This is a short story from my book of short stories called WHAT’S THE STORY. The book is available on Amaon.co.uk
Being away for so long had made me homesick. When you’re young, four years
seems a lifetime. The notion of swapping the concrete wilderness that was
Kilburn for the more natural one of Currabaha for a few weeks seemed like a
Oh, I was brash and I was flash; my easily-acquired ‘Big Smoke’ veneer not so
shiny anymore, but I was still lonesome. London was a great place for people like
me – fellas with little inclination of getting out of bed in the morning – yet deep
down there was always this nagging feeling that I didn’t belong. Where did I
belong? That was the burning question even then, all those years ago. I didn’t
know then, and I’m not sure I know now…
The first shock I had was seeing my father’s physical condition. He seemed to
have aged ten years. And he had developed ulcers on his legs which made
walking painful. His bicycle had been replaced by a moped – an NSU QUICKLY.
This contraption carried both him and my mother wherever they wanted to go
with the greatest of ease. It was progress of a sort I guess.
The biggest shock, though, was seeing the electricity cables connected to the
house. For years we had lived in a twilight world of paraffin lamps and candles.
Now the place was ablaze with electricity. There was even an electric cooker and
a TV. There was piped water too. No more dragging buckets up from the well a
hundred yards away. The only modern convenience missing was a bathroom –
and father was working on that. To be truthful, I had forgotten how primitive our
existence used to be. London had seen to that.
“Speak to your father”, my mother urged. “He won’t make the first move”.
As we hadn’t spoke for almost a year before I left, I wasn’t sure how he would
react. I needn’t have worried: he seemed as eager to talk as I was. The period of
silence between us wasn’t referred to at all. Both of them showed a keen interest
in my life in London so I invented a fictitious existence for myself. I don’t think
the truth would have gone down well, so I told them what they wanted to hear. I
felt a real shit telling them lie after lie, but what was the alternative? Tales of my
gambling and thieving would hardly have endeared me to them.
Little things that I had forgotten, like people blessing themselves as they passed a
church or drivers stopping to offer you a lift, reminded me forcefully that this
world and London hardly spoke the same language. The culture gap was so great,
the way of life so different, that my few years absence made me feel a stranger
I was forced to play out the charade of the big spender when I visited the Dirty
Bucket and other watering-holes in the neighbourhood. And suffer all the backslapping and hand-shaking as I bought drinks for half the county. A prestigious
job had to be invented too – so I told everyone I was I was working for the
William Hill organisation. Which I was in a way. Someone got the mistaken
impression that William Hill was a building contractor, and several fellows
asked if I could fix them up with a “start”. I said I’d see what I could do.
One day I borrowed my cousin’s motorbike and rode up the side of the
Comeraghs. And when I could ride no more I abandoned the bike and climbed.
Finally, I stood in the shadows of Crotty’s Eye, a needle-like projection that
eavesdropped on the valleys below. Idly, I wondered what Crotty, the
highwayman, thought when he looked down on those plains. I imagined him,
patiently sitting in the eye of the needle, watching potential victims grow large
before his eyes as they made their way slowly along the mountain trail. And I
visualised him,later, dangling from the gallows in Waterford City, where he was
hanged for his crimes.
“Hey Crotty”, I shouted in the wind, “I bet you never thought the Clancy
Brothers would make you famous” . A highwayman, now that was the life.
Being there reminded me of Deirdre. It didn’t seem that long ago since we had
swore our undying love for each other on this very same spot. Now I had learned
from my mother that she was to be married to some fella from Cork in a couple
of weeks. “Forever”, she had whispered in my ear. “I will love you forever,
Terry”. It occured to me now that “forever” isn’t such a long time after all.
Making my way back down I passed Lackendaragh’s Cave. It wasn’t really a
cave; merely a couple of stone walls bridged over with galivanised iron and bits
of timber. then covered rocks and sods of earth. The rear end was sealed with
more stones, the front partly covered with fertiliser bags. I peeped inside but he
wasn’t home. The place looked like it hadn’t been lived in for some time, so
perhaps he had moved on. That didn’t seem likely though; he had lived half way
up these mountains for as long as anyone could remember, coming down to the
village on the odd occasion to collect his few meagre rations. I had always
thought of him as Moses, with his long white beard and flowing hair. Perhaps he
The days passed in a pleasant alcoholic haze and I was well into my second
week before I got as far as Tramore. Which surprised me, because I always felt
some special ‘magic’ about the place. Now as I strolled along the prom all I felt
was indifference. Oh, it was still a beautiful spot, and it was difficult not to be
moved when you saw those big Atlantic breakers rolling into the bay, but when I
looked back at the amusement arcades and fairground booths that dotted the seafront, I realised it could just as easily be Brighton or Clacton. Or any of a
hundred other seaside resorts. And I felt sad.
I hadn’t been long in the town when I noticed a girl hanging around the arcades
giving me the eye. We got chatting and I learned she was from Belfast. She told
me she was working as a maid in one of the hotels and it was her day off. Later,
we sat on the pier, our legs dangling, and ate greasy chips washed down with
warm Fanta. She told me her name was Marian, and said she had watched me
ride in on the motorbike. When she asked if I owned it I said yes.
“I love the feeling you get on a big bike”, she said. “Don’t you?”
Then she asked if I would take her for a spin. I was only too happy to oblige and
we soon left the town behind us in a ribbon of blue smoke.
The bike was a charging chariot and I was starring in Ben Hur as we negotiated
the coast road. We flew low over Annestown and Boatstrand, slowing down only
to negotiate treacherous hairpins. When the adrenalin finally gave out we found
ourselves on the cliffs overlooking Bonmahon.
The signs of decay were everywhere. If ever a town basked in the shadow of
former glory, this was it. Less than a hundred years ago, this was a thriving
mining community, vibrant and volatile. The lanky main street once boasted
rows of terraced housing – maybe not exactly luxurious living – but at least it
radiated life. All that was left now was a ghost town. The sand dunes had crept
relentlessly towards the remains of the Main Street, the only barrier to further
encroachment the facades of the houses. They has been chopped off at shoulder
height and were only recognisable because the bricked-up windows and doors
were of a different colour.
We had parked quite close to a railed-off section of cliff. Here, too, the signs of
decay were visible. DANGER! KEEP OUT! DISUSED COPPER MINES.
Even the warning signs were faded. The copper, the houses, most of the people,
long gone. Nothing left but some bloody great holes in the ground.
The summer day ebbed as we sat on the grass and talked. About everything – and
nothing. Marian had spent some time in London, working in hotels along the
“Most of the guests were sex-maniacs”, she said. “Everything time we went into
a bedroom to do our work we needed armour. Many of them were Middle
Eastern, Arabs I suppose, and they thought their money could buy them
She laughed at one particular memory…”one guest was still in bed when I went
into his room. He had a book on his lap, a guide book he said, and asked me to
point out a certain landmark to him. I am short-sighted and had to bend down to
have a look. Well, he pulled away the bedclothes and you can imagine what I
was left looking at! That was enough for me…I came home to civilised people
She would have returned to Belfast, she said, but most of her friends and relatives
were fleeing the place. “There’s more of us in Shannon now than Belfast”. Then
she asked me if I was a sympathiser.
I said I hadn’t thought about it much but I supposed I was. Well, if ever there was
a collection box to be filled I always threw a few bob in. I had seen the pictures
on the telly; hordes of them tumbling over the border, faces on them like they had
seen Old Nick himself. And sure maybe they had.
Later, as the sun sank into the sea, we rode back into Tramore and terrified
ourselves on the big dipper. Then we jousted in the bumpers; the head-to-head
collisions sending her screaming with delight. When we had our fill of drink we
went dancing in the Silver Slipper, and later still I asked her to come back to
London with me. She said she would. To celebrate we consumated our passions
on the still-warm sand with the Atlantic breakers lapping gently against our toes.
Afterwards, I fell asleep. When I woke up she was gone. And so was my wallet.
Ah well, that’s red-headed women for you.
The following night I went dancing in the Rainbow, with money borrowed from
my mother. What I thought of as a palace now turns out to be nothing more than
a glorified shed.
I watched from the shadows as a man scattered handfuls of crystals on the uneven
floor. Occasionally, when the ballroom doubled as the cinema, the same man
used to strike terror into us youngsters, curbing our exuberance with whacks on
the head from his torch. Now, he was just an old man.
Later, as the hall began to fill, I felt like an interloper as I watched the age-old
rituals unfold. The men lined up one side of the hall, the girls along the other.
The space between was a sort of no-mans land, across which the two sides sized
each other up. When the music commenced it was a buffalo stampede across nomans land to grab the girl of your choice. Sometimes there was a sharp change of
direction to grab a second or third choice when the initial selection was
commandeered by somebody else.
I didn’t dance all night. I merely stood there and watched, and realised that I
didn’t have the stomach for it anymore. Friends and acquaintances, I watched
them waltzing and fox-trotting by me, happy in their world, and I knew I wasn’t
part of it anymore.
Absence hadn’t made my heart grow fonder; it had only distanced me from them
and their way of life. For the first time in my life I truly understood the
expression I had often heard in London, “you can never go back”. Its true – You
can never go back.
A few days later I “acquired” some more funds and returned to London. I’ve
never been back.