Grandma’s Gramophone – a story by Michael Collins

The wheelchair was uncomfortable and the retirement home smelt musty. Martin settled himself into the seat as best he could, trying to find the most favourable position for his withered and bony bottom and thighs. Ahead of him stretched another long day of inactivity. Since the stroke had paralysed his body but had left his mind intact he had had a long string of such days. Make the best of it, he thought. Use your mind. Think long and hard of good things and bad things. Spin the day out. So what’s today’s story that I’m going to re-tell myself? What about the inheritance I never had? That’s the one. He started to call up memories…

February was always cold. Outside, on that early morning in 1954, it had been damp and bone-chilling.

Martin ran the four hundred yards through the mist to the phone box. He never walked when he could run, never ran when he could sprint. His Dad had got him out of bed while his nose was just about sticking out from under the counterpane, the ice flowers thick on the bedroom window. He emerged from the warm covers reluctantly, washed and dressed briefly. Downstairs he found his father doing what Martin himself most enjoyed doing in the morning: laying the fire in the tiny grate. His father hushed his protests: ‘I know,” and pressed two pennies into his hand, ‘but I want you to run to the phone to find out how your Grandma is.”

Inside the red phone box he got his breath back. Lift the receiver and insert two pennies. Dial the number.

‘Hello. Warburton Hospital’, said a voice. He pressed button A.

‘Hello. Could you please tell me how Mrs Cotton is, ward sixteen?’

Unexpectedly the speaker asked who was making the enquiry. The lad stammered, explaining that he was her grandson and that, er, my Dad had asked me to call… His voice trailed off.

‘Just a second son’, said the friendly voice. ‘I’ll try to find out.’ He hoped that his two pennies would last.

The voice asked him if he was still there. He confirmed his presence.

‘And how old are you?’

‘Almost fourteen.’

‘Then you’ll have to be a brave lad. I’m afraid your gran died in the night. Can you tell your Dad to phone us immediately?’

He started to shiver. He would have to tell his Dad that his Mum had died. He was still trembling with apprehension when the kindly voiced asked him again if he was still on the line. He nodded silently, then realised how stupid that was, glad that nobody could see him do something so daft. He answered quietly that he was still there.

‘Did you understand what I said?’

‘You said my Grandma had died, didn’t you?’

‘I’m afraid so, yes.’

He replaced the receiver, feeling as cold and dark within as the morning without. Time was getting on. He had to catch the bus to school, but he trudged home unwillingly, shivering inside and out. He had no key to the front door so he just stood there, paralysed and scared to knock. But his Dad had heard him coming. The door swung open.

‘What…’ he began to say. Then he saw the lad’s face. He put an arm around his shoulder. ‘Come on in, son. The tea’s brewed and I’ve got some toast going.’

They sat at the table with their tea and toast and jam. ‘She’s dead, isn’t she.’ It was a statement, not a question. The boy nodded. ‘It’s not your fault, son. Drink your cuppa and get some toast down you. Then you can get off to school. I’ll take the day off and get things seen to.’

He had remembered very little of the rest of the week except that he started having thoughts that made him feel guilty. Now he would get Grandma’s gramophone and the Paul Robeson records. And one of his sisters would probably get the treadle sewing machine. There also seemed to be some tension between Mum and Dad. Not a row: they never rowed. Just something they couldn’t talk to the kids about. They never had done, though he had been aware of tensions in that area from an early age. Kids feel it, pick it up as if they have a sensitive antenna.

Grandma Cotton had come across to the grandchildren as an embittered old lady with a sharp tongue. Sunday afternoon visits to her had been no fun, except that she allowed Martin to play her old records on her wind-up gramophone. They didn’t have one at home but even then he had been crazy about music. And having no concept of how the sound was produced he had invented a fantasy world in which the gramophone sent out a secret message to the singer who would then perform for him alone. Only faint twinges of doubt arose when he had learned that some of the performers were dead. Anyway, Grandma was now to be buried and he would get the gramophone she had always promised him.

After the funeral they had gone home in an unaccustomed taxi. Mum brewed tea and made some sandwiches. They all ate in silence for a while. Then, emboldened by the fact that his Dad had, after all, not been mad at him when he had told him his Mum was dead, he asked the question that had been burning in his mind since that cold morning a week before.

‘Can I have Grandma’s gramophone now she’s dead?’

Mum and Dad exchanged quick glances. Dad had looked at him and said quietly: ‘I’m sorry, son, but the gramophone’s gone.’

‘Gone? Where to? Who’s got it?’ his questions tumbled out in a fluster.

‘It’s a bit difficult to explain’, he replied, again quietly, but gave no further explanation.

The lad thought he had got the message. He had asked the wrong question. His wish had been grossly out of order. He should have been grieving for a lost Grandma and here he was moaning about a stupid gramophone.

The years passed. Dead Grandma Cotton was scarcely mentioned, if at all. He had grown up, become what he considered to be a man, and had thought no more about his Grandma’s gramophone. Except once when, in the attic of a building he had been working in, he discovered exactly the same type of gramophone that Grandma had promised him. He knew he should have taken it. Nobody else was interested and it would have helped clear up the attic. But he had missed his chance: when he went back it was gone. A bit like when you see a really good bargain on the market and decide to buy it the next day. And when you go back not only has the bargain gone but the stall is no more.

Then his Dad died when Martin was thirty-two. Martin was helping his grieving and confused mother to contact family and friends and asked her the whereabouts of Uncle Jack, his Dad’s older brother. Martin had never heard Jack’s name mentioned since Grandma’s funeral and, indeed, not much before that because, he understood, Jack was ‘a right bad lot’. In a strangely distant tone of voice his Mum said she had no idea, so Martin rang his brother-in-law, a policeman, and asked him to make enquiries. Uncle Jack had disappeared.

Some months after his father’s funeral Martin was visiting his mother and she told him a sad story. When Grandma Cotton had died, Jack had got wind of it before Dad, had gone to their mother’s house, emptied the place and sold everything in record time. He had subsequently refused to pay any share of the funeral expenses and left Martin’s father, not a rich man, with a large bill to pay. The gramophone (and the treadle sewing machine) had disappeared off to some auction house and Uncle Jack was a few quid richer.

Later, now that Dad was dead, Martin’s mother told him some more stories that went a long way to explaining the family tensions. Jack had been his mother’s favourite, although he did things Grandma Cotton could not possibly have approved of. Grandma had not favoured Martin’s Dad, even though he was a model husband and father. She even disliked Martin and his sisters, her grandchildren, to some extent. Mum went on to tell some horror stories about Grandma’s husband, who had died five years before Martin was born: an extremely heavy drinker, he had beaten his wife and family on a regular basis. There were even more horror stories about Grandma’s heroic struggle for existence in the poverty-stricken 1930s.

Mum’s parents had disapproved of their only daughter marrying Dad, coming as he did from a family that would nowadays be regarded as fundamentally dysfunctional. The two sets of grandparents never exchanged a word though they attended the same church and their houses were a mere hundred yards apart.

Sixteen years later, when his mother had told a fairly tenuous string of stories about half-remembered events in the past, she finally was laid to rest herself and Martin began to make what investigations he could.

It turned out to have been like this. His Dad’s parents had been as unlike as one could imagine. Grandma had been a quiet, gentle, working-class English girl from the slums of Manchester. Grandpa had been a heavy-fisted, hard-drinking, illiterate labourer, son of a small farmer in the far west of Ireland. He had beaten his wife and the eldest son (Jack) constantly, so much so that the boy had been removed from the family for some time. After losing three children, two severely mentally handicapped, and having endured at least five years, if not more, of constant thrashings, Grandma Cotton had thrown her husband out of the house, despite the pleas of the local parish priest, and had further earned her bread and butter taking in washing. Jack’s character had been set in the context of a violent household dominated by drink. Not knowing anything different, Jack took whatever he could whenever he could. Jack was cynical. Jack was mean. Jack was a survivor.

And Jack had seen his mother’s death as a means of earning a quick penny. In doing so he had removed from the grandchildren’s minds the only potential memory that could have erased the real memories they had of Grandma Cotton as an embittered and sharp-tongued old lady.

Twelve months previously Martin had learned in a roundabout way that Uncle Jack had died of cancer in far-off Australia some years before. The passage of time had removed any childhood bad feelings from his adult mind and Grandma’s gramophone had long been compensated for by a hi-fi system, modern turntable, mini-disc player, CD player… And any rancour he had felt towards Uncle Jack had been wiped away with the years. But he knew one thing, and contemplated the prospect greedily as he sat slumped in the wheelchair: if there was a hereafter and Jack and he ended up in the same place, his first questions to Jack would be: ‘What did you do with Grandma’s gramophone? And why?’

Story by Michael Collins

Edited by Michael Green
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Memories of an Irish Christmas by Marie O’Byrne

‘Hurry today love, there’s a lot that needs to get done. We have to catch the early bus into Bray to pick up the turkey!’

My mother spoke fast and very excitedly as she handed me the empty milk pail. It was early in the morning on Christmas Eve. I put on my wool coat and hat, grabbed the milk pail and ran out the door. I was about twelve years old. Running across the fields to the Massey Farm, I could see the small footprints I made in the frosty morning grass, and I could feel the hard ground beneath my feet. My breath felt bitter cold in the thick veil of foggy dew that was rising slowly from the ground all around me. Not a sound could be heard from the robins or the sparrows this morning – the air was far too cold for any birdsong. The handle from the metal pail left red marks on my bare hands and I ran as fast as I could to stay warm until I reached the old milk parlor. I dropped off the empty pail, picked up the full one, and walked carefully back home across the fields making sure I did not spill any milk along the way. I knew my mother would know, somehow she always knew if I had spilled any of the milk.

She had her purse out and her list ready. At the top of the list were the turkey and the ham, then the brussels sprouts and the carrots and parsnips. The turkey had been on order at the butcher’s shop for weeks, but she liked to have it in her hands early on Christmas Eve as she had to make sure there was enough stuffing prepared to feed our large family of thirteen and Aunt Peggy. After we had picked up the turkey and the ham and the vegetables and a big box of Christmas crackers we headed back down the busy street towards the bus stop, both of us with our arms full of shopping bags. On the journey home as I chomped on a bar of Dairy Milk Chocolate, she chatted away to me in nervous anticipation of the big day ahead, It was like she was running through in her mind all the preparations that needed to be done.

‘I’ll make the stuffing once I get in, and you and Pauline can peel all the potatoes and vegetables and put them in pots of water on the stove top. The cake and the pudding are ready and Dad has the whiskey and the Guinness. Angela will whip up the cream tomorrow so it will be nice and fresh and then we’ll be all set’ she went on, sometimes repeating herself. ‘Do you think it will snow for Christmas Day, Ma?’ I asked her again. ‘Well, it sure feels like it love, it’s certainly cold enough but we’ll have to wait and see’ she replied matter of factly. The Christmas tree was already up and decorated. My brothers had collected plenty of holly and firewood from the local forest and the fireplace mantle had been decorated festively with lots of red berried holly and red candles. The holly was also placed on top of all the picture frames throughout the house.

I remember walking to Midnight Mass with my family. Over the road we all went and up the hill to St. Killians as the familiar church bells rang out across the dark, cold village. It was the one night of the year I was never afraid to be out in the dark. My five sisters and I were dressed in new red wool tights and matching red ribbons in our hair. Even though our coats and shoes were old and worn, on that night all we saw were the new red tights and the new ribbons in our hair. My father, a very proud ex-military man from the Irish Army, insisted on all of us having clean shoes for Mass and every Saturday night his job was to clean and polish all the shoes. He laid out thirteen pairs of shining, polished shoes on the back doorstep ready for us all for Sunday morning’s Mass.

I remember the priest placing baby Jesus in the manger and lighting the red candle in the hanging lantern by the straw. The choir sang out the familiar carols to the sound of the beautiful old church organ, and it was like the whole world had lit up. Our family filled the whole pew, my mother smiled over at me and my father smiled and nodded his head back at my mother. All seemed well with the world that night.

After Mass, my mother placed a large candle in the front window as was the custom back then, to symbolize a warm welcome in our home to the baby Jesus, and to any strangers or neighbors that would be out on that holy night. The lighted candle in the window and the handmade holly wreath on the green front door will forever remain etched in my memory.
My father, who was a very good cook, put the turkey in the oven and sat by the fire with a glass of whiskey. He basted the big plump turkey throughout the night with a large metal spoon. He had just the lights of the Christmas tree and the blazing fire glowing in the room as he nodded off and on in his armchair. Back then cooking a turkey was an all night affair, and I remember him saying that it had to be cooked ‘easy and slow’. There was never a complaint from him even though he knew he had a long days work ahead in the kitchen the next day.

With great wonderment and delight I awoke very early in the morning to a small doll with black hair and a frilly blue bonnet at the end of my bed. There was a big pop-out book called ‘Pinky and Perky’ and some chocolates and crayons wrapped up in red Santa paper. Santa had come! My sisters and I immediately began to eat the chocolates. Mid-morning, our elderly neighbors Joe and Molly, who had no children of their own, came over for their Christmas glass of whiskey and a slice of mothers Christmas cake. As they all sat on the sofa by the fire they raised their glasses.

‘To your good health Jim and Carmel’ they toasted. ‘And to you too! May we all be around this time next year! Please God!’ replied my father as he raised his glass and smiled. To this day the smell of Jameson’s whiskey reminds me of Christmas morning.

Since we only had the one room for entertaining and dining we had to wait for Joe and Molly to leave before we six girls got very busy setting the table with all kinds of good things: slices of ham and turkey, roast potatoes and colorful vegetables, and a big jug of gravy. There was an extra wooden section of the table inserted to accommodate fourteen people, our family of thirteen and my Aunt Peggy who lived with us. A Christmas cracker was placed on each plate. With red and green paper hats on our heads and a full glass of lemonade or wine in our hands we all shouted ‘Happy Christmas!’ and toasted one another.

‘Sure this is great,’ my father always said as he carved the big turkey. ‘What more could we ask for? I mean it, what more could any of us ask for?’ He discreetly kissed my mother on the cheek. This was the one day of the year when there was food and drink aplenty and you could eat away to your heart’s content. Amidst great chatter and joke telling we sat around and ate our fill by the big blazing fire. We paused after dinner to hand out our presents to each other that we had bought with our saved money. They were small gifts: candy or chocolates, mittens, scarves, or my sister Eileen’s handmade handkerchiefs and tea cozies.

With record speed the girls cleared off the table and washed all the dishes to get ready for dessert. My mother and father heated up the slices of plum pudding and prepared the whipped cream and custard – a great ending to our Christmas dinner.

Neighbors and friends dropped in and out to say hello in the afternoon and to have a drink by the fire and to tell a joke or two. We would often break into song as we played with our toys and board games and the boy’s played cards and read books that they had received from Santa.
Later in the evening my mother made a big pot of tea and we all had a slice of Christmas cake and a warm mince pie. Christmas day was winding down now, soon to be over for another year.

Now that I am older I often reflect on my simpler, childhood Christmas’s and I believe my father was so right. ‘What more could we have asked for?’ We did indeed have it all! We had each other, a big loving family living in a three bed roomed cottage; not rich by any standards, but we had lots of food and a big glowing warm fire. The sights and sounds of Christmas past will always remain with me in my heart.

I hope you all have a joyful Christmas with the one’s you love, wherever you may be and I wish you all a very happy and peaceful New Year, full of goodness and blessings.

Marie O’Byrne. Kingsburg, California.

Terror 1974 – a story by Michael Collins

There was laughter in the car. The vehicle sped up the main road from Dublin to Belfast. And there was laughter in the car. They were on a mission. Pat and Mick. Yes, Pat and Mick, even though it sounds like the start of a thousand crude music-hall jokes. They had an appointment in Belfast. Pat was the literary dreamer from the far West of Ireland. Mick was third-generation English-born Irish, catapulted back from the land of his birth to the land of his worthless grandfather. Unlike many using the road, Pat and Mick were well educated, the one young and still a university student, the other older and already with two degrees under his belt. Pat was fluent in Irish and English, Mick in English and French, the latter thanks to a long period spent in mainland Europe where he had experienced close at hand the terror tactics of the OAS in Paris in the sixties. Neither was a member of any political party; both were nonetheless deeply engaged in politics – the war in Vietnam, the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Pat, garrulous Pat with an infinite store of literary anecdotes and quotes, an infinite store of tales about real situations – Pat babbled on and punctuated his stories with muffled giggles at his own creativity. Mick, somewhat quieter but also quite capable of shooting his mouth off, preserved silence on this occasion. Pat was in his own country, had an Irish accent and a common name. Mick was in foreign territory, perhaps enemy territory, had a pronounced English accent and a suspect name, a name from the past that haunted many a nervous man in this land. The car was Mick’s, skilfully shuttled at regular intervals between England and Ireland for the last couple of years so that he would not have to pay tax on the vehicle. It was untraceable in Ireland, as he had discovered when, after exceeding the speed limit out in the country one day he had been stopped by a hidden police patrol car. he was allowed to continue on his way unpunished because, as one of the officers had said with a laugh, ‘How will we trace your vehicle by post and impose a fine?’
Mick was not rich. But his car was somewhat unique and eminently identifiable. An accident of fate had caused him to acquire it a couple of years before and he had held on to it, reckoning that it would come in useful one day. It had proved its worth in Ireland, as he criss-crossed the country doing voluntary work for the national student organisation he worked for. But it was easily recognisable, even by someone who knew nothing about cars: a royal blue Volkswagen Variant estate car, which had been unique even in his huge home city of Manchester. Mick laughed quietly at the right moments as Pat gabbled on. But Mick was worried about his car. Had been for a long time while the mission was being planned. He had come to a decision. Entering Belfast in this car would be simply crying out for trouble. So he would drive from Dublin to Dundalk (‘cowboy town’). The car would be dropped as unobtrusively as possible in a pub car park there. Not a public car park. Pub car parks were usually around the back, hidden from the road. If he put it far enough back, maybe under some trees, it wouldn’t be noticed for the brief period they would be in Belfast. One problem: which pub car park? After that it would be easy: bus or train to Belfast station and then sort it out from there.

They passed through Castlebellingham, reminding Mick of adventures of long ago and of recent date. Dundalk loomed up. Where to drop the car? No planning, just instinct: Mick spotted a large pub and guessed it would have a large parking space, or at least an empty area, round the back. He was right, and the sweat slowly dried off his forehead. Behind the pub was an open space covered with cinders, with a curve in it. The pub was closed so the space was empty. Mick guided the car round to the back of the curve, where the vehicle would be hidden from road and pub by intervening bushes. The noise of the tyres on the cinders should have wakened the dead and the VW’s engine was not the quietest on the road, but he hoped that neither publican nor local inhabitants would be alerted. Pat was ready to leap out of the car. Mick shushed him and looked in his side and rear-view mirrors. Nothing moved outside. Mick forced Pat to sit still for five minutes while trying to work out the next move. He knew how to get back to the main road and that they should turn left to make for Dundalk. Otherwise he was stumped.
‘Pat’, he said, in an urgent whisper, ‘we are going to get out of this car as quietly as possible. I’ll open and close the doors. You get your duffel bag and make your way over there to those bushes.’ He pointed.
For once Pat obeyed without question. Mick’s anxiety had got through to him. He opened the passenger door as quietly as possible, left it open, drew aside the rear door that Mick had already opened quietly from inside the car, withdrew his duffel bag from the back seat and made his way as noiselessly as his 160 pound body weight would allow him over a short stretch of cinders to the sheltering bushes. His passage made some rather loud crunching noises. God! thought Mick, why does he have to wear those hulking great hiking boots?
Mick emerged from the car, picked up his small rucksack from the back seat and proceeded to close all the car doors. Not with a slam, but with a quiet push of his hands till he heard a click and then with a swift blow from his backside to ensure that the doors were locked. Weighing 140 pounds and wearing crepe-soled desert boots he made his relatively quiet way to Pat who was not exactly huddled against the protective bushes.
‘OK’, he said in a whisper. ‘Unless you have any better ideas, we make our way as quietly as possible to the main road. We don’t talk. We act nonchalant as if we’d just rambled in from the surrounding countryside. At the main road we turn left, towards Dundalk, and if a car passes we try to hitch a lift. We don’t need the lift but it will identify us as no more than a pair of hitch-hikers.’
Pat nodded and they set out. In fact, very few vehicles passed and they were close to Dundalk town centre. At the railway station they bought one-way tickets for Belfast and were there within the hour.
Neither of them knew Belfast but they had imprinted on their minds the name of the road they had to find and knew that it was to the north of the Falls Road, a Catholic/IRA neighbourhood.
The train dropped them more or less in the city centre and it was left to Mick (Pat was still dreaming about Norman Mailer and Nixon) to find directions. They found the vital heart of Belfast. Unfortunately it seemed as if all the road signs were missing. They had no way of knowing which direction they should take.
They had wandered around for quite some time when a very tall, young, British soldier appeared out of nowhere and confronted them, barring their path. Mick guessed he was part of a security patrol and that the rest of the men were hidden, with guns at the ready. The young man’s machine gun was lowered to pavement level but his head towered above Pat and Mick.
‘Excuse me, gentlemen’, he said, with a strong Somerset burr, ‘would you mind opening your bags so that I can see what you’re carrying?’

Pat protested immediately that he was in his own country and didn’t need to prove anything and anyway what was a British soldier doing… He tailed off, still blustering, his eyes flashing from behind his thick glasses. Mick nudged him and whispered in a tone he hoped the soldier would neither hear nor recognise as an English accent: ‘Pat, open your duffel bag. It can’t do any harm.’
Pat continued to be obstreperous and the muzzle of the soldier’s weapon slowly rose from pavement level to about the level of Pat’s belly button. Pat opened his duffel bag and the gun muzzle poked around briefly in his weekend change of clothes.
‘And yours, sir’, said the soldier to Mick.
Mick complied immediately, and the muzzle of the weapon disturbed the upper layer of his clean underclothes. Then the soldier gestured in an arc, to his right and behind him, with his gun. ‘Thank you, gentlemen.’ Again the soft Somerset burr. They were dismissed. Let free. And he was gone.
As they walked on, this time in silence, Mick inwardly cursed Pat’s intransigence. He could get them into trouble. But meanwhile Mick had had the opportunity of surveying their surroundings. He was desperately trying to orientate himself, not wishing to stand out too much by consulting a street map. Which was why he hadn’t brought one with him. He’d done his best back in Dublin to memorise the map of Belfast but it was his first visit to the city and the lack of signposts – either vandalised or removed by the security forces in an attempt to foil terrorist getaways – made the task almost impossible. By now they were a short way out of the city centre and Mick thought he recognised, from newspaper photos and TV images, a block of flats that could serve as a landmark. The notorious Divis Flats. Weren’t they at the bottom of the Falls Road? And their destination was at the top of the Falls, near a park known locally as the Black Mountain. ‘Back of there’, he said to Pat, and they made their way behind the flats to find themselves on a broad thoroughfare. The Falls.

They made their way to a bus stop, put their meagre baggage on the ground and waited patiently. There were few passers-by, but those that were looked at them curiously. Nobody greeted them. It was Pat’s habit always to have a book with him to read at times when little was happening. He’d even been known to carry a book in the back pocket of his shorts when he was keeping goal: whenever the ball crossed the centre line in the direction of the opponents’ goal, out would come the book and Pat would be off reading again. Now his nose was stuck into the book he had brought with him (Norman Mailer today) and he noticed nothing. But Mick began to feel uncomfortable. Were they so obviously out of place here? Did they stick out like a sore thumb? They remained the only ones waiting at the stop – which Mick also found curious – for about fifteen minutes. Then a passing woman glanced at them, almost walked on but turned as she passed by.
‘Youse boys had better take a taxi. There’s no buses along here any more.’ Taxi? They couldn’t afford a taxi. ‘Fixed rate’, explained the woman. ‘A shillin’ each and it’ll take you anywhere. It’s not quick but it’s safe.’ She walked on. Some minutes later Mick saw a London-type taxi approaching and flagged it down. ‘Where to, lads?’ asked the driver. Mick gave the address. ‘I can drop you off on the corner’ said the driver. ‘That two shillin’s please.’ There were already three women, two with small children on their lap, sitting in the taxi. It was a bit of a squeeze but they managed. There was little conversation, the only sound being the crackle of the driver’s radio and the occasional incomprehensible message coming through.
The route the taxi was taking was anything but straightforward. Detour after detour, sometimes along narrow one-way streets. Mick was glad the fare was fixed at a shilling.
One by one the women were dropped off at their destinations. The taxi started up to deliver its last passengers, found the Falls Road again and this time drove as straight as an arrow. Suddenly it stopped. The driver turned round and said: ‘Sorry, lads, but I’ll have to take the long way round. The radio’s just reported some shooting ahead. But we’ll get you there, never you worry.’
Detour after detour after detour. Then they were in a relatively respectable looking suburb, with semi-detached houses and neat gardens. The taxi stopped. ‘Here you are, lads’, announced the driver. Almost there, thought Mick. This is the right road. He’d forgotten the house number but knew it was somewhere in the thirties. They could always knock at a door and ask where the McCanns lived. They were opposite number 21 and Mick was thinking they should maybe ask directions when rifle shots started ringing out. Bullets whizzed down the length of the road like demented wasps. The two men bolted, Mick to the left and Pat to the right – anywhere to get out of the way of flying death. Mick landed in someone’s rose bed and lay there paralysed with fear and unmoving despite being scratched all over. Who the hell was targeting them? And why? Was it dangerous just to be an unrecognised stranger here? And, he thought, surely most of the shooting is confined to centre of the city. We’re a good mile-and-a-half away.
He lay there shaking for probably thirty seconds until the shooting stopped and calm returned to his head. He had no idea where Pat was, no idea if he had been hit or not. All was silent in the suburban road. He waited another few minutes. Still nothing stirred. No more bullets sped down the road.
Slowly he extricated himself from the rose bushes, checked to see that he’d not done too much visible damage, brushed himself down and made his way across the neat lawn to the front door of number 21. It was like wakening from a nightmare. A few minutes ago someone had been shooting at him. Now his feet passed over closely cropped turf and the herbaceous borders smiled at him.
The door was opened by a woman of about his own age, wearing an apron and a kerchief round her head, vacuum cleaner in hand. ‘Could you tell me where Eamonn McCann lives?’ he asked in a slightly shaky voice. ‘That’d be number 39′, she replied. He thanked her and turned to go. Just before the door shut she leaned her head out. ‘You shouldn’t be out on the street’, she cried. ‘There’s shooting going on, you know!’ He thanked her again and made his way down the garden path.
Pat, who had obviously heard the conversation, could be seen emerging ashen-faced from a hedgerow on the other side of the road. Thank the Lord for that, thought Mick, and was about to chivvy Pat along to number 39 when he noticed something. ‘Where’s your duffel bag?’ ‘O God!’ exclaimed Pat, and dived back into the bushes to retrieve his things. Mick noted that Pat’s somewhat crumpled book was still firmly wedged into his right-hand trouser pocket. They moved shakily up the quiet road and turned into the garden of number 39. Mick rang the bell and waited. Anxiously. Footsteps approached the front door. The door opened. And there stood Eamonn, whose face immediately lit up in greeting.
‘You made it after all!’ he shouted. ‘Come in. The rest of the guests are out back. Go and introduce yourselves and get a drink. You look shot.’
Mick stumbled inside, closely followed by Pat. He heaved a sigh of relief. They had arrived in time for the wedding reception of Eamonn and Aine. Mission accomplished.

‘The Outsider’ – An Irish Story by Michael Collins

The morning air had a quality only found on an island: cool yet warmed by the rising sun and the rocks still giving off yesterday’s heat. The three men tramped up the gravel track, the slope steeper as they neared the western end of the island.

The sun was diagonally behind them, low enough to pick out in detail every feature of this rough and ready place. To the left the light was reflected in a sparkle from the surrounding seas. Ahead the cliffs rose to breast the Atlantic. To the right the bulk of the island swelled steeply upwards like a whale’s back, the sparse grass, rushes and heather pushing up between the rocky outcrops through the thin living layer, reminding all who passed that wresting an existence from this soil meant unceasing toil. The patient sheep grazed and bleated, wanting rid of their thick winter coats.

“And wasn’t that a grand wake now, last evening?” asked Mick Mickey. More a statement than a question, in honour of the dead man and his family and to mark the fact that they had given old John a good send-off. Michael Gerry nodded assent.

The Outsider recalled the previous evening. He had arrived on the island unannounced and had been offered lodgings at Mick Mickey’s. At dusk they had tramped up this same path to where Old John had been laid out in his home. The cottage crouched under its thatch, pressing itself down, away from the gales crashing in from the Atlantic. A single-storey cottage, whitewashed on the outside and with a bright red door, surrounded by exotic fuchsias that seemed out of place in this land of greens, greys, blues.

Old John had been laid out in his coffin, dressed in his Sunday suit, surrounded by candles. The eldest daughter, her mother long dead, had the responsibility for the wake – helped by the neighbours. They had seen to a plentiful supply of cake, tea, tobacco, whiskey… plus some arcane potions distilled locally without the intervention of the excise men.

The women had been gathered round the bier. Theirs it was to wail and keen, joined at intervals by newly arrived men who would recite a decade of the rosary for the dead man’s soul. The Outsider went in with Mick Mickey and did his best to participate. His contribution went no further than kneeling down, joining his hands and half-closing his eyes, while the Paters, Aves and Glorias buzzed around him like a swarm of bees, the high women’s voices alternating with the men’s grumbling throats as they prayed their relays with the skill born of many years’ practice. A non-believer, he felt nothing for the ritual, but he could imagine that the repetitive drone of half-understood formulae could bring about a certain peace of mind, convince the participants that they were doing something meaningful, as the marathon runner must feel after passing the finishing line having taken fifty-thousand identical steps to get there.

Once they had done their duty the men retired, leaving eternity’s business to their womenfolk. They gathered in the kitchen, the air thick with tobacco smoke and the fumes of alcohol. This was the socially important part of the ceremony, where Old John would be set into the minds of the surviving islanders. The Outsider observed quietly, marvelling at this rich collection of individuals. Not that these people were rich in terms of money: they simply had a richness about them. They smelt rich, felt rich, sounded rich, moved richly. His own people at home smelt… well, they smelt too, but the smell usually came out of a bottle. These people smelt warm, like contented cows. The people at home felt and looked rich on the outside: soft clothing, soft skins, warm handshakes. Here they looked solid, little regard for clothing except as protection against the elements, skin like the bark of an oak, grooved and greyish-brown. And they were sparse in their rich touching – perhaps no more than a handshake from a calloused hand. Here an arm around your shoulders was like being included in the honours list. The people back home moved like the White Rabbit continually glancing at his watch. Here they moved richly, slowly and ponderously, counting each step, measuring effort required and advantage gained. Watches and clocks were scarce. Their speech was rich and colourful.

Sure, he was a grand man, was Old John.
Sure, he was indeed. You would have thought that Bridie’s death would have finished him off.
You would, too.
Not John. He knew what was what. He was made of stern stuff.
Well, you may be right, but surely to God he knew little about sheep.
That’s no surprise. He had the cows.
He had but three cows, to be sure.
Aye, but he knew them. And he had the best grassland.
And he knew about vegetables, sure he did.
Now what use is vegetables? A man needs good red meat to keep him on his feet.
And the Guinness!
To knock him off his feet, more likely.
Aye, but John knew all about that too. Sure, didn’t he need five pints before that recitation of his?
You can talk, Mick Mickey. We don’t get a peep out of you till you’ve chalked up ten pints.
Ach, but Old John could hold his drink a treat. And he knew when to hold off, so he did.
So you didn’t see him when young John came back from Australia?
Sure, I did. He was still in O’Brien’s at six the next morning!
Ach, a father needs to celebrate at a time like that, sure he does.
Aye, that’s true enough. And Old John was never one to throw good money away on drink.
Sure he wasn’t! Never known to pay for the last round!

The to-and-fro remarks were punctuated, sometimes by laughter but mostly by deep silences and quiet guffaws, back of the hand against the mouth. The men were re-telling John’s life story. As they remembered him. The Outsider had nothing to contribute except his respectful presence. Despite his fairly frequent visits to the island he had not known Old John except by name. Now his contribution consisted, once again and for the umpteenth time, in a sense of wonder at how this tiny isolated society had managed to continue to exist with its unspoken and unwritten customs intact, its uniqueness untouched.

He listened as the remarks and quips flew across the room. This was neither eulogy nor condemnation. It was the beginning of an oral tradition that would immortalise Old John for as long as people lived here.

It had been late when they left the wake. Michael Gerry had accompanied Mick Mickey and the Outsider home, weaving a familiar path down to the sea-level northeast end of the island. They had passed Michael Joe’s cottage, and the Outsider had thought he recognised a few places where Michael Joe had extracted lethal bottles of home-brewed liquor from the bog the previous summer, all the while conducting a discussion on the rival merits of Plato, Aristotle and Sartre, and any philosophers in between. By now, thought the Outsider, this island has no more surprises for me. He was wrong.

The three of them had covered the last mile in silence. As they neared Old John’s cottage the coffin was being carried out on broad shoulders, over the spine of the island to the church and graveyard. Nobody hurried. There was no traffic. A few people working in the fields uncovered their heads, stood still until the procession had passed and then resumed work. Or laid down their implements and joined the procession.

The church was full, most of the congregation unknown to the Outsider. The Requiem Mass was standard, the kind of ceremony you would get anywhere in the world. The Outsider found it incomprehensible, even more so than the rosary of the previous evening and far less significant than the exchanges between the men in Old John’s cottage. He disliked it. He looked around for the face he hoped he knew best. The face was absent.

The Outsider was on the back row of the benches in the tiny church. When the service ended he was first out. He found the face he had been looking for: Michael Joe, sitting on the ground with his back against a dry stone wall, puffing at his pipe, disreputable hat on his head, eager panting dog with lolling tongue at his feet, bicycle propped next to him against the wall.

“Were you not inside, Michael Joe?” asked the Outsider.

“I was not. Sure it’s better out here. You can hear it all drone on and know where they’re up to – gives you a chance to light the old pipe at strategic times – but you don’t have to listen because you’ve heard it all before. And it gets no better. Anyway, out here I have the dog and the pipe and the rest of the universe around me. That gives me more cause to contemplate life and death than the words of our beloved parish priest, no matter how well-intentioned he may be.”

The men gathered round in a loose circle and lit up cigarettes and pipes. The women stayed behind at the church door in a clump, quietly whispering among themselves. Michael Gerry and another of the young men, Michael Bob, took centre stage as if on a signal, doffed their jackets, spat on their hands and started to dig.

It dawned on the Outsider that for the purposes of burial the two men were the gravediggers. And how the devil will they do that here? he asked himself. The island is a lump of solid rock. You’d need dynamite to dig a grave.

But he had still more to learn. Though the church was built on rocky foundations its tiny graveyard easily yielded to the combined spades. When the two lads were about three feet down they slowed their pace and began to dig carefully. The reason soon became apparent: they were unearthing human bones. These were laid with a fair degree of reverence and care – and in comparative silence – on top of Old John’s coffin, until a skull came to light.

- Would you look at that now?
- Sure an’ all, it must be old Padraig.
- D’you think so?
- Och, it must be. He’s been gone now all of…
- Must be eighty years.
- Well, he’ll be having another burial today. Not everybody can do it twice…

And the discussions continued quietly until the hole was deep and wide and long enough for Old John. Then – a signal the Outsider missed – the women filed out of the church and ranged themselves with the men around the grave. The coffin was lowered, Old John’s remains on their first step towards slowly becoming one with the foundations of the ancient island. The unearthed bones were carefully returned and the soil and rocks shovelled over them.

The congregation remained awhile, heads bowed. Men took off their hats and caps. Praying? The Outsider was not. He was quietly and – he hoped – unobtrusively observing. So was Michael Joe, still wearing his disreputable hat, smoking his pipe but making no effort to be unobtrusive. The observer, the recorder of otherwise unrecorded history.

At a second imperceptible signal, like a cloud of starlings wheeling with perfect precision, the congregation turned and began, in ones and twos, to exit from the graveyard.
“Coming?” asked Mick Mickey.
“Where to?” asked the Outsider.
“The pub.”
There was the long trek downhill to the harbourside pub and the comfort of the foaming pints.

There had been two observers there that day. Michael Joe and the Outsider. Michael Joe stored it for the island’s history. The Outsider was not sure what to make of it. But he stored it too.