‘D’you know what I’m going to tell you,’ declared my father, sweeping the window for the umpteenth time with a folded-up newspaper, ‘if you were to hold up a single pane of glass no bigger than that hand there inside of Windsor Park, do you know what it is? There’d be one bloody fly would go banging its head again it all day long, so there would…’
Mother was less than impressed. His exertions had already overturned one geranium pot. ‘Can’t you leave it find its own way out, Seamus?’
‘If it would, believe me, I’d be delighted to.’ He caught me smirking at my twin sister, Dee. We’d have been seven that summer; the summer they burned Bombay St. Da thought about it, then fired Dee a sneaky wink. ‘Did you ever see a more obstinately stupid animal than a fly?’
‘Aye,’ muttered Mother. ‘I married one, so I did.’ She’d been going through the clothes myself and Dee had packed, tossing some out onto the sofa, folding others in in their place. Jack was watching it all silently from the doorway. He wasn’t going with myself and Dee to stay with the Hamiltons. Jack was going down to Dublin, to stay with Da’s relatives. He was old enough to go on his own. The night before while Ma and Da were shouting downstairs he’d shown us the ticket for the train, to coax Dee out from under the pillow.
‘Would you not squash it and be done with it?’ The more agitated my mother grew, the more East Belfast her accent became; Da’s pantomimes were always pure Liberties.
‘And leave a smudge on the new pane of glass, is it? For the life of me I can’t see why you bothered your Barney having it replaced…’ Another lunge; another geranium teetered. He made a grab for the plant, but his fingers were clumsy and it was their attempt to right the pot that sent it over the edge. It bounced once, overturned, and spewed muck over the carpet.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, Seamus!’
‘What?’ He frowned. ‘Tsst. Sorry about your precious carpet!’
‘You might help me with these, instead of chasing that blooming fly all around the house.’ A-rind the hice, her vowels were that sharp by now.
‘Alright. Alright.’ Kneeling up, he lifted the pot, tested the crack with his thumb. ‘As you wish. a ghrá mo chroí.’ He set the geranium upright on the floor and began to flick the crumbs of soil onto one huge palm, and from there back under the leaves. We could all see he was making twice the mess he was clearing. Jack was taking it all in from the door. He’d packed his own suitcase the night before.
‘Ach leave it! I’ll do it!’ snapped Mother. Her words made Father redouble the speed of his efforts. ‘It’s alright, it’s done now.’ It wasn’t half-done, so Jack disappeared and came back with the dustpan. Dee had gone over to the sofa. Leafing through the mound of discards, she pulled out her favourite dungarees.
The fly snarled through the air in an S-bend, then set to butting the central windowpane again and again, ignoring the open one to the side. ‘Christ,’ whispered our Da, still on his knees, ‘if there’s one animal I can’t abide, it’s a fly in the house.’
‘I’m taking these with me Ma,’ said Dee. Like bunting, she’d trailed the dungarees from the clothes pile as far as her suitcase, and was seeing where they could fit. Her case had about twice the amount of stuff mine had.
‘You are not taking those with you. What would Auntie Rose think?’
Upon the mention of Auntie Rose, Da knelt suddenly up, eyes indignant. He was on the point of saying something else choice about the Hamiltons and their Protestant notions. ‘Hey Da,’ interrupted Jack, ‘how come they don’t do themselves brain-damage, with all their head-banging?’ Father peered at Jack, as though surprised to find him squatting there in front of him with the dustpan. ‘What? Who has brain-damage?’
‘The fly!’ Da looked briefly at him, and had turned back towards Mother, about to let fly about the Hamiltons. But Jack pressed on. ‘Would you listen to the bollox…’
Now, we’d never been allowed to use bad language in the house. Never. Myself and Dee stared at one another. Mother froze. Then Da’s hand shot out and caught Jack square in the mouth. He yelped. Hands to his face he looked at Ma. She tugged the dungarees from Dee’s hands and said, in a calm voice, ‘I want no more nonsense out of you young lady. Finish your packing, the pair of you. It’s not a blooming helicopter we have.’
It was years later that I came to understand that scene. It was years later I realised why they wouldn’t let us stay on in that street any longer; why Jack had said what he had said.
(c) David Butler