Authors: Roddy Doyle
I knew nothing for a while, where I was, how come I was on the floor. Then I saw Charlo's feet, then his legs, making a triangle with the floor. He seemed way up over me. Miles up. I had to bend back to see him. Then he came down to meet me. His face, his eyes went all over my face, looking, searching. Looking for marks, looking for blood. He was worried. He turned my head and looked. His face was full of worry and love. He skipped my eyes.
—You fell, he said.
I had an older sister, Carmel, and two younger, Denise and Wendy, and three brothers, Roger, Edward and George, all younger — George is still only a teenager, the same age as my Nicola. Then there were my mother and father, Hilda and Roger. The O'Learys of 97, St Francis Avenue. No cats or dogs.
Wendy is dead. She was six years younger than me. She did a bit of babysitting for us; she was great — she'd get up in the morning with the kids and give them their breakfast so we could stay in bed. So
could stay in bed. She was lovely, a lovely figure, smashing black hair — like an ad. Nicola and John Paul were mad about her. They never minded when we were going out because that meant that Wendy was going to be staying for the night. Myself and Charlo really went out in those days, not just down to the local pub although we did that as well. We made an effort, went into town to the pictures. We even went back to some of the dances we'd gone to before we were married. For a while. I didn't drink as much then, only when we were out, on special occasions — I can't remember what they were. Wendy was the passenger on her boyfriend's motorbike and he drove it into the wall of a bridge in Wicklow, somewhere near Glendalough. In broad daylight. He lost control of it or something, skidded. He was going too fast, something like that; I don't understand motorbikes or driving. She'd only been going with him for a couple of weeks. Mammy and Daddy didn't know he had a bike. She'd never told them. The Guards came to their door. Eddie came to ours.
It was a happy home. That's the way I remember it. Carmel doesn't remember it like that and Denise won't talk about it at all because, I think, it would mean that she'd have to take a side, mine or Carmel's.
I remember lying in my cot just below the bedroom curtain that v/as blowing in and out over me; the curtain had flowers on it. The sun was on the wall when the curtain blew into the room. There were noises from downstairs, the radio and my mammy humming and putting things on the table. I was warm. Carmel was asleep in her bed. Denise wasn't born. That's the first thing I can remember. I think it's all the one memory, that it all happened at the same time. I think it's true. I'm not sure but I think there's another part — my father in the coal shed scraping coal off the floor into the bucket, the screech of the shovel on the concrete. If it did happen then it must have been the weekend because the fire was never lit on weekday mornings. I don't trust that bit, because I always loved that noise, something about it, even now — maybe knowing that there was a lovely big fire coming. The cot was white, chipped so that some of the wood underneath showed. There was a picture of a fawn at the end where my head was. I thought it was a dog until years later when my daddy took it down out of the attic for Eddie. When I saw it again — I was eleven — it was a fawn. I checked the chips where the white was missing to see if it was the same cot. It was. When I think of
together I see the curtain blowing and the sun on the wall and being snug and ready for the day, before I start thinking about it like an adult. I see flowers on the curtains — but there were never flowers on the curtains in our room. I asked my mammy when I was over there last week did we ever have flowery curtains and she said No, they'd never changed them, always stripes.
I told Carmel. The three of us, the three sisters, went for a few drinks — children's allowance day — and I told them, my first memory. She was sneering before I'd finished but it was too late to stop. It was the drink that made me tell it; otherwise, I'd never have told Carmel. She's a hard bitch.
—Lucky you, she said. —D'yeh want to know what my first memory is?
—No, I said.
—I'll tell yeh.
—I don't want to know.
—I listened to yours —
—I don't want to know, I told her. —You can keep it.
I can give her back as good as she gives. It took me years to realise that it didn't matter that she was the oldest; it didn't mean that she always had to be right or that she had to have the last word. She still thinks it matters; that's her problem. I like her, though. I love her. I feel sorry for Denise sometimes, stuck between us. They've been great to me over the years, my two sisters. They won't let me tell them that, but they have; they've been just brilliant. I'd never have done what I did — I'd never have finished it — without them helping me.
My mammy lost two babies between me and Roger; she had two miscarriages. I was 1956 and Roger was 1959. She only told me about them two years ago; I'd never have known. I can remember her smiling, patting my head, picking me up, fixing my dress properly on me, a yellow dress. She never yelled. Would I remember if I'd seen or heard her crying when I was still a baby? It really shocked me. She'd hidden it. She was always so gentle; she'd always had room for me. Carmel says it wasn't like that. She says she knew; she heard Mammy crying in their bedroom. She says that Daddy was never there. Maybe I only remember her dressing me because I dressed my girls, Nicola and then Leanne, the same way. I had a yellow dress for Nicola, and Leanne had it after her; it was still good. (I try not to make my kids wear hand-me-downs.) Maybe that's all I remember, me dressing Nicola, and I'm imagining the rest. But I remember it, the yellow dress. It was too big for me; it must have been an old one of Carmel's.
—I never had a yellow dress, she says.
I shouldn't have asked her.
—I hate yellow, she says.
—Yeah yeah yeah, I say.
I hate it when I say that, Yeah three times like that, especially when I say it to the kids. It's a habit I got from Charlo.
I lost a baby as well.
I liked being cold when I was little because there was always somewhere in the house that was warm, somewhere to go into; the kitchen or the living room. They were always warm. The cold pushed you into them. We all fitted, in front of the telly or at the table. I had a corner of Daddy's chair that was all my own. He blew his cigarette smoke so it looked like it was coming out my ears. Carmel doesn't remember that either. I don't know how he did it, made the smoke blow in both directions. I never saw him; I had to keep my back to him. Charlo couldn't figure it out either. He wanted to do it with John Paul. He tried it but he just blew the smoke straight into the back of his head.
There was more ice in the winter. Carmel agrees. If we threw water on the path outside the house before we went to bed there was a slide there in the morning. No one complained either. These days they'd sue you.
I sound like an oul' one. It was more than thirty years ago, though. Another thing I remember that doesn't seem to happen any more is freezing cold feet, cold that would make me cry. I remember being in school early and sitting in my desk and dying for the teacher to come in and turn on the heater because my feet were killing me, they were sore like a car had run over them or something really heavy and cornered had fallen on them. It was the cold. I had socks. I had proper shoes. I had porridge for breakfast.
Pop on the Flahav-ans.
I smacked my feet up and down and clenched my fists; it was agony. I wasn't the only one. We all complained about it. Mammy said it was growing pains — I think she said that — but it couldn't have been; my toes weren't the only parts of me that were growing but that was where all the pain was, and only in the winter. I've never been able to afford good shoes for my own kids —
shoes — and they've never complained about cold feet. Poor Leanne had to go through one whole winter in runners and she never whinged once. She got them drenched one day and I took them off her when she got home from school. I stuffed them with paper and put them up to the fire and hoped to God they'd be properly dry in the morning because I didn't have the money to get her another pair. They were still damp, a bit less than wet, at bedtime so I put them in the oven. I preheated it, then turned it way down and put them in. I sat in the kitchen for an hour and kept taking them out to make sure they didn't melt. It worked. I wanted Charlo to come in and see me, to see how desperate I was. He had money, I knew he did. The smell off his breath told me that. He didn't come home that night, though. I'm almost certain he didn't. (It kills me writing that and reading it —
could never afford good shoes for my kids.
I don't put all the blame on him, either.) My kids never complained though, and they would have if they'd been really cold. That's one of the good things about living where we live; you're never alone, there's always someone as badly off as you — there are plenty. Now and again it would be nice to see somebody worse off, but I only get that comfort from the telly, the reports from the Third World on the News. The pictures from Sarajevo were very bad but they all seemed to have good warm clothes. I always piled the socks on the kids, two pairs; they liked that. Nicola always liked two different colours so that the inside pair looked like a stripe; it looked very nice. John Paul always made sure that the inside socks were tucked well inside the outside ones, so they couldn't be seen. That's the difference between girls and boys.
There were no surprises at home; there were never any — even at Christmas. We knew what we'd be getting, the present from Santy and our Christmas clothes. I wanted a surprise once — because my best friend, Deirdre, was getting one. I was eight or nine, I think. I let Santy know that I wanted a surprise but I also told him in the letter what I wanted it to be, because Mammy had hinted at what I'd be getting and I didn't want to be wrong. There were no surprises, never any rings on the doorbell or faces in the kitchen window. What was left of Sunday's meat with boiled potatoes on a Monday; shepherd's pie on a Tuesday; I don't remember what there was on Wednesdays and Thursdays; cod on Fridays, with chips from the chipper — we'd have hated the fish without the chips; stew on Saturday. Ice-cream on Sundays; rice on Monday — when I woke up in the morning I knew exactly what was going to happen. I had my bath on Saturdays; I had the water after Carmel, me and Denise in the bath together. Mammy scrubbed, Daddy dried us.
—He did, Carmel.
—Ah Carmel; he did.
—Didn't he, Denise? I say. —He did.
He dried us; he made us disappear inside the towel and pretended he couldn't find us. Half-twelve mass on Sunday, halfway down the aisle on the right side. Daddy wore his blue suit. Mammy ironed his shirt on Saturday night, only his shirt. She did the rest of the clothes during the week, in the afternoon, listening to the radio. Daddy got his Sunday Independent in The Mint after mass, and the ice-cream. In the summer we went to Skerries or Bray after dinner. Bray was the best. I loved the long walk along the seaside and the railings. I didn't like swimming. I didn't mind getting wet but I hated having to get dried. We had picnics on the sand. We never had one of those rugs, the nice checked ones with the woollen frills around the sides; Mammy put all the picnic things on a cardigan or a jacket. I remember it like it's now, biting into sandy bread. It would have been disgusting at home or anywhere else but it didn't matter at the beach. I remember once we had our picnic in the rain.
—We'll stop if it gets heavy.
That was my mammy all over. Daddy went along with her. We were the only people there.
—Can we not go to a shelter?
That was one of the boys, probably Roger, the oldest.
—You heard your mammy.
We got Ninety-Nines or chips before we got on the train home, one or the other, depending on the weather. We all had to have the same, to stop any arguments. A bag of chips between two of us. Daddy made sure that we divided them fairly.
—Your turn. Now yours. That was a massive one he got so you're to get two small ones.
That was the type of tiling Charlo loved doing as well, playing with the kids like that. He was really great at it when he was in the mood.
We only ever went on holidays once. I checked, and Mammy says I'm right. We couldn't afford it, she says. We could have gone some years but it would have meant doing without things, and Mammy and Daddy didn't think it was worth it. They began to go more often later, when I was gone and married and most of the others were gone too. They went together to Spain the summer before Daddy died. Courtown was where we went for that holiday. I was thirteen; 1969. I loved it. We had a caravan for a week. We all fitted; the beds came out of nowhere. Mine and Carmel's was on top of the table; it came out of the wall and landed on the table. It was great except for having to go out into the dark to the toilet. The toilet was a big cement block in a corner of the park. The floor was always wet and uneven. They cleaned it every day but the smell always hung on. There was a section for women and a section for men. The boys said that the man's section was woeful. You washed there as well in the morning. There were four sinks in a row. You had to queue up. It was always cold in there. There were no windows, just a bulb hanging from a thick, crooked wire. I loved watching the women washing themselves, the way they could concentrate and talk. I never saw Mammy doing it. She always went in after us, after we'd ali been fed and were gone. She wouldn't let us hang around the caravan.
—Go out now and get some of God's fresh air.
That was what she always called the other side of the door, God's fresh air. She still does. She isn't religious or anything — big into religion, as Nicola would say. Daddy never said it. She must have picked it up before she met him. There was an emergency toilet in the caravan but Daddy said he'd kill us if any of us tried to use it. It was only a bucket with a fancy lid on it in a cupboard all of its own. Roger was determined that he was going to piddle into it before the end of the week. He didn't say anything; we just knew. He nearly made it. He had the lid up and his willy out when Daddy caught him. We didn't warn Roger. Daddy dragged him over to the toilets in the dark, and the ground was wet and muddy. Swing boats, bingo and chips. I remember a hill above the harbour and long grass and walking through it. I made a friend called Frieda. She was in the caravan three down from us. Her mammy was real nice; young and lovely looking. She lay on the beach all day and let Frieda do what she wanted and gave her far more money than I ever had. Frieda was an only child. Her daddy wasn't there. She said he worked in South America. I believed her then but I know better now. She lent me her blouse but took it back when I got chocolate on it. We met these two boys from Belfast. I can't remember my one's name; I got the second best. The other one was called Liam. He was sixteen and tall and I thought was he gorgeous. I couldn't understand a lot of what he said because of his accent but that made him even nicer. He was mysterious; God love me. Frieda told me later that she'd felt his thing leaning against her when they were kissing, behind the Crock O' Gold; it was pressing into her. I didn't ask any questions. I only liked my fella because he was Liam's friend. We found out later, after I'd let him put his hand on my breast — on top of my jumper — that they weren't really friends at all. They'd only met just before we met them. They had a fight two days after; my fella beat Liam. It was the first time I'd let anyone feel me. They were real breasts — only boys said
I had them before I left primary school. I didn't like him touching me but I felt great after it. I thought I'd grown up a bit; I'd got something out of the way. I liked kissing. He hadn't a clue; he just kept pressing his lips into my face. I had to get my tongue into his mouth and go round his teeth and then he followed me. He gasped; I remember it. The trick was stopping before your mouth got too sore, stopping and starting, giving your mouth a rest. Frieda got two love-bites. I didn't get any. My fella wouldn't have known how to give me one. Much more importantly, my mammy would have murdered me.