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First pages

Belfast, 1915

Willie, that’s me. William James Callaghan. William in honour of William of Orange who defeated the Papists at the Battle of the Boyne and saved Ulster from Popery. James? Not after James II, the English Catholic. No way. James after the King James Bible, Ma being all pious. Callaghan. A surname to make a heart swell. Callaghans – dyed-in-the-wool Prods, orange to the core and unsullied by vile green. We bleed red, white and blue – the colours of the Union Jack.

With the house empty, I can lie on the bed and read. There’s no room: swing a cat and you’d bash its brains out. Reading, what a pleasure. Any and every thing: the Telegraph, books, magazines, leaflets. Words are manna from Heaven. Undefeated spelling champion four years in a row. Con-sec-u-tive; os-ten-ta-tious; ma-noeu-vra-ble. Blessed. Not blessed – too Catholic a word. Don’t want Taigues to infiltrate the language. Gifted. The more obscure and distinctive the better. Give me a juicy word and I’ll roll it in my mouth like a giant gobstopper tasting each exquisite consonant and syllable. And there they’ll rest in the pit of my gut, dormant until the right moment to regurgitate them so people can be astounded by my brilliance. Mr McKinley, fond of the cane but very perceptive, said I was a natural wordsmith. Wordsmith? An alchemist to be sure.

Ma appreciates my talent and declares I’ll be a greater author than Rudyard Kipling or Conan Doyle. Father says I’m a stuck-up work-shy gobshite but he’s only arsing about. He’s partial to the odd multiple syllable or two, especially if he’s downed a jar. And it wasn’t my fault I got the sack. Ideas above my station? Rubbish. This apprentice typesetter couldn’t be silent. Not when there are howlers to be corrected. Fancy not knowing that necessarily has one c and one r. The old duffer of a supervisor was only looking for an excuse. Didn’t like being shown up in front of the other apprentices. This book’s dead-on. Much better than the Bible. All about Cuchulain’s fight against the supernatural forces of Queen Medb.

The front door creaks slowly as it’s eased open. Quick! Hide the book under the bed. An ear-piercing creak like chalk gouged across a blackboard (McKinley’s speciality). A squeaky fanfare heralding the entry of family or neighbours. The more Ma nags Father to lubricate the hinges, the more determined he is to do nothing about it. Their little game.

A glance over the balustrade. A scuffed toe-cap edges over the threshold. Hanging in mid-air, the boot hesitates, wiggles as if to cast off doubt, before placing itself firmly on the ‘Welcome’ mat. Not Father’s hobnail boot, Ma’s shoe or my sisters’ feet. Whose is it? Five burglaries in a fortnight. Some people have taken to locking their front doors. Mrs Shaw swears he was a giant of a man with the face of Satan himself. Father says whatever comes out of a Shaw’s gob, you take with a hundredweight of salt. But that boot is a size and a half. The biggest clodhopper you’ve ever seen. Stand back, out of sight! The boot and its twin tread lightly on floorboards, avoiding the loose board. The thief’s got no respect for his movements are cocky now. No hesitation. A hint of Woodbine, the fragrance doesn’t reassure. What if he comes up? I’m banjaxed. Think! Clasp hands and mouth a silent prayer. Of course, what was I thinking of? God, the Bible’s the very best book in the world, so it is.

The boots don’t ascend the risers and treads. Thank you, Lord! I’ll never steal another book, honest.

Insides, beyond divine help, rumble to exploding point. Got to get to the privy. Maybe the boots went out the back way. Aye, he’s realised there’s nothing worth nicking. Gone to rob someone else, thank goodness.

Fear tightly clenched, handrail gripped, each tiptoed step threatens a mishap. In the hallway I turn, straining towards the back door – it’s bolted! Oh, to be able to bolt too. One of the enormous clodhoppers exits from the back room. I dash into the front room before the rest of the body appears, pick up the coal scuttle and shout with as much ferocity as lungs can muster: “Go away! My father’s upstairs!”

A khaki blur marches in.

“Alright, Lionheart? Still quaking in your pants?”

The voice is familiar, if throaty. The strain of holding the scuttle aloft focuses attention on the face alone. The face has a texture of worn leather, a patch covers a right eye, the skin beneath it blistered and red, a pencil-thin moustache follows the contours of a cracked upper lip, and a half-smile betrays the loss of front teeth.

“Willie, it’s me.”

The full scuttle, already too heavy, crashes to the rug and spews coal.

“Tommy?”

“No, the Pope, you eejit.”

I make to embrace but stop short, before stretching out my right hand towards his. The handshake doesn’t come. The sleeve is pinned to the tunic.

An awful silence.

Don’t know what to do.

My face is bonfire-hot.

No dictionary can help. For the first time ever, I’m lost for words.

My brother hugs me side on with his left arm and punctures the pause. Tobacco and grainy spirit cascade off his breath.

“How’s about you?”

In Father’s armchair, Tommy’s solitary eye roves round the room, fixing on objects: the King’s portrait above the mantelpiece, the unlit gas light, the bay windows, the settee, the two wicker chairs and the wee brass knob on the panel door. He tilts towards the fire and the eye, bloodshot and twinkle-free, reflects the jigging flames.

“Jesus, it’s good to be home.”

The blasphemer produces a cigarette packet from his tunic pocket. He holds the packet between two fingers pushing the inner upwards with his thumb; he thrusts the opened packet towards me. I don’t smoke, yet place the cigarette in my mouth. Putting the packet to his face, a cigarette appears from lips. Once the packet is back in the pocket, he conjures up a box of matches, holding it between his knees. His index finger pushes the box open, wide open enough to allow him to retrieve a match that he flicks over the striker. The match bursts into flames.

Mimicking his example, the smoke goes in deep. My wait for Tommy to exhale is interrupted by spluttering. Chuckling, he gets up and pats me on the back. In between gasps, a firecracker of farts. In case the smell of rotten eggs is more than just gas – the privy!

Don’t know what to think. An image of a limbless battered porcelain doll discarded on wasteland fills my head. Perhaps best to just pretend the arm’s still there, the arm with the Red Hand tattoo on a white Star of David background topped by a crown with the No Surrender motif. Not only has he lost an arm and hand but he’s also lost Ulster’s symbol of a red hand. Ma says sometimes you can reflect too much. He used to be so proud of that tattoo, even wearing short sleeves in winter to show it off.

Back in the front room, unstained. Tommy, whose boots seem to have shrunk, has lit another Woodbine by the mantelpiece. Even with one arm, he’s bigger and broader than when he left. The one hand holds the framed picture.

“Don’t I look the handsome fellow?”

He replaces it gingerly. Each item on the mantel is lifted and examined in the manner a pawnbroker determines worth: Ma’s figurine, an heirloom – our only one; the clock; the metronome, Ma’s school prize; the Bible; and, the other book.

“What’s this? It’s a German name.”

An accusing look.

“It’s Father’s. Ma says it’s treason and shouldn’t be in the house and not on the mantelpiece where the King can see it. She blushes every time she clears the grate, so she does.”

A stampede charges through the hallway and disrupts the interrogation.

“Where’s the big lad?”

Ma, with baby Daniel in her arms, stands in the doorframe. Izzy and Eliza peer from her skirt. If Ma’s bewilderment is down to the coal lumps on the rug, she doesn't say.

The girls play peek-a-boo with the stranger: they lift their heads from the skirt’s folds, sneak a peek, retreat back into the pleats, then dare again. Ma hands me Daniel before embracing Tommy, dancing him side by side.

Daniel’s cacked his pants and cries in protest at being held at arm’s length. Fortunately, he’s a lot lighter than a coal scuttle.

“My beloved boy..... my beloved boy......... my beloved boy.”

It’s Tommy’s turn to protest.

“Gentle, Ma. You’re squeezing the life out of me.”

She releases him and, wiping a tear, declares: “Ach, you’re never too old for a cuddle.”

“Cuddle? A grizzly bear hug!”

Giggles all round, and Daniel, no longer the centre of attention, wails like a banshee.

 

The two hands of the clock show ten past eight. Above the ticking, the sound of hobnail on cobble, the metronome clink of metal on stone is keenly anticipated.

The girls get to the door first.

“Tommy’s here! Tommy’s here!”

Eliza and Izzy are waltzed along the hallway.

“Away with you, little imps. He’s fighting the Hun in France.”

“Not anymore he’s not,” booms from the front room.

Father lowers the girls, tenderly as ever, enters the room and advances towards the armchair. I grab my sisters’ hands. Better to hang back. Ma’s upstairs rearranging the bedding. Where’s Tommy going to sleep? There’s three of us in the bedroom already. He proffers an outstretched hand before retracting it seamlessly.

“How’s about you, big lad?..... Thomas, what have you brought back from gay Paree?”

“Presents. Almost forgot.”

Tommy’s remaining teeth and hand unknot the kit bag.

I can comprehend how Ma would be too flustered to comment on Tommy’s injuries but I’m surprised, and disappointed, that Father has chosen to ignore them too. It’s as if earth-shattering misfortune has frozen rational response in aspic. Emotionally, they’re stumped by the stump and poleaxed by the patch. Adults pretending to be serene like the swans in Victoria Park while under the water they’re pedalling at a rate of knots vainly trying to formulate an appropriate phrase or sentence that dignifies Tommy’s pitiful predicament without the world caving in. For now the easy way out is to maintain the pretence of family business as usual. Perhaps Foreman Callaghan’s had a bad day at the shipyard.

Ma reappears and embraces Father, the way she always does. Hands and work clothes all greasy, nails pitted with machine oil, Father stands rigid like a guardsman and doesn’t reciprocate for fear of dirtying her skirt and blouse. A little peck on each cheek in acknowledgement. They love each other so dearly. In all my years, not a cross word between them. Not like the Smarts opposite. They keep the street entertained with their bawling matches. Mrs Smart may be pint-sized but she has the voice of a fog horn.

“You don’t mind Tommy in your chair?”

“Catch yourself on, Maud. Of course not.”

“First, apologies to the baby. Didn’t know I had another brother. Here, perfume, Ma. Eau de cologne, the Frenchies call it. None of your cheap stuff. Cost four tins of bully beef.”

He conjures gifts from the bag in the style of a magician producing rabbits from a top hat.

“Eliza and Izzy, two French dolls.”

My sisters are over the moon and back again, as Ma would say, and clutch the rag dolls, much the same way Ma clinched Tommy to her bosom.

“Father and Willie, choose between yourselves.”

More prestidigitation for out come a revolver and a medal.

“It’s a Luger.”

Dad handles the pistol, stroking the trigger and grip before looking down the barrel with a tool-fitter’s appreciation.

“Finely machined. Clever engineers, these Germans. No wonder the war wasn’t over by Christmas.”

My brother drapes the medal round my neck, steps back and salutes.

“Iron Cross, Second Class. Well done, Fritz!”

I salute back and everyone, including Daniel, laughs.

“Where did you get those from?”

“Took it from a German. Blown to bits by a shell, so he was.”

The medal takes on the weight of an albatross, the ribbon constricts. The dead man’s necklace is thrown to the floor lest it strangles.

Father raises an eyebrow.

“You’d better have the revolver then.”

Ma queries: “It’s not loaded, is it?”

“None of the lads could get it to work. The mechanism’s jammed solid. Willie can do no harm.”

“Willie, go and get two extra mackerel from the fisherwoman and six cream buns from the bakery.”

“Whose birthday?” asks Izzy.

“No one’s. It’s a treat for Tommy’s safe return,” she replies, emptying the figurine of coins.

 

The family’s seated, along with two French dolls, at the table. Bit of a squeeze. Mackerel, mash and kale – Friday’s menu and the highlight of the working week. The fattest, juiciest fish is reserved for Father who passes it to Tommy. He opens a bottle of stout, sharing it with the Prodigal Son. One day the same will be done for Callaghan the famous author.

How’s Tommy going to eat? But he dissects the fish with ease. Izzy is on the same train of thought for she asks: “Where you hidden your arm?”

A question asked in all innocence as if the arm could simply reappear and the drama is part of a sophisticated optical illusion.

The adults know otherwise. Father scowls and Ma tuts loud enough to be heard next door.

Eliza comes to her rescue – they’re like two peas in a pod.

“Aye, where is it? Behind your back?”

Ma lifts her hand before she can sneak a peek.

“Rude child! Where’s your manners?”

Eliza hides under the table.

Tommy shoves the cleared plate away, downs the stout in one, wipes the foam from his mouth with the back of his hand, pushes the cap back and lights a cigarette in his inimitable way. One-handed, Izzy is placed back on the chair.

The next move is agonisingly awaited. We're all in the palm of that hand.

“Wondered how long it’d be before someone had the courage to ask. Out of the mouths of babes, eh, little one?”

He pinches her cheek.

Ma declares: “Ach, you don’t have to talk about it. We’re happy to have you back in one piece.”

“One piece? A battered jigsaw with pieces missing. One arm and one eye missing.”

Ma, pillar-box red, looks at Father in a sort of helpless way.

“It’s all right. Better out than in, eh, Willie?” A plume of smoke is blown to the ceiling. “Hidden? I wish. Gone for good.” His gaze is fixed on the ceiling. “Let me tell you what really happened. It was a Wednesday. Clear, blue sky. Bright sun. A beautiful day, so it was. As beautiful as an August sky over the Mourne Mountains. No sorties planned so Sergeant Wiston let us relax our battle dress. In short-sleeves we were, drinking tea laced with a wee drop of apple brandy. Had a winning hand – three aces and two jacks. Then someone shouted: ‘Grenade!’ He draws on the cigarette, the one eyelid trembling. “A German had only gone and lobbed a stick-bomb in our section. The drill’s to put as much distance between yourself and the bomb, to make yourself small. Wiston ordered: ‘Take cover!’ As luck would have it a stretcher party was passing through our trench. The stretcher-bearers scarpered. I’m standing there two yards away from an Indian who’s taken a bullet to the shoulder. The p-”.

An interruption from one of the girls.

“Red Indians?”

Eliza dismounts and Izzy follows. Dolls in hand, they perform a war dance around the table, now a make-believe totem pole. For a six and seven year old, they’re imbued with a writer’s imagination.

Ma barks: “Girls! Enough whooping! Or you will feel the back of my hand, so you will. No manners!”

The redskins beat a retreat under the table.

“Not that kind of Indian, an Indian from India. A Sikh. When I first saw the turban, thought he’d been shot in the head. Mahogany he was. I’m standing there the closest. He can’t get up. I grab the grenade to return it to sender. Bloody thing explodes inches from my hand.” Faltering, he lights another cigarette and we wallow in his silence. “Wake up in a field hospital an invalid. Captain Hamsey visited me in Rouen. Tells me he’s reduced Wiston to the rank of corporal for dereliction of duty and recommended me for a gallantry medal. Told him he could poke his medal. Your man was one of the best sergeants we ever had. And you know what?”

“What?” whispers Father.

“The Indian’s in the next bed and he goes and dies on me, so he does.”

The cap's pulled down so the peak shields the eye.

No. Aye. There really are tears.

“Father?”

“Son?”

“Could murder a jar.”

“A jar it is then.”

Are Father’s tear ducts welling up too? Surely not. It’s sad but not that sad. Not like the Titanic where thousands lost their lives.

“You’ve done your bit for King and country. You can stand tall, Rifleman Callaghan.”

 

Ma catches me looking out the bay window and tousles my hair.

“Ach, go on. You can watch them from the Bottle and Jug.”

The Bottle and Jug, with its stable door, lies to the side of the Public Bar. The preserve of womenfolk and boys, according to one wit. A hole gouged out with a penny piece through a knot in the timber cladding allows free entertainment. Better than the pictures. A peep show. The things I have seen could fill a book or two.

Father often holds court. To a cocked ear, the words oppression, revolution, industrial servitude, proletariat, emancipation, are frequently uttered. Like a preacher, he commands respect. Men hang on to every word.

Today, Tommy has his back towards me. Both he and Father are bathed in a yellow hue from the gas mantle. They are the same colour that newborn Rosie was before she died. Yellow fever, the fisherwoman called it. Rosie’s name is not mentioned anymore. ‘It’s the will of God,’ is one of Ma’s pet phrases and that’s her way of saying it’s become a taboo subject. And I know the real name of the disease – jaundice.

As soon as a pint is downed, another appears. They’ll drink Belfast dry at this rate.

“Curiosity killed the cat.”

O'Reilly drags me, head protruding from his arm and flank, to the Public Bar.

“We have a spy in our midst.”

At least thirty sets of eyes, Tommy’s single eyeball among them, are tunnelling into me. A flushed face for sure. Flaying hands bounce off his folds of fat and add to the men’s amusement. Even Father and Tommy are in paroxysms – aye, paroxysms – of side-splitting merriment.

The humiliation’s complete: restrained, like in the stocks at a carnival, to endure ridicule; instead of wet sponges and eggs, it’ll be stout, ale and cigarette butts.

“That’s enough,” commands Father.

O’Reilly releases his grip.

“Off with you, you nosey-parker.”

“Let him stay. He’s fifteen.”

Fifteen? Fifteen and nine months.

The men resume their banter and I’m forgotten, crouched by the door, lemonade in hand. It’s a marvel they can drink so much without the need to relieve themselves.

“Whiskeys all round! The best, not that watered-down rubbish.”

O’Reilly sets out rows of spirit glasses, including a half-pint tumbler for himself, and pours out Bushmills.

“To Thomas. Up the Kaiser!”

“To Thomas. Up the Kaiser!”

No one pays any attention to my raised glass.

Father doesn’t have enough money. Tommy slowly gets out his purse.

“No way. Put it away! I challenge every man here to an arm-wrestling contest. Thruppence a go. Victor keeps the spoils.”

The opposition is slaughtered. Coins stack up.

One bad loser, the worse for drink, mumbles: “Every man here? You’ve got to give that cripple of a son a go. Or it’s a void contest, so it is.”

It’s like a frozen frame at the pictures. For a tense moment no sound and no action, until appeasing hands try to guide the drunk out of the premises. The bar is galvanised into commotion.

Father growls: “Apologise. My son is worth ten of you, you gobshite. Apologise or feel my wrath. No one insults a Callaghan in uniform.”

“Up yours. You said everyone or are cripples exempt?”

What a fight. Chairs, tables, bottles and glasses are thrown. O’Reilly grabs the till, what’s left of the bottle of Bushmills and legs it upstairs. Clenched fists fly. Some of the men are so drunk, all they punch is the smoky air in slow motion. It’s a bit comical, like a Charlie Chaplin film. Still, doesn’t do to be reckless – best to take cover behind the lemonade.

Father is Cuchulain smashing evil sprites. A left hook to Mr Sinclair, a cluricaun – a fairy drinker; a right hook to Mr Lindsay, a far darrig – a gruesome practical joker; and, a left and right jab to poleaxe Mr Martin, a leprechaun. Leprechaun is apt. Mrs Shaw says the Martins have gold coins hidden under the floorboards.

“Peelers!”

The Royal Irish Constabulary’s whistles in the distance stall the brawl and empty the Public Bar. Father’s limping and Tommy’s arm’s drenched in stout. Both are unsteady, lurching from pavement to pavement on the cobbled street. No longer mythological characters, they are like two rudderless barges cut from their moorings navigating aimlessly along the Lagan to Belfast Lough, just managing to avoid a collision. The smaller barge drops anchor by a drain and discharges its cargo of bile.

The larger barge rolls with laughter but stops as soon as I join in. The humour draining from his face, Father looks me up and down, brings the dead German’s Iron Cross, Second Class, to his lips and kisses it.

“My son, my hero.”

 

A loud knock at the door. Rent-collector? No. Reverend Montgomery. Ma’s all a fluster and concertinas from hallway to kitchen, unable to decide whether it should be pinny on or pinny off. The minister cuts through her confusion by inviting himself in and settling in Father’s armchair.

“Tea, milk and two sugars, Maud, and I’d be partial to one of those cream buns if there are any left.”

“Of course, Reverend.”

Eliza is sent off to borrow milk and sugar from neighbours.

The Reverend used to be a regular visitor to our home until the falling-out. A keen footballer, he encouraged both Tommy and myself in the sport and nurtured our talent. The Callaghans were sought after in any tournament in East Belfast.

Silently, we watch him dip Father’s bun into the china tea cup bringing the sodden dough to his mouth. The contents ooze out and spill to the floor. There’s a general feeling in the room that it’s a waste of a cream bun.

The face, crisscrossed with more lines than the busiest railway junction, is thinner and bobs out of an oversized dog collar. Clothes that are too big: either his tailor’s got cloth to spare or Reverend Montgomery’s lost a lot of weight. He starts to cough, brings a handkerchief to his lip and dabs a red trickle. Don’t remember any of the buns having jam in them.

“More tea, Reverend?”

“Yes, please, Maud. Do you have another wee bun? The work of the Lord bestows a powerful appetite on its servants.”

Ma dithers for the last remaining bun is for Tommy but a pious nature and inability to lie to clergy dispossess him.

“And where’s my centre-forward?”

Deference cast aside, she towers over him and thrusts her round face, polished in the fire’s glow, close to his angular features which, contrasted, have an unhealthy pallor about them.

“Over my dead body. No. No. And thrice no. Tommy’s in no fit state to play in a match.”

“I’m up for a kick-about.”

A barefoot figure draped in a tunic fills the doorway.

“Thomas!”

Reverend Montgomery gets up from the seat, eyes sparkling animatedly as if delivering a sermon.

“Sit down. Tell me all about it.”

The hand pulls up one of the wicker chairs close to the armchair. Ma barges in and covers Tommy’s long johns with a shawl.

My brother lights a cigarette, the minister helps himself and discards the empty packet into the fire.

“All about what?”

“The Front. What’s it like at the Front? Samuel and Joshua are with the Royal Inniskilling Dragoons.”

The silence is all too much.

“For the love of God, answer me, man. I’ve had no news for a year.”

A scathing, snarling glance is thrown to the dog collar.

“That’s good news. If there’s one thing about Kitchener’s Army, there’s no slacking with the Grim Reaper. If they’re dead, you’d be told within the week.”

Ma, sitting on the settee, offers an observation.

“We never got one letter from Tommy. Why didn’t you write, son?”

“No point. I did write a field postcard once. By the time they censored it with their blotches, it looked like a chequered flag. Would’ve made no sense. You could ask for a green envelope. They’d only steam it open and butcher it at base. Anyway, if I’d wrote that everything’s rosy, you’d never believed me.”

“What’s it like, Thomas?”

“It’s hell on earth, so it is. You try to kill Germans before they get you. Jesus, there’s one place I wouldn’t want to be on the battlefield and that’s stuck on a horse.”

Ignoring the profanity, the Reverend protests: “Cavalry is a potent force. Cavalry stopped the advance of German infantry at the Battle of Mons. God-fearing lance and sabre annihilated the heathen Hun on the ground.”

“Jammy, so they were. I’ve seen a horseman cry because he had to shoot his precious horse after it got entangled in barbed wire. The Front is all trenches, barbed wire, artillery and machine guns. Anything a yard high is target practice for the Germans. A blind man couldn’t miss a galloping horse. Charge a trench? Make the charge of the Light Brigade look like a picnic.” The arm mimics a gun. “Fritz, what’s that filling the horizon? At the double, Hans, load the machine gun. Tac-tac-tac. That’s the horses sorted. Tac-tac-tac. There goes the Inniskillings. Tac-tac-tac. Not one bleeder left. Eh, Fritz, the rats will feast tonight and gorge on horse and human flesh.”

The complexion is bleached of any semblance of colour. If Reverend Montgomery looked unwell earlier, he looks very ill now. Not a word. The sparkle in his eyes smothered, he walks slowly through the hallway and out the front door, leaving it wide open.

Tommy laughs, clenching and unclenching his fist. Not the carefree laughter associated with his memory but a demonic cackle.It’s as if he’s relishing the torment. A bayonet has been stuck in the clergyman’s gut and twisted, over and over again.

“You were a wee bit harsh with the Reverend. Samuel and Joshua are his only sons.”

A shrug of the shoulders.

“Better to know the truth. He can pray for them. God’s will, eh, Ma?”

“There’s ways and means of speaking the truth. You cou-”.

“He’s one of the reasons why I’m a cripple! Sign the Ulster Covenant in your own blood, he says. Join the Ulster Volunteer Force, he says. Train to defend Ulster, he says. God is on our side, he says. Little did I think when I was playing pretend soldiers with bandoliers and wooden rifles, I’d end up in a bloody French trench.” Angry spittle gushes forth. “Jesus, I need a drink!”

The shouting has woken Daniel up, the girls are frightened. No one, not even Father, raises their voice to our Ma. I yearn to say something soothing but the words don’t come. Not for the first time, Tommy has rendered me speechless.

 

My fondness for the privy worries Ma. She has taken to plying syrup of figs whenever she feels like it. A most purging experience. The privy’s a sanctuary. Every nook and cranny in the brick walls and lime mortar are appreciated, along with the cast-iron high-level cistern, lead feed pipe and overflow, the wooden seat and porcelain pan. Copies of the Telegraph hang from string, ready for use. The rotting door lets in enough daylight so that if you sit at ninety degrees to the pan, you can read. I do most of my reading here, picking out words, mulling them over and storing them away for a timely moment to try them out. ‘A biscuit tin of language,’ Ma calls it. Father rubbishes my verbosity: ‘Up-your-arse talk.’

Characters from the Bible and Irish mythology are my companions. Imagination runs free. Moses parts the Red Sea and Cuchulain slays Ulster’s foes. Today, Capital isn’t an easy read. Father’s enthusiasm for it is a mystery. There’s no storyline. Karl Marx will never be a successful author.

Hobnail boots enter the kitchen. Stay! Not a good idea to be seen with the book. Bare feet rush on floorboard. The girls squeal with delight as doubtless he embraces them warmly. They’re dancing by the pantry for sure. A joy that's infectious but at times tempered with a jealous tinge. Perhaps Father craved a daughter after Tommy.

Ma’s turn.

“Off to the front room. Play with your French dolls.”

There'll be much hugging for Ma loves her cuddles. The sound of wood grating on wood. A chair is moved back along the floorboards while a tea pot whistles on the stove. No doubt Father is seated as Ma pours a mug of tea. It’ll either be the one with the Royal Family or the other commemorating the Battle of the Boyne.

“Where’s Thomas?”

“Goodness knows......What have they done to our son?”

The wood grates again, Father must be up and holding Ma. Nothing is said for an eternity. Perhaps I should slink out through the yard and re-enter through the front door. Eliza resolves the dilemma – she needs the privy.

Quick! Place Capital above the cistern and pull the chain.

 

I love my brother but don’t love sleeping with him. Father and Ma have the front bedroom with Daniel in a cot. Izzy and Eliza share a single bed, as do Tommy and I, in the back one. It’s small. Canvas sheeting, ‘borrowed’ from the shipyard and suspended from the ceiling, separates the beds.

Before Tommy enlisted, we had a bed each and my sisters slept with Ma and Father. With him gone to the Great War, I got his bed and the girls got mine to make room for baby Daniel. (Baby Rosie wasn’t around long enough to affect sleeping arrangements.)

My nose took delight in nestling in the feather pillow and breathing in the scents of tobacco and hair cream. The odours have returned and reside at the bottom of the bed. Head-to-toe, with Tommy’s head closest to the window.

It's like being on a fairground rollercoaster with none of the excitement. One extreme to the other. A dead-weight if he’s been drinking, and he drinks a lot. We’re stuck at the top of the gantry, teetering on the edge. Instead of screams we have the loudest snoring ever. How do the girls manage to sleep through it? Attempts to turn him over are a waste of time. He won’t budge. Sometimes a choking sound, saliva dripping from a gawping mouth, before the chest resumes its movement. If he hasn’t been drinking, we plunge the depths of restlessness – Tommy tossing and turning, grabbing the blanket and leaving me exposed. What ails him is a mystery. We used to be in tune, knowing what the other thought and felt without speaking. We have never been so close physically, bodies side-by-side in the night, yet the Tommy returned from the Front is a bit of a troubling conundrum. Or perhaps I’m thinking too much. Ma’s right: we should all thank the Lord that we are a whole family again.

His morning routine is to gulp the contents of a hip-flask and light a cigarette.

“Medicine, Lionheart. Here’s to Doctor Sawbones.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Of Irish and French parentage, I live on the English south coast in Brighton. Married with two daughters. A varied employment history: baker, firefighter, labourer, teacher, carer, plumber, youth worker and probation officer. I have been writing seriously for eight years but on a part-time basis given work and family commitments. Dark humour is my stock in trade, counterbalanced with an optimistic interpretation of human behaviour.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Imagine discovering a family secret. My great uncle, Charles Love Crockett, a lieutenant in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was shot in dubious circumstances during the 1916 Easter Rising. The irony of surviving the horrors of trench warfare only to die in your homeland was the inspiration.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
The work of Ian McEwan appeals massively. There is a parallel with Atonement – that is to say, how a misconstrued event can have a devastating impact on the lives of others.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
Accept criticism with a good heart and an open mind. Always get your work proof read!

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