to me are you all right you’re shaking all over. Then ma smiled and said she understood, she knew it wasn’t my fault. Come home Francie she said. I’m sorry ma, I said again then she said it again, come on home, I’m waiting for you.

I will ma I said I was glad it was all over now and I would never do it, anything like that ever again.

I still had some of the chip shop money left. The man behind the counter says: Well this one here is two and six and the one on the top shelf that’s a little bit dearer but better quality you’d be getting a bargain there.

How much is it? I said.

Three shillings, he says.

It was like a slice of a tree cut out and a rhyme carved into the wood and decorated all around the edges with green shamrocks. At the bottom was an old woman in a red shawl rocking by the fireside.

We sell a lot of those says your man looking at me over his glasses.

I read it a good few times. A Mother’s love’s a blessing no matter where you roam.

I put it in my pocket and off I went. I don’t know the name of the towns I passed through. I didn’t care what they were called all I wanted to do now was get home I was sorry I had ever left but I would never do it again.

Grouse Armstrong was asleep under a tractor but he passed no remarks when he seen me crossing the Diamond. There wasn’t many about they were all in having their tea. I could see the grey glow of the tellies in the living rooms. Outside the shop the Esso sign ee-aw whinging away as usual. There was no sign of the drunk lad in the doorway of the Tower. He was probably inside asking people if they knew him. I kept feeling inside my pocket to check if the present was still there. I don’t know how I thought I was going to lose it it was hardly going to jump out of my pocket but that’s what I did anyway, kept checking it. I could feel the grooves of the letters with my fingers. I was so busy thinking about that that when I turned the hotel corner at first I didn’t even realize it was Mrs Nugent standing there in front of me. I had bumped into her she nearly dropped her handbag but she didn’t mind, she paid no attention to it at all. O Francis, she says, and what does she do only put her hand on my arm I didn’t know what she was playing at. Then O Francis she says again isn’t it a pity you missed the funeral and makes the sign of the cross. Funeral I says what funeral and looked around to see was there anyone else with her some trick she was playing but there was nothing only the empty street and Grouse limping past the railway gates. I was going to say what do you want Nugent what are you putting your hand on my arm for but I couldn’t get a word in she was talking away nineteen to the dozen your mother this your mother that. She wouldn’t shut up about ma. What would you know about ma I was going to say only what you did on her talking behind her back you shut your mouth Nugent. But I didn’t get the chance she was talking so much if you didn’t know you’d think I was her lifelong friend. Then what does she do only lean right into me she was so close I could see the wiry hairs on her chin and the pink make-up and powder on her cheeks. The smell of it turned my stomach. I could barely hear what she said she dropped her voice so low. She was staring at me to see what I would do. I did nothing. I tried not to look at the stringy mouth or smell the powder. I said to myself: Do nothing Francie. I felt the present inside my pocket and said: It’s OK. Everything’s OK now.

I stuck the corner of the wood into the palm of my hand. She smiled again and said goodbye then crossed the road with her shopping bag bundled under her arm. She stopped outside the grocery shop and stood there looking back at me. The back door was open and the sink was full of pilchard tins. Da ate pilchards when he went on a skite. The flies were buzzing round them. There was curdled milk and books thrown round all over the place and stuff pulled out of the cupboards the dogs must have been in. I don’t know how long da was standing there staring at me. There were red circles round his eyes and I could smell him. You, was all he said. I didn’t know what he meant. But he told me. He meant you did it, what happened to ma. I says what are you talking about what happened to ma.

O you didn’t hear? he says with a bitter smile. Then he told me they had dredged the lake near the garage and found her at the bottom of it, and says I’m off up to the Tower I might be back and I might not.

I don’t know what time it was when I went round to Nugent’s backyard. There wasn’t a sound across the town. There was a small lamp on inside and you could see into the kitchen. It warm and glowing. There was a table with books and a pair of spectacles on it. The table was set for breakfast in the morning. They had a butter dish with a special knife, a bluestriped jug with matching cups, all these things they had. It was as if just by being the Nugents it all came together as if by magic not a thing out of place. I shinned up the drainpipe. There was a nightlight on in there the room was full of shadows. I think Mr Nugent must have been away. Sometimes he went away on business. Philip was sleeping in his mother’s bed. His head was tilted back on the pillow with his mouth open. She was sleeping soundly her chest rising and falling as if to say there’s no trouble at all in my dreams I have my son beside me and my dear husband will be home tomorrow. Philip’s mouth was a small whistling o. If there was a word bubble coming out of his mouth I knew what would be written in it. I love my mother more than anything in the world and I’d never do anything in the world to hurt her. I love my parents and I love my happy home. I could read the comic on the table beside his bed. It said: Adam Eterno Time Lord.

I wouldn’t have minded getting a read of that comic. But comics had caused enough trouble hadn’t they?

I slid down the pipe and stood in the yard. The sky was scattered with stars. I knew one thing. As long as I walked the streets under them stars there’d be only one thing anyone could say about me and that was: I hope he’s proud of himself now, the pig, after what he did on his poor mother. I wasn’t sure if Philip Nugent would be going to music that day but I waited at the corner for a while and sure enough there he was with his crocodile music case swinging it absentmindedly against his knee the way he did. He broke into a trot soon as he seen me but I ran after him and called Philip there you are. I walked along beside him talking about all sorts of things. I told him I thought his music case was one of the nicest I’d ever seen. I’d say it’s one of the nicest in the town, I said. Philip said thanks but I knew he was trying to quicken his step without me noticing. I said again I’d say it’s one of the nicest in the town and then I stopped and gripped him by the arm. No, I said, it is the nicest in the town! He sort of grinned and half-laughed when I said that and his cheeks turned pink. Then he said he was glad I liked it. I thought for a minute and then I said Philip do you think I could have a look at it?

He wasn’t sure what to say but I kept looking at him with my big bright hopeful eyes and then he said yes yes of course. He handed it to me and I closed my eyes and ran my hands along its polished flaky surface. It really was a good music case. Then I said about the books inside. What about them Philip? I said. Can I have a look at them? Yes of course he said. He kept glancing over his shoulder and twisting the pocket of his blazer. I took the books out. They were just like his comics not a speck on any of them. You’d think those books were brand new out of the shop. Woh boy, I said. There was an ass and cart going off into green mountains on the cover of one. Emerald Gems of Ireland it was called. I leafed through it. I know that one!, I shouted. My da sings it! I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls! How about that Philip! Are there any other good ones in it? Philip – could you sing these? Will you teach me some of them? There’s some good songs in here Philip and no mistake, I said. I closed the book and I said to him, Philip how much would this book be if you were to buy it new in the shop? He frowned and was about to say he didn’t know that his mother bought it for him but before he did I said yes but how much would you say?

He thought for a while and then he said two pounds. That’s dear I said but it’s well worth it. I talked a bit more about the books and then I handed them back to him. The best books in the town – easy! I said. Then we walked on another bit, still talking about music. I told him da had plenty of records. I said he had hundreds, because he had. Do youse ever buy records, Philip, I said. He said they did. Who buys them, I asked and he said his da. Does your mother not buy any? I said. He shook his head and said no. When it came to records it was his da did all the buying because it was mostly him was interested in them. Oh, I said, and then I said I’ll bet your ma never bought a record called The Butcher Boy did she Philip? He said she didn’t. No, I said, what would she want to go and buy that for? Did you ever hear it Philip? I said. He said he didn’t. Not even on the radio? I said. He said no. I said: You didn’t miss much, Philip. It’s the stupidest song in the world. I started laughing. Do you know what it’s about? I asked him but he said he didn’t and shook his head. You’d think I was stupid if I told you Philip I said and looked at him wiping the tears out of my eyes for every time I thought of how stupid it was it made me laugh all over again. No I wouldn’t says Philip. You would, I said, I know you would. No I wouldn’t, he says. Do you know what its about Philip I said its all about a woman hanging from a rope all because this butcher boy told her lies. Did you ever hear the like of it, I said, and it sounded so daft now that I had to steady myself against the railway wall.

That wouldn’t be much of a song says Philip and whatever way he said it it set me off again with the tears streaming down my face. Then I says to him: You wouldn’t catch your ma paying out money for a song the like of that would you Philip?

He didn’t really say anything just ran his fingers through his hair and said mm but then when I said it again he said no you wouldn’t. I said I know I know you wouldn’t.

I shook my head and said its some laugh have you a hanky Philip and he gave me a lend of it then on we went.

We were getting along right well and his cheeks weren’t so flushed now so I started talking to him about the comics and how it had all been meant to be a joke and everything. It was all supposed to be a bit of a laugh Philip I said. We would have given the comics back to you. He said I had got him in trouble. Ah the Pig Toll Tax, I said, that! That was stupid. You don’t have to pay that! I laughed away as I kicked a stone on ahead. Did you ever hear anything so stupid as a pig toll tax! Paying money to get by on the street! You must be joking I said and then the two of us were laughing away at how stupid it was. Imagine if everybody had to pay it! Sure nobody would ever get anywhere. Well man dear, I said, a pig toll tax! Not at all, Philip, that was all cod! He was glad to hear that, I could tell. Then I told him about the comics I got from my aunt in America. Comics like you never seen in your whole life, I said. Not English ones, you couldn’t get these in England or anywhere, oh no – only America. You just never seen the like of them Philip I told him. I have them all stashed in the chickenhouse, Philip, I said. I went there every day and what a laugh I had reading about all these superheroes. Your man comes at Green Lantern I says. Next thing bam! a big giant hammer comes flying out of his ring and splatters him. And that’s only Green Lantern. There’s far more than him that could do even better things than that! Nothing would do Philip now till he saw these comics. You can go to music any time I said, I might have to swop or sell these comics very soon. We went down the back way. Nobody knew about the way into the chickenhouse through the broken window at the back only me and Joe. When you got inside there you were in the dark warm world of chirps and burbles. The lightbulbs came right down from the ceiling and hung straight in front of your face. They were only maybe four feet off the floor. This is the first time I was ever in here says Philip its great. It was a secret world and he was in it, he ran his fascinated fingers along the grooves where me and Joe had carved our names in the wood we had done it all over the place.

Look at this he said, then I said I’d go and get the comics. Philip was crawling round on his hands and knees examining the cages, then he took out his music book and started making calculations along the margins of the pages with his pencil. I don’t know what he was trying to figure out maybe how much space each chick had to itself or something like that. That was Philip, he’d want to know what food they ate for breakfast and how much per day and what temperature was best for them and all this. I left him there and went into the room at the back of the shed to get the comics. When I came back out he was still scribbling and muttering to himself, working out his mathematical calculations with his back to me. All I said was Philip, and when he turned I swung the chain but I didn’t connect I missed the side of his face. I hit the flex of the lightbulb and it started swinging to and fro. The chickens flapped and squealed a bit they knew there was something wrong then I took the next swing and it thudded dully against a sack of grain I couldn’t get a good look at him with the lightbulb painting these big shadow streaks as it swung. The next thing it swooped right back and I couldn’t see a thing I then I lost my temper and swore at him. I think he had dropped his spectacles and was crawling along the ground searching for them. I hit the ground thump thump on the carpet of woodchips. I saw him now he was right in front of me and then I heard: Francie!

Philip was right in front of me with one arm up saying Francie don’t do it! Then all of a sudden the lightbulb steadied itself and I heard it again: Francie! It was Joe. He got a grip of me by the wrist and pushed me backwards. Philip was on the ground again but he had no idea of where he was going for he still hadn’t found the specs. He just crawled and said please. Joe wrenched the chain from my grasp. It landed with a clatter against the septic tank. He cursed at me now look what you’ve done look what you had to go and do! I’m sorry Joe I said and I knew that was that. Joe was going to leave me and I’d be left with nobody no ma nothing.

But the thing was – Joe didn’t leave me! I hadn’t managed to hit Philip so he was just a bit shocked and Joe worked it so he would say he’d fallen off an apple tree and that was how he tore his blazer. But when Joe came back from leaving Philip down the street he swore more at me and said that if I ever did the like of that again they’d put me away for that was what they did with people who did things like that. He said that since the day we met hacking at the ice I was his best friend. He didn’t care what his ma or da said about me or my da or the Terrace but if I did things like that it would be all ruined. I was standing with my back against the wall it felt as if I was on a cliff edge. Francie, said Joe, you have to swear that’s the end of it. I did. I swore on my life that was the end of it and it would have been too only for Nugent.

After that we rode off out to the river, that was the day we built the hide. We dug a small tunnel in the ground and propped it up with pine branches then covered over the whole thing with leaves and briars and bracken. If you were passing all you saw was bushes and brambles and old leaves thrown around. But we were in there making plans, me and Joe. We built a campfire too. We blackened our faces and painted equals signs under our eyes. We mingled the blood of our forearms and said from this day on Francie Brady and Joe Purcell are blood brothers and will be friends to the end of the world. We’ll pray to the Manitou Joe said so we did. You can have a name said Joe an injun name. I was Bird Who Soars. Off I went across the sky and over the slated rooftops, gliding in between the curling scarves of chimney smoke and the bending aerials calling down to Joe far below can you see me Joe I’m up here diving with the wind stroking my eyes as I came in to land beside him but he hadn’t moved, sitting there hunched up in a blanket, paring sticks and saying yamma yamma yamma, praying to the Manitou.

I sat at the window. The lane outside was deserted. There was no sign of the children but tomorrow they would be back again clumping about in oversize shoes and making tea parties with dockleaves on plates. They didn’t care about all these things that people care about. All they cared about was whose turn it was next. The day after Joe and me were hacking we played marbles in the lane. That was all we cared about too. Right Francie, your turn, says Joe.

Across on the ditch a snowdrop with a bone china head curtsied and introduced its diminutive troupe. There he is again this year ma used to say about that snowdrop. The sky was the colour of oranges. I looked at my marble-white hands and wondered what it was like to be dead like the woman in the song. You’d think: the beautiful things of the world aren’t much good in the end are they? I’m going to stay dead.

I thought that was probably what it was like.

I didn’t say it!, Nugent said but she did and that was why I called down to the house. I didn’t say anything what are you talking about was all she could say so I said what do you think I am Mrs Nugent, stupid? I heard you. I was walking across the Diamond and her and Philip were coming out of the shop. Philip was carrying two sliced pans, one under each arm and she had a shopping bag with coloured patches on it. I was a good bit away from them but I saw her stopping to point me out to Philip. I saw her. There he is! she said, there won’t be so much chat out of him from now on Philip, him and his pig toll tax! Maybe if she had just left it at that I wouldn’t have passed much remarks but she should have left Alo out of it. I just heard the tail end of it but that was enough for me. Half-blind and hates him from the day she married him! What did I tell you Philip!

Then off went Philip waddling with the bread and her beside him in the headscarf chuckling with the bag so I said I’d have to call down and see them after that. I took a look in the window before I knocked on the door and it was nice in there with the fire tossing shadows round the room and a brass guard with a spray of pink flowers painted on it and on top of the mahogany piano Mrs Nugent in an oval frame. She was nice-looking Mrs Nugent when she was young, with a white rose pinned to her hair and cupid’s bow lips like you’d see on an old time film star not like the bits of scribbles she had now. No headscarf or overcoat with big brown buttons then, oh no. Where did that old Mrs Nugent go? Don’t ask me. And Mr Nugent, he was hanging on the other wall, smiling away in his tweed coat and stripey tie. You could see by him that he had a high-up job. He had that look in his eye that said I have a high-up job. He was staring off into the distance thinking about all the high-up things he was going to do and all the people he was going to meet. I don’t know if he was English but he spoke like it. He said good afternoon when everybody else said hardy weather or she looks like rain. There was a wicker basket of lilies of the valley under the picture of John F. Kennedy. And on the music stand of the piano the ass and cart going off into the mountains of Emerald Gems of Ireland. It was a nice warm room with an amber glow that reached out to you and beckoned you in. Come on in, it said, so I thought maybe I would but then knock knock and out comes Mrs Nugent. She was a long way now from the rose in her hair all right. Cupid’s bow lips! What a joke! She had on a raggy old apron with forget-me-nots scattered all over it and a heart-shaped pocket bulging with clothes pegs.

I had to laugh at the furry boots.

She must have been washing for she had on rubber gloves and was pulling at the fingers. A crinkly arrow appeared over her eyes in the middle of her forehead and she said what do you want. No she said what do you want? I could see in the hall. There was a barometer pointing to very hot some barometer that was. They say there’s going to be rain Mrs Nugent I said, rubbing my hands together all business. That won’t please the farmers. What do you want she said again. Then she said it again and I said nothing much just called down to see how Philip is getting on. Philip is very busy with his lessons, she said. I knew he was. He was always busy with his lessons, working things out. Investigating this and that. That was the kind of Philip. That’s what I said to Mrs Nugent. Mr Professor, I said, always busy! Nugent said nothing. She was picking at one of the clothes pegs inside her pocket. Well that’s the Christmas over now for another year Mrs Nugent I said but she said nothing to that. All over now, I said again, it’ll be very quiet now till Patrick’s day. Yes, she said.

I suppose you’re glad to get it all over with, I said and folded my arms. I smiled. She picked little bits off the inside of her lip and said yes she was. Then she whispered goodbye now and made to close the door but I stuck my foot in the jamb and held it fast. Ah its for the kids really I said and sure its only once a year. Mrs Nugent wasn’t so sure now what to do about that. Pick pick at the clothes peg. I just thought Philip might like to come out and have a few kicks of the ball. Me and him, Manchester United against the rest. Do you like Manchester United I asked her. Tommy Taylor and Denis Law. They’re the best. The Munich Air Disaster I said. Did you ever see the like? The whole team Mrs Nugent. I seen it in the paper. All they found of Tommy Taylor was his boots. It was terrible I said. Terrible. I shook my head in dismay and Mrs Nugent must have thought it bad too for her eyes reddened and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and a bit of her sleeve. When he comes back in to do his lessons after a few kicks he’ll be right as rain. Philip, I called. I knew he was in the kitchen for he always did his lessons at the table the spectacles were on. It was just beside the television and sometimes Mr Nugent sat there with him and helped him puffing away on his pipe like an ad on the television himself. Yes I like Maltan Ready Rubbed Flake says Mr Nugent! with the big briar stuck in his gob. I called out but he didn’t hear me that time either so I called again. A few kicks, I said. Are you coming? But still there was no sign so I thought maybe the comics would get him out. I have a whole load of new comics Philip I said. Can you hear me Phil? I said. It was good saying Phil like that. Yup, me and Phil we been old buddies for a lawwwwng time, that’s what I said. Dandy Beano Topper Victor Hotspur Hornet Hurricane Diana Bunty Judy and Commandoes I said all in one breath and I was like a magician drawing an endless streamer of coloured bunting out of my mouth. I’ll tell you what Philip, I said then, I’ll let you have all my Commandoes for all your Toppers now there’s a fair deal what do you say Phil! On account of Commandoes costing a shilling and Toppers only being tuppence you couldn’t get a better deal than that. But still there was no sign of Philip so I had to go and say it all over again.

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