In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
One Hundred and Eighteen
It was raining; a slow, grey disinterested rain; a rain without passion. The windscreen wipers lazily swept the screen. “It’s near here somewhere.”
“Yeeees.” My sister’s reply was more to reassure her than to show agreement with me. “It’s all changed; I can’t recognise a thing.”
“No,” I muttered. “Me neither.”
Suddenly she pointed to the right. “There, it’s the turning opposite the church; that hasn’t changed.”
I signalled I was turning left and slowed the Jaguar. “I think you’re right. Damm it, it’s no entry. When did that happen?” I raised my left hand in apology to the driver behind me and cancelled the signal. A hundred yards further on, I did turn left, left again and then right. We had arrived. When had I last been here? 1970 was the only visit I remembered. My parents had moved sometime in the seventies, probably when I was in Australia. Donnybrook Street; my home for the first eighteen years of my life. I had never felt nostalgic about it before, but now, with my mother and father long dead, I did, suddenly and unexpectedly.
It was a longish street, with 146 terraced houses, built in the late Victorian period. The street sloped slightly downwards from the main Belfast to Lisburn Road. It was intersected by a cross street about halfway along. Bertie and Noel White had lived in a house on the corner. The main road had always been called ‘the top’ and halfway down was ‘the half’. Simple really.
We arrived outside 118 and parked the car. We looked at our old home in silence. It looked drab and shabby, but more than that, it seemed so tiny. A small wall enclosed a postage stamp of a front garden, in which nothing grew.
“There used to be metal railings there you know.”
“What happened to them?”
“They took them away during the War.”
“To make Spitfires, they said.”
Siobhan nodded. “Of course.”
I had been born in this house, and my two sisters and brother had also first seen the light of day here. It was a ‘two up, two down’ house, which my father had skilfully extended by opening up the roof space, installing a bathroom and roofing over the back yard, turning it into a huge kitchen. He had made a glass house at the end of the yard, growing successfully tomatoes, and less successfully, tobacco. He nearly poisoned himself with the latter.
“Do you think we should knock?” She looked at me.
I wasn’t so sure, but we did. I think we were both relieved that there was no reply. Our memories were under sufficient attack as it was.
We began naming the folks who had lived in the houses alongside 118.
“Kevin and Patsy in 120.” That was easy; they had been our cousins. Kevin died in 1974 and Patsy now lived in Western Australia.
“Rosie and Robin in 122.”
“Yes,” I said. We would meet them the following day.
The street was in a working class suburb and had been largely Protestant. To Catholics in Ireland in those days, anyone not Catholic was Protestant. Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists; it didn’t matter; all were Protestant. And that hadn’t mattered either, both Siobhan and I agreed. On Orangeman’s Day we had trooped up to the top of the street to watch the Parade. We cheered and waved our Union Jacks like all the others. We went to the street parties for D Day, VE Day and the Coronation. There was never any trouble that I could remember. It wasn’t till I got to a Catholic Grammar School that I met prejudice.
We walked the length of the street. At the top there had been a chippie and the shoemakers. Both gone. There had been a small grocer’s at the half; Tommy Clarke’s. It had a rough earthen floor and had sacks of potatoes and vegetable everywhere. My Dad used to send me to buy a gas mantel, as we had no electricity until 1947. It cost fourpence and once I opened the little carton to examine the fragile thing and broke it. Papa wasn’t pleased. On another occasion I went to have the accumulator battery recharged. That cost half a crown. Serious money. I dropped the dammed thing.
“Do you remember the air raid shelters?” I asked Siobhan.
“They were right here, on the roadway.” I never recall going into one during the Blitz, but after 1945 they served as pirate ships, dens and on the outside, football goals and cricket stumps.
We reminisced. Stanley lived there. Anne over the back. Ah, Anne; my first love. I used to go out of my way just to catch a glimpse of her. Sheila was in 98. Will Rickaby was at 126 and Shannon and Eloise at 136. Their father had buggered off somewhere. Eloise was beautiful, but rumoured to have been on the game. Shannon was queer. I didn’t use ‘gay’ in those days; I still don’t.
Memories were crowding in on me. “Come on, sis, time we joined the real world again.”
Written by BM