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Sushi

In front of him, on the other side of the two-way loop, a yummy mummy sat in a booth at a table, dishes of pastel sushi under plastic domes circulating around her to electro-bubbly music.

Over her shoulder a weeks-old baby fixed his china-blue eyes on the passing feast, dribbling and puking snail trails on her left deltoid.  She, unaware, was bent over her smartphone on the table, prodding and swiping with her free hand.

What could a lady who lunches possibly find to get busy with on a smartphone?

Hot-flush embarrassment rose through him as he realised he was doing exactly the same thing. 

On the Centenary of The Battle of Arras

 

For William John Symons (1892-1953)

I

11 September 1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

Eight at night, hot, sweaty, the rabbit

In the pot bubbling, the wireless crackling.

The news of bombs on London docks grabs

Your guts, mashes your mind, mood blackening.

A wave of shouting passes, and the slapping

Of hasty feet, of women and men,

With girls and boys who rush ahead of them.

 

‘They’re running to the schoolyard, come on Dad!’

Shouts Tony, full of steam, with tossing head.

You rush along with Doll, behind the lad ,

Past chink-free  cottages and musty garden sheds.

The whole world’s woken up and left their beds.

You crowd into the schoolyard on the hill,

The stars are black-out bright , your heartbeat still.

 

The breeze is warm, the trees’ leaves tremble near.

Towards the South an angry glow grows red

And lights the crane spikes of the docks.  You hear

The droning bombers’ engines overhead

And on your flesh, you feel the fear ahead.

The criss-cross beams of searchlights cast their net.

The flames flick through the far-off second sunset.

 

Weeks ago, you martialled East End children:

Your school was moving from the German bombs.

You herded them through Liverpool Street Station,

And counted them on board, one by one,

Their string-tied labels flapping cardboard tongues.

Tearful parents needed someone strong

To reassure that it was not for long.

 

You stand with their evacuated kids,

Who watch you now to see if you’re afraid

Of Jerry and his blitz. Your head forbids

The reeling-feeling dread of his invasion.

How can this all be happening once again?

You went to war, to end all wars, with friends

From Portsmouth twenty years ago. Back then

 

You didn’t fight to see them over here,

Buzzing, blitzing, bombing East End streets.

You didn’t hide in cellars, rank with fear,

To cower in shelters now while we repeat

The fight with Germans who you thought you beat.

So much for League of Nations, armistice.

Did we learn nothing, is it back to this?

 

‘Oh God, Bill,’ Dolly says, ‘What shall we do?’

‘We’ll carry on Love; I will teach my class,

You will fix the workers’ daily stew,

Tony will go to school – and this will pass.

We beat them once and we’ll complete the task

Again, you’ll see, no need to be alarmed.’

You hold their hands, look confident and calm.

 

To billets in the village, dark and drowsy,

The children stumble back along the lane.

‘What about our mums and dads, our houses?’

You tell them, ‘It’s all fine. Old Jerry’s aim

Was never any good – it’s still the same.’

‘You think all our bananas might be burning?’

‘I’m sure they’re not,’ you smile. Your stomach’s churning.

II

10 February 1906 – Portsmouth Dockyard

The champagne bottle bounces off the back

Of Dreadnought as she slips down to the sea.

It does not burst until the third hard crack,

The spume cascades down lapping plates of steel.

This ship shouts ‘Empire’, floating arrogantly,

Machine of mass destruction, steaming proud.

You stand with John, your dad, amongst the crowd.

 

His red eyes fill. You cheer and wave the flag.

He’s worked here for a year to build this beast,

A year of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Your dad

Came home for tea each day with tales to feast

Your ears on: welds, thick plates, huge guns; so pleased

The Royal Navy ruled the seas outright,

That none dare challenge our Great Britain’s might.

 

You’re working hard at school, you’re proving bright.

And John is proudly getting good reports

From teachers who can see the glowing light

Of promise in your eyes and give support

For you to leave the docks, the first cohort

At Portsmouth’s new college, where  you’ll strive

For  University in a few years’ time.

 

These teachers push you hard to give your all.

They inspire by what they do and what they say.

You grow in mind and stature in their mould.

Though short at five-foot-five, you can hold sway.

You rev yourself to make the getaway.

It’s clear you are a leader, and your dream

Of being a schoolmaster starts to gleam.

 

III

15 February 1915 – Luton, Bedfordshire

‘Your Country Needs You,’ so the posters say.

You wait in line to sign your name for war.

It’s one year on. So you know today

About the Western Front and what’s in store.

And yet you smile, you’re proud, you’re brave, you’re sure.

You all want to go and show the Huns

What happens when you anger British lions.

 

You are to join the Expeditionary Army

In France, this is the first time ever abroad

For you, a Portsmouth shipwright’s son, now tommy.

And what of trench-life truth will you be told

While training, bulling boots and getting cold?

Will early mornings, box-pinched beds, sharp creases

Help, when your mates get blown to pieces?

 

IV

29 November 1916 – Arras, France

Arras. The squeaking, creaking train pulls up.

It’s full of boys, young, single, just like you.

Fresh Royal Fusiliers are forming up,

Smooth-faced, feckless, reckless, hats askew.

Spotters fly, flimsy, over you.

The straight strips of stretchers line the track,

With smoking, blinkered boys who don’t grin back.

 

Sergeant Symons, a year on now from training,

You march the muddled men  to join the ranks

Of comrades underground in chalky, shaking

Caves and cellars under Arras. The dank

Dark throws the thud of boot on plank.

The light bulbs flicker SOS across

Graffiti signposts on the road to chaos.

 

A city underground. You share the stench

With rats and bats and lice and mice and men

English, Scots, Chinese, Canadian, French,

Welsh and Maoris digging to extend

The tunnels, through the chalk, beyond the trenches

To shield assaulting men from shells and guns

When they close in and bayonet the Huns.

 

You eat your scalding tins of bully beef,

You drain your rum  until you are not here.

You dream of strawberry jam and clotted cream.

You’re missing Martha’s bread and warm, flat beer.

Your mind makes green and placid fields appear.

Above, the weather worsens every day:

The snow and driving rain will melt the clay.

 

On last night’s raid, you saw a mud-drowned man.

He’d slipped off duck boards into sucking muck,

His face mud-masked. The filthy, clawing hands

And febrile fingers of a sitting duck.

The eyes glared through his death mask, terror-struck.

All this, illuminated by the flares,

Is the hell to which you climb, up white chalk stairs.

 

Rumours from the East of revolution:

The Russians might well pull out of the fight.

The Easter Rising cranks up more confusion.

A fresh offensive must be now in sight

With talk of improved tactics every night.

‘It’s coming, Sarge. It can’t be far away.’

‘Maybe, but we’ll be ready, lads,’ you say.

 

V

9 April 1917 – Outskirts of Arras, France

(1)

Five days the guns have fired

On Germans buried just ahead

To ‘soften them up’ and cut their wire.

 

Under Arras thousands wait

And listen to the shrieking shells

As they bombard without a break.

 

Even in this citadel

Below the earth the guns burst through

Your ears, your head, your every cell,

 

Reverberate and numb you to

A gaping statue, ghostly white,

Incapable of thought, but you

 

Must do the rounds by candlelight

And buck the boys up with good cheer,

Give a hand if they can’t write

 

Their letters home to sweethearts dear

And praying parents back in Blighty

Who could never dream what’s here.

 

You’ve been above, in thundering night,

To see, through periscopes, objectives

For the hurling, howling, headlong flight

 

Right through No Man’s Land, (perspective

Altered by the lenses), close-

Seeming, so that this directive

 

To attack may be, who knows,

Not quite as stupid as it seemed

To you, this morning, when disclosed.

That’s what you tell the lads at least,

As you explain to them the scheme.

 

(2)

Now your boys are huddled round,

Ready to ascend to hell,

Muttering prayers against the pound

 

Pound, pound, pound of shells,

Crumpled pictures close to hearts

In pockets, as they try to quell

 

The body-trembling terror darts

Which fly from head to toe. Mr

Lamb, thumbs up, starts

 

Up the steps, draws his pistol,

Shouts, and out into the ditch.

You slap the backs of boys resisting.

 

‘Go on lads! Let’s leave this pit

And get some fresh air in our lungs!’

Your wit: they shake and smile at it.

 

Mr Lamb will lead Wave One,

Wave Two (with you) will give them cover

With fatal fire from Lewis guns,

 

Wave One down, then Two will be over

In the Boche trench fair and square,

And… finish off survivors.

There won’t be much left living there,

Once you have poked round everywhere.

 

(3)

Five thirty and they fire the flares.

Wave One spring up with Lamb and dash.

The creeping barrage bucks the air.

 

No Man’s Land erupts in flashes.

Earthen fountains fly sky-high.

You and Wave Two dodge the crashes,

 

Slam against a crater’s side,

Spray the guns to shield Wave One,

Then up again for one last time.

 

Wave One fires. Lamb is down.

Wave Two stabbing Huns.

You hit the ground.  No-one around.

No sound… No sound.

No sound… No sound.

 

No sound .

VI

13 April 1917- Hotel Mont Dore, Bournemouth

Starched nurses butterfly-bob from bed

To bed, changing dressings, chatting, pushing

Men in chairs on parquet boards, heads

Bandaged, drinking cups of tea; shushing

Curtains, white, white, plumped-up cushions,

Surgical smells, rustling cotton sheets,

A vase of roses at your clean, dry feet.

 

The clipboard on the washstand  next to you:

Shrapnel – head and thigh (Removed Calais).

Your leg is strapped up tight, your head is too.

A smoothly-spun, white turban overlays

Your thud-throbbing brain and half your face.

Around you in regimental rows

Lie shrouded human shadows, trying to doze.

 

You send a card to John and Martha so

They know you’re here and safe, not far away

From Portsmouth. When they come they’ll want to know

What happened outside Arras just four days

Ago, to you, and others, young and brave.

But how much can you tell them? Can you bring

The dash back to your mind, or anything?

 

‘Oh Son, what have they done to you?’ she says.

‘It’s alright Mum, it could have been much worse.’

‘Much worse than this?’ she gasps, as she lays

Soft hands on yours and John shouts a curse

On Kaiser Bill, which gets a passing nurse

To say, ‘Enough of that for now, Sir. Please!’

And John, back in his place, looks ill at ease.

 

‘They came to get me Dad,’ you wince and strain.

‘My boys came back to get me from the hole.’

‘It’s OK Son, don’t tell it all again,’

Says John. ‘You need to rest, forget it all.’

But that is easier said than done, your soul

Is scarred forever with that memory.

You want to go back soon across the sea.

 

‘We got there really fast across the gap.

At first I thought we might all make it there,

But Mr Lamb, in front, fell fast, poor chap.

I had to take the lead, get up and tear

Across the bursting holes and wire snares

And take my men to cover from the shells.

My ears felt full of shrapnel, and I fell.’

 

Martha folds her face as you recount

The story of the boys and how they helped

You into shelter, life in doubt.

‘Thank God they got the pieces of the shell

Out from your head and leg,’ she gulps,

‘You’re not going anywhere, my lad.

You’re staying put right here with me and Dad.’

 

They leave you now to rest, and you lie back,

But all you want to know is what’s become

Of your platoon, and whether the attack

Succeeded. Did the enemy succumb?

How many made it through? – Anyone?

No-one knows, or no-one wants to say.

One day you’ll know it all, but not today.

 

VII

11 November 1918 – 4th Officer Cadet Battalion, Oxford

You’re going to be a ‘temporary gentleman’:

The public schoolboy’s dying fast in France.

Of course, they’ll never think of you as genuine;

‘Not one of us, you know.’ They’ll look askance.

But for the war you wouldn’t get a glance.

Tomorrow morning you will be commissioned,

Second Lieutenant Symons (with conditions).

 

‘Gentleman; I have historic news!

The armistice was signed this morning, early.

The end of fighting! Eleven o’clock it’s due!’

The company commander leads the hurly-burly ,

Tears, prayers, cheers. But this will surely

Scupper all your plans of going back

To give the fight in France another crack.

VIII

1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

The war to end all wars did not. And so

You watch as London burns for months on end,

You see young men fall from the sky again.

But you keep cool, collected, even though

The scars you bear, the friends you left out there,

Must seem to count for nothing anymore.

Would you have made Headmaster without war?

Your wife, your son, your life all stem from there.

And now? 

. . . . . . . . . .  The echoes of those wars repeat:

Human bombs explode instead of shells,

Innocent civilians face the hell,

And soldiers, heads in hands, beg on our streets.

Much has changed today, and much…not yet

I hope you’re proud of us: we won’t forget

Pug miss

They were sitting at the wooden table in the front of the holiday cottage they had rented in Hall-Dunderdale in the Lake District, enjoying breakfast in the sunshine. There were cups of tea and boiled eggs with brown toast on a plastic tray from the little kitchen. 

Despite the cloudless sky the air was fresh. The wagtails sang as they rocketed and plummeted in the wind, ewes called for their lambs in the nearby fields, cows bellowed in the stinking shed across the narrow road. The red-faced fells looked down on the valley from each side. 

The two pugs, Ollie and Delly, in their harnesses but without leads,  were up on their hind legs nosing the edge of the table hoping for scraps. Something caught their ears and they threw themselves into short bursts of body-jerking barking at the road through the gateless entrance to the front garden of the cottage. 

Veering round the bend fifty yards up the road was a black Astra with two young men inside wearing wooly hats. Music thumped through the body work of the car.  Its tyres thudded on the uneven tarmac like a drum roll. 

The pugs twisted, made four foot contact with the gravel by the table, and  kicked it backwards as they reared towards the road. 

As she looked up it seemed to her that the pugs and the Astra were drawn closer together with each bark and each beat. 

The table was the type you see in pub gardens with benches attached on each side. As she struggled to stand up her legs became wedged between the edge of the table top and the edge of the bench. 

Her hands frantically wiped an invisible glass screen through which she watched the imploding scene. ‘No, no!… Come back!’ she shrieked at the dogs. Then, ‘Stop!… Dogs!…. There’s two of them!’ at the the Astra. 

She lifted each leg in turn out of the timber trap of the table, scraping the skin of her shins against the wood.  But she felt nothing. All her attention was on the road. 

The car had slowed to a walking pace and the dogs were jumping up to reach the elbow of the boy in the passenger seat as he leant out of the window, grinning. The car stopped. 

‘Ello luv…are they poogs?’ the passenger laughed. 

Her hands had covered her forehead and eyes as if she were playing hide and seek with the boys. Her hair flopped over them and was straggling between her white fingers. 

She slowly uncovered her eyes and let her hands drop. ‘Oh my God!… Oh my God!’ She panted. This was how she had reacted to the torture scene in Versailles on the TV the night before, but this time she was in the scene herself. 

She looked around her. 

Somehow she was standing in front of the car and slightly to the passenger side of it, over the bonnet. The pugs were straining up to lick the boy’s fingers which by now were dangling down the door of the Astra.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They are pugs… Sorry… I should have had them on leads… I didn’t realise… ‘

‘Maybe it’s you who should be on the lead luv. We nearly ran you orver.’ Said the driver. 

‘It’s just that their uncle Boris was hit by a car and died in London a year ago.’ Her face crumpled and her lips trembled. ‘It was awful.’ she said. 

‘Don’t worry… W’or used to ’em’ ere luv.’ Said the driver. ‘Get oop on the fells wi’ em. Yarl be safer thur… ‘ave a nice day!’

The tyres kicked gravel back along the road as they sped off again, laughing.

She dragged the pugs back into the cottage, sobbing, and sat down on the sofa clinging them to her and kissing their snuffling heads.

Pug walk

At eight o’clock the two pugs, Ollie and Dellie, wake me up licking any exposed parts. I pull on some clothes while they stretch out on the duvet like pigs hanging in a butcher’s window. We file down to the kitchen for harnesses and leads, then they hurtle down the stairs, bottoms working like speed walkers’. They paw at the front door, barking to get out. Half asleep I form up, open the door, and we are out onto the narrow lane in front of Wave Crest. They are off. Straight over the sea wall and on to the shingle beach with its sloping hardwood groynes. They head straight to the nearest bushes cocking legs urgently. 

We walk over two groynes to the favourite poo spot. I delve in my coat pocket for the crinkly black bags. This is the last thing I need at this time in the morning but one becomes inured after a while. This must be how new parents feel all the time I suppose. The bulging bags go into the red bin, weirdly like a post box, reserved for ‘dog waste’.

Then we are into the social phase of the outing. The regulars with their owners turn up most mornings. I only know the names of the dogs – Rudy the chocolate labrador, Pigsy the terrier, Teddy the labradoodle. There is running and jumping amongst the tussocks, tail biting, whoops of joy. I am slowly coming to, but they would carry on walking for hours quite happily. I, having breathed back the first menthol of the day, am ready for a cup of PG Tips.

‘Brekkie… Come on pugs!’

They stop in their tracks and run over, leaving the throng, the promise of food trumping all other distractions. I shuffle back to the front door. The pugs are there already scratching to get in. They bound up the stairs to the kitchen. I trudge behind. Now we are into the vocal phase of the morning. As soon as bowls are spotted the high-pitched yelps and howls begin from Dellie. Ollie waits patiently for his, allowing his brother to do the talking for both. They gulp down the crunchy biscuits and meat pate, changing places two or three times, licking every last morsel until the bowls are spotless. They lick each others faces and whiskers clean.

The day has started. Without them I would still be in bed.

Slipping away

As Tom sat at the gate-legged table things were slipping away. 

His memory was not what it used to be, starting with the names of people he had known for years, and who now scrambled themselves up together so that he thought he was talking to one when actually he was with another altogether. Why the bemused looks? He knew exactly who he was with. 

His children’s childhood had slipped away too. He thought of them more as friends now. He saw one or other of them most days. They made fun of his odd little ways, which he had always had, but which were emerging from their privacy more regularly nowadays. He’d taken to eating out every night because he had never cooked anything and had no interest in learning, and because he hated eating alone in the house. It always felt like being stood up every evening there. 

Restaurants encouraged the odd little ways to come out.  On his arrival at the Indian a pile of poppadoms and a tray of chutneys appeared swiftly at the table with a small bowl, warmed. He liked to eat out of a bowl. He had got this from the only other restaurant he went to, a Chinese. He would linger at this stage, prolonging the time away from the house. Once he’d ordered the main course the waiter would reach to take away the menu. He would snatch it back. He liked to keep it at the side of his plate for the rest of the meal. You never knew when you might want to consult it. He once asked for soy sauce to go with his chicken tikka (starter size). The young waiter had tilted his head to one side. He probably didn’t know what soy sauce was. Whatever the meal or restaurant, Tom always finished with one… yes ONE scoop of vanilla ice cream please. Variety might be the spice of life, but not when you were eighty seven. 

His daughter had a thing about his wardrobe which had taken on an enduring quality. A purple jumper,  which now hung generously about him, could appear every day for a month. Years ago he had sported a pair of towelling swimming trunks on the Thanet beaches for close on a decade.  In the end his wife Mary had spirited them away to a neighbour’s rubbish bin. He had searched high and low for them. He had given up swimming (and beaches) shortly after that. 

Around him in the dining room the dark green wood chip wallpaper was bare, the Welsh dresser’s shelves empty, the occasional tables unladen, the life sucked off them. And he was alone. Mary had died three years before suddenly. This was good for her but not for him he told people in the pub.  She was an angel. Her domain was the home and she ran it really well. He had never before lived on his own. 

At first he couldn’t imagine what he was going to do all day. When it turned out to be not very much he settled into it without self-examination. The afternoons dragged. He would sit in front of the TV with the twenty-four-hour News Channel on (sound off). The highlight of the day was at six in the evening when he went to the pub which he and Mary had frequented together for twenty five years. Now even their friends there had started to slip away. 

After three years of this he was in a rut. He was going through the motions. So he was delighted when his daughter and son-in-law suggested they have his house enlarged, and sell theirs, and move into his place with their three teenage kids. He would move in with them while the works at his were completed. They could take care of him and he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. They would all be together. Light at the end of the tunnel at last. But now the solitary period of his life was slipping away to nothing he had become more anxious about it all. A new bed would never be as comfortable as his own. There was his bad back to think of. He was fine here really. So now his home was slipping away as well. He didn’t know if he was coming or going. People at the pub asked him when he would be moving out for the work. He couldn’t remember. Or he wouldn’t remember. What was going on?  

He lifted his head from his hands and saw a fresh spring gust of wind detach the last dead leaves from the Sycamore trees at the end of the garden. They settled on the bushy grass. 

There was a knock on the front door, a key in the lock, and someone came in. He looked round.  

“Hi Daddy… you ready?”

“Oh… Hello darling… Sorry,  I wasn’t expecting you…Am I ready for what?”

Harbour Street 

Nose down Harbour Street in beating sun, 

See quirky shops and cafes one-by-one

Link arms against the onslaught of the chains,
Who every year set out to stake their claims.

Bars on every corner so it seems,
Though elsewhere publicans give up their dreams.

The trippers trip in traffic as if blind,
I too remember how it was first time,

To smell the chips and touch the oyster shells.
I can’t be mad  –  this magic overwhelms.

And who can blame them all for liking here?
I came one day and stayed for twenty years.

It’s fresh, it’s free, it’s fun, the people smile,
Look healthy, happy, hippy, seaside-style.

 

Photo by Nigel Wallace

Catherine comes home

Adapted from “Grace Notes” by Bernard MacLaverty*

Sound of muffled street noises from outside. Catherine going up steps to the first floor. Sound of chatter behind kitchen door. 

Catherine knocks on the door. 

Mrs McKenna: Come in.

Chatter stops. Sound of door opening. Sound of women sitting at the table buttering stacks of bread. Mrs McKenna gets to her feet. 

Mrs McKenna: Catherine!

They hug and both start to cry. 

Catherine: Ma!.. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Mrs McKenna blows her nose loudly.

Friend: We’d better make ourselves scarce, girls.

Mrs McKenna: Stay where you are. We’ll go into the other room

They move out on to the landing.

Catherine: Where is he?

Mrs McKenna: In there. Your old room. But we’ll go in the living room first. Come on.

Sound of a young woman cleaning, tipping ashtrays into a bin.

Mrs McKenna: Geraldine, can you finish this place later?

Geraldine: Surely Mrs McKenna… Catherine!

Catherine: Geraldine Scully!

Geraldine: The very one. I’m awful sorry. About your father… Oh, and sorry, I’ll see you later… She leaves

Mrs McKenna: Would you look at this place? Bottles and ashtrays everywhere. There was some crowd in last night.

Catherine: Did you stay up all night?

Mrs McKenna: No.. till about two. The doctor gave me a pill to knock me out. I just went to bed and left Paddy in charge

Catherine: Paddy?

Mrs McKenna: Paddy Keegan, our barman. He’s been great. Just took over. One of the world’s most genuine men. I don’t know what I’d have done without him. He put the notice in the papers –worded it nicely and all –got Carlin’s, the undertakers –drove the whole way to Cookstown to register the death. Aw, Paddy’s been great –he’s away home for a sleep now.

Catherine: When’s the funeral?

Mrs McKenna: From here tonight at seven. Then in the morning at ten. From the church… How are you?

Catherine: I’m fine.

Mrs McKenna: So you’ve moved off the island?

Catherine: Yeah.

Mrs McKenna: To Glasgow?

Catherine: Yeah… How did you get my number?

Mrs McKenna: Paddy spent the whole day on the phone, contacting everybody. He’s a gem.

Sound of a lorry climbing the hill outside in low gear. Hammering.

Catherine: What happened?

Mrs McKenna: A massive heart attack. He’d had one or two wee warnings but . . .

Catherine: Where was he?

Mrs McKenna: He said he wasn’t feeling great. Yesterday morning. Was it yesterday or the day before? God, I don’t know which end of me is up. Anyway, he felt sickish and had a bit of a pain across the chest here. And he’d been having these pains in his upper arm, of all places. I told him to take his tablets. And off he went, down to open the bar. The next time I saw him he was dead. They’d put him on two tables, rather than leave him on the floor. Malachy McCarthy and Jimmy were the ones who were with him. The early drinking crew.

Catherine: Oh mum. Come here.

They hug.

Mrs McKenna: This is getting us nowhere.

Catherine: That was terrible about the bomb.

Mrs McKenna: I like the way you phoned to check we were all still alive.

Catherine: There’s days go by, weeks maybe, when I never see the news. I just didn’t know.

Mrs McKenna: We missed the worst of it. It went off further up the street. Your father was so angry about it. “It’s our own kind doing this to us”. That’s what he kept saying.

Catherine: The IRA?

Mrs McKenna: Who else?

Catherine: It’s awful.

Mrs McKenna: It’s a policy they have now. Blowing the hearts out of all the wee towns… You’re looking well.

Catherine: I don’t feel it.

Mrs McKenna: Is anything wrong?

Catherine: No –no . . . apart from my father being dead.

Mrs McKenna: You’d better come in and see him.

Catherine: I don’t know whether I can. Whether I want to. I’ve never seen anyone dead before.

Mrs McKenna: Did you not see Granny Boyd?

Catherine: No. You wouldn’t let me.

Mrs McKenna: Well . . .Maybe a cuppa tea, first?

Catherine: Yeah.

They go back into the kitchen. Sound of knives and an awkwardness in the silence.

Geraldine: Is that you two finished in there?

Mrs McKenna: Yes, love. I’m making more tea.

Geraldine: Some of us have work to do…. How’s the piano playing going?

Catherine: Fine.

Mrs Gallagher: Open another tin of salmon there. We’d be far better off giving everybody a couple of quid and sending them down to the Chinaman’s for chips with curry sauce.

Everybody agrees.

Catherine: ‘What’s it like?

Mrs Gallager: ‘Very handy. He’s open all hours. He didn’t do chips in the beginning –but it was the only way he could stay in business.

Mrs Steel: There you are now. That’s the wee cakes done. A feast fit for a king. She shakes an empty carton. Aw, don’t tell me… Would you look at that. There’s only one left. And I’ve another two trays to do. Imagine having only one hundred and thousand left. They all laugh. Our kids call them prinkles… Look at that.. The sole survivor.

Mrs Gallagher: The individual matters… I was that hundred and thousand… Sorry love. I hope we’re not upsetting you with our gabble.

Catherine: No, no.

Mrs Gallagher (whispering) : We’re here to get your mammy through it.

Mrs McKenna makes tea. Mrs McKenna pours the tea and hands the cup to her daughter.

Mrs McKenna: There you are… Milk?

Catherine: No.

Mrs McKenna: Sugar?’

Catherine: No.

Mrs McKenna: Changed times. I mind when you took three. I was always washing the sugar out of the bottom of your cup.

The sound of a Hoover whining and roaring from the living-room.

Mrs Gallagher: That Geraldine’s a great girl. She can do the work of ten.’

Sound of general agreement from the ladies.

Catherine: I’ll get my sleeves rolled up later.

The room falls silent. Next door the sound of the Hoover goes on and on.

Mrs Curran: Your da had a way with words, Cathy, didn’t he? Do you mind the night there was the fight in the bar –the night Barney Neary was in . . .

Mrs Gallagher: Barney Neary’s a dwarf from Newtownstewart. Not that height.

Sound of all the women smiling and chuckling.

Mrs Curran: And a battle royal started. Bottles and ashtrays were flying all over the place. And Brendan said, “The only man who hadn’t to duck was Barney Neary”. I can just hear him saying it.

They all laugh now.

Mrs McKenna: She’s an oul model and there’s no parts for her. That’s what he said about Nan in the Post Office. He heard all these sayings in the bar. There’s manys the one can hear the things but never tell them the way Brendan did.

Mrs Curran: Your father was a character.

Catherine: Maybe I should go and see him…Get it over with.

Mrs Gallagher: You’d never forgive yourself

Mrs McKenna: Who’s in with him now?

Mrs Gallagher: Bella.

Mrs McKenna: Do you want me to go in with you?

Catherine: I’ll be all right. Stay where you are.

*MacLaverty, Bernard, Grace Notes, Vintage: London 1998