Four sons they had to their credit, the first being Eamonn, Da’s namesake and growing to be his twin save for the searching eyes laid upon him by his grandmother. Large and brown, they held a careful vision of the world that could bring all but the hardest heart to want to comfort him. He was yet to be as large, but by his fourteenth year he had the solid feel of the man and showed cruel flashes of his temper and intelligence, so could lie his way into occasional jobs shifting coal at the Derry docks.
Then there was myself, Brendan, third born and named for the saint rumored to have landed on Greenland for some reason or another. Many were they who told me I must have been blessed with the same wandering soul, though I never understood why they felt it, for I’d never been away from Derry by that time. My looks I took more from mother, being small, darkly-fair and slim even for a lad recently turned ten years of age, and my way with fixing things I took from God only knows who, though I once heard Mrs. Rafferty, a neighbor from two doors down, say I must have been born to it since my hands were so neat and precise. My thick hair was so massed with curls, unlike the straight brown mops of the rest of my siblings, when Mrs. Haggerty, a friend of Ma’s on Lecky Road by Westland came for tea, once, she told Ma, “He has the look of a surprised angel and a watcher’s way about him, your Brendan, so you know he misses little and would say nothing about it.” Ma was asking her what to do about me, for my focus could get so extreme, were I fiddling with a clock in need of its springs being reset or a hoover whose motor was burned up, I’d not hear a word she was saying to me till she flicked my ear with her finger.
Her response? "No, I think he's just simple."
Following me was Rhuari, a year less than myself and my shadow in every way he could be, the little weasel. His face and feel were simple and direct, with small eyes and a long nose, a child with no time for fibs or even lies and who could spend hours watching me work my magic on a broken wind-up toy. He had yet to take the form or look of either parent, and Mrs. Keogh, of Doolin Street by Ann Court, was certain he was more from what she called “a friendship” Ma’d had with a certain butcher than from her own husband...though none could prove it; I only knew because I overheard her yammering with Mrs. Haggerty, who merely nodded with pursed lips, the old cows.
Last would be Kieran, born but three months after the death of our father and the better for it, growing up never to know the question of whether or not he’d meet the end of Da’s fist or the back of Da’s hand. He came early, as if impatient to get started, and the whole of his life would be as tainted by that need as his looks were tainted by Ma with none of Da noticeable about him.
Second born was Mairead, who what many referred to as “a handsome lass.” Straight brown hair down the middle of her back, practical in everything from clothing to housework, with no time for foolishness. Her size and mine were near matches while her face took the length of our father’s and her eyes never held anything but hope and love for us all. She could take Da’s slaps and curses without a twitch to reveal her true thoughts about him, and was better at deflecting his anger from Mam than were I or Eamonn the younger, and by the age of thirteen was already blessed (or cursed, if you prefer) with a figure well-noticed by boys half again her age. She knew it and laughed at them over it, seeing them for the child-like men they were as she faced the world like a full-fledged adult with an adult’s burdens.
After Rhuari came Maeve, but six years old and so obviously the sister to him, Mrs. Keogh’s gossip extended to her, but that situation was quickly disposed of. For by the time Maeve was set into motion, the gentleman in question had long encamped for Australia and the prospect of a better life. And the truth was, both she and Rhuari had the look of our mother’s sister, Maria, who went by Aunt Mari. You could tell even from the photos she’d send from America. So Maeve was spared much of the nastiness that had been whispered his way, and she grew to be quite happy and content.
There were two miscarriages after her, whereupon the one doctor Ma finally saw severely warned her against having others. But the church being the church, meaning science and sense had no place in man’s day-to-day life, that advice was ignored. A woman is there for her husband and God will decide who lives and who dies and to interfere with that in any way was hubris of the most blasphemous sort. Which is why Kieran came along to be the last.
That so many were crammed into a maisonette of two-bedrooms up and a sitting room and kitchen down, only half-wired for electric and a toilet outside, was not considered unusual for those in the Bogside. Hundreds of households exactly like it spread over the rolling hills that faced the Derry walls and up the hill to St. Eugene’s, white curls of smoke drifting from their coal heating into the sky, laying a haze of ill-tempered air over the city. And each was packed tight with sometimes as many as three families, since housing was short in the area, even more-so with a redevelopment underway that tore those houses down before their replacements were built. Some families were even housed in caravans so small and cramped, a simple paraffin heater was capable of suffocating the inhabitants.
But that was how things were, that February in 1966. Cold and blustery and wet. And the fact that Eamonn the elder’s body had laid in that ice for a full day and night before being discovered helped to preserve him. Of course, it also made it difficult to set an exact time of death -- though sometime between midnight and five in the morning was decided upon, and probably closer to the latter number. For his passing had been neither a quick one, nor easy.