AND THEN my father said.
“I don’t give a shit what you say boy, this is a different banjo!”
I was maybe three years old at the time which would have made it 1979. I stood next to my old man holding his hand in that pawn shop while he argued with the Indian owner that the banjo he had pawned earlier that week, the same one which he was buying back now was a different banjo. He’d have this argument with him every time and every time the Indian guy (who my dad called Gandhi) would offer him his sincerest apologies and an extra few quid for his trouble. I stood with my right hand in the air as my dad’s tough-palmed bear claw of a hand held on to stop me from wandering. I was small then so I spent a lot of time in the pawn shop on my tip-toes trying to get some circulation back in my arm.
“You listen here Gandhi, this is not my banjo and I don’t know what you think you’re playing at but in
we don’t try to rob people blind.” Ireland
“Mr. Morgan we have gone about this merry dance a thousand times, I beseech you this is the instrument you brought in on the fifth of this month and it is the same instrument you have in your hands now.”
“This will cost you Sonny-Jim, make no mistake about that.” he bellowed, finger wagging all the while.
And it did. It always did.
It was Christmas at the end of that month. My parents would buy me a Spiderman bicycle which I couldn’t ride on account of the Bing Crosby Christmas the streets of
with. It would turn to ice and see us
through to New Years Eve. Jack Morgan
would pawn my bike that month instead of his banjo which he had restrung and
taken back out to make some extra whiskey money. We wouldn’t see Gandhi that month to buy it
back and even if we did I wouldn’t imagine the old man would have protested
about it not being the same bike. Belfast
Our house on Rosapenna was small. It was small even for two people, thus my sister and I had to share a room. Mum decorated it as schizophrenically multi-sexual as she could to keep the fights between us to a minimum. Every once and a while she’d leave a doll on my side of the room, I’d remind her of the territory’s hostile division by scalping the Barbie and giving it a toilet bath, although all too often that resulted in one of my Action Men having Barbie’s clothing glued to him. The house was an end terrace that sat on the corner of the
surrounded by an overgrown green. Beside the house lurked an electricity
generator which hummed all day and night, as a child I stressed it would
overheat, catch fire and crisp us all where we lay, but it never did. We took the bus on Saturdays, all four short
stops into town. You could still smoke
on the bus back then and all public transportation was stopped at barricaded
checkpoints before it reached the city centre.
Passengers were paraded past soldiers and large snarling dogs; they’d
walk the rest of the way to their final destination.
My mum would send dad out with his kids every Saturday. At the time there was just the two of us; Mum had spent a lot of money having the kitchen in the small terrace refurbished so it doubled as a sweet shop. It was great as a kid but milk teeth didn’t last a shit. I was a sucker for the sherbet; even back then I had my vices. Saturdays were her busiest days; she’d work every hour that was sent her way without a break. She’d stop every now and then to chew on a toffee and chat to the neighbourhood parents while their kids greedily scrambled into the queue to surrender their pocket money. Dad was usually hung-over and in piss-poor form from it, he didn’t take kindly to people telling him what to do. He put up with it when it came to the shop because it meant we had a few more quid coming into the house, consequently he could afford to drain down a little more of what he brought in.
Every weekend started the same way. It was a god-damn ritual in the Morgan house. Ruth would rise at seven, make herself breakfast and set up the shop. The display cabinets and shelves were all collapsible and she kept them in the locked cupboard under the stairs. It meant that the yellow and green striped kitchen could at least resemble a home when the youth weren’t pounding on the door demanding strawberry shoelaces.
would wake before me and make enough noise getting dressed that I’d eventually
wake grumpy and ready for the micro Israel/Palestine bedroom war of the working
class domicile to begin all over again.
Our screaming would eventually wake the old man. He’d storm through the door in his white
vest, the top of his black and grey mixed head pointing in whatever direction he’d
collapsed the night before. He’d clip us
both once around the back of the legs for getting him out of bed, the sting
would become enough that the slightest sight of his glassy hound-dog peepers in
the morning would stop us still as broken clocks. He’d go back to bed and we’d resist the urge
to kill one another but within the hour Mum would be up the stairs dragging her
beer soaked brute of a man out of his sack and towards the bathroom.
“C’mon Jack for Christ’s sake it’s almost ten.” she’d insist even though all the clocks stated nine-twenty.
“Don’t rush me woman, I’m sick. I’ve a terrible illness this morning and you’re starting to wind me right the-fuck up!”
“You want to come lend a hand with the screaming, snotty kids and their sticky money?”
“You see me moving towards the bathroom? Let me drop a deuce and shave my face in peace woman if I’m meant to spend all day running around the town with the kids.”
“Be quick about it. I’ll get them ready.”
In our blue and pink bedroom we’d have heard everything and would be in the process of getting ourselves dressed. I always gravitated towards a Batman tee shirt, which somehow was never clean at the weekend. I don’t think I ever got to wear that tee into town. Pulling it up over my head Mum would place a plain one on me; tie my shoes even though I could do it myself and send me downstairs to wait on my father.
appear a few minutes later and the dirty looks we’d traded in our eight-by-ten
would cease and be replaced by the same hope.
I guess we thought if we both hoped it hard enough we’d get our way.
Queen Street in the centre of town was the home of Leisure World. It was what Toys R Us is to the kids of today only not as flash. The building resembled a carpeted car-park as it had a ramp through the middle leading to the first floor instead of stairs and it was clearly divided. Boy’s toys to the left, girl stuff to the right – just like our room. We’d take the bus into town, it’d look like a Rastafarian road trip with the amount of smoke wafting out of it as the driver cracked open the door to let us on. We weren’t ignorant about cigarette smoke then, we knew all about the health issues but we didn’t give a fuck. We were a country of people killing each other over how the other side pronounced ‘H’, like it would matter a fuck when we all had throat cancer and spoke with robotic voices.
During the short journey to the edge of Royal Avenue and the military checkpoint I’d wind Dad up by asking him inane questions, I never meant to do it – it was just the developing mind of a child looking up to the only male influence he had around him. What chance did I stand?
“Daddy, did you know dogs can only see in black and white?”
He’d grumble something. He knew this was the start of it.
“If they only see in black and white how do they watch cartoons?”
“They probably don’t watch a lot of cartoons
Douglas, they’re probably too busy dragging their arses
across the carpet or chewing on the arms of furniture or shit like that.” he
replied while sparking up a cigarette with the flick of a match.
“If they don’t see in colour do you think maybe they don’t hear the same as us too?”
“Dad, did you hear me? Do you think maybe dogs don’t…”
“Do me a favour son, fuck up a little about dogs ok?!”
And that would be our interaction. At the checkpoint Jack would be brought forward and passed through first on account of him having two small children with him. They never worried about men with children. We didn’t have anything like child soldiers back then; maybe the odd dwarf but nothing militant.
Once through the checkpoint
would squeeze on his hand and ask the question, the only question that ever
mattered to a three year old boy on a weekend day.
“Can we go to Leisure World Daddy?” she had learned to bat her eyes.
“Maybe in a bit…not right now.” he was immune to eyes.
He’d have us tell Mum we spent the day in Leisure World but the truth of the matter was we’d end up one street down from the pleasure emporium in my dad’s own special version of Leisure World – Copperfield’s Bar. Back then our lives revolved around three streets. Queen Street with the ever elusive toy store, Fountain Street containing Dad’s favourite watering hole and the street running up between both of them Castle Street. The street where Dad spent a lot of his time busking. All too often the money made from plucking on his four string banjo never made it any further than around the corner onto
Sitting us in the corner next to the slot machine, the saddest slot machine in the land as the lights had been punched out and never fixed, he set two cokes in front of us and told us to…
“Be quiet, sit still and don’t disturb anyone. It’s rude, and you don’t want me to have to tell your mother about you being rude do you?”
We would both shake our heads furiously and he’d take the five steps over to his stool by the bar where a Guinness and a whiskey were waiting for him. This was most Saturdays. In the afternoon he’d switch to vodka because you couldn’t smell it on his breath and he believed he had a higher tolerance for it. The screaming matches when we got home usually suggested this wasn’t based on any quantifiable evidence.
It was a Saturday coming up to Easter; I was full up on chocolate. Jack had woken late again, we’d got dressed in silence and ventured into town on the 93 with its windows two inches thick with nicotine stains. Dad needed new strings for his banjo so we called to the only store he liked to shop in and stood around not touching anything while he picked through his pockets for some loose change.
“I think that little fella in that buy-back shop is playing silly buggers with me and fraying my strings each month.” he’d comment while waiting for the cashier to ring up his purchase.
Wellington Place we
were tantalisingly close to Leisure World, we could almost feel the glow of the
store’s display window on our pale little faces. We were equally as close to
Copperfield’s. Dragging us across at the
lights we missed the turn off towards the toys.
It was another afternoon in that light absorbing bar, staring at
ourselves in the mirror that stretched the depth from the front door to the
stooled counter at the back.
“Right!” Dad proclaimed clapping his hands together thunderously “Which one of you fine gentlemen want to buy me a drink?!”
His offer was met with a deafening groan of indifference. Even then I got the impression that my old man wasn’t much liked. I’d see it in years to come in a thousand different people; it’s all about the company you keep. Full pockets and an inclination to share and you had the world beating on your bedroom door to befriend or fuck you silly but with a pocket full of lint and stray copper coins, you’d know for sure you were a friendless, deadbeat asshole.
“Those your kids, Jackie?” a tall man asked.
“No Clive I won the little one in a raffle, spot me a drink and I’ll pay you back.”
“No, when will you pay me back?”
“When I have it Clive, or is my word no good here no more?” Dad barked.
A Guinness and a whiskey appeared before him in a matter of moments and he went about patiently waiting for the dark velvet drink to settle before draining off half of it in one sip leaving him with a funny white moustache and a calmness around him I never saw at home.
“What’s your name little girl?”
One of the regular faces stooped over
Tara. His balance unsteady, his face hard and
spiky. He was as unsure on his feet as a
Tara.” answered my
“Why don’t you come over to my table Tara, you can pull up on my knee and I’ll tell you a wonderful story.”
“My mummy says I’m not to talk to strangers!” she countered.
“Well I’m Dennis, and since we’re no longer strangers Tara…”
“Cut that shit out Dennis!” Clive yelled from behind the hard wood counter “I’ve told you before, sit your hole in that corner and keep your knee to your-fuckin-self or I’ll club you!”
Dad said nothing; only after Clive glared at him with his eyes all but hanging out of his head did he look up from his drink.
“Stay away from Dennis kids, you hear me?!” our education about Dennis and his kind complete.
It was pushing and Dad was still propped at the bar, we had an hour left to get to Leisure World – it wouldn’t happen but we were kids and we still believed strongly in the power of hope. Somehow he had managed to convince Clive to extend his tab to another five or six rounds, he even convinced Dennis to buy him a couple as compensation for him trying to fiddle with his daughter.
The building shook in its foundations. Two large bottles of spirits came off the wall, the chandelier danced in the fittings making a sound similar to that of Santa flying overhead. The wall length mirror cracked in several places with each break racing to be the first to make the middle. Getting to his feet Jack grabbed each of us in his callus-riddled hands and dragged us out of the bar. Clive followed shepherding the weekend Alco-army outside to prevent them from drinking him dry while he figured out what just happened. Fountain Street was rushed with a tsunami of soot coming towards us from
Wellington Place. Sirens rang out in all directions and then a
second bang shook us in our shoes before the grey wave washed over us blinding
It took hours to get out of town that Saturday; checkpoints in all directions were queued around the block and the military had their weapons ready and their dogs at work. We made it through under a tirade of insults.
“Fucking Irish bastards!” hurled one of the soldiers.
“You watch your tongue.” spat my dad, his eyes were lazy, footing unsure. He got that way on whiskey.
“Take you out of that uniform and you’re just a little shit. If my kids weren’t here I…”
“You’d what you fucking Mick?” snarled the soldier.
They looked set to butt heads when an officer came over with a thick well-to-do English accent and instructed the soldier to duties elsewhere. He marched off and the rest of them give their C.O a look of disgust mixed with disappointment. You could tell they didn’t respect him. Maybe he hadn’t earned his stripes; maybe they just wanted to watch a mouthy Paddy get his dough-hole stomped.
Once past the checkpoint we’d discover the bus service had been suspended due to the bombing in the city centre and would have to walk it home. I knew better to ask my dad any questions when he was like this – Mum didn’t.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?! You took our kids to that fucking dirty old bar, almost got them blown up, almost got yourself kicked to death! Do we not have enough money problems Jack? Is life not challenging enough for you?!” she poked.
“Do not talk to me like that Ruth!” he replied, mostly with spit “I will not take this shite from a woman!”
“Well fuck off then and find yourself a man to take it from!”
The thump sounded louder than the explosion as I sat at the foot of the stairs by the living room door listening. I could see Mum fall in the reflection, cast darkly across the glass panel in the living room door which sat half open. Dad stood over her, his hand turned to rock on the end of his wrist and shaking with adrenaline.
“Is that all you got in you, you fucking drunk!” she threw back.
He hit her again and again. She had a delicate little face and he was set on altering it forever. She’d get vertical enough to push him off her and would rush past me in a blur quickly followed by him screaming you want more woman, I’ll give you fucking more. The stairs sat between the doors to the kitchen and the living room, I turned on the stair and had a direct view into the kitchen which still looked like a shop. He caught up with her at the worktop and spun her around on her heels. She was prepared though. Make no mistake about it, Ruth Morgan had a temper too. What chance did I stand? Her right hand came round as he rotated her and slammed down on his chest. Jack took a step back, shocked at the sight of a fish fork sticking out of his barrel, a matter of inches from where his heart may have been. He hit her again and she dropped to the ground, her lip was fat and her left eye purple by this point. As he contemplated yanking the cutlery from his chest she rose with a hammer and took a swing for his face. She missed and he got out of there fast.
“You touch me again Jack Morgan and I will cave your bastard head in!” she screamed chasing him out of Rosapena and on to the
I stood by the door as houses and shops evacuated in a show of extreme curiosity as my parents tried desperately to kill each other. An elderly woman threw me a look of sympathy as she dithered by our front door. Me, this dirty little child covered in soot like a Victorian chimney sweep, my mum with her multi-coloured punch-bag face swinging a hammer at a drunk with a fork in his chest. She shook her head and pitied my situation, pitied my life before it had even begun. Defiantly I snarled back at her and give her the finger; my three year old stumpy little middle finger cocked and loaded with a big old fuck you. I turned and walked back into the kitchen and helped myself to a pocket full of sweets. Mum hadn’t learned yet what Clive knew. I sat and raged at that sorrowful sign of compassion from that stranger all the while eating cola cubes.
Fancy two more chapters? >