I STILL MISS SOMEONE
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
Robert Browning: Bishop Blougram’s Apology
Turlough Barr, four years old, was being walked at the Black Lough by his mother Ruby and her brother William John. The field was full of cow clap and long thick grass trodden down by cows. There were hawthorn hedges covered in white blossoms, big bulges of yellow whin bushes. There were wee rolling hills and young trees on the skyline. The sky itself was mostly blue with a few wandering fat white clouds. The same wind that moved the clouds sometimes moved the trees and hedges.
Ruby was holding long daisies and buttercups and clover in her hands, and Turlough was up on his Uncle Billy’s shoulders. He was eating an ice-cream from Leckey’s shop, and the last of it ran down his chin and onto his corduroy jacket. He licked it off the cloth and one of the wee brass aeroplane badges fixed to the lapels.
‘This day’s got forty shades of green,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘As them musical people say. It’s great.’ He put a hand to the back of his head. ‘You’d have to watch them pokes, Turlough,’ he said. ‘They get all over the place.’
‘Uncle Billy’s hair,’ said Turlough.
‘I think you’ve been giving me some hairdressing,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘Like putting a shine on it.’
‘Ice-cream hair,’ said Turlough, digging his fingers into the hair and tossing it about. The thick long straw-coloured hair remained at odd angles. ‘Cows, Uncle Billy,’ said Turlough, twisting around so suddenly he nearly fell off his Uncle Billy. ‘The cows will eat your hair.’
‘The cows won’t do us no harm,’ said Uncle Billy. Half a dozen black and white heifers stood about watching them and chewing the grass. Uncle Billy was tall and broad and strong. The cows were far below. Uncle Billy smelt good.
‘Moo moo,’ said Turlough. His hand waved a pretend stick at the cows.
They were walking down to the water’s edge. Out there was the island with its single tall tree. Two swans swam around in long slow semi-circles between them and the island.
‘Oh, I wish I was out there,’ said Ruby. Ruby was a round-faced woman in her early twenties. Mousy-brown hair hung down to her shoulders from a side parting. ‘Out there on a boat, or swimming around like Dan and Martha.’ Dan and Martha were the swans. ‘I’d go out to the island, and get in under that big tree and stay there. Me and you, Turlough, and you, Billy. Go out there and live.’
‘How would you get the shopping over, ma?’ said Turlough.
‘The big bags of spuds,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘They would be the boys.’
‘Tie them on the swans,’ said Turlough.
‘Wash your clothes in the water,’ said Uncle Billy.
‘Make grass soup,’ said Turlough. He made slurping noises at her. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘Give my head peace, you two,’ said Ruby.
‘You’re getting hard to hold,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘You’re a big man. Bouncing about.’
‘Put me down, Uncle Billy,’ said Turlough. As Uncle Billy bent Turlough climbed off his shoulders. He picked daisies and buttercups and ran over the grass towards the lough side. He threw the daisies and buttercups into the water and watched the swans suddenly swivel in his direction. Seeing the swans coming towards him he ran back to Uncle Billy.
‘There’s no word from Brendan,’ said Ruby.
‘Were you expecting word?’ said Uncle Billy.
‘You never know. You live in hopes,’ said Ruby. They all stood at the lough side now.
‘Watch them cow pies,’ called Uncle Billy. Turlough had pulled up a stone the size of his hand from the edge of the water and stood with it poised over his head. He flung it into a heap of soft fresh cow clap. Brownie green globs flew over his legs and up in the air. Dan and Martha sailed away in parallel.
‘It’s like toffee,’ called Turlough. ‘Cowan’s toffee. This is cows’ toffee.’ He was clearly pleased with seeing that. ‘Liquorice toffee.’ There was some on his face.
‘Don’t lick that!’ called Ruby.
‘Bren’s far away to sea,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘He could be anywhere. Come here, Turlough.’
‘Hawaii,’ said Ruby. ‘Or the Bahamas. One of them hot places. Where the cannonballs live.’
Uncle Billy had a big linen hankie out in his hand. He wiped the green and brown cow clap from Turlough’s cheek. ‘I’ll get a job sooner or later,’ he said. He bent down to wipe the globs from the corduroy shorts. ‘We’ll be all right.’ Uncle Billy spat on the linen hankie and rubbed Turlough’s knees.
‘That’s not it,’ said Ruby. ‘I wish he was back.’ They went on along the side of the lough.
They had come to a low barbed-wire fence with a thin hedge of the yellow whin bushes.
‘There,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘I’ll help you all over.’
‘Are we going on round?’ said Ruby.
‘Might as well,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘Tire the boy out.’
Turlough was knocking yellow flowers off the whin bushes with a bit of stick a dog had chewed. Ruby, watching him, said, ‘You’ll never tire that one out.’
‘Maybe there’ll be somebody else,’ said Uncle Billy. He held Ruby’s hand while she stepped over the barbed-wire.
‘Oh aye,’ said Ruby. ‘Sure. For me.’
They both stood watching while Turlough tried to creep under the barbed-wire.
‘And I don’t want somebody else,’ said Ruby.
‘Just your black-haired Brendan man,’ said Uncle Billy.
‘Aaaagh,’ said Turlough. ‘It’s got me. The barbed-wire’s got my leg.’
‘What are you doing?’ said Uncle Billy. He raised the wire and helped Turlough to his feet. ‘Have you not got your own hankie?’ Turlough was looking down at the small trickle of blood on the back of his thigh. He shook his head. He put his fingers down into the blood, and held them up to show Uncle Billy. ‘Here,’ said Uncle Billy.’ He bent down and rubbed the rest of the blood off with the cow clap-stained linen hankie. There was red in the brownie green smears now. ‘And that’s the only hankie I have.’ He rubbed the hankie on Turlough’s hand.
He stood up. They went on in silence over the grass and reeds of the next field and down to the sluice. They stepped easily over the well tramped-down barbed wire fence between the field and the road, and stopped.
Ruby was looking to her left, the whole length of the lough running off on that side.
‘It’s too far round that way,’ she said. The wind that was moving the clouds and the hedges blew her hair across her face. She pulled it aside to see better. ‘Some day I’ll cut off all this bloody stuff.’
‘It is surely too far,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘We’ll go up here. Past where they’re building the new houses.’ They turned away from the lough and set off again.
‘Are you all right with all this walking?’ Ruby asked Turlough.
‘I’m sticking out,’ called Turlough. ‘I’m dandy.’ He had heard his Uncle Billy say those things.
‘God. That child,’ said Ruby.
On the left of the road now was the beginnings of a new housing estate. Big yellow JCB diggers dug and swivelled around in the muck. ‘It runs right over to Shackles Sawmill,’ said Ruby. Muscley-looking men in shirts and wellingtons with the tops turned down moved about and carried planks and scaffolding and tools. ‘For all the ones out of Washingford and places like that. There won’t be many Protestants in there.’
‘There won’t be any,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘Joe’s dancing, do you know that?’
‘It’s what you would expect from Joe,’ said Ruby. ‘Him and his Bucking Bronco friends.’
‘He’s spitting nails,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘But it won’t change anything. Have you heard what they’re calling it? Already?’
‘The Ponderosa,’ said Ruby. ‘Aye. I’ve heard that. Off Bonanza, that cowboy programme on the television.’
‘It’s a good one, isn’t it,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘Look at him.’ Turlough was shooting both of them down with his stick.
‘I’m Little Joe,’ he said.
‘How did you hear of that boy?’ said Uncle Billy.
‘I saw it on Seamus McGrath’s television,’ said Turlough. ‘I’m Hoss Cartwright now,’ he said.
‘You weren’t long changing your name,’ said Uncle Billy.
‘Are we going to the matinee on Saturday, Uncle Billy?’ said Turlough. ‘See the cowboys?’
‘Are you not going with Seamus McGrath and all them sisters?’ said Uncle Billy.
‘We might see Tarzan,’ said Turlough.
‘Leave your Uncle Billy alone,’ said Ruby.
‘But maybe then,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘We might.’ They had come to the bend of the road that took them around to the Windmill Hill.
‘Finnegan’s wee shop here will be doing a good trade when all the work’s done,’ said Uncle Billy. He nodded over at the only building on the road. A few more steps and they would be heading back towards the Protestant roads and the Protestant parts of town.
‘Can I have Cowan’s toffee?’ said Turlough.
‘I’m not made of money,’ said Ruby. ‘It doesn’t grow on trees.’ She had bent over and started putting her daisies and buttercups and clover in a row along the shop window-ledge.
‘I’m going for twenty cigarettes,’ said Uncle Billy. ‘Come in with me, young Turlough,’ he said. Ruby stood outside the shop. She was re-arranging the wild flowers.
When they came out Uncle Billy had the Tyrone Courier and twenty Silk Cut and Turlough had a bar of Cowan’s toffee, liquorice flavour. He had already chewed the end off it.
‘It’s like cow pies,’ he said, holding it up, showing the brownie green stringy bits. ‘It’s like eating cow pies.’
‘God. That child,’ said Ruby again.