Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to it

Some of "Place of Safety" that I've been working on --

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I guess I should mention my birthday’s the 2nd of February, which brought my Aunt Mari no end of merriment when she heard. She’d been in the states but two years with her new husband in Houston, Texas (she met him at the American Naval Station in Clooney) but knew enough about this one custom where if a groundhog (I think it’s the American name for a woodchuck) pops up from his burrow and sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. Apparently, the midwife told her I’d started to be born, taken a glimpse of the world and slipped right back into my mother’s womb, refusing to come out till it was half five and what little sunlight there was had stopped drifting in through the window. This gave my mother no end of grief, since she’d been in labor for near thirty hours, to that point. Oh, how she loved to remind me of that anytime I did something wrong, just before a whack to the back of my head.

Of course, Da was off using the miracle of my birth to cadge a few drinks off the lads at McReady’s Pub. And when he came home lost in his spirits, he and Mam had a great set-to, since the rent had yet to be paid, through which I apparently slept. Which also brought Aunt Mari some happiness. “It seems he was born knowing how to deal with the two of you, as well,” she wrote in one of her letters. And Mam wrote back, in her too-precise hand, “No, I just think he’s simple.” Meaning retarded.

Whatever it was made her think I was slow, I’d grown past it by the age of six and was in St. Agnes School, proving myself capable in mathematics and writing while having no head for history, art or religious studies, much to the anger of the nuns. All my friends went there -- Danny, Colm, Paidrig, Eammon (not my brother) -- save two, Davy and Gerry, who lived in The Fountain and went to a Protestant School in the Waterside.

But that didn’t keep us from ganging together after the last bell for football on the remains of the cricket pitch behind Creegan Estates, or making terror up Butcher Street and down Shipquay, or running over to Wee Johnny’s to see what comics had come and pool our coin to try and buy one. Sometimes we’d pop into the APCK to see if there were any magazines worth sneaking out; they may have been a Catholic shop, but sometimes the cover of a magazine that had illustrations of hell by Dore, where women were usually very scantily clad, were sufficient to get a lad’s imagination going. Not that we really understood that, yet.

Of course, none of us noticed the other’s religion except in the most abstract sense, though Danny was an altar boy and would cross himself each time he passed a church (be it Catholic or Protestant) and Davy would always act the cod about it. “It’s Father Danny with us, again, back from drinkin’ his holy blood.” Colm’d usually smack him back the head for it and we’d all laugh and keep on. You see, all of us were poor and living in tight quarters, so we felt ourselves equals.

The worst set-up amongst us was Paidrig’s family; they lived in one room of a two-up, sharing with his older sister and her husband and kids. Jobs were hard to find, as well, with the shirt factories preferring to hire women and only the most menial of labor set aside for Catholic men, though his Da was not the sort to seek work with much effort. They’d always be on the dole, begging or borrowing what they could and blaming their lot on those who hated Catholics (which had far too much truth in it, but which also ignored their unwillingness to even try.)

That wasn’t something Gerry’s Da worried about; he tended bar in a pub on Spencer Street so brought home a steady enough wage. Of course, the best benefit of that was, he was loath to touch any alcohol since he always saw how it affected others. They were saving up to be able to move into a new home soon as one was available, and in fact he did wind up moving to The Waterside in ’70, when the old sod was made manager of the place. I guess the lack of indoor plumbing finally outweighed his Protestant need to keep a presence in the Fountain. We saw each other only once, again, after that.

Davy’s Da drove a lorry (a truck) for Arann Express, making trips to Belfast and back three times a week till he was near shot in ’71, during an ambush against a convoy of Brits. That’s when he moved his family to Coleraine and got on with the University. Being Protestant, he was allowed.

Danny’s Da worked for Catholic Services and they paid him little enough to live on, though it was better than the dole. Then Danny began talking about joining the church and meeting a lot with Father Demian, so his Da got a better position in the office and there was talk he might move to the Creegan Estates.

Colm’s family -- they seemed the most bent on abandoning Derry, with both his older brothers and three sisters gone to Canada, America or London to build their lives. Colm even talked of joining them when he was of age, but only in a vague manner that meant nothing. In truth, he knew too well how to work in and around the county, and had older lads he hung out with who were reputed to be mixed up in things that were only semi-legal, at best. That said, he and I were usually the only two with more than a tuppence on us, and I was smart enough never to ask him where his scratch came from.

Eammon was an only child of an abandoned woman, about whom the less said the better...as everyone loved to say.

But these are all things that mattered little till I was more grown. Back then, we were just mates and knew nothing different about the world than what we lived in. I didn’t even know to question it till I started having an egg along with jam on my toast for breakfast, now and then, like Gerry had twice a week. Then I began to wonder why it had taken Da dying for us to be feed well, for during the wake people brought plates of food and we stuffed ourselves till we were ill.

I should say, this was something how to do by sneaking into other people’s wakes; 
Paidrig had shown me. We’d say a quick prayer for the dead, talk of how kindly he or she was (whether we knew them or not), and take handfuls of sandwiches and boiled eggs and cakes before slipping away. For a short while, my immediate fear was that once Da was in the ground, we'd have even less food in the cupboard. 

But instead we were fed better, with tins of meat and bread and porridge and even the occasional biscuit now being allowed, and I got to where I’d grandly share it all with my mates to show how well-full I now was. So I’m not ashamed to say I felt good about his being gone, far too quickly for decency’s sake.


Which was brought home to me not quite a year after he was buried.

2 comments:

Penman said...

You should have woodchuck on your birthday. It was common fare along with bung meat that sold in New York butcher shops before the turn of the century. I don't know how one prepares woodchuck or groundhog but I say, roast when in doubt.

I have a recipe for squirrel stew, it requires twenty-eight squirrels but I'm sure you could substitute less woodchuck for squirrel in the recipe.

JamTheCat said...

LOL -- never had squirrel or woodchuck, but I bet it tastes like chicken.