Derry, Northern Ireland

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A snippet of "Place of Safety" in Derry

This is from the first chapter, 1967:

In January, we were all caught playing rugby on a torn up lot by a sheeting rain so had run up to my home since it was closest. Ma was off to light a candle for Da’s soul (as she’d told me, Mairead, Eamonn, our neighbors, the Raffertys, and every other person she’d seen as she left). Eamonn was out with his mates for a gander, Mai had popped down to O'Donnell’s to shop for supper, Maeve with her, and Kieran was sleeping. The only part of my family I had to contend with was Rhuari, who sat on a chair, shivering and saying nothing.

We were a sight, wet and muddy, but I had coins so we could light the gas range and lie out in the kitchen to dry off. I also made tea, rushed barefoot up to my room ... shared with Eamonn and Rhuari, at the time ... and brought down a wee tin of biscuits I'd bought. I like to have something to nibble at as I worked on a radio or Hoover.

As it was, Colm had a paper book in his back pocket; his brother’d sent it to him from Boston. It was wet and a bit torn but not too badly so. The title was “Borstal Boy”, about an IRA lad’s time in a boys’ jail, and he read the first pages to us as we shared a smoke off Gerry (he’d slipped some fags, cigarettes, from one of his Da’s packs). He was doing fine, just stumbling over the odder words, but he stopped when Paddy was taken off to jail.

“Starts out well enough,” I said. “Keep on.”

“You read it,” he said, “The writer’s got your name.” Then he added with a wicked grin, “But he pronounces it Br-br-br-brendan when he’s scairt.” 

“I don’t do that,” I snapped back at him.

"No, you just do this -- Bren-cough-dan-cough."

I smacked at him, even though it's true. When I'm nervous, this light noise whispers up from me, like I'm trying to clear my throat without anyone noticing. It made Da laugh but drove Ma to distraction, since it was she who usually brought it on me.

"Leave him be," Gerry said. "You're in his home!"

“You do make a nice cuppa, Bren,” said Eammon, cutting in. “Thanks.” 

I just nodded to him.

"Go on readin'," said Danny. "Sounds like an IRA tale."

“Naw, Liam told me the story and it just keeps on and on,” said Colm. “He goes to borstal and gets to be friends with this Brit named Charlie and they call each other China, after a bit. You know why, Bren?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“No, I’m askin’,” Colm said.

Which got Billie in on the confusion. “Why would they call each other that? Aren't they all English?"

“How’s it written?” asked Danny. “Is he angry when he says it?”

“Fine, here,” Colm said, flipping through the pages. “He says ... uh, here – ‘sticking up for your china’.”

“Away on, Colm,” I said. “Sounds like another word for mate.”

Which got Paidrig even more confused. “But one’s English, the other’s Irish, right? They ain’t from China. Are they? Like from Hong Kong?”

I laughed as Colm rolled his eyes and said, “That’s why I’m askin’ Bren. Maybe he can figure it.”

“Why me?”

“You read.”

“Only what I must.”

“Then ask your brother if he would. Maybe he can tell if Charlie’s Chinese.”

“Sounds bloody stupid to me,” said Paidrig.

“Peter Rabbit more your speed, lad?” I asked as I helped myself to another cup of tea and felt very grand, doing so, especially since I’d found I liked it with a sugar and splash of milk and could show off as i did it. Ma had worked a small cooler out of Father Demian, for to keep the milk and fish fresh.

Eammon had another biscuit and asked, “Does anybody else call anybody that?”

“This wee bit's as far as I got,” said Colm. “Dunno if I’ll finish.”

“I like the idea of it, though," said Eammon. "Nobody here does that."

Danny grinned and motioned to me, “Oi, me China, give us a biscuit!”

I laughed and fired one to him -- and he caught it just as Ma come in the kitchen. And before we had a chance to even think of moving, she snapped, “What’re you boys doing? Why are the burners on?”

“Nothing, Ma,” I said, scampering to put myself between her and the rest of us. “Just come in from the rain to dry off and get warm. Have some tea.” 

“And leave mud all over my clean floor!?” And I must admit, the room was claggerd with a lot. She also saw the mess of tea, milk, sugar, and biscuit tin on the table, and her eyes cut into me; I knew I was for it. She quietly said, “Away home, boys; the rain’s let up, and Brendan has much to do before tea.”

Paidrig, Danny, Billie, and Gerry gathered their things and slipped away without a word. Eammon stopped by the door and said, “Yours was the closest home, Mrs. Kinsella. That’s why we come here.”

Ma just nodded and said, “Off! Your mum was askin' after you.”

Colm left the book on the table and smiled at me. “See you in school. Me China.”

“Me what?” Ma snapped at him.

“Nothin’, Mrs. Kinsella. Thanks for the use of your kitchen.” 

He left.

Ma glared after him then turned to Rhuari. "Go upstairs and change your clothes.”

“But I’m fine here, Ma,” he said. 

She cast him a look and off he went.

I put the milk back in the cooler and pushed the lid back on the tin, and damn if I wasn't giving off that cough. Ma’s rages could come from nowhere, and us dirtying her kitchen made it certain she would be in no good humor.

Finally she sat on a chair by the table and motioned me over and looked at me. 

“We can barely feed ourselves, but you give those boys half of what we have?”

“Just tea, Ma (cough). The biscuits I bought on me own.”

“With what?”

Oh, shite. “A (cough) a shilling I got for fixing Mrs. Cullen’s old radio. It's got tubes in it and -- ”

She shook me, angry. “You wasted good money on such an extravagance?”

“At least I earned it (cough), not like Da -- ”

She slapped me, twice. 

“You do not talk to me like that! And never will you speak of your father in that way! Don’t you forget, he was murdered by two Protestant bastards, merely because he wanted to care for his family, but they wouldn’t even allow him that much dignity. So you will not spit on his name, again, master Kinsella. Do you understand me?!” I could barely hear what she said, my ears rang so, but I nodded. She stood up. “Now clean the mud off everything, including yourself, or there’s no dinner for you.”

So I did ... well, as good as a lad of near eleven can be expected, but it still warranted me nothing but a piece of bread and mug of water in my room as the others ate. 

And for a week I heard nothing but how much trouble it had been for Ma to clean the floor and walls and cabinets and windows of mud after me and my mates had dirtied her kitchen, all without a thought for anyone but ourselves. And the sympathies she got were enormous.

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